This week's spotlighted title is Heart of Mine by Michelle Beattie
Heart of Mine
By Michelle Beattie
To avoid a forced marriage, Laura Gibbs has little choice but to go along with her controlling father's plan to deceive the man she's secretly loved for years. Scared and alone, she lies next to a drugged and sleeping Jake knowing fully well the position she's putting him in.
Jake Evans has been burned in the past and has learned the hard way that nobody is interested in him, only his money. So when he wakes to find Laura in his bed, he's convinced that she's yet another in a long line of women who only wants his share of his recently inherited gold mine. A fact soon confirmed when her father storms in the room and demands Jake make an honest woman out of Laura, lest he be charged with rape and hanged. A bitter Jake agrees, but vows that money-grubbing Hugh will never see a cent of his money.
As Laura gains freedom from her oppressing father, she also gains courage. Determined to make a real marriage with Jake, she refuses her father's demand that she steal from her husband and instead concentrates her efforts on showing Jake the woman she truly is.
Despite Laura's deceptions, Jake can't deny his attraction to her. With the physical attraction sizzling between them, Jake begins to believe he's finally found the woman for him. But there's trouble brewing. Hugh, neck-deep in gambling debts with no money in sight, seeks drastic measures that won't only risk Laura and Jake's marriage; it'll risk her very life.
About the Author
Michelle Beattie has been writing for 15 years. Her first pirate novel sold to the Berkley Publishing Group in 2007 and hit the shelves in December 2008 under the title, What a Pirate Desires.
Wanting to build a readership, Berkley encouraged Michelle to turn the book into a series and 6 months later she signed a two-book contract. Her second novel, Romancing the Pirate was released in 2009 and the third book, A Pirate's Possession was released in December 2010.
Her books have received wonderful praise from publisher's weekly, Romantic Times and several on-line review sites as well as have been published in several languages
Bandit Creek, Montana 1897
Laura Gibbs had always secretly hoped to share a bed with Jake Evans, but she'd never imagined it would be like this.
She pinched her eyes closed, drew the sheet higher until it covered her chin. She didn't dare look over; it was terrifying enough to hear Jake's low, even breathing beside her. To worry about what he'd do when he awakened and saw her there. If he assumed, as her father had planned, that they'd been intimate last night, he may very well deem the damage done and want to bed her again.
With a snuffle, Jake rolled over and tossed a leg over hers, which were clamped tightly together. Laura froze. His skin was hot but a shiver shimmered over her. She loved Jake, had since her body began to change into womanhood. But she wasn't ready to give herself. Not like this.
He must have realized he wasn't alone. A deep growl rumbled from his throat. He shifted closer. His hand snuck underneath the covers. Laura's eyes flew open. Her arms covered her breasts, but she couldn't protect...everything. His hand slid over her bent arms, fingers cleverly finding any skin that wasn't covered.
Laura's heart was a trapped wild mustang trying to kick its way free. When Jake awakened and saw her there, he'd be livid and she'd be forced to continue the deception her father had thrust her into. A deception she never would have agreed to if she'd been left any other choice. But when Hugh Gibbs wanted something badly enough, he stopped at nothing to achieve it. A cruel truth Laura had witnessed firsthand growing up.
Clearly realizing his hands weren't going to find the glory they were after, Jake's leg resumed the conquest. Using her rigid limbs as leverage, he shifted closer to her until-
Laura jammed her fisted hands into her mouth to keep from squealing. As much as she could with Jake's leg trapping her, she shifted away from him.
"Where do you think you're going?" his gravelly voice asked as he once again moved closer until his body pressed tightly against hers. Until she felt that against her leg.
He was aroused and eager, but he didn’t even know who he was in bed with.
A single tear ran down her cheek.
Jake opened his eyes. Morning light spilled from his curtain-less windows, enabling Laura to see the emotions cross his face. Confusion and disbelief reigned. His brow creased. He blinked several times as though he couldn't believe whom he was seeing. "Laura?"
She hadn't moved and remained still and stiff beside him, the blankets at her lips. She imagined her eyes were as large as his. Since words failed her, Laura simply nodded.
Jake's gaze roamed over her. Laura felt naked. Of course it didn't help that under the covers she was naked. They both were. Heat poured over her as though someone had dumped liquid fire over her head.
Jake too got some color in his cheeks and he eased away. Thick blonde hair fell over his forehead. His face was a combination of angles and lines that culminated with a pair of penetrating coffee-colored eyes.
