SNEAK PEEK: Hell-Bent on Blessings
Here is your sneak peek at the first half of Hell-Bent on Blessings! Hope you enjoy!
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A huge thank you to my editors: Vicki Prather and Lisa Coffield; and my spectacular beta readers: Becky Hrivnak, Linda Wesson, Ann Rollin, Dotty Mathison, Kaye Ferguson, Casey Heim, Jessica W, Pamela Morrisson, Cathy Egland, Rose Hale, Melissa Ahlersmeyer, Connie White, Anne Rightler, Vicki Goodwin, Liz Dent, Holly Magnuson, Janice Sisemore, Rebecca Maney, Deanna Stevens, Julia Wilson, Loraine Ertelt, Gayle Kennedy, Denise Guinn, Donita Corman, Heather Baker, Linda Brooks, Donna Walker, Jeanette shields, Jessica Woodland, Kim Buffaloe, Barb Raymond, Ruth Miller, Becky Cormier, Linda Gonzalez, Amanda Boerneke, Laura Hilton, Janice Schiefer, Britney Adams, Pam Funke, Nancy McLeroy, Jackie Ramsdell, Becky Smith, and Jennifer O’Connell!
And a huge shout-out to the awesome assistant Becky Hrivnak! An author could not ask for a better, smarter, more dedicated support team of one. Thank you! You are such a huge blessing!
Though she be but little, she is fierce.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream Act 3, Scene 2
And when she is froward, peevish, sullen, sour,
And not obedient to his honest will,
What is she but a foul contending rebel
And graceless traitor to her loving lord?
I am ashamed that women are so simple
To offer war where they should kneel for peace,
Or seek for rule, supremacy, and sway
When they are bound to serve, love, and obey.
The Taming of the Shrew Act 5, Scene 2
* * *
Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.
Love never ends.
1 Corinthians 13:7-8 (ESV)
* * *
“Momma, the sheriff’s in the parlor.”
Something in her thirteen-year-old daughter’s voice sent a chill of foreboding up Harriet Pullen’s spine, but she didn’t stop her work. She slapped the whip on the ground and shook the lunge line. “Gidup, boy.” The bay gelding on the other end of the rope picked up his pace to a trot and circled around her in the corral. “Good boy. Good boy.” Over her shoulder to Katie, she said, “What’s he want?”
“I don’t know. We ran into him coming home from school and he rode on out with us. Just said he had to talk to you.”
Harriet had much too much work to do to stop and fix another mess her worthless husband had caused. That was the only reason the sheriff ever came out here.
She sighed and slapped the whip one last time. Ricco was a good horse. Harriet was pleased with him. Willing and strong, he had heart and he liked pleasing her. When his training was done, she would hate parting with him.
Ignoring problems didn’t make them go away. Harriet lowered the whip and slowly pulled the horse around to face her, but she didn’t reel him in. “You got any homework, Katie?”
“Only a little.”
“All right, well…” She turned and walked the lunge line and the whip over to her daughter, who was draped over the corral fence. “Work Ricco here another fifteen minutes then put him up. Don’t forget his peppermint stick. And don’t get your dress dirty.”
“I won’t.” The girl took the tools from her mother, but held her gaze as their hands met. “Pa’s been gone a long time, you don’t think he’s—”
“I’m sure he’s fine.” The drunk’ll probably outlive me. “The sheriff just needs us to settle a debt for him or some such.”
The girl’s blue eyes cooled, and the crease in her brow said she wasn’t convinced, but she nodded. “All right. And I won’t forget the peppermint.”
* * *
Out of habit, Harriet grabbed an apron off the stove’s hook as she passed through the kitchen. Tying it behind her back, she marched into the parlor. Jason Meredith, Sundown’s unofficial sheriff—unofficial because the crossroads wasn’t incorporated—sat in her parlor tapping his fingertips together. A handsome man, he often wore a well-worn cowboy hat that he’d folded straight up in front, giving him an almost comic look. It sat beside him now on the settee.
Jason was certainly no man to laugh at, however. He was ridiculously tall—at least six foot six—sported a shock of hair blond as sunshine, and wielded a devastating, white, toothy smile that made most women swoon.
Harriet was immune to his soul-searching blue eyes and strong, straight jaw, however. She was immune to men. Period. Henry had used up all her passion and kindness.
“What’s he done now, Jason?” Not the politest way to start a conversation, but she was in no mood. Wrong. She was in a foul mood and didn’t feel like dallying with niceties.
He stood slowly, much like a behemoth rising to the sky, and offered her a sad, almost embarrassed smile. “Yeah, I’m here about him.”
She dropped her hands on her hips. “Do I need to bake something?” Her way of coping. It kept her from throwing things.
“Might not be a bad idea.”
She stopped a worried flinch—barely—and motioned for him to follow her. “Come into the kitchen with me.”
* * *
She poured a cup of coffee and handed it to him. “Sit down. I hate looking up at you. Makes my neck hurt.” He obliged, and she went to work gathering up ingredients around the kitchen for an apple pie. “Go ahead and spill it.”
He glanced at the coffee. “Nah, I’d rather drink it.”
She hit him with a stink eye as she plucked four eggs from a bowl on the counter and set them next to a clay crock marked sugar. “You know what I mean.” She pulled a paring knife from the drawer, clutched another bowl to her side, this one full of apples, and joined him at the kitchen table.
He watched her hands warily as she set to peeling. “I’m not sure I want to talk to you with a knife in your hands.”
Harriet didn’t look up from the apple she was peeling. “Jason, I’m tired—” Unexpectedly, a lump tried to constrict her throat. She was plain worn out. Henry took her and the children two steps forward and then three back, day in and day out, and had for years. Every time they got a little ahead, he somehow managed to foul up their plans. He’d gambled away their extra cash, practically given away a good horse she’d been training, gotten arrested for drunken behavior over and over, incurring fine after fine. The last time, she’d had to bake a dozen pies for the sheriff and judge over in Whitney to cover court costs.
And this had been going on for sixteen years. She should be used to it by now, but she couldn’t forget all the love and promise Henry had once shown. The early years of their marriage had been filled with planting dreams and watching them blossom. Then Henry had fallen into the bottle. “I’m tired of the mystery. Just tell me,” she said flatly
Jason took a sip then set the cup down. “Henry’s dead.”
Harriet’s first thought was of the children. How would they take this? Surely they would be sad. He was their father. But he had never been a very good one, drunk more often than sober. The children were aware of the struggles the ranch endured because of his less-than-reliable behavior. So, they would be sad, yes. Devastated? She didn’t think so. She certainly wasn’t. She wondered what that said about the state of her conscience. Maybe she was just in shock. “How,” she heard herself ask.
“Near as anyone can tell, he drank himself to death. I guess he wandered down to the Willamette, a bottle in his hand. Just died, sitting there beside the water. But seeing as how he’d been there a while, there wasn’t much to—I mean, well, identifying him took a little work. This was the clue.” He pulled a gold wedding band from his breast pocket. “That is yours?”
Harriet took the ring and examined it. Engraved on the inside, it read, To my darling Harriet. Love, Henry. Yes, it was hers. She’d lost it a month ago, but suspected all along he’d taken it to pawn.
“Are you aware he hasn’t paid the mortgage in six months?”
This news hit her harder than Henry’s death and froze her hands.
She squeezed her eyes shut, despair and rising anger gripping her heart. She couldn’t do everything. She kept up with the ranch. She raised the children. Did the shopping. Did the cooking. Balanced their ledgers. The only thing Henry had to do was literally pay two bills—the feedstore and bank.
Oh, Lord, please don’t tell me—
She looked up and saw the sympathy in Jason’s eyes. It made her feel ashamed, but not of her pragmatic thoughts. Of the man she’d married. Of her poor choice. “I counted it out every month for him. Put it in an envelope. All he had to do was walk in and hand it to the clerk.”
“I guess…” He swiped a hand over his stubbly chin. “I guess he couldn’t pass up the saloons. O’Dell at the bank talked to him repeatedly about it, Harriet—”
“Why didn’t someone talk to me?”
“A woman?” She spat out the word, sick to death of it being equated with weakness and stupidity. “But you’ll talk to me now?”
“Yes and no. I mean, you’re Henry’s wife but he’s legally in charge—”
She waved the knife at him. “Was legally in charge. You said he’s dead. Before that, I hadn’t seen him in almost a month. So I’m here to deal with things. How much does he owe the bank?”
“Well,” Jason rubbed his neck and a sinking feeling lapped over Harriet like a rising tide. “It’s more than the bank. He owes the feed store and a couple of merchants in town. I’ve been trying to put this off for you, Harriet, thinking he might come back—”
“How did you know he was gone?”
“When Henry Pullen misses more than three nights at Pauline’s Parlor, everybody in this valley knows. And nobody had seen him in a month. If you’d asked, I would have looked for him.”
“He came and went like he wanted. We never knew…we never knew when he was coming back.” Harriet set the apple and the knife down and pressed her fingertips to her forehead holding back a headache. “How much?”
“Unless you’ve got three thousand dollars, the bank is foreclosing in three days, and Bill at the feedstore is making a claim, too.” He flinched a little. “And the saloon.”
* * *
And the saloon.
Three thousand dollars.
The devastating news rolled around in Harriet’s head like a boulder coming down a mountain. As the rock picked up speed, so did the anger warring in her mind. Her teeth gritted and clamped together. A sneer tweaked her lips.
That man. That man. I’m going to kill him—
But he’s already dead. She couldn’t fathom her emotions over the news.
Jason subtly reached over and slid the knife a little further away from her. “You need to hit something, you can hit me.”
The sincerity in his gaze momentarily quelled her rising fury, and, yes, the subtle sting of grief. It surprised her. Confused, floundering, she shook her head. “Do you have any good news for me?”
He straightened. “I think I do, actually. The bank wants the property. There’s no lien on your livestock. I bet you can sell enough horses to get out from under this.”
Harriet blinked. Yes, she supposed that was something. She could sell all the horses. Give up the dream of owning a fine horse ranch and resort. To pay her worthless husband’s debts. Yessirree, that was sure some good news.
On the verge of a sob, she rose and hurried to the sink, putting her back to Jason. She swallowed the lump in her throat as her eyes roamed over the great, sweeping valley that stretched out from the back door. Emerald hills and tall pines colored the view in a magical green as the Cascades rose in the distance. This was a fine place. They had built it into something. Oh, she and her young’uns still had work to do, but Whit’s End Horse Farm and Ranch was establishing a respectable reputation.
“I’m sorry to deliver this kind of news on my last visit out here.”
It took a moment for his statement to sink in. He’d been one of the first people Harriet had met in this valley. Always kind, seemingly interested in talking with her when they met on the street, but a perfect gentleman. She’d never felt judged by him for having married a shirker and alcoholic. Why he wasn’t married was a mystery.
She turned to him. “Are you going somewhere?”
“Yes, ma’am. I’m turning in my badge and heading for Blessings.”
“A gold town in California.”
“To look for gold or sheriff?”
“Oh, I think I’m done being a sheriff for a while. Unless the Lord overrules. Otherwise, I’m going to try my hand at panning for gold.”
She was remotely curious as to why he was leaving, but decided not to pursue it. Gold fever had gotten hold of men from all over the country and from higher stations than sheriff. “Well, we’ll miss you. You’ve been a good sheriff.” And she would miss him.
Mouth slightly parted, he stared at her for a moment, regarding her with a serious expression. He looked as if he might say something profound, but suddenly blinked it away. He rose to his feet and shrugged. “I’m sure you’ll find a replacement quick. Probably won’t even notice I’m gone.”
She sensed that was not what he wanted to say. A little puzzled by him, she could only respond to his words at face value. “We will miss you. Whit and Wyatt are terribly fond of you. And I, well, I’ve appreciated the way you befriended the boys. They need good role models and you have been one.”
“Thanks. They’re good boys. They’ll be all right.” Jason raised a hand to his hip and licked his lips. “You know, I hear there’s plenty of jobs in those boomtowns. I bet you could make a good living down there in Blessings.”
Her brow arched. “Washing tattered long johns? Serving slop to drunk miners?” How could he even sugge—?
“Just an idea. If you get, you know, sideways of the bank or something.”
“Sounds like I already am.” He flinched and she let out a long, slow breath. He didn’t deserve this slicing tongue of hers. “I’m sorry, Jason. I just hope I don’t get that desperate. Good luck to you in California.”
He took her hand and looked deeply into her eyes, surprising her with his intensity. Again she had the sense he wanted to say more than what came out of his mouth. “May God bless and keep you, Harriet. I’ll miss you, too.”
With that, he slipped back through the parlor, snatched his hat up off the settee, and strode from the house, long legs carrying him out in three steps. The slam of the screen door announced his final exit. She closed her hand, the one he’d held, marveling over the warmth she still felt.
* * *
From the backyard, Harriet heard her two teenage sons fussing about chores and took a deep breath. What was she going to do? She loved this ranch. It kept her sane. Her eyes roamed over the kitchen, the knick-knack shelf, the pie ingredients on the counter. She would bake and think…then maybe go for a ride and think some more.
“You are so lazy.” Whit’s aggravated voice floated through the screen door behind her.
She picked up the knife and the bowl of apples and slogged outside to the back porch. “You two quit your fussing and get your chores done.”
The boys looked up from the sack of feed they were wrestling up into the back of the feed wagon. “He’s not carrying his weight, Ma.” Whit, her seventeen-year-old, fumed and punched his brother on the shoulder. “He’s letting me do all the work.” Tall, good looking, and lean as a bean pole, he swept dusty blond hair out of his eyes and glared at his little brother. “Carry your weight.”
His boyish looks hinted at the handsome man waiting in the wings and Harriet smiled a little sadly. Wyatt, only fourteen, was the opposite of Whit in every way possible. Shorter, built like a bull moose, with bear paws for hands, he was as peaceful as an old hound dog. Nothing riled Wyatt. Nothing built up steam in him—except his older brother.
He slammed down his end of the feed on the tailgate of the wagon and glared right back at Whit. “I was carrying my weight.”
“Sure felt like I was doing all the work—”
“Boys, enough.” Harriet interrupted firmly. “Go feed the cows then come back and put Ricco up for Katie.” Her daughter was still out in the corral lunging the horse. His empty back, however, called to Harriet like a siren’s song. “On second thought, I’m gonna take him for a ride. I’ll make the pie when I get back.”
