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Authors: Bobbi Smith

Tags: #Fiction

Runaway

RUNAWAY
BOBBI SMITH

LEISURE BOOKS            
            NEW YORK CITY

A Mail-Order Bride?

What in the world would an outlaw want with a wife?

Lane didn’t know how he did it, but he managed to keep the smile on his face as he dealt with the news. He stayed in control and calmly turned to the young woman who was sitting with Gertrude in the buggy.

“Miss Lawrence,” he greeted the slightly nervous-looking blonde. “It’s nice to finally meet you.”

Destiny had watched the two cowboys come out of the stable as they’d driven up. She hadn’t known if one of them was the man who, within a matter of hours, would be her husband, but she did now, and she was shocked.

Ever since they’d left St. Louis, she’d tried to imagine what a man who had to order a wife would look like. The image she’d come up with had, at times, been more than a little scary. She’d fully expected Seth Rawlins to be a desperate man, but as she gazed at the good-looking rancher standing before her, she knew she’d been wrong. There was nothing desperate about Seth Rawlins. He was tall and powerfully built and ruggedly handsome.

This book is dedicated to my cousin Charlotte Savage. Love ya! And to everyone at St. Joseph’s

especially the Sunday morning gang, the Wednesday morning gang, everybody at PSR, CHRP and the Prayer Chain. You’re wonderful! Thanks!

Also, thanks to all the wonderful librarians in the St. Charles County Library District and the St. Louis Public Libraries who helped me with my research, especially Judy Brown, Cindy Menkhus, Larry Franke and Ann Randolph.

Prologue

Texas, Early 1870s

Lane Madison and two of his ranch hands urged their horses to a quicker pace as they covered the final miles to the Bar M ranch house. They’d been gone for three days, working stock, and were looking forward to finally getting back home.

“It’s going to be real nice, having a home-cooked meal tonight,” Lane said, knowing it was almost suppertime and Katie would be hard at work, cooking.

“You sure made a smart decision when you married Katie,” Rick Meyers told him. “She’s not only pretty, she can cook, too.”

Lane was smiling as he thought of his beautiful dark-haired wife. He looked over at Rick and warned good-naturedly, “You don’t have your sights set on my wife, do you?”

“I’d love to set my sights on Katie, but I know how good she can handle a cast-iron skillet, and I’m not going anywhere near her unless I’m invited.”

They all laughed, remembering how deftly Katie had subdued one of the rowdier ranch hands who’d gotten drunk and had made the mistake of trying to cause some trouble on the ranch a few weeks ago when Lane had been away.

“I bet Mose had a headache for quite a few days after she hit him,” Lane said.

“You know he did, and I’m real glad we ain’t seen him since,” Rick agreed.

“Yep, you got yourself one fine filly in Katie,” added Buck Wilson, the other hand. “Maybe one of these days, me and Rick will get lucky and find ourselves good women like her, too.”

Lane grew even more eager to see Katie as they rode on. They’d been married just over a year, and she was now pregnant with their first child. Knowing he would soon be a father drove him to work even harder at making the Bar M a success. He wanted the ranch to be a safe haven for his family.

As they topped a low rise, they spotted the ranch house and outbuildings in the distance.

“Looks like we’re home, boys,” Lane said as they rode in.

But when they drew closer, Lane thought it was odd that there weren’t many of the hands around. He grew even more concerned when Andy, the stable hand, came hurrying out of the stable to meet them as they reined in.

“Mark and the boys didn’t find you?” Andy asked worriedly.

“No, we didn’t see anyone else on the ride in. Why?” Lane answered. “Was there trouble while we were gone?” He could tell Andy was nervous about something.

“Yeah, you’d better get up to the house—”

“Katie—Is Katie all right?”

“Helen’s up there with Doc Halsey—” Andy warned him.

Lane didn’t wait to hear any more. If the doctor was there along with his foreman’s wife, something was wrong—badly wrong. He ran toward the house.

Helen Carter, the foreman’s wife, had been up at the house helping Doc Halsey. When she saw Lane and the other men ride in, she hurried upstairs to let the doctor know.

“Lane’s back—” she whispered from the bedroom doorway. She was the one who’d found Katie early that morning, battered, raped and left for dead, all alone in the main house. She’d sent for the doctor immediately and had been doing all she could to help Katie ever since.

The doctor looked down at the bed where Katie lay so pale and deathly still, and then he got up.

“Stay with her—just in case…” He left the room to speak with Lane.

Doc Halsey had just come down the steps and reached the front hall when Lane rushed into the house.

“Doc—What is it? What happened?” Lane demanded, looking past him up the stairs for some sign of his wife.

“We need to talk, Lane,” the older man said quietly, directing him toward the parlor.

