He had them right where he wanted them. Adam pressed back against the brick wall facing the street and quickly reloaded his gun. He was on the left side of the entrance to an alley that dead-ended, and he was feeling damned smug because he was certain he had all three of the bastards pinned inside.
His mood wasn't friendly. One of them had tried to ambush him behind the livery stable just as he had been dismounting, and if he hadn't thrown himself off his horse and to the ground in the nick of time, he would have taken a bullet in the back.
He wanted to get even, and though he fancied the notion of killing all of them, he knew he would have to settle for wounding one or two. It was his fervent hope that Ezekiel would become desperate enough to try to rush past him. There wasn't any other way out of the alley, and if Adam had to spend the rest of the day waiting to nab him, then that's what he would do.
He spotted a man running toward him from across the street. The stranger was wearing a badge, and
Adam assumed he was the third marshal he'd heard about. The lawman was tall, thick-shouldered, and had blond hair and blue eyes.
He seemed familiar, but Adam couldn't remember where he had seen him before. Adam nodded to him and was just turning away when he spotted a gold chain dangling from the marshal's vest pocket. What looked suspiciously like a gold compass case dangled from the end of the chain.
Recognition was immediate. "Son of a…" Adam whispered. The lawman was Daniel Ryan.
"Drop your gun," Ryan roared.
Adam shook his head and went right on reloading.
The marshal aimed his gun at him and was repeating his command when a shot rang out. The bullet roared past Ryan's left shoulder. He dove for cover on the opposite side of the entrance, and like Adam, pressed his back against the wall.
His gaze was directed on Adam. "Who the hell are they?" he roared.
Adam quickly explained. When he was finished, Ryan asked him how many there were.
"Ezekiel was leading the way and his two hired guns were following him. When I turned the corner, I saw one of them run into the alley. I'm certain all three are there. They must have thought they could cut through, and now they're trapped. When they run out of bullets, they'll come out."
Ryan nodded. "I'll handle this. Just stay out of my way."
"No," Adam answered. "You stay out of my way. You're Daniel Ryan, aren't you?"
"Yes. Who are you?"
Ryan raised an eyebrow in surprise, and then a hint of a smile lifted the corners of his mouth. "You're Rose's son."
"Yes," Adam agreed. "Nice compass."
"Yes, it is."
"The compass belongs to my brother Cole."
"It sure does," Ryan agreed.
Before Adam could demand that he hand it over, Ryan shouted to the men in the alley. "Drop your weapons and put your hands up, or you're going to die."
A hail of bullets whizzed past in response. Ryan leaned in, shot twice, and then jerked back.
"How's your mother doing?" he asked in a voice as mild as the afternoon breeze.
"She's fine," Adam replied a scant second before he moved forward, took aim, and shot. One of the men let out a loud wail of distress.
The sound made Adam smile. He pressed back against the wall and grinned. "One down, two to go."
"Stay out of this."
"What's Cole up to these days?"
"You ready to give it up?" Ryan bellowed. "This is the last time I'm gonna ask you."
"Go to hell," one of the men shouted.
Ryan let out a sigh. "Seems like they want to die," he drawled out.
Adam nodded. "It seems so."
"Less paperwork involved," Ryan remarked. "So I might as well accommodate them."
"Ezekiel Jones is mine. If anyone's going to shoot him, it's going to be me."
Ryan shrugged. "Does Rose like living in Montana?"
"Yes, she does. She speaks highly of you, and she seems to think you're going to bring the compass you borrowed back to her," he added, deliberately stressing the word "borrowed."
Ryan laughed. "I didn't borrow it. I took it."
"Give it back."
"I will when I'm ready. I've got some business to discuss with Cole, and as soon as I've finished up here, I'm coming to Rosehill."
"You'd better come armed then. You've made Cole angry enough to shoot you on sight."
Ryan smiled. "He doesn't have a problem killing, does he?"
"No, none at all."
"Good. That's what I heard. He's just the man I need."
"Need? What do you need him for? You can't possibly think he'd go to work for you."
"That's exactly what I think. I can be real persuasive."
