Fletcher's Woman

Fletcher's Woman

by Linda Lael Miller
Fletcher's Woman

Fletcher's Woman

by Linda Lael Miller

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Overview

One of America’s best-loved storytellers, Linda Lael Miller sets passions blazing in the unforgettable tale of one young doctor’s efforts to protect the lovely Rachel from his nemesis, the powerful and demanding owner of a lumber empire.

Washington’s rowdy lumber camps were no place for an innocent young beauty...

When Rachel McKinnon attracts the attention of Jonas Wilkes, she is truly in dire straits. Wilkes, the owner of a lumber empire, has power over most everyone he meets—and now he wants Rachel. Her only hope is Griffin Fletcher. The town’s darkly handsome, unmarried doctor, he once made a promise to Rachel’s dying mother to keep her daughter out of harm’s way. But little did Fletcher know that looking after the lovely Rachel would mean facing down Wilkes, his nemesis. Now the enmity he harbors for Wilkes is about to erupt in a dangerous confrontation...and the young doctor who swore never to love again is suddenly in danger of falling desperately in love with the one woman he swore he would always protect.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781476710723
Publisher: Pocket Books
Publication date: 08/07/2012
Sold by: SIMON & SCHUSTER
Format: eBook
Pages: 320
Sales rank: 18,943
File size: 6 MB

About the Author

About The Author
The daughter of a town marshal, Linda Lael Miller is a #1 New York Times and USA TODAY bestselling author of more than one hundred historical and contemporary novels, most of which reflect her love of the West. Raised in Northport, Washington, Linda pursued her wanderlust, living in London and Arizona and traveling the world before returning to the state of her birth to settle down on a horse property outside Spokane. Published since 1983, Linda was awarded the prestigious Nora Roberts Lifetime Achievement Award in 2007 by the Romance Writers of America. She was recently inducted into the Wild West Heritage Foundation's Walk of Fame for her dedication to preserving the heritage of the Wild West. When not writing, Linda loves to focus her creativity on a wide variety of art projects. Visit her online at LindaLaelMiller.com and Facebook.com/OfficialLindaLaelMiller.

Date of Birth:

June 10, 1949

Read an Excerpt

Fletcher’s Woman Chapter One
Rachel McKinnon lay very still in the small island of warmth her body had created and kept her eyes closed.

For several wild, insensible moments, she actually made herself believe that she didn’t live in this wretched, rain-sodden place at all, but in a fine house in Seattle, a house overlooking Elliott Bay.

Yes. Yes, she could stand at the gleaming windows of her own spacious parlor, with its delicate lace curtains and its polished oaken floors, and she could look out and see the big steamboats and clipper ships moving in and out of the harbor. Dapples of sunlight would dance, like flames of silver, on the blue, blue water. . . .

It was the stench that brought Rachel plummeting back to reality—the dreadful, piercing stench.

It forced her to remember everything.

A groan escaped her, and she squeezed her eyes even more tightly shut. Still, the grim images remained.

An acre of tents, standing like a shabby regiment of gray ghosts in the night. Rats, their eyes gleaming scarlet, darting between rivulets of rainwater. Children, whimpering and fretting behind walls of canvas.

Tent Town.

Rachel shuddered, tried to fight off the despairing panic that came with wakefulness and with knowing. She tried to summon the fantasy house back into her mind, but it would not come. She opened her eyes, and then closed them again.

But the truth was there, behind her lids, painted in sad colors on the walls of her mind. She was going to have to live in this dreadful place for as long as there was work for her father to do in Mr. Wilkes’s lumber camps.

A hand clasped her shoulder, gave it a gentle, reluctant shake. “Daughter?”

Anger burned in Rachel’s throat and hammered through her veins, but only briefly. She loved her father, and she knew that the suffering and the poverty pained him far more deeply than they did her. His dreams and hopes for his only child were great indeed.

“I’m awake,” she said softly, smiling up at the dim outline etched against the dank roof of the tent.

A soft rain tapped out a mournful cadence on the worn canvas tent top, and Rachel could hear people talking in hushed, sleepy voices. The two sounds made her feel wretchedly lonely, for some reason.

Ezra McKinnon turned his broad back, so that his daughter could rise from her cot in relative privacy. A short, stocky man with unruly gray hair, a full beard, and mischievous blue eyes, he stooped to take up his bedroll and said, “There’s a dining hall, Rachel. You go there, and have some breakfast.”

Trying to ignore the numbing cold, Rachel straightened her rumpled calico dress and rummaged through the wicker satchel that contained most of her personal belongings. Finding her hairbrush, she began grooming her sable brown hair with fierce energy.

“I don’t have any money, Pa. Suppose I get to this dining hall and they expect me to have money?”

