Haunted by a Will for Payback (Preview)

Prologue

San Francisco, 1888

“I’m imagining this. I have to be,” Blake muttered to himself as he crossed the sheriff’s office, staring down at his brother where he sat behind the deputy sheriff’s desk. “Sam, tell me I didn’t hear you right. I’m begging you.”

Sam said nothing. He thrust a hand into his hair and pushed back the dark locks from his head. Blake’s black hair was similarly mussed from the hours he had pulled at it in desperation and stress, loose around his ears.

“Sam!” Blake barked, so loudly that Sam flinched before him.

“Blake, if I had something of comfort to say, don’t you think I would be saying it by now? By ginger, I’d rather be uttering anything other than what I’m saying.”

“Then say something else!” Blake thrust a fist against the desk between them, and the action drew Sam to his feet.

“Breaking my desk isn’t going to bring Elizabeth back, is it?”

The question took the wind out of Blake. He stumbled back, placing a hand to his chest. Beneath the plaid shirt, he could feel his heart racing, as fast as his horse had galloped to the office earlier that night. His heart thudded just like the rhythm of the horse’s hooves on the arid earth.

“This can’t be happening,” he whispered to himself, turning his back on his brother.

The sheriff’s office floor was full of the dust Blake had trodden in on his ranch boots. Around the room, there were various weapons discarded. Some guns, others knives, that had been taken off convicts before they were thrown into holding cells. The sheriff’s desk remained empty, and marshals stood guard outside. One in particular hovered by the door, staring through the gap at Blake with clear fear for his deputy’s health. Out of the corner of Blake’s eye, he saw Sam wave a hand at the marshal, urging him to give them some privacy. The door closed.

“Anger doesn’t serve any purpose. You know that,” Sam said, infuriatingly calmly as he walked across the office toward Blake.

“Pah! You can say that? Really?” Blake asked, turning on his heel to face his brother with wide eyes. One firm glance showed that Blake was hardly the only one not sleeping. Sam’s eyes were red, and the bags under his eyes were deep gray. Blake recognized that sleeplessness, for he had greeted it in the mirror every morning for the past week.

“Anger only makes things worse.” Sam still spoke calmly, but it did little to cool Blake’s ire.

“You can say that when your wife is the one that is murdered, Sam. No, you have no right to say it to me.” Blake’s voice rose in volume, so loud that Sam winced and looked away. Blake turned too, finding himself unable to keep looking at his brother.

He wasn’t naturally a loud or angry man. Up until a week ago, he’d been fond of a joke and was often calm, smiling when encouraged to do so by Elizabeth and their daughter, Sunny. Not a single smile had found his cheeks since Blake had returned home to his ranch on the edge of San Francisco the week before to find his wife dead in the house.

Thinking back to that night, Blake covered his eyes. He purposefully laid a blackness across the memory. He couldn’t think of the state he’d found her in, nor the finger marks across her neck, or he would go mad. He’d sprint out of this office and find revenge, enact the justice that Sam seemed so incapable of finding for him.

“You’re right, I have no right to say it.” Sam’s words somehow managed to break through the haze. Blake slumped a bit as Sam reached for him, clapping him once on his sagging shoulder. “There’s nothing I can say to make this better. Believe me, brother, I wish there was. I’m so sorry. Sorry for it all.”

Blake nodded and lowered his hands from his face, aware that his body was trembling. His hands would not stay still, the fingers quivering so much that it was as if they danced in a non-existent wind.

“I can’t imagine what you’re going through,” Sam whispered.

Blake didn’t ask him to. No one deserved to feel as he felt in that moment. The knowledge that Elizabeth was gone was horrific enough, gut-wrenching, but to know she had been killed, forcibly taken, and that her last moments were spent suffering made him feel an anger he had never known possible. He imagined it like a burning fire deep within his gut.

As a child on his father’s ranch, Blake had often run off to the neighbor’s forge to see the metalwork. There, he’d seen a fire unlike any other, raging so harshly that it would turn dark blue, a type of heat that was unbearable for a man to touch. Blake pictured that heat inside of him now, belonging to pure rage.

