She’s a broken lost dove and he’s a scarred unbending rancher. When he finds her on his doorstep, he cannot know the danger she brings with her. Can they love each other despite all the reasons that might drive them apart?
Nellie has never met respect and dignity in her life. A twist of fate and a too greedy uncle, leave her stranded in a dangerous saloon until she finds a way to escape. However, seeking refuge in John’s ranch, terribly shaken and on the chase, is a challenge on its own. How can she keep her heart guarded when this new man makes it beat faster?
John has lost everything that mattered to him—including his past self. When he finds a frostbitten and exhausted woman in front of his ranch, a flame ignites in his heart. Nellie’s unresponsiveness is a test of his patience and her mere presence gets under his skin. How can he mend his heart wounds by loving Nellie, when she’s just trapped in her own past?
To save themselves from a life of loneliness, Nellie and John must find it in their hearts to forgive and forget. When dangers come closer though, will this be enough for their love to be spared?
Union City, Tennessee,
“I’m terribly sorry for your loss, Miss Marsden, but the fact remains that you are too young to be on your own.”
Nellie nodded, willing herself not to cry in front of Doc Evans. She couldn’t even look at the elderly man with the long white beard. He had been in and out of her house for days, but Nellie was still experiencing the shock of losing her father due to his weak heart.
Instead, she looked around her living room for any remaining mementos of him. Her father’s pipe was still on a nearby table, and Nellie pictured the wispy smoke coming from it the way it did when he’d smoke after dinner. She hadn’t liked the smell of tobacco at all, but its absence in the last few days made her regret feeling that way.
“You need someone that can provide for you, you’re just seventeen,” Doc Evan’s continued, temporarily bringing Nellie back to the present. “Surely you have family somewhere that can take you in?”
Feeling her stomach twisting at his words, Nellie let out a shaky breath. She’d been wrestling with this problem not long after her father had collapsed out in the yard. Now he was buried in the local cemetery and the funeral service had just passed, but her mind was still struggling to find an answer to her problem.
“I know of only one living relative,” she replied softly, finally looking up into Doc Evan’s eyes. “My father has a brother, but I’ve never met him.”
Nellie remembered her father saying that her uncle Bob did not like to work hard to get the things that he wanted. They often disagreed because Bob liked to steal and cheat his way to the top.
Doc Evans nodded and began to head toward the door, but not before he put a compassionate hand on her shoulder. “Write to your uncle. This house is more than you can handle or afford on your own. He is all you have left now.”
Nellie hadn’t cleaned or done laundry in days. She was also responsible for cooking and feeding the animals. Doc Evans was right, there was no way that she could tend the fields or repair things that broke without her father. Nellie would have to sell the animals and the land. She wasn’t sure if she could bear leaving her home, but she didn’t have a better option. If she didn’t write to her uncle, what other chance did she have to survive on her own?
Nearly a month later, Uncle Bob was waiting for her on the edge of Dyersburg, where the stagecoaches picked up and dropped off passengers. It wasn’t hard for Nellie to spot him in the small crowd. In a way, seeing him was like looking at a ghost, a younger version of her father. In his letter, he had sounded grumpy and rough but Nellie hadn’t expected him to look the part as well. Her father had talked about how Uncle Bob often gave in to his vices, so she did not expect much. Nellie had hoped he would be at least slightly pleasant, but the man wore an impetuous scowl as she walked up to him.
He wore grey slacks held up with suspenders and a plaid shirt that had seen better days. It was a stark contrast to the pale blue calico dress she’d traveled in. The shade was similar to the sky above the town of Dyersburg. Nellie had made it herself when her father had purchased the fabric for her seventeenth birthday.
“Hello, Uncle,” was all Nellie could muster, keeping her voice steady.
“Is this some kind of joke?” her uncle barked when she disembarked, making the few other travelers that had been in the stagecoach with her stop and stare.
Uncle Bob shook his head and looked at her like she was lower than filth. Nellie was perplexed. He wasn’t talking to her like that, was he?
“Now I’m gonna have to live with a constant reminder of her too?” Uncle Bob began to mumble and curse under his breath. Nellie could not make sense out of his words but was relieved that there weren’t more people around to witness his reaction. The few that remained on the platform pretended to be absorbed with their own business.
