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A Sheriff’s Haven for the Rebellious Bride

Can Millie’s quiet strength break down this bounty hunter’s wall?

Millie is a caring and fierce young woman. Losing her mother a year ago, she is left responsible for caring for her father who isn’t handling his loss very well.

Luke Houston is an intelligent and decisive bounty hunter. Losing his parents at a young age, he mistakenly blames himself for not protecting them.

Luke comes into town as Millie’s father gets accused of a murder he did not commit. His moral compass tells him that things are not as they appear.

While both of them fight the demons in their past, their affection will get stronger by the day and even though they started at the wrong foot, they will develop deep feelings for each other.

Thinking they have discovered the truth, they are unaware that they have been played!

Will they be able to save the town or will they die trying?

Written by:

Western Historical Romance Author

Chapter 1 – Bree

I was near the bottom of the page when I realized I hadn’t remembered a single word I’d read. For the past hour, I had been squinting in the moonlight trying to read my favorite book, but it had been impossible. Behind me, where the trees spread out across the top of the mountain, I could hear Woody’s fiddle echoing through the night along with the noise of my drunk family. The sound of their boots stomping on the wooden barn floor drifted toward me giving me a slight thumping pain at the back of my head.

All I’d wanted was to get a little peace and quiet to read beneath my favorite tree, but there was no chance of that. I huffed and slammed my book shut, resting my back against the old redwood that had been as much a part of my family as everyone else. Except the tree was more dependable, never judged me and never shouted.

“Hey, what are you doin’ out here?”

I didn’t see where the voice came from until I saw the shape of a skirt step out from the shadows. The boots were recognizable immediately. They were the opposite of mine, covered in a thick layer of mud with the soles attached by a winding layer of thin rope.

“Eileen? Why aren’t you at the dance?”

“I was gonna ask you the same thing, sis.”

She came and dropped herself down beside me, blowing her hair out of her eyes. Just like everyone else in my family, she was cursed with a wild mane of unruly, blonde hair. Eileen’s was especially out of control and reached down to her waist. It always looked as though it had been styled with a pitchfork instead of a brush.

“You have a leaf in your hair,” I said, pulling it out from her crown.

“Stop fussin’, will ya?”

She hated me picking and plucking at her, but there was always something to fix. There wasn’t a patch of her dress where there wasn’t a thread coming loose, or a fingernail that didn’t need to be scrubbed.

“Goodness,” I grumbled, looking at the dirt around her fingertips. “When was the last time you bathed?”

“Only last night.”

“You lie, Eileen.”

She narrowed her brown eyes and flared her nostrils. She had inherited Pa’s dark eyes, unlike the rest of us who were blessed with Ma’s gray eyes that were the same color as gun metal and rainstorms.

Around Eileen’s neck dangled her beloved, but broken, field glasses. They had been scavenged by one of our brothers. They only worked if you held them at just the right angle, but Eileen loved them anyway, and she was always halfway up a tree holding them to the heavens hoping to spot an eagle or a kestrel. Noticing the book in my hand, she looked at it as though it was dirt.

“The Adventures of… How do you say them words?”

“Huckleberry Finn,” I told her. “It was only published last year but it’s already rumored to be one of the best books ever written.”

She wrinkled up her nose with disgust.

“Books,” she spat as though it was a dirty word. “What are you doing wasting your time reading stupid books when you could be dancing at a good ole Texan shindig?”

“You know I hate barn dances,” I sighed. “I don’t get what’s so fun about watching everyone drink so much moonshine they fall on their asses. And you know what Pa gets like at these things. He drinks one jug too many and suddenly he wants to fight the world.”

“Yeah, and he’s beggin’ for a fight with you right now. It was him who sent me out looking for you.”

My stomach tightened. I didn’t want to think about the upcoming argument I was going to have with him about me skipping out on yet another dance. Since I was a kid, the fortnightly barn dances had been a bone of contention between me and Pa. I always hated them. Couldn’t stand the smell of liquor or the deep embarrassment I felt watching my dumb brothers and cousins get drunk like fools.

They’d dance like lunatics before passing out among the squalor of the pigs. Not to mention every dance always ended in a fight. Every morning after, all the men in my family would wake up with black eyes and bloody lips and not remember a single thing about how they got them.

“Pa sent you looking for me?” I asked. “How did he know I was missing?”

“You’re always missing,” Eileen groaned. “And you’re the only one not at the dance.”

