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Second Chances and Sunsets for their Lonely Hearts

In the embrace of their scars, two old hearts find a second chance at happiness because it’s never too late to fall in love.

With her father’s dreams fading and her own loneliness suffocating her, Lydia takes a leap of faith and seeks a capable stranger to help save her land. Little does she know that Peter, a man haunted by his own tragedies, is about to step into her life. Can her hearts find solace in his presence even if she feels she’s too old and plain to find love?

Haunted by the horrors of war and the untimely deaths of his loved ones, Peter emerges from the darkness of his past seeking redemption and purpose. Drawn to Lydia’s ad, he arrives at her ranch, ready to work hard and restore the land to its former glory. As he tirelessly toils alongside Lydia, a captivating and resilient woman, their connection grows stronger. Can Peter overcome his inner turmoil and open himself up to the possibility of love once again?

Lydia and Peter must confront together their fear of growing up and missing out on life. Even when delusions and secrets threaten to tear them apart, they must stand their ground. Will they have the strength to admit to themselves that love is never too late if you’re open to it?

Written by:

Western Historical Romance Author

Prologue

Columbus, Ohio

April 17, 1869

 

“Kerouac, Peter, please step forward.”

Peter shuffled to the counter, accompanied by a guard who towered over him and looked to weigh three hundred pounds of solid muscle. Heavy shackles weighed his hands down so they hung below his hips and stooped his shoulders. He thought the shackles an unnecessary precaution, considering that the officer at the counter sat behind massive iron bars that would probably survive a twelve-pounder shell. Besides, if Peter had any thoughts of violence, the presence of the giant standing next to him would likely preclude any chance of acting on those thoughts.

When he reached the counter, the officer set three objects in front of Peter. The first, a corroded bronze locket, was the only one of the three that Peter actually cared for. The silver dollar next to it was useful, but not very since it was the only one he had.

The third item was something Peter hoped to never see again.

“Thought you didn’t give those back,” he said to the officer.

His voice, gravelly from lack of use, sounded strange in his own ears. Behind him, one of the other prisoners slated for release–Big Bob–by the sound of his voice, scoffed. “Would you look at that? He can speak.”

Peter ignored him. Big Bob talked a lot, but that was all he did. In two years, Peter had heard Bob talk the ears off of everyone—whether they listened or not—about what a dangerous man he was, but Peter had never seen him do anything to prove it. And anyway, Peter didn’t much care if people respected him or not. Respect never saved anyone’s life. It never brought anyone back from the dead.

“The State of Ohio returns all belongings to the inmate upon release,” the officer said.

Peter stared at the item. “Well, I don’t want it.”

“What you do with it after you leave this prison is your concern,” the officer said. “But it’s your responsibility, and it’s leaving here with you.”

Peter was more than ready to be rid of the prison and its smell of death and decay. He’d had enough of death, but the object resting on the counter next to the locket and silver dollar was an agent of death, and as long as Peter had it, death would follow him wherever he went.

Peter sighed and nodded acknowledgement. The officer nodded to the giant standing next to Peter. With surprisingly gentle hands, the hulking man removed Peter’s shackles. Peter rubbed feeling back into his wrists as the officer stepped back, tossing the shackles into a pile to be put away later.

“Peter Kerouac, you are hereby discharged from Columbus State Prison,” the officer behind the counter said. “Please collect your belongings and go with God.”

If Peter were still able to laugh, he might have chuckled at that. He had a rather different view of God than the benevolent, loving being the ministers extolled. He reached forward and took the locket and the dollar, then turned to leave.

“Mr. Kerouac,” the officer said, betraying some annoyance. “You must take all of your property.”

Peter stared at the ivory-handled pistol, a Colt Army revolver. There were many like it, ivory handle notwithstanding. It was the standard-issue sidearm for the Union Army, and many operators decorated their handles with ivory after the war. Peter’s had been embellished by One-Eyed Jack Preacher, despite his name no more a servant of God than Peter himself.

