Read an Excerpt
California, May 1888
Jack bit back an oath at the hail, then turned in a slow, controlled movement. He pinned the foreman's errand boy with a cold stare, holding his peace for three long heartbeats, just enough time to set the unthinking messenger to fidgeting in his saddle.
Finally, Jack pulled the sliver of twig from his mouth. "You got a death wish, Dobbins? Or didn't you see those yellow flags marking off this area?"
The young man's expression faltered. "Yes, but you're still"
Jack snapped the twig and tossed it away. "I'm inside the perimeter because I'm setting charges. Which means I'm working with enough explosives right now to blow you, me and most of this pile of rock to smithereens."
Dobbins's Adam's apple bobbed, but he stuck out his chin and pulled a paper from his pocket. "A telegram came for you. Mr. Gordon wanted"
Jack's jaw muscle twitched. Fool kid. "I don't care if it's a set of executive orders from President Grover Cleveland himself. When I'm in the middle of a job, you don't cross the perimeter unless it's life or death." He narrowed his eyes. "Because it just might turn into that."
A quick nod signaled understanding.
Jack wiped his brow with his sleeve, already regretting his harsh tone. The heat and the hours were starting to wear on him. He waved the intruder forward. "Well, now that you're here, you might as well give me the thing."
Dobbins nudged his horse forward and handed the folded paper to Jack. His eyes rounded when he saw Jack slide it into his pocket without so much as a glance. "Aren't you gonna read it?"
"Not 'til I'm done here. I don't need any more distractions right now." He raised a brow."Anything else?"
Dobbins got the message. "Guess not." With another nod, he jerked on the reins, turned his horse, and headed back in the direction of the base camp.
Jack frowned as he watched the messenger gallop off.
A telegram. Now who would
He was doing it already, he realized.
He shoved the telegram out of his mind. Right now he needed to focus on the work at hand. Like he'd just told Dobbins, he couldn't afford distractions while he was on the job. Twenty minutes later Jack stood and tilted his hat up. He stepped back far enough to take in the remainder of what just a week ago had been a steep, rocky hillside. He drew his elbows back behind him, stretching the kinks out of cramped muscles.
Then he mentally reviewed the placement of all four charges one more time. You just couldn't be too careful.
Satisfied everything was in order, he headed back toward the stand of scrub he'd designated as the meeting spot for his two-man team. Hopefully they were already waiting for him. He was more than ready to wrap up this job.
As he crossed the uneven ground, Jack fingered the folded sheet of paper tucked in his pocket. The only people who'd be likely to send him a telegram would be his sister or brother.
He'd just gotten a letter from Nell a few weeks ago. She hadn't had anything new to sayjust updates on what was going on back home and sisterly admonitions to visit soon, coupled with a bribe to bake up one of his favorite apple pecan pies.
No, he couldn't picture either Nell or Lanny sending a telegram. At least not to deliver good news.
The back of his neck prickled and his step slowed.
Putting off reading the thing was becoming more of a distraction than whatever news the telegram contained could possibly be.
Jack jerked the crumpled paper out of his pocket and read the four stark lines written there.
And as surely as if someone had detonated the charges prematurely, he felt the world rock under his feet.
Texas, four days later
Callie studied the man seated across from her as the stagecoach swayed and bounced, bringing her ever closer to her new life.
She placed a finger to her chin. No, he wasn't a sea captain. The hat was all wrong and he had an air about him that seemed more akin to earthiness than saltwater.
She scrunched her lips to one side as she examined his features more closely. He was actually quite handsome, in a dangerous, rugged sort of way. Rather than detracting from his looks, that faded scar on the left side of his chin served to lend him an adventurous air. She refused to believe a man who looked as he did was anything so mundane as a farmer or shopkeeper.
He could be a Texas Ranger. Yes, that would fit. He had that lean, grim-purpose look about him.
She settled into her mental tale-spinning. So, if he was a ranger, what was his story? Perhaps he was returning home for a well-earned rest after grueling weeks of tracking down desperate outlaws. Or maybe he was traveling to Sweetgum on official business in search of
Callie straightened in her seat. Was it her imagination, or had they slowed down a bit? A quick glance out the window confirmed that the tree-lined countryside had given way to scattered farms. And if she wasn't mistaken, the edge of a small town was just up ahead.
