He is a man shackled by his past. She’s a wife driven by the need to belong. Will an unwanted ad bound their yearning hearts forever?
Rachel could have never known that life could be so hard. When she and her mother are the sole survivors of a cholera outbreak in her community, they decide to flee out West. Getting married to the insufferable Thomas though makes Rachel wonder if this is her true destiny. How can she protect her growing love and family from a saboteur from the inside?
After Thomas serves time for illegal fighting, he’s ready to get back to his ranch and his family. A tragic surprise leads him to accept an unwanted marriage with Rachel. This woman is a spitfire and he can’t stand the way she makes him feel—vulnerable and caring. How can he show his new love that he’s a changed and better man when his past closes up on him?
Rachel and Thomas’s paths cross unexpectedly, and their fates take a sudden turn that changes them forever. In a world where schemers thrive, will they find their own silver lining?
Willow Springs Township, Kansas, March 1875
Thomas Beckett had never seen the old homestead looking quite so dilapidated and rundown. Without a doubt, Grandpappy Beckett would be turning in his grave like a spinning top if he saw the state of the farm he had built with his own two hands and the sweat of his brow.
Thomas sighed. If anyone was to blame for the condition of the place, a large portion of that blame rested squarely on his own shoulders, and he knew it better than anyone. He stood still, his eyes scanning the loose shingles, the weeds growing up around the barn and the corral fence posts, the faded whitewash of the ranch house, and the dirty, broken windows.
The whole place looked as sad and haggard as he felt.
“Well, hello,” a young man’s voice broke in on his thoughts. Thomas’ head followed the direction of the sound.
A lad of about eighteen years old emerged from the barn, wiping his hands on his denim dungarees and giving Thomas what felt a little like a forced grin. He wore a felt hat pulled low over his eyes, with tufts of straight, mouse-brown hair sticking out from beneath it. His manner was jaunty, almost to the point of being jumpy. The way folks got when they’d indulged in a little too much Arbuckle’s.
“You must be Thomas Beckett,” he said as he drew level with Thomas, who got the vague impression that the boy didn’t like the taste of his name on his tongue.
“I am,” Thomas replied as cordially as he could. He had been hoping there would be nobody home when he arrived. He had wanted some time to settle himself before he had to deal with another human being. “I reckon that means you’re Louis? Louis de Villiers?”
Thomas remembered the name from the letters his father had sent him before the last one, which in turn, had been signed with that very name. The one that had told him of his father losing the battle with scarlet fever.
“Yep! That’s me!” Louis affirmed with what seemed to Thomas like forced cheerfulness. “I was just on my way to heat up some refried beans and a slice of bacon. I know it ain’t much, but you’re welcome ta join me if you’ve a mind.”
The boy scanned Thomas’ small bundle of belongings. “I was goin’ ta say I’ll give ya time ta unpack, but I reckon there ain’t much of a need for that, now is there?” He grinned again and Thomas wished he wouldn’t. It made him feel like he was obliged to crack a smile and he just wasn’t in the mood.
“Lunch sounds like a dandy idea,” he said, deciding to focus on the offer of food instead.
“Well, come along, then,” Louis said briskly, waving a hand toward the house and starting in that direction. “I hope it won’t be a letdown for ya; my cooking ain’t worth writing home about.” He laughed. “Then again, I reckon where you come from you had ta settle for much worse, didn’t ya?”
Thomas refrained from replying. He knew a jibe when he heard it and he wasn’t about to take the bait. The boy seemed friendly on the surface, but his cheerfulness felt too saccharine for Thomas’ taste.
Still, it could just be that the kid’s nervous, he thought to himself.
Following Louis into the house, he gazed around at the interior. It turned out to be equally as shabby as the exterior. A layer of dust coated almost everything, cobwebs hung in tatters from the ceiling and the drapes were faded and grimy.
All his mother’s furnishings were still there, robbed of their former glory, and bearing a melancholy testimony to his vanished childhood. He entered the kitchen, and a rat ran across the flagstone floor, fleeing from the sound of their boots. The place smelled musty, but thankfully the aroma of frying bacon overpowered it for a while at least.
As the two men sat at the kitchen table, consuming the heated meal of beans, bacon, and biscuits, washed down with copious mugs of coffee, Thomas studied Louis’ face. His eyes were light gray and held a slightly detached expression, except for isolated moments when they filled with an intensity that startled Thomas and made him wonder even more about his overly friendly companion.
“Pa never said where you came from,” Thomas observed, hoping Louis would answer the question in his statement.
“I guess because it don’t really figure in the greater scheme of things,” Louis said blithely.
“I’d like ta know, anyhow,” Thomas insisted quietly.
