Excerpt Wednesday – More of The Brynthwaite Boys

Jul 22, 2015

Its Wednesday! And although I’m about to rush off to New York City for the Romance Writers of America national conference (come see me at the book signing tonight at 5:30 if you’re around!), I still have time to bring you an Excerpt Wednesday taste of The Brynthwaite Boys, Episode One. And guess what? You can start pre-ordering episodes already! Yay! Here you go….

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Marshall turned to Jason, finishing wiping his hands and thrusting the dirty cloth into his apron. “What do you want?”

Jason was too used to rough manners to blink at his friend’s foul mood. He knew too much about Marshall’s home life to ask what had him in such a temper.

“I’ve come for my medicine,” he said, lowering his voice.

Marshall narrowed his eyes and sniffed. “Oh, that?” Both syllables dripped with disapproval.

“Yes, that,” Jason said with a clenched jaw. Added to the tension in his back, clenching his jaw pushed the headache he had from walking into the building to raging fullness.

“It did come in,” Marshall conceded. He huffed out a breath and marched past Jason to the hospital’s office.

The office was surprisingly tidy, given the chaos in the rest of the hospital. If ‘tidy’ was a word that could be used to describe neatly arranged piles of bills, carefully scrubbed cupboards with nothing in them but a few bottles, and a locked cash door that Jason was reasonably certain had less than five pounds in it. Marshall crossed to a cabinet, opened the door, and took out a blue glass bottle that was about the size of his hand. With a frown firmly in place that etched lines between his eyes, Marshall brought the bottle to Jason and thrust it at him.

“It’s useless swill,” he said.

Jason took the bottle and slipped it into the pocket of his coat. “What do I owe you?”

“You owe me the decency of not believing in quack tonics to cure fabricated diseases.”

Jason flinched. Leave it to Marshall to say exactly what he felt. Leave it to him not to understand at all.

“Did you read the ingredients?” Jason asked, a burst of shame making him mumble the way he had when the headmaster of the orphanage had dragged him up for disciplinary action. He took a bill from his pocket and handed it across to his friend.

“I did,” Marshall said, taking the money and crossing his arms. “There’s nothing in there that will kill you, if what the bottle says it contains is true. Which is a big ‘if.’ Chamomile, lavender—which I thought was quaint. A trace of opiates, I’m sure. It’s mostly alcohol. You can medicate yourself with that at the Fox and Lion.”

“Thank you for your expert medical advice, Dr. Pycroft,” Jason snarled. “I plan to do exactly that for supper with Lawrence. You’re invited, by the way.”

All of Marshall’s pent-up fury rushed out on a sigh, and he rubbed his forehead. “I’ll get there if I can. If Clara doesn’t come for my blood first.”

Jason arched a brow. It was the closest he would come to asking about his friend’s marital problems. Marshall replied by shaking his head, tangible weariness blanketing him.

“You need to be careful about these so-called medicines,” Marshall said, more sympathy in his voice. “The ones that aren’t as harmless and useless as tea could cause serious damage.”

“That’s why I have you order them and vet the contents before I take them,” Jason said, unable to meet his friend’s eyes.

Marshall crossed his arms. “It’s all in your head, man,” he said. “You’re no more afflicted than I am.”

“No?” Jason drawled. Marshall had no idea what kind of suffering he’d been through, what kind of suffering he endured on a daily basis. Lawrence laughed at him too. Between the two of them, they seemed to think he should just let nature take its natural course and damn him.

“If it vexes you that much,” Marshall said, lowering his voice and stepping closer, “why not just go down to London and—”

“I’ve just spent the last ten years in London,” Jason snapped, “and believe me, it did not help matters at all. Quite the opp—”

He was cut off by another crash and a cry from the hall.

“Bloody hell,” Marshall growled and cut around Jason to rush out of the office. “What the devil is going on in here? Can’t I turn my back for five minutes without the walls crumbling?”

Just like that, Jason was forgotten as his friend rushed off to put out whatever fire had been started. Jason debated staying to help him out. Heaven only knew that Marshall needed help. There was no point, though. He didn’t know what he was doing and would only be in the way. He left the office and strode out through the hall and the waiting room. Mrs. Garforth gave him a suspicious look as he went. That much was a familiar comfort, at least.

Ready to pre-order episodes one and two? Head on over to Amazon now!

