If Cozette Camanez's groom doesn't show up for their wedding by dawn, she'll lose her family ranch. Trouble is, the groom doesn't exist-until unsuspecting thief Michael Hughes comes along. Never was an outlaw faced with such a lovely-and willing-target. . .
Larissa Patrick, the beautiful daughter of a wealthy rancher, has been kidnapped. Only one man can save her: gunfighter Johnny Bravo. Rescuing Larissa is the easy part-but getting her home without losing his heart will take the discipline of a saint. And Johnny's no saint. . .
Lawman Ethan Kimble is finally face to face with his quarry: socialite and bank robber Savannah Parker. The only thing between them is a Winchester pointed at his heart-and some undeniable sparks. If Kimble can tame the Texas Flame, they may ignite a passion that breaks every rule. . .
When outlaw Shadow Rivers and desperado Odessa Kilmore escape a hail of bullets and team up on a long journey, both are determined to hide their secrets-and their attraction. No easy task as they discover a love more powerful than their enemies combined. . .
"Readers couldn't ask for a finer quartet of heroes." –Romantic Times on Give Me a Texas Ranger
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Give Me A Texas Outlaw
By Jodi Thomas Linda Broday Phyliss Miranda DeWanna Pace
ZEBRA BOOKSCopyright © 2011 Kensington Publishing Corporation
All right reserved.
Chapter OneJanuary 15, 1852 Big Bend Country, Texas
Cozette Camanez straightened the pearl-white lace of her wedding gown, hating the dress almost as much as she hated herself. Everything about her life was a lie and it was all about to come crashing down around her.
Two months ago she'd made a mistake. She'd trusted a man she thought she loved and found out one stormy night that he wasn't worth loving, or trusting.
The next morning, she'd thought she could walk away, as he had, but when it was far too late to admit what had happened between them, she'd discovered he'd left her with a reminder of what he'd done to her. A reminder that would cause her father to disown her.
Desperate, she did the only thing she could think to do. She lied. First to herself, then to others, building a world around her as she had as a child. The lies grew so thick, they now walled her in, making escape impossible.
Leaning back on the old wooden church pew of the ranch mission, Cozette wished she could close her eyes to everything and just drift away into nothingness. She took a deep breath, inhaling the musty smell of dust and cobwebs and candle wax.
She'd rushed home with her broken heart to find her father dying. She couldn't tell him the truth then. He was in enough pain already. If he knew she might be pregnant, he'd probably use his last breath to yell at her.
But, as the days passed and he grew weaker, she thought her secret might be safe. She sat beside his bed telling stories of an imaginary love who planned to come for her. She even lied and told her father that they'd already been married by a judge in Austin. As she guessed he would, her father complained that as soon as her love arrived, they'd be married by the priest. Until then, her father had claimed it wasn't a real marriage.
The rafters rattled as the wind blew through the holes in the old mission roof. Cozette looked up into the shadows of the loft thinking how hard it would be for an imaginary groom to appear tonight.
She'd thought she would slip away once her father recovered a little, or passed. Maybe she'd be gone for a few months, or even a year, and return home, an imaginary widow with a real baby. Only she'd gone too far with details, saying her husband planned to meet her at the Grand Hotel in Odessa.
When her father took a turn for the worse, her Uncle Raymond told her she had to stay. He took the liberty, without telling Cozette, to send word for the man waiting for her in Odessa to come to the ranch.
From then on, her ball of lies began to unravel amid wedding plans. The house staff took over. They all knew the road to Odessa. A week's journey in a wagon, half that on horseback. As they helped Cozette care for her father, they prepared for the proper wedding. It would have to be as soon as the groom arrived, for her father's days were numbered.
Whispers circled in the hallways. The groom would be there in a few days, the housekeeper announced to everyone, and the maids began to clean while the cooks cooked. A week at the most, the housekeeper reasoned. Later, everyone except Cozette decided it would be three days if the weather held.
