MIRACLE JONES

 

Nancy Bush, Genre: Romance


Read an Excerpt

The Cascade Foothills
September 1893

Miranda “Miracle” Jones slapped the reins on her slope-backed team. Curse and rot them! The miserable beasts could barely put one hoof in front of the other. The hot September wind shrieked around her peddler’s cart. Bottles and tin ware rattled inside the wagon as Gray and Tillie momentarily picked up the pace, only to fall back into a depressingly slow clop, clop, clop.

Miracle sighed in disgust and was answered by a steady snore from behind the wagon seat. Uncle Horace was dead to the world and had been since long before noon. Miracle had tried to change the old reprobate's ways time and again but to no avail. Now she almost envied his drunken peace with the world. She was tired, too. They'd been on the road for hours, and her spine hurt.

“Giddyap, you,” she muttered to the plodders. Night was falling, and Miracle wanted to be safe in Rock Springs before it grew dark.

The snapping of a twig somewhere to her right made her whip her head around. She peered through the dusky evening shadows, searching the thick fir forest. Branches waved, throwing dark flickering images across her path, but no one was there.

Drawing a sharp breath, Miracle frowned. She'd been warned in the town of Malone about the highwaymen who hunted this stretch of road. Several young women from neighboring towns had disappeared before reaching their destination; one body had been found floating facedown in the Clackamas River; another had never been seen again.

Even knowing the risks, Miracle had chosen to set off for Rock Springs. She was used to taking care of herself. Hadn’t she done so for most of her nineteen years? Neither “Uncle” Horace Jones, who had befriended her after he'd caught her attempting to filch a bright shiny buckle from his peddler’s wagon, nor his sister, “Aunt” Emily Darcy, the lonely old woman who'd raised Miracle, had ever succeeded in fully taming her. She'd run wild when she was a young child amid the remnants of a once-powerful Chinook tribe, and she'd never completely adjusted to the white man's rigid social structure.

“Giddyap,” she urged again, slapping the reins. She wasn't really afraid, but there was no need to tempt fate. The team responded with a woefully weak burst of speed, settling back again as soon as Miracle loosened the lines. “You're lucky I don't sell you both for horse meat!”

Uncle Horace snored on blissfully. Useless old bounder, she thought with a smile. Miracle, who'd learned a great deal about being a half-breed in a white man's world, was quite prepared to protect herself. Her eyes darted to the Colt .45 lying on the seat beside her. If she had to, she would use the revolver, but truthfully she wasn't all that handy with a gun. She was better with a knife and consequently had one strapped against her upper thigh beneath her crinoline skirt.

The rhythm of the wagon was comforting, a rhythm Miracle had grown used to during the years she'd sold elixirs and potions with Uncle Horace throughout Oregon's rural countryside. She'd been called everything from a quack to an angel of mercy to a shaman. She knew more about herbs and medicine than half the so-called doctors in the state. And she knew more about love and grief than all of them put together.

For years she'd thought both her parents had died when she was young. No one, neither the white men nor the scattered tribe of Chinook Indians, had told her about her birth. Aunt Emily, who had known the truth all along and later confided in Uncle Horace, had kept the lie well hidden. Only when one of the town bullies had spat on Miracle and called her dead mother an “Injun whore” had Miracle forced Aunt Emily and Uncle Horace to confess.

“Your mother was a whore,” Uncle Horace had admitted gently. “A goodhearted woman, but a whore nevertheless.”

Miracle’s blue eyes had widened in hurt and shock. She refused to believe him, turning instead to Aunt Emily, silently pleading for it not to be so.

“She was no whore,” Aunt Emily had maintained sharply, shooting Horace a quelling look that would have turned a lesser man to stone. “She loved your father, but he wouldn't have an Indian bride. He was a cold, callous man who thought a tin box of money was payment enough for her services.” She sniffed her indignation. “His soul is blacker than hell. Promised her marriage time and again, but he was already married. He sired you, then left her for good. She never was the same.”

The news has been a staggering revelation to Miracle. “You – knew my mother?”

“She was a beautiful girl who stole our hearts,” Uncle Horace admitted softly. “We only knew her a short while. Didn't see her, or your brother, much after she took up with your father. But she was a special woman.”

“My brother?” Miracle could scarcely believe it.

