Fleeing scandal, stage sensation Savannah Reed swaps sparkles and satin for calico and wool to be Morrow Creek's telegraph operator. Through the wires she finds her new leading man, but when he arrives--shot and left for dead on her doorstep--Savannah suspects she's jumped out of the limelight and into the fire....
Detective Adam Corwin awakens to Savannah's bewitching smile, but she's mistaken him for her mail-order groom! Now Adam must tell Savannah that her future husband is a wanted outlaw and the danger's barely begun....
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December 01, 2010
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Excerpt from Mail-Order Groom by Lisa Plumley
Northern Arizona Territory
For a fella who always gets his man, you sure are spending a lot of time moonin' over that woman of yours."
At the sound of his longtime partner's voice, Adam Corwin jerked his gaze from the blurry photograph he'd been studying.
"She's not mine." Stone-faced, he shoved the photograph in his coat pocket, next to his heart. "She's bait. Nothing more."
"She's the gold nugget in this ol' mining scheme, that's for sure." Mariana Sayles crawled to match his position on the ridge, dirtying her skirts with an aplomb unmatched by any detective--female or otherwise. "But there's no sense looking at her night and day. It's Bedell we're supposed to pin, remember?"
"I wish I could forget." Adam reached for his rucksack. Without taking his gaze from his target, he pushed aside his maps and jerky, then withdrew his spyglass. He aimed the instrument at the campsite he and Mariana had identified after days of tracking. He frowned. "Still no sign of movement."
"From you or the mark?"
"Funny." His self-discipline might be legendary, but Adam didn't like to be reminded of it. "You should join up with one of those traveling circuses. Pay's probably better."
"And give up all this?" Mariana gestured at the scrub oak, fallen pinecones, and overall desolation surrounding them at the edge of the mountainside. "Now you're talkin' crazy, Corwin."
"Days of waiting will do that to a man."
"So will days without a bath. I itch something fierce."
"Nobody said detective work would be pretty."
"Nobody said you'd be so handsome, but I put up with it."
Mariana gave him a teasing smile--the same smile that helped her charm outlaws and clients with equal ease--but Adam didn't reply. Intent on catching sight of the confidence man they'd tracked across three states and two territories, he scanned the blackened fire pit, the four horses, the empty bottles of mescal, and the trio of canvas military-issue tents--doubtless recently stolen--in the valley below him.
Although the sun had just come up, wisps of smoke still issued from the charred logs--evidence of how late the fire had burned. The bony horses--most likely as pilfered as the tents were--shifted at their iron posts. Otherwise all was silent.
If Bedell didn't catch up with his four no-good brothers soon, Adam would know that he and Mariana had struck the wrong path. It wouldn't be the first time Bedell had slipped away from them. The man was ruthless, whip-smart and as elusive as a warm bed to the man who'd been trailing him.
"You want me to end all this real quick?" Mariana asked. "I could put on a clean dress, go shake my bustle a little, see if those boys want to come in peaceful for a change."
Adam quirked his mouth. "The day Roy Bedell or his brothers do anything peacefully is the day I sprout wings." He flattened his belly against the gravelly ground. "You stay here."
"Why, Mr. Corwin! Are you still trying to protect me?"
"Keep your voice down, too."
"Always the chivalrous one, even after all these years. They warned me about you at the agency, but would I listen? " Her tone as playful as ever, Mariana nudged him. "How do you know I merit defending anyhow? Some people ain't worth saving."
"Some people are bound and determined to give up our position." Frowning, Adam tucked away his spyglass. He crawled back from the ridge's edge, then straightened. Deftly he shouldered his rucksack. It contained everything he owned, save his horse and saddle. He couldn't recall the last night he'd spent without it tucked beneath his head. "Saddle up. Let's go."
"Already?" Mariana glanced over her shoulder. "I was just getting comfortable. You're a right spoilsport sometimes."
"Bedell might've changed his plans. He might've decided to meet his mark without his brothers around to complicate things." Adam had hoped to nab the man before it came to that--before the woman Bedell had targeted became even more involved. But just in case... "We should head to her telegraph station."
"Got a special message for your secret lady friend?
"I want to make sure he's not already there."
Mariana sighed. "I wish Bedell would get off these phony marriage schemes. Makes me feel sorry for the ladies. Don't they know no better than to believe a man who promises the moon?"
"Mostly, no." All the same, Adam wished the woman in his photograph had. "Bedell's been specially clever about this one, though. Six months laying groundwork, romancing all pretty-like over the wires, sending all those letters--that probably adds up to a compelling case for marriage in most women's minds."
