She becomes his mail-order bride – but she wasn’t invited by him. He becomes her husband out of duty. How will they find each other souls amidst trials?
Velma is a kind-hearted woman who has experienced heartbreak. Although she works hard, after the loss of her beloved husband, falling into poverty is inevitable. With no other choice, she replies to a mail-order bride ad. Love is not what she’s looking for, but rather a sense of stability. When she meets Charles, everything changes. How can he mend her broken heart?
Charles is a lonely rancher and a widower. His sister Martha not only helps him with the workload but also takes care of his little boy. He doesn’t try to connect with his son and dwells too much on the past. Martha has had enough and places an ad for him. When Velma arrives, Charles will be conflicted by his unexpected feelings for her. How can she help him heal his scars and connect with his child?
Both of them, will have to abandon their fears, trust their hearts, and give love a second chance. But Charles’ past at the saloon where he used to spend so much time comes back to haunt him. How will they find each other’s hearts when their honor is in danger?
Velma Fraser lay awake, waiting for sleep that never came. In happier times the metallic drone of rain on the roof would have been a soothing sound in the darkness but now all it did was make her feel more alone and isolated. She found herself wondering when the world had become so unforgiving and devoid of compassion as it seemed to be now.
Her hand slid instinctively across the threadbare sheet to the other side of the rickety bed and found only cold emptiness. A small sob caught in her throat.
The thought of his name renewed and deepened the ache that seemed to have made its home in her soul during the last six months. A keen awareness of the absence of his sleeping form beside her seemed to fill every bit of her body, mind, and heart.
She closed her eyes for a moment and breathed a deep, long sigh. If only…
Suddenly, the sound of crashing and tinkling glass made her sit bolt upright, staring wildly into the darkness around her. Something heavy landed and rolled across the floorboards until it came to a stop against a wall or a piece of furniture, Velma couldn’t say which.
With her heart beating in her throat, she pulled the handstitched quilt up around her and took shallow, soundless breaths while she listened into the darkness. The rain continued falling and a damp chill began probing her face and neck with icy fingers. Someone must have broken a window. But why? Her possessions were precious few and none of them having any worth but sentimental value.
Was it Adolf Gering, the saloon owner? She shivered, more from that thought than from the cold air that was slowly filling the small cabin she and Evan had once shared.
Even as the feverish thoughts filled her mind, Velma felt her resolve strengthen. If he meant to intimidate her, he would find himself coming up short. She would pay back Evan’s debt, just not the way Gering had in mind.
You’re a real little stick of dynamite yourself, Velma, Evan’s voice echoed in her mind, complete with his thick Scottish brogue. For sure I’d not worry about us if we were alone defending ourselves against the world with my warrior bride by my side. If he could encourage her from the grave, he was doing it now.
Feeling her way in the darkness, she threw on a coat over her nightdress and grabbed the brass candlestick on the small wooden stand beside her bed. What she was going to do with it, she didn’t quite know, but she knew it would lend some clout to her bare fist.
Stepping gingerly on the floorboards, lest one should give her position away, she crept closer to the doorway and peeked into the living area. Sure enough, the thin lace curtain that covered the window above her kitchen worktable billowed in the dew laden wind. Beyond it, in the light of the full moon, jagged edges of glass glittered coldly.
There didn’t seem to be anyone about, but Velma gripped her candlestick a little tighter as she stepped carefully out into the room. Straining her eyes to see in the half darkness, she noticed a dark lump on the floor, against the leg of her rocking chair. The one Evan had given her for her birthday only a week before he died.
With every nerve stretched to a breaking point, Velma moved carefully along the wall, aware of the presence of shards of glass between the broken window and the chair. She reached the rocker and picked up the item on the floor. It was a smooth, round rock, evidently tossed through the window to make life more unbearable than it already was.
It could only be Gering. She knew it as surely as if he had attached a note to the rock, telling her so. He of all people knew that she did not have the money to pay for a new pane of glass. It was clear to her he was trying to wear down her resolve.
