Samantha Hughes has one day to escape from her wicked uncle, and a sign in the post office is her answer. She’ll cut her hair to pose as a man and become Sam Hughes, a Pony Express rider.
Valerian Fitzpatrick doesn’t want the weight of responsibility that his brothers have in the family business. Fortunately, the Pony Express offers a chance to make his own way in the world.
He assumes his new buddy, Sam, is on the run from the law, until she’s hit by a stray gunshot and he has to undress her to staunch the wound. Friendship quickly turns to attraction—and more—but when Sam’s uncle tracks her down, she is forced to run yet again.
Val’s determined to find her, but will a future with Sam mean giving up the freedom he’s always craved?
Missouri, March 1860
If Samantha spent one more night in the tiny cabin belonging to her uncle, she would not be a virgin by morning. Even while she sat beside her aunt the previous evening, leaning over to hear her aunt’s halted words as she dictated a final letter to her mother, Samantha’s panic rose. Her hands shook as she wrote the words her aunt spoke, putting them down on paper to send to Hilda’s mother and Samantha’s own grandmother, who was close to death herself back in Massachusetts. Aunt Hilda had shielded her from Uncle Jack the best she could for the past two years, but her aunt would be of no help now. Before she’d exhaled her last breath, she had reached for Samantha.
“Where is Jack?”
“He’s in the barn, Aunt Hilda. Do you want me to get him?” Samantha sensed her aunt’s death was near. She dipped a cloth in cool water and swabbed Hilda’s brow in a futile attempt to give her peace.
“No, child. Don’t bring him in here. I have nothing to say to him. But reach under the mattress, and be quick about it.”
Samantha did as she was bid and pulled out a small bag of coins. Hilda placed it in Samantha’s hands.
“Take this, my child, and leave here as soon as you can. I’m sorry I ever brought you into this house, but I didn’t know what else to do.”
“It’s not your fault, Aunt Hilda, and I appreciate all you’ve done for me. If not for you,
I would have died along with my folks.”
“Put a bit of that money out where Jack can find it. He’ll spend it on drink or a whore after I’m laid to rest. That should give you time.”
“Please rest, now, Aunt Hilda. I’ll be all right.”
Samantha stayed with Hilda until she died, and then prepared the body for burial. She informed her uncle of Hilda’s passing, thinking he might want some time alone with his deceased wife. Instead, he left the house briefly, to inform the cemetery workers that a new body would be coming, and then returned to the barn to complete the casket. The long night faded into dawn, and Samantha still had no idea what to do.
The hasty funeral would take place this morning in the town cemetery.
Samantha needed a plan, but her thoughts were jumping all over the place. As she prepared herself for the ride to the cemetery, she tried to calm herself and think of the most immediate things to do.
She had to get away, and get away fast. And for that to happen, Jack needed to be kept occupied. Although he hadn’t said a word to her as she got his breakfast ready before they loaded her aunt’s body into the wagon his sidelong glances at her made the hair on the back of her neck stand up. The first part of her plan came together as she cleared the table, leaving the pouch of coins for him to find. She had kept out enough to pay her way as she ran, and left the rest to keep Jack entertained this afternoon.
The ceremony at the cemetery was hardly long enough to be called a service. The minister quoted a bible passage and said some nice things about her aunt, but her casket was lowered into the ground within a matter of minutes. Samantha hesitated at the gravesite, tossing a handful of earth on the crude casket as the graveyard worker pierced the mound of dirt beside the site with his shovel, and began filling the hole he had created the previous evening The scraping of a shovel in the dirt and the scent of freshly turned earth would forever remind her of Aunt Hilda.
Jack wasted no time at the gravesite and hurried to the tavern with his pouch of coins. Samantha took the letter containing Aunt Hilda’s dying words to the post office. She would accomplish this final act for her aunt, however futile it may be, since she fully expected her aunt and her grandmother to meet at heaven’s door at the same time. And then she’d be off, leaving this small town, and Uncle Jack, behind. But she still didn’t have a clue where she might head, with little money and no means of transportation.
A sign at the post office caught Samantha’s eye. She feigned disinterest as she snuck sidelong glances at the poster about the new Pony Express, reading one line at a time. Wanted: Young, skinny, wiry fellows. She tore her glance from the sign and studied the customers queued up in front of her.
Another quick look.
Not over eighteen.
She posted her letter and turned away from the window, catching the last of the poster’s message.
Must be expert riders. Willing to face death daily. Orphans preferred.
She was all of what they wanted, except for one basic and glaring fact. She might be young, skinny, and wiry, but she was no fellow. Samantha calmed her breathing as she walked away from the post office, but her mind was buzzing with possibilities. Her ticket out of the nightmare her life had become had just presented itself. She loved horses and had a good hand with them. All she needed to do was to hide her true identity—pretend to be a boy—and she was certain she could pull it off. Uncle Jack had enough money to keep him busy until after midnight. Samantha figured she had at least twelve hours to transform herself and get on the road
She stopped by Aunt Hilda’s fresh grave once more. Her tears mingled with the fresh dirt. She picked up a handful of the loose earth from the gentle mound, kneading it in her hands.
“There’s been so much heartache in my life, Aunt Hilda. First, Momma and Daddy died of the smallpox, I barely survived it, and now you’re gone. You protected me as best you could, but you can’t anymore. It’s up to me now.”
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Becky Lower has traveled the country, looking for great settings for her novels. She loves to write about two people finding each other and falling in love, amid the backdrop of a great setting, be it present day middle America or on a covered wagon headed west in the 1850s. Contemporary and historical romances are her specialty. Visit her website at www.beckylowerauthor.com.