Receiving Aunt Julia’s letter had been like a beacon of hope to her in more ways than one. Her aunt’s generous gift had paid for her travel expenses. With no more than the clothes on her back, she had left Baltimore to begin what she hoped would be a new life in the west.
She refolded the letter and stuffed it back into the envelope. She removed her hat and loosed her dark brown tendrils from the tight bun at the back of her head. Eying her bedding, she wondered when the linens were last changed. Without taking off her clothes, she reclined on top of the bed covers. In spite of the noise of passing trains, she somehow managed to fall asleep.
Early the next day, Annabelle boarded a different train en route to a town called Yankton in the southern Dakota Territory. She wasn’t far into the journey when she began to feel as if she’d left civilization behind her. The small towns that passed by her view from the window seemed to sit isolated in the middle of open plains—land that seemed to go on into infinity. No wonder it takes days to traverse it, she thought.
The wail of the whistle and the slow jerking of the train as it came to a stop roused Annabelle from her reverie. “All off for Yankton,” the porter called out. She stood on legs made wobbly from sitting for hours and followed several other passengers out of the car. She glanced around at the good-sized town with modern buildings that served as the Dakota territorial capital. The hotel and restaurant across the street from the depot appeared to be quite nice, but she hoped that she would only have to stay a short time before she continued on her journey.
She walked toward the ticket office. A tall man, wearing a badge, emerged from the depot and held the door for her. He removed his hat and raked his fingers through his sandy blonde hair. His steel blue eyes met hers.
“Ma’am,” he said with a tilt of his head.
Nodding in return, she let her gaze take in the sight of him. The brown canvas pants he wore caressed his muscular thighs. His knee-length brown coat and dark vest accentuated his strong build. She hadn’t meant to stare, but she’d never seen such rugged and raw masculinity—not in her privileged, sheltered world back east. She continued to watch him as he mounted a horse and rode off at a gallop.