Excerpt Wednesday – The Brynthwaite Boys

Jul 15, 2015

It’s Wednesday! And I’m actually on top of things enough to post an excerpt! Of course, the next release I’ll be bringing to you is my 12-part Victorian-era serial, The Brynthwaite Boys, which will begin being published at the end of this month. But here’s a little taste to whet your appetite. Be sure to sign up for my newsletter to be notified when new episodes come out!

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“Come in,” Mr. Throckmorton repeated as he reached his desk, sounding perturbed. “I don’t like dawdling.”

“No, sir,” Flossie said, picking up her pace and coming to stand in front of the room’s large desk.

Mr. Throckmorton’s office had the same scattered, unfinished feeling as the rest of the hotel, in spite of its sumptuousness. The desk was a fine example of craftsmanship, but it was littered with papers, binders, and samples of everything from wallpaper to fabric to stone. Several framed paintings sat on the floor, leaning against the walls where Flossie assumed they would be hung as soon as someone found the time. Behind the desk stood two tall, twin windows, both without curtains. They were the only windows in the room.

Mr. Throckmorton himself was the only thing about the room that didn’t seem hastily put together. On the contrary, no one could have mistaken Mr. Throckmorton as anything but a gentleman of means. His hair was brushed and parted with precision, he was clean-shaven, and as he gestured for Flossie to stand where she was already standing, she saw that his nails were precisely kept. His clothes were of the latest style and fit well. The only oddity about them was that he wore his stylish, knee-length coat buttoned up, in spite of being indoors in the middle of the day. Lord Morley had preferred the same kind of coat, but he and every other gentleman Flossie had seen wore them open to reveal some sort of splendid waistcoat.

“Florence Stowe?” Mr. Throckmorton asked as he took a seat behind his desk.

“Yes, sir,” Flossie answered with a short curtsy. “Flossie, if you prefer.”

“Flossie,” he repeated, shuffling through the papers on his desk. “And you come from,” he paused for the amount of time it took him to find a letter written in a fine hand amongst the clutter on his desk, “from Derbyshire.”

“Of late from Derbyshire, yes, sir,” she told him. “Though I was born and raised in Lincolnshire.”

Mr. Throckmorton remained silent, scanning the letter. “You were upstairs maid in the house of Lord Morley, Earl of Derby, at Crestmont Grange?”

“Yes, sir,” Flossie answered.

Mr. Throckmorton glanced up at her over the top of the letter with a tight frown. “Why would an upstairs maid in the house of an earl wish to leave her position to come to work at an untried hotel in the Lake District?”

The blunt force of the question sent prickles of self-consciousness down Flossie’s back. She couldn’t hide the blush that tinted her cheeks or the anxiety in her eyes, but she could hide the truth.

“I felt it was time for a change, sir,” she explained. She forced herself to meet the man’s hazel eyes as she spoke. Liars never looked you in the eye. “I had been working at Crestmont Grange since I entered service as a kitchen maid when I was twelve. And though I proved myself and was advanced to the rank of upstairs maid in good order, I found that I craved a bigger challenge.”

“A bigger challenge?” Mr. Throckmorton cocked an eyebrow. “You’ll certainly find that here.”

“I hope so, sir.” She held her breath, willing him not to ask deeper questions.

“Did the Morleys entertain much?” he asked, setting the letter down and leaning closer to her across the desk.

Flossie’s heart thumped in her chest. If she kept her wits about her, she could prevent him from asking anything she didn’t want to answer.

“They entertained during the hunt. Lady Morley has a wide circle of friends who she invites to stay whenever possible. The staff at the Grange was frequently called upon to make up and refresh the bedrooms with little notice, as well as tending to the guests and residents quickly and efficiently.”

“So you have experience in a fast-paced environment,” Mr. Throckmorton concluded.

“Yes, sir.” Some of Flossie’s tension melted. He’d taken exactly what she’d wanted him to take from her explanation.

“And you got along well with the other staff?”

A bolt of fear seized her. She willed herself to remain calm, to keep her face pleasant and neutral, and to reply without a tremor in her voice. “Yes, sir. The housekeeper never had reason to complain.” She couldn’t complain about what she didn’t know, after all.

“You want to leave all that for this hotel?” Mr. Throckmorton questioned her again.

Flossie swallowed, weighing her options. The truth wasn’t one of those options, at least not the whole truth. A tiny slice of it might be enough.

