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Ruthann Gordon has disappeared.
Swept away by powerful circumstances beyond her control, Ruthann awakens in a place far removed from what she has ever known. Terrified and alone, fate guides her path to people she is certain she has never met, but somehow knows.
?Marshall Rawley has also vanished from his hometown of Jalesville, Montana, and there has been no word for months. Trapped in the wild and dangerous past, Ruthann discovers truths she never imagined - and begins to understand her role in saving not only her family, but the family of the man she loves more than her own life.
About the Author
Abbie Williams' love of the outdoors, changing seasons, and steamy romance is exactly why she is addicted to writing a saga about the lives and loves of a family of women who live on a Minnesota lake. When not curled over her keyboard, you can find her listening to bluegrass music and hanging out lakeside near her home of Rochester MN.
Read an Excerpt
Unable to breathe, I floundered, ripping at my face to tear away the blanket covering it, only to encounter nothing but emptiness. I screamed so hard my throat was shredded, I tasted blood, but no sound met my ears. There was only a pulsing pressure that threatened to shatter the curved boundaries of my skull, the sound of an unforgiving January wind streaking across the frozen surface of a shrouded lake.
Though the words were incomplete in my mind, the sense of them hovered somewhere near –
I was insubstantial, not so much a physical body as a rush of air. I hurtled motionlessly through open space, the way you would feel as a stationary passenger in a fast-moving airplane, a soap bubble, a husk, as fragile as an eggshell emptied of its liquid contents.
Dear God, help me!
I clung to the one name that had brought me back twice before, had pulled me from the brink of this empty, echoing terror. Need for him was stronger than my fear; need inundated my hollow body.
Marshall! Please hear me, Marshall!
But this time, I was not returned.
I became conscious in splintered fragments. Sharp points of light darted into my mind and then away, carrying bits of awareness. For a time I fought full consciousness. At last I could no longer resist and squinted at the blinding brilliance. Sunlight stuck fingers down my eye sockets.
I attempted to sit; it didn't take long to understand I was incapable.
"Help ... please, help me ..."
The words rasped against my paper-dry throat. My tongue felt three times its usual size, a flopping cartoon tongue. Instinct led me to curl around the pain in an attempt to center it; this motion sent agony exploding like small, powerful firecrackers attached to my nerves. Tears stung the rims of my eyes. My shaking hands encountered the source before my brain stumbled to the same conclusion – broken ribs. I whimpered, unable to help it.
I let my eyelids sink, not caring in that moment if I died.
Night was a cloak anchoring my body to the earth. I lay with shoulder blades flat against the ground, unable to shift to another position. For an unknown reason – or maybe many unknown reasons, I couldn't begin to guess, not just now – I was outside and all sensory evidence suggested it was not in fact wintertime, even though the last memory I was able to conjure through the vice grip of physical pain involved heaping snow, and ice, and sadness –
"No," I begged, shying away from whatever the memory contained.
I was an unchained prisoner, trapped on the ground, surrounded by empty land and chilly night air, hearing what seemed like every cricket within fifty miles sawing a tuneless, repetitive chorus. My skin rippled with goosebumps and was blistered by mosquito bites, my limbs jittering with cold. I had no idea where I was. My body hurt so much I was certain I would be dead before morning and still it didn't come close to rivaling the gouging ache in my heart.
Just go, I begged the memory. Please, just go ...
A deep, gruff voice demanded, "What in God's name?"
Heavy rumbling and the clinking of metal links invaded my ears, sounds I could not place into context. But then there was the unmistakable whoosh of a horse exhaling through its nostrils. Seconds after that I heard stomping hooves.
It was daylight once again.
A second voice, younger than the first, exclaimed, "Why, it's a woman!"
"Jump down, boy, quick!"
"A woman, lying right here in the grass!"
"Quit flapping your jaws and get to her. Is the poor thing dead?"
Running footsteps approached and I sensed someone kneeling near my head. I heard the dry crackle of grass stalks and a shadow fell over my face, at once blocking the hammer of midday sun. The smell of an unwashed body hit my nose with enough force that I cringed away, groaning. The man connected to the voice and the smell placed his fingertips on my neck, gently probing for a pulse. He called, "She's alive!"
His voice was immediately closer to my face. "Miss? Can you hear me?" When I couldn't manage to respond or open my eyes, he persisted, "Miss! You're hurt. Can you hear me?"
My head rolled weakly to one side and I felt a hard-textured palm cup my forehead; the touch was light and gentle but brought the strong odor of him closer to my nose. I gagged.
Another person knelt on the ground, with considerable grunting, and addressed me. "Here now, little lady, you'll be right as the rain." This second voice, though low and rough, was reassuring.
My eyelids cracked to a slit and I saw the two shapes silhouetted against a fiery-blue sky. One was an enormous, hulking figure, the second a much leaner man; both wore hats with wide brims. Had either meant me harm, there wasn't a thing I could have done in my present state. My eyelids sank; I was too exhausted to keep them open.
