Robby Riverton Excerpt – Robby Meets Rowena
By Eli Easton
AUTHOR’S NOTE – In “Robby Riverton”, set in 1860, a young actor is forced to go on the run after witnessing a murder. He ends up disguising himself as a mail order bride, “Rowena”, to escape his pursuers. In this scene, Robby is trying to make his escape when he’s confronted by Trace, the local sheriff and brother of Rowena’s fiancé.
Robby looked around for a saddle. He checked every space in the barn and was surprised not to find any tack at all, not even the reins or harnesses for the wagon. All he found was a door with a big padlock on it near the horse stalls.
Was this the tack room? Why would they lock it? It felt ominous, as if they were trying to hold him prisoner. It did nothing to ease his creeping sense of dread.
He jiggled the padlock. It was solid and heavy.
He was about to turn away when a hand closed over his mouth and a strong arm wrapped around him, grabbing him tight. A scream got stuck in his throat.
“Quiet!” drawled a man’s voice in his ear. “It’s me, Trace. I’m not gonna hurt you, Mr. Riverton.”
* * *
Trace wasn’t sure if he wanted to strangle the young man in his arms or tuck him under his wing and protect him. But he did know he needed answers. And, by God, he was going to get them.
Riverton was still in the woman’s get-up, that green dress and bonnet. But there was nothing feminine about the tight muscles against his chest, or against his arm where it was pressed to Riverton’s taut waist. He didn’t fight. He just stood there, frozen.
“I’m just here to talk to ya. All right?” Trace whispered, annoyed at the way the huge brim of the bonnet got in his way.
Riverton nodded once, and Trace let him go.
He turned, slowly, raising his hands. Trace kept his hand near his gun and took his time studying Riverton’s face by lantern light. He looked defiant—and fearful. And he was just as damned attractive as Trace remembered. Only now that Trace knew he was a man, that objective appraisal of handsomeness hit him in an entirely different way, caused a warm tightening in his gut. Not that it mattered a whit. Trace was fit to be tied.
“Well, Mr. Riverton. I’ve seen some sticky situations in my life, but this one takes the prize.”
Riverton slumped back against the wall of a horse stall, instantly defeated. “Bollocks. I swear I didn’t mean for this to happen. I was just trying to evade the Bowery Boys.”
Trace’s gaze flickered to the horses. “That may be. But you steal a horse from Pa, and even God won’t be able to help ya.”
Riverton covered his face with his hands. He slid down the wall until he was sitting on the stable floor. And Trace… Trace actually felt sorry for him. He was still irate, but sympathy was edging in too.
He squatted down a few feet from Riverton, elbows on his knees, and pulled out a smoke. He rolled it between his thumb and finger and lit it. He took a drag and offered it to Riverton, nudging his knee to get his attention.
Riverton looked at the smoke and shook his head. “It’s bad for your voice, and… I’m an actor.”
“Kind of figured that. What with the [WANTED] poster and all,” Trace said dryly. “Robby Riverton. That even your real name?”
“Yes, it is my real name. But just call me Robby, if you please.” Robby searched Trace’s face, as though trying to judge how mad he was. His eyes were desperate, his face drawn tight in the lantern glow. Trace felt an urge to reassure him, but he hardened himself to the feeling.
“Here’s the thing, Robby. I don’t like trouble in my town, much less in the midst of my own damn family. It’s too much work. And this here is a whole stinkin’ mess of trouble. I’ll give ya one chance to tell your side of the story. And I wouldn’t lie, if I were you.”
Robby nodded vigorously. He seemed eager to talk. He told Trace about witnessing a murder in New York City, and about how he’d thought he’d slipped the gang members until they caught up with the wagon train two days ago. He told Trace about Miss Fairchild, and how she’d left with a new beau in Dodge City. He’d put on her clothes in desperation.
“I planned to slip away in Santa Fe. But then the Bowery Boys caught me, and you came along, and then Wayne and Marcy. And now…here I am. No matter what I do, the hole just gets deeper.” Robby’s voice was a hiss. “Believe me, Sheriff, there’s no one sorrier about this situation than me!”
Trace wanted to believe him, and he mostly did. But there were parts of it that didn’t quite hang together. He thoughtfully smoked his cigarette down to a nub, then ground it out on the stable floor and put the remnant in his pocket.
