This particular novella has an odd history. It was first published back in 2005, and sold virtually nothing. Once I got the rights back, I filed it away for a number of years. In 2012, I decided it was time to bring it back for readers. It was a disaster, the company I contracted it with was the wrong publisher for it, and it languished again. I think it was on their catalogue for a couple of months, then I requested contract termination. Winner Take All had lost again, and I put it back in the literary vault. XoXo Publishing asked to publish it months later, and I decided to let it go again. Another doomed release. So, finally, New Dawning Book Fair, a company I love working with, put out a call for Westerns. This is one of my best books, and I am fond of it. I considered it for a time, then decided to take a chance again. This time I think the book has found a home and its’ audience at last!
Probably no surprise that I’m creating a new Western, too – one with some amazing and sizzling possibilities. It’s called Parlour Photography, and I think readers will love the idea! (That one will be part of a Boxed Set to be released in October…more details to follow…)
Here’s another look at Winner Take All and the other novella it’s been paired with to make OLD WEST – Volume One:
WINNER TAKE ALL: When Dylan Coulter rides into Sparkling Springs, he quickly discovers the woman who runs the local saloon is worth the risk of facing the hangman. Things get ugly fast when Dylan is accused of killing the only son of the richest rancher in the area. Unwilling to leave her behind, Dylan takes Maggie with him as he tries to dodge bounty hunters and a determined Pinkerton agent who just happens to be Maggie’s old love...
DESPERATE LOVE: Well-bred and genteel, Valerie Johnson travels by train and stagecoach from Boston to join her husband three thousand miles away in Virginia City, Nevada, only to discover she is a widow. Low on money, unable to find respectable employment, she accepts a temporary position as a courtesan at Rosie’s Parlor—an elegant Virginia City brothel.
When godlike Duke Dugan picks Valerie, they both wonder if it is lust or love at first sight.
Fascinated by the beautiful, flaming-haired prostitute he calls Red, Duke, wishing to learn more about her, takes her to dinner in Virginia City’s finest restaurant. To her dismay, Valerie finds out that Duke is a rebel captain, who, along with his two brothers, is on a desperate mission for the despised Confederacy. She would tell the authorities, except there’s one problem—she’s fallen in love with him.
Available now at Amazon
WINNER TAKE ALL excerpt:
It was well into the night before Maggie was able to herd the last of the night’s customers out of the Spur and lock the doors behind them. When she dropped the key in her pocket and turned around, she was startled beyond reason to find herself face to face with Dylan Coulter.
“Mr. Coulter, I thought you’d gone upstairs,” she said, feeling instantly foolish when he grinned at her discomfiture.
“Where am I supposed to go upstairs, ma’am?”
Her annoyance with herself went up another notch. “I’m sorry. I’d forgotten that you’ve just arrived. I’m on my way to my rooms, so I’ll show you the way.”
“You stay here?” He sounded surprised and she gave him a sidelong glance.
“Of course. It’s comfortable, and convenient.”
“Yes, ma’am.” He nodded, still smiling broadly.
He took the oil lamp from her hand and gestured for her to lead the way. A slight scowl marring her face, Maggie set her jaw and headed for the stairs, the soft pool of golden light steady at her back as heavier steps trailed hers up the plain flight, and along the shadowy corridor.
“Your room is number three, Mr. Coulter,” she told him, pointing, “at the end of the hall, on the left. I had your things sent up earlier. Your horse is stabled across the street.”
“When did you have time to do all that?” he challenged, pleased, but also curious.
She laughed. “While you were busy taking money from foolish drunks.”
“You’re quite welcome, Mr. Coulter.”
“It’s Dylan, ma’am.” He handed her the lamp and touched the brim of his hat before walking away, humming softly to himself.
Before she could think about it, Maggie stopped him by calling out quietly, “Dylan, have you had any supper?”
He turned, watched her for several indeterminate heartbeats, and then shook his head.
“Would you like to join me?” Some inner voice was already laughing at her, and Maggie ignored it. She never socialized with customers. This was not only uncharacteristic; to her mind it was absurd. Yet… “Jonas Wilkins runs the café a few doors down, and he often stays late for me,” she said by way of explanation.
