Authors: Lorelie Brown
Tags: #Romance, #Historical, #Historical Romance
By Lorelie Brown
Arizona Territory, 1882
Maggie Bullock’s father needed expensive medical care and if that meant stealing from their friendly swindling banker, so be it. Once her father was on the path to recovery she would face the consequences. The whole thing was surprisingly easy until she’s kidnapped by bounty hunter Dean Colter.
Colter is tired of tracking down worthless scum. He’s afraid he’ll lose his last scrap of humanity and become a stone-cold killer, just like the men he brings to justice. He jumps at the chance to become sheriff of Fresh Springs, Arizona. The one condition—capture Maggie.
He figured it’d be easy. Until beautiful, loyal Maggie breaks through defenses he’d thought cemented. His feelings for her run the range from fury to confusion to love, but if he doesn’t bring her in someone else will. Can there be a future between a sheriff and a fugitive?
I feel as though it was just last week I was attending 2010 conferences and telling authors and readers who were wondering what was next for Carina Press, “we’ve only been publishing books for four months, give us time” and now, here it is, a year later. Carina Press has been bringing you quality romance, mystery, science fiction, fantasy and more for over twelve months. This just boggles my mind.
But though we’re celebrating our one-year anniversary (with champagne and chocolate, of course) we’re not slowing down. Every week brings something new for us, and we continue to look for ways to grow, expand and improve. This summer, we’ll continue to bring you new genres, new authors and new niches—and we plan to publish the unexpected for years to come.
So whether you’re reading this in the middle of a summer heat wave, looking to escape from the hot summer nights and sultry afternoons, or whether you’re reading this in the dead of winter, searching for a respite from the cold, months after I’ve written it, you can be assured that our promise to take you on new adventures, bring you great stories and discover new talent remains the same.
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Executive Editor, Carina Press
To the three people who’ve saved my sanity more times than I can count: Andrea Hodapp, Carrie Lofty and especially my husband, Steven.
My thanks as well to Patti Ann Colt, Kelly McCrady and Elyssa Papa for their excellent advice and help. Last but not least, to Zoë Archer for her fabulous, day brightening emails.
Arizona Territory, 1882
Robbing a bank was easier than it should have been.
Maggie’s hands didn’t even shake as she turned the knob of Fresh Springs’ only bank. Even though it was an hour before opening, the door gave easily and she slipped inside the quiet room. She wore her father’s spare holster, the wooden butt of his Colt single-action pistol cool against her palm. Billy Waverly stood behind the large counter to the left and raised his head as the door snapped shut behind her. His brow wrinkled as he took in her trousers and mannish coat.
She lifted the pistol shoulder high. Her heart thundered in her ears like a runaway horse. “All right, pay attention. This is a robbery.”
She ought to be afraid. Instead she buzzed with a queer sort of energy.
Timothy Keefe leaped from the mahogany desk that was normally the throne of Willheim Masterson, the bank’s owner, and gaped at her. “What?”
“Hands up,” she yelled. Tim’s astonishment wasn’t surprising, but he obeyed and his hands rose above his head. In her entire life in Fresh Springs, she had never known the bank to be robbed. Even the ex-Confederate raiders who’d terrorized the area until recently had avoided it. As a result, Maggie hoped for a fat prize for the risk she was taking.
She waved the Colt at Tim until he moved behind the counter to stand next to Billy. She threw two burlap sacks at them. “Put the money in the bag and I won’t have to hurt anyone.”
“Maggie? Is that you?” Tim’s jaw cleaved open and his hands slumped to his ears.
She wiggled the gun again. “Your hands better be in the air or filling those bags.”
Pulling the black kerchief from her face, she dropped it to loop around her neck. She should have known better than to attempt a disguise. But then, desperate people did desperate things, and it wouldn’t matter much since she’d be out of Fresh Springs in less than a half hour. The pants and shirt she’d hauled out from her brother Robert’s chest of belongings would help as well.
“Mr. Masterson’s going to have your hide for this,” Tim said.
Billy’s gaze pinged back and forth between them both. His lower lip drooped and trembled under the scraggly moustache he’d been so proud to grow over the last few months. Maggie felt the worst about frightening Billy. They’d been classmates until he left their one-room schoolhouse four years ago to clerk for Willheim Masterson. Maggie had gone on to take care of her family. What was left of it.
“Masterson won’t be able to find me.” She narrowed her eyes at Tim. “I want the money from the safe too.”
He coughed and tugged his bright green waistcoat over his significant belly. “That won’t be possible. I don’t have the combination.”
Fear drew her skin tight and made the tip of her gun shake. He wasn’t taking her seriously. She let loose the anger she’d felt watching Masterson’s false concern as he denied her the loan her father so desperately needed.
“Don’t lie to me.” She leveled the gun and lined the sights up between Tim’s eyes.
His throat worked above his pinching collar. “It’s the truth, Maggie.”
