When Ellie helped him to open up before God, will they miss the signs that their love is about to bloom?
Ellie has managed to sustain a beautiful florist shop in town after her husband’s sudden passing a year ago. But the loan she received back then so as to build her business, has been a terrible thorn in her side. When she meets Shawn, she realizes that it might be His plan to bring them closer. How can she trust this deeply scarred man when he seems just so ambitious and away from God?
Shawn has lived in New York by himself for quite some time now. He’s a young businessman who wants to hit it big. When he is informed of his father’s imminent death, he returns to the village he grew up in. Shawn has yet to realize that getting back to his family is not only about dealing with his grief. It’s also about rebuilding bridges he had managed to burn because of his ambition. How can he give in to his growing feelings for Ellie and stay in a small town when he has to abandon his dream of becoming a success in the Eastern coast?
However, Ellie’s debts cannot be settled unless she stands up against injustice. Shawn, then, must choose between protecting the woman he loves or the old life he used to have back in the Big Apple. How will they manage to let God inspire their love and simply make the right choice at the right time?
Thornridge, Missouri, 1875
It was June when the peonies were at their best, or so her mother used to say. Ellie Sadler had just cut a large bunch from the garden and now she gazed around her with a satisfied look and a smile on her face. Everything was blooming and the small holding was alive with a riot of color.
“She’d have been so proud,” she said out loud, smiling as her cat Louisa rolled over and stretched herself out in the sun.
Ellie brought the flowers to her nose, smelling the sweet perfume before stooping down to cut another bunch and beginning to hum to herself. She had been happily working in the garden all morning, cutting flowers for her florist’s store and planting all manner of new seeds and blossoms.
It was the finest garden in all Thornridge, or so she thought, and it seemed that two years after planting her first crops she was finally seeing the rewards of her labors. There were yellow poppies, orange lilies, purple cornflowers, black-eyed Susans and columbines, all in neat rows. The fruit trees, which her good friend Mr. Sampson had given her, were in their first blossom, and lavender grew in great bushes all around the borders.
It was a heavenly scene and the small holding was Ellie’s favorite place to be, always in the company of her faithful Louisa. The cat now looked up and rolled on her back, pointing her paws up into the sky. Ellie smiled, cutting a final bunch of peonies before straightening up and nodding.
“You’re right, Louisa, it’s time to open up the store. We can’t all lie around in the sun the whole day, now, can we?” she said, rubbing the cat’s stomach as it began to purr.
The florist store, which Ellie had opened just over a year ago, lay across the street from the small holding. Ellie lived behind in a small house of wooden slats, painted red with an arched roof and a small veranda upon which she would sit at night and admire the garden. It had been her husband John who had built the house, but his sad death eighteen months before had left a terrible emptiness—one she had tried her best to fill with flowers and her faith, which gave her hope even in the darkest of times.
“Now, you be good while I go and open up,” she said as Louisa purred, and she took up two large baskets of cut flowers and made her way across the street.
She had left the florist store neat and tidy the evening before, swept and ready for the day ahead. A lovely scent hit her as she opened the door and she smiled at the rows of flowers all in their vases waiting to delight her customers. She loved her florist’s store—a reminder of her dear John, the man who had so encouraged her to pursue her dreams.
“Good morning, Mrs. Sadler,” a voice came from along the street as Ellie emerged from the store to bring in another basket of cut flowers.
“Oh, good morning, Mr. Sampson. I was just thinking of you while I was cutting these peonies. Don’t those fruit trees look beautiful in their blossom?” she replied, as an elderly man with a long white beard came ambling across the street.
He tipped his hat to her and gazed back across at the garden, which was like an artist’s palette amidst the dusty colors of the town.
“It sure looks nice, Mrs. Sadler. Such a shame that John couldn’t see it for himself,” he said, tutting and shaking his head.
“Oh, but he sees it, he’s always here with me,” Ellie said, and the old man smiled and nodded.
“That’s faith for you, Mrs. Sadler, and you’re blessed with faith in abundance,” he said. “Well, good day to you, I think it’s going to be another hot one.”
Ellie watched as he ambled off down the street. There was not a cloud in the sky, and it seemed that Mr. Sampson was right. Ellie took up the basket of flowers and made her way into the cool interior of the store. She took buckets and drew water from the pump across the street, and then she filled the vases, cutting dead heads and pruning back yesterday’s flowers, replacing them with new. She turned the store sign around and was open for business.
