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Finding Unexpected Love on the Wagon Trail

A stolen kiss to secure her place on the wagon trail leads to a perilous journey where love blossoms amidst vengeful outlaws and life-altering secrets…

Jennie needs to help her brother escape on a wagon trail. Concealing him and securing a male companion becomes imperative, as solo travel for a woman is not an option. Desperation leads her to claim the first man she sees as her fiancé in a journey that will alter her life forever.

Ben, the rugged trail master, is surprised when a beautiful woman steals a kiss from him in front of everyone and pleads for a fake engagement. Unsure why he agrees to help her he only knows one thing —his life won’t be the same again.

Jennie and Ben confront hardships and the looming threat of vengeful outlaws. As their fake engagement deepens into a genuine connection, they discover unexpected love in the harsh Old West.

Written by:

Western Historical Romance Author

Prologue

Independence, Missouri, 1850

 

Twenty-year-old Jennie Finchley stepped out of the carriage onto the lamp-lit street, her dance card dangling off her wrist as she closed the carriage door. The cool evening air was a welcome relief after all her exertions on the dance floor. Even now, her cheeks were still flushed, and her jaw ached from smiling.

“Thank you,” Jennie said, looking up at the carriage driver.

“You’re welcome, Miss,” he said.

Jennie turned towards the large townhouse, letting her silk mantle hang loosely around her shoulders.

The Finchley house was the most admired on the entire street. It was a three-story building with a wraparound porch and large columns. Each of the tall sash windows had a shutter, and the roof was pitched with gable ends. Passersby liked to stop and admire not only the house but also the gardens. Jennie’s mother had four dedicated gardeners who tended to them, and the roses were rumored to be the finest in the whole state.

Jennie pushed open the waist-high wrought iron gate and walked up the narrow stone path towards the house. As she did, the crickets in the grass stopped chirping, only resuming again once she’d stepped onto the porch.

“How was it?” Mrs. Finchley called from the sitting room as Jennie stepped in through the front door.

Jennie walked down the hallway and turned into the second door on her left, stopping in the doorway. As she did every evening, Mrs. Finchley was seated in the large wingback chair by the fire with a book in her lap. In her day, Margaret Finchley was considered to be one of the great beauties of Independence and even now, many years on, she was still a striking woman. Jennie had inherited her mother’s beauty with her strawberry blonde hair and pale green eyes the exact same shade as the glass that washed up on the shores of the sea. However, she was taller than her mother with higher cheekbones, features she’d inherited from her father’s side.

“Where’s father?” Jennie asked, glancing at the empty chair beside her mother.

“In his study, of course,” Mrs. Finchley said. “Come and sit, tell me about the dance.”

Jennie sighed softly. She was tired and dying to take her shoes off. She thought she must have a dozen blisters. Still, she could not ignore the look of longing in her mother’s eyes, the longing to be young again and to, even if just for a moment, live vicariously through her daughter.

“Alright,” Jennie agreed, somewhat reluctantly.

Jennie entered the room and took the empty seat beside the fire. As she sat, she folded her hands in her lap and realized she still had her dance card on her wrist.

“So?” Jennie’s mother said. “Tell me everything.”

Rose Winthrop’s twenty-first birthday ball had been the talk of the town for weeks. Although the Winthrop’s had only come to Missouri a few years earlier, Rose and Jennie had become fast friends. All the Finchley’s had been invited, but at the last minute, Jennie’s father had decided that he did not feel like attending. Mrs. Finchley, who had been looking forward to the ball, but who did not think it was appropriate to attend without him, had also decided to stay home. It was no secret that while Jennie and Rose were good friends, their fathers were not. Mr. Finchley looked down on the Winthrop’s for being “new money” and Mr. Winthrop thought of Mr. Finchley as snobby and old-worldly. So Jennie had gone to the party alone and had chosen to tell a white lie about her parents feeling unwell, to spare everyone’s feelings.

“Well, Rose looked absolutely beautiful,” Jennie said. “There is a new seamstress on the main street. She’s come all the way from Paris and Rose’s mama employed her to sew her dress for the ball, and it was simply divine. It had lace sleeves and twelve petticoats.”

