She wants nothing more than to be respected. He wants someone who will listen to his family’s needs. How can they nurture their passion when fear of the unknown keeps their hearts locked?
Phoebe has been living in misery ever since her father’s death. Her stepmother treats her like a lowly servant, and her two step-sisters are cruel and heartless. After her best friend’s suggestion, she goes to the local dance only to be humiliated by her step-family, who tears off her dress. How can the mysterious rancher who saves her rekindle her faith in love?
Jonah has been one of the most successful and wealthy bachelors in Reno, Nevada. Little do people know of the pain and anguish of losing your family and wife so tragically as Jonah did. Equipped with nothing but his will to help the humiliated Phoebe, he offers her a job position at his place. He thinks she could be able to bond with his daughter when he has failed. How can he let his guard down and welcome Phoebe as the woman who will heal his own wounds as well?
To love is to make compromises. Yet, creating a family means taking responsibility and owning up to your mistakes. Can Phoebe and Jonah learn from their past and embrace their newfound love before their fear keeps them apart forever?
The wooden floorboards of the washroom creaked as Phoebe shifted her weight and pulled the bedsheet from the water. She wrung the sheet tightly to get as much liquid out as possible. Her knuckles popped white against her red hands, her fingers pruney from having scrubbed bedsheets in boiling lye soap-infused water all morning.
She dropped the sheet into the bucket and rolled her shoulders, releasing some of the tension from having sat hunched over for hours. The ache in her back burned hot, but to Phoebe’s relief, it eased when she stood.
“Taking the last of the washing out,” she called into the kitchen from where the delicious scent of beef stew mingled with that of freshly baked bread. Phoebe’s stomach rumbled and her mouth watered. It was well past noon, and she’d been up since five in the morning without so much as a bite.
Her stepmother, Gabriella, believed eating a hearty meal in the morning slowed one down for the rest of the day and, therefore, did not let Phoebe take a meal until later in the day. This belief didn’t stop Gabriella and her daughters, Phoebe’s stepsisters Sheila and Marlene, from indulging in a hearty meal of pancakes and eggs each morning, however.
Phoebe’s nostrils flared as she lifted the woven basket. She knew it was not right to begrudge her stepsisters their good fortune. She knew it wasn’t fair that she had to work as a maid while they got to live like young ladies, but it had always been this way; crying about it or getting angry would not change it. That didn’t mean she didn’t stare at the ceiling at night, dreaming of how different her life would have been if her parents had lived.
Sometimes, she spent hours envisioning the young woman she might be today if her mother had been there to teach her, to raise her. She’d never met her mother, but she was still a vivid figure in her heart and mind because of the stories her father told her.
She could picture her: a tall woman whose beauty eclipsed those around her, whose kind heart inspired others. Her mother, Eliza, had been special; that she knew with certainty. A heaviness crept into her heart then because she knew she’d never meet the woman who’d given her life for Phoebe’s.
Is it odd to long for a person one never knew? Is it foolish?
“Hurry, the stew is almost ready,” Leila’s warm, soothing voice sounded from the kitchen. Phoebe smiled. Leila was a lovely woman who’d known as much tragedy as Phoebe – if not more. While Phoebe had lost her beloved parents at a young age, Leila had lost her daughter and husband. It was a deep-seated pain that had bonded them together almost from the start.
There were not many people out in the world who could understand the intensity of such loss, and Phoebe knew she was fortunate to have an understanding soul living under the same roof. Leila had become the mother figure Phoebe longed for, but the hole in her heart left by her mother’s death would never be filled.
“Will do. My stomach’s a-rumblin,” she called back as she pushed the brass handle down and kicked the door with her right boot. When she stepped into the backyard, a stiff breeze hit her and a lock of curly black hair flew into her face. Phoebe blew it out of her face as she sat the basket down next to the wash line. The line stretched from the chicken coop at the south side of their estate all the way to the vegetable patch, and the white sheets fluttered in the wind in a most satisfying manner.
Phoebe knew it was foolish, but she always felt proud upon seeing a chore completed. It didn’t matter if it was rinsing the floor, cleaning out the fireplaces, or doing the washing – when she was done, a sense of satisfaction always filled her.
