Saturday, December 31, 2011

F.A.I.R.I.E.S.: Baptism by Fire ~ Book Review

It is time for a FIRST Wild Card Tour book review! If you wish to join the FIRST blog alliance, just click the button. We are a group of reviewers who tour Christian books. A Wild Card post includes a brief bio of the author and a full chapter from each book toured. The reason it is called a FIRST Wild Card Tour is that you never know if the book will be fiction, non~fiction, for young, or for old...or for somewhere in between! Enjoy your free peek into the book!

You never know when I might play a wild card on you!

Today's Wild Card author & illustrator is:

and the book:

FIRST Wild Card Press (December 5, 2011)

***Special thanks to M. C. Pearson of FIRST Wild Card Press for sending me a review copy.***


M. C. Pearson graduated from San Jose State University with a B. A. in art, served as a multi-media illustrator in the United States Army, earning the rank of sergeant, and spent four years as a house parent for at-risk youth. Now married over 20 years, she homeschools her two children, volunteers with her church youth group, and runs a book review blog alliance (FIRST Wild Card Tours) while writing and drawing. F.A.I.R.I.E.S.: Baptism by Fire is her first novel.

Visit the author's website.


Unwittingly chosen to join an army of fairies, who fight for the Light of the One, a teenaged girl learns about spiritual warfare as she attends a military academy with fantastical beings.


Here lies a most precious treasure,
Awaiting one Chosen to deliver.

Seek out the red cousins in the East,
For on this your greed mustn't feast.

The wealth of a species now in your hands,
Do with it as the light demands.

Give them your gift to unite,
For it is the darkness we all must fight.


"Imagination runs wild in F.A.I.R.I.E.S. Pearson brings young readers through a looking glass and into a world bursting with adventure, heroism, and fascinating creatures. Readers will be inspired to be true to the One and left with anticipation of more to come."
--Jill Williamson, award-winning author of
By Darkness Hid, and other books

"Sprinkled with delightful illustrations, and brimming with a full bestiary of magical creatures, F.A.I.R.I.E.S. is a fun, clever romp through the alternate landscape of the most magical world of all, our own. Read, and take up the call: 'Defend and Emancipate!'"
-- D. Barkley Briggs, author of
The Book of Names, and other books

"F.A.I.R.I.E.S. will appeal to readers who love the interplay of fantasy and reality. A rich cast of eccentric characters and exotic settings make this a fun addition to the folklore of the battle between good and evil."
--Mike Hamel, author of

"F.A.I.R.I.E.S. is one of those rare gems I want to tell everyone about. It's highly imaginative, packed with adventure, and full of hope. A must read for kids and for kids at heart. Even better than Narnia! I was thinking about Pearson's wonderfully memorable characters for days."
--C.J. Darlington, author of
Thicker than Blood

"Ms. Pearson's extravagant and imaginative F.A.I.R.I.E. kingdom will surely delight the young and the young-at-heart in this tale of good and evil, light vs. darkness. The fantasy-loving reader will not be disappointed!"
--Linore Rose Burkard, award winning author of
Before the Season Ends, and other books

Product Details:

List Price: $17.99
Paperback: 482 pages
Publisher: FIRST Wild Card Press (December 5, 2011)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0615530222
ISBN-13: 978-0615530222


Four thousand seasons shall pass while our swords grow rusty.

Where once one chose to divide, another shall be chosen to unite.

One changed the past, the other shall change the future.

One must emancipate the other to allow the light its dominion.

The realm, now torn, allows the shadow to abide, as humanity lies blind to its peril.

The bond of friendship must endure, for the army of shadows awaits another tear.

Dust off your swords.

Unite the realm.

Destroy the strongholds.

Foretelling of Didasko Gnome Digdeep






Off and Running

t was an accident!” Mellie yelled, not caring who heard or stared. Tears streaked her face as she fled down the Santa Cruz coastline, away from her family.

You don’t need them, a voice hissed in her ear, Escape. Run away.

Scorching sand burned at her feet and bitterness ate at her heart. Mellie pumped her legs as fast as they would go. Her feet pounded with the rhythm of her emotions, beating a tempo with the crashing waves. Run-a-way. Run-a-way. Run-a-way. Adrenaline pulsed through her veins, quickening her step.

Why did I have to be the youngest? Only 12 years old. Never smart enough. Never athletic enough. I just wish they loved me.

Once, just once, she wanted to do something that would make her sisters see that she wasn’t the stupid, awkward, ugly, little baby sister.

As she ran, she wiped away some tears with the palm of her hand. Her fingers settled on her large nose, a gift from her dad’s Hungarian ancestry.

Chelsea got the ski-slope shaped nose. I had to get Half-Dome. It just isn’t fair.

Ugh, why are my sisters so perfect? What happened to me?

Pushing her short bangs from her forehead in disgust, she mumbled, “Maybe I’ll find treasure. I’ll be the rich one, and then they’ll have to accept me.” But she knew better. California didn’t hold any more undiscovered treasures.

The sand, hot and coarse, cut at her feet. I wish I had remembered my shoes. She wore only a black, one-piece swimsuit and a San Jose Sharks sweatshirt tied tightly around her waist.

Breathing rapidly, she began to tire. She slowed her pace to a walk and looked back across the beach. The sand was so hot that waves of heat rose from it and blurred her view. A lone seagull screeched overhead.

