Seeking the pot of gold at California’s end
She married rich, but not well. Now, with the Civil War ended and her husband gone, Deirdre must make her own way in the world. The golden, untamed valleys of Sonoma County beckon, a land ripe with promise. But her dreams of building a home and starting a winery are thwarted by locals who don’t want to sell to a spirited, independent woman—much less an Irish one.
Two very different gentlemen aid in Deirdre’s quest. Kin O’Leary is tall, dark, and oh-so-charming. Owner of Sonoma’s most successful inn, Kin is one of the wealthiest men in the county, and Deirdre believes this makes him an ill-advised suitor. Complicating her circumstance is Dylan O’Reilly, the strapping young cattle hand who stirs her passion to life but hides some dangerous secrets.
With Deirdre’s dreams hanging in the balance, the forthright young widow faces a difficult choice. Will she have the luck of the Irish when it comes to love?
“The love for Irish-American history is especially present . . . This is perfect for readers who love tackling difficult issues, Irish-American history and non-Regency settings.”
—RT Book Reviews, 4 Stars, on Courting the Corporal
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The wait was killing her.
Or her patience, at least, which was a delicate thing prone to a quick death on the best of days.
The light of the stars gave way more each moment to the brightening dawn. She missed them as they left, for they had faithfully guided her here and were a symbol of the wonders that awaited her in this new land. Warm sunlight filtered through the leaves of the oak stretching overhead. It felt good on her shoulders, but only served to remind her of how the morning began to wane. The hilltop provided a tantalizing view of the town below. Fields turned gold by the chilly nights of October surrounded a grouping of log and brick homes and buildings. Civilization. Oh, how she longed for it after so many months on the California Trail. But this little town was more than just that. It would be their new home. It was where her dear friend Cat was. And she couldn't wait a moment longer to get there.
Red leaves crunched under her heel as she spun and marched back to the wagons. The four armed men lounging in the shade of one of the three wagons nodded in acknowledgment as she approached. The two working on the broken wagon wheeldidn't look up.
"How much longer do you expect it will be?" she asked.
The four idle men stood like the good soldiers they had once been and the gentlemen they still were and removed their hats. One of the men working on the wheel grunted. The other answered without looking up. "At least another hour, Mrs. Quinn." He went on to say something more about the axle, but it was all gibberish to her.
Grunting in frustration, she gathered up her deep blue skirts and strode to the largest of the three wagons. The smooth satin mocked her fingertips. She had worn the fine dress with the intention of making a good impression as they arrived in town. At this rate, they wouldn't make it there today. She flung open the canvas flap covering the back and began to dig in one of the boxes. On the makeshift bed of comforters deeper in the wagon, a figure stirred.
"No need to rouse yourself, Sadie. 'Tis only I," Deirdre said.
A head of countless, tiny black braids poked out from under the blankets. Long lashes blinked several times before chestnut eyes peered out of a lovely, dark-skinned face. "Have we arrived?" she asked with only the slightest hint of the African accent she had picked up from her mother.
Upon seeing a young, pregnant girl fresh off the slave ship from Africa, Deirdre's parents had purchased Sadie's mother and granted her and her unborn child freedom. At that time, such acts of humanity were taking root in the eastern United States and growing in popularity. Loyal to the bone, Sadie's mother still worked in the household of Deirdre's parents. Remembering her usually made Deirdre a touch homesick, but not today.
"Sadly, no. They're still working on the wheel. I'm sorry to have woken you."
Her fingers closed around the leather browband of the bridle she was searching for. She pulled it out and draped it over her shoulder.
"'S all right. Wait, what're you doing?" Sadie asked in a voice still slurred with sleep.
Before answering, Deirdre put the lid back on the box and opened another. She didn't dare give her friend more time to respond than necessary. From the top of the box, she grabbed her bow, quiver of arrows, and sidesaddle. The bow and quiver she slung over her shoulder, the saddle she propped on her hip. "The town is only a short ride from here. I'm taking Ciaren the remainder of the way."
