To Tame a Gambler

by Nancy Pirri

To Tame a Gambler by Nancy Pirri In 1880, college Professor John O’Connell arrives in Bozeman, Montana. He meets seemingly shy Grace Morgan but discovers this 'Penny Dreadful' writer is anything but proper.

For Grace, gambling is a way to make a living, if one were good at it, which she was. With most of her family gone, except for her aunt and fourteen-year-old brother, she wants a better life than they’d had.

Publisher Note: This story appears, also, in the Western Ways Anthology.

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Release Date: March 7, 2023
Genre: Western Historical | Western Romance



Chapter One

September 1880

Bozeman, Montana


The woman had her nose stuck in a Bible from the time John O’Connell boarded the stagecoach twenty miles south of Bozeman. He envied her position. She had been lucky in securing a corner seat beside a window, with only one person on the side of her. He was squeezed between two decidedly plump matrons wearing fake-fruit decorated bonnets and reeking of lavender water. Damned lucky he wasn’t any bigger or the three of them wouldn’t fit.

“Bozeman’s right up yonder!” the driver called out cheerily over the thundering of the horses’ hooves.

John dusted off his black pants and jacket, in the process jabbing both women with his elbows. They glared at him.

“Sorry,” he apologized. “I think we are all more than ready to get out into the fresh air.”

“Amen,” said the woman on his left, giving him a near toothless grin.

John shifted his gaze to the woman across from him, trying to estimate her age. Upon settling inside the coach, he saw her face in profile. She appeared young. Then, sitting across from her, she had raised her Bible and had not lowered it—not once. Between the book concealing her face and the small veiled felt hat on her head, he had no idea what she looked like. Her traveling attire was appropriate. She wore a brown woolen jacket and skirt with velvet collar and cuffs.

He breathed a relieved sigh when he glanced out the window and saw people walking the streets, coaches being pulled by horses, buggies rumbling by. Ah, the sounds of city life—exciting and exotic!—the noise of people living life to the fullest. He couldn’t wait to leave the coach and set foot on solid ground.

They’d reached the Bozeman Coach Station. The coach door opened, and the driver set down a set of rickety wooden stairs, then leaned in to help the first woman out. “Lord, it’ll be wonderful to stretch our legs a bit, won’t it?” she said.

John nodded. “You are correct, madam.”

He pulled himself easily out of the coach after the woman, then turned and helped the woman who’d been on his right. She gave him a simpering smile. He sighed, mindful of the fact that women—young and old—were attracted to him. He was handsome enough, he supposed, but it wasn’t his looks that attracted them, it was his polite, respectful manners, instilled in him by his gentle mama. Though, when angry, that tiny woman wielded a switch better than a two-hundred-pound man.

The last person he assisted from the carriage was the bookish gal. She accepted his hand as she made her way down the steps, then quickly dropped it with a murmured, “Thank you,” once her feet touched the ground. John felt his heart quicken when he got his first good look at the pretty young woman who stood no taller than his shoulder.

She took a step, stumbled and dropped her Bible.

He reached out a quick hand, cupped her elbow to steady her then released her when he was certain she was steady on her feet. When he bent to pick up the book, she did, too, and they bumped heads. Rubbing his forehead, he murmured, “Sorry, miss. Just trying to be help...” pausing when he looked at the Bible and saw another book tucked inside. A small one, its pages bent and ragged.

Still crouched, he glanced at the Bible’s owner who bent down facing him. Looking at her, John felt as though he’d been struck by lightning. He was drawn to the clear-eyed sign of intelligence in her eyes behind a pair of gold-rimmed metal spectacles. He glimpsed, beneath her bonnet, rich auburn-colored hair.

He reached for the book. She did too, and her hand landed on top of his. She tried pulling the book from his hand, but he kept a grip on it, curious to know what she’d been hiding in the Bible.

