Excerpt: The Crown Prince’s Bride

Late August

Stephani surveyed the ballroom, ensuring everything was running smoothly and to her satisfaction. As the executive assistant to the Crown Prince of Marazur, it was her job to make sure that Raoul Navarro’s birthday party went off without a hitch.

So far the dinner had been delicious, the traditional almond cake devoured, and the music and dancing had begun. She started to breathe a bit easier now.

“Señorita Savalas? Champagne?”

She turned to the footman who carried several full glasses on his silver tray. “Sí, gracias.” She smiled and took a flute from the tray,then sipped gratefully. The dry, fizzy liquid delighted her tongue. By royal standards, the party was small, but no expense had been spared. Including this particularly fine vintage.

Raoul deserved a wonderful party after the year he’d had.Considering this was the first real event at the palace since his wife,Princess Cecilia, had tragically died, Stephani had pulled out all the stops.

It was her job. And it was more than just a job, too.Because for the last seven years, she’d been in love with her boss.

Her boss, who had been married to her cousin.

Her boss, who was now a widower with two small children.

Right now Raoul was mingling with a group that included the finance minister and the gentleman’s twenty-something daughter. The girl looked up at Raoul with something like hero worship, and Stephani smiled to herself.He was at least ten years too old for her, but he was extraordinarily handsome with his black hair and dark, soulful eyes. New lines had appeared at either side of his lips, but Stephani thought they only added to his allure.

She joined the group and smiled at everyone, then spoke briefly before turning her attention to the Italian attaché. There was also a representative from the French tourism ministry and she switched languages effortlessly.

“You’re exceptionally good at that.”

Raoul’s deep voice vibrated at her ear and she suppressed adelighted shiver. She pasted a platonic smile on her face and turned around.“Oh, hello. Having a good time?”

“More than I expected. And what about you? Are you enjoying yourself? Or just working the room?” He lifted an eyebrow.

“Just making everyone feel welcome.”

“And showing off the fact you can speak . . .” He counted silently on his fingers. “Five languages? Six?”

“Five,” she confirmed. “My Russian and German are more of a danger than an asset. I could ruin diplomatic relations in two sentences.”

He chuckled, and she let herself enjoy the sound. Raoul didn’t laugh much at all recently, but the wine pairings at dinner and the open bar had loosened him up considerably.

She hadn’t seen him this relaxed since . . .

A confusing wave of grief swept over her. Maybe she’d had a secret thing for Raoul for ages, but she’d also loved her cousin deeply.Everyone had loved Ceci. And Stephani missed her. Ceci would have loved a party like this. She would have sparkled like the diamond she was. Stephani was far better behind the scenes. It had always been that way, even when they were kids.

“It’s good to hear you laugh, Raoul.”

His eyes met hers. “It’s good to laugh again. It’s been awhile.”

“Of course.” She didn’t want to dampen the mood of the evening, so she smiled instead and nodded toward a woman skirting the dancefloor. “Look. Rose has come back. The children were lovely at dinner, don’t you think?”

His gaze followed the new nanny. “You helped with her dress for the evening?”

“I did.”

“My brother can’t take his eyes off of her.”

“I think Diego has finally met his match. Do you approve?”

“Yes and no?” He shrugged. “My first priority is the children, and they seem to adore her.”

“Of course.”

“But she is also a lovely person.” He sent her a sideways smile. “Better than Diego deserves.”

She laughed a little. “You don’t really believe that.”

“No, I don’t. He’s been . . . different. Especially the last few months. Since . . .”

His voice trailed off, but she knew what he’d meant. Since Ceci died.

Everything was different since Ceci had died.

He nudged her elbow. “I don’t want to drag down the party.Do you want to dance, Steph?”

Did she? She’d only imagined it a million times.Particularly at every palace function when she’d stood on the sidelines with her clipboard while Ceci held Raoul in her arms. The perfect couple, a prince and princess, utterly in love.

She hesitated long enough that he stepped back. “Lo siento.I didn’t mean to make you uncomfortable.”

“You didn’t,” she hurried to assure him. “I’d love to dance.” It might be her one and only chance. She put her champagne down on a nearby table and smiled up at him. “Shall we?”

The band had switched to a slower song, and he led her to the polished parquet and took her in his arms. She swallowed tightly . . . ohmy. He was smooth, effortless, and his hand was warm against the hollow of her back. His fingers tightened over hers and she bit down on her lip. Raoul, she thought, wondering why on earth she insisted on torturing herself day in and day out. Why couldn’t she manage to shake this silly attraction? Besides, he only ever saw her as his assistant. If he had any idea of her feelings . . .Ugh. Work would be unbearably awkward.

“You look lovely tonight,” he said, his lips only inches from her ear. “The little black dress was a good choice.”

“It’s Versace.” She strangled out the words.

Their feet kept moving, and their bodies seemed to drift closer, until the lapels of his jacket brushed against her breasts. She could feel his heat, smell his cologne.

She should resign. Find another position somewhere, away from the longing for what she could never have. Except this was the perfect job. Wonderful pay, wonderful perks, and . . . well, the family relied on her.She knew that. It was more than a job, and more than just Raoul. She cared about them all. King Alexander, Diego, the children . . . they were her family now that Ceci was gone. She had no immediate family of her own. What remained of the Savalas family was spread out over Greece and Spain. She didn’t even know half of them. Ceci had been her anchor, and in her absence, the Navarros had become her surrogate family.

The song ended and Raoul stood back, but his face had lost the relaxed easiness of before, and a small furrow had appeared between his brows. “Is everything okay?” she asked, suddenly panicked that maybe she’d been the one to drift closer and inadvertently created an awkward moment between them.

“Diego danced with Rose, and she’s just left him standing in the middle of the floor,” he said quietly.

“Maybe there’s trouble in paradise.”

“You should talk to him.”

“I know. It’s never been easy, though. We’re so different.We always seem to cross swords.”

“That’s because you’re more alike than you think. You have to start giving him a chance. He’s more reliable than you give him credit for.”

Back to business. She felt on solid ground when she could focus on business.

She patted his arm. “I’m going to check on the kitchen staff. Señora Ortiz is planning a smaller buffet close to midnight.”

She went to leave and he reached for her hand. “Stephani?”

She focused on his face, because the fact that he was holding her hand was doing funny things to her insides. “Yes?”

“Thank you, for all this. I know I’ve been difficult the last few months. Tonight, having people and music in the house again . . .”

The butterflies in her belly grew heavy. “It must be difficult.”

“Yes. No. I mean, it’s been good. I can’t live my life being gloomy and unhappy all the time. This wouldn’t have happened without you.”

She smiled. “The people need to see that you’re still okay.”

He squeezed her fingers. “I need to know I’m okay. Thishelped. Thank you.”

And he leaned forward and kissed her cheek.

His breath was warm against her skin, and she might be mistaken but she would swear his mouth lingered there just a moment longer than necessary. Heat rushed to her face and she muttered a hasty “you’re welcome”before darting away. She didn’t want him to see her blush. Or the fact that his casual touch had the power to make her normal unflappable reserve desert her completely.

* * *

Raoul downed his fourth—or was it fifth?—Scotch and put the cut crystal glass down on a table. The midnight buffet had been set out, a light meal for those partygoers working up an appetite on the dance floor.Diego had disappeared ages ago, chasing after Rose.

