Runaway Dani Davis heads west, only to find a group of ten orphans alone and in dire straits. The nun who was trying to find homes for them has died, and they have no food or any place to stay. Disguised as Sister Mary Daniel, Dani spends the last of her funds buying a wagon and team and quickly moves the children on to a new town where there is no chance of anyone remembering Sister Mary Agnes.

Dani knows the quickest way to raise money is by playing poker. The saloon’s owner is shocked, and sends for the sheriff to help get the tiny nun out of his business. Clay Tanner finds it funny to see the feisty nun doing everything in her power to care for the children, but when he learns they are living in the abandoned Anderson house, his attention turns serious.

Clay collects the children and the little nun and moves them into his large house. From that point on, he doesn’t have a peaceful moment. The nun doesn’t act like a one, and he is certain she was sent west to find homes for the children as a punishment.

Dani is hopelessly in love with the aggravating, stern sheriff, and she fears the day she has to admit to him that she is the runaway, Dani Davis. She is positive all of his threats to punish her will be carried out before she gets a chance to explain, and worse, he will send her away.

Publisher’s Note: This sassy Western tale contains explicit themes, including domestic discipline.

Excerpt

 

Prologue

“It’s all your fault, John Oats!”

“My fault?” the red-faced man protested. “See here, Abigail, your niece would try the patience of a saint. She is a regular hoyden; running around in pants like a boy, and up to all kinds of mischief.”

“You threatened to thrash her, John. Surely you didn’t expect her to go to her room to meekly await you to come and take your belt to her?”

“I expect to be obeyed, wife. That young woman deserves a thrashing. Imagine her having the nerve to shoot the buttons off of Tyler Hargrave’s pants! Why, the judge himself warned me to deal harshly with Danielle’s behavior.”

“Perhaps the good judge should deal with his son’s behavior first?” Abigail tartly suggested. “Dani told you he was grabbing her.”

“Because she was asking for it; flaunting her body in those tight pants. By God, Abigail, I am going to burn each and every pair, then put her in a girls finishing school. Maybe they will be able to succeed where we have failed.”

“Failed? John, you haven’t even tried to understand Dani,” Abigail accused, her green eyes full of tears. “She needed a hug, not a thrashing. Has it been so long since you were young that you can’t remember what it was like? Dani is no more rebellious than I was at her age, and you delighted in my unconventional behavior.”

John smiled ruefully as his mind took him back over the years. Yes, Danielle did resemble his precious Abigail. She had the same slight figure, and the bright red hair that the Davis family was famous for. “I also recall that your father cut a switch and instructed me to do the same every time you misbehaved, my dear.”

Abigail giggled. “You never did.”

“You never gave me reason to.”

“Yes, I have. Several times, in fact.” She shocked him by admitting to misdeeds. “But you are blind to my faults, John, because you still love me as you did twenty-five years ago. I tell you that Dani is no worse than I was.”

“Nonsense; you never shot at anyone, wife.”

“Maybe not, but I did break a bottle of champagne over Winston Fisher’s head for getting fresh with me,” she indignantly retorted.

“He deserved it,” John stated inflexibly. “Poor Tyler didn’t deserve to be shot at. Not when Dani asked for it.”

“I believe Dani,” Abigail said firmly. “That young man has a reputation for being fast. Besides, would you rather she had let him have his way with her?”

“Of course not. How could you think such a thing?” John was clearly horrified at the idea.

“Maybe because you threatened to whip her.”

“All right, Abigail, you win. I won’t thrash her.” John decided to end the argument. “I will even apologize for scolding her if it will make you happy.”

“I don’t imagine you will get the chance, John.” Abigail burst into tears. “I think Dani’s gone for good this time.”

“Where would she go, wife?” he blustered. “She is too young to be on her own.”

 

Chapter One

 

“Come quick, Sheriff. You ain’t gonna believe your eyes.”

Clay Tanner wearily got to his feet and followed Dooley to the Pretty Woman Saloon, wondering who he would have to arrest this time. His jail was already crowded, but he supposed he could fit in one or two more if need be.

“What the…” He paused just inside the swinging doors to stare in disbelief at the tiny nun sitting at the poker table.

“Well, Sheriff, what do you intend to do about this?” Jigger Olson demanded, his blond mustache wobbling in indignation. “She’s ruining my business. Ain’t no one gone upstairs since she walked in and invited herself to play cards.”

“She hasn’t done anything illegal, has she?” Clay asked with a huge grin.

