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To Love her Fondly in the Midst of Darkness

She can only experience the world through the eyes of her soul. He has lost his purpose but his soul yearns for connection. Will their marriage of convenience lighten up their lonely hearts?

Every nerve she had was on fire; she could still feel Walter’s kisses on her lips, and worst and most damning of all, she’d enjoyed them. There for an instant, she’d kissed him back. She felt as guilty as if she’d just committed a murder, her heart was thrumming in her chest.”

Bettie has never seen the colour of the sky. Yet, she’d known what family feels like by touching the face of her daughter, Nellie. After the tragic death of her husband, she struggles to connect with her daughter and her own ranch. A marriage of convenience is all she asks for but meeting Walter, the buttoned-up doctor, makes her yearn for more. How can she dedicate her heart and soul to this new and tormented man?

Walter is desperately trying to find the peace he lost while serving as an army doctor during the war. Going against his father’s wishes, he travels West to marry Bettie as her situation pulls on his heartstrings. Thus, he finds a new sense of purpose. Yet, he constantly questions his ability to be the man Bettie and her daughter need. How can he let this new family put the pieces of his heart back together?

Bettie and Walter have met a lonely life with no purpose. It is their deep need to belong to someone that brings them close. Can they fight what’s coming though when Walter reveals his true identity?

Written by:

Western Historical Romance Author

Prologue

Pittsfield, Pennsylvania

1868

Bettie Selleck frowned in her sleep, murmured, and turned her head on her pillow. She dreamt that she was sitting downstairs in her parlor, enjoying her husband’s birthday gift to her. It was a copy of Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield, and she smiled to read about the adventures of young David and his lovable nurse Peggotty. John was sitting to her right in his own chair, and the rustling of his newspaper, as he turned the pages, and the crackling of the small fire were a soothing backdrop to her quiet reading.

But as she read, the wind got into the chimney, moaning and crying like a lost soul, and smoke swirled out into the room. It made her cough and burned her eyes, and she had to put the book down and rub them.

“John,” she murmured, “please put out the fire, the smoke stings my eyes. John?”

A feeling of dread sifted through her as the wind in the chimney died down, and the room went preternaturally still. Even the sound of John’s newspaper was gone.

Bettie woke slowly, still murmuring her husband’s name. She reached out for him, and her fingers brushed his soft, curling hair as he slept beside her on his pillow.

She realized it had just been a dream then, and she was comforted, but only for a moment. She frowned, sat up, and turned her head.

The smell of smoke was still in the room; and when she tilted her head to listen, she could hear a tiny crackling sound from somewhere downstairs, then a series of louder pops.

She turned back to her husband, put a hand on his shoulder and shook it gently. “John? John, wake up.”

Her husband mumbled in his sleep, and she shook him again. “John, wake up! I smell smoke.”

Bettie frowned and turned toward the bedroom door. The smell of smoke was getting stronger, and its scent had acquired a deeper undertone that spurred her to shake John a third time.

Her husband mumbled incoherently, then stirred beside her. “What’s the matter?” he asked sleepily.

“I smell smoke, John!”

“Smoke?” The mattress creaked as he sat up, then shook slightly as he got out of bed. Bettie could hear his bare feet hurrying across the room to their bedroom door.

Fear jumped up in Bettie’s heart. “John, check the nursery!”

The door creaked open, and as soon as it did a draft blew a strong smell of smoke into the bedroom. Bettie’s heart shriveled in panic as she thought of her baby daughter sleeping in the next room.

To her horror, her husband’s anguished voice called out to her from the stairs below their bedroom door. She could hear his big feet thundering down the steps, and the fear in his voice as he barked, “Bettie, the house is on fire! Get the baby while I try to put it out.”

“Be careful, John!” she called anxiously, and hurried to do as he said. She threw off the quilt and slapped her bare feet on the wooden floor. It was cold as ice near their bed, but as she stood and hurried across the room to the bedroom door, the rough wooden floor became progressively warmer. The smoke was so thick near the door that it made her cough, and her heart trembled in her chest to think of how it might choke her baby or harm her tiny lungs.

She felt her way down the hall to the nursery door and opened it quickly. The air in the nursery was lighter, less smoky, but to Bettie’s terror, her baby’s panicked voice met her at the door like a scream for help. The baby cried, and Bettie moved to the little crib near the window as fast as she could.

She reached down, found her baby by feel, and curled her fingers gently around her little body. Bettie lifted her daughter to her chest and sobbed in sympathy for her suffering. She grabbed the little blanket in the crib and wrapped it around her baby before turning for the door.

