Excerpts Books Three and Four

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Sadie Peterman vows to change her acid-tongued, self-absorbed ways in order to achieve her dream of finding a suitable husband. But devastating circumstances, that have nothing to do with the passion-filled night she spent in the arms of handsome Chance Maxwell, throw her life into chaos. Faced with the possibility of a totally-ruined reputation, Sadie quickly learns that finding a husband is the least of her worries. But is a husband who loves her the only solution for the spoiled debutante?

Chance returned to Spirit Creek after an eight-year, self-imposed exile in Texas. After an unplanned night of passion with beautiful Sadie, Chance is totally smitten. But the unexpected arrival of a woman Chance knew in Texas complicates his plans to win Sadie’s heart and her hand. After an accident on the family ranch, Chance isn’t expected to live. Could a medical miracle save Chance and Sadie’s dreams of a happy ending? Or will a misunderstanding prove too much to overcome?

An Excerpt from No Chance

Chapter 1

Spirit Creek, Montana
Thursday, April 9, 1891

“Hurry home now, everyone,” Miss Sadie Peterman called to the departing students who raced from the classroom into the fenced schoolyard, shouting their new-found freedom to the sun-filled sky. Sadie waved back to a pig-tailed, freckled-faced, first-grader standing beside the gate waiting for her brother to walk her home.

When the schoolyard emptied a few minutes later, Sadie closed the schoolhouse door. Her lace-up fancy boots tapped a steady rhythm as she crossed the plank floor, weaving her way between the students’ desks, to the front of the room. She erased today’s lessons from the blackboard. Chalk dust hung in the air as she seated herself behind the teacher’s sturdy wooden desk and adjusted the skirts of her simple calico dress, having learned the folly of wearing her best silks and satins while teaching. Just as she settled in to prepare tomorrow’s lessons, a knock on the schoolhouse door startled her.

Ronald Waverly, the general store owner and chairman of the school committee, stepped inside. “Miss Peterman, how are you?” he inquired in his familiar jovial voice as he ambled toward her.

“I’m well, thank you,” replied Sadie, smiling. She’d offered her assistance as substitute teacher while Ivy Patterson, along with half the citizens of Spirit Creek, recovered from a nasty bout of influenza. As the least likely candidate for the job, Sadie took pride and pleasure in this new endeavor. What had earned her a visit from her employer? Had she done something wrong?

“Good, good,” remarked Mr. Waverly. “I just stopped by to let you know Miss Patterson will be returning to her teaching duties bright and early on Monday morning.”

Sadie covered the moment of disappointment she experienced. “That’s wonderful news. I’m delighted Miss Patterson has recovered.”

“She gave us quite the scare, but Doc tells me she’ll be as good as new.” Mr. Waverly stuck his felt hat on his head. “Well, I’ve said my piece so I’ll be heading back to the store. Thank you again for teaching the young ones, Miss Peterman. I’ll stop by at four o’clock tomorrow with your payment.”

“Thank you, sir. I appreciate that. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed myself the past three weeks.” Sadie realized that by this time tomorrow she would have completed her stint as substitute teacher, the first time she had ever been employed in all of her twenty-two years. But after overhearing that conversation outside the general store several weeks ago, she’d vowed to change her ways.

“I admit I was a bit skeptical when you volunteered to help out, but you’ve done a fine job of it.” Mr. Waverly touched his hat brim. “I’ll see myself to the door. You continue with whatever you were doing.”

Sadie watched her employer leave, engaging the latch behind himself. As the daughter of Spirit Creek’s banker and a graduate of a prestige finishing school back East, Sadie had considered holding a job beneath her. Now, she knew how satisfying completing a day’s work could be. She’d so thoroughly enjoyed herself, she’d totally forgotten about pursuing what she considered her most crucial objective in life.

Having stepped into Ivy Patterson’s shoes, Sadie was apprised of what was involved in doing a proper job of teaching these children. For the next hour, she prepared tomorrow’s lessons as well as Monday and Tuesday’s for Ivy, hoping to help ease the way back to work for her. Sadie never would have considered doing something this thoughtful for someone else before taking on the temporary assignment. She had to admit she considered herself a better person for it.

Sadie tidied the teacher’s desktop and stood, scraping the chair’s legs across the plank floor when she pushed the wooden chair up to the desk. She donned a fur-trimmed cloak, and then collected her beaded reticule and wide-brimmed, stylish felt hat while contemplating the two things she’d discovered while serving the community. Firstly, she’d learned that working for a living wasn’t as difficult or unpleasant as she’d imagined. But secondly, she’d experienced the frustration of dealing with unruly children. Had she and her classmates behaved in such an unacceptable manner at the finishing school, they would have been expelled and sent home posthaste. Apparently, expelling a second-grader for stuffing a live mouse in the teacher’s desk wasn’t an option in Spirit Creek. A decidedly ridiculous rule, in her opinion, but she had acquired a new respect for all young ladies who served their communities as schoolteachers.