She had some thinking to do and she was never clearer than when she was in the saddle. Loping across the green hills of her ranch, she could figure out her next steps.
* * *
“I’ve got two days, Beth. Two days to make some decisions.” Harriet couldn’t drink the coffee. She slid the cup away and stared up at a shelf in her sister’s kitchen—a ledge lined with dainty blue and white China. “The bank gave me a flat-out no. No extra time. No extension on the loan. Henry used up all their good graces. I swear, if he wasn’t dead I’d kill him. I don’t have the money to pay off these debts. We’re going to lose everything.”
Beth sat down opposite her, violet eyes shimmering with tears. “I’m so sorry you’re going through this, Harriet. I’ll do anything I can to help you.”
She knew Beth meant it. Harriet had always been able to rely on her older sister. She took a deep breath, willing to share the glimmer of an idea. “You know, Jason left for a boomtown called Blessings. He’s going to pan for gold. He told me there’s plenty of work down there.”
“I’ve heard that, too. Those towns need women—decent women—to cook and sew and clean. And they pay top dollar. Eliza Morton went out to Eureka, I think it was. She made enough money to open a boarding house there.”
“Really?” That was intriguing.
“Are you thinking about leaving Oregon for California?” The shake in Beth’s tone betrayed concern.
“Mmm…well…” Harriet hemmed and hawed, bobbing her head from left to right. “Maybe. At least, I wanted to toss out an idea.”
Beth flicked a long, dark braid over shoulder and laced her fingers together. Down to business. “All right.”
“I have to let the bank have the ranch. I don’t have any choice. I can sell Ricco and pay off the account at the feed store and a few other smaller accounts. I’ve decided I’m not going to pay the saloon.”
“I don’t blame you there. They knew Henry’s reputation. But without the ranch, what are you going to do? Where are you going to live?”
“Beth, I can keep two things out of this mess.” She leaned forward and took her sister’s hand. “My children and my horses. But I can’t keep them with me. At least not if I go to California. I’d need to leave them with you for a little while.”
“Of course, but what are you thinking about doing?”
“When I was at the feed store, I read the notice board. There really are a lot of jobs in the mining towns.”
Beth sagged a little. “Hard work. But plenty of men. You’ll be married in a year.”
Harriet pursed her lips and pulled away. She swore she could feel her heart turn to lead. “Oh, no, I won’t. I’ve had enough of men. They’re not worth the burden…or the heartache.”
Her mind ticked off all the times Henry had fallen asleep at the dinner table, or wasn’t sober enough to settle simple disputes between the boys. Or didn’t have the concentration or gumption to finish even small projects around the ranch. If it hadn’t been for the boys helping, the place would have fallen into complete disrepair. But when they were old enough to hold a hammer, Harriet had put them to work saving her dream.
And she’d lost it anyway.
A ferocious resolved rose up in her. “I’m done, Beth. From now on, I’ll make it on my own. I’ll never rely on a man again…not for anything.”
Her sister’s brow pinched with, Harriet knew, a little sadness. “Why don’t we just take this one day at a time? So you’re going to go get a job?”
“Yes, I think so. I hope it won’t be for long. Whit and Wyatt can take care of the horses while I’m gone. I’ll save as much money as I can, as fast as I can. Then send for them. Katie may stay with you longer, Beth. When I’m convinced the town is decent and safe, or I move to one that is. Eventually, I’ll send for the horses and we’ll start over.”
From a plug of dirt, if I have to, but I will start over and get my dream and my children back.
“But what town? Where are you going? I think you should follow Jason.”
“Follow Jason? Well, I…”
“Why not? Any gold rush town could be dangerous. Rowdy. Lawless. You should know a man there, especially one who used to wear a badge.”
“I don’t know…” Harriet squirmed at the idea. “I wouldn’t want him to think I followed him—”
“Who cares what he thinks? It would be better for you to know someone in a strange, new town. You can’t argue with that.”
“No, I suppose it’s not an awful idea. Blessings, huh?”
* * *
Harriet had never dealt with heartache by slathering it in anger, at least not before Henry had become such a disappointment. He had taught her the trick. She finished braiding her long blonde locks then took a deep breath and a good long look at herself in the mirror. Her green eyes glittered with too much determination, she held her chin too high, her lips pursed too tightly. Good grief, she looked—no, radiated—she radiated anger. This was no way to say good-bye to her children.
Harriet flung her braid behind her and rolled her shoulders, trying to erase the tension.
This is NOT good-bye, Harriet. You’ll see Whit, Wyatt, and Katie soon. Her face hardened again. In fact, the harder you work, the faster you’ll see them.
Oh, and she would. She would work like Lucifer himself was breathing down her neck. She would see her children sooner rather than later and nothing was going to get in her way. Blessings had better open up and spill every opportunity it cradled right into her lap, if the town knew what was good for it.
Once more she tried to lighten her countenance by pasting on a strained smile, then marched out to tell her children good-bye. All three of them waited for her beside the wagon. Beth sat in the driver’s seat, clenching the reins in her hands. The sight of her family, their downcast expressions and shining eyes, squeezed Harriet’s heart and her knees almost buckled. This was Henry’s doing. Lord, how she could throttle that man if he were standing here.
She forced the ugly thought away and swallowed the knot in her throat. “No hangdog faces now.” Approaching them, she touched their noses in turn and sighed. “This isn’t good-bye, just so long. For a spell. I’ll get us squared away. Then, Whit, you and Wyatt will join me. Katie, I—” Tears spilled down her daughter’s cheeks and Harriet clenched her jaws together, battling for control of her face and her emotions. “Katie, now—” No, it was no good. Harriet’s voice broke and she pulled her daughter into a tight embrace. Whit and Wyatt wrapped their arms around them and the tears ran freely.
Harriet shook her head and hugged her children. The embraces were breath-stealing, desperately tight. It would take everything in her to leave now. But she had to. So that this very situation didn’t repeat itself. She would never, ever let a man hold the power of the purse strings over her again. Harriet’s home, her children, and her livelihood would be in her own hands going forward.
“Harriet, are you sure…?” Beth whispered from her seat above them. “You know you’re welcome to stay here.”
For a moment, her children’s tears and unsure expressions could have swayed her. But Harriet would die on this tiny farm, living off her sister’s charity. And besides, Beth hated horses. Was terrified of them ever since she’d been thrown as a child.
No, a little pain now would bring them greater joy and stability in the future—if Harriet could make this dream come true. She only knew she would dig her heels in and try with all her might.
Feeling as if she were ripping out her own heart, she stepped back, unwillingly letting the arms of her children fall away. She stared into their misery-laden faces. “If there was another way that would bring us a good life, get our independence back, start the ranch over, I would do it. You know that.” They didn’t respond. “Right?” She needed their approval. Slowly, they nodded. She looked up at Whit. Seemed he’d sprung up overnight and now the boy towered over her. “I bet I’ll surprise you how soon I can send for you.” She scanned Wyatt’s and Katie’s tear-streaked faces. “All three of you.”
Whit laid his hand on her shoulder. “Do what you have to do, Ma. We’ll be all right. I’ll take care of Wyatt and Katie and we’ll help out around here. Don’t worry so much about us.”
She closed her eyes to absorb his calm determination. He was trying to make this easier for her. And she loved him for his courage. “You know the horses make Aunt Beth nervous. Work with them every day.”
“I will. I’ll work with them so much, they’ll have the manners of English lords when you see ‘em next.”
She thrust her hand out and the two grabbed each other’s wrists like Indians. “I’ll hold you to that.”
* * *
After an almost pleasant voyage to San Francisco, Harriet’s travel turned miserable. The stage, stuffed with miners and men in fine suits—gamblers, Harriet supposed—slogged through torrential rain and mud six inches deep for two days. She wondered if the deluge would ever quit. It had rained so hard at one point rivulets of water wound their way through the roof of the stage and dripped on to her shoulder. She’d changed seats, stepping over backpacks loaded with tin pans and picks. Watched intently by the male passengers, she squeezed in between the wall and a young man who had thus far slept most of the trip, his head lolling with the sway of the stage.
Wishing she could find such peace, Harriet peeled the canvas curtain back and looked out at the gray rain and deep green evergreens passing by. A damp cold sank into her bones.
“Blessings, three miles,” the driver called, his voiced muffled by the soggy atmosphere.
Her heart suddenly pounded in her chest. Had she made a mistake? Should she have stayed in the Willamette Valley? But she could make twice the money here cooking and cleaning as opposed to wages for the same drudgery back home. This had to be a wise move. But what if she couldn’t find a job? Oh, that was ludicrous. Of course, she’d find a job—
Stop it, Harriet! Square your shoulders, raise your chin, and go do what you have to do to get your children and your life back.
* * *
When the stagecoach pulled into Blessings, Harriet and the other passengers disembarked into a steady, depressing drizzle. Men, horses, mules, and wagons surged about them in the boomtown. Dingy tents swayed in the breeze, water poured off the roofs of a few newer clapboard buildings. The street was a quagmire of mud and the wagons rolling by made deep, sucking sounds in it.
“Not much of a town, is it,” the young man mumbled from beside her, flapping water off his lapels. A pointless move, she thought, as water cascaded down the back of his hat.
The saloon, the closest building, had a porch, but no roof. Harriet lifted her skirt, resigned to the drowning, and headed for it. “Perhaps it will get better.” She hurried to the landing, happy at least to be out of the mud, and turned to the driver, who was atop the stage, tugging at the stack of luggage. “Driver, can you tell me where the hotel is?”
“Yes, ma’am, about two hours back, in Culloma.” He tossed her bag at her. She had to sidestep to avoid being hit by it and it thunked in the mud. “Sorry, ma’am”.
She picked it up quickly. Two hours? This information did not sit well with Harriet. “Well, where do visitors stay?”
Seemingly oblivious to the weather, the man paused and scratched his head. “Well, ma’am, I reckon most of ‘em stake a claim and pitch a tent.”
Disheartened, Harriet took a halting step backward. She had seven dollars to her name. She didn’t know anyone in town—well, there was Jason, but she had no idea how to find him. And there was no hotel.
Through the rain, she saw a tent across the road. A make-shift mercantile or trading post of sorts she guessed, by the plethora of items sitting out front getting wet. Shovels, picks, hammers, lanterns, and other items decorated the front entrance.
The inside of the tent would be dry and it was better than the saloon. She blinked water out of her eyes. If she could get dry, she could think more clearly. She realized then the young man from the stage was making a beeline through the mud to the tent. Whether it looked like she was following him or not didn’t matter a whit to Harriet. She wanted to be dry. Hiking her skirt up, she charged for the little mercantile, the amber glow from the interior calling to her.
“Just up and quit, the ol’ crotchety fart.”
Harriet burst into the tent and two men, talking over a barrel, stopped their conversation abruptly and surveyed her no-doubt bedraggled appearance. She gulped. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to interrupt.” The tent was small, the quarters close. The young man from the stage coach stood toward the back, his bag at his feet, peeling off his hat and coat, paying her no mind.
“No worries,” a tall, thin man said with a heavy Australian accent. He pointed at the man on the other side of the barrel. “Dundee here was just complaining about his cook up and quittin’. Twenty cold, wet, hungry carpenters ain’t going to have a meal waiting when they come in from building the wharf.”
Dundee turned to face her, a corncob pipe hanging from the corner of his mouth. Wearing a pair of gold spectacles, he was a short, bookish-looking man, but thick as a Carolina oak, and topped with thick, gray hair. Scowling, his dark eyes gave Harriet a mildly interested perusal. “Willoughby here misspeaks,” he motioned toward the first man. “The bloke didn’t quit.” An Australian accent painted his every syllable as well. “He’s lying in the bushes somewhere, drunk as a skunk. And he’s also about as employed as a skunk.” He regarded Harriet with a sudden intensity. “You lookin’ for work?”
Her mouth fell open. Could it be this easy? “Desperately.”
The pipe slipped from Dundee’s mouth, but he scrambled and caught it before it hit the ground. “Truly? Do you cook?” He sounded flabbergasted at his luck, but then his hand sliced the air with the pipe. “Mind you, I ain’t askin’ if you cook well. Just can you cook?”
“I cook well. I bake even better.”
Both men’s eyes bugged, then Dundee shoved the pipe back into his mouth and lifted his chin. “Three dollars a week?”
“Five and you’ll have a fine, reliable cook.”
Dundee didn’t hesitate. He shoved out his hand. “I’m Michael James Dundee, entrepreneur. Everyone calls me Dundee. This week I’m in construction. Got me a crew building a wharf on Prospect Creek. My businesses may vary, sometimes day to day, but I always need a cook. Three squares a day, seven days a week.”
Harriet would have preferred six days, but wouldn’t push her luck. The man had given her five dollars a week. She would get more…later. And she would cook extra on Saturdays to make the work light on Sundays. All in all, this might be a fine arrangement. She shook Dundee’s hand and nodded. “Agreed.”
* * *
Michael James Dundee hailed from Brisbane and explained to Harriet, as they hurried through the mud and rain, that he’d come to California to make his fortune. “But not in gold,” he explained, bustling toward a group of tents. “In what these tinhorn forty-niners need to get their gold.”
“Speaking of needs, Dundee,” Harriet hustled to keep up with the little man’s quick stride. “I need a place to stay. Do you know of—”
“There’s a tent right behind the kitchen. It’s yours. I’ll toss out the worthless lickspittle’s belongings and you can move right in.”
Things were moving along at a breakneck pace but, considering the hopelessness that had been dogging her heels only a few minutes ago, Harriet was encouraged. She had employment and a place to stay. Her spirits lifted considerably with the sense of security.
And then she saw the kitchen…
Dundee’s use of the word bordered on an obscene lie. This “kitchen” consisted of a tarp pulled across some logs that, because of hanging hams and heavy sides of bacon, drooped so low she and her new employer literally had to bend over to enter, and there was not enough room to stand upright once inside. Adding to the misery, the previous chef had left the dirt floor littered with food scraps and two long, plank tables buried under a mountain of dirty plates.
Air, and perhaps all her hope, whooshed out of Harriet as if she’d been punched in the stomach.
