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A Substitute Bride for the Mysterious Rancher

She must be in another bride’s shoes to save her family. He needs to always be in charge. How can a misplaced bride bring love to the taught rancher’s heart?

Virginia lived in her beautiful sister’s shadow her whole life, although she never minded. But Virginia and her dad are left hanging when her sister runs away three days before her marriage to the wealthiest rancher in the area. Now Virginia must take her place and protect her family’s honor. How can she face her destiny when she never imagined her life taking this turn?

Mark wants to have everything under control, even his feelings. A marriage of convenience with the most beautiful lady in town is another check on his list, but his plans turn upside down. When her feisty sister comes to bring him the bad news and offers herself in marriage instead, he laughs in her face, but there is no other solution. How can he keep his heart sealed when this mysterious lady is such a challenge for him?

Mark and Virginia are bound by duty and honor, but they soon discover that beauty is reflected in the soul. How will they protect their love and stay unaffected when the enemy comes straight from Virginia’s family?

Written by:

Western Historical Romance Author

Prologue

Cheyenne, Wyoming

1891

The sound of Emily’s high-pitched voice grated Virginia Edison’s ears as she shrieked, “Oh, this fabric will look lovely on me, don’t you think?”

With an inward sigh, Virginia brought her thoughts away from the book that was waiting for her at home and the cool breeze of her favorite reading spot as she looked at the purple silk her sister absentmindedly held.

She ran a hand over the silken fabric, trying to ignore both the stifling heat and the fact that she didn’t want to be here deciding on the details of Emily’s wedding dress.

Forcing a smile on her face, Virginia said, “I think it looks quite nice. Have you made your decision yet? I thought you already said you were going to have your wedding dress made of that light green lutestring.”

Emily frowned, and it was only then that Virginia noticed the slightly hunched shoulders and the extra movements of Emily’s hands that indicated her sister was nervous or upset about something.

“Oh, I don’t really know…” Emily deflected. “After all, since we sometimes share dresses, it only makes sense to pick a color that would look lovely on you too.”

Virginia refrained from making the biting remark that everything looked lovely on Emily. On the other hand, nothing was enough to make up for Virginia’s plain features or take away the fact that she had to wear glasses to see.

She also refrained from looking at the mirror that would show her sister’s perfect blond hair and blue eyes contrasted with Virginia’s boring brown hair. True, she had blue eyes as well, but the glasses almost entirely succeeded in hiding them.

But none of that was important right now. Emily was nervous for some reason; that was the only thing that mattered at that moment. Reaching a hand over and gently placing it on her sister’s arm, she softly asked, “What’s wrong?”

Emily ignored the question, instead taking the fabric sample over to the seamstress and announcing the purple silk was the one she wanted for her wedding dress. She asked about different styles while Virginia was left to try to figure out on her own what was bothering her sister.

While she wondered, she absentmindedly looked around the room, half hoping to see something that might give her a hint. Perhaps someone Emily disliked was there and had said something.

Around her were a few other women, one with a four-year-old daughter clutching the edge of her maroon dress, all walking around and looking at the many rows of fabric sorted according to type and stacked head high in some places.

The floor was wooded and spotless, both in case someone dropped a bolt of the fabric and because some of the brighter ginghams and silks were displayed by being set upright with one end on the floor. Other bolts were set the same way on top of the fabric on the tables so that she couldn’t easily see what the walls even looked like. But Virginia’s mind wasn’t truly on all the bustle and color of the shop.

Staring at her sister, her mouth pursed as she tried to think of other possible options, Virginia looked at the seamstress, a matronly-looking widow with snippets of gray through her brown hair. She still wore black and always accompanied it with a very serious expression.

Virginia next reflected on the last few hours, puzzled with her sister’s mood change. Emily had seemed excited enough to go to see the seamstress after their evening chores had been done. Nothing had gone wrong since then either.

There was one small detail that had bothered her once or twice before now, though, and Virginia was determined to test her theory. So, she waited while Emily finished telling the seamstress what she wanted.

The moment Emily was done speaking, Virginia remarked, “I am surprised that you waited so long to get your dress made. Your wedding is next week already, and you usually love coming to get fabric or a new dress as often as we can afford it.”

Virginia knew the moment the words were out of her mouth that she wasn’t nearly as subtle as she had hoped to be. Then again, subtlety had never been one of her strong suits. That was another thing Emily had always been better at. She hid her frown as both she and her sister grabbed their handbags, making sure not to leave anything behind.

“Oh, well… Well, I suppose I hoped that Mr. Ford would offer to pay for my wedding dress. He is much wealthier than we are, and his money will also be mine when we get married,” Emily replied, still not looking Virginia in the eye as they walked out of the shop and into the fresh air outside.

