In a post-apocalyptic world where women are rare and valuable, Ellie Overdahl is a widow far from home at the mercy of strangers. Sold to be a prize in a Bride Fight, she manages to send word to her cousin, begging for rescue.
For six years, Quill Wolfe has mourned the loss of the woman his wolf chose to be his mate. When word comes that Ellie is widowed and about to be forced into an unwanted marriage, he races to enter the Bride Fight. He has waited long enough to claim his mate, and no fighter is good enough to keep him from her.
But claiming Ellie is only the beginning. It’s not only the journey home that is dangerous and uncertain.
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EXCERPT -- Chapter 1
“You have no right to sell us!”
Ellie flinched at her fellow captive’s screech. Sara was absolutely right, but yelling at these men probably wouldn’t help. They had all heard it a dozen times during the ten hours they’d traveled under the scorching prairie sun. The only one who hadn’t heard it was Bruce, the leader of this crew of prairie traders, who had spent most of the day riding ahead of the small caravan. He hadn’t returned until after camp was set up and supper was ready. Ellie glanced at him, hoping he wouldn’t slap Sara for her tirade. But he laughed so hard his beer belly shook over his leather belt.
“Your uncle sold you to me, little lady, and I’m gonna make a sweet profit selling you to the fine, wife-hunting men of Ellsworth.”
“Well, who gave him the right to do that, huh?” Sara demanded, her clenched fists on her hips, her brown eyes narrowed. “That worthless excuse for a human being isn’t even really my uncle! My dad was the sheriff of Ford County. He was important. I can’t be sold like a horse! I want to go to Omaha, to my real uncle.”
The humor drained away from Bruce’s whiskered face, leaving it cold. The uneven light of the campfire flickered across it, creating a mask that reminded Ellie of her father’s stories of demons dancing in hellfire. Bruce hooked one thumb in the belt loop closest to his large silver belt buckle and leaned down until his face was only inches from Sara’s.
“Personally, I don’t give a rat’s ass who you are, who your parents were, or what the fuck you want.” Bruce turned his head slightly to spit. The gob landed disgustingly close to the blanket whose frayed edge Ellie had been mending before the sun set. She jerked the wool closer to her. “All I want from you is a nice profit. You’re pretty and”—his eyes ran down her soft figure—“you got enough flesh on you to make plenty of men hot for you. If you’d keep your big mouth shut, you’d be damn near perfect.” He snagged the front of her shirt and twisted it in his fist to jerk her to her tiptoes. “You gonna shut up?”
Bruce dropped her to unbuckle his belt. “You know what your problem is, little lady? You never got your ass whooped regular.”
Ellie clenched the blanket in her lap. Sara was only sixteen, but didn’t she have any common sense? Antagonizing the men who controlled them wouldn’t make anything better. Now Bruce would beat her with his belt, and then how could she sit in the wagon tomorrow? Ellie cast a cringing glance back at Bruce and Sara and jerked in a sharp breath. Bruce hadn’t removed his belt from his jeans, which had dropped to his ankles, but he’d lifted his shirt to reveal himself semi-erect.
Ellie clapped her hands to her mouth, eyes searching the other men around the fire for help. There was Jeff, thin and balding and serenely snoring in his bedroll. Tim was on guard duty about a hundred yards away. It was too dark for Ellie to see him. Paul and Dexter were out of sight with the horses. Rye was across the fire from her, yawning while watching Bruce with only mild interest. Quiet, stocky Jeremy was a yard to her left, his thick, stiff brown hair and goatee looking almost black at the edge of the campfire light. She caught his eye.
“Please,” she begged in a hoarse whisper. “Stop him.”
Jeremy pulled his hat down lower, not quite hiding the unhappy curve of his mouth. He didn’t seem to like this either. “No, ma’am,” he muttered. “He’s the boss.”
No matter how hard she stared at Rye, who reclined only a foot from Bruce, he didn’t turn his head to look. A cauldron of horror, embarrassment, and rage bubbled inside Ellie. She pulled the blanket up higher, wondering if it would do any good for her to try to intervene. Somebody had to do something.
Bruce clutched his groin, arching his back to flaunt his manhood. “What do you think of this, little lady?” he sneered at Sara.
Sara sniffed and looked away. “I’ve seen better.”
A short, low chuckle came from Rye. Bruce swung a fist at Sara’s face. She gasped and ducked, but she didn’t need to. Bruce’s fist was halted by a hard hand gripping his wrist. Rye stood straight, easily holding Bruce back. The light amusement that habitually tilted Rye’s lips was gone. He shook his head.
“No reason to damage the merchandise,” he said calmly.
Bruce tore his wrist free of Rye’s grip. “What the fuck?”
Rye stood a few inches taller than Bruce, even though he wore flat-soled workman’s boots and Bruce was in heeled cowboy boots. “I could say the same thing to you.” There was an edge in Rye’s voice. “If we want top dollar for our goods, we better keep ’em in top condition.”
“We’ll get paid the same either way.” Bruce glared at Rye. His expression made Ellie shudder. “All I want is for that little bitch to shut up.”
Rye slouched and shrugged, preparing to sink back to the ground. “So gag her.”
“I’ll gag her,” Bruce promised with an ugly laugh. He grabbed himself. “I’ve got just the thing.”
Rye turned back to Bruce with a weary sigh. “Oh, for God’s sake, put your pants back on and think with the head on top of your shoulders instead of the one hanging between your legs. In another four days, she’s off our hands. Just cool it until then, okay?”