"Miss, I'll help you take water," the younger voice instructed. He cradled the back of my head and brought the rim of something to my mouth; even though I couldn't see him, his gentle touch conveyed sincere concern. Water dribbled between my lips, wetting my swollen tongue. I was so grateful that tears burned my closed eyes. I coughed and choked, but a trickle of lukewarm liquid slid down my throat.
"There now," he murmured. "Take a little more, if you can."
He waited until I had swallowed another mouthful before lowering my head; he kept his hand beneath it as a buffer against the hard ground.
The other man, the one with the gruff voice, spoke up. "You don't feel fevered, little lady, but your forehead's been struck bloody and you're bruised something terrible. I won't hurt you, I'm just gonna feel along your side."
I groaned, even though his touch along my ribs was lighter than powder. Pleading sounds rolled from my ragged throat.
"She's hurt real bad," he muttered to the younger man. "Miss, me and the boy'll lift you into our wagon and get you somewheres safe. Will you let us do that?"
I managed one jerking bob of my chin as affirmation. Together they lifted me from the ground and if I hadn't been so dehydrated I would have sobbed; as it was, I could only manage pitiful little huffs of breath. They carried me with great care, I was aware of this, but it was still almost unbearable; finally they deposited me in the open back of a wagon, onto rough wooden boards that scraped against my torn clothes and elbows.
"You rest, miss," the younger one said, climbing in the wagon, careful not to jostle the cramped space. He situated himself on my left side, settling beside my prone body. "You're a bit sunburnt but I'll make sure you don't get no more sun."
I wanted to thank him, I really did. But I could not make my tongue work.
"My name is Axton Douglas, miss, and that there is my uncle, Branch Douglas, right over there." He spoke companionably, as if we were old friends. "We'll take care of you, don't you worry." He shifted, wagon boards creaking. "Here, you need more water."
He helped me again to drink and his touch was tender. He smelled terrible; I could only guess that he hadn't bathed in weeks, but he and his uncle had saved me from the likelihood of a slow, painful death on the ground, and therefore I was in no position to complain. The wagon jerked and clanked as the uncle climbed aboard in order to drive the horses. I groaned, aware of things in spotty patches. We lurched forward.
Axton said, "There's lots of bumps on the trail, miss, I'm sorry," and so saying he edged closer, aligning his leg with my left side, resting one hand on my forehead in order to keep it as still as possible.
"Gidd-up," the man named Branch commanded and the wagon began rolling along.
"Careful," Axton cautioned.
"I can't smooth the way none," Branch said, with clear apology.
"I know," Axton allowed. I sensed a natural curiosity mingling with his concern. He asked quietly, "What's your name?"
But I slipped beneath a blanket of unconsciousness.
"Wake up, miss, you need more water," someone murmured.
His body odor was smothering and I could not move away from it – though, oddly, his breath, which I could feel on my eyelids as he bent near, wasn't unpleasant. Even so, I tried to breathe through my mouth rather than my nose so his lack of deodorant and soap wasn't so potent. My torso ached and my temples were squeezed by a throbbing headband, but I was not as thirsty. My tongue felt normal-sized again. I remained flat on my spine.
It was sunset and we were rumbling over bumps along uneven ground. As I opened my eyes I beheld a wide expanse of sky, all the blue heat of earlier washed away and now tinted a creamy violet. The air felt dry and cool. The younger man riding in the back of the wagon with me – he had told me his name but I could not remember it – was still bracing my body with an outstretched leg, studying me in the gathering dusk. I guessed him to be somewhere in his late teens. His hair was shaggy against the backdrop of the sky; he'd shed his hat.
"How're you feeling?" he asked, bending toward me. "You been asleep all afternoon. We'll be into town in less than an hour, now."
"A little better," I mumbled. "What's your name again? I don't remember ..."
"Axton Douglas." He sounded cheerful; his teeth flashed in a grin. "And that's my uncle, Branch Douglas."
"Thank you," I whispered.
"What's your name?" He was clearly eager to learn. "What happened to you? How'd you come to be alone by the trail, with no wagon or horses about? I been wondering about you all this long afternoon."
"Boy, let her be!" his uncle commanded; from my supine position I couldn't see anything but the older man's head and bulky shoulders. Branch sounded affectionately irritated, a tone I knew well. A tone I had heard many, many times before. Wasn't that how ...
Wasn't that just exactly how ...
Something is so wrong ...
My mind, half-deranged with exhausted pain, would not assemble together well enough to finish this thought.
"But what's your name, miss?" Axton pressed.
I wanted to answer this question. I knew my name – it was there, somewhere, I knew it was. Tears blurred my vision along with frustration and fear. I struggled through a muddy mental swamp of sounds and images, unable to pull forth the right answer.
"I don't know," I whispered miserably.
"She's been hurt bad," Branch was telling someone. "Poor little thing soiled herself, too."
I had, and was sick with embarrassment over this fact, but there was nothing to be done. Branch had halted the wagon only a minute ago, before lifting me into his huge arms and climbing wide steps to enter a building; he carried me like a baby, my head cradled against his massive chest, and the smell of his leather garments was so strong I could hardly bear to inhale. I heard the sounds of conversation, laughter, and clinking glasses from somewhere nearby; I was too embarrassed to open my eyes.
