She believes that she is fated to endure a life without affection. He is convinced that he is destined for a life of loneliness. Can two people who have never been touched by love find solace in each other’s arms?
“Ready or not, she loved him anyway.”
Bessie always felt like a pariah in her stepfamily. After her uncle’s accident, her aunt arranges for her to become a mail-order bride without her knowing. With no choice left, Bessie finds herself on the doorstep of a mysterious rancher, who doesn’t seem very happy to see her. Will she manage to trust a man she doesn’t know when her shattered heart never learned how to love?
With the trauma of the War following him wherever he goes, James has isolated himself. Believing that his invisible scars have turned him into a monster, he is only looking for a marriage of convenience. But how can he resist falling in love when this dark-haired beauty is like a balm to his wounded heart?
What began as a marriage of convenience sizzled into something deeper and unexpected. But when James’ nightmares come to life, will they find the courage to accept their true feelings, or will they allow everything they have built together to go up in flames?
1869, Dodge City, Kansas
Loud clanging and banging punctuated the whirring sounds of the machines inside the Dodge City Cotton Mill. Dubbed ‘Dodgy Cotton’ by the workers, the Dodge City Cotton Mill was an enormous factory on the outskirts of the city. The overpowering noise was second only to the smell. The tiny windows, situated high on each wall, did little to ventilate the cavernous space, and the combination of dust, steam, and the smell of sweat filled the air.
Bessie Clanton wrinkled her nose and sighed deeply. She’d grown accustomed to the long hours at the cotton mill, but she doubted she’d ever get used to the smell. She straightened up and stretched her back as she rubbed her aching neck. Her straight brown hair was wrapped up under a cap, and her slim figure was hidden beneath the old brown dress she wore.
To her left, old Mabel stood sorting cotton and placing it carefully in the container beside the enormous spinning machine. Her gray hair was covered just as Bessie’s was, but her dress was even rattier, with large holes around the bottom that her aging hands could no longer fix. Mabel’s face was a crisscross of wrinkles that marked the years she’d been working there.
To her right was a little girl gathering up the cotton fluff which accumulated under the machinery. Known as a ‘scavenger’, she was one of many children who were employed simply because they were smaller.
Bessie struggled to watch her move in and around the enormous machinery, as she knew too well the danger involved, but she’d long since given up trying to warn the little girl. Maggie moved with swift certainty and Bessie had to believe it would be enough.
Just then, there was a loud scream, followed by a clanking sound. Shouts rang out and a bell was rung. Bessie listened as the machines in the back left corner were brought to a grinding halt.
“Someone got hurt,” said old Mabel in a matter-of-fact tone, continuing to sort cotton. There was no use stopping work, and they both knew it. To stop work would be to incur the wrath of the foreman, and his wrath usually took the form of docked pay, which neither Mabel nor Bessie could afford. They listened as the shouting continued, and Bessie heard the cries of a woman in pain. They were terrible, and Bessie knew this wasn’t some simple scrape or cut.
Mabel coughed violently into her hand, and Bessie turned to look at the older woman.
“That cough is getting worse,” she remarked, and Mabel nodded thoughtfully.
“It won’t be getting better as long as I’m in here,” she said, shrugging her shoulders.
“Some fresh air might help,” muttered Bessie, as she glanced up at the small windows above her. “Fresh air and a short break.”
“A break?” laughed Mabel, though her laughter turned to a coughing spasm that had Bessie pausing to pat her on the back. “There’s little chance of the foreman allowing that!”
Bessie sighed. Mabel was right. Six days a week, the foreman controlled their lives, and he took that control rather seriously. He spent most of the day either walking between the machines, hurrying the women along, or in his office high up on the first floor. There, he could be found sitting at his desk in the corner with his feet up, while the women beneath him slogged away beside the ever-moving machinery.
Mabel began to cough again as if she’d been holding it in, and Bessie listened as she hacked and spluttered while she worked. Her own chest wasn’t doing too well, and she winced as a sharp pain burned through her. She looked back up at the windows. This place would be the death of her, unless she got removed from an injury—like what had just happened to that other woman.
“You won’t be here forever,” said Mabel quietly from beside her, as if the old woman had been reading her mind.
“Where else would I go?” asked Bessie, and she knew that Mabel would have no answer for her. It was this or starve, and they both knew it. Bessie wondered what her aunt would say if she went home and told her she’d been fired. She knew the answer to that.
