Branded

Diana Castle, Hot & Spicy West, Branded, Erotic Western, Hot CowboysBranded, Book #3 in The Hot & Spicy West series is now available for purchase!
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When Lilith Summerland marries Bill Summerland, a wealthy rancher who is far older than she is, she hopes she has finally found herself a home. But when Bill maliciously tells everyone his new wife used to be a whore, can she hope to live down her scandalous past? Especially when she finds herself attracted to the handsome, young rancher, Ethan Chandler?

Warning: Contains sexual situations and strong language.

Chapter One

“Where the hell’s this new bride of Bill’s?”

Ethan Chandler wasn’t in any particular hurry to see her. He just figured the sooner she made her appearance, the sooner he could get back to his own ranch, where he could sit comfortably in his favorite chair and read his well-worn copy of The Plays and Poems of Shakespeare, a box of imported Philippine cigars close at hand and a bottle of Kentucky bourbon within pouring reach.

Or, even better, ride into town and pay a visit to Dovie Butler. He was itching for a sweaty romp between her warm, smooth thighs.

His twin sister, Maggie Chandler, glanced around at the people gathered in the parlor of Bill Summerland’s huge ranch house. They’d all been invited to meet the new bride, who had been the subject of much discussion and speculation because, as far as Ethan knew, not a soul in the valley had even seen her.

Ethan hadn’t made a social call to Bill’s in nearly a year. During that time, Bill had apparently added even more furnishings to his monstrosity of a house. He even had a brand new piano, which made no sense because everyone knew Bill was tone deaf. Ethan wondered if the piano was for the new Mrs. Summerland.

“Would you want to come down into this pit of vipers all by your lonesome?” his sister remarked. “The poor thing’s probably terrified. She doesn’t know a soul here.”

“She knows Bill,” Ethan said. “That should be enough. More than likely she just wants to make a spectacle of herself. That’s why she’s taking her dear, sweet time coming down.”

“And what makes you say that?” Maggie asked. “You don’t even know her.”

He shrugged. He just figured Bill, being the kind of man he was, would probably, after all these years of being a bachelor, marry someone like himself. An overbearing harridan who expected to be treated like she was the Empress of China.

“Well, the fact he’s finally gotten married,” Maggie said, “has given some here hope.”

“What do you mean?” Ethan asked suspiciously. He didn’t like the look in his sister’s eyes.

She smiled then glanced deliberately about the crowded room. Ethan reluctantly followed her gaze. Every woman in attendance who wasn’t married or who was the mother of an eligible, single daughter was eyeing him. And a few of those who were married were also staring at him.

“Humph. They can hope all they want. I don’t want or need a wife.” He had his whore. What more did he need?

Maggie sipped her glass of punch, her eyes darting around the room. “They don’t give a fig what you want, dear brother. They’re in want of a husband. If not for themselves then for their daughters, and a rich, good-looking man who comes to a party in the company of his sister is a lure too tempting to resist.”

“And who was I supposed to bring? Dovie Butler?”

Maggie frowned. She didn’t approve of his whoring. Not out of any starchy sense of decorum. She just wanted him to find a decent woman and start having the children she’d convinced herself she’d never have. Although both he and Maggie shared their mother’s dark hair and eyes, she had not inherited their late mother’s beauty or daintiness.  Nearly as tall as her brother–and he stood over six feet–Maggie possessed the same hard jaw, sharp cheekbones and aquiline nose.

On Ethan, or so he’d been told, such features made him devilishly handsome. As for his sister, well, in all honesty, her bearing was mannish and her face was plain. But Ethan loved her fiercely and had no reservations about walloping any man or rebuking any woman who dared insult her. Maggie was capable of taking folks to task on her own, of course, but Ethan, being her brother, felt it was his duty to protect her in whatever way he could.

“I’ll wager you,” she said, “that before this night is over one of them is going to have you roped, tied and staked out for the altar.”

Ethan snorted. Not damned likely. There wasn’t a woman in this valley he wanted as a wife. Some were attractive enough, he supposed, but not one of them possessed what he was looking for.

Of course, he thought sheepishly, it might help if he knew exactly what it was he was looking for.

