Both want to escape their pasts, but when a fellow outlaw recognizes him, will their marriage end before it can even begin?
Stella McCord wants a new start to help erase a rambunctious past and decides to become a mail-order bride. Hoping for acceptance and love, she is greeted by a crumbling, old hotel and a suspicious fiancé.
When Travis Stone wins a rundown hotel in a card game, he hopes to escape his lawless past. All he needs is a trusted manage to help him run his property. Believing a wife would be cheaper, he advertises for a mail-order bride.
Will Travis get his wish and acquire a stable employee or will Stella have other ideas regarding their upcoming marriage arrangement?
Carlsbad, New Mexico, 1905
“Sheriff’s lookin’ for ya, Mr. Stone!”READ MORE
Travis threw a quick glance at the young ragamuffin who scurried between the cramped tables in the saloon and skidded to a stop beside him. “He knows where to find me.” Since arriving in town he’d laid low, trying to stay away from the sheriff and any possible trouble. No matter how careful he was, problems always seemed to find him—as well as bullets. He still hadn’t figured out who’d shot him and had kept his eyes and ears open for any sign that someone from his old outlaw gang had finally found him. He’d walked away from that life five years ago and had worked too hard to get sucked back in because of circumstances he had no control over.
The wound had kept him in town longer than he’d planned, and he now found himself making excuses to stay. His gaze lingered on the young kid still standing next to him. The town, and a few of its occupants, were growing on him.
Looking back down at the spread of cards in his hand, his right thumb slowly flicked the bottom edge of a card. He glanced at the other hands already on the table, then placed his cards face up near the pile of money. He leaned back in his chair and ran his thumb and first two fingers down his long mustache in a well-practiced motion.
His gaze touched on the five men sitting across from him. “I believe I have the winning hand, gentlemen.”
One of the players, a sallow-faced kid with a scar on one side of his face and a lazy eye, grumbled and pushed away from the table without looking at anyone. His boots clumped loudly across the wood planked floor as he stomped out of the saloon. Two other men, the Cathcart brothers, stood together and planted their palms on the tabletop, faces flushed and eyes radiating anger as they glared at him—both with a pair each, fours and fives.
Jacob Smithton sat across from him and chomped on his short cigar. In his frustration, his blunt, yellowed teeth bit through it. The lit end fell into his lap and he quickly brushed it to the floor. Smithton’s large body twisted as he ground the cigar into the wood, his hard gaze never leaving Travis’s face.
“Not gonna let you take my hotel, Stone,” Smithton growled, his fat fingers thumbing the edges of the cards lying face-up under his hand and showing a pair of eights. “You cheated me out of it, and I aim to get it back. One way or another.”
Travis shrugged one shoulder and leaned back against his chair, the dry wood creaking underneath his weight. “Then you shouldn’t have wagered it. We’ve been over this several times, Smithton. Hotel’s mine. You lost it fair and square.”
“Damn you, Stone!” The last player, a thin, gangly man, barked in a cold British accent…yet his clothes looked like the outfit of a hard-working cowboy, even down to the saddle-worn boots. “No man’s that lucky.”
“Don’t reckon’ I’d call that hand lucky, boys,” a low, steady voice said behind Travis. “Dead man’s hand. Been sheriff a long time. Only pain and death comes with that hand.”
Travis pulled out a handful of bills from the pile and tossed them to the table in front of the brothers as the other men left the table. “Take that to your mother. Emily works too hard for the two of you to throw it away playin’ cards.”
Will Cathcart jerked back as if he’d been struck, his already florid face darkening to an unhealthy red as he shoved the money away. “Don’t need your scorn, Stone.” He grabbed his younger brother’s elbow and pulled him away from the table. “We’ll get even, Stone. Mark my words…we’ll get even.”
Travis watched the two men barrel their way through the saloon doors. Reaching across the table, he picked up the money and held it out to the sheriff. “Meant what I said about Emily. She’s a hard worker. She deserves better than to have those two no-account sons of hers throw it away. Tell her to find a better hiding place for her wages—unless she’s handing it to them herself.”
Sheriff Tom Higgins took the bills, folded them in half, and tucked the money into his vest pocket. “Doesn’t seem to matter where she puts it; they find it anyway. I’ll talk to her about it.” Tom’s gray hair stuck out from underneath the stained brown hat, which was pushed slightly back on his head. He narrowed his gray eyes. “Not like a gambler to give away winnings. You surprise me, Stone.” He grabbed one of the chairs and turned it around, straddling the seat. Resting his thick forearms on the top rung of the chair’s back, he leaned forward.
