About the Author
A mountain girl at heart, she lives in the Denver area with her husband, children, a pesky dog, and a slew of chickens.
Put it all together, and you find an adventurous writer who likes to explore what it means to be human and follow people on the journey to happily ever after.
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
Someone was following her.
Each time Mary Stone looked around or tried checking behind her, she didn't spot anything unusual. But she was no fool. She'd learned to trust that feeling deep in her gut when she knew something wasn't quite right. If only she'd accepted her friend Polly's offer to accompany her on her errand to the mercantile. Selfishly, Mary had wanted just a few minutes to herself, away from her siblings' squabbles and the work of putting together their new household.
Selfishness never profited anyone. Maybe it wasn't an exact quote from the Bible, but it had to be in there somewhere. And now Mary was paying for that decision.
Teeming with saloons and miners celebrating the receipt of their wages, the busy street wasn't an easy place to find refuge. Two blocks ahead was the Raf-ferty Hotel, a respectable place where they'd stayed when they'd first come to Leadville. If Mary could get there, she could talk to Mrs. Rafferty and see if one of her hired men could escort her the rest of the way home. That was, if she didn't lose her pursuer first.
A wagon rolled by, kicking up dust and the loose slag that passed for a road. Mary coughed and pressed her nose into her handkerchief. Raucous laughter jolted her further as the doors to a saloon opened and several men lumbered out.
One of the men, having clearly imbibed too much of the drink, grabbed her. "Yer a pretty one, ain't ya? My ship's come in at the card table. Maybe you'd like to help me be respectable by marrying me."
His foul odor stung her nostrils, and as much as she wanted to get away, to loosen the man's grip on her arm, her legs were frozen to the spot.
Worse, she felt someone's eyes on her back. Her pursuer had caught up with her.
"Please. You're hurting me. Let me go." She tried jerking her arm away, but the man tightened his grip and pulled her toward his companions.
"Lookee here! I found me a wife."
The others, clearly miners who'd had just as much drink as their friend, laughed.
"She's sure a beaut," the one closest to her said as he tripped forward, extending his hand. "Name's Lucky. But Tom here's the lucky one if you're marrying him."
"I'm not marrying him." She gave her arm another tug, freeing herself from Tom's grasp and sending him sprawling to the ground in the process.
Freedom. But the only way out was through the man's friends, stepping into a dangerously busy street, or turning back to
She spun, running directly into a sturdy chest.
"Is there a problem?"
The deep voice jolted her, almost as much as the feeling that she somehow knew this man.
"Yy-yes," she managed to mutter. "These men, they"
"Hey, now." Tom staggered to his feet. "No problem here. I just come into a bit of money. Was making this lady here the offer of her life."
A shudder coursed through her body. No way would she waste her life on a gambling drunk. She'd seen where that had gotten her poor mother.
"I don't think the lady's interested," the stranger answered for her.
Tom stepped forward, a determined look on his face. "Now, you see here. I promised my friends I'd turn my life around and marry the first respectable woman I saw, and that's what I aim to do."
Tom gave Mary a broad smile. "So, pretty lady, what's it going to be? You gonna marry me?"
"No," she said without hesitation. "But if you're serious about turning your life around, you can start by visiting Pastor Lassiter at the Leadville Community Church. He'll help you far more than marrying me would."
Pastor Lassiter, or Frank, as he'd asked them to call him when Mary's brother married his daughter, was always talking about how these men were lost and needed to be shown the Lord's love. Most of the time, though, when she encountered them on the streets, they always scared the words right out of her.
Until this moment, she hadn't even had the good sense to ask the Lord for his assistance. Well, that was something she could rectify. With a quick help me, along with a forgive me, she hoped her silent prayer would do for the intensity of the situation.
"Church?" Tom and his friends guffawed at the same time. The friends came around and slapped Tom on the back. "Boy, you just got lucky again, escaping that noose."
They continued down the street, Mary's safety again assured. She turned to the man who'd come to her aid. "Thank you for your assistance."
For the first time, Mary took a good look at her rescuer. Or rather, up at him. Though she wasn't nearly as petite as some of the dainty women at church, this man towered over her. Deep brown eyes stared back at her, not in the lustful way Tom and his friends had, but their intensity still left her feeling uncomfortable. This was a man who could see into a person.
If her sister Rose were here, she'd surely collapse into a fit of giggles about how romantic it was to be saved by such a handsome man. But Mary knew how deceptive looks could be, and a simple thank-you was as far as she'd take her gratitude.
"It's no trouble. I'm sorry you had to deal with those men to begin with. Had I approached earlier, I might have saved you the distress."
