Feisty school teacher Tori Henderson values her independence and has no use for a husband. When she finds herself the legal guardian of her two nieces, two nephews, and facing eviction from her Kansas home, she enters the 1889 Oklahoma Land Run and confronts a new set of challenges. The biggest obstacle being her new neighbor, cocky lawyer Jesse Cochran, the son of a whore-a man determined to put his past behind him and start a new life and family of his own. Despite the undeniable attraction between them, Tori is determined to keep him at arm's length, but a family emergency brings them together and they declare a truce. Can Jesse win Tori's heart after a series of unplanned events, or will tragedy tear them apart forever?
Late March, 1889
Maple Grove, Kansas
Tori Henderson’s hand shook as she studied the official-looking envelope. She’d held out hope the letter would never arrive. But she’d only been fooling herself.
She took a deep breath to steady her nerves. Tears sprang to her eyes as she opened the envelope, slid out the paper. All laid out, very formal, very legal. She and her four nieces and nephews had fourteen days to leave their home, at which time the bank would take possession.
Homeless. Her insides shifted.READ MORE
Her heart sped up as a newspaper with sweat dampened edges beckoned her from the chair near the fireplace. A large red circle, like a kiss, smack in the middle of the page. She’d used her teacher’s pencil one night when she couldn’t sleep. Her eyes moved away from the notice. No, she couldn’t go through with that plan. At best, a crazy idea. There had to be another way. The kids had already been through so much.
Yet, like a magnet, the newspaper drew her. She picked it up, read it once more, and slowly moved to the head of the stairs and shouted, “Michael, gather everyone together for a family meeting.”
She clutched the newspaper in one hand, the offensive letter in the other. Her mind made up, she moved to the parlor and lowered herself, then shifted, bringing her bottom into contact with a loose spring on the worn sofa.
Having the responsibility of four nieces and nephews weighed heavily on her shoulders. Now that she’d decided, she found herself too excited to sit. She hopped up and walked to the window. No buds appeared on trees yet, but it’d been a couple weeks since they’d had real cold weather. Had it been almost a month since her brother Henry’s funeral? Since she’d become a parent?
I’m not going to fail these children. We’re a family, and families take care of their own.
Feet shuffled overhead, and the thud of a door slamming brought her out of her musings. She turned and greeted the children with a bright smile. How she wished she and her brother had been closer. The difference in their ages, and the mutual dislike between Henry and Aunt Martha, the woman who had raised her, had prevented that. If she had watched her nieces and nephews grow up, it would have been a huge help. Instead, she arrived on their doorstep the day of her brother’s funeral, barely knowing which face went with what name.
After spending the last few weeks here, she’d grown to love Henry’s children, and fully intended to do right by them.
Once they were all settled on the run-down couches and chairs, her glance shifted to the four faces watching her with various expressions. She forced her lips into a confident smile. “Listen to what was in the newspaper a few days ago.” She had to keep her voice calm.
“On March 3, 1889, President Harrison announced the government would open the 1.9 million-acre tract of Indian Territory for settlement precisely at noon on April 22. Anyone can join the race for the land.”
She glanced up. Silence greeted her. Not the eagerness she’d hoped for. Her smile faltered.
Rachel, fifteen, in a twenty-year-old’s body, hiked her chin in a stubborn manner. She would be a handful, that one. “I don’t want to move.”
Tori drew in a deep breath. “I realize that, but we have to face the fact that the money your papa left is almost gone, and I haven’t been able to find a job.”
Hunter squirmed. “Not even a teaching job?”
Oh how she’d tried. Even with her credentials and experience, she’d had no success. “No, honey. I’ve been told many times it’s too late in the school year for teaching jobs.”
Rachel rolled her eyes. “Well they sure won’t be hiring teachers this late in the year, in—where did you say—Indian Territory?”
Tori counted to ten to keep from snapping at the girl. “I’m sure I can find tutoring jobs until a proper school can be set up. Then there will be teaching jobs.” Based on the smirk Rachel threw her, counting to twenty might be better. “And, I’m a fair baker. I can sell some of my pies and cookies to keep us going in the beginning.”
“You could do that here.” Ellie, the eleven-year-old who'd been her papa's favorite, wiped the tears from her freckled cheeks, her voice trembling slightly.
Tori’s insides twisted. So easy to feel sorry for the little girl. “No, darling, we won’t have a place to live if we stay here. The letter came from the bank today. We have two weeks to move. I can’t pay the mortgage, and the bank has found a buyer for the house.” She tucked a curl behind the little girl’s ear. “The small amount left from your papa’s savings will be enough to just get us there.”
