Nathan Holt has a reputation in Swiftwater, and not one he was proud of. If he had half a brain, he’d stay far away from there. But there was a certain blue-eyed blonde holding his heart, not to mention a half-sister that he barely knew. He had left Swiftwater to protect them from his father. That reason no longer existed.
Bonnie Blakely had been taught to be a proper lady, but inside she felt anything but proper. She longed for a man – a strong, capable man – to put her across his knee. A brief encounter with Nathan Holt had held promise, but he left Swiftwater, Kansas years ago. He had promised he’d return, but as time passed without a word, Bonnie feared her dreams of his firm hand and unconditional love would never be fulfilled.
“Hey, Willafred, git out on the floor and flash yer wares ‘afore I take my belt to yer ass. No one can see ya hidin’ in that there corner. Ya ain’t makin’ me any money doin’ what yer doin’ which is nothin’.” Spittle dribbled down the barkeeps’ flabby jowls, splashing fresh spots on his already tobacco-stained shirt. Nathan swore under his breath when the man yanked a ratty towel from the waistband of his pants and wiped his face.
It’d be just his luck the shot glass he held in his hand had been wiped with the same towel. Too damn late if it was. He’d already downed half of the contents. He shifted his attention to the woman dawdling in the corner not far from where he sat. Despite the harsh words hurled at her from across the room, she stayed right where she was. Tension built between boss and whore as they’d stared at each other. It wouldn’t be long before they butted heads and Nathan did not want to be caught in the crossfire. He had a matter to settle and, in order to do so, he needed to stay focused. The barkeep flung the towel on the bar. He propped his meaty hands on his hips. The woman tossed back her head in a show of obvious defiance. Shit. No doubt about it. He’d be getting sidetracked and it pissed him off.
He wasn’t a man who stuck his nose in other people’s business. Call it self-preservation, but when it came to women and children, Nathan was the first to break his own rule. As a boy, he’d been forced to watch his father beat his mother, leaving behind horrific images in his mind. He had been too young to do anything about it at the time, but that wasn’t the case now. This son of a bitch needed to be taught some manners. Working girl, soiled dove, whatever, women deserved respect. If the barkeep attempted to make good on his threat to whip her ass, Nathan was ready to step in and turn the tables on the bastard and he’d do it with a smile.
“The name’s Willow, you jackass.” Her voice drifted from the shadows. Low. Belligerent. Nathan’s mouth quirked in amusement. Sassy little thing. Problem was, her outspokenness would more than likely land her into a heap of trouble.
Nathan eyed Willow as she stepped into the light. He swore under his breath. He’d been mistaken. She wasn’t a woman. A girl stood before him with barely-there bosoms. A girl much too young to be working in a saloon. As if she sensed his censure, she angled her head to one side. Long brown hair tumbled over one shoulder, one brow arched in defiance. Nathan narrowed his eyes. Beating a woman was out of the question, however, a few solid swats on the backside could accomplish a lot. Christ. He’d gladly throw in a half a dozen more whacks for the provocative way she was dressed and the amount of powder packed on her face. Thick kohl outlined her big brown eyes. Anyone with a lick of sense could see she was just a kid, but men who hung around this bawdy house thought about nothing else but getting their dicks wet.
Her spunk reminded him of his half sister, Charlotte. But if Charlotte were dressed in the same scantily manner, showing off her girly bits to a room full of horny men, he’d rip the place apart with his bare hands. Whatever higher power guided Silas Henry into her life would have his eternal gratitude after her real father, Travis Holt had walked out on her mother, Katherine Potter. Travis was Nathan’s father as well and would leave him and his mother alone for months at a time without a word. When he’d come back, he never bothered to explain where he went or what he did, so it was quite possible he had no idea he had a daughter, just as Nathan hadn’t known he had a sister.
They both met by accident and once Nathan learned they shared the same father, he swore he’d keep the bastard away from Charlotte. Travis was a ruthless, sick man with a mean right cross and a tongue sharp enough to leave mental scars. A man who took obscene pleasure in the pain of others. Charlotte had been spared his style of parental guidance, but Nathan hadn’t been so lucky.
