Turner's Woman #1
TRAIL BLAZERS series
With him, she found the courage to break free.
Jake Turner could have left the sole survivor of a Crow massacre to die at the hands of her captors. Instead, he bargained for her life. He can't explain what he feels when he looks at her, but knows it jeopardizes his secret mission. Now he's saddled with unwanted baggage, or so he thinks! But Emma Lancing is full of surprises. As bold and quick-witted as she is beautiful, she soon rouses his admiration and ardor as, day-by-day, she turns from liability to the ideal partner.
At first, Emma wants only to escape a bleak future under her abusive father's boot-heel. She'll risk everything to evade his tyranny and vows to never again be ruled by a man. But journeying with Jake makes her long to join him on his adventures and taste passion in his arms! For a woman determined to keep men out of her life, Emma may just have met her match.
“…high-action journey over the Rockies and into the dangers of spying makes for tip-top reading…”
~Romantic Times Book Reviews on TURNER’S WOMAN~
Excerpt - Turner's Woman #1
Rocky Mountains, 1830
The odor of coffee and chewing tobacco reached Jake Turner seconds before the jangle of metal bits in the mouths of nervous horses. He estimated there to be no more than ten greenhorns, but that made no sense. The big trading outfits never traveled with less than twenty men and he knew these riders were newcomers from the clatter of shod hooves on rock. Men who survived their first winter in these mountains knew that the ring of metal on stone was sure to draw unwanted attention, not to mention that a shoed horse left tracks impossible to miss.
Sliding off his horse, he crept forward, rifle in hand. The clearing came into view. Before him sat eight mounted men surrounded and outnumbered by a war party of twenty Mountain Crow warriors. The Indians waved their bows as their triumphant cries pierced the air. Jake’s gaze swept the group and halted suddenly. He blinked, doubting his eyes.
At the back of the pack sat a woman. The outline of shapely thighs hugging her mount was clear through the pale blue skirt. He hadn’t noticed her straight off, as she was dressed in a dark blue cavalry uniform and an army-issue broad felt hat. A thick honey-colored braid swept to her narrow waist. He couldn’t see her face, but from the back she looked just right.
She distracted him so thoroughly that by the time he glanced at the traders it was too late. The lead man chose death over capture and reached for his rifle. It never cleared leather. The volley of arrows zipped toward the rider and a knife sank to the hilt in his chest. He slumped forward and hit the ground with a thud. The blood flowing from his mouth marked him as dead.
The man behind him got his pistol drawn.
A single gunshot split the air.
The others drew and some fired. The woman seemed to be the only one who wished to live. She lay flat on her mount as arrows streaked over her back. Jake watched the others fall like dominoes, feathered shafts sticking from their woolen jackets.
The woman screamed and fell from her horse.
Jake resisted the urge to interfere. In a moment, the exchange ended. One warrior writhed in the dust, clutching his belly and twisting in agony. Beside him the traders sprawled, frozen in the unnatural postures of violent death. Jake focused on the wounded Crow and winced, knowing the agony the man would endure before he died of his wound.
As expected, the warriors did not kill the woman right off. She was dressed as a soldier and that might complicate matters. Where did she get that coat?
One of the warriors shouted as he lifted a medicine shield from a trader’s horse. Jake’s gaze fixed in horror. He knew the pattern, had seen it many times when a guest of the horse band. It belonged to their chief Swooping Hawk--or it had belonged to him. The man died last March. A nasty suspicion rose. Maybe these men deserved to die, for he could think of only one way to obtain the shield of a dead chief.
Jake dragged his gaze from the massacre. Foolish men did not live long here. Before he could turn away, his attention fell again on the woman.
He could see her face now, pale and bloodless. Her gaze darted from her downed escorts to the approaching warrior.
“Damn and damn again,” he muttered, then stood and called to the group, using the language now as familiar as his own.
Bows lifted and arrows now pointed in his direction. He slipped from cover, guiding his mounts forward. The lead warrior lifted his hand staying his men and Jake swallowed his relief. He knew this man. The arrow points dropped toward the ground.
“Do not interfere here,” said White Cloud.
“Did you hunt these men?”
White Cloud nodded. “They crossed our burial ground. This man stole a medicine shield.” He pointed at the dead trader at his feet, who seemed more porcupine than man, because of the glut of arrows in his chest. Of course, the warriors would want to avenge this insult to their dead chief’s spirit.
Already the Indians took scalps from the corpses, the skin making a sucking sound as it clung to the skull. Jake stared at the dead men at his feet, focusing on a boy too young to shave, and could not stifle a sigh at the waste. He saw the woman sidling toward her mount, one hand on the reins. As if escape were possible.
“I think they have killed Running Fox,” said White Cloud.
Jake considered the younger members of the group who had still not loosened their grip on their weapons. The bloodlust still flowed strong in them and Jake looked far too much like a trader. He silently cursed the woman for forcing him from cover.
She placed a foot in her stirrup and one of the warriors shouted at her. She froze.
“Best step down, miss,” he said in English.