“Where will we live?” Hunter’s brows came together over deep brown eyes with long lashes, so like the mother Tori knew only from pictures. A year older than Ellie, he kept to himself, spending a great deal of time writing in his journal. The child remained a mystery to her.
Tori leaned down and used her soothing teacher voice. “We’ll live in a tent on the land we claim. Then, after a while, we’ll build a real house.”
A mutiny appeared on the horizon. How could a twenty-two-year-old teacher convince four children she barely knew to leave the only home they’d ever known? Another deep breath, and she forged on. She didn’t have a choice.
“Think about it, we’ll all be in on something brand new. Something exciting, that will go down in the history books.”
Why must I turn everything into a lesson?
Rachel stood, hand on hip. “Can I go now?”
“When would we have to leave?” Almost a man at sixteen, Michael spoke slowly, a slight smile on his lips. His budding interest gave her some hope.
“As soon as possible. We can outfit your papa’s wagon, and pick up some supplies to get us through. We’ll need to go to Arkansas City, one of the starting points.”
Her gaze roamed the room. Be careful here. Her next words were dangerous territory.
“We can sell most of this stuff. The money will help, and it’s less to haul.”
Red faced, her eyes spitting fire, Rachel rounded on her. “You cannot sell my mother’s things.”
“You and Ellie can take two or three of your mother’s things, and Michael and Hunter,” she said, turning to them, “can take two or three things of your father’s. But I’m afraid there isn’t enough room to take everything.”
“Well, I suppose if it’s the only way, then we have to do it.” Michael, always the logical one, surveyed his brother and sisters. Hunter and Ellie nodded, while Rachel stomped from the room, up the stairs, then slammed her bedroom door.
Ignoring the queasiness in her stomach, Tori faced the remaining children. “Think how much fun this will be!”
Tori kicked the broken wagon wheel, sweat running down her face. “Dammit!” She glared at the wagon and flung her hands on her hips. Whatever made her think she could do this? The old wagon had barely gotten them here, and now she faced a split wheel. The rotted wooden spokes were practically crumbling before her eyes.
Michael studied her. “I’ll take the wheel over to the blacksmith to see if he can fix it.”
“I told you this whole idea was stupid.” Rachel scowled over her shoulder while she pulled out wet, sodden clothing from the tilted wagon.
Michael wiped his forehead with the sleeve of his shirt. “Rachel, cut it out, Tori needs our help.”
“I hate it here. We never should have left home.” The young girl’s voice trembled as she swiped at her tears.
With a shake of his head, Michael rolled the wheel out of the camp area.
Tori stared at her distraught niece. Things had not gotten off to a good start. The trip had taken twice as long as planned, the children had been cranky, and it had rained every day since they left. Now the wagon wheel had cracked, and if they didn’t get it fixed in time, they wouldn’t make the race.
She pasted a smile on her face and squared her shoulders in an effort to appear confident. Who are you fooling? You’re scared to death. Keeping the children’s spirits up drained her. If they were going to get through this, she needed to rally the troops.
Tori scanned the area. Thousands of people camped along the Kansas border outside Arkansas City, waiting for the bugles and cannons to announce the start of the race. They’d been camped for three days, and every day it grew more crowded.
The air crackled with excitement. Wagons packed close together, hundreds of families anxious to secure a piece of free land. Women prepared meals over campfires, keeping their eyes on small children, who raced around in the party-like atmosphere. The stench of animals and people all packed together wafted on the air, assailing her nostrils. The race started tomorrow at noon, but without the wheel they could forget it.
“Rachel, when you finish unloading, spread everything out to dry. I’m going to gather some kindling to start a fire for supper.”
Tori tied an apron around her waist and walked to the wooded area behind the camped wagons. With everyone scavenging, it got harder every day to find the kindling needed to start a fire.
She frowned in concentration, careful to avoid the holes dug by small animals and roots that would trip her up. Even with her spectacles on, and the setting sun behind her shoulder, she found it difficult to see the difference between a branch and a snake. Every once in a while, she stooped, picked up a small branch with two fingers, and put it in the pocket she had created with the front of her apron.
In the distance, she spotted several perfect branches, and hurried over to scoop them up. The moment she reached out, a strong hand grabbed her wrist.
“Excuse me, ma’am, those branches belong to me.” A deep velvet voice rolled over her, raising the fine hairs on the nape of her neck in awareness.
