» The Silver Heiress

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Blurb

Description: All Victoria Chandler wants it to marry a gentleman of quality and live in comfort in a cosmopolitan city. Her father, however, insists the move to the Territory of New Mexico where his mining properties are located. Once there, she is kidnapped by Mexican bandits, forced to marry the man who rescues her, and expected to live on his isolated ranch!

Thomas Hawkins sees rescuing Victoria Chandler as his last chance to save his nearly bankrupt ranch. He never dreams he'll end up married to the pampered heiress who'll find his homesteader's cabin totally unacceptable. Will he send her back to her life of privilege or teach her to live and love in his world?
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Excerpt

Victoria Chandler stepped down to the depot platform, freed the back of her skirt from the train steps, and looked about for her father. Miss Pritchard followed her, giving crisp orders to the porter about the removal of their hand luggage.

A tall, slightly built man wearing wire rimmed spectacles approached them. He doffed his bowler hat to display thinning hair. "Miss Chandler? Miss Pritchard? I'm James Dinsdale, Mr. Chandler's chief clerk. He sent me to meet you."

"He didn't come himself?" Victoria tried to keep the anger she felt out of her voice.

"Mr. Chandler wanted to come, but the new crusher at the refinery is being tested today, and he felt he had to be there. You know how he is about business," Dinsdale added with an apologetic tone in his voice.

Victoria nodded curtly. She certainly did know about her father and business. A new crusher, whatever that was, would definitely be more important to him than the arrival of his only daughter whom he hadn't seen in four years! Why had he insisted she endure the dreadful journey to this god-forsaken part of the country, if he didn't have any time for her?

"Is this all of your luggage?" Dinsdale gestured to the valises and hat boxes piled around them.

"No, there are two large trunks in the baggage car," Miss Pritchard said.

"If you'll give me the claim checks, I'll be happy to see to those for you," Dinsdale said.

Miss Pritchard dug into her purse for the checks, as two burly men in rough clothing arrived and began gathering up their luggage. Mr. Dinsdale suggested that the ladies might like to wait inside where it would be cooler, then rushed along the platform toward the baggage car.

Victoria found no relief from the heat inside the small clapboard station. She took a lilac scented handkerchief from the pocket of her traveling suit and dabbed at the dots of moisture on her forehead. Stepping to an open window, she looked at the dusty main street of Lordsburg and wondered who had chosen its totally inappropriate name. On their way from San Francisco they had passed through many towns just like this one, wooden buildings built around the railroad tracks with no apparent reason to exist.

At least she knew this town's reason for being. Precious metal--silver--rested in the nearby mountains and T.J. Chandler owned much of it. His determined efforts to acquire it had given her a life of luxury and a lonely childhood.

She flipped her handkerchief toward the window. "Will you look at this poor excuse for a town. There's not one decent shop in sight."

"With all the clothes you brought, you won't need to go shopping for a long time," Miss Pritchard replied with the patient little smile she often wore when speaking to Victoria.

"And where am I going to wear my beautiful new dresses. I should have stayed in New York, and had my debut like Aunt Chloe wanted, or in San Francisco with Richard and Melissa. I can't understand why father insisted I come here."

"He said in his letter that he wanted you to see the new house he's built."

"That house! Why in the world has he spent a fortune to build a mansion in the middle of a desert?"

"I'm sure an important man like your father has a good reason for everything he does, and it's not your place to question those reasons."

Victoria glared at Miss Pritchard. The woman couldn't seem to remember that she was no longer Victoria's teacher, but now her paid traveling companion.

A commotion in the street drew her attention to a road-coach stopping in front of the station. Large enough to be a public vehicle, the coach had a shiny black exterior, a team of four matched gray horses, and a large golden "C" painted on the door. It looked quite out of place among the freight wagons and buckboards that populated the street.

Victoria told Miss Pritchard their transportation had arrived and they left the station. Once they were settled in the coach, Mr. Dinsdale called an order to the driver and the vehicle jerked to a start. Victoria glanced out the window. Mounted men, armed with both pistols and rifles were riding beside them.

"Are they with us?" she asked Mr. Dinsdale.

"Yes, Miss. You'll be perfectly safe. No need to worry."

"But I thought the Indians had been subdued."

