She’s an unfortunate bride seeking a marriage of convenience. He’s a detached rancher whose heart has never been healed. How can they walk Lord’s aisle when their fears still grow thorns inside them?
Laura is an unfortunate young woman whose life so far has been full of thorns. Losing her step-father is what urges her to seek guidance from the local priest. Answering to a mail-order bride ad though is something she could never imagine doing. When she meets her scarred rancher and his troubled brother, how will she show him that God is not wrathful but full of Glory and Love?
William is a rancher whose heart hasn’t yet healed. The tragic death of the love of his life left him numb and extremely weary. He really believes he’s cursed and God hates him. Meeting sweet Laura though, makes him realize that there might be a chance for repentance after all. How will he open his heart to Lord’s calling when he has abandoned all hope?
Ready to deal with every threat and protect one another, Laura and William face attacks from the competitors, but they are not willing to give up. They will fight for their love against their fears and traumas. Will their love bloom with God’s blessing?
Jefferson City, Missouri, 1852…
Laura Swanson sat on the wooden pew, listening as the priest talked about times and seasons and how nothing happened in God’s world by accident. How there was a purpose for everything under heaven and on Earth. She tried to give him her full attention, but the events of the last few days and the uncertainty of her future had her soul and mind overwhelmed as worry seemed to be a constant whispering companion. Her fingers toyed with the hem of the cape still wrapped around her shoulders, the heaviness of the material doing little to warm her soul.
The black cape had once belonged to someone else, as had the dark grey skirt and blouse she wore beneath it. She’d considered herself somewhat lucky that as she’d grown, she had access to a cedar chest full of clothing that had once belonged to her adoptive father’s late wife. She’d never had the privilege of meeting Miriam Calhoun, as she had died months before Laura even met the man who would prove to be her salvation from living on the streets. George Calhoun, her adoptive father.
She eyed the skirt she was wearing with a critical eye. The clothing wasn’t cut in the newest of styles and the cloth had been washed numerous times, but Laura still considered herself fortunate. Laura had become adept at making alterations to the dresses, skirts, and blouses, eliminating the need for her adoptive father to spend money on material and new clothing for her. It had been one of the many ways she tried to contribute to their small two-member family and give back to the man who had given her a second chance at life.
She was slightly taller than Miriam had been but letting out the hem on the skirts had corrected that problem. The sleeves on the blouses were only a tad too short, but Laura wasn’t one to complain. That was the way she’d tried to live her life up until now, but her optimism was sadly missing these days. How much heartache is one person supposed to handle during their lifetime?
“…God never gives us more than we can handle. He gives us what He wants to help us handle,” the priest told her, almost as if he’d been able to read her mind.
Laura reached up a hand and tucked a loose strand of blonde hair under the black bonnet with trim that matched the cape. She’d carefully pinned her curls up that very morning and then tied the bonnet in place with a bow beneath her chin. Her sapphire blue eyes were framed by dark circles that looked like bruises beneath each eye – a testament to her recent lack of sleep and the stress of losing a loved one. Her skin was pale and only a faint trace of freckles still showed on the bridge of her nose as she’d not spent much time outdoors in the sunshine these last few years.
“Father Paul, I don’t mean to be disrespectful, but from where I’m sitting I don’t think God even knows I’m here,” she told him forlornly. First, she’d lost her birth mother, Susan, before she’d even been old enough to know who she was. Her birth father, Geoffrey, had often talked about her mother, referring to her as an angel of light with hair the color of spun gold and eyes the color of the clear, blue sky.
Laura’s father had loved her unconditionally and provided everything she needed, while not everything she wanted. She’d had all of the usual necessities, a father who adored her, and a modest home to live in. She hadn’t had fancy bonnets and dolls, but her father had made sure her life was filled with plenty of love. He’d been a steamboat captain on the grand Mississippi River. She had loved the times when she’d been able to go with him, sitting on the second deck, watching the dock workers and passengers as the boat chugged along. But tragedy had once again struck her young life when Laura was just twelve years old.
Growth in the town of St. Louis had exploded with the arrival of the new and much lighter weight steamboats. What used to take days to travel from New Orleans up to St. Louis, now took less than twenty-four hours. But with the arrival of more boats and people, came more accidents. Her father was a casualty of one of those accidents. A snag in the river had ripped a hole in the hull of the boat, and in an effort to try and reach the shore and save as many passengers as possible, the steam crew had overloaded the boiler, causing it to rupture and explode, killing everyone – passengers and crew.