“In that case, you should probably start calling him Mark instead of Mr. Ford all the time,” Virginia retorted, completely unconvinced that Emily was being honest with her and squinting her eyes for a moment at the increased light.

As soon as she could open her eyes again fully, she watched her sister. Emily, apparently trying and failing to come up with a reply, allowed her shoulders to slouch and sighed as she said in a tone as fake as any Virginia had ever heard, “Oh, I will, and I so look forward to being a married woman, especially to such a wealthy man.”

Virginia stopped walking to gawk at her sister. “But I thought you were excited to marry Mark!” she exclaimed, her mind going through all the recent conversations at breakneck speed.

“Shh!” Emily whirled around to face her, looking around as though worried someone else might have heard Virginia’s statement.

Grabbing Emily’s arm by linking it with one of her own, Virginia soon had them walking along at a fast pace. Ignoring the way it made her glasses shift slightly up and down on the bridge of her nose, she didn’t say a word as they both went to Daisy, the lovely palomino mare they had tied to the hitching post.

A moment later, Emily was mounting their mare, grabbing the reigns as she mounted behind her older sister. Unfortunately, this meant that Virginia couldn’t see her sister’s face, which she felt was needed for the conversation she intended on having with Emily.

“Just because I am dropping the subject until we get back to the ranch, don’t think for a moment that I am forgetting about it,” she announced in a loud whisper almost directly in her sister’s ear.

It was no surprise to her that Emily stiffened at this, but Virginia ignored this in favor of continuing her efforts to puzzle through what she had obviously missed.

As she thought, the scene gradually changed from the boardwalks, clapboard shops, and houses to the fir, mountain hemlock, and spruce trees that surrounded the town. The multitude of scents of the city—some pleasant as they passed a bakery, and some not-so-pleasant as they passed the butcher’s shop—equally gave way to the pine-like smells of fresh spring growth, the sound of people chatting, and wagons’ creaking fading to the sound of their horse’s hooves and the occasional warbler or other songbird singing.

It was true that she and Emily weren’t as close as they could be, and they actually had very little in common. Still, she was quite sure that they cared deeply about each other and talked to one another sometimes.

So, how did she miss until now how unhappy her sister was?! Come to think of it, there had been a few signs. She had simply overlooked them. Besides the fact that Emily had been putting off getting her wedding dress made, her sister hadn’t had that glow about her that Virginia had always expected to see.

However, Virginia had no intention of assuming anything. She was going to confront her sister as soon as they got home. Fortunately, it wasn’t a long trip, Emily dismounting first and hastily starting to take Daisy’s tack off.

Virginia ignored the fact that Emily was trying to avoid the conversation, doing her part by taking Daisy’s bit out of her mouth as she stated, “Now then, tell me exactly what you mean by saying that, and know that I won’t be put off by any of your excuses. I was sure you said you wanted to marry Mark Ford!”

Emily continued taking the cinch and saddle off with a mulish expression, looking as though she had no intention of answering. Virginia stared right back. They both knew Virginia was the more stubborn of the two when she set her mind to something, so Emily apparently gave in to the inevitable.

“Fine! What I want is to not be poor any longer. I have had plenty of men willing to marry me, but none of them could guarantee me a life of ease and even if I had fallen in love with one of them, they might think they couldn’t provide for me well enough to—”

“Oh, poppycock!” Virginia exclaimed, cutting her sister off as Daisy was finally put into her stall for the night. “I know we haven’t talked about it in a while, but I know we both agreed that we want to marry for love!”

“Well, I changed my m—”

“And don’t you dare tell me that you changed your mind, Emily, because I highly doubt that you have,” Virginia interrupted as they headed out of the barn and toward the house.

“So what if I haven’t? Father wants me to marry Mark. Father needs me to marry Mark so that he can turn over the management of part of the ranch to him. We both know Father can’t hire on anyone right now, and there is just too much to do, and with me gone, there will be one less mouth to feed, and it has already been agreed to, and…”

Virginia had stopped walking in shock, hardly hearing what her sister was saying as Emily continued to ramble on and walk further away. Even though Emily was not facing her, Virginia could hear the tears in her sister’s voice.

At this point, tears were starting to well up in Virginia’s eyes as well. Finally coming to her senses, she bolted forward with one hand holding her glasses and didn’t stop until she had both arms wrapped around her sister before the latter could open the front door to head inside. This seemed to catch Emily by surprise, but then the two of them were holding each other tightly.

“I want you to marry for love, Emily. I am sure if we told Father that you don’t want to—”

“No, we couldn’t ask him to do that,” Emily interrupted as she pulled back from the embrace. “It would put him in a terrible position, first of all. Besides, who would want to marry me after I already said I would marry a man and then changed my mind?” she added with a fake smile.

