The Willow Creek Series, Books 3 & 4 – The Gambler & The Rancher

 


The Gambler & The Rancher
by Lily Graison

Books 3 & 4 in the Willow Creek Series
Historical Western Romance
Format: Paperback
Length: Novel
Released: June 2013

 
The Gambler & The Rancher, books 3 and 4 of The Willow Creek Series, bundled into one print edition.
 
 
 
 
The Gambler

Emmaline Hunt only had one thing she could call her own. A piece of land that held a secret not even her drunken stepfather knew about. When he gambles it away in a high stakes poker game, Emmaline does the only thing she can. She tries to steal the land deed back.

Tristan Avery has seen his share of bloodshed while sitting at a gaming table and knows its time to lay low when he wins a wad of cash and a piece of land. Especially after his opponent ends up dead at his feet. High tailing it out of town is his only option but things take a drastic turn when he finds a woman in his hotel room trying to rob him blind.

The botched robbery attempt is only the start of his troubles when Tristan finds his new land occupied by the same girl who tried to rob him. When he realizes he’s left her homeless, and killed her stepfather, his conscience forces him to do the right thing. Taking her to his hometown and setting her up with a new life will make up for all he’s taken from her.

But Emmaline has other plans. She wants her land, and Tristan’s money, and she’ll do whatever it takes to get them. All she has to do is convince him she’s there to stay, outwit him, find a way back home and not let a single soul know she has a gold mine bursting at the seems with untapped wealth.

The Rancher

Laurel Montgomery wanted a new life, one that didn’t include a man. She’d had enough of their pretty lies and broken promises but one night of reckless abandon weeks before taking a job as the new schoolteacher in Willow Creek would come back to haunt her. The man she thought to never see again turns out to be the father of one of her new students. A man so handsome and rugged he takes her breath away. Too bad she’s sworn off men forever. If only the stubborn man would take no for an answer.

Holden Avery was love-struck the moment he saw Laurel Montgomery and cursed himself for a fool every waking minute since letting her walk out of his life. When she turns up in Willow Creek he’s handed the second chance he didn’t think he’d ever get but thoughts of pursuing Laurel are cut short when a stranger shows up in town. A man who claims to be Laurel’s husband.

The happily ever after Holden thought to finally have is plagued with obstacles but he sets off to prove he’s the man Laurel wants. Convincing her to give him a chance is nearly impossible but he’s waited too long to find her to give up now. One way or the other, Laurel Montgomery would be his wife.

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excerpt
 
The Gambler
Chapter One
 

1870 – Winter – Idaho Territory

He was going to die. Tristan knew it the moment he heard the gun hammer being pulled back. Sweat broke out on his brow. Things were about to get ugly as sin and there wasn’t anything he could do about it. Lifting his gaze, he stared at the man across the table. Just his luck he’d find another sore loser.

A glance down at his cards and he wondered if it was worth it. He smiled to himself when he saw his hand. It was. He drummed one finger on the table and reached for his chips, tossed in half of what he had and ignored the whispered comments. Let them think him stupid. He bit his tongue, staring without blinking at the man in front of him and discreetly lowered his left arm, his fingers twitching beside the holster at his hip.

The man grinned at him and leaned back in his seat. “I know what you’re doin’ boy, and it ain’t gonna work.”

Tristan didn’t say anything. He stared the man in the eye and waited, tuning out the commotion inside the small saloon. The tinny piano-music filled the room with a lively atmosphere and the melody joined the ruckus of laughter, feminine squeals from the girls in their colorful dresses and the occasional shout from someone about to come face to fist with another sore loser.

The game started like any other, with a mix of ranchers, cowpokes and those thinking they were lucky enough to hit it big. Tristan knew they weren’t. He’d been playing since he was old enough to hold cards and luck had nothing to do with it.

He knew every nuance the players made, how to read their body language, their facial expressions, and knew when to keep playing and when to fold. This guy, the one across the table from him, had to be the easiest he’d ever read.

His every move was written across his face. His eyes were too bright, he licked his lips anxiously and his gaze kept flicking from his cards to the chips scattered across the table. He had a good hand, whatever it was, but it wasn’t as good as his.

He eyed the man again. He was sweating, now. Beads of perspiration dotted his forehead and he licked his lips as he studied his cards before glancing at the chips. Tristan looked too. It was enough cash to choke his horse and his insides were a bundle of knots. If he won this hand, it would be his single biggest win, ever.

“All or nothing?” The man looked up with wide eyes. He produced a piece of paper from his shirt pocket, opened it and laid it on top of the chips littering the table. “A piece of property sweeter than a young virgin’s tits. You in or out?”

Tristan craned his neck to look at the paper. It was a property deed, one hundred acres of wooded Idaho soil. He had no use for that but the chips under the deed could set him up for a good long time. He looked at his remaining chips. It was an obscene amount of money but it was easy to replace. If he backed out now, he’d look a right coward, and there wasn’t an Avery in history who could be tagged with that moniker.

Besides, his hand couldn’t be beat.

He pushed the remainder of his chips in and inclined his head. “Show me what you’ve got, ole’ timer.”

