It's almost time for this story to greet the world! I've been working on this story since last year, the first full length story in the Little Creek series. It's included a lot of research, a lot of revisions, and a lot of learning to prepare this book for readers. But I'm so excited and I can't wait any longer, so here's the first chapter, introducing Nate and Adelaide!
Little Creek, Utah Territory – 1873
Adelaide Bradshaw wriggled uncomfortably in the church pew as a droplet of sweat trailed down her neck and disappeared into the collar of her dress. This earned a glare from her mother beside her, so Adelaide corrected her posture and waved her fan more furiously. No matter that it was only May; there would be no sweet, gradual welcoming of spring. The sweltering sunshine was already peering in through the chapel windows with its unrelenting presence.
The preacher went on about hellfire and brimstone, as if the Lord’s house wasn’t already an oven itself, and it brought Adelaide’s gaze to the sunny outdoors. She wondered if she could take Papa’s horse, Mickey, for a ride down by the creek. He didn’t like her going riding on a Sunday, said it didn’t suit for a young lady to be out riding alone, and Mickey was a work horse for the mail services anyway. If her brother Mark had been home, he would have let her take his horse, Biscuit, but he was still gone on a cattle drive.
As she glanced around the chapel, it felt empty without all the cowboys from Hamilton’s ranch. So many empty seats that would have been filled by dusty, rowdy young men. Instead there were only parents with eyes fluttering closed and children bickering in the pews. Adelaide’s eyes landed on her best friend, Molly Masterson, who sat beside her younger sister Betty. Molly smiled widely and mouthed “after” as she nodded toward the door. That could mean a great many things.
Mama’s elbow met with Adelaide’s side, pulling her attention back to the front. As she turned, Adelaide couldn’t help noticing the gaze from one certain man on the opposite side of the room. Mr. Patrick Johnson, the banker’s son. Patrick offered a small nod and a forced smile, which did not go unnoticed by his new wife Susan. They exchanged whispers, and then the new Mrs. Johnson frowned in Adelaide’s direction. The heated glare beneath that bonnet didn’t bother Adelaide. It wasn’t her fault Mr. Johnson was a scoundrel. After pursuing them both in private, the choice was made for him when Susan was found to be with child. The shotgun wedding that quickly followed ensured Adelaide would never have to deal with him again.
For all the heartache Adelaide had suffered, she wouldn’t want to change places with the married woman.
At length, the choir stood to sing a closing hymn, and Adelaide was ready to sing a Hallelujah with them. One final prayer, and the congregation began filing out the door.
“Thank you for coming today,” said Reverend Taylor as Papa shook his hand. “How are you faring without your boy?”
“He’s hardly a boy anymore, Reverend,” Papa mumbled beneath his beard. “He’s his own man.”
“And when do you expect him to return?”
Mama lifted her eyes to the east, looking wistfully from under her bonnet. “Any day now. Three months is plenty long for a mother’s heart.”
The words on Adelaide’s tongue were cut short when a desperate hand tugged on her arm, pulling her into the cooler shade beside the chapel.
“I have news!” Molly whispered, shadowed by little Betty behind her.
“Well, good morning to you too,” Adelaide said with a chuckle.
“Don’t be long, Adelaide,” said Papa with a stern eyebrow.
“Yes, Papa,” she said, then turned back to her friend. “Now what’s all the fuss, Molly?”
“Only the best news ever!” Molly shrieked. “Mr. Sharp came to call last night!”
Adelaide raised an eyebrow, dismissing the familiar pang of jealousy. Though they were both the same age of seventeen, Molly had so many more suitors compared to Adelaide’s one or two. She conceded it made sense when comparing her own straw-colored hair with her friend’s fiery red curls, or her pale blue eyes with the bright green of Molly’s.
“Mr. Sharp, the hotel owner?” Adelaide asked. “I didn’t know he was one of your callers. Isn’t he a bit old?”
Molly tossed her hand. “He’s barely thirty, and so attractive!”