His brother was in love. The real thing. And Raoul had congratulated him and wished him well, when all he could think of was how horrible it felt to have his heart ripped out of his chest in the actions of a moment. That perhaps love wasn’t worth it. He might actually believe that if it weren’t for Emilia and Max. The children were all he had left of Ceci, and he wouldn’t trade his marriage with her for anything.

Not even the pain of losing her.

They hadn’t let him go to the scene of the accident, but he didn’t have to. The news had shown the mangled wreck in full detail. A leaked phone video had shown the paramedics taking Emilia and Max from the car, and their driver, Marco, sitting with a white bandage on his uncommonly pale face.And there’d been a glimpse of the body bags, too—Ceci’s, and Mariana’s, the royal family’s nanny.

He went to the bar and got another Scotch. He was a year older, and life did go on. He even had moments of happiness. Tonight had been fun, but now that the evening was winding down, he was missing Ceci more than ever.

Would it be very bad form for him to leave the party before his guests? He suspected it would.

As he took a drink of his Scotch, he spotted Stephani across the room. She didn’t look tired at all, even though he knew she’d been here since about seven this morning and hadn’t stopped all day. He wasn’t sure where she got her stamina, but she was the best assistant he’d ever had. She’d been working for him long enough that she anticipated his needs. Hiring Ceci’s cousin had started out as a favor to his wife. Stephani had graduated from university but was working as an event server at a resort in Barcelona to make ends meet. She hadn’t had the resources Ceci did—she’d been the poor cousin who’d had to work her way through. Ceci had known Stephani wouldn’t take a handout, and Raoul had reluctantly agreed to give her a chance. It turned out to be a brilliant business decision.

He sipped again. Didn’t hurt that she was gorgeous, either.Her silky hair was the same inky color as her black dress and she wore heels that showed off her very fine legs. Stephani worked the room like the greatest of ambassadors and hostesses rolled into one. She was so like Ceci in that regard,warm and generous. But different, too. Focused, sharp. Ceci’s biggest quality had been her capacity for love and kindness. Stephani’s was to take that warmth and use it to its best advantage—while staying out of the spotlight.

She laughed and he swore he heard it across the room, above the music and the chatter. His body tightened in response, an uncomfortable and yet somehow welcome experience. He was thirty-seven, for God’s sake, and heir to the throne. Unlike his brother, he didn’t have the luxury—or the inclination—to play the field. But he was still a man. A young man, really.What was he going to do, stay a widower for the rest of his life? Stay celibate? It was utterly unrealistic.

Maybe he shouldn’t have had so much Scotch. He should go. No one would miss him now, would they? Particularly not Steph. He’d thanked her and kissed her cheek, and she’d literally run off. What had he been thinking?

He left the ballroom and headed for the stairs, then reconsidered. He’d rather get some fresh air and clear his head after all the alcohol.

The hall to the back entrance of the castle was narrow and once he descended the steps, he reached a stone-encased alcove. Fresh air filtered in, moist and balmy in the summer heat, and he shrugged off his jacket and dropped it in a corner. It would be dusty but he didn’t care. Instead he leaned back against the cool stone and closed his eyes. His head swam instantly and he opened them again, seeking equilibrium.

And there she was.

“I brought you a bottle of water,” Stephani said softly. She uncapped it and held it out. “You need to rehydrate.”

He took it and drank deeply. “How did you know I was here?”

She met his gaze evenly. “Your Highness, it’s my job to know where you are at all times. Even more than your security.”

“Thass right. You’re my right hand.” He heard the slur andwas mortified. He never got drunk. Never. But he had tonight. It was definitely a good thing he’d left the party.

She smiled at him. “Oh my. You did hit the Scotch ratherhard, didn’t you?”

He didn’t answer. Didn’t know how to answer.

“Slurring in front of the finance minister wouldn’t be a smart move.”

He looked over at her. “Really? I doubt he’d notice.”

“Oh, he’d notice. Rumor has it he addressed his own alcohol issues a few months ago and has been dry ever since. I watched. He didn’t take any wine at dinner.”

And this was one of the reasons Steph was so valuable. She always had her ear to the ground. Always seemed to know what was going on and with whom.

Which made him look at her a little more closely. “So, Miss Observant, how long did you know about Diego and Rose?”

She laughed. “Almost from day one.”

“I like it when you laugh.”

Her smile faded. “Sir?”

“Don’t ‘sir’ me, Steph. We’ve been past that for years.You’re family.”

A strange look passed over her face and he wondered what it meant, but then she was smiling again and he thought he might have imagined it.“I’m Ceci’s cousin, that’s all. We’re not blood relatives.”

“No,” he said quietly. “We’re not.”

And the strange feeling he’d had while dancing with her returned. Like his skin was somehow shrinking, taut with . . . damn, he couldn’t be feeling attraction. That would just be wrong.

And yet . . . he dropped his gaze to her lips. They were plump and red, fuller than Ceci’s had been, and right now they opened just a little as Stephani inhaled sharply.

“Raoul,” she cautioned.

He dragged his gaze back up to her eyes, expecting to see disapproval, but instead they were wide with what he could only figure was equal awareness. He stepped closer, testing her, and watched as her pupils dilated.

“Raoul,” she repeated, an edge of desperation in her voice.But not fear. He was clear-headed enough to recognize that wistful sound of longing, and when he lifted his hand and placed it along her cheek, her breath came out in a rush against the pad of his thumb.

And then he kissed her.

She tasted like dry champagne and a trace of almonds and citrus from the cake earlier, plus a darker flavor that was sultry, sexy woman.The little dress she wore was utterly appropriate, even conservative, but the woman inside it was so very alive and responsive. Her tongue met his as he deepened the kiss, and with a sigh of surrender she curled her arms around his shoulders and melted into him.

His body responded, and he was just man enough—just drunk enough—to be grateful. For the first time since Ceci’s death, he was happy he hadn’t died with her.

Ceci.

He stepped back from Stephani, breaking the kiss and putting a few feet between them. Her chest rose and fell rapidly, her lips were slightly swollen and parted. It would be so easy to step forward and take her in his arms. Press her against the stone wall, feel her body beneath his.

But she was Ceci’s cousin.

And she was too valuable . . . no, too important for him to treat her in such a cavalier, self-indulgent way. She was Stephani. The person he counted on most.

“I’m so sorry,” he murmured, shoving his hands into his pockets. “Steph, I . . . I have no excuse. That was so wrong of me.”

Her lips closed and she lifted her chin, though he thought,for just a fleeting second, that her lower lip quivered a bit. “Think nothing of it, sir,” she said firmly. “It was the Scotch talking, that’s all.”

“Yes, the Scotch . . .” His voice trailed off for a moment.“Forgive me, Steph.”

“There’s nothing to forgive.” Her voice sounded oddly thick,but he thought maybe it was because they were still ensconced within the stonewalls of the alcove.

“You put together this wonderful party. You always have my back. You must know how I appreciate all you do.”

She met his gaze and smiled a little. Was she sad? Why wasn’t she angry? He took a breath, then remembered the little sound of acquiescence she’d made as she wrapped her arms around his neck and the word she had been going to say stuck in his throat.

She had welcomed the contact. Wholeheartedly. What the hell did this mean?

He wasn’t sure how to ask, and after too long of a hesitation, she put her hand on his arm and gave a little squeeze. “It’s my job,” she said softly. “Try to sober up. I’ll see you in the office tomorrow.”

