SINFUL

Bitter Creek Series

Description

For readers of Linda Lael Miller and Susan Mallery comes New York Times bestselling author Joan Johnston’s sizzling contemporary Western romance, where power, money, and rivalries rule—and love is the best revenge.

WHILE HE SEEKS A HAVEN,
SHE SEARCHES FOR A PLACE TO CALL HOME

After a tragic accident leaves Delta sergeant Connor Flynn a widower, he faces the toughest fight of his life: battling his in-laws for custody of his two young children. To win he’ll need a make-believe bride to take care of the kids while he runs his Wyoming ranch. Who better than a woman he already knows and likes—his late wife’s best friend?

Ruthlessly forced from her home by her powerful father, King Grayhawk, Eve needs somewhere to go . . . and so does the herd of wild mustangs she’s rescued. Connor’s offer sounds like the answer to a prayer. But Eve has a guilty secret she’s guarded for years: She’s always been in love with Connor.

Now forced to live under the same roof as her heart’s desire, Eve must hide the love that has never died, while Connor vows to resist his growing need for a woman who was forbidden fruit during his marriage. Can two lonely people set adrift by fate and haunted by guilt find redemption in the healing embrace of love?

    • Mass Market Paperback: 304 pages
    • Publisher: Dell, April 28, 2015
    • Language: English
    • ISBN-10: 0804178666
    • ISBN-13: 978-0804178662
SINFUL excerpt

Chapter 1

Her name was Eve. Not Evelyn or Eveline or Evette. Just Eve. The day she was born, her father, King Grayhawk, took one look at her large blue eyes, soft blond curls, and bowed upper lip and whispered, “Eve.” Apparently, she reminded him of some woman he’d fallen in love with as a younger man. That Eve, he’d declared, was the only woman he had ever loved.

Those words, spoken as her mother lay recovering from labor, must have been the final insult, because Eve was still a babe in arms when her mom ran off with one of King’s cowhands. Eve had grown up with the knowledge that her birth had caused a terrible rift between her parents. That marital fracture had left her and her fraternal twin sisters, Taylor and Victoria, and their older stepsister, Leah, as motherless children.

Eve felt burdened by her name. It didn’t help that she shared it with the woman who’d tempted Adam to sin in the Garden of Eden. In high school she was teased and taunted as she began to acquire seductive curves. She was sure one of those pain-in-the-butt Flynn brothers had started it, but the other boys had quickly followed his lead.

“Show me an apple, and I’ll eat it,” a boy would say, “so long as you come along with it, Eve.” Or, “Too bad you ate that apple, Eve, or we’d all still be running around naked,” followed by a lurid grin.

She’d gotten pretty good at sending back zingers like, “If God had seen you naked, Buck, He might have decided He made a real mistake only taking out a rib.” But the constant innuendo made Eve’s teenage life miserable.

That was the least of the trouble those four awful Flynn brothers—Aiden, Brian, Connor, and Devon—had caused her and her sisters over the years.

From her father’s rants at supper, Eve had known he was feuding with Angus Flynn. It wasn’t until she was eight years old that she understood why. Angus’s older sister, Jane, had been King’s first wife, and Angus blamed King for his unhappy sister’s death from an overdose of barbiturates. Eve had no idea whether her father was innocent or not, but he was sorely tried by Angus’s efforts to blight his life.

The animosity should have remained between their fathers, but it had bled onto their children. Angus Flynn’s four sons were infamous around Jackson Hole for wreaking havoc and causing mischief. After their aunt Jane died, as though a switch had been flipped, the Flynn brothers began aiming all that tomfoolery toward Eve and her sisters. It didn’t take long before King’s Brats, who’d done their own share of troublemaking around Jackson Hole, were giving as good as they got from those wild Flynn boys.

Eve could remember vividly the year fourteen-year-old Leah’s blueberry pie had been mysteriously doused with salt at the Four-H competition. Her stepsister had retaliated by shaving the flank of fourteen-year-old Aiden’s Four-H calf so it looked like it had the mange.

Some of the mischief she and her sisters perpetrated was merely a nuisance. Like putting an ad in the paper for a cattle auction at the Flynn ranch, the Lucky 7, beginning at 6:00 a.m. on a Saturday morning, offering their prize bull for sale, when no such auction existed.

Eve had helped Taylor and Victoria punch a tiny hole in the gas tank of Brian’s truck, so that when he and Devon headed off to hunt deer in the mountains, where there was no cell phone reception, they’d ended up making a long, bitterly cold walk back to civilization.

The Flynns had retaliated by placing slices of bologna in a vulgar design on the hood of Taylor and Victoria’s cherry-red Jeep Laredo. The next morning, when her sisters pulled the deli meat off the hood, the preservatives in the bologna caused the top layer of paint to come off as well, leaving the distinct imprint of male genitalia.

It wouldn’t have been so bad if the pranks had remained physically harmless. They hadn’t. When Eve was a freshman in high school, the cinch of her saddle had been cut before a barrel race at a local rodeo, and she’d broken her arm when the saddle broke free. Eve could remember how enraged Leah was in the moments before the ambulance carted her away. The Flynn boys were competing at the same rodeo in calf roping. They should have known to check their cinches, but Eve supposed they hadn’t expected Leah to retaliate so quickly. When Aiden roped a calf his cinch broke—along with his leg.

The mischief escalated into attacks involving other people. Taylor’s and Victoria’s prom dates were kidnapped by a couple of boys wearing hoods, who tied them to a tree so they never showed up. The twins were devastated. The fallout afterward was even worse. The kidnapped boys made it clear that it wasn’t worth the trouble to date a Grayhawk when it meant putting up with all the horseshit being shoveled by those crazy Flynn boys.

Since Eve had lived in the same small town her whole life, the “harmless” high school prank involving her name had been a continuing source of irritation. Most of the kids who’d gone to high school with her still lived in Jackson, and there was always some jerk who couldn’t resist prodding her, hoping to get under her skin.