“Well?” Robby asked, voice shaky. “Are you going to give me away or help me? Because if you’re going to give me away, maybe you should just kill me now!”
Trace snorted. “Calm down there, Beauregard. I ain’t gonna kill ya. I’m just orderin’ things in my mind. Give me a minute.”
Robby held his tongue while Trace thought about it a little more. Dang. It really was a shit stew. Looked like he could wave good-bye to his nice, quiet existence.
“What did Pa make of ya today?”
Robby grimaced. “No one seems suspicious, if that’s what you mean. But Pa-Pa was pushing to have the wedding tomorrow. I told him I was sick, and I went to bed early. But I don’t know how long I can hold him off. Can you take me back to town with you? I’ll pay you for your trouble.”
Trace scratched his neck. “I’m not sure that’s the wisest course. I have a feelin’ those, whaddya call ’em, Bowery Boys, will be coming to Flat Bottom lookin’ for ya. And if they hear Miss Fairchild absconded, they’ll smell a rat. If they don’t suspect you’re Riverton already, that’d do it.”
Robby’s brow furrowed, and he clenched his arms tightly over his chest. “Why would they come to Flat Bottom? I answered their questions. Or rather, Rowena did. Surely they’ll go back along the trail, maybe to Fort Union.”
Trace heaved an unhappy sigh. He wanted to light another cigarette. He wanted to reach out and comfort Robby. He did neither. “Look here, before I left Santa Fe, I did some checkin’ up on that wagon train of yours. Learned a man was found with his throat slit behind the saloon. His name was Stoltz.”
Robby flinched. “Oh no. No, no, no.”
He slumped over, head to his knees, and Trace didn’t curb the impulse to reach out and lay a steadying hand on his shoulder. For a moment, Robby just breathed in harsh pants, head hung low. He seemed overcome by fear or maybe rage.
If this reaction was a charade, it sure was a convincing one. Even for an actor.
After a bit, Trace pulled back his hand. “Ya knew Stoltz?”
“He owned the wagon I rode in. It’s my fault he’s dead.” Robby’s voice was wrecked.
“No, now, come on.” Trace grasped Robby by the arms and stood, bringing them both to their feet. “Pull yourself together, son. I’m surely sorry for your loss. But it’s not your fault they came after ya, not your fault there are bad men in the world.”
Robby looked at him doubtfully, his eyes damp. “Do you think they… Do you think they got him to confess before…?”
Trace shook his head. “Stoltz was stiff and cold when I saw him, so he must have been dead when those men waylaid ya in the street. Seems to me they didn’t know ya were Riverton then. But they sure are determined. If they went after Stoltz that hard, I figure there’s a chance they’re not done with Miss Fairchild either.”
“Why won’t they just stop?” Robby asked fiercely. “Why the hell would they chase me all this way? I don’t understand it!”
Yeah, that was the part that didn’t smell right to Trace either. He watched Robby’s face. “You sure ya didn’t skip a few details? Like maybe ya got somethin’ that belongs to them? A pile of their money, maybe?”
“No!” Robby pulled away from Trace angrily. “I told you, I saw Mose McCann commit murder from across the alley. I never even got close to them! The only thing they want is the memory in my head.” He tapped his temple pointedly.
“Well.” Trace shrugged. “You’d best stay put for now. I’ll see what I can find out. In a couple days, we’ll reassess the situation.”
“In a couple of days!”
Robby looked so stricken that Trace felt doubt. He didn’t like leaving Robby at the ranch, fooling his family. He knew how much of a stubborn jackass his father could be. And Clovis… Probably the less time “Rowena” spent around Clovis the better.
God damn. Trace wondered what the heck Clovis made of his intended, anyway. The pair of them were as mismatched as bees and bears—in either of Robby’s forms. But the idea that Clovis might fall for his new bride-to-be was unsettling.
But there was an urge, deep down in Trace’s bones, to protect Robby. Those Bowery Boys—the way they’d treated Miss Fairchild on the street, the way they’d slit Stoltz’s throat… Robby didn’t stand a chance against them. No. Trace might not trust Robby completely, but he didn’t want to see him dead. And if protecting him meant causing his family a bit of inconvenience for a few days? Well, there were worse problems.
He wrapped his fingers around Robby’s forearm without really meaning to. Worry softened his voice. “Look, I don’t much care for the setup myself, but this is serious. So, tell me honestly. Do you think ya can fool Pa and the others a bit longer?”
