Clara Fletcher only had one chance to save her life. It sat on her fiancé’s desk in the form of a letter. She couldn’t take her eyes off the letter as he shared a glass of port with the preacher.
“Isn’t she lovely, Minister?” Malcolm Harrow walked behind Clara, trailing his finger along her back as he went.
She fought the urge to shudder. Over the past year, she had learned to keep herself from wearing her emotions on her sleeve. Instead, she smiled sweetly at him. It was imperative that she kept a cheerful countenance. She knew all too well what would happen if Malcolm became unhappy with her. Her hand went to the distinctive star-shaped necklace she had inherited from her dearly departed mama. Whenever she felt anxious, she reached for it. The necklace made her feel less alone.
“She sure is, Malcolm.” The minister hiccupped.
He was on his fifth glass of port, and his words had started slurring after his third. It was going to be a long night.
“You wouldn’t believe the trouble I had to go through to get this girl to marry me.” Malcolm pointed a finger at Clara and grinned wolfishly.
She kept her smile plastered on her face and inclined her head demurely. Her dress rustled as her foot bounced nervously under her skirt. Malcolm had delivered a dress to her that morning with a note that ordered her to look her best that evening.
As usual, Clara had no choice but to obey. Her engagement to Malcolm was like a noose slowly tightening around her neck.
“Women love to play hard to get.” The Minister nodded somberly, as if he was an expert on the matter.
“You have no idea!” Malcolm sat across from the Minister and looked deep into his eyes.
They were sitting in Malcolm’s office. Although Malcolm’s house had several rooms fit for entertaining, he liked to bring his guests to his office. It was an impressive room with dark wood-paneled walls and an oil portrait of Malcolm behind his desk. The house had belonged to an English aristocrat who lost his money after his ships sank a few years prior.
Malcolm had swooped in and bought it for a steal. As a result, his mansion had an old money feel but still reeked of new money. Malcom was a self-made man, which was something that didn’t impress Boston’s high society. His wealthy neighbors were put off by his vulture-like ways. The wealthy residents of Boston didn’t take kindly to upstarts who flashed their new money. They had firmly closed the gates of Boston’s upper-class society to him, denying him invitations to exclusive clubs, and leaving him off guest lists to parties thrown by influential figures. His only choice was to marry a woman with social connections, which was where Clara fit into the picture.
“I’d like to congratulate you once again on your impending nuptials,” the Minister lifted his glass. His eyes were glazed over, and some liquid sloshed out of his cup.
“Thank you. Again.” Malcolm walked back to the drinks cart and picked up the glass of port. He gave Clara a warning look. His expression sent shivers down her spine. A large scar stretched down the left side of his face, from his cheekbone to the corner of his jaw. It caused his face to contort in a strange manner, making him seem less human somehow.
She averted her eyes and smiled sweetly at the Minister. “We have a problem that we need your help with, Minister.”
Clara batted her corn-flower blue eyes at him. She’d been careful to pile her copper-colored hair under a bonnet to present a picture of maidenly modesty to the Minister. Her dress was made from rich blue satin and was trimmed with lace alone the hem and collar.
“Whatever do you need, my dear?” The Minister leaned forward and clasped her hand. It was sweaty.
“Well, you see, Malcolm and I would like more than anything to get married tomorrow, but the law…”
“The law states that couples need to wait at least three weeks after obtaining a marriage certificate.” The Minister patted her hand. “There’s nothing I can do for you. You’ll simply have to wait.”
Malcolm’s eyes flashed, and he turned his steel-like grey eyes to Clara. She gulped and squeezed the Minister’s fleshy hand gently.
“I understand that, Minister. You see, it’s all my fault. I held off agreeing to marriage because I foolishly thought that it would make Malcolm desire me all the more!” Clara gritted her teeth as she spoke.
“Women.” The Minister scoffed as he shook his head.
A shout of celebration came from the other room, and Clara averted her eyes. She knew her father, Jem, was out there gambling away more money they didn’t have. Malcolm was hosting another one of his parties. He used these gatherings to attract rich, irresponsible men to his house, where he got them drunk and allowed them to gamble. By the time they sobered up, they had lost a small fortune. Most of these men never returned, but Jem hadn’t caught on to Malcolm’s trickery yet, especially since Malcolm allowed him to put all his debts on a tab to be paid off at a later date.
“I know it was foolish of me, but can’t you please take pity on me and help us get married tomorrow?”
“Can’t you wait three weeks?” The Minister chuckled. “I know young love burns hot but three weeks is nothing! In the Bible, Jacob worked for seven years before he could have his bride. Three weeks won’t break your affection for each other. Besides, wouldn’t you like time to plan a wedding befitting a society gal like yourself? I know the Fletcher fortune wasn’t what it once was, but still!”
