Audrey and the Maverickby Elaine Levine
Virginia financier Julian McCaid has put his troubled past behind him. His plans for the future don't include Audrey Sheridan, the extraordinary frontier woman he met just once. But it's because of her that
In Elaine Levine's stunning novel of the American West, a proud rancher and a determined young woman are drawn together in the lawless town of Defiance.
Virginia financier Julian McCaid has put his troubled past behind him. His plans for the future don't include Audrey Sheridan, the extraordinary frontier woman he met just once. But it's because of her that he's come to the Dakota Territory to investigate problems at his ranch. And it's all the more surprising when he discovers she isn't the innocent he believed. Now nothing but her complete surrender will purge her from his soul.
If it weren't for the children she cares for in her makeshift orphanage, Audrey would have left Defiance long ago. Now the sheriff is blackmailing her to distract the man who might derail his corrupt schemes--a man who can offer Audrey not just protection, but a passion bold enough to make them claim their place in this harsh and beautiful land. . .
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Audrey and the Maverick
By ELAINE LEVINE
ZEBRA BOOKSCopyright © 2010 Elaine Levine
All right reserved.
Chapter OneDefiance, Dakota Territory, May 1868
Audrey Sheridan peeked around the corner of an abandoned store, watching her mark come closer. Her palms were damp and her hands shook. She'd practiced the maneuver she would use to steal his purse a hundred times in the last two days, but now that the time was here, she doubted her ability to see it through.
Julian McCaid was less than half a block away. He lifted his wide-brimmed Stetson and swept a hand through his thick dark hair. Resettling his hat, he scanned the street near where she stood. The energy of his gaze rolled in her direction like a hot desert wind.
Withdrawing into the cover of the alley, she listened to his boots crunch in the gravel of the dirt road. When he came even with her, she stepped in front of him and reached for his coin purse. Fast as a whip, he snatched her wrist. She gasped and looked up, in time to see shock and recognition register in his eyes.
The 5:00 p.m. Cheyenne stage had just arrived, and passengers had begun filing down the street toward them, heading for Maddie's Boardinghouse. She yanked at her wrist and he let her go. She quickly drifted into the small crowd and slipped away, her heartbeat overriding all other sound as she began to run. She didn't stop-didn't dare give her conscience time tocatch up to her actions. The sheriff had been very clear in describing the consequences should she fail to engage McCaid's attention.
She took a circuitous route to the sheriff's, careful that she wasn't being followed. At the side stairs leading up to his apartment, one of his men stepped in front of her, blocking her. His gaze leisurely moved over her, a boldness he would never have attempted before she'd become the sheriff's flunky. She went around him and climbed to the second floor. Her fingers gripped the neck of the small pouch until her nails dug into the palm of her hand. She pounded on his door with her fisted hand.
One of the sheriff's men opened it. "It's Sheridan," he said, looking at her but speaking to someone behind him.
"Let her in."
Audrey moved stiffly into the room. She looked at each of the five men inside-Sheriff Kemp and four gunmen, two of whom she didn't recognize. Kemp always had new gunfighters loitering about town. It wasn't worth getting to know them; they never stayed around long.
The sheriff leaned against his scruffy wooden table and waited for her to speak. She tossed him the leather pouch and watched as he poured it out on his desk. Light from the window at the front of the room flashed off the metal star on his chest, brightening a spot on the gritty floor as he leaned forward to count her take.
"Ten dollars. Hardly worth the trouble." He frowned as he looked her over. "What are you dressed like that for?"
"I didn't want McCaid to recognize me."
A rattle of laughter started deep in his chest. He covered his mouth with his fist as if to stop himself, but by the time the sound hit the air, it was a high-pitched, dirty giggle that his fist did nothing to hide.
"Oh, he's gonna recognize you. By the time he's finished with you, he's gonna know you with your clothes, without your clothes, and in any stupid getup you want to wear." He looked at her as he fondled McCaid's purse. "You done good, Sheridan. He'll take the bait. I know it."
Audrey gritted her teeth and fought to suppress a shudder. She hated this town and the sheriff and his men. She would see this terrible thing to its end, then leave Defiance. There had to be work for an honest girl in Cheyenne or Denver. There had to be someplace where she, her brother, and her foster children would be safe from his manipulations.
