Scarred for life, she runs away to escape her fate. Heartbroken and lonely, he takes part in a wife lottery. How can the two let their souls bond when darkness keeps them rooted in the past?
When Eva almost dies at the hands of her betrothed, she accidentally does something unimaginable and flees West. Now, miles away from her home, she’s found by a sheriff who puts her name up for a wife lottery. How can she give her heart to her new husband when he seems oblivious to her despair?
Ralph is a man of few words and a broken heart. He doesn’t want a woman in the house despite his friend’s advice. Having his name in the lottery started out as a mistake but when he locks eyes with Eva, he’s swept away. Her determination wins him. How can he approach this delicate girl with the sweetest face?
Eva and Ralph are two sides of the same coin. Laying out their fears and secrets is what will unlock their love for each other. How can they accept their marriage bond when a vile man wants to steal their happiness away?
Eva stared through the boxes and watched numbly as the gangsters pulled a young woman roughly to the ground and began rummaging through her handbag. Next to her, Alice Warner—one of the other passengers and the only friend Eva had made since leaving home, covered her mouth to stifle a gasp.
The young woman the bandits had dragged from the stagecoach picked herself up and tried to pull her bag away, but one of the gangsters backhanded her, and she fell to the ground with a cry.
Eva winced when the slap landed. It brought up memories she’d rather were left forgotten.
The scene around Eva looked like a battlefield. The stagecoach was overturned, the horses dead, and the driver lay slumped over the front left wheel. The other stagecoach employee lay a few yards away, dead, his shotgun at his side. Three of the other five passengers of the coach—an elderly man and his wife and a young boy of about thirteen, possibly their grandson—kneeled on the ground with their hands on their heads while one of the bandits held a rifle on them. A fourth passenger was the young woman—around Eva’s age. She cowered on the ground with her hand upraised to shield herself from the outlaw who’d hit her.
All around lay boxes and bags and clothing and other sundries, strewn about as though a tornado had struck. Eva shivered and felt a moment of blind panic at the thought that one of the outlaws might have heard her and would come to find her.
She felt a tug on her shoulder, and a moment later, Alice—the final passenger and her friend on the journey west—said, “Eva. Eva, we have to leave.”
Eva turned to look at Alice but didn’t respond. She saw her clearly. She heard her plainly, but her mind couldn’t make the leap from registering what Alice said to acting on it. Finally, Alice grabbed Eva’s arm and dragged her along. They stayed low and quiet, hiding themselves from the gang’s attention as they made their way through the scattered boxes and chests and bags until they reached the road.
“When I say run, we run for it,” Alice whispered. When Eva still didn’t answer, she hissed, “Eva!” and Eva nodded.
Alice peered around from where they hid behind the large chest and watched the outlaws. Eva didn’t look but from the way the young woman screamed, she could tell they’d finished with her bag and moved on to other pursuits. There were seven of the outlaws all told, and Eva could only pray that some miracle would rescue her from their grasp.
One of the outlaws laughed, and the cruelty behind it triggered another unhappy memory in Eva’s mind. She felt panic rise inside her and nearly lost control when Alice whispered, “Run!” and her body took off of its own accord. She moved swiftly in spite of her dress and realized as an afterthought that she had torn it halfway up her thigh, probably during the gunfight when she and Alice had fled to hide behind one of the large mail chests that had been thrown off when the coach was overturned.
Eva could hear Alice’s footfalls pounding just behind her. They were deafeningly loud, and she was certain the outlaws would hear and charge after them any second.
That certainty breathed life into her, and she sprinted ahead, ignoring the stitch in her side and the pounding in her chest until Alice cried, “Wait, Eva. I need to rest.”
Eva stopped and turned and realized the outlaws were out of sight. All she could see were mounds of sand and brush in all directions. She didn’t know how long they’d been running and had no idea how much distance they’d put between themselves and the outlaws. She stood stock still and listened for hoofbeats, gunfire or voices—anything to indicate that they were being followed—but the only sound was that of hers and Alice’s ragged breathing.
They were safe, for the moment, at least. With the danger no longer imminent, Eva’s exhaustion finally caught up to her. She collapsed onto the sand next to Alice and breathed heavily, drawing in ragged gulps of hot air that seared her lungs even as they calmed the pounding in her chest. Heat rose in shimmering waves from the sand, and sweat stung her eyes. The world faded around Eva, and after a brief struggle, she succumbed to darkness.