Ezra cleared his throat, pulled back the tent flap, and spat into the rainy dawn. Damp, frigid air rushed into the tent. “I asked Mr. Wilkes about meals when I signed on,” he replied, with gentle impatience. “He told me that mine is included, and yours will be drawn from my wages.”

Deftly Rachel braided her glossy hair, wound it into a chignon, and secured it with tiny tortoiseshell combs. “You’ll be in the woods until next Sunday?” she asked, already knowing that he would. She was seventeen years old, and a woman grown, but she felt like a frightened little girl just then—a little girl about to be abandoned, with no friends or money, in a town where it never seemed to stop raining.

“Yes, Daughter. Until Sunday.”

Even as Rachel searched her mind for a dignified way to beg him not to go, she heard a wagon and horses splashing through the rain and mud outside, heard the snorts of the team and the creak of leather harnesses.

Ezra kissed her forehead gently, and then he said something strange. “Things will be different here, Rachel. Better.”

Before she could ask what he meant, her father went off to join the other workers. There were shouts and bursts of laughter and profanity as the men of that humble canvas community met at the crew wagon and found their places inside.

Soon, they would be high on the mountain, these husbands and fathers and sons, cutting and felling timber for Mr. Jonas Wilkes. To Rachel, arriving in the night, by wagon, that mountain had seemed a looming and monstrous thing, set apart somehow from the other mountains of her experience.

She pulled her blue woolen shawl from the satchel and wrapped it around her head and shoulders. As she stepped outside the tent, into the incessant drizzle and the half light of a struggling dawn, the stench sharpened. Human waste, probably in open trenches dug too near the camp.

Rachel’s revulsion was like acid in her throat and nostrils; she longed to run back to the tent—as crude as it was, it was the only refuge she had—and hide.

But there was no hiding from the desperate hunger that gnawed at her even as she tried not to retch. She raised her chin, silently defying the tears that pressed behind her eyes and ached in her throat.

All around her, other women left other tents, herding listless, silent children toward the center of the odd village. Rachel followed them, her shawl drawn tightly around her slender figure.

The dining hall was, Rachel soon discovered, just another tent. It was large, though, and adequately lit by kerosene lanterns that flickered and smoked on the long, rough-hewn wood tables. There was sawdust on the floor; it was damp and pungently fragrant and it stuck to Rachel’s scuffed black shoes as she walked.

The delicious warmth radiating from the big black cookstove at one end of the tent seemed to reach out and caress Rachel’s frozen bones, and the comforting smell of sizzling bacon came to meet her like a welcoming friend. She forgot the hideous odor waiting beyond the tent walls and allowed herself a deep breath.

Hunger impelled Rachel toward the table where the food was being distributed. She took a blue enamel plate and a tin fork and gave her name to a reedy, wheezing woman who recorded it carefully into a ruled account book.

A small, chattering Chinaman wrenched Rachel’s plate from her hand, graced it with three slices of bacon, one egg, and a piece of toasted bread, then surrendered it again. She helped herself to a mug and coffee from the large pot sitting at the far end of the serving table.

Long benches lined the other tables, and Rachel found a place within the radius of the stove’s warmth and sat down.

Looking at the meal before her, she trembled with mingled guilt and anticipation. Her father hadn’t eaten the day before, nor had she, but now he was on his way up the mountain to work a full day. Would Mr. Wilkes see that his men had food to eat before they began their tasks?

The splintery benches began to fill with severe, wary-eyed women and fussy children. Rachel forced herself to believe that her father would soon enjoy an even better meal, and then she began to eat. She chewed slowly, savoring the food.

Now and then, at some other table, a defiant spirited giggle would erupt, dispelling a little of the gloom. Covertly, Rachel scanned the sallow faces of the other women, looking for the person who could live in Tent Town and still laugh like that. She longed to find her and somehow become her friend.

Involuntarily, Rachel sighed. It had been a long, long time since she’d been in one place long enough to make a friend.

When Rachel had finished eating, she took her empty plate back to the Chinaman. He snatched it from her and hurled it into a large tin washtub at his feet, obviously outraged by her ignorance of the rules. Then he railed at her in his odd, quick language.

Rachel blushed with embarrassment, all too aware that the other sounds, those of eating and muted conversation, had ceased. Everyone was probably staring, thinking what a fool the new woman was. She tried to say that she was sorry, that she hadn’t known what to do, but the Chinaman gave her no opportunity. Rather, he raged on, like a tiny, furious bird.

Rachel’s chagrin gave way to righteous wrath. Surely such a modest infraction as not knowing where to discard one’s dinner plate didn’t justify the creation of such a terrible scene!

Before she could frame a retort, however, a chill draft swept into the tent, stinging Rachel’s flesh through her thin dress and shawl. The silence among the women and children still sitting at the tables deepened, and the cook swallowed his invective in one convulsive gulp.