“Blue was ten when you were born,” Aunt Emily said, tight-lipped. “He's your half-brother and only part Chinook. Your mother knew a few men, Miracle, but had the poor sense to love your father.” Unlike Miracle, Aunt Emily felt the circumstances of the girl’s Indian birth should remain buried. For Miracle’s sake, she thought it would be better if she acted as if she were white. “And he was a proper little hellion. So jealous, he tried to cut out your heart when you were born. That's what your mother said. That's why you have that scar.”

Miracle had often wondered about the small moon shaped scar above her left breast. “Where is he now?”

Aunt Emily shrugged carelessly, but Uncle Horace said, “He left the Chinooks soon after he attacked you.”

“Tell me more,” Miracle had pleaded, and Uncle Horace then related all he knew about her heritage, which wasn't all that much more. She soon realized he was carefully omitting any further reference to her father, however, and it only served to pique her interest.

“Who is my father?” she demanded. “What's his name?”

The hesitation between Uncle Horace and Aunt Emily was telling. “We don't know, dear,” Aunt Emily finally admitted. “He was a mystery to your mother, too. He just came to her at his convenience, and she never had the strength to turn him down.” At that point she had glanced around guiltily and made the sign of the cross, as if the weakness of the flesh were some insidious disease which could be caught by gossiping. “Your mother died giving birth to you,” she added in a lower voice. “She left you the money.”

Now Miracle glanced toward the locked metal box, cleverly concealed amongst the hanging tin wares. She'd never used the money, though she'd been tempted more than once. She wanted to find her father first and learn the truth from his own lips. She didn't believe he was the bastard Uncle Horace and Aunt Emily made him out to be. She couldn't believe it. After all, he had wanted to marry her mother. And Miracle wanted a family of her own too badly to give up hope.

When she found her father she would use the money, not before. And now she was close. She could feel it! Her search had led her to Rock Springs, Oregon.

Tillie suddenly pricked up her ears, snorting. Miracle glanced around. Only the wind stirred the dense firs and pines, making their needles whisper and rustle.

Tingling fear turned her arms to gooseflesh. She strained to listen. Nothing. Then she heard a soft thump. The back of the wagon lurched, and her hair stood on end. Sucking in a startled breath, Miracle swung around. She could see nothing, hear nothing but Uncle Horace and the gusting wind. Spooked, she snapped the reins with extra fervor, and for once the horses broke into a gallop.

The wagon sped forward, rattling and clanging. Wind streamed Miracle's black hair away from her face. Her eyes burned and teared. How far was it to Rock Springs? Ten miles? Twenty?

Two dark, smelly shadows suddenly reached down from the roof of the wagon, clutching at her. Miracle gasped. They were huge grasping hands! They grabbed her hair and covered her face before she could move.

Miracle bit into flesh. A man howled furiously. Her fingers scrambled for the revolver, knocking it from the seat to the floor. The horses tore wildly forward. The grimy hands shoved Miracle roughly against the seat back, squeezing her neck, choking her, and a dark body tumbled off the roof onto the wagon seat beside her.

“Doan’ move and I won't kill you,” a male voice said with cruel malevolence. She heard the click of a pistol and felt the cold barrel pressed to her temple. Heart thudding in panic, she sat like a stone.

The man twisted around to grab the reins Miracle had dropped. His gun never left her head. Her own revolver was too far out of reach, and her knife was useless against the speed of a bullet.

“Slow down, you swaybacked mules!” he yelled at the horses, yanking viciously on the reins.

Snorting and tossing their heads, Tillie and Gray gradually slowed, their breath rasping through their nostrils, steaming in the soft September night. Uncle Horace, disturbed, lifted his head and said thickly, “Miracle? Whad’ya doing?”

Quick as lightning, the gun was removed from Miracle’s temple and slammed hard against Horace’s forehead. With a sickening thud, Uncle Horace fell silent.

“Damn you!” Miracle cried furiously, wrenching out of her captor’s grasp. He backhanded her, stunning her, and the gun barrel was thrust ruthlessly against her temple once more.

“Shut your mouth, girlie, if’n you want to stay alive a while longer.”

“Uncle Horace!” she choked out, struggling.

The gunman clamped an arm across her chest, pinning her against the bare wooden seat, this time leveling the gun between her eyes. “He's all right. Smells like the bottom of a whiskey keg, but he'll live. At least as long as you behave.”

With a last jerk of the reins, the team stopped. The wagon ground to a halt. Miracle eyed the dirty, bearded man tautly. “What do you want?” she demanded.

