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A Fateful Deal on the Texas Trail

He finds her hiding in the train, and she begs him not to tell. He agrees but wants something in return…

Eliza’s world shatters when a trusted acquaintance becomes entangled with a criminal syndicate. To shield the people she adores, Eliza flees to find her birth parents in Texas. Stowing away in a train’s luggage compartment, her journey turns unexpectedly, setting the stage for a fateful encounter.

Caleb embarks on an undercover mission to infiltrate a criminal family planning a bank heist in Texas. As he searches the train for evidence, he stumbles upon Eliza. In a risky twist, Caleb proposes an alliance – he offers her safe passage to Texas in exchange for her cooperation in a charade.

Their paths collide in a tense encounter. As they navigate the treacherous journey together, the line between pretense and genuine emotion blurs.

Written by:

Western Historical Romance Author

4.5/5

4.5/5 (217 ratings)

Prologue

Round Rock, Texas, 1872

Eliza Clemons lay sleeping, wandering blissfully in peaceful dreams. Her mother had just bought her a beautiful new pink dress the week before, which she had worn two days prior to celebrate her sixth birthday. In her dream, she was twirling around, laughing with her friends, feeling like a princess. Her mother and father were smiling at her with love, with their arms around each other and contented smiles on their face.

But Eliza’s dreams were shattered as the door to her room creaked open and her mother’s voice, filled with an unfamiliar urgency, roused her from her slumber.

“Eliza, my love, we need to go,” Abigail Clemons said softly, as she gently shook her daughter’s shoulder.

Eliza’s eyes fluttered open, the sleepiness clinging to her like her yellow cotton nightgown. She blinked up at her mother, wakefulness coming to her when she saw the raw fear on her mother’s face.

“Ma, what’s happening?” she asked.

Her mother eyes darted around the room as though searching for something that Eliza couldn’t see.

“Hush, honey,” she said, her voice suddenly dropping to a whisper. “We must be quiet and quick. There’s no time to explain.”

Growing quickly frightened, Eliza started to protest. But before she could speak again, her mother put a firm finger to her lips. She reached down and lifted Eliza out of bed with a surprising strength for a woman of her dainty stature.

“Shh,” she said, holding Eliza close to her.

Eliza’s heart raced wildly, but she let her mother carry her across the room and to her closet. She could feel the tremble of her fingers as she hurriedly helped Eliza into her dressing gown.

“Where are we going?” Eliza whispered, dread filling her as she realized that her mother intended to take her from the house at such a late hour.

Her mother simply shook her head, sliding Eliza’s feet into her slippers. She wanted to demand answers, but the look in her mother’s eyes silenced her. She didn’t understand what was happening. But she had never seen her mother so rattled, so she decided she best not protest. Perhaps her father would answer her questions when they got where they were going, even if her mother would not.

Her mother scooped her up once more, and ushered her toward the door to Eliza’s bedroom. She glanced back at her large, pink four-poster bed; a cold, unidentifiable sensation settling in her stomach. Something deep within her began to understand that it would be the last time she saw her bed. But why? What could prevent her from sleeping in her bed again?

As they crept through the dimly lit corridors of their once-beloved home, Eliza gazed at the beautiful, pale blue walls and shiny brown furniture, which were lit dimly by beams of moonlight that trickled in through the windows. As a banker, Garret Clemons had provided well for his family. Their house was one of the most beautiful in all of Round Rock. Eliza had always felt safe and happy within its walls. She hoped that, wherever her mother was taking her, they could return soon. The idea of leaving such a comfortable, lovely home was growing increasingly scary to Eliza.

The night air was cool against her skin as they emerged into the garden, the scent of roses and jasmine mingling in the breeze. They moved quickly, away from the large, cream-colored house and into the darkness.

As Eliza took one final look at the house, with its pale walls and rich brown roof, the feeling she’d had in her room intensified. She was suddenly sure that she was looking at her house for the last time. She tried to push the thought away, but the coldness in her belly only dropped five more degrees. Her mother’s grip tightened uncomfortably as they ran across the yard, which only deepened her fear.

