When you gamble with desire, be prepared to risk everything
Unlike the rest of the Hell's Eight brotherhood, Ace Parker's home isn't on the range. This restless cowboy craves the hustle of Simple, Texas, a lawless town where he can sate his darker appetites without guilt. At least he could, until Petunia Wayfield arrived. The prickly new teacher is insisting that Ace help her rid the town of drunkenness and card playing. For that kind of miracle, Ace demands a reward the spinster schoolmarm will surely never give.
But Petunia isn't backing down. Not when the intense passion Ace offers shatters her to the core. As soon as she can afford a ticket to California, she'll leave Simple behind for good. Until then, she'll match his sensual challenge with her own, daring him to give up his fiercely guarded self-control. And then real danger claims Petunia, forcing Ace to reveal the man he really iseven if it drives her away forever .
About the Author
Before becoming a full-time writer, Sarah McCarty traveled extensively. She would bring a pencil and paper with her to sketch out her stories and, in the process, discovered the joy of writing. Today, Sarah is the New York Times bestselling author of more than a dozen novels, including the award-winning Hell’s Eight series, and is best known for her historical and paranormal romance novels. You can contact Sarah through her website at www.SarahMcCarty.net.
Read an Excerpt
She was going to hell, for sure. Petunia Wayfield stepped off the rough board walkway into the dirt street, barely missing a pile of excrement left by some animal. Dust rose in a puff around her skirts. It'd been a long spell since the last rain. If this drought kept up another month, Christmas was going to be a dusty affair. Shielding her eyes against the late-morning sun, Petunia chided her morals. Here she was, fresh out of a sermon on the seven deadly sins, and she was about to commit two of the worst: the sins of gluttony andshe paused before stepping back up onto the opposite walklust. And she blamed it all on Maddie Miller's cinnamon rolls. Because if Petunia had never smelled the delicious aroma of those baked goods wafting out from beneath the pink-and-white awning that decorated the front of Maddie's bakery, she never would have stepped through the door the very moment that Ace Parker had stepped out. Would never have smashed her face into his chest; would never have associated the temptation of cinnamon rolls with the scent of hot, masculine man. At least that's what she told herself. Because it was what any rational, practical woman would tell herself. Even if it was a lie.
With a sigh, Petunia continued on toward the bakery. It wasn't like she needed that cinnamon roll. At almost thirty, she didn't need the soft, warm, delicious, yeasty bun filled with fragrant cinnamon and topped with a melted sugar glaze to add to her womanly shape, but she wanted it. She also didn't need a six-foot-plus tall, broad-shouldered, lean-hipped, no-better-than-he-needed-to-be-maybe-worse-than-some, smart-mouthed gambler like Ace. But, she admitted resignedly as she opened the bakery door and the little bell jingled announcing her presence, Petunia wanted him, too. With the same shameless, mouthwatering, crave-it-no-matter-what lust that had her slipping out on a sermon early to satiate her need for decadence.
On some level Petunia had always felt that she was just one reckless decision from slipping into dissolution. Which was a sad thing for the only daughter of the pillar of Benton, Massachusetts, society to be admitting. Her father liked to blame her wayward tendencies on the flaw in his upbringing after her mother's early demise. She preferred to call those tendencies progressive thinking. It was a point they'd never agreed upon and which had sent her West on her own without her father's financial support. And the expected outcome of that venture was yet another bone of contention. He expected her to fail at establishing her business in California while she expected to succeed. She just needed her luck back.
She swore she'd never had such a run of bad luck as she'd had since leaving Benton. First, the stagecoach had broken down in Simple. Which wouldn't have been so bad except the one-night stay at that supposed boardinghouse on the edge of town had resulted in her being robbed of all her money except the few coins she'd sewn into her petticoat Only the love life of the local school-marm had saved her from ruin, or worse yet, having to send a letter home to her father asking for help. That was an absolute last resort. Petunia Wayfield was not a woman that failed.
The aroma of sweet dough and cinnamon surrounded her in a blissful hug as she pushed the door closed. Petunia closed her eyes and breathed deeply, drawing the comfort in. This was what she needed, the occasional sensual indulgence, not an ongoing challenge like Ace Parker.
Liar, the little voice inside whispered.
She took another breath, fighting the truth. For the first time in her life, she actually wanted, genuinely wanted, a man. But it couldn't be some nice steady man of business. Oh, no. True to the contrariness of a nature her father bemoaned as misplaced in a woman, she had to lust after a man who was completely wrong for her. A man whose way of life mocked her beliefs. A man for whom, if she did succumb, she'd be nothing more than a toy. Everything inside rejected the notion. She was no man's toy. She was a modern woman, an independent woman, a woman who intended to have the vote one day. She was not any man's plaything.
