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The Sheriff’s Daring Wife in the West

This marriage of convenience turned out to be the best choice in their lives. But is their love enough to fight off injustice in town?

Rose’s life turned upside down the moment her mother passed away Becoming a mail-order bride is the only logical solution if she wants regain control of her life. Along with her step-sister Anna, they both answer ads to different frontier states. Rose accepts Benjamin’s invitation, a reserved and reclusive Sheriff in the Wild West. While Rose has to manage herself around the ranch, she realizes that Benjamin is a deeply scarred soul that needs mending. How will she help him find the salvation he needs by letting himself open to her never-ending love?

Benjamin is a strong-willed sheriff and a man of action. He was always struggling with reading and writing. His lifelong dream is to run for mayor and this is why he’s looking a clever and suitable companion—with a wife by his side the townspeople will trust him more. His mail-order bride is all this and so much more—with Rose by his side he realizes that only through love can he become the man he wants to be. How will he finally trust his heart and let go of his trauma in order to fully devote himself to her?

The elections are close, and Rose will do anything in her power to prepare Benjamin run for mayor. However, when Anna, Rose’s sister, arrives at their ranch barely escaping death, Benjamin is the only man capable enough of protecting his family. How will they let themselves love each other when each of their moves is being closely watched?

Written by:

Western Historical Romance Author

4.6/5

4.6 out of 5 (124 ratings)

Prologue

Rose Higgins bounced up the steps to her mother’s bedchamber tightly hugging a rectangular parcel wrapped in brown paper and tied with string.

“What have you got there, Rose?” Anna, her dearly beloved stepsister asked with a curious grin as Rose reached her on the landing.

“It’s a gift for Mamma,” she replied, returning Anna’s grin with an even bigger one. “Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. I just know it’ll make her feel better to hear me read it out loud to her.”

“Is it new?” Anna asked, her eyes justifiably wide.

“No, almost new,” Rose said, “but it’s what’s inside that matters most.” She couldn’t wait to unwrap the hefty volume and begin reading it to her dear Mamma. She had searched all over the city, even into the tiniest, dingiest book exchanges, until she at long last found a copy of her mother’s favorite novel.

“You know Father won’t approve,” Anna said, her voice becoming hushed.

“I know,” Rose replied softly, “He’ll get over it in time.”

Rose beckoned to Anna as she carefully turned the knob on her mother’s bedroom door and entered the dimly lit room. She stepped over to the window and pulled the drapes back, letting in the late afternoon sun.

“Mamma, we brought you a surprise,” she said with a smile, stepping closer to the bed. Her mother’s face seemed even paler, now, than it ever had since she had fallen ill two weeks ago, and Rose’s words were greeted with a hollow silence. Her mother did not open her eyes, she didn’t even cough––something she had been doing a lot of lately. The silence felt suddenly like a deafening roar in Rose’s ears.

Anna came to stand on the other side of the bed as Rose placed a hand on her mother’s shoulder and shook her gently. “Mamma, wake up,” she said, afraid to speak too loudly and rouse her with a fright. There was no response.

“Mamma? Wake up!” she said again, louder this time, shaking her shoulder with more urgency.

There was still no response and she stepped back in confusion, her mind unwilling to accept what her senses were telling her. It was then that she saw the dark red stain on the handkerchief in her mother’s hand and fear clutched at her heart with icy fingers. The precious book slipped from her grasp and fell to the floor with a crash. “Anna! Go fetch Doctor McGee! Quick!”

***

October in Frederick, Maryland was Rose’s favorite time of the year. At least, it always had been––until now. She loved the red oaks and sweetgums the most of all the trees that set the city and the nearby Appalachian Mountains alight with their brilliant crimson, amber, and gold foliage.

Not even the dull gray skies could smother the vibrant fall hues. They had always been the one thing that could lift Rose’s spirits without fail. But from now on she would remember them with a different emotion. She stared blankly at the handful of scarlet leaves she held uncertainly at her waist. Mother had loved this time of year, too. If only she could have tarried a little longer to share it with her just one more time.

The sound of the preacher’s voice filtered through her disconsolate thoughts. “‘For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.’ The word of the Lord.”

