Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Tanya Writes About Her New Book Cover!

I know I promised an upcoming blog on Cowboy Church, but oh, my. As if being on vacation with my hero isn't enough, I just now got my book cover for Marrying Minda. Isn't it pretty? Sigh.

The book, recently acquired by The Wild Rose Press for the Cactus Rose line, should be out in e-book in early winter, and in print next summer. In the meantime, read the opening chapter below.

I'm honored and humbled both that Marrying Minda won first place in the Merritt "Magic Moment" Contest sponsored by the San Antonio Romance Authors, and placed first with perfect stores in the "Ignite the Flame" Contest held by the Central Ohio Fiction Writers.

Here are the opening scenes. Enjoy!

Paradise, Nebraska

July 1878

Where was Norman Dale? Her heart thumped. The noon stage had run late, so he had plenty of time to get here. Unless he had backed out.

She swallowed hard. Nowhere on the empty street did she see a bridegroom bearing a bouquet of her favorite white roses. The gulp turned into a sob. But they had signed a legal contract fair and square, and the dry official document hadn’t stopped them from falling a little bit in love with each other. His letters had been full of compliments and promises and excitement, too, about meeting face-to-face.

And today was the day.

Even in the stuffy interior of the stagecoach, she shivered with a chill of unease. After tossing her valises on the boardinghouse steps, the driver lifted her down and removed the long linen duster passengers wore to protect their clothes from the grime of travel. Underneath she wore her wedding gown. Norman Dale’s last letter had sweetly insisted they wed the minute she arrived.

Trying to impart a radiant smile, she paid no heed to the reactions of her fellow travelers. The woman wearing an old-style coal-scuttle bonnet of green gingham had chatted pleasantly for the last five miles, but upon seeing Minda’s silk and lace, her mouth turned wide and silent as a full moon. And a grubby codger leered while showing off his two brown teeth.

Well, she ignored them same as she’d ignored her younger sisters when they’d claimed a spinster didn’t need a lovely white wedding gown. Well, Minda Becker might be a spinster and a mail-order bride on top of it. But she was a bride, and she was going to do it right.

In the hot dust of the departing stage, she drooped in complete disillusion at the hard-luck little town ahead of her. Norman Dale’s letters sure had contained some glorified words describing Paradise. Truth to tell, her new hometown was just one brick building and a dozen false-front wooden structures with miles of cornfields and prairie grass billowing around the edges. Her bridegroom’s own farm and fine wooden house must lay quite a ways outside of town.

She caught sight of a trim white church down the street and the slew horses and wagons hitched to rough-hewn posts along its side. Relief covered her as sweet as her silk dress. Of course. Norman Dale must be busy greeting wedding guests who waited on a bride delayed by a stage running late. Of course he’d be along in a minute to fetch her. They’d already agreed to march up the aisle together. A widower had no reason to wait at the altar for a mail-order bride who had no one to give her away.

Past the church, tables piled with platters and baskets sat in the shade of big cottonwoods along the riverbank. Her wedding dinner. Her mouth all but watered and doubt left her mood. Goodness, she was about to become Mrs. Norman Dale Haynes. With a quiver of delight, she shook dust and wrinkles from her skirts and walked up the boardinghouse steps to seek a mirror and a bowl of cool water for freshening.

But a sign reading “closed” hung on the lopsided door. Minda smiled at her reflection in the grimy window anyway. Likely the innkeeper was a wedding guest already at church. After digging reverently through one valise, she brought out the veil she’d fashioned from odds and ends at the millinery back home. Just touching the beautiful thing set a new flock of butterflies aflutter inside her belly. The froth of netting cascaded from a wreathe of roses she’d crafted from scraps of ivory velvet.

As she arranged the veil, she heard her name. However, the angle of reflection didn’t let her see the speaker.

“Miz Becker? You are Minda Becker, right?”

She turned to see a man approaching, tall and lean in his Sunday best, awkwardly carrying her bridal bouquet.

Mr. Norman Dale Haynes. She couldn’t stop the outtake of breath. He was much younger and far more handsome than the daguerreotype he had sent her. Her face warmed. It wouldn’t take long at all to give her whole heart to this man.

Or her body.

Her heart hammered beneath her whalebone corset. Heat that had nothing to do with the weather poured over her like new milk. Merciful heavens, he must have wed young the first time around to have the teenage daughter he needed her to raise.

Heartbeats danced hard against her ribs. Truth to tell, this man didn’t appear to have any flaws at all. With a wedding night waiting for her, she tingled from top to toe. Along with many blushes, her three sisters, now all young wives, had explained the delights of the marriage bed. She wanted the same for herself.

