A debt that needs to be paid through a marriage of convenience brings them together. Can the power of love shine under the most unexpected circumstances?
” For everything the poets had to say on the matter and how much she dreamed of the moment, she never imagined a kiss could feel so wonderful. Like magic on the very tip of her tongue.”
After losing her family in a tragic fire, Caroline is left with her only relative alive, her despicable uncle. She is nothing more than a burden to him, so he wants her out of his way as soon as possible. Marrying her with one of his debtors and calling it even seems like the best deal for him. How will Caroline accept her new reality when she abandons any hope of finding true love?
Alexander’s ordinary life is upended by a sudden proposal; to marry an unknown woman and save his family or drown in his dead father’s debts. His ruthless creditor seems more than willing to get rid of his niece, but when Alexander leads his eyes on the beautiful Caroline, he can’t understand why. How will true love prevail under a forced marriage?
Even though at first glance, Alexander and Caroline don’t seem like the perfect match, they will soon find in each other’s eyes a devotion love worth fighting for. Is love all they need to overcome their obstacles when Alexander’s dark past hunting them?
Bran Hill, Texas. September 1870
It hadn’t rained in three months. Every gust of wind that scraped over the dry wheat fields kicked up a plume of brown dust that stung Caroline’s eyes and nipped at the skin underneath her long, cream-colored skirt. She clutched a small basket filled with pastries, her shawl tucked over it to protect the delicate frosting from the grit. Every day brought sunshine with puffy white clouds scattered in the sky, but today something seemed different. She felt it in her gut.
There was a strange turn in the weather—a green tinge to the sky that didn’t look right. But she’d worked too hard helping to organize the church fundraiser to bow out over a couple of suspicious clouds. After all she put in three weeks of meetings, sewing banners, and practicing with the choir.
She was on her way home now. The sun hung low and hazy at the edge of the horizon, about to plunge below the ruffled treetops, but Caroline wasn’t worried about that. She’d made this walk so many times she could easily do it in the dark.
The fundraiser went well, raising eighty-seven dollars and ninety-six cents to be donated to help cover the cost of importing grain from two counties away where the drought wasn’t quite so pronounced. She knew it would break soon. Good Lord, it had to. Until then, it was up to people like her—people who had everything they needed and more—to help provide for the less fortunate.
Maybe those green clouds were a good sign. They were like the ocean itself was rolling in, an answer to collective prayers from all of Texas.
The air smelled like a campfire built with wet aspens and mixed with the stony flavor of a dry well. She dragged the tips of her doeskin boots through the dirt as she walked, leaving behind shallow footprints with every step. Her new book, The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot, shifted in the pocket of her silk petticoat. It was thick and heavy, but she’d been carrying it all day in the hope that she’d be able to steal a few moments for herself.
The brim of her bonnet was a useful ally against the sun, but it did little to protect her from such inconstant wind. The oblique rays of the morning sun extended across the east-facing side window of the house ahead and covered everything it touched with shards of gold. Caroline pulled her golden red hair over her shoulder like a shield as she rounded the top of a small hill and gazed into the valley, beyond the bend of the river and a grove of crabapple trees to where her family made their home.
Part of her was hopeful, but more than that she was frightened. The clouds weren’t significant, were they? Why did she feel fear growing in her chest? It was the first time she ever experienced this feeling, and she didn’t know what to make of it. One thing was certain; she didn’t like it. Something terrible was about to happen.
The smell of wood burning stopped her cold. Black smoke billowed up beyond the horizon, dissipating quickly into the green clouds. Caroline’s mouth went dry and she froze. A twist of trepidation tensed her shoulders. The further she walked down the path, the harder it was to deny that the smoke was far too close to come from the prairie. It was somewhere near the bend in the river—near her family’s home.
There was a grove of deadwood not far from the garden’s back gate. Her father had slowly been cutting it back for most of the spring, and he wasn’t finished yet. He always said those dead branches were greedy for fire.
The house was on fire! It couldn’t be—it didn’t make sense. Caroline dropped her basket, hitched up her skirt, and broke into a run. Bright orange tongues of fire danced above the dry brown trees as frantic voices shouted from every direction. She burst through the crabapple orchard and saw tall flames dancing in the windows of her family’s two-story home.
