Ty swam lazily up through red-tinged darkness, her mind floating by silent images of death and destruction, fire and despair. So far away she thought she could never reach it, she saw a dim glow. She struggled harder then, trying to reach the warmth, tears falling from her eyes in her desperation to touch the form hidden within.
"Easy now. Easy." Soft hands took her own and she felt her body relax, muscles easing from the light, lilting voice she remembered from...somewhere. She frowned in concentration, then gasped as pain shot through her head. Slowly the memories came back: two men dying in a dusty street, a building set afire, echoes of gunshots and a burning pain in her side, and Lundgren.
"Lundgren!" She bolted straight up from the cot, only to find strong arms pushing her back down. The pain was real now, and she clenched her jaw tight trying to force it away. But she hurt everywhere, and a harsh gasp escaped her.
"He's dead. You killed him. It's over now." Brianna's voice broke, and she stood quickly to get new bandages before Ty could see her tears. She was exhausted, too little sleep and the barest of meals finally catching up to her. Though her wounds were minor by comparison, the emotional upheaval she had gone through served to shatter what little control she had left. Bursting into heart-wrenching sobs, Brianna fled the cabin.
"Damn it!" Ty struggled out of the blankets covering her, intent on going after the girl. Wincing in pain, she finally got rid of them then stopped in mid-motion as she glanced down at herself. She was completely naked, save for bandages wrapped around her various wounds.
Ty sank back onto the cot and groaned again, partially from pain and partially from horrified disbelief. "I was gonna tell you," she whispered softly, knowing that it was far too late now.
All the gentle ways she was going to break the news to Brianna flashed through her mind, and she gave a humorless laugh. "It's over now." The girl's words hit her like a whip and the bounty hunter cried the first tears since the death of her family. It truly was over...before it even had a chance to begin.
She drowned quietly in her grief for a few moments, before grimly pulling herself together. Ty had no idea how long she had been unconscious, but it was long enough for her wounds to begin healing. And that was too long, as far as the bounty hunter was concerned. With eyes gone a flat blue-gray and her face a set mask, she began scavenging around for clothing.
Brianna stood in the doorway uncertainly, hands twisting the fabric of her dirty and tattered nightgown, watching Ty struggling to pull her boots on. She had managed to find a pair of serviceable pants, and a worn flannel shirt covered her broad shoulders. The shirt remained unbuttoned and Brianna tried desperately to keep her eyes away from the sight of full breasts swaying with Ty's movements.
"I...I could help you with that, if you want."
Ty's head jerked up and a boot went flying in response. She sighed heavily, then turned a startled gaze toward the door when she heard a muffled giggle. Relief washed over her and she gave the girl a wry smile. "I thought you left." She eased back onto the small cot as Brianna stepped further into the room, stopping to pick up the stray boot.
"You shouldn't be up yet. You were pretty badly hurt, you know."
"Folks will be looking for us soon. I'd rather...." Ty looked down feeling an uncomfortable flush heat her cheeks. "I'd rather be dressed when they come barging in here." Her hand fell on the cloth she had given up trying to wrap around her chest, and the flush deepened.
Brianna noticed the movement but ignored it for the time being. Instead, she knelt down by the cot and eased the boots onto Ty's feet, one after the other. She prayed silently for her hands not to tremble...or wander. While Ty was unconscious, she had slowly given in to her curiosity and touched the smooth flesh that beckoned to her, fascinated when it felt as soft as her own.
Caring for the bounty hunter's intimate needs had left Brianna feeling very confused about what she really wanted and needed. She had always seen herself growing up and marrying, having children and grandchildren, sharing her life with a loving man whose face she could never quite picture. When Ty swept into her life so suddenly, her future husband's face took on dark, chiseled features with a beautiful smile and twinkling blue eyes...and just as suddenly the dream was swept away by the sight of a woman's body hidden beneath a gunslinger's clothes.
The boots finally on and the pant legs pulled down over them, Brianna stood back up, at a loss as to what to do next. The still unbuttoned shirt inexorably drew her eyes and she found it suddenly difficult to breathe.
Ty sat completely motionless, afraid that if she moved or said anything, the farm girl would run again. The tip of Brianna's tongue peeked out to moisten dry lips, and Ty thought she would faint from the strain of keeping silent. She knew what had to be done next. But she also knew there was no way she could ask it of the innocent, young girl.
Wide, green eyes looked into deep blue. "You'll have to take the shirt off again."
Before Ty could reach to remove her shirt, soft hands took hold of the material and eased it off her shoulders. Fingertips grazing along her back caused her muscles to twitch in reaction, and she swallowed audibly.
"Can I ask you a question?"
Ty nodded mutely as she watched Brianna pick up the new binding cloth. The girl's close proximity was doing odd things to her concentration, and she desperately hoped she'd be able to answer.
"Were...were you just playing with me?" Brianna rushed on, afraid she'd lose her nerve if she paused too long. "I know I'm just a farm girl, and you've probably had a lot of women more sophisticated than me. But I...." Her voice cracked and she laid her palms against Ty's ribs to steady herself. "I really liked you."
Impossible as Ty thought it was, she felt her heart break again at the soft, trembling words. "You have to wrap it tight," she murmured quietly.
Both women were silent as Brianna finished securing Ty's breasts in their cloth cocoon. When she started to step away, Ty grasped her hands gently in her own. "I wasn't playing, Brianna." Blue eyes trapped green in unguarded intensity. "At first I just wanted to keep Lundgren away from you, but...." She shook her head and looked down.
"But what, Ty?" Brianna knelt down to look into the bounty hunter's eyes. "Please."
Scarred knuckles traced Brianna's soft cheek, Ty's eyes begging silently for understanding. "I didn't mean to hurt you. I...you...." She sighed and tried again. "I think I fell in love with you when you were swearing at me in the street."
"I didn't swear!"
Ty's lips twitched in a grin. "Close enough, sweetheart." The endearment tumbled out of her mouth easily, and Brianna felt a warm feeling chase through her. "Anyway, I was trying to figure out how to tell you about...this, when everything happened. I'll get my things together and head on out when we get back to town."
