Book 7 in the Willow Creek Series
Historical Western Romance
Released: April 2017
Hiding from a future she doesn’t want…
When the new blacksmith in town announces they are to be married, Alexandra Avery does what any bride with cold feet would do. She disobeys her father, dresses in mens clothing, and sneaks away with the cattle drive he just sent east to avoid the inevitable. Little does she know, Jesse Samuels, the annoying boy who made her childhood nearly unbearable is the new trail boss and calling the shots. How will she ever survive being bossed around by him for the next two months?
Handed what he’s coveted the most…
Entrusted with over seeing a cattle drive for the Avery Ranch is exactly what Jesse Samuels needed, especially after hearing Alexandra Avery, the girl he spent the last ten years of his life planning a future with is now engaged. He regrets not staying and fighting for her until he finds her stowed away pretending to be one of the crew. When the other cowboys realize there’s a woman amongst them, his protective instincts kick in. His plan to send her home is thwarted at every turn so he does the only thing he can to ensure her safety. He drags her kicking and screaming to the altar and marries her.
Will love be enough to bind them…
Alexandra and Jesse have always had a love-hate relationship but when the dangers of the open trail take a turn that could cost them their lives, they have to put aside their differences to keep everyone safe. Will the truce be enough to show them what everyone else has always known? Or will they lose each other forever?
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Alexandra Avery’s body flew from the seat, her head slamming into the wall of the stagecoach so hard bright flashes of light blinked before her eyes. She shook her head, then cursed under her breath when she bounced again, closing her eyes as the other passengers screamed. The sound echoed in the small space, the noise—along with the head-jarring impact with the wall—caused streaks of white-hot searing pain to crawl inside her skull. The coppery taste of blood filled her mouth as she bit her tongue and she turned to the window, leaned out the opening and spit. She could only imagine what her pa would say to that unladylike display.
Pete, the stagecoach driver yelled a string of words no lady should be subjected to. Growing up around cowpokes and saddle-bums on the Avery Ranch, she’d heard worse and leaned further out the window to see what they hit. “You getting too old to drive this thing, Pete?”
He barked out a few rude words, then jumped to the ground. “Mind your manners, missy.” He gave her a cheeky grin before walking to the back of the stagecoach. “Damn,” he said. “I knew that wheel wasn’t going to make it.”
Alex opened the door and climbed down, regretting the decision the moment her feet touched the ground. The fancy silk boots her stepmother insisted she wears sank in two inches of mud, the hem of her dress dragging through the murky water before she could snatch it up. “Damnation. A week’s worth of washing won’t get that out.” She blew out a breath and looked at Pete. He was staring at the wagon wheel, shaking his head.
She’d spent the entire trip from Missoula so wrapped up in despair her stomach had begun to churn. This little reprieve was just what she needed. A minute to regroup, get her thoughts into order, and to steel her nerves. When the imagine of her father popped back into her head, she groaned.
Her fingernails had been chewed to the quick just imagining his angry face when he realized she not only went out of town without his knowledge but went behind his back to undo all the hard work he’d put in to set right the mistakes she’d made.
The uproar her hasty decision caused would be the talk of the town for sure.
Her internal misery was put aside as Pete cursed again and jerked the hat off his head, slapping it against his leg and dislodging the dust riding along the brim. “I told Frank that wheel wouldn’t last.” He glanced her way. “It’ll take a while to get this fixed.” He straightened and walked her way, his hand outstretched. Alex took it and let him help her from the mud. “We’re not far from Willow Creek,” he said, addressing everyone inside the coach. “Half hours walk, I’d imagine. You want to wait it out here until I get back with someone to fix this or walk in with me?”
There was a moment of silence, then everyone started talking at once. The ladies in the stagecoach were indignant at the thought of walking but the warm spring day had left the stagecoach stifling. A cool breeze would be a welcome comfort after the hours they’d spent cramped inside the coach and Alex didn’t wait for the others to decide before she started for town.