Hair dark as midnight brushed atop shoulders wide as yardsticks on each side of Norman Dale’s neck. Her eye for style had designed quality hats in Gleesburg, so the poor fit of his dark coat stumped her. She’d expected better attire from a well-off farmer on his wedding day. More important, his grim countenance and the black moustache over his unsmiling lip started the blood in her veins to run cold. But a second later she warmed a little. Perhaps he had some jitters himself. His masculine handsomeness made her proud. She’d chosen well.

Although she was almost twenty-five, she quivered like a flighty schoolgirl. Gathering up her dignity, she walked toward him, eager for a welcoming embrace. In truth, his letters had allowed he’d fallen for her as well.

“Yes, yes, of course, I’m Minda Becker.” She smiled big and bright to keep her words from shaking. “Is there another bride arriving this afternoon?”

“Nope. Just you. Let’s get you married up.” He still didn’t smile or offer a hand or an introduction. Or even remove his hat. Heart sinking, she shut her lids tight to hold back tears.

Had she come a thousand miles to get her heart broken?

A wisp of the veil fluttered across her face in the hot wind and she grabbed the edge to have something to do. Had that interminable trek from Pennsylvania been a powerful mistake?

Folks in Gleesburg considered her a spinster after she gave up her girlhood to raise her three little sisters when Mama died. But at least her hometown had cobbled streets and brick houses, decent businesses including the hat shop where she’d made her living. Neighbors close by, too. Every homestead she’d seen around here seemed miles away from the next one.

She still had time to change her mind. But no, she’d signed that contract. She’d given her word. More than anything, she wanted a husband and a home of her own. As she forced herself to return her bridegroom’s unyielding gaze, her skin prickled a little at his dark eyes that didn’t blink.

“I regret the late start to our wedding, Norman Dale. My train arrived in Columbus on time, but I truly had no control over the stagecoach getting me to Paradise.” She tried to laugh lightly. No thinking person could hold her responsible.

Unless. Her face burned. Unless he thought she’d delayed the stage’s departure by taking time to change into her wedding dress. His correspondence had complimented her plenty on her common sense. She couldn’t bear him thinking her frivolous and vain.

“A late stage isn’t your fault. But hurry up now. Folks are waiting.”

Minda’s spirits plummeted once again at his abrupt tone. Was this the man she’d spend the rest of her life with? Worry and doubt once again turned her cold in spite of July. But as he handed her the flowers, he took her hand.

At his touch, she barely found enough air. Her bosoms shivered beneath the lace and silk of her gown and the bones of her corset seemed strangely tight. Silent, he led her toward the church. Stepping away from some horse dung, she leaned hard against him. He pulled away.

Her heart sank. Maybe Norman Dale hadn’t written those wonderful letters himself. Maybe he wasn’t eager to meet her like he’d claimed. Maybe all he wanted was a new mother for his teenaged girl.

Or maybe. Maybe he was dissatisfied with her looks. She bowed her head in a sudden petition. The daguerreotype she’d sent him had showed her flaws as well as her graces. Although her sisters had declared her lovely enough to steal any man’s heart, Minda gulped disappointment along with the hot summer air.

Fully intending to honor her promises and her vows, she tightened her fingers in determination. She wanted a family all her own. There was nothing left for her back home where bachelors sought younger belles and the sisters she’d raised were busy newlyweds. No matter what, she’d take on Norman Dale Haynes and his child and his household, make it all her own. And get him to love her like he’d hinted.

At the church steps, he at least found enough manners to hold her skirts and help her inside. A pump organ belched the wedding march.

Unwavering, Minda walked into her future. The wide-eyed interest of the wedding guests didn’t surprise her much. After all, she’d traveled a very long way to marry a man she’d never actually met. For a half-second, she recalled the amused and dubious eyes of the folks back home when she left. No, she’d never go back. Ever. Resolute, she gripped Norman Dale’s arm.

Right now a few female voices cooed as her bridegroom first tossed away his hat with his free hand, then straightened the veil that the wind had rustled. Pride burst inside her.

For a delicious moment, Minda enjoyed the view of his shoulder muscles moving underneath his tight black coat. Of course she’d expected a hard working man of the land to be strong and hale, but this man seemed like he could lift her with just one arm. And she wanted his touch, pure and simple. No, it wouldn’t be hard at all to be his loving wife.

Unwavering, she walked beside her bridegroom on steady feet up an aisle that seemed a mile long. The organ faded as the reverend started the vows without delay.

“Miss Becker, do you take this man to be your lawful husband?”