Her sisters were nowhere in sight.

Man, I thought for sure that Chelsea was going to chase me down and kill me.

She had to admit that it was a little gratifying to see the sand fly from her foot, covering Chelsea’s sub-sandwich and freshly oiled stomach. Grinning slightly, the tears stopped flowing. She rubbed her eyes.

Mellie looked in the direction of her sisters. “You guys can never take a joke.” Flipping her golden hair, she turned her head back toward her chosen path. She no longer smiled as she stomped her feet in the cold surf, remembering the hateful words that had been said.

“Oh, waa waa, you stupid cry baby! Go tell mommy! Maybe she’ll feel sorry for her ugly, fat baby. Why don’t you grow up? We don’t want you near us. Can’t you understand English? You are so dumb. Look at her mouth open. Oh wait, here she goes…come on, baby…cry!”

Mellie knew she couldn’t go back. They would only ridicule and torment her further. Her mom would never believe it was Chelsea’s fault. No, the evidence was on Chelsea’s side. Who was the one with the sand all over her oily, coconut-smelling body? Who was the one who had a sandwich full of sand? Mellie walked on.

After her temper finally cooled, it occurred to her that she had never walked so far alone.

How far have I gone?

A shadow passed over her, and she looked up. Nothing was there. A cool breeze from the ocean created a stark contrast to the scalding sand. She shivered but kept walking, lost in her loneliness.

Not until she stubbed her toe on a large broken clamshell did she look at the beach. A chill snaked up her back. Nothing appeared familiar. The sounds of the surf were still there, yet something was decidedly different. She felt dizzy. Looking around, she could not quite pinpoint the change. Then it struck her.

No people.

Where did everybody go?

Even though she could see no one, Mellie could swear that she felt eyes staring at her.

She looked inland across the sand, saw movement near some eucalyptus trees, but decided that the wind must have caused it.

Trees? So close to the beach?

Something shook the trees again, causing goosebumps to stand out on Mellie’s arms. Alarmed, she checked the skyline. The sun was close to setting. She hoped that the police weren’t out looking for her.

Suddenly cold, she pulled at the arms of the sweatshirt still tied around her waist. It fell to the sand. Bending to pick it up, she once again saw a blur of movement, except this time it came from a rocky outcrop by the waves. She shook the sand out of the sweatshirt and hurriedly tugged it over her head.

“Okay, I’m seeing things.” Mellie yanked at her hair, pulling it out of the sweatshirt. She stared at the sinister rocks. “Hel-lo?” Her voice cracked as she spoke louder. “Is someone the-ere? Hello?” No answer. The shadowy rocks seemed to quiver with excitement, beckoning her closer.

Hmm…probably just a seagull.

Even if it was a bird, she did not want to see it.

There’s no way I’m going over there.

The wind picked up and blew her hair into her eyes. The sand spun with the wind.

Yes, definitely time to move. I need to find a road.

She turned back toward the sweet smelling, oddly placed trees.

Mellie arrived at the base of the first, colossal eucalyptus tree. Without warning, one of the branches fell in front of her, then seemed to get up from the ground and pose its bottom stems in a military-like stance.

Mellie screamed and jumped back. “Branches don’t stand.”

“They do if they are walking sticks.” The eucalyptus branch chuckled, stretching to its full height, considerably taller than Mellie’s meager five feet.
She gasped, grabbed the branch, and threw it like a javelin, as hard as she could.

As she took off running, she heard a bark and halted. Turning, she saw a golden retriever bounding toward her with the stick in his mouth. The dog dropped it at her feet. She watched the dog run into the grove of trees and disappear before she fearfully turned back to the possessed stick.

It had already gained its footing again and stood over her. Mellie was too frightened to move this time.

A face emerged from the skinny twig and took on the characteristics of a male human, but none like Mellie had ever seen. He had hair made up in rolls as if it were a powdered, green-silver wig, the same color as the leaves that grew all around his skinny body. His face was long and his forehead high. The twiggy man smiled and said in a distinctly British, albeit breezy, accent, “Do not worry, you are safe.”

Mellie couldn’t answer.

“Ahh…I love new recruits. They are so easily addled.”

Feeling more confused than threatened, Mellie found her voice. “What? What do you mean, new recruits?” She rubbed her eyes, shaking her head. “Okay, I’m talking to a stickmean, new recruits?” She rubbed her eyes, shaking her head. “Okay, I’m talking to a stick now. Yes, I have lost it. I have gone totally mental.”

“Oh, I say, am I to understand that I am the first to be revealed to you?” With round, leathery leaves, the branch resembled a toddler toy with rings stacked on one another.

She dropped open her mouth and nodded.

“Well, let me do this properly, then. Ahem. Mortal, made of clay, you have been Chosen to join the Fantastical, Aerial, International, Reasonably Inconspicuous, Emancipation Squads.”

“What? What are you? You look like a stick…but you can talk.”

“Yes, child,” the stick replied with a sigh. “But, I think we are quite past that by now. Have you not heard me? You have been Chosen.”

Mellie opened her mouth wider, closed it, frowned, and opened it once more. “Chosen? For what?”

“You did wish to be different? To change who you were? ’Twas an especially strong desire, yes?” The branch crossed its arms and tapped its twiggy foot.


“Dear me, this is highly unusual. You made a choice to run away from a miserable life and asked to be set free? Correct?”

