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Heart's Bounty

A woman on a mission of vengeance ... Confederate renegades murdered her family, and left Bethany Hart homeless and alone. When military and civilian officials would not help bring them to justice, she vowed to do it, herself. She set out to hunt them down no matter how long it took, or what the personal cost ... with a need for justice as her only companion, and her heart as cold as her ice-blue gaze ... A man with a dual identity ... A former Union spy, now lawman on a special assignment for the President, J.D. Trent is sympathetic to her cause. Duty-bound to help the lovely lady bounty hunter, how can he? Doing so would jeopardize his plan to stop a criminal operation in the Southwest Territory....it might bring about his own downfall, for he is a man with a past the lady is determined to uncover ... Love captures their hearts ... Will Bethany discover love is the greatest bounty of all? Can it overcome Trent's secret betrayal and her need for revenge?

A Hard Shell Word Factory Release


Christine Charles

As a child, Christine Charles was addicted to TV's "Bonanza" series, but always wondered why the women on the show never did more than cook, have children, and hold Little Joe's hand--or his horse! A tale heard while visiting Alabama inspired this novel, but the story of Bethany and Trent came from the author's heart. President of the northwest Missouri chapter of Romance Writers of America, Christine lives near Kansas City with her husband and two children. Visit Christine's Homepage

Reviews

"Bethany and J.D. are delightful characters, beautifully drawn, fully fleshed. The plot is full of unexpected twists and turns, all adding to the sense of time and place. And the romance is full of fire, sparks, sizzle, and explosions--it could be a Fourth of July celebration all by itself. Ms. Charles has penned an exciting and wholly satisfying tale of love in the Old West. I loved it! Highly Recommended."

Under the Covers Book Reviews
Excerpt

Chapter 1

Burnt Prairie, Kansas June, 1869

MEN SCRAMBLED out of a saloon, shouting and shoving each other in their haste to vacate the building. Inside, the rumble of toppling furniture played in bizzare harmony with a woman's shrieks, cursing her husband for his drinking and gambling. A crowd gathered outside as the woman's tirade continued, and now a man bellowed in concert with her -- a lunatic duet.

Bethany Hart shook her head. Why couldn't other men be like her father? Daniel Hart had used every cent he'd ever earned for the sole benefit of his wife and children. He would never have squandered his time or money in a saloon, even if he hadn't been a preacher.

She gave the livery man what she owed him for the wagon she'd just purchased, and led her gray mare, Shadow, to the oversized doorway of the stable, then climbed up onto the seat of the wagon.

"Don't y'all have a lawman in this town?" she asked the stable owner. Before he could reply, two men pushed past the onlookers and stormed into the saloon.

Bethany snapped the reins, and Shadow moved into the road just as the saloon doors swung open again. A man emerged with a plump woman in his arms. Red-faced with rage, she pummelled his chest with her fists as he marched into the road. Her pink gingham skirt and white petticoat trailed in the dust.

The onlookers quickly made way for them. As they passed through the crowd, the woman wrenched a parasol from another lady's grasp and struck the man's head with it. His hat flew off, but he ignored the blow, heaving her, face first, into a horse trough.

Some people laughed, others scurried away, but not one of them lifted a finger to help her.

Bethany's temper flared. How dare that man treat a woman so disrespectfully, and humiliate her in front of the entire town! If there was one thing Bethany's father had passed on to her, it was a well-developed sense of moral outrage. Determined to teach this cur a lesson, she grabbed her rifle, jumped down from the wagon, and started across the road.

Sputtering, her drenched clothing clinging to her sagging, bosomy figure, the woman rose like a furious Venus emerging from the sea. She teetered, screeched, and fell back into the trough. The man who'd tossed her into it laughed heartily along with his companions.

Suddenly, another man pushed through the crowd, silencing the laughter with a single stormy look. The six points of a marshal's star pinned to his black coat glinted in the sunlight.

Bethany gasped, stopping flat-footed in the middle of the road as the memory of another blond-haired man blinked through her mind.

This one bent at the waist to address the woman in the water. He asked, "Are you all right, Miz Oates? Give me your hand. I'll help you out of there."

"Men!" she cried, "You're all alike!" She reached up, grabbed his shirtfront, and pulled his head under the water.

When he resurfaced, he gripped the wooden trough and pushed himself up, spraying water about like an angry whale. Her voice hoarse from screaming, the unfortunate Mrs. Oates said something to him, but Bethany paid no heed to the exchange of words. She intently studied that man while he picked up, then replaced his hat. Bethany didn't recognize his face, but his build...

