CHAPTER ONE

There was going to be hell to pay.

Carla Foster felt it in her bones, even before she went to the window and saw the approaching rider.

He rode toward the cabin like a dirge, surrounded by an aura of shadow. A dark duster rippled under the midday breeze and the hazy sunlight that filtered through a gauze of gunmetal clouds shunned him. The brim of a low-slung felt hat obscured the rider's face.

That rider was one of her husband's loose ends, though she couldn't have told why she thought that. She just knew it to be true, the same way she knew death rode with that rider.

Jim Foster had done something, somewhere in his past. She wasn't aware of what this particular transgression might be, but it had come back to haunt him.

To make him pay.

Of her husband's past she knew precious little. But she had witnessed his brooding moods and fits of temper; they were the mark of a man consumed by remorse, guilt.

It was ironic she worried about such things now, wasn't it? She should have fretted over something like that before marrying the man after a mere two-week courtship. But how many men would have courted a woman with a past? How many men would have wanted a woman who'd strayed? How many men would have wed a woman who'd lain with too many men to count for a dollar a turn?

Perhaps he'd married her because of his own guilt, or perhaps out of pity. Perhaps a measure of each. At the time she had questioned neither his attention nor his proposal. Now it was too late to do so.

Their life wasn't a bad one, certainly better than the hell she had lived working in saloons across Colorado Territory. They got by. She'd learned new skills, ones that didn't involve opening her thighs to strangers, and he owned a small blacksmith business in town.

But they had never become as close as she felt a husband and wife should be. A distance always remained between them, something to do with the unspoken darkness he relived in nightmares and haunted moments. Over time, she had accepted his quirks, his ghosts; she no longer questioned him about it. She'd grown weary of him lying to her whenever she did bring it up.

Did he really love her? Had he learned to care about the woman he lay with each night but rarely touched over the past ten years of their union? She reckoned he did, and he treated her respectfully for the most part, provided whatever she required. He'd even blessed her with the one thing in her life that meant the most-their seven-year-old daughter, Clarissa.

A shiver traveled down her spine as her eyes focused again on the approaching rider. He had cut the distance between himself and the cabin by a hundred yards, but she could tell no more about him now than she had been able to a few moments before. He kept his head down, like a pallbearer.

She drew back from the window, praying to God the rider hadn't seen her. She noticed her hands starting to shake for no real reason other than the dark worry building in her mind. She twisted at the corners of her flowered powder-blue apron, fingers bleaching.

"Mommy?" a child's voice came from behind her.

She turned to see her daughter staring at her, puzzlement and a touch of concern on her delicate features.

Carla Foster had never been a beautiful woman, mostly just what folks called handsome. She had some bosom and ripeness of hip, but she reckoned she was little more than simply passable in looks. But Clarissa, Clarissa had been born beautiful and with each passing year grew even more so. That little girl was her angel and the Almighty had blessed that angel, and blessed Carla.

A surge of the dread told her perhaps that gift was about to be torn away.

"Mommy, what's wrong?" the little girl asked when Carla made no attempt to reply.

"Nothing…" she answered, too fast. "Nothing, honey. Go back to your doll."

A ragged doll dangled by an arm from the little girl's hand and Clarissa hugged it to her boson, even at her young age plainly aware of the lie in her mother's voice.

The sound of hoofbeats reached her ears, slow, methodical, inexorable, and Carla couldn't suppress a start.

The rider was very close now, almost to the house.

Worry strengthened on her face and she saw it reflected in her little girl's eyes.

"Please, Clarissa, go to your room and don't make a sound." Carla couldn't stop a measure of panic from leaking into her voice.

"What's wrong, Mommy?" The girl's own voice took on a note of fear.

"Hush, child. Just do as I tell you. It's just a stranger. Whatever he wants, I'll send him away. Your pa will be home soon, anyway."

