A courageous nurse seeking a fresh start. A free-spirited rancher seeking a helping hand. Together, they’ll discover that love can conquer all – even their deepest fears.
Leona, a former Civil War nurse, yearns for a fresh start. When she finds an ad for a mail-order bride to help the head of Blackstone Ranch care for his blind sister, she sees an opportunity. But when she arrives, she discovers Russell Blackstone is nothing like she imagined. So how can she stop her fragile heart from caring for this complicated rancher?
Russell was a free spirit who never wanted to settle down. Now, he faces the challenge of restoring his family’s ranch to its former glory. His relationship with his sister is his top priority, but he cannot care for her alone. He needs an extra set of hands. That’s why he places a mail-order bride ad. But how can he keep his distance when drawn to Leona’s fiery personality?
Russell believes his responsibilities will prevent him from finding love, while Leona fears rejection from the people she loves. However, when their enemies threaten everything they love, will they find the strength to open up to each other and make their dreams come true?
Irving, Texas 1865
The whinny of the horses pulling Leona’s wobbly carriage did nothing to drown out the cries of wounded warriors, so vivid in her mind. Sergeants had sent out stagecoaches with young drivers to bring the nurses home in comfort—a gift after the brutal war. Nice golden wrapping around the trauma of her days.
The outside of the stagecoach had been painted a sickly sort of yellow. Inside, torn gray leather reeked of tobacco, reminding her of the days when war loomed on the horizon and soldiers lounged around with fat cigars, rolled of their own loose leaf.
At first, the carriage had seemed like hope in tangible form. Considering a month’s ride ahead of her, Leona believed she could leave the front lines of America’s War of Rebellion behind her. But with the creaking wheels underneath and landscape of flat plains ahead—tinted orange, reflecting the sunset—Leona came to terms with the fact that her memories might never quit torturing her.
“Yagh!” The driver’s voice called out, tough despite him being in his heyday. Leona envied him, even though the outside of the carriage must be great deal colder than the inside, where the wind couldn’t touch her. She wanted to go back to the days when she hadn’t seen those horrors of the world.
I’d do it all again if it meant supporting our men. She kept telling herself similar statements to get through the blood and gore. I’m a regular Florence Nightingale. In her heart, Leona felt more like the tortured Job, having everything taken from her. A day hadn’t passed by without her hearing such sentiments on the front lines: encouragement to fight for their men, like their men. Leona didn’t necessarily believe being a nurse in the war should be a woman’s occupation in the first place.
A good deal of her wished she’d stayed home like her friends, but she had wanted to be brave. She had wanted to be like her brothers, who had enlisted for the war together. She’d never forget telling Jackson that if he went, she’d be right on his tail. There would be nothing left for her in Irving. Nothing but an empty little home.
Luckily, both Jackson and Thomas, her brothers, were understanding. They had gone through the pain of losing Ma and Pa together. They had all been at the bedside while Ma breathed her last raspy breath, and Pa soon after—not from sickness, but from the sadness of losing his love. Of that, Leona had been sure.
“You make me proud to be your brother,” Jackson had replied.
“That’s a first,” Leona had said, leaning into his tall frame for a hug. To her, it was no surprise she had ended up with a sense of adventure. Jackson had been brave enough to encourage her in the years following their parents’ deaths, and Thomas reckless enough to take her on trips only kids without parents would go on—exploring the wild trails on horseback, where they ran into their fair share of trouble. Leona had thought the war would be just like those good ol’ days.
Nothing could’ve been further from the truth. In her lonely carriage, the starry sky enveloping her like God’s big blanket, Leona remembered all the horrible things she’d seen.
Pa used to say the devil came out to play at night. Then it was the devil who tortured her with memories. Memories of soldiers missing limbs, frantic nurses freezing at the sight of gore, terrible dreams full of—
Suddenly, the wagon caught a ditch in the road, sending her into the air. She caught herself with the door handle, immediately turning to check the candles. Luckily, nothing more than wax had licked over the metallic lids. A part of her didn’t think she could handle the darkness of the west. Not right now.
