Beauty and the Bounty Hunter

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THE DANCE OF DANGER

“Why are you here?”

Alexi glanced again toward the window. “We need to go.”

Though the curtains hung limp, a chill wind blew over Cat. “What have you done?”

“Me?” He set his black-gloved hand against the creamy shirt covering his chest, eyes widening in a poor attempt at innocence.

“Dammit,” she muttered. He’d sold her out. But to whom?
She
wasn’t wanted.

Cat didn’t waste her breath with any more questions. Alexi wouldn’t tell her a thing without persuasion, and the way he was behaving—obsessed with the window, insistent on getting gone—she didn’t have the time.

As she went past, Alexi snatched her elbow. She tried to shake him off. “Let me go. We need to—”

“Too late,” he whispered, then pulled her against him, curling his elbow about her throat and placing her own blade to her chest.

The door burst open; three armed men crowded in.
Ah, hell,
Cat thought. Then things moved very fast.

Alexi’s wrist twitched. The front of her dress split, and Cat’s breasts spilled free. In the half-light her skin gleamed like pearls beneath clear water.

Then the hand at her breasts, the arm around her throat, the body at her back was gone, but not before he whispered, “Play the part,
mi gatito.

The thud of a boot was followed by the whoosh of what sounded like wind. The yellowed lace curtains fluttered past her cheek.

Cat’s gaze stayed on the three men. Theirs were fixed unwaveringly on her breasts. They hadn’t even noticed yet that Alexi was gone.

Praise for
Beauty and the Bounty Hunter

“Austin’s finely drawn characters and riveting tension will knock you out of your boots! Her books are like the smoothest whiskey—they go down easy but pack a punch. Everyone is sure to fall in love with the fiery Cat and the wily Alexi.”

—Sabrina Jeffries,
New York Times
bestselling author of
’Twas the Night After Christmas

“Riveting, poignant, and unforgettable,
Beauty and the Bounty Hunter
by Lori Austin is a page-turner that reminded me why I love Westerns. I adored the unique characters and the depth of their story lines. Lori Austin is a brilliant and talented storyteller who doesn’t disappoint.”

—Lorraine Heath, author of
She Tempts the Duke

“Refreshingly different,
Beauty and the Bounty Hunter
leaps off the page. You’ll fall in love with the characters and the American West.”

—Susan Mallery, author of
Summer Days

“Lori Austin knows how to build tension and keep the pages turning. With this action-packed tale of revenge and redemption, the reader is in for a wild ride.”

—Kaki Warner, author of
Bride of the High Country

“From the first page, this book takes off like a horse tearing across the prairie—hang on and enjoy the ride!”

—Claudia Dain, author of the Courtesan Chronicles

B
EAUTY AND THE
B
OUNTY
H
UNTER

ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST

L
ORI
A
USTIN

A SIGNET ECLIPSE BOOK

SIGNET ECLIPSE

Published by New American Library, a division of

Penguin Group (USA) Inc., 375 Hudson Street,

New York, New York 10014, USA

Penguin Group (Canada), 90 Eglinton Avenue East, Suite 700, Toronto,

Ontario M4P 2Y3, Canada (a division of Pearson Penguin Canada Inc.)

Penguin Books Ltd., 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England

Penguin Ireland, 25 St. Stephen’s Green, Dublin 2,

Ireland (a division of Penguin Books Ltd.)

Penguin Group (Australia), 250 Camberwell Road, Camberwell, Victoria 3124,

Australia (a division of Pearson Australia Group Pty. Ltd.)

Penguin Books India Pvt. Ltd., 11 Community Centre, Panchsheel Park,

New Delhi - 110 017, India

Penguin Group (NZ), 67 Apollo Drive, Rosedale, Auckland 0632,

New Zealand (a division of Pearson New Zealand Ltd.)

Penguin Books (South Africa) (Pty.) Ltd., 24 Sturdee Avenue,

Rosebank, Johannesburg 2196, South Africa

ISBN: 978-1-101-60474-8

Penguin Books Ltd., Registered Offices:

80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England

First published by Signet Eclipse, an imprint of New American Library,

a division of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

First Printing, October 2012

10   9   8   7   6   5   4   3   2   1

Copyright © Lori Handeland, 2012

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced, scanned, or distributed in any printed or electronic form without permission. Please do not participate in or encourage piracy of copyrighted materials in violation of the author’s rights. Purchase only authorized editions.

SIGNET ECLIPSE and logo are trademarks of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

Printed in the United States of America

PUBLISHER’S NOTE

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

The publisher does not have any control over and does not assume any responsibility for author or third-party Web sites or their content.

If you purchased this book without a cover you should be aware that this book is stolen property. It was reported as “unsold and destroyed” to the publisher and neither the author nor the publisher has received any payment for this “stripped book.”

ALWAYS LEARNING

PEARSON

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

Thank you to my wonderful agent, Robin Rue, who could have asked: “A Western? Are you nuts?” But instead said, “I’ll take care of it.”