Like now.

Eve wasn’t looking to hook up or make waves. All she wanted to do was sit at the Million Dollar Cowboy Bar on the square in Jackson, along with the tourists who’d come to enjoy the last of the black-diamond ski season on the Grand Tetons, review the digital photographs she’d taken that day of the herd of wild mustangs she’d rescued, and enjoy her martini.

“Is that an apple martini, Eve?” a man called from behind her.

Eve turned to find Buck Madison, the former Jackson Broncs quarterback, grinning like an idiot at one of the pool tables in the center of the bar. Two of his former teammates stood shoulder to shoulder with him, giggling like teenage girls. All three were obviously drunk. She purposefully turned her attention back to the digital shot of the only colt in her herd. With any luck, Buck would give up and shut up.

Eve smiled as she studied the image of Midnight frolicking with his mother, his black mane and tail flying, his back arched, and all four hooves off the ground.

“You look good enough to tempt a man to sin, Eve.”

Buck’s voice was loud in a bar that had suddenly become quiet. Eve shut off her camera and laid it on the bar as she dismounted the Western saddle on a stand—complete with stirrups—that served as a bar stool. She glanced at Buck in the mirror over the bar as she gathered her North Face fleece from where it hung off the saddle horn. She wasn’t going to get into a war of words with a drunk. It was a lose-lose proposition. She had one arm through her fleece when Buck stripped it back off, dangling it from his forefinger.

“Uh, uh, uh,” he said, wagging the finger holding the fleece. “I’m not done looking yet.”

She turned to confront Buck, her chin upthrust, her blue eyes shooting daggers of disdain. “I’m done being ogled. Give me my coat.”

She held out her hand and waited.

She felt a wave of resentment toward the Flynns, who’d started that whole Garden of Eden business in the first place. She couldn’t help the fact that she’d developed a lush female figure in high school. At twenty-six, she’d made peace with her body. There was no easy way to conceal her curves, so she didn’t try. But she did nothing to emphasize them, either.

She was dressed in a plaid western shirt that was belted into a pair of worn western jeans. She had on scuffed cowboy boots, but instead of a Stetson, she usually wore a faded navy-blue-and-orange Denver Broncos ball cap. She’d left the cap in her pickup, but her chin-length, straw-blond hair was tucked behind her ears to keep it out of her way.

“My coat?” she said.

As she reached for it, Buck pulled it away. “How about a kiss first?”

Eve had opened her mouth to retort when a brusque male voice said, “Give the lady her coat.”

Eve hadn’t heard anyone coming up behind her, which surprised her. She photographed wild animals in their natural habitat and prided herself on her awareness of her surroundings. In the wilderness, missing the slightest sound could result in being bitten by a rattler or attacked by a bear or mountain lion. She glanced over her shoulder and felt her heart skip a beat when she recognized her unlikely savior.

Connor Flynn.

Connor was third in line of the Flynn brothers, but he’d been at the top of the teenage troublemaking list. He was thirty now but, if anything, his reputation was worse. He’d done three tours as a Delta sergeant in Afghanistan before leaving the military with several medals to prove his heroism in battle.

He’d paid a high price for his long absences from home serving his country. A year ago his wife, Molly, who’d been Eve’s best friend, had died in a car accident while Connor was overseas. After the funeral, he’d agreed to let Molly’s parents take his kids into their home while he served the nine months left on his final tour of duty.

Now they were threatening to keep them.

Connor had ended up in a court battle to get his two-year-old son and four-year-old daughter back. So far he hadn’t been able to wrench them away from his late wife’s parents. They’d argued to a judge that Connor was a battle-weary soldier, a victim of post-traumatic stress, and therefore a threat to his children. According to all the psychological tests he’d been forced to endure to prove them wrong, he was fine. But seeing him now, Eve wondered for the very first time if Molly’s parents might not be completely off the mark.

Connor looked dangerous, his sapphire-blue eyes hooded, his cheeks and chin covered with at least a two-day-old beard, and a hank of his rough-cut, crow-wing-black hair resting on his scarred forehead. His lips had thinned to an ominous line.

If she’d been Buck, she would have handed over the coat in a heartbeat. But Buck wasn’t known for his smarts.

“Butt out!” Buck said. “This is between me and Eve.”

Without warning, Connor’s hand shot out and gripped Buck’s throat. Buck dropped the coat to protect his neck, but Connor didn’t let go. His inexorable grasp was slowly choking the big man to death. Even using both hands, Buck couldn’t get free.

Eve looked around the bar, expecting someone, anyone, to intervene. No one did. She wouldn’t have interfered except she knew that Connor might be turning the lock and throwing away the key where custody of his kids was concerned. She didn’t step in for Connor’s sake. Ordinarily she wouldn’t have thrown a glass of water to douse a Flynn on fire. But she cared very much about the future well-being of her dead friend’s children, who needed their father alive and well and out of jail.

Despite Connor’s long absences, Molly had been convinced that he would take good care of their children if anything ever happened to her. Eve owed it to her best friend to make sure Connor didn’t ruin his chance of becoming the wonderful father Molly had always believed he could be.

As carefully as if she were approaching a feral wolf, Eve laid her fingertips on Connor’s bare forearm, the one that led to the hand grasping Buck’s throat. She turned so she was looking into his narrowed eyes. “Connor,” she said in a quiet voice. “This won’t help. Let go.”

She watched his upper lip curl as though he was snarling while his gaze remained focused on the helpless man in his grasp.

“Think of the kids!” she said more urgently. “For their sake, let go. Please.”

He turned to look at her when she said “kids” and then seemed to hear the rest of her sentence. He looked at his hand and seemed surprised to discover that he was still choking Buck. Suddenly, he let go and took a step back.

Buck gasped a breath of air, and with the next breath croaked, “Molly’s parents are right. You should be in a cage!” Now that Buck was free, his two football buddies, each brandishing a pool cue, moved up to flank him.

