Heart of a Lady, now on sale.
Here’s the excerpt:
Just past the Red River into Texas
“Jo Ella you are a whore. That’s all you are.”
Jo Ella cringed, but hid her reaction.
“That’s all you will ever be. What do you expect me to do?”
Jo Ella wanted to beat his chest with her fists, she wanted to slap his arrogant face but she knew that would be stooping to his level. Instead she listened with a loathing.
“I can’t marry you; you know that I’m a married man. I’m married to the banker’s daughter, a lady. A real lady, with a reputation I won’t smudge. You’ve got to live in the real world. You’re nothing but a whore, and I can’t marry you. You knew that, you knew, I never lied to you. I’m already married.” Randal Thomas declared, his hands going in the air dramatically.
His words were the truth, and they cut to the core of her heart.
“Look, it’s as simple as this, Charlotte found out about me comin’ here on Saturday nights. She had me watched. So now I gotta quit seein’ ya or she’ll leave me. I cain’t let that happen. Whatever would I do for money? I’ve become accustomed to that money. You’ve become accustomed to that money.”
He seemed to let that soak in before he spoke again.
“I will not leave her…not even for you. And that’s saying somethin’, because our Saturday nights together is the best thing in my life. So don’t ruin this for me, or for yourself. You gotta understand, I’m livin’ a good life, and no whore will change that.”
Jo Ella took in her hurt and protected it from this man that was bent on belittling her.
“Look, I don’t mean to hurt you, you know I love ya. We got nothing but good between us, but…”
That was enough. She couldn’t bear any more.
“Maybe I am…just a whore.” She tossed her dark curls behind her and slanted him a disproving glance. “And maybe that’s all I’ll ever be. But it’s not for tryin’. Now you get out of here and don’t ever come around me again…you hear?” Jo Ella raised her voice and eyes at the same time. “You’ve used me for the last time. I don’t need you tellin’ me what I am or who I am. Up until now you’ve treated me like a lady. I won’t deny it. But now…”
She ran out of words, her rage was consuming her. Her expressive brown eyes flashed her with anger.
Admittedly, Randal was a handsome devil, with his golden hair and probing green eyes. Jo Ella thought he was the cleanest and best smelling man around. In her books that meant a lot. At first, she had thought him a gentleman, but she learned differently fast. He was no different than any other man she’d met. She’d faked most of her moments with him, like she did with every man that was no different. What she felt, or thought she felt, had died today in his words.
She’d just learned that cleanest and best smelling didn’t make him the best man. No Randal Thomas was a snake in nice clothing. Using her like all the rest. He had a comfortable living, a rich wife, and was respected in this town.
Oddly enough she had wanted to learn from him, but he was a complete façade.
He was a man living off two women, his wife for money, and her for love, or was that sex?
“You ought not to take on so. You knew I was married. I never made a secret of it. What did you expect? Look, I’ll be back after the talk dies down a little. You know I will. We got somethin’ good between us, and I ain’t about to let you go nowhere. You know you’re my woman. But right now…Charlotte has something I want…money and that’s something you can’t give me. I will sneak away every chance I get, I promise.”
“That might have been good enough before today. But… not any longer.”
Jo Ella shrugged her shoulders and shook her head.
“Aw now honey, look, I can’t rile her, she might leave me. And take her fortune with her. Where would I be if she left me?”
“Oh we wouldn’t want that, would we? You might have to work at that bank if she left you.” Jo Ella craned her neck to look Randal in the eye. “Maybe you should have thought of that before you came up the stairs with me that first time. Maybe you need some time to figure out what you really want.”
“Well, good heavens Jo Ella. I can’t help it. She might not be as pretty as you, but she’s richer. And a man can’t go anywhere without money. What do you expect? Now you got no room for complaint. I treated you good. I never been mean, nor hit you. I sure spent the money on you. You know I love to touch you and look at you.”