“Twelve?” Mrs. Finchley said in disbelief.

“I must say, I felt rather the plain Jane next to her all evening,” Jennie sighed, sitting back in her chair.

“You could never be plain,” her mother insisted. “It’s no surprise Rose’s mother went to such great lengths with her dress. Perhaps she hoped it might distract people from that nose.”

“Oh, Mama!” Jennie chided. “What a frightful thing to say. Rose is my dearest friend.”

“Well, of course I’d never say it to her face, dear,” Mrs. Finchley said.

Jennie pursed her lips.

“So tell me, what flowers did they have?” Mrs. Finchley asked. “Tulips? Mrs. Winthrop gushed over my tulips at our last ball, so it wouldn’t surprise me if she’d decided to do the same.”

“They had roses,” Jennie said.

“I suppose that’s the obvious choice,” Mrs. Finchley said, an edge of disappointment in her voice.

It was late by the time Jennie had told her mother enough about the ball that she was finally granted leave to go up to bed.

Jennie climbed the stairs and when she reached the second landing she yawned sleepily. She walked to her bedroom and pushed open the door. The room was dark, but pale moonlight filtered in through the window and the curtains waved gently in the breeze.

Jennie frowned; quite certain she did not leave the window open. She walked across the room and closed it, pulling the curtains across the glass and shutting out all but a sliver of the silvery moonlight. She turned and picked up the small kerosene lamp off the dresser and as she did, there was a movement out of the corner of her eye, and she got such a fright that she dropped the lamp which crashed to the floor.

“Alex?” Jennie whispered, hardly believing her eyes.

Standing in the corner of her bedroom was her younger brother, Alexander. She had not seen him in over a year, not since he left home.

“Jennie,” Alex said, his voice barely above a whisper.

Jennie rushed across the room and threw her arms around him, hugging him tightly. As she did, she could feel the bones in his shoulders and back and he smelled like dirt, sweat and blood.

“Where have you been?” Jennie asked, holding him at arm’s length.

Alex opened his mouth and then closed it again.

“I will go and fetch Mama and Papa,” Jennie said. “They will be so excited that you are home—”

“No, Jennie, wait,” Alex said, catching her by the wrist.

Jennie stopped, turning to look at him again. “What is it?” she said.

“I-I-I’m in trouble,” Alex said, his voice strained.

Jennie frowned. “What happened, Alex? “Where have you been all this time?”

“There are people looking for me,” Alex said. “Bad people.”

Jennie stared at her younger brother and in the sliver of light coming in from between the curtains she could make out the dark rings under his eyes and the hollows of his cheeks. He was two years younger than her, but he was taller, and they both had the same blonde hair and pale green eyes. But before she could ask him any more questions there was a knock at the bedroom door.

“Jennie?” Mr. Finchley said. “Are you alright, we heard a crash?”

“Don’t tell them I’m here,” Alec whispered.

“Don’t be silly, Alex,” Jennie insisted. “They can help.”

“No—”

But Jennie walked across the room and pulled open the door. Their father was standing there with their mother just inches behind him.

“Jennie, is everything alright…”

Mr. Finchley’s voice trailed off as he caught sight of Alex.

“What are you doing here?” he asked, his tone harsh.

“Papa—” Jennie began.

“You have no place in this house,” he said, his voice now dangerously low.

“Richard—”

“The boy’s a criminal, Margaret!” Mr. Finchley cried. “He gave up all of this, his family, all so he could become a miscreant.”

“Alex?” Jennie said, turning to him. “What is Papa talking about?”

Alex sighed as he took a step forward and in the light streaming in from the open door, Jennie could make out the true extent of her brother’s injuries, and her stomach sank. “I’ve left them,” he said.

“And so what?’ the father said. “Now that you’ve given up on being an unscrupulous outlaw, you think you can just have your old life back? Well, let me tell you something—”

“They’re after me,” Alex said. “They caught me once, but I managed to get away.”

“Serves you right,” Mr. Finchley said harshly.

“I need your help,” Alex said. “It won’t be long before they find me again.”