The man laughed and slung his cards down on the table. He was holding a straight, just as Tristan thought he was, and he tipped his head forward, acknowledging the hand. He watched the old man laugh, heard the others gathered around the table congratulate him before the man reached for the pile of chips on the table, his arms surrounding the bundle, the chips making a soft tinkling sound as the man started dragging them toward him.

Tristan laid his cards down. “Not so fast, old man.”

The silence that followed caused the hair on the back of Tristan’s neck to stand on end. He thumbed the strap holding his pistol in the holster loose and waited, his fingers twitching. When the old man looked up, his face red and splotchy, Tristan saw a vein bulge in his forehead.

“A royal flush?” The man stood, his chair falling backwards to slam into the floor. He looked up, those wide, drunken eyes bloodshot and filled with fury. “You cheatin’ little piece of shit!”

He reached for the gun hanging near his hip and Tristan pulled his and leveled the barrel with the man’s chest. “Don’t do it, old man.” He eyed the furious man across the table and wondered just how far he’d get with his winnings before he was shot in the back. He didn’t wait around to find out. The mingled whispers grew in volume as he collected his winnings and cashed out, leaving the saloon at a fast clip.

The street was dark and his booted feet made a loud pop across the wooden sidewalk. The occasional shout echoed across the street from the many gaming and whorehouses lining both sides of the road and Tristan let his gaze roam in every direction. When the hotel came into view, the relief he felt was almost orgasmic.

It was short lived. He heard someone behind him a moment later, their boots hitting the wooden sidewalk with a soft thump. Tristan laid his left hand on the butt of his pistol. The urge to turn around and look behind him was strong but he resisted.

The alley up ahead was dark with shadows. His heart raced as he quickened his steps, ducking between the buildings. He readjusted his hat, pulled the pistol and waited.

It took only seconds for the drunken man to reach him. When Tristan saw him round the corner, he lashed out, smashing his fist into the side of the man’s head. The drunk staggered, fell back into the wooden crates lining the building opposite him and everything seemed to go in slow motion then. The flare of light caused Tristan to blink, the red and blue flash was followed by an ear piercing ringing inside his head as the old man took a shot at him. Tristan reacted without pause, lifting his colt and pulling the trigger.

He didn’t miss.

The old man went down, his gurgled breath wheezed out with a bloody cough and Tristan didn’t wait around to see if the old man was dead. He turned, stepped back onto the sidewalk and walked quickly to the hotel.

Ten high-stakes games and two deaths in one month. That was enough trouble to last him a lifetime. He glanced behind him, nervously waiting for someone to yell about the shooting and knew he needed to lie low for a while, let his name die on the lips of those he’d bled dry. His mind swirled with possibilities of where he could go. None of them appealed to him. There was only one place he could get as far away from the gambling scene as he needed to.

Home.

He crossed the street, his thoughts on Willow Creek and saw movement in the darkened alley between the hotel and general store. He slowed his steps, laid his left hand on the revolver at his hip and crossed in front of the alley cautiously. He saw nothing and realized he was still nervous. His insides were jumpy and he was seeing things.

Walking quicker, he entered the hotel, jogged up the steps and walked to his room without slowing. Once inside his room, he sighed in relief.

He rubbed his face, felt the grime of sweat on his brow and let out a weary sigh before walking across the room to sit down. He took several long breaths and tried to calm his racing heart. It took longer than it should have but when he could breathe normally again, the enormity of what he’d just done tore a laugh from him. “Son of a bitch.”

Reaching into his pockets for the money, he grinned when he saw it. The land deed fell out with it and he picked it up, looking it over. One hundred acres. What in the world was he going to do with land in Idaho? He laughed. Life just got sweeter every damn day.

He stared at the deed, his mind rolling over the possibilities before he realized he could sell it. Of course, it could be a worthless piece of land no one would ever want. Might have been why the old man threw it into the pot. He’d have to take a look at it to know.

Staring at the deed, he was taken back to the alley and the old man he’d shot. His joy at winning dimmed. He sighed. Tonight’s game was the second that month that had ended in bloodshed. Luckily for him, both times had seen him walking away, but he wasn’t fool enough to think it would always be that way. One of these nights, someone would be faster and he’d be dead. Or caught and hung for murdering those stupid enough to pull their gun on him.

He tossed the money, and the deed aside, laid back across the bed and stared up at the ceiling. He felt old all of a sudden. He didn’t think being twenty-six would make a person feel like they’d lived half their life already but for some reason, he did. And he still had things to do before he met his maker. He wanted to see his family again. Check on his pa to see if he’d ever got better. Travel a bit and meet a nice girl. Maybe settle down someday and have a few babies. He laughed. “Nah.”

Sitting up he pulled off his coat and vest, draped them across the foot of the bed and took his boots off. He needed to leave first thing in the morning. The less he saw of this town the better.

He picked up his winnings, his gaze falling on the land deed again. He needed to see that property he now owned, too. He’d find out where it was and swing by on his way out of town. At least he’d have something to show his brothers when he got back home. Lord knew they wouldn’t be happy to see him.

* * * *

The room was lit in filtered moonlight. Emmaline hurried inside, shutting the door behind her. She waited until her eyes adjusted then turned, faced the bed, and looked at the man lying there. He appeared to be naked, the sheet bunched low around his hips gave her a faint glimpse of a taunt stomach. His chest and face was bathed in shadow and she stood for long minutes, just staring, before she took a step.

