I love cowboy boots with prom dresses ~ but this lassie is not so inclined. She just loves her boots without the fancy trappings! Headed to town in pursuit of their prairie cook, Anne Tillerton finds a little more than she expected ~ a baby and a neighboring man from long ago. But... I get ahead of myself. Actually, they became reacquainted on the train.
A leisurely ride on a train ~ how could this change the direction of my life? So innocently unoccupied until Anne Tillerton came into view ~ or voice. Hmm . . . it had been a while since his sister's friend had shown up. They had talked about whether she had remarried and settled down. But... here she was, Anne, just as before. Camouflaged. Concealed from the lady she really was.
Nick Lovelace. How could it be that I would be discovered way out here in Indian Territory? Hopping a train to North Texas to find Tessa Drumright, the cook back at the station house ~ at least, she was until she took off after that no good Finn Cravens.
Intercepted along the way, I save Nick from his interference ~ no gun on him ~ bravery. Now I'll never get rid of him!
He was, to be sure, glad she was there. Now that they are in town, Nicholas Lovelace sees her as a hold-back ~ to his prestigious occupation; he needs to be fancy. Her down-home looks are a little dowdy since they are no longer on the home grounds of middle-of-the-tumbleweeds-Texas.
~ home ♪♫ home on the range ♫♪~
|John B. Freeman|
Life can change before you can hardly turn around. I found Tessa, all right, but now she's gone and I'll have to hunt up Finn. I have his little son to deliver to him. Life gets complicated without even trying. I sent a message back with the new cook I hired. I will be back as soon as I can get this figured out.
Enjoy this excerpt from Caught in the Middle by Regina Jennings ~ Chapter 1
PUSHMATAHA, INDIAN TERRITORY
The serving line hadn’t moved an inch, and the mood of the men in the depot diner was growing ugly. Nicholas Lovelace rapped the flimsy tin plate against his knuckles and took a deep breath. No warm scents of meat and potatoes. No bread baking that he could detect. If dinner wasn’t simmering, he might as well get back on the train. No point in crowding around the kitchen door with the lumberjacks, the Indians, and the hunters voicing their complaints.
The plate clattered on the roughhewn table as Nick abandoned the depot. His stomach gnawed at his ribs, telling him that the roll and coffee from the last station had burned away hours ago. Could he wait for supper at the hotel in Garber where he was staying? He’d rather not. His only hope for nourishment this side of the Red River was the ramshackle general store. Otherwise he wouldn’t live long enough to prepare Mr. Stanford’s report, which would be a pity. He’d so anticipated the praise it would bring.
Nicholas’s crew was performing ahead of schedule—clearing the timber from the railroad’s future path, shipping it to the mill, processing it into ties and trestles, and shipping it back to the railhead. He had ridden the train as far as the track would carry him, and his men toiled a good three miles further still—a nice lead, but no more than he expected.
And no more than Ian Stanford expected. Mr. Stanford had contributed more to the success of Lovelace Transportation Specialists than anyone outside of Nick himself. In fact, every merchant, every trapper, hunter, and farmer along the twin rails owed Mr. Stanford—and Nicholas was blessed to call him his mentor. Stanford had taught him much, but now Nick wanted to expand. Upon his return to Garber, Texas, Nicholas would begin seeking contracts with other railroads. It was time to grow.
Even with eyes closed, he could tell by the hot fumes that he was standing on the train platform. The black engine shimmered under the relentless sun, but it didn’t shirk. It would continue its quest, plowing through the prairies, unstoppable, proving that God-approved ambition could conquer any obstacle.
“Nicholas”—Miss Susan Walcher’s head emerged from a train window—“when will we leave this dreadful place? I’m nearly asphyxiated.”
“I heard your father warn you.” As an investor of the NTT Railroad, her father handed out warnings aplenty, but only his connection with Ian Stanford could’ve forced Nick to endure hours of her complaining. “The Indian Territory line isn’t luxurious. There are no Pullman cars here.”
“But I’m famished. Didn’t the station house offer any refreshments?”
“I stood in line for a quarter of an hour and saw nary a one. Perhaps you’d like to serve up something?”
