She’s running from her tragic past to find a haven in Colorado. He’s staying cooped up in his ranch to avoid getting hurt. How can their marriage of convenience show them the way to a meaningful family life?
Crissie used to be a happy teacher in Chicago next to a loyal fiancé—until the day he died. Now, with nothing left but a best friend, she decides to run away with her out West and get married to a solitary rancher. How can Crissie accept her new reality as not something that needs work to become better day in and day out?
Logan never wanted to settle in his life. After he receives word of his father’s death though, he gets back home to help his brother and their ranch. Tragedy strikes again when his brother dies, leaving behind him four children in desperate need of a woman’s care. How can he let his heart open for Crissie when he can’t overcome his guilt?
To create a happy home, Crissie and Logan must understand that life is no bed of roses. They must work hard to protect their children and their newfound love. When old enemies resurface though, will they fight for what is rightfully theirs?
6th May 1871
Downtown Chicago, Illinois
“Thank you all for your hard work today! We will continue next week.”
Crissie Elliott’s voice was soft and gentle but confident enough to attract her students’ attention. The once still and quiet children shot up from their desks and gathered up their belongings. Crissie watched as all 47 of them eagerly piled out of her classroom, rushing to get out of the schoolhouse. Elijah and Damien, two of the quieter children in her class, held back until the horde of students had managed to squeeze through the small door frame.
Crissie waved at them as they left and smiled fondly, then began to put her slate pencils away. Turning around, she picked up the chalkboard cloth and wiped the board clean. She did a lap of the room, ensuring all the windows were pulled shut along the left-hand wall, that the single desks were all tidy and the chairs were neatly tucked under them.
She picked up her parasol from the corner of the room and straightened her bodice slightly. The boned fabric moved as she wiggled it, making the square neckline of her light blue day dress sit more evenly on her chest. Scanning the classroom once more, she walked out of the door and through the small corridor of the schoolhouse. She nodded at the other teachers, Mary Belle and Anna Cass, as they walked past. There were only three classrooms in the building, so they had grown to know each other well.
She opened the double doors at the end of the building and, lifting her skirt slightly, walked down the wooden steps and onto the sidewalk. Turning right, she walked parallel to Lake Michigan, watching people get on with their lives.
Crissie continued to walk, following the same route she did each week. She was on her way to the Chicago River, where she’d meet her closest friend, Jolene Morrison. The two met each week at least once to walk down to the general store and then back home together. As she walked, Crissie thought about her students. They were great children, especially Elijah, Harriet, and Damien. The three had started in her class as incredulously shy, barely literate children. After only six months, they began to read, and Elijah had even perfected his writing.
When Crissie taught, she could escape from her troubles and find a sense of purpose. Crissie’s thoughts of her students made her smile widely, and her smile only became wider as she approached the river bank, where Jolene was standing. Jolene was ten years older than Crissie, but she looked well for a thirty-two-year-old woman.
Despite her age, her skin was smooth and light, and her posture remained sturdy. She held her parasol on her right shoulder, protecting her fair skin and dark curled hair from the sun’s heat. Her dress was purple – against the backdrop of downtown Chicago and the murky river, Jolene was a welcome explosion of color.
“Crissie!” Jolene exclaimed slightly, her face stretching into a smile like Crissie’s. “How were the students today?”
“They were pleasant, thank you,” Crissie responded. “How’s your day going?”
Jolene paused for a moment to think. “Slow, but nice so far! I did some housework and prepared some fruit for a pie. It felt like the right weather to make a pie, just sunny enough.”
Crissie nodded at her friend in response, slid beside her, and threaded her arm through Jolene’s. They walked through the busy streets, past the buildings, which seemed to be getting larger and larger as they went further into the center of the city, past the post office, past the florist and the hardware store, until eventually, they reached the corner of Fourth and Twelfth, where the general store sat.
The walls within the store were stacked with shelves full of everything an average shopper might need, from cigars to hard candies and soaps to tins of coffee. Crissie wandered down one side of the store, collecting essentials like soap, bread, and potatoes, and then walked to the counter to purchase her landlord – Mayor Samuel Burgess – some good cigars. Once she had paid for her goods, she stood to the side and watched other patrons shop while she waited for Jolene. Not long after, Jolene shuffled to the front of the store, paid, and they were on their way. They walked back toward Lake Michigan and followed the banks of the lake toward their homes, avoiding the bustle of the busy Chicago streets.
