Book: Led Astray: The Best of Kelley Armstrong

Previous: Last Stand
Next: Branded

An Otherworld Universe Story

Dakota Territory, 1877

“Are you sure she can do it?” the boy asked Nate as he watered their trio of horses.

Lily could have pointed out that she was standing right beside him and had both a name and ears. But she knew the boy—Will—wasn’t trying to be rude; he was simply like most of the young men they recruited: rarely set foot off his family homestead, rarely seen womenfolk other than his momma and sisters. And frontier mommas and sisters did not look like Lily.

Even now, as Will talked about her, he couldn’t look her way—as if merely to glimpse her might damn his mortal soul. Lily could point out that his soul ought to be a lot more worried about the thieving that was coming, but to a boy like Will, that was part of life. Pretty girls with painted faces were not.

Lily’s face was, of course, not painted right now. She was dressed in breeches, boots, and an overcoat, with her hair pushed up under her hat. It didn’t matter. Will still wouldn’t look.

“Can she do it?” he asked again. “I mean no offense—”

“Then stop giving it,” Nate growled.

Lily noticed a cloud of dust cresting the rise beside them. “I do believe my wardrobe has arrived.”

Emmett and Levi rode up, their horses run hard, flanks heaving. They had arranged to meet at midday and the sun had passed its zenith a while back.

“Had some difficulties,” Emmett said as he nudged his horse to water.

“That it?” Nate pointed at the wrapped parcel behind Levi’s saddle. When Levi nodded, Nate took it and said to Lily, “Come on.”

Lily let Nate lead her behind an outcropping of rock. Emmett and Levi knew better than to sneak a look while she was dressing, and Lily was quite certain Will wouldn’t dare, but Nate believed in coppering his bets. Otherwise, things would get messy. Nate didn’t take kindly to trespass of any sort.

“We cutting the boy loose after the job?” he asked as they walked.

She nodded. “That’s best. It’s not working out. You promised Wilcox you’d try him. You did.”

Nate grunted and handed her the parcel. As she untied it, she snuck a peek at him. Six feet tall. Well built. Rough featured, but not in a way that was displeasing, at least not to her. What she noticed most, though, was what she’d noticed about Nate from the start: the uncanny way he carried himself. When he moved, he was like a catamount on the prowl. Yet most of the time he wasn’t moving at all, standing so still he seemed a statue, his gaze scanning the landscape.

It wasn’t natural, that complete stillness, that constant alertness. She wondered why others never thought it peculiar. She had right from that first time, seeing him across the saloon. He’d noticed her, too, but not in the way men usually did. He’d only stared, no expression, no reaction. Yet his gaze hadn’t left her as she’d taken a table with the rest of her acting troupe.

The trouble had begun later that evening, when a gambler made the mistake of equating actresses with whores. It was a common misconception. Lily couldn’t even properly blame the man, considering that her two companions had already accepted paid invitations. The acting life required a second income; Lily made hers with light fingers.

She’d told the gambler she wasn’t for sale, but he’d thought she was only haggling. That was when Nate had come over. He’d asked the gambler to let Lily be. When the man laughed, Nate fixed him with a stare as cold as a Nebraska winter. It hadn’t taken long for the gambler’s nerve to crack. He’d gone for his Colt; Nate broke his arm. Just like that. Lily saw the gambler reach for his piece and then he was screaming like a banshee, his arm snapped, bone sticking out, blood gushing. That’s when she realized Nate wasn’t quite human.

Now Nate turned his gaze on Lily as she undressed. Lily was used to men staring at her. They’d been doing it since she was fourteen, which was when she discovered it was so much easier to pick a man’s pocket if he was gaping at her bosom. Nate wasn’t like that. He gazed at her with what seemed like his usual expressionless stare, but Lily had learned to read deeper, and what she saw there now was hunger. He didn’t move, though, not until she adjusted the dress and twirled around.

“How do I look?” she asked.

Nate growled an answer and, before she could blink, he was on her, one hand behind her head, the other at her rear as he pulled her into a deep kiss.

“I really ought not to have bothered putting on the dress,” she said as she broke for air.

Nate chuckled and hoisted her onto the nearby rocks.

They rode into town after sundown. That was best. There were many variations on their game, but in each they’d learned the value of a late approach. By morning, the town would be buzzing with rumors of the party that arrived under the cover of night. A slip of a girl, bundled in an overcoat but riding a fine horse and wearing a fine dress. A proper young lady, escorted by a surly uncle and three young gunmen.

