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Authors: The Outlaw's Bride

Liz Ireland

BOOK: Liz Ireland
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After this harrowing day, Lang could talk about love till his tongue dropped off.

She’d never know whether or not to believe him. His kindness, his heart-stopping gaze and the hard, broad muscles beneath his shirt made her want to trust his sincerity. If he’d just take her in his arms, she might see her way to making a more certain judgment….

She took a deep breath, drawing in oxygen like courage. She’d made a fool of herself this day—surely one more bit of lunacy couldn’t hurt. Maybe that way she could confine a lifetime’s foibles to one neat twenty-four-hour period.

“May I ask you a favor?”

Lang’s dark brows rose in curiosity. “Of course.”

“Would you kiss me like there was no tomorrow?”

And who knows, she thought. There might not be. Because if Lang said no, she might die of embarrassment right there on her old spinster bed.

Dear Reader,

Welcome to Harlequin Historicals, Harlequin/Silhouette’s
only
historical romance line! We offer four unforgettable love stories each month, in a range of time periods, settings and sensuality. And they’re written by some of the best writers in the field!

We’re very excited to bring you
The Outlaw’s Bride,
a terrific Western by rising talent Liz Ireland. Some of you may know Liz from her contemporary romances for Harlequin. This is a heartwarming tale of two people who fall in love, despite the odds against them. Emma Colby scandalizes her small Texas town when she takes in an injured farmer, who is really a reputed outlaw. The two deny their feelings for each other—until the local sheriff brings things to a boil!

Deborah Simmons returns with a frothy new Regency romance,
The Gentleman Thief,
about a beautiful bluestocking who stirs up trouble when she investigates a jewel theft and finds herself scrutinizing—and falling for—an irresistible marquis. Carolyn Davidson’s Western
The Bachelor Tax
features a least-likely-to-marry rancher who tries to avoid a local tax by proposing to the one woman he’s
sure
will turn him down—the prim preacher’s daughter….

My Lady Reluctant
is a thrilling new medieval novel by Laurie Grant about a Norman lady who must travel to court to find a husband. En route, she is attacked by outlaws but rescued by a mysterious and handsome knight…. Don’t miss it!

Enjoy! And come back again next month for four more choices of the best in historical romance.

Sincerely,

Tracy Farrell

Senior Editor

T
HE
O
UTLAW’S
B
RIDE
L
IZ
I
RELAND
Available from Harlequin Historicals and LIZ IRELAND

Cecilia and the Stranger
#286

Millie and the Fugitive
#330

Prim and Improper
#410

A Cowboy’s Heart
#466

The Outlaw’s Bride
#498

Other works include:

Silhouette Romance

Man Trap
#963

The Birds and the Bees
#988

Mom for a Week
#1058

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Heaven-Sent Husband
#639

The Groom Forgets
#683

Baby For Hire
#767

Harlequin Love & Laughter

The Hijacked Bride
#59

Chapter One

1882

“O
h, no! It’s old Joe Spears!”

With stunning agility for one who was eight months pregnant, Lorna McCrae heaved herself out of the porch’s rocking chair and, with her curly blond hair flying, scurried just inside the front door. She peered out fearfully, as if there were an army coming down the hill, not just one cranky old storekeeper.

Emma Colby, who was sitting on the top step of the porch enjoying the afternoon shade of the veranda that draped the length of the house like a comfortable old shawl, squinted at the approaching man on the mule. Usually a visitation from Joe Spears would strike dread in her heart, too, but Lorna’s exaggerated reaction made her chuckle instead.

“Don’t laugh, Emma. He’s the biggest gossip in town!”

Emma stood. “Good. Maybe we’ll be able to find out a little about what they’re saying about us.” Really, there was no maybe about it. Joe Spears, the proprietor of the Midday Mercantile, hadn’t earned his knows-all-tells-all reputation by accident.

She squared her shoulders as the rider drew closer and
willed her lips to draw up in a welcoming smile. “Hello, Mr. Spears!” She tried to sound as if he were just the man she was hoping would lope down her path.

