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An Enigmatic Bride for the Cowboy’s Guarded Heart

She’s a bride running away from her past, hiding many secrets. He’s a man lingering on his trauma. How can they mend bridges, save each other and win against injustice?

Brittany used to be a proud Southerner sweetheart until the day her father was imprisoned on false charges. Now, she must gather her pieces and become a mail-order bride in the West to save herself from her father’s rival. She travels to Kansas with a heavy heart and ready for a loveless life. However, in that ranch, Brittany meets her destiny. How can she open her heart when her father’s past is catching up on her?

Peter is a brave but broken man who lives a loveless life in his ranch. After the tragic death of his wife and child, he’s decided to take a step back from the world. However, his sister’s willingness to see him re-married wins and he places an ad for a mail-order bride. When he meets Brittany, he’s taken aback by her suspicious nature and he starts wondering the reason she avoids him. How can he finally overcome his fear of abandonment and show Brittany his deep love and loyalty?

It’s matter of time before a particular man takes away from Brittany everything she cares for. How can Brittany and Peter let their love connect them and take a stand against injustice?

Written by:

Western Historical Romance Author

4.5/5

4.5 out of 5 (101 ratings)

Prologue

South Carolina, June 1881

The penitentiary smelled disgusting—like mold and damp and what else, Brittany didn’t want to even think about. Just being here made her feel grimy, and before even stepping inside, she knew she’d need a long, hot bath afterward to start feeling like herself again. Not to mention how dreary it looked—it was dark and dull, as if any source of light had been sucked out of the place. Long, narrow corridors provided the only access to the cells, and everything echoed too loudly in her ears. If it was bad for her, she thought, how terrible was it for her father?

Looking at him now, he was a different man. For as long as Brittany could remember, Wilson Levine had always taken great pride in his appearance—clean shaven, his graying brown hair kept short and neat, his clothes perfectly pressed. Now, hunkered down in a cell barely large enough to walk in, he was a mess. In only a few weeks, the beginnings of a beard had sprouted, his hair now limp as it fell across his forehead. His cheeks looked sallow, too, made worse against the dull striped gray of the penitentiary uniform, and Brittany couldn’t imagine they were feeding him well here.

“Hello, Father,” she mumbled. It seemed inadequate, somehow, but words didn’t come as naturally as they once had. Frowning, she reached between the small square of bars that made up the ‘window’ of the door.

The cell wasn’t much more than a square block of concrete, with a rolled-up mattress and small table. An empty chamber pot lurked in the corner, and Brittany had to fight not to cringe at the sight of it.

He stood, offering a sympathetic smile. Father knew what she was thinking; he always did, it was one of his many talents. From behind the bars, he took her hand, giving it a squeeze that made her heart lurch.

“You can’t be here now,” he murmured, nervous eyes darting to the guard. The guard who, despite having taken Brittany here against penitentiary rules, didn’t seem interested in what was being discussed.

“I’ll get you out of here,” Brittany promised. “That swine might have put you in here, but he won’t succeed in destroying the family name.” There was venom in her voice, such a rare occurrence it surprised even herself. Fighting to calm the thunder of her heartbeat, she scowled. “You’re innocent, and people have to see that, too.”

The guard, looking smart in his buttoned coat and guard hat, sent them a wary look. “Ten minutes, you two. The other prisoners will be back from dinner soon.”

The only reason Father had his own cell at all was because he was practically famous in town. But while he was well-known enough to pull in a few favors, he was also well-known enough to be in danger from other prisoners.

Brittany shouldn’t have even been there; it was only because the director was sympathetic to Father’s cause that she was able to see him at all. Swallowing thickly, she murmured, “If I stay, I can help free you—”

“Brittany,” Father’s voice was soft, and some of that twinkle returned to his dark eyes, “I know you care. You care too much, sometimes. That’s why I love you, but you can’t stay. We both know that.”

I could, she wanted to argue. Mr. Lawson would understand. He seemed like a good, sensible man. If she just told him what was happening, he could postpone or even cancel the wedding. Yet even as she thought it, Brittany knew it was nonsense. Tears threatened to blur her vision, but she blinked them away, her hand tightening around her father’s.

“Mr. Lawson is waiting for you, but he won’t wait forever. He’s as desperate for this as we are, you know.”

She did know, but it only served to make that frustration grow. She wanted to shout, to yell and scream until she was all worn out, but all that left her lips was a sullen sigh. There was so much to say, yet now that she had the chance, the words refused to come.

