A Sweetwater River Romance - Misty M. Beller - ebook
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A Christian Historical Romance novel.Taking flight from their quiet Pennsylvania town seems like the only way for Tori Boyd to protect her dearest cousin’s virtue. And the success of their escape may now depend on the man she’s been writing letters to for over a year now in the vast wilds of the Wyoming Territory.Ezra Reid has finally stepped out from under the shadow of his older brother and sister, now having full responsibility to man the Rocky Ridge Stage Stop through the winter. The success or failure of the stage and telegraph contracts falls squarely on his shoulders, and he's entirely focused on the work - at least until his mysterious correspondence partner shows up on his doorstep.As Ezra takes on the search for a proper situation for Tori and her cousin, there seem to be no good options for the ladies. Especially since Tori won't even discuss the one option that might succeed - marriage. When the danger chasing the women takes on a form none of them anticipated, how far will Ezra have to go to keep the Tori and her cousin safe? It’ll take a lot more than luck to ensure his heart is the sole casualty.

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A SWEETWATER RIVER ROMANCE

Misty M. Beller

PRONOUN

TABLE OF CONTENTS

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Sixteen

Chapter Seventeen

Chapter Eighteen

Chapter Nineteen

Chapter Twenty

Chapter Twenty-One

Chapter Twenty-Two

Epilogue

Chapter One

About the Author

Dedication

Contents

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Sixteen

Chapter Seventeen

Chapter Eighteen

Chapter Nineteen

Chapter Twenty

Chapter Twenty-One

Chapter Twenty-Two

Epilogue

Don’t miss the other books

About the Author

Dedication

A Sweetwater River Romance

WyomingMountain Tales

Book 3

Misty M. Beller

Now the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing,

that ye may abound in hope,

through the power of the Holy Ghost.

Romans 15:13 (KJV)

~ ~ ~

Would you like a free ebook from Misty M. Beller? The Lady and the Mountain Man has over 1,000 five star reviews and I’d love to give you a copy.

Get it here: http://eepurl.com/bGt1er

CHAPTER ONE

~

ADVERTISEMENT: SEEKING A LITERATE PERSON in the western territories willing and eager to correspond with an easterner on a variety of topics. No requirements as to gender, nor the level of education attained, save the ability to read and write in complete sentences and the desire to connect with another human being through the written word. Apply by letter addressed to T.B., Boiling Springs Township, Pennsylvania.

Dear T.B.,

In response to your advertisement seeking a partner in correspondence, I find the idea more than a little intriguing. I do reside in the western territories—Wyoming Territory, to be precise. My gender is male and, having lived at a remote stage coach stop for the past six years, I find myself rather craving the connection afforded only by the application of pen and ink on paper. Curious how much easier it is to organize one’s thoughts when writing, isn’t it? I wonder if the phenomenon is a response to actually seeing the words take shape before one’s eyes? Or perhaps it’s the opposite. Not seeing the intended recipient might allow thought to spill out with little inhibition, except the need to organize the words into complete sentences. Although some ignore that requirement altogether, as I have witnessed many times while operating the Western Union Telegraph in our employ. It’s a wonder the receiver can obtain any comprehension at all when the message is taxed at five cents per word. But I digress.

In closing, I happily apply for continued correspondence if your interest holds fast. If so, I look forward to your response, at your leisure, of course.

Sincerely,

E. Reid

Rocky Ridge Stage Stop

Wyoming Territory

October, 1866

Wyoming Territory

“Looks like it might snow.”

Tori Boyd pressed the creases flat in the writing paper as she studied the concise handwriting, a challenging exercise with the sometimes-violent rocking of the stage coach. Such tiny letters, each well-formed, as though its writer had hunched low over the paper, focused on exacting perfection. Not what she would normally prescribe to a man’s handwriting.

“See how gray those clouds are? Almost the same color as the river water.”

Tori forced her attention up from the stack of letters toward the stage window where her cousin pointed. Yes, the clouds held an ominous feel, as though seizing their breath for what was to come. Yet even the gray pallor they cast on the landscape didn’t make it feel dreary. Maybe it was the majesty of the wilderness scene, with the wide expanse of the Sweetwater River traveling beside them. Maybe it was the stirring chill in the air that enlivened her senses.

