She’s his best shot at finding happiness in the West. He’s her only opportunity at surviving against all odds. How can the two see past their marriage of convenience and let their broken hearts heal together?
Laura has managed to lead a lonely life for the sake of taking care of her young sisters. Yet, time is running out and she can’t neglect the need of another man in the house, one that can help her with the horse business and the upbringing of the twins. She’s never thought of marrying her rival though, a mountain man named Mr. Henry Thompson. How can she find light in this new arranged life when Henry is just so unwilling to have faith?
Henry has completely forsaken the Christian way of life after the tragic death of his mother and brother. Without anyone to lead him, he falls into havoc. Yet, a sudden marriage proposal by his rival, the only female horse business owner in the town, shows him that God works in mysterious ways. He accepts but he soon realizes that this woman rekindles the need to have a family inside him. How can he let his heart open to our Lord’s will when it’s been locked for long?
In an arranged marriage per God’s will, two different people with a shared past meet each other. Will they find redemption though when a stranger claiming that he knows too well Henry’s father, comes back for what’s his?
Pennington Creek Horse Ranch
Outside Tishomingo, Indian Territory
Laura Bennet sat on her cart as it rumbled along the narrow path along Pennington Creek, her best friend, the family’s maid, Bertha Reed, sat beside her. Laura sucked in the fresh air and glanced past her friend.
A fish leaped from the creek, flew through the air, and landed with a splash in the crystal-clear waters. The lovely colorful pebbles she collected were just below the surface. The sun reflected off the water as its rays streamed through the majestic hackberry trees that lined the shore.
However, the view wasn’t entirely tranquil. Drawing her eyebrows together, Laura noted how high the creek was. The water grazed the riverbed. No wonder; they’d had three days of steady rain. Today was the first day they’d dared venture out for supplies. The road back home remained muddy; her horse, Beedle, threw flecks of mud up behind him as he walked, and some had already stained her red-and-white checkered dress. Laura grimaced as the cart uncomfortably rocked back and forth.
“I’ll have to get with John when we get to the ranch. We have to move the horses from the south paddock if it rains,” she said to Bertha, who nodded in agreement.
“One more toad strangler, and we’re done for. If the creek is this full, then Washita River is worse.”
Laura sighed. Bertha was correct.
“We’ll be ruined,” Laura replied as her stomach turned into knots. She thought of the wheat fields, paddocks, and the range—all of it could be swept away should either river or creek come over the banks. And then what? She shuddered as she thought of the half-dozen full-time ranch hands that depended on her. If Pennington Creek Ranch went under, their livelihood would be ruined as well.
She peered over her shoulder at her younger sister, Clara, huddled amid the supplies. Clara leaned against a bag of flour; her long brown hair—a shade darker than Laura’s—stood out against the white sack. Her lips were parted slightly as she slept, exhausted from the trip. A lump formed in Laura’s throat as the pressure she’d been under overwhelmed her.
In addition to the ranch hands, she was also responsible for her fourteen-year-old twin sisters. What would become of them if the ranch went under? Laura looked at the sky, wishing she could ask the Lord for protection, but she knew He wouldn’t hear her. He hadn’t heard her in a long time.
All her life, she’d found comfort in the Lord and His words. As the eldest daughter in a one-parent household, He’d placed a heavy load on her narrow shoulders. Yet, His words always inspired her, and she’d risen to every challenge. She’d mothered Clara and Maggie after their mother died in childbirth when Laura was only eight. She’d run the household for her father and looked after the family—all while learning the essentials of ranching.
It never occurred to her to question the Lord. Not when her father almost bankrupted the family. Not when Harvey, the man Laura was to marry, ran off with some girl he’d met at the saloon weeks before their wedding. Not when an unexpected early frost five years prior had ruined much of their crops. And not when an accident took her father from them, leaving her in charge of—well, everything.
“Laura?” Bertha’s voice pulled her from her thoughts.
“Yes, I’m sorry. I hope it doesn’t rain again. I don’t know what I’d do if we lost everything.” Laura’s voice came out weaker than she liked. Since her father’s death three years ago, she’d developed a hard exterior, as she thought it was important for her sisters to see their only role model remain strong. However, inside, she was crumbling. And the only people who knew the extent of her anxiety were Bertha and their foreman, John.
