I'm so excited to have another Runaway Bride story out. Dec. 13th isn't coming fast enough to celebrate. So, I thought I'd tease you with letting you read Chapter One. :)
Nicholas Drake narrowed his gaze on the outlaw not more than ten feet in front of him. Both men had their hands hovering over their holstered pistols, waiting for the right moment to draw. The sun hadn’t started its rise on the horizon yet, and shadows were playing tricks on Nick’s eyes, which meant he had to be that much more cautious.
It hadn’t taken Nick very long to track down Jakeson – which was the only name the outlaw used – and now that he had the filthy man, he wasn’t about to let him go. The Pinkerton Agency wanted Jakeson because of the many trains he had robbed in the last seven years. Thankfully, none of the passengers on the train had been killed. However, many had been injured. As a Pinkerton agent, Nick would make sure Jakeson didn’t harm another person ever again.
It surprised Nick that the outlaw dressed so grubby and smelled as though he’d been rolling with the pigs, especially for a man who had stolen money and women’s expensive jewels. Wouldn’t the outlaw want to dress better or at least smell better? Now Nick wondered what the stolen money had been used on.
“Don’t be a fool, Jakeson,” Nick warned. “I’m a quick-draw, and I’ll shoot you before your hand even touches the butt of the gun.”
The outlaw who appeared to be in his late forties gave Nick a darker scowl, and the man’s expression was very self-assured. Once again, Nick would have to prove the man wrong because he would not let the outlaw win.
“I’m not afraid of ya.” Jakeson shook his head. “I’ve slipped away from other Pinkerton agents, and I’ll get away from ya just as fast.”
Indeed, the man was a fool. “If you come along with me without putting up a fight, I assure you, the judge will be more lenient with your sentence.”
“Don’t try usin’ yer big words on me. I’m never gonna let ya take me.”
Nick shrugged. “Then I guess I’ll just shoot you now instead of trying to talk some sense into your tiny brain.”
In a flash, Nick took hold of his gun and pointed it at the outlaw. Just as he had warned the other man, there was no way the outlaw was faster. Jakeson’s eyes widened, and Nick was privileged to see the panic on the man’s face.
“Hold up your hands where I can see them,” Nick demanded. “And walk slowly toward me so that I can slap these cuffs on your wrists. The other agents may have let you slip through their fingers, but I promise you, I’ll not make the same mistake.”
Jakeson’s scowl deepened the obvious wrinkles already lining his leathery face. His salt and pepper-toned hair that matched the color of his bushy beard gave away his age. “Don’t get too cocky, Agent Drake.”
“I’m not cocky.” Nick arched an eyebrow. “I’m confident.”
Jakeson chuckled and lifted his hands as Nick requested. “No, yer cocky, just like the other agents. Ya see, that’s how I can get away so easily. Y'all are so sure of yerself, ya don’t think I’m smart enough to make a plan, but I am.” He nodded. “I’m smarter than ya realize.”
“Sounds to me, Jakeson, that you are the cocky one.” Nick motioned with his pistol. “Now, slowly, start walking toward me and keep your hands up where I can see them, or my itchy trigger finger might just slip.”
Jakeson’s lip curled as he took slow steps toward Nick. This outlaw could not be trusted, and Nick wouldn’t believe a word the man said, even if he was choking to death and begged for help.
A small amount of light peeked on the horizon as the sun began to rise. There were still many shadows, but at least it wasn’t as many as a few minutes ago. Still, Nick was cautious as he kept his eye on the outlaw.
The man took his time coming toward Nick, and his finger rested on the trigger just in case the fool tried something. The train robber’s straggly long hair hung in his face, and from what Nick could tell, pockmarks and scars were very prominent no matter how long his hair was.
Nick carefully withdrew the handcuffs from his belt, not taking his attention from the outlaw. After turning Jakeson into the sheriff, Nick thought about asking his supervisor for another case. Keeping his mind busy was exactly what he needed at this time in his life. Hopefully, working hard on a tough case would take him out of Montana and far away from her.
About a month ago, he’d made a tremendous mistake while trying to comfort a woman. He should have known better. Pretty ladies with watery eyes had always been his biggest downfall.
Suddenly, Jakeson tripped and fell to the ground, landing facedown. Nick steadied his hand, pointing the gun toward the outlaw.
