I can announce, however, that the release for the book will be sometime next week. I am not firm on the exact date, because my last two book releases didn't go off as scheduled due to glitches at Amazon. So, for this release, I will announce when the book actually goes live.
In the meantime, as a Valentine's gift, I present to you the entire Chapter One. If you need a refresher, I recommend reading the prologue, which I posted here quite a while ago.
St Charles, Missouri 1828
“You did what?”
Evelyn Lewis spun around on her heels so quickly she nearly lost her balance. The wooden ladle in her hand dropped to the ground with a dull thud, splattering brown gravy and vegetables on her dress and over the floorboards. Ignoring the mess, she stared at the man who stood across the room. Her eyes widened in shocked disbelief.
“Why would you do such a thing, Henry?” Evelyn’s voice rose almost to a shrill screech. She stepped away from the hearth, and stormed toward her brother. How dare he bring such news without proper warning, or even discussing it with her first? Henry Lewis raised his hands in front of his chest as if he was about to fend off a formidable adversary, and took a step back.
“Now don’t get all riled, Evie. I’m doing this for you,” Henry said, squaring his shoulders and standing his ground.
“For me?” Evelyn held her fists to her hips, and glared at her brother, standing only inches from him. She leaned forward. “How is a marriage to Charlie Richardson going to benefit me?” she demanded.
Henry tentatively placed a hand on her shoulder, and his lips rose in, what looked like, an uneasy smile. He inhaled a deep breath.
“Listen to me, Evie,” he said calmly. “I’ve had several requests for your hand in marriage over the last few months. We’ve known Charlie since we were children. He’s always been smitten with you. He seemed like the best choice to me.”
“Well I refuse to marry him,” Evelyn snorted. She shot her brother a narrow-eyed look. “You know I detest him. Ever since that time he pushed me into the creek when I was eleven years old, do you remember?” She poked a finger in her brother’s chest, her other hand balled in a tight fist at her hip. “Why, if it hadn’t been for . . .” Her voice trailed off, and she stared wide-eyed at Henry. She’d almost spoken his name. Her shoulders slumped, and she lowered her gaze to the ground. Tears threatened behind her eyes, and she blinked to curb the flow. After everything that loathsome man had done, why did every thought of him bring tears to her eyes?
Because he murdered your parents! Alexander Walker murdered your parents, and all you want to remember is the eighteen-year-old boy you fancied yourself in love with as a naïve young girl.
It was the last memory she had of him; the day Alex and Henry laughed at her as she ran from the barn to the house, completely humiliated. He had left that day to venture into the unknown wilderness beyond the Missouri. A year had gone by, and she clung to the hope that he would return. Two years had passed, and no one had neither seen nor heard from him. After the third year, even Henry had suggested that savages might have killed Alex.
Evelyn was well aware of Charlie Richardson’s infatuation with her. He’d often tried to talk to her when he saw her in town, and he’d stopped by the farm for one obscure reason or another. To keep him at arm’s length, she had pretended to show an interest in several other young men who came calling. None of them held her attention for long. One dark-haired, blue-eyed quiet boy continued to creep into her mind. But that was before . . .
Evelyn had first noticed Alexander Walker as more than just her brother’s best friend that day when she returned from carrying a basket of her mother’s eggs to a neighbor’s house. Charlie Richardson had spotted her on the trail along the creek between the two properties, and followed her. Relentlessly, he’d called her freckle face and made rude comments about the fact that she was thin and lanky, and hadn’t started filling out in the chest like some of the other girls her age had done. She’d tried to ignore his taunts, and pretend indifference, but he had continued until she couldn’t stand it anymore. Turning around quickly, she’d barely taken notice of his stunned expression before her fist connected with his nose.
Horrified at what she’d done, even as her insides filled with self-satisfaction, Evelyn had spun on her heels and ran toward home. Charlie had caught up with her quickly, and grabbed her by the arm. She was no match for his larger size, and he had dragged her to the creek’s edge, then forcefully shoved her into the cold water. Alex Walker had appeared out of nowhere and grabbed Charlie by the shirt collar. With seemingly effortless ease, Alex had hauled Charlie away from the creek bank, and slammed his own fist into Charlie’s face. Blood spurted everywhere, and Charlie held his hands over his face while he ran off. To this day, his nose was a different shape than it had been before Alex hit him.
Alex had reached for her hand, and pulled Evelyn from the water. She remembered staring up into those blue eyes of his, and her youthful heart had fluttered in her chest. He hadn’t said a word to her, and turned to disappear into the thicket just as quickly as he had appeared. Evelyn stared quietly after him that day, lost for words for the first time in her life.
“Evie, are you listening?” Henry’s voice, and a gentle shake on her arm brought her back to her senses. She sniffed, and blinked again.
“There’s more I need to tell you,” he said tentatively. He ran a hand across his lower jaw; a sure sign that he was nervous about something. “But I think you’d better sit down first.”
Evelyn’s eyes narrowed suspiciously. She still wasn’t done discussing that she wouldn’t marry Charlie, and by the look on his face, Henry wanted to present her with more bad news.
Henry held her elbow and guided her to one of the wooden chairs at the table in front of the hearth. She allowed him to pull the chair out for her, then sat and folded her hands in her lap. Seconds later, she rested them on top of the table. After Henry was seated across from her, she squared her shoulders and sat up straight.
“So, what else have you to tell me? I’ll listen, but the matter of my marriage to Charlie is still not settled.”
Henry cleared his throat, and shifted his weight in the chair. He stared at his hands resting on the table for a moment, then inhaled a deep breath and met her eyes.
“I sold the farm to him.” He paused, then clarified, “To Charlie.”
