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A Love Forged in the Mountains

“I have nowhere else to go,” I whisper.

“Then stay,” he replies, his voice unexpectedly gentle…

Sera’s desperate bid for a better life brings her to the rugged Colorado mountains, but it traps her in a new kind of cage. When a stranger arrives with news of her abusive husband’s death, she faces an uncertain future alone. “I never asked for any of this,” she whispers, looking up at the stern, handsome man before her…

Roy guards his family’s ranch fiercely against intruders, his heart hardened by past betrayals. Until he encounters this determined widow with a mysterious past. “I don’t need your help,” she insists, her eyes flashing defiantly. “Then why do I feel like I need to stay?” he replies, more to himself than to her…

In the sprawling wilderness of Colorado, love blossoms amidst danger and uncertainty. A mutual enemy, driven by revenge and greed, returns to threaten everything they hold dear…

In the Rockies where their hearts first meet,

Sera’s strength and Roy’s resolve greet.

Through trials faced and battles fought,

Love’s enduring journey is tenderly wrought.

Written by:

Western Historical Romance Author

4.5/5

4.5/5 (24 ratings)

Prologue

Granby, Colorado

October 1885

 

“The fact that your mother ever loved you is a mystery to me,” Brett Smithson snarled, his head lolling against the back of his chair as he watched Sera set the table.

She placed the plates and forks and glasses in dogged silence, doing her best to distract herself from his seemingly endless harangue by adjusting each piece of cutlery so that it was just so.

“I mean, what did she see in you? A runty, squalling little bit of nothing. You weren’t worth her life. You weren’t worth anything. Still aren’t.”

Sera’s fingers trembled slightly as she heard the emotion rising in her father’s voice. Brett was completely sodden with the whiskey he’d been guzzling since he had returned home from his work at the mines. She knew from a lifetime of experience that if she so much as looked at him wrong tonight, his abuse could turn physical in the blink of an eye.

The fact that she ever loved you is the mystery to me, she thought privately. And I wonder what she saw in you.

Of course, she would never say the words aloud. Nothing her father was hurling at her was anything she hadn’t heard before. It hurt a little more tonight than usual, but that was to be expected.

Although she had never known her mother, the anniversary of Mary Taylor Smithson’s death always hit Sera just as hard as it hit her father. The only difference was that Sera chose not to spend the entire day blaming herself for Mary’s untimely passing—or at least, she tried very hard not to.

It was difficult, after years of hearing her father grunt, scream, and growl at her that it was “all her fault,” to not sometimes feel that it indeed would have been better for everyone if Seraphina Smithson had never been conceived.

“Do you know what my Mary’s last words to me were?” Brett asked, his voice trembling with an inebriated sob.

Sera glanced at him from the corner of her eye, trying to judge whether his mood demanded an answer or would best be soothed by the lack of one.

Her father was slumped in his chair by the potbellied stove, his chin almost resting on his chest. His shaggy hair was gray with dust from the mines, as was most of his face and hands.

Upon arriving home today, he had barely paused to splash water over his skin before retrieving the bottle that now dangled from his slack fingers and plopping himself into the chair, where he had stayed ever since, watching Sera with baleful eyes as she prepared their simple dinner and tried to avoid taking a false step.

Sera had gotten her own grieving out of the way while her father was at work. It was always safest that way. She had been relieved that he had gone to work today; listening to him crash about that morning from her little loft room, she had been momentarily afraid that he would decide to skip work and jump straight to drinking.

The moment he had left the house, she fled to the little spring that bubbled out of the mountain up in the wood behind their cottage. It was frigid that day, heavy frost glazing the ground and the bright leaves that hadn’t yet fallen shuddering and rattling in the brisk wind, but Sera didn’t care. Wearing several layers of her father’s cast-off flannel shirts under her own ragged coat, she had relished the slap of the cold air against her flushed cheeks as she scrambled up the steep trail to her quiet place.

Once there, she had settled herself against the roots of an old pine tree and pulled out her journal. Sera had sat in that little nook so many times that it cradled her body as if she were a part of the mountain, just another smooth boulder huddled at the edge of the round, crystal pool of water. Of course, she was the only bit of landscape with long, hay-blonde braids, a small, oval face, and blinking blue eyes.

Tears had welled to fill them as she watched the steam rise in a numinous pillar from the spring toward the tops of the pines and the high, blue sky above them.

“Take a message to my mama, will you?” she had whispered, and then, she had opened her journal and begun to write.

Sera never knew when she would get another pencil and notebook once her current ones ran out, so she wrote in a fine, tiny script and never pressed hard enough to leave more than the faintest mark. It didn’t really matter whether she could read back over her writing once it was on the page. It was the writing itself that helped her to release and accept the emotions that churned through her slender body like the river churned along the base of the mountain with the spring floods.