The amusement in Dylan Coulter’s blue eyes was already making her regret the impulsive invitation, but she bit back the tart words that would retract her cordiality, and waited for him to walk back to stand in front of her.
“I’d be delighted to have supper with you, Miss Watson,” he assured her and offered his arm.
“Maggie,” she said. “If you wouldn’t mind waiting for just a few minutes, I’d like to tidy up before we go.” She knew full well that she looked more than a bit harried after a long shift in the bar.
“I’ll meet you downstairs in twenty minutes, ma’am,” Dylan said with a smile.
* * *
Fifteen minutes after they’d separated upstairs, Maggie was waiting in the main room of the saloon. She heard a heavy footfall on the stairs and swung around to look at him.
For the second time that night, Dylan Coulter took her breath away. He’d changed from his riding clothes into a suit of rich, dark blue. His shirt was pale blue, ruffled at the cuffs and down the front. His silk tie was black, and the jacket he was pulling on drew her attention to broad shoulders and the undeniable impression of strength and power. He hadn’t bothered with a hat, and his dark brown hair was neatly combed, the deep waves gleaming when he passed under a lamp.
As he continued his walk toward her, her eyes drifted over him. Narrow hips flowed into long legs that were muscled from many hours spent on horseback. His boots were polished black leather, and the silver spurs were more ornate than functional. A gold chain dipped gracefully from the pocket of his burgundy vest, and the watch fob was a small, exquisitely carved replica of an old-fashioned flintlock pistol. At his hip, once again, rested a polished black gun, holster and shell belt lacking ornamentation.
A tiny sliver of ice formed at the base of her spine and began a swift ascent, chilling the back of her neck in heartbeats. He knows how to use that gun, too, a tiny voice murmured inside her head. The knowledge scared her a lot more than she wanted it to, though she wasn’t sure why it should.
She actually started at the sound of his quiet, richly timbred voice. His accent, like so much else about him, was something of a mystery; it revealed lingering traces of the south, but also the precision of an education obtained abroad. There was a subtle, growling purr in the texture of his speech A sound that made her feel awkward and vaguely disoriented. She’d felt a shadow of that kind of feeling only once before, and the reminder of it unsettled her further.
“Mr. Coulter.” She tried to smile, and knew it was only a partial success when his eyebrow rose, curiosity lighting the deep azure gaze that studied her. “Dylan,” she corrected softly. “Shall we go?” It was safer than standing around looking at him. She was distinctly certain that too long in his presence would not bode well for her peace of mind.
“Ma’am.” He nodded and offered his arm. “How far is this café?”
“A few doors down,” she said, and waited while he locked the saloon and pocketed the key. She opened her mouth to question the action, then chose not to bother.
“How much money did Billy Madison lose to you?” She asked the question carefully, a deep reticence about the answer stirring something akin to dread in her heart.
“A fair bit,” Dylan replied, his tone casual. “He assures me his daddy will be happy to pay the debt.” He looked down at her, a tiny smile lifting the corners of his mouth. “Is that true, Maggie. Or is the boy really as stupid as he seems?”
She sighed and shook her head. “Unfortunately, both.”
Dylan nodded. “Is this the place we’re looking for?” They’d stopped outside a small building with several windows in the front, and a sign above the door that read Wilkins Café.
She glanced at the door, with its shutter down but a light clearly burning inside. She smiled. “Yes, this is it.”
* * *
“She’s pretty friendly with that stranger, Billy,” Gil Horner noted as they watched from the concealment of an alley across the street from the café. He wasn’t much interested in Billy Madison’s attempts to win Maggie Watson’s heart, but Billy’s father paid him well to keep the kid alive. He had the feeling this would be one night when he had to earn his pay by more forceful means than the threat of his presence. If the kid went after Coulter, Gil knew they didn’t really stand much of a chance. Coulter had an air about him that Horner had encountered before; he was dangerous, cool, and confident. All the things Billy Madison wasn’t, of course. “Why don’t you just leave it, kid?” he advised, knowing as he spoke that the boy wouldn’t be deterred.
“Maggie and me have an understandin’, Gil,” Billy objected. “I don’t aim to leave her alone to face the likes of Dylan Coulter.”