Pete and her traveling companions followed a few moments later. Alex cast a few glances across the prairie as their small party of travelers headed toward Willow Creek. It wasn’t uncommon for an occasional Indian to be spotted in the area and seeing them first would be the difference between getting out alive or being taken. Her aunt Sarah barely survived an Indian attack. Her uncle Colt gave them everything he had on him to keep her, even his horse and best boots.
The walk into town was uneventful unless you counted the complaining of the others in the group. Alex listened to every moan and whimpered complaint with half an ear, her attention on how her family would react when they found out her news.
By the time they reached town, sweat was running in small trickles down her neck to soak the front of her dress. This particular traveling frock had been a mistake. The material clung to her skin and the once pristine lilac silk was now wet, the fabric turning dark purple under her arms and breasts. Her hair was coming unpinned as well and she smelled worse than a cowpoke on a three-day ride.
As usual, the street and wooden sidewalks were filled with people, the hustle and bustle of everyone going about their day filled the air with noise. The squeak of wagon wheels, the heavy sharp ting of the blacksmith’s hammer hitting metal and the voices and laughter she heard were only a small hum compared to that of Missoula. Even though the town had grown over the years, it was nothing compared to the larger communities that surrounded Willow Creek. Two days in Missoula was enough for her to long for the slow shuffle of home.
She glanced toward the school and sighed. The new building was large enough to seat most of the town and doubled as a church on Sunday, but seeing it at the end of town was a constant reminder of how spectacular her past mistakes were. Mistakes she’d never live down if certain people in town had anything to do with it. One such person was looking down her nose at her now. Edna Pierce was marching across the sidewalk, her gate a bouncing clop as she barreled her way forward.
Alex acted as if she didn’t see her and headed across the dirt road that ran through town, ducking behind a wagon when she reached the other side as Edna continued to yell her name. Hiding was undignified but Edna was overbearing on an average day. Now that school was set to start in less than a month, she was even more so.
She took a peak across the street, blowing out a relieved breath when she saw Edna talking with Ellie, the stagecoach station owner. Disaster avoided, she grabbed her skirts and she jumped back onto the sidewalk, realizing her quick escape from Edna only landed her right in front of calamity number two. Hugh Jacobs, the town’s new blacksmith—and, apparently her beau, according to her father—was headed her way. By the look on his face, he’d spotted her.
He smiled as he stopped, his gaze scanning her from head to toe and lingering in certain places longer than she liked. “Run into a bit of trouble?”
She sighed. “You could say that.”
His kind brown eyes shined with amusement. “Well, I hate to bring you more but Edna has been looking for you. She came by the shop earlier asking if I’d seen you.”
Alex glanced across the street to where Edna stood. “I’ve seen her. I managed to get away but I’m sure it won’t be for long.” She turned back to face him and smiled. “Not to be rude but I’d rather her not see me like this so I really need to go.”
“Of course. I didn’t mean to keep you.” He took a step to the left so she could pass and said, “Are you free this evening?”
Her stomach clenched tight. One look at the expectant expression on his face and she knew her father had been right. Hugh was actively courting her. How had she not seen it before now?
He’d caught the eye of more than one young lady since he’d taken up residence in Willow Creek and set up his blacksmith shop. He took notice to her the day she lassoed a runaway pig in the middle of town. He’d been impressed, and amused, and wasted no time approaching her. She’d been flattered and accepted his dinner invitation out of curiosity. He’d always wanted to learn to rope and ride so she’d took it upon herself to teach him. The dinner invitations kept coming after that and she’d kept on accepting. She considered him a friend, after all, and the occasional bouquet of flowers was a sweet gesture but it didn’t mean anything.
Or so she’d thought.
Now that her father had pointed out the obvious, she’d found herself nervous around him. Being courted by Hugh Jacobs wasn’t all that bad a prospect. He was nice looking and kind and he made her laugh on occasion but was she ready to marry and start a family? She was only twenty-three. She had plenty of time yet, didn’t she?