Then she slipped away, her footsteps echoing on the stone steps.

Raoul had no desire to go back to the party. Instead he picked up his dusty jacket, made his way into the garden—Ceci’s garden—and found a vacant bench.

Then he took the little silver flask from his jacket pocket,unscrewed the cap, and took a big swig.

Stephani was off-limits. Tomorrow he’d reset the boundaries and they’d go back to normal. And if he ever did decide to . . . have a romance again, it wouldn’t be with his assistant.

No matter how alluring she’d turned out to be.

 

 

 

Copyright © 2018 by Donna Alward in The Crown Prince’s Bride and reprinted by permission of Swerve.

 

The Duke with the Dragon Tattoo Excerpt

CHAPTER ONE


If Lorelai Weatherstoke hadn’t been appreciating the storm out the carriage window, she’d have missed the naked corpse beneath the ancient ash tree.

“Father, look!” She seized Lord Southbourne’s thin wrist, but a barrage of visual stimuli overwhelmed her, paralyzing her tongue.

In all her fourteen years, she’d never seen a naked man, let alone a deceased one.

He lay facedown, strong arms reached over his head as though he’d been trying to swim through the shallow grass lining the road. Ghastly dark bruises covered what little flesh was visible beneath the blood. He was all mounds and cords, his long body different from hers in every way a person could be.

Her heart squeezed, and she fought to find her voice as the carriage trundled past. The poor man must be cold, she worried, then castigated herself for such an absurd thought.

The dead became one with the cold. She’d learned that by kissing her mother’s forehead before they closed her casket forever.

“What is it, duck?” Her father may have been an earl, but the Weatherstokes were gentry of reduced circumstances, and didn’t spend enough time in London to escape the Essex accent.

Lorelai had not missed the dialect while at school in Mayfair, and it had been the first thing she’d rid herself of in favor of a more proper London inflection. In this case, however, it was Lord Southbourne’s words, more than his accent, that caused her to flinch.

As cruel as the girls could be at Braithwaite’s Boarding School, none of their taunts had made her feel quite so hollow as the one her own family bestowed upon her.

Duck.

“I-it’s a man,” she stammered. “A corp—” Oh no, had he just moved, or had she imagined it? Squinting through the downpour, she pressed her face to the window in time to see battered knuckles clenching the grass, and straining arms pulling the heavy body forward.

“Stop,” she wheezed, overtaken by tremors. “Stop the carriage!”

“What’s bunched your garters, then?” Sneering across from her, Mortimer, her elder brother, brushed aside the drapes at his window. “Blimey! There’s a bleedin’ corpse by the road.” Three powerful strikes on the roof of the coach prompted the driver to stop.

“He’s alive!” Lorelai exclaimed, pawing at the door handle. “I swear he moved. We have to help him.”

“I thought that fancy, expensive school was supposed to make you less of an idiot, Duck.” Mortimer’s heavy brows barely separated on a good day and met to create one thick line when he adopted the expression of disdainful scorn he reserved solely for her. “What’s a cripple like you going to do in the mud?”

“We should probably drive through to Brentwood,” Lord Southbourne suggested diplomatically. “We can send back an ambulance to fetch him.”

“He’ll need an undertaker by then,” Lorelai pleaded. “We must save him, mustn’t we?”

“I’ve never seen so much blood.” It was morbid fascination rather than pity darkening her brother’s eyes. “I’m going out there.”

“I’m coming with you.”

A cruel hand smacked Lorelai out of the way, and shoved her back against the faded brocade velvet of her seat. “You’ll stay with Father. I’ll take the driver.”

As usual, Lord Robert Weatherstoke said and did nothing to contradict his only son as Mortimer leaped from the coach and slammed the door behind him.

Lorelai barely blamed her passive father anymore. Mortimer was so much larger than him these days, and ever so much crueler.

She had to adjust her throbbing leg to see the men making their way through the gray of the early-evening deluge. Just enough remained of daylight to delineate color variations.

The unfortunate man was a large smudge of gore against the verdant spring ground cover. Upon Mortimer and the driver’s approach, he curled in upon himself not unlike a salted snail. Only he had no shell to protect his beaten body.

Lorelai swallowed profusely in a vain attempt to keep her heart from escaping through her throat as the man was hoisted aloft, each arm yoked like an ox’s burden behind a proffered neck. Even though Mortimer was the tallest man she knew, the stranger’s feet dragged in the mud. His head lolled below his shoulders, so she couldn’t get a good look at his face to ascertain his level of consciousness.

Other parts of him, though, she couldn’t seem to drag her eyes away from.

She did her best not to look between his legs, and mostly succeeded. At a time like this, modesty hardly mattered, but she figured the poor soul deserved whatever dignity she could allow him.

That is to say, she only peeked twice before wrenching her eyes upward.

The muscles winging from his back beneath where his arms spread were ugly shades of darkness painted by trauma. The ripples of his ribs were purple on his left side, and red on the other. Blunt bruises interrupted the symmetrical ridges of his stomach, as though he’d been kicked or struck repeatedly. As they dragged him closer, what she’d feared had been blood became something infinitely worse.

It was as though his flesh had been chewed away, but by something with no teeth. The plentiful meat of his shoulder and chest, his torso, hips, and down his thigh were grotesquely visible.

Burns, maybe?

“Good God, how is he still alive?” The awe in her father’s voice reminded her of his presence as they scurried to open the carriage door and help drag the man inside. It took the four of them to manage it.

“He won’t be unless we hurry.” The driver tucked the man’s long, long legs inside, resting his knees against the seat. “I fear he won’t last the few miles to Brentwood.”

Ripping her cloak off, Lorelai spread it over the shuddering body on the floor. “We must do what we can,” she insisted. “Is there a doctor in Brentwood?”

“Aye, and a good one.”

“Please take us there without delay.”

“O’course, miss.” He secured the door and leaped into his seat, whipping the team of fresh horses into a gallop.

As they lurched forward, the most pitiful sound she’d ever heard burst from the injured man’s lips, which flaked with white. His big arm flailed from beneath the cloak to protect his face, in a gesture that tore Lorelai’s heart out of her chest.

The burn scored the sinew of his neck and up his jaw to his cheekbone.

Pangs of sympathy slashed at her own skin, and drew her muscles taut with strain. Lorelai blinked a sheen of tears away, and cleared emotion out of her tight throat with a husky sound she’d made to soothe many a wounded animal on the Black Water Estuary.

His breaths became shallower, his skin paler beneath the bruises.

He was dying.

Without thinking, she slid a hand out of her glove, and gently pressed her palm to his, allowing her fingers to wrap around his hand one by one.

“Don’t go,” she urged. “Stay here. With me.”

His rough, filthy hand gripped her with such strength, the pain of it stole her breath. His face turned toward her, though his eyes remained closed.

Still, it heartened her, this evidence of awareness. Perhaps, on some level, she could comfort him.

“You’re going to be all right,” she crooned.

“Don’t lie to the poor bastard.” Mortimer’s lip curled in disgust. “He’s no goose with a defective wing, or a three-legged cat, like the strays you’re always harboring. Like as not he’s too broken to be put back together with a bandage, a meal, and one of your warbling songs. He’s going to die, Lorelai.”