Laura went from being the daughter of a loving father who provided her with shelter, food, and clothing, to one of the homeless children roaming the streets and docks of the rapidly growing city. A nameless waif without home or supervision. The lack of both had contributed to her arrest and capture several months later when the small group of boys who took her under their protection broke into a store to steal food. She’d not been quick enough to get away. And it was forever an event that would forever change the remaining years of her young life.
George Calhoun had been visiting St. Louis for a police officers’ convention and had been taking a tour of the new youth detention facility when the arresting officer arrived with young Laura in tow. She was covered in dirt and grime, having not had a proper bath in over two months. Her feet were bare, and her clothing, threadbare and ill-fitting, was cast-offs from one of the other boys. Her hair had been chopped off to make her fit in and to the casual observer, she looked much like the young boy she’d been pretending to be.
That was until she was shoved into a holding cell with a dozen other boys and told to strip down and change into the standard prison outfit. She’d shrieked in outrage, loud enough to draw the attention of everyone in the building, including Officer George Calhoun, of the Jefferson City Police Department.
He’d immediately realized the problem and stepped in to rescue her, demanding that she be removed from the boys’ holding area immediately. He’d outranked the man in charge of the youth cells that day and had made sure to get to the bottom of the situation. She still remembered being ushered into a tiny interrogation room with a table and two chairs. The only other occupant of the room a tall man, well over six feet tall, with dark brown hair, a moustache that curled slightly at each end, and green eyes that had watched her carefully.
Officer Calhoun had introduced himself and then asked her name. She’d told him it was “Larry,” and he’d replied, “Nice to meet you, Laura.” She’d given herself away when she’d gasped and demanded an explanation. Officer Calhoun had smiled warmly and offered her a one-time chance to leave behind her vagrancy and come to live with him as his adopted daughter. He’d told her about losing his wife months earlier to a heart condition and how he’d always wanted a daughter, but it had never been a possibility for he and his wife.
Twelve-year-old Laura had seen a chance to get away from the St. Louis police, with no intentions of actually becoming this man’s adopted daughter, but she’d played along. They’d arrived back in Jefferson City a week later, with Laura wearing new clothing, her hair on the way to growing back out, and a new appreciation for the kindness and generosity of one George Calhoun. By the end of the first month, living with him as his adopted daughter, any thoughts of abandoning him to return to a life of living on the streets had long since vanished. Over the next six years, she’d developed a deep affection for the man, as he had for her.
Now, once again, tragedy had struck, taking her adoptive father away from her. At the age of eighteen, Laura had experienced more death than many adults twice her age. Seven days earlier, her George’s debilitating illness had finally won the battle and he’d been buried two days ago. The doctors had never been quite sure what was ailing him, but the once vibrant police officer had started losing control of his muscles, even his ability to talk during the last few days of his life.
The doctors had tried a variety of medications and treatments, but nothing had helped. Luckily, once he’d become completely bedridden, the end came quickly, taking his last breath from his body in just a few weeks’ time.
Laura had been his primary caregiver, and she still struggled to remember him as a tall, strong, commanding presence in her life and not the weak and helpless shell of a man who couldn’t even sit up on his own.
“Laura, God hasn’t forsaken or forgotten you. He loves you.” The priest was dressed in the black robes and white collar normally worn by the priests, and it accentuated the white of his hair. He’d worn a white robe bedecked with gold thread and embroidery during her father’s funeral, and he’d been much more solemn in his demeanor that day. His gray eyes held nothing but warmth and compassion today, but his words made her uncomfortable. God loves me? I don’t think so.
She gave an involuntary shake of her head and then looked around her, seeing the stained-glass windows depicting the stations of the cross, the polished wooden podium and altar at the front, and the dark wooden pews lined up and empty as they waited for hungry souls to take a seat. The high ceilings and steep slant of the roofline made the inside of the cathedral look much larger than it truly was. St. Peter’s Catholic Church was the most elaborate building in the small town, and she marveled at the architecture, wondering at the imagination that must have gone into designing it.
