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Authors: Lori Handeland

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BOOK: Out of Her League
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followed by an excerpt from the second book,

AN OUTLAW IN WONDERLAND.

Coming Summer 2013

 

BEAUTY AND THE BOUNTY HUNTER

 

Lori Austin

 

Alexi cursed. French? Spanish? Italian? Cat wasn't certain, but whatever language, the words, the tone, the cadence were both beautiful and brutal. Kind of like Alexi himself.

She brushed her fingertips across his face. "Why did you let him hurt you?"

"Sometimes," he said, "the hurt just happens."

She narrowed her eyes. She didn't think he was talking about Langston anymore.

Cat paced in front of the window. The urge to peer from it again was nearly overwhelming. What was out there that was bothering her? If there was a rifle, and considering the prickling of her skin, there might be, she should stay away from the window.

She sat. First on the bed. Then on the chair. Then on the bed again. Alexi ignored her, seemingly captivated with the cards.

Cat went to the door, put her hand on the knob. Alexi "tsked," and she turned away. Her gaze went again to the window, and from this angle, with the horizon framed like a picture, she saw what was wrong. She couldn't believe she hadn't noticed it before, but she'd been Meg, and Meg wouldn't recognize that vista. Only Cathleen would.

She had not been back to the farm since she had left it nearly two years ago. It only took Cat an instant to decide that she was going back now. Or at least as soon as she could get away from Alexi.

"Deal," she said. Alexi glanced up, expression curious, hands still shuffling, shuffling, shuffling
 
."If we have to stay in here, we can at least make it interesting."

His lips curved. "Faro?"

Cat took a chair at the table. "You know better."

Cat loathed Faro, known by many as "Bucking
the Tiger." Every saloon between St. Louis and San Francisco offered the game, and most of them cheated. Stacked decks, with many paired cards that allowed the dealer, or banker, to collect half the bets, as well as shaved decks and razored aces were common.

Alexi wouldn't stoop to such tactics; he'd consider mundane cheats beneath him. Besides, he'd already taught her how to spot them, so why bother? Certainly he cheated, but with Faro, Cat had never been able to discover just how.

He'd swindle her at poker too if she wasn't paying attention, but at least with that game she had a better than average chance of catching him.

Alexi laid out five cards for each of them. "Stakes?"

"We can't play just to pass the time?"

He didn't even bother to dignify that foolishness with an answer.

For an instant Cat considered foregoing the wayward nature of the cards and, instead, getting him drunk. But she'd attempted that before. Alexi had remained annoyingly sober, and she had been rewarded with a three-day headache, which Alexi had found beyond amusing.

She had more tolerance now--Cat O'Banyon had drunk many a bounty beneath the table--but she still doubted she could drink this man into a stupor. Sometimes she wondered if he sipped on watered wine daily just to ascertain no one ever could.

Which meant her only other choice was this.

Cat lifted her cards. She gave away nothing; neither did Alexi. After pulling her purse from her pocket, she tossed a few coins onto the table. With a lift of his brow, he did the same.

They played in silence as the day waned. The room grew hot. In the way of cards, first Alexi was ahead then Cat. She watched him as closely as he watched her. Neither one of them cheated.

Much.

There was something in his face she'd never seen before. Was he scared? Had coming a hair from a hanging frightened him at last? Or was she merely seeing in Alexi a reflection of herself?

Cat bit her lip to keep from looking at the window. Instead she continued with the game. When the sun began to slant toward dusk, and the pile of coins on both sides of the table lay about even, Cat lifted her eyes. "Wanna make this interesting?"

"
Khriso mou
," Alexi murmured. "When you say things like that . . . " He moved a card from the right side of his hand to the left. "I get excited."

"How about we raise the stakes to . . . " She drew out the moment, and even though he knew exactly what she was doing, as he was the one who had taught her to do it, eventually his anticipation caused him to lean forward. Only then did Cat give him what he sought. "Anything."

"Anything?" he repeated.

"
Oui
." He cast her an exasperated glance as she purposely mangled one of his favorite words. "I win this hand, you give me anything I ask. You win--"

"I get anything I ask." "You've played this before." "Not with you." She doubted he'd played it with anyone. What
moron would promise anything? Only someone with little left to lose or . . .

