Treasure Hunters by Caitlyn Willows

TreasureHunters

 

TREASURE HUNTERS
by Caitlyn Willows
Romantic Suspense
Copyrright 2005, 2017

Crushed by the emotional and financial burden as guardian of five children, newspaper reporter Rika Kiley struggles to make ends meet. And just when she’d met the most incredible man.

Ryan Fletcher isn’t about to let anything come between him and the woman of his dreams. He’ll do whatever is necessary to help keep Rika’s family together. Why can’t Rika realize and accept what he’s offering?

A two-million-dollar sailing race is the answer to Rika’s problems. But it is the real deal or a scam? With Ryan right by her side, she is determined to find out. Now all they have to do is survive a grueling race when someone else is just as determined to see them dead.

Author Note: This is updated version of a story originally released in 2005.

Buy Links

REVIEWS

FIVE BLUE RIBBONS!!!A truly magnificent story… It pulled at my heart strings when Ryan lets Rika know that he is her partner in all ways, even facing the responsibilities of raising her family. No matter the dangers or challenges Ryan and Rica face their love just seems to grow stronger. I could not wait to turn the page to see how their unconditional love and devotion to each other would help them face their next challenge. This story is so fantastic I cannot wait to see what Ms. Willows comes up with next. ~Briana Burress, Romance Junkies

FIVE STARS!!! [A] scorching contemporary erotic romance…. The sex is hotter than the sands on a Florida beach in August. The scenes are beautiful to read, there are a lot of them and you will be reaching for every toy you own. Treasure Hunters is a fully developed book with great characters and really sizzling lusty sex. ~Julie Esparza, Just Erotic Romance Reviews

RECOMMENDED READ!!! FIVE ANGELS!!! Ms. Willows has given us another great book to sink our teeth into. The suspense will keep the reader on the edge of their seat, biting their nails, and waiting to see what happens next. The sex between these two is so hot and steamy that the reader will be looking for the first snow bank they can find. Rika and Ryan are both strong and loving characters that readers will have an easy time identifying with them. If you love a good romance with suspense, then this is the book I highly recommend you read. ~Donna, Fallen Angel Reviews

FOUR STARS!!! The chemistry between Rika and Ryan is hot from the beginning to end. TREASURE HUNTERS is fast moving and entertaining story with its passion and suspense. ~Cassandra Buckles, Coffee Time Romance

FOUR UNICORNS!!! This story was a really good read. The story keeps you on your toes wondering what was going to happen next. This author out did herself with this book. It has it all, hot sex, love and oh yeah Hot sex again. ~Nicole, Enchanted In Romance

EXCERPT

Ryan brushed his thumb over her silky cheek. “Suppose you can wrangle a week’s vacation out of that editor of yours? There are a couple of beaches in Hawaii with our names on them.”

Her eyes brightened. “What about your work?”

He shrugged a shoulder. “Man can’t work day and night, especially if he has a beautiful woman waiting for him.” He danced his other hand up her ribs. “Besides, I was thinking a weekend back here at least once month might be in order. I hate the idea of being away from you for six months.”

Rika laced her fingers around his neck. “I’d like that very much. Who knows? Maybe I can manage a long weekend every month too. I’ve got a little tucked away, and there’s always plastic.”

Ryan wanted to cheer. They were on the same page. Not that he liked the idea of her going into debt for him. He’d see she didn’t. But—damn—she wanted to be with him as much as he wanted to be with her. This was it. She was the one.

“Why don’t you grab our wine and we can plan.” She dropped kisses along his jaw.

Ryan captured her lips in a deep kiss, then pulled away. “Be right back.” He kissed her all the way down her body.

After tossing the spent condom in the trash can beside her dresser, Ryan walked on to the kitchen. The telephone blasted out a ring, startling him.

“Want me to get that?” he asked.

“No, let it go. It’s probably Mom about going shopping tomorrow. Mom can truly shop till she drops.”

He grabbed the bottle of wine and their glasses, listening as the answering machine picked up. There was a choked sound, then a man’s voice.

“Damn it, Rika. Where the hell are you? It’s Andy. Mom and Dad…” He smothered what sounded like a sob. “Becky…Dan… There was a car wreck. They’re dead, Rika. They’re all dead.”

Ryan stared in dumbstruck silence for what seemed like hours, searching for the words to tell the woman he was falling in love with news no one should have to hear.

“What’s taking so long?” she called out. “Are you talking to my mom?”

He wanted to cry. Setting the wine aside, he returned to the bedroom. Rika sat up the second she saw him. “What is it? What’s wrong?”

Ryan sat beside her, pulling her hand into his, forcing himself to meet her gaze. “Honey, that was Andy…”

*          *          *

Rika sat on the edge of her parents’ bed and fingered the diamond solitaire necklace at her throat—a Christmas gift from Ryan. More guilt. She hadn’t gotten him a thing. It was all she could do to make sure the kids had what they needed for Christmas. He’d brushed it off by saying she’d had much more important things to worry about, like five children who were suddenly under her guardianship. If only he knew how bad things really were.

She blinked back tears. That was something she was determined to hide from him. Knowing Ryan as she now did, he’d try to fix it all. That was hardly fair to him.

He’d been a godsend to her these last two weeks—helping her with funeral arrangements, dealing with the parade of people and sympathetic phone calls, sitting by her side in court while she got guardianship of her sister, youngest brother, nephew, and two nieces. He’d even had their Christmas dinner catered by Fletcher’s. Everywhere she went, everything she had to do, all she needed was to turn and his shoulder was there.

Ryan loved her. He didn’t have to say it, Rika knew. She loved him too. That’s why it made this so much harder to do. She had no choice.

“Ryan’s here.”

Rika glanced up at her twenty-one-year-old brother. People didn’t believe she and Andy were related. His hair was golden brown, his eyes a brown that merely hinted at green depths. The only other sibling who’d had red hair was Becky, and Becky was gone. She hadn’t even passed that trait on to her three children. Rika was the odd one now. All the rest looked like Andy.

She had to protect him too. He deserved the same opportunities Rika and Becky had had in life. He didn’t need to know Rika had spent every dime, and then some, on hospital bills and the funerals. The fools hadn’t even had health insurance and forget life insurance.

“Thanks.”

“You’re going to do something stupid, aren’t you?”