“Well, I, ah…yeah. I guess so. What did you say about recruit for some squad?”

“Humph. I see that I was not understood. Yes? Let me elucidate. The Fantastical, Aerial, International, Reasonably Inconspicuous, Emancipation Squads , or shall I say F.A.I.R.I.E.S.? have accepted you into their organization. You asked. You were answered.” The branch attempted a smile, but looked impatient instead.

“Fairies? I don’t believe in fairies.” Mellie winced, half expecting him to fall down and writhe in pain until she clapped her hands.

“Quite right. You are not supposed to. If humans truly believed we existed, we would never get anything accomplished.”

Mellie laughed and looked around for a hidden camera, thinking this must be a joke. “Right. Ah…heh…okay, bud, brilliant costume,” she said, imitating the branch’s accent. “Where’s the zipper?” She reached toward him and touched a soft leaf.

The branch slapped her hand away and stamped its foot with a loud cracking noise. “I beg your pardon. I have not been a bud for over 800 springs!” He paced, his leaves crumpling, mumbling to himself about humans and why, in the One’s name, did he listen to that confounded gnome who told him that he needed to stand gate duty. With his rank!

“I’m sorry I upset you. Please, I’m very confused. I’m lost, and I just want to go home.” Mellie bit her lip.

The branch stopped mid-pace. “Home? Earlier, did you not wish for a new life? And riches? I know you wished for treasure, hmm?”

“How do you know that?” Mellie furrowed her brow. “Have you been reading my mind?”

The twig man didn’t answer her questions, asking his own instead. “Ahh, so, you admit this, yes?”

She narrowed her eyes. “Yes, but…well, this really isn’t what I had in mind.”

The branch threw up its twiggy fingers. “Oh, well, of course you did not have this in mind. After all, we are reasonably inconspicuous, especially to humans. How could you have this in mind? However, is it not superior of the One to think that this is what you would have chosen had you known about us? Anyway, ’tis irrevocable now. So, if you would just follow me, we shall get you signed in and enrolled for training.”

The branch marched off between the trunks of two large eucalyptus trees.

Mellie slid uncontrollably after the walking stick. She planted her feet firmly, refusing to budge, but she slid after him anyway. Grasping at branches of nearby trees, she panted heavily as she struggled to resist following the branch. Some kind of invisible tie connected her to him. He seemed to pull her along with his every step.

Mellie thought about her sisters and how mad they were at her. I’m dead meat if they find me. Mellie quickly gave up her battle and ran after the eucalyptus branch, barely keeping up with his stride.


The sand changed to coarse dirt, with pebbles and sticks. More and more trees filled Mellie’s vision. Bushes scraped against her bare legs and slapped her face as she moved deeper inside a forest of eucalyptus and redwood trees. She winced in pain as a razor-sharp rock sliced her foot. Stopping to nurse it, she wished once again for her forgotten shoes.

“Excuse me, sir?” Mellie looked around. She could not see the branch anywhere.

“Do not call me ‘sir’, I work for a living.” The branch peeked out from around one of the gigantic trees. “And please, try to keep up. We need to reach the gateway.”

Mellie limped up to him. “Sorry, sir…I mean…umm, what should I call you then?”

“Oh, well, we did skip that. Did we not? Yes, all right, an introduction then.” The branch man seemed to enjoy formal etiquette for he gave an elaborate wave and bowed. “My name is Regnans, family of Myrtaceae, born member of the F.A.I.R.I.E.S., Britannia Wing, rank of Master Nymph Dryad.”

“Nice to meet you, Reg…Reg?” Mellie chewed on the inside of her mouth. Never good at remembering names, she knew she would offend him with her lack of manners.

Sure enough, the dryad raised an eyebrow and pursed his lips. “Regnans.” He gave a hurt sniff, then drolly sneered. “If you find that a difficult name, you should meet the rest of my family, all seven-hundred thirty-four of them.”

“Sorry, I just…well, it is a lot to remember. It’s a nice name, though. My name is Maryellen Goodwin of Bret Harte Middle School, San Jose, California. But everyone calls me Mellie.” She stuck out her hand, intending to shake. Regnans stared at her.

“That is a strange curtsy. However, I guess ’twill do. We must get moving now. The shadows abound, you know.” Regnans made an about face and marched off faster than before.

Another hour passed, and still they strode along the forest floor. Mellie’s feet were now cut, blistered, and bleeding. She kept up as best she could with Regnans’s long stride. Whenever she tried to stop, he would pull her on with that invisible force of his.

Stupid, pompous, magical Star Wars freak.

She whimpered as she limped. Darkness and mist now covered the woods. As she was about to plead for a break, Regnans stopped. Except for her heavy gulps of air, all seemed quiet.

Regnans stiffened even more than usual. Nothing on him moved, apart from his eyes, which darted around quickly.

“All is safe, we may proceed.” He held up a twiggy finger to his woody mouth. “Please do not speak, and try not to breathe so abominably loud.”

Mellie nodded with a disgusted frown. Sweat dripped from her bangs. She tried to calm her breathing, even though her vision blurred, and her legs wobbled. Her blisters had popped by now and oozed wetness.

Regnans moved again, yet this time he took slow, deliberate steps, all the while scanning his surroundings. He walked up to a massive redwood tree and stroked its bark.

