Five Years Ago, 1865
The pounding of his hurried footsteps on the forest floor reverberated through his head. Blood was rushing through his ears so loudly he could barely hear his own voice call out to the dark figure running from him in the distance.
“It’s over, Lowell! There’s nowhere to run to.”
“You’ll pay for this, Jack!”
Lowell picked up speed, and for the next few minutes it took all of Jack’s focus to avoid being felled by one of the stray branches in his path. Though he managed to remain upright, he didn’t escape them entirely. Sharp cuts pressed into his skin as he willed himself to go faster. They were getting close to a cliff that ran along the river, and he knew Lowell too well to believe he’d be rational if the two of them made it all the way to the edge.
“Where are you going to go? Come back and make amends! You can start a new life!” Jack could hear the desperation in his voice, but he couldn’t help it. He was desperate.
Lowell laughed just as the sky around them lightened, and Jack’s heart sank. The light had changed because they had reached the end of the woods. They were already at the cliff.
Lowell staggered over to the edge. He glanced down at the water with a wild look in his eyes. He didn’t look scared. He looked excited. It was that exact quality that had first drawn Jack to work with Lowell’s gang, but it was that same quality that terrified him. Lowell was not a man you wanted to get on the wrong side of.
“You think I’m going to let you take me in, Jack? After everything I’ve done for you? You’d be nothing without me. I took you in and gave you everything. I loved you like a brother, and this is how you repay me?”
Jack felt his chest tighten. He knew he was doing the right thing, but that didn’t mean he wasn’t affected by Lowell’s words. He might be a crook, but he had still shown him kindness when few others had.
“You’re right, Lowell. You did take me in. You are a brother to me, and I love you. But we both know you’re in the wrong here. You’ve gone too far and hurt too many people. It’s time to own up to your mistakes. Come back with me. Come help make it right.”
Jack held out a hand that he knew was clammy with sweat. Time seemed to stand still, but he felt this would be a moment he would think about for a very long time.
Lowell looked at him. He seemed eerily calm as he stared at Jack with his dark piercing eyes. Jack watched as Lowell’s chest rose and fell with deep and heavy breaths.
“Well, it’s been good to see you, brother.”
Almost as though he was moving in slow motion, Lowell turned, took two short steps, and plunged off the cliff and down into the river below.
Jack raced to the edge. He gripped the crumbling rocks and looked into the frothy white tips of the rapids below. The water swirled in a kind of terrifying dance. There was no sign of the man who had just sunk into its depths.
Jack stayed at the cliff’s edge until he heard the sound of voices coming from the woods.
“What happened?” It was the sheriff talking to him. The whole reason why all this had happened.
Jack took one last look at the water below him. He couldn’t believe what he was about to say. It would make it so final.
Fenton, Texas 1870
“It’s breakfast time!” Lucy called out in a cheerful voice. It was the first day of spring, and she was feeling better than she had in weeks. The winter had been unusually cold for their town, Fenton, and her father’s health had been rapidly declining. She hoped the reappearance of good weather would set him on the right track.
“You should have woken me.”
Before he’d even arrived down the stairs, she could tell that he was cross with her.
“I just did,” she said, ignoring his tone.
“I meant before you’d done all the chores and made me breakfast. We can’t go on like this Lucy; it’s not right.”
She steered her father to his seat at the kitchen table. “It’s not right that I should care for my father and take care of the animals who provide us with so much? What kind of daughter would I be if I didn’t do my part?”
“You do a great deal more than your part,” he huffed.
Lucy laid a plate heaped with eggs, sausages, and fresh bread before her father and sat across from him.
“I’m happy to. You know I love working on the ranch, and you need to focus on getting well. I don’t like how long that cough of yours has lasted.”
“It’s barely bothering me anymore,” protested her father. He immediately destroyed his credibility by dissolving into a coughing fit.
“Mmhmm,” said Lucy chidingly.
He chuckled, dabbed his mouth with a handkerchief, and continued with his breakfast.
Lucky watched him sadly. Despite their teasing rapport, she was genuinely worried about him. He was constantly cross that she was doing so much around the ranch, but she knew he couldn’t handle all the work that needed to be done by himself. If he didn’t get enough sleep, he could barely make it through the day, and when he didn’t think she was paying attention, she often saw him bent over trying to catch his breath. She was doing everything she could to lighten the load and make life easier for him, but she was terrified that it wasn’t enough. She didn’t know how she would manage without him.
