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The knife wasn’t in the boy’s belt, so it was probably in one of his boots. Degan figured he couldeither knock the kid out and carry him back to the shack to find it, or risk getting a boot to his face ifhe removed the boots here. For the trouble Dawson had caused him, he opted for the knockout, and he was in a good position to deliver the blow with one hand still holding Dawson down.
But Max saw the punch coming and used all he had left to avoid it, trying to turn on his side and covering his head with both arms. With the sudden movement, Degan’s palm slid up a few inches and touched something soft.
That brought him to his feet fast. “What the . . . ?”
The kid was still cowering on the ground—like a girl. Oh, hell no. There had to bea money pouch or something else strapped to Dawson’s chest that would account forwhat he’d felt. He was not dealing with a damn girl.
“Get up,” Degan growled.
The kid did with a wary look. Degan clamped his fingers around the back ofMax’s neck and, keeping him at arm’s length in front of him, walked him backup the hill. Degan didn’t collect the discarded garments they passed on the way.His thoughts were bordering on furious, which was pretty damn disconcerting since he hadn’t been this angry in years.
He shoved Max into the shack before he let go. The lantern was still burning, andfear was in Max’s dark eyes now. About damn time.
“This is what is going to happen now,” Degan said in a low tone. “You are goingto remove your shirt.”
“The hell I will!” Max backed away from Degan until the wall got in the way.
“If I have to do it, there won’t be any buttons left on your shirt. If it’s the onlyshirt you’ve got, too bad. I’m not interested in you, just what’s under your shirt.”
“So I’ve got a pair, so what? You don’t need to see them when you already felt—!”
“No more pretenses for you or assumptions for me, kid. Show me or I showmyself. Your choice.”
Degan saw a flash of blue in the dark eyes glaring murderously at him. He mighthave been startled by the appealing hue if he wasn’t so angry and frustrated. IfMax was a girl, what the hell was he going to do with her?
The shirt was unbuttoned slowly. If there weren’t still murder in her eyes, he’d thinkshe was trying to entice him. She pulled one edge of the black shirt to the side,revealing a breast. It wasn’t large, but decently plump and incredibly beautiful tohis eyes, which warned him he’d been a fool to go so long without having awoman. She started to uncover the other breast. He must have been staring too long.If she hadn’t been trying to seduce him to begin with, she was now. He ought to take her up on the offer, show her what happened when she played with fire. Not that she’d get what she wanted out of it.
He turned around. “Cover yourself.”
Whether she did or didn’t, she leapt at his back, slamming both fists into it before yelling, “Happy now, you son’bitch? Doesn’t change a damn thing and you know it!”
Didn’t it? Degan wondered. Maybe not. Max Dawson, female, was still anoutlaw wanted for murder and bank robbery. What would John Hayes do underthese circumstances? His job, of course, and that was to apprehend and bring in the individual so a court of law could decide the matter of guilt or innocence.
The fists pounding on his back didn’t budge him, and since he was blocking the shack’s only exit, he didn’t turn around right away to confront her. He’d give her time to button up her shirt and himself time to forget what that shirt was covering. When he did turn, she was pacing back and forth across the shack’s measly ten feet of space, kicking the cut ropes, kicking the pile of leaves, the only two things on that side of the shack to kick.
The lantern was in the front corner to Degan’s right, the coil of rope to his left, but she didn’t go near them. She was staying away from him now, as far as she could get. It was a good thing he’d brought a long coil of rope. He was going to have to use the rest of it now.
“Take your boots off.”
She stopped to give him another glare before she sat down hard and reached for one of her boots. “Sure! Why not? This shack doesn’t stink enough already?”
Two knives fell to the floor when the first boot came off. A third fell with the second boot. Degan shook his head incredulously. He knew one of those knives had been stashed under the leaves. She wouldn’t have been able to reach her boots when she’d been tied up. She definitely took precautions, carrying so many weapons.
He looked at her feet and saw dingy gray socks with holes. He wondered if she ever willingly took her boots off. For that matter, he wondered if she ever bathed. He figured she must because she didn’t smell bad. But she obviously hadn’t washed in the last day since the rain. Her mud-caked face was like a mask, and not a pretty one. Did she know how she looked? Did she even have a mirror?
He could see the two curves under her shirt, now that he knew to look for them. That stiff leather vest of hers acted as a corset, flattening and concealing what was under it. He should go pick up her things that were scattered down the hill and get her back into that vest. Yet he was still having trouble coming to terms with there being a female beneath that rough, muddy exterior. His eyes roamed over her. Her loose black shirt was tucked into loose black pants, leaving her waist and hips undefined. She’d chosen the right clothing to hide her womanly shape. He would never have believed Max Dawson was a woman if he hadn’t seen her beautiful breasts.
He picked up the three knives and tossed them outside before he said, “You can put your boots back on, but stay where you are.”
“You’re all heart, fancy man,” she replied scathingly.
He picked up one of the pieces of rope on the floor, one long enough to bind her hands behind her back. He couldn’t bring himself to hog-tie her again, but he knew just tying her hands wasn’t enough to prevent her from trying to escape again. So he got the remainder of the coil of rope and wrapped it around her arms and torso to keep her arms confined to her sides. Then he hauled her to the back wall and sat her down so she could lean against it.
“I take it back,” she snarled. “No heart at all.” “Shut up,” he said tonelessly. “It’s this or I tie you to a tree outside.”
“I’ll take the tree if it means I don’t have to be in this room with you.”
“I wasn’t offering a choice.”
He started to sit next to her so he could finish securing her with the rope, but he reconsidered. If he tied their ankles together, they would be sitting side by side, and once she fell asleep, she might lean against him and rub some of that dried mud on his jacket. He went outside to get his canteen of water. He offered her a drink first, which she took grudgingly, then removed the white bandanna from her neck and thoroughly wet it. She tried to avoid the cloth as it came toward her face, but she didn’t have room to maneuver and fell over to her side. He dragged her back up so he could finish.
“I’ll need that back before you take me in.”
He held up the bandanna to show her how dirty it was. “It has to be washed first.”
“I don’t care what it looks like. I have a specific use for it, and it’s not to protect my face during dust storms.”
“I can guess.”
“No, you can’t. I use it to cover up the fact that I don’t have a lump in my throat like you do.”
“Yes, I’ve already figured that out. And that lump is called an Adam’s apple.”
“Like I care what it’s called? Just put the bandanna back around my neck.”
“You can in the morning when it’s dry.”
He draped the cloth over the peg in the wall. When he turned back to sit next to her, he paused. He’d done his best not to look at what he’d been cleaning, but it was hard to miss now. He didn’t castigate himself for not seeing it sooner. He’d come across too many smooth-skinned, late-blooming boys for a girlish face to have warned him, even if hers hadn’t been so dirty. Well, maybe not. With the mud and dirt gone, Max Dawson was a little too pretty now.