Maybe it was the fact that she and Opal had left everything they’d known in their quiet Pennsylvania town to venture into this western territory. And now, their very existence could depend on the mercy of the man who’d written the stack of letters in her hands over the past year.

Her gaze wandered back to them. No, her well-being would never again depend on anyone else—especially not a man. Nor would Opal’s existence, as long as they both lived. But if Mr. Reid was the kind of man she hoped, he might help them finish the last leg of their dramatic escape.

If he wasn’t willing to help them find lodging and procure a decent situation, well, she’d brought them on this endeavor, and it was up to her to see them safely through.

“Do you wish you’d sent word ahead?” Opal’s gentle voice broke through Tori’s thoughts like a calm trickle of water.

Tori looked up into her cousin’s cornflower blue gaze. “Not really. Do you suspect he’ll be angry?”

Opal didn’t answer, just gave a tight-lipped smile that proclaimed her thoughts on the matter. No change in her opinion since the last time they discussed it.

Maybe it was the fact that Opal was a year older that gave her the aura of wisdom at only nineteen. Or maybe Opal just dealt with life better. Took the bad and looked for the good in it. Her sweet cousin wasn’t as brash and reckless as Tori was. A good thing, since Opal’s gentle wisdom was the lifeline that had kept them both sane these last ten years.

In their younger days, her resolute calm had kept Tori together through every cruel word spoken by the other children. Kept her from lashing out in a way that would surely have sealed her expulsion from the Boiling Springs School for Girls, despite the ungodly amounts of money Uncle Max poured into the place.

It was Opal who had sheltered Tori in her bed chamber all those nights when her uncle’s steward took solace in the brandy and came looking for her. And when kind, brave Opal approached her father with Tori’s fears after that first time, the bruise that formed around Opal’s eye was enough to start Tori planning retaliation, even in those younger, more innocent days. Only Opal’s tearful pleading held her back. But that was the beginning of the bitterness that had crept over her soul. Or perhaps that hadn’t been the beginning of bitterness, but it had been the first time she’d welcomed the emotion. It hadn’t taken long before she’d clung to it like a shield.

Yet Opal, sweet Opal, stayed gentle and kind. The best of souls.

Which was why Tori couldn’t fail Opal now. They were in this together, and she would do whatever it took to keep her cousin safe and happy. And unsullied—a condition that would have been impossible to maintain if they’d stayed back in Boiling Springs.

“Ho!” The driver’s voice sounded outside as the coach’s steady rocking slowed.

Had they arrived? Fighting down the churning in her stomach, Tori leaned closer to Opal and peered out the small windows.

She glimpsed the corner of a building—unpainted wood siding that seemed newer than many of the ramshackle stage stops they’d visited so far.

Then the coach lurched to a halt, and she was thrown forward, barely catching herself on the opposite seat.

~ ~ ~

Ezra Reid approached the lathered bay gelding nearest him and rubbed the animal’s sweaty neck as he peered up at the stage driver. “I’ve got the horses if you’ll help the passengers. Food’s on the table, coffee’s on the stove.”

“Good.” A groan chased Tanner’s comment as he hauled himself over the side of the driver’s box and down to the ground. “Just two passengers, an’ they’re both stayin’ with you.”

Ezra nodded as he reached for the buckles fastening the front horses to the stage. It wasn’t often travelers disembarked from their journey at the Rocky Ridge Stage Stop, as remote as this layover was. Not a town within a few hours’ ride.

He didn’t have time to question the man, though. Had to get these horses unharnessed, make sure everyone was settled inside, and, finally, hitch the new set of four to the coach by the time Tanner was ready to head out. Probably, the driver could handle whatever he and the passengers needed inside, especially since Ezra had laid out everything for a late lunch. But seeing to the passengers was as much his job as caring for the horses.

It had been easier to get it all done when Zechariah was there to help, but his older brother had needed to explore the mountain country and had trusted him with the sole responsibility of the station these next few months.

He’d be tarred and feathered before he’d fail Zeche.

Even in their exhausted condition, the four horses kept him hopping as he led them toward the corral. They must have smelled the snowstorm coming.

“Easy, boy. Settle down. I’ve got a nice stall for you in time.” The bay pinned his ears and snapped his tail at the chestnut giant behind him, and the larger animal retaliated with a squeal. “Quit.” Ezra popped the bay’s shoulder and tugged them on.

