The Widow and the Wanted Man (Preview)


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Chapter One

Red Creek— June 1883 

The sun was setting as Nancy reached to pull down the blind on the front door. She hesitated as she saw the explosion of orange sitting majestically just above the mountain range. How many times had she seen it? she thought to herself. Hundreds, probably thousands in her twenty-two years, but still it captivated her. She froze, her heart pounding in her chest. A memory of looking at the same view, sitting on the front porch of the nearly finished hotel, a freshly drawn glass of beer and a small tumbler of cordial on the table in front of them, shot through Nancy’s mind. 

Joe had reached for his drink first. Nancy was not surprised, he had worked hard all day, in the heat of the summer, and this was his reward. That was what he called it.

“Cool and mighty welcome!” he said, smiling at her, his brown, tanned face still glistening with the sweat from the day’s tasks, and his fine, blond hair sticking to the back of his neck. The renovation of the hotel was much harder than either one of them had thought it would be. Instead of two months, it was now six months since they started. The golden liquid disappeared quickly, and Joe had stood up immediately after he’d drained the last drop.

“I’ll go,” she had said, taking his glass from his hand. She knew what would happen if he went to get a second drink himself.

“Well, thank you, darlin’. I’m feeling weary.” His deep blue eyes shone up at her as he sat back onto the chair. Her heart jumped, as it always did when she saw the love in his face. It never failed to surprise and satisfy her, at the same time. She loved him, too, although she rarely said it.

Nancy had glanced back at Joe as she opened the hotel door. His face had sagged slightly. He did look tired, she thought, under the healthy glow of the sun, his skin looked sallow. Was it the work or the drink?

The question had regularly run through her head these past few months as Joe reached for the whisky bottle a little too often, saying, “Just a small one. I’ve earned it,” as she frowned. It was never just a small one, and, regularly, not just one drink. More times than not, he had stumbled into the bedroom, after she had left him with the bottle on the front porch, to fall into a deep sleep until late the next morning. He was full of apologies when he finally did emerge, bleary-eyed with an obvious headache.

“A strong cup of coffee, that’s what I need. Then I will be right by your side,” he would say as she wielded the paintbrush on the seemingly never-ending walls of the half-finished building. 

They had bought the one-time drinking saloon with the small inheritance that she had received when her parents had both died of consumption during the terrible winter that had taken many of the older townspeople. Joe, an orphan himself, had been philosophical about it, hugging her close when she gave way to tears at her loss. She was an only child, and she had felt strangely alone.

“You’ve got me,” he had said tenderly, taking her face into his cupped hands, “and your Ma and Pa would want you to do something with their hard-earned money. I’ve been thinking that there is just enough to buy that wreck of an old rundown saloon in town. We could do it up. It would only take a couple of months. Could be a fortune waiting to be made, what with the mining companies moving into the area like they are. Soon have the bar full of thirsty prospectors with dollars in their pockets. All we need is whisky and that new-fangled drink called beer, a few pretty young girls to help them spend their money. We can’t go wrong.”

Nancy wasn’t sure about the drinking and girls, she had seen too many of her friends take up employment at a saloon only to be deserted by the men they befriended. She had understood Joe’s reasoning, though. If the saloon was popular, they might be able to make enough money to build a bigger house outside the town in a year or two. Her parents had been cattle folk, and she had a hankering to do the same, and to have a family. Buying the wreck of a building that had been the drinking house for the men of the town before it nearly burned to the ground after a gunfight had been a good investment. If they could also rebuild the small barn next to the saloon, as Nancy had suggested, that had been all but razed to the ground, it could be their home until they could afford to move. 

Joe had hugged her tightly and laughed the hearty, deep-throated sound that always made her knees go a little weak, especially when they bought the saloon. He had been the love of her life since they were at school together, and just seeing him happy made Nancy’s heart sing. She had never imagined that she would be the one that he picked to marry. 

Most of the girls in the town saw him as a good catch, with his rugged looks and tall, lean, rangy body. Nancy had deliberately stayed at the back of the hall the night of the town dance, watching Joe talking easily with the group of girls. She had never been so surprised as when he had started walking toward her, and she had nearly fainted when he asked her to dance.

“Would you do me the honor,” he had said, holding out his hand, his eyes sparkling and a broad smile on his face. She had put her trembling fingers in his, and that was it. She had been smitten. He had felt the same way, and within a few weeks, she knew they would be together forever. On their wedding night, Nancy had asked Joe why he had chosen her to dance with that night, and he had laughed aloud.

“Why, you were the prettiest of the bunch.” he had said, twirling her around, then catching her waist and drawing her close toward him.