He lifted the weapon. The cold steel chilled his hands, and as that chill spread through his body, a coppery taste came to his mouth. The remembered smell of rust and blood filled his nostrils, overwhelming the mustiness of the prison. He shoved the weapon in his pocket, eager to take his hands away from its chill.

Behind him, he heard Big Bob call, “Bye, Pete! Catch you on the other side!”

Peter ignored the catcall and the laugh that followed. He would wager his remaining dollar that Bob ended up back in custody before the end of the week, probably trying to rob a stagecoach, and definitely drunk.

He walked through the hallway to the gate of the prison. The officers at the gate opened it as he approached. He stepped outside into the air and was free.

He walked.

He didn’t have a destination, so he just walked toward the city. He was free, but that caused him more problems than solutions at the moment. He had no money, no home, no friends, and no family.

The war had done for his friends. He served all four years of the conflict and whether by poor luck or the whim of a God who was not so loving as people liked to believe, he found himself in the middle of the worst of the conflicts the war offered. Bull Run both times, Vicksburg, Sharpsville, Gettysburg—he had survived them all.

Jeremiah hadn’t. Sampson hadn’t. Carter hadn’t. Garth hadn’t. The new friends Peter shared smokes with while they waited for the latest knucklehead in charge of the Army to send them back to the maelstrom didn’t survive either. Only Peter.

He shuffled his way toward the rising sun toward the city ahead of him. Like all cities, it was loud and dirty and full of selfish, short-sighted people who lacked the ability and the inclination to see life past the limits of the world they’d created for themselves.

A wagon passed by as he walked, and he glanced at the occupants as they passed him. A family of five, the parents smiling as the kids excitedly related some tale of the sort that consumed children when they had the chance to tell it.

Peter was the youngest of three children. His sisters were both older than him, but didn’t hold that against him the way so many siblings did. They were like aunts to him, always there to comfort him when he cried, lift him when he was down and encourage him when he was unsure of himself, even after they married and moved out of the family home.

His parents were every bit as wonderful as his sisters. His mother was kind and gentle and beautiful and his father was strong and brave. He loved his family. The four of them were the most important people in his life.

Until Penelope.

A soft smile flickered briefly across his face as he thought of Penelope: her bright green eyes, her golden hair, her soft laughter, the warmth of her body when they danced the night before Peter left for the war.

“I’ll wait for you,” she promised him.

And she had. She had refused all other suitors, until a stray bullet flew into the hospital tent where she worked and took her life while she tended to his comrade’s injuries.When he returned home, his one comfort, his one reason for living, was that his family would be waiting for him with open arms, but that wasn’t to be either. Their letters, nearly constant when he left to go to war, dried up suddenly about four months before the war ended. He tried to tell himself there was no reason to be alarmed. They were probably busy. Perhaps one or both of his sisters were with child. That would require far more of his parents’ attention than a son who was soon to return home from a war with little real fighting remaining.

He told himself this right up until he arrived home to see Jacob McNally, the banker, putting a for sale sign on the door and learned that his parents had died of food poisoning. Four years of miraculous safety from the war, and spoiled meat had taken them from him before he even had a chance to say goodbye.

He went to his oldest sister Agatha’s place, and learned from a tearful neighbor that Agatha and Sarah Lee, his other sister, had died in a cholera outbreak the previous winter.

And just like that, everyone Peter had ever loved was gone.

He had considered himself lucky. His friends had died, but he had survived. Against all odds, he had survived a war that had killed a million Americans.

He wasn’t lucky. He knew that now. He had survived, but all joy in life had died with his family.

Church bells tolled ahead of him, marking the hour as noon. He looked up and realized he was in the city now, milling through crowds of people dressed in far nicer clothes than the faded canvas he wore and moving in and out of well-maintained shops. The facades here were wooden. In a mile or so, they would change to red brick.

He stared at the church bells and a flash of anger ran through him. He balled his hands into fists and thought—not for the first time—that if God did exist, He was a cruel, malicious being who punished people who didn’t deserve it.

