Caroline Fyffe

Excerpt: Heart of Dreams

Book 5: Colorado Hearts Series

Chapter One

Eden, Colorado, Early October 1881

A crack of gunfire shattered the silence of the valley. Another gunshot followed. Wild turkeys fluttered from the trees, spooking Katie Brinkman’s horse and almost unseating her from the saddle. She reined up, a jolt of fear stiffening her spine. How close? Who’s shooting? Crooning softly to her gelding, she reached forward and scratched Spur’s withers, then stroked his neck. In response, the agitated horse danced on the grass beneath his hooves, tossing his head nervously.

Katie had traveled much farther today than she usually did without a companion, and now she felt a seed of doubt over her actions. She’d told Mavis, her oldest sister, she was headed to town, when in reality she needed some time alone in the hills. Her attire of denims, a boy’s shirt, and cowboy hat wasn’t that unusual for workdays at the lumber mill, especially if she’d intended to scout out the next crop of trees to harvest.

The much-needed solitude had been medicine for her soul. Morning had turned to noon, and still she kept riding.

Spur flung his head and spun a half circle, using the gunshot as his latest excuse to try to return to the ranch. He never liked leaving his pasture mates behind. Eager for a ride at first, he’d grown cranky since they’d crossed onto an unfamiliar trail, which would eventually lead to the Lucky Sister mine. The fidgety flea-bitten gray had worked up a lather even on this cool October day.

“Settle down,” she said softly. “The gunfire was nowhere around here. I’ll protect you.” She grinned at the thought of comforting the horse. When you’re frightened, turn to comforting someone else, and your fears will fly away. Mavis’s words from years ago. How old had Katie been? Five, six? Difficult to know. With no memory of her mother or father, Katie regarded her oldest sister, Mavis, as the closest thing she had to a mother in her life.

Glancing around again, she took note of the meadow and the hills beyond. “There’s nothing to fear, Spur. Most likely a hunter after a buck.”

Still, she was unnerved herself. She uncapped her canteen and wet the inside of her mouth. The tinny-tasting water refreshed her. Not even three months had passed since Santiago’s betrayal. Her sisters thought she should be over him by now. She and Santiago hadn’t been married, or even engaged—and she was young, only nineteen, the youngest of the five sisters.

Still, Katie’s entire being said otherwise. She’d promised herself to Santiago heart and soul, to him and only him forever. His duplicity had been the worst treachery of her life. At the worst of it, food had tasted like sand and sleep never came. How could she have been so wrong about him? Her heart ached as if his disloyalty had happened yesterday. Since Santiago had abandoned her, frightening memories she’d long since willed herself to forget were now blindsiding her.

Velma Crowdaire stood before Katie’s five-year-old self. “You’re a nuisance, Katie Fortitude Brinkman. I’m not sure you belong to the same family as your sisters. Surely they found you under a toadstool somewhere. You’re chubby. You look nothing like those pretty girls.” She laughed at her joke. “Don’t well those tears at me, or I’ll lock you in the closet until your Uncle Vernon returns with your sisters. You know those tears are a no-no.”

Katie gasped and grabbed the saddle horn. The memory of the musty, dark closet created a crippling fear. She clenched her teeth to stop their chatter. Even as a child, Katie felt shamed by the abuse, vowing never to tell anyone. Least of all her sisters. If she did, Velma had promised retribution, something much worse than being locked in the dark.

Katie dashed away her tears, trying to dispel the memories. She glanced at the late-afternoon sky dotted with puffy, white clouds. A ray of sunshine peeped out and warmed her face. Still hearing Velma’s voice whispering in her head, she closed her eyes tightly, willing the nightmare away.

As she’d aged, her arms and legs had grown sleek and long. But when her sisters said she looked pretty, she hardly believed them, seeing only Velma’s mocking gaze, hearing her voice. When she’d turned fifteen, she worked up the nerve to share her desire about becoming a teacher. Velma had laughed. Said she was too irresponsible. That she wasn’t smart enough. That she would never finish and the money they’d put out for her to go to a normal school for teachers would be wasted.

Katie sighed deeply. Nothing I ever did pleased her.

In the end, the Crowdaires had agreed to lend Katie the money, but only after docking her sisters a portion of their own small yearly allowance to help. Katie hadn’t known about that until after the fact. And she’d been required to sign a promissory note of her intention to pay them back once she’d been hired by a proper school. Well, she had graduated—on her second try, but that had been only three months before Henry Glass sent the telegram explaining their father’s death and compelling his daughters back to Eden.

At that thought, Katie’s heart gave a shuddering sigh of happiness. The openness of Eden, the fresh air, the goodness of Father, even after his passing, and all the people here who loved her, and all her sisters…these realities lifted her spirits.

