She’s a lottery wife and he’s a rancher who hasn’t spoken for ages. How can actions speak louder than words when both dwell in their troubles?
Charlotte is an unfortunate woman that has no luck in her life. She and her little sister found themselves in a situation where the only way out is by getting married through a lottery. Will she get lucky for the first time in her tough life?
Ray never wanted to sign up for a lottery and get himself a wife. He prefers staying alone and thinking about the ways he could have saved his family. Meeting Charlotte though, his conscious and mysterious bride, makes his heart beat faster than ever. It’s time to let go of his vow of silence and commit his life to hers. How can he though when fear is keeping him rooted?
Charlotte and Ray are two tortured souls that finally meet each other because of a simple twist of fate. Struggling with their own past, they try to overcome not only their traumas but also the competitors that threaten their happiness. How will they finally be together and safe from their rivals?
A sharp cry rang out and Charlotte’s fingers tightened around Rachel’s as she felt her sister stumble over the rough ground, then scramble to regain balance.
“Lottie, wait up,” Rachel gasped, her voice strained. “Please, Lottie… I just need to catch my breath a minute.”
Charlotte slowed her pace, releasing the tight grip she’d had on her sister’s hand. The younger woman came to a standstill and bent forward at the waist, struggling to breathe. Her bonnet was long gone, and the sun had turned her fair skin a bright pink. Blonde curls clung damply to her flushed cheeks.
“Just one minute, alright, Lottie?”
Charlotte gave a reluctant nod, brushing a forearm across her own perspiring forehead. The prairie around them extended as far as she could see. Nothing but sage scrub and gravel for miles. In the distance, the mountains loomed—a promise of sanctuary. If they made it. The heat had grown brutal, shimmering off the dry ground in waves, and her throat burned with the dust and hot air. Her ankle throbbed from when she’d turned it earlier and her heel was smarting where her boot had chafed a hole through her stocking. Rachel hadn’t said anything, but Charlotte was certain her sister wasn’t faring much better.
“We just need to make it to the ridge, Rachel.” She felt her breath sharp in her lungs. “Auntie May said there’d be a town out West, if we just get over the ridge.”
Rachel groaned. “That was hours ago, Lottie!” she wailed. “What if we missed it?”
Charlotte shook her head, refusing to consider the possibility. “No way, sugar, I’m certain of it. It must be over there… it must!”
Rachel’s eyes had dropped to the canteen slung over her sister’s shoulder and Charlotte’s heart sank. Few precious drops remained of their water supply. She thought back to their first gulps all those hours ago and regretted not taking more care. Yet she reached for the bottle now and handed it to her sister.
Rachel took a grateful mouthful then passed it back to her. “Here, you need some, too.”
Charlotte smiled and shook her head. “I’m just fine.”
Rachel had rolled her sleeves back and Charlotte looked down, eyes straying over the deepening purple bruises forming on her sister’s forearms. She felt a swirl of guilt, remembering how they’d been made. Remembering how her sister had risked her life to defend her. And the man who was dead now…
“Lottie?” Rachel’s voice broke into her thoughts.
Charlotte tugged her bonnet off and set it on her sister’s head. She ran a hand over her own dark braid, smoothing tendrils into place. Her hair was the least of her worries, however. The midday heat was merciless; she knew it would only be a matter of time before their faces began to blister.
“We should eat something,” she said, reaching into the little leather pouch her aunt and uncle had given her and passing a hunk of stale bread to Rachel. “Won’t do no good to fall down from hunger. Then we’ll never get anywhere at all!”
Her attempt at humor was feeble but her sister smiled, her bright blue eyes meeting Charlotte’s clear gray gaze. She took a reluctant bite, then broke off a piece and aimed it at Charlotte’s lips, insisting she eat some, too.
“I figure we’ll get there by nightfall, if we just keep moving steady,” Charlotte continued. “I just—”
Her words were stopped by the expression on Rachel’s face. Turning to look the way she was staring, Charlotte’s eyes widened. On the horizon, a line of dark figures had appeared.
Three men on horseback with a riderless horse in tow.
