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Prohibition has a stranglehold on legitimate business, but for small towns willing to play dirty, and country boys looking to make a pretty penny on shine, Prohibition has been a boon. For Monroe County, it’s the very life blood that keeps their backwoods community afloat.
But something isn’t right about the new girl in town. Charlotte Elliot swears, she drinks, and she’s trying too damn hard to fit in with the simple folk. The moonshining backbone of Monroe, Matthew Emerson, is less than thrilled when the blonde comes knocking on his door.
He knows what she is, what she’s capable of.
Charlotte doesn’t mind his glares. All she pines for is a quiet place to start over, but try as she might, there is no pleasing Matthew. The gruff outlaw is only too happy to point out her flaws, to correct her mouth, and to find himself spellbound and awkward every time he happens to catch her pretty blue eyes.
A rotten past has a way of catching up with a girl, and the most notorious gangster in Chicago has found her—and he wants her back. Matthew aims to keep her, but if he wants her, if he really loves her, he has the fight of his life on his hands.
~This title is an Amazon exclusive.~
Boot skidding in an unsteady effort to grip rocky incline, a sore shoulder pressed to the frame of a car, Charlie kept his weight firm, trying his damnedest to steer the broken down metal box up yet another hill. Three miles at least the man had pushed, hoping the faded wooden sign pointing to Devil’s Hollow Roadhouse an hour back was accurate.
With the luck he’d been having, Charlie wouldn’t be surprised to find the sign a lie – the roadhouse long ago leveled by some tornado, burned to the ground, or just plain abandoned.
After days of travel, the blue Ford’s engine had gone out so unexpectedly, Charlie was certain Lucifer himself was trying to meddle in his affairs. The irony of being caught on a twisting backcountry road named Devil’s Hollow, and considering the type of monster he had with him, most men would have agreed. Chained, gagged and blindfolded on the backseat was a bounty evil through and through; a man Charlie had hunted so long, he couldn’t close his eyes without feeling the need to watch that particular bastard fry while strapped down to Sing Sing’s infamous electric chair, Old Sparky. Imagining Ronnie Pearson lurching - the sounds he’d make –thoroughly motivated Charlie to push that damn car the whole way to New York if he had to.
Fortunately, early winter in the sticks left no snow on the ground - just plenty of cold to soothe a laboring body. Clouds of breath steamed from flared nostrils, sweat ran through the dirt on his face. With an extended grunt, Charlie crested the steepest slope yet.
At the rumble of an approaching engine, Charlie lowered a hand to the rifle hanging at his shoulder. Brim pulled low, he peered back, a cloud of dirt signaling trouble might be closing in.
Or maybe it was nothing.
Vehicles speeding fast enough to kick up that kind of dust didn’t usually stop for strangers, nor were country boys quite as friendly as folks might expect. So, when a rusty truck came to a slow rolling stop beside him, Charlie’s expression was less than friendly.
There was reason to be wary. It wasn’t the pale eyes of the brawny passenger, narrowed as they looked him up and down. It wasn’t the scarred knuckles flexing where the man’s arm rested out the window. It was the smell.
Gloved fingers rose to the brim of Charlie’s hat, one silent nod offered, all the while, red rimmed eyes measured what mattered and what didn’t. The greater threat wasn’t the bruiser riding shotgun. Tall as a tree and dirty as a pig, a burly man glared down at him from the truck’s bed. Unlike the men in the cab, the giant was well aware of the hidden rifle Charlie’s trigger finger kissed.
Deadpan, Charlie broke the silence. “Afternoon...”
A wordless, grunted reply was offered – not from the man looming over him, but from the one with his arm hanging out the passenger window. One more tense stretch of silence, and a smooth rumble demanded, “Where you headed to?”
Scraping words from a dry throat, Charlie croaked, “Sign a few miles back pointed to a Devil’s Hollow Roadhouse.”
The stranger pursed his lips, chewed a toothpick caught between his teeth, and looked to his driver. “Eli, help him push the car.”
By the open annoyance on the boy’s face, it was clear helping a road-worn stranger wasn’t exactly appealing to the youth. Even so, Eli did as he was told, climbing out of the cab so the broad shouldered male might scoot towards the wheel.
