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Wild Hearts of Oregon

“I must run away from him. I have no choice but to marry this angry rancher to save my little niece and fulfill my sister’s wish. If only I could escape my past…”

After her sister’s death, Eva made a promise to protect her niece. Desperate to flee her abusive brother-in-law, she becomes a mail-order bride, clutching her niece tightly to her chest…

Secluded on his ranch, Benjamin is scarred by his past traumas. When he finds Eva and her niece on his doorstep, he becomes bound to them by necessity. What he didn’t count was to find unexpected solace in their presence.

Yet, as their bond deepens, the shadows of their pasts are catching up to them. Ruthless adversaries are closing in, and Eva’s niece is in danger. Will they defy all odds and outwit their enemies?

 

In Oregon’s grace, where rivers sing,

Eva and Benjamin, hearts take wing.

Amidst the woods, where dreams take flight,

Their love blooms strong, in nature’s light.

Written by:

Western Historical Romance Author

4.1/5

4.1/5 (34 ratings)

Prologue

Spring, 1855

 

Sitting by her sister’s bedside, Eva Haladay felt a deep pang of sorrow. The room was dimly lit, with the lantern casting long shadows on the walls, but Eva could still see the painting of a stallion above Claire’s large, sturdy four-poster bed. The curtains were open, letting in the faint light of the setting sun. It gave the wooden finishings and furniture a golden glow as a few whispers of dust settled in the breeze that came in beneath the door. She took Claire’s hand in her own, feeling the coolness of her skin. It had been weeks since Claire had become bedridden with consumption, and it was hard to see her sister in such pain and discomfort from harsh coughing fits.

A few days ago, Claire began coughing blood, the telltale sign that told Eva it was only a matter of time.

She took a wet cloth off Claire’s head, dipped it into a bowl of water, and put it back on her sister’s forehead, hoping to cool her temperature. She looked at Claire’s face, but there was no change.

She stood up and looked out the bedroom window, blinking back tears. She couldn’t bear the thought of losing Claire, who was her only family since their parents had passed away years ago. The room felt suffocating, filled with the scent of herbs and sickness.

Claire stirred on the bed, her eyes fluttering open. “Eva,” she whispered weakly, her voice barely audible.

Eva hurried to her side, trying to keep her composure. “I’m here, Claire,” she said, her voice catching in her throat.

Claire’s gaze focused on Eva’s tear-streaked face. “Don’t cry for me, Eva,” she murmured as she took a wheezing breath. With a weak hand, she reached up and gently brushed Eva’s tears away. “There’s somethin’ I need you to promise me.”

“Anything you need,” Eva assured her. She was ready to promise her sister anything.

“Swear to me. You will be brave and strong.”

“I’ll do my best,” Eva responded as her heart clenched inside. Claire had always been the stronger of the two. She didn’t know if she could ever measure up to her older sister.

“And promise…” Claire paused as she coughed. Eva held a handkerchief to Claire’s mouth, trying to ease her suffering. When Claire could finally take a normal breath, Eva set the cloth aside. “What else do you need?”

“Promise me you will take care of Zoey and Eli after I’m gone.”

Eva wanted to argue with her sister. Anything like that would be difficult to do, considering the herbal blend that she’d just given her in the tea. While it calmed her, soothe her, and help her keep her strength, it also made her drowsy. There would be no chance of arguing then.

She couldn’t imagine a world without Claire, and the thoughts of shouldering the responsibility of caring for her brother-in-law and two-year-old niece were overwhelming. But Claire’s eyes looked deeply into Eva’s, as if pleading for her reassurance. “Please, Eva. Promise me.”

Eva had to swallow hard, twice, to compose herself, her chest heavy with emotion. “I…I promise.”

Claire’s face relaxed, relief washing over her delicate features. “Thank you,” she whispered. Claire didn’t move for a long moment, and Eva wondered if she had fallen asleep. Then her eyes opened again. “Can you bring Zoey to me?”

“Of course.” Rising from her chair, she exited Claire’s room and made her way down the hall to Zoey’s bedroom.