The way Hugh showed up at her door so often told her he may have other plans.
He was still staring at her, waiting for an answer to his invitation. She needed to make a decision where he was concerned. Either she was a willing participant in this courtship or she wasn’t. It wasn’t fair to keep him hanging on if nothing would ever come of it.
She had other things to worry about at the moment and courting and marriage wasn’t one of them. “I need to speak to my father about something so I’m sorry, I’m not free this evening.”
He smiled again but disappointment shadowed his eyes. “All right then. Maybe some other time.”
“Yes. I’ll let you know.” She walked away before he could say more. She breathed a sigh of relief the moment she’d put some distance between them.
What would her life be like married to him? The images her mind conjured weren’t terrible but something seemed—off. The happy feelings she should have felt at having a handsome man as her husband just weren’t there.
Maybe settling down was too new of an idea to embrace. She’d never really thought of it. Well, that wasn’t true. Like most young girls, dreams of a wedding, babies, and a house to call her own filled her childhood fantasies but there was always a problem when it came to the groom so she’d locked those wishes away. Now that she was a grown woman, maybe it was time to think about it again.
Hugh was handsome, had a decent size home, was liked by everyone who knew him and his business was one everyone in town showed up in eventually, even her pa and uncles. As far as marriageable men went, he was on the top of the list for many.
So why was she so reluctant to give in?
She caught her reflection in the storefront window of the mercantile. She stopped and straightened her waistcoat and raised a hand to tuck a few stray curls back into her bonnet.
Her reflection revealed a woman she barely recognized most days. She certainly wasn’t the same girl who ran away from home ten years ago, mad at the world and swearing to anyone who would listen that she wouldn’t be caught dead wearing some prissy dress and carrying on like some giggling debutant. But here she was, primping in front of a store window, worried she looked a mess after traveling all day.
Ten years ago she wouldn’t have cared what people thought but now she was Alexandra Avery, schoolmarm in Willow Creek, and if Hugh Jacobs courting her was any indication of things to come, the future wife of the local blacksmith.
She sneered at her reflection and her thoughts. She hated titles more than being told what to do and marriage wasn’t something she even wanted to think about yet.
Turning away from the window she headed to the school to change her clothes. Not that it mattered much. Once her pa found out what she’d done, her appearance would be the least of her problems.
She mumbled the speech she planned to give him under her breath again. She’d memorized it line for line on the trip back from Missoula. Hopefully, it would be enough to convince him to see things her way for once. She just hoped her nerves held out as she told him what she had to say.
The piano music from the saloon distracted her as she neared it. A few of the girls who worked the rooms upstairs were leaning against the front of the building, smiling and calling out to the men who passed by. That was a new practice that had Edna and the rest of the town council in an uproar. The girls from the saloon never ventured outside when she was younger, preferring instead to linger by the upstairs windows and talk to those on the street from there but like everything else, things change.
She straightened her spine as she passed the first girl. She was young, her blond curls nearly the same color as her own. Her face was painted. Blue above her eyes and pink on her cheeks. The girl looked her over from head to toe then looked away as if bored. Alex did the same.
The noise inside the building was loud as usual. Shouting and boisterous laughter filled the air and she turned her head to take a look inside when she crossed in front of the swinging doors. Her eyes widened the moment she saw a man hurtling toward those same doors, the wood panels swinging open as he stumbled out onto the sidewalk to crash into her. His momentum was enough to carry them both to the edge of the sidewalk.
Alex squealed as she fell backward, the air knocked from her lungs upon impact with the ground. She gasped, staring up at a cloudless blue sky as the voices around her grew louder. When she regained her senses, she was flat on her back on the street with something warm underneath her seeping into her dress and the man who slammed into her sprawled on top of her.
She gritted her teeth and tried pushing him away. “Get off of me,” she said. The words came out in a raspy whisper, the weight of him stealing what little air she managed to fill her lungs with.
