Her humble family dies and she’s the sole protector of her nephew. His sweet wife passes away leaving him with a baby girl. How can a mail-order bride and a cynical rancher find sweet love in their unexpected marriage?
Penelope stopped believing in fairytales the day her sisters died. Now, with no one in the world but her young nephew and a mail-order bride ad, she makes haste to get married out West. Her new husband is adamant and very strict in his ways. How can she mend both their hearts and urge him to believe again in the importance of family values?
Hunter has concluded that God has cursed him. After the death of his wife, he must take care of his baby girl while fixing a dying ranch. When grieving Penelope and her nephew come to the ranch, he sees through their eyes and understands their fear and pain for life. He struggles to shield them from his bad attitude, but he fails. How can he open up his broken heart and trust again?
Building a home with a stranger takes time and dedication. Will Penelope and Hunter grow through their painful memories and let love’s buds flourish before darkness finds them again?
New York City, New York, June 1885
“Tell us a story, Aunt Penny, pleease!”
Penny White tousled her five-year-old nephew’s curly brown mop with a smile. “You’ll have to ask your mama, Hamish. It is very nearly your bedtime, you know.”
The little boy immediately transferred his attention to his mother who sat on the opposite side of the gently hissing coal stove, mending a torn dress sleeve. His big, ocean blue eyes begged her silently to say yes as the rain pattered on the shingle roof above and the drip-drip of leaks added their unique syncopated rhythm.
“Just a short one, Evie,” Penny rallied to her nephew’s cause.
Evie’s soft gray eyes seemed tired in the light of the kerosene lamps as she looked up from the ripped seam she was restitching. Those beloved eyes seemed more tired than Penny could remember, to say nothing of the deepening dark circles beneath them. Her oldest sister’s skin was sallow and haggard, and her black, wavy hair hung listlessly around her shoulders in ragged wisps. Evie barely managed a wan smile. Before she could answer, another voice filled the small room.
“I think I’d like to hear a story, too.”
Penny turned her gaze to her middle sister, Sarah, who sat knitting a colorful sweater for Hamish from castoffs she had gleaned from the local mill. The clickety-clack of her needles tapped a ragged tattoo in time with the drips from the roof. Penny gave her middle sister a grateful blink. Sarah’s smile blossomed, lighting up her pale face and soft blue eyes, even though her cheeks were just as hollow as Evie’s, her mahogany brown hair just as lifeless.
“Come to think of it, so would I,” Evie relented, giving the room a quick sweep with pained eyes. Penny knew what her sister was thinking as those gray eyes scanned the peeling wallpaper on the bare walls; the scuffed and worn floorboards; the shabby drapes that covered the tiny window; the wooden pails and chipped bowls that caught the rain from a roof that leaked like a sieve, no matter how many oil-soaked rags they stuffed into the myriad holes. A bundle of bedclothes lay stacked in the only truly dry corner, ready to be shaken out and snuggled into by four tired and shivering bodies.
Penny herself found it difficult to look at the interior of their attic home without feeling something close to despair. It was one of the reasons she loved to read and to make up her own stories. It was an escape. An escape that appealed to her very much in that moment.
As Hamish clapped excitedly and then snuggled up on his favorite aunt’s lap, Sarah added another shovelful of coals to the stove and Penny closed her eyes. The old rocker she sat in creaked and sighed as she rocked slowly back and forth.
“Once upon a time, in a land far, far from here,” she began, and then opened her eyes again to look into the expectant face of her young admirer, “there lived a prince named Hamish the Kind.”
Hamish blinked rapidly. “Oh!” he exclaimed. “He has the same name as me!”
“Fancy that,” Sarah said, giving Penny a wink.
“Did he live in a palace, Aunt Penny?” Hamish prodded.
“Oh, yes, but not any kind of palace you’ve ever heard of,” Penny assured him. “Prince Hamish’s palace was made entirely of living palm trees, waving slowly in a gentle, warm tropical wind. Prince Hamish had a huge hammock strung between the trunks of the trees and filled it with the biggest, softest, fluffiest down pillows you could ever imagine. At night he would lie on his back, floating on pillows and imagine he was sleeping on the clouds. Staring up at the inky black sky, he’d watch the stars playing hide-and-go-seek with each other behind the waving palm fronds.”
