THIS HEART FOR HIRE
By Elysa Hendricks
A convent reared innocent and a gunslinger with no memory struggle to survive and find love while crossing the dangerous west Texas frontier.
Abandoned by his father and betrayed by his half-brother and fiancée on the eve of his wedding, JAKE GALLAGHER no longer believes in love. Though he longs to go home, his undercover work for the Texas Rangers keeps him in a lawless Texas border town. Even though it jeopardizes his mission he refuses to stand by and watch outlaws rape and murder a young woman. Getting shot and losing his memory wasn’t part of his plan.
While fleeing from her stepfather’s plans to steal their ranch, CHRISTINA GOODWIN witnesses her brother’s murder and is left in the hands of a merciless band of outlaws. Raised in a strict convent, Christina has little knowledge of men or the world, its dangers and temptations. Frightened and alone, she is forced to accept the help of the dark gunslinger who rescues her. Though drawn to Jake’s potent masculinity, she hesitates to trust him, fearing her stepfather has sent him to bring her back. Unsure of Jake’s motives for helping her, she struggles against him, determined to find a way to avenge her brother’s death and regain control of her ranch from her stepfather.
Christina's eyes widened at the sight of the bulge threatening to escape the gap in the man's trousers. She could almost still feel it pressing against the juncture of her thighs. Her hands trembled in rage.
"How dare you touch me?" She tightened her grip on the gun with one hand and with the other dragged the blanket up in an attempt to cover her torn nightdress.
He shrugged his shoulders. "I apologize for my ungentlemanly behavior."
He didn't sound sorry, he sounded amused.
What should she do now? Shoot him? The thought tempted her, but what about the men downstairs? He'd saved her from them. But for what purpose? Perspiration prickled under her arms.
"You know how to shoot a pistol, Kitten?"
"Be quiet or you'll find out. And stop calling me that ridiculous name. I need to think."
"Anything you say, ma'am."
Nothing in her convent training prepared her for this situation. The only men she remembered dealing with were Father Jose, her brother Christopher, and her stepfather. This man was nothing like them.
In the dimly lit room, she couldn't make out the man's features, but he appeared tall, with broad shoulders and lean hips. He exuded an aura of strength and power. Even Mother Superior would have trouble giving orders to this man.
She gulped and felt her skin grow warm. Bruised and battered, physically and mentally, she longed to curl up under the covers and weep. She couldn't. Christopher was gone, dead, killed by the men below. The sound of a shot had jolted her from sleep just before a man burst into her room.
Alone now, she didn't have time to weep. She needed to be strong.
Struggling to make sense out of the events, her brain refused to function. The terror of the last hour, combined with her travel exhaustion, left her lost and confused.
The floorboards squeaked as the man shifted his weight.
"I said don't move." Her voice shook, along with the gun.
Christina focused on him. Unless she took care she would join her brother...or worse.
"If you don't mind, it's a mite chilly." The man gestured toward his shirt lying near the foot of the bed.
Christina stared at his bare chest. Chilly? She felt hot. She nodded curtly.
He bent over and picked up his shirt.
"Back over there and get dressed." She used the heavy gun to motion him toward the room's far corner.
He complied, but the small room still left him too close for her to relax.
Tears started at the back of her eyes. She blinked them away. Christopher was dead and the blame lay with her. He hadn't wanted to stay in this seedy little town, but after two weeks on the trail, she begged for one night in a real bed.
After she overheard their stepfather's plans, she persuaded Christopher to flee the Rocking A ranch, though he argued they should stay and confront the man.
If they had stayed, would Christopher be alive? Or would they both be dead?
Four years younger than Christopher, Christina didn't know her brother well. For the last twelve years Christopher lived in St. Louis with their uncle, while their stepfather left her to be raised in the convent. Though they corresponded, only within the last month were they reunited.
Their childhood affection remained intact, but they were strangers. Still, she would miss him.
The gun barrel tipped downward. Her gaze followed. She swallowed at the sight the gun now targeted on the man. Tightening her grip, she lifted both her eyes and the gun upward.
Dangerous. The word came to mind as Christina watched the man button his trousers and pull on his shirt. He moved with the fluid grace of a big cat.
She remembered the strength his rugged body held and how easily he took control. The memory of his hard muscles holding her helpless against the bed made her shudder. Still, he hadn't hurt her. His grip, while inflexible, wasn't painful. Not like those other men who pawed her with hurtful hands. Yet, if not for the gun she held, how long before he finished what he started?
"May I sit?"
Christina jumped. She did it again, allowed her mind to wander. The man stood in front of her, his chest practically touched the muzzle of the gun. His closeness reignited her fear. Scrambling backward on the bed, she lost her balance and tumbled sideways. The gun slipped from her moist fingers and fell with a clunk to the floor at his feet.
Afraid to raise her eyes, she sprawled helpless across the bed. What would he do now? Rape her? Shoot her? Unsure what rape entailed, she didn't know which fate would be worse.
"I think you dropped this." The man's voice, low and soothing, penetrated her haze. She forced herself to look up at him.
One knee on the bed, he loomed over her, a dark, threatening presence. The gun rested loosely on his open palm.
Her eyes widened in shock. He was giving her the gun! Was it a trick?
"Go ahead. Take it if it makes you feel better." He grinned at her. "If you like I'll even show you how to shoot it." He laid the gun next to her hand and backed away.
Christina looked at the gun then at him. She shook her head. Despite everything she knew she couldn't shoot him, even if she could figure out how. Killing was a mortal sin.
