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A Mail-Order Groom to Save Her Heart

What would my father say if I backed down? I won’t–our future depends on this marriage of convenience!

After her father’s death, Etta faces a daunting ultimatum: marry within two months or lose their cherished horse ranch to her lazy cousin. She places an ad for a mail-order groom, practical and uninterested in love. And now he’s here… but why does it sting when he mistakes her best friend for his bride?

Will, a heartbroken blacksmith, answered Etta’s ad for stability, not love. But still, how could he not recognize his own wife? Etta’s fiery eyes and no-nonsense demeanor should have given her away immediately.

As they butt heads over ranch chores and ideals, the tension between them is unmistakable, but can it turn into something more? And when Etta’s vengeful cousin threatens everything, will they unite to save the ranch—or lose it all?

 

Montana, where dreams take flight,

Under the stars in the clear moonlight,

In Montana’s vast and rugged embrace,

Love finds a way, no matter the place.

Written by:

Western Historical Romance Author

4.7/5

4.7/5 (55 ratings)

Prologue

Helena, Montana

April 20, 1874

 

Will Putnam smiled as he worked on his last project before heading home. Well, home was a figure of speech as of then, but he hoped to make this little town in the Dakota territories his permanent residence. For the time being, he was living in a hotel while he saved up enough money from his blacksmithing and farrier work to build a house for himself and his fiancé, Lyla.

His customer, a young man with the scruff of a new beard, waited by while Will repaired his shovel and sickle. “Don’t you just look like the picture of happiness?” the man asked with some amusement. “What’s the secret? Blacksmithing?”

Will laughed. “The secret,” he said between taps of the hammer, “is that I’m in love with a beautiful woman. Today’s the day I tell her that I’ve saved enough for us to have the life of our dreams. All that’s left to do is sell my horses, buy the land, and start building our home.”

“Well, ain’t that nice,” the man replied genuinely. “I got me a wife, too. Might know of some land for ya. We could be neighbors.” Will nodded to him as he went on, “You’re awful good at this metal work, neighbor. How long ya been in the business?”

“Ten years,” Will responded, checking over the hammered sickle. “Started when I was fourteen, after my father died in the war. I joined up, working under a mentor on a traveling forge. Started off repairing wagon wheels, making horseshoes, and the like. Anything the army needed.”

“Whew,” the young man said, running a hand through his hair. “Your pa died in the war, and your ma still let you go too?”

Will shook his head, trying to focus more on the joys of that day than on the pains of his past. “She died before that. Fever took her. But I still remember the amazing wife and mother she was to my father and me. I think she’d be happy knowing that soon I’ll have a wife and the family of my own.”

“Can’t ask for more than that,” the man said softly.

Will certainly didn’t think so. It was all he wanted, after years of traveling the country with a forge on wheels. He’d sold that when he’d realized he’d found the woman of his dreams and bought what he needed to do his work from a shop he rented in town. Soon, though, he’d have property and build himself a real forge near the house where Lyla would raise their children.

As the evening cool began to set in, Will finished up the two repairs and received his payment for a job well done. The two men shook hands before Will closed down the forge to head back to his hotel. He looked forward to the day when he wouldn’t have to walk far before being greeted by loving arms and a hot meal.

Though he was sweaty, grimy, and exhausted from a long day of hard work, he smiled and whistled all the way to the hotel.

Upon reaching the front door, he noticed a handful of people eyeing him sideways, though he couldn’t place exactly why. Perhaps they were just unused to seeing such happiness in one man, especially in the physical state he was in. Their looks seemed less judgmental than sympathetic, he thought, but shook it off as he stepped up the stairs. His room was not far, and he looked forward to getting cleaned up so he might pay Lyla a visit before supper.

Will turned the handle of his bedroom door and swung it open. As he stepped inside and glanced around the moderately furnished room, his smile vanished. The mattress from his bed had been turned over, spilling the quilts, pillows, and sheets onto the floor in a tangled mess.

Every penny he’d been working to save was stored under that mattress.

In a panic, Will fell to his knees, shoving aside the mattress, shaking out the bedding, feeling and looking around for the money.

It was gone. The third pass of searching for it still yielded nothing but heavy breathing and defeat. Sitting back on his heels, Will looked around him.

The rest of the room—the vanity, the trunk at the foot of the bed, and all of his other belongings—had been untouched. Whoever had robbed him knew exactly what they were looking for and where it would be.

His heart hammered in his chest, and suddenly his energy was rejuvenated. Clomping back down the stairs as heavily as one of his Clydesdales, he rushed to the front desk and stammered, “I—I’ve been robbed. Somebody’s taken my money. Did you see anybody go up there?”

The woman at the front desk looked up at him sheepishly. “I’m sorry, sir,” she said hesitantly, “but the only ones who have come in or out are those we know well. You, the other guests, and a Miss Lyla, who I’ve seen with you on multiple occasions.” She looked away uncomfortably at the last words.

