She has watched him from afar ever since she was a schoolgirl. He has been teasing her to hide his love ever since he was young. An unexpected marriage brings them together. How will they find the path to each other’s shattered hearts?
“Keep your hands to yourself, buster,” she said.
“I’ll kiss my wife whenever I want to, bookworm,” he replied.
Kitty’s life turned upside down the moment her father died. Left alone with her distant aunt, she was forced to work her fingers to the bone to please her. Now, an unexpected mail-order bride ad gets her back to her hometown and in the hands of Theo Blackburn, her secret childhood love. Falling for this cynical cowboy though is challenging and risky. How can she pledge her heart and soul to a man who is so difficult to open up to her?
Theo’s carefree life broke down when he lost his mom and died. He had to pay off their debts by working long days in the ranch, and his mood for romance simply faded. Until his cousin Luke brings the only girl, he actually liked a lot to tease at school, Miss Kitty O’Clery. His palms sweat and his heart beats faster at the sight of her. How can he be the husband she deserves when he’s just too stubborn to let go of the past?
Theo and Kitty share a past, but they never thought they’d share a future. Despite their different appearance, they are still two innocent young people yearning for love. Will their slow-burn romance save them from vicious attacks and lies?
Kitty stood and stretched, groaning as she tried to loosen the muscles in her aching back, a common occurrence in her aunt Bella’s house. She’d moved in with her aunt after her father was taken away by a loan shark’s enforcers when Kitty was ten years old. She had waited anxiously for news of her father but heard nothing of his fate after he was taken. She could only presume he had died years ago, leaving Kitty in the care of an aunt who saw her as a servant on her best days and an extraordinary burden on her worst days.
Once more, her aunt Bella was hosting a party, and once more, it fell to Kitty to ensure that everything in the house was in tip-top shape while her aunt lounged about, drinking tea and finding fault in everything Kitty did.
As if on cue, she heard her aunt’s reedy voice call from the parlor. “Kitty!”
Kitty grimaced. Her aunt always emphasized and drew out the last syllable of her name, so it sounded like a screech. “KitteeeEEE!! KitteeeeeEEEE!!”
“Kitty! Make sure you dust the artwork in the hallway this time. Last week, you forgot, and there was a cloud of dust in that hall.”
The ‘artwork’ Bella referred to didn’t amount to much. In fact, it consisted of no more than a few tintype prints of prestigious people her aunt dubiously claimed to be related to and the Rembrandt; an oil-on-canvas portrait of a noblewoman with her dog that was by no means an actual Rembrandt and by Kitty’s estimation, not a very good painting either.
Kitty sighed and retrieved the duster from where she’d set it earlier next to the wall. She had dusted the artwork last week and planned to do it again before her aunt so graciously requested it. Just before she began to dust the first tintype—of a well-dressed Prussian count who Kitty insisted was a paternal grandfather of theirs—her aunt’s voice screeched again. “KitteeeeEEEEE!!”
“Yes, Aunt Bella!” Kitty called back. “I’m dusting right now!”
“There’s no need to shout at me,” her aunt responded in an injured tone.
Kitty rolled her eyes and took a deep breath. She prayed silently for God to give her strength and started dusting.
She finished her chores just as the first guests arrived. Besides dusting the hallway, she beat the drapes, dusted the furniture in the parlor, swept the ashes out of the fireplace and the stove, washed the dishes, cleaned and polished the furniture in the parlor and dining room, and thoroughly swept and mopped the entire house. She chopped firewood for the fireplace and stove and set the table with a fresh white cloth, the good china and silverware, and a bouquet of flowers in a stoneware vase as the centerpiece. She placed glasses at each place and decanted no fewer than five bottles of wine. There would only be ten people dining tonight, but her aunt and her guests were notoriously lush, and Kitty rather suspected she would be called on to open several more bottles before the night ended.
Her one consolation was that she wasn’t expected to cook for everyone on top of cleaning. She was a competent cook and often prepared food for herself and her aunt, on those rare occasions Bella wasn’t expecting company. But when visitors were expected, Bella insisted that Maria cook the food. Maria was their only servant. Ostensibly, she was the housemaid. But in practice, Kitty did all the chores while Maria acted as her aunt’s chambermaid, attending to her every whim and enduring her aunt’s constant gossip. Kitty thought wryly that poor Maria had the worse end of the deal.
The first guest to arrive was the Honorable Reverend Franklin DeWitt and his wife, Hortensia. The reverend and his wife were well-known gourmands and frequent guests at her aunt’s house.
