Sweet and charming tale of a blossoming love, set along the trail during the early days of the Pony Express. A caring widow with a houseful of adopted children. A lonely cowboy, searching for his lost mail-order bride, taking on a new role as station manager. Can they overcome all the obstacles and find a new life together? This title is a great quick read with a heartwarming conclusion.
Read an excerpt:
Dove Creek, Wyoming
"What were you thinking?" Rebecca Young demanded of her youngest son, Benjamin. She tossed the water bucket to the side. Her body shook as fearful images built in her mind. "You could have been killed." The acrid smell of smoke in the early-morning air almost choked her as she fought for control. Benjamin might be adopted, but she loved him as much as she loved her daughter, Joy. The thought of losing him in a fire tore at her heart, leaving her feeling raw.
Black soot covered his young face and tears traced dirty tracks down his cheeks. He coughed, echoing coughs from others around them. The eight-year-old boy wrung his hands and shook his head from side to side. "I didn't mean for it to happen, Ma."
Fear and anger warred for control of her emotions. If Jacob hadn't seen the flames tearing through the barn and gotten Benjamin out, her youngest son would have died in the fire. She couldn't—she heaved a deep sigh—no, she wouldn't let her fear take the sting out of her scolding. "But it did happen, Benjamin. How many times have I told you not to take a lantern into the barn?"
The tears increased and dripped off his quivering chin. Big brandy-colored eyes met her gaze. Fear filled them. Was it fear of her, or the fact that he could have died in the fire? "I'm sorry, Ma." His voiced choked; he threw his arms around her waist and buried his head against her.
Rebecca ran her hands down his thin arms then embraced him tightly, unmindful of the black soot being smeared against the white of her apron.
Her gaze moved from one to the other of the six young men who stood in the yard. Her other adopted sons. Rebecca barely held back the tears, her heart winging a prayer of thanks that none of them were hurt putting out the flames.
Her oldest son, twenty-year-old Jacob, stared morosely at what used to be their barn.
The second oldest son, nineteen-year-old Andrew, kneeled on one knee at the edge of the clearing. He most likely desired privacy when he prayed, but that was a luxury big families couldn't afford. How she'd love to join him and thank the Lord for His protection. Each of the boys had learned early on from her deceased husband, John, to pray about everything. She couldn't help but be proud of Andrew for knowing where their help came from. Clayton, who'd just had his nineteenth birthday, dropped his water bucket, pure frustration lining his young face, and stomped back to the house. Rebecca knew he tried hard to hold in the pent-up fear and hopelessness that the burning barn caused and made a mental note to go to him as soon as she could.
Eighteen-year-old Thomas and eighteen-year-old Philip stood side by side, eyes darting back and forth, watching everything as it unfolded. The boys were best friends and had vowed to always stick together even before she and John adopted them.
Twelve-year-old Noah, the newest member of her family, looked ready to bolt. He stood frozen, motionless, waiting for what she would say or do next. He'd only been with her a couple of months and wasn't sure about anything yet. He reminded her of a hungry dog—ready to fight if needed, but hoping for love and a little food to fill his belly.
The morning sun shone brightly over all of them now. But when the fire had first been detected, it had still been dark. Her boys had rushed to put out the flames, but they'd been no match for the heat radiating from the inferno. A heap of smoking, blackened timber filled the spot where the barn once stood. Thankfully, her five-year-old daughter, Joy, hadn't come out to assist.
If John had been here, this never would have happened. Once more the loss of her husband struck home. How often in the past eight months had she wished that he was still alive? Too often.
After twelve years of marriage it was hard to believe he was gone. The boy sobbing into her apron drew her thoughts away from the past and her sorrow. She stroked Benjamin's light brown hair.
An unfamiliar cough sounded and then a man cleared his throat. "I hate to disturb you, ma'am."
She had all but forgotten the stranger who had raced into the yard and jumped in to help put out the blaze. Rebecca released Benjamin and turned toward the man. "I'm sorry, Mr…." She waited for him to fill in his name.
