A man with a bitter past…
After the Civil War, Major Sinclair Bradford fled West to escape the pain of battle and the shame of a failed marriage. Haunted by betrayal and lies, he trusts no one—especially women. The last thing he needs is the lure of a dark haired brothel madam. Not only is she beautiful enough to tempt the devil, she’s deceitful enough to shred what’s left of Sinclair’s heart. But when she asks for his help to investigate the attack of a young girl, he can’t say no to her—nor the aching desire she stirs in him.
A woman with no future…
Eden Gabrielli lives by three rules: Never trust the wealthy, do whatever it takes to survive, and never again believe a decent man could love a whore. After being stabbed and left for dead, she must lie to keep her secrets and protect her sister from a life of prostitution—even if that means deceiving the handsome and determined Major Bradford, the one man who tempts her to break her rules. She might need his help, but she craves his touch, which makes him a dangerous ally. Because if the truth is revealed, more than her rules could be broken…
Sinclair locked the front saloon door and doused the lanterns. Grabbing the whiskey and glasses, he strode into the kitchen. Eden sat at the worktable staring at nothing, lost in thought, sadness etched on her beautiful face.
He studied her, torn between wanting to wrap her into his arms and hold her for about a week, or making a fast retreat to the door. Eden looked about to break, and what the hell did he know about comforting a woman? Not a damned thing. And yet the thought of leaving her didn’t sit right. And that scared him most. Because what he did know was that Eden made him feel something more than lust. Despite having slopped plates all evening in her kitchen, he enjoyed himself. When was the last time that had happened?
“I put out the lamps and locked up.”
“Thank you.” Her vacant whisper tied him in knots.
He sucked in a long breath. He’d be a damned fool to let himself care about a woman who whored for a living, who had twisted the truth the first time they met, and yet, he did understand why she hadn’t admitted to prostituting. Most lawmen of any kind, be it civil or army, had only one use for sportin’ gals. Hell, that was his way of thinking too. Until Eden.
He uncorked the bottle and set it in the center of the table. “Are you sure you want this?”
“Yes. And your company. If you can stay?” Her gaze held his. “I’m sorry. I didn’t even ask if you had other duties to attend.”
There was his way out. He could use this excuse and leave now. That’s all he had to do. One small lie. It was a good plan. “I can stay as long as you need me.”
Well, it could have been a good plan. But he couldn’t leave her alone, not when he recognized the kind of suffering she was going through. A person could only hold in so much pain before… they had to reach out to someone.
Was that how this woman broke through every barrier he had so carefully arranged? A soul as lonely and hurt as his own, reaching out?
The lone lantern danced shadows across her lush body, tempting him. But if it was only her beauty, he could control that, cure that. He’d bed her a time or two and be done. But he feared it was more, deeper, something that pulled him toward her. Something he wasn’t doing a very damn good job of controlling.
“Are you going to serve that whiskey or not?”
“Huh? Oh, yes. My apologies.” He poured two shots of liquid courage and handed Eden hers.
She swallowed it in one gulp.
He watched her pale throat move, her slight grimace as the rot-gut went down. She appeared so delicate, yet moments ago she’d blown a hole through a wall. From the moment she’d walked into his tent this morning, life had been disconcerting. His normal world was structured. People behaved the way they were expected. Not Eden. She kept him guessing and confused.
So why wasn’t he marching away from this woman like his ass was afire?
He rode into town to buy supplies, not a woman.
For hunted recluse Rafe McBride, the dark-haired beauty on the auction block is exactly what he doesn’t need. A dependent woman will be another clue his vengeful stepbrother can use to find and kill him. But Rafe’s conscience won’t let him leave another innocent’s virginity to the riff-raff bidding. He buys her, promising to return her to St. Louis untouched. He only prays the impending blizzard holds off before she breaks his willpower.
She wanted freedom, not a lover.
Whisked to the auction block by her devious, gambling cousin, and then sold into the arms of a gorgeous stranger, outspoken artist Maggie Monroe isn’t about to go meekly. Especially when the rugged mountain man looks like sin and danger rolled into one. But a blizzard and temptation thrust them together, and Maggie yearns to explore her smoldering passion for Rafe.
But when the snow clears, will the danger and secrets that surround Rafe and Maggie tear them apart?
November 1866—Western Colorado Territory
When they got back to St. Louis, she was going to kill him.
“Maggie!” Michael’s footsteps thundered down the hall.
Her stomach churned at the urgency in her cousin’s voice. She fingered the necklace hidden in the pleats of her thick velvet skirt. She wouldn’t give him the locket, even though the heavy gold might be all that stood between her and starvation. At the rate Michael gambled there’d be nothing left of their shared inheritance.
She perched on the edge of the moth-eaten mattress, then stood, then sat and wrung her hands. All she’d wanted was to capture the western landscape with her sketches. How had the journey to California gone so wrong?
