To celebrate the release of my new novel, Loving an Outlaw, I’ve decided to share a sneak peek with you. I hope you enjoy it!
“You ready, Missy?” The lines in the stagecoach driver’s weathered face deepened when he smiled. His squinting eyes were almost swallowed up entirely by bushy eyebrows that grew straight out from his head before curling back inward. Abigail could just make out the twinkle of old Abe’s dark eyes beneath the wiry mass.
The train ride to St. Louis had been exciting, but it didn’t compare to the thrill she had felt the day she boarded the stage that would take her to her final destination.
Abe’s toothless grin coaxed his oversized beard to twist in all sorts of unnatural ways. The comical sight had struck her funny bone too many times along the road to Texas. After days on the trail together, he felt like an old friend.
She stifled a laugh with a round of fake coughs. “All set in here,” she said. Why do I laugh at all the wrong times?
Abe closed the stage door and hoisted himself into the driver’s seat with surprising agility for a man of his advanced years. He settled into place with the reins in hand. “Get on!” was all he had to say. Four strong horses worked in unison, and just like that, they were back on the road.
Her arm rested on a faded carpet bag. Its once rich, scrolling pattern was difficult to discern now, but it was easy to see that it had been beautiful once upon a time.
Abigail took off her jacket and unfastened the top button of her blouse. The farther south and west she traveled, the thicker the air became: thick with humidity and dust. It was oppressive. She dug a few papers out of her bag and fanned herself. Can it get any hotter? She knew full well that the answer to that question was a resounding yes. It was only ten o’clock in the morning. It was going to get a lot hotter before the day was over.
The stage jostled and bumped slowly along the rough patch of ground that Abe called a road. One of the back wheels fell into a rut with surprising force. Abigail managed to keep her seat, but her bag was not so fortunate. It crashed to the floor, spilling its contents.
“Sorry ‘bout that, Missy,” the driver called. “The rains was real bad last year and made for some pretty deep ruts. The ride gets a might bumpy if ya slip in.”
A might bumpy? Abigail knelt on the wooden floorboards and gathered her belongings. She took special care to examine her mother’s kettle for damage. That old, tin kettle was one of the few things she brought with her when she came to live with her aunt in Pennsylvania. She packed her bag again and rubbed her backside before taking a seat.
Despite the heat, bumps, and the endless road that stretched out before them, she couldn’t wipe the smile off her face. She was right where she wanted to be. Every time she gazed out of the window, a thrill of excitement danced in her stomach. She had traveled halfway across the country. Alone. In only three more days, she would be reunited with her older brother. She kept that hope alive in her heart. Any other thought was unbearable.
Abigail shifted in her seat, searching for relief from the hard, wooden bench that had been her resting place for what felt like an eternity. The worn leather covering on the seat did little to improve its looks and even less to improve its comfort. She rolled her jacket and placed it behind her neck. The makeshift pillow left much to be desired. She found herself longing for the plush cushions of her aunt’s settee back home. Why didn’t I think to bring my goose down pillow at the very least?
The rocking motion of the coach and rhythm of the horses’ hooves put her in a thoughtful frame of mind. She moistened her lips with the tip of her tongue. The taste of salt mingled with dust filled her mouth; the same dust that seemed to cling to everything in this part of the country. She closed her eyes and let her thoughts drift back to the morning she had started her journey.
The sun had been low in the eastern sky and had yet to dry the morning air. A foggy mist hung over the countryside. The hemline of her skirt was soaked from the walk into town through the heavy morning dew. It slapped her ankles with each step she took.
Nervous energy radiated through her body as she stood on the raised platform of the train station. She opened her carpet bag and easily found her ticket. She must have held it in her hand twenty times already that morning, but the feel of it on her finger tips was reassuring. I’m really doing it. This was the morning. Her life was about to change forever.
The train hissed its intention to leave and Abigail joined the other passengers in boarding. She was grateful to her brother for going over the route she was to take to join him in Texas. He had left her with more than enough money to make the journey and took the rest of their inheritance to purchase land for their homestead. A feeling of relief washed over her when the big wheels started to turn. Abigail knew exactly where she was heading and she was eager for the adventure to start.