Ty's heart was beating a rapid tattoo in her chest, and she felt the tears threatening to rise again. She loved this woman more than she'd ever thought she was capable of and it scared her to death. Then to have her so calmly helping with the most obvious part of her charade, well, Ty didn't know what to think anymore. By all rights, Brianna should have been running full tilt for the safety of her family, not making her flesh dimple up in goose bumps by trailing her fingers up and down her ribcage.... Wait a minute, here.
Ty drew in a shaky breath and recaptured Brianna's hands. "What are you doing?"
Brianna's eyes were a luminous green as she shivered in pleasure at the low, gravelly voice. "Making sure you don't leave me," she replied bluntly. She gathered her newfound courage and leaned forward to place a kiss on soft, yielding lips.
Ty melted, the burning pain of her wounds receding into the background as she devoured the sweet mouth offered to her. Hands separated, Ty's sinking into silky hair, and Brianna's sliding over strong ribs to clasp her arms around a broad back. All doubts disappeared and Ty reveled in the sensations coursing through her. Gently and slowly, she traced her tongue along Brianna's lips, asking silently for entrance. When Brianna obliged, Ty moaned deeply and pulled the girl closer to her chest, her hands moving to caress Brianna's back through the thin cloth of her dress.
Sparks skittered along the length of Ty's body, making her pulse race and the loose fitting pants she had confiscated feel unbearably tight. Her tongue delved into the moist cavern of Brianna's mouth and she knew she had never tasted anything sweeter. They were so close she couldn't tell which of them was trembling more, and she finally pulled away with a harsh gasp, tilting her head until their foreheads rested against each other.
"Oh my God."
Brianna reluctantly pulled her body away from Ty's warmth so she could look into her eyes. They were dark with passion and Brianna shuddered in reaction to it. "That was...."
Ty smiled slightly, staring with some bemusement at the flushed face of her love. "Yes," she whispered softly. "It sure was."
"Ahem." The sound of a masculine clearing of the throat nearly drove the two women apart, but Ty managed to retain her grip.
Sheriff Young was treated to the most vicious glare he had ever had the misfortune to receive and he beat a hasty retreat from the long cabin, almost tripping before regaining his balance and scrambling back to the waiting wagon.
"We'll...ah...just wait out here for a few minutes. They're...ummm...not quite ready yet." George frowned in confusion, but the sheriff's pale features made him think twice about going to investigate himself. The wedding might just have to be sooner than they'd anticipated, that was all.
Ty eased back and smiled apologetically at Brianna. "Sorry, sweetheart. I didn't want him to see me."
Brianna glanced down and smiled shyly, small fingers moving to button the shirt up properly. "I guess we need to go out there," she murmured, gently smoothing out the soft fabric.
"Brianna. I don't...." Ty sighed heavily. "I don't want anyone to know about this."
Brianna's heart tugged painfully in her chest. "Us, you mean?"
"God, no! I meant about me...being a woman and all." The pain flared in those beautiful green eyes, tearing a new wound in Ty's heart. She reached out and smothered the girl in a hard hug, her raspy voice whispering across Brianna's ear. "I would shout my love for you from the tallest mountain if I could."
That made the blonde giggle, and got her a raised eyebrow. "I'll settle for a whisper," she grinned.
"I love you," Ty dutifully whispered, closing the distance and sealing her words with a soft kiss. "Now I have to stand up, sweetheart. Can't keep them waiting any longer than we already have."
Brianna backed away and watched with concern as Ty struggled to her feet. It took a few minutes but she finally got her shirt tucked in, then started to buckle on her gun belt. Her face was ashen by the time she was through, and Brianna was near tears. Jaw clenched tightly, Ty finally handed the gun belt over for Brianna to carry. She just couldn't stand the weight of it pulling against her wounded side.
"C'mere." The girl rushed to her side and Ty wrapped her left arm over her shoulder. When they exited the cabin, it looked just as if they were a young couple out for an evening stroll. Only Ty and Brianna knew how much effort it took for Ty to walk the torturous yards to the wagon where the sheriff and Brianna's father stood.
As soon as they reached the side of the wagon, Brianna gave Ty's waist a slight squeeze and went to hug her worried father. Sheriff Young watched the touching reunion for a few moments, grateful the girl appeared to be unharmed, then turned his attention to the bounty hunter.
"We found the men and Lundgren," he said quietly. "We buried what was left of them. Wasn't much point to trying to bring 'em back with us."
Ty simply nodded in acknowledgement. She had figured the wild animals would have found the bodies by now. Her eyes sparkled with grim amusement. "I'm surprised they'd have touched Lundgren."
The sheriff gave a short bark of laughter. "Turns out he was good for something, after all." Sharp eyes took in the pallor of Mason's face, and the way his knuckles were whitened by his tight grip on the sideboards. "Your horse stabled?"
Receiving a blank stare, Sheriff Young pursed his lips and headed for the small lean-to partially hidden by the long cabin. His respect for the young farm girl increased by several notches when he found Mason's horse, and two others, obviously well fed and cared for. It didn't take too much figuring to realize that Mason had been wounded pretty badly, and that Brianna had somehow managed to take care of not only the bounty hunter, but the animals as well.
Ty closed her eyes after the sheriff walked away. Waves of dizziness were pounding over her and only her stubborn pride was keeping her on her feet. She couldn't tell where the burning pain of one wound ended and another began. Full lips tightened to a thin line. Her entire body felt on fire.
At the sound of her name being called, Ty struggled to open her eyes again. George Duncan stood close by, face etched with concern. "We need to get you into the wagon, son, and I don't want to hear any arguments."
Ty's lips twisted in a weak smile as she looked from George to Brianna and back again. "With all due respect, sir, I think I'm all argued out." Her raspy voice was barely audible.
Father and daughter worked as a team and tried to be as gentle as possible. Still, by the time they had the gunslinger into the back of the wagon, Ty had passed out from the pain. Tears streaked unnoticed down Brianna's face as she crawled in beside her. She sat with her back against the sideboards and lifted Ty's head to rest in her lap, a trembling hand stroking thick, dark hair.