Joe’s wiry frame descended from the mule as spryly as his seventy years and his lumbago would allow. He greeted her with a curt nod of his head. “Emma.” His wide hat practically swallowed his scalp, but he pushed back the brim, giving her a better view of his wrinkly, grizzled old face. His watery blue eyes were still sharp. “You’re lookin’ poorly today. Kinda pale, and skinnier than usual, I’d say.”

She kept smiling through his physical assessment. Joe wasn’t known for flattery. “I’m doing well, thank you,” she replied as if he’d just paid her a flowery compliment. “As well as I’ve been since…well, since Doc died.”

For a moment the old man’s wrinkles went slack, and he glanced nervously around at the large wood frame house and the massive live oak trees shading it, as if Dr. Colby’s ghost might be haunting the place. “Hard to believe…”

“Yes, it is,” she said, knowing what he meant without his even having to say it. It
was
hard to believe her father was gone, even though she herself had nursed him through two years of terrible illness. After three months, the absence of the wry, wise man who had been as much friend as father to her was still just sinking in.

Joe abruptly pulled an envelope from his jacket pocket. “I just happened to be in the post office and noticed this letter arrived for you from Galveston. Thought I’d bring it over.”

Emma doubted that was his sole reason for the visit, but took the letter and tucked it into the pocket of her apron. “Thank you.”

“Ain’t you gonna read it?” Joe asked.

“Oh, I imagine so.”

But she made no move to do so now, which seemed to vex Joe. “I never met a woman yet who could abide a sealed envelope.”

Emma grinned. Apparently some men couldn’t abide one, either.

His sharp eyes focused in on her pocket, as if trying to detect what the contents of the envelope might be. “I guess that letter would be from Rose Ellen.”

She nodded. “Yes, I expect so.”

Rose Ellen was her younger sister, who had married a businessman from Galveston seven years ago, breaking the heart of practically every man in Midday and three surrounding counties. Evidently her nuptials had left even Joe’s craggy old heart tattered and torn.

“She’s been writin’ you every week since Doc died,” he observed.

Emma nodded. The last one she’d barely skimmed. But then, she’d known what it would say. “Every week.”

Joe practically quivered in frustration. “Folks in town are wondering what’s going to happen with it all, Emma. I mean with the house and such. Oh, and you, of course.”

She continued to smile. No one in town knew that her father had left the house, land and everything on it to Emma and nothing but good wishes to his younger daughter. Emma had been as astounded as Rose Ellen by the bequest. It made her feel uneasy. Why would her father have left her everything?

“I expect things will go on as they are,” she told Joe. At least until she could settle on a course for her future.

Joe stamped his foot. “But that don’t make sense! Aren’t you all gonna have to sell the house? And what about all this land? Your father might have been too busy
doctoring to farm it, but your grandfather made a good living off this acreage.”

“Then why would we think of selling it?” Emma asked him, blinking innocently.

“’Cause you can’t split a house, not with you livin’ here and Rose Ellen in Galveston!” Joe replied, as if her question had been plumb crazy. “And what good’s land to a woman? Everybody in town’s thinkin’ you’ll move to Galveston and help take care of Rose Ellen’s little girl.”

That’s what Rose Ellen thought, too—that Emma should start behaving like a proper maiden aunt. “But I enjoy living right here,” Emma said, tormenting the man.

“But you
cain’t
live here,” Joe argued, his spleen rising like a thermostat in July.

She stifled a laugh. “Why not?”

“’Cause you can’t just live here all by your lonesome, Emma! That ain’t right.”

“But I’m not alone.”

“And that’s another thing!” Joe bellowed, getting, Emma suspected, to the real reason he’d ridden the mile from town. “Folks in town are wondering what Doc might have thought about the goings-on around here, Emma.”

Her spine stiffened defensively. “My father taught me to be a nurse and a decent human being. He of all people would have approved.”