“You hit me today…with your fancy words. I didn’t expect nothin’ from you. Now get out of here.” Jo Ella cried.
“Fine, I don’t need ya. I can get another just as easy…” he huffed. “You’re all the same, cheap whores!”
Randal slid into his shirt covering his pale skin, and stout build. He was a handsome gentleman on the outside, on the inside he was a coward, depending on a woman for his future.
“Then get another one.” She whispered under her breath, and slammed the door after him.
Jo Ella refused to be reduced to tears. Her anger seethed within her. ‘Just a whore’.
“That’s what he thinks.” She slammed her fist into the pillow on the bed as she sat down to think of her next move. For a second she indulged in hitting the pillow. “This is your face… Just a whore.”
That’s what they all thought. But it wasn’t true. She had more in her than that and she’d show them.
God, I’m better than this, you know I am…
Deep down, there was a heart of a lady, and somehow, someway, she was going to become one if it killed her.
That’s when she started reading the paper from Dallas. She could barely read, but if she took her time and tried hard, she could manage to figure out what it was saying.
And reading led her to the ad.
It was in bold print, kind of stood out on the page from everything else, like it was written just for her. She’d read and reread it many times. Every time some low life put his hands on her.
“Females wanted. Brides needed for men of the west.” It read.
Old Al the bartender shook his head and laughed, “You ain’t seriously considerin’ doin’ that? Are ya?” Al glanced at the tattered paper and the ad that was set in bold type.
“Why not. It would better than this. Wouldn’t it?” She glanced over her shoulder at Al.
“But you’re a whore!” he exclaimed. “They want ladies….”
“So? They don’t know that. Besides, I can be just as much a lady as anyone.” Jo Ella cried out. “We’re all born alike. We are all women first. A lady can be made, Al.”
“You ain’t that good an actress.” Al shook his head.
“You just wait. I’ll show you. I’ll show this whole town…”
“Sure you will you and all the rest of my girls.” Al laughed.
“Maybe we’ll surprise you.” Jo Ella sighed.
Al shook his head and came to stand in front of her; his big belly rubbed the bar and made a dark mark on his white shirt and apron. He ran a hand through his grease slicked hair. “Now look Jo Ella. You are as pretty as anyone I know, and smart too. Probably the smartest gal I got workin’ here. Why you can actually read and write. But it takes more than that to be a lady. You ought to get that fool notion out of your head. You get paid, I don’t mistreat you. What you got to complain about?”
“When a woman is content doing this, there is something wrong Al…” Jo Ella affirmed. “I want more…”
“Did you see what we’re carryin’ this time, Sam?” the hired shotgun rider laughed.
The stage driver nodded as he kept a steady pace with the horses, as he spit into the thin air. “I seen ’em. Five of the prettiest things this side of the big Red. All mail order brides.”
“Is that what they are up to?” Jacob glanced around the back of the stagecoach even though he knew this would be an easy run, he took no chances on anyone sneaking up on him.
No one followed the coach Jacob sighed contentedly, he returned his attention to the front, as he spit his tobacco to the dirt. “Glad we ain’t got no gold shipments or money bags this trip.”
“I was wonderin’ why they wanted a shotgun, but I guess to protect the ladies, what else?”
“I reckon so. I’m just a little too old and little too married to be interested in this freight.”
“Naw ain’t that, but they are a friendly bunch if I ever did see ’em. One of them was sure makin’ smiles at me.”
“She must have been blind to smile at you.” Sam laughed. “Or the men back east aren’t worth much.”
Jacob shook his head, “That’s what I mean; they must not have men back east ’cause they act like they haven’t been around one in a long time.”
“You always were a nosey cuss. But you forget one thing, Jacob; they are all ladies, lookin’ for husbands. And rift-raft like us don’t mess with ladies.”
“Aw, I ain’t messin’, just lookin’ is all. How many times we get a load like this?”