George met the sheriff at the lean-to, and together they brought the horses out, tethering them to the back of the wagon. It was a subdued group that started the long, careful trek home.
"But he hasn't asked me yet." The words were almost a whisper, as Brianna looked to her mother in silent appeal.
Helen dropped a comforting hand on Brianna's shoulder as she leaned over and poured the men more coffee. She was terribly proud of her daughter after watching her seeing to Ty Mason's wounds and getting him comfortable before letting herself be taken care of. Brianna had been practically asleep on her feet in exhaustion, yet she didn't stop until her tasks were done. Even after sleeping for eight hours, Brianna's face was still pinched and pale from her ordeal.
And now this.
"Sheriff, don't you think..."
"Mrs. Duncan, please." Sheriff Young held his hand up tiredly. "Your husband and I have been over and over this. There's already been talk in town." He cast a sympathetic glance towards Brianna. "Regardless of why, a young woman who spends three days alone with a man who is not her husband is compromised. There's no other way."
Helen Duncan sat down heavily in a chair next to her husband and accepted his hand gratefully. "But they were going to be married in any case. Why does it have to be so rushed?"
The sheriff looked at George in mute appeal. "The sooner they're wed, the sooner talk will die down. Helen," George gazed steadily at his wife and tried not to notice the tears shimmering in her eyes. "Her reputation has been sullied. Without a husband, there's no telling what kind of men we'll have sniffing after her."
George sighed and raked his hand through his hair. "Brianna, I'm sorry. But it's true. And we can't take the chance that Mr. Mason will just up and leave as soon as he's healed. We really don't know him."
"Well, I know him and he wouldn't do that to me. He l-loves me." Sparkling tears that had lain in wait finally coursed down too-pale cheeks and Brianna gave in to her sobs.
"Brianna. Brianna, honey. C'mon...let's leave the gentlemen to their coffee and go outside for a bit." Helen ushered her oldest child out of her chair and led her outside, but not before casting her husband a frigid glare making him wince.
"Oh, Mama! This isn't how it was supposed to be!" Brianna threw herself into her mother's arms and sobbed bitterly. The ride home the day before had been nightmarish, with the sheriff making her tell her story repeatedly and every noise Ty made jarring on already frazzled nerves. She had thought their ordeal was over once they made it to the homestead, and then this morning Sheriff Young had broken the news that the Judge would be arriving the following week to perform the wedding ceremony. At the homestead, no less.
No pretty wedding gown, no blushing bridesmaids, no flowers, and most of all, no doting groom. She held little hope that Ty Mason would be happy about being forced into marriage...regardless of the fact that she knew Ty loved her.
"Brianna. Look at me, child." Helen pulled her daughter's chin up gently to get her full attention. "This isn't what I wanted for you. You know that. But you have a young man in there who loves you very much, and you love him. Right?"
Brianna nodded her head shakily, eyes red-rimmed from crying.
"A lot of people don't have even that when they start out. They're forced together through circumstance and they don't even know each other. Your father and I were very fortunate that we loved each other and that it was an advantageous match for our families. Our parents could very easily have kept us apart." Helen took a deep breath and sighed. "All I really want for you is to be happy, Brianna. And if Ty Mason is the person that makes you happy, then nothing else matters. Do you understand?"
Brianna sniffled a little and then nodded again. "Do you think he'll be very mad?"
Helen laughed lightly, her hands idly caressing Brianna's hair. "He'll be furious, my dear. But he'll get over it." She winked at her daughter and whispered, "Just tell him he won't get another kiss out of you until he agrees."
"Mother!" Brianna protested, giggling.
"And a few well timed pouts won't hurt either," Helen added mischievously. "Now, come on. We'd best check on the children. They've been awfully quiet this morning."
Brianna shivered as she stood up. "It's getting a lot colder out, too." Mother and daughter stared up at the overcast sky. The wind had begun to pick up, bringing with it a hint of frost and it was apparent that the warm weather had finally gone past. Winter would soon be here in earnest.
Ty Mason sat half upright with a pillow supporting his head and upper shoulders; a thick quilt pulled up and held tightly under his chin. Sheriff Young thought the bounty hunter looked like a recalcitrant child and only the fierce glare in the ice blue eyes kept Tom from laughing at the image before him.
That and the fact the bounty hunter's hand was a little too close to his six-gun for comfort.
"I did what you wanted," Ty growled out. "Lundgren is dead and Brianna is safe. I will not protect her from one unwanted marriage, just to force her into another."
Sheriff Young perched on the edge of the small desk chair and tried not to sigh. He'd been arguing for hours; first with Brianna's parents, then Brianna, and now with Ty Mason. He couldn't understand why they were being so difficult when it was obvious to anyone that the two loved each other and would get married at some point anyway. They just had to move up the timetable for propriety's sake.
"Call me Mr. Mason," Ty shot back.
Tom stood back up abruptly and began pacing back and forth in the small bedroom. The room was directly off of the kitchen, a fact which had made it easy for Brianna's kidnappers to steal her away from the house with no one the wiser. Tom's eyes glinted with humor as he recalled George's comment about the type of men who would be after his daughter now if the bounty hunter refused to marry her.
He very carefully kept his back to Ty as he idly looked through a book that had been lying on Brianna's desk. "All right. You win. We'll just set Brianna down and give her a list of the eligible men in town and ask her to choose. That way you'll be off the hook and Brianna will have some sort of say in the matter." He put the book back down and slowly turned to gauge Mason's reaction.
Ty's scowl got even darker as she tried to bring up the faces of the men she had seen while she was in town. Rowdy, immature cowhands, shopkeepers old enough to be Brianna's fathers, a worn-out miner who was in love with a whiskey bottle...all in all, not an encouraging list.
"Tyrel Mason!" The sheriff jumped a foot in the air and Ty almost lost her grip on the quilt.
"What?" Wide blue eyes stared at the irate blonde in the doorway.