“Thanks be to God,” Rose said, more out of habit than anything else. She felt Anna’s hand on her arm and turned her head to look into her dear, sweet stepsister’s eyes. Her own eyes were brimming with unshed tears. She could scarcely bring herself to whisper the words of the Twenty-Third Psalm as someone struck up an accordion and the small gathering around the graveside began to sing.

Rose was vaguely aware of her stepfather standing on the far side of Anna as four of the small congregation’s men began to slowly lower the plain pine coffin into the earth. She wanted to reach out to him for mutual consolation, but felt herself shrinking back. He did not seem to want to share his pain with anyone, least of all her, and it made her reticent to share hers with him.

“Yea, though I walk in death’s dark vale, yet will I fear no ill,” Rose sang bravely, having recovered her voice by the time the third verse rolled around. She wasn’t feeling particularly fearless. Apart from Anna––who she was convinced was nothing less than an angel sent by God himself––she felt suddenly all alone in the world.

As Rose uttered the last words of the hymn, her mother’s widower took a step forward and scooped up a handful of dirt from the mound beside the open grave. Sprinkling it on the coffin, he said brusquely, “Rest in peace, Elizabeth Hyde,” and turned away. His tone was impassive, his eyes veiled, his face grim, almost as if he begrudged her passing, rather than mourned it.

Rose felt Anna’s gentle nudge against her arm. “It’s our turn, Sis,” she said softly.

Stepping forward to the edge of the grave, Rose held out her hands and let the leaves fall gently into her mother’s last resting place on Earth.

“I don’t know why you had to go, Mamma,” she whispered, her heart constricting painfully. “All I know is that I miss you horribly already.”

Chapter One

The old house creaked and moaned under the onslaught of the restless summer wind. Somewhere a loose board banged against the wall. The darkness was so thick Rose almost felt like she could reach out and take a handful of it. She paused at the bottom of the steps, squeezing Anna’s hand so that her sister would know not to run into her.

Rose’s ears strained for sounds that might be hidden beneath the incessant banging of the loose board. Ah. There it was. The sound of deep snoring that could only be made by a man lulled to sleep by copious amounts of alcohol. It seemed to be coming from the living room.

In her mind’s eye, Rose saw their path to the front door and prayed that their passing by would not wake her sleeping stepfather. Heaven knew, the house had fallen to such disrepair in the last nine months, there was no telling when a floorboard would give way under them, let alone creak. At least there was not much furniture they needed to fear running into, since Albert Hyde had sold almost every single piece they owned, besides the bare minimum––beds, chairs, the settee, and one broken down sideboard.

“What’s wrong, Rose?” Anna’s whispered question in her ear made her jump. “Are we still going?”

Rose turned to face her sister. “Yes, step exactly where I do, and breathe as softly as you can,” she whispered. “Father’s asleep in the living room.”

She imagined, more than saw, Anna nodding in silent agreement, then turned and took her first tentative step toward freedom. Images of the past nine months since her mother’s death flashed through her mind, as if her very thoughts feared she might relent and stay.

“Ain’t I told you a million times, you stupid child, books are a waste of money?” he had screamed at her one night after painting his throat at the local watering hole and finding her with a newly purchased copy of Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland. Tossing the book out onto the snow-covered porch, he had shut the door and grabbed her by the shoulders.

Rose relived the moment as if it had happened yesterday, but it had been only a few weeks after her mother’s funeral, and only the first of many more instances like it. The scene played out before her mind’s eye as she took one careful step after the other.

“You’ve sold all my books already, Father, all of Mamma’s books. I thought if I just got one every so often it wouldn’t matter…” she said, twisting free from his grip and moving toward the door.

“Leave that all-fired book where it is,” he growled menacingly, “or I’ll teach you a lesson, little madam.”

“Father, please,” Rose entreated, reaching for the doorknob, “it’s all I have left of Mamma. Surely you don’t begrudge me that?”

His face twisted into a kind of scary ugliness then that she knew she would never forget. As he lunged at her, she heard Anna come running into the room.

“Father, don’t!” Anna cried out, but her words fell on deaf ears. Rose felt her head whip sideways and then crash against the door as her stepfather delivered a vicious backhand across her cheekbone. She cried out and fell through the doorway, tumbling out onto the porch where her precious book lay soaking up the melting snow.

