An accident brings her to his doorstep. A game of luck binds them forever. Is a simple twist of fate enough to create a love that will stand proud against corruption?
Winona is about to get married when she witnesses an act of profound violence. An accident brings her to the Foley ranch which is led by the adamant Logan Foley and his recluse brothers. A marriage of convenience is the only way for her to keep her honor and escape the past. Will she be able to show her new husband that falling in love is his only salvation too?
Logan has severed ties long ago with the community due to his parents’ death. God knows though that his ranch needs a woman’s touch. When he discovers the beautiful Winona in his property, hurt and lost, he’ll do everything he can to protect her honor. However, is getting married to her his chance to find serenity and a life-long companion?
An unexpected game of fate brings the two together. However, can Winona and Logan love each other fully and freely when their past is catching up on them and threatening to tear them apart?
Near El Paso, Texas
April 18, 1874
Logan wiped sweat from his eyes and lowered his hat. The sun was setting behind him so there was no need to protect his eyes from shadows, but he lowered it anyway. He’d never been one for letting others see him cry and anyway, his brothers needed his strength right now, not his grief.
Truthfully, he was surprised at how much his grandfather’s loss affected him. He loved his grandfather, of course, but Harold Foley was well past his eightieth birthday when his heart finally gave out. Logan thought he’d reconciled himself to Harold’s death years ago. Traveling home from the elderly man’s funeral, Logan knew he hadn’t. Judging by the expressions on the faces of his parents and two brothers, they struggled with grief as well.
“Hey Logan?” a voice whispered to his left—his younger brother, Gregory.
“Yes?” Logan whispered back.
“Can you fall back with me a spell? I need to ask you something.”
“Sure, Greg,” Logan replied. He pulled back slightly on Canvas’s reigns, slowing the horse to a leisurely walk and falling behind his parents in the wagon. He reckoned Greg needed to talk to his big brother to sort out his feelings about his Pappy’s death. He didn’t feel at all up to giving advice or encouragement at the moment but it was his responsibility as the eldest to be there for his brothers. He would have to find the strength.
When Jay, the youngest brother, saw his two older brothers falling behind, he slowed his own horse.
“Let me talk to Greg first,” Logan said, softly enough so his parents couldn’t hear.
“Actually, he should see it too,” Greg said.
Logan detected a hint of anxiety in his voice and the hairs on the back of his neck prickled. “What’s going on, Greg?” he asked.
Greg pointed behind them to the horizon, brushing a lock of his wavy brown hair from his forehead. He alone of the brothers inherited their mother’s waves. Jay and Logan had their father’s straight, sandy brown hair. “Do you see riders on the horizon?”
Logan squinted against the glare of the setting sun. He could make out several faint shapes that after a moment’s inspection, did appear to be riders. Logan counted a dozen in all. “Yeah, I see ‘em.”
“Me too,” Jay piped up. “Should we tell Pa?”
“Reckon we oughta,” Logan agreed.
He flicked Canvas’s reigns and the horse accelerated to a brisk trot, closing the distance to his parent’s wagon in a few seconds. Dale Foley glanced at his son, sorrow still showing in his heavy-lidded eyes. “What are you boys doing back there?” He asked in a voice as tired as his eyes.
“There’s riders, Pa,” Logan said. “I counted a dozen.”
The elder Foley’s eyes cleared almost instantly, and his voice enlivened and at the same time became even more serious. “Where?”
“Are they gaining on us?”
Logan looked behind him. The shapes were noticeably larger than they were a moment ago. “Yes.”
Dale quickly scanned the road ahead. By this time, Greg and Jay had ridden up alongside their father and when Dale turned back, he addressed all three of them. “We’ll ride behind that dune over there until the riders pass.”
“What’s going on?” Logan’s mother asked.
“There’s riders, Martha,” Dale said calmly. “It’s probably just a troop of rangers out of El Paso but we’re going to sit tight behind that sand dune until they pass.” He didn’t mention the other possibility that the riders were bandits who would see in the family an opportunity for easy money. Such bandits rarely left their victims alive to report their crimes.
Martha nodded and Logan noticed her eyes cleared and became alert as well. The only emotion that could have so easily overpowered their grief in that moment was fear. A pit formed in Logan’s stomach as they rode behind the dune.
Once behind the dune, Dale retrieved the rifles, handing one to each of the boys, then one to Martha and the last for himself. “Martha, stay by the wagon,” Dale whispered. “Greg, Jay, stay with her. Logan, come with me.”
