1

The man looked dangerous.

Dark, strong, unsmiling, he filled the hotel doorway. Leashed power radiated from his stillness. When he moved, the muscular coordination of his body was predatory rather than merely graceful.

Dear God, Willow Moran thought as she watched the man stride closer to her across the lobby of the newly built Denver Queenhotel. This can’et be Caleb Black, the God-fearing military scholar Mr. Edwards found to take me to my brother.

Willow’s dismay didn’t show in her hazel eyes or her posture. She didn’t back away so much as an inch despite the sudden frantic beating of her heart. The War Between the States had taught Willow that when a girl couldn’t run and couldn’t hide, she stood her ground with as much dignity as she could muster…and a two-shot derringer hidden in a special pocket of her skirt.

The knowledge of that cold steel weight lying between folds of silk comforted Willow now as it often had in the past. Gripping the small gun, she watched the dark stranger draw near. What she saw of him at close range didn’t comfort her at all. Beneath the shadow of his broad-brimmed, flat-crowned black hat, an icy intelligence watched the world from eyes the color of whiskey.

«Mrs. Moran?»

His voice was as intensely male as the thick mustache and black beard stubble that heightened rather than blurred the strong planes of his face. Yet the voice itself wasn’t harsh. It was deep, smooth, potent, like a midnight river flowing to an invisible sea. A woman could drown in that dark voice, in those tawny eyes, in the power that seethed beneath the man’s controlled surface.

«Yes, I’m Mi — er, Mrs. Moran,» Willow said, feeling heat stain her cheekbones as she spoke the lie. Willow Moran she was. Mrs. she was not. «Have you come to take me to Mr. Black?»

Willow’s voice was too husky, almost breathless, but she could do little about that. It was difficult enough just to force air past the sudden tightness in her throat as the stranger’s masculine impact flooded over her in a dark, compelling tide.

«I’m Caleb Black.»

Willow forced herself to smile. «Forgive me for not recognizing you. From Mr. Edwards’ description, I expected a somewhat older gentleman. Is Mr. Edwards with you?»

There was a very faint emphasis on the word gentleman that most men would have missed, but not Caleb Black. His mouth shifted into a curving line that only a charitable person would have called a smile as he jerked a thumb over his shoulder.

«Out in those mountains, Mrs. Moran, a gentleman is less use than a handful of spit. But I wouldn’t expect a fine southern lady such as yourself to understand that. We all know the importance you Virginians place on elegant manners.» Caleb looked past her toward the wide doorway at the far side of the lobby. «Eddy and the Widow Sorenson are waiting for us over there.»

A faint flush rose beneath Willow’s translucent skin, a combination of embarrassment at her own accidental rudeness to him and anger at Caleb’s intentional insult to her. She hadn’t meant to demean him with her careless tongue. The long journey from her ruined West Virginia farm might have hardened the muscles of her five Arabian horses, but it had turned her own brain to pudding.

Unhappily Willow admitted that she deserved at least some of the bleak appraisal in Caleb’s whiskey eyes, eyes which at the moment were lingering with faint contempt on the fit of her clothes. The dress had been tailored for her in 1862, before war had wholly ravaged her family’s farms and fortunes. New, the dress had more than allowed for each curve of Willow’s budding body. Four years later, Willow’s curves had become more pronounced. The cut of the dress had stayed the same. As a result, the blue-gray silk pulled across her breasts and fit tightly around her waist.

Yet it was Willow’s only silk dress. She had worn it because she expected to meet a gentleman who would appreciate her gesture toward a more gracious time. She hadn’t expected an unshaven gunfighter who would note only the bad fit of her clothes. Her chin came up slightly as she faced the man who so obviously didn’t like her.

«The war is over, Mr. Black.»

«And you lost.»

Willow closed her eyes, then opened them. «Yes.»

The husky admission surprised Caleb, as did the sudden darkening of Willow’s hazel eyes. Surprise at finding that his quarry, Matthew «Reno» Moran, had a wife was giving way to the suspicion that the young woman with the tight dress and frankly sensual mouth was not quite what she represented herself to be. Reno’swoman, surely. But his wife? Probably not. Nothing Caleb had learned about Reno since he began hunting him indicated that Reno was the marrying kind.

Caleb looked Willow over again, taking his time, watching the color rise once more in her cheeks. The blush piqued his curiosity. Females like Willow couldn’t afford emotions or pride, yet it was apparent she had both.