As she fell, she helplessly watched the man shove his own daughter aside before she could reach Rose’s side, forcing her to crash into the sideboard standing near the front door. Tears sprang to Rose’s eyes as her mind reeled under the attack even more than her body did. She had never been hit by any kind of person before, let alone a grown man.

From that moment on, the battle hadn’t stopped.

Dragging her thoughts back to the present, Rose sidestepped a floorboard she knew was loose and felt Anna adjust her course accordingly. They were halfway. Albert Hyde stirred on the couch and Rose froze in place, barely daring to breathe. He muttered something incoherent that sounded to Rose like, “Good wives,” and resumed his snoring. Once again, her thoughts were transported to the past.

“They’re upstanding members of society and they’re rich. You’ll be well taken care of. That’s what you want, isn’t it? Time to sit around with your nose in your silly books while real life passes by without you.” Albert’s voice was thick with the presence of rye whiskey and bitter contempt.

Rose bit on her lip. Not the left side, though, that was still cut and swollen from the last time she had disagreed with him. She wondered what it was that had kept him from hitting Mamma while she was alive. He had sometimes come home drunk, usually after a very successful week of sales, but never turned violent. Now it was like he was looking for reasons to lash out verbally and physically at every turn.

“I wouldn’t mind working for them to pay back your debts, Father, but being married to someone, well, that’s a very different thing with very different… duties,” she said, squirming internally.

“You wouldn’t mind working for them, now, would you?” her stepfather mocked. “Why, you’ll be working either way, don’t you fret your little head about that. At least if you’re married to them your smart mouth won’t be my problem anymore.”

Rose felt like she had been hit in the stomach. She and Albert Hyde had never become close, but she had never even heard him speaking to an animal like he was speaking to her now. She took a deep breath. By this time she didn’t care too much what he did to her, but what about his own daughter? Would he sell her off to his creditors, just like that, too?

“I’ve always known you don’t care about me, Father, since I’m not your own flesh and blood, but Anna? She’s your own, real daughter. How can you sell her off to your creditors for a bride-price? Doesn’t it matter to you what she wants?” The words were out of her mouth before she could stop them, and they were still ringing in her ears when the blow came.

Now the other side of her mouth would have a cut and a bruise. She didn’t dare tell anyone what had caused it, though. The neighborhood had come to accept that the girls at the Hyde house had become rather clumsy of late, walking into doors and such. Rose lifted a hand to her lip and drew it away smeared with crimson.

“It’s your turn to cook tonight. Look lively and hop to it, you no-account bookworm,” Albert said, and stomped from the room.

Rose forced herself to focus on the present moment once again. They had reached the front door. Freedom waited on the other side. She put her hand into her coat pocket. The letter was there, written carefully and thoughtfully. As she hesitated, the words came back to her as clear as day. They were etched deeply into her soul.

Father,

The purpose of this letter is to inform you that Anna and I are safe and well. There is no need to call the authorities or come looking for us. We have decided to become mail order brides. Not because it was ever what we wanted for ourselves, but we agreed that it would be vastly preferable to being forced into marriages not of our own choosing.

We know you will not agree with our decision and so we have chosen to leave without saying goodbye face to face, in order to spare all of us the unpleasantness of another fight. Please know that we would not have chosen this path for our lives had you not forced our hand. We pray that all of us will find the happiness we so desperately seek.

All that remains is to bid you farewell. We hope you will find peace and happiness someday, as we have gone in pursuit of our own.

Sincerely,

Rose and Anna

 

P.S. I have no objection to your selling the house to pay your debts. Since it has fallen into such great disrepair, I do not know how much it will fetch, but most likely it will be more than a bride price, perhaps even more than two. Besides which, it is no longer the home I knew as a child.

Rose

Glancing back at the couch, Rose took one last look at the man who had made their lives all kinds of miserable for the last nine months. She withdrew the letter from her pocket and dropped it on the broken sideboard as she simultaneously squeezed Anna’s hand.

Without another thought, Rose reached out and gripped the old brass doorknob. Slowly, she turned it and pushed. The hinges creaked faintly, but the oil she had applied that morning kept them turning smoothly and silently for the most part.