His hand reached for her. Laura's heart tripped over itself but his fingers stopped on her cheek, where he gently wiped the tear that had snaked its way to her jaw.
"Did I hurt you?"
Laura hadn't thought she could feel any lower but his words shamed her. She was knowingly deceiving him and he was worried about her. She lowered the blankets to her neck.
"No, you didn't."
"Well, that's something, then." He shook his head. "I'm sorry, Laura. I don't remember last night at all. The last thing I remember is being in the Powder Horn Saloon."
"You were drunk," Laura volunteered, hoping he wouldn't remember the rest.
Jake frowned. "I've never been so drunk that I've forgotten making lo-"
Laura's face burned as Jake swallowed the rest of his sentence. She knew he was digging in his memories, trying to remember their coupling. "You weren't at the saloon last night," he stated.
Laura swallowed, licked her dry lips. "No. I saw you...later."
Jake ran a hand through his already tousled hair. "I remember tossing some coins on the table, I was getting up to leave when-" His gaze grabbed hers. "Your father was there. He offered to buy me a drink."
Laura licked her lips again. "I didn't see him." But she knew Jake didn't believe her. His jaw was ticking and his eyes were sharp.
"I know I didn't bring you here. What's really going on?"
No, of course he'd never have taken her home, because she was Laura Gibbs, poor daughter of lazy, smooth-talking, money-grubbing Hugh Gibbs. Who'd ever want her? Other than the old miner her father threatened to sell her to if this farce didn't work. The thought reinforced Laura's wavering will. She wouldn't marry a man old enough to be her father. She wouldn't give her body, her soul, to a man she didn't love.
"It's as I said. You were coming from the saloon and-"
Beyond the bedroom and down the stairs, Jake's front door crashed in.
"Jake Evans!" Hugh Gibb's voice thundered from the entryway of Jake's sprawling log house. "What have you done with my daughter?"
"Damnation," Jake cursed as instinct shot him out of bed.
She caught a glimpse of naked leg and backside and turned her head. She yanked the cover to just under her nose as her father's heavy tread thumped up the stairs. Of course he knew exactly where Jake's room was as he'd been the one to carry him there to begin with. Despite it being her father's idea, Laura nonetheless cringed when he stomped into the room. Alone with Jake she could fool herself into believing that she could be good for him, that she could make him happy. But with her father in the room, she couldn't hide the fact that, despite having no alternatives, she was as guilty in this scheme as Hugh was.
Hugh Gibbs wasn't nearly as tall as Jake. In fact, Jake was at least half a head taller, but her father nevertheless made an impression. Dressed in his best suit--which Laura's wages had paid for--his beard neatly trimmed and his midnight hair slicked back, he seemed everything he wasn't; wealthy, successful. Concerned.
His girth expanded as he drew a righteous breath. "Jake, you filthy, no-good snake in the grass! You ruined my daughter!"
Hugh's flinty gaze slid from Jake to Laura. Dollar signs pulsed in her father's eyes, making Laura's stomach churn. If only it hadn't come to this. Daring to look, she slid her glance Jake's way. He'd pulled on a pair of pants and while Laura was glad he wasn't naked any longer, the sight of his well-muscled chest captivated her attention more than it should have considering the circumstances.
Jake's stare grabbed her. The cold that snapped from it made her shiver. The disgust that followed had bile burning the back of her throat. She was a good person, struggled every day to make the folks of Bandit Creek see that she was nothing like her father. She wasn't an opportunist. She wasn't dishonest and she surely wasn't lazy. But the look on Jake's face said he considered her no better than her four-flusher father.
Finally he turned away from her and she was able to breathe without his contempt choking her. She wasn't sure how her father managed it as Jake's scorn doubled when he looked at Hugh.
"Don't think I'm not wise to you. My uncle is barely cold in the ground and already you're sniffing around trying to get your fingers into my share of his mine holdings. Well, you barked up the wrong tree this time. I've watched you swindle folks around here, but you won't get around me. You're not getting your shiftless hands anywhere near my money."
Hugh pointed a finger Laura's way. "You bedded my daughter! You ruined her chance of ever getting married to a respectable man. You won't get away with that, not as I live and breathe."
Jake took a step toward him. "Don't tempt me," he growled.