“And you have the audacity to come here?” Mr. Finchley spat. “To put your mama’s life in danger? Your sister’s life?”

“I-I didn’t know where else to go,” Alec stammered.

“Get out,” Mr. Finchley said without hesitation.

“Richard—”

“The boy’s brought this on himself,” Mr. Finchley said. “Now get out, or I’ll have the sheriff arrest you myself.”

No one moved for a moment and then Alex walked out of Jennie’s room.

“Wait!” Jennie cried, reaching out for him. “We have to help him, he’s our family.”

“No, Jennie,” Mr. Finchley said sternly. “He stopped being our family the day he chose those people over us.”

Jennie stood still, her heart in her throat as Alex disappeared down the hallway and out of the front door, and as quickly as he’d come back into her life he was gone again.

Sleep would not come to Jennie that night, she tossed and turned, unable to get her brother’s face from her mind. Then, just before dawn, something woke her and she got out of bed and walked over to the window. In the rose garden below, she saw Alex. He was sitting on the old wooden bench they used to sit on as children, talking about their hopes and dreams for the future.

Jennie fetched her dressing gown from the hook behind the door and pulled it over her nightdress. She went downstairs and into the kitchen, opening the backdoor quietly as she stepped onto the dew-soaked grass.

“Alex,” she whispered, as she hurried across to him. “You’re still here.”

Alex looked up at her, his pale green eyes full of tears. “I’m so sorry,” he apologized. “Papa was right, I should never have come back here.”

“Don’t say that,” Jennie insisted as she sat down beside him and took his hands in her own. “I’ve missed you so much, Alex. For months after you left I used to sit on this very bench hoping you would come strolling in through the gate.”

“I was such a fool,” Alex said, shaking his head. “I never should have joined them.”

“Why did you?” Jennie asked.

Alex sighed. “I saw my whole life laid before me,” he said. “Everything and everyone in it and I got scared. I got scared that I’d end up like our father and so, I did the very thing I knew he never would.”

Jennie said nothing for a long moment. She’d always known that Alex didn’t want to follow in their father’s footsteps, he did not want to take over the family business or marry the girl his mother picked out for him. He’d always been a free spirit, reckless to a point. He found their life stifling and where others saw privilege and opportunity he saw shackles.

“The sun’s coming up,” Alex said. “I should go.”

“But where will you go?” Jennie asked.

Alex shrugged. “I don’t know,” he said. “But I can’t stay here.”

Jennie exhaled as she turned to him. “I am not going to let them hurt you again,” she said.

“Jennie—”

“I won’t,” Jennie said firmly. “I will find a way to get you out of this.”

“I can’t ask you to do that,” Alex said. “To put yourself in danger for me.”

“I don’t care what Papa said, we are family,” Jennie insisted. “Now, do you remember that old hunting cottage?”

“The one we used to play in as children?” Alex asked.

Jennie nodded. “Go and hide there,” she said. “And I’ll come for you when I have a plan.”

Alex hesitated a moment and then nodded.

“Wait here,” Jennie said.

She got up and hurried back into the kitchen. She grabbed an old flour sack and began to fill it with whatever she could find, bread, cheese, cold meats, enough to keep him going until she could come up with a plan to help him escape.

“Here,” Jennie said. “Take this.”

Alex took the sack of food from her, and as he did, Jennie put her arms around him and hugged him tightly.

“I will think of a way to get you out of this,” she said. “I promise.”

Chapter One

Independence, Missouri, 1850

 

“Jennie?” Rose said. “Are you quite well?”

Jennie turned away from the window to find her best friend, Rose watching her curiously. She was a pretty young woman with soft, chestnut-colored hair and large brown eyes framed with thick black lashes. Despite Mrs. Finchley’s poor opinion of Rose’s nose, it was a perfectly fine one, only perhaps slightly larger than average.

“I’m fine,” Jennie said, turning and walking over to the sofa.

“You looked a million miles away,” Rose said.

Jennie smiled as she sat down beside her friend. In truth, she had been. It had been one week since Alex had returned and she had thought of little else than trying to find a way to get him as far away from Missouri as possible.

