“Well, at least my voice doesn’t sound like a dying cicada!” the little boy hollered, his face red and scrunched up in obvious anger.
His brown hair was sun kissed lighter, messily hanging over one side of his face from how the wind and his little fingers had pushed it. Dirt dotted both children’s hands and clothing, but his light green eyes were flashing in ire despite his subpar insult.
Tonia stared at him, unable to contain the giggle that broke past her lips as she took another step back from him, the prized stick they’d been fighting over still secured behind her back. “A dying cicada?” she asked loftily, nose upturned. “Figures you’d be the kind to torture bugs. My mama told me little kids that torture bugs grow up to be ruffians!”
“Well, my mama told me that little girls like you get taken by ruffians!” the boy answered, a smug smile stretching his lips as if he were going to scare her.
Tonia could feel the indignation in her chest, tight and hurried, as their taunting only pushed the both of them further and further from the playing they were supposed to be doing while their parents visited inside. The house before them was large, with ornately carved pillars and a polished wrap-around porch. It was fancy, fancier than the two children playing in the yard would make it seem, but then again, even their messy clothes were cut from expensive fabrics.
“Better to be taken by ruffians than be bored to death by a little lord like you,” Tonia returned, twisting the words to make them sound distasteful even to have spoken. It was a sore spot, and she knew it, calling him little lord like that when it was one of the reasons that he was treated so differently in town. A low blow to deliver, but what had been idle joking while arguing over who got to use the stick first.
The little boy recoiled from her words, his face blanching and a splotchy red building in his cheeks as his eyes narrowed. His little chin jutted forward, tears building in his eyes as he dashed at the skin under his eyes with the back of his wrist.
Tonia felt superior, if only for a moment, the guilt eating away at her gut immediately after and building until that meanness entered the gaze across from her.
“Well, at least I’m not dirty,” the boy snapped. He looked down to her shoulder where the edge of her dress had fallen, revealing the dark brown skin beneath that stretched part way down her upper arm as well. “At least I know how to bathe.”
Tonia shrank back from the words, her lips opening and closing as heat stole over her cheeks that time. Self-consciously her opposite hand lifted, fingers tightening around the birthmark that he referenced so disgustedly. All her fight drained out of her at once, tears dotting her lash line instantly.
“I’m sorry,” the boy pushed out, even quicker than the insult, his tone clearly apologetic. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean–”
But Tonia wasn’t waiting, turning on her heel and going to run off away from him. It didn’t matter that she had been just as insulting or that he was reacting out of hurt feelings himself. She didn’t account for his hand reaching out to grab her wrist, though.
Both of them tumbled, feet over their heads and small bodies rolling as they fell to the ground, a sharp cracking sound stopping them both in their tracks as their little bodies went stock still.
They lay side by side, twisted into odd angles, and Tonia carefully pulled her arm out from behind her back in the awkward angle she had fallen. Clutched in her fist was the stick that had started it all, broken and snapped in various spots and hanging limply over itself.
Both sets of children’s eyes stared at it forlornly for a moment, those tears that had been building earlier seeming to gather even further … at least until the little boy giggled. It was a short sound, quickly joined by Tonia’s own hesitant giggle, until both were in fits of it staring at the disfigured stick she held above their heads.
“Here,” Tonia breathed through her laughter, shoving the broken stick at the boy. “You can have it now.”
“Well, I don’t want it now,” he cackled back, pushing back as if even the stick being so close to him was suddenly offensive. “You’ve gone and ruined it!”
“Me?!” Tonia huffed, throwing the stick off to the side to be forgotten and pushing her hair off her forehead. “You started it!”
The building of the argument was held just beneath her words, threatening to stop that laughter still randomly shaking both of their frames … but the boy didn’t respond angrily that time, instead reaching out to touch Tonia’s shoulder softly.
“You know … I don’t think your birthmark is dirty,” he offered, genuine contrition lacing every syllable of his words. “I know you bathe.” His green eyes seemed lighter with the sunlight reflecting off them like they were soft and transparent.
