They tried building up a long-forgotten dream, but the past is catching up on them. How will they protect their love growing out of ashes?
Tori Ridley is a strong yet sensitive woman who’s been greatly wounded after the unexpected loss of her husband two years ago. A sudden fire brings the local physician to her ranch to tend to her daughter’s burns. Her wounded heart skips a beat when she meets the local physician— gradually, Tori realizes that it is okay to leave the door to her heart open once again. How can she trust him and give in to this new torrent of feelings when their open wounds keep catching up on them?
Jessie Hutton is a man whose soldier’s past keeps on chasing him. Spending a year in this new city has helped him reevaluate his life so far. When duty calls, he arrives in Tori’s ranch. Jessie slowly falls in love with Tori—it’s as if she’s his only way out of his battle wounds. Will he stand up against the enemy when the time comes?
While the mayor is looming over Tori and her kind heart, it will become the mission of a lifetime for Jessie to help Tori and her daughter by rekindling their longest dream. But when tragedy strikes so many times, how can they gather the pieces to build again what has been lost?
“When will Daddy come home, Mamma? I want Daddy to come home!”
Tori Ridley, lost in thought as she peered out at the wide world unfolding before her front porch, glanced down at Gennie with a dreamy smile. Tori patted a head full of chestnut hair as dark and tousled as Gennie’s father’s, laughing when her little girl squirmed and scooted just out of reach.
“Soon, my darling,” Tori answered with a throaty laugh that tended to surprise people. “Soon, we’ll all be under one roof again, and then it’s supper and off to bed with you.”
“But I don’t want to go to bed, Mamma,” Gennie announced, frowning deeply enough that the “I want” line she had inherited from Tori featured prominently between her chocolate-colored eyes. “I want to stay up and hear all of Daddy’s adventures. Can’t I please? Just this one time?”
Tori considered reminding her precocious, ten-year-old daughter that this was not her first time making this appeal and would certainly not be the last. Instead, she only smiled, reaching for the head of wild curls again and laughing when Gennie’s frown deepened.
Some mothers would surely despair of having a daughter as wild and stubborn as Gennie Ridley, but for her part, Tori could only be proud. Gennie was a perfect blend of the things that made Tori and her husband, David, who they were. She had their good and their bad, along with Tori’s pale complexion and David’s dark eyes and rich, auburn-streaked hair.
Every time Tori looked at Gennie, she saw her love for David, as well as the life they were building together in the wild Oklahoma territory of Gladesvale. It wasn’t a life for everyone, but for Tori, it felt like heaven on earth, and she thanked God for it each and every day.
“Mamma?” Gennie asked again, her eyes bright, sure that her question was being considered. “Can I? Just this once?”
A sudden crack of lightning and an accompanying clap of thunder tore through the sky, wrenching from Gennie first a little cry of fear and then a nervous, slightly sheepish laugh. Gennie undoubtedly felt that she was too old to be frightened by such things as storms, but at almost twenty-eight, Tori knew better.
“I’m not afraid,” Gennie announced defiantly, although Tori could see her trembling. “I’m not afraid of anything.”
“Of course you aren’t, dear,” Tori answered with a soft smile. “But just so you know, it would be okay if you were. Sometimes, this land can seem sort of scary.”
The Oklahoma territory was a wild, sometimes lawless place. It was beautiful and terrible at the same time, a place where a person couldn’t help remembering just how small she was. The same sky that instilled wonder one night with its infinite blanket of stars could just as easily threaten the next night with storms that were so sudden and so ruthless, they were almost inescapable.
On her own, Tori wasn’t sure what she would make of the wild land that held her little family’s ranch. With David, though, she was convinced that she could stand up to anything. With his reassuring face fixed firmly in her mind’s eye, she reached for Gennie’s hand and smiled to herself when her daughter took the offered comfort with no hesitation.