Rachel looked around in panic then dropped to the ground, flattening herself in the dirt. “Quick! Get down, Lottie! They may be from St. Michael’s!” she whispered hoarsely.
The riders were still a way off but getting closer by the second.
Charlotte swallowed hard, looking down at her sister. The canteen was all but empty; the bread had been their last reserve. They’d never last another day out here in the sun.
“Please, Charlotte! Don’t let them see us. If it’s Randall’s kin, they’ll lynch us for sure!”
Charlotte aimed a gentle smile at her sister. “I’m so sorry, Rachel, I can’t let you die out here. I’m going to get us help.”
Summoning every ounce of her courage, she faced the riders and waved her arms in the air.
“Over here!” she called out. “We need help… over here!” For a moment, it seemed as if the riders hadn’t seen them and she pitched herself higher, voice breaking. “Please! We’re over here!”
“Lottie, don’t do it! They’re gonna kill us… don’t do it!”
She could hear Rachel’s soft sobs from behind her, but she focused on the face of the man in the front of the group. They were close enough to see clearly now: dusty coats flapping, brims pulled low over their foreheads to keep out the blazing sun.
“Woah! Woah there, now!” the man near the front of the group called out. Gray-haired and grizzled, his face didn’t seem cruel. The men had reined in to a walk, coming to a halt as they reached a few feet from where Charlotte stood. Charlotte heaved a sigh of relief as she realized she didn’t recognize any of them. “Well now, ladies, what on earth would you be doing out here all alone?”
The man’s question seemed courteous, and Charlotte choked back a little sob of relief.
“We’re lost!” she said brokenly. “We… we’re in trouble…”
How could she tell him more? That they’d been run out of town by their own kin after that terrible night. Accused of the worst crime she could imagine… If they found out, what would they do?
The man didn’t seem to need answers, though. He’d swung out of the saddle and was heading over on foot, a hand on the rein leading his buckskin behind him.
“Ma’am, you need water. This place ain’t safe for womenfolk!” He had a canteen extended and Charlotte reached for it. “Fact, we wouldn’t be out here neither if it weren’t for that pesky colt running off.” He shot a look to where one of the men was holding a lead-rein attached to the headcollar of a skittish youngster.
Rachel had risen to her knees beside Charlotte, and she passed her sister the canteen. The younger woman scrambled to her feet, drinking thirstily as Charlotte tried to brush dust and dry leaves from her skirts.
“Thank you… thank you so much, sir,” she said, trying not to babble. “Where are you headed?”
“We’ll be going back to Pine Bluffs,” the man said. “I’m Judd Morgan, and this here’s my son Judd Junior, and that’s Brewster with the pesky colt.”
Brewster, a much younger man—little more than a boy, really—had his hands full. The bay colt was tugging at the lead-rein, spindly legs flailing as he tugged and twisted fractiously. He gave a curt nod before turning his attention back to the horse.
“Thank you, Mr. Morgan,” Charlotte said breathlessly. “I’m Charlotte Cox and this is my sister Rachel. We’ve come out from St. Michael’s…”
The men shared knowing looks and Charlotte felt her stomach knot. Had news spread already? Had they heard about what had happened back home?
“Is that right?” said Judd enigmatically. “And would you be planning to head back there?” Charlotte shook her head vigorously. “Well then, I think you’d better be coming on back with us, ma’am,” he continued, then turned to his son.
“Judd Junior, shift on up and make some room behind ya for the young lady. Miss Cox, I think you’d better ride on up with me. We’ll get on back to Pine Bluffs and let the sheriff help you out.”
He shot a look at the stocky gelding beside him, who looked broad enough to carry both of them and more. Charlotte nodded eagerly.
“Thank you, Mr. Morgan,” she said, her voice husky with emotion. She didn’t know what lay ahead of them, but it could only be better than the danger that lay behind.
The ride to Pine Bluffs couldn’t have taken more than a couple of hours, but after bumping behind the man in the saddle, Charlotte’s arms and thigh muscles were aching. None of them seemed to question that the women would ride astride; Rachel had shared a surprised look with Charlotte, but neither commented. Auntie May and Uncle Beau would have been scandalized, but it was the most sensible option.
