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Ellie Blair wants a story—the one story—that will make her name bigger than Nellie Bly’s. She’ll do anything to get it. Lie, masquerade as someone else … even walk away from love. But will a byline be worth the sacrifice?
Enjoy this excerpt--
Ellie signed for the hotel room and passed the fountain pen back to the clerk, a young boy wearing a visor and garters on his sleeves. As he spun away to pluck her key from the pigeonhole, an idea struck her. People who worked in hotels often had the latest news, gossip, and details of goings-on of a community. Perhaps this young boy was no different.
“Excuse me, but I’m also looking for someone.”
He rounded on her and passed her the key. “Yes, ma’am.”
“I understand Mr. Clegg Hoyt works at the Whiskey Creek Ranch. You wouldn’t happen to know him? Or how I could get out to the ranch?”
The boy grinned. “Aren’t you in luck?”
It wasn’t a question, but Ellie didn’t understand the statement. “I don’t know. Am I?”
“He’s sittin’ in our restaurant. Right there.” He pointed past a towering fern to the restaurant’s open double doors. A man with his back to the entrance sat alone at a table apparently eating his lunch.
Butterflies exploded in Ellie’s chest. A nervous excitement thrummed in her veins. The moment was at hand . . . and she saw no reason to drag it out. Nellie Bly wouldn’t, a voice mocked. Ellie swallowed her fear and spoke without turning back to the clerk. “Thank you.” She dropped the room key in the reticule hanging from her wrist and trekked uncertainly across the lobby. Her legs had grown cold. Her heart beat wildly against her ribs. The speech she had planned danced disjointedly in her head.
She approached the man and took a deep breath. “Mr. Hoyt?” He turned slightly, looked up, and Ellie’s stomach dropped. The same brown eyes. The same slightly disheveled brown hair. The same unexpected flutter in her breast.
At first he smiled, but it faltered with recognition. “It’s you.”
“From the boardwalk?”
An awkwardness embedded itself between them like a brick wall. He frowned, laid down his napkin with a sigh, and rose to tower over her. “Yes, ma’am. And I am Clegg Hoyt.” He offered his hand.
Ellie recognized the peace offering. A fresh start. “And I . . .” Oh, Lord, here we go. “I am Millie Swank.”
“Miss Swank.” He didn’t react to the name.
In her puzzlement at his dull reaction, she barely returned the shake.
“What can I do for you, ma’am?”
“I am Millie Swank.” Growing insecure, she laced her hands over her stomach, waiting. Surely, he knew—
Suddenly, his square, handsome face transformed—no, melted—into an expression of horror. His eyes flew open. His mouth went slack. “Miss Millie Swank?” he asked carefully. “From Boston?”
“The one you have been corresponding with for a few months now regarding the potential of matrimony. That Millie Swank.”
Mr. Hoyt jolted, as if his knees had nearly buckled. He swallowed and motioned to the empty chair at his table. “Please, have a seat.”
Puzzled, concerned her assignment might be falling apart somehow, Ellie slid into the chair. He sank down slowly opposite her, staring as if she had two heads. “I wasn’t expecting you.”
“I can see that.” His stunned gaze roamed over her. Was he wondering if she was real? “The opportunity to visit Evergreen presented itself. I didn’t have time to inform you of my plans.”
“I don’t know what to do with you.”
“Pardon?” He’d muttered it like he meant something else.
“I mean,” he shook his head, searching for words. “I’m not prepared for a wife—”
“Mr. Hoyt, I realize you were willing to take a bride sight unseen, but . . .”
“You weren’t willing to take me the same way?”
“It sounds rather unfriendly when you say it like that. I merely thought to see if we might,” Ellie shrugged a shoulder, “hit it off.”
He took a deep breath and swiped a hand over his chin. For some reason, Ellie thought there was more simmering here than just matrimonial plans gone awry. What, she couldn’t even begin to guess. But something said the man was figuring over more than just her.
He sat back, dragging his hands across the white table cloth. “What did you have in mind, Miss Swank? Courting?”
Ellie’s mouth dropped, but she closed it quickly. “No.” Her turn to hem and haw, but wasn’t that, after all, the way she had planned to buy time to search? By getting Mr. Hoyt to let her roam the ranch. She licked her lips. “I just thought,” she spoke haltingly, carefully, “we could see if the arrangement will suit us. I’m not sure courting would be the right word.”
He scratched his jaw. “I guess if I was looking for love I wouldn’t have written to a mail-order bride.”
Ellie hadn’t looked at it that way. Not much of a romantic herself, she had assumed the man wanted a bride he could come to love. Perhaps Mr. Hoyt, in actuality, only wanted a maid and a cook, and a ranch hand—despite his decision to the close the letter with affection. Regardless, she had an assignment. “At the least, I should think you would want to see if we are agreeable together.”
“Agreeable?” He studied her for a moment with an inscrutable expression. She could almost imagine a smile tried tweaking his lips, but she wouldn’t have put money on it. “Well, I doubt Miss Stella would mind the company. She was telling me just the other day how she was anxious for my bride to show up so she could have afternoon teas and talk about needlepoint.”
Ellie pursed her lips to keep from reflecting her horror at the idea. She hated few things more than frilly, silly, lady talk. “I have taken a room at the hotel. There’s no need to inconvenience anyone.”
“The last thing you would be is an inconvenience. Miss Stella is my employer. She lives in a large house with several guest rooms. You won’t be any trouble. She’s already made the offer, in fact.”
Since this was better than Ellie had hoped, she dared not discourage the idea. “Well, if you’re sure. I’m anxious to see the ranch about which you’ve written so eloquently.”
His brow dove in what looked like confusion, but he quickly nodded. “Yes, the letters. I wrote you.”
He didn’t sound so sure. “Yes. Nearly twenty times.”
He ran his tongue over his teeth and leaned forward. “You wouldn’t mind letting me read those again? Just so I can remember what all I told you. If you brought them.”
“Yes, I have them. I don’t think I missed any as they were blowing down Main Street.”
He stared at her, but finally let a smile emerge. Charming, almost roguish, as if something was tremendously entertaining. “I guess we were destined to meet, Miss Swank. In one . . . situation or the other.”
Ellie’s instincts told her Mr. Hoyt wasn’t saying exactly what he meant. He found something funny all right, but she worried the joke might be on her.
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A former journalist, Heather is an avid researcher and skillfully weaves truth in among fictional story lines. She loves exploring the American West, especially ghost towns and museums. She has walked parts of the Oregon Trail, ridden horses through the Rockies, climbed to the top of Independence Rock, and even held an outlaw's note in her hand. You can learn more about her and her work at her blog ladiesindefiance.com or https://www.facebook.com/heatherfreyblanton. Sign up for Heather’s email newsletter to receive the latest book release updates, as well as info about contests and giveaways http://eepurl.com/crDmv5 .