“Mama got into a frightful argument with Beatrice this morning,” Rose said, handing Jennie a cup of tea.

Beatrice was Mrs. Winthrop’s lady’s maid.

“Oh?” Jennie said. “What about?”

“She told mama that she is leaving,” Rose said. “On the Oregon Trail.”

The Oregon Trail had grown in popularity since the early 1840s when the first wave of emigrants made their way westward in search of a better life and more opportunities. Before the establishment of the Oregon Trail the routes had only ever really been used by fur traders and Mormon pioneers. Jennie had learned in school about the Great Migration of 1843 when around 1,500 emigrants, along with thousands of livestock, embarked on the Oregon Trail, marking a turning point and bringing increased attention to the route. Since then, the trail had only gained in popularity. Independence, Missouri was the starting point and the journey ended at Willamette Valley. The trail spanned approximately 2,000 miles and passed through several states, including Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska, Wyoming, Idaho, and Oregon.

“Mama blames Papa,” Rose continued.

“Why?” Jennie asked.

“Well, over breakfast the other morning he was reading all about the new legislation in Oregon. Apparently, they are offering 320 acres of land to unmarried settlers and 640 acres to married ones. Mama believes Beatrice overheard the news and that’s why she’d decided to leave.”

As Rose spoke, an idea popped into Jennie’s head. She needed to get her brother out of Independence, so what if they joined the Oregon Trail? There was only one problem. Alex would have to remain hidden, and there was no way she’d be allowed to travel the trail alone, not as a single woman.

“Jennie?” Rose said. “You have that distant look in your eyes again. Don’t you want to tell me what’s troubling you?”

Jennie hesitated. She did not want to burden Rose with her troubles, but her friend was the smartest person she knew. Perhaps Rose might be able to help.

“You can tell me,” Rose pressed. “After all, we tell each other everything.”

Jennie hesitated. “You have to swear you won’t tell anyone,” she said.

“Of course not,” Rose promised.

‘Alright,” Jennie exhaled. “Alex came back a week ago, the night of your party.”

“What?” Rose exclaimed, her jaw dropping in surprise. “Why didn’t you say anything?”

“Because I couldn’t,” Jennie said.

Rose edged closer to Jennie on the sofa as she told her what exactly had happened the evening of the ball.

“And he’s been living in that old hunter’s cottage ever since?”

Jennie nodded. “I’ve been trying to think of a way to get him out of Missouri, and now you’ve given me an idea.”

“I have?” Rose asked.

“Yes, the Oregon Trail,” Jennie said. “If I can get Alex to Willamette Valley then he can claim some land and start again.”

Rose nodded. “Beatrice told my mother that there was a meeting this afternoon at the Jones’s ranch. A representative from each family must go to hear about the rules for the journey, the route, and the like.”

“Did she say what time?” Jennie asked.

“No,” Rose said. “But we can ask her.”

A short while later, Jennie left Rose’s house feeling both anxious and hopeful. Beatrice had told them the time of the meeting that afternoon and Jennie intended to go. If this worked then Alex could have a second chance at a whole new life. However, she was not blind to the number of obstacles they would need to overcome to make that happen.

Jennie returned home to find her mother seated on the front porch, arranging flowers in a large porcelain vase.

“I expected you back earlier,” Mrs. Finchley said.

“Sorry,” Jennie apologized.

“It’s quite alright,” Mrs. Finchley said. “I know what it’s like when you girls get talking,” she smiled.

Rose nodded. “Actually, mama, Rose asked me to call again this afternoon.”

Mrs. Finchley frowned slightly as she waited for an explanation as to why Jennie was visiting twice in one day.

“Rose’s mother has decided to take her to Europe this summer, and I promised I’d help her pack.”

“Well, I suppose she could use your discerning eye,” Mrs. Finchley said.

“So I may go?” Jennie asked.

“Very well,” Mrs. Finchley said. “Just make sure that you are home for dinner.”

Jennie headed inside and into the kitchen which she found empty. She briskly walked into the pantry and fetched a loaf of bread, some cheese, and a piece of salt pork.