"They have, mostly. The Army is chasing down the last renegades now. Your father is, however, one of the richest men in the Territory, so he doesn't take chances."

"I see," she murmured, and tried to interest herself in the passing scenery. The coach moved toward jagged mountains, devoid of any greenery. Just big piles of rocks, Victoria decided.

She glanced across the coach at her traveling companion and smothered a laugh. The heat had finally melted Miss Pritchard's rigid Bostonian backbone, and the poor woman had slumped sideways into an uneasy nap. The thick cushions pushed her pointed straw hat into a rakish dip over her face and the bouncing of the coach made her head bob up and down. In the more than two years Victoria had known her, this was the first time she'd ever been amused by her.

When Miss Pritchard first came to the Hartford Academy for Young Ladies, some of the girls said she came from a prominent family that had lost its fortune through bad investments. Any sympathy Victoria might have felt for the woman quickly faded, for, as the social graces teacher, Miss Pritchard made it her mission in life to constantly watch and reprimand her students. Slouching, foot dragging, talking too loudly, laughing at all, or a hundred other traits she deemed unladylike brought sharply worded criticism. Victoria almost fainted when Aunt Chloe told her Miss Pritchard had been hired to accompany her on this cross-country journey.

She began to worry about how long she would have to stay here in New Mexico. She definitely needed to be back in San Francisco by the start of the social season. After all, she was nearly nineteen and didn't have a single proposal to her credit. Not that she had ever lacked for male attention at parties or cotillions, but the close supervision of either teachers or her many New York relations had limited opportunities for romance.

It would be difficult, however, to manage her entrance into San Francisco society without her father's help. Her brother, Richard, was as consumed by business interests as their father. Now, with his wife expecting their first child, he had a perfect excuse to avoid the many social functions Victoria would need to attend.

Why didn't her father just hire men to manage his empire, while he lived in the comfort and safety of the city? She glanced over at Mr. Dinsdale. He looked just like the kind of clerk her father always hired, a man who would take orders, never assert himself, and let T.J. Chandler make every decision. Her father should enjoy the money he had worked so hard for, and she vowed to persuade him to return to San Francisco with her.

Then she smiled at her own foolishness. He must be planning to do just that. He had to know it was time for her to find a husband, and that suitable candidates couldn't be found in this wild country. Most likely he didn't trust Aunt Chloe or Richard to attend to such an important matter. She would have to wait until he had time...but he was always busy. She could wither into a dried-up spinster, just like Miss Pritchard, while waiting for his help. Heaven forbid!

A loud cracking noise--like thunder--exploded, and the coach lurched forward with a burst of speed. Victoria reeled against the cushions. Miss Pritchard jerked awake with a unladylike squeal. Outside, men's voices raised in coarse shouts, the driver's whip popped, and those reverberating explosions sounded again and again, coming ever closer.

"What is it?" Victoria shouted at Mr. Dinsdale, but the man seemed paralyzed with fear.

"Indians!" Miss Pritchard shrieked. "Indians!"

The coach moved faster and lurched and bounced so violently that Victoria had to fight to stay on the seat. A horse--or a man--screamed. For a moment, the coach seemed completely air borne, then tilted crazily on its side, and Victoria's temple cracked against a padded post. She plunged into murky confusion. A terrible weight pressed down of her. She could hear a wheel spinning wildly and someone groaning softly. Was that her voice? Then other voices began speaking excitedly, but she didn't understand their words.

The weight, pressing so unmercifully against her, lessened, and she opened her eyes and saw Mr. Dinsdale's lifeless face hanging above her, then disappearing. Another man leaned into the coach and reached toward her. He wasn't an Indian, but he didn't look like one of the guards either. His clothes and the bronze color of his skin were different. He pulled on her arm until he could get both of his hands under her. Then he dragged her along the floor of the coach toward the open doorway.

Another man, standing on the side of the coach, bent down and continued lifting her, until her body could be shifted into the arms of the first man, who had jumped down to the ground. As she stared at the man curiously, he gently laid her on the ground and began to examine her arms and legs with firm squeezes. He turned her slightly and poked at her bustle. When he started to pull her skirt up, she gasped in alarm and tried to push his hands away.