“Not many, well, maybe not at all. Man this road is a mess today, must have been some hellova storms through here.” Sam shook his head as he tried to dodge the debris in the road. “I ain’t been feelin’ too good lately either. Didn’t want to make this run, but Toler said he didn’t have anyone else to do ‘er.”
“Got a lot of pain…in here,” he pointed to his heart. “Reckon my ticker ain’t doin’ so well.”
“Maybe you better let ole doc check you out next time we’re back home.”
“Be careful ’round that big bend on the next rise, someone told me it was washed out, could be dangerous driving through that. Maybe we should’ve taken the long route.”
“I’m always careful.” Sam shouted above the noise of the horses. “I’ve done this route for nearly ten years, I know it better than you…”
Suddenly Sam grabbed his chest, made a face and keeled over, falling away from the stage onto the dirt road with a thud.
Jacob glanced once at Sam as though he couldn’t believe he just keeled over. “Sam!” he called and then grabbed the reins and tried to halt the horses, but they were on a run now and all he could do was try to stay in the ruts of the road. He was worried about that bend in the road. Could he take it? He usually just rode shotgun, never was a whip. Never had to be, Sam was as dependable as they come.
“Does that driver have to hit every bump in the road?” One of the girls asked, adjusting her hat as the stage bounced from every bump.
“Oh quit fretting Trish, it’s not like back home where the roads are well made and the buggies have some springs to them. We’ll get by.” Sarah smiled, adjusting her hat once more, as she pushed her reddish hair away from her face.
“Sarah, how would you know? I hope these cowboys are worth this trip.” Maggie eyes shifted from one to the other. “I can’t believe I’m actually doing this.” She glanced at Jo Ella. ” I don’t know why I let you talk me into this mail order bride business. We have no idea what we are getting ourselves into. At least with Al we knew what to expect.”
“Well it was better than whorin’ ourselves down at the saloon, wasn’t it?” Jo Ella inserted.
“Mail order brides, do you really expect them to believe us?” Nadine, the black girl asked with a sultry deep voice.
Jo Ella eyed her a minute, as if considering what she asked. “Look girls we can pull this off. Just remember you are a lady, that’s all. Just try to remember how your mama’s acted.” Jo Ella instructed. “You don’t have to be prim and proper all the time, but you do have to behave like a lady. Let the men open doors for us, fix our chairs for us, and for heaven’s sake watch out how you sit down, put your legs together. And mind your manners, don’t cuss.”
“I ain’t done that in years, “Trish snickered. “Put my legs together that is. You make it sound easy. Sure is gonna be hard for me.”
“We are mail order brides. We do this right we’ll all be married inside a month I would gamble. The only difference I see is we are tradin’ many men for one. Just hopin’ they are gonna be worth it.” Trish concluded her blonde brows coming together against her peachy cream complexion. “You do realize they could be wife beaters, don’t you?”
“Always so negative.” Jo Ella shook her head with disgust. “It’s up to you to pick a good one.”
“This is the most exciting thing I’ve ever done. I can’t wait…” Maggie cried out. Maggie fanned herself as the heat and dust was stifling. Her blonde curls bounced at every bump in the road. “Look, if you want this bad enough, you can pull it off. There ain’t no difference in us except we got more experience, that’s all. But think of it this way, we got a year to find a man we want to live with, and we can pleasure that man better than most. At least we know how. Just remember once you are married, you know how to treat a man and he won’t be goin’ to a saloon for his pleasure, unless you want him to. The trick is to look for a man that treats you well and really likes you. So be yourselves and find the man of your dreams.”
“Easy for you all to say, you’re white, but I’m a black woman. How do I know I will even find a black man? And who ever heard of a town needin’ brides. A whole town? They must be the scum of the earth.” Nadine shrugged.
“Quit frettin’ Nadine, it’s a whole town of men; they bound to have a black man in the bunch of them. And if not, you’ll just have to find you a white one that don’t mind color.” Jo Ella said. “You’ve certainly done that before.”