In the year following John’s death, Ellie had received much support from the people of Thornridge. They had taken her to heart, and she was grateful for their custom and kindness even though life on the frontier was a challenge for many and there was much hardship and poverty all around.
It was not easy running a florist’s store in such circumstance, but she had risen to the challenge and had made the business a success. She made enough for her and Louisa to live on and she was happy with her lot. It was a simple life, but one that Ellie loved, content to make Thornridge her home and serve the people of the town as best she could.
“Now, where did I put those secateurs,” she mumbled, rummaging around behind the counter.
She had just stood up when the door opened, the bell tinkling as a handsome and broadly-built man stepped into the store. He was well-dressed, his light blonde hair combed back and his eyes a most striking blue. Ellie had never seen him before and she blushed a little, dusting off her hands and smoothing down her apron, which was covered in petals and leaves.
“Good day, ma’am, I’ve come about some flowers,” he said, looking around him.
“Well, you’ve come to the right place,” she replied, and she stepped out from behind the counter with a smile.
The trail into Thornridge was hot and dusty, just as it had been when Shawn Holdman had left all those years ago. The town had not changed much either—that same strip of saloons and stores, Joe Pearson’s mercantile store and Miss Aldcott’s boarding house with the white lilac trees out front.
But still, there were some little things which had changed, enough to notice and remind him that time moved on, even if he had felt it standing still. The schoolhouse had been painted blue and the church bell replaced with a shiny new instrument, atop of which was fixed a weathervane in the shape of a cockerel.
Shawn had never understood why the town of Thornridge had adopted the cockerel as its symbol, though he remembered well enough his father’s old bird, regular as clockwork at waking him when the sun began to rise.
“Well, now, that’s a sight for sore eyes. If it isn’t Mr. Holdman,” a voice from the church steps called out, and Shawn turned in his saddle to find Mr. Jedediah Vase hurrying toward him.
“Good day to you, Mr. Vase,” Shawn said, tipping his hat.
“And how I wish it were under happier circumstances that you were returning to our little town,” Mr. Vase said, shaking his head.
“My father’s a strong man, this illness won’t be his last,” Shawn said, but the pastor looked at him and sighed.
“He’s taken a turn for the worse, Shawn. Your poor mother’s beside herself and your brother just mopes about the place all day, miserable as sin,” Mr. Vase said.
“That’s no different, then,” Shawn replied. “He never had any ambition.”
“No, you got all of that. Tell me, how’s life in New York City? I suppose Thornridge feels like a sleepy backwater compared to the city. You stood out like anything when I saw you riding in. That fancy suit, the way you hold yourself—you’re a made man by the looks of it, Shawn,” the pastor replied.
“Well, I’ve made something of myself these past six years. I’m not the naïve boy who rode out of here to seek his fortune,” Shawn replied.
It was the first time he had returned to Thornridge in six years, his mother’s pleading letter the thing which had brought him back. She had written to him on several occasions over the past months to tell him that his father was gravely ill, but in her last correspondence she had pleaded with him to return, fearing that time was short.
“And now you’ve brought some of that fortune back. But, tell me, did you find a church out there?” the pastor asked, causing Shawn to blush.
“I’d best get on my way, Mr. Vase. I’ll be sure to find my way to church now that I’m back. I don’t suppose much has changed in this sleepy backwater, as you put it,” Shawn said, glancing around him.
“Places don’t change as quickly as people do. You might find the town the same, albeit with a lick of paint here and there, but its people are different. Anyway, good day to you, Shawn,” the pastor said.
Shawn tipped his hat to the pastor and rode off along the street. Mr. Vase was right, the town had not changed much. There were a few more stores, a florist and a tobacconist, and there were more houses, too, the town having expanded with the coming of the railroad nearby. But its essence appeared to remain the same—Thornridge was a frontier town and that was what it would always be, a place so very far removed from what Shawn had always longed for.
It seemed a sad and timeworn place, entirely different to the hustle and bustle Shawn had left behind in New York City. He was already itching to return and wondered how long he would be forced to remain at his father’s bedside. In truth, Shawn considered his mother’s concerns to be unfounded. His father was as strong as an ox, a rancher who had survived most every disease the frontier had to offer. No, it would not be long before Shawn could leave Thornridge behind and return to his business interests in New York City.
