Synopsis | Reviews | Excerpt
Once an outlaw, always an outlaw? Has Caitlin returned to her old ways, despite marriage and motherhood? Can Jake rescue her before she�s lost forever?
Even after seven years of marriage and four children, he still had the power to make her body tingle and her senses reel. There had always been that between them, since the first time they'd met. It was what had kept them together in the beginning, even against incredible odds. And now--now she wasn't certain that attraction was enough anymore. There were other things that mattered, unanswered questions that circled in her mind and destroyed her peace. She had to get away for a while to think things through.
Caitlin Lassiter tearfully boards a train with hers and Jake's children in tow, planning to spend Christmas with her brother, Devon, and his wife, Maggie. Then fate throws an old enemy in her way--Charwell, a fellow bandit from her lawless years. He's boarded her train to rob the passengers, and when he recognizes "Colorado Kate," he kidnaps her to help him pull off some bigger jobs. Now it's up to Jake, Devon, and Maggie to find her before the Law does, because it certainly looks like Colorado Kate has gone back to the wrong side of justice.
December 6, 1888
"THIS IS STUPID. I ought to sling you over my shoulder and take you home right now."
Jake Lassiter glared at Caitlin, his mouth set in a tight line. People milled about them on the train platform, but he didn't attempt to lower his voice. His temper was so obviously frayed that she took a cautious step back.
"Jake, we've already discussed this..."
"Yeah, and I still haven't changed my mind."
Caitlin eyed him with wary trepidation. She nervously shoved her gloved hands into the fur muff dangling from her wrist. It was no warmer on the open platform than it was inside the drafty station house, and she'd just as soon deal with an angry husband outside as in.
It was an effort to keep her voice calm when she said, "I realize that. But neither have I changed my mind."
Jake's eyes narrowed slightly. Despite the frigid air, he was hatless. His long, dark hair curled over the turned-up collar of his heavy sheepskin coat; a brisk wind tumbled strands into his eyes. Caitlin suppressed the urge to reach out and brush them back.
Jake looked away from her. His black eyes focused on distant Colorado peaks wreathed in clouds. The silence between them was colder than an icy mountain stream. After a moment he wrenched his gaze back to her and said in a rough growl, "You should stay here and fight it out. Like we always do."
"That's just it." Caitlin swallowed the huge lump in her throat that threatened to choke her. "Every time we argue you win. Nothing is ever settled."
Jake's eyes narrowed even more. "If I always win, then it's settled now. You're staying here."
"No, not this time, Jake. You only win because you're louder. I'm tired of always being the one to give in." She drew in a deep breath of cold air to steady her nerves and wished she knew the right thing to say. But what could she say? That she loved him? Oh yes, but that would only end with Jake smiling his crooked little smile and cajoling her back into his arms. It would settle nothing. She needed time. Time to think, to rearrange her priorities and try and figure out exactly what was making her so unhappy in Colorado--and with Jake. She wished she knew.
Jake took a step closer, and she could feel the tension in him even from a foot away. She clutched her fur muff more tightly, as if it were a barrier between them, and he jerked to a halt only inches from her.
"Damn your red head, Kate, you don't need to do this."
"Yes, Jake. I do." When her eyes met his she felt a familiar jolt. Even after seven years of marriage and four children he still had the power to make her body tingle and her senses reel. There had always been that between them, since the first time they'd met. It was what had kept them together in the beginning, even against incredible odds. And now...now she wasn't certain that attraction was enough anymore. There were other things that mattered, unanswered questions that circled in her mind and destroyed her peace. She had to get away for a while to think things through.
"Mama, Mama," six-year-old Clay said insistently, running out from the station to tug at her skirts, "the train is comin'! I can hear the whistle!"
Caitlin's heart lurched. It was almost time. She knelt to hold Clay close, her arms going around his sturdy little body as if he would somehow disappear if she didn't hold him tightly. "You should be inside the station with Mrs. Baker," she murmured to her squirming son.
Grunting his displeasure with this maternal display, Clay successfully wriggled loose and ran to his father. He clasped Jake's knees, his eyes shining up at him with that mixture of hero worship and love that always made Caitlin smile.
