A Soft Kiss in Spring releases next week and I want everyone to read it! To get you started, I’ve reduced the price of book 1, A Soft Kiss in Winter to .99¢ for a limited time. Hurry and get your copy now!
To get you started, here’s a sneak peak at the first chapter!
A Soft Kiss in Winter
One heard a variety of noises echoing through the trees when alone on the mountain, but a woman screaming wasn’t one of them.
Gideon stopped, turned his head left, then right. He’d heard more than a few animals make a sound similar to a woman screaming—or a baby crying—to attract prey and if that’s what he heard, it meant something was tracking him.
A thin sheet of ice lay over the snow on the ground, the harsh crunching sound it made as he moved through the forest loud in the stillness. He took half a dozen steps, his head cocked to one side in an attempt to hear whatever it was following him and stopped when another scream echoed through the trees. It came from his left, down in the small valley at the bottom of the hill.
He pulled the hood off his head and let it fall against his back. Staring down the hill, he slowed his breath and went completely still so he could hear. The whiney of a horse followed by what sounded like laughter filled the air seconds before another scream reached him. It wasn’t an animal. Someone was on the old wagon trail, and from the sounds of it, they weren’t alone.
Who in their right mind would be this far up the mountain this time of year?
He dropped his pack, reached for his Winchester and stood, leaving his supplies where they were and made his way down the hill. His feet slipped out from under him twice, the dense thicket of trees scattered along the bank the only thing keeping him from tumbling down to the snowy trail below. The voices filtering through the trees grew louder the further down he went. They were male but he couldn’t tell how many.
He saw the wagon first, the whole thing leaning to the right. The front wheel was broken. The contents that once sat under the white canopy covering the back were strewn across the ground as if they’d been thrown. He crept closer, the voices growing in volume, and he froze when he heard a muffled, feminine scream followed by a man laughing. Fury raced through his veins when someone said, “Hurry up! You’re taking too long.”
Gideon made it far enough down to see them. He crouched near a tree, bracing his shoulder against it and pointed his rifle toward the scene below. A man at the back of the wagon was jumping in place, blowing on his hands. It was cold this morning, the temperature dropping by the minute and the fool wasn’t dressed to be out in the open. His coat was threadbare, his hands and head uncovered and there wasn’t an ounce of fat on him anywhere. Another man stepped around the back of the wagon and looked inside, grinning.
Muffled whimpers and another scream was all it took to bring Gideon to his full height. He started down the hill, the rifle raised and pointed at the man still jumping up and down. It only took a few seconds for him to be spotted. The expression on the man’s face as he looked his way showed his shock at seeing someone. He stopped jumping, is eyes widening. “Holy hell… Ira!”
The man reached for the gun hanging by his hip. Gideon flipped the rifle around and cracked him across the jaw with the stock. He bellowed as blood flew from his mouth, then staggered and looked toward the wagon before running. Gideon let him go and raised the rifle, pointing it at the man still standing at the back of the wagon. Another scream filled the air, the woman’s frantic crying scraping along Gideon’s brain until flashes of images from memories long buried caused his vision to blur, the screams he still heard every night echoing through his head.
Someone inside the wagon cursed. Gideon saw movement, and the barrel of a pistol pointed his way out of the corner of his eye, and had sense enough to duck as the man fired.
Instinct and a haze of red fury brought the front of his gun up and the moment the man’s feet touched the ground and he lunged toward him, Gideon pulled the trigger.
The man’s expression stilled, his mouth opening as a final breath escaped his lungs and Gideon watched as he sank to his knees, falling face first into the snow. Turning to the other one, he raised the rifle, sighting on him but lowered it as the man was halfway around the bend, churning up snow as he ran. He let him go. He wasn’t worth the bullet.
The woman was still screaming. He raised his rifle and stepped around the corner of the wagon to see inside. She was on her knees, her lip busted and bleeding, her long hair in tangles around her face. Her dress was ripped at the shoulder, her left breast exposed but it was her eyes that drew his attention. They were swollen, red, and puffy, but what he saw in them made something in his chest clench tight. Terror. Pure, horrifying terror. Her wide-eyed expression turned ashen, her scream piercing until the noise faded, her eyes rolling back into her head, and she dropped as if dead.
Memories assaulted him so fast he couldn’t breathe past them. He gasped, squeezed his eyes shut and tried to block the voices whispering through his head and forced his mind to focus on the problem at hand instead. He steadied his breathing, pushed the memories aside and glanced around the area to make sure no one else was hiding, then walked around the wagon three times to be sure.