“Phoebe?” The voice came from the porch and a cold shudder raced down Phoebe’s back when she recognized the voice as that of her stepmother. She stood stock-still, the sheet in hand as she sucked in a gulp of air. As she stood, her blue skirt soaked in the dampness from the sheet. Gabriella had never cared for her, from the moment she’d married Phoebe’s father some fifteen years ago. Phoebe had been all of six back then, but she’d known from the start that Gabriella had no interest in taking on a motherly role in Phoebe’s life.
It wasn’t that Gabriella wasn’t maternal. She doted on her own daughters in so genuine a fashion Phoebe had often wondered just why her stepmother could not show her at least a fraction of that affection. For years, Phoebe longed for her stepmother to treat her the same, to shower her with kisses and kind words, gifts and tokens of appreciation. Instead, she received reprimands and rebukes. On the rare occasion she did get a gift, such as a dress or a pair of shoes, they were always hand-me-downs. No, Phoebe knew that, in Gabriella’s eyes, she was less than and always would be. Without her loving father to protect her, Phoebe had lost her worth, both in the eyes of her stepfamily, and of herself.
“Phoebe?” the voice came again, this time from right behind her. Phoebe turned. The second her eyes met her stepmother’s, her heart sank, for in her stepmother’s hands was a dress Phoebe had washed the previous day. It blew in the gentle breeze like a flag. Her face, square and stern, was contoured into a mask of displeasure. Her thin lips were puckered and she blinked her lashes at Phoebe as she lifted the dress.
“Yes, Gabriella?” Phoebe said, her shoulders pulled back and her head held high.
“You call this clean?” Gabriella stepped forward and thrust the red and white checkered dress toward Phoebe. She examined it closely but saw nothing wrong with the dress.
“I don’t understand,” she said and made sure to meet Gabriella’s eyes. Her stepmother had brilliant blue eyes that reminded Phoebe of a clear blue sky. However, right now, they held a silent anger that made them more like a roaring sea than a calm sky.
“Of course you wouldn’t,” she said and clicked her tongue. “You’ll have to wash it again.”
Phoebe gulped and pressed her lips together. They were vibrating violently with anger. There was nothing wrong with the dress; she knew this because she always took good care to make sure her stepmother’s dresses were perfect. There was little Gabriella enjoyed more than to chide her, and so Phoebe always tried to give her as little reason to do so as possible.
“I will wash it again after lunch,” Phoebe said but Gabriella raised her right hand and shook her index finger at her.
“No, no, no, young lady. You will do it now. I need this dress to be cleaned, dried, and pressed by tomorrow. Sheila and I are going to our embroidery circle and I will not be seen in a stained dress. I have no patience for your laziness, Phoebe. If you had done it right, you would not have to do it over again. What do I always say?”
She tapped her right foot on the sandy ground, creating a crunching sound. Before Phoebe had a chance to reply, a high-pitched voice came around the corner.
“Do it right the first time, or suffer the consequences,” Sheila said with a giggle. Phoebe’s fingertips twitched as her stepsister, younger than her by two years, came around the corner. She wore a paisley-patterned dress that swayed with each step. Her chestnut-colored hair was up in a bun and her eyes sparkled as she looked at Phoebe. It always struck Phoebe whenever she saw Sheila and Gabriella standing next to one another that they looked almost like twins. They carried themselves in the same way, as though they were slightly elevated from those around them.
“Thank you, Sheila,” Gabriella said, then diverted her attention to Phoebe once more. “Now, do as you are told. You can eat when the work is done.” Her stepmother’s voice always had a clipped edge to it when she spoke to Phoebe. Then, Gabriella wrapped her arm around Sheila. “Now, we had better inspect your dress as well. Wouldn’t want yours to have any stains, after all.”
Gabriella guided Sheila up the steps. At the corner where the porch wrapped around the beautiful wooden house, her stepmother stopped. She glanced over her shoulder, looked Phoebe up and down, and rolled her eyes before walking on.
Phoebe looked at the beautiful, pristine dress in her hand. There was not a stain, not a wrinkle on it and washing it again would only serve to wear down the fabric. A part of her considered just leaving it and placing it back in Gabriella’s wardrobe the next day – she’d never know the difference.
Yet, another part knew that if her stepmother came out to look for the wet dress on the line – as she had done in the past – Phoebe would severely regret it. No, the best thing she could do to keep the peace was wash it. It was easier that way; better to satisfy Gabriella’s desires than to argue with her.