Sadie closed the schoolhouse door and strode down the sidewalk still a bit slick from last night’s mixture of snow and rain, hoisting her skirts to avoid soiling them. Would her community service result in the townspeople seeing her in a more favorable light? She’d earned the standing of the least-liked female in town, especially among Spirit Creek’s male citizens, a reputation she’d acquired while attempting to find a suitable husband for herself. Like most proper young ladies, she’d only considered a fellow of acceptable wealth and a stellar reputation in the community worthy of her. Although not a deal breaker, if he was handsome all the better. Certainly, a finishing school graduate deserved nothing less.

She’d been terribly hurt recently when she overheard a couple of cowboys outside the general store referring to her as Bitchy Bloomers. Her vision blurred by tears, she’d stumbled down the disgusting, mud-filled alleyway, ruining a favorite pair of fancy boots in the process, praying no one realized she’d heard the horrible name. Of course, she’d been forced to admit to herself that she’d gone about her search in a totally unacceptable fashion. She’d all but pulled out a lasso and attempted to drag any suitable fellow to the altar.

Now, Sadie was preoccupied with plans for her future, keeping her awake at night and plaguing her thoughts almost all day long. Hopefully, her good deed these past weeks would help her husband-hunting endeavors. She’d wanted to fall in love with the man who would become her husband, and hopefully, he’d fall in love with her. But time was of the essence; she was nearly an old maid. Above all else, she refused to endure the title of spinster! But she suspected a soul couldn’t always have everything her heart desired.

Sadie had been pumping her arms and taking wide strides in her haste, thus displaying way too much of her ankles. She slowed her pace, turned at the corner, and headed toward her father’s bank to inform him that her commitment to the community would be honored by tomorrow.

As recompense for completing this favor for the children of Spirit Creek, her father had told her how proud of her he was and promised to pay for a complete new spring outfit. She hoped he’d permit her mother to escort her to Miles City early next week to meet with a seamstress and a milliner. She’d never win the heart of a suitable suitor unless wearing made-to-order garments.

Pausing in her musings for a moment, Sadie decided she would suggest her father purchase a new outfit for her mother as well, and perhaps even order something for himself. Thoughtfulness was becoming easier every day. Why had she found it necessary to be so self-centered before? A decidedly unbecoming characteristic in a person.

“Good afternoon, Mrs. Jones.” Sadie smiled, encountering the mother of twelve on the sidewalk. Sadie had been teaching several of the woman’s brilliant and well-mannered children.

Mrs. Jones mumbled a greeting and continued on without actually acknowledging her. Sadie grimaced and bit her lip, knowing she’d been too brusque with the town’s ladies in the past. She’d accused former widow, Maggie Burns, of stealing Luke Carlyle from under her nose after learning of their marriage. And she’d anticipated the arrival of the newspaperman, Arthur MacDonald, until he arrived with a new bride, Lily. She’d doggedly pursued the bachelor lawyer, Robert Rutherford, but he’d only had eyes for the schoolteacher, Ellie Thomas, who’d become his wife last December. Sadie vowed to hold her tongue from now on when dealing with competition for an eligible bachelor, as well as practice tactfulness on every occasion as she’d been instructed at finishing school.

Goodness, if only she could calm her mind and stop worrying about her future!

Several cowboys whistled and called out inappropriate comments as she walked by The Spirit Creek Hotel. Sadie sailed past the cretins who continued their jeering, head held high and eyes straight ahead. Even a bunch of worthless, drunken ranch hands couldn’t spoil her day.

* * *

Chance Maxwell had stepped off the train in Miles City an hour ago. He’d collected his gear and unloaded his trusty gelding. Now, the two of them cantered across the familiar rangeland heading for the home he hadn’t seen in eight years. Not that he was complaining. He’d left the Circle M Ranch of his own free will at age twenty after one argument too many with his domineering father, Buddy Maxwell.

In time, he’d found work on his uncle’s isolated ranch in Texas where he’d happily spent his years of self-exile. But two weeks ago, he’d received a disturbing telegraph from his brother: Pa dying. Come home. Cody.

Chance found it odd that he hadn’t heard from his brother or father the entire time he’d been gone. Not even after his cousin, Russ, had headed to Montana to work for his father and, no doubt, informed his family where he’d been all this time. Clearly, neither his pa nor his brother considered it imperative that Chance return to his rightful place on the Circle M.

Of course, Chance hadn’t contacted them either, figuring his pa owed him an apology. But with the old man’s life drawing to a close, perhaps the time to make amends had come. If he could only remember what the hell he and his pa had been arguing about when he stormed off the ranch, promising never to return.

Chance reined in his horse; it was time to slow the pace. He envied Cody’s ability to get along with anyone including their opinionated, headstrong father, something Chance had given up on years ago. He’d hoped that his absence and a few more years on the calendar had mellowed his old man. Every time he’d heard the word ‘stubborn’ spoken in a conversation, Chance had thought of Buddy Maxwell, but he could now admit he’d been as hard-headed as his pa.

Truth be told, he couldn’t wait to return home. He’d missed the ranch where he’d been born and raised, missed his pa and brother, too. He’d grown up a lot over the years. Chance was looking forward to proving he’d left the Circle M a hot-tempered kid and was returning a mature, level-headed man who, with his brother’s help, intended to ensure the future of his birthplace.