As she entered through the creaking door, she paused at the doorway, and smiled as she watched Zoey attempting to stack a pile of blocks, one on top of the other. The fire was keeping the space warm, and with the sunlit glow that came through the windows, it was hard to tell that there was tragedy brewing in that house. Zoey’s maid, Patty, sat in a nearby rocking chair, the blanket she was knitting draped over her lap. She gave Eva a sympathetic smile as she stepped into the room.

Zoey looked up from attempting to stack blocks and grinned. “E…a.”

Eva smiled warmly as she picked up her niece. “Hey, there. Your mama wants to see you.” She glanced at the maid, who had been watching over Zoey. “You can take a break if you’d like, Patty.”

“Thank you, miss.” Patty gave her a gentle smile. “But I’ll stay close in case you need me.”

Eva could only nod as she left the room with Zoey on her hip. Claire’s room was just across the hall, and when she entered, Zoey immediately let out a squeal and attempted to be let down to the floor. Eva gripped her.

“Mama!”

Claire smiled weakly at her daughter, a mixture of joy and sadness in her eyes. Zoey looked just like a doll with her soft, short curls. The spitting image of her mother. Even the light scrapes and bruises to her elbows, brought about by endless exploration and play, could not take away from her near-perfect appearance. Tears fell down Eva’s face as she remembered the hard conversation she’d had with her sister only a few months ago. Their mother was skilled in using herbs for sickness and had taught Eva everything she knew. Even though Dr. Harman, the doctor who was now treating Claire, disagreed with her, Eva firmly believed that consumption was contagious. She did everything she could to keep Zoey safe so she wouldn’t become sick like her mother.

“Hey there, sweetie,” Claire whispered, reaching out to touch Zoey’s cheek. Zoey squirmed with excitement, leaning into her mother’s touch.

“Story?” Zoey asked.

Claire’s gaze softened as she looked at Zoey. “Of course, darling,” she said, her voice barely above a whisper. She struggled to sit up, but weakness overtook her. “I’m sorry, honey. Mama is too tired right now,” Claire said through a fit of coughs.

Eva stepped in. She knew how important it was for Claire to have these last few moments with Zoey, even though she couldn’t hold her. She sat down in a chair near the door. “You sit in my lap, and I’ll tell you a story for your mama.”

The young girl beamed at Eva and nodded eagerly. “Story!”

Eva recounted one of Zoey’s favorite tales, adding a playful lilt to her voice that captivated the little girl’s attention.

As the story ended, Eva looked at Zoey. “All done,” she said with a smile.

Zoey clapped her hands in delight. “More!”

Eva chuckled softly and ruffled Zoey’s curls. “Maybe next time, sweetheart. Right now, it’s time to let your mama rest.”

Eva carefully lifted Zoey from the bed and cradled her in her arms. “Wave goodnight to Mama,” she prompted gently.

Zoey waved both arms in the air. “Night. Night.” Zoey rested her head on Eva’s shoulder and looked sad for a moment, and Eva wondered if she knew this could be the last time she saw her mother. The thought made Eva bite her lip to keep her tears at bay. She needed to be strong—for Claire and for Zoey.

Eva carried Zoey back to her room, glad to see Patty there, stacking books on a shelf. Patty quickly diverted Zoey’s attention to the blocks and Eva left, grateful for the maid’s help. She couldn’t have taken care of the small child and her sister at the same time.

She ambled back to Claire’s room and was surprised to find that her sister was not yet asleep; rather, she was staring off into the distance, wearing a pained expression.

“The kids could use their father now,” Claire said softly, her words slightly dragged. “This is going to be hard on them.”

Anger flooded through Eva towards her brother-in-law that she did her best to hide. “He left early this morning. I don’t know when he’ll be back.”

Claire didn’t look surprised. She gave a weak nod and then closed her eyes. This would be the last time she spoke to Eva. A few hours later, Claire took her last breath, leaving behind a peaceful smile. It would be impossible to forget the first time that Claire’s hand ever felt cold.

She was so peaceful then that it almost felt as though she might wake up. As if she had just left for a short while, and would soon be back. Only there was a presence missing from the room. One that had accompanied her physical body, and could no longer be heard laughing or chatting the night away.

The house fell silent, just as Claire’s heart had. Eva dreamed of hearing a thump in her sister’s chest, or a slight twitch of her finger. Even though she knew it would never happen, it gave her some sense of hope.

