Is love forgiving? A heart-warming retelling of the story of persistent Hosea and promiscuous Gomer.
Morgan Sutter, the oldest of three brothers, is headed West to meet his long-lost uncle on his cattle ranch. Morgan is hoping to start a new life, to settle down, and begin a family. What he doesn’t expect is a beaten-up runaway of a woman to stumble upon his camp! Morgan and his brothers resolve to help her in any way they can.
The woman is Brianna Tompkins, an ex-high society woman from the East, who has never faced such adversity before. She grew up privileged with servants to cater to her every whim, but now she is faced with destitution unless she agrees to marry the cruel and lecherous Mr. Percy Smythe. When she meets Morgan, everything changes and she begins to have hope for a future filled with love instead.
But ranch life isn’t everything she imagines and Brianna finds herself struggling. With no one around who understands the riches she was used to, Brianna feels guilty and terribly alone. Though she tries her hardest, Brianna finds herself too delicate in many ways to handle the rough and exhausting life of a pioneer woman. Until, love provides her with the motivation she was lacking.
Wedded bliss leads to an unexpected pregnancy and Brianna finds herself facing her toughest challenges yet. Motherhood, wifely duties, and pioneer life are a heavier burden to bear than she feels like she can manage at times—even with Morgan’s help.
And then a series of misunderstandings takes Brianna away from the ranch and Morgan, without hope but to…
The first week of June, 1850.
Outside Springfield, Missouri…
“Morgan, I need some help over here,” Riley Sutter called from behind the wagon.
Morgan put down the axe he’d been wielding as he attempted to replenish their firewood supply. He rolled his neck and worked the kinks out of his shoulders as he headed to where his brother’s voice had come from. The air was humid and getting warmer as the day progressed. He pulled at the neck of his shirt, pulling the damp fabric away from his skin and wishing there was a creek nearby where he could cool off when he was done with his chores.
“What’s the problem?” he asked as he rounded the back of the wagon and came to an abrupt stop. “Never mind, I can see what the problem is.” Morgan reached down and grabbed the long log his younger brother had been using as a lever to take the wagon’s weight off of the wheel he was trying to grease up. The log was still lifting most of the wagon’s weight, but Riley’s shirt had somehow gotten trapped in the wheel and if he moved the wrong direction, the log would shift, pinning his arm beneath the wagon wheel and crushing it.
“Hang on a second,” Morgan told him, surveying the situation in a heartbeat and deftly untangling his brother’s sleeve from where it had become caught. “There, you’re free. Why didn’t you wait until Spencer or I could help you?”
“I thought I had it under control. I won’t make that mistake again.” Riley rubbed his arm and then slapped his brother on the back. “Thanks, again. It seems like you’re always coming to my rescue.”
Morgan smiled and nodded. “That’s what big brothers do, but I’d appreciate it if you would try not to get yourself into any more life-threatening or dangerous situations. At least until we get to California.”
Riley chuckled and nodded. “I’ll do my best.”
Morgan nodded and then went back to the pile of logs he still had left to split. He and his two brothers, Riley and Spencer, had been traveling to California with their parents, Mason and Cora, to help their uncle run his ranch. They’d left Kentucky three weeks earlier and were currently in Springfield, Missouri where his mother’s only sister, Ada Jones, lived. They’d known before leaving on their journey that Ada’s husband had been doing poorly, but they’d arrived a few days too late to even bid him farewell. They’d shown up on the same day his body was being placed in the ground. Morgan’s mother had immediately announced that they would be staying at least a week to help Ada deal with the loss of her beloved husband, but after only one day it had become clear to everyone that a week wasn’t going to be long enough. Ada was completely lost without her husband by her side and caring for their farm was much more than she could handle alone.
“Boys?” Mason called to his sons as he stepped into the yard.
“Coming, Pa,” Morgan told him. “Everything okay?”
“Well, it will be in morning when you three boys get on your way.”
“I thought Ma wanted to stick around to help Aunt Ada?” Riley stated as he joined the conversation.
“She does want to stick around. I said you boys would be on your way. Your mother and I will follow as soon as we’re able to. Maybe even with Aunt Ada coming too.”
Riley, Spencer, and Morgan shared a look and then Morgan stepped forward and took charge of the conversation. “You and Ma plan to make the journey all by yourselves?”
