She dreams of escaping her miserable life like the heroes in her favorite books. He is a loner burdened by pain and guilt. Will their marriage of convenience help them discover that true love is not just a fairy-tale?
“Damian pulled her into his arms and kissed her. She kissed him back, trying to put every ounce of her dreams into that kiss because he tasted like a promise, like the dreams she had when reading her romance books”
After her mother’s death, Ellie’s life is full of hardships. Her stepfather works her to the bone and views her as means to an end. Books are Ellie’s only solace, but everything changes the moment Damian steps foot at her stepfather’s saloon. He is the only one who can rescue her from an unwanted marriage and give her the freedom she desires. How can she admit the love she feels for him, when his heart belongs to another?
When his wife passes away, Damian promises to himself that he will never love another. But a rare night out leads him to the saloon where he notices a woman he cannot ignore. Ellie’s dire situation gives him purpose after a long time of apathy, and he is prepared to do everything to save her. How can he give into his growing feelings for her, when love hurts so much?
A lucky game of cards binds them to each other but it was fate that brought them together. If life is a gamble, will the odds be with Ellie and Damian when her stepfather threatens to separate them forever?
Riverside, Wyoming, 1870
Nine-year-old Ellie was up early on the fateful morning that changed everything. She had managed to get the fire going in the wood cooking range without getting too much smoke in the house, and without rousing her stepfather, Roy, who was still snoring away in his curtained off corner of the single downstairs room.
Ellie loved school, even though the other children made fun of her threadbare dresses that were much too short. Even with the teasing, school was a safe place where no one yelled at her. She learned new things every day. And she could visit with her best friend, Charlotte.
There weren’t very many safe places for Ellie. She lived with her stepfather in an old log cabin on the edge of Swan, Wyoming, in the Riverside encampment. Riverside wasn’t far from the sawmills, which made several people in the area prosperous. But Riverside itself was a raw, rough frontier settlement of a few log cabins, the schoolhouse that doubled as a church on Sunday, and the fine hunting-lodge cabin where Charlotte lived with her parents.
Charlotte’s father, Mr. Peabody, was an important member of the community. He was a foreman at one of the mills, a church alderman, and the superintendent of schools. He wore suits instead of coveralls, and he even had a high-topped beaver hat like the one President Lincoln wore in his pictures in the newspapers back before he was shot.
Ellie knew about former President Lincoln because Miss Connelly, the schoolteacher, made them recite all the presidents from Washington right down to the current one, Mr. Ulysses S. Grant. Ellie was proud that she could recite all eighteen presidents. She said them to herself while she started the fire in the wood cooking range and sliced the breakfast bacon, just in case Miss Connelly should call on her in class.
Miss Connelly did her best to teach her students history with the aid of Peter Parsley’s Universal History, supplemented by her own notebook of newspaper clippings and the dozen books on the school’s library shelf.
Ellie had read every one of these books, as well as all five volumes of the McGuffey Readers that were Miss Connelly’s own private property. Books were Ellie’s refuge. They let her escape her drab existence in a one-room shack, and even gave her hope that maybe things would be better one day. She dreamed of being a schoolteacher like Miss Connelly, and wearing neat shirtwaists and skirts like Miss Connelly, who never, ever commented on Ellie’s appearance – only on her sentence structure during composition, or her arithmetic answers.
Ellie shivered in her thin dress. The house was always cold because some of the chinking had fallen out from between the logs and the little cooking range just could not keep up with the chill. She carefully cooked the last three pieces of bacon, seasoned a batch of biscuits with some of the leftover grease, and used the last cup of milk to make gravy.
Ellie was proud of her cooking skills. She had learned from the lady who used to come and take care of her during the day, up until Pa lost his job at the mill.
Ellie sighed. If only Roy Madsen, her stepfather, was like Charlotte’s papa, or even like Erma’s papa who wore homespun pants and a hat with a wide, flat brim. Pa, as Roy insisted she call him, wore greasy overalls that had seen better days, and all too often of late, smelled like homemade whiskey. He was a big man, with thinning, mousy hair. His eyes were a plain, bluish gray, and his nose was bulbous and had tiny red veins showing in it as a result of his frequent drinking. He wore a long beard because he found shaving to be too much trouble. He had no use for “book larnin” as he called school, but was glad enough to take advantage of Ellie’s ability to read, write, and do sums.
If I study hard, when I grow up, I can get a job like Miss Connelly and I can earn money and buy pretty dresses and all the books in the world that I want to read. It was such a happy daydream that Ellie almost scorched the gravy and had to add a little water to keep it from getting too thick.
“Stop mooning girl, yer gonna burn that gravy and I hate scorched gravy,” Roy growled as he emerged from behind the curtain, glaring around with bloodshot eyes.
