A tale as old as time. A Love as unique and unexpected as theirs. How long will they need to realize that true beauty lies within?
Sarah Langley is a kind-hearted beautiful woman that would do anything to protect her family and save their small farm. Even though she recently lost her beloved mother, Sarah insists on smiling and believing that better days will come. Despite her innocent character, as a new mail order bride she will soon find out that good people can do bad things. Like her new husband. Will she silence the echoes of his past and trust him?
Christopher Norris is a distant, wounded rancher. He wishes to live secluded and he made sure he had enough money to do that. Even though people fear and respect him, he never turns his back on anyone in need. Especially now that he needs to act upon his greatest and most feared desire, to create a truly loving family. Will he ever realize that there is an honest and loving person in the world, and he is married to her?
When the truth about Christopher’s past comes to light, he will have to open up to her. Sarah will have to face the ultimate test and trust her heart. How can Sarah and Christopher set everything aside and let their love grow?
Copper Crossing, Wyoming
The sun shone resplendently overhead, its warm orange glow cast like a blanket over Christopher Norris’ ranch. The cool wind blew softly through the vibrant green fields that stretched for miles, tussling with the blades of grass and creating a pleasant noise like the churning of an incoming tide. It was a serene morning, the sheer definition of pleasant. The breeze passing worked perfectly in tandem with the warmth of the sun to leave one feeling instilled with optimism.
The sounds of hoof beats began rumbling off in the distance on the edge of the ranch, approaching the forested area that covered ten acres and was cordoned off by wooden fencing that stood eight feet high. It was meant to discourage any unwanted visitors from trespassing on the lands of a man who preferred peace and quiet to any kind of human interaction. That man was Christopher Norris, coming toward the fence on horseback with perhaps the only other person in all of the state that Norris made even the slightest effort to maintain a shred of a relationship with—Hank Austin.
The two men rode side-by-side, passing several “No Trespassing” signs that were peppered throughout the ranch. Norris had made it a point to erect the fencing and the signs the day he won the ranch during a noteworthy poker hand he had played against the former owner just three years ago. He was always eager to keep himself at a distance from gambling houses: the places that offered him the only solace he had experienced in perhaps all of us life.
Norris and Hank came to a stop just outside the forest. Hank rubbed the back of his neck and grunting as he tightened his grip on the reins. He was a ginger-haired man, with a perpetual smile, who looked like no more than twenty-two years of age, when in fact he was twenty-seven.
“That damned mattress of mine,” Hank said. “I swear, I’ve been waking up with knots in my neck every morning, Christopher.”
Norris tilted up his hat with his index finger, adjusting his thin but sinewy frame clad in a leather jacket, and flashing the wryest of smiles to Hank as he removed the toothpick dangling on his lower lip. Norris was a ruggedly good-looking man; his raven-colored hair, piercing blue eyes, and sharp jawline instilled desire in pretty much every woman he came across. But Norris didn’t relish their regard. He was aware of the fact that he was good-looking, but it didn’t mean much to him. And he was surprised that the scar tracing from the lobe of his right ear down to his chin seemed more appealing than it did off-putting to the members of the fairer sex. But he also exuded a raw, stern quality so that, though his looks drew people toward him—the moment they came face-to-face with him, fear and uncertainty was struck into their hearts. He was a rebel, an outlaw, a man not to be trifled with; stories having been told about him on a daily basis that pushed any who briefly entertained the thought of taking pleasure in his company farther away.
“Don’t say it,” Norris said to Hank. “I know what you’re getting at.”
Hank placed his hand on his chest. “I’m not getting at anything, good buddy.”
Norris wagged his finger. “Yes, you are. You’re trying to prod me so that I’ll head into town and waste money on some kind of featherbed mattress as an excuse to converse with the townsfolk.”
Hank shrugged. “I’d prefer sleeping in my own home, quite frankly. But I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t trying to get you to stretch your legs and actually talk to another live human being. I can’t be your only friend, you know.”
“You’re not my friend,” Norris said with a smirk. “I don’t even like you all that much.”
Hank leaned in toward Norris. “And you’re near intolerable. You know that?”