His anger faded almost as soon as it came. He did deserve it. He had gone to prison because he deserved it.

He should have served ten years for riding with the O’Malley gang, but the judge pitied him and sentenced him to only two. Peter had never used the weapon that he now carried in his pocket, so he was sentenced as an accomplice, not a perpetrator.

He guessed he should be grateful for that, but it was hard to be grateful for anything when the life he was released to was no life at all.

He shivered in spite of the sun’s warmth and continued along his journey. The people he passed gave him a wide berth, perhaps because of the handgun visible in his pocket. It wasn’t exactly illegal for him to carry the weapon, but the general and often accurate belief was that people who carried a handgun with them everywhere they went were up to no good.

His stomach rumbled, and he realized that if he was going to survive at all, he needed work. His silver dollar would buy him a drink and a meal, but after that, he’d be on his own.

He looked around and saw a saloon a few hundred yards ahead of him. It lay just outside the city proper and so was a wood plank building like all of the others in this suburb. He decided to stop here. The crowd here might be rough, but he doubted he could afford a meal in one of the nicer bars in the city.

He walked inside and sat at the bar. As was typical of places like this, everyone stopped what they were doing to take the stranger’s measure. Evidently, despite the handgun in his pocket, they saw enough to decide Peter wasn’t a threat but he wasn’t a target either because they returned to work without paying him a second glance.

Peter ordered his drink and his meal. The serving girl offered him a pitying smile and returned with a steaming bowl of hearty beef stew and a glass with a generous pour of whiskey.

“Thank you,” he said softly. His voice still sounded strange in his ears. “I don’t suppose you folks are hiring.”

“Um, I don’t think so,” the girl answered. “I can ask Mr. Byron if you want, but he just let our last bartender go. That’s why I’m here behind the counter instead of out front making the guests feel comfortable.”

She blushed a little as she said that, and Peter imagined that pretty blush on those youthful cheeks underneath bright green eyes had made many a guest feel very comfortable indeed. Peter didn’t care one way or another what this woman did for money, and nothing she offered could comfort him. “That’s all right,” he said, “If you have a newspaper I can read, that will work for me.”

“I can do that!”

She trotted away and returned a moment later with a stack of papers. “Mr. Byron only reads the funny bits. The want ads are usually in the back. I do hope you find something Mr…”

It took Peter a moment to realize she was asking for his name. “Kerouac,” he said.

“Kerouac,” she repeated. “Well, good luck, Mr. Kerouac.”

He finished his drink and set the glass on the counter. He looked into the bottom of his glass and saw a tired, disheveled man who looked a decade older than his thirty-three years. His face was turned down in a frown and his eyes wore a haunted look that spoke of a lifetime of pain and loss. If there was any anger in that face, it would be very dangerous-looking indeed. But there was no anger remaining, only grief.

Not wanting to focus on his grief, Peter began to read through the ads.

There wasn’t much. Like the rest of the nation, Columbus was full of veterans desperate for work, and four years after the war ended, most of the available jobs were taken. Peter looked through newspaper after newspaper. He finished his meal and his drink and was just about to give up when he came across an ad for a ranch foreman in Montana Territory.

He nearly dismissed it, but just before he tossed the paper onto the pile with the others, he paused.

There was nothing for him here, nothing but memories of death and suffering. There was nothing for him in Montana either, but at least there, he would be far away from a life that had brought him nothing but pain.

Then again, he had no money. He would have to work his way west, and that could take weeks. By that time, the…what was it? He looked at the ad again. The Gutenberg Ranch might have found another foreman.

Well, being broke in Stevensville, Montana was the same as being broke in Columbus, Ohio. It wasn’t as though he had any plans. He only needed enough to get from one day to the next. If the foreman position was taken, maybe they would hire him as a ranch hand.

As long as he could fill his days with work, he could avoid using his revolver one last time. It was the most he could expect, but it was just a shade better than nothing.

