“A well-written tale packed with strong characterizations and deep emotions . . . This uplifting novel will keep readers warm all winter.” —Publishers Weekly, starred review
With snow on the prairie and the stars heralding new hope, it’s the season for the lost to find their way home—and love to unite solitary hearts . . .
She rides like an angel and she’s a crack shot. And Lily Starr is determined to shepherd a helpless group of outcasts from Missouri to Wyoming by Christmas—including a pregnant woman whose blessed event is drawing near. So encountering handsome Thorpe Turlow along the dangerous trail is a welcome unexpected gift, for he’s as formidable as he is reserved. Besides, understanding this gentle, secretly wounded man is another challenge Lily isn’t about to resist . . .
After the heartbreak he’s found, Thorpe just wants to retreat to his peaceful Dove Creek ranch. But he’s never met anyone as resourceful and straightforward as Lily. Somehow, she’s reigniting his faith and giving him the courage to trust again. And if they survive the arduous trip ahead, he’ll do whatever it takes to give her a lifetime of joy and love . . .
“Strong and dynamic characters sparkle in this story of the old West . . . A totally delightful romance with lots of excitement and thrills—a special book for any time of the year!” —Romance Reviews Today
“We fall in love with the wonderfully portrayed characters as they travel and experience many twists and turns. This book will stay with you long after it is over.” —RT Book Reviews
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About the Author
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Christmas at Dove Creek
By Scarlett Dunn
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2016 Barbara Scarlett Dunn
All rights reserved.
This is a heck of a way to die was Thorpe's first thought when the arrow slammed through his left shoulder. Slumped over his horse, Smoke, he prayed the arrow tip wasn't laced with poison because it was stinging like the devil. Without any commands from Thorpe, Smoke was still moving fast, but the band of braves was staying with him. Smoke was a strong, stout horse and difficult to outrun, and right now he seemed to have his own plan. Thorpe trusted him to make it to the trees if the two of them were going to stand a fighting chance. He hated endangering Smoke's life; the horse meant more to him than a human friend. That single thought spurred him into action. He wasn't about to let anything happen to Smoke or himself as long as he was still breathing. It wasn't in my plan to die today, you sons of Satan.
Gripping Smoke with his thighs, Thorpe steeled himself against the pain, pulled his .45, and turned to fire at the eight warriors closing the distance behind him. His rifle might have been the best option, but the pistol only required one hand. By his third shot, he'd managed to hit one brave, knocking him off his horse. The remaining seven warriors were not deterred; they kept coming. He thought he might have winged another brave, but he'd emptied his gun and he needed to reload or pull his rifle. To keep from making himself a larger target for their arrows zipping by his head, he leaned over in the saddle as he deftly pulled cartridges from his belt.
Holding his .45 against his thigh, he was in the process of opening the chamber when he felt Smoke slow a step. Looking up to see what had alarmed his horse, he saw a black and white Appaloosa in front of the trees about two hundred yards away. The Appaloosa was facing him, standing totally motionless in the drizzling rain, but Thorpe didn't see a rider. The Indians chasing him were also riding Appaloosas. The thought that more braves could be waiting to ambush him in the trees filtered through, yet instinct told him his only option was to make it to the cover of the trees if he wanted to stay alive. He stayed the course.
"It's okay, son, keep moving." Smoke picked up his pace and Thorpe kept his eyes on the horse in front of him as he loaded his gun. He figured the horse would soon move out of the way with Smoke barreling down on him. Arrows continued whizzing by, but before Thorpe had a chance to fire again, he heard the report of a rifle. With the sounds of the horses thundering behind him, not to mention hearing his heart pound away in his ears from the pain, it was difficult to determine the origin of the shot, but he thought it came from the trees ahead. He prayed whoever was holding that rifle wasn't aiming at him.
