A Battle Is About to be Waged Between Two Hearts.
Fashion artist Priscilla Hutchens has a grudge against the army that has ruined her family and taken the people she holds most dear. When her twin niece and nephew are left orphaned at Fort Bliss, Texas, she swoops down on Fort Bliss to gain custody of them immediately.
There is just one thing standing in the way—Post surgeon Major Elliot Ryder, who is also the twins uncle, also claims the children and thinks he knows what is best for them.
Priscilla and Elliot will cross swords, but each will have to lay down arms if they are to find a lasting peace on which to form the family both are longing for. Who will win the battle? Or will a truce be called for the sake of love and family?
More from My Heart Belongs in Series...
My Heart Belongs in the Superstition Mountains: Carmella's Quandary by Susan Page Davis (March 2017)
My Heart Belongs in Ruby City, Idaho: Rebecca's Plight by Susanne Dietze (May 2017)
My Heart Belongs on Mackinac Island: Maude's Mooring by Carrie Fancett Pagels (July 2017)
My Heart Belongs in the Shenandoah Valley: Lily's Dilemma by Andrea Boeshaar (September 2017)
About the Author
Erica Vetsch is a transplanted Kansan now residing in Minnesota. She loves books and history, and is blessed to be able to combine the two by writing historical romances. Whenever she’s not following flights of fancy in her fictional world, she’s the company bookkeeper for the family lumber business, mother of two, an avid museum patron, and wife to a man who is her total opposite and soul mate. Erica loves to hear from readers. You can sign up for her quarterly newsletter at www.ericavetsch.com
You can email her at email@example.com or contact her on her author Facebook page.
Read an Excerpt
My Heart Belongs in Fort Bliss, Texas
By Erica Vetsch
Barbour Publishing, Inc.Copyright © 2017 Erica Vetsch
All rights reserved.
Trans-Pecos Territory of West Texas, 1874
Only the army would think a place like this worth defending.
Priscilla Hutchens clamped her teeth together to keep them from rattling right out of her head. Grabbing the wagon bow, she sought to find an anchor as the converted military ambulance jounced up a slight rise. The howling wind, which a cheerful enlisted man had called a "freshening breeze," tore at the canvas cover overhead. That same enlisted man had rolled up the stained fabric along the sides of the ambulance, and as a result, Priscilla had an unfettered view of ... pretty much nothing.
She'd had no idea when embarking on this rescue mission that so much "empty" existed anywhere. Miles and miles of brush, sparse clumps of grass, cacti, and bare ground stretched away to the edge of the world. In the distance, a humpbacked ridge of mountains poked up from the desert — a dusty, purplish lump on the otherwise flat expanse. The small company of soldiers, horses, and wagons she traveled with could be the last inhabitants on earth.
How had her brother stood this everlasting openness? After the bustling, busy, and varied life of Cincinnati, how had he survived the tediousness of a frontier military post? And not only him but his wife and children?
Fort Bliss. One of a string of forts along the San Antonio-El Paso Trail, and until now, a place Priscilla had never thought to visit. Only the twins' need of her could've gotten her out of the city and to this forsaken desert. And the sooner she accomplished her purpose and returned to civilization, the better. Fort Bliss. There was nothing blissful about this awful place.
A particularly fierce gust yanked at her bonnet, and she let go of the wagon bow to grab it before it tumbled to the dirt. Opposite her on the other bench, Fern Perry gave her a sympathetic smile.
"That hat is going to take wing and fly away." She had to speak over the rattle of the wagons and harness and the tramping of dozens of boots. Boots that raised puffs of dust to swirl around them, land on their skin and hair, and work their way into their clothing. Priscilla had never felt so gritty and dirty in her life.
Fern braced herself against the lurch of the wagon. "When we get to the fort, the first thing you should buy is a sunbonnet. The sutler's store is bound to have some, or you could hire one of the laundresses to make one for you. The sun will ruin your skin otherwise. Your hat's so stylish, but it's rather impractical out here."
