Wings of the West Book 9
Sarah Ryan grew up in Texas digging up animal bones and potsherds, but she always dreamed of searching for the extraordinary dinosaur fossils in the American West. When a wealthy benefactress gives her the opportunity to join the team of esteemed paleontologist Dr. Allan Brenner, she eagerly accepts. But when she arrives in the wild and wooly town of Holbrook, Arizona Territory, ready to start digging, she’s faced with the very real obstacle of being a female in a world dominated by men.
Dr. Jack Brenner is looking for his father who disappeared into the Painted Desert two months ago. Mounting an expedition to find him, Jack is suddenly saddled with Sarah Ryan, a young paleontology student hired as an intern to his father. When Jack’s guide refuses to let Sarah accompany them into the wilderness without a chaperone—and a colleague threatens her—he finds himself in a pretend marriage to protect the determined woman whose passion for paleontology was something he once possessed. But he has bigger problems than his beautiful new wife—his father is pursuing a controversial theory about the origin of birds, and it’s attracted the attention of men who would rather destroy evidence than excavate it.
Sarah is the daughter of Logan and Claire from THE DOVE.
The Wings of the West Series Reading Order
Book One: The Wren
Book Two: The Dove
Book Three: The Sparrow
Book Four: The Blackbird
Book Five: The Bluebird
Book Six: The Songbird (Novella)
Book Seven: Echo of the Plains (Short Story)
Book Eight: The Starling
Book Nine: The Canary
Book Ten: The Nighthawk (Coming Soon)
Read Chapter One
Holbrook, Arizona Territory
Jack entered the train station in Holbrook and removed his hat.
“Dr. Brenner?” A young man with an earnest expression waved him over.
It was the station worker who had helped Jack the previous day when he’d arrived from New Haven.
“Hello, sir,” the young man said. “It’s good to see you.”
“Good to see you, too,” Jack said with a nod. “Ralph, wasn’t it?”
“Yes, sir. I’ve moved your luggage to the front of the storage room as we’d discussed so that you can retrieve it more easily.” He turned and led Jack across the station area to a far corner where a storage room kept items under lock and key. Jack had heard that Holbrook was a rowdy and somewhat lawless town, and after spending one night here, he had to agree. Leaving the bulk of his expedition gear here rather than at his hotel had been a sound move.
The hotel, surrounded by several saloons, had offered little quiet the previous night. Apparently, an influx of cowboys from the Hashknife Ranch south of here had come in to blow off steam. Jack was still nursing annoyance over the fact that he’d been kept awake for most of the night, at least until before dawn. He’d awoken late and now he was feeling behind. He had hoped to get the supplies loaded on the wagon he’d hired and head out by early afternoon.
But now it was four o’clock, and the day was slipping away. He’d have to spend another night in town.
“Ralph,” Jack said as the man began unlocking the padlock on the storage room door. “I’m afraid I’m going to need to leave everything here for one more night.”
“Oh yes, that should be fine,” Ralph replied. “Is there a problem with your guide?”
“No. I received a telegram this morning that another member of the team is arriving today. In fact, that’s why I’m here, to pick him up.” Jack sighed. “It’s getting late in the day, so we’ll head out first thing in the morning. What time will you be here tomorrow?”
“I can plan to meet you whenever you like,” Ralph replied, his countenance eager.
Jack was glad to meet someone he could rely on, even if it was only because of the big tip Jack had promised Ralph if he’d take good care of the gear. It was clear at the hotel there was no safe place to store everything, and the desk clerk hadn’t appeared entirely trustworthy. Besides, Jack didn’t really want to lug everything to the hotel and upstairs to his room, only to move it back to the street the following day to load on the wagon. Leaving it at the train station had proved far more convenient.
“How about five a.m.?” Jack asked.
“That would be fine. Can I help you find the passenger you’re to meet?”
“His name is S. Ryan. That’s all I know.”
“Let me check with the station manager to see when the train is set to arrive.” Ralph stepped away to the ticket office.
Jack took a seat on one of the wooden benches along the wall, dust motes floating in the late-afternoon rays of sunlight. He suppressed a groan when Eldon Kimball entered the station. After a brief search, the man came toward Jack.
He’d hired the Mormon by letter two weeks ago to serve as a guide into the Painted Desert, since this was Jack’s first time in the area. Kimball had claimed to know the location of Allan Brenner’s dig, and Jack would need to start there in his search for his father, whose correspondence had ceased over two months ago. Jack feared the worst but kept his mind on a sliver of hope that his father simply had become distracted by his work and hadn’t realized how much time had passed.
A tenuous hope but all he had.
