Journey Home


A woman in search of her family and a man bent on justice are discover that a mock marriage of convenience is anything but convenient.

Harper Monogram · ISBN: 0-06-108146-9

In 1991, I made a New Year's Resolution. Nothing new; I did so every year. But unlike previous years, this one lasted longer than the champagne bubbles. I'd decided to write a book. I didn't tell anyone (including my husband) because it truly seemed too big a dream to admit to out loud. I was nearly halfway through before he stumbled across a computer file named "Tony" and I had some 'splainin' to do.

JOURNEY HOME was a charmed book from the beginning. I chose a road trip book for the first one - I hadn't written much of anything since freshman composition - figuring I'd need the structure. It took me fourteen months to finish it, but, once I did, things happened very quickly - finalling in the Golden Heart, getting an agent and selling the book to Harpercollins in less than a week, winning the Golden Heart, and receiving the Waldenbooks Award for bestselling debut romance of 1992.

When I pulled up the file to post this excerpt, I read part of this book for the first time in years, and I admit to wincing now and then. My writing style has changed over the years, and it was hard to resist the temptation to fiddle. But I still love this story. I put everything into it: adventure, bad guys, good guys, hot romance, and my dream hero.

JOURNEY HOME is currently out-of-print, but has been sighted in many used bookstores. Know of any good used bookstores? Email me about them. I will post their link on my order page.

--Susan


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Prologue

He had been betrayed.

At first he could not believe even the evidence before his eyes. It could not be true! To lose everything, and lose it to the one he would have - indeed, had - trusted with his life. Later, when he could no longer deny the truth, there was one question that reverberated in his head again and again, like a heavy mallet driving a stake through his soul: Why?

He had no answers. He looked at his parents and his sisters, gathered there with him, and knew they also had no answers.

"I have to go. I have to find him." With those words, he left. They let him go, to seek answers and solace where he could.

He drove down the broad steps of his home, where he had lived all his life, where there had always been comfort and warmth and contentment. He went to the stables and saddled his horse, hoping to dull his pain and anger by doing what he had always loved most.

And so he rode. The land he flew over was green and new with the onslaught of early spring, its vibrancy at odds with the chill in his heart. He remembered when they had explored this land together, as children discovering the world and youths discovering themselves. It was all familiar, the gently rolling hills, the bluish tinge of the green grass, the majestic horses grazing there. The air was filled with the sweet scent of magnolia and the call of songbirds welcoming the reborn world. Still, he heard only the question in his head: Why?

The steed followed a familiar path, flying over bushes and fences to reach the river. Though it was not wide, the stream was lovely, its banks carpeted with tiny lavender and white violets. The man pulled his horse to a stop and dismounted, stroking the horse's velvety nose and heaving sides, whispering a word of apology for pushing him so hard.

The man followed the river until it curved sharply. There, where it undercut the banks deeply, he stopped. Hidden behind the large dogwood bush, whose white blossoms dropped petals to the ground like a light dusting of snow, was the entrance to a cave. It had always been their secret place. As boys they had played there endlessly, creating worlds people by pirates, thieves, and dragons. As young men, it was where they had confided the secrets, hopes, and dreams they had dared share with no one else.

It was not dank and gloomy inside but warm and cozy. He sank to the sandy floor, propped an elbow on a knee, and rested his head in his hand. He could almost hear the echoes of past laughter bouncing off the rock walls.

His eyes slowly adjusted to the darkness. It was then that he saw it: an envelope, starkly white against the earth. He took it out into the sunlight, ripped it open, removed the single sheet of paper inside, and began to read.

I knew you would come. After all, it all began here. And you, who always had everything, would have to have answers, too. I want you to know why. It was because of her . . .

Chapter One

Antonio Winchester pulled his big chestnut stallion, General, to a stop on top of a small rise just outside of Council Bluffs and surveyed the wagon train sprawled out on the flats below. There were perhaps fifteen wagons, gleaming white like freshly bleached sheets in the warm May sun. It was a small train, but that was good. They could move much faster than larger, more cumbersome ones.

