Will Claxton could smell trouble brewing a mile away, but tonight he didn’t need to go that far. Seated on his favorite bar stool at The Rusty Spur, a run-down watering hole on the outskirts of Willowbend, Wyoming, the place was primed and ready.
Winter had released its hold on the land, and it seemed nearly every cowhand in the county felt the urge to shake off the doldrums of the long cold months. And they’d picked the Spur to do it. The smoke, the tinny music spewing from the jukebox, the crack and drop of pool balls, and the raucous laughter of beer-guzzling cowboys spelled a fight just waiting to happen. Sooner or later, some drunk would take exception to another’s looks or brand, and that would set things off.
Will figured it was time to finish his beer and call it a night. Before all hell broke loose.
Then the front door opened, letting in a blast of chilly spring air. And in walked a woman.
Tall, slender, and dressed in work-worn jeans and boots, with a hat pulled low over her eyes, she looked more like a young saddle hand than a woman, a saddle hand itching for a fight.
She whipped off her hat, slapping it against one slender thigh, and all resemblance to a cowboy flew out the door. She was all female, from her wild mane of reddish-blond hair, to the feminine curves accentuated by no-nonsense cotton and denim.
He remembered the last time he’d seen her, it had struck him then too: the differences between the girl he’d once known—a lanky tomboy trailing behind him—and the woman she’d become. Yes sir, Lindsey could pretend she was one of the guys, had done so all her life in fact, but any man with half an eye could see differently.
“Damn,” muttered Eric, the bartender.
Will couldn’t have agreed more. Though he would have bet Eric’s definition of trouble differed somewhat from his own. Lindsey had always been one of the most difficult females Will knew, and he suspected that much about her hadn’t changed.
“What the hell is she doing here?” Will asked.
Frowning, Eric nodded toward the back of the room. “I suspect she’s looking for her brother.”
Will followed the other man’s gaze to a threesome involved in a pool game. Two of the men he’d never seen before. The third he’d known all his life—Stuart, Lindsey’s younger brother. Will had noticed the younger Baker earlier and purposely steered clear of him. “And the strangers?”
“Drifters,” Eric answered, though he kept his focus on the impending confrontation. “They blew into town a couple of weeks ago. Been hustling the local cowboys ever since. Baker more than most. Boy’s been losing his shirt.” Eric shook his head. “As if his sister needs any more trouble right now.”
Will glanced at Eric. “More trouble?”
“Seems she’s run into a string of bad luck out on the Silver Creek. Accidents and the like. A lot of the boys won’t work for her anymore.”
Will had heard about the so-called problems out on the Baker ranch but had dismissed them as hearsay. Around these parts, rumors traveled like wildfire across a dry summer prairie, and when it came to the Bakers, folks tended to keep Will informed, whether he was interested or not. Eric, however, wasn’t one to spread tales, and his information was usually more accurate than most.
Making a mental note to find out more later, Will took another sip of his beer and watched Lindsey’s progress across the room. Men shifted out of her way and fell silent as she walked toward her brother. Will had to admire the way she carried herself with a smooth feminine confidence that contradicted her situation. She might have been a woman out of place in a raunchy cowboy bar, but it didn’t stop her. But then, nothing much ever had. In grade school, she’d been the toughest “boy” on the playground. Now she ran one of the largest spreads in the area.
He doubted whether any of the locals would mess with her. They all knew Lindsey and her reputation. But the men with Stuart—well, that was another story. There was no telling what a couple of rough-looking strangers like those two might do.
Finishing the last of his beer, Will told himself it wasn’t his problem. He didn’t owe the Bakers anything. Hell, a lot of folks would say it was the other way around. Besides, Lindsey knew better than to come waltzing into the Spur. If she got herself into trouble, it was no concern of his.
“Stuart?” Her voice carried across the room, and the hum of conversation died. “We need to talk.”
Stu didn’t seem to notice that every eye in the place was on the two of them. “Not now, Sis, I’m in the middle of a game.” With a grin, he leaned over the table to line up a shot. “These boys been on a winning streak, and I mean to turn that around.”
