When widowed Bethany Sinclair boards the stagecoach to Texas, she finds
herself sharing the ride with a dangerous outlaw and the marshal who is
returning him to justice. But when a winter blizzard sends the stagecoach
tumbling into a ravine, the driver and the marshal are killed and she must
trust the outlaw.
Zach Price knows he might never get another chance to make his escape,
but he can’t abandon his lovely companion to certain death. They take
shelter in a cave, and as the storm rages outside Bethany receives the best
Christmas present of her life – an outlaw’s love.
December 15, 1871 – Northern New Mexico
Zach Price hadn’t been this close to a woman in five years.
The time he’d spent in prison had robbed him of many things, and he’d often wondered if the ability to feel passion and
desire had been among them.
As the rocking motion of the stagecoach brought the woman’s knees into contact with his own once again, he wished he
were as unfeeling as he’d thought. The stirring in his groin was an inconvenient, painful reminder that he’d never again
know the softness of a woman’s body against his. The manacles on his hands and feet, and the presence of the lean,
sharp-eyed lawman at his side, ensured it.
With every bumpy mile, the stagecoach took him closer to Texas, where he’d spend the rest of his life in the same
federal prison he’d escaped from two short weeks ago.
If he’d known his freedom would be so fleeting, he’d have gotten stinking drunk and spent what time he had in the arms
of some pretty whore. Instead, he’d kept to himself, living like a hunted animal, traveling at night, sleeping during the
day, desperate to reach his brother in the Colorado Territory.
He’d never expected the United States Marshal on his tail to get there first.
Once again, his gaze returned to the woman sitting across from him. Understandably nervous about sharing the ride
with a convicted killer, she had yet to look him in the eyes. Her lovely face was pale, and she looked exhausted. He
wondered how long she’d been traveling, and why she’d boarded the coach alone, with no man to watch over her.
Her vulnerable beauty enchanted him and, for a long moment, he entertained the possibility of taking her hostage when
they stopped for the night. He could wrap his chained hands around her slim neck, press against her, use her as a
shield to make his escape…
Reluctantly, he discarded the notion. Despite the desperation clawing and twisting in the pit of his stomach, he hadn’t
sunk to the point of involving an innocent bystander in the hopeless mess he’d made of his life.
He shifted and turned his gaze out the window, noticing it had begun to snow. The sight cheered him. He hoped the
weather delayed their journey. Even a few extra nights in a stage stop with Marshal Scott breathing down his neck would
be preferable to returning to prison.
“Where are you headed, ma’am?” The marshal spoke for the first time since they’d boarded the stage in Trinidad.
“I’m going to Texas for Christmas,” she answered. Zach found himself leaning forward in an effort to hear her better. “I
have family there.”
She was even lovelier when she smiled, and he didn’t think his opinion was influenced by the fact that he’d been so long
without a woman. She had delicate, classic features and expressive, wide, green eyes. Her hair was a rich, buttery gold,
and her figure was trim, yet rounded in all the right places. He imagined he could even smell her; a light, flowery scent
that triggered a sudden, vivid memory of a girl he’d known in Virginia. Before the war.
“We’re going to Texas, too,” the marshal informed her. “I’ll keep an eye out for you, ma’am. It’s not safe for a pretty little
thing like you to be traveling all by yourself.”
An embarrassed blush tinged the girl’s pale cheeks. “That’s kind of you, sir. But really, I’m sure I’ll be just fine. I’ve come
all the way from Denver already.”
She glanced in Zach’s direction and, for just a moment, her clear, green gaze caught and held his. Unmistakable
trepidation shadowed those emerald depths. She probably didn’t want anything to do with the marshal as long as he had
a dangerous criminal like Zach in tow.
The marshal also obviously understood the reason for her reticence. “Don’t worry none about him, ma’am. I’ve got the
situation well under control. He’s harmless as a Christmas goose trussed up in those shackles.”
The girl stared at the metal bracelets around Zach’s wrists and ankles. She met his gaze again, and this time he saw
more sympathy than fear. “Are those dreadful things necessary?”
“Yes, ma’am,” the marshal answered. “As I said, he’s harmless enough as long as he’s chained. But make no mistake.
He’s a bad ’un. Killed some men in Texas a few years back, then managed to escape from prison. Took me two weeks to
track him down, and I don’t intend to lose him again.”
Zach forced his features to remain impassive, even though he burned with shame and anger at being discussed as
though he were deaf and dumb. He didn’t know why he cared what this woman thought of him, but for some reason he
wanted to shout a denial. He wanted to try to explain the circumstances that had led him so far from the life he’d once
expected to live.
The coach shuddered then gave a precarious lurch. Zach tore his gaze away from the girl to glance back out the window
then wished he hadn’t. The snow was falling much harder now than just a few moments ago, and the road dropped off
into a deep ravine on his side of the coach.
They seemed to be heading right for the edge.
“Shit,” he muttered, trying to brace himself, but unable to do so because of the shackles.
“What the hell…?” The marshal half rose from his seat and opened the door, as though he meant to ask the driver what
was going on. He never got the chance. The horses gave an ear-piercing squeal, and then the coach tipped, tumbling
off the edge of the cliff, crashing end over end into the ravine.
