From childhood foes to husband and wife. Can they find happiness in their sweet, unexpected marriage or will they linger on past mistakes?
Stella never thought she would become a mail-order bride, but her abusive uncle is becoming dangerous. Desperate for a new start, she runs back to her hometown and gets married to her childhood nemesis. Can she find true love with her husband-to-be, or will she be trapped in another unhappy situation?
Gilbert has always been the jokester, teasing Stella mercilessly in their small town in Colorado. But when tragedy strikes, he finds himself in need of a wife to help save his family’s ranch. When he sees a familiar face in town, he can’t believe it’s Stella, the girl he used to mock. Can he convince her to take a chance on him, or will his past mistakes keep them apart?
As Gilbert and Stella try to build a life together, a man tracks them down to tear their love apart. With danger lurking around every corner, can Gilbert protect Stella and show her that love truly can conquer all?
Golden City, Colorado, 1879
“For our next task,” the schoolmistress announced, “I want each and every one of you to write a story—something you’ve made up entirely. No less than five hundred words, and you can all have a special piece of paper to write on, instead of your slates.”
Stella Brentford sat upright at this, beaming. She loved stories, and she felt almost as if Miss Everett had picked it out just for her. She whisked off her spectacles, giving them a quick polish on her pinafore.
There was a chorus of groans. Five hundred words—well, that was more than most of the children had read or written in their whole lives. The schoolmistress, Miss Everett, was new, freshly trained in one of the big cities, and so had many new ideas.
Stella couldn’t wait to get started. She knew the others might laugh at her for her eagerness, but she didn’t care. It wasn’t as if they could do anything to her here in the schoolroom, anyway. And writing on real paper was an exciting treat.
Miss Everett pressed her lips together at the muted noises of complaint, slipping down the aisle and handing out pieces of paper.
Her smile widened when she got to Stella, and Stella beamed right back, wriggling up in her seat to sit up straighter. Stella knew that she was always neat and tidy, her brown hair well brushed and pulled back in a demure braid. She was always attentive and clean—Miss Everett never had any need to scold her for a torn pinafore, dirty shoes, or grimy hands. Today, she wore a patched charcoal-colored dress, the same shade as Miss Everett’s. She couldn’t help but feel a little twinge of pleasure at being so much cleaner and neater than her schoolmates. She was the only girl here wearing the same color dress as Miss Everett’s, too.
Miss Everett didn’t wear spectacles, but that was only a small thing to worry about.
“Here you are, Stella. I am particularly looking forward to reading your story.”
Stella beamed up at her. Her round spectacles habitually slid down her nose, and she pushed them up again without thinking.
Like most schoolrooms in small towns like this one, the schoolhouse in Golden City had only one room, and the students were roughly divided by age. It was a cold day, and the stovetop fire burned near the back of the room. The students ranged from five years old to fourteen, although they dwindled in number towards the age of fourteen. Parents tended to find reasons to keep their children at home as they grew older and became more useful on the land and in the house.
Stella was eleven years old, and already children of her age were being kept at home with the flimsiest of excuses and put to work on the ranches. Not Stella, though. She liked school.
Well, that wasn’t strictly true. She liked schoolwork, not necessarily school itself. Her schoolmates, for example, were not very likeable at all. Stella was sure that they were glaring at her, but she didn’t care. Bending over her work, she adjusted her spectacles and started to write.
With her handwritten story neatly folded and tucked into her pocket, Stella hastily packed up her things, shoving her slate and chalk into her bag, dropping her stub of a pencil in her haste. She hauled her bag over her shoulder and scuttled out of the schoolroom, heading towards the forest path that would lead her home.
She was almost there when she tripped on something and went sprawling. Her book bag bounced, the contents scattering everywhere. There was a chorus of ugly laughter as she fell, and Stella scrambled around to see three figures looming over her.
The three figures were, of course, the usual suspects: Gilbert Redmayne, Teddy Black, and Ezekiel Daniels. It looked like Ezekiel had tripped her.
“Did you write a good little story then, four-eyes?” Ezekiel sneered, lip curling. “Miss Everett gave you a good mark.”
Stella opened her mouth as if to speak, but nothing came out. She never knew what to say to her tormentors. When it was just Gilbert Redmayne, the bullying felt more like teasing, and she occasionally managed a clever retort that made him laugh. He was thirteen, and already kept home from school more often than he was there. He looked older than thirteen, and with his blond hair and blue eyes, was generally considered one of the better-looking boys at school.
Or so the endless rounds of schoolgirl gossip claimed.
