Olivia Maitland needs a man. Determined to hang onto her family’s Louisiana farm no matter what, Olivia knows she needs a big, strong man to help her, a man who’s not afraid of hard work. But in the aftermath of the Civil War, men like that are hard to come by, and when she finds ex-boxer Conor Branigan lying unconscious in the road, Olivia takes him in, even though the hard, brawling Irishman isn’t exactly what she had in mind, especially when he ignites a passion in her she’s never felt before.
Conor knows what it’s like to pour all your hopes, dreams, and sweat into a piece of land only to have it come to nothing. He’d already seen his family destroyed and their lands taken during the Irish famine when he was a boy, and he has no intention of sticking around long enough to watch a corrupt man with power do the same thing to Olivia. But she and her three adopted daughters touch dreams in Conor he thought he’d forgotten long ago. Can he let go of the bitterness of his past and make a new future with Olivia? Can he believe in love again, or is it just too late for his cynical heart?
Northern Louisiana, 1871
When Conor Branigan ducked under the ropes and entered the ring, the men of Callersville knew he was just too pretty to be a good fighter. Women, of course, would have expressed a rather different opinion of the matter, but no women were there. As it was, the men of Callersville took one look at Conor's lean body and handsome face, and decided they had a sure winner in their local champion.
Conor paused in the center of the ring and responded to the boos and whistles that greeted him, the outsider, with an impudent salute just for show. Then he sauntered over to his corner of the ring and prepared to wait while the bookmaker's clerk took the last bets. His blue eyes scanned the rowdy Friday-night crowd without noticing any face in particular. After twenty towns and twenty fights in seventy days, all the faces looked the same— shiny with sweat, eager for the fight, and anonymous.
But Conor didn't mind that. Life on the boxing circuit suited him. If he won the fight tonight, he'd celebrate his victory by taking a hot bath, smoking a strong cigar, and sharing a bottle of good Irish with some carmine-lipped angel of mercy who asked for nothing more than a dollar bill and a kiss good-bye. Tomorrow, he'd move on to the next town and the next fight.
No ties, no family, no commitments. That was Conor's life now. And that was the way he liked it.
A round of cheers went up as his opponent entered the tent, and Conor turned to watch Elroy Harlan make his way through the crowd. The reigning champion of Jackson Parish and the odds-on favorite was a huge, hulking wall of a man who stepped into the ring amid the encouraging shouts of his friends and neighbors.
Conor figured that Elroy outweighed him by a good forty pounds, but he knew from experience the big ones were usually too slow. If Elroy had a build similar to his own, Conor might have been worried, but when Elroy moved to his own corner and scowled at him across the ring, Conor just leaned back against the ropes and gave the other man a deliberately provoking smile. Provoked men got angry.
"Irish son of a bitch," Elroy snarled.
Conor's grin widened. Angry men made mistakes.
Prizefighting was just a job, a way to make a living. It wasn't fun, but it was better than gutting fish in Boston or cleaning up horse dung in the streets of New York twelve hours a day for a pittance wage. It was better than swinging a sledgehammer under the hot sun on the railroad line. Conor worked only two nights a week, five months a year, and the rest of the time, he was free. He answered to no one, he needed no one. Yes, life on the boxing circuit suited him just fine.
"Getting a bit cocky, aren't you?"
Dan Sweeney's voice interrupted his thoughts, and Conor turned his head to give his manager a careless shrug. "I can't help it, Danny. Look at the man. I probably won't even have to hit him. I'll just dance around him until he's so dizzy, he just falls down."
Conor's style of boxing was something the two men had often joked about, but this time, Dan didn't laugh. Instead, he glanced around, then leaned closer, resting his forearms on the ropes between them. "Odds are in, boyo."
Dan rubbed one hand across his jaw. "No surprise. Elroy's the heavy favorite. But all the bets on him have been small, each no more'n a dollar or two." Dan paused, then added, "On the other hand, a couple rich men are up here from New Orleans. Saw you fight at Shaugnessey's last spring, and they've bet the limit on you. Five hundred each."
"Then they'll be even richer pretty soon."
But Dan shook his head. "No, lad. The bookmaker had a wee talk with me, and he's made it clear he'd rather not pay out that kind of money, if you take my meaning."
Conor did. If Elroy won, the payouts would be many, but paltry, and the bookmaker would make a nice profit on the bets of the two men from New Orleans. If Conor won, only those two men would walk away winners, but the bookmaker would lose a lot of money. He met Dan's eyes and said it aloud. "He wants me to go down."