A sudden squawk drew both of their attentions. Miss Pritchard, her hat gone and her upswept hair pulled loose so that it stuck out from the side of her head like a grotesque bush, staggered toward them. "Leave her alone!" she shrieked, her face twisted into a mask of fear and outrage.

Another man casually pushed Miss Pritchard backward, causing her to stumble and fall over Mr. Dinsdale's crumbled body. Incredibly, the man looked down at her billowing petticoats and thrashing legs, encased in knee length drawers, and laughed. Before Victoria could recover from that shock, the man bending over her whipped her skirt up and deftly untied the drawstrings that held both her bustle and her ruffled petticoat in place.

Then he pulled her to her feet, leaving a semi-circle of stiff ruffles on the ground.

She looked around in frantic disbelief. Men rifled through the trunks strapped to a buckboard behind the coach. She saw her beautiful new dresses, even petticoats and more personal articles, held up for inspection. Other men pointed rifles or pistols at the guards who lay or sat on the ground. One of the guards, with a growing red stain on the front of his shirt, groaned as a bandit bent over him and began going through his pockets. The two horses hitched nearest to the coach were down, their legs thrashing, their screams terrible to hear. The acrid smell of burnt gunpowder filled the air.

Victoria stared at all this in amazement. Who were these men? Didn't they know who her father was? How dare they treat T.J. Chandler's daughter like this!

The man who had removed her bustle shouted to his companions. He spoke in a foreign language. These men must be Mexicans! They hurriedly mounted their horses, many of them carrying stolen articles from Victoria's luggage. A man came toward her leading a riderless horse. Did they expect her to ride it? Was that why he removed her bustle?

She tried to pull away from the hand that was guiding her toward the horse. "I can't ride that! I have to have a side-saddle--a lady's saddle!"

Two burly men lifted her up and plopped her into the saddle. As her legs were pulled on either side of the horse and her feet crammed into the stirrups, her skirt rose shamefully up to her knees. Before she could pull it down, one of the men grabbed her wrists and roughly bound them to the saddle horn with a piece of rope. A mounted rider grabbed the reins of her horse and yanked it into sudden motion. She squealed in fright and clung to the saddle horn as she looked back at the dead and wounded members of her father's caravan. Surely someone would help her, but no one did.

The troop left the road and moved into the rocky, arid countryside. Victoria had never been astride a horse before. Without the security of a knee firmly locked around a leaping horn, she feared slipping out of the saddle. The pace of their travel and the rough terrain caused her backsides to pound on the hard leather so hard that she had to lock her jaws to keep her teeth from rattling.

When the horses finally stopped, she slumped in grateful relief. The man who had first pulled her from the coach came to untie her hands and lift her down from the horse. Short and stocky, with a droopy mustache, he seemed to be the leader of these bandits, as Victoria had decided they must be. He left her standing among the milling horses as he called instructions to the others. Then he turned back to her and extended a large leather bound canteen. When she made no move to accept it, he lifted the vessel to her lips. As the water began to run down her chin, she opened her mouth and gulped greedily.

"Bueno," he said.

Victoria wiped her chin with the back of her hand and asked, "Where are you taking me?"

He shook his head.

"Do you know who my father is?" She reached toward him, stopping just short of grabbing his vest. "He's a rich man. He'll pay you a lot of money if you take me to him. Do you understand? Money--a lot of money?"

The man suddenly smiled broadly, a gold tooth gleamed from beneath his shaggy mustache. "Si, papa pay!" he said as he nodded vigorously.

"I'm being kidnapped?" Victoria's eyes widened in both surprise and indignation.

He pointed to a spot of ground several feet away. "Sit, no talk!"

She again opened her mouth to speak, but he grabbed her arm and gave her a none too gentle shove in the direction he had indicated. She walked to the spot and sat on the ground. She wrapped her skirt around her legs, and hugged them toward her chest.

They had stopped in a canyon. The walls shielded them from the sun and made it somewhat cooler. Hobbled nearby, the horses grazed on sparse patches of grass. Most of the men sprawled in shady spots, some pulled their hats over their eyes as though they intended to nap. A young man, actually no more than a teen-aged boy, moved among them and passed out flat corn cakes from a cloth bag. He came to Victoria, smiled shyly, and extended one of the cakes with a grimy hand. She shook her head briskly. She certainly wouldn't eat one to those dirty things.

