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Chapter 1



A train platform was a terrible place to catch one’s breath. Much less one as busy as this.

Ada Clara Miller had been knocked and bumped too many times to count. What a way to treat a lady!

She shifted and attempted to move out of the main path of travelers. But that didn’t seem to help. No matter which way she looked, people bustled about, hurried, and harried.

Where was her train? Her platform? What time would it leave? How much time did she have to linger? For certain, she was making no progress as it was.

Grabbing for her timepiece pinned near her collar, she checked the hour. Had it truly been twenty minutes since she set foot off the last train? And all that time, she had been floundering about? Some grand adventure-seeker she had turned out to be…couldn’t even manage her way through the train station.

What would her brother think of her, now? She frowned. He’d likely send her, trunks and all, back to Richmond with a promise never to leave again.

No. She could do this. She would.

Another bump from the side found her fighting for her balance.

“Excuse me,” she all but screeched. Who would be so thoughtless?

She released her timepiece to grab her carrying case. But encountered resistance.

Glancing up, she met the glare of a scraggly, rough-looking young man, who had taken hold of her case and was pulling at it. His grip was firm, and his mouth was set in a scowl. Had he run into her on purpose? As a ruse to distract her?

What a fiend!

Gritting her teeth, she jerked on the handle of her case and kicked at the man. Her foot flung wild but connected with something solid.

The man hollered as she fell backward, holding naught but the torn handle of her case. She looked up as she pushed off the ground to a sitting position only to see his back as he ran off, maneuvering through the crowd, clutching her case in his arms.

“Stop that man! He stole my bag,” she yelled.

A few heads turned and looked after him, but no one moved to pursue him. Nice town.

She pulled out a handkerchief and blotted at her eyes. How could she ever have thought she’d make it out here?

Swallowing against the lump in her throat, she tried to pull herself together. She must be a sight—sitting here on the platform, fighting tears. But she needed the moment. Not that anyone cared.

She took in a couple deep breaths. It was time. No more of this.

Two pairs of boots stopped in front of her.

What could that mean? What could these men want?

She looked up to see the rapscallion who had taken her bag. He was held in place by another man grasping his collar.

This other man, perhaps a couple of years older, but definitely more clean-cut with a confident air about him, watched her. “Ma’am, I’m afraid this ruffian has something to say to you.”

She sniffled. Really? Right now?

The man gave the would-be robber a good jerk.

“I’m sorry, miss,” the bag snatcher said, though she could tell his heart definitely wasn’t in it.

But her gaze had been set on her rescuer. He had kind, blue eyes that shone concern. The inward tilt of his eyebrows hinted at a determination that warmed her. His face was strong with a firm jawline and a nose that had length to it, but not unpleasantly so. Now the hair, that was difficult to see beyond his brown hat, but she would guess it to be dark. His frame was solid, and he was certainly taller than she.

He turned to the scoundrel who had accosted her and ground out, “Drop it.”

The thief hesitated, frowning.

A slight movement from somewhere between the two brought about a hoot from the stubborn man.

Her bag plopped onto the ground.

“Now, don’t cause any more trouble,” the man said. Then he released the rather uncomfortable-looking younger man, who then stumbled and rushed off.

Ada’s gaze darted between her bag and the retreating figure. And she sensed more than saw the other man move closer. Turning toward him, she was met with his extended hand.

“My apologies, miss. I hate that you’ve received such a poor reception in Tucson.”

She stared at his hand for the length of a breath.

“Please, let me try to remedy that.” His voice soothed her, and his presence was more calming than it should be considering what had just happened. She couldn’t help but wonder where he had been this whole trip.

She slid her gloved hand into his calloused palm.

He helped her to her feet with ease. She was upright quicker than she’d expected. So much so, that she found herself closer to him than she’d prefer.

He braced her arms. “Whoa, there. You all right?”

Her face warmed, as did the whole of her, it seemed. From damsel-in-distress to fainting flower. My, my…wasn’t she a storybook cliché?

“Yes.” She took a step back, removing her hands and arms from his. Though she was reluctant to do so. Tugging on her traveling jacket, she faced him again. “That is, I’m just fine. A little shaken is all.”