Brianna gave the sheriff a withering glare and motioned him toward the doorway with her head. Tom was more than happy to oblige. Once he was out of the room, Brianna dragged a chair over and wedged it beneath the doorknob to make sure no one else could enter unannounced.
Ty watched all this with a distinctly uneasy feeling, which got even worse when Brianna stamped over to the bed and proceeded to yank the covers back, almost ripping Ty's fingers off in the process.
"I need to check your wounds," Brianna stated, her gentle touch belying the harshness of her tone.
"I...they're feeling a lot better," Ty offered hesitantly. "You...umm...stand outside the door long?"
Brianna didn't answer as she checked the many bandages, rewrapping some and removing others where the wounds had healed enough not to need the protective covering. After she completed her inspection, she sat on the edge of the bed, clasping her hands together to try to hide their trembling.
"Did I hurt you?" she asked quietly, finally meeting Ty's eyes.
"No. Not at all." Felt pretty damned good, actually.
"Good." Brianna remained silent for a moment, then turned to face the bounty hunter a little more fully. "I didn't realize you wanted to be let off the hook, Mr. Mason."
Uh oh. Guess she was outside the door long enough.
"I know that the...situation...is a little more complicated than my family and the sheriff realizes, but I thought we had that settled. Back at the cabin." Brianna twisted the material of her dress in her fingers and took a deep breath. "I made my choice in front of the Sheriff's Office a week ago," she continued softly, keeping the light blue eyes trapped with her own. "I thought you had made your choice, too."
Ty was feeling a little light-headed. All the anger she had felt at being forced into a marriage drifted away as Ty finally realized who exactly it was that she'd be marrying. She cleared her throat and carefully placed a large hand over Brianna's smaller ones, squeezing them gently. "I can be pretty stupid sometimes, Brianna." Her lips twisted in a wry grin. "I just don't like being told what to do. Even when it's something I really want to do in the first place."
"I've been alone for a long time, Brianna. Too long, I guess." Ty ducked her head, trying to get away from those piercing green eyes that seemed to see right through her. "I just...can't hardly see why you'd want to marry me." Her voice cracked and she had to stop. She hadn't cried in a long time either.
"Ty." A soft hand gently cupped Ty's cheek, almost destroying the bounty hunter's composure. "Ty, I love you. I don't care who you were. I don't care that you're female instead of male. I don't even care if we live out in the middle of some godforsaken wilderness. As long as I'm with you." Brianna forced Ty's gaze to meet her own. "You're who I want. No one else."
Ty tried one last time to get this small, beautiful woman to see reason. "I can't even give you children, Brianna."
Brianna gave out a half-sob, half-gasp as she wrapped her arms around broad shoulders that were shaking with suppressed emotion. "Oh, Ty! Then just give me you," she pleaded earnestly. "It will be enough. I swear it."
Ty pushed her away and Brianna felt a small pang of hurt until she realized that the bounty hunter just needed some space to collect herself. Brianna settled back on the bed; her heart pounding in her chest as she waited for Ty's response.
For her part, Ty couldn't figure out why she was fighting so hard. She knew she couldn't live without this woman. Had known it since the little, blonde spitfire had poked the hell out of her chest while she yelled at her. Ty was pretty sure she still had the bruises.
Her mouth curled up in a small smile. "What if I make you sleep on the hard ground... with no blankets?"
Brianna drew her shoulders back and gave Ty her best haughty look. "I'll use you as a blanket." Ty laughed.
"Okay. What if I make you lug all our gear around?"
"Gonna sell your horse, Mr. Mason?" Brianna retorted with an impish grin. Then she curled her arm in an attempt to show off her muscles through the material of her dress. "I can carry it. Don't you worry about a thing."
Ty laughed until she thought her stitches were going to come out. "Okay, okay! I give up!" She sobered up and leaned forward; her eyes soft and serious. "Then I guess I better marry you before someone else finds out what he's missing."
Brianna smiled through the tears suddenly pouring down her face. "And here Mama said it would take threatening you to get you to agree," she laughed in relief.
"Threatening me?" Ty asked in surprise. "I'm a vicious bounty hunter! What kind of threat would work on me?"
Brianna tilted her head, then leaned in until their mouths were almost touching. "I was supposed to tell you I wouldn't kiss you again until you said yes."
"Oh," Ty responded weakly, feeling shivers run up and down her back from the whisper of Brianna's breath across her face. "That would have worked."
Brianna laughed and straightened back up much to Ty's consternation. "Hey!"
"What?" Brianna's eyes twinkled at the frown on Ty's face.
"I said yes, so I get a kiss. Right?"
Green eyes batted coyly. "Think you feel up to it, Mr. Bounty Hunter?"
Ty let out a soft growl and pulled the girl into her arms, ignoring the stab of pain in her hip. "I'll always feel up to it, sweetheart," she murmured as her fingers wrapped in golden hair and Brianna's lips covered her own.
The day of the wedding dawned crisp and clear, a shaft of sunlight darting through a break in the curtains and waking the wounded bounty hunter. Ty eased up into a sitting position and was pleased to note she was moving easier. There was still a lot of pain in her hip, but her other wounds were almost completely healed.
Sharp blue eyes lit on her saddlebags and she frowned thoughtfully. After listening carefully for a few moments, she decided she was alone in the house, so she took a deep breath and carefully got out of bed. There was a decided limp in her gait, but Ty managed to get to the desk without incident. She grinned at the thought of what Brianna would say if she knew she'd gotten out of the bed.
The grin slowly faded as she dug into the saddlebag and drew out a package wrapped in oilcloth. With a tenderness she rarely showed, Ty carefully opened the parcel. Sunlight gleamed dully off the metal and Ty Mason...the most feared bounty hunter west of the Mississippi...blinked hard against the mist of tears clouding her vision.
Strong, slender fingers polished the golden band with a bit of cloth. "Not exactly what you had in mind for your little girl, was it, Mama," she whispered softly. Sad blue eyes lifted to stare out the window. "You'd really like her, though. She's sweet and gentle and pretty as a picture. And she's a little spitfire like Daddy always said you were."