“And so much nicer than all the dirty miners,” Betty chimed in, only to be shushed by her sister when the miners exited the chapel.
“Come along, Adelaide,” Papa called, and she looked up to beg a few minutes more, but she noticed a large cloud of dust billowing just outside of town. It wasn’t just a dust devil…
“Now who could that be?” Molly muttered.
A strong breeze blew, almost knocking the bonnet from Adelaide’s head, but she placed a hand over it to keep it still. She needed a shield from the sun to make out what was headed their direction.
As the thundering sound of horses grew closer, Adelaide held her breath. She could see four riders amidst the kicked-up dust. She focused hard, not on the riders, but on the horses. The heat glazed everything at a distance, but she could tell one of the horses had a white diamond on the forehead, just like Biscuit.
“It’s Mark!” Adelaide shouted.
She took a step forward, but Papa caught her hand. “Leave them be, Adelaide. They’re covered in dust.” But she couldn’t be still. She waved frantically, then took a stance beside Mama and locked their elbows together.
The riders pulled to a stop right before the crowded church yard, and the first dirty cowboy lowered himself from his horse. He greeted her parents before wrapping Adelaide in a hug, lifting her from her feet. “Welcome home, Mark,” she said.
Mark’s dark eyes danced, and when he lowered the dusty bandana that covered his mouth, his smile radiated. “I missed you, sis.”
There was a nudge at her shoulder, and Adelaide turned to see his horse’s slender face. Reaching out to pet her affectionately, Adelaide said, “Don’t worry, I didn’t forget about you, Biscuit.”
When Mark turned back to Mama and Papa, it left Adelaide amongst the horses. She recognized three of them, but the fourth she couldn’t place, an older Palomino. She looked around and saw Jameson Cobb, one of Mark’s oldest friends, greeting his own mother and brothers, Roy and Wesley. Then she turned, and in the glare of the sun, she saw a smile she’d been expecting; Sawyer Hamilton, the rancher’s handsome son.
“There you are,” Adelaide said, her throat going dry as he grew close to her.
“You were looking for me?” Sawyer asked in a low drawl.
“Well, your horse was here, but you were nowhere to be seen,” she said with a shrug.
He removed his hat to reveal his sandy-colored hair was a shade darker with all the dust gathered from their trek across the country.
“I’d say you’re a mite prettier than the day I left, Addy.” He glanced down at her with open admiration in his eyes.
Adelaide shook her head. “Oh, stop it, Sawyer. Flattery doesn’t suit you.”
“And if I’m being sincere?” Sawyer stepped closer. “Ain’t there some saying that ‘absence makes the heart grow fonder?’”
Adelaide’s face grew warm, though not from the sunny afternoon. She was lucky to have such a handsome and attentive young man courting her.
“Your mama taught you better than to be saying, ‘ain’t,’” Adelaide said with a smirk.
Sawyer chuckled. “What can I say? The drive has made me lazy.”
“Mama, look who we found in Wichita!” Mark said, drawing everyone’s attention.
When Adelaide looked over, Mark threw his arm around the shoulder of a tall, bearded man that Adelaide couldn’t quite place. But recognition dawned over Mama’s face, and she gasped. “Why, Nate Hawkins, as I live and breathe!”
Adelaide felt her own breath leave her chest. She wanted to move, to get a better look at him, to hug him like Mama and Papa were, but she was frozen to the spot. As if sensing her distance, Mark turned and pulled Nate toward her. “Addy, you remember Nate?”
Did she remember? The way her body was reacting, the better question would have been, had she ever really forgotten him? With pounding heart, Adelaide’s mind summoned memories of when she was but a child, when she had formed an innocent attachment to him, and that determined affection refused to die. The day he left Ohio, he had taken a little piece of her heart with him, even for one so young. She never expected to see him again, but now almost ten years later, though his shoulders were wider and he wore a full beard, beneath the dust and history, his velvety brown eyes were ever the same.