As she stepped out, she ran right into the kitchen maid.

“Excuse me,” Jennie said.

“That’s all for you, Miss?” the kitchen maid said, eyeing the food.

“Yes,” Jennie lied.

The kitchen maid raised her eyebrows as Jennie hurried out of the kitchen and upstairs. When she was safely in her bedroom, she stashed the food in an empty pillowcase. The hunter’s cottage was located just on the outskirts of town. But she was sure she had time to take the food to Alex before the meeting started.

Jennie walked over to the large oak dresser and pulled open the doors. Her mother was forever going on about her sorting through her old dresses so that they could be donated to charity.

Jennie went through a dozen before she found the oldest one. Usually, she’d never be caught dead in something so out of fashion but she needed to play the part. She couldn’t be Jennie Finchley, the daughter of Mr. Richard Finchley, sixth generation banker and the wealthiest man in town. She needed to be just an ordinary young woman in search of a better life.

At two o’clock, Jennie left the house, using the backdoor so that her mother would not see what she was wearing. She wore a thin cloak over her dress, the food parcel hidden within.

Jennie walked down her street towards the town square. As she approached the square, she turned left, taking the narrow back road behind the buildings. She walked past the church and towards the small path of woods, about a half a mile out of town. As she entered the woods, she glanced over her shoulder. The old hunter’s cottage was located near the back of the woods. When they were children they used to think it was haunted. Years and years ago, just when the town of Independence was founded, a man, lost in a blizzard, stumbled across the old, abandoned, hunter’s cottage. He took shelter inside but the blizzard raged on for days. Then, on the third night, the man saw something he couldn’t explain, something that drove him out of the cottage and into the dark, snowy night. The man managed to make it to a barn and when the rancher found him in the morning he was wild eyed, rambling about creaking floorboards, whispers on the wind and the ghostly apparition that revealed itself in the flickering firelight. The story of the haunted hunter’s cottage had been passed down from family to family. It was only when they got older that they realized it was just a story; a way to keep children out of the woods.

As Jennie walked through the trees the air grew cooler. The path to the cottage was overgrown and as she crushed the foliage beneath her boots a damp, earthy perfume rose to greet her. Every now and again she heard something rustle in the bushes, and in the trees above a blackbird flapped its wings before taking flight. As she got closer to the cottage the ancient oaks came into view, their gnarled branches reaching skyward, draped in moss.

The path took a gentle turn before the old stone cottage appeared in the small clearing ahead. Its yellow-brown stones were weathered by years of sun, wind and snow. Alex was sitting outside on an old log. His cuts and bruises had begun to heal and he’d put on some weight, thanks to the food from the Finchley’s kitchen that Jennie had been bringing every couple of days. A twig snapped beneath her boot as she approached him and Alex’s head shot up, his blue eyes wide and his body tense. When he saw it was only Jennie, his shoulders relaxed, but his expression remained solemn and somber. He was missing that spark that Jennie loved so much. Still, she was determined to reignite it again, no matter the cost.

“What are you doing outside?” Jennie said, frowning. “Anyone could see you.”

“No one comes this way,” Alex said. “And besides, I can’t sit all day staring at four walls with only the mice to talk to.”

Jennie sighed as she walked over to him and sat down. She removed the pillowcase of food and handed it to him.

“I have a plan,” she said.

Alex’s face brightened for a moment, before a small crease appeared between his thick brows.

“What is it?” he asked.

“There is a group leaving on the Oregon Trail, the day after tomorrow,” Jennie explained. “I am going to the meeting this afternoon.”

“The Oregon Trail?” Alex repeated, the crease deepening.

Jennie nodded. “Once we get to Willamette Valley, they will give you land, 320 acres to farm. You can start again, Alex.”

“But Jennie, the Oregon Trail, it’s no picnic,” Alex argued. “It’s dangerous.”

“More dangerous than sitting waiting for a group of vengeful bandits to find you?” Jennie challenged.

Alex sighed. “I can’t ask you to do this for me,” he said.

“You’re not asking,” Jennie insisted. “I told you I would help you and I am.”

Alex opened his mouth and then closed it again.