Dundee cleared his throat and shrugged. “It ain’t much, but there’s the stove,” he pointed quickly around them, “pantry is under that counter, fresh water in the barrel. Have supper ready at six.” Before Harriet could say anything, he ducked back out into the rain, yelling over his shoulder, “I’ll have Magruder’s things cleaned out shortly. His tent’s right there.” A jerk of his thumb and he was gone.
Bowed by the swaybacked tent, Harriet shuffled over to the stove and touched it. Ice cold.
Rivulets of water spiraled down her hair, dripped on her back, dribbled inside her shirtwaist. A chill hit her as she surveyed the filthy floor, alive with pleasantly stuffed roaches. Her gaze drifted to the table, blue tin plates stacked helter-skelter, most still covered in food and sporting their own tribes of insects.
Suddenly, with brutal surprise, a sob escaped, nearly driving her to her knees. She stumbled to a box and collapsed. The question what have I done, what have I done kept echoing through her mind. Oh, how she missed her children. Her ranch. Her horses. Her…simple life.
Oh, God…she hid her face in her hands and wept, overcome with fear and doubt. I’m so afraid.
You have a job and a place to sleep.
Harriet sat up and looked around the tent. A voice. She had clearly heard a voice. However, aside from the gentle pulse of the rain, and the traffic from Blessings’ Main Street several hundred yards away, she was alone.
She replayed the voice. A man’s voice, gentle and calming, but it hadn’t been accusatory or angry.
Stress, she told herself. I’m overwrought with everything. That’s all. The explanation didn’t ring true. Harriet hadn’t prayed in years. Hadn’t really prayed a little while ago when she’d gotten off the stage, but something in her had cried out to God. She couldn’t deny that. And when the job had fallen into her lap, she’d…felt something. Like a calm assurance she wasn’t alone.
Had He heard a half-formed prayer? Had He heeded a desperate heart?
Harriet once again surveyed this mess that masqueraded as a kitchen. Yes, it was awful. But she was dry. She could start a fire and get warm. She could use the ashes from the fireplace to scrub the dishes. Then she would cook and make more money in a day than she could make in a week back home. And she would be thankful, no matter the conditions.
Yes, Lord, I am trying.
Wiping away her tears, Harriet rose and rolled up her sleeves. Her heart nearly leaped out of her chest when she realized Jason Meredith was standing outside in the rain watching her, an expression of compassion and pity creasing his brow.
She flushed with humiliation and clenched her jaws. “What are you doing here?” she snapped.
He joined her in the tent and removed his hat, but couldn’t straighten up. Much taller than she, the low roof had him nearly doubled-over. “I, uh, heard from Roderick Parker you were coming to Blessings.” He frowned at the tarp forcing him to hunch his shoulders as the water cascaded off his leather duster. “And I heard today that Magruder had walked out on Dundee. I thought I might see if he was of a mind to hold the job for you. And here you are. Did he hire you?” He twirled his waterlogged cowboy hat in his hands waiting for an answer.
Harriet sagged, relaxing her shoulders. Again, Jason had done nothing to deserve this ire, other than be born a man. “I’m sorry. There’s no call for my rudeness…I’m just…done-in, Jason, to be honest.” The confession surprised her, but it was the truth. Her supply of hope was at a dangerous low, despite the way the Lord seemed to be involved. “Maybe things will be better now. Yes, he hired me. I have a job making five dollars a week. That’s a step in the right direction.”
“It is. Anything I can do to help? You need anything?”
From a man? She wanted to spit. “No. I’m fine now. Squared away. You needn’t worry about me.” Or stop by again. His presence taxed her somehow. Made her feel weepy again, and vulnerable. She wished he’d leave so she could withdraw into herself and get to the work at hand.
He grunted softly and dropped his hat back in place. Though he looked uncertain for a moment, he flashed her that sugary, sideways grin. “All right, I’m sure you’ll be fine. But if you need anything…”
She left it at that and he seemed to sense the dismissal. With an awkward nod, he slipped back out into the rain.
* * *
Jason didn’t know what he’d been expecting from her, but when Harriet’s jade eyes had fallen on him, he thought he’d seen a little relief at meeting an old friend. And then she saw that worthless, no-good husband of hers.
He shrugged his shoulders to shake off the water from his duster, but realized the futility of the action. As he strode along the pine-needle carpet toward his claim down on the creek, he wondered if she’d ever let go of the hurt.
Ma hadn’t. Marrying the wrong man and done her in too, and hardened her, like a brick baked in the sun. That was happening to Harriet and he hated it. Somehow, he had to make her believe all men were not Henry Pullen.
He supposed the only option was patience. After all, he’d left Blessings in an attempt to distance himself from her. Clear his head. The discovery of Henry’s death had nearly talked him into staying. But, no, he’d prayed about moving on and felt led to be here. And now here she was.
“That’s no coincidence, Lord.” he whispered as the rain finally sputtered to a stop. “Maybe she followed me and she just doesn’t know it yet.” He smiled wryly. That would be just like a woman. Just like Harriet. She didn’t exactly ease into situations that weren’t her idea. “Grant me patience, Lord, grant me patience.”
“Jason,” a voice hailed him and he turned to the left, where the trail broke off and headed for Main Street.
He saw a long, lanky figure hurrying toward him. Gangly arms and legs moved with surprising fluidity, like a bug. Only one man in Blessings resembled a praying mantis. Archie Reives. Calling himself an entrepreneur, he was currently running a small shipping operation on the river.
Jason lifted a hand. “Reives.”
“Jason, buddy,” Reives hurried up to him and unfolded a long arm, grabbing Jason’s shoulder. “Glad I caught you. We’re having a little shindig on the boat this evening. Thought you might like to come…as my special guest.”
Jason knew full-well Reives’s idea of a shindig was a cash bar on the water. He wanted someone on the boat capable of controlling rowdy drunks. Well, Jason wasn’t in law enforcement anymore. He had a nice little claim down by the water that was giving up its wealth little-by-little. Nothing grand, but he was going to leave Blessings with a fine stash. Maybe several thousand dollars. He kept this information, however, close to the vest.
“No thanks, Reives. ‘Preciate the offer, though.”
Reives was not a man to beg. A bony jaw that tightened a little, and bland, hazel eyes that narrowed some were the only signs he disapproved of Jason’s answer. “Maybe next time, then. You change your mind, your first drink is on me.” He started to walk away, but stopped abruptly. “You know, I’m planning on being a big man in Blessings.” He hooked his thumbs into his belt loop and rocked on his heels. “It wouldn’t hurt you to get on my good side.”
Jason had heard veiled threats like this plenty of times back in Washington and Oregon. Little men who thought they were big men, over-estimating their girth. He shrugged, not intimidated. “I’ll keep that in mind.”
Of course, even a little rattlesnake could kill you.
* * *
Once the fire had caught and the stove in the center of the tent had started emitting some heat, Harriet’s spirits rose again. By four-thirty, she had a clean kitchen, apple pies cooling and more in the oven, and a huge pot of stew simmering on top. She set a stack of tin bowls at the end of the plank tables, placed two coffee cans full of silverware beside them, and stepped over to stir the stew.
“Mrs. Pullen, you’ve worked wonders.”
She spun, spoon in hand, at the astonishment in Dundee’s voice. “Yes, I’d say getting this kitchen functioning again was nigh unto a miracle.” She scowled at him. “It took an act of God to run out the roaches.”
“Ah, well,” he shrugged, looking a little embarrassed. “No worries. He’s in the business of starting and stopping plagues, eh?”
Harriet lifted an eyebrow, not amused by the flippant comment. Cleaning this mess had nearly killed her. The roaches had made her skin crawl as she chased them, stomped them, and flicked them off the plates into the stove. A shiver shot down her spine. She hated roaches. “And I’m in the business of cooking and running a clean kitchen. Your men will have a fine meal, but I’ll expect them to wash in that barrel over there before they sit down.”
Dundee eyed the container skeptically then nodded. “Fine. I’ll make sure they know. They should all be here any minute.”
And in minutes Harriet found herself flooded with an army of hungry men. They squeezed into the plank tables, jabbering excitedly and eyeing her with clear expectations.
“Bet you’ll put Magruder to shame,” one man called.
“If she doesn’t,” another said, “who cares. She’s nicer to look at.”
A rumble of laughter circled the tables as Harriet served stew to the waiting men. A fellow with white-blond hair held up his bowl and smiled tenderly. “Dundee says you’re a widow. Is that true?”
Harriet was surprised by the question and her scoop paused. “Yes, I am, but how did he know that?”
“Ain’t you friends with Jason Meredith? He told Dundee a little about you.”
She dumped the spoon. “Oh, I see.”
Harriet couldn’t serve the food fast enough. It seemed as soon as she passed around one entree, bowls were rising in the air for seconds. Turned out, though, the show-stopper was her apple pie.
“Holy cow,” one of the carpenters whispered after taking a bite. “That’s better than my beloved mother’s.”
When the last piece slid onto a plate, a miner at the head of the other table held up a gold nugget. “Mrs. Pullen, I will give you a gold nugget worth fifty dollars if you’ll bake me a pie just like this one.”
Harriet blinked and had the urge to clean her ear. She couldn’t have heard him right. Yet, the man held the gold, waiting. Momentarily, she gave the man a warm grin and reached for the nugget.
* * *
Absently clearing a table, Harriet was making plans for pies and meals when Dundee approached her, trailed by two men. Building a stack of dishes on her arm, she straightened—as much as the tent allowed—and placed the stack of dirty plates back on the table. “Dundee.”
“Mrs. Pullen, I heard dinner was a rousing success. I came for left-overs, but the way the men were raving, I suspect there are none.”
“I hardly have to wash the dishes. Your boys nearly licked them clean.”
He chuckled. “I think I’ve hired a fine cook. Thank you. And these boys,” he motioned over his stooped shoulders, “are going to fix this ramshackle tent so you can stand up straight in here and cook proper-like.”
“Well, that would be nice.” Harriet rubbed her aching back. “And I’m looking forward to seeing my new home soon.” She had yet to look in the tent where she would be staying, but it didn’t matter. Short bed bugs or more roaches, she was sleeping anywhere…even on her feet if necessary.
“We moved Magruder’s belongings over to the trading post. Tent’s all ready for ya. Well, there’s no blankets or anything of the sort, but you can use this—” Dundee reached into his breast pocket and pulled out a five-dollar bill. “This is for you. A week’s pay in advance. Buy some essentials from the mercantile.”
“Oh, my,” Harriet took the money, surprised by the man’s generosity. “You didn’t have to—”
“And you are happy with the five dollars a week?”
“Dundee!” Harriet jumped at the gravelly voice bellowing from the falling darkness outside.
Dundee grimaced and wiped a hand over his face. “Guess the dingle found his belongings.”
A middle-aged man, about as tall as he was wide, and dressed in slovenly, wrinkled clothes, charged into the tent. “Whatta you mean throwing my bag on the porch at the trading post?
“You left me with a crew to feed and you were nowhere in sight, you drunken wombat. You’re fired!”
“Fired?” The man’s brows dove and he snatched at the bill in Harriet’s hand. On her guard, she was faster and clutched the bill to her bosom.
“That’s my pay,” the sot bellowed.
“You dink,” Dundee stepped between them and shoved the man back. “I’ll have your guts in a frying pan, you try anyth—”
Magruder tossed a punch at Dundee and sent him flying back against the stove.
“Stop this,” Harriet screamed, ready to kill someone if this fight messed up her kitchen
Before Dundee could recover, Jason appeared from nowhere, charging into the tent like an angry bull. He nailed Magruder with a vicious right hook, sending the former cook stumbling back, arms pinwheeling crazily. He crashed into the plank table, sending the dirty bowls clattering to the ground in a cacophony of metal. The two men who had accompanied Dundee stepped forward, coming alongside Jason.
Magruder righted himself as much as possible under the low roof, glared at Jason, but didn’t ignore the odds. He spat at Dundee’s feet. “You owe me, Dundee. You owe me.”
Rubbing his jaw, Dundee glared at the cook. “Mate, you’re a buffoon and a drunken one at that. I don’t owe you a dime. Get out of my kitchen.”
Ready to enforce the eviction, Jason and the other two men inched forward, fists raised. Magruder spat again, and stormed out of the tent.
Harriet let out a breath she hadn’t even known she’d been holding. “I think you may still be in law enforcement, Jason.”
A wry smile tipped his lips. “Looks more like personal security to me.”
Harriet couldn’t help herself. She smiled back. The man had ended what could have been an ugly affair resulting in her being back to seven dollars instead of the twelve. She scanned the men before her. “I was holding back one apple pie, gentlemen. Would you like to share it?”
The nods and smiles almost made Harriet forget about Magruder stomping down the trail. He glanced back, and their eyes met. Fear wriggled in her stomach. On second thought, maybe he would have done something worse than take her money.
Yes, having a friend like Jason in Blessings probably wasn’t a bad thing at all.
* * *
Harriet’s pies quickly became the talk of Blessings. Men approached her before the wharf crew swarmed the tables to bribe food from her. Rather than dismiss the requests, she told them to come back later. If it was all right with Dundee, she’d make extra and sell them a meal or a pie.
Initially, Dundee said no, but a few days later he wandered into the kitchen tent, hands behind his back, a thoughtful expression on his face. Rolling out dough for turnovers, Harriet greeted him but kept working. “Good morning, Dundee.”
“Good morning, Mrs. Pullen.” He wandered aimlessly around the kitchen for a moment, picking up knives, examining tinplates.
“Something on your mind, Dundee?”
“Meals.” He laid down a fork and turned to her. “Men all over Blessings are commenting on your food, Mrs. Pullen. They want to buy meals from us. How would you feel about running an extra shift?”
An extra shift? Her back ached at the thought, but… more money meant she would see her children that much faster. “Just one. With a raise.”
* * *
Harriet cooked like a woman possessed. Dundee indeed added one dinner shift, available after his crew ate. Only able to feed another twenty or so men, she turned away at least that many every day. Any more and she was going to demand a waitress and a larger pantry. But pies—those she could sell hot, cold, or in-between. And she took orders, at least a dozen every day.