“You don’t know that,” she said more sharply than she’d intended, and received a sharp slap for her lapse in wariness.

“And you don’t know what I’ll do to you if you speak to me in that tone again.”

Most girls would look to their fathers for protection, but Lorelai had learned long ago that protection was something upon which she could never rely.

Her cheek stinging, Lorelai lowered her eyes. Mortimer would take it as a sign of submission, but she only did it to hide her anger. She’d learned by now to take care around him in times of high stress, or excitement. It had been her folly to forget … because she knew exactly what he was capable of. The pinch of her patient’s strong grip was nothing next to what she’d experienced at the hands of her brother on any given month.

Ignoring the aching throb in her foot, Lorelai dismissed Mortimer, leaning down instead to stroke a dripping lock of midnight hair away from an eye so swollen, he’d not have been able to open it were he awake.

Across from her, Mortimer leaned in, as well, ostensibly studying the man on the floor with equal parts intrigue and disgust. “Wonder what happened to the sod. I haven’t seen a beating like this in all my years.”

Lorelai schooled a level expression from her face at the reference to his many perceived years. He was all of twenty, and the only violence he witnessed outside of sport, he perpetrated himself.

“Brigands, you suspect?” Sir Robert fretted from beside her, checking the gathering darkness for villains.

“Entirely possible,” Mortimer said flippantly. “Or maybe he is one. We are disturbingly close to Gallows Corner.”

“Mortimer,” their father wheezed. “Tell me you haven’t pulled a criminal into my coach. What would people say?”

The Weatherstoke crest bore the motto Fortunam maris, “fortune from the sea,” but if anyone had asked Lorelai what it was, she’d have replied, Quid dicam homines? “What would people say?”

It had been her father’s favorite invocation—and his greatest fear—for as long as she could remember.

Lorelai opened her mouth to protest, but her brother beat her to it, a speculative glint turning his eyes the color of royal sapphires. “If I’d hazard a guess, it would be that this assault was personal. A fellow doesn’t go to the trouble to inflict this sort of damage lest his aim is retribution or death. Perhaps he’s a gentleman with gambling debts run afoul of a syndicate. Or, maybe a few locals caught him deflowering their sister … though they left those parts intact, didn’t they, Duck?” His sly expression told Lorelai that he’d caught her looking where she ought not to.

Blushing painfully, she could no longer bring herself to meet Mortimer’s cruel eyes. They were the only trait Lorelai shared with her brother. Her father called them the Weatherstoke jewels. She actively hated looking in the mirror and seeing Mortimer’s eyes staring back at her.

Instead, she inspected the filthy nails of the hand engulfing her own. The poor man’s entire palm was one big callus against hers. The skin on his knuckles, tough as an old shoe, had broken open with devastating impact.

Whatever had happened to him, he’d fought back.

“He’s no gentleman,” she observed. “Too many calluses. A local farmhand, perhaps, or a stable master?” It didn’t strain the imagination to envision these hands gripping the rope of an erstwhile stallion. Large, magnificent beasts pitting their strength one against the other.

“More like stable boy,” Mortimer snorted. “I’d wager my inheritance he’s younger than me.”

“How can you tell?” With his features beyond recognition, Lorelai was at a loss as to the man’s age. No gray streaked his midnight hair, nor did lines bracket his swollen lips, so she knew he couldn’t be old, but beyond that …

“He’s not possessed of enough body hair for a man long grown.”

“But he’s so big,” she reasoned. “And his chest appears to have been badly burned, the hair might have singed right off.”

“I’m not referring to his chest, you dull-wit, but to his coc—”

“Mortimer, please.”

Lorelai winced. It was as close to a reprimand as her father ever ventured. Mortimer must have been very wicked, indeed. It was just her luck that he did so on perhaps the first occasion Lorelai had actually wanted her brother to finish a sentence.

A rut in the road jostled them with such force at their frantic pace, Lorelai nearly landed on the injured man. His chest heaved a scream into his throat, but it only escaped as a piteous, gurgling groan.

“I’m sorry. I’m so sorry,” she whimpered. Dropping to her knees, she hovered above him, the fingers of her free hand fluttering over his quaking form, looking for a place to land that wouldn’t cause him pain.

She could find none. He was one massive wound.

A tear splashed from her eye and disappeared into the crease between his fingers.

“Duck, perhaps it’s best you take your seat.” Her father’s jowly voice reminded her of steam wheezing from a teakettle before it’s gathered enough strength to whistle. “It isn’t seemly for a girl of your standing to be thus prostrated on the floor.”

With a sigh, she did her best to get her good foot beneath her, reaching for the plush golden velvet of the seat to push herself back into it.

An insistent tug on her arm tested the limits of her shoulder socket, forcing her to catch herself once more.

“Lorelai, I said sit,” Lord Southbourne blustered.

“I can’t,” she gasped incredulously. “He won’t let me go.”

“What’s this, then?” Mortimer wiped some of the mud away from the straining cords of the man’s forearm, uncovering an even darker smudge beneath. As he cleared it, a picture began to take shape, the artful angles and curves both intriguing and sinister until mottled, injured skin ruptured the rendering. “Was it a bird of some kind? A serpent?”

“No.” Lorelai shook her head, studying the confusion of shapes intently. “It’s a dragon.”


Copyright © 2018 by Kerrigan Byrne

The Highland Commander Release Day

The Highland Commander Release Day

Today is the release day for a new author favorite of mine Amy Jarecki.  I just started reading her books with her new Lords of the Highlands series and I can’t resist her Scottish men embedded deep in the historical period.

Today Top 10 Romance Books also have some extras for our readers.  The review for THE HIGHLAND COMMANDER is here.  You can also read an excerpt of the book.  At the end of this post is also a link to the Rafflecoper giveaway.

Enjoy!

ABOUT THE BOOK

Title: THE HIGHLAND COMMANDER

Author: Amy Jarecki

Series: Lords of the Highlands, #2

On Sale: June 27, 2017

Publisher: Forever

Mass Market: $7.99 USD

eBook: $3.99 USD

Audio: $22.98 USD

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She cannot resist the man behind the mask…

As the illegitimate daughter of a Scottish earl, Lady Magdalen Keith is not one to partake in lavish balls or other frivolities. Yet at her father’s urging, she agrees to dance with the battle-weary officers at this year’s holiday masquerade. It’s practically her civic duty! But when one such officer—whose dashing good looks cannot be disguised by a mere mask—sweeps her off her feet and into his arms, the innocent lass can’t help herself. Her lips are his for the taking.

But will he betray his country for a kiss?

Navy lieutenant Aiden Murray has spent too many months at sea to be immune to the charms of this lovely beauty. Even after he returns to his ship, she lives in his dreams. But when he discovers Maddie’s true identity—and learns that her father is accused of treason—will the brawny Scot risk his life to follow his heart?

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THE LORDS OF THE HIGHLANDS SERIES

THE HIGHLAND DUKE, #1

THE HIGHLAND COMMANDER, #2

THE HIGHLAND GUARDIAN, #3

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Amy Jarecki is a descendant of an ancient Lowland clan and adores Scotland. Though she now resides in southwest Utah, she received her MBA from Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh. Winning multiple writing awards, she found her niche in the genre of Scottish historical romance. Amy writes steamy edge-of-your-seat action adventures with rugged men and fascinating women who weave their paths through the brutal eras of centuries past.