“Doggonit, it ain’t responsible!” He took off his hat and slapped it against his leg for emphasis. “A woman like you, livin’ out here with some no-account pregnant girl! Everybody knows about Lorna McCrae! That girl’s scandalous—and to think of a woman from an upstanding family like the Colbys taking in
her
…it’s outrageous, that’s what it is. Reverend Cathcart told me just the other day that Lorna’s gonna be Topic A on his sermon this week.”

Emma planted her fists on her hips and tapped her foot impatiently, perhaps to keep it from doing what would come naturally—booting Joe Spears’s skinny hide back over the hill where he came from! He had to know that Lorna would be within earshot of this conversation.

“Good,” she replied tartly. “A lot of lessons could be learned from Lorna’s story. Especially if Reverend Cathcart brings up the subject of
who
got Lorna in her present condition and refuses to take responsibility for her. And while he’s at it, the good reverend might mention something about her family, who never showed her an ounce of love, and tossed her out of the house when they discovered she tried to find understanding elsewhere.”

“Never thought I’d hear you talk this way, Emma,” Joe said curtly.

No, he never would have, because her father had done most of the talking for both of them while he’d been alive. Doc would have felt the same way she did, but she had to do her own talking now. “And I never thought I’d see the day when people in Midday turned their backs on people in need. What was Lorna supposed to do when her father kicked her out? Run away to a city, alone? What would happen to her there?”

“She shouldn’t have got into trouble to begin with.”

Emma tossed up her hands. She’d have more luck making the man’s mule see reason! “I enjoy having Lorna here, and she’s welcome to stay as long as she’s got a mind to.”

They stood in silence for a moment, Emma trying to rein in her anger and Joe no doubt contemplating how living alone soured a woman’s temper. The man was as irritating as a poison oak rash. She took a breath, trying to remember that, while he was wrong and she was right, it
would serve no useful purpose to antagonize Midday’s most talkative resident. “Would you like some tea, Mr. Spears?” she forced herself to ask.

“No, thank you.” Still, he didn’t move. Apparently he wasn’t finished. “I’m thinkin’ you’re takin’ in this McCrae girl ’cause you’re lonely and miss your pa. That’s understandable, Emma. We’re all heartbroken over Doc. But folks in town think you’d be better off in Galveston with Rose Ellen than takin’ in strays.”

“Lorna’s not a puppy, Mr. Spears, she’s a person. And I think I’m better equipped to know my business than folks in town.” She felt her face heating with anger and took a deep breath.
Smile,
she told herself firmly. “Won’t you at least have a sip of water from the pump?”

“No, thanks.” Maybe he was still hoping that she would break down and read Rose Ellen’s letter.

“Then I’m sure you’d like to sit for a moment and rest.” She gestured to the rocker on the porch.

Joe watched her for a long moment, then suddenly laughed. “By golly, Miss Emma, for a spinster lady, you sure do have the mother hen in you!”

At first his words didn’t quite register. She stared at him, feeling the heat seep out of her cheeks.
Spinster lady?
The words had slipped so easily from his lips!

“Well, I’m sorry I won’t be able to report back that I made you see reason about that pregnant girl,” Joe went on. “It’s a durn shame, Emma.”

As he turned and mounted back up on his mule, she barely heard his words. She was still too stunned.

“Bart’s reminding everybody to keep their doors locked” was one sentence she did catch. Barton Sealy was the sheriff in Midday, and the secret love of Emma’s life. Of course, he barely knew she existed, except that she was
Rose Ellen’s older sister. Barton had been one of Rose Ellen’s most ardent admirers, and Emma had been quietly jubilant when her sister chose wealth over the stunning good looks of their sheriff.

“Locked?” she repeated. “What for?”

Joe’s jaw dropped. “Why, on account of the outlaw, of course! Haven’t you heard?”

She hadn’t, but Joe wasted no time telling her of the danger. An outlaw had been sighted fifteen miles away. No telling but that the man might show up right in Midday! Couldn’t be too careful!