She crinkled her nose at him to the delight of her companions. With shrieks they pulled her inside the suffocating car amid a flurry of fans.
Rather than being stuck inside an airless car with the daughters of railroad investors, Nicholas would see what Pushmataha had to offer. Besides the piles of buffalo hides awaiting the eastbound train and the hastily constructed depot, the dusty general store was his only hope for finding something to eat. He needed nourishment if he was to entertain the girls all the way back to Garber.
Rounding the corner of the depot, Nick was struck afresh by the beauty of the vista. The trees still held their summer hues, patches of green spotting the golden prairie. He never tired of surveying the landscape, picking out the smoothest route for the parallel ebony lines to stretch to the unseen population beyond. Even though the tiny water stop of Pushmataha had its connections, Nicholas’s fortune was tied to the forests on the hills just east of the railroad. Mr. Stanford’s railroad couldn’t pass until the trees had been felled and shipped to Nick’s sawmill, which, located a convenient distance from town, was the nearest to the new construction. As long as his crew stayed ahead of the railroad, clearing the path and providing the lumber needed, his future was set.
Angry voices reached him as he neared the store—most notably a woman’s voice, strong and insistent. Never one to miss out on a spectacle, Nicholas edged his way toward the far side of the building.
“I won’t cook. I refuse. You’re making a big mistake.”
“Now, Annie,” a man said, “simmer down. We’re not talking permanent, only until Anoli can get another cook in. You heard how irate those men are. If we want the railroad to stop here and pick up our hides, we have to keep the depot open.”
Nicholas stopped at the edge of the building and peeked around the corner. What appeared to be a company of hunters—buffalo, judging from their Sharps rifles—was gathered around the back door of the kitchen. But where was the lady he’d heard?
“I have an idea.” The woman, dressed like a man, rapped the butt of her rifle against a filthy boot. “We’ll shoot for it. Whoever misses the knothole on the fence over there will stay behind to cook.”
When the men turned to squint, Nicholas caught a better glimpse of the speaker. Slight, bristling, and wrapped from her bandanna to her boots in a faded green duster, her rifle was already at her shoulder before the older Indian man could intervene.
“Arguments aren’t settled by the skill of a shooter.” The leader swatted at the muzzle, throwing her aim off.
“Why not? My skills are more valuable hunting than they are in the kitchen.”
“But you’re a woman,” one of the men protested. “It’s only natural—”
Nicholas stepped closer, curious what she’d done to silence the hapless man. He’d only known one woman in his life who’d dared to dress like that. Surely his mind was playing tricks on him. Anne Tillerton had been odd, no doubt, but a buffalo hunter in Indian Territory? He could be mistaken but the soft brown curls peeking out from beneath the hat said otherwise.
The shuffling hunters obscured his view of her face, but the set of her shoulders, visible even beneath the loose duster, further confirmed his suspicions. Anne’s name had come up occasionally in conversation with his sister—Molly speculating on whether Anne had found a nice man and raised a family like women ought. From the looks of things, Anne had shunned domesticity since her husband’s death.
“What if I find Tessa and bring her back?” She squinted up at the Indian man. “Anything but staying in this crummy depot feeding the rabble while you hunt.”
The Indian man nodded. “A reasonable suggestion if you can get your gear together before the train pulls out. And if you can’t get Tessa to cook again, hire someone else, but don’t be long. We don’t want to be poisoned by Fred’s cooking while you’re in Garber.”
“My cooking?” A man threw his hat to the ground. “Why’s it gotta be me? I swear you always . . .”
With a silent chuckle Nicholas backed away from the gathering. So the Garber train had picked up a new passenger? Interesting. Now if he could find some jerky in the general store, the ride home might not be so tedious after all.
By the time the whistle blew, Anne Tillerton had stashed her drawstring knapsack in the luggage compartment and found an empty seat in which to spend the next few hours, hopefully undisturbed. She’d left her rifle in Pushmataha in favor of a pistol, hidden beneath her duster. If Tessa had gone in search of that no-account Finn Cravens, she could be staying in a true snake hole. Anne slouched against the bench and pulled her duster together over her curvier parts. If only the buttons would’ve held. Her vest and bandanna covered her chest, and her smelly boots kept the other passengers from sharing the alcove with her. Usually her disguise effectively protected her from unwarranted attention, but when it failed, misery was sure to follow.
