Kathryn and Larson Jennings made a vow--for better or for worse. Their marriage hasn't turned out as either hoped, but ten years later they are still clinging to that promise. When her huband fails to return to their ranch one stormy winter night, Kathryn struggles to keep the ranch operating, but her efforts are blocked at every turn.
After her husband dies, Annabelle Grayson advertises for a guide, and a most unlikely candidate, Matthew Taylor, agrees to accompany her to land waiting in Idaho. They have been given the opportunity to right a grievous wrong, but bitter memories threaten to turn them away from this God-given second chance.
When Veronique Girard arrives from France to find the man who has held her heart since childhood, her European ways both charm and irate the townspeople of Willow Springs. After many starts and stops, she finds Jack Brennan to be a reluctant though honorable ally in her dangerous search through Colorado's ramshackle mining towns.
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Baker Publishing Group
September 01, 2009
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Excerpt from Fountain Creek Chronicles, 3-in-1 by Tamera Alexander
In the shadow of Pikes Peak
Larson Jennings had lived this moment a thousand times over, and it still sent a chill through him. Shifting in the saddle, he stared ahead at the winding trail of dirt and rock that had been the haunt and haven of his dreams, both waking and sleeping, for the past five months. Along with his anticipation at returning home, there mingled a foreboding that crowded out any sense of festivity.
He carefully tugged off the leather gloves and looked at his misshapen hands. Gently flexing his fingers, he winced at the unpleasant sensation shooting up his right arm. The skin was nearly healed but was stretched taut over the back of his hand, much like it was over half of his body. Scenes from that fateful night flashed again in his mind. Blinding white light, unbearable heat.
He closed his eyes. His breath quickened, his flesh tingled, remembering. He may have denied death its victory, but death had certainly claimed a bit of him in the struggle.
What would Kathryn's reaction be at seeing him like this? And what had the past months been like for her, not knowing where he was? To think she might have already given him up for dead touched on a wound so deep inside him, Larson couldn't bear to give the thought further lead. Kathryn would be there.... She would.
Maybe if he'd been a better husband to her, a better provider, or perhaps if he had been able to give her what she truly wanted, he'd feel differently about coming back. But their inability to have a child had carved a canyon between them years ago, and the truth of their marriage was as undeniable to him as the scars marring his body. And the fault of it rested mostly with him�"he knew that now.
He rode on past the grove of aspen that skirted the north boundary of their property, then crossed at a shallow point in Fountain Creek. Distant memories, happier memories, tugged at the edge of his misgivings, and Larson welcomed them. Kathryn had been twenty years old when he'd first brought her to this territory. Their journey from Boston had been hard, but she'd never complained. Not once. He'd sensed her silent fear expanding with each distancing mile. He remembered a particular night they'd spent together inside the wagon during a storm. Wind and rain had slashed across the prairie in torrents, and though a quiver had layered her voice, Kathryn swore to be enjoying the adventure. As they lay together through the night, he'd loved her and sworn to protect and care for her. And he still intended to keep that promise�"however modest their reality might have turned out in comparison to his dreams.
Kathryn meant more to him than anything now. She was more than his wife, his lover. She completed him, in areas he'd never known he was lacking. He regretted that it had taken an intimate brush with death for him to see the truth. Now if he could only help her see past the outside, to the man he'd become.
His pulse picked up a notch when he rounded the bend and the familiar scene came into view. Nestled in stands of newly leafed aspen and willow trees, crouched in the shadow of the rugged mountains that would always be his home, the scenery around their cabin still took his breath away.
Larson's stomach clenched tight as he watched for movement from the homestead. As he rode closer, a breeze swept down from the mountain, whistling through the branches overhead. The door to the cabin creaked open. His eyes shot up. A rush of adrenaline caused every nerve to tingle.
“Kathryn?” he rasped, his voice resembling a music box whose innards had been scraped and charred.
He eased off his horse and glanced back at the barn. Eerily quiet.
It took him a minute to gain his balance and get the feeling back in his limbs. His right leg ached, and he was tempted to reach for his staff tied to his saddle, but he resisted, not wanting Kathryn's first image of him to be that of a cripple. Vulnerability flooded his heart, erasing all pleas but one.
God, let her still want me.
