Her trust in men has been tainted by the bruises left in her heart. He falls in love with her the moment he meets her vulnerable eyes. Can his steady heart persuade her to give their marriage of convenience a chance?
“He had never kissed a woman before, and though it made him nervous, he found himself longing to love Margaret in that way.”
When Margaret’s abusive half-brother forces her to enter a lottery bride auction at a distant Western town, she feels betrayed and lost. And while hope flutters in her chest when fate chooses warm and kind Ben to be her husband, Margaret struggles to trust him with her heart. How can she reveal her secrets to him when she fears that he will deceive her with false promises?
With an ailing mother and their ranch falling apart, Ben and his brother are in desperate need of help. Ben decides to bid on a bride for a marriage of convenience, but once he lays eyes on Margaret, all bets are off. He knows she is the one for him, and he is eager to show her his affection. How can he convince her that his love is genuine when she is timid and afraid of his touch?
Margaret will soon recognize that Ben’s love has the power to heal her deepest wounds. But how can she trust in her newfound happiness when a man intent on destroying their lives tries to tear them apart?
Plain Dale, Texas, 1865
Margaret’s eyes wandered to the open kitchen window as she sang the final note of her cleaning song, taking in the faded new moon as dawn grew closer. Glimmers of teasing daylight glistened off the freshly scrubbed wooden floors, and maybe in another situation, she would’ve found the moment poignant. Margaret let out a sigh, her eyes falling back to her hands, still clutching the damp rags she had used to shine the floors.
Today I’m eighteen years old.
She knew that nothing would come of her birthday, and she would be surprised if Maurice, her half-brother even mentioned it at all. Ever since their father had passed away suddenly, over a year ago, Margaret was nothing but a maid to him, and even that might have been a little too kind of a title. Maurice abhorred everything about her. She never understood why—though she knew it had something to do with the predicament of their whole family.
After all, he was a child born out of wedlock to a mother who had abandoned him, dropping him off with their father after he had married and had Margaret. Her father hadn’t even known that Maurice existed since Maurice’s mother had been a saloon girl with whom he’d had relations well before he had ever met Margaret’s mother. The relationship between Maurice and her parents had been tumultuous, and Margaret had watched it all unfold silently from a distance for years.
Mama and Daddy tried to love him—he just didn’t want it.
Her heart filled with grief at the thought of her parents, having lost them both in the span of only a few years. Her mother had grown ill when Margaret was fifteen, and after a terrible infection, her body had never recovered. The loss had made her father sick with his own grief, but he had continued to be strong for Maurice and herself, often stepping in to protect her from her violent brother. Her parents had shielded her and had done their best to love her in the midst of the chaos. However, it hadn’t protected her fully, and even back then, her stomach had felt sick with dread when she was around her brother.
He’s just always been mean hearted.
Margaret pushed herself up from the floor, grimacing as she tossed the damp rag to the counter. She needed to get breakfast going—and fast. She had allowed herself to get lost in her thoughts for too long, and Maurice could appear at any moment.
If his breakfast wasn’t on the table when he got there, she was bound to face the consequences.
She winced at the thought, her eyes flickering down to the bruises on her arms. She rolled her sleeves down, hardly able to look at them longer than a moment. Maurice had always had a heavy hand, but now that he had begun drinking more than ever, it had grown much worse—and she was the easiest target of his rage. That was the result of the death of their father. Margaret squeezed her eyes shut as she placed a pan on the stove, desperate to push away the overpowering emotions of fear and heartache. If she let herself feel too much, she felt as though she was suffocating.
One day I’ll get out of here.
But she wasn’t sure when or where she’d go. In order for her to get away from Maurice, she would more than likely have to be married—and that was nearly impossible to accomplish when she never left the house. Maurice had given her a long list of chores, and she worked late into the night.
