She yearns to find the courage to escape her past. He tries to prove himself worthy of her heart. Amid the untamed wilderness, can their love survive the challenges that lie ahead?
Amelia, along with her mother, flees an abusive past, seeking solace and safety in the promise of a new beginning as she journeys to Montana for a mail-order marriage. But as she settles in, secrets from the past threaten to unravel her fragile hope. Will Amelia find the healing and security she seeks?
Dylan, Amelia’s reserved and enigmatic future husband, harbors his own hidden secrets. As James, Amelia’s abusive stepfather, looms on the horizon, threatening to tear apart their newfound happiness, Dylan must navigate challenges that test his mettle. Can he regain the trust of the wary community and prove himself worthy of Amelia’s heart?
Amidst the rugged wilderness of the Old West, Amelia and Dylan’s love is put to the ultimate test. As they face the trials of their new life, their faith and love are pushed to the limits. In a land where danger lurks, and uncertainties abound, can their unwavering faith and love triumph over adversity?
Boston, Massachusetts, 1875
Amelia Bennett’s footfalls were quiet as she hurried through the church, her small heels barely even clicking over the stone floor. She had been playing dress up with her mother’s shoes from the time she was eight years old, and with eight further years of practice under her belt, she could even startle a cat with her silence. She hoisted her skirts—layers of floral silk in all shades of pink and yellow, alternating with white lace—and picked up her pace.
She slipped into the main hall, still on time but just barely. James Cooper watched as she made her way down the aisle dotted with rose petals and lined with tasteful bouquets of baby’s breath. There was a questioning look in his dark eyes. He arched one pale, questioning eyebrow until it seemed it might try to run away and join his wavy blond hairline as she came to a halt across from him. She straightened her skirts and finally stilled enough to catch her breath.
It looked as if he was going to ask a question—to double-check that everything was still on course—but Amelia briefly shook her head to quiet him. She offered her soon-to-be stepfather a reassuring smile and nodded her head toward the door she had just come through, silently indicating, Soon, just wait.
James settled once more with a barely audible huff. Amelia took the opportunity to glance over the guests. There weren’t many of them, but Amelia supposed it couldn’t be helped. James seemed to have some sort of disagreement with his own family, so most of them hadn’t bothered to put in an appearance.
Amelia and her mother, Maggie, had never had a terribly large extended family, and while she knew her father’s family was supportive, not many of them had been able to bring themselves to show up. She couldn’t blame them; it felt as if the months since her father’s death had been compressed into hardly a week, sometimes.
The gathering was mostly made up of friends, but Amelia supposed there were worse problems to have than to have a crowd of friends. She had a sneaking suspicion, though, that the crowd would grow considerably for the reception.
Nevertheless, the guests seemed content, and everyone seemed happy to be there. Good, Amelia thought. She knew her mother deserved to have people be happy for her.
As if summoned by that thought, the organist began to play, and the door opened slowly, sending petals sweeping and tumbling across the floor as an attendant pulled the door open. The door settled with a creak, and Maggie Bennett stood framed in the doorway, smiling gently at everyone gathered.
She was quite a sight, and Amelia darted a glance toward James just to be sure he properly appreciated it. He was smiling a bit like he’d been hit over the head—as though he couldn’t quite understand how he had come to be where he was. Amelia let out the breath she was holding and turned to watch her mother stride down the aisle, her footsteps measured, elegant, and perfectly placed.
Her dress was simple, but that seemed appropriate for a second wedding. All the same, it was beautiful. The veil that covered her pale face belonged to Amelia’s paternal grandmother, having been worn by several generations of women in the family.
The comb holding Maggie’s long, wavy brown hair up on top of her head was a delicate swirl of wirework flowers in blue and red. It had been a gift from Amelia’s father, and the brand-new, sapphire earrings Maggie wore had been chosen specifically to match it, just as they matched her eyes.
Maggie came to a halt at the end of the aisle. Amelia could only just make out her smile behind her veil until James reached out to carefully—reverently—lift the veil up and back, showing her face and her gentle smile, joyous but trembling slightly with emotion.
The music slowed and fell quiet, and a hush fell over the guests. Maggie and James reached out across the short distance between them, linking their hands together before they turned to look at the priest. The priest was silent for a moment to make sure all eyes were on him before he cleared his throat and began to speak. “We are gathered here today….”