He grinned through stained teeth. “Whatever you've got to give.”

She almost spat in his face. Prudence forced her to remain calm. If she could only get her fingers on the Colt.

She didn't have a chance.

Grabbing her by the hair, the man jerked her up from the wagon seat. Tears of pain blurred her eyes as she was flung to the ground beside the wagon. Her knees and palms scraped against hard, sharp pebbles. She heard her skirt rend, the sound loud even with the blowing wind.

Scrambling to her feet, she ran three paces before he caught her easily around the waist. The knife, she thought, but she had no time to grab it before clattering hoofbeats caught her attention. Two men on horseback appeared. Miracle's captor kept the gun against her head.

“Doan’ move,” he warned.

“Whatcha got there?” one of the newcomers asked, sliding from his horse. He strode toward Miracle.

“A woman. Doan’ know what she looks like yet.”

A match sizzled. A lantern glowed. Through the yellow light Miracle glimpsed two of the men's faces, wavering evilly in the uncertain illumination. They stared back equally curiously at her.

“Sweet Jesus,” the one with the bushy eyebrows exclaimed.

Miracle had no way of knowing that her Indian heritage was clearly visible in that moment. Her black hair hung long and straight to her waist. Her eyes, a soft, slumberous blue, were hooded by the encroaching night, hiding their color. High cheekbones rose above smooth, full lips. Pride and determination shown from the thrust of her small chin.

“A goddamned Injun, Jeb,” he said on a whistle. “And she's a beauty.”

“Lemme see.”

Miracle's head was jerked cruelly around until she thought her neck would snap. Jeb, the man who’d captured her, stared down at her through small, lecherous eyes. Miracle's heart lurched, and she shrank back.

“By God! She's the best so far. Look at them eyes!”

“Better get her on the horse,” the man who had not spoken yet said in a gruff voice. “We don't got time to lose. Too bad the chief’s not around. He'd like this ‘un for himself, but we gotta make some money.”

“The hell with him,” Jeb growled, yanking Miracle closer. The gun barrel swiveled from Miracle to his two companions. “This little girl's mine.”

Miracle's right arm was pressed hard against Jeb's side. She was sick with fear for Uncle Horace and consumed with anger for these three filthy outlaws. If she could just wiggle one hand free . . .

The other two men bristled. “Let her go, Jeb,” said the man with the bushy eyebrows, his hand touching briefly on the gun at his hip. “They're waitin’ at the barn, and I'm not givin’ up no hundred dollars – or maybe more.”

“I want her first.” Jeb was insistent. “They doan’ expect us yet.”

Miracle kept the fear out of her face. She wasn't so much of an innocent to misunderstand. Jeb wanted to use her for his own lustful pleasure. Instantly she decided she was safer with Bushy Eyebrows and his gruff-voiced companion. She had no idea what her fate might be with the people waiting at the barn, but she preferred chancing it to being left to Jeb's mercy.

“She comes the way she is. If’n she's a virgin, she's worth that much more.” Bushy Eyebrows strode forward to wrest Miracle from Jeb.

“She's Injun,” Jeb sputtered. “She ain't no virgin.”

Then everything happened at once. Jeb’s arm lifted. Bushy Eyebrows lunged at him. Jeb’s gun clicked and fired, stinging Miracle's nostrils with acrid smoke.

Bushy Eyebrows collapsed in utter silence at Miracle's feet. Blood pooled in the dust.

There was a moment of surreal calm. Then Miracle yanked herself free and ran for the wagon. A cry of fear and anger filled her lungs, never uttered. Her chest felt like bursting. A bellow of rage sounded behind her. Footsteps pounded. She was on the bottom step when hard arms grabbed her. Kicking and spitting, she fought with all her might. She'd kill them all, she would! Miserable, stinking outlaws. Blast them to hell!

“Goddamn . . .” Jeb growled, slamming his gun against her head. Lights exploded against her skull. Her legs crumpled beneath her. Black oblivion swam upward, and Miracle knew no more.

 

Harrison Danner balanced on the back two legs of his chair, his Stetson pulled low over his eyes. He could have been asleep for all anyone knew, but the truth was his mind was on both the cards in his hands and the events about to transpire tomorrow morning. His own wedding. To Kelsey Garrett.

And that would make Jace Garrett his brother-in-law.