Connor stood as though in a daze, rubbing his forehead where the scar from a war wound loomed white against his tanned skin. Eve realized that if Connor didn’t leave in a hurry, there was likely to be a free-for-all. She grabbed her fleece from the floor and her camera from the bar, gripped Connor’s hand, and pulled him out the door after her.

She headed away from the bar in case the three drunks decided to follow them outside into the frosty March evening. She hadn’t realized where she was going until she reached her Dodge Ram pickup, which was parked under the colorful neon cowboy on a bucking bronc that lit up the bar. She let go of Connor’s hand in order to hang her camera by its strap around her neck, then pulled on her fleece. She shook her head in disgust at his behavior in the bar as he frowned back at her.

“What were you thinking?” she said. “Were you trying to get arrested? Don’t you want to be a father to Brooke and Sawyer?”

“I was thinking that son of a bitch was being a pain in the ass, all because of something I started in high school.”

Eve stared at him in shock. Connor was responsible for all those cruel taunts about her name?

He shoved a hand through his hair, but a hank of it fell back onto his forehead. “Thanks for getting me out of there.”

“I wish I hadn’t bothered, now that I know you started that ‘Eve’ business. Do you have any idea how much aggravation you caused me in high school?”

He shot her a mutinous, unapologetic look. “No more than you caused me by telling Molly I’d take her to that Sadie Hawkins dance her freshman year. No thanks to you it turned out all right.”

Eve felt a stab of shame. Molly had been crazy about Connor Flynn in high school. So had Eve. But she might as well have aspired to date the man in the moon. Not just because Connor was a senior and she was a freshman, but because Connor was a Flynn. A broken arm. A broken leg. Ruined dreams. Too many years of hurt and harm stood between them.

Molly had desperately wanted to ask Connor to the Sadie Hawkins dance, but she’d been too shy to do it. Eve had told her friend that she would ask for her but then chickened out. Besides, she didn’t want her best friend dating the boy she had a crush on herself. She’d lied and told Molly that she’d asked Connor and he’d said yes, figuring that Connor would blow Molly off when she came running up to him, excited that he’d accepted her invitation, and Molly would be humiliated and never speak to him again.

Admittedly, it was not her finest moment.

Instead, Connor had met Eve’s gaze as she stood by her locker across the hall while Molly smiled up at him, delighted that he’d accepted her invitation to the dance. His eyes had narrowed at Eve, as though he knew she was the one responsible for this further bit of Grayhawk-Flynn monkey business. Then he’d smiled down at Molly as though he was glad to be going to the dance with Eve’s best friend.

To Eve’s dismay, Molly and Connor were going steady by the time Connor graduated at the end of the year. He’d told Molly not to wait for him when he enlisted in the military, and Eve had felt a flare of hope that they might break up. But Molly called or texted or emailed or wrote Connor every day while he was away learning all the skills he’d need to fight a war.

“Joan Johnston captivates with Sinful…There are plenty of subplots, family dysfunction, the feud, rescue horses, a ranch for vets, single parenthood, I could go on and on…but the emotion rules them all! Contemporary Western at its best!” –Bodice Rippers

UNFORGETTABLE

Bitter Creek Series & Benedict Brothers

Description

A Wounded Hero. An English Lady. An Unforgettable Love.

Haunted by war wounds and the woman who left him, Ex-Delta Army Sergeant Joe Warren is a man scarred body and soul. His life as he knew it is over, and he has no idea where to go from here. When his sister begs him to rescue a young woman in trouble, Joe reluctantly agrees to help—and comes face-to-face with the most beautiful—willful, stubborn, and sexy—woman he’s ever met.

Lady Lydia Benedict yearns for a life of passion and adventure, one where she’s appreciated for her brains as well as her beauty. But she panics when she awakens—still dressed in her ball gown—and discovers that the priceless pearl necklace she’d worn to a charity ball the night before is missing. To make matters worse, Lydia never got permission from her mother to borrow the necklace, and it’s her brother, who trusted her with the irreplaceable pearl, who’ll be punished if it isn’t found.

Joe is Lydia’s only hope, but the hard-hearted soldier and the British aristocrat find themselves at odds as time runs out. Can Joe allow himself to trust another woman? Can Lydia fall in love with a man who’s nothing like the sophisticated gentlemen she’s known all her life? Can people from two such different worlds find a way into each other’s arms—and fulfill each other’s deepest desires?

    • E-Book & Print Novel
    • Publisher: Joan Mertens Johnston, Inc.
    • An e-Novel | November 15, 2014
    • Price: $4.99
    • A Print Novel | December 18, 2014
    • Price: $9.49

MONTANA BRIDE

Bitter Creek Series #11 & Mail Order Brides #3

Description

The sensational third novel in Joan Johnston’s new Western historical romance series set in the world of Bitter Creek.

A DESPERATE DECEPTION
THE PROMISE OF FOREVER

When Karl Norwood’s mail-order bride meets an untimely demise on the way to the Montana Territory, Hetty Wentworth steps in to take her place. Hetty has no idea how she’s going to pretend to be all the things she isn’t—including the mother of two kids. She only knows her deception is necessary if she’s going to save two orphans from the awful fate she suffered as a child.

Karl smells a rat when a much younger woman than he was expecting arrives with two children who look nothing like her. But his mail-order bride is so beautiful, he doesn’t object—until he realizes that his charming new wife has been lying . . . about everything. Can a woman forced to keep secrets and a man hindered by distrust ever hope to find happily ever after in each other’s arms?

    • Format: Mass Market
    • Publisher: Dell (January 7, 2014)
    • ISBN-13: 978-0-440-22380-1
    • Price: $7.99

Chapter 1

 

“Don’t you dare strike that child!”  Henrietta Wentworth set her plate of hardtack and beans aside and rose from her seat on a fallen log beside the campfire.

“He’s my son.  I’ll hit him if I want.”  Mrs. Lucille Templeton had grabbed her seven-year-old son, Griffin, by the arm as he tried to escape after “accidentally” dropping a plate of beans he was bringing her into her lap.