His father’s ranch lay along a track lined with elm trees that seemed to have doubled in size since last he was there. It was on the far side of town, the rolling prairie and meadows where the cattle grazed lying all around. The day was hot and humid, and Shawn hoped that his mother would have some lemonade and a slice of seed cake ready for him when he arrived.
He had not written to tell her that he was coming, unsure of it himself until he had set his affairs in order and entrusted the business to a reliable deputy. But here he was, and the ranch looked little different to the day he had last set eyes upon it. It was a large house with a veranda running on three sides, two stories high and painted lilac, his mother’s favorite color.
Shawn could hear the horses whinnying in the stables over by the barns, and the sound of crickets in the long grass of the paddocks drifted through the air. There was the familiar smell of woodsmoke and straw from his childhood and little seemed to have changed in appearances, though perhaps more had done so in the persons that still inhabited the place. He had not seen them in so many years that it was inevitable that things would be different.
He climbed down from the back of his horse and trotted it the last few paces before tethering it up in front of the house and letting out a deep sigh. It felt strange to have returned, as though the memories of the past still hung around the place, his own and those of others. What would his parents be like now? What would his brother be like? Would he settle back into old ways as quickly as he had gotten out of them?
Well, here I am.
Suddenly, the door flew open and his mother emerged, rushing down the steps and throwing her arms around him. She had aged since he had last seen her, her face appearing worn and the hair beneath her bonnet turning gray. But she still had that same twinkle in her eyes, which were now filled with tears as she chastised him for not letting her know he was coming.
“I’d have baked a cake, I’d have had the bunting out front and fresh flowers cut for the table. Oh, I didn’t think you’d come. I know that’s awful of me to say, but you always seem so busy. Your letters are filled with busyness, Shawn, but I’m so glad you’ve come now. Your father’s so very ill and all I’ve done is cry these past days,” she said, smothering him in kisses.
“Well, I’m here now, Mother, and I’m glad to be if it makes you happy,” Shawn said, embarrassed by his mother’s overreaction.
“Irena, who’s that out there?” came a voice from inside the ranch house; the familiar voice of Shawn’s father Keith Holdman echoed through the door.
“It’s Shawn—he’s come back to us, Keith, he’s come back to us,” Shawn’s mother replied.
“Don’t go telling untruths, Irena, that boy wasn’t ever coming back,” came the reply.
“It’s me, Father,” Shawn said, stepping up onto the veranda and making his way inside.
The parlor was just as he remembered it, comfortably furnished and with the pleasant smell of his mother’s cooking wafting all around. The grandfather clock stood ticking in the corner and the table was set for a simple lunch with three places, the fourth unlaid. Several more of his mother’s paintings adorned the wall and a makeshift bed had been placed along one wall, in which his father lay, gazing in astonishment at the sight of his son.
“What brought you here?” he said, his voice sounding disbelieving, as though he thought his eyes were deceiving him.
“You’re ill, Father,” Shawn said, taking off his hat and looking at his father in pity.
Shawn’s mother had been right—his father was a shadow of himself, and suddenly Shawn knew that this would not be like the other illnesses. He was pale and withdrawn, his eyes seeming distant, and he had lost the figure of a man who was used to hard work. It was a pitiful sight and Shawn was glad that he had heeded his mother’s call for him to return.
“And how did you know that? Weren’t you too busy back in New York City making money to care what simple people like us were doing?” his father said, and Shawn sighed.
It had always been the same. His parents had moved out west many years ago to escape precisely what his father called “city ways.” They had thought that by moving to Missouri, they could prevent their sons being corrupted by the love of money and of wealth. But Shawn had never been able to forget the dream of the east and, as soon as he had been old enough, he had returned, much to his father’s disappointment.
“Mother wrote to me, Father. Did she not tell you?” Shawn said, glancing at his mother, who shook her head.
“Irena, I didn’t want you interfering, I told you,” Shawn’s father said, struggling to sit up and gasping for breath as he did so.
“Oh, Keith. What else was I supposed to do? I couldn’t tell Shawn that everything was all right when it isn’t,” she said, beginning to cry.
“It must have been a wrench for you, son, leaving behind all that money in New York City,” his father said, now sat up in bed, his brow covered in sweat and face red with exertion.
“I wanted to come, Father. You’re ill. I’m sorry about that, I want to help,” Shawn said, pulling a chair out from under the table and bringing it next to his father’s bed.