Bunching the material of his shirt into her hands, she pushed again, trying to get his attention and realized he was laughing. His heated breath tickled the side of her neck, the rasp of chin whiskers scratched against her skin and when he lifted his head and looked down at her, the smile on his face was familiar.
Recognition came in slow degrees. It did for him too. His green, bloodshot eyes widened in surprise, the smile on his face disappearing before he squinted at her.
“Alex?” He leaned up a fraction, then looked down the length of her body. His left eyebrow rose, that irritating smirk she was sure to never forget curved his lips again and when he looked back at her face, her blood was boiling.
“Get off of me, you scraggly headed goat!”
“Yep, it’s you all right.” The timber of his voice was deeper than she remembered. The smokey richness of the sound caused gooseflesh to prickle her skin.
He crawled off of her and stood, holding a hand out to help her up. She refused the offer and got to her feet herself.
She scowled as she took in the multitude of changes he’d been through over the past ten years and stared in disbelief at the fact Jesse Samuels, the bane of her existence, was back in town.
He looked nothing like she remembered. Where was the tall, lanky red-head kid she used to fight with? This wide-shouldered, auburn haired man looking down at her was too handsome to be Jesse Samuels. He tilted his head to one side and smirked at her. That, she remembered. It was Jesse all right. “I should have known it was you,” she said. “No one else is as clumsy and oafish.”
“Ah, there’s the girl I know.” He laughed and righted his hat. “I’ve missed the way you talk down to me. Nothing like hearing the contempt in someone’s voice as they address you.”
Alex took in his smile but something in his eyes said her words weren’t being laughed off as he would have her think. She bit back the retort she had ready to let fly and tried to form some sort of coherent sentence that wasn’t scathing but nothing seemed to come to mind.
She’d never been civil around Jesse. It was odd trying to be. It had to be the shock of seeing him again after ten years that left her so tongue-tied. It certainly had nothing to do with the fact he resembled nothing of the boy she remembered. The man he’d grown into was causing her heart to skip wildly in her chest while her pulse beat frantically along her veins. Why was he back? Was he staying?
A crowd had formed. The sidewalk was full, people staring, some pointing and snickering and a look down showed her why. The muddy hem of her dress was nothing compared to the dark green and brown sludge now covering her from shoulder to foot. The smell hit her when the breeze shifted and those laughs coming from the sidewalk caused her ire at Jesse to multiply by the second.
Less than ten minutes in town and she’d been humiliated, made into a spectacle for anyone looking by ending up flat on her back in a pile of horse manure big enough to fill a wagon.
Heat flushed her skin as the laughter rose, her face burning as she looked up at the man standing in front of her. Seeing him again wasn’t as shocking as the sight of him was. He’d changed so much in the years he’d been gone. He was taller, the top of her head barely reaching his chin now. He’d put muscle on his once thin frame and his red hair had darkened and was longer, the ends brushing his shoulders. The look in his eyes was the same, though. Amusement shined as bright as always. The sight only made her anger burn hotter.
“I was wondering when I’d run into you.” He chuckled, the sound as irritating now as it was the day he left town. Alex gritted her teeth when he said, “I didn’t think it would be literally, though.”
He gave her another look from head to toe, a low whistle filling the air as he did. “Look at you. All grown up and wearing girl clothes.” He met her gaze again and grinned. “I guess your pa’s plan to turn you into a lady worked. Not many thought it would but here you stand looking like a girl instead of the ugliest boy I’ve ever seen.”
She didn’t think beyond the insult he’d been throwing at her since she was old enough to pick her own clothes out. Old instincts kicked in, her fingers curling into her palm, and she hit him on that arrogant chin, the force enough to rock him on his feet and for the first time in ten years, she felt alive.
He was slow to turn his head back toward her and when he did, she hit him again for old times sake. “You’re right, Jesse Samuels, I did grow up, but you’re the same immature horse’s ass you’ve always been.”
“Now is that any way to talk to a friend?”