Aunt May would be furious. Bessie was nineteen—by rights, she should have been in school when she started here—but their financial position meant she had to work instead. Ever since she’d joined their home, the family had struggled, and since Bessie was the oldest, she’d been sent out to work.
Her four younger cousins sat at home or attended school sporadically and Aunt May tended to Uncle Ronald while sewing on the side. But it was never enough. Bessie’s meager income did little to lighten the load, and she was waiting what felt like a lifetime for Uncle Ronald to heal enough to work full hours again. He did occasional work at the mines, but he was so often sick or injured, it was difficult to rely on him.
One thing Bessie was certain of: Aunt May rued the day she’d had to adopt Bessie. Her father had died when she was a baby, and Bessie’s own dear mother had died when she was just five years old. Amid her grief and sadness, she’d been packed up and moved into Aunt May’s house.
She’d known from the very beginning that Aunt May hadn’t wanted her there, and she’d felt that burden ever since. At least earning money gave her more purpose.
“She lost a finger,” whispered a voice from behind Bessie and Mabel, and Bessie turned to see who it was. A woman was half crouched on the floor beside a box piled high with bobbins, and Bessie watched as she handled them, pretending to repack the box while she spoke. Her face was smudged with dirt and her nails were filthy, but Bessie could see that underneath the dirt and grime, she was beautiful.
“The woman who was hurt. She’s lost a finger,” the lady continued, and Bessie heard Maggie’s sharp intake of breath beside her. “She’s been working extra hours every day, and she was too tired to lift her hand in time.” Bessie took a deep breath and felt a wave of quiet anger fill her.
“This isn’t right,” she hissed through her gritted teeth, as she continued to work, though her movements were jerky and angry. She felt a touch on her arm, and she glanced down to see old Mabel had reached out to place a mottled hand on her.
“Hush now. It won’t do you any good if the foreman hears you,” she cautioned. “And there’s a line outside of people who will work without complaining. At least, that’s what he’ll say when he hears you.”
“When who hears you?” said a harsh voice, and Bessie looked up into the red face of the foreman.
“Nothing,” said Bessie quickly. “Sorry, sir.” She hastily turned to face the machine and pick up the pace, focusing only on the cotton in front of her and the whirring machine.
“And you,” said the foreman, as he turned his attention on Mabel. “You’re getting too old to do this job; I think we need to look at replacing you.”
“Oh no, sir,” protested Mabel. “I love this job, and I’m a hard worker.”
“You weren’t working so hard just now,” the man noted, and without waiting to hear Mabel’s response, he strode away to moan at someone else.
The sound signaled their short lunch break, and without needing to be told twice, both Mabel and Bessie stopped what they were doing and walked toward the door at the end of the mill’s floor, followed closely by the little girl Maggie. The exterior, while plain, was well maintained, but inside, no such efforts had been made.
The machinery was kept in good working order, but the windows were filmy with dirt, and the floor was strewn with ruined cotton. To take time cleaning it would be to lose time on production, and so, the workers worked amongst the grime as if it were normal.
“Why don’t I get our lunch and I’ll meet you outside?” suggested Bessie, and Mabel nodded tiredly. Bessie moved swiftly through the door and down the passage to where their locker holes were. She retrieved her lunch pail before looking around for Mabel’s and picking it up, too. Moments later, she was back outside and sitting beside Mabel with their backs against the wall, surrounded by the familiar faces of the other women.
“Did you hear?” asked a stout woman in front of them. “About the injury?” Bessie and Mabel both nodded as they chewed on their bread.
“And what about me?” asked another woman, which caused Bessie to sit up straight with a start.
“Eve? Did you get hurt too?” she asked quickly.
“Oh no,” replied the young woman quickly, shaking her head so that her chestnut curls bounced.
“Did you hear I’m getting married?” said Eve, a smile stretching across her face.
“Congratulations, Eve,” said Mabel, and she waved toward the smiling young woman.
“Congratulations,” echoed Bessie, though as she said it, her insides tightened. For a moment, she felt a flash of jealousy, but she squashed the feeling down. She’d always dreamed of having her own home but spending her days in the factory and her nights cleaning her aunt’s house had gotten rid of any romantic notions she might have had.
“I’m marrying the baker’s son,” continued Eve. “Aren’t I lucky?”