"Humph. You'll never catch me being such a saphead."
"Good thing." Safely out of sight of the camp now, Adam tied his rucksack beside his bedroll and saddlebags. He steadied his horse, then swung up in the saddle. "I'd hate to break in a new partner just because you got all swoony over a man."
"Ha! Not while there's breath in my body." Mariana mounted adeptly, her chestnut mare snorting. "Unlike some women, I know how to keep my head. Imagine writing down all that claptrap--"
"She didn't think the likes of us would be reading it."
Uncomfortably Adam considered the packet of filched letters in his rucksack. Like all the other missives written by Bedell's lady loves, they started out cautious...then gradually turned more revealing. Intercepting them hadn't been his favorite piece of detective work, but it had been necessary. So had Mariana's part of the job--making copies of the letters in her ladylike handwriting and sending the duplicates to Bedell.
"All I can say is, your lady friend must be sitting on one whale of a cash pile for Bedell to come all this way west."
Adam frowned. "You're forgetting Kansas City."
Instantly his partner sobered. She scanned the ridgeline, her freckled face pensive. "Say...how 'bout we split up? I'll keep watch over the campsite and signal you if Bedell shows--"
"We already talked about this--"
"--and I'll come after you lickety-split if one of his boys takes up in your direction. They're already days late for their meetin', and I'm thinking something's not right. Bedell's done busted up all their plans. I think maybe it's a trap."
"No." Shaking his head, Adam fisted his pommel. Beneath him, his horse shifted eagerly. "If something happens to you--"
"Don't worry." Grinning, Mariana patted the pistol at her hip. When they weren't in town, she didn't bother with trick holsters or short-barreled derringers, preferring to strap an ordinary gun belt over her calico skirts. "I can take care of myself."
Grudgingly Adam studied her. He had the utmost respect for Mariana's detective abilities. With a rough mouth and a plucky demeanor, she'd made her way in a man's world--but was still soft enough to spoil their horses with extra oats. As much as he wanted to shield her, it wasn't his place to hold her back.
"You remember where the station is? Across the valley--"
"And up the mountainside near Morrow Creek. I remember."
At her beleaguered tone, Adam couldn't help grinning. Of all the reasons he liked having Mariana as his partner, her grit stood chief among them--even if it did collide with his own stubbornness from time to time. Mariana was brash, outspoken, and unstoppable. She was the closest he came to family.
She glanced at him. "Oh, no. Don't you give me that grim face of yours, neither. You look as somber as an overworked undertaker." She waved at him. "Git on now. Shoo. I'll be fine."
"You make sure of that." Gruffly Adam cleared his throat. "Let's bring down that double-crossing cuss once and for all."
He touched his hat brim. Mariana offered him an answering salute. Without further sentimentality, he rode away at a clip, leaving his partner a defiant dot on the ridgeline behind him.
Splitting up didn't sit well with him. Despite that, Adam knew it was the smartest thing to do. Every instinct told him Bedell was ahead of him on the trail--not behind, like Mariana thought. She might be a fast and fearless draw, but he wanted her out of the way when the inevitable showdown came.
The moment he met Roy Bedell face-to-face, Adam knew, one of them was going down--and he was deadly determined it would not be him.
For the fifth time in as many days, Savannah Reed stood on the platform at the Morrow Creek train depot, biting her lip while she stared east. Right on time, the 10:12 train appeared on the horizon, trailing sparks as it chugged nearer.
Jet-black smoke poured from its stacks, smudging the clear and sunny Arizona Territory sky. The sound of the train's wheels grew louder, seeming to grind out the words he's almost here, he's almost here in a rhythm to match her heartbeat.
Around her, expectant travelers surged forward, tickets in hand. The portly man to her left bade his wife goodbye, leaving the poor woman sniffling into her handkerchief. A curly-haired youth Savannah recognized from the mercantile ignored the train's arrival, preferring to blush and stammer beneath the attention of a young lady who'd stopped to ask him the time.
Some of these people were setting off on new adventures--most outfitted far more elaborately than Savannah had been on her own journey westward months ago. Others were here to meet someone on the 10:12. None of them had been present on the platform every day for nearly a week. None, that is, except her.
From the depot window, the ruddy-faced station telegraph clerk caught her eye. He crossed his fingers, then held them up to her. He'd been here every morning during her vigil, too.
Most likely, he wondered why she kept returning. Or maybe he'd guessed the reason and now felt sorry for her. Savannah didn't know which. With her belly in knots and perspiration dampening her best dress, she couldn't bring herself to contemplate the matter much further, either. All that counted now was that train--currently squealing to a stop in a cloud of smoke and cinders--and the people about to disembark from it. After all, it wasn't every day that a woman waited to meet her husband-to-be. Especially for the first time ever.