“Lawson is a good man,” Father insisted. “He owns a prestigious ranch and makes good money. He’s hardworking, too, willing to do anything for you. What else could you need?”

Brittany rested her heavy head against the door. It was cold, but she didn’t care. With narrowed eyes, she muttered, “I’ve never even met him. How should I know it’s all true?”

“Because being with him is better than staying here, where Kinsley could hurt you.”

Frankly, Brittany would have taken her chances with Kinsley. Or perhaps not. It seemed no matter what she chose, it was the wrong decision, and the thought made her feel queasy inside. She’d only answered Mr. Lawson’s mail-order bride ad because Father had asked her to, in the hopes she could find somewhere safe to stay. How could she feel safe, knowing he wasn’t?

“All I care about is your safety,” Father said. “I can take care of myself.”

Falling silent, Brittany simply regarded him with big, owlish green eyes.

Her thoughts were interrupted when the guard, whose name Brittany didn’t care to know, cast a glance down the long, barren hallway. It stretched on forever, so dark and dank she couldn’t see the end of it. The thought made her feel sick, so she turned to the guard as he said, “After dinner, it’s lockup until morning. You’d better be gone by then.”

“Five more minutes?” she pleaded quietly, eyes wide and shining.

Shrugging, the guard agreed. “All right, just remember it’s not you that gets in trouble if you’re caught, it’s me. And him.” He jabbed a finger toward the cell where her father resided.

Lip caught between her teeth, Brittany gave a curt nod before turning back to her father. “Dorian Kinsley won’t get away with this.”

Once, full of optimism, Father would have agreed, would have had some big speech about justice being served. Not this time. His face was gaunt and pale, the fight gone from his eyes. He was defeated. Resigned. “Kinsley always gets what he wants,” he uttered. “He has more power than you or me.”

Oh, Brittany knew that all too well. It was Dorian Kinsley who had put Father in jail, Kinsley who had accused him of crimes he didn’t commit, and Kinsley who had probably committed those crimes himself. Or paid somebody else to do it. All because Father’s cotton mill was better than his. All because they had turned down his slimy offer to join their land.

Not once had she blamed Father for his decision, but she had to wonder if agreeing to Kinsley’s horrible terms might have somehow been better for them both. At least then he wouldn’t be in penitentiary, and Brittany wouldn’t be off to marry a man she’d never met.

Crinkling her nose, and not just against the sour smell in the air, Brittany said. “He’s a powerful man, Father, but no more than that. Just because he thinks he’s invincible doesn’t mean he is.”

If only she genuinely believed it. Kinsley had proven over and over again that he could do as he pleased without consequence. Who else could have gotten away with ruining the esteemed Levine name? With mistreating his mill workers for decades and never being investigated? The number of awful things Kinsley had done, some everyone knew about and some not, was astounding.

As always, Father knew what she was thinking. His hands were cold as they wrapped around her wrist. With the heavy door between them and only a small window through which to see each other, a hug was impossible. So, he settled for a smile and another gentle squeeze of her hand. “You can’t worry about me now,” he murmured, voice deep and gravelly. Comforting. “You need to get yourself to Kansas, where Mr. Lawson is waiting for you.”

When Brittany sighed, her breath clouded in front of her. She’d never known penitentiaries were this dark and cold. “I know, Father,” was all she managed to say. “But I want to stay here, with you.”

“I know, love.”

Behind them, the guard cleared his throat. He was a short man, but his glare was fierce enough that Brittany’s face paled. “Your time is up.”

Brittany embraced Father one more time, lips quivering, before reluctantly pulling away. The air felt even colder without his warmth. Shivering, she swallowed down the urge to cry.

“You’ll be all right,” he insisted quietly. What Father didn’t seem to understand that it wasn’t herself she was worried about.

Down the long, narrow hallway, voices rose up. The other prisoners were back from dinner. A crawling sensation crept along her spine, but she forced a smile for Father’s sake.

He returned it, but it was as hollow as her own.

“Goodbye, Father. Stay strong, all right? I promise, I’ll find a way to get you out of here.” Her hand slipped from the bars, landing heavily back by her side. She couldn’t bear to tear her gaze away from Father’s face. An irrational part of her wanted to commit him to memory, every little detail from his salt-and-pepper hair to the freckle underneath his left eye. What if this was the last she ever saw of him?

Brittany was snapped from her reverie as a call rose up, echoing through the dark hallway like a ghost. Startled, she skittered back from the cell.

“Come,” the guard snapped. He reached out to snatch Brittany’s wrist, but she pulled back with a frown. “Suit yourself. Just keep pace.” He was already walking away from the echoing voices, his stocky body remarkably fast.