He called for the serving girl and asked for a pen and paper. He wrote a response to the ad, and with the permission of the serving girl took the paper with him when he left.

He headed toward the post office. If memory served him, and assuming the city hadn’t changed greatly in the two years he was imprisoned, it should be a mile or two into the city proper. He would mail his letter, then see if he could find work while he waited for an answer. Worst case scenario…

Well, the worst case had already happened. This might not make life any better, but it couldn’t make it any worse.

Chapter One

Stevensville, Montana

May 19, 1869

 

Lydia sighed and rubbed her temples. The numbers were…well, they were what she expected them to be. Not good, in other words.

She and her mother sat in the modestly furnished parlor of their modest home in their modest ranch, which wasn’t so much a ranch as a homestead on which her father had decided to raise cattle instead of grain. They were supposedly looking through the ranch’s finances together, but as usual, it was Lydia who looked through the numbers while her mother offered platitudes meant to encourage her. Lydia found them far more annoying than encouraging.

Realizing that her endless stream of “things will look up,” and “it’s not so bad,” and “we’ll be all right,” weren’t having the effect she hoped, her mother said “I’ll make some tea, dear.”

Mary Gutenberg was a strong, stout woman of fifty-two. Age had lined her face and grayed her hair, but had not yet robbed her of her energy, and she got up from her chair without a hint of discomfort.

Lydia forced a smile as she thanked her mother. She managed to keep it until Mary turned the corner into the kitchen. Then she sighed and looked back at the ledger.

The numbers were still bad.

It had seemed like such a good idea. Everyone was doing it. Everyone who wasn’t involved in the fighting, at least. The Union government, fearing the Confederate States would settle the Western territories and steal their resources away from the Union, offered struggling families the chance of a lifetime. One hundred sixty acres of farmland in any of the western territories. All they had to do was stake a claim and make profitable use of the land within five years.

Her parents, of course, had leapt at the chance. Nevermind that Lydia was months away from marrying. Nevermind that at twenty-five, Lydia was unlikely to have a chance with anyone else, especially moving away from Baltimore to Montana Territory. Nevermind that she could actually have loved him. Nevermind…

She sighed and shook her head to clear her thoughts. It didn’t matter. They were here now, and Lydia had chosen to come with them. She could have stayed, and she didn’t. That was her fault, and she couldn’t blame her parents for that choice.

And she didn’t hate the ranch itself. She actually rather liked it. Quaint and small and modest as it was, she liked it. There was something beautiful about getting to spend her mornings smelling the crisp clean air as she tended to the garden and her evenings gazing up at the stars—far more numerous and colorful than they were over Baltimore.

If only her father had even the slightest skill at ranching.

“Would you like sugar, dear?” Mary called from the kitchen.

“No thank you, mother,” Lydia called back.

“Suit yourself,” Mary replied.

Lydia listened to the sound of her mother busying herself in the kitchen. Her father was at the stable, probably learning nothing in spite of Eugene Flister’s well-meaning attempts to show him the proper way to re-shoe a horse.

Lydia’s lips thinned and her shoulders tensed. Greg Gutenberg was a loving husband and a wonderful father, but he was a terrible rancher. What had possessed him to leave his job as a clerk and travel thousands of miles from the city where Lydia had grown up so he could play at being a rancher, Lydia would never understand.

It didn’t help that he was hopeless at it. The government had given them five years to make something of this ranch. That five years would be up in six months, and with nothing to show for it but mounting debt from which they would soon have no protection, it seemed likely that they wouldn’t get any more years.

Mary returned with the tea and handed a cup to Lydia. Lydia forced a smile back onto her face, but thirty years of practice hadn’t yet given her the skill to fool her mother. Mary smiled sympathetically and said, “Don’t worry, dear. It will all work out.”

Lydia sighed. “I don’t see how,” she said, gesturing to the open ledger. “We’re already over a thousand dollars behind. When the homestead protection ends, Mr. Smith will almost certainly seize the ranch and everything on it. Unless…”

She caught herself just before saying what she meant to say, and instead finished with, “Unless some miracle happens.”