“Is there some sort of problem here, Chang?” asked a wry, gentlemanly voice.

Rachel turned to see a lithe, good-looking man standing just behind her. He had cherubic brown eyes, she noticed, and a boyish, clean-shaven face. His tailored suit, somehow very much out of place among so much calico and poplin, was made of a fine, dark woolen and was beaded with little sparkling droplets of rain.

“Well?” pressed the man, in even, ominous tones.

The Chinaman swallowed again, and his slanted eyes were downcast.

Rachel felt both empathy and remorse; there were many who enjoyed baiting the Chinese, and she wondered if this finely dressed man numbered among them. “There is no problem,” she dared to say.

The gentleman assessed her, an unsettling mixture of appreciation and suppressed amusement flashing in his velvety eyes. “Is that so? Considering the fact that I could hear Chang raving even before I got out of my carriage, I find that difficult to accept.”

The hapless Chang was visibly shaken now, and he abandoned his dialect for a halting, awkward form of English. “Missy not put dish!” he cried, trembling in his shapeless black trousers and shirt. “Please, Mr. Wilkes, Missy not put dish!”

Mr. Wilkes. Jonas Wilkes? Rachel bit her lower lip, surprised and a little awed. From the things her father had told her about Mr. Wilkes—how he had sweeping power and almost unlimited wealth—she had expected him to be much older.

Instead, he appeared to be somewhere in his early thirties. He had soft, glossy hair the color of new wheat, and his wide eyes and small, straight nose gave him an innocent look.

Rachel had already surmised that he was no angel.

“Mr. Chang is quite correct,” she said, squaring her shoulders and meeting Mr. Wilkes’s amused gaze directly. “I did not put my plate in the proper place.”

Mr. Wilkes drew in a sharp breath and an expression of mock stupefaction played in his face. “That, my dear, is an abominable sin if I’ve ever heard one. What is your name?”

She hesitated, finally said, “Miss Rachel McKinnon.”

The mischievous eyes swept over her, lingering almost imperceptibly at her breasts and her narrow waist. But when they came back to her face, there was a disconcerting look of recognition in them. “Rachel McKinnon,” he repeated, thoughtfully.

Rachel felt swift, fierce color surge into her face, though she couldn’t have said why. “I’m sorry that I’ve caused so much trouble,” she said.

To her utter amazement, Mr. Wilkes cupped his right hand under her chin and made her look at him. His skin was smooth and fragrant from some spicy cologne, but his touch was not gentle. “I’m sure you cause a great deal of excitement wherever you go, Urchin. Those violet eyes insure it.”

Rachel was stung by the word “urchin,” even though Mr. Wilkes had spoken it with a peculiar note of affection in his voice. She was proud, and this obvious reference to her tattered clothing rankled. She turned her head, pulling free of his touch. “I’m very sorry that you don’t find me presentable, Mr. Wilkes.”

Jonas Wilkes laughed softly. “Oh, Urchin, you are more than presentable. Why, with a hot bath and some decent clothing—”

She reacted without thinking, without considering the possible consequences, without considering anything beyond the fact that she had been gravely insulted. She raised her hand and slapped Mr. Jonas Wilkes with such force that the mark of her fingers blazed, crimson, on his face.

The tense silence in the tent seemed to vibrate.

There was a frightening expression in Jonas Wilkes’s eyes as he surveyed the trembling, furious girl before him. A thin, white line encircled his lips, and he clenched and unclenched his fists. “Miss McKinnon, if you ever do that again, you will bitterly regret it.”

Rachel was terrified, but she was too proud and too stubborn to let anyone, especially this man, know that. She stood her ground. “Mr. Wilkes, if you ever demean my garments again, or imply that I am unclean, you will bitterly regret it.”

Some intrepid soul laughed aloud just then, but if Mr. Wilkes heard the sound, he dismissed it. His eyes moved over Rachel’s body with dispatch, then returned to her face. “Your father would be Ezra McKinnon—the sawyer I hired last week in Seattle. Am I correct?”

A lump throbbed, raw, in Rachel’s throat as she remembered that she and her father depended upon this man for their livelihood. “Yes,” she admitted.

He took a small, leather book from the inside pocket of his suit coat and made a flourishing notation on the first page.

It was all Rachel could do to keep from craning her neck to read what he’d written. She swallowed miserably. “Are you going to dismiss my father?” she asked, after an awkward, painful pause.

Mr. Wilkes smiled generously. “Of course not, Miss McKinnon. That would be a spiteful thing to do, wouldn’t it?”

Rachel searched her mind for a diplomatic, dignified reply and found nothing she dared say beyond, “Thank you.”

Once more, the impudent gaze swept over her. “Think nothing of it, Urchin,” he said. And then, abruptly, Mr. Jonas Wilkes was striding across the sawdust floor and out of the tent.