She knew it wasn’t true. There were many beautiful girls to choose from in the town, who would have been more than happy to have Joe as their beau. Maybe it was her lack of self-confidence, or just her realistic practical nature, but she had always wondered why Joe had chosen her. She didn’t have the beautiful golden, flowing shimmer of hair that her best friend, Lucy Tovey, had or the willowy long-leggedness of Grace Nelson. Next to them and Clara Holliday, with her mane of thick black hair and dark, mysterious eyes, she was ordinary, plain Nancy. 

She had mid-brown hair, dark eyes, and pale skin that didn’t like the sun. She wasn’t too tall or too small, not fat or thin, average in every way. The only feature she had that stood out was her hair, but not in the beautiful way that Clara’s did. Most days it was an uncontrollable mass of curls that she tried to manage by tying it up at the back of her head. Her face was round, apple-shaped, with cheeks that shone when she was hot. Joe had often rubbed his hand gently over the cherry-red patches.

“The best in the barrel,” he would say as he kissed her lightly on the nose.

Nancy ran her hand over her face; she could almost feel his slightly rough skin brushing against hers. She closed her eyes as a tear slid from her eyelashes. I miss him so much, she thought, feeling the familiar wrench of her heart against her ribcage. She shook herself, trying to release the memories of the past, but they were all around her. 

Nancy looked up at the gallery Joe had created from the redwood trees in the forest. The doors of the upstairs rooms, each carefully etched with their numbers; the staircase with its twirled batons and the scrubbed wooden bar, stretching from one side of the room to the other. He had worked so hard and been so supportive of her ideas, not dismissing her as just a woman when she suggested that they turn the old saloon into a hotel. Joe had wrinkled his forehead but listened to her reasoning.

“That way,” she’d said excitedly, “we not only get the trade from the mining companies at the bar, but we would also have income from renting the rooms…on a long-term basis.” Joe’s eyes had opened a little bit wider as she continued, speaking more quickly than normal.

“The saloon has always had an upstairs. We won’t talk about what the rooms were used for then…” she said, blushing slightly, aware as she was that the drinking house had always had a bit of a reputation for bawdy behavior, “but if we let the rooms to the foremen of the mines…you know, the ones in charge of the men, I’m guessing that they would likely be married men…older, more…controlled.” 

Joe had nodded slowly. “You might have something there, Nancy.” His eyes stared at her as though it was the first time he had really looked at her. He rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “If we get the ones in charge to take up the rooms for months at a time…they would want to eat here, too, so we could provide food. Their men will also drink here…” Joe had stopped speaking, his eyes shining, then he had lifted her up into the air and spun around until she felt dizzy. She had begged him to stop, and he had placed her back on the floor, holding her shoulders as he gazed into her eyes.

“And you wondered why I wanted to marry you! You are incredible!”

He had kissed her then, and for the next six months, he had worked from dawn to dusk, heaving the wood to rebuild the saloon. She had helped as much as she could, defying her friends who came around in their pretty dresses to watch the reconstruction.

“Oh, Nancy, you look almost boyish in those dungarees.” Clara had said, her dark eyes flashing at Joe as he effortlessly lifted a large timber. 

Joe had put the wood down and taken Nancy in his arms then, kissing her on her cheek, he had turned to Clara. “My wife can work as hard as any man, but believe me, she is all woman.”

Nancy had blushed and pushed him away, but she was secretly proud that Joe recognized how hard she worked. In her mind, there was no difference between them in terms of their responsibility to see the hotel built. They were a partnership, two equal partners, although she knew only too well that most men didn’t consider women that way. She had seen the bruises on Clara’s arms and the yellowing stain around her eye and listened to her friend explaining that she was clumsy, often knocking into doors. 

“Jed always says that I am as accident-prone as a dog with three legs,” she would say, laughing. 

Nancy could have accepted Clara’s reasons for her injuries, but it happened so often, she began to suspect that Jed, who was well known for brawling in the saloon, might have something to do with it. Nancy also knew that her friends that had taken serving jobs at the saloon, were often a target for the heavy-drinking miners. She had been concerned when Lucy and Grace told her stories of their experiences.

“They treat most women as idiots who are only good for serving them drinks and smiling nicely,” Lucy had said as she pushed her glorious, golden hair to one side. Lucy had always been the clever one at school, Nancy remembered. Quick with numbers with beautiful writing. There was a time when Lucy had wanted to be a teacher, but her father had laughed at the idea and told her to take the first job she was offered at the saloon.

