He didn’t know what the next twenty minutes would bring, but for now the plan was simple: Don’t die.
Easier said than done.
River “Hart” Hartwell sat on his black gelding—of course the thing was black, he had a reputation to maintain, and the animal only came off the ranch for these nighttime excursions—in the shadows of the alley between Gomez’s Store and the post office, and watched King’s man patrolling Bluff Street. Just his luck, it must be Stilton out there tonight, instead of O’Grady. The older man would’ve been sitting on a porch somewhere, his boots propped up on the rail and his Winchester across his lap, probably half-asleep from the whiskey. But nope. Tonight it was Stilton’s turn, and that young buck cared enough about impressing King, he was marching up and down with his rifle against his shoulder as if he were in the damn US Army.
Any minute now, Hart half expected the kid to yell, “One in the morning, and all’s well!”
Except all wasn’t well. Things hadn’t been well in Black Aces, Montana, since Augustus King swaggered into town, claiming he’d won the deed to the Bicycle Mine the night before old Jim Hoyle croaked. Widow Hoyle told anyone who’d listen that was a blatant lie, but King had the money and the muscle to keep the townsfolk happy.
Then, when they’d quit being happy, he’d kept them quiet.
Hart shifted in the saddle and winced at the creak of leather. It was loud in the still night, but not so loud Stilton heard apparently. He’d made it to the old schoolhouse, and was poking around the stones; which was all that was left after the townsfolk had cleared away the rubble from last summer’s fire.
Alright, River, enough dallying. What’s the plan? he heard his grandfather’s words in his mind.
The plan? The plan was not dying.
Think two steps ahead of your adversary. More if you can handle it, but I’m not confident.
Hart’s lips twisted wryly. Even in his mind, old Pony managed to poke fun at him.
He took a deep breath, and checked the sky. Still overcast, which was a pain when the evening had started—luckily the gelding knew the road to town well enough—but a blessing now. The October night air was cold, and it’d get colder yet, but it was as still as anything. That might be good, might not. Depended on how good Stilton’s senses were.
From his spot in the shadows, he watched the younger man’s head come up.
Damn. A little too good, it seems.
Well, nothing for it. Hart had to get to Doc Vickers’ place, and he had to do it tonight. He’d heard the Steuben baby needed that quinine, and needed it yesterday. With King practically holding Doc Vickers hostage, Hart was that baby’s only hope.
Or rather, the Black Ace was.
He snorted softly at the nickname and slid out of the saddle, making sure to keep the gelding silent as he led the animal to the rear of the alley. If his sneaking about was successful, he wanted the horse primed for a quick getaway.
Of course, all this would’ve been moot if the quinine had been in the hidey-hole in the first place, but it wasn’t. That meant either Doc Vickers’ messenger had fallen down on his job, or King’s stranglehold on the town was stronger than Hart had guessed.
Oh well. Guess he was about to find out.
He waited at the mouth of the alley for a few moments to let his breathing even out, and made sure Stilton was still at the far end of the street. Then he pulled his black bandana up over his nose and mouth, in the hopes it’d keep his identity a secret, and made sure his Colt was light in his holster.
He took a deep breath and threw himself out of the safety of the alley, to the shadows behind a stack of Gomez’s crates, then peeked out. So far, so good. Vickers’ guard was way at the other end of the street.
Hart crouched down, took another deep breath, and side-stepped from the cover of the crates. When no shot took his hat off and he didn’t hear any yells, he softly exhaled and made his move for the other side of the street.
Bent over, one hand on the butt of his revolver and the other only a few inches above the dirt as if he was tracking with Pony, Hart scuttled across Bluff Street. His shoulders were tensed for a blow from behind, but he kept his fingers flexed to catch his weight if he had to suddenly throw himself into a roll to escape fire.
Honestly, it was a bit anti-climatic when he made it to the other side and threw himself into the shadows of the water trough. At the other end of town, Stilton had decided the burnt-out schoolhouse—the ruins courtesy of his boss—probably didn’t hold anyone trying to undermine King, and had turned back towards the heart of Black Aces.
Damn. That meant Hart had to figure out a way into Doc Vickers’ house and fast.
Towards the end of summer, King had decided he’d had enough of the townspeople trying to weasel out of his iron grip, especially thanks to their “masked crusader,” as he called him, and had put the town doctor under house arrest. Of course, King hadn’t said it exactly like that. He’d talked about Vickers being “under his protection” and “for the good of the people” and whatnot, but everyone knew what it meant.