“You what?” Evelyn sprang from her seat so quickly, the chair toppled over behind her. She braced her hands on the table and leaned forward. If steam came from her ears, she wouldn’t be surprised. Heat rose up her cheeks as it always did when she was angry.
“This is my home, Henry. This was Ma and Pa’s home. It’s your home. How could you sell it? We’re not destitute.” Tears of anger welled up in her eyes, and her brother’s face blurred.
“And it will remain your home, Evie.”
“I will not marry Charles Richardson,” she stated heatedly, and stomped her foot. Her hands fisted in front of her, and she resisting the urge to strike out and hit something.
Henry stood from his chair. “You have no choice, Evie. He will be here in the morning to claim his property, and to take you to the church to wed you.” His palm swiped across his forehead.
Evelyn sucked in a deep breath. She stared across the table at her brother as if she was seeing him for the first time. Her heart slammed against her ribs, and a sinking feeling swept over her. This was really happening. Henry’s face showed no hint that he was merely joking with her.
“What about you? What are you going to do, Henry?” she finally asked, her voice lifeless. Her gaze dropped to the ground. Henry was her legal guardian. He had every right to choose a husband for her. She never thought her brother would pick the man she would marry, especially not without asking her first. She and Henry had always been close. The fact that he took matters of such importance into his own hands hurt deeply.
Henry stepped around the table, and stood before her. He touched a hand to her shoulder. “I’m sorry, Evie,” he said softly. “Perhaps in time you’ll come to understand that I have your best interest in mind. Charlie will be a good husband. He will protect you and take care of you.”
Evelyn ducked around him to avoid his touch. “I wish you would have consulted me on this matter.” She turned on her heel to face him. “Why wouldn’t you allow me to pick my own husband?”
“You haven’t been interested in anyone, Evie,” Henry said, moving to the hearth. He stared into the dying flames of the fire. “Every suitor who has come around, you’ve repelled. You’re nineteen years old. It’s time you married.”
Evelyn was about to argue that she had no desire to marry, least of all a man who sparked no desire or warm feelings in her. Before she could speak, Henry turned to her and stared through narrowed eyelids.
“You can’t still be holding on to your childish fantasies about Alex, can you?” he asked. “After what he did?” His jaw muscles tightened, his eyes cold.
Evelyn straightened her back. “Of course not. How could you think such a thing? I just haven’t found the man I wish to marry.” She glanced away from his perusing eye.
“Evie.” Henry spoke her name slowly. He waited until she made eye contact with him. “Alexander Walker is not the boy you remember. The quiet youth has turned into a savage.” He spoke the words almost viciously. “It’s no surprise, either. Look at his father, and how violent he was. The man killed his own wife. Alex has always had it in him to become just as ruthless, and I’ll wager that the wilderness has made him ten times more so.”
“I have no thoughts or feelings other than hatred and loathing for Alexander Walker, you can rest assured of that.” Evelyn spat his name as if it was poison on her tongue.
“He was my best friend,” Henry said as if to himself. He stared at Evelyn, his eyes unfocused. “He was my best friend, and he murdered . . . Ma and Pa in cold blood.” His voice cracked. Evelyn moved quickly across the space that separated her from her brother. She placed a comforting hand on his arm, the tears falling freely down her cheeks.
“I held Pa in my arms while he gasped his last breath, Evie.” The horrible memory was clearly written on Henry’s face. “If Charlie hadn’t come along when he did, and shot at the damn bastard while he ran like a coward, Alex might have killed me, too.”
“I know,” Evelyn whispered, and wrapped her arms around her brother’s waist. He held her tightly, a shudder passing through his body. Right now, she couldn’t be mad at him for what he had done. Right now, her brother needed consoling. The death of their parents had shaken him badly, as it had her, six months ago. Evelyn was still not completely clear on the events that had transpired that fateful day.
At her mother’s request, Evelyn had stayed the week with an elderly friend of the family whose husband had taken ill. While the woman tended to her husband, Evelyn cooked for her, and took care of basic chores around the house. Charlie had sent a boy with a message for her to come home straight away; that something horrible had happened. She’d found her parents dead, her mother’s throat slashed with a knife, and her brother hovering like a little child over their dead father.
Apparently, Henry had already gone to the fields with the team of mules while his father finished some work in the barn. No one had seen nor heard from Alexander Walker in nearly six years.
At about the same time, Charlie had come to pick up a piece of harness that Evelyn’s father helped him repair. According to Charlie, Alex came charging out of the house and headed straight for him. Luckily, he carried his hunting rifle with him. Raising the rifle, he had shot Alex in the chest, but the shot must not have killed him, for he ran off into the woods, and once again disappeared. The sound of gunshot had alerted Henry, who came back from the fields in time to hear his father’s final gasp for air.
Evelyn eased her hold around her brother’s waist. “Without the farm, what are you going to do?” she asked again.
Henry took a step back. He gripped her upper arms. Staring intently into her eyes, his facial muscles hard, he said, “I’m going after the bastard who killed our folks.”
A quiet gasp escaped Evelyn’s throat. Her eyes grew wide with disbelief. “You can’t go after him, Henry. He’ll kill you. You know nothing about the wilderness.”
“He has to be brought to justice, Evie,” Henry said, his fingers biting almost painfully into her skin. “I’m going to make him pay for what he did.”
“I can’t lose you, too,” Evelyn pleaded. “Don’t do this, Henry. How will you even find him?”
“I’ve hired some men to take me up the Missouri into what’s known as the Yellowstone country. These men know the wilderness. They’ll help me find him.”
“When?” Evelyn asked, her voice uncharacteristically shaky.
“I leave at first light.”
A sudden feeling of the world spinning and turning upside down came over her. In a matter of a few short minutes, her life was no longer her own, and she had lost everything she still held dear to her heart.