“Don’t think of what I feel,” Blake pleaded with his brother. “Help me instead.” He turned to face Sam, forcing the hand to slip from his shoulder. “You just said that he was gone, that James Calhoun had disappeared. Now, tell me that’s not really what has happened here. You can’t have found her killer just to lose him again.”

He watched with horror as Sam grimaced. His brother clearly worried for his own safety, as he retreated to the far side of the office and put his desk between them again.

“I wish it wasn’t what I was saying,” he murmured eventually. “We only had hearsay to go on. It wasn’t until earlier today when old Baker returned from his hunting trip that he could confirm he saw Calhoun going into your house last week, and we could physically place him there. By the time we went to Calhoun’s house, he’d cleared out. Though we did find this. You won’t like it.”

“I don’t like any of this,” Blake muttered darkly.

Reaching beneath his desk, Sam brought out a saddlebag, retrieving something from inside it. At first, Blake thought it was some sort of linen, but when he crossed to Sam and saw it was a shirt, he tried to take it from his brother.

“No. This stays with me, Blake. It stays with the law.” Sam held it out of reach, then clutched the shirt by the shoulders so that the cotton material fell loose. Blake nearly retched when he saw the claw marks in the shirt where someone had pulled at the material, scratched at it as if trying to fight for their life.

He backed up hurriedly. The nausea could not be fought. He reached for the door but couldn’t make it out in time. Sam jumped to his aid and a bucket was thrust beneath his feet. Blake emptied the contents of his stomach into the bucket, thinking of the way Elizabeth had clawed at that shirt, trying to save herself when Calhoun had stolen her very life from her.

When Blake was done, he didn’t move from the bucket, but hovered over it. Sam stayed close by his side, patting his back comfortingly.

“We’ll find him, Blake. Rest assured of that—we will find him, I promise you,” Sam kept muttering repeatedly, but Blake wasn’t really listening.

As far as he was concerned, these people had let Calhoun get away. It didn’t matter that Sam was his brother. Blake had told them last week who he thought was behind Elizabeth’s death, and they hadn’t arrested Calhoun then. They’d given him the chance to escape.

Sam is no bad man; I know he wanted to act. I lay the blame elsewhere.

The thought coursed through Blake strongly. He thought of the sheriff, who was more often found with a bottle of scotch in his hand than an arrest warrant. The marshals, too, were often holed up in a saloon, rather than patrolling the streets. Blake had heard rumors of them accepting bribes to look the other way and forget certain crimes, too.

The only time Blake had accused the law of being corrupt, Sam had said it was why he was there—he intended to sort it out.

“This place,” Blake gestured around the sheriff’s office as he sat back on his haunches, “it failed to catch Calhoun. You can’t promise me now that you’ll find him when he has disappeared like a rattlesnake in the grass. You can’t promise me anything, Sam.”

“Of course I can.” Sam didn’t waver in his stare. “I will do it for you. For your sake, and Sunny’s, I will find Calhoun.”

Sat this close to his brother, Blake could see the whites of his eyes were red.

“You’ve been crying,” he observed.

“Not as much as you,” Sam said softly and took Blake’s arm, drawing him to his feet. Blake took the bandana he so often wore around his neck and wiped his mouth with it, cleaning himself up. “I can promise you I will find him, Blake, because I refuse to let you down. It may take time to see where Calhoun has gone, but please, place some trust in me. I will get the devil that hurt Elizabeth, and I will make sure he sees punishment.” He walked back to his desk and stuffed the shirt he’d dropped back into the saddlebag.

Something felt wrong to Blake. The more he thought about Sam bringing Calhoun back to this office to be imprisoned, the more he felt in his gut that it wasn’t enough.

Calhoun needs to die for what he did to Elizabeth. That is the punishment he deserves for what he did to her. It is unforgivable.

“I have to go. I can’t be here anymore,” Blake said hurriedly, to which Sam nodded.

“Go back to Sunny, Blake. She’s your life now.”

“I know,” Blake snapped, then turned and fled the office, being careful to slam the door shut behind him as he parted. More than one of the marshals standing outside jumped back at the sound, as if they thought a gun had gone off. Blake ignored them all and kept his head down, not once returning their curious looks.