“I’ll die before I’ll subject myself to the life of a saloon girl, Evan, I promise you,” she whispered into the darkness. The lump in her throat warned of tears that she knew would not come, and the pain in her chest was more one of quiet anger and rage against injustice than self-pity.
“I’ll get some newspaper tomorrow and stop up the hole. And I’ll keep looking for work. There’s bound to be somebody somewhere seeking a seamstress or a child minder, even a skivvy. Anything but ‘saloon girl’ will do, I swear it.”
No reply came. Not that she expected it, of course, but her own voice filling the cold darkness was in itself an encouragement. Encouragement that she sorely needed. Desperation was creeping closer with every passing day, as much as she resolved to resist it. Work was as scarce as chicken’s teeth and making ends meet had become an exhausting, never-ending grind.
There were other options, she was well aware of that, but she would rather run away than be forced into the kind of servitude that Gering expected of her. To complicate matters, her honor prevented her from defaulting on a loan, even if it was not she herself who had made that loan.
She didn’t resent Evan for it. He had done it for her, even if it had been foolish. That was what love did. Foolish things. Heavens, that was why the two of them had crossed the great American continent to start a new life in California in the first place.
All she wanted was to have him back, with or without the debt he’d made. Together they could make it, of that she was sure. But nothing would bring him back to her now. Not even all the tears in the world. Goodness knew, she had cried a veritable ocean and nothing had changed. Besides, even if a few more drops could do the trick, she was all cried out.
“I am in a tight spot, aren’t I?” she whispered to herself as she returned to bed with her coat still on. “All that’s left to for me now is to try get some shut-eye and in the morning things will get better.” She wished it could be easier to convince herself.
Velma lay huddled up on the hard mattress, trying to remember what it felt like to have Evan’s warm bulk beside her, shielding her from the cold. The memory was more distant than ever and she resigned herself to the familiar dull ache in her chest before she fell at last into a restless, shivering semblance of sleep.
It was still early in the morning and the sun’s rays were just beginning to relieve the earth of its nighttime chill when Velma stepped out onto the gravel road that ran in front of her small homestead. As she did so, she found herself looking down at her shoes with trepidation for the third time that morning.
They were scuffed and worn. Ironically, they perfectly matched the threadbare state of her dress. Even with her skills as a seamstress, it was nigh impossible to hide the stitches in the growing number of tears that adorned it. I declare, if I tear it any more, it’ll start looking more like a patchwork quilt than a dress, she thought to herself with a grim smile. I hardly think anyone would want to employ someone looking as ragged as I do.
The sound of a horse and buggy rumbling towards her turned her attention from her musings. As she looked up a voice called out in greeting, joined by a hand waving cheerily in the air.
“It’s a good morning to ya, Mrs. Fraser!” It was fourteen-year-old Jimmy Smythe who lived with his family three homesteads up from hers.
“And a good morning to you, too, Jimmy,” Velma responded, happy to see another human being about.
“Are you on your way to town, then, Mrs. Fraser?” Jimmy asked politely as he drew the buggy to a standstill beside her.
“Yes, as a matter of fact, I am,” Velma replied, hoping silently that he was, too. She had been dreading the walk into town, mostly because her head ached from her near sleepless night.
“My hat! Ain’t that a happy coincidence? So am I!” Jimmy exclaimed happily. “Why don’t ya climb aboard, Mrs. Fraser?” The freckled face topped with wild, blond curls smiled welcomingly as he scooted over on the driver’s seat and patted the wooden surface with one hand.
“Well, if you’re sure I won’t be putting you out, Jimmy,” Velma said hesitantly. She still found it difficult to receive charity, although she was hardly at the stage in her life where she could afford the luxury of refusing it.
“Oh, not at all, Mrs. Fraser. I’d enjoy the company, if I’m honest,” Jimmy returned without a moment’s hesitation.
“Thank you, Jimmy. It’s mighty kind of you,” Velma replied, feeling only a little sheepish as she took the young boy’s offered hand and stepped up onto the seat beside him.
“How has your mamma been doing lately, Jimmy?” Velma asked as her young benefactor clucked to the old mare and slapped the reins lightly along her haunches.