Undaunted, Hugh tugged at the hem of his jacket, ran a hand over his hair. "Fine. Then you've left me no choice but to tell Sheriff Wilson that you raped my daughter. I believe it'll be the noose for you."
Jake spun to Laura. The color had drained from his face. Mercy, she'd never thought it would come to this but from Jake's perspective it could very well look as though she was afraid of him. As though he'd hurt her. He'd seen her tear when he'd awakened. She'd been cowering in the blankets ever since.
She couldn't have him believe that. Not when the only time he'd touched her was to wipe the tear off her cheek. She opened her mouth but her father spoke first.
"Well, since you refuse to answer, I'll head to the sheriff's office now." He spun on the heel of his well-polished boot.
"Wait." Jake's voice was as rigid as his shoulders. His chest rose and fell with his breathing. His hands fisted at his sides. "Since I am a man of honor, I'll marry Laura, but," he emphasized and this time he did close the distance that remained between him and her father.
"I will also be seeing my attorney regarding my will and if anything suspicious should happen to me, all my money and properties will go to my nieces and nephews in Missoula." His smile never reached his eyes. "In case you had another scheme cooking."
"Jake, I'd never hurt you!" Laura exclaimed. His scathing glare told her he didn't believe it.
"You can't let my daughter live in poverty!" Hugh argued.
"Why not? You have," Jake answered.
Shame was an uncomfortable cloak and it fell heavily on Laura's shoulders.
"You've no need to worry for Laura, however. While I'm alive your daughter will be looked after. You, however, are never to step foot in my home again," Jake said before her father could argue further. "Now, you've accomplished what you set out to do. Since you found your way to my room so easily I assume you can find your way out in the same manner."
Jake crossed his arms over his chest. Furious or not, he was beautiful. While the sunlight underscored her father's faults, it did the opposite for Jake. It cast a glow on Jake's skin, called attention to his narrow hips and broad chest. Morning stubble darkened his cheeks and jaw, but it only added to his ruggedness.
"There is one other matter," her father drawled, a smug grin curving his lips. "I've arranged for the preacher to perform the ceremony this afternoon. Since my darling daughter didn't come home last night, I had things arranged before I came over."
"Of course you did," Jake answered.
"I'll meet you two at the church in an hour." Hugh's merciless gaze locked onto his daughter and the warning in them was as clear as in his words. "Don't do anything else to disappoint me, Laura." Then, whistling a lively tune, he turned and left Laura and her future husband alone.
Still clamping the sheet underneath her chin Laura waited. She couldn't move, not with Jake standing right there and her naked as the day she was born. But he didn't seem in a hurry to leave either. After an interminable silence, his arms fell to his sides.
"Until today I never would have put you in the same category as your father. I've seen you about town; I know how hard you work. I thought it was to prove you weren't like him." He shook his head. "You had me fooled," he sneered.
He stopped in the doorway, his back to her. Speaking over his shoulder he said, "Get your clothes on. We can't be late for our own wedding."
He didn't slam the door, but he may as well have because the sound of him leaving, the finality as the door clicked shut, reverberated loudly in her head. Sliding down onto the bed, Laura balled the covers and pressed them to her lips. Her father's plan had worked. Jake had been tricked into thinking he'd bedded Laura and because of that she'd soon be his wife. It solved one of Laura's problems; she'd be out of her father's house. She didn't fool herself into thinking she'd be out from under his control.
Nothing would keep Hugh from coming after Jake's money and, in turn, coming after her. Laura had known that when she'd been strong-armed to agree to her father's plan but she'd chosen her fate regardless. Her father thought it was the threat of selling her to that filthy miner that had made her yield to his demand. There was little doubt that had played into Laura's considerations, but it was being married to Jake that had carried the most weight.
And the hope that one day, if she worked hard enough and poured herself into making him happy, he would grow to love her back.
Downstairs the door closed as Jake went outside, reminding Laura she needed to hurry. She threw off the covers and hurriedly dressed in yesterday's clothes. Buttoning her shirtwaist, Laura faltered. It was her wedding day and what did she have to show for it? Yesterday's worn clothes, a man who'd been blackmailed into marrying her and a father who wasn't giving away his only daughter, he was selling her.
Loneliness and misery fisted into a hard knot in her chest. Through trembling lips Laura breathed deeply until the pain subsided, then she bucked herself up. Laura Gibbs was a fighter.
Besides, however bleak her future may look, it was still a step up from her past.
