She needs to escape the clutches of a despicable man. He only wants a marriage of convenience. How can two wounded hearts heal through true love when the odds are against them?
“What could she do to get him to love her?”
Isabelle grew up with a vicious father who treated her cruelly. When she finds out he plans on marrying her to a despicable businessman, she answers a mail order bride ad and flees West in the middle of the night. How can she escape and be brave enough to open her heart to this mysterious rancher who will be her husband?
After saving his sister from a tragic fire, Simon is physically and emotionally scarred. He prefers isolation and loneliness but needs someone to help him around the house. So, when his best friend suggests a marriage of convenience, Simon doesn’t believe that Isabelle would make his heart beat faster from day one. How can he overcome his fears of rejection and show his true colors to this beautiful intruder?
Simon and Isabelle learn that inner beauty captivates when a good heart shines. But when the cruel businessman is determined to take Isabelle back, how can they protect their newfound love and win against all odds?
Copper Ridge, 1854
Isabelle McKee sat on a pile of hay in her father’s large, freshly painted red barn. In one hand, she held a bottle of milk. In her other, she cradled a small lamb that had been abandoned by her mother. She suspected the mother had been eaten by wild animals, because there were no sheep she could see that had recently given birth. Then again, her father could have carelessly slaughtered it, without any thought to her having offspring. With Cecil McKee, it was highly possible.
She glanced around the bright red barn, relishing the brief sense of safety it lent her. The hay covering the dirt floor smelled sweet and soothing. She even enjoyed the smell of the cows and horses often brought into the barn, either to give birth or to be treated for injuries or illnesses. Across from the animal stalls were shelves and cabinets where her father kept the feed, tools, seeds for the crops, and fence-mending supplies. And in each corner, there were hay bales so hay on the ground could be changed out regularly without the extra work of hauling in fresh hay every time.
He will sure make his own life simple, she thought, stroking the lamb’s wool. But he makes mine horrible. It astounded her how much Cecil seemed to enjoy making innocent living beings suffer. It seemed as though he had nothing but cruelty in his heart.
“Don’t you worry, little girl,” she crooned to the young lamb. “I’ll take good care of you.” So long as Papa doesn’t find out about you, that is, she thought apprehensively. She knew if he did, there was every possibility he would kill the poor animal just because she had taken a liking to it. He hated for her to have anything that brought her joy or happiness, or anything except the torment he caused her. He hated because he hated her. And he made sure to yell and scream and strike her everyday so she never forgot it. She shuddered as she thought about her father’s cold brown eyes, and unconsciously hugged the lamb tightly.
“Isabelle,” her father’s hard voice cut through her thoughts. “Git in here. Now.”
Isabelle’s stomach twisted. She was sure at that moment he had read her thoughts; that he knew she was hiding the lamb, and he was calling to tell her he was going to get rid of it. Or worse, to make her do it. She wanted to let the animal finish her bottle before going inside. But she also knew better than to keep her father waiting. She let the lamb drink as much as she thought she could get away with. Then, she took back the bottle, stashing it in the pocket of her gray cotton dress, and hurried out of the barn.
Her father was just going back inside the back door when she stepped back outside. She was relieved. Maybe it was just her paranoia, but she was sure he would know she was hiding something in the barn if he saw her leave it. There was never any such thing as being too careful when she was trying to keep something from her father. He was always looking for reasons to abuse her. Even if it meant snooping around the places she enjoyed spending her time.
The land of her father’s ranch was expansive. He was far from wealthy, but he had enough animals and crops to make a decent living. The fields on the outskirts of the ranch were beautiful, speckled with white and yellow wildflowers which always drew the loveliest birds. Yet as each of her eighteen years of life had passed, she found it harder and harder to enjoy the beauty of nature around her. Her home felt more like a prison every day, and the natural world felt like God was teasing her; reminding her that she would never be free to enjoy even the simple pleasures of life.