One quick move pointed her muzzle at the ceiling. She jerked the trigger. The loud bang rattled the quiet room. A trickling stream of falling plaster drifted through shafts of yellow light from the front window. Just as quickly, she returned her aim to the men. “I’m dead serious, Tim. I don’t think you want to find out just
now do you?”
He shook his head in a frantic motion that made his softening chin wiggle.
“Then fill up the bags. Billy, empty the petty cash from your drawer. Tim, the safe. Don’t try anything brave and this’ll be over before you know it.”
When they turned to their tasks, Maggie wiped a sweaty palm down her trousers. This simply had to work. She refused to watch her father die. Maggie edged away from the beveled windows. Their shades were still pulled down against the bright spring sun and the handful of townspeople strolling the boardwalk as they saw to the morning’s errands, but she didn’t want to take any chances. Father was depending on her.
of the safe dial echoed. Tim’s hands shook and he missed a number. He looked over his shoulder from where he knelt before the waist-high iron box.
She nodded. “It’s okay. Go again. Do it right this time, though.”
Billy finished emptying his metal cashbox into the brown sack. “That’s it, Maggie.”
“All right.” She eyed the bag that dangled from his hand. It didn’t look near as full as she needed it. “Give it to Tim.”
The safe door swung open, revealing stacks of neatly banded bills and bulging bags. “Open one of the bags, and let me see.”
He slid off the tie and tilted the sack. Gold gleamed and a single coin fell to the floor. “It’s for the railroad pay,” Tim said. “Mr. Masterson will be hot if it’s gone.”
A giggle caught in her chest. She took a deep breath to stave off the building hysteria. “Masterson would be hot no matter what’s taken. And he can go hang for all I care. Put as much as you can fit in the bags.”
Tim nodded though pink slashes of fury crossed his cheeks, and both men obeyed. Billy held open the burlap sacks as Tim dropped bag after bag inside. Finally they were full. “That’s it. Can’t fit no more.”
“Good. Put them down and back up until you get to Mr. Masterson’s office.”
Billy blanched. “You’re going to let us go, right, Maggie?”
“If you keep doing what I say, sure I will. In the office. And put your hands up.”
They moved with timid steps, their gazes trained on her. Billy went in first. As Tim stood in the doorway, Maggie stopped him. “Throw me the key.”
The brass key landed a few paces away. She picked it up without ever lowering her gun and slid forward as Tim backed into the office. He glowered at her, his face turning a mottled red.
“Don’t try anything stupid at this point. You’ve been such a good boy so far.”
“You’ll hang for this, Maggie Bullock,” he sputtered.
Her shrug betrayed nothing of the bone-chilling fear his words inspired. “So be it.”
At least her father would be released from the pain that had held him prisoner for three long years. She didn’t have much hope for how long he’d live, but she’d give anything for his misery to go away.
She slammed shut the door on the two men. The tumblers thumped as she turned the key in the lock.
A bullet burrowed through the door and narrowly missed her head. Maggie threw herself to the ground.
After a second, she rolled over and crab walked away. Next to the safe, she let her head thunk onto the wood floor. There must have been a gun in Masterson’s desk. “Gosh darn it, Tim, you didn’t have to do that.”
“The hell I didn’t,” he snarled, his voice muffled by the solid oak door.
She released the hammer on Father’s gun and tucked it back in her borrowed gun belt. The awkward weight banged into her hipbone. “It’s all over now,” she said as she picked up the bags. “Someone will be along for you in no time, I’m sure.”
“No thanks to you.”
Tim sure had gotten his voice back once the door locked between them. She shook her head and a lock of dark hair slid forward to cling to her jaw. An impatient gesture shoved it behind her ear. “No thanks to me, that’s true.”
At the front door, she hesitated. She had an absurd urge to say goodbye to Tim and Billy. She was leaving Fresh Springs forever, but her plans forced her to avoid goodbyes that could arouse suspicions. And one didn’t give farewells to people one had just robbed.
Instead she smoothed her hair back and tried to calm her racing heart. All the risk would be for naught if she piqued curiosity. No one would be surprised to see her leaving the bank. Even the men’s clothing would only draw mild concern. She’d worn them in town a time or twelve as she’d tried desperately to wring some money out of her father’s small parcel of land.
Maggie picked up the bags with a quiet
They were as weighty as she’d hoped for. She slipped back through the bank’s front doors with as little fanfare as she’d entered. A quick look down the street showed no one running to investigate the shot. A small blessing. She choked back the hysterical giggle of elation trying to wriggle its way up her throat. She’d made it. Nothing else mattered.
Her sturdy sorrel stood calmly at the hitching post next to the covered sidewalk. The horse pinned her with one glossy eye and flicked her black tail as Maggie dropped a heavy load into each saddlebag. She swung up and patted Sandie’s velvety neck. “It’s okay, girl,” she said, unsure who she was comforting—herself or the horse. “We’ll be out of town in just a few minutes.”