Nathan tossed back the last of his whiskey, embracing the burn as it slid down his throat, taking his mind off the moment. His reason for being in Cheyenne was simple. He was ready to confront his father. The fine hairs on the back of his neck bristled, a warning that what he was about to do might backfire and get himself killed. He immediately shook off the doubts and stiffened his resolve. Travis was here, in this very saloon, and before Nathan left Cheyenne, he’d confront the man who had a hand, or rather, fist in speeding up his mother’s death. Even though the doctor insisted she had succumbed to pneumonia, Nathan placed most of the blame on his father’s shoulders. Harsh beatings, especially during his last visit, left her weak, unable to fight the sickness that had fallen upon her much later. Either that, or she had given up on life. Nathan held no love for the man, hadn’t for the longest time, but he was anxious to close this chapter in his life so he could move forward. To pave his own path and forget about the past. Possible? Yes. Likely? No. But, he’d give it his best shot.
Discovering he had a half sister did make his life a bit more bearable. His heart felt lighter. Charlotte Henry was as fiery as the color of her hair.
Nearly two years ago, he had the bright idea of stopping a stage. Just his way of blowing off steam after a long cattle drive. Josh and Billy Fallon, his boss’s two sons had joined in on the melee. Fun and games, no one would get hurt, but how could he have known the brash young boy who had given him the most grief in a matter of minutes had been a female in disguise? He’d seen red when she delivered a sharp kick to his shin and, determined to teach ‘Charley’ a lesson, he threatened to bare the boy’s ass for a whipping.
Tension and regret over the incident made his head throb. His careless actions still disturbed him even though he had no intention of carrying through with his threat. Subjecting the boy to some much-needed humiliation by stripping him naked would have been sufficient. In hindsight, the timely arrival of the esteemed Sheriff of Swiftwater had been a boon. Nathan might have paced in a cell for a few days in a pissed off state, but it would have been a hell of a lot worse if he had stripped ‘Charley’ naked and discovered her true gender.
The other woman who came to mind drove his emotions further south, swelling his cock near to bursting. Pretty, blonde haired, blue-eyed Bonnie Blakely. She had stopped by the jail to deliver his last meal before he was released. He’d caught her scent of vanilla and sex when she stepped closer to the bars and slid the tray through the opening. He longed to toss up her dress, sink to his knees and appease his more earthy appetite by delving his tongue through the slit in her bloomers straight up inside her pussy. Her round curves had tempted his baser male instincts and he had cursed his predicament. Any opportunity to explore the delightful hills and valleys of her body were way beyond his reach. Upon his release, he was to leave town. The ruling seemed rather strict for simple disruptive behavior. No one on the stage had been seriously harmed, still the sheriff had been adamant, offering no explanations.
But sweet Bonnie held the answers as to why the sheriff wouldn’t budge from his decision and she was very willing to share only if he promised to punish Charlotte for stealing away the attention of a man she claimed to love. The slew of hatred that poured from her pink lips stunned him. Surely this angel standing before him had no idea what she was asking him to do. Never in his life had Nathan deliberately set out to hurt anyone, especially a female. He was not like his father.
Disgusted, he had lashed out, mouthing in explicit detail what he’d do if he got his hands on this woman named Charlotte, only it was the image of the blonde beauty in front of him that filled his head and spurred him on. He’d fuck her. Spank her ass. Take her body in every way possible. His deliberate use of crude words made her cringe. Could she live with such guilt on her conscience if he agreed to do as she had asked? Bonnie had become distraught and her blue eyes welled with tears. Nathan regretted being quite so harsh, but felt it was what she needed to hear. Life wasn’t a bowl of cherries. There was only one way to truly hurt a woman. A way that would leave her scarred. Broken.