She groaned inwardly. Why must she share that? As if the situation weren’t awkward enough.

The man’s eyes flickered over her features. Could he be as kind as she imagined? Or was that a product of her situation?

Then she stopped herself. What was she thinking? She didn’t know this man any more than that rat who’d attempted to steal her bag. Fine independent woman she’d make, indeed. She ran a hand down her skirt, smoothing over wrinkles that would have to be pressed out. “I…thank you for your assistance retrieving my things. But I—ah—have a train to catch.”

And, as a fact, she did. How soon? Had she missed it?

The man’s brows furrowed. Had her growing worry been displayed on her face?

“Can I help you find your train car? Get aboard?”

As if the one mishap made her completely useless! She straightened, squaring her shoulders that were much smaller than his, which appeared strong and very capable. “No, I thank you, sir. I am quite capable. I just need to gather my…” She crouched and picked up her suitcase. “Bag.”

It was rather cumbersome to pick up and hold without the handle attached. But after some moments, tipping it this way and that, she managed to maintain her grip on it.

“All right then, miss. I guess I’ll be on my way.” He tipped his hat and turned.

She dipped her head and fought the urge to stomp her foot. How childish! He was only trying to help. Indeed, he had helped her. And this was how she repaid him—with her schoolgirl stubbornness and an attempt to prove something.

“I…” she called after him.

He shifted and looked over his shoulder.

“Thank you.” She peered at the ground as her face heated. “For your assistance.”

He nodded and when she glanced up, shot her a smile before continuing on his way.

She was thankful he had turned away, as her knees had weakened at his smile.

What an adventurer indeed!

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Slim maneuvered the horse and cart through the wilds of Arizona. His short time in Tucson had been quite enough for him. He much preferred the quieter, slower pace of life in the much smaller town of Wharton City. Even more so, the set aside Miller ranch.

Although, that pretty blonde had been quite enough to turn a fella’s head. With her large brown eyes and dainty features, she’d found her way into his thoughts often during his ride.

He smiled to himself. She had seemed rather uncomfortable receiving his help. But the way her features colored…no, she definitely enjoyed it, too.

And that intrigued him. More than it perhaps should. Why would her reaction stir him so? Or was that even it? Was it something else about her? The fact that she’d needed help and he had been able to rush to her aid could endear her, perhaps. But the way she had fought against that thief…

Slim had spotted her from a short distance away, pulling at her case and kicking at the man. To her credit, she had landed a solid hit on the man’s knee.

She was no typical lady, he mused. She had fire in her. And that enticed him. But that didn’t mean she was within reach.

Her clothing spoke of her refinement. Yes, she came from money. And that was not something Slim wanted to be mixed up with.

Either way, it wasn’t as if he knew who she was, where she was going, or even her name. It wasn’t likely their paths were ever to cross again. Best to put her out of mind.

If he could.

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Another train platform, another city. With this stop, however, Ada had reached her destination—Tombstone. It was for the best. She had long tired of traveling. What kind of adventure was that? Brandon hadn’t mentioned how arduous the trip would be—multiple train cars and being shuffled about, herded like cattle. Not quite what she’d had in mind.

Yet here she was. So far from home. A dream come true. Why didn’t it seem so dreamy then?

She was worn, ragged, and weary. Ready to remain on solid ground and find a comfortable bed—one that didn’t move that she could lie down in for two nights together.

Closing her eyes, she couldn’t help but see her mother’s face and the worry lines etched there. She wished all of this hadn’t been so difficult for Mother. But Ada had to take this chance—this one chance to do something for herself, to be something. Thankfully, Brandon had given Ada his support. Maybe Mother would come around in time.


Things were different now. Father had passed. There wasn’t anyone to watch after Mother. Their cousin had agreed to come for a time and stay with Mother. But would he care for Mother as she would have? See to her every need and comfort?

But Ada had to do this. For herself. Was that so wrong?

Many thought so. Men had every prerogative to strike out on their own. But a woman? ‘Empty headed nonsense’ was a phrase she had heard more than once.

Ada shook her head. Maybe things would be different someday.

There was little she might do to change those opinions today. So, she turned her attention to her own plight.

