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A Western Christmas to Remember

In his letters she discovers the man of her dreams but, when she meets him, his actions tell another story. His love for her runs deep, but he is terrified to reveal his feelings. Will they follow their hearts’ desire and kiss under the mistletoe?

The only beacon of light in Lizzie’s life is the letters she exchanges with Ralph, the man who has promised to marry her. So, when her safety is threatened, she runs straight into his arms. But Ralph’s embrace is as cold as the freshly fallen snow, and his ranch is devoid of Christmas Spirit. Lizzie’s loving heart though can see beyond the surface of Ralph’s scars and grumpy ways.  How can she show him that she is the miracle he has been waiting for?

Ralph never expected to receive an answer to his mail-order-bride ad nor to fall in love with Lizzie through her letters. And while he yearns to let her warm his heart, he is afraid to reveal his secret to her; his scars are his penance for the accident that cost him his family a Christmas Eve years ago. How can he accept the gift of Lizzie’s affection when he fears revealing his true colors to her?

Lizzie is the bright star guiding Ralph’s path toward happiness and redemption. Can their love transform this Christmas into a true season of wonders?

Written by:

Western Historical Romance Author

4.2/5

4.2/5 (207 ratings)

Prologue

Stevensville, Montana

1885

 

The stench in the room had never been so pungent.

It wafted up Lizzie’s slender nose as she walked into the bedroom. She fought the grimace that rose on her face and approached the window, yanking it open to air out the rancid smell. Taking a seat in a rickety, wooden chair, she peered down at the blue bucket by her right leg. Despite being eighteen, she was so petite she could barely touch the floor with the bottoms of her feet. Inside the bucket swirled her father’s bile. She’d emptied it countless times, but her father still retched into it no matter what he ate or drank.

Don’t let him see, Lizzie reminded herself when tears swelled in her blue eyes, like the tide rushing to drown the shore. At the sudden rise of tears, she snuck a glance at her ill father, who wore an agonized frown. He was in so much physical pain that he didn’t need the trouble of seeing his only child cry over him.

Don’t let him see you cry.

She swallowed against the lump in her throat, and the sadness sunk slowly back down into her chest. With her hands folded in her lap, her father couldn’t see the persistent tremble in her usually still fingers. Ever the pillar of strength, she kept her face somber despite the storm raging inside her. Cholera was eating away at her father; he was dying.

And there was nothing she could do to stop it.

As if sensing her stare, her father’s eyes opened and his gaze drifted to her. His vibrant blue eyes, identical to Lizzie’s, were dull, foggy, and nearly sunken into his skull now. He was so frail from being unable to eat or drink for weeks. It had all happened so quickly; one day, her father was healthy as a horse and the next, he was sick, losing weight, and his hair as falling out by the handfuls. When the doctor came and diagnosed him with cholera, they all knew the prognosis for him was grim.

Through his suffering, her father managed to plaster a weak grin on his pale face, his mouth spotted with blood. He cleared his throat, and Lizzie hid her wince at how it sounded like nails on a chalkboard.

“You look just like her,” his raspy voice called out, his words nearly swallowed by the thickness of his tongue.

“Like whom, Father?” she asked in little more than a whisper, as though the timbre of her voice could stop the man’s frail heart. It was rare her father spoke these days; he was so weak that even moving his eyes was difficult for him. With anticipation sparking in her chest, she leaned forward in her chair, and her the skirts of her black day dress shifted with a gentle swish.

Noticing her move closer, he flipped a resting arm over to reveal his waiting palm, open and inviting as always. She slipped her hand into his, his skin so rough and dry compared to hers. She stifled the gasp in her throat; his fingertips were as cold as icicles, and his touch like the frigid wind of a winter night.

“Your mother,” he mumbled as the grin grew wider across his face. But it wasn’t warm and full like when she was a child; it was the smile of someone who was clinging to survival. “You have Annabel’s smile.”