The look on Hamish’s face was all the evidence Penny needed to know that the real Hamish, the little boy living in a run-down tenement in Manhattan’s Five Points slum, had already been transported away to the land of make believe she was weaving with her words. The ache in her heart made her eyes sting. If only she really could take him away from all the squalor and stench, the clamor and cold, to a place where they all could be safe and happy.
“Prince Hamish’s beautiful mother and her two younger sisters lived in the palm palace with him. Night after night they would dance the hours away to beautiful music played by an orchestra of forest animals. Elephants blowing big silver trumpets, a chimpanzee on the grand piano, a great flock of flamingoes playing the strings with their long, pink legs. Prince Hamish and his family would dance till their feet could dance no more and their faces ached from smiling and laughing.”
Penny looked down at Hamish. His head lay in the crook of her arm, his eyes closed, lashes fluttering fitfully. His breathing was deep and rhythmic.
“I’d say our little prince has already flown away to his palace,” Sarah whispered, her mouth curved up in a tender smile.
“Perhaps we should join him in that castle in the sky,” Evie said, laying down her mending with a sigh as she stretched out her back. “I know I could do with a hammock full of pillows.”
Penny’s heart broke. It wasn’t fair that Evie and Sarah worked their fingers to the bone in Seamus Murphy’s filthy, run-down sweatshop while she stayed at home all day. Keeping their tiny hovel as clean as she possibly could and taking care of Hamish were pursuits of leisure compared to the backbreaking, finger numbing, soul killing slavery that her sisters were subjected to.
“I can see in your eyes that today was an especially hard day,” she said. “I wish you’d reconsider and let me work some of your shifts. Mr. Murphy won’t know the difference. Then you can spend more time with Hamish, Evie. And the both of you could get some more rest. It’s not human the way he treats you.”
The look on Evie’s face made Penny stop speaking abruptly. She had more to say but knew from experience that it would be better not to.
“That is exactly why I won’t tolerate you setting foot in that place,” Evie said grimly.
“You think Murphy won’t notice, but he will,” Sarah said softly. “He’s already singled out Evie. Keeps trying to get her to be his mistress.”
Penny stifled a gasp.
“And he’s extra hard on Sarah,” Evie added. “Says she smiles too much, so that must mean she doesn’t have enough work to do. He’s forever piling more onto her quota for the day. First it was ten coats, then twelve, now he’s threatening to make her do fourteen a day.”
Penny was horrified. She knew things were bad there, but these were things her sisters hadn’t told her before.
“Oh, I’ll show him a thing or two. Just let me take your place for one day, Evie!” she blurted out. Hamish stirred and mumbled into her shoulder. Penny quickly shushed him, running her hand over his messy curls.
“He’ll eat you for breakfast, Penny,” Evie said sadly. “Besides, that building gives me the horrors. It creaks and groans more than most of the workers in it. I wouldn’t be able to live with my conscience if I allowed you to spend so much as a minute inside it. Please let it be, love. I need you to take care of Hamish. And, besides, there’s your writing.”
Penny huffed impatiently. “Writing? What writing?”
“Haven’t you heard anything back from the publishers yet?” Sarah asked.
“Yes. I did. They turned me down. Again.”
“I’m so sorry, dear.” Evie stood up and went to place a commiserating hand on her youngest sister’s shoulders. “It makes no sense. You write such beautiful stories for children.”
Penny sighed. “Apparently the editors at Our Little Men and Women periodical don’t think so.” She paused as Hamish shifted in her arms, his mouth partly open, snoring softly. “Only you and Hamish appreciate my work. I may as well resign myself to that fact.”
Evie knelt down on the floorboards beside the rickety rocking chair and gently stroked her son’s cheek. “Papa would have said, ‘Perseverance pays. Keep at it, Penny. Don’t you give up.’”
“Yes,” Sarah agreed, her voice wistful. “He would have. Just keep flooding them with stories, Penny. At some point they’ll have to sit up and take notice of you.”
“I’ll think about it,” Penny said, not wanting to brush off her sisters’ heartfelt and sincere encouragement. The truth she couldn’t bear to tell them was that she really was feeling rather hopeless about it and would just as soon give up and resign herself to becoming a seamstress or a kitchen maid than go on being disappointed by rejection after rejection.
