Okay, okay, I had this grand plan to release this lovely little surprise novella that I’ve been sitting on for April Fool’s Day, and to post a bit of the first chapter to tease you. But Amazon had other plans (a really high volume of books submitted on the 31st, they tell me), so it’s a day late. Yep. But don’t despair! In honor of Thursday, here’s your first look at my gift to you, Trail Blaze:
Along the Oregon Trail, 1858
It didn’t matter how many times her fellow passengers marveled over the relative speed and convenience of stagecoach travel, Darcy Howsam was done with it. For weeks she’d been rattling on over the prairie, racing toward the frontier and the future that she had pinned all of her hopes on. Stagecoach was the fastest way to travel—why, an intrepid adventurer could make it from St. Louis to San Francisco by stagecoach in a month—but it was far from the most comfortable.
“No need to fidget, dearie,” the older woman squashed against Darcy, Mrs. Folsom, told her with a long-suffering smile. “We’re almost there.”
Darcy heaved a sigh and looked around the woman to see out the stagecoach window. The prairie had barely changed for the past two weeks. Everything around them was flat grassland, dotted by the occasional military outpost or new farm. The West was the land of opportunity. Anyone who wanted to pull up their roots and make a name and a life for themselves in the vast, fertile land had done exactly what Darcy herself was doing for more than a decade now. West was the direction of hope, the direction of promise.
Darcy pressed the letter she’d been carrying every step of her journey tighter between her sweating hands. West was her last hope. Mr. Conrad Huber was her last hope.
“If you don’t stop wringing that poor letter, you’re bound to destroy it,” Mrs. Folsom sighed. “You’ve been fiddling with it since we left St. Louis.” The older woman’s voice betrayed just how irksome she found Darcy’s fiddling.
“Sorry,” Darcy said, pressing the letter flat to her lap.
It was a challenge to resist reading the letter over and over. It contained the words that had changed her life. Ever since her parents and siblings had died in an epidemic, leaving her completely on her own, Darcy’s fortunes had sunk. She’d done her best to seek employment in a shop at home in Maryland, and when that failed, as a servant in a grand house. But something always seemed to go wrong. The shop-owner had gone out of business, and the lady of the house where she had become a maid didn’t like the way her husband looked at Darcy. Darcy didn’t like it either.
It was the leering looks of Mr. Tavener that had instilled in her the need to flee and given her an idea of how she could go. For more than a decade, men had been going west to seek their fortunes. Men. Not women. Wives were in demand on the furthest edges of the frontier. Darcy had sought out newspaper advertisements of men seeking wives to join them in places like California, the Oregon Territory, or the Nebraska Territory. She’d answered an advertisement from Mr. Huber, who said he needed a woman who could cook and clean for him in California. He’d replied to her inquiry, telling her to come and sending her the money for passage as far as Ft. Laramie.
That letter and the money it had contained was the different between a life of disgrace and moral danger for Darcy and the chance to build something new. Of course she would hold and read and press it to her heart as frequently as she could.
“Ft. Laramie,” the stagecoach driver called from his perch on the driver’s seat. “Ft. Laramie ahead.”
His voice was muffled through the stagecoach walls, but the weary travelers hummed and sighed with relief nonetheless.
“Saints be praised,” Mrs. Folsom groaned.
Darcy felt every bit of the woman’s impatience and thankfulness that the journey was finally over—although some of their fellow travelers would, no doubt, continue on by stagecoach. Not Darcy. She leaned over Mrs. Folsom as politely as she could to glance out the window. All she could see was prairie and more prairie. She wouldn’t be able to see straight forward or glance more than a tight patch of land out the window until the coach had stopped and she could get out.
“How do you expect to find your gentleman at a busy fort?” Mrs. Folsom asked.
Her uncomfortable grimace was enough to scold Darcy into sitting back in her seat, mashed against the man on the other side who had ignored her all week.
“He says here in his letter that he’ll be wearing a blue bandana around his neck,” Darcy told her.
