She has nowhere else to go and he has bitterness in his heart. How can they connect to each other when everyone is not who it seems to be around them?
Jennie has been through the worst for a young woman of her time. Recently widowed and with no place to stay or decent work, she accepts to travel West and become a mail-order bride. Even if she’s unwanted at first, she does her best to prove her resilience and take care of her husband’s young daughter. How can she show him that all he needs is a woman mending his heart and soul?
Philip could have never dreamt of sharing his house and family with another woman. After losing his darling wife, he renounced his chances of ever fall in love again. Jennie though, with her kind heart and steel eyes, will show him that not all bridges leading to love are burnt. How can he stay away from his prodigal past and protect the woman that takes his breath away?
Jennie and Philip are unfortunate until they meet each other. But how will they find their place in each other’s hearts if darkness leaking from the past is driving them apart?
Copper Creek, Texas
Jenny Allen lobbed her filthy red rag into a pail of dirty mop water and watched in disgust as brown muck splashed into the air. She dragged her arm across her brow, stood up stiffly, and stretched her back.
She’d never dreamed that scrubbing a floor was such weary, backbreaking work; but ever since her husband died, Jenny had been learning more than she wanted to know about all the hard, grubby jobs that other women didn’t want to do.
She blew a strand of shining blue-black hair out of her face and surveyed the wooden floor. She’d scrubbed a crust of mud right off the plank-board floor, and now it gleamed like a sheet of ice. But the price was a nagging kink in her neck and an aching back that was warning her not to test it any more that day.
The door opened suddenly, and her client, a smug young bride whose husband could afford to hire help, swept the gleaming floor with her lashes. She lifted her nose and pointed daintily to a spot on the other end of the room.
“You missed a spot,” she informed Jenny, and crossed her slender arms. “This floor has to be perfect. I’m having some ladies over for tea this weekend, and everything has to be spotless!”
She turned on the words and blew out again, and Jenny watched her grimly. She was fantasizing about flinging the filthy rag right across her client’s pert nose and smug mouth, but a woman in her tenuous position couldn’t afford a temper, and so Jenny closed her eyes, counted to ten, and trudged over to the corner of the room to scrub it extra-specially clean.
When she was finished at last, she dumped out the mop pail, wrung out the rag, and washed them both at the pump in the backyard of the house. It was a hot day, and Jenny washed her hands in the cool water and splashed her neck and chest with it.
She opened her eyes to see the greasy-haired handyman leering at her. Jenny raised an eyebrow and closed the neck of her blouse. His smiling glance meant that it had worked itself open one button too far.
He spat tobacco juice into the bushes and grinned. “You can mop my floor anytime, girlie.” He grabbed her arm when she turned to go, and she shook him off angrily and backed across the yard to the porch as he looked her up and down.
“You look like a cozy armful.” He chuckled and ran his eyes down her chest. “I’d pay you a heap more money than you’re making here,” he added with a broad wink that was meant to be seductive but sent a shudder of revulsion up Jenny’s spine.
“Keep your money,” she retorted proudly. “I’m not that desperate.”
The man’s smile twisted into a scowl. “You got no call to be so high and mighty!” he spat. “You’re just a washerwoman. Ain’t nothing lower than that.”
Jenny swept his face disdainfully. “Yes, there is,” she told him contemptuously, and turned to reenter the house. She slammed the door and locked it behind her just to make sure he didn’t try to follow. So far, he hadn’t scratched up the nerve to accost her in the house, but Jenny had the feeling that if she kept coming back, he would.
She turned wearily and surveyed the gleaming floor. As she stood there, her client walked in and planted her hands on her hips.
“Well, it’s not as clean as I would liked, but I suppose I have to be happy with it.” She sighed.
Jenny regarded her grimly and thought, You might try cleaning it once every six months.
The girl dug into a little handbag and counted coins into her hand. “Twenty-five, fifty. Here’s your money.”
A wave of shame crawled from Jenny’s feet to the roots of her hair, but she had no choice but to walk gingerly across the wet floor and take her pitiful reward for four hours of backbreaking work. Her young client tossed her head and added, “I decided to pay you this time, but next time I expect it to look much cleaner, or I might keep my money!”