Tori shaded her eyes with her free hand before she followed the man’s broad arms up to even broader shoulders. Curly brown hair that needed a trim peeked out from a well-worn Stetson. His white shirt, covered by a black leather vest, was tucked into a snug pair of denim pants that encased muscular thighs. The sun behind his head shadowed most of his face, but what she could see revealed a strong jaw with more than a day’s growth of beard. Yes, the voice, and everything that went with it, definitely male.
“I don’t know why you think branches lying on the ground in a wooded area belong to you, sir.” Tori yanked her wrist free from the stranger’s grip.
“Because I gathered them and put them there.” His lips thinned in annoyance.
“You shouldn’t have left them unattended.”
“I was gathering more.” He pushed his hat back with one finger. Mirth in his piercing blue eyes belied the scowl on his face. He smelled of sweat, horses, and man. Nothing offensive, just strong and somewhat pleasant.
A tingle ran down Tori’s spine, and her heart did a double thump. She stood far from camp, alone with a strange man. Was she mad? She didn’t know him, yet she stuck around to feud with him over some sticks. She thrust out her chin, needing the confidence. “Well, if you’re prepared to see a woman and four children miss supper for lack of firewood, then so be it.” She moved to go around him. “Excuse me.”
He stepped in her path. “Where is your husband, ma’am, and why does he let you roam around unescorted?”
“I don’t have a husband, and never will, thank you very much,” Tori huffed, meeting his gaze. “Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a meal to prepare.”
“I’m very sorry, ma’am. You’re a widow?” The man immediately removed his hat.
“No, I’m not a widow. I’ve never been married.” She arched one eyebrow.
“You’ve never had a husband, but you have children?”
“Not that it’s any of your business, but they’re my nieces and nephews. I’m their only parent.” Tori narrowed her eyes.
“I guess I need to apologize again, ma’am.” He flashed a smile that sent her stomach fluttering. Straight white teeth would have sparkled if the sun had sat high in the sky. Oh no. She wouldn’t fall for that again.
“Apology accepted, now if you will excuse me.”
He bent and scooped up the branches, handing them to her with a flourish. “I know it’s not a bouquet of flowers, but I think you need these more.” He bowed, flashing her that grin again.
She nodded, took the branches, and left. Her ears buzzed with his chuckle as she walked away.
Another overconfident man. She’d had enough of those types. Her father had been a charmer, until it came time to raise his daughter after her mama died. Then he dumped her on Aunt Martha and took off.
She snorted. And James! He, too, exuded charm and good looks. And where did that get her? Engaged to a man who’d practically left her at the altar. No, never again. Aunt Martha was right. Men were a pain in the neck, and not to be trusted.
Jesse Cochran concentrated on the woman’s swaying hips as she walked off with her head held high. A pretty little thing, she didn’t even come up to his chin. Lots of curves, no bag of bones, that woman, something for a man to hold onto. Four kids! He whistled through his teeth. How the heck did she plan to make the run dragging four kids with her? He shrugged. Glad he didn’t have to deal with that problem.
Sunlight just about gone, he might as well do with some jerky and cold beans for supper, since there’d be no fire. He stretched and rolled his neck muscles. Tomorrow would be an important day. A fresh start, away from everything he wanted to put behind him.
He smiled as he headed back to camp. The woman with the kids, who’d claimed no husband—thank you very much—continued to occupy his thoughts.
Large brown eyes behind wire-rimmed spectacles made a man think he could see to her very soul. Full lips, kissable. He scowled. Pity, she made it quite clear his charm hadn’t done anything for her. All right with him. He didn’t come here to be distracted by a pretty face.
He whistled a familiar tune as he dished up some beans. As he forked a spoonful of supper into his mouth, he pursed his lips. Cold beans. What he wouldn’t give for a nice hot meal. But he’d done it to himself. Giving away his only fuel. As he ate, thoughts of the feisty woman sashaying away with his firewood ignited his pulse. Yeah, he wouldn’t be forgetting her anytime soon.
Tori sat by the campfire hugging her cup of coffee, the low buzz of conversation all around her. Excitement for tomorrow’s run sizzled in the air. She yawned and stretched, balancing the almost empty cup in her hand. She doubted she would get much sleep tonight. Rachel, Ellie, and Hunter had gone to bed a while ago, making do with blankets on the damp ground since the wagon still perched on a tree stump. They would probably all have pneumonia before they could even start the run.