The whole walk home, he stared at the earth beneath him, scuffing the arid dust and kicking at rocks that were in his way. He tried to enact his anger on those stones, but he didn’t a single one of them, merely rolling them away or launching them into nearby wooden walls.

When he got to his house, he relieved the neighbor who had promised to watch over Sunny, then went to her room. His daughter was fast asleep, curled up into a ball in the middle of the bed. She’d never really been fond of pillows, and the one stuffed with buffalo hair was pushed away at the head of the bed. None the wiser to her father’s presence, Sunny continued to sleep, her tiny form curled in on itself.

Blake hovered in the doorway as he felt the tears come. Sunny was too young to understand what had happened to her mother. Out of fear of uttering the words, Blake hadn’t even told her yet, but the time would come soon. When the sun rose, Blake would tell his daughter something of the truth.

With this determination came a new promise. He would never let Sunny be harmed, not the way Elizabeth had been, but it was not enough. He wanted more. No, he needed more. He needed justice for what had happened to the wife he loved so much.

He’d search for Calhoun himself, somewhere far away from San Francisco—and when Blake found him, the killer would die at Blake’s own hand.

 

Chapter One

Three Years Later

“Do all men have a thirst for a fight?” Melissa laughed as she looked up at her mother. On her lap were some freshly made curtains. The stitches were pulled tight, but the fabric was bare. Over the years, Melissa had learned that a glass window and nice curtains never lasted long in a saloon.

“Not all men.” Lily chuckled as she tossed out the final piece of shattered glass from the wooden window frame. “Though scotch seems to make the thirst worst, I’ll give them that.”

Melissa smiled with her mother as they worked. The curtains were coming together well, though with Melissa’s skill, curtains were hardly difficult labor. Lily’s long standing as a saloonkeeper had made her good at the more practical aspects of looking after a building. A rather strong and buxom woman, she nearly took up the full width of the window, where Melissa was thin in comparison.

“Come hold this glass for me while I get the new frame fitted,” Lily pleaded, placing a chisel between her teeth as she began to jimmy the frame. Melissa hurried to put the curtains to the side and lifted the new glass pane from the floor, turning it back and forth as she examined it. Her skills with handy work might not be quite as good as her mother’s, but she had learned enough over the years.

“To think two men did this,” Melissa murmured, kicking at the broken glass beneath them on the saloon floor. “What were they fighting about?”

“I’ll give you one guess.” Lily’s words were muffled around the chisel in her teeth.

“A woman?” Melissa asked. When Lily nodded, she put upon a shocked sound, as if it was the greatest surprise in the world. “When are men ever not fighting over women?” As her mother beckoned her forward, she shifted her grasp on the window. Together, they slotted it into the frame. “To think, you actually want me to find one of these men to spend my life with.”

“Not all men are bad, Melissa,” Lily said, taking the chisel out of her mouth. “Your father was always very useful at breaking up a fight in here.”

“Partly because he was twice the size of the rest of the men,” Melissa pointed out. “His shadow passed over them and they quaked in their boots. It’s a shame we don’t have quite the same effect on your customers.”

Lily laughed heartily as she began to nail in the frame, ensuring the glass was tightened in place. Once Melissa was certain it would not move, she stepped back, thinking of her father who had died just five years before.

His legacy was well remembered in this small town, and in particular in this saloon. Melissa had loved him dearly, for he was a kind and affectionate father who would not let anyone say a cruel word to the two women in his life. She missed him more than she admitted to her mother. Lily wasn’t always good at speaking of her feelings. The day of the funeral, though, she had bawled like a child, and Melissa had held onto her mother as if she was the parent out of the two of them.

“Well, that should do it, I think,” Lily declared as she stepped back from the window. “You can return to your curtains. Don’t make them too fancy, remember? With my customers, they’ll be ripped up within a week.”

Melissa returned to her work as Lily fetched a broom and began to sweep up the shards of glass. Chewing her lip in thought over their previous conversation, Melissa found herself naturally returning to it.

“What did you hope for in your marriage, before you married my father?”

“Hope for?” Lily frowned as if perplexed by the idea. “Good company, I suppose. Not much more wanted in this world. Someone you can get along with is much underestimated if you ask me.” Melissa nodded in agreement, narrowly avoiding stabbing her fingers with the sewing needle as she was so caught up in her thoughts. “What do you hope for in your marriage, Melissa?”

