Trapped in a life she didn’t want; Jack seems like the only glimpse of light in her darkness. After losing everything, he struggles to open his heart again. But is love all they need to get over the obstacles and have a second chance in life?
After losing her family and not being able to bring food to the table, Rose decides to become a mail-order bride. However, she never expected to meet a man who takes her breath away. She tries so hard to be a proper bride, but the ranch falls apart in her hands. How can she show herself that she’s worthy and her husband that she’s in a better place because of his love?
Jack lives under the thumb of his uncle. When he decides to marry Rose, even if at first he didn’t want to, it’s the first time he chooses for himself. However, Rose often fails in her everyday chores so far that it makes Jack wonder if she’s cut out for the Western lifestyle. Can he see beyond these trials and pledge his devotion to her?
Jack and Rose’s profound love will be put to the test because of jealousy and insecurity. When these threats though take over the ranch, how can they find their way back to each other and commit their hearts to the cause?
Bonner Springs, Kansas
A sudden gust of air from an approaching storm riffled Rose Alston’s blonde hair and sent a few stray sprigs floating on the breeze as she stood waiting on the train depot platform. She was a pretty, fresh-faced blonde, just eighteen, holding a bouquet of daisies.
Her companion was an elderly woman with her white hair pulled back into a severe bun. She adjusted the lace collar on Rose’s blue cotton dress. “Stand still, girl,” she clucked. “Fidgeting won’t make that train get here any faster.”
“I wish it’d hurry up, Miss Barrett.”
A second distant wail announced the slow approach of the small, dark smudge on the rim of the Kansas horizon. Another train boarding at the station suddenly blasted the platform with steam as if in reply, and it distracted Rose’s attention, but only momentarily. Her eyes returned to the tiny light on the horizon and the black clouds gathering above it. A vivid flick of lightning branched across the sky in the distance.
“Looks like a Noah rain coming,” Rose sighed glumly, and kicked the depot platform with a small, booted foot. “We’re going to get sopping wet in that buckboard on the way home.”
“Well, it can’t be helped,” her neighbor replied sturdily. “And it wouldn’t be the first time.”
Rose glanced at her unhappily, and then at a pair of young men standing on the platform a few feet away. One of them caught her glance, lifted his dark brown cowboy hat, and smiled. Rose dimpled in reply and waved slightly until her neighbor’s long fingers pinched her arm. She winced slightly, gave Miss Barrett a guilty glance, and turned her attention back to the horizon.
The silence stretched out as the distant train inched toward them, and the older woman finally murmured, “Did your aunt promise to bring you something back from the state fair?”
Rose smiled and shrugged. “Stories, I guess. That prize she won only covered her train fare and the boarding house. She had to buy her own food, and she didn’t have much money for that. I hope she brings back a postcard or two, though, so we can see what the fair looked like.”
The corners of the older woman’s mouth curled up. “Your Aunt Audrey makes the best blackberry pie in Kansas, and she has for years. She deserved that trip to the state fair, and I’m glad she won it.”
Rose turned to look up at her and smiled. “So am I.”
They watched as the tiny light slowly became bigger. It seemed to take the train forever to reach them, but it was hard to judge distance on the Kansas plain. The land was so flat you could see objects a hundred miles away.
Rose glanced over her shoulder and smiled to see that the young cowboy had inched a step or two closer. He caught her eye again and lifted his hat slightly.
“Waiting for somebody, miss?”
Rose smiled at him. “My Aunt Audrey. She’s coming back from the state fair.”
“They do say it’s a sight,” the young man agreed. “I got a friend who went there and saw an elephant. He said it’s the best place to eat in Kansas. All kinds of food from all over the state.”
Rose’s mouth fell slightly open, and her companion cleared her throat and gave the young man a short, straight look.
“Are you going to see the fair?” Rose ventured shyly, and the young man shook his head. “No, miss. Wish I was, but…I’m bound for Kansas City. I got a job at the stockyards. I’m just waiting to board the train.”