He tugged at the collar of his shirt and wished he could undo his silk puff tie. It was warm in the parlor and he wasn’t used to wearing fancy duds. He shouldn’t have let Maggie talk him into coming. As a rule he wasn’t partial to social gatherings but, as Maggie had reminded him, they’d known Bill Summerland all their lives. Bill and Ethan’s late father, Peyton Chandler, had fought together in the Union Army and, once the war was over, both had come out west to start cattle ranches.

Bill stood in the center of a group of the valley’s leading citizens. In his early sixties, he was double-chinned with a thick, ruddy face and sparse, graying hair. Stocky of build, he possessed a heavy belly, which Ethan knew was a result of consuming far too much food and alcohol over the years. His beefy face was already blotchy with drink. Bill resembled nothing more than a bear gone to seed. But, like any old bear, he could still prove dangerous if provoked.

He impatiently gestured to Ethan. “Get on over here, boy, and stop hiding in the corner with your sister. I need to talk to you.”

Ethan grimaced. He didn’t want to talk with Bill, especially since he was clearly deep in his cups. He also hated being called boy. He wasn’t anyone’s boy. He was a man grown. But most of all he didn’t want to leave Maggie alone. None of the men at the party were likely to talk with her, except out of an insincere sense of politeness. The women weren’t comfortable around her either. But she still insisted on attending these social functions, if only because she was dead set on getting him hitched. She’d given up hope on finding herself a husband.

“I’ll be all right,” she said. “You go on. Bill looks like he’s got a bee in his bonnet about something.”

“I’ll be back,” he promised.

Maggie only smiled.

When Ethan reached Bill’s side, the older man slapped him hard on the back. “About time you got over here. I know how much you hate parties. But I want everyone to meet my new wife. Especially you. I think you’ll find her quite interesting.”

Ethan doubted that, but he was curious. Bill had never married, had never courted anyone and, as far as Ethan knew, wasn’t even interested in whores. All he cared about was running his ranch and increasing his holdings and, as a result, he was, in fact, the richest and most powerful man in the valley. Only Ethan’s ranch was near to the size of Bill’s, and Bill’s still outstripped his by thousands of acres.

After Bill returned from a trip out east, Ethan, to his utter surprise, heard that not only had the older man gotten himself a new bride, he’d gone and invited everyone who was anyone to a party to meet her. Which was why the parlor was near to bursting with folk. Everyone wanted to meet the woman who had finally roped old Bill Summerland.

Ethan glanced over at a man who stood just behind Bill. He’d noticed him when he and Maggie first arrived. Lean, dark and fierce-looking, he bristled with barely-contained violence. Like a mad dog straining at the lease. His pale, gray eyes narrowed when he noticed Ethan looking at him.

Ethan tensed, his hand reaching towards his gun belt. Except he wasn’t wearing one. None of the men at the party were. Only this man was armed.

“I see you’ve noticed Mr. Platt,” Bill said.

“Why is he wearing a gun at a party?”

Bill chuckled. “You don’t miss much, do you, Ethan? He’s my bodyguard.”

Ethan frowned. “Bodyguard?”

“Mr. Platt used to protect some of the most powerful men in Washington. He’s the best there is.”

“He’s a hired gun is what you mean,” Ethan said tersely.

“Things are going to get ugly,” Bill said, matching Ethan’s tone. “More of these goddamned homesteaders are coming out here and you know what that means.”

Ethan knew what it meant. The homesteaders would want land, and the land they’d want was land he and Bill needed for their cattle.

“There has to be a way we can work this out,” he said. “For the benefit of all.”

Bill scowled. “Work it out? That’s not the way your Pa saw it. How do you think me and him tamed this land? By talking?” He balled a fist and shook it in Ethan’s face. “We bled for it. Killed for it. We killed the Indians, we killed the rustlers, and we killed any son of a bitch who took it into his head to steal what was ours. And I’ll be damned if I just sit idly by and let some good-for-nothing sodbusters take what’s mine.”

Ethan glanced around at the other men. A few of them nodded. All of them were ranchers. The others, however, looked uncomfortable. They were merchants, bankers, and businessmen who Ethan knew weren’t eager to see any bloodshed.

“Violence isn’t the answer,” he said. “We’re a country of laws now. And we’re going to have to change with the times if we hope to survive.”

Bill’s eyes narrowed but, before he could say another word, there was a stirring at the other end of the parlor. Conversations stopped and everyone turned toward the long, spiral staircase. A woman was coming down it.