How in God's name had this happened? Jake braced his forearms on the corral rail, looked out past his small herd of palomino horses to the snowy mountains beyond. He'd been so careful, so damn careful. Since he'd first overheard a group of his so-called friends talking about how they only spent time in Jake's company for the candy sticks he brought them, he'd been suspicious of people using him for his family's money.
He'd put those suspicions aside when he'd fallen in love for the first and only time. Surely the woman who claimed to love him wouldn't ever hurt him. He'd been proven wrong in the worst possible way. He'd overheard his fiancé scheming about ways to get his money, plotting against him while wrapped in the arms of another man.
From then on, Jake had closed himself off. He had business acquaintances and family. Nobody in between. Animals, he'd decided as his favorite mare came plodding through the spring mud for a pat, were the only ones that didn't want anything from him. Which was why he'd built his house far enough from town to avoid people and why he'd surrounded himself with animals. Besides horses, he had chickens, a dozen cows, and enough barn cats to keep the mice under control.
Behind him the house door opened and closed. Jake hung his head, took a deep breath. His bride was ready.
Mid-April mornings in Montana weren't warm. Though the sky was blue and endless, the air was crisp. Seeing Laura on his porch, wearing a threadbare coat and old, worn boots had him gritting his teeth. He'd seen for his own eyes her working at least two different jobs in town. She should be able to buy herself decent clothes. But then, why would she need to when she planned on using his money to do so?
Anger percolating, Jake crossed the yard.
Still as the mountains that surrounded them, Laura watched him approach. She'd tidied her mass of auburn hair into a long braid down her back. She seemed a little pale to Jake and as he closed the last of the distance between them he noticed that her gaze wasn't near as stoic as the rest of her. It swirled with guilt, trepidation and, damn it, fear. She had pushed her way into this, why in hell would she be scared now when she was getting what she'd sought? Marriage to a wealthy man.
He pointed to the buckboard he'd hitched while he'd given her the time to wash and dress. Bitterness crept into his voice when he said, "Let's get this charade over with."
Laura worried her lip with her teeth. "Jake-"
"One confrontation with your father is more than enough. It's been almost an hour, let's go before he gathers a posse and hunts me down."
Despite his feelings, Jake offered her a hand into the buckboard. As she rearranged her skirts, he took his seat beside her on the bench, grabbed the reins as if they could somehow get him out of this mess.
He was marrying Laura to avoid the noose, but as they drove the short distance toward Bandit Creek, Jake swore he felt the rope tighten around his neck anyway.
Jake couldn't put it off any longer. After the farce of his wedding, he'd avoided the house and instead busied himself outside tending his animals and doing chores. He'd been caught, quite literally, with his pants down. No matter how much he racked his brain to remember, no details of his night with Laura came to mind. And now she was his wife. What the devil was he supposed to about her? He couldn't very well sidestep her forever. Neither could he imagine having polite conversations with her as though he hadn't been deceived into marriage.
And he sure as hell wasn't going to march in the house and demand his marital rights. Not after seeing the fear in her eyes that morning. He had no idea if he'd raped her or not, though he'd never abused a woman in his life and couldn't imagine he'd have started now, but he knew she'd been frightened. Which meant, regardless of the specifics, she hadn't enjoyed their coupling.
Besides her fear, however, was the fact that he didn't like her and he'd never bedded a woman he hadn't, at the very least, been attracted to before. It took more than a warm body to get Jake interested.
"Or so I thought," he muttered into the night as he realized he'd done just that with Laura.
Dusk was settling in and still he had no answers. But answers or not, he couldn't delay the inevitable any longer. Five years ago he'd built an expansive log house, not because he saw himself needing the rooms for his future children, but he loved big spaces and he'd have felt trapped in a small one-room abode. His residence was open, with thick-notched logs overhead and plenty of windows to let in the daylight. Normally, stepping into his home filled him with comfort, a sense of belonging, a sense of peace.
He felt none of those things when he stepped into the covered back porch and, with a clear opening to the kitchen, clapped eyes on Laura. It was like something whooshed through the room and took all the air along with it.
She stood by his stove, a flush to her ivory skin. With a strike of heat to his loins he remembered how soft her skin had been that morning when he'd swung a leg over hers, when his fingers had found flesh. She wore the same yellow blouse and brown skirt she'd worn to town, her hair remained tied at her back. For a brief moment he saw it spilled across his pillow, pictured her wearing nothing but a sheet.