* * * * *
Bethany Sinclair awakened to the unfamiliar feel of a man’s heavy body sprawled atop her. She gave a frantic shove but
couldn’t dislodge the smothering weight. Gasping for breath as panic coursed through her, she glanced about, trying to
figure out why everything looked so odd and unfamiliar.
Where was she? What on earth had happened?
A horrible, discordant sound shattered the stillness—the sound of an animal in pain. The man groaned and lifted his
head. When she recognized the dangerously handsome face hovering just inches above her own, she struggled even
The prisoner from the coach. There had been an accident, and now she was pinned beneath him.
“Get off me.” Terror laced her voice as all her efforts to remove him went in vain. He was too big, too heavy.
“Calm down.” He shifted, relieving her of most of his weight, yet keeping her pinned where she lay in the shattered
remnants of the coach. “I’m not going to hurt you.”
A bloody gash marred his forehead, and his blue eyes were cloudy with pain. She tried to relax, remembering the kind
marshal who’d befriended her before the wreck. He would help her. He wouldn’t allow this criminal to do her any harm.
“Where’s everyone else?”
“I don’t know.” He scanned the immediate area with sudden purpose. His lean body tensed as he realized the lawman
was nowhere in sight.
Dear God. He was a killer. An escaped convict. To what lengths might he go to keep from being taken back to prison?
His gaze returned to her face, but his eyes were sharper now, more focused. “Are you hurt?”
“I can’t tell.” She was surprised he cared enough to ask. “You’re crushing me. Everything hurts.”
He frowned and rolled all the way off her. The awkwardness of his movements reminded her he was still shackled. She
scrambled away, wincing when a shaft of pain shot up her left leg. Her skirts were wadded around her knees, and she
stared in dismay at the jagged, four inch cut on her calf.
The prisoner knelt at her side, looking concerned. “Is your leg broken?”
She shook her head. It wasn’t broken, but it bled profusely. She trembled as she realized how lucky she was to be alive.
“Damn.” He stared at her for a long moment then got to his feet and pulled himself out of the scattered wreckage of the
coach, having a hard time of it because of his bound ankles.
She watched as he disappeared from view, unsure whether to be relieved or frightened. Where were the others?
With shaking hands, she tore off a length of her petticoat to use as a bandage, trying to ignore the pained squeals of
the horses. It was hard going, but at last she managed to rip off enough to bind her calf. Once she’d accomplished the
task, she dragged herself out of what remained of the coach, gasping in dismay when a blast of snow carried by an icy
wind buffeted her.
Halfway up the steep hill, the prisoner stood over the twisted, bloody body of the man who’d been trying to bring him
back to justice. The marshal had obviously been thrown from the coach as it began to roll. From the looks of him, the
vehicle had crushed him.
Bethany averted her gaze and swallowed to keep from retching.
“He’s dead.” The prisoner’s voice was quiet and controlled, but she knew what this meant to him.
“What about the driver?” Bethany asked, even though she was afraid she already knew the answer.
The prisoner pointed to another spot a few dozen yards away. “His neck’s broken.” As he spoke, he leaned down and
rifled through the marshal’s pockets. He found what he’d been looking for—the key to his shackles and a pistol.
Bethany stared at the gun, her blood freezing in her veins as he walked toward her. If he killed her now, his escape was
She stumbled backward, her injured leg aching in protest. Shaking her head, she lifted her gaze from the gun to the
man. He was dangerously beautiful, with inky black, overlong hair, and chiseled features. His blue eyes were shuttered,
impossible to read. “Please,” she whispered. “You said you wouldn’t hurt me.”
He stopped just a few feet in front of her and extended his hands. The key he’d taken from the marshal’s pocket
dangled from between his thumb and forefinger. Up close, she could see how the handcuffs had abraded the skin
around his wrists. He said nothing, just held out his hands.
She considered refusing, but what good would it do? If he meant to kill her, he could do it with his hands bound. So far,
he’d done nothing to harm her. Perhaps once he was free, he’d make his escape.
Then all she’d have to worry about was how to survive the night—alone, bleeding, and stranded in the middle of a
blizzard with no shelter.
Trembling, she took the key and fitted it into the lock. The handcuffs fell away with a click, and he was a prisoner no
longer. He brushed her cheek with his icy fingertips, stunning her with his tenderness. His blue eyes were startlingly
bright amidst his dark features, and snowflakes had caught in his long, inky lashes.
She shivered. “What are you going to do now?”
Frowning, he took the key from her and stooped to unlock the chain around his ankles. “I won’t go back to prison. But I
won’t let you freeze, either.” He stood, looking around at the twisted wreckage. “There were some lap blankets in the
coach, weren’t there?”
Bethany nodded, eager to help. “There were some sack lunches, too.”
“Smart girl.” A brief smile touched the perfection of his full lips. “Find them while I put these poor horses out of their
misery. I’ll help you get out of the weather before I leave. Don’t worry. I’m sure someone will come looking when the
stage doesn’t show up on time.”
“Will they?” She doubted their stage’s tardiness would cause much concern. At least not for quite a while. They’d expect
a delay and probably wouldn’t mount a rescue until the weather cleared.
“They’ll come.” His voice was grim as he moved toward the horses that lay in a broken, jumbled heap, caught in their
traces. “They knew I was on board.”
He was a killer, she reminded herself. The marshal had told her so. But as she watched the prisoner soothe the terrified,
injured horses, she found she no longer feared him.