She wanted to laugh. God knew, she wanted to laugh. The truth hurt too much. “Yes, I probably am.”

“Then maybe you need to do it at his place. I can watch things here.”

Rika shook her head. She’d made her decision, painful though it was. It was best to get it over with. She forced herself to stand, then prayed her legs would hold her. “I’ll talk to him on the patio.”

Andy muttered something under his breath. Rika strongly suspected he was calling her an idiot and lacing a few curse words in there as well. If he only knew how much this was breaking her heart.

Blinking back tears, she walked into a living room sprawled with bodies. Ryan sat in her father’s recliner, flanked by her young nieces. Kristi and Amy adored him. What child wouldn’t? He talked to them on their level, paid attention to what they had to say. She’d never in a million years forget how they’d cuddled under his arms after the funeral, telling him their fears, crying until they’d fallen asleep.

Yep, she was stupid all right. But how fair was it to ask him to take on this burden?

He smiled when she entered the room. That smile faltered when he saw the look on her face. He knew. Rika buried her face in her hands and started to cry. In an instant, his arms were around her. He kissed the top of her head and drew her out the back door.

“You’re scaring the hell out of me, honey. Please don’t say what I think you’re going to say.”

That made her cry all the more. “I have to, Ryan. Relationships take time and work—”

“But I—”

“Please don’t say it. Don’t make this harder than it is.” She burrowed deeper into his arms, weeping against his chest. “I’ve got five children to take care of. How do I possibly find time for…”

“I’m here for you, Rika. I can help. We can do this.”

She glanced up at the pain in his eyes and damned the light from the kitchen window. “You’ll be in Hawaii for six months. I’ll be here. I can’t just pick up and go. This can’t work.”

“And I say it can. Damn it, I don’t want this to end. I need you. I want you. I l—”

She clamped her fingers over his lips. “Please don’t. It’s not fair to you to ask you to take a backseat. It’s not fair to you to ask you to put up with all of this.”

He kissed her fingers and pulled her hand into his. “Even if I want to?”

“It won’t work. Even the best of established relationships would have a hell of a time. You’ll be gone for six months. It’s best to end it now.”

“Just like that.”

She forced herself to nod. “It kills me to say it, but…yes.”

“This isn’t over, Rika. It can work. It will work.”

If he kept this up, she’d cave. Why couldn’t he understand it was better to get this over rather than drag the heartache out?

“Give me a chance. Give us a chance.” He kissed the curve of her neck at that spot he knew weakened her resolve. Desire welled up with her sigh. “Matt or Kevin can take over the job in Hawaii.”

Rika forced her senses back in order. “You leave tomorrow. How is that fair to them to have them uproot their lives and families at the last minute?” Reluctantly, she stepped from the warmth of his arms. “You have responsibilities just like I do, and people who’ve depended on you a lot longer than I have. Please…just go.”

She reached to unclasp the necklace. His hands stopped her.

“Don’t. There’s enough pain in my heart right now without you doing that.”

Tears drifted down her face. Ryan kissed her lips, then brushed by her and left. Rika waited until she heard his Cherokee start up, then sank to the patio chair and cried what was left of her heart out.

She didn’t know how long she sat there in the cool night air—long after Andy and their next younger sister, Robyn, had put the little ones to bed. She didn’t have the will to move. Her heart had walked out the door with Ryan. Yes, it was her doing, but that made it all the worse—not only had she broken her own heart, but that of a wonderful man. She heard the back door open and half prayed he stood there. It was Robyn instead.

A clear match to Andy, the seventeen-year-old held out the cordless. “Ryan’s on the phone. Apparently, you’re not answering your cell.”

Rika’s shaking fingers wrapped around it. Robyn ducked back inside.

“You don’t give up easily, do you?”

“Not when there’s every reason not to. We’re good together.”

He was so right about that. “With everything the way it is, I don’t see how we can survive the time and distance…for one thing. For the other—”

“Let me prove to you we can weather this. Every relationship has its tests. Ours just came a little sooner than we might have liked.”

“How can you prove—”

“Find a private room. Go in it and lock the door.”

He was going to wear down what little resistance she had left by talking. She should hang up now and end it. It seemed too cruel an act. Ryan deserved better than that.

“All right.” Back inside, she debated on whether to use the bathroom or her parents’ room. With only one bathroom for all of them, the bedroom was the better option for a few minutes of privacy. Ignoring Andy and Robyn, she walked inside, then shut and locked the door behind her.

“Are you there?” he asked.

“Yes.” Her voice came out on a ragged sigh.

“Is the door locked?”

“Yes.”

“No chance of interruptions?”

“The children are asleep. Andy and Robyn are still up.”

“Good. Touch your breasts for me, honey.”

Rika gasped. “I—”

“Close your eyes and touch them. Pretend your hands are mine. Pretend my lips are around your nipples.”

She sank to her knees. “My bra—”

“Unhook it. You know how you love my hands on your tits.”

“I do,” she breathlessly replied. One hand shook as she released the hook. Once free, she closed her eyes and cupped her breast.

“Tell me how it feels, sweetheart.”

“Soft, hot. It…it wants your mouth.”

“And it’s there, wrapped around your nipple.” He sucked in a breath. “God, I love how it gets hard under my tongue. I love how you arch into my mouth, begging for more with those sweet sounds you make.”

Rika swallowed her shyness. “And your dick feels so hard against my…against my…”

“Say it, sweetheart. Say how much your pussy wants my cock.”

“Is it in your hand? Are you stroking it slowly?”

“Just like you would, honey. Touch your clit. Play with it. Tell me how sweet and swollen it is.”

Rika shoved her hand into her jeans. “I’m so wet.”

“Who makes you wet?”

She sucked in a breath as she slowly massaged her clit. “You, Ryan. You make me wet and horny. I want you fucking me all the time. Are you hard for me?”

“Always. I’m going to come fast, honey. That’s what you do for me. But I want to wait for you. I want to hear you come. I want us to come together.”

“I’m close. I’m so close.”

“Do it, sweetheart. Give your pussy what it wants.”

Her fingers swirled faster. “I’m going to come.” The moment exploded on her. Rika bit back the urge to cry out. Hearing him come on the other end of the line heightened her release. The feeling subsided by small degrees.

“I love you, Rika,” he said through pants of breath. “I love you and I’m not going to let you go. Give us time, honey. Please.”