Rose smiled at him, then glanced at the train parked a stone’s throw down the tracks. Passengers were disembarking, and the porters were preparing to let the new passengers board.
“Kinda wish I didn’t have to go now, though,” the young man grinned, and Rose’s disapproving neighbor coughed again.
They waited, watching the horizon, as the breeze freshened and ruffled hat feathers and dress hems. A sudden peal of thunder rolled across the sky like a bowling ball, and lightning flicked again. Suddenly big drops of rain hit the depot roof like fingers on a drum, and the small crowd waiting on the platform moved back to avoid getting freckled by stray drops.
The porters helped the last disembarking passengers off the waiting train, then climbed up again to clean out the cars. The crowd waiting on the platform slowly grew, and a few minutes later a uniformed porter climbed down and called:
“Kansas City run, boarding in fifteen minutes! Kansas City!”
Rose stepped up a pace. “When is the other train arriving, sir? The one out yonder?” she asked.
The elderly porter nodded toward the approaching train. “Any minute by the look of it, miss.”
Rose glanced toward the horizon and, to her surprise, the train had suddenly become much bigger. She could see the locomotive clearly now, and the gigantic plume of steam belching from its smokestack. The deep thrum of the wheels was clearly audible now, and the ground trembled slightly at the train’s approach.
Rose tilted her head slightly and frowned. She wasn’t an expert on trains, but this one seemed to be moving very fast.
The cowboy at her elbow echoed her thoughts. “What is wrong with that thing?” he muttered and stuck his hands on his hips. “It’s flying low!”
All three of them watched in frowning confusion as the engine came on, blasting steam to the sky and shaking the boards beneath their feet. The porter looked up, looked again, and suddenly scrambled off the platform and dashed for the switch.
“It’s a runaway!” the cowboy shouted, and the people on the platform screamed and scattered in panic as the approaching engine barreled toward the parked train. Rose watched in fascinated horror as the engineer and porters leaped from the motionless train and sprinted off in every direction.
The cowboy grabbed hers and Miss Barrett’s arm, and hustled them down off the platform, out into the rain, and as far behind the depot building as they could run.
“Get down!” he shouted.
The cowboy shoved Rose to the ground and threw himself across her as the runaway train’s thunder filled the air. When she tried to look up, all she could see were her daisies, scattered in the grass around her. The next instant, there was a huge bang and a long, ear-splitting screech that made Rose’s head throb, followed by an explosion that blew the depot apart like a matchstick toy. Fierce heat blazed in the air around them, broken boards rained down from the sky, and bang after bang after bang made it clear that train cars were crashing into one another and flying off the tracks.
Rose squeezed her eyes closed and screamed in terror, and the cowboy pushed her into the ground so hard she got grit in her teeth, but all she could think of was her helpless aunt on one of those train cars that were getting smashed from behind or slammed off the rails.
“Aunt Audrey!” she sobbed, then screamed again as a train car came sliding by not ten yards away, plowing up the ground before tilting over onto its side with a thunderous crash and a tinkle of broken window glass.
Rose’s shoulders heaved with sobs, but she could feel the cowboy’s weight lifting off of her. Immediately sheets of rain plastered her hair to her head and ran down into her eyes.
“Are you all right, miss?”
She nodded because she couldn’t speak.
He scrambled over to check her neighbor. “Ma’am? Ma’am?”
Miss Barrett raised her head slowly and gasped. She was soaking wet.
“Are you all right?”
“Yes, I think so,” the old woman quavered.
“I’m going to check on that train car,” the young man told them. “I’ll be back in a minute.”
There was a scrambling sound, and when Rose lifted her head, he was already climbing up onto the wrecked car. An instant later he disappeared inside.
Rose panted in terror but raised her eyes. The depot roof had been blown clean off, and what was left of the building was jagged and on fire. Burning boards and broken glass were all around her, and to her horror, the sound of moans and cries were beginning to rise all around her.
