Blake Hastings travels to Kansas with revenge on his mind. He plans to bring the pro-slavery killer who murdered his father to brutal justice. But his mission is sidetracked when he meets a beautiful woman whose fiery nature matches his own.
Samantha Walters is not one to be trifled with, and the simmering passion she feels for Blake, and that he feels for her, makes him question his bloody mission, and whether salvation and peace can exist instead in her arms.
“Power, passion, tragedy and triumph are Rosanne Bittner’s hallmarks. Again and again, she brings readers to tears.” —RT Book Reviews
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Samantha Walters set her pamphlets on a bench so that she could retie her cape. She shivered against the cold, damp weather. October had brought rain nearly every day, and her shoes and the hem of her dress were splattered with mud. Still, she thought, at least she didn't have to dread the coming winter. Kansas winters were much milder than in Vermont, where she had lived most of her eighteen years. Last winter, her first in Kansas, had not brought anywhere near the snow to which she and her family had become accustomed in New England.
She took a deep breath, studying the passing shoppers and businessmen in the street, thinking with some anger how Lawrence's population had suddenly burgeoned, now that the citizens of Kansas Territory could vote on whether or not they wanted slavery. The sudden growth in Kansas's population could be directly attributed to people filtering in from Missouri, claiming Kansas citizenship so that they could stuff the ballot boxes with proslavery votes. Her dedication to helping her father, the Reverend Howard Walters, convince people to vote for a free territory, was becoming more challenging every day. Her strength and determination came from firmly believing that slavery was wrong in every respect.
She heard a thump behind her then, and some of her pamphlets went flying across the wet, muddy boardwalk. Samantha turned to see a group of young men close to her age standing behind her, grinning. "Sorry about that, honey," one of them spoke up. "You want some help picking them up?"
"No, thank you, Fred Brewster," she fumed, her face flushing with anger. She glared at the town bully, a tall, well-built young man who might be handsome if not for a face pitted from smallpox at a young age, made worse by a bad case of acne. Brewster had taken to following her around deliberately trying to aggravate her when she was shopping or passing out antislavery pamphlets for her father.
Samantha stooped to pick up the pamphlets Fred had knocked askew. Several of them were ruined, and Brewster and his friends laughed.
"Suit yourself," Fred teased, his dark eyes drinking in the pretty shape of the preacher's daughter. "I offered to help." He studied Samantha's dark, wavy hair, which had a hint of red to it in the sunlight. He had often imagined getting the pristine but fiery Samantha Walters off alone somewhere and teaching her about men, with or without her consent.
"Don't you know it's dangerous for a young girl to be handing out abolitionist propaganda in these times," one of the others spoke up. "A girl could get in all kinds of trouble."
Samantha gathered the pamphlets and rose, facing all of them squarely. "I'm not the one making the trouble," she answered, meeting Fred's eyes then. "At least I'm making good use of my time, doing something constructive. I'm not walking the streets like a bum, with no purpose to my life. If you ever decide to do something with your life, Fred Brewster, and become a useful citizen, my father will be happy to welcome you into his church and help you find a job." She took a pamphlet and shoved it into his hand. "This explains all about the Kansas- Nebraska Act and also tells about some of the horrors of slavery and why it's so wrong and un-Christian. You're old enough to vote, so do something right for once and vote against slavery!"
Fred's eyes narrowed. He tore up the pamphlet and threw the pieces at her face. "I don't want your damn pamphlet, bitch! I can't even read! And what makes you think I'd vote against slavery?" He looked at his snickering friends. "We're not nigger lovers like you and your Bible-preaching pa! You better be careful, Miss Walters. Pretty white girls who go around speaking up for those Negro men sometimes get a bad reputation, if you know what I mean."
Samantha's fury knew no bounds. Her mother had scolded her more times than she could count for being unable to control her temper, but she knew she was losing it again. Hurt and anger culminated in a swift, hard kick to Fred's shinbone. He cried out, reaching down and grabbing his leg. As Samantha shoved her way past him and his friends, Fred cursed at her while onlookers laughed.
Samantha hurriedly walked across the street. She knew she would have to ask forgiveness for her physical attack on Fred Brewster, but part of her was convinced God wouldn't really mind. She was relieved Fred did not follow her and taunt her more, and she breathed a little easier when she noticed a family from her father's church. She smiled and approached them, handing them one of the pamphlets.
"Be sure to vote next spring," she told them in greeting. "We've got to keep Kansas a free territory, Mrs. Mills."
The woman and her husband each took a pamphlet. "Isn't it a little early to be doing this?" Jack Mills asked. "Quite a while before we vote."
"Yes, it is. But Father says it's none too soon to start spreading the word and making sure everyone votes, Mr. Mills. We have to be strong on this, or the people sneaking into Kansas from Missouri will outvote us and we'll be a slave territory. We just can't let that happen. Father is hoping these pamphlets will make people understand the new act and will help us rally more supporters by explaining some of the terrible acts slave owners commit against the poor Negroes. We've got to make sure people understand how wrong slavery is."
