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In 1870s Wyoming, Abigail MacKenzie sets out on a mission to save her brother's life. But only renegade outlaw Kane can help her. Can she trust him with her life…and her heart?




Outlaw  Heart

November 1993 (hard to find)
Avon Books

ISBN 0-380-76936-0

Outlaw  Heart

Shortly after finishing my first historical MY CHERISHED ENEMY, I was anxious to begin the next. I immediately began plotting a western I'd been thinking about for a long time and sent it off to my agent. My agent phoned with the news that Avon wanted to buy it, but first they wanted me to write another medieval; that book ended up being MY REBELLIOUS HEART. So, OUTLAW HEART was actually my second sale to Avon, but the third to be published.

Coming up with the setting for OUTLAW HEART wasn't at all difficult. My family drove through Wyoming when I was ten, and I loved it there. I remember sitting in the back seat, daydreaming about having a ranch in the shadow of the Rockies. When I decided to write a western, naturally the heroine just had to own a ranch!

Some books are just plain fun to write and OUTLAW HEART was one of them. I had a great time coming up with names like Stringer Sam and Rowdy Roy.

My original title was DESPERADO—not terribly creative, I admit. But as luck would have it, the month that OUTLAW HEART was released, there were about half a dozen other titles that same month with "Outlaw" in the title.



Outlaw  Heart


Wyoming Territory, 1878

Stringer Sam.

There wasn't a man, woman or child west of Deadwood who hadn't heard of him. Some said he was spawn of the devil. Some predicted that-good or bad-he'd end up a legend. But for those unlucky enough to cross his path, Stringer Sam was more like a nightmare come to life. . .

His nickname was apt. Stories about his trademark display of deadliness soon spread from barroom to barroom, from parlor to parlor, from cow town to cow town. Little boys listened in terrified awe as their fathers recounted grisly tales of Stringer Sam's savagery. Women shivered in fear whenever he was mentioned, while little girls hid their faces in their mothers' skirts.

But it wasn't Stringer Sam sitting in the Laramie jail that warm May night. Instead it was Rowdy Roy, reported to be one of Stringer Sam's gang. There were two deputies guarding him, Andy Horner and Nate Gilmore. Andy was a rangy youth of twenty who had decided six months ago to put an end to his cowboy days. To Nate, who was nearly ten years his senior, Andy had a tendency to run off at the mouth. But he could draw and hit a target with a six-shooter faster than a man could spit, and that was why Marshal Dillon MacKenzie had hired him.

"Don't know why the marshal insisted both of us be here tonight," grumbled the younger man. He thumped his boot heels against the wide-planked floor, his lips twisting in a grimace as he glanced at their prisoner.

Nate puffed on his cheroot, then blew a lazy ring of smoke into the air. "The territorial marshal should be here tomorrow night at the latest to take him off our hands," he said with an idle shrug. "Besides, one thing about Dillon. He usually has a good reason for doin' whatever he does."

Like Andy, Nate had drifted into town several years ago-and promptly been accused of cattle rustling. Buck Russell, who owned the Triple R ranch just east of Laramie, had been quick to accuse him. It was Dillon who'd rescued him from a vengeful lynch mob and ferreted out the real rustlers, several of Russell's own men.

Nate had been quick to gather that there was no love lost between Dillon MacKenzie and Buck Russell. He'd later learned that Dillon's daddy owned the Diamondback ranch, which shared its northern boundary with Russell's. On that boundary was a section of rich grassland that Russell coveted for himself, and it had provoked many a harsh word between the two men. No one was more surprised than Nate himself when Dillon offered him the job of deputy marshal.

He had reservations about working for the law after what had happened, but Dillon was willing to give him a fair shake and Nate felt obliged to pay him back. Three years later, he was still here in Laramie, but now he had no thoughts of pulling up stakes and moving on. Dillon had become his friend as well as his boss. Rumor had it that the governor was thinking of appointing Dillon county sheriff, and Nate couldn't have been more pleased.

Andy blew out a gusty sigh and glanced once more at the cell where their lone prisoner sat huddled in a comer of the narrow bunk. Gaunt and thin, with an ugly puckered scar on one cheek, Rowdy Roy Parker stared through the barred window at the inky sky above, as he had throughout the evening. It was odd, Andy thought vaguely. Though he was spike-whiskered and dirty, Rowdy Roy was anything but rowdy, as Andy had expected. Instead the man looked almost. . . fearful.

