I just read my first Mary Connealy book a month ago and immediately fell in love with her and her books! She is delightful and her books are wonderful. I have not had a chance to read A Cowboy Christmas yet but I cannot wait!! And when I finish expect a review about how much I LOVED this book too :)
A mining camp in Missouri, November, 1879
“You’ll wear that dress, Songbird.” Claude Leveque grabbed Annette Talbot’s arm, lifted her to her toes, and shoved her backward.
Annie tripped over a chair and cried out as it toppled. The chair scraped her legs and back. Her head hit the wall of the tiny, windowless shack, and stars exploded in her eyes.
Stunned by the pain, she hit the floor, and an animal instinct sent her scrambling away from Claude. But there was nowhere to go in the twelve-by-twelve-foot cabin.
Her head cleared enough to tell her there was no escape, so she fought with will and faith. “Never.” Propping herself up on her elbows, she faced him and shouted her defiance. “I will never go out in public in that dress.”
“You’ll sing what I tell you to sing.” Claude, in his polished suit and tidily trimmed hair, looked every inch civilized—or he had, until tonight. Now he strode toward her, eyes shooting furious fire, his face twisted into soul-deep rot and sin.
“I sing as a mission.” Annie tried to press her back through the unyielding log wall. “I sing hymns. That’s the only thing—”
A huge fist closed over the front of her blouse, and Claude lifted her like a rag doll to eye level, but he didn’t strike.
He would. He’d proved that several times over since he’d come here with his disgusting demands.
She braced herself. She’d die first. Claude might not believe that, but he’d know before long.
“So, you’re willing to die for your beliefs, heh?” Claude’s fist tightened on her blouse, cutting off Annie’s air.
“Yes!” She could barely speak, but he heard. He knew.
“Are you willing to watch someone else die, Songbird? Maybe your precious friend, Elva?” He shook her and her head snapped back. “I can always find another piano player.”
“No!” Annie had to save Elva. Somehow. Of course Elva would be threatened. Annie hadn’t had time to think that far.
Elva would never stand for this. Elva would die for her beliefs, too.
A wicked laugh escaped from Claude’s twisted mouth. “She’s easily replaced. But I’ll never”—he shook her viciously—“find another singer like you.”
How had it come to this? God help me. Protect Elva and me.
“My answer is no! Elva wouldn’t play the piano for me if I wore that.” Her eyes went to the slattern’s dress hanging, vivid red, near the door. “She would refuse to play the piano for those vulgar songs.”
“We’ll see, Songbird.” Claude laughed again.
Annie saw the evil in him, the hunger to hurt. He wasn’t just hurting Annie to get his way. He was enjoying it. Her vision dimmed and blurred as she clawed at his strangling fist.
“I’ll go have a talk with your frail old friend and then we’ll see.” He shoved Annie backward, slamming her against the wall.
She hit so hard her knees buckled. What little air she still had was knocked away.
Claude charged out, shutting the door behind him.
Annie heard the sound of a padlock snicking shut as she slumped sideways.
She became aware of her surroundings with no idea how much time had passed. In the falling darkness, she could barely make out blood dripping down the front of her dress. Tears diluted the blood and she wept.
“Do something, idiot! You can’t just sit here crying.”
Annie proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that she was indeed an idiot by burying her face in her hands and sobbing her heart out. The tears burned. She swiped at them and flinched from the pain in her blackened eye.
Shuddering, she lifted her battered face from her hands and looked at the dress. It seemed to glow in the dim light, as if the very fires of the devil gave it light. Indecent, vivid red silk with black fringe. No bodice worth mentioning, the front hem cut up nearly to the knees. The garment was horrible and disgusting, and Annie’s shudders deepened. She shouted at the walls of the tiny, solidly locked cabin, “I won’t do it!”
Claude had known before he’d asked that Annie would never wear that sinful dress and sing those bawdy songs. Touching gingerly her throbbing, swollen cheek, Annie pulled her hand away and saw blood. Her lip was split, her nose bleeding. She knew Claude’s fists had been more for his own cruel pleasure than any attempt at coercion.
“Beat me to death if you want,” she yelled at the door. “I will never again perform onstage for you!” She felt strong, righteous. Ready to die for her faith.
Then she thought of Elva. Annie’s elderly accompanist was maybe, right now, being punished because Annie hadn’t fallen in line.
Claude’s cruel threats rang in her ears even with him gone.
For all her utter commitment to refusing the Leveques and singing only her beloved hymns, how could Annie watch Elva be hurt? Could Annie stand on principle while Elva was beaten?
The welts on Annie’s arm, in the perfect shape of Claude Leveque’s viselike hand, along with Annie’s swollen eye and bleeding lip, proved the hateful man knew how to inflict pain. He’d proved he had no compunction in hurting a helpless woman.
Noise outside her prison brought Annie to her feet. He was coming back! Annie was sick to think what the couple would do to the elderly woman who had spent her older years worshipping God with music.
Sick with fear that they’d force Annie to watch Elva being battered, Annie clenched her fists and prayed. God would never agree that Annie should wear that tart’s dress, sing vile, suggestive songs, and flash her legs for drunken men.