Even with so few vehicles, the scene below him was one of disarray. Each wagon had its own livestock and equipment, all arranged in haphazard fashion, grabbing whatever bare ground could be found. Horses stamped and snorted, children ran underfoot, and people shouted at both with equal gusto.

With a sigh, Tony pushed up his shabby, wide-brimmed hat, squinted his eyes, and searched the chaos for some semblence of organization or leadership. He didn't particularly want to join the train. What he wanted was to ride west as hard and fast as he could. But riding west was a dangerous business in 1853, even for someone as skilled in taking care of himself as Tony was, and being in a caravan would help increase his odds of getting to California in one piece. That was one thing he intended to do.

He had to.

It wasn't as if joining the train would increase his comfort on the trail, he thought as he turned to check the packhorse trailing behind him. He wasn't planning on traveling in a wagon himself. On the other hand, perhaps he could charm some woman into cooking for him. Cooking wasn't one of his talents. But charming women - well, that was another thing entirely.

Tapping his heels lightly against the horse's sides, he sent General down into the midst of the confusion. He scanned the crowds, looking for the leader of the wagon train or a likely candidate for cook. His attention was caught by a young woman walking across the camp with a purposeful tread. Her hair, arranged in a simple knot on the back of her head, gleamed red-gold in the sun. Tony figured it was the color normally termed strawberry blond, but somehow that seemed too weak a description for it. Her simple gingham dress could not hide the trimness of her figure, nor the enticing sway of her hips as she passed. Something about the way she moved reminded him vaguely of . . .

He shoved the memory away. It was just too damn painful. But guilt never seemed to him to be a particularly constructive emotion, and after eight years he'd become pretty adept at ignoring his - most of the time, anyway.

Tony quickly dismounted, tied General to a nearby bush, and moved to follow the woman, hoping she was as beautiful close up as his glimpse of her had led him to believe. He had nearly caught up to her when she stopped to speak to a burly, shaggy-haired man. Just close enough to overhear their conversation, he couldn't suppress a smile as an idea began to form. Perhaps he had found both of the people he was looking for in one place.

"Excuse me sir, are you Tom Bolton?" she asked.

"Yup, sure am. What can I do for ya?"

Jessie paused to consider the man in front of her before she answered. Tom Bolton was of only average height, but he gave an overpowering impression of strength. His legs looked as sturdy as the trunks of good-sized trees. His beefy arms were folded across a formidably broad chest. His head was covered with a great growth of bushy hair, as dark brown as the rich Iowa soil. There was little of his face to be seen, as most of it was covered by a thick beard, and the rest by heavy eyebrows which sprouted with little regard for uniformity of length or direction. He would have been a forbidding figure, except that his eyes did not look hard, only determined. It was easy to see why he was called "Buffalo" Bolton. All in all, he looked like he could get her to California safely.

"I'm Jessamyn Johnston. I'm going west, and I'd like to join the train. I was told you were the captain and therefore the one I should see." Jessie extended a hand.

Tom pulled one huge palm down the length of his beard before he reached forward and shook her much smaller hand. His eyebrows lowered as his gaze swept her slight frame from head to toe.

"Where's your husband?" he asked.

"My husband?"

"Yeah, your husband," he said. "You're not coming with us unless you've got a husband. No single girl is allowed to travel on the train by herself."

Jessie lifted her chin. "Do you mean to tell me that a perfectly competent woman -"

"Look, ma'am, I'm the captain, and it's my job to see we all get through quickly and safely. It's a lot of hard work going overland, and I ain't lettin' anybody join the train who can't carry his own weight. It ain't safe for everybody else. No woman could handle the trip herself. Sorry, Miss Johnston, but you're going to have to find somebody else."

