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The Mountains Between their Hearts

She gets married to a stranger only to save her family. He gets married to the wrong woman only for his child to be safe. Can they heal their frozen hearts with their growing love?

Hattie is a young woman, ready to save her sisters at all costs. The Great Chicago fire forces her to take her life’s hardest decision: become a mail-order bride in her sister’s shoes. Hattie is taken aback by Mason’s aloofness–he has lived so much away from others that he’s too reserved. The connection she feels with his child though is profound and immediate. Will she be able to handle her new life and take care of the tough rancher and his baby?

Mason is in desperate need of someone to fend for his desolate ranch and toddler. He is a man full of scars and not in the mood for love. When he meets Hattie, though, his world turns upside down. She might be inexperienced in ranch chores, but she rekindles a fire within him that was long forgotten. How can he truly accept her as the love of his life when trusting again comes with the cost of feeling vulnerable?

Winter in the mountains is not the only predicament they have to face. When an uncanny man comes to claim Mason’s ranch, he and Hattie have to show devotion and affection for each other before it’s too late. Will they be able to defeat their fears and become a loving family?

Written by:

Western Historical Romance Author

4.5/5

4.5 out of 5 (146 ratings)

Prologue

Sunday, October 8th, 1871, Hattie Murphy, Lesson 29 of the Palmer Method of Business Writing. The words appeared on the blank page of the jotter beneath Hattie’s slowly moving pen nib. She inhaled deeply, as if she could smell the ink drying on the paper, and absentmindedly hooked an insubordinate spiral of copper red curls behind her ear.

In mid-action, she stopped and peered out of the small window that gave light to her desk in the fading fall afternoon. The Norman children were playing hopscotch outside in the dry, dusty Chicago slum streets, their faces streaked with sweat and dirt, but happy. Old Mrs. Barkley was sitting dreaming in the doorway of her soapbox lean-to and chasing flies with a tattered lace fan that had seen long years of use and much darning.

Everything seemed as it had always been, but something had alerted her that evaded definition. Something in the air. She shook her head and returned to her work.

She carefully wrote aaaaaa, placing each stroke of the pen in its exact place and savoring the sense of satisfaction she felt as each letter formed obediently beneath her slim fingers. She breathed in deeply again, and this time her head whipped up, dislodging the errant lock of corkscrew curls. Smoke. That’s what it was. Not that the smell of smoke was anything unusual in the slums, but this smoke smelled different.

It was acrid, almost rancid in some strange way, not musky and comforting like the wood smoke that sometimes escaped from the little stove they used for heating in the winter and cooking year-round. Hattie got up and leaned closer to the window as she peered out again. This time the children in the street were standing stock still, staring at something she could not see. Old Mrs. Barkley’s fan hung limp in her hand as her gaze followed the children’s.

Hattie’s natural curiosity overcame her need to finish her writing practice before her two sisters got home from the sweatshop where they worked as garment makers. She liked to have supper ready for them when they got back home each day, but something told her she first needed to see what had captured her neighbors’ attention.

Hurrying down the shadowy, rickety stairway in the hall of the converted house she and her sisters shared with five other families, she opened the front door and stepped outside. More of her neighbors were filling the streets, some with their hands covering their mouths, some shaking their heads in disbelief. Lifting her eyes to the direction they were staring, Hattie gasped, clapping both hands to her own mouth.

A broad, black swath of smoke was billowing up from the clutter of houses and factories toward the north of the city. In the dimming rays of the setting sun, it loomed large and ominous like a big, black demon rising from the bowls of hell. At its base, an orange glow seemed to glimmer and writhe like a live thing. For a few moments she stared in shock at the scene and then suddenly cried out.

“My sisters!”

The patter of little feet didn’t have any of their usual ability to pull her gaze away, but she did hear the sound of young voices calling her name and grubby fingers tugging at her faded blue dress.

“Miss Hattie, what are you going to do?”

