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An Unexpected Love Guided by Faith

She runs away with her baby brother to escape her past. How can a man trust God’s plan when everyone he ever loved betrayed him?

“God sees what we feel, what motivates us, not necessarily what we express.”

Ethel’s life is not a bed of roses. Her mother sells her body to make ends meet, and when she dies giving birth to her brother Ethel knows that she should protect the child and run away from this despicable place. With God in her heart, she answers a mail-order bride ad and escapes. How can she open her heart to love when she learned not to trust men all her life?

Adam is guarded against love after being betrayed in the past. When Ethel arrives with a baby she never mentioned in her arms, he feels deceived. But as he learns about her past and struggles, he begins to soften toward this unexpected lady that will change his life forever. Can he find it in his heart to forgive and open himself up to love once again?

Adam and Ethel need to fight the shadows of their past and let God guide them to happiness. But when people from her mother’s word come looking for her, can they trust Lord’s plan and fight together?

Written by:

Christian Historical Romance Author


4.5 / 5 (122 ratings)


Columbia, California


Looking at the simple wooden cross with the name Lilly Reed scratched into it that was stuck in the ground at the head of a freshly filled grave, no one would ever guess what the woman buried there had been doing for the last seven years. They would never know how sweet her smile was, even when she smiled through a busted lip. No one would remember the way her eyes danced when she laughed. No one, that is, except Ethel Reed.

At eighteen, Ethel had known more loss than most people. Her life had been upended more times because of it, too. And now, as she stood before her stepmother’s grave, she had to admit that she was truly tired of people dying and leaving her alone.

The baby cooed in her arms and Ethel glanced down at the beautiful girl her stepmother had died bringing into the world. “Not so alone, this time, am I, Cecelia?” she murmured. Fists waving in the air and happy bubbles coming from her lips, Cecelia seemed only too happy to have Ethel in her life. That was something, at least.

Ethel’s gaze strayed back to the fresh grave in front of her, the smell of the dirt filling the air and the sound of another grave being dug a few rows away being the only noise besides the murmuring of the baby in her arms.

“I will take care of her, Lilly, I promise,” she said aloud. “I will save her from this place.”

Her voice was a whisper, meant for only Lilly, who was hopefully in Heaven for sacrificing everything to keep herself and Ethel alive. Surely, she hadn’t been denied that. The work she had done was far from pure, but the Bible itself acknowledged Rahab, the grandmother of King David, who had done the same job. And Lilly had suffered so to protect Ethel and Cecelia. God would have mercy on her soul, Ethel was sure of that. She sighed heavily and adjusted her hold on the baby in her arms.

At just a few days old, Cecelia was usually asleep except when she was eating. Ethel had been forced to pay a wet nurse for the baby and her funds were drying up very fast. How soon could she get her to start eating finely mashed foods? She had no idea.

Lost in her thoughts, she didn’t hear anyone approaching until a hand fell on her shoulder, making her nearly jump out of her skin. She clutched the baby protectively against her chest and turned, her eyes wide and fearful, to see Madeline Pierce, the madam that owned their house and Lilly’s former employer, standing behind her.

The woman’s usually unpleasant expression was arranged in a kind, sympathetic smile that didn’t quite reach her dull brown eyes. She was taller than Ethel; thinner, too. There was no doubt she’d been breathtaking when she was younger, before she let the money-hungry soul inside lure her onto a path that could only lead to hell.

Now her eyes were pinched and the skin under them drawn, and wrinkles, caused by the uncompromising frown she was constantly turning on the people around her, framed her lips on either side. Everything about Madam, from the high point of the fine hats she favored when, as she called it, “out on promenade,” to her impossibly pointed boots, was a warning about her character. How Lilly hadn’t seen it early enough to save them was anyone’s guess.

Even the dress Madam Pierce chosen for the occasion, a dark crepe number, this time topped with a little black hat perched in her tightly drawn bun, didn’t give the proper level of respect to the woman lying in the grave. She was still mostly concerned with other people seeing her. Anger bubbled in Ethel, but she held her tongue. She’d seen what this woman could do to people, and she wasn’t about to allow her to take away the only chance for Cecelia to have a good life.

Over Madam’s shoulder stood Julian, her son, leering at Ethel as he usually did when she was in sight. He was built much the same as his mother from the hips down, with long lean legs, and a narrow waist. From there, though, he was all brawn and thickness, an advantage he used to get his way around the women of the camp far too often.

