All she desires is a family of her own. His broken heart has left a void within him. Can an adventurous journey through the desert help them heal their traumas and fall in love?
“He swallowed, fighting the urge to lean over and kiss her full lips, showing her how much she meant to him“
When Emily’s father passes away, she loses the ground beneath her feet. Destitute and alone, she decides to become a mail order bride in hopes that she will find love and a place to call home. But when she reaches Texas, an unpleasant surprise is waiting for her. How can she trust that Howard, a man she has not even met yet, will have her best interests at heart and come to her rescue?
After getting hurt by love, Howard closes his heart once and for all. He only wants a marriage of convenience to provide a mother figure to his little siblings. When he goes to pick up Emily from the station, he discovers a dangerous trap for young women but manages to rescue her. How can he get over his fears and offer her the love she deserves when they are opposites in every sense of the word?
Emily’s beauty and easy manner unsettle taciturn, nervous Howard. Their dangerous journey though, will lower their defenses and bind them to each other. Will their bond stand the test of time and the challenges that wait for them at Howard’s ranch?
West Debbie, Texas, 1881
Emily blinked, the sunlight radiating through the train window, warming her cheeks. She rubbed her light green eyes, tucking a stray lock of blonde hair behind her ear. She glanced around the train, noting that the crowd had seemed to have thinned out a bit. The row across from her was now empty, the worn black padded benches covered with a light layer of dust. The young family of four had gotten off a few stops ago. Emily had been relieved when they left as their infant had seemingly cried nonstop for hours upon end. The mother had worked tirelessly to console the baby and apologized to Emily multiple times, but it still had left her with a lingering headache.
She turned to peer out across the landscape as the train continued forward at a steady pace. It had noticeably changed from fields of eye-catching Bluebonnets to desert conditions—the grass was sparse, and the bushes appeared brushy and dull.
So, this is West Texas.
She knew this new life she was embarking on would have her father rolling in his grave—he had never wanted this for her. However, when he passed after years of battling a mystery illness, Emily had no choice but to sell off everything they owned to repay her father’s large debts.
Emily took a deep breath and rested her head back on the seat, swallowing the grief that threatened to spill from her eyes. It had been months since her father had passed, but the wound still ached as if had happened that very day. After all, she lost not only her father, but everything she had ever known—her childhood home, the wagon her father built himself, and their precious carriage horse, Sam. She had always been fond of animals, and Sam had carried her many miles.
She glanced down at the carpet bag resting at her feet.
That—that is all have.
Emily nudged it with her boot out of frustration. Most women brought hope, chests filled with fancy china and other household goods. Not Emily. Her bag had only the bare necessities, including a few nice dresses, sewing essentials, and her favorite romance books. There was nothing to stow away in the luggage compartment for her.
Through everything, it had been a tough decision to take the risk of answering a mail order bride ad, but it was better than starving to death or resorting to less than proper methods to earn a living. Despite her talent as a seamstress, it wasn’t enough to support her living on her own—not that she wanted to live on her own.
Besides, Howard Harris seemed like a nice man. His ad was simple. It said he was seeking companionship, help around his ranch, and to provide his two young siblings with a woman influence. Emily didn’t have any experience with ranches, or children either for that matter, but something about it drew her to respond. Much to her surprise, he had written back quickly—his letters full of kindness, compassion, and gentleness she had never experienced before.
But those are just letters.
What if he’s not as kind as his words?
Emily took a deep breath, wringing her hands in her lap. She had thought of all the terrifying scenarios of what Howard could be like—the worst case is that he is a man who physically disciplines his wife. That specific thought had equated to many restless nights as Emily had heard many horror stories of such things. Her hands were trembling as her mind spun with ever-growing panic.
“Stop,” she chided herself quietly. “I’m going to be just fine.”
The train was running ahead of schedule by an hour, and she had sent Howard a telegram as soon as she had a chance.
