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Wiley Easton never considered himself the marrying kind. But now he not only has a wife related to his father's killers, but one determined to help him track down the woman who almost sent her to the gallows on a case of mistaken identity. The chase won't be easy, and along the way Wiley will learn that his new wife is headstrong, stubborn and passionate. As he awakens her to a new world of carnal delights, he becomes protective.
But when the only way to track down a notorious female criminal means putting Piper in harm's way, will this rugged bounty hunter be strong enough to risk her safety by going undercover in a gritty brothel?
"Sweet Justice" combines the excitement and danger of the Wild West with the explicit, no- holds-barred sex that has made author Vanessa Vale a favorite with readers of erotic cowboy stories.
The sun was high overhead and hot. Sweat trickled down my back and three days of dust clung to my skin and clothes. My whiskers itched, and I had the mood of a poked badger. I'd been searching for the group of men who'd carried out a string of robberies across the Montana Territory over the past three months, but up until now, I'd had no leads and no luck.
But perhaps my luck was about to change.
Riding from Miles City to Billings to Bozeman, I'd followed the Sinclair's path of illegal activity to the small town of Zenith. I knew their ranch was just over this rise. That's what the townsfolk had said�that it was three miles southeast of town�and if I just kept the tallest peak on the mountain range in the distance directly in front of me, I'd ride right onto their land. The information was shared easily enough, for no one in town seemed overly keen on anyone in the family, except the one female Sinclair. They excluded her from their less than positive commentary, which seemed odd. The first robbery victims had said three men and a woman had held up the train, and the Sinclair family fit that description to a T. Sure, they'd given a good description of the perpetrators, but there hadn't been a match until now. I didn't care if the woman was a Sunday school teacher; if she committed the crime, I'd catch her. She had to be a wife or a mother to so easily participate in the wrongdoing without being considered. What woman would hold up trains and stages? What woman would be involved in crimes where innocent people had been killed? Innocent people like my father. I'd learned over the years, even from my own mother, that women were sometimes even craftier than men.
Being a bounty hunter these past ten years, I'd learned there were all kinds of people; mostly the ones I dealt with weren't the good kind. Their values were skewed toward the wrong. Their consciences, if they had any, were weak. So when I looked to the other three men riding with me, we pulled out our rifles from our saddlebags and prepared. The Sinclair family was dangerous and I wanted them, dead or alive.
As I headed towards town, I was thankful that the brim of my hat shaded my face and neck from the blazing sun. The horses pulling the wagon weren't any keener on the journey than I was. It was one of those days better suited for lounging on a porch with a book and a glass of lemonade than carting produce to the mercantile.
Why it had to be done this day, I did not know, for my brothers and father had been absent for the past week, and I'd supplied Mr. Banes with cucumbers and squash from my pickings just two days earlier. But I didn't question Kevin or my father, for neither man had a tolerance for backtalk or dissension. It was easier just to remain silent. I savored the quiet whenever they left the ranch. No one nitpicked my meals or my cleaning or had me do extra chores because they were too lazy. Even Bill was picking up their poor traits. Just eighteen, he was steering down the wrong path with just our older brother and father as role models.
I frowned as I swatted away a fly. My father had grown cranky and irritable when my mother passed on, but that had been almost two decades ago. It seemed his broken heart had injured his spirit as well, and Kevin and Bill had grown up following his poor example. The townsfolk tolerated my family's surliness but seemed friendlier with me.
I knew though, that this wasn't a life for me. I didn't want to feel moody and cantankerous all the time like the others. I wanted to leave the ranch for...something. Often I considered just riding past town with the wagon, but where would I go? I had just a little money hidden away. Having grown up surrounded by men, I didn't want to shackle myself to a husband who could be just as bitter and resentful about his lot in life. A woman's choices in the Montana Territory were slim to none. Marriage was my only escape, but there were no marriageable prospects. Men in Zenith did not want to marry a Sinclair. And so I was trapped. Trapped with a family I truly didn't like, in a life where my personal values were tenuous at best given my poor role models.
I was pulling at the collar of my blouse, tugging the damp fabric from my skin when I first saw the men approach. There were four riders, their pace slow and easygoing, but they held their rifles at the ready. We were halfway to town, far enough from the ranch where I was completely alone. When they rode up, I slowed my wagon and applied the brake to the wheel. They circled, focusing their attention on my garden baskets and me.
