She becomes a bride in someone else’s shoes. He finds a wife outside his ranch despite his will. How can the two inspire trust for each other and let God bless their marriage?
“And thine ears shall hear a word behind thee, saying, This is the way, walk ye in it, when ye turn to the right hand, and when ye turn to the left.” –Isaiah 30:21
Etta’s life turns upside down when she’s left with no roof over her head. Staying at the church for a while, she dreams of God showing her a village in Texas, and she decides to follow His will. On the train, she switches identities with a mail-order bride, and she becomes the fake Ms. Mary Greenwood. How can she win the heart of her isolated husband when she’s lied to him from the beginning?
Christopher loses his faith in God when, upon his return from war, he discovers his ranch in ruins and his family deceased. Love is the last thing on his mind, and the only thing he wishes for is to build a ranching empire to honor their memory. When he meets his uninvited mail-order bride though, something shifts within him. How can he offer his love to her when he is blind to God’s Will?
A sudden twist of fate, a fake identity, and a vicious enemy will keep Etta and Christopher in doubt about each other. Yet, their love will be powerful enough to break down all hurdles. How can they let God’s voice sing to them hopeful prayers?
Nebraska City, Nebraska
Etta Collins sat on her knees on the sandy ground behind the church’s rectory and dunked the large white tablecloth into her washtub, sending a froth of soapy water into the air. The lye in the soap smelled fresh, and as the foam drifted in the wind, she smiled. The sun hit the bubbles, making them appear rainbow colored. A little bright spot in Etta’s otherwise dark life. As she watched the bubbles dance, she wondered if this was a message of sorts from the Lord. She’d always considered rainbows a sign from the Lord, a message of hope. The thought comforted her, and she smiled brightly.
Was he telling her to not wilt in light of the massive challenges before her? It had to be. The past few weeks had been difficult for Etta, with the death of her stepfather and the loss of her home to the bank. Truly, she could use a sign that better times were ahead.
Alas, the little bubbles soon burst, and the momentary respite passed. Etta dropped her narrow shoulders, pushed up the sleeves of her brown and black checkered dress, and returned to work. A strand of her curly black hair swung into her eyes from the strain, and she quickly blew it out of her clammy face. Even though it was early still, the Nebraska sun beat down on her as she worked in the backyard, and sweat formed at the nap of her neck. Etta wished she had been able to do the washing in the shade, near the rectory instead of out back of the church kitchen as Mrs. Jones wanted her to do.
However, she wasn’t one to complain. Reverend Jones had shown her a kindness, taking her in after the death of her stepfather, and she was grateful for the shelter he provided in exchange for her chores. As she wrung the tablecloth out with her bare hands, voices drifted out of the open window of the sanctuary behind her.
“How long are we to keep her, Charles?” Mrs. Jones’s high-pitched voice demanded, and a lump formed in Etta’s throat. She’d sensed that the reverend’s wife was not as keen to have her there as her husband. It was clear in the way she always looked down on Etta. Her bright, sapphire-colored eyes always had a distinct sharpness in them when they settled on Etta. Her jaw always appeared clenched and tight with suppressed anger. Etta frowned. Did Mrs. Jones not know she could hear her? Or was the purpose of her words so that she would?
“Margaret, please. What was I to do? Send her away? The poor lass is all of eighteen years old, a child. She hasn’t a soul in the world. You know she was an orphan even before her stepfather passed away,” Reverend Jones’s kind voice replied. Etta glanced over her shoulder and caught sight of his red hair as he passed by the window. He was a young man, not yet thirty, and he and his wife had only established this church a few years prior.
“I am aware. There isn’t a soul in these parts who doesn’t know the tale of the doorstep baby. And I understand it is our Christian duty to take her in, especially with the bank taking her stepfather’s house. But for how long, Charles? We haven’t the funds. The coffers are dry, and you’ve been giving her money regularly.” The woman’s tone was harsh, and Etta wondered how a good-hearted man like Reverend Jones could have married a woman who didn’t appear terribly Christian.
Etta had to admit she’d never wanted to come to the church to ask for aid in the first place, but she’d had nowhere else to go. After her stepfather’s body had been taken away, and the bank took away the house due to his debts, she’d been out on the street. If not for Reverend Jones’s kind offer to let her work in exchange for a small cot in the church’s basement, she’d have been sleeping in the woods. However, it seemed clear from the exchange between the reverend and his wife that her time here was running out.
“She works for her keep, and I hardly give her a fortune, Margaret. Surely you would not have me kick her out.” The pleading tone in the reverend’s voice inspired doom in Etta. She knew the church didn’t have the means to support her long-term. These were tough times. With the war only a few short years in the past, there were still many families struggling to survive.
