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Once upon an Unlikely Marriage of Convenience

She has always wanted to live a love like that in her favourite books. When she meets her uncaring husband though, she must redirect her heart. Can they find happiness in each other’s scarred souls?

Abbie is a shy librarian that has tasted the bitter side of love. After her fiancé’s betrayal, she leaves the town to become a mail-order bride and she takes her beloved aunt with her. Yet, meeting the cynic Jerry and his three foster children will turn her world upside down. How can she let this man know that it is okay to love someone with all your heart?

Jerry is a man who has never believed in romance. After losing his father and brother, he finds himself responsible for three children and a dying ranch. He never expected to find a beautiful woman and as intelligent as Abbie, and he can’t deny he starts falling for her sweet ways. How will he approach her fragile heart though when he still struggles with trusting others?

To protect what they love, Abbie and Jerry must leave behind their fears and insecurities. However, taking care of their surprising marriage and the ranch is a struggle since many come against them. When will they find the courage to bond with each other and save their family?

Written by:

Western Historical Romance Author

4.8/5

4.8 out of 5 (9 ratings)

Prologue

South of Billings, Montana

1882

Jerry Caldwell gazed across the rolling hills and succulent pastures that composed the western portion of the Caldwell Ranch and smiled. To the south lay the newly christened Yellowstone National Park. To the north, the river after which the park was named wound through the mountains, forests, and plains of southern Montana. Behind him, to the east, was the ranch house, the bunkhouse, and the loose cluster of barns, stables, corrals, and grain silos that made up the heart of the ranch, a picture of paradise to him.

In front of Jerry, the sunset descended like a song of joy over the horizon. Jerry had never seen anything quite like a Montana sunset and imagined he never would. The setting sun cast golden rays across the landscape, bathing everything in soft, warm, amber light, broken by the purple shadows cast by the distant mountains. If Heaven was a place on Earth, surely this would be it. Today was a good day.

All of Jerry’s days were good. He supposed it was arrogant of him to think that, but how else could he feel? During the five years he’d run the ranch, it had become increasingly successful. His herd numbered over a thousand. In a year or two, he would be forced to expand or sell off some of the herd, so they didn’t outgrow the available pastureland.

As though reading his thoughts, Clarence Peabody, Esquire, of the Yellowstone Architectural Corporation stepped up next to him and said, “With a few thousand acres of land like that, you could triple the size of your herd and still have room to spare.”

Jerry turned to the man, still smiling. Clarence was several inches shorter than Jerry’s six-foot-three but wore an air of importance that seemed more fitting for a governor than a builder. He seemed exactly like the kind of man who would take the title of Esquire, even though he was not a lawyer. Normally Jerry found this kind of pretense grating, but today, he could feel only joy. “Why only a few thousand? Why not ten or twenty thousand?”

Clarence smiled indulgently, looking so much like a plump quail that Jerry had to fight to stifle his laughter. “If you intend to expand that much, we’ll need to build more than just a few barns.”

Jerry chuckled and clapped Clarence on the shoulder. “All in good time, my friend. Besides, I’m not even sure I’ll like your firm’s work.”

Clarence’s eyes widened. He stammered and spluttered assurances that Jerry would be more than satisfied, he would be overjoyed, elated, ecstatic, and so on.

Jerry allowed him to bluster for a moment before clapping him on the shoulder once more and saying, “I’m joking! I’m joking, Clarence. Of course, I’ll keep you on board. Now, let’s talk figures.”

A distant rumble from the northeast interrupted Jerry before Clarence could respond. Jerry turned toward the noise and saw a huge black thunderhead forming. It was still several miles away and posed no immediate threat to them, but Jerry knew it would be prudent for both of them to be indoors when it arrived.

Jerry turned back to Clarence. “Well, it looks like figures will have to wait. Why don’t you head home, and we can pick this conversation up tomorrow? I’ll send for you once the storm passes.”

“Yes, that sounds good,” Clarence agreed, looking noticeably relieved at the chance to leave. Clarence put on an admirable show of enjoying the outdoors for Jerry’s benefit, but Jerry could tell he would be more comfortable in a plush chair behind an ostentatiously enormous desk.

“I’ll see you tomorrow Mr. Caldwell,” Clarence said. He walked to his horse, an old roan gelding that lifted its head tiredly at his approach. With his portly midsection and waddling gait, Clarence now reminded Jerry of an oversized goose.

The thought brought another chuckle to Jerry as he mounted his own horse and rode back to the cabin. He turned toward the distant thunderhead and grinned, tipping his hat toward it and bowing with a flourish so deep, he nearly fell off his horse. He righted himself, laughing, and continued toward the cabin.

Today was a good day.