That’s how. Michael’s drinking and gambling had plagued the entire trip, despite his promises to change.
“Damn it! A flush. A damned flush.” One heated curse after another echoed down the corridor. Her pulse hammered in her ears as she braced for his anger.
He had not changed. The devil himself would make a better traveling companion.
Michael flung open her hotel door, slamming it against the rough plank wall. Drunken voices floated up from the bar room, cries for whiskey and women, crude, coarse words that flooded her face with heat. Never had she imagined such an uncivilized place existed.
He stomped toward her, his once impeccable shirt wrinkled and stained. “Get up,” he snarled. “Now!”
Maggie clamored to her feet and faced him. How many steps would it take to reach the door? “If you’ve come for more valuables, there’s nothing left,” she lied, praying her voice didn’t give her away.
He gave a disgusted snort, then hung his blond head as if resigned to defeat. Despite her earlier thoughts about him, pity pricked her conscience and she stepped forward.
“Wrong,” he sneered, shoving her against the wall. “I have one more piece of property to sell.” The reek of whiskey assaulted her nose with each punctuated word. “And it’s going to get me out of this hell hole in one piece.” His gaze roamed her body. Then he gave a satisfied smile. “Aren’t you?”
Her heart clattered to a stop. A wave of nausea rose in her throat. Dear God, he intended to pay his debt with her. She threw her body into his, heaving with all her strength. But he didn’t budge.
“Don’t be so eager, cousin,” he taunted. “We are going downstairs. There are some men who want to see you.”
“No!” Blood pounded in her ears. “Michael, don’t do this.” She planted her heels and twisted, trying to get away. Hard fingers bit into her flesh as he dragged her through the door, toward the narrow stairs. She clawed at his hand, pierced the skin with her nails, but he tightened his grip until cold numbness throbbed through her arm.
The necklace pressed hard against her waist as he forced her down the hall. There was no other way. She’d have to give him the locket. “Michael, wait! I have—”
A vicious slap rattled her teeth, made the torn, dirty wallpaper dance before her eyes.
“Shut up.” His lips twisted into a cold grin. “It’s just a good thing I hadn’t killed you yet.”
Kill? Kill? The word crashed through her mind like a wave. What kind of monster had Michael become? Fear slithered down her spine. The deadly kind. He would kill her, then take the necklace.
She’d have to think of another way to escape.
“You might be stupid,” he continued as he pulled her down the stairs, “but at least you’re pretty. These back wood simpletons only have the old whores who work here. The men will tear each other apart and pay top dollar to have you.”
The statement buckled her legs. Splinters pricked her cotton stockings as he dragged her across the stained saloon floor.
“Slow down,” she begged. “Let me walk.” And think.
He stopped and twisted her arm behind her back, hard enough she climbed to her feet before the bones snapped.
“Why? Why are you doing this?” And why had she ever felt sorry for him?
“The money.” He shrugged. “Why else?”
“I’ll give you my share!” Poverty, dear God anything, was better than this.
“Generous, but too late, my dear.” He snatched a whiskey bottle from an empty table and gulped the amber remains. “But I’ll be sure and enjoy your half. I might even think of you while I spend it.” His smile froze. “Now, get outside.”
Outside. Maybe she could break free and run, scream for help. There had to be someone in this town who would stop Michael.
She struggled for a calming breath, but gagged at the stench of unwashed bodies that hung in the smoky air. Two painted women sauntered from a back room, their expressions bored despite Michael’s abusive stance.
“Help me,” Maggie pleaded. “Get the sheriff.”
The women’s raspy chuckles filled the room. “Ain’t no law ’round here, honey,” one drawled. “The men do what they want.”
No sheriff? What chance did she have without help?
Michael shoved her outside where light snow fell on the small crowd waiting in front of the saloon. Her boots slipped on the frozen boardwalk, but he jerked her upright. A hush fell over the men when she faced them. Her heart skittered to a stop as she met their lustful stares.
“See, gentlemen, just as I promised,” Michael shouted, his voice belying panic. “There’s no need for a lynch rope. This woman is worth more than enough to pay off my debt.”
Whoops and yells filled the air as he pushed her onto a crate in front of the unpainted building.
Her limbs shook with fear, teetering the box beneath her feet. “Michael, don’t—”
He yanked her arm behind her back. “I will break it. It makes no difference,” he hissed. “Your arm is not what they’re interested in.”
She swallowed hard and studied the sight before her—her future. The men stood like cattle, ankle-deep in mud and mire. Long unkempt whiskers covered dirty faces, whiskers with pieces of their last meal still hanging in the hair. For one fleeting second, death seemed preferable to belonging to one of these filthy creatures.