The two men shared a laugh. Norris was not much on humor, but if anyone was able to make him crawl out of his shell and elicit a slight laughter, it was Hank. Norris had initially crossed paths with the loyal sap when he put up a notice in town asking for an able-bodied man looking for a good chunk of change to help him erect the barn on the property. Hank responded immediately to the bulletin, showing up unannounced the next day on Norris’ ranch and being greeted by a double-barreled shotgun, held by Norris on the front porch.
“Just don’t shoot me in the face,” Hank said at the time, holding his hands high in the sky. “My momma would probably prefer an open casket.”
Norris couldn’t help but laugh. It helped break the ice, and three years and dozens of home projects later, Hank was still by his side. Still around. Still able to breathe a little bit of life into Norris’ preferred style of reclusiveness. For Norris, Hank pretty much served as his only link to the real world, his companionship akin to that of a loyal dog’s, though Norris would never say such a thing to Hank’s face.
Jutting his chin toward the fencing standing twenty yards ahead, Norris said, “Fence in sagging in about four places. We’ll need to chop some wood and get it fixed before winter. Snow is supposed to hit us pretty hard, and that thing will give way after a couple of days. I don’t want people or critters spilling in here if that happens.”
“Maybe it’ll be a good thing,” Hank responded. “You’ll make new friends. Maybe one of the townsfolk, maybe a talking squirrel you can go on adventures with, who knows?”
Norris rolled his eyes. “Are you still on that same subject? God in heaven, Hank. Give it a rest.”
“No, I mean it. I’m starting to get concerned about you, buddy.”
“I’m doing just fine, thank you.”
Hank shifted his weight. “Oh, yeah? Then tell me something: when’s the last time you stepped foot off the property?”
Eight months, Norris’ mind gibbered. Eight months and three days. “Why does it matter?” he asked.
“Because being cooped up with just me isn’t the healthiest way to live.”
“We’ve got things to do around here. I don’t have time to go gallivanting around and making new friends.”
“Oh, please,” Hank huffed. “We’ve finished up all the major projects in the past three weeks. You’ve got nothing but time on your hands now.”
“Then what’s your brilliant suggestion, old friend? A night out on the town? We dress up like a pair of socialites and go about attending some aristocrat’s dinner party?”
Hank shrugged. “Hey, you got the money. It’s not like you have to want for anything, nowadays.”
Norris waved his hand dismissively. He knew he had money. It had been sheer happenstance that it turned out that way. He wasn’t the product of a rich family or tycoon who spread their wealth to blood relatives throughout the generations. He was a working man, one who had a modest upbringing, a man who simply rolled the dice one day and got lucky.
“Let it be, Hank,” Norris said, eager to reestablish silence. “I don’t want to talk about this anymore.”
Norris turned his horse away from Hank’s, surveying the fencing as an excuse to grant himself distance from the conversation—but he knew Hank was not going to abide by his wishes.
“I’m not going to let this down,” Hank said, riding after Norris. “It’s no good. You can’t be alone here all the time, and I can’t be the only person serving as your connection to the world.”
“It works out in my favor.”
“Yeah, well, I’m not going to be around forever. You need more friends. Hell, you need a woman, Christopher.”
Norris shook his head. He had been there once already before, and it ended in nothing but disaster. Norris’ fortune had been made in gambling, but it had taken many missteps and misfortunes to get to that place. He had paid the prices for his mistakes several times over, including the time he had to marry the daughter of a wealthy rancher that he owed copious amounts of money to—and the fallout from that rash decision contributed significantly to making him the man he was today.
“No woman can stand me,” Norris said. “That’s just the facts of life.”
Hank rolled his eyes. “Oh, please,” he said with a huff. “Now you’re just feeling sorry for yourself. Again, I’m all for indulging you with some type of soiree to get you out of the house, but it’s sure as heck not going to be that kind.”
“It’s the truth, Hank. I told you I was married before. Didn’t exactly turn out in my favor.”
“Yeah, but you didn’t say much past that.”
“Because it doesn’t warrant any further explanation.”
Hank clenched his fist and held it up playfully. “You’re a real gem, you know that?”
Norris sighed and sucked air through his teeth. “So, I’ve been told …”
Rubbing the bridge of his nose, Hank changed his tone and went about sounding more concerned. “I don’t want to ruffle your feathers,” he said, “but I mean what I say—you need to step foot outside the property, Christopher. Whatever that means. Whatever that looks like.”
