A newspaper ad brings them together, two strangers in a marriage of convenience. How can they let go of their tragic experiences and commit their hearts to each other?
After her fiancée left her for someone else, Sophia couldn’t think about finding love again. But things don’t always go as planned. Sophia finds herself all alone and desperate, and she takes the decision that will change her life forever; to become a mail-order bride. She is willing to risk everything and test her luck. Will she find the chance she is looking for with God’s blessing?
Jake is an obstinate rancher and one who has forsaken God after a tragedy. Partially deaf and exhausted by life, he doesn’t believe in miracles. Meeting Sophia though rekindles a deep desire in his heart to reunite with his faith. This woman has everything his family needs and he just can’t help but fall in love with her. How will he overcome his fear of not being enough and protect his newfound love?
Even if an ad brings the two together, it is God’s grace that keeps their hearts interwoven. . When a cunning man threatens their happiness though, will they stand side by side with Light in their souls?
Georgia, April 1880
In God’s Care
The tombstone was still new, the name and dates carved into the stone still easy to read. As Sophia stood before her sister’s grave, she wondered how long before Clare’s final resting place would become weathered and worn until it resembled everything else on the Elliott ranch. Until Clare’s tombstone looked like the one next to it.
Sophia moved across the tufted grass to her father’s grave.
Husband, Father, Soldier
Papa’s gravestone showed the effects of three years of Georgia sun and rain; the elements that were so beneficial to the soil and the crops were harsh and unforgiving to the stones that marked the graves of the Georgians who had worked the land all their lives. Was it nature’s way of taking revenge? Sophia wondered. Did nature begrudge the harvests that the earth yielded?
Farming was backbreaking work, made no easier by the resolute grip nature maintained over the resistant soil. But while her father was alive and up to the labor, the ranch had prospered and the Elliotts had fared well. Now, the soil held the rest of her family hostage to the early death that had taken them from her.
The next grave, the one where Alice Elliot was buried, was the oldest of the three. Alice Elliott, 1835-1864. Mourned and Missed. Those were the words that Papa had carved into the stone. The years could no longer be deciphered, of course, but Sophia didn’t need to see them.
Her mother had died when Sophia was only three years old and Clare five. Papa had come home from the war, wounded and despairing, to a wife dying of tuberculosis and two small daughters. Sophia remembered very little of her mother, but Papa had told stories about her, and Clare had remembered her. With Clare gone, it was as if Mama had died again, for there was no one left to bring her back from the grave through memories.
It was dusk and a breeze had begun to pick up. Spring had come early, but reluctantly; the warm days paired with cold ones, the sunshine partnered by rain, as if winter was disinclined to give way to the gentler skies of April. The seeds were in the ground now and the planting was finished. She had finished the work this afternoon, determined to prove that she could manage on her own.
She’d worked with the memory of Clare’s instructions in her thoughts: “Wear gloves, Sophia, or you’ll ruin your hands,” “Don’t forget your hat, Sophia, or your complexion will be ruined.” It seemed fitting, with the seeds entombed in the dirt like dead things awaiting life, to come here to their graves wearing Clare’s wide-brimmed straw hat and a pair of old gloves that had belonged to Mama.
As if it mattered, Sophia thought bitterly. Who was there to notice, or to care? Clare, a victim of a cold winter and the illness it had brought to the town, was no longer alive to scold her for going outside without a bonnet and risking the sun, that bane of a Southern woman’s skin. Niles wouldn’t care now. Niles had fallen in love with his mail-order bride and had no thoughts of how Sophia looked or what she did.
But then, Niles never had loved her. He’d admitted as much, devastating her hopes of marriage and stability, a man to manage the ranch and take care of the land and the livestock, a secure presence to ward off her fear and her loneliness. They’d been engaged when she was eighteen after a courtship that had begun while she was still in school.
Now there was nothing left. She had no family; the people she had loved were beneath the ground, their time on Earth marked by nothing by a gravestone. Niles was beguiled by his mail-order bride, a golden-haired girl who’d come to Georgia from a German community in the Midwest. She spoke with an accent and her blue eyes gazed adoringly upon her husband, as if he were everything to her that Sophia had once hoped he would be.
The breeze was fast becoming wind, its pitch interrupting her thoughts of Niles and his bride. Locks of Sophia’s auburn hair, unbound and loose upon her shoulders beneath her hat, lifted as the wind grew stronger. Looking up, Sophia saw that the clouds, which this afternoon had been tranquil, were now gathering in the sky like a grim, gray battalion. If the rains brought flooding, all the work she had done to plant the garden would be in vain as the soil would surrender its promise of bounty. If there was no harvest, there would be no food.