“I love you, Ryan, so much. But—”

“No buts, sweetheart. Time. Please.”

She found herself nodding, then realized he couldn’t see. “Time…okay.”

“I think I’ll see about getting us headsets.”

She laughed lightly. Maybe they could get beyond this. Ryan being gone might work to her benefit. She’d be able to get things under control without him seeing her implode. “I should come over and give you a proper send off. Think you’re up to it?”

“I’m crushed you’d ask that.”

“Yeah, I’ll bet. I’m on my way.”

Rika punched the off key and stared at the phone. A lot could happen in six months. She was panicked, that’s all. There was no reason to drag Ryan down with her. She could handle this just fine. He’d never need to know.

Advertisements

Marriage Committee by Catherine Snodgrass

MarriageCommittee

THE MARRIAGE COMMITTEE
by Catherine Snodgrass
Historical Romance
2003

Former Texas Ranger Paul Harrington is now a preacher trying to amend his former errant ways. It’s a constant battle to keep his former self from surfacing. He fears that giving into passion will open the door to the man he used to be. The role of traditional wife isn’t something that appeals to Belle Marshall. As the town healer and manager of the boarding house, independence is hers. A husband will only get in the way. The townsfolk have other ideas, and when they form a committee to find Belle a husband, well, that’s something Paul just won’t have.

Buy Links

~ Reviews ~

FIVE ANGELS! Expected the unexpected in this story as anything can and will happen. Not only are you involved completely in this book right away, but the plot grabs you holding you spellbound from beginning to end… Strong and independent yet endearing characters pull you into this tale, so without fail make sure this book is one of those that grace your must-read list. If you are looking for a story that is a refreshing romantic tale or one that will enthrall you into a world of yesterday gone by, this is the book for you! ~Wendi, Fallen Angel Reviews

FIVE HEARTS! The characters of Belle and Paul are completely captivating people who capture the reader’s attention from first reading about them… I loved this story and all the characters in it, especially Paul. This book is very enjoyable reading about a community of very colorful characters. I recommend it to everyone. ~Ellen, The Romance Studio

FIVE CUPS! Ms. Snodgrass…has made the hero and heroine such wonderful characters you cannot help but turn the pages. I loved this story, it was refreshing and, though a lot of it was playful, the characters shared their deep inner fears and dreams with the reader. Well done. ~Mary, Coffee Time Romance

FIVE ANGELS! Fallen Angel Reviews Recommended Read. The people of Cottonwood Bend wiggle their way into your heart and refuse to leave. You’re heart breaks for Paul and what his past has forced him to endure. You understand Belle’s need for independence and her struggle with her feelings for Paul. The plot is solid with twists that keep you turning the pages. The emotion and friendship that abounds will have you coming back time and again to visit. This story is about past mistakes, change, love, friendship and new beginnings. Catherine Snodgrass has weaved a tale that you won’t soon forget. ~Cindy, Fallen Angel Reviews

5 HEARTS!!! The story has given the reader a host of possibilities and conclusions yet the real answer is one worth reading the book for. It is a romance that should and hopefully will go down as one of this year’s best and I for one am happy I read it. For those of you who love romance novels and make no mistake this is one in every sense of the word – do read this one. You wont regret it. ~Louise Riveiro-Mitchell, The Romance Studio

Catherine Snodgrass has created a down-to-earth, thoroughly enchanting historical romance in THE MARRIAGE COMMITTEE. The earthy characters practically jump off the page, and the emotional aspect of the story is so realistic that readers will feel as if they’ve gotten a hidden peek into the mind of a good friend. Sweet, with just a hint of spice in the love scenes, THE MARRIAGE COMMITTEE will hold your attention until the very last page. ~Janean Nusz, The Road to Romance

FOUR HEARTS!!! a fascinating read and is highly recommended for historical romance fans. ~Penny, Love Romances

THE MARRIAGE COMMITTEE is a madcap attempt to push two people together who are perfect for each other. Too bad they don’t see it that way. When the town gets together to marry them off, things get crazy. Matchmaking, romance, sneakiness, and jealousy are just a few things that make this story amusing and sweet. When I finished this book, I felt like the characters were all real people that I interacted with on a daily basis. Ms. Snodgrass’s ability to create life-like characters that step from the pages and make themselves real to the reader is a gift. If you enjoy a lighthearted romance with light love scenes and a sweet story, you will enjoy this book. ~Ansley Velarde, The Road to Romance

THE MARRIAGE COMMITTEE is a delightful excursion to the wilds of 1880 Texas. The author incorporates fully realized characters into a fast-paced and engaging narrative full of twists and turns. Paul is an exceptional hero, complex, wounded and wrestling with his demons as well as his passions. Belle is a strong heroine but flawed by her own indecision with regards to Paul. Together their passion is HOT. ~Melissa Fowler, The Romance Readers Connection.

4 SLIPPERS!!! A wonderful read. It is fast paced from the starting gate, delightfully written, and exciting. There are twists and turns that keep the reader involved and guessing and the plot is beautifully resolved at the end. I would highly recommend this story and am looking forward to reading more by this wonderful writer. ~Maci Walker, Novelspot.

5 FLAMES!!! COLLECTOR’S TREASURE. REVIEWER’S CHOICE. [G]rabs you from the first paragraph, and won’t let you go. The characters are true to life and the dialogue sizzles. The story is compelling and you’ll find yourself rooting for Belle and Paul with every word. The writing is crisp and first-rate. This is an exciting, suspenseful historical romance that will keep you up all night to finish it. Don’t pass it by! ~Elizabeth Delisi, Word Museum

EXCERPT

Texas, 1881

Belle Marshall forced the grief to the deepest part of her heart. Doc had lived a full life. He had been an old man. His health had been failing for years. He had a right to pass on. To continue living with the pain he suffered…Well, she wouldn’t wish that on her worst enemy…if she had one. Why wish it for a man she admired beyond words? Still, losing him, no matter how much she knew it was coming, hurt more than she could bear.

She dared a look around. It seemed the whole town was gathered at the graveyard today, except for the Tanner bunch. The cowhands were off with the herd, headed north to Dodge months ago. Her sister and the rest of the Tanners had left for a visit to Virginia last month. They’d be gone until the end of this month. Belle had missed them before they’d been gone a day, but now she ached for their company. She felt lost without them, even in this crowd.