“As you may know, sir, Miss Polly Penrose, lady’s maid to Lady Elizabeth Dyson, is a dear friend of mine from childhood. It was she who informed me that the hotel was hiring maids. I relished the opportunity to live close to my friend once more.”

Mr. Throckmorton stared at her. For one horrible moment, Flossie thought he could see right through her clothes, through her skin, and straight into her heart, his gaze was so piercing. She couldn’t let her shame show, and so met his stare with her own. She would not look away first. She would not betray what could ruin her.

At last, Mr. Throckmorton took a breath, his eyes fluttering down to the letter in front of him.

“Yes,” he said, taking it up and scanning it once more, “Lady Elizabeth recommends you herself. I cannot refuse such a glowing recommendation from such an esteemed personage.”

This time, it was Mr. Throckmorton whose face betrayed his thoughts. Enough color came to his cheeks to betray everything Polly had said in her letters about him hotly pursuing Lady E.

“You have the job, Miss Stowe,” he said, meeting her eyes again.

“Thank you, sir.” Flossie burst into a wide smile. She could feel the joy of those few words spill through her. More than joy, relief. At last, she could start over. She could put the past behind her and begin again.

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Excerpt…Thursday? The Brynthwaite Boys – First Look

Jul 09, 2015

Well, I’ve been incredibly remiss in posting Excerpt Wednesday bits, and now it’s Thursday and I haven’t posted anything. But never fear! I’ve been hard at work. Starting at the end of this month, I’ll be publishing something new and exciting. The Brynthwaite Boys is a serial. Yep, a good, old fashioned serial. It has 12 episodes that are about 18,000 words a piece (longer than a short story, but not quite a novella), and I’ll be publishing the first four upfront, then one a week until it’s done. The whole point of this story is to be like one of those awesome BBC historical drama series that I love so much (like Downton Abbey, Lark Rise to Candleford, Outlander, Call the Midwife…you know). Here’s a peek at how it starts, complete with most of the characters being introduced….

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Episode One – A Promising Start

Brynthwaite, Cumbria – 1895

Flossie

The afternoon train from the city of Manchester to the scenic town of Brynthwaite was forty-five minutes late. Other passengers may have enjoyed the leisurely journey through the Lake District’s pastoral hills, misty forests, and fertile valleys. They may have gasped at the beauty of each new vista as the train meandered its way through green fields, fresh with May blooms. They skies were a crisp blue with only a few white clouds on the horizon, but Flossie Stowe could only think of one thing. If the train didn’t hurry, she would be late for the appointment that could change her life.

“Brynthwaite,” a porter called, poking his head into the third-class car. “Brynthwaite, next stop.”

Flossie let out a breath of relief as she felt the train slow. Just as quickly, she took in a new one. It was a small miracle that fortune had dropped this opportunity in her lap, just when it was most needed. Her wages at Crestmont Grange had been adequate. She’d certainly been able to send the much-needed funds home to her sister, Betsy, and then some. But Betsy always needed more, and the unpleasantness from Crestmont was still there. The people of Brynthwaite surely had their opinions on the building of a modest hotel in their town, but they could never know what a godsend it was for those who truly needed it.

The train’s whistle sounded, and outside the window the countryside gave way to clusters of cottages and outbuildings, then larger yards and warehouses, and finally the imposing stone edifice of the train station itself. Already a decent crowd had gathered on the platform—workmen in overalls ready to unload cargo, porters in their crisp uniforms, eyes already trained on first-class, where they might hope to get the best tips, and townspeople of all description, waiting for visitors.

“Polly,” Flossie gasped in relief at the sight of her friend waiting with the others. Polly was hard to miss, with her copper-gold hair and cheery face. Growing up together in Lincolnshire they had been nicknamed “the two Irish lasses,” Polly for her copper hair and green eyes and Flossie for her black hair and blue eyes, though neither one of them had a drop of Irish blood, that they knew of. They’d been as inseparable as sisters until age and the need to work had pulled them apart. But not anymore.

Flossie poked her head out the train’s open window and waved to her friend. Polly’s face lit up when she saw her.

“Flossie,” she cried with all the youthful exuberance the two of them had had as girls.

It was torture to wait for the train to stop fully and for Flossie to shuffle into line with the rest of the departing passengers. She let an older couple go before her and took a moment to help a frazzled mother with her young children on her way out, but at long last, she stepped down from the train and onto the platform.

