From Boston to rugged Colorado, Pauline never imagined that family can be found so many miles from home. How can she fight the uphill battle that stands between her and her destiny?
Pauline is a young rich woman who loves reading as an escape from her reality. When her family arranges a marriage with an older man who is after her money, she flees. She becomes a mail-order bride, and on this ranch in Colorado, Pauline meets her destiny. But she deliberately hides her origins from her husband. How can she open her heart and fall in love?
Denver is an isolated rancher who lives with his brothers in a secluded ranch. When he realizes that time’s running away, he seeks for a bride just so he can keep his family and ranch in check. He never expected though he’d meet a woman like Pauline. Soft around the edges but definitely a hard case to crack, she’s determined to guide him out of oblivion. How can he trust this woman with this heart when his scars are still aching?
Finding love and happiness comes with a price for both Pauline and Denver. When her old suitor comes their way, will they find the courage to gather their pieces and stay together?
Pauline Fritz held her breath, frozen to the spot as her Uncle Gordon’s words fell harshly on her unsuspecting ears.
“I’m happy to report that my wife and I are in full agreement with regard to your offer of thirty percent of Pauline’s inheritance, William. After all, it is only logical that since we have cared for her from a young age some compensation for our sacrifices of the last fifteen years would be naturally forthcoming.”
Thirty percent of her inheritance? How could William offer them any part of her inheritance without informing her of his intentions? It was her inheritance, after all. And they weren’t even married yet. Pauline tried in vain to make sense of what she had just heard.
“Well, then, it looks like we have a deal. I’ll marry Pauline to release her inheritance from the trust. That will help me settle the excess debts of my railway company and you yourself will be handsomely compensated for agreeing to the proposal. So, we’ll all walk away winners.” William’s satisfied tones drifted down from the window below which Pauline stood rooted to the ground. She tightened her grip on the basket of freshly dug carrots and potatoes in her arms and willed one of them to make a redemptive statement that never came.
“I think, for now at least,” Uncle Gordon continued, “we should keep this little agreement a secret. We both know how easily upset our dear Pauline can get. I can’t see her agreeing to this. It would just be better if she didn’t know anything.”
“Naturally,” William replied. “What she doesn’t know can’t hurt her.”
Their voices faded as they continued talking and appeared to be leaving her uncle’s study. Pauline’s heart ached. She hadn’t really wanted to marry William in the first place. He was a full fifteen years older than she was and had practically nothing in common with her. But she had hoped that being an older more established man, he would be at least a little wiser, and perhaps more dependable than the young men whose advances had very clearly been motivated by the prospect of her inheritance.
Not only was William proving to be as bad as every younger false suitor she had rejected, her uncle appeared to be quite happy to profit from sentencing her to a loveless marriage.
With tears blinding her eyes, Pauline turned and ran around the corner of the house, headed for the kitchen, her initial destination before she overheard the marriage deal being struck. In her blind rush, she almost knocked over her Aunt Nancy coming the other way.
“Lord love you, Pauline!” the older woman exclaimed. “What’s got into you, barging around like that?”
“I’m so sorry, Aunt Nancy,” Pauline apologized, resettling the basket of vegetables in her arms. “I just … I just …” As she looked up into her aunt’s scowling face, she knew she had to seize the window of opportunity.
“I need your help,” she blurted out, shifting the basket to one hip and reaching out to touch her aunt’s arm in an expression of supplication. “I can’t marry William. He only wants me for my money, just like all the others before him. I just overheard him talking to Uncle Gordon about it.”
Instead of concern or even some glimmer of empathy, all she saw in her aunt’s eyes was vague irritation. “Dear girl, you clearly have not learned anything about the society we live in. It’s perfectly normal for a man to marry a woman on the grounds of her dowry. It’s the way of the world and you might want to do yourself a favor and get used to it.”
Pauline paused, blinking away the tears. A fiery desperation began to burn in her belly.
“What if I refuse to marry him?” she asked defiantly, taking a different stance as she realized she did not have her aunt’s support. “I don’t love him, and I’m perfectly convinced I never will. He’s a cold, unfeeling businessman, and you know it, Aunt Nancy.” She felt her heart beating in her throat and her cheeks grew hot with anger and frustration.
Nancy Fritz folded her arms across her bony chest and gave Pauline a level stare from beneath her eyebrows.