The floor creaked under her feet and she stilled, her gaze searching and finding the face of the sleeping man. He didn’t move. She crept closer to the bed, looking at the top of the table next to it. It was empty.

Turning her head, she searched the room, looking for anything he might conceal his belongings in. She spotted it a few moments later. A large carpetbag on the chair by the window. She crossed the room, pulled the flap and peered inside.

The usual traveling accessories were there. Clothes, a shaving kit, a few letters. She dug her hand deeper, searching for his purse and clenched her jaw when she found nothing but a small bottle rattling around in the bottom of the bag.

“Looking for this?”

She froze, her eyes wide as she stared at the wall in front of her. The clicking of a gun hammer being pulled back echoed in the silence a moment later. She swallowed the lump forming in her throat and let go of the bag.

“Turn around. Slowly.”

Inhaling a calming breath, she turned, lifting her gaze to his face.

He bared his teeth, the whiteness gleaming in the moonlight shining through the window, and crossed his free arm over his chest. “Please, do tell me what you’re doing in my room? More precisely, why you’d be stupid enough to try and rob me?” When she didn’t answer, he scowled. “And make it quick. I’ve little patience this evening.”

She glanced at the door before flicking her gaze back to him. He was naked, she noticed. Standing in a stream of moonlight she could see him clearly and the man certainly had nothing to be ashamed of. Her gaze ran over him from his toned thighs to his face. He was watching her and she wondered if she could make it to the door before he could. Or if he’d shoot her for trying.

“I don’t have all night, son, so spit it out.”

Emmaline bit her lip. He thought she was a boy. She nearly sighed in relief. If she made it out of the hotel, he’d send the sheriff ’round looking for a man, not a woman. She eyed the door again and balled her fist. The small bottle was still in her hand. She clenched her fingers around it, once, and then tossed it to the left. When he looked, she ran.

He yelled, his heavy footfalls smacking the floor as he chased her. She made it to the door, her fingers grappling for the handle seconds before he wrapped his arms around her waist and they both crashed into the floor. “Get off me!” Emmaline kicked, clawed and raised her head, clamping down on his shoulder with her teeth. He threw his head back and yelled before raising the gun and laid the barrel against her forehead. She froze.

“You move another muscle and I’ll blow your face off.”

Emmaline didn’t even attempt to breathe. She stared up at him, her lungs aching for air, and was dizzy by the time he moved.

He sat up, balled his fist around the front of her shirt and stood, dragging her off the floor before slamming her into the wall. He raised the gun again, leveling it with her face and lifted her until her toes were dangling above the ground. “Let’s try this again,” he said. “Who are you and what are you looking for?”

She was going to be sick. Emmaline swallowed the bile rising into her throat and licked her lips. He was bathed in shadows again but she’d seen him through the saloon windows and knew, those blue eyes were probably dancing with fury. He gave her a small shake and her head bounced off the wall. Emmaline willed herself not to cry as her hands started to shake. “I just want what’s mine.”

He blinked and tilted his head to one side. “And what exactly do I have that belongs to you?”

Emmaline tilted her chin and stared him in the eye. “The land deed. It’s mine and I want it back.”

He stared at her for long moments, the hand he had twisted in the fabric of her shirt loosened before he lowered her back to the ground. When her feet were on the floor, she raised her head up so she could see him. He was tall, the top of her head only reaching his chest.

The gun wavered. He stared down at her, squinting before he took a step back. His gaze roamed her from head to toe before he reached out and jerked the hat off her head. “Son of a bitch.”

Emmaline kept her chin lifted and hardened her gaze as she reached for her braid and flung it over her shoulder.

“You’re a girl?”

“I’m a woman, thank you very much.” She straightened her shirt and met his gaze. “And I’d be obliged if you’d get that gun out of my face.”

He glanced down at the colt, lowered the gun before thinking better of it and raising it again. “Who are you?”

“Where’s the land deed?”

“I’m the one asking questions here. Who are you?”

Emmaline stared at him and crossed her arms over her chest. “I’m the stepdaughter of the man you killed tonight and I want my damn land deed.”

He gaped at her, whether it was because of her language or her harsh demand, she didn’t know, but he lowered the gun and opened his mouth as if to speak but shut it with a snap. He scratched the side of his head before his lips formed a thin, angry line. “I won that deed fair and square. I’m sorry about your father but you’re not getting the land back.”

If she didn’t unclench her jaw, she’d break her teeth. Emmaline bit down harder and counted to ten in her head and released the pressure, staring up at him and wishing she’d had the sense enough to conk him over the head with something when she entered the room. “It wasn’t his to gamble away. It was mine and I want it back.”

“Not going to happen.” He crossed his arms over his chest and threw her an infuriating smile. “The game was fair. He offered the deed and he lost. The land is now mine. And you, whoever you are, will just have to accept that.”

“I’ll have you arrested for murder.”

The man laughed. “Go ahead. Tell me your name while you’re at it. I’ll be needing it when the sheriff gets here to arrest you for attempted robbery.”