“You’re here,” Polly called to her, rushing to meet Flossie in a warm embrace that had both of them giggling. “You’re actually here. I can hug you and see you and everything.”

“I am here,” Flossie laughed aloud. “But I’m late. Oh, Polly, I’m so late. My appointment with Mr. Throckmorton is at two-thirty, and it’s already quarter-past now.”

“I know,” Polly exclaimed. She grabbed Flossie’s hand and tugged her to the end of the platform, closer to the station. “I’ve been waiting here for an hour, growing more anxious by the minute. Lady Elizabeth gave me leave to come meet you, but I don’t think she expected it to take this long.”

“Oh no.” Flossie pressed a hand to her racing heart. “Will she be very upset?”

Polly laughed. “I doubt it. She doesn’t have immediate need for her lady’s maid in the middle of the afternoon, especially not when she’s at home with no one but her aunt and her cousin and anyone who decides to pay a call. Which could mean half the gentlemen in the county, come to think of it.”

“That much is a relief, at least.” Flossie knew how much fine ladies relied on their maids from the way that Lady Morley at Crestmont had driven poor Miss Lambert half mad with her constant requests, but from the regular correspondence Polly had sent to Flossie, it was apparent that “Lady E.” was quite different than Lady Morley.

“Do you have a ticket for your luggage?” Polly asked, tugging Flossie further on.

“I do somewhere,” Flossie replied, handling the small, cast-off reticule that her former employer had thrown in the rag-bag years ago.

“Good.” Polly pushed her along. “We’ll come back for your things later. Right now, it’s important to get you to The Dragon’s Head as soon as possible.”

“The Dragon’s Head,” Flossie laughed as they climbed down the stairs at the back of the station and into a busy street. “The name sounds more like a pub than a hotel.”

“Lady E. says that Mr. Throckmorton chose the name for its novelty,” Polly said, steering them to the left and up a slight hill. “She says that Mr. Throckmorton’s other hotels are all named something quite banal, like The King’s Arms Hotel in Birmingham or The Lion’s Mark in London, but that he wanted something that would truly stand out for Brynthwaite.”

“I can’t imagine why,” Flossie said, puffing to keep up with Polly’s fast pace. “Brynthwaite isn’t half so fine or large as any of those towns.”

“Which is precisely why he needed a name to inspire a sense of grandeur,” Polly laughed. “Although the other bit of speculation I heard is that Mr. Throckmorton was in one of his tempers when he was pressed for a name and he overheard his solicitor call him a fire-breathing dragon. Can you imagine?” She burst into a peel of laughter.

All Flossie could do was imagine. She’d been imagining little else but the comings and goings of the lives of people in Brynthwaite since Polly began writing to her. It seemed that Polly knew something about everyone in town—possibly more than they suspected—on account of her position as lady’s maid to the grand dame of the area. Lady Elizabeth’s father, Lord Gerald Dyson, Earl of Thornwell, may have been the reigning lord of the land, but he was old and infirm, and his only child, Lady Elizabeth, was the squire in every way but name and gender. As her letters attested, Polly considered it her duty to keep Lady E. informed of everything in the lives of all of Brynthwaite’s citizens, a duty for which she had been rewarded with the position of lady’s maid at the tender age of twenty-six.

And Polly was devoted to her duties.

“Of course, guests will come to the hotel to enjoy the scenery,” she prattled on. “There isn’t much else this far from civilization but scenery. Lucky for Mr. Throckmorton, holidays in the country are all the rage. He told Lady E. that his hotel will cater to only the finest custom, and—oh!”

“What?” Flossie stumbled at her friend’s sudden exclamation.

“Look over there.” Polly lowered her voice to a whisper, slowing her steps and glancing to the other side of the street.

Flossie looked. A gentleman who appeared to be in his late-thirties with dark hair and a moustache, wearing a bowler hat rushed up the street, dodging a fellow pedestrian. A woman with three girls in tow chased him.

“Marshall Pycroft, where do you think you’re going?” the woman shouted. A few people on the street glanced her way and frowned. The man slowed his steps and winced. Flossie blinked in surprise as the woman went on. “Yesterday it was the baking, and today you tell me I need to do my own washing as well? Like we were common farm laborers?”

