A kidnapped young woman. An injured cowboy. Two long-feuding families. Do they dare to give love a chance?
Aurora would rather spend her time in a library than her parents’ poker house. Being a shy and introvert person, sometimes she wishes she would be just like her mother.
Holt would rather let people think that he is hotheaded and a ladies’ man instead of knowing the truth. Being hurt and heartbroken is not something that he would like to be repeated in the future.
Being the heirs of the two major poker houses in Texas, Aurora and Holt grew up hating each other. Or so they say…
But as they both get kidnapped by a common enemy, it feels like serendipity happened so that they get to know each other. As much as they refuse to accept what is meant to be, their love grows strong.
Now, Holt will do anything to protect the love of his life. Aurora will do everything in her power to keep him safe. Is their parents attempt to reconcile the answer to their troubles or is their love destined to lose?
“Another round!” a loud voice yelled from the middle of the room. Due to the crowd packed around the table, Aurora could not see who the voice belonged to, but the sound warmed her heart.
Her pa said that sound meant customers were happy, and happy customers made for happy Haneys.
At thirteen, Aurora understood that one day the poker house would belong to her, but she did not necessarily understand why that meant she needed to be seen as often as her parents insisted.
“Excuse me, miss!” a voice bellowed.
Aurora turned and gasped quietly. A handsome man stood before her, dressed in leather and linen that did nothing to hide the outline of his hard muscles.
“Can I help you, sir?” she asked shyly. Her cheeks reddened as he turned a brilliant smile on her. This man was certainly not from Burkedale; she would have remembered him from the town.
“I was looking for the Haney family,” he said, brushing a strand of his copper hair from his face. Aurora’s eyes followed the motion of his hands. Her heart fluttered as she imagined them brushing her hair from her cheek.
“My parents are in the back room,” she told him. It was one of the few times that they weren’t out on the floor making the rounds, but they were meeting with some new folks about potential business. Aurora wanted to be with them, but for the first time that evening, she was not upset at them for leaving her to her own devices.
“Ah,” the handsome young man said. “You must be Aurora Haney.” He stuck his hand out towards her. Placing her small, delicate hand in his much larger one made her heart thump. She hoped he could not feel the thrum of her pulse through her skin as they shook in greeting. “Nice to meet you.”
“My apologies, sir, but I’m not sure who you are,” she told him. Everyone who frequented the Lucky Dogie poker house knew of the Haney’s young daughter, but this stranger was no regular.
“The apologies are all mine,” he said. “I’m Holt Ewing. I believe my parents are who yours are meeting this evening. Unfortunately, I had some trouble hitching up my horse and missed the meeting.”
Aurora smiled. He’d come closer to her in an effort to be heard over the loud voices of the patrons. The man who’d called for another round was causing quite a ruckus in the center of the room. Aurora prayed a fight wouldn’t break out once more cider started to flow. She was no good at talking down hot heads.
“I’m happy to take you back to meet with them if you’d like,” she said demurely.
Holt smiled and Aurora felt her heart skip a beat. His scent of cinnamon mixed with sweat and leather invaded her nostrils. Holt Ewing smelled the way Aurora had imagined a real man to smell.
“How ‘bout you take me to the bar instead?”
“Certainly,” she told him. “Would you like a cider?” Her parents had taught her how to be the perfect hostess long ago, and the first step was to offer your guest a drink.
Holt Ewing leaned against the bar, his muscular form folding itself across the polished wood. His eyes, the color of olives, followed Aurora’s every move. “Do you often work here?” he asked.
Aurora nodded, handed him his cider, and moved away from behind the bar. Picking up her long skirts, she took a seat next to Holt. “I do,” she said, her voice prideful. Her cousins out East never worked. The girls were being groomed to marry and settle. One barely knew how to read. But Aurora would one day inherit her family’s business, and that meant learning how to keep it successful.
“Little young, aren’t you?” he said.
“I’m thirteen,” she said, her voice biting. Her arms crossed over her bosom. “Already a woman and certainly more than able to work.”
Holt took a long drag from his cider. His eyes narrowed in contemplation. They scanned her up and down, and she felt as if he were trying to deduce something about her that she did not yet know herself.
