Monday, June 16, 2014


It's here! The first book in the Harker's Hell series, DISOBEDIENCE, is available now. Hope you enjoy this small taste of my world: 


Harker’s Hell. Early settlers thought they’d found a western re-creationist’s heaven there. Instead this new world became a hellish version of the Old West. Now the seeds of long-ago conflict are stirring to life…


Dissonance Walker is in a world of trouble. Sold to a secret organization by her parents, her ability to disobey is ripped away by a brutal experiment. When she escapes, Dissonance believes the worst is over. She’s dead wrong. She’s captured and sold as a pleasure slave.

The key to reversing the experiment lies hidden in the stretch of arid waste called the Badlands. Problem is, the too-sexy bounty hunter who bought her stands in her way.


Bram Spencer is sure the heat has baked his brains. With his friend murdered and his ranch under attack, he needs to attend to a little unfinished business.… It sure didn’t include buying some fool woman because she pokes at scabs he thought long healed. Then he discovers the only way to set her free is to marry her.

Secrets have a long life. Sometimes decades. Now the past is about to slam into the present. Only trust can save Dissonance and Bram from a shocking evil … but trust is a hard commodity to come by on the frontier.


I created bounty hunters—and gave them absolute power.

Chapter 1

Demonstrate your skill, slave. I order you, take him in your mouth.”
Bram Spencer ignored the vulgar command coming from the front of the packed saloon, ignored the fact a pleasure auction was taking place, something that under normal circumstances would have had him turning right back around. He let the batwing doors swing closed behind him.
Six mares. Six very fine mares that had been core to the Flying A’s breeding program, slaughtered, and left like so much offal for the vultures to pick clean. Ned Hansom was going to pay. This time, Bram refused to let lack of evidence get in the way of justice.
The distinctive crack of whip against flesh sounded. A woman’s cry pierced the hot, heavy air.
Something inside Bram stilled, became a cold, deep well of darkness. His reaction instinctive, he turned left, toward the island of light at the front, instead of toward Hansom’s closed office door at the back.
In the low, flickering glow from the kerosene lamps that lined the walls, Bram saw men, ten deep, crowded around the stage, shirts plastered to their backs in the stifling heat. The smell of rancid tobacco, sweat, and lust hovered in the air in an almost visible miasma.
But what captured his attention was the young woman standing at the edge of the wooden dais. Light limned her figure, made a halo out of her blonde hair. Bram couldn’t take his gaze off her. It wasn’t that he could see her nipples beneath the muslin camisole. Or the dark shadow that hinted at the vee of her thighs. No, it was the small fists balled next to her sides as she stared out over the audience as if daring them to buy her.
The hard tension holding his muscles battle-ready released. Damn, would he never learn? He studied the woman with a cynical eye, wondering what she’d done to end up a pleasure slave. Probably skipped out on some debt and got caught. On Harker’s Hell, not honoring an obligation was the surest way into the clutches of a trainer. No debtor prisons here. Didn’t matter in any case, wasn’t his business.
Across the sea of men, her gaze locked onto his. He lifted one brow in mocking inquiry.
Help me.
It wasn’t a plea. It was a demand. Bram shook his head.
Fury flashed in her eyes.
Contrary cuss that he was, Bram shook his head again. If Goldie there was looking for a hero, she’d latched onto the wrong man. He’d tried it once and it hadn’t agreed with him. His hand went to a spot just center right of his chest, and rubbed.
Sorry, honey. That dog don’t hunt. He gave one short, final shake of his head even as he moved over to the bar. Something squished under his boot. Bram’s lip curled. Figured, the way his luck ran lately. No tellin’ what he’d catch if he actually plunked his ass down in a chair. One beer and he was outta there.
Back against the age-polished wood, he signaled for the drink and let his gaze drift around the saloon before returning it to the raised platform. When the bartender slid the glass beside him, Bram tipped his hat away from his forehead and took a sip. “What’s going on?” He kept his eyes on the run-down stage that back in its heyday had sported velvet drapes.