The conversation was interrupted by gunshots from the alley. Ryan and Adam returned the fire. The sound was deafening. Both men fell back against the wall and reloaded.
"What exactly do you want Cole to do for you?"
"Kill some vermin."
Before Adam could question him further, one of Ezekiel's men shouted at them.
"We're coming out. Don't shoot."
"Drop your weapons and put your hands up," Ryan shouted.
After giving the order, he motioned for Adam to stay where he was, and then Ryan moved back at an angle into the street.
Herman came strutting out of the alley first. He was closely followed by Lewis, who was limping. The two men had just reached the entrance when Lewis, using Herman as his shield, fired at Ryan and missed. The marshal shot the gun out of his hand a scant second before Adam slammed the butt of his gun up against the side of his head. Lewis crumpled to the ground.
In one fluid motion Herman dove for the ground and reached behind his back for his weapon. He was swinging his arm up with a gun in his hand before he hit the ground.
Ryan shot to kill. The bullet sliced through Herman's chest, propelling him backward. He died before his head struck the edge of the boardwalk.
Adam moved into the alley to search for Ezekiel. The bastard wasn't there. Muttering curses under his breath, he reholstered his gun and turned around. Ryan had moved to the center of the street and was staring at something in front of him. He looked as though he was ready for a shoot-out. His legs were braced apart, his back was rigid, and his hand hovered just above the hilt of his gun.
"Let her go," Ryan shouted.
Adam ran forward, ignoring the signal the lawman gave him to stay where he was. Adam was about ten feet away from Ryan when he saw the two of them. Genevieve-his sweet, loving Genevieve-and Ezekiel.
The bastard had the barrel of his gun pressed against the side of her head and was slowly moving toward a covered buggy someone had hitched to the post in front of the general store.
Adam felt as though he'd just been run over by a train. His knees almost buckled, his heart seemed to drop, and he was filled with rage.
"No." The word was issued in a low, guttural moan.
Ryan was slowly edging toward Ezekiel. His attention was fully directed on him. Adam also moved closer, but his focus remained centered on Genevieve.
He knew she had to be terrified, but she was valiantly trying to hide her fear from him. Then he saw the tears in her eyes, and his rage became uncontrollable.
He wanted to kill the bastard with his bare hands.
He first had to get rid of the gun threatening
Genevieve. Ezekiel's left arm was wrapped tightly around her waist, and he was using her as his shield as he slowly pushed her forward to the side of the buggy. His right hand held the gun up against her head, and his finger was on the trigger.
"It's going to be all right," Adam whispered so low she couldn't possibly hear him.
As if by some unspoken joint decision, both Adam and Ryan began to fan out in a V as they continued toward their prey. They were about fifteen feet away from Ezekiel when he shouted an order to stop.
"If you take another step, I'll kill her," he screamed.
Adam could hear the panic in his voice and see the wild, frantic look in his eyes. Like a cornered rat, he was ready to strike. Adam didn't want to do anything that would provoke him into accidentally squeezing that trigger.
He'd never been so damned scared in his whole life. He hadn't told Genevieve he loved her, and, God, he needed to say the words at least a million times. He wanted to grow old with her and tell her each and every day for the rest of their lives how much she meant to him.
"Let her go, Ezekiel," Adam pleaded.
"I'm getting out of here, and no one's going to stop me," Ezekiel screeched. "I've got nothing to lose, and if you want her to live, you won't follow me."
"I can't let you take her with you," Ryan shouted.
Ezekiel turned his head toward the marshal. "I'll kill her," he yelled. "If my hand starts shaking, this gun's going to fire, and it'll be your fault. Both of you throw your weapons down and turn around."
"No." Genevieve screamed. "He'll shoot you in the back. Don't do it, Adam."
"Shut your trap," Ezekiel hissed. "You brought this trouble on yourself. If you hadn't stolen my money…"
"It's Thomas's money, not yours. I'm taking it back to him."
"From your grave?" Ezekiel taunted. "You don't think I'll let you live, do you? You're a naive fool, Genevieve. Stop struggling," he snapped when she tried to push his arm away.