“If I’ve told you once, I’ve told you a thousand times, you uppity little ingrate, William Kriffer is the best match for you in all of Boston. He won’t go thoughtlessly throwing your inheritance away on frivolities like the young whippersnappers of today. Now, take those vegetables to Alma and be sure to mind your churlish tongue!”
Pauline seethed inwardly but knew there was no point in resisting any further. She did not want to resist at all, if truth be told. She did not consider herself a rebellious person by nature but living under the iron fist of her aunt and uncle had been growing steadily more suffocating with every passing year.
Her desire to make her own decisions about her own life was becoming a fire in her soul that was slowly consuming her.
Swallowing her tears, Pauline straightened up and nodded without saying a word. She stepped around her aunt, who was still regarding her with cool disdain and marched to the kitchen.
“Ah, there you are, dear,” Alma said, placing a newly scrubbed potato on the draining board beside the stone washbasin. “I was wondering if you’d gone and planted yourself alongside those carrots.” Her face crinkled into a soft smile as her eyes shone with affection.
As Pauline’s raw, wounded heart entered the atmosphere of her beloved governess’ warmth and care, she felt tears threatening to return. Fiercely, she blinked them back, not wanting to burden Alma with her unsettling news. Aunt Nancy was right, really. It was the way of the world and she would have to learn to live with it.
“What’s the matter, love?” Alma said, taking the basket from Pauline’s arms and clearly seeing right through her facade. “There’s a storm cloud gathering over your head.”
Pauline felt her defiant mask crumble like moldy old plaster. Her tears flowed freely as she related to Alma all that had just transpired.
“All I want is to be happy, Alma. I just want to be loved for who I am and not what I have,” she muttered in conclusion as the only mother figure she could remember drew her into her consoling embrace and let her cry her heartache out against her ample bosom.
“I had an inkling it was so, but I hoped your aunt and uncle would at least show a little more care for you, since you are their own flesh and blood,” she said, a soft frown of concern and empathy creasing her forehead.
“Whatever am I to do, Alma?” Pauline asked woefully, her heart feeling like a lump of lead in her chest. “I can’t marry him! I just can’t!”
Alma placed her hands on Pauline’s shoulders and looked into her eyes. She held her gaze in silence for a moment and Pauline could see there was some kind of plan forming. A flicker of hope sparked in her spirit and she held her breath. Alma always seemed to know the best thing to do.
“This may be a little risky, lamb, but it worked for me, once, so I have every hope and confidence it will work for you, too,” she said at last, releasing Pauline’s shoulders and taking both her hands in her own. “Today, in the Boston Post, I saw an advertisement for a mail order bride in Boulder County, Colorado. You know I read those smalls sometimes, just for the sake of nostalgia.”
Pauline smiled through her tears. “Yes, I know.” Then suddenly she realized what Alma was saying and her eyes grew wide as her heart clutched at the straw of salvation offered so succinctly by her favorite person in all the world.
Alma returned Pauline’s smile and nodded, clearly understanding what the look on her young charge’s face meant.
Pauline swallowed. It was a bold step. One more reckless and wild than anything she had ever attempted, yet paling in comparison to some of the journeys she had traveled in her frequently imagined escapes from the prison of her aunt and uncle’s dubious care.
Slowly she began to nod as volumes of unspoken words passed between herself and her beloved governess. Yes. She would do it.
The sudden prospect of freedom was so intoxicating it left her at once quite breathless and giddy as she embraced Alma and clung tightly to her.
“You have a letter to write,” her governess whispered into her ear. “As soon as we’re done with supper, I’ll fetch you some writing paper and a pen.”
Denver Eastford leaned back on his heels where he knelt beside his best brood mare and wiped the sweat from his brow with his shirtsleeve. It had been a fairly difficult foaling, as well as being a rather late one. Still, as he looked at the little scrap of horseflesh that now lay in the straw, being thoroughly licked clean by the rough, warm tongue of its dam, he knew it was worth every bit of effort.
The foal gave a little grunting nicker and struggled to stand on its spindly legs, head weaving and tiny muscles straining. Topsanah nickered and nudged her new baby as she heaved herself up onto her feet. Denver smiled. This was the part of foalings he had always loved the most. The bonding of dam and foal as the little one struggled to gain control of its spindly limbs and attempt a first nursing.