Will shook his head. “Lyla wasn’t here today. I’ve been working at the forge since dawn.”

The woman folded her hands, meeting his gaze again with her eyebrows raised and her eyes mouth firm. “I can assure you, sir, Miss Lyla did come in here by herself today. Well, not entirely by herself.”

Will furrowed his brows, too panicked by the theft to have any patience left. “What are you talking about?” he demanded.

The woman sighed. “She was in here with another man. When they left, she was holding his hand. I’m sorry to say it, but it seems she’s taken your money and run off with someone else.” She shook her head. “Many saw them together, so you don’t have to take my word for it.”

By then Will’s head was spinning, and her voice sounded far away.

“If any of us had known she took your money, we would have stopped them. I am sorry, young man.”

Will fell into a nearby chair, all the fire drained out of him. If what this woman said was to be believed, Lyla and everything Will had planned for their future was gone.

Then again, the woman’s story could be only a rumor or suspicion.

He jumped back to his feet and rushed out the door. The only way to know that everything was not a lie, that everything he had hoped for was still a possibility, was to find Lyla and talk to her.

Will ran down the road, shooting up gravel behind him.

Moments later, he arrived at the saloon above which Lyla lived. That was where they had met two years before, and he’d fallen in love with her in an instant. She had been working at the time on the stage, singing to entertain all the patrons, but her eyes rested most often on Will, he was sure.

He knew that she felt for him as strongly as he felt for her, which was why he could not believe that she was the cause of this trouble. They were too close. They were meant for each other, and a betrayal like that was simply impossible.

As he tried to run up the stairs, he was stopped by the owner, Jack Danes. “Wait right there, Will,” the burly man commanded. “Just what do you think you’re doing?”

Will panted for breath as he fought to get the words out. “Lyla. I need to see Lyla.”

Jack shook his head. “Lyla moved out today. She’s going east with her new fella.”

The words fell on Will like a ton of bricks, crushing every remnant of hope he’d had left. His legs buckled beneath him, and he plopped down on the steps. Shaking his head fervently, he kept repeating, “No, no, no.”

The older man clapped him on the shoulder. “Afraid it’s true, son. I know you’re sweet on her, but a strapping lad like you should have no trouble replacing her.”

Will shoved Jack’s hand away. “I don’t want to replace her. I want to marry her. I finally—” He stopped when he realized he no longer had the money. He had been about to say that he finally had enough to provide the life they’d always wanted together. He was ready to be a citizen of the town, a husband, and a father to the children he’d always dreamed of.

But some other man had stolen all of that—had stolen Lyla. His head pounded, his ears rang, and his vision blurred. Everything had been pulled out from under him, ripped away just as he’d finally reached true joy.

All this time, he had thought it was what Lyla wanted too and that she was as thrilled as he was, but it was all a lie. She’d let him believe that she loved him, and she’d accepted his proposal only to laugh behind his back. All those months of courtship had meant nothing to her after all, and now the memory of her smiling face mocked him.

Will was hardly aware of what was happening as the tavern owner lifted him by the arm and guided him to a stool at the bar. “Will. Son,” he said, starting to break through the fog that overcame Will’s senses, “why’d you come here in such a hurry?”

Tears burned in Will’s eyes as he choked on his response. “Lyla took all the money from my hotel room. All I’ve got is what’s in my pocket.”

Jack whistled in sympathy. “That’s a bum deal if I ever heard one,” he said, slamming a cup down on the bar. “On the house. You look like you could use it.”

Will grasped the cup with trembling fingers. After a slight, steadying pause, he raised it to his lips and sipped the warm beer. It was bitter as it ran down his dry throat, but nothing near as bitter as his heart was at that moment—betrayed by the one and only person in the world to whom he had given his trust.

He couldn’t imagine how he would move forward after this. His whole life had come crashing down, and the future he thought he was building had been reduced to rubble. What was he to do now? How was he to go on in a town that he had thought would be his home—and that would surely learn in short order what had happened to him?

No, he told himself. He had to get out just as soon as he finished the last commission he’d already received. He could do so in a matter of days, but where would he go from there?

Chapter One

Virginia City, Montana April 8, 1874

 

Etta Atkins eased her father down onto his bed. She tucked him in comfortably and prepared to blow out the lamp on the bedside table. Bathed in the lamplight, Robert looked pallid. One side of his face drooped, and his hand lay paralyzed against his chest as it had ever since he’d suddenly been taken ill a year before.

Etta had done everything for him since then, from keeping their horse ranch running and profitable as he’d taught her, to giving him personal care, to maintaining the house where he had raised her until his illness. Her every waking hour was spent in action or the thought of what actions she must take to keep her father and their horses comfortable and well.