The memory of leaving home without saying a proper farewell to her aunt stung a little. Despite her strict manner and opinionated ways, Aunt Virginia had always been good to Abigail. But revealing her plans would have been too risky after the threats Dr. Price had made.
Abigail was roused from her thoughts by what sounded like a gun shot. She sat bolt upright, her eyes wide open. The jacket fell in a crumpled heap beside her on the bench.
Everything Aunt Virginia had ever said about “the lawless west” came rushing back to mind. She sat motionless and listened for another sound, but didn’t have to wait long. Again, the unmistakable crack of gunfire pierced the air; this time it was much closer.
All at once, the valley erupted with gunfire from every direction. Abe pushed the horses hard. All of the color drained from Abigail’s face. Her breaths came in quick bursts as her heart pounded with such ferocity it felt like it might burst at any minute.
“Yah, yah!” Abigail heard Abe’s voice urging the team on.
The ride had been a bumpy one at the slow and steady pace they had been keeping, but it was almost unbearable now. The stage bounced her mercilessly as it careened down the rough road at breakneck speeds. One jolt knocked her off balance, and the next threw her to the floor. Between the bullets flying through the air and the wild ride Abe was taking her on, Abigail realized that the floor was probably the safest place she could be. She stayed put and braced for what was in store.
Shots continued to ring out as Abe pressed the horses for more speed. Angry voices called from somewhere out of sight. Everyone knew that outlaws prowled the west, but Abigail had never expected to actually meet any.
In this moment of chaos, her mind turned to Jonathan. Did he fall victim to outlaws too? She shut her eyes tightly and shook her head to banish the dreadful images bombarding her mind.
Her eyes shot open at a new volley of gunfire. Their assailants seemed to have an endless supply of lead. A small cry escaped her lips when she saw Abe fall past her window. With no one to hold them back, the horses took off faster than ever. Every bump, rock, and rut in the road threatened to tear the stage apart. A fresh wave of terror shuddered through Abigail’s body.
She lay on the floor, ears ringing with the sound of gunfire. Most of the shots came from nearby but others from much farther away. Why are they still shooting? It sounded as if an entire army had declared war on the stage.
The horses continued their suicidal race as the stage creaked and cracked behind them. Abigail’s attention turned from gunfire to another sound. Her heart dropped at the sickening crunch of splintering wood. The team’s pace didn’t slow. The coach lurched and began to sway from side to side. She knew something was terribly wrong when it never fully righted itself. Her stomach twisted into knots.
After one last volley of gunfire, the shots stopped as abruptly as they had started.
She reached for the edge of the window and peeked out only to see a man racing up on horseback. Her breath caught in her throat as she ducked out of sight again.
They had now entered a wide canyon and were careening down a dry riverbed. A tall bluff rose out of the ground to the left, too close for comfort. She squeezed her eyes shut as thoughts of her future raced through her mind. She would either be captured by desperate outlaws or dashed to pieces in a crash. She didn’t know which would be a worse fate. There has to be another option.
The sound of hooves pounding the ground alongside the coach caught her attention. Abigail stole another peek out of the window and saw the same large man riding hard. Sandy brown hair trailed out behind him in the wind. His hat would have been long gone if it hadn’t been for the stampede string that kept it tethered to his neck.
Without warning, he looked over at the stage. Their eyes locked. Everything seemed to stand still in that moment. Abigail’s heart felt like it was going to pound right out of her chest. His eyes sparkled like two sky blue topaz gemstones, polished to perfection. They looked all the more radiant in this world where everything was caked in a thick layer of dust. It should be illegal for an outlaw to have eyes like that.
He looked forward and urged his massive animal ahead with a deep, guttural command. Abigail knew that if anyone could stop a team of runaway horses, it would be this man. A torrent of thoughts filled her mind. She only had moments to figure out how she was going to defend herself against a man who was easily twice her size.
She heard the man’s voice over the crashing sound of the stage and peered out of the window. His now rider-less horse slowed its pace and veered away from the trail. There was only one place the big man could be. He was on the stage.
The team slowed. Soon they would be at a complete stop. Her eyes fell on her carpet bag, and she knew what she had to do. She drew down the shades and got into position.