Carly James liked riding across the meadows. She looked out as far as the eye could see grass that looked like it had been dipped in gold as it waved towards the horizon.

The sun setting made it almost look magical and she clucked to her mare Jezebel to pick up her pace so that she could until she reached the lake. It loomed in the distance, a flat, silvery oval fed by two rivers which snaked across the valley after having cut through the foothills and mountains. She'd been working in town running a hotel by day, and a saloon at night. She hated both of them but they'd been left to her by some guy she'd been married to just long enough to get ownership before he was shot and killed by some armed robbers.

Best not to dwell on the past and what couldn't be changed. Better yet to spend the afternoon riding her buckskin mare out to get away from it all, even though she had to pass the sheriff's ranch along the way.

Sheriff Royal Austin, she couldn't remember his middle name but she first met him when she'd been a kid and had grown up on his daddy's ranch after riding down from Canada. Her father the foreman had put her to work on horseback as quickly as he could and she spent her formidable years breaking horses to saddle. They'd grown up together but then had gone their separate ways after her daddy died and he…she hadn't been sure what had happened with him.

The air around her still blasted heat even with the sun heading towards the horizon. It had just been one of those days when she knew that summer was already here. Her body drenched her clothes after she had changed into something more suitable for riding. Most of the people would even be surprised to know that she had britches as some called them and shirts from her husband's collection.

Most people would be surprised to know the truth about her.

She squeezed her legs and Jezebel galloped up to the lake and Carly slid off of her before the horse had completely stopped. She tied the reins loosely to a tree and then started removing her clothing after looking around her and just seeing quietness. Birds chirping in the trees knotted up near one of the banks, they'd take off as one blanket at any sign of trouble but she had her gun close... She unbuttoned her shirt and slid it over her tanned shoulders and then started unbuttoning her pants, before lowering them down her thighs.

Royal rode over the meadows on his spread until he reached the end of it. He went through the broken fencing which really had to get fixed. But then he hardly had the time to even ride the ranch. Between being the town sheriff and watching over his younger sister and her children in town, he barely made it back to his ranch before sunset.

Today he left early because Jenny had taken the kids to the planning meeting for the town festival and Millie; the woman he had been courting had joined them. They'd been going together for a couple of months but truth be told, he just didn't think that it'd work out. She'd been trying to get him to settle down only he didn't want to change his life. He could get a call for help and be on his horse before she could get dinner on the table and that's the life that if he hadn't exactly chosen it...

It had chosen him.

No…no woman could handle his way of living and that he already had kin to look after. There weren't too many single women in the town anyway. A handful maybe because the women either left town when they finished schooling or they married up quick, usually to the businessmen first, the one who owned property in town. Then when those were exhausted, they turned to the ranchers, first those with the largest spreads of cattle or horses and then the smaller operations including the modest homesteads.

That didn't make them out for money rather than men; they were just being practical which got to be a way of life in Silver Lode. Especially after the mine had ran out of ore about a decade ago and people started scattering. The men took off and the women did what they had to survive in these parts.

The sheriff didn't like all of them but then when he tried to arrest anyone, he'd be told he'd never been a woman so what did he know about trying to survive with just the clothes on your back and no money? There'd been plenty of bad sheriffs who didn't think anything of taking advantage of the misfortune of others; some had been outright crooks themselves. But when Royal had returned to town after Jenny lost her husband, it hadn't taken the town long to push him into that position with his record as a war veteran further south and what he'd done since. He'd promised that he'd be about law and order, and not personal gain. The town people hadn't seemed to care much about that.

He rode his gelding down towards the lake to look for some stray cattle but also because it was damn hot and it would be a good time to cool himself in the lake. Just ride on to his favorite spot, strip off his duds and jump right in the cold water.

No he was lying to himself, he thought as he rode his horse to the lake. He was heading on down there hoping for a glimpse of her.

Carly sliced through the water, feeling the chill against her body as she swam underneath out a few yards before popping up above the surface. Damn, it felt cold those first few seconds but then…she felt invigorated.

She looked around her into the stillness of the surrounding terrain. She didn't see no sign of wildlife, no horses and most importantly no men. Including one certain man, who she'd, caught wandering down by the lake on horseback a couple times. It'd been Royal of course riding from his nearby spread to the lake to do what she did, most likely. He usually rode on past her unaware of her presence and she did nothing to change that.

God, he was one good looking man built like an ox, yet lean in stature. Muscled in the right places from working a ranch when he'd been younger and fighting in what had been the Wild West when he'd gotten old enough to leave home. He's shown up again after a long time to help Jenny out with her kids after her husband passed, probably from that illness that had taken the life of many a miner before it closed. Somehow he'd gotten himself drafted as the town lawman in charge of a mostly volunteer group of deputies.

But she had little use for him because one sheriff was as worthless as any other and he hadn't been the boy she'd grown up with years ago.

He'd been this enigmatic man she hadn't understood…so unlike the man she married. Trevor who'd been like an open book, she'd admired that about him most of the time. Had she loved him? She couldn't answer that because here people didn't marry for love.

