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Now we’re back to offer our weekly free Romance excerpt, and if you aren’t among those who have downloaded A Life Restored, you’re in for a real treat:
4.4 stars – 39 Reviews
Text-to-Speech and Lending: Enabled
Here’s the set-up:
Prescott Pioneers Series #3 – sequel to A Heart Renewed
Christian Historical Romance set in the Arizona Territory in 1865.
Making mistakes is a part of life…
Social butterfly, Caroline Larson, longs for adventure. Since her best friend left Texas, she grows dissatisfied with her life. A little lie to her parents sends her on the journey of her life. Stranded in the Arizona desert, far from her final destination, she must rely on a stranger who gets under her skin.
Thomas Anderson has always struggled with making good decisions. A twist of fate, or Providence, leads him to Arizona to take a job as an express rider. Dealing with the ghosts of his past threatens to overshadow his future–until he meets a woman needing his help. Sparks fly as she grates on his nerves.
As they both struggle to move beyond their past mistakes, will they find their lives restored?
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And here, for your reading pleasure, is our free romance excerpt:
Wickenburg, Arizona Territory
August 19, 1865
The stagecoach bounced over the rough terrain. Caroline Larson tried not to slide into the man sitting next to her on the hard, bare wood seat. The least they could have done was put some upholstering on the thing. Then she would not be jostled so much from the side against the window to the poor young man next to her.
Another jolt of the Celerity stagecoach shoved her into his side once again.
“Sorry,” she murmured, glancing at the young man.
“No harm, Miss.” A smirk played on his lips causing the jagged scar on his right cheek to wrinkle unattractively. She wondered how he got the scar. The hint of laughter in his voice indicated he was enjoying this.
Caroline stifled a snort of disgust as she turned to look out the opening with a small canvas cover secured to the top of the window frame. The dust billowing up from the front wheels obscured much of the view, filtering into the interior of the stage. The small town—if one could call it that—of Wickenburg faded behind them. The only good thing about facing the rear of the stage was that she did not have to endure a face full of dust with each breath.
The stage jerked violently, propelling the man across from her forward, landing awkwardly in her lap. She turned her shocked green eyes towards him, narrowing them slightly until the red of embarrassment tinged his cheeks. He offered profuse apologies as he tried to return to his designated seat.
She should have listened to Millie. She and her father had acted as chaperones, escorting Caroline west. Unfortunately, their travels ended in Wickenburg. Millie and her father assured her they would take her the rest of the way to Prescott by mid-September. But, she had come this far and did not want to wait another month or more before being reunited with her brother Adam and her best friend Julia.
As the stage crossed over a huge bump, sending Caroline airborne for a few seconds, her mind returned to her present circumstance. Despite Millie’s concern, she boarded the stage this morning headed for Prescott. Things were just fine. She could handle the inquisitive looks of these men.
Abruptly, the stage skidded to a halt, propelling Caroline into the arms of the man across from her. Her almost apology died on the tip of her tongue.
“I wouldn’t do that if I were you.”
Rifle fire echoed in her ears. Her head snapped towards the window. The driver fell from his perch on the front of the stage. As she jerked forward, the young man with scar clasped his hand down on her arm. She turned her eyes toward him. He lifted a finger to his lips and shook his head. He pushed her back against the seat, out of the view of the window.
“What’d ya do that fer?” another voice sounded.
“I told him not to reach for his gun.”
Caroline froze. The stage was being robbed!
“Y’all come out slow like,” the first man shouted.
“Miss,” the man with the scar whispered. “Let me go first to make sure it’s safe for you.”
A lump formed in her throat. She watched as he exited the stage. Maybe she had been too quick to judge him earlier.
“How many more of you are in there?” the first robber’s voice asked.
“Just four more,” the man with the scar answered.
That was not true. There were four more men. And her. What was he doing?
“Come out nice and slow.”
The rest of the men did as instructed. Caroline hesitated in the shadows, wondering if the scar-faced man—now she wished she would have asked his name—was trying to protect her. Tapping her finger against her temple rapidly, she tried to figure a way out of this situation. Scanning the landscape offered no solutions. Nothing but vast open desert presented itself. There was no place to hide.
