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Falling for His Unexpected Bride

He is the town prince, the wealthy rancher who’s left a trail of shattered hearts.

I’m an outcast, standing before him, daring to ask for his hand in marriage.

But retreat isn’t an option… this path is my family’s only chance!

After her sister’s elopement days before the wedding, Martha must step in and offer herself in marriage to save their family’s ranch, sacrificing her own happiness… But as his eyes meet hers, she can’t help but wonder—will this gruff rancher find her enough?

For Thomas, marriage meant little beyond securing an heir. He chose Martha’s sister for her beauty. But when Martha takes her place, he’s struck by something new, something he’d overlooked before. How had he missed it?

In Oregon’s wild landscapes, just as they begin to open their hearts again, an unexpected adversary emerges. Convinced Martha wed the wrong man, he’ll stop at nothing to tear them apart…

In Oregon’s rugged land so wide,

Where mountains stand with grace and pride,

Amidst the wild, where hearts collide,

Love’s tale unfolds, a daring ride.

Written by:

Western Historical Romance Author

4.5/5

4.5/5 (203 ratings)

Prologue

Astoria, Oregon

May 1885

Martha Newman gathered a handful of her skirt in her fist, lifting the hem just enough to sweep the toe of her boots as she stepped up onto the wooden boardwalk leading to Dunn’s Saloon. The salty wind billowing down the street from the docks smelled of ocean, fish, and tar, and Martha took a quick, deep breath of it before pushing open the swinging doors of the saloon and stepping inside. Her eyes did a quick sweep of the room, and she frowned slightly.

Where is he?

As she did a second sweep of the room, her eyes landed on Nelson Dunn, the young saloon owner, who was filling glasses behind the bar. He was already watching her with one sharp, blue eye. A black patch concealed the twisted mass of scars where his other eye had once been.

Martha had heard people say that Nelson looked like a pirate with his patch, his dark red hair that he kept tied back in a queue, and the mesh of scars that crisscrossed his face, neck, and arms. Martha had never asked how he got the scars, but their pattern was familiar. She knew the fingerprint of fire. Personally, she had always found Nelson to be kind and gentlemanly, without an ounce of buccaneerism in him.

Why do people always judge others by their scars? she wondered morosely.

She felt her own scars pucker and stretch as she grimaced, and she quickly let her face fall blank once more.

Martha crossed the saloon, weaving between tables and deftly avoiding the drunken hails of a few unruly patrons. Her dark skirt swished across the floor, and she held her head high as she headed for the bar. Nelson straightened as she approached, a regretful smile touching the corner of his eye.

“He’s still here, right?” Martha asked. “I saw his horse outside.”

Nelson nodded, jerking his head toward the far end of the bar. Turning, Martha finally saw her father, stooped over a half-full glass, his face lost in shadow.

“He’s been here all afternoon,” Nelson said. “I figured you’d be in to fetch him soon.”

Looking down the bar at her father, Martha suddenly felt overcome with weariness. For six years now, she or Genevieve had been marching in here to fetch Larry back to the ranch almost daily. What had once been a frightening and humiliating task had become routine, but that didn’t make it any less disheartening.

It also didn’t make her feel any better to contemplate that with her older sister getting married in a week’s time, this task was going to be solely Martha’s from now on.

“Hey—” Nelson spoke at her elbow, and she turned back to him, startled from her dark thoughts. “He’s had a good many refills tonight,” the barkeep said reticently. “Will you need help getting him out to the wagon?”

Martha sighed. “No, thank you. He walked in here; he can walk out.” She turned toward her father once again and went to stand behind him. “Pa?”

She put a hand on his shoulder. Instead of turning around, he slowly raised his head and looked straight in front of him. Involuntarily, Martha followed his gaze to the large mirror on the wall behind the bar. Her father raised a shaking finger and pointed at their reflection.

“Look at that wretch,” he slurred hoarsely. “Your mother would be ashamed.”