The two men laughed, but Lindsey didn’t look amused.
Stu took the shot and missed. “Damn!”
The other two players groaned in mock sympathy, and several of the cowboys closest to the table laughed nervously.
“There, see . . .” Stu walked over to his sister and draped an arm around her shoulder. “You went and caused me to miss.”
She said something Will couldn’t hear, but he sensed her tension from clear across the room. She was one unhappy woman. Stu, on the other hand, didn’t seem to notice. Either that, or he didn’t care.
“Hey, guys,” Stuart said. “I want you to meet my big sister Lindsey.” He put a hand under her chin which she batted away. Chuckling, he pulled her closer against his side. “She may not be the fanciest filly in these parts, but she’s got spunk. And she can run a ranch better than any man I know. Ain’t that right, Linds?”
“Damn fool,” Will muttered. He and Lindsey might not be on the best of terms, but he hated seeing her humiliated—especially by her no-account brother.
Lindsey pulled away, ignoring her brother’s comments. “Playtime’s over, Stuart. Tomorrow’s branding day, and I need you sober and able to work. Let’s go.”
“I can’t. We’re in the middle—”
Lindsey didn’t let him finish. “Not anymore.” Moving over to the table, she swept the remaining balls into the pockets. “The game’s over.”
Will almost laughed aloud. No one could say the woman didn’t have guts.
Stu and his new friends, however, weren’t smiling. The bigger of the two strangers stepped in front of her, stopping her as she turned toward the door. “Hey, missy. Where ya think you’re goin’?”
Lindsey lifted her chin and looked him in the eye. “Stay out of this, cowboy. It’s between me and my brother.”
He dropped two meaty hands to his hips. “You just messed up our game. That makes it ’tween you and me.”
Stuart came to his sister’s defense. “Hey, Gus. Take it easy, buddy. Lindsey’s hot-tempered, but she didn’t mean nothin’ by it. Did ya, Sis?”
“Sure I did, Gus.” Lindsey never took her eyes off the big man in front of her. “You and your friend are nothing but a couple of two-bit hustlers. Now get out of my way. My brother and I are leaving.”
Will groaned. Gutsy maybe, but stupid. Very stupid.
“Your brother here owes us. Big time. And you aren’t goin’ anywhere till he pays up.” Gus shifted in closer, obviously trying to intimidate her with his size.
Will could have told the man it wouldn’t work. He’d never known Lindsey to back down from anything in her life. And as he expected, she didn’t even flinch. “Get out of my way.”
“Not likely. But maybe we can work out some other form of payment.” Gus seized her arm and hauled her up against his chest.
Without thinking, Will unhooked his feet from the barstool and started to stand.
“Get your hands off me.” Anger, not fear, echoed in Lindsey’s voice, and it brought Will up short.
What the hell was he doing?
Lindsey wasn’t his responsibility. Never had been, really. They’d been friends, but it had been a long time ago. Forcing himself to sit back down, he decided to let Stuart get her out of this one. After all, he was her brother.
As if hearing Will’s thoughts, Stu grabbed the big man’s arm. “Leave her be, Gus. I’ll pay you.”
“I think I might like her form of payment better. What do you think, Ray?” Gus said to his partner. “’Neath these cowboy duds, I feel a woman.”
Stu yanked at Gus’s arm just as Ray, a small weasel of a man, stepped into the fray. He gripped Stu by the shoulder and spun him around. Before he could react, Ray buried a fist in Stu’s stomach, followed by an uppercut to his jaw. Stu collapsed on the floor.
Lindsey let out an angry curse and rammed her knee upward, aiming for Gus’s groin.
Gus blocked it and laughed. “Looks like I got me a wildcat.”
“Damn!” Will knew better than to get involved—just like the rest of the cowboys, who shifted uncomfortably, but did nothing while one of their own lay crumpled on the floor. Hell, why did he have to be the one to step forward?
Especially when it involved the Bakers.
