She was supposed to marry someone else but he’s here now, ready to fulfill his duty. How can the two deeply find each other and fall in love when danger is so close?
Nora is an affectionate young woman struggling with life after her father’s death. To save her life, she answers a mail-order bride ad and she travels West. When she learns that her husband-to-be has tragically died, she’s left with no other choice than to marry his brother, Joe. Nora struggles a lot to connect with him and his young niece. However, through their hearts, she finds family love once again. How can she show him that love is the key to making sense of all their woes?
Joe is a proud businessman who has spent part of his life in New York. When he gets back West to settle matters after his brother’s funeral, he finds a mail-order bride waiting to get married. He decides to marry her out of a sense of duty to his brother. Life in the West is not easy, but he slowly lowers his guard and falls in love with sweet Nora. How can he overcome his deep regrets and fears that he’s not a ‘a good enough man’ for Nora?
Shady townspeople want to destroy Joe and Nora’s newfound happiness. But when the two will devote themselves to each other, how can they help justice being served and stay together forever?
The bitter taste in the wind caught her attention.
Nora jerked her head up to look toward the open window. The sun was beginning to set in the distance, creating for long shadows and vibrant colors in the sky. But, as she sniffed the air, she knew something was wrong.
It seemed as though the fear in her heart would never truly fade.
She scrambled over to the door, yanking it open to see where the scent could be coming from. Her eyes widened—she could see it, as well. There was smoke pluming high in the air, ash-gray clouds that were too thick and heavy to be safe.
A gasp escaped her lips as she looked below the smoke.
There was no way to deny the red haze of flames far off in the distance. Nora scrambled out onto the back porch, her mouth gaping as her heart sunk. There was a fire. And it had to be large for her to see so much.
It wasn’t on her ranch. But any comfort she might have felt from that discovery was immediately weakened when she realized it was coming from next door. Their neighbors.
“No,” Nora breathed in horror.
She could taste the bitter ashes once more. They were stronger now, and she had an inkling that it would only grow worse.
There was no time to hide nor hesitate. Nora’s heart hammered as she ran back into the house. She breathed deeply as she hurried about to grab the one thing that mattered: Mattie. Little Mattie was still at the table.
“We have to go at once,” Nora said. It took all of her strength not to collapse in a state of panic. But there was no time. They had to move quickly. She scooped the child out of her seat and put her on her feet. Grabbing the girl’s hand firmly, she started moving them back toward the door. “Now. Run, Mattie!”
The little girl grunted but obeyed. Her grip tightened on Nora’s hand as they ran out the door. She didn’t even turn around to lock it, let alone close it behind them.
Every minute mattered.
“Up you go,” she said breathily as she heaved Mattie onto the buckboard seat. “Stay there!” Then she ran to the nearest stall, quickly readying a horse that could guide them. Even though it took a minute to prepare the animal, this would still be faster than if she ran. Nora prepared the horse, wiped her brow, and hurriedly joined the girl.
Then, they were off.
She gasped for breath as they went. Her chest heaved from moving around so quickly, as well as from the horror they were riding into. Nora prayed as they went, asking the Lord to help them and protect their neighbors.
“Don’t be dead,” she whispered under her breath. “Don’t be dead, please, don’t be dead.”
She had lost too many people.
Just the thought of losing her neighbors made her eyes sting. But Nora didn’t have time to brush away any tears at the moment. She had to keep her eyes open to be prepared. There was no time to dawdle.
A small ounce of relief filled her heart when the house came into view. It was not on fire. The house was safe, at least for the time being.
It was a different story for the barn, covered pen, and shed. All three were blazing. They were close to one another, within a couple dozen yards. Nora stopped for a minute to watch everything. Hundreds of thoughts ran through her mind.
Three buildings on fire was not an accident. It couldn’t be.
But the idea that these were intentional fires sent a rippling fear throughout her body. Nora felt her stomach roll uneasily. She forced herself to climb down. Helping Mattie onto the ground, as well, she held the child close for safety.
Mattie clung to her tightly. “What’s happening?” she asked tearfully.