Eventually, the discomfort faded into the back of her mind as she’d found herself lulled by the steady lope of the horse. Occasionally, they’d stopped for a drink of water, and to let the horses rest. The men hadn’t said much, aside from checking that the ladies were coping with the pace.
When they made their way onto a narrow track that became a small road, it was clear to Charlotte that they were on the outskirts of a settlement.
“Welcome to Pine Bluffs,” said Judd as they trotted into town.
The buildings flanking them were weathered but sturdy. Charlotte’s eyes had widened at the sight of so many storefronts; she’d never seen a general store and a dressmaker and even a post house on just one street. St. Michael’s had offered what was needed, but luxuries had been considered unseemly. In Pine Bluffs, there was a church—of course—and a schoolhouse, and even a small boarding house beside the saloon. The girls stayed silent as curious eyes turned in their direction when the strange little group rode past. Men on horseback were no new sight, but Charlotte figured they didn’t normally come to town sharing their saddles with travel-weary women.
“Sheriff! Sheriff McArthur, are you in?” Judd called out as they came to a halt outside a simple wooden building at the top end of town. A sign bearing the word ‘Sheriff’ hung over the door, and small, barred windows broke the line of the rough-hewn planking down one side. Charlotte swallowed hard as the door swung open. Judd Junior was helping Rachel down from the back of his sorrel gelding, and Charlotte was vaguely aware of her sister groaning and stretching stiff limbs.
“Who would be causing such a commotion out here?” a harsh voice responded.
The stern-faced man who stepped through the doorway was broad-shouldered and barrel-chested beneath a tan vest and checked shirt. Charlotte’s heart pounded with fear as his boots echoed heavily over the floorboards.
His thick gray mustache bristled as his face broke into a smile and warm brown eyes crinkled around the corners. “Judd Morgan, what brings you here today? Planning to get that son of yours deputized at last?”
Charlotte was relieved by the murmur of chuckles. These men seemed familiar with each other in a way that made them less intimidating. Still, it was hard to let her guard down. In Charlotte’s experience, laughing men were not always friendly.
“Not today, Sheriff,” said Judd with a smile, slapping the dust from his leather chaps. “I got a quandary I hope you might help with.” He turned to the women, who’d huddled against each other. Rachel took Charlotte’s hand again. “This here’s Miss Charlotte Cox, and her sister Rachel. We found these poor ladies wandering lost on the prairie. I’m thinking they might be needing your assistance.”
The sheriff’s eyes narrowed. “Well now, that ain’t no place for two young women! It ain’t safe,” he said gruffly. “Come inside, let’s get you out of this hot sun. Then you can tell me how you ended up out there.” He looked over at Judd, who gave a curt nod.
“Thank you, Sheriff. I trust I can get along now? I need to get this colt back to the herd, and ol’ Buddy here’s ready for watering.”
As if nodding in agreement, the buckskin tossed his head and snorted softly.
“Thank you, Mr. Morgan,” Charlotte murmured to the man. “Your kindness is much appreciated.”
Judd Morgan tipped his hat, then gathered his reins, put a foot in his stirrup, and swung himself back into the saddle.
“Think nothing of it, ma’am. The sheriff will know what to do with you,” he said.
The men said their goodbyes and then turned and left in a flurry of hoofbeats.
Charlotte hesitated a moment, running a palm down the front of her dress. The faded calico skirt showed the neat stitchwork of her own careful hand, but now it was grimy and streaked with dirt. Her cream petticoat was dusty and torn at the hem.
A sidelong look at Rachel showed her sister’s blue dress had fared no better. Bedraggled and dirty after stumbling for hours in the sun, followed by the jolting ride over the endless prairie, they were worse than windswept. Charlotte put a hand to her hair, wishing she could smooth it. The pair of them must look a sight, indeed.
Yet the sheriff’s eyes were kind as he gestured for them to precede him into the office.
“Ladies,” he said courteously, “please make yourselves comfortable.”
The interior was cool, furnished with a plain wooden table and simple chairs. Faded notices were pinned to the wall at the back, alongside the bars of a dimly lit jail cell. Charlotte tore her eyes away from the small space with its bare cot.