“Where is Pa?” Eliza asked, unable to keep quiet any longer.

But her mother merely put her face against her shoulder, stopping long enough to balance Eliza on her hip.

“Hush, darling,” she said again, before continuing on through the dark.

Her mother carried her for what felt like hours before coming to a stop abruptly. Eliza looked forward and saw a carriage, hiding beneath some trees, nearly invisible until they were right up on it. Her mother’s worry had scared her, but the sight of the hidden carriage made her heart drop. She looked around frantically, hoping for some sign of her father. But she could only see the door to the carriage, which her mother was struggling to open with Eliza on her hip, and the silhouette of a person sitting in the driver’s seat, holding reins that were attached to horses that were all but invisible in the total darkness.

“Where’s Pa?” Eliza asked, no longer able to keep the tremble out of her voice.

Her mother looked at her with tears in her eyes and shook her head, but she didn’t answer her question.

“Quiet, now, and get inside,” she said as she finally pushed open the door to the coach.

Eliza reluctantly complied, climbing into the coach, and immediately poking her head up to the back window, hoping to see trunks of their belongings on the back of the carriage. But the luggage rack was as empty as the interior of the coach, and an icy chill ran down her spine. Where could they be going without any of their things? And where was her father?

Her mother boarded the carriage right behind her, closing the door quickly. Eliza jumped as her mother started at the sound of the door clicking shut. Eliza couldn’t understand why such a small sound would scare her mother. Her anxiety was rising by the minute, and she huddled close to her mother.

“Ma, I’m scared,” she said, hoping to finally get some answers from her mother. But her mother just held her tightly, burying her face in Eliza’s hair. The moon was too high above them for Eliza to see her mother’s face. But when Eliza pressed her lips to her mother’s cheek, it was wet with tears. Terrified, and confused by everything that was happening and the questions that were going unanswered, Eliza, too, began to cry.

Sometime later, the rhythmic clip-clop of horse hooves echoed in her ears, once more waking Eliza. She opened her eyes, wincing against the sun that was just beginning to dawn in the sky. For a moment, she was disoriented, sitting up with a start. But her mother quickly reached out and took her hand, squeezing it gently.

Eliza turned to her, seeing her mother’s face clearly for the first time since the day before. The drying tears and the bags beneath her mother’s eyes, the same shade of brown as her own, quickly brought back the memory of her mother taking her from her bed, and their home.

“Ma, where are we going?” she asked. She glanced out the windows, trying to see if she could tell where they were. She had only ever been to one other place besides Round Rock with her parents. Daily Grove, the next town over from their hometown, was smaller than Round Rock, but they had a bigger general store. Her father often took their family there to get supplies they often couldn’t get in Round Rock. But wherever they were was not either of those places, and her fear from the night before returned with a vengeance.

Her mother reached out and brushed some strands of hair out of her face, giving her a weak smile.

“We’re going on a trip, honey,” she said, nearly choking on the words.

Eliza shook her head, pointing to the empty luggage racks.

“But we don’t have our things,” she said.

Her mother sighed, wiping her cheeks with her free hand.

“We won’t have to worry about our things,” she said.

Eliza frowned.

“But why?” she asked. “And where’s Pa?”

Her mother bit her lip, turning quickly to face the window. With the rising sun, Eliza could see her mother’s reflection, and she watched as more tears filled her mother’s eyes. She shook her head, hesitating a moment before turning back to Eliza, wiping once more at her face.

“Try to sleep a little more, sweetheart,” she said. “We’ll be getting off this carriage in about an hour.”

Eliza brightened, a bit of hope sparking within her.

“Will Pa be there?” she asked.

Her mother looked at her with wide, wounded eyes. But that was another question she never answered. She just patted Eliza’s hand and looked out the window again.

“Sleep, Eliza,” she said quietly.

But Eliza didn’t sleep again. Instead, she looked out the window, admiring the Texas plains that were littered with tall pine trees and farms. There were fields with cows, and paddocks with horses, both of which became gradually more frequent as they traveled. And once the sun was fully above the horizon, Eliza could hear birds begin singing their morning tunes back and forth. Her thoughts were a tangled mess, but the beautiful scenery helped distract her.