“Look at my dress!” Mrs. Templeton wailed, staring down at a green-velvet-trimmed traveling dress that was clearly ruined.  She tightened her grip until the boy grimaced and said, “This fiendish brat spilled that plate on purpose.  He deserves the whipping he’s going to get.”

Hetty balled her fists and took three steps to put herself toe-to-toe with Mrs. Templeton.  “You will beat that child over my dead body.  Let him go.”

“Hah!” Mrs. Templeton snorted.  Nevertheless, she loosened her grip, and Griffin jerked free and fled.  He disappeared behind the Conestoga wagon in which they’d all been traveling from Cheyenne, in the Wyoming Territory, to Butte, in the Montana Territory, where Mrs. Templeton was destined to become a mail-order bride.

The hodgepodge Templeton family included the widow Templeton, her nine-year-old daughter Grace, and her seven-year-old son Griffin.  Hetty had trouble imagining how Mrs. Templeton had produced a daughter as kind as Grace, although she had no doubt how she’d spawned a hellion like Griffin.

Nevertheless, not one of the three Templetons looked like any of the others or seemed anywhere near their professed ages.

Mrs. Templeton, with her dyed blond hair, mud-brown eyes, and substantial figure, looked considerably older than twenty-eight.

Grace was plump, had flyaway red hair and green eyes, and was already sprouting small buds on her chest, which told Hetty she was more likely twelve or thirteen than the nine she professed to be.

Her brother, Griffin, was a skinny stripling with dark brown eyes and tangled black hair that made Hetty itch to take a brush to it.  Hetty figured he’d last seen the age of seven three or four years ago.

No less odd was the short, slender, but very strong young Chinese man who was their guide, protector, and driver, Mr. Lin Bao, who said he’d come to America ten years ago to work on the transcontinental railroad.  Hetty had learned that the Chinese put their family name first, so Mr. Lin’s first name was Bao, which he’d told her rhymed with cow.  Mr. Lin now worked for the man who would become Mrs. Templeton’s husband, Mr. Karl Norwood.

“If I’d had my way, Miss High-and-Mighty,” Mrs. Templeton muttered as she lifted her skirts to dump beans from its folds, “we would have left you to rot in that wagon where we found you.”

Hetty had no doubt of that.  She’d never met a lazier or more selfish person in her life than Lucille Templeton.  It was appalling that she owed this woman her life.

Mrs. Templeton had forced Mr. Lin to stop near the apparently abandoned Conestoga wagon because she’d wanted to scavenge whatever remained inside.  Someone had already looted the wagon.  All she’d discovered was Hetty, dehydrated, weak from loss of blood, and with a wound that had become infected from the arrow deeply embedded in her shoulder.

If not for Mrs. Templeton’s avarice, Hetty would be dead.

Although, honestly, it was Mr. Lin’s doctoring that had kept her alive.  He’d used mysterious medicines from the orient to bring Hetty back to life over the past seven weeks as they’d traveled north.  Mrs. Templeton claimed to be a nurse, but she didn’t seem to know much about caring for anyone.  Hetty shot a quick look at the young Chinaman, who was still sitting quietly beside the fire smoking a long, curved white clay pipe.

“If it had been up to you, Lucy,” a young female voice accused, “you would have left Hetty in that wagon to die.”

Hetty hadn’t seen Grace approaching from the opposite side of the campfire, but she’d seen the girl defend her brother from their mother’s slaps often enough to know that where Griffin was, Grace was never far behind.

“I’ll take care of this, Grace,” Hetty said, knowing that Mrs. Templeton was still angry enough to lash out at her daughter.

Her warning came too late.  Mrs. Templeton reached out her arm like a lizard’s tongue, grabbed a handful of Grace’s tumbled red curls, and yanked hard.  “You’re the one to blame for this.  I never should have brought the two of you along.”

Grace shot a fearful look in Hetty’s direction.

Hetty couldn’t imagine having a mother who wished she’d left her children behind.  A mother who felt free to slap faces and yank hair.  A mother who considered her children a nuisance.  No wonder Grace looked so scared.

Hetty’s heart went out to the girl.  Hetty’s own wonderful, loving parents had been lost three years ago, in the Great Chicago Fire, when Mrs. O’Leary’s cow had kicked over a lantern and burned down most of the city, including the Wentworth family mansion and her father’s bank.

Overnight, Hetty had gone from being the pampered daughter of wealthy parents to being an orphan stuck in the Chicago Institute for Orphaned Children.  Her uncle Stephen had left Hetty and her three sisters and two brothers at the orphanage even after they’d begged him to rescue them from the cruelty of the headmistress, Miss Iris Birch.

Miss Birch, like Mrs. Templeton, seemed to find joy in brutality against those weaker than herself.  Every infraction at the Institute had been punished with three–“You’re lucky it’s only three!” Miss Birch was fond of saying–vicious strokes of a birch rod.

Hetty forced her thoughts away from her five siblings, who were all lost . . . or dead . . . but certainly gone.  She couldn’t do anything to help them.  But she could help Grace.

“What I said about Griffin goes for Grace, too,” Hetty said.  “Let her go.”

Mrs. Templeton twisted Grace’s hair until the girl whimpered and stood on tiptoes to avoid the pain.  “This is my kid.  I’ll do with her as I like.”

“Not while I’m here, you won’t.”  Hetty obeyed a sudden impulse, and her balled fist struck Mrs. Templeton in the nose.

“Ow!”  Mrs. Templeton released Grace and grabbed her bloodied nose.  “You’ll pay for that!”

Instead of running like Griffin had, Grace stood and watched with anxious eyes.  “Please, Lucy,” the girl pleaded.  “I’m sorry.  Griffin’s sorry.”

“Shut up, you ungrateful whelp!” Mrs. Templeton snarled.

That was another strange thing about the Templeton family.  Hetty couldn’t imagine calling her own mother by her first name, yet both children called their mother Lucy.  Nor could she imagine any mother calling her daughter an “ungrateful whelp.”