It was only once they were all seated and Sheriff McArthur had pressed a steaming cup of coffee into each of their hands that Charlotte’s façade finally crumbled.
“Miss Cox, I can see you’re greatly distressed. Won’t you tell me how you came to be out in such unforgiving circumstances?”
Charlotte took a sip of the hot, bitter liquid and began to share their story, gradually disintegrating into tears as it unfolded. It had only been days since her world had been shattered, and the wounds left behind still ran raw.
The sheriff’s craggy features remained stoic, although occasionally there’d be a flicker in those warm eyes, or his jaw would clench slightly.
Charlotte told him about their hometown of St. Michael’s, which he seemed to know. How their aunt and uncle had raised them after Pa had passed. And how she’d been promised to Randall Allen when she’d come of age. That had drawn a narrowing of his eyes, and Charlotte’s voice had broken.
“I tried real hard, Sheriff McArthur, but it was just no good. He thought I was… dull.” She trembled and felt Rachel squeeze her arm.
“Miss Cox, the name Randall Allen is not unknown to me,” said the sheriff grimly. “He’s been known as a miscreant around these parts for some time.”
Charlotte bit her lip, not wanting to speak ill of the man. But the sheriff was right. Randall had not been a good person. Yet he’d been her only option. The only way to ease the burden she’d become.
“Randall said he would choose another if he didn’t get a dowry for me. That was impossible; Auntie May and Uncle Beau had already taken us in and kept us for so many years. Of course, it was unfair to expect more of them.”
She couldn’t let on that it had been a tough life, filled with daily hardships. Or that Beau Cox had begrudged every morsel he’d provided his late brother’s daughters. ‘Baggage,’ he’d called them. His wife had shared his contempt. Only their strict religious code had compelled them to keep a roof over the girls’ heads. With Charlotte already seeing her twentieth birthday, and Rachel not far behind, it wouldn’t be long before nobody wanted them… not even the likes of Randall Allen.
As if reading her thoughts, Rachel pressed closer to her sister, her warmth creating a comforting shield. Charlotte took a deep breath and continued, “When Auntie May told me to go to Randall and make him a meal, I knew I could win him over. I’m a good cook… I am!”
The sheriff nodded silently, giving her a gentle smile to encourage her. Charlotte bit back a little sob.
“What happened…” She sobbed again. “It was an accident, I swear it!” She could hear Rachel weeping beside her, and the words came out in a rush. “I didn’t mean to spill the soup on him… it was hot, my hand slipped…”
Although she said the words boldly now, she’d blamed herself for her clumsiness as surely as Randall had. When she’d seen his fist come up, it hadn’t even occurred to her to defend herself. It had been Rachel who’d stepped in then, Rachel who’d taken the blows and fought like a wildcat.
It had taken a second for Charlotte to come to her senses before trying to grab at Randall’s flailing fists as he laid into her sister. Her interference must have surprised him as much as herself, because there’d been a second of enraged astonishment from him. And then he’d spun toward her, murder in his eyes. If it hadn’t been for him stumbling, getting his boot hooked behind the chair leg…
Charlotte took a deep breath. “He fell, Sheriff. He fell and hit his head. I would never have harmed him! But he was going to kill Rachel… or me. I know it, sure as I know my own name.” Her rush of words came to a halt.
“What happened then?” asked the sheriff. He steepled his fingers on the table before him. The gesture was quiet but there was an undercurrent to him that left Charlotte apprehensive.
“Uncle Beau said we had to get out of there. The townsfolk… well, they were fixing to string us up.” Charlotte took a shuddering breath, trying to shove the images of that terrible night from her mind. “A man was dead—and they were certain I was guilty. Maybe I was…” she trailed off. It had all seemed so unfair.
“No, Lottie, you can’t say that! I was the one who—” Rachel interrupted, but Charlotte silenced her with a gentle look. She had no intention of letting her sister try to shoulder any of the blame.
“We had to leave. Uncle Beau said there was nothing else for it. Auntie May hid us in the back of the old wagon and they took us out to the prairie. They told us to lay low and showed us how to get out to safety.”
