Christine will do anything to escape an arranged marriage. For Jess, this marriage of convenience is just another business deal. How will two people accept the nature of true love when they are afraid to let their feelings free?
“And yet, here he was, in the exact situation he never thought he would find himself in. Falling in love with his wife.”
Christine is the obedient daughter every father wishes for but is never rewarded for that. When she finds out that her family plans to marry her to a complete stranger twice her age for their own profit, she makes a daring move, answering a mail-order bride ad. Will she discover what she is looking for, or will this decision backfire?
Jess always relies on himself. He prefers speaking to animals instead of people because they’ll never betray his loyalty. A marriage of convenience is the only thing he needs since he is not in the mood for romance. How can he accept his growing feelings and lay his trust in people again?
As Christine and Jess’ feelings get fiercer, the most challenging test of their love awaits them. Will they manage? Will their love prevail, or will Jess’ rivals and Christine’s past drive them apart?
“Slow down!” Christine panted. A light breeze caressed her thick auburn curls as she trotted through the tall grass, losing sight of their father’s modest estate in favor of the sprawling ranch. “Father would pitch a fit if he saw you running like that.”
Reluctantly, her younger half-sister Rose changed to a brisk walk, her brown eyes twinkling playfully, dirty blonde hair waving in the wind. Christine exhaled a sigh of relief as she finally caught up.
Rose simply nodded and Christine nudged her shoulder. “What are we grinning about, anyway? The horses aren’t going anywhere, let alone without dinner.” A small, sly smirk curled up Christine’s lips. “Are you late for something? Might I need to warn father that a young suitor has his eye on you?”
Rose shot her a mock death glare as her cheeks burned. “Oh shush.”
Christine laughed. “I knew it! Is it the boy from your class that you’ve been admiring since you were this high?” Christine brought her own hand up to her hip as Rose’s features scrunched.
“Ew, Jasper Harris?” She shook her head vehemently and held up her hands. “You’re barking up a knot Christine. What an idea!”
Christine smiled, bumping their hips together. You never know. One day you may think differently.”
Rose scoffed. “From what father has told me, it’s you who ought to be scouting suitors.”
Christine’s eyebrows rose into her hairline and her lips puckered. A familiar knot settled in her stomach, but she fought to keep her voice and gait steady as she said, “Oh?” It came out barely above a croak thanks to the lump lodged in her throat, but she swallowed around it and pushed on. “And…what has he told you?”
Despite being eighteen and the older sibling by nearly three years, in the Bullock household, Christine was always the last to be informed of things, especially when it came from her father. Rose received the biggest room at the estate, the most well-bred horse of the pack, and wore nothing less than the finest dresses her father could afford from the shop in town. She was his little miracle, his perfect baby girl. And Christine…well, she was a ghost. The last, and perhaps most poignant, reminder of her father’s first love.
Christine loved Rose like they were full-blood siblings, though, and would never blame her for the way their father treated his daughters. He was responsible for his own behavior. As much as the neglect stung, it was Rose and her unwavering sense of hope even in the darkest of times that had helped keep their family together since their stepmother died, and Christine was thankful for her sister every day
Christine had never met her mother. She’d died shortly after Christine had turned three. The few memories that remained in the recesses of Christine’s mind grew fainter with each year that passed. Only one stayed little more than a whisper in her subconscious. A simple lullaby. It was her most beloved melody. But she had long since foregone the tune, lest she wanted to remember the faint misty look in her father’s eye. As if she truly were nothing more than a figment of his imagination from a long-forgotten dream rather than his flesh and blood standing before him.
She did her best to be the perfect doting daughter, keeping house, becoming an inscrutable hostess, and comforting him as best she could since her stepmother had died six years prior. She had thought that, with time, the pain would cease, but in the last year and a half, it had only become more prevalent. It seemed that every time she turned around, her father was more and more distressed about the state of the ranch. But he would never reveal to either of them anything of substance. Only that they needn’t pay the gossips any mind and that everything would be taken care of soon enough.
A seed of doubt had tried many times to implant itself inside Christine’s mind, but she trusted her father. If it were God’s will, then everything would indeed pay out in their favor.