Tonia’s chest tightened again, though this time, it was a different emotion seizing her. Looking at him, she knew how silly it was and how carried away they had become so easily. It always felt like that, though, both playing off the other’s emotions. She was convinced that it always would be.
Her little lips quirked, eyes shining as she took his hand and held it in her own. “And I didn’t mean that you bore me to death, even if you are a little lord.” It was teasing, the way she said it that time, and even he smiled at the sound of it.
For a long moment, they both lay there, hand in hand, looking up at the blue sky above them and relaxing into the gentle breeze that wafted around them.
Tonia felt her heart flutter, warmth stealing in her chest as well, and when she looked over at her friend, it was to find him staring too seriously at her. Something lurked in the air between them, a kind of innocent draw both frightening and exciting all at once. She opened her mouth, trying to find the right words, and felt embarrassment steal over her instead.
What she was embarrassed over she didn’t know, but she was letting go of him and rolling away only an instant after it hit. “You didn’t apologize for calling me a dying cicada,” she called out, jumping to her feet and lifting her skirts to take off running.
The laughter behind her was surprised, the sound of scuffling urging her feet to go faster.
“I didn’t call you a dying cicada!” he called back, his voice nearing, “I said your voice sounded like one!” It was just as teasing and lighthearted as her comment had been, their laughter ringing through the gardens as she raced away from him, intent to make it to the other side before he did.
His chasing her was thrilling, her chin notching over her shoulder to look behind her and see him on her tail.
It was his face that she saw as his features shifted, going from an excited sort of amusement to sudden confusion. It was all she saw as she ran into something solid that she hadn’t seen in her path before, bouncing back from it and going to fall to the compact earth beneath her feet …
Only to be stopped by a large hand on her shoulder steadying her.
By the time she had turned back to see what had stopped her, the scene had changed. Two men stood at the end of the garden, their faces obscured by black and white bandanas and their bodies much larger appearing for how close they were and how far back Tonia had to tilt her head to see them.
“Whoa, there,” one chuckled, the words sounding forced and weighted. The white Stetson on his head seemed out of place somehow, so large it took up all of Tonia’s vision as she tried to pull herself out of his grasp.
His fingers bit into her shoulder, clamping firmly around her skin so tightly that it felt as if it might bruise, and the twinge of fear she had felt at first seeing them deepened.
“Let her go!” the boy yelled, coming up behind her and grabbing her opposite shoulder as if he could pull her back. “My father–”
“Oh, his father, d’ya hear that?” The man not holding onto Tonia laughed, using one hand to shove the boy back so hard that he almost fell as his friend pulled Tonia away from them, closer to himself.
“Ah, yes,” the man in the Stetson chuckled, lifting Tonia up as if she weighed no more than a feather. “Your father. Do tell him we send our regards, won’t you boy?”
Their words were like rushing water, carrying Tonia away from reality. No matter how hard she tried to scream, to open her mouth, the hand that clamped over it kept all noise from breaking out of her. She kicked and wiggled, and she could see the boy fighting the other man too, trying to dodge around him to get to her, but the two men were too big, and she and the boy were just children …
Tonia sat bolt upright in bed with her sheets clutched to her chest, and the sight of the boy running after her as she was put on the horse and carried off still burned into her sight despite her eyes opening from the dream. Her breath came in quick pants, her fingers twisting into the sheet she held to her and tears filling her eyes.
It was always like this.
No matter how many times she had the dream, no matter what changed, it was always the same.
Tears rolled down her cheeks for the girl in the dream, and for the boy who had been running so hard, he fell every other step only to push himself back up again. It didn’t matter how many times she dreamed it; it always broke her heart.
It didn’t matter that the sisters in the orphanage had assured her such a dream was just that, a dream, it felt so real that she could still taste the fresh peaches she and the boy had split before being sent outside in the dream every time she woke. Sweet and cloying, it filled her mouth just alongside the sadness that seized her upon waking.
It was just a dream, but why did it always feel so real?