In an hour or so, the camp began to stir. The leader, Victoria had heard him called Eduardo, approached with a coil of rope in his hand. She quickly scrambled to her feet. Before she could move away, he wrapped one end of the rope around her waist, knotted it securely, and began to pull her along after him. He led her reluctant figure a short distance from the others and stopped in front of some large boulders bordered with scraggly bushes. After uncoiling several feet of rope and letting it fall to the ground, he pointed at Victoria then at the bushes and said, "You go!"

She realized he meant for her to relieve herself behind the bushes while tethered by the rope like a dog on a leash. She took a deep breath and her fists automatically rose up to her hips. Before she could tell the man that she would not be treated like this, he grabbed her upper arm and shook her until her head bobbled. Then he pushed her toward the bushes as he yelled, "Pronto! Pronto!"

She briefly considered refusing to obey, but she did need to relive herself, especially if they were going to start riding again. She was sure her father would have mounted a furious search for her by now, so the best way to help herself would be to slow these brigands down. She went behind the bushes and stayed there, until a sharp tug on the rope forced her into the open, where the man angrily grabbed her arm and began to pull her along.

He led her to the horses and boosted her into the saddle. Using the end of the rope still around her waist, he again tied her hands to the saddle horn. As the torturous riding started, Victoria struggled to hang on to the saddle and ease her painful bouncing against it.

She feared the men who had captured her and the desolate country they were traveling through, but she didn't allow her thoughts to dwell on her fears. Instead she focused on her father, who at this very moment would be racing to her rescue. He may have left her in the care of servants for long periods of her childhood, and he had required her to go back East for schooling, but he had always demonstrated his devotion by making sure she had the best everything. She knew he would never stop searching for her, and his vengeance against the men who were mistreating her would be terrible to behold.

The sun beat down on her unmercifully. The bodice of her traveling suit became soaked with sweat. She longed to remove the long-sleeved jacket to gain some relief from the heat. Within the first few hours, the skin on her cheeks began to burn and feel tight. She knew her face must be turning red for, at the second rest stop, Eduardo pulled her small, peaked hat from her head and replaced it with a large brimmed, straw one. He also removed the rope from around her waist, apparently realizing she wouldn't dare try to escape in this wilderness.

They rode at a grueling pace until darkness made it dangerous. When they stopped, the boy again brought the dirty corn cakes. This time Victoria ate hers. Then she fell asleep with her head resting on her knees. She was soon jostled awake and dragged back to her horse. They rode slowly in the limited light from a half filled moon, stopping at regular intervals, but only to rest the horses. Victoria had never been so tired. She wanted to scream at these heartless men that she couldn't go on, but knew it would do no good.

They continued the pattern of riding for several hours and resting for short periods until the sun shone brightly again. Finally, they stopped in a steep walled canyon and Victoria sighed in relief, when she saw the horses being unsaddled. The leader threw a blanket on the ground and pointed her to it. She gratefully lay down and quickly fell into a dreamless sleep.

"Senorita, senorita," Victoria became aware of a soft voice above her. She opened her eyes and saw the boy, Juan, squatting beside her holding a canteen. She tried to sit up and groaned. Her back and arms were sore and her head ached. Intent on helping her, he sat the canteen down too quickly, it tipped over, and a gush of water shot onto the ground. Eduardo suddenly appeared over them, shouting angrily. Juan grabbed the canteen before more of the precious liquid was lost.

Victoria sat up. Juan poured a few swallows of water into a tin cup, gave her one of those large, flat, corn cakes, and a small piece of dried meat, then scrambled away to distribute this meager meal to the rest of the camp. Victoria allowed herself one angry glare up at Eduardo, before she began to gnaw on the hard salty meat. She would certainly enjoy telling her father all about that man.

When she finished eating, she tried to do something with the wisps of hair straggling around her face and neck. Some of her hair pins had been lost. She gathered the ones that remained and tried to brush the tangles from her freed hair with her fingers. She glanced up and saw several of the men staring at her. Her hair had always attracted attention. Even she wasn't sure what to call its color. As a child, it had inspired her father to call her his "new penny". At school, her friend's had referred to her as a strawberry blonde.