Tearing his gaze away from her pleading expression, he glanced down and closed the smaller book to reveal the cover. Murder and Love in Tucson City. She’d concealed a trashy dime store novel between the pages of her Bible. She wouldn’t meet his eyes, just held out her hand.

He gave her the book. Without a word, she tucked it back inside the Bible. Staring at her a moment longer, he saw she wore a veiled hat that came down over her eyes. Beneath the veil, her nose was small and slightly pointy.

They rose simultaneously. He said, “Madam? I’m curious about—”

She murmured, “Please, don’t ask.” Her soft, gentle southern drawl intrigued him.

He’d met several southern belles over the years, and all of them were pleasant and well-mannered, not to mention undeniably feminine.

It was disappointing that she had been reading a ‘penny dreadful.’ He’d read a few himself to see what all the fuss was about. In his opinion, they equaled trash—unmitigated trash. Why would a perfectly respectable woman read such an unsavory book?

She walked quickly away from him to the stagecoach station. Striding after her, he said, “Madam? May I assist you to your lodgings?”

She raised one finely shaped eyebrow and glanced at him over her shoulder, her foot on the first step. “No, thank you. I can manage.”

“I insist on accompanying you. Where are you staying?”

“At the St. Angel’s Home for Women,” she muttered.

The coachman brought over her bags, taking three trips to do so. “Think that’s everything,” he said before stalking away, kicking up dust in his wake.

John looked down and sighed. The woman had packed three enormous valises. “Excuse me a moment.”

He entered the station building and, for a few dollars, found a boy willing to haul their luggage and them in a wagon to St. Angel’s. Good Lord, John hoped the place wasn’t a nunnery. Then he thought about her choice of reading material and decided it was highly unlikely.

He stepped back outside and their gazes collided, hers direct and intent.

Her brown eyes didn’t appear a bit myopic, which made him think she didn’t require spectacles. Frowning, he wondered why a pretty woman would conceal her eyes behind a pair of spectacles if she didn’t need to. She was an enigma.

“I’m John O’Connell.”

“Grace Morgan,” she murmured.

John bowed, taking her small, gloved hand in his. “Glad to make your acquaintance, Miss Morgan.”

She smiled back. John noted how it didn’t quite reach her eyes.

“I’m new in town. How about you?”

She gave him a brilliant smile. “Oh, yes, quite new.”

He nearly gasped aloud at her beauty. “Will you be staying long?”

“I’m...I’m not sure yet.” She added, “I’d like to leave for St. Angel’s, if you don’t mind. I’m exhausted.”

“Of course you are,” he said and solicitously took her arm.

The boy came around from the back, driving a buckboard loaded with their bags. He jumped down, leaving John to drive.

John assisted Miss Morgan into her seat. When he climbed up beside her, she brushed her skirts out of his way. He sank against the back of the seat and enjoyed the soft brush of her arm against his. She looked away and he took the opportunity to peruse her once more. When he raised his gaze, he found her staring at him. Her lips formed into a little smile, and her eyes sparkled with humor.

“You, I believe, are no gentleman, sir,” she said softly.

He grinned. “There’s no crime in looking, is there? Besides, I’d be less than human to ignore a pretty woman.”

She shrugged. “I suppose there isn’t, though I believe I read more than mere admiration in your eyes.”

“No chance of that. I’ve been accused of having the best poker face around.”

“Did you say—poker?”

He nodded.

“Are you, perhaps, a gambling man, Mr. O’Connell?”

John’s smile widened. “No. I’m a teacher.”

* * *

Grace breathed a relieved sigh. A teacher—not a gambler. Good. One less person with whom to compete. She’d heard of the tough competition in the gambling establishments across the west before setting out from her home in Atlanta, Georgia. She considered herself just as tough. Not only had it been said that she possessed the best ‘poker face’ around, but she also usually won every hand she played. A seasoned player, she’d not only acquired the skill but had been blessed with amazing good luck. Gambling was her legacy from her father.