“Are you trying to tell me what to do?” Challenge chilled Bruce’s voice. “Who’s in charge of this outfit? You?”
“Put your goddamned pants on, Bruce. It’s late, and I’m tired. Let’s all get some sleep.”
Bruce bent over, hands reaching for his ankles. Ellie modestly looked away, so she didn’t see where the knife came from. All she saw was Bruce straightening with a snap, and the gleam of a blade cutting through the dark, headed for Rye. Ellie’s scream was lost in the thud of Rye’s boot kicking the knife out of the air, sending it spinning into the fire with a shower of sparks.
Sara shouted, “Sweet move!”
And then there was a bang, a stab of flame from the barrel of the pistol in Rye’s hand, and a choked bellow from Bruce. Ellie clutched her collar as Bruce staggered back and hit the ground with a groan that changed to a breathy sigh. In the sudden silence, the snap of the fire made Ellie jump.
After a minute of watching Rye bending over Bruce, Sara asked, “Is he dead?”
Rye straightened up and took a cartridge from his belt to reload his pistol with a little
chuckle. Ellie had heard that little chuckle a dozen times today, and she’d never thought it sounded evil until now. “Yep.”
“Cool! Will you take me to Omaha?”
“Nope. You have a Bride Fight waiting for you in Ellsworth. We contracted with them to supply brides for the fights and we’ll deliver.”
“Could you shut up for ten minutes?”
Sara puckered her mouth in displeasure.
“Thank you,” he muttered then raised his voice. “Everybody get over here for a second.”
Tim, Paul, and Dexter left their posts and came to stand close to the fire, shifting their weight from foot to foot and looking between Rye and Bruce’s body. Rye indicated Bruce with a flip of his pistol.
“Bruce is dead. I’m in charge from now on. Anyone got a problem with that?”
Paul craned his head to get a better look at Bruce, stroking the long brown ponytail that lay over his shoulder. He shook his head.
“Anyone?” said Rye. Silence. “Good. Then I got a few new rules for us. Rye Thomas’ crew ain’t thieves. We ain’t welshers. When we take a contract, we deliver, and we deliver the goods in prime condition. That includes women, if we ever trade any more of ’em.” His sour, sidelong glance at Sara suggested they wouldn’t be. “So the women are off limits. If you need to talk to ’em for some reason, this,”—he pointed a booted toe toward Sara, kneeling by the fire—“is Miss Nelson, and that lady leaning on the tree is Mrs. Overdahl. Treat them like they’re your own sisters. The women will sleep in the wagon, so be sure you have all your gear out of it. Any questions?”
None of the men said anything.
“All right, then. Jer, Jeff, go dig a grave.”
Jeff rolled out of his blankets. “Where?”
“Wherever the hell you want, just out of camp. And for god sakes, pull Bruce’s pants up before you plant him.”
“Okay, boss,” Jeremy said.
Ellie remained sitting against the tree, cold to the marrow of her bones in spite of the fire a few yards away. Surprisingly, Sara was actually being quiet. The teenager stayed sunk on her knees at the fire. The flames painted gold highlights in her wavy brown hair when she turned her head to watch Jeff and Jeremy pull Bruce’s body out of camp.
Rye bent to the fire to fill his coffee cup. He paused to shake his head and use his boot to nudge something at the edge of the fire. “Waste of a good knife.”
“That was so cool, the way you kicked it!” said Sara enthusiastically.
Rye took a sip of coffee. “It’s late, Miss Nelson. You should go to bed. Another ten hours in the wagon tomorrow.”
“I want to ride a horse.”
“You’ll ride in the wagon with the rest of the merchandise.” Rye gave another of his little chuckles before looking at Ellie. “Go to bed, Mrs. Overdahl, and take the chatterbox with you. Please.”
Ellie gathered her blanket and stood up. “Good night, Mr. Thomas. Come on, Sara.”
Sara balked. “If I’m merchandise, then I’m not helping with breakfast. Or lunch or dinner. And I’m not washing dishes either!”
Rye nodded. “Fair enough.” He opened his mouth in a jaw-cracking yawn and turned away from them to slouch back to the ground by the fire, apparently not interested in them any longer.
Sara opened her mouth to persist, but Ellie put an arm around her. “Come on,” she whispered. “Let’s go to the wagon.”
Sara allowed herself to be towed along. “This isn’t fair.”
The teenager snatched the lamp hanging at the side of the canvas-topped wagon and lit it before clambering inside. The weak glow of the lamp showed two bedrolls laid out side by side in the center, with the boxes and bundles of other merchandise stacked around them. She plopped herself down on one set of blankets and yanked her worn cowboy boots off. Ellie followed her in and sat on the other blankets.
“You know it’s not fair!” Sara persisted. “We’re not merchandise!”
Yes, Ellie knew it wasn’t fair. “Shhh. Keep your voice down. They can hear us at the fire. No, we’re not merchandise. But what can we do?”
About the Author
family moved several times while I was growing up. I now live in Fargo
North Dakota, USA. Paranormal romance and fantasy romance are my
favorite thing to read and write. Since I've been writing for
thirty-five years, I have a lot of half-finished stories laying around
needing an ending. And I want to finish them. I just need more hours in
the day to do it!
I am a member of the SCA, a non-profit education
organization that studies the Renaissance and Middle Ages. I've learned
a bunch of fascinating stuff in the SCA, and I have plans to use that
knowledge in my writing. Someday.
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