The Trapper #3
TRAIL BLAZERS series
Freed from her gilded cage
The daughter of a wealthy industrialist, Eleanor Hart, is an artist who longs to capture in paint the raw power of the vanishing West. To do so, she agrees to her father’s conditions. He will fund the painting expedition if she agrees to marry a man of his choosing upon her return.
Her guide, rugged Cherokee trapper Troy Price, is impressed by Eleanor's pluck, but on their journey, he transforms her longing for fame into a new yearning for freedom, adventure and a forbidden passion.
Troy knows that he will never find acceptance in her privileged world, but despite all reason, he can't resist loving her, even knowing that her father--and her promise to return--await.
"Kernan's engaging characters, a colorful backdrop and Eleanor's personal growth make this classic western romance something special."
~Romantic Times Book Reviews on The Trapper~
Excerpt - The Trapper #3
Fort Union, Missouri River, 1840
“I hate to be the harbinger of bad news, Mr. Price, but the leader of the expedition died of cholera in New Orleans.”
Troy Price furrowed his brow, bracing as the first mate of the steamer Yellow Stone drew a breath and continued.
“Their ship put them ashore when the first man grew ill. I understand they died quite quickly,” said Fairchild.
His party of New York scientists never even made it to St. Louis. So much for his first attempt at guiding easterners. He touched the light pouch that held his dwindling funds. No beaver, no party and no money.
“Thank ye, kindly.” He turned to leave the deck of the steamer Yellow Stone, knowing the army had already hired its scouts for the season. Damn.
“They aren’t all dead. One survived and is still anxious to proceed.”
A tiny seedling of hope sprouted. “Where is he?”
Fairchild reddened and then coughed like something was stuck in his craw.
“Maybe you best spit it out.”
“Yes, just so. If you’ll come with me, I’ll introduce you.”
Troy followed the man as he strode to the gangplank.
He could not help but notice the woman.
She looked like a green parrot standing amidst a flock of mud hens. The whole world seemed brown by comparison. All about her, on the Missouri River, men unloaded the steamer moving like drones to the direction of the queen bee.
Troy took in the velvet skirts trailing in the river mud. The top half of her dress fit her like a snake’s skin, making it impossible to ignore the full swell of her feminine curves contrasted by an impossibly narrow waist. A jolt of awareness hit his gut and burned like good whiskey. Oh no, he told himself. No white woman, never again. Still his eyes followed her, unable to pull free.
Perched on her head was a useless hat that did not even shade her nose from the sun. Her coppery hair was all done up in a style that sent curls dancing about her face when she moved. The ripple of desire quickened his heart rate as his eyes tracked her like prey.
Trailing Fairchild, his attention remained upon her. As he drew near, he studied the woman for some flaw. In his experience, God rarely graced one person with a face to match such a body. But this time he sure made an exception. Those eyes stopped him, bright as a robin’s egg and dark-rimmed. Slight smudges beneath her eyes told of sleepless nights and made her seem real. She was younger than he expected from the riches she wore. Freckles dusted her straight nose.
But it was her lower lip that fascinated him. Just beneath and to the left clung a tiny mole.
His escort paused before the object of his fascination. She so distracted him that it took several moments for understanding to sink into his muddled brain. His insides clenched as the rational part of his mind kicked in.
“Now wait just a minute,” he said.
Fairchild ignored him, sweeping his hand toward the woman.
“Miss Eleanor Hart, may I present, Captain Troy Price.”
A tiny line formed between her eyebrows.
“Your guide, madam.”
Their gazes met. She gaped at him. He did not know what she expected, but clearly, he was not it. He tried to push his disappointment aside as her lovely eyes found him lacking. He scowled, gathering his shredded pride.
“O-oh my,” she stammered at last.
He had to give her credit. She recovered first, plastering the smile back on her face.
Troy turned to Fairchild. “This is a mistake. I’m leading a party of scientists and artists.”
“Miss Hart is the only remaining member of your party. A rather important member who funded this expedition. You must take especially good care of her. She is the daughter of John Hart.”