Martha’s heart lurched at his words, even as she realized he was talking about himself. Her eyes were glued to their reflection—her father in wrinkled clothes, leaning hard on the bar to keep from falling, and herself standing like a phantom at his shoulder. Her face was a pale oval above the high collar of her dark blue dress, except for the dark scar that spilled down her right cheek and jawline until it disappeared into the dress. In the flickering lamps of the saloon, it appeared like just another shadow, one that never faded. Whisps of her strawberry-blonde hair had pulled free from her bun on the ride over here, the humid air causing them to curl friskily about her temples. She tucked them back quickly, tugging her father’s arm.

“Come on, Pa,” she said. “Come home to dinner.”

“I always tried to be the man—she wanted me to be…” her father rambled on as she looped his arm around her shoulders, and they began their slow stumble toward the door. “Every day, I think…if only she was here…. If only I could have saved her….”

His voice broke, and he began sobbing quietly. Martha continued to pull him resolutely toward the door, even as tears sprang hotly into her own eyes. It surprised her sometimes how missing her mother could still be such a physical pain, like a hard pinch to her heart.

“Pa, let’s just go home, all right?” she murmured quietly. “Genevieve should have supper all ready by now. We’ll put you in your chair by the fireplace and get you a plate of food and a big glass of water, and you’ll feel better.”

Her father shook his head, mumbling incoherently, but he still managed to put one foot in front of the other as they pushed through the saloon doors and stepped out onto the boardwalk. Martha had brought the wagon, knowing her father would be too drunk to ride his mount back home. She helped him up onto the seat and then glanced around for the horse he had ridden into town. The bay gelding whickered to her from further down the hitching rail, causing her to smile slightly.

“Thank you for being so helpful,” she murmured as she led him around and tied him to the back of the wagon.

Martha’s father slumped beside her on the wagon seat as she drove them back to the ranch. With the overcast skies, twilight was settling in early, and Martha urged the horses to pick up their pace, not wanting to keep Genevieve and whatever she had made for dinner waiting too long.

As they drove through the gates and approached the ranch house, Martha frowned, a touch of unease chilling her. A few chickens scattered clucking before them, and the distant low of a cow drifted from the far pasture as Martha looked around, trying to decide what felt so off. It’s too quiet.

Beside her, her father roused himself to glance at the small house and ranch buildings, an expression of confusion crossing his face. “What’s happened here?” he grumbled. “Roof needs mending. Who’s takin’ care—of chores?”

Martha sighed. “A lot more than the roof needs mending,” she murmured. “And I thought Troy was going to see to the chores this evening.”

It seemed ironic that only in a drunken state did her father notice that the Newman ranch had been falling into disrepair for six years now—ever since Martha’s and Gen’s mother had passed and Larry had stopped caring. Their hired crew was skeletal, consisting of only the foreman, Troy Walters, and all but a few of the cattle had been sold off just to keep the rest fed. Additionally, Larry had taken out loans from pretty much anyone who would give him one. None of them had gone into repairs.

“Papa, how long has it been since you paid Troy’s wages?” Martha asked as she looked around the strangely still ranch yard. She had a sudden, fleeting thought that maybe he had finally deserted, looking for more lucrative employment elsewhere.

She tried to ignore the rising panic that made her feel. It seemed she was always living on the edge of panic nowadays, with creditors looming over them and barely enough money to keep food on the table.

“Doesn’t matter.” Her father waved his hand dismissively. “Gen’s wedding and all,” he added vaguely.

Martha felt another swell of uneasiness as she hopped out of the wagon and hurried around to help her swaying father down. Genevieve’s marriage to Thomas Elliot was the one hope they were all clinging to at this point. Not only was Thomas the wealthiest rancher for miles around Astoria, he was also the man to whom Larry owed the most money. He had promised to forgive the debt once he and Genevieve were married, and Martha harbored a fragile dream that he would also lend them further support in getting their small ranch back on its feet.

“Papa, does it ever feel to you like we’re basically just—trading Genevieve for money?” Martha asked tentatively as her father stumbled to solid ground.

“Whaddya mean?” he asked querulously. “Gen will be well-off. She always wanted that.”