“We’ll be fine,” Mason told them, not a shade of doubt on his face. “It will probably be spring before we’re able to join you, boys. I don’t want to keep your uncle waiting for your arrival any longer than is necessary.”
“Pa, this move is supposed to be about us getting a new start as a family. How can we do that if you and Ma stay here?” Morgan asked.
“You and your brothers will do just fine. If I wasn’t convinced this was the best thing to do, I was after seeing the look of relief written across your aunt’s face when I told her.”
Morgan nodded, the picture his father continued to draw for him and his brothers was not one he could ignore. His aunt was grieving and she needed his parents’ support right now more than he and his brothers did. Ada had gotten married at the age of fourteen and moved to Missouri with her husband and while they had built a thriving farm they’d never had any children to pass it down to. Ada was alone except for his parents and his siblings. Morgan wasn’t sure what his parents planned to do, but he trusted they would stay as long as his aunt needed them.
“Pa, are you sure?’ Spencer questioned.
“Then we’ll leave first thing in the morning,” Morgan agreed. It wasn’t as if he was a greenhorn with no life experience. Morgan had turned twenty-nine at his last birthday and he knew he was more than capable of getting them all to California, even with the added pressure of time as they’d promised their uncle they would be there before the end of summer in their last letter.
“Riley, if we’re going to leave first thing in the morning, you’ll need to finish fixing those wagon wheels soon.” Morgan looked at his brothers as his father took his leave and went back into the small house.
“So, are we taking both wagons?” Riley asked with a frown upon his face.
Morgan shook his head, “No. Let’s rearrange things and leave the larger wagon for Ma and Pa to bring when they come. You know Ma isn’t keen on sleeping on the ground, that way, she can sleep inside the wagon on their journey, just like she was doing before we arrived here.”
The brothers were all in agreement and they spent the remainder of the morning rearranging the wagons, chipping in with the farm chores, and putting their own belongings into saddle packs and the smaller wagon.
The Sutter family had originally set out with two wagons full of furniture and supplies, but the three boys were only going to take the bare necessities with them. They intended to travel to St. Joseph over the next few days and head out across Kansas, up into Nebraska Territory, across Wyoming Territory, and then finally turn south to the Great Salt Lake.
The Mormon Cutoff would lead them southwest from there, through the corner of Nevada Territory and finally, bring them to the mountains of California. Their uncle’s ranch lay on the other side of them, and Morgan couldn’t wait to see the fabulous trees his uncle had written about in one of his letters. Trees that were as wide around as the breadth of a man’s hands and that stood so tall one couldn’t see the top.
Morgan made short work of the remaining wood, stacking it in the back of the wagon and then heading out to the barn to make sure the farm helpers were getting all of the chores done. Riley and Spencer were putting all of their parents’ belongings in the larger wagon as it would be staying in Missouri until they decided to head West.
Morgan and his brothers were going to take the smaller wagon, enough supplies to last a month, and their own belongings. Since their mother would not be traveling with them any longer, the three brothers planned to go as many miles each day as possible, only setting up the most basic of camps each evening. They would be heading into more wilderness the further they travelled west, and that would also bring the possibility of encountering more Indians. Morgan and his brothers were hoping to find a wagon train to join for the bulk of their journey West and an opportunity to travel with the group in exchange for the three men offering to act as security and lookouts.
Morgan and his brothers were all excellent marksmen and, while Morgan didn’t relish the idea of having to shoot another human being, he knew he could do so if it meant protecting those around him. Spencer was by far the best shot amongst the three brothers and, while no one had stated things out loud, this move had been in part to help protect their family from being torn apart. There had been murmurings of a war between the North and the South for many years now and Mason was convinced it was just a matter of time before the country tried to tear itself apart.
Mason had argued that the West was a different kind of wild and would be the least affected by a civil war, so they should take his brother’s advice and head towards California. The three boys didn’t have loved ones or families of their own yet, and they had all been in agreement about this adventure. They had been raised with the idea that following your heart was never in vain. Taking on challenges that might seem impossible at the onset provided a much sweeter victory at the end. Rewards always tend to mean more than the struggles required to achieve them.