“We need to talk, you and me.”
Travis kept a steady gaze on the imposing man facing him. He liked Tom, which was unusual for him. Normally, he didn’t stay in a town long enough to get to know anyone, much less the sheriff. He’d play for one or two nights then leave. Whether he won or lost didn’t matter. Gambling from town to town was his chosen way of life, and he’d always enjoyed it.
Since arriving in Carlsbad, however, he’d begun questioning that choice. The town was growing, and good people lived here. He scrubbed the back of his neck, stretching the stiff muscles. Could he really fit in? Would his past let him?
He pocketed the coins and tucked the bills into his worn leather wallet, then slid the wallet back into the special pocket he’d sewn inside his coat. Leaning back in his chair, he stared at Tom, hoping the sheriff was just fishing for information. On several previous occasions, the lawman had stated he thought Travis looked familiar, and each time Travis was able to put him off. Maybe he’d finally figured it out?
“Levi delivered your message almost a week ago, Sheriff.” He nodded toward the young boy, who’d never moved from his side. “Expected you to stop by sooner.“ From the corner of his eye, he saw the kid’s tousled head bobbing up and down in agreement. He bit back his smile and
waited for the inevitable—for the sheriff to tell him to leave town. Evidently, he’d overstayed his welcome in this sleepy town.
“Smithton’s been at my office daily since he lost the hotel—sometimes twice a day. Keeps insisting you swindled him out of the Palace,” the sheriff said.
Travis opened his mouth but closed it again when Tom held up his hand. “I’ve watched you since the first day you arrived, Stone, which you probably know. I make it a point to watch anyone who all but lives in a saloon.” The older man shook his head, speculation gleaming in his eyes. “I know I’ve said it before...you seem so familiar to me, but damned if I can figure out why.”
Travis shrugged, schooling his features to remain blank. “I just have that kind of face.” Tom Higgins was smart, smarter than anyone he’d come across since he’d taken up gambling at the age of fifteen in hopes of escaping the Outlaw Trail he’d found himself living on after killing his father. He wasn’t too concerned about the sheriff...yet. Travis had worked hard to bury his many mistakes. He’d somehow managed to create a new life for himself, and no one, not even a sheriff as fair as Tom Higgins, was going to take that from him. No one.
To calm his nerves, he reached for the cards and shuffled. Pulling a section from the back, he gave a well-practiced, smooth flick of his wrist and sifted them back together. He met the sheriff’s gray gaze and raised the deck. “Friendly game? No wagers.”
Tom nodded, his gaze following the cards as Travis dealt five cards to them both, placing the remaining cards face down in the center of the table. Travis glanced at his cards and rearranged them, placing the two queens side by side and keeping a seven of spades.
Tom discarded two cards and waited, no emotion on his face. “Like you, I’ve done this job for a long time, son. I’m good at it, too.”
Travis discarded the two cards he didn’t want and pulled two more from the deck. He’d drawn another queen and, as luck would have it, the seven of hearts. He now had a full house. Glancing up at Tom, he nodded.
Tom stared at his hand a moment then placed them, face down, on the table. “I fold.”
Travis spread his cards out on the table for the sheriff to see. “I don’t cheat, Tom.”
Higgins stood, straightening the gun holstered on his hip. “Never said you did, Stone.” He smiled. “Smithton wants his hotel back. Don’t rightly understand why, though. He’s run it into the ground. Place is so filthy, no respectable person will stay there. Can’t give away a room.” He chuckled. “Livery’s cleaner than that hotel.” He took a few steps toward the door then stopped, turning his head back to Travis. “I suggest you figure out what you’re gonna do quick like, because Smithton’s stirring up trouble. And I don’t want trouble in my town, Stone. You best watch your back.”
When the sheriff had gone, Levi leaned his elbows on the table. “Whatcha gonna do, boss?”
Travis bit back a smile. No matter what he did, the boy stuck to him like a shadow at high noon. From what little Levi would say about his past, Travis got the impression the eleven-year-old had no family. Like himself, the kid was alone. “Stop calling me that. I’m not your boss.”
