Dreams of Love First Chapter Preview

I thought you might enjoy a first chapter preview from my new sweet and wholesome historical novella Dreams of Love. It’s the first book in the Holiday Dreams series and it releases March 21!

August 1885

Holiday, Oregon

 “Mind telling me what you think you’re doing?”

The deep, masculine voice directly behind her made a shiver slide down Zara Wynn’s spine despite the unrelenting heat pressing in all around her. Her cotton dress stuck to her back, and the delicate lace edging clung to her throat until she felt as though she might suffocate.

Ignoring the voice and the man, she continued jamming two hairpins into the lock on the door of the teacher’s quarters located at the rear of the schoolhouse.

Zara had been hired as the new schoolteacher. The school board wasn’t expecting her, though, for another two weeks. There’d been no help for her hasty departure from home or unannounced arrival. She’d hoped once she arrived in Holiday, a growing mountain town in Eastern Oregon, it would be a simple matter to find the school and someone to open the door.

However, nothing was going according to plan. An hour ago, she’d only taken four steps away from the train depot when a miner with an apparent aversion to bathing and who was missing most of his teeth had grinned and offered to marry her. Appalled, Zara had cast a frosty glare in his direction and hastened her step, although she’d had no idea where she was heading.

Based on articles she’d read about western towns, she had assumed she’d find the schoolhouse at one end of Holiday or the other. She’d maintained a quick pace away from the depot until she had come to the main thoroughfare. Slowly, she’d wandered past a saddle shop, a hotel, and a general store. When she’d reached a corner, she had stopped to admire the cross on top of the church that appeared to reach high into the brilliant blue of the afternoon sky.

It was then she’d noticed the school on the street behind the church. With hurried steps, she rushed past the church, turned at the corner, and made her way up another block to the school. She’d felt along the eaves for a hidden key and looked beneath a few rocks by the door to the teacher’s quarters. Unable to locate one, she’d pulled out two hairpins, hoping to pick the lock.

She’d never attempted to do such a thing, but how hard could it be?

With her tongue planted in her cheek, she continued working the hairpins in the keyhole.

A throat cleared, reminding her she wasn’t alone. Heat from the man radiated over her as he moved nearer, increasing her state of discomfort. Prepared to give the stranger a dismissive, cool glare, Zara glanced at him over her shoulder and found herself unable to look away.

A cowboy—based on his attire in denims, dusty boots, and a black hat—stared at her like she was a misbehaving child. He was ruggedly handsome, at least what she could see with the hat he wore tugged down low and shading part of his face. Dark scruff covered his cheeks and chin, making her think he’d not taken time to shave that morning, or perhaps several mornings. His nose leaned a little to the left, like it had been broken in the past. He was broad shouldered and muscular, with an unyielding look in the way he carried himself.

“I’ll only ask one more time. What are you doing?” He took another step closer. “If you don’t want to find yourself in one of my jail cells, you’d best answer.”

Slowly, Zara dropped her hands to her sides and straightened from her bent over position. She turned and faced the large man, noticing a badge pinned to the vest he wore.

“That won’t be necessary, Marshal. I was hoping to open the door to my accommodations since I couldn’t find the key.”

“Your accommodations?” the lawman questioned. “The teacher we hired isn’t due to arrive for two weeks. Mind telling me your name?”

Zara added as much starch to her spine as she could muster considering the sweat-drenched fabric that clung to her as well as the fact that she’d been in town only an hour and was already in trouble with the law. “Miss Zara Wynn. I corresponded with Grant Coleman about the teaching position.”

The marshal studied her a moment, then muttered something beneath his breath she had no hope of hearing. He rubbed a hand over his chin and pinned her with a penetrating glare. “Does Grant know you’re here?”

“No, sir. I assumed I could locate someone from the school board to allow me into the teacher’s quarters when I arrived in town. I do hope my unexpected arrival won’t be an inconvenience.”

“It um … certainly catches us by surprise.”

Her eyes widened at his use of the word us. “Are you on the school board?”

