To Leah Morgan's mind, the last thing her hometown of Defiance needs is another gunman stalking its dusty streets-especially one as sweet-talking and fine-looking as Jace Gage. Despite her warnings, the infuriating man seems determined to meddle in her life and risk his own, all for a town that can't be saved and a heart she locked away long ago.
Professional bounty hunter Jace Gage has cleaned up plenty of corrupt towns in his lifetime, and he knows he can handle whatever Defiance's thugs have to offer. But the town's most lawful citizen is another story. Beautiful, willful and exasperating at every turn, Leah is the one person capable of bringing the ruthless gunslinger to his knees-and capturing his desire with a single kiss. . .
"A beautiful romance. . .keeps the reader hooked from the first page to the last." -New York Times Bestselling Author Catherine Anderson
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LEAH and the BOUNTY HUNTERMen of Defiance
By ELAINE LEVINE
ZEBRA BOOKSCopyright © 2011 Elaine Levine
All right reserved.
Chapter OneDakota Territory, June 1868
Jace Gage rode slowly down the main street in Defiance, the leather of his saddle loud in the quiet stillness of pre-dawn. Expecting a sharpshooter, he scanned the street, roof tops, and alleys. No shadows moved furtively. No sentries kept watch. His absence over the last few weeks had lulled the sheriff's men into complacency. Maybe ghosts were all that remained in Defiance.
The morning wind whistled around the empty buildings, disturbing the tumbleweed skeletons piled here and there. A couple of saloons were boarded up. A billboard sign hung askew over a bank's gaping front entrance. Several businesses had broken windows or missing doors. The few houses he could see fared no better; their weathered, wooden siding looked dingy in the faint morning light. A sway-backed porch on one house leaned over a collapsing stoop, its intricate fretwork forgotten.
He didn't like the feel of this town. He didn't like the looks of it, or the smell of it, or the sound of it either. Even Mother Nature wanted to forget this place, wipe it off the face of the Earth like the infected rat's nest that it was.
And Jace was happy to oblige.
He had two thousand dollars in his pocket for riding into town. The U.S. marshal in Cheyenne had a like sum waiting for him once Sheriff Kemp and his cohorts were gone.
Dead or gone, to be exact.
A commotion broke into his thoughts as he approached the general store. Two men and a boy were scuffling. A black timber wolf crouched nearby, a massive, growling shadow braced to join the fray. Jace dismounted and tied his horse to the hitching post. The men laughed low in their throats, their attention focused on the boy they shoved back and forth between them. The sexual overtones in the play turned Jace's stomach. The boy, trying to get away, pleaded with them. He had to be young—his voice hadn't changed yet.
Jace pushed the edges of his jacket back behind his holsters and flexed his hands beside his Colts. He'd never cleared a place as foul as this, where the outlaws had turned to the town's boys for their pleasure. He'd enjoy killing these two.
The sun crested the horizon just then, washing everything in its brilliant pink glow. As if sensing their time for play was ending, one of the men ripped the boy's shirt and vest open, revealing the sweetest pair of tits Jace had seen in a month of Sundays.
Maybe a whole year of Sundays.
And then all hell broke loose. The kid shouted for the wolf to attack. Instantly complying, the beast jumped at one of the men, clamping his powerful jaws down on a meaty forearm, yanking and twisting as if to separate limb from man.
Taking advantage of the second man's shock, the girl dug her fingers into the notch at the base of his throat and used it as a handle to yank him to his knees. Before he'd even hit the ground, she'd palmed her knife and pressed it to the soft flesh beneath one of his eyes.
"Take a long look, mister, 'cause it's the last thing you're gonna see," the girl warned softly.
The hairs rose on Jace's neck at the sweet sound of her voice, the harmony of it jarringly discordant with her actions. Whether his response was in warning or desire, he couldn't distinguish. She was fierce, lethal even. And she made no attempt to hide what she was—a killer.