Every evening, when the day’s work was finished, she came here to the graves of her family, her longing for their presence so overwhelming that she sometimes thought comfort would only come to her if she joined them. God had forgotten her. He had sentenced her to live and to suffer and to do without and to mourn. She was doomed to solitude as long as she lived here in Georgia.
The poverty that had become prevalent since Papa’s death had threatened even before that, as the Southern states struggled to recover from the calamitous war against the North. That war had turned their fields to battlegrounds and their young men to corpses, had turned young women into spinsters when the loss of men had left fewer sons to grow to manhood.
A clap of thunder warned her that rain was coming. Lifting her skirts, Sophia ran to the house just as the warring clouds let loose with a downpour, drenching her before she reached the shelter of the porch. The deluge was turning her neatly planted rows of vegetables into little rivers and with a sinking heart, she knew her garden was ruined.
She stood watching as the storm, angry and malicious, emptied thundering rain over the land that was all she had left of her family. The raindrops fell in such fury that they seemed intent on laying waste to all she had done this spring as she had taken advantage of warm days to plant. If she were married, she would have had a husband sharing the toil with her. But Niles did not want her and neither did Georgia, or so it seemed, judging from the antipathy the storm displayed.
If only there were someplace to go, somewhere that would become her home. What a fool Niles’ mail-order bride was, leaving her home to come here to this poor, struggling farm community in backwoods Georgia. Why would a woman do such a thing? Sophia wished there was a way she could ask the beaming and happy Mrs. Henry if what she had found here in Georgia was so much better than what she had left behind. Was Lisl Henry’s home like Georgia, where young men were in short supply and a woman, if she wanted a husband, had to go elsewhere to find him? Was there no other way to find a husband?
Sophia tethered the wagon to one of the fence posts that encircled the churchyard.
July, the patient brown mare who had pulled the wagon, looked up at Sophia with mild interest before lowering her head to enjoy the thick grass that grew in abundance on the church grounds. Sophia adjusted the cream-colored shawl around her shoulders, smoothed down the front of the rose-and-cream print dress that had wrinkled in the ride from home, gave her bonnet a quick straightening, and squared her shoulders. The rain might have wiped out her harvest and starvation might threaten her very survival, but she would not let anyone see defeat in her posture.
“Oh, Sophia,” called Lizbeth Carlyle. “I’m so sorry to hear about the damage the storms caused. Why, Mother and I, when we heard the thunder, we both wondered how you’d fare. Your land is so out in the open, it seems as if the bad weather finds you first.”
Sophia managed a faint, polite smile. “I shall have to plant again,” she said as she joined the line of worshippers preparing to enter the little country church, weather-beaten and old, yet made beautiful by the promise of flowers that surrounded the building where the community gathered on Sunday mornings. Regardless of how defeated she felt by the ravages of the storm, she would never let Lizbeth Carlyle see her vulnerability.
“Oh, planting again,” Lizbeth said with exaggerated sympathy in her tone. “I don’t know how you manage, truly I don’t. I’m sure I would simply be prostrate if I had to endure all you have suffered. Now, as Mother always tells me, remember to wear your hat when you’re out planting, or you’ll certainly end up with freckles. Women with your color of hair are prone to freckles anyway,” she added.
Lizbeth had sharp dark eyes, a pointed nose, angular cheeks, and a peculiar tilted stance that made her appear as if her torso was endlessly engaged in a race against her lower extremities to reach a destination first. She had limp brown hair that, Sophia knew from past stories she had heard from Clare, Lizbeth put into curling papers every night in the hopes that her efforts would yield more than the occasional curving tendril. She wore black, mourning for the second cousin to whom she had been engaged until his demise two years ago. Although she had never been wed, Lizbeth regarded the loss of a fiancé as akin to widowhood, and she conducted herself accordingly.
Lizbeth’s scrutiny heightened. “I remember Clare wearing that dress,” she said, bringing a black handkerchief to dab at eyes Sophia knew very well were dry. “Dear Clare, my dearest friend. Seeing you in that dress reminds me of her.”
Sophia’s lips tightened. Lizbeth claimed all the dead as her dearest friends; Clare had once remarked that someone so unpleasant could not expect to count her friends among the living. Hearing Lizbeth’s false sympathy goaded the imp of anger that had been pursuing Sophia since she’d awakened the morning after the storm to see the damage that had been done to her garden.
“Does it?” she said coolly. “I cannot remember you and Clare spending time together while she was alive.”
Lizbeth’s thin lips pursed. “We went to school together,” she hissed. “You were younger; I would not expect you to remember.”