The marshal nodded, then swept off his hat. Zara took in his rich black hair, deep brown eyes, and a scar that ran from his left temple down to the corner of his eye. Her fingers longed to reach out and touch the scar, so she clenched the wrinkled fabric of her skirt.

“My name is Dillon Durant. Marshal Durant. I do serve on the school board, but only because Grant bribed me with some of his daughter-in-law’s fresh doughnuts.”

Zara smiled as Marshal Durant settled his hat back on his head. “Fresh doughnuts are unquestionably coercive.”

“Indeed.” The marshal moved back and waved his hand in the direction she’d come. “I have a key in my desk, but I have to warn you that the teacher’s quarters are a mess. It might be best if you spend the night at the hotel.”

Zara wasn’t penniless, at least not yet. But she had no interest in squandering her hard-earned money on a hotel if there was a perfectly good place for her to sleep that wouldn’t cost her anything.

“Perhaps I could see the quarters before making up my mind?” she asked, then followed as Marshal Durant led the way to his office, which happened to be located kitty-corner across from the church.

He pushed open the door, then moved back so she could precede him inside.

She stepped into the office, uncertain what to expect. Until that moment, she’d never been inside a lawman’s place of business. The walls were painted a soft shade of yellow, which surprised her as much as the tidy appearance of the place. One corner held a huge roll-top desk with a bentwood chair on wheels pushed up on one side. Two straight back chairs sat side by side on the other. A big clock hung on the wall by the desk with a filing cabinet beneath it. An oak-framed doorway led into a hallway where she could see jail cell doors standing open. At least there weren’t any prisoners inside suffering in the heat.

A tall wardrobe, an overstuffed armchair, a bookcase with three full shelves, a side table with a lamp, and a small dining table with two chairs pushed up to it by a big potbellied stove took up most of the rest of the space. In the far corner of the building was a small chest of drawers  next to a wrought-iron bed neatly covered with a green, blue, and yellow feathered diamond pattern quilt.

“That’s a lovely quilt. Someone is quite talented to make that pattern.”

Dillon glanced at her as he continued digging around on his desk. “Thanks. My grandmother made it for me. She told me I needed a bit of warmth and color in here.”

“It’s very nice.” Zara returned to surveying the rest of the space. Pegs on the wall at the foot of the bed held coats and a hat that looked like it had been trampled in a stampede. A mirror hung to the side of the pegs with a shelf where the marshal’s unused shaving mug and brush rested. A stand beneath it held a plain white wash basin and pitcher.

It looked as though Marshal Durant lived at the jail. Did that mean he wasn’t married? Or did he have a family out of town where he went on his days off? Why did it matter to her either way?

Questions jittered around in her thoughts, but she batted them away and watched as the marshal opened one of his desk drawers. He extracted a ring of keys and sorted through them, then held one up as he turned to her.

“Let’s go take a look at the teacher’s quarters.”

She walked out the open door and started back toward the school. The marshal fell into step beside her.

As they continued up the street, he gave her another studying glance. “You’re the first female teacher the school board has hired. We’ve gone through six—or is it seven?—teachers in the past two years. They take the job, teach for a while, get gold fever, and quit. The last fellow we hired only lasted six weeks. He left at the beginning of May, so we just let the children out early for the summer.”

“I see,” Zara said although she didn’t. How could a qualified, dedicated teacher just abandon his students? She couldn’t imagine doing such a thing. Children needed to be taught. To learn. To grow academically.

Zara watched as the marshal stuck the key in the lock and opened the door. He gave it a push, and the hinges creaked. With a fortifying breath, one that smelled of the pine trees growing on the mountains around them, and something entirely masculine she found rather unsettling, she walked into the room.

Horrid smells hit her nose as heat assaulted her face. Before she could turn away, a rat scurried over her foot on a path of escape out the door. Startled, Zara jumped and screamed, stamping her feet in case the rat decided to race up her skirts.

The marshal had the unmitigated audacity to chuckle as he pulled her back outside.

“Like I said, Miss Wynn, the place needs a little attention before you can move in.”