When he turned to fire, he saw one brave fall from his horse. Someone was lending him a hand. Aiming as best as he could, he fired and another brave hit the ground. He looked ahead to see they were just a few yards from the Appaloosa, and he spotted a rider leaning over the side of the horse holding a rifle trained on the braves. Another shot rang out. Thud. Four warriors down. He gave thanks that the rider on that Appaloosa wasn't shooting at him because he was deadly accurate.
With a slight squeeze of his thigh, he signaled Smoke to pass the horse on the opposite side of the rider. Flying past the Appaloosa, three things struck Thorpe at once: There was no saddle on the horse; whoever was riding that animal was very skilled to make a perfect shot from that position, not once, but twice; and that was one very well-trained animal.
Unless his ears were playing tricks on him, the voice belonged to a female or a very young man riding that horse like a brave.
The rider turned the Appaloosa and followed Thorpe into the interior of the dense thicket. Several minutes ticked by as they weaved their way through the woods until they happened on a felled tree surrounded by heavy brush. They both slid off their horses and when the rider reached for Smoke's reins to move him out of danger, Thorpe saw his rescuer was indeed a young woman. They took cover behind the cottonwoods, and the woman handed Thorpe his rifle she'd pulled from his boot. Positioning herself behind a tree, she held her rifle to her shoulder and scanned the terrain. Thorpe glanced at her. The determined look on her face said she was prepared to give anyone who appeared through the trees a lethal greeting.
Remaining silent, they waited for the warriors. Within seconds, soft rustling sounds told them they were no longer alone in the brush. The woman quickly dropped to one knee and took aim. Thorpe didn't see the braves, but he braced his rifle against the tree to hold it steady as he aimed in the direction of the sound. Right after she fired, they heard what sounded like a groan. Three braves remaining. Silence ensued. Minutes later, the woman stood. "They're leaving," she whispered. They listened until the sound of hooves grew faint.
Thorpe figured the warriors might be retreating for the moment, but he wasn't foolish enough to think they wouldn't be back. He slumped against the tree and slid to a sitting position. The woman approached him, propped her rifle next to the tree, and kneeled down beside him. When she removed her hat, long blond hair tumbled past her shoulders. Large, clear blue eyes met his. Thorpe thought he must be hallucinating, or he was already dead and in heaven, because he had to be staring at the face of an angel. Everyone always told him his ex-fiancée was a beauty, but compared to this woman she was downright homely.
She glanced at his shoulder and said softly, "Let me take a look."
His gaze met hers and he nodded.
She tore a small hole in his shirt to get a better view of his wound where the arrow was protruding from the back of his shoulder. "Why weren't you wearing a slicker?"
Thorpe chuckled. He hadn't expected that question. Now that his adrenaline had abated, he was really feeling the pain, and even though he was drenched from the rain, sweat was rolling down his face. He removed his Stetson and swiped his forehead with his shirtsleeve. "The rain came quickly and I had stopped to pull out my slicker when they surprised me." He noticed she wasn't wearing one either, and her clothing was so wet, it was clinging to her body, but he didn't point that out. She was wearing black trousers and a white blouse, and he figured that was the reason he couldn't see her on the Appaloosa — she blended in with the horse's coat. "Can you break it off and use my knife to push it through?"
"I'm afraid I'm not strong enough to break it off without doing more damage."
Thorpe noticed she was just a little thing, but her size didn't matter when it came to shooting. She was one heck of a deadly shot.
Seeing the perspiration on his face, she placed her palm on his forehead to see if he was feverish. She thought most men would have already passed out from such an ordeal.
The contact surprised Thorpe since he hadn't been touched in months. He might have jerked away, but her soft, cool hand felt good against his skin. Their eyes met again and held for several seconds. She definitely had the face of an angel, but her expression was serious. Her eyes flicked over his face and he wondered if she thought he was going to keel over. "I'm not going to pass out."