She stared at the reverend. He hadn’t used her full christened name, Melinda Susanna, and his nervousness was plain for all to see. She peeked at her husband but he didn’t catch her eye either. This must be the young minister’s first time officiating at a wedding and he’d forgotten her name.

Norman Dale’s hand tightened around hers as if expecting her to say no.

“Yes, I do,” she announced in a confident voice, eager for her new future. Then the preacher asked “Mr. Haynes” the same. He growled his response and slid a ring on her finger. Minda quivered at the sound and the touch.

The ring fit perfectly.

“Now if there be any one present to objects to this union, let him speak now, or ever after hold his peace,” the reverend intoned.

Her bridegroom’s hand tightened again during the long silent moment. When no one said anything, Minda heard sighs of relief from a hundred throats.

“Then I now pronounce you man and wife.”

There. It was done. It was finished. She was married. And her husband bent down and touched her lips with his own. She trembled at the deliciousness of it and reached her arms up to hold him close.

Yes indeed. He tasted like peppermint with a hint of cherry. Tobacco maybe. Oh, it wouldn’t take long at all to fall in love the whole rest of the way.

# # #

He stepped back from his bride, hating himself for liking the kiss.

But damn, she was a pretty thing. Likely untouched, too. Those lips sweet but tight let him think no man had kissed her before. His poor brother had missed out on one hell of a wedding night.

So had he, he admitted grimly.

Something had stirred his heart deep inside during that kiss, and he didn’t much like the feeling. Not at all. Hadn’t felt it since the rancher’s daughter in West Texas had stomped on his love so hard he still felt the pain.

Brixton Haynes knew how dark a woman’s heart could be. This one was no different. Something she’d written in her damn letters had made his brother work himself to death for her. Why had she allowed Norman Dale to think the man he was, and what he had to give her, wasn’t good enough?

Anger snarled his gut. Yes, indeed. He’d duped her, but he had no choice. He promised Norman Dale. With his last breath, his brother had made Brixton swear to take his place, marry Minda and make the kids his own. Keep everybody together, one family. Already folks hereabouts had started laying claim to the kids, one at a time. Like puppies needing homes.

Right then, old Klara Borchers started to warble a love song, and his bride pulled away in a maidenly manner. He felt that tug on his heart again that spread down to the notch of his trousers. Damn indeed, she was the prettiest thing he’d seen in a month of Mondays.

Her big pansy eyes twinkled and her cheeks still bloomed bright red from the kiss. And hidden beneath that veil was hair the colors of every precious metal he’d ever seen. Hell, the daguerreotype she’d sent his brother was a miserable likeness. She was far younger and daintier than that little brown portrait his brother had loved to show off.

Jaw tight, he looked away from her, out the little window next to the organ. Shutting his eyes to hold off a tear, he saw the fresh mound of dirt that made Norman Dale’s last bed and fingered a new blister on his right hand. He’d helped fill up that grave just an hour ago, and his heart hardened against Minda Becker. Minda Haynes.

His back teeth ground together. Damn it. Norman Dale had pulled wheat from the ground for fifteen summers and never died before. It was the whitewashing, the trimming, the gussying to impress this, this outsider after harvesting twelve hours a day that had done him in two days ago. Resentment built like a thunderhead and pounded behind Brixton’s eyes.

Before turning back to his bride, he rubbed his hand over his eyebrow. Past the graveyard, the prairie rolled like a golden ocean, running into sandy hills on its way to the Shining Mountains. He’d been there, seen Pike’s Peak. Right now Brixton Haynes wished he was sitting right on top of it. Instead, he was pa to a passel of kids and married to boot, something he’d sworn never to do.

Married to a woman he didn’t want.

# # #

The kiss had shaken her and made her wonder more than ever about the night to come. When she pulled him close, for that single proper instant, his chest had felt rock-hard against the softness underneath her corset. And for a most improper moment, church or not, she imagined how they’d feel skin to skin, without all the layers of clothes.

“Let’s get that register signed,” her husband ordered during the song, harsh and low, and tightened his grip on her hand.

At his touch, every inch of her shivered. He led her to the big official book where she wrote the name Melinda Susanna Becker for the last time. Her shaky fingers could hardly manage the inkwell. Then he grabbed the pen from her, scribbled something, and led her from the sanctuary, all the way down the aisle. Once in a while he reached out to clasp the outstretched hands of wedding guests.

Minda found herself smiling joyfully at her new friends and neighbors, glad they couldn’t see her trembles or read her fiery thoughts. While her husband’s behavior seemed a bit gruff, she relaxed somewhat at his firm grip on her fingers. Surely it was a sign that he never wanted to let her go.