With a sigh, Brittany scurried after him. “I’m sorry to put you out like this,” she murmured, “but Father knows the director and managed to sneak me in.”

“I don’t want to know,” he replied, and that was that.

They walked the rest of the way in tense, thick silence, passing cell after cell. The whole place looked the same: bare walls and massive, heavy doors. Occasionally, they would come to a turn or a set of wide, echoing stairs, but how anyone could find their way around here was beyond her.

Not every hallway was empty, however. Although mostly silent, occasionally a long, echoing wail stretched through the halls, echoing off the walls in a lonely call. They passed one cell and a thin face peered at her from the bars, features twisted in a snarl. The prisoner said nothing, but his gaunt face stuck in her mind long after she’d scurried past.

The quiet didn’t last for long, however. As they passed by more cells, it became clear how tightly crammed they were. Prisoners jeered and hollered as she slinked past, some shouting crude words she could never repeat. One cell had to hold in excess of a dozen people. Two enormous, fearsome men leered as she passed, their gazes following her until she was out of sight. The entire time, the guard said nothing, but she caught him smirking. As if he enjoyed her discomfort.

Brittany picked up her pace, scurrying past the cells as the hollers followed her. Head bowed, she ignored the crowded cells and cold stares of other guards.

Several winding hallways and one measly security pass later, she was free. The guard deposited her outside the penitentiary without so much as a goodbye, but she didn’t stop to watch him leave.

Sucking in the fresh air, gasping, she stared up at those formidable walls. Everything about that enormous building was squat and gray, looming up into the equally gray sky. Tiny, barred windows looked out into the pitiful courtyard, the grass dead and brown. Faces peered down at her from those windows, ghostly pale in the evening light.

Swallowing, she turned away from the sight.

She was out, but Father was still locked up. If Kinsley had his way, he’d be locked up permanently. It was enough to make bile rise in the back of her throat as her usually delicate features formed a harsh scowl.

She couldn’t think about that just now. There was a train leaving in two hours, and if Brittany missed it, she would also miss her chance to get to Kansas. After all, if she stayed here, she’d never be free of Kinsley.

Fiancé. Looking up at the towering penitentiary, staring into the little barred windows in the distance, she wondered if she was condemning herself, too. Bile threatened to rise again so she turned, arms folded across her chest, and forced her legs to move. Pushing it from her mind didn’t help, of course, because now that she was all alone, there was nothing else to think about.

There were no coaches to take her back into town, so Brittany walked. The slight chill in the air cooled her burning cheeks and cleared her mind, at least. Then she thought of Father, locked away in a tiny cell, unable to see the sun save for perhaps once a day in the penitentiary courtyard. Although, from what he had told her, he was better off in his cell, alone. No one could hurt him there. That was the whole reason he had a private cell.

Shivering, Brittany picked up her pace and trotted the rest of the way home, ignoring the curious looks of passersby. Although she wasn’t really going home, because she simply couldn’t bear to sit in that house alone. Instead, she had taken all of her things to her friend Rebecca’s house when Father was imprisoned. The house was much smaller and simpler, the guest bedroom sparse, but Brittany was grateful for somewhere safe and quiet to stay.

Finally, she made it. By the time the front door clicked closed behind her, every last drop of energy had been bled dry. All she wanted was to pass out in her friend’s guest bedroom and forget the day had ever happened.

But there was no time, because her train was leaving so very soon. Kansas was right around the corner.

Chapter One

Kansas, May 1881—two months earlier

Peter Lawson was a practical man. He knew there was no sense in moping, yet that didn’t stop him, in the end. He was still subject to his own feelings, and all he could do was accept it.

From where Peter sat on the porch, swinging gently on the ancient wooden swing bench, he had the perfect view of his sister’s stern expression. She’d learned that look from Peter himself, and it didn’t instill much confidence.

“If you’re going to say something, Mary, just be out with it.”

She had been staring at him for the last five minutes, wrapped in her own thoughts. Although she looked unassuming in her light gray prairie skirt and loose-fitting shirt, looks were deceiving. Dark hair and wide-rimmed glasses gave the impression of innocence, of someone shy and demure, when Mary was anything but.

Tapping her chin, she said. “You’ve been moping around the house like some sort of mournful spirit, and it doesn’t suit you at all.”

It was getting dark out, the sky cast in beautiful shades of orange and gentle pink. Turning his gaze to the sky, Peter let his expression twist into a scowl. There was no point in hiding from his sister anyway; Mary had the uncanny ability to sense what he was feeling.