The man said that like he ought to know her pa. His blank expression caused Fairchild to add, “Of Hart Shipping?”
Troy shook his head.
“He’s only one of the wealthiest men in America. A giant.”
Troy turned from Fairchild to gaze upon this bright butterfly before him. She could not possibly imagine the hardships of traveling upriver. Even if she were prepared, he couldn’t guard her without her company of men to help with the task. He ground his teeth together as he admitted the last and truest reason he could not take her.
She was not only white, but from a world of privilege, as different from him as dove from raven. The woman stirred him up from thirty paces and the feelings only got worse with each step in her direction. He’d best close his gaping mouth and send her packing.
“I don’t care who her father is, I’m not toting a lone white woman up the Yellowstone.”
The woman spoke to their go-between as if she could not hear him. “This is Mr. Price, my Indian scout?”
Troy lowered his chin as Fairchild nodded.
“I see,” she said. “Then I am most happy to meet you, Mr. Price, and I can assure you that you need not be concerned.”
The woman had some sense at least to recognize the impossibility of moving upriver alone.
“Glad to hear it,” said Troy.
“Because,” she added, “I have brought my own mount, you see, and she is quite capable of, how did you put it? ‘Toting me’ wherever you lead.”
Her uppity tone reminded him of how most whites spoke to the Cherokee back in Georgia, condescending and superior. His insides hardened. Apparently, her beauty was only on the outside. That made this next part easier.
He did not repeat his mistakes. He would not be tangling with this one. He drew a breath, preparing to cast her off before she had a chance to do the same to him. “What are you doing here?”
“I believe our objectives have been explained to you. If not, I have a copy of the letter you received.” She fumbled for a small cloth bag dangling from her wrist.
“You should have turned back at New Orleans when your men all died of sickness.”
He noted the lowering of her chin, like a buffalo preparing to charge. “I am not turning back.”
“I can’t help you.”
She drew papers from her bag. Her fingers trembled as she unfolded the pages but when she spoke her tone stayed level. Her voice and body sent opposite signals. Which was the truth, was she frightened or fearless?
“I have here a contract signed by Troy Joseph Price, scout, in which he agrees to lead an expedition west to the Yellowstone Valley departing in July of 1840 from Fort Union and returning in September of said year for the sum of fifty dollars per week. Is this your signature?”
Troy glanced at the even letters and thought of his mother, his first teacher who insisted he learn to read and write both English and Cherokee. She had known he would need both to survive in the white man’s world.
“Then you already have agreed to take me up the Yellowstone and I am prepared to pay you the agreed upon sum though your task should be much easier with only one client.”
Troy snorted. “Don’t be so sure.”
Fairchild cleared his throat. “I have duties to attend to. Best of luck on your journey, Miss Hart.”
The fellow actually bent to kiss her hand and she let him. Troy imagined kissing her yarn, half gloves would not be too thrilling, though her mouth was tempting enough. The man gave Troy a quick salute and made a hasty retreat up the gangplank. Troy turned back to her. Taking her upriver would be pure torture. She hired him as a competent guide. He’d start acting like it by not leading her into danger.
“I agreed to lead a party of men.”
“That’s not exactly true. See here, I am listed by name E. Hart, artist.” She pointed a slim pink finger from the half gloves showing a carefully manicured nail buffed to a high shine. He made a fist to hide the dirt he knew lay beneath his nails and shifted uncomfortably. She made him feel dirty as a wallowing hog.
“You tricked me, listing yourself like a man.”
She had the decency to drop her gaze for a moment. When she glanced back, she looked as determined as ever. “If you fail to comply with the terms of our agreement, I will sue for damages.”
“What are you going to take from me, my horse? I got four dollars in my pocket and you can have them right now if you just turn round and get back on that steamer where you belong.”
Her cheeks reddened, but she did not give in. He admired her grit as she drew herself up for a fight. Her change in posture made her bosom swell and his throat went dry, rendering him speechless. “Such a suit will besmirch your reputation, for who would hire an unreliable guide?”
He folded his arms in refusal and glared.