Mary swallowed the fear that started to rise in her throat and reminded herself that God had not given her a spirit of fear. If only that belief were easier to live out.
"Why would you approach me? Do we know each other?"
"No." He took off his hat and gave a friendly smile. "Will Lawson, at your service. I've been looking to speak with you on a matter of, uh delicate nature."
Which was not at all comforting. He may not have been as aggressive as the miners who'd accosted her, but he certainly didn't seem like the sort of man she should be speaking with. There was a reason she didn't talk to strangers. "I'm afraid it wouldn't be proper at all. While I appreciate your aid with those ruffians, I can't be of assistance. I've been too long on my errand. I'm sure I'll be missed. Good day."
Will studied her in a way that made her collar feel just a little bit too tight. Mary took a deep breath, ignoring the strange sensations in her stomach. Oh, they weren't unfamiliar, but she knew that just because a man made her feel slightly giddy didn't mean she could trust him. Even if he had a warm smile.
"I'd be happy to escort you home. We can talk then. A lady such as yourself shouldn't be walking the streets alone."
No, she shouldn't. A fact she was sure the older women in residence at the Lassiters' would remind her of as soon as she returned. She'd thought herself so clever, refusing Polly's offer of an escort and slipping out before Maddie, the housekeeper, or Gertie, Polly's mother, got wind of her plans.
"My family will be concerned if I arrive home with a stranger as an escort." She started toward Rafferty's, remembering her plan to find a suitable escort to ensure her safety.
"They should be more concerned that you're wandering around unescorted."
Clearly this man understood the dangers of the situation, but it didn't mean she had to put herself in more danger. There was something a little too Mary shook her head. She didn't know what it was about him, but she wouldn't risk finding out.
"I'm going to Rafferty's hotel, just down the street. Mrs. Rafferty will have one of her boys escort me the rest of the way."
"Good." He stepped in with her. "That's where I'm staying, so I'll accompany you there, and we'll have a few moments to talk."
Mary stopped. "Fine. Say your piece."
Mr. Lawson handed a stack of envelopes to her. "I'd like to ask you some questions about Ben Perry."
The air whooshed out of her lungs at the mention of the name she'd hoped to forget. She didn't need to open the envelope to know its contents. Her own handwriting, bold and firm, told her everything she needed. The past she'd hoped to escape still followed her.
"Where did you get this?"
"Doesn't matter," he said, taking her by the elbow and maneuvering her through another group of drunken men. "I need your help in finding him."
Mary jerked out of his grasp and stopped, forcing him to turn and look at her. "If you read all the letters, then you know I have no interest in Ben Perry. I don't know where he is, nor do I care to. Now, if that is all, I will bid you good day, as I am perfectly capable of crossing the street to Rafferty's on my own."
She would have been better off with the drunken men who'd accosted her than to talk to anyone interested in Ben. Mary hastened forward.
Her words did not deter Mr. Lawson, who continued to walk in stride with her, even though she had picked up her pace considerably.
When her brother had found their late father's mine and moved the family from Ohio to Leadville, it was supposed to be a new start for the family. But how was Mary supposed to start over when her past wouldn't leave her alone?
One more reason that selfishness led to disaster.
Her family could never know the part she'd played in the troubles that had befallen them.
Mr. Lawson reached in front of her to open the hotel door, only he didn't let her pass. "Please, Miss Stone. Just give me a few minutes of your time. Let me buy you a cup of tea, and we can sit in the open where everyone can see that my intentions are completely honorable."
Everyone seeing was precisely the problem.
"I'm sorry," she said in the tone she usually reserved for chastising her younger siblings. "There is nothing I can tell you that would be of any help."
"Let me be the judge of that." The earnestness in his face made her sympathetic to his cause. The man was clearly desperate to find Ben. But desperation meant one of two things. He was either just as wicked as Ben and looking to cash in on some evil scheme, or he was a lawman.
Either meant trouble for Mary.
Perhaps the right thing to do was to turn herself in, but with her brother Joseph and his wife, Annabelle, on their honeymoon, there was no one to look after her younger siblings. Particularly Nugget, the product of her father's liaison with a fallen woman. The last thing Nugget needed was more upheaval in her life.
Mary had to protect her family, and herself, from anyone knowing of her past involvement with Ben Perryand his criminal history.
She stared long and hard at Mr. Lawson, ignoring the desperation in his eyes. Their sweetness reminded her of.
No. She simply would not have it. Sympathy for anyone wanting to know anything of Ben would only cause trouble.