Nora’s heart pounded as she shook her head. “I don’t know,” she murmured.
She tried to comprehend the view before her, but she knew they didn’t have time. Her eyes looked over the buildings with horror. The roof of the shed had caved in already, and the others were on their way.
Were there animals inside any of those buildings? People?
They had to find out. They had to stop this monstrous fire before it grew and swallowed everything. Nora coughed as she tasted the smoke on her lips. Something was terribly wrong, and she wasn’t sure how they could fix it.
A bead of sweat slowly slipped from her forehead down to the tip of her nose.
Nora did her best to ignore the itch, trying not to go cross-eyed as she attempted to stay focused on the fabric she was currently working on with her machine. The loud hum of the sewing factory echoed all around her; it was steady and terribly annoying. Like clockwork, a headache began to set in with the heat.
She had talked with her boss about opening a few of the windows, but he told her they were sealed shut. There was nothing they could do. She would have to work in the heat as long as she had a job.
So, she scrunched up her nose to take care of the itch, then concentrated on the task at hand. There was no time to dawdle or make mistakes.
Working at the factory was long, tedious work. The chairs were uncomfortable, the room was hot, and the loud noise of the other sewing machines always made her head hurt. Two years had passed since she had begged for the job there, and it had been this miserable ever since.
“Three o’clock!” the floor manager cried out as he rang a bell. “Three o’clock!”
Immediately, half the workers stood up and began to stretch their legs and arms. Then, they filed out for their late lunch break, leaving the rest behind.
Nora kept her head down, listening to their murmuring as they went. Nobody liked their job there. But they all stayed because they could earn more money the faster and harder they worked, something most of the other factories in Wilmington, Delaware didn’t provide. In the beginning, Nora had practically only earned pennies. But, with time and effort, she had improved greatly.
“See you in a minute, Nora,” a familiar voice sang to her as she passed by. It was only for Lauren that she looked up, nodding to her close friend.
Lauren was the only one there who was permitted to move about during the noon break as well as the three o’clock break. This agreement had taken a good bit of wrestling to achieve, but her husband was on the city council and had some sway. Enough time had passed that the young wife was beginning to show her swollen belly now, which also helped in the matter. Nora gave her friend a smile before Lauren left the room.
Then, she turned back to the drapes she was stitching. This bundle would be sent straight to New York City for the elite. It was soft in her hands, which meant it was expensive and she had to be careful with every stitch.
She dreamed of a beautiful life like that, where she could have similar maroon satin drapes. There would be people who helped her dress in the latest fashions, with all types of food for her to enjoy. None of this was possible, of course, but she liked to dream. And dreaming helped the time pass her by.
Only another five hours to go.
Ten hours of work every day wore her out. Especially if she found a side job to do afterward. Though she always asked about working more, the factory had set hours and refused to pay her anything extra. Nora began to calculate how far along she was to see if she might be able to complete another two or three on top of her current set of drapes. They paid more than clothing items, but also took longer to sew.
If she could somehow get another five sets of drapes done, then she would have enough for a hearty meal that evening. Her mouth watered at the thought of fresh meat from the market.
After all, this money she earned would finally be completely going into her own pockets. The debts of her father were paid at last. She could rest a little easier knowing that she didn’t owe anyone any money.
But the fates seemed to have another idea in mind.
Nora was just about to finish up on her current running stitch when movement from the doors caught her eye. She didn’t usually pay any mind to people that came and went. It was important to her to focus on her work. Except the person who entered the doors didn’t belong in the factory, and that was why she immediately stopped.
Her blood chilled.
The man looked out of place. It was a rather drab building with gray walls and no decorations. Even the sunlight hardly cheered the place up.
Victor Rawls wore a fine dark blue suit, cut to fit him perfectly. His hair was combed back and oiled, and light glanced off the numerous rings he wore. The man looked wealthy in a way she had never seen anyone else do before; it was as if the world couldn’t touch him.
And he was headed her way.
