About the book


But how can she forget him, when he taught her how to live and love…

Kind and loving, Blossom Everett has always been bright like a ray of the Texan sunshine.

Despite her traumatic past, she spends her days tending to her aging father with a smile. Everything changes when she’s forced to revisit distant memories, triggered by a charming cowboy that comes to her rescue.

Lonely and lost, Chester Lornson isn't who he wants to be. As an outcast, escaping from his past has proven to be harder than he ever expected. His life takes a turn when he meets the one woman who sees him for who he really is.

But family reunions are not always happy, especially when death follows them. When Blossom gets caught in the middle of a revenge plan, Chester has to act fast. The nightmarish face of her mother’s death has returned. And this time, it’s here for her...

Prologue


1875: Blossom’s Birthday


Livingsfield was a decidedly fine Texas town.

Granted, Blossom had never been anywhere else, but she enjoyed living there. Her heart pattered happily as she skipped her way through the town square.

“Blossom,” her mother called from the livery stable. “Wait a moment, won’t you? We need a new saddle blanket for your father.”

She turned back and made a silly face. “I’ll be right here.” Her mother laughed and waved her off before disappearing into the stables to talk to Old Joe.

In the meantime, Blossom glanced around to find anything new.

Her eighteenth birthday had just arrived and her parents had said she could make a fine purchase. There wasn’t much that she wanted, however, so she had to be very careful about what she decided upon. But what will it be? Her eyes wandered around the shops.

Bonnets and shoes and ribbons. She had enough of those. They were not grand enough for a birthday gift.

Except she didn’t know what she really wanted. Just thinking of everything she had at home left her content. They weren’t a particularly well-to-do family, for her father was the town schoolteacher, but they had saved up to get her something.

It had to be something special.

Farmer Glen Hopkins was by the butcher’s store handling crates. He nodded to her as she passed by. “Well, haven’t you turned into a pretty miss? My boy Junior said you’re looking well. What if I said he could come around to visit you sometime?”

A blush rose into her cheeks. Though she was of marrying age at eighteen, she didn’t fancy herself ready for a courtship. “I’d say he’s a little overeager,” Blossom said before she could help herself.

He burst out laughing. Resting a hand over his large stomach, the man threw his head back. “Oh, what a lass! Wait until my Junior hears about this!” He hooted merrily.

“I didn’t mean any harm,” she added hastily. Her mother was always telling her that she let her tongue keep too sharp. “Only I…”

But he waved her off. “Don’t you worry, Miss. You’ll find someone good, I’m sure of that. There must be some boys in town sharp enough for you, eh?”

Blossom opened her mouth but didn’t know what to say. Her eyes dropped to the crates at his feet. Farmer Hopkins, as he liked to call himself, had one particular crate filled with ducklings.

The ducklings were small and yellow. Her heart surged with hope. I know exactly what I want in celebration of my birthday.

“Blossom?” She could hear her mother calling from nearby.

Blossom looked up and pointed to the crate. “Mother! Can I have a duck?”

“A duck?” Her mother repeated as she walked closer. “Whatever would you need a duck for?”

Farmer Hopkins followed Blossom’s gaze and then nudged the crate closer. “They’re just ducks, Miss. Noisy little things. They make a fine stew but can be a little stringy.”

Staring at him, Blossom pursed her lips. “Not for food! That’s ghastly, Mr. Hopkins. No, no. A pet.” She turned to her mother hopefully. The basket she carried hung at her elbow as she put her hands over her heart. “I want one as a pet. Please? As my gift. I’ll tend to it all on my own.”

“A duck serves no purpose,” her mother reminded her. She hefted her purchases with a sigh as she shook her head. “I don’t think your father will want another creature. You already have two goats, Blossom. Whatever is a duck going to do?”

Blossom grinned as she spotted a particularly ruffled duckling who was quite noisy. She scooped him up in her hands. “Isn’t he charming? We have a pond. A pond should have a duck, should it not?”

It quacked loudly in her face and made her grin wider at her mother.