This move to California was the beginning of a new chapter in all of their lives. They each had their own hopes and dreams for what they wanted to find in California and Morgan’s were very basic: a wife and a family. It was what he’d been searching for his entire adult life, but so far he’d not met that one special woman. Oh, there had been plenty of women, girls really, back in Kentucky who had tried to ensnare him into becoming their husband, but Morgan had been wise to their tactics and managed to avoid those traps.
He didn’t want to be wanted because of his material possessions or his physical appearance. He wanted a relationship where his character was what the woman who became his wife would see first. He was confident she was out there, he just hadn’t met her yet.
Five weeks later.
Percy’s Crossing, California…
Brianna Tompkins sat in the bedroom she’d occupied in Percy Smythe’s elegant house since he’d come to her rescue and moved both her and her ailing father into town. Her father had been plagued with poor health for the last few months since finally arriving in California. However, several weeks ago, it had worsened to the point where he’d been unable to care for their livestock and mining had been completely out of the question. They had come out West from the East Coast, her father determined to make his fortune in the gold-rich mountains and re-instate the wealth his family had been privy to for decades. Several bad years and an impending war had wreaked havoc on the family funds and he’d convinced himself that California held all of the answers.
Their travels had taken them by rail to St. Joseph, Missouri where they had purchased the necessary livestock and equipment, then joined up with a wagon train headed for the Great Salt Lake. They ended up traveling with a bunch of Mormons making their way along the Oregon Trail for many miles and then they’d slowly worked their way southward. Their journey had been wrought with disasters including a wagon accident that had claimed her mother’s life. Her father had been heartbroken and there had been days when Brianna was afraid he would fail to keep up with the other wagons and they would become stranded, alone in the hostile wilderness.
Their first few weeks in California had been challenging but wonderful and Brianna had looked forward to resuming a civilized life in the near future. She’d heard there was a wealthy man in the town who had servants and a big house, but her father had forbidden her to venture into the small town by herself. Howard Tompkins had known his only daughter wasn’t cut out for the kind of life he’d forced upon her and, to make amends, he’d engaged the help of several women from the town to take care of the laundry, mending, and to help Brianna with the cooking.
Brianna had been pleased with her father’s attempts to make life easier for her, but then he’d gotten sick and the funds they had left dwindled down to nothing. Howard had taken to his bed and everything had fallen to Brianna at that point. She’d done her best, but when the women from town found out there was no money or gold with which to pay their wages, they’d abandoned her and her father. Within a few days, it had all become too much for Brianna to handle.
When the bank manager who held the note on their small home and the attached mining claim had come calling about the money that was owed, Brianna hadn’t known where to turn. She’d gathered up everything of value they had left including a few of her beloved mother’s quilts, a few family heirlooms, and her father’s trusty horse. She’d headed into town, hoping to get enough money from those few items to keep the banker satisfied until her father’s health improved.
There was no money for medicine and Percy’s Crossing didn’t have a doctor of their own, just the occasional traveling physician who came through a few times a year. In town, she found the folks there less than receptive, word having spread about her father’s illness and her previous uppity attitude hadn’t helped. It seemed that everyone was willing to stand by and watch her life fall apart. She’d appealed to the banker one last time, arriving with nothing to give the man but empty promises and a tearful tale.
The town’s founder, Percy Smythe, had also been in the bank at the time of her last visit and he’d taken a keen interest in Brianna and her plight. After eavesdropping on her tearful plea for a little more time to figure things out, he’d stepped in and paid off all that she’d owed. Brianna had been in shock at the time, especially when Percy had ordered several of his men to go and bring her father back to town so that his housekeeper could tend to the ill man.
Brianna remembered how thankful she’d been to have someone else shouldering her burdens, even if for just a little bit. She’d tried to ask Percy how she could pay him back and he’d assured her there was no need to worry herself about that until her father recovered. She’d been in Percy’s household for almost a month and his generosity had been overwhelming and much appreciated by Brianna. He ordered new clothing for her, new slippers for her feet, and she had a maid that waited on her every need.
Brianna didn’t leave Percy’s house during this time, preferring not to give the other townsfolk a reason to talk when they saw her coming and going from a single man’s house. Regardless of the many servants and the fact that her father languished in a sickbed on the main floor. Percy had suggested she keep a low profile until her father recovered and Brianna was very thankful for his foresight.