She hadn’t taken two steps across the floor when there was a heavy crack that made the whole house shudder, then an ominous crackling under the floor. A new wave of hot, choking smoke rolled in from the hall, and panic clawed at Bettie’s throat.

“John, are you all right?”

Her husband’s voice shouted, “Get the baby out, Bettie! Take the back stair!”

There was another crack, and suddenly a shuddering roar that made Bettie scream in horror.

“John! John!” she sobbed, imagining her husband lying dead under a fallen beam. She felt her way to the nursery door; but there was no answer.

“John, answer me!”

Thick, rough smoke rolled in, clogging Bettie’s lungs, followed by a blast of intense heat, and Bettie folded the baby tight to her chest and turned down the upstairs hall to the back stairway, coughing as she went.

She grabbed the stair railing with one trembling hand, and the baby with the other, as she made her way down, one hurried step at a time. She reached the landing, and was turning to go down the last flight, when another heavy crack overhead made her take the last few stairs at a stumbling run. She tripped over the bottom step and half-fell onto the floor of the foyer, still holding her baby to her chest. Bettie groped for the wall, then pulled herself back up on trembling legs.

 

If only I could help John, she thought in desperation; but she forced herself to push out into the frigid night onto the back porch of her house. It was bitter cold, and she wrapped her arms around her baby and felt her way down the porch steps to the back yard. A blast of heat from the door drove her across the grass to the very edge of the yard, and she turned to face the house and screamed, “John! John, where are you? Please answer me!”

There was no answer except the roar of fire, and Bettie backed away across the lawn, sobbing. She imagined her husband lying face down on the floor of their burning house, unconscious.

If only I could help him, she thought frantically, and shrieked from the pit of her stomach.

John!”

A shattering crash and a furnace-like blast of heat rolled across the lawn, and Bettie turned her back to shield the baby and wept over her little head.

She hadn’t seen John die, but a terrible sense of certainty curled its dark fingers around her heart. She had the horrible feeling that her husband was gone—and if he was, that meant she was dead, too. She turned away from the heat, toward the general direction of their bunkhouse, and took a few hurried steps to run for help, then stumbled and almost fell. She knelt on the grass, her sobs drowning out the shuddering wails of her crying baby.

***

Her brother-in-law Allan found her that way a few minutes later as he came running up from the bunkhouse of their ranch, acres away on the far side of their pastures.

“Bettie are you all right?” he yelped, and then muttered in awe, “God have pity on us, the house is gone! Where’s John?”

Bettie shook her head bitterly. “Still inside!” She wanted to sob, He’s gone, but she couldn’t bring herself to utter the words, as if saying them aloud would make them come true.

She heard Allan tear off toward the house, shouting, “John! John!” as she wept; and if anything else happened, she didn’t know, because she felt herself going faint and light-headed, and slumped sideways on the cold grass and fade out.

***

She woke to the sound of Allan’s raspy voice. Its hopeless tone confirmed to her that her husband was dead even before she was told. Despair surged up in her to snuff out the last flicking light of her hope.

“Bettie? Bettie are you all right?”

She roused up with a start. Her first realization was that she was lying on something soft, and she was still in her nightgown. Her second was that her daughter was gone from her arms. She felt around her frantically, and her voice jumped in panic as she imagined her baby injured on the floor, gasping for air, or even still on the freezing lawn outside the house.

“Where’s my baby?”

“Nellie’s fine,” Allan’s voice assured her softly. “I’ve got her in my bed. She’s sleeping and she’s doing fine.”

“Where am I?”

“You’re in the spare bedroom in the bunkhouse, next to mine,” her brother-in-law told her softly. There was a short pause, and he added, “It’s about all that’s left. The fire burned down the barn and got most our animals, and the house—” He paused again and added gently, “Bettie, I hate to have to tell you this, but John’s gone. He’s gone, honey.”

She’d already known it in her heart, but to hear that terrible truth spoken aloud made it suddenly, terribly real. A wave of grief swept over her and trickled through her like water pouring through a sieve. “Oh, God help me!” Bettie wept and put her face in her hands. “Oh, John!’

Allan put a hand on her shoulder, and they wept together. Bettie twisted her fingers into his shirt and convulsed with her loss. She couldn’t accept that an hour before, John had been sleeping peacefully in bed beside her, and now was gone forever. Just that fast. She shook her head bitterly and sobbed out her loss, but no amount of tears could soothe her.