"Let her go," Adam implored.
The anguish she heard in his voice broke her heart. "I'm so sorry," she whispered.
"I told you to drop your guns," Ezekiel demanded once again.
"I can't do that," Ryan called out.
Adam was slowly advancing to the left while Ryan angled to the right. The lawman extended his arm and aimed his gun at Ezekiel and Genevieve. Adam knew what Ryan was going to do. His blood ran cold. He looked at Ryan and saw that his blue eyes had turned as cold as frost.
"Don't do it," he shouted.
"I can take him."
Ryan ignored him. He kept moving forward, trying to get a clear shot. He knew he'd get only one chance, and if Ezekiel's death wasn't instantaneous, Genevieve would also die.
"Stay where you are," Ezekiel warned. His eyes darted back and forth between Adam and Ryan as he slowly pushed Genevieve closer to the buggy.
"This is your last chance," Ryan called out. "Let her go now, or I swear to God I'll drop you where you stand."
Adam now wanted to kill Ryan. How dare he gamble with Genevieve's life? Adam didn't care that Ryan was right. He too knew Ezekiel would kill her as soon as he had the opportunity, but if Ryan's shot missed, or if Ezekiel's finger flinched, Genevieve would pay the price.
He couldn't let that happen. If keeping her safe meant that he had to die, then that was what he was going to do.
Adam started running toward the buggy, deliberately trying to draw Ezekiel's fire, and when he was about five feet away, he went for his gun.
The bastard fell for his ploy. Adam had made himself an easy target, and the temptation was too great for Ezekiel to resist. He swung his gun away from Genevieve and took aim.
Ezekiel was dead before he could squeeze the trigger. As soon as the barrel moved away from her head, Ryan fired. The bullet cut through the center of his forehead. Adam's bullet entered Ezekiel's forehead a hair's width away from Ryan's.
The force lifted Ezekiel off his feet and hurled him backward. Genevieve was thrown to one side. She screamed as she fell and then began to sob.
She had thought that Adam was about to die when he put himself in front of Ezekiel, and the terror and desolation she had felt in that terrifying moment had nearly destroyed her.
Adam gently lifted her up. She threw herself into his arms and continued to sob uncontrollably.
He held her tight and tried to get rid of his rage so that he could comfort her.
Both of them were shaking. "I thought I had lost you," he whispered gruffly.
"It's all my fault. You should have stayed at Rosehill… I almost got you killed, and if you had died, Adam, I couldn't have gone on. I…"
"Hush, sweetheart. It's over now."
She jerked away from him. "How dare you take such a chance," she cried out. "How dare you…"
She couldn't go on. Her sobs were heart-wrenching. He pulled her back into his arms and hugged her tight. He never wanted to let go.
"Don't cry, my love. Don't cry." He bent down and kissed the top of her head. "You were very brave."
"No, I wasn't. I was scared."
"I was scared too," he admitted.
She looked up at him, her eyes wide. "You? Scared? I don't believe you. Nothing scares you."
He laughed. The sound was harsh to his ears. He used his thumbs to wipe the tears away from her cheeks and laughed again. "My hands are still shaking. I swear to you, Genevieve, no one is ever going to hurt you again."
She was safe. He kept telling himself that in hopes that he would get over his anger. He was still so furious with Ryan he could barely control himself.
She knew she would never be able to stop crying if she didn't move away from him, but she wanted to cling.
"I almost got you killed," she said again. "Ezekiel was right. He told me I was a naive fool, and I was, Adam. I've been nothing but trouble to you. No man deserves such heartache."
He grabbed hold of her chin. "You didn't make me follow you," he reminded her, and before she could argue the point, he kissed her.
She promptly burst into tears again. He was such a good man, and he was being so terribly sweet to her.
She looked down at Ezekiel and cringed inside. Adam took her hand and pulled her away. He was staring at the lawman who had helped him only minutes ago.
"Is he Daniel Ryan?" she asked.
"Does he still have Cole's compass?"
Adam nodded. "He told me he'll bring it to Rosehill," he said.
