Holding Out for a Hero

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  • Edition: Original
  • Format: Paperback
  • Copyright: 2009-05-26
  • Publisher: Pocket Books
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Bestselling author Leigh continues her popular series about the sexy Fraser brothers with this entry starring their cousin Rico, an expert scout determined to settle a score against the most merciless outlaw in Arizona. Original.





As Rico Fraser stuffed extra boxes of cartridgesinto his saddlebags, he studied Captain Don Masters and the two women who were engaged in conversation nearby. He felt a heated tug at his groin as he focused on the young woman dressed in a yellow gown. A wide-brim white hat restrained the auburn hair that hung past her shoulders, and against the austere background of the fort she looked like a brilliant statue.

A sudden breeze grabbed her hat and sent it soaring, and he smiled as the lilt of her laughter carried to his ears. The sound brought to mind the pleasing tinkle of the vesper chime at the mission where he grew up. Then the warmth in his velvety brown eyes faded, clouded by the memory of his last visit to the mission: the death of Father Chavez, his beloved uncle. He lowered his gaze and tied the strings of his saddlebags.

Masters scurried after the hat as it fluttered along the ground and lodged against Rico's legs. Rico bent down and recovered the hat before it could take flight again, then smacked it across his thigh a couple of times to get rid of the dust.

Grinning, he handed it to the captain. "Best tie it down, Captain, or she'll lose it for sure."

The officer laughed and the men shook hands as the two women joined them. "Rico, these lovely ladies are Miss Andrea Burke and her niece, Miss Jennifer Burke."

Rico doffed his hat. "My pleasure, ladies."

"Rico is our civilian scout," Masters said.

Andrea Burke smiled graciously. "How do you do, Mr. Fraser. Were you raised in this area?"

Rico returned the friendly smile of the pleasant-looking blond woman. "No, ma'am. I was raised in California."

He swung his gaze to the younger woman, meeting her green-eyed stare. My God, she's gorgeous. She acknowledged the introduction with a nod but said nothing.

"Where are you off to, Rico?" Masters asked.

"Colonel Hardy's sending me out to find Private Hanson."

"Is the poor soul lost?" Andrea asked.

Masters shook his head. "No, Andrea, Private Hanson abandoned his post and deserted."

"So you're going out to track him down and bring him back for punishment, I suppose." The reprimand had come from Jennifer Burke.

Rico turned his head and encountered her look of disapproval. "I suppose so, ma'am."

"But why? You're not army, Mr. Fraser."

"That's what I'm paid to do, Miss Burke."

Their stares remained locked: hers emerald with disgust, his guarded in reflection.

Masters spoke up quickly. "Jenny, if a man deserts his post, it can start an epidemic among the others. We can't let that happen."

Ignoring the captain's explanation, Jennifer said, "So in truth, Mr. Fraser, you're nothing better than a bounty hunter."

The hostile look in her eyes challenged him to refute it. "I wouldn't say that, ma'am. I'm much better at the task than most of them." Rico tipped a finger to his hat. His smirk was a subtle teasing. "Pleasure meeting you ladies."

He nodded to Masters, mounted his horse, and rode away. He didn't look back, but he could feel her green-eyed stare boring into his back right between his shoulder blades.

"Well, Mr. Fraser put you in your place, Jenny," Andrea said.

"Rude and arrogant, isn't he?"

Andrea shook her head. "Honey, I'd say you were the rude one."

Jenny shrugged. "I suppose so, but I can't blame anyone for wanting to get away from this place. I dream of the day I'm old enough to do so without my father sending a bounty hunter after me to bring me back."

"Jennifer Burke, you know that isn't so. Mr. Miles was not a bounty hunter, he was a Pinkerton detective."

"In my eyes, that's no different. He was being paid by my father to bring me back against my will, wasn't he?"

"You were only eighteen years old, Jenny. I don't blame your father; I was as concerned for your welfare as he was."

"I was only trying to find a job to earn the money to go to college. If my father was that concerned about my welfare, why wouldn't he give me the money to do so?"

"Dear, I'm sure Don's not interested in listening to us air our dirty laundry,"

Jenny blushed. "Forgive me, Don. It's impolite of me. But even if Mr. Fraser isn't a bounty hunter, he still appeared to be very arrogant."

"Perhaps with good cause," Don Masters said. "Colonel Hardy claims Rico's the best scout he's ever known."