“Silas Trainer of Deadwood Territory is auctioning off a couple of slaves.” The bartender jerked a disinterested thumb in the direction of the platform. “That one’s the last. Supposed to be special.” He shrugged. “Claims she’s trained to obey any order.”
Trainers held a unique position on Harker’s Hell. Once a person joined the profession, they gave up their surnames in favor of Trainer. They weren’t a particularly respectable lot, but what they offered was in demand.
Elbows on the scarred wood, Bram studied the slave as she took one small step, then another, toward the fat man sitting in the middle of the stage, his legs splayed apart. Somehow, he couldn’t see obedience and those flashing eyes going together.
Another small step gave him a glimpse of a shapely ankle. Bram’s groin stirred, catching him by surprise. He growled, a low, nearly silent sound. Stupid thing had less common sense than the fool dog that had started following him around a couple weeks ago, a battered tin plate in its massive maw.
Bram considered his reaction to a woman who looked as if he’d have to fish around in the bedsheets to find her before he could make love to her. He didn’t like small women and doubted this one would reach much above the center of his chest. Besides, she was too damn skinny. Nothing there for a man to hang onto.
His gaze locked on the stage and the woman there, he shifted to a more comfortable position. Despite her shortcomings, the wild halo of sunshine blonde hair and the creamy skin revealed by the camisole was fetching. He let out a slow breath before taking a long swallow of the bitter liquid. Showed what going too long without could do to a man. He’d fix that first chance he got, and it damn sure wouldn’t be in here.
Her hands were still clenched into small fists, and Bram gained the distinct impression she wanted to hit someone. When she turned her head and unerringly met his gaze, hers hot with challenge, a small grin tugged at his mouth. No doubt who she had in mind.
“Hey, Silas. I think you’re lying outta your ass. This here gal ain’t trained.” The drunken bellow sounded over the hoots and catcalls.
An expansive smile did little to mute the hard glitter in the slave trainer’s muddy brown eyes. The man spread his arms. “Just a little shy. This one, gentlemen, is different. She is, as you so astutely noted, still in need of some refining, yet she will obey any direct order. Hold, gal.” As if on an invisible leash, the woman jolted to a halt. “Watch.”
Fear flashed across her face.
Bram straightened. Without looking, he set the beer on the bar.
Auctions were considered one of the tamer forms of entertainment in the Territories, and one he made a point of avoiding, but there was something about this auction that rasped across Bram’s nerves like a dull knife. Wasn’t the fear on the woman’s face. No, out here on the fringes of what passed for civilization, fear was a fact of life. Same as breathing. Wasn’t that, but something else. Something he didn’t like seeing on any woman’s face.
Coating the fear was an agony so strong he could taste it.
“Gal, kneel.”
Once again, her gaze sought his.
Goddammit, why did she keep looking at him like she expected him to help? Couldn’t she tell he was the last man she should turn to? Feeling cornered and mean, he gave a sharp, negative shake of his head to her unspoken question.
Bram closed his eyes on the sudden tightness in his chest. But he couldn’t close out the stark whiteness of her face, or what he could swear was bone-deep disappointment in her eyes. When he opened his, she knelt on the stage, her bottom facing the audience.
“Untie your petticoats.”
Long, elegant fingers, a visible tremble in them, worked on the side fastenings. A shudder went through the too-slender form.
Sickness swept through Bram’s stomach. Didn’t have to read the book to know what was coming next. Calling himself every kind of fool for caring, Bram moved. He used his height and bulk to clear a path. Three more steps. Just three more steps and he’d be close enough to leap onto the stage. Already he could feel the slimy trainer’s throat beneath his fingers.
“Push ʼem down.”
Silence rushed over the crowd as the frothy material slid down inch by inch to reveal a perfect heart-shaped behind clad only in bloomers so paper-tissue thin they might as well not be there.
Bram froze mid step. A low curse escaped him. Visible through the material, a single bright red lash mark marred the perfection of the pale buttocks.
Catcalls and obscene suggestions shook the rafters. The sound uprooted Bram’s boots. He reached the edge of the stage just as the trainer ordered, “Position four.”