Fathers, brothers, sons—all lost in the war—had caused hardship here as it had elsewhere. And she was a burden. Just as she’d always been a burden. Or so she’d felt. In some ways, Mrs. Jones reminded her of her stepfather. While he’d taken her in when she appeared on his doorstep as a baby, clad in only a shirt, he’d never let her forget how much trouble it was for him to raise her, feed her, clothe her.
Etta let out a deep sigh as the voices moved away from the window and faded. It was clear she had to move on. But where to? She had no family. Her stepfather was dead. His wife—the woman who’d originally insisted they keep the foundling—passed when Etta was all of four years old, and she had no memory of the woman. Neither of her stepparents had any family. She had no friends. All she had were the few coins she’d saved from her work here, and that was it. With a heavy heart, she completed her tasks, hung up the washing, and continued her day, all the while aware that she needed to find a solution before the Joneses sent her away. Yes, Etta Collins realized if she didn’t want to be homeless, then she needed a plan.
That night, as she lay in her bed, the Bible beside her on the nightstand, she sent a silent prayer to heaven, hoping that the Lord would somehow show her the path she was to take. He’d led her to Sunday school; he’d helped her find this shelter; perhaps he’d show her the way to the future. Or so she hoped as she fell asleep and allowed the darkness to take her for the night.
Sand whipped into Etta’s face, and she quickly shielded her eyes as the kernels brushed against her skin with such speed, she felt tiny cuts appear on the back of her hands.
She couldn’t see anything through the torrent of wind and sand. As she looked down, she saw that her feet were already covered up to the ankles by sand, and moving forward was almost impossible. Her arms flailed around her body, looking for anything to help catapult her forward lest she be swallowed entirely by the sand.
Her hand connected to something as she waved her arms. Something wooden. A pole. Quickly, she wrapped her fingers around it and pulled as hard as she could to go up against the wind. Finally, her feet emerged from the sand that had held her in place, and she clung to the pole with all her might as the wind increased. She squeezed her eyes shut, unsure where she was or where this sandstorm had come from.
“Good Lord in Heaven, please. What is the meaning of this? Am I to be swept away? Is this another trial to add to my load?” she called out against the wind, hoping that the Lord might hear her. She wasn’t angry at the Lord, only mystified as to why he’d seen fit to cast so many tribulations upon her head these past few weeks.
She knew there had to be a plan, for she knew the Lord to be good, and just. And yet, she could not help but wonder.
Etta allowed her eyes to open just a tiny little bit and through the sand, she spotted a structure up ahead. The church? Was she outside the church? How had she gotten here?
Confusion addled her mind, but then, almost as suddenly as the sandstorm began, it abated. She brushed her long sleeve over her face to rid herself of the sand and blinked to drive the dryness from her eyes. When at last her vision cleared, she stared up ahead at the building she’d believed to be a church when—
A train station.
Etta staggered forward through the still thick sand until she came to a stop before the building. As she surveyed the surrounding areas, she found that there was nothing else here. All around her was nothing but arid land—and the train station. As she turned back, she realized the pole she’d held onto was not merely a pole but rather a sign with the name of a town she’d never heard of. Groesbeck, Texas.
“Etta? Get on up now. Time to milk the cows,” Mrs. Jones’s voice ripped through her dream, and Etta’s eyes flew open. Disoriented, she grabbed the side of her bed to ground herself. She was utterly confused because the dream had felt so very real. Almost more real than her present surroundings. She blinked, and the familiar little chamber came into view. Her bed, the little desk with one rickety chair pushed neatly underneath, the wardrobe in the corner. This was her life. And yet, the dream had seemed more like…
“Etta?” the voice came again, less patient this time.
“Coming,” she replied and sat up. However, before heeding the woman’s call, she paused and rubbed the side of her head, focusing on her strange dream. Groesbeck? She’d never heard of the town before. And yet, as she muttered the name, something tugged on her heart. Was this the sign she’d been looking for? Was this the Lord’s answer? As she recalled the details of her dream, the train station, the sand—she realized that yes, the Lord had answered her questions. He had heard her. And he was now showing her the path she ought to take.
And that path, it seemed, led to Texas. But could she really just up and leave? She had enough money for a train ticket but not much else. While she knew she could not stay at the church, she knew Nebraska City. Texas was a blank slate. She had nobody. No job to go to, no bed to rest at night. No money. And yet, somehow, she knew that was where she had to go.
She couldn’t explain it, but a certain sense of lightness descended upon her when she thought of it. The Lord hadn’t sent her this dream for nothing, not when she’d asked him for a sign. No, the Lord wanted her to go to Texas. And to Texas she would go.
The following week
Etta stood in front of Nebraska City’s small train station. It was a single building, with two tracks. One coming, one going. She was the only person on the platform, save for the older, gray-haired gentleman who’d sold her the ticket to Waco, where she’d have to switch trains to Groesbeck. She glanced behind her at the only place she’d ever called home. The church still rose in the distance, and a part of her felt guilty for not having bidden a proper goodbye to the reverend. Instead, she’d left a note, telling him she’d had a calling and was setting out to follow it.
