Stella Star of the Plains Sneak Peek

After a rough few years, Stella McMurray is at a crossroads. When a bully of a suitor won’t take no for an answer, she jumps on a stagecoach to seek her fortune in the untamed West.

Adam Wright is a rancher in sparsely populated Wyoming Territory whose plans of domestic harmony and home-cooked meals are derailed when it is Stella who arrives in answer to his housekeeper advertisement. Unwilling to employ a young unmarried woman on his ranch, Adam dumps her at a neighboring farm.

Under the steadying influence of the farmer’s kindhearted wife, Stella takes to her new situation like a duck to water. Then a sudden windfall attracts dangerous enemies, and she finds an unexpected ally in the strong, silent rancher next door. With the help of a man she’s afraid to get too close to, she must face real-life villains–and her own demons–for a chance at a life and love she never thought she could have.

Read on for a sneak peek!


Wyoming Territory, 1870

The postmaster’s wife looked up as a shadow fell across the open window, smiled in recognition, and reached up automatically to pat her hair. “Oh, well, good afternoon, Mr. Wright.”

“Mrs. Dillon.”

“I’m filling in for Ronald today. There just hasn’t been as much dressmaking work as I’d expected here in Moonlight, I must say. But they tell me the town will soon be growing.”

The rancher made no response, and she blushed and continued quickly, “I’m rambling, aren’t I? You’re here for the mail, I expect.”

He nodded once, a man of few words.

“You had a packet from Denver,” she recalled. “Let me just see where I put it–here it is. I do hope it’s good news.”

The rancher grunted and opened the big envelope without hesitation. The cover letter was quite brief:

The post office box is teeming with responses to your housekeeper advert. Find enclosed the ten most coherent.
Hope all is well.
R. Day

His lawyer could be a man of few words, too.

He turned the page. The first response was written in a bold, distinctly female script that was neat and easy to read.

Sir or Madam,
This in response to your ad in the Rocky Mtn Times. I have kept house for a large family for sixteen years, but they have all gone now and I find myself without pension or reference. I have had in mind to leave Missouri and the advertised position is just what I want.
I am not what anyone would call a fair cook. I am excellent. I am also extremely tidy and not afraid of hard work. I must have the run of the kitchen without interference, and every Sunday off. I will not share a bedroom, and any sewing or mending you may require will incur additional fees. If my terms are acceptable to you I can begin as soon as the tenth of May. Please advise. Stella McMurray

The rancher read the letter a second time.

I am not a fair cook. I am excellent. His stomach growled.

He looked up at the postmaster’s wife. “Got a pen and paper?”

“Of course,” she said at once.


Rapidly the rancher composed a response, stuffed it in an envelope, and made it out to the Missouri address at the bottom of Mrs. McMurray’s letter. “Throw these away, would you?” he said, pushing the other papers back across the counter without even looking at them.

“Yes, of course,” Mrs. Dillon said again.

“And mail this for me.”

“Certainly,” she said, blushing once more for reasons he could not divine.

The rancher tucked the letter from Missouri into his pocket, slapped some coins onto the counter and touched the brim of his hat briefly in farewell.

Chapter One

Stella knew that it was unwise to dwell too long on the unfairness of loss or look too hard for the logic in tragedy, so she did neither. There were chores to be done, and that was a better use of her time. 

“I’m going to sell my father’s house,” she had told Dr. Browning after her father’s funeral. It had been kind of him to attend, but then, Michael McMurray had been one of his best customers. “Will it be all right if it takes me a few weeks to settle your bill?”

“It’s already been settled,” he had replied, patting her hand. “You have nothing to worry about. But you may as well sell the house when you’re ready, as it doesn’t look like you’ll be needing it.”

He had looked significantly across the churchyard at Phineas Whitcomb. Stella had murmured something noncommittal and moved away from the doctor, but she had been startled by his offhanded certainty.

Her skin crawled every time she thought of it. For a week she ignored a certain bouquet of white lilies, cleaned the house even though it wasn’t dirty, ate regular meals even though she wasn’t hungry, and worked in the little vegetable garden even though she probably wouldn’t live there anymore come harvest time.

Eventually the white lilies wilted and one of the helpful neighbor ladies threw them away.

But she could not ignore Phineas Whitcomb forever. He stopped by the little house one day at noon, and Stella met him politely at the door. “Good afternoon, Mr. Whitcomb.” 

“My dear. How are you holding up?” he asked, looking her over sharply. “Have you been well? You look pale.”

In his late forties, he was tall and broad shouldered but carried a bit of a paunch around the middle. As an investor he had seen moderate success, and he liked to wear fancy suits and shiny shoes and talk like an aristocrat. His hair was gray but thick and healthy, and he would probably never bald.

