On Sept. 24 — one more week! — our new Historical Western novel will be released! Finding Forgiveness is now available for preorder for $5.99 at Dreamspinner Press. To celebrate our upcoming release, we thought we’d share a little preview. We hope you enjoy it!
Finding Forgiveness Sneak Peek:
Two weeks passed in a blur of hard work and not enough sleep as Gil slowly settled into the routine of the ranch. His internal clock adjusted to rising early, although he still didn’t much like it. After spending a couple of days inspecting the fence, Matt set him to helping brand the calves, which was the most unpleasant task Gil had ever performed in his life. Despite his exhaustion at the end of the day, he could still hear their pained bleating ringing in his ears.
After that, Matt had him help with breaking the new horses, but that didn’t last long. Gil tried his best, but he didn’t have the strength or skill with horses to do much good. When they tried putting him on the back of one that was half-trained, he lasted all of two seconds and got the wind knocked out of him, which everyone except Matt seemed to find funny.
Matt moved him quickly to haying, the job Gil was able to perform best out of everything he’d tried so far. It didn’t require any particular skill, and while the repetitive motions made his muscles ache, it was somewhat soothing as well.
The only break he received was on the afternoon when Matt took him into town to the mercantile so he could buy clothes that actually fit. Much to his chagrin, the shopkeeper outfitted him with clothes usually worn by young men who hadn’t reached their full growth, but at least he now had a wardrobe suitable for manual labor. He folded up everything he’d brought from Boston and stored it all in his steamer trunk, leaving out one suit for Sundays. The rest of it was useless now.
With his days consumed by labor, his memories of life in Boston began to fade. He couldn’t say he was enjoying what he did. Given a choice, he’d prefer not to spend all day wielding a pitchfork and getting hay dust up his nose, but at least it was useful work. The burning anger and resentment he’d felt on arrival had begun to fade as well, and while he still kept to himself as much as possible, using courtesy as a protective shield, it was no longer as difficult to be polite as it had been. But he still wasn’t interested in talking more than he had to or forming any attachments. He knew all too well how dangerous that was, and he wasn’t going to make that mistake again.
Gil heard Jeanie ringing the dinner bell as he finished unsaddling and grooming Cherry, since he was expected to take care of the horse assigned for his use. Matt was already finished with Wendigo and was waiting on him, but Gil couldn’t quicken his pace. After so much haying, his hands were stiff and sore, and his palms were covered with blisters that grew worse every day. He refused to speak of it, however, not wanting to show weakness, especially not to Jeb Grayson. He had vowed he would do his work without complaint, and he intended to do just that, no matter how painful. Eventually he finished and put away the grooming equipment, then joined Matt at the barn door at last.
Matt looked at him with unmistakable concern in his hazel eyes. “What’s the matter with your hands?” he asked. “Don’t say nothin’, please. I can tell you’re havin’ trouble, so you might as well fess up so we can get it fixed.”
Gil forced himself not to grimace, but he couldn’t quite keep the irritated edge out of his voice. “I have a blister or two, that’s all.”
Matt held out his hand, not saying a word, just waiting. Gil repressed a sigh and resigned himself to the inevitable. As little as he liked Matt hovering over him, he had little choice in the matter. He lifted his left hand and revealed the palm, which didn’t look quite as raw as his right.
Matt frowned, and for the first time, he seemed genuinely angry. “You should’ve let me know,” he said tightly. “Don’t tell me this don’t hurt, because I know it does. I should have realized….” He shook his head and looked Gil straight in the eye. “If you’re ever injured—I don’t care how small—you need to let someone know, not try to live up to some damn-fool notion of bein’ manly. We work around horse and cow manure all day, Gil. If somethin’ like this got infected, they might have to amputate your hands.”
If Gil particularly cared about the life that stretched out ahead of him, he might have been alarmed. As it was, however, the threat of death didn’t strike fear in his heart. “I’m not trying to be manly. I simply didn’t deem it worthy of complaint,” he replied with a diffident shrug.