“Only that it was high time a proper gentleman come callin’,” Rose’s soft voice dragged Christine back to the present. She looked down at her sister, who smiled slyly and crossed her hands behind her back. “You know the last thing Papa wants for you is to end up an old maid.” A mischievous wink accompanied that comment before Rose spun on her heel and scampered toward the barn. Christine shook her head but smiled. Rose had always been a bit of a mischief maker, but she brought light in the house where there had been little after her mother had died, and Christine loved her for it.
“Old maid?!” Christine sputtered, glancing both ways to make sure no one was watching before racing after her sister. “Where do you get off, calling me a name like that?”
Christine wrapped her arms around the younger girl’s waist and gently tickled her sides. Rose shrieked with laughter as fireflies poked out from behind the trees and the sun dipped beneath the hills of the farmland.
“Hey, no! Stop!” Rose tried to squirm away, but Christine held fast. Their peaceful jubilance was broken by a sharp, guttural voice cutting through the trees.
“Ask no add. We both know you don’t have the funds for it. Or the sands for that matter.” The voice alone sent shivers down her spine but the venom in the man’s tone was stronger than she’d ever heard.
Immediately, both girls smoothed out their skirts, with Christine reaching across to brush some specks of dust-off Rose’s hem. Then, sucking in a breath and holding it so not even a wisp of air would escape, they crept around the cluster of cedars lining their land, and peered out toward the edge of the well-worn dirt road. As she squinted into the waning sunlight, two figures caught her eye.
Her father’s normally soft features now appeared creased with worry, and his kind brown eyes, the spitting image of Rose’s, darted about like a corralled bronco. His greying mustache twitched as he clenched his square jaw and dug his mud-caked boots into the ground, as if to strengthen his stance. “Don’t be such a blowhard, John,” their father boomed. “We had a deal.”
Christine and her sister nearly stepped into the line of site if only to get a better look at whomever their father was scolding, but quickly ducked behind a tree when they recognized the other sneering silhouette, not wanting to be caught. Their father would be aghast if he found them eavesdropping. The Bullock family had always prided itself on having better manners than that, and she did not want to face the scolding she and her sister would get if they were caught.
Though the man standing across from Christine’s father was shrouded in shadow and barely a hand taller, John Crane seemed to tower over her father as he leaned in close, growling his answer with such menace that Christine could almost smell the foul stench of whiskey that always coated his breath.
“Deals come a copper every day here, you ought to know that by now.” Fear squeezed Christine’s heart like an iron fist as her father’s chiseler of a business partner fingered the pistol strapped to his hip. “And if you don’t let me fetch what I asked for, the slangander I have on you will tarnish your family name for the next three generations.”
Christine’s temper flared even as her insides turned to ice. What was he talking about?
Much as her father continued to insist he was nothing more than an upright businessman, Christine had always had the intuition that John was a mudsill. Perhaps it was his continued unwanted advances toward her, but if she needed any further proof that John Crane was nothing more than a fraud, here it was. She lunged forward in a very unladylike fashion; she simply couldn’t allow such a man to upend their family’s honor.
A sharp tug pulled at her shoulder, and she turned to see Rose, with wide eyes and parted lips, trying to yank her back into the shadows. The fresh, fruity scent of fallen pine leaves rose up to meet her senses as her sister hissed, “What are you doing? Father will clean our plows if he finds us here!”
Christine ignored her warning. Just before she could creep close enough to come into view, though, something crunched beneath her foot. She held her breath as John’s gaze shot up, roaming over the trees and barely missing their hiding spot.
“Who’s there?” he shouted. “Out with you. I won’t allow trespassers on this land.” He cocked his pistol in warning, and Christine’s heart lurched into her throat.
“Come on,” Rose whispered. “Let’s get out of here!” Christine nodded her agreement and the sisters disappeared into the brush.