Not for the first time, Caleb wondered what her so-called husband was like — what kind of fine southern gentleman could both seduce an innocent like Caleb’s sister Rebecca and inspire such passion in an experienced young thing like Willow that she was willing to pursue her missing man to the heart of the untamed West.

With a shrug that made muscles shift and coil beneath the dark trail clothes Caleb wore, he dismissed his own curiosity. It didn’t matter that Willow was probably a Miss rather than a Mrs. Nor did it matter what the elusive Matthew «Reno» Moran was like. Caleb had been looking for his sister Rebecca’s seducer for eleven months.

When he found Reno, he would kill him.

«Shall we go?» Caleb asked. «Or have you changed your mind about finding your…husband, is it?»

Cool golden eyes looked at Willow’s left hand, which was slender and without a ring. She flushed guiltily. She hated having to lie, but her brother’s letters had made it clear that he was living in a wild, uncivilized place. A young womantravelling alone in such a place was at risk. A wife, on the other hand, had a husband’s protection. Even an absent husband was enough to give other men pause.

«Yes,» Willow said, clearing her throat. She met Caleb’s eyes with a combination of embarrassment and defiance. «My husband. Have you heard of him by any chance?»

«A lot of men change their names when they get west of the Mississippi. Even honest men.»

Willow’s eyes widened. «How odd.»

«Most people don’t think honesty is odd.»

The cool contempt in the words stung Willow. «That isn’t what I meant.»

Caleb looked from Willow’s burnished blond hair to her delicate patent leather shoes peeking from beneath the long silk skirt. «I’ve never met a man called Matthew Moran. Did he have a nickname?»

«If he did, he never mentioned it.»

Caleb’s eyes narrowed. «You’re certain?»

«Quite.»

«How long have you been…married?»

Caleb’s inflection made it clear that he doubted Willow was married. His eyes repeated the message. Willow fought against the tide of color she felt rising in her cheeks. She truly hated to lie, but the war had taught her that survival required doing things she hated.

«Does it matter?» Willow asked.

A sardonic smile curled one corner of Caleb’s mouth. «Not to me. You just look a little young for marriage. Barely out of rompers, in fact.»

«I’m twenty,» she said distinctly. «Many women my age already have children.»

Caleb grunted. «How old is your husband?»

«Twenty-five,» Willow said, eager to tell the truth wherever possible. «Matt is the youngest of my — that is —» she corrected quickly, «he’s the youngest of five sons.»

After a brief, reassessing silence, Caleb lifted a black eyebrow and offered Willow his arm. She ignored the mockery implicit in his polite gesture, for she was certain Caleb was not a man whose actions were ruled by politeness. Despite that, she placed her fingertips on his sleeve in a graceful gesture that had been drilled into her in the years before the war had ended all need for gracious manners.

«Thank you, Mr. Black,» Willow murmured.

The slight drawl and contralto huskiness of her voice brushed over Caleb’s nerves like a caress. The warm, gentle weight of her fingers sent heat rippling through his body. He hardened with a violent rush that shocked him, for he had never allowed himself to be at the mercy of his own lust. It angered him that his body responded with such primitive eagerness to Willow’s haunting voice and alluring curves.

With too much interest for his own comfort, Caleb wondered if Willow would come to a man with honest passion or if Reno’s «wife» was simply a cold, pretty whore who would open her legs for any man who had a piece of silver in one hand and his hunger in the other. Caleb had no use for whores, including the traditional one.

Across the lobby a short, stocky man stood up slowly and gestured toward them. Hissuitcoat was of a dull broadcloth, his shirt was boiled, and like many men in the West, his pants had formerly been part of a military uniform.

«There’s Mr. Edwards,» Willow said.

«You sound relieved,» Caleb observed.

«Mr. Edwards spoke very highly of you.»

«And you think he was lying.»

Willow stopped walking. Automatically Caleb stopped as well, missing the gentle pressure of her fingertips on his forearm.

«Mr. Black,» Willow began, then faltered when his bleak, whiskey-colored eyes focused on her. She took a breath and began again. «I have apologized for offending you. I truly meant no insult. Your appearance surprised me, that’s all. I was expecting a man twice your age, a scholar of military campaigns, a silver-haired, old-fashioned —»

«Gentleman?» Caleb interrupted.

«— God-fearing man,» Willow finished.

«What makes you think I’m not?»

«I don’t think you’re afraid of anything,» she retorted, «including God.»