Long, rounded, not-at-all-skinny thighs parted. Slow, as if she fought the command all the way. Down, down, she went until her forehead touched the scuffed wood of the floor.
“I guarantee she’s a genuine virgin, gentlemen. Imagine. You can bind her with your word alone. No matter how rough you take her or how much you hurt her, she will not fight.” An oily smile smeared across Silas Trainer’s face. “Unless, of course, you like ʼem to fight.” He winked. “In that case, just give the order.” He stroked a finger down the crease separating the surprisingly plump globes.
Another shudder went through her.
Instant fury roared through Bram.
Each finger. He was going to break each fucking finger.
“She never sucked Cal,” the same drunk called out. “You’re lyin’ to us to get the bids higher.”
“Never, gentlemen, and I shall prove it. Cal, being the last high bidder and desirous of a demonstration, shall have it. Up Dissonance. Go to Cal. These gentlemen want to see what they’ll get for their money.”
The slave staggered to her feet. She turned her head, scanned over the panting, leering mob to the back of the bar.
Bram knew with sure instinct she looked for him.
Her shoulders slumped. Without protest, she stepped out of the mass of petticoats and stumbled toward the sitting man.
Guilt sucker-punched Bram in the gut.
“Stop.” The word was out of his mouth before his brain even got into gear.
The woman swayed to a standstill. Unmistakable relief eased the lines of strain around her mouth and eyes. The belief in that gaze, when it met his, staggered Bram.
Damn it all to hell.
Putting one large hand on the stage, Bram leapt up in a smooth, graceful motion. The trainer took a quick step back, a wary flicker in his mud-colored eyes.
“How much?” Awareness and an inexplicable heat prickled down Bram’s spine, and he knew without looking that she watched him. He’d never had such an intense reaction to a woman in his life. Bram wasn’t sure he liked it. Not sure one little bit. Life was much less complicated when a man could walk away without looking back.
“W-what do you mean?”
Bram leaned a little closer. “I said how much. How much do you want for her?”
The smaller man gripped the lapels of his poorly cut jacket, and puffed out his chest like a banty rooster. Two fingers of his left hand lifted. Bram didn’t miss the small movement. Nor the fact that at the signal several rough, powerful men moved in from the sidelines.
Bram ignored them for the moment and focused on the man in front of him. Goddamn, it chapped his ass that he’d sunk to the level of buying a woman.
Some things, once done, couldn’t be undone. He knew. Knew the cost and knew the consequences of taking just one step past what your conscience would allow.
He also knew, right at this moment, the slave had forgotten he’d stayed to watch them auction her off like so much cattle on the hoof. What would she think if she found out he’d done worse things in his life? Much worse. Would the miner, or even Trainer, not look so bad then?
Evidently, just the knowledge the bouncers were closing in stiffened the smaller man’s backbone. “Get back in the audience and bid like everyone else. These men are waiting for a demonstration.” He swept his arm out. “Isn’t that right, gentlemen?”
“Damn straight. Get your ass down, cowboy,” came the shout.
“I said, how much?” His low words carried despite the noise. It was the idiot’s own fault if he didn’t recognize the threat underlying the soft question. From the corner of his eye, he saw Cal start to rise.
Bram drew and fired his gun in one seamless move. The bullet hit right between the man’s legs. Splinters from the wooden chair imbedded themselves in the miner’s thighs. Face pasty and slack with shock, he sat.
Silas Trainer wiped a hand over his forehead. He no longer looked so confident. “He bid fifty dollars.”
Damn liar. More like twenty. Bram didn’t call the trainer on the exaggeration as his ears picked up renewed rumbling from the crowd. His back teeth ground together. If he wanted to get out of there without a full-fledged brawl, he needed to seal the deal.
“Put your petticoats on, lady,” he said without turning his head. Not that it’d made a lick of difference. The image of her in the threadbare garments was already seared into his memory. He scowled. As it was for every cowboy, miner, and man jack in the place.
Always ready to take offense, and not yet ready to have their fun ended, several dirty, unkempt cowboys climbed onto the stage as the woman obeyed his terse command. Before Bram could react, a shotgun sounded behind the crowd.