As the minutes passed and the carriage continued its arduous journey, Eliza’s restlessness grew. She fidgeted with the skirt of her dressing gown, wondering what she would wear when they got to where they were going, as she didn’t have her clothes. She suddenly realized that she also didn’t have her new pink dress. She reached out for her mother, her eyes wide and pleading.

“Please, Ma,” she said. “I don’t understand why we had to leave. And I didn’t even get to bring my new dress. Can we go home? Please?”

Her mother’s eyes once more glistened, and she reached out to pat Eliza’s head.

“We can’t go back, darlin’,” she said. “I know this is hard and scary for you. But you’re just gonna have to trust me.”

Eliza sighed, frustration taking place of her fear.

“But why?” she asked. “Why can’t we go home? And why won’t you tell me where Pa is?”

Her mother bit her lip again, which Eliza noticed then had begun to bleed from her frantic chewing. She brushed a strand of dark brown hair out of her face, and glanced out the window as though she feared being overheard.

“Pa can’t come with us,” she said, her voice breaking as she spoke. “I’m sorry, honey, but that’s all you need to know.”

Eliza was more concerned than ever. She shook her head, refusing to accept her mother’s vagueness.

“Why can’t he come with us?” she asked. “When are we going home to him?”

But yet again, her mother just shook her head, falling silent. She closed her eyes, from which more tears fell, before turning back to her window.

Eliza leaned back in her seat, the tension in the carriage almost suffocating. She couldn’t shake the feeling that the secrets being kept from her were as important as they were terrifying. Why would her mother not tell her what was happening to them?

The landscape outside changed as they approached a small building, in front of which were long metal tracks with a big, long metal machine sitting on it. She frowned, looking at her mother with another question on her mind.

“Where are we?” she asked.

Her mother looked at her, the circles beneath her eyes seeming to deepen by the minute.

“This is a train station,” she said. “We will be taking a train from here on out.”

Eliza’s brow furrowed.

“What’s a train?” she asked.

Her mother sighed again, smoothing out her dress as the carriage began to slow down.

“Another mode of transportation, Eliza,” she said, her voice filled with weariness as she pointed to the long, snake-like machine.

Eliza stared out at the imposing beast—the train—that awaited them. She had never seen a train before that moment, and she couldn’t recall if she had ever heard her parents talk about them. It was the scariest part of their journey so far, and she turned to her mother pleadingly once more.

“Ma, please, let’s just go home,” she said, tears filling her eyes. “I don’t wanna get on that thing. I don’t wanna leave Pa. I don’t wanna leave my bed. Please, take me home.”

But her mother ignored her as the coach came to a stop. Her mother jumped out as soon as the door was opened by the driver. She whispered something to him, pressing a big handful of money into his palm. Then, she grabbed Eliza, holding her the same way she had the previous night, and whisked them away to an open metal door, where a man was just stepping down off a small set of steps.

“Ticket, please,” he said, holding out his hand.

Her mother moved one hand from around Eliza, digging frantically in her dress pocket. She pulled out two wrinkled pieces of paper and shoved them into the man’s hands. He raised an eyebrow at her urgency, unfolding and reading the slips of paper. Then, he motioned her onward. Before carrying Eliza past him, she leaned close to his ear and whispered something to him.

Eliza strained to hear, but the train made a loud hiss sound that distracted her. By the time she could pay attention again, her mother had finished speaking. The man’s eyes were solemn and his expression grave, but he merely nodded and gestured again toward the open door. Eliza’s mother hurried aboard the train, rushing to a seat at the very back of the small box they had entered.

“How’s it so long if the inside is so small?” Eliza asked, once more distracted from her worries.

Her mother pushed her into the seat against the window, exhaling deeply as she collapsed down beside her daughter.

“This is a single train car, honey,” she said, sounding breathless. “There are lots of them on a train. Now, I don’t want you tryin’ to get up and run around to the other cars, do you hear? You stay right here by me.”

