When Hattie Stout boards the train bound for the western frontier, she doesn't think things can get any worse. Her father lost his fortune and made her a pariah in New York society. Then, the man she was engaged to marry, backed out of the arrangement to marry his cousin. When her parents decide there is nothing left to do but send her west as a Mail Order Bride, she thinks she's hit rock bottom. She's wrong!
Sheriff Ed Milton is comfortable in the life he's carved out for himself in his small mining town. But he's never met anyone quite like Hattie Stout before. When she steps out of the stage coach that fateful summer's day, she makes an impression he finds difficult to forget. She's beautiful, cultured and obviously wealthy - so what is she doing in Coloma?
A tragedy draws them together in a way neither one of them expects. And just when they think they can move on, it comes back to haunt them. Will they ever be free to follow their hearts?
Release date: August 27, 2017
Publisher: Black Lab Press
Print pages: 129
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The sway of the carriage made Hattie Stout’s head loll from side to side. A sudden bump over a particularly large rock whacked her temple against the dull wood window frame. She cried out, rubbing where a lump was beginning to form. “That was rather an uncomfortable one, wasn’t it?” Mrs. Sandringham, the elderly lady seated across from her in the stagecoach, smiled, one hand resting atop her straw hat. Hattie nodded and pursed her lips. “Rather. How much longer do you think we’ll be? I feel as though my brain will be jostled from my head if we don’t stop soon.” She grimaced and glanced out the window at the green, hilly landscape beyond. Mrs. Sandringham sighed. “I’m afraid we’ll be a couple more hours. They said we should expect to arrive just before sundown. And it’s only two o’clock now.” Hattie took a long, slow breath and leaned against the window frame, her hand protecting her head from further battering. Several more hours … she’d just have to fix her eyes on the horizon to keep the nausea at bay. She could feel Colin Sandringham’s eyes on her as she studiously avoided his gaze. Unlike his mother, he was a sullen, sweaty man. Middle-aged, he’d never married and seemed unable or unwilling to either look away or strike up a conversation with the eighteen-year-old Hattie. She shuddered involuntarily and tugged at the edges of her knit shawl, pulling it tighter around her shoulders. She’d spent weeks on the road, first chugging along the train tracks westbound from New York City to Sacramento, then doubling back eastward via stagecoach to her final destination: Coloma, described by her father as a small mining town in California. Hattie longed to set her feet on firm ground and keep them there. She’d never traveled so far in her short life and easily became ill from the motion. But what really made her stomach churn was that she was headed to Coloma to meet her husband-to-be. And given that she’d never even set eyes on the man she was to wed, she couldn’t get past the fear that bubbled up whenever she thought of him. Her head grew heavy, pinpricks of light danced before her eyes, and she’d heave in great gasps as though there wasn’t enough air left in the world to fill her lungs. The first time it happened had been directly after Father told her he’d lost the family fortune to a swindler. The second was when Mother broke the news she was to be sent west as a mail-order bride. Now, every time her thoughts drifted to the fate that lay before her, she thought she might die if she weren’t able to catch her breath again. Then it would pass, and she’d discover tears on her cheeks and wonder how they’d got there. She sighed again and traced the outline of the window with the tip of her finger. How she missed home – her sisters, Mother, even Father, though she blamed him for sending her away. She’d pleaded with him – surely there was another way. But he’d turned on his heel and strode from the room, her entreaties bouncing off his sturdy back. Septimus Stout was a hard man – he loved his family, that she knew, but when he made up his mind there was no way she or anyone else could change it. Mother had sobbed quietly at the sideboard as she’d poured herself another snifter of brandy. She picked at a splinter, tugging it from the windowsill and flicked it out of the coach. Shrubs and trees flashed past the window amidst swirls of dust that curled up from the dirt road. She glanced back, watching the dust billow out behind them like a bridal veil. The thought made her eyes cloud with tears and she dashed them away with the