Book Spotlight: Christmas Under the Stars
This romantic suspense is set in Utah Territory in 1858 at the height of the westward expansion and wagon trains. It recalls a time in our country of great excitement as folks from the east set out to settle the land beyond the Kansas Territory. Tens of thousands of people headed west to find gold, claim land, escape their past, recreate themselves, or simply for the adventure.
Unfortunately, few went well-prepared. Numerous books were written purporting to give advice on how to pack light and travel safely, but in fact, most of the authors had never themselves made the trip, and the information in their books wasn’t only wrong or misleading, but in some cases, downright dangerous.
My heroine Edie is traveling west with her brother to meet up with another brother and his family who went ahead of them. Edie’s father was an itinerant preacher who barely managed to keep his family together. My hero Tom is heading to California to hopefully start a church. Already we can see problems, at least as far as Edie is concerned. And although Tom is attracted to Edie, once he’s introduced to her and hears she shares the same name as the man traveling with her, he assumes they are husband and wife.
Although he didn’t ask for it, Tom is soon appointed as head of their wagon train, and a series of accidents and unfortunate circumstances threaten to sabotage their journey. But are these incidents more than that? Or is someone determined to prevent them from reaching their destination?
Through miscommunication and unasked questions, Edie and Tom muddle through as best they know how, which is true of many of the emigrants. And the good news is that just like the travelers of the time, they do make it, although a little the worse for wear.
Here’s an excerpt:
Tom Aitken strode beside the lead wagon in the train, encouraging on the two lumbering oxen he could hear but not see. “Git on Blue, git on. Brick.” The beasts lowered their heads at the sound of his voice and strained into the traces. Tom grit his teeth against another blast of cold air blowing from the Canadian Rockies.
What had he been thinking, taking a wagon train to Echo at this time of year? He’d focused on the offer of free passage to California. Free, indeed. Might not have cost him any money, but the two-month journey was surely grinding years off his life.
Digging his hands into his armpits, seeking some warmth, no matter how small, he trudged along, head down, wishing for a heavier coat. Echo was just a few more miles up this canyon. In good weather, a half day’s travel.
In this storm, forever.
As he debated whether to pull the wagon train off the trail and set up camp for the night, a faint cry echoed off the rock walls behind him. He slowed his step, allowing the oxen to pass him, waiting to hear the sound again. Nothing. He pivoted on one foot to trace his steps back, straining to see who was calling and whether they were friend or foe. Having spotted Indians several times over the past week or so, he was determined to stay alert.
Nothing but swirling, blinding snow. Lots of it.
He must have been hearing things. Probably just the wind echoing down off the canyon walls. No doubt where Echo got its name. He turned to face forward and felt someone – or something – press on his shoulder. His right hand on the knife in a sheath at his waist, he whirled around, ready to fight.
The man in the second-to-last wagon stood before him, face white with cold – or fear – and hands raised in surrender. His rough Irish brogue bespoke his heritage, and his coarse woolen coat and muffler his financial status. “I can’t find the Meredith woman.”
“What do you mean, man? Speak up.”
“I saw her maybe a ‘alf hour ago, when the wind stopped blowin’ long enough to see me ‘and in front of me face. Me missus remarked then that the lass was looking peaked.”
Tom grit his teeth against the sharp retort rising. Must he be like a mother hen to these travelers? No sooner had the thought crossed his mind than he repented of his hardness of heart. Lord, forgive me. Help her. Please. For her husband’s sake.
His silent prayer done, Tom gestured to his wagon. “Take my place as lead. Keep them straight on the trail. We’ve got just about twelve miles to go.”
The man nodded and Tom stopped, allowing the rest of the train to pass him. Although the rule was that only the very young, very old, and very sick got to ride in the wagons, sometimes folks hitched a ride when they were exhausted.
He sighed, his breath escaping like a puff of smoke from a chimney, carried off on the northerly gale. He’d have to check every wagon that passed to see if she’d climbed aboard.
If she hadn’t – well, he’d pray she was curled up in a pile of quilts rather than consider the alternative.
Tom plowed through a snowdrift nearly up to his chest. Edie Meredith wasn’t in any of the wagons. Her husband, Mark, as leader of the final wagon in the train, had been walking at the head of his team to keep them on the trail and hadn’t noticed when she’d gone missing. Tom stopped the train, and word passed up and down the line until all of the wagons paused. Women-folk and children climbed aboard their wagons to warm up, and the men divided into several groups to go in search of Miss Meredith.