“Your card, Danner,” Jace pointed out.

Harrison lifted the brim of his hat with one finger, squinting against the thin cigar smoke wafting from Garrett's cheroot. He grimaced distastefully. Jace was a rattler, smooth and sleek and cold, with a nasty way of making noise. The Garretts had too much money and too much clout. Harrison could scarcely believe Kelsey was one of them.

Jace sighed. “I'm not much for poker, but since this is the night before your wedding . . .” He shook his head dolefully, his hands clutched tightly around his cards. He wanted his sister to wed a Danner about as much as Harrison wanted to marry a Garrett. Bad blood existed between the two families for as long as Harrison could remember. It hadn't helped when Harrison’s sister, Lexie, had scorned Jace's offer of marriage and accepted Tremaine's instead. Ten years had passed, and since then Jace had taken a wife. But Jace had never forgiven Lexie, or any of the other Danners, for stomping on Garrett pride. It had been an unforgivable mistake. Harrison's marriage to Kelsey had been arranged more to keep the peace than because the prospective bride and groom were wildly in love.

But at least he liked Kelsey. She was one of the two women in the world Harrison actually trusted. He'd learned that lesson the hard way. Isabella Weatherby had been an excellent teacher.

He frowned. At one time, when he'd been green and newly starting his practice, Isabella had seemed like an angel, the woman of his dreams. He'd been in love with her in the worst way. But then the truth about her affairs with other men had come to light. It was Harrison's brother, Jesse, in fact, who’d told him the truth.

“Don't trust women,” Jesse warned. “Ever. Isabella's been sleeping around.”

“With you?” Harrison asked coldly, stung by Jesse's harsh words. His younger brother’s reputation was notorious.

Jesse’s blue eyes narrowed. “No. But not for lack of interest on her part . . .”

Three weeks later Jesse disappeared from Rock Springs, leaving in his wake a string of broken hearts and several juicy scandals that had kept the collective tongues of the Ladies Aid Society wagging to this day. Shortly thereafter Isabella's roving eye had returned to Harrison. But Harrison had taken Jesse's advice to heart. He’d stopped seeing her.

And she'd married someone else within the month.

Now Harrison flicked a glance at his own cards. Dismal. The other players at the table were showing only casual interest in the proceedings – a lie, considering the current stakes. The simple bachelor party which had begun at the Half Moon Saloon and was somehow finishing in this deserted barn had turned into a rousing card game complete with whores and rotgut liquor. Harrison, who suspected Garrett cheated, decided to end the evening once and for all by flirting with lady luck. “I'll take two,” he drawled, dropping two cards from his hand.

Garrett chuckled. “You Danner boys aren't too smart. You expect to beat me, playing like that? Didn't anyone tell you it's better to bluff?”

Harrison merely smiled, then stared in amazement at the two cards just dealt him. His gaze darted questioningly to the steel-eyed dealer. There was the faintest glimmer in the man's return gaze. Jace Garrett wasn't the only man cheating at this table, it appeared.

“So, what’re you going to do, Jace?” Harrison asked.

Jace shouted with laughter. “Your ploy’s too late. I already know you've got shit in that hand.”

“Here y’are, Mr. Danner,” a sultry voice said at Harrison's elbow, pressing another glass of whiskey into his hand. He drank without thinking, enjoying the moment. Jace Garrett might be about to become his brother-in-law, but Harrison wasn't above twisting the knife a bit.

“Ya want one, too?” the whore-turned-barmaid asked, sliding a seductive hand down Jace's arm. She glanced over her shoulder to someone by the door, then back to Jace.

Jace nodded curtly, too interested in the game to pay attention. A glass of amber liquid was slid smoothly in front of him, and the woman melted away.

There was something strange in that, Harrison thought, but, like Jace, at this point his attention was solely on the game. He grew aware that Jace's image was beginning to waver in front of his eyes. His mind seemed to spin and fragment. Focusing, he said a bit drunkenly, “I'm sure glad Lexie found out what an ass you are. You wanna card, or not?”

“I call.” Jace's mood changed abruptly, and his lip curled. “Lexie would rather get between the sheets with her brother than a real man.”

Harrison lunged forward for Jace's throat but was pulled roughly back into his chair by several other burly men. Jace would never forgive Tremaine for stealing Lexie. He would rather poison people’s minds into thinking they were half-brother and -sister, a necessary lie they'd even once believed themselves, rather than admit to being thrown over for his arch enemy. It didn't matter that Lexie and Tremaine were step-brother and -sister, only related through marriage. Jace hated Tremaine with a seething passion and continually stoked the embers of discontent. Not even Harrison's wedding to his sister would change that.