A restless silence hovered between them for a moment before Penny spoke again.
“If you won’t let me work at the shop, then how about I find some other work? I could clean houses, take in laundry. Even better, I could help mind some of the other children in our street.”
Evie looked up at her sharply. “I’ve said all I’m going to say about this matter, Penelope Grace,” she said sternly, despite the tiredness in her voice.
Penelope Grace. Evie only used Penny’s full name when she was truly in earnest, which was the closest Penny had ever seen Evie come to anger. Even when Morris had absconded, hours before their hastily arranged wedding, leaving Evie with a growing babe in her womb and nowhere to turn.
Penny had decided to forgive her sister’s charming and handsome, but horribly treacherous fiancé, but only because Evie expected it of her. At least she was under no obligation to like him. She turned her thoughts back to more deserving individuals.
Papa would have said …
“I wish I could have known Papa and Mama,” Penny said sadly as Evie slowly got up from her knees and moved over to where their bedding lay. Sarah proceeded to empty the buckets and bowls of rainwater into the street outside their only window. It was then that Penny realized the rain had stopped.
“I hope we have a fine day tomorrow.” Sarah closed the window and stared out at the gloom through the mottled pane.
The next day was fine and sunny, as Sarah had hoped. Penny combed out her thick black hair, braided it expertly and wound the braid into a knot in the nape of her neck. The hairpins she stuck in it were rusty, but at least they did the trick: keeping her hair out of her way while she took care of Hamish and cleaned their home, such as it was.
After a meager breakfast of oatmeal and their traditionally lavish farewell to his mother and Aunt Sarah, Hamish lay obediently on his stomach, kicking his bare feet rhythmically on the floor. He was busily practicing his letters on the cracked slate Penny had managed to procure from Mr. O’Connor, the grocer in the next borough. The kindly old gentleman also supplied her with used chalk nubs, pencil stubs and the occasional half used notebook for her scribblings and Hamish’s education.
Hamish, his curly brown head bobbing from side to side, lay muttering away to himself, sounding out the letters while the chalk scratched against the painted board. His voice sounded far more serious and graver than was usual for a five-year-old. Penny sat in the rocker—her favorite place to dream—and chewed absentmindedly on a pencil stub. She was supposed to be coming up with a new story, but all she could think of was her latest rejection letter.
How shall I ever convince them to accept my stories for publication? she wondered to herself. It didn’t help that every publisher she had approached had told her they were looking for known talent. It stands to reason that the only way to become known is to be published, so that just doesn’t wash. She’d never had the heart to tell anyone that. Perhaps I should follow the route the Bronté sisters and Miss Austen took. Only, it feels like lying, to me, to pretend that my stories were written by a man.
A sparrow landed on the windowsill, bobbing about and chirping agitatedly. The wind began to howl as a sudden, unexplained shadow dimmed the brightness of the sun. A baby cried in the room below, followed by a curse and a thump, which only made the poor thing cry harder. Hamish looked up from his slate. Penny gave him an encouraging smile. He went back to his letters.
I wonder if it’s because I’m so young? Although young ladies are getting married at eighteen, so that surely can’t be it.
Her thought was scarcely cold when a blood curdling scream rent the air. Penny almost upset the rocker as she tried to come upright. Hamish scrambled to his feet, looking fearful.
Another murder? Penny thought. Oh, please, God, no. When will it end?
The baby down below began wailing like a siren. Voices filled the street outside, some crying inconsolably, others shouting frantically. Hamish rushed to Penny’s side, grabbing onto her skirts. She put an arm around him protectively, listening for some snippet of sensible language that would give her a clue as to what was going on. Going outside to see wasn’t something she particularly relished doing in that moment.
A rap at the door made her jump, and Hamish gave a little whimper.
“Sit in the sleeping corner, Hamish, and don’t move,” Penny whispered in his ear. The little boy obeyed immediately, scurrying to the pile of blankets that would be hidden by the door when it opened.
The rap on the door came again. A man coughed—a little nervously, Penny thought. She took a deep breath and reached for the doorknob. As the heavy wooden barrier swung outward on loudly protesting hinges, she saw Mr. O’Connor standing there. His kind face was ashen beneath his salt-and-pepper whiskers, his hands clutched his battered old bowler in front of his chest. His pale blue eyes swam with tears.