Looking to the hastily written names she had jotted from her brother’s last letter, she then scanned the platform. How would she know who these people were? Brandon had given little to go on—such the male way of thinking. Maybe they would know how to find her?

Because, try as she might, she could not spy a couple—this Dan and Lily Hayworth—that appeared at all to be seeking her out amongst the crowd. Just her luck. She turned back to the train and searched out the men who were unloading trunks and bags. The dark-haired of the two had grabbed one of her trunks and shoved it to the other.

“Careful,” she called out while rushing toward them. Why did they insist on tossing her valuables about?

“These yours?” the one man said with lifted brows.

She folded her arms. “They most certainly are. And I’ll thank you to be more mindful how you handle them. They contain things necessary for my classroom.”

“Classroom?” He tossed a strained look at the man assisting him.

“Yes. My classroom. Many are the things needed to aid in the broadening of the minds of—”

“No wonder,” the other, taller man said as he smiled. “With them highfalutin’ words and all.”

“I beg your pardon, sir?” Her face heated as the man with the brown hair snickered.

“Nothin’ to worry yer pretty head about, miss.” The taller man winked at his friend.

Her discomfort grew, reaching a level that bade her extricate herself from the situation. “Either way, please do take care, gentlemen.”

“We’ll do our job,” the first man assured her. Then he turned away and grabbed for the next item. It was the trunk containing her books on history, literature, and all manner of subjects. If possible, her face warmed all the more. It would be quite heavy. Dare she linger? Dare she not?

The man grunted as he lifted it. “You aimin’ to teach about brick-layin’?”

“No, sir, I…” Her words faded into her embarrassment.

As the man twisted, preparing to fling the trunk, he lost his balance and dropped it. It banged open, and the contents spilled onto the platform.

Ada stuffed her fist against her mouth to contain a shriek. She then hurried over, skirts flapping, to collect the precious cargo. Grabbing for the books, she attempted to stuff them back into the damaged trunk.

“Allow me, ma’am,” a voice said from behind her.

A man knelt beside her, making quick work of sweeping the volumes back within the confines of the case.

Ada settled back, fighting tears. “Thank you, sir, I…” She eyed the damaged trunk. Was it hopeless?

“Did you drop this, miss?” a higher pitched, but still calming voice soothed.

Ada turned in that direction.

A woman with pinned up reddish brown hair stood with Ada’s bag in her arms.

“Yes, ma’am.” Ada stood. “I…must have forgotten it when I…” She could no longer fight the emotion welling within. All of her efforts had come to naught—she was tired, at the end of her rope, and not even able to accomplish the simplest tasks.

“I don’t think this trunk is salvageable.” The man’s voice cut into her moment of self-pity.

She could only nod.

“Dan,” the woman with the red hair admonished.

“Huh?” he fired back. Then, “Oh.”

Ada appreciated the woman’s attempt to spare her. But it did not, could not stop the thickness that welled in her chest, continuing to rise. She grabbed for her handkerchief—her father’s. Though masculine and out of place in a lady’s possession, it gave her some sense of his presence.

“I thank you, sir, ma’am. Your kindness is much appreciated.” And try as she might, she was not able to muster even the smallest smile for their efforts.

“It’s no trouble.” The woman’s kind voice continued to offer comfort. A delicate hand pressed Ada’s shoulder. “Why don’t you let us help you get where you’re going?”

Ada sniffled. “I only wish I could. But I’m waiting for…” She dragged herself out of her stupor. “Did you say, Dan?” Her gaze jerked between the man and woman.

“Yes,” the woman said, looked to the man. “This is my husband, Dan Hayworth. I’m Lily.”

Ada’s felt all the tension release from her being, and her spirit lifted. At last! Something had shifted her way. “Thank the Lord!”

The woman’s features scrunched. “Ada Miller?”

“Yes.” Ada wanted to collapse right then and there or throw herself into Lily’s arms and just sob.

“You poor thing.” Lily laid a hand on her arm as she steered her away from the busted trunk. She exchanged a look with her husband and jerked her head toward Ada’s stacked things. “Dan will take care of this. You look like you could use some fresh air, away from this monstrous thing.” She eyed the locomotive.

