Tuesday, December 7, 2021

Read an Excerpt from Secret to Hold by Mary Hagen

$2.99 or FREE for Kindle Unlimited Subscribers


While On her way to her new teaching position at the McPherson Ranch, Jessica Bradley receives a warning. Beware! Your soon-to-be employer murdered the previous schoolmistress.

Undaunted, Jessica completes her journey and is greeted by two wayward children, Charlotte's father, Cameron McPherson, and Rebecca's mother, Melissa McPherson. Tension is obvious between the parents.

Rumors to the contrary, Cameron is kind to his daughter and niece, supports her teaching duties, and helps her when she needs it.

When Jessica's past threatens her livelihood, McPherson intervenes as her champion. Despite of the risks involved, Jessica is certain the man she is attracted to could not have murdered anyone.

Determined to get to the bottom of the vicious rumor threatening his ranch and his future, Jessica faces prejudice hatred and the threat of bodily harm as she searches for the truth. 


Chapter One


A strong wind carried weeds and dust across barren ground surrounding the small station. Above

the door a weathered sign announced Rawlins. Jessica Bradley pulled her scarf around her face for

protection from the biting cold. The day was receding and dusk settled over the railroad platform.

When she was hired to teach two children on a remote ranch in Wyoming Territory, Jessica was

assured by Mr. Weitzel that someone would meet her at the station. The train left over an hour ago, and

she still waited. Hollowness filled her with worry. Had Mr. Weitzel found out about her past and decided

she was not suitable to teach? Who would have told him other than Aunt Abigail? Had her aunt been

correct? Was she going to add to the disgrace of the family by coming to Wyoming Territory?

Walking to the end of the platform, Jessica looked toward town. The only activity came from the

saloons. Music and loud laughter drifted toward her. Was she forgotten? Her stomach muscles tightened

and she gulped in several shallow breaths. Foolishly she had spent most of her advance before she left

New York. She could not purchase a return ticket to the city, and she would never ask Aunt Abigail for

help. The humility of returning to her was unthinkable. Jessica sat on the bench next to the station, stood

and paced the platform, pulled her gloves off, and put them on again.

"Miss, you might be more comfortable inside," the station master said, interrupting her thoughts. "I'll

be locking up shortly. Can I be of assistance?"

"I'm waiting for someone," Jessica said. "If they fail to arrive, perhaps you could suggest a place for

me to spend the night."

"Got one hotel in town. Walk to and from my house so can't help you with yer luggage, but can take

you there when I close."

"Thank you kindly. If no one comes, I'd appreciate your help. In the meantime, I'll wait outside." She

took a deep breath and pressed her back against the wall of the station.

"As you say, miss, but it's mighty cold." The wiry man in baggy and faded blue pants pulled his

sweater together and buttoned it before he returned to the station.

A gust of wind shook the building. She shivered and wiggled her cold toes to warm them. Jessica

pressed her lips together. She couldn't rent a room, but she could sit in the lobby until morning. With

daylight, she could think more clearly. She would need to find work. Opening the handbag tied to her

skirt, Jessica felt the small diamond broach given to her by her cousin Lena as she left Aunt Abigail's

house. Lena had told Jessica their grandmother had left two diamond pins, one for each of them, but

Aunt Abigail had said Jessica would have no use for one and ordered Lena to keep it. Lena insisted

Jessica take the broach with her to Wyoming. Jessica knew she could sell it and use the money until she

found work, but she should return it to Lena. She hated the responsibility of caring for it.

Anxiety settled in her stomach. Perhaps Rawlins needed a teacher. The thought did nothing to

relieve the niggling feeling of fear in her chest.

Jessica walked to the far end of the porch with her back to the town and searched the track. She

heard the roar of the wind and the rattle of a wagon. A horse snorted. Turning, she watched a small,

crusty-looking man jump from a buckboard and run toward her.

"Ma'am! You Miss Jessica Bradley?"


"My name's Ephraim Jones, but them what knows me calls me Happenstance. I'm to meet you. Take

you to the hotel for the McPhersons. Sure sorry I'm late but got held up west of here by some running


Happenstance was lean with a leathery face nearly smothered under a growth of whiskers. Without

effort, he picked up Jessica's two valises in one hand and a box of books with the other and guided her

toward the buckboard. Relieved she hadn’t been forgotten, she bent her head into the wind, held onto her

hat, and followed him.