She earned her living by gambling, but her passion was writing, not penny dreadfuls, by choice, however. She’d written two full-length novels but had yet to find a publisher. The penny dreadfuls, while not as popular as they were in the past several years, were snatched up by a publisher, though, and as long as she could keep handing over a chapter a week to print, she’d keep the relationship. Until her novels sold. And while she had written and published three penny dreadfuls thus far, writing had proven not to be as lucrative an endeavor as gambling.

Grace thought about how Mr. O’Connell had found her reading the penny dreadful. The book was one of the better ones she’d read of late. It was important she keep abreast of her competition. She didn’t like that John had discovered her secret. Curiosity had stolen across his face. Thankfully, she’d been able to squelch his questions.

His arm brushed against her and she glanced up at him before turning to the view once more. John O’Connell was big, rugged, and handsome, and seemed to be oblivious of the fact. A nice trait, she decided as she thought about some of her past beaus. They had possessed an unbearably annoying amount of narcissism, which was not a bit to her liking.

Pulling her wayward thoughts away from the handsome gentleman at her side, she took great delight in the sights and scents of Bozeman as the buggy swept past buildings painted in bright swathes of color. Shops galore lined the streets. It had been a long while since she’d purchased any new gowns, and a pure feminine longing filled her. She knew, though, when the time came to purchase new clothing, they would be work attire such as a frock coat and, the latest rage for men, a woolen felt bowler with a contrasting hatband ribbon around the base of the crown.

Her life, and that of her aunt and brother, had been a constant battle for survival during the past year, so, when she won, she saved half of her winnings and sent half of it home to them. Her luck at the gambling tables had held out in the last two cities she’d left behind. There was still a lot more territory to cover and money to win on the way to reaching her final destination—San Francisco. Then she would send to Atlanta for her fourteen-year-old brother, Robbie, and their unmarried Aunt Lucinda.

Yet, as she perused Bozeman, a feeling of having come home assailed her. She shook her head. No. Bozeman was not San Francisco.

In a city like San Francisco, she knew she could make a better life for herself and her family. Atlanta held nothing for them anymore but poverty and pestilence since the carriage accident a year ago that had taken her parents. They’d left behind a mountain of debt as well as their two children—Grace and her young brother. Grace had been forced to sell the family home. At the age of nineteen, she’d had much responsibility thrust upon her.

She kept her head turned away from her escort, not wanting to encourage further conversation. The less he knew about her the better. Hopefully, the man would believe her shy and reserved and would leave her to her thoughts. Until the buggy stopped, he thankfully did just that.

“I’m sorry. It appears our journey has ended rather precipitously. We have arrived at St. Angel’s.”

Precipitously? Of course. Only an educated person would use such a word in normal conversation.

Grace stared at a narrow, three-story red brick building. She read the engraved sign above the doorway. St. Angel’s Home for Women.

Mr. O’Connell eased from the buggy, then assisted her to the ground. She shook out her skirts, aware of his tall, substantial body before her. Looking up, she met the gentle look on his face. Then he bowed and, with a hand at her waist, guided her up the stairs to her new home.

A tall woman dressed head to toe in gray wool opened the door, allowing them entrance. “Miss Morgan, I assume,” the severe woman said, closing the door behind them.

Her frosty tone would have put off any other woman. Not Grace. Looking her square in the eye, Grace murmured, “I am. And you must be Mrs. Couture.”

Mrs. Couture nodded and folded her arms across her narrow chest.

Giving the sourpuss of a woman a sweet smile, Grace said, “Would you be so kind as to find someone to carry in my valises, madam?”

Mrs. Couture glared down her pointy nose at Grace. “The coach driver will do it momentarily.” She swept a long look at Grace, staring at her midsection.

It took all of Grace’s fortitude to remain silent under the woman’s rude scrutiny.

“So,” Mrs. Couture said, nodding curtly at John, “he the father, is he? How come he’s not marrying you?”

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