Emma Hewitt never thought she'd travel thousands of miles to wed. Yet Oregon is where she'll meet the groom her brothers have chosen. After years of nursing her ailing father, Emma's social skills are lacking. An arranged marriage is only sensible. And her growing feelings for Nathan Reed, a worker on her wagon train, are surely better forgotten.
Nathan knows he's wrong for Emma. He's too rough, too burdened with guilt over his past. But when Emma nurses him through a fever, she sees something in him no one ever has. Now he wants to be a man worthy of her love. Emma's loyalty to family has always come first. Will she find the courage now to follow her heart?
Journey West: Romance and adventure await three siblings on the Oregon Trail
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"He's a stinkin' thief!" The belligerent voice hurled the accusation like a stone. "We don't need his kind on this wagon train!"
Nathan Reed stood against the words, hands bound in front of him with rope, the way they had been since last night. Like a common criminal.
Like he deserved.
But not for stolen hair combs. He was innocentthis time.
He kept his eyes squinted where the rising sun was lighting the top two jutting buttes that formed a narrow canyonhe'd overheard someone call it Devil's Gate. The landmark was outside the circle of their wagons, where they'd stopped the night before.
"You're sure you saw this manMr. Reedclimbing out of our wagon with my sister's hair combs?" Ben Hewitt asked of the preacher.
The small committee had gathered in the predawn light, wanting privacy from the rest of the travelers in their westbound wagon train. This was Nathan's judge and jurythe men who would decide his fate.
Hewitt was a broad-shouldered, sandy-haired and seemingly good-natured man, from the few interactions Nathan had had with him. But Ben Hewitt didn't know Nathan. Didn't count him as a friend. Nobody did, that's why Nathan was the only suspect.
Out of the corner of his vision, Nathan saw that Hewitt's sister Emma stood next to him and the group of men, the breeze blowing her deep green skirt a little. Probably sending wisps of her honey-brown hair dancing against her cheeks.
He didn't look at her. Didn't want to see accusation or recrimination in the vivid blue eyes he'd had only glimpses of when driving the Binghams' wagon.
He saw enough of the emotion when he had a chance to spy his reflection in a stream or pond.
He knew, probably better than anyone, that defending himself would get him nowhere. He was friendless on this Oregon-bound wagon train. No one to stand up for him.
The wind blew his long, unruly black hair across his cheek, but he didn't raise his bound hands to push it away.
"Erm well, it was getting dark. It looked like him." It wasn't solid proof. It sounded as if the preacher didn't fully believe it himself. But that didn't seem to matter to the other men.
"Everyone else was accounted for," Ernie Jones blustered. Jones wasn't a committeeman, but had claimed to have witnessed the theft, along with the preacher.
"You got anything to say for yourself, Reed?" James Stillwell asked. The man had been watching Nathan with suspicion since Stillwell had joined up with the wagon train.
Nathan didn't know why. Maybe he just looked suspicious, or maybe the man could see his past in his face.
Again, Nathan said nothing. What was the use?
The breeze felt good against his overheated cheeks. The rising sun played tricks with his eyes as he kept them locked on the gradual rise of the red rock slope in the distance.
He felt dizzy and a little nauseated. He hadn't had much of an appetite the past few days, and maybe not eating enough was catching up to him. Being on the trail day in, day out wore on a body. With no wagon of his own, he depended on the kindness of others for his meals.
And Nathan didn't like depending on anyone. Joining up with the wagon train was his last chance to find a new start for himself. A chance to finally outrun the past that dogged his every step.
"Did anyone find the combs on Mr. Reed's person?" Emma Hewitt's soft voice was almost lost among the men's murmuring.
No one except Nathan seemed to hear her.
Without his consent, his gaze slid to her. Luckily, she was looking at her brother, not at him.
He'd been right. Her skirt fluttered. The brisk wind had set wisps of her honey-gold hair dancing at her temple and against her cheeks, like a vision out here in the wilds of the Wyoming Territory. Something beautiful that didn't belong.
He forced his eyes back to the craggy rocks in the distance.
Then her brother spoke up. "Did anybody find Emma's hair combs among Reed's things?"
"He ain't got much." Miles Cavanaugh, a committee-man, tossed Nathan's satchel on the ground at his feet.
Nathan ground his back teeth against the protest that wanted to escape. Those were his belongings. Meager though they might be.
What right did they have to go through his things? Just because someone thought they'd seen him committing theft? In the dark?
But he doubted anyone would be on his side if he demanded fairness.
"He could've hid the combs somewhere. Along with the other stolen goods," Stillwell argued. What did the other man have against Nathan, anyway? A lot of suspicions, that's what.
"Can anyone verify your whereabouts last night before the party?" Hewitt asked Nathan, not unkindly.
Nathan kept his eyes on the brightening horizon. He'd been minding the oxen last night, separate from everyone as they'd washed up and chattered and prepared for the party.
Most of the time he didn't care that he was excluded from the gatherings. But last night it would have been nice to be one of the group. Then he wouldn't have been in this predicament.
