One broken soul can hold the pieces needed to mend another one’s with love.
Selena Montford is a strong, although devastated, woman. After having her husband die in her arms, her sole purpose is to protect her family. Even if that means sacrificing herself in marrying Trevor Milson.
William Wardley is a scarred but determined bounty hunter. He came into town, seeking redemption for his sister’s death.
Fate brings Selena and William together. For the first time, after her husband’s tragic death, Selena feels a glimpse of happiness.
She can no longer deny herself the truth. She has a decision to make.
Rejecting a very powerful man is always dangerous, in this case, it can become lethal. Will Selena risk her life for love?
When duty for family and heart collide, one must at least try!
The roads shimmered like liquid in the searing heat of the afternoon. The inhabitants of Marksville, Kansas, mopped their brows with anything they could find—handkerchiefs, sleeves, the cotton cloths in their baskets, scented with fresh bread. The air had turned to molasses, difficult to breathe in and cloying on the lungs. But time didn’t stop just because summer had struck a singeing blow to the Earth below. Daily business needed to be attended to, though the townsfolk sought shade wherever possible, sticking to the shadows that stretched from the verandas of the storefronts and houses along the main road.
Selena Montford was one of the hampered inhabitants, though she wore a bright smile as she wandered along the dusty road, leaning into the man beside her even though it made her warmer. Not only because of the summer sun but because of the way he made her feel. Her heart burned with a love fiercer than anything the summer’s rays could inflict, and ten times as wondrous. Six months wed, they were as giddy as the day they had begun their courting. Every time she looked up at him, she felt that telltale grin turn up the corners of her pink lips. And he always had a smile for her.
From girlhood, she had never had much confidence in her looks, for she had been a tall, gangly child, like a puppy who had not quite grown into its paws or an awkward, newborn foal. Still taller than most ladies, in her womanhood, that gangly demeanor had given way to slender curves and defined facial features that made her quite striking to behold, with high cheekbones and an almost aristocratic appearance. The transformation had prompted the township to remark on how fair she was, for she had finally grown into her physique.
She had not believed them, though. Only when she had begun courting her now-husband, James, had she started to believe she might be pretty enough to attract such a wonderful man. All that mattered to her was that she was beautiful in his eyes, and he was relentless in his compliments of her, even now they were bound to one another in holy matrimony. Even now he no longer had to try and impress her. Every morning, he awoke as if seeing her for the very first time, and brushed his fingertips through her long, wavy, fair hair, telling her it shone more golden than the wheat fields surrounding the town. She would gaze at him with her curious green eyes and commit every expression of his to memory, her bitten-red lips always curving into a ready smile.
“Are you thirsty, James?” she asked, clinging to his arm.
He placed a kiss on the top of her hair. “I could do with something to take the edge off this heat.”
“Why don’t I go and fetch us some bottles of lemonade, while you go on with your business? We could have a picnic by the creek. It’s shady there, and far cooler than here.” She nodded to the basket, held in the crook of her free arm. “I’ve got plenty to make up sandwiches.”
“I think that sounds mighty fine,” he replied. “I need to go into the bank to speak with one of the clerks, so we can finally fix the roof before winter comes back around. How about I go there, and you go to the store, and we’ll meet outside the tavern in ten minutes?”
Selena nodded. “I think that sounds like a grand plan. The first picnic of summer and the first as Mrs. Montford.”
“Say that again.” He turned and cupped her face in his hands.
“The first as Mrs. Montford.” She giggled delightedly as she stared up into his hazel eyes.
“I’ll never get tired of hearing that.” He leaned in and kissed her, neither of them caring for the disapproving looks of the older inhabitants. A few of the younger ladies swooned, though that might have been more to do with the heat than the display of pure love. One of the young men whistled from the deck of the nearby tavern, having imbibed a little too much. It prompted Selena’s cheeks to rosy-up, but she didn’t mind her embarrassment, as long as she had James.
“You tell that clerk that we want what was promised,” Selena said, breaking away.
James smiled. “I’ll tell him you said so. He’ll start throwing money at me in fright.”