Logan and Dale crept to the edge of the dune and peered around at the road. The riders were much closer now and Logan could see they rode in a wide fan shape about fifty yards abreast. After a few seconds it became apparent they were not Texas Rangers. After a few more it became apparent the riders were heading purposefully for the dune where the Foleys hid.
Dale swore under his breath and ran back to the others. Logan followed close behind.
“There’s a fight comin’,” Dale said. “Take cover behind the wagon and chamber a round.”
The boys nodded and complied. Martha followed suit. Jay’s lip quivered slightly, and Martha smiled and put a hand on his shoulder. “It’ll be okay, son,” she said. “Just listen to your father and me.”
Logan’s heart pounded as they waited for the riders. After a moment, he could hear the sound of their horses approaching. Soon, he could hear laughter and whooping as the men approached what they thought would be an easy target.
They’ll learn different soon enough, Logan thought to himself. Despite the confidence that thought expressed, Logan couldn’t shake the feeling of dread that slowly crept up his spine.
A moment later, the gang began riding around the corner, guns firing. As soon as Logan saw a rider, he fired his rifle. The outlaw fell to the ground, clutching his chest. Logan quickly levered another round into the chamber as his father and brother’s rifles cracked. Three more outlaws fell and a fourth flew from his horse as the animal stumbled over the corpses of its companions. The outlaw immediately leapt to his feet and ran for about ten feet before Martha’s round found his chest.
Logan heard a stream of curses from the other outlaws and the skittering of sand and gravel as they pulled their mounts to a stop and spun them around to avoid the sudden fury of gunfire that felled a third of their number.
“Get on out of here!” Dale yelled. “Unless you want to join your friends in the pit.”
“You first!” an outlaw cried. He spun around and fired wildly with his pistol. Dale fired and the man’s head snapped backward, a hole the size of a quarter stamped in his forehead just above his right eye.
“Who wants to be next?” Dale called. Logan knew his father would not react so violently if he didn’t feel he had good reason.
The reason became clear quickly enough. One of the outlaws shouted, “Who are you to threaten us? We’re the Sundown Gang! We ain’t afraid of you!”
As soon as he finished speaking, the outlaw spun around the corner and fired three rounds quickly before returning behind the corner.
“Ma!” Jay cried.
Logan and Dale turned. Logan’s blood turned to ice. His mother stood upright in the wagon clutching her stomach. Rivulets of blood ran between her fingers. She looked up at Dale with a confused expression than toppled out of the wagon, landing heavily on the ground.
“Martha!” Dale shouted. He rushed to his wife’s side, ignoring the enemy ahead.
“Pa, look out!” Logan cried. An outlaw aimed his handgun at Dale and fired. An instant later, both Logan’s and Greg’s rifles roared. The outlaw jerked twice in rapid succession from the two rounds then fell face first to the ground.
Dale scrambled back behind the wagon, grabbing his chest and grimacing in pain. Logan crawled over to his father. His heart burned from his mother’s sudden death, but he couldn’t allow himself to feel anything but adrenaline. Emotion would come later. “Fire at anything that shows it’s face on this side of the dune!” he shouted toward Greg and Jay.
Tears streamed down the younger boy’s face, but Greg’s hands were steady. He squeezed Jay’s shoulder and Jay took a ragged breath, then calmed and watched the other side. At sixteen, Jay had never fired on anything more dangerous than a mule deer. A year older, Greg had never fired on a man before but was forced to kill a bear once after it came on their camp. Maybe that gave him a calmer outlook when confronted with the danger they faced now.
The outlaws, having lost half their number, seemed reluctant to return. Greg motioned to Logan that he would watch the other side in case the gang tried to flank them.
Logan knelt by his father. The older man’s breath was shallow and a sheen of sweat shone on his face. He looked up at Logan, his eyes glazed.
“Take care of your brothers,” he rasped. “And take care of the horse ranch.”
“Pa, don’t talk like that,” Logan said. The tears he fought back when his mother died threatened again. “Greg! Jay! Bring me the possibles bag.” Logan knew there was nothing there that could help his father, but he couldn’t overcome his urge to try something, anything to save his life.”
Jay started for the wagon, but Greg placed a hand on his shoulder. Tears ran down his face too. Logan turned back toward his father, his own eyes swimming.
“Promise me,” Dale said.
Logan gulped and drew a shaky breath. Then he set his jaw and squeezed his Pa’s hand. “I will, Pa.”
Dale nodded. “I love you, son.”