Eva woke to the sound of hoofbeats. She felt a rush of blind panic and sat bolt upright. He’s found me, she thought. Jeb’s found me, and he’s going to punish me for what I did to him. He’s going to punish me, and I’m—
“Hello?” a voice called. A man’s voice but not Jeb’s and not one of the gangsters that robbed the stagecoach. “Ladies, are you all right?”
“We’re fine, sheriff,” Alice responded, showing palpable relief at the sight of a friendly face. “Just out of breath.”
Eva blinked, and when she opened her eyes, the world came back into focus. Alice and the strange man stood over her, their faces awash with concern.
Eva lifted herself to a sitting position, and the man quickly reached down and helped her to her feet. He was older, with silver-gray hair and a weathered face over a body that was still strong but wearied by years of hard use. He wore a badge with the word SHERIFF emblazoned over a five-pointed star.
His eyes traveled to the wicked-looking scar that ran the length of Eva’s face from her left temple to her jaw, the only flaw in features that were otherwise soft and feminine without appearing infantile. Perhaps the flush from their run made the scar seem fresher than it actually was, or maybe he mistook it for dried blood. In any case, he asked, “What happened to your face? Did one of those low-life dogs hurt you?” His voice exhibited the same concern as his expression.
Eva hesitated before answering. She was slow to trust people after Jeb, especially men. He got away with hurting her for so long while everyone gushed over what a wonderful man he was. Even now that he was dead, she was wary of being honest with anyone.
“Ma’am, you’re safe now,” the sheriff said. “My deputies have rounded up the bandits. They won’t hurt you anymore.”
Eva wasn’t worried about the bandits anymore. What worried her was how the sheriff might react to learning about her past. The sheriff would need an answer, though. What should she say?
She knew he would eventually find out the truth, at least part of it. If she made something up, then when he found out about Jeb, he would be predisposed to mistrust her.
Perhaps she could save most of her story for later. Hopefully after spending a little time with her, the sheriff would be disposed kindly toward her and be more sympathetic toward her past.
So, she decided to only say, “I’ve been forced to flee my home in Aurora, Colorado.”
“Why?” the sheriff asked.
She hesitated a moment before saying, “Life became untenable for me there.” Seeing the look on the sheriff’s face, she added, “I’ll be more than happy to tell you everything later, sheriff, but I would prefer to have that conversation after a chance to rest.” The sheriff didn’t answer for a long moment. Finally, he said, “I’ll have to follow up on your past, you understand. You seem like an honest person, but I still need to check to make sure you’re not wanted by the law.”
Eva nodded, and the sheriff continued in a gentler tone, “That’s not important right now, though. Let’s get you ladies somewhere safe and make sure you’re taken care of. I’m going to take you home and get you cleaned up, fed and rested.” Seeing the look on the women’s faces, he smiled and said, “Don’t worry. My wife is at home. She’ll make sure you’re comfortable.”
Alice and Eva relaxed, and Eva said, “Thank you, sheriff…”
“Johnson. Robert Johnson.”
“Thank you, Sheriff Johnson.”
“The sheriff nodded and asked, “Are you two missing any belongings?”
Alice shook her head, and Eva replied, “Nothing worth going back for.”
The sheriff nodded and led the way. Eva kept her eyes forward, determined to put the robbery and the memory of her dead husband in the past where it belonged.
Whatever lay ahead was her future and that was what she intended to focus on.
Eva and Alice sat at the solid oak table in the dining room of the sheriff’s house. Exhaustion had won out over anxiety, and both women had enjoyed a solid night’s sleep in an abandoned mining cabin a few miles from where the sheriff rescued them. Because of this, Eva had found the remaining journey to the sheriff’s house easy, and she was in a much calmer mood as she waited for the sheriff to return with their coffee.
Eva glanced around at her surroundings. The cabin was small but comfortable. Most of the furniture was of pine but there was a small, ornately carved oak table in the parlor that served as the centerpiece of the room, with the sofa and easy chair arranged around it.
All of the furniture, and the house itself, was well-crafted and appeared strong and sturdy, like the man who owned them. Despite her anxiety, Eva felt safe here. It was a rare feeling, and she treasured it, even with the uncertainty surrounding her future.
The sheriff entered with three mugs. He set one each in front of the two women and sat across from Eva with the other mug.
“You have nothing to be worried about,” the sheriff said, and Eva felt a strange moment of worry. The man seemed kindly. He spoke kindly. So far, he’d treated her with nothing but kindness. She didn’t like that her first inclination was to imagine a man showing any kindness had to be a man planning to hurt her, but she didn’t know how to avoid coming to that conclusion.