And finally, last night they all agreed that he'd come before dawn.
Cozette thought she'd go mad worrying about when her imaginary groom would show up. She'd even let them dress her in her mother's dress to wait though she knew she was waiting for no one.
Then, her father, who'd never forgiven his wife for delivering him with a girl as their only child, did something Cozette never expected. At her uncle's insistence, her father changed his will, leaving the huge ranch not to Cozette, but to her legal husband.
Cozette jumped off the bench and began to pace. Lying on the pew trying not to think wasn't working. She had no one to blame but herself for this mess. She'd piled one lie on top of another and the chaos that was about to start at dawn, when no husband showed up, would be her funeral pyre.
She'd promised her father a hundred times when she was growing up that she'd never lie again. Without her mother to buffer his rage, he'd die hating her, disowning her, demanding she leave and never return. Her father and her uncle weren't men who tempered rage. They didn't just get mad, they got deadly, and at dawn they'd both be furious with her.
Without a husband showing up to claim her and the baby growing inside, her uncle would inherit the only home she'd ever known and kick her out with his dying brother's blessing.
Since she had no hope of an imaginary husband showing up, she had only one path left. She planned to pray herself dead before morning and save everyone else the trouble of murdering her.
There was no other way out.
Better to die now with the priest waiting outside the door. He could perform the funeral. Cooks were baking all night for the wedding breakfast. It would serve as the meal for the wake. More gifts and guests would arrive tomorrow. Everyone would attend her funeral instead of a celebration. After all, they were much the same. All the women cried and everyone would say how nice she looked.
A rustling sounded in the loft. For a second Cozette thought she might be rescued, maybe by a tornado, or a hailstorm, either of which would take everyone's mind off the wedding. Then reality weighed against her heart. A storm wouldn't make the ranch hers. Nothing would. Until a few hours ago her father had wanted the priest to perform the marriage at his bedside when the groom arrived, but he'd finally demanded she marry in the tiny chapel. She'd seen the blood in his handkerchief each time he coughed and guessed the reason.
The rattling above came again. Cozette refused to turn around, thinking the rat in the church must be huge ... almost big enough to be an uncle. Her father loved the ranch, but Uncle Raymond saw only a fast way to make money. Her beloved San Louise would be sliced up and cannibalized within months, because with no groom, her uncle could chop it into small farms. One of the oldest Mexican land-grant ranches in Texas would vanish.
Shouting came from beyond the chapel walls. Cozette pressed her cheek to the window. She could die in a few minutes when all was quiet, she decided. She saw shadows of men run from one building to another, but she couldn't tell what was happening. Shouts echoed through the foggy night air and she thought she heard gunfire near the barn.
As she pushed away from the window, she became aware of someone behind her. Before she could turn, the barrel of a gun pushed sharply against her back.
"Turn around pretty lady and you're dead," came a voice low and rich.
"Who are you?" she demanded, thinking of the old stories she'd heard of outlaws raiding the ranch years ago.
The laughter only inches behind her chilled her blood.
"I'm a bandit come to relieve you of the burden of your wealth. I'll start with that necklace."
She tugged off the heavy gold necklace and handed it to him. "Take it and be gone."
"And the ring." He was so close to her she could feel his warm breath on her bare shoulders.
She jerked off the gold band she'd bought for herself before she left Austin.
"A willing victim?" the robber said. "A change from what I expected." His voice was more educated than she thought a bandit's might be, but the steel of his weapon seemed no less deadly.
"Is that all you want?" she asked as she stared out into the night wishing the gun in his hand would go off and end her misery.
"Oh, we're taking plenty. I checked out the chapel, and my band is loading all your wedding gifts in a wagon."
"Good," she said.
"You don't seem upset that we're taking everything of value."
"I could care less," she answered.
"Don't play games with me, miss. I may not kill you, but my gang wouldn't hesitate."
Cozette placed her hands on the windowsill, fighting to see beyond the thick glass. "Your gang? They wouldn't be three short fat men dressed in black."