"I don't anticipate remaining at the fort long enough to need to change out my wardrobe." Priscilla anchored her hat once more, arranging the netting and hoping the silky black feathers adorning the left side of the royal-blue brim were sewn on tightly. The hat perfectly matched her traveling costume, and she couldn't imagine how ridiculous a slab-sided calico sunbonnet would look in its place. She'd rather battle the wind.
"Are you really only planning to stay a few days? It's such an awful long way to come to turn around and go back so soon."
"I have no desire to prolong my visit." Priscilla pressed her lips together. "Retrieving my niece and nephew is my only concern. And I must return to my job. The catalog will be getting woefully behind as it is." Though her employers had given her a generous amount of time off, twelve weeks in fact, she had no intention of using all of it. Her work was too important to her. She'd spent the last four years creating the overall look and design of the catalog, and if she was gone too long, they'd have to turn things over to another artist who might not have her same style and vision for the publication.
"I guess I never thought of where the artwork in mail-order catalogs came from," Fern said. "Fancy being an artist for the Carterson Ladies' Emporium Catalog. I guess that explains your pretty clothes. I've never seen anything as stylish as that dress." Her eyes traveled over Priscilla's clothing from collar to shoes. "My mother and sisters and I pored over every new Carterson's that arrived in the mail. They'll never believe me when I write to tell them I met the artist who drew all those beautiful pictures." Her expression took on a wistful look. "I wish my family could've come for the wedding." She shook her head as if ridding herself of unpleasant thoughts. "Still, it's enough that I'm going to be with Harry. I've missed him so much."
Fern had rhapsodized about her fiancé often and at length each night as they made camp. To hear her description, Lieutenant Harry Dunn was a saint, a knight in shining armor, a Byronic hero, and a brilliant scholar all rolled into one.
Yet, while Priscilla understood the bias with which Fern described her beloved, the girl's obvious happiness set up a longing in Priscilla's heart that lingered well after the lanterns were extinguished and the night watch set. Her spinster existence didn't have much to recommend itself. But the twins would solve that problem for her. She didn't need a man to be happy.
Not that she hadn't had offers. Why, even on this trip she'd been accosted by soldiers proposing marriage.
As if she would ever marry a soldier.
"We should be nearing the fort. The sergeant said at breakfast we should arrive in the mid-afternoon." Fern half-stood, peering over the shoulder of the enlisted man driving the wagon. "We might even be able to see the trees along the river."
Seeing trees again would be nice. They'd encountered few since leaving Fort Davis, the last outpost at which they'd stayed. The ever-present knot in Priscilla's stomach tightened. Soon she would see the twins, her brother's beloved children. She would hold them in her arms, and together they would grieve and heal and become a family.
Teresa — known as Tessa — and Timothy. The niece and nephew she'd never met. How had they coped in the month since their parents died? Tears smarted her eyes. Tessa and Timothy were her only two relatives left.
And they've suffered the same fate as you, made fatherless by the army. Only they've lost their mother, too. Though the argument could be made that the army cost you your mother, too. She died inside when your father was killed, and she spent every day of the rest of her life mourning him until she finally slipped away.
The army had taken her parents and her sibling, but no more. The army would never take anything away from Priscilla again.
"I see something." Excitement leapt into Fern's voice.
Energy rippled through the soldiers around them. Footfalls became faster, reins were shaken up, and expressions lightened. Priscilla craned her neck, espying a dark smudge on the horizon. Shapes began to emerge, sorting themselves out into various structures.
They drew nearer, and the closer they got, the farther Priscilla's hopes dropped. Given the starkness of their surroundings, she shouldn't have expected much, but the huddle of adobe buildings did little to meet even the basest necessity for beauty. Someone had planted a ring of straggly trees, and there were squares of parched vegetable gardens, but everything looked dusty and sad. Cracked earthen paths led to and around the buildings, and over all hung the odor of ... stables.
In the distance beyond the fort were trees in a winding line. That must be the river, the Rio Grande.
How had Christopher stood it here? Even more, how had his wife? How did any woman?
