BOOK EXCERPT: Sweet Serenity by Catherine Stang

Fleeing the prospect of a brutal marriage, Serenity Springfield, needs a safe haven. Widower Collin MacClarron needs a mother for his four rambunctious daughters. Fate and a meddling grandmother bring them together, but will Serenity's secrets tear them apart?

Unedited Excerpt from Sweet Serenity

By Catherine Stang

Western Historical

The late afternoon sun beat down unmercifully on Collin MacClarron as he
stood with the crowd at the train platform. A blast of hot, dry wind
sent dust flying all around him. He pulled off his black Stetson, wiping
the gritty sweat from his forehead. His shoulder throbbed with the
movement. It had a long ways to go before it was totally healed. His
body was still weak from the fever following the bullet the doctor had
pulled out of him a little over a week ago. He should have sent someone
else to pick them up, but he couldn't risk his daughters' safety
to just anybody. Besides, he missed his bairns so much he couldn't
bear the thought of not greeting them at the station.

"Expecting someone, MacClarron?" Sheriff Wallis's deep voice
rumbled beside him.

Collin looked over at his old friend. He thought himself tall at
six-two, but Wallis towered over him by a good three or four inches. It
was murmured around town that if Wallis's sharp shooting skills
didn't scare outlaws away, his sheer size would.

His tall, bulky friend pulled out a cheroot from his vest pocket.
"Can't imagine what else would bring you to town on a perfectly
good work day."

Collin chuckled at how well Wallis knew him. "My girls and Rose are
comin'. You?" He motioned his head towards the train.

"Nope," Wallis replied in a cloud of smoke. "Just checking
things out. Been…what?" He scratched his brown beard.
"Almost two years since your girls were here?"

"Somethin' like that," Collin mumbled, hating the censure he
knew was unintentionally in Wallis's tone. They had argued the night
Collin decided to send his girls home with Rose. It had been a difficult
decision, but the only one he could make under the circumstances. If it
hadn't been for Wallis's friendship, though, he never would have
made it through the lonely years.

The train's mournful whistle sent the crowd into a frenzy. Black
smoke billowed up as the engine rumbled towards them. Collin could feel
the ground tremble. Anticipation gnawed at his gut. All around him,
people pushed to get closer to the arriving passengers.

As the door slid open, he held an eager breath. The conductor got off,
snapping shut his pocket watch. A tall redhead descended, followed by a
bald, older gentleman. At last Collin saw his Greta's familiar
golden curls. How she had grown! She was no longer the wobbly toddler he
so fondly remembered. That knowledge made his throat tighten with
sadness. God, what precious time he had missed.

His body protested as he knelt, holding his arms open for Greta and
Cherise as they she came bounding down the wooden platform, their
petticoats flying, to greet him.

Pain ripped through his shoulder as Cherise flung herself into his
waiting arms. But that was nothing compared to the pain in his closely
guarded heart. Greta watched them with rounded eyes and a thumb in her
mouth. She didn't recognize him, Collin realized with a jolt. As he
savored holding Cherise, he wished Greta would allow him to hug her,

Over the top of Cherise's head, he saw Alisha helping a limping
Emily. It stunned him to see Alisha was fast becoming a young woman.
While she still had parts of the impish child, she had blossomed.

He smiled at how well Emily had recovered. Despite her uneven gait, she
had made a great deal of progress with the help of those doctors back
east. He almost burst with pride watching them hurry toward him. He had
missed out on so much of their lives. How could he ever let them leave

"Oh, Papa, it's so good to see you!" Emily shouted. "Hi,
Sheriff Wallis." She turned, beaming up at Wallis.

"Hello, Emily." Collin's voice was hoarse with emotion.

She graced him with a warm smile, too.

"Hi, tidbit." Wallis patted her head. "I'm gonna have to
stay alert now that the MacClarron minxes are back."

Collin chortled, thinking of all the trouble his girls had found to get
into during the days following his wife's and daughter's
funeral. Thanks to Wallis's quick actions, a horse hadn't
trampled Emily when she fell from the hayloft. The memory still chilled

Greta pointed at him and said, "Ouch." She shivered and her
cute, round face wrinkled up with concern.

"She wants to know where you hurt," Cherise interpreted.

Collin stared, unable to speak for a moment. His daughters had almost
completely lost their accents. They sounded like strangers. What stunned
him was that Gran had discussed his injury with them. How had she known
about that unless Wallis, despite his protests, had wired her? Wallis
shrugged under his questioning look.

It warmed him that they still cared enough to worry. Of course they
would. You're their father. But sometimes he wondered how much the
two years of separation had affected their feelings toward him.

"Why canna she ask me—" Collin started, but Emily interrupted.

"What happened to Papa, Sheriff Wallis? Grandma Rose said that we
didna need to know all the lurid details."

Sheriff Wallis laughed at Emily's perfect imitation of her
grandmother's burr.

"He was helping me chase bank robbers." Wallis leaned down to
talk to Emily. He tugged teasingly on a dark braid. "Remind me, and
I'll tell you the whole lurid story at dinner. That is, if I'm

Collin groaned as Cherise's and Emily's eyes sparkled with
excitement. They always did love Wallis's highly exaggerated

"Really…you caught bank robbers?" Cherise asked.

"I sure did." Wallis's chest puffed out and he hooked his
thumbs in his belt loops. "Got those rascals locked up in my jail,
waiting for a deputy marshal to come and retrieve them."

"I gots a sore finger from the sleeping car," Greta said, after
pulling her thumb out of her mouth. She timidly held up her swollen

Emily rolled her eyes, tossing back her braids. "It happened two
days ago, goose. Papa doesn't want to hear about that."