"Papa," little Clay implored, "won't you go with us to see Uncle Devon and Aunt Maggie? They'd be glad to see you."
Jake looked down and ruffled the boy's dark, shining hair. "Not this time, son. I need to stay here and tend to business." He caught Caitlin's eyes as she straightened and added softly, "But I'll be here when you come home again."
That last bit almost made her change her mind. To hide her confusion and pain, she turned blindly toward the children's nurse as she emerged from the station-house door. "I'll take the baby, Mrs. Baker. You tend the twins, and Clay can help."
Jake stood silently, his hands jammed into his coat pockets while Caitlin took the baby and fussed with the edges of his blanket. She avoided Jake's eyes as long as she could. Grief clogged her throat and filled her eyes, and she felt that overwhelming sense of despair that had pervaded her days since the baby's birth. She had to escape it, but she didn't know how.
The shriek of a train whistle cut into the air, and she winced. The locomotive was inching its way up the steep incline to the station. The clack of iron wheels grew louder, accompanied by billowing steam that seemed to quickly blend with snow clouds hovering low. Soon--too soon--she would be on her way to Texas and her brother. It had been almost a year since she'd seen Devon and Maggie. Away from Jake, maybe she could sort out her confusion and recapture the peace and contentment she'd once known.
She buried her nose into the sweet-smelling spot between the baby's neck and his blanket, squeezing him so tightly he protested with a faint, "No!"
Caitlin smiled. Even at fourteen months, little Devon knew his own mind and wasn't shy about voicing his opinions. Like his namesake, she supposed. He even had the same pale blond hair and ice-blue eyes as Devon. What would Devon say when she arrived on his doorstep? Her brother knew she was coming for a visit, but she had not told him she planned to stay.
"Guess it's almost time," Jake said gruffly when the train ground to a halt in front of the station. Caitlin turned blindly toward the huge iron monster belching steam onto the wooden platform. Tears stung her eyes, and she hoped Jake wouldn't see them. This was difficult enough.
With a loud screech of iron wheels, the train shook the wooden platform and released another cloud of steam. Little Clay whooped with delight. He loved trains and was so excited about this journey to Texas. She wished she could feel the same anticipatory pleasure. It should be wonderful to see Devon and Maggie. So why did she feel as if she were leaving her heart behind?
Minutes passed in a blur of excited children and Jake's dark, steady stare, until Caitlin felt as if she would explode with anxiety. Then the conductor was calling the summons to board, and passengers pressed forward to mount the iron steps leading into the train. Caitlin did not board immediately; she stood silently while Jake bade the twins farewell and told them to be good. Melissa and Molly hugged their father tightly, all smiles and red-gold curls.
Straightening at last, Jake turned to look at Caitlin as he said, "If I don't see you, have a happy Christmas."
She felt a twinge of guilt. This would be the first Christmas in over seven years that she would spend without him.
"You, too," she managed to say and turned blindly toward the train. In the next instant she felt Jake's hand on her arm, and he was whirling her around. Jerking her to him, he tangled one hand in the hair on the back of her neck to hold her tight.
Before she could voice a protest, his mouth came down on hers, warm and hard and demanding. The pressure of his kiss parted her lips, and his tongue darted between them, searing her despite the cold wind that blew around them. Damn him. This was the Jake she knew best, this fiercely demanding man who stole away her breath, and Caitlin felt her resolve go as weak as the muscles in her legs. She sagged into his embrace in a kind of helpless surrender.
Then he released her as abruptly as he'd grabbed her, and she swayed slightly at the sudden loss of support. Their eyes clashed, his dark and angry and imploring all at the same time, and hers wet with frustrated tears.
"Good-bye, Jake," she managed to say in a husky whisper. "I'll write..."
Disbelief flashed briefly in his face; then he nodded. "Yeah. You do that." He stepped back, hands jammed into his pockets.
Caitlin turned and fumbled for the iron hand guide attached to the side of the train. The conductor put a hand under her elbow to assist her aboard, and she stepped up and into the passenger car. She moved down the narrow aisle without glancing back. It would turn her to stone if she looked at Jake again, and she didn't think her heart could bear it.