"While you're on your knees, friend," Jace spoke up, "best ask the kid's forgiveness." The man's gaze shot to Jace, though he didn't move his head. The girl showed no reaction to his presence. "You see, this is my town now, and we don't treat women-or kids—like that here."
"Goddamn, Johnny! Listen to his voice! That's the Avenger!" the second man hissed. He was on his back, his bloodied arms thrown up to protect his face. The wolf's powerful jaws hovered near his neck, long fangs bared in warning as he awaited a single word from the girl.
Johnny swallowed hard. Careful of the knife, he glanced up at his captor. "Our apologies, Miss Morgan. Don't know what came over us."
Miss Morgan? Jace cursed and gave the girl another look, watching while she considered her next move. After a tense few seconds, she released the man's hair and sheathed her knife.
"Wolf! Come!" she called the black beast to her side. He lowered his jowls over his teeth with a cough, giving his victim a last, one-eyed glare before trotting over to sit at her heels. The two men scrambled to their feet, eyeing Jace warily before scurrying away.
Leah finally felt her heart hammering against her ribs, in her throat, in her ears. She'd been afraid the third gunfighter had come to join the other two and had no choice but to make a move to keep them all at bay. Until that moment, she'd tried to keep the scuffle quiet, worried that Jim, the shopkeeper, would come out of the store to defend her.
She was shocked to discover the third man was the famed "Avenger."
The gunfighter walked toward her, his spurs making a chink-chinking sound with each step of his long stride. He was fortified like a one-man army with a rifle over one shoulder, two bandoliers loaded with rifle cartridges crossing his chest over his loose jacket. A gunbelt was strung across his hips with twin Colts strapped to his thighs. A Bowie knife the length of her forearm hung next to the buckle of his gunbelt. Her eyes traveled the long distance down his thighs to the boots that came almost to his knees. She wondered what other weapons he held concealed within them.
Folding her arms to close her shirt as best she could—and to hide her shaking—she studied his hardened visage—and disliked what she saw. A few days' growth of beard covered his square jaw. His lips were hard slashes between lines that bracketed his mouth. High cheekbones made hollows above his jaw. His eyes were by far the worst of his features. As blue as chicory flowers, they were windows into the blackest soul Leah had ever seen.
She remembered the rumor that this man had survived a hanging. Unable to curb her curiosity, she let her eyes dip to his Adam's apple and the scar that circled what she could see of his neck. He hadn't even attempted to hide the livid white twists burned into his skin. A frisson of warning rippled through her.
What kind of man could survive a hanging? She met his gaze again. His blue eyes held hers before sweeping over her hair and down the column of skin that her ripped clothing exposed, examining her as she had him. Her breathing quickened, but she resisted the urge to pull the torn edges of her shirt and camisole closer together. She did not back away.
He arched a brow at her. She lifted her chin. Wolf began growling.
"Nice pet, kid," he said in that desert-parched voice of his that made her thirst for an endless drink of water. He moved around her and headed to the steps leading up to the boardwalk in front of the store.
For two weeks, she'd hidden in her house, frightened of the monster the Avenger was rumored to be. It was said he had more kills than Cullen Baker, that no man could outdraw him. And his skill with a knife was legendary. The sheriff's men had bandied stories about town of the Avenger throwing a knife with such swift accuracy that he buried it deep in his opponent before the other could even cock his gun. Seeing him now, she felt foolish for her fear; he was just another gunfighter, like all of those in town.
Yet even as she thought it, she knew it was a lie. He was unlike any who had come for the sheriff. Jace Gage was a man who had already cheated death once. Perhaps he could do it again. Perhaps he would succeed here.
"Some avenger you are," she challenged him with a bravado she didn't entirely feel. "You might have stepped in sooner."
"Didn't look like you needed help," he rasped without breaking stride or looking back. Outside the entrance to the general store, he did pause and sent her a look over his shoulder. "A word of advice, kid. The next time you draw a knife on a man, you'd best use it. A dead enemy's a whole lot less trouble than a living one."
"I have no enemies in this town, mister."
