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About the Author
Rexanne Becnel is the author of more than twenty historical romance and contemporary mainstream novels, many of which appeared on the USA Today bestseller list. With the publication of her first novel, My Gallant Enemy, Becnel won the Waldenbooks Award for Best First-Time Romance Author and the Romantic Times Award for Best Medieval Romance by a New Author. While growing up, Becnel lived for a time in Germany and England, where she became fascinated by medieval history. After studying architecture at the University of Southwestern Louisiana, she worked as a building inspector for the Vieux Carré Commission, the agency of the City of New Orleans charged with protecting and preserving the distinct architectural and historic character of the French Quarter. Becnel lives in New Orleans with her husband and two children.
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When Lightning Strikes
By Rexanne Becnel
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1995 Rexanne Becnel
All rights reserved.
St. Joseph, Missouri April 19, 1855
Morgan. How she hated having to go by the last name Morgan.
Abigail Bliss stared gloomily across the brown, churning waters of the Missouri River and beyond, to the rolling plains of the Kansas Territory. Everything was brown. The dried grasses, the few trees, the mud. The water. Even the sky, cold and heavy, threatening rain—or maybe sleet—was dark and muddy-looking. Until the wild prairie grasses began to grow, providing forage for the animals, the wagon train was going nowhere.
Maybe this year the grass wouldn't turn green at all and they wouldn't be able to go. But Abby knew that was a foolish hope. With a resigned sigh she moved nearer the bluff, braving the icy wind that raced across the endless, unobstructed plains. She clutched her blue broadcloth skirt and muslin apron with one hand as she peered down at the activity below. Wagons lined up along the banks of the rushing water, a long ribbon of white canvas covers, waiting to be ferried across.
The entire world appeared to be waiting on the banks of the Missouri River. People from Iowa and Illinois, from Missouri and Indiana, and even farther east. Everyone was waiting for the river to go down, the muddy ground to firm up, and the prairies to turn green. Only then would they swim the stock and ferry the wagons across. And so everyone in St. Joe just had to bide their time.
Abby turned her back on the river and the biting wind—and the territory beyond. She'd grudgingly reconciled herself to the fact that they were making the long trek to the Oregon Territory, but she didn't pretend to like it, nor to understand one thing about her father's desperate urge to get going. His insistence that they go by the name Morgan made absolutely no sense to her; at times she thought he was crazy. Today especially she was hard-pressed to be charitable toward him, for he'd sold her beloved pet, Becky, this morning, the pony he'd given her on her tenth birthday. He'd sold the pony to get an extra brace of oxen, as the wagon master had advised.
If it weren't for Tillie and Snitch, she would be completely alone.
Abby removed her precious paper tablet from her apron pocket, then found a protected spot and sat down. She pulled out one of her two graphite pencils and absently checked the point.
Tillie and Snitch. She'd decided to make this story longer than her previous ones, aimed at slightly older children. Perhaps an adventure. She opened the tablet to the first page, where she'd drawn her two mouse characters. Tillie was delicate with tiny gray paws and pink-tinged nose and ears. Snitch was always trying to protect her, even when she didn't need it. He was big and strong, and sometimes clumsy. But he looked out for her.
A shout wafted up from the river below, but Abby deliberately shut it out and pursed her lips in concentration. Then she smiled, caught up as always in one of the fanciful tales she'd been spinning since she was a child. What if Tillie and Snitch decided to go west? What if the family Tillie lived with decided to leave Rose Hill Farm? Maybe Tillie decided to go, too, and Snitch ... Snitch couldn't bear to say good-bye to her. The big lug. When was he going to realize that he loved her?
"Where have you been?"
Abby winced at her father's sharp tone. Although Robert Bliss had always been stern, he'd tempered it with love. Lately, though, his patience had grown short and his tone curt. More often then not, his ill humor was directed at her.
"Abigail. I asked you a question."
"Yes, Papa. I'm sorry. I should have told you that I planned to take a walk. See the sights."
"Alone? You wandered the streets of this uncouth town alone?"
When her father used that tone of offended morality, Abby inevitably felt like an errant child. Though she very nearly matched him in height, it was all she could do to remind herself that she was twenty now, not twelve.