Nellie’s father had brought her up to be seen and not heard. He had taught her that a woman was at her best in the kitchen or hanging clothes on the line. Still, as she followed her uncle, her heart yearned for her father. He had been old-fashioned and not always the warmest, but Uncle Bob made him look like a tender man.
Uncle Bob guided her over to a wagon pulled by a single shabby-looking horse. He threw the few belongings she had into the back before he climbed up to the seat to drive. Seeing that he wasn’t going to help her up, she awkwardly climbed in the wagon herself, once again happy that there weren’t too many people around to watch her struggle. Eventually, they departed away from a general store, the schoolhouse, and a lumber yard, and soon ranches began to spread out on either side of the dusty road they traveled. When her uncle steered his horse off of the road and onto a more private path, Nellie initially got excited at the prospect of seeing her new home, only to feel a whole new wave of disappointment.
To call the span sprawling before her eyes a ranch would be a most generous euphemism. There were only a handful of animals out in the pastures, and the fences surrounding the property were so damaged that they were barely keeping those contained. Where her father had fields with endless rows of corn and wheat, in her uncle’s crops Nellie could see nothing but weeds.
Her house in Union City had been modest, but well-kept. Now, Nellie’s heart sank as they pulled up to a house that seemed to be one storm away from collapsing, the paint on the wood panels chipped and old. The front yard was a mess, and from the outside, she could tell that the house windows hadn’t been cleaned in ages.
Once more Uncle Bob left her alone after he brought the horse to a stop. He grabbed her trunk and stalked toward the front door. Nellie clambered out of the wagon and raced to catch up with him. As they climbed the few creaking steps and walked through the entrance, she saw that the house was in a worse state than she was prepared for once he let her inside. There was filth, dirt, and dust everywhere, and it looked like it had been years since anyone had bothered disposing of waste or scrubbing the floors.
There was a large room beyond the hall with a fireplace and a round table where her uncle must have taken his meals. She could see a modest sitting area at the far end of the room. There were two doors on the left side, which Nellie assumed led to the bedrooms. She looked around for any signs of a woman, perhaps a companion to make her new life a little easier, but it was obvious by the state of Uncle Bob’s home that he was alone.
“Well, this is it.” Uncle Bob held his hands out in mock welcome. “There’s a bed in the room off to the right you can take.” His voice changed to that same snarling tone he’d used on her earlier. “I expect you to keep things clean and have my breakfast ready on the table before sunrise. Is that clear?”
Nellie dropped her eyes to her brown leather boots in an attempt to hide her mouth that wanted to hang open. When had her uncle found the time to despise her so quickly? Nellie felt his reaction to her to be unfair. He barely even knew her. When he stared at her expectantly, she swallowed hard before finally replying “Yes, sir.” She was afraid of what he’d be like if she actually did something to warrant his ghastly behavior.
“Good, I hope you understand that I don’t take kindly to mistakes. You’ll do well to learn what I expect soon enough.”
What in the world would happen if she didn’t? She felt her eyes welling with tears. Not wanting to know what Uncle Bob’s reaction would be, Nellie turned on her heel and excused herself into what would be her room.
She shut the door behind her so he wouldn’t hear her weeping. She wanted to grieve the loss of her father and her old life alone. The bedroom was just as terrible as the rest of the house; bare but for a bed with a thin, dated quilt and a small dresser with a dirty smudgy mirror hung above. The room was a refuge, but a dingy one at best.
As she dropped her few things on the bed, Nellie allowed the weight on her shoulders to overcome her. She wondered if it was too late to go back to Union City, but deep inside, she feared the answer was already harsher than she could bear.
Nellie tumbled to the floor, the sting of her uncle’s slap making her face throb. Despite living with her uncle for over a year, the shock of his violence was always just as startling as the first time it had happened.
“Who taught you to cook, girl?” Uncle Bob snapped. “You’ve been feeding me the same thing for a week! Where’s the bread?”
She wanted nothing more than to tell him that she had nothing to feed him but eggs, but he’d just get angrier that she had mouthed off. Nellie had learned her uncle would hit her for merely existing. It was unfair, but it soon became clear enough after moving in with Uncle Bob that life was cruel whether one deserved it or not.
“I had twice as much food before you came along,” Uncle Bob roared. “Now I have to share everything with you.”