Hetty should have known better than to think Mrs. Templeton wouldn’t strike back.  A moment later she felt nails claw their way across her face, narrowly missing her left eye.  One of the scratches across her brow bled profusely, blurring Hetty’s vision on that side.  She almost missed seeing Mrs. Templeton bend to pick up a heavy dead branch.

“Lucy, don’t!” Grace cried.  And then, to Hetty, “Look out!”

Hetty bent backward as Mrs. Templeton swung the unwieldy weapon but lost her balance and fell into a clump of buffalo grass.  Hetty made the mistake of trying to push herself upright with her injured shoulder and yelped in pain.  Even after seven weeks, it wasn’t healed enough to support her.  She was stuck on the ground, a sitting duck the next time Mrs. Templeton swiped at her with that heavy branch.

Mrs. Templeton must have realized Hetty’s predicament, because she uttered a shout of triumph.  However, the ponderous weight of the branch as it continued its sweeping arc had dragged her sideways.  Instead of letting go of the branch to regain her balance, she held on, and her momentum forced her several steps backward.

Hetty heard Mr. Lin yelling something behind her, but she was too busy trying to avoid being brained by the tree branch to pay attention.  She heard Mrs. Templeton cry out and wondered if Grace had somehow intervened to save her.

Hetty looked up in time to see Mrs. Templeton’s arms flailing as she tripped backward over a large stone.  She finally let go of the branch, which flew several feet upward before it began falling, falling, disappearing from sight before ever hitting the ground.

Hetty struggled to her feet, recognizing at last what Mr. Lin had been shouting.  “Be careful!” she cried.  “The cliff!”

She got one last look at Mrs. Templeton’s face in the firelight–a ghoulish mask of fury–before the woman fell backward out of sight.

Her shrill scream seemed to go on endlessly.  Then it stopped.

Hetty dashed with Grace toward the edge of the hundred-foot rock cliff that had been visible in the daylight when they’d camped, but which had disappeared beyond the light of the campfire after dark.  She felt sick with grief and regret.  She’d only wanted to protect Grace and Griffin.  Instead she’d made them orphans.  She couldn’t do anything right!  Mr. Lin should have let her die.

“Watch out!” Hetty gasped as she put a hand across Grace’s waist to keep the girl away from the edge.  She could see nothing in the blackness below.

Grace kept repeating, “Oh, no.  Oh, no.  Oh, no.”

“What happened?” Griffin called out.  “Did the witch hurt herself?”

Grace turned on her brother as he appeared in the light of the campfire and said, “The witch is dead.”

Hetty stared at the two children, dismayed at what they were saying about the woman who’d borne them.  “What’s wrong with you?” she asked Grace.  “Your mother has just died a ghastly death.”

“She wasn’t our mom!” Griffin retorted.


WYOMING BRIDE

Bitter Creek Series #10 & Mail Order Brides #2

Description

The sensational second novel in Joan Johnston’s new Western historical romance series set in the world of Bitter Creek.

CAN SECRETS AND SECOND CHOICES EVER LEAD TO LOVE?

After three months in a mail-order marriage, Hannah Wentworth McMurtry is a widow—pregnant, alone, and near death in the Wyoming wilderness. Though she is saved by a man with a face cut from stone, she still grieves the husband who died on their journey west. Hannah needs a husband, but does she dare marry another stranger?

Flint Creed has also lost someone he loved—when the woman he hoped to marry chose his younger brother instead. Now he must find a ranch wife of his own. But every female in the remote Wyoming Territory is too old, too young, or already married . . . until he discovers Hannah on the prairie. Flint doesn’t pretend to love her, but he doesn’t tell her he loves another woman, either. Hannah doesn’t pretend to love him, but she doesn’t tell him about the child she carries. Though danger surrounds them on the Wyoming frontier, the greatest threats of all are the secrets within—revelations that could destroy the new life Hannah and Flint have begun to cherish.

    • Format: Mass Market
    • Publisher: Dell (January 1, 2013)
    • ISBN-13: 978-0-345-52746-2
    • ISBN-10: 0-345-52746-1
    • Price: $7.99
“Johnston follows Texas Bride with a romance set in the harsh territory of post–Civil War Wyoming. Shortly after 17-year-old Hannah McMurtry’s new husband dies from cholera, she and her sisters are attacked by Sioux warriors who injure Hannah’s twin, Hetty, and abduct 15-year-old Josie. Hannah, two months pregnant, walks for days to get help and is rescued by Flint Creed, a handsome rancher in love with his brother’s fiancée. Desperate for distraction, he asks Hannah to marry him, and she reluctantly agrees. Threats from a local rancher and the ever-present danger of life in the wilds of Wyoming add intensity to this fast-moving novel as Flint and Hannah navigate the trials of newlywed life while sending a Pinkerton detective to look for Hannah’s sisters. Johnston’s effortless storytelling blends romance with dramatic tension, historical accuracy, and a touch of humor.” –PUBLISHERS WEEKLY

Wyoming Bride is both gripping and touching, a smoothly written, well-paced Reconstruction Era romance offering scads of adventure and angst. Complicated, conflicted characters determined to forge lives – and find love – in an unforgiving land make for a remarkable read. Bless that Joan Johnston and her scheming ways!”–USA TODAY

Chapter One

Hannah had never been so scared in her life, but running wasn’t an option. If she didn’t go through with her part of the marriage bargain, Mr. McMurtry might not go through with his. Her husband had left her alone in their room at the Palmer House Hotel to ready herself for bed. It had taken less than no time to strip out of her gray wool dress and put on the white flannel nightgown that was all she’d brought with her. She paced the outlines of the elegant canopied bed without ever going near it.

The room was luxurious enough to remind Hannah of the life she and her sisters and brothers had lost three years ago, when their parents were killed in the Great Chicago Fire. The six Wentworth children had ended up in the Chicago Institute for Orphaned Children, at the mercy of the cruel headmistress, Miss Iris Birch.