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Excerpt: A Duke Like No Other

CHAPTER THREE

Mark quirked his mouth into a half smile. Nicole had always been direct. It was one of the things that had first drawn him to her. She wasn’t about to let him get away with arriving unannounced without admitting that he wanted something. Good, because he liked to be direct too. “You’re right. I do want something from you.”

“Say it.” She crossed one leg over the other and for the life of him he couldn’t stop staring at how those breeches hugged her long legs. Outside, he’d been slightly obsessed with how they hugged another part of her anatomy. And that shirt . . . the one that was exposing her chest in a way that made the back of his neck sweat. Leave it to Nicole to have her hair down and to be wearing breeches while riding around a French château on a horse named Atalanta. She’d been besting the comte in the race they’d been engaged in. That was also like her. She adored competition and hated to lose at anything. If he had any hope of her saying yes to his proposal, he needed to make certain he didn’t become her adversary . . . again.

He glanced around the drawing room. Outfitted in rose and cream silks with the occasional hint of green, the room was tastefully decorated. The château itself was large and well appointed without being ostentatious. She had access to his money but had never spent a shilling of it. No, this was all a result of her own money or her family’s.

He spread his arms wide along the back of the settee. “No reminiscing? No catching up? No discussing the good times?”

Her dark red eyebrow inched even higher. “Were there good times? I seem to recall those being few and far between.”

“There were a few.” In bed. He tugged at his collar.

She poked at the chignon on the back of her head. Only she could make a quickly put-together hair arrangement look effortlessly gorgeous. Several tendrils of the long red locks fell to frame her face, which wore a decidedly disgruntled look. “Out with it. I’m quite busy. I’m attending a dinner party this evening and I must dress.”

Mark bit the inside of his cheek but ultimately he couldn’t keep the comment that had sprung to his lips to himself. “A cleaner pair of breeches?” Damn, she looked good in those breeches. She looked good altogether. Better than good. The years had been kind to her. The fresh-faced plumpness of her cheeks had given way to a slenderness that made her cheekbones prominent. Her lips were still full and pink and inviting. Her hair luxurious, soft and smooth. Her eyes looked more world-weary, to be sure, but their sea-foam-green depths were still astute and intelligent. Her body was still trim and fit. Her thighs looked even fitter, probably from riding astride. Ahem. What he wouldn’t give to see those thighs once more, to have them wrapped tightly around his—

“Despite my present appearance, I do own a gown or two.” Her words snapped him out of his indecent line of thought. She gave him another tight smile.

He stood, crossed to the nearby sideboard, and poured himself a brandy. “Going to meet the comte again?”

“Careful,” came her throaty voice from the settee. “It’s nearly sounding as if you’re jealous.”

Still facing the sideboard, he cocked his head to the side. “Jealous? Whatever does that word mean?”

“The comte is a friend, nothing more.” Her voice sounded dismissive. He didn’t believe her, however.

Mark splashed more brandy into his glass. “I’m certain you’d tell me if he weren’t.”

“I’m certain you’d care.”

Mark turned back toward her and took a healthy swig of his drink. “A man doesn’t like to think of his wife in the bed of another.”

She actually rolled her eyes at that comment. “Oh, you’ve been celibate all these years then?” she countered, her voice dripping with skepticism.

He had been, but he’d die a slow death back in the French prison camp before he told her that. However, he wasn’t so unrealistic as to think Nicole would have remained untouched. They had agreed to part ways, hadn’t seen each other in ten years. She was a beautiful woman in the prime of her life. Still, the notion of punching the comte dead in the face held a great deal of appeal at the moment. “I’ve never been one to kiss and tell, love.”

She gave him a tight smile, which clearly indicated she didn’t believe him, either. “You’re a general now?” she asked abruptly, clearly ready to change the subject.

“I am.” He moved to the window and looked out across the lavender fields, one arm held behind his ramrod-straight back as if he were surveying a battlefield. The stance was still comfortable for him even after all these years of working for the Home Office.

“I suppose congratulations are in order.” The tea arrived and Nicole poured a cup for herself and splashed in a liberal amount of cream. He remembered that about her. She took her tea with no sugar, just cream.

“No congratulations needed,” he intoned, taking another swig of brandy.

The silver spoon she used to stir her tea clinked against the delicate china teacup. “I must admit, I’ve often wondered when I’d get a missive that you’d been killed.”

His chuckle was humorless. He turned to face her. “Such little faith in me? Or wishful thinking?”

“Neither,” she replied, lifting the cup to her pink lips. “Just a profound knowledge of how reckless you are.”

He inclined his head. “Used to be.”

“Really?” She raised a brow. “Is that why you’ve come? To tell me you’ve changed?”

He chuckled. “I haven’t changed that much.”

“I’m not surprised.” She set down her teacup and crossed her arms over her chest. “Tell me, Mark, why have you come?”

He saluted her with his glass, the amber-colored liquid shining in the afternoon sunlight. “You were right. I need a favor from you.”

She didn’t so much as bat an eyelash. “Of course you do. What’s the favor?” She picked up her cup once more and took a sip.

He downed the final splash of brandy and met her gaze. “I need you to return to England with me for a few months and pretend to be my loving wife.”

 

Copyright © 2018 by Valerie Bowman in A Duke Like No Other and reprinted by permission of St. Martin’s Paperbacks.

 

The Right Kind of Rogue Excerpt

CHAPTER TWO

“How in Hades’s name can you drink at this hour of the morning, Highgate?”

Hart tossed back his brandy, swallowed, and laughed at his brother-in-law’s words. The two sat across from each other at Brooks’s gentlemen’s club. It was decidedly before noon. The only reason Hart was up at this hour was because he’d promised to meet Lord Christian Berkeley. His brother-in-law rarely asked for favors and Hart suspected this meeting was his sister Sarah’s doing, but he would humor the viscount just the same.

“Berkeley, old chap, you don’t know the half of it.” Hart clapped the viscount on the back. “Helps with the devil of a head left over from last night, don’t ya know?”

Berkeley lifted his teacup to his lips. “No. I don’t. But I’ll take your word for it.”

That reply only made Hart laugh harder, which made his head hurt more. Hart liked his brother-in-law a great deal, but the man was decidedly humdrum when it came to amusements. Berkeley rarely drank, rarely smoked, and preferred to spend his time at his estate in the north of England or his hunting lodge in Scotland. Berkeley enjoyed quiet pursuits like reading or carving things out of wood much more than the amusements London had to offer. But Viscount Berkeley was a good man and one who clearly adored Hart’s sister, and that was what mattered.

The viscount had gone so far as to dramatically interrupt Sarah’s wedding to a pompous marquess and claim her for himself, thereby not only proving his commitment to Sarah but also saving Hart from having the self-involved Marquess of Branford as a brother-in-law. Overall it had been quite a fortunate turn of events for everyone. Everyone except Hart and Sarah’s enraged, thwarted parents, that is.

Berkeley tugged at his cravat. “How are your—ahem— parents getting on?”

Hart cracked a smile. “Still angry, of course, even after all these months. You and Sarah made a good decision, staying up north for the winter. Gave Father and Mother time to calm down.” His father’s anger at having a scandal mar his family name and his daughter marry a mere viscount as opposed to a marquess who had the ear of the Prince Regent had barely abated over the winter, but no need to tell Berkeley as much.