Her heart skipped a beat when he mentioned her mother. It was rare for him to talk about her; memories of her unintentionally dredged grief in their hearts, so her father tended to avoid speaking about her.

Lizzie remembered the questions she had asked about her mother when she was a little girl, before she knew better. She had wondered why he always retreated to his bedroom at the mention of her; she didn’t realize that each question had been like a stab wound to her father’s heart. Yet hope fluttered inside her, like soaring butterflies, when she peered into his cobalt eyes and saw a glimmer of nostalgia.

Perhaps now is the time to ask about Mother, Lizzie wondered, and her palms began to perspire as her anxiety peaked with the thought. Of course, his compliment made Lizzie blush, her high cheekbones turning a rosy pink under the soft glow of a nearby lantern and the bright moonlight streaming in through an open window. But the fire in her cheeks couldn’t be solely blamed on flattery; she knew the blistering heat beating her face was the result of her uncontrollable curiosity.

Lizzie asked tentatively, “What else do I have of hers?”

His chest rose with a breath, but never fell. Holding her gaze, her father’s happy grin slid from his face and a melancholy frown replaced it, wrinkles deepening near the white corners of his mouth. Tears made his eyes shimmer like the twinkling stars in the night sky. “You have her strength. She was strong until the very end,” he confessed, every word drenched with wistfulness.

Even though Father has never said much about her, he always said she was never supposed to die giving birth, Lizzie recalled. If she hadn’t lost so much blood, she would still be here.

Her heart was so full of grief for her beloved mother, for a stranger she never got the pleasure of knowing and loving like her father did. She wished she could have seen her mother with her own eyes, to relieve some pressure from her aching heart.

“She was?” Lizzie repeated, her voice small like a little girl’s. She felt like one, too; her stomach clenched with unexpected giddiness. However, she quashed the eagerness as she carefully studied her father’s expression. She was wary of it changing at any given moment. How many times have I felt this way before, she pondered. How many times has he shut down and left me disappointed?

Far too many.

But could she blame her father? Her mother’s death at Lizzie’s birth was unprecedented. He was so ill-prepared to raise a child by himself and deal with the passing of his wife. Yet he tried to be the best father he could—she remembered him kissing her goodnight and tucking her blankets up underneath her chin every night as a little girl, whispering that he loved her before blowing out the candle at her bedside. She even recalled him trying to help with her schoolwork, the confused furrow in his brow getting deeper by the minute. But still, he tried.

“Oh, dear,” he chuckled, but a cough quickly spurted from deep within his chest. Blood dotted his cracked lips from the irritated cuts. Grabbing a handkerchief, he wiped at his mouth and continued, “You have no idea how remarkable she really was. Not a single peep from her throughout labor, so the midwife said. She was brave, and she gave that bravery to you when she died and you were born.”

Lizzie’s breath caught in her throat at his words. It was like having a piece of her mother ingrained in her very being; Annabel was with her daughter wherever she went, guiding her with the bravery she bestowed upon her. That thought sent chills racing down her arms and legs, and she watched the goosebumps scatter across her skin in waves.

“Do you really think so, Father?” Lizzie queried, a childlike hope seeping into her voice.

“Do you remember when you broke that expensive vase? The one your grandmother gifted your mother and I when we got married,” he teased. He gazed at her intently and squeezed her hand as tightly as he could. Lizzie recoiled in her seat. She could still hear the glass shattering against the wooden floor, sharp shards sneaking into the crevices of the planks. Her father had been so upset with her when he came storming in the room that day but began chuckling when he saw what she had broken. She never questioned it; she was just grateful she hadn’t gotten reprimanded for roughhousing around the home and breaking something valuable.

She returned his gentle squeeze and nodded her head. The straight edge of her shoulder-length hair bounced in time with her words, “I do.”

“I laughed when I saw the broken vase because it was the last one in the matching set I had,” her father explained, his words beginning to slur and his eyes drooping with exhaustion.

