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The Cowboy's Agreement

He needs a marriage to inherit his ranch. She is afraid to trust in love again. How can they create the family they both wish for?

Estelle fell in love with the wrong man. After an accident in the saloon that cost the life of her abusive husband, she needs to do anything in her power to take care of her young son. She promised to give him the best possible future, but the present seem ominous. How can she accept a stranger’s proposal for the sake of her family when she is afraid of love?

Mathew is faced with an ultimatum in his father’s will- marry or lose the ranch. So when his best friend working at the bank informs him about a single mother drowned in debt, Mathew seizes the opportunity. But when Estelle and her son crack open his heart, his part of the deal is off the table. Now he is determined to do anything to become a real family. How can he make them trust him when they are afraid to open up again?

Estelle and Mathew quickly create a strong bond, but soon a dangerous scheme against them threatens their newfound love. Can they muster the courage to triumph over the challenges and experience their long-awaited happy ending?

Written by:

Western Historical Romance Author

4.4/5

4.4/5 (632 ratings)

Prologue

Prescott, Arizona 1871

The moment she heard the thumping sound of her husband coming up the steps and approaching the door, Estelle hastily went into the pantry in the kitchen as her heart beat faster. She was glad that she had prepared a spot for herself there earlier on in the day while he had been gone by moving things around and hanging her apron up at just the right height that she could hopefully hide behind it if he was too drunk to pay attention to details.

It was cramped, but she knew it would have to do as she carefully closed the door behind herself so as not to make a sound. Her blue eyes were tightly closed, not that she could have seen anything in the complete darkness, and she held her breath as she heard Brian fumble to get the front door open.

She inwardly winced at how long it took him. That, and the fact that he was clearly too inebriated to close the door behind himself, meant that it was going to be a bad night. She could only hope that he was drunk enough to pass out quickly before he found her hiding place.

“Where’re you at?” he called out as he took a couple of steps inside the house. He already sounded angry. It was enough to make tears start to leak out and slide down her cheeks as she placed a protective hand over her stomach.

She winced again as she heard him trip over something and start cursing up a storm, yelling at her for not leaving a light on for him. It was always a toss-up as to whether she was supposed to leave a light on or not for him. Sometimes she would leave a lamp lit, and he would get angry about her wasting money. On other nights, she wouldn’t light something for him, and he would be angry that she caused him to trip over the furniture.

Then, of course, there had been the time she had left the lamp burning, but he had been too drunk to even notice… Still, at least tonight she had known without having to debate about it that she wasn’t going to leave him a lamp. After all, why would she want to give him a way to find her easier when she knew he wouldn’t be able to light a lamp in the state he was in?

It was more important now than ever that she hid from him, even though she knew it would make him angrier if and when he found her. Her heart pounded away in her chest so loudly she was sure he would be able to hear it, but she knew better than to respond when he called for her to show herself, followed by a handful of unsavory names.

Estelle carefully shifted herself so that she could put her hands over her ears as more tears silently leaked out. There was nothing she could do but wait for him to either find her or pass out. Unfortunately, this gave her plenty of time to think about where her life had gone wrong.

Was it when a handsome, hazel-eyed, blond-haired Brian Thompson had first noticed and started paying attention to a somewhat spindly little Estelle Brown and flattering her? Maybe it was when she first agreed to go out with him and started smiling at him and enjoying his attention. Though she had been fairly pretty, it wasn’t as though she had a list of suitors lined up to court her.

Or did things actually start going wrong further back, when her father died when she was only seventeen? Estelle was almost sure her beloved father would have noticed the signs of the type of man Brian turned out to be. Unfortunately, being alone with her mother meant that there was no man in the house to notice whatever things only another man would have seen.

After all, though she and her mother had known Brian occasionally went into town for a drink, they never went anywhere near the saloon themselves. So, where her father would have been able to walk inside and ask around about Brian Thompson, she and her mother hadn’t even considered going into such an establishment.