“Well if you see him, you can tell him I’m not coming. I’m staying put right here and that’s that.”

To emphasize my point, I picked up my book and started reading again. Or at least I tried to but as soon as my eyes hit the first word of the page, an almighty crash came sounding from the barn along with what sounded like an anguished battle cry.

“That’ll be Bertie and Eugene again,” said Eileen with a roll of her eyes.

Bertie and Eugene were our two youngest brothers and by far the worst behaved of all my siblings. They ran around the mountain more like feral wolves than boys of seventeen and eighteen. God knew what they were doing in the barn. The last time there had been a dance, they’d run riot around the farm destroying everything before tipping over one of the cows. Pa had done nothing more than give them both a stern word of warning, but just like he always did with my brothers, he encouraged them to continue their terrible behavior.

It would be my lucky day if all I got was a stern warning. All I ever did was keep to myself, do all the chores I was ordered to and occasionally sneak away to read a book beneath the moonlight. But you’d think it was me who was the badly-behaved kid.

Another noise came from the distance, but I couldn’t help notice it was coming from the opposite direction of the barn. It drifted up from below the mountain, a steady rhythm building faster and faster like conkers dropping from the trees. It was the unmistakable sound of horses’ hooves battering at the desert floor.

“Who’s that?” I asked, scrambling forward to look down the mountain. “Eileen, gimme your field glasses.”

“Why? It’s probably just one of the townsfolk.”

“But I wanna see! Gimme your glasses.”

With a reluctant sigh, she pulled them off her neck, paying extra special attention to not get the strap tangled in her hair. I took them and held them up to my eyes but saw nothing but a kaleidoscope of black and gray through the shattered lenses.

“Good grief, Eileen. These things hardly work.”

“Wait, you need to hold them like this.”

She adjusted them against my face and as though by magic, a slight, though blurry, image began to appear. Suddenly, I found myself looking at a burly, proud figure on a pure white horse. He held a lantern up to guide his way, the small flame right in front of his face so I could make out a strong jawline and high cheekbones.

Even from up where I was, I could tell the face was handsome, groomed and refined. It was nothing like the faces of the men I saw up on the mountain. They barely shared a whole mouth of teeth and looked as though their skin was made of crumpled leather.

Yet, there was something else that caught my attention. Something bronze that captured the light of the lantern. As I squinted my eyes and tracked the figure with the glasses, I realized it was a sheriff’s badge.

“Who is it?” asked Eileen, squashing her face up beside mine.

“I think it’s that Sheriff Banks Pa’s always moanin’ about.”

His name was almost like a cuss word on the mountain and held as much hatred and reverence as the name of the Devil. Especially among Pa and my brothers. It had seemed that for most of my life, my family and the townsfolk of nearby Hollistown of Cohen County were at war and, of course, that made Sheriff Banks enemy number one in the eyes of outsiders like us.

I’d heard so much about how everyone hated him that I had images in my mind of him as a monster. What I hadn’t anticipated was how impressive and becoming he looked. He rather reminded me of the heroes I had read about in books like Pride and Prejudice. Except he was a more tanned and rugged Mr. Darcy than perhaps Jane Austen would have liked. I also doubted Mr. Darcy could command a horse with such speed and strength or make a pistol strapped to his side look so sensual. No, he was better than the heroes in my books because he was stronger, yet a little unpolished and rough around the edges, much like myself. He was also real. Taken aback, I was left speechless for a moment as I watched him ride his horse at speed toward the center of the town.

“Are you okay?” Eileen asked. “You’ve been sitting there with your mouth dropped open for a full minute.”

I watched Sheriff Banks slow down and disappear around the back of the saloon. Only now did I lower the glasses.

“Eileen, why has no one told me about how handsome the sheriff is? He has shoulders as wide as a door and a face that…”

“Bree! You can’t talk about the sheriff that way!”

She snatched the glasses out my hand and returned them to the safety of her neck.

“If any of the boys hear you talk that way about him, you’ll be in trouble. How could you say such a thing? Sheriff Banks is an enemy to this family. To this mountain. He wants nothing more than to see us all in jail or worse, hanged.”

When she put it that way, I couldn’t help but feel a little guilty, but at the same time, I didn’t think I’d seen anyone look so distinguished before. Something was stirring inside me that frightened me as much as it excited me. Was this the attraction to the opposite sex I had heard so much about but never experienced?

“Forget about him,” Eileen told me. “I mean it.”