“See?” she asked after a moment of silence in which she and Gennie both peered thoughtfully at the rapidly approaching storm. “Do you see that dust kicking up at the bend in the road? That must be him now. That must be your—”
Suddenly, Tori’s heart stopped, her mouth shutting promptly, and her words of reassurance utterly forgotten. Distantly, she could feel Gennie watching her and tugging at her hand, but she couldn’t make herself respond. She couldn’t do anything but watch the horses thundering toward the house, her sense of dread growing steadily until it threatened to overwhelm.
Something was wrong. There were two horses but only one rider, moving as though all of the hounds of Hell were trailing in hot pursuit. She wanted the approaching man to be David, but she wasn’t so foolish as to be able to believe as much. His was the empty horse tethered to the back of the mount of Gus, the retired trainer and breeder David had hired on to help them turn their ranch into a champion breeder.
“Mamma, wait!” Gennie cried, her voice coming to Tori as if from underwater. “Please, don’t go! Don’t leave me standing here on my own, I’m afraid!”
But she was already flying down the porch steps as fast as she could go and, God help her, she couldn’t make herself stop. She could see the grim expression on Gus’ face, now, and she knew that if she could, she would keep on running for as long as it took to outrun the look in his eyes. Those were haunted eyes, and something told Tori that when she heard what the foreman had to say, her eyes would be haunted as well.
“Where is he?” she demanded, the panic very close to the surface now. She reached solicitously for Gus, who stood as straight as a board and regarded her with a dazed expression. “Please, Gus, tell me where David is. Is he all right? Will he be?”
“I… I’m sorry,” Gus said, his voice cracking as he spoke. “I’m so sorry, Tori, but he’s not. He won’t ever be okay again.”
“Mr. Kilburn, please,” Tori said, working overtime to keep her tone neutral but with little success. “I’ve given you my answer. It’s kind of you to offer, again, but I’m sorry. I simply cannot marry you.”
Something about having to deliver the words for the third time in as many months struck Tori as so absurd, she struggled to keep a straight face. She had always struggled to react properly to stressful situations, and although she had matured considerably since leaving childhood behind, she hadn’t broken herself of the habit altogether.
It didn’t help that Ray Kilburn was staring at her like he’d momentarily forgotten how to speak English. He was the town’s mayor, for Pete’s sake, and should be more dignified than to continuously elicit the affections of a woman who had no desire to give them.
There are plenty of things that should be and aren’t, she silently reminded herself, a thought that quickly wiped away the ghost of a smile playing at the corners of her mouth. All she had to do was think of her husband’s tragic, untimely death to be sure of the statement’s truth.
If Mr. Kilburn noticed the sudden, melancholy turn of her thoughts, however, he didn’t let on. In fact, sometimes, Tori couldn’t help but wonder if he really saw her at all. She knew that he saw the superficial things, the things he had so often commented on—her gray-blue eyes and thick, chestnut hair; her petite but still decidedly womanly figure. Tori knew well enough how concentrated Ray was on those things, for he’d made mention of them more times than she could count.
No, what he didn’t seem to see was her: who she was inside, and the thoughts and feelings that made her tick. Even now, he was too busy taking stock of the acres upon which her ranch house sat to notice the way her face had fallen. Nor did he sense even a hint of her irritation, which grew exponentially with the number of visits he paid her.
“Tori,” he tried again, his voice honey-sweet as he brazenly took the liberty of addressing her by her Christian name. “I understand how much you must still miss your husband—”
“Do you?” she challenged, one arched eyebrow raising so high that it almost disappeared entirely into her hairline.
“I’ve lost people myself,” Ray said with a somber nod of the head, a sentiment that didn’t quite reach his eyes. “And I know how difficult it is to move past a genuine tragedy. But, even so, I can’t help wondering if you’re really thinking about what’s in your best interest? Yours and Gennie’s, too?”
Tori sucked in a breath and took a step backward, every bit as offended as she would have been if he’d struck her with the palm of his hand instead of with his words. The two of them were far from friends, whatever he might imagine. He had no right to judge her or the choices she made for what remained of her family.