Leona’s breath settled as she leaned back against the empty seats, wishing they were her brother’s arms. Like a scheduled performance of the traveling theater, memories the war’s sunny days came first. Everything seemed new and vibrant as the nurses had headed toward the frontlines. The occasional officer would stop by their nurse tent to compliment how well they’d done mending ankles and removing the occasional pieces of shrapnel. She’d even caught glimpses of her brothers.
Being the older brother, Jackson had told her to be careful, checking to make sure she had everything she needed. Thomas had made a joke about the three of them meeting back up after the war, which had been met by glances of fear—sprouted from a seed of worry planted inside each of them; a fear of not wanting to lose one another. In a way, it seemed like everyone knew what was going to happen deep in their hearts. Leona had given a pitiful laugh, glancing at her brother while trying to hide her jitters.
Things spiraled down more quickly than Leona could’ve ever imagined. Their first day serving as nurses on the battlefront, an officer had grabbed her arm while passing between tents. “Can I have a moment with you?”
Leona knew what these officers meant, but a part of her didn’t believe it until they had made it to that “private area” on top of the nearest hill.
“I’m so sorry for your loss,” the officer said, along with other short condolences for Jackson. “If there’s any way we can be of service, don’t you hesitate to ask. Your health is of upmost importance to us.”
Leona’s world had broken, her life splitting into a time when she’d had Jackson and a period of emptiness without him. Yet this officer had made Jackson’s life seem like another number.
It was, she thought inside of that bumpy stagecoach. Jackson’s life was a number. Another soldier that didn’t need to die.
The straight-faced officer had given one more apology, clapping a hand to her shoulder before heading back to the tents. Leona had never wanted to slap someone so terribly. But being a nurse meant harboring her emotions deep down, keeping a strong stature when everyone else thought her to be weaker than the warriors she cured.
What bothered her most was that the officer didn’t tell her a thing about how Jackson’s death occurred. Would it have helped? Leona thought so. She only wanted to know if he suffered as much as the soldiers who passed away in her tent.
When her fellow nurses came around to hug Leona and ask why she’d been crying, it seemed meaningless to tell them the truth. Leona wanted to be alone in that sadness. There hadn’t been a soul in the world she could confide in except for Thomas, though he’d been out fighting Lord knows where.
Nobody would’ve understood her like family, and Thomas had been her only remaining family member. He would’ve been shocked at first, sort of clueless, but then he would’ve stepped up and taken her into his arms, letting her cry in a place where she knew she’d be okay.
What would Jackson want me to do? she had thought, and the answer came almost instantly. She had to be strong.
Even though her world had shattered, she couldn’t sulk in the pain of losing Jackson. That pain was best buried and replaced with the work she’d come out there to do. She had to remain strong for the other soldiers and nurses. And Thomas, who still fought out there somewhere.
After a lonesome set of prayers, Leona had stayed strong. She had become the head nurse in her tent. Everyone turned to her when things went wrong, and their problems were soon solved. Though all the extra work didn’t fill the void Jackson’s smart grin—sweeter than pie—had left in her childish heart, it dulled the pain like that new numbing ointment.
In those short weeks, Leona had commanded enough respect to earn herself quietude amidst breaks from battle. During these, she’d read to occupy her thoughts. She’d been halfway through her third time reading the monthly news when a fellow nurse came running into her tent, face red and streaked with tears. “We’re losing him, we’re losing him!”
Leona threw down her paper, never mind the page.
Leona could still hear the soldier’s screams over the creaky wheels of the stagecoach. Her heart had nearly stopped in her chest when she had recognized the dying soldier as her brother Thomas.
Overcome with renewed grief she peeked out the window, and in the distance, she could see the outskirts of dimly-lit bars in her hometown of Irving, maybe a day’s ride away.
Home—where Thomas had been happy and full of life, unlike inside of that moonlit tent, on his deathbed. Wet gashes of red had speckled his torso. Leona knew it was shrapnel, and she knew it was fatal from the way his blood dripped off the gurney and onto her feet. Too much shrapnel to remove.
