Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Excerpt: Untamed Hearts

Untamed Hearts is the second book in the Easton Hearts Series.

Excerpt Copyright 2011. All Rights Reserved.

July 1874
Montana Territory

Roy Easton picked his way toward Ingston, smelling of campfire and trail dust and disappointment. His mind wandered to the banked coals of Anna Mae's passing; even after these dismal weeks the slanderous accusations cut deep as bullwhip lashes.

Six years of protecting Wounded Colt hadn't made a lick of difference. Faster than barbed wire raced across the territory, rumors about the Anna Mae affair had ravaged Roy's fine reputation. His claim of innocence fell on deaf ears in a boomtown-turned-dead-end-canyon. Their passing judgment had run roughshod over his youth, heart, and dreams.

Now he was fenced out -- stripped of his badge. Good deeds he'd done over the years were forgotten -- how he'd restored law and order after Dullen's range war, for example. Tongues had set to wagging, as they were wanton to do when there was a succulent, headline-begging scandal bucking on the breeze.

The grisly incident left a hollow ache in Roy's belly, a raw, dry throat, and a ragged hitch when he inhaled too deeply.

Roy sighed as he reined in at a small rise folding in an easy curve around the eastern edge of the town. Framed by dark shoulder-length hair, his cobalt blue eyes scanned the scene. In the late afternoon haze below, the citizens went about their usual business -- filling wagons out front of the mercantile, visiting the barber, and drifting into the saloon to toss back the local heat.

Roy stood in the saddle and squinted. The prey he hunted wasn't visible; he'd lost the trail a mile back. Those vermin wouldn't be fool enough to tangle directly with his iron. He'd catch up with that fuss soon enough. After all, he had all the time in the world.

Roy's gaze drew in a smooth arc and held steady on a pair of men ambling alongside a woman -- a slight, will 'o the wisp beauty who toted a riot of blazing red hair pinned haphazardly atop her head. Curiosity kicked, and he watched as the trio loaded supplies onto a string of packhorses. The young woman's graceful movements, and the fancy riding clothes draping her figure, gave her the appearance of a swan tucked into a nest of crows. Roy chuckled to himself, and abruptly he stopped; he'd ridden a good two months and hadn't heard his own laughter, and just now he didn't like the sound.

He forced himself to quit admiring the woman and returned to think on practical matters. Roy needed to scare up supplies. He figured he'd slip in and out of the town, invisible as a drag rider -- the one behind the herd that nobody takes notice of, because they're riding up ahead, driving the herd and sucking down all the clean air.

His outlaw grin angled toward the sky, Roy leaned back in the saddle and tugged his hat brim lower. Digging his heels tightly into the flanks of Pilot, his dark stallion, he exhaled. His eyes were fixed sternly on the trail ahead as he galloped down the hill.

Men on the main street recognized Roy; a man didn't serve as sheriff for six years in Montana territory without being well known, or even a legend. Cool and watchful, the locals nodded or averted their eyes. Roy kept a healthy distance; he'd fielded enough reckless remarks to last from here to six-feet-under.

Just as he eased by the livery a leathery voice barked.

"Easton! I got business with ya'!"

Damnation. Roy groaned. It was Jeb McLeod, and the old codger was soaped into a hefty lather. Roy conjured a mock-friendly grin and edged closer to the stable entrance. As he ambled he stretched to his full height, an act that slid his new gun belt -- with its twin Colts -- down to ride low on lean hips. As he regarded McLeod's crusty visage he nursed a slim hope that Jeb's shouting would ease a notch, so as not to telegraph their business to the whole blasted town.

"Something eatin' at you, Jeb?" Roy's drawl wavered.

"Easton, there ain't no fool willin' to buy yer darn mules! Ya' owe me their board for pert near two months!" The liveryman's deep eyes burned like two devils riding over a gray-salted beard.

Roy hesitated. He widened his stance; all was quiet except for the sound of his spurs clanking against the gravel. He yanked his hat from his head and slapped it against a hard buckskinned thigh. Trail dirt flew six feet in every direction, and McLeod wheezed. When the air cleared, Roy twisted his mouth into a disarming smile that flashed fine white teeth.

"McLeod," he angled, "folks say you're the best mule trader this side of the big river. I say those are fine animals."

Jeb scowled. "Yer four-footers are eatin' up my hay!"

Roy winced. In a last-ditch attempt to move the liveryman's booming voice off the street he strode past the man, and into the dank stable.

As Roy swept past the cross buck doors he scratched the five-day growth itching his face. His eyes adjusted to the dim light, and he cast a lazy glance at his mules -- four sturdy johns and three mollies. Instantly they knew their master and eagerly twitched their long ears. Their noisy brays filled the large airy space, a painful reminder of why he'd given the cumbersome burden over to Jeb the previous month with the promise of a large commission -- if the liveryman could unload them onto an unsuspecting greenhorn.

"Heck, these mules can do anything," Roy opined as he wiped sweat from his brow with his bandanna. If they want to, he added in silent afterthought.

Jeb's reply was a loud grunt and a disbelieving shake of his grizzled head.

Roy sliced a hand through the musty stable air.

"Just look at Sunday. Why, she's got a good mouth, if you don't look too deep. She's the prettiest molly a man's ever laid eyes on. And a lady can't resist Monday with her big brown eyes! But heck, she's not just some frilly bit of frippery! No sirreeee! She'll pick up all four feet . . . once she trusts a fellow."

Roy's shining eyes flickered down and collided with McLeod's hot glare. He hadn't figured on locking horns with this man. Roy swallowed hard and thrashed on.

"Tuesday follows Monday just like a calf follows it's cow-mama, and Wednesday over there—"

"Whoa!" Jeb snarled, annoyed as a man dragged to church by his wife and then forced to endure the rantings of a long-winded preacher while his chores piled up back at the homestead.