Bonnie Blakely immediately showed remorse. She wasn’t as mean as she pretended to be. Her face had blanched and she had practically begged him to forget her plan. Her show of compassion impacted him more than he thought it would. Before he could reassure her that he wasn’t the monster he made himself out to be, the sheriff burst inside, interrupting their conversation. Tom Davis openly ignored him and scolded Bonnie as he marched her out of the room. A jailhouse was no place for a lady. Shortly after, Nathan was set free and warned not to show his face in Swiftwater again. As Nathan mounted his horse, he covertly glanced around, hoping for a glimpse of Bonnie, but she was nowhere in sight. Perhaps it was for the best. He had nothing to offer a lady. With no other choice, he left the town of Swiftwater behind.
It was near the outskirts of town that he had caught a movement out of the corner of his eye. Despite his better judgment, he turned directions to investigate. Beneath a cluster of trees, he saw a woman crouched on the ground. She appeared frightened at first, then her eyes narrowed in anger as he drew closer. He couldn’t find any fault in her reaction. He was, after all, the man who nearly had her stripped bare and beaten. This was the woman Bonnie had asked him to hurt. Charlotte, aka Charley, rose to her feet and faced him squarely, belligerently. A couple of minutes passed. He played cat to her mouse, then they began to talk. That was when he learned the truth about her parentage. Both were shocked at the news and although Charlotte had asked him to stay, Nathan knew what he had to do. He had to turn his back on the chance to settle down in one place, get to know his new family, perhaps explore the possibility of a relationship with Bonnie, all this in order to keep track of Travis and steer him away from the peaceful town of Swiftwater. Far away from Charlotte.
But, as Nathan soon learned, Travis never overstayed his welcome. Danger lurked wherever the professional gambler went. Rumors of men seeking vengeance on the man who had taken their money would reach his ears and he’d move on, leaving a weary and ticked Nathan with no other choice but to saddle up and follow. The constant traveling wore thin. He needed money and did odd jobs, keeping an ear out for information on Travis and where he went. His last job landed him quite a bit of money and that was when Nathan decided he had had enough. He didn’t care about the threats against his father. He’d thank the man who ended his father’s life, but sometimes things didn’t go the way one wanted. Nathan waited for the right moment. Now the wait was over. The man who killed his mother was here in Cheyenne. In this saloon and, as far as Nathan was concerned, much too close to Swiftwater for his peace of mind.
Pungent perfume and unwashed bodies, both turned Nathan’s stomach.
“Hey, mister, how about buying me a drink? I can make it worth your while.”
Nathan stretched out his legs under the table, adjusted his hat further back on his head and considered the source of the offer. There stood Willow holding a bottle of whiskey in one hand and a glass in the other. Now, wasn’t this an interesting sight, a little girl acting the grown up and failing miserably. Probably a runaway, hell bent on convincing herself she could make it on her own. She had a lot to learn about this kind of life. First off, presenting her body as payment in order to sell drinks was a dangerous game, a game she couldn’t win without paying a heavy price. “Pardon me, ma’am, but you don’t look old enough to even be holding that bottle of red eye.” Her bottom lip protruded in a tell tale pout, a flirty gesture that had the opposite affect. “I’m not in the mood to play games, little girl.” He loosened the handkerchief from around his neck and tossed it on the table. “Wipe the muck off your face and skedaddle on home before I paddle your backside.”
Instead of running off like he hoped she would, the brat plopped herself in the chair beside him. Evidently, he hadn’t been harsh enough. “Mister, please, I need your help.” She edged closer, crowding him. Her hand slipped under his arm to grip his bicep. “Lars, the owner, don’t treat us girls nice at all. All he cares about is the money.”
“Isn’t money the main reason why you’re here?” Nathan firmly disentangled himself from her hold.
She dropped both hands in her lap. “Save the lecture for another time. I need help and I need it now. My friend is upstairs with a man who’s downright mean. I’m worried he’ll hurt Darcy. You have to check on her.”
“Bossy little boots, aren’t you?”
One lone tear trailed down her cheek at his smart remark, but it was one too many for Nathan. Sass he could handle, tears sent him into a full-blown panic. His tone softened a notch. “What makes you think I’m not a mean bastard like this man upstairs with your friend?”
She shrugged and one lacy strap slipped from her thin shoulder. “I can tell just by looking in your eyes.”
He arched a brow. “That it? I’m impressed.”