Before Aurora could defend herself, the sound of loud shouting came from the middle of the room. The gentleman who’d been winning big at faro appeared to be a big ol’ cheater, and the patrons of The Lucky Dogie didn’t tolerate cheating. Neither did Aurora’s father.
Wanting to show Holt Ewing just how in control she could be, Aurora jumped from her seat and stormed into the fray, hardly giving herself a moment to think.
“Whatdda we have here?” she questioned, hands on her hips and chin thrust out.
The oily old man shrugged off the table workers before stomping towards her. “You best mind your business, little lady,” he said.
He was drunk. Aurora could smell the booze coming off him. Drunk meant dangerous, and she knew getting him out of the house quickly was paramount if she did not wish her parents to come back to a trashed business.
This is my chance to prove I’m more than just some little girl, she thought. She wanted Holt Ewing to see her as a fierce and powerful woman, just like her father saw her mother.
“You best leave this establishment of your own accord before I have you thrown on your behind into the street.”
The drunkard smiled. His blackened teeth turned Aurora’s stomach. “Walk away, lil’ lady,” he said. “All the men in this bar won’t be able to help you should you end up on my bad side.”
His words chilled Aurora to the bone. No matter how drunk the patrons became, they never threatened her.
“The lady asked you to leave,” Holt Ewing said. His voice was hard and even, and it sent a shiver down her spine for an entirely different reason.
For a moment, Aurora worried that a round of fisticuffs was going to break out as the oily man took a step towards her. She stood her ground, her back stiff even as her heart thumped against her ribcage.
“The cider here tastes like piss,” the man spat out before walking towards the door. At his exit, everyone released a sigh of relief, and the energy of the room returned to one of jovial merriment.
“I appreciate your assistance, Mr. Holt, but I assure you I had the situation well in hand,” she told him haughtily.
“I’ll give you this, Miss Aurora, you’re one of the bravest little lassies I’ve ever met,” Holt told her. “I’ll take my leave of you this evening, since you seem to have things well in hand.” With a tip of his head, he made his way out behind the troublemaker, and Aurora stormed off.
Upon his exit, Aurora felt like she could finally breathe again. Little did she know, she’d never truly be able to breathe around Holt Ewing. He’d always be the man who took her breath away.
Aurora’s head snapped up and she saw a man leaning over the bar, leering at her. His cheeks were red and shiny with drink, but his mouth was twisted into a friendly smile, revealing yellowed teeth.
“Can I trouble you for another glass of cider?” He held up an empty glass in the air and gave it a swing. “I seem to be all out, what a darn shame.”
Aurora nodded. “Of course,” she replied. She took the glass from the man—it was smudged and sticky with his fingerprints and the sugar from the cider—and set it behind the bar. Filling a fresh glass with cider, she set it down on the bar in front of him.
“I’ll pay up at the end of the night,” he said with another friendly grin. “Don’t you worry that head about it, just put it on my tab.”
Aurora nodded. She felt like her own smile was frozen into place, and she was relieved when the man took the cider and disappeared into the throng of patrons.
It was a busy Saturday night at The Lucky Dogie—the grandiose poker house was bursting at the seams. It was packed with patrons, men and women and dancing girls, and the atmosphere was both chaotic and frenzied as the smell of tobacco, apple jack, whiskey, and sweat filled the air.
To Aurora Haney, it was just like being at home. She stood behind the bar, elbows resting on the counter, toe tapping along with the reel, and watched as her parents, Glenn and Rose Haney, twirled and mingled among the patrons. For the past seven years, ever since she had been nothing but a girl of twelve, Aurora had maintained the same post each Saturday night—and most weeknights, as well. Back then, the patrons had thought her precious. What a cute little calico, some of the cowboys had teased her. You’re barely knee-high to a fence post, you think you can beat me at faro?
But now, at nineteen years old, Aurora was just as much a part of The Lucky Dogie as the polished brass fixtures, the shiny wood of the bannister that led upstairs, and the tobacco spittoons carefully placed (and emptied each morning, usually by Aurora herself) in each corner of the gambling house. Now, Burkedale—and by extension, The Lucky Dogie—was home.