Bessie nodded her agreement. Indeed, she was. The baker’s son worked for his father and would take over the already thriving business one day. Eve would become a wife, and probably soon a mother, and her days of spinning cotton would be over. No wonder she was smiling, thought Bessie, as she sighed into her lunch.
She looked around her at the women sitting in various stages of repose. A few dosed against the wall, while others sat in circles, talking as they ate. Many of them were like Bessie, struggling to support themselves without a man to look after them. Others had husbands who worked as well, but they had too many children to feed and needed to work.
And then there were a few older women, like Mabel. Women who had no family to tend to them in their advancing years. For a moment, Bessie imagined that was what she would become. She’d be an older woman who spent six days a week working her fingers to the bone at Dodgy Cotton, wasting away the best years of her life.
“You’ll find someone,” said Mabel. Bessie looked searchingly into the older woman’s face, shaking her head slightly.
“You always seem to know what I’m thinking,” she told Mabel, and Mabel gave her a tired smile.
“You’re thinking all the things I used to think,” she told Bessie, and for a moment, a flash of pain crossed her face.
“But your life is going to turn out better than mine,” Mabel said quickly. “Much better— you’ll see.” She patted Bessie on the arm before turning her focus back to her lunch. Bessie thought about what she’d said and then looked around her at the yard they were all sitting in.
Shortly, they would go back inside and work for another six hours until they were so tired, they could barely lift their arms. And then, they would all go home. Aunt May would be there, with Bessie’s four cousins and Uncle Ronald, and Bessie would be expected to clean the kitchen despite the long hours she’d just put in. Tomorrow, she would wake again and repeat the process.
She turned to smile at Mabel. She wasn’t going to say it, but Mabel was wrong. Bessie wasn’t going to end up better, and she certainly wasn’t going to end up like Eve. She was alone, in all the ways that mattered, and that wasn’t going to change.
1869, Rock Falls, Wyoming
Smoke filled his nostrils and James choked back a cough as he crouched low behind the fence of a run-down farm. In the distance came the boom of a cannon, and over to his right, James heard the cries of pain that came from the wounded men in his regiment.
He looked down at the man that lay before him, watching as the blood oozed from the wound in his chest. The man was reaching up for him and James pressed a shaking hand to the wound, applying pressure, even though he knew it was in vain. The man wasn’t going to make it.
“I’m here,” James whispered, though he could see that the man was past caring. James watched as the man’s face paled to a waxen color and he silently breathed his last breath. There was no fanfare and no other witnesses to this poor man’s end. Bowing his head, James said a quiet prayer under his breath and gave the man one last look before moving along the fence in search of survivors.
Suddenly, gunfire exploded around him, and James found himself caught in a hail of bullets. Crouching low, he reached for his gun, and leaned back against the fence, hoping for reinforcements. The swish and boom of the cannon sounded closer than before, and the yells of angry and dying men filled his ears.
The thudding of hooves grew louder, and James knew that there were precious few men left to defend their position. He closed his eyes, tightened his hand around the butt of his gun, and readied himself to stand.
And then, everything went quiet. The shadowed fog slowly lifted from around his head. James shifted, opening his eyes, and found that he was lying in bed—tangled in his sheets and drenched with sweat. He reached a trembling hand to his forehead and wiped his curls away from his dark eyes, struggling to catch his breath as flashes of a too-real nightmare filled his mind.
He rubbed his hand over his beard, feeling the tension in his jaw where he must have been grinding his teeth.
James had lost count of the number of times the nightmares had invaded his sleep. Each time he found himself back in the darkness with the banging of cannons and guns, and the anguished sounds of pain from men he could not save, he would wake soaked in sweat and shaking. Each time, the smell of blood and the swift rush of fear were present, and each time, his only company was death.
He slowly felt his breathing return to normal as he focused on the sound of the night outside. In the distance, one of the cattle lowed, and he thought he could hear the yip of a coyote. He lay still for a moment, trying to listen out for movement from the rest of the house. Had he woken his father?
“I’m okay,” he told himself, as if saying it out loud would make it so. But there was no answering voice in the night, and so, his hollow words did nothing but remind him how alone he truly was.
He lay there for a little while longer, stretching out his legs, until the inactivity combined with his racing mind became too much, and he sat up. There was precious little one could accomplish at night, but he would certainly find something to do. Something better than lying in bed and thinking about the Civil War. His years in the war were made up of the worst moments in his life and lying here rehashing them did little more than traumatize him all over again.