The night only grew darker, and with each creak of the wood in the house, Eva was reminded of what was real and present. Her sister wasn’t coming back. It was only when Eva truly felt she had no more tears left to cry that she tucked a strand of Claire’s hair out of her face and prepared herself for their last farewell.

“Goodbye, Claire. Tell Mother and Father hello for me.” Eva took a deep breath, not bothering to wipe away her tears. “And I do promise to take care of Zoey and Eli, just like you asked.”

The weight of her promise settled heavily on her shoulders, but she would do her best to be brave and strong for her sister.

Chapter One

Spring 1858

 

It was barely midday, and already the place was filled with rowdy men, most of them drunk before suppertime. Eva sighed as she wiped down a table in the crowded saloon. She wished Eli was here to keep them in line. Even though this was his saloon, her brother-in-law was nowhere to be found, as usual.

She tucked a loose strand of strawberry blonde hair behind an ear and picked up a tray, making her way to a table of four men waving her over.

“What’ll it be, gentlemen?” she asked, forcing a smile.

“Four beers, darlin’,” one of the men drawled, eyeing her in a way that made her skin crawl.

Eva scribbled down the order. “Coming right up.”

As she turned to leave, one man reached out and smacked her backside. It turned her blood cold, and her eyes hot. Everything in her body felt numb except for the spot where his hand had made contact. That burned as though a fire had been set beneath her. Eva whirled around, outrage flaming in her green eyes, but the man just laughed. Clenching her jaw, she hurried to the bar. There was little else she could do.

“Four beers for the pigs in the corner,” she told the bartender bitterly. Ted shook his head sympathetically, brushed his hand over his neatly trimmed beard, and filled four mugs with frothy brew. His blue eyes looked at her knowingly, with just a pang of concern behind them.

Eva delivered the drinks to the brutish men, keeping her distance from reaching arms. As she walked away, she heard the crash of breaking glass, followed by shouting. Whirling around, she saw two of the men grappling with each other, knocking over chairs and sending other men scrambling out of the way.

“Take it outside, you fools!” the bartender bellowed, but the brawlers ignored him.

One man landed a solid punch, sending the other reeling into another table, upending it. The men seated there jumped up angrily.

Eva watched helplessly as the four men exchanged blows, their faces bloody and enraged. A fifth man joined the fray, tackling one of the original fighters.

Eva winced as a chair came crashing down on someone’s back. “That’s enough!” she shouted over the den?

No one listened. Glass and splintered wood littered the floor. Men were yelling and cheering the violence on.

Where was Eli? This was his saloon, his responsibility. Eva felt tears of frustration well in her eyes. She felt powerless to stop the fighting. All she could do was pray it ended before someone got seriously hurt. She was tired of it all. It felt like every week someone would come in and cause a scene that resulted in destruction. And it was up to Eva and Ted to clean up the mess.

Making an instant decision, Eva hurried down the dim hallway, leaving the raucous brawl behind her. She rushed past the storeroom and private gambling parlor until she reached the door to Eli’s office. Without knocking, she threw open the door.

“Eli, you need to come quickly!” she exclaimed breathlessly. “There’s a huge fight breaking out in the saloon!”

Her brother-in-law was slouched behind his desk, slowly swirling a glass of amber liquid. He glanced up at her with bloodshot eyes. He was far from the man she once knew. His brown hair was messy and tangled, and the sleeves of his shirt pushed up past his elbows. It looked as though he’d slept in a barn, but he looked that way almost every day. He was not the man her sister had married all those years ago.

“So? Let them beat each other senseless,” he grumbled before taking a swig from his glass. Eva stared at him for a long moment. She almost felt sorry for him. He had been a very handsome and charismatic man when he had been married to Claire. Since her death, he seemed to have aged ten years.

Eva strode forward. “Eli, they’re destroying the place! Smashing chairs and throwing punches. Someone’s going to get seriously injured.”

Eli waved his hand dismissively. “It’s just a bit of fisticuffs. Boys will be boys.”

“But…”

Before she could say anything else, Eli glared at her. “Get out of here. Leave me be.”

Eva glared back before whirling around and left the office, allowing the door to slam behind her. She was very tempted to not go back into the main room, but for the thousandth time since Claire’s death, she remembered her promise. Squaring her shoulders, she hurried back, but her steps slowed when she realized how eerily quiet it was.