At least a head taller than the men around him, closely-cropped blond hair, clean-shaven, and well-dressed, the lawman bore little resemblance to the man she remembered, but that didn't mean he wasn't J.D. Fine. If other criminals could change their ways and turn to enforcing the law, Fine could have done the same. The possibility kept her gaze riveted on him as he turned and grabbed the arm of the man who had tossed Mrs. Oates into the water.

"John," he said, "I'm sorely tired of having to referee these drunken arguements between you and your wife. This is the third time this week, alone! I'm arresting you for creating a public nuisance and disturbing the peace." He ordered a red-bearded fellow to help Mrs. Oates from the water, and marched away with his prisoner in tow.

Bethany quickly assessed the position of the sun in the sky, climbed back onto the seat of the wagon, lightly slapped the reins against Shadow's rump, and resumed her journey out of town. She would return and find out more about the blond lawman, later.

Revenge could not wait.


* * *

ABOUT NOON two days later, Bethany stood beside the mare hitched to the wagon.

"Easy, Shadow," she murmured. "Play your role like you did last time, and you'll have carrots for dessert." While affectionately smoothing Shadow's mane, she scanned the nearly barren Kansas foothills, sighting her quarry several hundred yards away. The rider brought his horse to a halt at the crest of a hill, and surveyed the terrain, seeming not to notice her.

Oh, Lord... Bethany's stomach lurched in momentary panic when she saw the rider swivel in his saddle and stare off to the west. Though she had positioned her wagon in the open, she hadn't considered that, even so, he might not notice her.

Annoyed with herself, she muttered, "I should have taken him by surprise last night." But, she reflected, that would not have been smart. Men like him never truly slept, and she might have come out the loser. To her relief, the man urged his horse down the slope and was soon cantering in her direction.

"All right, Shadow. It's up to you, now." Bethany grasped the bridle, whistled softly twice, and led the mare forward a few feet. As she'd been trained to do, Shadow limped, favoring her left foreleg. Bethany couldn't help smiling a little as the rider drew nearer.

"Need some help, ma'am?" he called as he brought his horse to a halt in front of hers.

"Oh, my, yes! I'm not really sure what-all's wrong with my poor Magnolia," Bethany twittered in her best imitation of Eula Mae Stanhope, a belle she knew back home in Alabama. All Eula Mae had to do was flutter her honey-colored eyelashes, and even the most confirmed bachelor fell victim to her charms. Bethany had to admit the technique was effective, and though she detested lowering herself to Eula Mae's level, she owed some of her success thus far to the tactic.

"Well, well," the man soothed, looking her over like a bulldog eyeing a ham. "Let me have a look." He dismounted, and inspected the mare's leg. "She threw a shoe." An unmistakably lecherous gleam filtered through his mud-brown eyes as he gazed at Bethany. " 'Course, we're a ways from a blacksmith, and she's already come up lame."

"My stars! Of course her foot is tender. Why, I know how I'd feel, walkin' on this hot old ground without my shoes."

Bethany lifted her hem and waggled her foot for effect. She knew she'd achieved the desired one, given his lacivious scrutiny of her calf. She also knew she was playing a risky game with the most dangerous man she'd ever encountered, but he seemed to be trying to play the gentleman rescuing a helpless damsel at this point, and she needed only a little more time.

"Whatever shall we do?"

He reached for his gun. "Might as well get this over with."

Startled, Bethany held tight to Shadow's neck. "You can't shoot her!"

"Won't be no good to you, lame an' all."

"Well, there must be something else we can do!"

The man looked around as if he thought someone was watching them. "Ain't you got somebody travellin' with you? "

"No."

"A woman ought not to be ridin' by herself." He squinted and bared his tobacco-stained, yellow teeth in what Bethany assumed was supposed to be a smile. "Y'never know what might happen to a woman alone." He assessed her slowly, from head to foot. "I reckon as how Apache, here," he said, turning toward his horse, "could pull this rig to the nearest town and, uh, Magnolia could just walk alongside. We'd have to go slow, though."

Bethany suddenly pitched forward against his side. He caught her. The stench of him was nearly enough to cause her to faint.

"Goodness! I'm sorry! I just felt so dizzy all of a sudden, Mister -- What did you say your name is?"

"Earl Stanley."