Outside, the red brick of the church building stood out amongst the clapboard buildings a short distance away and the silent cemetery stretched behind. The two-story building had large columns holding up the small porch that stood sentry over the double front doors, currently open to let in the warming spring air. It was late April and soon the temperatures and humidity would soar.
“Laura, God does love you and He cares about—”
Laura shook her head intentionally this time, interrupting the priest. “If God truly loves me, why does he keep taking away the people in my life I care about? Why did George’s health suffer so that he couldn’t even work these last two years? Why did I never get a chance to know my mother? Why did my first father die like he did?” The questions came pouring out rapidly.
“I don’t know,” the priest admitted solemnly. “I wish I did have those answers. The ways of God are mysterious and sometimes we never learn the reason why certain things happen.”
Laura’s shoulders sagged as she let her eyes drift to the stained-glass windows, illuminated by the bright sunshine outside. Normally, the sun and clear blue skies would lift her spirits, but she doubted anything could do that today. She’d just come from the cemetery where she visited George’s grave, the damp earth still stuck to the bottom of her boots.
She cried for George’s loss as well as that of her birth parents, who had no graves to visit that she was aware of. She wouldn’t actually know, as she’d not returned to St. Louis since leaving it some six years earlier. Jefferson City was now the place she called home, but for how much longer?
George had been without a means of earning an income for so long, his savings had finally run out and the loan at the local bank was due. Out of desperation, George had gone behind Laura’s back and borrowed money from the local saloon owner, Charles Dodson. A man who had increased his wealth by lending money to people unlikely to pay him back. He didn’t really care about the money – it was power he was after. Unless Laura could come up with a miracle, he’d own George’s home by the end of the month and Laura would once more be homeless.
She’d become so desperate to buy more time to repay the debt, she’d gone to great lengths to avoid Charles and his hired cronies. Yesterday, on the way back to the small house where she currently still lived, she’d spied them waiting for her and had slipped down the back alley to avoid them. This morning, she’d traveled an extra three blocks to avoid walking past the saloon, not wanting to risk running into its owner. She was sure he would eventually catch up to her, if recent events were any indication of his commitment to pursuing her.
She recalled how he’d come looking for her last night, in person, wanting to know how she planned on paying off her stepfather’s debts. Without any way to make money, Laura hadn’t had an answer for him. When he’d shown up on the front step, she’d hidden in the house, letting it grow dark outside, even refusing to light the lantern until she’d been sure Charles left. Laura’s time had been consumed with caring for her stepfather and she’d been unsuccessful in finding any kind of work in the small city. Charles knew this and had his own ideas on how she could repay George’s debt, but Laura couldn’t let her mind go down that road. Not yet. Surely some sort of job would come available.
Jefferson City was quickly growing but most of the work available was meant more for farm and ranch hands, not a barely-there adult with no work experience, little to no exposure to farm animals, and even less experience with farming. She’d come to the church this morning to light a candle for her stepfather, visit his grave, and seek the wisdom of the priest regarding her future.
“Father Paul, I don’t know what to do,” she told him, feeling tears threaten to spill from her eyes. “Charles…”
“….is looking for you,” the priest finished for her. “This I am aware of.”
“Mrs. Whitaker lives next door to us… er, me… and she thought you might be able to advise me?”
Father Paul nodded his head and then gave her an encouraging smile. “I can only try and trust that the Word of the Lord will reveal itself and urge you to pray and seek His will.”
His words weren’t much consolation to Laura. Pray? Trust? What good had either of those ever done for her?
“Father, I need real answers. Charles isn’t going to wait to get his money back. He offered for me to come and work for him just before my stepfather died… but I can’t do it,” she told him, feeling a surge of fresh tears fill her eyes.
When folk failed to pay Charles back, he would take whatever collateral they had originally offered. Land. A house. In Laura’s case, it seemed that Charles now expected her to personally pay George’s debt.
He’d come by their little rundown home a week before her stepfather passed and offered to let Laura move into one of the rooms above the saloon when the time came for her stepfather to leave this earth for his heavenly home. He’d promised to take whatever money he could get for their possessions and allow her to work off the rest by serving alcohol and smiling prettily for the men who frequented his establishment. If she chose to pay off the debt a bit faster, he’d alluded to other ways she could do that. She’d been horrified and demanded he leave immediately.