Jenny set her teeth and kept her eyes on the floor, because if she raised them, she was going to do something disastrous.
The girl dismissed her with a glib “Well, that’s all. You can go now.”
Jenny pinched her lips into a tight line—lest what she was thinking jump out of them—and she made her way out the side door, out into the dirt road, and down its dusty tracks to her own house on the edge of the little Texas town.
It was a long, weary walk, and Jenny half closed her eyes as she trudged along. Her mind projected a smiling Dan on the road ahead, strong and tall and handsome as he sent his beautiful bay sideways so he could talk to her. She saw herself following after him on the sleek, coal-black thoroughbred he’d bought for her in Kentucky, a mare she’d named Mischief and had lost in the auction after Dan’s death.
Jenny frowned as she recalled it. Dan had been up to his eyeballs in charm, he’d been more handsome than the law allowed, and theirs had been a whirlwind romance. They’d known each other only three weeks when Dan proposed, but by that time she was already so in love with him that she said yes with all her soul.
They went to New Orleans on their honeymoon, and she’d discovered to her delight that her new husband was a magical lover. But what she hadn’t realized until much later was that he was also a disastrous businessman.
She’d been so swept away by Dan’s charm, enjoying her life so thoroughly as a young bride, that she hadn’t concerned herself at all with how they were doing financially. All she knew was that Dan showered her with pretty little gifts, as was usual for a young man in love with his bride.
Dan had bought her a brand-new trousseau in New Orleans from French shops, and he’d wined and dined her at elegant restaurants and cafes, but they’d spent most of their honeymoon in the bridal suite of a riverboat.
Their honeymoon had technically lasted only a week, but in practical terms they extended it by almost a year. Her whole marriage to Dan had been wondrous and magical. Some nights she’d wakened to see him sleeping beside her and had wondered if she was still dreaming.
But just as suddenly as it had started, her fairy-tale marriage to Dan had ended. Jenny closed her eyes wearily, and her phantom husband faded from her imagination. One smiling summer afternoon, two days before her twenty-third birthday, her world had come crashing down in ruin. Dan’s horse had been spooked by a snake and thrown him. The fall had killed Dan instantly.
Gone. Just like that. Forever.
She’d kissed him at the doorway that morning, had watched him ride off, and by noon, the love of her life was gone. No warning, no fanfare. But it had been the end of her world just the same.
She’d been mercifully numb at first, watching herself get through the funeral and the days after, but soon it became apparent that she’d lost her home as well as her husband. Dan’s shamefaced lawyer had come to her a few days later, hat in hand and apologetic.
“Miss Jenny,” he’d told her, eyes on the floor, “I’m afraid I’ve got some bad news.”
She’d invited him in, offered him lunch. And he’d told her that the ranch was mortgaged to the hilt, that Dan had been so mired in debt that they’d have to sell even the house to pay his creditors. And it turned out that even after she’d sold everything—the ranch, the house, and all the stock—it barely covered his debts.
In less than a month, she’d gone from one of the happiest women in Texas to a broken and bankrupt widow.
Jenny opened her eyes as a carriage rattled by on the dirt road, and she turned her face away from the cloud of dust it kicked up. When she’d been Dan’s wife, none of their friendly neighbors would’ve driven past without stopping to offer her a ride. She and Dan had been part of a small and tight-knit community where everyone knew and liked them.
Now, in the little town where she’d landed, no one even saw her anymore, much less stopped to offer her a ride or any help. It was almost like she was invisible.
The only ones who paid her any attention were human scavengers, men like the handyman who’d propositioned her back at her client’s house. They reminded her of wolves circling a wounded deer.
She was certainly wounded—she’d fallen a long way—but she was still able to fight. She wasn’t yet lying on the ground.
Still, she was alone and vulnerable, and they knew it. The scavengers were circling her, waiting for their chance, waiting for her to weaken.
Angry tears stung Jenny’s eyes, and she brushed them away impatiently. She hated to cry. It did no good to cry, and she’d cried enough for ten lifetimes already.
It was time for her to take matters back into her own hands.
