Read Carol Finch Online

Authors: The Ranger

Carol Finch

“You are going to disrobe in front of me?” Shiloh squawked, her voice two octaves higher than normal.

Logan rose to his feet with the graceful ease of a mountain cat, then shrugged casually. “I planned to undress behind your back, but that’s really up to you. If you want to watch—”

“I certainly do not want to watch!” she loudly objected.

Shiloh glared at her taunting captor when he jerked the soggy-fringed shirt over his head. The sight of his rippling muscles and washboard belly had her struggling to breathe normally.

Blast it, she couldn’t figure out this man. One moment he seemed a dangerous threat, and the next instant he was playfully teasing her. His unpredictability made it impossible to guess what he planned to do next.

Praise for Carol Finch

“Carol Finch is known for her lightning-fast,
roller-coaster-ride adventure romances that are
brimming over with a large cast of characters
and dozens of perilous escapades.”


Romantic Times BOOKclub

Praise for previous novels

The Ranger’s Woman

“Finch delivers her signature humor, along with a
big dose of colorful Texas history, in a love
and laughter romp.”


Romantic Times BOOKclub

Lone Wolf’s Woman

“As always, Finch provides frying-pan-into-the-fire
action that keeps the pages flying, then spices up
her story with not one, but two romances,
sensuality and strong emotions.”


Romantic Times BOOKclub

 

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C
AROL
F
INCH
THE RANGER

Available from Harlequin
®
Historical and CAROL FINCH

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#592

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#635

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#686

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Other works include:

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#1055

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#36

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#45

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#62

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#72

*
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*
Mr. Cool Under Fire
#105

This book is dedicated to my husband Ed and our
children, Christie, Jill, Kurt, Jeff, Jon, and Shawnna.
And to our grandchildren, Brooklynn,
Kennedy, Blake, and Livia,
With much love.

Chapter One

West Central Texas, 1870s

L
ogan Hawk glanced this way and that, calculating his chances of stealing the stolen money and making a fast getaway. Five bandits were sprawled beside him on their bedrolls, and if they woke up, they’d blast him out of the saddle. As dawn filtered across the rugged landscape, Hawk eased to his side then came silently to his feet.

Although he’d infiltrated this outlaw gang three months earlier to gather information for the Texas Rangers, he decided to get out while the getting was still good. He had posed as an Apache renegade, who scouted for the bandits, in exchange for a share of the loot. But he had yet to figure out who was mysteriously orchestrating the operations of this band of brigands—as well as the other three outlaw factions that were wreaking havoc in West Central Texas. Someone had taken meticulous care to make sure the bandit gangs were working in tandem like a well-oiled machine.

In addition, Hawk hadn’t picked up any leads
about who had killed his mentor and friend eight months ago.

Casting another cautious glance at the sleeping men, Hawk noted the bank of roiling clouds that forewarned of a spring thunderstorm. If he didn’t get moving, the crackle of lightning and the rumble of thunder would rouse these hombres.

Hawk hadn’t unsaddled his black mustang pony before last night’s raucous celebration so he could make a quick exit this morning. Neither had he bothered to undress. He hoped to be to hell and gone before the gang members roused from their drunken stupor and noticed he was missing.

Hawk skulked toward the stash of stolen money. Kneeling behind the scrub bush, he scooped up the saddlebags. He spared the scraggly-looking thieves one last glance as he circled the stand of cottonwood trees to retrieve his horse.

With the saddlebags tied in place, Hawk swung onto his mount. He breathed a long-suffering sigh of relief as he walked his horse through the grove of trees. Rubbing shoulders with these outlaws and pretending to be one of them left a sour taste in his mouth. He was more than ready to associate with someone who had more respect for humanity than these cutthroats. Like the other scoundrels he’d encountered during his seven-year stint with the Texas Rangers, these men had no consciences whatsoever. Their souls were as black as the devil’s.

Of course, he hadn’t needed to spend three months with this particular pack of ruffians to figure that out. One day had been plenty….

His thoughts scattered when thunder boomed overhead. A shout of alarm and a call to arms rose behind
him. Hawk cursed sourly. Well, so much for his uneventful departure from the bandit camp with the confiscated loot in hand. He glanced back to see banditos staggering clumsily to their feet to mount up and give chase. Although he’d released the other horses, they hadn’t wandered far so it didn’t take long to regather them. Damn the luck! The desperadoes were hot on his trail in nothing flat. Hawk nudged his pony into a faster pace to take a shortcut that would provide him with a better head start.

And he was going to need one because the furious hombres were bellowing threats about which of his body parts they were going to chop off for stealing their stolen money.