Roy had been caught yesterday trying to steal a horse from the livery stable. He'd been quickly recognized as one of the men with Sam when they'd pulled off a bank robbery in Rawlins last month. Incredibly, he had most of the bankroll still with him. Unfortunately, Stringer Sam wasn't with him. Sam was a crafty one, all right. Sometimes he worked alone; other times he had as many as five or six accomplices.

Andy inclined his head slightly.. "Roy there's as quiet as a stone wall," he mused thoughtfully. "To tell the truth, I expected a little more trouble from one of Sam's boys." His eyes narrowed. "You don't think he sent the marshal on a wild-goose chase, do you?"

Nate hesitated. He didn't want to think so. Damn, but he didn't! Dillon had at first been skeptical of Roy's claim that he was breaking all ties with Sam and his gang. But when Roy blurted out that he knew the location of Sam's hideout, everything had changed. Dillon had grilled him for hours, determined to find out if he was telling the truth.

Apparently Dillon was convinced, for he'd ridden out late this afternoon, intent on capturing Sam once and for all. Nate scraped back the chair and stood up. He pulled off his hat and dropped it on the desktop, running his fingers through his hair. "I don't think Dillon would have gone after him if he didn't think Roy was telling the truth," he said finally.

For the longest time, neither one said anything. An uneasy, ominous silence descended. It was as if an oppressive black cloud had dropped its smothering folds over the jail.

For the first time, Nate wished fervently that Dillon hadn't gone after Sam. Sam was not a man to be crossed. He was unpredictable. Wily and cagey, as the lawmen scattered across the Territory knew. For Sam, it wasn't enough just to steal and rob; it wasn't enough to cold-bloodedly shoot a man dead between the eyes.

But to think of Sam inevitably brought thoughts of death. . . and dying. Nate was rather grateful when Andy cleared his throat and turned the conversation elsewhere. And so the two men put Stringer Sam out of their minds.

It would prove to be a costly error in judgment... a deadly mistake.

Andy's eyes lit up like firecrackers on the Fourth of July. "Say, Nate. You seen that new singer at the Silver Spur? Now there's a lady makes a man hot as a ruttin' elk."

Two fervent gazes looked as one toward the open door and down the street. Most of the town's male population liked nothing more than to bend an elbow at the Silver Spur. A constant hum of raucous talk and laughter reached their ears. Someone pounded out a bouncy, slightly off-key tune on the piano, trilling along with the melody.

A sly grin etched its way along Nate's mouth.

"Done more than seen her," he offered casually.

"And her name's Tina, kid." Andy's chair thumped to the rutted wooden floor. He gaped in astonishment. "What! Are you telling me that you. . . that she. . . that you and her. . ."

Nate nodded. His self-satisfied smile spoke for itself.

"Why, she told me she never mixed with the clientele!" Nate just laughed.

"That's' cause she's looking for a man," he drawled. He chuckled when Andy turned red clear to the part in his tousled blond hair. " Andy's jaw clamped shut. He regarded the older man suspiciously. "Oh, yeah? Well, I think you're all gurgle and no guts." .

Nate chuckled and arranged his' hands over his belt buckle. "Oh, yes," he said. "Tina's a mighty juicy little piece. Fact is, she gave me a ride I won't soon forget."

Andy nudged his chair closer. This time he was all ears. Unable to resist, Nate went on embellishing the tale.

Outside, the ever-present wind had not yet ceased its restless scouring of the plains, though the hour was past midnight. A half-moon spilled translucent fingers of light down upon the earth, where a chestnut stallion broke free from the waist-high feathery grass along the dirt road. In the gloom, his rider appeared dark and featureless; his build was wiry, lean and tough. The man wore a black broad-brimmed hat, dark clothing and boots... and no spurs.

The man was alone. He passed two other riders on their way out of town, but spoke to neither. He betrayed no hint of stealth whatsoever as he guided his horse toward the small building squatting near the end of the street. Indeed, his was a bold and daring approach. . .

But that was his way.

When he reached his destination, he slid from his horse. Inside the jail, two male voices joined in laughter.

A shadow spread through the doorway. The man stepped inside.

Nate leaped up in startled surprise, a hand already reaching for his gun.

Andy never made it that far.

There was a deadly staccato of gunfire. Andy's chair tipped backwards. Nate slumped to the floor.

Inside his cell, Rowdy Roy began to pray for the first time in his miserable life.