Lane resisted. “But I want to see Katie. Where is she?”

“Let’s go in the parlor for a minute.”

Lane looked up the stairs again and then took his hat off and left it on the hallway table before reluctantly following the doctor’s order. He was tense and on edge, fearing the news the man was about to give him. He worried Katie had fallen or possibly had a miscarriage.

“Sit down,” the doc directed. He thought it would be best if Lane was sitting down when he told him the news.

But Lane refused. “No. I’ll stand. Tell me what happened. What’s wrong?”

Doc Halsey knew there was no easy way to tell Lane what had happened. “Katie’s been injured—She’s in very serious condition right now.”

“Injured? What are you talking about? How was she hurt?”

“Evidently, from what we’ve been able to figure out, last night one of the ranch hands you fired, a man named Mose Harper, came back.” The doc went on to tell Lane how the man had abused and beaten Katie and how she’d lost the baby.

Fury filled Lane, and he felt sick inside. The fact that he and the boys had just been talking about Mose, and had been laughing about what had happened, made him feel even worse. “Oh, my God—”

“Helen found Katie this morning, and from what little Katie was able to tell her, Mose sneaked into the house sometime after dark. He cornered her in the parlor, and she didn’t have the chance to scream, caught off guard the way she was. She put up a fight, but…”

“I’ve got to see her…” He turned to go.

“Lane—”

The tone of the doctor’s voice stopped him cold, and Lane turned to look back at him.

“She may not make it through the day.”

This was the news he’d been dreading.

Lane said nothing more.

He couldn’t.

He turned his back on the doctor and went upstairs. Inwardly, he was shaking as he came to stand in the bedroom doorway.

The sight that greeted Lane devastated him. Helen was seated in a chair, keeping vigil at the bedside where Katie lay unmoving. Katie’s eyes were closed, her coloring was ashen, and her face was bruised and battered from the abuse she’d suffered at Mose’s hands.

Helen had heard Lane coming, and she quickly stood up and went to him. She touched him gently on the arm, wanting to comfort him in some way. “Thank God, you’re back. She’s been asking for you.”

“She’s conscious?” he managed.

“She’s in and out—She’s in a lot of pain—”

He nodded and walked past her to the bedside. He sat down in the chair there and took Katie’s hand in his. Her hand was limp, and the knowledge that she was so weak tore at him.

“Katie—” He spoke her name in a strangled whisper, but there was no response. “Katie—I’m here—”

Katie’s breathing was so shallow, Lane could hardly hear it. The horror of what Mose had done to her ravaged him. He had thought she was safe here on the ranch. He’d never believed the drunken ranch hand would come back again, let alone try to harm her.

Guilt assailed Lane as he sat by his wife’s side. He could only imagine what she’d suffered at Mose’s hands, and he knew somehow, someway, he was going to find the drunk and make him pay for what he’d done.

He remained there, holding her cold, limp hand in his, waiting and praying for a miracle.

Helen found the doctor sitting in the parlor. “What should we do?”

“There’s nothing we can do but wait,” Doc Halsey said sadly. “It’s in God’s hands now.”

Helen glanced back up the steps, her heart breaking, her eyes filled with tears. “I know.”

Katie stirred and opened her eyes to see Lane in the chair beside her. Summoning what little strength she had left, she whispered his name, “Lane…”

He had been sitting there quietly, waiting, her hand in his, when the sound of her voice sent a surge of joy and hope through him. He shifted closer. “Katie—”

“You’re here…” She gazed up at the man she loved, knowing her time was near.

“I’m here, love. I’m here, and I’ll never leave you alone again,” he promised. “I’m sorry…”

Katie realized he was blaming himself. “Not your fault—Mose—It was Mose—”

He looked down at her, guilt and pain filling him. He knew now that he should never have left her, that he should have been there to protect her and keep her and their unborn child safe.

“I love you, Lane…” she told him, and those words were her last. A moment later, she closed her eyes, and her life slipped away.

“I love you, too…” Lane began.

Then as he stared down at her, he realized she’d drawn her last breath.

“Katie…”

Agony tore through him. He took her up in his arms, and he clutched her to him. He called out for the doctor as he held her to his heart.

Doc Halsey heard Lane’s urgent call and knew what had happened. He had feared Katie wouldn’t be able to hold on much longer, since she’d lost so much blood. He rushed up the stairs now to see if there was anything he could do.

The sight that greeted him was heartbreaking. Lane was there at the bedside, holding Katie’s limp form in his arms. He hurried to Lane’s side and took her from him to lay her back upon the bed. Doc Halsey was clinging to the slim hope that somehow she might still survive, that she would have enough strength to keep fighting, but as he gazed down at her, he knew she was gone.