Without another glance or word exchanged, the truck took off.
Through the dust, Eli sauntered nearer, hand out friendly-like. “I’m Eli Emerson. The roadhouse belongs to my cousin, Matthew.”
Seeing the boy up close, Charlie found he was wrong. Eli wasn’t a kid exactly. He was something nearer a man, a bit too pretty for his own good. “Charles.”
Greeting over, the kid moved straight towards the back of the car. Together they pushed that damn Ford, Eli chattering up a storm, asking questions that went unanswered, pouring out compliments on the shiny blue car.
By sunset, the creaking roadhouse’s sign came into sight, ending the prattle long enough for Charlie to pull off his hat and wipe the sweat from his brow.
The roadhouse was just what you’d expect from a country pit stop - a simple two story building, everything set in vacant, surrounding woods. Faded tin signs advertising motor oil, cigarettes and Coca-Cola splashed a little color against wooden slats. Mismatched chairs graced the porch - one of them full of Matthew Emerson sipping on a steaming mug.
Seeing the man fully, even seated, it was clear Matthew was a big fellow, a weathered version of his pretty boy cousin. Sitting so his eyes were shadowed by the brim of his hat, the single porch light offered little more to peruse beyond the rigid set of an unfriendly jaw.
Leaving the car and its precious hidden cargo, Charlie walked the dusty yard and marched up the porch steps.
“Matthew Emerson,” Charlie’s throaty speech, an unpretty thing, grated like the after effects of some great sickness, “I have a proposition for you.”
Matthew’s head tipped back just enough to meet the beady stare of the much smaller stranger, to look close at the man caught on his road. Charlie held that gaze. Years of practice had taught the bounty hunter how to make a face look different. Ever so slightly pushing his jaw forward faked an under bite, squinting creased the skin making one appear older. And that was only the beginning. Sweat and dirt; it was miraculous what the combination could conceal. One thing Charlie couldn’t hide. A nasty scar bisected his lower lip - a thing he’d carried since childhood.
Matthew took a sip of coffee and offered an unimpressed, “Proposition, hum? You come out here to talk business?”
Charlie understood what the man implied. West Virginia was dirt poor, and with prohibition going strong. Smart men found other ways to pull a profit - illegal ways. Brewing and selling were as common as farming and coal mining. The Emersons were moonshiners.
“I have no interest in your liquor.” A borderline sneer pulled at Charlie’s scar. “What I have is cargo I need to transport immediately. Ain’t got time to wait on getting that engine fixed.”
Matthew leaned back in his chair, unimpressed with the stranger on his porch. “And what do you want me to do about it?”
“I’ll pay you five hundred dollars for a three day ride, leaving now.”
His snort could have been mocking laughter if the man had cracked a smile. “What’s in the car?”
There was no point in lying. “A convict on his way to the electric chair.”
Matthew ever so slightly cocked his head, a sign that maybe he was intrigued... or perhaps offended. Once he spoke, it was clear the expression implied neither; he was simply dismissive. “Ain’t got no one to drive you.”
Charlie didn’t waver, only deepened his tone. “Find someone.”
Matthew’s colorless eyes blazed so hard Charlie was sure other men had scuttled back like kicked dogs at the sight. But that wasn’t Charlie’s way. “The bounty I’m carrying is a very evil man - a man who killed my brother and harmed my mama. There is nothing that’ll stand in my way of dragging him to justice.”
A disgruntled throat noise and Matthew glanced to the distant Ford.
Charlie made his point. “I don’t care if you’re a decent man or a bad one; you got family. I take it you understand my position.”
A moment of quiet stretched before Matthew sipped his coffee and coarsely offered, “One night’s shelter, then you and your friend will be on your way. Lot a men round these parts won’t take too kindly to your type, if you understand my meanin.”
It was better than nothing. Tipping his hat, Charlie shuffled back to the blue Ford to drag out the psychopath strapped down across the back.
Feeling Matthew Emerson measure his every move, Charlie managed the much taller chained prisoner, yanking the jackass along, handling the convict well when the bastard played his game of being difficult - stumbling on purpose, wriggling.
At their approach, the head of the Emerson family stood and held the screen door open. Once inside, after taking in all the empty tables with their checkered tablecloths and cheap spindle chairs, Charlie chose a seat.
