Romance Linda Howard A Lady of the West

ISBN 13: 9780671660802

A Lady of the West

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9780671660802: A Lady of the West

Forced into marriage in name only to a ruthless Western rancher, Victoria Waverly, the daughter of ruined Southern aristocracy, finds forbidden passion with hired gunman Jake Roper.

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About the Author:

Linda Howard is the award-winning author of many New York Times bestsellers, including Drop Dead Gorgeous, Cover of Night, Killing Time, To Die For, Kiss Me While I Sleep, Cry No More, Dying to Please, Open Season, Mr. Perfect, All the Queen’s Men, Now You See Her, Kill and Tell, and Son of the Morning. She lives in Alabama with her husband and two golden retrievers.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

From "Chapter One""

Major Frank McLain stepped into the sun and watched the buggy approach, his eyes narrowed with anticipation.

She was finally here.

Fierce, gloating satisfaction filled him. He'd never been good enough before, but now a damned Waverly would be his wife. Her mother was even a Creighton -- Margaret Creighton -- and the girl had the Creighton looks herself, all pale, calm elegance, and aristocratic bones.

Victoria Waverly. Before the war her family would have spit on him. Now she was marrying him because he had money and all they had were empty bellies and impeccable bloodlines. The war and the hunger it had created were the world's greatest equalizers. The Waverlys and the Creightons hadn't blinked twice at marrying their daughter to him in exchange for a more comfortable life.

He could barely wait. He'd wrenched this land from the Sarratts with blood and death and pure guts, and made it his; he now owned more land than any plantation owner in the South ever had, made his name one to be reckoned with in the territory, ran more cattle and employed more men than anyone else around, and still something had been lacking. He'd never gotten what he'd wanted more than anything else in his life, and that was a lady at his table, a true aristocrat to share his name. There had never been any hope of it before, but after the war he'd gone back to Augusta, back to the town where he'd grown up as poor and despised white trash. He'd searched there for the perfect woman of his dreams, and he'd found Victoria. His heart beat faster just thinking about her. He had waited four months for her to arrive, and now she was here. They would be married that night.

One of the men standing behind him shifted to get a better look."Who's that in the buggy with her?"

"Her little sister and her cousin, Emma Gann, came with her," McLain answered. He didn't mind that Victoria had brought some family with her. He kind of liked the idea of having them under his roof. Men from all over the territory would probably come to court them. White women were still a rarity, and true ladies were as precious as gold. He had a pleasant moment's thought of the alliances he could forge with advantageous marriages for the two young women. By God, he'd build an empire that would make the Sarratts look like two-bit dirt farmers. Twenty years had passed since he'd killed the last of them and taken the land, but he still hated the name. Duncan Sarratt had always looked at him as if he were trash, and that bitch Elena had acted as if he'd dirtied the air she had to breathe. But he'd gotten both of them, made them pay, and now he lived in the Sarratt house. No, goddamn it, it was his house, just as it was his land. There were no Sarratts anymore. He'd made sure of it.

The half dozen men standing behind him were, in a way, just as eager for the buggy to roll to a stop. Oh, there were some white whores in Santa Fe if they wanted to ride that far, but all of the women on the ranch or anywhere nearby were Mexican. The few white women in Santa Fe who weren't whores were the wives of soldiers, or the odd rancher's wife. These women coming in now were supposed to be good women, but only the Major's wife would be off-limits. Hell, they all knew him. If he wanted to plow his wife's sister, he'd do it and not think twice. So they watched the approaching buggy with hot eyes, wondering what the women would look like, not that it mattered.

Will Garnet spat on the ground."The Major is acting like a fool over this woman," he muttered."Ain't no split-tail born worth this much fuss."

The few men who heard him agreed, but didn't say anything. Only two men on the spread were immune to the Major's rage, and Garnet was one of them. He was in his early forties, with dark hair graying at the temples, and he had been with the Major from the first. He was the foreman and did pretty much as he wanted, with the Major's blessing. They all walked lightly around him, except the man standing a little away from their group, his posture relaxed and his eyes cold under the brim of his hat. Jake Roper had only been on the ranch a few months, but he, too, seemed immune to the Major's anger.

