When modern-day tomboy Wilda Stone is blown back through time to 1874, her hot air balloon crashes above the Owens Valley. Stoic undercover agent Hal Grantham comes to her rescue, promising to take her to the silver mining town of Cerro Gordo. A severe sand storm keeps him from keeping his promise and forces them to seek shelter overnight in a cave, compromising her reputation and forcing Hal into a marriage of convenience.
Wilda is a misfit in Cerro Gordo, too, where their turbulent marriage is filled with adventures, adjustments, and above all else, loving. Then a diphtheria epidemic sweeps through the silver mining town. This same disease felled Hal's first wife and child, so to guarantee Wilda a long life Hal secretly repairs her balloon, and then sends her back to her own time, shattering Wilda's heart. Is her love for her terse husband strong enough to bring this headstrong Caltrans flagperson safely back to Hal's time?
While the borrowed garments hugged her body with unexpected softness, her reflected image in a long skirt stunned Wilda. She cared little for dresses, and had never worn long skirts. Even as a child, she'd avoided dress-up events. Give her a pair of well-worn jeans and broken-in boots and she was content.
How would she manage those crooked stairs without breaking her neck?
She tried to emulate the way she'd seen Dottie lift her skirt and glide up the stairs, but Wilda's awkward movements only served to hamper her instead. She would trip herself for sure, but she wouldn't need these skirts for long.
Once she found a way to leave...
How could she be certain she could find her way back to her home? Back to her own time?
If only the wind hadn't...
One moment the air was still. The next, she was rushing toward the forbidden magnetic field, the wind at her back and the flame of her furnace extinguished, her balloon out of control.
She had the unpredictable wind to blame for bringing her to Cerro Gordo, although at some future time she wouldn't mind at all visiting here, given the opportunity to choose the time.
The year 2012 would do just fine.
What year is this? And how do I go about leaving here and returning home? The room was growing dark. Wilda ran her hand along the wallpaper beside the door in hopes of finding a light switch.
She tried the other wall. Nothing.
At last she noticed the matches and oil lamp on the table, the lamp so like the treasured antique one her grandmother had prominently displayed. She'd overlooked it. Wilda lit the lamp, adjusted the wick, and admired her reflection in the clear glass globe.
The soft glow from the lamp subdued the color of her auburn hair. Highlights flickered in unexpected places. For once her generous proportions pleased her, softened to acceptable curves by the welcome circle of light. Her cheeks glowed with excitement -- or windburn -- but her stomach growled from hunger.
Someone tapped on her door. She took a hesitant step toward it. "Yes?"
"Miss Stone? Are you presentable? It's Dottie. May I come in?"
Wilda turned the key in the lock, slid the bolt, and finally opened the door. Dottie stepped in. Hal followed, quickly shoving the door closed.
"My, my, aren't you the pretty one," Dottie said, giving her a tentative smile, but Wilda hadn't missed the worried look her visitors exchanged. "Are you ready for dinner?"
"Oh, yes. I'm quite--"
"Look, Wilda," Hal said, impatiently interrupting her. "There's not much time to explain because we're late for supper. Just remember, whatever happens downstairs, follow my lead. Understand?"
What did he anticipate happening? They were only going to eat a meal. She gave him a puzzled nod.
"Good. You'll be eating at the table with Dottie and me." As if by habit, he touched the gun strapped to his hip. "I guess we're ready, then."
Wilda's heart gave an anxious flutter, but anticipation far outweighed any worry she entertained as she and Dottie trooped out into the hall. Hal followed. Ace fell in step behind when Hal moved out in front. At the head of the stairs they paused.
From below came the rumble of rowdy voices. Wilda's pulse quickened. To her surprise, she had no difficulty descending the stairs.
Dottie reached the main floor and ducked into a small room furnished as a parlor. The others followed, and all but Wilda engaged in a whispered conference. While waiting for them to finish, she noticed an Inyo County newspaper and a copy of Peterson's Magazine on the lamp table nearby.
Casually, Wilda unfolded and lifted the paper. The headline read "Lone Pine, California Rebuilds Following Disastrous Quake." Dated October 1, 1874, the lead article detailed the devastation that had occurred on March 26, 1872, when an earthquake shook residents of the quiet valley from their beds.
Is this October of 1874?
The corners of the newspaper were dog-eared from frequent handling, but the printed pages showed no sign of age. Wilda estimated the paper couldn't be more than a week old.
A hard knot formed in her stomach. Now she knew the year, she could no longer deny her worrisome suspicions.
Somehow, she had stepped back in time. Her pulse throbbed.
What else had happened in 1874?
The chase for gold in California had slowed to a crawl then and the Civil War had ended.
What else? Was California a state yet?
With all her heart she wished she'd paid more attention to her history lessons.
Why did it matter? Women weren't yet allowed to vote, she was sure.
Without giving Wilda sufficient time to absorb the reality of her predicament, Dottie turned toward the jumble of voices and entered a large paneled room. Wilda had no choice but to drop the newspaper and follow.
Oil fueled glass chandeliers hung from the ceiling. White oilcloth covered the tables arranged in three long rows. She remembered the shiny surface from her childhood. As Wilda entered, a hush fell over the room. A dozen miners sat at each table, their eyes all turned on her. Forks halted in mid-air. Although she followed close behind Dottie, Wilda's skirt caught on a chair leg, tripping her.