The woman sighed as she glanced up at the farmer who simply shrugged. “Fine. I suppose. But you’re explaining this to your father,” she added.

Blossom winked. “Yes, Mother.” Then she squealed. “Thank you!” The duckling quacked loudly and she laughed. Her day couldn’t grow any better if she tried.

“It is rather charming,” her mother reluctantly agreed as they started back on their way home from the town square. She eyed the duckling Blossom had set carefully in her basket. The little thing had now quieted down and was nestled in for a nap.

Blossom beamed.

She was so focused on the little creature during their walk that she didn’t notice why her mother had suddenly stopped in the middle of an alleyway.

“What is…?” The words were lost as she realized they weren’t alone. She glanced at her stiff mother and then at the strange men surrounding them. Her throat dried up.

It was a well-lit alley just past the livery stable and the bank that the two of them liked to cross through on their way home. There were never people there and never any problem with the shortcut.

But now, there were several men blocking their path. They were tall, dressed in dark colors, and wore bandanas over their faces. Blossom shivered.

“Good afternoon.” Her mother forced through a locked jaw. She took a step in front of Blossom to block her. “Please let us through.”

“Give us your goods,” the man charged them in a low tone. “Your money and your jewelry.”

A small gasp escaped her lips before she could help herself. Blossom gripped her basket tightly as she tried to look over her mother’s shoulder. There are so many of them. Her heart started pumping. Their town never had any trouble. It didn’t make sense for anyone to rob them.

“All we have is cheese and this blanket.” Her mother spoke in a cautious tone. “If we give this to you, will you let us go?”

The men laughed as though it were a joke. Blossom didn’t understand. She looked around fearfully as she realized there were more men behind her. Gasping in surprise, she bumped into her mother who dropped everything in her arms.

“Oh,” she stammered, grabbing her mother’s elbow to catch her balance again. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean-”

“Stay back!” the man yelled, making both women jump. The two men on foot beside him started forward.

They were so tall and threatening. Blossom clutched her basket, pulling her mother close. “Mother?”

“Leave my daughter alone!”

Someone grabbed at Blossom’s basket as someone gripped her left shoulder. She screamed in both surprise and fright. The world spun as she fell hard on her back. The air was knocked out of her lungs.

There was shouting and scuffling. She thought she heard her mother, but nothing sounded right. It was all muffled.

Tasting dust on her lips, Blossom tried to stand. But her bonnet was sideways and she couldn’t quite tell which way was up. She choked on her words as she felt around in the dirt.

“Mother?” She hiccuped.

A shot rang out and she stopped moving. Blossom stopped breathing.

There was a shout. It sounded unfamiliar so she didn’t move. But someone brushed against her, nearly knocking her down again. Dazed, she blinked as the world stopped spinning and she could see the clouds above her.

It took her a minute to realize that the only one to answer her call was a soft quacking by her feet.


Chapter One


1875-1880: Chester’s Change of Heart


There was blood under his nails.

A sour acidic taste settled in Chester’s mouth as he glanced around him at the river’s edge as the other men washed themselves up. They were all vigorously washing their hands and faces clean as they laughed and elbowed one another without another care in the world.

“Hurry up.” A splash of water hit him in the corner of his eye.

Chester shook his head and washed his face before glancing up. He knew it would be his brother Lowry with that wicked grin on his face. Lowry was older than him by three years at twenty-eight and had always been there to help him when they were growing up.

Now he was grinning as though nothing had happened.

He wanted to speak up, but Chester didn’t know how or what he would say. Why didn’t anyone talk about what just happened? No one had to use a gun before. Tongue-tied, he managed a short nod. Anything red had already been washed away. But that iron smell remained. It had been haunting him all along the way back to Davidshill.

No one was supposed to get hurt.

That’s what he remembered Elijah, their leader, telling him when they first started. He said these were harmless crimes. Take a little here and a little there from people who didn’t really need it. After all, people cared about sharing with their neighbors.

So the seven of them were just getting a head start.

