She was trapped in a life she never wanted for herself. He was lost in a sea of self-doubt and fear. How can they trust in each other’s hearts when they’re not ready for such a strong love?
Kyla used to be part of a group that never made her feel safe. When her two closest friends suggest the mail-order bride ads, she decides to become one. Without knowing their true intentions, though, she goes out West to marry the stoic Aiden. Will she follow her only remaining solution and open her heart to the mysterious rancher?
Aiden is a man who wants everything under control. He only wants a marriage of convenience, but when he meets the feisty and unpredictable Kyla, he softens around her. How can he trust her with his aching heart, though, when her past is shrouded in mystery?
Their marriage of convenience leads Kyla and Aiden to slowly fall for each other. When Kyla’s friends pay them a visit, Aiden will have a hard time believing that they are innocent. How can he and Kyla get over the schemes that prevent their happiness?
The courtroom had grown steadily more full, fuller than Kyla had expected, and she found herself shoulder to shoulder with the people around her. The close press of bodies meant the smell of dust and unwashed people filled her nostrils, and she wrinkled her nose in disgust. There were better ways to spend a Friday morning. Kyla looked around her, at the tan-colored walls, at the threadbare floor covering, and the large pined desk with its high-backed leather chair at the end of the room. How had they ended up here?
Kyla had been waiting in the same spot since sunrise, intent on being present when Christopher and Noah’s case came up. They might not be related by blood, but they were the closest thing to family she’d had since her father died, and she wasn’t going to let them face this alone. Having grown up together in the Burrmont orphanage, Christopher, Noah, and Kyla had become more than just friends. They were as close as real siblings might be, and Kyla was desperate to lay eyes on them. There’d already been a two-week wait since the arrest, as the visiting judge had been delayed twice.
When Christopher and Noah were first arrested for stealing food, she’d been furious. Furious enough to shout at them through the window of the jail. Furious enough to tell them what fools they were. But her fury had settled, and in its place was a cold lump of fear that sat deep within her belly. She’d grown accustomed to their little family, to the support they offered one another, and to the protection it gave. It had been years since she’d been truly alone, and the thought of it made her shudder. All those years ago, when her father had died, Kyla had learned the very meaning of the word ‘fear’. To be alone, as a young girl…. Well, she wouldn’t wish that on her worst enemy.
Later, when she had gone to live with the Westcotts, it was even worse. She had felt hopeful at first. Hopeful that perhaps in time she would become a part of the family. But her new adopted brother and sister put paid to that idea quickly. Day after day, week after week, she was teased and bullied and excluded. It was made worse because Mr. and Mrs. Westcott sat and watched it all. They never lifted a finger to stop the torment. Sometimes, they even provoked it. It became clear that Kyla was more a maid than a daughter or sister, and the Westcotts ensured that she knew her place. Kyla cringed when she thought of the day the children had locked her in the cupboard.
She’d heard them laughing outside the door and then Mrs. Westcott asking why. When she heard her children’s whispered response, she’d laughed too. Then she’d left. Kyla had spent hours locked up, and it wasn’t until later that evening that she’d been let out. The little girl had been spiteful, but the boy was downright mean. Kyla remembered the bruises he’d leave whenever she didn’t do what he’d said to. A punch here, a kick there, and Kyla became accustomed to the purple and blue patches on her arms and legs. It went on long enough that Kyla learned to stop hoping. And she promised herself that she would never hope again. Nor would she ask to be loved.
This hall, once a meeting place, was now the town’s courtroom. Where once happy couples danced, now men, and sometimes women, were forced to meet the consequences of their actions. Just as Christopher and Noah would do shortly.
“All rise.” The Marshal intoned the words somberly, and the courtroom rose to its feet as the visiting judge entered the room and stood behind the table at the front. When he sat down, the crowd followed suit. The man cut an imposing figure, and if Kyla hadn’t known that he was from out of town, what he wore would have given him away. The black robe was made from a quality of cloth that couldn’t be found anywhere around Burrmont, and his silver hair had been cut with an attention to detail that set him apart from every man present. The people around Kyla were different in every way. They were at best working-class folk, and at worst? Well, at worst, she was sitting beside women who did not make their money honorably and men who should or would be standing where Christopher and Noah were standing right now.
The prisoners came in next, and Kyla watched as a line of men trudged through the door, escorted by another armed marshal. Noah and Christopher were near the front, looking dirty and disheveled, their clothes a wrinkled mess and smudges on their faces. Christopher, the taller of the two, had sandy brown hair and brown eyes, and Noah, slightly shorter, had blue eyes and blonde hair. They scanned the room for Kyla, looking relieved when they finally laid eyes on her. She was having trouble seeing over the people around her, but Christopher and Noah were tall enough to stand out from the others.