“A white man! Finding one wouldn’t be hard, but getting’ him to marry me might.” Nadine cried out in protest. “Most white men want one thing from me. And marriage doesn’t usually go with it.”
“Oh quit playin’ the odds, you’ve had your share of white men, and from what I’ve heard they like that pretty dark skin of yours.” Sarah laughed at her.
Nadine smiled slowly, her dark luscious hair streaming in curls down her shoulder “Yeah…they surely did. But this is permanent; I kinda thought I might stick with my own. I mean what kind of life could I have with a white man any way. Why the town might railroad us clear out of town.”
“Then maybe you should find you one of those hide skinners, or someone who don’t come to town very often.” Maggie snickered.
“I’m serious; I want a good life too.” Nadine insisted. “Of course, I guess we could live together, as long as he was willing to commit to me.”
“Of course you want a good life, we all do. That’s why we agreed to come and live in Vada. You quit fussin’ Nadine, at least until you’ve looked the town over and the men. We could have hitched ourselves up with a complete stranger the way some mail order brides do and have no choice. This way, we can sort of look them all over and decide for ourselves. You got a year to find a man that pleases you, and if we don’t we must leave or work in the saloon. We all signed the papers; we got choices, so let’s make the best of it. It’s this or continue to pour whiskey and please the riff-raff at Al’s place.” Jo Ella glanced at them all. “Look girls, this was the best ad in the paper. The town of Vada needs women, good women. We are good. We have to find a husband within a year’s time, or go back to the saloons. That’s not so hard. At least this way we have some choice as to who we are stuck with, so choose wisely.”
“And if we don’t find a man within a year, we have to turn ourselves around and go back to workin’ the saloon?” Sarah cried. “I’m sure I can find one man…”
“That’s the agreement. They don’t want a bunch of unmarried women in their town, and there is sure to be a big turnover in the saloons, not every girl can do it you know. This is the best deal ever. It’s a chance at a new life. It may be our last chance.”
“What kind of town is this anyway? A town full of bachelors?” Maggie who’d been listening with interest to the conversation asked.
“Most of them are I’m told. Most of them came out here to get a grub stake. As at the time the land was up for grabs. All they had to do was fight Indians and outlaws to keep it. But very few brought their own wives and many women wouldn’t venture this far on account of the Indians. Some of the ranches out here are pretty secluded, so if you don’t want that kind of life, don’t go after a rancher. They want a wife, and eventually children. At the very least it will give us time to decide if we want this kind of life for ourselves or not. It will give us a choice of either going back to the saloons or making a life for ourselves with a possible chance of having a family.” Jo Ella assured them. “So when we get off the stage at Vada, let the men help us down, be a little shy, smile and bat your eyes. Be a lady. Don’t toy with several men at a time. Pick one at a time and don’t be too easy. They might get wise to that.”
“I never thought getting a husband would be so hard.” Maggie laughed.
“Most of these men, are eager for a woman, but if we act like whores they will treat us as one. So we must be ladies at all times. Understood?” Jo Ella asked. “Remember we are the Brides of Red River Valley.
“The Brides of Red River Valley, that sounds kina nice, don’t it? But It might just kill me…” Trish laughed.
Everyone nodded then snickered.
“But how we gonna support ourselves until we find a husband?” Trish asked.
“It’s all in the agreement, didn’t you read it? It says they furnish us a room at the boarding house with meals. So we won’t need much else. The idea is to find a husband in good time.”
“Well, I’ll start looking the minute we arrive, you can bet on that…” Maggie laughed. “Hey, I’m not that bashful.”
Then there was a loud crashing sound, and the horses sped up. But none of them planned on the stage losing a wheel and the coach going over a rough ravine. There was a yell from the driver and then in seconds the coach tumbled down the cliff, over and over, sending the baggage everywhere, the driver was nowhere to be seen and the shotgun rider jumped from it, but not in time to save his own life.