Ellie started, glancing at him apprehensively. “I’m sorry, Pa. I’m bein’ careful.”
“An’ don’t you burn those biscuits. I don’t buy food for you to waste it.”
“I know, Pa,” Ellie said, carefully stirring the gravy so it would not stick. “I made yer coffee already.”
Roy Madsen staggered a little as he pulled out a chair and sat down at the kitchen table. The kitchen was a small room. There was barely enough space for the wood cooking range, the wood box, the curtained off corner that held Roy Madsen’s bed, and the homemade rectangular table made from tailing slabs from the lumber mill. You could get these pieces, which were the outside cut from a tree, just by asking for them and taking them away. Since Ellie did all the cooking and cleaning, it wasn’t the cleanest kitchen in the world even though she did her best to keep it neat.
“You’d better’ve,” he said threateningly. “Soon’s that gravy’s done, you bring me over a cup an’ a plate o’ whatever is ready.”
“Yes, Pa,” Ellie said. “Gravy’s just now done.” Ellie set the gravy in the warming oven of the stove. The warming oven was a shelf of sorts that projected over the stove and was attached to the chimney. It stayed warm, but not hot, and was good for keeping food from getting cold and was even a good place to put a bowl of bread dough to encourage it to rise.
Ellie poured coffee into a thick clay mug, broke open two biscuits and ladled gravy over them. She laid two strips of bacon beside the biscuits and gravy, keeping one tiny piece of bacon for herself.
She then brought the coffee and the plate of food to her stepfather and set it down in front of him on the rough, scarred kitchen table. Roy gobbled down his breakfast without comment, gulped his coffee, and pushed back from the table. “You better get this kitchen cleaned up before you go anywhere, young lady. If I find even a crumb left out for the mice to get, I’m gonna tan your backside,” he said menacingly.
“I’ll get it cleaned up, Pa,” Ellie said soothingly. “I won’t leave a mess.”
“You’d better not,” he snarled and stumped off to the curtained-off alcove, where there were sounds of rummaging around.
Ellie quickly heated water and washed up all the dishes, including the pan that had held the gravy — after she had licked the last few drops out of it. She put two biscuits in the breadbox, and stowed the last two in her apron pocket, along with the sliver of bacon. They would be her lunch.
Ellie hurried out of the door and started toward school at a brisk walk. The grass was brown, and mud was everywhere. Their house was one of several that lined the rutted track that passed for a street. A rough plank structure on the front of their house was the saloon her Pa had operated for the last six months, ever since he had lost the job at the mill. From here, she could see the school, a small building made tiny by distance.
Miss Connelly was just stepping out to ring the school bell when Ellie came into the schoolyard. Leading up to the schoolhouse door there were three wide stone steps, and on either side of the door a hand pump and a flagpole.
Charlotte pounced on Ellie as soon as she entered the schoolyard. “There you are!” Charlotte exclaimed. ‘‘I’ve been waiting for you. Mama sent a special lunch and I will share it with you.” As always, Charlotte was dressed perfectly. Today, she wore a starched, blue and white calico dress, and her blond hair was done up in beautiful curls.
Ellie thought of the biscuits in her pocket. “I made biscuits. I can share them.”
“You made them? Before coming to school? Oh, Ellie! You are so talented. I could never get up early enough to make biscuits before I left home.”
You would if you were hungry enough, Ellie thought. But aloud she said, “Thank you. You do ever so many things. Are we going to work on our poetry today?”
“Oh, yes!” Charlotte said. “Wouldn’t it be fun to write some of our own?”
“I guess,” Ellie said. “Do you really think we could do that?”
“I am sure we can! Like this!” Charlotte showed Ellie her slate, on which she had written “I had fun, in the sun.”
“I see,” Ellie said, who was not so sure that this was how poetry went. It certainly was not as grand as the Washer Woman poem.
Miss Connelly, who must have been giving them time to visit, now rang the bell. “Everyone inside,” she called. “We have a lot to do today.”
The day went by smoothly. Morning was recitation time, then there was reading, followed by arithmetic and some competitive ciphering on the rough, black-painted board.
Ellie and Charlotte were helping the first-year children with their McGuffey Readers. It was an honor to help the little ones, because that meant that the teacher thought you to be both trustworthy and skilled. This made Ellie proud.
They were just coming to the end of the lesson, when Ellie heard her stepfather outside the door, shouting, “Ellie! Ellie, you git out here girl!”
Everyone turned to look.
Roy Madsen was charging across the yard with Mr. Peabody close behind him. Roy rushed up the steps and into the schoolroom, grabbed Ellie and started hauling her toward the door, narrowly missing pulling her over the top of a timid little boy who shrank back from all the rough behavior. Ellie felt a pang of worry for the small first-year.