Clara swallowed hard. The Fletchers used to be a force to be reckoned with, but their fortunes had declined even before Clara had been born. Unfortunately, most of the Fletcher men were gamblers whose appetite for risk was never satisfied. Her father had married a wealthy society woman, Lucy, but that money had been gambled away before Lucy had died.
“Come now, Minister,” Malcolm put his arm around Clara’s shoulder and sat on her chair’s armrest. “You wouldn’t deny me the honor of being Clara’s husband for a minute longer than absolutely necessary. Especially not after my generous contributions to your parish.”
The Minister chuckled uncertainly. “I don’t know what you want me to do, Malcolm. It’s the law. My hands are tied!”
Malcolm’s countenance darkened and Clara’s hands clenched. For a moment, she was afraid that he would turn his anger on her.
“I don’t remember the law being such a problem when I bribed a policeman on your behalf.” Malcolm stood up and took a step closer to the Minister.
Malcolm was an uncommonly tall man with dark curly hair and eyes the color of a midnight sky. His shoulders were as broad as a doorframe, and during his youth he had been a boxer which had given his body extra bulk.
The Minister gulped and his good cheer drained out of his body.
“What were you arrested for again?” Malcolm rubbed his chin. “Oh yes, public intoxication and indecency. Really, Minister, what would your congregation say if they knew I found you at the docks in that state?”
All the color fell from the Minister’s face. “Come now, good man…”
Malcolm leaned over the Minister. “You will perform a marriage ceremony for us tomorrow. I don’t care how you do it, but make sure it happens. Miss Fletcher has kept me waiting long enough. I’m sure you understand.”
The Minister gulped the nodded quickly.
“You won’t disappoint me, will you?” Malcolm’s voice was low and gravelly. It sent a shiver down Clara’s back and caused the Minister to whimper. “You know what I do to people who disappoint me.”
“I’ll make a plan,” the Minister whimpered.
Malcolm took a step back. He wore a casual smile as if he hadn’t just threatened a man of the cloth, and held out a hand to Clara. She took it and quickly stood up lest he drag her to her feet.
“Thank you, Minister,” Malcolm said, putting an arm around Clara’s waist. “I’m ever so grateful for your co-operation.”
Clara’s skin crawled, and she yearned to knock Malcolm’s hand off her. A year ago, she and her friends had mocked Malcolm’s efforts to secure a society girl. He had been repugnant to them. However, Clara had known even then that something needed to be done about her family’s financial situation. She had always known that she would have to marry rich. It was just that she had always assumed that she would have some say in the matter.
“Of course,” the Minister said weakly. “Anytime.”
“Allow me to walk you out,” Malcolm gestured at the door.
The Minister got to his feet unsteadily and walked to the door. Meanwhile, Malcolm turned to Clara and took her hands in his.
“Tomorrow this time, you’ll finally be mine.” His eyes sparkled at her. “I knew you’d come to your senses eventually. It takes time to break in a wild horse, but you were worth it. I always knew you’d be a sound investment.”
Clara’s stomach roiled as he leaned forward and kissed her on the forehead. With that, he turned and led the Minister out of the room. As they walked, Malcolm leaned forward and whispered in the Minister’s ear.
When they were out of the room, Clara turned to Malcolm’s desk. She sorted through his letters, her hands shaking as she worked.
Malcolm’s desk was neatly organized, and she knew exactly which file she had to find. It helped that she had worked for him for the past year in an effort to mitigate her father’s mounting debt to Malcolm.
Malcolm had tricked her from the beginning. No amount of work would undo the vast debts her father racked up every night at Malcolm’s gambling rooms. Perhaps if her father had occasionally won a game, then things would have been different, but Clara suspected that Malcolm would never let her father win anything significant. The Fletchers had been entangled in Malcolm’s web long before they became aware of it.
“Where is it? Where is it?” Clara whispered to herself.
Finally, she found the correct folder. S. Montgomery. Clara let out a relieved breath and kissed the letter. She quickly opened it to make sure it was the correct letter.
My dearest Clara,
You are my greatest treasure. My time is quickly running out.
As she scanned over the words, guilt pierced through her desperation. She swallowed hard and pushed the feelings down deep. The Montgomerys were gone, and wouldn’t know what she was about to do. Clara folded up the letter and pushed it down into her pocket.
When she was done, she turned to Malcolm’s portrait and scowled at him.
“You’re a repugnant man.” Clara spoke under her breath as she swung Malcolm’s portrait to one side to reveal a gleaming safe. “I hate everything about you.”