The farmer frowned, the lines in his aging face growing deeper. "Miss Walters, you and your folks, you're still fairly new to this part of the country. Now, we're against slavery, too, but I don't think you understand how deep the hatred goes around here. You've got to be more careful. Haven't you heard about all the raids along the Kansas-Missouri border? Jayhawkers are fighting bushwhackers and ... well, your pa shouldn't let you walk the streets alone passing these things out. I know Lawrence is pretty much the center for Free Staters, but more and more proslavery men have been filtering in. Why, the town is full of spies, ma'am. A person doesn't know who to trust."
"I trust in the Lord, Mr. Mills. That's all I need to know. I'm doing His work, and He'll watch over me."
Mills grinned slightly. "He the one who told you to kick Fred Brewster?" he asked.
Samantha reddened as the man laughed lightly. "Don't tell my folks, will you?" she asked in return.
Mills shook his head. "I won't tell. Besides, that troublemaker deserved it. I was only watching because I saw him knock your pamphlets off the bench and I was worried you'd find trouble. I guess maybe you aren't in so much danger after all."
Samantha smiled. "Thank you for keeping an eye out for me. Be sure to tell all your friends, and even strangers, about their right to vote. I'll give you a few more pamphlets so you can give them to others."
Mills nodded, taking the extra pamphlets and leaving with his family. Samantha turned and rounded a corner, heading down another street and praying that her courage would hold. Her parents had forbidden her to include this street in her campaign, since it was dotted with several saloons. This was an area seldom frequented by respectable women; and since most of the infiltrating bushwhackers from Missouri were men, Samantha's father was convinced most of the "spies" could be hanging around this part of town.
Still, she reasoned, raising her chin boldly, these were the kind of people who needed to be converted to the antislavery position, not families like the Millses. If she was truly going to do any good in this issue, she had to approach the hard-hearted and make them see the light. Maybe if a few of them read her pamphlets and truly understood how wrong slavery was, they would change their minds.
She pressed on, pretending to have no fear as she smiled and handed out pamphlets to men who cast her glances that held a mixture of distrust and humor. Some sneered, some just nodded respectfully and took a pamphlet. Most just stuffed them in their pockets, but some actually tossed them aside. One man pressed his pamphlet into the mud with a heavy boot and looked her over as though she were a piece of chocolate cake and he was hungry. One man offered a rude remark about what she was "selling," but Samantha refused to be swayed.
Piano music and loud voices poured from the saloons. She started to hand a pamphlet to another man, then gasped when he suddenly grabbed hold of her wrist. He was a big man, perhaps in his forties, a man who was not ugly but had no outstanding features other than his size. He wore a well-tailored suit and sported a graying mustache that matched the gray at his temples, and his dark eyes drilled into her with deliberate threat.
"You'd be best to get off this street, little lady. Preaching belongs in the church. If we want to hear or read about the terrible sin of slavery, we'll come to church to hear it!" He gave her a light shove.
Instinct told Samantha this man was a more serious threat than Fred Brewster. Kicking him would not be a wise choice. Besides, she was in enemy territory now. She backed away, the man's sudden grasp leaving her so startled that she did not think to look before turning and stepping off the boardwalk.
"Watch it!" someone shouted from the seat of a supply wagon just then clattering by. The front wheel splashed through a huge puddle as did the rear wheel, before Samantha could get out of the way. Mud splattered her from her face to the hem of her dress, and the man who had just threatened her burst into loud laughter, joined by several of his friends who stood nearby.
The wagon came to a halt as its driver yanked on the reins to stop the four mules that pulled it. The driver jumped down. "You all right, ma'am?"
"No!" Samantha shouted in reply, her temper exploding again. "Look at me!" She realized it was an accident, but having it happen in front of the man who had just threatened her made it more humiliating. She vented her frustration on the driver of the wagon, needing an outlet for her anger at the man who had grabbed her and who still stood on the boardwalk laughing at her.
"What kind of a gentleman are you?" she shouted at the wagon driver, "Nearly running down a woman!" She did not notice that a Negro man sat in the wagon seat.
The driver bent over to pick up her ruined pamphlets. "Ma'am, I'm sorry," he was saying, "but you did almost walk right into my wagon. I couldn't help what happened."
Samantha looked up into the face of a broad-shouldered, handsome man who had probably not yet seen thirty. Her embarrassment and frustration began to overwhelm her so that her eyes filled with tears. She took the pamphlets from him. "Oh, they're ruined now! Father will be furious," she fumed.
The driver pushed back his hat slightly. "Is there anything I can do, ma'am? Anyplace I can take you so you can get out of those muddy clothes?"
"Yes, Hastings," the man in front of the saloon answered for her. "Take her and her whole damn family back to New England and tell them to leave Kansas alone. Now she knows what Kansas thinks of abolitionists. I imagine there's some horse shit mixed in with the mud. That should tell her something."