She took a deep breath and blew it out in a rush. “You don’t stink. Believe me, that’s a plus around here.”
Nathan swore some men were scared to death of soap and water and for one so young she was right about the eyes. A man’s character could easily be revealed by the eyes. A window to the soul. Travis possessed the coldest, meanest pair of eyes Nathan had ever seen. He’d make himself scarce whenever his father came home from a long trip just so he didn’t have to look into that icy stare. Most times, he’d hide in the woods until he couldn’t bear the hunger pains in his belly any longer, then he’d go home, his hands shoved deep in his pockets, tears slipping down his cheeks. He knew he wouldn’t be allowed to eat until he bared his backside and received his whipping for not being there to greet his father, but he’d rather take a whipping instead of listening to his mother’s cries of pain. He’d splash water on his face from the rain barrel out back before he’d enter the house, hoping Travis couldn’t tell he’d been crying. He’d get double stripes from the thick leather belt if he showed any sign of weakness. The next time he’d see his mother, her face would be bruised, her eyes swollen. She must have been weak, too.
As he grew older, he tried to protect his mother by clinging to the front of her skirts, but even at the age of ten, he couldn’t stop Travis from batting him aside. As punishment for his interference, he’d be forced to watch his mother being brutalized. Without a male authority in his life to show him the necessary things every boy should know, Nathan had taught himself how to shoot, but when it came to killing his father in order to save his mother, he’d lose his nerve and hide in the closet, covering his ears so he wouldn’t hear her cries. He’d lost count how many times he had aimed the weapon at Travis’s back, his hands shaking uncontrollably, only to lower the gun, tuck his head into his shoulders and pray his father wouldn’t hurt her too bad.
Travis would eventually take off for places unknown, leaving both of them unprotected and with barely enough money to get by. His mother would have to spend hours on her back as men came by and paid for their time with her. Nathan was in charge of collecting the coins they tossed on the table on their way out the door. Sometimes there was enough to purchase food for a couple of days, so his mother could rest. Nathan hated the men who showed up on the doorstep. Some didn’t say a word. Some laughed at him when they left, and he swore he’d find a way to make enough money so he and his mother could make it on their own. Nathan had quit school against his mother’s wishes and found work. He didn’t earn a lot of money, but at least his hard work eliminated the daily visits. Some of the men continued to come by and try to bully their way in, but Nathan had honed his skills with a gun. They either left peacefully or left with an ass filled with buckshot.
Nathan vowed he wouldn’t stand by and allow a woman to be beaten senseless or disrespected the way his mother had been. He wasn’t a man to be played with or run roughshod over by a woman, but he also wasn’t cruel and heartless like his father. Because of his hesitation to act, his mother had suffered many indignities and he aimed to rectify that, if only to appease his conscience. Give him a semblance of peace.
“Sides, you’re not hooting and hollering at the girls on stage, trying to feel them up. You know, acting like an ass. Not all of the men here are cruel, but the one upstairs with Darcy is pure evil. She warned me to stay away from him.”
Willow’s words jerked him from his thoughts. “You still here?” He shifted in his seat and looked at her. “You got the wrong man, Willow. Go home to your family where it’s safe.”
“Not without seeing to Darcy first. Please, won’t you at least pretend you’re interested in me and come upstairs so I can check on her?”
“Now, hold on, little girl. I ain’t here to babysit no ‘painted lady’. You and your friend knew what you were getting into when you signed up for this kind of work.” She bowed her head, her shoulders shook and she let out a sob. Damn. No human being or animal deserved to be treated so horribly at another’s hands. “Your imagination’s probably running wild. I’m sure if your friend was in trouble, she’d scream.” She blasted him with an exaggerated eye roll and his jaw tensed. Her earlier sobs were conveniently forgotten. The little brat had been playing him. “What now?” he asked irritably.
“Could you hear someone screaming above all this racket?”
She had a valid point there. The piano player butchered, “Oh Susanna”, while some drunk sucked on a harmonica and blew out dribble. Men clapped and stomped their feet, yelling lewd comments at the half naked girls dancing on stage. Some men rolled dice while others sat in a drunken stupor. Christ, he felt a headache coming on, starting at the nape and zipping straight to his temples. How his father tolerated this kind of lifestyle was beyond his comprehension. Nathan longed for peace and quiet and, by damn, he’d see that he got it tonight.