Kyla took a deep breath. She was scared for them. This wasn’t like all those years at the orphanage when the boys had made trouble. It wasn’t a simple rap across the knuckles or a lecture from Sister Ethel about godliness and honesty and doing the right thing. This was serious. After all their tomfoolery, and all the trouble they’d caused over the years, this time the boys were in over their heads. Only they weren’t boys anymore. And this wasn’t the orphanage where Sister Ethel cared for them. Christopher and Noah were grown. At eighteen and nineteen, the boys had become men, and the knuckles that had been rapped so many times before were now in shackles. It was hard not to be angry with them. If they hadn’t stolen, none of them would be here.
They had let her down.
Kyla wished that she could speak to them. Instead, she was sitting alone in the crowd of onlookers, on a rickety old chair, waiting to hear their fate. While Christopher looked tired and dirty, he seemed all right. Noah, on the other hand, looked like he was struggling. The younger of the two, he was far gentler than Christopher and spent his time trailing after his brother. He followed Christopher into every hair-brained scheme he came up with. Kyla was certain that stealing the food had been Christopher’s idea; he was the decision-maker. Christopher knew exactly what he was doing. He always knew when he was wrong. He just went ahead and did it anyway.
“Christopher and Noah Kennedy.” The Marshal called their names, and the two young men stood up to face the judge. To Kyla, they looked out of place standing in front of the beautiful desk at the front of the hall, and it struck her that they were as alone as she was. Christopher stood tall, but Noah’s head hung down. He looked beaten already. The judge cleared his throat.
“I’m told by the sheriff that you boys took it upon yourselves to liberate some food from the General Store?” The judge was looking at the two of them with a stern expression.
Kyla held her breath.
“I’m waiting,” The judge said impatiently.
“Your honor, we were hungry.” Christopher’s voice cracked, and Kyla could hear the fear in his voice. “And it was my fault, not my brother’s. He was jus’ there when I took the food. Honest to God. He never knew I was gonna do it.” Christopher’s tone was earnest, beseeching almost. He raised his face to the Judge, hopeful.
Noah had yet to look up. Kyla’s heart swelled with pride at what Christopher was trying to do, but she couldn’t ignore the fact that he was the reason they were here.
“I commend you for being forthright, young man. I do. But I’m told this isn’t the first time you’ve run into trouble. In fact,…” he looked down at the paper in front of him, “I’m told that this is the thirteenth time you’ve been caught stealing. Is that true?”
“Yes, your honor.” Christopher looked less hopeful.
“Given that this is a repeated offence, and given that you both are of an age to be considered men, I fear you’re all out of second chances. What’s more, the sheriff is done fighting with you, and so is the rest of the town. I have no choice boys, it’s time for you to face up to what you’ve done.”
The courtroom was silent save for people’s breathing and the creaking of chairs. Kayla couldn’t hear either over the sound of her own ragged breaths.
The judge wrote something on the paper in front of him then cleared his throat again. He looked up, meeting each of the boys’ gazes in turn. “Christopher and Noah Kennedy, I sentence you to one year in prison.”
The finality in the judge’s tone shook Kyla to her very core, and she gasped as a whisper spread through the crowd around her. She had feared this would happen. Despite that, she was shocked. Christopher could handle this; she knew he could. It would be hard, but he was strong enough to get through it. But Noah? Noah was meant for fresh air and open land, for animals and quiet voices. Noah wasn’t cut out for prison.
The boys rose to their feet, and the Marshal began to escort them from the room. Kyla pushed through the crowd and followed them out of the door. Rushing past the somber group, she turned and threw her arms around the boys.
“It’s ok. It’s going to be ok,” she whispered to them, wanting desperately for them to believe her, unsure if she was trying to convince them or herself. “A year is nothing. It’ll go by just like that.” Kyla tried to say this with certainty she did not feel.
“It’s not ok,” Noah said quietly, just like he did everything. “Nuthin’s ok. Nuthin’ is gonna be ok, and it ain’t gonna go by like that neither.”
“It is. It is, and you know why? Because it’s only one year. It’s not your whole life. And when you get out, I’m going to be standing right here waiting for you. I know you made a mistake, but I’ll be here waiting all the same.” She had so much more to say, so many more promises to make, but the Marshal grew impatient, and he pulled the two young men away. Noah looked at her desperately as he was dragged towards the door on the side of the hall, but Christopher simply walked away as if he’d given up already. Kyla felt as if a vice was gripping her chest; she couldn’t breathe properly.