Spirit Creek appeared on the horizon. As he neared, Chance studied the town spread before him which appeared twice as large as the one he remembered. Prosperity obviously had settled in the small frontier town, due in part to the arrival of the Northern Pacific Railroad which traversed Montana and ran through the town of Miles City, a three-hour ride by horseback north of Spirit Creek. No doubt, every area rancher appreciated the ease of selling his cattle now, driving them to meet up with the train destined for the stockyards in the East.

Snorting, Judge seemed to sense Chance’s mood. Did the dang horse remember leaving the Circle M as a newly-saddle-broke two-year-old? Days before they left, the stubborn horse had decided finally that Chance passed muster and accepted him as his new owner, allowing the man to ride him. Hence, the gelding’s name. Chance and Judge had seen a lot of country together the past eight years, but it appeared they were both ready to return home.

As horse and rider moved down Main Street, Chance encountered a number of strangers who waved to him or touched a hat brim. The friendly West. He rode past several prosperous-looking new businesses, and he imagined the family ranch continued to flourish under his pa and his brother’s joint management as well. Chance’s mind raced with thoughts of what awaited him when he arrived at the ranch. Would he put in an appearance in time, or had his pa passed already?

As he reached the outskirts, Chance listed off in his head errands he needed to handle. Leave Judge at the livery for a well-deserved rest and extra ration of feed. Deposit the cash he’d brought with him from Texas into his account at the bank. Find some place to acquire a shave, haircut and bath. Did June Davidson still run the hotel? He needed to procure a decent meal and a room for the night. Unless he heard his pa’s situation appeared dire, he’d head out to the Circle M after breakfast tomorrow morning.

* * *

The sidewalk outside The Spirit Creek Commerce and Trust Bank had been cleared of slush, and Sadie released her grasp on her skirts before climbing the three wide wooden steps to the front door of the sturdy brick building. Just as she reached for the handle, the door flew open and someone charged outside, knocking Sadie off her feet. She landed on her behind near the top veranda step with her hat askew and her skirts up around her head. A chorus of laughter from the obnoxious cowhands loitering across the street drifted to her ears.

Sadie frantically tugged her clothing back into place and glared at the party responsible for her humiliation. Her gaze settled on a pair of crystal blue eyes which looked familiar for some reason. Judging by the man’s expression, he’d caught a glimpse of clothing items best only seen by her laundress or her husband. He was neither. She felt her face flame.

“Ma’am, I can’t tell you how sorry I am.” The unshaven fellow dressed in a dusty trail coat bent down and grasped her arm, offering her assistance up.

Sadie slapped his hand away. “Get your dirty paws off me!” She uttered a very unladylike curse under her breath while she clambered to her feet, shook out her skirts, and straightened her hat. “Where is the fire? Or did you just rob the bank?” she demanded, eyes blazing.
“Please forgive me, ma’am. I should have been watching where I was going.”

His words sounded genuine, but his grin belied his sincerity. He’d enjoyed every moment of the embarrassing incident, especially catching a glimpse of her unmentionables.

“Why were the likes of you in the bank in the first place? Judging by appearances, you don’t have two nickels to rub together.” Sadie took a step back as she spoke. The snippy response countermanded recent efforts to improve her status in the community, but her temper and the embarrassing incident had overruled her new resolve.

“You’re right about my appearance, ma’am.” The fellow dragged a dusty Stetson off his head, revealing a tangle of almost shoulder-length, dark-brown hair sticking out in several directions. “Just rode into town a half hour ago. Been traveling for several days, and I haven’t been acquainted with a bathtub in some time.”

“The wooden building next to the hotel houses the public baths and barber shop. If you have the payment, patronize Barney’s premises at the earliest convenience.” Sadie took a deep breath and held it while attempting to step around the malodorous fellow. She’d made enough of a spectacle of herself.

“Let me introduce myself, ma’am. I’m Chance…”

“Why would you suppose I’d care to learn your name?” interrupted Sadie, glaring at the man. Those blue eyes remind her of someone. If she could only recall who that might be.

“Introducing myself seemed the polite thing to do, ma’am.” The stranger slapped his well-used Stetson on his head.

“Your name is Chance?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

Sadie sniffed and stood a little taller. “I can assure you, sir, there is no chance I’d waste a moment of my time on a cowpoke leaving nothing but trail dust and cow manure in his wake.”

“I do intend to get cleaned up within the hour, ma’am.” The fellow touched the brim of his Stetson, and those stunning eyes met hers once again. “And I hope we cross paths real soon.”

Sadie headed into the bank. “I doubt that will happen,” she muttered as she entered the premises and slammed the door closed.
Friday, April 10, 1891

Chance reined Judge toward the main house at the Circle M Ranch, his home, his soon-to-be legacy. He dismounted from his trusty traveling companion and gazed toward the barns and corrals where he’d learned to ride over two decades ago. Standing at the hitching post, he smiled as pleasant memories from his youth bombarded his mind.

Just then, Cody stormed out of the house, taking the steps two at a time, and strode toward Chance. “What the hell are you doing here?”
“Dang it, Cody. It’s great seeing you again, too.” The sarcastic response popped out before Chance could stop it.