Bella answered the door and beamed simperingly as the Reverend and his wife navigated their portly frames through the door. Both were ostentatiously dressed: the Reverend in an enormous woolen jacket and trousers that–despite their loose fit–somehow made the man appear even larger than he was, and Hortensia in what appeared to be an entire bolt of silk and then some. She wore a necklace of pearls, and her fingers sported several jeweled rings. Kitty recalled a verse about jewels of gold and pigs’ snouts and struggled to stifle laughter.
Hortensia pushed her bag into Kitty’s grasp without even looking in her direction. After spending at least three minutes exchanging fawning pleasantries with Bella, the Reverend looked Kitty up and down and said snidely, “I see your niece has managed to clean every part of the house but herself this evening.”
Kitty had just finished setting the table when the bell rang, and she still wore the canvas dress and apron she wore while cleaning. The apron and Kitty herself were covered in dust and grime from the hard work. It didn’t surprise Kitty at all that Mrs. Dewitt noticed only her appearance without considering what activity may have led to that appearance.
“Oh, I do apologize for her, Reverend!” her aunt said. She lifted her eyes dramatically and said, “Heaven knows I try so hard to teach the poor girl to honor God with her appearance but she is as willful and stubborn as a mule, that one.”
Hortensia took her aunt’s hand in her own and said sympathetically, “Of course you do, dear. No one blames you for her behavior.”
Kitty had to stifle laughter as the three of them talked about her. After Eleven years of enduring this sort of treatment, Kitty felt only a mild contempt for Hortensia rather than any guilt or anger at her words. She found the entire charade amusing. If they were so insecure in their appearance that they had to dress like dandies and mock Kitty to feel good about themselves, that was a problem for them more than it was for Kitty.
“Kitty!” her aunt screeched. “Are you foolish? Go wash up for dinner!”
“At once, Aunt,” Kitty said pleasantly, smiling brightly at Bella.
Bella’s eyes narrowed, but she couldn’t think of a sarcastic remark to her niece’s obedience, so she only glared at Bella as Bella turned to leave.
“We won’t be expected to wait for her to eat, will we?” the Reverend asked in a near-panic.
“Of course not,” Bella assured him. “Kitty will not be dining with us tonight.”
“Oh, thank Heaven,” Hortensia exclaimed. “I do hate being rude, but I absolutely deplore dining in the company of a slob.”
This time Kitty couldn’t quite prevent her laughter, so she settled for stifling it with her hands. In only a few hours, she knew she would be called upon to clean up the mess from dinner, and Kitty was sure Hortensia would be as blind to her own messiness as she was sensitive to Kitty’s. Fortunately, she passed out of earshot, so they couldn’t hear her laugh and she was spared further judgment on her character.
She took her time washing up, taking advantage of her aunt’s occupation with her guests to luxuriate in the cool water. When she finished washing, she dressed in a clean cotton dress, plain and unembroidered, and headed downstairs.
She could hear raucous laughter from the dining room and knew the guests were already deep into their cups. She grimaced, knowing she would once more be left with an impossible mess. Despite Hortensia’s insistence that she did not dine with slobs, Kitty knew there would be more than one stain on that cloth from spilled wine and carelessly dropped food. Why her aunt preferred a white cloth was a mystery to Kitty.
She entered the kitchen from the back door in the hallway, thus avoiding a trip through the dining room. Maria sat at the small table in the corner, reading a newspaper and slowly eating her dinner, an exhausted expression on her face. She was a few years older than Kitty and possessed an angelic demeanor and a bottomless fountain of patience that Kitty once would have envied. Kitty no longer felt even the desire to be patient with her aunt, but she still admired Maria’s fortitude and considered herself lucky to have Maria’s companionship.
Kitty helped herself to a portion of the roast beef and potatoes Maria made and sat across from the housemaid. She smiled at Maria. “I see you had an easy time of it, as always.”
Maria chuckled softly. “Sometimes, I wonder how your aunt can enjoy complaining so much. I would think she’d get tired of being disappointed in everything around her.”
“I think she believes that aristocrats are supposed to complain,” Kitty hypothesized. “She wants so desperately to be a noblewoman that she behaves as though she’s above others so she can feel important.”
Maria laid a comforting hand on Kitty’s arm. “God will bless you for your kindness, Kitty,” she said. “Even if your aunt won’t.”
“Anytime God wants to send that blessing is fine with me,” Kitty quipped.
They were interrupted by her aunt’s screeching voice. “MariaaaaAAAAA!!”