“To be happy.”

The words fell from her lips surprisingly easily. She smiled down at her work, though she wasn’t thinking of the sewing at all. She was thinking of the mail-order bride ad she had placed in the newspaper. There had been no replies yet, but she had hope, and longing too.

Is it so mad to hope to fall in love with the man who answers my ad?

“Then that’s a good hope. You’re not like one of these girls with their heads in the clouds, dreaming for a perfect man. Do you know something?” Lily tutted as she paused with her broom. “That girl I have working in here, Lottie’s her name, gave me a long list of what she wants in a husband the other day. She went from his height down to the way he drinks his coffee. I told her, I did, no man will live up to that dream.”

“I suppose not.” Melissa had never really thought of what her future husband would be like. All she hoped for was someone kind, as kind as her father had been. That would be enough for her. “Most men here are a lot older.”

“That they are. Don’t want to see you married to a man not young enough to stand straight, nor keep you company on long nights. That’s no way for a young bride to live, caring for a man two days before death.”

“Ma!” Melissa protested at the rather crude description.

“You’ve done the best thing you can do.” Lily nodded as she swept the glass into a small pile. “You put the ad in a state paper, didn’t you? No sense in narrowing the search.”

“Statewide. Any man from California can reply,” Melissa answered hurriedly as she completed the final stitch in the curtains.

When it was done, she moved to her feet and hung the curtain over a metal rail above the window. Lily abandoned her work with the broom and came to help her.

As they worked in silence, Melissa felt doubts creeping in. At the time, putting an ad in the paper had seemed like her only option. The small town where she lived had few, if any, men her age, and she at least wanted the chance to fall in love and marry someone for a reason other than an old man longing for a young bride. That kind of desire made Melissa shudder in fear. Now, though, she was beginning to understand the can of worms she may have opened.

“What if odd men reply to the letter?”

“Odd?” Lily scrunched her nose in confusion.

“I mean… what if people lie in their letters, and don’t say who they really are?”

“I suppose it’s possible.” Lily nodded, her strong body somewhat jittered with the movement. She was shorter than Melissa and struggled to reach the high railing that Melissa could, but being the stronger of the two of them, she carried the weight of the curtains with ease in just one hand. “Don’t marry any man based on one letter, then. Exchange letters for a while, so you can be certain the man you are to marry is the man he says he is.”

“Yes, that sounds wise.” Still, Melissa continued to chew her lip. Once they had finished with the curtains and she returned to her chair to tidy things up, she managed to stab herself in the finger with her needle. “Ow!” she complained and shook out her hand, watching as a thin bead of blood trickled down her finger.

I hope that’s not an omen.

Melissa hadn’t ever been one for superstitions, but her father had been. Since he’d been gone, she found herself noticing more signs that beforehand she would have dismissed as mere coincidences.

“Don’t you worry.” Lily passed Melissa and brushed the loose strands of her blonde hair back from her face. “There now, I can see your face—and in it, I can see you’re worrying, despite my words.”

“I’m trying to be practical, Ma. That’s why I’m attempting to marry in the first place, but that doesn’t mean the road to marriage will necessarily be easy, will it?”

“Ha! Do you think it’s easy afterward?” Lily chuckled and picked up her broom, sweeping up the last of the glass. “Common mistake. Many young women think marriage is the finish line, beyond which pure happiness awaits.”

“You and father were happy,” Melissa pointed out, following her mother as she swept around the room.

“We were. Doesn’t mean it was always easy, and it doesn’t mean every day was happy either. You’ll see, once you wed.”

If I do ever wed.

Melissa looked miserably toward the closed door of the saloon. As if in answer to her thoughts, there was a knock and she rushed to it. On the other side was a messenger boy with a bundle of letters in his hands.

“Miss Black?”

“Yes?”

“Some letters for you. There’s quite a few.” He left the letters with Melissa, who turned back to face her mother as Lily whistled in amazement.

“Many men in California are eager to marry, it would seem.”