Not that it mattered much in the scheme of things. He hadn't stolen those hair combs, but he'd done enough thieving and snitching that he deserved whatever punishment they would mete out.
Would they exile him from the caravan? He could live off the land, trapping and hunting the way he'd done for years. But he'd hoped for more. The small amount Mr. Bingham was to pay him for pushing the oxen to their destination was to be socked away so Nathan could purchase land.
Or would they deem that his misdeeds were enough to hang him? He'd heard of it happening in other situations. The thought sent a shudder through him.
Someone else was talking but a peculiar buzzing sound blocked the words and his light-headedness got worse. His stomach pitched from the dizziness.
Everything around him began to darkenbut that wasn't right, was it? It was morning, it should be getting lighter as the daylight brightened.
Then he blacked out.
The men had fallen into low-voiced squabbling and, at first, Emma Hewitt was the only one who witnessed Nathan Reed slump to the ground.
And when the men noticed, they went silent.
No one rushed to help him.
"Really," she huffed quietly. Emma did not like being the center of attention, but did the men have a shred of decency in them?
They couldn't seem to come to agreement on anything. After she'd discovered the missing hair combs yesterday, her brother had filled her in on the ongoing investigation. She'd heard talk among the other travelers; whispers of a thief among them, but the bite of violation remained this morning.
Someone had rifled through her things.
But that didn't matter right at this moment.
She picked up her skirt, intending to go to the fallen man, when her brother Ben touched her arm to stop her.
"Wait. He might be faking. Pretending to swoon so if someone gets close he attacks or takes them hostage."
The alarming white pallor of Nathan Reed's face indicated otherwise.
"He's not playacting," Emma insisted, tearing her arm away from her brother's grasp.
She went to the prone man, meeting Mr. Stillwell, her brother's friend, at his shoulder. Ben followed a few paces behind.
Mr. Stillwell squatted as she knelt at Mr. Reed's side. Stillwell touched his forehead. "He's burning up."
But he didn't look as if he intended to do anything about it.
She shook Mr. Reed's shoulder. "Wake up," she whispered.
She moved to touch his face, then faltered. If the great, burly, bear of a man was one of the children, she wouldn't have hesitated to examine him as necessary, even if it seemed far too intimate with a grown man.
She would think of him as a little child. She must. Even though he was the furthest thing from it.
Holding her breath, she peeled back one of his shapely lips. His thick beard abraded her knuckles.
He might've fainted from the fever or lack of sleep or food, but the marks inside his mouth confirmed what she'd already guessed. The contagious disease that had plagued their caravan had claimed another victim.
"It's measles," she murmured.
Her brother crouched at her side, Ben's presence reassuring. "You sure?"
She was. "Some of the children had the same white spots on their gums. See there?"
Ben's nose wrinkled and he only glanced cursorily into Mr. Reed's mouth.
"What do we do now?" Stillwell demanded.
Before she could think to prevent it, he raised his hand and slapped Mr. Reed's cheek. His dark head knocked to one side.
She could not abide injustice. In any form. "Don't touch him like that again," she commanded.
But maybe Stillwell hadn't heard her. His eyes passed over her almost as if she wasn't there at all.
Stillwell stood, directing his words to the other men.
"He's a thief"
It was easier for Emma to direct her words to the unconscious man on the ground. "Whether or not he's a criminal, he's still a human being and deserves basic kindness. And care."
She looked up and met Ben's gaze. The men stood behind him, none paying attention. She'd spoken so softly that likely many of them hadn't heard her.
That was normal. Her opinions were rarely heard. And for a long time, it hadn't mattered to her. It did now.
But when Ben spoke, people listened. And he spoke now. "Emma's right. We can't punish a man in this condition. We'll stay the verdict until he's on his feet again."
The group of men grumbled. "What're we going to do with him?"
"We should just leave him behind," Mr. Stillwell said.
"You can't," she cried. "How would he survive?"
But perhaps her distressed cry had only been loud in her own mind. Because again Mr. Stillwell did not pay her any heed, only turned his back to talk to the other men.
Nathan Reed moaned, a low, pained sound that seemed as if it came from the depths of his soul, instead of from suffering a simple fever. He did not return to consciousness, and that worried Emma the most.
"He needs care," Emma insisted.
Ben nodded to her. He'd heard, at least. He argued with the men and left her with the prone Mr. Reed.
Emma was not a nurse. She'd had no formal training, only the difficult duty of being constantly at her father's bedside those final years.
Yet she was an expert at completing tasks that no one else wanted to do. At being available when there was no one else.
And since she'd nursed many of the children in the wagon train when they'd been afflicted with measles, it did not surprise her when the men agreed to leave Mr. Reed under Ben's care and delay his sentence until the time that he awoke. Ben would be busy driving the family wagon and carrying out his duties as a commit-teeman, so caring for Mr. Reed would fall to her. Ben did not ask for her agreement. He assumed she would consent.