Sheriff McArthur stood up so abruptly his chair scraped the floorboards. Both girls started at the sharp noise, clinging to each other. Charlotte felt her fingers curl against the table, her nails grazing the rough wood. His face was inscrutable; it was impossible to tell if his reaction was out of pity, or anger at what she had admitted to. If he turned them in to the folk at St. Michael’s, they were done for.
“Seems to me they had several choices, Miss Cox,” he said eventually. “And I’m not certain they made the right one.”
Charlotte’s mind raced. Was he saying they should have been taken to task? She prayed it wasn’t so. She held her breath as he walked around to where they were sitting. And then he was squatting down beside her, his warm eyes meeting hers.
“You’ve been done a terrible injustice, Miss Cox. Simply terrible. I can only think how heinous it would be if such a thing befell my own precious daughters. They’re barely younger than you…” He rubbed his eyes as his voice trailed off, then carried on, “I will not let you go back there. I will see to it that nothing else happens to you ladies. You’ve been through enough, darn it!”
He looked a little flustered for a moment, as if embarrassed by his display of emotion. Charlotte clasped her hands together, nodding slowly. It was more than she could have hoped for. But just what was the sheriff planning to do with them? They couldn’t stay in the jailhouse. A little hiccup broke free as she bit back a hysterical laugh at the thought of it. After the flood of words, she found herself struggling to find more, though she knew something needed to be said.
“Thank you, Sheriff. We’re so grateful.”
It was Rachel’s voice now. She hadn’t spoken much yet, and McArthur turned to face her, his expression softening at the sincerity that shone from her eyes. Her gentle tone hid a strength of character that could be surprising at times. Charlotte knew this better than anyone.
A knock at the door interrupted them and a beam of light shone into the room. A sturdy-looking woman stood in the doorway, wiping her hands on the crisp white apron over her skirt.
“Laurence McArthur, what on earth is keeping you from dinner today?” the woman said. Her words may have been sharp, but her tone was gentle. She stopped short as she stared at Rachel and Charlotte. “Well now, what have we here?”
Charlotte looked up into green eyes that sparkled with equal measures of kindness and intelligence. They dominated a face framed by silver-frosted red hair that seemed intent on escaping the bun she’d tied it in.
The sheriff stood and moved towards her. “Libby, these are Miss Charlotte and Miss Rachel Cox. They have fallen upon trying circumstances. Ladies, this is my wife, Libby McArthur—a good woman, whom the Lord challenges daily through her trials with me!”
The soft-featured woman smiled up at her husband then turned back to look at the girls.
“Why! Just look at the pair of you! Where did Laurence unearth you from? You look like you haven’t seen a meal in a month!”
Charlotte didn’t want to admit it, but the thought of food made her stomach grumble loudly. She and her sister rose to their feet, facing the older woman and dipping their heads in greeting. “It’s our pleasure to make your acquaintance, Mrs. McArthur, ma’am,” she said politely.
Libby nodded in response, then shot a look at her husband that spoke volumes—he had some explaining to do. “Laurence, you come along with me now, we’d better get these young women fed!”
As the pair left the small sheriff’s office, the sound of a bolt being slid into place had Rachel’s eyes widening.
“They’ve locked us in!” she whispered to Charlotte.
“Don’t fret, Rachel, I’m sure they’re just being cautious.” Charlotte didn’t want to admit that she was filled with apprehension, too. “Let’s hear them out. No sense in leaving now, and I sure could use a good meal.”
Rachel nodded in silent agreement. Neither was ready to face another day on the run.
It couldn’t have been more than twenty minutes before the couple had returned with what Charlotte could only describe as a feast fit for royalty. Fragrant beef stew with hunks of fresh bread, accompanied by rich corn fritters, filled their bowls.
“It’s a good thing you arrived when you did, because I had dinner set for this big oaf when I called in,” said Libby. “My ma always told me to cook enough for a cavalry. Though heaven knows my girls have been picking at their food like birds of late.”
She was watching as the sisters descended on their meals with an eagerness that bordered on unladylike. While they’d been out, the sheriff had clearly filled his wife in on the details because Libby made no further comment about their appearance.