"It does my baker's heart good to see you step through that door and take in that first breath like you've just found heaven." Maddie Miller interrupted her thoughts with her usual sweet cheerfulness.
Petunia opened her eyes and smiled at Maddie standing behind the counter, a big white apron covering her green dress, flour dusting her freckled cheek and stray curls of red hair escaping her bun. The one thing Petunia prided herself on was not being silly.
"Probably because I just did." A board squeaked as she stepped up to the low counter. Your cinnamon buns are my one weakness, I'm afraid."
Again that whisper of liar.
As if she heard the silent rebuke, Maddie paused, a tray of just risen rolls in her hand.
"I don't know why people think weaknesses are bad."
Because only the strong survived. Petunia bit her tongue on the comment.
"If a body is never weak, how would they ever know what they needed?" Maddie asked, swapping the trays and putting the hot, unfrosted rolls on the counter beside a bowl of frosting before closing the oven door.
For that Petunia didn't have an answer. "That's a good point." Darn it.
Maddie just smiled and dropped the cloth she'd been using to carry the hot pan beside it. Resting her hands on her hips she stretched her back and gave Petunia a knowing glance. "Besides, there are some weaknesses that are just plain enjoyable."
And that fast Petunia felt laid open and vulnerable. "Not in my experience."
"Maybe you don't have enough experience."
There was a time when Petunia had thought Maddie a bit, well, simplistic, but soon she'd seen the real woman. The woman who'd started her own business from nothing but scratch and need, a woman who'd won the heart of the notorious Caden Miller. A woman who'd refused her husband until he respected her independence. Looking at the petite redhead on the other side of the counter, Petunia found it hard to believe someone so soft-looking could be so determined, but it was just another reminder of how one shouldn't judge by appearances. Maddie could be a very focused woman. And right now she was uncomfortably focused on Petunia.
"Have you seen Ace this afternoon?" Maddie asked with a nonchalance Petunia couldn't imitate.
"No. Should I have?"
"I heard he had words with Brian Winter at the saloon last night."
Petunia handed Maddie the bowl of frosting. "Why would that concern me?"
Maddie rolled her eyes and took it. "I have no idea. Outside of the fact you're unhappy with Brian and the way he treats his son."
Petunia licked the sweet glaze off her finger. Brian Winter was a brute to the helpless. But Ace Parker was far from helpless. "If Brian was at the saloon, it was to gamble. It only stands to reason any fighting that went on had to do with cards or money or both."
She ignored the skepticism. "Mr. Parker is not the civic-minded sort."
"You like to believe that."
"Because it's true."
Maddie didn't argue the point. "He can't be all bad. He's the region assayer."
"For reasons of his own, I'm sure."
Maddie looked up from the frosting she was stirring. "It's a respectable job."
"He probably won it in a poker game."
The wood spoon thumped against the side of the crockery bowl. Maddie switched the subject. "How was the reverend's sermon this morning? He sounded all riled up, even from over here."
He had been, for sure. "He was enthusiastic and as motivating as ever."
"About what today?"
Petunia smiled slightly. "The sin of turning the other cheek."
"That's a sin?" Maddie asked, pouring glaze over the fresh batch of rolls. Petunia was a bit ahead of the church crowd, but soon the shop would be packed with a line out the door.
"He had a new take on it."
Petunia felt certain the sermon was aimed at her endeavors to help the children and less fortunate of Simple and the lack of interest of the townsfolk. "It's his opinion that people around here have gotten too used to turning a blind eye, even when they should be paying attention."
Maddie smiled and set the glaze aside. "A theory near and dear to your heart."
Petunia nodded. "You should have attended. He was quite animated."
Maddie's expression closed right up as she started moving the rolls to the display plates. As curious as Maddie always was about the reverend's sermons, as far as Petunia could tell, the woman had never set foot inside the church.
"You should come on in one Sunday."
Maddie became overly busy getting a roll just so on the display plate. After a few seconds she looked up, a not so engaging smile on her face.
"Well, if I did that, who would cook the cinnamon rolls for the congregation when the sermonizing is over?"
She was clearly flustered at the idea of going to church. For the life of her, Petunia didn't know why.
There was no one more kind and considerate than Maddie. It was a mystery, and mysteries were Petunia's downfall. She poked a little more.
"I'm sure the reverend would love to see you at service more than he'd rather see a cinnamon roll."
Maddie shook her head. "I don't know about that. The man is particularly fond of his pastries. Missing one might just throw him off his sermon."
Maddie's resistance just increased Petunia's curiosity. "Wouldn't hurt to try."
The pink gingham curtain behind the counter hissed slightly as it slid open. Caden Miller, Maddie's husband, stepped from behind the cloth barrier and slipped his arm protectively around his wife's waist. There was all the love any woman could want in that embrace, but there was steel in his blue eyes as he looked at Petunia, reminding her he was one of the legendary Hell's Eight. Men known for their bravery and loyalty. Caden, in particular, for his unpredictable nature. The tiny shop suddenly seemed that much smaller.