Now, with her stepfather gone and the real possibility that by the end of the week she would have no place to live, she felt backed against a wall. “I don’t know what to do,” she whispered sorrowfully once more, feeling her freedom to choose quickly slipping away.
Father Paul patted her shoulder and then reached beneath his robe and pulled out a small, wrapped bundle of money. He pressed it into her hands. “I want you to take this. It won’t solve all of your problems, but it will perhaps buy you some time to figure out what God would have you do with your life.”
Laura looked at the roll of bills and shook her head. She tried to give the money back but Father Paul tucked his hands beneath the stole of his robe and merely smiled at her. When she tried once again to hand him the money, his smile broadened and he slid away from her on the pew half a foot.
She looked at him anxiously, shaking her head a little. “I can’t take this.”
“You can and you will.” He turned and then reached for a small, black leather-bound Bible, with the edges dog-eared and the leather worn in places. He handed it to her with these words, “I want you to have this, as well. It was the first Bible I ever owned, and I pray you will find the answers for your life inside its pages, just as I did.”
Laura gave him a confused look as she took the Bible. “You want me to become a… a nun?”
Father Paul chuckled and shook his head. “No, child. You would not be a good nun, as God has not called you to dedicate your life solely to Him. Let me ask you a question.”
“Do you believe in God?”
Laura nodded readily. “Yes, I believe there is a God.”
“Do you believe He cares for His creation? Do you believe He cares for you?”
Laura thought for a moment before answering. “I know that God cares for some people more than others.”
“No, He cares for everyone the same,” Father Paul assured her.
“But… how can that be, Father? I look around and see how much tragedy and loss I’ve suffered, but others seem to only get blessings heaped upon them. How can you say God cares for everyone equally?”
“God allows both good and bad to come into our lives. Sometimes, it is a test of our faith and used to make us stronger and more reliant on Him. I believe that is what God is doing in your life. He wants you to truly believe and trust in Him.”
Father Paul gave her a soft smile and then told her, “Read the passages I marked in the Bible. Pray and ask God to reveal Himself to you and to show you which path to take. The money will give you a few days leeway with Charles while you come up with a solution.”
“And what if God doesn’t answer?” Laura demanded, feeling completely out of her depth at being asked to talk to God and trust Him to respond.
“God will answer.” Father Paul was quiet for a moment and then began speaking again, softly, as if he was telling a story. “I had a dream quite a while ago. Years ago, even before you came to Jefferson City with George.
“In that dream, I saw a young girl with yellow hair and big blue eyes standing at a crossroads with a brown carpetbag in her hands. There was light all around her, such that I couldn’t really see her features, just a glimpse of her eyes as the light moved around her.
“The crossroads veered right and left, and she was standing with one foot pointed in either direction.”
When he stopped talking, Laura’s curiosity was piqued. “What did the girl do?”
Father Paul smiled at her. “I don’t know. You’ll have to tell me.”
“What?” Laura was thoroughly confused now. She thought about his words for a long moment and then her eyes widened, and she asked, “You don’t think the girl in your dream was me, do you? That would be impossible, especially since you said you dreamed this long before you even met me.”
Father Paul shrugged and then whispered, “Nothing is impossible with God.” He stood up and then greeted several of the older women who had come to the church to light candles and offer up prayers.
“God has a marvelous plan for you, Laura Swanson. I can’t tell you what to do, but I can tell you that compromising yourself to pay a debt that isn’t yours would bring Him no happiness,” he pointed toward the ceiling. “I believe you are on a journey, but it is up to you to determine which path you’ll take.”
“So, you’re saying you think I should consider leaving Jefferson City?” she asked him.
“That is one option,” he agreed.
“But where would I go? I have no family. I barely completed my education before George got sick. I have no skills or training…”
“Trust God. Read His words. Pray. God will show you the path, I’m confident of that fact.”
Laura met his gaze for a moment and then slowly nodded. “I’ll try,” she told him.
“That is all He expects. Now, I believe Charles is waiting in front of the church. Keep some of that money for yourself and what comes next but give the rest to him. I’ll walk you to the front doors and observe, just to make sure Charles behaves himself.”
Laura stood up and then looked at the roll of bills. “I feel bad for taking this.”