back of her hand. All her life, she’d dreamt of the wedding she might someday have – hoping, wishing, dreaming that her husband would be a kind, generous and loving man. Handsome as well. But now she was to marry a miner. A miner! The lump that formed in her throat wouldn’t budge this time and she swallowed hard around it, determined not to let her tears return. Only a few short weeks ago, she’d been a debutante — living in New York City in one of the finest houses, on one of the most prestigious streets in that great city. She’d had servants to wait on her and glamorous gowns to fill her closet. Every week she’d attended the most exclusive soirees, balls and events with the rest of the social elite. She’d been engaged to a handsome gentleman: at least there’d been an understanding between her and her paramour, even if his family refused to recognize that fact. And now — she was to marry a miner and live in a small town in California! She didn’t know how she could bear it. A butterfly landed on the sill, and her eyes widened in surprise. She watched it crawl along the lip of the opening, smiled and slipped a finger gently beneath it, scooping it up so it could walk along the length of it. She held it close to examine the whorls and circles that decorated its delicate wings. If she were back home, she’d have added it to her collection. But the box that held her treasure of insects, captured over the past ten years, was three thousand miles away, left behind when her family moved from her childhood home. She sighed and held her hand up to the window. The butterfly leaped into the air and was gone in a moment as the stage sailed on. As she stared out into the wilderness beyond, her gaze caught a thin trail of dust in the distance. It grew closer by the moment, and before long she saw three men on horseback rapidly closing in on the stage. The horses they rode galloped with outstretched necks, and the men wore hats pulled low over their faces. With a frown, she leaned further out the window. The wind caught her hair, almost dislodging her bonnet and whipping strands of her mahogany locks around her face. The men drew alongside the stage, and she realized they had kerchiefs pulled over their mouths and noses and held pistols aloft as they rode. She fell back in alarm. “What is it?” asked Mrs. Sandringham, her eyebrows pulled low over small reddened eyes. “Outlaws!” exclaimed Hattie, just as the driver of the coach shouted from where he sat high above the horses. She heard him bring down the whip on the horses’ backs and the stage sped up, careening along the narrow trail. She was thrown against the coach wall, first on one side, then the other. She clutched her bonnet and shouted in alarm when Mrs. Sandringham landed on the floor and knocked her forehead on the hard edge of the seat. She helped the woman up again with Colin’s aid, but was dismayed to see a line of blood form on the woman’s brow. She squeezed Mrs. Sandringham’s hand, smiling tightly, even as she used her free hand to steady herself. A gun shot rang out overhead, and Mrs. Sandringham screamed in fright. Hattie took a quick breath and shut her eyes tight. The horses pulled up short, and Hattie landed heavily in Colin’s lap. He blushed and fussed around, helping her back into her seat. Her bonnet hung over her face and her hairpins had fallen out, her hair falling around her cheeks. Hands shaking, she pressed her locks back into place as best she could and tried to steady her breathing, but a thud outside the coach made her cry out. What was going on? A man appeared at the window, his eyes dark and narrow above a thick nose and greasy brown kerchief. She pulled the door open, clutched Colin’s arm and tugged him violently from the coach. Mrs. Sandringham screamed again, then she too was pulled down the single step to the uneven dirt below. The outlaw’s face appeared once more and lifted a hand, beckoning for Hattie to come out as well. She stepped down carefully, her eyes wide. Another of the scoundrels was yanking luggage from the back of the stage. Trunks, carpetbags and satchels fell from the luggage compartment into the dirt, sending clouds of dust into the air and making Hattie cough. She covered her mouth with a gloved hand and squinted into the bright California sun. The first outlaw handed around an inverted hat. “All right then, everyone gimme yer pocket watches, jewelry, money … put it all here, if ya please.” The Sandringhams quickly removed anything of value they had and lay it in the hat. Hattie frowned – she’d already lost so much, and now she’d lose the pretty necklace Father gave her for her eighteenth