A Taste of Shine
A Taste of Shine
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“I am deeply in love with this story! It satisfies, it shines, it fed my soul.” – USA TODAY bestselling author, Alta Hensley
Unanticipated, unwanted… unavoidable love at first sight.
- Roaring 20's Moonshine Romance
- He Falls First, And He Falls HARD
- Sweet, Yet Forbidden Romance
- Virgin Heroine On The Run
- Whiskey Runner Meets His Match
- All He Wants Is To Take Care Of Her
- A Strong, Independent Woman
- You'll Be On The Edge Of Your Seat!
- Gloriously Snuggly Happily Ever After
“I am deeply in love with this story! It satisfies, it shines, it fed my soul.” – USA TODAY bestselling author, Alta Hensley
Unanticipated, unwanted… unavoidable love at first sight.
One glance, and Matthew knew—just as he knew that the intriguing new girl in town would be nothing but trouble.
Country folk talk, and tongues were wagging about the blonde and her checkered past.
One that sweet girl was trying and failing to outrun.
Yet, this was no ordinary wayward soul. Charlotte was practically Chicago nobility.
And the city’s reigning kingpin wants Charlotte back under his wing. But small-town moonshiner, Matthew Emerson, will keep her right where she is—safe in his arms and hidden away from her sordid past.
Intro into Chapter 1
Intro into Chapter 1
Boot skidding down unpaved rocky incline, Charlie lost control of the derelict Ford the bounty hunter had been pushing uphill for three fucking hours. The jalopy rolled back a good two feet, bodily dragging the cursing, sweaty figure trying to push it over another blasted hill. Three miles Charlie had struggled with that damn car, hoping the faded wooden sign pointing to civilization an hour back was accurate.
With Charlie’s luck, it would not be surprising to find the entire town of Gap Mills long ago leveled by some tornado, burned to the ground, or just plain abandoned.
Days of frantic travel, so damn close to the finish line, and the blue Ford’s guts had gone out with a mighty lurch and a rolling plume of smoke. That engine was a goner, and if Charlie had the choice, that whole goddamn car would have been set to flame. Burned it down to a twisted metal shell, and moved on with life.
That wasn’t an option. Not with the cargo inside.
Grinding teeth until an aching jaw matched the sour mood, Charlie did what had to be done—pushed that fucking car through the foothills, and up a twisting, hilly road named Devil’s Hallow, certain Lucifer himself was trying to meddle in human affairs.
Charlie spit on the devil. Was worked up into such a mood that had the red-skinned, forked tail, horned-one popped into existence at that moment, Charlie would’ve landed a good swing on Satan’s smirking mouth.
Settling for kicking the chuckling cargo right in the ass, Charlie found some satisfaction in the grunt and squeal that followed.
Far better than the convict’s stifled mockery and laughter. Asshole.
Chained, gagged, and blindfolded, a bounty evil through and through lay sprawled across the Ford’s backseat—a bastard Charlie looked particularly forward to watching fry strapped down to Sing Sing’s infamous electric chair. Old Sparky would light up bright as a goddamn chandelier. Charlie wouldn’t even mind the stink of burning flesh… not so long as the corpse smoking and lurching on that throne was Ronnie Pearson.
Murderer, rapist, all around piece of shit.
Imagining the squeals Ronnie would make when he finally had to pay for what he did thoroughly motivated the bounty hunter to soldier on. Fuck, Charlie would push that damn car all the way to New York if that’s what it took.
There was one saving grace in this fucked up situation; though it was winter, it wasn’t snowing.
Biting wind soothed a laboring body. Clouds of breath steaming from flared nostrils, sweat running through the dirt on Charlie’s face was a vision of determination.
A vision of determination who was greatly in need of a bath.
Grunting when the car caught just before the crest of the steepest slope yet, Charlie gave it one last Herculean effort. It was just enough to ease the car over the slope.
Panting, thirsty, surly, and worn out, Charlie looked up the road.
Jesus, there were more hills. More of this muddy slice of hell.