She shuddered and looked from one end of the short street to the other. Where could she hide? Even if she could get away, it wouldn’t take the men long to search three buildings and a corral. There was no place to run, no place they couldn’t find her.
“Now, Zeke, how much is my total?” Michael asked the saloon proprietor as if settling a supper bill.
Zeke looked up from the paper he’d been figuring on. “You still owe three hundred seventy-five.”
“I already gave you all her jewelry and gowns!”
“And you still owe three seventy-five,” the big man growled as he reached for his gun.
Michael’s jaw twitched as he turned to the group and gave a tense smile. “Well, she’s worth at least that much, gentlemen.”
Rafe peered out the window of the mercantile to a crowd gathering outside the saloon. Trouble. Cougar Creek overflowed with it. That’s why he settled here, where he belonged. Or at least where his step-father thought he belonged.
He turned as Tom, the owner, came back inside from counting Rafe’s pelts.
“Will there be enough to buy my supplies?”
“Aw, sure. You had a good summer.” Tom moved to the stove and lifted a boiling pot.
“What’s going on over there?” Rafe pointed out the window, then accepted a cup of coffee.
“Stage busted a wheel yesterday. Come here to have the smithy look at it.” Tom wrapped his wrinkled hands around his cup and nodded to the street. “Some rich feller and his cousin had to put up at Zeke’s. Cecil told me the fool lost everythin’—and then some—playin’ cards.”
Rafe turned to look outside again, watching the group collect a length of rope. “They’re going to hang him?” A cold ache filled his gut. He’d never understand why some men took pleasure in killing.
“Reckon so.” Tom sipped his coffee. “I’ll go git your pelts now and start fillin’ your order.”
“No, let me get them for you.” Rafe set the dented tin cup on the rough wooden counter. “You can start gathering my supplies. A storm’s coming. I don’t want to spend the winter down here.”
He strode outside where a biting wind lifted his hat from his head. He pulled down the black felt and turned up his collar. Damn this blizzard. Those men were fools, standing in the cold when they should be headed home.
He reached for the first armload of pelts, but the roar of the crowd made him turn. No one swung from the hanging tree. What had the men so riled?
“One twenty-five!” a voice echoed down the muddy street.
An auction? Whatever was being sold must be a rarity in these parts to bring that kind of money. Not that he cared. He didn’t need anything, rare or not. Still… he slopped through the mud for a peek at the commotion. He stopped beside Cecil Two-Feathers as someone yelled one hundred fifty.
“What’s going on?”
Cecil shook his head. “Nothing good.” He nodded to the front of the crowd.
Rafe shouldered his way between two men, then moved toward the boardwalk. His gut clenched. Tom had said cousins, he hadn’t mentioned one was a young woman. A beautiful young woman. Lust shivered through him, hardened him.
Damn it, he couldn’t get involved. He’d do her more harm than good.
But seeing a woman being used like this pricked his conscience. Could he do nothing?
She stood on a broken crate, wide-eyed and trembling, a queen surrounded by swine. Her fine tailored traveling suit, her regal stature, both out of place in this ramshackle town.
A man held her in a cruel grasp as he encouraged the crowd.
“Come now, speak up. She’s worth more than that. Never been bedded.”
Fear for her ran thick through Rafe’s veins as memories of another time, another place, another woman being raped and degraded flashed in his mind. His gaze flicked back to the cousins. He shouldn’t interfere. Look what happened last time.
But like last time, he couldn’t walk away.
“I’ll give two hundred!” old man Dobson offered, dribbling a stream of tobacco down his chin.
The woman’s blue-eyed gaze ran wild over the crowd. She leaned back on the crate, tugging on her arm in an attempt to break free. The man delivered a back-handed slap that stilled her actions and tangled long ebony waves down her back.
Damn him. Rafe placed his hand on the butt of his pistol.
“How about a look at what you’ll get?” the man suggested.
He grabbed the top of her bodice and tore until the buttons popped. Delicate, smooth skin and pure white undergarments gleamed bright in the surrounding sea of drab browns and grays. She clutched the ruined dress and tried to cover herself, but the cousin twisted her arm until she cried out in pain, and her lush breasts spilled over the top of her corset, her pink nipples puckered by the cold.
Her eyes widened, and a scarlet blush spread over her cheeks, but she drew back and spat into the man’s face.
“Well now, gentleman, you can see she’s a fiery one.” He pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and dabbed his face. “She won’t disappoint you in bed. What’s the bid?”
“Two hundred fifty!”
The blond man shook his head. “I’m afraid it takes more than that to have her.”
A putrid combination of molded pelts and rotten eggs invaded the air. Rafe knew who stood behind him before the man spoke.
“Three seventy-five. Now give her to me.” Skinner Joe’s voice confirmed the smell.
