1st Chapter Excerpt
By Kelli A. Wilkins
Michigan Territory, 1823
“Get her, Roger! She’s going to tell!”
Kathleen peeked out from behind the tree in time to see Roger tackle the young woman to the ground. Her nude body glowed in the moonlight.
“She won’t tell anyone anything.” Roger knelt over the struggling girl, pinning her shoulders down with his knees. “I’ll make sure of it.”
Kathleen held her breath, too petrified to move or make a sound. If Roger and his friends knew she had followed them out here… If they knew she had seen the vile thing they’d done…
Her skin prickled as Roger pulled a knife from beneath his jacket. He wasn’t really going to—
Kathleen jerked awake and bumped her head against the stagecoach window. She wrapped her arms around her chest and shoved the horrid memory away. It was another nightmare, another reminder of what Roger had done. Despite the fact she was far away from him, he still terrified her. Maybe he wouldn’t find her again.
She looked out the coach window and saw faded wooden buildings facing the street. They were approaching a small settlement. How long had she slept? Where was she? It didn’t matter. She wouldn’t stay long.
The stagecoach lurched to a stop. After weeks of being jostled in the cramped coach, she welcomed the stillness. She looked out the window again, careful not to rest her bare hand on the gritty frame. The coach listed to one side as the driver hopped down. She braced herself to deal with him again.
“End of the line. This here’s Ranford,” he said as he opened the door.
Kathleen stepped from the coach and frowned. The tiny town appeared deserted. The driver took her trunks off the top of the coach and dropped them onto the boards that served as a sidewalk.
“That’s the livery, this here’s the saloon, and thar’s the store.” He pointed around the gray town, his sweat-soaked armpit inches from her face.
The driver’s stench made her eyes water. She pulled her gloves from her dress pocket and fanned the air under her nose.
“If’n I was givin’ out advice, Missy, I’d tell you two things. Either git yoreself back on this coach and leave with me, or see about sendin’ word home asking for return fare back east. Ain’t no other coaches coming through here anytime soon.” He scratched his bald head, then continued.
“Whatever it is you’re runnin’ from cain’t be so bad you’d wanna stay in this godforsaken place. I’ll be leaving after a drink an’ a poke at Clyde’s. You got any sense in your skull, you’ll be sitting inside waitin’ fer me,” he said, then sauntered down the street.
Kathleen squared her shoulders. Wait for him? She knew what she’d get if she waited—abused and killed, then dumped along the trail somewhere. The driver had leered at her whenever they stopped to let the horses rest or when he had to relieve himself. He knew she didn’t have enough money to pay a return fare, and he’d offered to let her work it out in “trade.”
She sighed. Getting back on the stagecoach and returning the way she came was not an option. She’d have to take her chances in this sorry excuse for a town until she could scrape together enough money to keep moving.
End of the line. Now what? Her head hurt, and she was running out of ideas. With the little money she had left, she might be able to get a room and food. Then what? Send a wire home and beg for money? Forgiveness? No, it would be better to keep traveling west where nobody knew her.
Kathleen broke from her thoughts as she spotted a tall man approaching her. He wore clothes made from animal skins, boots, and a brown hat. She bent over her trunks and pretended to dust them off with her glove. The man’s boots clomped on the wooden boards, then stopped next to her. She waited a few seconds before glancing at him out of the corner of her eye.
Kathleen raised her head and glanced into his green eyes. Startled, she dropped her satin glove in the dust and bent to retrieve it. “Afternoon.”
The stranger knelt before her, white glove in hand. “I hope I didn’t spook ya,” he said, as he fingered the silky material.
She took a moment and studied his tan skin and long black hair. His gaze locked onto hers, and she swallowed hard. As she took the glove, their fingers touched and an odd tingling sensation raced through her.
“Er, no, you didn’t. Not at all.” She rose at the same time he did.
“Thank you for your kindness.”
The man smiled. “My pleasure, anytime. Have a good day, ma’am.” He touched the brim of his hat and walked off.
Kathleen took a deep breath and tried to regain her composure. What was it about the man that made her feel so flustered? It couldn’t be those green eyes or the rumble of his low voice. At least he hadn’t leered at her bosom like all the other men she’d come into contact with. Who was he? Where had he come from? Had he been watching her? It wasn’t every day an unescorted woman got off a coach in the middle of nowhere. She was alone in this town, and she would be noticed.
“Come on, Kathleen,” she whispered as she pulled on her gloves. “You’ve got to think fast.” She had to make a plan. There was no time to stand in the street with her heart pounding over a man she’d just bumped into. It wasn’t proper, and it wasn’t easy to control her breathing.
She gathered her skirts and headed for the general store. Maybe something inside would give her an idea. She’d made it all the way from New York on her wits and instincts. She’d have to find a way to keep going and not get distracted over the stranger.
The heavy smells of tobacco and leather assaulted her as she entered the small store. Two men were leaning against the wooden counter, talking. They gawked at her as she went down one of three aisles. She ignored them as she stared at the shelves lined with tin plates, iron skillets, and blankets. From the way the fat man was looking at her, she wouldn’t be safe in town for long. What would happen to her when it got dark?
The front door opened and the dark-haired stranger strolled into the store. Kathleen bowed her head and pretended to read a can of evaporated milk as her heart hammered.
* * *
Luther spotted the lady from the coach the second he entered the store. He closed the door behind him and watched her turn away. Who was she? What would bring such a beautiful girl to this unsettled wilderness? He noticed a lock of her golden hair had fallen out from under her white bonnet. Why was she traveling alone?
“Well, look who’s here. It’s Luther.”
He glared at Jed, not surprised to see he’d gotten fatter over the winter and lost more of his hair.
“I came for supplies.”
The plank floor creaked as he made his way toward a barrel of apples. He saw the lady look up, then glance down again. Was she shy or afraid? Luther focused his attention on the apples. He had no business looking at a woman like her.
“So whatcha want today, Luther?” Jed asked.
Luther took four apples from the barrel and walked to the counter. “These apples, three sacks each of flour, sugar, and coffee.” He rummaged in his doeskin jacket for his money. Jed never let him buy on credit, and the little bit of cash he had needed to last until autumn. “Any mail?”
The man standing next to Jed chuckled, showing gaps where his teeth had been. “Hell no, Luther. Who’d write you? President Monroe?”
“Don’t start with me, Pete,” he growled. “I ain’t in the mood. You know damn well who.”
“Oh, the mail-order place,” Jed replied. “No, Luther, the woman you tried to buy ain’t got here yet. Why don’t you give up? It’s been over a year. They ain’t gonna find a woman who’d sell her soul to be your wife.” Jed laughed. “Ain’t no woman that desperate in the whole world.”
“Especially after what happened to Julie,” Pete commented.
He shot Pete a death look. “Shut the hell up about her, or I swear…”
Luther turned as the woman from the coach brushed by him in her haste to get outside. What had spooked her?
“Looks like you scairt another one off,” Jed taunted.
* * *
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