The sound of running feet, boyish voices raised in excited cries and the frenzied barking of a deep-voiced golden retriever abruptly drew his attention from the heartwarming scene unfolding before him.
“Denver! You’ve got to see this! We got a reply! We got a reply!” Aspen, his seventeen-year-old brother cried out triumphantly as he burst into the stable, inviting a score of curious equine heads to pop over the top of their loosebox doors.
Denver stood to his feet in time to see a bright-eyed Aspen waving a sheet of white paper in the air. His other two brothers, twelve-year-old Collins and eight-year-old Thornton, followed in Aspen’s wake, themselves breathless and flushed. Shiver, Thornton’s tongue-lolling best friend bounded around all of them, letting out a single, happy woof every now and then.
“Read it, Denver, read it!” Thornton urged exuberantly, jumping up and down as he clapped his hands together.
“Looks to me like you fellers have read it yourselves already, and that without me,” Denver chuckled, trying to remember if the little family of brothers had been expecting any important mail.
“I told you we should let him open it,” Collins reminded the others a little testily.
“We only read the first line, I promise,” Aspen said, crossing his heart, the Eastford family’s traditional sign of truth telling.
“Alright, then,” Denver said, letting himself out of Topsanah’s stall and taking the now creased letter from his brother’s outstretched hand. He took a seat on a bench beside the foaling box while his brothers gathered round, pulling hay bales closer and watching him with alert and attentive eyes. Shiver flopped down on the floor, his chest placed squarely across Thornton’s feet.
“Dear Mr. Eastford,” Denver began reading out loud and then stopped. “So, it is addressed to me,” he commented teasingly.
“Oh! Just read it, will you?” Aspen exclaimed with a sheepish grin.
Denver chuckled and returned his focus to the rather spidery handwriting on the page in his hand.
“I am writing this letter in response to your advertisement in the Boston Post,” he read and then faltered as his eyes scanned the words that followed. He lowered the page and looked straight into Aspen’s shining eyes.
“For a mail order bride,” he completed the sentence slowly and deliberately. The look on Aspen’s face was one of unbridled joy, but Denver felt himself having difficulty sharing in his brother’s elation.
Thornton jumped up and began doing a little jig on the stable floor with Shiver once more bounding around him and barking in enthusiastic response to his master’s joviality. “Denver’s getting married! Denver’s getting married!” Thornton chanted gleefully until Collins grabbed him roughly by the arm and pulled him back down onto the hay bale beside him.
“Hush, now,” he said irritably, his eyes on his eldest brother’s face. “We ain’t seen what she’s like yet. She might be a wicked old hag for all we know.”
Denver gave them both a weak smile as Thornton and Shiver both settled down again. “I’ll square with you, fellers,” he said. “I’d forgotten about that little agreement me and Aspen had.” He wanted to add that he had kind of hoped a reply would never come, but he knew how much it meant to Aspen. His scholarship was waiting for him and it all depended on how soon he got someone in his place to help on the ranch.
“Well, I reckon there’s only one way to find out what kind of a lady answered our advertisement,” Aspen said, winking at Denver.
“Then I’d best keep reading,” the latter said, fighting the aversion he felt toward that very action. He cleared his throat, took a deep breath and plunged onward.
“I am an orphan, living with my uncle and aunt (my father’s brother and his wife), in Roxbury, Boston,” he read aloud.
“Roxbury?” Aspen said. “I’ve heard there’s a lot of rich folks living out that way. Maybe we’ll have us an heiress.”
“Don’t be daft, Aspen,” Collins retorted. “An heiress wouldn’t be answering a rancher’s mail order bride advertisement, she’d be dancing at all the balls in town looking for a rich heir to make her even richer. Besides, if she is one, we wouldn’t want her. Heiresses don’t know the first thing about keeping house, they have it all done for them, or so your piles of books all say.”
“What if she’s an heiress who’s tired of the city and the empty, fake happiness that piles and piles of money brings? There are plenty of those in my books. I think such an heiress would be a wonderful sister for the rest of us,” Aspen replied, utterly unfazed by his brother’s surly pragmatism.
“Fellers,” Denver broke in, “let’s recall who’s meant to be marrying this young lady, heiress or not.”
Aspen nodded vigorously. “Of course, you’d always have the last say,” he assured Denver with another grin. “After we’ve set up the short list.”