Feeling the blood drain from her face, Nora wondered how this was possible. She glanced around in the hopes that he was there for something else. But when she looked back, Mr. Rawls was looking right at her. He was coming right over to her, for some reason.
It didn’t make sense. This was the man that she had just paid off. She wondered why he was there, at her work. They shouldn’t have to see each other ever again.
He was an older man who could make her squirm with just one glance, and she hated it. But last week, she had submitted her final payment.
And they should have never seen one another afterward. That’s what Nora had supposed.
Except he was there, at her workplace, headed right in her direction. She felt her mouth turn dry. The relief she had felt all week in finally being free of his control began to fade away. Why was he there?
She looked around the room to find that no one else was paying much attention. They didn’t know who he was, and they didn’t care. Stopping her work, she stood up and went over to him so they wouldn’t disturb the others on the sewing floor. Nora rubbed her hands together anxiously as she reached him.
“Mr. Rawls, it’s a… You’re not here for me, are you? We should have no more business together. I paid you everything my father owed you.”
“Life is a struggle, is it not? I’ve been looking all over for you, Miss Nora.” He fixed his jacket with an unconcerned air. “Unfortunately, you are wrong in that respect. While you may have paid off the original amount that your father requested in his loan, you’ve forgotten about the interest that was accrued over the years it took to pay off the original amount.”
Her mouth dropped open in dismay.
Interest? She hadn’t heard anything about that before in her few conversations with him or in the documentation. Nora ransacked her mind as she struggled to keep her composure.
This had to be a joke, after all. If it wasn’t, then she still owed him money, and she still wasn’t free. A lump formed in her throat, making it hard to swallow. The panic began to rise within her.
Shaking her head, Nora told him, “You never said anything about the interest. I don’t have any record. I thought I paid you off, I thought—”
Mr. Rawls tutted.
“Years. It’s been years,” he repeated. “I’m expecting another payment tomorrow, seeing as you didn’t bring one by yesterday. Business between the two of us shall resume. I expect in-person payments due every Tuesday at 8 o’clock in the evening.”
Her eyes widened. He wanted her to keep paying him exactly as she had before? Nora could feel something heavy begin to weigh her down as she tried to imagine starting the cycle all over again.
Making those payments had nearly killed her. Two years of scrimping and saving just to stay alive had been terrible. She had hardly slept, never had enough to eat, and had prayed night and day for it all to come to an end soon. The idea of having to live like this all over again did not sound possible. She had been waiting so long to be free.
“I don’t… but how much?” Nora stammered.
It couldn’t be very much if it was just interest. She didn’t know much about what that implied, but it couldn’t be nearly what she had owed in the first place.
Thinking quickly, she wondered if she could convince Mr. Rawls to cut the payments into smaller increments for a little longer. The interest that he mentioned could only take a few more weeks. Then, in smaller payments, she could manage not to live such a horrible and lonely life.
“One thousand dollars.”
She nearly burst into tears. Her mouth hung open as she stared at him. That was half of what she had already paid back. This meant that it would take her another year, if not a little longer, to pay it all back. She tried to imagine living another year like she had done for the last two, but couldn’t. Her eyes stung at the very idea.
Nora tried to find her voice. “But… that’s…”
He nodded. “A lot. Shame, isn’t it?”
Raising her gaze to meet his, she felt the panic rise a little higher. “Please. How can this be the case? There was no mention of the interest. I thought what I paid was already everything. Are you sure that I owe you more? That much? I mean, I… Surely, we can work something out. I only have so much. It took me years to pay off what my father owed already.”
Mr. Rawls took a small step back. With one eyebrow raised, he gave her one good look. It was a long one as he eyed her from toe to head.
Never before had she been looked at with such a lecherous leer.
Nora squirmed. Turning away, she ended up glancing at a few of the other women in the room. Several of them were looking her way. Most of them wore smirks, with a few skeptical glances. None of them made her feel comfortable or secure as they judged her for the man who stood before her.
“My offer of marriage still stands,” he said, and he didn’t seem to notice the other women in the room. His smirk grew. “You’d make a fine wife, sweetheart. And if you wanted to make that deal instead, I think I would be willing to consider your father’s debt repaid in full. No more debt or interest to worry about. What do you think of that?”