The man nodded, contemplating her words. His eyes narrowed as he looked from her to the two men running for the sheriff's office. He let his gaze swing back her way as he answered, "I'm guessin' you do now." He entered the store.
Leah drew a long, calming breath. Wolf stopped growling, but a lip was still snaggled up over one of his fangs. He watched her patiently through one golden eye and the milky one long ago ruined by an angry porcupine. He was a sorry sight, she had to admit. He'd been losing his winter coat for a month, and now the tufts of downy gray underfur pushing free of his black hair made him look like a half sheared lamb. She adjusted her clothes to cover their torn state as best she could, and then went inside Jim's store.
Everyone was standing around stiffly, staring at each other. "Leah, come with me," Sally, the shopkeeper's wife, ordered with a wave from the storeroom. Sally always hid there when trouble came to the store. Leah ignored the invitation. She was done hiding.
Jim broke the silence. "Good day, stranger. What brings you to Defiance?"
"I have business with the sheriff," the Avenger answered in his gravelly voice.
"You a friend of his?" Jim asked.
"I don't count outlaws among my friends. I've come to take Kemp to Cheyenne."
"You with the law?"
"You the one they call the 'Avenger'?" Jim asked.
The Avenger winced and shook his head. "I'm just a man trying to earn his keep. Name's Jace Gage."
"I'm Jim Kessler, and this is my wife, Sally. Seems you met Leah Morgan already."
Gage tipped his hat to Sally but completely ignored Leah. "Is there a hotel or a room still to be had in this town?" he asked Jim.
"Maddie, down the street, runs a boardinghouse. Leah's heading that way. She can show you."
"Jim! No!" Sally complained in a whisper loud enough for all to hear.
"He ain't gonna hurt her, Sal. Besides, between Wolf and her knife, she can take care of herself," he said meaningfully.
Leah shot a glare at the Avenger, then headed for the door. He could follow or not; it was up to him. Wolf fell into step with her as she walked down the boardwalk and into the street. A bend in the road, then two short blocks separated Jim's from Maddie's. Leah lived across the street from Maddie, so Jim had been right—she was headed that way. She hadn't gone far when she heard the jingle of Gage's spurs as he caught up to her. She didn't slow her stride. He drew even with her, leading his horse. Wolf moved to walk between him and Leah.
"Friendly critter, aren't you?" he said.
Struck by his rudeness, Leah stopped to gape at him. She set her hands on her hips. Too late she remembered her torn clothes. She quickly gripped the ragged edges and gave a little huff of air before answering him. "No one invited you to this town, mister. In fact, Defiance needs another gunfighter like a hole in the head. You've got no call to be rude."
A grin whispered across his hard mouth. "I was talking about your wolf. He's very protective of you."
Leah blushed, something she'd done about as many times as she could count on the fingers of one hand. She had grown up in Defiance with four-fifths of its population male. There was little men could say or do that shocked her, but for some reason, this stranger got her all riled up.
As if he was aware of her confusion, his smile deepened. Leah resumed walking in stony silence, turning down Maddie's drive a few minutes later. It led around the boardinghouse to a small stable and carriage house. Right past the main building, she caught sight of a movement over by the stable. She stopped abruptly and dragged the Avenger back against the house—no small feat in itself, for he was much larger than she was.
"Wait! Don't move!" she hissed, caring little that he landed with his back against the house or that she now stood with one of his legs wedged between hers. She pressed a hand on his chest to hold him in place as she peeked around the corner.
"You got a shortage of men in this town, kid? Or do you wrangle all the newcomers this way?"
His words made Leah aware of several things—how tall he was, how close to him she was standing, and exactly where his leg was. His glance razed the pale skin of her chest. Her cheeks heated up again. She hastily took a step away from him and crossed her arms over her torn clothes. "I saw someone near the stable. You can't go over there. They'll kill you."
"They're likely to kill you, too, if you stay so near me. I think I can manage to get a room without your help."