Martha nodded and sighed. That was true. And at this point, what was left for them to do? If something didn’t change, they would lose the ranch entirely; that much was certain.

Larry leaned heavily on Martha’s shoulder as she helped him into the house and down the hallway toward the kitchen.

“Gen!” she called. “We’re home!”

Apart from the echo of her own voice, the house remained silent. Sniffing, Martha realized she couldn’t smell any supper cooking, either. They made it to the kitchen, which was dark and cool. None of the lamps were lit, and the fire had gone out in the cookstove.

“Gen!” Martha called again. She was starting to feel frightened. Where is everyone?

Settling her father in a kitchen chair, she fetched him a glass of water and then walked through the rest of the small house. Genevieve was not in the sitting room or upstairs in the small bedroom the sisters shared. Opening the wardrobe, Martha noted that Gen’s favorite wrap was missing and concluded she had gone out somewhere. But where? And why? Particularly since she knew it was her turn to make dinner while Martha fetched their father.

Sighing deeply, Martha returned to the kitchen and started gathering ingredients for a simple dinner. Honestly, she wasn’t surprised. Genevieve was much less patient with Larry’s failings and the poverty they had been forced to endure than Martha, and she took every opportunity to slip out on some escapade of her own, leaving Martha to take up the slack. That was one of the reasons Martha felt her older sister might actually be relieved to marry Thomas. Even though it would be a marriage of convenience, at least she would be free to enjoy herself.

Martha stirred up the coals in the woodstove and added a few chunks of dry wood to rekindle the flames. Then, she placed a skillet on the stove and began cracking eggs into a bowl for pancake batter. Amid their dire circumstances, she was daily grateful for the eggs from their hens and the vegetables from their garden. Both the flock and vegetable patch had become Martha’s especial projects in the last few years, and they were two parts of the ranch that continued to thrive.

Glancing at her father, Martha saw that he had dozed off in the chair, his chin resting on his chest. She paused for a moment, sorrow striking her heart anew.

Martha had been thirteen when they had lost her mother in the fire that had also taken their larger, recently built ranch house and left Martha with her scars. She still remembered clearly how different things had been before the tragedy—when she and Genevieve had been happy, carefree girls without the burdens of worry and arranged marriages upon them, and Larry had been a strong, hearty man in his prime rather than the faded gray daguerreotype of himself that he now was.

The past six years had been a struggle for all of them, and Martha found herself once again clinging to the hope that her sister’s marriage and the forgiveness of their most weighing debt would be the beginning of better days for them.

She turned back to her pancake batter, only to be interrupted by the front door opening and then banging closed.

“Gen?” she called, turning toward the hallway. “Is that you?”

There was no immediate answer. Instead, Martha heard the swift mutter of hushed voices, followed by a swish of movement, ending with her sister’s appearance in the kitchen door. Martha felt a rush of relief, followed by a jolt of confusion. Right behind her sister was Troy, the ranch foreman, and as they came fully into the room, she saw that Troy and Genevieve were holding hands.

Her eyes flew to her sister’s face, which was flushed and sparkling. Her throat tightened until she thought her voice would never emerge, but finally, she managed to murmur, “What is going on?”

“Martha, Papa….” Genevieve waited until their father had fully regained consciousness before continuing. Her voice was breathless as she announced, “Troy and I have just gotten married.”

And just like that, Martha’s hope for better days had gone up in smoke—like everything in her life seemed to do.

Chapter One

For a moment, no one moved or spoke. But then Larry rose from his chair on quivering legs. His face had flushed a deep shade of red, and his eyes were wide with horror.

“You did not,” he said, his voice as strong as if it were an echo from the past. “Tell me you did not.”

He glared at the two young people, advancing on them with slow steps. Genevieve blanched, stepping back against Troy, who put his arm around her. Martha’s eyes flew to their left hands, noting that they were indeed both wearing simple gold wedding bands.

It was Troy who answered her father’s demand.

“Sir, your daughter and I are indeed married. We just took our vows before the Justice of the Peace and have sworn to be true to each other until death do us part.” The young ranch hand’s voice had started out somewhat nervous, but he gained strength as he spoke.