“Oh?” Mrs. Folsom sniffed and stretched her back, then glanced out the window. She could likely see more than Darcy, but not much. “There appear to be quite a few wagons around the fort and even more people,” she reported. “Plenty of blue.”
“I’m sure Mr. Huber will be looking for me too,” Darcy said, as much to ease her own nerves as anything.
What if she couldn’t find him? What if he had changed his mind and didn’t come to meet her after all? What could a woman on her own with no money do in an empty land like this? She suspected she knew the answer, but even though the West was packed with saloons and saloon girls, she could never, ever see herself going down that desperate path. No, it was a respectable marriage or nothing.
“Ft. Laramie,” the stagecoach driver repeated his call as the coach slowed and gradually came to a stop. “Ft. Laramie. End of the line for some of you. For the rest, we’ll be heading out again in one hour.”
The driver’s voice moved from the front of the stagecoach to the side as he spoke. He hopped down from his seat and came around to the door. As one of Darcy’s fellow travelers threw the door open and began the exodus into the fresh air and sunshine, the coach rocked and pitched on its springs. Darcy tried to stand and make her way out, but a man who had been sitting behind her pushed her over, sending her sprawling against the bench in front of her. She dropped Mr. Huber’s letter and had to fish for it, being careful not to have her hand stepped on by exiting travelers.
By the time she snatched the letter and muscled herself to stand, the carriage had emptied. She scrambled out the door, landing with unsteady legs on a patch of packed dirt. Dust swirled around the hem of her skirt. One of the stagecoach hands knocked into her from the side as he received baggage being handed down to him from the coach’s roof. He didn’t bother to apologize. He might not even have seen her, small as she was.
Brushing away the insult, Darcy walked wide of the stagecoach, eager to get her first view of Ft. Laramie. It was similar to the other military outposts they’d passed through on the journey. There were forts every day’s ride or so. The military kept a strong presence along all routes west to discourage raids and attacks by Indians and bandits. They’d made it this far without being molested, for which Darcy was grateful. The difference between Ft. Laramie and many of the other forts was the mass of covered wagons that clustered around the fort’s east side. Darcy hadn’t seen so many wagons together since the stop they’d made at Independence, Missouri. Along with the sea of canvas and oxen were more people than she had seen in a week.
Too many people. She bit her lip and raised a hand to shield her eyes as she scanned them all, looking for a hint of a blue bandana.
“Miss. Miss, is this yours?”
The stagecoach hand finally noticed her. He thrust a worn old bag out to Darcy. It looked pathetic against the number of fancy bags and small trunks that the stagecoach also held. It was as thin and poor as her.
“Yes, thank you,” she told the gruff man with a smile.
He returned that smile with a half-hearted one as Darcy took her bag, then he ignored her and went back to work.
Darcy took a few more steps away from the stagecoach, clutching her bag in one hand and her letter in the other. A few people out of the crowd of wagons stared at the stagecoach, but none of them wore a blue bandana. Worry gnawed at Darcy’s gut. She couldn’t be abandoned. It simply wasn’t acceptable. Mr. Huber had to be—
A flash of blue caught her eye and she let out a breath of relief. A young man stood to the side of a wagon nearby, watching her with a smile. He was handsome too, with sandy-blond hair and a tanned face. He looked to be the kind of man who worked hard and had the physique to prove it. Best of all, he wore a blue shirt. That was even better than a bandana. Why, Darcy couldn’t have missed this man if she had arrived at night after being blinded by a wild animal attack. At last. At last she could rest easy, knowing that everything would be all right.
“Hey you,” a man shouted at the stagecoach driver behind her. “You were supposed to bring me a woman. A Darcy Howsam woman. Where the hell is she?”
Darcy’s throat constricted and her smile wilted on her lips. She pivoted toward the stagecoach and the voice. There, standing with his fists on his hips and a scowl as dark as midnight on his face, stood a paunchy, unshaven man who looked well over forty. He wore a bright blue bandana around his neck. Darcy’s heart sank to her toes.
“Right there,” the stagecoach driver said, pointing to Darcy with only a quick sideways glance.
