He thinks he will never fall in love again. A marriage of convenience is her only escape. Can love bloom out of a loveless agreement?
“She may have had feelings for him before, but now she knew she loved him. Loved him more than the air she breathed.”
Tessa’s life hasn’t been a bed of roses. She works at a corrupted saloon to make ends meet and sketches in her free time to deal with reality. Becoming the mail-order bride to the man who has secretly stolen her heart isn’t part of her plans. How will she agree to marriage without feelings when she is already in love with him?
Joe’s only wish is to be left alone in his grief. It’s his obligation though to fulfill his uncle’s death wish and get married. A secret marriage of convenience with an obedient woman is the only solution, but Tessa isn’t what he expected. How will he keep his promise to himself when his new wife draws him like a magnet to her?
Tessa and Joe will do anything to protect their secret, but when the wrong person finds out the truth, things get serious. How will they build a relationship based on true love when everything starts as a lie?
Rustplains, Arizona, 1875
Tessa Willoughby was deep in her thoughts. Her hands were wet from the soapy water she used to clean the whiskey glasses and beer pints and having already stood behind the bar counter for hours, her feet ached, and kept switching her weight from one foot to another. Her tiny shoes were much too thin to be standing around the whole day. The corset was pressing into her ribcage and the humid air in the saloon made her sweat.
“Tessa!” a shout came from across the room, raspy and commanding.
Startled, she felt the slippery glass slip through her hands and fall onto the floor. She heard the breaking of the glass and already knew she would get in trouble. Her stomach turned and she let out a barely audible groan. Shoot, not again! She quickly kneeled to the floor to pick up the broken pieces. Her hands shook as she tried to pick up the shards of glass with slippery and wet fingers. She pulled up her hem to place the pieces onto it.
“Tessa! You clumsy wench! Do you think I’m made of money, eh? I should take all of your tips for breaking my glasses, not even the first one today,” she heard the man shout from the other side of the bar counter. “Should have never hired you.”
She did not dare look up, but instead, wiped away the tears that had rolled down her cheeks. It was her first day at the saloon, and she already felt like quitting.
The man yelling his lungs out was Malcolm Hackett, the dreadful owner of the only saloon in the town of Rustplains, and her boss. Even without looking up at him, Tessa could already see his frowning, bushy eyebrows pulling together and his clenched jaw: that is how he always looked when he yelled at her.
Mr. Hackett reached the bar counter and leaned over it to look at Tessa, who was still kneeling on the floor, picking up the shards of glass. He was an old man with a grudge against the whole world. Nothing pleased him, especially nothing Tessa did, and he often found fault in everyone else but himself. Tessa even wondered if he knew how to smile. Or if he had ever laughed in his entire life.
“I’m sorry, Mr. Hackett,” Tessa mumbled as she picked up the pieces with shaking hands.
“‘Eh? Speak up, girl!” Mr. Hackett shouted, slamming his fist against the wooden bar counter. His eyebrows were pulled into a line and his tiny pig eyes flamed with anger.
“I said I was sorry, Mr. Hackett,” Tessa repeated, this time looking up at him. As her hazel brown eyes met Mr. Hackett’s cold, gray ones, she heard another voice coming from behind her. It startled Tessa and she turned to look.
“Leave her be, Malcolm,” snapped Carmelita, a blonde, curvy saloon girl who was kind and strong with whom saloon work suited, even though it was not a respectable job for a woman. However, Carmelita knew how to handle the drunkards, just like she knew how to handle Mr. Hackett because she had been working at the saloon for almost as long as Mr. Hackett had owned it.
Tessa wished she could be half as fearless as her blonde coworker. Carmelita never apologized for herself, and she moved with confidence that Tessa had never had. Carmelita’s posture instantly told everyone that she was confident and at ease with herself. No one could ever belittle her for being a saloon girl because she carried the profession so well. Instead of being ashamed of it, she was proud.
Carmelita quickly kneeled beside her and put her small hand on Tessa’s shoulder.
“Tessa, go and get some air,” she whispered to her and smiled encouragingly.
Tessa nodded and got up, heading to the back of the bar, tears filling her eyes again. Though she had never really experienced encouragement or love in her life, she had never been so put down before. No one had ever yelled at her like Mr. Hackett or talked to her in a degrading way as some of the customers at the saloon did.
