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A Brave Soldier Arriving at her Ranch

He knew the bittersweet of recalling happy memories of a lost loved one too well. She promises to do everything to save her ranch. Can their love be each other’s salvation and a ticket to a new life?

“The truth was that he loved her and everything that came with her.”

After her brother enlists in the Civil War, all that Ethel desires is to make him proud by taking care of their ranch. But after the end of the War, instead of her brother, a mysterious stranger appears at her doorstep throwing her whole life into disarray. How can this infuriating man whose accidental touches fill her stomach with butterflies be the one her brother sent to look after her?

Before his one and only friend succumb to his wounds, Carl makes him a promise that he will take care of his little sister. But instead of a little girl, he is faced with a beautiful, stubborn woman. When her uncle threatens to take the ranch after John’s death, Carl does anything to defend her. Even suggest a marriage of convenience. How can he focus on saving her ranch from ruin when her words and electrifying touches challenge him at every turn?

Allied by their love for John, Ethel and Carl have to work together to defeat a common enemy and persuade everyone that their love is real. But somewhere between faking their love for each other, the real feelings come out of the embers to complicate things between them. When everything around them is falling apart, will they find a way to protect each other and let their love shine?

Written by:

Western Historical Romance Author

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Prologue

Praisbe, Texas, 1861

“Are you sure you have to go?” Ethel McLeod asked her brother, John, as he placed his bag on the dusty floor of the one-story ranch home that they shared. Ethel stared after his tall form as he began grabbing his coat from the hanger by the door and tugging it on.

Turning to Ethel, he spoke, “You know I do, Eth. You’ll be all right, you’re sixteen and you practically run the house already. I need you to take care of the ranch while I’m gone. You reckon ya can do that for me?” John knelt before her like he had since she was able to stand. She was far too big for such treatment, but it twisted her heart all the same.

He had recently cut his dark hair and shaved off his beard to look presentable for his recruitment into the army, and Ethel hardly recognized him without the facial hair outlining his kind face. She had always loved that they had the same dark hair and dark eyes, but she had grown jealous that he hadn’t needed the large glasses that rested heavily on her nose.

Ethel fought the tears in her eyes, but she wanted to show him she was as strong and capable as he thought she was. She nodded and wrapped her arms around his neck in a fierce hug. For years it had been just the two of them, their maid Victoria, a hired hand and friend Matthew, and their Uncle Howard, who lived at the edge of the land. She couldn’t imagine the day-to-day without John’s kind words and constant input.

“I’ll be back before you know it, Eth. I promise,” he whispered the words into her ear.

When she pulled back, she startled at the sound of tapping coming from the front door. Turning to look, she spotted her uncle Howard leaning against the wooden door frame. Howard, her late father’s brother, had come to live with them six years ago, after her mother had passed away from the fever. An experience that had broken Ethel, as she had to slowly watch her lose her life in the bed she had shared with their father. Her father, Jacob, had lost the vibrancy and energy for life he had always had in the months following her mother’s death. It was the motivation for John’s inviting his Uncle Howard up to the ranch, but it hadn’t helped. Instead, it had exacerbated her father’s loneliness and likely attributed to the accidental fall from a horse that had led to an infection in his leg, and his untimely death.

Howard was shorter than her brother, and his long gray hair was in a constant state of disarray. He always had a smug look on his face and mischievous eyes that had always unnerved her. He had never acted like family. Instead, he acted more like a casual acquaintance, never seeming to care too much about the ranch or helping out during the seasons. To make matters worse, he was different with her brother than he was when he was around Ethel or Victoria. He was more disrespectful and demanding when he was around the women, and Ethel did her best to keep her distance.

“I see you’re headin’ out, son,” Howard said to John, who gave Ethel one last pat on the arm and stood.

“Yessir. You have a minute to talk before I leave? Ethel, why don’t you get me some food for the road, will you?” John said as he turned toward the open door where Howard stood.

Ethel nodded and began rummaging through the small kitchen to gather bread and fruit for John’s journey. The two men had stepped out onto the porch, but Ethel could hear some of their conversation through the cracked sitting room window and allowed herself to eavesdrop.