From beneath the brim of her hat Anne watched the performance of a passel of girls seated near the front of the car. With bobbing feathers and squeals of laughter, they were making more noise than a rabbit caught in a trap. One in particular, perched at the edge of her bench, rocked like a canary on a swing, her frequent chirps and flapping hands attesting that a man was no doubt sitting across from her. Anne looked away. Didn’t those foolish ladies have any idea the dangerous attention they were attracting?
She removed her hat and laid her head against the glass window. She’d tried to warn Tessa about getting mixed up with Finn, but the stubborn girl wouldn’t listen. His intentions were as unhealthy as Tessa’s deep-dish cobblers, and for the cook, just as irresistible. They’d all hoped that Finn would do the honorable thing and marry her, but he grew bored of Tessa the same way he grew bored of buffalo hunting and disappeared one night without even a note.
Anne could still picture Tessa’s tear-watered face and Anoli’s stoic glare. The camp leader had been generous in letting Tessa stay on with an illegitimate child, but his mercy didn’t extend to Finn.
“The man had no family to shame,” he’d said, “and can feel no shame for himself.”
Anne wormed her finger through the empty buttonhole of her duster. She hadn’t any family to shame, either, but she had a code she lived by, even if no one else understood it. She didn’t seek rewards for her good deeds from some distant deity. No. That deity had meted out more punishment than anyone should have to bear. However distant He was, it wasn’t far enough.
The birdie girl’s companion stood. He pushed a final bite of jerky into his mouth and waited for the lady to excuse him. Anne crammed her hat on her head and pulled it down over her thick curls. She shouldn’t have sat by the water cooler. If he was looking to stretch his legs, it’d be his logical destination. She flexed her fingers. He had no reason to bother her, but if he did, she’d be ready for him. Before he could turn to face her, her sharpshooter’s eyes took in details not important to anyone else, but knowing them gave her a feeling of control.
His height wasn’t noteworthy, but his well-tailored suit hugged broad shoulders. The hair brushing his starched collar wasn’t quite blond. In the right light it probably showed some red. His manicured hands hung easily at his sides. He was obviously unconcerned that a sudden lurch might shove him into the benches. Although the feathers in the ladies’ hats before him bobbed, he stood erect, his posture correct even with the swaying of the train. He probably hadn’t spent much time on a horse, but judging from his balance, he could learn.
With a playful bow he ended their conversation and turned in Anne’s direction.
Her heart stopped. She knew him. Before she could look away their eyes locked. This was bad. No, this was disastrous.
Anne pulled her hat lower until the band dug into her forehead. She slunk into the seat and tried to disappear into her duster as the man approached. She rolled her shoulder toward the window, giving him only her back. She knew him, but he didn’t know her. Surely not. No way in God’s green earth he’d remember.
“Excuse me.” His tone was friendly, curious. “Have we met before? There’s something about you . . .”
Anne forced her face into its fiercest scowl and remembered to gruff her voice. “You’re wrong, sir. I’m a stranger here.” She turned again to the window, dismayed when the large bulk barely visible from the corner of her eye made no departure.
“Oh?” He stepped into the alcove, took the seat across from hers and stretched his legs. “You can understand my confusion. I thought my sister’s friend, Anne Tillerton, was the only woman in North Texas who dressed like a man.”
The courage Anne had mustered fled like field mice when the barn door opened. He must think her a fool. She dared a peek, and met such keen blue eyes that she regretted it immediately.
“We’re not in Texas, Mr. Lovelace,” she said.
“But we will be shortly.” He smiled. “It’s kind of you to acknowledge our acquaintance. I wasn’t quite sure that we’d ever been properly introduced back in Prairie Lea.”
“We most definitely weren’t.” Anne had enjoyed only a few days of proper society in her life, and those had ended long before she’d been carted to Caldwell County.