The ranch hands made no secret of their displeasure at being commanded by her or having her work alongside them. Out of loyalty to her father, though, they kept their grumbling to a minimum. There were also regular remarks from others around the town that she should behave like a lady rather than doing men’s work.

That had been the case ever since she’d started working the ranch as a little girl. Over the years, though, the gossips had shifted to the topic of Etta’s lack of a husband. They mostly made pitying comments about how she should hire more help with all that money from the ranch’s success or else get married and share the load.

To those words, however well-intentioned they might have been, Etta had to scoff and turn away. She couldn’t imagine hiring so-called “help” to care for her father when she was perfectly capable of doing it herself. What kind of a person would she be if she allowed laziness to bring suffering to the only one she still considered family?

She didn’t even want to keep on hired help for the horses because she liked everything done in a particular way. Still, her father had trained the current hired hands to do things well enough, even if they had no respect for her as their boss.

Just as she sucked in a breath to blow out the flame on Robert’s bedside table, he raised his good hand to stop her. His breathing was still labored from the effort of getting tucked into bed, but Etta waited patiently until he was ready to speak.

The illness had taken a lot away from the strong, well-spoken Robert Atkins. He’d once stood tall and mighty, with a voice that would make even the sheriff back down, if they’d ever had a disagreement. In truth, they were good friends, as Robert was with most of the town, and even many outsiders.

He was just that kind of man. To know him was to love him, and Etta loved him more than anybody else in the world since her mother’s passing ten years prior. Since then, Robert had raised her on his own, and he’d taught her to be just as strong and independent as he was. If she’d been born a boy, she’d likely have been just as appreciated among the Virginia City folk.

Seeing him lying so small in his bed, unable even to bathe himself since his mobility had been severely diminished by the illness, Etta had to close her eyes and remember the person he was inside. He was still the same man he had always been, she knew, and only she could remember him well enough to treat him with the dignity he deserved.

“Etta,” he said weakly, “before you go, I need to talk to you.” The tone she detected under his labored breathing put her on edge, and she wished she could avoid whatever he was about to say.

“It’s all right, Papa,” she told him. “You should get some sleep. I’ll be right here in the morning.”

He shook his head. “I need to tell you tonight.”

Etta’s pulse sounded in her ears as she tucked his quilt around him in just the right way, gazing down at him in alarm. Despite her dread over what he would say, she took his good hand in hers. “I’m listening.”

He drew in a breath and looked up at her with a faraway, sorrowful expression glistening in his eyes. “As you know, I want nothing more than to see you get this place after I’m gone.”

“Don’t talk like that,” Etta commanded, pulling away. “You’ve got a good long life ahead of you.” Her tone suggested anger, but they both knew that it was motivated by severe discomfort. She hated that she might someday lose him; the thought alone was agony.

Robert closed his eyes, his brows and mouth drawn in pain. “I won’t be around forever. And… even though I want you to keep our home, the law says it has to go to my closest living male kin.”

He opened his eyes again, and Etta balled her fists. She’d known for a long time that her cousin Charles Lee was likely to inherit the ranch unless they could do something about it. She’d been hoping that they could, but she hadn’t put much effort into finding solutions to that problem since her father got sick.

She was eighteen years old when it happened, and her highest priority had been keeping her father alive and comfortable through the most unexpected and terrible thing that could have happened to him. Her responsibilities had grown so enormous that thinking ahead that far was too much to bear.

“Well,” she murmured, “what do you have to say that I don’t already know?”

Robert held up his hand to her, silently asking her to sit beside him again. Swallowing hard, she did as she knew he wanted, taking his hand again and squeezing it to let him know that she’d be strong no matter what he had to say.

“I’ve been in touch with our lawyer,” he said, and her eyebrows shot up. “I’ve changed my will, and we’ve determined that there’s a way for you to keep this place away from Charles, to keep it as your home.”

Her heart thundered as she grasped his cold fingers in hers. “What do you mean, Papa?”

“I mean, if we have another male kin closer than a cousin, Charles will never see this place,” he explained with a weak smile. Etta furrowed her brows, afraid of guessing to what he referred.

Before she could push through her misgivings and do so anyway, he continued, “If you marry within two months of my death, Atkins Ranch and every structure and creature on it will go to you and your new husband.”

She gasped at the words marry and husband. He couldn’t mean it. He knew her too well to think she’d ever consider such an absurd arrangement.

“No,” she said, shaking her head as if that could change the words he’d already had drawn up in his will.

“I won’t do it, Papa. You know me. You know that I’m not the marrying type. And no one in town would have me, even if I wanted any of them. You have to change it,” she pleaded. “Find another way. It’s your property, not the government’s; they shouldn’t get to decide these things.”

He closed his eyes again, too tired or too weak even to shake his head. “I know, sweetheart,” he whispered. “I wish there was another way, but there isn’t.”