Along with the pies, the faces of the men in Blessings blurred in front of her as she kneaded, fried, flipped, seared, and served. Beards and plaid shirts and throaty laughter melted into one nondescript forty-niner or river wharf carpenter.
No. Not true. One unique face showed up every night, and he was always early, to be sure to get a seat. Jason Meredith didn’t miss a meal.
He leaned out of the way so Harriet could drop mashed potatoes onto his plate. “Evening, Jason.”
“Evening, Harriet. What’s on the menu tonight?”
“Mashed potatoes and elk steaks.” While she served the potatoes, the trays stacked with the steaks circulated around the tables. “Not my favorite but we had a hunter trade them for some pies.”
“Half the town is trying to eat here just for those pies.”
“And what about you? What are you here for?”
She had meant it innocently enough, but the question seemed to trip him up. His blue eyes widened and a grin alternated with a shocked “o” on his mouth.
Harriet laughed at his awkwardness. “Steaks or pies?”
“Are you here for the steaks or pies?”
“Um…” He shook his head and let the grin win. “The pies. I’m definitely here for the pies.”
“All right. Blueberry tonight.”
* * *
One thing inherent with this new profession of Harriet’s was the availability of gossip. As she moved among the men she heard everything from who had struck it rich, to what new businesses had come into town, to who wanted to run for mayor if Blessings ever got that organized.
Tonight, as she poured coffee for Jason, the man next to him said the most intriguing thing of all. “A shipping company. Yes, sir.” He stabbed his shepherd’s pie as if it had offended him. “That’s what Blessing needs now. There’s plenty of folks here now who need stuff.”
“I don’t see any horses,” Jason said, sounding half-interested. He nodded a thanks at Harriet for the coffee and added, “Nothing around here but skinny nags. Mules and horses are the first thing you need for freighting. Good, strong ones, well-trained. I used to drive a wagon. A poorly trained horse will toss you over a mountainside faster than a peeved grizzly.”
But Harriet didn’t really hear any of that. She was stuck on good, strong ones, well-trained.
Like her horses back on Beth’s farm.
* * *
Later that night, the tables cleared and six pies baking in the oven, Harriet sat down in her tent and dumped a box out on her bed. Bills and coins spilled across her wool blanket.
She split the profit on the pies with Dundee, but she also had her wages—now seven dollars a week. A quick count showed she had made nearly one hundred dollars in three weeks. She needed at least twice that, but she was closer—
Jason? Puzzled by his unexpected visit, she raked the money into the box. “Yes, come in.” She finished tidying up the money and rose to meet him. “It’s late, what are you doing here?”
He snatched off that ridiculously folded hat. “The whole town smells like apple and cherry pies, so I knew you were still up baking.”
“Yes,” she shrugged. “Twenty pies ordered for tomorrow.”
“Yeah, I need to get in on that.” His gaze drifted to the box in her hand. “You got enough yet, to bring the boys and Katie to Blessings?”
“A few dollars more to go and I’ll get the boys first. I want to be more established before I bring a young lady into a boomtown. To that end, I was thinking about something…”
“The shipping company?”
“How did you know?”
“Umm, there’s a look you get when you’re planning on throwing something…or you’re planning.”
“They’re the same?”
“Yeah.” He tapped a spot between her eyes. “You get a funny little v right there.” His touch made her suddenly aware of him. How tall and handsome and strong. He cleared his throat and moved back an inch. “I couldn’t recall anything that had made you mad, so I figured it was the comment on the freighting and the horses had you planning.”
“So you think it’s a bad idea?”
“Opening a shipping company? No, I think it’s a great idea. I think the bad idea is doing it on your own.”
Harriet sucked in a breath, a coal of anger glowing to life. “Who do you think you—”
“Calm down,” Jason patted the air. “And don’t reach for anything to throw. Opening a business is a lot of work, especially one you don’t know anything about. But you know horses. I know freighting.”
Harriet shifted her weight to one foot and tilted her chin to show her disapproval. “I don’t need your help. If I want to open a freight business, I will. I can drive a wagon and I can handle my horses.”
“You don’t know anything about harnesses for long distance hauling, the right wagons to use for different terrain, or how to pair horses up for speed and power. You need to ride the trails before you take your wagons over them so you don’t get stuck somewhere or, worse, wear out your horses.”
That got her attention. She’d never want to foolishly risk her stock.
Jason tapped his chest with the hat. “I’m proposing a business deal.”
“What kind of business deal?”
“I want to be your partner.”
“No.” The refusal had leapt out of her mouth before she’d actually thought about it. Still… “No. I don’t want a partner.”
She didn’t want the complication, the entanglement, she didn’t want a man around. But mostly, she just didn’t want a partner because she didn’t need any help. And that struck her as something Katie would say while stomping her foot.
“You should be smart about this, Harriet. Don’t let your pride get in your way.”
She chewed on the idea for a moment. Jason had made some good points. “If,” she jabbed her index finger heavenward, “if I were interested, what were you thinking?”
* * *
Harriet held the tent flap and listened to Jason whistling a jaunty tune as he slipped away into the night. Well, he’s certainly happy about the arrangement.
They’d agreed on a sixty-forty split, after his initial investment was paid back. Jason would purchase two new wagons, the harnesses, and rent a barn to function as the headquarters. He would also dispatch a reliable man to fetch the boys and her horses and bring them up via ship. The mere thought of the future reunion moved her to tears.
Things had moved much faster than she’d dared hope. She wanted to throw open her arms and spin around like a child. Instead, choking with gratitude, she looked up at the glittering night sky. “Thank You,” she whispered. “Thank You.”
* * *
“You can’t bring the boys and Katie up here if you don’t have a real place to live, Harriet.”
Hands over her eyes, Jason had carefully guided her for several minutes without a clue as to where they were going. Until just then. “What do you mean, Jason? The tent is fine. I’ve got money saved. I’ll be able to afford a cabin soon now.”
“What?” She stumbled on the uneven ground but somehow he kept her upright.
“Easy does it. Just a few more steps.” He stopped, pulling her to a halt. The strong scent of fresh pine tickled her nose and she liked it. “Ta-da,” he whispered in her ear, his warm breath on her skin actually giving her goosebumps, then he pulled his hands away. “Your new home.”
A one-room cabin with a porch greeted her. A new structure, it still held the gleam and smell of fresh-cut lumber. The home had glass in the windows, a river rock fireplace on the side, and a large, flat stone in front of the porch for a step.
“I don’t understand, Jason. Is this mine?”
“You’re renting it. I made a deal with Atherton Winslet for it. I told him you still hadn’t found a place you could afford. We negotiated the rent down to something palatable.”
Harriet clutched her hands over her heart. A home. A wood floor beneath her feet. She didn’t care what it cost. She didn’t care if she had to bake two hundred pies for Atherton, she had a home.
Grinning like a giddy fool, she rushed inside and skidded to a stop. Bunk beds nested against one wall, a curtain, pulled-back, revealed a small bed and some privacy for her on the opposite side of the cabin, and a table, chairs, dry sink and a stove filled the rest. Simple but beautiful. Not as big or as nice as the farmhouse they’d left behind, but they would be together and that alone made it more desirable than a palace.
“Home,” she whispered. Jason’s shadow filled the doorway and she rounded on him. “It’s beautiful and I am so thankful. This was too kind of you, Jason.” Without stopping to think, she rushed up to him and kissed him on the cheek—quite the reach. His eyes widened, then warmed, and she jerked back. “I—I…Thank you.” She couldn’t find any other words. Maybe he wouldn’t read too much into it.
He rubbed his cheek and smiled sideways. “I think it might have been worth it.”
* * *
By sunset, she’d moved in and lit the cookstove. Waiting for the oven to heat up, she wandered out to the porch. Her porch—
She gasped at the sight of a new rocking chair waiting for her.
She was going to bake him the best apple pie she’d ever made.
He’d helped her move, brought over some staples, and even chopped some wood before he’d left. But he’d slipped back and deposited this little gift. Harriet ran a hand over the back and then slipped into it. The evening sun was streaming through the pines, streaking the clearing and her porch with long, orange and gold fingers. Somewhere in the trees, a whippoorwill heralded the coming night in chorus with the crickets.
She sat back and rocked for a moment, her mind wandering unexpectedly to a dream she’d given up on. Was it still possible? Here, now, at this moment, she had the hope that anything might be possible again. She rose and went inside to her bed. Sifting through a carpet bag, she pulled out her Bible. Not used much, she hid things in it more than she read it.
Her conscience smarting over the thought, she pulled free a postcard and stared at the picture of a lovely, white inn on Mackinac Island in Michigan. It’s beautiful columns, red roof, clean lines, and stately presence had for some reason always called to her. She could imagine herself the regal lady, running such a lovely hotel, her boys managing the stables and activities for the guests. A silly dream, but she wouldn’t be young and able to raise horses her whole life. But a hotel…
She drifted her fingers over the painted card. Yes, she could run a fine hotel with the best kitchen within a thousand miles. She glanced out the small bedroom window. From here she could just make out some of the details of the bustling, booming Main Street of Blessings. A few buildings, the flowing traffic. Growing. Vibrant. Blessings held promise. Gave her permission to dream again.
She would make it here. Harriet was wiser and older and so much less idealistic. Live and learn, wasn’t that the saying? Well, she’d gotten a lifetime of lessons from Henry. Going forward, she would rely on herself. And she would have her ranch and eventually her inn. And no man would figure into the picture again. The rocking chair crossed her mind.
Kind of him, certainly, but her appreciation ended there.
* * *
The sun was warm on Jason’s back, but everything else on him felt like he’d rolled in a snowbank. The cold of the creek water sinking into his bare toes, he dumped the pan of water and gravel and stood up. The stream was frigid and his back ached ferociously, but he’d collected a few nuggets the size of a fingernail. That would do for the day. If he was going to finish up a few details on this freighting business with Harriet, he’d best get to it. Besides, working on anything that involved the sassy little widow was more interesting than this cold, lonely creek.
He paused and smiled wryly. She was colder than this creek. At least she liked to pretend she was frigid as ice water. Jason suspected that was just the hurt talking. Once she healed a little, came to trust him—even the tiniest amount—he expected there’d be some thawing.
Stepping carefully out of the water, he was startled to find Archie Reives watching him from the bank. “Morning, Jason.”
“Reives.” Jason lifted his hat, shook his sweaty hair dry, dropped the Stetson back in place. He didn’t appreciate being spied on. “Something I can do for you?”
The spindly little man checked his pocket watch, then tucked it back inside his vest pocket. “I heard the cook over at Dundee’s place is thinking about opening a freight line.”
“Where’d you hear that?”
“Be surprised what you can pick up if you just listen.”
Jason wasn’t interested. He tossed the pan down and picked up his boots. “This is relevant to me how?”
“Ah, I was just wondering if you knew when she might be ready to open up? She’s got horses on the way, I assume. I might have some business for her.”
Jason doubted every word coming out of the little praying mantis’s mouth. He couldn’t say why, but he did. “Well, I’ll be sure to mention that to her.”
“So, you don’t know when she’s trying to open?”
Jason tilted his head, openly sharing his suspicious nature. “Why not ask her yourself?”
“Oh, well,” Archie splayed his hands out, “I was passing by, is all. I know you know her. Just thought I’d ask. I want to help her all I can.”
“You do, do you?” Jason brushed sand off his right foot and pushed it into his boot. “I’ll make sure she knows all about you, Archie.”
For just an instant, Archie’s brow expressed concern, but he wiped it away with a big grin. “Fine. Fine. And you’ll let me know if you hear anything?”
But I’ll warn her about you, Archie. I certainly will do that.
Jason had been exceedingly subtle in making inquiries about tack, harnesses, and a barn. Though he couldn’t be sure, he guessed he hadn’t been subtle enough and Archie here was the first hint of competition.
* * *
Staring into a polished silver tray hanging on the porch post of his little cabin, Jason wet and combed his hair. The reflection lacked clear detail, but his blond hair didn’t look too wild. Maybe a touch long. He could use a haircut.
Shrugging, he dropped the comb, grabbed a leather portfolio sitting atop a barrel and hurried up the main trail to town. He veered off where the pines thinned and headed down toward the river. Harriet’s Kitchen, as folks had started calling it, came into sight. Just passing 10:30 in the morning, Jason figured the breakfast rush was gone and she would be between cleaning up and cooking for the noonday meal.
He spotted her just as she snarled and threw a frying pan across a plank table. It took an instant for him to realize her target was Magruder. The man ducked the projectile. Jason launched for the annoying tub of lard just as he bellowed and attempted to scramble clumsily across the table.
Jason caught him and threw him back, slamming him into the other table. A tin can of clean silverware crashed noisily to the ground.
“What’s going on here,” he demanded, raising his fists at Magruder.
Magruder glared at Harriet then Jason. “I’ve come for my money Dundee owes me.”
“Then get it from him,” Harriet shouted, lunging forward. Jason held her back and gave Magruder his own glare.
“Why did she have to throw a frying pan at you, Magruder?”
The implication in the question froze the man. His beady little eyes bugged and he pushed a hand through his sweaty, messy hair. “N—now, Jason, don’t go getting the wrong idea. I never laid a hand on her.”
“I wasn’t going to let you close enough,” she snapped and barked like an angry chihuahua.
Again, Jason threw an arm out to keep her from clawing Magruder’s eyes. “Calm down, Harriet. Tell me what happened.”
“He came swaggering in here, demanding money, knocking plates and cups to the ground. I didn’t know what he intended so I threw the first thing I found at him.”
“If she’da hit me with that thing, she woulda killed me.” Magruder straightened up, jutting out his substantial gut. “I’m not the crazy one here.” He waved his finger frantically at Harriet. “She’s crazy as a badger.” He side-stepped away from Jason, attempting to back out of the tent. “But I still want my money.”
“Don’t come around here anymore, Magruder, if Dundee isn’t here. I catch you talking to Mrs. Pullen again, I’ll throw a frying pan at you…and I won’t miss.” While Magruder flinched at the promise, Harriet frowned indignantly. Jason waited for the annoying little fat man to run away, then turned to Harriet. “You only missed because you’re out of practice.”
The stubborn set of her jaw faded…slowly. Finally, she asked, “Why are you here?”