Ethel could see John from her viewpoint as he braced his arms on the porch railing and let out a sigh before turning toward Howard. “I need you to take care of Ethel while I’m away, Uncle Howard. She doesn’t have any other family, and I’d feel better if I knew you were looking out for her and keeping an eye on her. You can stay at the outer house as long as you like, just take care of her.” His voice was one of urgency—emphasizing that his sister’s wellbeing was the most important thing in his life. It warmed her heart.

Ethel couldn’t see Howard from her vantage point, but she could hear his voice. “Oh of course I will, son. I’ve always thought of you two as my own kin; I’ll take good care of her and the ranch. Don’t you worry,” he replied with a chuckle that didn’t sound genuine, and that concerned her.

She didn’t really want to be left alone with Howard, but she didn’t want to burden her brother or sound ungrateful by telling him mere moments before he was due to leave. Ethel’s distrust of Howard had begun from the day he had entered their home. At a time when he should have been helping his brother grieve and mourn the loss of his wife, Howard was drinking the whiskey from the cabinets and disappearing into town for nights on end. Luckily, her father had built a small sleeper cabin at the outer edge of the property where Howard spent most of his time.

But during mealtime and the times that he had been around Ethel or Victoria on their own, he was more commanding than he was with the men. Many times, Howard would force Victoria to stop her chores to make him a drink or an early meal when he had plans in town that prevented him from joining the family at their typical dinner time. Ethel was too young to step in at the time, but she constantly expressed her concerns to her brother.

He addressed them periodically by reminding Howard of his place, but it didn’t last long before he resumed his dictatorship once John was out of earshot. It took all her willpower to accept Howard as he was and not chase him out the door with a broom—he was still family, after all. Ethel knew she would endure whatever she had to until John returned home but found herself dreading the time she would inevitably have to spend with her uncle.

“I trust you, Uncle,” John said, “as my father did.” Ethel found her brother’s words strange given that Howard’s inability to help his brother in his time of need had likely led to his death. It was something she had blamed Howard for, but John was too forgiving to hold a grudge against the man. John firmly believed in the familial bond above all else and overlooked many of Howard’s behaviors, believing that he was still a part of their family. Something Ethel was attempting herself, hard as it may be.

John moved out of view from the window and the sound of his boots returned to the front door and into the house. Ethel scurried back to the kitchen, where she quickly wrapped the food she had pulled out for John. He arranged his belt and hat and placed his bag on his shoulder before glancing at the glass pane by the door. He nodded at himself once and took the bundle of food Ethel was holding out to him.

Ethel couldn’t help but think it would be the last time in a while that she would bring him food. She thought back to the afternoons that she had brought him a canteen of water and hunk of bread or cheese after a long cattle drive. Although he would never complain, she would notice how ravenous he was at the late evening meals and had taken it upon herself to check in on him most afternoons. Her stomach flipped at the thought, wondering when he’d be able to eat in the middle of a war.

“Thanks, Eth. Promise to write?”

“Of course,” she replied, unable to keep the pain out of her voice and the worry off her face. She knew he was an honorable man and would always do what was asked of him, and she was proud of him for it. But she couldn’t fight the feelings of wanting him to stay.

John smiled. “All right then, I’ll let you know where to send them when I get settled at the camp.” He eyed her worried face and leaned down to kiss her forehead and whisper quietly in her ear, “I’m sorry I have to leave you with Uncle Howard; I know he can be a lot to handle but he’s family and he’ll make sure you’re protected.” She wasn’t convinced that he wasn’t what she’d need protecting from, but she forced a smile in reply as he pulled back to look her in the eye.

With one more hug, she was following him out the door and onto the porch. She cupped her left hand over her eyes to block the bright sun, and waved goodbye with her other hand as he walked down the dirt patch that reached toward the main horse path. He turned back one final time and waved when he reached the metal awning that had rusted under years of weather, reading “McLeod Ranch”. Returning the wave, Ethel allowed a few tears to fall down her cheeks.