Norris turned his horse and faced his buddy. Emotions swirled inside him—concern, guilt, fear. It had been so long since he had any kind of interaction beyond the ones he had with Hank. Being that Hank was one of, if not the best, confidante he had ever allowed into his life, he couldn’t stop himself from being honest with how he felt. “I’m nervous, Hank,” he said, hanging his head slightly. “It’s that simple.”
Hank furrowed his brow. “What do you mean?”
Norris sighed. “I just … I don’t know how to … talk to folks. I really don’t. It’s always been that way, and the more time that passes, the more I don’t see people, the worse it gets. I come over as intimidating, threatening even.”
“Well, you know what the solution to that is, right?”
Norris shook his head—No. Tell me.
“By diving in headfirst,” Hank said. “Putting yourself out there. Breaking the ice. Trying, in so many words.”
Norris grunted. “I’m not good at parties, my friend. Even at my best.”
“I’m not saying you need to dress up and go to Brinkley’s Tavern with all the socialites. Your outing could just be as simple as stopping in town to buy wood for the reinforcements you need to make on the fence and having a conversation with the lumberyard owner. Hell, maybe start by taking down the fences. You don’t need them, and it’s made folks in town hot under the collar because it’s limited the range that nearby cattle can graze through.”
Norris nodded. “The townsfolk aren’t the biggest fans of me, that’s for damn sure.”
“You don’t give yourself enough credit, Christopher. You’re a decent man. Not much to take in looks-wise, but a decent man, nonetheless. You just prefer to put on this display of … I don’t know… gruff, for lack of a better way of putting it.”
Norris laughed again. “Hank, old buddy,” he said. “I don’t know what I’d do without you.”
Hank went to offer another retort—but then a twig snapped ahead of them. Norris cocked his head toward the source of the noise, his eyes turning into slits and his senses on edge. His listening became hypersensitive, his eyes scanning the forested area. He felt like he did back during the war, when anyone and anything served as a potential threat.
“I heard it, too,” Hank said. “Where’s it coming from?”
A second twig snapped, and this time Norris responded by pulling the repeater rifle he had stuffed into the holster hanging by his thigh. Instantly, Norris chambered a round into the rifle, gripped the handle tight, nuzzled the stock into his shoulder, and took aim at something in the distance.
“There he is,” Norris said, closing one eye and curling his finger around the trigger.
Near a sagging part of the fence tracing the property, hunched down near a pair of tall pines, a gaunt man in a tan coat cast a look straight in Hank and Norris’ direction. Hank, his eyes going wide, reached out toward Norris’ arm as Norris squeezed the trigger. A cannon-like reverberation rang out through the property as the round tore up the bark just above the intruder’s head; the intruder threw his hands up and fled but dropped something thick and furry clutched in his right hand.
The smoke cleared as the man ran away. Hank huffed with relief once he saw that Norris’s shot had missed the intruder completely.
“Damn it, Christopher!” Hank hollered. “You almost killed him.”
Norris chambered another round and lowered the rifle as he tracked the man running away. “No, I didn’t,” he said. “I was just trying to scare him off.”
Norris slapped the reins on his horse, still clutching the rifle with one hand as he rode toward the area where the intruder had stood. On the ground lay a pair of dead rabbits, and Norris stuffed the rifle back into its holster, dismounted, and picked the rabbits up. “Looks like we’ve got dinner secured.”
Hank rubbed the back of his neck. “What are you doing, Christopher? Taking pot shots at the townsfolk isn’t exactly going to get you on their good side.”
“I told you, I was just trying to scare him off.”
“You could have hollered at him.”
“How do I know he doesn’t have a gun?”
Hank sighed. “This is what I’m talking about,” he said. “You need to get out of here. I can’t take no for an answer. You’re starting to turn into that surly old man who yells at people to get off of his porch.”
Norris continued watching the intruder flee, the man waving his hands wildly and Norris realizing, based on the color of the man’s coat, that he was one of his nearby neighbors and was most likely doing nothing more than hunting for his noon meal. Oh, rats, he thought. I shouldn’t have done that. Now I’ve got Mr. Langley scared of me, too.
“I know that man,” Norris said, jutting his chin. “Tripp Langley. He lives about a half-mile from here.”
