Abigail Baldwyn might not be a widow after all…
Ever since she received word that her husband, Robert, was killed in the Civil War, Abigail has struggled to keep her Tennessee home and family together. Then a letter arrives claiming that Robert isn’t dead, yet he has no plans to return. Desperate for answers, Abigail travels to Independence, Missouri, where she joins a westbound wagon train to find him.
Leading a company along the Oregon Trail isn’t part of Hoke Mathews’s plans. But then the former cavalry scout gets a glimpse of Abigail—so elegant compared to the rest of their hardscrabble wagon community, yet spirited and resilient. Through every peril they encounter—snakebites, Indian raids, fevers, dangerous grudges—his bond with Abigail grows.
Abigail knew this journey would test her courage. Now it’s testing her marriage vows and her heart, daring her to claim a future on her own terms in a land rich with promise.
“Is one of you Colonel George Dotson?” asked the woman.
Dotson put out his hand. “I am.”
“My name is Abigail Baldwyn.” She took his hand and smiled. “I’m interested in joining your wagon train. I understand you’re leaving next week?”
“Yes, ma’am. And we’re still taking good folks. Trying to talk Hoke here into going.” He indicated Hoke with a nod.
Hoke’s eyes rested on her face. […] Like most trail-riding men, he’d developed a heightened sense of smell. Lavender . . . she smelled like lavender. He’d smelled it in a shop once, and once was all it ever took for Hoke.
It suited her.
Hoke pushed himself off the post and smoothed his dark hair back before placing the hat on his head. “Good luck, ma’am.” He nodded. “If you’re in the market for horses, come see me.”
“I’ll take twelve. Your twelve best.”
Hoke stopped. “That’s a lot of horses.” And his best wouldn’t come cheap. […] “You’ll need at least six on a team. Some folks like oxen better. They’re cheaper to feed, strong, hardly ever run off, and Indians don’t try to steal ‘em.”
Her brow twisted. It was a unique gesture. One eyebrow arched up and the other angled down, causing a pleasing little curve in her forehead. “I thought you had horses. Why are you trying to talk me into oxen?
“I’m not. I just thought you should know that a lot of folks use oxen to pull the teams.” Damn woman! What was she being hardheaded about?
She smiled. “I can’t ride oxen.”
Hoke didn’t know what to make of it. She was confounding him, and he didn’t like to be confounded. Where was her husband anyway? Abigail Baldwyn had mentioned children but no husband. He suddenly wanted to know but wasn’t about to ask.
“I’ll pick you twelve of my best.” He again turned to leave but felt her hand on his arm.
“I’d like to pick them. Horses are one of the few things I feel like I know, Mr . . .”
“Hoke. Just Hoke. No Mr. Required.” Hoke looked down at her slender fingers on his arm, hot to his skin through the fabric, then down to her boots and back up her travel outfit. “Western horses aren’t like show horses from the South.”
By the look on her face he was sure he’d nicked a nerve, and he wasn’t sorry about it, either.
She lifted her chin. “The characteristics of a good horse have nothing to do with the location of its birth, Mr. Hoke. I appreciate your willingness to sell me twelve good horses if you have them – maybe more if I really need six on each team. I would simply like to approve the selection.”
Hoke stared at her. Well, of course she could approve the selection! Didn’t a buyer always?
“Fair enough.” He tipped his hat again and walked away.
Even with his back turned, Hoke could feel her frown.
Hoke stewed all the way back to the livery stable, cursing under his breath for the luck of running into Dotson. After all, he hadn’t planned on a trip up the Oregon. And now, in the space of thirty minutes, it had overtaken his mind – that and the smell of lavender.
What a thoroughly enjoyable and satisfying read! Romance, tension, adventure, suspense, tragedy, triumph, community, humour: This novel had it all. I loved both the physical and the emotional journey the characters went on, I loved that the characters were so down-to-earth and authentic, I loved that they had such distinct voices, and I loved that the story unfolded so organically. In fact, excepting the few times that I felt the point-of-view switching was a bit excessive, this novel was pure reading pleasure!
Hoke and Abigail were both strong characters in their own way, and their characterisation and voices were perfect! – although some readers may wish to be forewarned that Hoke occasionally uses the word ‘damn’ (particularly in his inner voice), and expressions such as ‘G*d almighty’ (again, more often in his inner voice).
Abigail is the well-bred daughter of a Southern plantation owner, determined to hold her head high, pull her weight, and not let the absence of her husband be a burden on either her children or her travelling companions – particularly Hoke.
Hoke is a solitary, taciturn man, a bit raw and rough around the edges in all the right ways, and not much inclined to the company of others. But from the moment he first sees (and smells!) Abigail, he senses there is something troubling her and can’t get her out of his head. Much to his own surprise, he finds himself agreeing to join the wagon train as a company leader. Without realising what is happening, he becomes attached to Abigail and her children – even their dog! – and finds himself doing what he can to make their lives easier, to fill that gap that Abigail’s husband left in their lives; a gap he can’t help wishing he could fill permanently.
I thought the tension between Hoke and Abigail was handled well, respecting the bond of marriage, but also being realistic about the developing attraction between them. Although physical attraction was certainly a factor, for the most part their growing bond was emotional, developing through the everyday realities of the journey as well as the major incidents along the way. There was also a great community spirit among the travellers (in spite of the personalities that clashed from time to time), including Abigail’s four children (aged from 16 down to 5) and the other children travelling in the train.
One of the things I enjoyed most about this novel was the way the story flowed. The journey west took several months, and this story conveyed that passing of time well, but managed to maintain a feeling of fluidity between the scenes and chapters at the same time. Robert’s point-of-view was also included at various points throughout the story, which added an extra twist. It meant that the reader knew what was going on from somewhere in the middle of the story, but this actually heightened the tension rather than deflating it.
And I can’t express just how much I enjoyed the way Hoke and his gregarious companion, James, interacted – or Hoke and Abigail, for that matter. James was the perfect foil for Hoke’s character and a fabulous secondary character. And it was nice that he got something out of the trip west too!
Really, the only regret I have in relation to this book is that I let it languish on my TBR pile for so long!
I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for my honest review.
Buy in US: Amazon
Release date: 21 June 2016
Publisher: Waterfall Press
Author’s website: http://www.leannewsmith.com/