Mr. Hackett had disappeared through the front door, mumbling something to himself about lazy women and how they all needed a good whooping. Tessa hoped she would not have to see him for the rest of the night.
Tessa opened the creaking wooden door that led to the back of the bar where all cleaning supplies and alcohol bottles were kept. The backroom had one dusty window from which the last rays of sunlight of the day made their way through. The whole room smelled like beer and cigarettes. Tessa felt a heavyweight on her chest as she fought back the tears that tenaciously kept burning her eyes. Stop it, stop it, stop it, she thought, trying to force the tears back.
She pushed the window open, letting the cool air breeze in, and hopped onto the windowsill. She leaned her head against the window frame and crossed her legs. She did not care however unladylike it was. There was no one to see her.
She let the air brush over her face and closed her eyes, sniffling and wiping the last tears off her eyes. As she did so, she could feel the faint scar on her chin, the one she had gotten when she fell and hit her chin at the orphanage she grew up in.
Her life at the orphanage had been lonely, though she had never been alone. The children had come and gone, and eventually, Tessa had stopped trying to make friendships that lasted. One by one, each of them would get adopted and move to a new city never to be heard from again. When Tessa came of age, she had to pack the only two outfits she owned and find a job and a place of her own.
Having to leave the orphanage had been scary and exhilarating at the same time. Tessa had been scared to go out in the world on her own. After all, she had no real skills, and she barely knew how to read and write. On the other hand, she had been curious about all the possibilities and what she might make of herself. Maybe, just maybe, my past doesn’t have to define my future, she had thought when she had stepped out of the door of the orphanage on her eighteenth birthday.
A long strand of her long, brown hair escaped from the bun of hair she had collected on the top of her head, and she brushed it behind her ear. She was no longer curious about what the world had to offer. Now, the exhilaration was gone, and only fear was left. Why did I think I could do this? But there was no going back anymore.
She was stuck in a life that she was not at all prepared for. If not for Carmelita, Tessa would probably have not even taken the job in the saloon in the first place. But Tessa remembered seeing Carmelita’s friendly face when she stepped into the saloon to talk to Mr. Hackett. If she can look so happy here, Tessa had thought looking at Carmelita whistling and wiping the tables, maybe I can be happy too.
Suddenly, she heard the door open, and Carmelita came in, immediately spotting Tessa at the windowsill.
“Ready to go back out there?” Carmelita asked with a faint smile on her lips. Her blonde hair was on a neat bun and her new dress looked like something Tessa had never seen before. Shiny buttons buttoned up to her chin and new fabric that made Tessa feel like a peasant. “It’s only your first day, you’ll get a hang of it,” she continued when Tessa did not respond.
“He hates me,” Tessa finally said, biting her lower lip.
“He hates all women,” Carmelita chuckled and rolled her eyes.
“Not you,” Tessa said, hopping off the windowsill and closing the window with a hatch.
Carmelita shook her head, still smiling. She put her hands on her hips and tilted her head.
“You just need to start standing up for yourself, that’s all,” she said and took Tessa’s face between her small, soft hands. Carmelita was very kind for helping her; she did not have to do that, and no one ever did. Though Carmelita was only a little bit older than her, she had a motherly way about her, and Tessa felt comfortable around her.
“I wish I could have found a job as a maid,” she said quietly and brushed a stray lock of hair behind her ear. “This isn’t really me,” she continued, grabbing the hem of her dress, and pursing her lips. Before leaving the orphanage for good, she had looked for a job as a maid in a respectable home.
She was good at cleaning after all, and she enjoyed seeing the result of her work instantly. Cleaning helped her clear her head and it was satisfying for her to see how her efforts yielded results immediately. So, when no one in Rustplains wanted to hire her, the disappointment washed over her like a wave.
Carmelita tilted her head, looking at her. She did not ask too many questions, and Tessa could not have been more grateful for that. After all, she had a lot to figure out for herself.
“You do what has to be done, my dear. And you finish what you started. Now, go and pour some booze for the thirsty ones,” Carmelita said and handed her a glass and an unopened bottle of bourbon.
Tessa sighed and forced a smile on her lips, but followed Carmelita back into the saloon, where she would have to serve drinks to the town’s men and listen to them complain about their wives. Even though it was only her first day, she had already heard a million rumors, gotten her buttocks squeezed, and her bust stared at.