She did, releasing the saddle horn and running the few steps that separated them, then clung to his buckskin shirt. He stared down into her desperate blue eyes. His gut tightened as if she’d kicked him. He wanted to push her away and at the same time he wanted to pull her close.
“Don’t let them take me,” she cried.
“I’m working on it.”
She didn’t seem to hear him, because she repeated herself. “You have to help me.”
Actually, he didn’t. His world would be simpler and safer if he just rode on, leaving these fools to the fate they created. Instead, he pushed her behind him, but she refused to release her grip on his shirt, holding on as if it were her last true friend. He turned his attention to the warriors who did not look anxious to relinquish their prize.
White Cloud nodded toward her. “You know her?”
Jake shook his head.
“She dresses like a blue pony boy, but hides like a woman. I don’t know if I should give her a warrior’s death or make her a slave.” He nudged his horse forward to consider her. “She crossed sacred ground with the others.”
Jake felt the scales tip against her. “She may dress like a man but she is not. Do your women lead your warriors?”
White Cloud scowled. “Men lead, women follow.”
“Then she did what was right. She followed these stupid men.”
White Cloud sighed. “I have no stomach to kill this woman. Do you want her?”
In a biblical sense--yes. In the day-to-day practice of keeping a woman, he certainly did not. Better to just shoot himself in the foot and limp off. Certainly a bullet wound would be less troublesome than a woman on the trail.
He thumbed over his shoulder at his packhorse. “I already got one female and she’s aggravation enough, but I will take her to her people.”
White Cloud dismounted and stepped toward the woman. The look in the man’s eyes told him that he had sounded too eager to take her. Now the warrior showed new interest.
She crouched behind Jake, trembling.
“Hold still,” he whispered.
The warrior grasped her chin and stared at the woman’s face. He released her as if scorched and stepped away. “She has ghost eyes.”
Jake played on this. “Certainly she was unlucky for these men.”
White Cloud nodded, his face solemn. “Perhaps I will kill her now.”
As if sensing her peril, the woman’s arms tightened around his waist, sending the soft mounds of her breasts against his back. He gritted his teeth as the sweet smell of her surrounded him.
“She never fired on you,” Jake pointed out.
White Cloud nodded at this.
Jake made his suggestion sound like pure comment. “I don’t think it is her day to die.”
“Then you take her,” White Cloud suggested.
“What about her horse?”
“I keep the horse.”
Jake pressed his lips together, preparing to bluff and realizing as he spoke that his words were true. “I can’t take her without a horse.”
White Cloud pointed. “You have two horses. She can ride one.”
“You’re asking me to choose a woman over my supplies. No, my friend.”
White Cloud looked doubtful. He glanced at the horse and then the woman.
“We’ll keep everything else,” he said at last.
“That woman clings to you like a second skin.”
The words of the Crow rolled off his tongue. Jake’s gift for languages served him well once again. “I already have a coat. I think I better pull her off.”
“Every man should have a coat like that, especially in winter,” said White Cloud. His dry humor made the corner of Jake’s mouth quirk.
White Cloud glanced at the warriors who stood menacing, then to Jake. “You go now.”
“Do you go to the new fort?”
“No, west. Over the mountains.”
White Cloud’s expression darkened. “There is nothing there but deserts and poor hunting. Better stay here.”
“I’ll think on it.”
“Already it is snowing on the peaks,” said White Cloud.
“Then, I will hurry.”
He pushed the woman toward her horse and helped her mount, catching a glimpse of her shapely calf as she slipped her foot into her stirrup. Suddenly, he wanted to run up the ridge and leave her here. This woman disturbed him in a way that made her dangerous. He gritted his teeth. He had no time to turn back and take her to safety.
Fate had dropped her on his doorstep.
He grasped her horse’s reins and walked with forced slowness from the clearing to his horses, then mounted up.
“Damnation,” he muttered as he led them up the ridge.
They rode less than a mile when the woman recovered her nerve along with her tongue.
“Where are you taking me?”
“Hush,” he said.
She looked about, lowering her head like a turtle retreating into its shell.
“Are there more Indians about?” she whispered.
He pulled up and waited as her horse stepped beside his. Their legs brushed and another wave of awareness rippled through him. She eyed him with worry. Her pink lips drew up into a bow and a flush blanketed the smooth skin of her cheeks. How many years since he’d seen a white woman?
An image of Helen flashed in his mind and his innards froze. Women were traps and if a man wanted his freedom he’d do best to avoid them. But damn, this one was well formed.
“No more talk now.” He had some questions, as well, but first he planned to get as far from White Cloud as possible. They rode through the heat of the afternoon and into the cool breeze that ushered in the evening. He picked a clearing against a series of three large boulders to rest. A dry camp, but he carried enough water for cooking.
She groaned as she slid from her horse, but said nothing as she removed the saddle and blanket, then rubbed down her chestnut gelding with a hank of dried grass. She slipped off the bridle, replacing it with a halter. Finally, she tied him to the trunk of a lodgepole pine. The woman obviously knew horses and that surprised him.
