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A Frontier Family for the Fake Cowboy

Time is running out. If I am to save my property and child, I’ll need to make this stranger with the rugged smile my husband…

Widowed at 27, Penelope Reed is on the brink of losing her cherished ranch to her aggressive brother-in-law unless she remarries. With two young children to protect, Penelope’s desperation leads her to post a mail-order groom ad, hoping for a miracle…

Enter Oliver Brooks, a rugged ex-convict seeking redemption and a fresh start. Pretending to be a rancher, Oliver arrives at Penelope’s doorstep, instantly bonding with her children and stirring unexpected feelings within her…

When Oliver’s dark history resurfaces, Penelope’s claim to the ranch is endangered. Will their love be strong enough to withstand the storm that is brewing?


On the rugged plains of Montana where dreams take flight,

A widow’s hope burns through the darkest night.

In the arms of a convict seeking a new start,

Their love blooms strong, refusing to depart.

Written by:

Western Historical Romance Author


There was a strange man in the middle of the living room. He looked a bit like Dada, but he wasn’t actually Dada. He yelled more, and he made Mama yell much more than Dada did. But he had the same hair as Dada, and his voice sounded almost the same.

He said he was Dada’s brother. Tate was Maisie’s brother, but he wasn’t sure if there were different brothers, and he couldn’t ask Maisie. She was in her room, probably drawing another picture of Dada. A few days ago, they put Dada in a wooden box, put it in a hole, and covered it with dirt. Mama had been wearing black clothes ever since, and Maisie hadn’t stopped drawing pictures of Dada.

Tate wasn’t sure when Dada would be home, but he hoped it would be soon. Maisie had been having bad dreams ever since they put him in the box, and she kept waking Tate up in the middle of the night.

Once Dada got home, he could make her stop, and he could play with Tate again. Tate had too many toys to play with by himself—the animal army had a bear and a wolf and a fox and a horse and a cow and a goat and a sheep and a pig and a donkey and a bunch of birds and a dog and a cat. Dada had carved them all himself, and he always played with Tate.

Mama and Dada’s brother were still yelling at each other. Tate knew a lot of the words, but he didn’t know what they were talking about, and they were yelling too quickly for him to figure it out. He just knew they were loud, and he didn’t like it; Mama and Dada were never so loud.

“Tate, sweetie?” Mama called once they finished yelling at each other. She didn’t sound like she was mad at Tate, but she sounded like she was mad at someone. Tate peeked out from behind the couch, clutching a wolf in one hand and a donkey in the other. “Why don’t you go play outside for now?”

“’kay,” Tate mumbled, getting to his feet. He left most of his toys where they were, scattered over the floor behind the couch, but he brought Lt. Hawk with him. Lt. Hawk was, as the name suggested, a hawk, and he was the biggest animal in the animal army. Dada had said that hawks had been named after their family—the Hawthorne family—so Tate always had Lt. Hawk with him. It would be rude, otherwise. He was a Hawthorne, too.

As Tate crept out from behind the couch, clutching Lt. Hawk to his chest, Dada’s brother was staring at him. Tate stared at Maisie sometimes, because he knew if he did it long enough, then eventually, she would make that funny groaning noise and leave the room. But this was not that sort of staring. It was like he was trying to stare through Tate, to see all the squishy bits that made Tate Tate.

He clutched Lt. Hawk closer and hurried past, staring at the floor as he did. He didn’t to look at Dada’s brother. He didn’t want to see him looking back.

That was how he saw the piece of paper. It was crumbled up in a ball on the floor and sort of dusty. He was pretty sure it had fallen out of Mama’s apron earlier. Mama and Dada’s brother were fighting some more, so neither of them saw it when Tate picked up the paper and carried it out the back door with him.

He could still hear the yelling from outside, even once the door closed with a thump. It was quieter, though, and Tate guessed that was alright. He could hear the other men and the horses that had come with Dada’s brother around the side of the house, and he guessed that meant he was staying in the backyard. He sat down in the dirt by the garden and nestled Lt. Hawk down beside him before he straightened out the crumbled-up paper and unfolded it. He pressed it onto the ground to mash it flat.

Tate had been hoping it would be a picture. Dada drew pictures for him sometimes. But it wasn’t. It was just the tiny, squiggly little scribbles that Mama and Dada made on paper. He saw tons of them in Dada’s study—even entire books of them. That seemed boring to Tate, but he guessed that was fine. The animal army was probably boring to some people, and that just meant the animal army wasn’t for them.

Tate stared at the squiggles for a little while. They looked a lot like the squiggles Dada made. The big one at the bottom of the page especially looked like Dada’s squiggles. His squiggles and Mama’s squiggles never looked the same as each other. And the paper smelled a bit like the leather from Dada’s belt and saddle.

Tate didn’t know if the squiggles were important, but he knew they were Dada’s squiggles. Dada might want them back when he got home. Tate knew just where to keep them until then.