“Damn,” he mumbled again as he reached the gathering around the pool table. He might not like it, but he knew the answer to his own question. He couldn’t stand by and watch someone manhandle a woman. Not even if that woman was Jeremiah Baker’s daughter.
“Got a problem here, Lindsey?” he asked.
Her gaze jumped to his, and he saw the surprise in those bright green eyes of hers. He couldn’t blame her. She probably figured he’d be the last one to come to her rescue. But it was too late now to worry about what Lindsey thought.
“You best just go on back to the bar,” Gus said. “This ain’t none of your concern.”
Will crossed his arms and rested a hip against one corner of the pool table, sizing up the other man with a glance. He was big. Too big.
“Well, you see, Gus, it’s like this.” Will figured he’d done stupider things in his life. Only at the moment, he couldn’t think of one. “Miss Baker here and I go back a ways. Since she took a swing at me in the first grade to be exact.” He rubbed his jaw, as if remembering that long-ago punch. “I figure that makes her my concern.”
Gus sneered, turning his plain face ugly. “Sounds like it’s time someone taught her some manners.”
“It isn’t going to be you.” Will paused to let his words sink in. “Now. Let the lady—”
“Will,” Lindsey called out, looking at something behind him. “Watch out!”
Spinning around, Will came face to face with Gus’s sidekick, the man called Ray. Will braced himself, ready for the attack, when suddenly Eric emerged from the crowd, close to Ray’s back and whispered something in the man’s ear.
The drifter stopped in his tracks.
Imagining Eric’s threat, Will grinned and nodded his thanks before turning back to Gus. “As I said, let the lady go.”
Gus’s eyes flickered briefly with uncertainty but then hardened. He shoved Lindsey away from him, and she caught hold of the pool table to keep from falling.
“Okay,” Gus said. Legs braced slightly apart, hands at his side, he wiggled his fingers in a come-and-get-me gesture. “You want to be a hero? Go for it.”
Gus stood a good two or three inches taller than Will’s six feet. Add to that about a hundred pounds, and Will figured he didn’t stand a chance in a fair fight. But then, who said he had to fight fair? One thing eight years in the marines had taught him: things weren’t always fair. In the end, the only thing that mattered was who was left standing.
“Hell . . .” Will crossed his arms as if reconsidering. “Looks like I don’t stand a chance against the likes of you.”
Gus chuckled, a low, mean sound. “You got that right.”
Will dropped his hands, started to turn away, but then grabbed a pool cue instead. In one fluid motion, he brought the hard wooden stick around and caught old Gus in the gut. A quick uppercut to his chin with an elbow, and then Will swept the man’s knees with the pool cue.
He fell hard. The big ones always did.
Lindsey let out her breath as Gus hit the floor. She’d seen men like him before—big, mean, and unpredictable. Fortunately, Will’s move had been a surprise, or else he might have been in trouble. Obviously, she should have known better than to worry. Will had always been able to take care of himself.
Planting one booted foot on Gus’s chest, Will leveled the pointed end of the cue at the other man’s throat. “Now, what was that you were saying about manners?”
Gus cursed but quieted at the distinctive sound of a pump-action shotgun. Like everyone else in the room, Lindsey turned toward Eric as he stepped forward, weapon in hand, shoving Gus’s partner in front of him.
“Nothing like a good old-fashioned fistfight to liven up the evening.” Eric grinned at the roomful of cowboys. “But now”—he motioned with the shotgun for Gus to stand—“I think it’s time you two boys moved on.”
Will lifted his boot from Gus’s chest and stepped back.
Scrambling to his feet, Gus glared at Will before shooting a poisonous glance at Lindsey. “You ain’t heard the last of me.”
A sliver of fear slipped down her spine, but she refused to acknowledge it. Lifting her chin, she returned his angry gaze.
“Oh, I think we have.” Eric’s words broke the uncomfortable connection. “At least in my place.” He stood with his shotgun draped across one arm in a gesture that was about as casual as a rattler ready to strike. “In fact, either of you boys walk through that door again, it won’t be me doing the talking.”