“I wanted to catch you between shifts so I could give you an update.” He plucked the portfolio out from under his arm and laid it open on the table. He scanned a page of notes. “Okay, your boys and your horses should arrive in San Francisco on or about June 15.” She gasped, he guessed with excitement, and he smiled. “Cargo includes eight horses, four saddles, various combinations of hitches, harnesses, straps and other tack, and four boxes of replacement parts for the wagons and the tack.”
“My boys. My horses. I can’t believe it.” Harriet sat down beside him. She was beaming and her smile warmed him like a fire on a cold day. “And replacement parts. I wouldn’t have thought of those.”
“Something breaks, it’ll be hard to get repaired way out here without a pretty lengthy delay.”
“You had money for all this?”
“Yes, and it’s a good investment. I’m comfortable with what I’ve spent.” He rifled through a few pieces of paper and plucked a ledger page from the stack. “It’s all itemized, starting with Nick Sackett heading up to Willamette Valley and rounding up these items.”
“Including Whit and Wyatt.” She was breathless and her eyes glittered with joy.
“Including Whit and Wyatt. Now,” he pulled another sheet of paper to the top. “This is an agreement with Salazar Patterson. He’s got a lean-to and a corral on his parcel. He’s going to expand the lean-to into a barn and we’ll make it the headquarters for the freight company.” He wanted her to see the agreement, that he wasn’t hiding anything, and slid it over to her.
Harriet scanned it, absently brushing the tail of her braid back and forth across her palm. A wistful smile hinted that she was seeing the faces of her boys not the words on the page. “June 15. That’s only two weeks.”
She cleared her throat, seemed to ponder something for a moment, then turned to him. “Thank you, Jason. I could have done all this—eventually—but you’ve certainly made opening a freight company easier and faster. And the faster we’re up and running, the faster I’ll have a ranch again.”
Jason wondered if he’d heard a little tiny crack in all that ice around Harriet’s heart. “I’m glad you were smart enough to let me help.” He started gathering up the papers, when he thought of something. “By the way, if you run into a man named Archie Reives, remember one thing: he is not your friend, and he may even be your competition.”
“Just a suspicion I have, but he runs a boat up and down the river, delivering supplies, miners, whatever anybody needs. I wouldn’t doubt he’s got his eye on land routes.”
“How will I know him?”
Jason stood and she followed him, curious for the answer. “He’s a gangly fella and there’s something…insect-like about him. He always makes me think of a hungry praying mantis.”
Harriet shivered. She hated bugs. “At least you didn’t say cockroach.”
He tucked the portfolio under his arm. “Don’t see much difference.”
* * *
“You can’t quit!” Dundee positively shrieked. He raked his fingers through his hair and left the graying mass in complete disarray. “You’re the best cook I’ve ever had.”
Harriet shoved a pie into the oven, shut the door, and faced her employer. “I’ll work another couple of weeks, Dundee, but I came to Blessings so I could gather my family and rebuild a dream.” She realized her stance was tense and lowered her shoulders. “I’m sorry. You gave me employment when I needed it. I’ll try to find someone to take over for me, but the moment my boys are here with the horses, I’m in a different profession.”
Several emotions battled across the man’s face, from consternation to vexation, but acceptance finally won. “Well, I reckon that’s all I can expect. I will miss your pies, Mrs. Pullen.”
“Now, why would you be giving up on your pies, Mrs. Pullen?”
A tall, skinny man in a checked suit sidled up to them. Harriet knew him right away, based on Jason’s description. Archie Reives. And Jason had warned her not to give anything away.
“I was thinking of trying another pastry,” she said, praying Dundee would go along. “Turn-overs possibly.”
“Funny,” the bug of a man said. “I heard you were thinking of opening a shipping company.”
Dundee’s eyes widened, but only because Harriet had told him she was trying to keep this hush-hush until her horses arrived. Harriet, for her part, opted not to take the bait. “I’m sorry, you are…?”
“Reives.” He extended his long arm for a handshake. “Archie Reives.” The two shook. “I am only curious about the possibility as it would be such an unusual and, dare I say, dangerous, venture for a woman to attempt. Don’t you think, Dundee?”
Dundee blinked his shock away and narrowed his eyes at Mr. Reives. “This gal, mate, can do anything she darn well puts her mind to. I know. I’ve seen how much sand she’s got.” A righteous indignation seemed to rise in him and he poked Mr. Reives in the chest. “If she opens a freight line or a bakery or a hat shop, you’d best not stand in her way. A donk like you won’t even slow her down.”
Mr. Reives frowned at the poke and inched back, but then a cold, thin smile painted over the annoyance. “I didn’t mean to offend her or you, Dundee. Just trying to pass along some neighborly advice.” He shifted back to Harriet. “You’ve gotta worry about more than the elements and the terrain. The most dangerous animal out here is man.”
Harriet considered the meaning behind the question. A veiled threat? “You run a river freight business, isn’t that correct, Mr. Reives?”
“You’re not worried about a little competition, are you?”
He chuckled. “From a woman? No offense, but no, I’m not worried about a little competition from you or anybody else. As a matter of fact, I am branching out to land routes. I’ve got a fine shipment of horses coming up from Texas. Solid and strong. I’ll move freight through these mountains so fast I’ll leave your pretty little head spinning.”
Harriet held her face still but she was alarmed to hear Reives already had horses on the way. Of course, hers were much closer than Texas, but when had his animals shipped? “When are you opening?”
He grinned and this time the smile was honest. “As soon as I can.”
* * *
Harriet tried to ignore how warm and comforting Jason felt pressed up against her. He had his hands over her eyes and was sort of pushing and leading her toward something. He loved these little surprises.
She could hear the river, but it was a ways away. The scent of pine filled the air, and she thought she heard the faint jingle of wagons and men muttering in the distance. So they were just outside Blessings but not too terribly far from the river?
“Just a few more steps,” he said.
For a moment longer, Harriet let her anger and defensiveness rest and enjoyed the tickle of Jason’s breath in her ear, the goosebumps rising on her from his body heat. She rationalized that he affected her this way because it had been so long since any man—particularly a sober one—had touched her. She wouldn’t allow the possibility there was anything special about the man holding her now.
“All right, ready?”
Jason chuckled softly and pulled his hands away. Harriet blinked, clearing her vision, to see a barn. Salazar’s lean-to, but greatly expanded into a full-size barn.
“Your office, so to speak.”
“The barn. Our barn.” Our barn? Why had she said that? Well, she meant…well, he was a partner. And her sons were coming. It was our barn. Oh, she was pleased. “It’s fine, Jason, more than fine. We need my boys and those horses to hurry up and get here.”
“We’ll beat Reives. Don’t worry.”
Harriet wasn’t sure she’d know how to act when she saw Whit and Wyatt again. She thought she might embarrass them. Not on purpose, but she was going to hug and kiss them like she hadn’t seen them in years, not a few months. Getting her freight line up and running before that scalawag Reives was just icing on the cake.
“Have you been able to determine when his horses might get to Blessings?”
Jason hooked his thumbs on his belt loops. “I hear they might be here in a couple of weeks.”
Harriet released a soft whistle. “That’s a little too close.”
“Maybe, but we’ll—”
Approaching hoofbeats cut off his words. He and Harriet turned to see a rider bursting out of the woods. Fear gripped her heart. Something was wrong, she could feel it in her soul.
Jason took a step forward and waved the rider in. Harriet recognized Dundee quickly and stepped up beside Jason as the man reined in. He was pale, breathing hard, and wore a mask of grief. Unusually nimble, perhaps because his news outweighed his aches and pains, he swung from the saddle and gripped Harriet’s hands. “I’m sorry, girl. Word has just come up from the coast. The ship carrying your boys—oh, Harriet, I’m so sorry. It went down in a storm.”
* * *
The blood drained from Harriet’s brain. She lost the feeling in her legs and started to fall, but Jason caught her. Surely she hadn’t heard correctly. It couldn’t be true…
“Are you sure?” Jason asked, his voice tight and strangled.
“That’s the word. The Sea Witch went down in a storm only a few miles from the San Francisco bay.”
“N-no survivors?” Harriet couldn’t believe it. Whit and Wyatt had to be fine. This information was wrong. They were both strong swimmers.
“No teenage boys,” Dundee said huskily, “no horses in the…wreckage.” He swallowed. “Presumed lost at sea. I’m sorry.” He snatched off his glasses and wiped at his eyes.
Harriet’s brain froze over with a sudden chill. She couldn’t fathom these words, their meaning. None of this made any sense to her. Whit and Wyatt couldn’t be…dead?
“When?” Jason held her tighter. “When did the ship sink?”
“Little over a week ago.” Dundee shook his head and turned to his horse. “Again, I’m so sorry.” Slowly, wearily, his energy gone, he replaced his glasses and dragged himself into the saddle. “Please, if you need anything—” His voice broke and he clamped his mouth shut.
“Thank you,” Jason said, pulling Harriet tighter to his side. Dundee nodded and rode off as Jason wrapped Harriet in a tight embrace. “Harriet—”
“Ships don’t sink. They float.” The vivid image of a ship flailing in rough water, her sons being tossed about in rough seas, the horses screaming and splashing in panic brutally drove home the news. Her heart split in two with raging grief and she wailed into Jason’s chest. “No, no, no…”
Jason squeezed her tighter. “Shhhh.” Unfathomable agony exploded in her, ripping sobs from her. She writhed in anguish, wailing, sobbing, and he held her tighter still. “Harriet, I’m so, so sorry.”
The grief in his own voice, choking it, breaking it, took all of Harriet’s strength. She fell against him and wept with an agony that flowed from her core like hot, seething lava.
* * *
Jason quietly watched Harriet going through the motions of baking a pie. He couldn’t imagine what drove her on. She had taken two days to hide in her cabin, grieving her children as word of her loss flooded Blessings. Miners, prospectors, shop owners and their families drifted by offering sincere but awkward condolences, hugs, and food. Jason had stood by her side for much of it, but he suspected she didn’t even realize it, her grief was so blinding.
Now, as she grimly rolled out the dough for a pie, he guessed it may well have been the generous but abysmal food that drove her back to the kitchen. Too, he knew she found solace in baking.
He wished he had some pressure gauge like that. He missed those two boys and couldn’t vent his grief in such a tangible way. He’d gone riding this morning to a remote spot. There he’d released an anguished yell and emptied his gun into the air. Then he’d listened to the echo roll across the valley of pines and rocks. A release of sorts, it had helped, but only in a very small way.
Then to hear Reives’s horses would arrive in Blessings in about week—maddening. Salt in the wound. Harriet’s animals would have beat his here, giving her and Jason a fine head start on the freight line. Hard as it was, though, Jason knew all of this was in the palm of God’s hands. Nothing surprised Him. He had a plan and it would unfurl as it was supposed to.
Sighing, he slipped beneath the tent, and snatched his hat off. “Harriet?” She started, but didn’t turn around. He heard sniffles, realized she was wiping her eyes frantically. “Maybe it’s too soon to be back in the kitchen.”
She straightened and rounded slowly on him. “It’s never too soon for that.” They both smiled awkwardly at the weak joke, and she took a few steps toward him, her chin quivering.
Despite her red-rimmed eyes, she was such a pretty thing. How many times back in Sundown had he daydreamed of loosening that braid of hers, running his hands through all the silky gold strands, claiming that sassy mouth? Now, he just wanted to hold and comfort her.
“You’re probably here about the money you fronted—”
“Money?” Jason was literally aghast. “You think I’m here about money?”
She stuttered for a moment. “W—well, I just assumed because of all the money you spent for the freight—”
“Hang the money.” Dang if she couldn’t be an aggravating woman sometimes. Did she really think that lowly of him? “I came to check on you. I know how bad I miss Whit and Wyatt. I can’t imagine what you’re going through.”
She seemed taken aback by his indignation. Her eyes widened and her lips trembled. “I’m sorry. I know you were fond of them.” Suddenly she deflated like a good wind leaving a ship’s sails and dropped down at a table. “You’re right. You can’t imagine. I’ve lost everything, Jason. I’ve never been so alone, so empty, and so furious with God before.” She hid her face in her hands. “The hurt is indescribable. My boys…” she trailed off in a hoarse whisper.
He settled beside her and raised an arm to hug her. She leaned into him and wept. He marveled over the feel of her tears soaking through his shirt. He ached for her and if he’d had the power, would have taken this grief onto himself.
Instead, all he could offer was an embrace and overused words. “I’m sorry, Harriet. So sorry.”
A shuffling noise drew his eyes up. He was surprised to see Atherton Winslet striding toward them, his hat tucked respectfully at his chest, gray hair dancing in the morning breeze. Jason hadn’t ever seen the old gentleman move so fast or nimbly.
“News,” the old man called, his aged face glowing with it. “I have good news!” Harriet and Jason rose to meet him. He raced up and clutched her shoulders. “God giveth and He taketh away. There’s a string of horses coming into town.” His gaze shot to Jason. “Nick Sackett is at the lead…” He returned to Harriet. “And, God be praised, two young boys are bringing up the rear!”
* * *
Joy—so pure and exquisite it left Harriet breathless—coursed through her. Whit and Wyatt were riding two sorrels hell-bent for leather down Blessings Main Street. Word had spread about the impending arrival and it looked to her like most of the town was here waving and cheering.
From the saddle of his own horse, Jason greeted the thundering herd at the intersection of Main and First and waved for them to follow him. Harriet shouted and screamed with schoolgirl giddiness at Whit and Wyatt as they rode by, tipping their hats. A little gaunt, a touch pale, but smiles lit up their faces.
“We made it, Ma!” Whit yelled waving his hat in the air, his horse moving at a full gallop.
“We sure as heck did,” Wyatt added, thundering after his brother.
Harriet gathered her skirt and took off down the muddy street at a full run, intent on smothering her two boys—no, her two young men—with hugs and kisses when they dismounted at the corral.
She was winded when the corral and all the bustling, prancing horses came into view. Revived by joy, she raced the rest of the way, flinging herself on to Whit and Wyatt as they stood holding their mounts. Squeals of delight and good-natured laughter erupted as they hugged each other.
Harriet could have died of pure happiness at that moment. She had her sons back from the dead. “Thank You, thank You, thank You,” she repeated to God while peppering frantic kisses on her boys’ faces. She finished with one long, breath-stealing hug.