She left them to fill their bellies and moved to the doorway, watching him as he stood on the porch puffing on a roughly carved pipe. His face was heavy with contemplation. Charlotte struggled to catch their conversation, trying to listen between mouthfuls of food.
“You know we’re going to have to do something to help these girls, Laurence,” Libby said to him. Her husband nodded in response. “I’ll get them set up in the girls’ room and—” She stopped as he raised a hand.
“I can’t say that would be a good idea,” he said quietly. “Once the townsfolk get to hear of them, there’s going to be a ruckus out there.”
Charlotte froze again, straining to catch the urgent murmur of words. It seemed they were talking about the young men in the town, and Libby looked none too pleased about what the sheriff was telling her.
“Laurence McArthur! Are you telling me that these girls need protecting from our good young men?” she heard Libby say in alarm. Charlotte fought down a twinge of regret. Perhaps they should have run when they had the chance.
The sheriff shook his head with a chuckle.
“Of course not, Lib… but there are a lot of unmarried boys out there. Not everyone got as lucky as me, now.” His features misted as he blew out a fragrant cloud of smoke. Libby’s reply was muffled as she moved out beyond the door, but Charlotte picked up some stray words.
“Well, what do you propose to do? Keep them locked up here?”
Had Libby just said that? She took a quick look at Rachel, who was still too preoccupied with her meal to be troubled. The couple had moved completely out of earshot and Charlotte felt her appetite waning. By the time they’d returned, she’d set her spoon down beside her half-empty bowl. Her face was pale with concern.
“Did you enjoy dinner?” Libby asked mildly, as if she hadn’t just spent the past minutes determining their fate. Charlotte nodded soundlessly. Rachel was still eating.
“We’ve been discussing your… predicament,” the sheriff added as he joined her in the room.
Rachel glanced up with a frown, finally realizing something was afoot.
“It’s alright, don’t be fretting,” Libby chimed in. “There’ll be no way we’d send you back to St. Michael’s.”
Charlotte still didn’t feel comforted.
“Now, I know you have history with them folks, and I believe your story,” the sheriff went on. “Way I see it, you girls were merely defending yourselves. Besides, that territory is out of my jurisdiction. Not my place to be interfering in those dealings.” He’d come in with his pipe, and he tapped it out now as Libby scowled down at it. “Of course, we’d still be left with the dilemma of where you’d be staying if you came here.”
Rachel exchanged a look with Charlotte. They hadn’t even decided whether they would be staying yet. But where else would they go? All the family they had in the world—whether breathing or not—was right back there in St. Michael’s.
“So, I’ve been giving it some thought,” McArthur went on, “and it seems to me that we should be finding you suitable husbands.”
Charlotte was glad she’d set her spoon down because she would have dropped it for sure right now. Just a moment ago she’d heard them talking about locking them away from the menfolk. Now they were fixing to marry them off? How would they even begin to do that, anyhow?
As if reading her mind, the sheriff continued, “I think the best way to do that would be to hold a lottery.”
“A lottery?” Charlotte repeated sharply, then pressed her lips tightly together.
“Nothing else for it,” he said with an air of finality. “We have some fine young men in this town, men who work hard and have good homesteads and fine herds. They’ve no time to go courting, and the good Lord knows there haven’t been many young women coming into Pine Bluffs.”
Rachel was shaking her head, and Charlotte knew her own expression mirrored Rachel’s. Despite the sheriff’s previous firm words, he softened his tone now, as if aware that what he was proposing might not immediately appeal.
“But I don’t understand why you’d be needing a lottery.” Rachel’s brow furrowed. “You mean, we’d be some sort of prize?”
Libby raised her eyebrow at her husband, as if she, too, had her reservations about this.
“Not a prize—though any man would consider himself honored to wed you, I’m sure.” The sheriff seemed to be searching for the right words. “But we need a speedy solution, and I think a lottery is the quickest way to go about it. If our young men put their names forward for a draw, I’d pick out a couple at random and you’d have your suitors, quick as you please.”
Charlotte felt her mouth set in a firm line. It was all very well for the sheriff to be so delighted with his ‘solution.’ He wasn’t the one being farmed off to a stranger.