Hannah caught herself staring longingly at the fire escape through the fourth-floor window. The view blurred as tears of anger—terrible anger—and regret—enormous regret—filled her eyes.

Hannah felt trapped. Trapped by a moment of generosity she rued with her entire being. Why, oh why, had she listened to her tormented sister Josie’s plea?

Two months ago, their eldest sister Miranda had left the orphanage in the middle of the night with ten-year-old Nick and four-year-old Harry to become a mail-order bride in faraway Texas. Hannah, her twin sister Hetty, and Josie had been left behind to await news of whether Miranda’s new husband might have room for all of them.

They’d waited . . . and waited . . . and waited for a letter from Miranda. Weeks had turned into months with no news that she’d even arrived safely. No news that she was now a wife. No news about whether there might be a place for the three who’d been left behind.

Hannah and Hetty had been prepared to wait until they turned eighteen in December and were forced to leave the orphanage, if it took that long, for Miranda to send word to come. Josie had not.

Hannah tried to remember exactly what tactic her youngest sister had employed to convince her to answer that advertisement in the Chicago Daily Herald seeking a bride willing to travel west to the Wyoming Territory.

“We should wait for Miranda to contact us,” Hannah remembered arguing.

“That’s easy for you to say,” Josie had replied. “You only have eight more months of beatings from Miss Birch to endure. I’ll be stuck here for two endless years. You know she’s been meaner than ever since Miranda stole away with Nick and Harry. I can’t stand two more years here. I can’t stand two more days!”

Hannah had taken one look at the desperation in Josie’s blue eyes, owlish behind wire-rimmed spectacles, and agreed to marry a man sight unseen.

At least she’d had the foresight to get a commitment from Mr. McMurtry that he would bring her two sisters along on the journey, which entailed three arduous months traveling by Conestoga wagon along the Oregon Trail. The trip could have been made in sixteen hours by rail, but as a child in Ireland, Mr. McMurtry had been on a train that derailed, killing the rest of his family. He refused to travel on another train.

They would all probably die of cholera or drown crossing a river or be scalped by Indians or trampled by a herd of buffalo long before they got to Cheyenne, where Mr. McMurtry planned to open a dry goods store.

Even if they made it all the way to Wyoming, she and Hetty and Josie were headed away from Miranda and Nick and Harry, with little chance of ever seeing them again. Agreeing to marry a total stranger headed into the wilderness was seeming more harebrained by the moment.

What on earth had possessed her to do something so very . . . unselfish?

Hannah was used to thinking of herself first. That had never been a problem when she was the spoiled and pampered daughter of wealthy parents. It had even served her well at the orphanage, where food and blankets were scarce. Before Miranda had left to become a mail-order bride, Hannah had been perfectly willing to let her eldest sister consider the needs of everyone else before her own.

Now Hannah was the eldest, at least, of the three who’d been left behind. Now it was her turn to sacrifice. Although marrying a perfect stranger seemed a pretty big leap from giving up food or blankets.

She was lucky the groom hadn’t turned out to be seventy-two and bald. In fact, he was only middle-aged. Was thirty-six middle-aged? To a girl of seventeen, it seemed ancient.

Her brand-new husband had a thick Irish brogue and an entire head of the curliest red hair she’d ever see on man or woman. His nose was a once-broken beak, but it gave character to an otherwise plain face. His eyes twinkled, like two dark blue stars caught in a spiderweb of wrinkles caused by years of smiling broadly—or too many hours spent working in the sun. Oh, yes, she felt very lucky.

And very, very sad.

Her tall, rail-thin groom was not the man of her dreams. He wasn’t even close.

Hannah was trying to decide how difficult it would be to open the window and retreat down the fire escape when she heard a firm—but quiet—knock at the door.

She scurried away from the window as though her presence there might reveal her desperate hope of avoiding the wedding night before her. There was no escape. She was DOOMED. She’d been well and truly caught in the trap Josie’s agonized eyes had set for her.

Her husband had arrived to make her his wife.

Hannah’s heart was jumping like a speckle-legged frog in a dry lake. Even knowing who must be at the door, she called out, “Who is it?” Her voice was hoarse and breathy. Fear had constricted her throat. She cleared it and said, “Who’s there?”

“It’s Mr. McMurtry,” a quiet—but firm—Irish voice replied. “May I come in?”

Hannah realized her husband expected to find her in bed. She stared at the gold brocade spread that still covered the sheets. She needed to pull it back and get into bed. But she couldn’t do it. She couldn’t!

To hell with being unselfish. She hated what she was being forced to do. She should have let Hetty do it. After all, Hetty was only two minutes younger! Hannah should have insisted they wait until Miranda contacted them. She should have told Josie No! in no uncertain terms. She should have run when she had the chance.

But she was married now, like it or not. And her husband was at the door.

Hannah curled her hands into angry fists and fought the tears that blurred her eyes and burned her nose. She hoped the coming journey was as dangerous as it was touted to be. Maybe her husband would die and leave her a widow and—

She brought herself up short and looked guiltily toward the door, behind which stood the man she was wishing dead. Wishing for freedom was one thing. Wishing another person dead to earn that freedom was something else entirely. That wasn’t how she’d been raised by her parents. Hannah was ashamed of having harbored such an unworthy thought.

No one had forced her to marry Mr. McMurtry. She’d volunteered to do it. She had to GROW UP. She had to put away childish hopes and dreams. This was her life, like it or not.

Hannah stared at the bed. She tried to imagine herself in Mr. McMurtry’s arms. She tried to imagine kissing his thin lips. She tried to imagine coupling with him. She couldn’t. She just couldn’t!

She groaned like a dying animal.

“Are you all right in there?”

Once again, Josie’s agonized gaze appeared in her mind’s eye. Hannah choked back a sob of resignation, then yanked down the covers and scrambled into bed, bracing her back against the headboard before pulling the covers up to her chin.