Levi nodded. “Yessir.” His nervous gaze skittered around the almost empty room. The only people left were two Mexicans drinking beer at a table near the back door. “Well, boss? Any ol’ answer would be kinda nice. Whatcha gonna do?“
Travis sighed and gulped the last of the amber liquid, then set the empty glass on the table. Standing, he pulled the bottom corner of his coat over his pistol and tossed a few coins on the table for the beer. “About what?”
Levi rolled his eyes and followed him from the saloon. They walked down the wooden sidewalk separating the business fronts from the dirt street. “The hotel. Sheriff’s right, you know. The Palace is a mess. I think there’s more dirt inside than there is in the street. And it stinks, too!“
Travis glanced down at his small companion, half listening as the kid prattled on. Tall and scrawny for his age, Levi could gain thirty pounds and still be too thin. He frowned, wondering when the boy had last eaten, and mentally kicked himself for not paying more attention. Nor had he noticed the state of Levi’s clothes. The hems of his pants were more than an inch above his ankles and he had large holes at both knees. His shirt wasn’t much better, with several buttons missing—one in the middle of his chest, as well as each cuff, which flapped around the middle of his forearms. The kid’s boots were even worse. His big toes stuck out through aged holes at the tips, digging into the dirt with each step.
“What do you think I should do?“ Travis asked, steering him toward the general store.
Levi’s eyes widened. “You’re askin’ me for my opinion?”
With a serious frown, Levi twisted his mouth in thought. “Well, sir, I believe you need a woman. Womenfolk just got a knack for making things nice. My ma used to make our soddy sparkle—and that was nothin’ but dirt! Problem is, there aren’t many females in Carlsbad left—most of ’em are already taken. Those who aren’t…well, you’ve done made ’em mad.”
Travis stared at the kid, his lungs fighting to pull in enough air. A woman was the last thing he needed or wanted. He’d sworn off females after his mother ran off, leaving him with a father who’d cared more about his next drink than raising his son.
They’d stopped in front of the general store. Forcing his feet to move, he steered Levi through the store’s front door. Fifteen minutes later, with a lot of help from the store owner, he’d managed to find two pair of jeans and two shirts. For some strange reason, Levi had insisted on a dark blue-on-blue striped shirt, almost an exact replica of Travis’s, as well as a cream shirt.
Reaching to an overhead shelf, Travis pulled down a pair of brown boots, and the boy’s small face lit up in a wide grin. Plopping down on the floor, Levi jerked off the ragged boots and stuffed his bare feet into the new ones. His shoulders drooped as his smile turned upside down. “They’re too small.”
Travis shook his head, fighting his own smile. He grabbed another pair and set them on the floor beside Levi. “So, you try on a larger size.” He chuckled when one of the too-small boots flew across the narrow aisle, the other quickly following. Before Levi could shove his filthy foot into the new boot, Travis raised his hand. “Hold on a minute.” He reached over and grabbed a pair of wool socks and tossed them between Levi’s legs. “Put those on first.”
Levi scowled. “Why do I have to wear socks? Do just fine without ’em.”
“Well, men wear socks—and you’ll soon be a man, so you should get used to them now. Besides, what would happen if, by chance, I take you riding one day and your horse goes lame? Ever walked a lot of miles?” Levi shook his head. “I have. Even with socks, I had blisters. Lots of them. Hurt like the dickens for days.”
Levi’s eyes widened and, with a nod, pulled on the socks, which were followed by the boots. He jumped up and paced back and forth down the aisle. Turning around, he made his way back to stand in front of Travis. Without warning, the boy threw his arms around Travis’s waist, burying his face in his shirt. Not knowing quite what to do, Travis awkwardly patted Levi’s trembling shoulders.
Levi raised his tear-stained face, a weak smile hovering over his lips. “Thank you, sir. No one’s ever been so nice to me before.”
What felt like a fist tightened around his heart, and Travis returned the kid’s smile, a calmness settling inside him. “My name is Travis, not sir or boss.” He tousled Levi’s already messy, not to mention dirty, blond hair. He reached over and grabbed another pair of socks, and added several pairs of drawers to the growing pile. He paid the clerk, who wrapped everything in brown paper and tied it with string. Carrying the parcel under his arm, Travis stepped out onto the sidewalk with Levi scooting through the door right behind him.
“Now, how about something to eat? Are you hungry?”
Levi nodded. “I’m starving!”
“Good. Let’s go to O’Darby’s. Mabel’s special today is her delicious peach cobbler.”
“I’ve never had peach cobbler…what’s cobbler?”
Travis chuckled. “Well, I guess you’ll just have to eat your meal and find out.”