“Mr. O’Connor?” Penny said, alarm coursing through her like hot lava. Why would the kindly grocer man be away from his store in the middle of the morning, looking at her with such a sad, stricken countenance?
“There’s been an accident at Murphy’s place, Penny, dear. The … the whole building came down,” he said, his voice quivering. He coughed again as Penny’s heart began to thrash against her ribs like a wild animal.
“Evie? Sarah? Are they…? Do they need help?” There were little black spots in front of her eyes, and she couldn’t see Mr. O’Connor’s face clearly when he replied.
“I’m so sorry, dear. They … they …” He couldn’t get the rest of the words out, but he didn’t need to. His face and his eyes told Penny everything she needed to know. Everything she would rather not know. Everything she desperately wanted not to be true.
As if standing outside of herself, she heard a sob escape her throat. Her knees suddenly refused to hold her up. Tottering backwards, she clapped her hand over her mouth to stop herself screaming as she sank to the floor, her mind a black whirlpool of confusion. Only one word came through clear as a bell, over and over. No! No! No!
“I’m so sorry, Penny. So, so sorry …” Mr. O’Connor’s words faded as he gripped her shoulders. Then her world went dark.
Four Horse, Arizona, July 1885
Hunter Blakely cringed and screwed his eyes shut as shards of morning light pierced his vision and made the throbbing in his head accelerate to a screaming crescendo of pain.
“No, Sally, please. Just keep them closed a little longer,” he groaned, gripping his temples in a vain attempt to assuage the demon drink hammering at his brain.
“How much longer, Hunter?” Sally’s voice, strident and demanding, brought on yet another wave of nauseating pain. Scrabbling under the bed for the bedpan, Hunter deposited the remainder of his dinner in it. He wiped his mouth on the sleeve of his shirt, only then realizing he still had all his clothes on.
“Just until ten o’clock, I reckon I’ll be fine by …”
Sally didn’t let him finish. “It is ten o’clock, Hunter,” she spelled out in clipped syllables. “What I meant is, how much longer is this …” she hesitated, and Hunter looked up to see his cousin gesturing at his aching carcass strewn across the bed amongst a tangle of bedclothes. “No.” Sally’s voice hardened as she stepped over to Hunter’s nightstand. “How much longer is this going to carry on for?” She held up an empty whiskey bottle, shaking it agitatedly for emphasis.
Hunter groaned and buried his face in his bedclothes. They reeked of alcohol and bile. He wanted Sally to go away. He wanted it all to go away. The ranch, the horses, the town, his ruthless, relentless memories. The memories most of all. Alcohol was the only way he could find respite from them, even if only for a few short hours at a time.
“Hunter, for the love of Pete, look at me,” Sally said. Her voice was a mixture of sadness, desperation and empathy. That only made it all the more difficult for him to look her in the eye. With effort—and a little shakily—he hoisted himself into a sitting position on the bed, staring blearily at the woman before him.
She was strong boned, and not very tall—standard ranching stock. Her mouse brown curls floated rebelliously about her face, refusing to be confined to any kind of hair clip or pins. Her face itself was round and childlike, despite her twenty-three years, with a—usually—cheery expression and a twinkle in her forest green eyes. Only, the cheery expression and the twinkle were conspicuously missing on that particular morning.
Come to think of it, they’ve been missing for a while, Hunter thought despondently to himself. He knew the reason. He was it. Ironically, that made him wish the empty bottle in her hand were a full one.
As she set the bottle back down with a loud thunk on the nightstand, Hunter’s eyes were drawn to Sally’s belly. He raised his aching eyebrows.
“Looks like that little tyke is about ready to bust out of there,” he remarked, dimly aware that this wasn’t necessarily the most appropriate time to be talking about the imminent birth of his cousin’s first child.
“Yeah,” Sally agreed, placing her hands on her hips, the way she always did when she had made up her mind about something and wasn’t about to have it changed. “This little tyke is coming in a matter of days and that means I won’t be around to help you or Maisie much longer.”
He’d heard a baby crying earlier, as if it were a faraway echo from another land, another time. The leaden weight of guilt added to the discomfort in his stomach.
“Give me another week, Sally, please.” Hunter didn’t like the pleading sound in his own voice, but his head hurt too much to concentrate on being manly and authoritative.
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