Experience the American Old West through Ruby Merritt’s Spirited Hearts series. Set in 1870’s Cheyenne, Wyoming, each book features a strong heroine, a equally strong hero who falls for her and a story to keep you turning the pages.
The Spirited Hearts series is available worldwide at Amazon and iBooks, and additionally at Barnes & Noble and Kobo.
When Ella Hastings is captured by the Blackfeet Indians at age nine, then adopted by the Lakota Indians, she is thrust into a new way of life and transformed into Little Brave, adopted daughter of their revered and peaceful chief, Grey Owl. Ten years later the white man returns. Their soldiers storm her tribe’s village and bring reminders of a world she’d almost forgotten. Suddenly, she is confronted by the question: To which world does she now belong? Her only hope in discovering who she really is lies with the enigmatic army scout, Beech Richoux.
Son of a French trapper and Lakota mother, Beech Richoux was raised in a white man’s world after his mother’s death. Acting as an army scout to raise money for his horse ranch, he’s unaware of the Army’s true intent to annihilate his mother’s people until it’s too late. And the white woman he finds living among the Lakota only adds to his desperation to save his people. Now the narrow path he has created to balance himself between these two worlds is tipped by the mysterious white woman known to the Lakota as Little Brave.
Can two people robbed of their own childhood learn to live together in such differing worlds? Can Little Brave and Beech forge a new path into a life where they both are finally set free?
The Powder River Country, Wyoming Territory, 1866
Standing outside the stationhouse, Thomas Hastings viewed the land stretching before him, wide and open, treeless, unmarked by man. He filled his lungs with the fresh, crisp air, reveling in the opportunities awaiting him in this uncluttered place. Awaiting him and his daughter, he amended, as nine-year-old Ella Hastings screeched to a halt next him, her eyes alive with the excitement of being on the adventure of a lifetime.
“Papa, Papa,” she cried. “Buffalo, everywhere. Millions of them.” She grabbed his hand, tugging him in the direction from which she’d come.
Together, they crested a rise and saw the massive creatures filling the landscape to the distant line of buttes ahead.
“Have you ever seen buffalo before, Papa?”
“Can’t say that I have,” he said, taking in the lively indigo of his daughter’s eyes and the russet wave of her hair tied hastily back this morning with a ribbon. The coloring of her eyes and hair were Lillian’s, to be sure, but everything else about Ella was his.
Suddenly, a worried pucker appeared between her delicately winged eyebrows. “Are we going to see any Indians?”
“I doubt it.” I pray not. There was a risk of Indian raiding parties on any of the trails in the western territories, but the Bozeman Trail was the most direct and well-watered route to the Montana gold fields. Opportunities for a new and different life awaited him and Ella. Not that he was looking to find gold, just opportunity. And a little adventure along the way. Besides, the reestablishment of Forts Reno, Kearny and Smith along the trail assured him travelers were now well protected. What’s more, the fast-moving stagecoach didn’t put them at the same risk as turtle-paced wagon trains. With an armed guard riding shotgun atop the stagecoach and his sharpshooter skills, he had every confidence any encounter with hostiles could be managed handily.
He gave the tail end of his daughter’s hair a playful tug, but the pucker between her eyebrows didn’t vanish, it only deepened.
“Do you think Mama can see us from heaven, Papa?”
He ran a hand through his hair. She’d steered the conversation in a direction for which he was totally unprepared. He gave the question some thought before he answered. “I don’t know for sure, but I’d like to think she can.”
“Do you miss her, Papa?”
The serious look on Ella’s face gave him another moment’s pause. Wondering about her mama was more than likely normal for a nine-year-old girl. He hadn’t talked much about Lillian since she’d passed on just after Ella turned five, but what little girl wouldn’t wonder if there was no one to tell her about her mama?
Thomas sighed. Did he miss his late wife? Absently, he stroked Ella’s hair. Not only the color but also the texture was the same as her mother’s. He’d told Lillian it was like spun silk the first time she’d allowed him to touch it. That was a heady moment for the seventeen-year-old newly turned-out soldier. But Lillian had been his commander’s daughter.
No good could have come of their tryst.
The ex-soldier stared at the serious look still on his daughter’s sweetly questioning face. He took Ella’s face in his hands. No, that’s not true. Something good had come of his and Lillian’s union, and he’d do anything to protect the gift he had been given.
“I do miss her.” For your sake, he added silently, to keep from speaking a lie. He dropped his hands to her shoulders, giving them a playful shake. “But there was nothing your mama disliked more than sadness.” He put the best spin he could on Lillian’s obsession for the gaiety of parties and balls. “So I’m sure she’d want us to enjoy our adventure to its fullest.”
“But she wouldn’t have wanted to come with us.” A flush crept up Ella’s neck then flooded her cheeks as she added quickly, “I mean she never liked to take walks in the woods with us, because she was afraid we’d get lost and attacked by wild animals, no matter that you said otherwise.”