“But there has to be something we can do!” Virginia insisted, inwardly doubting Emily would have a hard time finding a suitor who wouldn’t mind, though there would certainly be gossip about it.

Emily didn’t reply for a long while. They quietly opened the door and stepped inside. Their home was already dark on the inside as the sun was setting outside, but they didn’t bother lighting a candle just yet as they headed to their adjoining bedrooms—one of the many ways they and their father tried to cut back on small expenses.

When it seemed as though her sister was planning on going to bed without saying anything more, Virginia placed a hand on Emily’s arm to prevent her from entering her room.

“Goodnight, Virginia,” Emily said with finality in her voice, making it clear she had no intention of continuing their conversation.

Still confused but trying not to show it on her face, Virginia replied, “Goodnight, Emily.”

Then they were parting ways, each going into their own room. Virginia didn’t go directly to her bed, though. Instead, she walked over to the rocking chair over by the curtained window and sat down to think.

It was clear that Emily didn’t want her to talk to their father about this, so going to his bedroom across the hall and waiting for him to go to bed when he finished checking all the animals for the night wasn’t an option.

As she thought, she absentmindedly traced the stitches she had made in the homemade quilt she commonly used over her legs on the colder days that was currently draped over the arm of the rocking chair.

Though she sat there a long time, not a single solution came to her as to how she could help her sister. In the end, she had to admit that if Emily didn’t want help, then there was nothing she could do.

Chapter One

Three Days Later…

Over the next few days, Virginia tried to catch her sister to talk with her again without success. Emily was doing such a good job of avoiding her that Virginia wasn’t even able to catch a glimpse of her.

Deciding that Emily apparently wanted a bit of privacy, Virginia stopped looking for her sister and tried to stay out of her way. She knew that when she was having a hard time with anything, she preferred solitude and a good book. Emily, on the other hand, preferred going into town and being around a lot of people to get her mind off her troubles.

Therefore, her sister’s absence didn’t spark any special concern beyond the worry that Emily was going to marry someone she didn’t love. Her sister had been right about the fact that they needed such a wealthy connection, but Virginia still had every intention of helping Emily find a way out if she wanted it.

All of those thoughts were thrown out the window on the third morning, just three days before the wedding was to take place, when she was woken by the sound of her father pounding on Emily’s door. Bolting upright in her bed and rubbing her eyes, she quickly grabbed the glasses from her nightstand with one hand while rubbing the sleep from her eyes with her other. As she walked to the door of her bedroom, her heart pounded in her chest at the suddenness of her movements.

As soon as she opened her door, her father turned and asked her with a face red with anger, “Have you seen your sister around? That girl hasn’t been doin’ a lick of her chores for the last couple of days! I just checked on the hens, who were squalling up a storm, only to find that their water trough was bone dry! We’ll be lucky to get half the usual count of eggs for the next few days, and we need every one of those—”

“No, I haven’t seen her lately,” Virginia interrupted as soon as she felt fully awake enough to answer. She took a deep breath as her heart finally started to slow down to its usual tempo, her mind still trying to comprehend that her sister had missed her chores. It wasn’t like her.

“Well, where is the girl? She’s not in her room; I just checked. I haven’t seen her around the house at all either—”

“I’ll get started on her chores right now before I do my own, and I’ll look for her myself,” she interrupted once more.

Grant Edison stared at her for a moment, clearly trying to think of anything more that could be done and highly displeased at the whole situation. He ran a hand through what was left of his thinning brown hair that was practically bald on the top as he told her, “Fine, just make sure when you see her that you let her know her upcoming marriage is no excuse to start slacking while she is still here.”

“I will,” Virginia quickly assured him, determinedly brushing aside her worry for the moment. She headed back into her room to get dressed for the day before he could say anything more.

She was faintly aware of him muttering something about Emily feeling that she was too good for the family now as he left to start on his own work for the morning. Meanwhile, knowing that she now had double the amount of chores, Virginia rushed through getting dressed, putting a red gingham muslin blouse and a plain black woolen skirt over her undergarments.

Instead of bothering with brushing her hair, once she pulled her boots onto her feet, she grabbed a ribbon, held onto it with her teeth, and used her fingers to get the worst of the tangles out as she left her simple room.

It wasn’t as though they could afford fancy wallpaper or curtains, so her room was very plain, with the primary color being brown from the wooden floor, wooden furniture, and wooden walls. The brightest spot was the area around her rocking chair, which had shelves full of books, the bindings of some adding a little color to the room.

First, she made a trip to the outhouse as she braided her hair and tied the ribbon at the bottom of it. Then, she decided to start on Emily’s chores first, as those were the ones that needed doing the most urgently.