“I just miss her,” he admitted, and the words tasted sour in his mouth. Inadequate. “Sometimes, I still turn around to talk, only to remember she isn’t there. It’s… lonely here, by myself.”

From her spot perched on a rickety old wooden seat, Mary’s expression softened. “You need a distraction.”

“Distractions never work. They’re temporary.” Shrugging hefty shoulders, he turned his gaze back to Mary. She was a good sister, kind and loving, but she didn’t understand. How could she? Mary had been married for three years, but she had never lost a loved one. Peter was alone in this, despite what Mary claimed. “Anyway, with the ranch to look after, I don’t have the time for distractions.”

In the distance, the horses whinnied, as if reminding him of their existence. Looking after the horses was only a small portion of his duties on the ranch, but perhaps one of the most demanding. Peter passed his gaze across the fields, squinting in the dimming light, but of course the animals were away in their stables for the night.

“Maybe you need to find a wife,” Mary suggested suddenly, beaming at him with bright eyes as if she’d come up with something genius.

Brow raised, he regarded her silently. Admittedly, there were plenty of marriable women in town, and plenty that would have been interested in his rich, dark hair and sun-kissed skin once—but they all knew what had happened, knew he was damaged goods. Whatever interest women might have had vanished months ago, along with his beloved.

Despite Peter mentioning none of this, Mary’s expression dampened. “Just hear me out, Peter,” she said, tucking a thick curl behind her ear. “What if it wasn’t someone from town? What if it was someone from further afield, like California, or South Carolina—”

“Mary,” he started, voice heavy with disbelief. With the setting sun came a chill, and Peter suppressed a shiver as he regarded his sister coolly. “Do you really think remarrying is in my best interest?”

She offered a shrug and a smile. “I think you’re lonely, and my company isn’t enough any longer. I know you loved her, and you still do, but that doesn’t mean you can’t move on.”

His instinct was to argue, to say, “No, thank you,” but, well, perhaps Mary had a point. Reminiscing over the past, over what could have been, never helped—these past months were proof of that. A wife, though, really? He couldn’t picture another woman in the house, on the ranch, cooking him dinner or curled up by the fire. Yet… the thought made warmth bloom in his chest, and a part of him saw the appeal.

“Mail-order brides are much more common than you might think,” Mary reassured him. “Although I don’t care for the term, the idea isn’t so bad.” She stood, brushing down her skirt, and headed inside. Light from the hallway spilled onto the porch, casting a warm glow across the gnarled wood.

“You could write an advertisement tonight, submit it tomorrow!” she called, her voice drifting as she disappeared into the living room. Reluctantly, Peter followed.

The heavy wooden door clicked shut behind him, warmth and light engulfing him. The house was modest, large enough for a small family but not much more. The hallway opened into a large living room adorned with all the basics. A collection of comfortable armchairs faced a crackling fireplace, and photographs were mounted on the walls. By all counts it was a lovely home—a little empty, maybe, and in need of care. His wife Lucy had loved it, and it still held echoes of her touch in the flowery wallpaper and thick, heavy blankets thrown over each armchair.

Mary currently had her face shoved in the sideboard by the window. “I’m sure I left it here somewhere… aha!” Standing up with a flourish, she revealed a stack of newspapers. His newspapers, which earlier in the week he’d left in the hallway to be thrown away.

“Mary, dear, what are you doing with my garbage—”

“There’s advertisements in here, for men wanting mail-order brides. Take a look, gather some inspiration if you can.”

Quirking a brow, Peter took the offered papers, setting them down on his coffee table. It was already cluttered with books and old coffee mugs, and Peter quietly admitted to himself that he needed to clean the place up. Clearing his throat, he announced, “It’s late, I can do it tomorrow.”

“Fine, I should be getting home anyway.”

“Stay the night, at least. I won’t toss out my own sister after she spent the whole day visiting.” No doubt she would only badger him more tomorrow morning. Sighing, he collapsed onto the closest armchair, this one upholstered with a dark red fabric, once Lucy’s favorite. “And I promise, I’ll consider this whole mail-order bride thing.”

“Excellent,” Mary replied with a grin. “It’ll do you good.”

She went to bed after that, claiming the cramped guest room for the night. And Peter, it seemed, couldn’t get the mail-order bride idea out of his mind. Instead of sleeping, he wrote.

His advertisement seemed bland, he had to admit—other than owning a ranch, there wasn’t much to him. Of course, he omitted the part about his previous marriage, saying only that he was looking for someone to marry here in Kansas. The words hardly came naturally, but by the end he thought it was a rather fine advertisement.