At hearing the force in her voice, I dropped the subject and sat back at my spot beneath the tree. Beside me, Eileen stared off into the distance as though she was trying to send her hate down to the town through mind power alone.

“So… You’re coming to the dance?” she asked.

“Like hell I am.”

The sound of Woody’s fiddle grew louder but his playing grew worse the drunker he got. It was now nothing more than a frantic scratching that sounded like a wounded animal.

“You have to,” insisted Eileen with her fingers gripping around my wrist. “You gotta come or Pa’s gonna get even madder.”

I pulled my wrist out of her hand and wriggled away from her.

“Pa won’t even know what day of the week it is, let alone my whereabouts. Sonner or later, he’ll be so drunk he probably won’t know his left from his right.”

There was a look of fear creeping into Eileen’s eyes. When she looked like this, she always appeared older. She was my younger sister but right now, she looked closer to Ma’s age. There were dark circles below her eyes and her brows furrowed close together, so deep lines carved across her forehead in worry.

“Please,” she begged. “I’m worried he’ll come looking for you and if he does that then…”

Behind her, a crackling noise came from the nearby bushes. She flinched and I jumped along with her. I knew what she was thinking because I was thinking the exact same thing. It terrified us both to think we’d heard Pa’s footsteps in the thick undergrowth and edged a little closer to one another. I held my breath and waited to hear him approach along with the smell of liquor and chewing tobacco that always accompanied him. But what I saw instead was a flash of orange and a large bushy tail as a squirrel darted out in front of us.

“Good grief, I nearly fainted,” said Eileen. “I was sure it was him.”

I was sure it was him too, and the thought scared me more than I cared to admit. We both sat in silence for a moment, contemplating our own fear. I listened to the sound of the party growing increasingly raucous in the distance and wondered why I wasn’t like everyone else.

Sometimes it felt as though I had been dropped onto the mountain of Emery Peak from a faraway place. Nothing about me was like anyone else. I hated the taste of liquor, and the sound of Woody’s fiddle made me want to run away, not dance. Meanwhile, where all my family saw the mountain as the center of their world, I saw it as just a starting point, just a place where I could spring from to another place where reading books wasn’t frowned upon and the smell of farm animals didn’t linger on your clothes.

“What are you thinking?” asked Eileen in barely more than a whisper.

I looked up at the sky and a wispy patch of cloud drifted by to let a white moonbeam shine directly onto the ground. It landed on my lap to illuminate the book in my hand.

“I was thinking a lot of things,” I said.

“Like what?”

“Dear goodness, Eileen. Why are you always so curious? If you must know, I was wondering what it would feel like to live through a day without being in fear of Pa.”

She looked at me as though I had gone quite mad. The words Pa and fear went together like peaches and cream. It was just the way things were.

“Pa is a good man,” said Eileen.

“He is?”

I guessed he had to be because plenty of people thought so. When I was younger, I certainly thought he was as wonderful as baby Jesus. He was my Pa, the greatest man in the world and he could do no wrong. When I was ten years old there was no doubting he was a good man. It was only as I grew older and started to look at the way he acted with a more mature eye that I started to think differently about him. As I grew up, his crude jokes weren’t funny anymore, they were just rude, and his disciplining of the children was no longer virtuous, it was just cruel.

Still, I didn’t blame him for the way he acted. It was just in his nature, in his blood. He had come from a long line of O’Laney men who had lived on this mountain for generations. They were all rough, all wild and raucous, but that’s what helped them survive up here. If Pa was the church mouse of a father I’d wanted, we would have all ceased to exist. No, I guessed he wasn’t a bad man. He didn’t go out of his way to hurt people, not really. He was just doing what he was raised to believe was right. I tried to remember this as I listened to the drunken noise of the barn dance. He’s just an old drunk trying to get by, I told myself. Just like his Pa and his Pa and his Pa and his Pa.

The clouds cleared some more so an even brighter beam of moonlight shone onto the mountain. It glittered off the leaves of the sparse trees like silver rain drops.

I stood up and brushed the dirt from my skirts. Looking down the mountain, I watched the faint firelight glittering like jewels in the houses of Hollistown. It was less than a mile away, but it may as well have been on another continent. The people down there had about as much in common with us as the Inuits of Greenland I had read about in an old history book.

“You’re not thinking about that hellish Hollistown again, are you?” asked Eileen.