Lizzie furrowed her brow in confusion. “Why would that make you laugh? Wouldn’t that make you upset that I broke the only one left?”

Her father shrugged and pierced her with his stunning blue eyes, the ones she was sure her mother fell for all those years ago when they were teens. They were so bright, like freshly picked blueberries. He elaborated, “It would have if your mother hadn’t been the first to break the other one.”

Lizzie mouth hung open in surprise. “Really? My mother broke the other one?”

Her father smiled fully then, and Lizzie’s stomach flip-flopped when her father’s dimples made a rare appearance, a sudden surge of joy coursing through her veins.

“When I saw you with your hands over your mouth, all aghast, you looked so much like your mother did in that same moment that I caught her,” her father admitted, his tone distant and wistful with reverie. “It felt as though I had her back for a moment, and it was all because you broke that vase.”

Goodness, Lizzie thought as raw emotion clogged her throat and tears formed in her eyes. How do I reply to something that sentimental?

Her mouth opened and closed; she was struggling to find the words that could somehow reveal how much her father’s words meant to her. There weren’t any that could relay the love blossoming like delicate roses from her heart like it had bountiful soil. A tear dripped down her cheek as she opened her mouth, “Father, I…”

Slam!

As her heart leapt in her throat, Lizzie nearly toppled out of the creaking chair when the bedroom door swung open and the knob banged against the wall behind it. She didn’t need to see the culprit to know it was her irritating stepmother. Darla had never tried to be a mother or even a friend to Lizzie; she paid no mind to her stepdaughter, as though Lizzie was merely a piece of furniture, and simply ignored her. Lizzie groaned inwardly at her arrival. Another tender moment ruined.

“It smells in this room,” complained Darla, her voice sharp and nasal as she strolled into the room. A bored expression dulled the planes of her structured face and shoes clicked against the wooden floor with each prowling step. Even as death darkened the room, the mid-thirties woman reeked of alcohol, and her dilated pupils swung around the room with little intention. Her hair was curled and pinned to her scalp, prepped and primmed with the latest products she bought using Lizzie’s father’s money.

“Couldn’t we wash his blankets?” she suggested as she peered into the bucket with a disgusted curl of her upper lip. Crossing her arms over her chest, she stepped away and graced Lizzie and her father with her gaze. “It’s getting a bit unsanitary, wouldn’t you say?”

Lizzie scoffed under her breath at her stepmother’s audacity. Even though she wanted to tell Darla how rude she was, she bit her tongue for her father’s sake. Regardless, the rage boiled inside her like a pot of steaming water. Darla hadn’t made any effort to help take care of her father, yet she was entitled enough to make a comment about the bedroom.

Why Father married her is beyond me, Lizzie thought uncharitably as she studied Darla through narrowed eyes. The woman paid no attention to her ailing husband; instead, she fiddled with the expensive lace trimming that Lizzie’s father paid extra for. She clearly doesn’t care about or love him.

Darla glanced at Lizzie and her father’s joined hands and slightly lifted a brow to challenge her, a small movement only she could see. A sly smile crept across her face, as smooth as a snake slithering along flat ground.

“Did you hear me, Izzie?” Darla questioned in a condescending tone, her body swaying as if she were rocking on a boat. “I said the blankets need to be washed.”

Izzie? she echoed to herself, her anger evolving into a fierce beast within. It clawed at her to break free from her powerful, unwavering hold over it, ready to rip Darla apart for being a drunk.

“It’s Lizzie,” she snapped at her stepmother through clenched teeth.

“Oh, well,” she slurred and waved her off with a bat of a hand. Her bloodshot eyes gazed at her stepdaughter as she continued, “Like your name really matters.”

“It does matter. Do you even remember it?” Lizzie retorted, and Darla looked away with shame glinting in her eyes. A pang of sympathy struck Lizzie when she realized how bad her addiction to drink had gotten. Nevertheless, Lizzie couldn’t stop the irritation smoldering campfire, the embers still blazing red from the intense heat.

