When dangerous times call for courageous acts, how will she keep the man she loves and her family safe?
Agatha Montez is a resilient and strong-minded young woman who has lost her parents in an unexplained bandit raid. When the local Sheriff is murdered by the same bandits and her brother assumes his position, Agatha hires a famous bounty hunter to go after the people who seem to lurk around the city like predators. How will she keep her family and the man she has come to love safe when everything points to immediate danger?
Heath O’Malley, a strong and silent man, is a gun for hire. His tragic past accompanies him wherever he goes, and he has yet to finish another job to decide if and how he’ll settle for good this time. When he meets Agatha though, he realizes that to feel content, it takes more than just his will to get out of this life. How will he listen to his heart’s desire when he is always needed to draw a gun and take action?
The bandit attacks are a real, tangible threat. To get to the bottom of the issue, Agatha and Heath need to work together and protect the whole town. Loving each other means taking life-changing decisions to let go of their past—the kind that affects the shape of things to come.
Shooting a man seventeen times was overkill.
Agatha Montez shifted uncomfortably as she tugged at her skirts while waiting for the door to open. Part of her dreaded what would come next. She told herself to be strong and practical. But lately that was hard. At night, she could still remember seeing the sheriff’s bloody and mangled body before he was buried.
It was a terrible tragedy. Their town had been through a lot recently. Though she hadn’t known the sheriff or his wife well, Agatha wanted to help out. Everyone needed to be helping one another at a time like this.
The door creaked open to reveal the sheriff’s wife.
Widow, she reminded herself. Mrs. Anthony gave her a trembling smile before turning to her older brother beside her. He gave her a nudge as he held up the basket they had prepared that morning with her parents.
“Good afternoon,” Agatha cleared her throat as she tried to give the woman a smile. But then she realized she shouldn’t smile too much. It was not a happy time for anyone. “Agatha Montez. This is my brother, Alonso. We wanted to bring you some food. And, well, we’re very sorry for your loss.”
Mrs. Anthony glanced down at the basket before opening the door a little wider. The woman’s eyes were dark and hollow with tear stains on her cheeks. Though she couldn’t be more than thirty years old, she looked haggard and worn.
“That’s very kind of you.” It didn’t sound like she had done a lot of talking with her raspy voice. “Would you like to come in?”
“Of course,” Alonso replied, stepping through the doorway. “It’s good to see you again, Mrs. Anthony. How are you doing?”
He was the one who had insisted that they visit. He would have gone on his own but thought it might be improper. Though they both worked on the family ranch, he was the one who traveled to town most often and had been friends with the sheriff.
Agatha brushed back her unruly hair before stepping through the doorway. She closed the door behind her as the widow led her brother into the sitting room. It was a quiet little home on the edge of town. Once probably nice and cozy, there was an air of despair and pain.
She had only planned to stay a few minutes, but Alonso settled into his seat comfortably to talk. The two of them spoke fondly of the sheriff, Lionel Anthony, and spoke of a few Bible verses. Agatha offered her support where she could as well, and then offered to tidy up.
The sun had begun to set before any of the three noticed. Alonso shared their farewells and condolences before stepping back out into the street.
“Thank you for inviting me,” Agatha murmured as they headed off toward home. Her eyes skirted the street to watch out for trouble. She felt certain that those who had murdered the sheriff were no longer around, but it didn’t stop her heart from beating hard inside her chest. “I hope we were able to bring her some comfort, the poor soul.”
She couldn’t imagine what it was like to be all alone, to lose one’s family to such a horrid tragedy.
Her brother nodded before tugging fondly on her hair. “I know. They deserved a lot better than what happened. He had a risky job, I suppose, but we’ve never had trouble before. Not like this. And now we don’t have a sheriff… What do you think will happen?”
Jerking her head up to look at him, Agatha frowned at the tone of his voice. There was something off, like he was building a plan. “What do you mean?”
“I don’t know,” Alonso shrugged. “But we have to do something, don’t we?”
“Do something?” Agatha asked as they headed out of town. It was a trek back to their ranch, but they liked the walk.