He scooted across the ground until he was right beside the garden, and he picked up the tiny shovel Mama let him use. One time, Tate had been digging a hole and cracked one of his fingernails so far down that it bled, and Mama had given him the shovel as long as he promised not to throw it or swing it at anyone. He found the spot he had buried a few funny-looking rocks in a few days before, and he dug right next to it.

Once he had a hole, Tate messily folded the paper, smaller and smaller, until it was folded up enough that he could drop it into the hole where it would be safe until Dada got home. Tate piled dirt back on top of it, patting it down flat and smooth afterward.

Tate was still patting the dirt down, mashing one hand and then the other against it, when the door opened, and Dada’s brother stepped outside. He wasn’t yelling anymore, but he was looking at Tate.

“Looks like you’re the man of the house for now,” he said, and it sounded a bit like he was laughing as he said it. His laugh was nothing like Dada’s. “Bet you’re happy to hear that.” He laughed for real after that, as he rounded the side of the house where the others were.

Tate snatched up Lt. Hawk and hurried back inside through the back door.

Chapter One

There weren’t a lot of options for those who were leaving prison. Oliver Ford had always known that in theory, much the same way he knew a kettle on the fire would be hot. There was a difference, though, in suspecting the kettle would be hot and actually touching the scorching metal.

He had the clothes on his back when he was released, and not a lot other than that. A prison guard had mentioned a few towns that weren’t terribly far from Yuma Territorial Prison, and he had alluded that they might look for labor, but he had made no promises.

Oliver found nothing promising. Not that he could really blame anyone. He couldn’t afford a horse or a wagon, so his options were to walk along the endless stretches of dirt road until he came upon a town or someone who would take enough pity on him to offer him a lift.

He ran into a few good Samaritans willing to let him sit on the tailgates of their wagons for a few miles as long as he didn’t make any trouble, but mostly he was stuck letting the dirt get baked into his clothes and skin as he walked. He earned some change here and there, but no one will hire him for anything long term. Not that he could blame them; he could only imagine how shabby he looked.

He slept in sheep pens, empty horse stalls, haylofts, and, on one notable occasion, up a tree. Sometimes the owners of the property knew he was there and didn’t mind his presence for the night again, as long as he caused no trouble, but just as often he simply had to hope he wasn’t discovered and chased off of the property before morning. It wasn’t exactly restful, but it was better than nothing, and Oliver knew he couldn’t ask for much.

Most of the time, there was nothing overly interesting happening. The town he nominally settled down in was small and quiet, with little drama beyond the local variety. Oliver heard gossip about shepherds and cattle herders and postmen. He heard rumors about the cost of flour and shipping delays for cotton cloth. But mostly, none of it was anything surprising.

That only meant that, on the occasions where something unusual happened, it stood out all the more.

The sun was going down as Oliver looked for somewhere to sleep for the night that would cause minimal disruption, when he nearly collided with a trio of people going to opposite direction—or perhaps it was more accurate to say that the trio nearly collided with him. The trio comprised a greasy, slightly unwashed man with several days of unshaved beard growth, and two young women. The man reeked of alcohol, and he was clutching the women close, one under each arm. The entire situation looked uncomfortable, to put it charitably, and the women both looked as if they wanted to be anywhere else.

The man eyed Oliver like a feral dog ready to defend the last shards of a bone. Oliver eyed the pistol holstered on the man’s belt.

Oliver stepped aside, off the side of the road. “’Scuse me,” he offered, voice low.

The man muttered something too low for Oliver to hear and spat at Oliver’s feet before he continued on his way, his possessive hold on the women tightening as he went. Oliver stared after them for a few seconds, wondering if perhaps the women had family who were waiting for them to come home for the night, before peeling his gaze away from them.

Maybe they were fine; they had said nothing or asked for help, and regardless, whatever was going on was going to happen whether or not Oliver was there. He couldn’t go sticking his nose into more trouble when he’d scarcely taken two steps out into the free world again, especially when he had no way of knowing the whole situation.

He pushed the encounter out of his thoughts as he resumed his search for somewhere to rest for the night, but his heart wasn’t exactly in the search anymore. He wound up settling for the local post office; it had a low porch, so Oliver wouldn’t need to sit right in the dirt, and it had a small awning, so it at least had some protection from the sun.

There were still a few people out and about. Some were closing up shop or packing up a vending stall, while others were obviously heading home. Oliver could hear voices drifting out of the pub, where the windows were still bright. It was a tempting sight, but he knew it would be a waste of the small amount of money he had. It would have felt good in the moment, but he would inevitably kick himself by morning.

He stepped up onto the post office porch and sat down, his back resting against the wall. It was still slightly warm from the sun. He glanced in either direction down the street, until he was sure that no one was going to usher him on the way, before he settled in a bit more comfortably and closed his eyes. He was accustomed enough to sleeping in strange places that it didn’t take long before he drifted off.