Only once they stepped outside, each gripping the handle of a hastily packed carpet bag, did Rose realize that she was holding her breath. She inhaled shakily, then quietly closed the door behind her and descended the porch steps. Out here in the light cast by the gas street lamps, Rose could see Anna’s face.

She was scared, Rose could tell by the pallid hue of her skin and her wide, restless eyes. A wave of compassion swept over her. It was easier for her to leave than it was for Anna, and if she could have helped it she would never have allowed her to come along.

“You can change your mind, Anna,” Rose said softly as they moved quietly away from the old house. “I won’t mind in the least, you know? He is your father, after all.”

Anna hesitated for the briefest of moments, and then shook her head emphatically. “Staying behind without you terrifies me far more than striking out into the great unknown on an adventure with you by my side,” she whispered adamantly.

“The train ride might be an adventure, love, but neither of us knows for sure what we’re going to find at the end of that ride. I can’t guarantee you that you’ll have your happy ending,” Rose reminded her stepsister gravely.

“I know,” Anna replied, her voice sad. “But then at least I’ll be free to come looking for you. He might be my father, but he doesn’t care about me. You do.”

Rose wished Anna’s words could have been untrue. However, they both knew the evidence suggested strongly that they were indeed very, sadly true.

“Besides,” Anna added, as they hurried off down the street, “who knows if Providence will smile on me and I’ll find true love with Lewis?” The dreaminess in her voice was unmistakable. “Like Esther Morse, in A Story of the Oregon Trail.”

“This is no time for chasing up dime novel fantasies, Anna, we have a train to catch first!” Rose hissed, laughing under her breath. It was a welcome relief to the tension constricting her throat.

They were almost at the end of the street when Rose paused to look back at the now bleak façade of the townhouse she had grown up in. For a moment it was like the veil of time was lifted and she saw the house as it had once been when her own father was alive––a place full of music, love, laughter, and bedtime stories.

Her mother was out in the late summer sunshine, picking roses from her prize collection of bushes that bloomed in the tiny bit of earth between house and street. A ginger tabby cat washed its paws while it lay in the sun that streamed in at the single bay window beside the front door. The cheeky bark of a fat beagle echoed from the parlor all the way out into the street.

“Rose,” her mother’s voice reverberated in the warm summer air, “won’t you be a darling and bring me Grandma’s crystal vase?”

Her mother never kept precious things hidden in cupboards or boxes in attics like some people. She always said a thing of beauty was meant to be enjoyed by those who owned it, not hidden away for some doubtful future date. “Every day is special, Rose,” she told her often, usually in the mornings while she combed out her young daughter’s long, straight, chestnut tresses. “There’s no point in keeping anything for a special occasion while life gives us special moments all the time when we least expect it.”

Despite the faint feeling of betrayal to her mother’s words, Rose couldn’t help but think that those days, when every day had been special, were gone, now. She mourned that life that she would never have again.

All she clung to was one small hope that perhaps, by being the Lonehaven sheriff’s mail order bride, she would be able to make a life like that for herself. It could be the same kind of life she had lived in her childhood, only far, far away from here. Maybe someday in the future every day would be special again. One thing she did know for sure was that that wasn’t going to happen by her simply sitting around and waiting for it to fall in her lap.

The vision faded and Rose decisively turned her back on what was left of her childhood home. She was ready to make a new life for herself. On her own terms.

Chapter Two

Anna sighed loudly and placed the dime novel she had just finished reading on the train seat beside her. “I shall have a romance like the one Laura Hewson and Lieutenant Howard had,” she declared with stars in her eyes as she stared out of the train window.

Rose looked over at her little sister from where she sat opposite her. She had been reading the copy of Little Women she had bought for her mother all those months ago and had never been able to read to her. She laid the book face down on her lap and smiled wistfully at Anna.

“I certainly wish that for you, Anna dear,” she said gently. Her stepsister was only six months younger than her, but sometimes Rose felt like Anna’s much older guardian sister. “If the picture Lewis sent you is anything to go by, you might even get your wish,” she added with a wink.

Anna blushed and giggled. “He is rather handsome, isn’t he? Though that’s not all that attracted me to him, mind.” Her eyes regained their faraway look and she stared out of the window again at the Nebraska landscape rolling by. “If what he writes is anything to go by, he is the kindest, gentlest, most generous gentleman in all the Great Plains.”