"Why are you glaring at him?"
"He took a terrible risk with your life. If he had missed…"
"Don't think such thoughts. I'm thankful, and I must go to him and tell him so."
"Ezekiel told me he was going to kill me because I had caused him so much trouble."
"Ryan should have waited," he stubbornly insisted.
The marshal heard his comment. "I knew what I was doing, Adam."
"The hell you did. You should have let me-"
Before he could continue, Ryan cut him off. "You were too emotionally involved. I wasn't."
"You're a coldhearted bastard."
Ryan stepped closer. "Damned right I am."
"You could have killed her. If Ezekiel had moved an inch or flinched, you would have gotten her."
"I waited for my shot."
"The hell with that logic."
Genevieve couldn't figure out what was happening. The two men who had worked together to save her life just moments ago were now acting as though they wanted to kill each other. It didn't make any sense. "Gentlemen, if you will please calm down and-"
"You didn't care if she lived or died. What kind of marshal are you? You're supposed to protect citizens, not shoot at them."
Adam shoved Ryan in the chest. Ryan shoved back. "I cared about her, but I don't happen to love her, and you obviously do. Understand the difference? Look at your hands. I'll bet they're still shaking."
"They're shaking all right, with the need to put my fist through your face. I swear…"
Out of the corner of his eye Adam saw Lewis, the man he'd struck unconscious, come up on his knees. He also saw the gun in his hand. At the same instant, Ryan spotted the flash of metal. Both men turned simultaneously and fired.
Adam's bullet shot the gun out of Lewis's hand. Ryan's bullet blasted a hole in his chest. Lewis swayed backward, then pitched forward to the ground.
Genevieve's hand flew to her throat. It happened so fast she didn't even have time to scream. Neither Adam nor Ryan seemed much perturbed by the interruption. They both watched Lewis for several seconds to make sure he wasn't going to move, then turned back to each other and resumed their heated debate as though nothing out of the ordinary had happened.
She took a step back from them and bumped into Sheriff Norton.
"How can they be so callous? They just killed a man." Her voice shook with emotion, and she was trembling from head to foot.
"It seems to me that man needed killing. He would have gotten one of them if they hadn't shot him, so you shouldn't be fretting about it."
"Why are they arguing?"
"Ah, it's just their way of letting off steam. I saw the whole thing from Barnes's porch. You had both of them real scared, ma'am. If that gun had gone off up against your head, it would have been a real mess."
The sheriff nudged Ezekiel's leg with the tip of his boot. "He don't look so dangerous now, does he?"
Genevieve wouldn't look at the dead man. She turned back to Adam just in time to hear him tell Ryan he should have tried to negotiate with Ezekiel.
"I never negotiate with criminals," Ryan countered. "You can get as mad as you want, but after you calm down, you'll admit I was right to do what I did. I told you I wouldn't miss. I didn't, did I?"
"You're that cocksure of yourself?"
"No, I'm that good," Ryan boasted. "You made it easy by becoming his target. That was a stupid move, by the way."
Adam took exception to his comment. He shoved Ryan again. The lawman didn't budge.
Genevieve desperately needed to sit down for a few minutes. Her heart was racing, and her legs were so weak she could barely stand up. She headed back to the jail with the sheriff at her side.
"I almost got Adam killed," she confessed in a pitifully weak voice.
The sheriff latched onto her arm. "You're trembling like a leaf," he remarked. "It weren't your fault your man almost got shot."
"Yes, it was my fault. He was living a peaceful, safe life on his ranch until I came along. I've caused him a considerable amount of trouble."
The sheriff awkwardly patted her. "Now, now, there ain't no call to cry. You weren't the troublemaker. That dead man stiffening up on my street caused all the trouble."
"He was wanted," she cried out, remembering the poster. She pulled it out of her pocket and handed it to the sheriff.
"You were personally involved with the lady," Ryan accused loud enough for Genevieve to overhear.
"Hell, yes, I'm personally involved," Adam roared. "I love her, but that doesn't mean I couldn't have gotten the job done."