Just moments before, this place had been filled with the sounds of shattering glass, fists connecting with flesh, and men shouting encouragement. Now, there was nothing but silence.

Her eyes widened as she took in the scene. Overturned chairs and tables, broken glass, splintered wood – the remnants of chaos. But not a soul remained. The fighting men, the cheering bystanders, even the harried bartender, had all vanished.

“What in heaven’s name…” Eva murmured with confusion. Where did everyone go?

A floorboard creaked behind her. Whirling around, she stifled a gasp when she saw Philip O’Leary emerge from the shadows. Her heart plummeted. Philip’s black eyes glinted as his lips curled into a sly grin. He was actually a very handsome man with auburn hair that was neatly trimmed and a ginger beard. He was very well dressed in black pants, a white shirt and black vest with a bow tie, which showed everyone at first glance that he was well-to-do.

“Well, well. Look who’s still here.” His Irish lilt sent a chill down her spine.

Eva lifted her chin. “What did you do, Philip? Where is everyone?”

Philip chuckled, stepping closer. “Just gave them a little encouragement to take their row outside, is all.”

He towered over her petite frame. Eva forced herself to stand her ground.

“I want you out of this saloon,” she demanded, her voice surprisingly steady. “You’re not welcome here.”

Philip arched an eyebrow. “Oh, I’m not, am I? That’s not what your coward of a brother-in-law says.”

Eva bristled at the insult toward Eli. “This is still his saloon, not yours,” she retorted. “Now leave.”

Philip leaned in close. She could smell whiskey and tobacco on his breath.

“As much as I want to show you I’m in charge, your dear brother-in-law owes me. And I am here to collect. Go fetch him. Tell him I have business to discuss with him. Now.”

Glad to have an excuse to leave Philip’s presence, she hurried from the room. Once she was out of Philip’s sight, she allowed a few seconds to take a shaky breath before returning to Eli’s office.

He glared at her when she opened the door again, still slumped behind his desk, although his glass was now empty.

“Philip O’Leary is here asking to speak to you,” Eva said, not giving Eli a chance to order her away again.

Eli’s already pallid complexion paled further. “Here? Now?” he asked hoarsely.

Eva nodded, her mouth pressing into a grim line. Eli scrubbed a trembling hand over his face.

He muttered something Eva didn’t hear. But after a moment, he heaved himself up on unsteady legs. Straightening his rumpled waistcoat with fumbling fingers, he turned to Eva.

“Well, no use making him wait.”

Eli led the way from the office back towards the saloon, Eva following close behind. She could see the tension in the set of his narrow shoulders as he called out, “Philip! Good to see you, my friend.”

Philip turned, an oily smile spreading across his bearded face. “Yes, it’s been too long.”

The two men clasped hands, and Philip clapped Eli on the shoulder. Up close, the contrast between them was striking. Philip, barrel-chested and tall, exuded a powerful but predatory energy. Beside him, Eli appeared almost childlike in his thin frame.

“What brings you by today?” Eli asked with forced casualness.

“Oh, just paying a friendly visit to my favorite business partner,” Philip returned jovially. “And what better place to talk than over a drink, eh?”

Eva knew without asking what her job now was. With trembling hands, she arranged glasses on a tray along with a bottle of whiskey. She set it in the middle of the table where Eli and Philip now sat at.

He was more evil than most bandits. His Irish accent gave him charm, as did the twinkle in his eye and his tall, fit demeanor. A smart man, he knew where to go to get away with his crimes. What made him the worst man imaginable, to Eva, was how he saw himself as a good Catholic man, reciting The Lord’s Prayer as he brutalized men and women.

She did her best to keep her face from showing any expression. She wished she was brave enough to dump the contents of the whiskey on Philip’s head, and she smiled slightly at the thought.

As she turned away, she suddenly felt a stinging slap on her backside. Eva jumped, whipping her head around to see Philip withdraw his hand, his smirk widening. Her cheeks flamed as she quickly stepped away, angry that Eli allowed Philip to do whatever he wished.

I need to get away from here, she thought and then stammered, deliberately avoided Eli’s eyes. “I-I should check on Zoey. Excuse me.”