“My folks’ homestead burned down. Freak accident when the wind turned and spread the fire from some hopper bonfires. My ma and pa didn’t make it,” Louis said shortly, his eyes averted. His voice sounded strangely stilted.
Thomas nodded. He had heard of the Kansas grasshopper plague of the year before while he was away. It had been devastating in more ways than one, apparently. He knew it was a miracle the family ranch had survived that blow followed by the death of his father, Andrew Beckett.
He also knew that survival wasn’t enough. Sunset Cattle Ranch was clearly no longer the thriving beef business it had been before Thomas’ life choices had taken him on a path far diverged from his father’s desires. And yet, the wheel had turned and here he was, back home and on the verge of picking up the pieces. Except there were some pieces he would never be able to pick up.
The painful memories stung Thomas’ eyes and he hid his face behind his pale yellow enamel mug while he drained the already cooling contents.
“You think you’ll ever go back there?” Louis queried out of the blue.
Thomas blinked and set down his mug with a clunk on the worn wooden table surface. He didn’t need to ask Louis to clarify what he meant.
“Not if I can help it,” he replied shortly, scraping back his chair with the intention of taking his empty dishes to the washing up sink. He hoped Louis would understand his actions to mean that he was not willing to engage in that particular conversation.
“Folks say once a man’s been there, he’s sure ta end up goin’ back sometime or another,” Louis persisted, his bright, nonchalant tone grating on Thomas’ nerves more than his words.
“Folks say a lot of things,” Thomas retorted and then changed the subject. “I know you’ve been stickin’ around, holdin’ down the fort, and I sure do appreciate your doin’ that, but now that I’m back there ain’t a need for ya ta hang around, so you’re free ta go if you’ve a mind to.”
He rinsed out his plate and cup and placed them upside down on the draining board, hoping that Louis would happily accept his offer.
“Matter of fact, I was hopin’ you could give me a job,” Louis replied, and Thomas’ heart sank. “I ain’t a slacker, an’ I know this farm well enough to be useful already.”
Thomas turned slowly to face the boy. His eyes locked onto Louis’ and, in that moment, a flash of memory sent a throbbing pain through his head.
Once again there were dimmed down gas lamps swaying overhead. The hushed exclamations of shocked men filled his ears. The gray mist of pipe smoke made little wisps in the crude light, twisting and convulsing like an evil wraith. A powerful bulk of a man lay on his back, still as a rock, his eyes closed as if he were sleeping peacefully in his bed at home. The shrill, panicked cries of a child rent the air.
Thomas shook his head against the mental images tormenting him and focused on his present location. Louis was still watching him, waiting for a response.
“I reckon a couple extra hands won’t hurt,” Thomas acquiesced with a shrug. “Don’t know if I can pay you much, but if a roof over your head is all you need, I can give ya that.”
“Then it’s settled!” Louis exclaimed, grasping Thomas’ hand and pumping it up and down enthusiastically.
Thomas wished he could agree, but the honest truth was he felt anything but settled. As strong as his desire was to build Sunset Ranch back up to its former glory, he wasn’t sure it was even possible. Especially not with himself and a jaunty kid as the only hands on the vast acreage.
Still, he had to give it his best shot. He owed his father that much after all the grief he had caused him.
Fort Wayne, Indiana, May 1875
The road from the Fort Wayne post office to her most recent abode passed by the town cemetery. Rachel Walden clutched the envelope in her hand tighter as she tried not to notice the somber gathering of mourners around a freshly dug grave in the dying light of late afternoon. Tears stung her eyes and she blinked them away, swallowing down the ache that rose up in her chest.
It should have been me in that casket, the thought involuntarily came to mind. It was all she could do not to break into a run to get away from the stark reminder of all she had lost only months before. With her eyes riveted to the ground, she marched onward. Her black lace-up boots marked a rapid tattoo on the hard packed earth beneath her feet in time with the patter of spring rain on the umbrella she clutched in her other hand.
She knew that morose thought was not her own. She wanted to live. Besides, Harriet needed her.
Rachel drew a deep breath, leaving the all too familiar sight of the cemetery behind her and striding out with a different sense of urgency. If she wanted to keep her sanity, she would have to run toward the future instead of away from the past. The letter in her hand seemed to grow warm and heavy with promise.
“Mama!” she called as she let herself in to the two-story semi-detached house that she and her former intended mother-in-law shared between only the two of them. Harriet had insisted Rachel move in with her soon after cholera left them the sole survivors of their respective families. “I’ve received a reply from Kansas!”
“I’m in the kitchen, honey!” Harriet’s motherly voice called out. Rachel followed the sound and entered the spotlessly scrubbed room in question, that always smelled of fresh herbs growing in pots on the windowsill. There she found the elder lady of her new household shelling peas as she sat beside the kitchen table. A ginger cat lay in front of the open hearth, basking in its warmth.