After saying those words, he drew a final, rattling breath, then stilled.
Black fury filled Logan but instead of bursting into a rage, he found he felt completely calm and unnaturally alert and clearheaded. He crawled back into position and called his brothers over.
“We’re going to flank them,” Logan whispered. “Follow me. Jay, cover the rear.”
He led them around the other side of the dune. Five of the six remaining outlaws were huddled close to the dune, discussing what to do. One watched the opposite side of the dune, but none watched the side Logan and his brothers emerged from.
In a fluid motion, the three boys raised their rifles and fired. Three outlaws dropped. The other three didn’t bother trying to fight back but leapt onto their mounts and rode off. Jay and Greg quickly dropped two more of them. Logan leveled his rifle and stared down the sights at the third. He exhaled softly and squeezed the trigger and the final outlaw fell from his horse.
Logan watched as the horse continued riderless, until the animal disappeared on the horizon. As suddenly as it began the fight was over. Only the gradually softening reverberation of the gunfire off the ridge gave any sign eight people died here.
Logan turned to his brothers. Gregory and Jay were sobbing. He opened his mouth to speak, but the pain, loss, and fear finally overwhelmed him and instead he dropped to his knees and wept with his brothers.
May 27th, 1876
“Why, Miss Winona! You look absolutely fetching in that dress!”
Winona smiled at the portly middle-aged woman behind the counter. “Thank you, Mrs. Black.”
Mrs. Black put her hands on her hips in mock indignation. “Miss Winona, how many times have I told you to stop with this ‘Mrs. Black’ nonsense. Call me Cordelia.”
Winona laughed. “I guess it would just sound strange to hear you call me Miss Winona and me to call you only Cordelia.”
“Well, if you insist, I suppose you could call me Mrs. Cordelia.”
“Well then, thank you, Mrs. Cordelia.”
Cordelia beamed. “Now, what can I do for you today, Miss Winona?”
“Just a few odds and ends,” Winona replied. She handed Cordelia a scrap of paper and a woven basket.
The shopkeeper scanned the paper and grinned up at Winona. “Have you taken up drawing?”
Winona blushed. “It helps pass the time. I’m not any good but it’s fun anyway.”
“Well, I don’t know about that. I think I’ll have to reserve my judgment until I see an example of your work.”
Winona’s blush deepened, but she agreed to return the following week with a drawing for Cordelia. “Don’t tell me what it’s going to be!” the older woman insisted. “I want to be surprised.”
She left the counter and began gathering the items on Winona’s list: paper, pencils, oil sticks, various colors of ink and a set of writing quills. Most general stores didn’t carry art supplies, but Winona’s mother was an artist of local fame when Winona was a child and Cordelia maintained a stock of artist’s necessities in her honor.
While she waited, Winona wandered around the store, looking at the various items on display. When she came across the candy counter stocked with miniature barrels full of rock candy, gumdrops, and various other confections, she smiled. She’d loved coming here with her mother as a child. Her mother would always buy her a small bag of gumdrops and she would savor them one at a time as they walked home. She would tell her mother about school, and they would laugh and just enjoy each other’s company.
Her smile faded. Her mother died of cholera just a few days after her eighth birthday. Her father remarried three years later, and her stepmother, Audrey, was the opposite of her mother in every way. She seemed more concerned with her wealth and social status than her stepdaughter’s happiness. The worst part was the change in her father. Over time, he’d taken on his wife’s worst qualities until now he barely resembled the man she once knew.
“You’re never too old for a gumdrop, I always say.”
The rich, baritone voice startled Winona out of her musing and she turned to see Clarence Huxtable smiling down at her. Clarence was the manager of the bank and the male counterpart to Cordelia in portliness and kindliness. “I’m sorry to startle you, Miss Winona,” he said.
“Oh, that’s fine,” Winona said. “I was just distracted is all.”
“Winona! Your order’s ready,” Cordelia called from the counter. She glared at Clarence, but Winona noticed a flush come to Cordelia’s cheeks as she said, “Clarence, quit bothering that poor girl and let her shop in peace.”
Clarence smiled and walked over to the counter. “Well, now that I see you, Miss Cordelia, I promise you nothing else will command my attention.”
“Oh, go on with you,” Cordelia said, her blush deepening. She handed Winona her basket. “Thank you, dear. You run along. I’ll keep Clarence out of your hair.”
Winona smiled. “Thank you, Ms. Cordelia.” She turned to Clarence. “It was lovely to see you, Clarence.”