Just as Amelia expected, the crowd tripled in size for the reception. People were laughing. The band and the dancing couples were lively. Drinks were flowing freely. Amelia was happy to see that everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves, but it wasn’t her main concern just then.
More than anything, she just wanted to check on her mother. Neither of them had been surrounded by crowds very often since her father got sick—the last time had been at the funeral.
Maggie had been beautiful during the ceremony, and she had looked content. There had scarcely been a sign of the quiet breakdown Amelia had coaxed her through just beforehand, nearly resulting in her being late. There had scarcely been a sign of it, but Amelia still knew it had happened.
She strolled through the banquet hall, tactfully aimless as she tried to pinpoint where James and her mother had gone. If she looked as if she had too much of a purpose in mind, surely, she would just be stopped every other step by well-meaning guests wanting to make sure that everything was all right.
It wasn’t that she didn’t trust her mother with James. They got on just fine, though they were only ever proper where Amelia could see them, of course. But no matter how her mother tried to hide it, Amelia still knew that the family business gradually tipping downhill had been the deciding factor in Maggie accepting James’ proposal as quickly as she had, even if she chose to believe there was also love involved.
She just had to make sure her mother was holding up all right, and perhaps then she could actually pause for a breath.
And yet, she felt compelled to stop every few paces and greet people regardless. Such was the curse of being raised to be polite, she supposed, though she certainly wasn’t going to say that out loud.
She slowed to a halt once again, smiling at her Uncle Harry—her father’s brother. She had seen him slip into the church toward the tail-end of the ceremony, and she was happy he had decided to stay for the reception. Even so, she couldn’t quite figure out what she wanted to say to him. Some part of her wanted to apologize, though she knew she had no reason to.
He seemed to know her thoughts as clearly as if they were written on her face. He pulled her into a brief hug and said, “I’m glad to see your family doing well. Charles would want to know you’re happy and being taken care of and that your mother isn’t putting herself on a shelf to while away the years.”
“And I’m glad you could make it,” Amelia replied, though already her attention was drifting as she peered around to find her mother.
At last, she caught a gleam of light off the red and blue of her mother’s hair comb, and it took every ounce of her willpower not to make an immediate beeline in that direction.
Uncle Harry was a good sport about it, at least. He smiled wryly as she excused herself and ushered her on her way.
“Tell Grandmother thank you for the veil,” Amelia said quickly, already stepping away. “I’ll have it returned in perfect condition before the week is out!”
She turned on her heel and hurried off, weaving through the crowd before she could lose sight of her mother’s comb.
She met her mother’s eye as she approached, and they shared a quiet smile. Maggie still seemed content but perhaps a bit frazzled, her eyes tight and her smile dimmer than it had been during the ceremony. She had never been a socialite, except for when she had to be. Despite that, James seemed content to tow her through the reception, from one group of his business acquaintances to another.
Amelia supposed that maybe it was a bit flattering, that he seemed too eager to show his new family off.
She closed the distance between them and attempted to catch her mother’s arm on the side opposite from James, only for her fingers to close on empty air as James led Maggie away once again. Amelia gaped after him, but he offered little more than a brief, “We’ll catch up after everyone’s had a drink, Mia.” The nickname made her shiver.
Her mother offered her a reassuring smile before turning her attention back to James and his next acquaintance.
With a quiet huff, Amelia turned and strode away. Somewhere in the gathering, she knew at least a few of her friends from her etiquette classes were milling about.
It had been long enough since she had last seen them that she knew there would be some catching up to do, and she would take the distraction. It was better than focusing on the way her step-father was too excited to realize that his new wife would probably like a moment to breathe.
In the weeks after the wedding, James had seemed so willing to take over the running of Amelia’s parents’ tailoring and millinery business. Excited, even. It had been a relief, truly. Amelia’s mother had been doing her best to keep it afloat, but it was a lot for one person to handle. True enough, Maggie had been the primary seamstress, but Charles had handled the day-to-day running of the business, even if he had always welcomed Maggie’s input.
At first, it had been a relief to let James take that over. Or at least it had been right up until he mentioned how he was contemplating letting out of the junior seamstresses go. Amelia didn’t know the employees well, but even she knew it seemed sudden, and no one had mentioned the girl doing bad work.