There was an audience - the scruffy giant from the back of the truck and a gawking woman standing behind the counter.
“What the hell is this?”
Matthew spoke. “They stay one night and then they go.” After a short pause, he added, “Alice, get them some food.”
The youngest, Eli, watched, muttering to himself as he took in the chains on the convict and the rifle on the stranger. “A real life bounty hunter here in Monroe.”
Charlie looked towards the boy, eyes narrowed. “You ain’t seen me, hear?”
Bashful, Eli mumbled, “Uh, yes, sir.”
“Eli, you head on home,” Matthew ordered, lighting a cigar and taking a seat at the counter.
Eli, eager to be included, argued, “I’ll stay.”
“Get.” The one word, spoken softly, was enough.
With a snort, the grousing youth left as ordered.
The raven-haired waitress frowned through the process of readying two bowls of unheated canned soup. From the way Matthew watched her before settling his eyes right back on Charlie, it was apparent any slight on the woman would spell trouble.
Charlie only glanced at the pretty girl long enough to see what she was made of. Alice was stunning, possessing unfashionably long hair and dressed smart - a little too smart for a lady working a greasy spoon.
When she plopped down the food, Charlie went through the expected motions. “Much appreciated, ma’am.”
Without acknowledging the courtesy, the lithe thing went right back to her place behind the counter.
After checking to assure the prisoner’s blindfold stayed tight, Charlie loosened the saliva saturated gag under it. “Supper.”
The captive’s jaw dropped in false anticipation.
Charlie began the infuriating process of feeding the thing he hated most on earth. “Rule number one?”
The prisoner’s voice was a musical thing, seductive and unnerving. “I eat when you tell me to eat.”
“Rule number two?”
Pure sadistic glee. “I piss when you tell me to piss.”
“Rule number three?”
The prisoner’s lips curved into a poisonous smile. “I fuck up… you cut something off.”
A gravelly hiss, and Charlie agreed. “And that is my favorite rule.”
He shoveled the rest of the soup between the bastard’s lips, faster and faster. Between slurps and swallows, beyond the distrust the big dirty one was leveling at him, the little hairs on the back of Charlie’s neck started to rise.
Something wasn’t right.
The outdoors went quiet. No birds, no bugs, no nothing.
Silence was never a good thing.
Suspicious, Charlie’s eyes flew to Matthew Emerson. The man was standing rigid, staring out the window like he, too, felt something bad.
Gunfire boomed, the roadhouse’s front windows shattered, glass flying everywhere. Tackling his prisoner, determined the man wouldn’t die quickly from some stray bullet to the brain, Charlie barked, “Cut the damn lights!”
Matthew and Nathaniel fired haphazardly into the night like fools, Alice screaming where she hid behind the bar. Bullets flying overhead, Charlie crawled towards the window. Crouched, rifle at his shoulder, he scoped the yard. Whatever the hell was going on, Charlie had no plans on dying just for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Charlie let out an audible sigh. “I ain’t got time for this shit.”
Scoping target number one, Charlie pulled the trigger. One blast, one death. The process repeated, patient and thorough - professional. Five men died due to such skill, and silence, once again, came to the yard.
With the quiet, Charlie stood, ignoring the crunch of glass when stepping over the casement. Bodies were found, examined where they sprawled. Two Charlie recognized, and couldn’t help but snort a laugh.
Matthew came bearing a lantern. “They worth any money?”
Ignoring the temper, the fury radiating from the stoic at his back, Charlie said, “No one gives a shit about men like this. It’s their boss you should be worrying about.”
Matthew sucked his teeth. “And who might that be?”
Cocking his head, Charlie turned and looked up at a man who could crush him with one good swing. Bearing no trace of compassion, no interest in helping the Emerson boys’ cause, he explained the cold way of things. “You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours. Speakin of which, I did just kill almost all of the fuckers for you.”
“You didn’t do it for me.”
“You seem like a reasonable man.” A flashed smirk, one as mean as Charlie could offer. “So you must know you’re just one more bootlegger out in the middle of nowhere. I could’ve killed you, the tall fella, and your woman, in three quick shots before you would’ve even blinked… then stolen your truck. We both know that. Not a soul but your dandy cousin would have even known I was here.” Charlie pursed his lips and shook his head. “And tracking him down… wouldn’t even be a challenge.”