“Come in,” she croaked.

“Mrs. McMurtry? Are you there?”

Hannah cleared her throat and said, “You can come in, Mr. McMurtry.”

The door slowly opened. Mr. McMurtry stepped inside and closed the door behind him, but he didn’t move farther into the room.

Too late, Hannah realized she’d left the lamp lit, and that Mr. McMurtry would have to remove his wide-brimmed hat, string tie, chambray shirt, jeans, belt, socks, and hobnail boots—and perhaps even his unmentionables—with her watching. Unless she took the coward’s way out and ducked her head beneath the covers . . . or he had the foresight to put out the lamp.

Her new husband swallowed so hard his Adam’s apple bobbed, and said, “I had a cup of coffee downstairs.”

“Coffee will keep you awake.” Again, too late, Hannah realized there was a good reason why Mr. McMurtry might not want to go right to sleep.

Neither of them said anything for an awkward moment.

Then he said. “I’d better . . .”

Hannah watched as Mr. McMurtry blushed. His throat turned rosy, and then the blood filled his face, turning a hundred freckles into red blots on his cheeks.

He stammered, “I’ve dreamed about this . . . My whole life I . . . You are so beautiful.”

Hannah found herself staring back into her husband’s very blue eyes with astonishment. She’d known she was pretty, but this was the first time a grown man had remarked on the beauty of her blond curls and wide-spaced, sky-blue eyes, her full lips and peaches-and-cream complexion. It was surprisingly gratifying to hear such words from her husband.

Despite Mr. McMurtry’s speech, he remained backed up to the door.

Why, he’s scared, too! Hannah realized.

Her fear returned and multiplied. The situation was already mortifying in the extreme, but if he was inexperienced, who was going to tell her what to do?

“I’m really tired,” she blurted. Hannah dropped the sheet and put her hands to her cheeks as they flamed with embarrassment. “I don’t believe I said that.”

He chuckled.

She glanced sharply in his direction. “Are you laughing at me?”

“No, Mrs. McMurtry,” he said. “I was laughing at myself.”

She narrowed her eyes suspiciously.

He continued, “I’ve just married the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen, and I’m standing rooted to the floor a half a room away from her.” His smile turned lopsided as he admitted, “You see, I’ve never undressed a woman before . . . or undressed before a woman.”

Hannah swallowed hard and whispered, “Never? Not even a . . .” She couldn’t say the word prostitute or soiled dove or even lady of the night. Ladies did not speak of such things.

He shook his head. “I’m Catholic. Fornication is a sin.”

“Oh.” Hannah couldn’t breathe. It felt like all the air had been sucked from the room. He was thirty-six, and he’d never been with a woman? This was going to be a disaster.


TEXAS BRIDE

Bitter Creek Series #9 & Mail Order Brides #1

Description

HE MAY BE HER ONLY HOPE.
SHE MAY BE HIS LAST CHANCE.

Texas Bride
Miranda Wentworth never imagined becoming a mail-order bride. Now marriage to a stranger is her only hope of finding a home where she and her two younger brothers can escape the brutality of the Chicago orphanage where they live. With any luck, she can even start a family of her own, once the three of them are settled at Jacob Creed’s Texas ranch. But Miranda has one gigantic concern: Her husband-to-be knows nothing about the brothers she’s bringing along. What if he calls off the deal when he discovers the trick she’s played on him?

Jake Creed is hanging on to his Texas ranch by his fingernails. His nemesis, Alexander Blackthorne, is determined to ruin him. Jake will never give up, but he’s in desperate trouble. His wife died six months ago in childbirth, along with their stillborn son, and his two-year-old daughter needs a mother. The advertisement Jake wrote never mentioned his daughter—or the fact that he has no intention of consummating his marriage. He’s determined never to subject another wife to the burden of pregnancy. But Jake doesn’t count on finding his bride so desirable. He doesn’t count on aching with need when she joins him in bed. And he never suspected his bride would have plans of her own to seduce him.

    • Mass Market Paperback: 336 pages
    • Publisher: Random House Publishing Group, April 2012
    • Language: English
    • ISBN-10: 0-345-52744-8
    • ISBN-13: 978-0-345-52744-5

TEXAS BRIDE, Excerpt

Miranda was afraid to reach for the tickets. She seldom took anything for herself before offering it first to one of her siblings. Her life the past three years had been full of sacrifices. But none of her siblings were old enough to marry. She would have to do this herself.

It didn’t feel like a sacrifice. She’d be going on a grand adventure to a place she knew about only from stories in the Daily Herald. A place full of wild broncs and longhorned cattle. A place full of cowboys. . .and Indians. It all sounded so exotic. And exciting. She’d have a husband and maybe, one day soon, children of her own, two things she’d seen as very far in the future after she’d become a destitute orphan. And with a new life outside the Institute, there was at least a chance she could rescue her siblings.

Miranda didn’t let herself dwell on the possibility that her husband might turn out to be as cruel as Miss Birch. No one could be as cruel as Miss Birch.

Speak of the devil and she appeared.

“What is this!” a piercing voice demanded.

Miranda quickly slid the vellum and tickets back across the table to Josephine, who slipped them back into the pocket in her night shift. As the headmistress descended on them like a whirling dervish, Miranda whispered to her siblings, “I’ll take care of Miss Birch. Go!”

Her younger brothers and sisters grabbed their blankets and scampered for the door in the dark shadows at the opposite end of the dining room, leaving Miranda behind to face their nemesis.

Miss Birch was wearing a tufted robe over her nightgown and had her long black hair, of which she was so proud, pinned up under a nightcap. The headmistress was short and stout, with large eyes so dark brown they were almost black and cheeks that became florid when she was angry, as she was now.

“I presume that bunch who ran off was the passel of brats you brought with you to the orphanage,” Miss Birch said. “I’ve warned you before about leaving the dormitory after lights out, Miss Wentworth.”