"Git those mules outta my place, Easton! Pay yer bill, an' haul yer freight." McLeod's half-toothed don't-mess-with-me scowl drove his point home.

Roy slumped his shoulders forward, and he thrust his hands deep into his pockets. So that was the way of it. Plain as paint peeling on a post, folks didn't want Roy Easton or his stock littering their town.

He heaved a sigh. "OK, I'll settle up. But I need to add a reserve mare in the deal."

McLeod spat and waved a hand.

The transaction complete, Roy tugged his hat back on his head.

He swiftly harnessed his mules. Deftly he guided his traveling circus back out into the fading light, where the mule string cast long forlorn shadows down the main street.

Roy halted his string and moved up and down the line, smoothly stroking each mule with ranch-rough hands. He checked hooves for stones, and then he swung up onto Pilot and leaned forward to pat his loyal companion's shining neck.

"Just you, me, and the critters now," he muttered.

Roy yanked his hat lower, and, despite the lack of wind and dust, he pulled his bandanna up to ride an inch below his eyes.

He tiptoed his parade past the Ingston newspaper office. He bet that Hugo Dorwart, owner of that pungent press, would be occupied deep in the back of the shop, diligently penning his latest attack piece.

An uneasiness rose in Roy's chest as he stole past the shop. This would be a hell of a time to run afoul of the damned town crier. Theirs was a war of words, fierce as any gunfight, just lacking the finality of a high noon shoot out.

Roy continued on, and wandering by the mercantile, he caught a glimpse of the two dusty drifters he'd sized up to be the red-head's companions. They stood at ease as they leaned against the hitching rail and rolled cigarettes. Meanwhile their animals slurped at the public trough.

Not ten feet further he spied the young woman as she lithely stepped from between two packhorses. Roy's indigo eyes slanted her direction. His gaze gained in intensity as her slender-but-womanly form leaned over the wooden crib. Absent his sister-in-law, he figured this lady was easily the finest-looking woman for five hundred miles. He fixed his stare to see if his hunch would play out.

As he closed the gap he noted full breasts straining against her blouse, and the hint of thick bright hair coyly peeking from under a dark, broad-brimmed hat. The soft tendrils boldly mutinied, daring to drop and lightly caress her shoulders when she tilted over the water. Roy smiled as he watched slim white fingers chase after those unruly locks and herd them back into the hiding place. Then the lovely woman swung her arms forward, cupped her small hands gracefully and dipped into the cool liquid.

Roy sucked wind in so fast it struck like lightning against the back of his throat, and his bandanna captured a thunderous groan as he exhaled. His tongue felt numb, and his mind was blank as a brand-new slate. He frantically tried to push away the thought of how it could be if he had no soiled past, and no shaky future; and as he watched the woman close her eyes and bring those small hands to her face he saw only the wonder of nature, the comfort of perfect harmony, and the pleasure to be taken from admiring astonishing beauty. She uncoiled those slender fingers as a dove softly unfolds wings. The softness splayed flat, splashing and briskly rubbing cool refreshment over velvety cheeks. He watched as her fingertips dragged down the delicate curve of smooth neck, to the hollow of her throat, seeking the shadowed places where droplets lingered. The beautiful woman smiled brightly at the simple ablution.

Roy dropped Pilot's reins and shoved a rough shaking hand through thick, dark hair. Carelessly he waved his arm in a broad circle. He needed to dismiss her as a soft, simpleminded, and, no doubt, useless woman.

But just then the sepia sun lowered a notch, angling dusky gold rays off the water that reflected obliquely, and they revealed almond-shaped spring-green eyes, windows into a woman wholly formed. Those eyes merrily danced with undeniable humor and intelligence.

Damn, he silently cursed.

She thrust her strong chin forward. Her hands floated down like two leaves gently falling, and they innocently smoothed over her tan blouse.

To Roy's hungry eyes it was seductive as hell. He swallowed; his throat was cotton-dry. A light breeze coiled and snaked against clammy skin, and he began to feel a tingle creeping up his spine.

She reached up again, and, without fair warning, boldly removed the hat. A thick raging fall of fire fell to her waist.

Roy was suddenly hard as a brick. "My God," he muttered under his breath.

She seemed to sense his stare, and turning unexpectedly, looked in his direction.

Had his expression not been buried under his hat and bandanna, she'd have seen Roy's unabashed gawking, taking in every curve and angle.

A new rawness galloped through his head, and he couldn't corral it. Intriguing women -- the sort that rode keen thoughts into a man's imagination -- didn't pass through these parts every day. Heck, one didn't pass through every year. Impulsively he committed her to memory, to be safely tucked away and roped again at the end of the day, when he relaxed on his bedroll next to a warm fire.

But, just as his mind was etching the texture of those brilliant tresses, Tuesday hacked out a "haw-haw". The other mules immediately joined in, and Roy's reverie was instantly buried in a raucous braying avalanche.

"Ugh." Reluctantly he dismounted, planting his feet firmly back on hardpan reality. He adjusted his gunbelt and strode toward the mercantile.

Time to get a move on. Daydreams about fancy women were a pleasant distraction, but it was as close as he'd get to this one, he reminded himself. He sighed and booted the store door open.

Roy knew anger wouldn't solve his problems. Thanks to the scandal in Wounded Colt, the sun had set on Sheriff Roy Easton. Move on. He'd live alone and die alone.

Still, a part of him was driven by a lust for redemption, for a territory's forgiveness of a sin he didn't commit. Somehow, beneath the pain, desire burned. He needed a last chance at reconciliation with the town that had served as judge, jury, and executioner when they found him guilty and imposed this sentence of exile.


Untamed Hearts is available on Kindle for $2.99.

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