The chickens were the first stop, a glance inside their yard telling her that the water was indeed dry, and they were out of feed. Grabbing a bucket of water and putting an extra amount of feed in her pail, she had to carefully get inside the chicken yard without letting any of the hens out.

The rooster was particularly cantankerous, and Virginia had to keep her back to the fence to prevent Old Red from sidling up behind her to try to spur her. The ten hens were just grateful to have food and water again, all but attacking her hands before she was even able to give them their water.

By the time she had collected the eggs from the nests in the basket and was finally out of the chicken yard, she had only been pecked a couple of times. Virginia hoped that the rest of the chores would go more smoothly.

As she had said she would, she looked all over the ranch while she did the rest of the chores. The small part of her mind not fully occupied with her tasks was busy pondering over how out of character this was for Emily. Though her sister might seem a bit flighty at first, she was usually very responsible.

It especially bothered her the whole time Virginia was busy milking the poor cow who had apparently missed her last few milkings, feeding Daisy and the other two horses their breakfast. Then, she had to fill the water trough for the horses after letting them out into their corral near their small barn that was barely big enough for their wagon, horse tack, four stalls, and the milking stand.

Once inside again, Virginia had to stoke the fire in the stove to get it going again, feed the sourdough starter with the hope that it hadn’t died, and get started on making breakfast.

Considering how much time the extra chores took her, plus the low number of eggs in the egg basket, Virginia decided that oatmeal was the quickest and best option.

Before she could even finish mixing the water with the oats and a little sugar, her father was already walking back into the house. “Did you see Emily yet?” was the first thing he asked.

Virginia was pleased to note that he sounded more weary than angry—not that she was glad he was weary; it was simply preferable to the latter emotion. “No, I haven’t,” she replied quietly.

“Well, as soon as we are through with breakfast, I want you to see where she’s gone off to and make sure she goes back to doing her chores while she is staying here,” her father stated.

“I’ll be sure to do that,” Virginia responded as she stirred the pot of oatmeal with a wooden spoon to make sure it didn’t start to stick to the bottom of the cast iron pot.

She was relieved when her father only grunted in acknowledgment and then seemed content to drop the subject, going to his bedroom, which doubled as his study.

It had been hard on him, she knew, ever since her mother had died. She had been the love of his life, both steadying and encouraging her father. True, Virginia didn’t have too many memories of her mother herself, having been young when she had died giving birth to a younger brother, who also hadn’t survived.

Though Emily sometimes told her what life had been like back then, all Virginia had known was a father who, though he showed that he cared for them, was more aptly described as distant rather than close.

As soon as breakfast was ready, she brought a bowl of it to him and he hastily put some papers away as she entered his room, never one for wanting his daughters to worry about their finances, and sharply stated, “I thought I told you to tell me when breakfast was ready.”

“That is what I am doing now,” she calmly replied, not the slightest bit offended by his tone. “I also thought that you might want to eat in here if you had any paperwork to look over,” Virginia added with a smile as she held up his bowl for him to see before setting it down on his desk.

She embraced him with her free hand and gave him a quick kiss on his weathered cheek before telling him with a serious look and in a sympathetic tone of voice, “Do try not to worry too much, Papa.”

That was enough to get him to smile a little even as he sighed and kissed the top of her head. “I can’t say that I’ll succeed there, but who knows; hopefully, it’ll be easier once your sister is married and all this is settled.”

Giving him a scolding look to imply that he should be doing his best now and not later, she gave her father a pat on the arm and left the room without a further word.

She decided to walk over to her sister’s room to start her searching, taking a bite of her food as she went in that direction, too impatient and worried to eat before trying to find her sister. Perhaps if she could figure out what Emily was wearing for the day, it would give her a clue as to where Emily had gone off to. She tried to focus on finding a solution and to brush aside the worry that wanted to gnaw a hole in her stomach.

Before she could head to Emily’s chest of clothes, however, she was distracted by the sight of a folded paper sitting on her sister’s pillow. The bed was neatly made, the simple square-patch quilt of blues and reds the only bright spot in the room otherwise made of brown woods and beige curtains.

Virginia frowned. The odd thing about all of this was that Emily never had her room this tidy. There were almost always ribbons on the dresser, improperly folded clothes peeking out of the chest, knickknacks, and flowers in some stage of wilting somewhere in the room as well.

With a sense of foreboding, her heart starting to pound in her chest, she moved over to pick up the paper with the tips of her fingers. She knew it was ridiculous, but part of her felt there was something about the note Emily had apparently left that was going to bite her.

And it was a note from Emily. That much was clear just from the handwriting. With a deep breath to fortify herself, she resisted the urge to read the last few lines first and started at the top.

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