It’s Release Day! Trail of Redemption, book 6 in the Hot on the Trail series, is now available!
Here’s a little bit to get you started…..
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?