She never remembered her father being so cruel. He had been cold, and never once told her that she loved her, to the point that Nellie often wondered if he resented her for the death of her mother. Be that as it may, he never hit her. She couldn’t understand how two brothers could be so different. Uncle Bob’s mood swings were as upsetting as his violent bursts. Nellie had tried to like him, and she scolded herself for having ill thoughts for anyone, but she often wished that Uncle Bob had been the one with the weak heart.
Nellie felt trapped. She had found that most people were afraid of Uncle Bob so they kept their distance. It didn’t help that he did not allow her to interact with other people at all. There was no bachelor interested in Nellie, and that made her feel even more despondent about her situation. How could she get away from Uncle Bob if people were too afraid to get to know her?
“Get ready,” he ordered. “We’re going into town.”
Nellie was all but thrilled to hear this. It meant that this awful situation would be put behind them for the time being. However, she was also a bit leery. Whenever Uncle Bob took her to town with him, he’d make a scene. Once he’d slapped her in the general store because she’d been looking at the books sold there. Nellie would understand if she had actually planned to buy anything, but to think that he would punish her simply for looking! The way her chest had felt as men and women stared at her hurt more than the welt his hand had made. That day Nellie had decided that she didn’t just dislike her uncle, but she downright hated him.
She tried to be hopeful though, thinking that maybe he’d held onto some money long enough that they could finally buy flour for the blasted bread he’d just been so upset about. Maybe she could even get a bit of butter to silence him further. She picked herself up off the kitchen floor and attempted to dust herself off.
“Wear something nice,” Uncle Bob said as he went to his own room and came back out with one of the shirts Nellie had recently mended for him.
As she excused herself to her room, Nellie grew even more suspicious. The blue calico dress that she had worn to Union City for the first time was one that she often saved for church; she felt it made her look mature and pretty. It wasn’t Sunday, and Uncle Bob didn’t go to church anyway, so where could they be possibly going? Nellie worried that her uncle was up to something.
Once they were in the wagon, Nellie could feel her chest growing tight as they made their way to town. She was never happier than when he allowed her to walk the long journey into town so she could attend church each week. Knowing she wasn’t going to get a break from him today, she braided and undid her long blonde hair over and over as an attempt to distract herself.
Dyersburg proper was crawling with men. Nellie liked to play a game where she tried to spot ladies in bonnets out on the street. They were a rarity, whereas men in work breeches and tall hats loitered in front of the general store, as well as the lumber mill where many of them worked.
Most of the buildings were stout and one-story. Nellie could tell which of the owners were well-off because those houses were painted up pretty, while the shabby ones, she assumed, belonged to owners who liked to drink and gamble their funds away as her uncle did.
When Uncle Bob parked the wagon near one of the bughouses, Nellie tried to ignore the unease settling into the pit of her stomach. Perhaps it was just where they would meet after she got her supplies and he’d had one of his many pints of the day. Nellie was surprised when her uncle put a strong hand on her arm.
“Come along, Nellie,” Uncle Bob said as he guided her roughly away from the wagon and in the direction of the saloon they had parked in front of.
Nellie could barely hide her disappointment at the fact that they weren’t going to the general store. She had been craving fresh bread just as much as he had. She had also planned on sneaking a peek at a few other things while her uncle was having a drink.
When Uncle Bob pulled her toward the front steps of the Three Noose Saloon, it became apparent where he was taking her. It was one of those places where a lady in a church dress wouldn’t be found. In fact, Nellie thought it was quite the opposite of a place she should be visiting as a young unmarried woman.
Uncle Bob visited the Three Noose Saloon several times a week and spent nearly everything on booze, cards, and the girls who lived in the rooms upstairs. Nellie had once made the mistake of telling him that God and others would judge him for doing such a thing, and he’d slapped her across the face.
“What are we doing here?” Nellie demanded.
She stopped dead in her tracks as Uncle Bob reached the front door. Was this a new way to humiliate her? What business did she possibly have in the saloon other than to be something for the men to stare at? Men typically didn’t bring their wives, daughters, or nieces to such a place.
“Let’s go, girl,” Uncle Bob said through gritted teeth. When Nellie shook her head, he pulled her close to him so he could hiss in her ear. “I’d hate for all these people to see me beat you for being disrespectful.”