Pushing back the tangled sheets, James got to his feet and stretched slowly. Rolling his head from side to side, he felt the stiffness in his neck. He reached up to knead the sore muscles—a symptom of his ever-present tension. James moved across to the dresser and stared at himself in the mirror.
He saw a tired man, a man that looked older than his twenty-nine years. His neatly trimmed beard hid the scar on his jawline he’d incurred during the war, and his dark eyes looked brooding, rather than inviting. If only he could lay the ghosts that haunted him to rest. But that wouldn’t be happening tonight, and so, he turned and reached for the door handle, setting his mind on a cool drink of water.
His father had paid great attention to detail in the ranch house, and each door was carved carefully with flourishes and patterns. The finishes of the wood paneling on the walls were done just as carefully, and even in the dim darkness, James could make out the gleam of the carved scrolls.
Halfway down the passage, hand still on his neck, James was brought to a halt by the sudden knocking on the front door. No, it was more like banging. He paused, surprised, but as the banging persisted, he moved swiftly toward the front door.
He wrenched it open with such force that Billy Baxter nearly fell straight in, his hand raised as if intent upon another round of knocking.
“There better be a good reason for this,” growled James, as Billy straightened himself up. Tall and gangly, Billy was all arms and legs, but he had a cheerful face that made him look five years younger than his twenty-one years.
“Evening, Sheriff,” said Billy, tipping his rather crooked hat in James’s direction. “Edward sent me.” James waited, but Billy offered no other explanation.
“Edward sent you to knock on my door?” he asked the young man. “In the middle of the night—for no reason?”
“Oh no, Sheriff. There’s a reason. And it’s a good one,” clarified Billy. “Edward said you best be getting there before the saloon is busted up even worse!” Billy said this so emphatically, that it shook the last remnants of James’s nightmare from his body.
He nodded at the young man, and turning, ran for his room and his clothes. Within minutes, he was dressed and running for the door, closing it behind him with a thud. He’d been the Sheriff for years, but each time someone banged on his door in the middle of the night, he felt the same sense of pressure. Whether it was for fires, fights, or robberies, James responded the same way.
Billy was standing beside his horse at the foot of the garden path, holding up the reins to him, and without a word, James took them and mounted up.
“Follow on one of my horses,” he yelled to Billy, as he turned the borrowed horse around and kicked it hard. The animal took off, as if sensing the urgency, and James raced along the dirt road toward the gates of his ranch. The property had been bought and built up by his father years ago, but when he’d become too old to work it, he’d passed it on to James. Now, as the full-time Sheriff and a rancher, James felt as if he were stretched out across both roles.
Gone was the cloudy fog of the recent nightmare. James was filled with a sense of urgency that came whenever the townsfolk were in danger. His job was more than simple work to him. He took his role as Sheriff seriously, which meant he was first and foremost the law, turning the protection of the townsfolk into his calling. Sometimes, in the dark of night, after the nightmares had gone, James wondered if his never-ending drive to keep everyone safe was for all the men he couldn’t save during the war.
He thundered along the main road toward the town, once again grateful that the land his father had chosen was only a short ride away from the growing town. Billy’s horse flew across the ground with enormous strides. He flew past scrubland dotted with cacti and sagebrush, and on the distant horizon, he could make out the dark shadows of hills as they rose into the sky.
Moments later, he passed the first houses on the outskirts of town, their curtains drawn against the dark night. James imagined the inhabitants slept soundly, unaware of the drama taking place at the saloon. Into the main street, he galloped, and minutes later, he pulled up the exhausted horse, its sides heaving, before tossing its reins loosely over the hitching post. He ran up the steps and through the door of the Lazy Dog Saloon. It had taken him only fifteen minutes to make the journey.
The sight that greeted him was not unfamiliar, but it was worse than he had expected. Chairs lay scattered across the wooden floor, with more than one in pieces, and James imagined those had been broken over someone’s head or across their back. The small tables that usually held drinks lay on their sides, although the one James had to step over to get inside could no longer be described as a table.
Edward Gardener, the owner of the saloon, sat in the corner with his back against the wall, cradling his head in his hands. When James took a few more steps toward him, he could see blood seeping out through Edward’s fingers, and he surmised his guess about the broken chairs wasn’t far from the truth.
“Edward?” he asked, kneeling beside the bleeding man. Edward lifted his head and looked up at James with a pained expression on his face.
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