Yet when the train finally puffed away from the station and down the glistening curve of tracks, she fought the urge to run back. Her throat ached with suppressed tears. This was much more difficult than she'd thought it would be. Somehow, in the safety of her bedchamber, with Jake only a few feet away, leaving had seemed much easier. But now he was growing more distant by the minute, and all she could think was to wonder if she was doing the right thing.
"Mama," little Clay said insistently, "when will we get there?"
Caitlin forced her attention to him with a sigh. Five minutes into the journey, and he was already asking when they would arrive. This promised to be the longest train ride of her life.
HIGH ROCK WALLS hewn into the mountainsides with dynamite and months of hard labor had gradually given way to more scenic views as the Colorado Central train puffed its way along the tracks. Miles and miles of glistening iron rails had been laid in the past few years. From the windows of the train, passengers could see icy mountain streams winding through rocks and trees. Even in winter men often stood in the icy streams with shallow pans, sluicing the frigid waters in hopes of finding gold. Icicles hung from tree limbs overhead, testimony to the cold on those high, steep trails pocked with mining holes.
Caitlin stared out the window. Her breath frosted the glass pane and it was chilly, but she didn't mind. The stove at the far end of the passenger car wasn't putting out much heat. The children were all bundled into blankets and asleep at last, so she had a few minutes of peace. The swaying motion of the train was soothing, with the wheels constantly clacking a rhythmic melody. Mrs. Baker had already succumbed to slumber.
After a moment of adjusting her position on the hard seat, Caitlin was able to get comfortable. She curled one hand under her chin and leaned her head against the window. Some of the terrain looked vaguely familiar. She'd ridden over so much of it years before with Devon when they had been part of the Lost Canyon Gang, but she'd forgotten all the little hideaways and trails they once used in their train hold-ups. Heavens, it seemed like another lifetime. Even another person's life...
Had that really been her? Swaggering down the aisle of a train in men's pants, wearing a gun belt and brandishing a pistol that she knew very well how to use? Oh, yes, it certainly had. Of course, she and Devon had only robbed silver trains belonging to G. K. Durant, who had stolen their parents' silver mine, but they had been infamous throughout Colorado nonetheless. What, Caitlin wondered with a faint sigh, would her daughters say to her one day when they discovered the truth about their mother's past activities? She hoped her explanation would suffice.
After all, if she hadn't been the infamous Colorado Kate, she would never have met her children's father. Jake Lassiter, as feared for his reputation as a fast gun-for-hire as he was a ruthless lawman--it had been Jake who had finally captured the notorious train robbers by first capturing Colorado Kate.
And she had married him a year later, after the devastating gun battle that had almost killed her brother, and did kill Devon's young wife. So much pain and sorrow before the peace and joy she'd found with Jake; and now here she was, leaving Jake behind when she wasn't even certain why.
Caitlin sighed, her breath forming a frost cloud on the blurred glass. Idly, she rubbed the edge of her palm over it. The clear glass provided an excellent view of the wintry slopes. Miles of snow-covered ground stretched monotonously beyond the tracks. Lost in contemplation of the Colorado hills and her own inner turmoil, Caitlin stared out the window and lost track of time.
A flicker of motion flashed at the edge of her vision, then disappeared. She frowned. The glimpse of color against the stark white slopes had seemed...unusual. She leaned forward. The train had begun to round a curve in the track. Ahead on the right lay a stretch of thick pine trees edging a flat plain. On the left rose a sheer rock wall. There was no other movement that she could see, only the tops of the pines shifting in the wind. A trail of smoke from the steam engine rose in thick gray-white clouds that blended into the sky.
After a moment she decided it had been her imagination and sat back. The swaying motion and rhythmic noise was soothing, and she closed her eyes. Suddenly she felt the jerk of the train.
Her eyes snapped open. Something was wrong. She sensed danger and jerked to an upright position.
"Mrs. Baker. Mrs. Baker."
The tone of her voice, soft but urgent, penetrated the nurse's slumber, and she opened her eyes. "Yes, Mrs. Lassiter? Do the children need me?"
"No. Not yet." Caitlin felt suddenly foolish. There had been only that slight hesitation. Nothing else. Perhaps she was wrong. She met Mrs. Baker's curious gaze and smiled faintly. "I thought I heard something out of the ordinary. That's all. It must be nothing. Go back to sleep and--"
A shot rang out, followed by a bang as the back door to the car was opened. A rough voice rang out, "This is a holdup. Nobody move!"