"You know, I should let them blow your fool head off. You can't win against the sheriff and his gang. There's too many of them. Others have tried, and not a one of them left with the bounty he came for, if he was lucky enough to leave."
She looked up at the Avenger's granite face and crystalline blue eyes. "You should leave town, Mr. Gage, 'cause you're as good as dead if you don't." She slipped the reins of his horse from him and moved as if to head toward the stable.
"Whoa, what do you think you're doing?" He pulled her back. Wolf stepped on his boot, his one good eye glaring up at the man.
Leah frowned as she pushed against him. "I'm gonna buy you five more minutes of living by putting your horse up for you."
"No, you're not," he said with a lopsided grin. "You've come far enough. Just run along now. I'll take it from here." He eased the reins from her.
Leah peered into his eyes, studying him even as he watched her. He was so alive now, and he wasn't very old, late-twenties to mid-thirties, she guessed. It would be a shame to see him killed. But she'd learned how easily death came to anyone, in this town especially.
"Well, good luck to you, then." She moved away, walking backwards so she could give him one last warning. "If you're partial to being buried, I suggest you leave some money with Maddie to buy you a pine box and a hole in the cemetery. Otherwise, they'll dump your body a ways out of town for the scavengers to pick clean." She pivoted and walked down the drive, toward the street. She didn't look back—there was no point—they'd be burying him in the morning.
She wondered which of the sheriff's men would get his horse.
Chapter TwoJace watched the hoyden cross the street and disappear into the shanty opposite Maddie's, one of several on that side of the road. His mind kept flashing images of her big blue eyes and dark sable hair. Hell and damnation. It would be his luck that she was the one he was supposed to keep safe.
Maybe she would do what most decent folks did when he cleared a town; hide in her home until he was done with what he came to do. Somehow, he doubted he would be so fortunate.
Leaving his horse in the drive, he went to Maddie's front door and knocked. No response. He knocked again. No response. He sighed and turned around to look at Leah Morgan's house. Her black wolf was lying across the threshold of the front door, still watching him with his one good eye. She and her mangy beast were a matched pair, he thought as he faced the closed front door of the boardinghouse.
He couldn't very well break the door down. If Maddie wouldn't let him in, he'd make camp outside town, at the river—which was what he'd decided to do when the door opened. A slightly plump woman with graying brown hair glared at him. Her crisp white apron reflected the bright morning sun, making him squint.
"Hello, ma'am," Jace said, sliding his hat off the back of his head to let it hang by its thong. "I was hoping you might have a room I can rent for a few weeks?"
The woman looked him up and down, her lips pressed in a thin line, her gaze snagging on every piece of his personal armament. "I've got a room," she said with a nod, then stood back and let him enter.
Daylight from the windows at the front of the house lit the entranceway, brightening the beige and rose wallpaper. Salmon-colored velvet drapes separated two rooms from the foyer and hallway. The scent of beeswax was strong in the air, and the wood floor gleamed from a recent scrubbing. A wear path in the middle of the hallway was lighter and slightly indented from the outer edges. Maddie's boardinghouse saw plenty of traffic. He followed the path to a desk in one of the front rooms where the woman opened a ledger and inked a pen.
