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By Jane Peart
ZondervanCopyright © 1994 Zondervan
All right reserved.
Chapter OneJust before sundown a stagecoach, rattling and swaying precariously, lurched down the rutted road into the small Oregon town, sending up cartwheels of dust in its wake.
Inside, its only remaining passenger, Holly Lambeth, clinging desperately to the hand strap, slid from side to side on the tattered leather seat, terrified that the vehicle might pitch over at any minute.
At last with a bone-jarring jolt it came to a stop. Drawing a deep sigh of relief, Holly wiped the small mud-spattered window and peered out hopefully. Before she could get a good look, the coach door was yanked open by the grizzle-bearded driver who stuck his head inside and, displaying tobacco-stained teeth, announced, "This here's Riverbend, lady. This is where you get off. End of the line."
Ignoring her qualms of the probable truth of his statement, she gathered the tiered skirt of her peacock-blue traveling suit, crisp and smart three days ago but now quite the worse for wear, and prepared to get out. Lifting it carefully over two layers of ruffled petticoats, she stepped gingerly down the rickety steps onto the wooden sidewalk.
It felt good to stretch her stiff muscles after the long, cramped journey over rough winding roads. For a moment she stood straightening her snug braid-trimmed jacket, then slowly pivoted to look about her. Just then a gust of wind caught her tiny feathered bonnet, tugging the pins that held it, loosening strands of her russet-brown hair from its coil, and blowing dust and grit into her face. Grabbing her hat brim with one kid-gloved hand, she fumbled into her purse for a handkerchief, then lifted her veil to dab her eyes.
Since it was close to six o'clock and therefore supper hour for most of Riverbend's citizens, there were only a few people on hand as the stage arrived; otherwise, the appearance of a fashionably dressed young woman might have received more than one or two curious glances.
Holly Lambeth was used to drawing admiring looks. In spite of having a peach-bloom complexion, long-lashed hazel eyes, and a dimpled smile, Holly would never be considered beautiful. What made her so attractive was her vivacity and sparkle.
That sparkle, however, was sadly missing now. As she gazed around with mounting dismay, Holly's conviction grew that she had made the second worst mistake of her twenty-three years. The first and worst, of course, was to have kept Jim Mercer dangling for over a year in an "on-again, off-again" engagement.
The sun began slowly slipping behind a rim of purple hills. Overhead dark clouds gathered.
This must be the center of town. Holly glanced down the long unpaved road where the signpost read "Main Street." It was lined with an odd assortment of buildings. Some were old weather-beaten wooden ones with sagging balconies, others of raw brick, some uncompleted. Wheelbarrows of bricks stood abandoned as if left by workers.
So this was Riverbend, Oregon.
Numb with fatigue, Holly bit her lower lip and fought back the tears that threatened, tightening her throat. There was no use telling herself it was her own fault she was here. Her family and friends had all been quick to tell her that.
But at the time, "any port in a storm" had seemed the answer to her problem, the "storm" being the gossip whirling around her when the fact that she had been jilted became known. Anything had seemed better than facing the curious looks, the whispers, the pitying glances that had followed her. Even harder to bear were the smugly spiteful looks of those who made it no secret that they thought it was high time Holly Lambeth got her "come-uppance."
Now that it was too late, she realized she had been vain and foolish in recklessly risking Jim's love and patience with all her silly flirtations, her careless disregard for his pride. If only ...
But it was too late for "if only." She had nobody to blame but herself that she was here in a forsaken Oregon frontier town instead of planning a fairy-tale wedding, with a white lace gown and veil, walking arm-in-arm with her army-lieutenant husband beneath an arch of crossed sabers held by his West Point classmates.
As if it had just happened, Holly felt the shock of that morning when she had read in the local paper, along with the rest of Willow Springs, the announcement of Lt. Jim Mercer's marriage to the daughter of his commanding officer at his first army post.
"This all yours, miss?" The whiskey voice of the driver cut through her remorseful memory. With a start, Holly turned to follow his dirty index finger pointing to his helper on top of the stagecoach, straddling her trunk and unstrapping it.
"Yes, and please be careful-," she began, but her voice was lost in the noise of the tumbling luggage. Holly was forced to jump back as her trunk catapulted down and landed at her feet. She gasped and was about to reprimand the fellow sharply when he hollered down, "Anything else?"
"Yes, my valise and hatbox, and please-," she started to caution again when the valise and hatbox, containing her very best bonnet, came hurtling down in the same manner as her trunk.
"Well!" she gasped indignantly. But whatever else she might have said was checked by the surly expression on the driver's face. She realized he was expecting a gratuity, highly undeserved in her opinion. Under his glare she dug into her purse and handed him a coin. Acknowledging it with only a pull on the soiled brim of his battered felt hat, the man turned and shuffled down the street.
It came as no surprise to Holly to see him push his way through the doors of the nearby saloon, the Nugget. She had observed that this was his custom at every stagecoach station en route, a practice that had not done much to lessen her anxiety, traveling the treacherous mountain roads on the way to Riverbend.
The one he now entered was one of several other such establishments along Main Street with names like Last Chance and the Doggoned Best. Most of Holly's information about the far West had been gained from the covers on the pulp magazines confiscated by her cousin Willy's mother from his hidden horde. These depicted lurid scenes of cowboy shoot-outs, Indian attacks, and barroom brawls. Looking down the unpaved street lined with saloons, she felt as if she might have stepped right into the pages of one.
Before being hit by her next attack of second thoughts on her fateful decision to come West, she heard a familiar male voice behind her say, "Cousin Holly?" Holly whirled around to find herself face-to-face with Ned Thornton.
"Oh, Ned! It's so wonderful to see you!" she exclaimed holding out both hands to him.
When his kind, homely face turned crimson, Holly realized she may have greeted him too effusively. Belatedly she remembered that Ned had been one of the many young men flocking around her at Willow Springs parties, hoping to add his name to her dance card. He'd had quite a case on her then-now, of course, he was married to her cousin Hetty Granville. The same Hetty who was providing her "a port in the storm."
"Welcome to Riverbend, Holly," Ned stammered.
Trying to allay any embarrassment Ned's own memories might be causing him, Holly rushed on, "Is Hetty with you? Where are the children? I can't wait to see them."
"They're all at home. They're so excited about their cousin's coming all the way from Kentucky that they've run Hetty crazy with questions all day. Hetty's fixed a real special supper so we best get along home or else she'll be might-" Ned stopped abruptly and pointed to her three pieces of luggage. "Are these yours?"
"Yes, but I can carry my hatbox and valise," Holly said.
Excerpted from Runaway Heart by Jane Peart Copyright © 1994 by Zondervan. Excerpted by permission.
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