“Listen to me,” Matt said, his tone brooking no argument. “I know you feel like you ain’t worth nothin’, but now it looks like you’re actually punishin’ yourself for somethin’. I don’t know what it is, but it don’t matter, do you hear me? You need to let it go and start carin’ about yourself again. Inflictin’ unnecessary pain on yourself ain’t gonna fix whatever is wrong.”
“Nothing can fix it.” The words were out before Gil could think better of speaking them, and he couldn’t recall them no matter how much he wanted to. Frowning, he withdrew his hand. “What I do is none of your concern anyway.”
“That’s where you’re wrong.” Matt’s jaw clenched, and then he blew out a breath, obviously trying to calm himself down. “You said you’d do whatever tasks you’re given without complaint. Well, one of your tasks is to tell me or Vernon if you’re hurt. It ain’t complainin’ to report an injury. It’s just pure common sense. For right now, I’m gonna clean up your hands and bandage them, and you ain’t workin’ tomorrow and maybe not the day after.”
“Then what exactly am I supposed to do?” Gil stared at Matt, bewildered. After all the jabs Jeb had made about his usefulness, he didn’t want to think about what the foreman would have to say about him not working for two days.
“I have no idea. Maybe you can help Vernon with the paperwork,” Matt replied. “Let’s get into the house so I can clean up your hands.”
Gil wished he had some way to avoid revealing his injury to Uncle Vernon and Jeb. “What will your father say?” he asked hesitantly.
Matt flushed under his tan, an indication he was well aware of what his father would say. None of Matt’s and Jeanie’s scolding for Jeb’s constant poking at Gil had stopped the elder Grayson from doing it. Matt bit his lip and looked at Gil intently for several moments.
“Wait here,” he said sternly. “I need to get some things, but I’ll be right back. Don’t touch anything, you hear me? Not one damned thing.”
“Very well.” Gil nodded, wondering if he was getting a reprieve somehow. At least he wouldn’t have his hands tended to under Jeb’s scornful eye.
Matt released his hand and nodded. “Not one thing!” he repeated, then turned and hurried toward the house.
Gil moved away from the door and went to sit down on a wooden bench, letting his hands rest palm-up on his knees while he waited for Matt to return. He sat quietly and listened to the sounds of the horses, finding their soft whickering restful. He rarely had time alone these days unless he was bathing or asleep, and he enjoyed the respite while it lasted.
About ten minutes later, Matt returned, flushed and out of breath. He had two bags with him as well as a bowl.
“Thank you for behavin’,” he said quietly as he placed the bowl full of water on the bench next to Gil. Next, he took a few clean cloths and a bar of soap from one of the bags. “This is gonna hurt. I’m sorry, but I’ll be as quick and gentle as I can, all right?”
“Do what you must,” Gil replied, bracing himself.
Matt nodded and dipped one of the cloths into the water. As he was lathering up soap onto it, however, Jeanie suddenly appeared at the door of the barn. She hurried over to them, her expression worried, and Gil could see she held a bottle of whiskey.
“You’ll need this,” she said softly, pulling the cork and handing Gil the bottle. She bent quickly and kissed Gil on the forehead as she often did to Matt. Then she turned and hurried off before he could say anything. Gil looked at the bottle and then at her retreating figure before turning a puzzled look on Matt.
“She blistered up her hands something awful learning to churn butter when she was a little girl,” Matt explained. “She tried to be brave, but it hurt bad and she cried, and she was embarrassed to let Pa know what had happened. So you have all her sympathy because she knows how it feels, and she said to tell you that if you’re ever hurt, you can tell her, and she’ll fix it, and no one else ever has to know. Not even me, if you want it that way.”
Stunned into silence, Gil couldn’t respond at first. He wasn’t accustomed to having such sympathy directed at him, and he especially didn’t expect to receive it from Jeanie, considering how rude he’d been when they first met. He was far more accustomed to people like Jeb. Sympathy and understanding were foreign to him, and he distracted himself with taking a swallow of whiskey to cover the prickling of his eyelids that had nothing to do with the pain in his hands.