The man in the bowler turned back to her, jaw clenched. “Could we not discuss this later this evening, when I am home, Clara?”

“And why should I hold my peace?” The woman, Clara, raised her voice. “Are you ashamed to have our neighbors know how low we have sunk? I left London for this, Marshall, London,” she all but wept. “I left my home and my family. I thought I would be a doctor’s wife, respected and admired, but I’m nothing but a drudge now.”

“Please, Clara, keep your voice down.”

“That’s Dr. Pycroft,” Polly whispered, tugging Flossie on. “He grew up here, at the very hospital he runs now. It used to be an orphanage then.”

“And it’s a hospital now,” Flossie said, remembering aloud the details Polly had written to her. Brynthwaite Municipal Orphanage had been the home to many children, ostensibly in the attempt to keep them out of the workhouse. It had been so badly run, though, that the crown had shut it down ten years ago and converted it into Brynthwaite Hospital. Dr. Marshall Pycroft had been hired to run the place a few years ago, though what that entailed, Flossie could only manage.

“I can do the washing, Mama,” the oldest of the girls tagging behind Mrs. Pycroft spoke up. “I’m old enough.”

“Quiet, Mary,” Mrs. Pycroft snapped. “I won’t have a daughter of mine stooping as low as a washerwoman.”

“Mrs. Pycroft thinks awfully well of herself,” Polly went on, sending a sly look across the street to the bickering couple before picking up speed again. “She thinks that because her father was a solicitor in a London firm, her feet smell better than half the folks in Brynthwaite. They don’t have any money, though. The hospital survives on a tiny stipend from the crown, and the rest is up to Dr. Pycroft himself to raise. Lady E. helps out as much as she can, but one can only do so much.”

“Oh, I see.” Flossie sent one last look over her shoulder to Dr. Pycroft and his wife. They were clearly still bickering, but they’d lowered their voices. Flossie’s heart went out to the Pycroft girls, Mary and her sisters, who stood there looking dejected.

She wasn’t the only one who noticed the argument. A few yards up, a man was watching the Pycroft’s with a pained look on his face. He was a strange man too, to Flossie’s reckoning. He was handsome, probably the same age as Dr. Pycroft, and wore simple, workman’s clothes. His sleeves were rolled up to show strong forearms, but he held himself with the grace of a noble. And he carried the strangest lattice of iron over one shoulder.

“Who is that?” Flossie asked.

Polly paused and turned to look. The man across the street turned in time to see the two of them staring. He smiled and nodded. Flossie smiled and dipped her head in return. Polly gasped.

“Don’t look at him, don’t look at him!” she said, grabbing Flossie’s hand and rushing on.

“What? Why?” Flossie missed a step in her haste to catch up.

“That’s Lawrence Smith.”

Flossie shook her head. “Who is he?”

“He’s the blacksmith,” Polly hissed, careful not to face him, although her eyes darted to the side.

“There’s nothing wrong with being a blacksmith,” Flossie said.

“It’s not that,” Polly went on. “He’s…he’s mysterious.”

“Mysterious?” Flossie laughed. “He just looks like a kind and comely man to me. You’ve never mentioned him in your letters.”

“There are some things a lady can’t write about. He’s a gypsy,” Polly said. “Or at least he would be if it weren’t for the fact that he was born and raised in Brynthwaite.”

“Then he’s not a gypsy,” Flossie reasoned, although from his dark coloring, he easily could have been.

“Folks still swear that he is,” Polly explained. “Mr. Smith was raised at the orphanage too. There’s plenty who think that his folks were gypsies, and that for some reason they dropped him off here and left him. What kind of man is he if even the gypsies didn’t want him?”

“He wasn’t a man when he was left at the orphanage, he was a baby,” Flossie reasoned. “You can’t tell what kind of man a baby is going to grow up to be.”

“Oh, but he did grow up to be that man,” Polly insisted, her green eyes round. “He’s not a Christian,” she whispered as though it were the gravest of sins. “He practices the old ways. There’s folk who say they’ve caught him saying chants at the full moon and putting curses on people.”

Flossie laughed. “I don’t believe in curses.”

“You might if you—oh!” Polly peeked over her shoulder, then snapped straight and picked up her pace. “Don’t look now, but he’s following us.”

Flossie did look. All she saw was a man carrying an iron contraption over his shoulder, smiling as though he enjoyed the fine summer day as much as the larks and the bees. He didn’t seem like the kind who would curse anyone.