Sensing her resistance, Kemp narrowed his eyes. He crossed the room to her. Yanking her hat off, he dug his hand in her hair and twisted hard. "You start chattering, girl, and them kids of yours will find you with your neck slit one fine morning," he hissed. "You're nothing. Nothing. You hear me?"
"I hear you," she bit out, only to have her head yanked once more.
"And if you think that half-breed sheep farmer's gonna help you, you better think it over. Every wrong step you make will cost you a kid." He grinned, baring yellowed teeth in a venomous smile. "I reckon you got eight chances to get it right. Then there's still your brother."
Audrey clamped her jaw shut both to stop its quivering and to keep from telling Kemp what she thought of him. He tightened his grip. She tried to free herself, but his hand was fisted too deeply in her hair. "You keep the breed busy for a month. You hear me, girl? I need a month."
Trying to appear tougher than she felt, she gave him a bored glare. "I hear you."
"Get outta here." He flung her away, shoving her toward the door and tossing her hat after her. "Get the hell outta here."
Audrey picked up her hat and left Kemp's apartment. Walking down the steps to the street, she moved blindly. Woodenly. She looked toward the far end of town, her eyes seeking solace in the white and blue mountain ridges that ripped into the sky.
There had to be more-so much more than this. Why hadn't she seen this situation coming? She thought back over the past month, the past year. There had been plenty of signs-the drop in the number of customers who sent her their laundry, the school's closing, the abandoned businesses on Main Street. She'd been so preoccupied caring for the kids, she hadn't noticed the gradual shift in power from the town's law-abiding citizens to the sheriff's growing number of gang members.
And now it was too late.
Heavy clouds thickened across the sky, darkening the town as a spring storm quickly blew in. The air had a chill about it and a soothing damp smell she drew greedily into her lungs. It was going to pour. The street was emptying of people as the few who were about hurried out of the rain. Something across the way drew her attention. Frowning, she tried to see what it was, even as the hairs tingled at the back of her neck.
He stepped down from the boardwalk in front of the old hotel and stopped. He turned slowly and faced the alleyway. Four roughnecks gathered in a half circle around him. He stood there-stood still-and let them draw near.
Audrey felt sick to her stomach. The four of them would tear him apart. She looked away. It wasn't her business. He wasn't her business. She should keep on moving. If McCaid couldn't handle the trouble in Defiance, he shouldn't have come back. She looked his way again. Kemp's boys were almost within arm's reach of him. It wasn't fair. She'd already hit him-there couldn't be anything left for them to take. The wet wind brought a whisper of cruel laughter her way.
Four against one wasn't right.
She crossed the street, determination making her heart thunder, her pace quicken. They were closing in on him. She broke into a run and reached the pack of roughnecks in time to slip between them and McCaid. Backing up against him, she glared at the four facing him. "Not today, Paul, Hammer." She eyed the sheriff's men warily. She knew only the two, but she'd seen the others hanging around town lately.
"Get out of the way, girl." Hammer leaned toward her. Audrey spread her arms out at her sides, heedless of the ridiculous sight she made. The top of her head barely came to McCaid's chin. His shoulders were twice the width of hers. Her spread arms protected only the top of his thighs.
"It's no use," she growled, hoping they caught her meaning.
"Shit, Sheridan! He's only just come in."
"Maybe if you hadn't needed to round up a gang-" she suggested.
Anger flashed in Hammer's bleary eyes. He grabbed her collar, lifting her toward him only to have an equally large hand twist his collar and hold him at bay.
"Let her go," McCaid quietly ordered, "now." Never had a man's voice affected Audrey as his did. It was deep and resonated with quiet authority. Hammer's eyes widened as he looked over her head at McCaid. He set her free with a string of curses and stormed away. The others followed close behind.
Audrey drew a ragged breath, finally becoming aware she hadn't been breathing. Rain began to fall in earnest. For the length of a heartbeat, neither she nor McCaid moved. She listened to the rain plink against the adjacent building, acutely aware of him standing behind her. Slowly, careful to keep her face shadowed by her hat, she turned around. Her gaze collided with his chest, and her mind absorbed random images of him, like a patchwork. The heavy duster he wore over his gray wool suit. The coffee-colored splotches of rain spreading and connecting into ever-larger blotches at his shoulders. His hard jaw with its afternoon growth of dark beard. The water pooling on his hat brim and spilling off the back.