As the day passed, the story grew. The girl’s uncle kept her under close watch at the inn, but they’d had to venture out, as she was in need of a new dress. And what a pretty thing she was, with yellow hair, green eyes, and the sweetest French accent.

The girl was shy, the uncle taciturn, and no one in town learned much from either, but the young fellows with them were far more talkative, especially after a drink or two. They said the girl came from New Orleans. Her parents were in California, expanding their empire. Shipping or railroad, no one was quite sure which, but they were powerfully flush. A suitor waited in California, too. A rich man. Very old, nearing sixty. The uncle was taking the girl to her parents and her fiancé and her new life. They’d been diverted here by news of Indian trouble and were waiting until the army had it in hand. Until then, the party would pass the time in their little town.

Lily’s mark came at dinner. It was earlier than they’d expected—most men didn’t like to seem eager. But it was said that John Anderson was keen to wed. Or wed again, having recently lost his young wife in a tragic accident. It was also said that “accident” might not have been quite the proper word to use. Anderson hadn’t been as pleased with his bride as he’d hoped. Her daguerreotype had sorely misrepresented her and she had not cared for ranch life. She’d also objected to her husband’s ongoing association with the town’s whores and his penchant for bringing them home. Women could be quite unreasonable about such things. So Mrs. Anderson had perished and her grieving husband was impatient for a new bride.

Lily and Nate were dining at the inn. They’d barely taken their seats when Nate made a noise deep in his throat, too low for others to hear. He kept his attention on the wall-posted menu while Lily glanced over to watch their mark stroll through the door. They said John Anderson was a handsome man, but she couldn’t see it. Or perhaps it was simply everything else she’d heard about him that tarnished her opinion. She did, however, watch him until he looked squarely in her direction. Then her gaze darted away as she clutched her napkin and cast nervous glances at her “uncle.”

Anderson stopped at their table, took off his hat with a flourish and introduced himself. Gaze lowered, Lily waited for her uncle to reciprocate. He didn’t.

“I see that you have not yet begun to dine,” Anderson said after an awkward silence. “May I invite you both to join me at my table?”

“No,” Nate said.

“Does that mean I may not ask or you will not join me?”

Anderson’s lips curved in the kind of smile that would warn another man off. Nate only stared at him.

“No.”

“All right then. May I ask—?”

“No.”

Lily simpered and shot looks at Anderson, her eyes pleading with him to excuse her uncle’s behavior.

“I see,” Anderson said. “Well, then, perhaps I’ll have the pleasure of seeing you both around town.”

Nate’s answering snort said, “The hell you will.” Anderson nodded stiffly and retreated to his table.

They had been in town for nearly a fortnight. During the course of it, Lily found increasingly more opportunities to see John Anderson. It was a difficult wooing with her uncle so determined to keep the rancher away, but they met in furtive assignations that grew ever more daring until Anderson finally extended the required invitation to visit him at home. Not that he was quite so forward. He simply said he had a hound dog with pups that would surely delight Lily and he wished for her to see them. Naturally, it would have to be at night—late at night, after her uncle was abed. But Anderson would send his foreman to accompany her so she would be safe. At least until she arrived.

And so the foreman—a man named Stewart—arrived at the appointed hour of midnight. Lily informed him that her uncle was deeply asleep, having been aided by a draught of laudanum. They set off into the night.

Nate and the boys followed.

Lily slowed outside the big ranch house and looked about nervously.

“It is dreadfully dark, monsieur,” she said.

“Mr. Anderson is right there, miss.” Stewart pointed at the lit front window. “Waiting in the parlor.”

She gave a sheepish smile. “I am sorry to be such a child. I have not visited a man’s home without an escort.” She dipped her gaze. “And I have never visited at night.”

“There’s nothing to worry about, miss. Mr. Anderson is a proper gentleman. You have my word on that.”

Lily continued to stall. Nate insisted on scouting before she ventured inside. Finally, she caught sight of Nate’s distant figure, poised in the side yard, gazing about, face lifting slightly to sniff the breeze. He motioned to say that he’d circled the homestead and all was well.

“I am ready to go in, monsieur,” she murmured to Stewart, and he took her up to the front door.