Matt made no comment. He simply knelt beside the bench, took Gil’s left hand, and began to clean it. It stung, but Matt was gentle and careful, the same way Gil had seen him be when dealing with injured animals. When Matt had cleaned the red oozing skin to his satisfaction, he took a clean cloth and dipped it again in the warm water to rinse away the soap. After that, he removed a tin of salve from the bag and applied it. Gil didn’t know what was in the stuff, but it immediately soothed the stinging of his skin and seemed to ease the stiffness too. Finally Matt wrapped a clean cotton bandage around his palm and tied it off.
“That’s one done,” he said, looking up at Gil with a smile. “Time for the other one.”
Gil nodded, switching the whiskey bottle so he could hold out his right hand, then took another swig of whiskey more for his emotional turmoil than any physical pain. He couldn’t help being acutely aware of how warm and gentle Matt’s hands were, and his skin woke up at Matt’s touch, tingling pleasurably in ways Gil wanted to ignore and forget.
A small sigh escaped Matt as he looked at Gil’s right hand, which was definitely worse than the left. But he made no comment, simply set about cleaning and dressing it as gently and thoroughly as he had the left. It took a bit longer, but at last he finished and rose to his feet.
“I’m no doctor, but I reckon that’ll do,” he said, brushing hay and dirt off his knees. He smiled crookedly at Gil. “I told Pa and Vernon that we weren’t at dinner because I was making you curry Cherry again. I hope you don’t mind, since Pa will probably twit you for it, but it was all I could come up with. I’m a piss-poor liar to begin with, and lyin’ to Pa and Vernon ain’t somethin’ I normally do anyway.”
“No, I don’t mind.” Gil peeked up at Matt through his lashes, imagining he could still feel the warm trails left on his skin by the brush of Matt’s fingers. “Thank you.”
“You’re welcome,” Matt replied softly. He tossed out the remaining water from the bowl, then repacked the supplies in the first bag before dropping down onto the bench next to Gil. He reached for the second bag, opened it, and pulled out a paper-wrapped package containing two sandwiches made with thick slices of ham. He offered one to Gil. “Jeanie made these for us real quick so we wouldn’t starve. She said she’d give a little ring on the dinner bell when Jeb and Vernon have left the table. Then we can go in through the kitchen so they won’t see the bandages.”
Gil accepted the sandwich, but he didn’t eat, watching Matt with growing bewilderment. “Why?”
“Why what?” Matt gave Gil a questioning look.
“Why are you going to the trouble of all this subterfuge?”
Matt lowered his sandwich and shrugged. “You didn’t want Pa to know, and I understand why. You get enough grief from him already. So we don’t let him find out. Once we go back in the house, you can go up to your room, and he won’t see a thing. In the mornin’, we’ll get up a bit early and head out before breakfast to ride fence. With gloves on, your hands should be okay so long as we don’t ride hard. We’ll come back after supper, and you can go upstairs again. I’m hopin’ by the next mornin’, your hands’ll be good enough so you can eat at the table. If not… well, we’ll think of somethin’.”
Gil couldn’t think of anyone in his own family who would have helped him in such a way. On the contrary, his sisters would have lined up to report his latest failure to Father. The weight of expectations bore down heavily on his shoulders, and no one had ever tried to lighten the load, only demanded more.
“Thank you,” he murmured, although he felt it was inadequate under the circumstances.
That earned him a playful smile. “Anytime,” Matt said. “Believe me, there are a few things I’ve had to hide from Pa over the years. Jeanie and me cover for each other, so we don’t mind helpin’ you. I love my pa, but there are times when he can be a sore trial. I imagine it’s much worse for you, because you ain’t fond of him to start with.”
“In some ways, he’s like my father.” Gil stared down at the sandwich without really seeing it. “I dislike what he says, but I’m accustomed to it.”