Crissie noticed a familiar face exiting a bakery down the street as they walked. It was a girl Crissie had grown up with, Eliza Orell. Her face had changed since they’d last seen each other, and she looked more mature now. Her light skin was littered with freckles the same color as her hair and eyes. Eliza stepped out onto the street, followed by a tall, handsome man who carried a baby carriage out and placed it in front of her. As Eliza turned to start walking, her eyes met Crissie’s.
“Oh my goodness! Crissie!” Eliza’s shrill voice made Crissie and Jolene jump slightly.
“Eliza!” Crissie replied as Eliza approached her and Jolene, pushing the children’s carriage, followed by the man who had helped her out of the store. They were dressed impeccably; he wore an expensive-looking three-piece suit, and she donned a light pink skirt and bodice with a large bustle and matching heeled boots. Crissie smiled at them as they approached but could not help but focus on the man. He looked remarkably similar to her former beau, Henry Grand. He had the same sharp jawline, wide eyes, and fierce yet intelligent-looking brows. Crissie let out a shaky breath and tried to move her thoughts on, but to no avail.
“It is so wonderful to see you, Crissie.” Eliza reached forward and clasped Crissie’s hand, squeezing it gently. “I don’t believe I’ve seen you since Henry’s funeral… I hope you’re feeling better,” Eliza said softly.
“I have.” Crissie forced herself to smile.
She claimed to have recovered, but as she stood on the street, all she could think about was the train accident. Sadness bubbled inside her as she thought about the joy and companionship Henry had given her after a lifetime of solitude as an orphan – of how quickly it all got torn away.
“I’m so glad,” Eliza replied. “This is Reginald Deans, my husband. He is a banker over on Adams.” She gestured at the man beside her. “And this,” Eliza pulled back the hood of the carriage. “This is Marilyn.” She waved at the tiny, pink infant in the carriage. The three of them were the perfect picture; they were precisely what Eliza and Crissie had spent their younger years imagining.
“Oh, how beautiful,” Jolene said politely. “I’m Jolene, a close acquaintance of Crissie’s. My husband knew Henry.”
“It’s lovely to meet you,” Eliza replied.
“She’s beautiful,” Crissie said in almost a whisper. She hadn’t moved her eyes off Marilyn, who was playfully chattering at nothing in particular. “Congratulations.” She looked back at the couple, trying desperately to keep the sadness she felt from appearing on her face. Eliza smiled warmly and turned her head to look up at Reginald proudly. He smiled at her with admiration and then turned his head toward Crissie and Jolene.
“Ladies, if you’ll excuse us, we should be off,” he said politely.
“Yes, of course! Sorry, Crissie, we have plans to visit Reginald’s sister and her husband at a restaurant downtown.” Eliza nodded. “It was lovely to see you.” She pulled the hood of the carriage back over Marilyn, and after exchanging pleasantries, the couple went on their way.
Crissie let out a small sigh, and her head dropped gently. Jolene looked at Crissie with sympathetic eyes.
“You lied to that young lady,” Jolene said, very matter-of-factly. Crissie’s head snapped up.
“I did no such thing.” Crissie’s brows furrowed. How dare her friend accuse her of lying to someone!
“You’re not recovered. You’re lonely, and you still mourn for Henry.” Jolene offered her arm to Crissie. “You can tell yourself otherwise, but I know it to be true.” Crissie took Jolene’s arm and chewed her lip pensively.
“I’m not lonely. I have you, and I have my students, and I have Mayor Burgess and Annabelle.” Crissie tried to smile, but her lips quivered, and she gave up, looking away from Jolene as they began to walk to keep her emotions hidden. Jolene stayed quiet for a moment.
“You lost your fiancé, Crissie. You are allowed to mourn him. We both lost so much in that train accident, and heaven knows I still miss my Benjamin.” Jolene said quietly. “But you mustn’t let your life end here. You may miss him, but you may also move on.” Jolene turned her head to look at Crissie; her eyes were filled with sympathy and warmth. Crissie finally looked at her friend and let out a long sigh when their eyes met.
She knew, deep down, that Jolene was making a good point. Crissie was still young, at only twenty-two, to be somebody’s bride. She was still young enough to care for children and have the life she had unfairly torn away from her. But nobody around her could make that life a reality again. Despite Chicago’s busy streets, it was challenging to find a suitor. Jolene had suggested a solution before, and when Crissie dismissed it, Jolene told her she was being difficult.
“If you suggest…” Crissie began.
“Mail-order bride.” Jolene nodded. “Get yourself a man desperate for a good woman.”