Her gaze wandered from person to person. Everyone had fulfilled one of Doc’s last wishes—no one wore black. He’d wanted bright, happy colors and he’d got them. Belle had chosen her pink gingham dress with white lace at the hem, neck, and cuffs. Doc had always said it made her look as bright and pretty as one of Mrs. Freebush’s roses. Everyone else looked plenty colorful too.

Mr. Cyrus’s vest matched the canary yellow in his wife’s dress. Mrs. Cyrus fingered the dark green ribbon around her wide waist. Florine Brady had chosen purple satin shot with cream panels. Her husband’s string tie was cut from the same cloth. Very nice. Bright. Happy. Doc would have been pleased.

The only exception was Paul Harrington. The preacher was limited in his wardrobe. But he honored Doc’s wishes the best way he could—with three daisies threaded through his lapel.

She shifted her gaze back to the Cyruses. Seeing the old couple lean on each other in their grief wrenched Belle’s heart. She knew what they were thinking—“We’re next.” That’s what Mrs. Cyrus had said the night before over Doc’s body. Rather than think her selfish, Belle understood the fear and had wrapped an arm around her. It had helped to ease her own fears at the time. But in the warmth of this beautiful summer day, watching the Cyruses support each other, their light blue eyes misty with unshed tears, Belle’s agony doubled.

A breeze rustled the leaves in the cottonwoods edging the perimeter of the graveyard. Belle closed her eyes and turned her face into it, shutting out everything but the sound of Paul Harrington’s voice. She could listen to him talk for hours and never grow tired of hearing him. Not too deep, not high pitched, just perfect. He caught a person’s attention from the first word and held it, which was good for a preacher. Not too many people fell asleep during his sermons.

Belle wondered if it was because he was a young preacher. Most of the ones she’d known in the past were old, definitely set in their ways. They’d tote their bibles around, quoting Gospel in that holier-than-thou manner, and set themselves above their parishioners. Not Paul. He was…well, normal.

He’d make a good father. Belle’s eyes flashed open. Where in the world had that come from? Not that she hadn’t thought it before. But here? When she was burying her mentor? Doc would have gotten a big chuckle out of that. In fact, he’d have laughed so hard he’d have set off a coughing spell.

Not one to mince words, Doc had never hesitated to point out Belle’s interest in the young reverend. She’d be lying if she said that wasn’t so. Thank goodness Doc kept his opinions to himself. Seeing that know-it-all look in his old eyes every time Paul came around was bad enough. Worse, because each time Doc would say, “That fella’s sure sweet on you.”

Belle didn’t know if that was so or not. Mothers in town certainly noticed his availability. They took every opportunity to parade their daughters in front of him and offer their help at church. But it was Belle he turned to when it came time to organize social events and committees. Yet, in the three years they’d known each other, Paul never so much as hinted their relationship was more than friendship. And he certainly never spoke for her.

It was just as well. Belle had no place in her life for a husband, especially a preacher. They expected traditional wives, and Belle wanted more out of life than that. Not that she didn’t want a husband and children one day, but she wanted a man who understood she had needs beyond the boundaries of marriage. As far as she knew, there wasn’t a man like that who existed for her, certainly not Paul Harrington. He was about as traditional as a person could get.

She let the sound of his voice drift into her soul while she marveled at the way the sunlight made the gold in his light blond hair sparkle. She’d seen him with his shirtsleeves rolled up, his shoulder muscles flexed against the material while he leant a hand at a barn raising. He certainly wasn’t afraid of hard work. His skin was a light bronze from hours in the sun. What woman wouldn’t be interested?

But Doc had opened a world to her that Belle could have only imagined before. She might not be a doctor in the true sense of the word, but everyone knew she’d been Doc’s eyes, ears, and hands these last three years. Belle doubted anyone would call her on it now. She was all the town had. A husband would take her away from them.

Maybe that’s why no mothers trotted their sons before her. Not that Belle would have noticed. She was always too focused on her work. And she found Paul too much of a distraction as it was. Or maybe Doc wasn’t as quiet about his notions as she’d hoped.

Belle’s gaze drifted Paul’s way. He cradled his bible with those marvelously long fingers. Fingers that could dry a child’s tears with a tenderness that tugged at Belle’s heart. She’d seen those fingers at work and knew they were calloused. But they could right a bow in a little girl’s hair with as much skill as they wielded a hammer. And all Belle could wonder was how they’d feel brushed against her cheek.

Paul closed the bible, drew in a breath, and looked right at her. His green eyes mesmerized her, held her in place. They were the color of life itself. She couldn’t have moved if a stampede of longhorns were headed her way.

“Belle?” he said.

“Yes?” The word came out in a choked whisper. He wanted something of her.

He glanced toward the grave. Belle’s gaze followed. Of course. She was the closest thing Doc had to a relative. By that right alone, she was to toss the first handful of dirt on his coffin.

Heat rose to her cheeks. She was ashamed of herself, letting her mind wander in sinful pursuit while they were burying a good man.

She imagined Doc’s hearty laughter over that, his teasing afterward when they were alone. Tears flooded her eyes. She wouldn’t cry here. Please not here. She simply couldn’t deal with the sympathy of others right now. She had to hold herself together. God, how she was going to miss the old man.

Clenching her jaw against the grief, Belle squatted down and blindly grabbed a fistful of dark brown earth. Stepping carefully to the edge of the grave, she opened her palm and let the dirt drift from her grasp. It fell to the coffin below like a gentle rain, so much easier to deal with than hearing the clods plunk down harshly.

When the last was gone, Belle stared at her palm. She’d forgotten to take off her gloves. A dark brown stain blotched the ivory. It would take a lot of scrubbing to get it out. Maybe she’d leave it as a reminder of this day, not that she needed any.

Someone else stepped forward. The smack of dirt on the coffin jerked Belle from her daydream. She couldn’t watch this, but she couldn’t walk away either. She had an obligation to fulfill.

Another person edged forward—Florine, a businesswoman in her own right. She owned one of the best bars in town and did a good job of keeping her girls in line. Belle supposed she had to—Florine was married to Sheriff Bill Brady. Their professions made them an unlikely couple, but they looked like they belonged together—both tall, auburn-haired, slender, with a businesslike approach to life that rarely wavered. No one dared call him Bill or Billy. It was Sheriff or Brady. And God help the soul who used the name Flo. Florine would cut them dead with a glare.