Gilbert always seemed more malicious when the other two were there. Teddy was a lumbering boy of thirteen who enjoyed exercising his strength on the smaller students. The twelve-year-old Ezekiel had a nasty wit and a taste for cruelty.
Without warning, Gilbert dived forward, snatching Stella’s spectacles from off her nose. She flinched, the world blurring into an indecipherable maelstrom of color. Panic rose, the way it always did when she was without her spectacles.
“Give them back!” Stella shouted, lurching to her feet and making a grab for her them. She missed, of course, and the three boys burst into laughter.
“I wonder if she’d impress Miss Everett with her excellent schoolwork if she couldn’t see properly?” Teddy said aloud, and Ezekiel cackled.
“Snap her spectacles, Gil.” Ezekiel said.
Gilbert hesitated. “But…”
“Oh, go on, Gil, it’ll be funny!” Teddy said.
Stella made another desperate grab, but Teddy pushed her back, hard, and she sprawled on the ground again.
Gilbert laughed awkwardly. He sounded uncomfortable, Stella thought, although without her spectacles she could only see a vague blond-haired blur which she knew was Gilbert. He never seemed very comfortable when Ezekiel and Teddy took the bullying a step further.
“She might not be able to get home without them.”
“Don’t be such a wuss!” Ezekiel snorted. “Here, give them to me.”
Gilbert dropped them. Stella wasn’t sure whether it was an accident or deliberate, but she frantically clawed her way through the grass to get them.
She didn’t make it, of course. Teddy’s foot came flying through the air, landing on the fragile spectacles with a sickening crunch.
The boys burst into laughter, and Teddy lifted his foot to reveal the twisted, mangled remains of Stella’s spectacles. The laughter stopped abruptly, and for a minute, Stella thought someone had come to her rescue.
“Wait, is that smoke?” Gilbert asked uncertainly.
“Looks like someone’s house is burning.” Ezekiel said. “Not mine, mine is over there.”
Stella turned and squinted in the direction they were staring. She could see a blur of smoke rising over the tops of the trees. Panic, icy-cold and nauseating, flashed through her. Forgetting her scattered books and mangled spectacles, Stella stumbled to her feet and began to run. She was vaguely aware of feet running after her, but nobody grabbed her or stopped her.
She burst out of the forest and stopped dead.
It was the Brentford house that was burning. Her house.
Stella didn’t need spectacles to see the orange-red flickers of fire or feel the heat on her face. She could smell burning, burning wood, burning fabric, burning meat. Flames licked out of the windows, catching onto the roof, and smoke billowed above it all. The neighbors had leapt into action, fetching buckets of water and trying to shovel sand and earth on the fire.
It was too little, too late. Much too late. The house would be a smoldering wreck soon. Stella glanced blindly around, desperate for someone to help her. She grabbed at a blurred figure that she vaguely recognized as one of her neighbors.
“Stella? Oh, thank heavens you weren’t home yet.” The man said, relief in his voice. “We thought you might be inside too.”
Too. Stella thought she might be sick.
“Where’s Ma? Where’s Pa?”
She couldn’t be sure without her spectacles, but the neighbor’s face changed, and he pulled away, pretending he hadn’t heard. It was Mr. Elliot, she thought, a moody bachelor who kept himself to himself.
Stella glanced around. Every direction held grim faces and subdued voices. People looked at her and then hastily looked away. She could hear them—she might be terribly short-sighted, but her hearing was excellent.
“Such a tragedy.” Mr. Elliot said, shaking his head.
A female voice that Stella didn’t recognize tutted. “That poor girl.”
“How did it start, do you think?” That was Miss Tennyson, pretty Miss Tennyson who drove all the local boys wild.
“What will happen to the child?” Mrs. Tennyson’s voice was loud, pitching over the others.
What will happen to me? Stella thought, with a pang of fear.
People were crowding around, keen to get a glimpse of the carnage. Someone was pushing their way through the crowd, and they came to stand beside Stella. She squinted and realized that it was Gilbert, staring ashen faced at the burning house.
“Stella?” he whispered. “Are your parents inside?”
Stella was barely aware of what she did next. She remembered running, oblivious to shouts around her. She remembered pushing open their garden gate, strangely untouched, and feeling the heat hit her like a wave. She remembered noticing how the paint on their front door—a cheery shade of yellow, her mother’s favorite color—was peeling and bubbling.
She remembered being lifted bodily and hauled away from her burning house, no matter how much she screamed and struggled. She must have fainted, and the last thing Stella noticed was Mr. Elliot sighing and shaking his head.
“Poor thing. Life isn’t easy for orphans. I wonder where she’ll go?”