She felt the weight of his gaze but avoided looking at him as she glanced across the street toward the sheriff's office. Drat it all, they could see her from here. Audrey started to edge around him.
His arm shot up in front of her, his hand locking against the side of the building. "A moment, Miss Sheridan. I've been looking for you. I believe you have something of mine."
When she tried to go the other way, he blocked her with his other arm. She did look at him then. His jaw was set, his brown eyes steely. Her heart beat like a fist against her ribs. "I have nothing of yours," she whispered. That, after all, was no lie.
He leaned toward her, bending near, close enough that she could hear the rain on his hat. "We both know you do. What game do you play?"
"It's no game. You aren't safe here," she warned him. But when his arm wrapped around her waist and pinned her between his body and the wall, she knew she wasn't safe either.
Chapter TwoJulian leaned into Audrey. Her hat fell off, exposing her golden hair to the rain. Her pale eyes were huge, full of fear and lies. "In the last half hour, you've both robbed and protected me," he growled, his mouth near hers. "If you want to play games, we'll play-but by my rules."
Her hands pushed against his arms, a puny resistance in the presence of his crushing need to do what he'd wanted to since he met her last year.
His mouth took hers. His hat shielded her face from the rain. He breathed her scent, a strange mixture of rain and dust and roses. Her lips trembled. From the cold, perhaps. Or maybe he was the one shaking. He moved his mouth against hers, feeling her warmth, waiting for her lips to part and give him access to her soft secrets. His arm curled tighter around her, drawing her against himself. He cupped her head with his other hand, holding her in position for his invasion. She drew a ragged breath, opening for him. His tongue entered her mouth, rolling along the pointy ridges of her teeth, seeking her tongue. He was vaguely aware of her hands moving up his arms, to his shoulders, tightening around his neck.
Her tongue pushed and played against his. His cock shot to life. He moved a leg between hers, easily separating her pant-clad legs, pressing his thigh to the cradle of her hips. She sucked in a breath against his mouth even as her hips bucked him. He rubbed against her and when her thighs clamped his leg, he silently cursed. She was all woman, more responsive than he'd dared dream, but they couldn't do this here, in the rain, in this alley where anyone could see them. He pulled back and stared at her. Her nose was pink, her cheeks flushed. They both breathed heavily under the brim of his hat.
Lightning flashed, followed almost instantly by a deafening clap of thunder. She pushed free and backed a few steps away, glaring at him while rain poured down her face, matting her hair to her cheeks and neck. He retrieved her hat and handed it to her. She pressed her lips together, her eyes condemning him as she gave a quick shake of her head; then she took the hat and turned away.
Julian watched her lope into the sheeting rain, quickly disappearing. He didn't chase her. He couldn't move. He sucked in a deep breath of cold air, forcing his body to simmer down. Unable to reconcile Audrey's actions today with his memory of her, he let his mind slip back to the night they'd first met, almost a year ago. That same sweet scent she wore tonight had risen from her heated skin then as well in the warm summer air. She had boldly watched him throughout their waltz, her gaze stirring things in him. He'd stared into her strange, sage-green eyes and had somehow kept himself from acting on the promise in them-she was, he'd thought, a respectable young woman.
How wrong he'd been.
What mischief was she involved in here? How long had she been picking pockets? Had she thought he wouldn't recognize her? Perhaps he hadn't made as memorable an impression on her as she had on him. He sighed and watched the cloud of his breath dissipate into the rain. Likely he'd made an impression now. He'd have to hunt her down tomorrow and get to the bottom of this.
Wind lashed the rain against him as he moved out of the alley, slapping his coat against his calf. Up the street, the large Homestead Savings and Loans sign hung askew over the bank's gaping doors, squeaking back and forth in the storm. Two saloons stood empty, one with rain pouring into its broken windows and missing door. Countless other businesses were boarded up. Most of the residences at the north end of town were abandoned.