"Let's just say it'll be healthier for us all if Elroy wins this one."
Conor smiled again, a benign smile. "Over my dead body."
Dan scowled at him. "That could happen," he muttered. "Don't be stupid."
The referee beckoned Conor forward, indicating that the fight was about to begin, and Dan stepped back. Conor straightened away from the rope and moved toward the center of the ring as he unbuttoned his shirt. Dan was right. He'd never been ordered to go down before, but he knew if he defied the bookmaker, he was asking for trouble. He might make it out of the tent, he might even make it out of town, but he wouldn't get much further than that. Better to just let old Elroy sneak in a punch that would send him down to the floor. Easier. Safer.
Conor shrugged out of his shirt and tossed it to land in the corner behind him. Shocked murmurs rippled through the crowd at the scars that scored his chest and back, and Conor responded to the stares and speculative whispers as he always did. He ignored them.
But his outward calm was a deception. There were some who thought those scars were badges of valor and courage, but Conor knew the truth. He felt the old familiar hatred stir deep within him as he remembered the men who had given him the scars. Men who had stripped away everything he was, piece by bloody piece, until he had become what they wanted, until he had become the very thing he hated most. Now, he kept that hate buried deep, hidden by a cocksure smile and an arrogant confidence, but it never left him.
Some things never change, he thought, as he waited for the referee to signal the beginning of the fight. This wasn't Ireland, but there were still men who demanded his subjugation, men who wanted to own him, use him. Rebellion flared, sudden and hot.
The referee drew the line of powdered chalk in the dust. Toe the line, gentlemen!" he shouted, and jumped out of the way. "No kicking, no gouging, no biting."
The rosary of the prizefighter. A litany Conor heard twice a week from May to September. Hail Mary, he thought, and ducked as Elroy swung at him with a ham- sized fist. And going down be damned.
The fist sailed over his head. Conor straightened, then punched hard, left to the ribs, right to the jaw, left to the ribs again, but he jumped back before an answering blow could touch him.
He glanced at Dan, and saw the old man shaking his head. He knew that before the fight was over, Dan would be long gone, and he'd be facing the consequences of his choice alone. Aye. Some things never change.
Elroy swung again, but this time Conor wasn't quite quick enough. The fist slammed into his cheek, and he staggered back a step, seeing stars.
Jaysus, Conor, get out of the way. He could hear his brother Michael giving him instructions as if they were boys again, as if this were a field back home in Derry, not a sweat-scented tent in Louisiana, as if Michael were still alive. Don't just stand there. When he's comin' for you, get out of the way.
Elroy lunged again, fists flailing, and Conor took his brother's advice. He ducked to the left, hammered three punches in Elroy's gut, and danced out of reach. Then he spun full circle and heard the crack of bone against bone as his fist caught Elroy with an uppercut to the jaw.
Elroy stumbled, recovered his balance, and lifted his fist for an answering punch. But Conor wasn't there.
"What the hell?" Elroy muttered and looked around in confusion.
Conor gave a beckoning whistle, and the other man turned around just in time for the final blow. A groan of dismay went up as Jackson Parish's reigning champion hit the dirt with a resounding thwack. Conor hung back, shifting his weight from one foot to the other, breathing through his teeth, waiting to see if Elroy would rise to continue the fight. The other man tried, but he couldn't even get to his knees.
Conor claimed victory by raising one clenched fist in the air as Elroy was dragged out of the ring. Michael would have been proud.
But he knew his triumph would be short-lived, and the price for it would be dear. He walked to his corner and grabbed a towel. As he wiped the sweat from his face, he watched the losing bettors head for the exit. Only two men stopped by the bookmaker's table to collect their winnings, and Conor knew they were the two rich men from New Orleans.
As he'd suspected, Dan was gone. The promoter handed him the twenty-five dollars in prize money, and he tucked the folded greenbacks into a flap inside his boot, even though he knew the bookmaker's men would take it back, probably just before they beat the hell out of him.
Conor donned his shirt and buttoned it, grimacing at the pain that shot through his hands. He picked up the leather pack that contained everything he owned, slung it over one shoulder, and headed for the exit of the now empty tent.
He didn't make it that far. Three men stepped through the wide doorway, and Conor watched them move to stand side by side, blocking his path. The man in the middle spoke. "There's someone who wants to have a word with you."
"Indeed?" Conor's grip tightened on the strap of his pack, ready to toss it aside if the need arose, but he kept his voice casual. "That's a shame, for I'm just leaving."
"I don't think so." The man in the middle stepped forward, and the other two followed suit, walking toward him.
