Read The Outlaw Bride Online

Authors: Kelly Boyce

The Outlaw Bride

The Outlaw Bride

By Kelly Boyce

Katherine Slade has two goals: to escape her outlaw husband and to find the family of the man who died saving her life. Taking the place of a mail-order bride isn’t part of her plan—until she’s forced to continue the charade
and
become Sheriff Connor Langston’s housekeeper to stay out of jail. Pretending to be another woman is hard, but Katherine’s
real
challenge is resisting her growing attraction to the handsome lawman…

Falling in love is the last thing Connor needs, even if the rest of Fatal Bluff wants him to. His hands are full with a band of outlaws threatening the safety of his town, and a child to raise. But Kate has a way of getting under his skin and into little Jenny’s heart. Soon Connor can’t get the fiery beauty out of his head—along with his suspicion that Kate isn’t who she claims to be.

When Connor learns the truth about Kate, is there any way for this outlaw bride to become the sheriff’s wife?

79,200 words

Dear Reader,

A new year always brings with it a sense of expectation and promise (and maybe a vague sense of guilt). Expectation because we don’t know what the year will bring exactly, but promise because we always hope it will be good things. The guilt is due to all of the New Year’s resolutions we make with such good intentions.

This year, Carina Press is making a New Year’s resolution we know we won’t have any reason to feel guilty about: we’re going to bring our readers a year of fantastic editorial and diverse genre content. So far, our plans for 2011 include staff and author appearances at reader-focused conferences such as the RT Booklovers Convention in April, where we’ll be offering up goodies, appearing on panels, giving workshops and hosting a few fun activities for readers. We’re also cooking up several genre-specific release weeks, during which we’ll highlight individual genres. So far we have plans for steampunk week and unusual fantasy week. Readers will have access to free reads, discounts, contests and more as part of our week-long promotions!

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Dedication

For my family: my parents, Garry and Sharon Boyce, who taught me I could do anything I put my mind to; my brother and sister, Craig and Alyson, for setting the bar so high I had no choice but to reach for the stars; and Cooper, who kept my feet warm on cold mornings.

And for John—some things are worth waiting for.

Acknowledgements

As much as writing is a solitary occupation, I’ve been fortunate to have a group of great people on my side during the journey to publication. I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge their part in the process. A huge thank-you to Pam Callow. You were with me every step of the way with this manuscript and not only are you the world’s greatest critique partner, but you’re an awesome friend as well. A loud shout out to Julianne MacLean for your constant encouragement and critiquing skills—much appreciated. Anne MacFarlane, Lilly Cain, and Annette MacPhee—thanks for the regular Saturday morning meetings at Starbucks and keeping me on track. Lisa MacDougall—all those after-school writing sessions finally paid off! Romance Writers of Atlantic Canada—you are the most talented group of writers I’ve ever encountered and I’ve learned so much from all of you. And of course, to the great crew at Carina Press, especially my wonderful editor, Elizabeth Bass, for making my first foray into publishing an exhilarating and painless experience!

Chapter One

September 1873

Katherine Slade’s heart drummed in her chest, her breath coming in short, nervous puffs. She slipped into the crowded train depot, slinking along the perimeter of the room to avoid the snarl of people vying for a spot in the ticket lines.

Her husband stood on the other side, his keen eyes searching. Even at this distance, the nasty mark she’d left on the side of his face drew her attention. A small sense of satisfaction fought its way through the fear. It glimmered for only a moment before being squashed by a more troubling question.

How did he find her?

She’d been running for six months, lying low and never staying in one spot for too long. But each time she thought she had eluded him, Rogan tracked her down, more determined than ever to get his revenge. What would he do when he finally caught her? A shudder coursed through her. She needed to get away before her luck ran out for good.

The conductor’s booming voice rang throughout the station, announcing the final boarding call for passengers traveling to Fatal Bluff and all stops in between. As the message resonated off the thick walls, panic twisted Katherine’s stomach into knots. She had to be on that train to Fatal Bluff.

She had a promise to keep.

With grim determination, she pulled her battered felt hat down low on her head to cover the telltale strawberry-gold curls. The muscles in her legs burned as she cut a path through the crowd. She wanted to hurl herself full speed toward the train, but fear of discovery kept her in check. Rogan would notice any sudden movements that seemed out of place.

She stepped outside the train depot and picked up her pace. Her shoes slipped against the rain-dampened platform. With barely more than two pennies to rub together, she couldn’t afford the fare. She would have to find another way. Frantic, she searched for an opening where she could sneak on unnoticed.

The baggage cars bustled with activity. Burly men with rolled-up sleeves tossed crates and trunks into the cavernous vehicles. There was no way she could creep past the men and sneak inside.

The passenger cars were too risky. If caught without a ticket, she would be tossed off at the next stop and probably escorted to the nearest sheriff’s office. She couldn’t chance it. No doubt the law was just as anxious to get its hands on her as Rogan was. She had to escape, she just had to.