His eyes might’ve been pretty, with the warm caramel tones that ringed his pupils. The vile expression he usually wore destroyed that quite thoroughly. Her cheek ached in the remembered pain of being slapped by those meaty palms of his more than once for some infraction he’d dreamed up, all while wearing that sneering grin she’s only ever seen on men who thought the women in the Cribs were worthless.

It was a look that made her stomach roll in fear when she was younger and now just made her angry. She was never taking Julian’s abuse again, and she’d get Cecelia out of his way long before he dared to turn that expression, or those hands, on her.

Madam looked her up and down, her lips twitching a bit, then folded her hands over her stomach. “Miss Reed, dear, I am so sorry your stepmother passed on. It’s so tragic. You have my deepest sympathy.” Her tone was a sorry attempt at being comforting and sympathetic. She didn’t quite reach the level of acting that would make her performance believable, especially with the way her eyes were glittering.

It reminded Ethel of an animal on the hunt, and she didn’t like feeling like prey. “May I call on you this evening? I would like to talk to you about your future and help you figure out where to go from here.”

Ethel lowered her eyes and nodded. “That would be nice,” she answered meekly, mostly by habit. Any other answer would’ve gotten her slapped on the spot. If she was lucky, that was.

“I will see you, then,” Madam answered with a sticky sweet smile. She paused to spare a look at the grave behind Ethel and sniffed with a disdainful air before turning on her heel and moving away. Julian followed, but not before he gave Ethel a once-over that made her shudder in revulsion. Both of them had done it and it really didn’t bode well for whatever conversation Madam intended to have later.

Julian paused beside her, that leer on his face as he contemplated her, making her want to disappear. “You look good with a baby, Ethie,” he said, leaning closer. “You should have more.”

With that, he turned and left, following his mother across the street and down the wooden walkway in front of the storefronts along the route back to her grand house on the edge of town.

Ethel looked around and took a deep breath, trying to calm her nerves. She tried to focus on something, anything, besides the urge to take a swing at either of them, or vomit, or just run until she fell down. Anything but stay here, with them. Julian knew she hated the nickname he’d given her, that she’d refused to respond to since he’d first called her by it, and the suggestion of having children, the subtle hint of having them with him, was enough to make her rethink the lunch she’d set aside for them once she’d gotten Cecelia home.

She was bolstered by the lack of onlookers, the lack of witnesses to their horrible show. Without an audience, they hadn’t lingered, which was a small blessing in itself. Madam had been hinting at how Ethel could pay off the debt incurred by hiring a doctor for Lilly and for, eventually, her burial. It wasn’t cheap to bury a person, according to Madam, and it wasn’t as if Ethel had any other way to pay the sums required to help her stepmother while she was alive. When she’d passed, their finances had become even more dire.

“Miss? Miss Reed…?”

The pastor’s voice spoke from just next to her, and she jumped. He’d disappeared after his part in the funeral was finished and it wasn’t lost on her that he waited until Madam and Julian, the only other attendees at the burial, had departed, before approaching her again. Was he afraid of them? She turned a studying gaze on the man while he expressed his sympathy.

He was the exact opposite of Madam and Julian—round where they were narrow, joyful where they were stoic. The sympathetic downward twist of his lips looked out of place on him, and she tried to smile reassuringly at him, if only to lighten his expression. She hadn’t been allowed to attend church while they’d live in the Crib village, so she hadn’t met him until just before the funeral, but he seemed a good sort. He smiled, the creases near his eyes bunching like it was an expression he wore often, and he reached forward to tickle Cecelia’s cheek before he, too, left them standing alone in the cemetery.

Ethel stood a while longer, until the breeze attained the bitter bite of evening and the shadows of the torches posted at the gates of the graveyard stretched far beyond Lilly’s grave. Cecelia made a little noise then, and Ethel turned to make her way back home, her sister wrapped in her cloak against her chest.

At this time of day, Columbia’s streets were quiet, though far from deserted. She made her way back to the cribs along the western edge of town, steering clear of the streets sectioned off for the middle-class houses and the store fronts. “Those folks are only Christian on Sundays,” Lilly had laughed not long after they’d arrived here. Her voice rose in Ethel’s mind unexpectedly, making her eyes burn with the sting of unshed tears. She didn’t have the luxury of mourning her stepmother, not now. She had a sister to save, herself to save. There was no time for pausing to cry over the loss of a woman who had been the only mother Ethel really remembered.

She gazed along the street, looking for something to distract herself. The packed earth roads were flat after a fresh leveling and the street torches were flickering. She’d stayed longer than she’d intended, but she knew she’d have to deal with Madam when she got home and had put off returning to the hovel that the woman had rented them in return for Lilly’s services.