“Miss Hattie, is that like the forest fires you told us about?”

“Is that what hell looks like, Miss Hattie?”

“Miss Hattie, are we going to die?”

She absentmindedly tousled shaggy, grimy little heads while her mind grappled with the scene her eyes were taking in.

“I don’t know, my loves. I don’t know anything right now.” And then clarity hit like a sledgehammer. “I have to go find them. I have to go find my sisters!”

Extricating herself from their clinging fingers, Hattie began to run in the direction of the column of smoke. Every instinct of self-preservation screamed at her to stop, but she could not, she would not be content to watch the fire rage not knowing if Aileen and Bridget were safe.

Her scuffed lace-up boots pounded the potholed cobblestone road, and the wooden lean-to houses, packed wall-to-wall like sardines in a can, flashed by her. The further she ran, the more the behavior of the people crowding the roads began to change. They went from standing and staring, to gathering their belongings and setting out in the direction of the river with many backward glances, to fleeing in utter terror.

The closer she came to the area where the sweatshop was, the hotter the air became until it felt like her lungs were burning. In the descending darkness of nightfall, Hattie could see smoke blown around by the wind, carrying with it bright, burning cinders. Fleeing citizens filled the streets, shouting and crying, grasping children’s hands and dragging them along.

“Aileen! Bridget!” Hattie cried out, trying to raise her voice above the rabble of voices as panicked as her own. Oh, dear God, don’t let them die! I won’t survive without them. I can’t! Oh, please, please, please! she prayed as she scanned the milling crowd.

“Sarah! Come back here!” A woman’s voice screamed behind Hattie just as a little girl of about five years old shot past, bumping her out of the way.

“I forgot Marlene!” the little girl yelled back, not slacking her pace in the least.

With horror, Hattie realized that the child was headed straight for a burning building that she guessed must have been her home.

“Sarah! No!” the little girl’s mother shrieked, holding onto two other children who clung pale-faced and teary-eyed to her skirts while she clutched a bawling baby in her arms. “Oh, somebody stop her! Please, stop her!”

The people scrambling past gave no heed, intent on saving their own lives, but Hattie’s legs, which had at first been rooted to the ground, began to propel her forward of their own accord. Dodging fleeing citizens and discarded bundles of household goods in her path, she reached the little girl and grabbed her by the arm just as she reached the doorway she was headed for.

“Let me go!” Sarah screamed, but Hattie held on and pulled the kicking girl toward her so that she could get a firmer grip on her. Staggering backward into the street and eliciting a few protests of, “Out of the way, you!” from passersby, she watched with a sense of shaky relief as the sound of wood crashing to the ground filled the air and a fresh surge of flames roared up from the burning building.

“Marlene! Marlene!” little Sarah wailed disconsolately. “She’s my favorite doll, and she’s inside!”

“You’ll get another doll one day, I’m sure,” Hattie reassured her, hunkering down so she could look Sarah in the eye. “And Marlene will be up in heaven waiting for you to join her when the time is right.”

Sarah turned a tear streaked, sooty face to Hattie’s. “You promise?” she sniffed, choking on a sob.

“Upon my honor,” Hattie replied, smiling, and placing one hand over her heart.

“Oh, thank God! And thank you, miss!” Sarah’s mother cried out, struggling through the thinning throng to meet them. Sarah wrenched herself from Hattie’s arms and buried her face in her mother’s skirts. Just then, with a drawn-out creak and a groan, the roof of the house collapsed in a shower of sparks and smoke.

“Now run far away from here, Sarah!” Hattie entreated the little girl. “Go! Go!” she called after the little family as they hurried away. Then she turned to face the direction of her sisters’ place of employment, her heart sinking as she realized that she was still so far away, and the hungry spreading fire had surely raged through there by now.