He gently pushed open the cabin door and stepped inside. “Kathryn?”
He scanned the room. Deserted. The door to their bedroom was closed, and he crossed the room and jerked the latch free. The room was empty but for the bed they'd shared. Scenes flashed in his mind of being here with Kathryn that last night. Disbelief and concern churned his gut.
He searched the barn, calling her name, but his voice was lost in the wind stirring among the trees. Chest heaving, he ignored the pain and swung back up on his mount.
* * *
Later that afternoon, exhausted from the hard ride back to Willow Springs, Larson urged his horse down a less crowded side street, wishing now that he'd chosen to search for Kathryn here first. But he'd held out such hope that she'd been able to keep the ranch. He gave his horse the lead and searched the places he thought Kathryn might be. Nearing the edge of town, he reined in his thoughts as his gaze went to a small gathering beside the church.
Two men worked together to lower a coffin suspended by ropes into a hole in the ground. Three other people looked on in silence�"a woman dressed all in black and two men beside her. Watching the sparse gathering as he passed, Larson suddenly felt sorry for the departed soul and wondered what kind of life the person had led that would draw so few well-wishers. Then the woman turned her head to speak to one of the men beside her. It couldn't be ...
A stab of pain in his chest sucked Larson's breath away.
He dismounted and started to go to her, but something held him back.
Kathryn walked to the pile of loose dirt and scooped up a handful. She stepped forward and, hesitating for a moment, finally let it sift through her fingers. Larson was close enough to hear the hollow sound of dirt and pebbles striking the coffin below. He was certain he saw her shudder. Her movements were slow and deliberate.
She looked different to him somehow, but still, he drank her in. He felt the scattered pieces of his life coming back together.
His thoughts raced to imagine who could be inside that coffin. He swiftly settled on one. Bradley Duncan. He remembered the afternoon he'd found the young man at the cabin visiting Kathryn. Despite past months of pleading with God to quell his jealous nature and for the chance to make things right with his wife, a bitter spark rekindled deep inside him.
Larson bowed his head. Would he ever possess the strength to put aside his old nature? At that moment, Kathryn turned toward him, and he knew the answer was no.
He didn't want to believe it. He knew his wife's body as well as his own, from vivid memory as well as from his dreams, and the gentle bulge beneath her skirts left little question in his mind. Larson's legs felt like they might buckle beneath him.
Matthew Taylor, his foreman and supposed friend, stood close beside Kathryn. Taylor slipped an arm around her shoulders and drew her close. Liquid fire shot through Larson's veins. He'd trusted Matthew Taylor with the two most important things in the world to him�"his ranch and his wife. It would seem that Taylor had failed him on both counts. And in the process, had given Kathryn what Larson never could.
With Taylor's hand beneath her arm, Kathryn turned away from the grave. He whispered something to her. She smiled back, and Larson's heart turned to stone. They walked past him as though he weren't there. He suddenly felt invisible, and for the first time in his life, he wasn't bothered by the complete lack of recognition. Defeat and fury warred inside him as he watched Kathryn and Taylor walk back toward town.
When the preacher had returned to the church and the cemetery workers finished their task and left, Larson walked to the edge of the grave. He took in the makeshift headstone, then felt the air squeeze from his lungs. Reading the name carved into the splintered piece of old wood sent him to his knees. His world shifted full tilt.
Annabelle Grayson McCutchens stared at the dying man beside her and wished, as she had the day she married him, that she loved her husband more. Loved him with the same desire he felt for her. Given all the men she'd known in her past, how was it that now, after meeting a truly good man who loved her despite what she had done and been, her whole heart wouldn't open fully to him? No matter how she tried.
Jonathan tried to pull in a deep breath. Sitting beside him, Annabelle cringed as she heard the air thread its way down his throat, barely lifting his barrel chest. The shallow movement of air rattled dull against the fluid in his lungs.
An ache started deep inside her. How could this solid mountain of a man have been brought low so swiftly? The chest pains had started without warning. But the fatigue and coughing fits Jonathan had experienced in recent weeks had taken on a deeper, more ominous meaning in past days. How could the heart of a man beat so strong and steady in one sense and yet be fading so quickly in another?