As busy as the evening was, Aurora was relieved that she wasn’t being called upon more to serve drinks. Despite having years of experience in her parents’ gambling house, she wasn’t entirely comfortable there. She always felt more at home in the back of The Lucky Dogie, going over the books and financials, than she did in the front. Every time a man asked her for whiskey, every time a dancing girl joked about teaching Aurora how to make even more money from the cowboys and roughnecks, she felt almost as if they were making fun of her. She was of average height, with shoulders a little broader than contemporary fashions called for, and her curvy figure wasn’t always easy to dress. Despite soaking her skin in buttermilk and lemon and every other rumored concoction known to man, she could never get rid of the freckles that spread across her heart-shaped face and button nose. Her wide-set chestnut brown eyes telegraphed introversion, and despite the use of pomade and oil, she could never quite get her curly, strawberry-blonde hair to behave.
Still, Aurora knew she should be grateful. When she and her parents had moved to Burkedale, it had been but a small cattle town. Now, The Lucky Dogie was thriving. Aurora’s parents were one of the wealthiest families in town, treated with respect by everyone.
At least, almost everyone.
Rose, Aurora’s mother, came bustling up to the bar. Her evening gown dipped and plunged, cut fashionably low above her bosom, and the skirts were much narrower than the current fashion. Aurora never would have dared wear something that hadn’t first appeared in Godey’s Lady’s Book, but Rose made the gown sing. The whole spectacle was made from teal watered silk, with a froth of ribbons and lace on each of Rose’s shoulders. Despite the fact that she was Aurora’s mother, Rose could have easily passed for an elder sister. She, too, had strawberry-blonde curls and chestnut eyes, but her face was lit with a constant radiance, a glow that seemed to come from within. Where Aurora looked serene and peaceful, Rose always looked like she’d been chosen to lead the reel.
“My darling, are you feeling unwell?” Rose practically gasped, pink in the face from dancing and laughing with her patrons. She reached across the bar and put her palm to Aurora’s forehead. “Why, you don’t feel overly warm!”
Aurora flushed slightly. “I’m fine, Mama,” she replied.
“I think I’m warmer than you,” Rose said, throwing her head back and laughing. Aurora caught the scent of champagne on her mother’s breath. “What a fine night! Much better than they’re havin’ down at Ace-High, I can assure you!”
Aurora felt a flash of distaste at the mention of Burkedale’s only other gaming house, the rival of her parents’. Feeling no desire to anger her mother—or make herself the recipient of a rant about the much-hated Ewings, Ace-High’s proprietors—she merely nodded. “We are quite crowded,” she agreed.
“And with no sign of slowing down,” Rose continued happily. Light danced in her eyes as she turned and surveyed her patrons. “I’m sure your father is so pleased.”
“He certainly does seem to be enjoying himself,” Aurora said. She stretched on tiptoe and peered at the crowd, searching for the handsome figure of her father. Finally, she saw him, sitting with a crowd of cowboys at the roulette wheels.
“So should you, dear girl,” Rose said. She turned to Aurora and some of her excitement seemed to fade. “Step out with me for a moment, will you? Take in some of the fresh air?”
Aurora nodded. Rose bustled out the front door of The Lucky Dogie and after a second, Aurora followed. She glanced over her shoulder once to make sure that no one was attempting to wave her down for a drink, but all the patrons seemed busy and excited, occupied with the thought of winning even more money.
Why, the thought of losing their own barely seems to enter their minds, Aurora thought. As much as she loved her parents, sometimes she wondered how they could stand to be in a business with such high stakes. Just last week, a traveling fellow from Arkansas had lost nearly everything in a brag game. It had been a win for The Lucky Dogie, but the man had broken down in tears … and it wasn’t the first time that Aurora had felt a twinge of guilt.
“They know what they’re gettin’ into,” Aurora’s father, Glenn, had told her. “They ain’t comin’ in here thinkin’ that it’s easy!”
But his words had done little to soothe Aurora, and she’d wound up tossing and turning all night, wondering if her occupation—and that of her parents—was somehow morally corrupt.
Outside, on the porch of the gambling house, Aurora could still hear the music and laughter and shrieks that came from within. Rose was leaning against the railing, breathing hard in her corset, and Aurora went to her side.
“Mama, perhaps it’s you who isn’t feeling well,” Aurora said.
Rose shook her head. “Darlin’, I’m fine,” she said. “I think I’m just tired.”