Dear Mama, she wrote at the top of the page, just as she did every year on this day.

It has been twenty-four years today since you birthed me into this world and went on to Heaven yourself. I still wish you hadn’t left me to find my way all alone. I do have some good news for you this year, though. I may not be alone much longer.

“Are you deaf and dumb?!”

Sera was ripped from her memories of that morning by her father’s bellow, and she glanced up with a start, dropping the spoons she had been arranging with a clatter to the tabletop.

“I asked you a question!” Brett roared, heaving himself up from his chair.

Sera took an involuntary step backward, her face blanching and her heart beginning to flutter within her ribcage.

How could she have been so stupid as to completely stop paying attention to her father’s changing mood?

His face had flushed a deep red, and he was glaring at her across the table, his blue eyes bloodshot and full of misplaced rage.

“N-no, I heard you,” she said quickly. “You asked if I knew what Mama’s last words were to you.”

Mary!! Don’t you call her Mama,” Brett shouted. “You didn’t know her long enough to lay claim to her.”

“I’m sorry! You’re right.” Sera tried to keep the tremble from her voice and behave as if all was normal. Sometimes, that worked. If she didn’t respond to Brett’s unregulated emotion with emotion of her own, she could occasionally placate him by being nonreactive and apologetic.

Though her insides were screaming at her to talk back at him tonight, to let loose in response to his rage and sorrow, all the rage and sorrow she had kept pent up in her heart and journal all these years—she knew she couldn’t do it. A lump of fear sat in her throat, smothering her with protective silence.

Brett took a lumbering step around the table, and Sera took a quick one in the opposite direction, keeping her eyes fixed on him, watching his right hand for anything it might grab and hurl at her.

“My Mary said…” Brett slurred, his eyes boring into her with something so akin to hatred that Sera felt as if she might catch on fire. He took another step, his hand landing on the table and fumbling for one of the plates Sera had placed there. “My Mary said with her very last breath, ‘Take good care of her, Brett. I love her so much.’”

Sera was waiting breathlessly for the plate to come flying across the tiny kitchen. Her muscles were tensed to duck and flee. But as her father repeated the words that her mother had spoken while placing her infant body in his arms—just before breathing her last breath—his face suddenly crumpled, and his hand faltered.

“She loved you…she wanted you…and because of that…she’s gone,” he sobbed.

Sera stared at him, frozen on the opposite side of the table, still poised to run. Rarely had she seen Brett break down so completely over the memory of her mother. Usually, he just repeated all of the horrible things he had been saying up until now, either growing hot with rage or cold with loathing, and ended up slapping her around or sinking into a drunken daze.

She was still staring at him, sobbing across the table from her, when there was a firm knock on the door. Brett did not react. He simply sank into his chair once more.

A broken man, Sera thought.

She felt no emotion for him, only relief that tonight wouldn’t end in a black eye for her.

Stepping quietly, she went to the door and opened it a crack, peeking out to see who had knocked.

Bill Pendleton was standing there, and she felt her heart leap with relief and joy at the sight of his broad, honest face and puzzled brown eyes.

“Bill!” she exclaimed, her voice just above a whisper. “I didn’t know you were back! Hang on—I’ll be right there.”

She ducked back into the house just long enough to grab her tattered coat and pull it around her before stepping back outside and closing the door behind her. She looked up at the big, easy-mannered salesman, barely restraining herself from throwing her arms around him in a hug. Of course, that wouldn’t be proper at all.

“I’m so glad to see you,” she said.

“Is everything all right?” Bill glanced down at her and then at the closed door over her shoulder. “Are we not going in? I thought I heard shouting.”

“My father is drunk,” Sera said bluntly. She saw no reason to hide it from Bill, who had been calling on her every chance he had when he was in town, making sales to the local mine. “I was just about to escape out here anyway. But it’s so much nicer not to have to do it on my own.”

She watched as Bill’s usually pleasant face darkened. He looked down at her with a contemplative frown.

“Sera,” he said carefully, “does your father ever physically hurt you?”

Sera felt herself flushing. For some reason, it embarrassed her to have him ask that. She stuttered, unprepared to answer him truthfully or commit to a lie.

Bill continued to watch her, his frown deepening. Then, to her surprise, he suddenly reached out and took her elbow, firmly turning her and steering her down the path toward the road where he had left his horse and cart.

“Where are we going?” Sera asked. She had never known Bill to be quite so silent and forceful.

“I’m taking you to dinner,” he said, “at the inn down the road.”

“The Silver Cup?” Sera asked, tugging her elbow from his grip and planting her feet, forcing him to also stop and turn back toward her. “I’m not going in there,” she said sharply. “It’s basically a saloon.”