“Does it, Izzie?” her stepmother taunted and took a menacing step toward her, a finger pointing accusatorily at her. “You just spend so much time with your father that you never seem to have found a life of your own. Your name means nothing.”

“Ladies,” her father weakly warned from his bed. The muscles in his neck strained with great effort as he tilted his head upward to see his family. Lizzie felt him squeeze her hand and he muttered, “Please, don’t argue.”

“I’m sorry, Father,” Lizzie apologized in a soft voice, as if her father was as delicate as a feather. Her brows pinched together in concern when she noticed her father’s skin growing clammy. She breathed in some deep sighs to calm herself; her father was right. They shouldn’t be arguing right now. What mattered was his health.

“Frank, you can’t let her speak to me like this,” Darla demanded, her loud, grating voice reverberating off the walls. She ignored her husband entirely, even as his breathing became shallow. “I won’t stand for it any longer.”

“Darla, please,” her father practically begged his wife. The desperation in his voice was audible; it drenched each syllable and ripped Lizzie’s heartstrings from her chest. “Don’t do this right now.”

“It’s not always my fault, Frank,” Darla yelled at the two of them with her jaw stern and her eyes coldly calculating as she glared at her husband. “You never take my side. That little brat is always…”

While Darla ranted about their family, Lizzie stole a glimpse at her father, but his head had lolled to the side and his eyes were sealed shut. She felt his hand with her fingertips and found it limp and lifeless; she hadn’t noticed his grip loosen during Darla’s explosion. A sheen layer of sweat dotted his forehead, and a sudden stab of worry pricked at her heart. His chest was rising and falling shallowly, as if he was having a hard time catching his breath.

“Father?” she whispered, urgency tightening her words. Lizzie rose hastily to her feet, the chair legs scraping the floor beneath her. As she observed his slow, erratic breathing, Lizzie thought, He’s not well. There should be some resistance, but there’s nothing.

Terror left her paralyzed. Her stomach twisted with disbelief as her motionless hand remained on his shoulder. Waiting for any sign of life besides his unstable breathing, she stared into his face for a flicker of movement, a ghost of an expression. The only thing she saw were the sweat droplets cascading from his receding hairline and his slow breathing rate, and it frightened her to her core.

No, not yet. Please God, don’t take him yet, Lizzie begged the universe as tears welled in her eyes. Lips quivering and chin trembling, pure dread overtook her as her hand began to violently shake him again. He needs to wake up. He needs to wake up.

“Oh, he’s fine,” Darla nonchalantly urged and placed both hands on Lizzie’s shoulders. As she shoved her away, Lizzie caught a whiff of alcohol on her breath.

Darla came to a tumbling stop to stand between Lizzie and her father, her feet hip-width apart and her shoulders squared, as if ready for a fight. “Maybe your father is feeling a little overwhelmed because you can’t just respect me as your stepmother. You should go.”

“What?” Lizzie inquired dubiously as her heart shattered into tiny pieces. She couldn’t leave her father, not when he needed her the most. She shook her head and argued, “I’m not going anywhere. I’m staying with my father.”

A cynical look crossed Darla’s dark eyes, as she lurched forward and gave Lizzie a shove that made her land flat on her backside in the hallway.

Did she just throw me out of my father’s bedroom? Lizzie wondered in bewilderment as her backside throbbed. A burning sensation erupted in the middle of her chest, and it pulsed to the rest of her body. All she felt was utter agony and betrayal; her father was dying, but she was no longer allowed to see him.

Lizzie began silently sobbing soaking the strands of her hair with her fresh tears. Hatred for her stepmother intensified like a tornado, her anger palpable. She was so angry that all she could do was cry; without her father to protect her, she was powerless against her stepmother.