Thomas had never gripped her arm so tightly, his face contorted into sobs as he begged for their Ma, head rearing side to side. Leona could only hold him in her arms as his screams turned into quieter gasps. She shook her head at the other nurses, waving them away. The impenetrable wall she’d built suddenly collapsed at the death of her brother, and before everyone, she lost control of her pain. Sobs and shouts rose from her gut like vomit, undoubtedly spreading to the field of war and beyond. Leona thought even back home in Irving they might’ve been able to feel her pain.
The last breath of her dying brother still rested like a necklace charm against her chest. Leona wished she had never left home. She should’ve returned with both of her brothers—one on each arm, walking alongside her. Everything would be different if they all had stayed in their quiet little town, away from the horrors of war.
Irving, Texas 1865
Thankfully, the escape of sleep overcame Leona for the rest of the long ride. She woke to the driver knocking on the wood door a few feet away.
The window panel slid aside, revealing a narrow face flecked with pimples. “Pardon, ma’am.” He had the grave expression of a young man who had seen too many things for his age. Such was the life of a stagecoach driver in the west. “I reckon we’re in Irving.”
Leona stretched, working her way out of the carriage. The fresh morning wind brought with it scents of manure and accumulated dust. Taking a look at the town’s foremost stores and inns, Leona recognized the county she used to live in, but things felt desolate. The mornings used to be filled with the back-and-forth of working men, but hardly anyone walked on the dusty road.
Most of the storefronts remained closed, despite it being well into morning hours. One of the few businesses open was the tavern, where there appeared to be a healthy crowd for such an early hour. What’s happened to this town?
“Here are your bags, ma’am.” The driver held her suitcase and one trunk with leather riding gloves. She paid the remaining half of his fee before walking in the opposite direction of the tavern, away from trouble.
Leona couldn’t wait to get out of this desolate, unrecognizable town. Part of her was angry at herself for even expecting things to be the same after the war. Maybe her old home would have enough memories to transport her back to a time when her brothers could hold her, and she could simply cry away.
The path leading to the city’s outskirts had always been a safe walk. She nodded to Sheriff Randolph on the way, who waved a hand and gave her a friendly welcome back to Irving.
The walk proved to be longer than she remembered. To pass the time, she began to sing a ditty her Pa had taught her once when they went into town for Ma’s medicine. He had been a strapping man ready to tackle anything for anyone. He made her think so much of Jackson—or maybe the other way around. Whichever, she’d first felt that comfort of protection when walking into town with Pa.
People would wave hello to him, and he’d smile that gracious smile back, and Leona always knew that nobody would mess with her nor Pa. It was one of her only remembrances of him before the scarlet fever took him and her mother away when she was nine years old. She liked to think of the song as a way to turn bad things good, like her father used to do with that gracious smile and sing-song cadence.
And like in those youthful days, her singing helped time fly by. She saw home in the distance. The fence of the ranch had lost some of its white paint, but most of it still stood proudly around the few acres passed down to Jackson, and now to her. Nearest to the road, the fence formed a v-shape that’d been perfect for herding cattle. But the ranch was empty of both people and animals.
She thought it better to keep singing her way up the long road till she made it to those high wooden posts, connected by a horizontal post that held up a hanging sign, slightly rocking in wind.
Skip to my Lou
Skip to my Lou
Skip to my Lou
Skip to my Lou, my dar—
The rhyme cut off once she realized that the hanging sign looked familiar—but not because it’d ever been outside of her own home. Never had such an ugly thing existed over the beautiful length of road—overgrown by grass—leading toward her childhood memories. But there it is. She looked up helplessly, reading the word foreclosed in bright red letters.
Right, she thought, a pounding sensation forming near the front of her head. The world began to spin, and she braced herself against a nearby post. Home is home no longer. She actually felt her heart split in two, falling into the pit of her stomach.
It took everything she had to look up at the dark and foreboding barn. How could she not have seen the hints of decay? Broken windows, grass and weeds growing their way over the porch and sides of the home. There’s no holding back nature, she thought, thinking that death had come for everything she ever knew way too soon. Even the memories of her house couldn’t live on.
