Authors: Ana Leigh
Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #General, #Historical
She’s a young, adventurous widow heading West to see her brother. But an unexpected love might set her on an entirely different path.
He and his brother Garth are chasing their runaway sister. But suddenly a breathtaking woman with a passionate spirit is steering Clay on a new course—toward love.
“One of the most exciting Western romance series of all time.”
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
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Copyright © 2004 by Anna Baier
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To Micki Nuding,
for giving me the hope and belief in new beginnings.
“I’m sorry, Mrs. Elliott, but I don’t allow any woman to join the wagon train who is not accompanied by an adult male member of her family.”
“But Mr. Scott, I don’t need a man’s help. I can drive my own wagon. I often drove the bakery wagon back home in Vermont,” Rebecca said.
“A woman alone creates other considerations, ma’am. Delicate ones.”
“It’s a long journey, ma’am, at least four months, or as many as six if we run into trouble. In that length of time, a man…” He looked away and cleared his throat.
“Let us say, a single woman can become a distraction to a man, whether he’s single or married. The married women prefer that their husbands are not subjected to that kind of temptation.”
Rebecca was getting angrier by the minute. “Mr. Scott, I’m a widow. My husband was killed during the war and I’m still grieving his loss. I am not interested in… in attracting other men, particularly another woman’s husband. All I want to do is get to California and join my brother.”
“Then why not go by sea? A sea journey is much safer for a woman alone.”
“And takes almost a year, sir.”
For the past fifteen minutes Rebecca had been arguing with this stubborn man. She could only hope he knew more about the Oregon Trail than he did about women. She may not be as physically strong as a man, but she certainly had as much grit and stamina as any she’d met—even more than some.
“Mr. Scott, I’ve already purchased a wagon and team.”
“Then I suggest you either sell them or find yourself a husband real fast if you want to join this train. We leave at first light the day after tomorrow.” He tipped a finger to his hat. “Ma’am.”
Rebecca folded her arms across her chest and watched the wagon master disappear into the crowd filling the streets. It was clear to see there was no changing the man’s mind.
Returning to her hotel, she went into the dining room and sat down and ordered a cup of coffee to calm down.
She felt like screaming. She’d made some foolish mistakes in her life, but maybe this was the worst. Maybe she never should have left Vermont.
No, it wasn’t a mistake. She’d been miserable there. And after Charley’s death, there was nothing to keep her there. She’d wanted to get as far away from Vermont as she could, and the letter from her brother in Sacramento made the city sound like a golden land of opportunity.
So now she was faced with two certainties. One, she had spent most of her money; and two, she did not intend to give up and go back East. She’d come all this way to start a new life, and she wasn’t about to give up without a fight.
Since this was the last train out until next spring, no doubt she could find employment until then. But even if she did, she’d still be faced with the same problem if she didn’t have a husband. And Lord knows she didn’t want one.
But desperate situations called for desperate measures. From what she could see, there was only one obvious solution—she had to find a husband quickly.
Because by hook or crook, she intended to leave with the wagon train.
With steadfast determination she left the dining room and stopped at the desk to get the key to her room.
“Good morning, Miz Elliott,” the desk clerk said.
“Good morning, Jimmy.”
“You sure are up and around early, ma’am,” he said.
“Yes, I had an errand to run.”
“Heard tell you came here to join up with that wagon train. Thought they didn’t allow any unescorted ladies on the train.”
“So I was just told. I still intend to go.”
“I sure wouldn’t mind heading out to California,” he said. “Heard tell you can get rich there real quick.”
“Yes, that’s what my brother said in his letter.” Rebecca took a long look at the young man. This could be manna from heaven. “That’s why I’m going there.”
Tall and lanky, the young man couldn’t be much more than seventeen or eighteen. A boy that young would be easier to control than an older man might be. And she could talk him into making it a business arrangement. It would be robbing the cradle, but Scott never said anything about how old her husband had to be.
“How old are you, Jimmy?”
“Short a few days of eighteen,” he said.
“Do you have a family or a girlfriend, Jimmy?” If he had a girlfriend, she wasn’t about to break up the course of young love.
“No folks, or a girlfriend that I’m sweet on, ma’am.”
“And you’re sure you really want to go to California.”