She wore a black and red satin gown that left her shoulders bare, exposed quite a bit of her lush, ripe bosom and was so tight it left nothing to the imagination regarding her shapely figure. Her hair was a rich reddish-gold. Styled in a chignon, it accented her lovely, heart-shaped face. She reached the bottom of the staircase and stopped, her bluish gray eyes darting nervously about the room.

She was young. So young in fact she couldn’t have been older than twenty, if that. Bill was over sixty, which meant his new bride was young enough to be his daughter. Or granddaughter for that matter, which was even far more disquieting.

Ethan exchanged a glance with Maggie, and he saw on her face she was thinking the same thing. Bill’s wife was far too young and far too pretty. Ethan then happened to look over at Cyrus Platt, who was staring at Bill’s wife as if she was something he wanted to devour.  Ethan wondered if Bill had noticed Platt’s expression, but he was too busy glaring at his wife. Finally spotting where Bill stood waiting for her, she went over to him and took his arm.

“My wife,” he said in a flat, vexed voice. “Lilith.”

Low murmurs of glad to meet you and welcome to the valley eddied in from the crowd. Ethan had a feeling he wasn’t the only one shocked at how young Bill’s wife was.

Bill turned towards him and Maggie. “This here’s Margaret Chandler and her brother, Ethan. I told you about them. Remember?”

Lilith nodded. “It’s a pleasure to meet you both.”

Her voice was melodic, but rather low for a woman as young as she was. It wasn’t one of those shrill, affected voices some women took on to make themselves sound younger.  It was a voice for hot, soft nights and even softer beds. It was the kind of voice that glided down a man’s spine and wrapped itself tightly around his groin, which was exactly what was happening to Ethan.

He inclined his head. “Mrs. Summerland,” he said curtly.

He hoped he didn’t sound rude, but it disturbed him greatly that he was having this kind of reaction to her and, most importantly, that a man as old as Bill had gone off and married a woman who was not only very beautiful but far younger than he was.

Trouble, he couldn’t help but think. This woman was going to be nothing but trouble.

“Bill, she’s absolutely delightful,” Phoebe McNair said.

Ethan’s upper lip curled. Mrs. McNair was one of those women who liked to pitch their voices high in order to sound girlish. But she was decades from having once been a girl. She also didn’t think anyone, except perhaps herself, was absolutely delightful. She put on airs and acted as if she was one of the valley’s leading citizens because she was married to the town’s sheriff and, as a result, spent most of her time sticking her long nose into other folk’s business.

Her husband, Stanton McNair was tall and lean, with a firm, stoical face. Ethan liked and respected him. Not only because he was straightforward and honest, but he was also not easily fooled.

Except, it seemed, when it came to choosing a wife. Mrs. McNair’s smile was as stiff as her spine and matched the coldness in her stony blue eyes, which moved disapprovingly over Lilith’s gown.

Ethan wondered what had possessed her to wear such a dress as it was far too brazen, if not downright shameless for such an occasion.

“She is something, ain’t she?” Bill slid his arm around Lilith’s slender waist and jerked her hard against the bulk of his thick body.

The new Mrs. Summerland flinched but quickly hid it.

“Good enough to eat, don’t you think?” Bill went on, a disturbingly lewd expression on his face.

“Why, uh, yes, if you say so, Bill,” Mrs. McNair replied uneasily. “Wherever did you meet her?”

Lilith’s eyes widened and her face paled. She turned to Bill, her expression mutely pleading.

He didn’t even look at her.

“Where did I meet her?” he repeated loud enough for everyone to hear. “You sure you want to know that?”

Confusion swept across Mrs. McNair’s narrow face. She glanced uncertainly between Bill and Lilith. But, Ethan noted with disgust, there was also an avaricious gleam in her eyes.

“Why, yes, of course I want to know,” she replied. She glanced around at the other guests. “We all do, don’t we?”

Lilith gripped her husband’s arm. “Bill, please, don’t.”

“Shut up,” he growled and roughly shook her hand off him. He turned back to Mrs. McNair. “I would have thought the dress gave it away, Phoebe. You disappoint me. You’re usually so sharp-eyed when it comes to other folks and their business.”

Mrs. McNair could only blink rapidly at him.

“All right, then,” he said. “If you want to play stupid, that’s your own damned business. I met her in a brothel. She’s a whore.”

Then he burst out laughing at the look at on Mrs. McNair’s face.

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