A tiny smile tugged up the corner of her mouth, as she tucked the wedding ring away before rising to stand at the window. "I'll take good care of her, and I'll try my best to make her as happy as Daddy made you. I really wish you were here." Her voice broke on the last sentence and she leaned her forehead against the cool glass, completely unaware of the bedroom door opening and closing behind her.
Ty stifled a gasp of pain as she whipped around to face her visitor. "Damn, Leroy! You're getting as bad as your sister."
Leroy chewed his lower lip and thought a bit about that one. All he did was walk in the room, right? Fingers crinkled the paper in his hands and he scuffed his foot along the floor. "I...I didn't mean to be bad, Mister. I just wanted to give you this." Leroy's voice shook and his head hung so low his chin was almost touching his chest.
Ty felt like an idiot. Especially after glimpsing the tears glistening in those green eyes so like Brianna's. She sighed heavily and made her way back to the bed. "I'm sorry, Leroy. You weren't bad...I just didn't hear you come in, is all." She grinned and winked as the boy finally looked at her again. "Your sister sneaks in and tries to catch me doing something wrong," she told him conspiratorially.
Leroy smiled back, his hurt feelings already forgotten. "You mean like standing up when your s'posed to be sleeping?"
"Exactly," Ty laughed. "So whatcha got there, son?"
"It's a picture. Lily helped me some." Leroy blushed, embarrassed now to be giving a gunfighter a silly drawing. "She helped me with the colors and stuff."
Ty unfolded the paper and stared silently at the crude drawing of what she supposed was her on her horse riding off into the sunset. She pursed her lips slightly and cleared her throat. "This is a really nice picture, Leroy," she began softly. Serious blue eyes caught Leroy's. "But, I guess I can tell you this...."
Leroy watched the bounty hunter carefully, wide-eyed that he'd be telling a kid like him a secret.
"I don't plan on leaving here anytime soon. Would you mind if I stuck around for a while?"
The grin on Leroy's face lit up the entire room, and the boy let out an exuberant whoop of joy. "That'd be great, Mister! Sister really likes you and," he ducked his head shyly, "I do too."
Ty ruffled the dark head fondly and chuckled. "Well, that's good to hear, son. Especially since I'm going to be your new brother."
Leroy whooped again and danced around the room. "Can I tell Lily? Please, can I?"
"Sure you can." Ty smiled as Leroy bounded out to go spread the news. Guess they weren't all that sure I'd be staying, she thought to herself.
The door opened again just as she was easing back onto the bed. Her eyes lit up with a twinkle as she watched Brianna's slender form sway toward her. "Hi," she whispered quietly.
Full lips tensed against a smile. "You've been out of bed, haven't you?" Brianna asked sternly, taking in the small lines of tension around Ty's mouth and the pallor of her skin.
Dark eyebrows rose in question. "What makes you think that?" Ty asked innocently.
Brianna tilted her head and put her hands on her hips as she surveyed the room. "Your saddlebags have been moved, there's a mark on the window, and you're on top of the covers instead of being under them like you're supposed to be. And," she added, putting a hand up to stop Ty's protest, "you're white as a sheet, which you weren't when I checked on you earlier."
"Well, hell," Ty muttered. "You sure you aren't with the Pinkertons, Missy?"
Brianna laughed softly as she gestured for Ty to pull up her nightshirt. "Someone has to keep an eye on you, sweetheart. It's a wonder you haven't escaped and taken your horse out for a run."
"The thought crossed my mind," Ty responded dryly. "But there's this little blonde who'd beat me up if I tried."
The blonde in question flashed a bright smile, then bent to her task. Ty contented herself with watching the play of light in strawberry-blonde curls as her bandages were changed, reaching out a hand now and then to stroke the soft skin of Brianna's arm.
"You're making this awfully difficult," Brianna murmured, a slight tremor in her fingers as she finally finished and pulled Ty's shirt back down, grateful that it hid the smooth expanse of skin she was desperately trying not to caress.
"Good," Ty whispered back. "Tom stopped by to see me yesterday."
Brianna frowned at the abrupt change in subject. "Yes?"
The bounty hunter took Brianna's hands and tugged her down to sit next to her. "He sent out telegrams to the families of Lundgren's late wives. And to the people he forced into selling."
Strong fingers traced designs on the back of Brianna's hands, while Brianna waited patiently for Ty to get to the point. "What has that to do with us?" she asked when it appeared Ty wasn't going to continue.
"Well, he said...now, if this bothers you, I'll drop it and think of something else, okay?"
Brianna sighed and leaned in to give her husband-to-be a quick kiss. "Ty, just tell me. It can't be that bad, whatever it is." She eyed Ty's serious expression. "Can it?"
"Hard to say," Ty mumbled. She'd already learned not to take Brianna's reactions for granted. Brianna had asked for her opinion the day before on what she should wear for the wedding. Considering there would only be the family and the sheriff and the sheriff's girlfriend, Ty had answered that what she had on would suit her just fine. The blonde had run from the room crying, leaving a bemused gunfighter behind her. Ty had thought that the new gingham dress Brianna was wearing looked pretty damned good on her. She sighed at the memory. It had taken hours before the girl had forgiven her and come back to the room, and Ty still didn't have a clue as to what she'd said wrong.
"It seems no one really wants the land back. They've already made homes elsewhere. So the sheriff thought we might be interested in taking it." Ty's heart sank as Brianna stood and walked away from her. Ah, hell. Here we go.
Brianna gazed out the window, standing in almost the exact spot Ty had earlier. She'd never been to Lundgren's ranch, but the thought of living in his house.... She shuddered slightly. It was simply too much to ask of her.
"I don't think I could do that, Ty. Live in that house, not knowing what he did to those poor women in there, not knowing what hell those walls witnessed." Her body shuddered again.
"Brianna." The sound of her name in that raspy whisper made a tremor run through Brianna for a completely different reason. "Please...come here."
The girl slowly walked back to the bed and, at Ty's motion, eased herself down to snuggle against the bounty hunter's side. "I'm sorry."