And yet, as little as she liked it, she couldn’t completely deny what he was alluding to. She had fought over the past two years to keep the ranch up and running, and she’d fought hard, but despite her and Gus’ best efforts, it was sinking a little further into disrepair with every passing day. Their house had once been small but cozy, every inch of it tended to by David with loving care. Now, there were so many repairs needed that Tori had no idea where to begin. Some of the porch boards sagged dangerously, while the railing was cracked from the harsh rays of the beating sun.
She tried hard not to look at the barn, which had been David’s particular pride and joy, but when she did, she saw that it was in a mournful state as well. Even the grass along its walls, knee-high and liberally peppered with weeds, spoke to the ranch’s state of disarray. She could remember a time when the vast Oklahoma sky had seemed full of nothing but possibilities for her and her family. But now? It was just another thing beating down upon them, chipping away at David’s grand dream a little more each day.
“You see it now, don’t you?” Mr. Kilburn continued, sensing a crack in her armor, and doing his best to use it to his advantage. “You must know that I’m sympathetic to your troubles, always. It’s part of why I keep coming back to your front door, despite how meanly you treat me.”
“Meanly,” she repeated, heat creeping up the length of her neck and settling into her cheeks. “You think I’ve treated you meanly.”
“Why, of course,” he said with a roguish grin, his too-bright blue eyes twinkling mischievously as he leaned in closer than a proper sense of decorum would allow. “Three times I’ve asked for your hand now, and three times you’ve told me no. It’s almost enough to make a man question himself—and when I’m trying so hard to help keep your David’s dream alive, too.”
It was the mention of David’s name that did it in the end. He had been in the ground for more than two years now, but it was still difficult for Tori to hear him spoken of. And that was by people who cared for him, not this pompous excuse for a man trying to take David’s place. She took another step backward, wrapping one arm tightly around her middle while grabbing the open door with the other.
“I’m sorry, Mr. Kilburn,” she said, although she was reasonably certain that she didn’t sound the least bit sorry, “but I’ve given you my answer, and it won’t change anytime soon. Now, if you please.”
She looked at the door and then pointedly at his polished shoes, the toes of which rested on her threshold. When she looked back into Ray’s face, she saw that he had gone such a deep shade of red that he was almost purple. It made his corn-colored hair look like a wreath of fire above his head, and Tori had to swallow hard against another burble of laughter threatening to break free.
“As you wish,” he said with a rigid bow. “But I urge you to reconsider. Managing a place like this is more complicated than you might think, and the money we have doesn’t last forever. Now, I’ll bid you good day.”
Tori nodded curtly, although Mr. Kilburn didn’t see it. He was too intent on getting away from her and this new insult to his manhood she had delivered. She didn’t wait to see if he would look for her over his shoulder, but she didn’t really have to. Whatever else he was, Ray Kilburn was a man with too much pride to do a thing like that.
She shut the front door with a sigh of relief, pausing to rest her head against the grainy wood once it was closed. Despite the hint of winter still hanging in the early spring breeze, she could feel the beads of sweat springing up on the hairline at the back of her neck and trickling down past the collar of her muslin dress.
“Is he gone, then?” Gus asked from the hall, the sound of his voice making her jump with a start. “Because he’d better be.”
“He’s gone,” she confirmed, straightening, and brushing her hands off on her apron as if she’d just gotten through handling something dirty. “And thank God for small favors. How long have you been standing there?”
“Long enough to confirm my dislike of him,” Gus answered with a shrug, mopping a thin sheen of sweat off of his brow with one forearm.
Some of his gray hair was stuck there, and his sun-weathered skin was redder than usual. His eyes, almost the same shade of brown as David’s had been, were still trained on the front door as if he expected Ray to barrel through it again at any moment.
“Well, hopefully, he won’t be round again,” she sighed again, moving slowly into the kitchen, and taking a seat in one of the rickety wooden chairs that waited there. “I’d like to think I made my point this time.”
“So would I,” Gus said miserably. “Although, as much as I dislike saying it, the man’s right about one thing.”