She was suddenly right behind me with her hand on my shoulder. Her nails were digging through my dress as a warning. She knew I had always wanted to go down there, to explore a life away from the mountain, and she forbid it as much as everyone else did.

“Of course I’m thinking about it,” I said. “Have you ever wondered why we’re never allowed down there? But Pa and our brothers can go down there all they want if they want to ransack the saloon?”

Her grip on my shoulder tightened until it started to hurt.

“You know full well us ladies aren’t allowed down there. Or off this mountain for that matter.”

“And you’re happy with that?”

She said nothing.

“Because I’m not happy with that. I want off here. I want to go exploring! I want to go down to that town and speak to a man that knows how to hold their liquor and who speaks to me as though I’m worth more than a lowly sow. I want to live, Eileen. I want to see things and meet people and read more books and maybe even write my own some day.”

I waited for her response, but none came. Instead, she took a step back, gasped and froze on the spot. I turned around to see the moonlight shining in her petrified eyes.

“What is it?”

She opened her mouth to speak but was unable to utter a single sound. Her eyes were tracking something behind me, her pupils growing larger like a cat’s who just spotted a bird.

“Eileen?”

The fear in her face intensified. A chill tickled at the back of my neck sending all the hairs standing up to attention along my spine. I was now aware we were being watched by invisible eyes creeping out of the shadows.

As slowly as I could, I turned my head inch by inch until I was staring into the darkness. Through the inky blackness hovered the orange glow of a single lantern. It brightened the space around it so I could see a calloused, nicotine stained hand and a familiar stained leather coat. There was the faint outline of a bearded jaw with wiry gray hair sprouting out from a black muzzle. I was too scared to look any higher in case I gazed into the eyes.

“Pa…” I whispered.

It felt as though I had a plum stone lodged in my throat and a length of rope winding its way around my guts. Now, I wasn’t full of the adventurous spirit I’d held only a moment ago. Now, I just wanted to be swallowed up by the shadows.

“Wanna speak to a man who can hold their liquor?” Pa growled. “Wanna get spoken to as though you’re not a lowly sow?”

His words were spat out through his gritted broken teeth with flecks of spittle landing on his chapped lips. He took a step closer and my body felt the urge to take one back, but I couldn’t move. For a second, I closed my eyes and hoped if I stayed still long enough he would leave me alone, but I knew he would never do that. He would never leave me alone.

“Just who do you think you are, girl?”

I held my breath and reached for Eileen’s hand. Her sweaty fingers met mine and gripped tight.

“Eh?” he shouted and lurched forward.

I could smell the stench of moonshine now. It was so strong it burned my eyes. Pa’s face moved into the moonlight so I could see just how bloodshot his eyes were.

“Eh!” he yelled again. “Talk to me, girl! I heard everything you said. Heard every one of your la-di-dah aspirations of getting off this mountain.”

The more I looked at him, the more I thought he looked less like a man and more like a wild bear. Except I was less frightened of the bears. All you had to do was make a loud noise and they’d go running into the trees. I could never get rid of Pa so easily. He moved closer to me, his eyes shifting between me and Eileen. His eyes focused on our tangled hands then moved to the ground.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn lay open at the foot of the tree. He stomped over to it and picked it up by the edge of the pages as though it was a cow pat.

“What have I told you about sticking your nose in books!”

Before I could say a word or reach forward to save it, he took a step toward the edge of the mountain and hurled the book out into the night. Its white pages spun into the darkness and disappeared down into the abyss. The sound of it hitting the rocks faded down into the distance and my beloved book was gone. Now the plum stone was a lump of granite and it was filling my throat with a physical pain until I felt the sting of tears in my eyes.

Pa staggered toward me and pushed his finger into the center of my chest.

“Just who do you think you are?”

It was more of a threat than a question.

“Ey? Who do you think you are? You won’t ever grace us with your presence at the dance because … what? You’re too good for us? You’re too fancy? Because you’d rather read some pointless book than spend time with your family!”

He latched his strong fingers onto my arm and shook me until I had no choice but to let go of Eileen.

“Books’ll get you nowhere,” he raged. “Not on this mountain. Not anywhere. You think you’ll find yourself a husband in this community if you keep reading books? It’s a damn shame, you know. Having to tell people my own daughter won’t drink and dance with the rest of us ‘cos she got her nose in a book and her head in the clouds.”

I didn’t understand how he could be so angry. Was it really so bad to want some peace to educate myself? Was it really so terrible that I just wanted to be alone?