She slowed her steps deliberately and paused to appreciate a display in the window of a sweet shop, then another of a pawn broker. The dressmaker that Madam preferred had a store on the corner up the street, and Ethel was always entranced by the displays of fabric the seamstress arranged in the windows. She fancied that Cecelia might appreciate looking at them, since they were usually covered in colorful fabrics. Not even the uneven glass of the window could tamp down the joyful expression of life the fabrics promised.

There was a narrow, paved sidewalk along the front of the stores and, a few times, Ethel had been glad she was smaller than the average woman her age. It allowed her to duck between people rushing at her from the other direction without Cecelia getting harmed in the crush. Today, the only rush of bodies came from a warehouse near the train depot as the men changed shifts.

She managed to reach the end of the sidewalk and step back onto the packed dirt road, crossing one more street and ducking down a path that cut through a small copse of trees. Before much longer, she was back inside the relative comfort of the crib that Lilly and she had been sharing since her stepmother had accepted the position with Madam Pierce. It had never been home, and, without Lilly, it was even less so.

As she crossed the threshold, she turned to look up at the sky. “Please help me save her, Lord. And myself, too. Please.” Then she quietly let herself and the tiny infant curled into her chest into the dim shack.


Madam arrived at the small shack she and Lilly had lived in since her father had died, trailed by her son, Julian. The stiff knock was not unexpected, though it was very unwelcome. Ethel steeled her nerves and walked silently to the door, having just put Cecelia down for her nap. She pulled it open to admit her guests just as the stern woman was raising her hand for another strike on the door, which caused Ethel to take a step back by reflex.

“About time,” Madam muttered, sweeping in past Ethel to look around the small living space that connected to the bedroom. Ethel paused just behind her and looked at the space, trying to imagine what Madam saw when she did the same. The living room was very small, only large enough for a small couch along one wall, a pair of narrow chairs flanking it. There was a small round table that looked more fit for a side table, but they’d used it as a coffee table. It was covered in a meager arrangement of tea snacks, her stepmother’s good tea pitcher and a trio of mismatched cups and saucers.

Lilly had spent time teaching Ethel how to stitch rips closed and hide the seams, so she doubted Madam could see how many times she’d repaired the couch upholstery. She’d given up trying to save the dainty doily that had been on the table and had cut it, instead, to become a lace edging on the cloth covering the round table under the tea service.

The wooden floor was smooth with age and Lilly had kept it in good shape with regular oil washings so the grain in the floorboards were perfectly outlined and the seams between the boards were filled to seal in some heat in the winter and cool air in the summer. One of the few things they’d had to bring with them were the runners that went down the hallway to the bedroom in one direction and the kitchen in the other, and the matching floor mat that protected the wooden floor from the furniture in the living room.

The single window held a sheer curtain that Ethel had cut and finished from a threadbare sheet, but the pattern on the sheet had given the illusion of lace and she’d been reluctant to throw it out when they needed so much.

Madam, though, gave a disdainful sniff and folded her hands together, turning her nose up, then looking over her shoulder at Ethel, giving her an appraising glance. “We have business to discuss. Am I to assume the brat is asleep?”

Ethel bristled at the word brat more even than the obvious disgust at the space she found herself in but dropped her eyes to keep it from showing. Madam was the one who provided them with everything in this hovel, after all. If it didn’t suit her, perhaps she could dress it up more? Fear kept her lips sealed, however, and she decided to answer the question, instead.

“Yes, ma’am,” she said meekly. “Please, come to the living room. I’ve lain tea cakes and an early tea for your…”

Julian stepped in, then, and her words stopped, terror tightening her throat. He didn’t stop walking until he was right next to her, looking down at her from his towering height. He didn’t say anything, but his expression did, and she had the urge to reach for a shawl to cover herself, even though her mourning gown covered every inch of skin except her face. His eyes on her made her stomach roll in revulsion and she quickly stepped toward the living room, lifting her hand to welcome them into her space.

Madam dusted at the tall-backed chair by the fireplace, then cautiously lowered herself into it, as if she was concerned it would break under her weight. The woman was very slight of frame, which made Ethel think it was the workmanship she questioned. Julian waved for her to enter before him, as was proper, but she hated the feeling of him behind her. His eyes hadn’t stopped roaming and her skin crawled under his perusal.

Her steps were short and hurried as she fought the urge to run to the other chair, leaving the couch for Julian. She wasn’t sitting on the low couch where there was plenty of room for him to sit next to her. She simply couldn’t give him the opportunity to take anything she said or did as an invitation.