She gave him a playful nudge. “I’m not so scary, am I?”
“You’re about as scary as a newborn rabbit, my darlin’.” He brushed his thumb across her cheek. “Now, you get them lemonades, and I’ll see you soon.”
“I love you.”
His eyes shone. “Not more than I love you.”
Drifting away on a breeze of utter contentment, Selena parted from her husband and headed for Ainsfield’s General Store. Ainsfield himself made the best lemonade in the town, sour and sweet in just the right balance, and Selena couldn’t wait for a taste. Her parched mouth begged for it. Glancing over her shoulder, she watched her husband stride away to the bank, which was the last building on the right of the main street. It never ceased to amaze her just how handsome he was. Tall and broad-shouldered, with warm brown hair and strong features that somehow managed to be gentle. His hands were large and calloused from years of toil as the overseer of the town’s timber camps. He could have sat by and let others do the work for him, being of good stock and some fortune, but that wasn’t his way. He was a grafter by nature, and always one of the men. He earned their respect by working twice as hard as they did, and the townsfolk loved him for it. They loved Selena, too, for having wed so prosperously. Love was rarer than it ought to have been in this world, and it warmed hearts wherever they went, to see it so openly shown.
The bell tinkled as Selena stepped into the cool of the store and went to the shelves that held the refreshments. She wished they might’ve been cold, but ice was even rarer to come by than love in Kansas. A luxury that few could afford.
“Mrs. Montford, lovely to see you on this fine afternoon,” Mr. Ainsfield said from behind his counter.
She smiled. “I fear I may melt.”
“Ah, so that’s why you’re eyein’ up the lemonade?”
“My husband and I are thinking of having a picnic,” she replied, plucking up two bottles.
“I envy the pair of you.” Mr. Ainsfield chuckled. “Here I am, stuck in my shop, while you two lovebirds go gallivantin’ off for the afternoon. If only I could get Mrs. Ainsfield to close up, so we could have ourselves a treat.”
“I heard that!” Mrs. Ainsfield’s voice echoed through from the back.
He laughed. “Will it just be the two, then?”
“Yes, thank you.” She slipped the bottles into her basket and walked to the counter.
“Ah, you can have ‘em for nothing… just don’t tell the missus.” Mr. Ainsfield flashed a wink.
“Are you sure?” Selena could hardly believe her luck. It was turning out to be a rather wonderful day.
He nodded. “Absolutely sure. Now get yourself out of here before Mrs. Ainsfield comes and scolds me.”
Selena beamed with gratitude. “You’re too kind, Mr. Ainsfield. I’ll be sure to drop some of my apple tarts into the store this week, as a way of saying thanks.”
“You’ll have me the size of a house by winter,” he replied, patting his stomach.
“Think of it as your winter plumage, to keep you warm in the colder months.”
“Aye, that I will. You have yourselves a good afternoon, you hear?”
Selena clutched the basket. “I will, Mr. Ainsfield.”
With that, she turned and hurried out of the store before Mrs. Ainsfield did decide to put in an appearance.
Her foot was seconds from stepping off the decking and onto the street when a loud sound made her reel back. It sounded like thunder, but the skies were clear and there was no hint of a storm in the heavy air. It’d be some days before the heavens opened to slake the land’s thirst. Puzzled, she peered up and down the street, to try and figure out where the noise was coming from. Her eyes widened as she witnessed the rest of the town’s inhabitants running for cover wherever they could find it, fleeing into the open doors of stores, of the tavern, and even of the bordello that everybody pretended didn’t exist.
A moment later, she understood why. A flurry of dust rolled in at the bottom of the main street, in a vast cloud that obscured everything behind it. She’d never witnessed a sandstorm before but she imagined it looked very like this, shrouding all in its path. Selena couldn’t even see the tavern anymore, though it was the first building at the bottom of the road.
“Mrs. Montford, get inside!” Mr. Ainsfield came running at her, his hand grasping her wrist and trying to yank her back into the store.
“What is it? What’s happening?” Panic trembled in her voice.
“Nothing good, let me tell you that,” he replied, frantically trying to get her to follow him.