Her cheeks heated. Clumsy goose. Hal, who had somehow wound up behind her, reached to steady her by placing his hand on her upper arm. Her cheeks burned hotter still. Careful now of every step, she watched the placement of her feet with lowered gaze.
From the corner of her eye she saw Hal stop long enough to hang his Stetson on a peg by the door. For some unexplained reason, she took comfort in the sound of his steps behind her.
Dottie led the way to an empty table, showed Wilda where to sit, and headed for the kitchen without waiting for her friends to take their seats.
Hal held Wilda's chair, bending to whisper in her ear, "Dottie's seeing to the food."
He took the place on her right and gave the occupants of the room an intimidating look. Wilda frowned.
Ace sat at the end of the table, surveying the room, his eyes never still, his shoulders tense, waiting, as if he expected something to happen.
Wilda couldn't comprehend the need for a bodyguard, or for the whispered words and knowing looks she'd so far observed but, following Hal's instructions, kept her questions to herself.
Dottie and Chang Li placed white pottery bowls heaped with stew before the newcomers, and then Dottie sank into the vacant chair across from Wilda. The other diners didn't resume talking until Dottie began to eat.
Chang Li placed a cup of steaming coffee before Wilda. Delighted, she sipped the strong brew. In an effort to appease her raging hunger and to give her hands a task, she tackled her stew, a meaty concoction well seasoned with pepper and tasting of wild onions.
She finished it off quickly, along with the dark, yeasty bread.
"The lady has a healthy appetite," Dottie commented.
Wilda glanced around the table. Her bowl was the only empty one. Her cheeks took on new fire. Intense hunger had caused her to forget her manners.
"Everything is so delicious," she said lamely.
Hal and Dottie laughed at her flustered explanation, attracting attention of the miners seated nearby. The men stared at her with interest. One man's openly lascivious grin made Wilda's flesh crawl. She quickly looked away from him, right into Hal's unreadable gaze. After a moment in which her heart thumped wildly, he turned back to his stew.
Looking beyond the heads turned her direction, Wilda saw the evening sky through windows draped with forest green tapestry over sheer curtains of lace. A wide opening to the kitchen revealed the cook stirring a steaming pot on the massive black cooking stove.
The men began leaving the tables, slapping each other on the back, and politely tipping their hats to Wilda. She smiled at the courtesy.
Uh-oh. My mistake.
A toothless man whose shaggy growth of beard partially hid a wide grin separated himself from the group and headed for their table. Hal and Ace both came to attention.
"Evenin' Miss," the miner said, and preened. "Josh Buckston, at your service."
Hal narrowed his eyes at Wilda. She ducked her head, but tuned her ears to listen.
"Looks like the lady's finished with her food," Josh said, apparently for Hal's benefit. "Would you care to step out on the porch with me for a nice breath of fresh air?"
Wilda glanced up before she heard Hal gritting his teeth. "The lady's taken, Buckston," he warned.
"Can't blame a man for trying," Josh said, backing away.
He joined his friends waiting for him near the door. The men leaned in close to hear what he had to say, then stared back over their shoulders at Hal, who raked the cluster of men with a heated look.
Once the group had sauntered out, Hal turned to her, a small smile softening his features.
"I'm sorry, Miss Stone," he said. "These men don't often have the occasion to see a pretty woman. I forgot how forward they tend to act at times."
Hal possessed way more gall than Josh Buckston. She was quite capable of speaking for herself. He might at least have given her the opportunity to turn aside the miner's attention, but no. He'd warned her not to speak to the men.
Well, she wouldn't allow Hal's presumptuous rules to run her life. While no one previously crossing her path had showed any interest in taking her out, the miner who'd approached their table didn't hold any appeal to Wilda. She let her gaze travel about the room, much aware of everyone observing her every move from across the dining hall. She didn't see one she'd care to sit with. Certainly none she'd choose to walk with along a dark road.
Besides, not a man in the room held a candle to Hal. She glanced at him, now deeply involved in whispered conversation with Dottie.
He grimaced and a tiny frown marred the smoothness of his forehead. Somewhere, he'd taken the time to shave and slick his dark hair. It skimmed the collar of his newly laundered black shirt. She was aware of the shirt's aroma, lye soap and the scent of what she supposed was bay rum.
Hal glanced up and caught her smiling. His frown deepened into an aggravated scowl. He shook his head at something Dottie said, but continued to stare at Wilda, trying to communicate some unspoken message she failed to interpret.
Perhaps he'd guessed her thoughts. At the strong possibility, Wilda looked away, flushing, but his words replayed in her mind, and the way he'd looked at her when he referred to her as a pretty woman.
Another group of diners entered and Chang Li soundlessly scurried about, clearing tables and arranging clean place settings of tin utensils.
One of the new arrivals failed to take a seat, choosing instead to head directly toward the table where Wilda and her companions sat. A determined gleam flashed from his eyes, a cocky self-assurance his unwashed face and hands proved unjustified.
At the last minute, he dragged his hat from his head and came to a halt opposite her. He hesitated and squashed his hat against his chest.
"Miss, you've done run off with my heart. Marry up with me?"
The miner's flowery speech triggered a grin Willa thought best she swallow. Beside her, Hal stiffened then cleared his throat. Fists clenched, his body half out of the chair, Hal announced to the entire room, "Miss Stone is promised to me."
Try her link!