“Oh, yeah. Been saving up for it. Oughta have enough by next year.”
“Jimmy, how would you like to accompany me to California?”
“What do you mean, ma’am?”
“I have a business proposition for you.”
At that moment several people approached the desk. Rebecca whispered, “Come up to my room when you’re off duty, and we’ll discuss it.”
He broke out into a wide grin. “Yes, ma’am!”
The next two hours Rebecca paced the floor of her room, wondering if the boy would lose his nerve and not show up.
When a knock sounded on the door, she took a deep breath and opened it. Jimmy stood there with a sly grin on his face.
“Come in, Jimmy.” Rebecca stepped aside so he could enter. “I’m glad you’re interested in my proposition.”
“Just what is it, Miz Elliott?”
“Well, as you know, a single woman is not permitted to travel alone. Inasmuch as you said you want to go to California, I thought you could accompany me.”
“You mean as a body guard or somethin’ like that?”
“Well, something like that. As my husband?”
“You mean we’d pretend to be married?”
“No, I don’t think Mr. Scott would be naïve enough to take our word for it. We would have to get married legally. When we get to California, we can have the marriage annulled and go our separate ways. I’ll furnish the wagon and food for the journey, and when we reach Sacramento, you can have the wagon and mules. I’d pay you more, but I’m afraid the food and supplies will take most of my remaining money.”
“And this won’t cost me anything?” he said.
“Not a cent. Whatever you’ve saved so far is yours to keep. All I want is a husband.”
“Yeah, and I know what for.”
Before she realized his intent, he shoved her back onto the bed and kissed her. She struggled to free herself and managed to hold him off.
“Jimmy, you don’t understand. I meant this as a
“Sure, I understand what you want. But I ain’t gonna buy no pig in a poke. I wanta try you out first.” He started to lower his pants.
“Get off me, you misguided oaf!” She managed to shove him away and scrambled off the bed. Looking around for a weapon, she grabbed her face mirror from the top of her dresser. “You come one step nearer and I’ll smack you in the face with this.” Opening the door, she said, “Now get out of here, you depraved little pervert, or I’ll call the sheriff.”
Trying to hold on to his pants, Jimmy stumbled past her. Rebecca put her shoe to his rear end and sent him sprawling right into the path of two men in the hallway. They almost fell over him, but managed to keep their footing. Jimmy got to his feet and managed to trip and fall again in his haste to get away.
Both men tipped their hats. “Is there a problem, ma’am?”
“Nothing I can’t handle,” she declared, and slammed the door.
Manna from heaven indeed! she fumed. That devil’s disciple was strictly from hell! Where did young men get such ideas? It was no wonder they called this the Wild West.
She decided to go back to where the wagons were assembled. Maybe she would see a prospect there. She would try one more time to be forthright, and if she was unsuccessful, she’d have to resort to deceit.
The area was jammed with people packing up wagons in preparation for the departure. The incessant clang of blacksmiths’ hammers rose above the cacophony of women’s chatter, the shouts of men, and the laughter of children playing tag as they darted among the throng. Her nostrils stung from the pungent odor of horses, mules, oxen, and cattle.
A buckskin-clad man, his grizzled beard stained with tobacco juice, slammed into her. He grabbed her arms to prevent her from being knocked off her feet.
“Sorry, lady,” he said.
She was assailed by the foul odor of his breath and body. Before moving on, he spat a stream of tobacco juice that was immediately trodden into the dirt by the boots of the passing swarm.
Rebecca stepped over to the protective wall of a blacksmith’s shed and her gaze swept the crowd. It was easy to discern the married men from the single ones. Most of those without a woman at their side looked as if they’d forgotten what the inside of a bathtub looked like—if they’d ever known to begin with. She could smell them from a distance.
Rebecca forced herself to walk among them. Surely within the horde, there had to be one unmarried man who made an attempt at personal hygiene. She saw Mr. Scott talking to two tall men and recognized them as the men in the hotel hallway.
She took a longer look. There was a bachelor quality about them—and more important, they were relatively clean looking. Neither wore stained buckskins, and both men were clean shaven, but for a two- or three-day growth of whiskers.