Their father still hadn’t returned by the time the girls had washed up for dinner, so Christine busied herself scrubbing the pots that weren’t on the warmer to leave the meal hot. Dishes clanged in the sink as the smell of their father’s favorite chicken and biscuits permeated the air, but her appetite had all but vanished. Christine rested her hands gently against the countertop that separated their kitchen from the cozy breakfast nook, a square table with four matching, elegantly carved chairs and covered with a white tablecloth. She kept one eye on the stove settled between two more counters as steam began to rise from one of the pans. She hurried over to flip the biscuits.
“What do you think he wanted?” Christine asked while Rose set the table as their father’s wagon pulled up beside the house. “I mean, I know the ranch hasn’t been at its finest. But Father has always told us to trust him.”
Rose stepped up beside her and squeezed her shoulders. “Don’t work yourself up. You know how John can get sometimes. I’m sure he was just airing his lungs.”
Airing his lungs? Christine was astounded. Had Rose heard the same confrontation? Christine had her own reasons for never trusting John, but her sister had always been far too forgiving, even in spite of the rumors that spread around town. Many folks assumed he was much more than the upstanding businessman he was, and some even accused him of being crooked. For her father’s sake, the girls tried to ignore the wagging tongues that wove such tails, but the more she saw of the man, the more she began to believe the rumors may be more than just stories.
“Besides, if anything important were going on, Papa wouldn’t leave us in the lurch for long.” Christine wrung her hands as she heard the front door slam open and her father’s boots thump across the floor in the parlor. Perhaps her sister was right, and she really was making something of nothing. But she didn’t need to be any more left in the dark about John Crane.
That night at dinner, Rose peppered their father with questions, slowly building up to asking about the confrontation. But the moment the four-flusher’s name left her mouth, her father’s glowing gaze settled on Christine.
The food suddenly tasted of pig slop, but she gulped it down as she fisted her skirt in her hands. Why was her father looking at her like that? Like she somehow held the answer to all of his problems with the ranch?
Nelson Bullock popped the last piece of biscuit in his mouth before running the cloth napkin across it and leaning back in his chair. “He came to me today with quite the compelling proposal.” Rose leaned forward and painted on her most award-worthy smile as she tucked her hands beneath her chin.
“What did he have to say, Papa?”
Christine did her best to mimic her sister’s enthusiastic posture as she waited with bated breath for the answer.
“Well, as I’m sure you both have noticed, our ranch is not as fine an institution as it once was.” He shifted in his chair and ran his hand through his receding hairline, but Christine only nodded in answer.
“Mr. Crane has been trying to help me right the books for some time now, and tonight, he came up with the perfect solution.”
The laugh lines around his eyes increased as he watched Christine expectantly. Dread coiled in her stomach like a tea kettle threatening to boil over. She tried her hardest to stretch her lips into what she hoped was a sincere smile. “That’s wonderful, Father. What is it?” She was relieved when the question came out as one of genuine curiosity rather than barely concealed terror.
“Well, my dear,” her father’s chair scraped across the floor as he rounded the table to take her hand in his. “After much deliberation—” Lord help me, Christine prayed, “—he has asked—”If there’s another life out there for me, please, don’t let him say—
“for your hand in marriage.”
The floor swayed beneath Christine’s feet. Rose’s hand on her arm kept her anchored to the earth, but just barely.
“Marriage? To…to John Crane?” Christine begged her mind to come up with something, anything to talk her father out of such an erroneous idea, but none came.
Her father beamed. “I’ve accepted. With this union, all of our problems shall be solved.”
Through the ringing in her ears, Christine swore she heard Rose try to stand up for her, but their father simply shook his head and bid good night before retreating to his office with a skip in his step. Rose and Christine stared at each other, dumbstruck.
Mrs. Crane? The title was nauseating even in her own subconscious. She couldn’t, wouldn’t, become nothing more than another one of his trophies.
The man was much too much of a braggart to see anyone he met as anything other than another means to an end. Men like that were exactly the sort of men Christine made every effort to stay away from. But…her father needed her. Still, she was a smart girl. Her mothers—both of them—had taught her better than to submit to something that didn’t truly make her happy. She loved her father, but there had to be a way for both of them to get what they wanted.
She stood from the table, fighting to keep her composure as she cleared the plates all while fending off Rose’s endless attempts at reassurance, before finally retreating to her room to think.