She had the urge to run up and see if any of her old things remained in the house, but they’d probably been auctioned, and she was tired from hiking and pulling her luggage all for nothing. Why didn’t I just stay on the frontlines? Why wasn’t it my life, instead of Jackson’s or Thomas’s? There was no use in coming back home. Not even the spirit of her parents lived in her house anymore. The war had taken that away from her too.
Most of the day had escaped from Leona, considering the hike, and the pit of despair in her stomach grew larger as she wondered where she’d sleep this evening. A headache formed tiny pings at the sides of her head, and she rubbed her temples the way Thomas had taught her to make it go away.
In doing so, her eyes drifted right, past their gate, to a dangling porch light. Leona remembered something pleasant, and for once, she was lifted with a sense of hope. Mrs. Pullman always used to sit out after supper and read the Bible on her porch.
“Call me a desert canary… Philip!” Mrs. Pullman came trundling down the stairs in her everyday calico dress and generous apron. She had a wide figure and took the porch steps in a sideways manner, guiding herself by the handrail. Upon reaching the bottom stair, she started muttering in a sort of southern slang that even Leona couldn’t put a finger on, distorted as it was by Mrs. Pullman’s tears of joy and each lumbering step.
“Come here,” she said, opening her big arms, which certainly knew how to hug. Leona dropped her suitcase and gave a grateful attempt at hugging back her second Ma—a rare remaining piece of home. The familiar, comforting scent of lavender and bread dough enveloped her. She wanted to cry for this last little piece of home she had left when the front door burst open.
“Well, I’ll be…” The old voice of Philip Pullman had never sounded so nice.
“Mr. Pullman!” Leona ran up the stairs to the elderly man, who looked a whole lot shorter and fatter than she remembered. But it was Mr. Pullman all right—the straw hat said as much, tipped low, almost touching the brim of his wide nose. During the war, chewing tobacco and its piney scent had made her think of this very home. Neither of her brothers used to smoke or chew the black stuff, and she’d been thankful for it. But for the old man, chewing tobacco seemed right. Mr. Pullman was out of time that way.
“My little Leona…” His voice sounded shakier than she remembered. Like walking on eggshells. He even let out a hacking cough. “You look much older.”
“Philip Clark!” Mrs. Pullman hobbled over, whacking him lightly on the arm with the Bible she’d been reading when Leona arrived, and must’ve read a thousand times over. “Didn’t your mother ever teach you not to mention a woman’s age?”
“Sugarplum,” Mr. Philip pleaded, half-grinning. “You know I ain’t mean it like that. Leona here is the little bug she’s always been, grown into a butterfly.” Then the old man’s ice-blue eyes—young as the west itself—filled with a foggy mist. “Yer brothers?” He didn’t dare look at her.
Why does it always seem like everyone knows? Leona readied herself for heaps of unnecessary apology. “I…”
She couldn’t speak. Tears flowed from her eyes. Everything was so different, juxtaposed next to the same Mr. and Mrs. Pullman as before the war. Only, they’re so old.
“There, there,” Mrs. Pullman said, enveloping Leona in her arms. “Come inside, dear. You must be so tired from the road.”
Leona had never felt so emotionally and physically exhausted. The road and traveling had been enough to tire her out, but something about sharing emotional pain made her soul feel like a wet towel squeezed dry. When she finished telling the Pullmans the news about her brothers, it came time for apologies and condolences.
But the Pullmans’ sympathy was as genuine as their tears. “I remember when little Jack-Jack came ‘round and helped us fix up the well,” Mrs. Pullman mentioned. Leona had been talking about Jackson’s honors from the war, which seemed to make Mrs. Pullman proud just to know him. “Then there Thomas came right after him,” she said. “Always was a duo, those two.”
The Pullmans listened to her talk when Leona needed to talk, let her cry out in silence, and told jokes when the air felt too thick.
“And then I arrived home,” Leona finished up. “Giddy and ready to see the house.” The Pullmans watched her with understanding. “Ya know… I thought the house would be my little piece of everyone. My entire family, now dead and gone. Can you explain to me what happened? I thought the land was supposed to be my own.” She felt selfish saying that last bit, but should she? Payments were supposed to have been withdrawn from the bank until their return.