“Get up,” Nick snapped, prepared for anything now.
He waited for the man to move, but the outlaw lay still. Taking careful steps, Nick moved closer. A large rock was very near to the man’s head. Nick grimaced. Had Jakeson struck his head on the hard object and been knocked unconscious?
“Get up, man.” Nick kicked his boot into the outlaw’s leg. Still, the man lay still.
Grumbling under his breath, Nick shook his head. He didn’t necessarily want to drag the man to his horse and throw him over the animal by himself. But at least he could handcuff him and wait for him to regain consciousness.
Nick sighed and rolled his eyes. At least he wouldn’t have to shoot him.
He stepped closer and bent to take hold of one of Jakeson’s hands. Suddenly, the outlaw rolled over and kicked Nick’s shins. Before he could gain his balance, the outlaw threw dirt into Nick’s face.
His eyes stung, and he blinked rapidly. His vision was unclear, but he still tried to aim his gun at the man.
Seconds later, Jakeson barreled into Nick, knocking him over. As he fell on his back, his breath whooshed out of his mouth painfully. His gun fell from his hand.
Nick struggled to retain control, but his eyes still stung with the dirt, and his ribs cried out in pain. Before Nick could see it coming, Jakeson’s fist plowed into his face. Then another punch followed. And another one.
Dizziness assailed Nick while he tried to ward off the blows. For a moment, the dreaded realization hit him… Maybe he wasn’t in control after all.
* * * *
Good things were going to happen today. Lydia Swanson just knew it.
Already, the sun was shining in the morning sky, and birds were singing. When Lydia entered the milliner shop an hour ago, the other two ladies she worked with were busily making hats and chatting about the town's latest scandals. Thankfully, nothing was said about the Swanson sisters this time.
As Lydia prepared her work for the day, she recognized that guilt wasn’t weighing her down any longer.
It had been a whole month since she’d blamed her older sister, Victoria, for consorting with the man Lydia was supposed to marry, when lo and behold, what had Lydia done with the man helping her find her lost sister? She fell in love with him!
For Lydia, that day had turned from bad to worse. After catching her sister kissing Mr. Cartwright, Lydia had run off wanting to get far away and never see her sister again. The man who’d been helping her, Pinkerton agent Nicholas Drake, had chased after her and when he’d found her…
A shiver ran through Lydia, and she shook her head. No! She could not – would not – think of what had happened that day. But at least she had stopped feeling guilty about it. She’d forgiven her sister, and they were best friends again. In fact, Lydia had had the privilege of helping Victoria get ready for her wedding to Alan Cartwright.
Lydia sighed and smiled. It had been a wonderful wedding. Many people in Stumptown had come to see their friend, Alan, marry the woman who had rescued him. Well, that was the story Toria and Alan were telling everyone, anyway. Only a few of them knew what really happened.
“Lydia? How is your sister Rachael?” Penny asked, swinging a shawl over her shoulders as she walked closer to Lydia.
Snapping out of her thoughts, she realized it was time to drive into Libby, the town where they picked up supplies for the shop once a month. One of the three women always stayed behind while the other two took the long drive. Today was Lydia’s turn to take the drive.
She quickly set her sewing down and hurried to the wall to collect her bonnet and shawl. “Rachael is doing fine.”
“Is she still interested in becoming a milliner?” Penny asked. “Because business is picking up. We may want to hire another sewer.”
Lydia shrugged as she placed the bonnet on her head. “Rachael hasn’t decided yet. She wants to be either a milliner or a seamstress.”
Penny walked to the door and peeked over her shoulder at Sara. “We’ll be back later this evening.”
“Have a pleasant journey.” Sara smiled.
Penny nodded. “I’ll be taking my trusty rifle, just in case.”
Lydia was relieved that Penny and Sara knew how to shoot because she had never used a gun in her life. Those things scared her.
As they left the shop, Lydia waved to the other lady. Sara was the oldest out of the three, and at times, Lydia looked up to her friend as a mother figure, especially since she couldn’t ever remember her own mother being a caregiver. Ma was always sick, which Lydia blamed on her drunken father, who was never home and eventually ran off for good. Ma had been sad about her life, which ultimately made her so sick she died.