Mrs. Carlyle, whose features were a softer version of her daughter’s pointed countenance, gave Sophia a smile. “It is a way to remember those we love,” she said, touching the cuff of the dress. “You sewed this, didn’t you? You do such fine work.”
Sophia felt a lump in her throat at Mrs. Carlyle’s thoughtful words. “Clare was a fine seamstress,” she said. “I sewed this for her as a present.”
“She was almost as good as you are.” Mrs. Carlyle nodded. “But you are the finest needlewoman in the county, I’ll lay odds.”
“Mother!” Lizbeth chided as they drew nearer to church. “Speaking of wagering on the hallowed grounds of the church. What can you be thinking?”
“Of course, dear, what am I thinking?” Mrs. Carlyle asked. Then, to Sophia’s surprise, she winked.
The voices went silent as they entered the church. Sophia still found it hard to sit in the pew alone, missing the presence of Clare at her side more than ever. It was for that reason that she generally came late, so she would sit wherever she found space in order to avoid sitting where, before this last, deadly winter that had robbed her of her only remaining family member, she and Clare had sat together.
Head bowed, she slid into the first empty space available—then, upon lifting her chin, she realized, aghast, that she had seated herself next to Niles and his mail-order bride. Lisl Henry was still a newcomer to town and her English was imperfect, which meant she was not familiar with the stories of the community or its gossip and did not know her husband had once been affianced to Sophia. But Niles remembered; Sophia heard his sharp intake of break as he noticed who was seated on the other side of his wife.
Sophia straightened her back, sitting even taller as if she were entirely oblivious to the woman and man sitting next to her. Aware that eyes were staring and tongues would be wagging after the service was over, she kept her gaze focused upon Father Calvert. It was just a pose, however, to camouflage her dismay at her unwitting choice of a seat. Inside, her thoughts bombarded one another like shards of glass breaking and falling, brutal in their clarity.
She was alone in the world; Niles and his mail-order bride were together. She had no one to turn to; Niles had his wife and she had him for comfort. She had no hope of a future; Niles and Lisl would have a family one day.
Bits of Father Calvert’s message penetrated her thoughts, slipping through the barriers she had put in place to shield herself from the pain and the desperation that threatened to flood her as surely as the storms had destroyed the garden she had planted.
“Wilt thou go with this man?” Father Calvert’s booming voice thundered from the front of the church.
Why was he looking straight at her? Sophia wondered as she met the gaze of the burly priest. Was he talking about Niles? What did he mean?
It was just a sermon, she assured herself. Father Calvert always met the eyes of his parishioners when he preached. Papa had always been of the opinion that it was the priest’s way of warning his flock off the path of sin if he knew they were transgressing, but that could not be true, for when did Sophia have the opportunity to sin?
What was he preaching on?
“And Rebekah said, ‘I will go.’”
Rebekah. Sophia searched in her memory of Scripture for the story of Rebekah. Rebekah, who married Isaac, the son of Abraham…
Wilt thou go with this man?
Easy for Rebekah, Sophia thought bitterly. She had a man to go with, to take her to the man she was to marry.
But Rebekah had left her home and everything she knew, all that was familiar, to marry a man she had never met, had never even seen until she went to his home.
Why had she left her home? Were there no young men there for her to marry? Rebekah, at least, had a family to care for her and look after her. She was not alone.
Perhaps there were more ways to be alone than to be without a mother, a father, a sister. Perhaps there was a different kind of loneliness that was as unbearable, in its way, as was the solitude of living while loved ones were in their graves. Sophia felt as though she needed guidance from someone. There was no one to turn to now. But there was Father Calvert.
After the service ended, Sophia hastily vacated her place at the end of the church pew but lingered amongst the church members filing out the door, staying near the end until the others had left.
“Sophia,” Father Calvert greeted her, clasping her hand between his two great palms. The priest’s hands were rough and calloused with the labor of helping the people of the church with their work whenever he was needed. “I’ll come by once the ground has dried and give you a hand with planting. The rains did a fearful lot of damage to your ranch.”
Father Calvert had been by the day after the storm to see the damage for himself. She had heard the knocking at the front door and ignored it, so engulfed by her own burdens that she could not endure the thought of company, even though Father Calvert’s aim was always to hurry to the aid of his flock. She knew he wouldn’t make her uncomfortable asking why she hadn’t opened the door to him; Father Calvert could be counted upon to understand what she did not understand in herself.
“Your message, today, Father… it seemed as though you intended it for me.”
“Did it, now?” He smiled. “And why would the story of a young woman going off to meet her husband seem intended for you, do you think?”
“I—that’s what I wanted to ask you.”