Michael rolled the wheel over to the wagon, and leaned it against the stump. Shoulders drooping, he walked over and hunkered down next to her.
“Sorry, I couldn’t find anyone to fix the wheel.” He ran his fingers through his hair. “Every blacksmith in Arkansas City is overloaded with work, and those who were willing to do it wanted too much money.”
“Oh, no,” she said, pushing her spectacles back up the bridge of her nose. “What will we do now?”
Michael shrugged, and a long, thoughtful silence followed as they both stared into the fire.
“I wonder if taking the wagon on the run is a good idea.” Sparks flew in the chilled night air as she poked at the embers.
“I didn’t want to tell you, but that’s pretty much what I heard all afternoon while I tried to get the wheel fixed.” He stretched his arms out to warm his hands. “There are plenty of wagons making the run, most of them for farmland, but it’s not the fastest way to go, and they’re in much better shape than this one, even before the wheel broke.”
“What if I made the run myself on one of the horses?” She glanced sideways at him.
Michael stared at her, grim-faced. “No. I mean, it sounds like a good idea, but I’ll do it.” He poured the last of the coffee in his cup. “A woman shouldn’t be racing with a bunch of men for a piece of land.”
His words rattled, a boy telling her what women should and shouldn’t do. “There’s no reason why I can’t make the run.” She set her coffee on the rock next to her and crossed her arms over her chest. “I can ride and shoot as well as any man.”
Michael’s head jerked at her harsh words. “I’m hoping there won’t be any shooting going on, and I know you can ride as well as any man. But it’s not proper for a woman to be racing around with a bunch of men, her skirts flying after her.”
“Michael Henderson, I don’t need my sixteen-year-old nephew telling me what is and isn’t proper behavior. If I decide to do the run myself, then I will do it myself.” She clamped her lips in a firm line.
Michael shrugged his shoulders, avoiding her gaze. “Is there anything left to eat?”
She sighed. It wouldn’t do to take her general disgust with men out on her nephew. “I saved you a plate of beans and some bread. I’ll get it for you. Go ahead and wash up.”
While Michael readied for supper, and made his disapproval known by eating in silence, different ideas kept running through her mind. Finally she snapped her fingers. “I know what I’ll do. I’ll disguise myself as a man.”
He stared at her as if she was crazy. “Do you think you can do that?” He spoke around a mouthful of beans.
“Sure I can. I’ll borrow some of your clothes, and put my hair up. With a hat over it, no one will know.” She warmed to the idea. She could do this.
“Ah, Tori.” He cleared his throat. “What about, your ah, you know?” He waved in the general direction of his chest.
She smiled. “I’ll have Rachel help bind me.”
Flames from the fire highlighted the deep red flush on his cheeks before he sprang to his feet. “I’m turning in now. See you in the morning.”
Tori sat before the fire long after Michael left to sleep. Despite her bravado, her confidence in the entire plan waned. What the devil had possessed her to move them all here to the middle of nowhere, with a broken wagon, and a crazy idea of racing like a lunatic to get a piece of land? Maybe her wise-beyond-his-years nephew knew best, and she shouldn’t compete against a bunch of men. Uncertainties raced around her mind like a fox on the run. Hours passed before she was able to sleep.
Not refreshed after a long night of tossing and turning, Tori scooped water from the barrel into the coffee pot. In the dimness of dawn, the four children readied themselves for the day. As Michael worked around the wagon, he continued to cast disapproving glances in her direction.
Hunter yawned and ambled over to the fire to spoon oatmeal into his bowl. “Tori, how are we going to do the land run with a broken wagon wheel?”
“We’ll talk about that when we’re all settled for breakfast.”
Doubts from the night before resurfaced in full force as the children ate. Her stomach rolled, and her head hurt with the beginnings of a headache. She took a deep breath and put her bowl aside before she spoke, all in one breath. “Since the wagon isn’t fixed, I’ve decided to do the land run myself on one of the horses.”
Michael shook his head, and stared into his bowl. He ate in silence while the three other children stared open-mouthed at her.
Rachel leaned forward, her eyes wide. “How can you do that?”
“What will happen to us while you’re running?” Ellie asked in her little girl voice.
“You will all stay here with the wagon. Michael will be in charge. And Rachel, too,” she added quickly when her niece’s eyes narrowed.
“I’m scared, Tori.” Ellie’s chin trembled.
“There isn’t anything to be scared of, sweetie.” Tori got up and gave her a hug. “Michael, Rachel, and Hunter will be here with you.”