When Lowry stood up, it took everything Chester had to not flinch. His brother was looking more like their father every day. The memories of their old man towering over him with a tight fist would never go away. Five years but I still feel those punches in my gut every day. I wonder if Lowry ever thinks of him.

“Come on. We’re playing dice for the blanket,” Elijah, their leader, whistled. His voice rang out loud and clear, pulling Chester from his bitter memories.

He shook his hands free of the river, spraying droplets. His brother nudged him before grabbing both their horses’ reins to join the rest of the men.

The lot of them had taken over an old ranch house that had been deserted some time ago. Home for the last five years, Chester knew it wasn’t much but it was enough for their brotherhood.

It sat right against the tall mountains so that it was fairly well hidden and protected. To the side was an old but spacious barn with plenty of tack and supplies for anything they might need. There was enough space to let their horses have range of the nearby fields. And there was plenty of room in the old attic to hide any and all of the loot they gathered.

The men started up toward the property from the river. Elijah started talking with Henley and Lowry as the other three, the O'Leary twins and Three-Eyed Tom, caroused with one another singing and laughing.

Usually Chester would have joined them. All of them walked tall with their chests out and their guns hanging loose at their waists. They all appeared carefree and content.

But the bitter taste would not leave Chester’s mouth even as he started a fire for their coffee.

Adrenaline still rushed through his veins and he knew on any normal occasion he would be wrestling with the twins and bragging about how much he could barter for their goods in town. Part of him still wanted to go off and join in the merriment.

Everyone else was thrilled over another job well done. But this time was different. How can they do it? Someone just died and they’re pretending it's a party.

“Chester?” Someone whistled to him so he looked up to find Three-Eyed Tom in the hall holding a couple of knives in each hand. “Come on! I’m getting better. Let’s get some practice in before dark.”

Hesitating, Chester glanced at the boiling water. “Not today. I’ll handle the drinks.”

That made Tom scoff. “Drinks? Come on. Coffee doesn’t take much. And you know everyone’s going to be drinking tonight. We have that barrel of mead.”

He liked his mead, but that acidic scent remained, and so he shook his head. There was something new haunting him, hovering overhead like a dark cloud.

“Maybe tomorrow,” Chester offered.

The other man left, shrugging before heading out the door. Chester heard the men whoop and head out to throw knives. Everyone had a few scars from that thrill, but somehow, he had a feeling that the sight of blood was going to make him sick.

Chester watched the gang in silence for the rest of the day.

He was already the quiet one of the group, so no one mentioned his sober attitude. They didn’t know what was going on inside his head. Though he had been grateful for all that the men did for him, now he found himself wondering where he had gone wrong.

They had crossed a line, but no one seemed to notice. He wondered how they weren’t as haunted as he felt.

Chester supposed he would be grateful that the day had come to an end. But as he laid down on his bedroll in the barn loft, having chosen a place to rest near the animals at night, Chester could hardly lie still.

That woman appeared in a pool of blood every time he closed his eyes. No matter how much he tossed and turned, she was still there.

“Chester?”

He froze when his brother, just around the corner, spoke up in the dark. “Yeah, Elijah?”

“Stop moving.”

Chester forced himself to be still. But he didn’t sleep all that night. He forced himself to stay still but there wasn’t much more he could do. So with the time he had on his hands, he made a plan.

He couldn’t stay any longer. He couldn’t live pretending nothing was wrong.

Though he considered them family and he loved his brother, the idea of becoming like them filled him with dread. None of them could even use the goods they had stolen, merely taking them to trade for something else. It had been pointless to hurt that woman. That mother.

As he remembered the shouts, Chester decided he would leave. He would start walking and keep moving. It was too late in the evening to start now. Tomorrow night, then. That would give him a head start. Once everyone had quieted down, once his brother had fallen fast asleep, he would grab his horse and start moving.

He wouldn’t take anything that wasn’t his. Even his loot would be left behind. Just his canteen, clothes, and horse. A hundred dollars from his savings wouldn’t get him far, but at least it would get him out of there.