This was it. Her new homeSweetgum, Texas.
She adjusted her poke bonnet with hands that weren't quite steady, then laced her fingers tightly together and closed her eyes.
Heavenly Father, I'm truly grateful to You for getting me all the way here from Ohio without a hitch. But we both know that was the easy part compared to what comes next. And since this whole undertaking was actually Your idea, I know You're going to help me figure out what to say and do when I step outside and come face-to-face with my new husband for the first time.
Bolstered by that thought, Callie began gathering her belongings. Then she paused and slanted a glance toward the object of her former musings.
Her unsociable traveling companion seemed completely unaware of their arrival.
Should she say something to him?
He'd climbed aboard at their last stop and, after the briefest of greetings, settled into the opposite corner, closed his eyes and hadn't moved since. Not that she resented his lack of attention.
After all, being this close to such a man was a new experience for her, and his closed-off demeanor had given her an opportunity to study him unobserved. Besides which, trying to concoct a history for him from only the hints provided by the rough and calloused look of his hands, his weathered complexion and his firm, wiry build had been an interesting way to pass the time.
One thing she'd decided about thirty minutes into her story-weaving was that, whatever his profession, he was not someone at peace with his world. There was something about his very stillness, about the hint of tension in his stubble-covered jaw, that pointed to a weary or troubled spirit.
Before she could make up her mind whether or not to disturb him, his eyes opened and their gazes collided. The lack of any residual drowsiness in those startling blue eyes made her wonder whether or not he'd truly been asleep.
The heat rose in Callie's cheeks. How mortifying to have been caught staring so rudely! She tugged on the edge of her bonnet again. Thank goodness it already hid most of her face.
"We're here," she blurted, then mentally cringed. Why did she always feel compelled to rush in and fill the silences?
He straightened. "So I see."
The hint of dryness in his tone warmed her cheeks even further. But the driver opened the door, rescuing Callie from more embarrassment.
As she rose to leave the coach, the glimpse of the dusty street and plank-lined sidewalk forcibly reminded her that she had left her familiar world behind. A bubble of panic rose in her throat.
What if Mr. Tyler was disappointed when he met her?
What if she couldn't learn how to adjust to life in this rural community?
Callie took a deep, steadying breath. Forgive me, Lord. I know we already wrestled with my doubts before the wedding. This is the ministry You gave me. Mr. Tyler and his daughter need me, and I need them. I
"Ma'am? Are you all right?"
Her companion studied her with a worried frown, no doubt wondering why she wasn't moving. After her earlier actions, he must think her completely addled.
Callie offered an apologetic smile. "Yes, I'm fine, thank you. Just making certain I have all my things." She adjusted her bonnet once more, squared her shoulders and stepped down from the stagecoach onto the sidewalk's dusty boards.
Pasting on what she hoped was a confident smile, Callie waited for her husband to step forward and introduce himself. But, while she received curious glances from some of the passersby, no one greeted her.
Her smile faltered. Where was he?
She continued scanning the sidewalk even as she moved aside to allow her fellow passenger to exit the stage.
Why wasn't Mr. Tyler here? Surely he wouldn't keep her standing alone in foreign surroundings where she didn't know anyone
I will never leave thee, nor forsake thee.
The remembered verse calmed her. She wasn't alone. God was with her.
Mr. Tyler had undoubtedly been delayed. Poor man. He was likely as nervous about this meeting as she was. And he had little Annabeth to tend to as well. It must be difficult for him to care for a child and a farm all on his own.
Well, he wouldn't have to any longer.
Trying to ignore the stubborn prickling of anxiety that wouldn't quite go away, Callie turned to study the community that she would now call home. These people would be her neighbors and, hopefully, her friends.
The town itself was just as Julia had described in her letters. The stage had stopped in front of the Sweetgum Hotel and Post Office. To her left she could see an apothecary shop and the mercantile with a long wooden bench out front. On the other side of the hotel stood a bank, and past that the doctor's office.