Mr. Pullman changed his posture, straightening up in his chair. “I was told accumulated debts. Not sure if that’s the truth. The banking around Irving has changed since those new men came into town. They all wore them black suits, and I tried asking questions, asked as many as I could think, but they had a comeback for each one. A lot of it kept referring back to the government. Eventually, they had to get Sheriff Randolph to come talk me off the place so they could get your furniture for an auction.”
Mr. Pullman looked as if he could’ve gone on, but he stopped there. “Sorry for it all,” he said. “I know yer father’d be kickin’ me.”
“Nonsense. My Pa would give you a big ol’ Marsh hug if he could.”
“That’s right.” Mrs. Pullman had taken a seat right next to her, gently rocking Leona back and forth. She smelled like the recently served beans; baked and spiced. “Believe that your brothers and ma and pa, they’re watching over you right now, whispering to you. They tell you what’s right from wrong.”
“Amen,” Mr. Pullman added. “And I know they’d send me to hell if I didn’t offer you a place to stay for as long as you need it.”
Mrs. Pullman’s arm tightened at the comment, but she didn’t speak a word.
For once, the pit in Leona’s stomach nearly disappeared. “Why, thank you so much, Mr. Pullman. I would love to. I mean, I need a place to stay, and I’ll surely help with cleaning and such. Trust me. You won’t even know I’m here.”
“I believe you,” Mr. Pullman said, a smile on his face. “You won’t cause us any worry, little butterfly. Yer just like yer brothers, courteous and ready to please. Ain’t that right, Jane?”
Mrs. Pullman nodded, a caring smile on her face. “I’ve been missing someone to fill those open dinner seats. And Lord knows Dr. Lewis needs a nurse to help his practice in town. Maybe you could stop back in, get your mind off things.”
“He’s still seeing patients?” Leona asked.
“Some of ‘em,” Mr. Philip said, taking a long exhale. “Still waitin’ on other patients to come back.” He let out a customary tobacco cough.
Mrs. Pullman shot up from the table—as fast as she could shoot—grabbing Leona’s plate and wobbling toward the kitchen. All that war outside, and this corner of the world hadn’t much changed. That was, except for the state of poor Mr. Philip.
Leona tried her best to wear a pleasant face, but she wasn’t able to refuse the gnawing question in the front of her mind. A proper future seemed like her last sliver of hope in this abyss she had come back to. “What about the men?”
Mr. Philip cleared his throat, saying nothing. His wife shouted from the kitchen. “There ain’t too many of ‘em back so far, sweet honey. You must’ve beat ‘em.”
But Leona knew the truth. Her heart yearned for every good man she’d lost inside of her tent. She would’ve saved them all if she could, but now there were thousands just like her who had to suffer. So many other girls just like her had lost their husbands, brothers, and sons.
Leona caught Mr. Pullman watching her, those blue eyes like a shock of cold water. “I’ll get the bed ready,” she said, standing even quicker than Mrs. Pullman. “The spare room down the hall?” Leona had stayed in that room a hundred times on summer nights when there wasn’t anyone to walk her the short distance back home.
“That very one,” Mr. Pullman said, dipping his fingers into a pouch of tobacco.
Leona helped clean the table, toss out food, and gather clean water from the cisterns before heading to her room. She worked her way toward a smile. The warm house of Mr. and Mrs. Pullman was true medicine for pain that she felt.
Maybe one day, she thought, I won’t need any medicine at all.
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Sounds like a wonderful book to read. The wording is so real and the story is so believable.
Your words make me really happy! Thank you!💖
Looking forward to it’s release.
Thank you so much!❤️
Such a heart rending story…anxious to read the rest of it.
Thank you! I’m glad this story kept you on the edge of your seat!💗
Oh my… something I like to think that we are prepared for the worst, but that is not true, in reality, we always hope for the best ❤️
Excited to continue reading the new journey of Leona’s beginning and healing.
Thank you! I really hope you enjoyed this story!💗