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Authors: Elaine Levine

Audrey and the Maverick

BOOK: Audrey and the Maverick
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“I’VE BEEN LOOKING FOR YOU…

…I believe you have something of mine.”

When she tried to go the other way, Julian blocked her with his other arm. She did look at him then. His jaw was set, his brown eyes steely. Her heart beat like a fist against her ribs. “I have nothing of yours,” she whispered. That, after all, was no lie.

He leaned toward her, bending near, close enough that she could hear the rain on his hat. “We both know you do. What game do you play?”

“It’s no game. You aren’t safe here,” she warned him. But when his arm wrapped around her waist and pinned her between his body and the wall, she knew she wasn’t safe either.

A
UDREY
and the
M
AVERICK
ELAINE LEVINE

ZEBRA BOOKS
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.
http://www.kensingtonbooks.com

This book is dedicated to my brave,
extraordinary daughter,
who serves in the U.S. Coast Guard.
Fair winds and a following sea, Ryan.
Your father and I are very proud of you.

And remember—never, ever, settle.

Chapter 1

Defiance, Dakota Territory, May 1868

Audrey Sheridan peeked around the corner of an abandoned store, watching her mark come closer. Her palms were damp and her hands shook. She’d practiced the maneuver she would use to steal his purse a hundred times in the last two days, but now that the time was here, she doubted her ability to see it through.

Julian McCaid was less than half a block away. He lifted his wide-brimmed Stetson and swept a hand through his thick dark hair. Resettling his hat, he scanned the street near where she stood. The energy of his gaze rolled in her direction like a hot desert wind.

Withdrawing into the cover of the alley, she listened to his boots crunch in the gravel of the dirt road. When he came even with her, she stepped in front of him and reached for his coin purse. Fast as a whip, he snatched her wrist. She gasped and looked up, in time to see shock and recognition register in his eyes.

The 5:00 p.m. Cheyenne stage had just arrived, and passengers had begun filing down the street toward them, heading for Maddie’s Boardinghouse. She yanked at her wrist and he let her go. She quickly drifted into the small crowd and slipped away, her heartbeat overriding all other sound as she began to run. She didn’t stop—didn’t dare give her conscience time to catch up to her actions. The sheriff had been very clear in describing the consequences should she fail to engage McCaid’s attention.

She took a circuitous route to the sheriff’s, careful that she wasn’t being followed. At the side stairs leading up to his apartment, one of his men stepped in front of her, blocking her. His gaze leisurely moved over her, a boldness he would never have attempted before she’d become the sheriff’s flunky. She went around him and climbed to the second floor. Her fingers gripped the neck of the small pouch until her nails dug into the palm of her hand. She pounded on his door with her fisted hand.

One of the sheriff’s men opened it. “It’s Sheridan,” he said, looking at her but speaking to someone behind him.

“Let her in.”

Audrey moved stiffly into the room. She looked at each of the five men inside—Sheriff Kemp and four gunmen, two of whom she didn’t recognize. Kemp always had new gunfighters loitering about town. It wasn’t worth getting to know them; they never stayed around long.

The sheriff leaned against his scruffy wooden table and waited for her to speak. She tossed him the leather pouch and watched as he poured it out on his desk. Light from the window at the front of the room flashed off the metal star on his chest, brightening a spot on the gritty floor as he leaned forward to count her take.

“Ten dollars. Hardly worth the trouble.” He frowned as he looked her over. “What are you dressed like that for?”

“I didn’t want McCaid to recognize me.”

A rattle of laughter started deep in his chest. He covered his mouth with his fist as if to stop himself, but by the time the sound hit the air, it was a high-pitched, dirty giggle that his fist did nothing to hide.

“Oh, he’s gonna recognize you. By the time he’s finished with you, he’s gonna know you with your clothes, without your clothes, and in any stupid getup you want to wear.” He looked at her as he fondled McCaid’s purse. “You done good, Sheridan. He’ll take the bait. I know it.”

Audrey gritted her teeth and fought to suppress a shudder. She hated this town and the sheriff and his men. She would see this terrible thing to its end, then leave Defiance. There had to be work for an honest girl in Cheyenne or Denver. There had to be someplace where she, her brother, and her foster children would be safe from his manipulations.

Sensing her resistance, Kemp narrowed his eyes. He crossed the room to her. Yanking her hat off, he dug his hand in her hair and twisted hard. “You start chattering, girl, and them kids of yours will find you with your neck slit one fine morning,” he hissed. “You’re nothing.
Nothing
. You hear me?”

“I hear you,” she bit out, only to have her head yanked once more.

“And if you think that half-breed sheep farmer’s gonna help you, you better think it over. Every wrong step you make will cost you a kid.” He grinned, baring yellowed teeth in a venomous smile. “I reckon you got eight chances to get it right. Then there’s still your brother.”

