Elizabeth Lowell



She's the wrong woman in the wrong place at the wrong time, Nevada Blackthorn thought, and she's headed right for me.

Nevada watched her approach in disbelief. Most people took one look at his light green eyes and unsmiling mouth and decided to strike up a conversation with someone else. Anyone else. This woman was different. She had taken one look at him and hadn't looked anywhere else.

With a grace that was totally unconscious, Eden Summers worked her way through the bar's crowded room, heading instinctively toward the dark, broad-shouldered man who sat alone. Very much alone. No one in the packed room came within arm's length of the man with the unflinching gaze and black, closely cut beard.

Even if she hadn't been told to "ask the guy with the beard" about supplies, Eden would have been drawn to this man. His isolation attracted rather than worried her. She was accustomed to working with solitary, wild animals.

"Hi, I'm Eden Summers," she said, smiling when she finally reached the bar. The lack of an answering smile didn't deter her. She would have felt better if she could have seen the color of his eyes, but they were shadowed by the brim of the black Stetson that he wore. "The man at the gas station said the store was closed, but that you might open it so I could buy supplies."

Eden's voice was like her smile, warm without being flirtatious. The tone was husky, as though she hadn't talked to anyone in hours. Nevada wondered if she would sound that way first thing in the morning, and if her taste would be half as sweet as her smile.

Even as he tried to push the sensual speculations aside, Nevada felt the rush of his body changing to meet the uncalculated femininity of Eden herself. It had been a long, long time since he had responded to a woman like that – quick and hot and hard, suddenly filled with a need as elemental as breathing itself.

"The man you're looking for is Bill," Nevada said, his voice roughened by the fierce racing of his blood. "He's the bartender."

"Oh. Sorry. Wrong beard." Eden's large hazel eyes went from Nevada's sleek, well-trimmed pelt to the bartender's rowdy chin fur. "That's Bill?"

Nevada nodded.

"Thanks," she said, smiling as she turned away. Nevada nodded again and said nothing more. Nor did he smile. His bleak green glance went from Eden's lithe, alluring body to the faces of the men in West Fork's only bar. Every male in the packed, seething room had taken Eden's measure the instant she had come in the door. There was more than casual curiosity in their looks. Whether Eden knew it or not, the two other women present in the bar could most politely be described as working girls. Saturday in West Fork was their busiest time. They had been in and out of the bar and the adjoining motel with the regularity of clocks striking off the quarter hour.

When Eden turned away from Nevada, the men in the bar realized that she wasn't his date. Nor was there any other man hovering in the background, waiting for her. She was alone.

Instantly the men became more aggressive in their interest. In a town with one gas station, one general store, one cafй, one motel and one bar – all of which were collectively known as the OK Corral – strangers weren't that common. An unknown, attractive young woman with a graceful walk and a generous smile was unheard of.

And she had no man escorting her, no man to discourage the blunt sexual interest of the males in the bar.

Normally the lack of an escort wouldn't have been a problem for a woman, even in the wildest areas of the Four Corners Country of southwestern Colorado. But today wasn't normal. Today was West Fork's Eighth Annual Rattlesnake Roping Contest, an event that drew every bored, restless young man for a hundred miles around. As the snakes were still sleeping off winter – a fact that the men had counted on – approximately forty healthy males had spent the dreary March Saturday drinking beer, swapping lies and coarse jokes, ragging newcomers, passing comments about the availability and desirability of local females, playing practical jokes, and generally being a pain in the butt to everyone in the bar who wasn't at least four beers under the weather.

Nevada had been watching his second beer go flat and trying to decide which would be less tedious – helping the town's lone mechanic to patch a leaky gas tank on the Rocking M's pickup truck or watching the brawl that would inevitably break out in a bar jammed with bored young cowboys. On the whole, Nevada had been leaning toward patching leaky gas tanks when he had looked up and seen a flash of pale blond hair and the kind of easy-moving walk that was guaranteed to bring him to attention.

It had done the same for the other denizens of the OK Corral, who immediately assumed that the pretty stranger had come to West Fork for the kind of action that its bar was famous – or infamous – for delivering on a Saturday night.