For the first time in her eighteen years, Caroline had no solution. No plan.
“Bart!” the first robber yelled. “Check out the stage. Make sure no one else is lurking around.”
She heard the distinct sound of a man dismounting a horse. Moments later, shuffling feet sounded just outside of the stagecoach door. Flattening herself into the shadows as much as possible, Caroline wished she had not worn her bright yellow dress this morning. Her dark green would serve much better to hide her now.
“Looksee here,” Bart said with a broken-toothed smile. “Come here missy.”
He leaned in and caught hold of her foot.
“Unhand me,” she said before realizing she had destroyed any hope of hiding her presence from Bart’s boss.
As Bart tugged harder on her ankle, she slid off the seat, landing with a thud on the floor of the stage. Kicking his face with her other foot, she freed herself long enough to make a somewhat graceful exit. Bart’s beefy arms clamped around her shoulders as soon as her feet hit the ground. He shuffled her to the line of passengers.
Bart flung her toward the scarred man who helped her earlier. The force was so hard she lost her balance and landed at his feet with a whimper. When he kneeled to help her up, the robber cocked his pistol, stopping him in mid-crouch. All she could see was the scar on the passenger’s face as she tried to control her breathing. It wasn’t as noticeable now as it had been before. For some reason, she found that comforting.
The air rushed from Robert Garrett’s lungs. In all his life he had never been this lucky. There was no mistaking those flashing green eyes. The young woman Bart just pulled from the stage was definitely Caroline Larson.
As his lackey, Bart, pushed her forward, she fell at one of the passenger’s feet. Robert cocked his gun, leveling it at the passenger.
“I think she can stand on her own,” he said, covering his momentary shock.
When the passenger made no further move to help her, Robert pointed his gun at Caroline. His sinister smile hid behind the red bandana covering his face. She straightened with that defiant look she always had etched haughtily on her face. He would relish wiping that expression away later. He had to finish the business at hand first.
He spoke with an exaggerated accent to further disguise his identity, not that Caroline would recognize his true identity if she saw his full face. “Now, I want y’all to empty your pockets of all yer valuables and place ‘em in the bag Bart has. We don’t want no trouble, so just do as yer told. Otherwise, I might decide to empty my pistol into this little gal.”
Robert plotted his next move, while Bart went down the line taking all the valuables from each of the passengers, including Caroline Larson. He hated her blasted brother, Adam, almost as much as he hated Will Colter. Almost. Patience. You’ll have your revenge soon enough.
A slow plan was always much better than a hurried one. In fact, robbing this stage had been a bit hurried—it’s how he ended up doing it himself, instead of hiring it out. It was a dangerous move to get his hands dirty. After this, he would distance himself from the execution of his plans. Too risky. But, if he hadn’t been here, he wouldn’t have seen Caroline and the ideas taking shape in his head would be a missed opportunity.
First things first. He had to finish this job then rendezvous with his other men. He would have his associate pay off Bart before taking the stage horses to La Paz to sell. He would instruct his associate to return to the stagecoach, where he would leave Caroline alive, and have his associate fetch her and take her to the small shack on the outskirts of his property. He’d let the men have fun with her, as long as they kept her alive. He needed her if he was going to ransom her for money.
Oh, Adam Larson wouldn’t have anywhere near enough funds to rescue her. That would be part of the fun. And it would be what would force Will Colter to get involved.
The best part was that no one would have any idea he was involved in any of this. He would clean up, shave, and change into his fine clothes after his meeting with his associate. Then he would head back into Wickenburg and spend the night at the hotel before heading out to Prescott tomorrow as the respectable Robert Garrett.
Inwardly, the swell of anticipation for the next phase of his revenge sent giddy shivers up and down his spine. He would come back despite all that Colter and Larson took from him and he would do it while destroying them.
When Bart stopped in front of her, Caroline realized she would need to part with her items as well. Slowly she unfastened the broach her mother gave her and let it slip into the bag. Then she emptied her reticule, thankful she had taken the time to discretely hide half of her money elsewhere on her person this morning.
Once the man had a full bag, he began dumping luggage from the back of the stage, littering things everywhere. He picked through her trunk, strewing her clothing on the dusty ground. Finding nothing of worth there, he went to the next trunk. After several minutes ticked by, he announced he was finished with his search.