“And just as lovely to see you,” Clarence said before turning back to Cordelia.
Winona kept smiling as she walked out of the store and headed home. She was happy for Clarence and Cordelia. Cordelia’s husband died in the same outbreak that killed Winona’s mother and for years after that, the poor woman suffered deep melancholy. Then Clarence arrived in town and ever since, Cordelia’s smile had returned. Winona thought it was beautiful that the two of them had found love.
She wondered if she’d ever feel love for Jude like they felt for each other.
Jude Koch was the son of Sterling Koch, owner of the Heartland Railroad Company and the wealthiest man in town. Jude took a shine to Winona shortly after the Kochs moved to town and Winona’s father and stepmother practically leapt at the chance to secure their union. She agreed to marry him after eight months of courting, and their wedding was scheduled for September seventeenth, the one-year anniversary of their courtship.
Jude was a decent enough man. He was kind and generous, and he was clearly fond of her. She liked him well enough, but she didn’t love him. He seemed too fond of his wealth. He didn’t lord it over others the way Audrey did, and he didn’t seem to carry the same disdain for the working class his father did, but he carried himself with a similar sense of superiority and entitlement.
She’d agreed to marry him more to escape her stepmother’s thumb and finally have a life of her own than out of any affection for Jude. He’d gotten less superior over the past several months and Winona hoped that with time, he could shed the last of his arrogance and earn her love.
She turned a corner and began walking through the poorer quarter of town. The houses here were little more than shacks, some of them barely qualifying for that name. Her stepmother disapproved of Winona frequenting these neighborhoods, concerned it might affect her reputation to be seen there, but Winona ignored her. These people were fine folk; they just weren’t wealthy. Several of them greeted Winona as she walked.
After a few minutes, she heard voices up ahead. One of the voices was familiar. As she approached the house the voices were coming from, she recognized it as Jude’s voice. What was Jude doing out here? Maybe he was finally humble enough to spend time with the less well-to-do residents of Westridge.
As she drew close, however, it quickly became clear Jude’s intentions were not benevolent. His voice was raised in threat, and the other voices were clearly fearful of him. Her heartbeat quickened as she turned the corner and saw them. An older couple stood outside of their home, a tar paper shack barely larger than Winona’s bedroom, and argued with Jude. The woman’s hands were clasped in front of her while the man’s were raised in front of him, palms outward, as though to protect himself. Jude stood with his shoulders squared, his hands balled into fists at his side. Winona quickly ducked behind a fence and watched the interaction.
“I don’t care what your father says, this is our home and we ain’t leaving!” The older man’s words were brave, but his voice trembled, and Winona could tell he was frightened of Jude. That didn’t make sense to her. Jude had never before struck her as a violent man. What was going on?
“Yes, you are!” Jude barked. “And neither I nor my father are interested in your opinion. You get on up out of here by sunrise tomorrow or we’ll tear this—” his lips curled downward, “—hovel down on your heads.”
“Please, Mr. Koch,” the woman begged. She wrung her hands and even from a distance, Winona could hear she was crying. “This is all we have!”
“Had,” Jude said. “By the next time the sun rises, this land will be the property of Heartland Railroad Company.”
“Now, look here,” the man said. Anger seemed to have driven his fear away. He strode forward and stuck his finger up at Jude. “I don’t care what that piece of paper in your pocket says. Everyone knows your father has the judge on his payroll. This is our home. We’ve lived here since before your father came to this town and poisoned it with his gold, and we’ll be here long after you move on.”
Jude didn’t reply immediately. He looked down at the defiant older man, his face expressionless. Then he smiled. Ice crept up Winona’s spine at the sight of it. He smiled, but there was no hint of friendliness on his face. It was the grin of a snake preparing to strike, a predator regarding his prey and anticipating the meal he was about to enjoy.
Jude moved so suddenly Winona didn’t at first register what had happened. He reached forward and grabbed the old man, throwing him to the ground. The man fell heavily, grunting with the impact and the old lady shrieked and rushed forward. Jude grabbed her and held her back, preventing her from reaching her husband.
“You let her go!” the man called out, fear for his wife overriding his pain. He got back to his feet and rushed Jude. Jude flashed his snake smile again and slammed his fist into the side of the man’s head. The man collapsed to the ground and began trembling violently. The woman struggled and shouted for Jude to let her go but he held her tightly, watching the man seize under him with devilish glee.