The following day, he was more nervous than he had been in a long time.

Chester rose before dawn. It felt like he had ants in his pants as he hurried about and tried not to act suspicious. He took care of the animals, milking the cows and feeding the horses.

“Chester, are you coming to town with us today?” Elijah asked him when everyone gathered around to eat.

Glancing up from over his bowl, Chester shrugged. “Wasn’t planning on it.”

“Everyone else is going,” Elijah pointed out with narrowed eyes. The man looked like a hawk turned human with his beady eyes and long nose. He was always watching everyone and everything. He leaned back and studied Chester carefully.

Chester tried not to squirm in his seat. If anyone suspected him of anything, then he could get in a lot of trouble. There used to be eight of them. No one talked about what happened to Wiley.

“Not feeling well,” he choked out. Chester kept his head down. “Thought I’d just stay around here.”

The twins snickered. “Didn’t take well to yesterday’s fun?” one of them taunted. He thought it might be Mike. Or it could be Ryan. Chester still couldn’t tell either one of them apart. The twins had only been with them for the last year. They looked alike, spoke alike, and acted alike. Sometimes he felt fairly certain they were just one person who he looked at cross-eyed.

“He’s just a young cub,” Elijah chuckled darkly. “He’ll get used to it. Maybe next time we’ll give him the honors.”

Chester jerked his head up. “What?”

To his surprise, his older brother spoke up for him. “If he says he’s not feeling well, then he’s not feeling well. It’s not like we need him in town.” Elijah glanced over at him and gave him a short nod.

Usually his support brought Chester relief. But today, he began to feel really ill. He had never lied to anyone before. Not Elijah, and definitely not his brother Lowry.

The realization of what he had just done sank into his stomach. There was that familiar scent of iron in the air and he pushed his bowl away, not hungry anymore. “Right. You don’t need me.”

Three-Eyed Tom grabbed his bowl and started eating. He was always hungry. “Fine. Do what you want. Keeps me from having to baby-sit you.”

“As if anyone would ever let you baby-sit them,” Lowry taunted. “You and your weird eyes. You can’t see anything straight, Tom. Besides, you’re the one who almost ruined us yesterday when you tripped over the twins!”

That started a squabble. Lowry was always looking for a fight and Three-Eyed Tom was the easiest one to taunt because of his crossed eyes and his defensive nature. Chester backed up but Elijah calmed everyone down before it turned into a wrestling match.

Though there were sullen mutterings, eventually everyone finished eating and headed off to get ready for their trip into town.

Chester stayed behind to collect the bowls.

“Hey.” His brother Lowry came up to him. Chester jumped in surprise and rubbed his hands together. “What is going on with you?” He crossed his arms expectantly.

“Nothing,” Chester ducked his head so he wouldn’t have to look his brother in the eye. “Honest. I don’t feel good. Besides, last time you said maybe someone should stay behind to watch our hideout.”

He could feel his brother’s gaze on him as he rolled up his sleeves and started to dunk the dirty bowls. It was a slow process, but he didn’t mind. He liked it more than scaring people. Or getting them killed. Anything was better than that.

Chester could still remember those cries. They had both fallen. Only one would get back up. He hadn’t stayed to watch. None of them had. The gang had left those two, a mother and a daughter, in the alley.

“Chester?”

“Huh?”

Lowry elbowed him. “You’re thinking about them, aren’t you?”

Chester hesitated as he glanced at the suds and then up at his brother who was leaning against the table. “Them?” he repeated carefully, his heart hammering.

Maybe he felt the same way, sick to his stomach over what had happened in that town.

“The others,” Lowry raised his eyebrow. “Nancy, Anne, and Timmy. But I told you they’re fine. Nancy’s letter last month said they’re all fine.”

Chester blinked. Right. Lowry wasn’t talking about the women. He should have known.