A jab to the ribs gave him a jolt. Sassy little shit was still intent on badgering him.
“I ain’t going nowhere until I see to my friend.”
Enough. “Lady, I ain’t here to have a good time or be someone’s savior. I’ve got business with a low down bastard and I aim to see it done. Now, for the last time, get moving.” He hadn’t seen Travis yet, but was told a man who fit his description came into the saloon about a half an hour ago. He probably went straight upstairs with one of the girls. Nathan frowned. Maybe he was the one upstairs with Willow’s friend. His gut tightened. If so, Darcy was in for a hell of a night.
Willow asked, “Tell me what he looks like. Maybe I can find out if he’s still here.”
That didn’t sound good. “What do you mean, still here? He’d better be here.” Nathan jerked his thumb toward the swinging doors. “That there’s the only way out.” He had deliberately sat near the exit, knowing Travis would have to pass in this direction in order to leave. Unless there was a back exit. Shit. He’d been so focused on facing his father, he hadn’t thought of a back door.
Willow shook her head. “There’s another way out from upstairs. Steps lead out to the alley behind the saloon. It’s for the men who are married. They can come in that way too.”
Nathan took off his hat and bent his head slightly forward. “He’s got blond hair like me. Same green eyes too.” He leaned closer so she could get a better look since he had chosen a table partially hidden in the shadows, but provided him with a clear view of the staircase. She stared at him. He held his breath. Her eyes grew wide in recognition and he grabbed her arm. “Is he here?”
“Oh my God, he’s you, I mean you’re him.” Nathan’s hold tightened. She wasn’t going anywhere now that he knew for certain Travis hadn’t snuck out. “Please, let me go.” She pried at his fingers with her free hand.
“Not until I get some answers.” Nathan pulled her onto his lap. She opened her mouth and he wagged his head in warning. “Scream and I’ll flip your dress over your head and spank your bare ass. These men wouldn’t care what the hell I was doing to you. All they’d be looking at is your pussy and waiting for a turn.”
“You are a bastard.”
“Honey, you don’t know how much I wish those words were true. Now, are we doing this my way or the hard way?” He pressed his mouth against her ear, praising her as she settled down. “Good girl.” He eased his hold. “No tricks,” he said evenly.
Willow sighed. “No tricks.”
“Judging from your reaction, this man upstairs is the one I’m looking for and you’re going to help me get to him nice and quiet like.” She turned her face away. His fingers latched hold of her chin, forcing her to look at him. “I’m not my father. I don’t beat women.”
Willow whimpered. “No, you only threaten to spank them in front of strangers,” she replied accusingly. “And naked too.”
“I only threatened, so count yourself lucky.” Long fingernails dug into the back of his hand. A quick toss over one arm and a smack to her ass took the wind out of her sails. Nathan flipped Willow upright and caught Lars staring at them. The man was clearly pleased. “Enough. I ain’t fooling around.” Nathan played his part to the max by stroking the soft flesh of her bare arm. Her skin puckered in response and her breath hitched. Nathan was experienced enough to know that she trembled from fear, not desire. “Willow, listen to me. Play along. Lars likes what he sees. It’s more than likely my father is the one with your friend. The only way I can get upstairs to check without drawing any attention is if you go with me.”
“Yeah, well, I changed my mind.” Her palms hit the table and she tried to stand up, but Nathan’s arm around her waist held her in place. Her bottom ground into his lap as she doubled her efforts. “Let. Me. Go. You’re not as nice as I thought you were.”
Jesus Christ. “Stop that wiggling.” Nathan began to sweat.
“I want you to let me go right now.”
“Ain’t happening.” He gritted his teeth. One more wiggle and he’d embarrass himself. He was only human, for chrissakes. “Trust me, Willow, please.”
“And if I don’t? trust you?”
He’d lie if he had to. “Then I walk out of here and leave your friend to her fate.” He’d be going upstairs with or without Willow’s company. He much preferred her company. Less hassle.