He and Genevieve shared a look of such obvious care and passion that Martha averted her eyes. Her heart was fluttering in her chest like a trapped bird.

What had they done?! Everything is ruined now!

“I am sorry I was unable to ask your blessing,” Troy continued, pulling Gen closer to his side. “But circumstances were such that I knew you would not give it. And all I wanted was your daughter’s happiness….”

“All you wanted was my daughter!” Larry roared, and all three of the young people in the kitchen jumped at the outburst. Martha stepped forward, fear for her father momentarily overcoming her shock and distress over what her sister had done. “What do you have to offer her? If you had cared one wit for her happiness, you would have let her fulfill her promise to marry another man. A man who is wealthier and more looked up to and more successful than any in the community. A man to whom we owe—absolutely everything.”

Larry’s voice, which had been raised in a hoarse shout for most of the monologue, fell off suddenly, and the florid color of his face fled as quickly as it had risen. He tottered, gripping the back of a kitchen chair for balance, and Martha took another step, prepared to grab his elbow and help him back to his seat, but he shrugged her off, raising a trembling hand to point viciously at his eldest daughter and her new husband. His face was that of an avenging prophet of old, and Martha watched as the two shrunk backward slightly, still clinging to one another.

“You are fired,” Larry hissed at Troy. “And you”—his eyes flashed to Genevieve, full of wrath—“are completely disowned. Get out of my house! The both of you! I never want to set eyes on you again!” His face was ashen as he murmured, “Do you realize what you’ve done? Do you even realize…?”

Abruptly, he gasped, clutching at his chest as he stumbled backward.

“Pa!” Martha cried, throwing her arms out to steady him, but it was too late. Her father’s legs gave way, and he crashed to the floor.

***

“His heart has taken quite a jolt,” Dr. Coleman said, closing their father’s door quietly as he, Martha, and Genevieve stepped into the hall. Genevieve’s face was pale and drawn, and Martha imagined her own looked very similar. She didn’t know where Troy had disappeared to after fetching the doc, and she didn’t care.

“He will require complete bed rest for several weeks,” the doctor continued. “If he does anything strenuous or suffers another great shock of any kind”—he glanced meaningfully at Genevieve, who had the grace to flush and drop her gaze—“he is very likely to suffer another attack of this kind, and his heart might not be able to withstand it.”

“You mean he could die?” Martha asked quietly.

“Yes.” Dr. Coleman was blunt, though his voice was gentle. “As I have said, complete bed rest, and I will be checking in on him regularly until he has made a full recovery.”

Martha felt her face flushing, and she stuttered slightly as she spoke. “I’m so sorry, doctor, but we are unable to pay you for your services at this time. I assure you—”

The doctor waved away her explanation, adjusting his spectacles and peering over them at her like a kindly grandfather. With his silver hair and pressed vest, he really looked like one. “No need to discuss that now,” he said. “I’m sure we can work something out once your father is out of the woods. For now, we need to focus on his health, and I’m sure none of you need extra worries piled onto that burden.”

He moved toward the front door, and Martha followed him, trying to formulate a sentence that would tell him how grateful they were without sounding like she was groveling, but he didn’t give her a chance.

“I’ll check in tomorrow and again in a few days’ time,” he said. “Remember, complete bed rest and as little stress as possible is imperative.”

With that, he stepped out into the night and headed off to his horse and buggy, which were waiting for him at the hitching post.

Martha stood in the open door, staring after him. She could feel her sister’s presence hovering in the hallway behind her, but she was not ready to face Genevieve. She was not ready for any of this. The cool, moist air beckoned to her, and she knew there were chores that needed doing. With Troy off marrying her sister, she supposed it had been left up to her to make sure the animals were shut in and cared for tonight.

With all the tension filling her body at that moment, it would be a welcome relief to throw some haybales and haul some water. She also found herself longing for the comfort of the animal’s presence and distance—any distance—from this house and the turmoil it had just seen. She and Genevieve had not said a word to each other since their father’s collapse, and though Martha knew it was coming, she was suddenly desperate to put it off.