Prayer had never been so tempting.
And perhaps God was watching, or maybe it was the devil after all. Because the undeniable rumble of an approaching vehicle sounded on the road behind. Peering back, Charlie pulled the brim of an old hat low, and automatically reached for the rifle hanging from an aching shoulder.
The cloud of dirt approaching in the distance potentially spelled trouble.
Missing things got a man dead quick in Charlie’s line of work.
Or maybe it was nothing.
Vehicles speeding fast enough to kick up that kind of dust didn’t usually stop for strangers, nor were country boys quite as friendly as folks might expect. So, when a rusty truck came to a slow rolling stop, Charlie’s glare was less than friendly.
There was good goddamn reason to be wary. It wasn’t the pale eyes of the brawny passenger, narrowed as they ran the length of Charlie’s muddied frame. It wasn’t the scarred knuckles flexing where the man’s arm rested out the window.
It was the smell.
Moonshine. Charlie knew that corn stink. Loved it, in fact.
Gloved fingers rising to the low brim, Charlie offered one silent nod—all the while, red rimmed eyes measured what mattered and what didn’t. The greater threat wasn’t the bruiser riding shotgun.
It was the man holding a double barrel shotgun tucked under his arm. Tall as a tree and dirty as a pig, a burly man glared down from the truck’s bed. Unlike the men in the cab, the giant was well aware of the hidden rifle Charlie’s trigger finger kissed.
Deadpan, Charlie broke the silence. Voice hoarse and distorted with disuse. “Afternoon...”
A wordless, grunted reply was offered—not from the man looming with the firearm, but from the bruiser with his arm hanging out the passenger window. A tense stretch of silence, and the unsmiling stranger smoothly rumbled, “Where you headed to?”
Scraping words from a dry throat, Charlie croaked, “Sign a few miles back pointed to Gap Mills.”
Pursing his lips, the stranger swung the toothpick between his lips from the left side of his mouth to the right. Chewing that sliver of wood, he turned to his driver. “Eli, help him push the car.”
The open annoyance on the boy’s face told the story clear as day. Helping a road-worn stranger wasn’t exactly appealing to the youth. Even so, Eli did as he was told, climbing out of the cab so the broad shouldered male might scoot towards the wheel.
Without another glance or word exchanged, the truck took off, kicking up dust right in Charlie’s face.
Sauntering through the cloud, Eli held his hand out friendly-like. “I’m Eli Emerson. My cousin, Matthew, owns the roadhouse up the way.”
A roadhouse would do. “I’ll need a car.”
The kid gave a shrug. “You’ll have to talk to Matthew.”
Eyeballing the boy up close, Charlie realized Eli wasn’t a kid, exactly. He was something nearer a man, but a bit too pretty for his own good. “Charlie.”
Greeting over, the boy moved straight towards the back of the car. Together they pushed that damn Ford, Eli chattering up a storm, asking questions that went unanswered, pouring out compliments on the shiny blue car.
Even with assistance, it was another hour of hard labor before the creaking roadhouse’s sign came into sight. It was just what you’d expect from a country pit stop—a simple two story building, everything set in vacant, surrounding woods. Faded tin signs advertising motor oil, cigarettes and Coca-Cola splashed a little color against wooden slats. Mismatched chairs graced the porch, one of them full of the hospitable passenger from the truck, sipping on a steaming mug.
Even seated, it was clear Matthew Emerson was a big fellow. A weathered version of his pretty-boy cousin. Eyes shadowed by the brim of his hat, the single porch light flickering above offered little more to peruse beyond the rigid set of an unfriendly jaw three days past the need of a shave.
Leaving the car and its precious hidden cargo, Charlie walked the dusty yard and marched up the porch steps.
“Matthew Emerson—” Charlie’s throaty speech, an unpretty thing, grated like the after effects of some great sickness, “—I have a proposition for you.”
Head tipped back just enough to meet the beady stare of the much smaller stranger, Matthew took a close look at the vagabond caught on his road. Charlie held that gaze.