“I think she’s cheatin’,” the blond giant whispered, his face red.

“Aw, come on, Jigger. You expect me to believe that?” Clay hooted.

“I’m tellin’ you the truth, Sheriff. She’s dealin’ funny like, but no one wants to call her on it. You get her to leave and I won’t press charges.”

Clay shook his head in amusement, and then walked over to the table. “Sister, may I speak to you for a moment?”

“Why, of course, Sheriff.” She looked up at him with the sexiest green eyes he had ever seen and smiled. “What can I do for you?”

Clay searched for words that wouldn’t offend. “Sister, are you aware that this is a saloon?”

“Yes.”

“I see,” Clay said thoughtfully. “Ladies, especially women with your particular calling, don’t patronize these establishments. It’s not considered proper in these parts.”

“Why is that, Sheriff?”

Clay cursed silently, wondering why the nun’s voice had to sound so darn sexy. “Because there is business conducted upstairs too, Sister,” he said bluntly.

“What kind of business?” She pretended not to know.

“The women who work here are prostitutes,” he explained, wondering if his face was as red as it felt.

“I haven’t seen anyone go upstairs since I got here,” was her reply.

“That’s because you are here, Sister.”

“Oh. I see. Well, they needn’t worry about me. I am not here to sit in judgment.”

“Why are you here, Sister?” Clay asked curiously.

“Why do people usually play poker, Sheriff?” she asked tartly.

“For entertainment, usually,” he replied civilly. “I don’t imagine that’s why you’re playing, is it?” he asked.

“I need the money,” she said simply.

Jigger, who had been following the conversation, asked in resignation, “How much money do you need, ma’am?”

“Enough to provide food and shelter for the children entrusted to my care. I am trying to find good homes for these orphans, but we must have money to live on in the meantime.”

“Didn’t your church give you money, Sister?” Clay asked in disbelief.

“No. We were told that God would provide, but I thought perhaps God needed a little inspiration. My uncle taught me to play poker when I was a child. It seemed the best way to raise some money in a hurry.” She bowed her head, the picture of perfect contrition. “The children haven’t eaten since yesterday.” It was after midnight, she salved her conscience.

The murmurs of sympathy were genuine, and Dani was careful to hide her smile. The plan was working just as she’d thought it would, except for the unexpected attraction she felt for the tall and exceedingly handsome sheriff. His eyes were as dark as midnight, and he had eyelashes a woman would kill for. She guessed his age to be around twenty-five or twenty-six, but it was really hard to tell in the shadowy, smoke-filled room.

Before long, Dani was handed a bag full of money. “Thank you, gentlemen – and ladies.” She smiled at the scantily dressed women who made their living upstairs. “The children will be most appreciative, and I am sure God will smile down on all of you,” she tacked on in an attempt to sound holy.

“Sheriff, you tell her just to ask for money in the future,” Jigger whispered. “I don’t want her in here. It’s bad for business.”

Clay nodded, not bothering to hide his amusement from the blustering man. Then he turned his attention to the tiny nun. “I’ll see you home, Sister. The streets aren’t safe this time of night for a woman alone.”

“Surely, Sheriff, I would be safe.” She pointed at the black habit covering her head to toe. After all, she couldn’t very well let him walk her home. One of the children could slip up and call her by name. Then they would all be in big trouble.

“Normally,” Clay conceded. “But, it’s late and you are carrying a lot of money,” he said, then felt compelled to add, “Nice women don’t walk the streets alone after sundown, Sister.”

“I will remember that, Sheriff,” Dani said softly, refusing to let her outrage and indignation show. Just let anyone try to accost her for any reason, and she would give them a royal set down they wouldn’t soon forget.

“Where are you from, Sister?” Clay asked politely once they were outside.

“Chicago,” Dani improvised, then hurriedly changed the subject. “I don’t believe I have introduced myself. I am Sister Mary Daniel.”

“My name is Clay Tanner,” he told her with a smile she couldn’t see. The poor little sister was trying so hard to hide her embarrassment from him. She probably wasn’t used to talking to men, and she might even be a bit afraid that he would try to molest her, or take advantage of her sexually. “How did you get elected to bring a bunch of kids out here by yourself?” he asked curiously.

“I took a vow of obedience,” she quipped, and was rewarded when Clay laughed heartily. His voice was deep and suited him; it stirred something hidden within her.

“Where are you staying, Sister?” he asked suspiciously as they neared the edge of town. There was only one more house within walking distance of Willouby, and it wasn’t fit to use as a barn.