The sun was hot, though that wasn’t much of a comment or observation. The sun was always hot in the west, at least during the day. Then, at night, it was as if nature tried to make up for the heatwaves it bestowed upon the plains, leaving the Earth’s inhabitants shivering and cold in return.
Of course, assuming that it was a problem of only the west was just that, an assumption. Tonia Parish had never known life anywhere but in the west, with its varied landscape and mercurial temperatures. It was easy to assume, though, when she had so little to occupy her thoughts and her skin felt near ready to melt plain off her bones.
“Oh, I’d given anything for a breeze,” a voice from the other side of the coach moaned as if voicing Tonia’s thoughts.
The girl fanning herself with her hand was beautiful, in an aristocratic sort of sense, with long red hair and a slightly upturned nose. Her blue eyes, while beautiful, looked beleaguered of the heat, her face marred in a frown as she stared out of the coach window longingly.
“Anything, Ally?” Tonia voiced before she could stop herself, glancing down at the heavy, expensive fabric that the other girl wore in askance. Tonia couldn’t even imagine how much hotter that made the trip, dressed in much thinner and looser garb than that herself and still drowning in her own sweat.
“Well, it’s all fine and well for you,” Ally sniffed, wrinkling her nose and rustling around all that brocade fabric for the hand fan she’d dropped earlier in her skirts. “You don’t have an image to uphold. I’m sure if I could dress however it was that I wanted, I’d be doing much better as well.”
She spoke with an air of authority, blind to Tonia’s rising brows and the disbelief filling her expression.
Ally had chosen her own clothing, the same as Tonia. Now, where Tonia had gotten herself dressed, Ally had required both she and her own mother’s help to truss her up in her getup; however, that was a separate matter.
“Mercy,” Ally went on, blind to the reaction of her audience as per usual. “How much longer do you think this trip will take?! We’ve been driving for days!”
They’d only been driving for a day and a half, but Tonia wasn’t about to point that out. She swallowed the reminder and her own cross reply with a sigh, glancing out the window herself and schooling her expression into one of an understanding she couldn’t hope to feel.
“We mustn’t have much longer,” she soothed instead, falling into that same role she had been forced to time and time again for the woman whose happiness controlled her employment. “Just think of Lukas Merrick and how happy he’ll be to see you.”
“If I haven’t sweated my face off,” Ally mumbled, though she begrudgingly looked as if she were at least trying to put herself in a better mood. She fumbled with the hand fan, her expression growing more and more crass. “I just wish we were there already! Whatever will I look like, showing up like this?! You know, he’s worth so much more even than Daddy, and his family is friends with all the right circles. And now I’ll be showing up looking like some common maid, all sweaty and unkempt! Oh, drat it all! Here, Tonia, fix this!”
The hand fan went sailing through the air, landing in Tonia’s lap only seconds after Ally gave up on it, and again Tonia was forced to hide her own grimace. It was a dual insult, the fan being tossed at her so blithely along with the mention of a maid as if they were a subhuman species when she was talking to her very own.
Tonia took it anyway, though, breathing carefully as she began to pull out the long, tangled hairs of her employer from the fan’s base where it had clogged. One by one.
“No one would ever mistake you for a maid,” Tonia answered carefully, keeping the bite out of her words and twisting the sentence to be neutral. Never mind she probably could have said it with as much venom as she wanted, and Ally still would have grinned for all the world as if she had just been given a compliment.
“I should h-oh, Lord, I wish he would drive straight!” Ally started, cutting off mid-sentence as the carriage lurched forward and off to the right suddenly, her hands reaching out to steady herself with an even larger frown.
It didn’t seem to matter what Ally thought of the coach driver’s performance, though, they only lunged again, sending the fan and a small bag at the girls’ feet lurching and spinning through the air as the horses outside whinnied and neighed in their own protest.
Whinnies and nays that were cut off suddenly by the sound of a sharp crack ringing through the air.
Ally and Tonia both froze, recognizing the gunshot for what it was and falling into an eerie, waiting sort of silence.