White ringed Sadie's widening eyes. Not giving her time to recover from her shock, Deirdre grabbed a saddle pad, stepped back, and closed the wagon flap. Sputtering from within sped her steps until she was all but jogging to where the half dozen riding horses were tethered to a line strung between two trees.
Ciaren's pitch-black equine head lifted from the grass at her approach. The mare whinnied and tossed her head, sending her long, black mane into the air. She started to paw at the ground. Deirdre couldn't help but smile as she approached the big thoroughbred mare. "I know, lass. Me, too," she said as she patted the horse's muscular neck.
She forced her way through, pushing the horse next to Ciaren aside so she could fit between them. She placed the pad on Ciaren's back and hefted the saddle up next.
"Deirdre, is someone at least escorting you?" came Sadie's voice.
She didn't bother to answer. There was no point. Fingers moving with a speed born of familiarity, she cinched up the saddle and had the bridle halfway on Ciaren's head before she heard the creak of the wagon as Sadie climbed from it. The woman's usually mahogany skin had a sickly hue to it, closer to that of sun-kissed topaz. As she took a few unsteady steps away from the wagon, she grew even paler. Holding tight to the horse's reins, Deirdre jogged back to her friend's side. She grabbed hold of her elbow to steady her.
"Don't worry yourself about me. I've got my bow should I come across trouble. You shouldn't be up," Deirdre said.
Sadie waved her hand, and swayed as if it threw off her balance. Deirdre gripped her arm tighter. "Nonsense, I need the fresh air. You and that bow! Listen, child, I know you're a good shot, but an arrow isn't adequate against a pistol," Sadie insisted in a weak voice.
Eyes narrowing, Deirdre shook her head. She was a year older than Sadie. "Child, ha! I can take care of myself. Now listen, you're still recovering from the heat. You need to rest."
Heavy footsteps approached from around the side of the wagon. Beneath the shadows of a gray-and-black plaid cap, a bearded young man fixed a disapproving gaze on Deirdre. Jack. Bloody hell, of the lot of them, it had to be him. The youngest of them all, he had tried to woo Deirdre but she'd found the poor lad dull as a plank.
His furrowed brow relaxed into a gentler expression as his gaze shifted to Sadie. "She's right about that, Miss Sadie. You ought to be resting. We'll be done and on our way soon enough," he said, shooting Deirdre a glare at the last part.
Snorting, Deirdre looked skyward.
"Perhaps Mrs. Quinn will be a good lass and help me get you back to the wagon where we can tuck the pair of you in to be nice and safe for the remainder of the trip," he continued.
Deirdre relinquished Sadie's arm to the man and promptly draped the reins over her horse's neck. "Nonsense. You're a strapping young lad, quite capable of assisting Sadie all on your own."
She strode over to the back of the wagon, leading Ciaren along beside her. Gathering her skirts in one hand and a clump of Ciaren's mane in the other, she started to climb up the wagon. Jack gasped while Sadie only sighed in resignation. Neither had a chance to move before she made it onto the sidesaddle. As she guided Ciaren away, she smoothed her blue dress over her knees.
"Where do you think you're going, Mrs. Quinn?" Jack demanded.
Sadie crossed her arms beneath her breasts. "It isn't safe. Don't forget Cat's stories about Ainsworth and how he hired men to stop her and Rick from getting here. That man lives somewhere near this town and I don't think he'll take kindly to our arrival," she said, her tone already sounding defeated.
Circling back around to her friend, Deirdre leaned down as close to her as she could get and pointed. "Look there, that's the town. On Ciaren, I can reach it in less than an hour." She patted her bow. "And no need to worry. For one, Ainsworth failed the moment Cat and Mr. Fergusson made it here. For two, you know how good of a shot I am."