John was gone.

After a long time, Allan told her gruffly, “You just lie back and rest, Bettie. I’ll bring Nell back in here and she can sleep with you tonight. We’ll…we’ll figure out what to do tomorrow.”

Something warm and soft came up around her chin, and Bettie pulled up the quilt and buried her face in her pillow. At that moment, despair reared up so high above her head that it filled the world.

She had no idea how she was going to raise her baby daughter, or even support herself now that John was gone.

A blind woman without a husband was in desperate straits.

Chapter One

Pittsfield, Pennsylvania

1874

“‘You are too young to know how the world changes everyday,’ said Mrs. Creakle, ‘and how the people in it pass away. But we all have to learn it, David; some of us when we are young, some of us when we are old, some of us at all times in our lives.’”

Bettie leaned back into her favorite reading chair in the parlor and brushed her hand lightly over the Braille letters of her copy of David Copperfield. The book had survived the fire under an overturned china plate. It was all that she had left of John, and she liked to return to it when she was sad or missing him; though lately she did wish that its wisdom wasn’t quite so relevant to her own life.

Her hand hovered over the letters of the book. Together, Allan and friends from their little farming community had rebuilt their house and barn, though much smaller than before, and they had somehow eked out a living. The new house still smelled faintly of raw wood and pine resin on rainy days, and while she’d lost all the furniture and family heirlooms that she and John shared—her grandmother’s hundred-year-old china, John’s pocket watch and family Bible, the crib John had made for Nellie—they had enough sturdy furniture to fill the rooms, even if that furniture was second-hand and mostly donated by friends at their church.

Bettie frowned and brushed her fingers over the page of the book again.

She wished with all her soul that she could be more help to her brother-in-law. Allan had been an angel to them, and she didn’t know what they would’ve done without him; but the ranch was still suffering despite that. Allan was doing his best, but he was only one man. A ranch was more work than he could handle, and they couldn’t afford to hire more hands.

She chewed her lip and smoothed the fabric of her dress sleeve, picking at the nubby cotton weave. Maybe she could find some way to help Allan more. Maybe she could take over feeding the animals of a morning. Once he’d marked out a path to the barn and the chicken coop, she’d have no problem remembering the way. That might free him up a bit.

A faint mumble from an adjoining room broke Bettie’s train of thought. It was her daughter Nell’s childish voice murmuring as she played with her dolls. Nell had two dolls, Mr. and Mrs. Brown. The dolls were a married couple, and Mrs. Brown was blind.

“I have to go to town today, Mrs. Brown,” Nell’s voice mumbled in a deeper tone. “I won’t be back for a while.”

Bettie’s lip curled down faintly. In Nell’s make-believe world, Mr. Brown was always going somewhere, always leaving, and that worried her. Nell had grown up without her father, and that loss worked its way out into her life in a thousand worrisome ways.

Nell was conscious of that loss, too, that she wasn’t like other children. That she didn’t have a father.

Bettie called out suddenly, “Nell, why don’t you bring your dolls and play with them in here? I’d love to have your company.”

To her intense disappointment, her daughter’s soft voice called out in reply, “I’m happy here, Momma.”

Bettie sighed. She knew it wasn’t logical to be hurt by a six-year-old, but Nell’s refusal felt like a rejection just the same.

In her darker moments she feared that her little daughter somehow blamed her for her father’s death. Perhaps Nell’s child mind needed someone to lash out against for that loss.

Now and then, usually as she was being tucked in for the night, Nell had asked softly, “Mommy, why didn’t you run back inside the house for Daddy? Why didn’t you bring him out of the fire?”

A frown twisted Bettie’s lips. The question always struck her like a blow to the chest, but Nell was only six years old. She couldn’t yet understand that accidents happened, and that no one was to blame.

Bettie’s heart suddenly yearned for her daughter, and she blurted, “Come in here and sit by me, chicken.”

She heard a tiny sigh from the other room, and then, “Yes, Momma.”

The patter of Nell’s little feet told Bettie that she was on her way, and she put the book aside and smiled as the door creaked open. She held out her arms and smiled, “Right here.”

To her relief, Nell obeyed, and Bettie reached out and pulled her gently into her arms. She pressed her cheek to her daughter’s silky hair. “Mmm,” she hummed, “You always smell as fresh as new soap.” Bettie smiled, remembering that John’s hair had always been fresh and fragrant of soap, and she caressed Nell’s curly locks. They were as soft and wavy as John’s, and Allan had told her that they were a dark, glossy brown, like her own.