A sense of guilt began to creep into her heart. If she had not stopped to help young Sarah, perhaps she might have … She thrust the thought from her mind. It was unlikely she would have reached the garment factory in time anyway. And an innocent little girl would have been dead by now.

Even as she stared blindly into the smoky shadows, wondering what to do next, two limping, coughing figures emerged. Hattie clutched at her heart. Even though covered with soot and ash, she could not miss the gaudy orange of Bridget’s favorite dress. Never in her life had she been so happy to set her eyes on its rude iridescence.

“Aileen! Bridget! Thank God you’re alive!” she called ecstatically, running to meet them. Relief filled her with uncontrollable laughter. For a few horrifying moments she had begun to think she was suddenly alone in the world, left to fend for herself with nothing but her books and her writing skills.

It was a feeling she never wanted to experience again.

Chapter One

Aileen sighed heavily—her eyes, which were as blue as Hattie’s, studying the burn-scarred skin on her arms. She shook her wavy ginger hair out of her eyes while she watched her youngest sister dabbing milk from a small cup onto the angry red blotches with a piece of soft muslin.

“Even if I do get a reply from someone, I’m sure he’ll send me right back home as soon as he sees my scars,” Aileen said sadly. “I had hoped they would be gone by now. It’s been a full two weeks since the fire burned down half the city.”

“Don’t say that,” Hattie accosted her gently, not telling her sister that she secretly hoped there would be no response at all to Aileen’s response to the mail-order bride advertisement. “I’m sure you could keep your arms covered for long enough for your husband to learn to know you. Twenty-four hours with my sweet oldest sister under his roof and no man would want to let her out of his sight for a second, scars and all.”

Aileen laughed, her somber mood dispelled for a moment. “Ah, Hattie, ever the dreamer,” she teased with a grateful smile and then sobered up. “I am so grateful though, that Bridget and I both managed to escape. If that passing fireman hadn’t heard us all screaming to be let out, I might not be sitting here at all, scars or not.”

Hattie shook her head. “I never could understand how anyone could lock so many people in a room without anyone to open for them in an emergency,” she stated with restrained agitation.

She wanted to add that it was time her two older sisters found some other way of bringing home the bacon, but the crash of the lobby door downstairs being violently flung open alerted both sisters’ attention. They locked eyes as the sound of running footsteps echoed up the wooden stairwell. Moments later, Bridget burst into their tiny one-room apartment. Her face was flushed and her eyes bright as she waved an envelope triumphantly in the air.

“It’s for you, Ally!” she bubbled happily, dragging a stool closer so she could sit beside her two sisters who were both staring at her open mouthed. Brushing away her auburn curls that somehow always ended up falling out of her bun, she continued. “It’s from Montana! Oh, I’m positive it’s a reply to your advertisement! Read it. Read it, quick!” She thrust the envelope toward Aileen, meaning for her to take it.

“Oh,” Aileen said blankly, blinking rapidly a few times. For the first time in her memory, Hattie saw her oldest sister speechless and unable to respond.

“Give me that,” Hattie said laughingly, setting down the cup of milk on the floor and taking the envelope from Bridget’s hand. “I’ll read it if Aileen won’t.”

“You always did read the best of all of us,” Bridget agreed, her eyes following Hattie’s fingers as they ripped open the envelope. “I bet he’s a rich, handsome rancher who rides a pure white horse and lives in a huge house in a beautiful valley with waterfalls and wildflowers all over the place.” She smoothed down the skirts of her second favorite dress, a bright pink one with fading printed roses clinging bravely to the threadbare fabric and posed as if having her portrait painted.

“I bet he’s charming and a wonderful singer,” Hattie joined in her sister’s dreaming as she slowly and deliberately drew the momentous letter from its paper confines. “He’ll play the guitar and serenade you every night under the moonlight.” She got up and pranced around the cramped room, swinging her green cotton dress as if she were dancing at a ball.