Kyla watched them go, feeling a tear trickle down her cheek. She wiped it away. She was alone now; it was just her against the world. There were no guarantees that Christopher and Noah would be coming back. She straightened her shoulders and turned to leave. She had no time for tears anymore.
Prong Point Ranch
Aiden O’Connor loved his land. He’d studied it, every inch of it. He knew where each rock lay, and exactly how many trees there were. He knew what the grass smelled like in the back pastures and why the cattle seemed to prefer it to the front pastures. He knew that the wind always blew stronger in August and that the fish wouldn’t bite when it did. Yes, he loved this land, and he always would.
The ranch was located on the outskirts of Burrmont, smack dab in the middle of the North Central Plains of Texas. With higher rainfall than the Great Plains, the land was greener, friendlier. Instead of dusty, sere expanses of grassland, lush hills and old forests undulated across the landscape he called home.
Cresting the top of the hill, Aiden reined in his horse and looked down into the valley. Nestled against the hill, the homestead spread itself out from a small forest of oak trees. Beside the house were the fruit trees that his father had planted, and beside those lay the fields waiting to be tended. Beyond the fields lay the bunkhouse, and further away, beside the small lake, were the stables.
The sun glinted on the surface of the lake. That’s what made this land so magical. When others were struggling in the dry dearth of the drought, this valley remained green and plentiful. He sighed in relief. He had hated being away. He knew what he was doing when he was here, everything made sense. But when he was away, he felt like a fish out of water, and all he could think of was getting home again. Back to this place where he felt like he could breathe better.
He heard hoofbeats behind him and turned as his foreman rode up, followed by the other men. Malcolm was older than Aiden. With his strong, heavy build and his thick mustache, he cut a staid figure. But his appearance belied his true nature. There weren’t many foremen like him, ones who cared so much for land that wasn’t theirs, or who picked up the weight of tasks that were too much for others to bear.
His men came with the wagon, and Aiden could see the same relief on each of their faces. Everyone was happy to be home. Two months was a long time to be gone. But it had been worth it. With near a thousand longhorns delivered, Aiden’s ranch was well on its way to becoming all that he had ever dreamed of, all that he had known it could be.
“Everything still here?” Malcolm’s gravelly voice cut the silence.
“Seems to be.” Aiden smiled at him and then turned back to the valley. They had left the ranch with only a small contingent of men to run it while they were gone, as they’d needed all the help they could get mustering the steers. But judging by the view in front of them, those men had done a fine job keeping the ranch going.
“Well, I don’t know about yous, but I need somethin’ to eat. And all of us could do with a drink. Who’s with me, boys? I think we’ve earned ourselves a trip to the saloon in town tonight. We surely have some money to burn for once.” Malcolm smiled, and the cheer the men made in response had him chuckling.
The ‘boys’ were a group of rugged ranch hands who had been working for Aiden for years. His fairness and the way that he worked alongside them had won him their loyalty. To a man, they were tanned golden brown from the sun, and the daily hours of hard labor meant they were impressively strong.
“What about you, boss? Will you join us? You could do with some fun too.” Malcolm fixed him with a pointed stare, his moustache hiding the smirk Aiden knew was on his lips. His foreman knew what his answer would be.
Aiden forced a smile. In truth, he knew that he should go. His men had worked hard, and they deserved a night off. But he’d just got home, and he wasn’t prepared to leave again so soon.
These men were the sum of Aiden’s interaction with other people. After losing his father and brother in the Civil War four years ago, and later his mother to the fever, Aiden had couldn’t face the townsfolk. His sole focus was his land and making the ranch a success.
“No, you go on. I reckon I’ll take a look around. See what needs doing. I’ll turn in after that. We need to get going tomorrow, plan the breeding and start to think about the next cattle drive to Kansas.”
Malcolm’s smirk turned to an admonishing frown. “You need to give yourself some time off. Even if it’s just one day. It’s been two months, Aiden. And you’re only human. A man can only do so much.” He was watching Aiden, concern etched across his face.
Part of Aiden knew that Malcolm was right. But there was another part of him, a large one, that had died alongside his father and brother, and the only way he knew how to fill that space was by working.
“This man needs to do more.” Aiden had plans and dreams, and the only way they’d come to fruition was if he worked for them. Making a success of this ranch was all he’d ever wanted. It was everything he had promised his father and everything he had wanted to share with his brother. He wasn’t going to step back now, not when it was all finally coming together.