A large crowd of curious townsfolk had followed them out to the new office. Reggie Wallace took advantage of the calm moment to shake the boys’ hands. “Gentlemen, I heard about your epic ride.” Harriet was puzzled by this statement as Reggie slapped Whit on the shoulder. “I feel confident my items will make it through with drivers like you. Let me know when you’re open for business.”
“Yes, sir,” Whit said, his perpetually red cheeks blazing now. “Will do.”
Harriet waited for Reggie to get out of earshot before she closed in. “What does he mean epic adventure?”
A tall, thin man with stringy, dark hair and a patch over one eye stepped up, tapping his thigh with his hat. “It’s no small thing what your boys did, Mrs. Pullen.” Harriet smiled. Jason had told her about Nick Sackett. “Swimming horses out of an angry ocean, ridin’ ‘em a hundred miles—bareback—on dangerous, unfamiliar terrain, and followin’ a one-eyed Indian for a guide. A straight-up miracle.”
“Mr. Sackett.” She clutched his hand, almost choking up again with emotion. “You brought me my boys, safe and sound. I don’t care what you call it. And I can’t thank you enough.”
He shrugged, embarrassed by her gushing. “We’re here because we all worked together.”
Harriet exhaled a deep, joyful breath and squeezed her boys’ cheeks—to their horror. She laughed, delirious with joy.
“You know,” Jason said from behind her, “we’ve only beat Reives by about three or four days.”
Harriet clutched Whit’s and Wyatt’s hands. “It’ll be enough. He’s never gone up against us.”
* * *
Jason almost couldn’t believe what he was hearing. He swallowed his last sip of beer and paused the empty mug at his lips, listening intently to the load of horse manure Archie Reives was dumping two tables over.
“A woman can’t run a business like a freight line. It’s just too dangerous. Too arduous.”
Jason’s eyes met Ellie’s, the short, plump owner of the saloon whose outrageous red hair had made her something of a celebrity in town. “Every time he opens his mouth,” she said quietly, “he proves what a fool he is.” Jason chuckled at the observation.
Ben and Reuben Baird, two guards from the mine, nodded in agreement with Reives. “We’ve got our hands full as it is at the mine,” Reuben, a broad stocky fella, was saying. “I can’t imagine how a woman is gonna stand up to rowdies everywhere else.”
“Especially a little thing like her,” Ben added.
“She should stick to baking pies.” That was Lucas Barfield from the leather shop. “Maybe she thinks she’s a man. Next thing we know, she’ll be wearing pants.”
“Pants or not,” Archie continued, “she doesn’t know diddly squat about horses.”
Jason slammed his mug down. The men at the table cut their eyes at him. Hands clenching into fists, he turned to face Archie squarely. “And you’re a rabble-rousing, lying lickspittle.” Silence, somber as a graveyard at midnight, fell on the saloon. Men watched with wary eyes. Jason took a few steps toward the table. “Harriet Pullen raised some of the finest horses in the territory up at her ranch in the Willamette Valley. She rides better than most men I know. Her horses are so well-trained they do tricks for her.” He let his searing gaze graze slowly over each man at the table. “When you can say the same, then run your mouths.”
Archie placed his cards facedown and rose to his feet. “She opens this business, the men of this town are just going to wind up retrieving her body and dead horses from beside the trail.”
“She’s not doing this alone, Reives.” Jason raised his hand and pointed his index finger at the man. “You keep that in mind.” A few years in law enforcement had taught him to walk away from pointless arguments, but right now, he wanted to throttle Archie Reives so bad he could taste it. “You’re just afraid of the competition. And you know what?”
“You should be.” Jason had put his money on Harriet and her horses for a reason. “Your Texas horses will be eating her dust.” His point made and the desire for any more beer snuffed by the saloon’s current clientele, Jason stormed out.
“No woman should run a business like this,” Reives called after him. “If you were a man and not her lapdog, you’d see that!”
* * *
Jason sat on the front porch of his simple one-room cabin, chair leaned back, feet resting on the rail. He closed his eyes and listened to the bubbling laughter from the creek forty or so feet down from him.
If you were a man and not her lapdog, you’d see that!
His eyes flew open. The accusation was patently untrue, but it still made him want to pummel Reives. Harriet would have to know Jason was alive to first delegate him to lapdog.
“Jason, mate” a voice hailed from the darkness.
Startled at first, Jason dropped his feet and his chair and stood, peering into the shadows, made starker by the brilliant moon. But he knew that Australian accent. “Willoughby?”
Jason waited for the man to break free from the trees before he spoke again. “What are you doing out here?”
“Came to see you.” The trader approached and stopped at the bottom step, resting one foot on it.
Willoughby had never come to see Jason before and he was immediately suspicious of this visit. “What can I do for you?”
A slight moon cast enough light on the man’s round face to show a shadow on his brow. He shoved his hands in his pockets and shrugged his shoulders. “Some of the merchants asked me to speak with ya about Mrs. Pullen’s freight service. We think you should talk her out of it.”
Offended, though he wasn’t quite sure by what, Jason crossed his arms over his chest. “Reives send you to see me?”
“No, but he’s been doin’ most of the talkin’. Listen, Jason, word is the lady is going to drive her own wagons. Now, I don’t like Reives and I see the game he’s playing, but it’s true the profession is too dangerous for a woman.”
Jason scratched his chin, trying to pinpoint why this conversation grated on his nerves. Turned out to be a couple of things. “First of all, you and the other men in Blessings aren’t some kind of arbiters of who can open what kind of business in town. You start with Harriet, who’s next? Second of all, she is capable of running this business and driving her own wagons. Honestly, it kinda makes me a little angry that you and Reives and whoever else are sitting on your high horses telling her what she can and can’t do, much less with her own property.”
“Well, it’s not like that exactly—”
“No, that’s exactly what it’s like.” He dropped his hands to his hips. “Tell Reives I won’t be talking to Harriet about shutting down. Tell him the only way to get her out of the business is to beat her fair and square.”
* * *
In the mercantile, Harriet perused a shelf stocked with a decent selection of canned fruit. She missed cooking for her boys and was enjoying the few meals they’d had together, but she could do better than rabbit stew and apple pie.
She heard her name and stopped to eavesdrop on two men discussing her over the pickle barrel. “Ah, I don’t know what she’s thinking. Reives has a point. Who’s gonna risk sending a shipment of anything valuable over the mountains with a woman?”
“Yeah,” the other man chuckled. “Mighty full of herself, I think.”
Harriet bit down hard to keep from screaming. No, not the whole town of Blessings thought a woman couldn’t run a freight business, but what if enough did that more business went to Reives than her?
She’d lose everything…again. Because of men and their selfish, petty jealousies. Well, she was here. Her boys were here. And her horses were here.
If Archie Reives thought he was going to gossip enough to shut her down with rumors and ignorance, he most certainly had another think coming.
* * *
Jason placed the plank atop the two barrels and stepped back. No, it wasn’t much of a desk. He glanced around the little room that they’d added on to the barn and allowed a wry grin. Spartan, simple—one window for light, a buck stove against the outer wall, a makeshift desk and a stool for a chair—but it was their office and he was more than a little proud. He was eager for Harriet to see it.
He checked his pocket watch. Ten after eight. She was late. He peered out the window. Whit and Wyatt were hitching a bay gelding up to the buckboard for some training. The shipwreck had deprived the company of two new wagons, but Jason had managed to do a little horse-trading and round up this buckboard and one Conestoga. It was a start.
He drummed his fingers on his thighs. Should he worry? Lord, just how underhanded might Archie Reives get besides stirring up merchants against Harriet?
She walked into sight just then, her head high, her gait brisk, a basket swinging on her arm. She smiled and waved at her boys and Jason’s heart did a funny kind of flutter. He liked the way her face lit with joy at the sight of her children, the way the morning sun glinted off the top of her head, like she created her own glow. And even though that brown muslin dress had seen better days, it fit her nicely. She’d never be confused for a man, in pants or not.
He opened the door and watched her hug her boys, much to their embarrassment. They pulled away from her and glanced around to make sure no one had seen the syrupy affection. Jason knew more and more everyday what he wanted out of Blessings, and gold had very little to do with it
“Make sure you don’t get that tug buckle too tight,” Harriet said leaving them. “And work on backing up.” She saw Jason and raised the basket. “But first, apple fritters for breakfast.”
Jason licked his lips. He loved Harriet’s apple fritters. “That makes my day.”
“Good.” She turned back to Whit and Wyatt. “Boys, come get a fritter and give me a minute. I have something to tell everyone.”
* * *
Jason stood beside Harriet as she emptied the contents of the basket on the desk. Fresh, warm apple fritters wrapped in brown paper. The scents of sugar and cinnamon, mixed with something uniquely Harriet turned his knees to water. The more he was around her, the more often that happened—
The thought stopped his hand as he reached for a fritter. For the first time, he realized that might not be such a good thing. What if winning her wasn’t God’s will? What if his feelings for Harriet were never returned?
“What’s the matter?” Harriet eyed the fritter. “Did you see a bug or something?”
“No, I…” he picked up the pastry. “Nothing. Just had a stray thought.” The boys clattered in and stormed toward the desk, bumping, bustling, trying to block each other, in case there wasn’t enough to go around.
“Boys,” Harriet scolded. “Act like you’ve got some manners. There’s plenty.”
Jason moved over a little and grinned as Wyatt, the younger, but stockier, son tried elbowing the taller and ganglier Whit out of the way. They succeeded in getting to the desk simultaneously and earning a thunderous look from Harriet for the rough-housing.
“And take off your hats.” The boys immediately obeyed, snatching them off and crushing the cowboy hats beneath their arms.
“What’s your news?” Jason asked quickly, trying to get them out of hot water.
Harriet took a deep breath and eyed the three of them for a moment. “I talked Mr. Winslet into sponsoring a contest. If we win, we get all his shipping business.”
Whit slowed the fritter on the way to his mouth. “That’s a good thing, right?”
“He founded the town. Owns almost everything here.”
“He’d be the largest customer,” Jason added, but something about this idea bothered him. “What happens if we lose? And who’s in this contest with us? Reives? Exactly how do you see it working?”
“We’re going to take a shipment for him from Blessings to Truckee and back. Whoever does it the fastest wins.”
“Have you laid out rules, limitations, routes?”
Harriet’s face fell. “W-well, no. Not yet. I didn’t get that specific. We’ve got to put all that together.”
Now Jason could pinpoint what sat wrong here. She hadn’t discussed it with him. Not even a hint. It rankled him. He supposed it was her business—no, it wasn’t, he corrected himself. Weren’t they partners? She couldn’t go off half-cocked. He had some knowledge to add to the mix, some rights to protect. And it’s not my ego talking, Lord. I have wise counsel to offer. Make her listen. “Yeah. We have to talk about it.”
* * *
Harriet didn’t miss the impatient tone in Jason’s voice. She wondered what she’d done to annoy him, but wasn’t going to play any games finding out. “Boys, why don’t you go on and finish those fritters outside. Get back to training that horse.”
Juggling hats and fritters, Whit and Wyatt went back to work and Harriet dove into the matter at hand. “What’s wrong?”
Jason pulled a pinch from his fritter, chewed it slowly, then licked his lips. “Am I your partner?”
“You are my partner.”
“Then don’t you think you should have talked to me about this contest?”
“I am talking to you about it.”
“Before you went to Atherton.”
Harriet folded her arms trying to squelch her anger. All she could think about was how many times Henry had injected his two cents into her decisions. He had just wanted control. He’d never cared about the ranch, how to invest in its future. Only getting down to the bottom dollar as fast as possible, by any means. She opened her mouth to set Jason straight on a few things, when he tossed up a hand.
“Don’t say anything you’re going to regret, Harriet. I can see you’re mad.”
“You’re dang straight I’m mad. Yes, you put some money into this venture. Yes, you’re taking a risk on me, but this is my company.” She slapped her chest with each point. “They’re my horses. I gave up my boys to come here alone. I will make this freight company successful because I’m going to pour every ounce of blood, sweat, and tears I have into it. Money doesn’t buy that kind of investment.”
Harriet knew she’d gone too far, but better Jason understood where things stood now rather than later. His expression seemed to harden, as if his skin were made of glass. “And pure, blind ambition,” he said the word as if it repulsed him, “born of hate or revenge—or even fear—won’t make the company successful either, Harriet.”
She felt as if he’d slapped her. The words stung because they had pierced to the heart of why she was doing this. His keen observation was an unexpected intimacy between them she wouldn’t have allowed, given a choice. Then again, what did it matter? She had never meant to hide her ambition and the reasons behind it were patently clear.
“Ambition, Jason, can only help. The motivation doesn’t matter.”
Gazes locked on one another, tension heavy as an October snow fell over them. Harriet resented the disappointment in his eyes. He had no right to judge her.
Finally, Jason set the remainder of his fritter back down on the brown paper. “Seem to have lost my appetite, but thank you.”
Without another word or a glance her way, he swiped his hat off the desk and trudged from their office.
* * *
A lot of places a man could go to think, but Jason wound up on a bench in front of the mercantile. Sitting quietly, watching the traffic flow by. He wouldn’t lose his temper here. He wouldn’t hear Harriet hammering on this idea of ambition justifying her selfishness. He wouldn’t hear Archie Reives’s snide lapdog reference here. No, he’d enjoy the morning’s summer warmth, find some calm in the scents of green grass, horse manure, and baking bread drifting to him.
Until he realized his right hand kept clenching into a fist. He drifted for a moment with the idea of laying Harriet Pullen across his knee and paddling her rear end. He understood she’d been hurt, but she was letting the tragedy change her into a creature blinded by ambition and fueled by hate. Something needed to knock some sense into her.
He hoped it wouldn’t be a tragedy. They weren’t exactly few and far between in boomtowns, much less in the freighting industry. Too many things could go wrong. The woman had no idea.
He would have thought nearly losing Whit and Wyatt would have humbled her some. Instead, the tragedy-that-wasn’t had only added fuel to her fire. Her way or no way. Jason had never seen the beat—
A squeal—no, a scream of rage—brought him back to the moment and he tracked the sound. Down the boardwalk aways he spotted three men surrounding something or someone. They were throwing their heads back and laughing; one was waving a pair of pants over his head. Peering closer, Jason saw between their shoulders a hand—a feminine hand—grabbing for the pants.