“You have some nerve showing up after all this time.”

“What in blazes are you talking about? You’re the one who sent me the telegraph.”

“What telegraph?” demanded Cody.

“The telegraph informing me Pa was dying and ordering me to come home.” Chance and his father had butted heads more often than he could count, but his stomach tightened in knots and his heartbeat raced at the thought of his father’s passing.

“I never sent you any damn telegraph,” insisted Cody.

A ranch hand appeared at Chance’s side. Chance handed over the reins and patted Judge’s hindquarters before he grabbed his bedroll and saddlebag. “Take good care of him. Endured a long trip and deserves a well-earned rest,” he instructed, trying to remember the fellow’s name.

“Will do, sir. Welcome home, Mr. Maxwell.” A grin covered the man’s face.

The name popped into Chance’s head finally. “Thanks, Billie.”

The ranch hand headed toward the barn, leading Judge.

Chance pushed his way past Cody. “I beg to differ, little brother,” he muttered. “The proof is in this saddlebag. In black and white. Pa dying. Come Home. Cody. Brief, to the point, and signed by the only guy I know who’s named Cody.”

“Dammit, Chance. I never sent you any stupid telegraph.” Cody stomped along behind Chance heading toward the house. “I’d hoped I’d seen the last of you years ago.”

“Sorry to disappoint you.”

“I suppose you came back to claim your half of the ranch. What makes you think you’re entitled to a damn thing? You take off on your little adventure, leaving me here to work my ass off and put up with Pa’s constant complaining and fault finding. Why would I want you back here, benefitting from all my hard work in making this place more of a success than ever?” Cody followed his brother up the veranda steps and then grabbed his arm.

Chance met his eyes and yanked his arm out of his brother’s grasp. “Can’t help it if you’ve changed your mind about my returning. But I’m here to make amends with Pa, and no one is stopping me.”

Cody slammed the wooden front door closed behind them.

Chance stepped into the entryway and the past eight years melted away. The house looked the same as it did when he left, even smelled the same. The unmistakable aroma of cinnamon floated on the air. Flora, if she was still the family’s housekeeper, must be baking an apple pie today. The grandfather clock in the hallway chimed a welcome home, announcing his arrival at eleven o’clock. He tried to recall some saying about ‘the eleventh hour’, but at the moment, the significance of it eluded him.

“What the hell’s going on?” demanded Buddy Maxwell, lumbering down the hallway from the parlor. The second he spotted Chance he stopped in his tracks, and his jaw nearly hit the floor.

Chance dropped his gear onto the hallway rug. “You ain’t seeing things, Pa. It’s me.” He immediately noticed how ill and pathetic his normally robust father appeared, the old fellow a near skeleton standing in loose-fitting clothing. The hollowed cheeks and pasty complexion spoke volumes, but a broad smile spread across the weathered face.

“Well, I’ll be damned. I guess almost dyin’ is all it took to git you back here, son.”

“Ha!” scoffed Cody. “Heard you were dying, Pa, and he decided to slink back here like the snake he is, hoping to claim his half of the ranch.”

“What are ya talkin’ about, boy? Ya know I’m leavin’ half this ranch to ya both when I meet my maker. The arguments with Chance all those years ago never changed that.”

Cody gaped at his father.

Chance couldn’t blame his little brother for feeling significantly short-changed. He’d left the kid alone to handle everything and face their father’s anger and closed-mindedness.

“Pa, you know it wasn’t any damn inheritance that brought me back here.” Chance dragged his hand down his face. “When I heard the news, I couldn’t get home soon enough. We’ve got to mend fences while there’s still time.”

Buddy nodded his head while he wiped his mouth with a handkerchief and then stuffed it back into his pants pocket. “Couldn’t agree more,” he said.

“Tell you the truth, Pa, I don’t even remember what the hell that last argument was about.” Chance hung his Stetson on a peg beside the door. “I wouldn’t be surprised if I was in the wrong though. So, I’d like to apologize.”

Buddy burst into laughter, which soon changed to a hacking cough. He waved off his son’s concern and finally recovered enough to speak.

“Chance, I’ve got no idea what we were arguin’ about either, but I’m certain of one thing. You were right, always.”

“Pa, we were both to blame.”

Buddy stumbled into the parlor and settled in his favorite rocking chair beside the enormous stone fireplace with his sons following on his heels. “After ya left, I questioned the young men at the Cattlemen’s Club meetings. Gotta tell ya, I didn’t much like their answers. Those fellows shared the same damn information with me that you’d done. But I’d been too set in my ways to even consider changin’ a single thing on this ranch. Figured it was good enough for your grandfather, it was good enough still.”

“You mean too stubborn,” offered Cody, settling on one end of the sofa, facing his father. “Pa is finally convinced that barbed-wire fencing isn’t just some hair-brained idea that costs a fortune without a proven purpose.”

Chance laughed and took a seat on the other end of the sofa. “I noticed some rangeland had been fenced off. He must have seen the light.”

“It took some doin’,” admitted Buddy. “But young ranchmen like Luke Carlyle and Robert Morgan have steered us old-timers into the new decade, sharin’ their educated thinkin’ with all the ranchers.”