The place was dimly lit with candles and candelabras. She heard the drunken gabble and guitar music that meshed into loud background noise, now and then someone laughing or banging the table with their fist. The saloon smelled like cigarettes and spilled drinks. She already knew that all the cigarette smoke would seep into her hair and clothes, and she would have a hard time washing it off.
“Girl, pour me a drink why don’t ya,” an old man sitting at the bar said, looking Tessa up and down with lust that made chills run down her spine. She hated the way the men looked at her. Even though they had not yet said anything disrespectful, based on the looks she got, it would only be a matter of time. “And make it a strong one! I’ll know if you only give me colored water,” he continued, slurring his words.
Tessa faked a smile and poured bourbon into a glass, mixing it with water, just like Mr. Hackett and Carmelita had advised her to. “Never give a man a full glass of bourbon if you can fool him into drinking water,” Mr. Hackett had taught her first thing.
As she watched Carmelita talk with one of her regulars, she wondered to herself if she would ever become that confident working as a saloon girl. Up until now, there had only ever been one thing she was confident about. She had always been good at drawing. There had never been much to do at the orphanage besides clean and draw. So, she had killed time and entertained herself by drawing birds, trees, other kids…
She eyed the little sketchbook she had hidden behind the bar between the old, empty bottles. It had been ages since she had been able to take time for herself and draw. After all, drawing made her feel at peace. Like she was good at something. Something that no one could take away from her. It felt like she had something to share with the world, and that she was not simply put on the Earth to be a nuisance.
As the evening went on and customers left one by one, Tessa’s mind started to wander. Her first day had been the longest day she could remember, her body ached, and she was sure her ankles had swollen up to twice their size. Tessa leaned her elbows onto the bar counter and put her face between her hands. Is this what my life is going to be now? she wondered and felt a little sting in her heart. She had always imagined having a family of her own but working as a saloon girl was not something possible suitors would appreciate.
How could I ever meet anyone? she wondered in her mind. I’ll be here all day from morning until night. All I meet are drunk, married men, or unmarried jerks, she thought and pursed her lips.
The saloon became dimmer than before, as the candles burned out and the night fell over the town of Rustplains. The musicians had already left, and only the group of Mr. Hackett’s friends were left in the saloon, all as drunk as a skunk. They laughed, yelled, played cards, and bet on who could drink the most shorts without passing out.
Tessa yawned and discreetly pulled her small sketchbook from underneath the counter and started sketching Mr. Hackett, who was sitting at a table in the far corner, playing cards with some ranch owners.
As she sketched, she dreamed of a day when she would get to draw all day long, surrounded by her own family, one she never had had before.
Rustplains, Arizona, 1875
Tessa sat on her bed counting the coins in her hand. She had already calculated them three times, but it still seemed to her that Mr. Hackett had paid her too little. She sighed: there was no way she was going to ask about it. The first week had been overwhelming, but at least she had survived it and made some money to her name. Her feet ached and her neck was stiff. The saloon work was much harder than she had thought.
Mr. Hackett picked on her every chance he got. He complained about the way she wiped the tables, said she poured too much alcohol into the glasses, and that she should smile and flirt more, like the other saloon girls. Every chance he had, he put Tessa down and made comments that made her want to cry. Even the thought of having to ask Mr. Hackett about her payment made her shudder.
Carmelita was snoring lightly on the bed next to hers. Their room above the saloon was small but cozy. The wooden floors were covered with area rugs that had definitely seen better days; and the dusty, almost see-through drapes were pulled to cover the tiny window that overlooked the small town of Rustplains. There were two beds in the room, one for Tessa and one for Carmelita, and there was one nightstand next to each of the beds.
By the back wall, there was a vanity table with a mirror. The mirror was cracked in one of the corners, but it did not bother Tessa, to whom this little room she shares only with one other person instead of five, was a palace.
Tessa smirked to herself. Even though the room was small, and the flickering candlelight revealed some spiderwebs in the ceiling corners, this was still the best one she had ever lived in.
She walked to the window and peeked from behind the worn curtains. It was dark outside, but Tessa could still see the outline of the orphanage she grew up in. She had only left the orphanage a week ago when she turned of age, but it felt like she had stepped into a whole new world full of possibilities. The week had felt like a lifetime.