Surely, he received it. Worst case scenario, I’ll just have to wait for him.
Usually, waiting wouldn’t bother Emily—she could pass the time with a good read, but today her nerves were on edge. Not only was she marrying a man she had never met but moving to West Texas was risky. She had heard people talk about the outlaws, gunfights, and unforgiving elements. However, it couldn’t be any worse than Georgia. There weren’t notable outlaws or gunfights, but the humidity was unbearable—and the mosquitos. She shuddered at the thought of them.
“West Debbie, Texas stop in one mile,” she heard the conductor call. Her heart jumped in her chest, and she wiped her sweaty palms on her green dress. In her and Howard’s correspondences, they had discussed her green dress, which would help him find her. She hadn’t mentioned why it was her favorite—it seemed inappropriate to discuss the way it clung to her small frame, accentuating her feminine features.
The train station was busier than Emily had imagined, as the train squealed to a stop at the platform. She stood, grabbed her measly bag, and along with a handful of others, filed off the train. As soon as stepped onto the wooden platform, she inhaled the fresh warm spring breeze. The air on the train had felt stale, smelling of cigar smoke and must, so even if it was a bit dry here, it was better than that.
Now to find Howard.
She held the leather bag on her back so tightly her knuckles had gone white, and her fingernails dug into her palms. Her apprehension had her teetering on the verge of tears.
I can do this.
I don’t want to meet him crying—how embarrassing would that be.
Emily pursed her lips as she searched the crowd. Howard hadn’t provided her much information in the way of his looks but had mentioned he was taller than the average man, with dark hair and grey eyes. Many people were standing and shuffling about—of all different shapes and sizes, but none seemed to match Howard’s description. She spotted a short and rather plump porter, and she squeezed by a few women in brightly colored dresses to reach him.
“Excuse me, sir,” she waved to him, catching his attention.
“What can I do for you, ma’am?” he asked, wiping sweat from his brow, and tossing another bag to the platform.
“I’m looking for a man named Howard Harris,” she began, her voice trembling slightly. “He’s supposed to be picking me up from here, but the train was running early. I sent him a telegram back in Jefferson, Texas, but I can’t seem to find him.”
The porter sighed. “What’s he looks like? There’s an awful lot of men here.”
“Excuse me,” a voice interrupted from behind her.
Emily spun around, her heart racing in her ears. She raised her eyebrows at the sight—this couldn’t be Howard. This man was short, with mousy-brown thinning hair and a handlebar mustache.
“I think I’m who you’re looking for,” he smiled, and Emily noted he was missing a few of his teeth. “I work for Howard.”
“There’s your man,” the porter gestured, before returning to his pile of bags.
“Um,” Emily hesitated, and shifted uncomfortably under the man’s gaze. Howard had made out his ranch hand to be funny, warm, and charming, not—unsettling. “I thought he was coming to pick me up himself.” She gazed past him, her eyes continuing to search the crowd. This man simply had to be mistaken.
“He gave me the telegram to make you feel a bit more at ease,” the man held out a crinkled piece of paper.
Emily took it from his hand, scrunching her nose as she caught a whiff of the man’s stale stench of sweat and alcohol. Immediately she recognized it as the telegram she had sent back in Jefferson. Her heart sank into her chest at the realization that Howard hadn’t come himself, though she couldn’t shake the unease she felt in the presence of this stranger.
He had promised to be here.
Did something come up?
“Miss?” the porter interrupted her thoughts. “Is something the matter?”
“Must be the heat. We need to get a move on,” the man said, his tone brash, grabbing Emily’s arm.
Emily jerked her arm from his grip and handed him back the telegram. “I’ll come with you, without you dragging me as such,” she snapped. “Where is Howard?”
“He’s going to meet us just up the way,” the man smiled a toothless grin and gestured towards the town.
Emily nodded and resigned herself to following the audacious stranger away from the safety of the train station.