The man with the gun blew a wisp of smoke from the barrel, then slipped the weapon back into the holster at his hip. An expression of distaste on his face, he stepped around. the pool of blood on the floor. With the toe of his boot, he flipped Nate's body onto his back, then bent to unfasten the ring of keys at his waist.

Eyes as black as hell slid toward Roy. An instant later, the door of his cell creaked open.

But Roy made no move toward freedom.

The intruder inclined his head. At last he spoke.

"Roy, Roy," he murmured. He shook his head. "Did you really think you could rob me and get away with it?"

Roy fell to his knees. "I was bringing the bankroll back, Sam, I swear. But then my horse went lame and the marshal caught me trying to steal one-"

An odd gleam entered Sam's eyes. "The marshal," he repeated. "Where is he anyway? I have to admit, I was hoping that son of a bitch MacKenzie would be here." His gaze was utterly remorseless as it encompassed the two bodies lying on the floor.

Roy blanched. He could almost feel the tickle of hemp against his neck. "I don't know," he hedged.

"Though it seems he might have found out where your hideout is. . . I heard 'em talking, you see. . ."

Sam had gone very still. "Is that where he is? Gone to the hideout?"

Roy swallowed, unable to tear his eyes from the other man's face. "I-I don't know," he whined.

"The hell you don't!" Sam's shout rang from the rafters. "He went after me, didn't he? MacKenzie went to the hideout. And you told him where it was, didn't you, you squirmy little worm?"

Roy's skin was as pasty-looking as flour and water. "I-I had to, I swear. Sam, I had no choice. He-he told me he'd blow my head off if I didn't-"

Sam ground his teeth in order to keep from snatching his gun from his holster and blowing Roy's head off himself. Goddammit, he raged inwardly. Even if he'd wanted to leave the Territory, he couldn't-not yet. He had a fortune cached at the hideout. He couldn't leave without one last trip there...

Sam's face was stripped of all expression, but the fires of hell blazed in his eyes. "When did MacKenzie leave?" he demanded.

"I-I don't know for sure. He just found out this afternoon, Sam, I swear." Roy was whining like a puppy dog. "I-I heard one of the deputies say his old man's got a ranch just east of town. . . the Diamondback or something like that. . . Could be he's gone there for the night and intends to head out in the morning. . ."

Sam's mind was racing. Maybe, he decided, Roy had done him a favor after all. It had been an unpleasant surprise to discover that Dillon MacKenzie was still alive, and a lawman yet. . . Why, not six months ago the bastard had killed two members of his gang.

And that same day, MacKenzie had found out for himself why the legendary Stringer Sam had never been caught. No doubt he was the one MacKenzie had really been after, but so what? Sam had slipped beneath the long arm of the law too many times to be bothered by the likes of Dillon MacKenzie.

His mind sifted back. MacKenzie hadn't been a lawman two years ago. . . He recalled that long-ago day he'd hauled MacKenzie from his stagecoach, him and his ladybird. Shit, but the man had a mouth! MacKenzie had sworn to see him in his grave. . . A smirk curled Sam's lips. It was with a great deal of pleasure that he'd decided MacKenzie deserved a slow, painful death. . . He'd taken even more pleasure in taking MacKenzie's woman as his own...

Cruel lips flattened in a vicious sneer. But the bastard hadn't died, God rot his soul!

This time, Sam vowed coldly, he wouldn't fail.

Roy's eyes darted back and forth between Sam and the door. Could he make it? he wondered frantically. It was worth a try, he decided. But before he could make a move, Sam lifted his head. His smile was purely malicious.

In his hand was a length of rope.

Roy staggered back. "Please, Sam." He was blubbering like a baby. "Please don't kill me. Please..."

Down the street, the merry song-and-dance at the Silver Spur continued. A shout of ribald laughter drifted on the air as Rowdy Roy choked his last breath. . .

The townspeople found his body strung up from the gnarled branches of the old cottonwood tree behind the jail the next morning.

Outlaw  HeartChapter 1

The house was two-story and sprawling, set back among a windbreak of towering cottonwood trees. Beyond the house and cluster of outbuildings, the Laramie Mountains rose in shadowed silhouette against the backdrop of a cloudless sky.

Abigail MacKenzie stood on the porch, her slender figure garbed in faded brown cotton. A gust of wind blew a stray strand of hair across her cheek; she pushed it away and flipped the thick chestnut braid from her shoulder to her back. A faint frown marred the honeyed skin of her forehead as she anxiously scanned the horizon.