Tessa had never known her parents. She had been left on the doorstep of the orphanage when she was a baby, and it was the only home she had ever known. Once, she had asked the housemother, Evaline Browning, about her parents.
“Ma’am,” Tessa had said one afternoon when Miss Browning had sat on the porch smoking a cigarette and enjoying her daily nightcap. She always said one nightcap was the enjoyment she had earned from dealing with loud children all day, but everyone knew it was never just one.
Miss Browning had not responded, but that was simply her way. She had not told Tessa to scatter or to be quiet, so she had assumed it was safe to speak.
“Ma’am, I was wondering if maybe… you could tell me anything about my parents,” Tessa had said.
“You’re lucky I’m in a good mood,” Miss Browning had responded, taking a sip from her glass. “Look, child, do you know how many orphans have come across my house in the past decade?”
Tessa had shaken her head, but instantly, any hope she had about getting any information about her parents had vanished.
“Too many,” Miss Browning had said, “and if I started asking after every orphan’s parents, it would drive me and everyone else up the walls.”
Tessa had looked at Miss Browning’s tired face and wondered what her life had been like. She looked older than she was, with some wrinkles around her eyes and mouth. Her deep black hair made her skin look pale and also revealed that there was some Navajo blood in her.
Miss Browning was not a mean woman, but she struck Tessa as a woman who was disappointed in her life. Once when Tessa was just a child, Miss Browning had had a little too much to drink and she had revealed to Tessa that she used to be a dancer. That she had been good, so good that she could have danced in New York under the big bright Broadway lights. But to her disappointment, responsibilities took over, and before she even noticed, she had become too old to go.
Tessa’s eyes had filled with tears as she, with a shaky voice, thanked Miss Browning for meeting with her. She had felt her throat tighten and tears burning behind her eyelids. As she had turned to leave, she heard her speak again, but this time with a softer voice. Tessa had stopped in her tracks.
“What is it that you want, dear? What good would come of you knowing your parents, anyway? They abandoned you. What makes you think they would even want to see you?”
Tessa had not known how to respond to any of these questions, as she had asked herself those very same ones a million times over. And yet, she could not shake the longing for a family of her own. The desire to belong, to be a part of something.
“I just want a family,” she had finally whispered truthfully, yet vaguely.
“You don’t need to find your parents to have a family,” Miss Browning had said. “Who knows? Maybe a family will pick you one day.”
This statement Miss Browning made had stayed with Tessa ever since. Often, when she was alone, she had thought about what Miss Browning had said. Of course, Tessa had hoped for a family to choose her every day. Just like everyone else in the orphanage. Everyone waited and hoped that the next day would be the day that a wonderful couple walks in and chooses them to join their family.
But the days went by. Tessa had watched so many of her friends get adopted, one by one. However, all of them were from the east. They came on a train, shivering and scared like new kittens, but they usually did not stay long. Everyone wanted to adopt an orphan from a train, someone from the east.
And who could blame them? A mysterious child from the streets of New York City or Chicago. No one would come asking for these children, and they would serve well on a ranch as ranch hands. And as a cherry on top, the adoptive family would get a hundred dollars when they turned twenty-one.
No one wanted a born-and-raised Rustplains child with no past. There was no promise of money, and who knew if someone would come asking about them later on. So, Tessa was never chosen. She had stayed in the orphanage until she turned eighteen. As one of the children who had stayed the longest, Miss Browning had eventually started to entrust her with more responsibilities.
After a short silence, Miss Browning had gotten up from her rocking chair.
“Stay here,” she had said and disappeared back into the house.
She had known no family would ever pick her. She was older than the other children, and she was no orphan from a train. She did not have any special skills that would entice a family to look at her twice. Besides, she was a girl. Girls were no use at a farm. They would not be able to work as a ranch hand, and eventually, they would go off and get married.
No one wanted the burden of a girl. She had felt her throat tighten and her eyes sting as the hot tears filled them and ran down her cheeks. She had never felt so lonely and useless in her life. What am I supposed to do? she had thought and suffocated a sniffle.