Des Moines, Iowa, 1896
Seven Years Later
Shortly after midnight, the front door was kicked in with a tremendous crash. Stella jolted awake, wincing at the noise. There’d be a mess to clean up in the morning, no doubt. She lay awake, listening to her Uncle Butch stumble through the house, cursing and breaking things.
This wasn’t an unusual occurrence. Uncle Butch had some sort of job in construction that didn’t involve too much travelling, but also didn’t involve a lot of money. What money he did make was quickly wasted on drink, gambling, and cheap women.
There was only one room upstairs, and that was Uncle Butch’s. Stella had a feeling that he wouldn’t be able to make the stairs again, so he would probably flop down on the kitchen floor, leaving her more or less trapped.
Stella’s room doubled as the pantry. Every night, she squeezed through shelves of tinned food and bags of flour to her little bed, crammed between the shelves and the wall. There was no door, just a curtain she’d rigged up herself. No washbasin, either. Stella had to go outside to the pump if she wanted to wash.
She lay still, hoping and praying that Uncle Butch wouldn’t call her.
No such luck.
“Stella!” he bellowed. “Stella, get your lazy carcass out here and make breakfast!”
Stella drew in a breath. She didn’t dare feign sleep. He might get bored of shouting for her if she didn’t come, but it was equally likely that he’d come staggering into the pantry and drag her bodily out of bed.
She sat up, reaching for her spectacles then thinking better of it. The spectacles she’d bought to replace the ones broken the day of the fire weren’t particularly attractive ones. They had large, round lenses that dominated her face, and plain brown frames. Uncle Butch hated them. Mrs. Tennyson had helped Stella to get them, and she had used her parents’ money to buy them, just before she found out that Uncle Butch would be her guardian. Of course, once he got his hands on the Brentford family’s pitiful savings, that was the end of it.
She didn’t want to risk him breaking her spectacles in a fit of rage or clumsiness, so she left them on a shelf beside her bed. She would likely have a headache tomorrow if she went a long time without wearing them.
She padded out into the kitchen, stepping carefully over a shattered glass left on the stone floor.
“Is everything all right, uncle?” Stella asked carefully. “Do you need help to get upstairs?”
“I don’t need help, you ungrateful wench. I want my breakfast,” Uncle Butch snapped. He was upright, at least, leaning heavily against the table and swaying. There was a lit candle sitting on the table, and Stella prayed he wouldn’t leave it burning when he eventually passed out. Unsurprisingly, she was terrified of fire.
Stella swallowed. “It’s past midnight, uncle. Too late for breakfast. Or too early, rather.”
He narrowed his eyes. “I didn’t ask what time it was. Get me breakfast, or so help me, you’ll feel the buckle end of my belt again.”
He undid his belt as he spoke, pulling on the tough leather to make an ominous snapping noise. It wasn’t an idle threat. Stella still had welts on her back from the last time she’d answered her uncle back.
Or rather, the last time he thought she’d answered him back.
Stella swallowed, and turned to the stove, taking out the pans. There were eggs left, and a few strips of fatty bacon. That should hopefully placate her uncle. She heard the flimsy kitchen chair creak as he sank down into it.
Uncle Butch was her father’s brother, and Stella had never met him until the day her parents died. He hadn’t arrived in time for the funeral. As soon as she’d set her eyes on him, her little heart had sunk. He looked nothing like her father. He was a tall man, brawny, with a once muscular frame running toο fat on his arms and belly. His hair was a mousy sort of brown and thinning on his greasy scalp.
He stunk of alcohol, wore filthy, smelly clothes, and had seemed completely unconcerned about the fact his only brother was dead. He certainly showed no interest in his niece, who he was meeting for the first time. He started off by asking what money was left and seemed particularly angry that there was no house left, and that the land was rented. He withdrew his brother’s paltry savings from the bank, pocketed what cash had been retrieved from a strongbox in the house, took his niece and left.
Stella had kept the necklace her parents had given her in her pocket. Her uncle had warned her to hand over any valuables or jewelry she had, and Stella was stiff with fear that he might find the necklace. But it wasn’t worth much, and somehow Stella knew that if she handed it over to Uncle Butch, she wouldn’t see it again.
It was hers. There wasn’t much left of her parents or the house, except for the clothes on her back and the necklace she’d been wearing. Stella decided to keep it.
She’d never had chance to say goodbye to anyone. Not to Miss Everett, not to the kindly neighbor who’d let her stay until Uncle Butch arrived, not even to Gilbert.
Not that she should want to say goodbye to Gilbert. He hadn’t stopped his odious friends from destroying her spectacles.