Sadie shook her head. The motion caused her to sway. Jack gripped her arm with both hands. "Easy there," he warned. She tried to shrug him off and step toward Deirdre, but her movements were too slow and weak to be effective.
"Surely we'll be there by nightfall," Sadie tried to reason with her.
Jack nodded. "'Tis likely. That, or by morning at the latest if this wheel gives us too much trouble."
Sadie's shoulders sagged in defeat as she watched Deirdre pick up the reins. The smile Deirdre gave her turned up the corners of Sadie's mouth ever so slightly. "And I shall greet you there with open arms and a glass of wine," Deirdre said.
Anticipating her desire by the shift of her weight, Ciaren arched her neck and began to prance in place.
"Do be careful," Sadie beseeched.
Deirdre's grin grew wider. "Come now, Sadie, you know me."
"That's precisely the problem."
Deirdre laughed. "Fair enough. But I shall steer clear of trouble, you have my word."
Sadie laughed in turn. "My dear, that's impossible, seeing how it follows you."
At a tap on his arm from her, Jack helped Sadie sit on the back of the wagon before letting go of her and looking to Deirdre. "Give me just a moment to saddle my horse and I'll escort you," he said, a touch of demand in his tone.
Deirdre only turned her grin on him in answer. Nodding, he strode off toward the horses.
"I wouldn't bother if I were you," Sadie called after him.
"Nonsense. We'll be fine," he protested.
Sadie shook her head. "That's not what I meant."
The moment the man disappeared around the side of the wagon, Deirdre winked at Sadie and blew her a kiss. A press of her foot launched the big thoroughbred into a canter that no other horse present would be able to match. "That's what I meant," she heard Sadie proclaim behind her.
Wind whipped at her hair, threatening to pull her raven locks from the thick braid that bounced against her back. Ciaren flew through the stalled wagon train. Other horses called out at their passing, a few pulled at their lead ropes, but none tried to bolt after her. They were all too docile to get overly riled up. Which meant even if any of the men could get saddled up straight away, they'd never catch her.
The cooler air of California was a welcome blessing after the heat of Nevada. It danced across her skin as she leaned into it, and flowed down her bodice between her breasts. As soon as she dropped over the hill and out of sight of the wagons, she lifted her skirts and threw her right leg over Ciaren. She let out the reins and squeezed the mare's sides with both legs. Ciaren rewarded her with a burst of speed. Her heart pounded in time to the horse's rhythm. Straddling a horse like a man allowed her to ride faster and harder. But that wasn't the only reason she loved it. It made her feel wicked and free, two things she loved dearly.
The short grass of the hillside gave way to tall, golden stalks when they plunged into the valley below. For Ciaren's safety, Deirdre was forced to rein the mare in a bit. It was impossible to tell what type of terrain lay beneath the tall grass, though it sounded and felt like good, soft soil. She allowed Ciaren to maintain a slow canter for another mile or so before slowing her to a trot. No hoofbeats sounded behind her, but she glanced back just in case. A single rider on a brown horse picked its way slowly down the hill. Already she was too far away to discern who it might be. But she knew none of the horses could catch Ciaren. Long legs stretching out into an animated trot, Ciaren arched her neck and held her head high.
Deirdre grinned. She couldn't blame the mare for enjoying herself. They'd been plodding along behind that wagon train for four and a half months.
To the southwest, she spotted a dirt road winding its way through the valley toward the town. Upon reaching the road, she let the reins out. Ciaren launched into a canter that ate up the soft dirt. In only moments, she put the hill that the wagon train had stopped on far behind her. Once her pursuer was no longer even a spot in the distance, she slowed back down to a trot. Over an hour later, the first of the outlying houses came into sight. She slowed Ciaren to a walk as she passed the first two.