She smiled at his statement. She was worried about him losing consciousness. She didn't want to leave him alone, but she didn't know what else to do. That arrow needed to be removed and she couldn't do it without some help. But if she left him and those braves came back for a second bite at the apple, he'd be at their mercy, and she knew they'd make sure he died a slow, painful death for killing so many braves. Coming to a decision, she reached for her rifle and stood. "I'd best get Jed. It won't take but a few minutes, he's not far away. Do you think you can stay conscious until I get back?"
Thorpe didn't want her riding out of the trees alone. Granted, he might not be in good shape, but he could still pull a trigger. He grimaced as he pulled himself to his feet using his rifle for support. Whistling softly, Smoke came trotting to him. "I'll go with you. They may be waiting for us."
She knew he was in a lot of pain, but he was obviously a strong-willed man. "We'll ride through the trees. Can you get on your horse?"
He wasn't about to ask her to assist him. She wasn't even half his size, but she sure had grit, he'd give her that. "Yeah." He figured Jed must be her husband, and he wondered why he'd allowed her to ride off alone. Thorpe handed her his .45. "Would you mind loading it for me?"
She placed her rifle against the tree. "Of course." She reached over, and without saying a word she started removing cartridges from his belt. When she realized she probably should have asked him before she touched his gun belt, she glanced up and found him watching her with intense dark eyes. She went very still.
Taking the cartridges from his belt was an innocent move, but somehow it felt very intimate to Thorpe. Her head was right at his chest, and when she looked up at him, much to his surprise, he had the urge to touch her face. He hadn't even thought about touching a woman in months. How long had it been? Five, six months? Thanks to his ex-fiancée, he'd found out just how deceitful women could be. He'd been angry with all women ever since, and he sure hadn't wanted to put his hands on one.
Lily's mind was racing. The man was so attractive he practically took her breath away. She forced her eyes from his handsomely sculpted face, past his wide chest, and tried to focus on his gun. Opening the cylinder, she inserted the cartridges with shaking fingers.
Thorpe noticed her delicate fingers as she pushed the cartridges in the chambers. It occurred to him he'd never seen a woman load a gun. Evelyn wouldn't have touched a gun, much less known the business end. This woman handled the revolver like an expert. She was an unusual woman. "Do you live nearby?"
"No, we're on our way to Wyoming." She snapped the cylinder on the .45 in place and handed the gun to him. Pulling a pistol from her waistband, she held it out to him. "If they come back, don't take time to reload, use this."
When she turned away, Thorpe heard her say, "Blaze." Her Appaloosa walked through the trees to her side.
Thorpe tucked her revolver in his belt and reached for Smoke's reins. "You're headed to Wyoming this late in the year?" He was also going home, and he'd cursed himself for being the biggest kind of fool for not getting an earlier start. Having finished what he'd come to do in Missouri, he wanted to go home and he wasn't inclined to wait until spring. Before he set out for Wyoming, he knew the weather could change in a flash and it wouldn't be in his favor, but he was prepared. The weather wasn't the only challenge travelers had to consider. As he'd just experienced, there were other dangers that could prove far worse and fatal. It was one thing for a man to travel alone under such circumstances; he only had his own hide to consider, not a beautiful woman's. The way he saw it, her husband was plain irresponsible for risking her life on such a foolhardy journey. Right now, he was thanking the Good Lord that those Indians hadn't seen her long blond hair or he'd certainly have more trouble on his hands.
"It couldn't be helped," she answered. "I'm Lily Starr. Do you live near here?" She'd noticed he was traveling light; just a saddlebag and bedroll were on his horse.
"Thorpe Turlow." He braced himself for the pain he was sure to feel when he mounted. "I'm headed to Wyoming Territory. My ranch is there."
Lily didn't want to call him a liar, but he didn't have provisions for such a journey. "Where are your supplies?"
Not only could she ride and shoot, she was also an observant woman. "I imagine those warriors have them by now. I had to let my packhorse go when they gave chase. He's a fine animal and I didn't want him to be shot." He stroked Smoke's neck. "I figured the two of us would stand a better chance of outrunning them, and if we got lucky, all three of us might survive."