“We won’t,” Bertha replied and patted her arm. “Don’t fret. The Lord won’t bring another calamity down upon your head, Laura. Surely not after everything you’ve been through.”
“We. You’ve been through much of it with me.” Laura turned the cart to the right, off the main road and toward the narrow path that would lead to Pennington Creek. It was true; Bertha had been at her side through the death of her father, through the frost, through everything. She’d been a blessing, one of very few.
“Ah, well. I do my part, that’s all,” Bertha said and held on to the seat as the cart turned. The heavy load of supplies made it more challenging to maneuver through the mud. “You’re the one who carries the heaviest burden. You work so hard,” Bertha paused, but the way she squinted her eyes told Laura that she had more to say. And she already had an idea of what was on her friend’s mind. “You’re neglecting yourself. When’s the last time you did something just for you?”
Laura knitted her eyebrows as they went straight where the path appeared a little less hazardous. “I went riding just yesterday.”
Bertha scoffed. “You rode out with John to check the fence. That ain’t doing something for yourself. I meant something that’s got not a thing to do with work.”
Laura rucked in a gulp of air. “I don’t have the time, Bertha. You know that. I’ve got no time left between running the ranch and looking after the girls. When we get home, I have to make sure they did their homework; otherwise, I’ll be summoned to the schoolhouse again, and I don’t have the time for that.”
Laura adored her sisters. They were everything she had left in this world, and she would walk through fire for them. But they took a lot out of her. Not just them, the ranch also. She wasn’t about to admit it, but she often wished she had the time to just go for a walk or read.
One day, the previous week, she’d picked up one of Clara’s romance novels and managed to read two pages before the sisters got into an argument that required her attention. Laura let out a sigh, and beside her, Bertha clicked her tongue.
“You know what you need?”
Laura squinted as they passed the sign reading Pennington Creek Horse Ranch. “What’s that?”
“A man,” Bertha declared, but Laura scoffed.
“I think not. I went down that road. Led nowhere good,” she clenched her jaw while up ahead, the red roof of the ranch house came into view.
“Not every man is like Harvey. And you don’t need to marry for love. Marry a man who knows ranching. Pennington Creek has a stellar reputation, as do you. Should be no problem finding a taker.”
Laura shook her head. The last thing she needed right now was a man to complicate her life further. She’d given away her heart once, only for it to be crushed; she wouldn’t do it again. As for marriage for the sake of convenience—she couldn’t imagine introducing a man to her sisters in such a capacity. Father had spoken of their mother in such loving terms that both of her younger sisters believed sincerely in love.
Clara was a true romantic, her nose forever in a romance novel or other. And while Maggie was more practical, she too believed that marriage should be entered into for love. Laura couldn’t very well shake their belief in love. However, the truth was, Laura herself didn’t believe in it anymore. Besides, any man she married would try to wrestle control of Pennington Creek away from her—and there was no way she’d allow that to happen. Not when she’d worked so hard to bring it back from the brink of ruin after her father’s death. They still struggled; it was true. She owned money to the bank, and they were forever one heavy rain away from ruination, but if the Lord remained at least a little kind, she’d turn it all around. She knew she could.
She just needed time. Time. Not a man.
Before she could make this clear to Bertha, her friend’s visage changed. Her lips parted, and her eyes narrowed as she pointed ahead.
“Look!” she called. Laura leaned forward and squinted when the shape of her foreman, John Hawkins, came into view. He waved his arms at her frantically; his boots pounded on the sand. Laura beckoned Beedle to stop and jumped out of her seat.
“What happened?” Clara asked as she shifted in the back. Her bright eyes were small from sleep still, and a yawn overcame her.
“Nothing,” Laura said, her voice firm. “Go on inside. Now.”
Clara peered at Bertha before spotting John’s panicked face. “Something happened, what?” she demanded.
Laura placed her hands on her hip. “Inside, now. And stay inside. Maggie too,” she ordered in the same firm tone she used when new ranch hands defied her on account of her being a woman. Clara pouted and marched inside, her book under her arm. “Bertha, can you see to them? We’ll fetch the supplies later.”
Bertha nodded, instantly switching from friend to employee. She hurried inside after Clara, who’d just burst through the front door and slammed it shut behind her when John reached her.
“Laura!” His shaggy blond hair bounced up and down, grazing the light-blue cotton shirt.
“Oscar Mendoza and his gang attacked. They…” he gasped; his breathing ragged. “They broke down the stable door and stole one of the horses before I could chase them off.”