What the hell had happened here? Just last year, Defiance had been a thriving outpost. Now it was all but a ghost town. A movement inside one of the empty buildings caught his attention. He frowned, trying to peer through the downpour, certain he'd seen a man inside. A surreptitious glance around the street revealed someone in the upper window of another abandoned building. Yet another stood on a corner in the shadows and protection of the covered boardwalk. The town was lousy with sentries.
Defiance was ready for Jace.
Julian crossed the street and stepped onto the boardwalk in front of Sam's Saloon and Restaurant, the one remaining watering hole in town. He sent another look around the street, noting the men's positions before he stepped inside. He shrugged out of his coat and hung it and his hat on a peg by the door, then took a seat at a table near the front. Sam's was surprisingly busy, though most tables were filled with cards, not food.
The waiter came by, and Julian ordered the house special-the only meal being cooked that day. Fortunately, it was a thick sirloin and a baked potato. The man returned with the bottle of whiskey and a shot glass he'd ordered. Julian poured a full measure and downed it. Then, leaning back in his seat, he refilled his glass and glared at the amber liquid.
He'd wired Sheriff Kemp with a complaint when his fences had been cut and several of his sheep slaughtered out at Hell's Gulch earlier this spring. When one of his supply wagons had been ambushed and his cook murdered, Julian had wired the deputy U.S. marshal in Cheyenne. Apparently the marshal had received several complaints from the stage line and its passengers about holdups in the area. With so many outposts like Defiance, too many for the government to deal with, Julian had been surprised when he received a response from the marshal letting him know they had hired a resource to clear the sheriff and his gang out of town.
He was even more surprised when that resource turned out to be his old friend, Jace Gage, a man who had made his living since the war as a vigilante for hire, earning himself the nickname "Avenger."
Julian thought back a few years ago when he, Jace, and their friend Sager had fought bushwhackers along the Kansas-Missouri border. Even then, fresh off the farm, Jace had been a phenomenal sharpshooter.
Julian threw back the whiskey and studied the empty glass as two of the hoodlums he'd met in the alley came into Sam's. "Paul" and "Hammer," Audrey had called them. A couple of rougher-looking cowpunchers Julian had never seen.
Making a cut in the steak the waiter had just brought him, he observed them-not with his eyes, but with his senses in a game his grandfather taught him, a game he'd practiced since childhood. He drew their smell into his nostrils. He listened to the sound-the rhythm-of their footsteps. He heard their low, almost furtive, laughter. He felt their eyes on him, felt the tension in the room shift.
Excerpted from Audrey and the Maverick by ELAINE LEVINE Copyright © 2010 by Elaine Levine. Excerpted by permission.
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I did enjoy this book. Towards the end, the heroine Audrey was annoying but just a little. I look forward to reading the next book about Leah and Jace.
If you like stories of cowboys and old west you will enjoy this one. I highly recommend for a good day of reading. I will want to read other books by this author.
I must say, I was happy to see another novel by Elaine Levine. I was somewhat disappointed in the second book and it was not quite as captivating as her first book "Rachel and the Hired Gun". It did have a good story line, and there were characters brought back from her first novel. I can see where a third novel is hopefully in the making.
In 1868, Virginian financier Julian McCaid returns to his ranch in Defiance, Dakota Territory. He muses how far he has come from his rustic rough roots as he plans on marrying a Southern belle. However, he has one flaw with his perfect pan for the perfect family: Audrey Sheridan. She has issues caused by the return of Julian. Sheriff Kemp and his henchmen order her to cause havoc and distraction for Julian; or he will kill her family of young orphans. She steals Julian's money and obtain job as a cook on his spread. As she admires her employer and falls in love with him, she knows she cannot afford to be distracted by her heart as the sheriff is the crooked deadly law in town. At the same time Julian is revising his plan for the perfect family. This western romance sequel to Rachel and the Hired Gun stars another Virginian who falls in love in the Wild West. The cast makes the tale fun to read as the lead couple has some history, a present and apparently a doubtful future. The villain is terrific as Elaine Levine purposely makes him over the top of the Mount Rushmore as a nasty who uses orphan kids to extort what he wants. Readers will enjoy the escapades of Audrey and the Maverick who repaints his vivid picture of the perfect family. Harriet Klausner