Everyone froze as if one of the rare ice storms had sleeted down from the sky.
“Back in your seats, gentlemen.” Irony laced the stranger’s last word.
Bram didn’t recognize the voice. Didn’t really care who it was as long as he was on his side. “Get me a table,” he called out.
A lean, blond man stepped out of the shadows. In one hand he held a small, round table. A shotgun rested in the crook of the other arm. He pushed through the motley collection of cowboys, miners, gamblers and townsfolk, and tossed the table onto the dais before jumping up after it. Though he didn’t smile, his hazel eyes were amused. “Somebody piss in your beer?”
“Lookin’ to find out?” Bram growled.
“Then shut up and witness this bill of sale.”
“I will have you arrested.” Silas’s hand, the left one, crept inside his jacket.
“Unless you’re looking to wind up planted six foot deep, I suggest you take your hand off that derringer.” Never failed. No good deed went unpunished. Getting involved was a fucking pain in the ass.
“She belongs to me. The law says so.”
“The law won’t do squat,” Bram broke in, his finger itching on the trigger. As God was his witness, he just knew he was going to regret not plugging the little weasel. Bram pulled three platinum coins from his left shirt pocket and slapped them down on the table.
You could have heard an ant crawl, it was that silent. And Bram knew exactly why; the unique pieces, each worth more than a year’s wages for the average cowboy, branded him a federal bounty hunter.
When Harker’s Hell was settled, old Harker discovered that people will be people. And that meant there wasn’t a law made that wouldn’t get broken. He’d discovered something else, too. This new world was a damn big place. Too damn big to issue a warrant and then haul their asses back to Lil’ Washington, the new territorial capital, to stand trial.
But Bram had to give those earlier bounty hunters credit, they’d tried. Thirty-five lost their lives before those early settlers gave into the inevitable.
Once an arrest warrant was issued, the bounty hunter could hold trial wherever he found the wanted man. No jurors need apply. If found guilty, the person was taken to the nearest town to carry out the punishment, usually a hanging, or executed on the spot.
Most were executed on the spot.
In some cases, the trial had already taken place and all that was left was the killing.
There was a reason people like him were paid so well.
Bram swept a glance over the crowd. Not one man met his eyes. Cowards. Wanted his services to keep them safe but would spit behind his back.
His shoulder blades itched. She was staring. His back tightened. Now she knew. He waited for her gasp of shock but refused to turn. The thought of witnessing the usual disgust and fear that filled most women’s eyes once they learned his profession unsettled him.
Silence. Nothing but silence.
Something in Bram relaxed, not much, but enough for him to breathe.
Silas Trainer licked his lips and reached for the heavy discs.
Bram thumbed the hammer.
At the loud click, Silas’s hand froze, mid-air.
“Not so fast.” Still using his left hand, Bram dug into the saddlebag thrown over his shoulder and pulled out a tally book. He tore out a sheet of paper and shoved it, and a whittled-down nub of a pencil, across the table. “First, the bill of sale.” He showed his teeth. “Just so it’s all legal like. Wouldn’t want the new marshal to get the wrong idea,” he drawled.
“You don’t need a bill of sale.” The other man couldn’t take his eyes off the huge sum sitting in the middle of the table. He snapped his fingers. “Come here, gal.”
She shuffled over to them.
Bram found himself watching her. A frown tugged at his brows. She moved as if each step hurt. He noted the moment she noticed his attention. Her chin lifted, the gesture as haughty as the Territorial governor’s wife. He grinned and crooked his finger, motioning her closer.
There. There was the fire he’d first seen in her eyes. This one didn’t like orders. Not one little bit.
All amusement fled as she drew closer and a faint evergreen fragrance sent blood rushing to his groin. He silently cursed his unruly prick, the woman who’d gotten him into this mess, and the too-knowing gleam in the blond cowboy’s eyes.
Silas yanked down a strap of the slave’s camisole, baring most of a tender upper slope of breast. He held out one hand and a short, cadaverously lean man rushed from behind the curtain. Giving Bram a fearful glance, he shoved a small object into Silas’s hand and rushed back off the stage.