He’d also told her that Nell was a little doll, and maybe it was her fond mother’s heart, but she believed him. She ran loving fingers lightly over Nellie’s face—her smooth brow, her delicate, butterfly-delicate eyelids and lashes, her button nose, her rosebud mouth. Nellie sat still under her hands. She understood her mother’s caress was also a loving gaze, and she was patient under it.

Bettie adjusted the collar of her daughter’s little dress. “What are your dollies up to, sweetheart?”

Nell stirred in her arms, and she could feel a small object pressing against her arm. “This is Dorothea,” Nell explained. “She’s my new dolly that Uncle Allan gave me. She’s reading to Mrs. Williams, because Mr. Williams went to town.”

“Oh, I see,” Bettie murmured solemnly, and hugged her daughter closer. “Dorothea is a very sweet dolly to help Mrs. Williams out, isn’t she?”

“I think so,” Nell replied softly.

Bettie hugged her daughter gently, pressed her cheek to Nell’s soft hair, and wished for the thousandth time that John could somehow look down from heaven and see their daughter. She thought wistfully, You’re a sweet, pretty little girl, darling, and you always help Mommy. Your Daddy would be so proud of you.

The door opened again, and the scent of tobacco and the outdoors told Bettie that it was Allan, come in for lunch. A lady named Patricia from town came in to cook for them, and the sound of her puttering around in the dining room also drifted through the open door.

“Well! I can see that Miss Nellie is enjoying her new doll,” Allan teased, and there was a rustling sound and a soft smack. “I think we’re spoiling her, Bettie.”

“Never,” Bettie smiled, and reached out to smooth her daughter’s hair. “Nell deserves a new doll. She’s a very faithful helper, aren’t you, chicken?”

Nell’s soft voice sounded a bit subdued. “Yes, Momma.”

Worry put a hand on Bettie’s shoulder, and she added, “Why don’t you go into the dining room and help Patricia set the table for lunch, darling?”

“Yes, Momma. Maybe I’ll find Theo there.”

“Has your cat run off again?” Bettie murmured, with a slight smile.

“Yes,” Nellie sighed. “He won’t sit still and let me put a dollie dress on him.”

Bettie’s quick ear followed the soft rustle of Nell’s cotton dress as her daughter moved out of reach and out of the room.

After the door closed quietly behind her, Allan sank down into his leather chair and his deep voice rumbled, “I came in to talk to you, Bettie. It’s happened again. We lost a few cattle last night.”

Bettie frowned. That was troubling news, but Allan was a worry wart. He always zoomed straight to the worst, most conspiratorial explanation for things, and she felt moved to object, “It isn’t unheard of to lose a few cattle, Allan. Maybe an animal took them. I don’t know, maybe thieves. That happens, too.”

“Maybe,” her brother-in-law agreed warily. “But it’s just been one thing after another, ever since John died. First the fire, and it took us years to come back from that. Then the horses coming down sick so sudden and mysterious, and then the weevils in our corn that set us back so bad. I know you don’t like to hear it, Bettie, but I’m going to tell you anyway. I don’t think it’s a coincidence. I think this family has an enemy.”

Bettie bit back a grieved sigh. Her husband’s death had affected his brother deeply, as anyone might expect; but she suspected that Allan’ grief might have pushed him into paranoia. He patrolled their property every night just at sunset, and he locked all the doors before turning in, even though their little community had almost no crime, and what crime there was, was mostly committed by hungry foxes looking for a chicken dinner.

When she’d asked him about it, Allan had told her that he believed that John had been murdered by some mysterious enemy. His opinion had shaken her because it had dredged up her own grief. She’d had six long years to work through her own shock and anger over her husband’s death, but sometimes she still woke up in the night crying and gnawing her pillow in pain; and Allan’s suspicions had upset her for a while.

But she’d gradually come to understand that she and Allan had to work through their grief in their own ways. She kept her pain private and indulged it only in the darkness. She’d worked out a fragile truce with her loss to avoid a screaming breakdown.

But maybe it was easier for Allan to believe in some mysterious enemy who was responsible for their every misfortune, than it was to accept that sometimes tragedies happened for no reason at all.

That no amount of vigilance could protect them from the randomness of disaster.

She had to admit there had been many misfortunes in their family’s past; but she couldn’t share Allan’s suspicions, even though she could understand why he was tempted to believe in them.