She narrowed her eyes at him. “We were never friends.” She left him there on the street and pushed her way through the throng of people still standing around gawking. She headed to the livery stable, barely acknowledging Percy when he greeted her. “I need my horse.”
He gave her a glance from head to toe, his brows lowering in concern. “What in the world happened to you?”
She ignored his question. “My horse, Percy.”
He straightened, a look of surprise covering his face when he looked her in the eye. “Is everything all right?”
“No,” she said, blinking to force unwelcome tears from her eyes. “I need my horse, please.”
He nodded, her obvious distress enough to get him moving without any more questions but every second that ticked by was one second too long.
Alex looked out the door and saw Hugh walking her way. She didn’t wait for him to reach her, or for Percy to get her horse ready to ride. She grabbed the reins of a chestnut gelding that stood in front of the stable, hiked up her skirts and hoisted herself into the saddle.
Leaning down over his back, she gave him a slight nudge with the heel of her boot to get him moving and rode away from the livery stable without a backward glance.
She passed Hugh without slowing and flew past the saloon and the crowd that was still gathered at a fast clip. She didn’t look to see if Jesse was still there. Nor did she admit the tears burning her eyes had nothing to do with embarrassment.
* * * *
She blew by the saloon in a billow of lilac lace. If the look on her face was any indication of her mood, she was furious with him. Jesse grinned. It was as if he’d never left. He turned back to the saloon and paused when his oldest friend, Ben Atwater blocked his path.
“What the hell was that all about?”
Jesse stepped around him and jumped back onto the wooden sidewalk, pushing the swinging doors to the saloon open. Reaching into his pocket, he pulled out a crumpled bill and slapped it on the bar. “Here you go, Vernon. This should cover my tab.” He didn’t wait for a reply and bumped into Ben when he turned back to the door. “Gotta go.”
“Go? But we just got here.”
Jesse hit the sidewalk at a fast jog and jumped to the ground and headed straight for his horse, untying the reins from the hitching post. “I know but I can’t let her get away.”
“Alex.” He tossed the reins over the horse’s neck and looked up. “It’s been ten years. I’m not willing to let our first meeting be nothing more than a few hateful words.”
Ben scratched the side of his head, his eyebrows lowered as if thinking. “What about your welcome home party? Aaron should be here any minute now.”
Jesse climbed into the saddle, shifted his weight until he was comfortable and grinned down at Ben. “Start without me. I’ll be back before that songbird Vernon hired starts singing.”
Jesse maneuvered the horse away from the others, replaying his first meeting with Alexandra Avery in his mind’s eye again. Ten years and she was as feisty as he remembered.
He nodded his head to Ben and left, barreling out of town as fast as his horse would carry him.
Ben Atwater was one of the best friends he had. They’d been inseparable as kids and knew everything there was to know about each other. Well, almost. There was one piece of information he’d managed to keep to himself since the moment he’d realized it and that was what he really thought of Alexandra Avery.
There hadn’t been a day in the past ten years that he hadn’t thought about her. Total pain in the ass she was, he’d missed her and he wasn’t going to let her get away with nothing more than a few spiteful words and her dainty fist upside his head.
He leaned down over the neck of his horse, prodded him to go faster and kept his eye on the horizon. He spotted her a few minutes later a good distance ahead of him. He closed the gap between them and smiled when she turned her head to look at him, scowling before shouting, “Go back to where ever you’ve been for the last ten years, Jesse Samuels, and stay away from me.”
“Not a chance, darlin’.”
“I still hate you.”
He laughed. “I figured as much. Kind of hard to forget with you telling me once a week for years.”
She sat up straighter but ignored him for the most part. He ran a quick glance over her, smiling to himself at her straddling a horse in her too fancy dress. Her hair had come unpinned, those blonde curls he’d had trouble forgetting bouncing against her back.
Her dress was wrinkled, covered in Lord only knew what, but the sight of her caused his heart to race and for silly notions he’d had in his youth to come flooding back. “I’m sorry.”
She threw him an incredulous look.