Slowly he relaxed at the sound of their siblings’ names. All five of them had been left on their own in Oklahoma nearly six years ago. Once their parents had died, three of them had decided to stay behind. But he had run off with Lowry and the gang when they decided to leave for a better place.

It had been five years since they had seen them. He wondered if they were happy. “Right. Yeah, them. I was thinking about… them.”

He should have been thinking about them. It had been too long since he and Lowry had sent the others money. They kept meaning to, but never got around to it.

Lowry patted him on the shoulder. “They’re fine. I’m sure of it. I read you their last letter and they said they were happy. Hey, maybe next year we’ll go and visit them. That sounds nice, right?”

“Right,” Chester echoed softly. “Next year.”

His brother grinned and then headed out of the room.

It was a pleasant notion, but he’d been saying the same thing for the last couple of years.

Chester turned back to the soapy bucket and tried to remember them a little better. Nancy was the eldest, and then Anne was right between Lowry and him. Timmy was the youngest, only a little tyke when their parents died.

There was the letter that Lowry had read to him, but he hadn’t read it himself. Chester wished again that he could read. His parents had told him school was a waste. Besides, there was too much work in his father’s blacksmith’s forge for him to do anything else. Those were days filled with carrying coal everywhere and terrible beatings.

There were plenty of scars on his body to remember that.

Chester gritted his teeth. He wished there were better memories than blood and scars in his past. He listened to the gang as they packed up and prepared their horses to head into town.

Often, they met up in Davidshill, where travelers passed through from Mexico, nearby forts, and other places to trade goods. Nobody cared, in that lawless town, where anything came from. So long as they could use it, then it was worth something.

The gang was long out of sight by the time he finished his dishes. He had to move fast since there was no way to know how long the gang would be gone. Chester hurriedly got to work.

His heart thudded loudly. He packed his things up in his saddle bags. Then everything for his horse was set just inside the stall so it would be easy for him to get out.

Though he hoped being prepared would ease his discomfort, he only grew more uneasy. Chester couldn’t be still.

The men returned for supper where one of them had traded for fresh salmon that they cooked over the fire. It smelled much better than the iron he couldn’t get out of his nose. But he wasn’t hungry.

Chester stared at the food. He wasn’t sure any of that was worth the life they had taken. They laughed and ate like nothing ever happened. He swallowed the nausea and moved his food around on his plate.

“Are you really all right?” Lowry asked him that evening as they settled down in their bedrolls.

He thought about telling his brother. They had never had secrets before. They had never been apart. He debated on his options. Lowry had done so much for him.

But that poor woman. Her vacant eyes haunted him.

“Fine,” Chester forced himself to say out loud in the dark. Lowry was the one who had made the promise to Elijah about staying forever. Ride or die, he had said.

Chester tried to swallow the lump in his throat. They couldn’t stay together anymore. Realizing this might be the last time they ever spoke, he tried to think of something he could say to Lowry. Some way to say goodbye. “I’m sure things will be better soon for us.”

His brother chuckled. “Better? They couldn’t be better now. We’ve never been better. Get some rest, Chester.”

“Right. Good night,” Chester murmured. He stared into the darkness as he laid there. He didn’t think he would ever sleep well again.

As Lowry started to doze, Chester tried to memorize his brother’s snoring. It had helped him to sleep as a young child and had always brought him comfort.

Yet once Lowry’s snoring had fallen into a deep rhythm, Chester found himself climbing onto his feet and rolling up his blanket. He had walked through his plan over and over, so he hardly had to think about it.

His horse moved quietly as they stepped out of the barn. Quiet was of the utmost importance. He hardly breathed. He walked them a half mile off the property before climbing up into the saddle.

And then they started riding.

I don’t know where I’m going or what I’m doing. But I can’t be one of those men. Becoming a murderer is not something I signed up to be. In the last five years, we’ve never done such a thing. I can’t be one of them. No matter what I wanted yesterday or before that, it doesn’t matter. I just know I can’t stay here. I can’t be around men who take a life and act like it’s nothing.