“We confiscated an empty house a little further down the road, Sheriff. The children were exhausted; the house was abandoned. I’m afraid we didn’t stop to consider that someone could object,” she added when he stopped to look down at her in disapproval.

“Sister, that house isn’t safe.”

“It will have to do, Sheriff.”

“No.”

“No?” Dani felt her temper rise and quickly reminded herself that she was a nun. Nuns didn’t raise their voices and argue.

“No, Sister. I will not let you use that fire trap.”

“But, Sheriff! Where will we go? I can’t afford—”

“I will take you to my place.” Clay surprised himself by announcing. What the hell was he thinking? A bunch of kids and a nun? And it would make things even more difficult with Barbara Sue.

“Certainly not.” Dani immediately objected. My God, she couldn’t carry on this charade twenty-four hours a day. Desperately, she searched her brain for something to change his mind. “What about your wife, Sheriff? Won’t she object to having her home invaded by a bunch of rowdy, noisy children?”

“I’m not married, Sister,” he replied curtly.

Dani was stunned by the sense of elation she felt. Why should she care if the gorgeous man was married or not? She was supposed to be a nun, for Pete’s sake. He was a man, a very sexy man – and she wasn’t acting like herself at all.

Clay didn’t notice the slight bounce in her step, as he tried to school his body. She was probably ugly as sin under that baggy, black thing she wore. And shaved bald if all the stories he’d heard were true? But that voice; it was giving him thoughts no man should have about a nun. She was definitely off limits, he reminded himself.

Clay finally realized they were standing on the front porch, or what was left of it, and he said, “Get the kids together, Sister.”

“Thank you for your kind offer, Sheriff Tanner, but I must refuse. The children and I will remain here,” she spoke firmly and tried to sound authoritative. The sheriff was the type of man you had to take a stand with or he would take over completely.

“You and the children will accept my invitation, Sister,” he contradicted, beginning to realize that the nun was one very stubborn lady. The type you had to put your foot down with right at the beginning. “Get the children,” he ordered in his no-nonsense tone of voice.

“Right now?” Dani’s voice squeaked. “They are asleep, Sheriff.”

“Then wake them up, Sister,” he ordered.

“Certainly not,” she refused, and then moved to bar the door when he attempted to enter.

Clay pushed his hat back on his head, then looked down at her, clearly exasperated. “Sister, either you wake those children or I will.”

“Morning will be soon enough to move the children, Sheriff. I thank you for walking me home, and I bid you good night.”

“Just one darn minute, Sister.” He reached out and pulled her around to face him. “I thought nuns were obedient?”

Dani bit her lip, and then replied. “Only to God, Sheriff Tanner.”

“Sister, I don’t like to throw my weight around, especially to someone such as yourself, but I will be obeyed here and now. This house is not safe. I expect you to cooperate with me. Wake the children, and we will take them to my house.”

“And if I don’t?” Dani’s true nature demanded.

What the heck did he threaten a nun with? He couldn’t put her in jail. What would he threaten a normal woman with? He would simply pick her up and set her aside, then put her in the wagon after the kids were loaded. “Then I will bodily pick you up and carry you, Sister,” he told her.

“You wouldn’t dare!” Dani gasped. “That would be unforgivable.” He wouldn’t dare touch a nun.

“Allowing innocent children to spend a night in a building that could blow away with one good breeze would be unforgivable, Sister. My mind is made up, and I have already spent more time arguing with you than I normally would. Do you cooperate, Sister, or do I use force?”

Dani bravely considered her opponent and decided that in a full-scale battle, dressed as she was, she could very well lose. “I will wake the children.” She reluctantly gave in, simply because she had no other choice. She led the way inside and cautiously made her way to one of the bedrooms. She tapped on the door and called out, “Boys, it is Sister Mary Daniel. The sheriff is with me and wants us to come stay at his house. Jamie? Are you awake?”

“Yes… Sister?”

“Good. Will you take charge of the little ones?”

“Yes, Sister.” The reply was strong this time.

Dani went to the next room. “Sarah, it is Sister Mary Daniel. The sheriff is here and we are moving everyone to his house. Will you explain to the little ones while I pack up our supplies?”

“Sure,” was the whispered reply.

“The children will be dressed soon, Sheriff. Will you give me a hand in the kitchen?” She wanted him away from the kids so Sarah and Jamie could warn the younger ones to call her “Sister”, also to be on their best behavior. It certainly wouldn’t do for the big, stern man to learn she was really Dani Davis, a runaway non-Catholic, and definitely not a nun.