By the time he had the tired horses separated and secured and the fresh teams in harness, he was late heading toward the main house. He’d wait to attach the new animals to the coach when Tanner was ready to leave.

Ezra lengthened his stride across the courtyard between the house and barn. The combination bunkhouse and storeroom spanned one side of the area, which reminded him that he should light the fire in the bunkhouse soon so the place could warm up. The little building hadn’t seen visitors in at least a month, but if two men from the stage were disembarking here, they’d probably need somewhere to stay before they began the next leg of their journey.

They’d most likely need to purchase mounts too, since there hadn’t been extra horses tied to the rear of the stage. He could take them over to Mara’s farm for that. His sister and her husband, Josiah, always seemed to have a string of horses ready for sale on their ranch. Good thing the place was only a half hour’s ride away.

Or maybe the passengers had already decided this country was too wild for them and planned to hightail-it back to civilization on the next eastbound stage. They’d still need to stay the night, since Mason wouldn’t be coming through with that particular coach ‘til mid-morning tomorrow.

Ezra stopped on the stoop of the main house and kicked the mud from his boots. The fire in the bunkhouse would have to wait until he saw the stage off and the horses settled. These Eastern chaps would just have to learn that there was a priority in how work had to be done in the territories. An order to things, if they were to be done right.

Pushing open the door, he shucked his gloves and headed toward the stove. As his eyes adjusted to the dimmer light, he glanced over at the table where three bodies perched around the long wooden planks.

He stopped short as his gaze caught on a shock of red hair. No, not a shock. Thick, springy curls pulled loose from their owner’s attempt to restrain them at the base of her neck.

Her neck. His guests must be a man and wife then, heading toward a new life in the western territories. He shifted his gaze from the woman to take in the measure of her husband, but his focus almost skittered past the thin blond woman sitting beside the first.

Two women? What in blazes?

His focus pulled back to the fire-haired lady, just to be sure his mind hadn’t deceived him. And that was the exact moment she looked up at him.

Their eyes met and something caught him up short. Maybe it was the intensity of her gaze. And then, as quickly as they captured him, her penetrating eyes released him, and she looked away.

He took the opportunity to turn back to the stove, gripping the wooden handle of the oven door as he struggled to gather his wits. Hadn’t Tanner said he only had two passengers and they would both be disembarking the stage at the Rocky Ridge? Surely these women weren’t his guests. They couldn’t be traveling alone.

He shifted to grab the coffee pot and scoot it toward a cooler part of the stove, which gave him an opportunity to glimpse the women from the corner of his eye. His peripheral vision was blurry, but he could make out the image of that carrot-colored hair. Or…maybe not carrot exactly. A bit darker, but still striking.

Pulling his focus back in front of him, he leaned down to toss a few more chunks of wood into the firebox. Where was he going to put these women, if they did indeed need lodging? Surely they’d need a place, at least for tonight. They must be turning back to ride the eastbound stage tomorrow like so many others before them. Going back to a more civilized land after the west turned out even wilder than they’d anticipated. From that quick glance, they seemed to be respectably dressed—maybe even part of the wealthier set, although he couldn’t be sure.

The bunkhouse wouldn’t do, with its two old straw ticks barely propped up off the floor. At least he and Zeche had added a wood floor in the building instead of leaving it as packed dirt, although that was more to keep the rodents out of the supplies than to accommodate their few guests. But such a rustic, dirty structure was hardly fit for two ladies.

And they couldn’t stay in the house with him, an unmarried man. Although maybe he could sleep in the bunkhouse…

But…that felt wrong. Maybe he’d been alone in this wilderness long enough to lose proper judgement, but this wasn’t any place for a pair of ladies—unchaperoned and unprotected.

After scooping up the leather pad to protect his hand, he grasped the handle on the coffee pot and turned to face his guests. He tried to keep his gaze casual as he took in the two women sitting beside each other, opposite Miles Tanner. The red-haired lady drew his focus like a homing beacon, but he didn’t allow himself to stare, just stepped forward and refilled the tin cups with coffee. “Y’all made it in just before the snow.”