She was at the woman’s mercy, after all. As her father’s sole heir, Gabriella owned everything. The house, the animals, the ranch adjacent to the house – everything. It hurt Phoebe’s soul to read her father’s will and see he’d left her nothing – but then again, he’d adored his wife and trusted her judgment. If she wanted to, she could chase Phoebe off the property and leave her in the poorhouse. In a twisted way, Phoebe knew she had to be grateful for what little she had – because she knew if she upset Gabriella, she could be left with nothing.
Nothing at all.
Phoebe stretched and affixed the wooden clips to her stepmother’s dress, stepping back. The red and white dress fluttered in the wind. Dark clouds had moved in over the horizon, and when Phoebe looked out over the bare prairie that extended beyond her family’s home, she saw flashes of lightning. The azaleas planted along the edge of the humble but comfortable house flew in the wind, their heads tilting as if they would rip off at any moment.
Her heart sank. If it rained, all her hard work would be for nothing. She dropped her shoulders when a horse neighed nearby, drawing her attention. She glanced up and spotted her younger stepsister, Marlene, riding down the wide road that led to Reno. She sat astride the horse, her green skirt pushed up so far her bare knees were exposed, and her long, dark-brown hair flying behind her in the wind.
At seventeen, Marlene was too old to have her hair down, a style reserved for younger girls. She was a tomboy and preferred the company of boys, engaging in activities like fishing, hunting, and hiking – things she kept from her mother. While Gabriella had a habit of coddling and spoiling her natural-born daughters, she would not stand for such a display. Fortunately for Marlene, Gabriella had retreated inside with Sheila and thus did not see her wild daughter flying across the land as though she were a cowboy rounding up cattle.
If Phoebe had been closer to Marlene she might have warned her that her mother would not stand for this, but Marlene – like Sheila – liked to torment Phoebe and rub her face in the fact that she was less than them. Less worth of love. Less worth of a good, hearty meal. Less worth of clothing that wasn’t dirty or falling apart at the seams. Phoebe spun, ready to get inside to eat a meal, when a sudden rush of lightheadedness caused her to stumble forward.
“Oh,” she exclaimed and staggered toward the majestic apple tree that grew just a few steps away. She pressed her bare hand against the trunk, feeling the bark dig into the palm of her hand when the front door flew open.
“Phoebe,” Leila called, alarm evident in her voice. The woman’s rapid footsteps creaked across the porch and down the front steps. Before Phoebe’s eyes, the world turned and flickered in and out of view Leila’s warm hand appeared on her back, and Phoebe smiled, not wanting to worry her friend.
“Just a fainting spell, that’s all,” she said and stood upright. Leila narrowed her eyes.
“No wonder. You’ve not eaten all day. Your mother should be ashamed of herself.” Her voice was full of righteous anger as she shook her head. Even with a disapproving frown on her forehead, she was a striking woman with a kind, heart-shaped face. Her eyes were of a sapphire blue that was as clear as a mountain lake – a trait received from her Irish mother. Her eyes stood in stark contrast to her lovely, dark complexion, inherited from her father – a freed slave from Georgia.
Phoebe remembered the first time she’d met Leila. She’d been eight. Her father had married Gabriella the previous year, and as their small home expanded, they’d needed more help. Leila, then all of nineteen, had been a broken woman after losing her husband – a union soldier – during the war. Soon after, her little girl passed away from scarlet fever, leaving Leila alone in the world.
Phoebe’s father had hired her on – an act that would turn out to be his final gift to Phoebe. Less than a year later, he passed away suddenly from a heart attack and she, like Leila, had been alone. Yes, she’d had a stepmother and stepsisters, but she’d never been part of their family. The only true comfort and kindness she’d received since then had come from Leila.
Phoebe understood that Leila hadn’t taken to her just because she was a childless mother, but also because she’d seen that Phoebe was an outcast within her own family – much like Leila was an outcast among their society. After all, there were not many in their small town of Reno who came from a mixed background. Their society was predominantly white, people whose families had come across the ocean from England, Ireland, or the continent.