The brute took a threatening step nearer. “I’m not in the mood to play games, son.”
Charlie’s demand was deliberate and harsh. “Give me what I want.”
“Matthew,” Alice called. “Nathaniel’s bleedin!”
Pushing past the bounty hunter, Matthew rushed back inside, Charlie following to assure no stray bullets had hit his prize.
The shackled captive lay in a pile right where he’d been shoved down. Poking at him with his boot, the prisoner uncurled, and Charlie leaned down to haul him back into a chair.
Chained hands darted out, a piece of broken window glass carving right through the bounty hunter’s clothing.
Warmth soaked his undershirt, a great sting tightening Charlie’s breath. “Ronnie... you just broke rule number three.”
The maniac cackled, even as his makeshift weapon was yanked from him. Ignoring Matthew, the waitress, and the bleeding Nathaniel, Charlie went straight to the wood burning stove to shove in the poker. Charlie pulled a hunting knife from where it had been tucked at his waist. Kneeling to yank Ronnie’s hands as far as the chains would allow, like chopping off the head of a chicken, a finger was hacked away. The madman’s giggles twisted into screams.
When it was done, the red-hot poker seared the wound, the sickening smell of burning flesh wafting about. Standing over his prey, Charlie swiped up the severed digit, tossing it out the broken window. “Cross me again, and the next thing I cut off won’t be a finger!”
The intruders were dead, his prisoner dealt with; that just left the last issue. Charlie locked eyes on Matthew, the man watching him like he might just raise his pistol.
Even if he had, it wouldn’t have mattered none. Matthew had no bullets left - Charlie had counted.
The bounty hunter cocked his chin. “He’s losing a lot of blood.”
Nathaniel, his exposed shoulder leaking something awful, grunted. “And what do you know about it?”
“From the looks of it, a lot more than either of you.” Charlie’s attention went to Alice. “Pull a few tables together. Matthew, help me move him when she’s finished.” Feeling pretty fucking magnanimous, Charlie sneered. “You want that bullet out? I can get the job done and stitch you up clean.”
Following orders, Matthew managed Nathaniel’s weight until the wounded man was lying on a table in the light. Tools were called for, Alice scurrying around to gather what was needed.
Under the scruff, seeing Nathaniel without his filthy shirt, the resemblance between the two men grew obvious. “He your brother?”
A grunt and Matthew gave Charlie a look warning he’d kill him if the stranger took one misstep.
The handle of a wooden spoon tucked between Nathaniel’s teeth, Matthew braced the larger man. Alice held up a lamp, the light shaking until Charlie barked at the woman to hold the damn thing still. All and all, it wasn’t so bad. Once the shoulder was at the right angle, getting the bullet would be an easy in and out. Sitting a hip on the table, Charlie took Nathaniel’s arm and wrapped the limb around his midsection.
The stranger’s gaze grew soft, Charlie whispering, “Look at me, Nathaniel.” The man obeyed. “You’re dipping your toes in cool water. The air smells of autumn and warm things. Breathe in and out real slow, real deep.” Charlie nodded when the man began to relax. “That’s right. Keep looking at me and try not to break any of my ribs.” The last words were matched with a disarming smile.
The second Nathaniel was about to chuckle, moonshine splashed the wound. He screamed instead, biting down on the wooden spoon. Quickly pulling off one glove, Charlie coated his slender fist in shine, and reached right into the bleeding hole. Despite the jerking body, the stranger pinched the bullet, pulling it free, quick as lightning, tossing the bloody thing to clatter across the floor. Not bothering to wipe away the blood on his fingers, Charlie pulled his glove on right quick.
More moonshine spilled to disinfect the injury, a roaring Nathaniel clinging to the stranger’s hip, gripping so hard marks would be left behind.
Pressing hard to the hole to slow fresh bleeding, Charlie asked, “Can I sew you up without your brother holding you down?”
Nathaniel swallowed and nodded.
“Keep breathing like I told you.”
A jabbing needle and tugging thread closed gaping skin. Once the final knot was tied and soft gauze covered tidy stitches, gloved fingers came to the man’s jaw and took the wooden spoon.