Andrea's eyes glowed with admiration. "Well, he's certainly the best-looking one I've ever seen. Tall, handsome, and did you notice his gorgeous brown eyes, Jenny?"

How could I not? They were warm enough to melt an iceberg, Jenny reflected. "I didn't notice. But I did notice his complexion looked too olive to be Indian, and he was taller and more broad-shouldered than any of the Mexicans I've seen."

Andrea was too wise to swallow her niece's act. Amused, she said, "You noticed all that, but not those brown eyes. Or that dark hair, I suppose."

"His mother was Spanish," Don Masters said. "He speaks the language fluently."

"The name Fraser doesn't sound Spanish," Andrea remarked.

"If I remember, Rico said his father was a Virginian who came west shortly after the gold rush." Don clutched a hand dramatically to his heart. "But I'm crushed, Andrea. I had hopes you'd prefer a man with light hair."

Andrea blushed. "And I do. Especially men in the army. Blond hair is so handsome with their blue uniforms. I'm simply looking out for my niece's prospects."

"Your niece can look out for her own prospects, Aunt Andrea," Jenny scoffed. "And it won't be an arrogant bounty hunter." Her gaze swung to where Rico Fraser was just riding out of the gate. Then she opened her parasol and strolled casually away.

Rico dismounted and hunched down to examine the spoor. The hot sun had dried practically all the moisture out of the horse manure, but it sure hadn't diminished the odor. He stood up and stretched the tired muscles of his tall frame.

"This is where he stopped before crossing, Bucep. He can't be more than a few hours ahead of us."

As if to respond, the black stallion flicked its tail.

Rico's gaze swept the distant mesas and canyons of the mountain range, and he shook his head. "The damn fool's riding straight into the Apache stronghold, Bucep, and I'm a bigger fool for following him. But I need the money, and I'm too close on Hanson's heels to stop now."

Remounting, he worked his way down to the riverbank, then reined up when he found what he was looking for in the moist silt: the hoofprints of a horse.

"Looks like this is where he crossed." He patted the horse's neck. "A cool swim should make us both feel better."

His gaze once again swept the mountainous terrain, laden with ponderosa pine, juniper, and piñon. Rays of bright sunlight transformed the rocky ridges and crags into ever-changing colors. Cinnamon became red, red became orange, and orange became gold.

"It sure is a might pretty sight, Bucep, isn't it?" He goaded the horse into the water.

An hour later, driven by the rumble of distant thunder, dark clouds drifted across the sky, shrouding it in gray. Large drops started to splatter down and Rico pulled a poncho from his saddlebag. If the downpour forced Hanson to halt, this might be the break he was looking for.

Within minutes the rain became a torrent, making the granite slopes slippery and treacherous. At nightfall he finally pulled up. He'd get an early start in the morning.

Rico stretched out under the protection of an overhanging ledge, confident that by this time tomorrow he'd be headed back to the fort with Private Hanson. As he chewed on a piece of jerky, he thought about the green eyes of the feisty gal in the yellow dress and how the bright colors matched her spirit.

The next morning, circling buzzards led him to his quarry -- whom the Apaches had reached sooner. A dozen arrows protruded from Hanson's slumped body bound to a tree.

Rico shook his head sadly as he cut off the arrows. "Looks like they used the poor fool for target practice, Bucep." After wrapping the body in a blanket, he tied it to the back of his saddle. "Let's get out of here."

Bone-tired, Rico arrived at the fort two days later and faced an angry Colonel Hardy across a desk.

"I'm not paying for any damn blanket you bloodied up. Why in hell didn't you just bury him instead of toting him back here?" Hardy took several puffs from his cigar, then rolled it expertly back to the corner of his mouth.

"You told me to bring him back, sir. Nothing was said about dead or alive."

"The man deserted his post and stole a horse belonging to the United States Army," Hardy declared. "I wish you'd brought the horse back, instead. I've got no sympathy for a man who deserts his post in hostile territory."

"At least he'll have a decent burial now."

"Just the same, I ought to cut this figure in half," Hardy grumbled as he signed the voucher. "Turn this in to Sergeant Levens to get your money."

When Rico got up to leave, Hardy said, "I haven't dismissed you."

"I'll remind you again that I don't take orders from you, Colonel Hardy. I'm a civilian scout, not part of your army. And as soon as I cash in this voucher, I'll no longer even be that."