They were all large men. Hats shielded their faces from the sun, but also from my clear view. All were dusty and travel worn; it appeared as if they'd come a long distance, not just from town. They were strangers; I'd never seen them before. One man came beside the wagon so he was just to my left. Because of the size of his horse, I had to tilt my head back to look at him.
And look at him I did. From what I could see of it beneath the brim of his hat, his hair was sandy-colored and curled over his tanned neck. His square jaw was covered in the start of a beard of a similar shade. His green eyes looked at me with such intensity I shifted in my seat. He was not an amiable person. Every line of his body was tense from his clenched jaw, broad shoulders, muscular thighs, to his large hands holding the reins.
I responded viscerally to this man before he even said a word. There was some kind of connection, a powerful feeling in the air similar to just before a thunderstorm, when lightning sparks the sky. I wanted to feel if his beard was soft or if it would rasp against my palm. I wanted to see if he had a dimple when he smiled. Was all of his hair the same sandy color, or had the sun bleached the strands lighter on top?
"Ma'am," he said, his voice deep and gravelly. The other men were positioned around the wagon, sitting quietly even as their horses shifted beneath them, yet very ready to do...something.
I swallowed and found my voice. "Hello."
"We are headed to the Sinclair ranch."
My heart sank. These men were friends of my father. Of course they were. They had guns out and ready to use. They were dusty and dirty and unkempt. Their demeanor was not in the least friendly or gentlemanly�besides the uttered ma'am.
"Yes, it's about a mile behind me." I pointed casually over my shoulder. "Good day," I added, dismissing them. I didn't want anything to do with so-called friends of my family.
"Are you a Sinclair?" he asked.
"Yes, I am Piper Sinclair."
At my answer, the man indicated with his chin and the other men dismounted. One stood by one of my horses' heads holding the bridle, gun slung over his shoulder. The other two began pulling the tarp off my vegetable baskets.
"They'll spoil if in the sun too long," I pointed out, but the way they were rooting around led me to believe they did not care one whit about spoilage.
The man who spoke, the one who seemed to be in charge, watched me as he climbed down from his horse. "Are you aware of the stage robbery near Bozeman three days past?"
I shook my head.
"Surely you've heard of the train being robbed south of Livingston several months ago."
"Of course. It was all the townsfolk spoke of for quite some time. I heard two unfortunate people were killed." When the men began tossing vegetables over their shoulders and onto the dry, dusty ground, I narrowed my eyes.
All four men shook their heads in clear disgust. I frowned. "Is there a reason you're questioning me and destroying the vegetables I'm taking to trade at the mercantile?"
"We have reason to believe that the Sinclair family is the perpetrator of the crimes I mentioned."
"My brothers and father are not hiding in the bottom of that basket," I countered tartly.
When the man searching lifted a black metal box from the bottom of one of the baskets and held it aloft, the leader said, "No, but the stolen money is."
"But...I mean...wait! That's not mine," I sputtered.
The leader dismounted and took hold of my arm. "That's correct. It's not yours. It belongs to the Farthing Stage Company, Mrs. Sinclair."
"I am Miss Sinclair," I countered. With his height, we were at eye level.
He glanced at me for a moment, and then continued. "Very well, Miss Sinclair, you're going to climb down from the wagon so I can search your person for a weapon, then you're going to help us in capturing your family members for not only robbing a long list of stages and trains, but for murder as well."
"Murder," he repeated, grabbing me about the waist and lifting me down as if I weighed nothing. His hands began roaming over me. "There was an eyewitness to a woman participating in the robbery."
"What?" I asked, startled to feel his big hands touching me. "Well, it was not me! Is this necessary?" I swatted at his hands, as I'd never been touched like this before, ever.
He glanced up at me. "Ma'am, we don't take chances."
He explored my entire body, particularly feeling the shape of my legs through my dress as my bodice was snug enough where it was clear a weapon was not hidden.
"You aren't the sheriff or any lawman I've ever met."
He shook his head slowly. "No, ma'am, I'm a bounty hunter."
I tipped up my chin. "Bounty hunter or not, I don't know anything about those robberies!"