Tori looked at her tightly clasped hands pointedly instead of at Gus’ face. She already knew what she would find there. This wasn’t the first time they’d had this conversation, and she highly doubted it would be the last. Gus had been hired on to help David so that his dream of raising champion Quarter Horses could be realized. As much as Gus tried to pick up the slack created by David’s absence, they were hardly scratching out a living. And David’s dream? It might as well have been buried right alongside Tori’s deceased husband.
“I’m no laborer,” Gus rightly reminded her, sinking into a seat beside her. “I’d like to be, but I’m past the age of being able to do the work you need done. This place is only going to sink further into disrepair. If you don’t find a way to look after yourself and Miss Gennie—”
“Where is she?” Tori interrupted, her stomach lurching uncomfortably as she spoke. “Where’s my daughter?”
She was forever asking the question, and always in fear of the answer she would receive in return. Even from birth, Gennie had been her father’s daughter through and through. After David’s death, their little girl had retreated a little more into herself every day, choosing to spend her days in the barn that David had so loved. Some days, Tori hardly saw her at all. Thinking about it, Ray’s question came back to her, making her shift uncomfortably in her seat.
“In the barn,” Gus said, his tone grave as he picked at the dirt beneath his nails. “Where else? The girl is sinking, Miss, and I don’t know how much longer we can keep her properly afloat.”
And therein lay the rub—the growing concern that, in refusing Ray, Tori might be choosing her own selfish desires over the well-being of her child. She and David had built their beloved ranch from nothing and imbued it with all of their hopes. But dreams and nostalgia didn’t put bread on the table, and they certainly didn’t keep a ranch up and running. There was only one thing that did that, and it was money. Money that she didn’t have.
Are you really considering this? she asked herself, tears springing into her tired eyes. Are you really considering accepting that man’s proposal, after all?
And the worst thing, the truly terrible thing that made Tori want to crawl right out of her skin, was that she couldn’t answer her own question with a resounding “no.”
“I don’t care, Mother! I don’t care what you say; I’m not going to do it!”
Gennie looked at Tori with defiant eyes, her hands balled into little fists and her shoulders hunched up around her ears. If Tori weren’t so worried about the poor girl, she could have laughed. Gennie would never know how much she looked like her father when she dug her heels in. The “I want line” came from Tori, but the rest of it? That was all David, and almost enough to make Tori enjoy the tantrums. Almost, but not quite.
“Gennie,” she pleaded, trying to keep her voice even and failing miserably, “it’s not an unreasonable thing to ask of you. It’s only a bath, darling, and you need one before you start the day.”
“That’s stupid,” Gennie declared with the stomp of a foot. “Why would I take a bath at the start of the day when I’ll only get dirty again the second I walk out the door?”
“Well, if that’s your thought, then what’s the point of bathing at all?” Tori asked with a small smile.
She was hopeful that her girl would see the problem with her argument. She was hopeful that Gennie would nod and go to her bath with an apology, although she wouldn’t hold her breath for that last part. When she saw the hard glint in the girl’s eyes, though, she knew that it wasn’t to be. Gennie was in no mood to see reason.
“You’re right, dear mother,” she said, raking her hand through her hair like she wanted to make it wilder than it already was. “When you’re right, you’re right, and this time that’s exactly what you are. I don’t think I’ll take any more baths at all. Maybe a dip in the pond every now and then. Maybe.”
Tori sighed and threw up her hands, turning to the pot of porridge cooking over the fire. She didn’t want Gennie to see how hard these arguments were for her, although she suspected that was the point. Her daughter was already hurting enough without being responsible for another person’s pain. At thirteen, Gennie was still really a child, although she didn’t like to think of herself as one. It was Tori’s job to protect her. Sometimes, that meant weathering the storm of her rage.
When Tori turned back to the small table upon which they took their meals, she saw that Gennie was sitting. It was a small victory, but Tori was grateful for it. The thirteen-year-old may have been covered in smudges, with hair that stood out like a wild mane all around her head, but at least she was there.
“Here you are, darling,” she said, handing over a bowl of breakfast that Gennie grudgingly accepted. “It’s not much, but it will have to do.”