“I’ll be fine someday,” Margaret whispered to herself as she cracked an egg over the lightly greased pan, watching as it sizzled. She cracked a few more, flipping the eggs before setting them off on a plate for Maurice. She quickly tossed some bacon into the same pan, tapping her foot in hopes that he was running late.
But she wasn’t so lucky.
“Breakfast is late,” Maurice barked as he stepped into the luxurious ranch house dining room, which allowed him to see right into the kitchen. His voice sent Margaret jumping sideways from the stove, her heart nearly stopping at the sound. “It’s nearly six-thirty, and I don’t have my plate on the table.” His words came out cruel, and Margaret avoided meeting his eyes, already able to picture their devilish blue gaze boring into her.
She shook her head, swallowing the fear threatening to choke her, realizing that the bacon had grown much crispier than he liked it. Dread filled her chest at the sight—not only was she late, but now it was burnt.
He’s going to be so angry. Maurice stepped heavily towards her, his boots thudding on the kitchen floor. With every step, she inwardly winced, her terror taking hold of her, making her feel as though she might pass out right there in the kitchen.
But that would’ve been too kind.
“What is this?” he sneered, his hot breath coming over her shoulder as he stared at the cast iron skillet filled with nearly burnt bacon. Margaret’s breaths grew ragged as he lingered, the smell of alcohol heavy on his breath. “Are you mute?” he demanded, his large, calloused hand suddenly clamping around her forearm and spinning her around to face him.
She let out a small cry at the pain, her eyes filling with tears as his face came within inches of hers. “I-I-I was cleaning the floors,” she choked out, a tear running down her face.
“You were messin’ around in here, killin’ time is what you were doin’,” he growled, shoving her backwards. Her lower back slammed into the solid oak countertops, searing pain shooting all the way down her legs. She let out another cry, crumpling to the floor as she wrapped her arms around herself and ducked her head to prepare for another strike.
However, instead of striking her, Maurice went for the pan, flipping it off onto the hardwood floor. Margaret’s hands flew to her ears as he continued to sling the plates and utensils that she had set out off onto the floor. Her body trembled violently as he roared about.
“Look at all this food you’ve wasted!” he shouted, gesturing to the bacon and eggs splattered across the floor. “And now you’ll have to clean the floors again with the mess you caused!”
Tears streamed down her face as he began ripping open the cabinets, tossing out anything he could get his hands on. “Please stop,” she whispered, her voice barely audible. However, Maurice had always had razor-sharp hearing, and he froze, walking towards her.
He leaned down until his breath hit her forehead, causing her body to still. “What the hell did you just say to me?” he scowled, his voice coming out in a nearly devilish raspy tone.
“I-I-I’ll clean this up,” she mumbled, too terrified to repeat what she had muttered moments before, her caramel-colored hair shielding her face from him.
“Yes, you will,” he barked, his voice morphing into sardonic laughter. “And when you’re done, you’ll make me a fresh breakfast. You can eat this disgusting excuse for food,” he added. “And I expect you to join me, so I can watch you eat it.”
She nodded, squeezing her eyes shut. She would agree to anything he wanted her to if it meant that he would just leave her be. With her submission, Maurice seemed to be appeased, and Margaret listened carefully as his heavy boots thudded away, disappearing from the kitchen and dining room. The moment she could no longer hear him, she opened her eyes and wiped the tears away. Pushing herself to her feet, she took in the mess he had left.
Dishes were shattered, tiny pieces spread out across the floor, along with the breakfast she had made and the skillet. She blew out a sigh, at least relieved that she was alone with the mess, reaching for a towel to wipe the sweat and tears from her face. Her hands trembled as her fingers wrapped around the cotton dish towel, the fear of facing her brother still fresh. She shook her head at her weakness, wishing more than anything that she wasn’t so terrified of him.
Someday I’ll be free of him.
Margaret began to clean up while also starting a fresh breakfast for Maurice on the stove. It was more important that she complete him a fresh, perfectly done breakfast than finish cleaning up the mess he had made. She could spend as much time as she needed to get everything picked up later, but she knew Maurice would only be gone for a short stint before he barged back in wanting his food.