Gus hesitated a moment longer, then turning, he led the way as both men hurried toward the exit. As soon as the door slammed behind them, the noise level returned to normal.
Lindsey could hardly believe how quickly everyone went back to their own business, as if nothing had happened. Shaking her head at the strange workings of the male mind, she turned to her brother. He was attempting to stand, and she slipped an arm around his waist to help him.
“Is he okay?” Will asked.
“He’ll live.” She got Stuart to his feet but had to brace him against the wall to keep him from slipping back to the floor. The combination of too much beer and the blow to his jaw made him nearly useless.
“What about you?”
Surprised, she glanced at Will. The concern in his dark eyes made her heart skip a beat. She wasn’t used to anyone asking about her well-being, but then, Will wasn’t most people. He’d once been her best friend.
“I’m fine,” she lied.
She didn’t answer for a moment. Why did it have to be Will who’d come to her defense tonight? He’d always been able to unnerve her with little more than a glance. Now he stood too close, looking at her as if he cared, as if she mattered to him, when she knew nothing could be further from the truth.
“I’m fine,” she repeated.
He didn’t look like he believed her, but he let it go. “Here . . .” He moved to Stuart’s side. “Let me help.”
“No thanks.” He’d done enough already, more than she would have liked. She’d come into The Rusty Spur angry and determined to drag her brother back to the ranch. Instead, Stuart had ended up hurt, and she’d gotten herself manhandled by some big oaf. The whole incident embarrassed her, but Will witnessing it and coming to her rescue made it even worse. “We’ll manage.”
“Just like you managed Gus?” It was a typical Will statement, ripe with sarcasm.
She’d forgotten this particular trait of his. He’d always been so damned cocky and sure of himself. She would have liked to tell him to take a walk, but she held her tongue. She didn’t want another scene. And besides, he had helped her.
Smiling tightly, she stepped away from Stuart. “Be my guest.”
Will slipped a shoulder under Stuart’s arm and started toward the exit. He waited until they were almost to the door before starting in on her.
“What were you thinking, coming in here alone like that?” he asked. “You should have sent one of your ranch hands in for Stu.”
She should have known he wouldn’t just help her out the door and leave it at that. “I handle my own problems, Will.”
She turned back toward him. She had enough on her mind between the trouble on the ranch and Stuart’s irrational behavior. The last thing she needed was a lecture from Will Claxton. “No one asked you to step in.”
For a moment, he held her gaze, and she saw the old anger flare in his eyes. The same anger she’d seen the last time they’d argued, the night their friendship had ended.
“That’s right,” he said finally. “No one did.”
It took her back a bit: his brief flash of anger and the memories it stirred. For years, she’d avoided him, and now she realized why. She didn’t want to be reminded of the friendship they’d once shared, or the night it had ended.
“I appreciate the help, Will. But Stuart and I can manage from here.”
“Gus and his pal might still be around.”
She tried to smile, but doubted she’d succeeded. “We’ll be fine.”
Keeping his hold on Stu, Will ignored her and started again toward the door. Lindsey had no choice but to go along, knowing just how stubborn Will could be once he’d set his mind on something. And how useless it was to oppose him.
Outside, it took both of them to get Stuart into the truck. Once they had, she turned back to Will. “Well, I guess I owe you.”
He slipped his hands into the back pockets of his jeans and smiled. “Yeah, I guess you do at that.”
“Thank you.” Though it nearly killed her to say it. “I always pay my debts. So, if there’s anything I can do . . .” She let her voice trail off and turned toward her truck, eager to get away from him.
“In fact,” Will said, stopping her before she’d taken three steps. “There is something you can do for me.”
She turned, eyeing him suspiciously. Something in his voice made her wary. “What’s that?”
“You have something that belongs to me.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
She shook her head. “Look, Will—”
“The Claxton Ranch.” He closed the distance between them. “I think it’s about time the Bakers returned what they stole.”