“I’m fine, thank you,” she replied firmly. “I wanted to speak with you about the doctor bills. What you did was generous but you shouldn’t have done it, and I want to pay you back.”

“Well, now that you mention it, there is one way you can pay me back.”

She ignored the innuendo. “I’m selling the house.”

He smiled. “Then you don’t know.”

At that moment she could imagine nothing that would have annoyed her more than having to ask, “What don’t I know?” But he was waiting for her to ask it, so she did.

“Your father mortgaged the house to me,” he explained, with that same gentle smile.

This was a blow, but such a small blow compared to other recent ones that Stella merely said, “I see.”

“I’m so glad,” he murmured, his smile broadening. “Then everything is settled. Invite me in, won’t you, lovely Stella?”

“I’m alone. It wouldn’t be appropriate.”

“What difference could it make now?” he wondered. “We have a wedding to plan. For you may rest assured it’s marriage I’m offering.”

“I don’t intend to marry you,” she said, stepping back to close the door. “Good day, Mr. Whitcomb.”

His foot prevented her, and his pale blue eyes met her golden ones. Gone was the humorous gleam. “Your father didn’t make a single payment to me in six months,” he informed her, “and I paid for both funerals, too. Besides, I told him that I would take care of you when he died.”

“No doubt he meant something more along the lines of a guardian,” she said coolly. “Not that I need one of those, either.”

“We’ll be married on Saturday,” he informed her with perfect calm. “And you won’t come back to this little shack. Use the rest of this week to prepare. Pack up anything that holds sentimental value for you, buy whatever items you need and have the bill sent to my office.”

She shoved at the door but it wouldn’t budge.

“On Saturday morning at eight o’clock,” he said, very softly, “you will be ready and waiting, in a pretty new dress, and not one word of argument will I hear. Is that understood?”

“I’m not marrying you,” she said through her teeth, succeeding at last in removing his foot from her threshold–because he let her–and shutting the door in his face.

“Charming, as always,” came his affable praise. “I don’t doubt you’ll be an excellent little wife, although I expect there will be an adjustment period. Until Saturday, my beauty.”

Stella thought it best not to respond, but she was shaken. Saturday was three days away.

What would happen when the day arrived and she refused to go with him? A minister of God would hardly conduct a wedding against the bride’s wishes.

The simple answer was for her to be long gone by Saturday.

She went out the back door and crossed the yard to knock on her neighbors’ open kitchen door. 

Mrs. Filipov heard her story in silence, and then stated unequivocally, “You burn house.”

“I–what?” Stella faltered.

“Pretty young thing. Whitcomb, he do not give you up so easy. My Ivan, he give you pig from butcher shop, dead pig. Big one. You put pig in your bed, kerosene all around, burn house. They find pig body, look like maybe girl body. Whitcomb, he not look for you after that.”

“I can’t burn the house!” Stella cried, torn between indignation and laughter. “The whole street could go up. Someone could die.” 

Mrs. Filipov looked stubborn. “It is good plan.”

“Well, we agree that I can’t marry him,” Stella said diplomatically.

The woman nodded. “Stay away from Whitcomb.”

“Yes. I want to move out of that house right away. But I thought I could live here, just until I find work. I would help you, and you don’t have to pay me. He can’t make me marry him if I’m not living in his house anymore.”

“Stella,” Mrs. Filipov said gravely. “Whitcomb, he find you here in one minute. You owe rent money, six months money, he can go to police. You go to jail. You want to get out of jail? You marry him, he get you out.”

“He wouldn’t do that.”

Mrs. Filipov raised an eyebrow and made no response.

“He might do that,” Stella allowed. “But I don’t know where else to go on such short notice. It takes time to find a suitable live-in position. Where can a woman go?”

“West,” Mrs. Filipov said, tossing her a newspaper page full of job listings. “Not enough woman in West. You get good job, find good husband.”

“I can’t really go out West alone,” Stella protested wistfully, looking over the paper.  “It’s too dangerous.”

“Dangerous here, too,” the older woman said dryly.

Stella had known that her father was dying for a long time, and she had expected that she would not want to go on living in the house once he was gone–it contained far too many memories. But her plan had hinged on her best friend Paige–Paige, who had married last fall, and made Stella promise to come live with her. Paige had moved to Denver for Eli’s new job, and no one had heard from her since. Whether she were still living in Denver or even still living was anyone’s guess.

“I had hoped that Paige would write by now.”

“No good to hope.”

“I know. I answered one of these ‘help wanted’ ads once, you know. It was in the Denver newspaper. My father had gotten suddenly worse–after Daniel died, you know–and I thought, ‘It won’t be long now, and I can’t just do nothing and wait for Paige.’ There was a girls’ school in want of a cook, and I wrote this fancy letter about what a good cook I am, and how I’ll need my Sundays off and require this and that–not just a common housemaid, you see. Someone who knows her worth. I thought it was quite good. And I imagined that I could work there while I look for Paige and Eli.”