An hour later, Anderson lay passed out on the parlor settee. He looked very peaceful, Lily thought as she knelt beside him. He would not be nearly so happy when he woke, but even without his odious reputation, Lily would not have regretted bamboozling him. Men like Anderson were no better than bunko artists themselves—seducing young women in the expectation the ruined girl would be rejected by her suitor and then she, and her inheritance, would be handed to him by parents hoping to make the best of a bad situation. It proved such men were not as worldly as they believed or they would know it was a ruse unlikely to succeed. This was not English society where one eager bride could easily be exchanged for another. Out on the frontier, a good woman was like a fine horse or pair of boots: you hoped they’d be pleasing and well-formed, but you expected they’d been used a time or two, which only saved the fuss of breaking them in.

Anderson hadn’t even won a flash of bared ankle. Lily was adept at the art of the tease, a skill she’d learned as an actress. In cities, she was expected to perform in actual plays, but out in the Territories, men just came to see pretty girls in pretty dresses teasing and dancing and warbling on stage.

Other women who worked this game would be required to lie with the mark, even if she had a beau in the gang. Out here, a girl was lucky if her lover didn’t toss her garter onto the poker table and give her away for a night when his luck soured. With Nate, Lily didn’t need to worry about that.

Once she’d confirmed that Anderson was out cold, she dashed through the house to be sure it was empty. When she’d arrived, she had Anderson take her on a tour of his “lovely home.” He’d dismissed the help, as men usually did. She still checked, in case a maid or hired hand had snuck in the back. The house was clear.

Lily brought Nate and the boys in and gave them quick instructions on where to find the best goods. Emmett and Levi needed little guidance and Will would simply follow them. The five worked together on the parlor and adjoining rooms. Then Nate told the boys he was taking Lily outside to “scout for trouble.” Will looked confused. Levi smiled and shook his head. Emmett winked and told Nate to have fun. Nate grabbed a parcel he’d left by the door and off they went.

Naturally, Nate and Lily were not heading outside to scout. This, too, was part of the routine, and Emmett and Levi seemed to think it was quite reasonable that the boss would whisk his girl off mid-job for a roll in the hay barn. After all, they’d been forced to sleep apart for a fortnight now. Could anyone blame him? Well, yes, they could, but the boys never seemed to realize it was the least peculiar. With Nate, they were accustomed to peculiar.

“Did it go all right?” he asked as they slipped around the house.

Obviously it had, if Anderson was asleep and the boys were emptying the home, but Lily knew that wasn’t what Nate meant. “He didn’t lay a finger on me.”

“Good.”

As Lily walked, she unfastened her dress, keeping to the shadows of the house. That took a while, and she didn’t stop moving until she had to wriggle out of it. She glanced over to see Nate watching her.

“No,” she said, waggling her finger.

He growled deep in his throat. She laughed and took the parcel from his arm.

“Don’t grumble,” she said. “You know it’s better if we wait.”

Another soft growl, this one less complaint than agreement. She laughed again and tugged on her breeches, shirt, and boots. Her pistol was there, too—a little derringer that tucked neatly under a shirt or a dress.

“Did you find him?” she asked when she’d finished.

“Out back. Farthest building from the house.”

She smiled. “That ought to make it easy.”

Lily peered through the open window. Stewart was at his kitchen table, playing solitaire while drinking whiskey straight from the bottle.

Growing up in New Orleans, Lily had been subjected to more church-going than any child ought to be, which had much to do with her running off at fourteen. Too many gospel mill lessons pounded in with a strap. From what she’d learned there, the nature of demons was quite clear. They were hideous beasts with wings and scales and horns. They did not, in short, look like Theodore Stewart. But as she’d come to understand, most church lessons were less than useful in the real world.

Stewart was a demon. Or a half-demon, fathered by one of those unholy beasts whom, Lily was quite sure, hadn’t borne scales and horns when he seduced Stewart’s momma. Stewart had, however, inherited his father’s predilection for hell-raising, which was why they were there.

While their thieving provided a handsome income, it was merely a front. The real prize sat at that table, drinking himself to sleep. This was the world Nate had introduced her to, one filled with creatures that the church deemed “monstrous aberrations.” Half-demons, witches, sorcerers, vampires, werewolves, and others. Monsters? Perhaps. Monstrous? She glanced at Nate, peering through the window, sharp gaze assessing his prey. No, not always. But they did cause trouble with somewhat more regularity than average folk, which meant there were plenty with a price on their heads, like Stewart.

Nate leaned over and whispered into her ear, so Stewart couldn’t hear through the open window.

“I’ll go in here. Can you take the front?”

She nodded.

“Be careful,” he murmured.