Father Calvert’s bristly white eyebrows came together in a “V” upon his forehead as he frowned. “It is not unknown to me, Sophia, that you were badly done by not so long ago. You had expectations, and those expectations were dashed when a craven young man allowed you to think that he was going to marry you when his affections were otherwise deployed.”
Sophia reddened. “Niles Henry is no concern of mine,” she declared.
“Nor should he be, now that he is married to another woman. But duplicity troubles me and the young man was not honest in his dealings with you. You have borne your travails with dignity and the Lord sees your suffering.”
“Father, I do not think the Lord cares,” Sophia burst out. “If God cared, then why would He
continue to afflict me so?”
Father Calvert bowed his head and was silent until he looked up once again. “It is not given to me to know why the Lord does as He does,” he said at last. “But it was not given to Abraham to stay in his home. It was not given to Rebekah to marry a man she knew. There are some who are appointed by God to stay, and some to leave.”
“Leave? And go where?” Sophia challenged him. “You make it sound as if leaving is of no consequence. But where should I go?”
God was so far away these days, but Father Calvert was near. Perhaps the priest could make sense of it all and fortify her with a reason to trust in God’s indecipherable ways.
“Where your husband is, of course,” Father Calvert replied, as if the answer were obvious.
“I don’t have a husband!”
“You could have one. Lisl Hofstaffen, now Lisl Henry, didn’t have one—and now, she does.”
“Are you telling me to become a mail-order bride?” Was this some sort of bizarre way to retaliate against Niles, who had chosen a mail-order bride he’d never met rather than marrying Sophia, the girl he’d known since childhood? She had no intention of following Lisl Henry’s path. It was absurd. Father Calvert was a sensible priest, but now he was talking rubbish.
“I’m telling you that the Lord sends some of His flock out into the world, and some He keeps at home. If you have been brave enough to stay here and bury those you love and tend to their graves, then you have the courage to go forth and seek life.”
“It’s nothing to do with courage,” Sophia retorted. “I’ve nowhere to go.”
“You haven’t been looking, have you?”
Sophia had nothing to say to that. As she got in the wagon to return home, she thought that, if not for the fact that Father Calvert was a man of God, she might have replied in a different manner. Where was she to look for a husband?
Sophia arrived at the ranch,She was greeted by the bedraggled state of the barn and the shed, the sagging roof of the ranch house, the branches that had fallen during the storm, as July, her gait steady on the familiar route, rounded the hill that brought them home. Resolutely, she looked neither to the left and the ramshackle structures, not to the right where the trees were shorn of blossoms and limbs, but immediately went inside and changed clothes. Her wardrobe was becoming shabby with wear and this dress, once Clare’s, was now the best frock she owned. She had to make it last, for there was no money to use on buying fabric to make a new one. The sewing she did was for others and what money she earned from it went to buy the things she could not do without.
She hung the dress in the closet in the bedroom that had belonged to Clare. Now it, like all the rooms in the ranch house, was empty of life and overrun with memories of the people who were no longer with her.
She was hungry, but she had to ration her food and if she wanted something to eat for supper, she would need to dispense with eating lunch. She had stretched out her provisions as best she could, dependent upon the produce she’d canned the year before for sustenance. Now, with the garden uprooted and the seeds scattered by the rains, it would be weeks before she could look there for vegetables, even if she was able to plant again soon. There was nothing to be done for that; she had no money to buy food and therefore, she would have to do without, or at least, make what she did have last as long as possible. Until…
But she didn’t want to think of what would happen after that. So, she took her Bible and went outside to sit on the porch. There were two chairs, side by side, where she and Clare had sat every Sunday afternoon after they’d come home from church. In good weather, they had eaten lunch outside, breathing in the fragrant air as they savored their day of rest. Even though food was no longer abundant and money had been perilously limited, they had found respite in Sunday.
That respite no longer remained, but still Sophia sat out on the porch on Sunday afternoons. The mid-afternoon sun was out, a pale and watery sun that, Sophia feared, presaged the onset of more rain to come. She knew Father Calvert meant what he said, and he would indeed come by to help with the planting once the ground was no longer muddy. But who knew when the rains would stop? In such times, with uncertainty lurking on all sides, Sophia found herself in need of comfort.
She opened her Bible to the Book of Genesis and found the story of Rebekah. Her family had wanted her to stay longer before leaving, but Rebekah had decided to go with the servant of Abraham, to greet her destiny and meet her husband, a stranger unknown to her. Just like a mail-order bride. It was the woman who’d set forth to go to her husband. It had been that way for Rebekah—was it to be that way for Sophia, as well?
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