Eva climbed the stairs swiftly and quietly. At the top, she paused outside the bedroom door where her five-year-old niece lay sleeping, listening intently. Only the soft sounds of deep breathing greeted her. Zoey was still fast asleep.

Steeling herself, Eva crept back to the top of the stairs and crouched down, hidden from view but able to make out the conversation drifting up from below.

“Now, about that rather large sum you owe me,” Philip said, his voice low and dangerous.

There was a pause before Eli responded, his words slightly slurred. “I know, I know I owe you for the games, but business has been slow. I just need a bit more time…”

“Time?” Philip cut him off sharply. “I’ve given you nothing but time and patience. And yet you still haven’t repaid your debt of one thousand dollars.”

Eva clamped a hand over her mouth to stifle her gasp. One thousand dollars? She had known Eli was gambling more than he could afford, but she never imagined he owed so much.

“Philip, please. Give me more time,” Eli begged, hoping that she could get him to see reason. “I swear I’ll get you the money. Just give me a few more weeks, a month at the most.”

There was the sound of ice clinking in a glass as Philip paused. When he spoke again, his voice was deceptively smooth.

“Perhaps we can strike a new deal. One that benefits us both.”

“What do you mean?” Eli asked warily.

“It’s quite simple. You give me the girl for the night, and I’ll consider your debt settled.”

The blood drained from Eva’s face. Nausea clenched her stomach as she realized Philip’s implication. Surely Eli would refuse. He had to!

There was a tense silence before Eli responded hoarsely. “Y-you can’t mean Eva.”

“She’s a pretty little thing,” Philip said casually. “One night with her is worth far more than two thousand dollars.”

Eva’s whole body shook with rage and revulsion. She strained to hear Eli’s reply over the roaring in her ears.

“No. Absolutely not,” he said, but his protest sounded feeble.

Philip laughed coldly. “I rather think you’re in no position to refuse. Unless you’d rather I take the matter up with the sheriff?”

There was another agonizing pause. When Eli spoke, his voice was scarcely a whisper.

“Just the one night? And then we’re square?”

“You have my word,” Philip replied smoothly.

Eva clenched her fists, digging her nails into her palms. How could Eli even consider this vile proposition?

“I want a bill of sale showing the saloon is now mine, free and clear,” Eli said, defeat weighing down his words. “And another stating my debt is paid in full.”

“I see. I’ll have the paperwork drawn up.” There was a smile in Philip’s voice. “And just to show you I’m willing to be fair, I’ll give you more time. I’ll return in one month instead of tomorrow. But I will expect more time with her.”

Philip’s heavy footfalls crossed to the door. “I’ll be back tomorrow evening to…conclude our transaction.”

The door swung open, then clicked shut, enveloping the room in silence. Eva scrambled to her feet and fled to her room, bile rising in her throat. She barely made it to the washbasin before she was violently ill.

Her stomach churned with anguish and fury, her nails digging crescent moons into her palms. Taking a deep, shaky breath, she forced herself to walk steadily to Eli’s office.

She paused in the doorway. Eli was slumped over his desk, shoulders hunched. At the sound of her footsteps, he jerked upright. Surprise flashed across his face before his expression darkened.

“What are you doing here?” he growled.

Eva straightened her spine. “I heard everything,” she said bluntly. “Your despicable deal with Philip.”

“Now see here—” he sputtered.

Eva cut him off, green eyes blazing. “How could you even consider selling me to settle your debts? Have you no shame?”

Eli’s mouth flattened into a hard line as he rose unsteadily to his feet. Though he towered over her petite frame, Eva refused to be cowed.

“You will watch your tongue, girl,” Eli snapped, jabbing an unsteady finger at her. “Need I remind you that you live under my roof? You’d do well to remember your place.”

Eva stepped forward, hands curling into fists. “And you’d do well to remember who cooks your meals, cares for your daughter, and manages this entire saloon,” she shot back.

Eli’s eyes narrowed. “This is my saloon, my livelihood! I make the decisions here.”

“Decisions that have led us to ruin,” Eva retorted hotly. “I’ve held my tongue about your gambling and your drinking, but no more! I won’t let you sell my virtue to that monster.”

“It’s one night,” Eli hissed through gritted teeth. “One night and our debt is cleared. Sometimes we must make difficult choices.”