And it helped that they’d gotten out of a few of their chores to go do this good deed. Their mother and father couldn’t possibly be mad at them for not feeding the goats if they were helping out the sheriff’s widow.
She wondered how the woman slept at night, having seen her husband’s end like that. A shudder rippled through her spine at the very thought. It was so terrible that her heart wanted to break. No one deserved such pain to suffer that gruesome death or to remember their loved one in that manner.
Her brother didn’t say anything, so she gave him another look. “You’re not thinking of doing anything, are you?” Agatha charged.
Alonso shrugged before ruffling his hair. “I don’t know, Agatha. I just wish there was something I could do. All these deaths… No one deserves that. It’s our town. Aurora Peaks is our home. Someone needs to step up. Take the sheriff’s job and make all this trouble go away.”
“I agree,” she managed after a minute. Her eyes scouted the road ahead of them as something caught her attention. “But that’s not us. We’re going to keep our heads down and I’m sure this will all be over soon, if it isn’t already. Do you see that?”
His eyes followed to where she gestured. Agatha glanced at her brother who frowned. “Is that smoke?” He wrinkled his nose as he tilted his head up. “What do you think Father is burning?”
Smoke spiraled up into the cloudy skies from where their ranch stood. She scrunched up her own face as she walked.
A heavy feeling settled in her stomach. “I don’t know. That’s strange. He said something about building a bonfire tomorrow, but I don’t recall what that was for. Perhaps for the oil…” Agatha started to walk a little faster. “It’s getting dark. We should hurry.”
The two of them sped up. Though she told herself it must be nothing, there was a voice in the back of her mind that said otherwise. Slowly the doubt crept in, threatening to strangle her. As they drew closer, the smoke only grew.
It had to be a large fire to gather that much smoke. Agatha looked at her brother as the same realization struck him. There were trees blocking their vision of the house from where they were on the road. But it didn’t matter. Already they could smell something burning. They took off running to the end of the road and through the gate.
There was fire everywhere.
Agatha skidded a stop as they gaped in disbelief. The barn had just fallen upon itself with a loud clatter. Sparks flew everywhere. She smelled something else burning but couldn’t tell what it was. They were close enough to the smoke that her eyes began to burn. Then she noticed the porch on fire.
“Where’s Mother and Father?” Agatha elbowed her brother and jumped into action.
They ran, desperately praying for the best. Her heart continued to pump loudly with adrenaline as she tried to find her parents. The sweat dripped down her brow and her eyes stung. She had never felt so hot as when she ran around the fire and searched for her family.
Agatha’s panic only grew. Desperately flinging burning boards aside, she searched of her parents. In the back of her mind, she remembered the sheriff that had been shot seventeen times.
The smoke and horror clung to her skirts as she refused to give up. Her parents had to be there somewhere.
Springtime was her favorite season.
There were flowers blooming in the hills and along the pathways. Fruit trees began to grow ripe for an afternoon snack. With the sun shining brightly, it made everything look more promising than the gray chill of winter.
But this spring was different.
The world felt a little gray to her. The young woman hardly noticed the flowers as she walked along the edge of the road into town. New Mexico was growing warm enough that a trickle of sweat ran down her spine. It was hot and gray outside.
She clenched the basket tightly in her grip as she tried to think about anything else that wouldn’t make her miserable. She had her home on the Blue Moon Ranch and her family to think about. They were all that she cared about. Yet, they were just what caused her to worry.
The town of Aurora Peaks appeared from around the next hill. It was a spread-out small town lost out in the middle of the Wild West. Most of the buildings around the town square were brown or a dark red from the wood carried down from the forests of California. They ran parallel to one another until they came to a circle by an old well, the very first structure built. There were four more lanes of houses and then several ranches like her family’s spread out across the land.
It was a good place that made for a decent home. At least, that’s what she had always thought. But she had been forced to think differently for several months.
“There you are, Agatha!”
She jerked her head up in surprise. The town had arrived much sooner than she expected. Or rather, she had walked quicker than usual.