As she waited for Miss Browning to return, she had looked around the front yard. At the bottom of the steps, there was a little walkway that led onto the main street. The street was busy during the days, and Tessa had often spent time watching people passing by. The walkway was surrounded by tall succulents in pots, and only one big, old tree cast a shadow over the tiny front yard. The house was surrounded by a white fence that, according to Miss Browning, kept the children off the main street.
Soon, she heard Miss Browning’s heels against the creaking wooden floor of the old house as she returned to the porch with something in her hand.
“Here,” Miss Browning had said and handed her a small sketchbook and a sharpened pencil.
“What’s this?” Tessa had asked with a shaky voice, wiping her cheeks.
“Well… why don’t you go ahead and draw your new family,” Miss Browning said. Tessa had seen a faint smile on her lips, and it had surprised her so much that for a moment she had forgotten the bitter pain that had made a nest in her heart.
Tessa had looked at the sketchbook and the new pencil. She had never owned anything before. Everything she used was the property of someone else. The sheets she laid on, the dress she wore, the ribbons she used to tie her hair… Even her name was not her own. Miss Browning had simply started calling her Tessa, and so it had become her name. And because every child needed a last name too, she had picked one out of a novel she had been reading one afternoon. In fact, Tessa was named after a marooned child on an island. She hit the nail on the head with that one, she had thought sarcastically.
Not having anything of her own had always made her feel like a burden. Her parents had never wanted her, and now other people were responsible for taking care of her, like a baby bird who was too weak to feed herself or fly away from the nest she was forced to stay in.
“Ma’am?” she had asked carefully, still confused.
“It’s yours to keep. Now, go do something useful and stop thinking about your parents and what might have been. You’re here now and you have to play with the cards you’re dealt. Besides… Why do you want a family so bad, anyway? When you don’t have anything or anyone holding you back, you can go anywhere and be anything,” she had said, and that’s when her voice drifted off, she lit a new cigarette, and started humming a tune.
Tessa had known she was referring to her childhood dreams of becoming a New York dancer, the dream that had failed when she had never managed to get out of the small town.
“Thank you, ma’am,” Tessa had finally said, but Miss Browning had already dozed off and started snoring with a lit cigarette between her fingers.
Suddenly, Carmelita’s voice pulled Tessa back to reality.
“What are you doing up?” Carmelita asked sleepily. Tessa jumped and the images of her unpleasant past faded like smoke. She rearranged her face to a hint of a smile and turned to look at Carmelita’s sleepy face.
“I couldn’t sleep,” Tessa responded, avoiding Carmelita’s curious eyes.
“What’s wrong?” Carmelita asked and sat up on her bed. She looked sincerely worried, and her eyebrows pulled together as if she actually wanted to know.
“Nothing, just the aches keeping me up,” Tessa lied. “I never knew that simply standing could make your feet feel like pudding.” Carmelita had not asked about her past when she had shown up at the saloon looking for work, and Tessa was not ready to speak of it. She wanted a new start.
“Don’t worry, it’ll get easier,” Carmelita said and smiled, rubbing the sleep from her eyes. “The first week is always the hardest.”
“Do you think Mr. Hackett will ever like me?” Tessa asked, climbing back on her bed, and pulling the covers up to her chin.
“No, I don’t think so,” Carmelita chuckled. “You’re too nice.”
Tessa pulled her eyebrows together and pursed her lips. Carmelita mimicked her and they both giggled.
“The minute you learn to dig your heels in the ground and stand up for yourself, he’ll stop pushing you around. You just need to show him who’s boss,” Carmelita smirked.
“I thought he was the boss,” Tessa said and rolled over to snuff the candle.
“He thinks that too,” Carmelita said, and they both laughed.
As Carmelita drifted back to sleep and her light snoring started again, the darkness of the room and the quietness of the night started to make Tessa sleepy, too. The week might have been rough and her whole body might ache more than it ever had before, but at least she had some money to her name and a place to lay her head. Things could be worse. Although, I should ask Mr. Hackett about what happened to the rest of my money she thought
“I will ask Mr. Hackett about the money…,” Tessa whispered to herself, determined. I will start digging my heels in the ground, she thought.
After all, she had taken the job as a saloon girl because it promised good pay. If he’s to keep docking her pay every week, she might as well be milking cows at a ranch. She sighed and buried her face into the pillow. It would be a very unpleasant conversation.
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