After helping Jessica into the buckboard, Mr. Jones drove down a wide street passing saloons filled

with noisy patrons.

"There are so many men here. What brings them to such a place as this?" Jessica asked to make

conversation and to collect her wits.

"Rawlins got the go-ahead to build a new territorial prison. These men are here for work."

Happenstance flipped the reins over the horse's back. "Giddyap, you slowpoke."

Jessica glanced from one side of the street to the other noticing the unpainted false front buildings

with signs indicating a barbershop, a general store with a list of groceries, clothing, grains, and medicinal

cures, two saloons across the rutted dirt street, a bathhouse, and an eatery.

Jones pulled the horse to a halt next to a narrow porch across the front of a two-storied building with

hotel printed in large black letters. Some men tipped their broad-brimmed hats as she entered the hotel. A

saloon adjoined the lobby, and Jessica noticed several men playing cards.

"I don't believe I've ever seen so many places of entertainment in such a small town," she commented

as she removed her gloves and straightened her skirt.

"Cowhands come in a few days every month for a little socializing after so much of their own

company," Mr. Jones said. He led her to the desk. "You'll be bedding down here for the night and taking

the stage early tomorrow morning. Since you can only take twenty-five pounds of baggage, the rest'll go

with me and supplies I'm taking to the ranch."

"One valise will do," Jessica said. "How long will I be on the stage?"

"Stage makes nine or so miles an hour. Course depends on the weather. You'll have stops along the

way. Should take two, three days if the weather's bad," he said as he left the lobby to retrieve her baggage.

The wind rattled the windows and whistled around the door. Jessica tapped the bell on the desk and

an old man shuffled out of the saloon.

"Evenin', ma'am. Hello there, Hap," he said when Mr. Jones came through the door with her

belongings. "How's everything up yer way?"

"Considerin' this doggone wind, I'm lucky to be standing. Got the room fer this here lady?"

"Yup. Got the ticket to the ranch, too. Marie," he yelled in a loud voice. "Git yerself here and help this

lady to her room." He faced Jessica. "Name's Dutch Burris. If you’d like a shower, we got one. Dinner's at

six next door. McPherson's taken care of everything fer you."

"Thank you, but I'm not very hungry," Jessica said. "A bath would feel wonderful."

"Got a good biscuit shooter here. Yer meal's paid for in advance," Happenstance said.

"A biscuit shooter?" Jessica asked. She smiled a tiny smile.

"Yup. Chinese cook. Managed to weather the riot of eighty-five and stayed put." Mr. Jones patted his

stomach. "Can't get enough of his grub. When's the McPhersons coming through?" Mr. Burris asked


"Don't rightly know. Weitzel's coming in two weeks. S'pect McPherson will be along purty shortly

after that. Course the lady will probably dally long as possible in the city."

"Yup. Nobody miss her. Marie," Mr. Burris shouted. He continued, "Hearin' there are lots of cows

pretty hungry from this hard winter we've been a having."

"Don't look good," Happenstance answered.

A young girl came from the back of the building. "You'd think I was deaf the way you yell,” she

complained. "What you want?"

"Help this lady upstairs. She works for the McPhersons."

Marie flashed black eyes in Jessica's direction before taking her carpetbag. "All you got?"

Jessica nodded.

"Don’t seem like much."

"See you off in the morning," Happenstance said.

Jessica followed a sullen Marie up an open stairway and along a narrow hall. There was activity

behind every closed door she passed. Marie stopped at the end of the corridor, opened a door, and

ushered Jessica into a tiny room with a bed, a washstand, a chair, and a pot-bellied stove. The room

appeared clean. Jessica hoped she wouldn't find bedbugs.

Marie put Jessica's valise on the chair and helped her remove her wrap. "How soon you want your

shower?" she asked. Resentment filled her voice. "I get off in half-hour."

"The sooner the better. I need one." Jessica untied her hat and placed it on the washstand.

"Think I can't smell? I'll get the water hot. Be back shortly." Marie paused and added, "I can wash

your hair. I charge ten cents."

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