Unfortunately, her father’s health continued to decline and he passed away two days later. She said her final tearful goodbye to him just before the wooden casket was lowered into the ground. Brianna had never contemplated a point in her life where she might end up an orphan with neither a mother nor a father still alive. Now, it had come to pass and she was once again scared and all alone. Brianna walked to the window that looked out over the small town and her gaze strayed to the end of the street where the town’s solitary cemetery lay just behind the copse of trees growing there. She closed her eyes and yesterday came rushing back to her mind. The day she’d buried her father.
The sky had been a brilliant blue while the barkeeper had said a short prayer over her father’s coffin. The town of Percy’s Crossing didn’t have a church or a preacher, but Percy had assured her the barkeeper had a brother who was a preacher and he could handle saying a few words over her father and reading a Bible verse or two. Not having any other options and consumed by grief, Brianna had merely nodded and allowed Percy to arrange everything. During the ceremony, she’d tried to remember her father when she’d been a small child and everything had been right in her world, but the only image she could muster of him was that of a sickly man who’d lost too much weight.
When an eagle had cried out overhead, Brianna had looked up and immediately felt betrayed by Mother Nature. All around her was evidence of life and yet, the one person in the world she loved had been taken from her. She was truly all alone in the world, and at the age of twenty-two with no marriage prospects on the horizon, she had no idea of how she was going to survive.
As the barkeeper had recited several verses from the Book of Lamentations, Brianna recalled hearing her mother read the same passages aloud. Her mother had been very caught up in the Church. She was always talking about God, saying how Brianna needed to just have faith and trust God to see to her future. Those words came back to her at that moment and it took all she could do not to rail at God for how deceived she felt.
She’d prayed for her father when he’d first gotten ill, but it seemed that God hadn’t been listening to her. She’d mentioned as much as Percy had ridden back from the graveyard with her and he’d assured her the future wasn’t nearly as bleak as she imagined. He said they would speak about it the morning after, once she’d gotten a good night’s sleep.
Well, now it was morning and she’d hardly slept at all. She couldn’t stop thinking about the future nor could she ignore the hastily whispered words from the housekeeper to her maid any longer. “He intends to marry her. That poor girl. I wonder if she knows she’ll be trading her freedom for fancy trappings and his name? You know how Mr. Smythe is.”
At the time, Brianna had let the words just flow over and around her, too consumed with grief to give them much energy. She might have continued to do so if it weren’t for the fact that her maid and the housekeeper had been whispering just outside her bedroom door again this morning. When Brianna had interrupted them, the housekeeper had given her maid a funny look and headed for the service stairs. The maid had simply given Brianna a tight smile and promised to return shortly to help her dress.
“I can dress myself,” Brianna had insisted, making sure the maid knew her services were not required.
“As you wish. Might I suggest you wear one of the new dresses Mr. Smythe provided for you? They are beautiful gowns.”
Brianna had absently nodded, still wondering what the housekeeper and maid had been discussing. The housekeeper seemed to be concerned about something, but Brianna wasn’t sure what that was. While caring for her ill father, the housekeeper had been very friendly until it seemed that her father’s condition was not going to improve. Then, suddenly, the housekeeper had become standoffish towards her. Brianna didn’t understand why. She decided that, after speaking with Percy, she would seek the woman out and try to make amends for whatever wrong she seemed to have committed.
Feeling slightly better, she dressed carefully in one of the new dresses Percy had procured for her, tugging at the lace around the neckline that dipped much lower than Brianna was used to. As she’d done with the other dresses Percy had bought her, she retrieved a spare piece of lace and carefully tucked it into the neckline, covering herself up to just above her collarbones. Her other dresses were much more modest, but she didn’t own one that hadn’t been mended a dozen times and wasn’t stained from working in the barn alongside her father.
She’d promised to pay Percy back for all that he’d spent on her, but she couldn’t even imagine how she would come up with enough funds to do so. Brianna was used to elegant sitting rooms and afternoon teas, not hard labor in the heat of the day or working with her hands until they were stained and bleeding.