Crissie shook her head. She couldn’t help but think Jolene just didn’t understand. Jolene had been married, and she’d at least spent some time as a wife, as part of a family. Crissie didn’t get that, so her loss differed from Jolene’s. She hadn’t just lost a man, and she’d lost a future. Besides, Crissie had rebuilt herself and her life after the accident. She’d become a teacher with the help of the Mayor. And she couldn’t just up and leave her students, or Jolene, for that matter.
Jolene and the Mayor were the closest things she had to family. Jolene and Benjamin had introduced Crissie to the Mayor and his wife, and they’d all been there for her until she met Henry, even after the accident when the Mayor took Crissie in…
Crissie shook her head, trying to stop her mind from racing.
“Jolene,” Crissie warned. “I can’t just leave.”
Jolene huffed in response.
“You are all I have,” Crissie said quietly.
Becoming a mail-order bride would give Crissie a chance at the life she yearned for – the life Eliza had… But she’d lose everything else. She’d be moving somewhere with no purpose, no family, and no friends. It’s not like she could just pick up her life in Chicago and take it out to her new husband! Why didn’t Jolene get that?
“If I could pick up my life and take it with me, maybe I would consider such a thing,” Crissie said. Jolene let out a small laugh.
“You’re saying you’d want to take all your students, even that naughty one… What was his name, George, was it? You’d want to take him with you?” Jolene asked, raising one eyebrow. Crissie laughed despite herself.
“Hm, alright. Perhaps not him. But I’d consider it if I could just take you with me.” She smiled and laughed gently, then paused for a moment. “Would… Would that be possible?”
“Don’t be ridiculous, girl.” Jolene shook her head. “No respectable man would want an old maid to come with his new wife. You’d be asking them to pay more for food, and they’d need an extra room… It’s not possible,” Jolene said simply.
“Humor me, Jolene,” Crissie said gently. Jolene turned to look at her. “Would you do it?”
Jolene’s eyes scanned Crissie’s face and darted away as she chewed her lip. She exhaled slightly from her nose and then looked back at Crissie again.
“I… Would consider the possibility.” Jolene answered vaguely, looking away from Crissie again. Crissie’s face broke into a smile.
“Now, who’s being difficult,” Crissie said jovially. Jolene rolled her eyes, exhaling gently.
“If it were possible, which is entirely unlikely, and you went ahead with it, which is even more unlikely, I’d come with you. Yes.”
The two women reached the bridge. As they crossed and walked away from the town, the buildings they passed began to shrink as they left the businesses behind them and entered more residential areas. They walked the rest of the way quietly. When they reached Jolene’s home, they released one another’s arms, and Jolene took Crissie’s hand.
“Please consider it,” she said kindly, and Crissie nodded politely.
“I will do. I will see you soon.” She squeezed Jolene’s hand, and Jolene turned to leave, walking up the wooden steps into the Rectory, where Benjamin’s replacement, the new priest, allowed her to stay.
Crissie continued along to her home. She opened the large wooden gate and lifted her skirt to avoid gathering too much dust or dirt. Walking around to the back, Crissie climbed the stairs to the small attic room where she lived. Once in the bare, small room that had been her home since Henry passed away, she stretched and let out a long sigh.
That could be the start of the rest of my life. Crissie thought to herself. She had fallen into a routine in Chicago, and while it was by no means a bad life, it left her incredibly dissatisfied. Perhaps becoming a mail-order bride would bring her some more happiness. It’s worth a shot.
She decided and nervously reached under her bed for the newspaper she’d been reading a few days earlier. She opened the paper to the mail-order bride advertisements. What was once a horrific idea had begun to fill her with hope. If she could take Jolene with her, she could finally have the life she believed she deserved without having to start again.
She read the advertisements twice, and with her heart thumping, she reread one for a third time before reaching for her letter-writing equipment and penning a letter to a man named Logan in Colorado. The advertisement stated he owned a ranch and lived there with four young children. It read:
Ranch owner and guardian of four children searching for a good woman to help with the homely duties and provide warm companionship.
She’d have the chance to care for people still. She might still be able to teach, should she move there, and was already familiar with the ranch life. Not only could she keep Jolene with her, but she’d get the husband she’d dreamed of and the chance to bring up and help children – her true passion. Perhaps all of this was precisely what she needed.
What could go wrong?