Denver laughed and shook his head, before returning his focus to the rest of the letter.
“I turned nineteen years old in the spring and possess good physical health. I am five-foot-two and considered overweight in fashionable circles, though nobody would dare to call me rotund. At least not to my face,” Denver went on.
“I like her already,” Aspen remarked.
“Me too,” Thornton agreed.
Denver shrugged and continued reading. He would need a little more convincing. “I have a little knowledge of housekeeping, but none at all of ranching, though I am entirely willing to learn. City life has utterly lost its allure for me, especially recently with all the new housing developments starting to spring up. I have always abhorred crowds, but I love nature and would welcome a change of pace and the simplicity of country life.”
“You see?” Aspen exclaimed happily. “I was right!”
Collins grunted while Thornton clapped his hands together again, his eyes riveted on Denver’s face as the latter continued to read.
“I am afraid I have no dowry to offer, other than a few personal belongings which might fetch a reasonable price if sold. I hope you will consider exchanging a few more letters before you decide whether I would be a good match for you and your needs. I am happy to answer any questions about me that you may have.
“Sincerely, Pauline Gabriella Fritz.”
Denver lowered the letter into his lap and looked around at his brothers’ expectant faces. Every inch of him wanted to ignore Pauline Gabriella Fritz’s response and pretend it had never arrived. Since their ma and pa had died, they had stood on their own two feet with no help from anyone. They had built up Eastford Ranch into a thriving Quarter Horse stud, just as their father had always dreamed it would be, with almost no outside help.
They made a great team just as they were, but the boys were slowly starting to grow up and find their own passions and dreams in life. He should have seen this moment coming, but he had shut his mind to it every time it came up. Now that it was here, he felt helpless to do anything other than allow Aspen to follow his unique calling, as much as he hated to see him leave their family home and their close-knit family unit.
“We have to reply right away,” Aspen said fervently, jumping to his feet.
“I don’t know so much,” Collins drawled skeptically. “She sounds awful secretive and suspicious to me. An orphan with no dowry, but she lives in the rich part of town? I say we pass this one over.”
“Oh, come on, Collins, what can it hurt to find out a little more about her?” Aspen insisted.
“A waste of time, if you ask me,” Collins replied, folding his arms across his chest and jutting out his chin. “Besides, we make a darn good team as we are. We don’t need help from any city girl.”
“You’ve forgotten Aspen wants to go study journalism, Collins,” Denver reminded him. “I know how much the ranch means to Thornton and me, but that’s because it’s our dream. Aspen has a different dream and we should give him the encouragement he needs to go after it. That’s what Pa and Ma would have wanted.”
“I’ll do Aspen’s chores and mine, too, then,” Collins retorted, “and before long Thornton will be big enough to take on more work. Then we’ll have a silly city girl getting under our feet all day.”
“I don’t like the idea of a stranger on the ranch any more than you do, Collins,” Denver assured his brother, “but I do owe it to this young lady to at least give her the courtesy of replying to her letter. And we owe it to Aspen, too.”
Collins grunted again but had no further argument.
“We’ll help you write back to her,” Aspen said enthusiastically.
“Yeah, we’ll help you!” Thornton echoed his older brother. Denver groaned dramatically and allowed Aspen and Thornton to grab his arms and all but drag him back to the ranch house. Shiver pranced around them all the way back, his eyes constantly on Thornton.
After washing up and enjoying a light supper of homemade bread, homesteader cheese and pickled preserves, the brothers cleared the kitchen table and Aspen provided pen and paper for the task of responding to the mysterious lady from Boston. Shiver lay happily panting beside the stove, his usual place at that time of the evening.
“So,” Denver said, dragging the word out slowly. “What shall we say to Miss Fritz?”
“I think we should just say she doesn’t fit our needs and thank her very much for her reply,” Collins said, leaning back in his chair with his arms folded across his chest. “She said herself she knows nothing of ranch work.”
“But she can keep house. Imagine if we all didn’t need to do house chores,” Aspen chipped in, giving Collins a mischievous look.
“I would like that very much!” Thornton enthused, nodding vigorously.
“And we all know Collins would, too, even if he’ll never own up to it,” Denver added, ruffling the youngster’s wavy brown hair fondly. Collins grinned despite himself, even as he shook his head in mild defiance.