Chance grinned. “I never thought I’d see the day.”

Cody glared at this brother. “If you’d gotten your arse back here sooner, you would have known.”

Chance’s mood soured. “I figured you’d have everything well in hand.”

“Yessiree. Pa and I have been doing just fine. And we’ve got no need for anyone interfering in things.”

“Well, I ain’t staying where I’m not wanted.”

“Bull dung. You’re home and that’s where you belong,” declared Buddy. “Whether Cody’s willing to admit it or not, he’s gonna need help around here when I’m gone. Hell, he needs help now. I’m already as useless as a teat on a chicken.”

“I’ll manage. Hire more men. Work longer hours,” suggested Cody, obstinately, while pointing his finger at his brother. “And we still ain’t figured out who sent that telegraph.”

“You honestly never sent it?”

“No, Chance, and why would I?” demanded Cody, leaping to his feet and stomping out of the parlor. A few seconds later the front door slammed closed.

Chance glanced over at his father. “Then who in hell sent for me?”

“The only people who know I’m ailing enough to put me in the grave are Cody and Doc Johnson,” claimed Buddy, ticking off the two names on his fingers.

“Who is Doc Johnson? Where’s Doc Fitzgerald?” asked Chance.

“Passed away a couple years back. Consumption. Shocked the entire town. Nobody suspected anything was wrong. Bequeathed his entire practice to the new doctor.” Buddy shook his head and muttered, “Worst part about getting old, a feller loses all his friends. Guess the older folks around here will be saying the same about me soon enough.”

“Hopefully, not for a while.” Chance hated the idea of losing his pa, especially now that they’d set things right between them.
Buddy just nodded. Words weren’t necessary.

“So it must have been this Doc Johnson,” reasoned Chance, getting back to their original topic before he up and started shedding tears. “Think I’ll pay the doctor a visit. Have a little chat about professional behavior.”

“I can’t see Doc doing something like this. Nice feller from Philadelphia, married Pearl Jones. Remember her?” questioned Buddy.

“A year or two older than me I think, but I remember her.”

“Well, if not Doc, who else would do it?”

“Guess I’ll figure it out when I’m in town.” Chance stood, intending to head for the front door. “I’m moving into one of the cabins if there’s one vacant.”

Buddy struggled to his feet. “Take the old assistant foreman’s cabin. Johnny married Flora a couple months ago and they’re living in a new cabin out behind the icehouse.”

“What?” asked Chance, whipping around to face his father. “Flora married Johnny? How did he ever convince her?”

His father chuckled. “The old bugger snuck into the house one morning. Slipped into Flora’s room and waited until he heard my footsteps in the hallway. Flora stepped out of the pantry at the same time I entered the kitchen and Johnny snuck out of her room. Flora dropped a bowl of flour on the floor, I stopped in my tracks, and Johnny stood there grinning from ear-to-ear and declared, ‘Guess we have to get hitched now, sweetheart’.”

Chance burst out laughing. Man, it felt good. Almost as good as it felt to be home.

“Flora chased him clear down to the barn,” continued Buddy. “I thought she was gonna brain him with a fry pan. But she saw the humor in his shenanigans and finally admitted any man desperate enough to pull that stunt must be serious about her. They got hitched a month later.”

“Good for them,” said Chance.

“Took longer to clean up that blasted flour than to plan the damn wedding,” muttered his father.

“Will Flora be cooking for me, or are there staples out in the cabin?” inquired Chance, grabbing his gear off the floor.

“Wouldn’t imagine there’d be much. The place hasn’t been used in a while now. You’ll need supplies if you plan to cook for yourself. Ain’t necessary tonight though. Supper is at six. Don’t be late,” ordered his father.

“I don’t mind doing for myself. I’ll ride back to town and pick up some supplies this afternoon. Drop by and question that doctor at the same time.” Chance glanced at his pa and extended his hand.

“I can’t tell you how happy I am to have ya back here, boy.” Buddy shook his son’s hand. “But you’d better stay and pull yer weight around here. Give yer brother a hand with the work since you’re gonna own half of this place before long.”

Chance felt himself pale.

“Now don’t git to worryin’ about me. I’m gonna be here for a few months yet. Actually, I’d like to see another Christmas, if it’s all right with the man upstairs. Guess time will tell.” Buddy smiled weakly.

“I’m happy to be home, Pa.” Chance could barely get the words past the lump in his throat. “And I intend to stick around, despite Cody’s blustering. See you at supper.”

“I’ll ask Flora to toss another potato in the pot,” said Buddy, heading for the kitchen.

On his way to his assigned cabin, Chance stopped in at the horse barn to check on Judge. “Hello there, boy,” he greeted his trail pal, leaning over the stall’s top rail to pat the horse’s neck. “Are you settling in back home all right?”

Judge bobbed his head and snuffled while munching contentedly on a ration of hay.

“You seem to be making yourself at home. I hope things go as well for me,” whispered Chance, his mind churning with questions about the ranch, the stock, his brother, the mystery telegraph he’d received. He turned and discovered Cody glaring at him.

Chance headed toward the door, calling over his shoulder, “Before you ask, I figure on sticking around awhile to see how things go.”