Determined to assess the disgusting state of her future residence, Zara boldly marched into the quarters and surveyed what she could only describe as chaos. There were papers everywhere, an overturned chair at the table, and cabinet doors hanging open. One hung by a single hinge at an odd angle. Mice had settled in and built cozy nests in the bed. Food that had been left behind had dried into a revolting mess on both the stove and the table. The heat trapped inside along with the stench of the recent rodent occupation was more than Zara could bear.

Her stomach roiled, and she was grateful her belly was empty since she’d skipped both breakfast and lunch on the train.

“Come on.” The marshal placed his hand on her elbow and escorted her outside. “I’ll take you to the hotel, then see what can be done about getting this place habitable for humans.” He guided her to the corner, turned at the church, and headed down the main street she’d strolled along earlier. Silence fell between them, which was fine with Zara. She was disconcerted, disheartened, and disappointed.

As they stood on the corner in front of the mercantile, waiting for a wagon to pass to cross the street, the marshal glanced down at her. “Do you have trunks or just that bag you’ve been packing around?”

“My trunks are at the depot. The stationmaster said he’d keep an eye on them for me until I could get them moved.”

“Is there anything you need out of the trunks tonight?”

Zara shook her head. “I can make do.”

The marshal gave her an approving nod, then guided her across the street and into the hotel.

Surprised by the luxurious appearance of the hotel lobby, Zara released the breath she’d been holding. She hadn’t expected anything nice based on her experiences thus far in Holiday.

A middle-aged woman smiled at them from her position behind the front counter. “Afternoon, Marshal.”

“Howdy, Edith. This is Miss Zara Wynn, the new schoolteacher. She arrived sooner than expected, and her room behind the schoolhouse hasn’t been cleaned since Mr. Godfrey ran off to strike it rich.”

“Oh, dear.” The woman reached across the counter and offered Zara’s hand a comforting pat. “I’m Edith Piedmont, Miss Wynn. My husband, Grover, and I own the hotel. I’ll get you set up in a room. Dinner service begins at five in our dining room. If you’ve been traveling, I’m sure you’d like a nice bath. I can arrange to have a tub brought up to your room.”

“Thank you, Mrs. Piedmont. A bath and a meal would be wonderful.”

Edith ran her finger down a column in the open ledger on the counter, penciled in Zara’s name, then had her sign the register. The woman gave her the total for a night’s stay and Zara happily paid it.

“I have a lovely room on the second floor. It’s quiet. If you want to take a look, I’ll get a tub up to you right away.”

For reasons beyond her comprehension, Zara felt like weeping. Rather than succumb to tears, she managed to offer the kind woman a smile. “Again, thank you, Mrs. Piedmont.”

“Of course, Miss Wynn, and please call me Edith.” Edith smiled at Zara, then turned her attention to the marshal. “Will you let the school board know our new teacher is here?”

“Planned to do that, Edith. Since you’re married to one of the members, will you pass that news on to Grover?”

Edith grinned. “I shall.”

Zara took the key the hotel proprietress held out to her, then turned to the marshal. “Thank you for your assistance, Marshal Durant.”

“You’re welcome, Miss Wynn. I reckon since I saved you from blood-thirsty vermin, you can call me Dillon.” He tipped his hat to her and left before she could find a suitable response to his ridiculous comment.

There were no blood-thirsty vermin, and he certainly hadn’t saved her, even if his presence had been oddly comforting when the rat had run over her shoe.

Edith gave her a questioning glance but said nothing as Zara took a firmer grip on her bag and then climbed the stairs. Her limbs felt weighted as she reached the second floor and found her room. She unlocked the door and swung it open, then stepped into the corner room, where a welcome breeze blew in the open window, carrying the pine-tinged air.

Although Holiday wasn’t anything like she’d anticipated, she appreciated the fact that it smelled like Christmas. Zara moved over to the window, pushed it open wider, and breathed deeply of the clean, crisp air. A tap on her door drew her from inhaling the refreshing breeze. She hurried across the room and opened the portal to two young men carrying a large metal bathtub.

They’d barely set it on the floor when a maid hurried in with a stack of fluffy white towels tucked under her right arm and a bucket of steaming water in her left hand.