“I should think leading one person would be quite less trouble.”
He laughed. “We have a difference of opinion on how much trouble a woman can be.”
She scowled. “Then this is about money. You seek to take advantage of me. Very well, Mr. Price, I shall offer an additional ten dollars to the agreed upon sum per week.”
“Not everything is about money, Princess. I ain’t for sale.”
“Not about money.” She gave a dry laugh. “Don’t be silly.”
He stared at the mole beneath her lip and he forgot what he was saying. She lifted a brow as if vexed and he gathered his shattered wits. He tried reason.
“This is a dangerous route. Without the men to help guard the camp and stand watch, it’s impossible. I agreed to lead a party, not shepherd a lone woman. Why don’t you head back to your folks before you get us both killed?”
“I can stand watch. I know how to shoot.”
He eyed her suspiciously. Having met other Easterners and seen the puny guns they carried, he suspected she hadn’t the faintest idea what lay ahead. “What kind of shooting you done?”
He slapped himself on the forehead. “Target shooting?”
“I’m quite the crack shot.” She beamed with pride.
“Here the critters run at you with fangs bared.”
He turned away to pace in the mud. His moccasins made a sucking sound as he headed back to her. For his own sanity he must convince her to go home. “You ain’t prepared for the Yellowstone. Few men are–a woman…” He shook his head. “Turn back.”
She set her jaw and her nostrils flared. For a moment he thought she would cry. When she spoke, the determination rang clear in her voice.
“I see you are not a man who keeps his word.”
That blow landed hard. Unlike many white men of his experience, who signed treaties only to break them, his word was all-important. Until this moment, he’d never come across a situation where he had to go back on it. But she tricked him.
“This is a mistake,” he said using a tone that had sent many men scurrying. “You go upriver, you’ll live to regret it.”
She did not flinch and he admired her for it.
“If you will not take me, then I shall find a guide more agreeable. I am certain for the right price there shall be no shortage of applicants.”
A man would be a fool to take her, but for money, men would be foolish. Possible candidates ran through his mind and he cringed. The only one he trusted left this morning on a keelboat with five of his last nine dollars. He stared down river at the dot that held his friend, Jeb, then returned his attention to the woman.
“Miss Hart, is your family willing to let you go running off with a man you don’t know?”
Her cheeks glowed. “That is none of your affair.”
He had his answer. They were against it. “What about your reputation? Your pa consent to having you live with a half-breed Cherokee scout for a month? How about we send word downriver and wait for his reply?”
“Your reputation is impeccable. You rescued that missionary woman from the wagon train and did not sully her honor. I’m sure you will treat me with the same respect.”
“First, that weren’t me, it was Thomas Nash and second, he had to marry that gal after their time together.” He let that sink in and then added, “And I’m not the marrying type.”
A realization dawned. When they first met she’d called him her Indian scout. That was the title of one of those damned novels.
“You read the stories, didn’t you?” he asked.
She nodded and he slapped his hat against his leg.
“Damn it. Those are tall tales. I’m not the man in those yarns.”
She regarded him with wide blue eyes that made him want to strip down and dive right in as they were as alluring as the call of a whip-poor-will. She swallowed back her apprehension and he watched the movement of her slender throat. He moved closer, unable to prevent himself from drawing near.
“But you are a man of honor.”
“But still a man.”
He leaned in, close enough to kiss her and inhaled her scent. His heart raced and he champed at the bit in his desire to touch her skin. Why didn’t she move away? Did she want him to kiss her?
“Will you protect me?”
From everything but myself, he thought.
“You don’t know one damned thing about me. How can you trust your life to a stranger?”
“If you don’t take me I shall choose another.”
“Ain’t no man fit to be alone with you, including me.” He knew the men here. They were rough and deadly. Anyone who had an opportunity elsewhere had already scat. “The men here are wild as wolves.”
“Then my fate will be on your conscience.”
He drew back. Sweat broke out on his brow. He already carried the death of one woman on his conscience. He could not afford another. His heart turned to ice as he realized he was already responsible for her.
“Please, Mr. Price, I must go upriver.”