Given her own full name—Mary-Belle Marshall—Belle sympathized with her. It had just taken longer, and the chance to leave home, for Belle to make her wishes known. She never wanted to be Mary-Belle again. That was the past, a different person, someone Belle longed to put far behind her.

Florine draped an arm around Belle and gave her shoulders a squeeze. “He was quite an old fella, wasn’t he?”

Belle allowed herself a smile. “Yes, he was. I’ll miss him.”

But she wouldn’t miss the coughing that wracked his body each time he tired himself. Or that rattle in his chest when the days grew cold; a hack no doctoring seemed to cure. Or seeing him struggle to move his aching bones across a room. No one knew how much he’d suffered, but Belle and she would take that news, that promise of silence, to her own grave.

Brady slipped his hand through Florine’s arm. “You ladies might want to step back. The edge don’t look too stable.”

Belle glanced at her feet. Sure enough a steady shower of dirt drifted down. Florine moved away. Belle followed suit, taking a giant step back. Her heel caught the edge of her dress. She toppled forward and felt the ground crumble beneath her.

The mourners gasped. Belle fanned her arms, then squeezed her eyes shut as she fell into Doc’s grave. A hard body slammed against her, knocking the wind from her lungs. Arms wrapped tight around her waist and cushioned her fall.

They hit the coffin hard. Belle heard an “oof” from her hero and opened her eyes. Paul lay beneath her. His face twisted with pain. It passed quickly, yet neither of them dared to move.

“Are you hurt?” he finally asked.

“No. Thanks to you. But I can’t say the same for you.”

He pulled in a ragged breath. “I’m good. Just hit it harder than I wanted. I need a second.”

“I’m afraid I’ve caused you to break something.”

“No…really, Belle. Just be still.”

She didn’t like the sound of his voice. It was strained, like agony tore through him. She glanced into his face and saw him staring beyond her into the sky. Belle doubted he was focused on anything.

She shifted to her forearms. Paul grunted, grabbed her waist, and hoisted them both to their feet. “Brady—”

“I got her.” Before Belle could protest, Paul had her by the waist again. He lifted, Brady caught her under the arms, and she was on solid ground once more.

Florine and Mrs. Cyrus fussed over her, brushing the dirt from her pink dress. Belle let them. Only a good washing could save this dress now. She watched Paul leap from the grave unassisted, and marveled at his agility.

“At least no one’s hurt.” A small tsk ended Mrs. Cyrus’s sentence.

“Only our pride.” Paul flicked dirt from his trousers. “Mr. Tucker, you’ll be glad to know you’ve made a sound coffin. It survived the weight of both our bodies full force. Didn’t give at all.”

Mr. Tucker’s wattle jiggled with his nod. “We should get on with it then before someone else decides to test it out. Been ages since I’ve seen ground this unstable. Must be from all the rain we’ve had this year.”

“Hold up, Tuck.” Brady jerked his head toward main street. “We got riders coming.”

One by one people turned for a look. Sure enough a group of six men made their way up the main street of Cottonwood Bend.

“Texas rangers.” Paul brushed dirt from his sleeve and squared his shoulders, but his narrow gaze never left the approaching men.

Belle shaded her eyes and studied the men. How could Paul tell who they were? Rangers wore no badges. Only the officers carried papers saying who they were. These men looked like tired cowpokes or, worse yet, a band of thieves creeping into town.

Their hats drooped from days exposed to the elements. Dust, dirt, and sweat etched stories into the fabric. The wide brims hid the men’s faces from the sun. Their shoulders sagged from exhaustion. And the horses looked like it was all they could do to put one hoof in front of the other.

They ignored the shops and houses along the way. Didn’t look at the beautiful little flower gardens behind picket fences. Nor did the hitching posts or shaded boardwalks hold any appeal. They kept on a straight coarse for the graveyard.

“Stay here.”

Paul hurried toward the riders. Brady was close behind. They met the rangers at the steps of the small church not twenty feet away. Several of the riders were wounded, one so badly he could barely seat his horse. Instinct urged Belle to rush to their aid. Caution kept her in place.

“Can we help you, gentlemen?” Paul asked.

They stared at him, eyes wide, mouths agape. Someone laughed, a hollow sound that echoed his weariness.

The leader swung down. “Well…I’ll be switched.”

He tilted his hat back with the point of his finger. His dark whiskers matched his eyes. Weary as he looked, amusement still danced in them.

“This just about takes the cake.” He shook his head and gave a half-hearted chuckle, then waved his hand to the men behind him. “We got wounded. We need a doctor.”

Heads turned Belle’s way. Yes…it was her responsibility now. She wasted no time seeing to it.

“Get them over to the office. I’ll run ahead and get things ready.” Belle lifted her skirts, ready to dash off.

A man on horseback stared down at her. He held his left arm close to his chest. Dried blood soaked his sleeve. “Her? She’s the doc?” He snorted. “Ain’t no woman gonna doctor me.” For emphasis, he spat in the dirt.

Belle lifted her chin and met his glare. “We’ll see how you feel when the infection gets so bad you’re ready to have that arm cut off.” She gave him a wicked smile. “Don’t worry, I’ll let you pick between the clean saw and the dirty one we use to butcher livestock.”

She shifted her attention to the man next to Paul. “The reverend and the sheriff will show you the way. I’ll want the worst injured first.”

He scratched the dark stubble on his cheek. “That’d be our prisoner. He’s a hard one. Can’t say his life is worth saving.”

Belle drew a deep breath. He held up his palm before her lecture saw the light of day. She tucked it away. She had a feeling she’d need it again real soon.

“But we’ll get him to you, ma’am.” A hint of a smile danced on his lips. Belle tried not to take offense. She was a woman in a man’s world. His attitude was typical of those who didn’t know her. She refused to let it keep her from doing her job.

* * *

Paul watched Belle walk away. She had the attention of every man there, even the wounded. And who wouldn’t look at the sway of her skirt as she hurried down the boardwalk? Those trim hips of hers had mesmerized him more times than he could count.

Belle Marshall was by far the most beautiful woman he’d ever met, and Paul had met a lot of women in his time. He was smitten from the instant he’d first seen her three years before. Age and maturity since then made her all the more attractive.

