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Only 05 - Autumn Lover

Titel: Only 05 - Autumn Lover
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shoved aside the savage truth that he had married the wrong girl. It was in the past, untouchable.
    Like the war that had taken everything from Hunter but his life and that of his brother.
    Dead and buried, all of them, Belinda and Ted and Em. Nothing I can do about it except what I’m doing—tracking Culpeppers and sending them to judgment just as quick as I find them .
    Wonder how Case is getting along. Hope to God he hasn’t found more Culpeppers than he can handle .
    But Hunter wasn’t truly worried about his younger brother. Case had gone into the War Between the States a boy and come out a man who was as closed and hard as flint, and even less forgiving.
    The gentle, husky voice whispered through the darkness like a caress. Hunter’s blood surged despite himself.
    “Don’t get your water hot,” he said.
    Great advice , he told himself sardonically. You be sure to take it yourself .
    With a muttered curse Hunter set off after the girl who had gotten under his skin with the speed and heat of nettles.
    Holding Bugle Boy’s rein in his left hand, Hunter followed Elyssa through moonlight and shadow. A steady, cool wind blew around them. Elyssa didn’t stop walking until they were across the dusty ranch house yard.
    A weathered paddock fence seemed to grow out of the night in front of them. Thirty feet beyond, a hip-roof barn loomed. The mingled scents of horses and hay and dust flowed out of it. Nearby a pipe dripped water into a trough whose surface dimpled and shimmered with moonlight at each added drop.
    It was obvious to Hunter that the Sutton ranch was no rawhide operation slapped together with equal parts laziness and hope of better days to come.
    The Ladder S had been built to last by a man who cared about the future. In addition to the solid two-story house made of sawed wood and logs, there was a sturdy log bunkhouse, a barn with several paddocks close by, a large corral, a small orchard, a smokehouse, and a big kitchen garden.
    From the corral and paddocks came the steady rippling sound of water being piped into troughs for the animals to drink. From the garden came the scent of earth and water and herbs. To Hunter it was a perfume more seductive by far than the cloying magnolias Belinda had preferred.
    Hunter’s measuring eyes probed shadow and moonlight with equal intensity. He was searching for both danger and confirmation of what he had heard about the Ladder S ranch.
    So far, everything matched Case’s reports and the information Hunter had gathered himself. The ranch hadn’t changed from the description one of the soldiers assigned to Camp Halleck had given Hunter last week:
    The Ladder S is as unexpected and beautiful in this howling wilderness as a girl born of aristocrats on her mother’s side and restless plainsmen on her father’s side .
    But the army won’t be riding by the Sutton place for a while. The major is dead set on mapping passes and getting himself some redskins, and the Indians leave the marsh pretty much alone at this time of year .
    Hunter also knew what the soldier had been too discreet to say. The major in question was an out-and-out drunk, a man embittered by being assigned to the primitive West instead of the civilized East or the prostrate South.
    There was no doubt that the Ruby Mountains of the newly created state of Nevada were a wilderness barely touched by man. Nor had Elyssa’s parents chosen to settle near the northern end of the peaks, where wagon trains headed for Oregon passed nearby as they followed the uncertain course of the Humboldt River.
    Instead, the Suttons had settled amid the wild, desolate beauty of the east side of the Ruby Mountains. Behind the ranch house rose steep, rugged, jagged peaks.The pass through the Rubies that could be negotiated by wagons was far to the south.
    There were two other passes, but they were useful only to a man on horseback. Driving cattle through them, especially while under fire from the likes of the Culpeppers, would have been impossible.
    Passes, wagons, cattle, outlaws…
    Hunter had studied all of them when he realized that the Culpeppers were planning to go to ground in the Rubies. The war, and a bad marriage, had taught Hunter to control his potent, deep-running passions. He had become a careful man. A disciplined man.
    A deadly man.
    Now Hunter studied the outline of the Ruby Mountains against the glittering stars. He fixed it in his mind so that he could orient himself along the mountain
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