Ada nodded and allowed Mrs. Hayworth to direct her. The woman’s sweet voice and gentleness were such succor for her worn nerves. “Thank you.”

She might should celebrate that she had made it, well and whole, to Tombstone. And that she had, in fact, found her brother’s friends, who would see to her care and safety.

Even so, she felt more lost and hopeless than ever in her life.

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The Miller Ranch came into view. Slim let out a deep breath. He could already taste Cook’s beef stew. Well, he could hope. Maybe that was on the menu tonight, maybe it would be something else. Whatever she made, it would be good. They had the best eatin’ this side of the Rio Grande. He had been determined that no matter what Brandon needed him to fetch in Tucson, one thing was for sure—he’d be back by chow time.

He might have had to push the horse a little harder than he’d liked, but they made good time. And he’d be filling his bowl with some of Cook’s vittles within the hour. That was something to celebrate.

The outlines of half-sized humans sprinting about the barn greeted him. Samuel? Done with his chores already? And would that be Nisto? Slim smiled. Those boys had become thick as thieves over the last couple of years.

As he came closer to the largest structure on the property, the boys turned toward Slim’s approaching cart and waved.

He raised his hat in their direction. Maybe he could pawn off the job of putting the wagon away. It’d be good for them. “Hey, boys!”

They hooted and hollered, running up alongside the cart the last several feet until Slim slowed the horse to a stop beside the barn.

“Thanks for the fine welcome back.” Slim grinned.

Nisto reached for the mare’s mane.

The horse tilted its head toward the native boy, letting him rub her muscled neck and nose. Nisto sure did have a way with the animals. He’d make a fine rancher one day. Though Slim hoped the boy could chart a better course for himself. Be more, perhaps. Though…in this world, with its prejudices, he might run into limitations that were outside of his control.

“Where’ve you been?” Nisto asked, looking up at Slim, his deep brown eyes seemingly almost black.

“To Tucson.” Slim hopped down. “Mr. Miller had a new saddle for me to fetch.”

“A saddle?” Samuel crinkled his nose. “What’d ya have to go to Tuscon for? Can’t Mr. Handal get a saddle in?”

Slim walked to the back of the cart. “This is a special saddle. Came in on the train. Mr. Miller needed it special delivered.”

The boys came to the tailgate where Slim stood. They peered around his broad form, trying to get a glimpse of the prized piece.

“Shoot, boys. Ain’t nothing to see here. It’s all covered up.”

Both faces fell.

Slim turned and crouched to their eye level. “You know what, though? I bet Mr. Miller wouldn’t mind if I give you a peek once we get it inside.”

Two sets of widened eyes lit up.

“That is, if you two don’t mind putting the horse and cart away while I get it settled.”

The boys looked at each other then back at Slim, and nodded.

“Yes, sir,” Samuel shot out, before turning to Nisto. “Get the bridle.”

“Whoa, there.” Slim put a hand to the youngster’s shoulder. “Let me unload that saddle, first.”

“Sorry, Slim.” A sheepish half grin split across Samuel’s face.

Slim tugged at the boy’s hat and turned back to the cargo.

In a matter of minutes, Slim had the saddle in its new spot among the others. The boys, as well, made short work of getting the horse in its stall and the cart in its place. They now pressed in on either side of Slim, clamoring for a look.

“All right, all right,” he said with a laugh. “But keep your fingers off.” Then he lifted the canvas covering and watched them admire the fine silver-studded leather piece that even he had been caught gawking at in Tucson.

“Is that the kind of saddle that sheriff in your story would have?”

Slim scanned the area around them quickly. His stories had always been something he just did for himself. He never thought he’d ever share them with anyone. Had it been four months ago—no six—when the boys became aware of Slim’s stories. Since then, he found he could entertain the boys quite well with them. Though if Brandon or any of the other ranch hands found out…

He’d just rather it stay between them.

“I think Sheriff Tex Maynard would be right proud to have a saddle such as that.” Why did it still embarrass Slim for the boys to admire his tales? It just didn’t seem they should.

“Did you come up with another story?” Nisto’s eyes were deep and serious. Not a hint of humor. Nothing but genuine interest. “I just have to know what Sheriff Maynard’s next adventure is!”