“Now, then,” Madam started, lifting a chipped teacup to her lips. “Your stepmother’s illness created an upset in our usual workings. The other girls worked her shifts when they could, but we still lost money. Paying the doctor for your sister’s birth came out of our pockets, as well.”

Ethel nodded stiffly, her eyes focused on the cup. She knew she owed Madam a lot of money. She had no idea how she was going to pay it back, but she knew what Madam was intending to offer as an option. Taking her stepmother’s place was not going to be something she could do. She couldn’t do it—not just because she felt that it would dishonor the Lord to misuse her body in that way. She had also seen too much of Lilly’s suffering to be anything but petrified.

“And her burial, even as meager as the ceremony was, was not inexpensive, either. Lumber isn’t cheap, and paying those men to—”

“I know it has been a great burden,” Ethel cut in, saving herself from having to hear the funeral so callously discussed. She also didn’t wish to be reminded that she was completely alone and totally responsible for the daughter Lilly had brought into the world. “I am looking for work.”

“No need, my dear,” Madam said softly, reaching across the space to pat the back of Ethel’s hand, where it rested in her lap. “I will take care of it all. Your stepmother leaving us left a space open in our employ. I would be happy to offer that to you. You could pay off your stepmother’s debt with me and still have enough to feed yourself and the baby.”

Ethel fought the urge to tense, to scream, to fight. None of those things would do any good. She needed time to find a way out. “I really appreciate the offer, Madam,” she said softly. Once she had control over her expression, she raised her eyes to the other woman’s, allowing the tears she’d been fighting for days to fill her eyes. “May I have a little time to come to terms with Lilly’s passing and develop a routine with Cecelia before I…?”

She couldn’t bring herself to finish, but she’d obviously said enough for Madam, who waved her hand and offered her a kind smile. “Of course, my dear. It will give us time to prepare for your first client, as well. I will give you a few days to get settled.”

“Mayhap a week?” Ethel asked hopefully. “It will be a day or so before Cecelia will be over her confusion at losing Lilly, then another few to get used to me. Not to mention me getting used to her. I’ve never…”

“Naturally,” Madam’s lips were a tight bud, but she nodded. “A week, then. We will discuss the terms of your employment then.” She rose to her feet, setting the teacup on the low table in front of her. Julian, who had been leaning in the corner behind his mother, straightened up and opened the door next to him. Ethel rose to her feet, but didn’t follow the woman to the door, since Julian already opened it.

“I will have the girls continue to visit you and ask them to instruct you in your duties, as well.” Madam swept out of the house and down to the dirt road that ran in front of it, without even saying goodbye. Julian touched the brim of his hat, his eyes sweeping down her form again in a way that made her skin crawl. He stepped out, pulling the door closed behind him and leaving her standing in the dimly lit space, alone.

Cecelia let out a shrill cry at the noise caused by the door closing and Ethel moved to the crib, curling her arms under the baby, and lifting her free of the rough linen. “Worry not,” she murmured to the baby, who nestled into the warmth of Ethel’s body. “We won’t be here to see her again, Cecelia. I don’t know how we’ll get out of here or where we’ll go, but I am not sacrificing another part of my soul to this place and I will not allow you to be raised here, either. Lilly did what she had to do. So will I. But just not that.”

The baby drifted back off to sleep and Ethel caught sight of herself in the mirror. “So will I,” she said to the gaunt-eyed and frail young woman looking back at her from the unwashed looking glass. “I will not become a soiled dove. I will not sell my soul to get out of here, but I know God has no intention of allowing us to stay here. He will show us a way. He will help us.”

Just to be sure, however, she spent an extra ten minutes in prayer that night. She prayed for guidance. She prayed for help. Mostly, she prayed that she and Cecelia would be spared this life. She prayed until her legs were numb, and she stumbled to her feet after a softly said, “Amen.” Cecelia didn’t murmur the way she usually did when Ethel was finished praying and lifted her into her cot and she hoped it wasn’t a bad sign. She laid down on the stiff bed she used to share with Lilly and sighed, letting the tears free to soak into the pillow. Then she started praying all over again. With her heart broken, feeling more alone than she ever had, she prayed to be free of the trap closing around her.

“Please,” she whispered, her voice cracking with fear and desperation. “Please save us from this fate.”

When her eyelids closed, she dreamed of the good days, when it was just her and her father. Their house was always warm and happy, the smell of cigars and fresh bread filling the air, and the sound of laughter, of conversation, of her father’s soft voice filling her ears as he curled her in his lap and told her everything was going to be okay. It hadn’t been okay for a very long time, but here, in her dreams, she could pretend they were better. Even if it was only for a little while.

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