Ever so slightly pushing one’s jaw forward, the bounty hunter knew how to fake an underbite. Squinting creased the skin making one appear older. And that was only the beginning. Sweat and dirt; it was miraculous what the combination could conceal. And boy was Charlie one sweaty, dirty mess at the moment.
Like with most new acquaintances, Matthew’s pale eyes went straight to the nasty scar bisecting Charlie’s lower lip. A mark carried since childhood.
Taking a sip of coffee, Matthew offered an unimpressed, “Proposition, hum? You come out here to talk business?”
It wasn’t hard to grasp what the man implied. West Virginia was dirt poor, and with prohibition going strong, smart men found other ways to pull a profit—illegal ways. Brewing and selling were as common as farming and coal mining. The Emersons were moonshiners.
“I have no interest in your liquor.” A borderline sneer pulled at Charlie’s scar. “What I have is cargo I need to transport immediately. Ain’t got time to wait on getting that engine fixed.”
Leaning back in his chair, Matthew surveyed the stranger on his porch with an unimpressed sneer. “And what do you want me to do about it?”
“I’ll pay you five hundred dollars for a three-day ride, leaving now.”
His snort could have been laughter if the man had cracked a smile. “What’s in the car?”
There was no point in lying. “A convict on his way to the electric chair.”
Matthew ever so slightly cocked his head, a sign that maybe he was intrigued... or perhaps offended. Once he spoke, it was clear the expression implied neither; he was simply dismissive. “Ain’t got no one to drive you.”
Charlie didn’t waver, only deepened a growl. “Find someone.”
Colorless eyes blazed so hard Charlie was sure fiercer men had scuttled back like kicked dogs, but that wasn’t Charlie’s way. Matthew was just a man; a man who didn’t know jack shit about why Ronnie Pearson needed to fry. “The bounty I’m carrying is a wanted criminal—a criminal who killed my brother and harmed my mama. There is nothing that’ll stand in my way of dragging him to justice.”
Another disgruntled throat noise and Matthew glanced to the distant Ford.
Charlie drove the point home. “I don’t care if you’re a decent man or a bad one. You got family. I take it you understand my position.”
A moment of quiet stretched before Matthew sipped his coffee and coarsely offered, “One night’s shelter, then you and your friend will be on your way. Lotta men round these parts won’t take too kindly to your type, if you understand my meanin’.”
It was better than nothing. Tipping that dusty hat, Charlie shuffled back to the blue Ford to drag out the psychopath strapped down across the back.
Feeling Matthew Emerson measure even the slightest movement, Charlie managed the much taller chained prisoner, yanking the jackass along—handling the convict well when the bastard played his game of being difficult and stumbling on purpose.
At their approach, the head of the Emerson family stood and held the screen door open. Once inside, after taking in all the empty tables with their checkered tablecloths and cheap spindle chairs, Charlie chose a seat away from the familiar occupant at that bar and the pretty waitress standing behind the counter.
The scruffy giant bellowed, “What the hell is this?”
Matthew waved him off. “They stay one night and then they go.” After a short pause, he added, “Alice, get them some food.”
The youngest, Eli, muttered to himself as he took in the chains on the convict and the rifle on the stranger. “A real life bounty hunter, here in Monroe.”
Charlie looked towards the boy, eyes narrowed. “You ain’t seen me, hear?”
Eli blushed, stammering an embarrassed, “Yes, sir,” which suited Charlie just fine.
Lighting a cigar, Matthew addressed the boy. “Eli, you head on home.”
Obviously eager to be included, Eli argued. Fists clenched at his sides. “I’ll stay.”
“Git.” The one word, spoken softly, was enough.
With a snort, the grousing youth left as ordered.
Behind the bar, the raven-haired waitress frowned through the process of readying two bowls of unheated canned soup. From the way Matthew watched her before settling his eyes right back on Charlie, it was apparent that was his girl, and any slight on the woman would spell trouble.