Berkeley leaned back in his chair and crossed one silk-stockinged ankle over an immaculately creased knee, his hands lightly clutching the arms of his chair. He shook his head. “They’re not calmed down, are they?”

“A bit.” Hart stopped a footman and ordered another brandy. “Don’t worry. They’ll be civil when they see you. For Sarah’s sake.”

“Well, that’s something. Are you seriously ordering another drink?”

“Are you seriously surprised?” Hart scratched his rough cheek. He’d been running late and hadn’t bothered to ask his usually drunken valet to shave him this morning. For Christ’s sake, that man drank more than he did. Not exactly someone he wanted near his throat with a straight razor. “Besides I have quite a good reason to drink today.”

“Really?” Berkeley tugged at his cuff. Ever since Sarah had taught him how to dress properly, the viscount was much more attentive to his clothing. He was downright dapper these days. “Why is that?”

“I’m getting married.” Hart emitted a groan to accompany those incomprehensible words.

Berkeley’s brows shot up. He set down his cup and placed a hand behind his ear. “Pardon? I must have heard you incorrectly. I thought you said married.”

The footman returned with the drink and Hart snatched it from the man’s gloved hand and downed nearly half of it in a single gulp. “I did,” he muttered through clenched teeth, wincing.

“You? Married?” Berkeley’s brow remained steadfastly furrowed, and he blinked as if the word were foreign.

“Me. Married.” Hart gave a firm nod before taking another fortifying gulp of brandy.

“Ahem, who is the, uh, fortunate lady?” Berkeley lifted his cup back to his lips and took a long gulp, as if needing the hot drink to banish his astonishment.

“I haven’t the first idea.” Hart shook his head. He was giving serious thought to the notion of ordering a third brandy. Would that be bad form? Probably.

“Now you’re simply confusing me,” Berkeley said with an unmistakable smile on his face. With his free hand, he pulled the morning’s copy of the Times from the tabletop next to him and scanned the headlines.

Hart took another sip of brandy and savored it this time. “I haven’t made any decisions as to the chit yet. I’ve merely announced to Father that this is the year I intend to find a bride. The idea of marriage has always made my stomach turn. After all, if my parents’ imperfect union is anything by which to gauge the institution, it’s a bloody nightmare.”

“Why the change of heart?” Berkeley asked.

Hart scrubbed a hand through his hair. The truth was, he wasn’t less sickened by the prospect of marriage these days, but he couldn’t avoid the institution forever. At some point he’d have to put the parson’s noose firmly around his own throat and pull. Wives were fickle, and marriages meant little other than the exchange of money and property. His own father had announced that fact on more than one occasion. His parents treated each other like unhappy strangers, and his father had made it clear that they were anything but in love. That, Hart supposed, was his fate. To live a life as his parents had in the pursuit of procreating and producing the next future Earl of Highfield. So be it, but was it any wonder he’d been putting it off?

“Seeing Sarah marry had more of an effect on me than I expected,” Hart admitted, frowning at his notquite-empty glass. “And if you ever tell anyone I said that, I’ll call you out.” He looked at Berkeley and grinned again.

“You have my word,” Berkeley replied with a nod. “But may I ask how it affected you?”

Hart pushed himself back in the large leather chair and crossed his booted feet at the ankles. “I started thinking about it all, you know? Life, marriage, children, family. I expect you and Sarah will be having a child soon, and by God I’d like my children to grow up knowing their kin. My cousin Nicole was quite close to Sarah and me when we were children. Nicole’s marriage isn’t one to emulate, either. She hasn’t even seen her husband in years. Last I heard, she’s living somewhere in France, childless. By God, perhaps I should rethink this.” Hart pulled at his cravat. The bloody thing was nearly choking him what with all of this talk of marriage.

Berkeley leaned back in his seat, mirroring Hart. “Perhaps you should focus on the positive aspects of marriage. I assure you, there are many.”

“Believe me, I’m trying,” Hart continued, reminding himself for the hundredth time of the reasons why he’d finally come to this decision. God knew it hadn’t been an easy one. “Whether I like it or not, it’s time for me to choose a bride. Sarah is my younger sister. While she wasn’t married, it all seemed like fun and games, but now, well, seems everyone is tying the proverbial knot these days what with Owen Monroe and Rafe Cavendish marrying. Even Rafe’s twin, Cade, has fallen to the parson’s noose.”

Just this morning when Hart had woken with a splitting head for the dozenth time in as many days, he’d thought yet again how he needed to stop being so reckless. He wasn’t able to bounce back from a night of debauchery nearly as quickly as he used to when he was at university. Seeing Sarah marry had made him consider his duties, his responsibilities, and his . . . age. For the love of God, he was nearly thirty. That thought alone was enough to make him want another brandy. It was his duty to sire the next Earl of Highfield, and duty meant something to him. What else mattered if he didn’t respect his duty? Hadn’t that been hammered into his head since birth by his father, along with all the dire warnings not to choose the wrong wife?

“It’s true that several marriages have taken place lately in our set of friends,” Berkeley replied, still leisurely perusing the paper while sipping tea. “But I thought you were immune to all of that, Highgate.”

“I have been.” Hart sighed again. “But I’ve finally decided it’s time to get to it.”

Berkeley raised his teacup in salute. “Here’s to the future Lady Highfield. May she be healthy, beautiful, and wise.”

“Thank you,” Hart replied. He tugged at his pythonlike cravat again.

Berkeley regarded Hart down the length of his nose. “Any ladies catch your fancy?”

Hart shook his head. He braced an elbow on the table beside them and set his chin on his fist. “No. That’s the problem. I’m uncertain where to begin.”

Berkeley let the paper drop to his lap. “What sort of lady are you looking for?”

Hart considered the question for a moment. What sort of lady, indeed? “She’ll need to be reasonable, well connected, clever, witty, a happy soul. Someone who is honest, and forthright, and who isn’t marrying me only for my title. Someone who doesn’t nag and has an indecently large dowry, of course. Father puts great stock in such things. Not to mention if I’m going to be legshackled, I might as well get a new set of horses out of the bargain. I’m thinking a set of matching grays and a new coach.”

“Oh, that’s not much of a list,” Berkeley said with a snort. “

I don’t expect the search to be a simple one, or a quick one.” The truth was Hart had no earthly idea who he was looking for. He only knew who he wasn’t looking for . . . someone like his mother. Or the treacherous Annabelle Cardiff. He wanted the exact opposite.

Berkeley tossed the paper back onto the tabletop. “Knowing your father’s decided opinions on such matters, I’m surprised he hasn’t provided you with a list of eligible females from which you may choose.”

Hart rolled his eyes. “He has. He’s named half a dozen ladies he would gladly accept.”

Berkeley inclined his head to the side. “Why don’t you choose one of them then?”

Hart gave his brother-in-law an are-you-quite-serious look, chin tucked down, head tilted to the side. “I’m bloody well not about to allow my father to choose a bride for me. Besides, after seeing you and Sarah, I hold out some hope of finding a lady with whom I’m actually compatible.”

“Why, Highgate, do you mean . . . love?” Berkeley grinned and leaned forward in mock astonishment.