Emmaline felt so defeated her chest ached with it. What conscience this man had obviously wasn’t tortured by the fact he’d killed someone. She’d watched him through the window at the saloon, saw how confident he looked and knew just from a glance he was a professional gambler. There was just something about them. It was in the set of their shoulders, the way they carried themselves. The smug look on their face as if the entire world was theirs for the taking and this man was no different. He towered over her and demanded answers he thought he deserved. He wouldn’t get them. She’d die before she told him her name.

Glancing at the door out of the corner of her eye, she made a quick lunge for it but stopped short when he made a move toward her. She kicked out a leg, her knee catching him the groin. His pained yell echoed off the walls as he lowered both hands to cup his groin while hitting his knees in agony.

Emmaline turned and ran, scrambled for the door handle and was able to get it open moments before he grabbed her ankle. She shrieked, kicked out again and planted the toe of her shoe to the side of his head. When he fell, she ran, racing out the door and down the hall and didn’t stop running until she was clear on the other side of town.

She stopped when she reached the tree line and heaved in deep breaths of air, watching the main road. He never came after her. When her heart stopped racing, she turned and started making her way home. She’d have to think of something else. She had to get that land deed back, even if that meant tailing that gambler clean across the country. Her future lay on that land and she wasn’t letting it go without a fight.

* * * *

Emmaline lifted the shotgun and pulled back the hammer. She sighted in on the stranger riding up the road and waited until she knew he was within hitting distance. She pulled the trigger and grinned when he ducked, his horse dancing underneath him enough to knock him from the saddle to end up sprawled on the ground. He cursed as the horse ran a few feet away and Emmaline sighted on him again and waited.

He stood, dusted off his pants with his hat and turned toward the cabin. One look at him and she knew it was the gambler from last night. Butterflies started dancing in her stomach. What did he want? She waited, watching him take a few steps closer and aimed for a spot by his head and pulled the trigger again. He shouted, ducked and hunkered low to the ground.

“Stop your damn shooting!”

Holding his hands up as if to surrender, Emmaline lowered the barrel an inch. “State your business.”

He straightened and reached into his coat pocket. Emmaline lifted the gun again. “Hang on a minute,” he said. “I’ve got the deed to this property.” He waved it in the air and took a few more steps closer.

Emmaline let him get close enough to see his face. He was handsome and his clothes told her he had enough money to buy the place three times over. His brocade vest was a rich purple in color, shot with gold threads throughout, his black jacket tailored. His hair was blonde and cut short, which was unusual for these parts, and she was sure he was up to something. After their encounter last night, him riding out here to give her the deed back was too ridiculous to think. “That’s close enough, mister.”

He stopped, repositioned his hat on his head, and tossed her a smile she was sure was supposed to flatter her. It didn’t.

Glancing down at the paper in his hand for a brief moment, he looked at the cabin and the surrounding forest. “This is the Hunt place, right?” He stared at her, his head tilting just a fraction before his brows lowered. “Are you the girl from last night?”

Emmaline raised the gun again. “Unless you’re here to give me the deed, you’ve no business here. Now either hand it over or go grab that horse and get back on it.”

The man grinned and lifted his hand, the paper he held blowing in the breeze. “Can’t do that, Ma’am. According to this piece of paper, you’re standing on my property. If anyone should leave, it would have to be you.”

“I can make you leave.”

He smiled and tucked the deed back into his jacket pocket. “And I’ll go get the sheriff and have you hauled out of here like an unwanted squatter.”

She huffed out a frustrated breath, glared at him for a full minute and turned, walked back inside the cabin, and slammed the door behind her.

Emmaline placed the gun back on the shelf and walked to the stove, laying her hands over the top to warm them. The old hunk of iron was barely throwing off heat but compared to the brisk wind outside, it felt like heaven.

Her thoughts were a tangle of what ifs. The man outside wouldn’t be here if he didn’t want the land and her situation had turned from bad to worse. She should have known Harold would eventually ruin them beyond repair and now that he had, knowing she’d been right, it left a bad taste in her mouth.

The rumbling of her stomach echoed in the room and the tears she’d been fighting rolled down her cheeks. She swiped at them angrily, refusing to be beaten, once again, by her idiotic stepfather’s choices. He’d been a careless bum his whole life and she’d forgiven him one time too many. Not this time. She’d never forgive him for leaving her homeless. She couldn’t.

Hearing the door to the cabin open, she wiped away the rest of the tears and stared at the wall. “I don’t recall inviting you in.”

“Well, legally, it’s my cabin so I don’t need your permission. You are officially trespassing and unless we can come to some sort of agreement…”

She whirled and locked eyes with him. “Evicting me already? Such a gentleman. I bet the ladies just fall at your feet with such sweet talk.”

He grinned and she tried to ignore the dimple in his cheek or how much younger he looked in the bright light of day. He couldn’t have been more than a couple years older than she was. And he was even more handsome up close. His eyes were bluer than they appeared in the saloon and his fancy clothes and fresh barbered look appealed to her. She scowled when she realized she was looking at him as any woman would a man she found attractive and reminded herself he was a lying, cheating, murdering dog. “Get out.”

He crossed his arms over his chest and leaned back against the door, his smile widening. “Make me.”

 

The Rancher
Prologue

Missoula, Montana Territory

As visions went, she was by far the most alluring one he’d seen in years.

