When Eliska Spencer opens a bakery in Pikes Run with her friends, Cora Ann Carter and Sugar Fremont, no one suspects the women aren’t what they seem.
Jonas Boswell is enchanted by Sugar Fremont. He fights the attraction, not wanting to risk his heart after experiencing the death of his first wife. Falling in love again has never seemed possible or safe. But then Sugar appears with her bouncing, red curls and shining, blue eyes, and he is lost.
Thomas Miller gives females a wide berth. After living with three sisters, he finds women frustrating and irritating. And Cora Ann Carter is no exception. However, her feisty nature and bold curves draw him in until he doesn’t recognize himself. It’s all he can do not to drag her down the aisle.
Reverend Thurston Black had his heart broken many years ago. He swore off women and made his flock his priority. Then Eliska Spencer crosses his path. She is kind. And gentle. And giving. His heart melts, and he is powerless against her. He vows to make her his own.
But the ladies’ past looms, invading their future and stealing their happiness. All the women want is to love and be loved. Can they achieve their dreams, or will the men in their lives prove too stubborn to forgive their past?
Glass exploded over Sugar Fremont’s head. She screamed and threw up her arms for protection but kept running. Heat licked at her back as smoke burned her eyes and shards of window pane pierced her skin.
Women, some still in satin and black lace, ran in front of her, tumbling over each other as they raced for the backdoor. Through gray clouds of life-sucking smoke, Sugar saw light. With a cry of exultation, she stumbled into the morning air. Someone knocked her to the ground, and rocks cut into her skin as they rent a hole in her nightgown at the knee.
Another glass pane exploded above her, and she shoved to her feet. Panicked tears overtook her. Sobbing, she staggered farther away from the burning structure. When she reached the outhouse, a safe distance away, she whipped around. Her heart flew into her throat at the sight before her eyes.
The Twisted Fairy was ablaze, consumed by flames yearning to swallow it whole. How had she managed to escape its fierce, howling force?
The wails of the females surrounding her pulled her attention from the disintegrating wood. She scanned the familiar faces, looking for the ones she held dearer than the others. When her sweet friends were not in her line of sight, desperation gripped her.
“Cora!” she cried, as she shoved through the women huddled near the outhouse. “Eliska!”
She called their names over and over as she stumbled through the mass of people that had begun to gather. Her breath came harshly, and dizziness assailed her.
“Cora!” she screamed again, looking frantically through the horrified onlookers. Her desperate tears worked against her, obscuring her vision. She swiped at them roughly as she began to run.
Before she got to the shed, a hand clutched her shoulder. She whipped around and found frantic blue eyes looking back. “Cora!” Sugar cried, as she pulled her friend into a tight embrace.
After a fierce hug, Cora put her hands on Sugar’s upper arms and forced her to look at her. “Where is Eliska?” Cora demanded.
Sugar shook her head as she choked on her fright.
Her friend didn’t need a response other than that. Cora turned and examined the building, her features drawn in tight lines. She grabbed Sugar’s hand and tugged. “Come on,” she ordered.
They hurried back to the burning establishment. Cora called for their missing friend, her voice strong and without a tremble. It was as if she expected the force of her tone would make the fire spit out Eliska.
Cora skidded to a stop when the strength of the heat allowed them to travel no farther. A curse flew from her lips.
Sugar pressed trembling fingers to her mouth as the urge to wail came over her. She prayed. She’d never done so before, but this day, this moment, she had to. It didn’t matter that God had forgotten her. She prayed.
Suddenly, a chair blasted through a downstairs window. Cora and Sugar jumped back. A female form shot out without gripping the jagged edges and tumbled to the ground.
Cora dropped Sugar’s hand and ran forward. “Eliska!” she shouted.
Relief so acute shot through Sugar that she crumpled to the dirt. On her hands and knees, she watched the wheezing, gasping form that was her sweet friend. Cora pulled Eliska’s arm around her neck to support her. They staggered away from the fire.
Sugar stood slowly, and when the pair reached her, she put her arms around both of them. “I thought you were dead,” she choked out. “I thought you were gone forever.”
Through her coughing, Eliska said, “I had to get our money.”
The statement forced Sugar’s eyes closed. “No amount of money is worth losing your life.”
Eliska broke their embrace. “And I was not made, nor were either of you, to die in this place.”
The strength of Eliska’s tone dried Sugar’s tears. Her friend was right. Silence reigned in their tight circle for a few moments as the fire roared behind them.
Men were running around, barking out orders. There was a line of people handing pails of water forward in some desperate attempt to save what never should have existed. In a man’s eyes, Sugar supposed, the Twisted Fairy was worth the effort. For herself, she would let it burn to ash. The building stood on the outskirts of town; no other business was in danger of catching fire.
The women broke apart, and they turned as one to watch the flames consume their former prison. The sight only made Sugar rejoice inwardly with righteous revenge.
“We’re leaving,” Eliska announced. “Now. Right now.”
Sugar whipped to gaze at her. “We’re in our nightgowns.”
“We’ll buy clothes,” Eliska said, her tone laced with a conviction Sugar knew all too well.
“The timing is ripe,” Cora put in. “Lou Ellen can’t leave this in order to stop us.”
Sugar searched the crowd for the Madame. “Where is she?”
“I don’t care,” Cora spat. “But I hope we cross her path as we go. I want her to watch me cast her off like yesterday’s bath water.”
Eliska turned on a heel. “Come on.”
But Sugar’s feet wouldn’t move. She continued to watch the fire eat the building in which she’d lived since the day of her birth. She swallowed. She wanted to leave. She did.
So why couldn’t she command her feet to go?
A hand gripped her elbow and tugged lightly. It seemed it was all the encouragement she needed. For, while the wood now turning to ash had been her home for twenty years, the women leaving it were more important to her than anything else.
Sugar matched their brisk pace, not turning around when a loud crack sounded from behind.
Suddenly, a hated voice cried out, “Where in the hell are you girls going?”
The three women picked up the pace.
“Are you leaving me?” the woman screeched. “After all I’ve done for you?”
The women linked fingers and started to run.
A roar rent the air, then something hit the ground behind them. It clattered. A tin can.
“You’ll regret this!” the woman vowed. “Do you hear me? I’ll find y’all and make you wish you’d never walked out on Lou Ellen Berkley!”
The buildings of town were ahead, promising freedom and new beginnings.
Tears smarted Sugar’s eyes, and now she let go of her friends and churned her legs faster than Cora or Eliska.
“You’ll rue the day you left me, your own mother!”
Wetness slid over Sugar’s cheeks, but she didn’t dare turn around. She had no doubt Lou Ellen could make her life a living Hell, but her mother would have to find her first.
Kara O’Neal has a love of reading that prompted a writing career. The first book she fell in love with was Little Women, and the first series was Little House on the Prairie. She likes stories where love and hope are the center and prefers happy endings. She lives her own version of a “happily ever after” with her husband and three children, and extensive family and friends. She and her husband make their home in the Lone Star state and spend their time traveling, rooting for their favorite sports teams, and making memories with their children.