Later that evening, with a fire going in the hearth, Aiden sat in his favorite chair and watched the flames dance. What had once been a small cabin was now a larger home. Aiden had broken down the cabin and built in its place a gracious white house, with a wide porch wrapped around and tall white columns framing the front of it. Outside, he could hear the yells and whoops of the men as they left the bunkhouse on their way into town. He didn’t begrudge them this time, or the laughter that he heard. They’d worked hard, and the very least they deserved was a night without any cares in the world.
He couldn’t remember the last time he’d laughed. There had simply been too much to do. The odds had been stacked against him, and it had taken all that he had to persevere.
Getting to his feet, Aiden walked towards his mother’s room. The passage was carpeted in a thickly woven runner that his mother had spent hours working on, and he thought of her each time he set foot on it. The wood-paneled walls gleamed as he walked past them. When he had first built this home, his mother had struggled to become accustomed to its grandness and, in her own space, she had maintained the simplicity she was used to. Aiden stopped just inside her door. It was hard to believe that she was gone. The room looked perfect, as if she would walk back into it at any moment.
Against one wall was the beautiful antique wardrobe she had brought from Ireland. Beside it was the four-poster bed that faced the large window looking onto the front garden. Against the other wall was her dressing table. Aiden looked at the beautiful silver brush that lay on it. He could almost see her as she sat down at her table and picked it up. See her brushing her long hair as she spoke to him. He sighed deeply. It was time to let go. It was time to let go. Keeping her bedroom like this was like trying to keep a part of her alive, but all that remained was her ghost.
His mind traveled back to the last time they’d spoken—when her fever had reached its peak. She had clutched at his arm, desperately wanting to speak. He had tried to stop her, tried to calm her; he had wanted her to save her strength. But she’d known that no amount of strength could save her, and Aiden had given in when he’d realized he couldn’t calm her.
She’d stared at him with an intensity that belied her condition, her blue eyes focused on him and her voice low and tired. “He loved you.”
“Who loved me, Ma?” Aiden watched, agonized, as her chest rose and fell with such effort.
“Your father. He loved you.” She was gasping for air, her voice hoarse.
“I know he did, Ma.” That wasn’t true. Aiden had never been sure. All he had known was that Garner had been the golden boy. His father’s eyes would light up when Garner entered the room in a way they never did for him. He had learned to live with it, though, made his peace with it, and he wasn’t sure why his mother was bringing this up now. She lay in the enormous bed, dwarfed by the size of it, and she appeared a shrunken shadow of her former self.
“He did, son. I know you think he didn’t. I know he was hard on you. But he was hard on you because he knew you could take it. Because he knew you were going to be somebody. He thought the world of you.” She breathed deeply, sucking in the air as if speaking was the hardest thing in the world. Her once golden hair was grey, and her blue eyes were dull and reddened. “And he trusted you. He trusted you with all of it. With this land, with your dreams, with me…” She trailed off then, a wistful look in her eyes. “He wanted what I want for you. This. This place. And a life. A full one. I want you to live, Aiden. Not this half-life. Not just work and cattle. I want you to feel and to experience, I want you to marry. I want you to know what love is.” She paused long enough for him to interject.
“I know what love is, Ma. I love you.” If he was honest, she was the only person in the world who he loved. There was no one else, not since his father and his twin brother had died.
“I know you love me. I’m not talking about me. I’m talking about the love a man has for his wife. And the love a father has for his child. Promise me Aiden. Promise me that you will let someone into that big heart of yours.”
Her speech had taken it out of her, and her breathing had worsened. He squeezed her hand harder and told her all that she wanted to hear, praying for the Lord’s forgiveness as he spoke words that could never be true. He promised her he would find love. He promised her he would share this life with another, that he would build a family. And as he made his false promises, he watched her beginning to calm. By the time he had finished, she had closed her eyes to sleep, a sleep from which she never woke. His mother had died that night.
The sound of the last farmhands leaving shook Aiden from his reverie. He sighed. Straightening his shoulders, Aiden fetched an old newspaper and started to wrap his mother’s ornaments carefully. This he could do. He’d start small.
As he folded and wrapped, his eyes landed on an advertisement in the old paper. , it said.
Mail order brides? What kind of man did that?
But then he stopped. The kind of man who never went to town. Who sat alone each night staring at the fire? Stopping, he reached down and tore the advertisement off the page.
He would keep one part of his promise to his mother. Just one part.
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