"I went up to the bluffs," she explained, burying her resentment beneath the mien of a dutiful daughter. "I was alone and completely safe—"
"This is not Lebanon, Missouri." Then her father sighed and rubbed his balding pate. "You're young. You do not comprehend how immoral this world can be. How godless and truly diabolical some people are."
"Nothing happened, Papa." Abby put a hand on his arm, searching for the father who used not to scold so severely, for the man he was before her mother—his beloved Margaret—had died. "I went up to the bluffs—you know the spot. I looked west across the Missouri and the prairies toward Oregon."
He stared at her with eyes just like her own, changeable eyes that veered from green to hazel to brown. Now they were a dark, indistinct color. "You went up there to write, no doubt."
Abby smiled a little. He was softening. "Yes. I admit I did. I've decided that Tillie and Snitch are going to take a trip on a wagon train."
He snorted as if in disgust. But beneath his newly grown mustache, his lips curved in the beginning of a smile. "You'd do better to read from the Scriptures. Or at least the classics." He gestured with the book in his hand, a well-read copy of The Odyssey, and shook his head. "Two mice."
"I study my Bible every night, Papa. You know that. And when have you ever needed to encourage me to read?"
"Yes, but what you read. Frivolous stories." He cocked one bushy gray brow at her. But then he patted her arm. "You're a good daughter, Abigail."
They made a peaceful meal and evening of it after that. In the two and a half months since they'd left their home in Lebanon, Abby had become quite adept at cooking from the back of a wagon. Her father always built the fire while she set up the plank table that swung out from the side of the wagon. While water heated in a cast-iron pot propped up in the fire, she made biscuits, sliced potatoes, carrots, onions, and ham for a soup; and ground a handful of coffee beans.
"Captain Peters announced that our company leaves within the week," Robert said once Abby had cleared his emptied plate from the table. He took out his pipe, packed it with tobacco, then waited as Abby lit a twisted straw switch and brought it to him. He puffed three times before the tobacco caught. While he leaned back to enjoy his evening smoke, she scraped the plates clean, gathered the utensils, cups, and pots, then folded the table back.
"Sit down a minute before you attend to the dishes," he said, gesturing to the chair opposite his.
Abby didn't wait to be told twice. She was tired through and through. Living out of a wagon was hard, though she knew that wasn't the entire reason. She'd cooked and cleaned and done laundry and all the other household chores ever since she'd been old enough to be of any help. And for the past three years she'd taught school as well. No, it wasn't the work that made her so weary. It was her father and his secrecy. The not knowing.
From the day her mother had taken ill, her father had changed. For all his sternness—his schoolmaster's demeanor—Robert Bliss had loved his wife completely. Only now did Abby recognize how her mother had softened him and brought out the gentleness in him. But when Margaret Bliss had died last fall, he'd begun to change. Still, it hadn't gotten bad until four months ago. He'd received a letter. That's all she knew. Ever since then he'd been obsessed with moving west. First California. Now Oregon.
He'd uprooted them from their cozy little cottage behind the schoolhouse in Lebanon. He'd sold everything in order to stock their wagon for the lengthy trip. But he'd refused to explain a thing to her. It was that fixed silence that wore at her the most. That and the fact that he insisted they go by the name Morgan.
The last time she'd questioned him had been the worst. He'd brought the new wagon home and told her to begin packing. "But why? Why?" she'd asked, consumed by an unaccustomed anger. "Why must we leave our home?"
When he'd remained silently obstinate on the subject, her anger had dissolved into a bitter grief. "If we have to leave here, must we go so far? Surely there are relatives somewhere? I know you have none, but surely Mama must have someone. Distant cousins. Uncles or aunts."
"There is no one. No one!" he'd shouted, going from determined silence to a raging fury in the blink of an eye. Abby had been cowed by the intensity of his reaction. Since then she'd been careful of her words, fearful of rousing him to that frightening pitch of anger.
But tonight he was more mellow than he'd been in weeks, and she resolved to enjoy it.
"There was a lot of activity along the riverbank today," she said. "Dozens of wagons are already lining up to cross."