Percy had assured her he had a plan and she was ready to hear it, so she could begin to salvage whatever she could of the situation. She’d decided in the early hours of the morning that she would find a way to pay Percy back and then she would purchase a ticket back to the East Coast where she could put her talents to the best use. Maybe as a governess or a school teacher to the social elite. She had a plan in mind, now she only hoped that Percy’s idea would come alongside it and help bring it to fruition.
Brianna carefully braided her hair and then secured the long dark tresses around her head, using the hairpins her mother had given her when she’d turned thirteen to secure the ropes of hair in place. Brianna’s hair was thick and when unbound it hung down below her waist. Her mother had always told her it would be a beautiful gift for her husband one day, but that she should keep it pinned up and her head covered when out in public. Brianna had worn a hat when outside, but she saw no reason to do so within the confines of Percy’s home. Besides, she had little hope of ever finding a suitable husband now with her father and his wealth all gone.
Brianna pushed that depressing thought aside, stiffened her spine and then left her bedroom. She carefully walked down the staircase, practicing correct posture and entered the dining room with a hesitant smile when she saw Percy was already there waiting for her.
“Good morning,” she greeted him.
Percy put down the paper he’d been reading and smiled at her. “Good morning, my dear. Please, come and sit down. Sarah, Brianna is ready for her breakfast.”
Brianna took the seat Percy indicated to his right side. “I can get my own breakfast…”
“Nonsense. I told you, the servants are here to serve you. Now, how did you sleep?” Percy asked.
Brianna looked at him and then dipped her chin, staring at her hands. “Not very well.” Percy was much older than she was, informing her several days after her arrival that he had just turned thirty-five. He was not only the founder of the town, but he owned most of the businesses in it as well. Rumors were that he’d gotten lucky early on in the gold rush and had then set up a town, preferring to make his fortunes by providing much-needed necessities to the other miners who had flocked to the area. Brianna had heard people talking about the man, and while he was very handsome and seemed to command respect wherever he went, most people gave him a wide berth and only dealt with the man because they had no other choice.
He was very tall, over six feet, and was always clean shaven, showing off the deep cleft in his chin. He had dark gray eyes, dark hair, and was the wealthiest man for miles. He lived right in the center of town and Brianna had been impressed with how many people he met with every day. Brianna had heard some of the rumors about Percy not being a very nice man, but her experience had given her an entirely different opinion. So far.
Percy reached across the short distance and squeezed her shoulder, catching Brianna off guard. It was not the first time he’d taken liberties and touched her person, but it still made Brianna feel slightly uncomfortable. There had been other instances where he’d come far too close to her, but each of those times he’d simply stared at her for a long moment and then backed away, allowing the tension of the moment to fade away. It wasn’t a pleasant sensation and more than once those encounters had left Brianna feeling confused and wary, almost as if she were in some sort of danger. Now, with his hand on her shoulder, those feelings were back and her intuition was urging her to flee. She didn’t understand these feelings and was inclined to store them away and analyze them a bit later. She held back the urge to shrug his hand away.
“You asked me yesterday about the future and I told you we would discuss that this morning.”
Brianna nodded, swallowing audibly before taking a shallow breath and attempting to calm the nerves that suddenly had butterflies churning in her stomach. Her nervousness moved straight to confusion and then to fear when Percy pushed her chair back and turned her around to face him, grabbing hold of both of her arms in the process.
“Brianna, you are a lovely young woman and exactly what I have been looking for.”
“I don’t understand,” Brianna murmured, shrinking back against the chair in an attempt to get him to remove his hands from her arms. Percy’s eyes were moving up and down her person in a way that made Brianna shiver and want to cover herself with a blanket to hide away from his gaze. She looked down, swallowing painfully as she tried to make sense of the words he was saying to her.
Percy either didn’t sense her discomfort with their proximity or didn’t care. He continued speaking to her. “Simply put, I have been looking for a wife for quite some time and I have decided that it shall be you.”
“Wife?” Brianna squeaked as she looked up at him. She started shaking her head, “I don’t want to get married…”
“Nonsense. Of course, you do,” Percy assured her, squeezing her arms just shy of it being painful.
“No, really. Mr. Smythe, I appreciate everything…”
“The name is Percy,” he reminded her, the warmth in his eyes starting to fade.