She resisted, her mind racing with concern. And then, she saw them. Ten figures burst out of the dust cloud, their faces half-covered by black cloth. Their clothing followed the same pattern, all black, making them look like devilish shadows who’d risen straight out of hell. Pounding down the street, they rode angry-looking horses, who’d been streaked with red and white paint. Their shouts struck terror into Selena’s heart as she watched them gallop past the deck where she stood, pistols glinting in their hands. A few had rifles slung over their shoulders, and Selena didn’t want to know why.
It took her a minute too long to realize where they were headed.
“Mrs. Montford, please get inside,” Mr. Ainsfield urged, but she was no longer listening. Wrenching her hand out of his grasp, she took off down the steps and sprinted for the bank, but these wretches were faster on horseback than her feet could carry her.
She had almost reached the building when the first shots rang out. Her muscles locked up and her limbs froze, bringing her to a screeching halt less than ten yards from the bank. More shots fired and screams followed. They seemed to explode all around her, making it impossible to figure out where they were coming from. Were the people inside screaming, or was it the women who watched in fear from the windows of the stores?
“Mrs. Montford! Selena!” a voice howled at her. “Come to me! Come here!” It was Beth Ashley, who owned the bakery opposite.
But Selena couldn’t move. She stared at the bank, praying to God for a glimpse of her husband. Let him be safe… let him come out as he went in. Please, God, please… let him be safe. Shadows flitted behind the closed doors of the bank, half-visible through the windows, but she couldn’t make out James. Her stomach jolted as more shots burst outward, the splinter of glass echoing the breaking of her heart as she clasped her hands together and prayed all the harder.
Just then, the black-clad figures tore out of the bank doors. They held bags in their hands, which appeared plump with whatever they’d stolen. It was all happening so fast that Selena didn’t have time to think about her own safety, as the evil brutes leapt back onto their horses and dug in their heels, thundering out of the town. She counted eight, and two horses remained, which meant there were still two of those robbers at large.
Run! Her mind screamed at her, but she held her nerve. Taking a tentative step toward the bank, her knees threatened to buckle as the last two figures barreled out. Another figure followed them, one who was as dear to her as herself. Blood bloomed across his crisp white shirt, which she had laid out for him that very morning. Four unfurling blossoms of scarlet dotted about his person. He held a pistol in his hand and leveled it at one of the escaping robbers.
“Halt, you devil!” he roared, as he pulled the trigger. The projectile skimmed right past the shoulder of the closest villain, a cry going up as the intended target clasped the wound with his hand. He dropped the bag of money he’d been holding and hurried for his horse. He and his vile associate jumped into their saddles and turned their mounts toward the receding dust cloud in the distance. James tried to go after them but they were too quick.
Selena’s instincts kicked in. No longer frozen to the spot, she broke into a run. Sending up a paltry cloud of her own, she did not stop until she reached James, who was swaying like corn in a summer breeze. She reached out for him, her hand upon his arm, when he collapsed into the dirt. She followed him down, throwing her basket to the ground as she sank to her knees beside him and desperately smoothed back the damp curls of his hair. His eyes blinked slowly, a foggy expression drifting over them.
“James? James?” she begged.
“Selena…” He sounded groggy.
“Stay with me, James.” She looked over her shoulder to the horrified spectators. “Send for the doctor! Someone, please, send for the doctor!”
Miss Ashley appeared in the doorway of the bakery and shoved her delivery boy out onto the veranda. Selena didn’t hear what she said but she could guess, as the boy went running a second later, hurtling in the direction of the doctor’s residence.
“Selena… did you… fetch the lemonade?” James forced a smile, but it quickly turned into a grimace of pain. The blood seeped out of him until half of his shirt was no longer white but a deep, dark crimson that brought tears to Selena’s eyes.
“I did, my love. And we’re going to go to the creek, and we’re going to drink it, and we’re going to enjoy ourselves,” she said, as the tears fell. Digging into her basket, she ripped out the gingham cloth that had been keeping the bread fresh and pushed it as hard as she could against James’ wounds. She’d seen it done before, after an accident at the timber yard. But the cloth could only cover so much, and he’d been shot too many times.