Conor could've taken any one of them, or even two, but with three against him, he knew he didn't have a prayer. Nonetheless, he couldn't make a run for it, so he dipped one shoulder, and the pack slid off to land in the dirt beside him. He kicked it out of the way, clenched his fists, and took a swing at the closest man, hitting him hard enough to send him sprawling back into the dust. But before he could make any further moves, the other two seized him.
He struggled against their hold, but he couldn't break free. The third man rose and stepped up in front of him. Conor knew what was coming. He lashed out with one foot, landing a kick square in the man's groin, but that brief victory was the last one he got.
The other man straightened, and Conor saw the fist coming toward his face. He tried to duck and failed. Pain exploded in a white-hot flash behind his eye just before the punch to his gut knocked all the wind out of him. The fists pummeled his face and body until he stopped struggling. When the other two men let him go, he sank to his knees. A kick in his kidneys sent him sprawling forward with his face in the dirt. He licked his lips, tasting blood and dust.
The two men who had been holding him moved to stand on either side. They began kicking him back and forth between them like a tin can, and Conor's body jerked in response. It didn't take long before he heard something crack, and he knew the sound was his own ribs breaking. He tried to crawl away, cursing his own stupidity. He should have taken the fall. When was he going to learn not to piss into the wind?
Conor felt himself rolled onto his back. He opened one swollen eye to find a lean, auburn-haired man he hadn't seen before standing over him. The man placed one polished boot on his throat, pressing down with his weight until Conor couldn't breathe.
"Let me introduce myself," the man drawled, speaking around the slender cheroot clamped between his teeth. "I'm Vernon Tyler. Now, you being a stranger and all, that name might not mean much to you. So I'd better explain how things are around here."
Vernon straightened and stepped back. Conor sucked in a great gulp of air that hurt his ribs as the other man took a puff on his cheroot and made a sweeping gesture with one arm. "I own most of this town, and most of the land around it, which I lease to local tenant farmers. I own the mercantile and the sawmill. I own the restaurant, the newspaper, and the hotel. What I don't own, I option. Most everybody around these parts works for me. I'm the boss, I'm the bank, and I'm the law. You understand me, boy?"
Conor managed to nod. He understood very well. The accent might be different, but it wasn't anything he hadn't heard before.
"Good. You cost me a good chunk of money tonight, and I don't take kindly to losing money. You ever cross my path again, boy, I'll snap you into pieces like a dry stick and use you for firewood." Vernon dropped his cheroot to the ground and crushed it into the dirt with one heel, then he reached down and stuck his fingers inside Conor's boot. Pulling out the money, he turned to the men who stood beside him. "Boys, take this sack o' shit and dump it in a field where it belongs."
One man grabbed Conor's ankles, another grabbed his wrists, and he felt his body coming apart like an overcooked chicken as he was dragged out of the tent to a wagon nearby and hefted into the back. He gritted his teeth and endured the pain without a sound. Crying out, showing pain, was the first step toward giving in.
The wagon lurched and started forward, heading out of town, every bump in the road an agonizing reminder of bruised muscles and broken bones. Conor closed his eyes and began to count backward from one thousand, a trick he'd learned a long time ago. Focusing on the inane task sometimes kept the pain at bay. Nine hundred ninety-nine, nine hundred ninety-eight...
He was in an open wagon in the Louisiana countryside, but in his mind, he was back in the Mountjoy. The summer breeze carried the scent of ripening peaches and blooming jasmine, but the dank, sour smell of prison overpowered their sweetness. Eight hundred fifty-two, eight hundred fifty-one...
The wagon hit a rut, sending Conor's body a foot into the air. He landed on his shoulder, hard, and it felt as if the prison guards had just snapped his arm out of its socket, then rammed it back into place again. He bit his lip until it bled, but he still made no sound. Four years and thousands of miles away, but this time he wouldn't give the bastards the satisfaction of a scream.
Somewhere in the distance, he heard the rumble of thunder. He felt a drop of warm summer rain on his skin, but then it turned cold... the rain again, the damned Irish rain, carried by the winter wind through the one-foot square of window above his head. He pulled against the chains that held him to the wall of his cell, but he couldn't avoid the icicles that hit the back of his neck like tiny needles. Seven hundred twenty-six...
The wagon slowed. A push of somebody's boot, and he rolled off the back, landing on the dirt road with a thud. A fresh wave of pain shimmered through his body and he cried out, hating his own weakness, just before the blessed darkness overtook him. Seven hundred twenty-five, seven hun...