Laura’s heart sank. Oscar Mendoza and his gang had terrorized the area for many years. They’d found a few years of respite when the gang leader and some of his men were arrested for a botched bank robbery, but ever since their release three years ago, they’d stolen, threatened, and terrorized the area. Although, they seemed to have increased their activities over the past few weeks and grew ever more brazen.
So far, they’d escaped the gang, but it seemed their luck had run out.
“Which horse?” she demanded, her heart pounding wildly in her chest.
“Reardon,” he said, and for a split second, the world spun beneath her.
The beautiful black horse was the last stallion her father had purchased before his death. While Laura loved all the animals equally, Reardon held a special place in her heart. In addition, he was the ranch’s best stallion. Ranchers from all around the area came to Pennington Creek Horse Ranch for breeding purposes. While they had three other stallions, Reardon was the main draw. The stallion had all but kept the ranch afloat the past couple of years. Without him, they faced disaster. Their crops might feed the family and employees, but that was it. They’d default on the loan her father took from the bank.
She glared at the sky, and her hands curled into fists. Why would the Lord cause such hardship to come upon her? Was the Lord testing her as He had Job? Was He placing all these challenges before her to see if she’d falter and lose her faith?
If so, she had to admit she wasn’t nearly as strong as Job. Her faith had already faltered. She’d forced herself to remain strong for her sisters and kept up the pretense of her belief for them, but inside, she’d struggled. And this didn’t make her faltering faith any stronger. They were struggling as it was. But now this?
As she marched with John to look at the damage the gang had caused, she wished for God’s love, for at this moment, she’d never felt more helpless.
Pennington Creek Horse Ranch
One month later
Laura sat at the large oak table in the middle of the main room and poured over the ranch’s books. The last month had been a disaster. With Reardon gone, the ranch was going downhill quickly. Their income had shrunk to barely cover the wages of her ranch hands and necessary supplies. But for how much longer?
She was about to voice her concerns to Bertha, busy cutting up vegetables, when the front door burst open, and her sisters rushed in. Maggie’s long dark-brown braid whipped behind her as she threw her book bag on the table.
“Laura, a few of our friends are going to the swimming hole. Can we go?”
Laura glanced up, torn out of her thoughts. A blob of ink stained her sister’s blue blouse, and she was about to get upset with her for soiling yet another piece of clothing but found she didn’t have the energy. “The swimming hole?”
While Maggie looked at her expectantly, Clara remained by the door. Unlike her sister, Clara’s attire was spotless and wrinkle-free.
Maggie’s eyes sparkled with excitement. “Yes, you took us there last summer. You promised to take us again, but you haven’t yet.”
“I don’t know. I should go with you if you’re going swimming. Besides, I’m sure you have homework. Why don’t I take you next month when the schoolhouse is closed for the summer?”
Even though they were teenagers now, Laura felt uncomfortable about them going anywhere without her, other than Bible study or the schoolhouse. Especially since the gang’s attack.
Maggie grimaced and shook her head, a fire in her eyes. “You always say you will take us, but you never do. Please, let us go.”
“We don’t have homework today,” Clara added. “Mrs. Barnes was ill, so Reverend Olsen had us study the Bible instead. And MaryBeth’s mother is coming with us, so there will be an adult. They’ll take us in their cart.” Clara, the younger twin by mere minutes, tended to have a gentler approach than her more forceful sister.
Laura shrugged. “Well, I suppose. Just be sure to come home before dark.”
Her sisters cheered in unison and dashed to their rooms for their swimming costumes while Laura rubbed her temples.
“They’re wearing you down, aren’t they?” Bertha asked as she resumed her prepping.
“Not them. This.” Laura picked up and immediately dropped the book she used to track their income and expenses.
Bertha threw a large carrot onto the chopping board and hacked away at it with vigor. When she was done slicing and dicing, she placed the knife down with a bang and folded her hands. “I know things aren’t getting easier, especially with Reardon gone. And I hate to say it, but you know what you must do to get out of this,” she said with decisiveness.
Laura leaned back, aware of what Bertha meant. She’d made the same suggestion several times over the past few weeks. Marriage. However, Laura remained opposed to the idea. “I don’t want to marry; I told you that,” she exclaimed, but her friend crossed her arms in front of her chest.