birthday and the remaining few coins in her purse. Could things get any worse? She dropped the items into the hat as the lump in her throat grew again. The man gleefully shoved it all into his pockets, then set the hat back on his head as his compatriot shouted from the back of the coach. He hurried to help, and the two of them hauled luggage toward their horses, laying it on the steeds’ backs and tying it down with ropes. Hattie was glad her trunk was too heavy for the men to carry on horseback. But when she saw her carpetbag being carried away by one of them, she gasped. He wore a tan Stetson and sported a bushy red beard so long that it brushed against his belt. “No! No, please don’t take my bag! Please, I need it! You don’t understand, you rotten scoundrels! I’ve left everything and everyone behind in New York to marry a man I’ve never met in a godforsaken town called Coloma, and everything I have left in the world is in that bag! Please don’t take it, I beg you!” She threw herself at the bag, fighting with the man who held it. He frowned and kicked at her, but the man with the brown kerchief stopped him with a hand on his arm. “Aw, let ‘er have it. We got all we need, don’t we? She can have this’un.” The man in the tan Stetson glared at his friend, then shoved the bag toward Hattie. The one with the brown kerchief looked at her with deep brown eyes. He had a black beard sprouting around the kerchief, and a jagged scar that wound up his left cheek and past the corner of his left eye. The three outlaws turned and leaped onto the backs of their horses, whirled them around and disappeared over a rise with a thunder of hooves. Mrs. Sandringham collapsed against the coach with a cry and Colin fussed over her Hattie sighed deeply, then turned to see one of the drivers, a young boy called Peter, peer tentatively around the outside of the stage. “They gone, Miss?” he asked, looking around furtively. She nodded, a hand on her throat. “Yes, they’re gone. Where is Mr. Galloway?” She looked for the other driver. Peter, wide-eyed, shook his head. “They shot him.” His gaze fell to the ground and he frowned. Hattie ran to the front of the wagon and found Mr. Galloway, a middle aged man with a rotund belly, lying dead beside the horses. She covered her mouth with a cry, then turned away as her stomach revolted, leaning against the wheel of the stagecoach. Peter hurried to her side. “You all right, Miss?” She nodded and wiped her mouth with her handkerchief. “Yes, thank you Peter.” She straightened and took a quick breath. “Can you drive on your own?” He dipped his head. “Yes, Miss.” She staggered back to the door of the coach and found Mrs. Sandringham already inside. She climbed in while Colin helped Peter strap Mr. Galloway’s body to the back. Glancing back over her shoulder, she saw no sign of the outlaws. Hattie sank into her seat, her entire body trembling from head to toe, and began to sob. * * * Sheriff Edward Milton strode down the covered sidewalk. Coloma was a mining town, a leftover from the Gold Rush days, and every part of it was coated in a fine layer of brown dust. He shoved his hands into the pockets of his dungarees, hopped over a steaming pile of horse manure and onto the street. The stagecoach was due soon, and he always liked to meet it. Generally, Stan Galloway the driver had plenty of news from Folsom and the other stops along the way from Sacramento to Reno. He transported the mailbag as well, and Ed was hoping to hear from his sister back in Virginia. It had been a while since her last correspondence, and she’d been expecting at the time. News of the baby’s birth was long overdue – he looked forward to hearing about the seventh addition to their large brood. He ran a hand over his beard and trotted across the street, weaving between buggies, wagons and cowboys cantering along on the backs of lean stock horses. Most called greetings to him as they passed. Others stared hard ahead pretending not to see him. He didn’t take it personally – it went with the territory of being a small-town sheriff. Some people loved him, some hated him. Either way, he always watched his back. As if on cue, the stage rounded the bend at the end of the street on its way into town. Dust swirled in a cloud behind it and the horses were bathed in sweat, their heads still high even after hours of pulling the heavy coach in their wake. He stepped quickly to the sidewalk opposite and shoved his hands deeper in his pockets, rocking back on his heels while he waited. The weight of his holster pulled on his hips, and he tugged his pants up a little. As the stage came to a halt, the horses snorted, dropped