Oliver woke up early the next morning to the strange and unwelcome feeling of someone poking him in the head’s side with a rolled-up newspaper. Slowly, he cracked open one eye, and the offender withdrew his newspaper as he exclaimed, “And he lives! Took you a minute, friend.”

Oliver stared up at the man blearily, still half-asleep. He dragged a hand over his face, and once his eyes finally focused, he realized the man who had prodded him awake was the local post office clerk. Lionel, maybe? Oliver was pretty sure that was it.

Lionel was an ordinary man with mousy brown hair, a face lined from easy laughter, and at the specific moment, rather more obvious laughter as Oliver’s sluggish thoughts caught up with the situation.

Oliver had little business at the post office, beyond sending one letter to his uncle and waiting for a response that he was almost entirely positive he would not get, but he had seen Lionel out and about enough to know who he was.

Patiently, Lionel waited until Oliver was looking up at him with something more like clarity before he carried on speaking. “Ah, there we are, finally awake. Well, come on, then; up and at ‘em. There’s a bulletin board inside, and I’m sure there’s something there that you could do.”

Oliver squinted at him skeptically for a few seconds until Lionel rolled his eyes good-naturedly and backed up a pace, giving Oliver space to get back to his feet.

“I have been watching you putter about this town, looking for any sort of odds or ends for days now,” Lionel informed him. “It’s sadder than a three-legged herding dog. So, go inside, look at the bulletin board, and see if luck’s got anything in store for you. Worst-case scenario, the answer is no, and your situation doesn’t get any worse.”

He ushered Oliver into the post office with the newspaper, not giving him any time to debate whether the motivation was pity or genuine generosity. Ultimately, Oliver supposed it didn’t matter. Lionel’s motivations, whether they were good or bad, were unlikely to have much of an impact on the town’s bulletin board.

As Lionel went about his morning routine, Oliver perused the bulletin board. Much of what was on offer was irrelevant: some were job offers he knew he was simply unqualified for, and a few were job offers he had already tried pursuing and been turned away. There was one notice that caught his eye, however, and he pulled the ad from the board.

In an abstract sense, Oliver knew that for many people, marriage was a contract to guarantee some sort of mutual benefit for the people involved; for many people, love, affection, and companionship were nice potential benefits, but they were neither expected nor required. However, he had never seen someone place an ad for a husband the same way they might place an ad for a horse.

The notice was brief, only offering a few details. The woman looking for a husband was a widow needing to remarry to maintain ownership of the family ranch. It was sad, Oliver supposed, that she wasn’t even allowed time to grieve before trying to fill the empty spot in her family, but he couldn’t deny that it would benefit him. He knew he had all the skills to help on a ranch; he had grown up on a ranch himself and worked on others besides.

Or at least, it initially seemed like it would be good for him, until he realized the notice was not from a local woman. He would need transport to Montana. Considering he didn’t even have enough money to take a wagon to the next town, he certainly didn’t have enough money to book passage on a train from Arizona to Montana.

“You’re looking stormy over there,” Lionel informed Oliver as he continued setting up the counter. “What seems to be the problem?”

“The phrase ‘you need to spend money to make money’ is rather apt at the moment,” Oliver replied, glancing over his shoulder and holding up the ad. “This would be perfect, except I certainly can’t afford a ticket to Montana.” He didn’t bother to clarify that he could barely afford a new shirt at that point.

Oliver looked away again, focusing his attention once more on the ad. He supposed he could get there the old-fashioned way, on foot, but it would take him weeks, if not months, to do that. If this woman was advertising as far out as Arizona, then she was almost certainly also advertising closer to home. If Oliver opted for the slow method, he would most likely get there just to realize she had married someone else weeks before he arrived.

He could hear Lionel approaching him, and he glanced over his shoulder once again to see the clerk handing him a small purse. Oliver stared at it for a moment, uncomprehending.

“Well, go on,” Lionel urged him, giving the purse a wiggle in the air. “A train ticket will not purchase itself, especially if you just stand there gawking like a fish.”

Slowly, cautiously, Oliver accepted the purse, and the clerk simply returned to the counter as if he had done nothing.

“Why?” It was the only thing Oliver could think to say.

Lionel didn’t answer immediately, staring out the front window at the street as the town gradually woke up. “I had a son,” he offered eventually. “He needed someone to help him once, and I wasn’t there to give him that help, and now I do not know where he is or what’s happened to him. If I can keep someone else from turning into a mystery, well, I figure I owe that to the world.”

Oliver stared down at the purse in his hand. Was it pity, or was it generosity? Could he afford to turn it down, regardless?

With a quiet, “Thank you,” Oliver pocketed the purse. Lionel gave him a piece of paper and a pen to write to his potential bride-to-be, before waving him off to get going.

Before Oliver could step back out the door, though, Lionel called after him, “At least send a note once you get there. My old heart can only take so many mysteries in life.”

“I promise,” Oliver assured him, before stepping outside. He needed to get to the train station; within a week, he would be in Bozeman.

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