The moment he was gone, the stunned populace of Tent Town dared to breathe again.

A thin woman with wide, fearful blue eyes approached Rachel first. There was surprise in the narrow, careworn face, but there was respect, too, and no small measure of admiration. “You slapped Jonas Wilkes!” she breathed.

Rachel stiffened, though she secretly enjoyed being the center of attention. “He brought it on himself,” she said, with bravado.

The splendid, defiant giggle Rachel had heard before rose above the excited chatter, and she saw that it came from a slender Indian girl standing nearby. She had beautiful, nut-brown skin and wore a slim, beaded headband and a buckskin shift trimmed with twisted fringe. “I hope the gods are fond of you, Purple Eyes,” she said, tossing her long, glossy black hair back over one shoulder. “You’re going to need all the help you can get.”

The woman who had spoken first shot an impatient glance in the girl’s direction and frowned. “Don’t pay Fawn any mind, Rachel. She’s been traipsing all over the territory with Buck Jimson’s Wild West Show these past few months, and she got into the habit of carrying on like an Indian.”

“I am an Indian!” cried Fawn, with spirit. “You’d better remember it, too, Mary Louisa Clifford, or I’ll creep into your tent some dark, rainy night and scalp you bald!”

Mary Louisa shook her head and smiled at Rachel. “It is wise to be careful, where Mr. Wilkes is concerned. He can be vindictive.”

Rachel shivered. “My father—will he lose his job?”

Mary Louisa patted Rachel’s hands in reassurance. “If he’s a good, hard worker, he won’t be discharged.”

Fawn pressed closer, her dark, sparkling eyes wide with foreboding. “No woman strikes Jonas Wilkes like that and gets away with it. Mark my words, Rachel McKinnon. He’s making plans for some kind of revenge right now.”

Small, sharp needles of dread prickled Rachel’s spine. Should she run after Mr. Wilkes, beg him to forgive her for slapping him? She knew that the Indian girl was probably right; a man with that kind of power at his command would not tolerate such an affront without reprisal.

For herself, Rachel felt no fear. But suppose the retribution, which could be harsh indeed, was dealt to her father who had done nothing to deserve it? Nothing beyond siring a hot-tempered and unladylike daughter, she thought, with bitter resignation.

• • •

Jonas Wilkes frowned and, in a vain effort to shut out some of the rain, pulled his collar up around his neck. This was no day to be out and about; a man should be in his own house on such a day, sleeping late. Reading a fine book. Sipping brandy.

Or bedding a woman.

Jonas smiled as the girl, Rachel McKinnon, filled his mind, flowing into it like water into a tide pool. He felt an odd mixture of rage and desire as he relived the indignity of being slapped, and his face still smarted where her hand had made contact.

He strode on, sidestepping the worst of the mud, zigzagging between the tattered tents that housed his workers’ wives and children. The stench came at him, a pungent reminder of all his sins, on the changing wind.

Damn Tent Town, he thought, pressing a clean, white handkerchief to his mouth and nose and holding it there. Damn Griffin Fletcher for practically ordering him to come here to talk to him, and damn that orchid-eyed urchin and her ridiculous calico dress and her impossible high-button shoes.

Suddenly, he stopped cold. The suspicion he’d harbored became a certainty.

Rachel McKinnon. She had to be Becky’s daughter! Oh, the last name could have been coincidental, but not those purple eyes, that rich, sable hair, that proud, almost arrogant, carriage.

Jonas laughed aloud, and then walked on.

He crossed one mucky, rutted road, climbed an embankment verdant with quack grass to another road. He was approaching the cottages now, and the sight of Griffin Fletcher’s buggy did nothing to spoil his good spirits.

Imagine it. Rebecca McKinnon’s daughter living in Tent Town, with those dreary, slothful wretches and their brats.

Once again, Jonas laughed.

But other thoughts dogged him as he opened the gate in Fanny Harper’s whitewashed picket fence and started up the walk. Rachel had slapped him, after all, and in front of the workers’ wives.

That was a transgression he could not overlook. He would make it painfully, unforgettably clear that no one treated Jonas Wilkes in that manner without suffering for it. No one.

But it was odd, the way she made him feel. Helpless. By God, she made him feel helpless, like a climber sliding down the face of a cliff, unable to catch hold and break the fall.

The pit of Jonas’s stomach convulsed suddenly; he saw again the wide, amethyst eyes darkening with fury, remembered the lustrous, raven hair held precariously in place by small, simple combs.

And he wanted her.

His fingers flexed as he recalled the delightful, delicious promise of her breasts.

Jonas sighed, adjusted his collar again, and tapped at the door of Fanny’s cottage. All in good time, he promised himself. All in good time.

He would answer Griffin’s summons first, and then he would send word up the mountain that Ezra McKinnon was to be promoted to a position of responsibility.

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