“I’ve met a great many people in my life,” the sheriff said. “From the best men you’ve ever known to the worst curs you could possibly imagine. I’ve learned a bit about telling when a person is lying and when a person is telling the truth.”
The sheriff kept his kindly demeanor, but his tone was a shade more serious when he added, “We need to talk about what happened in Aurora.”
Eva managed a nod and said, “What do you want to know?”
He smiled softly at her but his tone remained serious. “I need to know why you left, Miss Eva. If you don’t mind me saying, you give the impression of someone on the run. You may have a good reason to run, but I need to know what that reason is if I’m to help you.”
Eva was silent for a long moment. Alice watched nervously as Eva weighed her options. Eva had shared some of what happened with Alice, but not everything, and she wasn’t sure how her friend would react when she heard the whole story.
It didn’t matter. She needed the sheriff’s help, and if he had, in fact, reached out to the sheriff or the judge in Aurora, he would know the truth soon enough. Better for him to also learn that she was honest with him than to learn that she was dishonest.
Eva had no choice but to throw herself at his mercy.
“I killed my husband,” she said.
Alice gasped softly, not surprised by the news, but by the fact that Eva would be so open about her past with a man they barely knew. Sheriff Johnson didn’t react visibly other than to raise an eyebrow.
Eva continued. “He beat me. It started soon after we were married. Nothing too serious at first—a slap on the cheek if he didn’t like the way his dinner was cooked or a shove if I said something he didn’t like. Over time it grew… worse.”
Alice looked between Eva and the sheriff and Eva knew her friend was anxious to corroborate Eva’s story but knew that she had nothing to say that would help.
Eva searched the sheriff’s eyes for any sign of his reaction, but he kept the same expression he’d worn since broaching the subject and she had no idea if he believed her story or not.
“The day he died,” she continued, “He was drunk, as usual, and beating on me for not having dinner ready when he came home. I was just enduring it, as I always did, but this time was different. He just… kept hitting me.”
“You see? You see what you’re making me do to you?”
Jeb’s voice rang clear as a bell in Eva’s head as the memory arose out of nowhere. An involuntary shiver ran through her, and she folded her hands on the table and gripped them tightly to keep her fingers from drumming.
“One of the blows landed behind my ear. My head began to ring and I fell to the ground. I thought that would be the end of it, but he… he kicked me, and—”
She stopped. Her body felt tense, like a wound spring. The sheriff nodded and said, “Okay. That’s all I need to hear.”
His face showed shock and anger but mostly compassion.
Eva sighed as the tension poured out of her. She wasn’t sure if she was in the clear yet but at least she didn’t need to talk about it anymore.
“I want you to know I believe you,” Sheriff Johnson said.
He nodded. “What you told me. I believe you had to kill your husband. I believe it was him or you, and I believe you’ve no problem with the law. Tomorrow I’ll send a telegraph to the sheriff in Aurora because that’s what I’m paid to do, but I believe you.”
“Thank you,” she said. As hard as she tried, Eva knew she didn’t really succeed at keeping the doubt out of her voice.
The sheriff noticed her tone. “There was a man, Jake Parsons,” he said. “Good man, Jake. He and his boys once fixed Holly Wharton’s fence. She’s a widow, Holly. Anyway, they fixed her fence just because Jake saw it needed fixing.” He noted Eva’s look of confusion and said, “Anyway. One day he just disappears. His boys and me, we rode out to find him. It took a day and a half. He was crawling through the desert. His horse throwed him, see. Saw a rattler. He crawled about four miles toward home by the time we got to him. For weeks afterward, a look at his face was a look at a man who’d been through hell.”
Eva looked down a moment and the sheriff said, “Listen. That same look is in your face. Nobody gets that look without going through more than their fair share of suffering.”
“Oh, Robert, enough with your horror stories,” a boisterous female voice said.
Alice and Eva turned to see a handsome woman of around the sheriff’s age walk into the kitchen. She wore a canvas apron and a kind smile and though she retained the soft features of her youth, her hands were rough and weathered and her bearing was erect and confident, suggesting a life of hard, honest work. She reminded Eva of her own mother and some of the tension in her shoulders dissipated.
Sheriff Johnson smiled at her with a love Eva had never seen on Jeb’s face and felt a brief pang of jealousy as the sheriff introduced her. “Alice, Eva, meet the love of my life, Mary Johnson.”
“Oh, enough of that,” Mrs. Johnson said. She blushed pink in spite of her scolding tone and Eva noticed how the sheriff smiled at that.