Young Kansas man, aged twenty-six, looking for a young woman interested in marriage. A ranch owner, as is family tradition, with enough funds for a comfortable and happy life. No children, currently living alone, but more than willing to broaden his horizons and consider should the lady desire it.

Seeking happiness in married life, wishing to open his home to a woman who can provide companionship and shares an equal love of nature and animals. Has a small yet loving family who will be delighted to welcome such a woman into their lives, and who can attest to his strength in character and eagerness to devote himself.

He will provide the lady with everything she needs but does not expect nor want a drawn-out courtship—prospective women should send their interest by letter and expect any interest to be made apparent in quick time.

Sitting back against the creaky old chair, Peter cast a glance toward the clock that hung above him. With a jolt he realized the time—realized how long he had spent on this simple writing—and felt a giddy sort of excitement fill him.

Now all he had to do was submit his advertisement and wait.

***

He received a response far quicker than anticipated.

Peter woke every morning at dawn in preparation for work on the ranch. It was Wednesday when he wandered downstairs, already fully dressed in a loose-fitting shirt, though still wrestling with his suspenders. A letter waited for him in the mailbox outside, and there was only one thing it could have been about.

Admittedly, Peter didn’t immediately open the envelope. He set it on the side table in the hall, avoiding it, because every time he looked at that handsome handwriting, it made his heart stutter and his head spin.

Instead of reading the letter like he should have, Peter set about his daily work. It was roasting hot outside, the dry kind of heat that left his skin burning and his hair clinging to the back of his neck. First, he went straight to the horses, pulling out fresh bales of hay and cleaning the stalls. He was a cattle rancher, yes, but Peter loved those horses more than anything. Especially Daisy, who had always been his wife’s favorite.

Daisy was too old to ride, nearing twenty now, so he took Henry out to the fields to herd the cattle. Henry was easy to ride, the kind of horse that never spooked, and herding the cows into the fresh fields was always easy with him.

The cattle were rotated once a week, and once, Lucy would have milked them in the barns. She was gone now, though, leaving everything up to Peter. Not that he minded; the milking was calm work when the cows allowed it, a respite from the burning sun and constant noise of the ranch. With fresh food provided for the cattle in the fields, Peter slipped into the barn to milk.

There was a barn cat that sometimes sat with him. Goodness knew where the scrawny thing had come from, yet Peter enjoyed watching it roll around in the dirt as it stared up at him with those big, brown eyes. As Peter sat himself down on an old wooden stool, the creature appeared. The cow simply looked down at it with a look he could only consider distaste.

The milking today went pleasantly, and Peter managed two whole pails of thick milk before the end. Normally by now he would have taken a break, drank some lemonade while deciding on the next task for the day. And, sure enough, his mind couldn’t help but drift back to the letter sitting in his hallway.

“I really can’t put it off forever, can I?”

The barn cat, all fluff and oversized ears, simply let out a dull meow and wandered off outside.

“I shall take that as my cue to go,” he announced with a roll of his eyes. Standing, he hefted the milk pails to one side for later, wiped his hands on his pants, and headed off toward the house.

When he got there, well, it was a different matter. Nervous hands played with the letter, twisting it around in his grasp. Just do it, he scolded himself, but it wasn’t so easy. Biting down on his lip, Peter gathered his courage and tore it open.

It was better than expected. Dark eyes scanned the page, slowly widening. The woman’s name was Brittany Levine, and she had seen his advert in the newspaper. She was interested, apparently, in what he had to offer. His address was written in elegant handwriting, the paper itself somewhat expensive and far nicer than anything he had ever used. The sight of it made his stomach flip, and a smile graced his features.

I’ve never lived on a ranch, it read, or even been to one, really. But I’m a hard worker and I can be useful around the house. I know how to cook, clean, and sew, and my cousin has horses so I can help with them, too.

Her letter was so focused on being helpful, on how she could be good for him, that she barely talked about herself. Yet she seemed sweet, eager to know more about him and excited to hear his reply. It caused a swell of warmth in his chest heavier than the heat outside, and a slow smile spread across his full lips.

My father owns a cotton mill, and I’ve never been outside my home state; yet please don’t let this make you think I’m not capable. I’d love to visit Kansas, to live in the countryside that’s so unlike my home here. I think we could be a perfect fit—you seem like you have so many good qualities, and I know I could make someone like you happy. Alas, I will leave that up to you.

Please write me back,
Brittany

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