Excerpted from LEAH and the BOUNTY HUNTER by ELAINE LEVINE Copyright © 2011 by Elaine Levine. 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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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Leah and the Bounty Hunter By Elaine Levine Copyright August 2011 Publisher Zebra Historical Romance To Leah Morgan's mind, the last thing her hometown of Defiance needs is another gunman stalking its dusty streets-especially one as sweet-talking and fine-looking as Jace Gage. Despite her warnings, the infuriating man seems determined to meddle in her life and risk his own, all for a town that can't be saved and a heart she locked away long ago. Professional bounty hunter Jace Gage has cleaned up plenty of corrupt towns in his lifetime, and he knows he can handle whatever Defiance's thugs have to offer. But the town's most lawful citizen is another story. Beautiful, willful and exasperating at every turn, Leah is the one person capable of bringing the ruthless gunslinger to his knees-and capturing his desire with a single kiss. Jace and Leah are thrown together during one of his jobs. He is being paid by the U.S. Marshal's office to capture or take out the Sheriff of Defiance. After of course he finds out where the sheriff is hiding the gold he's stolen from the various shipments passing through his area. Jace is riding leisurely into town when he sees what appears to be a young man being attacked by two ruffians. Not one to normally get involved he continues watching the scene play out. When the young person's shirt is ripped open Jace realizes that this is in fact a girl or young woman and decides to step in. As he approaches he sees the young woman knee one attacker while ordering her wolf (yes, I said wolf) to attack the other guy. This was Jace's introduction to Leah Morgan, who is another reason he's in town. He's been tasked by some friends to protect her while he's there. I've never been a fan or a reader of Historical Romance, not even Western ones. This book took me totally by surprise. It's local, the time frame, and the cast of characters brought me back to the TV westerns and Western movies I watched back in the 1950's. Very nicely done. FTC Full Disclosure: I received this book from the publishers, who only asked for a fair review.
This was my favorite out of the series by Elaine Levine because the story really pulled at my heartstrings. I think it really helped that we were introduced to Leah & Jace early on. Especially with Jace's emotional scene in Audrey & the Maverick. This is definitely worth a second read on my part!
I am a person who likes stories about the west and this is a good one and she is a very good author. I am looking forward of reading some more of her books.
This novel, a series titled Men of Defiance, is one that will suck you in and not let go of you until the end! Although I've not read the other two novels, I'm totally in love with Levine! I fell in love with Leah and Jace right from the start! Leah Morgan has led a difficult life in Defiance! She has witnessed on numerous occasions episodes of terrible acts upon her mother, leaving her scared and as skittish as a jackrabbit! The sheriff of Defiance and his group of followers are downright evil and think they own the town. Yet, bad boy bounty hunter Jace Gage arrives and is on a mission -- to clean up Defiance. As the reader, you can see the storm brewing between Leah and Jace from page one when Jace rides into town. Jace automatically feels overprotective instincts for Leah, who could care less. Leah has been doing fine on her own and feels she doesn't need a man, a gun fighter, to help her in any sort of manner. Yet, slowly, the two fall in love with each other, but don't want to admit it to the other or themselves. The climax of the story transpires when Jace finally cleans up Defiance, arresting the sheriff and his gang. Leah discovers secrets that have been hidden from her by the entire town. She feels threatens and takes off for the mountains for weeks on end. Jace is heartbroken, wondering if the woman he knows he is to spend the rest of his life with will ever return. As the reader, I was able to sympathize with Jace, wanting Leah to return, so that they could have that happily ever after they both deserved. Levine does an awesome job pulling the reader into the story. You feel the sympathy she wants you to experience towards Leah and Jace, the town and its people. You can visualize the town 140+ years ago, living sparsely just like Leah and the rest of the town. The creative juice that Levine has is amazing. I'm typically not a historic romance reader, but Levine has done an awesome job here.
Three years ago, Jace Gage's wife had him hung. He survived his demise and since the near death experience, the Civil War veteran has become a ruthless Avenger; a bounty hunter with no mercy. In 1868 desperate to clean up lawless Defiance, Dakota Territory whose worst thug is Sheriff Bill Kemp, the Cheyenne U.S. Marshal hires Jace. He enters Defiance defiant, as he no longer fears death and is unconcerned with collateral damage. However, the man assumed to have no heart hits a soul searching roadblock when he saves Leah Morgan and her "nice pet" from an assault by one of Kemp's contemptible deputies. He orders her to stay out of harm's way but she refuses, which means he must keep safe the woman who stole his heart. The latest trip to post Civil War Defiance is a wonderful tale of second chances starring a famous aloof Avenger and a tough foolish heroine. The lead characters and their relationship is similar in tone to that of the previous titled protagonists (in Rachel and the Hired Gun, and Audrey and the Maverick), but bring different baggage that keeps the "Town without Pity" (Gene Pitney) fresh. Harriet Klausner