"I do, too." Collin bent to take Greta's small hand in his.
His gaze held her surprised one when he kissed her injured pinkie. He
wished he could have been there to wipe away her tears. "I wanna
hear everything." He ruffled Greta's bouncy curls, relieved when
she returned his smile.

They all began talking at once, making it impossible to follow any of
the fragmented conversations. Their familiar pattern of interrupting
each other amused Collin.

"I play the pianoforte now," Cherise announced with pride.

Emily pulled on his hand. "I can walk without my cane." She
whirled around slowly. "See, Papa?"

"So?" Alisha snapped, frowning.

Above their heads, he saw Rose coming toward them, her arm wrapped
around a petite blonde.

Wallis whistled tonelessly beside him. "Hoppin' horny toads!
Who's that with Mrs. MacClarron?"

"Our new governess," Emily said.

"Think you can adopt me?" Wallis replied before Collin could put
an elbow in his ribs.

Rose and her companion moved slowly through the crowd. His heart
constricted. Gran looked older this time. He hadn't ever thought of
her that way before. She had raised him after his parents died. The
woman was his rock.

His eyes met the lady whose arm Gran held. She stood slightly taller
than Rose. A heavy black mourning dress swallowed up her gentle curves.
A matching bonnet covered most of her golden ringlets, but he could
still see her animated oval face, with its pert nose and full pink lips.
Sparkling sapphire eyes framed by soft, thick lashes blinked back at him
from under golden brows. Her face radiated warmth as she hung on
Rose's every word.

"Well, Collin, I've come all this way. Are you gonna greet
me?" Rose spread her arms open wide. Her snapping green eyes defied
him to say he hadn't invited them. She knew damn well how he felt,
and her expression told him so. Now she challenged him to make the next
move. The words froze in his throat.

When he didn't respond right away, she turned her attention to
Sheriff Wallis. "Hello, Sheriff." Rose gifted Wallis with a
smile. "Still keepin' the town safe, I see. My, how it has
bloomed. I was surprised that the train stops here now. It didna the
last time I came. I dinna miss that bumpy stagecoach ride, mind

"Yes, ma'am." Wallis tipped his white Stetson.
"We're right proud that Dry Gulch was selected for a stopping
point. We aim to keep it that way, so all our beautiful ladies can
arrive in comfort. It's good to have you back, Mrs. MacClarron."

Rose tweaked Wallis's cheek. "Rascal. You always could make me

"Wallis has a way with women, all right. Has them lined up along the
street. In fact, I see one now." Collin pointed off in the distance.
"Isna that the Widow Darcy? Thought you promised to help load lumber
in her wagon."

"Yoo-hoo, Sheriff!" A bubbly, red-haired lady waved at Wallis
from the other end of the platform.

Wallis's tanned cheeks colored. "Gotta go. Duty calls."

Collin laughed as Wallis strolled off toward the sawmill with
Darcy's arm linked in his. He pulled Rose into a fierce embrace. She
felt so small and fragile nestled against his broad chest.

Stepping back, he swallowed hard, trying to regain his composure.
"I'm glad to see you, Gran," Collin said, his voice rough
with emotion. "I'm just amazed you came. The telegram dinna give
me much time to change your mind."

She patted his stubbly cheek. "That was the point, Collin, my
boy." Her voice faltered as she pushed a wayward strand of silver
hair behind her ear.

"This is my companion, Serenity Springfield." Rose motioned at
the slender woman dressed in somber clothes. He immediately wondered for
whom she grieved. His heart went out to her. Losing a loved one was
never easy.

He extended his hand, taking her black-leather-gloved one in his large,
calloused one. It felt delicate in his firm grip. Her cheeks turned a
light pink. The effect was endearing. Serenity reminded him of fresh air
and sunshine.

"This is my stubborn grandson and the wee lasses' father, Collin

"I'm pleased to meet you, Mr. MacClarron. Your grandmother has
told me so much about you," Serenity replied in a soft, cultured
voice that held a slight British accent. Her fingers gently squeezed
his. In her gaze, Collin read the sincerity of her words.

For the life of him, Collin couldn't make himself release her hand.
It felt so right in his. She had such dainty wrists and arms. The
knowledge Rose would be watching over this gentle beauty seemed oddly

Rose cleared her throat loudly, stepping between the two of them,
breaking the spell. "I'm glad to see I havena lost all my
wits." She rubbed her hands together. His girls giggled. "I can
see the lass appeals to you."

Collin forced his gaze away from Serenity, wondering what his
grandmother was up to. Appeals to me? What the hell did that mean? The
self-assured look on Gran's face made him nervous. A knot formed in
the pit of his stomach.

"Aye, the lass isna hard on the eyes," Collin teased
half-heartedly, trying to lighten the mood. He winked at Serenity, who
blushed an even deeper shade of red.

"Good, then my request willna be too difficult," Rose went on,
her voice growing stronger. "You owe me a favor, Collin." She
wagged the famous finger. "I kept your secret and helped you out all
those years ago. Now I'm calling in my debt."

Collin shifted uneasily. His girls were staring at him with an
expectation of something—he wasn't sure of what—sparkling in
their eyes. What ever it was, Gran was behind it. He had no doubt of

Saying no to Gran was next to impossible for him. She had comforted him
the night he'd brought news that his brother had been lost at sea.
Gramps had railed at him, but not Gran. It had been his fault, but Gran
never accused him. She had just listened as he poured his heart out.

In the years that followed, Gran had never mentioned the money she gave
him to start his farm, or how her moral support had swayed his
grandfather into letting him leave the family shipping business. He owed
her more than he could ever repay.

His girls all stared expectantly at him.

"You know I'd do anythin' for you, Gran. What is it you

"I want you to marry Serenity," Rose said in a tone that brooked
no arguments.

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