“I’ll take the carriage, shall I?”
Her head jerked up. “I’m sorry?”
“Into town?” Her father’s brow furrowed in confusion. “To get feed for the chickens? I was just saying we’re almost out, and I’ll need to ride into town to get some this afternoon.”
She bit her lip. Her father didn’t like admitting how much his health was failing, but she didn’t think he could handle such a long ride on his own. She needed to figure out a way to convince him to let her make the journey without it seeming like she was trying to protect him.
Lucy busied herself with cleaning up the breakfast dishes to buy herself some time. She was just scraping clean one of the plates when she thought of a plan.
“Father, I was wondering if you would mind greatly if I went into town to fetch the feed myself?”
He looked at her suspiciously. Lucy trying to take care of his needs was not exactly a new development, and as a result, she’d had to be a lot sneakier about it.
“Why? You don’t even like going into town!”
“Oh nonsense, I like going into town!”
Her father lifted his eyebrows so high she was afraid they would disappear into his hairline. “Since when?”
She bit her lip. She felt guilty being untruthful to her father, but she knew she needed to for his sake. A trip into town would be far too exhausting for him. She took a deep breath and committed to her part fully.
“Well, actually, I was thinking I should get out more. You know it’s spring now, and everything looks so pretty. And I was thinking it might be nice if I were to meet someone …”
Her father’s eyes lit up, and she felt even worse. Her father desperately wanted her to settle down with a good man and start a family. She had no interest in doing so, but she knew that the simple act of her even suggesting such a thing would convince him to do anything she wanted.
“You mean that?” His eyes welled up with tears.
She put her hand over his. “I don’t want you to get your hopes up, Father. It’s not like I’m going to a church social. But I don’t have any hope if I never put myself out there, do I?”
He squeezed her hand. “Well, get on out there then. Spend as much time in town as you like.”
She breathed a sigh of relief. She was so happy with her success that she resolved to keep herself open to meeting someone, even if the idea was preposterous. Who was she going to meet at the local feed store?
Lucy climbed atop the buggy and flicked the reins to nudge her beloved horse, Shelly, into a gentle trot. The sun was hot, and she could feel sweat beneath her collar. She was looking forward to getting inside and out of the sun. As the modest downtown of Fenton came into view, Lucy couldn’t help smiling. She loved this town.
She and her father had moved here eight years ago after her mother passed away. At first, she had been hesitant about giving up the busy, bustling lifestyle she was used to in Chicago for the quiet and steady life in the country. But she had quickly fallen in love with nature, the animals, and the people. Almost everyone she’d met was friendly and welcoming. The only people she didn’t fully trust were a few of her neighbors. They were nice enough, but they seemed a little bit too interested in her father’s land to be trusted.
Shelly gave a soft whinny as they approached the feed store, and Lucy pulled back slightly on the reins until the carriage rolled to a stop. She looked up at the entrance to the feed store and felt a lump start to form in the pit of her stomach. True, she liked most of the people in town, but that didn’t include the owner of the feed store, Mr. Cooper. He had been trying to court her for quite some time and had remained persistent, despite her firm lack of interest. Normally she did everything she could to avoid him, but in the rush to stop her father from going into town, she forgot what she was walking into.
Lucy sighed and jumped down from the buggy. She couldn’t avoid the meeting now.
She had just made it to the top of the steps leading up to the front of the feed store when the door swung open. She stumbled back in surprise and flung out her hand to steady herself. A warm, calloused hand quickly wrapped around hers, pulling her back to her feet.
She found herself a few inches from a pair of striking blue eyes attached to a handsome face lightly dusted with freckles. Lucy quickly withdrew her hand from the stranger’s grasp. Her skin felt oddly warm where he had touched hers.
“I beg your pardon, miss, I shouldn’t have opened the door so abruptly.” He offered her a warm smile – it made him even more attractive.
She opened her mouth and discovered her mouth had gone dry. She closed it and cleared her throat a few times, looking down at the ground to regain her composure. What was going on? She was never this flustered around strangers. She looked up and forced herself to meet his eyes.
“No, no, it’s fine. I should have been more careful.”
He studied her closely. She could have sworn he had something close to amusement in his eyes.