His thoughts obviously on the same path, Jace muttered, “Kelsey's only marrying you because Warfield got tired of waiting for her to make up her mind. Now she doesn't want to be an old maid. I’d stop ‘er if I could.”

“Would you? You've been slobbering over Danner land for years, hoping to get your hands on some. Bet you think you can get some now.”

Jace glowered.

“The girls is ready,” a gruff voice said, hazily, somewhere to the right of Harrison’s shoulder. Harrison turned his head and nearly fell forward onto the table.

“Show me what you got,” demanded Jace, slicing through the fogginess of Harrison's mind.

“Three aces.” Harrison tossed down his cards. He had an impression of Jace Garrett leaping to his feet, roaring in outrage.

“It's a cheat!” he snarled. “The man's a card cheat!”

Harrison grinned lopsidedly, a little surprised at the effect of the liquor. “Does that mean you can't cover your bet?”

There was a murmur of laughter, but most of the men tried to hide their expressions. Jason Garrett was a man of power in Rock Springs. He owned more than half the city. No one wanted to make an enemy of him. No one, that was, but a Danner.

“I'll cover it,” Jace slashed out. “I'll pay you tomorrow.”

“Oh, no. Now,” Harrison insisted.

Tension mounted. Some of the men glanced around anxiously. Harrison, who had bottled up his emotions for far too long, took the greatest pleasure in seeing Jason Garrett squirm.

“The girls is ready,” the gruff voice repeated intensely.

“What girls?” Harrison asked. No one answered. Several of the men at nearby tables opened their wallets.

“The whores,” Jace spat dismissively. He was no more interested in them than Harrison was. His mind was on his money.

“There's more’n whores here.”

It was the gruff voice again, and Harrison focused on him with an effort. He was dirty and his teeth weren’t good and there were bits of food caught in his beard. His tongue wetted his lower lip.

“Whad d’you mean?” Jace slurred.

“I got a pretty one. Young. Looks like a virgin, shore enough. She's upstairs, trussed up ‘cause she’s a spitfire.”

“You mean you're holding a woman here against her will?” Harrison asked carefully, disbelievingly. His tongue felt thick and strange. Just how many drinks had he consumed? He couldn't rightly remember.

“I'll take her.” Another male voice jumped in quickly. The man was already licking his thumb, peeling off a healthy stack of bills from an even healthier pile.

Garrett’s mouth dropped open. He struggled to his feet, swaying. “Wait just a damn minute! You can't hold some woman here against her will.”

“That's right.” Harrison was surprised to find himself suddenly on the same side as Jace Garrett. But the mood of the others had turned ugly, and there was a sharp smell of lust in the air.

“Come on, come on,” one of the men muttered to Harrison, gesturing to his winnings.

Harrison raked in the pile of money. He felt strangely lightheaded. With a warped sense of justice, one of the other men prodded Garrett with the butt of his gun. “What else are you givin’ him for winnin’?”

“I'll pay him tomorrow. I don't have cash now,” Jace stated flatly.

“You'll pay him now, or you won't leave.”

Harrison glanced around the room, uneasy now at the dreamy edges to his vision. None of the men who had showed Garrett respect was in sight. They’d disappeared into the murky edges of the room or had left altogether. Only strangers remained. A cold sense of foreboding tightened Harrison’s gut.

Realizing too late what was happening, Harrison asked through his teeth, “Whad you put in the drink?”

No one answered.

Harrison glanced at Jace. The way Garrett swayed and weaved on his feet said he'd received the same poison. Grimly, Harrison realized they'd been fools to let themselves be talked into coming to the barn tonight. Who had suggested it? He couldn’t remember. They'd been happily toasting the future at the Half Moon Saloon in Rock Springs and somehow had wound up at this private gambling party. If they weren't careful they could lose everything – maybe even their lives.

Harrison tried to think. He had to get rid of the money. They would leave him alone without the money. “I'll take the woman,” he said thickly. “Las’ chance before the weddin’, you know.”

Jace glared at him through bleary eyes, shocked and furious. “I'll tell Kelsey.”

Stupid bastard, Harrison thought. He couldn't even see what was happening.