“Oh, she has her up days and down days,” Jimmy replied blithely, giving Velma a grateful smile as the buggy rumbled into motion again. There was just a tinge of sadness in his green eyes when he spoke but his usual hopefulness returned almost instantaneously. “The Millers have been helping us nurse her. And let me tell you, Mrs. Miller is a wizard! She sure knows her way around every herb imaginable, and that’s the truth!”
“I’m very glad to hear it,” Velma said sincerely. His words made her think of her parents. They had spent all their time and money taking care of the poor and sick in their hometown of Boston before they had themselves contracted typhoid fever and been snatched from her life forever.
On some level she envied Mrs. Miller. She wanted to be helpful, as her parents had been their whole lives, and here she was accepting help instead of giving it. On the other hand, she sometimes wished her mother and father hadn’t been so sacrificial in their care of others. Who knows but that she might still have had a family who could take care of her?
With a jolt, Velma arrested her self-pitying thoughts. That’s no way to start a day of job hunting, she chided herself inwardly.
“What might you be driving into town for this early in the morning?” she asked Jimmy, determinedly turning her focus onto someone other than herself.
“I’ve started apprenticing for a cobbler, Mrs. Fraser.” Jimmy grinned. “Ma didn’t want me to start yet. Says she wants me around the house a little longer, but if I go work, we can afford the doctor to come give Ma a look over and maybe he’ll be able to fix her up so she can go outside again and enjoy her gardening and all the other things she loves.”
The young boy’s face glowed as he spoke and Velma felt even more wretched for her earlier thoughts of martyrdom. Quickly she changed the subject to gardening and the weather and other such safer topics and the time passed quickly. Far more quickly than a long, lonely walk would have.
“You have yourself a nice day, now, Mrs. Fraser,” Jimmy said as she climbed down from the buggy in the town’s muddy main street.
“Thank you, Jimmy. I will,” Velma responded and smiled gratefully.
Jimmy waved and clucked to his horse once again. The buggy clattered off in the direction of the cobbler’s shop and Velma was left staring at the entrance to the Stone and Grady General Store. It smelled of tobacco, molasses, and soap. It also smelled like opportunity, but a quick inquiry had her heading for the community notice board instead.
After reading through the few jobs posted there, none of which matched her skills, Velma heard a cough behind her. Turning, she saw a young woman wearing a soiled apron and a lopsided headscarf, a broom clutched in one hand.
“Lookin’ for employment, miss?” the woman said, chewing on something.
“Yes… yes, I am,” Velma responded uncertainly. She didn’t really feel like talking to a stranger at that moment. What she really wanted was to crawl into the nearest hole and not come out for days.
She had spent the last six months trawling the streets of the town asking for vacancies and offering her mending and sewing skills to no avail. She couldn’t count how many times she had heard the words, “No, thank you, miss.” Her resolve was failing her dismally.
“Slim pickin’s these days,” the woman said, tilting her chin knowingly, as if reading Velma’s mind. “But if you ain’t a-feared of piece work, there’s a rich lady lookin’ for hands ta help clear out a house she’s selling. Can’t say she’ll pay aught, but you’ll get a bellyful of hot grub for your efforts, at least.”
“Oh,” Velma said, surprised but thankful. She hadn’t had much more than bread and beans in small rations lately. A hot meal would go down delightfully, and perhaps she could make a connection for more job opportunities. Rich people always needed diligent workers. Hope began to glimmer in her heart again like a reviving firefly. “Could you point me in the right direction, miss?”
“Nah, I’ll do better,” the woman replied. “I’ll take ya there.”
Propping her broom up against a wall, the woman took Velma by the hand and led her around to the back of the store, down an alleyway and into one of the side roads. Fears of her imminent kidnapping began to loom dramatically in Velma’s mind but she pushed them aside and kept following the woman.
Soon they stepped out into a lane lined with blackberry bushes and graced by a tall, filigree iron gate. It stood ajar and beyond it a stately mansion rose up proudly on the hill. Huge white pillars rose up on either side of the front entrance, extending from the generous, fully encircling porch to the eaves that hung over the second floor.