“The only thing that needs to go around here is you!” shouted Cody as the barn door closed behind Chance.

 End of Excerpt

Available on Amazon http://amzn.to/UhdxVE

Coming August 31, 2014

CoverFinalMD-NoTies

When she accepted the position of schoolteacher in Spirit Creek, Ivy Patterson told every citizen who inquired that she was an orphan, hoping no one would ever learn the truth about her family. Now, being courted by the local sheriff has become a problem. Ivy is ashamed of herself for keeping secrets from the man she loves, but fessing up to her lies could mean the end of their relationship. When she recognizes the new stranger in town, Ivy fears her past just caught up with her.

Sheriff Ernest Jones is convinced his beloved Ivy is acting strangely because she is tired of waiting for his proposal. But his law-keeping work has been keeping him so busy, he has neglected to ask for her hand. He vows to make her his wife before another man catches her eye. With all the new men arriving in town, he prays he’s not too late already.

Ivy’s past poses a threat that could mean the difference between life and death for so many. If her secrets are revealed, will the lies prove too much for Ernest to accept? Or will their love for each other be strong enough to overcome the deceptions, clearing the way for a future together?

Excerpt from NO TIES

Chapter 1

Spirit Creek, Montana
Saturday, March 19, 1892

Ivy Patterson strolled down the wooden boardwalk, having chosen to take the long way from the schoolhouse to the town’s business section. Gazing across the wide street, Ivy noticed a fellow riding by on a spirited, pinto-colored horse. The slightly dusty trail coat and well-worn Stetson suggested he was just a drifter.

She took another look. The fellow sat tall and straight in the saddle, his chiseled jaw and wavy light-brown hair peeking out from under his hat. Ivy halted in her tracks. Could it be him? She hadn’t seen him in ten years. With his hat pulled down to shade the morning sun, she couldn’t be certain unless she saw his entire face.

She checked the bejeweled watch pinned to the bodice of her dress. Eleven forty. The general store closed for the noon hour. Ivy quickened her pace, navy-blue calico skirts swishing in her haste. A few patches of snow clung stubbornly to the northernmost corners of several buildings. She lifted her skirts and side-stepped a pile of horse manure as she carefully crossed the rutted, muddy street.

It couldn’t be him.

But what if it was?

Ivy turned on her heel and retraced her steps, maintaining a suitable distance to prevent him from noticing her in case the fellow proved to be a total stranger. The rider dismounted and tied the horse’s reins to the whitewashed hitching post outside The Spirit Creek Hotel. He yanked off his dark-leather gloves and stuffed them into the pockets on his trail coat which he removed and tossed over the ornately-tooled saddle. If it was him, he appeared taller than when she last saw him, slim and fit, with a broad back and narrow hips. He’d matured nicely.

Ivy slowed her pace and paused, pretending to glance into a store window while she observed him through her peripheral vision.

The man ran his hand down the gelding’s neck and he appeared to be talking to the animal, although Ivy couldn’t hear what he said. She must be mistaken; it couldn’t be him after all. Considering the probable example his father would have provided him in his youth, the man she’d believed him to be would never have spoken kindly to any animal. Not like this fellow had.

And then he glanced her way. His facial features were hidden behind a well-trimmed beard and moustache. She hadn’t remembered that about him, but he’d been only seventeen years old when she left. She still couldn’t be certain if it was him. He didn’t acknowledge her, just turned and gazed toward the other end of the street. Seemingly satisfied with what he’d observed, the fellow took the wide wooden steps two at a time and disappeared inside the hotel.

For several seconds, Ivy contemplated what she should do. The slight breeze ruffled her skirts and the scent of fresh-baked bread drifted through the air from the hotel’s kitchen, teasing her nostrils and causing her mouth to water. She swallowed hard. Could the fellow be Blake? If so, what was he doing in Spirit Creek? Had he been actively searching for her? Had he somehow discovered her whereabouts? Or had he chosen this town merely by accident?

Ivy’s heart raced and her palms sweated. She’d tried so hard to put her previous life behind her, meticulously planned and executed her escape. She hated telling lies, but she’d needed to guard her secrets as fiercely as a mother bear would protect her cub. Just a boring schoolmarm, new to town. Hair in a bun, calico on her back, and wire-rimmed reading glasses had enabled her to fit into her new community without standing out. When asked where she’d come from, a simple ‘out West’ had sufficed.

No one must ever learn the truth, especially the town’s sheriff, Ernest Jones. Although Ernest had been courting her for several months, he still believed Ivy had no ties to family. He certainly didn’t suspect her shameful past. And she hadn’t confessed otherwise. Due to his occupation, it was imperative that the lawman she loved so dearly never learned the truth!

The stranger’s arrival changed everything. Had part of her past just ridden into town? She needed to know for sure, and she wanted to know why. Before she could rethink her decision, she raced up the hotel’s steps and snuck inside.

Ivy paused to allow her eyes to adjust to the slightly darker interior. She peeked through the open doorway but the man wasn’t registering for a room. No one even stood behind the registration desk. She tip-toed farther down the empty hallway and quickly poked her head inside the dining room. Unobserved, she counted a dozen diners before she discovered the man sitting in the far corner, his back to the wall, gazing into the waitress’s eyes.