Outside, she started up some polite conversation as he headed toward the wedding dinner. The tables set up under the trees, she realized, were old barn doors on sawhorses, scattered once in a while with bed sheets.

“I’d hoped Priscilla might stand up for me,” she mentioned, holding back the disappointment at the absence of the stepdaughter she longed to love.


“Priscilla? Your daughter?” Minda could hardly contain her puzzlement. She had spoken clearly enough. “I’d suggested her as my bridal attendant in my last letter.”

“Ah. You mean little Silly.” Her husband grinned. “She doesn’t have the faculty to do any such thing. All she cares about is a full belly and clean britches.”

“Silly? Little Silly?” Minda blurted as she stumbled in shock, but he forced her onward toward the tables.

“Be still and hush now,” he warned. “Don’t make a scene.”

As she passed folks full of congratulations, Minda decided not to embarrass herself by pulling away from her husband, but she tossed him a quick mutter. “What’s this about Silly?”

“I said not now.”

Fuming, Minda plastered a fake smile on her face. But she would speak her mind later in private. How could her husband have failed to mention that his daughter was feeble-minded?

And how could anybody, much less a father, ridicule a backward young girl with such an offensive nickname? His own blood? By now, he’d hauled her over to a table under a trio of box elder trees. A young yellow-headed woman was draping a garland of meadow flowers along two slatback chairs.

Minda wanted to appreciate the thoughtfulness, but she pondered more and more on a wedding that might be a mistake. Norman Dale was simply not the charming father he’d presented in his letters. What other surprises did he have in store for her? Did he imagine her so besotted she wouldn’t mind?

No matter. She’d signed that register pure and simple. He’d made her his wife, and she’d willingly taken him on as her husband. For better or worse.

“Set yourself down. I’ll go get Silly and the rest of the kids,” he announced with slitted lips. He raised his brows at the blonde woman and she nodded, leaving them in private.

“The rest of what kids?” Minda’s skin prickled nervously. Deciding to obey him for the first and only time, she sat down.

“Our kids. Yours and mine.”

“Our kids? What in the world do you mean, Norman Dale? You wrote that you’ve got one daughter. Fourteen years old.” Minda’s voice rose and despite the heat, her shoulders tensed with a sudden chill as if a clump of snow had just fallen from the treetops. “What kids? What on earth are you saying, Norman Dale? Your letters didn’t say one single words about kids.”

He glared down at her. “You must’ve misread my brother.” The last two words slid from his tongue in slow deliberation.

His brother? For a moment, she sat helpless, hopeless, paralyzed against the back of the hard little chair. For a long moment, she had no air to speak.

“Your brother? Your brother? What do you mean?” she managed at last.

He leaned close to her again, like he had during their kiss, but at her ear he growled, low, “You promised to wed a Haynes today. Well, I’m the only one left. Your Norman Dale, my brother--” His fingers, calloused and hot, held her chin still so he could glare into her eyes, “--is dead.”

Minda gasped and grabbed the flower-covered chair so she didn’t fall out of it. Her Norman Dale, dead? The handsome widower of thirty-nine who had promised her a new life?

“Yep, Miz Haynes,” he went on, voice dry as August. “I come all the way back home to stand up for my brother at his wedding, and instead I get to lower him into the ground. And it’s all your fault.”

Eyes as black as Pennsylvania coal bore into her. “You killed him, sure enough.”

# # #

“What?” The word came from her in a soundless puff.

“You heard me.” Of course she’d deny it, but it was her fault. Here he stood before her, hemmed in with a wife and kids. Freedom forever gone, his brother dead and gone. Shaking his head at the turn of his life, he held back a long speech of chastisement. None of it would have happened if she hadn’t shown up.

Her face turned white as her veil, and he figured she was about to swoon. Cold water for her and a long hard swig for himself sounded mighty good about now.

She shut her eyes tight and he looked away from them, away from those eyelashes lying on her cheeks like moth wings. He almost wanted to touch that cheek. Even with the chitchat going on around them, they might as well be the only two people in the world.

Just as he thought the words, she stood up angrily and pulled off the veil. She must’ve loosened her pins, too. Hair that was copper, silver and gold all at once tumbled past the sash around her waist. His fingers twitched in their longing to touch the gleaming cascade.

Something more, something worse, tightened his manhood.

Her lips flapped same as a fish needing air, but still he longed to kiss them. He remembered their sweetness and warmth, like wild strawberries in spring sunshine. She took a deep breath, stared back at him and spoke at last. “My fault? What can you possibly mean?”