“Now, I’m sure both of you have come a long way,” Mrs. Johnson said. “And you certainly look the worse for wear after your journey. I want to hear everything, but first, we’re going to give you a nice bath and a hot meal. Robert, have you told these women they’re welcome to stay as long as they need?”
“I was just about to,” Sheriff Johnson said. He turned to the two women and said, “I understand you two still have a journey ahead of you, but my wife and I would like to welcome you into our home for as long as you need to recover from your ordeal.”
“Oh,” Eva said. “You two are very kind, but there’s no need to trouble yourselves. We’ll manage on our own.”
Sheriff Johnson smiled kindly but there was a touch of firmness in his voice when he said, “Now that’s enough of that. I have grown daughters, and if any of them suffered as you two have, I would want someone to extend a helping hand to them.”
When Eva was about to protest again, he raised a hand and added, “And, I would want them to accept that help. You two have had enough experience with maliciousness. Allow yourself a chance to experience kindness.” He smiled. “Besides, my wife’s the one who invited you, and it’s not healthy to refuse Mary once she’s made up her mind.”
The woman in question huffed and turned to her husband. “Robert, have you had quite enough of scaring these poor girls?” She shook her head, “Making me out to be some kind of monster. Why on earth did I marry you anyway?”
Sheriff Johnson smiled. “Because I swept you off your feet, my dear.”
Mrs. Johnson huffed again, “Pulled the wool over an innocent girl’s eyes is more like it,” she scolded.
Eva smiled at them and said, “Thank you, both. I owe you a great debt.”
Eva had no idea how she would repay the two of them, but she resolved she would. They were the first people to show her kindness in years, and whatever her future held, she would make it up to them.
Mrs. Johnson disengaged herself from her husband and said, “All right, you two. Let’s get you washed up. I’ll show you to the washroom.”
She led Alice and Eva to a room near the back of the house. As they walked, Eva looked around and noticed for the first time since arriving the day before how nice the sheriff’s house was. The walls were solidly built, and Eva could find no chinks or cracks anywhere. The furniture all appeared to be made of solid pine, and the windows were draped with real silk curtains. Pictures lined the wall of the hallway, and when Eva looked through an open doorway, she saw a bedroom with more pine furniture, a full-length mirror and a four-poster bed with a real down comforter.
The washroom was equally nice. Everything was spotless, and it made Eva acutely aware of her own unwashed appearance. The quick wash of the night before hadn’t been enough to remove the dirt and grime caked on their features, and Eva looked forward to a more thorough cleansing.
Mrs. Johnson turned to them and said, “Now you two take your time. The water in the basin is fresh and warm. I’ll return in a moment with some clean towels and clothing for each of you.”
“Thank you so much, Mrs. Johnson,” Alice said. “You and your husband are very kind.”
Mrs. Johnson beamed at them. “Please, call me Mary.”
Eva laughed. The sound surprised her, and she covered her mouth but not before Mary turned her bright gaze to her and said, “That’s the spirit.” Her voice became slightly more serious, and she added, “You have to find laughter wherever and whenever you can. If you can’t find it, you have to make it.”
Her tone became genial again and she finished with, “I’ll be back in a moment with the towels and clothing.”
She left and Alice turned to Eva, “Well, it’s nice to know there’s some goodness left in the world.”
“They’re so kind,” Eva said. “I almost don’t know how to act around them.”
“Act grateful,” Alice said. “I’ve met a few others like them. What they want most of all is to help others.” Seeing Eva’s face, she added, in a gentler tone, “I know it’s hard to imagine that there could be truly decent people in this world, but they exist. The best thing we can do for them is accept their kindness and later, when we have the chance, pay them back in kind.”
“What if we never get the chance to pay them back?” Eva asked.
“We will,” Alice said. She smiled at Eva. “Have faith, little Evie. Now get in the tub and let’s get those tangles out of your hair. You look like you’ve just rolled around in the dirt.”
“Well, so do you,” Eva retorted.
“I feel like it, too,” Alice responded. “So, hurry up and wash, so I can take my turn.”
Eva smiled gratefully at her friend. She saw Alice as everything she wanted to be—strong, beautiful in spite of her tattered clothing and matted hair, confident and kind. She had befriended Eva on the coach for no reason Eva could see other than that she saw Eva was alone and could use some friendly company. Eva had spent so long certain that no one was truly kind that the arrival of someone who proved that conviction wrong was nothing short of a miracle.