Maggie broached the topic with James after dinner one evening as they gathered in the sitting room to sit in front of the fire when she would usually do her sewing. If a girl was going to lose her job, Maggie at least wanted to know why. If there were some sort of guidance, she would be able to give the replacement, that seemed like valuable knowledge.
“There isn’t going to be a replacement,” James said plainly. He held his hands out toward the fire, and he already seemed to have decided he was done with the conversation. “I’m simply downsizing a bit.”
“Without letting me know?” Maggie asked, quiet and bemused. James rolled his eyes upward as if he was beseeching some higher power for patience when she didn’t immediately accept his answer and let the topic go.
“You did say you trust my judgment,” he reminded her stiffly. They had scarcely been discussing the matter for five minutes, and he already sounded as if he was so ready to be finished with the entire conversation.
Amelia inched closer to her mother’s side, abandoning her plush ottoman. Though the light of the fire had been comforting a moment ago, the harsh, flickering shadows it cast over James’ and Maggie’s faces suddenly seemed ominous.
“I do,” Maggie assured him, and she got up from her chair to gently take his elbow. “But I have the right….”
Whatever she was going to say was lost beneath the sound of James’s palm striking Maggie across the face. She didn’t even make a sound. She simply stared up at him, her eyes enormous. For a moment, the entire house was silent. Someone could have heard a pin drop from clear across Boston.
James didn’t look at all surprised by his own outburst. He didn’t look as if he felt at all apologetic. He didn’t look as if he had gotten worked up and lost control of himself.
He looked calm, in fact. Perfectly calm.
“I can do as I wish with the business,” he repeated, and his tone made room for no argument. “That was the agreement, and so I will do so. Have I made myself clear?”
Maggie’s gaze dropped to the floor, and she nodded.
“Look at me when I’m speaking to you,” James snapped, and he seized her by her upper arms and gave her a shake until she lifted her head again. “You can give me at least that barest amount of respect.”
Amelia watched as her mother’s eyes filled with tears.
“Let her go,” she mumbled so quietly that for a moment, she thought she had misplaced her own voice under the rug.
“What was that?” James asked, distracted as if he had merely forgotten that Amelia was also in the room.
Amelia straightened her shoulders and steeled herself. “Let her go,” she repeated, firm and slow. She grabbed her mother’s elbow and tugged.
James let her go, though it seemed like it was less because he wanted to and more because he was simply taken off guard by Amelia’s behavior.
Slowly, he turned to face Amelia.
“What did I just say about respect?” he asked, his voice still so low and calm as if he was simply dealing with some daily nuisance that needed to be handled.
Amelia stared up into his face. She had always known he was larger than her—of course he was. She was sixteen years old, and he was a grown man.
But she had never quite realized just how much larger than her he was until his shadow was looming over her.
Boston, Massachusetts, 1880
Amelia had turned twenty-one four weeks ago, and the world had continued to turn without acknowledging it. Her mother and the maid had both quietly wished her a happy birthday, but neither of them had dared to offer even the smallest celebration. James didn’t enjoy feeling as if he wasn’t being included in everything around him, after all.
Perhaps she would be able to properly celebrate her birthday next year. A lot could change in a year, after all, especially if she had her own say about it, even if there was very little that she had her own say about anymore.
Her father’s family had gradually slid away, withdrawing more and more as the years passed. Barely allowed to leave the house as Maggie and Amelia were, friends slipped away just as gradually. And though Amelia knew her mother had family; she didn’t dare approach them. There was little help they could offer to keep the business from failing or to ensure that Amelia had a future to look forward to.
With that knowledge, Amelia knew she could have run to them with all the proof in the world, and her mother would have denied it all to keep what wealth and security James guaranteed them, and his rage would be all the stronger afterward.
A sonorous rumble sounded from downstairs, and the house rattled as if from thunder. Thunder would have been preferable, though. Really, Amelia and Maggie both knew that it was simply James. He must have just returned from his usual night of drinking, and he did have such a way of slamming the door open or closed so that the entire wall shook. The crash had likely been another vase tumbling to the floor because of the impact.