The paunchy man turned to her and narrowed his eyes. A second, taller man—unkempt and unshaven—stood beside him. He leaned over and whispered something to the man with the blue bandana. The man with the bandana snorted and spit. He muttered a curse, then stomped toward Darcy. His eyes stayed narrowed as he stopped in front of her, raking her up and down with a gaze as though assessing a horse he wanted to buy.
“You Darcy Howsam?” he asked.
“I am.” Darcy’s voice cracked. She swallowed, then asked, “Are you Mr. Conrad Huber?”
“Yep,” he said.
The last bit of Darcy’s hope crumbled. She peeked sideways to see if the handsome man in the blue shirt was still watching her, hoping he wasn’t. She didn’t want him to see the disappointment in her eyes as a result of her own rash decisions. Unlucky for her, the handsome man was still watching, although his smile had gone and his arms were crossed over his broad chest.
No, Darcy thought to herself, focusing on the man in front of her—her Mr. Huber. This was a good thing. Appearances could be deceiving. Whatever might happen, life as the wife of this frontiersman would be better than life as a drudge back East or as a saloon girl. She forced herself to smile and take as sunny a view of the situation as she could.
“It’s a pleasure to meet you at last, Mr. Huber. I’ve been looking forward to it for weeks and weeks now,” she said, extending her hand to him.
Conrad Huber did not take her hand. He didn’t say a word. He scrunched up his nose and paced in a circle around her. Darcy stood perfectly still, holding her breath, smile plastered in place… dread itching its way down her back.
When Conrad came to a stop in front of her, he sniffed and said, “Nope. Too small. I don’t want you. Give me my money back.”
“What?” Darcy blinked, jaw dropping.
“The twenty dollars I sent you to get your sorry self out here,” Conrad went on. “I want it back.”
“But… but I don’t have it. I used it to pay for the stagecoach. That’s why you sent it to me.” Panic bubbled through her.
“Too bad,” he said. “You owe me. I want my money. You find it somehow and bring it to me.” He turned his back on her and started to walk over to his friend, who now wore a mean grin.
“Wait, Mr. Huber,” Darcy called after him, her heart beating in her throat.
Conrad stopped and twisted back to her with a grimace.
“I’m not too small,” Darcy insisted, a little more breathless than she wanted to be. “I might be short and slight, but I’m a hard worker and I’m strong. I’ve been working as a maid this past year and at a shop before that. I can do whatever you need me to do.”
“I doubt that,” he said, snorting then spitting.
The action turned Darcy’s stomach, but she had no choice but to press her case. “I can cook too. I cooked for my family before they died.”
“They die because of your cooking?” the other man asked, adding a vicious grin to his question.
“No, there was an epidemic of influenza.” Darcy choked back the grief of her memories and rushed on. “I can mend and sew too. And knit socks if you need them. That’s what your advertisement said you wanted.”
Conrad huffed. “I want someone who can cook and clean in a mining camp. It’s tough work. You don’t look like you got the mettle for it.”
“I do, I—”
“’sides, what if I decide I want sons? You look like birthing them would split you in two. Makin’ ’em too.”
Darcy recoiled. She’d assumed she’d end up fulfilling all of the duties of a wife, all of them, but the sudden thought of doing that with this man was almost as bad as the looks Mr. Tavener had given her.
No, she reminded herself again. It would be different if she was Conrad’s wife. It would be respectable, even if it was unpleasant. Respect outweighed the alternative, even if Conrad was… Conrad.
“I would be a good wife to you,” Darcy said, out of arguments. “I will be a good wife to you.”
Conrad gave her one more sweeping look, then shook his head and said, “Nope. All I want from you is my money.”
“Don’t you think of goin’ nowhere ’til you get it to me neither.”
“I don’t have your money,” she called after him. “I don’t have any money.”
“Come on,” the other man said. “Let’s go get a drink.”
It was too late. Darcy could do nothing as Conrad walked away.
And yep, you can zip on over to Amazon to purchase Trail Blaze right now! Better still, if you subscribe to Kindle Unlimited, it’s free. *wiggles eyebrows*