Callie glanced across the street and frowned in dismay. About a block down the road, one of the buildings had been reduced to charred timbers. She immediately offered up a prayer that strength and healing be afforded to the lives that had been touched by that calamity.
What business had it housed? It was next to the barber shop, so
The sight of a gentleman hurrying toward the stage jerked Callie's attention away from the puzzle.
Her heart stuttered a few beats.
Was this him?
She stood straighter and adjusted her bonnet. But instead of approaching her, he absently tipped his hat in her direction and stopped in front of her fellow passenger.
"Jack, welcome back," he said as the two men shook hands. "I just wish it were under happier circumstances."
Callie turned away, deflated. It wasn't Mr. Tyler.
Well, at least now she had a name for her traveling companion. Jack. A good, solid name. And, if the greeting he'd received was any indication, she'd apparently guessed right as to his troubled spirit.
The two men spoke in low tones and Callie immediately focused on other sounds, avoiding the temptation to eavesdrop.
A buckboard clattered down the street accompanied by the muffled clop-clop of horses' hooves. A shop bell jingled as a woman emerged from the mercantile with a loaded basket. Two boys raced down the sidewalk, a yipping dog at their heels.
Such bustling normalcy all around her. Yet she felt isolated, apart from it all, like a stranger peeking in through a window at a family gathering.
The minutes drew out as the driver unloaded luggage and parcels from the back of the stagecoach. It was hotter here in Texas than it had been in Ohio. Callie longed to loosen her tight-fitting bonnet, or better yet, take it off altogether, but she dared not. Not until she was away from prying eyes and safely inside her new home.
A number of townsfolk stopped to speak to Jack, but though she received a few friendly nods in addition to more curious glances, no one stepped forward to greet her.
Finally, the last of the baggage and cargo was unloaded and the driver stepped inside the hotel with a mail sack. The man, Jack, lifted two of the bags, easily hefting the larger one up to his shoulder.
Callie couldn't help but wonderwould Mr. Tyler be as fine and strong a figure of a man as this Jack?
As if feeling her eyes on him, the man paused and met her gaze. His expression was gruff and a muscle twitched at the corner of his mouth. "Is someone meeting you?"
She smiled, grateful for his show of concern, reluctant though it might be. "Yes, thank you. I'm certain my husband will be along soon."
Something akin to surprise flashed across his features but it was gone in an instant.
"Good." He nodded and allowed his friend to take one of his bags. "If you're sure you don't need any help " He tipped his hat and turned.
As she watched him walk away, it was as if the last link to her old life were being severed. A foolish notion, since she really didn't know this man at all. But before she could stop herself, Callie took a small step forward. "Excuse me."
Both men turned, facing her with questioning glances.
"Ma'am?" Jack prompted.
"I was wondering if perhaps either of you know a Mr.
Leland Tyler? He was supposed to " Her voice tapered off as she saw their startled reactions.
Jack's jaw tightened visibly. "Why would you be looking for Lan Leland?"
Callie noticed his familiar use of her husband's name. "So you do know him."
That tic near the corner of his mouth made another appearance. "Yes." He didn't expand on his one-word answer, and his expression remained closed, unreadable. "But you didn't answer my question. How do you know Leland?"
Callie offered up a quick prayer that Mr. Tyler would arrive soon. He should be the one making the introductions to his neighbors and friends. "I'm Callista Johnson Tyler, his wife."
"Wife!" Jack set his bag down with a loud thump and sent a sharp look his companion's way. "You know what she's talking about, Virgil?"
The other man shook his head. "Lanny never said anything about a new wife."
They certainly were reacting strongly to her news. She knew Julia had only been gone about four months, but it wasn't unusual for a widower to remarry so soon, especially when he had a young child to care for.
For that matter, why didn't they already know about her? Surely Leland wouldn't have kept such momentous news from his friends and neighbors? Unless he'd worried she wouldn't show up.
Or was there another, more disturbing reason? Her heart beat faster as possibilities whirled through her mind.