On the train back to Iowa, Uncle Butch had continued to ignore Stella, pulling out a bottle of something alcoholic and swigging with great enjoyment, belching loudly and staring out of the window. Stella cringed beside him, conscious of the disgusted looks of other passengers. They probably thought Uncle Butch was her father.
“You can cook, can’t you?” he said suddenly. Stella flinched, glancing up at him with wide eyes.
“A… a little, yes. Ma was teaching me…”
“Well, you’d better learn fast. I want hot meals every day, you understand? A good breakfast on a morning, a midday meal made up if I won’t be home, and a hot supper on the table when I get home. My witless brother probably spoiled you silly, but that’s not how it’s going to be from now on, got it?”
Stella dropped her eyes. “Yes, uncle,” she said quietly.
“I don’t tolerate backtalk, laziness, or disrespect, and you’d better remember that. Or else you’ll feel the back of my hand or my belt. Spare the rod and spoil the child, that’s what I say.”
“I assume you can clean and sew?”
“W… well enough, uncle.”
“Well enough had better be good enough. Your ma and pa haven’t left half enough money to pay for your keep, so you’d better work your little fingers to the bone to make up for it. And I don’t want you moping and crying about the house. I can’t stand children that cry.”
Stella swallowed hard. “But… but my ma and pa just died, Uncle Butch.”
He took a loud swig of his bottle. “What did I just say about backtalk?” he said conversationally. Stella cringed down in her seat.
“Sorry won’t save you from a good hiding, girl. You’ll need a job soon enough. Don’t wear those ugly spectacles when you go asking, nobody wants to look at a little four-eyes. You’re plain enough without them.”
“A… a job?” Stella stammered, momentarily forgetting her uncle’s warning about backtalk. Apparently, backtalk included everything except immediately agreeing to what her uncle had to say. “But what about school?”
He chuckled. “You’ll be too busy for school.”
“But I like school, uncle. Miss Everett thought I should apply for the teacher’s college, and maybe…”
“You’re not going.” Uncle Butch said sharply. “Shut up about it.”
Smelling the first scent of burning bacon, Stella was pulled back into the present. She focused entirely on her uncle’s bacon. Burning it would make him furious, and she’d be very, very sorry. The bacon smelled delicious, but she knew there’d be none left for her. Uncle Butch got the best of the food, and Stella got what was left. If there was anything left.
As Uncle Butch had promised, there’d been no more school in Iowa. Stella had nurtured hopes that one day some school official would turn up at the doorstep and insist she go, but nobody ever did. She cooked meals for her uncle, scrubbed his grimy house, and entertained his unpleasant friends. They ate too much, drank too much, gambled with greasy cards, and leered at her, making filthy comments that made Stella feel sick.
As she’d gotten older, the comments had gotten worse, and a couple of her uncle’s friends had tried to grope her.
He put a stop to that, at least, but not out of concern for Stella.
“Hands off.” Uncle Butch had said sharply, delivering a rough slap around the head to his friend, who cowered back. “She’ll not be worth anything once you’ve had your grubby mitts all over her.”
Stella wasn’t sure what her uncle meant by that, but it probably wasn’t good. Stella at eighteen wasn’t much different from Stella at eleven. She had the same riot of untamable brown hair, chocolate-colored eyes, and lopsided smile. And, of course, the spectacles.
She was taller, of course, and seven years of poor treatment and hard work had taken their toll. Stella knew she was plain, and with the life she led, her appearance would not get any better.
“No job yet, eh?” Uncle Butch said, and Stella flinched.
“Not yet, uncle. I’ve been trying. Really, I have.”
Stella had worked a few miserable jobs as a child, earning a cent here and there, but her uncle’s insistence that she didn’t wear her spectacles around him meant that she was plagued by headaches when she did wear them, and she could hardly see a thing when she didn’t.
At sixteen, Stella had suffered a terrible beating from her uncle when she’d been fired from her job scrubbing the floor in a grocery store. After that, she’d decided not to look for another job.
Uncle Butch took all the money she made, anyway.
“Well, it hardly matters.” Uncle Butch belched loudly. “You’ll make me my fortune at last, more or less.”
Stella paused, a sickening feeling of dread descending on her. “What do you mean, uncle?”
“I mean that you’re getting married.”
Bile rushed into Stella’s throat, and she swallowed it down with an effort.
“You remember Rory Swinbank?”
“Yes.” Stella answered bluntly. Rory was a middle-aged, overweight man, almost entirely bald, with bulging eyes and yellowed teeth, which Stella had had plenty of opportunity to see when he leered and smiled at her. He’d come to their house a handful of times, and always found a way to stand close to Stella, breathing stale breath into her face. He was the one who’d groped her before, and she was always nervous in his presence.