The women were screaming and squashing each other and hats and pins went everywhere. Blood oozed and gushed as the ladies were tossed one way then another.
As the stage came to a stop it seemed to sway this way and that before it settled against the ground, leaving a cloud of dust in its wake, and only grunts and groans were heard anywhere for the next few minutes as the dust settled and they realized they were on an incline and not altogether a steady one.
“Oh my God, Jo Ella, what’s happened?” Nadine cried out.
“The driver wasn’t watching where he was going I guess. Are you hurt? Are any of you hurt? Well…I don’t know about you but I’m not sitting in this thing a minute more. Let’s get out and see how much damage is done. Anyone hurt?”
“Yeah…everywhere….” Trish cried out.
“I’m talking seriously.”
“I guess not. But I gotta feelin’ I’ll be sore a while from this…” Maggie laughed.
“Get out everyone…” Jo Ella cried.
She reached up and blood trickled down her forehead, “oh….my head. We need to get out of here and check the damage; surely the driver or shotgun rider can help us.”
But cold reality set in the minute they all climbed out of the coach. The coach lay on its side half way down an incline; they had to crawl out the one side. Luggage was strung all over the cliff, the shotgun rider was half way up the hill from them, his neck obviously broken from the position he was laying. There was no sign of the driver.
Jo Ella closed her eyes for a moment and nodded, “There’s a shovel on the back here, I guess we should bury him as best we can, before the buzzards get him. We can take turns digging.”
“Can’t we leave it for someone else to do? I mean…do we have to do everything ourselves?” Trish whined. When Jo Ella shot her a disproving look Trish managed to blow a tendril from her face. “Well, we are supposed to be ladies, would ladies dig a grave?”
“We are ladies yes, but we are western ladies, not died in the wool Philadelphia ladies. If they had to, yes they would bury them. It’s the respectable thing to do.” Jo Ella corrected. Jo Ella shook her head, “Obviously there are many things to being a lady…or just a decent person we need to learn. And if you can’t be a lady, at least be a decent person.”
“I’m already not liking that word.” Trish grumbled.
“Trish you are a gambler at heart, so gamble on this working for us, not against us. Okay. Look even decent ladies would make the attempt at burying him, and finding the stagecoach driver.” Jo Ella frowned at them.
“What kind of driver runs over a cliff like this” Maggie asked.
“I don’t see hide or hair of the driver.” Jo Ella replied, shading her eyes as she glanced up the incline. “And I’m really not up to climbing that hill, yet. Maybe we will wait until tomorrow to try to get up that hill.”
“What happened?” Nadine asked. “I mean a stagecoach don’t just fall over a cliff, does it?”
Jo Ella shook her head, “I don’t know. Let’s get him buried then maybe we can find some answers.”
All afternoon they dug into the dry earth, chipping away at a makeshift grave for the shotgun rider. Sweat poured from them, and they stunk from the excessive heat.
“I don’t think I could put that shovel in the ground one more time.” Trish cried.
“Me either,” Maggie echoed.
Sarah had barely said a word, but the look on her face said it all.
“I’m give out too. Let’s gather some wood for a fire; it’ll be dark soon, no use trying to walk to anywhere close this late. We’ll get some rest and maybe clean up a bit tomorrow before we set out.” Jo Ella said.
“Sounds good to me, but I’m sure hungry.” Sarah wailed.
“Yeah, just don’t think about it. We can go through some of the luggage and see if there is anything there. Like maybe some jerky in the driver’s stuff under the seat. And some coffee too.”
“I must be starved, even jerky sounds good.”
Hours later, they sat by a fire and talked as they had found some blankets in the luggage and made makeshift beds for themselves. There was one saddle on top of the stage that had been knocked clear and landed just a few feet from the coach; they drug it to the fire. “Well, we won’t get any men lookin’ like we do.” Trish complained.
“That’s true enough. Tomorrow we’ll bath in the river down there, maybe we’ll find some clothes we can still use in the luggage.”