Lord, but she regretted her argument with Pa this morning! She had stewed and fretted since he'd left, so much so that Dorothy had finally chased her outside.

Yet it wasn't all her fault! Her life revolved around the Diamondback ranch, and her marital status—or lack of it-had never concerned her. But lately Pa had begun to bring up the subject more and more often. It didn't help that Dillon had begun to chide her about it as well.

"No one could put up with you, little sister," he'd told her just last week. "You're too damned full of starch and sass. And no man likes to be told what to do-especially by a woman."

The usually soft line of Abby's lips tightened. Just thinking of Dillon's lofty tone and mocking grin infuriated her all over again. And now Pa had practically called her an old maid, too!

Her father's approval was the one thing she'd always sought-and most of the time she succeeded in getting it. She could ride and shoot and rope as well as any of the ranch hands, which was why she'd gone after that stray calf yesterday morning.

Sure enough, she'd managed to find him. He'd also managed to get himself cornered by a timber wolf; a skitter of excitement had raced through her. They'd lost a dozen calves and yearlings the last few months. Lucas was convinced a wolf was responsible. Could this be the one? And wouldn't Pa be glad if she nailed this critter straight through the heart?

But the wolf had bolted, and he was a wily one indeed. He'd led her in circles for hours before she finally found his trail again, which was why she hadn't gotten back to the ranch until well after midnight. Pa was pacing a hole through the rug in his study. Lord, but he could boom and bluster!

He'd shouted so that Abby was certain she'd heard the windows rattling in their frames.

"God Almighty!" he exploded. "What possessed you to take off like that? Do you know what's been going through my mind? I thought you were lost. Lying hurt somewhere-maybe even dead!" Duncan MacKenzie ran a meaty hand through the thatch of iron-gray hair on his head and glared at his daughter.

Abby dropped her gloves on his desk. "I told Lucas where I was going," she said coolly. Lucas was her father's foreman. "Besides, it's not the first time I've chased down a stray calf."

"It's the first time you didn't have sense to come back before nightfall!"

He leveled a gaze of fearsome intensity upon her-not that she showed any signs of backing down, or even bending a little. The seconds ticked by while they fought a silent battle of wills. Finally Duncan swore silently. Abby was a strip off his own hide, all right-and so was her brother.

"Isn't it enough that your brother risks his damn fool hide trailing outlaws from here to kingdom come? And all in the name of law and order!" He snorted, and Abby was heartily thankful Dillon wasn't there to hear him. "Now you're chasing halfway across the country after a five-dollar calf!" he finished. "I'm not so greedy that I'll miss that five dollars, missy!"

"But it wasn't just the calf," she proclaimed with a shake of her head. "There was a wolf on his heels when I found him. He ran off when I showed up but I tracked him down." Her eyes gleamed. "I found the wolf's den, Pa-and his mate." She thought of the pelts tied to her saddle and tossed her head triumphantly. "I made sure we won't lose any more calves to those two, Pa."

It was a hollow victory. Pa remained unimpressed, and Abby slipped upstairs to her room, more than a little disappointed.

When she'd come downstairs before sunup this morning, she had decided it might be wise to say no more about the whole episode. They planned to start branding out in the summer pasture today. Abby had taken it for granted that she would. be present as usual.

Pa had curtly refused.

Abby shoved back her plate and regarded him with narrowed eyes. "I haven't missed a branding in years, Pa!"

"Well, you're going to miss this one," he shot back.

Abby glanced at Dorothy, who stood at the stove in the corner sliding flapjacks onto a plate. Dorothy was Lucas's wife; she and Lucas had a small house out behind the barn, and Dorothy did the cooking and cleaning for them as well. Was it her imagination, or were Dorothy's shoulders shaking with laughter?

Her gaze slid back to Pa. "You're still riled up about last night," she muttered.

"Damn right I am. I want you close to home, Abby, do you hear?"

When Abby said nothing, his eyes sought Dorothy's. "Dorothy," he said more quietly, "would you go out and ask someone to saddle up Brandy for me?"

Dorothy flitted from the kitchen, her lips twitching in amusement.

His gaze returned to Abby, who hadn't relieved him of that accusatory stare. Her chin jutted out, a smaller, more delicate version of his. "Why?" she demanded. "Why now?"

"Because I can't trust you further than I can see you, young lady." Duncan's chair scraped against the floor. "Maybe I ought to marry you off to Buck Russell and be done with you!"