She looked over her shoulder before putting in the correct combination. When it swung open, her breath caught in her throat. There were stacks of cash all sorted into bundles of a thousand dollars. It was a fortune. Clara shoved some bundles up her dress where she had sewn pockets into the lining the previous evening.
When she had caught sight of Sawyer Montgomery’s letter addressed to his daughter, Clara Montgomery, a plan started formulating in her mind. She knew she had to get away from Malcolm as soon as possible, and the Montgomery’s were her ticket out of Boston.
As soon as the pockets were full, Clara looked around the room. There were several lanterns spaced evenly throughout the room. She took one then walked over to the heavy curtains at the other end of the room.
“This is for you, Malcolm,” she whispered viciously as she hit the lantern over the curtains.
The oil spilled everywhere as the glass broke; the fire followed the oil eagerly and soon the curtains were on fire. Clara hurried over to the desk and opened a second lantern. This time, she intentionally spilled oil all over the desk. She lit a match and smiled to herself as she flicked it onto the desk. There was already an inferno blazing, but it brought her satisfaction to watch the desk burst into flames.
Thick smoke billowed from the fires, but she forced herself to remain calm as she broke one more lamp between the curtains and the desk. When she was sure that the fires connected, she hurried out of the room and closed the door behind her.
She found her father drunk in the gambling room, surrounded by several other men.
“What are you doing here, Clara?” her father asked merrily. “Isn’t it bad luck for the father to see the bride before the wedding?”
“That’s the groom, father,” Clara laughed as she helped him to his feet. “We must take our leave! We have a big day tomorrow.”
Jem protested slightly, but let himself be guided through the halls of Harrow Manor. He was so drunk that he barely noticed as Clara led him out the service entrance. For months, they had spent more time at the Harrow Manor than their own home. Malcolm lured Jem to the gambling tables where Jem racked up a large debt. As a result, Clara’s own workload had grown as Malcolm endeavored to keep her at the manor for as long as possible.
“Hey!” A stern voice called out. “What do you think you’re doing?”
She moved quicker, not daring to look back.
“What’s it to you, good fellow?” Jem cried drunkenly over his shoulder.
Clara looked around urgently and spotted a carriage waiting nearby. She pushed her father onto the seat and climbed into the driver’s seat.
“Stop right there!” The man shouted. “That doesn’t belong to you.”
Clara’s heart stopped. Was her escape over before it began? She looked back and saw the man running after them. He was one of Malcolm’s hired guns. By that point, she knew most of the men who worked for Malcolm as she’d been introduced to most of the unsavory elements involved in his organization. She stared at the man in fright.
“Look!” Jem shouted, a touch of panic in his voice. “Smoke!”
The hired gun looked back and let out a frightened yell. As he ran toward the house, Clara urged the horses into a gallop. Her heart pounded painfully in her chest. She half expected Malcolm to come chasing after her at any seconds. When she looked back, she was gratified to see smoke billowing out of Malcolm’s study.
“What’s going on over there?” Her father asked, poking his head out of the carriage. “Where’s our driver!”
“He’s busy, father,” Clara called. “Get back in the carriage. We’ll be home shortly.”
“Ah yes, there’s a good girl.” Her father retreated into the carriage as she made her way to the train station.
“Love’s Stolen Identity on the Trail” is an Amazon Best-Selling novel, check it out here!
Clara Montgomery’s world crumbles when she becomes entangled in the clutches of a dangerous gangster, Malcolm Harrow. Desperate to free her father from insurmountable gambling debts, Clara flees with him, armed only with a stolen identity and a trail of cryptic clues leading to a hidden ranch deed. As they traverse the treacherous Oregon Trail, fate intervenes when a collapsed bridge traps them, and the enigmatic Henry Anderson offers an unexpected lifeline.
Little does she know that this eventful encounter will leave her astounded and full of questions about her mysterious savior.
Henry Anderson, a man scarred by the betrayal of a fraudulent land deal, seeks redemption on the unforgiving Oregon Trail. Leading his family through rugged landscapes, he’s drawn into a complex web of secrets when he rescues Clara and her father. Unbeknownst to Henry, Clara harbors a shocking involvement in the swindle that robbed him of his life savings.
Despite his wariness, a spark ignites, forcing him to confront not only external threats but also the demons within…
As Clara and Henry’s connection deepens, their love becomes a beacon of hope amid disease outbreaks and family conflicts. However, the shocking revelation about their intertwined past is waiting to strike. With a shadow upon their affectionate encounters, will they prove bigger than their cloudy present and hope for a bright future together?
“Love’s Stolen Identity on the Trail” is a historical western romance novel of approximately 60,000 words. No cheating, no cliffhangers, and a guaranteed happily ever after.