The hum of sewing machines softened against the hiss of others in the room beginning to whisper. Someone must have heard what Mr. Rawls said, Nora supposed. That would not have been hard because he had a rather loud voice.
Ducking her head, she wished she could have forgotten about that.
It had been around the first anniversary of her father’s death. She had gone to Mr. Rawls’ office to beg for more time, since she had lost one of her jobs. The hotel had shut down, leaving her both without that extra income and without a home, since she had rented a bed alongside several other maids. When he’d told her that it wasn’t his problem, he had offered to take her into his home.
But she couldn’t do it, not with him. Marriage was far from her mind, and he was the last option she would ever consider. Mr. Rawls preyed on everyone and had a reputation around town for his ruthlessness.
A hot flush rushed up her neck at his offer. It felt like she was being mocked and belittled all at once. Nora wished for nothing more than to disappear in that moment.
Before she could say anything, a familiar hand pressed against her back. Nora swallowed hard as she turned to find Lauren right there.
Her friend had returned. She hardly had time to realize that she wasn’t alone any longer in this situation as Lauren spoke up to Mr. Rawls.
“I think Nora here has heard enough, sir,” she said in a firm manner. “You’ve said your piece, and now I think it’s time you left. If you’re not employed in the factory, then you’re not supposed to be here. Leave immediately, or I’ll call Mr. Peterson, who owns this place. He won’t take kindly to this and we don’t, either.”
That gave Nora hope. She looked at her friend gratefully, never having thought of that.
Of course, he wasn’t allowed. It was one of the reasons she had been so jarred by his presence there. Those were the rules of the factory, though she wasn’t sure she would have been brave enough to tell him on her own.
As for Mr. Rawls, he raised his hands in mock surrender. But it was the grin that left her on edge.
“Don’t you worry, missus,” he replied. “I was just getting ready to leave. As for you, Nora, I’ll be seeing you again soon.”
It wasn’t until he disappeared from the room that Nora’s tense shoulders relaxed. She wrapped an arm around Lauren for strength as she murmured a word of gratitude. Yet, even as the two of them returned to their sewing machines, Nora knew this trouble was far from over.
He hadn’t planned on this.
Granted, there was a lot that Joseph Bowman had not planned on. He’d tried hard to be prepared and to learn to expect the unexpected. Life was filled with enough trials and tribulations that he wanted to do what he could to manage such variables.
Except life kept finding a way to throw him off-guard.
Especially now, as he stood under the willow tree, looking at the small crosses placed before him. There would be headstones, eventually. That was the plan. But that was the only plan he knew of at the moment.
A shaky breath escaped his lips and he wished this was all some dreadful dream.
Unfortunately, he had pinched himself enough times to know that he wasn’t asleep, and he wasn’t going to escape this situation. He was trapped here in this strange world with so little. Less now, he supposed.
The wind whistled through the trees, ruffling the long branches. He tore his eyes away from the crosses to watch. It was a reminder of where he was and what would happen now. Though he hardly had an idea, he supposed he had best start working it out.
“A new plan.” He forced the words out, though his tongue felt thick.
Joe, as he’d always gone by, didn’t like it. He didn’t want this. This was not supposed to have happened. He had worked so hard all of his life to avoid something like this. No matter how hard he tried, no matter how much he prepared himself, it didn’t seem to change. There was still sorrow and pain to be found.
He felt something break within him.
Crumbling at the base of the tree’s roots, Joe fell to his knees. He buried his face in his hands and tried to withhold the tears from falling. The loss he felt was overwhelming. Never before had he felt so alone in his life.
Though he had not lived in Nebraska, close to the rest of his family, for several years, he had always thought that he would have more time with his brother.
But now, Billy was gone.
He couldn’t remember their final conversation. They would have shared parting words before he’d left to return to New York City, where he lived and worked. Perhaps there had been a joke and then a solemn moment where they knew it would be some time before they saw one another again. It’s what he would have expected. But there was no way Joe could have known it would be their last talk together, the last time he saw his brother.