Jenny turned into the dirt driveway of the shack she now lived in. It was an unpainted plank-board hovel with a rusted tin roof and a sagging door. It had actually been a flophouse for tramps before she moved in, and she’d had to make and burn a pile of trash, sweep out the dirt, and scrub the place down twice with lye soap before she felt safe to settle in there.
She opened the creaking door and walked into the front room. It was so empty that her footsteps made a hollow, echoing sound on the floorboards. She had one table, a chair, and a lamp, and that was about it.
Jenny locked the door behind her and sat down at the table. There were two objects on it: a kerosene lamp and a newspaper. She had kept the newspaper unread on the table for almost a month, afraid to do what she’d been contemplating and yet unwilling to throw the opportunity away.
She picked up the newspaper, leafed to the classified section, and sighed deeply. There was a large block at the top of the page, advertisements for mail-order brides.
Jenny closed her eyes. A year ago, she would’ve shuddered at the thought of becoming a mail-order bride. It was a bad bargain, marrying a man sight unseen. It was a crazy risk that only desperate women took, but she was a desperate woman now. The pittance that she made cleaning other people’s houses barely earned her enough money to eat, and she had nothing left over for other expenses. She’d had to cut her shining hair to shoulder length and sell it a few months earlier to get money to put kerosene in the lamp and to buy staples like soap, writing paper, and stamps.
She couldn’t go on that way.
She was at a dead end. She had to do something, or she was going to starve.
Jenny ran a slender finger down the column of advertisements. Her eye flicked over them. “Young girl with sweet disposition preferred—hard-working farmer seeks diligent wife, farm girl best—older gentlemen offers comforts of town living to right applicant.”
Jenny sighed and frowned and rubbed her eyes, then started on the next column. But she couldn’t repress a shudder. A mail-order marriage had to be one of the worst ways on earth for a woman to save her life.
I’ll never find love again if I do this, she thought darkly. Nothing like what I had with Dan.
Just a roof over my head, is all.
Philip Barton stared owlishly at the front door of his sprawling ranch house. It looked strangely rippled, as if he was staring at it through creek water—or in his case, through a film of double-rectified Kentucky whiskey. He staggered sideways, fumbled in his pockets, and managed to connect the key to the lock.
He turned the key and the door swung back. Then he leaned inside, kicked it shut behind him, and pointed himself toward the stairs at the end of the foyer. As he walked carefully across the gleaming parquet floor, the sound of voices drifted to him from the nearby parlor. He recognized the voice of his sister Patricia and the voice of her aggrieved fiancé, Wade.
“How long are you going to stay here, Pat? You’ve been living with your brother for over a year now. I’m beginning to wonder if you’ve had a change of heart about us.”
Pat’s voice softened instantly. “Oh, you know it’s not that, darling,” she objected. “I want to marry you more than anything else in the world, Wade. You know that! The wait has been as hard for me as it’s been for you. It’s just that . . . Phil is so lost, and little Cody needs me. His mother is gone, and Phil hardly even looks in on him anymore. I think it upsets him to be around Cody because the baby reminds him so much of Lori.”
Philip frowned and tilted his head. He was having a hard time processing words, but he had the vague sense that he was a part of the conversation.
Wade snorted so loudly that Philip swayed back on his heels. “Your brother is going to let you take care of Cody as long as you will. That’s plain enough,” he replied in a disapproving tone. “It’s time for Phil to come back from the dead and start showing an interest in his son!”
This time, Pat’s tone had a tinge of hurt. “That isn’t fair, Wade. Phil and Lori were so happy together, and she died so suddenly that it just killed him, that’s all. He’s been a different man since the funeral. I don’t recognize him anymore!”
There came the sound of soft sniffing followed by slow footsteps across the parlor floor.
“I’m sorry, darling,” Wade’s voice murmured. “I forgot how close the two of you are. But you can’t stay here forever; you must see that. You’ve given your brother a year of your life, and it’s enough. We have lives of our own to live.”
There was more sniffing, and Pat’s voice replied softly, “I know. I was thinking of it a few weeks ago, and it came to me that—and don’t laugh, Wade—that maybe what Phil needs is a—a mail-order bride.”