Silas held up a small branding iron. It was like nothing Bram had ever before seen. The trainer manipulated one end, changing the shape of the brand. “Just tell me how to make it.” Trainer snapped his fingers again, and the skeleton man rushed out with a small brazier filled with glowing coals. The branding iron glowed red-hot in the blink of an eye. Hot enough to scorch a deep groove in a hunk of wood.
Hot enough to scar tender skin for life.
Her small gasp ricocheted through Bram with the impact of a splintered bullet. She seemed to shrink in on herself. He couldn’t blame her. The brand wasn’t intended for him and his skin shrank instinctively. “Unless you want that branding iron shoved up your ass, you will write me out a bill of sale and sign it.”
“Friend, you don’t understand. I’ll just brand her and amend her record at the Registry to reflect her change in ownership.”
“I want a bill of sale with your signature, my signature,” he aimed a thumb to his left, “and his signature as witness. Do you understand, friend?” Ice coated each word.
“Uh, yes. Not a problem.” Silas bent over the paper, scribbling rapidly.
Not trusting the trainer as far as he could piss, Bram studied the scrawl carefully. Once he’d read every word, he signed it. He slid the paper over to the cowboy. The blond read the bill of sale before he, too, signed it. Bram folded the document with his left hand before tucking it inside his shirt. The gun in his right never once wavered.
“Time to move,” the blond cowboy said out of the corner of his mouth. He gave a sideways nod at three of the bouncers positioning themselves in front of the batwing doors nearest the stage. A shaft of sunlight glinted off the set of brass knuckles on one man’s hand. From the increased muttering, it was easy to see that the mood of the drunken spectators and bidders was again leaning toward a fight.
“Descriptive, but not very helpful. Any suggestions?” The blond shifted, keeping an eye on the last two bouncers.
Next time he got the bright idea to interfere, he’d get someone to shoot his ass. It’d be less trouble. Across from him, Silas Trainer scooped the coins into a cupped palm.
Bram grinned. Faster than a striking snake, he snatched one from Silas’s sweaty hand.
“Hey, boys. Drinks are on me.” He flipped the heavy platinum over their heads, the coin flashing as it caught the meager light. The bartender lifted one meaty arm and snatched it out of the air.
“Bounty hunter trash,” Silas hissed, clutching the two remaining coins against his chest.
Bram ignored him.
Men surged towards the bar, shouting and calling out their preferences, trapping the saloon’s bouncers and making them useless. Off to one side, lit by the open door of the office, Ned Hansom stood cursing, rage and frustration on his face. He motioned sharply to a couple men loitering near the door. They started pushing their way through the crowd, aiming directly for Bram.
Bram tipped the brim of his hat at Hansom, an insolent smile curving his lips. On the scale of things, it wasn’t much, but it was enough for now.
“That doesn’t look like a man who’ll soon forget you outwitted him,” the cowboy warned, his palm cradling the barrel of the shotgun so he could swing it up at a moment’s notice.
“Counting on it,” Bram said.
“Sounds personal.”
“It is.”
“Well, as fascinating as this conversation is, he’ll have the last laugh if we don’t get moving.”
Bram wrapped one hand just above the woman’s elbow, conscious of the smooth skin and delicate muscle beneath his callused palm. Her cheeks pinkened. Had she felt the same tingle of energy that cascaded through him the moment his skin touched hers?
The cowboy cleared his throat, making Bram aware he’d been standing there like an addlepated fool. He hardened his expression, determined not to let her get under his skin again. Once they were out of the saloon and away from Trainer, he’d get shut of her so fast it’d set her bloomers afire. He opened his mouth to tell— what the hell was her name again? Something stupid sounding. Ah, screw it. “Let’s go.”
She stood there.
Irritation flashed through Bram. “Move it, lady, unless you plan on getting us all killed.”
Awareness flared in her eyes, eyes he now saw were the color of aged whiskey.
Bram yanked, pulling her in the direction of the curtain and the rear exit. He knew he was leaving marks but, dammit, he’d really rather not kill someone today. Or have his hide ventilated again.