He'd been dead and buried for a while now and now when it came to men, they had their place in her life. She watched as he got close with his damn horse and she dipped under the water again, to its depths.

Royal had caught just a glimpse of her and smiled to himself. A flash of tanned skin and her mane of mahogany hair with copper highlights from the sun…damn she was a sight. But all he did was look because she had a tongue on her. One that liked to sass him a lot as his mama might have called it. She'd certainly had a little of that when they'd grown up together on his daddy's ranch. Hopefully since then she'd learned that a mouth had other uses. But then she'd been married once, though not for very long before her husband had been killed.

Sometimes he'd imagined what it'd be like if he'd done what he'd wanted to just before he took off from home. He'd thought about asking her to go with him but…she'd been a couple of years younger than him and she'd been so devoted to her daddy and when he died she had closed a part of herself off from everyone it seemed.

But he stopped his horse as he watched her in the water not too far away. As she dove back underneath the waves, he caught enough of glimpse of her to remind him that she stripped everything off before she went into the lake.

He liked the way she looked when she got out of the lake, her hair slicked back against her skin. Her breasts nice and firm, cream colored and those nipples…like cherries on top of a sundae. He imagined what it'd be like to roll one across his mouth as he took it inside, running his tongue over its hardness. That made another part of him hard right now and it hadn't been the first time.

Hardly…had she spurred that reaction in him as long as he could remember but life had separated them before it changed them both. She'd only grown more beautiful but wildness in her, marriage certainly hadn't tamed. A part of him wondered what it'd be like to feel her softness underneath him as he wrapped her legs tightly around him and his cock thrust inside her that first time. She'd murmur in his ear when she felt him, he knew that…and draw him close inside of her. Women like Carly didn't do things halfway, not the girl he remembered who grew into this fine, supple woman. One who drove him into fits as she challenged everything he did as sheriff that threatened the autonomy of the women in town.

The ones who were widows like her.

He supposed he should still be sorry about that though time had passed since Trevor's murder. His killers had never been caught let alone hung for the life they had taken. But she ran the hotel smoothly even as she turned a blind eye to half of what happened inside its rooms. He sighed as he looked over to see her swimming towards shore, her head above water. She reached the shallow end as he hoped and man, when she walked out, she'd make more than one man weep with a body like that. She was sinewy and strong like wire but soft and the way her body curved in the right places for a man to hold…his pants tightened. He'd be thinking thoughts that would probably make her blush…if she were the blushing type.

She looked around but didn't see him. Then all too soon she went to find her clothes.

Carly had left the lake, her body wet to dry in the heat. But she'd found her relief in more ways than one. The swim had cooled her off and it had cleared her head. That was important for the survival of one town sheriff. He'd hassled Delia over the man she'd shared a room with last night…the man who had just arrived in Silver Lode on business and needed some comfort. If he also dropped some money on the bureau before leaving, what was wrong with that? A woman had needs just like a man and if she could help him with his and make money to feed her family, then what was wrong with that?

All those churchgoing folks who preached charity just looked the other way when it came to the windows, almost as if they didn't want to see them. Because to see them would be to reminded that therefore the grace of the fates go they and all the prayers and promises to an empty god wouldn't change that.

A person's life could change in a split second. She never ever forgot that. When she did, she had the scars to remind her.

She knew that Royal lurked out there somewhere on his horse. She could sense a man's presence but she knew he wasn't the type who'd hurt a woman. She did think he might enjoy looking at one…but then he'd been going with Millie, one good churchgoing woman for a couple of months. Another in the line of them hoping to settle him down…good luck with that…she thought with a smile as she reached for her pants.

A man like him…you could enjoy him for a while but then when he started pulling away to go on the next adventure, a woman had to let him go.

Not that she hadn't thought what it'd be like…to be wrapped up in the warmth of his embrace, his body slick against her skin and his cock buried deep inside of her….right here on the banks of the lake.

She slipped her shirt back over her body, imagining his hands, rough with calluses stroking her skin, on her breasts playing with her nipples. No, she couldn't think that way and the way her heart raced now, she had to rein it quick. He might be great to look at but he was more trouble than any man was worth. After all, he had said more than once that her hotel might be shut down…if she didn't rein in her guests.

It's not that she hadn't thought about using her body to get what she wanted. A woman's body could be her best currency, her only means of bartering for what she needed in this town if she didn't have a husband. She'd go to him, offer what any man would want to take and in exchange, he'd leave her business alone.

After dressing she went to get her horse.

Royal started to leave, to tug the reins and head back to another area of the lake but he couldn't take his eyes off of her while she dressed. Damn she was something to behold, but she didn't seem to like him much. He cramped her style, he knew but he couldn't allow the town's women to be engaging in illicit behavior within its limits. But the women had to be safe and they'd put themselves in positions where they could be hurt.

Carly had to understand that fact and he had to convince her.

He heard the click of what sounded like a gun and then he looked behind him and saw a man standing behind him, holding a gun aimed at him.

"I should just shoot you now, you bastard."

Neither of them heard the sound of her approaching…