With that she turned from the girl to stare at the front door, her heart starting to bang against her ribs and a syrupy weakness trickling through her legs. Despite what she'd told her daughter, she knew she wouldn't be able to send this stranger away. She knew it and it scared the hell out of her.

Behind her the little girl backed up a few paces but didn't leave the parlor. Tiny lights of worry jiggered in her china-blue eyes.

The hoofbeats stopped.

Carla's heart jumped into her throat with the thud of the first bootfall on the old porch boards.

"He's not going to go away…" she whispered, lower lip quivering, fingers twisting harder at the fabric of her apron. "He's not going to go away."

A knock sounded on the door, not especially hard, but it might as well have been a death knell the way it made her shudder.

"You're scarring yourself for no reason," she tried to assure her jangled nerves, but couldn't make herself believe it.

She made no move toward the door. She wasn't sure she could have taken a step forward had she tried.

Another knock. More insistent. He knew she was in here. He knew it and would never go away until she opened that door and invited death into the house.

"Please…" Her voice came weaker than she intended. "Please, go away. There's nothing here for you…"

A laugh sounded from beyond the door, a dark sound, low, laced with the promise that yes, there was indeed something in this house he wanted and he would not depart until he got it.

Another knock. Harder. Like gunshots.

"Please, just go away!" she yelled suddenly, fear raising her voice to a shrill pitch.

"Open the door, ma'am…" a voice came from outside.

"Please, just leave us be…"

"Afraid I can't do that, ma'am. I got business…"

"My husband's in town. He'll be back soon. You can talk to him then."

"I intend to, ma'am. But my first order of business is with you-"

A crash sounded and she nearly came out of her skin. The door flew inward, rebounded from the wall; the man stopped it with a flattened palm.

He took a step inward, his head lifting so she could see his dark eyes, his devil eyes. He had a young face, yet somehow old at the same time, weathered and brown, pure-blood Indian of some sort. Cruel. If she had been forced to pick a word to describe his features she would have used cruel. Something was missing from his eyes, something…human. He was driven by evil, this man, a force dark and sinister that was now focused on her.

"You aren't unattractive, but nothing like Crying Dove." He came farther inside, easing the door shut behind him. The door didn't latch, its mechanism broken by his kick, and fell open a crack. She glimpsed a Bowie knife strapped to his thigh as his duster parted, but no gun.

A small scream came from behind her and her head twisted. She saw terror on her daughter's face.

The stranger's gaze jumped to the girl and a peculiar expression washed over his dark face, not a smile exactly, not a frown, either. A certainty.

"Quiet, now, child," the man said. "You won't be forced to watch…"

Carla began backing toward her daughter, her gaze flicking to a shotgun on wall pegs above the fireplace mantle. Could she reach it in time?

She had to try. She made a move in that direction but he was suddenly beside her, grabbing her arm and twisting hard. She bleated in pain as he whirled her around. His free hand flashed up, fist taking her full across the face. Pain lanced through her teeth and her legs went out from under her. She collapsed, hitting the floorboards hard, breath knocked from her lungs, vision blurred.

The stranger stepped over her and reached beneath his duster into a hidden pocket. He drew out four railroad spikes and dropped them with a clank onto the floor.

The mist swept from Carla's vision as he again reached beneath his duster and withdrew pieces of rope, then dropped them beside the spikes.

"Please…don't hurt us…" she whispered, trying to move backward.

He stepped on her foot, stopping her, and she winced.

"I won't hurt the girl. I promise. Unfortunately, I can't promise you the same."

A tear slipped down Carla's cheek. Her voice shook. "I don't even know you. Why, why are you doing this?"

Darkness filtered across his face. For what felt like an eternity he remained silent, staring down at her. "Because I have to. Because your husband forced me to the day he…" He stopped, dark eyes suddenly shimmering with tears. "They all have to pay for what they did…"

His hand went to his thigh and he withdrew the Bowie. Muted light arcing through the window glinted off the blade.

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