But as he regaled her with details, Emma was still only half listening.
Spinster lady
. True, she was almost twenty-nine—older than most women when they got married. Twenty-nine! But she didn’t feel old…at least, not as old as Constance O’Hurlihy, Midday’s most noted old maid, who tried to make up for the emptiness in her life with flair in her wardrobe. Good Lord, did everyone consider her to be a
spinster lady,
like Constance? Did Barton?

“Mind you take care,” Joe insisted in parting.

She glanced up absently, her thoughts still far away. “Certainly. I will.”

Joe and his mule ambled off toward the sunset, leaving Emma rooted to the porch. After a few moments Lorna came fluttering back outside.

“Oh, Emma! How terrible!”

Emma, still white with mortification to discover she was considered no better than a dusty old jar on the shelf, nodded. Terrible indeed! Where had the years gone? Then, seeing the telltale tear tracks down Lorna’s cheeks, she realized that Lorna wasn’t thinking about Emma’s being called a spinster, but her own dilemma.

“Mr. Spears is right!” Lorna moaned. “I shouldn’t have come here, bringing all my shame upon your house.”

Emma’s back stiffened in irritation once again. “Nonsense!”

“But didn’t you hear what he said about Reverend Cathcart?” Her eyes brimmed with moisture and she flopped back down into the rocking chair. “I’m a fallen woman—a, a
Jezebel!

Emma rolled her eyes. Lorna was nothing if not theatrical. Then again, she was in a terrible position for a mere girl of seventeen. Emma patted her young friend on the shoulder. “Nonsense. You don’t have a bad bone in your body.”

Lorna hiccuped. “But you mustn’t blame William, Emma.”

William Sealy was the sheriff’s younger brother. The Sealys were an old county family, and well off, while Lorna’s family barely scratched out a living on a few sandy acres of land. But even given the difference in their economic positions and social ties, Emma was stunned by William’s lack of chivalry. “I know you don’t want to think ill of anyone, Lorna, but I can’t help it. He’s behaved abominably!” And to think he was Barton’s own brother!

Poor Lorna shuddered with the effort to hold back tears for Emma’s sake, but it was a fruitless battle. The effort only caused her to wail all the louder in her despair. “How could I have been such a fool!”

Emma attempted to calm her. “Don’t blame yourself—it serves no purpose. You’ve just got to look forward to the future now, and having your baby.”

Lorna nodded dutifully. “I know.”

“Everything will work out, you’ll see. You can stay here
for as long as you please. I don’t care what people like Joe Spears say.”

Which was only partially a lie, Emma thought, the words
spinster lady
still ringing in her ears.

That night after Lorna was in bed, Emma poured herself a bracing cup of hot tea, laced it liberally with her father’s medicinal brandy and swigged down a large gulp at once.

Once, her father had told her about a man he’d seen during the war who’d been so traumatized during battle that he hadn’t been able to get the sound of cannon fire out of his head. Ever. Emma had never fully empathized with the poor soul until today. Even now, Joe Spears’s reedy voice rang out in her own head as loudly as a cannon.
Spinster lady! Spinster lady! Spinster lady!
The words kept echoing in her mind, as if trying to find a comfortable place to settle in.

She
was
a spinster. All day she’d taken a fresh look at her life, from the bun on the top of her head to the tips of her practical flannel drawers, and the signs were there, all right. There wasn’t a hair on her head or a square inch of fabric on her that sang of youthful abandon. She no longer had a spring in her step…if she ever had. Her cheeks couldn’t be counted on to be rosy. And joie de vivre had long ago made way for practicality. Funny, while her father had been alive, she hadn’t given the matter of her marital status more than an occasional thought, but now it was as if the old-maid label were branded on her. She felt exposed.

Thunder from a brewing storm clapped outside, and, fumbling, Emma took up Rose Ellen’s letter. Her sister’s missives were usually tedious, exasperating and mildly insulting, but perhaps this one would help get her mind off
her newfound spinsterdom. She poured some more brandy, opened the envelope and was greeted by Rose Ellen’s loopy, flowery hand.

BOOK: Liz Ireland
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