Her elderly neighbor dragged herself over to her side and put an arm around her shoulder. Rose looked up and moaned. “Miss Barrett, your face is bleeding!”
The older woman put a hand to her brow. “It’s just a cut,” she muttered. “Flying glass.”
Another man ran up to them. “You ladies all right?” he asked.
Miss Barrett looked up at him. “We’re all right.”
“Can you stand up?”
“You’ll have to help me, I think,” the older woman grunted, and the man leaned over and helped her to her feet.
Rose staggered up slowly, and the man turned to her. “You ladies come with me. I’m gathering up the women to go back to town.”
“But my aunt is on that train!” Rose cried, then half-s0bbed. “We have to find her. We can’t leave here without her!”
The pity in the man’s eyes made Rose’s widen in fear. “Don’t worry, young miss,” he told her softly. “We’ll find your aunt. But this is a job for the men folks.”
Miss Barrett put an arm around her shoulder. “Come on, Rose.”
“But what about Aunt Audrey?”
“We’ll find her,” the man soothed. “Come on now.”
Rose looked around the depot yard in dazed confusion. “Where’s the boy who helped us?”
The man glanced back at her over his shoulder as he helped her elderly companion. “What boy, miss?”
“There was a young man who helped us get off the platform,” Miss Barrett explained, then added, “I expect he’s off helping folks get out of the train cars, Rose.”
“That’s right.” The man nodded, and he led the way across the yard to a knot of shivering women standing together in the pouring rain.
“I sent a boy to go chase down my buckboard,” he told them. “My horse ran off with it, but he’ll get it. See, here he comes.”
The rain was falling so hard that Rose could hardly raise her eyes to look at the approaching wagon. She trembled with shock and grief, and when she turned back to look at the track, she gasped in horror.
The two locomotives were standing almost upright, head-to-head, like a pair of bulls that had reared up and locked horns. The tenders had overturned and scattered coal over the track and the depot, and a dozen cars were smashed up all together in a knot. Some were on fire, others were lying on their sides, and the ones closest to the engines were crushed to a third of their former size.
Rose’s mouth dropped open. Men were clambering all around the train cars, breaking out windows, climbing inside; but it was plain as print that most of the people inside were dead. Even she could see that. Fire belched from dozens of windows, and some cars were crushed like tin cans.
“All right, everybody climb into the wagon,” the man’s voice was saying. “Quickly, now! We want to get you ladies out of the rain.”
The women climbed up slowly into the buckboard, sodden and crying softly. Rose helped Miss Barrett up, then followed her miserably. The elderly woman hugged her close as they huddled together.
“Be brave, Rose,” she whispered. “It’s what Audrey would have wanted.”
Rose looked up at her in dismay. “Don’t talk about her as if she’s dead!”
The wagon took off with a lurch, and the buckboard jounced down the dirt road roughly. Rose looked back over her shoulder longingly just in time to see another small fire bloom up from one of the engines.
“And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away.”
The pastor closed his Bible and bowed his head as he stood at the head of the open grave. The graveyard behind the little clapboard church was small and windswept, and the scent on the wind spoke of more rain to come.
“Let us pray.”
Rose bowed her head and wept, and Miss Barrett silently slipped an arm around her shoulders as the minister prayed.
“Lord, we commend to you the soul of our dear sister Audrey Latimer, in the knowledge that she is now in Heaven with you, and in the sure hope of the resurrection. We look forward to the day when we shall all be together again in your house, and sorrow and crying shall be no more. Amen.”
“Amen,” Rose breathed sadly, and watched forlornly as other mourners stepped up to toss flowers into her aunt’s open grave. Last of all Rose took a step forward and dropped a white rose into the grave, and then young men with shovels began to fill it up.
The sight of it made fresh tears jump to Rose’s eyes, and she bowed her head and wept silently. Miss Barrett tightened her arm around her shoulders but let her cry without offering any words.