The texture, wiry waves turning into finger curls, added to the hair's novelty. She'd spent long hours forcing it into the smooth upswept styles currently in vogue. At least she didn't have to bother with curling irons to achieve the fashionable, ringlets around her forehead and neck.

Even if she understood the reason for it, the men's rude staring made her uneasy. She quickly twisted her hair up on the back of her head, shoved the pins in to anchor it, and slapped the straw hat over it. She told herself to just ignore these uncouth men, but then, not more the ten feet away, one of them stood up and turned his back toward her. She heard water gushing, and before she could avert her eyes, saw the puddle of liquid collecting near his feet. Trying to hide behind the floppy brim of her straw hat, Victoria squeezed her eyes tightly shut. She wouldn't cry! She wouldn't!

Hawk stopped in the doorway of T.J. Chandler's outer office and groaned silently. He'd managed to bluff his way past the armed guards who surrounded the Chandler refinery, but how would he get through the mob of men who filled this room? They crowded around a nervous man with a white bandage on his forehead. He tried to write their names and reasons for being here on a tablet, but someone keep jostling his hand, as they all shouted out their insistence on seeing T.J. Chandler at once.

Hawk felt something sharp biting into his leg and looked down to see a boy, no more than twelve years old, elbowing his way around him. He waved an envelope in his hand. "Mr. Dinsdale, it's here, the telegram from the Army. I waited for it, just like you said."

A door in the far end of the room opened and a man stepped out. "Give it to me!" He was of average height, on the portly side, with mutton chop whiskers that were heavily streaked with gray, but he had an aura of power and authority. As he strode into the room, the men who had been loudly clamoring stepped back in respectful silence.

The boy extended the envelope. "Yes, sir, Mr. Chandler."

Chandler ripped it open and hastily scanned the message. "Can't cross the border? They do it all the time when they're chasing Apaches. Isn't my daughter more important than a bunch of ragtag Indians?" He threw the message down in disgust. "Miles says he'll forward my request to Washington. To hell with that, I'll make my own damn request to Washington. Dinsdale, take this down...."

"You could become a grandfather before you get any action out of Washington," Hawk said loudly.

Chandler whirled toward him, his fists clenched and his eyes flashing fire. "Who the hell are you?" he demanded.

Even though he was a head taller and at least twenty years younger than Chandler, Hawk fully expected the man to throw a punch at him, so he braced himself. "I'm the man who'll get your daughter back."

Chandler huffed with disgust. "You and every other penniless drifter in this territory." He started to turn away.

"I'm not a drifter," Hawk said. "I own a ranch up near Magdalena. Just give me five minutes of your time. If I can't convince you that I know what I'm talking about, I'll leave without another word."

Chandler stared into his eyes. Hawk felt as if the man was looking into his very soul. Then Chandler pulled a heavy gold watch from his vest pocket and snapped it open. "All right, five minutes and not one second more."

As he turned and started back toward his office, the other men in the room came out of their polite trances, and began yelling and pushing in an effort to claim Chandler's attention. He shoved his way through them. Hawk moved in his wake, shoving just as ruthlessly, not wanting to lose any of his precious time.

As soon as the office door closed behind them, Hawk started talking. "My name's Thomas Hawkins. Like I said, I've got a small ranch up north."

"Homestead?" Chandler asked, with a trace of derision in his voice.

"Yes, but I've driven cattle all over this part of the country. I've made a lot of trips into Mexico. I'm sure your daughter was taken by men working for Miguel de Luca. She's probably on her way to his ranch right now."

"It hardly takes a genius to figure that out, Hawkins. A lot of people on this side of the border know what that lunatic's been saying and doing."

"Yeah, but how many of 'em have been on a spy mission to his ranch?" Seeing the look of interest in Chandler's eyes, Hawk pressed his advantage. "Lots of cattle stolen in Texas end up on de Luca's land. Four years ago I was hired by some Texas ranchers to go down there and see if they could get some of those cattle back. I spent over a week hiding out and watching everything that went on, then I put on a suit and rode up to his front door, pretending to be a cattle buyer. He invited me in, and served me one of the best meals I've ever had."

"I never heard of a raid on his place," Chandler said.

"That's because I advised the ranchers against it. There were at least fifty armed gunmen guarding de Luca's valley, it's a long way from the border, and all the people in that area think he's God's right hand."