Ethel felt the loss of her brother physically as he walked out of view. They had grown closer in the years following their parents’ deaths and he had become her best friend and confidante. She didn’t know much about war; all she knew was that he had received a letter telling him he had to go and there was no arguing with it. He had been nervous, and she hadn’t wanted to ruin anything by making him worry about her more than he already would.

“Guess it’s just you and me now,” Howard said with a sly smile, walking into the house from the porch where he had been lingering and sitting down at the kitchen table. “And that little maid wherever she got off to.” Ethel’s back stiffened at his blatant disrespect of Victoria and her position in their household. Howard knew that Victoria was more than a maid; in fact, she had been a part of their household longer than he had.

“Her name’s Victoria, and she’s out back with Matthew. And I can take care of myself,” she replied with irritation in her voice. Victoria and Matthew were the only current employees of McLeod Ranch and two trusted friends of the family. Victoria helped around the house as a maid and housekeeper, but more importantly, she was Ethel’s closest friend. The curvy, round-cheeked woman was thirteen years older than her but had always treated her as a sister and friend. She had come to work for the McLeod’s when Ethel’s mother had gotten sick and had never left.

Matthew was the only other person besides Victoria and her brother that Ethel could trust. Ironically, the twenty-two-year-old blond man had stolen a coin bag from her father’s pocket at the town market ten years ago. Instead of sending him to jail, Jacob had offered the boy a chance to work off his debt on the family ranch. Matthew had paid off his debt and turned into the most loyal of employees, never leaving even after her father’s passing.

“I don’t know about that, sweetheart; seems to me like your brother left me in charge. You need a man around,” he said in an authoritative tone that always showed up the minute John was out of sight. Before Ethel could argue, Victoria stepped onto the porch and through the open door. Not noticing Howard at first, Victoria began to speak.

“Oh no, John left already? How are you doin’? You okay?” Victoria asked.

“Yea, I’m all right. Uncle Howard stopped in to say his goodbyes.” Ethel’s eyes shifted toward the man at the table and Victoria took notice, her eyes squinting in response.

“Oh, hello, sir,” Victoria said with a bland smile.

“Hello there, Vic..tor..ia! I’m starving, girl; you got anything to eat in that pantry?” Ethel couldn’t help but feel nauseous at Howard’s disgusting display of his newfound authority.

She knew that John had asked Howard to watch out for them because he was the only McLeod man left on the property, and it was the obvious choice. But she also knew that Howard wouldn’t protect them from anything; in fact, she felt a bit like they might need protecting from him. But she didn’t give that thought any real estate in her head. She couldn’t afford to—her brother had left her little choice.

“I’m sure you have food at your cabin,” Ethel said in irritation.

“Yeah, but what’s yours is mine and what’s mine is yours. John left it to me,” Howard replied, convincing himself that sentiment was true, even though Ethel had heard the conversation and knew that it was a hefty stretch of words. Ethel wasn’t entirely surprised by Howard’s audacity, having witnessed his arrogance on more than one occasion. But a piece of her wondered at his boldness to not even feign respect and love toward her, knowing that John had asked him to take care of her.

“No, he left you to make sure we’re safe. I’m sixteen and more than capable of taking care of everything with Victoria and Matthew.” Ethel grew more and more disgusted by his immediate disregard of his promises to John. A man promising to take care of his niece wouldn’t immediately make such demands.

Howard ignored her comment and directed his focus toward Victoria. “Victoria, come on, bring me something to eat, girl!”

Victoria didn’t say anything, just looked back and forth between the two. The girls remained silent for a moment until he gave up and stormed out with the final words, “Don’t get used to it, girls; I’ll be taking control of this ranch while John’s away! I’m expecting the same treatment he was getting before he left. Meals on the table at sunset and such!”

In the silence after he slammed the door shut, Victoria spoke, “Well, his ego just grew three sizes in the matter of an afternoon.”