Caitlin felt a cold chill. The voice was familiar, as was the whole moment. How many times had she done this before? Only then she had been the one wearing a mask and firing a pistol. And she did not have frightened children to comfort.
Even as she was soothing Clay, who had awakened and was sitting up with wide eyes, Caitlin winced in remembered shame. She had done as these men were doing, swaggering down the narrow aisles of a train and demanding money. For the first time Caitlin knew what it was to experience a train robbery from the victim's point of view. It was not at all reassuring.
Two of the masked men came closer. One of them was thrusting a cloth bag into the faces of the passengers and demanding jewelry and money; the other kept a wary eye on the men in the car, his pistol cocked and ready.
Their actions were obviously well planned and swiftly executed. Before she could prepare herself the masked bandit with the cloth bag was in front of her.
"I'll take your jewels and your money, lady," he said gruffly. Caitlin looked up, holding Clay in the crook of her arm as if to shield him. The bandit impatiently jiggled the cloth bag. There was the faint chink of coins and jewels. "And gimme that pin at your neck."
"Hush, Clay," Caitlin murmured when her small son began to whimper. "It will be all right." She gave him a reassuring pat, then released him. Mrs. Baker was making odd, choking sounds but had leaned forward protectively over the other children on the seat next to her. With shaking fingers, Caitlin reached up to unclasp the gold cameo pin she wore at the neck of her dress. She fumbled clumsily, apprehension and a stuck clasp slowing her movements.
"I'll take them rings, too," the bandit snapped. "And hurry up." He gave the cloth bag another impatient shake.
Caitlin glared at him, and her voice was tart. "Keep your damn pants on, mister. Can't you see I'm trying?"
"Look, lady, ain't no need for you to go gettin' all uppity with me. You're damn lucky I ain't yanked 'em off you."
The stubborn clasp finally released, pricking her finger, and Caitlin jerked it free. "And you're damn lucky I don't have my pistol, mister, or you'd be whistling Dixie through a hole in your throat," she shot back at him.
The bandit first looked startled, then wary. "Hey. I know you. Look up here."
Caitlin froze. She still held out the cameo pin. The hint of familiarity she'd first felt became a sudden certainty. Slowly, she looked up, and then knew..."Charwell."
The bandanna over the lower half of his face fluttered as he laughed. "Yeah, it's me. Hell, Kate, what are you doin' on this train?"
"Traveling with my children, as any fool with half an eye could see," she snapped. "Here. Take the pin."
As she shoved the pin into the bag, Charwell asked, "Where's that fast-draw brother of yours?"
"Wouldn't you be surprised if I said he was right behind you?" Caitlin smiled at Charwell's nervous glance around. "You always were scared of Devon, Charwell. And you were smart to be."
Charwell laughed and half-turned to his companion. "Zeke, you know who this is? Colorado Kate. Remember me tellin' you about her?"
The man he'd called Zeke came forward, peering at Caitlin over the top of his bandanna mask. "Yeah. So? Get her jewels and let's go. We're burnin' daylight."
For a moment Charwell stood there uncertainly. Then he laughed again. "Hey, I got me a great idea. This is just what we need."
Caitlin had time for only an instant's foreboding before Charwell reached out and grasped her by the wrist. "Get your coat, Kate. You're goin' with us."
"Have you lost your mind?" Zeke demanded. "We don't need no damn woman taggin' along..."
"This ain't just any woman. This is Colorado Kate, and she's done more train jobs than all the rest of us put together. Besides, she recognized me. Now shut up and get the rest of the loot and we'll get outa here."
Neither Caitlin's nor the other bandit's protests swayed Charwell as he dragged her from her seat. In scant moments, with her children's screaming objections ringing in her ears, Caitlin Conrad Lassiter was off the train and astride a horse in hock-deep snow.
Breathlessly, she snarled at Charwell, "I'll kill you for this, if Devon doesn't get you first."
Charwell pulled down his bandanna and grinned at her. "I'd rather take my chances with you, Kate. Now come on. We've got some riding to do."