Authors: Emma Lang
Tags: #Romance, #Fiction
From the shadows of the forest, Ben Graham watched the group of riders in the meadow below. They rode good-quality mounts, but in contrast to the fine horseflesh, their clothing was shabby, as though they were trying not to stand out. Each had a pistol riding their hip while rifles were tucked into scabbards hanging from their saddles. Their pace was unhurried but with a purpose.
Ben watched, evaluating the men. Whether or not they were looking for him, he would avoid them. Living in the wilds of the hills the last four months had given him the skills he needed to stay hidden. The scent of pine and the loamy earth perfumed the air. The forest had accepted him as part of its own. The birds chirped, the squirrels nattered on, and somewhere nearby something skittered in the fallen leaves.
Ben was invisible. Unseen. Unmoving. He was a ghost of a man who lived in the shadows of the world. No destination, no purpose. There was nothing inside him. His soul had started dying when he was five and gasped its last breath in April.
Now all he tended to was hunger, sleep, and survival. He was another animal who lived in the wilderness.
He kept watch on the strangers. The five men kept their gazes in motion, looking around with a little too much interest. While he appreciated being on alert when passing through unknown territory, their behavior was suspicious. The riders were in a wide-open meadow and there was little chance they wouldn’t see anyone approaching.
Posse. For sure.
Ben wasn’t dumb enough to go into a town to search wanted posters. He knew the Texas Rangers were after him. They wouldn’t let a murderer go free. Especially one who had committed a brutal crime with his bare hands.
He glanced down at his fingers. The pink scars on his knuckles were a vivid reminder of what he’d done. A dark memory flashed across his mind and he slammed it aside with brutal efficiency. He didn’t allow himself to think about anything beyond survival. Therein lay danger and a hole so deep he would never climb out of it.
He waited for an additional thirty minutes after the men had disappeared from view. His stomach gurgled, reminding him that he hadn’t eaten breakfast or dinner. Some days it was deliberate. Some days it wasn’t.
The gelding stirred beneath him, tossing his mane as though to let Ben know it was past time to be on their way. He patted the horse’s neck in apology.
As he wheeled the horse around, he spotted a movement out of the corner of his eye. Another rider passed through the meadow alone. His pace was unhurried but he stayed within the path of the group of men who had passed by. Ben observed with interest. The man and horse were too far to see any details, but something about him was familiar.
Or Ben could be seeing things. It had been at least a month since he’d had a conversation with another human being. He’d stopped speaking out loud to himself for fear he would be found. Silence had become his constant companion.
The lone rider disappeared from view. Ben resisted the urge to follow him. There wouldn’t be answers if he did. But perhaps a hangman’s noose.
The sun had begun to sink toward the horizon. The summer nights had given way to the cool fall temperatures. He needed to get back to his lean-to and get the stove banked for the night. If he didn’t eat, he’d be weak. Thanks to some luck with his bow, he’d gotten a doe last month and dried the meat. He had a supply of jerky that he’d salted with the last of his supplies.
Before winter hit, he’d need to stock up on what he could barter for. There was an old man who lived in a cabin tucked away in the hills. He seemed to know how to get things without going into town. Ben would pay him a visit soon.
Ben turned Paladin to ride away and before he could register danger, a stranger in black on a horse had a rifle pointed at his head.
“Fuck,” slid from his mouth, a low hiss. What the hell was wrong with him? How had this man snuck up without Ben noticing?
“You’re a hard man to find.”
Ben’s gut forgot the need for food. It tightened like a fist. “I ain’t nobody.”
“I’ll never forget you, Benjamin Graham. You took something from me.” The other man’s voice shook with what Ben thought was rage. And the stranger recognized Ben, which was the worst possible situation. At least he didn’t have a bullet in his head. Yet.
“I’ve never taken a damn thing in my life.” Ben had no chance to get to his gun before he’d be shot. No possibility of riding away, either. Paladin was fast, but he couldn’t beat a bullet. “What do you want?”
“I want what you stole from me.”
“Hell, mister, I don’t know who you are, but you’ve got me confused with somebody else. Now either shoot me or put the rifle down.” Ben had resorted to growling. He wasn’t about to give Paladin over to the stranger. Against all odds, survival beat steady and strong through his veins.
“I’m not going to shoot you. Then I won’t get what I came for.”
Ben must’ve squeezed the horse with his knees because Paladin reached around to bite him. “Damn it.”
“Good to see that beautiful animal knows a son of a bitch when he sees one.” The stranger gestured to the ground. “Now get down out of the saddle.”