She stepped into a secluded spot where she could study them more closely. It was impossible to hear what the three men were discussing, but from their gestures she sensed it related to joining the wagon train. She was sure of it when they each signed a form, and the wagon master led them over to a corral and pointed out two horses to them. The three conversed for several minutes more, then shook hands. Mr. Scott left them, and the two men walked away.
Rebecca followed her quarry back to the hotel and waited from a distance as they registered and then climbed the stairs. As soon as they were out of sight, she went up to the desk clerk on duty, who fortunately was not Jimmy. While he turned to get her key, she glanced at the register: Clay and Garth Fraser.
No Mrs. Frasers. Thank you, God, thank you.
For the first time since arriving in Independence, Rebecca felt her luck had changed.
She quickly walked upstairs, peeked around the corner, and counted herself doubly blessed when the men entered the room just before hers. She hurried to her own room and put her ear to the door connecting their rooms.
From their conversation, it appeared they intended to go downstairs to eat dinner as soon as they cleaned up.
Music to her ears. Yes, indeed, she had definitely made a wise choice.
Rebecca rushed to the dresser and put her hair in order, then put a light dusting of powder on her face and pinched her cheeks to give them color.
With loving care she extracted a fancy bonnet from her trunk, the only real luxury item she owned. Rebecca perched the bonnet at a cocky angle on her blond hair and stepped back to view the result. She shifted the hat several times until she was satisfied with the angle, then returned to the connecting door. Timing was of the essence. When Rebecca heard them about to leave the room, she hurried to her door and stepped out in the hallway at the same time as they did.
“Ma’am,” one said politely. The two men stepped aside.
Rebecca offered a sweet smile and nodded as she passed them, very pleased with herself. They certainly were gentlemen, and better yet, she couldn’t smell them!
“I must apologize, gentlemen, for our earlier meeting—as brief as it was,” she said with a quick smile. “I didn’t thank you for your offer of help.”
“Well, ma’am, from where I was standing, it appeared you didn’t need it,” one said.
“I can’t believe that young man. I intend to report his actions to the hotel’s manager.” She quickly changed the subject. “My goodness, I think this is the busiest town I’ve ever been in,” she said with a pleasant smile as they followed her down the stairs.
“It surely is, ma’am,” said the man who’d spoken before.
She hoped they intended to eat in the hotel’s dining room, and smiled when they followed her to the entrance. A quick glance revealed there was only one empty table. It was too good to be true. She glanced heavenward and winked.
Looking harried and overworked, a waiter came over to the entrance. “Table?”
“Yes, please,” Rebecca replied.
“You all together?” he asked.
“No, we’re not,” Rebecca said. “I’m alone.”
“If you fellas want a table, you’ll have to wait,” he said.
“Oh, my! I’m so sorry to be taking the last one.” She hoped her frown looked contrite enough. “You gentlemen are welcome to sit at mine.”
“That won’t be necessary, ma’am, but thank you for the offer,” the second man said.
His companion immediately spoke up. “Why not accept the lady’s offer, Clay? We’ve still got a lot to get done before leaving.”
“What’s it gonna be, folks?” the waiter asked. “I’ve got customers to take care of.”
“Well, if the lady doesn’t mind,” the one named Clay said.
“Of course not,” Rebecca said, jumping on the offer.
“Understand, gentlemen, I insist on paying for my own meal.”
Once seated, the more talkative of the two said, “Since we’re going to be dinner partners, ma’am, my name is Garth Fraser, and this is my brother, Clay.”
“How do you do. I’m Rebecca Elliott. Where are you gentlemen from?”
“Virginia, ma’am,” Garth said. “And you?”
Virginia! Drat the luck! Those
southern accents. “I’m from the north, from Vermont,” she replied.
“What brought you to Independence, Mrs. Elliott?” Garth Fraser asked, glancing at the plain gold wedding band on her finger.
So they were observant, too. Obviously it was going to be harder to fool them than she had anticipated. It was clear that Garth was the more outgoing of the two, and Clay was making her nervous. He sat in silence and just looked at her—with a stare that bored into her.
“I’m on my way to California. My brother lives in Sacramento, and I plan to join the wagon train. And you? This is pretty far from Virginia.” She turned her head and directed the question to Clay, hoping to break his steady stare.