It was unsurprising, but a bit disappointing. Of course she would have agreed to help Mr. Reed. But the fact that she hadn't been consulted rankled, just the tiniest bit.
Maybe it was because, as one of the committeemen, Ben needed to make a quick decision so the wagon train could move out for the day, under the guide Sam Weston's direction.
Or maybe it was because her siblings had come to rely on her without having to ask. That was a family blessing. And also a pain.
Her brother and sister were the only people with whom Emma's natural timidness didn't manifest itself. Most of the time. Sometimes, she still felt she couldn't speak up, even to them.
In the safety of her journal, Emma wished she could find her backbone. Had she gotten in the habit of being so very quiet at her father's bedside that now no one listened?
Sometimes she feared her voice would fade away completely. That no one would hear her or see her at all.
Ben returned and reached out a hand to draw her up from where she knelt next to Mr. Reed. "They've agreed to stay the verdict until he recovers. I've sent Cavanaugh to bring a stretcher."
She stood, her eyes lingering on Nathan, his dark head lolled to the side. "Where will he stay?"
"With Abby's family."
She opened her mouth to argue, but Miles Cavanaugh and two other men arrived and Ben was distracted with helping roll Mr. Reed onto the canvas draped over two long poles.
Ben's fiancée was Abigail Bingham Black. They had been sweethearts years before, until circumstancesand Abby's motherhad driven them apart. Widowed and back in her parents' household, Abby had been on the wagon train and she and Ben had reconnected. And fallen in love all over again.
Mr. Bingham had had trouble driving the oxen and Nathan Reed had arrived in the wagon train as a hired driver. With no wagon of his own, she knew he'd slept in the open air most of the time. But that wasn't an option now.
If the disease followed the same course it had with the children, he would be incapacitated with fever and weakness for a day or more. And remembering the glimpse Emma had had of the interior of the Binghams' wagon revealed the difficulty Ben hadn't thought of; their wagon had been overstuffed with all the things Abby's now-deceased mother hadn't wanted to leave behind.
She trailed the men carrying the still-unconscious Mr. Reed through the bustling camp. Women doused their cookfires, men harnessed oxen, children ran among the lot, all in anticipation of the call to ride out. They all worked with intent.
Was it only Emma who felt as lacking in direction as a puff of dandelion blowing in the wind? She needed to find her purpose again. For so long, her purpose had been caring for her father. Praying, hoping, believing that one day he would recover.
After his death, she'd been lost, drifting. Until she'd found the orphanage in the town nearest to their ranch, a small affair that had been run by one very motivated woman. And Emma had believed she'd found a new purpose.
Until the day her brother had come into the house, waving Grayson's letter. Ben and Rachel had been so excited about the trip, about leaving behind the difficult memories. About starting a new life.
But Emma hadn't been sure.
And she'd hesitated too long to mention that she didn't want to go West. Once plans were made, she hadn't felt she could broach the subject, not without sounding selfish and petty.
Her own fault. Now where was she to find a purpose? Was it possible that she could find it with a family of her own?
Her eldest brother, Grayson, had written of the widowed local sheriff, Tristan McCullough, who had become his close friend in the Oregon Territory. Tristan had three young daughters who needed a mother. Both Grayson and Ben seemed in agreement that the man was a match for Emma.
She wasn't entirely convinced that this was her purpose, even if her brothers seemed to be certain. She would wait until she met the man before she decided what to do.
Unanswered questions swirled in Emma's head as she trailed the men carting Mr. Reed to their wagon, but the biggest remained: Where would Mr. Reed stay? Obviously, he couldn't walk to guide the Binghams' oxen.
Lacy Williams 17
And from what she knew of Abby's wagon, there wasn't room for a mouse, much less a man as tall as Mr. Reed.
Ben had made himself Mr. Reed's caretaker when he'd stood up for the ill man. Would Benand Emma by associationbe forced to keep Mr. Reed in the Hewitts' wagon? If he must stay in their wagon, the precious little privacy she fought for on this dusty wilderness trail would be gone.
When they arrived at the family campsite, Rachel and Abby were there, packing up the breakfast dishes.
"What happened?" Abby asked, moving toward Ben, almost as if by instinct.
"We need to clear a space in your family's wagon," Ben told his fiancée. "Reed fell sickmeasles."
"Will there be room ?" Abby's question trailed off as she moved with the men toward the Binghams' wagon. Emma remained near the fire with Rachel.
"Did the committee reach a verdict?"
Emma shook her head slightly. "He collapsed. Ben demanded they hold the verdict until he is recovered."
Rachel watched Emma carefully. "You don't think he is guilty?"
Her sister saw too much. They had always been close. But Emma did have one secretthat she hadn't wanted to come West at all.
She shrugged, moving to pick up the breakfast skillet to take it to the family wagon. "Even if he is guilty, he deserves to be treated fairly. No man deserves to be left in the wilderness to die."
A shiver raced through her, just thinking about it.
"That's his punishment? How utterly unfair!" Rachel was a passionate personand much more outspoken than Emma.