Abby gasped. Buck Russell, who owned the neighboring ranch on their eastern border, had made it known to Pa that he wasn't averse to uniting the two families-and their ranches.

"Pa, I can't believe I heard you right! You don't even like Buck Russell. Besides, we-we're a team, Pa. You always said so and we-we love this place. Why, what would happen to the ranch if I weren't here? Dillon wouldn't be here for you like I am . . . you were right when you said he'd rather be off chasing outlaws than chasing stray calves!"

An odd expression crossed Duncan's features; too late Abby wished she hadn't spoken. While there was a part of him that was proud his son was Laramie's marshal, she alone knew haw deeply it pained him that Dillon had never been interested in the ranch. But she didn't dare say so, for that very reason.

Instead, she let an uneasy laugh escape. "Besides," she went on quickly, "you don't like Buck Russell. We both know the only reason he would ever marry me is to get his hands on the Diamondback!"

Duncan let his eyes drift slowly aver his daughter, taking in the rich mane of chestnut hair that tumbled dawn her back. Her shoulders were stiff with pride, the tilt of her chin defiant. Her eyes were snapping, as blue as the summer sky outside. She was a beauty, all right. Oh, not the conventional kind-she wasn't frail and fragile. He thought of how she'd grown up right before his eyes, and somehow he'd never even noticed until lately—or perhaps he hadn't wanted to. But Abby was full of fire and passion, just like her mother-the kind of woman that drove a man to heaven and hell and back again. . . the kind that made each day better than the last.

Duncan plucked his hat from the peg on the wall. He stared at Abby, fingering the wide brim in his hands. "I'm not so sure about that," he said slowly. "I don't think there's a man alive wouldn't give his soul to get his hands on a sweet little thing like you, daughter." He saw her eyes go wide with shock and knew he'd startled her with his bluntness. A grim smile etched his lips. "But Buck Russell knows how to run a ranch, Abby. And at least the Diamondback would be in good hands when I'm gone."

When I'm gone . It was odd, the effect those words had on her. Pa . . . dead. The chill that slipped over her penetrated clear to her bones. She shivered. She didn't like to think of it. Nor could she ever remember him speaking of his own death before.

Now, hours later, that same prickly sense of unease ran up her spine. All at once the wind began to lull. There was a peculiar stillness in the air, as if the entire world held its breath. Even the bluejays ceased their screeching, as if in warning. . .

Abby's hands tightened around the wooden railing of the porch. Something was wrong, she thought vaguely. Her reaction was more instinct than conscious thought.

The sound of drumming hoofbeats reached her ears. It was then that she saw a buckboard rounding the last bend in the road. Hazy clouds of dust spiraled skyward behind it. Hitched to the back was a strawberry roan that looked just like Brandy.

Abby stood as if paralyzed. Some strange force beyond her control held her rooted to the floor of the porch, like an ancient tree. She could only watch with a horrifying sense of inevitability as the buckboard drew nearer to the house.

There was a tall male form stretched out in the back, limp and prone.

Her first thought was that she'd never seen a dead man. Her second was that this was a dream. . . A dream? Dear God, a nightmare. . .

Because the man was her father.

Nor was he dead.

There was a low moan as the buckboard rolled to a halt. It was that sound which finally galvanized her into action. Abby flew down the stairs and climbed into the back of the buckboard. She sank to her knees and cradled her father's head in her lap.

A thin aborted cry tore from her lips. "Pa! Oh, Pa-" A crimson stain darkened the front of his shirt. His skin was as white as snow. Her heart lurched. "Pa, what happened? My God, what happened?"

Lucas hovered across from her, his leathery face lined and anxious. "We got worried when he didn't show at the branding site. Grady and I rode out to see where he was. We found him out near Sparrow Creek. He's been shot, Miss Abby. Grady and I... we did our best to stop the bleeding... I sent Grady into town after the doc..." Lucas swallowed, unable to go on.

At that, Duncan's eyelids fluttered open. Abby stared into blue eyes so like her own. Only Pa's were dull and clouded with pain.

"It's too late," he rasped.

"Don't say that! Don't even think it!" The words were torn from deep inside her-a cry of outrage, a fervent plea.

Duncan's lips twisted, more grimace than smile.

"You'll never change, will you, Abby?" His feeble tone tore at her heart. "Always. . . have to have. . . the last. . . word."

Abby began to shake all over. "Pa," she whispered.