“Are you sure he’s that sinister?” she asked Polly.

Polly bit her lip, slow to answer. “Well, he is friendly with Dr. Pycroft. Because they were raised together at the orphanage, you see. And Mr. Throckmorton was too.”

“What, Mr. Throckmorton who owns hotels in London and Manchester, and The Dragon’s Head too?”

“And a hotel in Liverpool.” Polly nodded. “He’s a Brynthwaite boy. Raised at the orphanage and sent out to seek his fortune, same as Dr. Pycroft. Only, where Dr. Pycroft went in for schooling and doctoring, Mr. Throckmorton was more interested in getting rich and building things.”

“So he’s friends with Mr. Smith?”

“Yes,” Polly said. She frowned. “I think. He must be. But it’s hard to tell, since Mr. Throckmorton has only been in town for a fortnight now. But I see him and Dr. Pycroft entering The Fox and Lion Pub together all the time, and Mr. Smith with them sometimes.” She paused to consider. “Yes, I’m certain they’re friends. I wonder if Lady E. knows about this?” She considered it, then shook her head. “A man as rich and powerful as Mr. Throckmorton being friends with a gypsy like Mr. Smith is not something you see every day.”

“No,” Flossie agreed.

 

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Release Day! Trail of Redemption

Jun 28, 2015

It’s Release Day! Trail of Redemption, book 6 in the Hot on the Trail series, is now available!

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You can pick it up at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, iBooks, and more!

Here’s a little bit to get you started…..

Chapter One

Independence, Missouri – 1865

Estelle Ripley was used to a quiet life. Her days growing up in Georgia had been filled with southern heat, the buzz of insects mingling with birdsong across humid cotton fields, and the rich voices of slaves singing at their labor. She’d enjoyed it all from the isolated security of the big house. They never had many visitors—the master of the house, her father, hadn’t been inclined to entertain with his wife constantly ill—so Estelle’s days had passed in relative peace.

Independence, Missouri, the start of the Oregon Trail, was the exact opposite of everything Estelle had ever know. There were people and wagons, oxen and other livestock, everywhere she turned. Noise rushed at her from all sides—the squawking of chickens here, the high-pitched giggles of children there—drowning out any thoughts she tried to put together. Once they started their journey, the wagons would spread out in a line, but for now, everyone was crammed next to each other, bumping and dodging as they made last minute preparations.

“I bought few extra sides of bacon,” Mr. Pete Evans—the trail boss and her employer for the next few months—said as he approached Estelle. He had a cloth-wrapped side of bacon over one shoulder that he heaved into the back of the trail crew’s supply wagon. “The boys will load up most of it.”

“I can do it if you need me to,” Estelle straightened from where she’d been organizing a crate of tools. “I’m stronger than I look.”

“Thanks, Miss Ripley, but save your strength for the long walk.” Mr. Evans tipped his hat, then strode on to see to one of the dozen other tasks he needed to complete before they could move out.

Estelle smiled as she watched him walk away. It was a huge stroke of luck that she’d found Mr. Evans when she did. She had been at the end of her rope, the suspicions of the women who worked with her at the hotel in St. Louis on the rise. It had been time to move on. Before it was too late.

Pete Evans had handed her a golden opportunity. Move on to the West. Far away from those curious eyes and the judgment that always followed. He needed a cook for his wagon train and she needed an excuse to run far away, where no one would care about her past. Folks could forgive a lot of things in the West, or so she’d heard. Busy hands and strong backs were needed so desperately in places like California and Oregon that everything else was overlooked. The West would be the perfect place for her to bury her past and reinvent herself.

“Here you go, Miss Ripley,” one of Pete’s crew, Hank Newman, nodded and smiled to her as he dropped another side of bacon in the wagon. “Just a few more barrels of salted beef and a few sacks of flour and we’ll be ready to roll.”

“Thank you.” Estelle smiled and nodded, then went on with her work. Hank was young and, as far as she could tell, innocent. The kindness in his eyes, the complete lack of curiosity, as he looked at her told Estelle he wouldn’t bother her.

She was amongst kind souls with most of the wagon train, if her initial impressions were right. With her simple, calico dress and her hair tucked away under a wide-brimmed bonnet, she looked like every other pioneer woman about to set out on the trail. There were too many people and too much chaos for anyone to single her out. She lifted the box of tools and carried it to the back of the wagon, sliding it into place along one side. That done, she stepped away to stretch her back and study her fellow travelers.