He loved her ready smile. The way her forehead wrinkled between her eyebrows when she concentrated on work. The light that always sparkled in the depths of her light brown eyes. And her hair…It was enough to drive a man insane—dark brown with hints of red when the sun hit it just right. She always wore it up, never down. He craved to know how long it really was. Seeing those few tendrils that often drifted against the back of her long, creamy neck, it was all he could do to keep his fingers from curling around one.

Seeing her today so grief stricken tore at his heart. He longed to hold her close and tell her everything would be all right. Then she’d fallen. His instincts had kicked in. Somehow Paul managed to jump the width of the grave and catch her. He’d realized then what true agony was.

Never had his body reacted so quickly to a woman’s softness. Paul blamed it on the years of abstinence, the years he wanted her. Then she levered herself onto her elbows, pressing her stomach right into his problem area. He’d almost lost it right there—like an untried boy. He couldn’t get her off him fast enough and prayed for something to calm him down before he crawled from the grave.

Paul called himself a fool for loving her. Belle could do a lot better than him. She deserved better. There wasn’t a night or day that passed without him cursing the demons and the past that kept him from letting her know how he felt.

Oh, there was a time when she first arrived where he thought he could. Then the Tanners had run into a bit of trouble and the old Paul, the Paul he fought, the Paul he feared had leaped in to help. It shocked him how quickly the ghost of his former self appeared. Since then he’d done everything in his power to tamp down passion of any kind. He simply could not afford to be that person any more. And now his past had just ridden into town.

Brady was the only one in Cottonwood Bend who knew Paul was a former Texas ranger. And he knew why Paul had switched professions. Brady had accepted the decision and offered Paul the chance of a church in this quiet little town once the former preacher had moved on.

But the men before him now…well, that was a painfully different matter. They might not have known about Paul’s new line of work, but they sure knew what had happened before he’d dropped out of sight. The way they gabbed when liquored up, it wouldn’t be long before the whole town knew. What would they think then of their wonderful, kind, thoughtful reverend?

“Paul, what the hell—”

Paul cut Cal Webster off without so much as a glance. “You’ll find the doctor’s office behind the boarding house on the corner just a block away.” He couldn’t risk talk out here with the whole town gaping at them. Already they whispered among themselves, and Florine and Mrs. Cyrus were headed his way.

Cal stared at him. His faced screwed up in that funny look he always got when something confused him. Paul noticed he hadn’t changed much since he’d seen him four years ago. Of course, it was hard to tell as dirty as they all were from being on the road.

Stony, Clarence, Sid, and Marty still stared at him. But their gaped-mouth astonishment was gone.

Paul glanced at the fifth man on horseback between them. His arms were bound at the wrist. Splotches of blood stained his torn clothing. He slumped lower in the saddle with each second that passed. Marty controlled his reins.

Cal tucked his hat back into place and jerked his head toward Stony. “You heard the good reverend. Get the wounded over there and keep a good eye on Jessop.”

Paul’s lips tightened to a thin line. Which Jessop? Frank? His past was truly slamming him in the face.

Not one for talk, Stony motioned the others on with a flick of his bony hand.

Cal splayed his fingers on his hips, just above his holster. “Sheriff, soon as the little lady’s done with our prisoner we’re going to need a sturdy cell for him.”

Brady hooked his thumbs in his breeches. “He doesn’t look like he’s going anywhere. We’ll let Miss Marshall decide when it’s best to move him.”

Florine edged her way up front. “And if you know what’s good for you, I wouldn’t be calling her little lady around here. People have a lot of respect for her and they won’t take kindly to it.”

Cal’s cheeks reddened, darkening his sun-tanned face. At least he still had the decency to know his place. He dropped his gaze to the patch of grass nestled against the church steps. “We’ll be needing a place for the horses. That stable down the street any good?”

Mrs. Cyrus puffed out her ample chest. “Why, it’s the best in town.”

Not to mention it was the only one in town.

Cal nodded. “And a place for us to bunk. Which boarding house is the best?”

Paul crossed his arms and rocked on his heels. “Depends on what you’re looking for. Busby’s has plenty of room this time of year. It’s a bed and food.” Although it took a strong soul to put up with Mrs. Busby’s sour disposition.

“If it’s whoring you want, Fran’s is the place for you. For the right money, she’ll rent you a room and all the extras that go with it. If you’re looking for a clean bed and good food, then you’ll want Cyrus’s. That’s where you’ll find the doctor’s office. Big two-story house on the corner. White fence, wide porch, yellow trim.”

“Good enough for me.” Cal snagged the reins and hauled himself into the saddle. “We need to talk. Catch up on old times.”

Paul jerked his thumb toward the graveyard. “We’ve got a man to bury. We could use an extra hand.”

Cal glanced that direction. “I’ve buried enough men, Reverend.”

“Then one more shouldn’t hurt you.”

“You oughta know.” He tipped his hat to the ladies, turned his tired horse around, and rode away.

Paul measured each step. Too bad Cal wasn’t on his way out of town.

“Whoring?” Florine flicked the back of his head with her fingers. “What kind of talk is that coming from a preacher?”

He smoothed his hair into place and frowned at her. “One trying to make a point that we don’t want any trouble in our town…from anyone.”

Brady scuffed his boots against that tiny patch of grass. “And trouble’s just what we’re in for if that’s really one of the Jessops they’ve got with them. You know they’ll do anything to get one of their own back.”

And with the Tanner ranch hands and owners gone, the town didn’t have the muscle to protect itself.

Mrs. Cyrus tucked her handkerchief into her sleeve. “Then we’d best be seeing what we can do to help Belle put those rangers on the mend and on their way. Come along, dear.”

“You go on. I’ll be there shortly.” Florine waited until Mrs. Cyrus was halfway down the boardwalk before turning to Paul and Brady. “We’ve got another problem.”

Naturally. Didn’t trouble always come in threes? “What’s that?” Paul asked.

“Several of the women—most of the women are concerned about the—exposure Belle will receive from men now that Doc is gone.”

Brady chuckled. “You mean they’re afraid she’ll see a naked man.”

Florine jabbed an elbow in his ribs. “She’s an innocent young woman.”

Paul snorted. “Who’s been doing Doc’s work for him since she got here. I’m sure she’s gotten a gander at a man by now.” Although the thought didn’t set well with him either.

“But until now, the fine ladies of Cottonwood Bend could convince themselves Doc was handling all the dirty work.” Brady laughed. “Now they can’t lie to themselves any more.”