Holden turned up his glass, swallowed what remained inside, and kept his gaze locked on the woman making her way to the bar. The hem of her brown sateen skirt swept the sawdust floor, the light from the lanterns catching in the shiny material of her dress and drawing his eye to places no decent man should look, but the soft curve of her breasts was too tempting to glance away from.

He’d seen many beautiful women in his thirty-two years but something about this woman left him dazed. It was probably the amount of whiskey he’d drank, or the fact the light was so dim inside the saloon, but she looked ethereal, like some other-world being straight from one of those fairytale books his daughter Alex had stacked in her room.

His gaze swept over her again. Her dark hair was left loose, long curls bouncing free over her shoulders and when she put her back to him, he traced the line of her spine to her narrow waist, the gentle flair of her hips to her rounded behind and he felt his throat go dry despite the amount of alcohol he’d consumed.

He sat up straight in his seat and tore his gaze from her to sweep over the room again.

His brother, Tristan, had told him this was the best gaming house in all of Missoula and from what he’d seen, Tristan had been right. It was clean, the whiskey was good and the whores were pretty and smelled like a woman should, but picking one to spend the evening with wasn’t easy. The blondes reminded him of his late wife, god rest her soul, and the brunettes weren’t as buxom as he liked. Of course, they all paled in comparison to the beauty who caught the attention of those not too drunk to notice.

He turned his gaze back to the bar. She was still there, her face reflected in the mirror on the wall. She wasn’t a whore, that much he knew. She was too refined looking, not to mention she’d entered from the street and was now ordering a drink from the looks of it. A lady who drank in public. That was new.

Picking up his empty glass, he stood, waded through the crowd and approached the bar with one goal in mind. He had to get a closer look at this woman to see if it was the alcohol making her so breathtaking.

He stopped beside her, ordered another drink, and glanced up at her in the mirror, then turned to where she stood. She was staring down into her glass, the amber liquid untouched. “As whiskey goes, its not bad,” he said.

She turned her head to him and he’d be damned if his heart didn’t give a little kick in his chest. Her eyes were the oddest shade of brown he’d ever seen. They reminded him of the whiskey in her glass, a light, swirling amber. The rest of her face was remarkable too. Her complexion was smooth, her lips plump and pink. Small curls framed her face making her look soft and feminine. Beautiful.

He blinked and nodded to her glass. “Do you always order whiskey then just stare at it?”

She tilted her head a little to one side. “Why are you talking to me?”

Holden opened his mouth to answer but closed it with a snap. Beautiful and rude. He smiled and leaned one arm on the bar. “To be honest, now that you ask, I’ve no idea.”

She stared at him for long moments before smiling and looking back at her glass. “Honesty. That’s a rare attribute for a man.”

He raised an eyebrow. “Depends on the man, I suppose.”

Her head turned, those whiskey colored eyes giving him a look from head to toe. “Really? I didn’t think any man was capable of it.”

Holden laughed. “Beautiful, rude and bitter. A strange combination.”

Amusement filled her eyes and she turned her body to face him. “I’m also surly, mean-spirited and suspicious.”

“And you apparently don’t care what others think.”

“What makes you say that?”

Holden thumbed up the front of his hat. “I don’t know of any lady who would walk into a saloon and order a whiskey at the bar, then stick around to drink it.” He glanced down at her glass. “Or stare at it.”

She shrugged one delicate shoulder. “Who says I’m a lady?” She lifted her glass, slung back her whiskey as if she’d been doing it for years and grinned at him while sitting the glass back down.

Holden swallowed his own liquor, nodded to the bartender to refill their glasses and never took his eyes off of her. “I’m Hol…”

“Don’t!”

Holden shut his mouth, one eyebrow raised as she yelled at him, her right arm raised as if to ward off the words. Her cheeks pinkened before she straightened her spine.

“No names, please.”

He grinned. “Okay.”

She sighed, her shoulders relaxing. “I find it much easier to just talk to someone without really knowing who they are.”

“Mysterious, rude, bitter and beautiful. Now I’m intrigued.”

She flashed him a tiny smile. “Stop trying to flatter me.”

“Who says I am?”

She laughed, the sound a tinkling vibration that coursed through his body and ended near his toes. Her eyes sparkled as she laughed, and he knew before the night was out he’d be so smitten with this woman he’d never get her out of his head.

They talked for close to an hour about nothing specific, consumed more whiskey than he’d drank in months, and when the crowd inside the saloon grew rowdy, their voices raised to the point he couldn’t hear what she was saying, she raised up on her toes, her mouth next to his ear, and asked if he’d like to take a walk with her. All thought of buying companionship for the evening was forgotten.

Out on the wooden sidewalk, she turned and stumbled, her laughter like music as he reached out his arm to steady her. “I think you may have had too much to drink.”

“Are you saying I’m drunk?” She leaned against him and grinned, taking hold of his arm and looping hers through his before turning them and starting down the sidewalk.

Holden inhaled a breath, her rose scented skin infusing the air around him. “I’d never insult a lady in such a way.”

She laughed again, proving she had more to drink than she was used to and looked up at him with those alluring eyes. “I’m far from drunk, Sir, I can assure you. I would have never left the saloon with you had I been.”

He smiled. “So you would have passed out on the floor instead?”