Estelle was impressed by how many women were heading west. Aside from the usual bunch of farmer’s wives, there were several single women. They ranged in age from past their prime to hardly out of short skirts. Miss Josephine Lewis was perhaps the most noteworthy of the bunch. She looked to be in her forties, and dressed like she would be attending tea with the President later that day. Silver streaked her dark hair, but her eyes were as bright as any young woman.

“Be careful with those crates,” she charged one of Pete’s assistants, Ted. “They contain my grandmother’s china. My grandmother loaded cannons during the Revolution, so if you break her things, I’m certain her ghost will show up to make you miserable.”

Estelle chuckled at the command. It was given with gusto, and more than a little teasing.

“Hurry along,” a younger woman with auburn hair and a dusting of freckles across her nose called out to another of Pete’s assistants, Lyle, smiling as she did. “My father’s waiting for me to come home to Wyoming, and if we are held up, he’ll have words for all of us. No one holds up Howard Haskell, and no one holds up his daughter.”

“Yes, Miss Lucy,” Lyle grinned as he pushed a trunk into the back of Lucy’s wagon.

“I can’t wait to get home,” Lucy Haskell spoke on, hovering beside Pete’s man as he shifted her trunk into place. “I miss my Papa and my Aunt Virginia, and even my bratty little brother, Franklin. When I got Papa’s letter telling me Franklin had been injured, I had to come right away. Mama took the train, but I need more adventure than that. I wish I’d been alive twenty years ago, when the first pioneers came out this way. It would have been dangerous and exciting, don’t you think?”

“Yes, Miss Lucy,” Lyle sighed.

“It’s still dangerous, at least a little bit,” Lucy yammered on, following the assistant when he tried to escape her chatter. “The Indians are still there, after all, and there’s always wild animals. I bet we see a herd of buffalo once we get to the true West. I’ve seen them. They’re everywhere, but not so much as before.”

She continued to babble on. When Lyle moved away, Lucy turned to a second man, one of the pioneers, working with some sort of gadget in front of his wagon, and continued her discourse about how dangerous the West could be. The young man glanced up to her with wide, almost frightened eyes.

Estelle shook her head and walked up to the front of the supply wagon. The oxen had already been yoked. She checked the tongue holding them in place, checked the yoke itself, and patted one of the oxen’s back. She didn’t know much about the large animals, but she would learn soon.

Another woman worked to get her wagon ready nearby. She was as close to the opposite of Miss Lucy Haskell as it was possible to get—small and quiet, with a long, blond braid down her back. Estelle thought she had heard Pete say her name was Olivia, and that she was single as well. She would be traveling with a family from her hometown rather than on her own. Olivia glanced around at their fellow travelers with eyes that reminded Estelle of a wary rabbit. The woman caught Estelle staring at her and blushed. Estelle nodded and smiled in acknowledgement, and the shy woman smiled back. It was a nice start.

A child’s shriek from a few wagons farther down caught both Estelle and Olivia’s attention.

“Luke Chance, I swear to God in Heaven above, you will be the death of me,” an elderly woman shouted at a boy in his teens.

Estelle didn’t get a chance to see what the boy had done before he darted off. The older woman and her wagon were surrounded by wriggling, shouting, laughing children—more than a dozen. Estelle brightened with curiosity. Pete Evans was known for allowing some interesting sorts to come along in his wagon trains. Single women were one thing, but from what Estelle had heard earlier, the older woman was a Mrs. Gravesend, and the children were all orphans on their way west in the hopes of being placed with new families. Estelle hadn’t realized there would be so many of them. Mrs. Gravesend reminded her of the old woman in the shoe, only without the shoe.

Estelle made a mental note to help out with the orphans in any way she could, but for the time being, she had her own work to do. She turned to head to the back of the wagon, and took two steps before running square into a man.

“Oh, I’m sorry,” she started, bracing herself as the two of them slammed into each other, her shoulder wedging into his broad, firm chest.

Rather than righting himself, the man sagged against her and muttered an oath. Surprised, Estelle found herself supporting far more of the man’s weight than she would have expected. He struggled to right himself, and in a flash, she saw why.