“But Pa…” I began. “I don’t want to…”

Suddenly Eileen’s hand sprung out and hit my arm to silence me.

“Shh…” she whispered. “Don’t make him even madder.”

But I couldn’t hold it in. No matter how afraid I was of Pa, I was more afraid of being stuck on the mountain forever, living a life that was forced upon me. So, against my better judgement, I found myself opening my mouth and finishing the sentence that would change my life forever.

“Pa… I don’t want to … find a husband. I don’t want to get married.”

The confusion reached his eyes a fraction of a second before the anger did.

“What … did you say?”

I cursed my big mouth and wished I could suck the words back in.

“I didn’t … I didn’t say anything, Pa.”

I could feel the fear coming from Eileen. Glancing over at her, I saw her staring at her boots as though she was praying the situation would disappear. But by the look on Pa’s face, I knew it was only going to get worse.

He grabbed my arm again, this time tighter and snarled in my face.

“I heard what you said… Don’t want a husband? How dare you? You think you’re too good for the sanctity of marriage? Think you’re too good to be someone’s wife!”

I hadn’t realized I was crying until I felt a single salty tear land on my top lip. Inside my skirts, my knees were trembling and knocking together. Why had I been so stupid? Shouldn’t I have known better than to run my mouth?

“I’ve had enough of you behaving like you don’t belong in this family,” Pa spat.

His hand sprung out and grabbed my wrist.

“You’re coming with me.”

Before I could protest, he dragged me back into the thick woods.

“I’m too soft on you,” he said. “Too damn soft and it’s about time you learned to behave like a proper O’Laney!”

Propelled by his anger, he trampled through the darkness of the undergrowth dragging me along behind him with such force I had no choice but to stumble and trip over the rocks and tree roots.

“Pa! I’m sorry! I didn’t mean what I said. I’ll come to the dance now!”

But he wasn’t listening to me and continued to ramble to himself.

“The damn insolence of this one,” he muttered. “I’ve done nothing but try to raise my kids right and there’s this one… Thinks she won’t have a need to take a husband. Thinks she’ll write her own book one day, too. Never heard anything so ridiculous in my whole damn life.”

The sound of the dance grew louder as we approached the barn. It looked as though I was going to the party after all, but as we approached the main door where people were spilling out in various stages of drunkenness, I felt Pa steer me away and around the back of the building.

“Pa? Are we not going to the dance?”

For the first time all night, he didn’t say a word, and somehow that was even more frightening.

“Pa? Where are we going?”

His grip on my wrist tightened as he pulled me away from the barn until we were walking out toward the pig pen. The smell of manure stung my nose and my mouth turned dry. Pa had never dragged me out here before, and why was he being so quiet?

“Pa? Did you hear me? I said I was sorry. I didn’t really mean what I said about not wanting a husband.”

We kept walking in silence until even the pig pen was disappearing behind us and there was only one building left. The chicken coop. Only now did he let go of my arm and speak.

“You need to learn a lesson,” he snarled. “Need to be brought down a peg or two.”

My stomach flipped and I was overwhelmed with the need to run, but where would I go? Looking over to the chicken coop, I tried to guess what punishment Pa had in mind for me, but as I looked into his eyes, I saw nothing but a manic, glazed over expression.

“You can say goodbye to your books and your daydreaming,” he said. “You’ll not be getting any fanciful ideas again.”

My breath had stopped reaching my lungs. I couldn’t stop looking at the chicken coop.

“I-I-I said I’m … sorry,” I tried to say through my dried-out mouth.

Pa opened the door of the coop and glared at me. His eyes were nothing more than stormy whirlpools illuminated by the firelight from the lantern. They didn’t even look human.

“Say hello to your new home,” he said. “You’ll be living with the chickens until you learn how to behave properly. Now get in.”

I stared at the door and thought about running, but before I could, he grabbed me by the scruff of my neck and tossed me inside. My knees landed on the soiled floor with a thud as the chickens woke up in a panic. They screeched and flapped their wings against me until I was engulfed in the smell of bird droppings. I felt the terror of flapping wings against my legs as I scrambled to get away from them.

“Pa, don’t leave me in here!”

His response came in the sound of the door being bolted shut. Looking through the narrow gaps between the wooden slats, I could see the light of his lantern disappearing back across the pig pen toward the barn.

“Pa!”

But he was long gone. Gradually, the chickens started to settle down and stop flapping against me. Is this it? I thought. Is this my life now?

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