“Yep. Hoping I can get all the way to South Pass City before it hits.” Tanner took an audible gulp from his mug, then clanged the metal onto the table. “Reckon’ I’m gonna head out. You gals sure you wanna stay on?”

Ezra raised his focus to the women. “Where are you headed?”

The blond lady looked uncertain, darting a glance at her friend. The other raised a strong chin and met his gaze. Squarely. With more pluck than he often saw in stage travelers—male or female. Usually, the wilderness they’d traveled to reach this spot was enough to take the starch out of all adventurous spirits. But apparently not this lady.

“Actually, we’d like to stay in this area.” Her voice rang strong and clear. She glanced at her friend, but not in the hesitant way the other gal had. The look seemed to be more encouragement than anything else. “Opal and I would like to settle here. Maybe start a bakery, if there’s sufficient clientele. Or if not, we’ll find other suitable situations.”

He couldn’t help but raise his brows at her. “A bakery? Here?” The question slipped out before he could grab it. But really. She apparently thought this area a great deal more civilized than it was.

Ezra shot a glance at Tanner, who met his look with brows lowered in a way that mirrored his own feelings. Half incredulity, half concern. Ezra cleared his throat. “Ma’am. I’m not sure we have enough people in the towns of South Pass and Atlantic City combined to support a bakery. Most people in this area are miners or ranchers. The more civilized men have wives and children, but they’re spread out several hours apart. The rest tend to be rough around the edges.”

Her petite nose flared in a way that reminded him of a peeved mother hen guarding her brood, so he eased the intensity of his tone. “You might do better at one of the towns farther east. St. Louis maybe or even Independence.”

The ruffled collar at her neck shifted as she seemed to take in a deep breath and let it out. Another moment passed before she spoke. “Thank you for that advice, Mr. Reid, but I think we’d rather look here.” She paused, like she was holding her breath.

It was two whole beats of his pulse before the last of her words sank in. How did she know his name? Tanner must have told her. He shot another look at the man, but the driver seemed to be studying the ladies with a scowl.

“You are Mr. Reid, aren’t you?” The lady’s voice pulled Ezra’s focus again, and something about the way she watched him, intensity emanating from her gaze, made his stomach tighten.

“Ye—es.” He drew the word out, letting his tone imply his uneasy question. What was she getting at?

“I’m Tori Boyd. I believe we’ve…met.”

Silence filtered through the room as her words slowly penetrated his thick skull. Tori…Boyd? As in T. Boyd from Boiling Springs, Pennsylvania? His correspondence partner? His mind wouldn’t stop spinning, yet it seemed unable to form a coherent thought.

CHAPTER TWO

~

“DO YOU REMEMBER ME?” THE hesitation in Miss Boyd’s voice finally broke through the questions whirling in Ezra’s brain.

He forced his slack jaw to close, then cleared his throat. “I…yeah.” Narrowing his gaze, he took in the length of her. She was prettier than he’d ever thought as he wrote those silly letters. When he’d first seen that advertisement in the Eastern paper, he’d thought it was unusual for someone to want a writing partner just for the sake of sending letters, but he hadn’t questioned it too deeply. She’d made it sound like she wanted to hear fascinating stories about life in the west. So, he’d responded, starting up a regular correspondence that never failed to be interesting as the months progressed. And he’d not had to embellish much on his stories of life at this stage coach stop in the Wyoming Territory. Between the wild animals and even wilder men, it seemed there was always some new excitement to describe, whether it came on the stage or galloped into the yard from a different means.

But he’d never expected her to show up on his doorstep.

“Mr. Reid. Perhaps I could have a word with you outside?” Her voice came strong and full, like she wasn’t afraid to speak her opinion. Yet there was something beautiful about the sound, like fine china. Maybe it was her polished accent. Certainly more cultured than the few frontier women who lived in South Pass City. Of course, that was to be expected since she was from the east.

“I suppose.” Curiosity niggled in his chest as he followed her swishing skirts out the door and down the step to the brown grass beside the house.

She scanned the little courtyard, apparently taking in the bunkhouse and the larger barn beside it. All the buildings had been rebuilt a couple years ago after a Cheyenne war party burned the original structures to the ground. The improvements they’d added had been minor, but helpful. But how rustic did the place look through her eyes?