Maria rolled her eyes. “That means either dessert or more wine,” she said, standing.
“Oh, don’t kid yourself, Maria. You know it means both.”
Maria chuckled and headed to the dining room to wait on Bella. Kitty ate her dinner and tried not to give in to her exhaustion. Kitty took the newspaper and began to browse the headlines to keep herself awake so she could clean up after the guests tonight and hopefully avoid the worst of her aunt’s bitterness in the morning.
She stopped when she saw a familiar name in one of the personal ads. She looked more closely and realized she did recognize the name.
WANTED: A BRIDE
Luke Blackburn, 25, a rancher of means in Dayton, Nevada, seeks a woman of gentle spirit and strong work ethic for the purpose of matrimony. Applicants must be not less than twenty nor more than thirty years old and in good health. Must be able to manage a modest staff and complete basic household chores. In addition, applicants must be educated and of a keen and active mind. While romance is not a prerequisite, the advertiser hopes that time and association will inspire mutual feelings of affection between Mr. Blackburn and the chosen respondent. Interested parties may respond to Mr. L. Blackburn, c/o postmaster, Dayton, Nevada.
Kitty felt a flood of emotions as she reread the ad.
Blackburn. Why did she recognize that name?
Then it hit her. Theo Blackburn. Luke Blackburn was Theo Blackburn’s cousin.
Kitty felt her cheeks grow hot. Theo Blackburn was a boy from school back in Dayton. He was tall and handsome, with chestnut brown hair, bright blue eyes, and a beautiful smile that instantly charmed everyone who saw it.
Kitty was no exception. From the moment she first saw him, she was in love. Well, not really in love. It was a schoolgirl crush and a hopeless one at that. Theo had the hearts of every girl in class, and Kitty—with her mop of frizzy red hair and her canvas-sack dresses—was far from the prettiest. Theo paid a lot of attention to Kitty growing up, but not the complimentary sort. Her wistful smile faded as she recalled the teasing she endured at his hands—the almost constant ridicule of her hair, her clothes, and mostly the books in which she’d bury her head constantly.
Her smile returned with a somewhat wicked slant as she wondered what Theo would think of her now. Her clothing was still poor, and her hair was still curly and red, but she had developed into a beautiful young woman despite that and, although she was rarely allowed to leave her aunt’s house, whenever she did, she attracted a fair bit of attention from the young men in their neighborhood.
She’d never given that thought much attention until she remembered Theo. Now, she fantasized about responding to his ad and meeting him in something beautiful; something that could catch his eye and make him think twice about dismissing her the way he did when they were children.
No, not Theo. Luke. It was Luke Blackburn who wrote the advertisement. Luke was a year older than Theo and spent most of his time working on his uncle’s—Theo’s father’s—ranch, so she saw him only occasionally. He was handsome as well, though not so striking as Theo, and far kinder than his younger cousin, at least from what she could remember.
And she wasn’t responding to anyone! What was she thinking, dreaming about answering a personal ad? She was a grown woman now and shouldn’t waste her time dreaming about fairy-tale romances or reminiscing about boys from her childhood. Luke Blackburn would have to look elsewhere for his bride.
She set the newspaper back by Maria’s plate, but when she heard footsteps returning to the kitchen, she quickly snatched it back before her mind registered what she was doing.
Maria offered her a tired smile and began carrying dessert portions to the dining room. Kitty ran to help her, hiding the paper under a stack of plates before she did.
After dinner, Kitty cleaned up the mess in the dining room and kitchen. Maria helped at first, but when the last of the guests left, Bella screeched for her to help her dress for bed, leaving Kitty to fend for herself.
As expected, the dining room was a disaster. Wine and food stains permeated not only the tablecloth but also the upholstered dining chairs. There was even spatter on the drapes that covered the large dining room windows.
Kitty sighed heavily and began the laborious process of cleaning up. With enough soda and vinegar, she could wash the stains out of the chairs and the drapes, but the cloth would have to be replaced. She made a mental note to place an order with Harwick’s in the morning.
It took nearly four hours to clean, and when she finally emptied the bucket of mop water behind the house and replaced the mop in the maid’s closet, her entire body ached. She felt dirty but was too tired to wash, so she changed into her nightgown and prepared to sleep when she remembered the newspaper she had hidden in the kitchen.
She resolved then that she would respond to this ad and leave her aunt’s house. She’d had enough of plating made to an ungrateful old woman who saw her not as family but as a servant. She wasn’t particularly keen on marrying someone she knew only as an extension of her memory of a childhood crush, but she would marry a stranger a thousand times over rather than continue to endure her aunt.