A shout-out to Robin’s assistant, Beth Miller, for thinking of the perfect series title: “Once Upon a Time in the West.” From the instant she said it, nothing else would do.

And a special thank-you to Claire Zion, for missing Western romances as much as I did and for all her help in bringing the story of Cat and Alexi to you.

Table of Contents

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Epilogue

An Outlaw in Wonderland

When Morning Comes

By any Other Name

An Outlaw for Christmas

C
HAPTER 1

Abilene, Kansas

1870

A
new customer strolled through the front door of Letty’s Sporting House. Short, swarthy, stocky—the three
S
’s of ugly—he sported a ridged scar around his neck. Nevertheless, nearly every woman in the place straightened, preening for his attention.

Cathleen Chase didn’t waste time. She stepped forward. This was her man.

A hand clamped onto her arm. “Sissy!”

Cat fought not to cringe at the foolish name she’d adopted. What
had
she been thinking?

“We don’t choose them.” The whore tightened her grip, talonlike fingernails pressing sharply into Cat’s skin. “They choose us.”

Cat lifted her gaze from the hand on her wrist to the once-pretty face. As often happened when Cat let people see what lay beneath, the girl took a quick step back, wrapping her bare arms beneath her satin-shrouded breasts as if she were cold. Since she was revealing more flesh than she was covering—hell, so was Cat—it might have been true.

Shrugging, the young woman glanced away. “One’s the same as the next to me.”

“Not to me,” Cat murmured.

Her skirt swished just below her knees as she sauntered toward her quarry. Cat had chosen a garnet dress to complement her long dark hair and green eyes. Her skin as pale as any Irishwoman’s, she’d been spared the red hair and freckles of so many of her relatives. Cat resembled her mother—God rest her soul and the souls of everyone else she’d ever loved.

The neckline dipped dangerously low. Cat had altered the bodice so that her breasts practically burst free with every breath. As she moved across the room, she secretly tugged the garment lower so that when she reached the man his gaze went directly to her chest and stayed there.

“How much?” he croaked.

“Five dollars.” On the high end even for a white woman, but not unreasonable. Still, he hesitated, and Cat lifted one finger, tracing it back and forth across her skin.

His eyes followed the movement like the pendulum on a clock; then he grabbed her hand and dragged her up the creaking oak staircase without ever once looking at Cat’s face.

Sometimes she was so good at this, she scared herself.

“Which room?” Voice harsh, his breath came in short gasps.

Cat reached past him, making sure to brush her breasts against his arm as she opened the door to her room. Shrouded in shadow, she’d left it that way. Why bother to turn up the lamp? The less he could see—the less she could—the better.

She hadn’t taken two steps inside when the man kicked shut the door and yanked her around to face him. He made a beeline for her cleavage, fingers crushing the soft flesh as he lowered his head and lifted her to his
mouth. Cat contemplated the peeling floral wallpaper and let him have at it a while. Her time would come.

When he began to drag up her skirt with one hand, reaching for his belt with the other, Cat murmured: “Hold on there, soldier,” tempering her denial by palming his erection, tightening her fingers just enough to make him moan. “You get what you pay for with me.”

“Wha—?” He couldn’t form the word, could barely think, if his slack expression was any indication.

“What’s your name, sugar?” It was always best, before she moved on, to be sure.

“C-c-clyde.”

Cat’s lips curved, and she kneaded him through the stiff material of his trousers, running her thumb over and back, over and back, across the throbbing head. Leaning in, she increased the pressure and the rhythm. “You don’t want just a quick poke now…” She squeezed him once, just short of pain, and he gasped. “Do you?”

His head thrashed back and forth.

“That would be no to the quick poke,” Cat murmured.

Continuing to touch him just enough to keep him interested, not enough to finish him off, Cat removed a rope from the pocket of her dress with her unoccupied hand. Clyde was so far gone he didn’t notice her looping it around his wrists until she pulled the knot tight.

“What the—?”

“Shh.” Cat began to unbutton his pants. He shushed.

As she went to her knees, her hair cascaded over her face. Clyde’s breathing picked up when she peeled back his open trousers. Inching closer, she “accidentally” bumped his hands with her head, drew back, frowned. “Maybe I should tie these behind you.”

“No.”

“No?” The pout in her voice was almost as convincing as the moist rush of her breath trickling over him.
Cat knew men; the threat of her displeasure wasn’t half as convincing as the threat that she might not follow up on that moist trickle.

“All right.”

Her smile hidden by her hair, Cat untied his wrists, and he turned. She stayed on her knees, giving him the illusion of control, while at the same time she kept the promise of her mouth on his pecker alive. Cat yanked the knot tight, pressing her gambler’s gun to his spine as she rose. “Now, Clyde, repeat after me: you or her?”

“Wha—?”

Cat placed the barrel against his temple. “Say it. You or her?”

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