They should have talked a little longer, said a little more.
As he tried to recall all his past conversations with Billy, Joe continued to struggle with accepting this harsh loss. Their parents had passed away years ago, back in Pennsylvania, where they had grown up as a happy little family. But then they had gone their own ways. Billy had moved west to Nebraska to build a life with his own family. And Joe had gone east for his career.
It had been the right thing to do, he had told himself when he’d first made his way to New York.
But now, he began to second-guess his decisions. Being so far away meant rarely seeing what was left of his family. Part of him had done that on purpose, because of Billy’s wife Sophia. It had been easier for him to stay away. He hadn’t wanted to be any more lonely or heartbroken then, so he’d only visited once.
That first visit out to Nebraska had been for a funeral, as well.
“You should stay,” Billy had told him one morning during his last visit. “You could help me run this ranch. Someday, it’s going to be big and successful. I can feel it, Joe. And you have the brains here, don’t you? Stay with us.”
He hadn’t taken the invitation seriously. Chuckling, Joe had merely shaken his head at the idea. “Me? Living out West? That’s preposterous. I don’t belong out here, Billy. I wouldn’t have any idea what to do.”
“That’s a terrible excuse,” his brother had been quick to point out. “You’ll figure it out. You always have. I bet, with you here, we could finally turn over a proper profit and double in size within the year. Think about it. Family should stay together, shouldn’t they? And what do you have in the city that you can’t have here?”
It had been a question that Joe hadn’t been able to answer then. He had thought of many attributes and businesses and experiences in New York City that would never be found in Nebraska. Though he had tried to convince his brother to bring his family to visit several times, they had never been able to find the time. So, his brother had no idea what he was talking about when it came to the city lights and opportunities there.
And yet, perhaps Joe hadn’t understood Billy, in return.
Because he didn’t have family in the city like he did in Nebraska. All he had was the busy job and the busy life filled with parties and events. Yet, he didn’t always enjoy either of them. Taking that trip out West, away from his business, had been a breath of fresh air that he hadn’t known he’d needed at the time. Even now, Joe knew he would have enjoyed the chance to come back out to visit under different circumstances.
The job was a good one, but a career was nothing when it meant he was always alone. Joe pondered how different his life might have turned out to be in the last four years since Billy had made that offer.
“Maybe,” he had responded instead. “I’ll have to return to the city one way or another. If I find myself craving the wide-open world, however, then I’ll let you know. Deal?”
It might have been fun. He would ride a horse through fields unbothered by other humans. He would learn to be a cowboy and explore what it was like to manage a ranch. It could have been an adventure that he explored with his family.
But now it was too late.
Sophia had died four years ago. And now, Billy was gone. Joe felt more alone than he ever had in all his life. Through the past heartache and grief, this was a new pain that he dearly wished to be free from.
He took a staggering breath. Hurriedly, he climbed to his feet. Brushing the dirt off his clothes and drying his face, Joe turned around to see little Mattie looking up at him with her big brown eyes.
Only seven years old and now an orphan.
She would need him. He had only arrived the afternoon before. They had met up for a few minutes, but they were both suffering on their own. Joe had no idea how to talk to the child through his grief.
She had the soft blonde hair of her mother, pinned back due to help from the Camerons. Audrey and Dan Cameron lived on the ranch just west of them and had been minding Mattie since Billy died. They were the ones who had sent the telegram to Joe. He had arrived and found the growing girl so much bigger than the three-year-old he had seen before. Children were hard to talk to, and he hadn’t been able to find any words to say to her then.
Nor in this moment, either.
“Mattie.” His voice sounded rough as he struggled with his words. “What are you doing here?”
Her eyes dropped down to look away and she fiddled with her dress. It was a dark blue one. There hadn’t been time to put her in anything for mourning. But Joe supposed folks didn’t have time for that out West. Only the pastor had worn black for the funeral they’d had just a few hours ago.
“Audrey said to come get you,” the girl mumbled, just loud enough to be heard. “She said it’s time to eat.”