The house was framed by perfectly manicured laurel bushes and myrtle trees, the latter a riot of mauve and magenta flowers. White marble steps led the way up to richly carved wooden doors and tall, shutter-framed windows. Velma gave a little gasp.
“That’s right, pretty impressive, ain’t it?” the woman responded, her face expressionless.
Inside the large house a flurry of activity was already underway. Women and men filled the rooms, carrying Queen Anne couches, scrubbing marble floors, wrapping chandeliers, and polishing brass-legged, marble topped tea tables. A tall woman in a stiff-collared black dress, her hair raked back onto her crown in an unforgiving bun, looked down her hawk-like nose at Velma.
“Another helper?” she asked. Unnecessarily, Velma thought. Why else would anyone in clothing as ragged as hers walk up the steps into such an opulent home?
“Yes, ma’am,” Velma’s recruiter said, as expressionless as before.
“Well, then, hop to it, young woman,” the lady said crisply. “You can wrap the crystal.”
She pointed with one bony but perfectly manicured finger in the direction of a large hall that led out of the entrance hall with gaping double doors. Piles of newspapers lay on the floor beside wooden crates that bristled with yellow straw. Behind them stood an enormous display cabinet filled with beautiful, cut crystal items of every shape and size imaginable.
“Yes, ma’am. Right away, ma’am.” Velma hurried over, eager to prove how industrious and dependable she was. If she could make a good impression, maybe, just maybe, her nightmare could be over. She worked swiftly, yet diligently, carefully wrapping each piece and finding the exact angle and position for each item in her care.
Now and then she paused to stretch her aching back and weary fingers. She wondered what anyone did with so many exquisite items and with so much space. Enraptured, she gazed up at the richly festooned windows with their dark red, velvet drapes cascading from the celestial ceiling against a backdrop of elaborately patterned, gilt wallpaper.
Whenever she heard footsteps nearby she would return to her work, despite the grumbling of her stomach and the dull ache in her head. By the time the day was over, she had carefully but efficiently stowed every last piece of the glittering crystal ware in the wooden cases.
“You did some good work, today, miss,” the lady remarked as she handed Velma a silver dollar. “I’ll have more work for you if you come back tomorrow. Ask for me––Lady Hartley––and I’ll set you your task.”
“Thank you, Lady Hartley, ma’am, I will.” With her belly full of a more nourishing meal than she had had in months, and a bright silver dollar in her hands, she felt suddenly bold and worthy again.
“Would you mind if I take a couple of those newspapers home to seal off a draught, ma’am?” she asked, bobbing a little curtsey and anticipating a night’s rest free of icy chills.
“Only a couple, mind,” Lady Hartley responded, her cold aloofness seeming to thaw for a moment before she turned away and descended the steps of the mansion to a waiting carriage.
Velma grabbed two thick volumes of the Alta California, and set off for home. The walk seemed half the distance it always had and she burst into her humble, slightly dilapidated cabin just as the sun was sinking away behind the horizon.
Lighting the kerosene lamp on the well-worn kitchen table, she took some of the sheets of newspaper and, brushing them with copious amounts of homemade flour-glue, stuck a few layers to the remaining glass in the window.
When she was done, she stoked a fire in the wood stove and set a pot of coffee boiling for herself. It was a habit she had cultivated when Evan was still alive. Every evening, before he had come back from the claim, she had made sure his supper and a pot of strong coffee were both bubbling away on the stove.
As she poured the steaming, fragrant liquid into an earthenware mug, she half expected to hear him stomping the dust from his feet on the porch mat and calling out. “Velma, honey! That smells so good! I could eat a whole cauldron of it!”
Holding lovingly to the memory, even as she pushed away the ghosts of happy times long dead, she sat down at the table and picked up the remaining volume of the Alta California. It was a welcome distraction from her haunting thoughts.
She scanned through the articles, noting that the paper was about six weeks old. There would be no big news that she hadn’t already heard of. As she turned the large, clumsy pages, her eye fell on the small advertisements. Not that any of those jobs would still be available, but curiosity drew her to them.