The breath he was holding fled in a rush. He lowered his rifle and raised one hand, wiping the sweat from his eyes and stared at the dead man by his feet before jumping onto the back of the wagon. Two fingers on the woman’s neck proved she wasn’t dead. Just fainted if he had to guess, which suited him fine. A hysterical female was the last thing he wanted to deal with.
The rifle felt heavy in his hands all of a sudden and he turned and leaned against the back of the wagon. The dead man’s blood was turning the thin layer of snow and ice around him red. He sighed. He didn’t need this, nor did he want it. Life was simple and he liked it that way. He hunted, made his way around the mountain, and went home again. It wasn’t complicated or filled with decisions that didn’t impact him.
He glanced over his shoulder, back inside the wagon. The woman was still facedown amongst the cluttered mess around her. He saw a blanket by her feet and lifted it, covering her body from neck to toe. As much as he wanted to walk back up that hillside and leave, a niggling voice in the back of his head wouldn’t let him. The dead man at his feet told him he couldn’t.
“Damn it,” he muttered, inhaling another breath and letting it out. He reached for the dead man, grabbing him under both arms and started pulling him away from the wagon. He dragged him down the trail a good ways before tossing him to the side of the road and dropping him. He stared at him for long minutes. The ground was frozen solid and he wasn’t worth the time it would take to try and bury him. He scraped his foot across the ground, kicking a pile of snow over the sorry bastard and left him where he lay and walked back to the wagon.
A glance inside showed the woman still unconscious. The contents inside the wagon were strewn from front to back. Things thrown to the ground showed everything from cooking pots to dried meats and clothing. Where the hell was this woman going with winter coming on? There was nothing on this side of the mountain. Why was she even up here?
The horses whinnied. Gideon walked around the wagon and saw three of them hobbled near a line of trees and an ox still hooked to the wagon. As much as one would come in handy to haul his gear, they’d never make it up the backside of the mountain.
He pulled a knife from his belt, cut their reins and pocketed the leather before giving each animal a slap on his rump to get him moving. They’d be lucky to survive out in the open but there was little he could do about it. At least with letting them go, they might be able to find something to eat if they wandered the wagon trail long enough. Or they’d starve. Either way, it was the least of his problems.
He glanced at the things scattered on the ground, his thoughts going back to the woman inside the wagon. What was he supposed to do with her? He braced his hands on his hips. Leaving her would be the smart thing to do but she’d be dead within days. It was hard living on the mountain. If the weather didn’t kill you, a starving animal would unless you took them out first and he doubted the screaming woman he’d seen in the back of that wagon was capable of defending herself. The three saddle bums who’d cornered and were close to raping her told him that much.
He shook away an onslaught of images trying to fill his head again. He focused on the woman, ignoring the voices he lived with daily. He didn’t want to be responsible for her. As much as he hated the thought, he had to take her to Silver Falls. He couldn’t leave her out here regardless of how badly he wanted to.
He sighed and cursed under his breath. So much for well-laid plans.
The trek back up the hill to grab his pack caused the muscles in his thighs to burn. It was a steep climb and coming back down with all his gear nearly landed him on his face. He rifled through the items thrown from the wagon to see if anything would come in useful, then did the same inside, careful not to rouse the woman. She was still breathing, the gentle rise and fall of her chest reassuring him of the fact.
Jumping back to the ground, he unhooked the small shovel tied to his pack and spent long minutes clearing the ground of snow where the man he’d shot had fallen, the ground stained with blood. He gathered kindling and had a fire built and one of the skinned rabbits he’d killed earlier in the day spitted and cooking in less than an hour.
The sun was sinking behind the mountain before he wondered how long the woman would be unconscious. That bastard who hit her must have knocked her silly for her to still be out. He wondered again who she was and why she was out here alone. This wasn’t the sort of place one wanted to find themselves getting lost. They didn’t call this Devil’s Peek for nothing.
* * *
He was still there. Victoria leaned up enough to peek over the box sitting along the back of the wagon. The man was tending a fire and the smell of cooked meat filled the air. Her stomach growled to the point of pain and she ducked, hoping he hadn’t heard it.
Her heart still pounded hard enough the sound was deafening as blood rushed through her veins and thundered past her ears. The men who attacked her were nowhere to be seen but it was the burly brute sitting by a fire at the back of her wagon she was more concerned about at the moment.