"What makes you say that?"
"They're being led away by several of the ranch hands. I don't know how mean they are but one looks like he might be sobbing."
The outlaw pushed her against the window as he looked out. His strong fingers rested on the back of her neck, holding her, but not hurting her. His touch was as warm as the glass was cold.
"That's them." He mumbled an oath. "Great, I leave them for five minutes and look what happens."
"My men will come after you next." She tried to wiggle away. "They're probably already checking every building on the ranch."
For one second his hand slipped against her hair and she twisted to face him. She drew in a quick breath to scream, but his stormy eyes stopped her. He was tall, and darkened by the sun, but his eyes were unlike any she'd ever seen. He was young, maybe only a year or two older than she, yet the sadness in his stare held a hundred years of sorrow.
"Great!" He pulled her from the window. "You've seen my face. Now I have to kill you."
"Good!" she shouted back. "Shoot me!" Heaven had answered her prayer.
She straightened against the wall, bracing herself for the blow. "Shoot me right in the heart." Cozette closed her eyes and waited.
After holding her breath for as long as she could, she let out the air and glared at him. The outlaw was just standing there staring at her.
"What's wrong? All you have to do is pull the trigger."
"I can't just shoot you in cold blood. Not with you ordering me to. In that dress you look like a doll on top of a wedding cake."
"Well, I'm not taking it off, so shoot me."
She took another breath, closed her eyes, and waited. No blow came.
This time when she opened her eyes, he'd lowered his gun to his side. "What's wrong now?"
"I can't, lady. I know it's the outlaw code to shoot anyone who can identify you, but I can't."
All the tension of the day exploded inside Cozette and he was the only one around to take her bottled-up rage. "You are absolutely the worst outlaw I've ever seen. You must have the dumbest gang in creation if they follow you. All you have to do is aim at my heart and shoot me. Then I won't be around to testify and you can go bungle some other job."
"Look, lady, if you want to die so badly, why don't you just take my gun and kill yourself."
"Suicide is a mortal sin. I was schooled by nuns in Austin until a month ago. I know the rules and I always follow them," she corrected him with a bold lie, but then lying seemed to be her main profession of late. "I don't expect a low-down, worthless outlaw to know anything about right or wrong. I'm surprised you aren't lying out somewhere, your dead body feeding the buzzards, or swinging from a tree by rope." She pointed her finger at him. "Now stop wasting time and shoot me!"
He shoved his gun in the holster and stared into her face. "No. Maybe I should tie you up and gag you. I'd enjoy the silence and that should give me time to go spring my three uncles and get out of this place by dawn. I knew this was a bad idea from the start."
"Just shoot me, please." She couldn't believe the answer to her prayers was standing right in front of her refusing to cooperate.
"I can't. Someone will hear the shot." He tried to reason with her.
"Then choke me." She pulled the collar of her gown open, popping several buttons.
He closed the fingers on one hand around her slender neck, but he didn't tighten his grip.
He was so close to her she could feel his heart pounding. "Please, do it," she whispered. "If you don't I'll be forced to watch my father die knowing his only child lied to him. I'll be disgraced and kicked off the ranch by an uncle who hates me."
He studied her with those fascinating, stormy blue eyes that seemed to see all the way to her soul. "Why don't you just tell your father the truth?"
"If I'm not married by the time he wakes up tomorrow, I'll break his heart. He never had much to do with me, thought my mother was a fool for listening to my stories. As soon as she died, he sent me to the nuns and, as far as I know, he's never even read the letters I wrote. He's giving his brother the ranch rather than let me have it unless I marry." Cozette knew she was babbling, but she didn't care. She needed to confess, and an outlaw wasn't likely to judge her.
"Don't you have friends, relatives, the law who will help you?" To her surprise the outlaw actually sounded concerned.