Florine shot him a glare from the corner of her eye. Gathering her composure, she flashed a sweet smile Paul’s way. “It’s time Belle was married. It’s time you spoke up.”

He stumbled back. A punch to the gut would have shocked him less. Even Brady stopped laughing and stared at his wife in stunned silence. Paul found his voice somewhere in his hip pocket. Using it wasn’t as easy.

“What?” he choked out.

Florine’s mouth tightened. “You heard what I said. People have been talking for years about that puppy dog look you give Belle. They figured you were waiting for her to grow up more. Then they figured you were shy. Now…well, let’s just put in this way, Reverend…”

She smoothed her gloves over each finger and avoided his gaze. “Belle is the best thing this town ever had. We can’t lose her. If seeing her married will ease the minds of some of our more prissy residents, then so be it.” She dropped her hands and nailed him with a look. “So, what’s it going to be?”

Paul’s mouth moved but the words wouldn’t come.

Florine laced her fingers and tapped her thumbs together. “In other words…We will not lose Belle. We can’t afford to. And that’s exactly what will happen if this matter isn’t resolved. First, the women will refuse to let their husbands go to her. Then they’ll refuse. And, finally, the children. You know how people are when they get a notion. So…if you won’t speak up, we’ll find someone who will.”

The hairs on the back of his neck prickled. Anger swooped in. He didn’t respond well to threats of any kind, no matter how well intentioned. He fought a snarl and looked steady into Florine’s amber-colored eyes. “Then I think you’d best be doing that.”

Her eyes widened a fraction. This obviously wasn’t something she anticipated. To her credit, Florine recovered quickly. “Then we shall. In fact, I think we’ll form a marriage committee. With the Fourth of July celebration days away, it should fit in quite nicely. Good day, Reverend Harrington.”

Her footsteps clicked a hasty retreat down the boardwalk.

Brady gave a low whistle. “Boy-howdy, you’ve stirred up a hornet’s nest now. I’m going to have to hear it tonight.”

“I don’t like being cornered.”

The other man clasped him on the shoulder. “And you’re going to like seeing the woman you want married to someone else?”

Paul shrugged his hand away. “It’s a bluff. That’s all.”

Brady stared after his wife. “Florine don’t bluff.” His voice softened. “Come on, Paul. You can’t keep living like this. This isn’t you. You want her. Go after her.”

“I can’t. You know that.”

He slowly shook his head never once breaking eye contact. “No…I don’t suppose you can. Living the life of a martyr has too much appeal.”

Paul’s jaw tightened, so did his fists. “I’ve got a man to bury.” Without another word, he strode back to the graveyard.

Feather on the Wind by Catherine Snodgrass

FeatherWind

 

FEATHER ON THE WIND
by Catherine Snodgrass
Time Travel Romance
January 2002

On the night of the autumnal equinox, Raina Cotterell uncovers a corridor while searching for the tomb of an ancient Maya ruler. She and her colleagues step from 1970 to 750 and into a ceremony to select a bride for the Maya prince, Al-Mon. The Maya believe she is the chosen bride sent as a gift from the gods.

To protect one of her colleagues, Raina agrees to wed Al-Mon. In the months which follow she falls in love with her prince, and finally tells him why she cannot stay. The pain of her revelation haunts Al-Mon, for he does not wish to live in a world without her. He decides his only solution is to replace his look-alike, Burke O’Neill, in the future. He must find a way to convince Burke to stay and to avoid another more deadly foe who will do anything to keep the men from switching places.

WINNER – 2005 INDEPENDENT PUBLISHERS AWARD (IPPY) – BEST ROMANCE
3RD PLACE – 2001 LAUREL WREATH AWARD

BUY LINKS

REVIEWS:

SIX MAGICAL WANDS! Catherine Snodgrass always writes a winner, but this has to be my favourite of her books so far. I really couldn’t fault it, and was eager to finish it to see how Raina and Al-Mon reconciled the differences in their cultures and across time. With plenty of careful detail, Ms Snodgrass paints a vivid and realistic picture not just of a modern(ish!) archaeological dig, but also a glimpse of ancient Mayan life. Superb characterisation, especially with Al-Mon, and all round a riveting, sensual read. ~Autiotalo, Enchanted Ramblings

FIVE HEARTS! Through the descriptive writing of Catherine Snodgrass we clearly picture the setting and characters. The story asks how far someone will go for love. The romance is passionate from the beginning. This time-travel adventure is a creative and passionate romance that will keep the reader entertained. ~Anita, The Romance Studio

FIVE ANGELS!!! I have not seen many time travel books based on the Mayans, so I was really interested in reading this book. I was not disappointed. The Mayan setting of this book is amazing. Catherine Snodgrass really brought the culture to life for me. The descriptions of the buildings, rituals, royalty, and society made me want to go buy a history book on the Mayans. The passion and love between Raina and Al-Mon’s is touching. There is an interesting twist in the book involving another aspect of Mayan culture. I thought the answer to their problem was a little obvious, but the author added a twist to it that I didn’t expect. Definitely a must read if you like time travel romance and you are interested in Mayan culture. ~ Gretchen, Fallen Angel Reviews

FOUR CUPS!!! Ms Snodgrass is a brilliant storyteller, hooking me from the very first page to the utterly surprising twist at the end. She called up the Mayan time and culture so believably that I did not once doubt its veracity. A beautifully told tale of love’s ability to conquer! ~Caro, Coffee Time Romance

4 ½ STARS. A fascinating story about a love that reaches across time and draws two people together regardless of their separate worlds. The characters are brought to life by her rich descriptions of both the people and their cultures. ~Audra Silva,Scribes World

An intricately woven plot and richly textured background lend the tale fresh originality. Recommended. ~Cindy Penn, Wordweaving

Time travel at its best! Ms. Snodgrass has blended history with fiction and creates a romance you won’t soon forget. Raina and Al-Mon’s love will take your breath away. The characters are well drawn, and I was pulled into the lives of each and every one of them– from the egotistical Burke to the sweet and caring Al-Mon. The Mayan culture is brought vividly to life, and I was made to feel as if I were there witnessing all the action. The story is fast-paced and entertaining and I couldn’t put it down. A well-written adventure sure to please any time travel fan. So grab a cup of cocoa and curl up for an exciting adventure that shouldn’t be missed. ~ Carol Durfee, Romance Reviews Today