“Oh, silly girls!” Aileen laughed, coming out of her momentary trance and snatching the letter from Hattie’s grasp as she waltzed by her. “It’s my letter, I’ll read it myself, thank you!”

Bridget giggled and Hattie winked at her. Hattie sat down again on the hard wooden chair she used for studying and glanced around the room with its peeling, water-marked wallpaper, scuffed floorboards and shabby but clean curtains.

Perhaps this was the moment they had all been waiting for—the moment that would bring them closer than ever before to their shared dream of leaving the city and making their home in the beauty of the mountains.

Aileen unfolded the single sheet of paper, smoothed it out on the lap of her beige cotton dress and cleared her throat.

“It’s postmarked a full two weeks ago, exactly on the date of the fire,” she remarked as she drew the letter from its envelope.

“That fire turned a lot of things upside down, didn’t it?” Hattie responded thoughtfully.

“Oh, just read it, will you?” Bridget fussed.

“Dear Miss Aileen Murphy,” Aileen read out loud before anyone could say another word. “I am writing in response to your advertisement in The Matrimonial Bazar…”

Bridget interrupted her with a squeal of delight. “See? I told you! Didn’t I tell you?” she enthused.

Aileen smiled and blushed, then went on reading. “I am in need of a woman to take care of my newborn son since my wife died in childbirth but a month since. I will need someone strong and capable, which is why I replied to your advertisement in which you stated that you are tall, strong and a hard worker. Ranch life is not easy, so you will have to be prepared to work long hours in harsh weather.”

Aileen’s voice slowed on the final two words and stopped. The silence in the room was palpable. She lifted her eyes to Hattie’s with an expression of mild shock. Bridget had gone from bouncing on the stool to slumping on it with a confused expression on her face. Aileen lowered her eyes again and read on in a muted voice.

“Please do not respond if you feel like this will be too much for you to handle. I can send a money order of ten dollars a week to your sisters in Chicago, as you requested. More than that is out of the question.

“If you see your way clear to be my wife under such conditions, you may arrange transport to the return address on the back of the envelope, giving timeous notice of your arrival date. I will reimburse the cost of your train ticket when you arrive here. Sincerely, Mason R. Parish.” Aileen’s hands dropped to her lap, and she sat staring at the letter in silence.

“Well, he sounds absolutely horrid,” Bridget declared in a slightly offended tone.

“I’m sure he didn’t intend to be mean, Bridgy,” Aileen said softly. “It sounds like he’s had a hard life. And at least he’s being honest. That’s got to count for something.”

“You’re thinking of replying to that … that … insulting man, aren’t you?” Bridget jumped to her feet. “You can’t reply to such an awful letter, Ally! For that kind of money, you may as well keep working in the factory and at least hang onto your freedom, and your dignity!”

Aileen took Bridget’s hand. “There now, you don’t know that. Maybe he’s just a hardworking man who isn’t good with words. Remember why we placed the advertisement in the first place. It’s for us to get out of the city. This is our chance to get the kind of life that Marmie and Da had in Ireland before the hard times came.”

Hattie felt numb. “Please don’t go, Aileen. I can work in the factory with you,” she insisted. “If I work, too, instead of burying my nose in silly books, we can save enough money to move to a better place. Without any one of us marrying a mean old widower.”

“You know we can’t let you do that, Hattie.” Aileen turned her calm, blue eyes on her sister. “You won’t last a week in those awful conditions. You’re not as strong as we are. Besides, Pa made us promise we would develop your talents.”

“Yeah, Hattie. Neither of us can read and write like you can or remember all those details like how many pennies make a pound,” Bridget supported Aileen’s protestation.

“Pennies make a dollar, not a pound. That’s ounces,” Hattie corrected her without thinking.

“See what I mean?” Bridget retorted triumphantly as she perched back on her stool. “Me an’ Aileen, we’re strong and we’re good with our hands, but you—you’re the bookish one in the family. We need you to focus on those studies of yours.”