His anger had nothing at all to do with the fact his palm still tingled.
Once out on the sidewalk, Bram slowed the pace. He kept his hand on—damn, what was her name?—the slave’s arm.
Harsh afternoon sunlight beat down on the weathered wood. Here and there, warped boards had popped their nails, forming traps for the unwary. He guided her around an older couple coming toward them, not surprised when the other woman drew her skirt to the side as they neared.
Was it his reputation or his appearance? Bram ran his hand over the three-day stubble on his face. The rough whiskers rasped against his palm. He swore under his breath. He hadn’t intended to come to town today so hadn’t bothered to shave.
He gave a slight nod and watched the woman’s gaze skitter away. The man pulled her closer to his side as they passed.
His reputation, then.
“You do have a knack for making friends wherever you go, don’t you?” The blond cowboy leaned across the woman sandwiched between them and offered his hand. “Stone.”
That slow drawl, filled with amusement, was beginning to get on Bram’s nerves. He wondered if it was impolite to shoot the man who helped you. With a true sigh of regret, he decided it probably was.
“It’s a gift.” He eyed the hand a moment longer, then shook it. “Spencer.” The too-wide grin he received in return made him instantly regret the gesture.
The feel of a warm female body crowding up next to his side, as they entered the respectable part of town, took his mind from the irritating cowboy and put it firmly back on the problem of what to do with her. Before he could decide, Bram became aware of the attention they were garnering; the sideways glances, the uneasy drawing away, suddenly reminded him the woman was clad only in her unmentionables, and those scandalous, at best.
He lengthened his stride, intent on hustling her to the livery so he could stash her out of sight while he found her some clothes. She couldn’t stay out on the street dressed as she was. First drunk cowboy who came along would try to claim her and then he’d have to shoot him. The marshal would never forgive him for causing a ruckus on the main street.
Struggling to keep up with him, she shot him a glare when she almost tripped. “Slow down.” Then she clamped her lips together, fine lines forming beside her mouth.
With a sigh, Bram slowed his pace to one she could manage comfortably. It suddenly struck Bram as odd that she hadn’t spoken until now. He shrugged. At least she wasn’t chewing his ass out.
“Hansom won’t be the only one after you, you know.” Stone put a finger to the dusty brim of his hat as an older woman and her young daughter passed. The girl giggled, only to be hastily hushed. He flashed her a smile. The woman rushed her daughter inside the closest establishment. The shop bell jangled furiously behind them.
“Silas? The man has no cause to complain.”
“You stole one of the coins back from him. You don’t think he’s a mite perturbed by that?”
“Hell, no.” Bram lowered his voice as a passerby’s shocked gasp floated back on the hot, still air. He peered around the slave squeezed between them, canting his head so he could see under the brim of the cowboy’s hat. “Why should he? I made him rich. He made more off this one sale than he could in two years. Hell, three years.”
“You made him look the fool. Man doesn’t abide that. Not if he wants to keep his reputation.”
Heat brushed Bram’s arm as the woman tried to burrow into his shadow. The wild profusion of sunshine curls, partially caught back in a loose knot, hid most of her face, but the little he could see was beet red. Couldn’t be helped. His duster was in the wagon and he didn’t think shucking out of his worn, faded woolen shirt would ease her embarrassment. If anything, it’d call more notice to her. Big as he was, walking about shirtless would be like trying to hide a draft horse among mice. He put his arm around her and hauled her up against his side, offering her what concealment he could.
Despite her being a bit of nothing, she fit against him as if she belonged there. And despite knowing he shouldn’t, Bram pulled her closer. That faint scent of evergreen grew stronger, almost pushing out the other, unpleasant odors of daily life.
Chimara, in the heart of Dodge Territory, was a typical frontier town. Well, not exactly typical. It was rougher, dirtier, and uglier than most any other town. It was hell on women and children.
It suited him to a tee.
With an effort, Bram ignored the woman plastered up against his side and picked up his thread of conversation with Stone. “Be more of a fool if he comes after me and he knows it.”
“You forced him to sign a bill of sale.”
“Just speculating, you understand. But what if there were rumors of slaves sold, new owners murdered, and records never amended.”