She seemed to raise her gaze to the trees beyond, and the bluffs that rose above the juniper and pines. “It’s pretty, this land. Just like you described.” Her voice had softened, as though she were lost in a memory.

He couldn’t help but study her as the afternoon glow outlined her profile. She was a pretty thing, with refined features and vibrant hair. It wasn’t so much the red of it that stole his breath, although the color had first captured his eye. The loose curls seemed to make the locks spring to life. He fought the urge to step forward and slip his fingers through its thickness.

She turned to face him then, stilling the impulse and snapping him back to reality. “I bet you’re wondering why I’m here?”

He raised his brows. “A little.” She seemed to want to take the reins of this conversation. She could drive for now. At least until he wrapped his mind around exactly where they were headed.

“Due to an unexpected circumstance, my cousin and I decided it was time to leave our little town in Pennsylvania. You made this country sound so inviting, we thought it would be a nice place to settle.” She motioned around, as though the cluster of buildings and winter grass were as good as a Boston pleasure ground.

The inkling in his gut that usually warned him when something wasn’t quite right now tightened into a solid knowing. Not only was she simple-minded if she thought she and that other woman could live out here alone, but there was something about her overly casual tone that sounded like she’d carefully prepared and memorized her little speech.

Which meant she was probably running from something.

Was one of them in the family way? Escaping a soiled reputation? He’d be hard-pressed to think of another reason why two genteel women would leave the town where they’d been raised to head out west on their own. But if they thought they could easily fend for themselves—and care for a newborn child in the process—they were delusional.

He eyed Miss Boyd. This first introduction didn’t make her seem very logical, but the letters she’d sent had seemed so grounded, in a spunky sort of way. He knew little about her and nothing about her cousin. After all, a woman could put any fabrication she wanted on paper and he’d be none the wiser. And now she’d shown up on his doorstep, and he had to figure out the truth.

“You’re familiar with the area. Where do you think is the best place for us to begin our search for work?” Her voice prodded, a little less forceful than before.

He met her gaze. “I can’t think of a place within a week’s ride. You’d do best to wait for tomorrow’s eastbound stage and head back to Boiling Springs.” His comment might be rude, but he couldn’t quite squelch the frustration springing from her recklessness.

She stiffened, and the friendliness in her expression ebbed as she raised her chin. Fire flashed in those brown eyes. “We’re not going back, Mr. Reid. If you’d rather not help us, that’s fine. But we’ll make our way to a new life.”

Guilt pressed hard on his chest. Whatever had driven them into this crazy scheme must have been extreme, and it wasn’t his job to make her feel worse about her past. He’d be hamstrung and quartered before he’d let these two women wander from town to town on their own, looking for a situation. They’d find a situation all right, whether they wanted that particular type or not. Probably ten times worse than anything they’d have found in the little hamlet of Boiling Springs.

He straightened and eased out a sigh. “I’ll help. Let me see the stage off, then we’ll get you both settled.”

The stubborn jut of her chin eased into a soft smile, and the way it blossomed over her face made something flip in his gut.

~ ~ ~

He’d agreed to help. Tori leaned against the cabin’s open door, biting back a grin as she watched activity around the stage. Mr. Reid worked steadily with the horses, hitching the team of four to the coach while Mr. Tanner hauled their luggage into the house.

She should be doing something besides standing there ogling Mr. Reid.

The clang of tinware from the kitchen grabbed her attention, and she turned to see Opal stacking used plates at the table. Yes, that was the place to help. She stepped into motion, filling a large kettle with what looked to be clean water from a nearby bucket, scrapping a bit of lye soap into the liquid, and setting it on the stove to heat. She and Opal worked in easy silence, cleaning the remains of their meal and the dishes Mr. Reid had employed to prepare the food, along with what seemed to be the plates and forks he’d used for the past several meals.

The kitchen wasn’t dirty per se, but it was clear the place hadn’t seen a woman’s touch in a while.

When Mr. Tanner came to take his leave, they both paused to offer their heartfelt thanks. She’d felt safe in his care since he’d taken over the coach that morning, but her relief at his apparent competence and integrity was nothing compared to the feeling of finally reaching the Rocky Ridge Station.

She and Opal were safe now. Mr. Reid could direct them to the best place for them to start new lives in this beautiful land.