And Maggie would forever leave behind everything she’d ever known.
Everything except her father.
That would be enough.
The jail stank.
The past dark years had landed Dean Collier in a few jails across the western territories. Not enough to be an expert, but he’d gathered a bit of proficiency in the brick and iron cages local sheriffs maintained. The one in Ruby had to be the worst yet.
The narrow cot his ass was currently planted on was dirty and suspiciously stained. The floor was even worse, covered in a thick layer of muck and grime. A gray film smeared over the one squat window cut into the brick wall. Not that much would improve if the filth was cleaned anyhow, as the window was above his head and crossed by inch-thick iron bars.
The smell hadn’t rallied much either when the drunk in the cage next door puked all over himself. Now the air was redolent with the smell of cheap gin as well as the unwashed bodies who’d wasted untold hours in the cell.
Dean tugged his hat lower over his forehead and did his best to breathe through his mouth. It didn’t do much good. He was getting a little sour himself from stewing in the pen for two days.
Something clanked across the bars. “You’ve got a visitor, Collier.”
“Did they bring a mop?”
“Eh? What’s that?”
Dean tipped back his Stetson enough to see Sheriff Haley. The man had a big belly cinched in by a too-tight waistcoat and a silver watch chain ready to pop its button any second now. Two days ago, Dean let the man haul him off to jail, though he could have easily taken the grown-soft Haley in a fist-or gunfight. But being locked down had seemed only right, considering Dean had killed yet another man.
Another day in this cesspool and he’d be reconsidering his options.
“I’m not expecting anyone,” Dean said. His family, including his ma and both brothers, were miles away in the Texas town where he’d grown up. The same town he fled five years ago.
“He’s looking for you, all right.” Sheriff Haley hitched at his jacket lapels. “Dean Collier, bounty hunter. Asked for you specifically.”
Dean bent a knee and draped his forearm across it. “You’ll have to tell him I’m not taking any bounties right now. I’m a little tied up at the moment.” He indicated the bars of the cell with a negligible wave.
“You can tell him whatever you like.” Haley started to turn away, but paused and tapped his fingers on a bar. “Want a word of advice, Collier?”
“I can’t exactly stop you, now can I?”
Haley’s full jaws quivered as he huffed. “Willheim Masterson isn’t exactly the type of man a body says no to. Particularly if they tack a smart-mouth comment on the end.”
If Dean could raise enough energy to care, he might feel a little trepidation. “Duly noted.”
Haley disappeared down the tiny hallway and returned in a moment behind another man. Masterson had obviously been an imposing figure in his day, with a height much similar to Dean’s and a breadth to his shoulders that bespoke strength. But his shoulders were beginning to curve inwards and his full beard, liberally shot through with white, didn’t conceal the loosened, wrinkled skin of his neck.
Masterson rested a hand on a cross bar above his head. “So you’re Dean Collier.”
He idly wondered if Masterson expected him to come to his feet. “So I’m told.”
“You’ve spent five years as a bounty hunter?”
More or less, if one counted the times between regrettable bouts of clarity. “I have.”
Masterson grinned and white teeth peeked out from behind the beard. The falseness of the smile sent a shiver down Dean’s spine. “I’ve been told you’re one of the best. Once you’ve begun tracking a criminal, there’s no getting between you and your prize.”
“Damn right,” he replied automatically. He shifted his ass on the shabby mattress. The man made him sound like a bloodhound. “I’ve been known to mess up now and then.”
“I’ll say so.” Masterson gave a pointed look around the cell. “Enjoying your current accommodations?”
Dean only looked at him. Idiocy of such a measure didn’t particularly deserve a response. Besides, as disagreeable as the jail was, he couldn’t shake the feeling he deserved to be there. Murder did that to a man. “How about we get to the point, Masterson?”
Behind Masterson’s shoulder, Sheriff Haley’s face turned red and his mouth twitched open and closed. Dean returned his gaze to Masterson. Years on the trail had taught him it didn’t serve to take one’s eyes off danger for long.
“I should think it would be obvious.” He leaned in, his face inches from the iron. “I need a bounty hunter.”
“Circumstances being what they are, I’m not exactly available for hire.” And he wasn’t sure he would be ever again. Maybe he’d go into faro dealing. He wasn’t sure he could gun down another human being and escape with his sanity.
Masterson grinned again. Dean really didn’t like that smile. It reminded him of the wolf from a fairy tale. If Masterson thought he was going to eat Dean up, he’d have a quick adjustment coming to him. “What if I said I could take care of the circumstances?”
He shot a quick glance at the sheriff. Haley suddenly found the brick walls fascinating, but he thumbed his silver watch chain. “Is that so?”
“It could be, for the right man.” Masterson took his hands off the bars and stuck them in his pockets. “It wouldn’t be hard to arrange. Stephenson’s bounty might have been withdrawn, but there were people who saw him draw first. With a little encouragement, they might be able to make their voices heard more easily.”