“I know; I have a bad feeling about this. Especially now that he’s the only McLeod man on the ranch. John asked him to ‘take care of me and the ranch’ and I think he might be under the impression that means something other than what it really does.” Ethel stared after the door, overwhelmed by feelings of losing the presence of her brother and gaining the responsibility of the ranch—all while having to handle her uncle.

She wondered how long she would be without her brother, and if she could even make it a month under her uncle’s thumb.

Chapter One

Praisbe, Texas, 1865

“Ethel, you’re gonna want to get out here!” Matthew’s voice could be heard from inside the house where Ethel and Victoria were preparing lunch. The concern in Matthew’s voice sent Ethel bounding through the door. She stopped short when she saw the three horses and carriage coming down the path toward the ranch. It had been four years since John had left for war, and she could count on one hand the number of times an actual carriage had pulled in front of their ranch in those years.

Her heart sank at the sight. The side of the carriage read MacPherson Financials.

“Robert MacPherson,” Matthew said aloud.

The Praisbe native had been a longtime friend and colleague of Howard’s and was notoriously known around town as an investor with his hands in many business dealings. Howard had taken upside jobs for MacPherson to fuel his love of whiskey and tobacco in the last few years.

It had become obvious, based on Howard’s comments in the past weeks, that he had mentioned the McLeod Ranch’s struggles to MacPherson and that his presence was inevitable. Ethel was surprised that it had taken so long for him to make a visit.

Despite Ethel’s attempts, the ranch had begun to flounder. The war had slowed the availability of some resources they needed to keep the cow herd healthy, and it had raised the prices of food and seeds. Additionally, when they would normally have three or four ranch hands interested in working, in return for food and housing, most of them had been conscripted into the war and no one was available to work. In fact, Victoria had taken to helping with more than just household chores. Ethel had done the best she could to maintain Matthew and Victoria’s pay, but ultimately, she had had to cut it thirty percent. Neither had expressed any ill-feelings toward the change, knowing that they wouldn’t find a better place of employment in town. Ethel was appreciative of how hard the two had worked, but she had found herself utterly disgusted at Howard’s lack of interest.

He spent most of his days in his cabin drinking, though he tried to convince Ethel he was sober when he would come barging into the house or the barn at random times of the day. He would spend hours just watching the three of them work, only offering critiques instead of help. He had taken to going out gambling through one of the houses hosted by the MacPherson Financial Group. Though where he got the money, she had no idea.

As the only other male McLeod family member present on the ranch, Howard would be expected to be the responsible party. But everyone in town knew that, even at twenty years old, Ethel was running the McLeod Ranch. It was she who attended the auctions and spoke up on the details about cattle weight and health—things that Howard could never answer or understand on her own. Ethel kept the books, like John had taught her, and hid most of their money in the same hiding places John had showed her—in case Howard got any ideas to take it as his own.

As the MacPherson carriage came closer into view, Ethel’s heart raced, beads of sweat building across her brow. Victoria came up behind her on the porch, wiping her hands on her apron.

“Oh no,” she let out a sigh before turning back inside. Ethel knew she’d be boiling a kettle for tea. Despite their dislike for MacPherson, they still had to be good hosts.

The carriage pulled into the center of the dirt patch in front of the house. The man driving the horses hopped down from his seat and opened the door to the back of the carriage. Moments later, a man in a black hat, black coat, and pants stepped out and into the dirt. He was wearing black cowboy boots under his pants, which immediately became covered in dust.

He walked around the horses and came into full view of the ranch. Robert MacPherson was thirty-nine years old and covered in the finest suits and fabrics that could be found in Praisbe. His graying hair peaked out at the edges of his hat, showing that despite his wealth, he couldn’t outrun the aging process.

“Ah, Miss. McLeod! How are you this fine afternoon?”

To Ethel, any afternoon with a MacPherson was not going to be fine, but she kept her thoughts to herself and smiled firmly at the man. “Mr. MacPherson, what a surprise.”

“Surely it isn’t a surprise, my dear. I know your uncle has been preparing you to sell me the ranch.” He casually walked up the steps to her porch as though he’d done it a hundred times before. Ethel set her jaw in irritation for the man that had assumed she was weak enough to give away her brother’s property on the spot.