“Don’t. God provides everything I need and then some. In this instance, I believe He has provided what you need for this moment in time, and I am pleased to be used as a vessel to deliver that help.”
Laura wasn’t completely convinced but faced with having to confront Charles was a big motivator. She removed three of the bills and tucked them into the apron of her skirt, along with the small Bible. She swallowed and then straightened her spine before announcing, “I’m ready.”
“Good. Remember, Laura, God loves you and has a plan for your future. Trust Him to be whatever you need in any situation.”
Laura nodded, inwardly doing the exact opposite. She wasn’t convinced that God truly loved and cared about her, but Father Paul seemed adamant that she was wrong. She needed time to process their conversation, but now wasn’t the right time. Right now, she had a snake waiting on her.
She took a cleansing breath and then preceded the priest down the aisle, stepping into the sunshine as she exited the church and pausing a moment to look up at the bell tower and let her eyes adjust to the bright light. When she lowered her head, Charles was watching her carefully from the bottom of the steps.
Without any outward display of fear, she descended the steps to meet him. “Mr. Dodson.”
“I believe we can dispense with the formalities, Laura. After all, I believe you and I are going to become real good friends. Aren’t we?”
Laura chose her next words carefully. “I’ve considered your offer and I fear I must decline at this time. I’m not in the right frame of mind to be making any such life-altering decisions. I hope you can understand?” she asked him, amazed at the words and the strength of them coming from her own mouth.
Charles was watching her closely and then glanced up to see Father Paul watching him with the same level of intensity. He nodded and then agreed, “Of course, with just losing your father and all. Maybe we can talk about this again in a few days?”
Laura readily nodded. “Thank you for understanding. I would like to repay a bit of what George borrowed from you, now. I realize there is still some more that is owed, but I want to give this to you as a show of good faith.” She pressed the roll of bills into Charles’s hands and watched as surprise and shock struck him speechless.
Charles unrolled the bills and counted them, shocking them both when they came to a little over two hundred dollars… a small fortune to a young woman in her situation. Laura wanted to turn and ask Father Paul where he had come by so much money, but she didn’t want to give away the source of her recent bounty.
“Where did you get this?” Charles demanded.
Laura shook her head, “That doesn’t really matter, does it? George borrowed three hundred dollars from you, and I am repaying more than half right now.”
“Is there a problem, Mr. Dodson?” Father Paul asked as he descended the stairs sedately.
Charles looked at the priest and then shook his head. “No, Father. No problem here.”
“Ah,” Father Paul joined them and then looked pointedly at the money in Charles’ hands. “Were you coming by to make a contribution to the church coffers? The Lord does love a cheerful giver.” Father Paul smiled as he extended his hand and Laura lowered her eyes, biting the inside of her cheek to keep from bursting into giggles at the look of discomfort on Charles Dodson’s face. The man had never stepped into the shadow of the church doors and being asked to contribute that which he worshipped—money—was like asking him to cut off one of his arms or legs. The idea was clearly abhorrent to the man, but he was at a loss for how to extricate himself from the situation.
“Uhm… well… I…”
“Oh, have I misread the situation?” Father Paul sounded apologetic and withdrew his hand. “Were you perhaps getting ready to give that money to Miss Swanson to help with her father’s expenses? How silly of me to think you were coming to see me. Goodness, well, I’ll let you and Miss Swanson finish your discussion.”
Father Paul turned with a shake of his head and went back up the steps. He gave Laura and Charles one final look and then disappeared inside the church. Laura took his departure as the key to make her own escape. She gave a confused looking Charles a small nod and then turned and hurried down the street. He called after her once, but she ignored him and just kept walking briskly.
She greeted others on the street with a similar brisk nod, anxious to get back to the safety of her home and ponder the things she and Father Paul had discussed. He seemed convinced that God had a plan for her life, but Laura hadn’t even a hint of what that might be.
Arriving home, she made herself a cup of hot tea and then settled in the wooden rocker by the hearth and opened up the Bible. She turned to the first passage that had been marked and then circled.