The porter stepped out, setting his movable wooden steps in place and making way for the passengers. Eagerly Savannah raised herself on tiptoes to see. As usual, most of the passengers surged out in small groups, then headed for one of the nearby hotels for a hurried meal. Only a few travelers carried full baggage. Those were the ones who meant to stay.
Her fianc� would be one of them.
Holding her breath, Savannah examined each male passenger in turn. One sported enormously fashionable whiskers. Another held the hand of a shy-looking lady. A third moved with the aid of a cane, his chest thrust outward with an old soldier's pride.
Feeling suddenly uncertain, she sneaked a glance at the written description--unfortunately rain-splattered, thanks to one of her earlier vigils--that she'd carried with her for weeks. A familiar sense of disappointment struck her. He was not here.
None of these men bore the homespun features, sensible suit, and tentative smile described in the letter she held. None of them was the earnest Baltimore telegraph operator with whom she'd struck up a long-distance friendship so many months ago.
Giddy with the freedom and intimacy of the wires, she and her soon-to-be husband had shared their hopes and dreams...and, eventually, a promise to meet here in Morrow Creek. But their rendezvous date had come and gone five times now. Even a neophyte romantic like Savannah had the sense to realize something had gone wrong.
Well, she'd simply head back to her station and man the wires, Savannah decided as she squared her shoulders. It was possible her fianc� had already sent her an explanation for his tardiness. Her helper, Mose, might be receiving her fianc�'s romantic, apology-filled message at the station even now.
At the notion, Savannah felt somewhat cheered. She breathed in deeply, then took a final look at the train-- just in case, for she was nothing if not meticulous. When her pen pal did not miraculously alight from the car, she turned away...only to find the station clerk's sympathetic gaze pinned on her.
"Too bad," he said kindly. "Disappointed again?"
Mutely Savannah stared at him. For the first time it occurred to her how foolish she'd been. She never should have allowed her hopes to draw her into town day after day.
"I'm sorry," the clerk said. "If you're looking for someone particular on the 10:12, maybe I can help you, Miss...?"
Reed. Savannah Reed. He wanted to know her name, she knew, but Savannah had all the reasons in the world not to share it.
At least not until she could change it in marriage.
Thanks to her position at the isolated telegraph station-- where few people had cause to visit, much less to wonder about its new operator--Savannah had kept her identity a secret in Morrow Creek...at least so far. She wanted to keep it that way.
Reed was a common enough name, she reminded herself. For now, its ordinariness would likely protect her. Especially in the absence of any other potentially damning information.
"I'm Joseph Abernathy." He gave her a smile--a speculative, curious-looking smile. "I don't think we've met. Why don't you come on over? Maybe I can help track down your tardy traveler."
"Thank you, but I--I'm in a terrible rush." Why had she let herself be drawn in this way? The station clerk seemed friendly, but word traveled fast in a small Western town like Morrow Creek. The more people she spoke with, the more difficult it would be to keep her secret. "I'm sorry. Please excuse me!"
Wearing her most harried expression, Savannah bustled away. She heard Joseph Abernathy calling after her, but she didn't dare stop. She wasn't ready to befriend anyone. Not yet.
Her high-buttoned shoes clopped across the platform as she pushed her way between the few lingering travelers. Once she'd reached a safe distance from Mr. Abernathy, Savannah relaxed. She allowed the anxious look to leave her face. Methodically she let her shoulders fall in their usual position. She eased her steps to a normal pace, then permitted her breathing to slow.
Almost home free. If she were smart, she'd still hurry, despite being clear of Mr. Abernathy's inquisitive gaze. Mose was not as skilled at recognizing the various telegraph operators' signatures as she was. Her beau's distinctive manner of tapping out a message might go by unnoticed if she weren't there to hear it. Raising her skirts, Savannah headed for the street.
She almost tripped over the little girl in her path.
"Oh, pardon me!" Savannah said. "I'm so sorry."
The child gaped up. She stood alone, her blond hair in pigtails and her face wet with tears. She clutched a satchel.
"Have you seen my mama? She was right there--" she pointed with a shaky, chubby finger "--but now she's gone."
"I--no, I'm sorry." Feeling rushed, Savannah cast a hasty glance around the platform. She saw no likely looking adults nearby. Knowing it was probably unwise to call further attention to herself, she nonetheless crouched beside the girl. She offered an encouraging smile. "Perhaps you could describe her to me?"