Since then, they’d all learned how the criminal couple had absconded with the support money Father had sent, intended for his wife and children’s care. The money the Crowdaires insisted she pay back had been hers and her sisters’ all along. When the pair realized their embezzling would soon be discovered, they’d disappeared on a ship to Europe without a trace to follow.

Santiago’s image floated before her. He smiled, and his eyes sparkled, making her heart leap. Then suddenly her memory soured, and her heart sank again.

At times, enduring the pitying glances from knowing townsfolk and the hovering attention from her sisters was too much to bear. This morning was no exception. She’d needed space. Fresh air. Wide-open valleys and long-reaching vistas free of people. This day away from prying eyes had been a balm to her hurts.

“And what about poor Miguel?” she whispered into the air. Santiago had shattered his father’s heart as well. She wondered if Santiago even knew his father was ailing.

She shook her head. “My past shouldn’t have the power to bring me to my knees. I won’t allow it any longer.”

Impatient, Spur pawed the grass, pulling Katie back to the present. Determined to reach the Lucky Sister, the undeveloped mine she and her sisters had inherited from their father, she capped the canteen, slung the strap over her saddle horn and started off. If she was correct, she wasn’t far from her destination.

An uneventful fifteen minutes later, Katie scanned the area from the top of a knoll. The few times she’d accompanied the others to the mine, they’d come from the trail that veered from an old road. Today, needing to see something new, she’d been bold and ridden cross-country. She nudged Spur, and the nervous horse grudgingly descended the hill.

Almost to the bottom, Katie pulled up. Something felt off. Her mood or her intuition, she didn’t know which, murmured softly. The splashing sounds of water cascading over a shallow drop of rocks reached her ears. Everything appeared calm.

Then why the gooseflesh prickling my arms?

Spur snorted softly and shook his head.

Hearing the gunshot had frightened him—and her. She needed to remind herself the outing today was no different from previous expeditions.

That’s not true. I’ve never come this far south alone. Nobody knows where I am if something happens.

Too committed to her course today to change now, and feeling stubborn, she pushed Spur on, determined to finish the journey out of principle. Who knew when she’d have another day of privacy? Once at the mine, she’d loosen Spur’s cinch and rest her back against a tree. Relax. Block everything and everyone from her mind.

The landmark stump and granite outcropping that marked the old map they’d received from their father came into view. She released a deep sigh and finished the downward slope. This was her destination. Pushing away a tingle of uncertainty, she dismounted and glanced about. Before staking Spur, she’d have a quick look around. She didn’t trust putting the jittery horse on a long line just yet. Leading him to an oak tree, she snubbed him to the trunk and handily loosened his cinch.

The old horse gave a deep sigh and looked at her.

The Lucky Sister stood quiet on the other side of the small stream. The mineral mine her father had once had high hopes for was not much more than a short indentation in the side of the slope. Would they eventually get the place up and running? All her sisters seemed so engaged with other things that accomplishing the task seemed unlikely. Mavis and Lara Marsh, their good friend from back home in Philadelphia, were deeply involved with the guest ranch and the arrival of the first guests tomorrow. Belle was always immersed with her husband Blake in the ranch’s cattle business.

Lavinia rarely had a second for anyone other than Rhett—they were practically newlyweds. But if she did, the time was split between making the bonnets and hats she so loved and managing the café in the hotel she’d inherited.

Nobody was complaining at the good fortune the sisters had been handed, but the Lucky Sister was now an afterthought and would probably remain so for some time to come.

And what about me? What do I have to keep me busy—besides crying over Santiago? The melancholy she’d fought for months haunted her every thought.

Leaving Spur at the tree, Katie picked her way across the stream, stepping each booted foot carefully from one rock to the next. Her curiosity wouldn’t allow her peace until she had a quick look inside.

The sign over the arched opening read THE LUCKY SISTER.

Sun rays slanting through the trees illuminated the darkened hole carved in the side of the mountain. Shoulder height, the opening was tall enough to enter hunched over. Admiring the detailed carving that Maverick, Mavis’s partner at the livery, had given the sign, Katie didn’t notice the earth-colored boot protruding from the low entry until she tripped over it and stumbled forward. Gasping, she jumped away in fright.

A man was stretched out on his back.

She inched closer, her heart thundering in her chest. The low ceiling made the air musty and cool. If she stretched out her arms, she could touch both sides.

Claustrophobia quickened her breath. “Please, Auntie Velma, please o-open the door. I-I’m scared. I don’t like the d-dark.”

Shaking herself from the reverie, she peered down at the man. He was tall. Young. A dark shadow of stubble covered his jaw. An outlaw? Deep scarlet circled the bullet hole in his shirt. A thin trail of blood pooled on the dirt floor beside him.

She leaned forward, fearful he might be playing possum. “Mister?” she whispered. Scuff marks looked as if he’d crawled or dragged himself inside before he’d passed out. “Can you hear me?” Are we alone? Is his enemy close by?

The man’s head rolled her way, a low moan escaping his lips.

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