Nancy thanked her father silently, often, for not treating her as a brainless girl. He had desperately wanted a son, and when Nancy was born, he decided that he would bring her up as if she was one. She learned how to herd the cattle, brand them, and defend herself against the drovers who thought she was someone they could push around. Her father had also encouraged her to read, especially the newspapers and journals that he loved.

“You don’t have to travel the world to learn about it,” he had said on more than one occasion.

She knew she was lucky with Joe as well. He had always treated her with respect and admired her ability to discuss interesting subjects. 

“Beauty and brains, that’s my Nancy,” he would say, ruffling her hair.

Nancy’s blood turned cold as she remembered that Joe had said that very sentence the day he died. She had left him sitting on the porch with the second glass of beer. When he didn’t come to bed straight away, she hadn’t been concerned, but when she woke at dawn, and his side of the bed was empty, she had been surprised. That had never happened. She had walked quickly down the staircase from their bedroom in the hotel. As the barn was still a wreck and wouldn’t be their home for a few months yet, they were using one of the rooms that would be let out when they opened.

“We can sleep in the first room that is finished. The one on the east side, so that when you wake, you can feel the sun on your rosy cheeks,” Joe had said, brushing her face with his lips.

As she reached the bottom of the staircase, Nancy could see Joe still sitting on the porch, the glass of beer in front of him undrunk. She instantly thought he had fallen asleep.

“Joe! You’ve been out here all night!” she said as she opened the front door. When he didn’t reply, she stopped. His head was slouched on his chest, his arms hanging loosely at his sides. She stepped forward and touched his bare shoulder. His skin was cold. 

She had crouched down in front of him, her hands cupping his lifeless face. She ran her finger across the blue-tinged lips, then…all she could remember was hearing a scream in the distance. A painful sound like a wounded animal; it seemed to go on for a long time. It was only when she felt the warmth of her friend’s hand gently pulling her away from Joe that she realized the sound was coming from her own mouth.

“Come, Nancy,” Lucy had said as she unfolded her fingers from Joe’s hand. “The doctor is on his way.”

The doctor had explained that Joe’s heart had just stopped. There was no injury or sign of any other reason why he should die so suddenly.

“Sometimes, that’s the way it is,” Doctor Stoneaway said. “Could be something he inherited from his folk, his father died young, I remember. His mother’s heart gave up not long after him. Maybe Joe had the same condition.”

For Nancy, it was inexplicable. How could he be gone? He had just been striding around, admiring his handiwork in the nearly finished hotel, telling her how clever she was to think of the idea. How could he be dead? 

In the weeks that followed, Nancy grieved, crying until her heart could take no more, until she felt empty. Her life had been filled with such joy being married to Joe. It was a dream come true, and every day she had loved him more. Each morning, as the sun rose, shining through their bedroom window, just as Joe had said. She would look at the empty pillow next to her and remember, once more, that she was alone. The questions that had spun around her head many times since Joe’s death occupied her thoughts constantly.

Why had Joe left her? She must have been wicked to lose the love of her life just when everything was going so well. How was she going to survive without him? There seemed no point to anything.

The hotel was an excuse not to think about how alone she was. It had to be finished if Nancy was going to survive. She threw herself into the tasks every day, as Joe would have done, from sunrise to sunset. The work that was still to be done was sometimes overwhelming, but little by little, she saw improvements. 

After putting the finishing touches to the last lodging room, she had gone outside to check that the curtains she had hung that day looked right. Sitting on the bench that Joe had made for the porch, staring at the new windows and bright drapes, the newly painted walls, and pretty flowerpots, she had had a tremendous sensation of Joe’s presence. As though he was sitting right next to her. 

This had all been his doing. Really, what better tribute to him than to make it into a success? At the time, it was the only thing that she felt she could do to make sense of her situation. 

Back inside and looking around the saloon now, Nancy hoped that Joe would approve. It was already growing popular. She had lodgers in most of the rooms, and the bar was popular with the men from the mines and in the town. Again, she felt the familiar ache of her heart. 

If only he could be here to see it, she thought, tears welling up in her eyes. She felt suddenly weak, and her legs began to shake. She clutched at the front door handle to steady herself. Leaning against the cool surface of the window, she closed her eyes, trying to erase the memories that had whirled around her mind. 

Without any warning, the door began to rattle. Nancy felt the handle being pulled sharply. She jumped back a couple of steps, staring through the window. The face of a man, his outline bathed in an orange glow, stared back. She stifled the scream that rose in her throat as the man lifted the black hat from his head and bowed slightly. Nancy swooned, her cry ringing in her ears as the blackness overcame her. 