West Debbie, Texas, 1881
“I mean, you’ve never met the woman,” Toby reasoned, leaning against the wooden corral—the brand-new panels had yet to be painted. “How do you know she is what she claims to be?”
“I guess I don’t,” Howard said, as he continued hitching the second mule to a small wagon. The large draft molly mule was refusing to stand still to be harnessed—she still needed more training. He would’ve preferred to have taken a couple of horses over this team but wanted to ensure Emily felt safe and comfortable—a woman from the city shouldn’t be sleeping on a bedroll in the open. The mules were a bit wild, as he had only broken them to drive a few months ago, but he figured he’d leave that detail out. He would be able to keep control of them—hopefully.
“What if she’s not what you expect her to be?” Toby, his ranch hand, continued, his voice light-hearted, but carrying a tone of caution. “What if she’s just plain crazy? You know what they say, ‘bout them southern belle types.”
“No, Toby,” he shook his head. “I don’t know what they say about them.”
“They’re real prim and proper. How are you gonna deal with that here? What about Scarlett? She’s basically been raised by men. She don’t know how to be a lady.”
“Which is exactly why she needs one around,” Howard snapped, ignoring his own concerns hanging heavy in his mind. It wasn’t as if he hadn’t considered these things—he was downright terrified that Emily might not take to the isolation of the ranch.
He wiped the sweat from his brow, shrugging the intrusive thoughts away. There was no need to worry about her leaving him before he ever met her—right?
“How do you feel about it?” Toby urged. “You gotta feel at least a bit nervous? What if she thinks you’re ugly or somethin’?”
Howard rolled his eyes. “I feel like you oughta get back to work instead of being worried about whether or not Emily thinks I’m ugly.” He hadn’t bothered to concern himself much with the thought of Emily finding his appearance ugly, but at Toby’s mention, he now was considering it. He had always felt like such a giant with awkward long arms and broad shoulders.
Just add one more thing to my list of concerns.
“You sure get crabby when you’re nervous,” Toby chuckled.
“Knock it off,” Howard stopped fidgeting with the harness and looked at Toby standing, arms folded across his chest. His face was reddened, and light hair bleached from the brutal West Texas sun. Toby had a sense of humor that was an annoyance, but overall, he was a good man—and the best ranch hand around. Howard sighed, “I’m not sure what to expect, to be honest. I just know I’m looking for a blonde-headed woman in a green dress—like her surname, Green.”
“That was clever,” Toby laughed. “Or was that just a coincidence?”
Howard rolled his eyes. “I don’t know why I tell you anything.”
“Me, either.” Toby grabbed some of the supplies and loaded them into the back of the wagon. “There’s not much here. Poor girl might starve on the way home.”
“I’ll get more supplies when I get to town,” Howard said. “I’ll let her get whatever she thinks she might need.”
“That’s mighty nice of you.”
“She’s gonna be my wife, Toby.”
“Too bad your last name ain’t a color. Betcha she’d wear a dress to match after you’re married,” Toby erupted in laughter, and Howard hopped up into the wagon, ignoring him.
“I gotta tell the kids goodbye,” he said, cuing the mules forward. “I’ll see you in a couple of weeks—save your bad jokes for me.”
“Always, Howard,” Toby grinned. “Be safe on that long ride into town and really,” he paused. “I do hope she’s as lovely as she seems to be.”
Howard sighed. “Me, too.”
Matthew and Scarlett were waiting for Howard outside of the modest ranch home. It was two stories and roomy, but modest in appearance. The kids had recently come up with the fine idea of painting the exterior white, and despite their best efforts, the dust had mixed in the paint—leaving the color more of a tan. The wooden railing around the wrap-around porch was beginning to fade from the sun, but he hadn’t allowed the twins to paint it—he preferred the natural look. Besides, he had worked too hard to repair the house after it had been left in a state of disrepair after the war and his parents had passed on.