His answer satisfied Lily. She understood the way he valued his animals; she felt the same way about Blaze and her mule, Daisy. She jumped on Blaze in one fluid motion, and waited a minute for Thorpe to catch his breath once he was in the saddle.
When Thorpe could speak again, he said, "Thanks for helping me out. But what were you doing out here alone?"
"I heard the shots and thought I'd better check it out."
He wondered why her husband didn't come when they heard the shots, or another man in her party. "How many in your group?"
He'd expected her to be traveling with a much larger group. "And you haven't run into trouble?"
"No, we've been fortunate so far." She moved Blaze ahead, leaving Thorpe to follow. After winding her way through the trees, she pulled her horse to a halt to get her bearings and to see if Thorpe was staying with her. Considering the pain he was in, not to mention the blood loss, she was amazed that he was still in his saddle. "It's just a little farther."
Thorpe didn't want to lie to her about passing out, but he thought he was close. "We'd best hurry." By the time three wagons came into view, Thorpe was gripping his saddle horn to stay upright.
"Jedidiah!" Lily yelled as she hopped off her horse and ran to Thorpe's side.
A large man came running from one of the wagons with a huge dog beside him just as Thorpe started to slide from his horse.
"Help me with him," Lily instructed. "We need to get this arrow out."
Jedidiah was a muscular man, but he staggered backward from Thorpe's weight. "Mercy, Miss Lily, he's a big one."
"Yes, he is. Some braves were running him down, so we need to keep our eyes open. Let's get him to my wagon."
Together, they helped a nearly unconscious Thorpe into Lily's wagon and situated him on a feather mattress covered with hand-stitched quilts.
"Jed, I can twirl the shaft, so I don't think it lodged in bone. We can break off the shaft and push it through, or we can cut around the entry and pull it out carefully."
"Break it off and push the dang thing through." Thorpe could tell the arrow tip missed the bone and he wasn't about to let anyone cut on him.
The sound of his deep baritone voice made Lily and Jedidiah jump. Lily collected herself and pulled Thorpe's large knife from his scabbard and handed it to Jedidiah. "You can use the flat of the blade to push it through."
"Lily, do you need help?" Isabelle yelled from the back of the wagon.
"What's going on?" Dora asked.
Lily expected the two women would have a thousand questions, but there would be time to explain later. "Bring the whiskey, bandages, and make a yarrow poultice and boil some water. And bring a needle and some thread."
"You'd best be asking for that whiskey to pour down my throat," Thorpe said. He tried to stay alert by reminding himself he'd been hit by an arrow before and been shot a couple of times, so he could handle the pain. If those Indians came back with more braves, he didn't want these people facing them alone. Did Lily say four were in her group? One man was in the wagon with them and he heard two other women. That made four people, and that didn't make him feel a whole lot better.
Lily smiled at him. "You can have a hefty drink before we start."
Seeing that smile of hers nearly made him forget about his pain. Truthfully, it darn near made him forget his own name.
"Lordy be, I may take a swig 'cause I surely don't look forward to causing you more pain," Jedidiah said.
"Jedidiah, this is Mr. Thorpe Turlow. Mr. Turlow, meet Jedidiah Clarke," Lily said.
"Pleased to meet you, Jed," Thorpe said.
"Jed, can you get his shirt off?" Lily asked.
"Yes, ma'am." Once he helped remove Thorpe's shirt, he inspected his shoulder. "Mr. Thorpe, you sho'nuf got yourself in a real mess."
"That I did, Jedidiah." Thorpe figured Jedidiah wasn't Lily's husband after all.
"Miss Lily knew right away those shots we heard meant business. I thank God we was close by."
"I'm thankful to Miss Lily myself. I thought the Lord sent an angel to help me."
"And he surely did. Yessir, he surely did. He sent this angel to help us all," Jedidiah replied.
Excerpted from Christmas at Dove Creek by Scarlett Dunn. Copyright © 2016 Barbara Scarlett Dunn. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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