Glancing only long enough to see what Alice was made of, Charlie found the woman to be stunning, possessing unfashionably long hair and dressed smart—a little too smart for a lady working a greasy spoon.
When she plopped down the food, Charlie went through the expected motions, eyes respectfully glued to the slop and nothing else. “Much appreciated, ma’am.”
Without acknowledging the courtesy, the lithe thing went right back to her place behind the counter.
Checking to assure the prisoner’s blindfold stayed tight, Charlie loosened the saliva saturated gag and grunted, “Supper.”
The captive’s jaw dropped wide in smug anticipation.
Beginning the infuriating process of feeding the most hated thing on earth, Charlie droned out the rules. “Rule number one?”
The prisoner’s voice was a musical thing, seductive and unnerving as it singsonged. “I eat when you tell me to eat.”
“Rule number two?”
Pure sadistic glee. “I piss when you tell me to piss.”
“Rule number three?”
The prisoner’s lips curved into a poisonous smile. “I fuck up… you cut something off.”
A gravelly hiss, and Charlie agreed. “And that is my favorite rule.”
And then Charlie shoveled the rest of the soup between the bastard’s lips, faster and faster. Between slurps and swallows, beyond the distrust the big, dirty bruiser was leveling toward the unlikely pair, the little hairs on the back of Charlie’s neck started to rise.
Something wasn’t right.
When was it ever?
The outdoors went quiet. No birds, no bugs, no nothing.
Silence was never a good thing.
Suspicious, Charlie’s eyes flew to Matthew Emerson. The man was standing rigid, staring out the window like he, too, felt something bad.
Trouble came in a burst of gunfire.
The front windows shattered, glass flying as Charlie tackled the prisoner to the floor. Determined the convict wouldn’t die quickly from some stray bullet to the brain, Charlie barked, “Cut the goddamn lights!”
It went dark—Matthew and Nathaniel firing haphazardly into the night like fools, Alice screaming where she ducked behind the bar. Bullets ricocheting overhead, Charlie crawled towards the nearest busted window. Using the casement as cover, rifle swinging forward, Charlie let out an audible sigh and scoped the yard. “I ain’t got time for this shit.”
The tell-tale flash of firing bullets gave away target number one. Methodical, impersonal, Charlie pulled the trigger. One blast, one death. The process repeated, patient and thorough—professional.
Five men died due to such skill, and silence, once again, came to the yard.
With the quiet, Charlie stood, ignoring the crunch of glass when stepping over the casement. Bodies were found, examined where they sprawled. Two Charlie recognized, and couldn’t help but snort a laugh when Matthew came bearing a lantern for a closer look.
Matthew Emerson had a quiet kind of fury. The kind that left his words ice. “They worth any money?”
Ignoring the temper, the rage radiating from the stoic, Charlie said, “No one gives a shit about men like this. It’s their boss you should be worrying about.”
Sucking at his teeth, Matthew’s façade slipped just enough that Charlie knew better than to push. “And who might that be?”
Head cocked, Charlie turned and looked up at a man who could crush bones with one good swing. Bearing no trace of compassion, no interest in helping the Emerson boys’ cause, Charlie explained the cold way of things. “You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours. Speakin’ of which, I did just kill almost all of the fuckers for you.”
“You didn’t do it for me.”
“You seem like a reasonable man—” a flashed smirk, one as mean as Charlie could offer, “—so you must know you’re just one more bootlegger out in the middle of nowhere. I could’ve killed you, the tall fella, and your woman, in three quick shots before you would’ve even blinked… then stolen your truck. We both know that. Not a soul but your dandy cousin would have even known I was here.” Lips pursed, Charlie paused to shrug. “And tracking him down? Wouldn’t even be a challenge.”
The brute took a threatening step nearer. “I’m not in the mood to play games, son.”
Charlie’s demand was deliberate and harsh. “Give me what I want.”
“Matthew,” Alice called. “Nathaniel’s bleedin’!”