A stream of light from the lantern by her father’s beside streamed through the open door before her stepmother’s shadow came into view. Leaning against the door frame, she smirked at her stepdaughter and sneered, “Goodnight, daughter dearest. I’ll let you know if your father survives the night.”

The door slammed shut in her face and she was left in the dark.

Chapter One

Stevensville, Montana

1887

 

Just one more pillowcase, Lizzie thought as exhaustion weighed down her muscles, her lower back aching as she leaned over a basin full of soapy water. Dunking the pillowcase in the warm water, she felt as slow as a slug from her bodily weariness, but she scrubbed the wet material as her fingertips grew red and raw from the incessant motion.

As she washed, strands of black hair fell in her face, and she blew them away absent-mindedly, allowing her mind to wander as she worked. Her father would tell her it’s time for a haircut, that her hair was getting in the way of her pretty face. Her heart pulsed with pain as her father’s memory surfaced; it’d been two years since her father’s death, but thoughts of him still struck her as unexpectedly as lightning bolts.

As her fingernails scraped against the backs of her hands, she breathed evenly through the painful stings. Despite the discomfort, she thought about how fortunate she was to land this job as a washerwoman. Darla hadn’t been so lucky; when her drinking habits became so expensive that she could hardly afford to live, she became a soiled dove to pay the bills and ruined whatever semblance of a reputation she had left. Since they shared a last name, everyone in town knew Lizzie was related to a woman of ill repute—the Darla Cooper, a dream for men and a nightmare for women. Thus, finding a job had been incredibly difficult for Lizzie.

If Michael—a dear friend of her father’s—hadn’t stepped in and secured this job for her as a washerwoman, she was certain no one would have offered her one based on her poor reputation alone. Michael had saved her life by intervening with the innkeeper, vouching for her character and persuading him to hire her. Gratitude blossomed in her heart for the kind man’s actions as she wrung the excess water out of the pillowcase.

Plopping the sopping pillowcase on a drying rack, Lizzie readied herself to lift the heavy water basin. Bending her legs, she wrapped her tiny arms around the big bucket and water sloshed over the sides, clapping onto the floor.

“Be careful!” Michael lightly reprimanded Lizzie as he strolled into the laundry room at the inn.

With her sleeves now soaked, Lizzie grappled with the basin. As her shoulders screamed under duress, she could only grunt through gritted teeth in response, and her wet grip wavered around the rusting handles. He warned her again, “You’ll spill it if you don’t get a good grip, girl.”

On wobbling knees, the basin finally slipped through her fingers, and water spilled down the front of her shabby work dress. As cold water sent chills down the length of her body, she yelped while Michael lurched forward and grabbed the now empty basin before it clattered to the tile floor. She peered down at her dress, now a decaying shade of gray. It was once a shade of damp black, but the color faded over extended time and use. As frustration stirred in her chest like a waking beast, she cursed her small frame and wished she was stronger to avoid accidents like this; it wasn’t the first time this happened, even after a year of doing this job.

When the sound of water clapping to the floor finally ceased, Lizzie finally glanced up from her dress to see the disappointed look on Michael’s face. His kind brown eyes dazzled with flecks of gold near his pupils. The wrinkles the shrouded the corners of his eyes seemed deeper as he appraised at her, and then the empty basin. As her father’s friend shook his head in disbelief, a sigh escaped his full lips, and he ran a hand through his thinning gray hair.

“Haven’t I told you to call for me when you need to dump the basin?” Michael scolded her, and her stomach twisted with anxiety like it did when her father reprimanded her as a child.

As guilt ate away at her conscience, Lizzie’s face pinched in a wince. She knew she should have called for him, but she didn’t want to be a nuisance. Though she had secured this job over a year ago, she still struggled to keep up with the physical demands of this job. At just over five feet tall, Lizzie was ill-equipped to do any strenuous lifting.

“I know,” Lizzie mumbled under her breath as shame slammed into her like a runaway carriage. She shivered as the air tickled her exposed, wet skin, and shook her hands dry as she confessed, “I’m sorry.”