The man ran his hand through his hair and scowled. "Damnation woman, let's get something straight." He leaned toward her, then swore again as she tried to scramble further away. The blanket slid through her fingers and tangled around her hips and legs, ensnaring her.
Before she could free herself and escape, he sat down and wrapped the scratchy blanket around her shoulders.
"Listen to me."
Caught between his hard body and the wall, what choice did she have? She refused to look at him.
"I'm not going to rape, or shoot or otherwise hurt you."
His words, while she assumed were meant to reassure her, sounded harsh and angry.
"I didn't rescue you from those animals downstairs to finish the job myself. I am not going to hurt you." He barked the words at her. "I don't take unwilling women to bed."
He wasn't going to rape or shoot her. Venturing a look at his scowling face, she placed her palm against his chest, where his shirt lay open, to push him away. Warmth from his smooth, surprisingly soft skin seeped into her fingers. "You took off your clothes." She struggled to keep the quiver of fear out of her voice.
The man shifted on the bed. A hint of red appeared on his cheeks. "Yeah, well, not all of them."
"Only because I stopped you."
"Maybe." He flashed her a boyish grin. "I had to convince Conchita you were my woman, not Rico's." He put a finger beneath her chin and lifted her face to his. "Did I hurt you?" His eyes locked on hers.
"No-o," she stammered.
"Well then, what's the problem?"
"But-but, I..." She looked up at the dark stranger in confusion. No, he hadn't hurt her. Yes, he saved her from the men below. But for what? If he didn't want her body and he didn't mean to kill her, what did he plan on doing with her?
Her eyes widened. Oh no! Had her stepfather sent him to bring her back?
"I'm not going back." She went rigid and spat the words at him.
She curled the hand laying on his chest into a claw and raked it across his skin.
The man jumped. "What the Hell!" He grabbed her wrists as she tried to scramble away.
Though unsure of its meaning, Christina shouted a word Conchita had used. "Let go, Bastardo!"
Christina fought his hold. No match for his strength, she wiggled in impotent fury when he trussed her in the blanket like some Egyptian mummy. "Let me loose! How much is my stepfather paying you? I'll double it."
Ignoring her outburst, the man went over to the window to examine the scratches on his chest. Though superficial, they had to sting. The satisfaction Christina took in the fact caused her convent-reared soul only a moment of guilt. He deserved it. As if he heard her thoughts, he turned around and glared at her. She went still and watched him warily.
"What in the hell am I going to do with you? I've got a job to do, if I haven't already blown it. It won't be long before Rico's men realize what they've let slip through their fingers. I need to get you out of here before they demand I give you back. But how?" Though he spoke out loud, Christina realized he wasn't addressing his comments to her.
He stalked over to the room's one window. "Can't get out this way. Room's a good twenty feet up. No ledges."
Opening the door a crack, he peered out. "No way I can sneak you past them now. But they're drinking heavily. Maybe we'll get lucky later and they'll all pass out. A slim chance, but it looks like our only one." He closed the door and propped a chair under the doorknob. "Won't keep anyone out for long, but the noise will give us a few seconds warning."
He moved back to the bed and lay down, pinning her between his body and the wall. She tried to stay stiff, but his heat and scent wrapped around her.
"Move over," he growled in her ear. "I've been on the trail for the last three days, catching up with Rico. I need some sleep and so do you. Besides, looks like we're stuck here 'til morning."
"What are you doing?"
Squirming to put some space between them she loosened the blanket and managed to shove an elbow in his midsection.
"Oof! Be still or I'll tie you up." He put his arm around her waist.
"Unhand me this instant! Go sleep on the floor."
"Not likely. I'm staying right here so I can keep an eye and a hand on you. But you go on wiggling if it makes you feel better."
Under her breath, she muttered one of the words Conchita had used. Though she knew the word was improper, it accurately reflected her feelings at the moment.
"What was that?"
The man's laughter felt warm against the nape of her neck, stirring the fine hairs. The scent of him, leather and beer, mingled with soap and spice, teased her nose. A shiver, unrelated to fear, went through her.
Within minutes his body relaxed in slumber.
Christina held herself rigid in his embrace. She wouldn't go back. She would never agree to marry her stepfather.
As surely as if he pulled the trigger himself John Anderson killed Christopher. She didn't know how, but she would make him pay for his crimes, past and present.
Exhaustion warred with anger, but her fear faded. Held close against the stranger's hard body, she felt oddly secure. His warmth wrapped around her like a thick blanket making her feel safe and protected rather than threatened. The heat of his large hands splayed across her belly penetrated her thin nightdress. His other hand rested below her heart, his fingers brushing the underside of her breast. She wiggled trying to dislodge his hands. He responded by tightening his hold.
Like a big mountain cat, he would pounce at her first attempt to rise. If her stepfather sent this man after her, she was well and truly caught.
Elysa Hendricks is 5'6" tall. She has curly hair and brown eyes. She's an author, a wife, a mother and a daughter. Everything else is subject to change without notice.
After trying her hand at a variety of careers, insurance underwriter, video storeowner, home day care and cleaning houses, Elysa Hendricks, a longtime reader sat down to write a short contemporary novel. When her heroine turned out to be a winged, telepathic alien, Elysa decided she enjoyed writing stories set in different places and times.
While living in north east Illinois she helped found the Windy City Chapter and the Futuristic, Fantasy & Paranormal Chapters of Romance Writers of America and taught workshops on writing at writer’s conferences and at local community colleges. Recently relocated to central Ohio she’s happy to be part of the Central Ohio Fiction Writer family.
Someday she dreams of writing on a laptop while sitting on a tropical beach. In the meantime she keeps warm during Ohio’s chilly winters by creating sizzling love scenes.