One by one she scanned them, wondering if she would have applied for them if she’d seen them earlier. Eventually she read all the way down to the mail-order bride column. She wasn’t sure why she was doing that. Some sort of masochistic urge to put herself through more heartache than she had already endured for so long.
Then a short advertisement jumped out at her, as if the words had literally left the page and floated in the air above it:
Wanted: Mail-Order Bride for Situational Marriage.
Velma frowned thoughtfully. She couldn’t remember if she had ever heard a marriage being described in that way. She read on, her curiosity piqued.
Widower rancher seeks efficient homemaker with maternal instincts to keep house and be a mother for his three-year-old son. In addition to material and physical security, this winsome widower can offer any lady genuine kindness and respect. He requires a wife who will not make any demands on him emotionally or harbor designs on seducing him. Refined taste and physical beauty are not needed qualities. Diligence and integrity, including an ability to keep strict confidentiality will be far more highly regarded. Only serious applicants with no romantic aspirations, but with a genuine love for children, need apply.
That was the entirety of the advertisement, with a postal address in Kansas and a request to address any responses to someone called Martha. Velma giggled and clapped one hand over her mouth.
“Well, if that isn’t the oddest advertisement I’ve ever read!” she exclaimed to the empty room. She read it through again, only this time her amusement faded halfway through. A thought was beginning to materialize that felt almost sacrilegious.
What if she responded to that advertisement? What if she became a housekeeper for a rancher and a mother to his child? Ranchers weren’t all rich, but they had land and they had cattle. A rancher would not advertise for a wife if he could not keep her, surely?
Only serious applicants with no romantic aspirations need apply. She certainly had none of those. Losing Evan after only a year of marriage, just when they had been thinking of adding children to their own little family, had left her raw. Evan, even in his absence, still had her heart. It was still his footstep she listened for, his scent she longed for, his voice she heard in her heart. There was simply no room for anyone else.
If this man, or his secretary, was in earnest about that clause, perhaps she could consider… A three-year-old son? She could never love another man, she knew that, but she might just be able to find it in her heart to love a child, even if he wasn’t her own. And now that there wasn’t any chance of her having her own children anyway…
Her thoughts trailed off as a stark reality hit her.
“Oh, you’re a silly goose, Velma Fraser,” she chided herself out loud. “This advertisement was placed weeks ago. More than likely the man is already happily situationally married.”
She laughed at herself and then turned the page, thankful to have an excuse to put the ludicrous idea of a situational marriage––whatever that might be––out of her mind.
Well, then, there’s not much chance of your having to go through with it, is there? a voice inside her head said. Velma stopped reading and looked across at the newspaper clad window.
On the other hand, what if he’s still looking for that perfect someone who won’t have any expectations of him? the little voice persisted. It could be destiny.
Velma turned the page back again. “Destiny?” she whispered to herself. She wasn’t sure if she believed in such a thing anymore. Survival was a far more present and real pursuit than the lofty idea of destiny.
What have you got to lose?
Velma couldn’t argue with that. Her mind was drawn to the weight of the silver dollar in the pocket of her skirt. She had money for postage and she was fresh out of options.
If this thing materialized, she could send Gering his money later, once she had settled. And she would be free of the constant reminders of the life that she and Evan no longer had. As far-fetched as it seemed, the idea of a marriage strictly on business terms in a place far from here became suddenly highly alluring.
That night Velma crawled into bed with a letter on the kitchen table, awaiting postage in the morning, and an uncomfortable knot in her stomach. She wondered about the widower in the advertisement she had just replied to. Will he be kind? Why did his secretary write the advertisement and not he himself? What will it be like raising a child that is not my own? Will I come to love that little boy? What kind of a ranch does he have?
Kansas. She remembered the open skies and rolling plains that had filled the view beyond the train windows when she and Evan had come out West together to seek their fortune.
You know I’m doing what I believe to be the best thing, don’t you? her heart queried into the empty darkness. The silence couldn’t answer any of her questions. Instead, she allowed it to lull her into an uninterrupted, but restless, sleep.
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