“Probably.” She inhaled a deep breath, raising her head. “Do you live here?”

“I thought you didn’t want to know anything about me?”

She gave him a sideways look. “I don’t. The less I know about you the better off I’ll be, but it’s so warm for fall. I’m just trying to find out if it’s always this way in Montana.”

It took an effort to mask his disappointment in her not wanting to know who he really was but he shrugged it off. “No. It’ll start cooling down soon and once winter sets in, you’ll wish you were somewhere else.”

“I doubt that.”

She stopped in front of one of the many hotel’s in town and turned to face him. Her eyes were drowsy looking, her lips glistening with moisture from where she’d licked them and he’d never wanted to kiss anyone the way he did her. “Is this where you’re staying?”

“Yes.”

He should have picked this hotel, too. He’d chosen the more expensive one down the road and almost wished he could check in here and go grab his things so he could spend his last evening in town with her close by.

The past week had been hard, a physical and mental drain on his body. Selling off his horses, paying the wranglers and then watching them as they all grabbed a woman in the saloon and headed upstairs planted a seed of longing in him that he hadn’t felt in ages. Being so far from home, he could indulge in any manner of debauchery and once the idea was there, he couldn’t seem to let it go.

Alex, his ten year old daughter, was too impressionable to go traipsing off to town to find his comfort with one of the whores at the Diamond Back Saloon in Willow Creek and the dull ache from years of denying his body the pleasure of a woman was felt in every muscle and every nerve. He’d spent an extra night in town just to see those aches eased. No one at home would know, least of all Alex, and the moment he decided to pick one of those pretty ladies at the saloon, in walks a woman who put the others to shame.

She was still looking up at him, her whiskey colored eyes sparkling in the moonlight and his entire body jolted while looking at her. He wanted her. Wanted her unlike anything he’d wanted in a long time but saying so would ruin the entire evening.

They stood staring at one another for long minutes, the crowd on the street and sidewalks disappearing and when she smiled at him, the look in her eyes telling him she was thinking the same thing he was, his heart started racing.

“If I wasn’t a lady, I’d be tempted to ask you up to my room.”

Holden’s fingers clenched into fists at his side. “If you weren’t a lady, I’d take you up on it.”

She licked her lips and Holden’s gaze was drawn to her mouth while every nerve in his body jumped, screamed, and demanded he forget his manners. To take advantage of the situation, damn his conscience and take her to bed. Spend the rest of the night between her thighs and make his way home come morning with a memory he’d have a hard time forgetting.

The wind blew a strand of her hair into her eyes and he pushed it away, tucking it behind her ear. The moment he touched her, caught the faintest scent of roses on her skin, his heart pounded so hard, he had trouble breathing around it.

She stared up at him, an invitation in her eyes. “I’m in room twelve. Give me ten minutes.”

Turning, she left him standing on the sidewalk and entered the hotel, glancing back over her shoulder to smile at him. He had one night in Missoula and even though he’d never see this woman again, he’d carry the memory of her with him always. The way she’d looked at him said she would too. The invitation to her room was there and he wasn’t stupid enough to pass on it.

Chapter One
 

Good lord above, the man was all but naked!

Laurel blinked and nearly ran the wagon into the fence as she stared at him. She managed to stop the horses and even remembered to set the brake on the wagon, reminding herself that she was a lady and averted her gaze.

Alexandra Avery fidgeted in the seat beside of her and Laurel gave her a nod of her head, watching as the girl stood and jumped from the wagon, running to whom she assumed was her father. The man leaned down as the girl rushed out an explanation and when he turned his head to look her way, and she got a good look at his face, Laurel’s heart skipped a beat as it slammed against her ribcage. “Oh, sweet heavens, no.” It couldn’t be!

He stood to his full height, his eyes widening a fraction as he looked at her, before he grinned so devilishly, her breath caught. She knew in an instant she was in trouble.

How in the world did she end up in the same town as him? The odds were too fantastic to even imagine.

Memories of them together screamed through her head as she stared at him. She’d spent every day since that night in Missoula trying to forget about him. So far, she’d managed to only think of him once or twice a day but seeing him again, standing right in front of her with nothing but his trousers, hat, and a smile on, she cursed her luck.

Squaring her shoulders, Laurel climbed from the borrowed wagon and tried to keep her focus on his face as she crossed the space to where he stood. It wasn’t easy. Not with the way the sun glinted off the sweat on his chest, the small beads of perspiration shimmering like small jewels and drawing her gaze to the hard lines of his naked torso. She’d felt those muscles against her hands, kissed them with lips that still tingled just thinking about it and she was near dizzy by the time she reached him.

She lifted her chin, determined to keep her gaze on his face, and hoped he couldn’t hear her stammering heart beat. “Mr. Avery?” His gaze bore into her and Laurel’s heart screeched to a stop before it pounded so hard she fought for breath. She cleared her throat and blinked, trying to regain her composure.

When she knew her voice wouldn’t squeak, she said, “I’m Laurel Montgomery, the new school teacher.”

The grin on his face grew as if he knew some wicked secret he wasn’t about to share with her. But Laurel knew his secrets. Well, the ones he’d displayed for her one warm fall night in Missoula four weeks ago.

