Characters are like children. You miss them when they move out on their own. I finished Dreams of My Heart, the first book in The Reluctant Brides series, a few months ago. But that doesn’t mean the main characters have left my heart.

I love Kate and Buck. They made me laugh and cry and wring my hands when they were in danger. I still stop by their cabin every once in a while to see how they’re doing. Writers are like that.

Writers also want their readers to love their characters and to wonder long after you read the last page about how their lives will turn out. I don’t know when the book will be published, but I want to introduce you to my children. I hope you’ll enjoy reading the short excerpt that follows. Please feel free to leave me a comment!

Chapter 1

Deer Lodge, Montana Territory

1875

“That’s as far as ye’ll be comin’ onto my land, mister. You can turn your horse around and head back where you came from. Tell Rafe Hamilton I’ll never marry him, and he’ll have to kill me to take my ranch.”

Close enough to make out the stranger’s scruffy dark beard and the gun strapped to his side, fear gripped Kate’s belly. A woman alone in Montana Territory, facing down who knew what. A drifter? A killer? No one would even hear her if she screamed. She gritted her teeth and sighted down the barrel of the shotgun, her hands shaking.

He raised his gloved hands, snowflakes sticking to his dark brown Stetson and the sheepskin coat pulled up around his face.

“I’d do that, ma’am, but I don’t know Rafe Hamilton,” the stranger drawled. “Bill Stricklin, the owner of the mercantile—”

“I know who he is,” Kate snapped, gripping the stock of the shotgun and sighting down the barrel.

“I’m not lookin’ for trouble, ma’am. Just a place to buy. Mr. Stricklin told me you might be wanting to sell your homestead.”

“I’ll not be sellin’ this land and certainly not to the likes of you.”

With a lazy grin, the man’s gaze roved from her face, down past her britches, to the toes of the too-large boots.

“I hear your ranch hands quit on you. If you’re not selling, maybe you need a foreman for the winter.”

“Why should I even believe you know Mr. Stricklin?” She hated the tremble in her voice. It made her sound weak.

The stranger continued smiling at her and reached inside his coat pocket. He stopped midway when she cocked the shotgun.

“I’ve got a letter of introduction from him. He said you might not believe me, Miss O’Brien.”

She gazed at him for a moment, trying to appear confident, but her hands shook like tree limbs in a windstorm. At least he’d dropped the smile.

“Pull the letter out nice and slow and toss it on the ground and then back up your horse.”

With measured ease, the stranger withdrew a folded piece of paper and tossed it down on the dirt-packed yard.

She motioned with the gun for him to raise his hands again. With just the pressure of his knees, the stranger backed the buckskin away from the log cabin at her back.

“I don’t aim to attack you, ma’am.”

“You’ll forgive me if I don’t trust a word ya say.”

Stepping off the porch in her dead brother’s boots and britches, she inwardly winced at the pain of the blisters on her heels, rubbed raw by the ill-fitting footware. Her whole body ached from doing chores by herself. But it didn’t stop her from training the shotgun at the center of the man’s chest, ready to shoot him if necessary to protect herself.

Before the wind could blow the letter away, she stepped on it, bent down, and picked it up, her gaze never leaving his rugged, sun-browned face. The stranger didn’t move a muscle—just stared at her with deep-brown, watchful eyes.

Unfolding the letter, she quickly glanced at the writing. She recognized Bill Stricklin’s signature at the bottom. The words gave this scruffy cowboy the highest of praise. A good and honest man, he wrote. Had money to buy her homestead. Advised her to sell out to him, or to at least hire him as a foreman to replace the one she’d lost.

She hesitated and worried her lower lip with her teeth. A chill September wind blew through her shirt, causing her to shiver. Could the gunman be the answer to her prayers for help? He looked dangerous, but if Mr. Stricklin recommended him . . . well, the owner of the mercantile had been honest in his dealings with her, and he and his wife Abigail were members of her church. What was he thinking though to send some strange man out to her place this late in the day? The setting sun over Mt. Powell, purple in the distance, bathed Deer Lodge Valley in a golden glow, but it would soon be dark.

She studied the stranger’s face some more and then looked at his hands. From his calluses, she could tell he was a working man. “You know anything about cattle?”

He smiled wearily. “Yes, ma’am. I just drove five hundred head of the meanest longhorns you’ll ever meet from Fort Worth, Texas, to the gold fields.”

“Winter’s comin’ on. Why not head back home?”

He lowered his hands, leaned forward, and crossed his arms over the horn of his saddle, then tipped up his hat and gazed into her eyes. The tired-looking man studied her for a long moment while his buckskin horse shifted its feet.

The longhorns bearing her brother Patrick’s brand still needed to be rounded up out of the timber and off the open range in the high meadows. She didn’t know the first thing about herding cattle, but she knew Patrick had needed the money from the sale of his animals to pay back Rafe Hamilton’s father at the bank.

“Why don’t I head back to Texas? Because I’ve spent almost eight years eatin’ cattle dust to sell beef to miners and the army, and Deer Lodge Valley is about the prettiest country I’ve ever seen. I’ve been lookin’ to buy or homestead around here for a long time. Set down some roots. Raise some short-horned cattle. They’ve got a better disposition.” He grinned at her. “You gonna shoot me or what?”

Finally, after another long moment, she lowered the shotgun and petted Patrick’s black-and-white sheepdog on the head, trying to decide whether to trust the man. Riley laid down at her feet as if he approved of the stranger.

“It’s gettin’ awful cold out here,” he said. “If you don’t need my help, I’ll be heading on back to Deer Lodge.”

She stared at him without speaking. Finally, he tipped his hat and turned his horse around.

“Wait,” she called, her heart pounding in her chest. “You hungry, Mr. McKean?”

He grinned. “Buck. Yes, ma’am. I reckon I’d eat just about anything that didn’t walk off the plate right about now.”

“I’ve got a pot of beef stew on the stove. If Bill Stricklin sent you out here, then I suppose I trust you . . . for now. You can stable your horse in the barn. There’s feed and water. And you can sleep in the bunkhouse. I dinna know if there’s any firewood in there, but there’s a woodpile and an ax out back. Help yourself. When you’re settled, come on back to the house and I’ll feed you.”

Kate turned on her heel and shut the door behind her, dropping the bar into place, and wondered if she’d just made the best decision or the worst mistake of her life.