“Then allow me to rectify the situation. Nicholas Lovelace, at your service.”
Anne narrowed one eye like she was sighting down her rifle, but he didn’t appear the least bit discomforted and continued unabashed.
“Now that all the niceties have been observed, what has brought you to Indian Territory, Mrs. Tillerton?”
Anne tugged on the leather thong that laced up the neck of her loose shirt. Her business was her business. Besides, she had her pistol if he made a nuisance of himself. No reason to fear him. “I’ve been here for a while. What about you?”
“Me? My company provides the lumberjacks and the wooden ties for the railroad. We stay ahead of the line and use the resources from the railroad’s own land allotment.”
He acted as if she should be impressed. He’d get used to disappointment.
“How’s Molly?” she asked.
His head tilted. Those blues twinkled. “My sister is well. She and Bailey are keeping the old sawmill rolling, taking care of Mother and Father, and raising a couple of mischievous progeny. She’ll be thrilled when I tell her that you are . . . what exactly did you say you were doing here?”
Anne pursed her lips. Her heart raced at the memories Nicholas Lovelace resurrected. The Lovelaces. The Garners. Prairie Lea. She’d tried to forget that town, but the pain wouldn’t fade. She couldn’t change the past, but she could avoid rehashing it. Anne straightened her shoulders. How to deal with the prying Mr. Lovelace?
“I’m a buffalo hunter. I hunt with an outfit in Indian Territory.” From the concern on his face, she realized that her bluster wasn’t convincing. She hardened her jaw. “It pays well. The freedom is . . . it’s important to me.”
“A buffalo hunter, you say?” Mr. Lovelace clasped his hands together. “Quite a profitable occupation, so I hear. Our trains carry the hides out by the carload.”
Anne unclenched her fist. He hadn’t laughed at her. He hadn’t tried to persuade her to find a more ladylike pursuit. Perhaps he, like his sister, could be trusted. At least for the duration of the train ride.
“And I bet you bring down your share of the beasts,” he continued. “From what I remember, you’re a dead aim.”
A look of abject horror crossed Mr. Lovelace’s face when he realized what he’d said, but it was too late.
The memories burst forward like the bloom of crimson that had stained her husband’s vest. Anne sprang to her feet even as Mr. Lovelace reached to detain her. Twisting, she pushed her way past his knees and into the aisle. She made her way blindly to the back, not caring where she was going, not concerned where she’d end up. She only wanted a way from him and his awful knowledge.
But she wasn’t listening. She entered a narrow corridor flanked on one side by luggage stacked to the roof. The paneling on her left blurred as she hurried away from the quick footsteps behind her.
“Mrs. Tillerton, please.” He grasped her elbow and turned her.
Anne flattened herself against the wall, jerking her arm away in the process. “Don’t touch me.”
He lifted his hands in the air. “I’m sorry. I just wanted—”
The train lurched. The wheels screeched like a mountain lion as the car teetered.
Anne’s head bumped the wall as Mr. Lovelace was flung toward her. He braced himself with outstretched arms on either side of her.
The violent rocking stopped. The screams of the passengers quieted, and Anne was face-to-face with the man. His breath fanned her cheek. His disconcerting eyes were just inches from hers.
“The remark was completely innocent. If you—”
“Step away,” Anne ground out between clenched teeth. “You don’t know what you’re doing.”
His eyes held hers as if willing her to calm, willing her to trust. “You’re right about that. I made a dreadful mistake.” He pushed away from the wall, another foot or so. “But I’m afraid I have nowhere to go. I can’t move.”
Anne followed his gaze to the crates that had fallen against the back of his legs. He was holding back a tide of luggage that could crush her.
“If someone would give me a hand,” he called out.
But the passengers ignored Mr. Lovelace’s request. And then Anne saw why. Their attention was riveted on the masked man with the gun at the front of the car.
Regina Jennings, Caught in the Middle Bethany House, a division of Baker Publishing Group, © 2014. Used by permission.
***Thank you to author Regina Jennings for my copy of Caught in the Middle. This review was written in my own words. No other compensation was received.***
|author Regina Jennings|