“There’s no need to sulk, Sister. I am sure your superiors would agree you have made the right decision.”

“I am not sulking, Sheriff,” she declared.

“Could have fooled me, but then I guess you are above that sort of thing, huh?” He couldn’t resist teasing. How old was she? She sounded young, but he really couldn’t tell if she was twenty or sixty. It would be a safe bet that they wouldn’t send a young girl out west all by herself with the responsibility of— He was probably lusting after a nun who was old enough to be his mother. “How many children are there?”

“Only ten,” Dani answered, striving to control her temper. Without bothering to consider the consequences, she “accidentally” dropped a large can of peaches on the sheriff’s big foot, and then had the satisfaction of hearing him howl in pain. “Oh, dear me, I am so sorry,” she said, and the words sounded as insincere as she felt.

“You did that on purpose,” Clay accused as he grabbed his injured foot with both hands and hobbled on the other foot.

“How could you think such a thing?” she asked in feigned outrage. “I will certainly have to pray that you learn patience and forgiveness, Sheriff.”

“I beg your pardon.” Clay quickly apologized. “Of course, you wouldn’t do such a thing, Sister. I guess I have been wearing this badge for so long that I am naturally suspicious of everyone. Sorry.”

“I forgive you, Sheriff,” Dani magnanimously assured him, then turned her back lest he see the laughter in her green eyes.

“Sister, we’re all ready to go,” Jamie announced, looking up at Clay in a mixture of awe and wariness. As the eldest male member of the group he took his responsibility for their safety very seriously.

“Very good, Jamie. Will you hitch up the team?” She smiled reassuringly at the fourteen-year-old boy.

“Yes… Sister.” He glared at Clay daringly, and Dani had to refrain from laughing, even as she felt her heart swell with pride. Jamie clearly didn’t trust the big man, even though he had a shiny star pinned to his black vest, and Jamie was letting him know it. The boy wouldn’t stand a chance of beating the sheriff without a weapon of some kind, but that wasn’t stopping him from letting the man know he would give it his best shot. “Come on, guys.”

“That was six; there are four girls then?”

“Very good, Sheriff. You get an A in arithmetic for the day.”

“You have a sharp tongue, Sister.”

“One of my many faults, I assure you,” she admitted solemnly.

“Don’t they punish you for that sort of thing?” Clay asked seriously, wondering why any woman would choose such a life, and this sassy woman in particular. She just didn’t seem to fit the mold.

“I think they considered traveling with ten children a punishment,” Dani stated, tongue-in-cheek. “I, however, enjoy the children very much.”

“What’s keeping the girls?” he asked, just as the other door opened and four girls emerged. The eldest was about fifteen and the youngest only three or four years of age.

“Do you need help, Sister?” the eldest spoke.

“No, Sarah, I am all finished. Let’s go.”

Clay picked up the box containing their meager supplies and followed them out the door. When Sister Mary Daniel and the children were all loaded in the wagon, he said, “I don’t want to catch any of you in that house again. It isn’t safe. Do you all understand?”

All of the children either nodded or replied, “Yes, sir.” Sister Mary Daniel was the only one who didn’t respond.

“Sister? Do you understand?”

“Honestly, Sheriff, I am not a child,” Dani fumed, thinking he should show her habit a little more respect.

“I want your promise, Sister,” Clay insisted, and then added, “Anyone caught in there for any reason will be punished.” He watched her cheeks turn pink in the moonlight, and then deliberately repeated, “Do you understand, Sister?”

Dani wanted to slap him, hard. Instead, she meekly replied, “I understand.”

Clay jumped up on the seat beside her, and then took the reins. “I’ll drive since I know where we’re headed.”

Dani didn’t comment for the simple reason that she didn’t trust herself to be civil. The journey didn’t take long. Clay’s house was the large, white one just inside town. “You live here? All by yourself?” she asked in surprise.

“It was for sale a couple of years ago, and I was tired of living in the boarding house, so I bought it. It was all furnished; Mrs. Neeves comes in and cleans once a week. The bedrooms should be all fixed up.”

“You are being very generous, Sheriff.” Dani finally realized that the man was making a huge sacrifice, and she felt ashamed of herself for her earlier behavior. The children would be more comfortable here until she found homes for all of them. “Thank you.”

“You are definitely welcome, Sister.” Clay smiled, relieved that the feisty nun was finally accepting the idea.