The three women at the milliner shop had so much in common, but the most important thing was that they were all orphans. Although Lydia’s father was still alive somewhere – probably living in a saloon or the gutter – he’d never been around enough to act as a father should. For most of her life, she’d been telling people that her parents were deceased.
Penny and Lydia griped about the many women in town but very few men as they drove out of town. Being unmarried, both women didn’t think they would ever find a husband. Of course, this was the very reason Lydia had tried to become a mail-order bride in the first place. But her older sister stole the groom.
“Now that we’re away from Sara,” Penny began, “I suppose I can tell you that I’m thinking of moving to Libby.”
Surprised, Lydia gasped. “But why? Didn’t you mention earlier that business was booming?”
“I did, but the truth is, I don’t want to be an old maid.” Penny sighed heavily. “Besides, I’m sure there are many milliner shops in Libby that will hire me.”
Lydia understood her friend perfectly. “I suppose we could both sign up to be mail-order brides.”
Penny’s brown eyes widened. “Didn’t you try to do that already?”
“Yes, but this time I won’t tell my sisters about it.” She chuckled softly, playing with her necklace. This was something she found herself doing quite a bit lately, especially when talking or discussing things that made her uncomfortable. “I think that’s the only way I’m going to get married.”
Penny shrugged and turned her gaze back to the road. She shifted the horse’s reins in her hands. “I suppose that could be my last option. I really want to fall in love, though.”
Lydia’s heart wrenched. “Don’t we all?”
Immediately, her thoughts turned to Nicholas Drake. And just as quickly, Lydia pushed them aside. That was a man she could never love. He was rude and definitely not a gentleman.
Suddenly, Penny sat up straighter in the wagon’s seat and slowed the horse. Curious, Lydia tried to see what her friend’s gaze was fixed on.
“Do you see that?” Penny asked.
Lydia searched the hillside, but all she could see were different-sized rocks. “See what?”
“It looks like… a man.”
Finally, the large boulder on the side of the road took a different shape. Lydia blinked several times, not believing her vision. That couldn’t possibly be a man lying in a ball on the ground and wearing only his long johns.
Penny gasped and pulled the wagon to a complete stop. “It is a man.” She grabbed her rifle and jumped down. Slowly, she stepped toward the unconscious man.
Out of morbid curiosity, Lydia climbed down and hurried behind her friend. From what Lydia could guess, this man must have been in a fight. His scratched-up face held bruises, and one eye was swollen. His lips were cut and had been bleeding. The only stitch of clothing he wore was his men’s long underwear. Handcuffs were on his wrists as his arms were fastened behind him.
“Is he dead?” Lydia whispered, grasping Penny’s shawl as they crept closer.
“I don’t know.” Penny’s voice was low.
As Lydia stared at the man, an odd feeling came over her – almost like she recognized him from somewhere. But with his bloody and bruised face, how could she know?
Suddenly, he moaned, and his head rolled to the side. Both Lydia and Penny shrieked and jumped back. Penny aimed the rifle at him.
The man’s eyes blinked open. He squinted at first, and then he glanced at his surroundings before trying to move his arms. A grumble sprang from his throat.
Finally, the man’s gaze stopped on Lydia and Penny. Lydia wasn’t sure how her friend felt at this moment, but she was scared out of her wits.
“Are you going to just stare at me, or will you help me?” he said in a hoarse voice.
Penny kept her rifle aimed at the man. “Depends.” She cleared her throat. “Are you an outlaw? Is that why you are in handcuffs?”
“No, I’m not an outlaw!”
His voice was loud, but it must have hurt his head because he grimaced and closed his eyes. The stranger took several deep breaths before opening his eyes again. This time, his attention rested on Lydia. Then, his gaze narrowed.
“Lydia Swanson? Is that you?”
Her heartbeat hammered wildly. Her first instinct had been right after all. But she still didn’t recognize him. “Yes, but… who are you?”
“I’m the Pinkerton agent you dislike so much.”
A loud gasp vibrated through Lydia before she could stop it. “Nicholas Drake?”
“Yes.” He sighed. “Now, will you please help me get out of these handcuffs?” He glanced down at his underwear. “And help me find my clothes?”
Lydia’s gut churned. This was the one man she had never wanted to see again. And yet, now she was his salvation.
Perhaps she’d been wrong after all. Good things were not going to happen to her today.
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