Tightening her grip on the basket that she carried with both hands, Agatha looked up at her older brother.
Alonso Montez was a mere inch taller than herself at five foot ten, but practically half her width. She fed him well and yet the food merely disappeared. His brown hair and brown eyes matched her own, though he was the only one who had inherited freckles. At twenty-three years old, he cut a fine figure and was well-respected in town.
Her eyes ran over him to make sure he was well. She did that all the time, trying not to worry about him. On the end of the boardwalk, Alonso watched her with his crooked grin holding his hands on his hips. He looked healthy and cheerful.
She could almost believe it if that horrid metal star wasn’t pinned to his vest.
A bitter taste kept her from smiling for more than a second. “Alonso, what are you doing?” She shifted her flat, wide-brimmed hat as she reached him.
Alonso shrugged. “What do you think I’m doing? I’m doing my job. Watching the town.”
It was as though he was purposely trying to mock her. Agatha shifted her skirts anxiously as she handed over the basket. He deserved a turn carrying the heavy container. “You don’t have to, you know. Besides, you’re a walking target standing out here like this. You should be somewhere inside.”
Though he accepted the basket willingly, he rolled his eyes at her suggestion. “I can’t protect the town if I’m not keeping an eye out.”
He started to lead the way down the path toward his office. Agatha stepped onto the boards to join him as she looked around warily. The streets were rather empty, as they had been for the last couple of months. Their town was filled with such a thick tension that she could almost taste it. Sour and salty. She didn’t like it.
“You could at least watch from a safer position. That’s all I’m saying.”
They reached the sheriff’s office. He nudged her with his elbow before opening the door for her. “I appreciate your concern, but I’m still walking, aren’t I?”
Agatha appreciated her brother’s attempt to cheer her up. That was usually her role in their relationship. She used to be the one pointing out the sunshine, the singing birds, and every budding flower in the snow.
But their parents had died two months ago, and everything had changed.
He closed the door, but she was the one who locked it. There were cracks between the boards and enough room at the bottom for someone to slip through. It was hardly a secure building. He was trying to be friendly and make sure everyone could talk to him if they needed help.
The only problem was that it was going to leave him open to trouble as well.
A heavy weight settled in her stomach as she turned to find her brother rummaging through the basket. Alonso was always hungry. She shook her head before shuttering the nearby open windows. There were too many open spaces for someone to attack them.
“You’re asking for trouble. This is ridiculous and you’re being foolish.” He started to groan but she pressed on. “I mean it! You’re risking your life just wearing the badge, don’t you understand? You’re a rancher, not a lawman.”
“But the outlaws—”
She inhaled sharply as she started biting her thumb. “I know. I know! All right? They won’t go away. But getting yourself killed in the process won’t fix anything.”
Putting the pear down, Alonso leaned forward and tugged on her elbow so she would get her hand out of her face. It was a terrible habit that she’d had since childhood. She couldn’t help it.
Agatha met her brother’s gaze as he stared back sternly. “I’m not trying to get killed. I’m just trying to help. I already told you. I made a decision and I’m sticking with it. I’m going to find who killed our parents. And I’m going to stop them. That will be done as a lawman, and not a vigilante. We already talked about this, remember?”
Though she opened her mouth, Agatha hesitated and closed it up. She swallowed hard beneath her brother’s hard look. “Yes, I know. It doesn’t mean I like it. At the very least, you could hire a deputy who knows how to shoot.”
“I can shoot,” he said defensively.
“Not well,” she reminded him before crossing her arms. “I want justice as much as you do, but I don’t want it at the cost of my brother. Why should I have to lose you as well?”
The badge he wore on his chest shone brightly and only made her think of guns and bullets. The bitter taste returned. Yet, the sheriff of Aurora Peaks picked up the half-eaten pear and ate like he was starving.
“You won’t lose me,” he assured her with his mouth full. “I’m not going to be taking foolish risks or making mistakes. I’m careful. Someone has to protect the town, and no one else was willing to do it.”
Agatha corrected him as she brushed her hair back over her shoulder. “You mean no one else was willing to risk their life.”