“Ah yes, he did tell me, but silly me, always forgetting. Please, why don’t you come inside?” She wondered if he was able to detect her sarcasm.

He was already halfway through the door by the time the words fell from her mouth. She exchanged a glance with Matthew, who was leaning against a post, observing the carriage man.

“Matthew, water the horses, please,” Ethel said to him. Reluctantly, he pushed off the post and headed to the well. The well sat off to the right of the house next to the large barn. To the left of the house was a small shed that had been originally used for storage but had since been transformed into two small rooms for Victoria and Matthew. Behind the ranch laid the acres of land and stables that sheltered the animals. Her heart twisted. Staring at it all now made Ethel even more adverse to the idea of selling.

Ethel turned inside and shut the door behind her, annoyed to find MacPherson already sitting at the table and a steaming mug of tea in front of him. The man seemed so out of place sitting there in her home, she wondered if he would have come if John had been there. But she knew that John wasn’t coming to save her in this moment, and that she would have to be the one to stand up to MacPherson and deal with whatever he asked of her.

“Sugar please, darlin’, if you have it,” he spoke to Victoria, who quickly responded with the jar of sugar cubes. “Excellent.” Ethel stood silent, waiting for him to speak. “So, Ethel, are you ready to sell me this humble home?”

Ethel blinked slowly. “Mr. MacPherson, it seems like a long ride out of town for me to tell you no… but no. I won’t sell! This ranch has been in my family since they settled in Texas; there’s no way we’re getting rid of it. Besides, my brother owns it and he left me in charge of it while he’s away.”

Victoria had settled herself in the rocking chair in the front-most corner of the large sitting room that was connected to the dining area. Ethel took comfort in knowing that the woman was close enough to hear their conversation, but not close enough for MacPherson to even register her existence, knowing that he was the type of man to ignore the help after they had served their purpose.

“You say ‘away’ as though he’s off on travels. He’s at war, darlin’; he could be there for more years yet. Do you really want to have to work every second of every day for your entire future? Instead, you should be finding a husband and having babies!”

She scoffed at him, but it got her thinking. She considered that it would be in her benefit if he didn’t need to know that John’s letters had gone silent in the past months, so she made up a small lie, “He writes to me constantly, sayin’ he can’t wait to be back on the ranch. I’m sure he’ll be home soon. I’m not going to get rid of it even before he gets home. He trusted me and Uncle Howard to keep it running, and I’m gonna keep that promise,” she spoke with a raised voice and a demanding tone.

“Your uncle is keeping his promise in other ways. If you sell the property, you and John will have more money than you know what to do with and none of the pain of running a ranch. That’s a better gift than many could ever hope for!”

“Not for the McLeods.” Her words did not waver and meant to leave no room for compromise. Ethel firmly believed that when the war ended, the ranch would go back to being as successful as it had been when her father ran it—

which meant she wouldn’t get rid of it if the war was bound to end any day.      One of John’s last letters had told her to expect him home rather soon, as there were whispers across camp that spoke of the generals coming to an agreement. It was that letter that kept Ethel going day in and day out.

In fact, Ethel had found herself rereading John’s old letters more than usual since she had stopped hearing from him. She memorized his stories about his new friends—one named Carl had saved his life more than once—and about the different areas in the South they had traveled to and the interesting people he had met. She had celebrated with him when his expert shooting skills had saved a group of them in an ambush, and she found herself crying with him when he wrote about losing one of the men in his battalion—all of this through the letters she had stacked neatly in her top drawer. They had become her most prized possessions, and she prayed that any day, another one would show and tell her that John was coming home. And she hoped it would be sooner rather than later because guests like Robert MacPherson were not welcome on McLeod property.

“Surely there’s an agreement we can come to. Maybe you want something else other than money? We could arrange for you to move to a quaint little home in town, or to a new town—wherever you want to go.”

“No, Mr. MacPherson. I don’t want anything except this ranch.”

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