A breeze stirred up, rattling the leaves, sounding almost like spoken words. Mellie thought herself crazy again. However, the longer she stood there, the more she sensed that it really was the tree’s language, as if she had never listened to trees properly before. It said, “If you love, you will say the one true love that leads the way.”

Regnans whispered in a leaf rustling voice, “Ah-gaw-pay.”

A loud grumbling sound, as if someone awakened after a long sleep, shook the grove. The redwood tree opened two eyes, each the size of Mellie’s head, and blinked. A great fissure erupted below the eyes in the shape of a crescent, and redish-brown wooden teeth emerged. A long, knobby branch pushed its way out above the mouth and inhaled deeply.

The tree chuckled. Instead of the whispering leaves, a low, rumbling utterance of human speech came from the redwood tree. “Regnans? What brings you to my neck of the woods?” He blinked again. “And who is this? A new recruit? A human? A Chosen?”

Mellie knew she looked silly, standing there with her mouth in an ‘O’ shape, but she couldn’t move. This was simply impossible. There is no such thing as fairies!

“Yes, yes. Please open the gate, we must not dawdle here…they may be watching.” Regnans looked agitated.

A deep laugh resounded from the redwood. “Oh, Regnans. There are none who watch here.”

Regnans mumbled something about hamadryads and their pride, then proclaimed in a slightly louder voice to the tree, “We must be sober, be vigilant, because the shadow walks about like a roaring lion, seeking whom it may devour.”

The hamadryad looked chagrined. “You speak true, dryad. Forgive me for acting like an arrogant seedling.” He glanced at Mellie, and with a lowered voice asked, “And what is your name, little human?”

Mellie managed to squeak out, “Mellie Goodwin.”

“Ah, ’tis always nice to have a Good Wind.” The hamadryad laughed heartily.

“Sorry to interrupt this lovely tete-a-tete,” Regnans said, “but would you please open the gate? I left Westside completely unguarded.”

An annoyed creak came from the base of the redwood, followed by a sigh. “Yes, Regnans. Agape you said, and agape it is. Go with the light, my friends.” The large, joyous eyes closed, and the hamadryad whispered in his leaf rustling voice, “Until we meet again, Good Wind.” His face disappeared, and his roots lifted and pulled apart, exposing a tunnel within his trunk.

Regnans grabbed Mellie’s hand with his rough, wooden one, and pulled her inside the opening. The tree closed itself abruptly and left them in total darkness.

Regnans cleared his throat and said, “Let there be light.”

A burst of dazzling brightness sparkled from the tunnel’s wall. Mellie glanced around and noticed a long, winding stairwell leading down into the ground.

“Shall we, then?” Not waiting for a reply, Regnans started down the steps.

Available at and Barnes &

My thoughts:
What an interesting book! This story is full of imagination and tells a wonderful story. You'll find yourself smiling and feeling intrigued by the characters and fictitious land. Full of fantasy you will enjoy every moment of the fight against good and evil. With illustrations that capture your eye you will want to share this book with your young friends. 

Monday, December 26, 2011

COTT's Christmas Cover Images Winner

*by COTT Sr. Editor, April W Gardner

Cover Images Clashes are becoming hugely popular at the literary contest site, Clash of the Titles. Voters have been turning out by the droves to give their opinion about which cover they find most eye-catching.

Their latest Clash featured three Christmas cover images, all of which would have been worthy winners. There’s just something about holiday d├ęcor that warms the heart! A book cover with Christmas dressings is no different.

Here’s what hostess Gail Pallotta had to say about the three covers. “The mountain scene in A Log Cabin Christmas took away my breath and sent a peaceful feeling over me.  The lovely smile on the young lady on the cover of Christmas Belles of Georgia brightened my day and spoke to me of Christmas joy. Christmas Pearl stood out and proclaimed this holy season.”

But the voters decided, and the winner of the 
Christmas Cover Images Clash is:


This is what voters said about Christmas Pearl:

*'Christmas Pearl' simply struck me as beautiful & I sank right in as I read the blurb.
*I think all three are charming, but 'Christmas Pearl' does it for me!
*"Christmas Pearl" is just plain lovely. I love the way the pearl imitates a tree ornament. Very well done cover and quite evocative of Christmas.

Well said!

COTT  is currently taking a Christmas break, but please visit  January 9 for a new clash that will – literally – take your breath away! If you're an author, don’t forget to check upcoming open clashes and submit.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year from Clash of the Titles!!

Friday, December 23, 2011 - Site Review

Imagine the look of wonder and surprise when a child receives a photo of Santa caught in the act in his or her very own home. is a unique website that helps visitors create those memorable keepsake photos.

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AND right now you can receive 50% off your order by using the code: SANTA50

Merry Christmas! - Sponsored Post

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*Disclosure: This post is a sponsored post. I was compensated, however all thoughts are my own.*

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

A Heart Renewed (Prescott Pioneers 2) ~ Book Review

It is time for a FIRST Wild Card Tour book review! If you wish to join the FIRST blog alliance, just click the button. We are a group of reviewers who tour Christian books. A Wild Card post includes a brief bio of the author and a full chapter from each book toured. The reason it is called a FIRST Wild Card Tour is that you never know if the book will be fiction, non~fiction, for young, or for old...or for somewhere in between! Enjoy your free peek into the book!

You never know when I might play a wild card on you!