The crowd of black-garbed mourners stirred and began to slowly disperse. Their neighbors came over to murmur their sympathies, and Rose registered their sad faces dimly. She felt as if she was underwater. Everything seemed slow and dim and muffled to her, as if none of it was quite real.
As if she was imagining it all and would rise the next morning to find her smiling aunt in the kitchen, and everything at their farm just as it had always been.
Last of all the minister walked up and took Rose’s hand. “I’ll escort you and Miss Barrett back to your house, Rose,” he said kindly. “The ladies of the church will be by this evening with some covered dishes. You naturally won’t feel like cooking for a while.”
Rose allowed herself to be led to the pastor’s buggy by the hand, like a child, and she sat there in the back seat and stared at the flat countryside as it slowly rolled past.
The thought was just beginning to occur to her that she was in deep trouble. It was still dim and unreal, like everything else, but she was going to have to acknowledge it, even if that was much later.
Her Aunt Audrey was the only relative…had been the only relative she had left.
They pulled into the disheveled farm about twenty minutes later. Rose stared at the little white clapboard house, and for the first time since she’d come there, it looked empty and dark.
There was no one in it waiting for her.
The minister climbed down and walked over to help Miss Barrett down, and then Rose. Rose stepped down and pulled her shawl closer around her shoulders. The breeze had been cool on the little hill, but the wind had turned. It felt cold to her now.
They walked into the little front parlor, and Miss Barrett lit the lamps. The minister sat down on the settee, clasped his hands together over his knees, and stared at her earnestly.
“My wife is in Tremont with her sister this weekend, or she could’ve stayed here with you tonight,” he murmured apologetically. “Would you like her to stay with you a night or two when she gets back?”
Rose looked up at him. “Oh, that’s very kind of you, Reverend,” she murmured, “but no. I’ll be all right.”
His eyes were full of sympathy. “Are you sure?” he asked.
Rose nodded mutely, and he added, “Is there anything I can do for you, child, while I’m here?”
Rose shook her head again, and Miss Barrett put in, “I’ll stay with Rose a little while, Reverend.”
The minister nodded, then stood up with a sigh. “If there’s anything I or Mrs. Chalmers can do for you, Rose, you just let us know,” he told her, and put a hand lightly on her arm. “We’d be happy.”
“Thank you,” Rose replied, in a voice almost too soft to hear; and she stared at the floor as Miss Barrett walked the pastor to the door and saw him out.
A little while later the church ladies came, and Rose listened as Miss Barrett talked to them at the door.
“I’m glad she got to enjoy that trip before she passed. Poor Audrey, she had to work so hard, she didn’t get to go places much.”
“She’d been looking forward to that trip, all right.”
“Well, God bless her, she’s in a better place now. She deserves her rest.”
To Rose’s relief, the women did not come in, did not try to talk to her; but they left large, covered dishes filled with food. If it were any other time, she would have dug in because no one was a better cook than an elderly church lady, but her appetite had fled.
Rose listened to the little clinks and clanks of Miss Barrett puttering in the kitchen as she put the food away; and soon the older woman emerged carrying a glass of milk.
“Here,” she murmured. “Drink this and go to bed. Try to get some sleep. I’ll stay with you tonight.”
Rose took the glass but replied: “No, Miss Barrett, you go on home. I’ll be all right, really.”
The elderly woman’s frowning eyes searched her face. “Are you sure, child? It’s no trouble for me.”
Rose glanced up at her gratefully. “Thank you but, I’m sure,” she said almost too quietly.
The older woman sighed but nodded. “All right, if you’re sure. But just remember, I’m right next door. You can come on in anytime. Even spend the night, if you’d like to.”
Rose nodded and mustered a faint smile, and her neighbor walked slowly to the door. She paused on the threshold and added, “Just call out to me before you come in, if you come tonight. I sleep with a gun under my pillow, and I might shoot you if I don’t know who you are.”
Rose almost sputtered, but she swallowed her bubble of weak laughter, because she knew the older woman was not joking. “I’ll remember, Miss Barrett.”