Haggling was going on nearby. The man who had tried to purchase the young innocent before was still trying to buy her. He had plenty of stiff competition. Money was piling up on an overturned crate, enough money to make even an honest man think twice. Harrison scooped his winnings to his side of the table.

“I wan’er,” he muttered. “Take it all.”

The man with the gruff voice grabbed for the money. Harrison glanced into his eyes, trying to memorize his features. He was dirty and stank to high heaven. Harrison thought about telling him he was wasting his time trying to stuff the winnings into pockets shiny with grime. The others wouldn't let him get away with that much cash. He would be beaten and robbed before he stepped two feet outside.

“Ya still owe money,” a voice said to Jace.

“Jace’ll match my winnings,” Harrison said with the drunken smile. “Take ‘im to Rock Springs. He's good for it. You can keep it all.”

“You goddamn filthy swine!” Jace spat viciously.

Harrison couldn't tell Jace he'd probably just saved his miserable life. The men currently pulling Jace roughly out of his chair would keep him alive until they had their money. Then it was up to Jace to save his own neck. Harrison had problems of his own.

“Take him to her,” Gruff Voice ordered one of the whores. The man's eyes were on Jace, his mind clearly on the funds still outside his grasp. Harrison followed after a voluptuous woman whose bosom was pushed up from her bodice, threatening to spill over with each of her shallow breaths.

He'd lost a small fortune tonight. Now he needed to save the girl and get them both out of here alive. Damn it all, why couldn't he think straight? He needed his wits about him more than ever now.

 

Miracle lay on her back atop rug-covered hay bales, staring up at the sloping barn ceiling. Her hands were tied behind her back, her ankles lashed together. Light from the lantern suspended on a wire above her head quivered over the narrow room. A tiny crack near the main joist admitted several bats. They hung from the rafters, emitted faint squeaks, then burst through the crack in a flutter of anxiety, only to slowly return again.

Curse and rot her miserable luck! Her heart beat fast, as fast as the frightened bats’ wings. Her head ached. She didn't remember being brought here, but she had to get out. She could feel the knife still strapped to her thigh – thank God! –so she was reasonably sure she hadn't been physically abused.

She grimaced. Since she was certain Bushy Eyebrows was dead, Gruff Voice must have somehow talked Jeb out of using her. She shuddered to think what would've happened if he hadn't.

Twisting onto her side, Miracle wriggled furiously against the binding ropes. Her wrists were already chafed raw. If only she could slip a hand free. Her whole future depended upon it.

Lord, have I ever asked for much? she prayed with more fervor than reverence. Have I begged for your help? Well, I'm begging now. Get me out of here!

A roar of male laughter rose to the rafters. Miracle flinched. The group of men downstairs was drunken and loud. She knew it was only a matter of time before someone remembered her.

Despair flooded her. Was Uncle Horace all right? Was he even alive? The ruthless men who had abducted her were not above killing; she’d witnessed that with her own eyes. She had to struggle free. She had to!

Footsteps sounded on the ladder. Miracle froze. There were other rooms in the barn loft; she’d heard voices through the walls. Praying these newcomers were headed elsewhere, she attacked the ropes with renewed vigor, but with a loud creak the locked door swung outward.

Miracle’s mouth went dry.

“An hour's all ya paid for,” Jeb’s voice told the blond-headed man ducking inside.

“An hour? That's all?” the newcomer mumbled. He weaved forward and stumbled on a bale, swearing at his own clumsiness.

“An hour!” Jeb bellowed after him. Cursing, he slammed the door shut, locking it behind him.

Miracle scooted backward until her shoulders scraped the rough barn wall. Cold sweat beaded on her forehead. She stared at the man, wide-eyed.

“Hullo,” he said. “Name’s Harrison. What's yours?”

She didn't answer. If he was going to rape her, she wasn't going to open her mouth until she could sink her teeth into his flesh.

He came toward her on unsteady legs, dropping onto his side beside her. His familiar pose set her nerves screaming, but he said by way of apology, “Sorry. Can't seem to keep my head up. We’re gonna have to work fast.”

His hand brushed her leg. She stiffened and would have cried out had she not realized almost instantly that it was an accident. The man – Mr. Harrison – was truly drunk, she thought in disgust. But maybe his inebriation could work to her advantage . . .

He shook his head, heard the bats, and squinted up at the rafters where they hung. “Friends of yours?”