***

“Dad! Dad? Are you getting out of bed? If you don’t get up soon, I’ll come in there and jump on the bed.”

“You broke the last one by doing that,” Blake called through the door, prompting a laugh from Sunny on the other side. Had she been able to see his face, he would have forced a laugh too, but, safe in the comfort of his own bed, his face and the sadness that lurked there couldn’t be seen. Momentarily, he threw the quilt over his face. It was tatty, torn in many places, but it did well to hide from the world.

“I’ll break that one too, soon. We’re going to be late!” Sunny called another time.

Reluctantly, Blake lowered the covers and climbed off the bed. The truth was, he would have happily spent many a day curled up in that bed. It visited him every now and then, this feeling of inescapable sadness. It was like a bedfellow that would claw him back to the quilt, not invitingly but with necessity.

Sunny is the one thing that gets me up in the morning.

Turning to face the mirror beside his bed, Blake frowned at the reflection there. He’d cracked the mirror one night years ago, back when he was loose with his anger, and it made him wild. The result was a fist to the mirror that had made it split down the middle.

In the reflection, Blake could see his tousled hair, dark and curled around his temple. His eyes were still red from tiredness, and his bare torso looked worked from the number of hours he spent on the ranch.

“Dad!”

“I’m coming,” he said softly, despite Sunny’s urgency. Reaching for the nearest clothes he had slung over a chair, he hurried to change. A black plaid shirt and dark jeans went on, followed by his boots. He washed up quickly before opening the door to find himself greeted by his daughter.

She was growing taller these days. Having just had her eighth birthday, she was taller than his hip, her dark hair loose behind her shoulders. Her big blue eyes were wide as she stared at his clothes.

“Do you ever wear anything other than black?” she asked, innocence in her voice.

Blake chose not to answer. He always wore black, for it was comforting.

“Let’s get some breakfast.” He led the way down the corridor of the ranch house, urging her to follow. Sunny trailed in his shadow all the way to the kitchen table, where he hurried to place some oats in front of her. It wasn’t much of a meal, but neither was he the best cook. It struck him that the two of them could do with someone else around the house who really knew how to prepare food.

What am I thinking of?

“That shirt is torn,” Sunny said, pulling on the cuff of his sleeve as he released the bowl.

“It’ll do for now.” Blake turned his attention to his daughter. While he allowed himself to dress in dark clothes and for them to be torn, he would always make sure Sunny was well taken care of.

Today, she had opted for a bold red dress. He adjusted the cuffs around her sleeves and tied them into bows for her. Taking a leather tie off a shelf, he turned to her hair and plaited the locks, listening as she talked excitedly of school and the friends that would be waiting there for her that day.

Not for the first time did Blake bemoan the school where he sent Sunny. It was barely a barn, just big enough for the small community in Golden Hills to hold the few kids in the area. Had he still lived in San Francisco, then Sunny could have gone to a much better school.

“Here, let me get your shoes.” Blake collected her shoes and put them on for her, making sure the tie was done in a perfect bow. Once complete, Sunny smiled down at her bowed shoes, delighted with them. “Ready?”

“Nearly.”

After a quick wash of Blake’s face and hastily downing half a cup of coffee, they were ready to leave. He tacked up a horse to one of his wagons and with Sunny in the seat beside him, he drove from the ranch through the small town of Golden Hills, heading for the school on the far end.

More like a shack.

Yet he knew he couldn’t have Sunny living anywhere else. Not yet, anyway.

When they reached the school, Sunny was eagerly climbing down before Blake could even stop the wagon.

“Be careful, Sunny!” he called after her.

“I will!”

“As careful as I was at her age, no doubt,” Blake murmured to himself as he watched Sunny running into the school, flanked by her friends. He knew she was adventurous, always curious about the next thing to discover, just as he had been when he was young.

The barn was once part of a larger ranch on this side of town, but that had long fallen by the wayside. With a church now built beside it, the place had seemed the logical setting for a school.

Unusually, Blake didn’t ride off straight away. With the wagon still beneath him, and the mare tied to the wagon scraping at the ground beneath her hooves, Blake looked around. Some fathers dropped off their children at the school, others were delivered by their mothers. Blake found his eyes lingering on the mothers in particular. Their smiles and the way they embraced their children urged his mind to wander.