The older woman nodded, hugged herself as if she was cold, and slowly shut the door behind her.
Rose stared at it for a while, then rose and built a little fire in the fireplace, even though it was late spring and cool rather than cold. Soon she had a cheerful fire leaping in the grate, just as the rain arrived and began to splatter the tin roof with big, noisy drops.
She settled into a stuffed chair facing the fire and pulled a book with a lurid cover off the table at her elbow. She opened it and submerged herself instantly into a world where love flourished, right always triumphed, and trouble was always short-lived.
“Help! Help me!”
The innocent Daphne Sweetwater wriggled helplessly against the cruel ropes tying her wrists and ankles. Her dastardly kidnapper, the evil banker Reginald Humphries, laughed cruelly.
“Sign the deed to your family farm over to me, and I will release you!”
Reginald leered down at her. “If you don’t sign over the deed, I’ll take you out to Loon Lake and throw you in!”
“Oh, help! Someone please help me!”
The door to the little cabin suddenly burst open, and both Daphne and Reginald turned to look—the former in hope, and the latter in rage. The door was filled with a tall, dark shadow—the fearless rancher, Dan Tremaine.
“Unhand that girl, you scoundrel!”
Rose closed her eyes and pressed the book to her chest. She was immersed in the book’s glittering fairy-tale world now, a warm, happy place far away from her own broken heart and empty house.
Rose smiled. She could see the handsome hero so clear in her mind—he was a tall, dark cowboy with beautiful brown eyes, a white smile, and a square jaw. His shoulders were like a door frame, he was made of muscle, and his heart was as pure and beautiful as solid gold.
He looked and acted just like the man she hoped to marry some day; and as she read, she could almost hear her Aunt Audrey sigh, “Have you got your nose in those books again? You ought to not to read that nonsense all the time, Rose. There is not a word of truth in those dime-store romances.”
She had always answered the same way.
“But they’re so beautiful!”
Her aunt had only shaken her head. “There’s more to love than moonlight and kissing, girl. The better part of marriage is not killing your husband with a skillet.”
“Oh, you’re laughing at me.”
“You might be surprised.”
Rose sighed and opened her eyes. A likeness of Aunt Audrey was propped on the fireplace mantle, and Rose stared up at the picture wistfully. Her aunt had been a blonde beauty in her youth, and her gentle blue eyes stared down at her.
Rose blinked back tears and returned to her book.
Reginald drew a knife from his belt with an evil laugh and pressed it to Daphne’s throat. “Come a step closer, and I’ll kill her!”
The dark shadow stopped. “You mangy coyote—only a coward would threaten an innocent girl!”
“Get back, I warn you!”
Rose looked up. Billy, the top hand on the farm, was standing in the open doorway. Billy was a tall, skinny drink of water with an unruly shock of brown hair and a face full of freckles. A rooster was crowing in the yard outside, and it was foggy and felt early. She rubbed her face and sat up. She had fallen asleep in her chair in front of the fire.
“I’m sorry to wake you, Miss Rose, but I thought you oughta know.”
“Know what, Billy?” she mumbled. “Come in and sit down.”
Billy stepped inside, hat in hand. “Thank you, Miss Rose, but I’d just as soon stand,” he mumbled, and she frowned at him.
“Is something wrong?” Rose asked.
“Oh no, miss, I wouldn’t say wrong. No, not that.” He rubbed the back of his neck with one hand. “It’s just that…well, you know that your aunt, God rest her, hasn’t had a lot of money since your uncle died. The hands have been getting paid late for over a month now, and…”
“Oh, of course,” Rose mumbled. “It is time to give you your pay.”
“I hate to ask at a time like this, Miss Rose,” he replied apologetically, “but some of the men got families, and they need the money.”
“How much do we—do I—owe you?”
“It comes to about thirty dollars for all of us, Miss Rose. That’s this month’s pay, and last months.”
Rose stood up and pressed her hands together. “Just wait here, Billy. I’ll go get the money.”