He stopped the wagon and hopped down, Matthew running to embrace him.
“I’ll be back in just a couple of weeks,” he chuckled as Matthew squeezed him tightly. “I’ve been gone longer before just on a hunt.”
“I know,” Matthew sighed. “I’m just so nervous, but happy—and I just hope she’s real nice.”
“Me, too,” Howard said, looking past him to Scarlett. Her dark hair hung loosely, blowing in the breeze. Her blue eyes stared daggers into Howard, her hands resting on her hips. She was the spitting image of their mother and it pained him she couldn’t remember her.
“I ain’t tellin’ you goodbye,” she snapped.
Howard raised his thick eyebrows at her. “Is that so?”
“I don’t think you ought to be marrying some girl you’ve never met,” Scarlett chided, her tone sharp and reprimanding.
“I think it’s excitin’,” Matthew grinned. His blue eyes and dark hair mirrored that of his twin sisters, but his demeanor was the polar opposite.
“Shut up, Matthew,” she barked, crossing her arms.
“Don’t talk to your brother like that,” Howard scolded. “I’ll see you when I get back.”
Scarlett ignored him, and turned away, stomping her feet as she headed back to the house, leaving a trail of dust behind her. Howard grimaced at her reaction—this was exactly why she needed a mother figure in her life. He didn’t know how to deal with these teenage girl outbreaks.
“She’ll come around,” Matthew shrugged, as Howard climbed back into the wagon.
“I hope so,” Howard said. “I’ll see you when we get back.” The wagon lurched forward, and Howard shifted on the hard bench seat.
“Bye!” Matthew called as he rolled away. “I bet Emily will be real excited to see ya.”
Howard nodded and gave him one final wave.
I hope she’s not disappointed when she sees me.
He had never been labeled by those who knew him as handsome, despite his defined jaw, dark hair, and light grey eyes. He had often felt awkward towering above his peers growing up, especially when mixed with his nervous stutter. He didn’t stutter near as much these days, but the moment he got nervous or angry, it would appear without warning. Emily didn’t know he stuttered—he hadn’t wanted to scare her away with it. After all, he had once been told that his stutter made him sound stupid and uneducated, even though he could read and write better than most. That was the problem with using letters to correspond—she was in for a big surprise when she heard him speak for the first time.
She’s going to think I sound like an imbecile.
Howard shoved the fear deep inside of him—that’s how he handled all of his emotions. He had learned at a young age it was much easier to just pretend he didn’t feel that way. Besides, he had been honest with her about the most important part of his life—raising his twin siblings starting at a very young age. They were only a mere two years old when he lost his mother and father to cholera, and now they were thirteen; Howard was twenty-seven. He had grieved for his parents, spending nights locked away crying in his room, but had been too overwhelmed by the newly acquired responsibilities to wallow more than a few days.
Even though he seemed solid to many in the community, finding a wife had been nearly impossible. The baggage he carried was heavy—too heavy for most women. The only other woman he had ever courted and asked to marry him had broken it off. Helen abhorred everything about the remote ranch and the prospect of raising two young children. That was six years ago, but Howard still felt the sting of rejection and hopelessness when he thought of it.
The five-day journey from the ranch to the town of West Debbie passed by uneventfully. A large, intimidating man with a couple of unruly mules and a fairly bare wagon wasn’t of much interest to any potential harmful passerby—not that there were many. The desert of west Texas didn’t draw a large crowd unless the crowd was referring to snakes. There were a lot of snakes—hopefully, Emily wasn’t too squeamish.
Howard rolled into the station, surprised to see a thin crowd—and no train.
Was he running late? Surely not.
He hitched the mules, and wandered around, searching the faces of the few people who were standing around. He passed a few women chatting amongst themselves, fanning their sweating faces under the Texas sun—one had on a pastel green dress. Her hair was pulled back in a bun beneath a large wide-brimmed hat, so it was difficult to make out the color of her hair. He took a deep breath, gathering the courage to take a closer look. Walking to the left, as if to go right past them, he was able to see the back of her head—auburn.