“Why is it so cold?” James asked. “It was mighty hot before, and now… it’s turned cold.”
Selena’s breath hitched. “It’s just the shade of the bank, James. It’s cooler here.” It was a lie, and she knew it, but what else could she say when her heart was shattering? “You stay with me, do you hear? Don’t close your eyes, and don’t go to sleep. Just stay with me. Keep your eyes on me, until the doctor gets here.”
“I love you,” he whispered.
“I love you more,” she replied, her chest clenched.
“It’s bad, isn’t it? I know it’s… bad. I can… feel it.” He coughed violently, specks of blood splashing out of his mouth and onto his chin. “I’m sorry, Selena. They came in… and they… I couldn’t let them… hurt anyone. I stepped in. I shouldn’t… have. I’m sorry.”
“You wouldn’t be you if you hadn’t tried to protect the innocent.” She dabbed the blood away from his chin and gathered him into her lap, holding him close. “All you have to do is stay awake for a few more minutes. Miss Ashley sent her boy to get the doctor. Please, just hang on.”
Another cough wracked his chest. “I’m… cold, Selena. I can’t feel… anything.”
“Don’t you leave me, James. Don’t you dare.” She cradled his head and rocked him gently. “Please, don’t leave me.”
Silence echoed back. Panic-stricken, she looked down into his warm hazel eyes. They stared back up, empty and blind.
“James? James!” She howled like a wounded animal as she shook him, trying to urge him back into consciousness. Ducking down, she pressed her ear against his chest, feeling the wet cold of the blood as it smeared against her cheek. No steady, comforting beat resounded back at her. His heart had stopped, and so had hers. “James!” She shook him harder, but it didn’t matter.
He’d already gone.
Three Days Earlier
William Wardley watched his sister from the veranda of their home in Ness County, Kansas. Golden fields stretched out as far as the eye could see, the harsh sunlight beating down, parching the grass. Lydia was busying herself with the wildflower patch that she’d been determined to grow, wasting bucket after bucket of water on feeding the soil. At eighteen, she’d turned into a rare Southern Belle, with tumbling auburn locks and unusual green eyes, her pale complexion dotted with an innocent smattering of freckles. She had become such a beautiful bird that William had to keep a watchful eye over her at all times, fending off the young men who came a-calling.
William, on the other hand, was far more ordinary in looks than his sister. His hair carried the same reddish hue as hers but it was blended with plainer shades of brown, and his eyes were not green but an odd mix of blue and gray, that seemed to grow lighter or darker depending on the light. He stood at well over six feet, with broad shoulders and a lean muscularity that he’d gained in his youth from helping out on the neighboring farms, which had never left him.
It was just the two of them these days, existing in the home that their grandfather had built decades before. Their parents had died several years ago now, almost six. Their father had been injured in a farming accident, and their mother had passed not long after. The doctors had said she’d died of an affliction of the lungs, brought on by the sudden cold snap that winter, but William didn’t believe it. He knew she’d died of a broken heart, for she’d loved her husband more than he’d ever seen anyone love anything, and their father had loved her right back. The two of them had always been dancing in the kitchen and sitting out on the porch, cuddling under the stars. Sometimes, he looked up at the night’s sky and wondered if they were up there together, looking down on their children.
The house sat on the outskirts of the nearest town, the only building on a long road that led across the county and into the next, and William liked to think he and his sister emulated the position of their abode—they kept to the edges, only involving themselves in town life when they really had to. William kept busy with the occupation of bounty hunting, though he never stayed away from home too long. In recent months, he hadn’t gone away at all, terrified of what might happen to Lydia if he did. Mrs. Genting from town always came up to stay with her when he went on his business, but that didn’t feel like enough anymore. Young men could be feral around pretty girls, and he wasn’t about to put his only family at risk. Besides, he’d made enough from his bounties that they didn’t have to worry for a time, but the day would come when he’d have to head out again. Deep down, he hoped Lydia would’ve found a suitable husband by then, one William approved of, who could take care of her in his stead.