By the time she finished, he had his horse and mule hobbled and the fire struck. She folded like a rag doll before the growing flames. He glanced up and saw that dirt and tear tracks streaked her face. His heart squeezed, but he shook it off and his scowl deepened as he considered the problems her arrival signaled.
“Why are you out here?” he asked.
She startled, as if she’d forgotten his presence.
“We, I mean, I am on my way to the Rendezvous to meet my father, Henry Lancing.”
Jake knew him. The man brought sixty-odd men out here and built a fort he'd named after himself. If rumors were true, he married a rich woman to finance his trading post. His greed surpassed his ambition, and his high prices drove most trappers away. Taking his goods to the Rendezvous wouldn’t change that. But Lancing was smart, placing his post at the foot of South Pass, one of two routes through the Rockies.
Jake hadn’t heard anything about a daughter.
“Why weren’t you following the Bighorn? The fort is on her shores.”
“With the Indians pursuing, we dared not ford the river.”
The Rendezvous and her father’s fort lay far to the south. A detour of over a hundred miles could cost him any chance of crossing the divide this season and the mission would be halted until late spring. No delays. Proceed at all costs--that was President Jackson’s directive.
“Why were you traveling with only eight men?” He crouched beside her, giving himself the option for a speedy retreat if she got hysterical.
“They killed the rest six days ago.”
Her gaze dropped to the fire. She did.
“Damn stupid thing that,” he said.
“I told them not to cross. Then Wilcox climbed that platform. He took a drum.”
Jake puzzled a moment wondering what she was talking about. Then he understood. “That wasn’t a drum. That was the sacred medicine shield of their dead chief. That platform was his grave.”
Her eyes widened. “There were bodies in those skins?”
“Left to return to the sky.”
“Someone saw us. We couldn’t outrun them.”
“Shouldn’t think so. Brought down the whole tribe on you.”
“How did you stop them?”
She stared at him blankly. “If you knew what would happen, why didn’t you save the others?”
He scowled, not wanting to tell her that nothing in the world could have stopped that massacre. The cards were dealt the minute that man stole from their ancestors. What did she think he might have done? He scowled. “Why didn’t you?”
That gave her pause. Her pretty mouth gaped a moment. “I couldn’t.”
He nodded. “Same reason.”
“I didn’t mean to sound ungrateful. You rescued me. I have the utmost respect for you.”
“That might change.”
“Oh no, it won’t. My name is Emma Lancing.”
She extended her hand. He knew better than to touch her. Just brushing her leg made his stomach jumped like a bucket full of crickets. Eventually she gave up and dropped her hand back to her knee.
She waited a moment as if she expected something. Finally she said, “And you are?”
He knew he should doff his hat, but her intrusion made him as ornery as a treed bobcat. Instead he touched the brim. “Jake Turner.”
“Where are we headed, Mr. Turner--Popo Agie?”
“Just been.” That much was true.
Her surprise hung between them a moment. “You aren’t headed to the Rendezvous?”
Every trapper, Indian and trader in the West was headed to the Rendezvous. He might be the only man in a hundred miles heading on the opposite track.
“Come and gone.”
She considered his gear. “You don’t have any traps.”
The woman had a head on her shoulders. A trapper would have traded his furs and restocked his stores to begin a new season of hunting. Instead of traps, his packhorse was loaded with sixty pounds of dried meat, his instruments, trade goods and ammunition.
He stared her down, refusing to respond to her inquiry.
She regarded him with caution and she held herself stiffly. “Trader?”
“That’s none of your affair.”
She lowered her gaze and stood silent a moment. “Might I ask where you are headed?”
Her mouth shaped a little O and a tiny line formed between her dark brows. Funny to have hair so pale and yet lashes and brows the same rich color as ground coffee.
“But I have to go to Fort Lancing on the Bighorn, by South Pass. My father--well, he’ll be worried.”
He nodded. “I understand.”
Her shoulders slumped with relief. “I’m so glad. I do apologize for inconveniencing you.”
She smiled and his heart squeezed, gathered in a noose.
“You are a gentleman.”
“I’m not that, either.”
“But you are. Backtracking to deliver me to my father is very commendable.”
“Woman, I’m not backtracking for you or any other. I don’t believe you’ll make it, but if you’re fixing to try, I won’t stop you. I also won’t accompany you.”
That comment stunned her speechless. She blinked and tears rose in her eyes. He didn’t know if it was a trick or not, but he’d seen Helen do it this way. His lip compressed and he lowered his chin, preparing for the inevitable wail to follow. It never came. She only swiped at her eyes and stared.
Impaled upon her gaze, he agreed with White Cloud. Her eyes were the strangest pale blue-gray he’d ever seen. Like fog or smoke. That was it, the steel-gray smoke from the barrel of a rifle. He had been on the receiving end of an aimed rifle. Somehow he thought Emma's eyes posed the greater threat.
Excerpt TURNER'S WOMAN ©2018 – Jenna Kernan