Inwardly, he cringed, hoping Ella was merely recalling only Lillian’s words and not her disdain for any activity that had to do with the outdoors. “Your mama didn’t share our love for adventure and the outdoors, Ella, but she would have joined us once we’d gotten settled.”
Ella swiped at a tear that slid down her cheek.
He wondered if she was feeling more than just sadness.
“Grandfather Russell said you’re going to ruin my life like you ruined hers.”
Thomas released his daughter’s shoulders to keep from hurting her as he fisted his hands. “Even if such a thing were true–which it isn’t–your grandfather was wrong to speak of it to you.”
“He didn’t.” Ella gripped the locket her grandfather had given her for her ninth birthday as she stared at the ground, her voice a quavering whisper. “I overheard him.”
Small consolation, Thomas thought as he lifted his daughter’s chin with a press of his knuckles. The overwhelming pain in her eyes set up an ache in his heart he hadn’t felt since Lillian had spurned him. “Honey, your grandfather is letting grief rule his life.”
“But why does he think you ruined Mama’s life?”
He gave a hefty sigh. How to answer that one without damning all involved? Particularly his innocent daughter with her whole life ahead. “Ella, honey, sometimes people get angry when life doesn’t go as they imagine it should.”
“And Grandfather’s angry?”
“Mostly he’s sad, but yes, he’s a little angry.” Thomas didn’t dare say anymore than that for fear of tarnishing Captain John Russell in his only grandchild’s eyes.
“But didn’t Mama choose to marry you?”
“Yes, she chose to marry me.” Not completely the truth as theirs was a shotgun wedding. But what they’d done prior, to land them in the marriage, had been her choice, as well as his.
“But I don’t understand.” That characteristic pucker appeared between her brows.
“Sometimes, people don’t think about the consequences of their choices before they make them, and then afterwards, they choose not to make the best of them.”
“Is that what happened between you and Mama?”
Did she know how miserable he and Lillian had been together? Maybe if he’d insisted they move out West after they were married where they would have had only each other, they might have settled into a life together. But it was too late for “what ifs.” “Whatever happened between me and your mama is in the past. No one can change that. All we can do is make the most of today and all the tomorrows to follow.” He ended with an encouraging smile, hoping his words would return Ella’s spirits to what they’d been before talk turned to Lillian.
She tried to return his smile but failed miserably and her gaze slid away. “What if I made the wrong choice in coming with you?” she choked out, one hand clutching the locket at her neck.
“Ella, honey, look at me,” he said, waiting until her gaze met his before continuing. “If at any moment you change your mind about going on our adventure, you give the word and we’ll turn back.”
“But this is your dream, Papa.” She gave him a childish scowl when he shook his head. “But that’s what you—”
He put a shushing finger to his daughter’s lips. “Coming West is one of my dreams, but not the most important one.”
“What’s…” She scrubbed at her eyes now filling with tears. “What’s the most important one?”
“To give you a happy and secure childhood, to watch you grow up into a young woman, to see you have a family of your own some day.”
The tears spilling over, she turned and threw her arms around his waist. “Oh, Papa, I love you so much.”
Thomas lifted his sobbing child into his arms. For the first time since this adventure had commenced, he doubted if he was qualified to guide a young girl successfully into womanhood, particularly out here in the western territories where adventure abounded but civility was almost nonexistent. Maybe folks had been right. Maybe the best thing would be to wait here at the stagecoach stop for the return coach.
He shifted his daughter’s weight so he could retrieve his pocket watch. How long did they have before the departure of their coach? He flipped it open, and the engraving caught his eye.
Thomas James Hastings
Welcome home forever
Your loving daughter,
Ella had presented the watch with shy anticipation, and it’d been the icebreaker they’d needed to become reacquainted with one another after his long sojourns in the war.
He clamped the lid shut and put it away. He trudged back to the stationhouse, and his daughter, solely his responsibility and the last of his family, weighed heavily in his arms.
Hours later, the stagecoach creaked as it rocked, the dust swirling through the open windows into the cramped and stifling interior. Most of the passengers held heavily soiled hankies or bandanas over their mouths and noses to block the choking dust. Many held pacifying hands over churning stomachs while others clamped the edge of the seat to minimize the effects of the lurching coach.
Suddenly the vehicle swerved, throwing the occupants to one side, then righted itself.
Thomas shifted Ella from her place next to the window to his other side. He lifted the leather curtain, but with dust roiling, the coach creaking and horses hooves pounding, he could discern very little out of the ordinary.
Then he heard it, as he knew Ella heard it, because she clutched at his arm. The war cry outrivaled any rebel yell he’d witnessed on the battlefield.
In an instant, Thomas retrieved the rifle lying on the floor behind his feet. “Arm yourselves,” he shouted to the other men within the cramped interior. The first gunshot rang out, but with the lurching of the coach and the blinding dust, he was having a hard time setting his sights on a target.