They had become his new family, taking care of him as his family fell apart and bringing him into the fold with Lowry as they searched for purpose in their rough lives. Except he didn’t want a life like that anymore. He didn’t want to cross those lines.

So, he left, riding until the dawn broke. A town appeared on the horizon. It looked familiar as he brought his horse to the edges.

Sitting on his horse at the outskirts, he realized it was the place where the shooting had occurred. He could still remember the shouting. That bitter taste in his mouth. Bile rose in his throat.

He found himself wondering about the town and how much they knew. Though he wanted to push on, he couldn’t bring himself to leave. Something about the town made him stay. As the sun rose behind it, the buildings looked so innocent and calm. It was filled with hope.

He could really use some hope in his life right now.

Chester didn’t know why he did it. But he moved his horse along and then found it.

An old house sat on the far edge of town untouched and unkempt. It was covered in dust and falling apart. He walked his horse up to it and checked out the property, curious and wary. No one called at him to leave. Chester stayed there, hidden away for a week with his horse and his food.

No one came for him. Eventually he stepped outside, worried that he was being followed by the gang. But no one was there.

Except for an elderly couple in the nearby property who waved to him, eager to greet their new neighbor. The couple, Arthur and Betty Bretts, showed him kindness that he had never known before.

He meant to move on, but couldn’t help himself.

Chester found himself staying at the rundown property just for the couple. The days passed and he realized he didn’t have to keep moving. I could have a home. My own place.

Though the rest of the town avoided him, there was something peaceful about the area. He could live quietly and without injury. It was such a miracle that he couldn’t dream of going anywhere else.

Soon five years had passed before he knew it. Five years of peace and contentment, without anyone bothering him or getting hurt.


Chapter Two


1880: Blossom’s Errands 


“You’ll be home before sundown?”

Blossom glanced over her shoulder to give her father a nod. “Of course. Have I ever disobeyed you?”

The man harrumphed as he set his hands on his hips. His glasses slid to the end of his nose, showing his stern expression. “You know I don’t like you going off on your own.”

She knew he meant well. Her heart warmed and she hurried over. Blossom gave him a kiss on the cheek so the frown would fade away. “I know,” she agreed with him kindly. “I know how concerned you get over me, and I appreciate it. But you’re the one who gave me a horse. It’s only fair that I take the time to exercise her. And this way, I can get some fresh air as well.” She paused before giving him a playful look. “I could always go to the neighbors and ask to borrow one of their horses if you care to join me?”

“Of course not,” her father made a face before ruffling her hair. “Do be careful with that beast.”

Giggling, she fixed her hair. “All right. Don’t cause any trouble while I’m away. And remember to stir the porridge, Father. It should be ready by the time I return.”

She waved and then headed down the lane to where Merryweather was waiting for her. The young horse was hardly two years old and more than eager to go galloping. He flipped his tail in a welcome greeting as she hurried over.

“Hello to you, too, my charming boy,” Blossom scratched his long nose sweetly before slipping through the logs of the fence. “Have you seen Davey?”

Before the horse could answer, though he most likely wouldn’t, there was a loud quack from the road. Blossom turned to see her five-year-old duck, Davey, waddling up from the pond.

The noisy little creature ruffled his feathers as though to show his irritation for being ignored all morning.

She beckoned her duck over and then secured Davey on top of the saddle bags. Merryweather shifted but said nothing. Her pets didn’t always get along, but they did when she was around.

 After climbing onto Merryweather, she waved to her father who stood in the doorway of their little home. He was getting older every day, she thought to herself. He always did that when they parted. As though he were afraid it would be the last time he saw her there.

Blossom nudged her horse forward and they headed off into the fields. Her mind turned to her parents.

She missed her mother every day and knew how much it hurt her father. Though he claimed she looked much like her mother, Blossom still didn’t see it. That can’t be true. Mother was tall and graceful and beautiful. I’m much too gangly and awkward and loud.

But time had eased the pain for her and her father. They appreciated that they still had each other, and remembered her mother fondly. To lend them comfort, Blossom always set out an extra plate for her mother at mealtimes.