“I’m not hungry.” He said the words before he caught himself. Joe winced and shook his head. “I mean, I’ll just… All right. I’ll come in a moment. You can go back now,” he added when she didn’t budge.
Too late, he noticed that she was hesitantly eyeing the fresh pile of dirt before the crosses. Joe’s heart sunk right into his stomach. He hadn’t meant to sound rude. But, as he opened his mouth to apologize to his niece, Mattie took off running back to the house without a word.
His shoulders slumped.
Now it was just the two of them. Him and Mattie. Except they were strangers to one another and clearly didn’t know what to say. He was her guardian now, but he hadn’t had much time to think about what this would mean for the two of them.
When he’d heard the news, he had booked the next train out to get to the ranch. Fairwell, Nebraska was not his home. He would be there for the funeral, clear out the ranch, and then take his niece back to New York City with him. She was young and energetic and so she would adapt even more quickly than he had when he first arrived. It seemed like a good idea, and reasonable for the two of them. Surely, she would want to be far away from a place filled with the haunting memories of her parents.
But as Joe reluctantly stepped out from the shaded tree into the glaring sunlight, he saw the world around him.
It was a different world compared to the one he had seen four years ago upon his prior visit. His brother had done a great job in that time, building up the ranch into something impressive. Billy was a smart, hard-working man no matter what he said about himself. Joe had been surprised to see how pleasant the cattle operation had grown during those years. Arriving to see his brother’s ranch should have been a thrilling moment where he could see all the progress that Billy had made.
Instead, it was painful. He kept expecting to find his brother coming around the corner or talking in the next room. But Billy wouldn’t be doing any of that anymore.
Joe tried to swallow his grief as he headed toward the house. He rubbed his hands together anxiously, trying to mentally prepare himself for company.
The Camerons were helping out and he couldn’t be more grateful. They had done so much already and continued to make sure that both he and Mattie were eating and sleeping. He couldn’t rely on them much longer, Joe knew, and he appreciated their kindness.
On the way to the house, he glanced up to see movement over by the bunkhouse for the ranch hands. There were a couple of them around the building just a hundred yards away. Joe squinted, recognizing the foreman, Ezra Moody. But he couldn’t recall if he had met anyone else. They were taking good care of the ranch, in the meantime.
It was a good thing, he thought to himself, for he didn’t know what he would say if they needed anything from him.
That was when it dawned on him that they would, eventually, ask. The ranch hands would need him. He owned the house and the ranch now, and he was Mattie’s caretaker. Joe slowed down as he looked around him. A new weight began to descend on his shoulders.
The ranch hands lived here. This was their home more than it was his.
There were grasslands out where the cattle lived. He knew there was a river around there, as well, one that flowed especially well during the spring, though he couldn’t recall where it was. He hadn’t planned on needing to explore the ranch, but he had seen enough to see its growth.
A well had been put in over by the stables, plus a water pump up by the house. His brother loved modern conveniences and had written him three letters that year explaining his water pump, even though Joe had them in the city.
Just over one hundred and fifty acres for a sprawling, booming ranch. He wondered how many cattle were there. They enjoyed the flat valley, but Joe recalled his brother saying once that there was a grove of trees not too far from the house that several cows enjoyed wandering into.
There was so much out here that Joe didn’t know what to do with. The ranch could stay put if he left. Surely, someone else would buy it. They would take care of the animals. But what about the ranch hands? He hadn’t considered this.
What was he to do with them if he took Mattie up to New York?
His mouth dried at the prospect of putting all these men out of work. He doubted any of them would be able to purchase the ranch if he put it up for sale. Except he hadn’t considered any other ideas. He made it to the wide porch around the house as he struggled to accept that there was even more pressure on him now.
He had just lost his brother, but he had gained a lot in return.
Joe would give it all back to Billy in a heartbeat. He didn’t know what he would do now, with so many folks depending on him. Weighing the options, he made his way into the house to try and eat something. Perhaps, with a little food in his belly, he could begin to think more clearly.
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