Hart had sat there in the church when King made the announcement, and had listened to the mutterings around him.
Vickers being under King’s control meant that King got to determine who received medical attention. And if you hadn’t kowtowed to the man, or hadn’t paid up your “rent” on time, or just were generally the type of person King didn’t like, you were out of luck.
Like the Steubens.
The first time it happened, when someone needed doctorin’ and couldn’t get to Vickers, Hart had left a note under Gomez’s back door and signed it with…well, with the black ace the townspeople had come to expect from him, no matter how silly it was. The man had reason to be grateful to the Black Ace, so he’d found a way to arrange for Vickers to stash some medicine in a bolt-hole behind Gomez’s store, and Hart had left money when he’d picked it up.
That system had worked well for the last few months, but something had gone wrong tonight. Which meant Hart had to figure out a way into Vickers’ house—in plain view of Stilton—or the Steuben baby would be in trouble.
Alright. Hart crouched in front of the boarded-up boarding house, just across from Doc Vickers’ bedroom window under the eaves of his home. Hart cocked his head back and studied the angles.
He ducked around the backside of the boarding house and quickly, but silently, made his way up the outside stairs. In no time, he was able to jump up and grab the roof overhang, then pull himself up, letting out a little grunt as he did. Now, with a little run-up—not a lot, because this roof wasn’t that big—he should be able to jump across to Doc Vickers’ roof, catch the eaves, dangle until he got purchase on that window sill, and hopefully knock quietly enough the man would let him in without Stilton hearing.
What was that about not dying?
Telling his better judgment to shut up, Hart shimmied up the angle of the roof line, hoping to get a little more momentum if he started near the top. From up there, he glanced once more towards the road, hoping Stilton was still far enough away--
A figure all in black—a female figure all in black—had just crept down the Vickers’ front porch stairs. She paused, and in the low light, Hart thought he might’ve seen her look left, then right, before darting across the street.
What the hell?
He rolled over until he was belly-down on the roof line, knowing he blended with the shadows, and strained to see where the mysterious figure was going. She’d crossed to the same stack of crates he’d been hiding behind a few minutes ago, looked around again, then hurried across the walkway in front of Gomez’s Store. She moved as if she knew exactly where she was going.
Hart had a sinking suspicion he knew who it was.
Maybe it was the staccato of her boots across the planks, or maybe the way her pale skin reflected in the store’s large glass windows, but Stilton spotted her.
“Hey! Hey, you!” he shouted, his voice just as sneering as Hart remembered.
The woman turned, facing the threat…and Stilton raised his rifle to his shoulder.
Hart sprung into action, knowing he had to act fast to save her. He hoisted himself up, ignoring the way the shingles scraped his belly under his black duster, and threw himself down the long slope of the roof facing the street.
It was a tumble, and somehow he’d managed to get his Colt out of the holster on his way down. Managing to get himself upright for a split second, he snapped off a shot in Stilton’s general direction, the gun retort loud in the late-autumn night’s stillness. Then he rolled off the edge of the roof and into nothingness—for two blessed seconds, before slamming into the ground with a curse.
He dragged himself to his feet, wincing at the ache in his hip, and pointed his revolver at the dark shape of Stilton in the distance. Was he on the ground? No time to investigate.
Hart took the steps to Gomez’s three at a time, and didn’t even stop to greet the woman. Her back was pressed to Gomez’s front door, and her black-gloved hand covered her mouth. He just wrapped his arm around her middle and kept up his forward momentum, propelling them down the walkway and into the alley.
Once there, he pressed her against the thick boards of the store, his hand covering her mouth and his bulk protecting her from any bullets, and cocked his head to listen for danger.
For a long moment, all he heard was his gelding snuffing at the dust in the alley and the woman’s frantic breathing.
And for a moment after that, all he heard was her breathing, as he became very aware he was, at that moment, alone with a woman he’d always…admired.
“Miss Regina,” he all but growled from under the bandana which concealed his identity. “What in the hell are you doing out at night? Didn’t your daddy tell you to stay put?”
It was too dark to see her blue eyes narrow at him, but it was easy to imagine, especially with the way she bristled. And, oh yeah, he felt her bristle. He was pinning her to the wall with his shoulders and hips and all the rest of him; he felt her alright. She sucked air in though her nose, straightened her shoulders, and he felt her legs shift as if she wanted to kick him.