Wade’s voice replied warmly, “That’s a wonderful idea, Pat. Why don’t you write up an ad? Who knows, you might find a woman who’ll be good for him.”
Philip made a face and listed slowly and silently against the wall. He grasped at the words, but they slid away from him and disintegrated into meaningless sounds.
“I’m glad you like the idea,” Pat confessed in a shy tone, “because I—I’ve already done it. In fact, I’ve decided on one of the women who replied. She’s coming out here . . . tomorrow.”
“Yes. Don’t look so shocked, Wade. Lots of people marry this way nowadays.”
“It’s not that. It’s just that—have you told Phil?”
“Why would I do that, you silly goose? I’m counting on the element of surprise.”
“Phil would never agree to this if I told him ahead of time,” Pat explained. “So I’m not telling him. He’ll give in when the woman gets here.”
Wade’s tone was that of severe doubt. “I don’t think this is as good an idea as you think, Pat. What if Phil doesn’t like her?”
“Oh, he will. Phil likes everybody.”
There was a rustling sound, and murmuring, and then Pat said, “Promise you’ll help me? I’m counting on your support, Wade. Phil might need a little time to come around, but if we nudge him, I know he will, in the end.”
There was a heavy sigh. “You know I’ll do all I can,” Wade replied in a tone of resignation.
Philip shook his head, pushed off the wall, and made his slow, meandering way up the stairs. The most his addled brain could grasp of what he’d heard was that somebody had said that he didn’t spend time with Cody.
And he had to admit that was true, as far as it went.
He climbed the stairs to the second floor and turned left to his little son’s bedroom. He opened the door softly and walked in.
Moonlight slanted through the big window, and a breath of sweet air ruffled the frilly curtains. Philip walked to his son’s bed and gazed down at his toddler’s golden hair and sweet sleeping face. Cody’s downy eyelashes, his chubby cheeks, and his rosebud mouth were so like Lori’s. Cody looked so much like his mother that it was almost like seeing her again, and for some reason, that resemblance twisted the knife in Philip’s ribs. He turned away, staggered to the door, and reeled down the hall to his big study.
He walked to his desk, lifted the stopper from a snifter of brandy, and poured himself a generous drink.
Philip lifted the glass to his lips, and as he was about to toss the brandy back, his eye lighted on a daguerreotype of Lorelei propped on his desk. Her lovely eyes seemed sad and reproachful, and the wave of shame they inspired burned him even hotter than the liquor.
Philip’s face twisted, and he turned and smoked the glass into the fireplace. The glass shattered, and the liquor ballooned into a ball of fire that threw its arms out for him, then shrank just as quickly.
There was a long, pregnant silence. Then the wail of protest from down the hall told Philip that his flash of temper had not only failed to soothe his pain but it had also frightened the baby.
Philip sagged against the desk, then staggered toward the door to go to his son. He made it only as far as the leather couch. He collapsed dizzily, and even as he fell, he could hear his sister’s quick footsteps on the stair outside, making their way to Cody’s bedroom door.
Thank God for Pat.
Philip turned his face into the leather couch and fell headfirst into a long, deep unconsciousness. But even in his drunken slumber, he couldn’t escape the hulking wreck he’d become. He replayed the last hour in his dreams, watched himself as he staggered into the house, weaved his way up the stairs, and lingered over his son’s bed like a ghost.
Because he was a ghost, except that he’d never died. He’d wanted to die, wanted to badly enough to try, and in those first days after Lori’s death, if it hadn’t been for Cody, he might’ve put a gun to his head.
Not that Cody was much better off with a living father. He knew that better than anyone.
Got to get ahold of myself.
He clenched his fists in his sleep and mumbled the words until they faded into oblivion. His body slowly stilled, and he gradually sank into a deeper dream.
Philip’s eyes rolled beneath their lids, and he frowned in his sleep as the old nightmare slowly coiled its dark arms around his head. He saw it coming, even in his dreams, but somehow, he could never escape.
It was winter, and he hurried into the house from the snowy outdoors. He shrugged out of his coat in the foyer, rubbed his hands, and walked into the parlor. Lorelei was sitting in her favorite stuffed chair near the fireplace. The warm firelight rimmed her delicate profile and turned her curling blonde hair a ruddy gold, but she was frowning.