“Dear Miss Fritz,” Aspen prompted, and Denver obediently put pen to paper.
“Thank you kindly for your response to my advertisement for a mail order bride in the Boston Post,” he went on.
“Why do you have to give all those details again?” Collins muttered. “She knows what she replied to.”
“It’s etiquette, Collins,” Aspen countered before he went on. “I hope this letter finds you well and happy.”
“Tell her we all want to know more about her,” Thornton suggested eagerly, leaning across the table to get a look at what his brother was writing.
“That’s a great idea,” Collins interjected. “If she knows there’s a rabble of young boys for her to take care of, we might scare her off for life.”
Denver let out a guffaw. “Really, Collins,” he said through his laughter. “I’m beginning to think I should accept her offer just to give you a chance to get used to having a woman in the house again.” He quickly sobered up as he realized the meaning of his own words.
“Perhaps I have done you a disservice all these years, keeping ourselves to ourselves as much as we have … ” He left the thought unfinished as he looked around at his brothers once more. Suddenly he had the creeping sense that whatever he wrote in this letter, their lives were going to change dramatically, and very soon. He was not even sure if he was ready for everything those changes meant.
At twenty-one years old, Denver felt he had more in common with people ten or twenty years his senior, since he’d had to take on the role of father to his three younger brothers from the day his father had passed away.
He had been exactly Aspen’s age at the time, a thought which made him even more determined to ensure that his brother would not have the same kind of responsibility thrust upon his young shoulders. But the idea of having a young nineteen-year-old woman from the city as his wife seemed a more daunting prospect than any he had faced before.
A memory of his father on his deathbed flashed across his thoughts. “Promise me you’ll find yourself a good woman, Denver,” he had implored his son a few days before he breathed his final breath. “I would not be the man I am if it were not for your mother. She was the voice of truth in my life and my greatest support. Even this ranch would not be what it is if not for her. She made me the man I am. Promise me you won’t just take any woman that comes along because you’re lonely. Wait for the right kind, Denver, the wholesome kind.”
Denver had blithely made that promise, more to soothe his father’s state of mind than with any real intention of marrying at all. In some strange way he felt as if he was breaking that hastily made promise now, simply by the act of contemplating marriage to a complete stranger.
“Tell her how handsome you are,” Thornton cut in on Denver’s wandering thoughts.
Collins rolled his eyes. “That’s so vain,” he lamented.
“I like your idea, Aspen,” Denver said, electing to ignore Collins’ rudeness for the moment. “If we let Miss Fritz run the household for us, it’ll free us up to do more on the ranch. That way you boys will be able to do more man’s work.”
The look on Collins’ face told Denver he had struck a nerve. He looked down and began writing again, dictating as he did so, for the sake of his little audience.
“Me and my three brothers want to know more about you, so we need you to answer a few questions …”
“Goodness, no, Denver!” Aspen exclaimed, snatching away the paper from under Denver’s hand. “That grammar won’t do!” He placed a clean white sheet in front of his brother and began dictating once more, allowing Denver enough time to painstakingly pen his words between each phrase.
“Dear Miss Fritz,
“Thank you kindly for your response to my advertisement for a mail order bride in the Boston Post. I hope this letter finds you well and happy.
“I feel it necessary not to keep you in the dark as to the nature of my household situation. My three brothers and I all share the ranch house in which you shall reside should you agree to be joined to me in holy matrimony. They are good boys and there is a good chance one of them will be leaving to begin a journalism apprenticeship in New York soon after your arrival.
“Rest assured, I am sure you will have your hands full just taking care of housekeeping, so there will be no real need for you to be burdened with ranch work. My brothers and I are quite happy to take care of that, as we have all our lives.
“That said, we would all like very much to know more about you and your interests and hobbies. Aspen is seventeen years old. He loves reading and writing stories and articles. He aspires to be a great writer and journalist like Isaac McLellan and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Collins is twelve and is forever collecting rocks, leaves and dead bugs. (I hope you won’t find that too unpleasant.) Thornton, my youngest brother at eight years old, is a great lover of animals.”
As Aspen’s voice strung out word after word and Denver put them gratefully to paper, he realized with a jolt how much he would miss his closest sibling once he had gone off to New York. But that was the nature of brotherly love. Sometimes sacrifices had to be made.
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