"Shh...it's all right, darlin'." Ty's hands soothed over Brianna's back much like she was calming a skittish filly. Tendrils of warmth snaked through her as Brianna cuddled even closer, and Ty fought to keep her mind on the conversation. She was painfully aware of the soft breasts pressing into her side.
"We wouldn't have to live in his house. We could tear it down, if you like. Rebuild either there or somewhere else on the property." Although Lundgren's house was situated perfectly, the sun rising at the front of the structure and setting at the back where it could be seen from the bedroom windows, and the view of the mountains was spectacular. "Or we could just take a parcel closer to here and build on it. Whatever you want, Brianna."
Brianna shifted slightly so she could see Ty's face. "I thought you wanted to be out on the trail again, catching outlaws and things."
"Well," Ty drawled, "I figure the honeymoon should last for a couple years, at least. Might's well be in a comfortable bed."
That got a shy, pleased giggle and a pretty nice one-armed squeeze. "You're not tired of me already?"
"Not even close," Ty whispered, dipping her head down to steal a kiss. "I have plans for you, darlin', and they include a lot more than you coming in here to change my bandages."
"Oh," Brianna sighed, lips parted in a silent invitation for another kiss.
"Damn!" Ty glared at Brianna's father, who was standing in the doorway trying not to look toward the bed where his little girl looked entirely too comfortable.
George cleared his throat again. "Your mother wants to see you, Brianna. Company should be coming any time now."
"Okay, Papa." Brianna escaped the bed with as much dignity as possible under the circumstances, and hissed at her father on the way by. "Be nice!"
George rolled his eyes heavenward and shook his head. "Be nice, she says. What's she expect me to say to you, anyway?" he asked the bounty hunter.
Ty smile slightly and gestured for George to take a seat. "Well, you're here so I guess you want to say something to me."
The man was silent for several long minutes, staring down at work-worn hands. "She's very special to us, Mr. Mason," he finally said, looking up with sad brown eyes. "I'm trusting you to take care of her. Give her a happy life." He held up a hand when Ty started to speak. "Let me finish...please. I don't know what you have planned once you heal up and you're ready to travel again. But I...we would like to see Brianna, and you, every now and again. Maybe on holidays...." His voice trailed off.
"Sir, I'm not taking your daughter away from you," Ty said quietly. "I've asked her to think about taking over all or part of Lundgren's land. She doesn't want to live in his house, but we could tear that down...build a new one. Whatever she wants, sir." Their eyes met and Ty went on. "Winter's coming. I thought we could stay at the boarding house in town until I can see about building our home...wherever she decides."
A chill ran down her spine. Our home. She never thought she'd hear herself say that.
"I'm glad you're going to be staying around," George admitted, shoulders slumping slightly in relief. "You can stay here, you know. You don't have to move into town."
"Thank you for the offer." Ty hesitated. "No offense, but I think I'd be more comfortable in town."
George nodded in understanding and smiled at the bounty hunter. "Wouldn't be much of a honeymoon with the parents underfoot." They both chuckled, then George got a thoughtful look. "There was a small cabin on the outskirts of town. I wonder if it's still empty. It'd be perfect for you through the winter."
Ty relaxed against the pillow. The cabin would be exactly what they needed. What she needed. After being on her own for so long, even the past few days of confinement in the house had driven her close to her breaking point. The boarding house had been the only thing she could think of to retain her sanity...there would still be people around, but she figured if she rented out the rooms around them, she'd have a little breathing space.
"I'll ask Tom about it when he gets here. Thank you, Mr. Duncan."
George tilted his head and grinned. "Call me George. We're going to be family soon."
Blue eyes twinkled. "Then you'd best go back to calling me Ty...George."
The noise of a wagon pulling into the yard filtered into the room. "This is it," George stated. "I'll leave you to get dressed, Ty." They exchanged a firm handshake, then George went out to see to the new arrivals.
Brianna found her mother in her parent's bedroom digging through a chest at the foot of their bed. "You wanted to see me, Mama?"
Helen straightened and smiled at her daughter. "Yes, I did. I have something special for you." After making sure the door was securely closed, she drew Brianna over to the chest.
Reaching in, she pulled out an ivory gown trimmed with lace, smoothing the fabric with gentle hands as she held it up in front of Brianna. "It will probably be a little long, but you won't really be walking much in it," she told her with a bittersweet smile.
"Oh, Mama!" Brianna's eyes filled with tears as she looked back and forth from the wedding dress to her mother. "It's beautiful," she murmured.
Helen gathered her in for a hug, squeezing her gently. "A girl needs to be dressed properly for her wedding. We may not be able to give you the frills that go along with it, but at least you'll have this." She paused to blink back her own tears. "I hope you'll find as much joy in your marriage as I've found in mine, Brianna."
The next few hours flew by as the two women prepared themselves. The sheriff's future bride, Mabel, was brought in to give them a hand. While Helen was out fetching her, she made sure to tell George to keep the menfolk and children entertained until they were ready. He grumbled good-naturedly, but gave in to her wishes. At long last, Brianna stood in front of the full-length mirror, her body trembling slightly as her mother put the finishing touches on the gown.
The ivory dress had a scooped collar with lace trim along the hem, and satin ribbons tied into tiny bows at the waist. Puffy sleeves were gathered at the elbows and wrists, while the cloth hugged Brianna's torso. Frilly crinolines flared the bottom portion out into a bell shape. Brianna felt like a princess.
"You're beautiful, dear. Now let's go find your prince." Helen had listened many a time to her daughter's childhood dreams and was profoundly grateful that her daughter was marrying a man she loved. They shared one last hug, then went out let everyone know it was time.
There was only one tense moment in the ceremony. When the judge asked Brianna to love, honor, and obey, the room had gone deathly quiet. Ty had finally sighed and changed the vows slightly. "Will you at least promise to try to obey?"
That got laughter from everyone, and Ty was treated to the sight of the tip of a pink tongue when Brianna stuck it out at her. The rest of ceremony was mercifully quick, though Ty didn't know whether she should be dismayed or relieved at its brevity. Kissing the bride brought quite another emotion, though...one she was intimately familiar with, and very happy to indulge in for long moments.