His breath seemed to rattle in his chest. "Got to listen, Abby. . . Stringer Sam. . ."

"Stringer Sam! Is that who did this to you? Did he shoot you, Pa?"

His eyes closed once in silent assent. His lips barely moved as he spoke.

"Honey, you got to listen. . . Late last night when you were gone after that calf, Dillon came by . . . Had a prisoner in jail by the name of Rowdy Roy who was hooked up with Stringer Sam's gang. . . Seems Roy knew where Sam's hideout is. Dillon got Roy to tell him, so he rode out late last night to find . . . the hideout. Dillon said he'd catch Stringer Sam. . . if he had to wait forever. This morning Sam rode out here. . . after Dillon. . . I wouldn't tell him where he was. . . only Sam-he laughed and said he already knew. . ."

Abby's head was spinning. "Pa, wait! He knew that Dillon went after him?"

Pa nodded.

She groaned. "How?"

"Sam said Rowdy Roy turned tail on him... so he hunted him down. . .He broke into the jail last night and killed Roy and the two deputies. . .

But before he did, Roy told Sam he'd already let Dillon know where his hideout was. . . that Dillon intended to ride out after him today. . ."

Comprehension dawned with a sickening rush.

Sam had come here to the ranch to kill Dillon. Instead he'd found Pa.

"Abby, if Dillon manages to find Sam's hideout. . . he doesn't know that Sam's right behind him . . .

Oh, God, she thought, sickened. Her blood seemed to freeze in her veins.

Her mind traveled fleetingly back, to the time nearly three years ago when Dillon, based at Fort Bridger, had still been scouting for the U.S.

Army. Both she and Pa had been surprised-but very pleased-when Dillon wrote to say he was engaged to be married. Rose had been the daughter of a captain stationed there.

The wedding never took place.

With a twist of her heart, Abby recalled how he and Rose had boarded a stagecoach headed for Laramie. Not far from the fort, the coach had been robbed-by none other than Stringer Sam. Beyond that, Abby knew little. Dillon had always been very close-mouthed about the details.

But Rose and the driver had been killed. Stringer Sam had shot Dillon and left him for dead, but Dillon had survived. He'd recovered at Fort Bridger, then spent the next year in search of Stringer Sam, to no avail. Pa had begged him to give up the search and come home. Eventually, Dillon had, only because Pa had asked him to.

But he was a changed man, moody and bitter. Abby recalled how Pa had once confided that he suspected Dillon had taken the post of Laramie marshal in the hopes that it might someday put him on Stringer Sam's trail. . .

Dear God, it had.

Abby shuddered. It was a miracle that Dillon had ever survived; Stringer Sam had left him there to die...

Now the outlaw had done the same to Pa. A dizzying fear swept over her. Surely Dillon couldn't be so unlucky a third time . . . But there was a saying-that bad luck came in threes. . .

Pa moaned. "Don't want you to lose Dillon, too. Got to have someone to look after you. . ."

Abby stifled a sob. She could see him straining desperately to breathe, trying vainly to drag air into his lungs, struggling to hold on. He clutched at her fingers.

"Abby," he gasped. His chest was heaving, his breathing a mere trickle. She had to drop her head close to his lips in order to hear. "You have to find him . . . Find Dillon and warn him before Sam kills him, too." His fingers twisted around hers. His expression was tortured and imploring. "Promise me, honey. Promise. . . me."

Tears streamed down her face. "I promise," she choked. "Pa, I promise."

His eyes closed; the grip on her fingers grew slack.

"Pa," she screamed. "Pa!"

This time Pa didn't hear.

Abby was only dimly aware of Lucas leading her into the parlor. There she clung to Dorothy.

"Dorothy," she sobbed. "He-he's dead."

Dorothy found it difficult not to break into tears herself. "I know, child," she whispered. "I know." At length the older woman eased her down at the I table. She squeezed the girl's shoulder, and went to fetch a cup of strong hot coffee.

After that first small storm, Abby's tears ceased.

A curious kind of numbness overtook her; she stared listlessly at her hands, so neatly folded in her lap, and let her mind wander at will.

She noted distantly how tanned her hands were, the color a rich dark honey. It had never concerned her that her skin wasn't milky-white, which was why she took no precautions to shield herself from the sun. She wore a cowboy hat when she was out riding, but the only bonnet she'd ever owned had been given to her on her twelfth birthday by a schoolmate, Emily Dawson. It was white and frilly and decorated with pink satin ribbons. She remembered how proudly she'd paraded in front of Pa and Dillon. Pa had tried hard not to laugh aloud, but Dillon hooted openly. That was the last time-the only time-Abby had worn a bonnet.