“No answer from school?”

“No. It’s been two months, so I suppose they’ve already found someone. I wish now I had answered a dozen of those ads, or a hundred.” 

“No good to wish,” Mrs. Filipov pointed out.

“I know.”

But Stella wished fervently for a letter from Paige. And she hoped that every woman and girl who was brave enough to go out West in response to newspaper ads wound up happy somewhere, being paid well for honest work. But there was no guarantee of that, and until now she had never understood how anyone could justify taking such an enormous risk.

Now she understood. Desperation was not as far off as it used to be, and the ads from the territories were looking better and better.

Determined to exhaust every avenue, she put her bonnet on and went to call upon the women of her acquaintance, telling each of them how she was obliged to move out of her home and asking humbly if she could stay with them for a short while in exchange for labor.

The first, an old schoolmate of hers with three young children, said regretfully that she had no room in the house and could not afford another mouth to feed; the second, a new bride, said simply that her husband would never allow it; and the third, an old friend of the family who had called on her three times since the funeral, only laughed nervously and wished she could help. It went on like this all afternoon.

Mrs. Filipov had suggested that this would be a waste of time, but Stella had been optimistic. Now she felt she was missing something obvious.

“Pretty young thing,” Mrs. Filipov said to her again, when she went next door looking for sympathy.

It was not meant as a compliment, Stella could tell. The words were spoken with regret. “What do you mean?”

“Pretty girl clean floor, wash pots, go home? Yes. Pretty girl live in house? No. Make trouble with husbands, sons.”

Stella considered this to be a very jaded viewpoint that explained everything. “Is that why you don’t want me, either?”

Mrs. Filipov gave one of her rare, wheezing laughs. Then she rose and gathered the dishes. “Go West, pretty girl.”

But Stella went instead to the church she had grown up in, three blocks away, and asked the priest if he knew of anyone needing a live-in cook, maid or nursemaid. Father Kelly was optimistic that the perfect situation would present itself, and in the meantime, Stella was welcome to stay in the spare room at the home of his spinster sister, Miss Mary Kathleen.

Feeling as lighthearted as a girl possibly could only a few weeks after burying her beloved father, Stella hurried home to tell Mrs. Filipov the good news, gather her things, and give the lonely little house one last tidying up.

The old Russian woman was not as enthusiastic as she might have been, and pointed out that Miss Mary Kathleen lived only a few blocks down and that Father Kelly was acquainted with Phineas Whitcomb. But she allowed that it might do for the immediate future, when Stella had so little time to make her escape.

Stella let herself back into the quiet house and set her mother’s old carpetbag on the bed. She packed all of her clothes, because there weren’t many and she wouldn’t be able to buy more for some time, the family Bible because it had several generations of McMurrays listed inside the cover, and the delicate little silver watch with a wristband of black velvet ribbon, its face cracked, because, aside from the carpetbag, it was all she had of her mother’s. She also packed her box of bulbs and seeds, in case she ever had a garden again.

Night had fallen when she heard a loud knock.

“Stella, let me in,” Phineas Whitcomb ordered, and for once he sounded nothing like an aristocrat. 

“No,” she called. “Go away!”

He began to pound on the door then, so violently that the sturdy frame shuddered visibly and the wood began to crack.

She implored him frantically to stop what he was doing, but a moment later the door gave way and a very angry Phineas Whitcomb charged into the house.

“What’s this I hear about you moving in with the priest’s sister, eh?” he demanded, and without waiting for a response struck her across the mouth with the back of his hand.

“Didn’t I explain that you’ll be marrying me on Saturday in a pretty new dress? Didn’t I tell you that, you stupid, silly little fool? How do you think I felt when I stopped by the rectory to arrange for my wedding and was told that you’d been asking everyone in town where you could get work as a maid? How do you think that made me look, huh?”

An urgent knock came at the back door. “Stella, you come quick? My Ivan, he had bad fall. Can’t get him up. Stella!”

Phineas Whitcomb uttered a racial slur against Russians, but the interruption had brought him to his senses. He said coldly, “You have a lot to learn. But you will learn–and the sooner you do, the safer you’ll be.”

He slammed the front door as he left, although it bounced back open.

Stella went to open the back door.

In rushed Mrs. Filipov. She turned Stella’s face to the lamp and surveyed the damage to her cheek and lip. “Not bad,” she pronounced, without much conviction, and her eyes went to the broken door. 

“I’m ready to go West,” Stella said ruefully.

Buy now on Amazon! Read for free with Kindle Unlimited.