KAREN’S KILLER BOOK BENCH: Welcome to Karen’s Killer Book Bench where readers can discover talented new authors and take a peek inside their wonderful books. This is not an age-filtered site so all book peeks are PG-13 or better. Come back and visit often. Happy reading!
Hearts of the Pony Express Book 2
BY DONNA SCHLACHTER
Middle-aged widow Edith Cooper walks away from the cemetery along the Green River near Simpson’s Hollow, Utah Territory. Away from the husband buried there this morning. Away from their plans and dreams for their future. Along the way, two men offer their hand in marriage. For her protection, one says. For his children’s sake, says the second. Were any of these reasons enough to marry? She must choose one. But which?
Albert Whitt, stationmaster of the Pony Express Station, loves his independent life. Twice stood up by women, he takes the only course that ensures no more rejection: stay clear of them. But when he learns that the stoic Widow Cooper is considering two proposals from men not worthy of lacing her boots, he must do something. But what?
Can Edith and Albert find a new beginning in the midst of tragedy, or will they choose the most convenient path—alone?
Thanks for joining me today as Hollow Hearts releases in ebook and print versions. And read on through for details on how to enter a random drawing to win a free copy of the book.
Simpson’s Gulch near Simpson’s Hollow, Utah Territory
And all it took was one less breath.
An instant of inattention. A horse startled by a tumbleweed blown by the interminable wind in this area. A doctor delayed by a stillbirth. A cracked skull that sent shards of bone, sharp as needles, into her husband’s brain.
He was good as dead before they lifted him from the ground, loaded him on his horse, and returned him to their wagon. Never to regain consciousness. Not even a night of nursing, tending his wounds, praying, begging him not to leave her, did any good. She might as well have saved her energy. Except she couldn’t. She had done what she could for him. Her second-to-last act of love.
And now this. Like the third act in a play, the one that answered all the questions and wrapped up all the loose ends. Provided the lovers a happily ever after. Except, not for them. Not her.
Edith Cochrane shaded her eyes with one hand, while the other clutched—no, grasped at—her skirts and her reticule simultaneously. Practically the only things she still possessed, apart from her wagon and four horses.
She stared at the mound of freshly turned soil at her feet and the small wooden cross carved by a stranger in this tiny town in the middle of nowhere. Despite its proximity to the Green River, the area hadn’t caught on with travelers, convincing them to abandon their dreams and stay on.
Appeared she had no choice. Her husband’s sudden death had stolen that from her.
Edith raised her gaze and met the eyes of several from the wagon train she and Josh traveled west with. Toward a dream. His. Not hers. She’d wanted to stay in Missouri. Ride out the drought. And influenza. And the grass fires.
Perhaps he was right. And she, wrong. Lord knew she’d been mistaken before. About what direction to take. About God’s best and what it looked like.
Didn’t Josh often say she never listened well? She talked a good story, but her ears were simply decorations on the sides of her head.
She exhaled, hoping to dislodge a lump the size of Kansas from her throat and chest. At a touch on her arm, she turned.
Margaret Something-or-other stood beside her, offering a half-smile. “I’m so sorry for your loss, Widow Cooper.”
There was that word again. Funny, apart from the sense of struggling to awaken from a nightmare, her world looked little different today than yesterday.
Of course, yesterday Josh went out hunting. Yesterday she inventoried her barrels and bags of supplies in their wagon to decide whether to make stew or pot roast. Similar ingredients. Same Dutch oven. Main difference was whether she’d make dumplings. With stew, yes. Not for a roast.
The word echoed around in her head for a moment. She dipped her head to acknowledge the woman’s words. Was she expected to respond?
Seemed Margaret’s courage to at least speak required some small reward. Most of the others avoided making eye contact and left without comment.
Did they fear they might catch this Widow status? Like cholera or measles? Was that why this happened? She’d been in contact with some other poor soul and the disease passed from them to her?
Edith knew little about sickness, less about medicine. Still, her predicament hadn’t happened because of meeting or talking to somebody who had it. That was ludicrous.