Nellie bit her lip at his words. Did he know how often she prayed to God for strength? Had he not seen all the work she’d done to fix his dilapidated house? How much was she supposed to lay down and take before it became too much and she lost her mind?
“Uncle, this is no place for a lady!”
Uncle Bob yanked on her braid until it pulled painfully at her scalp. “I see you’re still sassing me. I’d hate for you to have to be punished for that kind of attitude.”
Not wanting to find out how willing he was to make that threat come to fruition, Nellie heaved an exasperated sigh and followed her uncle through the saloon doors. The place reeked of old beer and stale cigars, and men’s voices rose from each corner, making a brawl. She could feel the burning stares of those around her as Uncle Bob guided her to the bar. Her face flushed as several of the men nudged each other while she passed.
Nellie tried to distract herself by studying the interior of the place. There were several round tables where men sat playing what appeared to be poker. An elderly man sat at an upright piano, his fingers dancing as he played tunes that sounded vaguely familiar. There were deer and elk heads mounted on the walls as hunting trophies. This was a place solely for men, except for the girls in the corsets and short skirts loitering on the stairs.
“Hello, Bob,” the bartender called, setting down a glass. He was a thin, lanky man that looked like he might blow away with the wind. “The usual?” Uncle Bob nodded and Nellie watched the bartender fill the glass to the top with amber liquid. He must have noticed her standing there, for he asked, “This your niece?”
Uncle Bob all but rolled his eyes. “Unfortunately.”
Nellie figured he still had to be very upset with breakfast if he felt the need to tell everyone how much he despised her.
“She’s a pretty one,” the bartender suggested.
This time, Uncle Bob heaved a weary sigh. “I suppose. Reminds me too much of my wife. Can’t stand looking at her.”
Nellie had heard the comparison many times. It was an insult often flung at her after her uncle had come home from the saloon and then drank even more. Why did you have to look like her? It’s some twisted reminder from the devil to make me atone for what I’ve done.
Nellie never got the sober version of the story, but she’d pieced together that Uncle Bob’s wife, Mary, had been accidentally wounded and died from infection a few years back. He would glare at her, saying that it seemed to him as if his wife had returned from the dead to avenge her untimely death with Nellie’s similar-looking blonde hair and blue eyes. Nellie knew it wasn’t her fault, but it was just one more thing that made things difficult between her and her uncle in an ever-growing list of obstacles.
Uncle Bob took a swig of his beer before clearing his throat. “Is George here? I’ve got business with him.”
Nellie, who had been standing quietly beside her uncle, watched as the bartender motioned to one of the saloon girls on the stairs. She gave a shallow nod before she disappeared into the hallway upstairs. Nellie watched as the remaining women stared down at her with curious and concerned faces. If the sour feeling in her stomach hadn’t been indication enough that being there wasn’t good, their expressions certainly confirmed it. It was as though they didn’t see girls like her there very often. Nellie tried not to panic as she tried to figure out what her uncle had on his mind. Whatever it was, she prayed they would be out of there soon.
A moment later, the woman wearing ruffle skirts and a gauzy black shawl returned and made her way over to Uncle Bob. Nellie was surprised to see how beautiful she was up close. Her reddish-brown hair was in a high bun resting on top of her head and bobbed lightly as she gave Nellie a quick once over.
“George is ready to see you both up in his office,” she said.
Nellie’s blood went cold at the word both. What would anyone who worked at the Three Noose Saloon want to do with her? As they passed the saloon girls on the stairs, they continued to study her with a mix of interest and pity. Nellie thought it was ironic that they were looking at her with such commiseration. If anything, she should be the one feeling sorry for them. She’d heard stories of their living conditions, of what they were expected to do to make a living.
The young woman led them at the end of the hallway into a spacious office with a big wooden desk and fine sturdy chairs with upholstered cushions. There were large, lavish paintings on the walls and the man sitting behind the desk wore nicer clothes than what Nellie’s father could have ever afforded back in Union City.
The man didn’t share Uncle Bob’s scowl; instead, his lips were set into a thin smile, as if he were hiding what he was really thinking while he took in Nellie and her uncle, sizing her up and glaring at Uncle Bob as they entered.
“Well, if it isn’t Bob Marsden in the flesh,” the man said with a whistle. “I do hope you have my money. Been running out of excuses not to shoot you.”