“Let’s not go that far.” Hart took another sip of his quickly dwindling brandy. That’s precisely what confused him so much. He knew love matches existed. He’d witnessed one in his sister’s marriage. On the other hand, her choice had so enraged his parents, they still hadn’t forgiven her. Hart didn’t intend to go about the business of finding a wife in quite so dramatic a fashion. Love matches attracted drama. However, his parents’ unhappy union was nothing to aspire to, and he’d nearly made the mistake of marrying a woman who wanted nothing more than title and fortune before. It was a tricky business, the marriage mart, but he’d rather take advice from Sarah and Berkeley than his father. The proof of the pudding was in the eating, after all.

Berkeley laughed. “What if you fall madly in love and become a devoted husband? Jealous even. Now, that would be a sight.”

“Jealous? That’s not possible.” Hart grinned back at Berkeley. “I’ve never been jealous. Don’t have it in me. My friends at university used to tease me about it. No ties to any particular lady. No regrets.” He settled back in his chair and straightened his cravat, which was tighter than ever.

“We’ll see.” Berkeley took another sip of tea. His eyes danced with amusement.

“I was hoping you and Sarah might help me this Season.

Sarah knows most of the young ladies. She also knows me as well as anyone does. Not to mention, the two of you seem to have got the thing right.”

Berkeley glanced up. “Why, Highgate, is that a compliment on our marriage?”

“Take it as you will.” Hart waved a noncommittal hand in the air. He avoided meeting Berkeley’s eyes.

Berkeley settled further into his chair. “I shall take it as a compliment, then. I have a feeling Sarah would like nothing more than to help you with such an endeavor. She fancies herself a matchmaker these days.”

“Will you two be staying in London for the Season?”

“Yes. Sarah wants to stay and I, of course, will support her, at least as long as I can remain in the same town as your father without him calling me out.” A smirk settled on Berkeley’s face.

Hart eyed the remaining liquid in his glass. “I’ll be happy to play the role of peacemaker to the best of my ability.”

“I’m glad to hear that.” Berkeley inclined his head toward his brother-in-law.

“Who else is Sarah matchmaking for?” Hart sloshed the brandy in the bottom of the glass.

“She’s not merely matchmaking. No. To hear her tell it, she has an important mission this Season.”

Hart set down the glass and pulled another section of the Times off the table and began scanning it. He’d talked enough about marriage for one day. Odious topic. “A mission? What mission?” he asked, merely to be polite.

“To find Meg Timmons a husband.”

Hart startled in surprise, grasping the paper so tightly it tore in the middle. Tossing it aside, he reached for his glass and gulped the last of his brandy.

Meg Timmons. He knew Meg Timmons. She was Sarah’s closest friend, the daughter of his father’s mortal enemy, and a woman with whom Hart had experienced an incident last summer that he’d been seriously trying to forget.

 

 

 

Copyright © 2017 by Valerie Bowman and reprinted by permission of St. Martin’s Paperbacks.

 

The Scot Beds His Wife Excerpt

Chapter Two

Union Pacific Railway, Wyoming Territory, Fall, 1880

Samantha Masters squeezed the trigger, planting a bullet between her husband’s beautiful brown eyes.

She whispered his name. Bennett. Then screamed it.

But it was the woman in his grasp she reached for as he fell to the ground.

Though they’d known each other all of twenty minutes, she clung to Alison Ross as though the younger woman were the most precious soul in the entire world, and they sank to their knees as their strength gave out.

Alison’s hold was just as tight around her, and their sobs burst against each other’s in a symphony of terror, shock, and abject relief.

What in the hell just happened?

Not twenty minutes ago, Samantha and Alison had been no more to each other than amiable fellow passengers on an eastbound train, chugging across the wintry landscape of the Wyoming Territory.

What were they now? Enemies? Survivors?

“I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.” Samantha repeated the words with every short, sobbing exhale. Though she couldn’t have said who the apology was to, exactly. To Alison? To Bennett? To whoever had been shot on the other railcars?

To God?

This morning she’d been the irate, disillusioned wife of a charming and dangerous man. An insignificant and unwilling member of the outlaw Masters Gang.

This afternoon, she’d been the new acquaintance and confidant to Alison Ross, commiserating over childhoods spent on secluded cattle ranches.

This evening, because of what she’d just done, of what they’d all just done . . . chances were good that she’d be hanged.

This train job was supposed to be like any other. Each of the Masters boarded on the last platform for miles and miles. To avoid detection or suspicion, Bennett, Boyd, and Bradley Masters would each take a seat in separate passenger cars.

Samantha would be placed in the least populated car, usually first class, as it was also the least dangerous. Once civilization completely fell away, the signal was given, and the men would strike, rounding up all passengers into one car.

This was done for the safety of the passengers as much as the Masters, themselves, as the gang didn’t generally rob people. Cash, jewelry, and personal items were never as valuable as actual cargo. The Union Pacific Railway didn’t only deliver citizens across the vast American continent. It delivered goods, sundries, and often . . . federal funds.

Even in these modern times, when it seemed all the gold had been mined from the rich hills of California, American currency was still minted in the east. Which meant everything from company payrolls, to government bonds, to cash and precious metals were transported by transcontinental railways.

And the Masters brothers, aspiring entrepreneurs, had decided that if the government wouldn’t allow them land, nor the banks grant them loans . . .

Then they’d take what they needed.

This was supposed to have been their fifth and final train job. It was supposed to have gone like the others.

No one harmed or robbed. Merely a bit inconvenienced and perhaps a little shaken. The Masters would escape with a few bags of money that the government could simply print again, a “frightened” female hostage as played by Samantha herself, and the papers would have an exciting story to publish in the morning.

The signal, both to each other and to the passengers, was one shot, fired at the ceiling, and then a command to disarm, get moving, and a gentle promise that all this would be over before they knew it. Samantha’s job was to act like any other passenger, and incite them to obey. Then, if necessary, act as the hostage to force compliance.

“People are sheep,” Boyd had always said. “They’ll follow a sweet thing like you to their doom.”

On this job, Samantha had been more comfortable than any other. At this time in October, with winter settling in but Christmas still a ways off, travel wasn’t foremost on the mind of the average American.

Her railcar had only two occupants other than herself. Alison Ross, a lively, bright-eyed San Franciscan socialite, and a well-dressed businessman more interested in his paper than conversation.

At first, Alison’s friendly overtures had vexed Samantha, as she found it hard to concentrate on responses when her blood sang with equal parts anticipation and anxiety. But, she realized, to not engage would be suspicious, and before long she’d found herself enjoying Alison’s company.

She’d not known many women her age, least of all friendly ones.

Samantha imagined that in another life, she and Alison could have, indeed, been friends.

Had she not been about to rob the train.

Had there not been more gunshots than were agreed upon . . .

Had Boyd and Bradley not bailed with the money, leaving Bennett to come after his wife, his white shirt and dark vest splattered with blood.

Oh God. What had they done?

Over the deafening beat of her heart, she’d heard Bennett say something about federal marshals. About someone taking a bullet in the shoulder. Boyd? And then a shootout.

Through vision blurred with tears, Samantha glanced at the businessman, dead-eyed and bleeding.

Her fault. All her fault.

Bennett had shot him without a word or warning. Then he’d grabbed Alison and put his pistol to her temple, because he’d known.

He’d known the second he’d seen the horror and denial on Samantha’s face at the blood on his shirt, that she wouldn’t have gone with him. That, while she’d have stayed married to an outlaw, she could never love a murderer.