FOUR STARS!!! This is an exciting book that brings the ancient Mayans to life until their ways are real and comfortable. As the book builds to the climax, you want it to work out for the lovers but it seems impossible. You’ll want to keep reading until it all is resolved. How do they get back to their own time? ~Martha von Redlich, SimeGen

FIVE HEARTS!!! A wonderful tale of the times of the Maya Indians. [The author’s] descriptions and characters are very realistic and the reader is caught within the first few pages. It was a marvelous read of this by-gone era and I could not lay it down. I am looking forward to reading many more novels by this fantastic author, and I recommend her highly. Mariah, The Romance Studio

This novel works very well on many different levels. The romance between Al-Mon and Raina is handled wonderfully. The Mayan society, rituals, and history are clearly well researched and woven seamlessly into the story. This author has shown herself to be very adept at very different types of romances. I’m looking forward to much more from her. Readers who enjoy time travel, romance, or Mayan history will be very happy with this one. The Romance Readers Connection

4 ROSES! Ms. Snodgrass does a good job making time travel believable. Her characters are well developed and entertaining the Mayan culture she creates is fascinating. FEATHER ON THE WIND is an intriguing look into a culture that isn’t visited very often in the romance genre. ~Jenni, A Romance Review

A heart-stopping romance, but hidden within its layers is a well-researched, richly visual interpretation of a lost Mayan civilization. At the center of this story is Raina and Al-Mon, lovers from different times, with what appears to be no hope of a happily-ever after. But love never fails to travel a road with interesting twists and turns. ~ Theresa Gallup for Fictional Pursuits

EXCERPT

750 a.d. – City of the Sun

Al-Mon stood as rigid as the statues that surrounded his bathing pool. Let the servants attend; he would offer no assistance to this ceremony. It was his way of showing objection without actually doing so. How could he refuse when this was for his benefit and the perpetuation of his royal line?

His manservant tied the jaguar sash around Al-Mon’s waist, overlapping the matching loincloth. Al-Mon rejected the seashell collar, opting for a red feathered cape. His gods would accept him unbejeweled, without pretense, a humble subject seeking divine intervention. How could they refuse such a request? He had spent his life appeasing those omnipresent beings and had asked for nothing in return — until now.

“Your headdress, my lord.”

Al-Mon combed his raven hair to the crown of his head and secured the long strands with a narrow strip of leather. He sat upon one of the stone benches to enable the smaller man to seat this crowning symbol of authority.

The plumage of red and yellow was heavy and awkward. Only with years of practice could one wear the towering mass without having it slip or, worse yet, throw its wearer off balance. Such a thing was not a problem for Al-Mon; his tutelage had begun at the cradle. Now the headdress was merely an extension of himself. With it his subjects rarely noticed the unfortunate condition which set him apart from others. Without it he stood out.

It was a cruel fate of a birth that occurred on a desolate road with only his father and the high priest attending the premature event. A midwife would have found something, anything to press the surviving newborn prince’s head into the slope which Mayans longed for — the men did not. As a consequence, Al-Mon was forced to give sacrifice to the gods at the tender age of three days. He was grateful that incident was not part of his memories.

And yet he could not label all these circumstances as a curse. A lesser man would have let the difference destroy him, make him bitter. Al-Mon refused to let it rule his life, not when there were so many other more important things which should. The physical aspect was a minor annoyance. Dealing with it and the reaction of others helped him build the strength he needed to one day be a good ruler.

Al-Mon adjusted the headdress and pulled his hair through the opening at the top. “I believe that should do.”

“A grander prince I have never attended,” Tor-sa said.

Al-Mon chuckled. “Tor-sa, I am the only prince you have ever served.”

The little man smiled back. “Yes, my lord, that is true. I wish you good fortune tonight. I shall be watching from the portico. All three ladies are worthy. The gods cannot help but choose well.”

Al-Mon’s humor faded. “How sad that the ladies in question do not feel that way.”

From outside the conch shells called the city to the ceremony. There was no postponing the inevitable. Resigned to his fate, Al-Mon strode through winding corridors of stone to the entry hall. He was late. His parents waited, dressed in full regalia. The prospective brides hovered nearby, dour-faced.

Standing watch was the elderly high priest, Caan-tu. From the time of Al-Mon’s birth, Caan-tu had been a part of his life. No decision was made without him. It was said his powers went far beyond those required of ordinary priests. Al-Mon did not know if that were true, but he did know Caan-tu was one of the wisest, most learned men he had ever met. This ceremony tonight was his doing.

With Caan-tu leading the way, they stepped into the night.

A hush fell over the crowd as the royal procession appeared. No breeze stirred. Smoke from the torches hugged the ground like fog. The path to the temple was clear, but as the royals passed, the crowd closed in behind them. Drumbeats echoed their footsteps down the flight of stairs, across the courtyard, then up the steep temple steps. Silence descended when the entourage reached the top, and Caan-tu raised his scrawny arms.

“Tonight, on this holy night, a bride will be chosen.”

The crowd roared with approval, and Al-Mon looked over the candidates. By the ladies’ show of enthusiasm one would think they were to be sacrificed instead of honored. Al-Mon looked away and to the sea of faces below. That, too, was a bad choice, for one face stood out — that of Ka-la.

Her dark eyes blazed with fury over the ceremony and the fact that she had not been chosen to participate. She would have been willing, so willing that this selection would not have been necessary. But had she been included, Al-Mon would have steadfastly refused to accept her.

“We shall choose!” Caan-tu said, then led the king and queen into the bowels of the temple.

Al-Mon let his gaze focus on his home, hoping to clear his mind and let the gods work their will. The royal dwelling house was set at a right angle to the temple, and was the longest structure in the city. A rippling succession of eight archways marked the front; torches lit each one. Above the center arch, the main entrance, a bird was carved; its feathers spread in flight with a wing span which reached past the arches on either side of it. To visitors and people of the city the bird represented the freedom and power of the ruling clan. But Al-Mon knew of the invisible tether which bound the bird. For a Mayan prince and future king there was no freedom. He existed for the sole purpose of serving his people and producing heirs, even if that meant with a mate who was less than willing.

Al-Mon shifted his gaze to the black horizon. Why must it be this way? Somewhere there must be a woman, a love for me. He closed his eyes and prayed the gods’ selection would be wise.