She nodded again, but there was rarely any need for her to be overly cautious. While she had starred in the opening acts of this performance, Nate took that part now. Like the understudy for an actor who never took sick, Lily’s new role was rather dull. In all their jobs together, only once had a mark even noticed Nate, and that was only due to an unfortunately-placed looking glass. Even then, Nate had taken their mark down before he reached the door.

Lily still undertook her role with caution, derringer in hand as she crept around the tiny house to the front door. There she found a suitably shadowy place to wait.

When she heard a faint noise to her left, she wheeled and swung her pistol up, her eyes narrowing as she strained to see—

Cold metal touched the back of her neck. “Don’t move.”

She calmly assessed the voice. Did it sound firm? Confident? Or did it waver slightly, suggesting a man uncomfortable with pointing a gun at a girl of twenty? And perhaps even less comfortable with the prospect of pulling the trigger.

“Lower the gun,” he said.

She recognized the voice now, though the tone was not one she’d ever heard him use. She cursed herself—and Nate—under her breath.

“Will?” she said.

“I told you to lower—”

“Please don’t hurt me, Will.” She raised her voice a little, knowing Nate’s ace hearing would pick it up. “If you want a bigger share, I’m sure we can manage it. P-please don’t—”

He kicked her legs out from under her. She tried to twist as she fell, but he’d caught her by surprise. Will grabbed her gun arm. Before she could throw him off, his fingers burned so hot she gasped as agony ripped through her forearm and Will plucked the derringer from her grasp.

So Will was a fire demon, like Stewart. They’d been euchred.

“William!” a voice called from the cabin. “Bring her in.”

Will grabbed Lily by the hair and dragged her to the cabin door. He pulled it open and shoved her through, his gun at her neck.

Nate and Stewart faced off inside. Nate glanced at Lily. Then he looked away.

“Seems we have your girl,” Stewart said.

Nate grunted.

“William here tells me you’re fond of her,” Stewart continued. “That you would, I presume, not wish to see any harm befall her.”

Another grunt.

“I’ll take that as a yes. Now, as I’m sure you know, there’s many a man who’d pay handsomely to mount Nathaniel Cooper’s head on his wall. But I have a buyer who’d prefer you alive. He’s quite interested in your special skills. There aren’t nearly enough of your kind out here. So here’s what I’ll do. You come with me and we’ll take the girl, too. None of my men will harm her. And, yes, I have men. Or half-men, half-demon.” Stewart raised his voice. “Bob? Jesse?”

Two answering shouts came from outside. Nate took advantage of the pause to glance at Lily again. She held his gaze before he turned away.

Stewart continued, “As you see, there is little sense in running, although I’m quite certain you won’t attempt it, so long as we have your pretty mate—”

Nate spun and fired . . . right at Lily’s chest. She managed only a strangled gasp of shock before slumping to the floor.

Theodore Stewart stared down at the girl’s body, her shirt bloody, limbs akimbo, sightless eyes staring up.

In the world of supernaturals, it was generally accepted that Nathaniel Cooper was a bastard. That was true of most of his breed—violent, unsociable loners. But even among them, Cooper was renowned as a heartless son of a whore. Still, William had said he was fond of the girl. Very fond of her.

Apparently, William had been mistaken.

Stewart crouched to close the girl’s eyes. He ought to have foreseen this. William was but a boy and didn’t understand the ways of men. And yet Stewart had still been caught unaware by Cooper’s move, which was exactly what the bastard intended. He’d killed the girl and then fired off a second round at Stewart as he bolted out the door.

As Stewart rose, the door banged open and William strode in.

“You get him?” Stewart asked.

“Not yet. Jesse and Bob are tracking him. I reckoned I ought to make sure he didn’t circle back and try to collect on his bounty.” William walked to the girl. “Damnation. She was a pretty painted cat. I was really hoping to get a poke.” He nudged the girl’s arm with his boot. Then he bent and touched it. “She’s still warm.” His gaze traveled over the body. “You think it’d be all right if I—”

“No. Get outside and scout.”

Stewart waited until William left. Then he looked down at the girl. The boy was right. She was finer than anything he’d seen in a while.

He fingered the bottom of her shirt. He wouldn’t do that, of course. That was disgusting. But there was nothing wrong with taking a look.

Stewart unfastened her bottom button and then the next one, slowly peeling back her shirt. Out of the corner of his eyes, he caught a movement, but before he could lift his head, a hand grabbed him by the throat and threw him across the room.