Matt’s eyes widened, and he shook his head. “Parents. I’m pure mortified by the things Pa has said to you, but I can’t stop him. I think he’s hard on you ’cause he thinks it’ll make you tough. Either that, or he thinks you’re a threat. I can’t decide which it is. Maybe both.”
“A threat?” Gil glanced up, frowning. “How could I possibly be a threat to him?”
“You can’t see it?” Matt shrugged. “Vernon has always treated us like his family. Pa became foreman here when me and Jeanie were small. I had only just started school, and Jeanie is two years younger. Our ma died havin’ another baby who died too, and it broke Pa up. Vernon saw somethin’ in Pa he liked, though, and it helped Pa get over feelin’ like a failure and gave him somethin’ to work for. Pa would walk through fire if Vernon asked him to, and he even saved Vernon’s life once on a cattle drive when Vernon got bit by a snake. But close as they are, and much as Vernon loves us, we ain’t his real family. Sure, Vernon don’t have no use for your pa, but I told you he was excited to have you come here, didn’t I? Like he finally found someone out of all his kin he could like. So if you stay, and you and Vernon grow close… I guess Pa might feel like you’d be more important to Vernon than we are. But that’s just my thinkin’. I ain’t sayin’ it’s exactly what my pa is thinkin’.”
That reasoning made perfect sense, and Gil wouldn’t be surprised if some—perhaps most—of Jeb’s animosity sprang from feeling threatened. Liberally mingled with contempt for a soft city boy, of course.
“I pose no threat to any of you,” Gil said with a quiet sigh. “I’m an outsider here. I can’t imagine my uncle would want me to stay.”
“You’re only an outsider if you want to be,” Matt replied. “I ain’t threatened by you, nor is Jeanie, because we love Vernon, and that love don’t depend on this ranch. We’d love him if he hadn’t a cent to his name, and if there is one thing I know, it’s that Vernon has a heart as big as Texas and plenty of love to give to you, if you want it. It don’t take away from him lovin’ us. And he does love you, you know. I think part of it is because he went through somethin’ with his pa sorta like what you’re goin’ through with yours. Never did find out what it was, but I got the feelin’ they were as happy to have Vernon away from Boston as he was to be gone.”
Gil didn’t have many memories of his grandfather, but what few he did have made it easy to believe that Uncle Vernon hadn’t lived up to the expectations placed on him.
“Perhaps he does understand and even sympathizes,” Gil conceded. “But love? I doubt it.”
“You just don’t know Vernon,” Matt replied easily. “I don’t know why he never married and had a passel of kids. Maybe he got his heart broke young and it put him off women, but he would have been a great pa.” He chuckled. “Heard Vernon say once ‘anyone with a corset around her waist wants to put a noose around my neck.’ Maybe Boston women soured him on the fairer sex.”
Or perhaps we have more in common than I realized, Gil thought, his eyes widening slightly. Although if that was the case, he didn’t understand why Uncle Vernon hadn’t said something—assuming he knew the full reason behind Gil’s banishment. “I don’t know, either. Father never spoke of him much until he decided to ship me here.”
“Vernon has sure had plenty to say about your pa, though.” Matt’s eyes gleamed wickedly. “Mostly about how he ain’t got enough sense to teach a hen to cluck. But I think even if you don’t know Vernon, he feels he’s gotten to know you through what your pa has said,” Matt continued. “Because he’s such a lovin’ man, I’m sure you’re in his heart already. A body can’t have too many people who love ’em, you know.” He paused for a moment. “But anyways, don’t pay no mind to my pa. He’ll come around. In the meantime, we’ll keep you hid until your hands are better, so you don’t catch the backside of his tongue. Like I said, me and Jeanie can handle this, if you’re willin’ to go along with us. Maybe you don’t like it here so much, but we’ll do what we can to make it more bearable for you, if you’ll let us.”
For the first time, Gil thought he understood what acceptance felt like. He didn’t understand why Matt, Jeanie, and even his uncle were willing to offer something his own family had not, but he could no longer deny it was real.
“I’m willing,” he said softly.