Grinding his teeth in frustration, Horner grabbed the young man by the shoulder and spun him around so he could look Billy in the eye.
“What you and Maggie Watson have is a misunderstandin’, kid,” he snarled. “She’s out of your league, Billy. Leave her alone before it gets you killed!”
He waited, and in a detached corner of his mind, he gave the kid a once over. Billy was a good-looking boy, with light brown eyes and hair as black as his Indian mother’s had been. He carried the best features of both his parents, and there wasn’t a girl within a fifty-mile radius who wouldn’t be eager to marry him. Nature being perversely absurd, the only woman he’d ever expressed an interest in was the one who didn’t want him. Maggie was twenty-five to Billy’s nineteen, and Gil had wondered a few times if that wasn’t her primary objection to the kid. Horner had made a play for her once, and like others, she’d shot him down with kind, but firm words.
“You still hankerin’ for her yourself, Gil?” Billy asked with a sneer. “That why you want me to give up?”
“I’m not a man who likes to be turned down more than once, kid,” Gil snapped. “She said no, and I’m willin’ to leave it at that. Unlike you,” he added pointedly.
“Go home, Gil,” Billy ordered. “If I need backup, I can find Boyd.”
“Billy,” Horner began with forced patience. “The Sheriff’s out of town. Boyd ain’t in a position to be doin’ you favors. He’s the deputy, let him do his job.”
Billy started to object, just as Horner knew he would. Gil’s closed fist rose straight up, clipping the boy soundly beneath the chin, snapping his teeth together and knocking him out cold in a matter of seconds. Sighing heavily, Gil caught the kid’s weight, hefted him onto one broad shoulder, and headed down the alley to the waiting horses. Billy would be madder than a caged bobcat come morning, but that was better than dead. At least in Horner’s book.
DESPERATE LOVE excerpt:
Before you leave, I want you to go into Carson City and get provisions.
Cody looked surprised. “Isn’t that dangerous?”
“Yes, that’s why I want you to take Valerie with you. You’ll look less suspicious if a woman’s with you.”
“As you wish, Cap’tin.” Cody turned to Valerie. “Are you ready?”
Valerie was taken totally off guard, but she understood the reason Duke wanted her to go with Cody. It made sense. They would appear as a farmer or a rancher and his wife, buying provisions for the fortnight. “I didn’t bring a dress?”
“Doesn’t matter. Half the women hereabouts wear men’s clothing. It’s more functional.”
She shrugged her shoulders. “I’m ready when you are.”
He grabbed her hand. “Let’s go.”
She accompanied Cody, riding the same sorrel mare on which she rode to Carson City. They hadn’t ridden a hundred yards when Cody exclaimed, “Whoowee, look who’s playing married with the pretty lady. Too bad I don’t get to try out the side benefits of being married.”
Valerie bit her tongue to keep from smiling. “You are incorrigible.”
“Does that mean, can’t act normal?”
She did laugh. “Something like that. You are acting much too joyful for a morose farmer.”
“Let me tell you. Even a morose farmer would be joyful around you. You’re like a ray of sunshine.”
Time to change the subject. “Cody, what do you want to do after the war?”
“I want to start a ranch. Then, I’d like to find a classy woman as pretty as you and make her my wife. I would never treat her like some men treat their wives—beating them, going to saloons or even brothels. I would treat my wife like a queen.”
Valerie couldn’t think of what to say after that, so she rode on in silence.
Cody laughed. Then he leaned across the space between the horses and kissed Valerie’s cheek.
Wide-eyed and mouth open in shock, she turned to Cody. “What—”
His lips formed that bad boy smile that made her think of sex. “Sorry. I just felt like kissing my future sister-in-law. If’n I can’t have you, the next best thing is you being my sister-in-law.”
“I know, incorrigible. Watch this.” Cody whipped his dark brown stallion with the rein until it galloped. When he was a hundred yards ahead, he pulled the horse to a stop and started galloping back.
Valerie began to worry when, under a full gallop, he stood up on the saddle. Holding the reins in one hand, he waved his wide-brimmed western hat in the other. Then, as he passed, Valerie’s mouth dropped open when he jumped up and spun in the air, landing in the saddle sitting backward and waving to her as he rode away from her.
Available now at Amazon