Today's Wild Card author is:

and the book:

Karen Baney (April 17, 2011)

***Special thanks to Karen Baney for sending me a review copy.***


Karen Baney, in addition to writing Christian historical fiction and contemporary novels, works as a Software Engineer.  Her faith plays an important role both in her life and in her writing.  Karen and her husband make their home in Gilbert, Arizona, with their two dogs.  She also holds a Masters of Business Administration from Arizona State University.

Visit the author's website.


Headstrong.  Unconventional.  Until life turns upside down…

Julia Colter struggles to accept life under her controlling brother’s greed.  The suitors he selects would benefit him, but are far from the ideal husband for her.  When her rebellion against her brother puts her life at risk, she turns to her friend for help.

Adam Larson longs to train horses and plans to head west to the Arizona Territory to see his dreams fulfilled.  When his sister’s best friend shows up in the middle of the night, he agrees to help her flee.  The decision changes his life, in more ways than he expected.

Can Julia forget the pain from her past and open her heart to love?

Product Details:
List Price: $14.99
Paperback: 338 pages
  • Publisher: Karen Baney (April 17, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0983548625
  • ISBN-13: 978-0983548621


Star C Ranch, Texas

July 4, 1864

   “You cannot be serious, Reuben!” Julia Colter shouted, not caring that she might wake her niece and nephew from their afternoon nap.  Pacing back and forth across the length of the kitchen, she stopped in front of her older brother, her temper flaring almost as hot as the stove.  “He is balding and fat and twice my age!”

   “You will marry who I say!” Reuben thundered.  “I expect you to treat Mr. Hiram Norton with the upmost respect this evening.  He has shown great interest in you and the least you can do is be civil with the man.”

   “But, I could never love him!”

   As Reuben shoved her violently up against the wall, Julia’s breath left her lungs in a rush.  Digging his fingers into her arms, she could feel the bruises starting to form.  His brown eyes darkened with unrestrained anger as he glared down at her.  She swallowed in fear, stunned by his abrupt action.

   “Stop, you’re hurting me,” she said, trying to break free from his vice like grip.

   He raised his hand as if he meant to strike her—something he had never done before.  The action startled her to silence.  Instead of hitting her across the face, as she thought he might, Reuben returned his hands to her upper arms squeezing even harder.

   Leaning so close the heat of his breath warmed her cheeks, he said, “You have no idea what hurt is, Julia.  You are an insolent little whelp.  You will paste a smile on that tart little face of yours.  And you will do your best to win his affections or,” his voice menacing, “you will suffer my wrath, the likes of which you have yet to see.”

   Releasing his hold, he pushed her so that she tumbled to the floor in a heap.  As he turned to walk away, he added in a sinister tone, “It would be best if you get used to the idea of Hiram Norton and give up fanciful notions of love, dear sister.  You will not have that luxury.  The sooner you come to accept that, the better it will go for you.”

   She sat in stunned silence as Reuben stalked to his office down the hall.  Tears streaming down her face, Julia bolted to her feet, running out the front door of the ranch house to the nearby stables, still frightened by her brother’s brutal behavior.

   The smell of hay and horse assaulted her delicate senses as she selected a gentle mare.  Throwing her saddle on the horse’s back, she led her from the barn.  Once under the open blue skies, she shoved one foot into the stirrup, swinging her other leg over the mare, riding astride.  Nudging the mare into a full gallop, Julia fled to the one place she would always feel free—the back of a horse in the wide open pastures.

   Reuben may be her guardian now, but she had only to endure a few more years of this before she would be of age and in control of her life.  If only she could stop him from marrying her off before then.

   At seventeen, she considered herself too young to get married, though many women her age and younger married.  She wasn’t ready.  She didn’t pine for the responsibilities marriage entailed.  She liked her freedom.  But, when she was ready to marry, she would marry for love and not because Reuben wished it.

   Certainly, she would never marry Hiram Norton.  The thirty-seven year old rancher was the exact opposite of what Julia wanted for a husband.  His short stature and fading hairline made him look even older.  He had a reputation for loving excess.  When it came to food, his waistline showed the results of that love.  There were other unsavory aspects to his reputation as well which included rumors that he frequented the saloon and brothel.

   No, the man for Julia would be young and handsome.  His character would be impeccable, his honor undeniable.  Land, money, and wealth held no importance to her.  She only cared that her dream man would be able to provide for her and their family.

   As the wind tangled her long, sandy brown curls, she continued to press the horse for more speed—needing it to soothe her fear and anger.  In the distance she saw the herd of longhorns kicking up dust.  The sight sparked a memory of Will, the kinder, more honorable of the Colter brothers, sending her mind racing in another direction.  So many times he’d taken Julia out to the pasture, teaching her how to rope, ride, and work with the cattle.  Some thought such behavior unacceptable for a lady.  She was glad to learn these skills.  Should her handsome young dream man end up being a rancher, he might appreciate her ability to work the ranch by his side.

   Why hasn’t Will written?  The thought of Will brought fresh tears as memories of his hasty departure flooded her mind.  Not only had she buried her father, but she also lost the brother she was close to—all within a few short weeks.  Almost a year ago, following her father’s death, Reuben forced Will to leave the ranch when he had been deeded the house and ranch.  While Will and Reuben both received half of the herd and the financial holdings, Will was left with no home or land.  Unable to find anything close, Will moved to the Arizona Territory, leaving Julia behind.  Alone.