"I haven't spoken with Ben in months, and as I'm sure you can tell from my letters, I severed our connection completely."
Oh, how she wished she'd not given in to the childish impulse to express her feelings in writing to Ben.
"Some of the contents of the envelopes were missing. But on top of the bundle of correspondence was a piece of paper that gave your direction in Leadville. If you severed your connection, as you and the last letter say, why would he have your new address?"
Was Mr. Lawsonthis strangercalling her a liar?
Mary had lied about plenty of things regarding Ben, but that was all in the past. Mr. Lawson couldn't possibly know anything about those things. All he had evidence of was a foolish young girl in love.
And that Ben had somehow figured out where to find her. Mary shoved the thought to the back of her mind. She'd figure out a way to deal with that later.
"Trust me, I have no reason to renew my acquaintance with Ben."
"He clearly wants to be reacquainted with you. I just need"
"No." Mary grabbed the door handle he was holding and gave it a swift yank.
"If you could just hear me out, perhaps we can come to some kind of agreement."
"I can't." Mary gave him another hard stare while trying to keep her voice from shaking. "Please, leave me alone."
Her words apparently convinced Mr. Lawson, since he let go of his hold on the door and let her pass. But as she entered the hotel and hurried to the front desk, she couldn't help but feel as if somehow, despite winning this battle, she'd lost.
As nice as this man seemedwhoever he might befinding Ben would only spell trouble. Yes, that was it. She was saving this man from being cheated or hurt by Ben. And if he was the law, she was better off not saying anything that could possibly incriminate her.
When she'd threatened Ben with going to the sheriff, he'd laughed and told her that no one would believe her innocence. In fact, all the evidence pointed to the fact that she'd been a willing accomplice to his crimes. How could she have known that when she was inviting her suitor in to visit while she worked cleaning houses, she was inviting in a thief? The so-called family heirlooms she'd hidden in her home because Ben had asked her to keep them safe for him were actually stolen property. Worse were the gifts she'd accepted from him. While she'd tried making up for it by donating all she could of her newfound wealth to charitable causes, she still felt the stain of having possessed ill-gotten goods. She'd blindly believed in Ben and everything he'd told her. Too bad it had all been a lie.
Will Lawson admired Miss Stone's purposeful stride into the main lobby of the hotel. Pursuing her farther would only cause a scene, and with the looks they'd been getting at the door, he'd already pushed too far.
Mary Stone was the closest he'd been able to get to Ben Perry and his gang, and she refused to cooperate. Well, that wasn't exactly true. He'd gotten close once before, but he'd put his trust in the wrong person and ended up with a bullet in his gut, his badge taken away and any hope of respectabilitygone.
Still, Miss Stone wasn't what he'd expected. While she was comely enough, with hair the color of pure coal and alabaster skin that hadn't yet been damaged by the mountains, she hardly looked the part of the sort of lady the notorious outlaw would be interested in. Reed-thin, not nearly as buxom as Perry typically preferred. And she seemed to possess a more genteel spirit than the bold women Perry cavorted with.
So, what was Perry's game?
Miss Stone spoke to the man at the counter, not looking in Will's direction or acknowledging him. Almost as though she didn't want anyone to know of their encounter. Which fit in with her reticence, but why?
What was Miss Mary Stone hiding?
When she finally left, Will headed for the hotel saloon, hoping he'd see a familiar face in the crowd. Ben Perry preferred the finer things in life, which in this town meant staying at the Rafferty Hotel.
Bold as the brassiest woman of the night, Perry sauntered right up to Will as soon as he stepped through the saloon door, as though he wasn't a wanted man in dozens of places.
Trouble was, Will didn't have the power to arrest him. Not anymore.
"I thought they'd taken your badge, Lawson." Perry gave a short, barking laugh. "Lawson. Still gets me. You should change your name to Law-lost-his-badge."
Will balled his fists at his sides but forced himself to take the taunt. Yes, he'd messed up the Colorado Citizens Bank case, and, yes, he'd let Ben get away. But Will would find a way to take down Ben Perry and his gang once and for all. Even if stopping Ben didn't get Will's badge back, at least there'd be one less evildoer on the street.
"Did you have something to say, other than to be childish?" Will glared at the other man, wishing there was something he could do besides follow Ben around and wait for him to strike.
Sure, Will could try to turn Ben in to the local authorities, but the price on Perry's head wasn't enough to make it worth anyone's while. At least not on the petty crimes they could prove.
Will should have known that someone as pretty as Daisy Bostwick wouldn't have been interested in a man like him unless she wanted something. He just never figured that she'd be working for Ben Perry.