She whirled around. "You love me?" she cried out.
Adam didn't even spare her a glance. "Stay out of this, Genevieve. You're wrong, Ryan. You gambled with her life. I could kill you for that."
"You can't love me. I'm going to Paris."
Both Ryan and Adam turned to look at her. She turned around and ran to the jail. Her mind was made up. She would get her satchel and leave for Kansas immediately. As soon as she had given Thomas his money, she would catch the next train to the coast.
She was in such a hurry she didn't give the sheriff time to open the door for her. She ran ahead, but when she reached the cell, she discovered she didn't have the ring of keys with her. She must have dropped it along the way.
She didn't realize she was still crying until the sheriff handed her a handkerchief.
"There ain't no need to carry on so," he said.
"I lost your keys," she wailed.
"I've got them right here," he said. He moved forward and reached for the lock. "I found them in the middle of the street where you dropped them. I sure don't understand why you needed to lock up your clothes though. Did you think someone would steal them?"
She shook her head, then nodded. Neither she nor Adam had told the sheriff the money was in the satchel, and she was too weary now to explain much of anything.
The front door opened then, and Adam came inside. He had to duck so he wouldn't bump his head on the doorframe. He was frowning, but it didn't make any difference. He was still the most beautiful man she had ever seen.
"Make him go away," she whispered to the sheriff.
"I've got to have a reason to make him go away, ma'am," he replied as he swung the cell door open.
She ran inside to get the satchel but turned when Adam spoke to her.
"What's come over you? Why are you so upset?"
She couldn't believe such an intelligent man could be so obtuse. She stared up at him through the bars and tried to make herself stop crying.
"You almost got yourself killed because of me. You were willing to die for me, weren't you? You're good and noble, and I'm not worthy of your love. Your mother would never have forgiven me if anything had happened to you."
"Nothing happened, sweetheart."
She wiped the tears away with the back of her hands. "It's time for us to go our separate ways. Go home, Adam."
She ignored his warning tone of voice. "My mind's made up."
Adam smiled. She should have known then that he was up to something, but she was too distressed to think about it. She sat down on the cot and folded her hands in her lap. She had just been through a horrible ordeal, and every time she thought about Adam putting himself in the thick of it, she was overwhelmed with tremors.
She didn't think she would ever recover.
Adam shut the door and turned the lock. Then he leaned against the bars, folded his arms across his chest, and smiled at her again.
"I've got you now, Genevieve."
"I won't love you."
"It's too late. You already do, or at least I think you do. That's why you were scared, isn't it? You thought you were going to lose me, and it scared the hell out of you."
"How do you know how I felt?"
"Because I was going through the same thing."
"Love isn't supposed to be painful."
"I love you, sweetheart."
She shook her head. "It could never work. We're so different from one another, and I'd drive you crazy in no time at all. I'll never forget you," she whispered.
He laughed. "Since we're going to be living together for the rest of our lives, I don't suppose you will forget me."
"I've got to leave."
"I'll follow you."
"You want peace and quiet, and I like adventures."
"We'll compromise and have a little of both."
Tears streamed down her cheeks. "Sheriff, let me out of here. I have to catch the coach."
"The sheriff went outside. He can't hear you, and I'm not letting you out until you promise to marry me. We'll go to Paris for our honeymoon, and then we'll settle down at Rosehill and you can plant your garden. I want to grow old with you, Genevieve."
She gripped the bars with her hands. He reached over and trailed his fingers across her knuckles.
"This is an adventure," he drawled out. "You can tell our children how their father locked their mother in jail."
The sparkle in his eyes was mesmerizing. She stared up at him in wonder. He loved her, and how was that possible?
"Our children?" she whispered.
"Yes," he replied. "We're going to have lots of children, and, God willing, every one of them will be as adventurous as you are. You do love me, don't you, sweetheart?"
"I love you. I've always loved you."
He unlocked the door and pulled her into his arms. He kissed her long and hard, and when he lifted his head and looked into her eyes, he saw the love there.
"You're the man of my dreams, Adam."
He smiled. "And you, my love, are my greatest adventure."