Nellie froze and took in his appearance as he burst into a peal of guttural laughter. He had a rosy round face, a balding head, and one of the buttons on his vest looked like it might spring loose if he kept laughing. The broadness of his shoulders was as intimidating as his girth, giving him the appearance of a giant with wild, glinting green eyes.
Uncle Bob sunk into a chair, looking the most remorseful that Nellie had ever seen him. “Now George, I’m working hard to clear my debts. I’m a good customer.”
George had evidently heard it all before and interrupted him. “My girls need to eat, Bob. You can’t always drink for free.” He turned his attention to Nellie, and his face changed to one that brought chills down her spine. “Who’s this now?”
Uncle Bob looked over his shoulder as if he had forgotten that Nellie was there. “This is my niece. The one I was telling you about.” He motioned for Nellie to step closer, to come sit in the chair beside him.
Was this man the owner? Nellie felt herself shaking as she thought of the girls waiting on the stairs, and suddenly wondered how they got their jobs. Did they volunteer to be saloon girls? Had they once been innocent and modest like her? The idea made it difficult for Nellie to swallow.
Finally, she obeyed and came to sit in the free chair beside him. Uncle Bob introduced the man sitting at the desk as George Woolf, the owner of Three Noose Saloon.
“How old?” George asked curiously.
“Eighteen,” Uncle Bob replied. “Though I think she looks a few years older. Paint her face and I bet she’d pass for twenty-one.”
Nellie felt lightheaded as she started to realize what was happening there. It reminded her of the few times her father had taken her to an exchange when he needed to buy a new horse and was trying to make a bargain. George was inquiring if she was worth the investment. What Nellie couldn’t figure out was whether the two men were playing a sick joke on her or if they were serious.
George Woolf looked absolutely delighted. “It’s been a long time since I’ve had one so young. She reminds me of an old one I used to have.” His eyes bounced to Nellie, and he licked his lips at the prospect. “How much?”
“I was hoping it would clear the issues standing between us?” Uncle Bob asked hopefully.
Nellie gasped when she realized that this wasn’t a joke. Her uncle was going to sell her off to someone she’d never met, a man that could have been her father! How could he do this to her after everything she’d been through? Nellie brought her hand to her mouth in horror.
“Are you going to sell me to him?” She demanded, a cross of horrified and angry.
George laughed his hearty laugh at her boldness. “Why yes, sweetheart, you’re going to live with me. Be one of my girls.”
When Nellie had wished that someone would inquire about making her a bride so she could leave Uncle Bob’s ranch, she never would have wished for this. She thought desperate thoughts that God wouldn’t be proud of before she turned to face her uncle.
“Uncle, I know that taking me in was a burden, but you can’t sell me to this man. I beg you, I can’t do this! I’ll take a lifetime of beatings, but please don’t leave me here!” Nellie was stunned when he averted his gaze to one of the paintings over George Woolf’s shoulder.
“I’ll take her now, Bob.” George continued like Nellie wasn’t even in the room. “I’ll have her broken in and taking customers by tomorrow.” He rose and the men shook hands.
“Uncle, please!” Nellie cried, reaching out for him with trembling hands. If she could catch him and hang onto him, he wouldn’t be able to leave without her. She didn’t want to be left in the clutches of George Woolf! She sobbed when he swatted her hands away.
Uncle Bob was already standing, walking toward the door. George told him to speak to the bartender to tell him that all his tabs had been paid. He didn’t even say goodbye before he disappeared into the hallway.
It was like when Doc Evans had told her that she had to live with Uncle Bob; Nellie she didn’t understand why life was tossing her from one place to another in the hands of men who mistreated her, held her down, and made her feel like a bird in a cage.
The same saloon girl who had brought her into the office returned at that moment. She was beautiful, so slight and petite that she reminded Nellie of a doll. Nellie was surprised when she put a comforting arm around her shoulder and began to guide her out of the room.
“Get her all dolled up for tonight,” George called after her. “Once the place closes up for the night, I’ll want her in my quarters.”
The girl stopped and stared at George Woolf for a long moment with disgust, and Nellie thought she was about to tell him that he was despicable. Instead, she said nothing as she turned around and guided Nellie from the room. Nellie wondered if time or suffering had caused her to be this subservient, and whether this is what would happen to her as well…
If she survived the night.
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