A breeze whipped the wagon canopy and drew Annabelle's focus upward toward a languid summer sun, hanging half masked behind the highest Rocky Mountain peaks. A burnt-orange glow bathed the vast eastern plains in promise of the coming twilight. The group they'd set out with from Denver nearly a week ago had waited with them a day, as was the agreement from the outset in such circumstances, in order to see if Jonathan would gain strength. But when Jonathan's pain worsened and the prospect of recovery dimmed of all hope, Jack Brennan reluctantly explained the group had to push on. They needed to make up for a late departure due to unaccustomed spring rains in order to reach the Idaho Territory before the first snowfall.
After several minutes Jonathan's breathing evened. His eyes were closed, and Annabelle wondered if he'd slipped back into sleep.
"You're as pretty as I've ever imagined a woman could be, Annabelle." His voice came gentle. He lifted a hand and brushed his fingers across her brow and down her cheek.
She gave a bleak laugh and shook her head at his foolishness. "Yes, I'm quite the catch. I'm glad you got me when you did, 'cause I had others waiting in line, you know." Seeing his mouth tip on one side, Annabelle smiled.
She'd been pretty when younger, but beauty was a trait that time�"and choices she'd made�"had erased from her features, and she knew it. A thin, puckered scar marred the top of her right cheekbone, etching its jagged flesh-colored path up her temple and into her hairline. She'd lived with it for the past fifteen years, and it served as a tangible memory of her first lesson in what some men who had visited the brothel termed pleasure.
"What do you think you're doin', Annie girl?"
Only then did Annabelle become aware of how she was tugging her hair down on that side of her face. Quickly dropping her hand, she laughed in hopes of covering her self-consciousness. The sound came out flat and unconvincing. "I'm just thinking about how you must find scars attractive, Jonathan McCutchens."
With accustomed gentleness, he caressed her cheek. "I find you attractive, Mrs. McCutchens. Only you."
His tenderness silenced the ready quip on her tongue, and the ache inside her rose to a steady thrum. She cared more for this man than she had any person in her life, so why couldn't she coerce her feelings to mirror his? For as far back as she could remember, she'd known that feelings in themselves couldn't be trusted. Emotions lived for a moment, then faded, and they even turned traitorous, given time. So she'd learned not to give them much heed. She'd simply expected things to be different between them as husband and wife.
She'd asked God many times to increase her desire for Jonathan. But apparently God didn't listen to prayers of that sort. Or maybe He just didn't listen to hers.
"Thank you for havin' me as your husband, Annie. I had such plans for us ... for our child." He moved his hand, and she guided it to rest over the place where their son or daughter was nestled deep inside. Jonathan softly caressed her flat belly as though trying to comfort the tiny babe within.
His hand moved in slow circles over their child, and she shut her eyes tight as an unwelcome memory fought its way to the surface. She sat there, defenseless and mute, as years-old guilt and shame crept over her again. Pregnancies in brothels were common, but so were aloes and cathartic powders to terminate them, often leaving the girls who took them damaged beyond repair.
That she was carrying Jonathan's child was a blessing. That she was pregnant again ... was a miracle.
"I'm so sorry to be leavin' you like this, Annie. It's not�"" His deep voice broke with emotion. "It's not turning out like I planned. I'm sorry...."
She shook her head and leaned close, bringing her face to within inches of his. "Don't you dare say that to me, Jonathan McCutchens," she whispered, laying a cool hand to his forehead. A sigh left him at her touch. "It's me who needs to be saying it to you. I ..." Her mouth moved but the words wouldn't come. Knowing the path her life had taken, most people wouldn't understand, but intimacy of this nature still felt so foreign. "I'm sorry for not being the kind of woman you deserved. You're the�"" She pushed the words past the uncomfortable knot in her throat. "You're the finest man I've ever known, Jonathan. And I thank you for ... for taking me as your wife."
He sighed again, his gaze moving over her face slowly, as though seeing her for the first time. Or maybe the last. Then with a shaky hand, he motioned behind his head, toward the front of the wagon. "There's something in my pack there. Something I wrote this mornin'."
Annabelle glanced over her shoulder, then back at him. Without asking, she guessed what it was. She gave him a knowing smile, attempting to draw out the truth.
Jonathan's focus remained steady.