Miranda lowered her eyes in submission, knowing that was the best way to conciliate the headmistress. “Yes, Miss Birch. I was saying good-bye to my brothers and sisters, since I’m leaving tomorrow morning.”

“You think the fact you’re leaving tomorrow means you can flaunt my rules tonight?”

“No, Miss Birch. I–“

A slender wooden rod whipped through the air and hit Miranda’s right shoulder without warning. Whop. She gasped at the pain and bit her lip to keep from crying out. She didn’t want her siblings to hear her and try coming to her rescue. There was no defying Miss Birch.

Miranda kept her hands at her sides, aware that if she tried to protect herself, Miss Birch would only hit harder.

“I’ll be glad–whop–to see–whop–you go!”

The pain was excruciating. Miranda felt tears of pain well in her eyes, but she didn’t make a sound, not even a whimper. She refused to give Miss Birch the satisfaction.

She could hear the heavyset woman breathing hard from the effort of whipping her. She raised her gaze, staring into the black eyes that stared hatefully back at her, and said with all the calm and dignity she could muster, “Are you done now? May I leave?”

She watched as Miss Birch resisted the urge to hit her again. Three cracks of the rod. That was Miss Birch’s limit, no matter how bad the infraction. Miranda knew her punishment was over, which was why there had been a taunt in her calm, dignified voice.

Then Miss Birch hit her again. WHOP. Hard enough to make Miranda moan with pain. Hard enough to make the tears in her eyes spill onto her cheeks.

Now I’m done,” the headmistress said with malicious satisfaction. “Go back to the dormitory, Miss Wentworth, and stay there until it’s time for you to leave.”

Miranda had turned to go when Miss Birch said, “Too bad you won’t be here when those brats get their punishment.”

“You’ve already punished me!” Miranda protested. “There’s no need to punish anyone else.”

“They were here, weren’t they? Where they didn’t belong? Oh, they’ll be punished, all right. Each and every one of them!”

“The baby–“

“That brat is no baby! He’s four years old.”

Only four years old!” Miranda retorted, fear for her youngest brother, whom she would no longer be able to protect, making her bold. “How can you be so mean?”

“Mean?” Miss Birch pressed her lips flat. “I enforce discipline, Miss Wentworth. Without discipline, where would we be? Those children must learn to obey the rules. They must learn there are consequences when they break them.”

“If you must punish someone, beat me instead.”

Miss Birch raised her eyebrows as she tapped the rod against her open palm. “Let me see. Three strokes times five offenses. How many is that, Miss Wentworth?”

“Fifteen,” Miranda replied past a throat tight with fear.

“I’m tempted, Miss Wentworth. Oh, how I am tempted.”

“Who would know?” Miranda said in a voice that was almost a whisper. “I’m leaving tomorrow.”

Miss Birch laughed. “You’re a fool, Miss Wentworth. I could give you fifteen strokes of the rod tonight and punish the rest of them tomorrow after you’re gone.”

Miranda knew very well that Miss Birch would find reasons to punish her siblings, even if there weren’t any. But the tickets secured in Josie’s pocket gave her courage. “Do it,” she urged. “I trust you will be too tired after the effort to bother my siblings, at least for tomorrow.”

“Very well, Miss Wentworth. Turn around and bare your back.”

Miranda’s eyes went wide. “You can’t mean–“

“Bare your back,” Miss Birch demanded. “Or I’ll have every one of those brats back in here tonight to get three strokes of the rod.”

“Yes, Miss Birch.” Miranda turned and slid her shift off already aching shoulders, securing the folds of cloth against her small breasts.

She focused her terrified mind on the faceless man at the end of her coming journey. The man who would be her husband. The man who would be the salvation of her siblings. The man who would plant the seeds for a family of her own. The man she would somehow learn to love. The man who might someday learn to love her.

Miranda braced herself and waited for the cane to strike.

NIGHT OWL REVIEWS:Reviewer Top Pick (Score: 5)

“Miranda lost her parents when their house burned down. Her and her five siblings were sent to an orphanage where they were at the mercy of nasty headmistress Miss Birch, who liked to find any reason she could to beat them. When Miranda turned 18 and couldn’t stay there any longer, her and her siblings came up with a plan for Miranda to be a mail-order bride so she could keep the family together. When Miranda met Jake, she had smuggled her two brothers along with her. It quickly became obvious that it wouldn’t be so easy to send for her sisters.

A whole host of characters keeps the story detailed and the interest high. Times were difficult for everyone involved, but as they muddled through, love and kindness prevailed. What a great historical read with an uber-sweet romance. Everyone fought their feelings, but learned to get along and work together for the greater good of the family. They all learned to deal with the fear and tough times and let the love reveal itself as the story developed. This is my first Joan Johnston book and she writes with sincerity and realism. I’m very impressed and I only wish I would have read her books sooner. I very highly recommend Texas Bride. You’ll be sorry if you miss it!”


“This is the first book I’ve read by Joan Johnston and it made me anxious to read her backlist, so I did some research to find out how the books are connected. You’ll want to visit her site for the details but the MAIL-ORDER BRIDE series will introduce a Blackthorne, so it’s a prequel to the BITTER CREEK novels. Also, those who’ve read the SISTERS OF THE LONE STAR series will recognize Cricket Creed, Jake’s mother. Not having read the previous books and not wanting to spoil this one, all I can say from my research is that I believe that TEXAS BRIDE will delight current fans with familiar characters, as well as create new exuberant devotees out of those of us who are just getting started. I know I had a tough time letting go at the end—I wanted more hours, more story and more answers about what’s next. Hooked me completely!

TEXAS BRIDE is charming, full of characters young and old that you’ll bond with immediately, leaving you impatient for what promises to be a tempting series for historical western fans. Fair warning; this novel leaves you craving for book two, WYOMING BRIDE, grinning with anticipation after reading the excerpt included. Great concept for a series that’s sure to please western historical readers who adore the pioneer spirit!”

By Romance Junkies Reviewer: Dorine Linnen

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