The women took their time scrubbing the dirt away. They talked together the whole time. Well, mostly Alice talked, and Eva listened as Alice regaled her with tales of her adventures through the Midwest. She was born in Baltimore—“a horrible, dirty city filled with horrible, dirty people,” she told Eva—and left six months ago when her father enjoyed a little too much to drink and decided he felt like beating her with a belt.
“The old fool made it two steps toward me before tripping over his own feet and hitting his head on the edge of the table.” Seeing Eva’s alarmed expression, she added, “He didn’t die, don’t worry. Just knocked himself out cold long enough for me to pack a duffel and write him a note telling him not to find me.”
After leaving Baltimore, she’d hopped from town to town taking jobs as a maid or a waitress until she earned enough money to travel west. She hoped eventually to make it to California and find work in one of the farm towns that were cropping up along the coast and the fertile central valley.
“And now, here I am!” she said brightly. “Recovering from a stagecoach robbery that’s left me with no earthly possessions. Hey, at least I found a friend.”
Eva felt her heart glow at Alice’s words. She’d never had a true friend before, but the confident, upbeat young woman who helped her work the knots out of her hair was as much of a friend as Eva could ever hope to have.
They had just finished washing when Mary returned with the towels and a change of clothes for each of them.
“The dresses are a little loose,” she said. “I’m not as trim as I used to be, I’m afraid.”
“You are a shining example of beauty, Mary,” Alice replied. “And I refuse to allow you to think any differently of yourself.”
Mary laughed and said, “You sound like my husband. All full of hot air.”
“Your husband’s a wise man,” Alice said. In a more normal tone, she added, “Thank you again, Mary.”
“What did I say about all those thank-yous?” Mary scolded. “When you’re both dressed, come downstairs. I’ve made a nice lamb stew for dinner.”
She left, and Eva and Alice dressed. Eva could barely wrap her head around things. Lamb stew? When she lived with Jeb, she felt lucky to enjoy a piece of gristle with her bread every now and then. When was the last time she’d eaten lamb stew?
When the two of them arrived downstairs, Eva quickly realized that lamb stew was only the beginning of the bounty that awaited them. Besides the stew, there were mashed potatoes, corn bread still steaming from the oven, a bowl of thick, hearty gravy and a smaller bowl of apple butter for the cornbread. The stew itself contained carrots and turnips in addition to the lamb.
Eva felt her stomach grumble, and after they said grace, she dove immediately into the stew. She tried mightily to avoid eating too voraciously, but it was difficult to hold back in the face of all this bounty, and soon she felt the pinch of hunger in her stomach slowly disappear.
A few minutes into dinner, Sheriff Johnson turned to her and asked, “So where are you headed, Miss Eva? If you don’t mind saying.”
Eva didn’t respond immediately. The truth was, she didn’t know where she was going. She was so desperate to get away from the judgment of her town and particularly her father that she never even considered that one day she’d have to arrive somewhere.
“I’m not sure,” she finally said, reddening with embarrassment.
“Well, you stay here as long as you need,” Mary said. “And if you feel of a mind to stay in town, we’d love to help you get established. We’re a small town, but there’s good people here.”
She seemed almost eager for Eva to stay, and Eva wondered what on earth she could have done to predispose Mary and the sheriff toward her so much. Could they really be that kindhearted?
As though reading her mind, Sheriff Johnson said, “We’ve helped out a number of young folks like you. Mary and I have enjoyed a blessed life, but we’ve both had friends who’ve suffered mightily. One of the great joys of being sheriff here is the chance to help people who’ve lost their way find it again, whether they’ve lost their own way themselves or been forced out of it by others.”
“If the people here are half as kind as you,” Eva responded, “Then I think we may have already found our home.”
“Wonderful,” Mary replied, beaming.
After dinner, Mary showed the two of them to a bedroom upstairs with two mattresses stuffed with down. The room also contained a table and two chairs. A vanity mirror sat atop a chest of drawers in between the beds.
“We keep this room furnished for when our daughters visit,” Mary explained. “You two are welcome to use it until you find a place of your own.”
She left the two of them with the promise to return with fresh clothes in the morning.
Eva lay awake a long while. Today was a good day, but if life had shown her anything, it was that one good day did not necessarily guarantee another. What would happen when she and Alice needed to move on? They couldn’t stay with the sheriff and his wife forever, and who was to say how the other townspeople would feel about two strange women who’d left their families and arrived in their town with no warning?
Eva was too exhausted to think further, so she put those thoughts from her mind. She had no idea what tomorrow would bring, but tonight, she was safe, full and clean. That was more than she could say about her life before encountering the Johnsons. She closed her eyes and within moments was enjoying the first restful sleep she’d had in months.
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