As she swept the broken pieces of fine china into a pile, her heart squeezed, recognizing the dishes as those that were supposed to be handed down to her from her mother. The delicate blue floral pattern speckled around the edges of the plates was no longer able to be appreciated, now in hundreds of pieces.
Fresh tears spilled down her cheeks as she took it in, feeling as though she was losing that much more of her mother. She had been Margaret’s rock as Margaret had grown up, telling her wonderful stories of love and triumph; speaking of a world where men swooped in to save women, not to shatter their china and lay their hands on them.
If only I could live in that world.
Margaret continued to clean, while also finishing up Maurice’s breakfast, filling his plate with fresh eggs and bacon. She also scooped a couple of the old eggs and slices of bacon that she had picked up from the floor onto a second plate—her plate. She did her best to pick out the ceramic pieces of dinnerware, her stomach churning at the thought of accidentally ingesting such as thing. As soon as it was ready to be served, she left the rest of the mess on the floor and scurried to the dining room, setting the plates in their places.
Glancing around, she wondered when Maurice would show back up—the last thing she wanted was for his warm breakfast to be cold by the time he sat down. That would only lead to more problems. She stood there in limbo, her heart racing as she considered going to find him to tell him that his new breakfast was done.
However, it was only a few moments before she heard his heavy footsteps coming down the stairs. Though it relieved her of having to seek him out, his steps seemed to shake the entire house, sending a new jolt of fear through her chest.
“Why are you just standing there stupidly?” Maurice snapped, pushing past her in the doorway of the dining room. She ducked, heading back to the kitchen to grab the coffee that she had forgotten. Slipping through the opening to the kitchen, she ran her hand along the doorjamb, recalling the door that had been there—the one that Maurice had ripped from its hinges in one of his episodes.
“You going to eat with me or not?” he shouted after her, his voice startling her as she grabbed the hot pot of coffee, a bit of the scalding liquid burning her hand as it splashed from the top.
“Yes, sir,” she muttered, rushing back to the table to fill two mugs. “I just wanted to ensure your coffee was fresh,” she added, trying to sound as nonchalant as possible. If she showed that she was too upset or shaken by his outburst, it always led to him questioning her and bullying her all over again.
“All right,” he grumbled, scraping his fork across his plate, piercing the tense silence around them.
Margaret nodded, nervously taking her seat adjacent to him at the once nice table. Now the oak was faded, scraped, and worn from years of use. Maurice’s spot had many chips and dents, where he had thrown tantrums, stabbing, and slamming things around—often with the intention of intimidating her.
“It’s your birthday today,” Maurice suddenly spoke up, his lighter tone of voice shocking Margaret so much that she actually looked up at him, meeting his icy, pale blue eyes. He held her gaze, the whites of his eyes heavily reddened from his excessive alcohol consumption. Margaret wasn’t sure that her half-brother was ever sober. “Now that you’re eighteen, it’s time for you to leave this house,” he continued, one of his eyebrows raising as Margaret furrowed hers. “As per our dear daddy’s wishes, I’ll send you off with your dowry.”
Confusion filled Margaret’s chest as she tried to understand what he was saying. “Where am I going to go?” she asked, a bit on panic filling her voice as she considered being thrown out onto the streets. Unfortunately, she wouldn’t put it past him—at all.
He broke into sardonic laughter, shaking his head. “You think I’m just going to toss you out onto the streets?” he choked out through his guttural laughs, causing Margaret’s skin to crawl.
The things he found amusing were downright disturbing.
“There’s a bride lottery in Dry Lake, Louisiana next week,” he said as his laughter faded and he stabbed an egg violently with his fork.
Margaret jumped at the action, his aggressive gesture concerning her. “A bride lottery?” she echoed quietly, trying to recall what such a thing was. Her heart dropped the moment she realized.