Opal was straightening the dishes on the shelf into neat stacks and rows while Tori folded the hand towel at the washbasin.

A boot thud sounded outside and the door pushed open.

Tori turned to face the man as he stepped inside and hung his hat on a peg by the wall.

He was silent while he shucked his gloves and his gaze scanned the room, catching on her. His fingers worked each of the half-dozen buttons down his coat. There was a curiosity in his look as he seemed to appraise her, then Opal, who had halted her work to watch him.

Her cousin came alive when his attention landed on her, and she took quick steps forward, extending her hand as she moved. “I don’t think we’ve officially met, Mr. Reid. I’m Opal Boyd, her cousin.” She motioned toward Tori.

He looked at her extended hand as though it were a curiosity, then up at her face. He cautiously took just her fingers like he wasn’t sure whether he should clasp and shake or bow and kiss them. Tori nibbled the inside of her lip against a grin. This was the Opal that hadn’t appeared since before Tori had left their home on her eighteenth birthday. It was good to see a little spunk back in her manner.

“It’s a pleasure, Miss Boyd.” He half-bowed over her fingers, seeming to recover from his surprise. Then he withdrew his hand from Opal’s and strode to the shelf where she’d been straightening dishes. He pulled down the three tin mugs they’d just washed and stacked. Then he moved to the coffee pot and poured brew into all three. “Come sit and we’ll talk.” Turning his back to them, he strode toward the table.

Apparently, he had no doubt they’d jump at his command. For half a second, Tori was tempted to disregard him and take up the broom in the corner. But that was no way to treat a man who she hoped would help them. And she wasn’t ready to test his temper.

She followed Opal to the table, and they took the same places they’d occupied before, with Mr. Reid facing them across the wooden surface.

He sipped his coffee while he studied them, a thoughtful expression forming a valley between his brows. He was more handsome than she’d let herself imagine when she read his letters. She’d tried to keep a realistic perspective, thinking of him as a buck-tooth, balding, middle-aged man who liked to spit tobacco. But Mr. Reid was nothing of the kind, with the strong, perfectly-proportioned angles of his face and the way his shoulders filled out the gray wool of his shirt.

What did he think as he perused over the rim of his mug? She wasn’t sure she wanted to know. And she definitely didn’t like this feeling that their fate somehow rested in his hands, no matter how much her instincts told her they could trust him.

She needed to get control of the conversation. She slipped both hands around the warm metal of her cup and gave him what she hoped was a competent look. “I suppose we’ll be needing to rent horses from you, if you have any to spare. Perhaps you could give us a list of people we might speak with in the surrounding towns?”

He raised his brows. “I was just thinking about that.” He placed his cup on the table and straightened. “I think for tonight, I’m going to take you over to my sister’s ranch. She and her husband own a spread about half an hour from here across the river. It’ll be a good safe place for you both until we figure out your next steps.”

Tori’s heart leapt as she absorbed his words. “Do you think your sister would be interested in hiring a cook and housekeeper? We’d like to stay together if possible, but I think we would settle for neighboring ranches if I could find another place nearby.” Tori shot a glance at Opal. Her cousin bobbed her chin, a glimmer of hope shimmering in her pale blue eyes.

“I…um...don’t know about that.” He cleared his throat. “I was thinking more that they could provide a safe place for you to live until we make other arrangements. I’m not sure she and Josiah are ready to hire on help.”

The hope burgeoning in Tori’s chest evaporated. “Oh. All right. We can pay her for board.” She really didn’t want charity from this man’s sister.

Mr. Reid opened his mouth to respond, but a clacking sound from the corner grabbed his attention. He padded quietly toward the corner where the sound emanated.

The telegraph.

He’d written about the entertaining messages he passed along the line, but she’d forgotten about it. Now he scribbled furiously on a sheet of paper as the clicking continued.

She couldn’t help but watch, mesmerized, as he wrote for another minute. She studied the jumble of metal and wires comprising the machine on the desk. Connected lines ran up the wall to the roof, where they must feed through a hole to the outside, although she couldn’t see evidence of daylight leaking through. The opening had been plugged well.

At last, the noise ceased, and a moment later, Mr. Reid straightened. He let out a breath and looked around, as though just now returning to his surroundings. His gaze met Tori’s and stalled there. “I just need to send this message. Sorry for the interruption.”