Her eyes begged him and he felt his resolve slipping. He’d only known the woman a few minutes and already she was wrapping him 'round her finger. He stifled the urge to throw her over his shoulder and carry her back on board the steamer.
“Why’s this so important?”
“Have you ever needed to prove yourself, Mr. Price? To show the world that you are more than what they see? I am more and only need a chance to establish it.”
That yearning struck such a strong cord in his own life. His eyes rounded at her words. But what nonsense was this?
“You’ve got everything in the world waiting for you back east.”
“You say that I know nothing about you. I could say the same. You do not know what awaits me.”
“Something worth running from, I imagine.”
“And you’d be correct in that assumption.”
Now she was staring at his mouth. He felt himself growing hard under her consideration. If she could lather him up with only a glance, what might a touch do? He held his breath, trying to rein in his lust. If he didn’t do something else quick he’d kiss her right here on the dock. His rescue came with a loud thump beside him.
He stared at the retreating porter and then down at the strangest looking saddle he’d ever laid eyes on. It rested on a crate. One stirrup was missing, but there were two on the other side, though one was all shriveled up and there was a horn where it shouldn’t be.
“What the hell is that?”
“How do you sit in it?”
She pressed her lips together, momentarily concealing her full mouth. “It’s a sidesaddle. You sit sideways with one leg over the horn.”
Troy pushed his hat back on his head and stared at the strange contrivance. “You can’t ride over mountain and across river on that. You need a proper saddle.”
“That is the only proper saddle for a lady. I’ll have you know I’ve jumped a five-foot fence in that saddle and also won numerous awards for dressage.”
“Dressage. It’s an exact form of horsemanship. Very difficult.”
“More difficult than outrunning a grizzly downhill?”
She arched a coppery brow. “I should doubt it.”
“You set off in that silly saddle and you’re stuck with it. I ain’t buying you another.”
“Does that mean you’ll take me?”
“I ain’t decided yet. What’s all this?” He waved at the piles of boxes.
“Most are the belongings of the others.” Her head sank and he did see a tear now.
Must have been hard watching them die. Cholera was a bad death. Stole a man’s dignity. Although you didn’t need to watch a death to have it break your heart. He thought of his family and his chest ached.
“I’m at a loss as to what to do with it.”
“Leave it on the steamer and then climb on after it.”
She drew herself up, rising an inch but still only reached his shoulder. “I see. Well, if you will not help me, then kindly stand aside.”
His mind urged him to turn away and leave this foolish woman on the docks. Perhaps if he left she would give up. But she seemed stubborn and spoiled enough to try another guide. Then her fate would be on his conscience, just as she had warned. He paused in a rare moment of indecision. His heart ached with sorrow.
“Please turn back,” he whispered.
Their gazes locked and he read her determination. An idea came to him, a possibility that gave him a way to keep her safe and still avoid dragging this woman to the Black Hills. She had no notion what life on the trail would demand. Explaining did no good, so he’d let her have a taste. If he just took her out and kept her out a few days, she’d give up. He’d bet his bottom dollar, which he was dangerously close to, that she’d quit inside a week. She’d beg him to bring her back to St. Louis and he would be happy to comply.
He studied her beautiful face. The only question was could he keep his hands off her until she quit? He mustered his resolve.
“Then I will be your guide, Miss Hart.”
He nearly laughed at the suspicion reflecting in her eyes. “Why the turnabout, Mr. Price?”
“Like you said, I signed them papers. So, I’ll take you as far as you’d like, but I don’t expect traveling wild will be to your liking."
“I disagree. I should say it will be the experience of a lifetime.”
He grinned imagining her riding all day in that saddle. “Surely it will be that.”
The clatter of nervous hooves brought Troy spinning around. A small white horse danced on the end of a silken lead line afraid to cross the planking. The handler faced the beast and tugged ineffectively on the rope.
“What kind of an idiot brought a white horse out here?”
Eleanor Hart stepped up beside him. “This idiot.”
Excerpt The TRAPPER ©2018 – Jenna Kernan