Lily reflected that this was perhaps not the most opportune moment to end her performance. Yet she wasn’t about to play dead while he disrobed her.

Her side blazed as she sprang to her feet. Bullets hurt, no matter how good a shot Nate was and how careful he’d been to hit her where there wasn’t risk of serious injury. Her eyes stung, too, from staring at the ceiling until Stewart had done the Christian thing and closed her eyelids. She supposed she ought to have shut them herself, but she knew that open eyes would be the most damning proof of her death, and she was a fine enough actress to manage it.

Stewart was still lying on the floor, dazed, trying to figure out how he’d arrived there, clear across the room. When he saw Lily coming at him, he only gaped.

Lily yanked Stewart’s gun from his holster and tossed it aside. Only then did Stewart snap out of it. He caught her by the arm, his fingers flaring red-hot, fresh pain scorching through her already-burned arm. She ignored it and grabbed him by the neck. His eyes bulged as she squeezed. They bulged even more as her hand began to change, palm roughening, nails turning into thick claws.

“You didn’t expect this?” she said as she lifted him from the floor. “You did call me his mate.”

“No. You can’t be—”

“Do you smell that?” Lily turned her face, nose lifting. “I do believe we’re about to have company.”

The door flew open and Will stumbled in.

“Cooper,” he said, panting. “It’s Cooper. He’s . . .”

He saw them, her hand around Stewart’s throat. His mouth worked. He had one hand still on the door. Then it crashed open, sending Will scrambling out of the way as a massive wolf charged in. The beast’s nostrils flared. Its gaze swung to Lily. Then, with a grunt, the beast tore after Will as he dashed for Stewart’s gun, his own obviously lost.

Will made it halfway across the room before the wolf leaped on him. He hit the floor and rolled onto his back. His hands shot up, fingers blazing. The wolf’s jaws swung down and ripped out his throat.

“No,” Stewart whispered as Will’s life’s blood spurted onto the floorboards. His gaze shifted to Lily. “I have money.”

“And so will we, when we collect the bounty on you.”

“Whatever they said I did, it isn’t true. I have enemies. Lying sons of whores—”

“A Kansas wagon train two years back,” she said. “A train full of settlers massacred and left for the buzzards, after your gang had some sport with the womenfolk.”

“I . . . Wagon train? No. That wasn’t . . .” He trailed off. “I have money. More than any bounty—”

“I’ll take the bounty,” she said and snapped his neck.

“Stop grumbling,” Lily said as Nate daubed her bullet wound with a wet cloth. “I told you to shoot me.”

Which she had, mouthing it when he’d glanced at her during the standoff. That did not, she understood, make him feel any better about the situation.

“It passed clean through,” she said. “We heal quickly. I won’t want to shift for a few days, but I’ll be fine otherwise.”

He still grumbled. She leaned forward and brushed her lips across his forehead.

“I need to be more careful,” he said.

“We both will be.”

“That boy . . .” A growl as he glanced at Will’s body. “I ought not to have been duped.”

“We both were. We’ll have a talk with Wilcox about this. He was the one who asked us to take the boy. And he was the one who set us on Stewart.”

Another growl.

“We’ll have satisfaction,” Lily murmured. “In the meantime, presuming those half-demons were from Stewart’s old gang, we ought to be able to collect bounties on them, too.”

Nate grunted. The prospect, she knew, did not cheer him immediately, but it would, after she’d recovered and he’d finished chastising himself for letting them be bamboozled.

“You did well,” he said as he dressed her wound.

“I’ve not forgotten how to act,” she said with a smile. “And you gave me all the other skills I required.”

It had taken work to convince him to share his curse with her. Eventually, he’d come to realize that the only way a werewolf’s mate could be safe was if she was truly his mate. The process, as he’d warned, had not been easy. The life, too, was not easy. But she would never regret it. Lily knew what she wanted—the man, the life, the person she wanted to be. And she had it. All of it.

“We ought to hurry,” she said. “The boys will be waiting back at the inn by now.” She paused. “Do you think they heard anything before they left?”

Nate snorted.

Lily laughed. “Yes, they’re not the cleverest of lads. Which is the way we like them.” She got to her feet. “Let me find a clean shirt.”

She looked at him, still naked after shifting back from wolf form. “And we’d best find your clothing. Although . . .” Her gaze traveled down his body. “The boys are very patient. I suppose they wouldn’t mind waiting a mite longer.”

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Next: Branded