“Father made it better,” Gennie muttered into her bowl, not quite brave enough to say as much while meeting her mother’s eyes. “I liked his food more than yours.”
“Yes,” Tori agreed softly, swallowing hard against the lump of tears forming in her throat, “so did I.”
Gennie had no reply for that and even managed to look a little ashamed at the sorrow she may have caused. For a moment, they ate in companionable silence, uneasy though it was. It made Tori all the more hesitant to have to start a conversation that she knew would cause new hurt and anger.
“Darling,” she started, as innocently as possible, “I was wondering what you were planning to do today?”
“The same thing I always do,” Gennie answered quickly. She kept her face close to her bowl, hunched over like she thought somebody might try to take her breakfast before she was done with it. “Why? You don’t usually ask that kind of question.”
“No, I don’t,” Tori answered thoughtfully, picking up a spoonful of food and then promptly setting it back down in the bowl. “And perhaps that’s part of the problem.”
It was true, as little as she liked to admit it to herself. When David had been alive, Tori had happily seen to Gennie’s schooling along with her other household chores. She had cherished the time they had together, all too aware of how fleeting the childhood years were.
When Gennie had asked to be schooled on the ranch, neither Tori nor David had seen any reason to say no. Perhaps it had been selfish of them, but they’d liked the idea of her remaining on the land instead of going into town to meet her needs. They had liked the idea of their little family existing apart from the rest of the community, of them being a little universe all their own.
After David’s death, though, Tori had let things slide, and Gennie’s education was one of the things that had slipped through the cracks. At first, Tori had let it go, believing that Gennie needed space to grieve more than she needed arithmetic.
But, somehow, as time passed and they moved further away from the date of David’s death, they’d never gotten back into the habit of schooling. There always seemed to be some reason to leave it for another day, and by the time Tori was ready to start again, Gennie was determined that she would not. Tori was so desperate not to anger her further, this sullen girl that had replaced her lovely, sunny daughter, that she hadn’t pushed the matter. Now, it was time.
“Gennie,” she started, her hands folded neatly on the table. “It’s been such a long time since you’ve had any consistent schooling…”
“No,” Gennie interrupted, slamming her fist down so hard that both bowl and spoon rattled. “I won’t do it.”
“But try and be reasonable, darling,” Tori pleaded in a way that made her sure she had already lost the battle. “Education is important.”
“Why?” Gennie challenged, her eyes full of fire as she leaped to her feet.
“It’s important to know things. It makes your world so much bigger,” Tori answered, flinching a little at the glare the answer earned her.
“I don’t want my world to be bigger,” Gennie hissed, backing away from the table and toward the hallway that would carry her to freedom. “I want everything to stay the same. I want it to go back to the way it was!”
With that, she turned and ran, sprinting down the hallway as if her very life depended on it. Tori stood with her, the movement so abrupt that she tipped her chair over and sent it clattering to the floor. She hurried after Gennie, but it felt like she was moving underwater, her feet stubbornly sticking to the ground instead of moving her forward. By the time she arrived at the open door, Gennie was gone. She had escaped out onto the open prairie she loved so well, a place where Tori felt like she could no longer follow.
“How long she been gone, Miss Tori?” Gus asked, startling Tori out of the dark worries that had distracted her all morning and all afternoon.
Tori sat up abruptly, her head snapping up from her hands, where it had been resting for longer than she could say. She looked around quickly, half-convinced that Gennie would have returned home while she was lost in thought. Then, Gus’ words more fully registered, and she slumped down in her chair, shaking her head. She didn’t want to cry in front of her friend, but the tears felt dangerously close.
“What was it this time?” he asked, sitting beside her with a sigh. “What got her worked up?”
“I did, I’m afraid,” Tori answered regretfully, her hands clasped so tightly in her lap that her fingers went white. “I brought up the subject of school, and she got very angry. I only thought that if we could resume her lessons…”
“She might start to have a life resembling normal again,” he finished for her with an understanding nod. “It seems reasonable enough.”