“I’ll get better, I always do,” his father said, and Shawn’s mother turned away and began to sob.
“The doctor says it’s in God’s hands,” she whispered, and Shawn looked gravely at his father.
He barely recognized him. When Shawn had last seen him, he could have lifted four sacks of grain and worked a day on the ranch without a second thought, but now he could barely raise himself off the bed. It was a tragic sight and Shawn felt a wave of guilt flood through him at having been away so long.
“I had to come back, Father, I had to,” he said, reaching out and placing his hand on his father’s.
“You didn’t have to do anything,” his father replied.
“Oh, Keith, just be glad your eldest son is here for your last days,” Shawn’s mother said, turning with an angry expression on her face, tears running down her cheeks.
“It’s all right, Mother, I didn’t expect a warm welcome. I know that neither of you thinks much of what I do back in New York City, but I’ve been successful, I’ve worked hard, and I’ve done my best,” Shawn said, as his father began to laugh before coughing.
“And sold your soul to the devil. I know what that place is like, that’s why we came out here all those years ago. I wanted you to have a simpler life, not be choked by greed,” came the reply.
“Oh, forget it, Keith, just be glad your son’s here,” Shawn’s mother said, just as the door to the ranch house opened.
It was Shawn’s brother Guy who entered, and he looked as surprised as Keith to see Shawn sat at their father’s bedside. He was younger than Shawn, but there was no doubting that they were brothers. Both of them had the same tousled blonde hair and green eyes, built as once their father had been, the only difference being in their dress.
While Shawn wore a suit quite unsuited to the rough trail he had ridden from the rail stop, his brother was dressed for laboring on the ranch. His open shirt and dirty breeches reminded Shawn of what his own life might have been like if he had followed his father’s wishes. The two of them had always had a difficult relationship and this was first time they had laid eyes on each other in years.
His brother was no longer the lanky youth Shawn had left behind all those years ago. Now, he was a man, and his expression was one of surprise and hostility, as though Shawn’s presence was neither expected nor desired. He said nothing at first, kicking off his boots and taking a seat at the far end of the table.
“How are you, Guy?” Shawn asked, and his brother nodded.
“As well as can be expected, I suppose,” he replied, glancing at their father who had begun to cough again.
“Isn’t it good to have Shawn back here again? We’ve missed him so very much,” their mother said, smiling through her tears.
“Well, at least someone’s glad to see me,” Shawn replied.
“We’re all glad to see you, Shawn. We were just going to have something to eat. You two boys help your father up and I’ll lay an extra place at the table,” their mother said.
Guy rose from his place and went to help their father, who was struggling to sit up.
“I’m all right, I’m all right,” he snarled, but his arm gave way and he fell back onto the makeshift bed with a cry of pain.
“You’re not all right, Father, you’re sick,” Guy said, as their father cursed.
“I’ll do it,” he said, but he lay back breathless, his face growing even paler.
“Come on now, Father, let us help you,” Shawn said, another wave of guilt flooding through him at the thought of his long absence.
“You haven’t been here to help much recently, we can manage,” Guy said, but Shawn shook his head.
“This is my responsibility as much as it is yours, Guy,” he said and, gently, he helped his father to sit up on the side of the bed.
With some difficulty, they got him to the table as their mother set down a simple meal of soup and bread.
“Now, Shawn, would you like to say grace?” his mother asked, and Shawn blushed.
The practice of saying grace, of saying any prayers at all, was a habit he had long since lost. There had been too many other distractions out in New York City and, somehow, he had drifted away from the faith so strongly held by his parents. He cleared his throat, glancing at Guy and trying his best to remember some suitable words.
“Lord … we … thank you for this food, may it be … a blessing to us. Amen,” he said, and the others responded in kind.
“Another thing you’ve forgotten,” his father said, and they began to eat in silence.
Later that day, when Shawn had retired to bed in the familiar room at the top of the house, in the attic that had been his since he was a boy, he lay awake and pondered all that had occurred that day. Mr. Vase had been right: the town of Thornridge had not changed that much, but its people had. And none more so than his father, who seemed as close to death as a man could be.
Shawn closed his eyes and tried to pray again, but he felt a fraud, as though he were trying to strike up a friendship with a person he had long neglected but he knew had not neglected him. Try as he might, the words just would not come and eventually he fell asleep, wondering if returning to Thornridge was really the right decision.
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