Eliza nodded, confused. Her mother’s face showed signs of relief, but her voice was full of stern discipline and edged with fear.

“Yes, Ma,” she said quietly, though her words were drowned out by a loud whistle. She jumped, throwing her arms around her mother’s neck. For the first time since leaving home, her mother laughed softly.

“That’s just the train whistle, Eliza,” she said, stroking her daughter’s hair. “It’s nothin’ to be afraid of.”

Trembling, Eliza slowly slid back into her seat, not telling her mother that there was plenty to be afraid of in her mind. Her mother had stolen her from her bed in the middle of the night without her father anywhere in sight, wouldn’t answer her questions, and now had her on a big, loud, strange contraption, traveling to a destination that she wouldn’t explain to Eliza.

Yes, there was plenty to be afraid of. But the train had humbled her desire to keep asking questions. Instead, she clutched tightly to her mother’s arm as the train began to move. Eliza just hoped that whatever awaited them at the end of the train trip would be worth everything she was going through right then.

As Eliza cautiously examined her surroundings, she noted that the walls of the train car were warm and inviting. The sound it made along the metal rails was loud, but it didn’t shake their seats as much as one might expect. Soon enough, she was able to drown out the train wheels and take notice of the sconces and flowers lining the walls of the car. There were only two other people in that car with them: an elderly woman and a young man. Neither of them paid her and her mother any attention, and she wanted to try to make friends with the lady. But she remembered her mother’s warning about not moving from her seat, so she begrudgingly changed her mind.

Outside, the scenery whizzed past the windows too quickly for her to tell what was out there. At first, it was as frightening as the train moving had been. But after a few minutes of peering out and trying to identify the trees and buildings they passed, it was as soothing as the interior of the car had become to Eliza. She sat back in her seat, still looking out the window. But slowly, the sights and sounds around her began to fade and she felt her eyelids grow heavy. Another moment later, she was laying with her head in her mother’s lap, drifting off to sleep.

***

The train came to a halt with a screech of metal against metal, and Eliza peered out of the window, startled awake by the grinding of the wheels on the rails. She couldn’t tell how much time had passed, but both the other passengers on the train were gone, leaving just her and her mother.

The imposing building that met her gaze was a stark contrast to the picturesque countryside and large, lovely house they had left behind. It was a large, foreboding brick building, and as her eyes fell upon the sign, her heart stopped.

“Orphanage,” she whispered, the word heavy on her lips, a chilling realization sinking in. That was a word she knew, as Round Rock had a small, dilapidated one, and she had asked her parents about it. Her father had explained to her that children who have no parents go there to be taken care of, until they were grown-ups. The building’s imposing walls seemed to close in on her, and dread clawed at her chest. Why were they at an orphanage?

She whipped her head around to look at her mother, hoping for some simple explanation. But her mother’s eyes were bright red and puffy, and her face was streaked with tears.

“Ma?” she asked, her voice trembling violently. “Why are we here?”

Her mother hugged her tightly, choking out a sob. But she didn’t say a word to Eliza until they had stepped off the train and headed for the steps to the building.

“I’m sorry, my darling, I have no choice,” she said. “It’s the only way to keep you safe.”

Eliza followed her mother to the top of the steps, understanding dawning as her mother knocked on the big wooden double doors.

“Please, Mother, don’t leave me here,” she said. “Why are you doing this? You and Pa are still alive. You can’t leave me here.”

Tears poured down her mother’s pale cheeks as she reached out to hold her daughter’s trembling hands.

“I promise, Eliza, it won’t be forever,” she said. “When it’s safe, I’ll come for you. You must be strong, honey.”

Eliza clung to her mother, her sobs wracking her body. The weight of the sudden separation and the uncertainty of what lay ahead overwhelmed her.

“Promise you’ll come back,” she said through her tears.

Her mother held her tightly, whispering soothing words into her daughter’s ear.

“I promise, Eliza,” she said. “With all my heart, I promise.”

Reluctantly, they pulled away from each other just as the looming doors opened with a creak. A matronly figure emerged, giving them a tight-lipped smile.