After all, what was the point of anything if the neighbors for a block in every direction didn’t know of his comings and goings?
Amelia listened at the door of her bedroom for a few moments. It was a small room, and even sounds from across the house seemed to fill it, bouncing off the bookshelves and rattling around in the closet that had been too small since Amelia was a young girl. She could hear him talking to himself downstairs as he paced back and forth by the staircase. She could tell from his tone that he was annoyed—as if she needed to figure that out when he was always annoyed—but she couldn’t make out what he was saying.
Hopefully, it had nothing to do with her or her mother. As long as they stayed out of sight for the rest of the night, then he probably wouldn’t even think of them.
Amelia returned to her bed, where her mother sat, and joined her on it, sitting carefully on the edge of the mattress. She clenched her hands together in her lap and tried to dredge up something like a smile, but she could feel how flat it would fall, and she let the expression fall away. Seeing how forced it was would upset her mother more than its absence.
“It doesn’t sound like there’s anything out of the ordinary,” Amelia assured Maggie. “We should be fine for the night.”
It was one of the better nights, all things considered. They had managed to have a hasty supper while James was gone before retreating to Amelia’s room. They wouldn’t be going to bed hungry that night. There had been nights in the past when James had returned home earlier than expected, forcing Amelia and Maggie to quietly retreat up the stairs as he scrabbled at the lock, knowing that if he caught them in the kitchen, then there would be hell to pay.
He never even bothered with finding justification anymore. He would shout about respect, but the truth was obvious—Amelia, Maggie, and the business were his playthings, and so he could do as he pleased with them. It was as simple as that.
Carefully, Maggie reached for Amelia’s arm, lifting it and inspecting the bruise that had spread around her forearm in the unmistakable shape of a palm and five fingers wrapping around it. If she went outside and anyone saw it, it would be obvious what it was from.
The odds of anyone doing anything were slim, but it hardly mattered, regardless. Amelia left the house as little as possible, and that was how it had been for the majority of the last few years. When there were no other options, her sleeves were always long enough to reach her wrists.
“It doesn’t hurt,” Amelia assured her mother. The look Maggie leveled her with—sad and resigned in equal measure—made it clear that she did not believe that for an instant. Even so, she didn’t call Amelia out on the lie.
“This shouldn’t be your ordinary,” Maggie said, voice quiet and directed mostly to her own knees. She rarely, if ever, truly spoke up anymore. Amelia could scarcely remember what her mother’s voice sounded like when it was full and vibrant.
She was right, but they both knew that was irrelevant.
There was no time left for that conversation, though. It seemed that James hadn’t had an especially good night of drinking—or perhaps he had worked himself up into a pique in his pacing and grumbling. Amelia couldn’t tell the difference anymore, and the outcome was always the same.
His voice rose sharply downstairs as he shouted about a rivaling business, spewing bile that no one would ever care to repeat in a church. The floor rattled with each step as he continued pacing from room to room, and eventually, there was a scraping sound as he picked something up off the counter in what sounded like the kitchen and a crash as he presumably threw it at the wall.
Maggie had released Amelia’s arm to instead curl her fingers into nervous fists in the fabric of her nightgown. She looked so pale and small, eyeing the bedroom door as if she were waiting for it to be thrown off of its hinges.
Amelia took a deep breath and slowly sighed it out. She set one hand over one of her mother’s and gave it a brief squeeze before she got to her feet. Carefully, quietly, only moving when she could hear James stomping about below them, Amelia made her way to the bedroom door. She paused just in front of it and waited, head tilted as she listened.
There was a lull for a moment, presumably as James caught his breath from the first stage of his temper tantrum. It was brief, though. It always was. And as soon as he resumed stomping about like an over-burdened draft house, Amelia locked the door. The click was nearly silent, and it was entirely buried beneath the racket from downstairs.
More quickly but still timing it carefully, Amelia retreated back to her bed and sat down once more. Maggie grabbed her hand and squeezed.
They sat in quiet tension after that, but they knew there was at least a temporary end in sight. He only ever had so much steam, especially when he was drunk.
Soon enough, after several minutes of silence, the maid’s dainty footsteps passed outside the door, and she tapped against the door frame as she passed. It was an old, well-established signal that James had passed out for the night, giving everyone else at least a few hours of peace until morning.