“Are you all right now?”
Lucy brushed off her skirts to give herself something to do with her hands. Her heart was beating loudly in her chest, and she felt uncomfortably aware of how she was standing.
“Yes, I’m fine, thank you.”
“Well then, have a blessed day.”
The man tipped his hat and strode to a handsome brown horse patiently waiting outside the store. With one graceful leap, he was seated on top. Lucy turned to watch him disappear down the dusty brown lane on which she had arrived.
“Who was that?” she whispered out loud.
She stepped inside the shop, one hand lightly pressed against her chest to try to slow down her rapidly beating heart. Of course, an interaction like that would happen on the very day she told her father she was going into town in the hopes of meeting someone. Well, I certainly met someone, all right! Although I don’t know his name or what kind of man he is. I don’t even know if he lives in town.
She shook her head to clear away her fanciful thoughts. He was probably just passing through Fenton, and it was unlikely she would ever see him again. It would be best to put him completely out of her head.
Lucy pushed open the door to the feed store and let her eyes adjust to the darker light inside. She braced herself for what she knew was coming.
“Miss Thomson, what a pleasant surprise! What can I do for you today?”
She arranged her features into a smile. “Good morning, Mr. Cooper. Our hens are almost out of feed, so I told my father I’d come by for a few bags.”
“That’s so good of you. He’s so lucky to have you.”
He fixed his stormy gray eyes on hers and moved closer than was comfortable. The hairs on her arm immediately stood up. Mr. Cooper had had his eye on her for quite some time. Last year he had even approached her and her father about courting her, despite being ten years her senior, but her refusal hadn’t seemed to deter him. He paid much more attention to her than she’d like, and he had a way of making her feel uneasy, even if he weren’t doing anything overtly inappropriate.
“I’m just doing my part,” said Lucy lightly, taking an artful step away from him and ducking behind some bags of feed to put some distance between them.
“You know I’m always happy to help you with anything. I care for you and your father very much.”
“I appreciate that, Mr. Cooper, but we are doing very well.”
He cocked his eyebrow questioningly. “So, well that you are here instead of him? I know your father hasn’t been in good health as of late. It must be difficult to have to take on so much of the work. A young lady like you should be out of the sun and inside with housework. She shouldn’t be gallivanting around town picking up feed for the chickens.”
Lucy had to bite down on her tongue to stop herself from hurling a nasty retort back his way. How dare he tell her what she should and should not do? And she didn’t want to sit at home doing housework! What he said wasn’t completely false, she was definitely taking on more than her fair share of work, but she enjoyed working outside and spending time with the animals. She felt useful, and she liked it. She felt sorry indeed for whatever woman ended up with the kind of man who had such simple views about a woman’s role in the world.
“I assure you we are in no need of assistance, Mr. Cooper,” she said firmly. “I am perfectly capable of knowing my limits, and my father and I would never hesitate to reach out for help if needed. But thank you so much for the offer.” She gave thanks in the most sickeningly sweet voice she could muster, hoping that it would get him off her case.
Mr. Cooper looked like he was ready to give some kind of response, but thankfully just then, the door swung open, and a young, boisterous family walked in. Mr. Cooper couldn’t preoccupy Lucy’s time any longer and instead was forced to simply hand over the feed bags with a pained expression.
“Don’t forget my offer,” he told her sternly.
She placed a handful of coins down on the counter. “I won’t, thank you, Mr. Cooper.”
One of Mr. Cooper’s assistants hauled out the large bags and placed them on her buggy. She untied Shelly and got back on her seat with a sigh of relief. In her rush to ensure her father didn’t overexert himself, she hadn’t prepared to face Mr. Cooper today. He had never been malicious, but there was definitely something she didn’t trust about him. It sometimes felt like he believed he was owed her attention, and the thought made her extremely uncomfortable. She wasn’t anyone’s property. She didn’t know if she would ever find a man to settle down with, but if she did, it certainly wouldn’t be with someone with that attitude.
She flicked the reins and began the journey home. The sky was a brilliant blue, and she tilted her head to let the sun hit her face. Many other young ladies her age were eager to protect their complexations, but she loved the constellation of freckles on her face every summer. She often spent the warm nights gazing up into the endless stars above, and it felt special that she had what she felt was a mirror of that world imprinted upon her face.