Please, Lord, guide me though this dark valley.
A key rattled in the doorway.
Annie braced herself. If she could get past Claude, she would run, find Elva, and get away. Go somewhere, somehow. Throw herself on the mercy of the men in this logging camp—the very ones Claude said would pay to see that dreadful harlot’s gown.
The wooden door of the secluded, one-room shack swung hard and crashed against the wall. Elva fell onto her knees, clutching her chest. “You have to run!” Elva, eyes wild with terror, lifted her head. Annie saw Elva’s face was battered; a cut on her cheek bled freely.
Expecting Claude and Blanche to be right behind the gray-haired woman, Annie rushed forward and dropped to Elva’s side. “Elva, what did they do to you?”
“I heard. . .I heard Claude making plans, awful plans for you. He caught me eavesdropping. He thought he’d knocked me cold, but I lay still and waited until he left. He’d hung the key on a nail, and I stole it and slipped away to set you free.” Elva staggered to her feet, every breath echoed with pain. She stretched out a shaking hand, and Annie saw Elva’s black velvet reticule. The one the sweet pianist, who made Annie’s voice sound as pretty as a meadowlark, carried always. “There’s money. All I’ve saved.” Elva coughed, cutting off her words. She breathed as if it hurt. “T–Take it and go. There’s a wagon. It’s already left, but run, catch it. Ride to town. Enough.” Coughing broke her voice again and Elva’s knees wobbled. She clung tight to Annie. “Enough for one train ticket.”
Annie realized what Elva was saying. “No, I won’t leave you.”
“It’s my heart.” Elva sagged sideways, clutching her chest. Annie couldn’t hold her dead weight, slight though Elva was. They both lowered to the floor. “When Claude landed his first blow, I felt my heart give out. Oh, Annie, the things he threatened for you. The evil, ugly words from a serpent’s mouth. My precious girl. Run. You must run.”
“I won’t leave you. They’ll kill you, Elva.”
“No. My heart. I’ve felt it coming for months and tonight’s the end. They can’t harm me anymore.”
“Elva, don’t talk like that.” Tears wanted to fall, but Annie had no time for such weakness. “You’re all I have!”
“Your father. Go home.”
“He doesn’t want me. You know that.”
Elva’s hand closed over the already bruised place on Annie’s wrist. Elva clearly saw what Annie had already suffered at Claude’s hands. “Go. There’s no time. What they want from you is a fate worse than death.”
Annie gasped. Those words could mean only one thing. She glanced at the indecent dress. A harlot’s dress.
“God is calling me home, my beautiful girl. He’s taking me b–because He knows you’d never leave me. God in heaven is rescuing us both. I’ll go home and so will you. I believe that.”
Annie looked into Elva’s eyes, and even now they clouded over.
“Go. Please. It’s my fault you’re in this place. I thought we’d bring the Lord to these people with your beautiful singing. I convinced you to stay when the Leveques took over. If you stay I will have died for nothing, Sw–Sweet Annie.”
Elva’s grip tightened until Annie nearly cried out in pain. Then as quickly as the spasm had come, it was gone.
And so was Elva. She sank, lifeless, to the floor.
Annie saw the very moment Elva’s spirit left her body—a heartbreaking, beautiful moment, because now Elva was beyond pain.
But Annie wasn’t.
“If you stay I will have died for nothing.”
A loud snap of a twig jerked Annie’s head around. She gazed into the nearby woods surrounding the sequestered shack she’d been locked in. The Leveques were coming.
“What they want from you is a fate worse than death.”
As if God Himself sent lightning to jolt her, Annie clutched Elva’s reticule, leaped to her feet, and ran.
“There’s a wagon. It’s already left, but run, catch it. Ride to town.”
Annie gained the cover of the woods and, without looking back, began moving with painstaking silence.
She heard Claude’s shout of rage when he discovered the cabin door ajar.
Poor Elva. No one to bury her. No one to make her funeral a testimony to her life of faith.
Annie hated herself for running away. It was cowardly. There had to be some way to stay and pay proper respect, see to a decent Christian burial. Every decent part of herself said, “Go back. Face this.”
She kept moving. Elva had insisted on it. Common sense confirmed it. God whispered it in her heart to move, hurry, be silent.
Silence was her only weapon and Annie used it. She’d learned silence in the mountains growing up, slipping up on a deer or an elk. Slipping away from a bear or a cougar.
As much as Annie had loved her mountain home, she’d never learned to hunt. Pa fed the family. But she loved the woods and was skilled in their use.
Heading for the trail to town, she was careful to get close enough to not lose her way but stay off to the side.
Not long after she’d started out, she saw Claude storming down the trail toward town. He’d catch the wagon Elva spoke of long before she did. And, she hoped, insist on searching it. Once Claude assured himself that Annie wasn’t there, she’d have her chance.
Annie felt the bite of the cool night air. She heard an owl hoot in the darkness. The rustle of the leaves covered tiny sounds she might make as she eased along. She knew the trail. She knew the night. She knew the woods.
All of it was filled with treachery.