If Joe took her she’d be dead before spring. The perverse man took pleasure in hurting women, and just the thought of his hands on this lady made chills slither down Rafe’s spine. His hand tightened on the gun.
Damn, shooting Joe would be less trouble than taking responsibility for a woman.
“Ain’t nobody gonna pay more for her,” Joe argued.
Damn, damn, damn. Rafe squeezed his eyes shut and sucked in a deep breath. “Five hundred,” he shouted before he changed his mind. All heads turned toward him.
TWICE IN A LIFETIME
Be Careful What You Wish For. . .
No-nonsense stuntwoman Isabella Douglas will do anything to stop an unwanted divorce and reclaim the happy life she had, even allow her old friend to concoct a magical spell to turn back time. But when the spell goes awry, Izzy finds herself trapped aboard a 1768 Caribbean pirate ship with a captain who’s a dead ringer for her sexy as sin husband, Ian. Convinced he’s playing a cruel joke, she’s furious – until she realizes he doesn’t know her or believe they’re married.
Captain Ian Douglas does not have time to deal with an insane woman who claims to be his wife; he has to save his kidnapped sister. But as Izzy haunts his dreams and fills him with erotic memories he can’t explain, he’s forced to admit he feels more than lust.
Trapped in a vicious cycle of past mirroring present, Izzy knows they only have days to find Ian’s sister and prevent disaster from striking a second time. If she doesn’t, their marriage will be destroyed again – along with the man she loves.
Ian eyed the beautiful girl in front of him as, one by one, his men started to guffaw. Either she was injured or addle-minded. Perhaps both. Not to mention she had the mouth of a tavern wench. Wise-ass indeed.
He gave her an indulgent smile. “I think not, Miss. I’m quite sure I would remember getting married.” Most especially to her. God knew his life was chaotic enough without a wife.
She frowned, then paled and grimaced as if in pain. “Whatever. Be that way.” Hurt filled her voice and her eyes. “Where did you get this ship?” She held up her hand before he could speak. “Never mind. Just take me to the dock.”
Sassy and crazy. Land? He hadn’t seen land for a week.
“What dock?” Ian asked. “We’re in the middle of the Caribbean.” He swept his hands toward the horizon. “The only thing around us is what remains of your ship.”
She turned in a slow circle, and her dark eyes grew wide, glazed. “Where is everything?”
Her soft voice shook, all her earlier bravado gone. The confused, wary look made his gut clench. Damn the devil, he had no time for this, and he sure as hell did not need another helpless woman to care for. He couldn’t even manage to keep Alicia from being carried off by pirates.
“This can’t be right.” She turned again. “We’re shooting off California.”
“Shooting? Who was shooting? Was the California your ship?” Ian turned to his man. “Did anyone see another ship in the area?”
“No, Sir. Nothing.”
Ian touched her sleeve to draw her attention. “Miss, I don’t know what—” Red oozed from beneath her sodden wig. “You’re bleeding.” He pulled the drenched curls from her head and let them drop to the deck with a splat. “I suggest you lie down. You may use my quarters.”
“I can’t! I have to check with the rest of the crew to make sure they’re all right and try to figure out why the stunt went to hell and—” Her eyes rolled upward, unfocused. “And I’ve to…to…” She lolled forward.
“Easy now.” Ian took her arm, then turned to his second in command. “Was she the only survivor from the wreckage?”
Ian nodded. That explained a lot. Some hardened seamen could not take losing an entire crew. No woman could. Most likely she just lost her family or friends.
“Shall I see to her, Sir?” The lieutenant seemed just a little too eager to help, just a little too interested in her cleavage.
“No. Just take over loading the salvageable cargo. I’ll see to her.” The words came out harsh, but matched the tight anger in his gut. Anger he could not explain and did not want to explore. This woman was injured and a guest on his ship. That made her his responsibility. It was not anger over the image of another man tending to her. Not at all.
Ian wrapped an arm around her waist. “Miss, can you walk?”
“Yes.” She leaned into his body as if it were the most natural thing in the world. Her gaze never left his face. Something inside him sparked as he stared into her dark eyes, something that scared him more than a fifty foot swell. A feeling, a connection, something more than physical appeal, though that was most assuredly present too.
It was as if his very soul leapt.
“And lieutenant, tell Edwards to boil some of his medicinal tea for the lady,” he ordered, ignoring the unsettling thoughts.
“Ian, I know you’re angry, but don’t act like you don’t know me.” She clutched his hand and heat sizzled up his arm. “You were right. I was wrong. But now I’m hurt and need your help.” Tears filled her eyes, pricking his conscience.
He patted her hand for reassurance as they walked. “I’ll be glad to assist you.” He smiled. “Why don’t you tell me your name? Then I’ll know.”
Her shoulders drooped. “Fine. Whatever. Isabella Douglas.”
“Ah, yes.” My wife.