Rebecca wiped her hands on her apron. "Thank you, Mr. Armstrong, for stopping by to help put out the fire." Thanks to his help, the fire had been subdued faster than it normally would have taken, but not before they'd lost the barn and everything in it.
"I was happy to help, Mrs. Young," Seth answered, pulling her from her musings.
How did he know her name?
Before she could ask, Jacob barked out orders to the other boys. "Andrew, you and Philip go gather up the horses that arrived yesterday, put them in the training corral and feed them. Thomas, milk the cow and go get Clayton, tell him I said to find Brownie and Snowball and hitch up the wagon. We're going to town for lumber." He watched as the boys scrambled to do as he said.
"What do you want me to do?" Noah asked quietly.
Jacob walked over to the twelve-year-old and bent down to eye level. In a softer voice he asked, "Would you take Beni into the house and give him a good washing?"
Noah nodded. He walked over to Benjamin. "Come on, Beni. Jacob says we have to get you cleaned up." The two boys left the yard and Noah had planted his hand firmly on Benjamin's shoulder.
Jacob stood once more and came to stand beside Rebecca. She was very proud of her oldest son. John's death had hit him the hardest and he'd taken to heart her husband's last words—to take care of the family.
Her gaze returned to Seth Armstrong. He was a big man with deep green eyes and black hair. His shoulders were wide. And his hair touched his collar. Rebecca wondered if she was in some sort of shock. What did it matter what the stranger looked like? More important, how did he know her? Did her deceased husband owe him money? She prayed not. Even though John had left her secure, she didn't have room in her budget to pay out extra money.
As if sensing her confusion, Jacob asked, "What can we do for you, Mr. Armstrong?"
His green eyes met Jacob's. "Well, I suppose you could show me to my room." He turned his attention back on Rebecca. "I'm the Pony Express station keeper that Mr. Bromley told you would be arriving." He walked back to his horse and pulled down a carpetbag from the back of his saddle.
If John hadn't already signed the contract to use their farm as a home station, Rebecca would have been tempted to call the whole thing off. But the boys needed the extra income and she didn't want them to be forced to leave the farm to find other jobs. If it was in her power she'd keep them together as a family for as long as possible. Now she simply had to trust in the Lord and pray that everything worked out.
When John had told Rebecca of the Pony Express and how Mr. Bromley, the Pony Express ramrod, would be by to tell them more about what their part in it entailed, Rebecca never dreamed she'd be singlehand-edly dealing with this many changes. Now that Seth Armstrong was here, she felt even more alone. Her farm was to be the home station and her boys Pony Express riders.
The original plan had been for John to be the one running the station, not a stranger. But once Mr. Bromley learned of John's death, he had told her he'd be sending a station keeper to replace him. She'd suggested Jacob, but the route superintendent feared Jacob's brothers wouldn't listen and obey him like they would someone else, so he'd sent this new man.
"Mr. Bromley sent you?" Jacob's question was for Seth, but he looked to Rebecca for answers, not the man who had just claimed to be the new boss on the farm. Confusion and hurt laced the depths of his eyes.
Rebecca's heart sank knowing he wondered why she hadn't told him of this latest development. She nodded. "Yes. Mr. Bromley came out last week when you and the others were fixing fences in the back pasture. When he found out that John had passed, he insisted we needed a station keeper. I planned to tell you and the other boys soon." She hadn't expected the replacement to arrive a week later and had thought she'd have more time to break it gently to Jacob.
Jacob nodded, but a thin veil of hardness covered his eyes. He turned his gaze back to Seth. "I'll show you where you can put your things."
Rebecca watched them head to the bunkhouse. She heard Jacob ask, "You got any papers on you? Proving you are who you say you are?" His young voice held strength, a strength she'd leaned on too heavily in the past few months.
Seth Armstrong chuckled. "Sure have. Right here in my bag. I'll show them to you and Mrs. Young, once I get settled in." He pulled his horse behind him as Jacob led the way to the bunkhouse.