 

Shiloh Drummond backstroked across the river, enjoying her early-morning swim. The nearby cove, flanked by a thirty-foot limestone cliff, provided protection, seclusion and a sense of peace. And what she really needed right now was a sense of peace so she could get a firm grip on her composure. The events of the past week had shattered her emotions and crushed her feminine pride in one fell swoop.

She needed this time alone before rejoining her older brothers at their family ranch. She needed time to gather her poise and bolster her bruised pride before she had to explain why she’d returned from New Orleans unexpectedly. She’d been humiliated beyond words, but she refused to let her brothers see her fall to pieces while confiding the events that had sent her running home prematurely.

She inhaled a fortifying breath and conjured up the image of the dashing Southern gentleman who had charmed her—and then had broken her heart. She mut
tered under her breath when tears filled her eyes, as they had so often this past week.

How was it possible to think you loved someone so completely…and suddenly despise him so thoroughly? Shiloh didn’t know, but she had learned a hard lesson about the illusion of love. She wasn’t going to risk her heart again—ever. The pain and humiliation weren’t worth the trouble.

Shiloh Drummond had officially sworn off men forevermore. And her brothers had better not plan any future matchmaking, either, or she would make them dreadfully sorry for trying to arrange her life! If they hadn’t ganged up on her and sent her to Louisiana to experience so-called “proper society” none of this would have happened.

Shiloh’s bitter thoughts trailed off when she heard a rumbling sound overhead. She glanced toward the bank of dark clouds that piled on the western horizon like dozens of angry fists raised in threat.

Angry.
She could certainly identify with that. After her hellish week she wanted to strike out at something or someone—namely Antoine Troudeau—to relieve the fury and hurt boiling inside her.

Shiloh frowned, bemused, when the rumbling sound intensified. Alarm shot through her when she heard unidentified shouts in the distance. Gunshots rang out, destroying what little serenity she had salvaged from her early-morning swim. Her survival instincts kicked in, sending her surging away from the base of the stony ridge to paddle across the river. She needed to retrieve the clothing she’d recently washed so she could conceal herself in the boyish garments and hat that served as her disguise.

More gunshots filled the air and Shiloh realized the
pounding of horses’ hooves, not the distant growl of thunder, caused the rumbling noise. Afraid of being spotted, while she thrashed around in nothing but her wet chemise, Shiloh swam toward her horse. She flinched when the gunfire seemed to come from directly above her.

When she glanced over her shoulder a gasp of astonishment exploded from her lips. It looked as if a renegade Indian, riding a coal-black, wild-eyed mustang, was falling from the sky—and was about to land right smack-dab on top of her!

“Oh, God!” Shiloh sucked in a quick breath and swam sideways to get clear before the mustang’s flailing hooves collided with her head.

“What in the hell?” came a surprised male voice that was much too close for Shiloh’s comfort.

Horse and rider splashed down, swamping Shiloh and causing her to choke on a wave of water while trying to grab a quick breath. Her hair hung over her face like a mop, making it impossible to see where she was going. Worse, the renegade commenced muttering in an Indian dialect and she couldn’t translate. When he grabbed her arm and yanked her toward him, she didn’t have time to cough and draw air into her lungs before he dragged her beneath the surface.

Panic set in when she realized her deprived lungs were about to burst. Shiloh instinctively clamped herself around the renegade, desperate to climb up his body to inhale a precious breath. His arm came around her, pushing her upward so she could replenish her starved lungs. Her relief was short-lived because he dragged her beneath the surface again.

Anxious though she was to escape and to plant her feet on solid ground, the pop and splatter of gunshots
incited another jolt of panic. She surfaced long enough to glance up at the rocky ridge where five bearded, heavily armed riders were firing at
her
because she had the misfortune of crossing paths with the renegade that had his arm clamped around her.

Talk about being in the wrong place at the wrong time! Shiloh thought as the renegade shoved her underwater again.

Although she tried to wrest free, the brawny warrior held firm. He tugged her alongside him as he swam downstream—away from the hail of gunfire pounding down on them. Desperate for another breath, Shiloh floundered upward to drag in much-needed air. To her everlasting relief the Indian didn’t try to yank her beneath the surface again, forcing her to swallow another gallon of water. He did, however, jerk her toward the clump of reeds that lined the river.

“Keep your head down,” he demanded gruffly. “I’ll fetch your horse.”

Shiloh didn’t trust him not to take her horse and make a fast getaway.
His horse,
she noted had come ashore upstream—too far away for her to latch on to it without risking being shot full of bullets.

“Oh, no you don’t!” She snaked out her hand to anchor herself to the leather holster that hung low on his hips. “That’s
my
horse and you aren’t going to…!”

Her voice transformed into a howl of pain. Fire shot through her left arm. Bewilderedly, she glanced down to see blood seeping from the gash on her arm.