He walked over and bent down to give her a peck on the cheek. “What’s the matter, Lori?” he teased. “Is having the best husband in Colorado making you feel sorry for the other women?”
To his surprise, she didn’t smile at his joke, and when she looked up at him, her lovely eyes were strained. The smile faded off his face, and he crouched down on the floor beside her chair, took her chin in his hand, and turned her face to his.
“Something’s wrong, isn’t it?” he murmured. “Tell me, Lori.”
She gave him a quick glance, smiled, and shrugged. “It’s nothing. Just a little pain in my chest.”
He frowned and let her go. “Since when?”
She waved her hand as if to dismiss it. “Oh, not long. Just an hour or so. It comes and goes. It’s nothing.”
He scanned her face, and his frown deepened. “Well now, maybe it isn’t nothing,” he replied slowly. “Maybe we should send for Doc.”
“Oh no, Phil,” she objected. “I’d be mortified if we made Doc come all the way out here in this weather, in the dark, and then have it turn out to be nothing!”
“Well, why not? It’s his job.”
“I won’t have it,” she said. “It’s nothing. It’ll be gone by morning.”
“Are you still having pain?”
“No. Not for about ten minutes now. It’s gone, I tell you.” She rose on the words and walked past him, her skirts rustling. “I’m going to bed.”
He turned his head to watch her go, and doubt shook him. And even in his dream, his troubled mind urged, Send for the doctor.
“Lori?” He stood up and took a few steps across the room.
Her voice floated down to him from the stairs. She was already halfway to their bedroom.
“Come to bed, Phil. We’ll talk about it in the morning.”
Philip shook his head in his sleep and murmured thickly. The dream always ended the same way, and it always played out right to the end, no matter how desperately he wanted to escape.
“Well, if you’re sure.”
Her voice was more distant now, but it answered: “I’m sure.”
He followed her with a troubled expression, but he allowed her to turn into their bedroom without objection. When he entered, she was bending over the crib to kiss the baby’s cheek.
“Be careful,” he whispered as he closed the door behind him. “You don’t want to wake him up.” He walked over to the bed, sat down, and pulled off his boots.
Lori caressed the baby’s cheek, then turned to change into her nightgown. When she was finished, she pulled the bedcovers back and slipped in beside him.
He raised his arm, and Lori snuggled in onto his chest. He put his arm around her and hugged her close.
“You sure you’re alright?”
She smiled up at him, and her eyes were bright and happy. “I’m wonderful.”
He leaned down to kiss her, then blew out the lamp and settled down. He was asleep within minutes.
But somewhere, deep in the dark, cold hours of the night, he woke again. Something wasn’t right, or maybe he’d had an unremembered nightmare. He sucked in, pulled his hands over his face, and turned to look at Lori. She’d slipped off his chest and was lying on her pillow with an expression of perfect peace. He smiled, grateful that her pain was gone, and reached out for her arm. It felt strangely cool for a woman lying under a quilt.
He sat up and grabbed her again, but she didn’t open her eyes.
“Lori? Lori, wake up.”
“Lori,” he mumbled, and turned his head, unable to wake.
He pulled his wife up, but her head lolled back on her shoulders, then rolled forward limply. He stared at her in horror, and his mouth crumpled up as he slowly lowered her back onto the pillow. The hideous truth took a while to really sink into his mind.
Lori was dead.
She was dead because he hadn’t sent for Doc. She’d told him that she was hurting, but he hadn’t bothered to have it checked out.
Philip’s eyes blared wide in horror, and he rolled off the couch and fell onto the floor with a crash. He lay there panting, and slowly it dawned on him that it was just the dream again.
He closed his eyes and put a hand to his galloping heart. It had been over a year, but he was still having the same nightmare. He was starting to think he would go on reliving the night of Lori’s death until he died himself.
Oh, Lori. He moaned. I’d give anything in this world to go back and send for Doc.
The sound of fussing and whimpering down the hall told him that the rumpus had wakened Cody, and Phil dragged himself to his feet and made for the door.
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