They weren’t left to wait for long, the coach coming to a jerky stop and the sound of shouting breaking through the doors. Tonia had only just barely kept herself from falling out of the seat she had been in by throwing her arms out, hands pressing into either side of the coach, and her chest heaving. Outside, dust clouds obscured the vision of what was happening.
Until they didn’t.
A horse pulled alongside the coach, the man sitting on the back almost as wide as he was tall, but all muscle and bone. The gun held in his hand, held just high enough to be seen, was only just slightly more imposing than the black and white bandana tied around his face and obscuring his features from sight.
For a long moment, it was all Tonia could see, half-afraid she was still dreaming and just caught up in another aspect of it.
She didn’t wake up covered in sweat and clutching her chest, though, nor did the scene shift. The door to the coach was jerked open instead, gun waving at the entrance as if to force Tonia and Ally from it, despite Ally’s shrill scream.
“Get the women,” a voice yelled from outside, sounding impatient and angry all at the same time.
The man with the gun shifted on his horse, but it wasn’t him who moved to do anything. Another set of hands grabbed Ally from the other door of the coach, dragging her backward out of it while she screamed and kicked. Tonia stood suddenly, taking a half-step toward where Ally had been taken, only to be grabbed about her shoulders herself.
She too was hauled out of the small space, the bright sun almost blinding her with its intensity as she was dropped roughly to her feet beside a crumpled, crying Ally. Tonia stumbled, barely holding her footing, and looked down at the way Ally sat in the circle of her skirts around her, shaking and shuddering. She couldn’t bear to tear her gaze away for a long second, instantly regretting when she did for the sight that awaited her.
Several men on horseback circled them, bandanas covering their faces and almost all of them herding Ally and Tonia into that small space where they stood. The one who Tonia thought must have shouted before leveled his gun on the coach driver.
Tonia wanted to run, torn between trying to take off and trying to help Ally to her feet, but no matter how irritated she was with the other girl, she knew she couldn’t just leave her. She shifted, bending to help Ally to her feet while the coach driver spoke indescribably through his heavily hiccuped sobbing.
“Just shoot him, hoss!” one of the other men shouted, his horse prancing back and forth. “If we don’t get on outta here soon, the law is gonna catch up!”
The man with the gun was the only one off his horse other than the coach driver, the line of his shoulders tense as he lifted the gun, and Tonia couldn’t say what seized her. One minute she was staring at the tragedy unfold, just stepping back from having helped Ally back to her feet, and the next, she was running forward so quickly that she almost tripped on her skirts doing so.
Her body slammed into the back of the man with the gun, sending them both stumbling forward from the impact.
“We don’t have time for this!” another man groused, riding up alongside Tonia and the man she’d run at even as that man turned and grabbed Tonia by her shoulders. “Ain’t no way they didn’t hear that gun next town over. Which one of you is Ally Wilson,” the man demanded, suddenly turning to both Tonia and Ally expectantly.
Tonia opened her mouth, preparing to tell him it was none of his business, but Ally beat her to it.
“She is,” Ally claimed, pointing at Tonia with a still shaking hand.
Tonia shifted, struggling again in the grasp of the man who now held her, unable to formulate the right words to answer such an accusation. She couldn’t believe that Ally would lie like that, especially given the situation, no matter what she might have thought of the girl before. She twisted, going to try and run for the coach at least, only to be snapped right back into place by harsh fingers against her forearms.
“You better take her,” the man holding her muttered, pushing Tonia toward the man on horseback and helping to lift her to sit in front of him despite her struggling. As they did so, she could feel something hot and damp shoved between her lips too, the sweat-soaked bandana tied around her mouth before she could even try screaming, stifling her noises of protest too quickly.
“What about the other two?” the man on the horse asked, looking out to where the coach driver was now huddled with Ally. Tonia’s gaze followed his incredulously to see them so near a riderless horse, her stomach bottoming out at the reminder of the gun that they had been so willing to shoot the driver with.
“No time for that, ain’t neither of them seen our faces … Just get Ally here back to the boss before he gets antsy, and the rest of us will go a different way to set them on the wrong trail if they do go to following us.”