As she heard crashes in the house, in spite of the fact that her hands were still covering her ears, a part of Estelle was grateful that her mother had died a couple of months after she had married Brian. It had been heartbreaking and unexpected—the doctor said it had been a stroke—and there were still moments she wished for nothing more than to be able to run to her mother and be held while she sobbed out all her pain.

However, she also knew that her mother would feel horrible about Estelle being in the situation she was currently in. Estelle knew, though, that there was nothing her mother could have done. That was why, even when Brian had struck her for the first time a month into their marriage, Estelle had said nothing to her mother about it. She also hadn’t mentioned the number of nights a week that her husband came home drunk.

If Helen Brown had suspected anything was wrong with Estelle’s marriage, she hadn’t said anything. It was likely that she expected Estelle to say something about it or was waiting for her to speak first, but Estelle liked to imagine that her mother had died believing she was happily married.

She tried to hold on to that thought all the harder when she felt the whoosh of air as the door to the pantry was opened. She remained perfectly still, holding her breath and hoping that her dark hair would help her blend into the darkness.

How Brian managed to see her there when there wasn’t a light, she didn’t know—the moon and starlight coming in through the windows certainly didn’t seem like it was enough for him to see her—but she knew he had when he grabbed her roughly by the arm and jerked her out of her hiding place so hard he nearly sent her headfirst straight into the counter across from the pantry.

Estelle only barely managed to catch herself as she stumbled by putting her hand out in front of her to catch the edge of the counter before she hit it. No sooner did she get her feet under herself again, she was struck with his free hand across the cheek so hard that it nearly sent her to the floor, which would probably have happened if he didn’t have a bruising grip on her arm still.

“What’re you doin’ hidin’ from me?!” he yelled at her angrily as he swayed ever so slightly on his feet.

Pleading was useless, so she placed her free hand over her stomach to protect it as much as she could while he showed that he was in an accusing mood. “What else r’you hiding from me, you…” Brian started before he devolved into many names that no one would repeat in polite society.

“I bet you’re hidin’ your lover, aren’t you?” he finished as he finally let go of her arm in order to shove her roughly away from himself so hard that he stumbled a couple of steps backward.

Estelle landed on her bottom, grimacing at the way it jarred her spine. She knew that being on the floor was a bad thing, however, so she quickly scrambled to her feet before he could decide to step forward and kick her in the side. Running away was pointless, and there was nowhere to run to, so she simply scampered to the other side of the counter, where she would be out of reach but still in sight.

“Where is he?!” he yelled at her as he overcompensated by leaning forward so far that he nearly slipped.

“There’s no one else here,” Estelle quietly told him, knowing it wouldn’t make a difference but unable to stop herself from hoping she could calm him down.

“I don’t believe you!” Brian scowled at her, looking down at the counter and then back at her with a puzzled look, as though he couldn’t quite figure out how something had gotten in between them.

Unfortunately, this didn’t keep him occupied long, and soon he was stomping his way around the counter to her. “You had to’ve gotten pregnant somehow. And, since you didn’t get pregnant in a whole year of us bein’ married, back when you were more friendly-like to me, there’s no way it’s mine. So, I want to know who it is you’re sleepin’ with!”

She bit her tongue rather than remind him that they did share the same bed and that there were moments when he was still kind when he wanted to be. Since she feared it would only make him more foul-tempered if she refused him, she made a habit of simply enjoying those moments and pretending that they were real, hence how she had gotten pregnant.

As she slowly backed away from him, stepping over part of a broken chair that he had smashed while she had been hiding, she wished she hadn’t told him she was pregnant the last time he had come home drunk.

Estelle didn’t even know why she had thought for even a second that it would make him stop hurting her. If he didn’t care about her, he certainly wasn’t going to care about possibly making her miscarry a baby.

Since she had told him, he had only been colder and more violent toward her, claiming it was because they didn’t have money for a kid—true enough, considering he was drinking almost all of their money away to the point where they barely had enough for food.

Brian shoved her again, and Estelle was glad there was a wall a foot behind where she was standing, as she knew she would have fallen to the floor again if she hadn’t hit it instead. She intended on using the wall to brace herself up against, but then Brian grabbed her and threw her away from it while running through a number of unsavory names for her yet again.