Laurel glanced at Alexandra, his daughter, apparently, her little arms crossed over her chest and an identical smirk was on her face. She stared at her, trying to come to grips with the fact she’d more than likely slept with a married man. The guilt that followed caused the butterflies swimming in her stomach to die and her stomach ached to the point she felt ill.

She lifted her head, cleared her throat and met his smiling eyes with bitter resentment growing in her heart. “I’ve been meaning to meet all the parents of my students and you were first on my list.”

“I’m flattered.” The look in his eyes changed and Laurel knew he was remembering that night too. Damn his hide. Why did he have to live here?

His voice was just as deep as she remembered and the sound of it caressed her flesh as if he’d physically touched her. Goose bumps prickled her arms and she ignored the feeling, trying to remember all she planned to say to him. “Don’t be flattered, Mr. Avery. What I have to tell you is far from becoming.” Laurel turned her gaze on Alexandra, throwing her a disapproving look before facing him again. “I’m sorry to say your daughter is a menace and has disrupted my class on a daily bases.”

That got his attention. The smile vanished and when he looked down at Alexandra, the girl’s puffed-up pose, deflated. “What did you do?”

Alexandra huffed out a breath, her hands curled into fists. “Jesse started it. He said I was the ugliest boy he’d ever seen so, I popped him one.” She grinned. “He cried like a little girl.”

Laurel exhaled, exasperated. “He most certainly did not, Alexandra. You’re telling stories again.”

The girl whirled on her, her arm flung to point at her. “And she won’t stop calling me Alexandra. I’ve told her a hundred times, pa, my name is Alex, but she just won’t say it.”

Laying his hand on Alexandra’s shoulder, the girl quieted instantly. When he looked up, amusement shined in his eyes. “She doesn’t like to be called Alexandra.”

“I’ve noticed but that isn’t reason enough to disrupt my classroom everyday without fail.”

“No, it’s not.”

Laurel glanced at Alexandra before straightening her spine and looking back up. “Can we speak alone, please?”

Something in his eyes said she’d made a mistake in making that small request. The smile that followed said as much too. He told Alex to wait on the front porch for him and when he turned to face her again, Laurel felt instantly exposed. His gaze never left her face but she knew he was picturing her naked. It was in the smile he gave her, the way his eyelids lowered just a fraction, as if he too was remembering that night. A night, she knew now, spelled trouble. Trouble she didn’t want or need, regardless of the fact he was the most tempting thing she’d ever clapped eyes on.

She swallowed the sudden lump forming in her throat and pulled at the high collar of her dress. The sun was unbearably hot today for early fall. Much too hot.

Turning her head to avoid looking at him, she watched Alexandra run to the house, her boy trousers and chambray shirt causing a sigh to escape her. “She looks nothing like a girl.”

“No, and she prefers it that way.”

Realizing she’d spoken out loud, Laurel’s face heated. “I meant no offense. It’s just… well, I’ve never seen a girl act so boyish in all my life.”

He laughed and leaned against the fence rail, the whiteness of those boards making the tanned hue of his skin even darker. His arm, propped on the top rail, was well muscled and Laurel’s stomach clenched tight at the sight of it. She’d held on to those arms, felt them around her body and a tremor rushed through her limbs at the remembrance.

Laurel blinked and tried to remember why she’d made the trip out to his home. She had to clear her throat and swallow twice just to moisten her mouth enough to speak. “She’s started three fights this week.” Her voice cracked but she found it easier to talk keeping her focus on his chin instead of his eyes. “She also spits, has nothing to do with the other girls in class and her attire is inappropriate for her gender.” She paused, bitterness closing her throat as her next words ate at her conscience. “I can’t believe your wife would allow her daughter to grow up to be so… boyish.”

He smiled again. “You’re going to act as if we don’t know each other, aren’t you?”

Her heart skipped another beat. “I think, under the circumstances, that would be wise.”

“Why?”

She laughed and looked up to meet his gaze. “Because I’m the new school teacher here, that’s why. I have a certain reputation to uphold and if the town council knew…”

“That you frequented saloon’s and invited strange men into your bed, they’d put you on the first stagecoach out of town?”

Her face blazed hot. “Don’t you dare judge me.”

“I’m not.” His gaze lowered to her breasts for a second before lifting again. “I just don’t expect you to treat me as if we’re strangers.”

“As far as the people who live in this town are concerned, Mr. Avery, we are strangers.”

He laughed that wonderful laugh again and Laurel had to look away. She gazed into the pasture, noticed a few horses grazing beyond the fence and tried to will her pulse to calm. Why did this have to happen? Why now?

“I’ve been thinking about you.”

“Don’t.” She looked back at him and for the first time since meeting him, wished she never had. “I don’t want to be reminded of it.”

He lifted an eyebrow at her. “I was under the impression you enjoyed it as much as I did.”

She bit her tongue to keep from blurting out she had. That she couldn’t stop thinking about him, too, and as much as she’d enjoyed their one night together, it was a mistake. She glanced back at the house, saw Alexandra on the porch steps and tried to steer the conversation back to the girl. “Where is your wife?”

“She died after giving birth to Alex.”

Remorse washed through her system, a knot of sorrow filling her stomach. “I’m sorry.”