The man wore a crisp, clean Union officer’s uniform. The coat had recently been brushed and its buttons glimmered in the sunlight. His uniform trousers were neat and pressed—at least, the left leg was. The right leg was carelessly knotted just below the man’s knee. The rest of his leg was missing.

“No, I’m sorry,” the soldier said, his voice low and full of gravel. He pushed away from Estelle and leaned against his wagon. He hopped a few times to scoot closer to his wagon’s front wheel, then balanced and bent over to pick up a crutch that had fallen to the grass. “I’m sorry,” he repeated.

He straightened and tucked his crutch under his right arm. When he lifted his face to look Estelle in the eye, she caught her breath. He had the most handsome face she’d ever seen. His hair was dark, as black as her own, but his eyes were a dazzling blue—so blue they fairly glowed. He had a strong jaw with just a hint of dark stubble, and proud cheekbones. But it was the pain in his eyes that drew Estelle in completely.

“It’s my fault,” she said. As much as she wanted to stare down at his missing leg, she kept her eyes on his. “I was careless. It’s just that there are so many people to see, so much going on.”

The man stared at her. Estelle waited for him to get that look in his eyes—that look that told her he could see right through her lies and false pretense. There was no earthly reason that he would look at her that way, but she’d lived with that fear so long that she saw it everywhere now. He only smiled at her, a little sheepish.

“I’m not used to this,” he explained, patting his crutch. “It’s new and I’m clumsy.”

New. And he was a soldier. The war had ended in April, but the battle scars would be there forever. This handsome man’s scars were fresh.

“Everything’s new out here, isn’t it Mr. …?”

“Tremaine,” he said. He hopped closer to her, securing his crutch under his arm and holding out a hand to her. “Graham Tremaine. It’s a pleasure to meet you.”

“Estelle Ripley,” she replied, taking his hand. It was warm, and slightly calloused. As soon as it closed around hers she felt a thrill of expectation pass up her arm. “The pleasure’s all mind, Mr. Tremaine.”

“Graham, please,” he said. He smiled, but the expression didn’t meet his eyes.

Estelle’s heart held still in her chest in spite of the buzz of activity all around her. What hardship must this soldier have gone through to have such pain in his eyes? And if she could see his pain, what could he see in her?

 

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Lessons from a Sunflower

Jun 25, 2015

balcony gardenSo for the last two or three summers, when I was living at my apartment, I built up a lovely container garden on my balcony. The way my apartment was situated, I got full sunlight all day, so I had varying degrees of success with different kinds of plants.

This is not a story about those plants.

Because this past winter, for the first time, I bought a birdfeeder. I plunked said birdfeeder into one of the dormant containers of dirt, and all winter long, my cats went nuts as they watched birds turn my balcony into the coolest bird hangout in the area.

This is not a story about those birds.

birdfeederWhen I moved to my temporary home for the summer, I brought my containers, complete with dirt, with me. They ended up scattered all around the garden at this house, the house I grew up in. I kind of had plans to plant flowers and stuff, but I never really got around to putting in the effort.

But someone had other plans.

Shortly after I got settled here, I noticed a couple of sprouts in one of the containers. I kind of knew what they were right away, but with an excited little grin, I let them grow, curious to see if they would actually GROW and end up blooming. Much to my surprise, they actually did grow. Very, very tall! I shouldn’t have been surprised, though. That’s what sunflowers do.

But as I stood admiring the first of the two sunflowers when it finally burst into bloom the other day, I was struck by an amazing lesson that that simple flower had to teach me. That flower was not supposed to be there. I didn’t plant it and I didn’t plan for it. That seed was not supposed to grow and flourish. It was meant to be eaten by birds, not to have a life of its own. But somehow, through fate, the nature of seeds, and a little luck, what was supposed to end up destroyed for someone else’s good ended up becoming tall and glorious and wonderful.

sunflower

We may think our lives are destined for one thing. We may be convinced, by ourselves or others, that we’re no good or meant for nothing more than to be someone else’s tool. We might feel hopeless because of the odds stacked against us. But sometimes the extraordinary happens. Sometimes we are able to rise above the crappy circumstances we are thrust into to become something beautiful and glorious. It can happen, whether we see it coming or not.

So now, next summer, when I move into my new apartment, I’m going to plant sunflowers. A lot of them. Sunflowers will forever be a reminder to me of the amazing things we can accomplish, whether we are “supposed to” or not.