Then the boss man dismounted his horse. He came straight towards her. With a small bandana in his hands, he shoved her over to one side of the stage.
“What are you doing?” the scarred man asked, making a move towards the robber.
The robber turned and shot him.
Caroline gasped as the man’s body fell limp in a pool of blood. As his face relaxed, the scar became almost invisible. A tear trickled down her cheek.
“Any more questions?” the robber asked. When no one moved, he added, “Good.”
He turned her back towards him, pushing her face into the side of the coach. She tried to struggle, but stopped when he pressed the barrel of his pistol against her neck. When she stilled, he yanked her hands behind her back and tied them together with the bandana. Then he shoved her to the ground.
“Stay,” he commanded. “And don’t give me no trouble.”
Her heart pounded loudly in her ears as she watched helplessly. He unhitched the team of four horses from the stagecoach. He barked another command to Bart, who then led the remaining four men to the other side of the stage.
At the first rifle shot, Caroline jumped. Looking through the undercarriage, she saw two of the men who sat across from her lying in a heap on the ground. Blood soaked their clothing and the odd angle of their bodies suggested they died from the same shot. Two more rapid rapports of a pistol were followed by the harsh thud of another man hitting the ground.
Tears streamed down her face as she heard the pleas of the last man. The echo of a rifle cut off his cries. Glancing over to the other side of the coach, she saw his body land on the others.
Quickly, she looked away. Fear squeezed her heart. She would be next.
Raising her knees to her chest, she buried her face in the folds of her skirt, as well as she could with her hands still tied behind her back. Lord, help. I shouldn’t have lied to Papa. But, I need you. I don’t want to die.
The sound of men mounting their horses brought her eyes up.
“Boss, ain’t ya fergetting something?” Bart asked.
The robber turned dark eyes on her. “Naw. I ain’t about to kill a woman. Let her be.”
“We just gonna leave her?”
“Yeah. Desert will kill her soon ‘nough.”
Those were the last words she heard before the robber’s loud “Yaw” forced the unhitched stage horses into motion between him and Bart.
Caroline stared after their dust cloud for what seemed like hours, still stunned that she had come out of the ordeal unscathed.
When she was certain they were gone, she stood, arms still tied behind her back. Looking around, she found a rough metal edge to the harness system on the front of the stage. Kneeling awkwardly, she rubbed the bandana against the metal until her hands were free.
Flexing her fingers in front of her, she stopped short at the blood on them. Reaching down to her petticoat, she ripped off a strip and wrapped her cut left hand.
Her stomach revolted at the thought of what she must do next. Taking a few deep breaths, she walked toward the scar-faced man. Crouching down beside him, she searched for any sign of life. There was none. She didn’t even get to thank him. She wiped her eyes on the sleeve of her dress.
Caroline proceeded to the other side of the stagecoach. Three of the men’s bodies were piled one on top of the other. She wasn’t strong enough to move the first to check on the other two, though she could see no evidence that any survived.
The last man lay prostrate nearby. As she approached, she thought she heard him groan. When she kneeled next to him, his body shook violently. She managed to turn him over just as the last spark of life slipped from his eyes.
Jumping to her feet, she staggered to the other side of the wagon. Sinking to her knees, she let the tears fall down her face. Her stomach roiled at all she witnessed. Crawling on her hands and knees she moved only a few feet before she lost the contents of her stomach.
Wiping the back of her hand across her mouth, she despaired. Was she going to die before ever reaching Prescott?
Then the guilt settled in. If only she had stayed in Texas and married Nathan Finley. She wouldn’t be in this fine mess.
Larson Ranch, North Texas
April 1, 1865
(Four months earlier)
Jesse Shoemaker turned toward her. This was it. Caroline was pretty sure he was going to kiss her. Part one of her plan might just work out after all.
“You are so pretty,” he said, Adam’s apple bobbing with nervousness. His dark nutmeg eyes searched hers as his earlier laughter faded to a more serious expression.
Caroline let her gaze fall demurely for a moment, confident in the affect this would have on Jesse. Then she licked her lips, before lifting her eyes back to his. She had to wait only a second before his lips covered hers.