Rory was suspiciously good at cards, and judging from snippets of conversation she’d heard from the others, he liked to lend out money at high interest, and would stop at nothing to get back a debt he was owed.
“He’s got a fancy to marry again.” Uncle Butch said, snorting. “As if his last three wives weren’t enough. Well, I owe the man a lot of money—I swear he’s cheating—and he came up with a suggestion that’ll suit us both. He wants to marry you, and in return, my debt gets written off. He even promised a bit of extra cash to me, as a thank you. I can’t imagine what he sees in you—you’re as plain as they come, but you’re young, and that’s what he likes.” Uncle Butch leaned back, stretching his arms behind his head with a sigh. “It’s all sorted. Next week, the wedding.”
Stella had gone completely still, the bacon in the pan slowly burning.
“You… you want me to marry Rory Swinbank?” she stammered.
Uncle Butch frowned at her. “Yes, I do, and I expect a bit of gratitude. You’ll get a good home. Besides, you’ll be off my hands, and this is a chance to pay me back for taking you in.”
Stella drew in a breath, stepping away from the stove, smoothing sweaty palms over her skirts.
“I don’t want to marry him, uncle.”
“I don’t give a damn what you want.”
“I won’t do it.”
There was a brief silence.
“What did you say to me?”
Stella felt as though she might actually throw up. “I… I don’t want to marry him, uncle.”
He was on his feet in a flash, faster than such a large, drunk man ought to be able to move. “You ungrateful slut!” he roared. “After all I’ve done for you!”
The blow caught Stella around the face, and she went sprawling on the floor, inches away from the broken glass. Uncle Butch seized the pan from the stove, hurling that at her too. Stella rolled aside, narrowly avoiding getting burning oil all over her face. The pan bounced past her, scattering bits of bacon and grease everywhere.
Uncle Butch’s hand closed around her neck, hauling her up effortlessly. Stella gasped, eyes widening, and scrabbled at his arm.
“Let me be clear.” Uncle Butch said quietly. “You belong to me. You owe me. You’ll marry Rory, or I’ll drown you in a sack like I ought to have done when I first brought you home.”
He let go without warning, and Stella slumped to the floor, gasping for breath. She curled up in a ball, expecting another blow or perhaps a kick to the ribs, but Uncle Butch only turned away, picking up the only candle.
“I’m going to bed. Clean this mess up,” he said, not turning around.
With the candle gone, Stella was left in darkness. She sat there for a few minutes, collecting herself. She didn’t cry. She’d run out of tears years ago. She felt like shivering, screaming in frustration and rage, rushing after her uncle and smashing a candlestick into the back of his head.
She didn’t do that. She knew the penalties for that would be harsher than she could imagine.
Stella got shakily to her feet, stumbling back into the pantry. She knew what she had to do. She’d been thinking of it for some time. She was determined not to cry, and her eyes burned instead.
Stella placed her few paltry belongings onto her bed, tying up the corners of the blanket around them to make a knapsack of sorts. She pulled her diary out from under the mattress and slipped her spectacles back on her nose. She dug further under the mattress and pulled out a small pouch. In it was the necklace she’d saved years ago, that she’d never dared to wear, along with the few dollars she’d been able to save from her hours of paid drudgery.
Uncle Butch had got most of it, and he knew exactly how much she should bring home. However, on occasions, she’d been given a few extra cents here and there as a tip, or a bit of extra money, and she’d saved that for herself.
It was risk, of course. Uncle Butch would have been furious if he knew she was saving money from him. Deep down, Stella thought that she’d known that this day would come.
She listened for a few minutes, assuring herself that Uncle Butch really had gone to bed, and wasn’t lurking in some shadow or other. The world outside their horrible little house was terrifying for her, but there’d always been the hope that things would change. Maybe Uncle Butch would suddenly mellow, or perhaps someone would turn up to free her.
Stella knew now that nobody would save her. If she did nothing, she’d have to marry Uncle Butch’s disgusting friend. If she wanted to be saved, she’d have to save herself, and that meant leaving. There’d be no more money to save, so there’d be nothing to gain by waiting. Nobody would help her. If anything, the net would get tighter. She might not get another opportunity.
Stella tucked her knapsack under her arm, clutched her few precious dollars in her hand, and left her Uncle Butch’s house forever.
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Excellent start to this book. I look forward to reading it.
You sure got my attention right way and looking forward to reading the rest of the story.
Aww! This is amazing! Thank you so much for the message!
I can’t wait to read the rest of the story.
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