She steeled herself as she opened the back door to the bland, colorless home she shared with her father. She heard voices coming from the living room, so she made her way through the kitchen, which was bare save for a stove, dish basin, and table. As she walked down the hallway separating the kitchen from the living room, she tried to guess who her father’s guest might be. She often enjoyed guests, as they sometimes engaged her in conversation, not just her father. And sometimes, he would be a bit nicer to her when he had visitors.
Even Cecil knew he couldn’t always get away with berating and yelling at his daughter in front of guests too often. He certainly couldn’t hit her because they would ask questions. When he got comfortable with a person who visited often, he would sometimes slip and say mean things to her. With people he was well-acquainted with, the way he treated her all depended on his mood. But this man’s voice was unknown to her. Maybe this would be a day where Cecil was easier on her.
She clasped her hands in front of her as she reached the end of the drab, gray hall. But before she could enter the sparsely-furnished living room, her father swung open the door, likely to come find her because she was taking too long for his liking. The scowl on his leathery face as she peeked up at him confirmed her thought.
“Where were you?” he barked, blocking her passage into the living room.
Isabelle winced. Was he going to strike her with a guest sitting just in the room behind him?
Despite her apprehension, she smiled sweetly at her father. “I was cleaning the barn,” she lied.
Her father rarely let her tend to any of the animals on the ranch. And when he did, he forbade her to show them any affection. It was of no consequence to him if she had a pet or animal companion. She believed he simply felt she deserved to feel miserable and alone. She certainly could not give him the idea she had been anywhere near the animals. Especially one she had rescued.
Her father grunted, studying her with his cold brown eyes. A chunk of his greasy brown hair had fallen across on his forehead, and his blue overalls and white shirt were stained and dirty. She didn’t know if he was considering striking her, or trying to figure out if she was lying. In the end, however, he simply turned away from her and walked back to the guest.
“Go make some tea,” he said, not looking at her. “Now.”
Isabelle turned on her heels and hurried back to the kitchen. It was unusual for her father to not make a halfhearted introduction of his guests, to keep up the appearances of civility.
She made the tea as quickly as she could. She knew better than to make him come look for her after he told her to do something. If she did anything to mess up while they had company, her father would be angrier with her than normal, and his abuse would be worse than ever after the man left. She was so nervous about not making a mistake her hands trembled as she put the teapot and two cups and saucers on the wooden tray. She walked slowly down the hallway, praying her father did not intercept her. If she spilled it, even if it was because he ran into her, he would punish her severely.
She made it into the living room without incident. She got a better look at her father’s guest as she approached the scratched, unvarnished coffee table. He was well-dressed, wearing a three-piece black suit and a top hat, and shiny black shoes. His eyebrows were thick, but his mustache was thin. He reminded Isabelle of a villain from a book, but she managed a tight smile.
The man rose from his seat, reaching for the tray in her hands.
“Let me help you, miss,” he said.
Her father jumped up, putting himself between Isabelle and the man.
“She’s eighteen years old,” he said. “She ain’t helpless. ’Sides, that’s a woman’s job. You just sit and relax as my guest.”
Isabelle’s cheeks flushed, and she averted her gaze. She guessed her father wasn’t in the mood to be nice to her in front of guests that day.
The man did as her father said, but he kept his black eyes on Isabelle. They weren’t exactly unkind, but she didn’t see any empathy for the way her father spoke to her. Rather, he seemed to be looking at her as though she was a curiosity. One in which he was suddenly very interested.
When she set down the tray, the man extended his hand to her.
“My name is Claud Hopkins,” he said, kissing her pale, freckled hand.
Isabelle blushed, brushing a stray strand of her strawberry-blond hair out of her green eyes. She was sure the gesture was meant to be polite. But for some reason, it made her skin crawl. It was strange to her that a man who looked to be roughly the same age as her father would do such a thing. Despite her sudden discomfort, she smiled and curtseyed.
“I am Isabelle McKee,” she said.
Her father stomped one of his feet on the ground, impatiently crossing one foot over his leg.
“All right, introductions have been made,” he said gruffly. “Now, pour the damn tea.”