When he awoke, he was lying in the middle of a road in the middle of nowhere. He was alone, and it was morning. Closing his eyes, he lapsed back into unconsciousness.
Olivia Maitland needed a man. It wasn't just because she wanted to clear the south pastures and plant cotton next spring. It wasn't just because the fences were falling down and the back porch sagged. It wasn't just because the peaches would be ripe in two months and there was nobody to help her pick them.
No, the fact was, Olivia Maitland needed a man because the roof leaked like a sieve and she was afraid of heights.
She snapped the reins, but Cally was a stubborn old mule who intended to take her to town in his own good time, and he made no attempt to move faster. The slow pace only gave her more time to dwell on her problem. Olivia shifted her weight on the wagon seat and tried not to be impatient.
Maybe when she got to town she'd find that this time somebody had answered the advertisement. She'd used her egg money to put a help-wanted advertisement in the Jackson Parish Gazette, and she'd put up notices all over town, but that had been over three months ago, and she hadn't had a single reply. Of course, all she could offer was room and board, and that didn't make for much of an incentive. What few able-bodied men there were around Callersville could work at the sawmill for real wages or tenant farm for themselves.
A drop of rain hit the back of her hand, darkening the worn brown leather of her glove. Another drop fell, then another. Olivia glanced up at the heavy, gunmetal gray clouds overhead, and she wondered if she ought to turn back. It had rained during the night, and the road was already muddy. She might make it to town, but if another storm came down now, Cally would never be able to get her home.
Her trip was probably futile anyway. Stan had told her last time she was in town that she could no longer buy at the store on account, and she doubted asking again would accomplish much.
Olivia caught her lower lip between her teeth and stared at the rutted, curving road ahead. Times had been hard ever since the war, but since Nate's death the previous summer, times had gotten even harder. Nate had been old, cranky, and not always reliable, but he'd been strong for his age, handy with a hammer, and staunchly loyal. He'd also been there to help her bring in the harvest.
She had three girls to raise, hogs and chickens to tend, peaches to harvest come September, and there weren't enough hours in the day to manage everything by herself. Until Nate's death, she hadn't realized how dependent she'd become on the old farmhand or how much she would miss him.
She thought of her girls and wondered how she was going to provide for them if she couldn't get her peach crop to market. Perhaps she should never have taken them in when their parents died in '65. Perhaps they'd have been better off going to the orphanage if she couldn't take care of them properly.
All the burdens suddenly seemed so heavy, and Olivia felt much older than her twenty-nine years. "Lord," she murmured, "I could really use some help down here."
As if in reply, the rain began to pour down, and Olivia sighed. "I guess not."
She hunched forward on the seat and pulled her broad-brimmed straw hat down lower over her eyes. It wasn't much to ask for, really. Just one man to help, a man who didn't mind hard work and didn't expect to get paid for it.
Olivia pulled on the reins slightly, guiding Cally around the sharp bend in the road. As the wagon rounded the curve, she noticed something lying directly in her path about two dozen feet ahead. She jerked hard on the reins, bringing Cally to a stop, and stared between the mule's ears at the man who lay sprawled in the middle of the road.
She should probably just turn around right here and head home. There were always nasty characters wandering the roads these days—had been ever since the war. Olivia toyed with the reins in her fingers, uncertain what to do. She was alone, and the man was a stranger.
Still, he didn't look like much of a threat just lying there like that. Keeping her gaze fixed on him, Olivia climbed down from the wagon. She hitched her faded brown skirt up enough to keep the hem out of the mud as she moved closer.
It was kind of hard to tell what he looked like, but Olivia knew he wasn't from around Callersville. His short hair was black, but caked with mud. His face was lean and clean-shaven, but swollen and darkened by purple bruises. There was a deep gash above his eye, and another on his chin. His clothes were torn and muddy. He didn't move as she came cautiously closer, and she wondered if he was dead.
But as she hunkered down beside him, she saw the rise and fall of his chest. No, he wasn't dead. At least, not yet.
She stood up and glanced around, but she saw nothing that might explain what this man was doing out here in this sorry condition. He was alone and didn't appear to have any belongings with him.
Suddenly he groaned, and she realized he must be in a great deal of pain. She couldn't just leave him here. If she could get him into the wagon somehow, she could take him back to the house.
Olivia stared down at the unconscious stranger, and she wondered if he knew how to patch a roof and pick peaches. Right now, he didn't look capable of much at all. She sighed and pushed back her hat, glancing at the dark skies above, blinking at the rain that hit her face. "Lord," she said heavily, "this isn't exactly what I had in mind."