So he moved his hand out of the way, just a bit, ready to slam it back down across her lips if she showed any inclination of screaming.
”I should ask you the same question,” she hissed, “but I know the answer.”
“Oh yeah?” he whispered harshly, wondering what she’d come up with.
“The same thing you are, Mr. Black Ace.”
That’s when he realized she was holding up a bag—some kind of purse-thing—at shoulder-height beside him. He backed away long enough to grab it, and heard the tell-tale clink of glass.
“Sorry,” she whispered quickly. “I thought I’d wrapped it well enough.”
He stood there in shock, holding the bag. “This is the quinine?”
“This was supposed to already be behind Gomez’s store.” It was a stupid thing to say, but Hart’s head was still trying to catch up with the events of the last five minutes.
Pony would’ve cracked a joke about that too.
“Well?” she whispered. “Who do you think has been stashing the medicines in that hidey-hole all these weeks?” She shifted until her hands were on her hips. “But Mr. King arrived to visit with Papa this evening, and I’m sure it was to keep an eye on both of us. I wasn’t able to take my evening constitutional, which meant I couldn’t slip—”
A noise from the street, someone calling out.
“Shh!” Hart snapped at her, moving in front of her once more.
“Was that a shot?” a voice called out, drifting down from the north end of town.
“What’s going on out here?”
Damn. The sheriff.
“We gotta go,” he growled at the lovely—and talkative—Miss Vickers.
But she didn’t say a word of protest as he herded her towards the rear of the alley where his gelding waited patiently, nor when he swung up into the saddle and pulled her across his lap. Sitting pillion might’ve been more comfortable, but then she’d be right in line of any shots their pursuers might get off.
“It’s Stilton!” came the cry behind them. “Someone get the doc! And wake up Mr. King!”
Hardly daring to breathe, Hart wrapped his arm tight around her with the hand holding the reins, gripped his revolver tight, and kicked the horse into motion. He hunched forward as the horse stepped quietly out of the alley, then through the scrub towards the stream below.
The hollering from the town blocked out most of the noise the gelding made as he crossed the stream, and Hart directed him up the small rise on the other side. The motion pushed Regina back into his arms, and he shifted just a bit to find a more comfortable position.
Truth be told, every position which included her in his arms was comfortable.
At the top of the rise, he turned back once to see a cluster of lantern lights around where Stilton lay on the ground. A rock of certainty had settled in his gut and he cursed under his breath.
“What?” she asked quietly.
He jumped a little, somehow forgetting she was sitting in his lap. She just felt so damn natural there. “I just meant to distract him,” he said in a low voice. “He was about to shoot you. Or shoot at you, at least.” He breathed out hard through his nose. “Hell. I think I might’ve really hurt him.”
She hummed and shifted, straightening in order to see the commotion in the town better. “Actually, I think it’s possible you killed him.”
Killed him? Hart swallowed. In his whole life, he’d only killed a man once before. Two years before, Gomez had been unable to pay King’s rent, and King had sent his goon Davis to burn the store. Hart had gotten wind, and surprised the goon, killing him with the knife Davis had tried to cut him with.
That killing had been done to save his own life, and this one had been done to save Regina’s. But he’d meant neither of them, and he knew the only result would be more trouble for the town.
He cursed again.
“Really, Mr. Black Ace,” she tutted. “Language.”
He clucked his horse into motion once more, pulling the animal around towards the south, and narrowed his eyes at his unexpected passenger.
Miss Regina Vickers was Doc’s only child, and he’d raised her up to be his assistant after his wife passed on. Regina had to be at least twenty, but she was prickly, and had shown no interest in any of the cowboys or miners who tried to attract her attention around Black Aces. She was more interested in helping her pa than worrying about being polite, and many a church meeting had involved her standing up in vocal support of one of the families in the area who needed help.
Yeah, she was prickly and opinionated, and Hart had fallen hard for her.
And here she was, sitting on his lap. Only, she thought it was the lap of a notorious vigilante, didn’t she? She’d called him Black Ace, the ridiculous nickname the townspeople had given him after he’d started his nighttime missions. As far as she knew, he was a dangerous lunatic, and in true Regina Vickers style, she was lecturing him.