“Dr. Brenner, we need to talk,” Eldon said, his wide-brimmed black hat and black jacket casting his pale face into even more of a pallor.
Kimball was a serious man and not very happy to be stuck in Holbrook while Jack tried to get the expedition details ironed out. The town was filled with “too much sin and debauchery,” according to the man. Jack was inclined to agree, but he also wasn’t going to dwell on the actions of others. In that way lay madness.
“Mr. Kimball, what can I do for you?” Jack asked, rising to stand.
Kimball’s indignant self-righteousness flashing in his eyes told Jack there was about to be a chewing out. Jack used his height to gain an advantage if that were even possible.
“We have a problem.” Kimball watched him as if Jack somehow knew what he was talking about.
“All right,” Jack finally said. “Let’s have it.”
“You cannot travel with a woman.”
Jack frowned. “A woman?” He’d hired two additional men to accompany him, so perhaps one of them had a wife who Jack hadn’t known about. “I’ve no plans to take a woman into the wilderness, I can assure you. I’ll talk to the other men.”
Kimball’s face pinched into a sour expression that put Jack in mind of a child who’d eaten too many lemons. “The other men?” he all but sputtered the words. “Good Lord! Are they bringing women too?”
The man huffed. “I may have been remiss in my requirements for employment, so I will let this oversight slide. However, I must clearly state that I will not travel, nor will I allow anyone traveling with me, to bring along a woman to whom they are not legally married. And by legally, I mean in the eyes of God.”
Jack nodded, wondering how quickly he could end this conversation. Jack didn’t bring women on expeditions. His father never had. This wasn’t a problem, and he couldn’t fathom how it had suddenly become one.
“Of course,” Jack said, his tone as placating as he could make it.
“Well then?” Kimball’s gaze was expectant and accusing as his voice rose an octave higher.
“Well then what?” Jack was unable to suppress his exasperation. He was tempted to fire Kimball on the spot, but the man knew the location of Allan Brenner’s dig site. And Jack needed to find his father.
“What are you going to do about her?”
Was Kimball delusional? Maybe Jack would be better off with one of those drunken cowhands from the saloon. They undoubtedly knew the area, even if it were only in a general way.
Jack summoned his patience. “Who?” he asked.
“That woman who is a part of your expedition.”
“There’s no woman. I’m here to pick up a man named Ryan.”
That seemed to stop Kimball in his tracks. “Not a woman?”
“No. Why did you think it was?”
“In the saloon, I overheard some ranch hands talking.”
Jack narrowed his eyes. “You were in the saloon? I thought you didn’t drink.”
Kimball scoffed. “I’m not a prude.”
That was debatable.
“I like a good sarsaparilla,” he continued. “I was told the Pioneer Saloon had the best in town. That’s where I heard some men talking about one of their friends, a man name Jeremy Blackmore, who was coming here to meet his cousin, a woman who is going into the desert to dig for fossils. I just assumed she was with you.”
“No. And if her cousin is accompanying her, then you have no reason to worry that she’s running around in the wilderness unchaperoned.”
Not that any of this was Kimball’s business. If there were really going to be a woman in the field—not a complete rarity, Jack had met a few during his field studies in Europe—Jack could only hope she wouldn’t encounter Kimball. It was clear the man would be unable to hold his sanctimonious tongue.
“Well, all right then.” Kimball tugged on his jacket lapels to snap the garment into perfect position. “I’m glad we cleared that up.”
Jack offered a smile that was anything but real. “As am I.”
“We’ll be leaving in the morning?”
“Yes. Six a.m. in front of the Holbrook Hotel. I’ll have the wagon loaded and the horses ready.”
“Very well. I shall see you then.” Kimball tipped his hat and left.
Jack sat back down and ran a hand down his face. The expedition hadn’t even begun and already there were interpersonal issues. He sighed. He’d never worked with the two men he’d contracted with the help of Yale University—Skip Dupont had come recommended from dig sites in Wyoming and Thomas Gunney was a local hire who would handle gear, animals, food, and cooking—so he could only hope they would be less tightly wound than Kimball. And now this man Ryan had been added to the mix.
Jack didn’t have a choice letting the new addition join them. Unbeknownst to the university, Mrs. Helen Parks had hired S. Ryan. Helen Parks was a patron of Yale where his father worked, as well as the adjacent Peabody Museum, which acquired his father’s finds. Her money paid for these expeditions. Jack only hoped that Ryan was a competent paleontologist, and that he wouldn’t ask too many questions.
Jack had learned of his father’s disappearance when a private letter had come to him from Isaac Dearborn, his father’s assistant. Apparently, Isaac had parted ways with Jack’s father sometime last year. When he had returned in April of this year, he had found Allan’s dig site abandoned and no sign of the man. Out of friendship and concern, he’d contacted Jack.