Tom turned, lifted a large flour barrel from the ground, balanced it on his shoulder, and began to walk toward a big wagon near the edge of the camp. Jessie felt panic and anger begin to well up within her. She needed to get to California, and this was the last train leaving Council Bluffs this spring. How dare he think she couldn't take care of herself! She'd been doing it for most of the past three years, and taking care of her father besides. She alone had managed to bury her father, sell her house, travel from Chicago to Iowa by train and steamship, and buy outfit, and learn to handle her own rig.

Jessie was used to being alone. She'd had to be. It was better that way.

She ran forward to place herself in Buffalo's path.

"Mr. Bolton, please, I must speak to you about this!"

Tom had his head down, watching for gopher holes so he wouldn't stumble into one, and he nearly lumbered into Jessie before her voice stopped him. He set the barrel on one end on the ground, braces one hand the top of the barrel and another on his hip, and glowered at her.

"I'm might sorry I can't helop you, Miss Johnston, but ain't no way you're gonna change my mind. I've got a lot to do before we leave tomorrow, and right now you're keepin' me from my work. So please, get out of my way. Next time I won't ask so nicely."

"I assure you, Mr. Bolton, I am quite capable of handling my wagon and my team. I see no reason why -"

The rest of Jessie's sentence was lost when an arm spun her around and hauled her roughly against a solid chest, squashing her face against the coarse fabric that covered it. She automatically tried to push away, but the arm held her so tightly she could scarcely breathe.

"Jess, honey, everything arranged?" a deep voice rumbled from the chest. "You must be Tom Bolton. I'm Tony Winchester, Jess's husband. Pleased to meet you. What time are we leaving in the morning?"

Jessie gasped, struggling to look up at the obviously deranged man holding her. She had no idea who he was or what he was doing, but by the time she was done with him he would be sorry he had chosen to play his games with her.

"Her husband?" Buffalo sounded confused. "I thought she was single."

"Did she say she wasn't married?"

"Well, no, but - hey, wait a second, you said your name was Winchester. She said her name was Johnston."

"What?" Jessie had finally gathered enough breath to let out the word in a shriek, but she couldn't seem to find any other words to express her outrage.

Tony gave her a quick, tight squeeze, willing her to remain silent.

"Hush, sweetheart, we'll talk about it later." He winked at Tom. "Well, now, Tom, we're newlyweds. Guess she's just not used to her new name yet."

Tom eyed Tony, weighing his explanation. The man seemed sincere enough. Hell, what business was it of his, anyway? As long as the woman was taken care of, it didn't much matter to him how. He had more important things to worry about.

"All right, then. Welcome to the group. We'll have plenty of time to get acquainted on the trial, but right now I got lots to do. You have any problems or questions, just ask. There'll be a meetin' after sundown tonight, last chance to get organized before we head out. See ya then." Tom hoisted the barrel again and stomped away.

The arm around her loosened, and Jessie pushed hard against the chest with both hands. Her release was so sudden that she stumbled back, almost falling before his hand reached out to steady her. She lifted her head, getting her first look at the man who had so boldly accosted her and claimed to be her husband.

He was the most gorgeous thing she had ever laid eyes on. His thick, wavy hair was so black that the highlights gleamed midnight blue in the sun. His skin was deeply bronzed, his cheekbones high and broad. Jessie supposed his strong, straight nose would be termed Roman, and his jaw was square and strong. He was tall; her eyes were barely level with his chest. All in all, he was so handsome that just looking at him was probably enough to cause most women to stutter. Thank heavens she was stronger than that.

"W-w-what in the S-Sam Hill do you thi-think you're d-d-doing?"

"Look, Jessamyn - that was your name, wasn't it? - you want to get to California, right? I've got a way that you can, but you're going to have to give me a chance to explain. Where's your wagon? It's be better if we were alone. If somebody hears us, it's not going to work."

Jessie looked into his eyes, trying to discern what he was talking about. His eyes were so dark that it was impossible to tell where iris ended and pupil began. Rather, the color just continued to deepen and deepen as it reached the center. It was impossible to read anything in their depths.