It had first happened by accident just after the horrible attack, but neither of them had caught it until the end of the meal.

She had scrambled up to put it away in embarrassment, but her father said no. It made him feel like she was still with them, he had told her. So she always made sure to set her mother a place.

There were memories of her mother everywhere she looked. Blossom remembered how her mother had once told her about the rainbows in the sky. They were meant to show joy after the storm, hope after hard times. Good things could still come after bad moments.

As Blossom let her long hair stream out in the wind, she nudged Merryweather to a gallop and sucked in a deep breath. Her heart felt full.

She let Merryweather take the lead, loosening her grip on the reins. The horse led them along the river and then back toward town.

Texas was as beautiful as it had ever been. Out in the wild it was dry, with cactus and rolling hills that ran on for miles. There was every color of green possible. Far off there were mountains that she explored only in her dreams. Closer were valleys for the cattle herds, dipping low among the trees. There was a thin line where the sky met the ground.

They headed closer toward town where the beautiful world began to grow busier. Sticking to the road, she waved to the farms that they passed by.

Although there were over five hundred folks in Livingsfield, Blossom felt fairly confident she knew most of them. Her father taught the children and she was always taking odd jobs to help others out.

As she passed the familiar old sideways cactus everyone used as a local landmark, she came upon the Millers farm where they were always trying to grow some new plant or vegetable. Their son traveled the world and was always sending them seeds for something strange.

Then there were two ranches, the Four Hills Ranch and the Tender T Ranch. She didn’t know most of those folks. The two of them were always squabbling over cattle numbers and fence lines, so her father usually asked her to keep her distance. They were all people who had come to town in the last couple of years, too, so she hadn’t grown up with them.

“Whoa, Merryweather,” Blossom called as they came upon the next farm. She steered the horse through the gate and up the trail.

The Hopkins’ animal farm was homely and open. There were always people there, whether they were a Hopkins family member or not. Blossom brought Merryweather to a halt as they reached the next gate that kept the more unruly animals from wandering away.

A familiar three-note whistle sounded. She looked up to find Mrs. Hopkins waving enthusiastically from the porch.

“It’s so lovely to see you, dear!” the woman called out from a couple of yards away. Mrs. Hopkins was short, round, and had the ruddiest cheeks in all of town. Today, her hair looked like a bird’s nest as she made her way around the chickens with her youngest child clinging to her skirts. “You look like a queen up there on your gorgeous steed.”

Such extravagant compliments made Blossom laugh. “You’re too kind, Mrs. Hopkins! I just came by on my ride today to see how Farmer Hopkins and his fox are faring?”

The older woman chuckled, patting her sides and the head of the child. It took a moment to realize that it was little Jane covered in mud.

Jane looked like she had been playing with the turtles down by the creek again. It had been the strangest thing to see her pull out all three turtles during church the other week. Blossom gave the three-year-old a hearty wink before turning back. She hoped the girl hadn’t been in too much trouble for that trick.

“Ah, yes,” Mrs. Hopkins sighed. “That old fox. It’s turned my James into an old goose. I mean, I always considered myself his old hen, but this has us in a whole new pond. Or house. Or something or other, I do suppose. The poor animal lost its leg, and James has more scratches than he’s ever had in his lifetime. But they’re both sleeping, so I suppose that’s good. All I have to do now is keep the Mayor away from them.”

Blossom tutted thoughtfully as she frowned. “Oh, that is terrible! Dear me. Well, Mayor Wilson is a good man. But I know he was rather furious when Farmer Hopkins took the injured animal in instead of killing it. Whatever is he going to do after the animal heals? Free him to injure other creatures?”

The woman threw her hands up in the air. “He hasn’t thought that far!”

That was just like Farmer Hopkins.

Blossom shared her sympathy. “I’m terribly sorry, that must be most difficult. Well, I thought I would come by with Merryweather and Daisy here to cheer everyone up and see if I can be of any help. Is there anything I can do for you and your family?”