   The only time she heard from him was in November 1863.  Will wrote that he, his men, and his cattle arrived safely and set up their new home near the Granite Creek settlement in the Arizona Territory—wherever that was.  No other letters came.

   Despite the thirteen year age difference between Will and Julia, they adored each other.  She followed him everywhere, never far from his side even when he worked with the herd.  When she needed protecting, it was Will who came to her defense.

   Oh, how she could use his protection now.  If he were here, he would stop Reuben from forcing her to marry that awful Hiram Norton.

   But, he wasn’t here.  He was in a distant territory, far from Texas, far from her aid.  Her father left her in Reuben’s care—not Will’s—even though Will would have been the better choice as far as Julia was concerned.

   Their father never saw the evil that clouded Reuben’s heart and he knew nothing of his manipulative ways.  In her father’s eyes, Reuben was as good of a son as Will.  If her father knew of Reuben’s late nights in town or of his forceful tactics for bankrupting other ranchers and taking over their lands, he turned a blind eye.  She found it hard to fathom that father could have missed such thinly concealed behavior.

   As the mare started to struggle for breath, sides heaving with great effort, Julia eased up the pace.  She was so torn.  She had thought more than once to runaway to Arizona, but was afraid Reuben would find her and drag her back.  Now he wanted her to flirt with Hiram Norton and get him to marry her.  She had no desire to do what Reuben was asking.  Mr. Norton may be wealthy, but he was twenty years older than her.  There was something indecent in that alone.  Nothing about him or his character appealed to her.

   Realizing she was nearing the outer pasture, Julia turned the mare around to head back to the ranch house.  She did not want to risk angering Reuben further by being unprepared for their dinner guests.  Lord, please don’t make me have to marry that repulsive man.  Will always said you could work things together for good.  I am not seeing much good right now.  Please give me the strength to make it through this evening meal.

   As she pulled the mare to a stop in front of the stables, she slid off the horse.  One of the young cowboys, Bates, took the reins from her hand.

   “Miss Colter, you best hurry,” he said, nodding toward the lane leading to the ranch house.

   A cloud of dust at the far end of the lane indicated their guests were already arriving.  Julia shot a quick word of thanks to the friendly cowboy before picking up her skirts and running to the house.  As she threw the door open, panting for breath, she caught Reuben’s seething look.

   Rushing down the hall she slammed her bedroom door shut.  She splashed some water on her face, wiping away the dust from her ride.

   “Where have you been?” Mary’s panicked voice preceded her entrance into Julia’s room.  Reuben’s normally calm, quiet wife seemed rather anxious as she picked up the corset she laid out.


   “Whatever for?” came the squeaky, agitated response.

   Julia tore off her day dress, tossing it over a chair.  As Mary came to assist her with the corset, Julia took her last deep breath of the evening.  She hated the confining contraption.  Once the stays were tightened, she lifted her arms as Mary helped settle the lovely yellow silk down over her shoulders.

   “You should have been in here an hour ago,” Mary lamented.  “Now there is no possible way we can fashion your hair into ringlets.  The other women will think you don’t care about your appearance.”

   They would be correct, Julia thought.  “You fret, too much,” she replied, brushing out her tangled curls.  She would be content with twisting her unruly hair into a chignon, despite how much it fought against the pins.

   “Go on.  I’ll finish,” she instructed Mary, hoping to have a quiet moment to compose herself before entering the fray.

   Mary hesitated for a brief moment before softly exiting the room.  Taking as deep a breath as she could, Julia let it out in a heavy sigh.  Undoubtedly, Hiram Norton was already here, waiting for her in the other room.  Pasting a smile on her face, she squared her shoulders and left the solitude of her room.

    “Hiram,” Reuben said as Julia approached, “I do not believe you have met my sister, Julia.”

   It took every ounce of courage to hold her smile steady and extend her hand towards Mr. Norton’s rotund frame.  Taking her hand, he placed a sloppy kiss on top, before asking, “Reuben, where have you been hiding this lovely filly?”

   Filly?  The distasteful comment sickened her.

   “Mr. Norton, a pleasure to meet you,” Julia said with more decorum than she thought she possessed.  As soon as his hold lifted, she discretely wiped the back of her hand on her dress.

   “Miss Colter, you are absolutely stunning,” he replied, allowing his lustful gaze to rove over her neckline, down her curvy figure, making overtly inappropriate stops along the way.

   She fought to tamp down her mounting abhorrence.  As the guests were seated around the table, she eagerly helped Mary set out the food. 

   Still irritated by Mr. Norton’s uncouth comment, she decided to fight back as she took her seat.  “Mr. Norton, my brother tells me you have been very successful with your ranch, despite the Union’s blockade.  Tell me, how do you do it?”

   Reuben’s eyes narrowed slightly, letting her know he caught her barely hidden sarcasm.

   “My lovely Miss Colter, such matters are too complicated for your simple mind to understand.”

   Another mark against Mr. Norton—condescension towards women, she thought, keeping the sweet smile firmly in place.  Lobbing a spoonful of potatoes on her plate she waited for him to continue.