It was Emily's mother who had convinced Pa that her education was sorely lacking when it came to ladylike qualities. When she was seventeen, her father decided maybe Mrs. Dawson was right—maybe it was time his Abigail learned to be a proper lady. Abby had argued and cried and pleaded, but he'd packed her off to that fancy girls' school in Chicago despite her protests. Mrs. Rutherford, the headmistress, had been shockingly appalled at her golden skin-and frankly dismayed at her loose-limbed, leggy stride.

"This-this creature ," Mrs. Rutherford had sniffed disdainfully when her father came to collect her a scant month later, "will never be a lady. She can't sing. She can't dance—but I'm not surprised since she walks like a cow!"

Abby had lost her temper then. "Look who's talking," she retorted. "Did you ever hear yourself laugh, lady? You whinny like a horse who got his behind stuck on a fence post!"

Pa hadn't been pleased that Mrs. Rutherford had dismissed her from the school. It was only later when they were on the train and headed back to Wyoming that he confided he shared her opinion of Mrs. Rutherford-her brain was surely stuffed with chicken scratch.

Abby watched her fingers curl into her palm, so tightly her nails dug into her skin. But the pain was like nothing compared to the ache in her heart. For as long as she could remember, she had relied on Pa. She was seven when her mother

died from pneumonia. Dillon had been seventeen, already a man. But Abby was still a child-with a child's tender need for shelter and protection-and Duncan MacKenzie had taken on a role not every man could have accomplished. While Dillon was off scouting for the army, Abby and her father had clung to each other and shared their grief. He had taught her, played with her, and indulged her. Abby had grown up strong and proud, and when she'd needed someone to hold her, her father had always been there. Abby had sometimes teased him that she'd probably never marry.

"I couldn't bear to live anywhere other than the Diamondback," she'd laugh. "Besides, you wouldn't like it if you and Dillon weren't the most important men in my life, would you?"

A wrenching pain ripped through her; it felt like her soul was on fire. Now Pa was gone. Gone . And all she had left was Dillon.

Abby couldn't suppress a twinge of bitterness. Dillon was never around when they needed him. Her mind screamed in silent outrage. Damn you, Dillon! Where are you? Where? It was just like him—just like a man!-to think he was invincible.

Stringer Sam had already proved that he wasn't.

Yet she didn't wonder why Dillon had gone after Sam. To her knowledge, only once had Dillon ever considered marrying and settling down-but Stringer Sam had shattered his dreams. For Dillon, in this instance, at least, it was less a job than a vendetta. . .

But she had made a promise to Pa that she could never hope to keep. A debilitating sense of helplessness seeped through her. How on earth was she to find Dillon? The only man who knew where Stringer Sam's outlaw hideout was had been killed!

"Dillon," she whispered. "Oh, Dillon, why are you so-so reckless? And why can't you love this land like Pa and me?" A hot ache constricted her throat. She battled the overwhelming need to cry.

Behind her someone gently coughed. Abby jerked around in time to see Lucas step into the parlor.

It was a moment before she was able to speak. "Is Dr. Foley gone?" She'd seen his buggy drive up just after Lucas led her inside.

Lucas pulled off his hat and nodded. "He asked me to pass on his respects, Miss Abby." His voice sounded as rusty as hers, Abby looked away, unable to bear the anguish in his eyes. The burning threat of tears made her chest ache.

She raised trembling hands to her face. "Lucas," she said on a half-sob. "Oh, Lucas, what am I going to do? I promised Pa I'd find Dillon and warn him Stringer Sam was after him. But how?" she cried hopelessly. "I don't know where that-that damned outlaw's hideout is! No one does-not now!"

Lucas was at her side in two steps. "Don't take on so, Miss Abby." He patted her shoulder awkwardly. "I know it sounds crazy, but maybe we can find Dillon and warn him after all."

She looked up with a gasp, convinced he was only trying to soothe her and make her feel better. But his grizzled expression was deadly serious.

"What do you mean?" Her breathing grew jerky. "Lucas, tell me!"

He half-turned and beckoned to someone in the hall just outside the door. Abby watched as a sandy-haired young man stepped into the parlor, clutching his hat between both hands. It was Grady, the man Lucas had sent into town after Doc Foley.