Without turning around, she abruptly grabbed her jacket from its hook by the door and stepped out into the welcome embrace of the night. She thought she heard her sister start to speak her name, but then, the door slammed behind her, cutting off the sound.

Martha fled through the darkness to the nearest barn, which housed the Newman’s three riding and pulling horses. They were all good horses, if a little old and slow at this point. The younger, quicker horses had always been reserved for working the cattle, and now that they had only Troy and Cody to do that—and so few cattle to work anymore—all but a few had been sold off to keep creditors off their backs.

Entering the barn, Martha closed the door behind her and leaned against it. For a long moment, she didn’t even light a lantern, choosing instead to savor the dark quietude that slowly enfolded her. The barn smelled of hay and horses—sweet and warm—and was filled with the peaceful sound of the horses’ quiet breathing and shifting in their stalls.

Martha stood, soaking it in until her mind resumed its racing, and hot tears threatened to rise in her eyes. Then, she pushed herself away from the door and reached with practiced hands to where the lantern and flint were always kept, lighting the lamp with ease despite the darkness. She carefully hung it on its peg on a beam far from the hay and dove into the comforting routine of caring for the horses.

“Good girl. Hey, fella,” she murmured, tossing them each a generous armload of hay, and patting their faces affectionately.. Then, she grabbed two buckets to refill their water from the well outside. As she turned toward the door, however, it opened, and Genevieve stepped in, pushing it closed behind her.

The two sisters faced each other silently. They were like warped mirror versions of each other, Martha thought. Genevieve was beautiful, with her heart-shaped face, perfect complexion, and spun-silk curls, which were gathered into a graceful knot on the top of her head, a few tumbling in tasteful disorder here and there. She had not worn the wedding dress that she and Martha had been preparing for her nuptials with Thomas Elliot. Instead, she was wearing her Sunday gown, a sky-blue organdy that was laced with ruffles and woven about the waist and neckline with satin bows.

It’s no wonder, Martha thought, that both Thomas and Troy wanted to marry her. Probably every available man who has ever seen her has wanted to marry her.

Opposite her older sister, Martha felt like a young tree or a sturdy milkmaid. She was an inch or so shorter and stood ramrod straight, without Gen’s willowy grace. As usual, she wore a long, dark-colored cotton gown, which was sensible and comfortable enough for working, walking, and riding. It had a high collar to hide the scars marring her neck and not a single extra flounce or decoration. Her face, as always, she knew, was dominated by the shadow of her scars, and her expression felt stiff and resolute.

All the words that had been rushing through her mind that she wanted to hurl at her sister seemed to have disappeared, and Martha simply stood, waiting for Genevieve to say something or leave.

An entire parade of expressions had waltzed across Genevieve’s face in the few seconds they had stood facing one another—regretful, excited, pleading, pitiful. Finally, she clasped her hands and cleared her throat.

“Are you very angry?” she asked quietly. “I had hoped you would be happy for me, Martha.” She took a step closer as Martha remained locked in her silence. “I never meant to hide from you that Troy and I were falling in love. I could just never figure out a way to tell you in a way that you would understand.”

Genevieve wrung her hands, her face was flushing with some unexpressed emotion. “I had to do this, Martha!” she cried suddenly. “I couldn’t go off and marry some stranger—some wealthy baron whom I’d barely met just to pay off Papa’s debts! They’re his debts, not mine! And I love Troy. I love him so much, I would have died if I’d had to leave him like that.”

Finally, Martha’s shock was fading, and her anger rose like water in a tall, narrow pitcher as her sister made her impassioned plea.

“Can’t you at least try to understand?” Genevieve cried, and Martha finally snapped.

“No!” Her voice came out like the crack of a whip, and Genevieve actually flinched. Martha set down the buckets as she said it, crossing her arms in front of her. “No, I can’t even try to understand. What you’ve done is completely selfish, Gen.” Her voice caught in a sob as she said it, and she cleared her throat brusquely. “Will you never think of anyone’s needs and feelings besides your own?” she cried, and then, as tears rose in Gen’s eyes and poured down her cheeks in two sparkling rivers, she paused.