“He better make sure he is, because my sister deserves only the best,” Rose said, meaning every word.

A shadow of hesitation flitted across Anna’s face. “You don’t think he would have lied to me in his letters, do you?”

“Oh dear, I’ve gone and put doubts in your head with my overzealous pragmatism!” Rose chastised herself. “I truly pray he loves you and cherishes you with all his heart, Anna dearest. I’m sure it would kill me to see you suffer hurt of any kind.”

“Oh, Rose, nobody can love me as much as you do,” Anna gushed and crossed over to her sister’s seat to wrap her arms around her in an excited embrace. She suddenly sat back and looked intently at Rose, her lips slightly puckered and her forehead wrinkled like a pond on a windy day.

“But what about you?” she asked, taking her sister’s hands in her own. “I still don’t understand why you would agree to marry a man who clearly stated in his very first letter that he only wants a marriage of convenience and nothing more.”

Rose smiled wanly. “At least I know exactly what to expect and there’s no way I can be disappointed,” she said, shrugging her shoulders. “I expect I shall be like Jo in Little Women, and throw myself into my work and my books, and so there will be no time for silly nonsense like falling in love.”

“After all those dashing young ranchers that sent you letters? Why, I would have very quickly written back to that Clayton Mayfield fellow from Texas if I were you. That man’s letter near charmed me off my feet and he wasn’t even writing to me!”

Rose laughed, thankful that Anna wasn’t making it too serious of an issue. “Love complicates things that are best left uncomplicated. All I really want is to be in control of my destiny, dear sister,” she said withdrawing one hand from Anna’s grasp and hooking her hair behind her ear. “Ever since our beloved Mamma died, I’ve felt like a small rowing boat in a stormy ocean, tossed to and fro by forces I have no control over.”

Actually, if she was honest, she had begun to feel that way even before that, when her father had died. More importantly, when Albert Hyde had convinced her mother to marry him so that she could keep the house that she and Rose’s father had built their life in. Albert had surely known her mother’s salary as a seamstress would not bring in nearly enough to support her and her daughter and pay for the upkeep of their spacious two-bedroomed home. She didn’t want to mention it to Anna, though. Whatever Albert Hyde was, he was still Anna’s father.

“I miss your beautiful long tresses,” Anna said abruptly, smoothing back Rose’s rebellious cropped mop. “But I think I know why you cut them all off.”

“I think so, too,” Rose said, chucking her under the chin. “Because I told you already. Long hair will just cause headaches for me out there on the plains.”

“It’s not about that,” Anna said, curling a lock of Rose’s neck-length hair between her fingers. “You don’t want Benjamin to fall in love with you.”

Rose felt a shock run through her at the candid accuracy of her sister’s words. It was true, she could not deny it. There was nothing about her impending marriage that had anything to do with a romantic union. She and Benjamin were two people who have come to a mutual agreement that would serve each of their separate interests equally well.

Love would just complicate matters. It always did. She had read enough novels to know that. And besides, what had love done for Mamma?

“Oh, is it your dime novels that make you so worldly wise?” Rose joked, conscious that Anna saw right through her façade. Her sister proved her right by giving her another hug, only this one felt fierce and protective, not at all like the girlish euphoria she had exhibited before.

“I’m sure going to miss you, Rose Higgins,” Anna said as she extracted herself from Rose’s return embrace. “You better be sure to write me. I’ll write you too, as soon as I possibly can.”

“Oh, you can count on it,” Rose replied, nodding passionately.

Anna smiled at her and then her eyelashes veiled her eyes for a moment. “Do you think Lewis will be the same person that I’ve imagined him to be all this time?”

Rose felt her heart constrict. She didn’t want to lie in the name of hope, but speaking plainly just felt so pessimistic. Still, she was nothing if not a compulsive truth teller. “That is a question I cannot answer with any certainty, sister love. I can only hope it is so.”

Just then the conductor came by, checking tickets and declaring intermittently in a bored monotone, “Ogallala. Next stop, Ogallala.”

“That’s me! That’s my stop!” Anna exclaimed, jumping up from the seat as if she had been stung and rushing to peer through the window. Rose’s curiosity overwhelmed her sense of foreboding at having to say goodbye to her only sister and best friend in all the world, and she joined Anna in squinting through the dusty glass.