Eva grabbed his arm, forcing him to face her. “Eli, please. Philip is evil. Can’t you see that? He’ll ruin us if we let him.”

Eli wrenched his arm away, anger flashing in his bloodshot eyes. “You may be family, but don’t forget this is my business, my rules. Defy me again and you can find somewhere else to live.”

With that, he shoved past her, a bottle in hand, and stormed from the office. Eva stared after him, eyes burning with tears of frustration. She heard the front door slam distantly.

Eva stood frozen for a long time in Eli’s office before making her way to the main room. She bit her lip to keep her tears at bay as she kneeled to pick up the pieces of a shattered whiskey bottle.

Eli had promised to protect her after Claire passed. Instead, he had gambled away their livelihood and now treated her life as just another bargaining chip to settle his debts.

Dumping the shards of glass into a bin, Eva stood and surveyed the wreckage. Overturned chairs, smashed glasses, puddles of spilled whiskey and tobacco littered the floor. It would take hours to clean on her own.

As she mechanically righted chairs and mopped up stains, her mind raced. What were her options? Her biggest fear was if she continued to refuse to go through with Eli’s plans, Philip could easily go after Zoey.

Maybe she could try reasoning with Eli again in the morning, when he would most likely be sober, but she knew, deep down, that he had already proven he would throw her to the wolves to save his own skin.

No, appealing to either man’s conscience was useless. She had only one option. She had to get away from here, start a new life, somewhere Philip couldn’t find her. But how?

The answer came minutes later as Eva was gathering abandoned drinks and glasses. A piece of newsprint caught her eye underneath a whiskey glass. She pulled it out and scanned the advertisement.

Hardworking Oregon Rancher Seeks Caring Wife…

Eva’s eyes widened. She had heard of advertisements for these mail-order brides. In fact, a woman she had been friends with had answered such an ad over a year ago and moved to a small town in Wyoming to marry a sheriff. She had thought her friend had been desperate, but from the letters she’d received, her friend was happy and was even expecting her first child.

Could this be an option for her? She could escape the nightmare Eli was putting her in. She could start fresh in a new town as some rancher’s wife.

Eva stared down at the newspaper advertisement, her heart pounding. This was the answer she had been praying for. A way out of this nightmare for both her and Zoey. Because she wasn’t going to go anywhere without taking her niece with her.

“Aunt Eva?”

Eva jerked with surprise and looked at her niece standing on the stairs.

“What are you doing up?” Eva asked as she tucked the ad into her dress pocket.

“I had a bad dream.”

“Oh, sweetheart.” Eva took Zoey’s hand and led her up the stairs. “Let’s get you back in bed and you can tell me about it.”

Once she had Zoey settled in her room, the blankets tucked around her, she listened to the nightmare. It didn’t take long for Zoey to fall asleep. Eva stayed, gently stroking Zoey’s hair until the child’s breathing grew deep and even. Finally, Eva rose and prepared for bed herself. But sleep eluded her for hours as she agonized over the decision ahead.

Was she doing the right thing? Could she really abandon Eli, no matter how despicable he had become? Doubt plagued her as she tossed and turned.

Finally, just before dawn, exhaustion claimed her. But her dreams were filled with Claire’s face, first joyful, then accusatory.

You promised, Evie! You promised to take care of them!

Eva jolted awake, Claire’s words still echoing in her mind. But as the pale morning light filtered through the worn curtains, she knew Claire wouldn’t expect her to stay in a dangerous situation.

Eva silently dressed and then crept from her room. She held her breath as she passed Eli’s bedroom, afraid he might burst out and demand to know where she was going. But his door remained closed.

In Eli’s office, she found some paper and pen. Quickly, she wrote an answer to the ad. Not taking the time to read over what she had written, she put the pen back exactly where she had found it on Eli’s desk. In moments Eva was outside, the crisp morning air raising goosebumps on her skin. The street was nearly deserted at this early hour.

Clutching her shawl tightly against the pre-dawn chill, Eva hurried towards the post office. With trembling fingers, Eva pushed the folded letter through the slot. It was done. And with luck, in a few short weeks, she and Zoey would be far from this wretched Eli and the mess he had gotten her into.

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