The old sycamore that had stood guard over the house as long as she could remember had crashed through the roof. The dry wood burned as bright as the noonday sun, flames rising high enough in the sky to scorch the low-hanging clouds if that were possible.
The sound of crackling flames faded to a persistent buzzing in her head. Clutching her chest, Caroline lurched forward. A scream that refused to dislodge caught in her throat. Townsfolk rushed from the riverbank, toting buckets of sloshing water. Every bucketful they threw seemed ineffective against the voracious flames. Tendrils of smoke wrapped around her body like poisonous snakes, saturating her clothes and stinging her eyes. Every breath she took was harder fought than the one before.
Caroline searched the crowd, praying to see her mother’s sunset-red curls, her father’s tailored business suit, or the blue velvet dress her younger sister, Elizabeth, wore when she left that morning.
There was nothing left. The horrible reality came at her like waves crashing against the shore. Over and it over it called to her, a scream in the back of her mind, even as her ears pulsed with the echo of distant thunder. It was a lie—it had to be a lie.
“Mama!” she shouted, rushing headlong into the crowd. “Papa!”
“Caroline!” her own named swirled around her, the voice familiar yet unrecognizable. A strong hand gripped her shoulder and pulled her back. “This ain’t no place for you, girl.”
She focused on the face of Mr. Miller, her family’s neighbor from downriver. The hard lines around his eyes, usually creased with laughter, were droopy and filled with black soot, his white hair peppered with ash. His hand on her shoulder was blistered from the fire and wet with water. She refused to believe what was happening; it couldn’t be real. Despite the fact that her heart and mind knew the truth, she didn’t want to hear it because it meant that it was true, and nothing she did now or ever would change it.
His lips worked ineffectively trying to speak, and her mouth opened and closed silently. Why didn’t he answer her? Why didn’t he tell her which way to go? She grasped his arm and squeezed hard, attempting to shake him out of his stupor. He was in shock, that was all. He must have gone into the burning house to rescue her family, thank goodness. He just had to catch his breath.
Caroline shook her head to clear the smoke from her senses. “Where’s Mama and Papa? Where’s Elizabeth?” She prayed with all her heart for God to answer her prayers. Everything in her screamed to hear that her family was somewhere safe, and that only the house was affected by the fire—the roof, the furniture, clothes. She didn’t care! She’d accept homelessness as long as her family was safe and sound.
“I’m so sorry, child.” Mr. Miller’s silver whiskers seemed to droop with regret.
Her heart slammed against her ribs hard enough to break them, then seemed to stop beating altogether. “No, no, no!” was all that came out of her mouth, over and over; she had no control over it. She had to bite her tongue to force herself to ask, “Where is my family?” The world began to spin but her relentless questions refused to cease. Without warning, the cloying smell of smoke nauseated her, making her feel faint.
Mathias Miller was stoic beside her, his pupils reflecting the greedy orange flames that wouldn’t die. Her defenses refused to accept what was happening—surely this was a nightmare that would disappear, and life would be normal again. “It caught so quickly. They couldn’t … ” he stopped abruptly, sorrow catching up with him.
Her heart still wasn’t beating—she couldn’t feel it at all. She was certain her lungs would stop as well. Caroline clapped her hands to her chest and forced a ragged inhale.
This can’t be! I’m a good Christian—a loving God wouldn’t do this to me!
Mr. Miller rubbed her shoulder in a bleak attempt at consolation. “I’m so sorry, my dear.”
“No!” Caroline shoved him away, pulling from his grasp so hard that she stumbled. He was lying, she told herself. It couldn’t be true. They must have escaped and run to safety. But where? Nothing made any sense.
Her attention snapped back to the burning house, where red hot flames exploded from the windows. They were still inside! Why wasn’t anyone helping them?
“We have to get them out!” Caroline heaved herself up from the hard ground but stepped on the hem of her dress and caught herself on her knee as she stumbled again, hardly feeling the sting of the resulting abrasion. “We have to save them!”
Mr. Miller shouted and reached for her, but she twisted out of his grasp and raced toward the house. Black smoke billowed from the windows and heat from the fire blistered her cheeks. Wooden shingles tore from the roof, disintegrating into ash. She tripped on a fallen branch in her haste to reach her parents and sister. She thrust out her hands to break her fall, but strong arms caught her and held her in place.