Phoebe saw the way the townsfolk looked at Leila when they shopped, how they whispered, and at times even refused to serve her. Phoebe always felt a burning wrath inside her during those circumstances and more than once she’d found herself in a verbal sparring match with those who thought themselves better than Leila.
Phoebe took a deep breath and stood upright. “Don’t worry about me, Leila. I’ll be alright,” she said and linked their arms. “I’m used to her acting this way. She doesn’t care about me. Never has.”
“It’s not right,” Leila said as the two stepped out of the apple tree’s shade, thunder booming now. “See? The heavens agree.” Leila said and pointed her index finger at the sky.
Phoebe chuckled. “I would love to believe that, but I’m afraid all I’m hearing is an impending storm.” She nodded her chin toward the clothesline as they climbed the steps. “I’ll have to re-do all of this before long.”
Leila pushed the door handle down and stepped inside. “It might pass. If it starts to sprinkle, I’ll help you get everything in and then I’ll help you hang it up later.”
Phoebe followed her inside and let the door fall shut behind her. “You have your own chores, Leila,” she said through her heart filled with warmth at her friend’s suggestion. Leila’s eyebrows rose and she waved her hand around the room.
“Please, don’t tell me you cannot see that I’m already finished.”
Phoebe took in her surroundings and smiled. Leila was right. The main room was immaculate. The white curtains, held together by red ribbons, framed spotless windows. The bookshelves, which had been in disarray that morning after Marlene had all but upended them the previous evening in search of a book, were as neat as a pin, with the books lined up by size as though they were soldiers standing at attention.
The red couch stood in front of the fireplace in which yellow flames danced around the embers, filling the space with a satisfying crackling sound. Sitting on either side of the couch were two armchairs, blankets folded over the backs of them and the pillows fluffed. The floor, made of pinewood, sparkled.
“I see it. I just didn’t expect you to be so quick about it,” Phoebe replied.
“There’s no use hanging fire, my pa always said,” Leila said. “The quicker you’re done with a chore, the quicker you can do things that bring you joy.” She leaned forward and dropped her voice in an almost conspiratorial manner. “Such as eating a good meal.” She nodded toward the kitchen just off the main room, connected by an arched doorway. Gabriella had recently installed a door, separating the rooms. She’d claimed it was because the smell of cooking bothered her but Phoebe thought that she simply did not like to watch other people work.
Gabriella was the sort of woman who liked to have things done for her without having to acknowledge the work that went into it. For example, she preferred to be served her meals by a maid without thinking about the hours of preparation that went into chopping vegetables, mixing dough for pies, or boiling potatoes. She was not ungrateful and usually treated most maids with polite aloofness, but she preferred not to interact with the people she paid to keep her comfortable.
“Phoebe? Let’s get something to eat before you faint,” Leila called. Her bright, yellow dress floated out of sight as Phoebe followed her. Phoebe’s legs wobbled beneath her like freshly canned jam and she had to focus not to stumble. Every step required concentration; every movement was measured to preserve what little energy she had left. However, when she stepped into the kitchen, her jaw dropped.
The old cast iron stove stood against the wall utterly empty. The pot where stew should have been bubbling was turned upside down on a drying rack underneath the sink and the metal tin that had been used to make the cornbread that morning was in the sink, soaking. Water dripped from the faucet where a hand pump had so recently brought water into the sink, creating a plopping that filled the silence that had fallen in the kitchen. Phoebe swallowed hard.
“Everything’s gone?” she asked, in disbelief, though this was not the first time the others had eaten everything in sight, leaving nothing for her. Some nights she ate nothing but dry bread and hard ends of cheese. She’d carried her lot with as much grace and patience as she could, but she couldn’t help but be enraged and hurt by the blatant disregard her family showed her. She felt the flame of anger ignite in her stomach and try as she might, she could not control it.
“I can’t believe it,” she exclaimed, her hands curled into fists. She stomped one foot on the wooden floor, eliciting a thud. “Why do they treat me like this? I should not be forced to be a maid in my father’s home. I should have a seat at the table.”
Angry tears filled her eyes, and she bit her bottom lip to keep from screaming. Phoebe wasn’t sure where this outburst had come from, but somehow knowing that even the lowliest of maids, the one hired to clean out bedpans and tend to the outhouse, had a full belly while she – the daughter of the man who’d built this home – would once again be reduced to eating scraps had pushed her over the edge.