She felt a touch of guilt at first. Her aunt was elderly and, exacting and annoying though she might be, she relied on Kitty for help. It would be wrong of Kitty to abandon her.
No sooner had she thought this than she felt God moving her to answer the ad and accept the proposal. She didn’t trust the feeling at first, believing it to be a reflection of her own will and not God’s, but after praying about it and ruminating for a while longer, she felt convinced that it was the Lord’s will for her to move back to her hometown and marry Luke.
She crept downstairs and retrieved the newspaper, carrying it to her room upstairs. She closed her eyes and drifted off to sleep, thinking of a tall boy with a gorgeous smile and bright blue eyes.
Four months later, Kitty was packing her bags for Dayton telling her aunt she was leaving.
“But what am I to do all alone?” Bella whined. “First Maria leaves—to be a schoolteacher of all things—and now you tell me you’re returning to that dirty town in Nevada to marry a rancher?”
“Yes, Aunt Bella,” Kitty replied as she packed her bag. “I’m afraid you’ll have to find a new housemaid.”
“But why?” Bella complained, wringing her hands.
“I told you, Aunt Bella. I saw the ad and felt God calling me to respond.”
That wasn’t entirely true. Kitty believed God supported her choice to leave, but the impetus for her departure wasn’t a spiritual calling. Two weeks ago, her aunt had thrown another party, and once more, Kitty was expected to clean up the mess. While cleaning, she accidentally dropped a wine glass and pricked her finger. It wasn’t a serious injury by any means, but it did require her to pause and bandage the wound.
Her aunt picked that moment to come downstairs. Seeing the broken wine glass, she became livid. Kitty tried to explain that she would clean up the mess, and her aunt responded by slapping her across the face. Kitty remained silent and allowed her aunt to finish yelling before cleaning up the mess. But at that moment, she decided that she would accept Luke Blackburn’s proposal. Enough was enough. She sent the response the next day. Yesterday, she received Mr. Blackburn’s confirmation, and now she was only just succeeding at keeping her contempt for her aunt off of her face as Aunt Bella continued to whine.
“But—but we spoke to Reverend DeWitt, and he made it clear that your heart is too mired by greed and selfishness to understand the will of God!”
“Well, perhaps if Reverend Dewitt fed his spirit as thoroughly as he fed his belly, he would be better prepared to discern God’s will.”
“You ungrateful wretch!” her aunt spat. “After everything I’ve done for you, you leave me like this! I’ve fed you, sheltered you, clothed you, and cared for your soul for eleven years, and this is the thanks I get!”
Kitty stopped packing for a second and smiled sweetly at her aunt. “Thank you, Aunt Bella. I shall always be grateful to you for the enviable experience of living as an unwanted housemaid.”
Bella reddened with fury and lifted her hand as though to strike Kitty. Kitty met her aunt’s eyes and calmly awaited the blow, determined not to give her aunt the satisfaction of recoiling from her hand.
Bella’s lip trembled, and instead of striking Kitty, she collapsed to the ground and wailed, her shoulders heaving with dramatic sobs. “Oh, you cruel girl! Leaving your poor defenseless aunt to waste in squalor alone! You know I can’t bear to be alone!”
Kitty looked at her aunt, fighting the look of disgust that threatened to show. “Aunt Bella, since I’ve lived with you, you have treated me like nothing more than a servant and not a well-liked one. You’ve made it clear from the beginning that I’m a burden to you, and you consider yourself my superior in station and character. You’ve worked me like a draft horse, and although I’ve continually done everything asked of me, I receive no thanks from you. No words of gratitude or encouragement. Only your contempt and your demands. I’m leaving because I want more from life than the contempt of a bitter old woman who thinks of me as property and not as family.”
Aunt Bella stared at Kitty in shock as Kitty said this, and when Kitty finished, Aunt Bella remained stunned, blinking–as though unable to process what Kitty had said. Finally, her face twisted once more into a grotesque sob, and she said, “How could you speak this way to me after I’ve cared for you all these years?”
Kitty no longer had the energy to fight with her aunt. Wordlessly, Kitty set her diary in her bag and closed it, then headed downstairs. Her aunt followed behind, wailing and moaning about her cruel fate.
At the front door, Kitty stopped and turned to her aunt. She tried to think of something more to say, but nothing came to mind, so she only said, “Goodbye, Aunt Bella.”
Then she walked outside to freedom.
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