Hank shook his head. “That’s good, boss. I guess we’ll add him to your running list of folks who want nothing to do with you.”
Norris crossed his arms, feeling like the more he tried to embrace solitude, the more that solitude seemed to evade him. Maybe Hank is right. Maybe I do need to stretch my legs for a bit.
“Let me ask you,” he said to Hank. “What would your plan be, in regard to getting me more … integrated with the locals?”
A sliver of a smile flashed across Hank’s face. “I’ll tell you my plan only if you agree to do as I say,” he replied. “Will you do it?”
Norris looked at his friend and squinted. “Within reason …”
Cocking his head, Hank laughed and turned his horse back toward the direction they had come from. “Follow me,” he said. “I think I have a few ideas.”
Hank took off, Norris waiting a beat before following. “Why do I feel that I’m in for a long night?” he said before slapping the reins and starting off.
But there was something that Norris was withholding from Hank, something he had set into motion just a few days prior—an ad he’d placed in the local paper seeking the companionship of a single woman who would be willing to take his hand in marriage.
Sarah Langley was singing. She was always singing. According to her father, Tripp, it was a trait she inherited from her mother—that and her shorter frame, curves, and beaming smile formed by full lips that people tended to gravitate toward whenever she showed it off, which was more often than not.
“Sing that other one,” Sarah’s younger sister Louisa called from the left, on her hands and knees (just like Sarah was) as they tended the modest garden in the front of their family home. “That one that Momma used to sing.”
Sarah smiled, looking up at her younger sibling with big eyes that shone amber. “The one she sang when she was working in the garden?” she asked.
Louisa, who had similar features to that of her sister, nodded and smiled in reply.
Sarah began crooning as she tended the carrot patch; her voice sweet and uplifting. Oh, Lord, she thought. They’re withering away. They’re not getting enough water.
She held up her head, looking around the property and seeing that most of it was starting to decline—the roof of the one-story home painted green and white was sagging. The paint was chipping. The grass that used to cover the entire property was mostly dirt now, and the robust number of livestock they used to have had been depleted to the single scrawny cow behind the picket fence, and looking as if it were on the cusp of death.
Oh, how this land was once resplendent, Sarah thought. So much green. So much love. So much optimism. But those times were long gone. It was as if a plague had swept through the land, wiping out all traces of hope and love, and leaving only a depleted patch of dirt in its wake.
“She’s not long for this world,” Louisa said, Sarah sensing that her sister was lost in thought as she nodded toward the cow. “Is she?”
But Sarah smiled. She always smiled. There was no other way for her to handle a dire situation. It was the same way she had coped and got through her mother’s illness not so long ago—beaming as best she could through the whole ordeal and offering her siblings as much encouragement as she could even in the midst of her own sadness. Things will be all right, she told herself as she looked at the emaciated cow. Things will certainly get better.
“She just needs some rest,” Sarah said to Louisa. “There’s no use in being dour.”
Louisa nodded. “I suppose you’re right. She’s just looking awful scrawny lately, and she’s been making these odd noises at night. It’s almost like she’s, I don’t know, sad, maybe.”
“Because she’s miserable,” the dour voice of Mariah Langley called out from behind Sarah. “Just like we all are.”
Sarah huffed, closing her eyes for a brief moment. Don’t let her get to you. She’s just trying to get a rise out of you. She turned, offering up a small wave to Mariah. “There you are,” she said. “We could have used an extra hand over here.”
“What’s the point?” Mariah shrugged. “There’s no way you’re going to get that garden up to snuff in time for the next season.” She nodded to the garden. “Look at it. None of those damn plants are even growing.”
Sarah stood, smoothing the wrinkles in her cornflower blue prairie dress, her auburn hair tied in a braid and glowing under the sun. “Don’t do this,” she said to Mariah. “Please.”
Mariah, rolling her eyes and crossing her arms, smiled sardonically, and replied: “Do what?”
“Don’t be like this. It doesn’t help anything.”
“Ha. You must be joking.” She gestured to the garden. “Look at that dirt patch. Nothing you two have done in the past few days is working at all.”
“So, being mean helps us how, exactly?”
Mariah’s wry smile faded, turning into a scowl as she uncrossed her arms, turned away and began walking toward the fields.
“Is she okay?” Louisa inquired.