They stepped off the sidewalk briefly. As they passed an alley, the overpowering smell of manure, heat, and garbage spilled out.
“Quit dancing around. What are you trying to tell me?”
“That you humiliated him. That the transaction isn’t worth the piece of paper it’s written on if you’re dead. That there is only one way to protect your new property.”
“She’s not property,” Bram growled.
“In the eyes of the law, she is.” The blond whistled, a tuneless, one-note melody that Bram instantly wanted to shove back down his throat.
His muscles tightened and his gut burned. “How?”
Bram slammed to a halt causing a small squawk of feminine protest. He shoved the cowboy up against the false front of the mercantile. The old, rough-cut boards scraped his palms and sent splinters into his flesh as he cornered him there. Bram barely felt them. “What did you say?”
“Marriage. You know, vows spoken before a minister, judge or Justice of the Peace. I do’s and promises of love, honor, and obey. You are familiar with the concept, right?” Stone taunted softly, not seeming to notice the imminent danger he was in.
“I am not getting married,” Bram stated. No. He was not the marrying kind. If he wanted to dip his wick, he’d go find a whore. “I’ll give her her freedom.”
“And Silas will have her back before nightfall.”
“I’ll kill the bastard first.” Maybe he should just shoot the son of a bitch anyway. Save some other poor soul from Silas’s tender mercies.
“You can’t set her free.”
“Why the hell not?” While he was at it, he’d shoot Stone, too. Just because. The thought cheered Bram immensely.
“I thought you knew the law. You’re a bounty hunter, right?”
The damn cowboy didn’t have to make it sound like he was an imbecile, Bram thought, getting even more riled. And was that laughter he saw in his eyes? He stared at the man, waiting. Stone stared back.
Hell, he was going to have to ask.
“Tell me.”
“Tell you what?” the cowboy asked, the picture of innocence.
Right between the eyes. No, that was too quick. The balls. He’d shoot the smug son of a bitch in the balls. See how funny he found that.
The cowboy cocked one eyebrow.
“Tell me why I can’t give her freedom,” Bram gritted between set teeth. “I bought her. She’s mine. I can set her free if I want.”
“Nope. ʼFraid not. Are you sure you’re a bounty hunter?”
Dumb cowboy just didn’t know when to stop prodding. He’d been tolerant up ʼtil now. He hadn’t put a bullet in the cowboy, knocked his teeth down his throat, or even scratched him with a knife. This is what a man got for being so easy going. “Was a bounty hunter. And made damn sure I never hunted bounty on slaves.” One more chance, and then his conscience was clear.
“A slave cannot buy freedom, be set free, or in any other fashion become a free person. Except…,” he drawled.
The word hovered between them.
Bram’s curse blistered the hot, dry air as he accepted the inevitable.
“It’s the only way to protect her.” The hazel eyes became serious. “Unless she is bound to you in marriage, she’s free game to every slaver out there if you’re out of the picture. Silas Trainer registers every slave he gets. The man doesn’t even have to kill you to regain his property. All he needs to do is steal her. I guarantee you he’ll have another bill of sale, this one selling her back to him.”
Bram straightened and yanked his hat off his head. He speared his fingers through overly long hair. He truly hated being backed into a corner. “Okay. Say you’re right. What’s to stop Silas or some other trainer from shooting me and claiming her?” Tightness cinched down on Bram’s chest. He didn’t harbor any illusions. He’d make a lousy husband. Hell, anyone with a lick of sense could take one look at him and see that.
Since shortly after its founding, there’d been only one immutable law on Harker’s; once you were married, you stayed married. He couldn’t just marry the slave and let her go her own way, either. He’d be sentencing her to a half-life as neither wife nor single woman. Here, family was everything.
Eyes curious, Stone explained. “Because once married, a person is exempt from slavery for the rest of his or her natural life. Every marriage record is sent to the Registry in Lil’ Washington, along with a tintype and fingerprints, and matched against the slave lists. If a match is found, their slave record is wiped clean. Same as all new slave contracts are compared to the marriage registry; if someone is found to be married or has been married, the contract is rendered null and void. Everyone knows that.”