They had all been hired as cowpunchers or wranglers, but it was a fact that some of them had been hired more for their handiness with a sidearm than for their bulldogging ability. A man who had made his fortune the way McLain had needed to keep an eye out for his enemies. Not only that, but a spread as big as his was vulnerable to rustling and lightning raids by the Comanche. So McLain had built his own private army of gunmen, and Jake Roper was the fastest. Even the other gunhands tended to steer clear of him. Garnet might have a mean streak in him a mile wide, but Roper was ice clear through. Garnet might backstab a man, but Roper would squash out a life with as little thought as if he'd stepped on a bug.

Roper himself had little interest in the women. The Major was making a fool out of himself but it didn't bother Roper. He gave his boss a sidelong glance, but all his contempt was hidden behind his cold eyes. This fancy, high-nosed Southern lady wasn't so special, not if she was marrying McLain. He had a good idea what she was in for. But she'd chosen to come here; she could damn well make the best of it.

When the buggy reached the front of the house, it stopped and McLain stepped forward. He lifted his arms to help one of the women down."Victoria!"

She stood, but instead of allowing McLain to lift her from the buggy, she placed a gloved hand on his forearm and stepped down."Major," she said calmly, and lifted back the veil from her bonnet.

Roper's first impression of her face was that it looked like it belonged to a bloodless porcelain doll, very correct and passionless. Yep, a lady, all right, all the way down to her lace drawers -- and God forbid any man should see them. Her hair was light brown, what he could see of it, and her voice had been low. That was a blessing; shrill, screeching women disgusted him.

The next woman to alight, also with a gentle hand on McLain's forearm, was a bit on the plain side, with dark brown hair and brown eyes. But Roper thought she had a sweet smile. He eyed her consideringly. He figured this was the cousin.

The next one didn't wait for assistance, but jumped to the ground with a small gurgle of delight. She tugged her bonnet off, and whirled it by its strings."Oh, everything's beautiful," she breathed, looking around with wide eyes.

Standing beside Roper, Garnet stiffened and swore under his breath. She was a young girl rather than a woman, but she was stunningly beautiful. Her hair was a golden blond mass, and she had big, dark blue eyes. Roper figured a girl like that was going to cause a lot of trouble among the men on the ranch. The little sister was just too pretty to leave her alone.

"Garnet! Roper!"

Both of them stepped forward, faces blank. The Major was beaming like an idiot as he turned toward them."Victoria, my dear, these are my two right hands, Will Garnet is my foreman and Jake Roper makes sure we're all safe here. Boys, say howdy to my intended, Miss Victoria Waverly."

Victoria's eyes showed nothing as she gracefully held out a slim gloved hand to the foreman."Mr. Garnet," she murmured.

"Ma'am." His hand enclosed hers, and he looked her up and down in a way that made her draw back nervously. She met his gaze and was made even more uneasy by his eyes, which were flat and expressionless, like a snake's.

She withdrew her fingers as quickly as possible, resisting an urge to wipe them on her skirt. Instead, she turned to the other man,"Mr. Roper."

She looked up at him and froze. His hat was pulled down low over his eyes, but she could still see them glittering coldly at her. He slowly, deliberately lowered his gaze to her breasts and stared at them for what seemed an eternity to her, before raising his eyes to meet hers again with contempt.

Roper ignored her outstretched hand and merely lifted the brim of his hat. Victoria dropped her arm and turned away, her discomfort intensified. If Garnet's manner was offensive, this man was frightening. His face was still, yet he had looked at her with such obvious disrespect that it shook her. No one, not even the Yankee soldiers, had ever looked at her like that.

It took all her self-control to appear calm as she turned to the man she had come three-quarters of the way across the continent to marry."If you don't mind, Major, we'd like to freshen up now. The dust is terrible."

"Of course, of course. Carmita! Show Miss Victoria and the girls where they can wash." His voice was harsh when he spoke to the servants, and Victoria gave him a quick glance. She had been raised to never be rude to a servant. But the short, round, middle-aged woman who answered the Major's summons wore an expression of perpetual good nature.

"Please, this way'" she said with a warm smile.

Victoria turned to find her cousin, Emma, close behind her, but her sister Celia had wandered off toward the corrals. Victoria called to her, and as the girl skipped back, her face aglow with delight, Victoria didn't miss the way most of the men were looking at Celia. Men everywhere looked at Celia with pleasure, but this was different. They watched the girl the way a cat might watch a mouse.

Victoria ushered Celia into the house ahead of her, wondering desperately if she had done the right thing in bringing the girl with her. At least in Augusta she wouldn't have had to deal with these threatening strangers.

Emma fell into step with Victoria, and her cousin's fine dark eyes mirrored her own uneasy impressions."Those men..." Emma murmured.