“Well, maybe so, Allan,” she replied quietly. “But I’m not sure I’m willing to go that far without more solid proof. You may be right, but please don’t repeat those things in front of Nell. I don’t want her to be upset or afraid.”

“You know I wouldn’t do that,” he replied, in a tone of faint pique. “But I think it would be wise for there to be another man around this place, besides just me. The hands are only part-timers, and they’ve got worries of their own.”

He cleared his throat, and Bettie steeled herself for what was coming next. Allan was a good man and a faithful friend, but he was going to tell her, again, that he thought she should make an effort to find a husband. She was grateful to Allan for his loyalty, and she felt guilty for her irritation with him; but she hated the idea. She hated it for many reasons, the biggest of which was that she was still in love with her dead husband; but there were others just as important. Even though Nell was well-adjusted, Bettie always feared that her own disability and the loss of her father might make Nell seem different to her peers when she started school. Nell was due to start soon, and if she had a bit of trouble fitting in, Bettie didn’t want to add more stress by adding a total stranger to their household at the same time.

Then, too, she’d resigned herself to the life of a widow. John had been that one man in a million who had looked past her blindness to see her; and she wasn’t optimistic that she could find another man like him in her lifetime. John had read to her, taken her for long, romantic walks, described everything to her. He’d wooed her from the day they met until the day he died.

A man like that was a kind of a miracle, like a brilliant comet blazing across the night sky; and she’d already had one. She’d feel almost guilty to catch another falling star, when some women never had and never would.

Her brother-in-law cleared his throat again. “I haven’t said anything about it before now, but I think it’s time now. I’ve met a woman, Bettie, and we’ve fallen in love. I’ve asked her to marry me, and she’s said yes.”

Bettie listened in stunned silence. “Con…congratulations, Allan,” she stammered. “I had no idea!”

“We’ve talked about it,” he went on. “I don’t plan to leave here; I’ll be bringing Vertie here to live with us. I thought the two of us could set up in the little house that used to be John’s hunting cabin, over beyond the lake.”

“Of course.”

“But once I marry, I’ll have to divide my time. I know you understand.”

“Naturally,” Bettie replied. She was glad for Allan, because if there was ever a man who deserved happiness, it was her brother-in-law. But she’d gotten so used to having Allan to lean on that his sudden declaration of independence frightened her a bit. She licked her lips and added, “You’ll have to bring Vertie by and let us get to know her, Allan.”

Her brother-in-law shifted his weight in his chair, and it creaked softly. There was another pause, and he went on, “This is why I think you need to find a husband, Bettie,” he added softly. “You need somebody to take care of you and Nell, and to help with the farm. I’ll be here, but I’m not enough to do everything by myself right now. I sure won’t be after I have a wife of my own.

“We both need some help with this place.”

Bettie blinked and wished that she could make out Allan’s face, that she could see more than blobs, than blurred light and shadow. She was stricken suddenly by the conviction that her grief might’ve made her selfish, might’ve made her lean on Allan too much, take him too much for granted.

Allan went on, “I could write out a mail-order bride advertisement for you, Bettie. I could read out any replies to you, and you could make whatever decision you think is best. Now that the war’s over, there’s lots of good single men looking to settle down and start a home.”

Bettie frowned. As much as she hated the idea, maybe it was time for her to take Allan’s advice at last. Maybe it was time for her to seek a husband, even though she didn’t want one. Maybe it was time to make a sacrifice for the sake of their livelihood.

Still, the thought of how her daughter would react prompted her to object, “But what about Nell, Allan? I worry about how she’d take it. She’s so shy.”

Allan’s voice was gentle. “Bettie, you can’t shield Nell from change,” he murmured. “Of course we’ll all help her, but she’s going to have to learn how to accept new people in her life.”

“She’s so young,” Bettie fretted aloud. “I’m worried about her.”

Allan’s voice was resigned. “We’ll just have to leave it in the hands of the Lord, Bettie,” he sighed, and they both fell silent for what seemed to Bettie like a long time.

The dining room door opened eventually, and Nell’s voice called, “Patricia says that lunch is ready.”

“Thank you, baby,” Allan told her, and the chair creaked as he stood.

“Are you coming, Bettie?”

“In a minute,” she murmured; and after Allan and Nell had walked out, Bettie reached for her copy of David Copperfield and opened it to a random spot. Her fingers brushed over the page softly, and she read:

“We must meet reverses boldly, and not suffer them to frighten us, my dear. We must learn to act the play out. We must live misfortune down, Trot!”

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