Though she stumbled, practice enabled her to keep on her feet, and she habitually made sure to back up toward a wall where there were fewer things he could throw at her. If nothing else, it had taught her to leave the kitchen counters spotless at the end of each day if she didn’t want the porcelain bowls smashed onto herself.

“Get out!” he yelled at her as he came forward and grabbed her by the arm again, this time half-shoving and half-dragging her to the front door, which was still open.

Estelle tried to comply, but it was hard to keep her balance with her free arm still on her stomach combined with Brian’s own swaying and the angle at which he was holding her arm. Then, when he shoved her right as they reached the top of the stairs, he gave her another shove.

She wasn’t able to regain her footing, and the next moment, she was falling down the handful of stone stairs all the way to the ground in front of the porch. Her arm hurt terribly—there was a slight chance it was broken—her head was spinning, the breath had been almost completely knocked out of her lungs, and she couldn’t help but use what little air she had left to burst into tears.

Of course, that didn’t help her breathing at all. In fact, it only prevented her from being able to even attempt to try getting to her feet again. Fortunately, Brian seemed satisfied to leave her alone now, as he headed back inside the house and left her there.

As soon as she realized this, she relaxed slightly with relief and let herself just lay there and curl around her stomach and cry. She didn’t know how many stairs a woman had to fall down in order to miscarry, only knowing that her mother had miscarried once from a fall down stairs after Estelle had been born and had never gotten pregnant again after that for whatever reason.

At that moment, Estelle felt certain that, even though it was only a few stairs, it was enough to make her miscarry when combined with how she was treated on an almost everyday basis. So, while she cried for the pain she was currently in, she also cried for the baby she was certain she was about to lose.

Estelle also wept for the small part of her that thought it might be better if she never had a child. After all, this was hardly the sort of life any newborn should have. Looking ahead at what promised to be years of pain in store for her, she sent an inward prayer to heaven that someday, somehow, something would change for the better.

Chapter One

Prescott, Arizona 1875

Estelle looked out of the window for the second time that evening, noting with dismay the way the sky was darkening as the sun set. A familiar worry tightened her chest as she was forced to admit that her husband had stopped by the saloon on the way home again—not that this was the slightest bit surprising.

Brian had been spending even more time there lately. The less money he had, the more he seemed to feel the need to drown his troubles in drink, which obviously didn’t help their finances. Mentioning this was not something she dared to do, of course, as she knew without trying that it would only serve to make him angry.

“Momma, I’m done,” a little voice beside her said quietly as her four-year-old son tugged gently on the edge of her skirt.

A slight smile easily formed on her face as she glanced down at Marcus, and she placed a hand on his head. “And did you remember to put the box under your bed all the way so that it doesn’t show?”

Marcus pursed his plump little lips in thought for a moment before dashing away back to his room. She kept smiling as she watched him disappear out of sight, even though she felt a twinge of guilt that her son needed to hide his toys to prevent his father from getting mad at the money that had been spent on them—it wouldn’t matter that she had made most of them herself so Marcus could have something and that they, therefore, hadn’t cost anything.

With a deep sigh, she turned to glance out of the window again, knowing it was pointless to expect Brian home. This time, she noticed with sadness the ramshackle farm buildings.

The paint had been peeling on all of them for about two years, and by now, there was more wood than paint visible. The sight of the holes in the roof of the barn only reminded her that there were almost just as many leaks in the roof of the house that let the water stream in anytime it rained.

And that was not to mention the holes in the side of the barn or the fact that one of the doors had fallen off the hinges long ago, the other only barely holding on as it tilted precariously—there was no doubt it would fall off soon as well.

Through quite a bit of hard work on her part, she had managed to keep the house looking a little better. There was nothing inside but what was necessary, nothing on the walls, no decorations, no clock in the hall to see the time, and the curtains on the window were sheer from being washed so many times.

Estelle had even needed to quietly sell their last rug so that she could buy some fabric to make Marcus some clothes as he grew. She didn’t know what she was going to do when he outgrew the ones he currently had.