A body pitched to the ground from atop the stage, and he prayed it wasn’t the guard. With war cries louder now, he had a better idea where to aim. A form materialized out of the dust. He squeezed the trigger, the crack resounding sharply in his ears, and a shadowy form dropped away but a split second later, frantic screaming filled the coach.
His heart stopped at Ella’s terror-laden cries and he whirled to locate her. He ripped off his coat and threw it on the flames licking the hem of her skirt. In seconds, they were out, but the coach skidded to a sickening halt that threw all the occupants into one corner.
The coach now at a standstill, maniacal yells filled Thomas with an all-encompassing dread. He scrambled to the window, dragging Ella with him then pushed her to the floor. “Stay there, Ella.”
Ella crouched on the floor of the coach, hands over her ears, blocking the sounds of the attack, the war cries, the gunshots, the frantic neighing of the stage horses, the pounding hooves of the Indians’ wild mustangs circling closer. Her lips moved in silent prayer as salty tears squeezed from the corners of her eyes and burned across her wind-chapped cheeks.
An object swished through the air, followed by something heavy thudding on the seat above her. An arm swung down into her line of view, limp and lifeless. Her mouth opened but no sound came out.
The door of the coach was wrenched open. The stench of sweaty and unwashed bodies caused her to curl deeper into herself. She was dragged from the coach. An unfamiliar and harsh-sounding language filled her ears, and she kept her eyes tightly closed until a stinging yank to her hair forced her eyes open.
Staring into a face as brown as a chestnut, the red and yellow lines striping from cheek to hairline and across the broad forehead, forced her into action. Held only by her hair, she twisted away from her terrifying captor, intent on making her way back to the stagecoach and her papa.
Her papa lay across the seat of the stagecoach, a swath of blood across his shirt where an arrow had pierced his chest. Her knees buckled and darkness swirled around her.
Six years ago, Lena Schuler fled Cheyenne to escape the man who brutally stole her innocence. Now, believing her attacker has left Cheyenne for good, she’s returned to build a life for her and her son.
Attorney Lucas Kline has established a new identity and is making his mark as a trial lawyer in the burgeoning rail town of Cheyenne, Wyoming. Fighting to escape the guilt from his past, he’s determined to help shape the emerging territory into a law-abiding state.
When Lena’s attacker threatens the security of her son and others in the community, will she find the courage to face him in order protect those she loves? Can she trust Lucas to defend her secret before a township filled with doubt? Or will the guilt from Lucas’ past blur the lines between justice and vigilantism?
At a rather large step up, Jonah shrugged off her hold and shifted the bag in his arms so he could gauge the height of the step.
She resisted the urge to help him as he planted a foot on the rise then swayed as he scaled it. When she returned her attention to the walk ahead of them, she froze. She couldn’t believe her eyes. No, it can’t be. Ilse had written that he’d moved away months ago, to San Francisco.
Frank Pierce stood, only yards away, talking to another man.
She clutched Jonah to her skirts.
“Mama, you’re squashing me.”
The monster from that awful night turned and walked in their direction.
Terror at what he might do if he saw her again, if he saw Jonah, stole her breath. She pushed her son toward a door and grappled with its knob. Ignoring his questions, she thrust him inside, then followed and slammed the door closed behind her.
Jonah stumbled then fell in a heap at her feet.
A man sitting behind a desk looked up. “Can I help you, ma’am?”
Lena remained plastered against the door as she stared at the well-dressed businessman with a questioning look upon his face. No doubt he was wondering why they’d burst into his office.
Jonah scrambled to his feet, leaving the carpetbag where it laid, his eyes shining. “Are we here, Mama? Is this the Bäckerei?” When she didn’t answer, Jonah turned to the man who now stood. “Are you my Onkel Erik?”
A strange look crossed the man’s face as he glanced at Jonah then moved from behind the desk toward them. He appeared to be no more than thirty, with dark blond hair similar to Erik’s, but he was taller and trimmer, while the line of his clean-shaven jaw was stronger and leaner than her brother’s.
“Mama?” Jonah asked.
The man’s warm hazel eyes shifted back to hers.
“No, this is not Onkel Erik.” Lena didn’t know how she managed the words, given how she was still gasping for breath over the shock of seeing Frank Pierce. She peeled herself from the door and moved to the adjacent window and her heart hammered in her chest. Hand trembling, she pushed aside the curtain and peered out. She didn’t see any sign of Frank. But he was here. He was not supposed to be here in Cheyenne. But he was. What am I to do now? The thought of him finding out about Jonah and Jonah finding out about him… Suddenly, she felt lightheaded and her vision tunneled.
Ruby Merritt writes historical western romance. Her passion for imagining life and love on the High Plains has its roots in reading and rereading Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books as a child.
Although Ruby doesn’t call the High Plains her home, she resides in an equally beautiful and rustic locale, The Gateway to the Texas Hill Country.
When Ruby’s not reading or writing, she can be found riding her horse or homeschooling her children who are avid horsewomen and readers as well.