"There's no purer angel walking this earth than my Maddie, with or without church." Dropping a kiss on the top of Maddie's head, he challenged Petunia to continue her prodding.
Petunia was not a fool. "Good morning, Caden."
A nod of his head acknowledged her greeting. "If you don't believe me," he continued, taking the cinnamon bun out of Maddie's hand, "all you've got to do is taste her baked goods." The little paper napkin beneath wrinkled as he set it on the counter and pushed it toward Petunia.
A lock of hair fell across his forehead. Maddie turned and brushed it back, her fingers lingering on his cheek. Caden's expression softened as he turned his head and kissed her palm. Petunia felt a pang of envy and more than a little superfluous. "They are the height of my Sundays."
Maddie turned to her and smiled in her easy, open way. "Between you and Caden my head is going to swell so much, I'll have a hard time getting through the door."
"No problem, Maddie mine." Caden stole a pastry for himself. "I know where you store the hat pins. If things need popping I'll be right on it."
Maddie shook her head and laughed. "Thanks."
"It's my husbandly duty to make sure you stay" his gaze lowered to Maddie's ample curves "all in proportion."
All Maddie's protest inspired was a chuckle from her husband and an offer to share his roll. Petunia's blush faded as Maddie laughed again and took a bite. It was good to see a man who knew how to be a man and cared about his wife. And there was one thing everyone knew about Caden. Caden loved Maddie with everything in him, which surprisingly seemed to be a whole heck of a lot. Surprising because if you asked half the town's populace, they'd tell you stories, all of them designed to convince you that Caden Miller didn't have a heart. But he did, and she was plump and sweet with red hair and green eyes and a talent for baking.
The scent of the cinnamon roll on the counter beckoned. There had been a time when Petunia would have said it was better than any man's arms, but watching Maddie relax into Caden's embrace, seeing how natural they were together, Petunia was beginning to have those doubts that said maybe the course she'd set for herself and the beliefs she held to so strongly were not all that a woman needed.
Petunia passed her money across the counter, took the roll and ignored that pang of envy that she didn't have time for. "Thank you."
She had an important meeting in two days, and she couldn't afford any distractions. There were things in this town that people didn't want to see that she insisted they would. Too many children in her school were neglected, hungry or abused while others were just left out of an education entirely simply because their mothers were forced to work above stairs in the saloon. It was unacceptable. It had to change. Every child deserved to be safe and educated and before she left this town she was determined some changes would be made, no matter how unpopular her determination made her with most, including Caden. The man was a bit overprotective. Maddie's quiet support of her cause did not put her in danger. With a smile she made her excuses. "I'm going to scoot before the reverend gets here and lectures me about slipping out on church early."
Caden grinned. "Are you worried about eternal damnation?"
She reached for the door, her mouth watering, impatience nibbling at her the way she wanted to nibble on the roll. "Not this week."
Maddie chuckled. "You have a nice day, Petunia."
Petunia glanced back, the door half-open, the little bell's jangle just a ting of sound. Caden stood behind Maddie, his arm still around her waist. He looked like hell waiting for a place to land, all squared shoulders and contained aggression. Maddie, on the other hand, looked at peace. The hand resting on Caden's was relaxed. Her fingers stroked across his darker skin. Such a small gesture, but it had such a profound effect. Caden visibly relaxed. Petunia smiled. Maddie was a woman who knew her power and wielded it wisely. Yet she wouldn't step inside a church she clearly longed to visit. It made no sense. If Petunia had more time she'd definitely be exploring that wrinkle. But time she didn't have. As soon as she saved enough for her ticket, she'd be on her way to starting her own dream.
"Thank you, Maddie. You both have one, too."
The "Will do" came from Caden.
Outside, she stopped and took that long-awaited, much-anticipated first bite. The pastry melted in her mouth. She closed her eyes and just appreciated the moment, letting the pleasure roll through her.
"You know, if you wore that exact same expression on your face at the next dance, you might spend more time on the floor dancing than on the side talking."
Petunia didn't have to open her eyes to know who was goading her. Ace Parker. The thorn in her side, her personal Achilles' heel, Caden and Maddie's best friend. She'd never understand how two productive people could appreciate a man of such low character. Opening her eyes, she found herself looking straight into the shadowed intensity of his. A frisson of awareness shot through her, hooking deep and drawing invisible wires tight. Damn the man. He even had beautiful eyes. She wanted to knock the black cowboy hat off his head so she could see the sky-blue irises flecked with those mesmerizing shards of icy gray. Eyes that saw too much. Eyes that made her want to To push. Shove. Fight. His mouth quirked at the corner. She couldn't look away.
They made her want to surrender. Damn him.