Cat considered her cards without so much as a flicker of an eyelash. Someone with a hand like hers.

“All right,” he agreed. “Who am I to turn down anything?”

Not the man she knew and--

Cat brought up short. Not the man she knew and what?

Well, not the man she knew.

Alexi turned his cards face up. Cat kept her face blank as she placed hers face down.

"You win."

 

AN OUTLAW IN WONDERLAND

 

Lori Austin

 

"Beth?" Ethan stepped into the room. Hands open to show he held nothing in them, he stared at her as if she was a wild thing. "What are you doing?"

"What you should have done." She tightened her grip. "Long ago."

"Honey," he began. "Shut. Up." Annabeth swung the axe. The crib shattered into several large chunks.

She continued to hack away at it until the thing lay in several dozen small ones. When she finished, she tossed the blade in the center and peered out the window. She needed to leave--this room, this house, this town, this life--but right now it was all she could do to stay on her feet.

"Why did you keep it?" she whispered. "I . . . " he began, then sighed. "I don't know." On the street below, a few people still paused
and pointed, but most of Freedom had gone about their business. No doubt the doctor and his no- longer-dead wife would be a topic of conversation on street corners for weeks to come, but folks had work to do and only so much time to do it in.

Annabeth's gaze went to Lewis's Sewing and Sundry. The sun glanced off the windows bright enough to blind. Ethan came up beside her. He
didn't speak; she had told him to shut up. Annabeth still couldn't look at him.

"Why?" he murmured. She wasn't sure which why he meant. Why was she here? Why had she left? Why had she lied, spied? Why had they even tried?

Or maybe just why had she used his axe on their dead child's crib? At least for that question she had an answer.

"You might have put Cora Lewis in our bed," she said, "but you aren't putting her child in the one you made for ours."

"I wouldn't," he began.

She had no idea anymore what he would or wouldn't do, but she knew one thing for certain. "Now you can't."

They continued to peer outside. Did Ethan see the streets, the buildings, the people? Or had his vision blurred with memories too?

Standing in this room all those years ago, the town below them dustier and smaller, but back then wasn't everything? Laughing together, her belly round and taut. When he'd laid his palm against it everything in the world had seemed so right. How could it have gone so quickly, and so totally, wrong?

Lies.

His. Hers. She still wasn't sure where one began and the other ended. She probably never would be.

A flash of light near the edge of town drew her attention. She’d seen sparkles like it before.

Annabeth shoved Ethan aside as the window shattered all over them. They bounced off the wall, landing on the floor in a heap of limbs and glass and crib chunks as the echo of a gunshot rang in her ears.

Ignoring the spike of glass and wood against her knees and palms, the tiny cuts across her face and throat, Annabeth crawled to the door where she'd dropped her possessions. She slid her Colt from the holster, muttering a few curses that she'd left the rifle in her saddle's scabbard. A pistol was going to be of no use unless whoever was shooting at them decided to approach the house. And if they were going to do that, they would have done it in the first place rather than snipe at them from afar.

Annabeth thought about what she'd seen in that instant before she'd pushed Ethan out of the way. A glint of sun off metal at the edge of Freedom, where few people roamed, in a place where whoever wanted them dead could slip back into town during the commotion, or jump on a horse and disappear during the same. Although, around here, there wasn't much cover.

She doubted the culprit was still out there. Nevertheless, she peeked over the edge of a window that now matched the empty one in Ethan's room-- very quick, just in case--but no more shots were fired.

A cloud of dust had marred the horizon. A horse and rider? Or just dust? She couldn't tell.

"I think they're gone, but . . . ” She paused. The words stay away from the window--one never knew just how gone “gone” was--remained unspoken.

Ethan didn't move, didn't speak. She considered he might be frightened, but as he'd once spent time as a field surgeon in the middle of a war shots had come closer to him than this.

"Ethan?" She sat on her heels and glanced over her shoulder.

She'd been wrong. No shot had ever come closer than this
.

 

BOOK: Out of Her League
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