Aurora didn’t reply. Here in Burkedale, it seemed that her mother was almost always in a good mood. But before, in San Antonio, Rose had often spent entire days sleeping, or lying in bed with a magazine and declining all food and drink save for coffee. At the time, Aurora hadn’t understood. For Rose had usually been so vivacious and charming, always the life of the party. Seeing her wan and pale in bed had come as a shock—once, the sight of her mother’s slack face had even been enough to make Aurora cry.
“Your mother’s just havin’ another one of her spells,” Papa had said. “You run along now, Aurora.”
It had taken years for Aurora to understand that her mother had suffered miscarriage after miscarriage, and that she was in deep depression, in a fog far away from Aurora and her husband. It was only when Glenn made her an ultimatum that she was able to push through, and then the family had moved to Burkedale. Now, those days seemed as if they were in the ancient past, but seeing her mother suddenly become so quiet and withdrawn reminded Aurora that they hadn’t been quite so long ago, after all.
“Mama?” Aurora asked. “What is it?” She immediately had the sense that something was wrong, that something ominous was hanging over her strawberry-blonde head.
When Rose turned to face her daughter, she was smiling. She touched Aurora’s cheek with a warm, sweaty palm.
“Don’t you worry about me,” she said kindly. “It’s only …” She trailed off, her pale forehead scrunching.
“Darlin’, sometimes I do worry that you’re not happy here,” Rose said softly.
“Of course I’m happy,” Aurora replied. “What on earth would put such a thing into your head?”
Rose looked chastened, and cocked her head to the side, inspecting Aurora. Aurora looked down at her older gown of pink organdy with wide hoop skirts and a matching shawl that covered her pale. Rose had told her that the color didn’t quite suit her complexion—like Rose, she looked best in bold, dark hues—and the style of the dress was more suited to a buttoned-up spinster than a barmaid.
“Sometimes, I feel that you would have been better had we stayed in San Antonio,” Rose said. “I know you were fond of the library there. I’m afraid there’s not much here but … well, cards and guns and parties.”
Aurora bit her lip. As much as she loved her parents, she knew that she was very different from both of them. And as glad as she was that her mother had long gotten over her ‘spells’, she did wish that her parents had been able to give her a younger sibling. She’d had no idea that her mother had truly noticed her reticence to lose herself in the world of The Lucky Dogie or noticed that Aurora never seemed entirely comfortable when she was anywhere but sitting down with a novel in her hand.
“Mama, I love you and Papa,” Aurora said firmly. “Of course, I’m happy to be here.”
“I just wonder if you haven’t thought about catchin’ one of those young men for yourself,” Rose said. She took Aurora’s chin in her hand and peered into her daughter’s face. “You’re a real pretty little thing, you know that?”
“Everyone says so,” Aurora replied.
“If only you weren’t so darn shy,” Rose continued, her voice lilting and elegant. “Honey, I do want you to be happy.”
The smell of champagne on Rose’s breath was stronger than ever.
“I know, Mama,” Aurora said. She got the sense—and not for the first time—that Rose was the daughter, and she was the mother. Deep down, Aurora wanted nothing more than to be like her charming, lively mother. She’d spent years watching Rose laugh and caper with the patrons of The Lucky Dogie. Years of watching her father, Glenn, never quite able to tear his eyes away from his beautiful wife. If age weren’t a factor, Rose would easily be the prettiest woman in Burkedale.
But every time Aurora had worked up the courage to say a flirtatious remark, or give some cowboy a coy look, her courage had failed her. There had been one particularly devastating incident when Aurora had been sure a man was flirting with her. She’d flirted back, boldly, and had even given him a pour of apple jack on the house, only to realize that he had been trying to catch the attention of a dancing girl, taking a rest at the bar, all along.
It’s no use, Aurora had told herself bitterly. You just ain’t a looker like Mama.
“You’ve just got to work on that charm of yours,” Mama said. She yawned, fanning her mouth with one hand. “Lord, I’m tired. I feel like I’ve been on my feet all night long!”
Aurora sensed that the end of their chat had arrived, and she took her mother’s arm.
“Perhaps you should rest for a while, Mama,” she said. “Come back inside—there’s a breeze tonight. You shouldn’t catch a chill, not when you’ve been perspiring for some time.”