The train track ran down alongside an uneven dirt road which in turn was lined with a long row of various buildings, some merely practical, some trying hard to look opulent and appealing. A collection of buggies, stagecoaches, and saddled horses cluttered the road, apparently awaiting the arrivals from afar. Cowboys lounged under building awnings while businessmen in suits checked their watches or remained hidden behind their newspapers. There was a buzz of activity about the place that was different to what Rose had known in Frederick.

The brakes of the train squealed on the iron rails as the great machine came to a gradual stop and Anna looked at Rose, her eyes suddenly shrouded with apprehension. She knew exactly what was on her sister’s mind. She had been thinking precisely the same thoughts.

“What if he turns out to be horrid?” Anna gave voice to the words in her eyes. “What if we just don’t get along?”

“We won’t know unless we try, Anna,” Rose said gently. “We’re here now, we may as well go through with it.”

Anna nodded breathlessly and wrapped her arms around Rose. She clung to her for a few seconds then drew back and squared her shoulders. Grasping her carpet bag firmly in her hand, she marched toward the coach door.

Stepping down into the gravel, the two sisters emerged from the steam and dust into the street now milling with people. Doing their best to avoid uncomfortably appreciative stares from men of myriad descriptions, they made their way to the building with the sign that read, “Post Office,” just as Lewis Ritchie had instructed in his last letter to Anna.

“I’ll be wearing a red necktie and a white hat,” he had added.

Rose squinted against the bright sunshine, trying to see into the solid shade under the post office porch awning. Over the bobbing heads of people rushing to greet loved ones last seen many moons ago, or nervous passengers anxious not to miss their train, she could just make out the white hat. As they moved closer, the red necktie became clear. As soon as they stepped up onto the floorboards of the porch, a strikingly handsome man stepped up and met them with a broad smile.

“Why, I would know this lovely lady anywhere,” he said in a comfortable drawl that immediately set Rose at ease. His eyes were riveted on Anna as they approached. Rose gripped her hand, but her sister was similarly enraptured by the man she saw before her.

Anna held out her hand for Lewis to take as she curtseyed slightly, all her previous doubts seemingly forgotten. “It’s a great pleasure to finally meet you in person, Mr. Ritchie… or may I call you Lewis?” she said, clearly unsure how much propriety was necessary since they had been communicating for the last two months.

Lewis kissed her hand. “I’m sure Lewis is fine, Anna, dear,” he said.

All of a sudden, Rose found herself fighting down the overwhelming urge to drag Anna right back to the train with her. She, who had just assured Anna that the risk was worth taking, suddenly wanted nothing more than to call a halt to it all.

“You must be Ms. Rose Higgins, Anna’s sister,” Lewis said, turning his attention on her. “It’s a great pleasure to meet you, ma’am, and I sure am happy that you accompanied my beautiful bride on her journey here.”

Rose reflected on how he made it sound that she was doing him a personal favor, when he was the stranger and Anna was her sister. She also had the distinct impression that he was fully aware of her frantic thoughts of going back on their arrangement.

“It’s a pleasure to meet you, too, Mr. Ritchie,” she responded, shifting her feet slightly and looking round at the bustle of humanity in the street. She did not yet feel comfortable with the idea of calling him by his first name, even though they were about to become related by marriage.

Lewis nodded a greeting to someone passing behind her and then turned his rather striking blue eyes on her. “I assure you, Ms. Higgins,” he said, bowing slightly at the waist as he matched her decorum, “that I undertake to treat your sister, my wife, with the utmost love and respect. I am confident she will have a wonderful life here with me. At least, I aim to make it my first priority.”

Rose stared at him while she kept clinging to Anna’s hand. His voice and his eyes both spoke of kindness and unruffled calm. He didn’t seem nervous or agitated, not even irritated with her apparent reticence to relinquish her beloved Anna to his care. She smothered the panic rising in her chest and smiled weakly.

“Thank you, Mr. Ritchie,” she replied. “I’m afraid this adventure may be proving to be a little more rich for my constitution than I initially suspected. I am sure Anna will be very happy in her new life with you.”