“I don’t understand why we need to be marrying anyone so fast, Sheriff,” she said, trying to soften her comment by lowering her eyes. Everything inside her wanted to shout ‘no.’ “Can’t we linger a little? Take time to get settle in? I’m certain we could be useful somewhere. I’m a good cook, and handy with a needle and thread…”
McArthur was shaking his head. “Two young women without a guardian? That wouldn’t be seemly, Miss Cox. And I don’t know of anyone suitable who could put you up in lodgings. That’s aside from the commotion your presence would cause. Our boys would be fighting among themselves just to court you.”
He said it as if the notion was a tiresome inconvenience, rather than a way any young woman might prefer to choose a husband.
“You must understand also that if you had husbands from our town, you’d become citizens of Pine Bluffs,” he added. “The folks at St. Michael’s would be hard-pressed to interfere, and I doubt they’d be foolhardy enough to try to come up against me and our menfolk.”
The sheriff’s tone suggested a sense of finality and it seemed almost pointless to argue the matter with him. Charlotte’s eyes prickled with the threat of tears as she contemplated yet another loveless match. Was she doomed to forever be married off to the first man who would have her? But the harder she tried to think of a way out of it, the fewer options it seemed they had. The sheriff’s silence indicated he’d said all he had to say on the matter. He and his wife were watching them now, clearly waiting for an answer.
“If you think it would be the best way, Sheriff, then it would not be my place to object,” Charlotte said meekly. She wasn’t feeling meek, however. Inside, her emotions were in battle. She didn’t want to just run out and get married. But then again, it was her fault they were in this mess with no place to turn.
Her heart squeezed as she looked over at Rachel, knowing she’d dragged her sister into it with her. She shouldn’t have to be locked in an unwanted union just because Charlotte had made a mistake. Rachel was looking up at the sheriff, however, nodding slowly as if she, too, had been thinking it through. It wasn’t simply Charlotte’s decision to make, after all.
“Alright, Sheriff,” Rachel was saying, “if you think this is the best way.”
“Well, then it’s settled,” said the sheriff, then looked awkward again and rubbed the back of his neck. “And… ahh… I’m thinkin’ you’ll be needing to rest up here tonight.”
The girls stared at him in horror. A night in a jail cell? Charlotte hadn’t heard wrong earlier—they were planning to lock the sisters up.
“Now, it would be for your own safety, Miss Cox. I assure you we only have your best interests at heart.”
It didn’t feel that way to Charlotte, but once again, the sheriff seemed to have made up his mind.
“Sheriff, I—” she began, but he cut her off gently.
“We’ll get you comfortable and leave you in peace. The bunk is small, but it’s clean—not much call for it in these parts,” he tried to reassure him. Charlotte sank back into her seat, feeling the fight sagging out of her. If only she weren’t so exhausted.
Libby gave a sigh, clearly not pleased, but somehow, she seemed resigned to the idea. “I’ll fetch you girls some blankets and get you settled for the night,” she said before turning to follow her husband out the door.
“Oh, Charlotte, what are we going to do?” Rachel asked as the bolt was drawn behind them. Her voice was hoarse with urgency and her face was awash with concern.
“I wish I had another answer for you, honey,” Charlotte murmured.
Whichever way she looked at it, they were stuck. Going back to St. Michael’s meant a hanging for sure. Heading out alone to get away from here might lead them into even greater danger. Who knew what lay beyond the outskirts of this town? She’d seen how quickly they ran out of food and water. As frightening as it was, even a tiny jail cell was better than no shelter at all. And the next time they encountered strangers on the road, they might not be so helpful.
Rachel watched her sister’s warring expressions and finally rested a hand over hers, seeming to have come to some kind of internal resolution. “Don’t worry, Lottie. We’ll make it through this. As long as we have each other, we’ll be alright.”
Charlotte forced a smile to her face and pressed Rachel’s hand between her own. “You’re right, Rachel. And I’m certain things will look different in the morning when we’ve rested up.”
Once the lanterns were turned down, they huddled together on the narrow cot and finally drifted to sleep, surrounded by the creaking sounds of the settling jailhouse walls. The next day loomed ahead, filling them with fear of the unknown.
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