With another sigh, she turned away from the window to check on Marcus. Even as she inwardly wished for perhaps the millionth time that she could give her son a better life somehow, she was also grateful that she hadn’t miscarried him when Brian had pushed her down the stone stairs in front of their house that night.

She had been certain more than once that there was no way she could avoid miscarrying, but she had actually managed to stay pregnant for the full nine months. Marcus was healthy, and she did her best to keep him happy and safe, even though there wasn’t much she could do about keeping him safe from his own father. Fortunately, Brian didn’t seem to care about him enough to treat him either well or poorly.

As she reached the doorway of Marcus’s room, a small smile came onto her face once more as she watched him push the box that held his few toys further under his bed, pushing it with his hands while on his knees and his bottom wiggling back and forth in the air.

When he finally had it out of sight, he crawled back out from underneath the edge of his bed with a grin on his face. “Done!” he announced as he came over to her side, his blue eyes showing how proud he was of himself.

She smoothed his blond hair back away from his face, mentally noting that she needed to cut it soon so that it wouldn’t be long enough to keep getting in his eyes. “Good job. Now then, it is time for your snack before bed,” she told him as she led the way to the kitchen.

He was more than willing to follow along without saying a word, and she hated the fact that he glanced with mild apprehension toward the front door as they walked. She also disliked that she knew how fortunate they both were that Marcus resembled his father.

Brian’s anger had eased a little when Marcus had been born with his father’s blond hair and nose, his eyes and other features more strongly resembling Estelle. In short, he was a perfect blend of both Brian and Estelle, and anyone who saw Marcus could tell as much.

Fortunately, this meant that Brian wasn’t as prone to lashing out at Marcus as he was at Estelle. She could make sure her son was in bed before Brian came home at night and know that Marcus wasn’t likely to get hurt as long as he stayed in his room as she had taught him to do. She didn’t want to think about what might have happened if Marcus hadn’t looked like Brian.

Since Marcus’s snack was simply a slice of bread and some tea that she had already set to cooling earlier, it only took her a moment to grab it for him. She soon had him seated on the stool in the corner of the kitchen with a chair seat at his table while he quietly ate his bread.

Just then, there was a knock at the door, catching them both by surprise. Estelle didn’t protest when Marcus grabbed his bread and his tea and took them to his room. He was simply doing what she had taught him to do when his father came home early—though she knew Brian would never knock at his own door.

Even though she knew it couldn’t be her husband, and that it was probably just her sister-in-law dropping by for an unexpected visit, her pulse quickened anyway. Smoothing down her skirt, she gave her son a moment to get to the relative safety of his room by walking slowly to the front door.

While it wasn’t Tiffany standing there, Estelle wasn’t altogether surprised to see one of the town’s deputies in front of her, hat in hand. “Ma’am.”

“My husband isn’t here,” she told him flatly, thinking that Brian must have, once again, gotten drunk earlier on in the day than usual and decided to break things in town instead of breaking his own furniture. This wasn’t the first time a deputy had come about that while her husband was in town somewhere else getting even more intoxicated.

“I’m, um…” The deputy looked extremely uncomfortable, which would have been amusing in almost any other circumstance considering the way he towered over her, his dark hair and scruffy appearance making him look quite gruff. “I know that he isn’t here, ma’am.”

Brian had gotten thrown into jail for the night, then. Good. “You know that I don’t have enough money for bail—”

“Oh, hang it all, I’m not here about that either,” the deputy replied, looking frustrated with himself. “I’m here because your husband, well, he got himself into a fight, and he—well, he died.”

Estelle blinked. Then she wondered if she really heard what she thought she had. “What?”

The deputy seemed to suddenly feel guilty about being so blunt. “I’m sorry for your loss, ma’am. Doc Lewis did everything he could, but your husband sorta… well, someone drew a knife at some point in the fight—we don’t know who—and he ended up getting stabbed by it, though he might have fallen into it a bit too. The sheriff is looking into that, though! That’s why I’m here instead of him doing this…”

She was partially glad for the deputy’s rambling, absentmindedly nodding when his words drifted off. Estelle felt numb; it still hadn’t fully sunk in that Brian was dead. It took her a moment to realize the deputy was still standing there awkwardly and currently looking at her with concern.