He jumped down, and then turned to help the nun down. She caught her foot in the voluminous skirt of her habit, and would have fallen, but for Clay’s quick reflexes. He caught her in his strong arms and held her against his chest, longing to kiss her. She smelled like lilacs; the breasts pressing against him were full and large for someone of her diminutive size.

“Oh!” Dani cried out, and then felt her heart beat erratically as Clay held her in his strong arms. She couldn’t help but wonder what it would feel like to be kissed by this man. Would it be wonderful? Or would it be sloppy and awful, like when Tyler Hargrave grabbed her?

“Uh… Excuse me, Sister.” Clay belatedly came to his senses and set her on her feet. “Follow me, everyone, and I will get you all settled in, then I’ll take care of the horses.”

The children brought their meager belongings with them, and Clay led the way upstairs. “There are eight bedrooms in this house,” he explained. “If you kids double up, Sister Mary Daniel can have a room to herself, and we will still have a room left over.”

Dani was proud of how well the kids adapted, choosing a partner to room with, and there was no squabbling over which room to take. After the way they’d been living for the past few weeks, this house seemed like a palace to them.

“This is your room, Sister,” Clay announced, opening another door to a pretty room decorated in blue and white.

“Thank you, Sheriff. It is very nice.”

“Well, good night.” Clay turned away.

“I will help you unload the supplies,” Dani offered.

“No, you won’t,” Clay disagreed. “It is late and you are tired. Go on to bed.”

Dani knew when she wasn’t wanted. “Very well, Sheriff. Good night.” She shut the door behind her and was amazed to discover that her hands were trembling. Clay Tanner made her nervous as hell. She wasn’t used to reacting to any man in such a physical manner, but there was something primitive in her response to Clay Tanner. She gave her head a shake to dispel the uncustomary longing, and decided she needed to make sure the children were settled in for the night.

Quietly, she slipped back into the hallway and checked on all the children. Jamie was the only one still awake.

“What’s going on, Dani?” he whispered.

“I’ve got enough money to feed all of us for quite a while, Jamie; my plan worked great,” she admitted with a smile. “But the sheriff said the house outside town was a firetrap and he insisted on moving us here. I only hope I can remember to be a nun all the time.”

Jamie grinned at her. “Just don’t swear; Sister Mary Agnes never used bad language.”

“Did you warn the boys to call me ‘Sister’?” Dani asked.

“Sure. Don’t worry, Dani. We won’t give you away. Sarah and I didn’t know what we were going to do until you came along to help us. Sister Mary Agnes was real mean, but somehow she fed us and found homes for six of us…” His voice trailed off, and then he asked, “Do you think you’ll be able to find homes for the rest of us, Dani?”

“I am sure going to try, Jamie, and not just any old place either. I want good homes for all you kids.” She gave him an impulsive kiss on the forehead, and then said, “Sweet dreams, Jamie.”

Dani met Clay in the hallway and wondered why he was looking at her so strangely.

“Is anything wrong, Sister?”

“No, Sheriff. I was merely checking on the children.”

“Are they all tucked in for the night?” he asked, looking at her beautiful green eyes and wondering again what the hell she was thinking to become a nun. She seemed so alive, vibrant, and made for a man’s bed. And thoughts like that one were going to get him into some serious trouble, he mentally scolded himself.

“They are fine, Sheriff. And what of you? Is there anything you need?” she asked, wondering at the expression in his eyes. He was making her melt inside; she feared she was going to make a fool of herself and do something absolutely ridiculous – like kiss him.

“Um, no. I don’t need anything, Sister.” She was NOT inviting him to share her bed. Nuns did not do that sort of thing; Clay hoped she wasn’t aware of the bulge in his pants.

“I will turn in then,” Dani stammered, backing towards the door to her room.

“Good night, Sister.”

“Good night,” Dani replied, then hurried into her room. She removed the heavy habit, and then took her hairbrush from her valise. Dani sat at the dressing table, clad in her camisole and drawers, and brushed her thick, red hair until it fell in waves about her shoulders. Then she removed the rest of her clothing, put her wrapper within easy reach, and climbed into bed. Her last thought before drifting off to sleep was of Clay Tanner, and how good it had felt to be held in his strong arms, even if it was too brief.

***

She had felt good against him, Clay admitted to himself with his usual honesty, and then shook his head in disgust. Only a real pervert would get the hots for a nun. What the hell was wrong with him? He’d never had a problem with forbidden women before. And nuns definitely fit into that category. Still, her voice was so soft and sexy. He would bet everything he owned that she was built just right underneath that robe thing she wore.