"I think the kiss is lasting longer than the wedding," Sheriff Young muttered. Ty couldn't even muster a small glare. Her grin was too wide.
The judge lingered long enough to extend his congratulations and have the papers signed, then he was on his way. The others settled down for a bit to eat before heading out as well. Ty managed to catch the sheriff's eye as he went by.
"Sheriff. George tells me there's a cabin on the outskirts of town. Do you know if it's still empty?"
"Why, yes it is." He looked a little surprised. "Why did you want to know?"
"Well, I figure Brianna would appreciate a place of her own, even if it's only for the winter. It's too late in the year to try to get a place built, and I was thinking that cabin would be just fine for us."
Sheriff Young nodded thoughtfully, then Mabel broke in. "Don't you two worry about a thing. I'll get some of the women together and have it all cleaned up for you. And I'm sure the sheriff," she nudged the sheriff with her elbow, "can get some of the men out to give us a hand."
"Oh, yes, dear. Of course." He shot Ty a wink. "We'll have it all set by tomorrow night...unless that's too soon, of course."
Ty grinned. "Nope. That'll be just fine, Sheriff. Thank you. And thank you, Mabel."
The heavyset woman blushed and fluttered her hands. "Glad to help, young man. Glad to help." Tom just shook his head and led her off to say their good byes.
When Brianna's parents began readying the children, Ty arched a dark eyebrow.
"We'll be heading into town tonight, ourselves," George answered to the unspoken question. "Least we can do is give you two a bit of privacy. I'll be back out in the morning to take care of the chores, then bring the wife and young ones out later in the afternoon."
Ty nodded her thanks, then eased out of the way for Brianna to hug her father. Ty was embarrassed, yet pleased, when Leroy and Lily came up to hug her good bye, and she hastened to reassure them that they'd both be there the next day when they came home. They still weren't sure what was happening around them and were afraid their sister was leaving them forever.
And then, finally, the new husband and wife were alone in the house. It was hard to say which of the two was more nervous...the hardened bounty hunter, or the innocent farm girl.
"Well," Brianna began nervously, "I guess I should...." Her voice trailed off as she realized everything had been cleaned up and there was only one thing really left to do.
Ty stood, gingerly testing her weight on her injured leg before reaching her hand down to Brianna. "C'mere for a second," she requested softly.
Wide green eyes stared upwards at her, then Brianna took her hand and Ty wrapped long arms around her. Ty buried her nose in silky blonde hair and inhaled the sweet scent of jasmine from the soap Brianna had used, tightening her hold as she felt the girl snuggle into her long form.
A deep breath and then another, then Brianna drew back to look into sparkling azure eyes. She gave a tremulous smile. "I have a surprise for you," she offered, grateful that Ty seemed willing to take things slowly with her.
"Really?" Ty grinned and touched her nose to Brianna's. "What is it?"
"It's outside. C'mon, I'll show you." Brianna was careful to keep to Ty's right side, her left arm wrapped around the bounty hunter's waist in subtle support of the wounded woman's weight, as she led her through the kitchen and outside.
Ty frowned in puzzlement as her new wife led her to a small building that she had thought was a storage shed or smokehouse. When Brianna opened the door, warm moist air billowed out and Ty smiled in appreciation. The structure housed a pot-bellied stove and a huge, claw-foot bathtub, with a bench along one wall and a table filled with soaps, wash rags, and towels sitting close by. The tub was already partially filled with warm water and more buckets waited to be filled with the water boiling merrily in pots on the stove.
"I thought you'd be pretty tired of sponge baths, by now," Brianna told her shyly. "Mama set this up before she left...it should only take a few buckets to heat the water up properly."
Ty had no idea what to say, so she merely drew Brianna close to her again and kissed her softly. They both trembled at the sensations the kiss aroused. "You're amazing," Ty whispered finally, dropping another light kiss on those sweet lips.
"Thank you," Brianna answered, a flush rising to her cheeks. The flush grew even more pronounced as she continued. "You should probably get in while I'm here...in case you need help," she murmured, eyes firmly on the floorboards.
A dark brow shot up and Ty stifled a smile. "All right, but maybe you should go change first." Luminous eyes shot up to lock with her own questioningly. "That's a beautiful dress and I'd hate for it to get wet...accidentally," Ty explained, resolutely keeping her lips from twitching into a grin.
"I'll...I'll be right back," Brianna choked out, her face flaming red, and she backed towards the door before getting herself turned around to dash to the house.
Ty watched her panicked escape with a bemused grin. "Ty Mason," she muttered to herself, "you are a cruel, cruel woman." Then she chuckled softly and sat on the bench to begin the arduous task of removing her boots.
She was just shrugging out of her shirt when a light tapping sounded at the door. "C'mon in," she responded, then cursed at herself when she realized there was no way Brianna could hear her through the thick door. Ty rubbed her scarred throat in irritation as she rose and padded to the door.
Brianna was sure she was going to faint. Her hands trembled as they gripped her load of clothing tightly to her chest, and she couldn't keep herself from staring at Ty's heavily muscled stomach. It was one thing to see the bounty hunter in all her naked glory while she was unconscious or lying still while she tended her wounds. It was quite another to have Ty standing not two feet in front of her, looking decidedly dark and dangerous with her pants slung low along her hips and the broad band of cloth hiding the soft swell of bosom Brianna knew was beneath it. Brianna's fingers tingled with the need to touch the woman before her, and tears welled in her eyes as she wondered if she was even allowed to touch her now.
Ty's irritation faded quickly when she saw the tears well in Brianna's eyes. Pulling her gently into the room, she wrapped her up in another hug. "Shhh. What's wrong, darlin'?"
It took Brianna a few moments to gather herself together. "I-I'm sorry, here it's our w-wedding day and I'm b-blubbering like some fool child," she stuttered out between hiccups.
"Sit here, sweetheart," Ty ordered, leading Brianna to the bench.