***

Thunder crashed outside so loudly that the cabin shook with the force of the noise. Jerry jumped, knocking over a neat stack of money. He swore but began laughing immediately after. Here he was sitting in a pile of money, and he was scared of a little lightning!

He retrieved the bills from the floor and carefully restacked them. He had more than enough to pay the builders, nearly enough, in fact, to give serious thought to expanding beyond the additional five thousand acres that necessitated the new barns and stables.

He grinned again. He was a lucky man. That thought prompted another by association, and Jerry’s grin widened. He reached into the drawer in front of him and retrieved a handwritten note. The note was the original copy of an advertisement that Jerry had placed the week before. It read:

WANTED: A LOVELY BRIDE

A successful rancher, 28, six-foot-three, 210 pounds, strong and handsome, seeks the companionship of a beautiful, intelligent woman, aged twenty to twenty-five, not less than five-foot-four-inches tall, with fair skin and hair and bright eyes, green or blue preferred, with the object of matrimony. A good education is a must, but wealth is not required as the advertiser possesses considerable means of his own. Respondents will be expected to keep house but will have numerous help at their disposal and will not be expected to work hard. Respondents who fit these qualifications may reply to Jeremiah Caldwell, c/o Postmaster General, Billings, MT.

Jerry read the note again, then put it in his vest pocket. He was especially proud of the part that read possesses considerable means of his own. He supposed he was taking somewhat of a liberty making that claim, but once this expansion was complete, it would be an understatement rather than a liberty.

He closed his eyes and imagined the women who would respond to it. Lithe, golden-haired beauties danced through his mind, showering him with affection and admiration. Well-deserved admiration. After all, he owned the most successful horse ranch in the territory. What young woman wouldn’t want to share in the wealth and prestige that came with—

A loud knock shocked Jerry from his musings. He cried out and nearly fell backward, grabbing hold of the desk just before his chair tipped over.

The knock repeated itself, more loudly this time. Jerry could hear a voice calling out his name. The voice was muffled by the rain but there was no mistaking the urgency of its tone.

Jerry walked to the door, concern growing in his chest. Had something happened to one of the barns or God forbid, the stables? He’d heard of lightning strikes starting fires before. He prayed this interruption was not so serious.

He opened the door to see Eli Bridger, his ranch foreman. The look in Eli’s eyes did little to ease Jerry’s worries. “Eli,” he said, “What’s going on?”

Eli’s eyes were wide and his brow taut with anxiety. Jerry prepared himself for the worst. “Talk to me, Eli.”

Jerry anticipated news of a fire or flood that threatened the herd or maybe had already killed some of the horses. Possibly a barn or stable had collapsed from the storm. It could be a number of things, none of them good, some of them catastrophic. Nevertheless, Jerry awaited Bud’s response calmly, resolved to rise to the challenge, whatever it might prove to be.

In a thousand lifetimes, he never would have expected Eli’s actual reply.

“It’s Reuben,” Eli said. “He’s gone missing.”

The blood drained from Jerry’s face. “Missing?” he repeated.

Eli nodded. “Hasn’t been seen since this morning. His home’s all tore up inside too. Looks like somebody ransacked the place.”

Jerry stood silently for a moment, trying to process what he’d heard. His brother; missing?

All at once, his faculties returned to him. He strode back to his desk, retrieved his hat and gun belt, and returned to the doorway. He grabbed his boots from where they rested next to the jamb. As he pulled on one boot, then the other, he said, “Did you bring me a horse?”

Eli nodded. “He’s tethered outside next to mine.”

“Let’s go then.” Jerry followed Eli into the driving rain and mounted up. As soon as his feet hit the stirrups, he spurred his mount into a run.

They arrived at Reuben’s house a few minutes later. From the outside, the single-story wood-frame home seemed fine. A few other hands huddled on the porch. All wore worried expressions. They gave way to Jerry as he dismounted and rushed inside.

Inside, the place was completely in shambles, like Eli had said. The drapes were ripped off the windows, and the furniture was overturned, the upholstery torn and ragged. There were holes in the walls and several of the floorboards were turned up. Someone was clearly looking for something, though what they could possibly want there, Jerry didn’t know.

“The rest of the house looks the same,” Eli said. “We’re lucky his kids are visiting the Hemingways, or they might have been here when… they might have been here earlier.”

His kids.

In the terror of the moment, Jerry had forgotten about his niece and nephews. They were so young. What would they do when they learned their father was missing?

Jerry turned to Eli. “Get a search party going. We’re looking for Reuben.”

“We won’t find anything in this storm, Jerry.”

“He’s my brother, Eli!” Jerry snapped. “I have to look. Nobody has to go with me if they don’t want to, but I’m finding him.”

Eli nodded and returned outside to tell the other hands that Jerry meant to search for his brother.