He snorted slightly as he let the gelding open up. There’d been no sound of pursuit yet, but it was only a matter of time. Augustus King was an iron-fisted tyrant, and the killing of one of his men wasn’t going to go unpunished. In fact, Hart hoped King sent men after him, because it meant he’d be leaving the townspeople alone. But it was more likely he’d have his goons tear apart a few of the remaining businesses, owned by people who weren't all that fond of him, in the guise of searching for his enemy.
Maybe he ought to go back and let King’s men see him, just to draw their attention. Maybe--
No, he had Regina Vickers sitting on his lap right now, and his number-one priority, outside of even the Stueben baby, was getting her to safety. He’d worry about the rest of the town later.
“So Mr. Ace—can I call you that?—why exactly am I sitting on your lap?”
Behind his mask, Hart allowed himself to grin. “Seemed like the thing to do at the time.” He tugged the reins and the gelding turned easterly. “Stilton was about to shoot you, and King’s men would’ve asked what you were doing lurking around Gomez’s store at one in the morning, dressed all in black. Especially if Stilton is dead.”
“Don’t be silly. I would’ve acted terribly surprised and scared. Mr. King thinks I’m little more than a silly child already.”
He grunted. “And the black dress at one in the morning?”
“Maybe I was visiting my lover.”
His brows went up. He was almost certain she was being facetious, but if he’d ever met a woman who knew her own mind and her own desires well enough to take a lover, it’d be Regina Vickers. And strangely, the thought made him…warm. And acutely aware she was not just in his arms, but nestled in his lap.
“Don’t think Mrs. Gomez would appreciate that,” was all he said, and that had been more than he’d intended.
She made a little noise, which might’ve been a tut, but also might’ve been accidental. She was hanging on to the saddle horn with one hand, her knee wrapped around it, but she was still being bounced around as the horse made a wide loop around the town to the south.
“I wasn’t--oof—actually meeting a lover, Mr. Ace. So you’re saying--oh!—you took me to protect— Listen, do you mind if we slow down a bit?”
“No can do, lady,” he said with a smirk. The horse wasn’t moving all that fast really, because of the darkness, but he was still pushing him as much as he safely could.
He needed to get to the east side of town to drop her as close to her house—the one he’d been contemplating jumping to just twenty minutes ago—before King organized pursuit and saw her with him. Then he had a limited amount of time to get the medicine out to the Stuebens and clear his trail.
“Well then,” she huffed.
And to his surprise, she twisted and unhooked her knee from the horn, grinding her butt against his thighs as she did, and actually turned towards him. In fact, she wrapped her arms around his middle and pressed her cheek against his chest. Now, his hand which held the reins cradled her back, and her legs were thrown over his right thigh.
Hart held himself as still as humanly possible and willed the part of him which was enjoying this a little too much to remember what exactly was going on.
Life or death, remember?
It didn’t help. He was holding his breath, and his mind just wanted to focus on one sensation at a time.
Regina Vickers has her arms around me!
She smelled like some kind of flower. Lavender, maybe? Roses? He didn’t know much about flowers, but it was nice. Lady-like, but not too delicate either. Like her.
“Mr. Ace?” she said from somewhere in the region of his heart. “Don’t forget to breathe.”
That did it. He slowed the horse as they neared the river, and as the animal waded into the shallows, Hart began to chuckle. He just couldn’t help it.
She straightened, but didn’t let go of him. Was she still worried about falling off? Or did she maybe…like the feeling of holding?
“What? Why are you laughing?”
“Because you’ve just been kidnapped by a notorious vigilante, he’s carting you off to God-knows-where, and you’ve got the guts to sit here and boss him around.”
She clicked her tongue. “Do you always talk about yourself in third person? No, don’t answer that. First of all, you didn’t kidnap me, you saved me. Second of all…”
When she dropped her arms from around his waist, Hart felt a little colder. Not that it wasn’t already frigid out here to begin with, but having her arms around him, having her in his lap, definitely made things warmer.
“Second of all, Mr. Ace, I can see the town over there. I’m assuming we circled south, and by walking in the river, we’re confusing any trail. That likely means you’re attempting to return me to my home before you take that quinine to poor little Josiah.”
He hummed in agreement, already peering at the distant buildings, trying to see if there was any movement on this side of town. But her comment reminded him of her part in all this.
“You’re really the one who drops off the medicine behind Gomez’s?”
“Since Mr. King put my father under his so-called ‘protection,’ yes. Mr. Gomez gives me your note, Papa helps choose the appropriate medicine, and I drop it off.”
“Except for tonight.”