He might have talked her out of going, or at least tried to. While he was a man of faith, he was also a practical fellow and might have encouraged her to wait until she had more funds. This, of course, would have led to more troubles between him and his wife. She knew her presence at their church was a burden already. No, she’d realized leaving without a proper goodbye would be best for everyone. She’d write to him once she was settled in her new home, so he would not worry about her.
Other than them, she had nobody to bid farewell to. Nobody she was close enough to anyway.
It was a small town, with fewer than two-thousand people. Looking at it now, she couldn’t believe just how small it really was, and how sad it looked. Or perhaps it appeared that way because she saw it through the eyes of a young girl who’d never found her happiness here. She thought of her stepfather, David Collins, and shuddered. She’d come to find out over the years that he’d never wanted her. He’d taken her in when she was nothing but an unwanted bundle because his wife Rita yearned for a child. Once his wife was gone, Etta had been nothing but a nuisance to him. He’d never been kind.
The opposite was true. No matter how hard she tried, he’d put her down, yelled at her, treated her like nothing but a pest—worse than the stray dog that wintered under their porch.
“You ain’t nothin’ but a mouth to feed. I ought to put you out,” he’d say again and again over the years.
Etta’s nostrils flared as she thought about the many times her stepfather fed scraps to the dog while she went hungry. He hadn’t been a good man. And she had to confess, the day she found him dead in his bed, she hadn’t felt grief. Nor sorrow. Only numbness.
He might have provided a roof over her head, but he’d never given her more than that. Her comfort had come from the Lord. Etta smiled as she remembered the first day she’d wandered into Sunday school, at the behest of a kindly neighbor. She remembered the warmth that spread in her small body when the teacher spoke of Jesus Christ and his kindness, his sacrifices, his good heart. She recalled the sorrow she felt as she learned of the betrayals he suffered and the pain he went through—and then again of the elation at hearing he had risen.
Yes, if not for the Lord, she might never have survived her childhood. He’d led her to the church where she at least found comfort in not only the Lord’s words, but also in the kindness of some of her fellow parishioners. She’d often sat and listened to their stories, their experiences with the Lord. It was through her fellow church members that she’d gained the confidence to listen to her dreams, to her feelings—for others had spoken of prophetic dreams, even the reverend.
Through their tales and guidance, she’d learned to look for the Lord’s signs, to trust in Him, just as she trusted Him now. Yes, as terrible as her upbringing with her stepfather had been, it had made her stronger. It had made her determined. No matter what, she knew she could manage on her own. She could make it. After all, she had the Lord on her side and—
A train whistle drew her out of her thoughts, and a sudden gust of air blew her black and white checkered skirt around her thin legs as the train entered the station. Her hand flew to her straw bonnet, and she pressed it down to keep it from flying away while her fingers curled tighter around her little carpetbag that contained all of her worldly belongings. The train, a long, black monstrosity that smoked at the front, came to a halt in front of her, and a door opened. A tall man in a black uniform stepped out, a top hat on his head. He peered down at her and smiled kindly.
“Well, miss, seems like you’re the only passenger getting on. Where are ya off to?”
His voice was deep and gruff, yet kind, and she craned her neck to look up. She wasn’t especially short, average, she thought, but this gentleman was tall and imposing. He examined her ticket and handed it back to her.
“Waco, huh? Criminy, that’s quite the journey ahead of you.”
“Yes, sir,” she replied firmly but with a smile.
“Well, go on, then.” He nodded, and she climbed the steps. Once inside, she found herself in a cramped compartment. Two rows of wooden seats were on either side with a narrow passage in between them. At first glance, she spotted only one empty seat, at the front. However, an older woman with a stern glare had taken it up for her bag, and it was clear from the fiery glare she shot at Etta that she wasn’t looking to give it up.
Etta ran her tongue over her cracked lips and glanced back toward the conductor for aid when a voice called out.
“There’s a seat left here.”
She peered up, and to her relief, saw a young woman wave her arm. As Etta came closer, the young woman beamed at her. Her heart shaped face was welcoming and kind, framed by golden-blonde curls that poked out from underneath a straw bonnet. She wore a fine-looking red blouse and dark blue skirt and reminded Etta of her Sunday school teacher.
“Thank you, I…”
She got no further, for in that moment, the train’s whistle blew, and she jerked forward. If it hadn’t been for the young woman’s quick reaction, Etta and her little satchel of belongings would have ended up on the floor.
“Careful, these trains can be mighty fierce,” the girl said in a pleasant sing-song voice as Etta plopped ungracefully into the seat and stored her satchel on the floor underneath her. “Mary Greenwood. Pleased to meet you,” the girl said and extended her hand.