Samantha felt the driver of the wagon moving slightly away from her as she shook her dress to get some of the mud off it. She turned to answer the driver, only to realize he seemed to be facing off the man on the boardwalk.
"Well, if it isn't Nick West," he was saying. "What the hell are you doing in Lawrence, West?"
The man who had grabbed Samantha's wrist straightened, stepping away from the saloon door and closer to the wagon driver. "I could ask you the same thing, Hastings. I figured once your daddy died that you ran off to parts unknown with your tail between your legs."
Samantha realized the two men knew each other. More than that, the look in their eyes told her they were bitter enemies. She knew now that the driver's last name was Hastings, and as she gathered her thoughts, she realized, too that she had no right being angry with him. She stepped back a little, already angry with herself for coming here in the first place. If there was going to be trouble, she had started the whole thing. She glanced up at the wagon, just then noticing the young Negro man, and her heart pounded harder. She prayed everyone would calm down, but the man called Nick West took a threatening pose in front of Hastings.
"I didn't run anywhere," Hastings was telling West. "I've been biding my time — looking for you."
The one called Nick West glanced at the Negro man on the wagon seat as his friends from the saloon gathered closer. "Here in Lawrence?"
"I'm as surprised to see you as you are to see me," Hastings answered. "I'm here on business. I work for Hale Freighting now."
"That a fact?" West puffed on a thin cigar, then tossed it out into the muddy street. "Kind of dangerous, working for that abolitionist, isn't it?"
"The way I look at it," Hastings answered the man, "in Lawrence, it's more dangerous to be a proslaver."
West's eyebrows arched. "Not if we get enough people into Kansas to back us up."
"I suppose you're one of those new citizens from Missouri who's all of a sudden interested in settling in Kansas."
"A man's got a right to settle wherever he wants," West replied.
"Not when he's just fixing to stuff a ballot box with his vote and then leave."
West shoved his thumbs into his vest pockets. "It's no different from abolitionists bringing in people from northern states."
"The friends we convince to move here from New England intend to settle for good," Samantha spoke up, her anger rising again. "They're honest, hardworking people who want to see Kansas grow, and they want to see this territory free of slavery. They haven't just snuck across the border to get in a vote with the intention of leaving again."
West's eyes moved to Samantha, but Hastings did not take his eyes off West. "You've got a cocky mouth for such a small piece of woman," West told her. "We've got a name for nigger-loving white girls, honey, and it's not pretty."
"Shut your mouth, West," Hastings told the man. "I think you owe the lady an apology."
West moved his eyes back to Hastings. "I owe her nothing."
Samantha watched Hastings's hands move into fists, and she stepped farther back. "You owe plenty of people, West," he growled. "And if we're going to bring up labels, how about the one that fits you? Murderer!"
West seemed to pale slightly. "That's a pretty strong word to toss around in front of all these people," he answered.
"And I wouldn't speak it if I didn't think it was true!"
"What happened to your pa was done by border raiders, Hastings. I had nothing to do with it. It's about time you understood that for once and for all."
"You had everything to do with it! I don't need physical proof. I know it — in my gut!"
West snickered. "Why don't you take your nigger and that little slut out of here before — "
He was unable to finish. Hastings landed into him, slamming him with a mighty force against the outside wall of the saloon. "My friend's name is George!" he growled. "And that young lady looks too proper to be around filth like you!"
Samantha watched in shock as a vicious fight ensued, Nick West's friends gathering around to cheer the man on. Samantha winced at each sickening blow. Faces bloody, both men fell together and rolled off the boardwalk and into the cold mud, half boxing and half wrestling, their muddy clothes becoming heavy and slowing their movements.
Samantha's eyes teared, and she was filled with guilt. The man called Hastings seemed adept at fighting, and he landed several hard punches to West's middle and jaw, obviously gaining the upper hand until two of West's friends grabbed Hastings from behind and pulled him off their friend. Two more joined in keeping a firm hold on a snarling, struggling Hastings then, as West got to his feet, wiping at a bloody face with the sleeve of his suit.
"You've got to learn not to go accusing an innocent man in front of a whole town," West sputtered. He walked up to Hastings, and Samantha groaned with pity as West landed two vicious blows to Hastings's middle while he stood helplessly pinned by the other four men.
Samantha moved toward them, unsure what she could do to help but feeling obligated to do something. Another man moved in front of her then, blocking her way. "Ain't your affair, missy," the man told her with a sneer. He grasped her shoulder and gave her a shove.
"Leave the lady alone," the Negro man called George shouted down from the wagon.
The man turned to look at him, while West landed three more punches into Hastings, then told the others to let go of him. They threw him facedown into the mud.
"What did you say, nigger?" The man near Samantha spoke up, walking threateningly toward George.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Caress"
Copyright © 1992 Rosanne Bittner.
Excerpted by permission of Diversion Publishing Corp..
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