“Hello, Miss Wynn. Mrs. Piedmont wasn’t sure if you’d prefer a hot or cool bath.”

“Cool would be delightful,” Zara said, watching as the maid poured the water into the tub.

“We’ll have this ready in a jiffy,” the young maid said with a smile as she nudged the two young men out the door. Zara stepped into the hall, watching the maid playfully cuff one of the young men, and noticed the resemblance they shared. They were likely siblings. They hurried into a room at the end of the hall and then returned carrying buckets of water.

“Mrs. Piedmont said she forgot to tell you there are washrooms at the end of the hall on each floor.” The maid pointed to the door where they’d drawn the water.

“Thank you.”

“Of course, Miss.”

In no time, the tub was full. Zara was more than ready to wash away the sweat and dirt from her recent travels.

“If you need anything at all, Miss Wynn, just ask for me. I’m Rachel, and this is my brother, Nick, and our cousin, Rob.”

“It’s a pleasure to meet you all, and thank you.” Zara gave them each a coin, then closed her door, eager for the cooling water of the bath.

When she sank into the tub, the water was colder than she’d expected. She drew in a gasp, but once the initial discomfort passed, she found it to be quite pleasant. Zara scrubbed with a sliver of fragrant lavender soap from her traveling bag and washed her hair.

It took a second scrubbing before she felt clean. She lifted a pitcher of water Rachel had left behind and poured it over her head as a final rinse before she got out of the tub and dried off on the soft, sunshine-scented towels.

Her stomach growled as she hurried to pull on the clean undergarments she took from her traveling bag.

Quickly combing her blonde hair before the waves tangled, she took her dirty clothes and washed them in the tub of water, laying them over the furniture to dry before she slipped on a clean but terribly wrinkled dress that had been packed in her bag since the day she’d fled the only home she’d ever known.

As she pulled her still-damp hair up into a knot at the back of her head, she thought about the journey that had brought her to town.

Up until a month ago, she’d never heard of Holiday, Oregon. Then, in a moment that seemed like divine guidance, she’d picked up her father’s discarded newspaper and noticed an advertisement for a schoolteacher in a small town in Eastern Oregon.

Desperate to escape her current circumstances, Zara had taken a few coins from the hidden stash she kept under the floorboards beneath her bed, raced to the telegraph office, and sent a telegram, inquiring about the position. Her missive was immediately answered, and she sent a letter, along with references, to the school board in Holiday.

Experience wasn’t something she lacked. She’d been teaching school in Davenport, Iowa, for the past five years and loved it. Just not enough to stay in town when her father and the man he’d decreed she would marry were making her life utterly miserable.

When she’d received a telegram letting her know she was hired for the position, she’d hastily packed her things and set her plans into motion. The following evening, while her father had been off doing his nightly gambling and drinking, she had stood outside the house where she’d spent her entire life and had given it one final glance. She’d climbed into the wagon she’d hired to haul her and her trunks to the train station and then boarded a train headed south. She’d switched trains three times before arriving in Omaha and boarding the train that would carry her into the West.

With her roundabout route to Omaha, Zara anticipated if her father and her unwanted fiancé, Conroy Devoe, attempted to find her, they’d lose any trace of her long before they made it to Omaha.

Zara glanced down at her simple cotton gown. It was a relief to wear it instead of the itchy, miserable black bombazine dress she’d worn all the way to Baker City. People wouldn’t think anything of a widow traveling alone, so Zara had pretended to be one. Clad in the somber dress and a black hat with a veil, it proved to be as off-putting as she’d hoped. She had sweltered in the ensemble, but it had kept anyone from asking her probing questions or getting a good look at her.

In Baker City, she’d had just enough time to wash up in the lavatory at the depot and slip into a clean dress with a straw hat. She’d stuffed the despised black outfit in a trash barrel just before boarding the Holiday Express line.

She smiled, recalling the name painted on the side of the train’s engine that had brought her to Holiday. Hope. She certainly could use an extra helping of hope now. Zara had been in a depressingly short supply of hope since the day her father had come home with Conroy in tow, announcing his plans for her to wed the detestable man.