“Oh, so am I!” Anna exclaimed, her shining eyes still fixed on Lewis’ face. Then she turned to face her sister again. “I know! Why don’t you stay here with me and Lewis, Rose?” she said impetuously.

Someone bumped her shoulder as they passed and threw her off balance, but not as much as the overwhelming desire she felt to go along with Anna’s impulsive idea. “Stay here? Oh, but I couldn’t,” Rose protested, feeling like she didn’t really need much convincing in that moment. “I’m sure Mr. Ritchie wouldn’t want me imposing on his newly married life.”

“Not at all,” Lewis interjected. “You’re most welcome to stay. I know many a fine gentleman around these parts who would be only too happy to lavish all his love and care on a lady as lovely and refined as your good self. It’s very likely you won’t be imposing on us for more than a week,” he added, with a wink and a grin. His words made Rose squirm inwardly. She wasn’t accustomed to men complimenting her on her looks. Especially men she had only just met.

“Come on, Rose, what have you got to lose?” Anna said, hope glowing in her eyes.

“It wouldn’t be right,” Rose said, sadly. “I made an agreement and I need to keep my side of the bargain.” They were difficult words to say. There was nothing she would have loved more than to stay with her sister, but her honor was her honor.

Besides, she had her freedom now. If things didn’t work out, she could always come find Anna and Lewis and look for a new beginning. That was the beauty of it, really. Her greatest freedom was the permission to make mistakes and simply start over, no matter how many times she failed.

“Anna says you’ll be marrying the sheriff of Lonehaven, Wyoming,” Lewis said, sounding more like he was asking a question than making a statement.

“Yes,” Rose affirmed, “Sheriff Bartley is his name. Do you know him?”

Lewis shook his head. “No, can’t say that I do,” he said, “but I’ve heard of him. Sounds like a solid fellow. I hope you’ll be happy with him.”

He said something else, but the shriek of young children, shouting, “Pappa! Pappa!” as they ran down the steps behind her, drowned out his words.

“Thank you,” Rose said, deciding not to ask Lewis to repeat himself, and then turned her gaze on Anna. “Remember, now, you promised to write me and tell me everything. I’m holding you to it.”

“Oh, yes! I shall write and tell you all about my wedding, Rose. I promise!”

“You better do that, Sister, or I’ll come right back here and fetch you.” Rose was more serious than she had ever been, but she laughed, making light of her own threat.

“I will, I will! I promise!” Anna said, laughing along with Rose.

The train whistle broke shrilly into their mirth, reminding Rose again that she had another destination to be at, her own uncertain future to walk blindly into. At least she had had the chance to meet Anna’s new husband, she consoled herself, and he looked like a fine, upstanding person. The hollow feeling in her gut must be simply fear. Fear of the unknown.

What was it that Mamma had always said? “Courage is not the absence of fear, my dears, it is simply doing what you know is the right thing to do, even when you are petrified.”

Rose took a deep breath, kissed her sister on the cheek and gave her one long, clinging, embrace. Then she walked quickly back to the train without looking back. She got back to her seat just as the coach jolted into motion again. Peering out of the window, she saw that Anna had run out into the street and stood waving her handkerchief high in the air, her face shining, her mouth open in a wide, laughing smile.

Anna always has been the more optimistic of the two of us, Rose thought warmly, as she waved furiously back, choking down a sob and giving her sister the most hopeful smile she could muster. Then, as the town of Ogallala disappeared from her sight, taking her sister with it, she leaned her forehead against the glass and let those pent-up tears flow freely down her cheeks.

This was the moment she had most dreaded since the idea had first entered her mind to offer herself as a mail order bride. At the time it had felt like merely a pipedream, now the finality of it all began to manifest in stark clarity. Of all the things she had given up to pursue her newfound independence, Anna was the only thing she truly regretted leaving behind. She prayed a silent prayer that their parting would be short and not too unbearable for her.

Even more fervently, she prayed that Lewis would be a good husband to Anna. She was such a fragile little thing. Like a butterfly. She remembered Lewis’ smile as he had looked at her sister under the Ogallala Post Office awning. Something in his eyes had seemed a little too ingratiating, but, then again, she could just be oversensitive in her vulnerable state.

What I need right now is a little more of Anna’s positivity, she thought and brushed the irksome feeling aside.

Next chapter ...

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