Seemingly satisfied, he stood to his full height, keeping a firm grip on my upper arm.
The men now picked the baskets up, one by one, dumping the contents onto the ground until they were satisfied there was nothing else hidden.
"You said a moment ago that you knew of the train robbery."
I tugged at the man's hold. Up close I could see that his eyes were a deep emerald and his anger was quite visible. Anger aimed solely at me. "Reverend Marks spoke of the robbery in one of his sermons. Does that mean he's guilty as well?" I countered.
"If he has a case of stolen money hidden beneath his robe, then yes. I am not concerned about this Reverend Marks or anyone from Zenith. I am solely interested in you and your criminal family."
"I am not a criminal!"
One of the men brought the small metal box around the wagon and handed it to the leader. "You can use any term you wish, Miss Sinclair. You are under arrest."
My horses were unhitched from the wagon and given a nice swat on their flanks to send them off. There was a creek nearby and ample grass for them to enjoy. I, on the other hand, did not have the same liberties or freedom. I spent the better part of an hour in the hot sun telling them about the layout of the house, where the windows were and the direction they faced. I told them the placement of the stable and the other outbuildings. They asked after weapons and where they might be in the home. By the time they'd formulated a plan to approach the house, I was hot and thirsty and cranky.
They were very thorough in their roles and seemed skilled at their task. If I were to ride into potential danger, I'd want to be just as cautious as they. That didn't mean I enjoyed being groped for weapons I did not have.
With their plan in place, I rode directly in front of the leader, my back against his hard chest. The other men approached the ranch from other directions.
"I could have ridden one of my horses instead of riding with you," I said, shifting, uncomfortable being so close to the man. His left arm wrapped around me and held the reins; his right held his rifle, loaded and ready.
"I don't trust you, sweetheart, so if your family wants to take a shot at me, the bullet will have to go through you first."
He was using me as a human shield! The way the animal shifted and swayed, I felt every sinewy muscle from the annoying man's shoulders to his thighs. I'd never shared a saddle with another before and having it be a man who I found incredibly handsome yet loathsome at the same time, was quite ironic.
Why did the first man who'd stirred feelings within me have to be the one arresting me for robbery and murder?
I squinted into the bright sunlight as Kevin came out onto the porch of the house. No one else appeared, but I knew that they were watching. I'd thought all along the men in my family weren't nice, but now I knew they were also downright mean. Robbing and killing? It took their impersonal and sour demeanors to a new low.
"Piper, I thought you were going to town," my brother commented. He cleaned his fingernails with the tip of a sharp knife, one he kept tied to the belt at his hip. There was no love lost between my brother and me. Now that I knew of his deadly deeds, I saw him in an entirely new light.
"Mr. Sinclair, you, your brother and your father are all under arrest."
Kevin didn't stop cleaning his nails, didn't even look up at any of us. "For what?"
"Robbery and murder."
"You have no proof."
"Actually, we do. Eyewitness accounts, plus the stolen money box."
"What money box?" he asked, then shrugged. "Search the place if you want."
"No need. The money box was in the wagon with Miss Sinclair."
"Kevin!" I shouted. "You tell the man right now that I knew nothing about that box."
Now he lifted his head and glared at me. "You brought bounty hunters right to our doorstep."
"I did no such thing! They stopped me halfway to town. You can be angry with me if you wish, but at least tell them the truth."
He sighed. "Very well. She's innocent."
"Your words won't make a difference. The evidence says otherwise. Surrender, Mr. Sinclair," the leader said.
"To just you?" Kevin laughed.
I heard a gun shot that had come from the other side of the house.
"Not just me," the bounty hunter replied, perfectly calm. I jumped a foot at the sound and my heartbeat frantically against my chest. "It doesn't matter if you're alive or not to get our money."
"We're not giving up without a fight." With that, Kevin moved at a pace that stunned me. I never knew he could do anything quickly; he was such a lazy person. His gun was out and before I could do more than blink, I was shoved off the horse by big hands. I fell jarringly to my hands and knees in a cloud of dust as the first shots rang out. All I could do was stare at the hard ground, stunned by the quick succession of events. I didn't even have time to get my bearings or the air back in my lungs before it was all over.