He nodded his head at her. “It was a long time ago.” He sighed and lifted his hat, running his fingers through his hair before resettling it again. “We’ve not had a woman’s influence at home until two years ago and honestly, I don’t know a thing about girls.” His gaze lowered from her face, sweeping down across her breasts and lower. “Well, I know nothing about little girls.”

Her face heated again. The sun was indeed unbearable. Laurel pulled at her high collar and tried to convince herself it wasn’t him causing her blood to heat and her skin to blaze as if she was cooking under the Montana sun.

A simple glance at his face caused her thoughts to run rampant. How she ended up in the town he lived in the most prevalent. She knew nothing about him other than he had a daughter and his wife had passed. Before today, she hadn’t even known that much and she preferred it that way. Seeing him now though, his skin glistening with moisture, her fingers itched to touch him one last time. Her lips tingled with remembrance of his kisses and a tiny voice in the back of her head whispered she could have it all again.

She blinked, tried to quiet her body’s demands and remembered why she was here. “Be that as it may, your daughter is a hellion. I’d think a man would want his daughter to be taught manners. She’ll not catch a husband acting the way she does.”

He laughed. “She’s ten. I think I have a while until I have to worry about marrying her off.”

“Maybe so, but if you continue to let her behave the way she does, you’ll have a young lady who prefers to spit, curse and wear men’s trousers. How hard do you think it will be to get her to change her ways then?”

The look on his face turned thoughtful, small lines bracketing his mouth. When he turned to look at the house, Laurel breathed a sigh of relief. It was much easier to talk to him when she didn’t have to look at him. “Baby steps is what I suggest. One small change followed by another until she at least resembles a girl in looks and nature.”

He turned back to face her, the lines still framing his wonderful mouth, and Laurel focused on his eyes so she wouldn’t become distracted.

“I’ll have a talk with her. She’ll not cause you anymore trouble.”

“I hope you’re right.” Laurel knew their conversation about Alexandra was over but stood like a deaf mute while staring at him. Something about this man was just too mesmerizing. His eyes were so perfectly blue, his teeth white and straight. The hard lines of muscle bisecting his abdomen, the definition of his chest…

She blinked and took a deep breath. “Well then, I’ll just be on my way.” She forced herself to turn and all but ran back to the wagon. Lifting her skirts to climb up, he grabbed her arm and she shrieked, jumped back and could only stare as he stood there grinning at her.

“This conversation isn’t over.”

“It is.” Laurel inhaled several deep breaths, willing her heart to stop pounding. “I didn’t want to know anything about you for a reason. I didn’t want any attachments, then, now or ever. What we had is all there will ever be so there’s no use discussing it. Now, if you’ll excuse me, Mr. Avery, I have three more family’s to visit this evening.”

He offered her his hand again. Common sense told her to ignore him but something inside of her caused butterflies to dance in erratic patterns every time she looked at him. That part of her screamed to accept. To touch him one last time. She lifted her hand and placed it in his while that same voice screamed what a fool she was.

The smile he gave her when his fingers closed around her hand all but took her breath. It hitched in her throat when he lifted her hand, placed a small kiss on her palm, desire shining bright in his eyes. “Since you refused to hear it in Missoula, my name is Holden and I’ll definitely be seeing you again, Laurel.”

She ignored him best she could, climbed into the wagon seat with his help and settled her skirts, grabbed the reins in hands much too sweaty for a proper lady to admit and flicked a glance back at him. “Seeing as you live here and avoiding you will be impossible, I would appreciate it if you would keep our future meetings on a professional level. I’m your daughter’s teacher. Nothing more.”

“That’s not going to happen,” he said. “I cursed myself for a fool the morning I left Missoula and was halfway home before I turned around and went back. You’d already checked out of the hotel.” He tipped his hat to her, took two steps back and gave her a look that sent tingles racing down her spine. “I’ll remind you every chance I get of what we shared, Laurel, and you can count on that.”

Laurel clenched her teeth and flicked the reins, willed the horses to run, and was headed back to the road before her heart stopped racing. She was tempted to look over her shoulder but refused to do so.

Spending the night in Missoula instead of traveling on was a mistake. She knew that now but at the time, she’d wanted one last night. One night to just be herself. To walk into the saloon and not care what people thought. To order a drink, let all her troubles wash away with strong whiskey and not have a care in the world come morning.

That hadn’t happened though. Not exactly. She’d met him, Holden Avery, moments after walking inside the saloon and that little voice in the back of her mind had whispered seductively to her that it was her last chance. The last chance to throw her inhibitions to the wind and just grab onto life one more time. And she had. She’d invited Holden to her room and spent hours having the most life altering sex of her life. She’d never had a man so attentive in her bed. Her body had burned, her lungs ached with need of air as he took her to heights she never knew existed again and again until she lay exhausted in his arms, his fingers and lips playing over her skin until she’d fallen asleep.

Her body still tingled in remembrance of his touch and that little voice in her head was whispering she could have it again. That her desire for him could be sated night after night. She refused to listen. She couldn’t get involved with him. Ever. Regardless of how much she wanted to.

She rode under the curved arch leaving Avery Ranch and she couldn’t stop from turning her head, peering over her shoulder to where she’d left Holden standing.

He was still watching her.
End of excerpt

 

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