As he straightened up beside her, her hair blew across his cheeks in the hot afternoon gusts. It smelled like roses. He grabbed on to the calm control that had gotten him out of many a stampede. Sure as hell he could wrangle one small woman.

“He’s done nothing but work his fingers to the bone getting ready for your arrival, Miz Haynes. In this ruthless heat. Two days ago, his heart plumb gave out.”

“But…he claimed he was in the best of health.”

Brixton shrugged. “Doc Viessman said even a hale man can see his heart give up during overwork. He lingered half a day.”

But he looked away from her wide eyes as he said the words.

“Well, I am sorry for your loss. But I lost somebody, too.” Her voice rose in something like fear. “Didn’t you think to ask me? What on earth possessed you to imagine I’d want you?”

He shrugged again, not letting her words sting. It didn’t matter at all, her not wanting him. Even if he figured she did, deep down. Her kiss had been timid but real. But she did owe Norman Dale the honor of his last request. His brother had out and out planned for her future, a stranger in a strange town, in his dying moments.

“You ought to be grateful, Norman Dale picking somebody to take care of you.”

“But….it’s…” She struggled to find the proper complaint.

“It’s the right thing to do,” he finished for her, ushering her back down on the chair. “Calm down. Folks are watching. Now, you traipsed hundreds of miles to wed up with a stranger. Don’t matter which one of us now, does it?”

“This is unimaginable,” she muttered soft into the air, looking out across the wheat and cornfields like she wasn’t seeing a thing.

Brixton Haynes disliked her big uppity word, disliked her more and more. She was the reason for all his problems. He couldn’t very well resent his own brother, but he damn sure could resent Minda. “Don’t like it any better than you, but you owe it to my brother. It was his dying wish. You and I hitching together fixes everything.”

And it did. He liked Norman Dale’s brood just fine but had no idea what the hell to do with them. He knew all about calves, fillies, and johnny mules but not one damn thing about kids. His life in Texas gratified every inch of him, the open sky and endless miles. Hearth, home, and young’uns were the farthest things from his mind.

The rich rancher’s daughter who’d betrayed him had taught him that lesson and taught him well. He shot Minda a hot angry glance. She was worse. This one hadn’t just broken a man’s heart. She’d managed to stop it.

Yes, indeed. She owed Norman Dale. She owed him, too, as well as the kids. From the moment she stepped off that stage, she’d planned on taking on a husband and family. And the kids sure as hell expected a new ma. This marriage was the answer. If she was smart as Norman Dale had claimed, she’d have sense enough to see it.

With nothing to worry about now, he’d be back in Texas outside of a week’s time. His trail boss was an impatient man.

“This fixes nothing, Mr. Haynes,” she stormed. “You’ve tricked me.”

“Reverend Satterburg himself and all these fine folks heard you promise to be my wife today,” he reminded her calmly.

“I did no such thing. Not exactly, I mean. Not you. I thought you were Norman Dale.” Then she nodded slowly. “Oh, I see. Even the preacher was in on it. That’s why he didn’t say our Christian names. Because if he’d said –what is your name anyway?— I’d have refused on the spot. And what about---?” She waved her arms about the tables of people, most watching them from the corners of their eyes. “—all of these folks? They’re all tricksters too? This whole town?”

“Most thought it a fine change of plan. Better than you come all this way and not find a husband.” He wouldn’t mention the few that hadn’t agreed. Truth was, he had expected them to protest during the ceremony. The schoolmaster, and Norman Dale’s nearest neighbor, even the reverend’s wife had been against it. But obviously they’d changed their way of thinking.

“What a ridiculous notion. Well, Mr. Haynes, this is not at all why I came to Paradise. I had nothing to do with Norman Dale’s death, and I don’t owe him a thing. Dying wish, my foot. You and your preacher have committed serious sins of omission. I won’t stand for this. I…I…” She looked around, helpless-like, and turned from him.

“Where you going?”

“That’s his grave over there?” she asked, pointing to the fresh mound.

He nodded.

“I’m going to, how shall I put it? Pay my respects.” She stood up with her wedding bouquet, tossed him one last scowl.

Damn roses. That bouquet had cost his brother a small fortune.

“Hold up a minute,” he ordered his wife, who halted and stared. “You forgot your bridal veil.”

As he rose, he leaned toward her, almost wishing he could kiss her again. He placed the veil back on her head, fluffed the edges around that lovely face. He couldn’t help touching her cheek while he did so. His bride.

His fingers met her soft warm flesh and she let them remain for a second that was almost magical. Then both of them flinched at the same precise second.

Hope you like what you've read so far! Stay tuned for release dates...and Cowboy Church.

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