“What’s on the dinner menu, darling?” he queried in a loud, confident voice.

Gertie, one of the hotel’s employees, rattled off the trio of daily specials. “Which one would you like, Mr. Robbins?” A beaming smile accompanied her inquiry.

Mr. Robbins? Ivy didn’t hear the man’s response, her mind racing with questions. She’d been certain of his identity, but now she second-guessed herself. She returned her attention to the interaction taking place between the waitress and her customer. Gertie’s mumbled response to something he’d said generated a robust laugh and he slapped one knee.

Ivy gasped and jerked her head back. She would recognize that laugh anywhere. Regardless of what name he used that fellow was Blake Connors. In the flesh. Here in Spirit Creek. But why would Blake provide a false surname? Mind you, she could be accused of the same.

What are you doing?”

Ivy jumped a foot and swung around, meeting eyes with June Davidson, the widowed hotel owner. “My word, you nearly frightened the daylights out of me,” blurted Ivy, and then she felt her face redden from her rude outburst as well as having been caught.

“Why are you spying on my dinner customers?” accused June, standing hands on hips. A strand of graying hair escaped the bun at the nape of her neck and she swiped the stray locks out of her eyes.

“I noticed that fellow in the far corner, thought I recognized him. But I believe I was mistaken,” offered Ivy, attempting to justify her little reconnaissance mission. At least, the first part of her explanation was the truth.

Mrs. Davidson stood in the doorway, glancing at the town’s newest arrival. “Handsome devil,” she observed. “You’ve caught Ernest’s eye, but if things go south with the sheriff, this fellow might be a candidate for a future courtship.”

Ivy gasped. “I couldn’t! Ever!” She turned, raced down the hallway, and burst through the double doors to the safety of the street.

* * *

Blake enjoyed flirting with the pretty waitress who’d taken his order for one of the daily specials. He sipped the cup of coffee she’d brought. The girl appeared quite taken with him, almost melting into a puddle of female appreciation at his feet. He considered himself an acceptable male specimen. And he’d enjoyed a lady’s company behind closed doors more evenings than would be gentlemanly to admit.

He gazed around the dining room, observed the hotel’s other dinner guests. Old habits die hard. Blake loved his work, thrived on it. But the secret nature of his employment caused him no end of stress. Constantly on alert. Always mindful of something that didn’t fit, didn’t look right, or didn’t feel as it should. To do less could cost him his life. Continually wondering if he’d be recognized.

He took another swig of the best coffee he’d drunk in ages. The waitress approached his table, carrying a plate heaped with food. Two huge, mouth-watering biscuits rode atop a steaming, hearty stew packed with chunks of root vegetables and beef.

“Here’s your dinner, Mr. Robbins. I hope you enjoy your meal.” She smiled at him, coquettishly.

“Thank you, ma’am. I couldn’t be happier unless you were on the menu, too.”

Gertie waved off his remark. “Mr. Robbins. What a naughty thing to say!”

“Just teasing, darling.” Blake picked up his fork. “No offense intended.”

“None taken,” assured Gertie. “I’ve worked here for years, and I’ve heard it all.”

The waitress bustled off toward the kitchen and Blake tucked into his meal. Soon, his mind wandered back to the gal who’d flirted with him. Tall for a girl, pleasant-looking, slim but with curves in all the right places. Blake’s man parts had noticed her, too, and he shifted in his chair. If he ever retired from his line of work and decided to settle down, he could see himself married to someone like her. Hard-working, sensible, with a hint of a mischief streak as well.

Blake shook himself from his musings, knowing them to be nothing more than a dream for now. With plenty of work to complete, retirement seemed eons away. He gazed around the room at the collection of folks partaking of their noon meal. He didn’t recognize any of them, and that was a good thing.

In truth, he’d been observing the town from several strategic hiding places for more than a week now, watching and recording the comings and goings of citizens and strangers alike. Still, there’d been no sign of the folks he needed to spy on most. Confident the gang of bank robbers was nowhere near Spirit Creek, Blake decided the time had come to put in an appearance in town to foster some acquaintances. Learn a few secrets. Perhaps share a secret or two of his own.

Secrets. His entire life revolved around lies, deceptions, and falsehoods. Of course, his employer rewarded him with a handsome paycheck for it, and for years, he hadn’t seen himself doing anything else. But lately, the shine on his line of work had started to tarnish. He needed a change.

“Is there anything else I can get you, Mr. Robbins?” inquired the charming waitress.

“Not a thing, miss. What do I owe for the meal?” Blake grabbed his Stetson off the chair beside him and stood.

The waitress handed him a slip of paper with the total owing hand-printed in neat script. “Thank you, miss. Can’t tell you the last time I so thoroughly enjoyed a meal. And I’m not talking entirely about the food.”

Gertie shook her head. “Mr. Robbins, you’re a terrible flirt, but you’re very good for my self-opinion.”

“You’re a very engaging young lady.” Blake touched his hat brim. “You take care now, and I might be seeing you again. A man needs to eat.”