Mrs. Hopkins was always grateful for a helping hand, though she wasn’t always aware of what help she needed. Blossom collected the eggs and cleaned up Jane before gathering her horse and duck to finish up her ride for the day.

Merryweather was more than eager to get back to the road. Blossom sat up straight with her shoulders back, just like she had been taught. Her eyes scouted on the horizon, enjoying her view.

Though there were a few people who desired to travel through the western lands and explore the territories, Blossom wasn’t sure where that came from. Livingsfield was a beautiful place. This was home.

It could be hard to block out the memories of what happened to her mother. If she wasn’t careful, the pain and darkness would envelope her again.

But I won’t let it. For the last five years, Blossom had done everything she could to resume her normal life.

The sky stretched on forever like a warm blanket where she could tuck her toes into the sand and lush dirt and greenery. There were beautiful tall trees in the east that stretched up high into the clouds. To the west was the desert, where the cactus thrived and the wolves sang at night. Every springtime came the sweet winds that ruffled her hair.

When Merryweather slowed, Blossom directed them toward home. She had stayed away long enough, and she worried for her father. He was growing older and she didn’t like leaving him alone for very long.

“Father?” Blossom fixed her braid and then sighed in relief.

He was fast asleep in his chair. She dropped her arms and patted his shoulder before walking over to the fire. The food was a little too cooked. Nor had it been stirred for some time. Most likely, he had never touched it.

Blossom scolded herself for expecting her father to take on any more responsibilities. He did more than enough by keeping the roof over their heads. The least she could do is properly feed them.

So that’s what she did. With a few spices and enough potatoes, Blossom disguised the bitter burnt taste. She prepared their supper and then set everything down on their table. Three places for their little family.

“Something smells good.”

Her father stood up and stretched as she turned around to face him. His hair was gray and there were more wrinkles lately. But his eyes still sparkled. And he still had that smile he saved for her.

It made her feel like she was five again without a care in the world and free of all danger. She grinned back.

“You always say that,” she reminded him.

“And it always tastes good,” he pointed out to her in return.

The two of them sat down at their table. After he offered grace, they dug in. Three placements were set for the two of them. They had only eaten a few bites by the time her father cleared his throat and spoke again.

“Tomorrow’s your birthday. Twenty-three years, Blossom. What would you like as your gift?”

Blossom chuckled. “What are you talking about? I’m too old for that, Father. Besides, I have all that I could possibly need. I have my horse, my duck, our goats, our sheep, a roof, and you. I have all that I want. There’s no more that I could want or need. I don’t need any gifts.”

“I insist,” he told her. “Anything you would like. I’m sure I could manage. Surely there’s something you would like. Ribbons for your hair, or even ribbons for your horse. A new bonnet or- or a new dress?”

Her father had always doted so kindly on her. It made her wish there was something she could fancy just to make him happy. But she was content.

She shrugged sheepishly at him. “I’m sorry, but I can’t think of anything. I’m happy. I’m not sure there’s anything more I could need.”

For the last couple of years, it was her father who had decided upon her gifts. She couldn’t bring herself to ask for anything or even to want anything. The last time I asked for a birthday present was the day Mother died.

Her father shook his head as he pushed his potatoes around on his plate. “Perhaps not. But let us go into town tomorrow. We’ll find something you’d like, and that will be your gift.”

Blossom rolled her eyes, trying not to grin. He was a handsome old man who adored teaching his students. She remembered going to classes with him and loving to listen to him teach. It was a game they had, always looking for a book he had yet to read.

But she loved her father so she nodded. “Tomorrow, then,” she agreed. “Now, eat your carrots.”

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16 COMMENTS

  1. Really enjoyed it, I can’t wait for the full book. Great storyline and strong group of characters.

  2. Quite an unusual beginning. Good character development. Caught my interest and can’t wait to get the book to find how Chester and Blossom over come the pass.

  3. Nice build up for the rest of story. Well developed personalities of main people. Hope to be able to complete story soon.

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