“I better get going,” Jennie said.

“Already?” Alex said. “You only just got here?”

‘I don’t want to be late for the meeting,” Jennie explained.

“Jennie—”

“Be ready to leave,” Jennie said. “The day after tomorrow. I’ve brought you enough food to last until then because I don’t know if I will have time to come back here before we go.”

Without giving Alex a chance to argue, Jennie leaned over and kissed her brother on the cheek. Then she got up and left. She could feel Alex’s eyes on her but she did not turn around. She didn’t want to give him any opportunity to talk her out of this. She was nervous enough already.

Jennie made her way back along the path through the forest. As she stepped back out into the sunshine she turned right and up the dusty road to the Jones’s ranch. It was about a miles walk from the forest and as she got closer, her stomach was in knots.

“You can do this, Jennie,” she mumbled to herself.

As she stepped into the barn, everyone already inside turned to look at her. She was flushed and sweaty from the walk. Still, Jennie kept her head down as she walked to the back of the large wooden building. She kept her head bent, trying to make herself look as small as possible, but she could still feel the eyes on her. Although Jennie had not counted, there were about twelve men in the barn with her, she was the only woman.

Jennie did not know much about the Oregon Trail, other than the horror stories. She did however know that it was largely family groups, people who could take care of one another on the long and arduous journey.

“What you reckon she’s doing here?” a man grumbled, eyeing her suspiciously.

He was a tall man with a cinnamon-colored beard and a matching ponytail.

“Dunno,” the second man said. He was shorter and had a mop of dark curls. “But it ain’t right, a woman all on her own.”

Jennie pressed her back against a wall of feed bags, wishing she could disappear altogether, but she needed to do this.

”I heard it’s bad luck to take a single woman on a wagon trail,” the curly-haired man said.

“I thought that was only on sea voyages,” the ponytailed man replied.

“Nah, I reckon’ it applies to any kind of journey.”

Jennie gritted her teeth but said nothing. She didn’t need to draw any more attention to herself.

“Miss?” the curly-haired man said suddenly. “What are you doing here?”

“I am here for the meeting,” Jennie replied, doing her best not to let her voice waver.

“And where’s your husband?” he asked.

“I am not married,” Jennie revealed.

“Alright,” the ponytailed man said. “Then what about your father or brother?”

“What exactly is the problem?” Jennie asked. “Have I offended you in some way?”

The curly-haired man sighed. “It’s not that,” he said. “It’s just not proper for a woman to travel the trails on her own.”

There were general nods and murmurs of agreement from the other men in the barn.

“And it’s not safe,” the ponytailed man said.

“Why don’t you go home, girly?” a voice called from across the barn.

Again, there were general nods and murmurs of approval from the group, and Jennie started to panic. She didn’t have another plan, this was it. Alex couldn’t live in the old hunter’s cottage forever.

“I am not traveling alone,” Jennie lied. “I have a fiancé.”

“Well, where is he?” the ponytailed man said, raising a skeptical eyebrow.

Jennie hesitated a moment just as they heard a horse arrive outside the barn.

“That must be him now,” Jennie said.

With every eye on her, Jennie walked across the barn to the doors.

Just then a man stepped into the doorway. He was tall and muscular. As he stepped into the barn he removed his hat to reveal a head of tousled, dark-blonde hair and striking blue eyes.

“There you are,” Jennie said, loudly. “I was wondering where you had gotten to.”

Before he had a chance to respond, Jennie reached up on her tippy-toes and looked him right in the eyes, noticing the flecks of gold in his irises.

“Please, play along,” she whispered. “I’ll make it worth your while.”

She hesitated a moment and then she kissed the stranger on the lips. She half expected him to push her away or call her mad, but he didn’t. He let her kiss him and when she pulled away, he held her gaze for a long moment before turning away.

“Afternoon,” he said to everyone, clearing his throat. “I am Benjamin Hale, your wagon master.”

Jennie’s face flushed as she bent her head. Had she really just claimed the wagon master as her fiancé? What was she thinking? Still, the damage was done and now all she could do was try to control the situation as best as possible.

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