Her father, and Conroy, for that matter, had offered any number of reasons why she should be overjoyed to become Conroy’s wife. However, Zara was convinced the only reason her father had agreed to the marriage was because he was in debt to Conroy and it was the easiest solution to his financial troubles.

Zara had known her father had turned to drinking, and then gambling, to deal with his grief when her mother had passed two years ago. Regardless, the past six months, he’d been spending more and more time at Whiskey Spoon, the den of iniquity that Conroy owned.

It wasn’t until her father had informed her that he’d promised her hand to Conroy that she realized just how deeply in debt her father was to the morally devoid bully.

Tears, pleading, and even questions about what her beloved mother would think of what he’d done had failed to sway her father from the course he’d set for her future.

Left with no alternative other than marrying Conroy, Zara had fled.

It broke her heart to leave behind the many precious keepsakes that had belonged to her mother. Keepsakes her father would no doubt eventually sell to cover his debts.

A few treasures were carefully packed into her trunks. The family Bible. Her mother’s set of china. A vase that had belonged to Zara’s grandmother. Seeds from her mother’s favorite flowers. A coverlet her mother had been creating when she’d died so suddenly one November morning.

The doctor had said it was her heart, but Zara was sure her mother’s heart wasn’t the only one to fail that fateful day.

Her father’s heart had seemingly shriveled overnight until there was nothing left of the loving, jovial man she’d always known.

At first, Zara had thought they could offer each other comfort in their grief. It took no time to realize her father had no intention of letting his grief out. Instead, he buried it with every swig of the whiskey he guzzled and every turn of the cards he’d begun to play.

Since the day of her mother’s funeral service, her father hadn’t set foot in the church they’d always attended. Zara had found comfort in the fellowship of gathering with other people who lived their faith, while hearing God’s truth in the pastor’s sermons had given her encouragement to make it through another hard week of dealing with her father.

Sharp pain pierced her heart when she thought of the bitter man her father had become. At least she had sweet memories from her childhood, when she and her parents were so happy and life had seemed so carefree.

If she could make a wish and return to those days, she would, but wishing wouldn’t make it so. All she had left now was the possibility of a better tomorrow, assuming she hadn’t made a disastrous mistake in traveling across the country to accept the position of schoolteacher in the town of Holiday.

Although the town had a terrible time keeping teachers due to gold fever, Zara certainly had no intentions of mining.

Schoolteachers were expected to adhere to a strict code of conduct, one she knew well from teaching in Davenport. To be above reproach in her actions and words. That’s exactly what she would be. She wondered what rules the school board in Holiday might impose. She hoped they wouldn’t be that different, or more stringent, than those of her last teaching position.

Regardless, she intended to give her best to the position and her students. After all, she had three weeks to prepare before classes began. Grant Coleman, who had corresponded with her on behalf of the school board, had assured her she didn’t need to arrive until a week before classes were scheduled to start.

However, due to her father’s unexpected insistence she fulfill his bargain with Conroy, Zara had refused to linger in Davenport on the chance she might well and truly find herself married to a man she loathed.

Here in Holiday, she could make her own choices and pave her own way into her future, even if tomorrow seemed rather uncertain and daunting.

Zara pinned her straw hat on her head, picked up her reticule, straightened her spine, and hurried downstairs to the dining room, suddenly ravenous for a good meal.

After letting Edith know she appreciated the bath, Zara ate a delicious dinner. When she finished, she considered going for a stroll around town but thought better of it. A female on her own wasn’t exactly safe at night, especially in a new town where she had no idea where anything was located.

She thanked Edith again as she passed by the front desk, then made her way back to her room to find the tub had disappeared and a vase with fresh flowers had been placed on the desk.

Gently fingering the petals of a daisy, she decided, perhaps, Holiday might offer her more than she’d originally anticipated.

An hour later, as she rested in bed with a book she’d brought from home, her attention was not on the adventure story, but on visions of Marshal Dillon Durant as he’d looked when she had turned and seen him for the first time that afternoon.

In spite of his threat to arrest her, he was a rather intriguing and handsome man.

 

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