Miserable green eyes followed her movements as Ty dumped hot water into the tub and moved the table closer. Ty's hip was aching with a dull throb, but none of the pain showed on her features. Once the water was heated to her satisfaction, she turned back and grasped Brianna's hands gently. "Don't be afraid," she murmured softly.
Moving slowly and deliberately, Ty removed the cloth binding her breasts, then leaned down and stripped off her pants. She hoped that by making herself vulnerable first, it would put the young blonde more at ease. Seeing the wide-eyed gaze staring back at her, Ty wasn't quite sure she had succeeded.
She also wasn't sure if it was the steam in the room or the unwavering green gaze that was directed at her nipples, but her knees were close to buckling. She cleared her throat in a vain attempt to get Brianna to meet her eyes. "Look, I'm...umm...gonna get in the tub, all right? You can," a deep breath to keep her voice steady, "wash my back, maybe, or even join me if you want."
That got Brianna's attention. Ty was suddenly snared by emerald pools and she stopped breathing. She wanted to touch the girl so badly she hurt, but she needed to keep Brianna calm. The girl looked like she was ready to bolt out the door any second.
"I'll keep my eyes closed...honest," she continued hesitantly. "And...and you can sit behind me so I can't see."
Ty was so caught up in her near panic that she almost missed the softly spoken acquiescence. "All right? Really?" She flashed a broad grin and put her hands on her hips in satisfaction. "Well, good then!"
Brianna's giggle caught her off guard. "What?" Ty asked, frowning in confusion.
"You should probably get in the tub before I lose my nerve," Brianna whispered, hiding a smile behind her hand. Seeing Ty strike such a masculine pose while she was completely naked was about to send the girl into a giggling fit.
Another flash of white teeth, then Ty was stepping into the tub, hesitating only when she felt a warm hand on the bare skin of her lower back. She murmured a "thanks" and let the small blonde steady her as she sank into the pleasantly heated water.
Brianna kept a careful eye on her new husband, smothering a relieved sigh when the sky blue eyes were hidden from view. It was silly of her, she knew. After all, she'd seen Ty's nude form enough times while she tended her wounds, yet this was somehow...different. Her hands trembled as she unfastened the buttons of her dress and slipped it off, a rosy hue tinting her cheeks as she wondered what Ty would say when the bounty hunter found out she hadn't put underclothes on.
Taking a deep breath, she stepped into the tub and placed her hands on Ty's broad, muscular shoulders to balance herself. Another breath and she let her body slide into the tub, their flesh touching intimately for the first time.
Brianna's breath caught in her throat when she felt two strong hands guiding her smaller legs down along Ty's powerful thighs. Some minor adjustments and the two women were comfortably nestled in a tub that somehow seemed to be a lot smaller than it was a few minutes ago.
"Are you okay?"
"Fine," Brianna squeaked out. "Wonderful. Never better." Her eyes widened as Ty chuckled and she felt the smooth muscles under her hands vibrate. Without conscious thought, she let her hands travel across the broad expanse, tracing pale scars from old wounds, tenderly caressing the angry welts of new ones. She gratefully realized that most of the strong back was unblemished and she continued her exploration curiously.
She'd almost forgotten the flesh was attached to someone when a wet cloth was unceremoniously dangled in front of her face, accompanied by an odd choking noise. "Ty?"
Brianna was leaning forward as she spoke, so when Ty turned partially around to face her their lips were scant inches apart. Brilliant blue eyes sparkled at her and then those few inches were gone. The kisses were soft and gentle, small nibbles coaxing out sighs and Brianna thought her heart would explode from the sweetness of it all.
A calloused hand cradled her cheek and she heard Ty take a trembling breath. "If we keep this up, we'll be consummating the wedding right here." Ty gave a rueful smile and pressed the cloth into Brianna's hand. "Bath first, okay?"
"I'm sorry. I just got...." Brianna let the words trail off as she caught a glimpse of a taut nipple. The tip of her tongue peeked out to moisten suddenly dry lips and she watched with some bemusement as her own hand edged forward to see what the wrinkled nub felt like.
Ty expelled a groan and captured the wandering hand. Ignoring the twinge in her hip, she turned further in the tub and wrapped strong arms around her wife, her lips pressing against the moist heat of Brianna's neck. She kissed her way up to a tiny earlobe and nibbled its edge. "Bath," she breathed.
"B-bath. Right." Brianna shuddered in Ty's embrace, her entire body aflame with the feel of skin upon skin. She was almost dizzy with the barrage of sensations coursing through her, but she managed to pull herself away from Ty's lean form and lather the cloth.
Gentle hands washed as much of Ty's body as Brianna could reach and she reluctantly gave up the cloth for the bounty hunter to finish the job. Then Ty maneuvered the two of them around so she could return the favor. Ty was feeling pretty proud of herself until she went to wash the small blonde's hair—as soon as Ty's slender fingers began massaging her scalp, Brianna began moaning deep in her throat. The dark haired woman swallowed heavily and tried her damnedest not to squirm against the ache in her groin.
One final rinse and the torture was over for the moment. Brianna rose from the tub first, turning to brace herself against the edge so Ty could follow her safely. They both realized at the same moment that they had lost the relative concealment of the water, and the air was charged with an awkward stillness.
Ty moved first, reaching for a towel and offering it with a hesitant smile. Brianna laughed softly and took it from the trembling hands. She stepped closer to the startled gunslinger and began drying her off, careful to steer away from potentially dangerous areas. Once again, Ty found herself short of breath as she took up another towel and gently patted down her wife. Still in complete silence, they turned their backs to each other and dressed themselves for the walk back to the house.
Ty unobtrusively studied Brianna's bent head and the way the blonde twisted her fingers in the fabric of her dress. "Hey," she called softly. Brianna looked up and smiled nervously. "I love you."
The nervous smile transformed into a relieved grin and Ty found herself with an armful of happy womanhood. Completely ignoring any discomfort from her wounds, she swung her wife around in a circle and bestowed a kiss on warm lips before setting her back on her feet again. "I love you, too," Brianna answered breathlessly.
They shared another long kiss, then walked arm in arm to the house, anxious to see what else the night would bring.
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