Some of Miracle’s fear faded away. At least he wasn't a slobbering lecher. Neither was he full of evil, as Jeb was. Her skin crawled just thinking about Jeb. He'd killed Bushy Eyebrows without a qualm. She was half-amazed Gruff Voice hadn't shot him in retribution. But thievery had strange rules, it seemed. While Miracle had been unconscious, Jeb and Gruff Voice must have somehow mended their rift. They'd apparently agreed to bring her here for their hundred dollars.

A hundred dollars for one hour.

Miracle blue eyes grew cold as a glacier at the thought. This man had paid a hundred dollars for a kidnapped woman! She narrowed her gaze at the chiseled lines of his face, the faintly curving lips. He was outrageously handsome, she thought inconsequentially, and for some reason it angered her all the more. Though obviously not of the same ilk as Gruff Voice and Jeb, this man was still dangerous and cruel. Oh, he was clean and handsome, with a thick patch of dark gold, sun-streaked hair that looked like burnished silk. But he was no better than his counterparts. Maybe even worse. He was the buyer, wasn't he? Without him, the wretched highwaymen would never have been able to sell her.

He grunted, tried to sit up, then swore and fell back down, his face whitening. Miracle's attention was diverted. “Are you in pain?” she asked before she could help herself.

“Damn shoulder. Nearly had my right arm cut off once.” He turned to her, his face very close. In the darkness she couldn't see the color of his eyes, but they were clear and frank. “So you do speak.”

She licked her lips. “You're drunk,” she accused witheringly.

“And then some, I'm afraid,” he admitted wryly. “You may have to help me. I'm not sure I'm going to be much good in this condition. Come on, we’ve got to hurry.”

She was astounded by his arrogance. He thought she would be eager and willing and helpful! “How much did you pay for me?” she demanded frostily.

He laughed. “A small fortune. Are you really as innocent as they claim?”

“Is that what you paid for?”

“Well – yes, I suppose so.”

“Then you're about to be sorely disappointed, Mr. Harrison,” she lied harshly.

“Am I?” He considered her carefully, and Miracle, to her consternation, could feel the color rise on her cheeks. “My first name’s Harrison,” he corrected her. “You haven't told me yours.”

“You don't need to know it.”

“I guess not.” He drew a breath and shook his head again, as if trying to clear his mind. “But if you don't give me a name I'll call you Sally, just to keep things straight.”

“I'm Miracle,” she answered, goaded into answering him.

He propped himself up on one elbow, and Miracle could feel the heat of his breath fanning her face. He smelled like whiskey and hay and a subtle, masculine odor that was peculiarly intoxicating. “Miracle? That's your name?”

“Er – yes,” she stammered, alarmed at the way he was moving up next to her. “I help people.”

“Help people? How?” He put a hand to his head and sucked in a breath. “Never mind. Save it for later. We've got to get going, Miracle, or my hour’ll be up.”

She narrowed her eyes. If he moved much closer he would feel the knife at her thigh. She had to get out of here and away from him. “I could help that shoulder of yours,” she said quickly, when he reached a hand toward her to do God knew what.

His hand paused in midair. He stared at her, amused. “Maybe later.”

“Let me try. If you could just untie my hands . . .”

“You’re tied?” The muscles of his face tightened. “My God, that's right. You would be.” With a snort of anger, he suddenly wrapped his arms around her. “Come here.”

Shocked, she held her breath, unable to move. She lay like a slab of marble, cold and unforgiving and hard. If he felt the knife, her one chance of escape would be ended. Dimly, she realized he’d pulled out his own pocket knife and was sawing through her bindings.

Seconds later her fingers wriggled loose!

He stared down at her, and his expression changed to one of thoughtful appraisal, as if he'd just discovered something that surprised him. His gaze slowly moved to her lips. “One kiss for freeing you,” he said softly, then pressed his mouth against hers.

Miracle didn't wait. She ripped the knife from its trappings, her ears sensitive to the rasp of tearing cloth. A corner of her mind registered the sweet taste of liquor on his lips and the amazing depth of his kiss.

She raised the knife overhead, her hand taut and shaking.

“Then we'll get you out of here,” he added, pulling back to smile at her through warm, seductive eyes.

But it was too late. The knife was already arcing downward. Less than a heartbeat later, Miracle plunged it with devastating thoroughness into the smooth, hard muscles of his back.