“Damn it, if you’d stayed put that wouldn’t have happened,” he scolded as he hooked his arm around her waist, clamped her body against his and rolled across the creek bank toward her horse.

Offended though Shiloh was at having her barely
clad body molded to the hombre’s muscled torso she didn’t object. There were more serious problems with which to contend—like bullets thudding in the sand and splattering in the reeds. And vile curses raining down that promised the tortures of hell.

For a fleeting moment Shiloh thought the renegade had rolled on top of her to shield her from another gunshot wound. But then he gathered himself so quickly to bound to his feet so he could catch her horse that she decided she was probably giving him credit for chivalry where credit wasn’t due.

“Sneaky damn Injun!” one of the men on the cliff bellowed hatefully. “You’ll pay dearly for this! And you sure as hell haven’t seen the last of us, you red-skinned bastard!”

That said, the scraggly-haired hooligan and his cohorts opened fire again. Bullets pinged off the rocks and trees while Shiloh and her captor headed for cover.

Once on solid footing, Shiloh tried to lurch away from the dark-eyed hombre who was dressed from head to toe in wet buckskin. Her escape attempt failed miserably. Her captor did, however, snatch up the tattered boys’ clothes she had been using as a protective disguise. He thrust them at her as he half carried, half dragged her to her horse.

“What the hell are you doing out here in the middle of nowhere all by yourself?” he demanded as he shoved the heel of his hand against her rump to hoist her onto the horse.

“What the hell are
you
doing dropping from the sky with a bunch of unkempt ruffians breathing down your neck? I was managing just fine until you interrupted my swim and ruined everything!” she snapped right
back at him, fear and anger combining to make her voice razor sharp.

Despite the distant gunfire, he cocked his head to appraise her momentarily before he bounded up behind her. Shiloh wasn’t sure what to make of the expression on his bronzed face or the twinkle in his ebony eyes.

He actually seemed amused by her snippy retort. Well, she was
not
amused. Maybe she had been too reckless by striking off from town alone. But she’d had her pride trampled for the first time in her life, had her feelings shredded to bits and her heart broken. She had desperately needed time alone. She was familiar with this area, knew how to ride and shoot expertly and felt reasonably safe and secure…until this renegade showed up and brought hell with him!

Now her arm was oozing blood and pulsing with pain. Plus, being shot at repeatedly rattled her. Fear and indignation had her quivering uncontrollably. She’d had a nightmarish week and it didn’t show any signs of improvement. In addition, she had sworn off men less than a week ago because they were nothing but trouble. And poof, this wild renegade dropped from the sky, accompanied by five trigger-happy demons, to remind her why men were the curse of a woman’s life.

Shiloh’s thoughts were still reeling when her captor burst out with a loud whistle that threatened to blow holes in her eardrums. She recoiled reflexively, then glanced sideways to see the black mustang, laden down with several saddlebags, perk up its ears. Like a well-trained dog coming to heel, the muscular pony trotted after his master who dug his heels into her horse and took off hell-bent-for-leather.

Shiloh became uncomfortably aware of the man’s powerful body plastered against her. His chin dug into
her shoulder and his arm was like a vice around her waist while they zigzagged through the willows and pecan trees that lined the river. Her damp chemise—that clung to her breasts and rode immodestly high on her thighs—left her feeling vulnerable and exposed. She squirmed self-consciously as they raced through the underbrush to put a greater distance between them and the ruffians that had been shooting at them.

“Don’t even think what you’re thinking,” the renegade growled in her ear.

Shiloh stiffened, amazed the man had all but read her mind. She was indeed contemplating the possibility of vaulting off the horse and taking her chances alone.

“Be patient,” he added as he glanced over his shoulder. “When we’re in the clear I’ll climb on my own horse and leave you to yours…. Well, damn.”

Shiloh glanced back to see what had annoyed him. To her dismay, she saw the five burly hombres picking their way down the narrow trail to give chase.

“Sit tight,” the renegade instructed as he loosened his grasp on her waist.

He crouched on the rump of her horse like a trick rider then sprang onto the mustang that now loped alongside them. Shiloh saw her chance to veer away—and she took it. She nudged her mount in the flanks, urging it into a swifter pace as they emerged from the gnarl of trees and underbrush. She took off across the open meadow, relying on equestrian skills she had mastered as a child.

“Come back here, damn it!” the renegade yelled at her. “If those outlaws catch up with you then you’re as good as dead…or worse!”

The way Shiloh had it figured she was as good as
dead…or worse…if she
didn’t
elude her captor right now. She had heard the horrifying tales of what Indians did to women and she wouldn’t put anything past the rugged-looking renegade that glowered at her and raced after her in fast pursuit.

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