So why her? Why now? If God needed another angel—as one busy-body from Simpson’s Hollow asserted—couldn’t He simply have made another? Or waited until they settled in Oregon? At least then she’d have a permanent roof over her head, a piece of land, maybe a child or two to repel the long, dark nights. To fill the house with their father’s laugh. Occupy her mind and her hands when the deep winter set in.
Reverend Boone approached, and she pasted on a smile she didn’t feel. Not that he hadn’t been kind. And helpful. But there was something…
“Widow Cooper.” When she dropped her gaze to the toes of her boots, he shrugged back his shoulders and cleared his throat. A sure sign he planned to speak. “I am so sorry for your loss. You’ll face many decisions in the coming days.” She raised her eyes to meet his. “And while this may not seem the time to bring up this subject, I am sensitive to the fact you are a single woman alone in the world.”
Yes, his description was apt. “Thank you, Reverend.”
“If you choose to stay in Simpson’s Hollow, please know I’d be honored to take you to wife.”
She blinked. Was this how men handled such matters in the West? “You mean, marry you?”
“Yes. As you can imagine, there is a distinct shortage of women in these parts. I have my own home, a generous income, all my own teeth, and six children who desperately need a woman’s touch.”
Edith paused, considering the list of attributes he’d presented her. And wondering which one he deemed his best. “Thank you. I appreciate your forthrightness. And surely you understand that’s not a decision I can make today.”
He peered at her. “But you will take it under serious consideration?”
“I will indeed.”
He tipped his hat then strode away, the tail of his morning coat flapping at his heels.
Six children! She looked heavenward. “God, is that Your sense of humor? I was thinking one or two, and now You offer me half a dozen?”
She turned from the graveside, stepped reverently around three burial plots, and followed the path to the Hollow, near the Pony Express Station, where the wagon train—and her only home for now—waited.
Rapid footsteps and heavy breathing behind her caught her attention. She whirled about and stepped off the path, turning her ankle on a rock. A rough hand grabbed her forearm, and she called out in pain.
“Let me go.”
A private from the local fort released her arm. “Sorry. Didn’t mean to startle you. Trying to catch up.”
She peered at him. He was older than she’d first imagined. Perhaps it was the lack of stripes on his sleeve. At this man’s age, he should be a sergeant. The lack of at least one chevron told a huge tale. And an important one. “You’re one of the men who brought my husband—”
He bobbed his head. “Yes, Ma’am, I did. I was in the hunting party. Saw what happened.” He puffed out his chest. “Got to him first. Sorry we couldn’t do more.”
“Thank you for trying.”
When she resumed the path, he walked alongside her. “Um, I was wondering if—if—”
Edith paused. “If what?”
“Well, with your husband gone, and you on your own—”
“Word gets around quicker than ants at a picnic.”
He grinned, revealing several gaps where teeth once resided. “Why, yes, Ma’am. What I mean is, you need a man, and I’d sure like to wed. Then we could live in the married houses.”
Was that his sole reason to take a wife? To improve his standard of living? “Would you also receive a raise in pay?”
He nodded, his fleshy jowls like waves in a muddy wash. “That, too.”
“Thank you, Private—what is your name?”
“King, ma’am. Derek King.”
“Well, thank you for your kind offer. I have many hard decisions to make in the coming days. But I will keep you in mind.”
His brow lowered, and his eyes almost disappeared in the alcohol-fed flabbiness around his eyes. Even his nose went from a light pink to a deep red. Anger? Perhaps. “It’s that preacher, ain’t it? Think you’ll get a better deal with him?”
Edith glared at him. “Sir, you are out of line. If you don’t believe what I say, seek another.”
He backed away, head lowered. “No offense intended. Please, I will make you a fine husband.” He thumped his chest with his fists. “I’m strong and healthy.”
Then he turned and headed in the other direction.
She exhaled. Goodness, thirty-five years old, and she’d only ever had one proposal prior to today. Now two in the same hour.
What other surprises might she expect?