“Well, we don’t know that for sure,” Mary said. “John has proven willing to work with us so far.”

She wasn’t entirely sure her mother knew why John was willing to work with them. Lydia was, and it sent a shiver of revulsion over her. “He hasn’t had a choice, Mother. If he tried to collect from us now, we could prosecute him for breaking the law under the Homestead Act. In six months, he can do whatever he wants. The ranch will technically be his property by then.”

“You’re thinking quite a few steps ahead, dear,” Mary said in an infuriatingly calm voice.

“Well, someone has to!” Lydia cried out. “You’re too busy insisting that everything will somehow miraculously work out for us, and father—”

The door opened just as she said that, and Mary shot Lydia a sharp warning glance. Lydia stifled her words just as her father walked inside with Eugene Lister.

“I just don’t understand how prices can rise so fast,” Greg complained, arms gesticulating wildly as usual. “Land’s sakes, it’s like they expect us all to strike gold.”

“It’s a shame,” Eugene said in his thick Texas drawl. “A real shame.”

“It’s more than a shame,” Greg ranted, taking off his boots and hat. “It’s criminal!”

“Hello, dear,” Mary said, loudly enough for her voice to carry over her husband’s complaints.

Greg’s eyes snapped to Mary and Lydia. He reddened in embarrassment and said, “Sorry you had to hear that. It’s nothing to worry about. I’m just grousing is all.”

Lydia wondered why her father bothered to dissemble when she and her mother were responsible for the books. It’s not like they didn’t already know that finances definitely were something to worry about.

“How did the shoeing go?” Mary asked.

“Oh, fine, fine,” Greg said. “Took a little work, but Eugene says that with a little practice, I’ll have it down in no time.”

Eugene smiled and nodded, but Lydia could see in his expression that he didn’t share Greg’s confidence.

Lydia sighed and stood. She needed to do something with her hands or she would go crazy. “Would you two like some tea?” she asked.

“Oh, dear, I can—” Mary began.

Before she could stand, Lydia said, “No, no, it’s all right, Mother. I insist.”

She walked to the kitchen. As soon as she was out of sight of the parlor, she pressed her hands to her temples and took several deep breaths to calm herself. When the urge to scream had passed, she began to make the tea.

She didn’t hate her father for not being a rancher. She knew that he was only trying to do what he thought was best, but…well, it wasn’t best! They were never wealthy back home, and they would never have been wealthy, but they had a roof over their heads and food on the table. Sure, there was fighting, but by the time they left, the fighting was far from Baltimore and the war was drawing to a close. The danger they faced on the road was worse than the danger they faced remaining at home.

She supposed it would have paid off if they had been successful, but they weren’t. That’s why they needed a foreman. They needed someone who actually knew how to run a ranch, not three well-meaning people who hadn’t the faintest idea what they were doing. Lydia had sent an advertisement for a foreman, but she had received no response so far. If only they had advertised three years ago. There were thousands of former soldiers desperate for work then and willing to travel to find it. Now, there were very few people willing to uproot themselves to come work for a ranch in Montana.

Actually, no one at all was willing to uproot themselves. Lydia had placed the ad three months ago and not received a single response.

She brought the tea to the parlor and plastered on the fake smile she would wear while her father talked to Eugene about all of the big plans he had for the ranch and Eugene listened with a pitying expression and her mother pretended there was nothing wrong at all. She handed cups to the other three and prepared to sit when she heard a knock on the door.

She opened it and saw a smartly dressed young man in the uniform of a courier. “Letter for Miss Lydia Gutenberg,” he said crisply.

He handed her the letter, pivoted sharply, and marched to his waiting horse. Lydia stared at the envelope, not daring to hope that it was what she thought it was.

She brought it inside, and when her parents saw what she was holding, their eyes widened with excitement.

“What is it, dear?” her mother asked.

“Is it a response to your ad?” her father added.

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