“Miss Stockdale?”

A hand on her arm caused Katherine to jump. She sucked in a gasp and spun on her heel, almost knocking her battered satchel into some poor man who skirted past.

She looked up into the stern features of a tall, reed-thin woman with gray hair topped by a flat, no-nonsense hat.

“Excuse me?”

“Miss Hannah Stockdale? I am Mrs. Blanche Hewitt, your chaperone. I have been looking all over for you. You’re late. I find that quite unacceptable. If you had missed the train I would have been out the fare for your ticket.” The woman snapped a slip of paper under Katherine’s nose.

“I’m sorry, you—”

A sharp glare cut her protest short. “We have no time for useless apologies.”

Long fingers wrapped around Katherine’s wrist. The prickly woman dragged her toward the nearest passenger car. “Quickly. We haven’t much time before the train pulls out. Have your trunks been loaded?”

“I—” The train loomed closer. Hope flooded Katherine’s senses. She could still get on. “Yes.”

Katherine’s feet worked double time to keep up with Mrs. Hewitt’s long, stiff strides. She shot a nervous glance at the porter who helped them up the narrow steps of the passenger car, half expecting him to see through her and demand to see her ticket. Nothing happened.

She was on the train! An intoxicating blend of freedom and relief swept over her. Katherine wanted to whoop with delight, but it wasn’t over yet. Not until the train was on its way, with Rogan left behind, would she feel truly safe. At least for the time being.

She allowed herself to be pulled along behind the older woman. The corner of her satchel caught the edge of random seats as they made their way up the narrow corridor of the railcar. She issued apologies to faces that passed in a blur. Could this really be happening? Her mind dipped and whirled. Blessed freedom! It was so close.

“Sit here.” Mrs. Hewitt pointed at a seat next to the window. The polished wood gleamed where a thin strand of sunlight broke past the clouds and struggled through the dingy glass. Directly across from her, two young women stared with curious expressions. Mrs. Hewitt addressed them. “Miss Montgomery, Miss Delaware, it appears Miss Stockdale decided to join us after all.”

Katherine slid into the seat and hugged her satchel against her. Mrs. Hewitt sat next to her, hands folded primly in her lap. Angling her head, her sharp eyes flicked over Katherine. The firm set of the woman’s mouth told her she had been judged and found lacking.

A few loose strands of hair slipped out of the confines of Katherine’s hat at that precise moment, as if to punctuate the other woman’s silent condemnation. The damp air made her curls unruly, and her hat did little to help contain the unmanageable mess. She tucked her hair behind one ear and avoided Mrs. Hewitt’s cold stare.

“I must say, Miss Stockdale, you are not what I expected. Your letters clearly indicated you were a woman of quality and breeding. But look at you. You are a veritable mess.”

Katherine’s cheeks burned. She glanced down at her cotton skirt. The color, once a rich slate, had faded to a pale gray long ago and signs of wear and tear and previous patchings showed along the seams and hem. There had been little choice. Rogan hadn’t exactly been the generous type. The only thing he’d given her that lasted was eight years of misery she wished she could forget.

“I—I’m sorry. I guess in my rush I didn’t pick my best traveling suit.” Katherine forced an apologetic smile, knowing full well the calico dress stuffed at the bottom of her bag was in no better condition.

But Mrs. Hewitt didn’t need to know that. And Katherine was not about to disabuse the woman of her mistaken assumption she was someone else. No, Katherine decided. For the duration of the journey she would play the part, slip into someone else’s life. She would deal with her conscience in that regard after she stepped foot in Fatal Bluff.

The train jerked and slowly ebbed away from the station. She imagined leaving the tattered remains of Katherine Slade far behind.

Mrs. Hewitt’s caustic tone interrupted her musings. “If it hadn’t been for the red hair sticking out from that ludicrous hat, I’m sure I would not have recognized you, Miss Stockdale. Let’s hope your groom doesn’t have the same reaction.”

Katherine’s heart sputtered to a complete stop. “Groom?” She gaped across the seat at the other two young women.

The blonde directly across from her smiled, a tight, forced motion that didn’t reach her dark blue eyes. “A little frightening, isn’t it? Coming all this way to marry a man you’ve never met?” She patted her pale wheat-colored hair with a dainty, gloved hand, although not a hair was out of place. She was impeccably dressed in blue silk, nary a wrinkle in sight despite what must have been hours of travel.

Katherine nodded, too stunned to form words. Groom. Husband. The words, and what they meant, pounded through her. The train whistle blew. The shrill, deafening sound echoed the scream building inside Katherine’s brain. A mail-order bride.

She closed her eyes and tried to breathe.