Righteous fury boiled his blood. Jason surged to his feet and rushed down the walk.
“Give me those back,” the woman yelled.
He stumbled, almost stopped. Harriet? That was Harriet’s voice. Alarmed now, he reached the scuffle in three, long steps and grabbed one of the thugs by the neck. Short, slovenly, smelling like cow dung, he was several inches shorter than Jason. He clawed at the hand on his neck, but Jason handily slung him away from the tiff. The man went flying, landing in the dirt with a loud thud. The melee ended abruptly as the other two, just as smelly and unkempt, each took a step back. Harriet snatched a pair of dungarees from one of them and retreated behind Jason.
“What’s going on here, boys,” he asked, eying them warily, especially the one staggering up from the ground.
“Breeches,” Harriet spat. “They tried to steal my package and the dungarees fell out. They started asking me if I was going to wear them.” She leaned forward. So mad spittle was flying from her mouth, she pointed at the man on the ground. “He—he asked me vulgar questions about–things.”
Jason passed a restraining hand in front of her. “Calm down, Harriet.”
“Don’t tell me calm down.”
Momentarily distracted by her snap at him, Jason nearly missed the man on the ground lunging to his feet and throwing an uppercut. Jason avoided it, but felt the breeze. And smelled the liquor. In the same instant, he shoved Harriet back and hit the man with a powerful jab to the nose.
Cartilage crunched and the man howled. Clutching his face, he dropped to his knees once again. His buddies inched a little further back.
Fixing to bolt. “Aah, aah, aah, boys.” Jason waved a finger at them. “Nobody is going anywhere until Mrs. Pullen here tells me what she’d like to do with you.”
“We weren’t doing nothin’,” the fella with the bleeding nose protested. “Just having a little fun is all.” He snatched a bandana from his back pocket and pressed it to his bloody face. “We heard how bossy she is and how she thinks she can drive a freight wagon like a man.”
“I never said that,” Harriet yelled, lunging at the men, but Jason grabbed her. Face flushed, lips tight, she squirmed and fussed in his arms like a rabid fox. Dang if she wasn’t hell-bent on a fight with somebody in this town.
She reminded Jason of a raccoon he’d tangled with once. The animal nearly killed him. Took three rounds with an ax handle to put it down. For a few minutes of the fight, it was touch and go.
“It’s all anybody’s talking about,” one of the other men chimed in to defend their actions. A burning glare from Harriet and Jason had him hunkering down like a beat dog.
She lunged again, but Jason held firm. “Calm down, Harriet. Calm down.” Finally, she settled…a little. “All right…Well,” Jason loosened his grip, a little. Trusting she had regained some sense, he let her go. “Want me to take them to Pete? Let them spend the night in jail. You can press charges.”
Harriet clutched the breeches tighter, twisting and strangling then. “No.” She wilted a little. “No, let them go. I don’t want to see them again.”
Jason debated the wisdom of letting them go but figured he’d better agree for the moment. “You heard the lady. Get out of here and don’t make me regret letting this pass.” Because he would have preferred giving them a sound thrashing. It angered him greatly they thought they could treat a woman, especially Harriet, like that. They waved Jason off like he was a troublesome fly and slogged down the boardwalk.
He huffed a deep, exasperated breath, but didn’t look at the feisty little critter beside him. “You all right?”
He watched the troublesome fellas for another minute then shook his head. “Reives is running his mouth, Harriet. Telling everybody who will listen you can’t run a business. You’re a strong-willed, foolish woman who doesn’t know her place.”
“Is he saying that, or are you?”
Jason re-situated his hat, jarred askew by the encounter. “Not me. I think you can do it. But you’ll have to prove yourself to the town.” And get that temper under control.
“I thought the contest might do that for me.”
He cut his eyes over at her. “Us.” His frustration with Harriet returning, he faced her, crossing his arms over his chest as if he was about to scold a child. “It’s not about who has put in more money or even why you’re doing this. The fact is we’re all in this together now, Harriet. You, me, and your boys. What will make your freight company successful is if we all work together.”
She raised her nose in the air and folded her arms. As adorable as she was, all huffy and flushed, mussed up braid shimmering on her shoulder, he still felt like wringing her neck. Tempted to walk away—sorely tempted—he stared at her, trying to burn some sense into her head.
After a moment, she softened. A little. “You’re right. We have to be a team.” She glanced down the walk. “I think we should go see Reives and discuss the contest. The both of us. Together.”
Jason ran his tongue over his teeth, questioning her contriteness and pondering the suggestion. Word was no doubt already circulating about the contest. No backing out now. “Fine. We will go talk to him.”
* * *
Harriet was absolutely livid over having so much of her fate fall again into the hands of men. Striding down the boardwalk, Jason beside her, she was at once both furious with him…and grateful for him. He’d stopped the shenanigans with those three slackers but then he’d talked to her as if she were a child. She irrationally entertained the idea of throwing something at him.
Calm down. Calm down, he said. HE can calm down. He wasn’t the one getting accosted on the street. And he wants to talk to me like I’m five. “Fine, we will go talk to him.” Like I needed his permission to talk to this Reives—
“You’re muttering, Harriet.”
“I am not.” But, of course, she was. She clamped her jaws.
“Have you always been this hot-tempered?”
She tried to think. Once upon a time, she and Henry had worked side-by-side building their home, then the corrals. Then the boys had come along…and he had started drinking more, staying out later and later, disappearing in the middle of chores. By the time Whit was five, Henry was rarely home and when he was, he was more of a disruption to their routine than a part of it. Foolishly she had fought for her husband’s attention by throwing kitchen pans at him. The tantrums, however, had only gained her an undesirable reputation as a shrew.
Realizing the harm her outbursts did to her children and her reputation, Harriet had reigned in her temper. “Truth be told, I haven’t thrown anything in years.”
“Bringing something under control is different from keeping it on a slow boil.”
“You think I’m an explosion waiting to happen?”
He sucked on his teeth for a second. “You were ready to tear those fellas back there limb from limb. You should have seen your face.”
“I had every right to be furious with those men.”
“Yeah, I suppose.”
“What?” Aghast, Harriet stopped and grabbed Jason’s elbow, forcing him to face her. “They accosted me.”
Towering over her, he rested his hands on his hips and scoured her face. His blue eyes bored into her, but she was too mad to care how handsome he was. She wanted him to stop making these cryptic references.
Finally, he let out a long, slow breath. “I think you’re so mad at your husband for causing all this you could spit nails.”
“Of course I am.”
Jason swiped a hand over his mouth, dragged it along his jaw, and finished with a squeeze to his neck muscles. “You are a pain. You’re letting all that anger blind you to—” He seemed to ponder the next words carefully. “Wise, deliberate actions. Like this contest with Reives. We should have talked about it. Instead, you went off half-cocked—”
“I’m not going over this ground again. I said you were right and I would involve you in future decisions. I’ll play on our team but you,” she grit her teeth together and poked him in the chest, “have to stop treating me like a child.”
Jason’s eyes widened and he straightened up a little. “I didn’t realize I was.”
“I may be angry. I may be a little headstrong. I should’ve included you in the discussion about the contest, but I’m in a hurry, Jason. I don’t have time to pretend I’m at a tea party. I’m building a business, a future for myself and my children. I’ll try to include you if you’ll quit dragging your feet.”
And that was all the compromise Harriet was in the mood for.
Jason considered things for a moment, then finally nodded. “All right. Let’s get this over with.”
* * *
It took a little tracking, but Harriet and Jason found Archie Reives down at his dock. He’d had one built for his own boat, and wouldn’t be sharing it with Dundee, or so Harriet had heard. Undaunted by the less-than-cooperative attitude of the man, Dundee had built his wharf roughly a hundred feet down from Reives. It was one hundred yards long and paralleled the clear, jade, western bank of the American River. Reives’s dock jutted out into the water and was only slightly longer than his hundred-foot paddle wheeler. A sizable boat, peeling paint, rotten decking, and rusty metal marred what could have been an otherwise impressive vessel.
“I think he made a mistake,” Harriet said, eying the wharf. “Dundee is going to have a big operation.”
“I don’t think Reives ever had any intention of making the river his main source of income. Look at the boat.” Jason clutched Harriet’s elbow as they navigated the swaying dock. “No, he’s more interested in running crooked card games and getting his own overland freight business up.”
“Jason, Mrs. Pullen.” Reives was coming down the side staircase of the boat and waved them aboard. “Step on.” He met them at the bottom and shook Jason’s hand, then appreciatively surveyed Harriet. “I have heard so much about you, Mrs. Pullen.”
“Don’t you mean you’ve talked so much about me?”
A slender man in a cheap suit, the fake smile slid off his face. “I’m sure I don’t know what you mean.”
“I’m sure you don’t.”
“Listen, Archie,” Jason intervened, “we’ve come about a little business. Harriet here has a proposition for ya.”
The fake smile returned, but the truth glittered in his beady little eyes. “What can I do for you?”
“Mr. Winslet has agreed to let us compete for his business. The winner gets all his shipping.”
Reives’s eyebrows rose and he hung a bony hand on the small pocket of his vest. “Really, now? All his business?”
“All. You and I just need to come up with a fair competition. Rules and such.”
Reives’s curious gaze ricocheted back-and-forth between Harriet and Jason. “Is this on the level, Jason? I beat her and get all of Winslet’s shipping in and out of Blessings?”
“You have to beat her. That’s the hard part.”
Reives chuckled, soft and low at first, then he turned away, laughing outright. “Oh, this is…” He didn’t finish, seemed to ponder things a moment, then wheeled on them. “I’m all for this. Let’s talk details.”
“Well, I—I thought we might keep it simple. Race from here to Truckee and back. First one home wins.”
“Rules?” Reives asked.
“None. You find the best, fastest route.”
“Wait a minute, wait a minute,” Jason waved a hand between them. “I’m not good with that, Harriet. We need rules. Otherwise Reives here will drive straight through someone’s front room to beat us.”
“Who says I wouldn’t do that?” Jason’s face hardened at her answer, but she ignored him and rushed on. “The only requirement is the freight is delivered in good condition.”
“And who decides that?” Reives asked immediately.
Reives worked his jaw back and forth. “Restrictions on team changes, drivers, route choices, wagons, anything?”
“None.” Oh, she could feel the heat coming off Jason in waves. “Jason, do you have a problem with any of this?”
“Nice of you to ask.” He turned more to Archie. “There should be an official start/finish line. And we should limit the wagon to one Conestoga of equal weight. We’ll have an official weigh-in before the start. At least two team changes. That’s to prevent you from driving your horses into the ground.”
Reives slid his tongue over his bottom lip, while he again eyed Harriet. “All right.” He thrust out a hand to her, sleeve sliding up and revealing a thin, frail-looking wrist. “I can live with those rules, except my horses are still on the way from Texas. They should be here any day but they’ll need time to recover.”
“Two weeks.” She reached for his hand but stopped just short of shaking it. He considered the suggestion, nodded. Harriet sealed the agreement with a firm grip. “I’m going to win, Mr. Reives.”
“I’ve no doubt you’ll try, Mrs. Pullen.”
Like what you read? Then please check out the rest of Hell-Bent on Blessings and all the other great books in this series. Read tales about women who tamed a mining town and more than a few hearts! Get your copies today!
Brides of Blessings Book 4
Dueling the Desperado by Mimi Milan
* * *
Miguel Santiago pressed his slender eight-year-old body against the wall. He knew it was wrong to eavesdrop, but the fate of his world was at stake. Today would be the day he might finally get to go to school.
If only grandfather would agree.
“A roof over his head and three meals a day—that boy is already getting more than he deserves.”
“Daniel! How can you say that? He’s our grandson. Don’t you understand? He belonged to Sophie.”
“Aw, now, why’d you have to go and say her name? You always do that, Rebecca. You always invoke her name whenever it comes to that boy!” Daniel Delacroix snatched his hat off his head and beat the table with it, bending it completely out of shape. Frustrated he threw it across the room. “She made a mistake and you know it. I know it, you know it and so did that… that…”
“Yeah, that’s the nicest thing you can call him. Oooh, I’ll tell you the truth. I’m glad he’s gone. I am. If I saw his face right now, I’d—”
“Do absolutely nothing, because you are a Delacroix and with that name comes certain responsibilities.”
Husband and wife stared at one another, each waiting to see who would give in first. However, Rebecca wasn’t the quitting kind. Besides, she made a good point.
“Blast it to bits! Fine,” Daniel finally yielded. “He can go so long as you and he both understand that it won’t be with my good name.”
“Well, he most certainly can’t go with the one he has! What would people think? You’re so concerned about people finding out his heritage, then you should want to give him a new name.”
“A new name, yes. It won’t be Delacroix, though. Think about it, Rebecca. What if he turned out to be a darkie like his daddy? That wouldn’t do at all.”
“Fine. Then give him another one—anything will do. Just make it simple enough for him to remember.”
“Oh, I got one that’s simple enough alright.” Daniel turned in his chair and called out. “Miguel. Miguel! I know you’ve got your ear against the wall, boy. Get your sorry tail out here.”
“Oh, hush, woman. You’re getting what you want.”
The boy scampered into the room, eyes averted. He stood in front of his grandfather, hopeful.
“I know you heard what we were talking about. You interested in going to school or not? Well? Speak up.”
The boy furiously nodded his head. “Yes, sir.”
“Well, that’s fine. You can go… but only under one condition. You are never—and I do mean never—to tell anyone that your name is Miguel. You hear me? That name don’t exist anymore. Not for you. From now on, you’re to tell folks your name is Michael. You understand? Your name is Michael Saint James—not Miguel Santiago. Now, you go on and repeat that. Michael Saint James. Go on. Say it.”
“Michael Saint James.”
“Good. You think you can remember that? It’s easy enough. It’s the same name—just in English instead of that mixed up mess those field folk be speaking sometimes. You remember that name and you can go to school. Now how does that sound? Good?”
“Alright. Don’t you say I never gave you nothing. Now go on and get.”
Miguel bolted, his thin legs carrying him out of the house and into the fields to where his grandfather’s workers picked crops.