"Lord above, take her upstairs," a woman ordered. Her voice was low-pitched and rough, like a heavy smoker's. "I can only just imagine the story behind this one." There was a pause before she purred, "Axton Douglas, just look at you. You get any more handsome and my girls'll skin them britches right off of you. You best watch yourself in here." She laughed, her tone full of crude suggestion.
"Dammit, Rilla, leave him be," Branch ordered. "He's just a boy."
"He ain't a boy. He's a man, you old blind turkey." I felt the woman's touch on my cheek. Her wrist smelled of musky perfume.
"Ax, go fetch Doc Turn," Branch said.
"Doc's drunk," Axton replied, and I imagined him shrugging. "I seen him outside The Forked Hoof as we came down Main."
The woman chimed in again, rife with impatience. "Go and fetch him anyway! Celia, come with me. Where in the name of Jezebel did you find this beat-up gal, Branch?"
"A dozen or so miles from town, near the creek bottom. Damn near rolled the wagon over her. She was lying beside the trail." Branch spoke as he carried me up a flight of stairs; I cringed at the clunky motion. My pants were wet with urine but Branch held me securely. The quality of the light on my eyelids changed, becoming soft; the lights downstairs must have been brighter. Up here, it was dim.
Open your eyes, I thought, but instead they rolled backward into my skull.
Somehow, the pain had been erased.
I hovered just a few inches from the ceiling, suspended effortlessly, watching events unfold in the little room just below. I saw my naked body lying on a narrow bed; a nightstand was positioned nearby, on top of which was a small, brown-glass bottle. Two women worked over me, dipping rags in a basin of water between them, washing my skin. One of my legs was bent, the bottom of my foot touching the inside of the opposite knee. My head was limp, tilted to the side so that I could only see one of my closed eyes, unpleasantly cast in gray shadows. My hands lay lax, the undersides of my wrists pale in the candlelight, streaked with blue veins. My hair was tangled and scattered across the pillow.
I looked dead.
Who you suppose beat these bruises into her? One of the women skimmed her fingers over my forehead and downward along my ribcage.
She ain't been beat, the other disagreed. Looks like a fall.
The one touching me let her fingertips glide across my belly, a gentle caress. The touch provoked images that blazed through my mind with all the force of a beating – but I welcomed these sensations as I had never welcomed anything.
C'mere, angel, and let me kiss your lips. His husky, loving voice poured over me with the sweetness of honey; hovering there near the ceiling, I jolted to life. My desperate gaze flew around the room, seeking the man attached to that voice.
Which lips, exactly? I heard my teasing response, my easy laughter, and felt him beneath my hands, the warm strength of his naked body as I fit myself against its length.
You tell me which, he murmured, kissing my neck, caressing my breasts with knowing fingers.
Both, of course. I shivered with heated delight.
I love you, Ruthann, oh God, I love you. I can't do without you. Tell me you know that, angel.
I know it, sweetheart. I could taste his kisses, could feel them all the way to my center. I love you, too. I love you with all my heart. Don't go –
Desperation slammed my senses. He was dissolving from my grasp. My arms were clutched around nothing.
No! Oh God, no, please don't leave me here!
But he was already gone.
The next time I became conscious I was in the bed rather than hovering over it. A curtain of mist hazed my vision, as though someone had applied cellophane to my eyeballs. Two women hovered behind a man sitting on the mattress near my left hip. The man was elderly and bearded; he wore little round glasses and smelled like a nasty barroom floor. He cleared his throat and ordered, Every hour or so, another dose.
We'll need a fresh bottle in that case, one of the women said.
It ain't for you. Give it to this here girl. There was open disgust in his tone.
I just had me a taste, the woman replied, sounding sullen.
He muttered, Whores'll be whores.
I had no desire to be here so I closed my eyes and floated away.
Day and night seemed to swirl together; I was reminded of cake batter being stirred, a continuous incorporation of the liquids into the powders, a creamy whirl of flowing time. When the twirling sensation finally ebbed I could smell the sweetness of vanilla extract and melting sugar grains; I stood quietly, watching as an older woman with plump, freckled arms and a long, gray braid hanging over her shoulder used a whisk in a yellow bowl. She smiled down at me with love, resting a hand on my cheek.
She said, Just a taste now, little Ruthie.
On the other side of wide windows, a blue lake gleamed under bright midday sunshine.
Two curly-haired girls, both older than me, caught my hands in theirs, swinging me over each crack in a well-used parking lot. They made a game of it, laughing and exclaiming, lifting me as high as they were able. I studied their faces with awe. Their eyes seemed to glow, one with a shimmering golden-green light, the other such a dazzling blue I could hardly look straight at her.
I stumbled, losing my grasp as though my hands had suddenly melted, and fell to the ground. Blood seeped from my knees. Bits of gravel grew sticky with blood, clinging to the gashes in my skin.
I cried at the sight, tears hot on my cheeks.
Excerpted from "The Way Back"
Copyright © 2018 Abbie Williams.
Excerpted by permission of Central Avenue Marketing Ltd..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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