   “However, I shall endeavor to enlighten you,” he said with an air of superiority, snatching the potatoes from her hand.  “While the Union may have blockaded our route to drive cattle to the New Orleans market, they have made no such effort to stop us from driving to points north or west.  It seems that as long as we aren’t supplying the Confederate Army, they care little where we sell our cattle.  We have simply changed our route north to the railways in Missouri.  While I don’t care for the Union and their imposing ways, a profit is a profit.  And I have made significant gains by being one of the first Texans to sell to eastern markets by way of Missouri.”

   “Mr. Norton.”  As her irritation rose, Julia retorted, “If a large profit is to your liking, why not drive the cattle west towards the California market where prices are more than triple that of the eastern markets?”

   Reuben shifted in his chair uncomfortably.  His darkening eyes warned her to hold her tongue.  Julia knew she should have heeded the warning, but she preferred being forthright.  Let Mr. Norton find that out now.

   Mr. Norton laughed off her question, causing her to dislike the man even more.  “You are a spirited little woman, I will give you that.  But your comment shows your youth and your naivety.”

   Taking not one, but two large pork chops from the platter she handed him, he said, “While the prices west are much higher, so is the cost to drive the cattle such a great distance.  The length of time it takes to drive the cattle to California is almost three times as long as the northern route.  It is also much more dangerous.  There are many more Indians and cattle thieves westward.  It would simply not be profitable to drive the herd west.”

   His snooty tone grated on her nerves.  When she opened her mouth to speak, Reuben interrupted.  “Perhaps, dear sister, you should leave the business matters to men.  I’m sure you would be much more interested in knowing how Mrs. Withers’ new baby is faring.”

   Mrs. Withers quickly picked up the conversation, monopolizing both Julia and Mary’s time.  While Julia was surprised Reuben even knew the woman had a child, she was thankful for the opportunity to ignore Mr. Norton.

   As the conversation continued, she felt something brush against her knee then move away.  She kept her focus on Mrs. Withers’ overlong description of her young son and on eating the meal, until she felt the unmistakable presence of a man’s hand move above her knee.  She stole a glance and confirmed Mr. Norton’s hand rested most inappropriately on her thigh.  Angling her legs further away from him as discreetly as possible, Julia’s stomach churned.  When Mr. Norton pressed closer, she thought she might lose her dinner.  The man appeared to have no limits.

   Standing abruptly, she said, “If you’ll excuse me.  I’m not feeling quite myself.”  Without waiting for a reply she hurried to her room.

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   Reuben scowled after his sister.  Her behavior had been completely unacceptable, despite his attempt earlier in the day to reason with her.  This silly idea of marrying for love must have worked its way into her thinking from the stories their father told of their mother.  No one married for love.

   He certainly hadn’t.  While Mary was pleasant looking enough and easy to control, he did not love his wife.  He had married her to increase his social standing among the area ranchers—something his father never seemed to care about.  Her father had been one of the wealthier men in the area and he was easy to win over.  In fact, Reuben thought, most everyone he met was easy to manipulate—except Will and Julia.

   It didn’t matter.  Will was gone and out of the picture.  He was no longer a nuisance, even though it was Will’s fault that he was in such a financial mess.  The timing of Will leaving with half the herd and half the financial holdings was disastrous, leaving him unable to pay debts to some very powerful men—a situation he was desperately trying to resolve.

   The last bite of his pork chop churned in his stomach as fear gained a foothold.  He needed Hiram’s money from the marriage arrangement to Julia.  It was his only hope of turning things around.

   As his guests finished the meal, Reuben stood.  “Gentlemen, shall we retire to the front porch for some refreshments and cigars?”

   The men eagerly nodded, obviously wanting to be away from the women as quickly as he did.  As Hiram stood, Reuben pulled him aside.  Speaking loud enough for the others to hear, he said, “We’ll join you in a moment.  Hiram and I have a few business matters to discuss.”

   Leading Hiram back towards his office, Reuben hoped Hiram would still be amiable to the agreement they discussed several days ago at the saloon, despite Julia’s less than enthusiastic attitude this evening.

   Before he offered a seat, Hiram took one, starting the conversation on his terms.  “Julia is quite lovely, Reuben.  You’ve been holding out on me.  When you asked for such a large sum, I assumed she must be dreadful to look at.”

   “So you are pleased?”

   “To a point,” Hiram admitted.  “While she’ll keep me entertained well, she needs to learn to control her tongue, especially in front of guests.  I’m surprised you haven’t dealt with this already.”

   Reuben frowned.  If only Hiram knew what he was up against.  With any luck, he wouldn’t find out until after his wedding day.  “Well, father has only been gone a short time.  He doted on her, so it will take some time to get her to properly respect a man.”

   “Ah, there’s the catch.  I’ll have to train her myself then.”  Hiram laughed.  “It will be a fun challenge—breaking her.  Too bad you didn’t have more time to do the job yourself.  You could get a much higher price for her, as beautiful as she is.”

   The price he was asking was enough.  Normally prone to greediness, when it came to selling his sister’s hand in marriage, he felt it prudent not to get too greedy.  He was running out of time and needed to pay his debts soon.  Once that pressure slackened, he could focus his energy on rebuilding his wealth.

   A brief hint of remorse came over Reuben.  Had he stooped so low that he was selling his sister for money?  But, it was not as if he were selling her to a brothel.  No, he was just selling her to a wealthy rancher.  She would live in luxury.  What could be bad about that?