Sarah wiped her hands off and held up the “one minute” gesture to her sister. “I’ll go check on her. Just keep tending to the garden. You’re doing great.”
She ended up following Mariah as she walked out into the fields, giving the second born of the family a bit of distance and feeling the chagrin practically radiating off of her. She’s trying, she thought. She’s just a bit more surly than usual. It’s been a tough year. I can’t really blame her. She’s trying as best as she can. And she’s young. I have five and seven years on both of my sisters. It wasn’t much different when I was a teenager, either.
Mariah came to a stop in the center of the field, looking off to the east, most likely past the town of Copper Crossing and toward the cities and countries she had always longed to see. Sarah knew this because Mariah always spoke about it in such vivid detail.
“Are you okay?” Sarah inquired. “What’s troubling you?”
“That’s a silly question,” Mariah said, sucking air through her teeth. “Where should we start?”
Sarah took a step forward. “Don’t be this way. Just talk to me. You know I’ll listen.”
Taking a beat to think, Mariah turned around and threw up her hands. “Why are we still here? What is the point of all of this?”
“The point of what?”
“Tending to this dilapidated farm, this dying livestock, all of it. Poppa is wasting everyone’s time staying here. There’s no point to.”
“He’s trying to make it work. We’re just going through a rough patch right now.”
Sarah’s younger sister wagged her finger and took a step forward. “No,” she said, a stern inflection in her tone. “We can’t make this work. We shouldn’t be here.”
Old memories began to resurface in Sarah’s mind, times of strife and torment, all of it having taken place on their homestead. “This is our home,” she said. “Father fought hard for this land. This is where we were born, where we were raised.”
“And I don’t want it to be the place where we wither away and die!” Mariah exclaimed. “The only reason Poppa still has us staying here is because it’s the last link we have to…” She stopped short, her eyes laced with guilt.
Sarah knew full-well what her sister was insinuating—but she felt the need to make Mariah say it out loud, if only to honor the memory of the person she was speaking of more than anything else. “Say it,” she said calmly. “The last link we have to who?”
Hanging her head and looking away, Mariah replied: “Mother. To our mother. You know this to be the truth, Sarah. Our father can’t let go of this place because he can’t let go of the past.”
“He simply wants to make it work here. He wants to fix this place up and make it like it once was.”
“That will never happen. This place is cursed. You saw what it did to Mother.”
Sarah brought a hand to her face and closed her eyes. “There’s no such things as curses, Mariah. Mother didn’t die because of superstition. You know that.”
“All I know,” Mariah said, “is that there is no place for us here. We should leave. We should go as far away from here as possible.”
“And go where?”
A shrug from Mariah. “The city. Any city.”
Sarah shook her head. “The city is twice as expensive as living in the country, Mariah. If you think we can’t make it work here—it’s impossible to do it in a place where it is double, sometimes triple what it is to live here.”
Silence held sway for a moment as Mariah contemplated, turning back to the east and looking longingly off in the distance. “Well,” she said, “we have to do something. Once that last cow of ours passes, there’s nothing left for us here. We’ll end up looking just like she does in no time.”
It saddened Sarah to hear her sister’s words—but she knew some of them to be true. Sure, she would have approached the situation with a little more care and finesse in her tone but, looking at herself and her sisters and seeing that they were dropping dress sizes every few weeks, only confirmed the fact that food was becoming scarce, and the land was no longer livable. She opened her mouth to offer up more encouragement to her sister—but she was cut short when she heard the panting and heaving of her father’s breathing as he approached them from behind.
“Daddy?” Sarah said, turning to face him. “Heavens, are you okay?”
Sweat peppered her father’s brow as the older man bent over and braced himself on his knees as he caught his breath. His auburn hair—which Sarah had inherited— glistened in the light as Sarah placed her hand on his back.
“Good Lord!” she said. “You’re soaking, Daddy!”
Tripp forked a finger over his shoulder. “That man next door,” he said, through panted breaths. “Whatever his name is. He just took a shot at me.”
Sarah held a hand to her chest, her heart racing at the news. “He tried to shoot you, Daddy?”
The patriarch of the family waved his daughter off. “No, no,” he said. “He missed me by a mile. It was certainly on purpose. I just think he believes I was trespassing is all.”