“Well, I didn’t.” Damn, he now wish he’d bothered to learn how the Registry worked, but he’d decided at fifteen to never get married. And he sure as hell had never thought to own a slave.
“Why do you think they wrote the law that way?” Stone continued. “With the stigma attached to being a slave, how many folks do you think would marry one? How many men or women of your acquaintance would take a spouse who’s spread their legs for half the town?”
The steel jaws of the trap snapped shut.
He wanted to slam his fist into the side of the building. He turned to the silent woman. She faced away from him, arms around her middle, and the beauty of that pale, next to bare back tightened something low in his gut. So unlike his hide, which was darkened and toughened by wind, rain and the brutal lash of the suns.
She turned slowly to face him. Bram’s mouth went dry at the large nipples visible through the thin cotton. They were deep pink. Blood rushed to his cock. The damn thing had never fully deflated. At this rate, he’d be walking doubled over.
“Well?” Shit. He hadn’t meant to growl the question.
Before she could answer, boot heels rang out on the wooden sidewalk. The faint, musical jingle of spurs accompanied each measured step.
Sonovabitch. Just what he needed to make his day complete. Bram didn’t have to turn to know who stood behind him. Micah Coulter, friend, fellow bounty hunter, and brand-new federally appointed marshal of Chimara.
Fate was a bitch and she had it in for him. That was the only explanation. He braced himself and faced his friend.
“Bram.” The marshal tipped his head first at Bram, and then Stone. “I see you caught up with him.”
Bram frowned, but Micah was speaking again, diverting his attention.
“Mind telling me what is going on? I have half a dozen good folks complaining about the shenanigans going on right in the middle of town in broad daylight. Way I hear it, you two are having congress with this lady”—he nodded at the woman beside Bram—“right out on the sidewalk.”
Bram put his arm around the still silent woman next to him as Micah gave her a slow, head-to-toe perusal, lingering a moment too long on the mouth-watering nipples revealed by the thin muslin. Micah might be his best friend, but both eyes were about to be blackened if he didn’t quit staring.
“From the state of her clothes, or lack thereof, looks like they might be right.” A gust of wind blew Micah’s long, blue-black hair as he waited to hear Bram’s explanation.
Bram ground his back teeth. Micah would laugh himself sick if he knew the truth.
Stone, the bastard, opened his mouth before Bram could think of a lie Micah would buy.
“Couldn’t be farther from the truth, Marshal.” He stuck both thumbs in the front pockets of his jeans, and rocked back on his heels. “We were discussing marriage.”
A frown creased Micah’s brow. “Marriage?” He looked from Bram to the woman now pressed up to Bram’s side, amazement in the depths of his dark, almost black eyes.
Micah knew Bram’s taste in women. Usually, it was busty brunettes with enough meat on their bones a man wouldn’t get poked. Not puny little blondes with more hair than curves.
“Marriage,” Bram confirmed.
Micah’s frown deepened. He wouldn’t let it go. The man was like a dog with a bone. Only thing to do was pony up and confess. Bram tightened his arm, pulling her even closer. He didn’t like the way the woman was so quiet. In his experience, that meant either she was up to something or about to cry. He cringed inwardly. Rather have her try to slit his throat than weep all over him. Just in case, he rubbed his fingers over her hip, trying to reassure her. “I bought her over at Hansom’s. From a trainer named Silas.”
Micah’s gaze sharpened. “You were at a slave auction?”
He made it sound as if Bram had claimed Hell had opened and spewed forth the Sunday choir. “Stopped in for a drink.”
“In Hansom’s?” One dark brow arched.
“Yes,” he replied shortly, not willing to get into it in the middle of town. Micah knew he suspected Ned Hansom was behind the attacks on Bram’s ranch.
“But, marriage?”
Bram shot a glare at the still grinning cowboy. “According to your friend here, the law says I can’t let her go free.”
Micah nodded as if that made sense. “So you’re going to keep her.”
“I’m going to keep her.” Bram remembered the woman in question hadn’t answered. “If she wants to be kept.”

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