“Etta Collins,” she replied. She wasn’t the type of person to quickly make friends with anyone and often took some time to warm up to anyone, but Mary appeared quite the opposite.
“Thank the Lord I have a seatmate now. It has been ever so dull travelin’ on my own. I’ve had to listen to that woman over yonder caterwauling the whole time about how sick train travel makes her. This will be much better. Are ya hungry?”
Without waiting for Etta to reply, Mary bent down and pulled a little bag from a woven basket between her feet.
“Sandwiches. Egg.” She pushed one into Etta’s hand and then unpacked her own. As she took a hearty bite out of one, she turned toward Etta, who noted a small birthmark on Mary’s cheek, just underneath the earlobe. It was shaped like a heart, or near enough, and it struck Etta how fitting this was. Given what a lovely—if chatty—person Mary was. Fingering her sandwich, made up of two thick slices of bread with copious amounts of egg slathered on, Etta thought of the hoecakes she’d made for the reverend and his wife that morning.
A pang of guilt at the way she’d left reminded her of just what a scary adventure she was presently on. She’d been so determined to leave, she hadn’t really thought how it would feel to be on the train, leaving forever. Now that she was on the train, she thought of the next steps. What would she do when she arrived? Wait for another sign? Go to the church there and see if she could find employment?
She hadn’t planned her trip very well, and she knew Reverend Jones would have pointed this out to her. Etta pressed her lips together. She could sleep outside if she had to. She’d done it before, whenever her stepfather locked her outside over some perceived offense or other. But then what?
Her stomach tensed a little as she fingered the sandwich, but fortunately, Mary did not leave her much time to dwell on her nerves. The young woman smiled and nodded at the sandwich in Etta’s hand. “Go on.”
“Thank you,” Etta said and took a bite. The flavors of the sandwich filled her mouth at once, and she let out a small moan of delight as the salt, pepper, eggs, and the acidity of the tomato slices stung the inside of her mouth. As she chewed, she took stock of her surroundings in the train car that was rapidly leaving Nebraska City behind. They were in a narrow compartment, and over the tops of the seats she spotted a sea of bonnets and hats. Chatter drifted to her ears from all sides as people engaged in conversation to pass the time.
“Like it? My ma made ‘em. So, you goin’ to Texas as well? Or getting off before? Please, tell me you’re going to Waco because I can’t spend the rest of the journey alone or next to some wobblin’ jaw.”
Etta chuckled, although Mary appeared utterly unaware that she was quite the wobblin’ jaw herself. Not that Etta minded. She was quiet and generally preferred to have people around her who talked a lot, so she didn’t have to.
When she confirmed to her new friend that she was indeed going all the way to Waco, the girl said. “That is where I’m going. But I’m goin’ further than that,” Mary said with a grin. Etta couldn’t help but wonder just who this young woman was. She appeared to have no qualms about striking up a conversation with a complete stranger, sharing her meals with her, and treating her as though they’d been friends for the longest time.
However, Etta decided it was better to have a kindred spirit, a young woman on her own, as a traveling companion than the angry looking woman who’d glared at her or someone even more menacing. Besides, she had to confess, the sandwich had been a blessing. She hadn’t eaten anything since that morning, and she didn’t have much money left. How would she buy goods in Texas? The worry over the future rose up again, and this time, Mary’s chatter didn’t pull her from her thoughts. The further they got from Nebraska City, the more real her immediate future became. Truth be told, she was worried about just what she’d be doing once she got to Texas. Waiting for another sign from the Lord? What if it didn’t come?
She knew if she found herself without anywhere to go, she could go to a church and seek shelter, perhaps start building a life from there, but somehow, she felt certain the Lord had other plans for her.
“… but then I said to myself, Mary, are you really ready to marry?”
Etta looked up; aware she’d not listened to anything Mary had said for the past few minutes. The rhythmical shaking of the train and the biting smell of the burning coal had addled her senses.
“Marry? You’re getting married?” Etta asked.
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I enjoyed the prolog and first chapter. I recently read one that seems very much the same so I am looking forward to seeing how it goes.
I enjoyed reading this prologue and first chapter. I like how the beginning of this story is starring off and can’t wait to see how the rest of the story goes.
So happy to hear this!!
I enjoyed the preview.
Sounds like this was the tip of the story to come. Etta and Mary just hit it off. What will tomorrow bring? Looking forward to reading Etta story of her life and faith into her future.
My heart goes out to Etta. I am the wife of a retired Pastor. We more than once took someone into our home. One young lady was with us for three years and we were able to help her find funding for college. We did not make a lot of money but God always provided. I guess I got stuck imagining the emotional pain Etta must have felt. I know that is a minor part of the story that is ahead. I look forward to better times in her future.
What a beautiful message! Thanks so much for letting me know!