"No one who would stand against my uncle once my father is gone. I'm sure the will is legal." She paused, then tried another angle. "My uncle will kill your gang. He's done it to others who tried to steal from the ranch. They say he beat a cook almost to death for stealing three chickens. My father's a hard man, but his brother twisted one more step into cruelty."
The bandit let go of her neck and backed away. "You've got a mountainload of problems, lady." He handed her back the ring and necklace. "I wish I could help you, but right now I've got my own worries. Those three fat little outlaws in black are all the family I've got, and I'll do anything it takes to save them. I thought if I came along with them tonight, I'd keep them out of trouble, but that plan obviously didn't work."
Cozette stared at the jewelry in her hand. She cared nothing about it or all the wedding gifts. All she wanted was her land, someplace to live, somewhere to raise the child she carried. "Are you sure you won't kill me?"
He smiled, a sad smile as if he was sorry he'd disappointed her. "I can't, lady."
"Then marry me." Cozette covered her mouth, not believing what she'd said, but the logic of it slammed against her. "The priest won't help me. I've lied to him as I did to everyone else. They all believe my husband is coming tonight. But, if I told him you were that man, he'd marry us and my uncle would have to watch the land pass to my husband."
"But I'm not your husband. How's he going to feel when he shows up and finds his wife married to me?"
"He won't show up. I made him up and the land won't really be yours—you'll just hold on to it for a while, then pass it back to me."
The stranger looked confused. "Why?" he asked as if he really didn't want to know the answer.
She glared at him. "Because I may be pregnant." It was the first honest thing she'd said in so long, and it felt good.
"How did that happen? Imaginary men don't get women pregnant." He met her stare, and she swore she saw a bit of a blush flash across the outlaw's face in the candlelight. "Never mind," he corrected. "I don't want to know."
She rushed on, not wanting to remember, much less explain. "I have to marry or lose everything. If you won't kill me, marry me."
"Great plan. What would keep your uncle from just shooting me a minute after the ceremony?"
"The minute we're married, as my husband, you own the land. If you die, it's mine. The ranch hands will stand with whoever is the rightful owner. Some of them don't agree with the way my uncle has been taking over since my father's been sick, but they're afraid to cross him, knowing he could be their boss soon. If they know the ranch will pass to you, they'd stand with you."
A grin lifted one side of his mouth and she thought he looked almost handsome. "What's to keep you from killing me?"
"I'll make you a deal. Marry me and stay with me until my uncle goes back to his place at that gambling hole he calls his town, and then I'll let you take that wagonload of wedding loot out of here." She hesitated, then added, "But if you don't leave when I tell you to, I will shoot you, myself."
"How long do I have to stay?"
"Not long. A few days. A week at the most. Just until the guests leave," she lied. "My uncle will suspect a trick. I'll need time to make sure I'm protected. But, while you are here, acting like my husband, you'll have to play the role."
"What about my uncles?"
"If I save them from the rope, will you consider my proposal?"
"Why trust me, lady?"
"You're a thief, I'm a liar. Seems a good match." She thought she saw a bit of hurt flash in his eyes as if she'd insulted him.
When he looked back at her, his blue eyes had turned hard as gray, cold steel. "You've got yourself a deal," he said as if she'd just chosen an impossible task. "Get my uncles freed and I'll play your game. I'll marry you and stay here until the ranch passes to me, and then I'll leave it to you."
"Stay here," she whispered as if afraid to hope. "I'll be right back."
Before he could say a word, she rushed to the tiny side door of the chapel with her wedding dress flowing like a huge white cloud behind her. She tapped twice and a priest opened the door. Then she vanished.
Excerpted from Give Me A Texas Outlaw by Jodi Thomas Linda Broday Phyliss Miranda DeWanna Pace Copyright © 2011 by Kensington Publishing Corporation. Excerpted by permission of ZEBRA BOOKS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
ContentsThe Outlaw Jodi Thomas....................1
Trouble in Petticoats Linda Broday....................87
Texas Flame Phyliss Miranda....................173
Most Wanted DeWanna Pace....................291