“Were you?” Mariah said sarcastically.
Cocking her head to the side, Sarah looked at her sister and shook her head subtly—Please, don’t …
Tripp stood up, finally having caught his breath. “Well,” he said, “do you want the bad news or the bad news?”
Rubbing circles on Tripp’s back, Sarah said: “Don’t phrase it like that, Daddy. I’m sure everything is all right.”
Her father shook his head. “It’s not. I dropped the rabbits I fetched for supper.”
Sarah immediately looked at Mariah, sensing a short response on its way to being delivered—and to her chagrin, it was.
“Are you kidding?” Mariah said. “So, all we have is those mangy vegetables to eat?”
Sarah patted her father on the back. “Go inside and fetch some water, Poppa,” she said. “I’ll be in a minute.”
Tripp kissed his daughter on the cheek and headed toward the house, greeting his other daughter near the garden as he headed inside.
Sarah, feeling more heated than was usual for her, and then leveled a gaze at Mariah. “What is wrong with you?” she said.
“What?” Mariah objected.
“The comments aren’t helping. If you’re not going to say anything nice, don’t say anything at all. That man is working as hard as he can, and he doesn’t need us giving him a hard time. Do you understand?”
The tone of her voice was authoritative, full of resolve. Sarah was well aware of this. She knew that Mariah would hear this and hear their mother.
Mariah, hanging her head, nodded and said: “I’m sorry. Really.”
Sarah said, “Then come with me. Tell the old man to his face.”
They moved to the house together, where inside they found Tripp standing near the window with a glass of water in his hand. Sarah couldn’t help but note the longing on his face.
“Are you okay, Daddy?” Mariah said. “I’m sorry for what I said.”
Tripp put the glass down on an end table and turned to face his daughters, forcing himself to smile as he shrugged and his eyes watered. “I just,” he began with a trembling tone, “feel like I’m failing you. All of you. I’m supposed to provide for this family, and … I’m failing!”
He brought his hands to his face, as his daughters rushed to him. They pulled him in close, hugging him tight and pressing their cheeks against his chest.
“You’re not failing, Daddy,” Sarah said. “That’s not what’s happening.”
“No cattle,” Tripp said. “No dairy, no food, no vegetables. How am I not failing?”
“Because it’s just a rough time, is all. That’s simply what it is. We just need to wait for the tide to turn.”
Sarah looked over at Mariah, trying to urge her with her eyes to saying something encouraging to her father. As she did so—she couldn’t help but see a pensive look on Mariah’s face, as if she were thinking of something, planning something. What is that girl thinking of? she pondered.
“Thank you, girls,” Tripp said. “I feel better, honestly. It’s just been a long day.”
Pulling herself away, Mariah said, “Daddy, take a seat for a moment. Relax. I need to talk to Sarah for a moment.”
Mariah beckoned Sarah to follow her into the back bedroom. Curiosity getting the better of her, Sarah followed her younger sister, walked inside, and closed the door behind them.
“What’s going on?” Sarah asked.
Wringing her fingers and biting her lower lip, Mariah said, “You’ve worked so hard, Sarah, for all of us, especially after Momma passed.”
“You don’t need to say that. We’re family. Of course, I’m going to do whatever I can.”
Mariah took a step forward. “What if …what if I said … I had an idea?”
Sarah flexed her brow. “I’d have to say that I’m concerned and terrified all at once.”
“Don’t be!” Mariah said, holding up her hands. “I think I have a good idea. A very good idea, actually, and it’s one that can serve everyone in this family.”
Sarah eyeballed a chair in the corner and moved to it, sitting down to hear her kid sister’s proposition. “I’m willing to have a conversation,” she said, “but the last time this happened, you suggested that we try and burn down the house for insurance.”
“I was joking. I’m quite serious about this proposition, I assure you.”
Drawing a breath, Sarah said, “Okay, Mariah. I’m listening. What is it that you had in mind?”
Mariah moved toward the wooden credenza resting flush against the wall, opening the top drawer slowly and pulling out a folded sheet of newspaper. Clutching it tightly in both hands like a bible, she turned and faced Sarah and said, “What if I told you that we could get paid to marry you off?”
Slack jawed and heart racing, Sarah held a hand to her mouth and nearly passed out as one thought flashed through her mind: You must be joking…
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