"If you couldn't get cattle out, how in the hell can you get my daughter?"

"It takes a lot of men to move cattle. A bunch of drovers going toward his ranch, just like a troop of soldiers, would be seen by the locals who'd warn de Luca. A small group of men, who know where they're going, could get there without being seen."

"What good would a small group be against fifty armed gunmen?"

"I don't plan to shoot it out with anybody. I'll have some men start a diversion away from the house, then I'll sneak in and get the girl out before anyone knows what's going on. With any luck, nobody will get hurt."

"And without that luck, my daughter could be shot."

"Yes, sir, that's always a possibility. But I swear to you, they won't get her without gettin' me first. You've gotta think long and hard about what'll happen if you do pay the ransom. Every two-bit bandit on both sides of the border will take aim on you and all the other mine owners in this territory. You'll all have to send your families somewhere else to live."

T.J. began pacing and pounding one fist into his palm. "I'd like to wipe that bastard off the face of the earth, and I can do it! If the U.S. Army won't go, I'll hire my own army."

"It won't work, de Luca would know you were coming and hide the girl, or something worse. There'd be so many guns waiting, it'd be a bloodbath. Then the governments of both countries would get into it. Besides, it'd make de Luca look like the important son of a bitch he's trying to be. My way would make him look like a fool."

"You're asking me to gamble with my daughter's life. You don't understand what kind of woman she is. She's spent the last four years in one of the most exclusive finishing schools in the East. Before that, she lived a sheltered life in San Francisco. I'll never forgive myself if something happens to her."

"Mr. Chandler, I don't have any children myself, so I won't say I know how you feel, but you've got to face the facts. Something's already happened to your daughter. She's been kidnapped and dragged across the desert by a bunch of murdering bandits. You don't even know for sure if she's still alive. I sure as hell wouldn't pay a dime to the man who had done all that to one of my children."

T.J. stopped pacing and stared at Hawk, his flushed face drained of color. "I haven't received a demand for ransom, just that idiotic letter about 'liberating the oppressed'." He sat down at his desk and held his head in his hand. "You could be right. She may be dead already. God in heaven, what am I going to do?"

"There's a good chance she's all right. The men who took her will have orders to keep her safe. Delaying the demand for a ransom is de Luca's way to put more pressure on you. Send me down there. Let me find out what's going on. I won't make a move, if I think it's too dangerous."

"How many men will you need?"

"No more than ten."

"I have a lot of good men working for me."

"I don't want miners. I was in Fort Sumner selling cattle when I heard about the kidnapping. That town's full of Texas drovers who can stay in the saddle for eighteen hours at a stretch and shoot straight if they have to. I left my foreman there. A telegram from me, and he'll have the men I need on a train in a few hours."

"Surely you don't think my daughter can stay in the saddle for that long?"

"No, sir, although she must be doing some rough traveling now, but I've got a plan that will allow her trip back to be easier."

"You've obviously given this a lot of thought, Mr. Hawkins. Why are you so interested in helping me and my family?"

"I need money just like those yahoos outside, but I'm willing to earn mine."

"How much money are we talking about?"

Hawk took a deep breath. "Fifteen thousand dollars. I'll need some expense money up front. You can pay the rest after I return your daughter."

"That will cover you and the men you take with you?"

"Yes, sir."

"I could hire any drover in Texas for fifty dollars a month. Why do you need so much?"

"If de Luca catches any of us, we'll be killed on the spot. I don't want the kind of fool, who'd take that risk for fifty dollars, going with me. I'm only offering to do it because I'm trying to save my ranch. So what'll it be, Mr. Chandler, play de Luca's game or teach the son of a bitch a lesson?"

Reviews

"A delightful tale guaranteed to keep the reader reading as rapidly as possible. I derived a great amount of enjoyment from The Silver Heiress and would like to pass the word that Ms. Winn is an excellent writer who understands characterization, pacing, and above all, romance. This is a keeper! Highly Recommended." ~ Under the Covers Book Reviews

Sarah Winn had written a sensual love story about two totally different people—arugged, capable man and a spoiled, pampered woman. This book will appeal to readers who like western romance with a strong, yet understanding hero." ~ Bookbug on the Web

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