The unbelieving look on her face didn’t last long. “Apology not accepted.” Stoney anger darkened her blue eyes. “Now stay away from me.”
She prodded her horse again and he let her get ahead of him. He followed in silence, feeling a sense of dread when she rode under the arched entryway to the Avery ranch.
She passed her aunt and uncle, Tristan and Emmaline’s house without so much as a glimpse in their direction and kept going, past the barn and straight toward the house.
Jesse stopped a short distance from her, lingering in the background as she jumped from her horse and stomped toward the house.
The front door opened before she reached the steps. Holden Avery stepped out onto the porch and stumbled to a stop. He frowned in their direction and stared down at Alex for long minutes before glancing up at him. “What’s going on?”
“Hey, pa.” Alex shifted her weight, straightened her shoulders and lifted her chin. “I came to talk to you.”
To Jesse’s surprise, Holden didn’t look happy to see her. The reasons why puzzled him. He’d definitely been gone too long. He didn’t know half of what was going on anymore.
Alex took the stairs slowly, her gaze leveled on her father and it wasn’t until Laurel, Alex’s stepmother stepped out onto the porch that the tension that had been building dissipated. In an instant, the quiet, tense stares were gone and replaced by questions.
Laurel gave Alex a look from head to toe. Her eyes widened when she got a good look at her. “What in the world happened to you?”
Alex turned her head and shot him a glare. “Nothing worth mentioning.”
Jesse looked toward the barn to keep from smiling. Their confrontation in front of the saloon was still fresh on his mind. The chatter of voices grew louder as two younger boys—Alex’s brother’s if he had to guess—joined them on the porch. He was about to head back to town when the noise suddenly stopped.
He glanced back at the house just as the front door swung shut. Everyone was gone. Well, everyone but Holden. He was still there with a strange look covering his face. The corner of the man’s lip raised into what Jesse assumed may have been a smile before he straightened and nodded his head toward him. “Did you find a fight you weren’t expecting?”
He raised a hand to his jaw. “Something like that.”
“How did Rafe and Grace take the surprise of you showing up on their door?”
Jesse lifted his hat, ran his fingers through his hair. “As to be expected. Happy at first.” He grinned. “Then I had to endure an entire evening of scolding for staying gone so long.”
Holden laughed. “I’m sure you did.” He studied him for long moments, then let out a breath. “Thanks for seeing Alex home, Jesse. She’s more independent than most her age but that doesn’t mean I want her traipsing across the prairie by herself. Especially now that so many people are being assaulted by whoever it is out there causing so much trouble.”
“Don’t mention it.” Jesse shifted in the saddle, his thoughts running rampant at the possibility of Alex being accosted by that gang of thieves he’d heard were prowling around the countryside. Their being in the area hadn’t even crossed his mind when he took off after Alex. All he’d been thinking was, there’s Alex. After ten long years, he was in the same vicinity as she was. “She hasn’t changed much,” he said, raising a hand to rub his jaw. “Still has a wicked right hook.”
Holden laughed. “That she does. Good to see you again, Jesse.”
When he turned and went back inside, Jesse glanced up at the window in the front of the house, Alex’s bedroom, and was surprised to see her staring down at him. He smiled and tipped the front of his hat up in her direction, then laughed as she made a face at him.
Pulling the horse’s reins, he clicked his tongue and got the horse turned back toward the main road and tried to put Alex out of his mind. Lord knew having her occupy his thoughts again would eat up more of his time than it should.
He’d left the best friends he’d ever had back in town and as much as he hated not going back, he knew he wouldn’t be much fun. Not tonight. Not after seeing Alex again. He’d been dreaming about her since the day he left town and now that he’d seen her again, there wasn’t any distraction in the world big enough to take his mind off of her.
He glanced back up at Alex’s window. She was still there, watching him. He’d never get her out of his head now. He hadn’t managed it in the ten years he’d been gone. He didn’t see it happening now that she was full grown and more beautiful than she’d ever been.
End of excerpt
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