“So you have, but look around. You’re already twenty-two, and here you are, running a ranch, acting as mother and father to your sisters, and now you’ve got gangsters on your hands. I’m worried. Your eyes are dull, and don’t think I don’t notice how your dress is loose on you,” she said, pointing to Laura’s blue dress.
Laura couldn’t deny that she hadn’t had much of an appetite lately. Worrying where the money would come from and what might happen if the gang reappeared robbed her of her appetite. She needed a solution. But marriage?
“Oh, Bertha. I don’t think marriage is the answer. I like running the ranch the way I see fit. Any man would expect me to give it up. Turn me into a housewife. I need to be out there, in the fields with the men.”
Bertha raised an eyebrow and sat back in the creaking old wooden chair. “So, marry a rancher. I hear our neighbor Henry Thompson needs a wife. It could be a boon for both of you. You could join your ranches together. And he’s not bad lookin’, if I might add.”
Laura chuckled but shook her head. “If you like unshaven, hairy mountain men, then I suppose he could be considered handsome.”
Bertha waved a hand. “He needs a strong hand. You’ve got one. You’re essentially the foreman of this ranch; everyone looks up to you. You keep all these men in check; what’s one more?” Her expression shifted as her tone turned serious. “Besides, if you don’t, you’re looking at letting some of these men go.”
Opening her mouth to protest, Laura snapped it shut as she stood to pace the main room. At the fireplace at the end of the room, she stopped and looked up. Her father’s pocket watch lay on the mantel, where he’d forgotten it the morning he’d set off on what would be his last errand. In all these years, she hadn’t moved it, imagining him bursting through the door with his telltale chuckle and grabbing it. Beside it was her mother’s wedding band. She’d placed it underneath the wooden cross because her parents had loved nothing more than to sit before the fire, hand in hand, while they read the Bible.
At least, that’s what her father always told her. Only eight years old when her mother died, the memories faded away increasingly with each passing year. Sometimes, Laura had trouble remembering her face. Glimpses of a kind face with a protruding chin like her own flashed through her mind now and then. Were they real? Or figments of her imagination?
Scanning their small main room, she tried to conjure up memories of her mother. The few that remained were blurry and felt more like a dream, the kind that faded quickly upon waking.
She recalled her mother sitting on the red couch; her feet raised on the little worn stool alongside the rocking chair in front of the fireplace. She remembered the clanking of her knitting needles that had produced the pretty white doilies Laura stashed in the chest of drawers under the window. It was the same place where she kept her mother’s shawl, an item she only ever withdrew when the melancholy became too much. In those dark moments, she’d remove her mother’s shawl and wrap it around herself as if receiving a comforting hug from the woman she’d lost too soon.
A breeze drifted in, and the green curtains blew into the room, and she stepped to the window. Out on the paddock, John worked alongside three of her best ranch hands, and when they spotted her standing there, they each lifted their hats in her direction. Determination rose in her stomach, and she spun around.
“I’m not letting anyone go. I’m responsible for these men and their families,” Laura declared.
A strand of blonde hair hung in Bertha’s face as she glanced up.
“Well, then. Henry Thompson is your answer, just sayin’,” Bertha declared with a sing-song tone. “Everyone knows Henry Thompson cares about one thing more than anything else—expansion. He’s got an insatiable drive to enlarge his property, and he ain’t got the help he needs to tend to it. Not with the rate his ranch hands are quitting on him. He’d be willing if you suggested it. I’m sure of it.”
Laura wetted her lips and shook her head. “I don’t know, Bertha. I don’t know what the answer is.” Her heart pounded as the pressure of having to make such a monumental decision got to her. The room seemed small as if the walls were closing in on her. “I’m going to get some air.”
“Suit yourself. I’m putting on the stew, will be ready in a couple of hours,” Bertha declared and started on the potatoes.
Laura stepped out into the yard, inhaling the familiar scent of horse manure. While Maggie always complained, Laura quite liked the smell. It was the smell of home. Horses had been her family’s primary source of income since she was a child. She loved and respected the animals and knowing that one was missing hurt.
Marching to the wooden fence that had seen better days, Laura rested a foot on the bottom rung and crossed her arms on top as she gazed out into the vast expanse. A cow wandered nearby and eyed her. Laura placed her head on her arms and glanced upward.