“All right. I’ll do whatever you want.”
Her implication was unmistakable, but Nathan didn’t bed young girls. She couldn’t be more than fifteen. “Willow, how old are you?”
He groaned. Old enough to be married. Ripe for the plucking. He had to get her out of here. “How long have you been working here?”
“I just started tonight. Darcy’s been here for about a week. She told me about this man and warned me to stay in the shadows if he showed up.”
“You got family?”
“My parents are dead. I live with my aunt and uncle, but I’m old enough to make my own rules, so I ran away.”
“Were they cruel to you?” Thoughts about her uncle were going where he didn’t want them to go.
“No. They get bent out of shape when I refuse to do my chores. My uncle threatens to take me to the woodshed.”
“I tend to agree on that score. You’re too young to know what you want. If you decide to spend most of your life on your back, you’ll age way before your time. I’ll see to your friend and what needs to be done. In exchange, you’ll go back home and obey your aunt and uncle. Is that clear?”
She nodded. “I suppose.”
He was so close to confronting his father. Nathan rolled his shoulders, resisting the urge to pull his shirt away from his back. The scars peppering his skin no longer caused him pain, yet the memory of how they got there remained. He would not allow the girl upstairs to suffer at the hands of his father nor would he see Willow remain to be used by these ruffians just because she had made an unwise decision. Once he left Cheyenne, he had no control over their decisions, but for now he’d do the honorable thing. He set Willow on her feet and smacked her ass. “Come on, girl, upstairs with you.”
Once upstairs, Willow glanced up and down the hallway. “Darcy’s door is closed. That means she’s still, er, entertaining, unless?”
Her voice trailed off, the fear in her eyes real. He shook his head. “Don’t go there. She’s okay.”
“If we go into the room next to hers, we should be able to hear some kind of noise.” Her face flushed.
Damn kid and her naivety. She should be at home in bed. Alone. Nathan brushed past her and entered the empty room. He placed a finger to his mouth. Willow closed the door with a soft click and joined him at the far side of the room adjacent to Darcy’s. Loud sobbing drew both their attention.
“That’s Darcy.” Willow dashed for the door, but Nathan caught her around the waist. “Quiet,” he hissed. “You stay put. I’m going in there alone.”
Tears filled her eyes. “What if Darcy needs another female?”
Nathan swore under his breath. “All right, but if you don’t do as I say, I’ll blister your hide, do you understand me?” All she did was nod. Heaving a sigh, he shoved her behind him. “You stay close and when I’m about to open the door, I want you to stand on the other side and keep quiet.”
Her acquiesce came way too quickly. Yeah, right. No way was this girl going to listen to a word he said. He grasped her by the shoulders. “Willow, my old man is a professional gunslinger. He doesn’t respect women and he won’t give a rat’s ass who or what he shoots. He’s got a sadistic streak a mile wide and a short temper.” Her face blanched. It’d do her good to be scared. Then maybe she’d listen. “Do you have the key?”
Willow slipped her fingers down the front of her dress. Fuck. Nathan spun on his heel and centered his attention on the dull gray wall in order to give her some privacy while she fished around her not so ample bosoms. Hell, he didn’t know who was more embarrassed, him or her, but when the key hit the carpet he pretended not to notice her reddened cheeks. He pointed to the spot where he wanted her to stand and wait.
He inserted the key in the lock. No doubt his father was too busy fucking to hear him enter the room. Nathan half expected to see Travis’s bare hairy ass high in the air pumping vigorously instead, the sight that greeted him turned his stomach even more. Darcy was tied spread-eagled on the bed, completely naked. Her eyes were swollen shut and a dirty rag was stuffed inside her mouth. Red, purplish marks splotched the inside of her thighs. She appeared to be unconscious. He’d been too late. Memories of his mother in the exact same position clouded his thinking and he moved toward her. A click from behind stopped him short. The working end of a gun prodded the back of his head.
“Hands in the air.”
Nathan did as he was told.
“Turn ’round so I can see the asshole who got the balls to interrupt my playtime.”