Would it hurt her to hear what he had to say? She had to make this journey; there was nothing left for her here. She decided to give him a chance.

"I'll listen. I'm not making any promises, but I'll listen." Jessie whirled around and stalked toward her wagon, wondering if she should hope that he didn't follow.

He did. Jessie rounded the back corner of her wagon, away from the rest of the camp, and turned to find him close on her heels. She took two steps back and placed both fists on her hips.

"Talk."

Tony bit his tongue to keep from smiling. She was every bit as delectable up close as she was from a distance, but she was undeniably furious. Her eyes fairly shot blue sparks, and the smoothly curved cheeks bloomed chili-pepper red with color. Her full, rose-pink lips were tightly compressed, as she was holding the angry words inside by sheer will. This would have to be handled delicately if he wanted her to agree to his proposition, and suddenly, he wanted her very much to agree.

"Look, there isn't any wagon train that's going to let a single woman come along. The men are all afraid they'll end up doing your work for you, and they're not going to believe it when you say you can handle it yourself. So the only way you're getting to California, short of going to New Orleans and buying ship passage 'round the Horn, is to get yourself a husband - or at least appear to."

The man was clearly crazy. There was no other explanation. "You lunatic! I have no intention of marrying -"

"Jessie, I said you have to appear to have a husband. You know, get somebody to play the part."

"Oh sure." Jessie waved her hands in wide circles. "And you're a desperate actor just begging to pretend to be my husband."

Tony bowed deeply with a theatrical flourish.

"You're not suggesting we fake being married," said Jessie. It wasn't a question. He was leaning back against the wagon, a thumb hooked in the waistband of his tight buff buckskins, which hugged his long, solid thighs. She abruptly refocused her gaze on the much safer sight of the white canvas wagon top. What was the matter with her? Just the thought of being married to a man like that - even if it was a sham - was almost too unsettling to contemplate. "You're not serious, are you?"

"Yep. No one has any way of knowing if we're really married."

"Why?"

"Why would I want to help you?" At Jessie's affirmative nod, he continued: "I was planning on joining the train, too, but I'm only traveling with a mount and packhorse. It would be more comfortable for me, when the weather gets bad or I need to carry extra provisions, if I had use of a wagon. Besides, I'm not much good at cooking and sewing and washing. You could take care of those kinds of things for me, and in return I'd help you with the heavy stuff - driving the team, fixing the wagon, stuff like that."

Jessie was suspicious. It seemed an ideal solution - and that made her immediately distrustful. The last few years had taught her the truth of the old adage that anything too good to be true usually is not. There had to be more to it than he was saying; nothing was that simple. But what other choices did she have? "Are you sure those are the only 'wifely' duties you're interested in?"

"I swear to you -" Tony stood straight and placed his right hand over his heart. "I'm capable of controlling myself. I've never had any trouble finding someone to attend to those particular wifely tasks. Of course, if you find you can't control yourself, I promise I'll do my best to cooperate."

Jessie glared at him. He was arrogant, he was insufferable, he was . . . handsome. His eyes were twinkling now, like a man who knew secrets - her secrets - and found them utterly amusing. She reached over and picked up the rifle that had been leaning against the wagon waiting to be loaded, and ran her hand slowly over the barrel.

"Let me make one thing perfectly clear. If I agree to this . . . arrangement, any part of your body that touches part of mine," Jessie leaned closer, pronouncing each word clearly and slowly as if to make sure any idiot could comprehend, "is a part of your anatomy you are never going to have to worry about again. Understood?"

"Understood!"

He was smiling at her now. By Lucifer, the man had dimples! It was almost impossible to mistrust a man who had dimples. Worse, she had the disconcerting feeling that he knew it. There was no reason in the world why she should believe him, but that was exactly what she was going to do.

"Mr. Winchester, you've got yourself a wife."

END OF CHAPTER ONE
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