“Come with me, Sam,” he’d ordered tersely. “Come with me now, and we will go to Oregon.”

It was in that moment Samantha had known he lied to her.

They’d fought about it the night before, when he’d said Boyd wanted to go south to Texas or the New Mexico Territory instead of north to Oregon like they’d planned. That oil towns were the new gold rush.

She’d railed at him. It wasn’t the life he’d promised her. They were supposed to go to the sea to make their fortune in lumber. He was going to build her a grand house on a cliff and make love to her while serenaded by thunderstorms. They’d only just escaped their desolate life on a cattle ranch in the high desert. She didn’t want to go back to bleak sweaty days beneath the harsh, unrelenting sunshine. She wanted pretty green hills, trees, and meadows. She wanted to live somewhere she could wrap a shawl about her and listen to sea storms toss rain against her windows.

Last night, she’d been shrill, and Bennett had been cruel.

But he’d awoken his charming self, randy as he ever was before a dangerous job. And she’d lain beneath his thrusting body, unable to relinquish the churning of her resentments and worries enough to appreciate his affections.

Then it was time to wash, and dress, and commit a crime.

Bennett had promised to revisit the issue. To make her smile again, to fulfill her dreams.

Problem was, Samantha had already lost faith in Bennett Masters’s charming promises. A part of her had begun to accept what she’d long feared. Bennett would never go against his brothers, brutal and backward as they were. If Boyd decreed the family was going south to work in stinking, desolate oil towns, then there was no other option but to do exactly that.

Boyd had once whispered to her in secret that, while Bennett might love her, he feared him more, and fear was always more powerful than love.

“He’d let me fuck you, if I wanted,” Boyd had threatened once when she’d been mouthy. He’d grabbed her through her trousers, his fingers digging painfully against her sex. “You’d best keep that in mind.”

She’d never forgotten that night five months ago. Because she’d told Bennett of Boyd’s behavior.

And, as Boyd predicted, he’d done nothing.

Now, when Bennett held his pistol to this helpless woman’s head, and ordered Samantha to open the door to the railcar, she’d looked into the eyes of her husband of four years.

And seen a stranger.

“You’ll let her go,” she’d reasoned evenly. “You’ll let her go, and we’ll get out of here.”

She’d opened the door. Bradley had the horses keeping pace with the train as it slowed around the McCreary Pass bend. She motioned to him, and he spurred his ride faster. They’d get off the train, and she’d figure out just what the hell had happened before making any hasty decisions.

“She’s seen us.”

Bennett’s words had frozen her blood as she realized that he wasn’t wearing his bandana.

“People have seen us before,” she’d said over her shoulder.

“Not like this, Sam. We can’t leave witnesses. She has to die—”

Samantha had reached across her body, drawn her Colt single-action, turned, and shot him between the eyes in the time it took him to pull back the hammer of his highercaliber, slower-action Smith & Wesson.

Only now, while clinging to a stranger on her knees, did she have time to think about what she’d just done.

She’d killed a man. Not just any man.

Her husband.

“Thank you,” Alison said ardently against her ear.  “Thank you. I know he was your man, but I wasn’t ready to die.”

Pulling away from Alison, Samantha noted the mark that Bennett’s recently used gun left on her pale temple. He had to have killed before, hadn’t he? He just . . . murdered that innocent man like it was nothing to him. He didn’t even hesitate. And then to even consider executing a slight and lovely girl like Alison?

Her husband of four years.

God, had she ever known him at all? Wood paneling splintered above them as a bullet pierced the wall, and Alison screamed, lifting her arms to cover the green silk hat perched above a wealth of mahogany curls.

Bradley.

Samantha’s head whipped around to see that he’d gained on their car, and had witnessed the entire thing. Luckily, of the four of them, Bradley was the weakest shot and only the second-best rider.

The distinction as the best, of course, belonged to her. Boyd was the gunslinger.

Samantha dimly remembered Bennett saying that Boyd had been wounded, and with any luck, those wounds would be fatal.

Bradley’s mount galloped closer, and Samantha realized that if he gained on the train, he’d be coming for her, and only one of them would survive the encounter.

She’d found her gun where she’d dropped it, but Alison stayed her hand. “I know a way to keep your neck out of a noose,” she said, her blueberry gaze surprisingly steady through the tears. “But we’ll have to . . . to get rid of the body.”

Samantha’s racing heart shriveled, but she and Alison stayed low as they rolled Bennett’s limp body the few feet to the door.

“You’re dead, Sam!” Bradley, unable to reload his pistol on horseback, was reaching across his saddle for his rifle. Which gave the women no time to pause. No time to hesitate.

Together, they pushed Bennett through the door, and the force of the train, the wind, and momentum pulled him sideways down the iron steps. The broken sounds his body made when he hit the earth nearly killed Samantha, but Alison slammed the door just as Bradley’s rifle had found purchase on his shoulder.

Samantha could tell his shot went wild, and waited a few eternal seconds for another.

Alison gathered her wealth of skirts and knelt on a seat, peeking through the window. “He’s stopped.” She breathed in obvious relief. “He’s stopped for your—for the body.”

It was only then that Samantha began to shake. Great, bone-rattling tremors coursed through her. All warmth leached out of her, and she slumped into a seat knowing her freezing limbs wouldn’t hold her weight for much longer.

Resolutely, Alison Ross claimed the seat across from her. A bone structure as sharp and perfect as hers was only accentuated by pink blush and rouged, full lips. Emeralds swayed and twinkled in her ears, catching the light as she leaned toward Samantha.

“He called you Sam,” she noted in a sweet voice that contrasted with her sharp tone. “That’s your name?”

“S-S-Samantha,” she managed through rattling teeth. “H-his brothers. T-they’re going to kill me. I’d rather hang.”

“You told me you grew up on a cattle ranch. Was this the truth?”

Samantha nodded, wondering if she’d ever be able to breathe again. Assaulted by the picture of Bennett’s handsome face marred by a perfectly round hole between his eyes.

“You can shoot, obviously. Can you ride, herd cattle, work figures?”

She nodded again, before the absurdity of Alison’s question registered. “W-why are you being kind to me? My—my husband almost—” She couldn’t bring herself to say it. It was too horrible.

In spite of everything, a corner of Alison’s painted mouth lifted at Samantha’s expression. “Where I come from, in my country, saving a life is no small debt. Also, in my savage part of the world, from the time we’re very, very young one law is paramount to all others. Tha an lagh comraich.”

Comraich?” Samantha blinked rapidly at the lovely, obviously wealthy woman. Either she’d gone mad, or Alison was speaking in tongues.

“It means sanctuary.”

Shaking her head, Samantha tried to understand the woman. That word had no meaning to her. What was Alison talking about, her country? She didn’t look or sound at all like an immigrant. Was she not American? Had she not said she had a fiancé in San Francisco? That her family had been wealthy ranchers and she was forced to travel east to settle a land dispute?

“I don’t know what you’ve been through, or what has happened to bring us to this place, but I think we can help each other,” the elegant woman was saying.

“I’m lost,” were the only words Samantha could conjure. Hopelessly, incredibly lost. Adrift. Misplaced. In every conceivable way.

Alison’s gaze gentled. “Tell me, Samantha, have you ever been to Scotland?”

 

Copyright © 2017 by Kerrigan Byrne and reprinted by permission of St. Martin’s Paperbacks.