Hardy broke into laughter. "Civilian or not, everyone within the walls of this fort takes orders from me, and you damn well know it. But that's what I like about you, Rico. That doesn't intimidate you." He grinned and picked up his cigar case and offered one to Rico.

"Sit down, son, and relax." He leaned across his desk and lit Rico's cigar, then opened a bottom drawer of his desk and pulled out a bottle of whiskey and two shot glasses.

"We're going to miss you, Rico. You're the best at what you do."

"Thank you, sir. But I think Jake Bedford will do just as good a job for you."

"So where are you headed?"

"I'm going back to California for a short visit with my family. But first, since I've only had about eight hours of sleep in the past four days, I'm going to spend five bucks of this fifty I just earned and soak the trail dust off me, eat the largest steak Maude Evans can dredge up, and then sleep the clock around. Then it's good-bye to Fort Redemption."

Rico swallowed the shot, which hit his empty stomach with a stinging punch. He stood up and set the glass on the desk. "Thanks for the whiskey and smoke, sir."

After cashing in the voucher, Rico led his horse to the stable. "I bet you're as tired as I am, aren't you, Bucep?" he murmured as he rubbed down the horse. After feeding and watering him, he put the horse in a clean stall. "Have a good rest, pal. You've earned it."

He went to the town bathhouse located outside of the gates, and it was all he could do to stay awake as he soaked in a hot tub. Too sleepy to shave, he headed back toward his quarters in the fort and encountered Andrea and Jennifer Burke.

"Good afternoon, ladies."

"What a pleasant surprise. Good afternoon, Mr. Fraser," Andrea said. Jennifer nodded.

"What brings you to town?"

"Actually, we're just on the verge of leaving," Andrea said.

"Andrea, will you come here for a moment?" a man called from a nearby carriage. Rico recognized him as Frank Burke.

"Excuse me." Andrea hurried over to him.

An awkward silence developed between Rico and Jennifer Burke. He was about to excuse himself when she said, "So, Mr. Fraser, did you bring back that soldier you were chasing after?"

"Yes, I did."

"I can't help but feel sorry for him. It seems to me that if he hated it here enough to desert, why not just let him go? What will they do to him now? A public flogging in front of the regiment, or send him to a federal prison for the rest of his life?"

"Actually, they've probably buried him by now, Miss Burke."

Jennifer paled. "You mean you killed him?"

"No, he was dead when I found him. All I did was cut off the dozen Apache arrows in him."

Her shock was evident and left her momentarily speechless. Then she said, "I suppose I owe you an apology, Mr. Fraser."

"Not to me, Miss Burke. To the army, for jumping to conclusions on matters that don't concern you and that you don't understand."

"How rude of you, Mr. Fraser."

Rico's patience snapped. "Fine talk, from a spoiled brat with a nasty tongue."

Her rising anger returned the color to her cheeks. "Now who is jumping to conclusions? You know nothing about me, sir."

"And I have no desire to know more." He tipped his hat. "Good day, Miss Burke."

Andrea returned as he walked away. "Your father said he still has some business in town and won't be returning to the ranch until tomorrow."

"And I'm sure that business is Maude Evans," Jenny remarked, still seething over her conversation with Rico Fraser.

"I don't understand why my brother doesn't marry the woman, instead of pretending they're just friends," Andrea said.

"Marry a woman who runs a saloon? You know how much of a snob my father is -- or should I say hypocrite? He sees nothing wrong with sneaking around and spending the night with her. But marry her? Heaven forbid. Yet the whole town knows what he's up to."

"He loved your mother very much, honey," Andrea said, in defense of her brother.

"I'm sure he did, but my mother's been dead for twenty years. And Mr. Evans died fifteen years ago. Since then, the two of them have been carrying on this relationship."

Andrea smiled kindly. "A man has needs, honey."

Amused, Jenny replied, "Apparently so does a woman."

Andrea linked an arm through Jenny's. "Well, do you want to remain in town or go home? Stumpy and Charlie are ready to leave."

"So am I." Jenny sighed. "This town is getting too small for my taste."

Andrea gave her a perceptive look. "I gather you and Mr. Fraser crossed swords again."

"Touché, Aunt Andrea. Haven't you noticed I'm dripping blood?

Copyright © 2009 by Anna Baier

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