Nevada knew that the other men's assumption was wrong. It wasn't just that Eden wore jeans, outdoor shoes and a hip-length down jacket. It was something both more subtle and more final than her lack of party clothes that told Nevada this woman was different. The openness and generosity in Eden's smile when she greeted him had announced that she wasn't in the market for sex. Women who were for sale were neither spontaneous nor uncalculating in their approach to life or men.

Unfortunately, Saturday in the bar at the OK Corral was the day and the place where pros and semipros came to display their shopworn wares. Eden's gentle manner and open smile didn't belong in the OK Corral's sexual marketplace, but she was there just the same.

Wrong place, wrong time, wrong woman.

And the longer she stayed there, the more insistent the men would become about attracting her attention.

With increasing irritation Nevada listened to the men nearby speculate on the subject of Eden's sexual expertise and price. He watched from the corner of his eye as the bartender came around the bar and stood close to Eden under the pretext that he couldn't hear her over the crude background comments. Standing that close wasn't necessary. Nevada, who was four feet away, could hear Eden all too well. She had a voice like summer, rich with warmth and life. The sensual promise in her voice made blood beat visibly at the base of Nevada's throat.

"The man at the filling station said you were closed, but that you might open the store so I could buy supplies," Eden said, speaking quickly, ignoring the catcalls and crass propositions coming from behind her. "There's no other store between here and the government cabin. I've driven all day, and there's supposed to be a storm in the high country tomorrow so I'll have to leave before dawn or take a chance on getting snowed out. As it is, I'll need a room for the night."

"No problem," Bill said, leaning back long enough to pull a room key from a board beneath the bar. He handed the key to Eden. "What else do you need?"

Before Eden could answer, a voice called out, "Yeah, that's it, Bill. Find out what she needs and I'll give it to her!"

Nevada didn't have to turn and look to know that the voice belonged to a young cowhand called Jones. Tall, well built and almost as handsome as he thought he was, Jones had earned his reputation as a lady-killer, drinker and fighter. Nevada's brother Tennessee had fired Jones from the Rocking M ranch. Since then, Jones had spent more time raising hell than working cattle. The cowboys drinking with Jones were the same as he was, too old to be boys and too undisciplined to be men.

Eden pocketed the key and acted as though she and the bartender were alone in the room.

"I need basics, mostly. Salt, sugar, flour, coffee-"

Jones inserted a stream of words that would have made a seasoned streetwalker wince. Nevada was the only man sober enough, and perceptive enough, to notice Eden's almost invisible flinching at the ugly language. But that was her only reaction.

"Hey, babe, look at me when I talk to you!" Jones yelled. "Pieces like you give me a pain. You sell it all over town and then act like you're a nun when a man tells you what he wants and how he wants it!"

Nevada's hand tightened on his beer bottle, a reflex as involuntary as his own arousal in Eden's presence. Slowly he relaxed his fingers.

Eden unzipped her jacket and pulled a small tablet from an inside pocket, praying that no one would notice the fine tremor of her fingers. She had dealt with too many wild animals not to have a sixth sense for danger. She was in danger now. What was a coarse verbal assault could change at any moment into something worse. The men around her had drunk enough to be uninhibited but not unable – and she was a stranger who had walked into their territory with nothing more to protect her than whatever basic goodness might exist beneath the veneer of civilization. If the situation were different, Eden wouldn't have worried about being alone with even the cowboy who was running his mouth at her expense right now. But he had made his brags in front of the pack. Now he had to dominate her or lose face. It was an old, old story among animals.

And man was definitely an animal.

While Eden flipped through the tablet to find her supply list, Jones started wondering aloud what she would look like without her clothes, stripping her verbally, adding fuel to the savage fires that always burned just beneath the restraints of civilization.

Nevada turned and looked at Jones and the four men who were urging him on. The rest of the men in the room didn't notice Nevada's abruptly predatory intensity. They were watching Eden with the single-minded purpose of a pack of jackals closing in on their prey.