They dotted the landscape, surrounded by several acres of farmland or gardens that had mostly been harvested. Big orange pumpkins choked the dark green vines that covered several acres of a field to her right. Tall trees of different varieties hovered over many of the homes like shade-giving guardians. The leaves of all the deciduous trees had begun to take on the hues of fall: yellows, oranges, reds, and golds. Their colors made the landscape look like the canvas of a color-loving artist. It amazed her to see trees with leaves left on them so late in October. Back in New York, the trees would be bare by now. But the weather here was considerably warmer.
"What will winter be like here?" she wondered aloud.
After the harsh heat of Nevada and monotonous browns and faded greens, the colors and weather of this place were quite refreshing. Even the sky shone a lovely robin's-egg blue, as opposed to the washed-out, sun-bleached hue of the desert. To be fair to Nevada, her guides had assured her such intense heat wasn't typical this late in the year, but nor was it unheard of.
Here, the scent of salt filled the moisture-laden air. Oh, how she had missed the ocean! She could hardly wait to see it again. The fields soon gave way to more homes, and the road split off in three directions. While the roads before her and to the left looked more traveled, she chose the one to the right, which had grass growing ankle-deep down the middle. The enormous home at the end of the road had a man outside it doing something in a flatbed wagon. Going deeper into town might only slow her down. If she could get directions from this man, she might be able to bypass town altogether and save time. From Cat's description of the property, she knew it was on the outskirts. Exploring town could wait for another day.
To either side of the road stretched fields of grass shorn to the ground and picked up for harvest. The large house at the end was the sole one on the road. A barn — large enough by most standards, but dwarfed by the massive house — sat slightly behind and to the left. A few paces down the road a finely carved wooden sign proclaimed, "O'Leary Inn."
That explained the size of the place.
In a quarter mile or so, she grew close enough to get a better look at the inn. At least a dozen windows adorned the two-story structure constructed mostly of logs. A covered porch big enough to host a proper ball wrapped around the first story. The rugged look of the house had a pleasing quality that surprised her. Even more pleasing was the shirtless man loading large bales of hay onto the back of a wagon. He moved with a slow deliberateness that spoke of how heavy the things must be, and he levered them against the wagon to slide them when possible. Only a few more remained on the ground. Corded muscles in his arms and back moved beneath skin kissed to a lovely tan by the sun.
Such bales indicated the property owner either owned a hay press, or had borrowed one. To find such a rare device had made its way this far out West surprised her. That surprise swiftly became eclipsed by desire upon seeing the sweaty, muscular body before her. His tan was so dark as to be considered unseemly, working class, by those in high society. Deirdre disagreed. She thought the nearly brown skin made him look like a man who wasn't afraid to work hard. And it went nicely with the shoulder-length black hair tied back at the nape of his neck. Wiping sweat from his brow with a forearm, the man turned in her direction. A sculpted chest, strong brow, and high cheekbones void of any hair didn't disappoint, either. Something about him looked decidedly exotic.
Heat rushed to Deirdre's core in a deeply visceral reaction that took her completely by surprise. She hadn't felt this depth of instant attraction since ... well, ever. Too late, she remembered to drape her leg back over and sit properly on her sidesaddle. She focused hard on rearranging her skirts, keeping her head down to hide the furious blush that burned her cheeks. Most of the men where she came from would consider a woman riding astride to be quite scandalous. It wasn't the first impression she wanted to make. She recovered quickly and met the man's gaze. "Begging your pardon for the interruption, sir, but I'm hoping you might be able to help me locate my friend," she said.
The corners of his lips started to turn up as he stared at the bow poking up beyond her shoulder. The smirk reached his eyes, lighting them up and bringing to mind the tigereye gemstones Deirdre had seen Sadie wear on occasion. The sight took her breath away. He grabbed a beige shirt off the wagon and put it on. The meticulous way his fingers worked their way up the buttons — slowly hiding that darkly tanned chest — ensnared Deirdre's attention. It seemed such a terrible shame to cover up such a work of art. She had to suppress a sigh.
Excerpted from "Deirdre's True Desire"
Copyright © 2017 Heather McCorkle.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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