The oldest and most responsible of the rowdy McKenzie brothers, Bill is in charge of their biggest task of the season. But while wrangling cattle, he crosses paths with a beautiful red-haired woman in a tattered dress in desperate need of help.
Is she as harmless as she is beautiful?
Suspicions arise when the red-haired beauty—who calls herself Sparrow—withholds the story of how she came to be in the woods. All Bill knows is she’s headed for Cricket Bend, where his brother was murdered a year earlier. Though he vowed to steer clear of that dusty town, he can’t let her run straight into bandit country with no protection. First, they have to make it through the cattle drive—and the mysterious woman is going with them.
Women are bad luck on the trail…
Though they’re strangers, the magic of the Wild West brings the pair together with a passion they can’t fight. But when her journal is stolen by Bill’s brother, Andrew, he discovers her true identity—and two scandalous secrets.
One thing Bill learns is the open range is full of possibilities. Neither of them imagined their paths would cross, but once they had, there was no turning back.
Is her tainted past enough to tear them apart? And if not, what will come of their blazing romance when that same past threatens their future?
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“This life—the drives—it ain’t the future. Folks are buying land. Soon there won’t be open land, maybe there won’t even be cattlemen. If I’m being honest, this is likely the last drive we’ll ever do.”
“Cattle travels by trains now, mostly. And folks are switching over to stockier breeds of cows that are easier to raise than longhorns. Things are changing. My mama says it’s progress. There’ll always be ranches, and folks’ll always eat beef, but life sure won’t be like this much longer.”
A hawk swooped overhead, and Bill pointed at it. Sparrow watched the bird fly off into the open sky that stretched on for miles and miles, a blanket of blue as far as the eye could see. He watched her as she took in everything around her, even the stomping cows trailing behind them. Finally, she spoke. “That’ll be a sad day, I suppose. The end of something simple and beautiful.”
“A man’s gotta keep moving.”
“Speaking of moving,” he began. “Where will you go once you’ve caught up to the man you’re seeking? I’m guessing it’s a man. Correct me if I’m wrong.”
“He hurt you?”
“No,” she said. “He stole from from me.”
“What are you going to do?”
“I’m going to get it back.”
“I haven’t quite figured that out yet.”
“What will you do after you get it back?”
“After? I…don’t know, honestly.”
“Between not knowing how you’re going to get back your money, and what you’re going to do after, I have to say your plan might not be too well laid-out.”
“My plan also didn’t involve cattlemen.”
Watching Andrew’s cocky smirk as he dealt a hand, she knew he wasn’t expecting much of her abilities. But she could also tell the moment he cheated. With what he thought was skill, he slipped a card up into the sleeve of his shirt. It was a basic cheat. Emma had pulled it herself and seen it done a hundred times.
Over her shoulder, she knew Appie watched as he cooked. Maybe Andrew needed to be brought down a notch, faced head-on and left in the dust. She intended to do just that, and was happy when Pete arrived to witness the action.
She would take Andrew down, and it would be a show.
The cards she held weren’t bad, though Andrew had obviously cheated with the intention of giving himself better cards. Had she been a less skilled player, he’d have been able to win instantly. It was a good trick. Whoever had taught him how to cheat had been pretty good.
Emma, however, had been taught to cheat by the very best.
Poker face, Emma.
That voice came to her mind once again, spurring her to sit up tall. It was time to be The Sparrow. She adjusted the cards in her hand as she spoke. “You ever planning to play that queen?”
“The one in your sleeve.”
She lay down a pair of jacks and waved a finger absent-mindedly toward his arm. “Saw you tuck it. The left sleeve. Queen of diamonds, I’d wager.”
“What would you wager?”
Emma looked across the table with a flat expression. “More than you’ve got, cowboy.”
Pete whistled, and Andrew glared at him. Emma kept her face unreadable, though she felt like giggling and clapping. Nothing was as much fun as busting a bad cheater. “The card.”
Emma set down her cards. “Am I? Show me what’s in your left sleeve.”
“Show her,” Pete said. “You wouldn’t cheat a lady, would you?”
Andrew reached into his sleeve and pulled out a card. It was, indeed, a queen of diamonds.
“Woo!” Pete exclaimed in triumph. “She schooled you.”
“Shut up,” Andrew grumbled, grabbing his cards back.
“The big shot got called out by a woman. No offense, ma’am.”
“I take no offense at being called a woman. After all, I am one.” Emma watched Andrew try to hide his fury. It didn’t work, and he damn near exploded as he leapt to his feet.
“Will you dance with me?” Hope shone in her lovely eyes.
Accompanied by the soft music, Bill reached out a hand and set it on Emma’s waist. Gently, half afraid she’d startle and run off, he stepped closer. She lay one hand in his waiting palm, the other on his shoulder. They began to move.
They danced simply but well, two people who fit together. For a large cowboy, Bill knew how to lead, and she allowed him to do just that. Thinking of her foot, he lifted her a little, which allowed her to lean her weight on him so as to keep it off her injury. The dance turned into two bodies swaying together. He became vividly aware of how she pressed her whole body to his.
“You dance quite well,” she whispered. “I’ll admit I’m surprised.”
“My mama insisted we boys all learn,” he replied. “Said it was a good way to woo the ladies.”
“And was she right?”
“Why don’t you tell me?”
“Consider me thoroughly wooed.”
Bill took his hand from her waist and let it slide lower to rest on the curve of her hip. Once it was there, he dragged his fingers over the bare skin just below the hem of the shirt. Emma pressed herself tighter against him. Knowing that only a little fabric separated them charged Bill with desire he could barely restrain. He wanted to know her in whatever way he could. Emma brought her arms up and draped them around his neck, urging him closer to her. Bill moved his hands to her waist and took a hard grip of the fabric of the shirt. “Your lips are a little blue,” he said.
“I’m soaked through,” she replied. “I am a bit cold.”
“Someone should warm you up.”
“Someone should. If only there were someone near who was up for the chore.”
“It’d hardly be a chore.” Even if kissing her was a stupid thing to do, it was the only thing in the world that seemed right at that moment, and he was going to do it, and he wasn’t going to stop there unless she told him to. He knew she wouldn’t. Wanting each other wasn’t a crime. The lean majesty of her body trembled against him when he pressed his face into her hair. With his fingers splayed against her lower back, he brought their bodies tighter together.
Lord, what had she done to him in just a few days?
Marie Piper lives in Chicago, but writes Romance and Erotica usually set in the old west. Her short pieces are available in anthologies from LoveSlave, House of Erotica, Coming Together, and Torquere Press, as well as via NineStar Press. The full-length steamy Western trilogy, FIRES OF CRICKET BEND, is being released by Limitless Publishing. (HAVEN'S FLAME, Book #1, is out now. EMMA'S BLAZE, Book #2, comes out on March 15th!) When Marie isn't writing, she's likely out exploring the Windy City, gathering more books for her hoard, or happily drinking coffee and reading. There's also a strong possibility she's wasting time on Twitter.
Haven's Flame (Fire of Cricket's Bend: Book One)
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