Priscilla looked out on the post and felt nothing but loneliness, grief, and apprehension. The sooner she got the children away from here, the better.
They turned to cross a shallow gully, edging down between bare dirt walls. The horizon disappeared and then the wagon lurched, hooves scrambled, and the ambulance was dragged up the other side. Priscilla scrambled to keep her seat, banging her elbow on the side of the wagon and letting out a yelp.
The buildings grew larger as they approached. Though she'd never been to Fort Bliss, she recalled the standard layout vaguely from her childhood, the open parade ground, the barracks, the officers' quarters, and so on, all arranged in the manner prescribed by the military manual and carried out on every western post. But the forts she'd lived at in Kansas as a child had stone and wood buildings, sloped roofs, white-painted trim, glass windows. Here the adobe, flat-roofed buildings seemed to poke up out of the earth like square mushrooms. Everything was the same desert sand color. Window holes gaped like blank eye sockets with warped, wooden shutters or cheesecloth in the openings.
A guard stopped them with an upraised hand as they reached the northeast corner of the fort, spoke to the officer in charge of their caravan, and motioned for them to enter the square of buildings. In the center of the open ground, a flagpole pierced the blue sky, the stars and stripes snapping in the stiff wind. One of the adobe buildings was under construction, men setting the baked-clay bricks into place, others smearing straw-laced mud on the walls. One long wooden structure she assumed was a barracks was undergoing roof repairs, a work crew hammering away in the hot sunshine. The ambulance lurched to a stop in front of this building. The men on the roof stopped working to stare at the newcomers.
Priscilla's gaze moved from building to building. Which one housed the children? The telegram informing her of her brother and sister-in-law's deaths hadn't said just who had charge of the twins, only that they were being seen to. Probably one of the officers' wives. She scanned the row of smaller, identical buildings, a shade nicer than the barracks. Officer quarters. The children must be there.
"Fern!" A lean, sandy-haired soldier broke from the knot of men on the end of the porch, vaulting a stack of crates, and skidding to a halt beside the ambulance. "Oh, Fern-girl, you're finally here." He reached up and plucked her from her seat, wrapping her in his embrace and knocking her bonnet askew.
"Harry, Harry, oh, Harry," she chanted his name as he covered her face with kisses. Her laughter drifted out, and several soldiers hooted and whistled, stamping their boots and clapping. The couple seemed to remember their audience, and he let her slide to the ground, though he kept his arm around her waist.
"Fellows, this is Fern. We're getting married tomorrow." Harry's voice rang with pride and deep emotion, and he never took his eyes from Fern's face.
Priscilla blinked back a tear and searched the crowd again. What would it be like to be met in such a manner? As if no one else on earth existed, and as if every moment apart had been sheer agony?
"Ma'am?" The burly private who had driven the ambulance looked up at her. "Can I help you down?" His expression asked if she was going to stay up there forever.
"Of course." Priscilla gathered her reticule and her box of art supplies. She had little faith in the ability of the United States Cavalry to transport her belongings safely and preferred to keep her precious inks and pastels and papers under her own watchful eye. Her trunk was somewhere among the other baggage in the wagon train, and she only hoped it had survived the journey undamaged.
Once her feet were on solid ground, she glanced at her dress. The navy poplin with an openwork silk stripe wore a covering of dust like a shroud. She slapped at her skirt, raising clouds. It had been the same with her burgundy silk yesterday, and her pink lawn the day before. She might as well purchase some burlap sacking and wear that, since it was the only thing that might hide the infernal dirt that coated everything. How did women out here stand it? She glanced up and stifled a gasp. A dozen soldiers now stood within arm's length, staring at her with blatant curiosity.
A squat, bristle-chinned, sun-dried soldier stepped off the porch and elbowed his way into the group. "Ooo-eee! Ma'am, you sure are a sight for these tired old eyes. I know Miss Fern belongs to Harry here — goodness knows he's talked of nothing else but that gal for months — but, if you don't mind my boldness, who do you belong to?"