At first his kiss seemed shy, reserved. She thought perhaps she was the first girl he kissed, until he deepened the kiss a few minutes later.
Heat flushed her cheeks when he pulled away—not from his kiss but from her complete embarrassment. There had been no sparks. Nothing. Not even a slight flutter of her heart when he kissed her.
What was wrong with her?
He mistook her expression. “I’m sorry. I… uh… don’t know what came over me.”
Quickly Caroline recovered from her extreme disappointment. Pasting as sincere of a smile as she could muster, she flashed it towards him. It worked. Jesse seemed relieved.
“I hope you’re not angry with me,” he said as he offered her his arm again.
“Not at all.” Not at him—at herself. Why couldn’t she manage even a small bit of romantic feeling for Jesse Shoemaker? He was handsome enough. A bit taller than she liked but he had a wonderful smile and a good heart. He was a decent young man and she ought to be grateful that he had shown interest in her, but she was deeply disappointed. Maybe things would work out better with Nathan Finley.
As he led her back inside the house, she quickly made some excuse to part from his company. Spotting her younger sister, Missy, refilling a dessert tray, she managed to convince Jesse she would return to his side after she finished helping her.
Missy smiled coyly. “Did he kiss you?”
Caroline ducked her head, regretting that she chose to share her plan with Missy. “Yes.”
“And was it nice?”
“I don’t want to talk about it.”
Moving towards the stove, Caroline ground more coffee and started another pot, thankful her back was turned towards her sister.
“Honestly, Caroline, the way you are acting I would think you dislike Jesse.”
Spinning to face her sister, she said, “I like him well enough. It’s just that… I don’t feel about him the way Mama feels about Papa. There’s no…” She stopped trying to explain it. She barely understood it herself and she doubted whether or not her fifteen year old sister had any idea about romance or boys. If she did, Papa would be livid. Of course, if he knew what Caroline was doing, he would be even angrier.
“So, no to Jesse. What about Nathan? Has he kissed you yet?” Missy’s wild red curls bounced with her excitement.
She glared through narrowed eyes. She was tired of trying to figure out which one would be the better husband. She had to see which one could set off the fireworks of her heart. So, she devised a plan to spend the first half of tonight’s party with Jesse and then the second half with Nathan. The only reason she confided in Missy at all was because she missed her best friend, Julia. This is exactly the sort of thing Julia would have helped her orchestrate.
“I could help distract Jesse,” Missy offered.
“That won’t be necessary.”
“There you are,” Nathan Finley said, standing in the doorway of the kitchen.
Surprised to see him, she smiled, bringing her head up slowly as her eyes connected with his pale blue ones. The slow smile that stretched across his lips let her know the look had the intended effect.
“I’ve been looking for you all night,” Nathan said as she came to his side. “Would you care to take a walk?”
Caroline nodded, placing her hand on the crook of his offered arm.
She could do worse than Nathan Finley. His father owned the mercantile in town, which seemed to be thriving, despite the tough times the cattle ranchers faced in the area. The War Between the States financially hurt her father’s ranch, as well as many others in the area. For some time the Union had blockaded their main route to market. The last few years they had to find other markets. Unfortunately, those markets proved more treacherous. That, along with the falling price of Texas longhorns, meant less profit for men like her father.
Jesse’s family’s ranch was hurting worse than Larson Ranch. Yes, maybe Nathan would be the better choice.
Nathan’s work was stable. She always thought him the more handsome of the two, with his blue eyes and sandy brown hair. He wasn’t too tall—only a few inches taller than her, instead of the nearly foot difference between her and Jesse.
As Nathan led her onto the front porch, he said, “I’ve missed you, Caroline. It’s been far too long since you’ve visited the store.”
A little flutter rose in her chest. What a sweet thing to say, even if she had just been in less than two weeks ago.
“I’ve been trying to find you all evening.” He turned toward her.
“Oh, I thought you must have just arrived, as I haven’t seen you until now.”
A smile stretched across his lips. “So you were looking for me then?”
Looking away shyly, she said, “Yes.”
When she looked back at him, he had that look—the one that made her feel all warm inside. He lowered his head, stopping just inches from her lips.