“Don’t make me shoot you before I get what I came for.”
Ben’s patience snapped. “I don’t care what you came for. I’m leaving an’ you’ll have to shoot me to stop me.” He pulled on Paladin’s reins a split second before the rifle went off. His hat flew through the air and the heat from the bullet singed his hair. “Holy shit.”
“I warned you not to leave.” The stranger’s voice had grown huskier.
Ben peered at the man with growing anger. His carefully controlled rage threatened to seize control. That couldn’t happen when another person was around. Ben had only let it out once, and now he lived his life in the shadows.
The stranger was tall and thin in black clothing. The horse was a beautiful quarter horse, clearly well taken care of, judging by its shiny coat and healthy lines. The rifle was well oiled and the damn fool had good aim and control.
This was the time he wished his brothers and sisters were here. The Grahams were a mighty family of eight with Texas in their blood. He would never be able to return to the Circle Eight ranch and he’d never have his brothers at his back. Together they were unstoppable. Apart they were broken.
Just like Ben was inside.
“Kitty sent me.”
Ben was momentarily lost in a memory of his sister, Cat. When he was little he’d called her Kitty. They had been thick as thieves until he was five. Until he’d been taken. Then things were never the same.
“Kitty who?” tumbled from his mouth.
“Your sister. She said to tell you Kitty sent me.” The stranger pulled off her hat and long, blonde hair tumbled down over the stranger’s shoulders.
Ben was dumbstruck by the discovery. “You’re a woman.”
“You’re Benjamin Graham. You owe me revenge and I intend to collect.” She raised the rifle again.
A bead of
sweat rolled down the center of Grace Beckett’s back. Her hands shook but she’d be damned if she let Ben Graham see it. She could hardly believe she’d found him. It was him. There was no mistaking it. Although his eyes and hair were a different color than his sister’s, the face was similar. Besides, she witnessed what he’d done four months ago even if she’d watched from twenty feet away.
He also had haunted shadows in his gaze. She recognized his damaged soul as kindred to her own. This was the man who had derailed her careful plans for revenge. Ruined a year’s worth of searching for the bastard, Cunningham.
He’d stolen from her and she intended to find a way to quench the unending thirst for satisfaction. She pulsed with a blood lust that she couldn’t control most days.
Today she forced herself to keep the violence tucked away. For now, she would maintain control. She would have her vengeance soon enough. This man was the key to achieving it.
“You plan to shoot me?” He opened his arms wide. “Then shoot me. I’m not playing games any longer.”
Her finger twitched on the trigger. The promise she’d made to Ben’s sister made Grace hesitate. If he were dead, then he couldn’t help track down the compound. Therein lie the last head of the hydra.
“You killed Cunningham with your bare hands. I saw you, felt each punch in my soul.” She lowered the rifle. “What I saw in your eyes was the rage and hatred that lives inside me. I know you, Benjamin Graham.”
His expression hardened. “You don’t know shit, lady. I don’t know how you got my sister’s nickname, but I’m done with this conversation.”
He turned and desperation clawed at her gut. “There’s a third Cunningham brother,” she blurted.
Ben stopped and whipped his head around. “What did you say?” His tone was terrifyingly cold.
“There’s a third brother. Your family killed the eldest, right? You just killed the middle one.” She hadn’t planned to reveal all she knew but desperation made her reckless. Something she hated to do, but there was no help for it. “There’s a third brother. He still lives at the compound.”
At the word compound, his nostrils flared and a muscle in his jaw tightened. “How do you know?”
Her laugh was mirthless. “I know because I’m smart and I spent a year finding out everything I could about them. I know because Cunningham bragged about his brother, Dominic, and how they’d both turned their ranch into a million-dollar business.”
Ben moved Paladin toward her slowly, the size and breadth of the man intimidating. His hands were clenched into fists and his expression was terrifyingly blank.
How do you know
?” he repeated, his voice on the ragged edge of rage.
“They killed my husband and burned my ranch, simply because they could. Cunningham used me and left me for dead.” She pulled her collar aside. “See this scar? That’s rope burn from where he choked me while he was attacking me. I wanted him dead. I was this close to exacting my revenge when you took it from me.” Her own voice had turned hoarse.
His gaze flickered to her neck then back to her eyes. “You should be thanking me if I killed the man that did that to you, instead of shooting at me.”
She made a sound, a cross between a growl and a sob. “You’re wrong. They took my son. I can’t find the compound, so I can’t find my son. He’s been with them for a year.” This time a sob did escape. “You took my one chance to find him.”