“You know what, it doesn’t even matter now. What you’ve done is irreversible. With one decision—made purely on the basis of emotion—you’ve just cost us our home and our family’s honor. You were promised to another man, Gen. Did that mean nothing to you? You agreed to the marriage. And—we were all depending on you to see it through. For once. For once, Gen, but you couldn’t even do that.” Martha was breathless when she finished. Her heart was pounding, and her entire body felt like it was on fire.

How could she do this to us?

The question wouldn’t stop circling in her mind as she contemplated the fallout of her sister’s elopement. Thomas Elliot would foreclose on his debt. They would lose everything. Gen and Troy would be destitute. Martha and her father would be destitute. Where would they even go? How would they even live? Martha supposed she could get a job as a maid somewhere.

Maybe even in Thomas’s grand house, if he could forgive their family for this breach of confidence. But would that be enough to even pay for a place for them to live? It will have to be in Astoria—some drab, damp little apartment in the middle of the city.

For a moment, Martha allowed herself to feel sorrow for herself, for everything she was going to lose—the horses and the garden and the long walks in nature that kept her sane. But she quickly shoved her momentary wallowing aside. What about her father? Larry was deathly ill. He couldn’t be thrown out of his home, losing his ranch and his foreman and his eldest daughter all in one blow. And yet, that’s what was going to happen. All because Genevieve had feelings for a cowboy and had run off and married him. It was the most thoughtless, self-centered thing she had ever done—and now, they were all going to suffer from it.

Genevieve had continued to cry quietly as Martha scolded, but when Martha fell silent once more, her older sister wiped at her tears with the back of her hand and held her head high.

“I’m sorry you feel that way,” she said softly—a statement that only increased Martha’s ire.

“This is not about how I feel—” she started, but Genevieve interrupted her.

“It’s obvious you’ve never been in love, or you would understand how I feel,” she cried wretchedly. “I thought I could go through with marrying Thomas, which is why I agreed. But I was wrong! I knew the moment after I made the promise that I couldn’t let Troy go—that I would die without him.”

Genevieve sniffled, fumbling in her pocket for a hankie to blow her nose. Martha waited her out, retreating back into her rock-hard silence. It was obvious that Gen had not heard a word she had said. Everything was still about her feelings.

“I love you, Martha, you and Papa both. But I love Troy, too, and saving this place wasn’t worth it.” She wiped furiously at her nose and eyes, turning both a bright shade of red. “Troy will get a job, and we’ll do whatever we can to help you,” she said falteringly. “That’s all I can promise—and all I should have promised in the first place.”

Her voice dropped to a whisper as she looked at Martha pleadingly. “I’m sorry, Marty,” she said, using the childhood nickname Martha had dropped long ago. “But I’m going with Troy now.”

With that, she turned and left the barn, leaving Martha alone in a pool of lantern light. The silence closed back in after her, but this time, it didn’t give Martha any peace.

She finished the chores and returned to the house, which was once again silent and dark. She slipped up to their room first. Genevieve was gone, as were all of her belongings. With a feeling like a sob lodged permanently in her throat, Martha went next to her father’s bedroom, carrying a candle to his bedside. He was awake, she saw, and breathing regularly, if heavily.

She sank to her knees beside him, and Larry slid a pale hand across the quilt to grasp her fingers. His face was anguished.

“What are we going to do, Martha girl?” he murmured. “Our family’s word is ruined. We’ll never be able to repay the debt or live this down. We will lose everything.”

“Shh,” Martha shushed him gently. “You have to stop worrying about it, Pa. The doctor says stress is bad for your heart. Don’t worry.” She forced a smile to her face even though her own heart felt like a lead weight in her chest. “Everything is going to be okay, Pa. You’ll see.”

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    • Thank you so much!💞 Your kind words mean a lot to me. If you decide to read the full story, I hope you find it just as captivating!💖

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