“May I kiss you?”
Her breath caught, but she managed a soft “yes” just before he covered her lips. A small flutter twitched in her stomach as he kissed her. Nothing big. Not like she hoped. But it was something.
When he pulled back, she smiled up at him. He reached for her hands, taking them in his.
“Caroline, I…” Nathan cleared his throat. “I’ve come to care a great deal for you. And I think you care for me, too.”
She nodded for him to continue.
“I would like to ask your father for permission to court you.”
Oh, she had not quite expected that. Not yet. She barely knew him. She wasn’t ready. Well, maybe she would have been if there had been some great spark in his kiss instead of the small little flutter.
A noise from the doorway of the house caught their attention before she could respond.
“Get your hands off her!” Jesse Shoemaker yelled, moving closer to Nathan.
Nathan dropped his hold on her hands before facing Jesse, confusion written on his features.
“This is a private conversation, Jesse.”
Caroline took a step back, away from the two young men.
“She’s my girl,” Jesse said as jealousy dripped from his dark eyes.
“Hardly,” Nathan replied. “As you can see she is with me.”
Jesse started to lunge toward Nathan who quickly side stepped him, moving off the porch. As Jesse recovered, he followed Nathan, swinging when he was within range. Nathan ducked.
Both Jesse and Nathan turned to look at the owner of the voice. Caroline didn’t need to look to know it was her older brother Georgie who called out.
“What is going on?” Georgie asked her as he motioned his sweetheart back inside.
“Ah, um.” How could she explain the situation without making Nathan angry or further crushing Jesse. A fine mess she got herself into this time.
Nathan spoke first. “We were talking when he,” hooking his thumb over his shoulder in Jesse’s direction, “interrupted.”
“He was kissing Caroline,” Jesse said.
Nathan’s face flushed, but he did not deny it.
Caroline’s stomach plummeted. She really had not thought through what would happen if Jesse saw that.
Georgie turned to her. “Is this true?”
She nodded, too afraid to speak.
Turning Jesse’s direction, Georgie asked, “And what difference does that make to you?”
“She loves me, not him. I kissed her earlier.”
The shock on Nathan’s face stabbed her in the chest. His lips parted as if he was going to speak, then shut in a firm hard line. He must have read the truth on her face. For all of her scheming, she was never very good at lying.
“Georgie, please don’t tell Papa,” she whined, shifting her view towards the front door.
Her father’s tall form filled the doorway.
“Tell me what?” he asked through gritted teeth. His gaze moved to her, then Jesse, then Nathan, then back to her. A scowl of disappointment settled on his brow line. “Wait for me in the kitchen.”
Glancing back over her shoulder, the expressions on Nathan and Jesse’s faces were no better. Hurt. Anger. Disappointment.
When her feet refused to move, Papa’s voice commanded in a whisper, “Now.”
Rushing inside, Caroline felt heat flood her cheeks. She hurried past their guests and into the kitchen to await her fate. Missy followed on her heels.
“Just go,” Caroline said. When she did not move, she added, “Papa is coming to talk to me.”
That sent Missy scurrying from the room.
Pulling out a chair from the table, Caroline sat, holding her head in her hands.
She could deal with Papa’s anger. Only, that was not what she saw in his face. The disappointment would be hard to bear.
She idolized her father and she had always felt loved. Her younger sisters sometimes teased that she was Papa’s favorite. She secretly thought she was too. She had always been able to talk him into anything or talk her way out of trouble with him.
What could she even say to defend herself? That she wanted to find love like he and Mama had? That she was bored since Julia left? That she really wanted to leave Texas?
While true, none of those things would take away the look now etched in her mind.
What was she doing anyway? If she found her life so boring, how would becoming a rancher’s wife or a storekeeper’s wife help? It might take away the loneliness of losing her best friend. But, neither of those options seemed very adventurous. It was unlikely that either Jesse or Nathan would ever want to move west.
And she did.
The realization brought her head up. That’s what she had wanted to do, for some time now. She wanted to move to Prescott. She wanted to live near Julia and Adam.