   He knew living with Hiram Norton would not be pleasant.  The man had a reputation for being ruthless to his business associates, to his women, and even to his mother.  He had no limits.  He made Reuben look like a saint.  Julia would undoubtedly be miserable married to him until she learned her place.

   Chiding himself, he refocused his attention back to what Hiram was saying.  He needed this man’s money, not a sudden case of conscience.

   “After we have our cigars,” Hiram was saying, “then, I will take Julia for a walk.  See if I still fancy her.  When I return, we will announce our engagement.  It will be short.  No longer than a month.”

   Reuben held back a gasp.  He hadn’t expected Norton to want a short engagement.  “You know what the townsfolk will say with such a hurried wedding.  They will think my sister has been compromised.”

   Pulling a large stack of bills from his coat pocket, Hiram slammed it down on the desk.  “I don’t think you will care too much what is said about your sister’s reputation.  Who knows, what they say may end up being true anyway.”

   The dark look on Hiram’s face sent shivers down Reuben’s spine.  Ruthless seemed rather inadequate of a word to describe the man before him.  He had to make sure Julia did not ruin this deal, for he did not want the added pressure of Norton’s anger.

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   Mary knocked on Julia’s door not more than ten minutes after she left the meal.  Her voice was timid when she spoke, “The men have retired to the front porch for cigars.  Reuben requested that you return to the parlor with the women.”

   Sighing, Julia did as instructed.  She listened to the gossip of the rancher’s wives and wished her friend Caroline Larson was in attendance, so she might actually be able to enjoy the evening.  The Larsons owned a ranch to the east of the Star C and they had been long-time family friends.  Up until last year, before father passed away, the Larsons were always invited for every social gathering—sometimes they were the only guests.  Since then, Reuben saw little use for Mr. Larson’s moral ways and only included them on rare occasions to pacify her or his wife.

   Not paying attention to the boring conversation, Julia missed seeing the men return from the outdoors.  Mr. Norton’s hand on her forearm jolted her from her thoughts.  “Miss Colter, I was hoping you might take a walk with me.”

   “And who will be acting as chaperone?” she replied curtly, not wanting to be alone in his presence.

   Mr. Norton laughed, a sound she was beginning to detest.  “Silly girl, I am much too old for a chaperone.  I assure you, your reputation will be safe with me.  I simply want to stroll for a few moments with a beautiful woman on my arm.”

   Julia thought a stroll might be too much for the man.  He was sweating profusely and seemed to have difficulty walking the distance to the door, as his breath came in short, heavy bursts.  She looked to Mary for support.  She smiled and nodded her approval, oblivious to Mr. Norton’s reprehensible behavior.  As Reuben stood next to Mary, his eyes narrowed with a silent warning.  Heeding the unspoken message, she stood and accepted Mr. Norton’s arm.

   Outside, the air barely cooled in the waning sunlight, causing Julia to grow warm in a matter of seconds.  She wished she thought to grab her fan when a sour odor wafted from the man at her side.  Averting her face, she tried to catch an untainted breath of air.  Unsuccessful, she decided parting her lips to breathe through her mouth might be preferable.

   Nearing the stables, Mr. Norton stopped abruptly, turning towards Julia.  The quick motion—seemingly impossible coming from the man who seemed to struggle walking much of a distance—frightened her.  Sucking in air quickly through her mouth, a slight tickle lingered in the back of her throat, almost bringing on a cough.

   When he spoke, his voice took on a sinister edge.  Even in the dimming light she could see the contempt in his eyes.  “Miss Colter, while I admire your feisty spirit,” he said as he grabbed her wrists, “It would serve you not to embarrass me again, especially by questioning my business practices in a room full of my peers.  I can make your life most unbearable if you cross me.”  Without warning he pulled her close and crushed his mouth down on hers as his hands took great liberty in exploring her body.

   The shock of his action took a moment to register.  Once it did, Julia brought her booted heel down hard on the top center of his foot, just as Will showed her.  He dropped his hold instantly, crying out in pain.  As he limped toward her, she ran for the front of the house to put some distance between them.  Tripping over something, she stumbled, giving Mr. Norton time to catch up.  He grabbed her bruised upper arms with surprising strength.

   “Do not ever do that again,” he said in a hostile tone.  “Do you not know that Reuben has promised you to me?  Make no mistake, Miss Colter, I am a powerful man.  If you want to live a decent, peaceful life under my roof, you best lose some of your haughtiness… Or, I will take whatever measures necessary to force it out of you.”

   Julia blinked, trying to absorb all that he said.  Was he saying that Reuben already agreed to her marrying this loathsome man?  An ominous chill swept over her as he continued his intense stare.  Her heart beat rapidly within her chest as her panic rose.  She could not—would not—marry this dreadful man.

   Dropping his hold on her, Mr. Norton extended his arm and placed her hand in the crook.  “Smile,” he commanded as he limped to open the front door.

   While her smile came insincerely, his seemed quite pleased.  He crossed the room slowly, still favoring his injured foot, before stopping in front of Reuben and Mary.  “Reuben, it gives me great pleasure to announce that Julia has eagerly agreed to accept my offer of marriage,” he said smugly.  “She was so delighted that she agreed to a short engagement.  We will be married in a month.”  His fingernails dug into her arm daring her to speak otherwise.

   The smirk on Reuben’s face told her this had been their plan all along.  Such a public announcement, even though it was completely false, would be difficult to break.  Lord, help me.  I cannot marry that man.