They settled inside the restaurant at a corner table so Travis could watch the door. Several minutes later, steaming plates were placed in front of them. He watched the kid in disbelief. He’d never seen anyone devour a huge piece of fried chicken as fast as Levi. “Slow down, kid. You’re gonna choke if you keep shoveling your food in that fast.”
Levi swiped the back of his hand across his mouth, and Travis handed him a napkin. Levi stared at it a moment, then wiped his mouth again and set the napkin on the table beside him. “Can I ask you a question, Travis?” Travis nodded, and Levi’s eyes dropped to his almost empty plate. “Why are you being so nice to me? I mean, I’m grateful an’ all, especially for the clothes, but why are you doin’ this? Do I gotta pay you back somehow?”
A kernel of unease settled in Travis’s gut, and he noticed the way Levi slunk down in his chair. He lifted his hand to reach for his glass of water, and Levi’s thin body flinched as if struck. The kernel blossomed into full-fledged anger. “Look at me, Levi.” He waited for the kid to raise his gaze, which took longer than he liked. He hadn’t seen this side of Levi before, and he didn’t like it. Finally, Levi’s dark brown eyes met his, and they were filled with fear.
Travis pulled his hand away from the glass, abandoning his drink. “Who hurt you, Levi? Was it someone in Carlsbad?”
The boy shrugged, his lips pressed tightly together.
“Fine. You don’t have to tell me until you’re ready, but if anyone, and I mean anyone, tries to again, you will tell me. Do you understand, Levi?” Levi nodded once. “I bought you the clothes because you needed them. You’ve taken good care of me since I arrived in town, so now it’s my turn to return the favor. From now on, you can eat with me so I know you’re getting enough food. That’s what friends do for each other.”
The boy’s eyes widened. “You...you’re my friend?” he said in a shaky voice.
Travis clenched his jaws and stared into the eleven-year-old’s tear-filled eyes. “Yes, Levi. I am definitely your friend.” He motioned for the waitress, who scurried across the room with two bowls close to overflowing with peach cobbler.
Levi stared at the bowl, his mouth hanging open. He picked up his spoon, shaking his head. “I’ve never seen a bowl so full.”
Travis swallowed his bite, licking his lips with a grin. “As promised, Mabel makes the best cobbler in this part of the country, so dig in. It’s even better when it’s still warm.”
Lifting his spoon, it hung suspended in mid-air. “I’m glad you’re my friend, Travis. Really glad.”
Frowning, Travis watched Levi shovel the dessert, spoonful by spoonful, into his mouth. “Are you even tasting it? How about breathing? Seriously, when was the last time you ate?”
Levi laughed and swallowed the last bite. He used the napkin to wipe off the circle of sugary peach filling lining his mouth and shrugged. “Yesterday I think. Sometimes Sam over at the saloon gives me any leftovers when he closes.” He leaned back in his chair, his eyebrows rising. He rested his head on the back of his chair like he was going to sleep. Travis frowned as Levi’s lips slowly turned up in a devilish grin.
Suddenly, the eleven-year-old scooted forward, his chest pressing against the table’s edge. “Travis, I know how to get you a woman...for the Palace, of course. You’re gonna write a letter explainin’ what you need her for—hold on a sec!” He hopped from the chair and grabbed a newspaper someone had left on a nearby table. Hurrying back to their table, he opened it up quickly scanning each page.
“You can read?” Travis asked amazed to see how fast the boy turned the pages.
Levi nodded, never taking his eyes from the paper. “Sure I can. Ma taught me before she passed.” Suddenly, he pointed a dirty finger at a short advertisement, the heading in bold letters. Wanted: Mail-Order Bride.
Big Red, Amazon wrote:
Sweet unexpected love
I loved this book and did not want to put it down. Stella and Travis are good people who experienced many hardships and challenges. I laughed and cried with them as they faced their fears and adversity. I also think the book should have an epilogue to let us know how they proceeded with their lives. I recommend this book wholeheartedly.
Slrice, Amazon wrote:
I thoroughly enjoyed how the author developed the characters in this story. Each was shaped by their past, but as they came into contact with the others, the best of them came out and they began to form tight bonds. This romance started as a matter of convenience, but personal feelings began to change attitudes. I liked the author's message that in spite of a difficult past, one can move forward to something better when you are with those you love.
I do not typically read romance novels, but I am very pleased to have come across this one. I thoroughly enjoyed it and will read more of this series.