“But why can’t I focus on my books and work in the factory? I’m a hard worker, too, you know. I’m only three years younger than you, Aileen. I’m not a child anymore.” Hattie felt hurt. But mostly she felt useless. Like a dead weight. Her exasperation ran so deep it even made her forget to correct her middle sister’s horrific grammar. She wanted so badly to contribute, but she felt that her sisters never gave her the chance.

Day after day she whiled away her hours doing what she loved most, while Aileen and Bridget worked their fingers to the bone in horrendous conditions just to keep a leaking roof over their heads and their food shelves stocked with barely enough staples to keep starvation at bay.

“Oh, Hattie,” Aileen smiled, “bless your dear heart. I can see you want to help, but don’t you see that by getting yourself educated, you’re doing exactly that? One day, when you have your school, we’ll all benefit from it.”

“One day?” Hattie felt tears of vexation pricking her eyes. “What good is one day when you’re both risking your lives right now in those horrid sweatshops that are nothing more than hard labor prisons? I don’t want to help one day; I want to help now!”

But Aileen would not budge. “Hattie, I’ll hear no more of it. You know as well as we do that the hours at the factory would leave you no time for books at all. You’re to study and become a teacher and that’s all there is to it. I don’t want to go back on my promise to Da, and I’m sure you don’t want to either.”

Aileen’s voice had taken on the motherly tone she used when she was laying down the law, in her gentle but compelling way, and Hattie knew it would be fruitless to argue. But it couldn’t stop the feelings of powerlessness and frustration that roiled in her chest as she thought of her gentle, kind sister subjected to a life of misery with a man who appeared to be devoid of a heart.

“I tell you what, why don’t we wait just one more week before you write back,” Hattie suggested, desperate to buy some time. “For all we know, there might be more letters on the way, from nicer men. Then at least you’ll have a choice.” She had to think of something. She knew she would think of something if she only had a few more days.

“Alright. One more week,” Aileen agreed, taking Hattie’s hand and kissing it in her sweet sisterly manner. “That way my scars will have more time to heal, too. Are you sure this milk idea is doing any good?”

Hattie breathed an inward sigh of relief. “Well, if it worked for Marie Antoinette, I guess it can work for you.”

Aileen laughed. “But you told us she bathed in the stuff!”

Hattie shrugged and put on an old maid face. “We do the best we can with what we have now, don’t we?”

The three sisters’ laughter echoed in the room as Hattie picked up the cup of milk and resumed treating Aileen’s wounds.

That night she lay beside her sleeping sister on the thin horsehair mattress the three of them shared and stared up at the darkened ceiling. I could try taking on more secret cleaning jobs, she thought. But then I wouldn’t progress at all in my studies, and they’d notice something. Besides, it would take too long to save enough money to convince Aileen to stay.

She sighed. Whatever she did, it had to be something drastic that would prevent Aileen from leaving in a week and marrying a man who could clearly never love her the way she deserved.

Oh, why didn’t he just answer some other “tall, strong, hardworking” girl’s advertisement? she thought crossly. I’m sure Aileen’s wasn’t the only one that said something along those lines. He could have picked anyone else, but he had to … She stopped in mid-thought, an idea suddenly taking shape in her mind. Her eyes stretched wide in the darkness.

It was by far the most harebrained idea she had ever had, and her family had often teased her about how harebrained most of her ideas were—especially Da, when he was still alive—but it would be nearly foolproof, if she took care in her planning.

If it worked, it would mean that neither Aileen, nor Bridget, nor even herself, would ever have to work in a factory again. Added to that, she would finally be able to make a meaningful contribution right then, when it was needed, instead of who knew how many years down the line when all their fortunes might have changed. Or worse, when it was too late and her sisters had been killed in the next catastrophe to hit the city, like the Great Fire had.

She hugged herself with nervous excitement in the darkness. Even if it didn’t work, it was worth trying, and she was willing to try anything.

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