“The butterflies are going wild over these bluebells, Will!” Lydia called out excitedly. “And the bees are having their fill.”
William smiled. “Your roses aren’t doing so well, though.”
“Roses are so stubborn.” Lydia shrugged. “They’ll bloom properly when they’re good and ready, and nothing I do is going to make them do it any faster.”
“Is that any way to speak to your roses?” He chuckled.
She got up and dusted off her soiled hands. “I might take a walk into town to get some crushed-up bones from the butcher. They help the soil like you wouldn’t believe. Do you want anything while I’m gone?”
“I can come with you, if you like?” It wasn’t entirely a question.
“Will, I’ll be just fine. I’ll be there and back in thirty minutes. And, if I’m not, you can send the cavalry.” She flashed him a mischievous grin that made it hard to be strict. She was as free-spirited as she was beautiful, and he prayed that wouldn’t get her into trouble.
He frowned. “I don’t know about that, Lydia.”
“Please, Will. You can’t be traipsing after me my whole life. I’ll be there and back before you know I’m gone, I swear it.”
He sighed and sat back in his chair. “Fine. But if you’re not back home in half an hour, I’m coming into town to find you.”
She clapped excitedly. “Thank you! I’ll get us something from the store, as a treat.”
“Don’t go spending too much.”
“I won’t.” She was out of the white gate before he could stop her, heading merrily up the road. He watched her the entire way, until he couldn’t see her anymore. Even then, he kept a picture of her in his mind, closing his eyes and tracing the steps she’d have to take to get into town.
She’ll be back soon. I can’t put a leash on her forever. Losing their parents had made him even more protective of his little sister, and he knew he could be a bit too oppressive at times. But he meant well.
Tapping the armrest of his chair, he thought about going after her and watching her from a distance. But if she saw him, he knew it would cause chaos. And so he remained in his chair, his nerves jangling, and waited for her to come back of her own accord. He counted down the minutes, no longer able to enjoy the beautiful afternoon.
Thirty minutes turned into forty five, and William’s heart began to race. He stayed five minutes more, knowing Lydia had a knack for getting into conversations and chatting away an hour before she’d even realized it had happened. He told himself that was what had happened. He assured himself. But it was no good.
Rising from his chair, he hurried down the porch steps and across the garden path, leaving the gate open as he ran out onto the road. He was halfway to town when a dust cloud started coming in his direction. Knowing it meant riders, he darted to the edge of the dirt road and let them pass. He’d expected a carriage or some fellas from town on their way to hunt. Instead, he was met with grim-looking men with black cloths covering their faces, their horses streaked with paint. Fat bags of something dangled from the saddles, and he saw the glint of pistols on the holsters around their waists, some with rifles bouncing against their backs as they rode.
Lydia… With his heart in his throat, he sprinted the rest of the way to town, until his lungs burned, his thighs ached, and his shirt was drenched through with sweat. The moment he set foot on the main thoroughfare of the town, he knew something was terribly wrong. Silence reverberated between the buildings and there was nobody around. It had turned into a ghost town that he didn’t recognize.
Beneath the deafening quiet, another sound trickled toward him. Soft at first but getting louder. The sound of someone crying. Several people crying, in fact. He lifted his hand to his brow to block out the glaring sun and spotted a cluster of individuals just outside the bank to his left. He ran toward them. As he neared, he realized there were three more people on the ground, blankets covering their faces and bodies.
“What happened?” William demanded, pushing through the group.
Mr. Foster, the bank manager, looked up with teary eyes. “We’ve been robbed, Will.”
“My sister? She came into town. Where is she? Has anyone seen her?” he said desperately.
The woman beside Mr. Foster, a young lady by the name of Meredith Ilks, covered her face with her hands and unleashed a gut-wrenching howl of pain. Meredith was good friends with Lydia and William knew her well. He approached her and put his hand on her shoulder.
“Where is she, Meredith?” he urged.
With a shaky hand, Meredith pointed to the covered figure on the left. “There,” she wailed.