“Why are you trying to do things you can’t possibly do on your own?” Michael asked at her in a soft tone, and as he calmed down, his chocolate eyes melted to a warm simmer. “I told you when I hired you that I would help you keep this job. I can’t help you if you’re showing the innkeeper that you’re not the person for this job.”

Closing her eyes at the severity of his words, Lizzie sighed as reality pierced her heart like a sharp stake. She bowed her head and let it hang for a moment as a sense of wrongdoing washed over her. Michael had known that she wasn’t qualified for the job, but still gave it to her anyways; it was a favor that she could never repay. He saved her when her father wasn’t there to help her, when she needed it the most.

Lizzie took a clean towel he handed her from a nearby basket. Dabbing her damp skin, she breathed a sigh of relief that he was there and not the innkeeper. “I don’t know,” Lizzie confessed. She didn’t want to admit to him how she feared she bothered everyone around her; if she bothered Darla so much that she was that horrible to her, then she wondered if other people felt the same way about her. She pushed forward before he could reply, “How did you know I needed help?”

“I heard the water dripping onto the floor as I was going to my room,” Michael explained, tucking his hands in the pockets of his black trousers. She noticed a newspaper tucked into the back of his waistband. “Do you need any more help while I’m here?”

Lizzie shook her head no. Even if she did, she wouldn’t tell him.

“Are you sure?” Michael insisted. “I know this job isn’t for you, that it’s too much. But don’t be afraid to ask for help.”

Lizzie shrugged her shoulders and ignored the surge of sadness she felt in her heart. He was right, but she shoved his offer aside when she thought of the chatter still going on behind closed doors; she didn’t need to add “irresponsible” and “lazy” to people’s list of insults about her and Darla. She reassured him in a polite tone, “It’s okay, Michael. I appreciate the offer, but I’m doing just fine.”

“All right, then,” Michael slowly spoke, as if he didn’t quite believe her. He started to turn on his heel but stopped short when he felt the newspaper brush against his lower back. Casting her a sideways glance with a little grin on his face, he asked her, “Care to read the newspaper?”

Lizzie furrowed her brow. “Why would I want to read the paper?”

He shrugged nonchalantly and tugged it out of his waistband. Plopping it on top of a basket of clean sheets, he gave her a pointed, all-knowing look, his brows raised and his lips pulled in a sly smirk. “You’d be surprised at what you find in the paper.”

Without another word, he sauntered out the door.

What does that mean? Lizzie speculated as she walked over to the basket, her wet stockings squelching in her drenched leather shoes. Her fingerprints left wet wrinkles rippling across the pages as she ripped open the newspaper, thumbing through the different pages.

There, she thought when she spotted an ad circled several times with black ink. She read the headline,

 

BRIDE WANTED

Must perform basic chores and wifely duties in exchange for a stable household and a chance at love. Write to Ralph Hudson if you are a female looking for a happy marriage.

 

Lizzie stomach somersaulted. Immediately, she thought of her parents and their young love cut short by the kiss of death. She couldn’t imagine the love her father had for her mother if his grief was mightier than a sword, but just as lethally sharp and cutting. What does love feel like, she wondered as her heart ceaselessly pounded in her ears. She wanted to feel that stirring in her stomach. She yearned for a warmth that burst in her chest when she kissed her gallant knight, her lips melting against his. She wanted to experience it all for herself.

What made this opportunity rise above the rest was more than just a shot at love; it was a chance to escape Darla. Lizzie had been searching for a way out of the family home since her father died. It seemed as though Michael knew that this was her only chance to act right now. It was finally time to Lizzie to break away from her evil stepmother’s razor-like talons—Darla Cooper had cast a dark cloud over Lizzie’s reputation for far too long.

Lizzie tore the ad from the paper and tucked it in her bosom for safe keeping. Undoubtedly, she would write to this Ralph and hoped he was everything she wanted him to be.

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