Chapter Two

The man looked down at the pale face of the woman in his arms. He had just been in time to catch her as she swooned, and her body crumpled toward the floor. When he had seen her sway, he had pushed the door hard, breaking the lock, stepping forward quickly to stop her falling. He was now kneeling, holding her head and shoulders off the floor. 

She moaned quietly, her lips moving silently, then she blinked her eyes open. The brownest, deepest eyes he had ever seen stared up at him. For a few seconds, her body relaxed, almost melting into his arms, then she blinked, her eyes widened, and she started to shake. He could feel her body stiffening with fear as it spread through her. She struggled, pulling herself away from him. He tried to help her, but she pushed his hands away.

“Now, now, you’re alright, ma’am. You just had a little fright, seeing me at the door like that. I am so sorry I startled you.”

The woman shrank back from him, shuffling across the floor, trying to sit up. He straightened to a standing position and stepped back from her. He hadn’t meant to alarm her. She looked terrified. He tried to imagine what she must be feeling, waking up from a faint and seeing a stranger holding her like that. She looked to him like a woman who wouldn’t take any nonsense from anyone.

“Excuse me for being so familiar, ma’am, but I didn’t want you to hit your head on the floor. Could’ve caused a nasty wound.”

The woman squeezed her eyes together, refocusing on his face, then she struggled to her knees and stood up, brushing her skirt, and pulling the dark curls that had escaped from their band back into place. Her cheeks shone bright red. He wasn’t sure whether she was embarrassed or angry, until she spoke.

“Forgive me…I suddenly felt dizzy…Thank you for…for…your help. I…I think it was the heat.”

“No problem, ma’am, it was probably my fault, appearing out of nowhere like that. I didn’t mean to scare you. I just wondered if you had a bed for the night.”

He turned and pointed at the sign swinging in the wind outside.

Red Creek Hotel—Rooms to Let

The woman stared at the sign then seemed to wince, she looked down at the floor momentarily, shook her shoulders, then said briskly, “No, sorry, we have no vacancies, and we are not a hotel…I meant to change the sign when…after…I meant to change it.”

The man looked up at the gallery at the sound of doors being opened. Two women appeared, one with long, golden hair that swung over her shoulders to the middle of her back. The other, her black hair curling around her face, was holding a small child that had started to cry.

“Is everything alright, Nancy? I heard a loud crack…it sounded like a gunshot.” 

The blond woman started to come down the stairs, staring at the man and then at the broken front door. 

“It’s fine, Lucy. This gentleman here was just trying to help me…I had a little accident. Please go back to your rooms. Everything is fine.”

The dark-haired girl scowled down at the man. “Are you sure, Nancy? I can call the sheriff…”

“No, no, I’m really alright, Clara. This man has done nothing wrong. Please see to the baby.”

After staring at the man for a couple of moments, then nodding at the woman they had called Nancy, both women disappeared back into their rooms as the sound of the baby’s cries faded into the distance.

The man stepped forward, looking up at the closed doors.

“You say you are not a hotel, ma’am? I don’t understand.”

The woman seemed to bristle at his response, then, moving swiftly, she opened the door that he had burst through, pointing into the street.

“That’s right, mister. This is not a hotel. It’s a lodging house for women and children. If you are looking for rooms, there are some over the stables for men just down the street there. They might suit you.” 

Her face was set in a stern expression, and she seemed somewhat defensive, he thought.

“I didn’t mean to offend you, ma’am. I am just a little confused…I saw the sign and naturally assumed…”

The woman pushed a few strands of her hair back behind her ears, straightened her shoulders, and pointed again toward the stables. 

“Well, you assumed wrong. Like I said, we don’t have men boarders. The stables have rooms…”

“I know,” the man said, reluctantly stepping through the doorway out onto the street, “but they’re all full, and by the noise coming from inside, it didn’t look like many people were having an early night, if you understand my meaning. I need a quiet place…I’ve traveled a long way. If there is anywhere that I could just lay my head for tonight, I will be gone tomorrow.”

The woman stared back at him, her eyes scanning his face. She seemed to be considering something. Did she recognize him, had posters already spread this far? he wondered, wishing that he had ridden on for a few more miles, just to be safe. The woman frowned, then hesitated, looking deeply into his eyes.

“You’ve come a long way, you say?” she said.

He relaxed a little. If she had recognized him, he was sure she would have hurried back inside. He had seen that reaction before.

“Yes, ma’am, been riding more than three days, sleeping rough. I’m fair beat now.”

“That’s not good. No wonder you’re exhausted.” A look of concern spread across her face.