It was just as well. Jack had been in limbo since his mother’s death in February, having barely made it back to America from England in time to say goodbye. In the aftermath of the grief, he’d remained in New Haven to comfort his sister, Adelaide. Or maybe it was to comfort himself since she had a husband and three children who offered her much love and support. But idleness had eventually made Jack antsy, so when Isaac’s letter had come, he’d immediately made arrangements to find his father, despite years of tension that had divided them.
Jack wasn’t sure how he was going to keep knowledge that Allan Brenner wasn’t present from the new recruit, but he would have to try. And with hope, they’d find his father soon enough, resolving the problem before anyone was the wiser.
The train arrived and Jack stood off to the side of the platform while supplies and luggage were unloaded, followed by the disembarkation of passengers.
As a bevy of people crowded onto the wooden platform, it became clear that Jack would never find this S. Ryan. He had no idea what the man looked like. He probably should have made a sign to hold, but it was too late for that.
The last passenger to alight was a young woman, alone. She paused for a moment and glanced upward, giving Jack a clear view of her face, her blond hair tucked beneath a straw hat that had slid to the side, dragging a chunk of hair with it. He marveled that it didn’t seem to bother her. As she took in her surroundings, what struck him most was the openness and delight that flashed in her eyes. When she continued to look above her, he followed her gaze as she watched a bird perched on a rafter.
A road runner.
The large creature sported a tufted head and long tail feathers, and was out of place so high up, preferring instead to run on the ground. The crowd must have startled it, causing it to flee to a higher vantage point.
A tiny dinosaur.
Jack was reminded again of the controversy over the evolution of birds along the Dinosauria lineage, and Allan Brenner’s focus on such origins. While Jack’s academic focus had led him to the larger animals of the later Jurassic and Cretaceous time periods—he’d spent the bulk of his career excavating in Yorkshire and Oxford—Allan Brenner’s passion had eventually turned toward the smaller and less awe-inspiring dinosaurs of the Triassic, many found here in the Painted Desert and Petrified Forest. And as the years passed, deep paleontological discussions between Jack and his father had become fewer and fewer.
The woman watched the bird for longer than necessary, considering that she surely had to be meeting someone here, because what female would come to this godforsaken town alone? There were, of course, the doves in the saloons, but this woman wasn’t the type, although she was pretty enough to attract male attention. And in this town that wouldn’t be difficult.
After one final look, she shifted her gaze forward and entered the station. Jack continued to watch the train, but no more passengers disembarked. Time to find Ralph.
He followed the wave of people inside, spying Ralph’s youthful face across the station, his cheeks flushed as he dealt with the onslaught of passengers. The din of conversation, along with the sweaty scent of too many humans crammed into a small space, surrounded Jack. Perhaps he should return to his hotel and wait for S. Ryan to find him. The problem with that was the man would likely look for Allan Brenner, not Jack, and Jack didn’t need people inquiring all over town after his father.
Jack had discreetly asked around about Allan, and several people had mentioned seeing him in March, but it appeared his father hadn’t been back since. There were other towns, of course. Winslow to the west. Indian Wells to the North. Albuquerque to the east, although it was some distance away. It was possible he had gone to one of those to resupply.
Ralph was talking to the woman now. Someone bumped into her causing her hat to land on her shoulder, still attached to her hair. She frowned at her assailant, but the person was gone. She tried to fix her hair, but she only made it worse. Distracted by the elegant curve of her backside covered by the modest dress she wore, Jack didn’t realize that Ralph was waving at him. He finally acknowledged Ralph’s emphatic gestures.
As Jack came up beside the woman, he kept his gaze on Ralph, especially when she turned to look directly at Jack. For some reason, it seemed best not to look her in the eye.
“Dr. Brenner,” Ralph said. “This woman is looking for you.”
So much for avoiding eye contact. Jack couldn’t imagine why she needed to see him. He turned and gave a slight nod, trying to ignore the jolt to his senses when he met her gaze.
“Dr. Brenner?” she said, her green eyes shiny with excitement.
Suddenly tongue-tied, he simply nodded again.
She extended a hand. “I’m Sarah.”
He was glad the white glove she wore kept their skin from touching. It had been a long time since a beautiful woman had caught his eye. Not since Betsy, really. And he didn’t need a repeat of that.
“I’m so pleased to meet you, sir,” she added, a big smile lighting up her face.
The “sir” caught his attention, and it all began to click into place. She thought Jack was his father. S. Ryan had been hired by Mrs. Parks for the dig.
But maybe he was wrong. Maybe this woman was here for another reason.
He cleared his throat and said, “Sarah …?”
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