Caleb’s mouth shifted again, into a true smile this time, a smile that changed the hard lines of his face. Willow’s breath caught. When Caleb smiled, he was as handsome as the devil was reputed to be. Impulsively she touched his arm once more, smiling in return.

«Could we start over again?» she asked softly.

The seductive bow of Willow’s lips sent a shaft of hunger through Caleb that was almost painful. His body’s savage response to another man’s fancy woman made Caleb furious. The curve of his mouth changed, becoming thin and hard as the blade of the long knife he wore at his belt.

«Save the long eyelashes and soft smiles foryourhusband, southern lady. Every time I look at your fancy dress and silky yellow hair, I remember how many men died on both sides of the war to keep you in the luxury you think you deserve.»

The contempt in Caleb’s voice froze Willow. In truth she was not southern, not rich, not spoiled. But telling Caleb that would do nothing to arouse his compassion and could easily prevent him from accepting the job she was offering him. If he knew that she had no money to pay him until she reached her brother, Caleb might very well turn his back on her.

That would be a disaster. Mr. Edwards had made it clear that Caleb was one of the few men in the West — and the only man in the raw little city of Denver — who could be trusted with Willow’s life, her virtue, and her valuable-blooded horses.

Without a word Willow turned away from Caleb and walked toward Mr. Edwards. She didn’t notice the admiring looks and masculine murmurs that followed her progress through the lobby. It had been so long since she had thought of herself as a woman that she was out of the habit. To Willow her body was something she fed, bathed, and clothed in order to make it work. After her father had gone off to fight, leaving Willow alone with her fragile mother, it had been Willow who had struggled to see that the home farm provided the food that kept the Moran women alive.

Willow might have been oblivious, but Caleb noticed every approving look she drew. His cool, raking glance chastened more than one eager male. Caleb told himself that he wasn’t being protective of Willow’s non-existent virtue; he was merely guarding his ticket to the elusive Reno’s funeral. Any one of the tough young men lounging around Denver’s newest hotel would have been happy to earn fifty Yankee dollars for leading the lovely young Willow into a land so remote that most of its rivers, canyons, and mountain peaks had no names.

«Mr. Edwards,» Willow said in a low voice, «it was good of you to arrange this meeting.»

Eddy smiled, took her hand, and bowed over it before he turned to introduce her to his companion, a plump woman of thirty with black hair, red cheeks, and vivid blue eyes.

«Mrs. Moran, this is Mrs. Sorenson. Rose, this is the young woman you’ve been hearing so much about for the past three weeks.»

Willow looked startled. «Three weeks? But I’ve been in Denver less than three hours!»

Eddy grimaced. «Since the darned telegraph went in, loose talk travels so fast it makes a man dizzy. We’ve been hearing about a beautiful southern lady and her five blooded horses since you climbed on the stage in St. Joseph and tied your horses on behind.»

Rose stood and took Willow’s hand in her own calloused ones. She patted gently. «Pay no mind, Mrs. Moran. Out West a body don’t have much to talk about but rumors. Anything outside the ordinary sets us to buzzing like a kicked-over beehive.»

Willow saw the kindness in the other woman’s face, and the lines of sadness as well. It was a sadness Willow had seen in her own mother’s face, after war and widowhood left her with nothing to look forward to but the illness and death that soon overtook her.

«Don’t worry, Rose,» Caleb said, coming up behind Willow. «Any girl who is chasing a handsome young stud like Matthew Moran all over God’s creation must be used to being the butt of gossip.»

Rose’s laugh sounded suspiciously like a giggle. Smiling, she held out her hand to the dark man who towered above her.

Though Caleb had been careful to stay out of Rose’s bed since he had introduced her to Eddy a few months before, Caleb still enjoyed seeing Rose when he came to Denver. He admired the widow’s combination of grit and humor, and the way she had managed to keep all five of her young children and raise them without a man to support her. If the discreet contributions of a few men had helped in the three years since Rose’s husband had died, Caleb didn’t think less of Rose for it. The money went to her children’s care, rather than to silks and fancy horses.

Caleb swept off his hat and bent over Rose’s fingers with the grace of long practice. The courtly ease of his gesture silently told Willow just how little Caleb respected her. The man had excellent manners, yet he had never once removed his hat in her presence, much less bowed over her hand in greeting.

«I thought you said you didn’t know mybr — husband,» Willow said, her voice as cool as the silk folds of her skirt.

«I don’t.»