2nd June 1871
Crissie sat in the wooden chair in her bedroom, leaning on her elbows atop the desk with a letter in her hand. That was the second letter she had received back from Logan, and the idea of moving to Colorado was suddenly somewhat real. The last paragraph of the letter read:
I look forward to your arrival, Crissie. Perhaps you could embark on your journey in a week’s time? That would suit my ranch schedule well. I will, of course, collect you from the train station upon your arrival.
He had suggested she go in one week. One week to tell Jolene, say her goodbyes, and leave Chicago behind forever.
She chewed her lower lip as her mind raced. Was it a good idea to move? What if Logan doesn’t think she’s pretty? She always thought of herself as a very plain-looking woman. She was pale, with a few freckles and light eyes, but nothing captivating about her. Or at least nothing she had ever noticed. What if Colorado was dangerous? Would Logan look after them? Colorado was less tame than Chicago.
It was in the wild West. Henry had taught her to shoot, but whether she could keep herself safe was another matter altogether! What if he didn’t approve of Crissie taking Jolene with her? She hadn’t told him about her plan to do so, fearing that he’d say no and she’d be back without any hope. She couldn’t lose another future.
She would not lose another chance at a future. And if that meant moving to Colorado, then that is exactly what she’d do. There was very little opportunity left for her in Chicago.
I deserve a future. Crissie told herself. I am allowed to move on.
Crissie forced herself to stand up and walked away from the desk toward the bed. She pulled a small trunk from beneath it and placed it on the bed. She began to rummage around her room for the essentials. She piled her favorite books, hand mirror, a fan, and other small essentials in the trunk, including some stationery. Next to and on top came her linens, collars, and cuffs, followed by plain skirts, scent bottles, and sponge bags. Once the first bag was full, she flipped it shut and reached for the next one, loading it up with her dresses and bonnets. As soon as both cases were full, she placed them on top of one another by the door and sat on the bed.
She looked across the room at the luggage and sat still, staring at them. Nervousness and excitement bubbled away within her. That was a huge decision she was not taking lightly, but it also felt like it were her last chance at family life – the thing she had never had as an orphan. It was all she had ever wanted.
If she were leaving in one week, today would be her last day of teaching. It would also be the last time she walked through Chicago with Jolene. The last visit to the general store.
Lots of lasts. Crissie thought to herself.
A cathartic, slightly nervous smile spread across her face, and she stood up from the bed. Turning towards the mirror, she double-checked and patted the silk of her walking dress flat and headed towards the door.
She walked across the Mayor’s ranch and admired the scenery as she walked through. When she reached the end of the ranch, she began her journey to the schoolhouse. It was not a long walk, which she was grateful for. She enjoyed being alone sometimes, but with her mind racing as much as it had been since writing to Logan, her time alone was beginning to become exhausting. Teaching, grocery shopping, and helping Annabelle with housework had been incredibly helpful in keeping her mind occupied and away from the potential change on the horizon.
Crissie arrived at the schoolhouse and set herself up for the day. As she set up, her students began to filter in, each greeting her and taking their seats. Crissie took attendance and was happy to see that all her students had arrived – she had been worried that she wouldn’t get an opportunity to say goodbye to them all. She began to teach, using the chalkboard to write sentences and then asking the students where the errors were. To her surprise, Elijah raised his hand and offered a solution. Her heart filled with warmth as the quiet boy got the question right. Her life may not have been the most interesting over the last 6 months, but at least she had made a difference. To her students, her time in Chicago was worthwhile, and that gave her some peace of mind.
Crissie felt like the hours flew by, and soon enough, it was time for them to leave and time for Crissie’s weekly walk to the general store. With a spring in her step, Crissie held up her walking dress in her hands as she trotted down the steps of the schoolhouse and out onto the street, eager to discuss the most recent updates with her friend. She began to approach Jolene at the river bank like usual and smiled widely at her.
“Hello!” Crissie greeted.
“Good afternoon, love,” Jolene replied with a small smile.
“It’s such a beautiful day, isn’t it?” Crissie gestured around her with one arm as she spoke.
Jolene looked up and nodded. “It is. A really lovely day.” She replied softly with a smile. As usual, she moved around to Crissie’s side and threaded her arm through Crissie’s arm.
“Shall we?” Jolene gestured forward with her head, and Crissie nodded. As they walked, they caught up about their days, and Crissie left out the details of her packing. Jolene turned her head to look at Crissie briefly and furrowed her brows.
“Something’s different,” she said simply. Crissie’s eyes widened, and she looked straight ahead, avoiding Jolene’s glance.