“Caroline, you can’t go there; it’s too dangerous!” Miller’s voice, hoarse from smoke, was like an echo assaulting her from every direction, tearing at her senses.
“Let go of me!” She kicked and thrashed against his grip as painful screams ripped from her throat. “They’re trapped! We have to help them! Please! Please!” A sob caught in her throat, cutting off her voice so at last every tear trapped inside rushed forth in a torrent. She screamed like metal scraping metal as she sucked in the smoke-filled air.
Miller pulled her tightly against him, wrapping her in his strong arms. She clawed at him and pushed away. He spoke directly into her ear. “They’re gone, child. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”
“Please,” she begged again, this time in a whisper. The house glowed like embers, and a little voice deep inside told her there was nothing anyone could do now; it was too late.
“There, there my child. We’re here; your neighbors will help you through this, I promise you that,” his voice broke as the enormity of her loss hit him, and words were inadequate to help. Her strength slowly ebbed and when Miller’s hold loosened, she collapsed on her knees in the dirt. Pain flared in her cheeks and burning eyes from the heat of the fire. Her chest felt empty, not just of air but of all feeling.
She listened to the popping whoosh of flames, and the deafening crack of wood. Wind gusted around her, making her hair sting as it slapped against her face.
She was vaguely aware of hands falling sympathetically on her shoulders, worried eyes watching her and the murmur of pitying voices. The world itself moved around her like a dream, thick, syrupy, and dark.
In a cruel twist of fate, a roll of thunder sounded and the sky opened, drenching the ground with sheets of heavy rain. But it was too late. By the time the fire was out, all that remained was a sodden pile of charred wood, and the dismal search for survivors.
Easington, Texas. Sunday, October 12, 1870
Caroline seated herself on the hard-bottomed chair beside an uneven table and arranged her skirts to fall around her ankles. Dinner was always a chore, the one time of day she was expected to be around other people. She used to love being around people, only needing solitude to read a good book, but even she was never truly alone. She’d read a lot of stories about the loneliness of the West, and maybe that was a common experience for other people, but Caroline never once felt alone in her life. Not until two months ago when everything that ever mattered to her was ripped away by a single bolt of lightning.
She knew eating dinner with the family was really a small thing for her uncle to ask of her, but she couldn’t deny the black resistance she felt, or the cold sweat on her palms every time she descended the stairs in answer to the dinner bell. He let her take breakfast in her room, and lunch.
He let her stay there all day, day after day, even missing church most Sundays because she couldn’t bear to be around people. The awkward stares and whispers of the townspeople were unbearable. She generally understood that they only wanted the best for her, to express their condolences for her loss. But she was done with it. She couldn’t bear the pity from others when she couldn’t do anything with it or about it. It would never bring her parents back, nor Elizabeth.
Her uncle’s charity was a kindness, she realized. And one he certainly did not have to offer. But she understood her position now. She was a charity case.
The fire started by a stray lightning strike during the electrical storm. It was by the hand of God, the pastor said, and her family was called to heaven early. Nothing was rescued from the blaze; there was nothing recognizable left to rescue.
She was all alone in a world that was newly strange, left to fend for herself with no pattern to her life from one day to the next. She tried to fight back fresh tears that blurred her vision. If she ever felt alone before, it was nothing compared to what she felt now. She tried not to think about it. One day she had everything that made her happy, and then, by a freak flash of lightning, everything she loved literally turned into ashes.
She stared at herself in the mirror above her dresser, wishing to be with her family just one more time. What was the point of continuing life on this earth without someone to love who loved you in return? She knew her prolonged mourning was not what her family would want. They would want her to make a new life for herself, a happy one.
She wanted to be strong for them despite her overwhelming desire to give up and quit.
In the two months since the fire, Caroline had scarcely left the house, save to attend church. When she wasn’t sleeping, which she’d done more since the fire than any other time in her life, Caroline would sit by the window watching fawns play in the nearby woods, or wagons as they trundled past. More often than not, her vision would blur, and she’d search for things that weren’t there. Red curls and velvet dresses, sights and smells she would never experience again.
Her father’s brother, Theodore Morrow, was a deceptively handsome man. He was thirty-six years old, broad-shouldered and heavy-limbed with a full head of blond hair and a healthy beard he was inordinately proud of. He was almost the spitting image of his older brother, which made it even harder for Caroline to be around him.