“Tía! Tía!” He ran up to a woman with skin gently kissed by the sun and threw his arms around her. “Guess what? Grandfather said I can go to school!”
“Oh, that’s wonderful! Your father would be so proud, Miguel.”
The child scrunched up his face. “That’s not my name.”
“Why, of course it is. My brother gave you the name. I was there when he spoke it at your baptism. You were named after our father—God rest his soul.”
“But that’s not my name anymore,” the boy insisted. “Grandfather said so. You best remember that if you want me to go to school.”
Concern marred the woman’s features.
“But you have always been my little Miguelito. What am I to call you now?”
“Michael,” the child spoke with confidence. “My name is Michael Saint James.”
To read more, get your copy today!
Also by Heather Blanton
~Reluctant Romantics Anthology~
LOVE, LIES, & TYPEWRITERS—Book 1
A cowboy with a Purple Heart. A reporter with a broken heart. Which one is her Mr. Right?
When Lucy Daniels is rescued from a stampeding herd of cattle by war hero Dale Sumner, sparks fly and headlines are born. Smelling an opportunity, the local newspaper decides to send the couple on a tour selling war bonds—and subscriptions. Enamored with her handsome savior, Lucy is happy to play her part … until she realizes she may be falling in love with the wrong man.
Ace reporter and aspiring mystery writer Bryce Richard is tasked with building up Lucy and Dale’s budding affair. He can’t think of anything worse for a journalist than switching from hard news to pounding out romantic drivel. The task is especially hard when he wishes Lucy would look to him for her happily-ever-after.
When love and lies collide on the front page, will Lucy and Bryce have a chance to write their own fairytale ending? Or are they already yesterday’s news? A heartwarming romance worthy of the Hallmark Channel, Love, Lies, & Typewriters is a funny, inspirational story of love and courage at a transformational time in America.
A story about rediscovering faith and finding love in the place you least expect it…
~Brides of Blessings Series~
COMING FEB. 14, 2018!
“Though she be but little, she is fierce.” Shakespeare
Left bankrupt and homeless by a worthless husband, Harriet Pullen isn’t about to lay down and die. Finding a temporary home for her children, she heads to the gold rush town of Blessings, California to start life over. One carefully planned step at a time, she’s going to make a home for her family, regain her financial independence, and build a new ranch–bigger and better than the one she lost. God help the man who ever gets in her way again.
Please be sure to check out the other books in the Gold Rush-era Brides of Blessings series. These are stories of women who weren’t looking for marriage, but are instead forging through hardships to set down roots in California. The pioneer ladies here are independent, hard-working, and not so easy to romance. Likewise, the men in Blessings are from all walks of life. They have come west seeking redemption, fortunes and new beginnings. Somehow, love always enters in…
~Lockets & Lace Series~
LOCKET FULL OF LOVE—Book 5
Was her husband a sinner or a saint? A traitor or a spy?
For years Juliet Watts has believed her husband died saving nothing more than a cheap trinket–but the locket he risked his life for turns out to hold a mysterious key. Together, Juliet and military intelligence officer Robert Hall go on a journey of riddles and revelations. But Juliet is convinced Robert is hiding something, too. Maybe it’s just his heart…
~Romance in the Rockies Series~
His town. Her god. Let the battle begin.
Charles McIntyre owns everything and everyone in the lawless, godless mining town of Defiance. When three good, Christian sisters from his beloved South show up stranded, alone, and offering to open a “nice” hotel, he is intrigued enough to let them stay…especially since he sees feisty middle sister Naomi as a possible conquest. But Naomi, angry with God for widowing her, wants no part of Defiance or the saloon-owning, prostitute-keeping Mr. McIntyre. It would seem however, that God has gone to elaborate lengths to bring them together. The question is, “Why?” Does God really have a plan for each and every life?
Written with gritty, but not gratuitous, realism uncharacteristic of historical Christian fiction, A Lady in Defiance gives a nod to both Pride and Prejudice and Redeeming Love. Based on true events, it is also an ensemble piece that deftly weaves together the relationships of the three sisters and the rowdy residents of Defiance.
Book One of the best-selling Romance in the Rockies series, A Lady in Defiance is reminiscent of longstanding western fiction classics.
Men make mistakes. God will forgive them. Will their women?
Charles McIntyre built the lawless, godless mining town of Defiance practically with his bare hands … and without any remorse for the lives he destroyed along the way. Then a glimpse of true love, both earthly and heavenly, changed him. The question is, how much? Naomi Miller is a beautiful, decent woman. She says she loves McIntyre, that God does, too, and the past is behind them now. But McIntyre struggles to believe he’s worth saving … worth loving. Unfortunately, the temptations in Defiance only reinforce his doubts.
Billy Page abandoned Hannah Frink when he discovered she was going to have his baby … and now he can’t live with himself. Or without her. Determined to prove his love, he leaves his family and fortune behind and journeys to Defiance. Will Hannah take Billy back or give him what he deserves for the betrayal?
Gritty and realistic, this is the story of real life and real faith in Defiance.
Choices have consequences. Even for the redeemed.
Reformed Saloon-Owner and Pimp…
When Charles McIntyre founded the Wild West town of Defiance, he was more than happy to rule in hell rather than serve in heaven. But things have changed. Now, he has faith, a new wife…and a ten-year-old half-breed son. Infamous madam Delilah Goodnight wants to take it all away from him. How can he protect his kingdom and his loved ones from her schemes without falling back on his past? How does he fight evil if not with evil?
Logan Tillane carries a Bible in his hand, wears a gun on his hip, and fights for lost souls any way he can. Newly arrived in Defiance, he has trouble, though, telling saints from sinners. The challenge only worsens when Delilah flings open the doors to the scandalous Crystal Chandelier Saloon and Brothel. She and the new preacher have opposite plans for the town. One wants to save it, one wants to lead it straight to hell.
For Tillane and McIntyre, finding redemption was a long, hard road. God’s grace has washed away their sins, but the consequences remain and God will not be mocked. For whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap…and the harvest is finally at hand.
~Brides of Evergreen Series~
He wants justice–some say revenge. She wants peace. A deep betrayal may deny them everything.
As punishment for a botched arrest, U.S. Marshal “Dent” Hernandez is temporarily remanded to the quiet little town of Evergreen, Wyoming. Not only does his hometown hold some bad memories, but he is champing at the bit to go after vicious killers, not waste his time scolding candy thieves. And he most certainly should not be escorting the very pretty, but jittery, schoolteacher around. What is she so afraid of? Turns out, a lot of folks are keeping secrets in Evergreen.
An old-fashioned Western, Hang Your Heart on Christmas reads like an episode of Gunsmoke or Bonanza. Packed with drama, a tantalizing mystery, and a heartwarming romance, you’ll come back to read this lawman’s story again and again–a story you’d expect to see on the the Hallmark Channel but one with a mystery worthy of Longmire.
BONUS MATERIAL– Includes a special vintage Christmas recipe and the true story behind the fictional Dent Hernandez! A clean, cowboy western romance with action and adventure. A great read, to take on vacation with you, any time of the year!
Here comes the bride…and he’s not happy
Audra Drysdale grudgingly accepts that the mere presence of a husband will keep her men working on her ranch, and a greedy cattle baron under control. It seems a perfectly reasonable idea, then, to ask her uncle, who is the town attorney and a matchmaker of sorts, to find her a groom–a “proxy” who will take her orders and dish them out to the men. A marriage of convenience seems to be in order …
Dillon Pine is in jail for a conspiracy charge, but because of certain mitigating factors, he’s deemed a good risk for an unusual form of probation: serving as Audra’s husband. After a year, he can abandon her and she won’t tell. By then, she will have proven to the cowboys she’s a competent rancher, and the cattleman next door will be looking elsewhere for a wife. But when word gets out that Dillon came to Audra via Evergreen’s matchmaker, he’s dubbed a “male order bride.” The resulting jokes at his expense are constant and brutal. Just how much abuse can Dillon’s pride stand?
When Audra discovers her father’s death was no accident, she realizes her new husband is in danger, too. And she cares . . . quite a lot, it turns out. To save Dillon, she may have to let go of the one thing she’s fought her whole life to keep.
A heartwarming light comedy, Ask Me to Marry You tells a story in the vein of Love Comes Softly and Pride and Prejudice. Hope, courage, and selfless sacrifices – what you’ll do for the man you love. Enjoy this sweet, “clean and wholesome” mail order bride story–with a twist!
Secret identities lead to stolen hearts.
Can love survive the truth?
Intrepid reporter Ellie Blair wants a story–the one story–that will make her name bigger than Nellie Bly’s. She’ll do anything to get it. Lie, masquerade as someone else … even walk away from a man she could love.
Sometimes, it takes a truly strong man to surrender to love…
Evergreen’s sheriff, Dent Hernandez, has to learn to live with love. Not an easy thing for a man who for years made a career of hunting down and hanging some of the worst outlaws in the territory. Can he find his romantic side and ask for Amy’s hand in a truly unique, magical way?
Or will a suave, handsome ghost from her past derail Dent’s plan—if he can even come up with one?
Faith. Honor. Love. Which will he sacrifice?
Joel Chapman feels like a failure. Losing a leg in battle, he failed to fulfill his duty as a captain. According to his wife, without two good legs, he’s failed as a husband and provider. Along with his self-respect, his spirit is dying a slow, painful death.
Angela Fairbanks is the daughter of a tyrant—a cattle baron known for his iron fist and cold heart. She has no doubt once he learns she is carrying an illegitimate child, he will banish her from the ranch.
Compassion and honor overtaking his good sense, Joel offers a noble lie to protect Angela and secure a home for her and the baby: one day as her husband, and then he’ll “abandon” her.
Will the noble lie become simple deceit? Or is he man enough to resist his heart and keep his vows?
Charlene needs a miracle. God has one waiting … a hundred years in the past.
Charlene needs a miracle to escape her abusive husband. Will traveling one hundred years in the past be far enough to get away?
In Time for Christmas is a haunting tale of love and hope set against the backdrop of turn-of-the-century Colorado. Reminiscent of Somewhere in Time and The Two Worlds of Jenny Logan, this quick page turner will reveal how each life has a purpose and plan.
Charlene Williams is a wounded woman trapped in a dangerously violent marriage. When husband Dale discovers her innocent chats with the mailman, he flies into a jealous rage and whisks her out of town to his family’s ranch–an isolated, dilapidated place no one has lived on for years. With the promise that he’ll be back in a few days, he knocks Charlene unconscious and leaves.
She wakes up on the ranch–a hundred years in the past. Almost instantly she is drawn to Billy Page, Dale’s great grandfather. The connection is powerful and mysterious, but should she risk falling in love … with a ghost?
She’ll learn one thing for certain: Her Heavenly Father is in control of the very fabric of time.
Act like a man. Think like a lady.
Banished to the dusty cow town of Misery for an alleged affair, Grace Hendrick wants nothing more than to get her son away from the clutches of his abusive father Bull, back in Chicago. But if she dares to return home, Bull has promised Grace she’ll never see their son again. She has no choice but to accept her situation–temporarily. Struggling to figure a way to survive, she refuses to consider prostitution. The hamlet of Misery, however, isn’t brimming over with jobs for respectable women. Fueled by hate and desperation, she concocts a shocking plan to find work.
Thad Walker is the middle son of the oldest, most successful cattle baron in Wyoming, and he always puts the ranch first. One chance meeting with Grace Hendrick, though, batters his focus like a hail storm in July. And there couldn’t be a worse time to lose his focus.
A true Western saga written in the the vein of Lonesome Dove and Redeeming Love, truth weaves seamlessly with fiction in Grace be a Lady to deliver a stunning tale of love blossoming in a field of violence.
~Sweethearts of Jubilee Springs Series~
She has a list of qualifications for her groom.
He doesn’t measure up.
But sometimes, a good man comes around.
Based on a true story … Oliver Martin is a shiftless, mischievous no-account. But he wasn’t always. Jilted at the altar, he takes nothing seriously anymore and now spends his days looking for a drink or trouble, whichever comes first. John Fowler, Oliver’s friend and business partner, spends his time trying to keep Oliver out of trouble. Tired of rescuing the young man, Fowler decides a wife might bring back the old, steady Oliver. He applies for a mail order bride for the lad—but secretly.
Abigail Holt spent ten years married to a belligerent drunk. Now widowed, she’s worn out trying to make ends meet and raise her boys alone. She has decided to become a mail order bride—in her estimation, the perfect way to pick a husband—using pure logic and a rational mind. Marrying for love the first time resulted in a train wreck. She wants to find a good man who is qualified to raise her sons. Romantic entanglements will not be part of the bargain.
She arrives in Jubilee Springs ready to wed Oliver—who has never heard of her. Perhaps that’s a Godsend as he clearly doesn’t meet her standards. The mail order fiasco ends Abigail’s desire to ever be a bride again, and that’s just fine with Oliver. He has no intention of ever getting his heart broken again.
But love and life—and even tragedy—can’t be avoided. In fact, trying to run from them may do more harm than good …
About the Author
“Heather Blanton is blessed with a natural storytelling ability, an ‘old soul’ wisdom, and wide expansive heart. Her characters are vividly drawn, and in the western settings where life can be hard, over quickly, and seemingly without meaning, she reveals Larger Hands holding everyone and everything together.”
MARK RICHARD, EXECUTIVE PRODUCER, AMC’S HELL ON WHEELS, and PEN/ERNEST HEMINGWAY AWARD WINNER
A former journalist, I am an avid researcher and endeavor to skillfully weave truth in among fictional storylines. I love exploring the American West, especially ghost towns and museums. I have walked parts of the Oregon Trail, ridden horses through the Rockies, climbed to the top of Independence Rock, and even held an outlaw’s note in my hand.
I grew up in the mountains of Western North Carolina on a steady diet of Bonanza, Gunsmoke, and John Wayne Westerns. My most fond childhood memory is of sitting next to my daddy, munching on popcorn, and watching Lucas McCain unload that Winchester! My daddy also taught me to shoot and, trust me, I can sew buttons on with my rifle.
Currently I reside near Raleigh, NC, on my farm with my three boys and lots of dirt, some dogs, and a couple of horses. Oh, and a trio of cats who are above it all. And did I say dirt? #FarmLife