Why had the Lord forsaken her? Her faith had lacked since the death of her father, but until then, she’d been a staunch Christian. Even now, she kept a Christian home and raised her sisters as such. She still said her prayers every night and never took a meal without saying grace.
It wasn’t just that she could quote the Lord’s word; she lived by it. She gave a portion of their crops to the needy, and, like Boaz, she’d allow the poorest of the poor in Tishomingo to pick the fallen apples and cobs of corn from the fields. So why, she wondered, had God stopped hearing her prayers?
“Have I offended you by working as though I were a man?” she asked aloud and shook her head. Surely not. She had to fill her father’s shoes because God had taken him from them. He had to have known she’d take over the ranch.
Laura felt a little foolish as she thought back to the day she’d stood before her father’s ranch hands a week after his death and announced that she and John would run the ranch from then on, that they’d make a success of the ranch once more. She’d meant every word, and even though doubt had already crept in through her formerly armor-like faith, she’d trusted that God would be with them.
He hadn’t been. They were going under. Could it be that marriage was her only option? Her only way to save the ranch? And if so, did it have to be Henry Thompson? The man had a reputation for drinking too much, and she wasn’t sure just how effective a rancher he was. Then again, if he weren’t a good rancher, then perhaps he’d not be interested in taking control away from her if she entertained Bertha’s idea.
“Laura!” John called out, walking toward her, a small smile on his lips. Her father had taken John in years ago when he was little more than an orphaned boy. Over the past few years, they’d grown close. At nineteen, he was almost like a little brother to Laura.
“Finished fixin’ up the fence. I sent the guys off to lunch. Need me for anything, or do ya mind if I head to the bunkhouse for a bite?” He stuck his hands into the pockets of his black trousers and waited.
“Nah, you go on ahead and take a break,” she replied. However, he didn’t. Instead, he narrowed his eyes and cocked his head.
“What’s up, Laura? I can see something’s gone askew. It’s the ranch, ain’t it? Are we goin’ under?”
Laura licked her cracked, dry lips. She hated to alarm John, but he knew her well enough to see that something was wrong. Her face gave it away. These days, she dreaded looking in the mirror in the morning. The dark circles under her eyes and her protruding collar bones were just two of the signs of the strain. She couldn’t sleep nor eat for worrying, and she had to admit, she was quickly reaching her breaking point.
“It’s not looking good, John. I don’t know if I can keep everyone on,” she admitted, and he pressed his full lips together and chewed the inside of his cheeks.
“I can see if any of the ranch hands are willing to go part-time? I can work longer. I can skip church on Sundays—”
“No!” she exclaimed. “You need your day of rest. I know how much church means to you. I’d never ask you to stop.”
He smiled, but sadness settled in his eyes. “You’re not asking. I’m offering. This is my home too, you know?”
She sighed and shook her head when she once again gazed toward the Thompson Ranch. While Henry Thompson had a reputation for being a drunkard, he did own some of the best stallions in the area. She knew he had several unused fields that could yield crops, which would turn a profit. His ranch was a goldmine just waiting to be tapped into. And she could tap into it, given a chance.
Was Bertha right? Was marrying for convenience the only solution?
She had to face facts. Pennington Creek was in trouble—and marriage was the answer.
The idea of marriage turned her stomach, but the prospect of losing everything hurt her even more. Maybe she had to make this sacrifice to save her father’s ranch, to save her family…
“John? You know Henry Thompson, don’t you?” she glanced over her shoulder at the young man, who narrowed his eyes.
“Seen him a few times; he’s a decent enough fellow. Why do you ask?”
She shrugged, “I heard he’s in want of a wife.” Saying the words aloud only increased her stomach’s sick feeling, but it seemed she was out of options. It couldn’t hurt to at least talk it over with the man. He might be opposed to the idea. Even if he was agreeable, she didn’t have to decide right there and then. But she had to know what options were even on the table. At the end of the day, it was this, let the employees go—or worse.
“Would you ride out to Thompson’s Ranch and ask Mr. Thompson to come on by for a meeting tomorrow morning? I’d like to discuss a matter with him.”
John stared at her; eyebrows drew together. “’bout what?”
“Marriage,” she replied quietly. She hadn’t wanted to be a surrogate mother to her twin sisters, nor become head rancher, nor the head of the family at her age. She’d not asked for any of these roles, and yet, she’d known she had to fulfill them. Perhaps it was time to fulfill another role she didn’t want—that of a wife.
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