~ ~ ~
Albert Whitt, stationmaster of the Pony Express Station at Simpson’s Hollow, stepped out of the shadows cast by the cottonwoods overhanging the bank of the Green River. Interesting what a body could learn when folks thought themselves alone and unobserved.
He gripped his shovel and scraped loose gravel back into place on Joshua Cooper’s mound. Not his job, certainly, but his widow seemed nice enough. And he’d been able to do little enough to ease her time of distress.
That done, he headed back to the station. A rider was due this afternoon, being a Tuesday, and he needed to get the pony ready. Tack to mend. Stables to muck. Midday meal for the stagecoach coming through, too. Always more work than he could manage.
His long legs carried him quickly up the path. At the final bend, he slowed when the Widow Cooper’s blue skirts came into view. She’d probably had her fill of men today. He stepped carefully, not wanting to startle her as that lout King had done. He certainly understood the need for time to rasp off the sharp edges of heartache. Two fiancées. Both gone.
He studied the woman ahead of him. Overly tall, she could almost look him in the eye. Straight back. Good posture. He chuckled at his analysis of her. Almost as if considering purchasing a horse. Sturdy legs. Good withers. Clear eyes.
He stopped in the path, his cheeks burning. If she could read his thoughts—especially the ones about her withers—she’d slap him. And rightly so.
When she stepped out of view, he continued, quickening his pace.
Albert emerged from the tree-lined path, then tripped on something hidden in the grass, falling flat on his face. “Oof.”
“Oh, my. I’m sorry. I stopped to catch my breath. The sun felt so good on my face. And I stretched out…”
He raised his head, peering between blades of grass.
Widow Cooper stared down at him. “Are you hurt?”
“Just my pride.” He scrambled to his feet and removed his hat. “Please accept my sympathies.”
She chuckled. “Are you going to propose to me, too?”
Now his cheeks burned again. “No, Ma’am. I’d never think of—I mean, I don’t even know you.”
“Didn’t stop the other two.” She smoothed her skirt. “Seems a day for meeting strangers who could become more.”
“Well, Ma’am, let me assure you, marrying you—or any woman, for that matter—is the furthest thing from my mind.” He lowered his gaze. That sounded harsher than intended. “What I meant is—”
The Widow Cooper chuckled, a melody he’d love to hear every day. “I know. I was teasing you. Thank you for not reprimanding me or thinking less of me for doing so.” She swiped a hand across her brow. “It’s been a strenuous day.”
“Yes, Ma’am.” He replaced his hat. “Back to work for me. If you don’t feel like cooking, I’ll be serving stew at the station. You’re welcome to join us.”
“Me, whatever Pony rider is about, stage riders, and sometimes a few folks from town. Or soldiers tired of the mess tent.” He lifted a shoulder and let it drop. “Or could be just me.”
Tears welled in her eyes. What had he said now? He reviewed his words. Work. Cooking. Stew. Nothing of particular importance there that he could see.
Women. One thing was for sure. He’d never understand them.
Not the two he’d lost.
And not this one, either.
A hybrid author, Donna writes squeaky clean historical and contemporary suspense. She has been published more than 50 times in books; is a member of several writers groups; facilitates a critique group; teaches writing classes; ghostwrites; edits; and judges in writing contests. She loves history and research, traveling extensively for both, and is an avid oil painter.
Links to Donna’s website, blog, books, etc.
You can buy the book or learn more about it here (Amazon): https://www.amazon.com/Hollow-Hearts-Book-Pony-Express-ebook/dp/B0B5B7H4XG
Stay connected so you learn about new releases, preorders, and presales, as well as check out featured authors, book reviews, and a little corner of peace. Plus: Receive a free ebook simply for signing up for our free newsletter!
Books: Amazon: http://amzn.to/2ci5Xqq
**Special Giveaway** Donna is giving away a print copy (US only) or ebook copy of HOLLOW HEARTS to one lucky reader who comments on her Karen’s Killer Book Bench blog. TO ENTER: Leave a comment answering the following question: What’s your favorite time or place to read about?
Thanks, Donna, for sharing your book with us!
Don’t miss the chance to read this book!