“I sure do appreciate it, Miss Rose.”
Rose left the parlor and hurried to her aunt’s little study. There was a little metal box on the desk where Aunt Audrey always kept her money, and Rose opened it up. There was a sheaf of bills still inside, and when Rose counted it, the sheaf came to exactly thirty-five dollars.
Rose counted it again, but it still came to thirty-five dollars.
Her heart began to pound in her chest, because to her knowledge, that little metal box held all the money her aunt had in the world.
Tears of panic jumped to Rose’s eyes, and she scrabbled around her aunt’s desk, opening drawers and boxes, looking for any other hidden cache of money, but there was none.
Thirty-five dollars was all that stood between her and the world.
Rose put her hands to her hair in distraction. She’d known that they were poor all right, but until that moment she didn’t understand just how much trouble and worry her aunt had kept to herself. They had barely been making it.
Rose clutched the paper money in her hand and stared down at it. She was sorely tempted to stuff the money back into the metal box and go tell Billy that she hadn’t been able to find it; but it was a sin to tell a lie.
What was more, both her parents and her aunt had taught her that a debt was a sacred obligation. And so with that, she dried her eyes, stood there a minute to beat back her panic, and then slowly returned to the parlor to pay a just debt.
She walked up to Billy and counted the money out into his open hand. “Here you are, Billy. Ten…twenty…thirty,” she quavered, and bit her lip.
Billy gave her a grateful glance. “Thank you, Miss Rose,” he murmured. “I’m sorry I had to bother you. We were all fond of your aunt. She was a good woman and a good boss lady. We’re going to miss her.”
“Thank you, Billy,” Rose replied in a small voice; and their top hand tipped his hat and took his leave, closing the door softly behind him.
Rose stared at the door after he left, then drifted back to the chair and slumped down into it in shock.
She had five dollars left.
Rose stared down at her hands. Her fingertips felt numb, and the feeling of unreality, of disaster, was slowly moving up her arms and into her chest, where it settled into her heart like four feet of flood water.
Her eyes circled the room. They paused on the picture of her aunt, then moved to the other picture on the mantle, the picture of her parents. They had both died of pneumonia when she was five years old.
Rose was hungry for comfort, and she scanned their smiling faces wistfully; but her parents were long gone. Her memory of her mother and father had always been blurry, and now they seemed so dim and distant, it was almost like she had dreamed them. The man in the daguerreotype was a tall, square-shouldered blond, with pince-nez glasses, smiling eyes and a big moustache. The woman had a luxuriant head of curling blonde hair and clear blue eyes, both of which she had inherited.
Her aunt had told her that her father had been a teacher, and that her mother had cleaned houses.
They’d worked hard but had been as poor as church mice for all that, Audrey had always said; then always added with a sigh, that nobody in their family had a speck of luck when it came to money. And it was true, because they had been poor themselves, even when Uncle Brent was still alive.
It is almost like my family is cursed, Rose thought forlornly. Doomed to be poor forever.
And if my folks and Uncle Brent and Aunt Audrey couldn’t make it when they were all working as hard as plow mules every day, what hope do I have all alone, with just a tumbledown farm and five dollars to my name?
The gloomy thought shook Rose with a deep wave of fear; and so she curled up in the big chair, reached for the romance book, and escaped into it.
“Get your dirty hands off that girl,” Tremaine snarled, then sent a smashing left into Reginald Humphries’ pointed jaw. The dastardly banker spun and dropped to the floor like a rock, and Tremaine knelt down instantly to cut Daphne free.
“Are you all right, miss?” Tremaine murmured, and helped pull her up.
Daphne raised swimming eyes to his face and whispered, “I am now, handsome stranger.”
Rose closed her eyes and mouthed the words devoutly, then read on.
Tremaine took her hand and helped her step over Humphries’ inert body. “Let me take you back to town, miss.”
I’m going to marry that man someday, Daphne thought to herself; but she only nodded, and let him lead her out.
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