“Well, you’re not going back to your house, are you?” Bill asked. “And you haven’t had dinner yet, have you?”

“No—and no,” she said.

She abruptly felt like crying. She was not a crier by nature, but everything just suddenly felt so strange and difficult and…. She closed her eyes and bent her head as hot tears forced their way from the corners of her eyes, running down her cheeks in quick succession.

“What’s the matter?”

She heard Bill’s voice, sounding anxious and remorseful, and suddenly, his arms were around her, pulling her gently into his chest. She let him hold her, even though he smelled of pomade and cigar smoke from his meeting with the mine officers and a casual passerby might see and judge them. At that moment, she simply didn’t care. It was a comfort to have strong arms around her and a gentle voice murmuring in her ear.

“Hey,” Bill said. “Hey, it’s going to be okay. Why are you crying?”

“Because it’s my birthday,” Sera finally sniffled. “And I hate it.”

Bill was quiet for a long moment, though his hand continued to gently pat Sera’s back as her tears subsided. When she finally pulled away, it was to see him gazing down at her with a conspiratorial smile. She had never seen that expression on his face before, and it fascinated her.

“Why are you looking at me like that?” she asked, and Bill laughed, a joyous, carefree laugh that almost pulled a laugh from her just because of its sheer abandon.

“I have an idea,” he said slowly. “It’s an idea I’ve had for a long time, and I wasn’t planning to bring it up today, but I think this may actually be exactly the right time.”

“This is an idea that involves me?” Sera asked, her heart beginning to beat rather quickly in her chest.

“Yes, it is. Sera, how would you like to marry me?” Bill blurted.

Sera was momentarily struck speechless by the abruptness of the offer, and Bill seemed to take her hesitation for doubt.

“I don’t have a lot to offer you,” he rambled quickly, “but I have something—I have a little ranch in the mountains near Estes Park. It’s peaceful and safe. As a salesman, I travel a lot, as you know, but I can promise you I’ll be true to you and take good care of you….”

Sera put her finger to his lips before he could babble on. She already knew what her answer was. Bill was ten years her senior, a plain, kind-hearted man, and at that moment, what he was offering her sounded like heaven.

“Bill,” she said. “Yes, I would like to marry you. I will marry you right this very minute.”

She watched as his face broke into a bright, happy grin and felt her own face responding to his expression of joy. Then, he was sweeping her into his arms and kissing her, right there by the road, and Sera couldn’t help but send a thought back to her father: See—someone thinks I’m worth something. And Mama’s not the only one who loves me.

Chapter One

Estes Park, Colorado

Pendleton Homestead

September 1886

 

“Sugar, have you seen my good blue shirt?”

Sera smothered a sigh as Bill’s voice called from the bedroom, where he was packing his suitcase for another two-week sales trip. This was the third time he had yelled for her to help him find something.

How did he ever find anything before he married me? she wondered as she left the lunch she was putting together for him and walked down the short hall to join him in the bedroom.

Bill was rummaging haplessly through the bureau, his brown hair askew and his face flushed from bustling. Sera stepped up beside him and scanned the rumpled innards of the large wardrobe, her eye catching on the blue checked cotton almost immediately.

“Here it is,” she said, snagging the shirt and handing it to him.

“You’re a magician,” he said, brushing a kiss against her cheek as he switched to pulling out drawers and snatching up socks and underclothes. “Would you mind just folding it and putting it in the luggage for me?” he asked in a wheedling tone. “They always come out less wrinkled when you fold them.”

Sera crossed slowly to the case laid out on the bed, folded the shirt deliberately, and then refolded a couple of the shirts Bill had already flung into the case and tucked them all back into place.

“Socks, socks,” Bill muttered from behind her. Then, he turned, a frown on his face. “I can only find two pairs that don’t have holes in them!”

Sera flushed. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I’ll make sure to do the darning while you’re gone. Here….” She hurried to the chest at the end of their double bed and pulled out a new pair she had been saving for a birthday present. “Pack these.”

Bill grunted, somewhat mollified as he took the socks and stuffed all three pairs into his case. Sera watched him, working up the courage to bring up a topic she’d been thinking about for some weeks now.

Nearly one year into their marriage, Bill and Sera were still friendly with each other. Sera told herself this was nothing to be disappointed about. She had just—always hoped that marriage would be something more, something deeper.

She definitely knew her husband better now than she had ever known anyone. She knew his favorite foods and the things that irritated him. She knew his habits and quirks, like how he always flicked the water from his hands three times after washing them before drying them with a towel and how he rubbed his nose when he was about to say something unpleasant. His forever flurried style of packing was as familiar to her as the room they now stood in.