A warm breeze ruffled the ribbons that adorned her bonnet, and she gave a satisfied smile. She was happy to be out on her own, even if it had come with an unwelcomed interaction with Mr. Cooper. It was a beautiful day, and she felt quite at peace driving the buggy on her own. She looked down the road that led back home, but instead of turning back toward home, she guided Shelly in the other direction.
“Might as well pick up something nice from the mercantile since I’m in town already.”
Lucy and her father wanted for very little on the farm. The cows, chickens, and pigs provided them with enough fat and protein year-round, and although the garden generally didn’t provide produce during the winter, Lucy was very careful to ensure they stored enough crops in the larder to last them through the colder months. When they first arrived in Texas, the idea of making preserves and salted meat on her own was fairly foreign to her, but over the past few years, she had become somewhat of an expert. She had also developed a fondness for baking. So, the two of them generally ate very well. However, that didn’t mean there wasn’t room for an occasional special treat.
“Maybe I can find a soda or a new sweet at the mercantile, hey Shelly?” Lucy’s father has a rather strong sweet tooth, and she knew surprising him with a treat would put him in a good mood all evening.
The stop inside the mercantile was a quick one. A young boy named Johnny was manning the counter, and he eagerly sold her on the idea of a new lemonade soda that had just come into the shop. With two bottles and a small tin of peppermints safely in her care, Lucy returned to the buggy and began the journey home.
She was about to turn back to the ranch when she saw a woman standing alone on the side of the road. She was wearing a rosy, pink frock that was trimmed with lace. As Lucy got closer, she could see that the bottom few inches of her dress had a heavy coating of dust. She was holding a traveling trunk in one hand and had her other hand held above her eyes to shield them from the sun. As the buggy approached, the woman lifted that hand and waved.
“Good afternoon! I’m wondering if you might be so good as to help me?”
Lucy pulled the buggy alongside her and regarded the woman up close. She had sparkling blue eyes and wild blonde hair that seemed to be doing its best to escape its pins. Her face was flushed red from exertion, and she had a wide smile that displayed a perfect set of pearly white teeth.
“Oh, thank you so much for stopping. I was beginning to wonder if I would see anyone on this road at all. Do you mind very much if I climb in?”
Lucy couldn’t help laughing. She didn’t know who this woman was or how she got here, but she exuded such warm and positive energy that she couldn’t help nodding her head. “Of course. Can I ask where you’re going?”
The woman landed beside her in the buggy with an exhausted exhale. “I’m going to see my big brother; only I’ve completely lost my way. I came in on the train this morning, and he was supposed to come and meet me, but something must have come up, and he wasn’t there when he said he would be. I waited for over an hour but finally decided I must take matters into my own hands.”
Lucy nodded again. She was fascinated by the free and wild attitude of this woman. The train station was a great distance from where she’d picked her up. It was likely she had already been wandering for some time.
“I asked for directions from the station master, but I’ve never been one to follow them very well. I must have taken a wrong turn, and now I’ve just been wandering around, and I’m completely parched and a little embarrassed.”
“What’s your brother’s name? Perhaps I know of him and can take you in that direction.”
The woman smiled even wider. “Oh, would you? That would be such a darling thing for you to do.” She reached out her hand, and Lucy took it. “My name is Emma Collins. My brother Jack has a ranch here.”
“Oh yes,” said Lucy. “You were on the right track; he’s not far from here at all.”
“You know him?” Emma beamed.
Lucy shook her head. “I’m sorry, no. My father and I keep quite busy on our own ranch, so we don’t get a chance to get out much, but I know he moved into the area around a year ago. It’s a small town, and people talk, you see.” She flicked the reins to nudge Shelly onward once more.
Emma laughed. “I know how much small towns like to gossip. But in this case, I’m thankful for it because it means you know where my brother lives!”
Lucy laughed. “I guess that’s true. And my name is Lucy Thomson, by the way.”
“It’s an absolute honor to meet you, Lucy. I mean, may I call you Lucy?”
“Oh, good. It’s just that I feel like I’ve already known you forever. And you must call me Emma because I very much hope we shall be friends.”
She laughed. “You do seem like a good friend to have.”
“I am,” promised Emma fervently. “You’ll see. Oh, I’m so happy you are to be my friend. I don’t know anyone else here, and I was dreadfully afraid I’d be lonely.”