Howard sighed, but his anticipation was still nearly unbearable. He had never been the nervous type, but he had never thought he’d be the type to offer an ad up for a mail-order bride, either. The anxiety thundered in his chest as he continued to search.
Where is she?
Did she get off at the wrong station?
He rubbed his eyes, ignoring the fatigue that tugged at him. He hadn’t slept well on the journey to pick Emily up but figured he’d sleep better on the return home—maybe.
Traveling with her—being alone with her, made his hands sweat. He had made it clear that he was searching for companionship and help only. He wasn’t interested in anything deeper; practicality was everything he needed right now. Love had never worked out for him anyway, and his heart always felt heavy when he reminded himself of such; Howard had no interest in risking rejection again.
After two more rounds of searching the station, a sinking feeling came over him.
Something isn’t right.
He approached an older gentleman in a black top hat sitting on a bench, legs crossed, reading a newspaper.
“Excuse me,” Howard said, touching the man’s shoulder.
The man glanced up from the paper, his eyes peering over the top rim of his glasses. “Yes? Can I help you?”
“Do you happen to know if the train from Jefferson is running late? I’m supposed to be picking someone up,” Howard said quickly, thankful he didn’t stutter.
“It already ran,” the man snapped. “Which is why I’m sitting on this horribly uncomfortable bench, sweating like a pig, and reading a bore of a newspaper. My brother missed my telegram—you must’ve missed your telegram as well if it were my guess.”
Howard’s heart sank.
Emily’s already been here.
“Have you by chance seen a blonde-headed woman in a g-g-green dress?” Howard cringed as his stutter broke through.
The man shook his head. “I wouldn’t remember even if I did.”
“Uh-huh,” the man rolled his eyes, returning his eyes to the newspaper.
Under normal circumstances, the man’s attitude might have bothered Howard, but finding Emily was much more important than a brash Yankee. Howard slipped past the man and began to canvas the station one last time, his mind running wild. His footsteps fell heavy on the wooden platform, and every movement felt more frantic, laced with panic—he needed to find Emily.
Did she leave? I bet she thought I wasn’t coming.
Did she send me a telegram? Did I miss it?
Maybe she went somewhere? Where would she have gone?
Within a few moments, he realized his search was going to be fruitless at the station—she wasn’t there. Howard spotted a porter sitting on one of the other benches and rushed to him, noticing the man was drenched in sweat, darkening his light grey uniform.
“H-h-have you seen a blonde-headed woman?” he urged. “In a green dress? H-h-her name is Emily Green.”
“Actually,” the porter paused, furrowing his brow. “I have. I think the woman you’re referring to approached me not long after the train arrived. I think she was looking for someone named…” his voice trailed off.
“Howard Harris,” Howard answered, his tone concise, yet strained. “That’s me. I’m late to pick her up.”
“Yeah,” he nodded. “That’s what she said—catchy name. Anyway, she went with one of your men—left here about an hour or so ago, I think.”
“I don’t have any men here in town,” Howard said, dread filling his voice. Scenarios began playing through his mind; the possibilities were nearly endless—and none were good. His heart rate picked up, pounding in his ears. “What’d the man look like?” he demanded.
The porter’s eyes widened. “The man had her telegram, I never thought—”
“What did he look like?” Howard’s sharp tone erupted as he stepped closer, towering over the porter.
“He was uh…” the porter hesitated. “Short—about my height, and mousy-looking. His hair was real thin and his mustache was scraggy—a handlebar mustache. I thought he was off—”
“Thanks,” Howard cut him off, taking off towards the town. His heart continued to pound in his ears, and he was fighting the panic rising in his chest—this was the last thing he had thought to worry about.
My fiancé’s been kidnapped.
I haven’t even met her yet, and I’ve already let her down.
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