Sera couldn’t help but wonder if the continued civil distance between them had anything to do with Bill’s frequent trips. He was gone two weeks out of four nearly every month, and Sera felt that it split them into two separate people. They each lived half a life with one another and the other half alone—Bill traveling about the country meeting with clients and Sera carrying on in the quiet little homestead in the mountains, learning to enjoy the silence just in time for Bill to burst back through the door full of the tales of his travels, gushing over how pleasant it was to return home to her.

She felt a flicker of warm affection for her husband as she watched him frown over his packing.

The night before, he had held her close in their shared bed for the first time in several weeks, and she found herself more reluctant than usual for him to leave her again.

It was not an unpleasant life she had here; indeed, it was far more pleasant than her life had ever been up until she had married Bill. It was just—not exactly what she had expected it to be.

Am I selfish to want more? she mused as she closed the chest and perched on the edge of it.

It was no use going back to pack the lunch until Bill was finished here. He would just call her back the minute she reached the kitchen.

She took a deep breath.

Now might be the best time.

“Bill,” she said hesitantly, and he immediately responded, “Yes, Sugar?”

Sera paused. She had never cared for Bill’s pet name for her but feared it might be cruel to tell him so.

“I was just wondering,” she continued, clasping her hands nervously in her lap, “if you would ever consider taking me with you on one of your trips.”

“What?” He looked up, his brows rising with surprise. “You want to go hopping around the country on a sales trip?”

“Why not?” Sera said. “I want to spend more time with you, and I wouldn’t mind getting away from the house for a little while…” she trailed off.

Bill was already shaking his head adamantly.

“Cheap hotels and backroads are no place for a woman like you, Sera,” he said. “You belong here, tending our home, keeping the fire burning in the hearth, churning the butter, baking the bread, and darning my socks.” He tried to turn the last item on his list into a joke by pairing it with his charming smile, but Sera found that it still rankled deep inside her.

The problem was, she knew her husband meant exactly what he was saying. He firmly believed that a woman’s place was in the kitchen and by the fireplace and that her highest duty was to make the home a place of retreat and sanctuary for her husband, who did the more dangerous work of earning a living out on the ranch and in the world.

Sera didn’t know exactly how or why this felt wrong to her, but it did. At times, she felt suffocated by her husband’s expectations—by the fact that he simply left no room for her to be anything more than that. By the fact that he wouldn’t even give her idea of accompanying him on a simple trip the honor of a second thought.

She tamped down her anger, which surprised her with its quick appearance, reminding herself of how much she had to be grateful for. Bill rarely yelled at her and had not once in the past year gotten even close to physically threatening her. After twenty-four years of her father’s constant belittlement and aggression, learning to live with Bill had been like escaping the dungeon of the Giant of Despair in The Pilgrim’s Progress.

Is it my own fault that I still don’t feel free? Sera wondered.

It was a question she had asked of her journal just a few nights prior, and it still haunted her.

Was there something wrong with her, she wondered, that simply would not allow her to be perfectly happy? Was it because her mother had died birthing her or because her father had lived hating her—or was it just because she was broken somewhere deep inside?

“Well,” she said as her husband finished stuffing the last item in his case and sat on it to close it enough for him to fasten the buckles, “I guess I’ll go finish making your lunch, then. You’ll have to be on your way soon to catch the train.”

To her surprise, Bill did not immediately agree. Instead, he stood and skirted around the bed to pull her into an unexpected hug.

“I’m sorry I’m gone so much, Sugar,” he said. “I know it must be lonely for you.” He pulled back, looking down at her with a twinkle in his eye. “Maybe before long, though, you’ll be with child—and then, you’ll have some company when I’m traveling.”

Sera felt herself flush at her husband’s words.

“Perhaps,” she said.

She did not yet wish to admit to him that the idea of carrying and bearing a child—especially when Bill was gone for long stretches at a time—terrified her.

What if her fate was to be the same as her mother’s?

The idea of dying did not frighten her nearly as much as the thought of what might become of her motherless child.

She thought that Bill would be a good father—she hoped that he would be—but the fear lingered just the same.

If Bill noticed her silence during his last hurried preparations to leave, he did not mention it. As soon as the lunch was packed and the cases loaded into the cart, he turned and wrapped her in his arms once more, dropping a brief kiss on her cheek before calling a breezy, “Goodbye! See you in two weeks!” as he swung up into the wagon seat and clucked the horse into motion.

Clouds scuttled across the September sky, and the breeze that whipped about Sera carried an icy promise of an early snow. She tugged her shawl more tightly around her shoulders as she stood at the gate, watching her husband go.

Maybe this distance between us is all my fault, she thought. It’s because I’m still too afraid to talk honestly with him because of my father. When he gets back, she decided, I’ll tell him what I’m feeling. I’ll tell him we need to have a long talk. It will be a fresh start for us.

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