The man accompanying Tom heaved along behind him, his breath sounding labored in the cold air. Harnesses jingled as the huge oxen shook themselves and got comfortable as they waited, and questions chased him as he traveled the length of the train.
“Found her yet?”
“What was she wearing?”
“Prob’ly find her froze to death.”
Tom shook off this last comment and pressed on. No, he would find her before that happened. He’d noticed the pretty young woman the instant he joined the wagon train, her red hair lighting up into a thousand pinpoints of gold in the afternoon sun. Freckles dotted across the bridge of her nose as she stared at him, a smile creeping across her face.
But that was as far as their relationship was likely to go. The broad-shouldered hulk standing next to her, laying claim to her with his protective attitude and gruff voice was enough to keep any sensible man in his place. No siree, her husband was not to be trifled with. Mark and Edie Meredith. That’s how they were introduced to him. That plus Meredith’s, “She’s spoken for” when she’d smiled and bobbed her head at him, was enough to keep any sane man a sensible distance away. No matter how he might wish the situation could be otherwise.
For now, he would look for her because that was his job.
And he was good at his job. Rather, his two jobs. Drover by day and preacher by night. Such a strange combination of occupations, he was certain. Still, the good Lord knew what He was doing, and drovering was just until he got to California. Then he would start his own church at the first town that needed him.
Tom peered into the storm, the faint outline of a shadow forming ahead of him, to the side of the trail. As he neared, he could have sworn he heard singing. A soft, lilting melody, like a lullaby.
A few more steps, and he paused over the form on the ground. Already snow gathered on her cheeks, filling in the concave hollows of her eyes, testifying to how cold her skin was that the particles didn’t melt.
He knelt beside her, fearing the worst. In a neat pile beside her, a pair of gloves and a shawl. Her coat unbuttoned, she looked dead.
But there, a slight flare of her nostrils confirmed there was life in her yet. He turned back to the man following him. “Over here. Over here.”
The man came running, and together they lifted the unconscious woman and carried her to the nearest wagon. She needed warming up, and soon.
He called to the man he’d put in the lead. “Pull the train over toward the palisades. There should be some caves around here that we can overnight in.”
The men hastened to do his bidding, and the wagon beneath him lurched, throwing him off balance. He landed in a tangle against Miss Meredith and stared into her green eyes, wide open in surprise.
No doubt about it. She was beautiful. Tendrils of damp hair at her temples decorated her pale skin. But he couldn’t sit here admiring her. She was nearly frozen to death. Her blue lips and white complexion scared him.
He was alone in a wagon with a desirable woman who needed his help.
He had no choice.
He unbuttoned his jacket and pulled her to his chest. The sudden chill took his breath away, but he persisted in his ministrations. As the heat flowed from him, he was gratified to note color returning to her lips.
Her hands pressed against his chest, and he increased his grip on her. She needed warmth now. He’d heard of folks dying in the snow who’d stripped down to their underclothing.
He glanced at the woman now resting quietly in his arms, wishing he was holding her so close, so intimately, for a different reason.
But she belonged to another.
About Christmas Under the Stars:
November 1858, Utah Territory
Edie Meredith strives to keep her temper and her tongue under control as she heads west with her brother to California. Raised in an itinerant preacher family, she promises she will never marry a man of the cloth.
Tom Aiken, drover of the wagon train, longs to answer his true calling: to preach, and while he realizes not every woman would choose a preacher for a husband, he hopes to soon find his help-meet.
Suspicious ‘accidents’ plague their journey. Is someone trying to keep them from reaching their destination? Or will misunderstanding and circumstances keep them apart?
Donna lives in Denver with husband Patrick, her first-line editor and biggest fan. She writes historical suspense under her own name, and contemporary suspense under her alter ego of Leeann Betts. She is a hybrid publisher who has published a number of books under her pen name and under her own name. Her recent releases include The Mystery of Christmas Inn, Colorado and Christmas Under the Stars. Donna is also a ghostwriter and editor of fiction and non-fiction, and judges in a number of writing contests. Donna recently taught the popular Don't Let Your Subplots Sink Your Story, an online course for American Christian Fiction Writers, and will teach another course in May 2018 on The Middle Muddle. Donna loves history and research, and travels extensively for both. Donna is proud to be represented by Terrie Wolf of AKA Literary Management.
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