Robby blinked at him. “Can’t we just explain things to your Pa?”
Trace barked a laugh. “Hell, no. Wayne said Pa paid two hundred dollars to get Clovis a wife.”
Robby snorted. “Yes, he mentioned that only a dozen times tonight.”
“Well, if there’s one thing that’s guaranteed to make Pa feistier than a nest of riled-up hornets, it’s wastin’ money. If he finds out ya ain’t Miss Fairchild, you’ll be out on your fanny so fast, your head will spin.”
Robby sighed and frowned. Then he sighed some more. His arm turned in Trace’s grasp, and his fingers grabbed Trace’s coat. It seemed unconscious, like Robby was depending on him. The small move brought a lump to Trace’s chest.
“I guess I can keep this up for a few more days,” Robby admitted. “As long as I can hold off the wedding. I get the feeling everyone’s on their best behavior. I suppose we’re in the wooing stage.” He smiled wryly.
Trace nodded. “That makes sense. Pa will want to make sure his investment pans out. That’s good.”
Robby moved a little closer. His green eyes seemed to glow in the lantern light. “But couldn’t you just hide me in town?”
“Look, I’m tryin’ to save your hide. I need to check on some things, and I can’t be watchin’ over ya at the same time. My pa and brothers might not be fancy or sophisticated, but their orneriness is in our favor. If those men show up here makin’ demands and wavin’ guns, they’ll be in a world of hurt.”
Robby’s expression relented, and he nodded. “Very well. The show will go on.”
“All right, then. Be polite and keep your head down. And whatever ya do, don’t argue with Pa. Now—can ya do this? Tell me true.”
“I can do it.”
“And just stay away from Clovis,” Trace insisted, a muscle in his jaw ticking. He felt something like jealousy. Which was ridiculous.
Robby smirked. “I don’t think that’s a problem. So far, he hasn’t said a single word to me and Pa-Pa seems to want it that way. He said something about propriety, but he probably thinks the less I know about my betrothed the better. No offense to your brother.”
Trace liked that Robby could joke a little, even in the midst of all this. He felt the corner of his own mouth tug up. “Good.”
He realized Robby had moved closer still—or he himself had leaned in. It was far too close for two men to stand together, even if they were whispering.
His hand was on Robby’s arm. Out of pure, wicked curiosity, he moved his thumb in a small caress to see what would happen. Robby’s eyes widened in surprise. He licked his lips and leaned forward a tiny bit in silent invitation.
Trace’s heart commenced to pounding. His blood flared so high, he felt like he was about to go into battle. Hell, maybe he was. He raised one hand to Robby’s cheek and brushed the back of his fingers along the strong jawline. “I’ll say this for ya; you’ve got a set of steel balls. How old are you, Robby?”
“Twenty-four.” He touched his own cheek. “And to think I used to hate that I couldn’t grow much of a beard.” He was trying to joke, but his voice was unsteady. He leaned into Trace’s hand a little.
Oh, yes. He was definitely a man of Trace’s predilections. Which was not gonna simplify matters at all.
Trace stared, taking in Robby’s long face and square jaw, those wide, pouty lips, and half-lidded eyes. He truly was the most beautiful man Trace had ever seen. Funny, he could still picture that poster the Bowery Boys had shown him. It helped him imagine Robby without the bonnet and all that nonsense.
“Ya make a pretty gal. But I sure would like to see ya the other way ’round.”
“You would?” Robby’s voice dropped to a breathy whisper. “Think you’d like me better that way?”
“I know I would.” Trace’s voice sounded like he’d swallowed rocks.
Desire sparked hot in Robby’s eyes, and Trace’s body answered. Lust sang loudly in his veins for the first time in a very long time. Not just mechanical need but true desire, an aching want for the man in front of him. At that moment, he’d have scaled a six-foot fence to get to mating, like a heat-crazed horse.
There was a bang outside as a gust of wind sent a loose shutter flying. Trace snapped out of his daze. What the hell was he doing? He pulled back abruptly. What if Pa or one of his brothers saw the light and walked out to the barn? How could he explain being caught sparking with Clovis’s intended—who also happened to be a man? This was dangerous as dancing with a rattler. And twice as stupid.
“Much as I’d like to oblige us both,” Trace growled, “we’d best keep our heads on straight.”