“11 For I know the thoughts that I think towards you, saith the Lord, thoughts of peace, and not of affliction, to give you an end and patience. 12 And you shall call upon me, and you shall go: and you shall pray to me, and I will hear you. 13 You shall seek me, and shall find me: when you shall seek me with all your heart. 14 And I will be found by you, saith the Lord:”
Laura thought about those verses. They seemed to echo what Father Paul had told her, about praying and talking to God and expecting Him to answer. She’d never really been much for religion and such. She’d attended Sunday Mass with her stepfather, but so much of it had just been another thing to do during the week. An expectation that hadn’t really meant anything personally to her.
It seemed as if she’d somehow missed something important. “Well, I guess I don’t have anything to lose by trying to talk to God. After all, it’s not like there’s anyone else here to talk to,” she muttered looking around the empty house.
She stood up from the rocking chair, set the small Bible on the seat and then paced the room, trying to figure out if she should stand, sit, or possibly even kneel? She’d never really prayed by herself before, leaving that to the priest or whomever was giving the benediction on Sunday morning. Now, she needed to pray, intentionally, and she was a bit lost.
Finally, not wanting to make any mistakes and possibly anger God before He even took time to listen to her request, she walked into her bedroom and knelt beside the bed. It seemed the most respectful and humble position for such a grave adventure.
“Well…,” she paused for a moment and then squeezed her eyes shut. “God… it’s me, Laura Swanson. From Jefferson City, Missouri. I don’t know if you remember me, but according to Father Paul you know everything, so I guess… well, I’ve not talked to you before, not really. I guess I’m sorry about that?”
She paused, feeling foolish and then, realizing she didn’t sound sincere at all, she tried harder.
“Sorry, but I’m going to try and do better.” She meant those words. “Father Paul said you could help me figure out what to do next. I really, really don’t want to become one of Charles Dodson’s saloon girls. But, God, I’ve got to tell you, I’m not seeing many choices right now. There aren’t really any jobs here and if I moved to another town, I’d still have the same problems of no money, no job, and no place to live. It kind of stands to reason that I should stay put until I figure out what else to do.
“I guess that’s where You come in. See, I’m trying to be a good person and do good things, but now that I’m all alone, I need a little guidance. I don’t really know how to do much but cook and clean and take care of a home, but I’m not sure that qualifies me for any sort of job. Could You maybe forget the fact that I haven’t talked to You much and tell me what I should be doing? I’d be ever so grateful, and I promise not to go so long before talking to You again.”
She paused and then opened her eyes, feeling as if she should probably put some sort of formal ending on her prayer. She frowned and tried to remember what Father Paul always said at the end of his prayers and then she smiled, remembering. She closed her eyes and crossed herself as she murmured, “In the name of the Father, Amen.”
She pushed herself up off of the floor and then stood, waiting in anticipation. She listened carefully, but after a full three minutes when she heard nothing but the rattle of a loose shutter outside bumping against the house with the slight breeze, she felt deflated. She’d taken Father Paul’s suggestion and prayed. She’d read the Bible, but then she realized that maybe once wasn’t going to be enough. She had been ignoring God for most of her life, after all.
Well, she’d just have to keep at it for the next few days and hopefully God would take notice of her and give her the answer she was seeking. If not, then she’d go back to Father Paul and let him know that his God had failed her. She knew the priest wouldn’t be happy with that news, and she truly hoped it didn’t come to that.
“God, if You’re truly up there and You do care for everyone equally, I’m going to need some proof, because right now, it feels like I just talked to the mattress on my bed.”
Disheartened a bit, Laura went about the remainder of her day, even going so far as to begin packing up George’s clothing and such to donate to the poor. In reality, one couldn’t get much poorer than she currently was, but George’s clothing was still very serviceable and she hoped someone might get some good use of them.
She finished the day by reading another passage from the Bible and praying once more, with the same lack of response. She wasn’t sure what kind of answer she was expecting, and to be honest, she knew that if God decided to speak in an audible voice to her, she would probably faint in terror.
So, if I don’t really want Him to speak directly to me, what kind of answer do I want?
She fell asleep with that question on her mind and woke with the same. If God really was up there listening, He’d better let her know soon or… well… she just wouldn’t go down that path yet. Not yet, at least.
You just read the first chapters of "Finding Forgiveness in the West"!
Are you ready, for an emotional roller-coaster, filled with drama and excitement?
If yes, just click this button to find how the story ends!
Please log in again. The login page will open in a new tab. After logging in you can close it and return to this page.