“Of course.” She pushed to her feet before her brain could catch up with her body. “Can I watch?”

He shrugged as she approached, then turned back to the desk and pulled out the chair tucked underneath it. After settling in front of the machine, he started sending the message. His finger tapped out the clicks almost faster than her mind could register them, but she narrowed her focus to the sounds, trying to differentiate between the long clicks for the dashes and the short clicks for the dots.

She’d read enough about telegraphs in the newspapers to understand the theory behind the communication, and she’d watched the telegrapher at work when she’d had business in Boiling Springs’s combination postal and telegraph office. But she’d never been quite this close.

As she focused on the sounds and the movement of Mr. Reid’s finger, the long and short beats gradually began to distinguish themselves. But it was nothing short of fantastic that he could think quickly enough to transmit the scribbled message into codes for each letter.

At last, his finger stilled, and when he straightened, Tori realized how close she was hovering over him. She stepped back, almost tripping over her skirts. And when he rose and pushed the chair back under the desk, he seemed to tower over her short frame. Of course, most people towered over her. She steeled herself not to show her intimidation, but it didn’t require as much effort as usual to keep a calm façade. He didn’t ruffle her defenses as much as most men she met. Didn’t trigger the spurt of fear that made her feel the need to retaliate. No, something about Mr. Reid’s presence made her feel protected.

And that feeling alone was enough to terrify.

CHAPTER THREE

~

A QUESTION SLIPPED INTO TORI’S mind and spilled out before she could tether it. “What’s your given name, Mr. Reid?” She tilted her head and affected a casual look, which would hopefully make the question seem less intrusive. He’d used the initial E in his letters, but he didn’t seem like an Edward or Elijah.

He raised his brows. “Ezra. What’s yours?”

Cheeky thing, he was. She bit back a smile. “Victoria.” His brows rose even higher at the stuffy name she despised. “But I allow friends to call me Tori.”

The corner of his mouth twitched. “And what shall I call you?”

Why had she started this ridiculous line of conversation? One of these days she’d learn to filter her words. Should she let him call her by her given name? It was a liberty, and she wasn’t in the habit of allowing favors to men. Not at all. That gender tended to take their own freedoms whether she handed them over or not.

Yet she’d come all this way because she was fairly sure she could trust Ezra Reid, and maybe it was time to test him. “You may call me Tori.” And in an effort to keep some semblance of control of the conversation, she turned and strode back to take her place at the table. “Shall we finish discussing our plan to find suitable work?”

Several beats of her pulse pounded in her neck before Ezra’s boots thumped across the room to join them. He sank into his chair and leaned forward to rest his elbows on the table, clasping his hands in front of him. They were strong hands that seemed capable of anything asked of them. Yet quick and sensitive enough to tap out a message almost faster than her brain could process it.

She leaned forward and met Ezra’s gaze. “Could you teach me how to send messages on the telegraph?”

He pulled back, his chin lowering as his brows rose again. Then his face relaxed as a warm chuckle slipped out. “I can’t seem to predict what’s going to pop out of your mouth.”

“That’s the case for all of us.” Opal’s soft voice held a mirth that matched his.

Tori fought the burn rising into her cheeks. She wasn’t always this impulsive. It must be nerves from their unsettled future. She shot Opal a glare, to which her cousin responded with a cheeky grin, the little minx.

Perhaps it was best they got back to their earlier topic. She turned to Ezra. “I’ll agree to board with your sister until we can make other arrangements. But my other questions still remain. Do you have horses we can rent until we procure jobs? I imagine we’ll need sturdy transportation to travel the area.”

His gaze narrowed on her as if he were trying to read something in her expression. “Is there anyone we need to worry about? Someone who might not be pleased you left Boiling Springs?”

An image of Jackson flitted through her mind, his bushy black brows lowered in a way that he seemed to think made him desirable. Her gut roiled, but she pushed the picture out of her mind. Her uncle’s steward wouldn’t travel thousands of miles to find her or Opal. Now that they were gone, the lazy man would simply turn his attentions to another female on the Riverdale estate. She swallowed past a lump. She couldn’t worry about any of the others. Opal was safe—at least for now—and it might take all her focus to make sure she stayed that way.