“You sure her folks’ll have enough to pay for her, though? Her clothes ain’t much to look at …” the one muttered, making Tonia wish the gag wasn’t around her mouth so she could verify that was because they weren’t the clothes of an heiress at all.
“They’re still nice,” the one holding her muttered, shaking his head as he moved the reins to only one hand and fumbled with something at his waist. “Probably just dressed down for the journey. Y’all best be gettin’ quick, before the law gets here … Matter of fact, I better too.”
Blackness overtook Tonia’s vision as something just as damp and hot covered her eyes, blocking her seeing anything as the horse she and the man were on took off in a fast sprint.
Raised voices sounded from off in the distance, rousing the sole occupant of the barn from the half-sleep he had fallen into. His eyes opened wearily, slowly blinking against the low lighting he was being kept in and peering around the space about him to see if anything had changed.
Of course, it hadn’t.
The same straw that had filled the space before he nodded off was piled around him, the same boarded up windows and undisturbed barrels lining the walls seeming to mock him in their stillness. Lukas struggled to sit more upright, the binds still holding his wrists together making it more difficult.
He felt as if he were struggling for little to no gain, only barely straightening his spine somewhat as the noise outside the barn reached a crescendo. They were always so loud, these bandits as if they had no fear of getting caught.
Maybe they hadn’t.
Or maybe, wherever it was they had taken Lukas to, was just far removed enough for noise not to pose a problem.
Lukas didn’t know. It was hard enough for him to piece together his current surroundings, trying desperately to remember what had happened before this barn through the splitting in the back of his head. He’d been hit, that much was clear, but other than that, it was all like a murky dream he was only just starting to regain memory of.
“Has he caused any problems?” A voice outside the barn asked suddenly, above all the ruckus in the background.
Lukas knew it was the man he had seen inside the barn the day before, the one who had gone to re-tie him after Lukas had first woken up, struggling against the binds he suddenly found himself in.
“Nah, not a word outta him,” a second voice answered.
The second was even more easily identifiable, the man who had been sitting and watching him in the hours before he did drift to sleep, occasionally insulting or snapping at Lukas not to move whenever he shifted.
Lukas’ head pounded, the pain coming in steady, solid waves that felt as if someone were hammering the inside of his skull. He tried to focus past it; the hazy picture he could recollect of him coming out of the mine shaft overlain with his waking up in this barn.
The doors of the barn opened suddenly, three bodies entering behind the slam of the doors uninvited. The two whose voices he had heard were apparent, black and white bandanas tied still around their faces and their eyes hard and unforgiving as they swept the barn as if checking for any changes.
Lukas was uncomfortable with the parallel to how he had woken up, that same immediate response, even if he did know that the motivations behind it were different.
Between those two men was a smaller body, bound and tied the same as he was, but with a bandana shoved between her raw, chapped lips and another tied tightly about her eyes. She looked travel worn, with dirt and dust staining the once-nice state of her clothing and knots tangling the obviously once-braided, long black hair that hung around her face.
“Boss said to leave her here,” the man groused, shoving her bodily away from them and into the pile of straw across from where Lukas himself sat.
“Speaking of boss,” Lukas croaked, surprised by the sound of his own voice. It was weak, as rough as if he had gargled with rocks and acid, the words almost more of a growl than words themselves.
Neither man addressed it, though, the one that had pushed the girl bending down to pull off her blindfold cruelly, not even bothering to undo the knot to loosen the fabric first. He sneered at the girl while she blinked blearily up at him, and Lukas couldn’t afford his attention to be divided.
He was trying to focus on how the men moved while simultaneously trying to look beyond them and through the open door for any indication of where the barn was located. He was looking for anything, anything at all that could be of use.
He needed to know how many men this bandit group had, how much protection, the number of entry and exit points to and from their camp, anything. He felt nearly frantic, craning his neck, and something so much more unsettling than frantic when a quiet chuckle came from the side of him. The one not removing the bandanas from the girl stared at him, his brown eyes glittering with an amused sort of menace.