Every time she looked at his face or heard his voice, memories of her father rushed at her like a sudden gale, and tears were never far behind. Sometimes when he opened his mouth she imagined she heard her father speaking to her. But of course, it never was, which felt like a curse because it only filled her heart with more sorrow, slowly drowning her day by day.
She didn’t want to cry in front of her consummately stoic uncle, so Caroline learned a trick that helped her maintain her composure. While his voice and lips and hands were all exactly like her father’s, Theodore’s eyes gave him away. Where her father always had a sparkle in his blue eyes, like the sun meeting a clear mountain spring, Theodore wore his blues like the threat of winter—icy, unreadable, and deep as a well.
She was grateful to him for taking her in after losing everything—her family, her home, her future. Although he complained of it constantly, Theodore made sure she was fed and kept a roof over her head. That was half the reason it was so confusing to make sense of the man, whenever she attempted it. Theodore was compassionate in action and cruel in word. She supposed it was better than the other way around.
Caroline sighed and ran her finger over the stem of the silver fork beside her plate. A fire burned in the dining room hearth behind her, with an iron cauldron hung over it bubbling away with her uncle’s laundry. Crass, that’s what it was. Theodore had enough money to pay a woman to do his laundry but refused to pay to have more than one fire going in the house. Even though the iron pot boiled behind a wrought iron screen, the acrid smell of lye accompanied dinner.
Her eyes swept the room, trying to focus on anything but her uncle. The turquoise and blue striped wallpaper featured tiny white flowers and the shiny mahogany dining table was designed to seat ten, but she couldn’t imagine her uncle ever entertaining. She caught her own reflection in a small silver mirror hanging on the wall. She didn’t remember herself looking so wan and tired, and she was shocked to see the dark circles beneath her dull green eyes.
Uncle Theodore sat across from her with a heavy grunt, snatched up his fork and speared the steak on his plate. Without so much as a glance in her direction, he sliced off a bloody hunk and pocketed it in his cheek.
“I tell you what,” he said, chewing, “that steer was as old as I am, but still soft as a fat calf. Wish I could say the same.”
Caroline kept her eyes on her own plate as she listened to him chew. He often talked at dinner, but she had a feeling he’d say the same irrelevant things whether she was there or not.
She took a deep breath, her finger tracing the edge of the porcelain plate. The fire at her back cackled and fizzled, snow melting from the edges of dried tinder. She couldn’t stand the noise or the smell. The lye made her lightheaded, but the natural smell of the wood was even worse. Every whiff of smoke was like a hook puncturing her heart, trying to drag her back to the moment when the life she knew and the life she always hoped for were both destroyed.
Her uncle’s hometown of Easington was nothing like where she used to live. Gone was the rush of the Colorado River and the bustle of townsfolk, replaced by dry dust and absolute silence. The same brilliant milky stars came out to wink at her every night, but she was also a world away from everything she’d ever known.
She’d moved away from all her friends, her neighbors, her teachers. With her library burned to ash she didn’t even have any imaginary friends to keep her company. She wondered if she would ever be able to replace the treasure of the books she managed to collect over the years, but she doubted it would ever happen. Where would she ever find the money or the place to start over and build a brand-new library?
The beautiful dark wooden shelves were a gift from her always loving and supportive father, and now they were in the past.
Caroline pushed food around her plate with the tip of her fork, then sighed and set it down. She wasn’t hungry, but there was one thing she longed for. For weeks now she’d been trying to work up the courage to ask a favor of Theodore. But every time they sat down to dinner a lump grew in her throat. Never in her life had she ever hesitated to ask for anything she wanted, and her father and mother had always indulged, even when her requests were frivolous, and they didn’t necessarily understand why she wanted what she wanted.
Theodore was so gruff, so unpredictable. Sometimes he seemed the kindest man in the world, and other times he treated her like she were a stray dog stealing scraps from his table. She had no idea what to make of him or what to expect, and that only made her heart pound with anxiety.
Caroline balled a fist, her nails digging into her palm. She couldn’t bear to wait a moment longer. Even if he said no, which he almost certainly would, at least she’d know she had the courage to ask.
“Uncle,” she ventured, her voice quiet and raspy. She cleared her throat. “May I ask you a favor?”
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