"Captain Peters informed me that our company shall make the crossing upstream from here. We'll assemble tomorrow at daybreak, seventy-two wagons strong. We'll camp at a spot he has selected, then begin the actual crossing—perhaps as soon as Monday. He expects it will take several days for the entire company of wagons and stock to make their way across."
He puffed a few minutes and the fragrant tobacco smoke reminded Abby of the peaceful evenings they used to share at home. In the cold spring night a hundred campfires glowed around them, spread out in the dark fields that surrounded the village of St. Joe. Lumped together, the several wagon-train companies were very like a small city, she thought. A gathering of people set to move their entire community, lock, stock, and barrel, to the other end of the continent. When she thought of it like that, it seemed a glorious sort of adventure, one she anticipated gladly.
"The good Reverend Harrison has wisely elected to join with our company."
Abby paused in the process of unwinding two thick plaits that formed a gleaming coronet at the back of her head. "How nice," she murmured. "I'm sure the Oregon Territory can use as many preachers as possible. Sarah Lewis tells me it's a rough and rowdy place."
Her father removed the pipe from his mouth. "He's taken quite a fancy to you, Abigail. He was prepared to travel with Captain Smythe's company to California. But he's altered his plans, strictly on account of you."
Abby shot her father a wary look. She had been afraid of this, but she forced herself to continue combing her fingers through the dark chestnut length of her hair. "Did he actually say that? Or did you surmise it?"
"He respectfully requested my permission to call on you. What else should I surmise?"
She stared across the softly hissing embers to where her father sat, dimly outlined by the faint firelight. "And how did you answer him?"
"I granted him my permission of course—unless you have some very strenuous reason to object. But he's a proper gentleman, Abigail. Pious. Well read. Just the sort to make you a good husband." When she didn't respond right away, he leaned forward, his elbows on his knees. "Well, daughter? Have you nothing to say?"
Abby pushed her heavy hair behind her shoulders, then rubbed her cold, chapped hands together, trying vainly to get them warm. She picked her words carefully. "While I am sure the Reverend Harrison will make someone a very good husband, I just don't think it will be me."
Her father straightened. "And why is that?" he demanded in a belligerent tone.
"Well." Abby thought a moment. "He is pleasant and well spoken but ... but he simply does not appeal to me in that way."
He snorted contemptuously. "I take that to mean he doesn't make your heart pound faster every time you see him."
She averted her eyes, hiding behind the long fringe of her sable lashes. How embarrassing to discuss such things with her father. "Well, I suppose that's one way to describe it."
He took a few silent puffs on his pipe. When he spoke again, his voice was gentler. "You hardly know the man."
That was true. Yet somehow Abby was certain that made no difference. Getting to know him would not change things at all.
"You're past the age when most girls marry," he continued in a reasonable tone.
"I thought you wanted me to be a teacher. I thought you wanted me to help you establish a school in Oregon. If I marry, I'll hardly have time to teach."
He didn't answer that, and Abby felt a little better. It wasn't that she was opposed to marriage. Quite the opposite. But her parents had loved each other. It had been obvious to everyone who knew them. She wanted that sort of marriage too.
"I think I'll tend to these dishes, then turn in," she said, wanting to end this conversation. She rose to her feet and reached for the water bucket.
"Yes, you do that. But Abigail," he added, halting her before she could leave, "I would like you to consider Reverend Harrison just the same. He's a fine, upstanding young man. As a reverend's wife you'd be well respected."
"Papa." She hesitated, then decided just to plunge in. "Mama told me once that she loved you from the first moment she laid eyes on you."
He went rigid at her words, and she instantly regretted bringing up the subject of her mother. But whatever emotions he felt, he hid behind a stern tone. "Mrs. Bliss may have loved me from the first, but my initial impression of her was of a prissy, useless young thing."
Abby's mouth gaped open, so shocked was she by his disclosure. "Mama? Prissy? How could you have ever thought that of her?"
"Because I didn't know her then," he bit out. "Because I made a hasty judgment about her. I have thanked the Lord every day of my life since then that He thrust us together again and granted me the opportunity to know her better. To love her."