Lukas stilled under the man’s gaze, his shoulders tensing at the way the man moved, just enough to completely block Lukas’ view of the outside. Then he turned with an overly dramatized disinterest back at the sight of his cohort ripping the second bandana from the girl.
Lukas could barely see her through the bodies between them, his concern for her obstructed only by his worry of the situation.
“WHAT IN GOD’S NAME ARE YOU DOING?!” the woman screamed before the bandana had even been fully removed from her mouth. “Where am I? Why am I here? What do you–” her outrage was stifled by the bandana suddenly being stuffed back in by their captors, the man helping her crouching down tensely to face her.
His fingers pushed the fabric back into her mouth, and for the first time, Lukas felt himself straining against his bonds again. The girl’s face was still mostly obscured from him, but the noise that left her was clear and choked.
“Look here, princess, the boss said we had to keep you alive. He didn’t say anything else at all. If you go to scream in my face again, I’ll leave the gag on you, and that’ll be on you. You understand?” His voice was quiet, filled with a concise rage that made Lukas worried for the girl in the face of it.
Lukas didn’t know if she nodded or if she made some expression that satisfied the man, but he seemed to nod regardless.
“C’mon,” the other man muttered, backing toward the door and looking at the scene uncomfortably.
His discomfort, from Lukas’ perspective, was what made the situation frightening. For his coworker to be that concerned, there must be a reason, especially given the lawlessness of their profession …
“I said c’mon,” the second man said again, clearing his throat uncomfortably. “You know they’ll want our help unloading things, and the boss is supposed to get here later. You know how he is about inventory.” His tone took on an almost pleading edge, looking between his cohort and the girl before the other man finally stood.
His breath of relief was echoed by Lukas, watching as the other man stepped back with the bandanas clutched in his fists and his cold eyes vacantly sweeping the barn again.
“I just wanted to know,” the girl tried again, her voice softer, but neither man seemed interested in listening.
They didn’t pause as they turned, leaving just as abruptly as they had come and the barn doors opening to spill natural light inside once more.
“IF YOU CAN JUST ANSWER ME ONE THING!” the girl screamed at their retreating backs, her sense of survival apparently forgotten as she strained desperately against her bonds.
Lukas’ eyes were frozen on the doors slamming shut once more. The sound of a heavy bar being put across the other side of them echoed in the near-empty space, the metal jingle accompanying it, making Lukas’ stomach drop.
He was no closer to knowing an answer to any of the million questions he had.
He had no idea where he was or for what purpose. He didn’t know even if he was expected to survive this ordeal or not …
And now … he wasn’t alone.
“True Love’s Ransom” is an Amazon Best-Selling novel, check it out here!
Tonia Parish is a good maid, even if no one notices. So good, that when a band of bandits hijacks her lady’s stagecoach, it’s Tonia that ends up kidnapped… A last-second betrayal and a host of confusion suddenly have Tonia forced into captivity along with Lukas Merrick. Faced with a rich man she could never have anything in common with, she’s immediately wary of him. Yet he is warm, kind, and seems to keep saving her…. Is it possible that this man isn’t what she thought he would be?
Could Lukas even be the missing link to her past, so shrouded in mystery?
Lukas Merrick was just trying to check on the opening of a new mine when out of nowhere he finds himself being held for ransom. Trapped with him is a spitfire of a woman with the most beautiful eyes he’s ever seen… but he is unsure if she can be trusted. Still, working together might be their only way out of this terrible situation. The more time he spends with Tonia, the more questions he has about who she really is though, especially when he realizes he is falling in love with her…
Would his father ever allow him to marry a maid though?
Long-hidden secrets have a way of finding their way into the light, and the truth will change everything… Tonia and Lukas never expected the feelings growing between them. Can they even escape the evil man holding them though? Will shocking revelations bring them closer than ever or tear them apart forever?
“True Love’s Ransom” is a historical western romance novel of approximately 60,000 words. No cheating, no cliffhangers, and a guaranteed happily ever after.