Quietly, never daring to make too much noise, Amelia and Maggie pulled back the blankets. Amelia doused the lights, finishing by blowing out the last candle on her bedside table as she climbed into bed. She occasionally envied the maid and the butler. James was not kind to them, but more often than not, he seemed to forget they existed, as if they were simply pieces of furniture. Even so, Amelia would never wish what she and Maggie had gone through upon them.
Once Amelia was situated, Maggie pulled the covers back up, straightening them just so, like she was using the gesture to apologize. Amelia wished she knew how to convince her she didn’t need to apologize.
In the dark, staring up at her ceiling, Amelia finally dredged up the words to discuss what could possibly be the most important conversation they had ever had.
“I was reading the newspaper some time ago,” she remarked, seemingly out of nowhere.
Maggie hummed curiously, encouraging her to continue.
“A man placed an advertisement stating he was looking for a bride,” Amelia explained. “He lives far enough away that I don’t know how anyone from Boston would have even heard of him.”
At first, Maggie had no reply until she managed, “You can’t possibly be thinking of contacting him.”
“I already have,” Amelia stated simply. “We’ve been corresponding back and forth for some weeks now.”
Maggie drew in a sharp breath.
“He lives in Montana,” Amelia explained. “I don’t yet know if I could truly grow to love him, but in all of our correspondence, he seems to be a good man. For me, at this point, that is enough.” Perhaps she could learn to love him, or perhaps not; that part mattered little. She had learned, over the last few years, that apathy could sometimes be an improvement.
“You know James would never let us simply leave,” Maggie said, softer and quieter than ever before. “Can you even imagine what he would do once he found out?”
“What if he didn’t find out, though?” Amelia asked. “What if we could get out of here?”
The bed shifted as Maggie rolled onto her side to look at her daughter with careful consideration.
“You have an idea.” It was not a question.
“I do,” Amelia confirmed. “We would have to wait until dark, to be sure none of the neighbors see us. But if we wait until one of his harsher nights, he’ll be certain to accept if the maid offers him another drink to calm down. After a few extra drinks, he’ll be sure to pass out cold in his chair. He would sleep the whole night through, even if the house collapsed around him.”
There were many harsh nights; there was truly no peace. James would have to feel some ounce of contentedness for that, and Amelia wasn’t convinced that he had ever been content with anything in his life. Typically, the maid’s goal at night was to avoid James if at all possible or to lessen his temper if he couldn’t be avoided, but Amelia knew she would be willing to help.
“You’ve put quite a lot of thought into this,” Maggie observed, letting the words slip out slowly like she was turning the idea over and over in her mind.
Amelia was quiet for a moment before she reluctantly admitted, “I haven’t figured out the matter of paying the way there, though. We will need to pay for transport, and it is certainly more than I’ve managed to squirrel away on my own.”
Maggie was silent, save for the way the bedding rustled as she turned over onto her back again, staring up at the ceiling.
“I know how to get us enough money,” she said eventually, and she sounded as if each word was slipping out with the greatest reluctance.
Amelia opened her mouth, ready to ask how, but she paused and thought it over for a moment before she decided she wasn’t sure she wanted to know. As it was, she knew her mother was on the precipice of refusing to go along with the idea at all for fear of James’ wrath when he realized they were gone.
Amelia closed her mouth and let the question slip away unasked.
“If you are certain that this will work,” Maggie continued after a few minutes of silence, “then I think we should. I trust your instincts.”
Amelia didn’t point out that she was sure it would work because she wasn’t. She wasn’t sure of anything anymore, save for the fact that they needed to get out of there, and even if her soon-to-be spouse decided he was disinterested in marrying her as soon as he actually saw her, that didn’t matter. They would already be in Montana, and from there, they could always pick up the pieces and start over anew without James looming over them like some sort of gargoyle.
They didn’t discuss it any further that night, though Amelia continued to think it over. They would both need to pack in the coming days without letting James see anything. If he had even the slightest idea that they were planning something, then it would all be for naught.
He would most likely kill them if he caught them. Amelia knew it. But if they never even tried, their souls would likely die long before their bodies.
She fell asleep slowly that night, waiting until the sound of her mother’s slow, even breathing lulled her to sleep.
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