“I would like that very much.” Gertie smiled and cleared the dirty dishes while Blake wandered out to the registration desk in the hallway.

“How-do, sir. I’m June Davidson and I own the hotel. How was your dinner?” The gray-haired lady accepted the payment for his meal.

“That hit the spot quite nicely. Thank you, ma’am.” After complimenting the meal, he headed outside before she could ask a bunch of questions that he’d just as soon not provide answers for.

First order of business was locating the telegraph office and sending an important message that no one could decipher except for the intended recipients. A well-dressed gentleman was heading up the hotel steps as Blake exited the building.

“Pardon me, sir.” Blake met the man’s eyes when he halted. “Could you direct me to the telegraph office?

The man stuck out his hand. “Robert Rutherford, Spirit Creek’s lawyer. You must be new in town.”

“Just passing through. Blake Robbins.” He shook the man’s hand.

A minute later, after receiving directions, Blake collected his horse and rode off in the direction of the telegraph office.

* * *

Ivy struggled to her feet, having employed one of the town’s sturdy new benches in the Grayson Gardens Park to pull herself together. Soothed by the birdsong that drifted to her ears from overhead in the tall pines, she took a deep breath. Her heartbeat had returned to normal.

Moments later, she inhaled the brisk spring air as she strode down the wooden boardwalk, distracted by thoughts of the town’s handsome young sheriff who’d been courting her relentlessly of late. He’d blushed clear to his hairline the first time he’d asked her to accompany him on a walk. They’d traversed this very park, still under construction at the time. She could count on one hand the number of times Ernest, always a gentleman, had kissed her cheek following an outing together. Ernest Jones loved her as much as she loved him, however, although he’d seldom voiced his feelings aloud.

After classes were dismissed yesterday, Ivy wasn’t surprised when Ernest popped into the schoolhouse and invited her to a Jones family picnic to be held in the newly-opened park after Reverend Gerald’s Sunday morning church service. Of course, she accepted. Coming from a family of fourteen, Ernest often included Ivy in Sunday afternoon outings with his boisterous clan. And during the week Ernest somewhat scandalously would hold her hand while they partook of an evening’s stroll through the town park. The gossips wouldn’t dare start rumors, accusing the sheriff of unseemly behavior when in the company of a young lady. Every Spirit Creek citizen knew Mrs. Jones only raised decent, industrious children. Ivy enjoyed Ernest’s companionship immensely, often silently questioning how she’d managed to catch the eye of such a wonderful fellow. She couldn’t be happier, and she would marry Ernest should he propose some day.

Intent on completing her trip to the general store, she checked the time and headed back toward Main Street to finish her errand. The general store would be closed tomorrow, it being the Sabbath, and she needed to purchase the items on her list and then hurry home to bake a pie for her contribution to the luncheon.

As she walked, she contemplated Blake’s sudden appearance in town and what it might mean. If Blake showed his face here, could the others be far behind? She neither needed nor wanted Charlie, Albert or Blake Connors back in her life!

Ivy spotted Blake riding his horse a ways up ahead as she reached for the store’s door latch. He halted outside the telegraph office, dismounted, and tied the horse’s reins to the hitching post. In an instant, he disappeared inside the small brick building. She nibbled on her lower lip. Was Blake expecting news or sending a telegraph to someone? Curiosity got the best of her.

She raced down the sidewalk. The last snowy remnants of winter crunched beneath her buttoned boots when she scurried into the garbage-littered alleyway alongside the telegraph building. The first spring rains hadn’t removed the stench of filth from the air, but she resisted the urge to cover her nose and mouth with her scented handkerchief. Standing on tip-toes beneath the partially-open window, she pinched her nostrils closed with her fingers and craned her neck to listen.

“That’s it, sonny?” A wet cough accompanied the old telegraph operator’s question.

“Please read it back to me to ensure accuracy.”

“Says here Arrived stop. Suitable stop. Good as planned stop. Ya signed it Blake,” recited the operator.

“Perfect. Please send the telegraph at the earliest opportunity. It’s imperative that this message gets through immediately,” insisted Blake.

Ivy heard coins being exchanged.

“Should I be on the lookout for a reply, sir?”

“No. There won’t be any response. Thank you kindly.”

Moments later, Ivy heard a door close. She plastered herself against the wall to avoid being seen while contemplating what the message meant and who would receive it. Obviously, Blake arrived, but to what purpose she couldn’t imagine. And what seemed suitable? What had been planned? Had another person organized something and Blake believed it to be good? And why had Blake considered the matter urgent? Her mind raced with possible answers and options.

Was the Town of Spirit Creek suitable?

Knowing Blake, she worried that he and the others formulated a plan to rob the Spirit Creek Commerce and Trust Bank. Or could it be something else? Something legal? Ivy knew that possibility was as likely as a second moon appearing in the night sky. Her stomach roiled. She needed to do something, but exactly what that might be she hadn’t a clue. She’d complete her purchases at the general store and think on it while at home baking her pie and then pressing her dress.

Ivy raced out of the alleyway and crashed into an extremely muscular chest, nearly knocking the stuffing out of herself. She gazed upward and met Sheriff Ernest Jones’ beautiful brown eyes.

End of Excerpt

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