“Mm,” Crissie mumbled nervously. “Well,” she said shyly. What had been excitement became nervousness, and her heart rose to her throat. “I’m leaving for Colorado next week,” Crissie said too quickly. “Or, rather, we are.” She corrected herself before turning her head slowly to look at Jolene.
Jolene froze. She stared at Crissie in disbelief. Crissie’s brows furrowed, and she stepped toward her friend. She placed a gentle hand on her shoulder and looked at Jolene. Crissie’s mind began to race. What if Jolene was joking the other day? She definitely couldn’t move to Colorado on her own…
“Crissie… It’s Colorado,” Jolene said simply.
“What do you mean?” Crissie asked, dropping her hand from Jolene’s shoulder, and looked around the river bank.
“How can I just up and leave and move that far west?” Jolene replied.
“You said you would,” Crissie said quietly. “I’ll be with you. And it sounds perfect for us. The man, Logan, has a ranch and four children. There’d be plenty to do, lots of cooking that’ll need doing. He writes well, too. I think he’s nice,” she continued.
“What if he doesn’t like us? He could send both of us off somewhere – or worse, he could send me off to be alone in Colorado without you. You have told him about me, I presume?” Jolene asked, looking back up at Crissie with one eyebrow raised. Crissie quickly looked away to escape Jolene’s questioning glance and gulped inaudibly.
“Of course I have. He agreed to take us both,” Crissie lied. She clenched her fist lightly by her side. She hated lying but couldn’t risk not getting another shot at family life. If she’d told Logan, he might not want her. And if she had told Jolene that she hadn’t told Logan, Jolene would never have come with her. Lying was the only way to get the future they both deserved.
“Just because he’s agreed to take us both in doesn’t mean he’ll hold up to his end of the agreement. Men’s minds work differently from ours, Crissie. You might be too young to know that, but I’m sure not.”
Crissie huffed. She hated being treated like she was naive. She’d fought for herself her whole life – did people forget that? Besides, it wouldn’t be a matter of Logan keeping his end of the deal. He didn’t know that Jolene was coming with her.
“Then I’ll tell him it is both of us or neither of us,” Crissie replied. “If he’s that desperate for a wife, he won’t send us packing.” She shrugged matter-of-factly. Jolene chewed her lip nervously, mulling over what Crissie had said for a minute.
“But what if you fall for him instantly?” Jolene asked. “You won’t want to risk being sent away then.”
“I will not leave you,” Crissie reassured her. For a long time, Jolene had been the closest Crissie had ever come to stability, to a family. What she said was completely true – she’d never leave Jolene. She couldn’t, not ever. Their friendship meant the world to her.
“Come, now, what has this city left to offer us?” The corners of Crissie’s mouth began to turn upward in a small, shy smile. “We’ve both lost our loves. You almost lost the Rectory. All we do is walk to the store, clean, cook, and repeat,” She continued. “It’s no life.”
Crissie said all of this to Jolene, and as she spoke, she realized how true it was. Chicago had stopped being home for both of them a while ago, and nothing was keeping them here anymore.
It was the same line Jolene had been using to convince her to become a mail-order bride for the last few months. Jolene looked at Crissie and smiled hesitantly, and then nodded slowly. Her head moved so slightly that anyone not paying attention could have missed it. Crissie threaded her arm through her friend’s and continued walking.
As they walked, Crissie began to speak about what their new lives might look like. Imagining what was to come helped calm their nerves, and Jolene joined in the conversation. Crissie held onto the ideas they had spoken about: a gentle, handsome man who would look after them both on a large ranch with beautiful animals.
Suddenly, Colorado didn’t seem too scary.
They soon reached the general store and were so familiar with its small, nonsensical layout that so long as the store wasn’t busy, they could be in and out within ten minutes. As they left, they waved goodbye to the store clerk, Charles, and walked down the streets to the lake. As always, they began their walk home, parasols up, the lake on their right, and the sun beating down on them.
“Have you told Samuel?” Jolene asked.
“Not yet, no. I thought I would let you know before him and Anabelle. She likes to gossip.” Crissie giggled. She loved Anabelle, but the mayor’s wife regularly had women over for tea, and they could talk for hours about everybody’s business but their own.
“You best tell them soon, or else they’ll be upset,” Jolene said gently. Crissie nodded and looked around them, she realized they’d been walking for longer than she’d thought, and the rectory was only a few minutes up the street.
“I’ll see you next week then, by the train station?” Crissie asked, expecting Jolene to change her mind again. But to her surprise, Jolene nodded and turned to enter her home. Crissie smiled widely and continued on her way.
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