“Were we expecting you?” she asked, studying Eliza’s mother carefully.

Abigail dug in her other pocket, producing another wrinkled piece of paper. With a shaky hand, she held it out to the tall, slender woman with hair graying much like Abigail’s. Eliza noticed that she didn’t appear to be much older than her mother. Still, the realization did little to ease her anxiety.

As the woman read the letter, her expression changed. The lines on her forehead and around her mouth softened, and she looked at Eliza’s mother with wide eyes. Abigail nodded solemnly, silently glancing toward Eliza. Not a word was spoken between the women, however. Instead, the tall woman leaned down, smiling more warmly at Eliza.

“Hello, sweetheart,” she crooned, offering her hand. “My name is Miss Vera Downs. And what is your name?”

Eliza swallowed, finding her mouth very dry. She cleared her throat, sniffling and wiping her nose with the sleeve of one arm as she took Miss Downs’ hand with the other.

“E-Eliza,” she said, stuttering. “Eliza Clemons.”

Miss Downs put a surprisingly gentle arm around her shoulders, patting her softly as she did so.

“It’s nice to meet you, Eliza Clemons,” she said. “Let’s get you inside and get you something hot to eat and a bed so you can rest. I’m gonna take good care of you.”

Eliza turned back to her mother, silently pleading with her. But her mother just knelt down and gave her one final hug.

“Everything’s gonna be alright, sweetheart,” she said. “You be a good girl, and I’ll be back for you.”

As her mother handed her over to the stern-faced woman, Eliza turned for one last look, her eyes locked onto Abigail’s. In that moment, she saw the love and pain etched on her mother’s face. Suddenly, she was just as sure that she would never see her mother again as she had been that she would never see her house again.

She reached for her mother, but Abigail took a step back, waving silently to her daughter. The last thing Eliza saw of her mother was her blowing a tearful kiss to her. The train whistle sounded, and her mother hurried back to the door from which they had exited only moments before. As the train pulled away and Miss Downs tried to lead Eliza inside the building, all she could do was watch as the train disappeared from sight, and cry.

Chapter One

Claremore, Oklahoma 1885

“All right, girls,” Eliza said, gently tapping on the blackboard with a fresh piece of chalk. “Can any of you tell me what this word is?”

The girls, who were about the same age Eliza had been when she arrived at the Claremore Orphanage thirteen years prior, studied the board dutifully. Eliza stood still, watching their faces as they scrunched them up and tried to mentally sound out the word on the board. A moment later, a little girl with rave black hair and bright blue eyes shot up her hand, bouncing in her seat.

“Supplies,” she announced proudly.

Eliza beamed at the girl, clapping her hands together softly.

“That’s right, Isabelle,” she said. “And can anyone tell me what supplies are?”

Another girl with bright blond hair and hazel eyes slowly put up her hand. Isabelle lowered hers politely, waiting for the other girl to answer.

“Supplies is things we need for stuff,” she said, sounding unsure of herself. “Miss Downs always says she’s gotta go to town and get supplies for us.”

Eliza stifled a giggle, not wanting to embarrass the girl because Eliza found her innocence so delightful.

“That’s right, Sally,” she said. “Supplies can be anything we need to keep something working or running properly.”

A third girl with wild, curly brown hair raised her hand.

“Does that mean food, too?” she asked.

Eliza shook her head, smiling at the girl.

“I suppose it could,” she said. “But usually, we would just say ‘food’ if we mean that we need to get food. We might include food in our trip for supplies, but usually, ‘supplies’ is a general term for things like bedclothes, tools, utensils, cookware, and so on.”

The girls exchanged thoughtful looks, nodding, and murmuring to one another. Eliza gave them a moment to talk among themselves as they worked through their understanding of the unfamiliar word out loud. As she glanced around the room, her heart swelled with pride. These children, abandoned like she once was, had become her family. She saw hope in their eyes, and it was her duty to nurture it, just as Miss Downs had done for her.

Movement at the door of the small classroom caught her attention, and she looked toward it. She smiled brightly again, noticing that Miss Downs had just arrived. She tapped the board once again, smiling sweetly at the girls as they quieted down again.