I’m going to be auctioned off to the highest bidder.
Plain Dale, Texas, 1865
“I wrote the sheriff out there in Dry Lake,” Maurice said, his sober voice much less confident than his normal drunken spew. “I asked him to ensure your safety and secure you a good match,” he finished, letting out a sigh as he stood beside Margaret on the platform of the stagecoach pick up.
Margaret glanced up at him, noticing that he seemed almost…worried. She only nodded, not bothering to say anything to him. She was terrified of the coerced adventure she was fixing to head out on, and though Maurice’s first ever crisis of conscience was somewhat intriguing, it was unmoving to say the least. She took a deep breath of the fresh morning air. Often times, in Plain Dale, the humidity made her feel as though she was suffocating, unable to fill her lungs fully. However, on this particular morning, the air felt crisp—refreshing, even. Her eyes wandered about the area and all the busy townspeople milling about.
I won’t miss anything about this place.
Everything I once loved is gone now.
Her mind threatened to recall glimpses of her childhood, holding her mother’s hand as they walked along the streets. Her father had often taken them to town when he had to pick up supplies, and she and her mother would browse about, eating lunch at the local hotel restaurant and chatting with the other townspeople.
Once her mother passed, her father no longer went to town as often, and Margaret had been forced to pick up the household chores. She didn’t have time to socialize—and Maurice had begun to gain ground in his violence, scaring her to her room while he fought perpetually with their father in the evenings.
Margaret continued to gaze about, looking anywhere but at Maurice, who stood beside her, fidgeting with his tobacco pipe. He was painfully sober and had no idea how to function in such a state. The faded paint on the wooden buildings made the town feel dull and lifeless, despite the sounds of laughter, horses, and light music from the saloon filling the air.
Maybe to others it felt different, but Margaret saw the whole town in a shade of gray—one that reflected the emotions her life there had left imprinted on her heart.
“This’ll be good for you,” Maurice continued, scratching the back of his neck beneath his hat. “We just never got along, you know? Maybe had things been different, it wouldn’t have been so miserable to live together—maybe we could’ve made something work.” His voice grated her nerves. In all the years that she had been treated awfully, it would figure that Maurice was finally getting around to making up his justifications the moment she’s about to leave him.
That was something that she couldn’t help but be happy about. She wasn’t sure what the future held for her, but no matter what, she was comforted by the thought that she would never have to see Maurice ever again—and she highly doubted he would write to her.
I definitely won’t be writing him.
She exhaled sharply as the wagon pulled up to the platform, a handful of people already sitting in the back. It wasn’t like the fancy stagecoaches that she had seen rolling through town, beautifully painted and enclosed from the elements. This wagon that Maurice had secured was open to the elements and packed with travelers.
“You Margaret?” the driver asked, his handlebar mustache showing hints of silver as he looked at Margaret with a worn, leathered face.
“Yep,” Maurice answered for her, ushering Margaret towards the back of the wagon. He didn’t offer her a hand to help her climb up, nor did he bother helping her with her small carpetbag. She hadn’t had much to take with her, just a few dresses and a portrait of her parents.
Margaret sat down beside a red-headed woman who didn’t appear to be much older than her. She gave Margaret a warm smile, and Margaret forced one back, placing her suitcase at her feet.
“I’m Tabitha,” the woman greeted, her bright green eyes lighting up as she smiled at Margaret.
“Margaret,” Margaret replied, giving her a slight nod as the driver clicked at the two horses. The wagon lurched forward, creaking as it rolled.
“Good luck out there,” she heard Maurice call out from the platform, his voice sounding strained and somewhat emotional. Margaret kept her eyes on her bag, at first, not even bothering to look back at her brother. The resentment was too heavy. After a moment, she did peek at him—just so she wouldn’t regret it later. However, by the time she did, he was already walking away from the platform, heading off in the direction of their horses.
Figures. He’s free from the burden of me, now.
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