“Phoebe,” Leila said with concern in her tone. “What’s wrong?”
Phoebe’s lips trembled and her hands shook. She’d learned long ago to keep her feelings to herself, to accept her fate. Most days, she succeeded. But then there were days, like today, when it all became too much. Days when the life she lived stood in such stark contrast to the life she’d dreamed of that she could not manage her feelings. It was on those days the despair and suppressed anger broke free.
“You know what’s wrong. My father would turn in his grave if he knew how she treats me. Look at my hands,” she shouted and held them up. They were still pruney and red, and on the outside, there were several scrapes from where she’d brushed her knuckles against the washboard.
“Oh, let me clean those cuts out with some whiskey. I have some cobwebs I saved for just such occasions and …”
Phoebe waved her hand. “Don’t bother. It’s nothing. It doesn’t even hurt; it’s just …” She pressed her lips together. “It does hurt. Here.” She tabbed at her chest and Leila rushed over, pulling her into a hug. Leila’s sweet, apple-fresh scent drifted into Phoebe’s nose as she did. Somehow, feeling her friend’s arms around her soothed her, and when Leila let go, Phoebe dabbed her eyes and took a breath.
“I beg your pardon. I didn’t mean to have such an outburst. I’m just so hungry and upset. I don’t know what to do with myself.”
She plopped into a chair, elbows on the table. Then, she dropped her head into her hands, utterly disheartened. She heard Leila walk away and raised her head, wondering if her outburst had scared away her friend. However, to her relief, she saw Leila near the pantry and when she returned, she did so with a smile on her lips – and a large plate in one hand and a bowl in the other.
“It’s only lukewarm,” she said apologetically as she slipped the bowl and plate in front of Phoebe, whose mouth watered at the sight of the meaty beef stew before her. On the plate were two thick slices of cornbread, each with a partially melted dollop of butter.
“Leila, you’re so sweet,” she managed to utter, overcome with love for her friend.
“I should have probably told you about the food before you got angry, but in a way I’m glad you let it out. These feelings are gonna eat you up if you don’t let them out. Anyhow, I know what your stepmother is like, and when I saw her making you wash her dress all over again I knew these savages would not leave you any food – so I snatched some ahead of time and hid it behind a sack of flour in the pantry.” She winked her blue eyes at Phoebe, who felt like crying again – this time out of gratitude.
“Now, now, no tears. Eat up before your mother or sisters come back,” she instructed and leaned back in her seat, her hands folded in her lap. Phoebe quickly pushed a handkerchief into the front of her white blouse to keep from spilling and then took a bite. The sharp, acidic flavor of the tomatoes and the tenderness of the beef created a symphony in her mouth, and for a little while, all her worries lifted.
However, when thunder rumbled, she felt the familiar darkness lowering on her heart once more. She was about to push what remained of her food aside when Leila jumped up.
“Finish your meal, dear. I’ll get the laundry. You need a little break,” she said with a smile.
“I’d like one; any distraction from this would be lovely, but I fear I won’t have one. Gabriella won’t let me have even a day to myself.” Phoebe let out a sigh but Leila once more shook her head.
“I think you deserve a little time to yourself. In fact, I think you need it. And I know the perfect day and time to get it.” She winked at her and beamed. “The town fair in two days’ time.”
“The fair?” Phoebe asked with a frown. “Gabriella will never let me go. Besides, I have nothing to wear.” She ran her hand over her dress, already threadbare from years of having been worn time and again. All her clothes were like this, and many had been mended so many times they were almost falling apart.
“Yes, you do. I saw a lovely dress in town a few days ago and bought it for you. I meant to keep it as a birthday present, but I think now’s the right time for you to wear it. I’ll bring it by later and you can try it.”
Phoebe swallowed hard. Leila’s kindness was almost too much. She wanted to decline the offer, to tell Leila that Gabriella would be incensed if she caught Phoebe at the fair; however, as she looked into her friend’s sparkling eyes, Phoebe realized that a day away at the fair might be just what she needed. And perhaps, it was about time to put aside her stepmother’s wants and needs and put her own first. With a smile, she leaped out of her seat and hugged Leila to her, and then tears fell from her eyes once more – but this time, they were tears of happiness.
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I enjoyed the beginning of this story and look forward to reading the rest.