She watched his tears start to glisten in the lamplight, the first time in her life she’d ever seen the man cry, and she knew that an argument would be more detrimental to his health than anything. Even if there was any other option, and even if he was in any shape to change the will, the time to do so would not be that night.

“All right,” Etta whispered, giving his hand one final squeeze. “You get some sleep, Papa. We can talk more about this in the morning. I love you.”

As she lifted the lamp and stepped lightly to the door, she heard his soft rumbling voice say, “I love you too, Bean.”

***

The pallbearers had finished their work, and Etta put the first shovelful of dirt in the ground. Her father was gone, and she had to carry on. One of her father’s ranch hands tried to take the shovel from her to finish the job, but she shook him off and kept going, joined by others until the coffin was fully buried.

Without waiting for any more people to bombard her with their sympathies, she went to her horse, mounted, and rode hard back to the ranch. In her black mourning dress, she had to ride sidesaddle. If it had been any other occasion, she wouldn’t have bothered foregoing her usual trousers.

Many times in her life she’d been ridiculed or judged for the way she lived, but by doing men’s work and taking on men’s responsibilities, she thought she’d earned the right to wear pants.

Upon reaching home, she rushed through the front gate, galloped toward the stable, and dismounted in a fluid motion. She slammed the stable doors open, and led her mount inside.

Ripping the hat from her head, she tossed it and the attached black netted veil into the corner without care. All those people just trying to help made everything worse. Her loss was greater than they could have expressed, and she hated it when they tried. Anyway, there was too much riding on her remaining focused to make more time for her grief.

She took the saddle and bridle off, lovingly brushing the horse’s mane out of her eyes. The sleek black mare, Midnight, was morbidly fitting for the day, but Etta tried not to think of that. The ranch needed her attention, and she still had a choice to make that seemed an impossible one.

What would she be willing to do to keep her home?

As she finished getting Midnight out to pasture, hoofbeats sounded up the road, and she turned toward them. Squinting her eyes, Etta quickly realized that her dear friend Charlotte had followed her home from the funeral.

“Hey, Etta,” Charlotte said upon reaching the pasture. “Do you need any help?”

While Etta appreciated the offer, she felt anxious to do the afternoon’s work herself. Not only was she now sole owner of the ranch—for however long that lasted—but she also needed something to keep her mind off the agonizing pain of her loss.

“No thank you. I can handle it,” she answered.

Charlotte dismounted and stepped forward. “I know you can. But I’m here, and I could use the chance to brush up on all that you’ve taught me about taking care of the horses.”

“Don’t you have dresses to make?”

Charlotte worked at the local dressmaker’s shop, and she’d been instrumental in ensuring that Etta received the clothing she preferred to wear: pants that still managed to be somewhat feminine.

“Not today,” Charlotte replied. “I took the week off. Thought maybe I was needed more here.”

Etta met her friend’s brilliant green gaze at last, tears welling in her own hazel eyes at the care Charlotte showed her.

“I guess,” she struggled to say, “if you really want to help… I’ve got to groom the rest of the horses. Clean their hooves and such.” The ranch hands had not shown up for even an hour of work since learning of her father’s death, and she feared everything would be left up to her from then on.

Charlotte nodded without another word and headed into the stable. It wouldn’t be the first time she’d helped with the care of Etta’s horses. She was one of the few whom Etta trusted to touch them.

They worked together side by side, not speaking although Etta could sense Charlotte’s concern for her.

Charlotte was such a good friend, in great part because she knew that Etta needed space to figure out what she needed to say. In the silence, Etta’s mind drifted to the funeral that day and how she could express her worries to her friend.

At last, she managed to say, “The ranch is going to Charles.”

Charlotte turned her head slightly, as if listening more closely, while Etta forced out the next words. “Unless… Well, Papa was able to change his will. If I get married within two months, my husband will keep the place.”

Etta stopped working and clenched her fist around the brush. “It’ll stay out of Charles’s hands,” she said desperately, “but I’d have to get married for that to happen.” There was bitterness in her voice, and Charlotte looked at her with sympathy.

Sighing heavily, Etta grumbled, “There are a great many things I’d be willing to do to keep this place away from that drunk, but…marriage? I don’t know.”

Etta knew that she and Charlotte had very different opinions on a great many things. One of the areas in which their thought processes diverged was when it came to the subject of love. Charlotte was of the mind that her romance novels were somehow linked to reality. She was always concocting fanciful scenarios in her head.

Etta, however, saw the tales for what they were: works of fiction. She had no intention of losing her heart, her mind, or any of her senses over some man. She hardly saw how any rational woman could. Etta hoped Charlotte wouldn’t fall into her usual trap of dreaming up possible futures that would showcase fantastical levels of optimism, but she knew her friend too well to not expect it at some small level.

“Will you do it?” Charlotte asked with wide eyes.

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