“A letter from Kansas, you say? Do read it to me, dear,” Harriet invited her, motioning her to sit down in one of the wooden chairs nearby. Her kindly brown eyes gazed warmly on Rachel’s face, her own face framed with locks of wavy, dark brown hair streaked with strands of silver. She smiled encouragingly, the creases about her eyes and mouth deepening as she did, but they could do nothing to take away the unfading beauty she still possessed.
Rachel regarded her for a moment, her heart swelling with bittersweet gratitude. If not for Harriet, who knows where she might have ended up? Her meagre earnings from teaching reading and writing to adults and children would not have paid the rental for her deceased parents’ house. She needed Harriet as much as Harriet needed her. And not only to provide a roof over her head.
“I feel a little nervous doing this,” Rachel admitted. “It feels so soon after …” she couldn’t finish the sentence.
“We all have to do what we can to survive,” Harriet reminded her sagely. “You need someone to support you and, after what cholera did to our town, well, there aren’t many options for you here.”
Rachel nodded. They had discussed her options before, and she knew how limited they were. She only wished she could have some more time to mourn, to properly process what had happened to her and somehow, if it were possible, make sense of her pain in the greater scheme of life.
It felt wrong to be moving on so quickly when she still woke up in the mornings wondering how many days it was until her and Walter’s wedding day, only to remember that now the day would never come.
Settling down into the chair Harriet had indicated, Rachel ripped open one end of the envelope and drew out the letter. Her hand shook a little, despite the fact that she was trying hard to keep it still. Thankfully, Harriet was focused on the peas, and Rachel’s angst went unnoticed.
She had made what felt to her like a very daring request in her previous letter and she worried about what the reply might be. Of course, there was only one way to find out if her fears were justified. Unfolding the single page, she cleared her throat and began to read out loud the words written in the by now familiar, crude hand.
“Dear Rachel,” she began, the words feeling out of place coming from anyone but Walter. “Thank you for your last letter. I’ll get straight to the point. We have three menfolk living on the ranch—myself, a good friend of mine, Ernest Fuller, who agreed to work as my foreman, and a young man who goes by the name of Louis de Villiers. I reckon you could say Louis is my foster brother.”
Rachel paused. Things weren’t looking good. It felt as if he was working his way up to a refusal of her request. And she wasn’t about to budge on her terms. He had seemed like a reasonable man, but she would have to wait for another reply to her advertisement if he was going to refuse her this one thing.
“It sounds like quite a household full of menfolk,” Harriet remarked, taking advantage of Rachel’s momentary silence. “You’ll have your hands full, no doubt about that. No time to think of much else than taking care of chores. I think that will be a good thing, don’t you?”
Rachel pondered that thought for a moment, watching Harriet push a row of peas out of their protective little pod and into the mass of peas already gathered in the bowl in her lap.
“I suppose it is,” she agreed half-heartedly. She wasn’t ready to forget about Walter and focus on other things, but she didn’t say so out loud. Instead, she looked back down at the letter and began to read aloud again.
“So, you’ll see your request was not an easy one for me to consider. We already have a lot of mouths to feed.”
Rachel’s heart sank into her boots.
“Still, I reckon a couple extra hands around to help you with chores can’t hurt and we’ve managed to raise a sort of a vegetable garden, so we won’t starve. If Mrs. Caldwell is willing to pull her weight, well, I guess we could have her on board. If push comes to shove, she could always find a clerk’s job in town, I reckon.”
Rachel felt her entire frame flooding with relief. She looked up at Harriet, her cheeks warm with joy. Harriet was staring back at her, the peas momentarily forgotten in her hands.
“What’s the meaning of this, Rachel?” she asked querulously.
“You’re coming with me, dearest Mama,” Rachel clarified happily, starting forward out of her chair and coming to kneel before the only semblance of family she had left in the world.
“I couldn’t possibly do that,” Harriet protested. “I’m just an old woman who’s lost everything she ever loved, bar one dear soul. My life is at its end. Yours is just beginning. I can’t let you burden yourself with me.” Her eyes were brimming with tears as she reached out and took Rachel’s trembling hands in her own.
“You’ll never be a burden, Harriet!” Rachel cried, desperate to change her mind. “I know Walter would have wanted me to take care of you. After all he meant to me, how could I possibly walk into a new life and leave you behind to suffer alone?”
Harriet blinked rapidly, the tears in her eyes spilling over onto her cheeks.
“Besides,” Rachel went on, her voice growing softer. “I need you, too, you know? You’re all I have left, and I don’t know these men in Kansas …” her voice trailed off.
“You’ve been corresponding with Thomas for nearly two months now. He seems a reasonable, stable sort of fellow,” Harriet said thoughtfully.