Lucy glanced over at her new companion. “This must be your first time visiting your brother, then.”
Emma grinned. “Did me getting so terribly lost give it away?”
“That might have helped me form my conclusion, yes.” Lucy gestured toward the back of the buggy. “There’s a lemonade in the bag if you’d like it. You mentioned you were thirsty, and I reckon you should drink something after being in the sun for so long.”
“You are a dear,” said Emma, rummaging around in the bag. Her face fell when she took out one of the bottles. “But you’ve only got two in here. Surely this was meant as a special treat for you and your father! I can’t drink this.”
Lucy waved her hand. “Please do; my father will still get his. I’d feel too guilty knowing I had something for you to drink and not offering it to you.”
Emma appeared to consider for a moment and then nodded her head. “All right, I’ll take it, but only if you promise to share some with me.”
Lucy smiled. “I suppose I can manage that.”
The two women talked merrily for the next few minutes, taking turns handing the sweet drink back and forth. Eventually, a ranch appeared at the top of a small hill off a side road.
“That’s your brother’s ranch,” said Lucy. She began to pull the reins over to the left, but Emma stopped her.
“Don’t you dare take me all the way there. You’ve already been far too good by driving me all the way here and sharing your lemonade. I’ll walk the rest of the way.”
“But it’s all uphill!” protested Lucy. “I really don’t mind.”
“Of course, you don’t because you are a dear. But I absolutely insist. My legs are working fine, and I have the ranch in sight, so there’s no further chance I’ll go astray.”
“Are you sure you won’t let me take you?”
“I won’t, but I will let you do something else for me?”
“Name it,” said Lucy.
“Come and visit me some time?” said Emma, a pleading look in her eye. I already adore you, and I will need someone to show me around town and be my guide. Or I could come visit you if that’s all right. I just very much need to know that we will see each other again soon.”
“Well, how about you come by and visit me whenever you’d like?” suggested Lucy. It’s hard for me to get away too often, but I would be very pleased to show you around the ranch and introduce you to my father. I think the two of you would like each other very much. Just continue along this main road until you reach the first road that branches to the right. I’m the third property in, Thomson Ranch.”
“Perfect,” said Emma, glancing down the road. “I’ll settle in with my brother for the next few days, but I’ll visit before the week is out, I promise.”
“I look forward to it,” said Lucy. She really meant it. She found Emma refreshing and was excited about having a new friend. There were many people she was friendly with in town, but so far, no one she had connected to on a kindred spirit level.
“Goodbye!” Lucy watched as her new friend practically danced her way across the road and then ran with gusto up the hill. Once she was almost at the top, Lucy flicked the reins again and continued home with a smile.
“Following Traces of the Heart” is an Amazon Best-Selling novel, check it out here!
In the town of Fenton, Texas, Lucy Thomson struggles to preserve her late father’s ranch while fending off relentless suitors who view her as a mere trophy. Determined to preserve her independence, Lucy finds solace in horseback riding, stargazing, and the enchanting world of romance novels. Little does she know that her world will be forever altered when an encounter with dangerous outlaws entwines her fate with that of a captivating stranger…
Will Lucy’s heart be swayed by the allure of this man as he steps into her life, shrouded in a cloud of unanswered questions and untold secrets?
Jack Collins, a reformed outlaw yearns for redemption and a chance at a fresh start. His life takes an unforeseen turn when he reunites with a long-lost sibling, kindling a flicker of hope for a brighter future. Yet, the shadows of his haunting past loom menacingly, threatening to shatter the fragile peace he has discovered. When a menacing gang sets its sights on Lucy’s ranch, Jack finds himself drawn into a mission to protect her and everything she holds dear.
Will the newfound happiness that he has found in Lucy’s presence be enough to guide him out of the darkness one final time?
Amidst their shared experiences and a deepening connection, Lucy and Jack must confront their fears. As tensions rise and danger looms, they seek solace and strength in each other’s arms. However, the reemergence of an old enemy puts their lives at stake and their love to the ultimate test. Will they summon the courage to overcome the formidable obstacles standing in their way, or will they risk everything they hold dear in their pursuit of happiness?
“Following Traces of the Heart” is a historical romance novel of approximately 80,000 words. No cheating, no cliffhangers, and a guaranteed happily ever after.