Audrey clamped her jaw shut both to stop its quivering and to keep from telling Kemp what she thought of him. He tightened his grip. She tried to free herself, but his hand was fisted too deeply in her hair. “You keep the breed busy for a month. You hear me, girl? I need a month.”

Trying to appear tougher than she felt, she gave him a bored glare. “I hear you.”

“Get outta here.” He flung her away, shoving her toward the door and tossing her hat after her. “Get the hell outta here.”

Audrey picked up her hat and left Kemp’s apartment. Walking down the steps to the street, she moved blindly. Woodenly. She looked toward the far end of town, her eyes seeking solace in the white and blue mountain ridges that ripped into the sky.

There had to be more—so much more than this. Why hadn’t she seen this situation coming? She thought back over the past month, the past year. There had been plenty of signs—the drop in the number of customers who sent her their laundry, the school’s closing, the abandoned businesses on Main Street. She’d been so preoccupied caring for the kids, she hadn’t noticed the gradual shift in power from the town’s law-abiding citizens to the sheriff’s growing number of gang members.

And now it was too late.

Heavy clouds thickened across the sky, darkening the town as a spring storm quickly blew in. The air had a chill about it and a soothing damp smell she drew greedily into her lungs. It was going to pour. The street was emptying of people as the few who were about hurried out of the rain. Something across the way drew her attention. Frowning, she tried to see what it was, even as the hairs tingled at the back of her neck.

McCaid.

He stepped down from the boardwalk in front of the old hotel and stopped. He turned slowly and faced the alleyway. Four roughnecks gathered in a half circle around him. He stood there—stood still—and let them draw near.

Audrey felt sick to her stomach. The four of them would tear him apart. She looked away. It wasn’t her business.
He
wasn’t her business. She should keep on moving. If McCaid couldn’t handle the trouble in Defiance, he shouldn’t have come back. She looked his way again. Kemp’s boys were almost within arm’s reach of him. It wasn’t fair. She’d already hit him—there couldn’t be anything left for them to take. The wet wind brought a whisper of cruel laughter her way.

Four against one wasn’t right.

She crossed the street, determination making her heart thunder, her pace quicken. They were closing in on him. She broke into a run and reached the pack of roughnecks in time to slip between them and McCaid. Backing up against him, she glared at the four facing him. “Not today, Paul, Hammer.” She eyed the sheriff’s men warily. She knew only the two, but she’d seen the others hanging around town lately.

“Get out of the way, girl.” Hammer leaned toward her. Audrey spread her arms out at her sides, heedless of the ridiculous sight she made. The top of her head barely came to McCaid’s chin. His shoulders were twice the width of hers. Her spread arms protected only the top of his thighs.

“It’s no use,” she growled, hoping they caught her meaning.

“Shit, Sheridan! He’s only just come in.”

“Maybe if you hadn’t needed to round up a gang—” she suggested.

Anger flashed in Hammer’s bleary eyes. He grabbed her collar, lifting her toward him only to have an equally large hand twist his collar and hold him at bay.

“Let her go,” McCaid quietly ordered, “now.” Never had a man’s voice affected Audrey as his did. It was deep and resonated with quiet authority. Hammer’s eyes widened as he looked over her head at McCaid. He set her free with a string of curses and stormed away. The others followed close behind.

Audrey drew a ragged breath, finally becoming aware she hadn’t been breathing. Rain began to fall in earnest. For the length of a heartbeat, neither she nor McCaid moved. She listened to the rain plink against the adjacent building, acutely aware of him standing behind her. Slowly, careful to keep her face shadowed by her hat, she turned around. Her gaze collided with his chest, and her mind absorbed random images of him, like a patchwork. The heavy duster he wore over his gray wool suit. The coffee-colored splotches of rain spreading and connecting into ever-larger blotches at his shoulders. His hard jaw with its afternoon growth of dark beard. The water pooling on his hat brim and spilling off the back.

She felt the weight of his gaze but avoided looking at him as she glanced across the street toward the sheriff’s office. Drat it all, they could see her from here. Audrey started to edge around him.

His arm shot up in front of her, his hand locking against the side of the building. “A moment, Miss Sheridan. I’ve been looking for you. I believe you have something of mine.”

When she tried to go the other way, he blocked her with his other arm. She did look at him then. His jaw was set, his brown eyes steely. Her heart beat like a fist against her ribs. “I have nothing of yours,” she whispered. That, after all, was no lie.

He leaned toward her, bending near, close enough that she could hear the rain on his hat. “We both know you do. What game do you play?”

“It’s no game. You aren’t safe here,” she warned him. But when his arm wrapped around her waist and pinned her between his body and the wall, she knew she wasn’t safe either.

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