“But they’re not grown-ups.” Now Ellie’s voice trembled along with her chin.
“Well, Michael is almost a grown-up. And Rachel is almost a lady.” Tori bent to tuck the dark blond curl always escaping Ellie’s braids.
“I can’t believe you’re going to embarrass us all by racing with a bunch of men.” Rachel’s stance reflected defiance.
“We no longer have a wagon to race with,” Tori snapped. Guilt rushed through her at the hurt reflected in her eldest niece’s eyes. She had to stay calm and reassuring, but keeping peace with Rachel got harder all the time.
“And we can’t give up now that we’re here. I’m going to wear a set of Michael’s clothes, and put my hair up, so no one will know I’m a woman. I’ll need you to help me with—well, I’ll tell you about that later.” Getting to her feet, she clapped her hands. “All right, let’s clean up from breakfast and start working on your studies. You should be able to get a lot done while I’m gone.”
An examination of the two horses that had hauled them and their wagon from Kansas didn’t instill a whole lot of faith. Neither of them would make a great racing horse. Chewing on her lower lip, Tori left the horses and walked to the creek to wash before changing into her disguise.
Annoyance stalled her steps when she saw the man from the woods yesterday washing dishes in the creek. With the hundreds of people getting ready for the race at noon, the only empty space remained next to him. Tori knelt and wet her washcloth, averting his gaze, hoping he wouldn’t notice her.
“Still here, are you?”
She clenched her jaw at the sound of his voice. He stood over her, a grin on his face. Now that she saw him without shadows, it irritated her when her heart sped up.
Lord save me from another handsome face and charming smile.
“Yes, I’m still here.” Her voice rose. “And I plan to spend tonight camped on my own lot.”
“Easy honey, I’m not the enemy.” He put his hands up in surrender.
“Don’t call me honey!”
“Sorry.” His smile contradicted his apology. “A woman alone dragging a wagon and a passel of kids will most likely spend the night right outside Arkansas City pushing on her horse’s rump.”
This man had all the nerve in the world. “I will get my lot in town, sir. And I will make a life for myself and my family. Believe it or not, I’ll even do it without a man’s help.” She raised one eyebrow and flicked her fingers at him. “Now I’ll thank you to leave me in peace and mind your own business.” She turned back and mumbled, “And your manners.” She splashed her face with such vigor that water went up her nose, choking her.
A man kneeling on the other side glanced over and tugged on the brim of his hat. “Ma’am, excuse me for interferin’, but if you’re without a man, don’t try to drag a wagon.” He climbed to his feet, and gathered the laundry he’d washed. “A bunch of trains are leaving today right here in Arkansas City, headed for Indian Territory. They’ll fill up fast, but you’ll have a better chance than you would haulin’ a wagon. Especially if you’re headed for a town lot.”
“There’s a train going to Indian Territory?” Tori leaned back on her heels and, shading her eyes with her hand, studied the man.
“Yes, ma’am, The Missouri, Kansas, and Texas Railroad. The first train leaves at eight forty-five this morning. They’ll drop passengers off anywhere along the line, once they cross into Indian Territory.”
She closed her eyes. The annoying stranger’s voice irritated her ears.
“It’s a stupid and crazy idea. Even if you’re able to get a train ticket, it would be far too dangerous for a woman by herself.”
“Will you please leave me alone, and go about your own business?” Tori stood and dusted off her dress. She needed to leave this man’s presence and be rid of him.
With a bright smile, she nodded to the other man. “Thank you so much for the information, sir. I appreciate your help.”
She turned to glare at the exasperating man, who stood off to the side, grinning. With white-knuckled fingers, she hiked her skirt to reveal dirt-trodden boots. Tori tossed him a raised brow and stalked back to the wagon.
Thoughts in a whirl, she made plans. If she took the train, it would be safer than racing on a horse alongside a bunch of men like a wild woman. With a determined nod, she rummaged through the wagon to find a set of Michael's clothes. As soon as Rachel appeared, she could get herself bound and ready for a train ride. Her heart pumped with excitement. Going by train would be so much easier!COLLAPSE
The Romance Reviews wrote:
An exciting, heart-warming Western love story!
Char Chaffin wrote:
This is my first Callie Hutton story, but it certainly won't be my last.
I loved this book! So chock full of wonderful history, from the town that springs up almost overnight to the rich characterizations. Ms. Hutton has created a fascinating family in the Hendersons, a true leading man in Jesse Cochran and paves the way for much-anticipated sequels.