Slim licked his lips. He always had a dozen or so in the back of his mind. But he’d only just started to be comfortable telling them with any regularity. “I might.”

“Please, tell us! Please!” Samuel’s desperation seeped into his voice. Was he really so wanting for these tall tales?

Slim looked between the two boys. How could he say, no? “All right,” he said, re-covering the saddle. “But only a short one.”

Then he leaned forward and shared the story he’d concocted on the drive to the ranch—one inspired by the saddle. He took out a few details to shorten the tale.

When he finished, the boys continued to stare. Did they not realize he was done? Was it not a suitable ending? Had he messed it up somehow?

“That was quite the story,” a voice said from behind. The voice of his boss.

Slim swallowed. Hard. And his face warmed.

Brandon was not supposed to hear that. No one was…not really.

Slim turned, slowly. Very slowly. And grimaced when his eyes confirmed what his ears had told—Brandon Miller stood just inside the barn, leaning against a post. Where had he come from? And when?

“You…heard that?”

Brandon pushed off the post. “A bit of it. But not quite enough. That was something else.”

Slim closed his eyes. Was it possible for him to disappear?

His boss clapped him on the shoulder. “It was…really. And you kept these two hanging on every word.”

Slim glanced at Samuel and Nisto, who now looked between the two men, as if gauging what to do, or if they could leave. Could he?

“I think Cook might could use a hand with the table,” Brandon directed the boys. They dropped their heads but headed off.

As Slim watched them go, Brandon moved to stand beside him. “You had them completely captivated. That is a rare gift, indeed.”

“Boss,” Slim said, keeping his eyes trained on the retreating youngsters, unable to make himself meet Brandon’s gaze. “Could we just forget that I—”

“Nonsense,” Brandon cut in. “You have nothing to be so shy about. Why, if I had your gift, I’d share it with anyone who would listen.”

Slim shrugged and stared at the ground. “It’s not like that. I just, well…”

“How is it, then?”

Slim shuffled his feet, trying to find a stance that wouldn’t make him feel so vulnerable. But then again, that feeling had nothing to do with how he was standing. “Those things I make up…they’re silly little stories. More for me. The boys caught me writing one down a few months ago. And ever since, they’ve been asking me to share more.”

When he looked up, he saw that Brandon was nodding.

“But honest, boss, I think they’re just trying to make me feel good.”

“Let me tell you something, Slim. Here’s the truth. If you’ve got more stories like the one you just told, they are not just being nice. That was a well-spun tale. And I wish you’d consider trying to sell one to a newspaper or other publication.”

Slim jerked his head from side-to-side so quickly it hurt his neck. “I could never do that.”

Brandon watched him. Was he considering Slim’s words? Preparing to naysay him and pressure him anyway?

“Just…don’t tell anyone.” Slim looked down. “I couldn’t survive it.”

His boss’s eyes never wavered. “If you won’t submit them, hear me out on this. My sister is the new schoolteacher in Tombstone. Why don’t you let her read your stories to the children there?”

That was the craziest thing Slim had ever heard. He could never…

Slim opened his mouth to protest.

Brandon held up a hand. “Just…listen to me. You would never have to see her or those children. Send her a couple of stories. Then, if they like them as much as I think they will, you’ll agree to send one to a newspaper.”

He eyed his boss.

“Deal?” Brandon pressed.

“I don’t think so, I—”

“I won’t take no for an answer.” Brandon folded his arms across his chest. He appeared rather resolute.

Slim watched him. His boss was a good man. And even in this, it was his strange way of believing in Slim. Even as much as he wished the man would leave him alone. Perhaps he could send the sister one story. Would Brandon leave him alone then? It was appealing, this idea that he wouldn’t have to face the woman as she read it.

“All right. I’ll send her one story.”

Brandon quirked a brow. “I don’t like the sound of that.”

“One…or none.”

Brandon stuck out his hand.

Slim grasped it. “Deal.”

His boss shook his hand with a firm jerk. “I intend to hold you to it.”

Slim nodded. What had he just gotten himself into?

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Check out the first book of the series!

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