"Yes," Victoria said.

The huge house was Spanish in style, the walls made of thick, whitewashed adobe. Coolness enveloped them as they stepped inside, and Victoria's spirits lifted as she looked around. The walls were clean and white, the spacious rooms were enlivened with colorful rugs. On the second floor Carmita led them past the first door on the right but opened the second, and beckoned Victoria forward."Your room, señorita," she said.

Victoria was pleased by what she saw. The floor was of dark wood, and a curtained, four-poster bed was set against the left wall. On the right was an enormous armoire. There was a washstand bearing a simple white pitcher and bowl, and a mirrored dressing table for her toilette. Under the window was a chaise longue, and across it was folded a cream-colored blanket."It's lovely," she said, drawing a huge smile from Carmita.

Celia whirled around the room, sending her skirts flying."A room of your own!" she crowed. She and Victoria had shared a room for as long as she could remember, and this was an unimaginable luxury to her."And Emma and I will have rooms of our own, too, won't we?"

Victoria looked at Carmita, who nodded."Yes, of course," she told her sister as she smoothed a golden strand of hair from Celia's face. No, there was no way she could have left her in Augusta with their parents, who were bitter and joyless after the death of their only son in the war. Celia needed laughter and sunshine, and she gave it back in abundance. But she was a fragile, vulnerable girl. Like a hothouse bloom, she needed careful nurturing to flourish.

"May we see my room next? Please, may we?"

Her enthusiasm was contagious, and Victoria found herself laughing with the others as they trooped down the hallway."How many rooms are there in the house, Carmita?" she asked.

"Fifteen, señorita. Eight downstairs, seven upstairs."

"You are the housekeeper?"

"Si. There is also Lola, the cook, and my daughter, Juana, who helps me in the house."

Victoria had caught a glimpse of a black-haired young woman when they arrived."Was it Juana I saw at the stables?"

Carmita's face hardened."No, señorita. That was Angelina Garcia. Juana does not go to the stables."

"What does Angelina do?"

Carmita only shrugged, and didn't explain. Victoria made a mental note to ask again about this Angelina.

The rooms assigned to Emma and Celia were identical, square and plain, but possessing simple charm. Celia bounced on each double bed in turn, ecstatic at their good fortune, and even Emma's eyes held a fragile hope that things were looking better at last. Victoria tried to muster some of that same sense of optimism, but instead her heart could manage only the slow, heavy beat of dread. She had to marry Frank McLain, and only desperation had brought her to this pass. He had been outwardly kind, but she doubted she would ever be able to make herself feel comfortable with him.

At the thought of marrying him, a shudder shook her. He was barrel-chested and thick-necked, like a bull, though he wasn't very tall; the combination made him appear brutish. Victoria felt suffocated at the idea of sharing a room with him.

She had brought Emma and Celia with her thinking that at least they would have food and clothing enough to be secure. The war had reduced them, quite literally, to starvation, and the Major had seemed their only hope. But after meeting those men -- Garnet and Roper -- and seeing the others standing back with their awful interest in Celia, she had to doubt her wisdom in taking her cousin and sister from Augusta.

Roper had stared at her with contempt in his cold eyes. She shivered and decided she would stay far away from the man. She was glad he hadn't taken her hand when she'd offered it; she was glad he hadn't touched her. Yet she wondered why he had looked at her like that, as if she were trash. Never in her twenty-one years had anyone done that; she was a Waverly, her mother was a Creighton, and both families could trace their roots back several centuries to English nobility. Before the war, they had been at the top of the social pyramid. Before the war...

Before the war, she reminded herself, a lot of things had been different. She straightened her shoulders. She had lost the privileged way of life she had been born to, the luxuries, the comfort and protection of wealth. She had gone from having it all to having nothing, but she had coped. She had kept her head high even when she was hungry, even when her dresses were threadbare and she shivered with cold, when her only pair of shoes had holes in the bottom. Dresses and shoes had never been the sum of her existence, so she had never mourned for the loss of them.

What the war had done was shatter her family, taking a cousin here, an uncle there. Emma's fiancé had been killed the first winter, and the echo of sadness had never left her eyes. Emma's mother, Victoria's mother's sister, had died in '63. Her cousin had come to live with the Waverlys. Then Victoria's adored older brother, Robert, had been killed in the Wilderness campaign. After that she had also lost her parents. They still lived, after a fashion, but their hearts had died.

Victoria had always known that Robert was the magic one, the center of the family, but she'd never...

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