Shoving past the bounty hunter, Matthew rushed back inside, Charlie following to assure no stray bullets had hit the chained convict.
Shackled, Ronnie Pearson lay in a pile right where he’d been shoved down. Poking at him with a scuffed boot, the prisoner uncurled, and Charlie leaned down to haul him back into a chair.
Chained hands darted out, a piece of broken window glass carving right through the bounty hunter’s clothing.
Warmth soaked through a grimy undershirt in seconds, a great sting tightening Charlie’s breath. “Ronnie... you just broke rule number three.”
Ignoring Matthew, the waitress, and the bleeding Nathaniel, Charlie went straight to the wood burning stove to shove in the poker. Pulling a hunting knife from the holster at his waist, Charlie yanked Ronnie’s hands as far as the chains would allow. Like chopping off the head of a chicken, a finger was hacked away, and the madman’s cackles twisted into screams.
When it was done, the red-hot poker seared the wound, the sickening smell of burning flesh wafting about just like it would when Ronnie cooked on the electric chair. Standing over helpless prey, Charlie swiped up the severed digit, tossing it out the broken window with a very real threat. “Cross me again, and the next thing I cut off won’t be a finger.”
The intruders were dead and the prisoner dealt with, which just left the last issue. Charlie locked eyes on Matthew, the man watching with a look that said he might just raise his pistol after all.
Even if he had, it wouldn’t have mattered none. Matthew had no bullets left—Charlie had counted.
The bounty hunter hummed. “He’s losing a lot of blood.”
Nathaniel, his exposed shoulder leaking something awful, grunted. “And what do you know about it?”
“From the looks of it, a lot more than either of you.” Charlie’s attention went to Alice. “Pull a few tables together. Matthew, help me move him when she’s finished.” Feeling pretty fucking magnanimous, Charlie sneered. “You want that bullet out? I can get the job done and stitch you up clean.”
Following orders, Matthew managed Nathaniel’s weight until the wounded man was lying on a table in the light. Tools were called for, Alice scurrying around to gather what was needed.
Under the scruff, seeing Nathaniel without his filthy shirt, the resemblance between the two men was uncanny. “He your brother?”
A grunt and Matthew gave Charlie a look that warned he’d kill him if the stranger took so much as one misstep.
The handle of a wooden spoon tucked between Nathaniel’s teeth, Matthew braced the larger man. Alice held up a lamp, the light shaking until Charlie barked at the woman to hold the damn thing still. All and all, it wasn’t so bad. Once the shoulder was at the right angle, getting the bullet would be an easy in and out.
Sitting a hip on the table, Charlie took Nathaniel’s arm and wrapped the limb around a narrow midsection. The stranger’s gaze grew soft, Charlie whispering, “Look at me, Nathaniel.” The man obeyed. “You’re dipping your toes in cool water. The air smells of autumn and warm things. Breathe in and out real slow, real deep.” Charlie nodded when the man began to relax. “That’s right. Keep looking at me and try not to break any of my ribs.” The last words were matched with a disarming smile.
The second Nathaniel was about to chuckle, moonshine splashed the wound. Instead, he screamed, biting down on the wooden spoon. Quickly pulling off one glove, Charlie coated a slender fist in shine and reached right into the bleeding hole. Despite the jerking body, the stranger pinched the bullet, pulling it free, quick as lightning, tossing the bloody thing to clatter across the floor. Not bothering to wipe away bloody fingers, Charlie pulled that leather glove back on right quick.
More moonshine was spilled to disinfect the injury, a roaring Nathaniel clinging to the stranger’s hip, gripping so hard marks would be left behind.
Pressing a clean dishcloth to the hole to slow fresh bleeding, Charlie asked, “Can I sew you up without your brother holding you down?”
It took a few moments before Nathaniel swallowed and nodded.
“Keep breathing like I told you.”
A jabbing needle and tugging thread closed gaping skin. Once the final knot was tied and soft gauze covered tidy stitches, gloved fingers came to the man’s jaw and took the wooden spoon.
