SINFUL

Bitter Creek – Kings Brats Series #1

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