their heads low and sucked in deep breaths. It looked as though Stan had driven them harder than he normally did. He frowned and scratched at his nose. As used to the trip as they were, that was highly unusual. A heavy-set old woman emerged from the coach, a handkerchief dabbing at her mouth. Her arm was supported by a greasy middle-aged fellow with a receding hairline and drooping mustache. He fussed over her, then stood aside as she barked orders at the boy who’d jumped from the driver’s seat to unload the luggage. Ed walked over. “Say, Peter, where’s Galloway? And why’d you drive the horses so hard? He wouldn’t be happy seein’ you treat ‘em that way …” His voice drifted off as he looked up and saw the blood-covered body of Stan Galloway tied to the back of the coach. “What in tarnation …?!” Peter rubbed his hands over his face. Dirty streaks ran from his eyes down both cheeks and off his chin. “We was robbed, Sheriff. They shot him and got away with most of the valuables. I didn’t know what to do.” Ed rested a hand on the lad’s back. “There now, ‘course you didn’t. You did good just gettin’ the passengers here on your own. Go see if Sally has somethin’ warm to soothe your throat, boy. You can come back out to take care of the horses after that.” He watched Peter cross the street and amble into the Roan Horse Saloon. Sally Yancey the owner had a soft heart, and would give him a hearty meal and an ear to listen to his woes. Ed ran his fingers over his mustache and turned to look at the dead body again. The first thing was to get the old man down from there and give him some dignity, but he’d need help. Another woman stepped cautiously out of the coach, a gloved hand holding the door, her black damask gown sweeping the step behind her. She glanced around and caught sight of him, her hazel eyes masking whatever she might have felt – they were deep and warm, but if she’d been frightened by the attack, she didn’t show it. His heart thudded in his chest and his pulse raced at the sight of her. Her eyes seemed to burn into his, as though she saw who he was and could learn everything about him with one look. She was the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen, and around Coloma she really stood out. Most of the women there were either old and married or of ill repute, and all of them had experienced difficult lives that showed on their faces. A man couldn’t help but pity them – them and the local men, most of whose worn faces showed they’d traveled a road or two themselves. He removed his ten-gallon hat. “Er … Miss?” His tongue felt like it was tied in a knot, and his cheeks flamed. She arched a single slim eyebrow at him. “Yes?” “I’m Sheriff Edward Milton. Just wonderin’, did you see what happened to Mr. Galloway here?” Her hand went to her throat. “See it? Of course I did – I was sitting right inside the coach. I saw, heard and felt every last thing that happened.” He bit his tongue. She was feisty and given the fright she’d experienced, maybe a little hysterical. He decided to give her a bit of leeway. “I’m sorry to hear that, Miss …? “Miss Stout – Hattie Stout, from New York City.” He raised an eyebrow. She’d said her name as though he would recognize it. He wondered what in Heaven’s name an elegant young woman like her was doing, apparently all alone, in a town like Coloma. “Do you think you might be able to recognize the ones who did it?” She shook her head and sighed. “I’m afraid their faces were covered. They wore neckerchiefs pulled up over their mouths and noses, and hats were drawn down low. There were only three of them, if that helps.” He rubbed his chapped lips and frowned. He’d been after a trio of rascals for months. This was likely the same team that had been stealing payrolls and valuables from mines and ranches all over El Dorado County. No one yet had been able to give him a description or any information to help him catch the scoundrels. Well, they couldn’t have gotten far yet. He’d find Peter and ask him for an account of where the attack happened, and with a posse of angry townsmen, maybe they’d be able to track the men down this time. Ed tipped his hat and bid Miss Stout farewell, then marched across the street to the Roan Horse. He’d find help there to take care of the body, and likely a posse as well. He hated that there were outlaws in his county he’d been unable to apprehend – before they’d come along, his record had been stellar. He was the sheriff with the most arrests of wanted felons in all of California, and he wasn’t about to let some two-bit hustlers take his reputation from him.
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