The doctor looked up at Lane, and their gazes met.

“I’m sorry—”

The finality of Katie’s death struck Lane almost physically. He collapsed into the chair, burying his head in his hands as he gave in to his sorrow.

Doc Halsey backed out of the room and closed the door behind him as he moved into the hall, leaving Lane alone to grieve.

Two Days Later

Lane came out of the house, carrying his saddlebags and rifle. He was going after Mose, and he wouldn’t be back until he’d found the man who’d killed Katie. He went straight to the stable where his men had gathered, their mood quiet and somber.

Rick was there, waiting for him. He had their horses saddled, and he, too, was ready to ride.

Lane looked at him, his gaze cold. “You think you’re going with me?”

“I know I am,” Rick answered. He was determined not to let his friend ride out alone.

On the day Helen had found Katie, two of the hands had immediately set out after Mose to try to track him down and bring him back, while another hand had gone into town to let the sheriff know what had happened. Lane hadn’t learned of this until after Katie’s passing, but once he had, he’d been glad they’d gone after Mose while his trail was still fresh. He’d been glad, too, when the sheriff immediately put up a wanted poster on the man.

Lane had hoped the ranch hands who’d ridden after Mose would find him quickly and bring him back to face justice, but it hadn’t happened. The two men who’d been tracking him had lost his trail after a storm had swept through, and they’d been unable to find it again.

Once they’d returned to the Bar M and told Lane what had happened, he’d known what he had to do.

He was going after Mose himself.

He would not rest until he’d found the man responsible for the deaths of Katie and his unborn child.

“With the wanted poster up, the law will be looking for him,” Mark told him seriously. “You don’t have to do this.”

“Yes. I do,” was Lane’s terse answer. He turned a cold-eyed glare on his friend. “Take care of things here while I’m gone.”

Mark knew then there was nothing more he could say or do to stop Lane from leaving.

Katie’s death had changed Lane.

The ranch meant nothing to him now.

All he cared about was finding the man responsible for his wife’s death.

“I will,” Mark promised.

Lane and Mark were both grim as they shook hands. Then Mark stepped back to watch as Lane and Rick mounted up and rode out.

Six Weeks Later

The long days in the saddle covering endless miles in their pursuit of Mose had left Lane and Rick trail weary, but Lane was not about to let up. He had a gut feeling that they were closing in on Katie’s killer, and he was determined to keep going.

“This may be it,” he told Rick as they neared the outskirts of the town of Sagebrush.

“How do you want to do this?”

“Let’s start at the saloon. Knowing Mose, that’d be the first place he’d go.”

Lane knew better than to get his hopes up too high, but when he spotted Mose’s horse tied out in front of the saloon, he knew the murderer’s days of running were over.

“Look,” he told Rick, pointing out the horse.

“You were right. We’ve got him now.”

They dismounted out front, and Lane led the way inside.

Mose was feeling real good about himself as he sat in the saloon in Sagebrush. After all this time, no one from the Bar M had come after him to try to take him in, so he figured he’d gotten away with paying the Madison gal back.

Mose took another deep drink of his whiskey as he eyed the buxom blonde saloon girl walking past his table. Unable to resist, he reached out and grabbed her, pulling her onto his lap. He pressed some wet, sloppy kisses down her neck and began to openly grope her.

“Behave yourself, big boy,” Sally said, disgusted by his ways.

Her use of ‘big boy’ infuriated Mose. He wasn’t a tall man, and he hated it when anyone taunted him about his height. Her protest just made him all the more determined to have his way with her. He liked being in control. He liked making women beg. It made him feel powerful, like he really was a big man.

“Why don’t I go get you another drink?” she offered, hoping the excuse would get her away from him. She’d dealt with many disgusting men over the years, but having watched this one over the last few nights, she knew he was one of the worst.

Mose heard her request, but he had no intention of letting her go. He was enjoying himself too much. He tightened his grip on her and forced her to stay on his lap. “You ain’t going anywhere, baby doll. You’re going to stay right here with me until I’m ready to take you upstairs.”

Inwardly, she groaned. She was miserable at the prospect of suffering a mauling at his hands. “But you need a refill—”

“No, I don’t. I need you. Now!” He was drunked up enough to believe he could take her right there in the saloon with everybody watching. He tried to push her dress completely off her shoulders to bare her breasts.

“No! Stop it!” She started to resist him, shoving away his hands with all her strength.

“Don’t you tell me ‘no,’ woman!” Mose snarled, and he got even rougher with her.

“You heard the lady, Mose.”

A voice that was horribly familiar to him called out from the front of the saloon and sent a jolt of terror through Mose. He went still.

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