Isabelle flushed again and leaned down over the tray. With her father’s cold, scrutinous eyes on her, she felt even more nervous than she had previously. She picked up the teapot and went to pour Mr. Hopkins’ tea, but her hands trembled, and she accidentally poured tea all over the saucer. Her mouth fell open and her cheeks grew warm. She felt horrible for spilling the guest’s tea, even though he showed little reaction. But she felt her father glaring at her, and her embarrassment quickly gave way to numbing fear.
Her father leapt to his feet, roughly taking the teapot from her.
“Gimme that, girl,” he said, so angry that he was growling. “Maybe I was wrong about you. Maybe you ain’t nothing but a little kid. Pourin’ tea ain’t no hard chore. Yet you embarrass me in front of company by spillin’ it everywhere. Now, I gotta clean up your mess yet again. Git out of my way.”
Isabelle stepped back as her father poured the tea. The blood rushed in her ears from fear and shame, but she could hear her father apologize in a gentle, regretful tone for her behavior, and ask if she had spilled any on him. As quietly as she could, she tiptoed up the stairs, retreating to her room. She shut the door silently so that her father would not hear her crying. When she cried after a berating or punishment, he often came to give her some more of whatever she just got. Probably, it would be worse because it was in front of a guest.
Sobbing quietly, Isabelle went to her small, worn bed, pulled back the stained gray blanket, and lifted the mattress. Feathers leaked out from tears in the fabric and fell onto the scuffed brown floor as she reached beneath and pulled out the picture she had hidden there. She let the mattress fall back down into place, sending a few more feathers flying toward the dirty white wall. Then, she collapsed down onto her bed, staring at the picture as she cried.
“Oh, Mama,” she whispered. “I bet things would be different if you were here.”
Isabelle caressed the picture of the woman who looked just like her. The photo was black and white, but Isabelle could see her mother could have easily been her twin. They had the same large green eyes and long lashes, the same pale skin dotted with freckles, and the same wispy, strawberry-blond hair. In the picture, her mother even wore her hair in the same braid Isabelle liked wearing her hair in.
She had never known her mother. Emily McKee died from complications of childbirth shortly after Isabelle was born. That left her father to raise her all alone. Isabelle believed her father blamed her for her mother’s death, which was why he tormented her so. The resemblance was surely enough to enrage him. Isabelle thought that would have made her father love her. It seemed the opposite was true.
Despite having never known her mother, Isabelle felt an overwhelming sense of sadness and longing. Every girl needed a mother, and she had been robbed of hers. Her father seemed to not consider that when he treated her so terribly. She understood he had loved her mother more than anything in the world, and knew his grief must be immense. But that did not give him license to abuse his daughter, the only piece of his late wife that he had. She, too, grieved for the loss of the motherly affection and bond she would never have. Why was he so selfish and cruel?
One of her tears hit the picture, and she went to wipe it away. But she noticed it landed so it looked almost as though her mother was crying. That made her even sadder, and she covered her mouth with her hand. Would her mother be crying if she could see how her father treated her? Or would she be upset with Isabelle, as well, for being a disappointment to him?
No, she silently scolded herself. But she would be ashamed of you for sitting here, wallowing in your self-pity. And you should be, too.
With renewed determination, Isabelle used her yellow apron to wipe her tears away. Never mind her father would be angrier with her for crying. She didn’t want to give him the satisfaction of seeing her tears yet again.
She kissed the picture of her mother and put it back in its hiding place beneath the mattress. Then she stood, going to her small, cracked wash basin, and washed her face. When there was no trace left of her tears, she forced a smile at herself in the window. It was the only smile she ever saw directed at her, and she tried to give herself every smile that she could.
Then, she left her room and went downstairs. Her father was still busy with Mr. Hopkins, so she managed to remain unseen as she slipped into the hallway. It was time for her to start supper. Though cooking for the man who hated her so much was the last thing she wanted to do, she wasn’t doing it for him. She was doing it to make the memory of her mother proud. No matter what happened in life, she would always strive to make Emily McKee proud of her daughter.
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