Late last summer, she lost her best friend and her brother in one night. Julia showed up on her doorstep, terribly abused by her older brother. She had to flee—immediately—to her other brother in the Arizona Territory. Adam was the one to take her there.
Even though Adam had already planned to leave so he could work at Will Colter’s ranch, Caroline had not expected to lose her best friend, too.
To think, it had been her idea for the two to travel west as brother and sister. It was a great plan—one that succeeded in saving Julia’s life, as she learned from letters since their arrival.
It was just so hard. The three of them grew up together. Caroline felt closer to Julia than to her younger sisters. Adam, only two years older than her and Julia, often played with them when the Colters and Larsons got together. The three had been good friends growing up.
But, now she was left behind and she did not want to be.
The noise from their guests quieted down and still her papa had not come to talk to her. She was just about to get up, when both Mama and Papa appeared in the kitchen.
Papa started pacing across the length of the small room, while Mama took a seat across from Caroline.
It was Mama who spoke first. “Your father tells me that two different young men have shown an interest in you.”
Caroline’s eyes darted up to Papa’s face. He looked extremely displeased. She nodded.
“And that you allowed both of them to kiss you.”
Her eyes snapped back to her mama. Though her expression was softer, it bespoke of disappointment as well.
“Do you like either of these boys?” Papa asked, stopping to stand behind Mama.
Swallowing hard, Caroline tried to stall. She liked them well enough—but not enough to court or marry them.
Papa’s hands shot up in the air in frustration. “Haven’t I raised you better than that?”
He started pacing again.
“George, calm down.”
He stopped with a clear view of Mama. “Maggie, our daughter is toying with these men. Our daughter. How can I calm down?”
“Are you toying with them?” Mama’s green eyes locked with hers.
“No. I was going to tell Jesse that I wasn’t interested before the end of the night. And Nathan—”
“He was going to ask me for permission to court you. When were you going to tell him?”
“I wasn’t sure I didn’t want him to court me until just a little while ago.”
“You need to tell him that after church tomorrow,” Papa said. “Caroline, when a boy kisses you—he’s serious. It’s a dangerous game you’re playing. Leading them to think you care when you don’t. I raised you better than that.”
“I never led them to believe I loved them,” she defended, knowing how hollow the words sounded.
“From what I witnessed out there this evening you did. Both of those young men were fully convinced that they captured your heart. I’ll not have any daughter of mine acting in such a way!”
Mama turned to him. “Don’t raise your voice. This is about Caroline, not about you.”
What did Mama mean?
“She is acting like her.”
Mama shot Papa a look that silenced him, before saying, “Honey, tell us why you did this?”
Instead of answering, Caroline shot back her own question. “Who am I acting like?”
Mama sighed. “Your papa was in love with a woman once. He wanted to marry her, but she had several beaus and picked someone else instead.”
“Maggie!” Papa’s face paled.
“George, sit down. You brought it up. I think it’s only fair that Caroline understands why you’re reacting the way you are.” As papa took a seat next to her, Mama repeated her earlier question, “Now, tell us what this is all about.”
Still stunned to learn that Mama was not Papa’s first love, Caroline looked down at her fingernails. Softly, she started, “I just want to find someone that I can love like you love Papa. Guess I have pretty high expectations, growing up watching the two of you.”
Mama smiled. “I can understand that. But, why let both of them kiss you—especially if you were not interested in them?”
“I didn’t know how to tell if I was in love. I thought maybe if I kissed them both, I would be able to tell. Only I found out that I’m not in love. Not with either of them.”
The room went silent for several minutes. Caroline looked up at her papa. His features had softened, though he looked like he still had a few words for her. Mama seemed to be weighing what she said.
“Love is not something to take lightly,” Mama said. “Even though you don’t love either of those two boys, I understand that they have grown to love you. It’s a painful situation they are in. When you love someone and they don’t return that love—it hurts.” The catch to her voice spoke of experience, making Caroline feel even worse for her actions.
“There are other ways to find out if you are in love without letting those boys kiss you,” Papa said. “You just spend some time getting to know them. Talk to them. Over time, you would know.”
“But how do you know if you’re in love?”
Mama looked at Papa. “You just do. You think about him when he’s not there. You look forward to the next time you’ll see him.”
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