She huffed and crossed her arms. “I think Mr. King might suspect something. He knows my father would never be so blasé about not being able to help sick people. Papa would be going mad if we didn’t have a way to get medicine to the Stuebens. But we do, thanks to you.”
That last part had been almost shy. Not like her at all.
“Thank you,” she whispered.
Hart shifted in the saddle, embarrassed. “Nah, thank you. You and Doc are the ones saving people. I’m just delivering the medicine.” “It shouldn’t be an issue at all,” Regina whispered, her breath making white clouds in the air.
No, it shouldn’t. But the law was on King’s side, and Hart liked living too much to do something stupid, like challenge King directly. He tightened his hold on her and kicked the horse into motion once more, trotting silently up the bank towards Black Aces.
They slipped into town from the east, following the back sides of several buildings, until he came to the old boarding house and the Vickers’ home on the other side. Hart cocked his head, listening carefully for any sounds of danger. There were a lot more voices than should be for one in the morning, but they were coming from the direction of the sheriff’s office and the Three Queens Saloon. He swung down, then reached up for her.
“You gonna be alright here, Miss Vickers?” he barely whispered, still holding onto her waist.
When she tilted her face back, the weak moonlight reflected off her pale skin. So different from his own. So delicate.
That’s when he realized she was gripping his upper arms. As if she didn’t want to let go either.
“Yeah?” he whispered.
“I’ve admired you for a long time, Mr. Black Ace, and I’ve often— My goodness, that certainly is a silly name, isn’t it? I’ve seen the way you sign the letters you leave behind the store, with the black ace.”
He snorted slightly in agreement. “Wasn’t my idea. Someone got it into their head I needed a name. I guess that one made sense, since I’m the one helping the townsfolk of Black Aces.”
“Yes, and because ‘Savior of Our Town’ was too much of a mouthful.”
What he did didn’t seem as if it were that big of a deal to him, but her praise warmed him again. Made him stand taller. “I’m only doing what needs doing,” he whispered, repeating what he’d told Pony many times.
To his surprise, she patted his upper arm. “Yes, and that makes you remarkable,” she whispered in return.
He shifted his weight, wanting to push her towards her back porch, uncomfortable with her saying such nice things about him, but at the same time totally unwilling to let her go.
“Mr. Ace,” she murmured, stretching up on her tiptoes, “I’ve always wondered…”
Instinctively, he found himself leaning towards her, bringing his covered lips closer to hers. “Yeah?”
“Well, with you being a town hero and all…”
She was close enough her words and breath moved the bandana in front of his mouth. His arms shook with the effort of not pulling her closer, crushing her to him, feeling her softness pressed against him, yanking down this stupid cloth and kissing her the way he’d been dreaming about kissing her for years.
“I’d give my eye teeth to know who you really are,” she finished.
It was as if she’d dumped a bucket of ice cold water on his head. All of a sudden, the night air felt colder, creeping down the neckline of his duster. And the men’s voices from across town seemed louder, reminding him of the danger.
Danger which was more than just King’s goons. Danger in letting anyone know who he was under the mask.
So he stepped back, letting her go, and forcing her to drop her hold on his arms. Touching the brim of his hat, he murmured, “You’d better get along and let your pa know you’re safe.”
Her hands landed on her hips, and while it was impossible to see her actual expression, Hart didn’t have any trouble imagining her frown. But she just huffed quietly and turned, pausing only a moment to peer down the mouth of the alley towards town, before darting for her home. She flowed up the steps and crossed the porch to the door, slipping through quieter than a shadow, and Hart was impressed.
She had a real knack for this sneaking-around and rule-breaking stuff. He was glad she was on his side, for more than one reason. But his gloved hand tightened into a fist, remembering how it felt to hold her. Miss Regina Vickers was desirable as hell, but she had a wicked sharp mind, and he’d do well to remember that.
A beautiful woman has been many man’s downfall, Grandson.
He rolled his eyes at Pony’s voice and turned once more for his gelding. The bag with the quinine was still hanging from the saddle, and the Stueben baby needed him. Or rather, he needed the Black Ace. And until his town quit needing him, Hart was bound to remain the Black Ace, which meant not letting anyone know who he truly was.
Can Hart afford to trust Regina Vickers, when he's got such a secret to keep? But how can he not, when he's already half in love with the woman? And what will the dastardly Mr. King do to keep them apart and the town under his control? Get ready for some epic adventure and sweet romance in the first book in the Black Aces series, Ante Up!