He tipped his head toward her. "I'm real sorry about your pa, miss."

She murmured her thanks.

Lucas nodded. "Grady, tell Miss Abby what you told me."

The young man shifted his booted feet. "Well," he began. "The doc wasn't in his office when t got to town. I went over to the Silver Spur to wait 'till the doc got back. It wasn't long before this guy comes down the stairs."

Excitement began to mount in his voice; Abby listened intently.

"Things got real quiet all of a sudden. You can tell just by lookin' that this guy's mean as a rattlesnake. All dressed in black, he was, with a pair of Colts strapped to his legs. And his eyes. . . I swear he's got the strangest eyes a body ever saw—kinda silvery, like a looking glass that'll slice right through a man."

Abby's brows rose slightly. "Who is he, Grady?"

"Seems his name is Kane-that's all he goes by—Kane. Roger Simms was sitting next to me and he told me town gossip has it that Kane rode with Stringer Sam's gang a few years back."

Outlaw  HeartAbby's jaw clamped shut. "If he's an outlaw and everyone knows it, why isn't he in jail?"

Grady exchanged glances with Lucas. It was Lucas who quietly offered, "Abby, a man values his life above all else. I hate to say it, but after what happened to Andy Horner and Nate Gilmore last night, Stringer Sam and every one of his gang could probably walk straight through town and not a single man would raise a hand against him."

"Lest he was a fool," Grady chimed in with a faint smile.

It was a smile that was extremely short-lived. One scathing glance from Abby banished the inclination, while inside she seethed. Was this why Stringer Sam had never been caught? Were people so afraid of him that they would turn a blind eye to his treachery rather than see him put behind bars once and for all?

Fear was a powerful weapon indeed. It was an acknowledgment Abby made bitterly.

"Maybe this man Kane was part of it, too-maybe he helped Stringer Sam kill his man Roy and the two deputies." She glanced at the two men for their reaction.

To her surprise, Grady appeared uncomfortable. He shifted his feet, his gaze trained on the rug between his feet. "Begging your pardon, ma'am," he muttered, stumbling slightly. "But it seems a-a lady can vouch for the fact she was with Kane most of the night. And someone told Roger he's looking for work."

Abby's eyes had gone wide. A lady. She was under no illusions as to the type of "lady" he meant. Grady's cheeks were flame-red-and so were hers. She scarcely heard the last of his words.

Instead she considered the information Grady had revealed. As she did, a burgeoning hope began to blossom inside her.

She laid a hand on Lucas's arm. "Lucas," she said slowly, "if this man-Kane-really was part of Stringer Sam's gang, do you think it's possible that he would know where the hideout is located?" She held her breath and waited.

"Indeed I do," he said grimly. "That's why I brought Grady in to see you."

"Then there's only one thing left to do." She turned to Grady. "Grady, would you go out to the barn and saddle Sonny for me?"

He jammed his hat on his head. "Sure thing, ma'am."

Her steps purposeful, she strode from the room. She was halfway up the stairs before Lucas's voice halted her.

"Miss Abby, where. . . what do you think you're doing?"

Abby paused, turned and looked down at him. Another time, another place, and she might have laughed at his gaping astonishment.

She smiled faintly. "I think you know, Lucas."

His face had turned dark as a thundercloud. "Miss Abby, you can't. Why, it's crazy! The man's an outlaw! No doubt he's a killer just like Stringer Sam. . ." He stopped and cursed silently. He'd known Miss Abby too darned long not to recognize the stubborn set of that pretty little chin.

Watching him, seeing the bleakness creep into his lined features, Abby felt her heart rend in two. Pa had been gone . . what? Only a few hours.

She felt as if a lifetime had passed since then.

And yet there wasn't time to see that Pa had a decent burial-she would have to leave that to Dorothy and Lucas. There wasn't time to mourn, him . . . to say a last good-bye.

There wasn't even time to cry.

Lucas continued to stare up at her. "Miss Abby," he said finally, "you don't have to do this. Let me go instead."

A hot ache constricted her throat. Her heart brimmed with misery. "No, Lucas," she said, her voice low and choked. "I need you here at the ranch. Besides, I promised Pa. I made that promise, Lucas, and it's up to me to fulfill it. I know it's risky, but this may be the only way to save Dillon-Kane may I be the only man who can save my brother's life." She drew a deep tremulous breath, her eyes full of quiet desperation. "I have to find him, Lucas. I have to find Kane."



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