“Pa! Let go of me,” Ellie cried out, angrily. “You’re going to hurt someone. Please stop! It isn’t time to go home.”
But Roy Madsen gripped her arm tighter, yanking her along the aisle. Ellie thought her arm was going to break. She struggled to pull away, and even bit at Roy’s hand where he was gripping her so hard that it hurt. He used his free hand to slap her across the face, knocking her half senseless.
Miss Connelly ran down the aisle, and started pulling at Roy, but he just pushed her off, right into the little boy’s older brother, who had stood up during all the commotion.
Mr. Peabody yanked at the back of Roy’s coat. “Hey! You can’t do that in here,” he shouted, trying to position his body so he could defend both Miss Connelly and Ellie.
Roy didn’t even hesitate. He punched Mr. Peabody right in the face and he fell down.
“Papa!” Charlotte screamed.
“Mr. Peabody!” Miss Connelly cried out.
Roy dragged Ellie out of the pile-up of people, then cocked his fist back to hit Mr. Peabody again. Miss Connelly tried to grab his arm to keep him from landing the blow, but he shook her off, causing her to fall against the back desk.
“Stop! Stop!” Ellie cried out, holding onto Roy’s arm. “I’ll come with you, just don’t hurt anyone anymore.” Shamed almost beyond bearing, she quit fighting and went with her stepfather, while tears streamed down her face.
Once they were outside and Roy had them walking back in direction of the town and his saloon, Ellie sobbed, “Why did you do that?”
“The barmaid just quit. I need someone to clean up and serve the liquor. You’ve been hanging around, eating food, and going to that ridiculous school. Now you’re going to earn your keep.”
Riverside, Wyoming, 1875
“Hey! Girl!” the buckskin clad man pounded his fist on a table. “Where’s my beer?”
“Where’s my whiskey?” another man in coveralls and a flannel shirt shouted.
Fourteen-year-old Ellie carefully set three foaming mugs down on a table on the other side of the room.
“I’ll be right there,” she called, deftly twitching her apron strings out of the hands of the man who had shouted for whiskey.
Dodging customers had become so much a part of her day that she scarcely noticed it anymore beyond making a mental note to stay out of the man’s reach. Ellie was tall for her age. She had light skin tanned by the sun and a wealth of blond curls that reached below her waist. Once, one of her stepfather’s customers had told her that she was a pretty girl, with brown eyes like autumn pools, and he had asked to touch her golden curls. After that, she’d been careful to pin up her hair and hide it under a cap, like the maids who worked at the hotel. She’d now had five years of practice at keeping out of the hands of the men who came to the saloon. Their attentions had once been a major misery but now it was just one more spoonful heaped onto a mountain of ugliness, and she had learned not to cry or show how she felt.
Roy Madsen’s saloon was an unrefined establishment. He had built it onto the front of the house they lived in using scrap from the lumber mill.
The bar was made from a tree trunk that had been split in half, had legs attached to it, and some rough-hewn planks nailed to the front to hide the supplies that were behind and beneath it. The barstools were of similar provenance, being rounds of wood cut from a tree and having four sapling poles pegged into the wood to create legs. They were braced with even smaller limb pieces. Some of them wobbled alarmingly.
The tables were just as rough and had benches on either side of them rather than chairs. The only claim to elegance in the place was a long mirror behind the bar, and the glass tumblers used to serve the rotgut whiskey her stepfather kept in stock. She carefully poured whiskey into two tumblers and carried them to Mr. Grabby-Hands and his companion.
“Cash first,” she said, standing out of reach.
“Aw, shucks, missy, we wuzn’t gonna cheat ya,” the man who had grabbed for her apron strings whined.
“Cash,” Ellie repeated, “Or I’ll drink it myself.” Actually, she would pour it out. The stuff smelled bad and tasted worse. Besides, she could not afford to have her senses dulled. Roy did enough drinking for both of them.
The grabby man placed three coins on the table, and the other man plunked down a gold nugget. “Coins, please,” Ellie said. “It costs too much to get that stuff assayed.”
The miner sighed and pulled out two worn coins. “The nugget’s worth more,” he said.
“Possibly,” Ellie said tiredly. “But it won’t add up easy in my cash drawer, an’ Pa doesn’t like it when the books don’t balance.”
Roy hadn’t a clue whether the cash drawer was right, but the man who supplied his moonshine whiskey liked to be paid in cash, not gold nuggets. If the supplier wasn’t happy, then Roy wasn’t happy because it shorted him on his personal booze supply. When Roy wasn’t happy, he showed his displeasure by slapping Ellie or beating her with a long, thin hickory stick. The slaps left bruises on her face, but the stick made welts that sometimes bled and took a long time to heal. Pain was part of the general misery of her daily life.