“S’right, ma’am. I have to admit I am dead on my feet. I don’t think I could saddle up and move on, but that’s not your problem. I am sorry I troubled you.” With that, the man picked up the saddlebags he had left on the floor, swinging them over his shoulder.

“I’ll say good evening, ma’am. Hope you are feeling alright now.”

The woman’s face softened slightly, and she shook her head.

“Wait…you look as though you would have trouble getting on a horse, never mind riding one. There is somewhere, but it’s not really a room, more a space…in the old barn out back…Its roof needs mending, and I’m sure there are critters living in it, but it’s warm and peaceful. You can put your head down there tonight, but I will have to charge you though, not the usual rate, under the circumstances.”

The man breathed a sigh of relief, feeling for the last of the coins in his pocket. 

“That’s mighty kind of you, ma’am. I’m sure the barn will be fine, and of course, I will pay whatever you think is right.”

The woman nodded curtly, closing the front door behind her and leading him around the building to a courtyard where a dilapidated barn dominated the space. Most of the roof was missing, the doors were hanging from their hinges, and there was a large hole where the bale shutters should have been. The woman pushed the doors forcefully and stepped inside. She looked around, a dismayed expression on her face.

“Like I say, it still needs a bit of work…but it should be warm enough, and it will certainly be quiet. We are not a noisy house, babies excepted,” she said with a wry smile.

The man looked up at the roof where a large tarpaulin was hanging from the rafters, the early evening moonlight shone through the hole, bathing the barn in a soft glow.

“Well, I don’t mind the sound of a baby in full throat, ma’am. Maybe I’m strange or something, but it makes me feel human hearing that sound, if you know what I mean.”

The woman’s head jerked around to stare at him. Her mouth had dropped open slightly, and she looked stunned. Perhaps he had spoken out of turn. He wasn’t sure if the woman was a mother. She wore a wedding ring, so there was every chance she was. He decided to change the subject just in case it was a sensitive one. He didn’t want to upset her now.

“Anyhow, there’s certainly some work to be done, ma’am. Did you say that you were hoping to fix it up…as a home?”

The woman looked at him again, as though considering something, then her face creased sadly. He noticed that dullness had replaced the shine that had been in her eyes when he had mentioned the baby.

“It is the last thing…we…I…always planned to do, to make this into a home, but…I’ve been too busy with the lodging house, and I think it needs more than the care I could give it.”

“You are right there. This is a big job, new rafters, doors.” He saw her crestfallen face and quickly added, “You should be proud of the lodging house, though. It looks real fine. I am sure your lady boarders are very happy to have such a place to stay.”

The woman looked at him, and for the first time, her face looked brighter. She smiled briefly.

“I hope so,” she said softly, then she pointed up to the baling floor. “You’ll find fresh hay up there. It might be warmer, too…Make yourself as comfortable as you can.” She hesitated at the door, then turned smartly around. “That will be fifty cents.”

The man slipped his hand into his waistcoat pocket and drew out the few coins in there, counting them into her hand.

“Just right,” she said as she closed her fist around the money. “Breakfast is at seven. You can let me know then whether you want to stay any longer then.”

Before he had a chance to reply, the woman had left, slamming the lopsided doors behind her. He looked around, then slung his saddlebags on his shoulder and mounted the broken ladder to the baling floor wearily. She was right. There was new hay that was dry and warmed by the sun. He took his waistcoat and shirt off, rolling them into a makeshift pillow, then stretched his body out on the floor. Looking up, he could see the night sky that was so clear, the dotted bright stars seemed to be in reach.

For the first time in days, he felt safe. What tomorrow would bring was another challenge, he knew that. He didn’t know how long he could keep moving before what seemed inevitable happened. He felt for the gun on his hip. If they came tonight, he would be ready.

My new novel “The Widow and the Wanted Man” is coming soon! Stay tuned for the announcement!

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Penelope Mitchel’s world shatters when her childhood sweetheart is accused of robbery and vanishes after a daring jailbreak. With a hard-hearted sheriff for a father, her only solace is her close bond with her twin brother. But when her brother is kidnapped five years later, and her father refuses to act, Penelope is thrust into a desperate situation.

Will she summon the courage to defy her father and rescue her brother alone?

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As Penelope and Liam find comfort in each other’s arms, they also face the urgent task of proving Liam’s innocence and rescuing Penelope’s missing brother. Together, they confront challenges and dangers, determined to overcome them. Will their love withstand the trials ahead, or will they be torn apart by the looming threat of the train robber?

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Grab my new series, "Western Hearts United", and get 2 FREE novels as a gift! Have a look here!

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