“Percy…I can’t thank you enough for everything you did for my father and me, but I have no wish to marry you or any man, for that matter.” I always thought I would marry someone for love like my parents. How could I possibly marry a man I don’t love? Brianna’s thoughts were racing around in her mind.
“You’re not thinking clearly,” Percy informed her. He squeezed her arms for another long moment, hard enough that Brianna flinched and wondered if she would have bruises there come morning. She tried to pull away but didn’t put much effort into the motion. Percy released her, a pensive look upon his face. “You do realize what being my wife would mean?”
Brianna wrapped her arms around herself and shook her head, “It doesn’t matter.” Brianna suddenly felt like she’d been backed into a corner. A trap she’d actually set for herself without meaning to. She’d availed herself of Percy’s wealth and position these last few weeks, never giving a thought to the price that might be required of her in doing so. Now, Percy’s wealth seemed more like a noose around her neck than a benefit of being under his protection.
Percy’s face clouded over and the smile left his lips, making him look more sinister and somewhat dangerous. “It doesn’t matter?” he asked softly.
Brianna shrank back as far as the chair would allow and shook her head. “I already offered to pay you back…”
“I’m offering to give you the world. The finest possessions money can buy, this house to call your own, servants to see to your every need… and you would turn that all down. You would turn me down?”
Brianna licked her lips and searched for the words to defuse the situation, “I’m not really turning you down, I just am not ready to get married yet. We don’t love one another—”
“Love has nothing to do with it.”
Love has nothing to do with marriage? But… The idea was so foreign to everything Brianna had always believed and been taught, she couldn’t make herself believe it.
“I realize these last few days have been trying, but I prefer not to wallow in the past. We’ll be married just as soon as…”
Brianna shook her head. “I don’t want to get married.”
Percy tapped the table with his fingertips and Brianna got the sense that he was growing angry at her persistent refusals. The image of the housekeeper and the maid talking came back to her mind and she wondered if the way Percy was currently acting had anything to do with the housekeeper’s apparent concern.
“You owe me. I took you and your father in, fed and clothed you, I even paid for your father’s funeral…”
“And I will pay you back. I just need to find a job.”
Percy gave her a sarcastic smile and settled back in his chair. “And just who do you think is going to hire you in this town? Do you think anyone here would hire you, knowing I was not in agreement?”
Brianna was seeing a side to Percy she’d only heard about previously. A side that she didn’t like and that she found very disconcerting. She swallowed and then murmured, “Well, I was thinking I might need to go to Sacramento…”
“No! That is out of the question,” Percy told her angrily.
“But I can teach or become a governess—”
“I’ve already told you there is no need for you to find a job. As my wife, you will want for nothing.” Percy slammed his hand down on the table, making her jump at the sudden movement.
Brianna shook her head, fear making her voice weak and shaky. “I don’t wish to marry you.”
Percy pushed himself to his feet. “We’ll see about that.” He reached down and hauled her to her feet, propelling her out of the dining room and back up the stairs as she scrambled for her balance.
“Wait! Percy, what are you doing?”
“You need some time to think things through,” Percy told her. He opened the door to the bedroom she’d been assigned and pushed her in.
Brianna caught herself before she could fall to the floor and she whirled around to see Percy watching her in a very cold and calculating way. “When you’ve come to your senses then you may send for me and we will resume our conversation. Until then, you will remain in this room.”
Brianna surged forward, grabbing the doorknob just as Percy pulled it shut. She heard the sound of the key turning in the lock as she twisted the knob, trying to get the door to open. “Percy! Mr. Smythe! Please don’t do this. I’ll pay you back. Please let me out of here.”
Brianna pounded on the door until her fists hurt, tears streaming down her face as she realized that very few people even knew she was in Percy’s house. The servants did, but they were very loyal to their employer and she knew without asking they wouldn’t give her any assistance. She rushed to the window, but it had been nailed shut and wouldn’t open. She thought about breaking it, but that kind of violence was not something Brianna had ever participated in and she couldn’t make herself do something so destructive.
She finally gave up, returning to the door and sinking down onto the floorboards. She let her tears fall freely as she leaned her head against the wood, her heart filled with despair as she realized her situation was much worse than she’d imagined. It now seemed hopeless unless she caved to Percy’s demand that she marry him.
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