“Why don’t y’all write me a list of ten things you believe would count as ‘supplies’?” she asked.

The girls nodded eagerly, pulling fresh stationery and pencils from inside their spaces at their long, table-like desks. As they busied themselves, mulling over their lists, Eliza slipped to the back of the classroom to the doorway.

“Eliza,” Miss Downs said, her voice a mix of warmth and authority. “I wanted to commend you for the excellent work you’ve been doing with the younger girls. Your dedication to their education and well-being is truly remarkable.”

Eliza blushed, shaking her head modestly.

“Thank you, Miss Downs,” she said. “It’s truly a privilege to help them. They deserve a chance at a brighter future.”

The orphanage matron nodded appreciatively, her eyes softening.

“You’ve come a long way since you first arrived here,” she said. “I remember the day you were meant to leave, a year ago. You begged me for a chance to work with me, and I took a chance on you. I’m pleased to say it was the right decision. Though, truly, I never had any doubt.”

Eliza nodded, tears stinging her eyes.

“I am grateful that you gave me this chance,” she said. “Maybe I was ready to go out and make my own way in the world, but I felt like I could do so much good here with the children. I couldn’t turn my back on such an opportunity. Thank you for giving it to me.”

Miss Downs placed a motherly hand on Eliza’s shoulder.

“You’ve become a self-reliant young woman, Eliza,” she said. “You’ve blossomed in ways I could have only hoped for. The improvements I’ve seen in you and in the orphanage itself, are nothing short of remarkable. I regret the circumstances that brought you to me. But I could never regret that you came into my life. Or theirs.” She gestured at the classroom of girls, who were talking quietly to one another and scribbling excitedly on their papers.

A tender smile graced Eliza’s lips, and she blinked back her tears.

“Thank you, Miss Downs,” she said. “I owe it all to your guidance and the love of this place.”

In thirteen years, Miss Downs had never explained the reason why Eliza’s mother had left her at the orphanage. She had considered asking, especially now that she was of age. But each time she thought about it, she would end up changing her mind. Her mother had promised to return for her.

Yet here she was, thirteen years later, without a single word from her mother. Part of her still held out a small shred of hope that her mother would come one day. But the part of her that was heartbroken over the broken promise had come to think of Miss Downs as a mother to her. Between her, and the children she worked with every day, she was by and large content with her life.

Miss Downs discreetly wiped away a tear that had slipped from her eye. She smiled at Eliza, patting her on the shoulder as she dabbed at her misty eyes.

“Well, I’ll let you get back to it,” she said.

Eliza nodded, taking one of the matron’s hands and squeezing it gently.

“Thank you for everything,” she said.

Once Miss Downs was gone, Eliza turned back to her class. The girls had finished their lists, and Eliza collected them.

“All right,” she said. “Let’s discuss your lists.”

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  • The little girl student’s hair said her hair was rave. It should be raven. Eliza needs to be fleshed out a little more. I don’t really connect with this older girl yet. What does she look like as a budding adult, her stature, hair, face? Personality?

    • Thank you for your feedback Jan! I understand your point about Eliza needing more development. I’ll work on fleshing out the characters more by describing her appearance and personality in greater detail. Thank you for your valuable input!

    • I’m glad to hear you find the novel intriguing Barbara! Thank you for your excitement, and I hope the story captivates you from beginning to end. Happy reading! 📚

  • Good reading so far.
    The prologue grabbed my interest right away. I can’t wait to find out what happened to her parents although I have a faint suspicion.

    • Glad you’re enjoying the read Donna! Happy reading, and I hope the rest of the story lives up to your expectations! 📖

  • Wow great read so far the prologue really caught my attention kept me engaged and eagerly ready to read more of how the story will go. Looking forward to reading all of it soon. Looks like an interesting and intriguing novel excite for what’s coming 😀

    • I’m so happy it captured your attention! Your excitement for what’s to come is contagious. Thank you for your kind words, and I hope you enjoy the rest of the novel just as much Judith! 😊

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