“Well done, soldier.” Carefully unwrapping Nathaniel’s arm from an aching middle, Charlie laid it across the man’s ribs. “You’ll need to keep it in a sling for a few weeks.”
“You’re bleedin’,” Nathaniel managed, glancing to the blooming red stained on his impromptu medic’s coat.
Charlie’s warped voice replaced the softer tones no longer necessary. “Ain’t nothing, just a scratch.”
Work done, Charlie walked away and left the others to sort themselves out. In a measure of kindness and a silent act of gratitude, a shaken Alice moved towards the kitchen, found some wholesome food and brought it to the stranger. In place of the canned soup trash from before, a plate of cold ham and biscuits was given. Gift on the table, Matthew led her upstairs without another word.
Once they were alone, Nathaniel chuckled. “I know what’cha are.”
“I’m the person who shot five of the men sent after you and yours. I’m also the person who just dug a bullet out of you, instead of letting your unpleasant brother muck it up. That’s all I am,” Charlie warned, dead serious.
Nathaniel gave a weak, shit-eating grin. “That’s more than a scratch. Tend to it quick before he gets back.”
The man had a good point. Moving towards the unused first aid supplies, Charlie pulled up layers of clothing, a smooth stomach smeared red from a slice in need of stitching exposed to eyes that saw entirely too much.
Supine, Nathaniel took in the tapered waist he’d felt under the layers, resting his gaze on the stranger’s exposed, star-shaped scar. “Who shot you?”
Ignoring him, Charlie stripped off the gloves and those same slender fingers reached for the jar. After taking a deep swallow, liquor was splashed on the bleeding cut. Panting hard through the burn, it took three tries before Charlie got the needle threaded. With steady hands, the needle was jabbed right on in.
“Watch your breathing,” Nathaniel parroted, grimacing at the woman in pain.
Blue eyes darted to his as she smirked. Wicked, whispering sweetly, Charlie agreed, “Words of wisdom, Nathaniel Emerson.”
Ten more stitches, another painful splash of moonshine, and Charlie pulled her shirt down, covering her stomach just as Matthew’s boots sounded on the steps.
Bloodshot eyes above a ticking grin watched her hide all trace of femininity under layers of homespun cloth. “I’ll keep your secret.”
“Good. After fixing you, I don’t really want to kill you and put all my hard work to waste.” Her mocking was playful, and on a whim, Charlie ruffled Nathaniel’s unkempt hair. “I’m not in the mood to kill anyone else tonight.”
By the time Matthew was in sight, Charlie sat eating the food Alice had prepared, watching over her gagged prisoner as if nothing had happened in the time he’d been gone.
Striking a match to ignite the tip of a fresh cigar, Matthew spoke around the tobacco. “At dawn, Eli will take you where you need to go.”
Charlie tapped down the brim of her hat. “Much obliged.”
Theirs was not a friendly exchange. Matthew was only going to ask once, and it was clear if he didn’t get the answer he was looking for, all bets were off. “The men outside?”
“Last I heard, the two I recognized worked for Harrison McCray. I take it you know who he is?”
Gangland was simple, elegantly nasty, so Charlie offered a bit of advice. “If you’ve met him, I assume you got the impression that he rubs people the wrong way.” After pausing to take a bite, she went on, “There’s a reason he moved his game to your shithole foothills. The man has far more powerful enemies than you. Killing him might just be in your best interest—so long as the right folks knew you did it. It could be good for business.”
“He came after my kin,” Matthew growled, shifting back towards his brother. “He’s good as dead.”
Maybe they had something in common after all.
Family mattered to Charlie. Family was the reason she had a prisoner in chains. And family was the reason Matthew chose Eli to drive her to New York. Charlie could see clear as day that he wasn’t going to let the chirpy youngster get involved in something that, win or lose, would be incredibly bloody.
Speaking the understanding aloud, Charlie warned, “I ain’t babysitting your fool cousin. That leaves you about six or so days before the boy will be back.”