Winona watched numbly, shock driving her emotions away. This couldn’t be real. It had to be a sick nightmare. She would wake and things would be as they were. Jude would no longer be a monster but a decent, if rather haughty, man. These people would be allowed to keep their homes and her father would not be business partner to a ruthless criminal.
Her father. Did he know about this? She shook her head slowly. No, her father couldn’t have known. There was no way. Could he really ally himself with someone who would do something like this? She began breathing rapidly and a moment later her vision swam. She steadied herself against the fence and forced herself to breathe slowly and evenly. When her vision cleared, she saw Jude staring straight at her, shock and horror on his face.
She turned and ran back the way she came, instinct driving her away from this monster she was destined to marry. The thought of breaking off the engagement didn’t occur to her in that moment. Nothing occurred to her but escaping from this vile creature, this predator that fed on the weak and innocent.
“Winona!” Jude called.
Winona quickened her pace and turned back onto the main road. She quickly slowed to a walk. Something told her it would be better not to attract attention from anyone. She forced herself to proceed slowly across the street, her heart pounding with every step. She managed to control her pace until she reached an alleyway across the street.
Then she heard Jude call her name once more and her self-control fled. She sprinted through the alleyway, then ran up the residential road behind it. Several passersby called her name, but she ignored them and ducked through another alley. She came out behind the livery and worked her way through the back roads behind the saloons and brothels of the town’s aptly named Devil’s Corner.
A minute later, she reached the fence that cordoned off the section of land destined to become the town’s train station.
She heard Jude call again and began to scale the fence. Her dress and walking shoes made it difficult to climb and it seemed an eternity before she finally reached the top and leapt down to the ground.
“Winona, stop!” Jude called. “Wait!”
Winona ran toward the opposite fence. Past that fence were fields of prairie grass that grew head high after a few hundred yards. If she could make it there before Jude caught her, she could lose him. She hitched her dress up and ran as fast as she could. Her feet throbbed in her calfskin walking boots. When she heard Jude crash into the fence behind her, she reached down and tore the boots off, one by one.
Her feet free of the confining leather, she was able to run much faster and reached the opposite fence just when she heard the sound of Jude’s boots hitting the ground behind her.
She climbed quickly and landed on the other side before Jude reached the fence. She looked up and saw him running. His face was twisted in a mask of rage. She went white and turned to flee but her dress caught on the fence. Panicking, she tore it free, leaving behind a long strip of fabric.
Her dress was now open over her right leg nearly to the hip, but she didn’t have time to be embarrassed. The tear actually allowed her to run faster, her movement no longer restricted by her skirt. Jude called her name but each time he sounded farther away. Her heart leapt and she quickened her pace further, running through the tall grass until she could no longer hear him calling her.
When she felt she’d lost him, she slowed and put her hands on her knees, gasping. After a moment, she remembered something her grandfather taught her and stood straight with her shoulders rolled back. She walked slowly, taking deep, measured breaths until her heart stopped pounding.
She leaned against a pile of wooden planks destined to become part of the station’s boarding platform once work resumed tomorrow. and struggled to collect her thoughts. She couldn’t believe what she’d seen. Jude had severely injured that poor old man! Maybe even killed him.
She shivered. How could she have been so blind? She’d been close with him, allowed him to touch her, to kiss her hand. The memory of his lips on her palm made her skin crawl and sent a wave of nausea through her.
She walked through the grass, tortured by her thoughts, until a distant rumble of thunder crashed overhead. She looked up, startled, and a raindrop splashed on her face. She blinked and rubbed her eyes then looked up again. The sky was suddenly dark. Clouds roiled on the horizon, flashing every few moments with lightning.
Winona turned back to the town, but the town wasn’t there. At least, she couldn’t see it. The grass grew tall as a horse’s withers out here and everywhere she looked was a tangled maze of vegetation.
A new panic took hold of her and when lightning crashed to the ground a few hundred yards distant, she lost control and ran blindly ahead. She screamed for help or thought she did, but the noise of the thunder deafened her cries. A moment later, the rain came, steady at first, then torrential, with sheets of water falling from the sky to obscure her vision even more than the grass.
Water coursed down her cheeks, and she couldn’t be sure if it was the rain or her tears that stung her eyes. She ran and cried and screamed for what seemed an eternity. Then her foot stumbled into a gopher hole. She fell forward, twisting her ankle with a sickening snap. She screamed but an instant later, her scream was cut off as her head slammed against a rock. The world went black, and the only sound was a soft buzzing that seemed to come from somewhere behind her.
Then there was only silence.
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