“Howdy, Nate,” Adelaide greeted him in a shaky voice.
Nate’s eyes grew wide and he pulled off his hat. “Mark, this can’t be your kid sister. She’s so grown up!”
“It happens to all of us.” Adelaide smiled, trying to appear unaffected.
Mama and Papa appeared beside them. “I think we’ve occupied the church yard long enough,” Papa said. “Come along, Adelaide.”
“Now, Nate,” Mama said. “I want you to come join us for dinner tonight. I’m sure Mrs. Hamilton is planning on you, but she gets you for the rest of the season, so I want you to come spend tonight with us.”
Nate nodded. “Thank you kindly, Mrs. Bradshaw. I’ll be sure to come with Mark.”
Giving the cowboys all a wave, Adelaide hurried behind her parents and headed for home. She would have lamented not spending more time with them upon their return, but the prospect of having Nate over for dinner softened the blow.
Nate Hawkins couldn't shake the smile from his face as he watched Adelaide Bradshaw saunter down the street, lithe and wispy as a prairie flower. Once they were out of hearing range, Nate threw his arm around Mark’s shoulder.
“Well, I’ll be damned,” Nate said. “Mark, who knew your sister would grow up into such a pretty little thing?”
Mark turned in surprise, but before he could speak, Sawyer tipped his hat back and folded his arms across his chest. “You might want to rein in there, Nate. I’m calling on Addy Bradshaw for the time being.”
“Don't worry about him, Sawyer,” Jameson said, throwing an arm over Nate’s shoulder. “He's just starved for the attention of any woman after being out on the range too long.”
Jameson's breath reeked of chewing tobacco, and Nate shoved him away. “Why do you use that stuff? It's vile.”
“Keeps my mouth busy while my stomach is empty,” Jameson said with a shrug before spitting out the juices into the dirt.
“Gentlemen, please do not loiter around my establishment,” came a shrill woman’s voice from behind them. “This is a boarding house. The saloon is to the west of town.”
Mark pulled his hat off, and they all followed suit. “Thousand apologies, Mrs. Pinnock, Miss Frances.”
The elderly Mrs. Pinnock looked about as pleasant as a rattlesnake that had just been stepped on, and Miss Frances, who Nate assumed was the woman’s daughter, could not have appeared more different. Though she wore a tight bun like her mother, she had large eyes and a small smile, all shining in Mark’s direction.
“We were just coming to see family after a long cattle drive,” Mark explained.
“Well, there’s no sense in lingering if your families are no longer present, is there?” she said pointedly.
“It’s not our fault the boarding house is located practically in the church yard,” Jameson mumbled under his breath.
Mrs. Pinnock’s steely gaze hovered over him. “A cowboy without manners. How original.”
“We’ll be on our way, Mrs. Pinnock,” Mark said as he mounted his horse and tipped his hat. “Good day, ma’am. Miss Frances.”
After the ladies disappeared into the boarding house, Nate turned and quietly said, “Well if she isn’t a chilly breeze on a summer day.”
Mark laughed and shoved his arm. “Come on, we better quit loitering. You coming, Jameson?”
He shook his head. “Ma’s expecting me for dinner at home, so I’ll see you all in the morning,” he said, waving his goodbyes.
“I ought to be getting back too,” Sawyer said, mounting his horse. “Just do me one favor, Mark.”
“Keep an eye on Nate, so he doesn’t get too comfortable with Addy.”
Nate smiled. There was a tease in Sawyer’s voice, but an edge of warning in his eyes.
Mark just laughed. “I’m not getting involved.”
“No, I won’t be interfering,” Nate said with a shake of his head. “You don’t have anything to worry about.”
Sawyer raised an eyebrow like he didn’t believe him, then clicked the reins on his horse and tipped his hat in parting.
But Nate just couldn’t help himself, and loudly said, “Hey Mark, will you save me a seat next to Addy for supper?”
Sawyer immediately pulled on the reins, turning his horse sharply. “That's it, I'm throwing you in the creek.”