“Well done, soldier.” Carefully unwrapping Nathaniel’s arm from his middle, Charlie laid it across the man’s ribs. “You’ll need to keep it in a sling for a few weeks.”
“You’re bleedin,” Nathaniel managed, glancing to the blooming red stained on his impromptu medic’s coat.
The warped voice returned. “Ain’t nothing, just a scratch.”
Work done, Charlie walked away and left the others to sort themselves out. In a measure of kindness and a silent act of gratitude, a shaken Alice moved towards the kitchen, found some wholesome food and brought it to the stranger. In place of the canned soup trash from before, a plate of cold ham and biscuits was given. Gift on the table, Matthew led the woman upstairs.
Once they were alone, Nathaniel chuckled. “I know what’cha are.”
“I’m the person who shot five of the seven men sent after you and yours. I’m also the person who just dug a bullet out of you, instead of letting your unpleasant brother muck it up. That’s all I am,” Charlie warned, dead serious.
Nathaniel gave a weak shit-eating grin. “That’s more than a scratch. Tend to it quick before he gets back.”
He made a good point. Charlie moved towards the unused first aid supplies. Pulling up layers of clothing exposed a smooth stomach smeared red from a slice in need of stitching.
Supine, Nathaniel took in the tapered waist he’d felt under the layers, resting his gaze on the stranger’s exposed scar. “Who shot you?”
Ignoring him, Charlie stripped off the gloves and those same slender fingers reached for the jar. After taking a deep swallow, liquor was splashed on the bleeding cut. Panting hard through the burn, the stranger quickly threaded a needle. Without a moment’s pause, Charlie jabbed it right on in.
“Watch your breathing,” Nathaniel corrected, seeing a woman in pain.
Blue eyes darted to his as she smirked, wicked, whispering sweetly, “Words of wisdom, Nathaniel Emerson.”
Ten more stitches, another painful splash of moonshine, and Charlie pulled her shirt down, covering her stomach just as Matthew’s boots sounded on the steps.
Bloodshot eyes above a ticking grin watched her hide all trace of femininity under layers of homespun cloth. “I’ll keep your secret.”
“Good. After fixing you, I don’t really want to kill you and put all my hard work to waste.” Her mocking was playful, and on a whim, Charlie ruffled Nathaniel’s unkempt hair.
By the time Matthew was in sight, Charlie sat eating the food Alice had prepared, watching over her gagged prisoner as if nothing had happened in the time he’d been gone.
Striking a match to ignite the tip of a fresh cigar, Matthew spoke around the tobacco. “At dawn, Eli will take you where you need to go.”
Charlie tapped down the brim of her hat. “Much obliged.”
Theirs was not a friendly exchange. Matthew was only going to ask once, and it was clear if he didn’t get the answer he was looking for, all bets were off. “The men outside?”
“Last I heard, the two I recognized worked for Harrison McCray. I take it you know who he is?”
McCray managed a newer syndicate edging out of White Sulfur Springs - a man the Emersons had refused. Matthew refused to sell to him, and he refused to pay the kickback the fat, old bastard had demanded for doing business with the fancy resorts. With the Emersons’ defiance, a majority of local brewers had followed suit, undermining the gangster’s bid for authority.
Clearly, McCray thought to make an example out of his most vocal opposition.
Gangland was simple, elegantly nasty, so Charlie offered a bit of advice. “If you’ve met him, I assume you got the impression that he rubs people the wrong way.” After pausing to take a bite, she went on, “There’s a reason he moved his game to your shithole foothills. The man has far more powerful enemies than you. Killing him might just be in your best interest - so long as the right folks knew you did it. It could be good for business.”
“He came after my kin,” Matthew growled, shifting back towards his brother. “It ain’t about the business.”
Maybe they had something in common after all.
Family mattered to Charlie. Family was the reason she had a prisoner in chains. And family was the reason Matthew chose Eli to drive her to New York. Matthew wasn’t going to let the chirpy youngster get involved in something that, win or lose, would be incredibly bloody.
Speaking the understanding aloud, Charlie warned, “I ain’t babysitting your fool cousin. That leaves you about six or so days before the boy will be back.”