What if Elizabeth were here now to take Sunny to school? 

It was a question he would never have answered. Cursing under his breath, he turned the wagon around and rode home. The whole journey back, he didn’t smile, for Sunny was not there to smile for. Instead, he kept his head down and his thoughts to himself. When he rode past acquaintances he knew in the street, he would nod his head and lift his wide-brimmed black hat an inch in greeting, but nothing more.

Reaching the house, he hesitated before starting his work for the day. It wouldn’t be long before the ranch hands turned up, and there was one very particular thing he wished to do first. Turning his back on the main house, he crossed the land and headed for one of the most distant barns. Here, he kept the door locked with a padlock, and he now thrust it open using a key he kept on a hook with a bundle of others.

Inside, he was greeted with his greatest secret. Shutting the door behind him, he crossed to one side of the barn where a myriad of papers waited for him. Most bore one name, James Calhoun, or his nickname known by only those in the Golden Hills: Big Jim. There were details of Calhoun’s ranch, and where he had been for the last three years. In one corner of the table was a pencil sketch of what Calhoun looked like now.

“He’s put on weight,” Blake murmured to himself, making an observation he’d made before. For some reason, this fact intrigued him, as did the other news he’d learned of Calhoun since coming to the Golden Hills. Calhoun had married, a local young woman. Blake was disgusted at the idea and hoped that woman was at least safe.

Bracing his weight against the table, Blake thought long and hard about his goal. He’d always been clear in his mind as to what that goal was—take justice for Elizabeth and kill Calhoun. In the past, it had seemed simple, but that was in the months after Elizabeth had been murdered. As time had gone on, Blake had realized how complicated it was.

I’m unlikely to get away with this. They’ll arrest me, or worse, hang me for this. Then what happens to Sunny?

He knew the truth, deep down in his gut. He needed a way to protect her, to provide a life for her after he was gone.

Images came back to Blake’s mind of the mothers outside of the school and the way some of the daughters had embraced their mothers with fervor.

“Perhaps there is a way to provide for her,” he whispered in realization. Standing back from all the papers, an idea began to bloom in his mind.

If I were to marry, Sunny would have a new mother. When I’m gone, if I chose the right wife, she would care for Sunny right.

Blake hurried back to the house, pushing open the door of the barn so frantically that he nearly forgot to lock it in his eagerness. He had to find a newspaper and look at the ads for mail-order brides. It was just possible the answer to his fears was lying on his doorstep right now, rolled up in a newspaper.


“Haunted by a Will for Payback” is an Amazon Best-Selling novel, check it out here!

Blake Oakley has made an unbreakable vow; one day he will find James Calhoun, the obsessive man who killed his wife and make him pay. Yet, his plan will risk losing the most important thing in his life, his daughter, Sunny. Determined to secure a safe and loving life for her, Blake agrees to take a mail-order bride, Melissa, who turns out to be the mother Sunny always deserved. As Blake starts to fall in love with his new wife, will he hold onto his goal of vengeance, or chose a future next to a new family?

His unstoppable thirst for revenge might never stop lingering inside him…

Melissa has always wanted a family of her own and she is ready to devote herself to Blake and Sunny. What she never expected was how quickly she would love them. But as soon as Colhoun catches sight of them, Melissa’s dream will be at stake. Though she aims to make Blake see her the way she does him, she quickly realizes how his secrets and fears haunt him more and more every day.

Will Melissa cure Blake’s soul or will she be drawn into his dark purpose?

As Blake and Melissa grow closer in their marriage, Blake’s attempts to distance himself fail and love conquers them both. However, his relentless need for revenge has already predestinated his path. When Melissa and Sunny are truly like mother and daughter, Blake will be prepared to follow his bloody quest. Calhoun’s approaching Blake’s family and they both know that their last fight is about to start. Can Blake keep his family safe and have his revenge? Will he finally find redemption by the side of his beloved ones or will he be forever lost in an unforgiving past?

“Haunted by a Will for Payback” is a historical adventure novel of approximately 80,000 words. No cheating, no cliffhangers, and a guaranteed happily ever after.

Get your copy from Amazon!

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