Time and sense and understanding stopped. William looked down at the shrouded person, but he couldn’t associate this crumpled, blanketed being with his sister. No… it can’t be. He slowly sank to his knees and reached for the edge of the fabric. Holding his breath, he peeled it back. And dearly wished he hadn’t. If he hadn’t, he might’ve been able to believe that Meredith was wrong. But Lydia’s pale, vacant-eyed face told the truth of the matter.
“The men who robbed us,” Mr. Foster said quietly. “They were shooting every which way. Lydia had just come in to speak with Meredith. She was standing right in front of the doors when they entered. I don’t know if they meant to shoot her, but… well, I suppose you can tell the rest.”
“Send for the minister. Tell him to come to the house. She’ll be buried by the oak tree, like the rest of my family before her.” Without a word, William gathered Lydia into his arms and carried her away from the scene.
“William, I really think you should—” Mr. Foster tried to protest, but William shot him a cold look.
“Send for the minister,” he snapped. Turning his back on those who hadn’t protected his beloved sister, he stalked away with her in his arms, delivering her all the way back to their house. The place where she should still have been, tending to her wildflowers. Tears streamed down his face as he walked, for he knew he had some blame in this. If he hadn’t let her walk to town, this might never have happened. If he had just kept her within the fence, on their grounds, she might’ve been safe. But he’d let her go, and now she was dead. And he was alone.
As he reached the house, he didn’t go to the porch. Instead, he sat down on the grass in front of her wildflowers and cradled her in his arms. He rocked her gently, as if she were merely sleeping. Deep, painful roars of agony tore out of his throat as he held her there, their echoes resounding across the endless gold of the fields.
“How could you let her die?” he hissed up at the sky. “How could you let an angel like her die at the hands of those beasts? Why didn’t you save her? Why didn’t you protect her?” He wanted to hate God for allowing this to happen, but he wasn’t sure if he was speaking to the Divine or if he was speaking to himself for his own failings.
Helpless, he buried his face in her shoulder and hugged her tighter, his tears dampening the cotton of her dress. Somehow, he felt that, if he just held her closely enough, she’d come back to him. A miracle. But even the heat of the day couldn’t spare its warmth for Lydia’s cold body.
“I’m sorry,” he whispered. “I’m sorry I wasn’t there.” She must’ve been so afraid.
He did not know how much time had gone by, there in the garden, but he stirred at the sound of a horse approaching. Looking up, he saw the minister arriving on the back of his chestnut mare. For a moment, William had wondered if the robbers had returned to rub salt into the raw wound of his grief. But this was not much better. There was finality in the minister’s arrival, and he knew it would not be long before he had to say his last goodbye to the dearest, sweetest girl he had ever known. A girl who had barely had the chance to live and had certainly never been given the opportunity to love, not in the sense she would’ve liked.
“Will?” Reverend Clarke said, as he got down from his horse. “Mr. Foster said you’d sent for me?”
William nodded. “I want her buried under the oak, with the rest of the Wardley name.”
“Let’s take her into the house, shall we? Where it’s cooler?” He moved to help William, but William pulled Lydia tighter to him.
“I’ll carry her in, Reverend.”
“As you like, Will.” Sorrow flowed from the minister’s words. Lydia had been beloved by all, for her grace and charm and beauty. Everyone would feel her loss keenly, but none more than her brother. He was not well-liked, merely tolerated. It was Lydia who had made him amenable to the townsfolk. Without her, this house would feel impossibly large and empty. And this town would feel strange and alien to him—a constant reminder of what he’d lost.
As he picked her up and carried her into the house, William cast a look back on the road where he’d seen those despicable riders. He knew what he had to do, even if it meant leaving Lydia and the rest of his family alone for a while, buried beneath the great oak in the back garden. If it was the very last thing he did, he would catch those men and make them pay for what they had done. Dead or alive, he would claim the bounty on every single one of their heads. Not a monetary bounty, but one of grief and personal vengeance.
But first, he had to lay Lydia to rest. His last tie to this world, now severed. Those robbers were in more danger than they realized, for William no longer had anything left to lose.
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