He didn’t have a chance to respond as the door swung open. Agatha looked up in surprise to find Mrs. Meadow Bateman there. Clinging to her skirts was her young son, Benjamin. The boy peeked his head out shyly before squealing. “‘Lonso!”
“Benny!” Alonso stuffed the pear in his mouth as he bent down to scoop the four-year-old up.
Agatha stepped back. The room filled with sunlight that defused the stress in her shoulders. The tension faded. Crossing her arms, she watched as her brother swung the boy around before setting him down.
Both of them were laughing. One would have guessed they were the best of friends, she supposed, as they started to play Stick ’Em Up.
“Bang! I got you!”
Alonso grabbed his chest with a dramatic gasp. Falling against the wall, he pretended to choke as he slid to the floor. The boy with blonde hair and ruddy cheeks began to cheer loudly. Soon both of them were laughing.
Neither of the women were amused.
Agatha brought her thumb back to her mouth as she looked at Meadow. The willowy blonde stood in the doorway holding a basket. The young lady was only a few years older than herself and had the sweetest disposition. A recent widow, the young woman was always composed and tending to her only child.
“I did!” Benny cheered as he danced around Alonso’s desk. “I’m gonna be a lawman, too! Mama, I want to be like ‘Lonso.”
Agatha’s jaw locked at the very notion. Inhaling sharply, Meadow swept through the room. In a single movement the basket in her arms was put on the desk and she had her son in her arms.
“Don’t be silly, my child,” she murmured. “You’re too young for that nonsense, Benjamin. You’re going to be safe. That’s what you’ll be.”
The Batemans had been through their own trouble as well. Agatha could feel the pain in the woman’s heart. It made her limbs ache.
Outlaws had taken to raiding their town. Everyone had hoped it would pass over and the men would be on their way. Instead, it had only grown worse. First, there was the fire in town with the Beans and the sheriff had been killed as well. That was followed by a raid on the Bateman ranch where Meadow’s husband had been killed. They had been hoping all was over when another raid took place on the Montez ranch where Agatha and Alonso had lost their parents.
Too much violence had hurt Aurora Peaks in the last couple of months. They were still recovering from each loss. Agatha could feel it in her bones as she watched Meadow kiss her son’s forehead and then straighten up with a tentative smile. Life was hard in the west for there was little time to mourn. Life went on and there was work to do.
But Agatha pondered as she saw Meadow’s smile directed at her brother, there might still be hope.
She slipped her own basket off the desk, burying the pear that her brother had eaten part of to make more room for Meadow’s. “Is that lunch, Meadow?” Agatha forced cheer in her voice.
Meadow turned to look at the baskets. “Oh. Yes, I thought the sheriff here might be hungry. But if you…”
“Wonderful.” Agatha gestured vaguely to her own basket as she tried to think of something. “This isn’t for Alonso. No! It’s for … well, someone else. That is very kind of you.”
“You brought me lunch?” Alonso repeated in surprise at the other woman. He beamed, ruffling the boy’s hair before stepping forward. “You shouldn’t have! What have we got today? Benny, are you hungry?”
The boy nodded eagerly as Alonso pulled out the food and made sure it was split into three equal portions. One for Meadow, one for him, and one for Benny. Agatha took a step back, amazed at how much they looked like a little family.
Agatha just hoped that her brother would make it to have a family of his own. And hoped that they would all make it to an old age. She inhaled slowly as she turned to the door that was still open from where Meadow had left it.
Just as she was deciding whether she should stay or go, she noticed a stranger riding down the street.
A stranger. They didn’t have a lot of those. Agatha narrowed her eyes as she took in the thin build and red hair peeking out from under the cap. The wheels in her mind started to turn. It was time for her to leave.
Whirling around, Agatha cleared her throat. “Alonso, I had best leave.” She lifted the basket. “I have to go somewhere. Make sure you’re home before dark.”
Then she headed down the street. Only a few more hours before the sun began to set and that’s when the town shut down. She hurried along with a prayer that the danger would end soon.
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