As soon as her eyes met his, he asked her in a sympathetic tone of voice, “Is there—Is there anything you want me to do, ma’am?”

Almost instantly, she started shaking her head. “No, thank you. I think I would like to be alone right now.”

“Of course,” the deputy replied almost eagerly, already starting to step back and obviously relieved that he could go do something else.

Estelle thought she might have heard him fumblingly start to tell her goodnight, but she wasn’t paying any attention to that as she closed the door behind him. She turned and put her back up against the door, leaning against it while she processed what she had just been told.

The first emotion that made it through was relief, followed by just a hint of guilt at being relieved her husband was dead. Still, no more Brian meant no more drunk husband, getting things thrown at her, getting hit, or Marcus having to hear yelling at night. There was no other emotion besides relief that she could feel about that.

She didn’t know how long she stood there, but eventually, she started to realize that no husband would also mean no source of income—not that he brought in much that he didn’t also drink away.

Before she could think much about that, however, there was the sound of a horse coming up to the house. Thinking that it was probably the sheriff with more details for her, Estelle didn’t hesitate to open the door.

It wasn’t the sheriff; it was her sister-in-law. Tiffany didn’t even bother with tying her horse’s reigns to the hitching post as she leaped from her horse and ran up the stairs to throw herself at Estelle with a burst of tears. “He’s gone! I can’t believe it. My brother’s gone!”

Estelle was forced to take a step back to keep them both upright. “I assume the deputy told you?” she asked as she wrapped her arms around the younger woman, moving the waist-length wavy blonde hair aside as she did so in order to soothingly rub the taller woman’s back without it in the way.

Tiffany nodded. “I don’t believe it! Brian can’t… he just can’t be gone!”

“I don’t think they would make a mistake about who died,” Estelle pointed out logically.

“Isn’t it horrible?!” her sister-in-law asked, looking up with hazel eyes and catching on to the fact that Estelle wasn’t crying.

This wasn’t surprising at all, considering the fact that Tiffany had always refused to listen to anything ill spoken about her brother, who had always treated her respectfully. So, Estelle simply nodded and decided to tell a half-truth. “I think I am still a bit numb. I… it was just so unexpected.”

Seemingly satisfied, Tiffany burst into a fresh wave of tears as she wailed, “I know! And now Marcus is going to have to grow up without his father, and who’s going to take care of the ranch? And he’ll never get to turn this ranch into the success he always planned for it to be!”

With an inward sigh, Estelle led her sister-in-law inside and to a seat. She then put some water in the kettle and placed one of the few logs she had in the stove to get it going so the water would boil.

By tuning out what Tiffany was saying, Estelle let the relief sink further into her bones. There was a chance that, with as young as Marcus was, he could eventually forget the life of hiding and quietness he had always been forced to live until now.

Just the thought of being able to let him happily chatter away like other kids his age she had seen and to stop looking at the door with fear was enough to make Estelle’s eyes water. She wanted to see her son confident and energetic, and now there was a chance of that happening.

She started sniffling without even noticing it due to how moved she was by the mental picture. Tiffany was the one who brought her attention to it by throwing her arms around Estelle again and saying, “I know, I know. It was all so sudden, but it’s hitting you now, just like it hit me that he’s dead now. It—It’s just so awful!”

Estelle neither corrected her sister-in-law nor did anything to stem her tears. She still had no idea how she was going to make ends meet, of course. However, she would do anything she needed to if it meant securing a better life for her son. There was actually a chance of that now!

Pretending to get lost in sorrowful thoughts, she instead started planning what she could do. She would have gladly taken up work before, but Brian had forbidden it and had been furious the one time she had suggested it—she was fairly sure it was because he didn’t want her to be around other people who might notice how he treated her—so she wasn’t even certain what her options were.

However, now that she had a glimmer of hope, she was going to grab on to it with both hands and not let go. All she had to do was find some way to support herself and her son. Surely that had to be feasible, right?

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