He jerked. What the devil was he doing? He'd lived in the same town as Laura for years, had watched her grow up, for Pete's sake. Though only a few years separated them, he'd never entertained such thoughts about her.
"I wasn't sure what time you'd be in, but I kept supper warm." She gestured to the stove where the smell of beef and onions originated, but his gaze was on the table.
Two place settings. A lantern flickering. It looked inviting, as did the delicious aroma that reminded him of two things: he hadn't eaten all day and he couldn't remember the last time he'd had a home-cooked meal he hadn't had to make himself. Damn, he could get used to this.
The thought came unbidden and left him shaking his head. First he'd imagined her naked, and now he was thinking how nice it was to have her cook a meal for him? He'd been blackmailed into this marriage and he'd be wise to remember that.
"Next time, don’t wait on me," he grumbled, disconcerted by his reaction to her.
Her eyes latched onto his and he swore he heard the crack of a bullwhip.
"I don't like eating alone, if it's all the same to you. Now, if you want to wash, I've got some water warming for you."
With a towel, she lifted the kettle off the stove and stepped into the porch. She poured the heated water into the washbasin he kept on a long shelf by the back door. He noticed the towel next to it was neatly folded and the mirror hanging over the basin was free of smudges and spots. Yes, indeed, he could get used to this. Which meant he needed to keep his guard up. He didn't trust her. She had to be up to something because he didn't believe for one moment that her only goal was to tend to him.
After he'd washed, he took his seat at the table where he was promptly served a hearty meal of fried beef and potatoes, onions and carrots. Laura sat across from him and they ate in silence. Wood in the stove shifted and hissed. She was up to add more before he could push away from the table. When he was done eating, she exchanged his empty plate for a smaller one filled with a large slab of spice cake. His coffee was poured, hot and fresh.
The more she waited on him, the more it grated. She and her father had forced him into a marriage he hadn't wanted. He wouldn't be swayed from that reality by a little doting on her part.
He grabbed her wrist when she moved to take away his dessert plate.
"If you wanted to endear yourself to me, Laura, you might have tried that before you ingratiated yourself into my life."
All the times he'd passed her by on the street with little more than a glance and a nod marched through her mind causing a bitter laugh to spill from Laura's mouth. If Jake had noticed her before, had seen her as anything but the poor girl, she may not have had to resort to 'ingratiating". Hiding behind a bluster she didn't feel, she yanked her arm free and said, "I'll cook and serve the meals as I choose. As of today I live here too."
She knew right away she'd said the wrong thing. Jake's eyes narrowed. He shoved from the table, came to his feet.
"There are four bedrooms upstairs. I don't care which one you decide to sleep in, but stay away from mine."
Laura's stomach fell. She'd worried all day about where to put her things and in the end had decided on Jake's room. She'd hoped that perhaps even a little of him was attracted to her.
"Your things are already there, aren't they?"
"I didn't know…I wasn't sure…I'll move them right away." Grabbing her skirts, glad she'd thought ahead and lit the hallway lights, Laura raced up the wide staircase and into Jake's room. When she'd come up earlier to turn down the bed, she'd left a light burning softly. The room looked cozy and inviting. Welcoming. Her heart pinched. He didn’t want her there; he'd never want her there. "Idiot," she muttered, thinking that even after all these years, she had the same foolish dreams about Jake she'd nurtured since her youth. Turning away from what would never be, she hastily grabbed her things. Luckily she'd only brought up the bags, and hadn't been stupid enough to unpack them. Hands full, she turned for the door.
She nearly ran into him.
He filled the doorway. Broad shoulders, long legs. A face that, even in anger, made all others pale in comparison. His chest rose and fell with his breaths. His hands braced on narrow hips. His eyes went to the bed before meeting hers. Again it felt as though she couldn't get enough air.
Had he changed his mind? Did he want her there, after all?
"This may be 'our' house now, but this room is mine. I can make my own bed and if I need the sheets washed, I'll leave them in the hall."
He may as well have slapped her. But flowers would bloom at the top of Turtle Mountain in January before she'd let him see it. She had very little in this world, but she had her pride.
"Fine." She was relieved her voice held strong. "Then if you'll step aside, I'll get out of your way."
He did and she'd barely made it through the opening when she heard the hard click of the door shutting behind her.