Every last one of his men mounted up to ride with him.

***

They searched through the driving rain and crashing thunder. Jerry led the party through the fields and hills around Reuben’s house, calling his brother’s name until his throat burned. As Eli had predicted, the storm made it impossible for them to see or hear anything, but Jerry kept looking and shouting, even as his shoulders and arms burned like his throat and each hoofbeat was like a hammer driving a nail deep into his temple.

He kept searching all through the night and well into the next day. When the storm passed and the rising sun finally afforded some visibility, Jerry led the search party further out, all the while calling his brother’s name.

When the sun crested for its midday peak and began to descend once more toward the west, Jerry rode to Billings for the sheriff. The sheriff organized a posse and spent the next three days searching for Reuben across the wilderness to no avail.

By the fourth day, Jerry was desperate enough to consider riding to the reservation and appealing to the Crow for assistance. They were on coldly civil terms with the white settlers at best, but they knew the wilderness better than anyone. They might see something the search party missed. It was a long shot, but it was better than no shot at all. Jerry decided to ride to the reservation in the morning if they didn’t turn anything up today.

An hour after dawn, they came to a cliff overlooking the Yellowstone River and it became clear that appealing to the Crow would do no good. One of the sheriff’s men was an expert tracker. He found scuff marks on the edge of the cliff and bits of torn fabric in the shrubs both at the top and bottom of the cliff. He was able to deduce that there had been a struggle on top of the cliff. By the looks of it, the struggle had ended when one of the riders fell over the side.

It couldn’t be Reuben, Jerry told himself. Not his brother.

He told himself this, but he knew better. The search yielded no body nor any other sign of Reuben, but it could be no one else. His brother wouldn’t have ridden off for days without telling anyone, leaving his house ransacked for his kids to come home to.

On the evening of the fourth day, Jerry called off the search. There was still no sign of Reuben, but this was the day Reuben had arranged to meet the Hemingways in Billings and pick up the children. Better the youngsters heard of their father’s disappearance from Jerry than from the sheriff.

Jerry rode back to the ranch house, heart and mind numb. Oh Reuben, he thought. What happened to you?

***

Jerry stood in the small office at the jailhouse and stared blankly at Sheriff Blackwell, holding his hat in front of him like a lifeline. Everett and Janey Hemingway stood to the right of the sheriff. They were family friends of Reuben’s wife, Joan. The children had always visited them about once a year, first with their mother, and then alone after Joan had died of cholera.

After Jerry broke the news about Reuben’s disappearance to the Hemingways and the children, the sheriff had invited the adults into his office to talk about what should be done with the children now that they had no parents.

“We’re so sorry for your loss,” Janey said. She offered Jerry a sympathetic look and dabbed at her eyes with a handkerchief. “Oh, those poor children.”

“We’d take them in if we could,” Everett said. “But, well, we’re older now, and Janey has that heart condition.

Janey nodded. “We really are sorry. But we just can’t…” her voice trailed off.

Jerry wasn’t paying attention. His eyes kept straying to the adjacent room. Through the doorway, Jerry could see his niece Charlotte and his nephews Ben and Isaac sitting on a bench. Their faces were red from crying. Ben caught Jerry’s glance and offered a sad smile that broke Jerry’s heart.

Blackwell cleared his throat and said, “The children will be housed at the Hollingworth Home for now—”

“No,” Jerry said.

“No?” the sheriff asked, raising his eyebrow.

“No,” Jerry repeated. “I’ll take them. We can figure out what to do with them later, but I’m not leaving them in a blasted orphanage.”

Blackwell nodded. “That’s right Christian of you, Jerry. I’m sure the kids would rather be with their uncle at a time like this.”

Jerry could only nod in response. He had never felt so helpless.

That feeling remained later that evening as he sat in the parlor of the ranch house, staring at the crumpled advertisement that had sat untouched in his vest pocket for the past five days. The children were finally asleep after hours of crying, screaming, and fighting until exhaustion finally accomplished what Jerry’s pleas, coaxing, and commands couldn’t.

He stared at the advertisement and thought of his future. Could it be that only five days ago he’d dreamt of running the largest horse ranch in Montana with his arm around a beautiful fairy tale princess? That dream seemed exactly that now; a dream, a fantasy that had nothing to do with the reality he now faced.

He glanced down the hall to where the children rested. They were his future now. Jerry had never imagined himself to be a family man, but these were his brother’s kids, and some things mattered more than wealth and success.

He read the note through one last time, then sighed and tore it in half. He tossed the tattered pieces into the fire, then walked upstairs to his room. He pulled a sheet of paper from a drawer and dipped his quill pen into the inkwell on the small table next to the bed. With a deep sigh, he began to write a new advertisement.

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