The interior of The Lucky Dogie felt stifling and sweltering compared to the cool night breeze, and Aurora immediately began to perspire as she took her place behind the bar. Men were thirstier now, it seemed, than ever before in the long night and she began slinging glasses and shots of whiskey, jack, cider, Taos Lightning, and beer to various patrons. Most of the men were joyous, exuberant over their winnings. But, as always, there was a small crowd drowning their sorrows at one end of the bar.
Perhaps Mama is right, Aurora thought. Perhaps I should try to be more like her. Rose Haney, née Whitmore, had been the belle of San Antonio when she had won Glenn Haney’s heart. Growing up, Aurora had often begged her mother to retell the story. Rose had often acted like it was a chore, but Aurora knew that her mother loved nothing more than spinning the yarn that had been her greatest triumph: landing a wealthy, handsome man, who worshipped her like she was the Queen of Sheba.
Taking a deep breath, Aurora walked to the end of the bar.
“Y’all didn’t have such a winnin’ night, did you?”
Only one of the men looked up at her. His eyes were bleary and bloodshot, and his chin was covered with grey and brown stubble. Even from across the bar, Aurora could smell the sweat and manure that covered his clothing. The stench was overwhelming, even in a place like The Lucky Dogie, and she felt her eyes water with its intensity.
To her surprise, the man laughed coldly in her face.
“Little slip of a thing like you wouldn’t have heard,” he growled. “But there’s talk of my cattle bein’ banned from Arkansas,” he said. “Now, how in tarnation am I suppose’ to make me a livin’?”
Aurora felt the blood drain from her face. “I’m so sorry,” she said automatically. “That’s terrible!”
“They call it Texas fever,” the man drawled. “Got me all acock.”
All Aurora could do was stare. Burkedale was, on principle, a cattle town. If all of the ranchers suddenly lost their ability to move their cattle, what would happen? Would the town dry up?
And what would happen to her parents, and to The Lucky Dogie?
Thankfully, Aurora’s father suddenly appeared behind the bar. He put a hand on her shoulder and guided her away from the grizzled man.
“Aurora, darlin’, you look all tuckered out,” he said. “Why not think about goin’ on home for the night?”
“Papa, it’s early yet,” Aurora said. “I can stay. I wouldn’t want to disappoint you or Mama.”
Glenn chuckled. Aurora knew that with the exception of his wife, he loved his daughter more than anyone else on earth. He was proud of her, too—even if she wasn’t the son he always wanted.
Her mother had told Aurora that ever since her father was a young man, he’d ached with a burning desire for a son. He and Rose had tried, many, many times. Despite Rose’s vivacious manner, it seemed that she hadn’t had the fortitude and constitution to birth a boy, and before leaving San Antonio, they’d buried three sons, all bearing the name of Glenn Jr. Glenn had desperately wanted a boy, but Aurora was all he’d gotten. She’d always been a prim, proper lady—the exact opposite of the son for which her father had yearned.
But, he loved her terribly.
“Darlin’, you go on home now, you hear?” Glenn said affectionately, mussing Aurora’s hair the same way he had done when she was a child. “You go ahead and get some good rest.”
Aurora had the suspicious feeling that her father was only trying to get her away from the grizzled man and his talk of Texas fever, but secretly, she didn’t mind. She was hot and damp with sweat, and her feet and legs ached. Oh, how good it will feel to collapse in my own bed, she thought. Perhaps, if I am not too tired, I can finish Doctor Thorne. She had started the novel days earlier and had even fallen asleep with the book on her chest at one point. It was a sweeping tale of love and fortune and poverty and class—things relatable to Aurora, but only from the literature that she had consumed over the years. Rose had once plucked a book straight from Aurora’s hands, telling her that she was filling her head with all the wrong things.
But Aurora lived for reading. As she tidied up behind the bar, her mind was on the love story of Doctor Thorne. She barely noticed anything as she left the gambling house—not the passed-out pair of men on the porch, next to a pile of vomit. She didn’t notice the painted lady and cowboy, entwined in a passionate embrace against the wall.
And she certainly didn’t notice the two men, who watched her as she crossed the thoroughfare, their eyes tracking her every movement.
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