Seeing him step into view while being attacked had caused a new terror to form. All she saw was dark brown fur and instantly thought—bear—but the gunshot she heard told her it was man, not beast. When all was quiet and he’d looked into the wagon at her, the adrenaline rush had been too much and she’d welcomed the darkening world that consumed her when she blacked out. Now, she wanted that oblivion back.
She peeked over the box again and studied him as he sat there turning the meat he had roasting over a fire. Her stomach growled again. How long had it been since she’d eaten anything not dried and hard to chew?
He shifted and she lowered her head enough to still see him but not be seen. The coat he wore was brown fur and if she had to guess, she’d say it was fashioned from a bear pelt. It was bulky and made him appear huge. The same material covered his head in a large hood of some kind, and it hid most of his face. What she could see of his hair appeared to be black and other than a full beard, shadows obscured the rest of his features. She’d never seen anyone like him. No one back home in Chicago looked so wild and untamed.
“Rabbits nearly cooked if you want to come out and eat.”
She jolted when he spoke and ducked her head. Had he seen her? She sighed. Of course he had. Who else would he be talking to? Tilting her head up, she peeked back out at him. He wasn’t looking her way, instead, he was cutting pieces off the cooking meat and laying them on a blue plate she recognized. It was from the cook box the men had thrown off the back of the wagon. Long minutes passed before he finally looked her way. Their eyes met and her heart skipped a beat.
“I’m not here to hurt you. If I had wanted to do that, I would have done it already.”
She glanced down, noticing the blanket for the first time. He’d covered her, a fact she was grateful for when she remembered her torn dress and the men who’d tried to—
Tears burned the back of her eyes as the horror replayed in her head again. Images of her life over the last several months flashed across her mind and nearly every one of them took her breath. A sob escaped before she could stop it and she bit down on her hand to keep from crying again. She’d had nothing but heartache for months on end and all the tears she’d cried had gotten her nowhere. Grieving for things she could not change would do her no good now.
The man stood and she scrambled away from the back of the wagon, pulling the blanket with her as he approached. He laid the plate on a box near the back and looked her in the eye. “There’s more if you finish this.”
He turned and walked back to the fire as the scent of roasted meat filled the interior of the wagon. Her stomach growled again. She craned her neck to look back out at the man and saw him sitting by the fire. She watched him for long minutes before scooting forward and snatching the plate and retreating further back away from him. She gave him one last look before raising a shaking hand to the meat, picking up a chunk of it and putting it in her mouth. Her eyes watered the moment it hit her tongue. It was hot, but it was the taste of it that brought the tears. It warmed her entire body as she chewed and swallowed, her empty stomach craving more the longer she ate and she was glad no one could see her as she crammed it into her mouth as fast as she could get the last piece chewed.
When the plate was empty, she licked the juice from her fingers and closed her eyes. The tears still fell and she wiped them away, wincing as she pressed against her battered face. She could only imagine what she looked like. Her left eye was swollen. That she knew without even looking. The lid was so puffy she could barely see past it. Her lips felt three sizes too big and she’d tasted blood when she awoke from her fainting spell.
She shivered as the memories came back and she pulled the ripped remains of her dress back up over her breast. A look around the strewn remains of her belongings brought the heartache back. Her life had changed so drastically since she’d left home she wasn’t sure who she even was now.
A long sleeve shirt lay near her feet and she snatched it up before slipping it on over her ripped dress. The material still held Thomas’s scent. She closed her eyes and sighed. They’d made so many plans for the future. She realized now how foolish she was to have believed them possible.
Movement outside the wagon drew her attention. The man was walking around again. She held the blanket to her chest and squeezed back against the wagon seat and the sideboard. The canvas covering the wagon gave slightly as she leaned against it. The material was cold and frozen, the snow falling heavy enough now to soak through, the wind strong enough to freeze the moisture in place.
The sun sank so low over the mountain that shadows crept along the trail, the trees blocking off most of the light now. It would be full dark soon. Would the man stay? Fear he would caused a knot to form in her throat. Surely he wouldn’t save her only to rape her himself. Would he? He hadn’t so far. He said he meant her no harm so—why was he still here? As he moved out of her line of sight, a new fear formed. Was he going to leave her out here alone? And if he did, how would she ever survive?
End of Excerpt…
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