“He’s still a stranger, Mama,” Rachel insisted. “And you know why I call you Mama, don’t you?”
Harriet smiled through her tears. “I do, my sweet,” she affirmed. “And you have always been like my very own daughter, since the first day Walter brought you home to meet me and his father.”
Rachel bit her lip as her own tears began to trickle down her cheeks. “So, you’ll come with me, then?”
Harriet looked into her eyes and nodded, her lip quivering. “I will.”
The two women embraced, both racked with sobs, not caring that the bowl of peas had clattered to the floor and the kitchen cat fled to the safety of the living room. For a few minutes they stayed that way, clinging to each other as their last hope, cementing their covenant of mutual faithfulness. At last, Rachel drew back.
“I’ll write Thomas right away,” she said resolutely and kissed Harriet on the forehead. Stepping back, she looked around at the mess on the floor and laughed, all the tension of the last few moments finding an outlet in humor.
“Now look how I’ve wasted all your hard work!” she exclaimed, stooping down to pick up the enamel bowl, which thankfully still held half the peas. “I’ll have to sweep this up.”
Harriet responded with a laugh of her own. “I’m sure the chickens won’t mind a little dessert this afternoon,” she quipped, giving Rachel a kindly wink and wiping the tears from her cheeks with her apron.
It was a week later, when the house had been sold off and the two women were packing their trunks that Rachel began to rue her impulsiveness. Pressing down the last dress into the second trunk and fastening the clasps on the lid, she sat down with a huff on the bed, feeling perplexed.
“Anything the matter, dear?” Harriet queried, coming into the room at just that moment.
Rachel turned to look at her as Harriet sat down beside her on the bed.
“Is this really the only way, Mama?” she asked, feeling tormented. “It felt like a good idea at the time—our only choice, really, but now I’m wondering. Couldn’t we manage something on our own, just you and me?” Even as she spoke the words, she was painfully aware of how impossible they really were.
Harriet took her hand. Her brown eyes were full of compassion that seemed to overpower, for a moment, the sadness that had resided there since her husband and children had been cruelly ripped from her life, one by one.
“It might not be the only way, my lamb,” Harriet said softly, but it is the way we have chosen, and God will give us the strength to walk it.”
“Oh, I wish I had your faith!” Rachel cried out, hot tears springing to her eyes. “What if I can never get Walter out of my mind and my heart? What if this Thomas fellow expects me to love him like a wife should? How can I possibly do that when my heart is still full of Walter’s memory? I feel as if I’m betraying him already, Mama!”
She buried her head in Harriet’s shoulder, weeping disconsolately. The older woman’s voice cracked a little with emotion as she hushed her gently. “There, there, my sweet,” she crooned. “These things seem impossible, but God’s word says that with Him all things are possible. We just have to believe. I’m sure Mr. Beckett won’t require more of you than you can give.”
“How can you be so sure, Mama?” Rachel queried, lifting her tear-streaked face to look at her companion.
“Well, like I said before, he seems a very reasonable, down-to-earth man if his letters are anything to go by. And he has never tried to woo you with lovers’ talk, now, has he?”
“No, he hasn’t,” Rachel agreed hesitantly. She wanted to believe it would be that easy, but she had heard too many stories about how rough the men were out west.
Still, she had to admit, Thomas’ letters had been nothing if not cordial. In fact, some of them had bordered on downright businesslike, as if they were discussing a house rental instead of a marriage.
“I’m sure my Mama Elizabeth would be horrified if she knew I had stooped so low to become a mail-order bride,” Rachel mused, still feeling uncertain of her choice.
Harriet shook her head and kissed Rachel’s hand. “I think she would say you are a brave young woman to take such a bold step to save yourself from becoming destitute.”
“And I shall have to choose to believe that you are right, or hang my head in shame for the rest of my life,” Rachel said giving her adopted mother a hug. Suddenly she sat up.
“Do you still have Walter’s pocket watch, Mama?”
“I do,” Harriet responded, a tender smile softening her features even more than usual.
“We should take it along to Kansas. It will be like still having a piece of him with us.”
Harriet nodded. “I’d like you to have it, though. He was planning to spend all his time with you, so it seems only right that you should be the one to keep it.”
Rachel felt tears pricking her eyes once more as Harriet stood up, intent on retrieving the item under discussion. Moments later, she cradled the bronze and mother-of-pearl timepiece in her hands, remembering how fond and how proud he had been of the heirloom passed down from his grandfather.
As long as this watch is still ticking, and I have breath to wind it up, you will never be forgotten, Walter Caldwell, Rachel thought, kissing the glass face.
She had been forced into a new beginning that she never wanted, but at least she could bring something with her from the beautiful, glorious past. She had been forced to let Walter go, but she would fight till her last breath to keep his memory alive.
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