When the Lord closes a door, someone opens a window. She just had to find it.
In the days following her father’s announcement, Christine spent every waking hour pondering other solutions to their problem. Selling the ranch was not an option. Her father would never agree, and it may worsen their predicament. Sure, Christine would have her dignity, but the Bullock property was her father’s life’s work and her family’s greatest legacy. Shouldn’t she do everything she could to protect it?
She wanted that more than anything. But after two dawns had come and gone with barely a wink of sleep, she had no choice, and finally bolstered the courage to appeal to her father. But every time the subject was broached, he either pacified her worries by reminding her how “beneficial the union would be for the entire Bullock family,” or scarcely acknowledged them at all.
One night, after his gaze had lingered on her a moment too long as he departed the ranch following a business meeting, Christine had had enough. Dusk had long since passed, but she’d never stopped pacing the floor in her room. Had Christine’s stepmother been here, she would’ve scolded Christine for “plowing through the wood like cattle through dirt.” As it was, Rose—sweet, innocent, perfect Rose—just sat and listened with the patience of a saint as Christine aired her frustrations.
“This land means everything to him. And you know I’ve always done everything I can to make him happy.” She threw up her hands in exasperation and stared pleadingly at her sister as her feet finally ceased moving.
Her sister hummed from where she sat with her legs tucked underneath her atop Christine’s embroidered flower quilt. “You always have.”
“But this? Be wed for the rest of my life to a man with less honor for his partners than a spider for a fly?” She sighed, running a hand down her face, and collapsed atop the sheets next to Rose. “Can I really do this? Even if it’s to preserve our legacy?”
Reaching over, Rose gently squeezed her sister’s knee. “Christine, our legacy isn’t in this land. It’s in us. In you and me and even Mama’s memory.” She clucked her tongue with a shake of her head as she brushed a loose strand of dirty blonde hair out of her eyes. “In fact, I’m pretty sure she’d turn over in her grave if she knew you were even considering this travesty of a marriage.”
Christine forced a light laugh, though it nearly got caught in her throat. “Horse feathers. She would’ve done anything for Father.”
Rose smiled, but her eyes went glassy. “Yes, but she also trusted him. Can you say the same about Crane?”
Christine recoiled and scrunched up her face. Rose giggled.
“I thought not. So maybe you should just talk to Papa and—”
Christine sighed. “Don’t you think I’ve already tried? You know he only listens to you.”
“That’s not true.”
“Trust me,” she lamented, folding her hands in her lap and tracing the hem of her nightgown. “On this matter, it is.” She recounted the last time she’d conversed with her father.
“You know I would do anything for our family, Father,” she had begun. “Believe me, I wish nothing more than to protect this precious piece of our history, but Crane… Rose always said mother trusted you more than anyone. Don’t you want that for us too?”
Her father’s shoulders slumped as he remained hunched over his worn leather-bound ledgers. His reading glasses slipped to the tip of his nose as he exhaled. “This ranch is all I have. If we lose it…” He ran a hand down his face and, when his eyes finally met hers, his gaze was tinged with… fear? No, more than that. Her throat closed up a bit when she recognized his tightlipped, wide-eyed, pensive expression as one of desperation.
“One day, when you’re older, perhaps you’ll understand.”
Christine opened her mouth to protest—if she was old enough to marry, then surely she was old enough to know the truth about John Crane—however gruesome it may be. But the easy manner with which the man had fingered his pistol, as if he would have absolutely no qualms about killing her father should he make one wrong move, made her breaths come in short spurts as her pulse quickened. She swallowed hard and retreated as quietly as she had come.
They hadn’t exchanged more than polite pleasantries since that night. By the time Christine concluded the story, Rose’s eyes flashed with determination. “Don’t worry. We’ll find a way to make him see reason. I read a story once in the Gazette where—”
Christine rolled her eyes. “Oh, not this again. We barely have enough money to keep the ranch running, let alone be as rebellious as the people in the paper.”
With a soft kiss on the head and a thankful hug, Christine bid her sister off to bed. If only she could be half as confident. And if only a solution was as easy to come by as one of Rose’s black-and-white posted fairytales.
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