Monday, May 16, 2011

Excerpt: Unbroken Hearts

Today I've posted part of the prologue, as a teaser, from the first book in the Easton Hearts western romance series, Unbroken Hearts.

Excerpt Copyright 2011. All Rights Reserved.


July 1868
Montana Territory

Sarah Anders soldiered up the trail, her brow creased with pain, exhaustion, and frustration. Even the buffalo grass, clinging to balding wheel ruts, was betting against her.

She slowed, and her green eyes slid back along the wagon track to settle on a splitting shoe seam. Tugging soberly at loose brown tresses that hung about her oval face, she considered her dim prospects.

A scant hour had passed since the trainmaster had brutally culled them from the string; now the remnant rumbled away into a vast horizon, oxen toiling heartily, straining against canvas-covered box wagons in their attempt to escape the hellish heat. A half-mile distant, Sarah could hear Charles Petit's voice pounding out a bass murmur. It was punctuated by the hiss of snapping whips drifting back like sharp accusations.

"Keep the pace! Yer draggin' us back!"

She smiled bleakly at the memory of "Cap'n Chawles". A burly-boned bull and stern as a schoolmarm, with a lump of tobacco packed firmly in cheek, he was true to the nickname. Ghastly lips gushed oil between gaps in his black teeth, and the captain's low growls paralyzed every soul, right down to little Lars Bentsen.

Thus it was when Uncle Orv's wagon hit a hole and came up lame. Petit cussed. In a hastily-called wagon council meeting four weary men caved to his decision: Sarah, her sister Emily, uncle Orv and cousin Joey would be left behind to make repairs as Petit's flock moved on. The halted party was left to catch up as best it could.

Sarah stared at the waving grass, shy prairie dogs, and buzzing insects surrounding the broken-down rig. Sighing, she lifted her mud-caked skirt and made her way over uneven ground to the makeshift camp where pot-bellied Orv grunted and rose from a squat alongside the wagon.

Orv's hungry eyes squinted as he raked her rail-thin form. She stood warily at a distance, squaring herself to blunt his anger. Better me than Emily, she thought.

"Gal, don't jis stand there!" Orv flung a hammer though the air. It landed three feet short of his target. "Git yerself an' that good-for-nuthin' chit down ta' dat water. We's got shirts need washin'."

Sarah bowed her head slightly. She'd spent eight of her nineteen years with this ginned-up guardian. She knew better than to argue.

She spun on her heel and hailed Emily. Em was intent on braiding blades of grass. Sarah waved again and caught the child's gaze. She signaled the order to collect dirty shirts and trousers. In short order Emily was twisting pants and shirts into a ball she tucked tightly against her chest.

Sarah ventured a glance at Orv, who was busy shoveling a batch of grief to his son. Recalling the lazy stream they'd passed, she stole the opportunity to grab their last sliver of lye soap and two towels. A proper wash would surely mend her mood, she thought.

Orv was cursing over the toolbox when the girls slipped away.

Sarah and Emily wandered over a rise and down a hill, where they were welcomed by rough growth hugging a lazy stream. Pausing at the steep bank, Sarah winked playfully at Emily.

"I say we shuck and wash ourselves first."

"You bet!" Emily eagerly bobbed and dropped the burdensome laundry. They stripped down to drawers and camisoles, and gingerly waded into the cool water. Shivering like new colts as they stood in the sunless shelter of the scrub pine bank they giggled through chattering teeth and splashed their arms, legs, and faces. Emily's blond mane and Sarah's deep cinnamon flew like pennants on the warm breeze.

"Captain Petit said we'll be safe?" Emily's hands plumbed the water and spun tiny whirlpools.
Sarah smiled at the tiny hands and voice.

"Truly. No Indians," she cooed as she ran the soap up an arm and rubbed.

Indeed it was hard to let go of the nagging fear. Every night on the trail they'd observed the men taking precautions to ward off a surprise attack. The camp was made in the open, in the shape of a large circle. Oxen, horses, and dogs were placed outside the circle, and the resulting arrangement looked like a western corral. Guards were assigned, and these were changed three times during the night.

Suddenly a shout pierced through the howling wind. The sisters froze and strained forward. Joey? More shouts came, undeciperable, but the gunshots that followed needed no translation.

Emily blanched. Her blue eyes flew wide with terror, and her throat tightened around a strangled sound.

"Hush!" Sarah exhaled.

Needles pricked painfully as she grabbed at a tree branch, and sticky pine tar coated her hand. Wincing, Sarah pulled and scrambled out of the water, straight up the steep bank. She seized onto Emily's hand, half-dragging the young girl behind her.

They reached flat ground and found their clothing. Four shaking hands worked frantically, pulling dresses over soaked drawers and camisoles.

"Get down!" ordered Sarah.

The girls slid onto their bellies, and inch-by-inch, like ants, they crawled up the hill until they could see the trail. Sarah kept Emily close at her side, shushing her every few feet. Upon making the top she pulled Emily behind the cover of a large rock.

Without a second thought, Sarah threw her damp, sticky body over her sister and burrowed her half into hot dirt. An eternity seemed to pass before she stoked up the courage to peer around the rock edge and down the brushy slope.

Then she pushed up, and breath rushed from her at the sight that unfolded below. Two ugly, leering men pawed through their possessions, which had been tossed haphazardly off the wagon.
Her eyes collided with the worst of it: Splayed lifelessly on the ground were Uncle Orv and Joey.

Oh my God. Oh my God. Sarah sucked in short, ragged gasps.

Over her hammering heart she heard snippets of bandit conversation, riding on stiff gusts up the gentle slope. Sarah's quaking knees pushed to get a better look at the outlaws.

"Where'd da' sonofabitch keep his money?" spat a ruddy-looking man. His appearance was mean; a scar traced straight across his neck where he'd been hard-bitten by a hangman's rope.

"Ya' check dem bodies?" This erupted from a shorter, bulgy-eyed man.

Sarah's eyes burned with helpless anger at the plundering. The older man unhitched and slapped old Buck and Whistler. As the oxen trotted away she noted that two fingers were missing from the man's right hand.

The murdering devil-banter continued as Sarah shifted and dragged her feet to a squat position.

"Yay . . . here 'tis, bottom o' da' tool box . . . jus' twenty-five dollar. Damn it! What dem thinkin' totin' puny cash?"

"Lookie, dis' fiddle be worth somethin'!"

Sarah's heart sank. The fiddle, cradled with its bow in a wooden case, had been her father's joy. It was the last she had of him and their sweet musical evenings together. Papa had taught her to play jigs, reels, and waltzes. Inside she was screaming with fury.

One aching foot slid out from under her.

Three-Fingers' head flew up.

"Who's it!"

Sarah 's heart beat thunderously.

"Thar's someone thar!"

The scar-necked man drew a pistol from his pants and ran up the hillside, ripping round the rock.

Sarah groaned. They'd been discovered!

"Ho! What 'ave we here!"

Three-fingers ran to join his partner. "Couple o' skirts!"

"Aye, this one's wee," he observed, his flint-eyes skipping off Emily. Then he grabbed Sarah's arm, hauled her up, and shoved her against the rock.

"P-please, don't hurt my sister!"

For a much longer sample, visit the Unbroken Hearts product page and download the sample . . .

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