***

The trip to Fatal Bluff passed in a blur. Katherine waited until most of the travelers made their way off the passenger car before following along behind Mrs. Hewitt and the others. Her pinched nerves unraveled and then entangled themselves anew. How would she get herself out of this fix?

She placed her hand in the porter’s loose grip and stepped down onto the boardwalk. The cooler temperature inside the passenger car did not prepare her for the absolute strength of the sun’s heat. It was hotter than Hades. Katherine set the satchel down and lifted a hand to her brow, shielding her eyes from the brilliant glare.

A mixture of men, women and children milled about, flocking near the platform. Voices and footsteps and the bustle of the crowd swirled around her. Katherine skimmed the unknown faces. Unease sizzled in her stomach. Was her intended groom amongst the throng of people gathering?

A trickle of sweat beat a hasty path down her back before the cotton of her shirtwaist absorbed it. Wilted and weary from the long trip, she tried to find a reserve of strength somewhere within her.

“Look on the bright side,” she muttered to herself. “At least you made it here alive.” And with Grant Langston’s envelope still in her possession. She was one step closer to keeping her promise.

And then what?

She pushed the pesky question away. During the endless train ride, she had mulled over the possibility of immersing herself into a new life, of becoming Hannah Stockdale fully and completely. Assuming a new identity would afford her a layer of protection against Rogan tracking her down. She would simply tell Mrs. Hewitt she had changed her mind about the marriage—and pray the real Hannah Stockdale did not show up until she was long gone.

The sound of hammering drew her attention. Katherine squinted against the sun. In a clearing across the street a building was being constructed. She inhaled the sharp tang of new lumber mixed with the less than pleasant stench of manure, sweat and animal flesh. From what she could see, the town of Fatal Bluff appeared to be thriving. Buildings lined each side of the busy street, some new, others weathered with time, their clapboard fronts having turned a brownish-gray. Further on, near the outskirts of town, homesteads dotted the landscape. Beyond that, thickening copses of trees reached skyward to tickle the horizon. It was a pretty little town. The type of town one would settle into and raise a family.

A pang of sadness shot through Katherine. Given the choice, she would do just that—stay and make a life for herself somewhere like this. A quiet little existence, where her bad memories would blow away on a gentle afternoon breeze.

Warm air brushed against her face, and her mother’s voice drifted into her mind.

“Choices are for them’s that can afford them, Katy. We ain’t those people.”

Tears stung her eyes. Her mother hadn’t been right about too many things, but she had been about that.

With a deep, fortifying breath, Katherine turned and walked back to Mrs. Hewitt to deliver the news.

“Mrs. Hewitt, I’m afraid—”

“Not now. The men are here. Try to fix yourself up, for heaven’s sake.” Mrs. Hewitt turned away from her and waved into the crowd. A group of men approached them, winding their way through the throng of people, side-stepping crates and baggage that littered the platform.

Katherine gave the men a quick once-over. They seemed ordinary, decked out in their Sunday best, with the exception of the one on the end. That one lumbered along like a bear, as if his thickly built frame wasn’t quite sure what to do with all of him. And where the other men had obviously put some effort into their appearance, the bear’s dirty clothes hung about him in layers of disarray. Why, the man looked like he’d wallowed in the mud before leaving home!

The short, overweight man in front approached Katherine and grabbed her hand in his, pumping her arm vigorously. “Ladies, I am so pleased you have arrived. My name is Oliver Hewitt and you’ve already met my wife, Blanche. My, my, my, but what a lovely sight you are,” he continued, thankfully letting go of Katherine’s arm before he dislocated it. He retrieved a piece of paper from his waistcoat and flapped it open with a flourish. “Now ladies—”

“Which one is mine?”

The giant bear fixed a beady stare on Katherine and her heart plummeted to her feet with a resounding thud.

Mr. Hewitt’s lips pursed into a thin line. He shot the bear an annoyed frown. “If you will wait just one moment, Mr. Figg—”

“Waited long enough. Jus’ tell me which one is mine and I’ll git over to the church. I ain’t got no time to be lollygaggin’ around.” The bear spat. A stream of dark tobacco juice sliced through the air in an arc and landed with a sickening splat, staining the planked sidewalk.

“Fine.” Mrs. Hewitt stepped forward, her no-nonsense manner taking over. Her bony hand gripped Katherine’s shoulder and shoved her forward. “Miss Hannah Stockdale, may I introduce you to your groom, Mr. Walter Figg.”

He gave her a brief glance, then offered a curt nod. She apparently passed his inspection. One meaty paw reached out for her. “C’mon, wife. Let’s git goin’.”

Katherine stumbled backward to avoid his grasping hand. “I—I can’t.”

Mrs. Hewitt’s eyes narrowed and her words came slow and measured. “I beg your pardon?”

Katherine jutted her chin in the air and mustered up her last ounce of courage.

“I’ve changed my mind,” she said, turning to face Walter Figg. “I’m sorry. But I can’t marry you.”

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