“But?” Tori asked gently, her fondness for him obvious. She had been grateful for his counsel and his friendship many times before, but she didn’t think ever more so than now.
“But the problem is, she doesn’t want a life resembling normal. That would mean moving on, and she doesn’t want to do that. It would mean… well, it would mean putting her father in the past, and she’s not ready.”
“She’ll feel like she’s betraying him,” Tori said sadly. “That’s it, right?”
Instead of answering, he shrugged his shoulders, watching her with sad eyes. In another person, she might have been uncertain, but she knew Gus well. He was a man of few words, which meant that his gestures carried a lot of weight.
“Well, then, I don’t know what there is to be done,” she said, rising and moving to the little kitchen window, just to have something to do with herself. “Because living in the past isn’t doing her any good. It’s not doing any of us any good, I fear.”
Gus didn’t have a response for that, either. Tori didn’t need to look at him to know that he understood her meaning. It was the elephant in the room that they only sometimes talked about, and then not for long. Ray’s latest visit still hung heavy in the air between them, though, despite it being almost a week ago. It made it harder to pretend that everything was going to be okay when somebody was so intent on reminding them how far from true that was.
“It comes into play, doesn’t it?” he finally said when it was clear that she wasn’t going to say anything else.
Tori turned, a small frown on her face as she struggled to take in his full meaning. Really, she thought she knew what he was trying to get at. She just didn’t want to know. She certainly didn’t want it to be true.
“If this place goes under, Tori,” Gus explained patiently, although it was clear by the look on his face that it pained him to do so, “if Gennie has to say goodbye to the ranch, it will be just like having to say goodbye to her father all over again. She’ll lose what little she has left of him.”
That was something Tori understood well enough. This fledgling ranch was a dream she and David had cooked up together. They had made it a reality with their own blood, sweat, and tears. They had pinned all of their hopes on the place, and what remained of that hope was still on the land. Giving it up just wasn’t an option.
But if she were to marry Ray? More and more, it was starting to seem like the only way she could keep everything afloat, but if losing the ranch would upset Gennie, what would her mother marrying again do? Even thinking about it made Tori shudder all over.
Gus, God love him, saw the movement, and stood, slapping his palms decisively on the old wooden table. Looking at the twinkle in his eye, Tori knew that they were done with the uncomfortable conversation about what would become of them, at least for today. Tori was grateful for it, even if it meant that she was burying her head in the sand instead of facing her problems head-on.
“Well, sitting in here and moping isn’t doing anybody any good, is it?” he asked, his voice full of bravado that was likely forced but appreciated all the same. “Some fresh air is what we need. We’ll go and see what’s what on the land, and then things won’t look so bad.”
Tori nodded and fetched her bonnet, and the two of them stepped outside into the crisp autumn air. She took a deep, satisfied breath, lifting her face to the sky and letting the sun warm her worried face. Maybe it was true that she was spending too much time cooped up inside of her little house. She spent too many hours poring over books that weren’t going to add up no matter how much she wanted them to and not enough time on the land she and David had staked their lives on.
She and Gus moved from one thing to the next, checking on the livestock and walking the perimeter fences. She was sure that it was meant to cheer her up and, for a little while, that was exactly what it did.
As they followed the lines of the land, though, the worry came back tenfold. Everywhere she looked, there was evidence that the ranch wasn’t being cared for properly. As much as Gus tried, he was only one man, and she had her hands almost full trying to keep Gennie in line and see that the house was in order. They needed more help, but extra hands meant money, and that was something they didn’t have nearly enough of.
By the time they returned to the house, Tori felt more deflated than ever. When she saw that Gennie hadn’t returned, her despair grew, mingling with exhaustion. She settled into the chair that had belonged to David when he was alive, letting her head fall back against the cushion with a sigh.
“Just for a moment,” she told herself, her eyes sliding shut. “Just for a moment while I gather my strength.”
But she was asleep almost as soon as the words were out of her mouth—while somewhere in the wild, her daughter remained unaccounted for, unguarded against the dangers of the world.
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