She jerked upright. The man's hubris was beyond the pale. "I don't belong to anyone, sir."
"That's all right then." Elbows jabbed into sides, and the men shifted.
He clapped his hands once and rubbed them together before turning to the assembly. "She ain't married nor promised from what it sounds like."
Grins aplenty, and the soldiers crowded around once more. While it was flattering to have the attention of so many men at once, Priscilla grew distinctly uncomfortable.
"Hey, don't you fellows make a move until we can get down there. It ain't fair to have us treed up here when a pretty lady shows up."
Priscilla turned to look up at the roof of the barracks. A red-haired man with a barrel chest started over the parapet, grinning and trying to keep ahead of the others. He grabbed the top of the ladder, but there was a tussle, and with a holler, the man missed his footing and plummeted to the ground, landing with a thud that traveled up through the soles of Priscilla's shoes and raised a puff of Texas dirt that obscured him for a moment.
She sucked in a breath and forgot to release it. Was he dead?
Time stood still as the dust settled and nobody moved. Then the man let out a low groan and squirmed, and her heart started beating again. The air trickled out of her lungs, and her muscles loosened. She'd thought he might've broken his neck. Men hustled down the ladder and sped toward him, and the soldiers who had been surrounding Priscilla left her to go to the injured man.
"I think he's busted his leg. Somebody go get the doc."
Priscilla edged away from the crowd, clutching her box and reticule in one arm and holding her hat on with the other. Shock and weariness leached the strength from her limbs. The poor man.
Something jolted her shoulder, and she spun, her art box and purse flying out of her arm. Her hat toppled into her eyes, and before she could right it, firm hands gripped her upper arms. "Beg pardon, ma'am."
Shoving her hat back onto her hair, she stared up into the most beautiful, silvery-gray eyes she'd ever seen. Eyes the color of a coming storm and fringed with dark lashes. Eyes that pierced hers and stole her breath away. Her heart hiccupped, and she felt as if she'd swallowed a goose egg. She took in the insignia on his hat and collar. A major. Medical Corps. For a moment everything froze, and then his hands fell away and he turned toward the injured man.
Priscilla found herself threading her way through the knot of men surrounding the fallen soldier.
"Glad you're here, Major." The patient grimaced. "Looks like I need a doc."
The major was slim and straight as a steeple. The yellow line down the outside of his light blue pants accentuated the length of his legs. His navy coat rode his wide shoulders like a second skin, and dark, slightly curling hair fell on his collar. He knelt beside the injured man. Fabric stretched taut over the major's thighs, and sunlight gleamed on immaculate black boots. Though his every movement spoke of power and manliness, his long, slender fingers were gentle as he examined his patient.
"What happened?" His low-pitched voice rumbled out, setting butterflies to flapping in Priscilla's middle.
I wonder if his mustache is as soft as it looks. That frivolous and disjointed thought scampered across her mind, and heat started building around her lace collar and chasing up her cheeks. Where on earth had that come from? She wasn't some silly schoolgirl. A grown woman had no business wondering such things, especially about a stranger. And a soldier at that.
"Well?" He scanned the crowd of men leaning in close.
"Matthews was trying to get down here quick to meet the pretty new lady. Guess he came down a mite quicker than he planned." The soldier who spoke up couldn't cover up a snicker, but the doctor quelled it with a steely glance.
"He's fractured his femur. You two" — he pointed to two privates — "go fetch a litter and tell Samson to prepare the surgery for setting a bone."
They sped away. The man on the ground groaned again, and the major thumbed up one of the man's eyelids. "He might have a concussion as well."
The major's eyes met hers, and Priscilla couldn't look away. She didn't miss the disdain and even accusation in his stare. Surely he didn't blame her for the man's injury? Her indignation brought her back to herself, and she realized her hands were empty. Looking back to where the doctor had collided with her, she saw her possessions on the ground.
Excerpted from My Heart Belongs in Fort Bliss, Texas by Erica Vetsch. Copyright © 2017 Erica Vetsch. Excerpted by permission of Barbour Publishing, Inc..
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