When he was sober, which wasn’t very often, Roy was nice to her. He would buy penny candy at the drugstore down the street, and once he bought a new dress for her. The dress was red and black velvet, far too big, and was designed to show off a bosom that Ellie did not yet have. But Charlotte, had helped her take it up and turn it into something respectable. Ellie wore the dress occasionally because it was nicer than most of the cast-offs she got from the church rummage box, but it always made her feel as if she looked like Jezebel out of the Bible. It also made her wonder why Roy had bought that particular dress, and if it had really been for her.
Roy came in and plonked himself down behind the bar. “Howdy, boys!” he said heartily. “How’s it goin’?”
There was a cacophony of comments as the men replied to Roy. While their attention was on Roy, Ellie served the man who had shouted for beer, then slipped into the back room, glad to be away from the bar. Even when there were tall stacks of glasses to wash or dinner to cook, it was better to be back here with the hot stove than out front where the customers looked at her in ways that made her feel all squirmy inside.
A ladder led to the attic where Ellie slept and kept her personal things. A side door led to Roy’s bedroom, while the back door went to the backyard where the outhouse, clothesline, and the well with its rickety lid and unreliable pump were located. Back here, while she did not feel safe, she felt better. The ladder was like a portal into her private space where she kept the very few things that were precious to her. Her bedroom and the books Charlotte smuggled to her made her life bearable. Charlotte also shared her lessons with Ellie, since she’d not been allowed to attend school since Roy had so dramatically pulled her out of the building years ago.
Nimbly, she scrambled up the ladder, and sat on her pallet, which was spread next to a tiny window covered with real glass. The window opened outward over the lean-to back porch. On hot summer nights, Ellie sometimes brought a blanket and pillow out and slept there.
It was too cold for that now, but it was still daylight outside, so Ellie pulled her favorite book, Oliver Twist, from its hiding place beneath her mattress. Books were Ellie’s joy and retreat to better places. While she was reading, she could imagine herself somewhere else.
She had to be careful to hide her books because Roy said they were a waste of time. Once he had burned one that Charlotte had loaned to her. She had felt so bad about it, even though Charlotte had immediately forgiven her, that she had not wanted to borrow a book for a long time after that. But the lure of the printed word was too much for her to resist.
She had found Oliver Twist in a waste bin behind the general store. It was tattered, and had some odd stains on it, but it was still readable. She had just gotten to the part where Oliver was taken in by the kind lady and gentleman after nearly being arrested for theft. She frequently dreamed of someone taking Roy away, giving her a rich, nourishing broth, and watching by her bedside while she looked at wonderful pictures.
Instead, she heard her stepfather yelling, “Ellie! Ellie, you get down here an’ clean up these glasses. You ain’t purty enough to set around doin’ nothin’.”
Ellie sighed, regretfully placed the grass stem she was using for a bookmark between the pages and sadly tucked Oliver back into his hiding place. She would have to find out what happened next tomorrow, because it would be too dark to read by the time she got the washing up completed.
“I’m comin’ Pa,” she yelled back. She hurried back down the ladder and went out into the saloon where the men had left their glasses. The room was empty.
“Here on out, you stay down here as long’s there’s customers, you hear?” Roy growled. “When you left, the men all left.”
Ellie just looked at him in shock. She’d always slipped away when he came in to mind the bar.
“Don’ look at me like that, girl. I don’ expect you to do nothin’ but serve drinks. But yer gettin’ old enough fer men ta notice, an’ a purty girl brings in trade. So, you’ll be here, decoratin’ the bar as long’s there’s someone here wantin’ drinks.”
Ellie felt the prickle of tears behind her eyelids, but she knew from experience that crying would only earn her a slap. “Yes, Pa.” she said, and began picking up the used glasses. “I’ll just wash these up.”
She kept her head down as she carried the glassware to the back. Then she went out to the pump, got a pail of water, brought it back and filled the big tea kettle. She could hardly breathe past the big lump in her throat or think around the cold lump of dread forming in the pit of her stomach. She lit the kerosene lamp that sat in the wall sconce well away from the stove, and mechanically began wiping down the long table.
She heard the outer door open and close. Roy had gone out somewhere, maybe to gamble or to look for more customers. She really didn’t care which. Now that she was alone, she let the tears fall. If she had to stay in the bar, she wouldn’t be able to slip away and read. She would be truly trapped, an object, like a china doll on a shelf.
She thought about her hero, Oliver Twist. He didn’t just sit around and take it. He ran away. Sure, he met some bad people, but he met some good people, too. Tonight, after Roy goes to sleep, I’ll sneak out my bedroom window and I’ll run away. I don’t know where the next town is; I don’t know where anything is. But anywhere has to be better than here.
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