His point was painfully clear, and anyway Abby was too dumbfounded by his revelation to speak. Her mother had revealed very little of her early life. Her father had revealed even less. To hear now that their first meeting had not been magical ...
"Will you consent to see him, Abigail?"
Though it was termed as a question, Abby knew his words were more a command. She was not in the habit of ignoring his commands.
"Yes, Papa," she answered softly. "I will see the Reverend Harrison."
Robert Bliss's heart filled with misgivings as he watched his daughter walk away. The trek to Oregon was not enough, he'd come to realize. No, marriage to the right sort of man was the best insurance he had. The best way to protect his Abby girl. And who better than a young and idealistic preacher?
He returned his pipe to his lips, then sighed when he sucked and the bowl was cold. Every joint in his body seemed to protest when he squatted beside the dying campfire to light a bit of kindling.
Their journey to the Oregon Territory would be a test of his endurance, but he was resolved not to fail. He would cross the burning sands barefoot if necessary, anything to save Abigail from his father-in-law, Willard Hogan. Twenty-one years and the man had not changed at all. Still arrogant. Still greedy. Still determined to control the lives of his family. Well, he'd not controlled Margaret. Robert had seen to that. And he would not control his granddaughter either.
Robert sat back with his relit pipe and puffed until the tobacco was well caught. Willard Hogan had opposed the marriage of his only child to a pious schoolteacher. A poor schoolteacher. In truth Robert had thought Margaret Hogan just a bit of pretty fluff, without a thought in her head beyond expensive clothes, late-night dances, and endless socializing. Willard Hogan had seen his beautiful daughter as a prize to be awarded to the man who could most help Willard further his business interests. But Margaret had possessed a pure soul and a sharp mind. Once Robert had realized that, there'd been nothing for him to do but marry her.
But Hogan had tried to stop them. He'd taken Margaret to New York, Boston, and Philadelphia, shown her a glamorous time, and hoped thereby to discourage her affections for Robert. Ah, but the man had never appreciated what a jewel he'd had in Margaret, Robert smiled to remember. Margaret had come back to Chicago, more sure than ever that she wished to marry her poor-schoolteacher beau. That was when Willard Hogan had made his mistake. In a rage he'd threatened to disinherit Margaret. He'd been so sure that would make her back down. But he'd underestimated her, as always.
Robert and Margaret had wed in secret. When she'd written her father a week later, hoping to make amends, her letter had been returned unopened. Sweet Margaret had been heartbroken by her father's cruel insistence on always having his own way.
Excerpted from When Lightning Strikes by Rexanne Becnel. Copyright © 1995 Rexanne Becnel. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Could not put this book down strong female character great plot twists wonderful rugged hero strong character depiction with inciteful depiction of the struggles of youth love it when true love wins over all in the end but it sure keeps you guessing
Dangerous Western Romance When I first received When Lightning Strikes by Rexanne Becnel to review for the Retro Readers program from Open Road Media, I wasn’t too excited to read this western romance. However as soon as I started this novel, I could not put it down. This novel captivates the reader from the very beginning and you are left hoping the outcome you are rooting for will finally happen. When Lightning Strikes progresses at such a pace that you are not disappointed and left wanting more because it ended too quickly but you are left happy at the end at how all the strings were tied nicely together. Abigail Morgan is confused when she finds herself travelling in a wagon company on the Oregon Trail with her father shortly after her mother passed away. She is even more confused by it because her father is acting strangely and they had to change their identities; no one could know her real name is Abigail Bliss. When she finds herself attracted to Tanner McKnight, who is nothing more than a hired gunman, she finds everything in her world changing. Tanner, who was hired by Abby’s grandfather to bring her to Chicago, kidnaps Abby and they begin the long and dangerous journey to Chicago. Who is this mysterious grandfather Abby never knew about? Will Abby and Tanner make it safely to Chicago? What will happen once they get there? Abby is a strong willed woman, who wants what she wants and isn’t afraid to go for it, which I found to be a very endearing quality for this time period. This novel also has a story within a story with Abby’s stories about two mice, Tillie and Snitch, which parallel her and Tanner. Even if you do not like historical westerns, I recommend trying out this well written novel of survival and romance.