She turned and looked at the smoldering pile of embers that used to be her barn. Gone. In just a few minutes the barn had burned to the ground. What had Benjamin been doing out here? Especially in the early hours of the morning?
Rebecca stepped closer to the rubble. She sighed. It looked as if she would have to dip into her funds to rebuild the barn. Jacob would have to ask for credit from the lumber mill and she'd add the nails to her growing tab at the general store. Once they had the total cost of the barn and all the supplies they'd need, she'd get the money from the bank and pay both men. She'd learned shortly after John's death that if she didn't deal with the men in this manner, they'd take advantage of her and she ended up paying more than what she'd actually owed. That wasn't going to happen again.
As she walked back to the house, Rebecca called to the new Pony Express station keeper and Jacob. "Breakfast will be ready in half an hour. Don't make me wait."
The desire to call out to Mr. Armstrong to return to where he came from pulled at her vocal cords. She would like nothing more than to have the peace and quiet of her farm restored. But Rebecca knew that wasn't possible. If she wanted to keep her family together, then the Pony Express would have to be a big part of it, and that included Seth Armstrong.
Seth laid his bag on the bed. Jacob had taken him to the small room off to the left-hand side of the bunk-house. It contained a bed, a side table and a chest with a washbasin on the top. A wooden box hung above the trunk and held a razor and hand mirror. An adjoining door led to the remainder of the bunkhouse, giving him two methods of entry.
"I'll get my things out of here after breakfast." Jacob stood with his hand on the doorknob.
Seth hoped his words rang true as he said, "I hate to put you out."
Jacob shook his head. "The other boys will be more comfortable with me than you in the other room with them."
"I'm sure they will." Seth took his Bible out of the bag and laid it down on the table.
Jacob studied the book as if it was a snake. "You read that often?"
The boy nodded. "I'll leave you to settle in and go check on the others." He didn't wait for an answer, but simply walked out the door.
Seth looked down at the worn brown leather of his Bible. It was the same one that his father had preached from and studied over for many hours. Jacob had acted as if it was poisonous, or might inflict harm, instead of being a balm that offered soothing words to a troubled soul. Had he been placed here to help the boy find his way to God? He doubted Jacob would welcome him in that area of his life any more than he welcomed him now as the new Pony Express station keeper.
He moved to the only window in the bunkhouse and looked out at the burned barn. Smoke still spiraled upward to the sky. Building a new barn would help him get to know the young men who were now his charges. Seth planned on staying just long enough to teach them how to survive the trail they were soon to be riding and then he'd continue on to search for Charlotte, his lost mailorder bride.
His thoughts went to the woman who had promised to be his bride. The last letter he'd received from her said she was taking the first stage out of California and should arrive in a few weeks, only she'd never showed. After his grandmother's death, Seth had left his home in St. Joseph, Missouri, and begun searching for Charlotte. He was a man of his word and he intended to keep his promise to his grandmother. He'd find Charlotte and marry her. He knew he wouldn't fall in love. His mother had taught him that to love someone meant getting hurt and he'd never go through what his father had. Never.
He doubted Charlotte had come to any harm. Her letters had indicated she didn't want to get married any more than he did, but the girl had no other choices at the time. She'd been up-front in her reasons for answering his advertisement—lack of money and nowhere else to turn. He'd been honest, too, telling her he was trying to keep his last promise to his now-deceased grandmother. He'd also told her he didn't believe in falling in love, as it only led to heartbreak and death. His own mother had deserted him and his father when he was a child. No, he wouldn't open himself up to that kind of hurt again. He'd keep his promise to get married. He'd assured his grandmother he wouldn't be alone after she died and he'd keep that promise, one way or another.
Excerpted from Pony Express Courtship by Rhonda Gibson. Copyright © 2016 by Rhonda Gibson. Excerpted by permission of Harlequin (US & Canada). All right reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.