She needs to find the truth they took away from her. He only wants a marriage of convenience. How can they let themselves fall in love when their most trusted people betrayed them?
“What God has laid out for us isn’t always easy, but it leads to salvation.”
Grace’s whole life collapses when she finds out she was living a lie. A man claiming to be her biological father takes her away from her family, and her life becomes a nightmare. Determined as she is, she never loses her faith and decides to trust God and run away, answering a mail-order bride ad in the town she used to live. How can she open her heart when the people she trusted the most betrayed her?
John returns from the war to find that his life has completely changed. His childhood sweetheart married another man, and bandits damage his home. In the process of making everything as it was, he becomes grumpy and loses his faith, feeling unappreciated by God. His friend persuades him to place a mail-order bride ad and have someone helping him around. But how can he keep his promise and emotions sealed when this beautiful newcomer makes his heart beat faster?
John and Grace find a new family in each other’s eyes and are getting closer to God’s kingdom day by day. How can they protect their unexpected love when someone from the past knocks on their door with earthshaking secrets?
Prescott, Arizona, 1870
Grace woke with a start, wondering if the muted voices drifting from downstairs were part of some lingering dream. They were arguing about something in sharp whispers. Her eyes began to close again, too sleepy to focus.
“We don’t have that much money!” Her mother’s voice sounded frightened, almost desperate. Was there a problem with her family’s ranch?
Grace sat up in the bed slowly to avoid waking her younger sister and slipped her legs free of the quilt. The wooden slats beneath the mattress creaked in response. Her two brothers snored lightly from the other bed. The youngest, Billy, lay half off the mattress with his feet inches from his brother’s face. The bedroom was small, with two raised beds, short dressers, and a skinny wardrobe wedged into the corner like a sentinel. The room smelled of fresh-cut lumber and lingering sawdust since their father had recently added this second story to the family’s home.
No one else had been awakened by the sounds downstairs.
Wondering what time it was, Grace tiptoed to the window and glanced through the glass. Outside was dark, but a faint pink glow touched the eastern horizon. It had to be no later than four in the morning!
The voices continued downstairs. Fully awake now, Grace’s heart beat faster. This was wrong. She must be talking to Pa, but what could they be going on about at this time of night? Ma would likely tell Grace it was none of her business; that she was too young. Grace knew, however, she wouldn’t fall back to sleep unless she understood what was happening. She might only be eleven years old, but she was the oldest. If something bad was going on, maybe she could help somehow.
Grace lifted her robe off the end of the bed and wrapped it around herself. The air was plenty warm, even for January. Arizona winters were nothing like back home when she was little. In Idaho, winter nights could drop below zero.
A man’s whispered voice became clear as she stepped into the hall. Grace froze. That wasn’t Pa.
No, she was being silly. Of course, it was. Who else could it be at this hour? Then why was her belly tightening in fear? Her parents’ bedroom door was closed, and light snores sounded from behind it.
Those were Pa’s snores.
Who was that downstairs? Part of her mind screamed to run back into bed and pretend nothing was happening.
“… not comin’ all this way for nuthin’!”
The harsh voice belonged to a stranger husky and full of malice. Grace was certain she did not recognize it. Her small shoulders ached with tension, frozen with uncertainty at the top of the stairs. What if it was a robber, or worse, an outlaw like John Wesley Hardin, whom her Pa read to them about in the paper? If her father was sleeping, she should wake him. Yes, no question. Still, like her fool brothers, he did not like to be woken early, especially after a full day working the horses.
She needed to be sure.
Just a peek.
Grace tightened the robe’s sash again, using the action to wipe the sweat from her palms, then slowly descended the stairs, hoping her bare feet would make little noise. Her red hair was wild and matted to one side, but no matter.
Help me, God, she prayed as she took another step, breathing in the smoky tang of the hurricane lamp’s flame from down in the front room. Its light touched her feet now that she was halfway down the stairs. I know I’m just imagining bad things. It’s probably just Mister Sloane from next door, looking for a lost ewe. This is all so strange. Keep me safe, please, and help me to —
That was as far as her prayer lasted before the room came into view. A large man hovered unsteadily at the bottom of the stairs, his back to her. Grace crouched four steps above him, hardly daring to breathe. The man’s loose-threaded riding jacket smelled of camp smoke and sweat. Grace’s mother stood beyond him in the open room. Her night dress and robe were illuminated yellow in the light of the lamp beside the door. Ma’s pretty face was stretched in fear. Grace knew she should run upstairs and fetch Pa, but her legs were suddenly cold and frozen in place.
“… ‘ain’t going to leave,” the stranger slurred, his low voice tainted with the smell of tobacco and sour whiskey. Grace covered her mouth. Her mother’s hands were curled into fists, eyebrows raised in desperation. The flickering lamplight made her expression seem like a wailing ghost. The man took a half step toward her and said, “Not until you pay.” His voice rose as if he was weary of having to whisper, perhaps unable to. He added, “Or, maybe I just take little Gracie wit’ me! She must be almost eleven by now. Old enough to cook and clean for me, what with her being my flesh and blood and all.”
The events of the next two minutes happened so quickly, and years later, she struggled to remember the details.
Ma glanced her way and put a hand to mouth. She uttered a frightened, “Oh!”
The hulking shape of the stranger turned around so quickly all Grace could see was a filthy, long face. He ascended the four steps in a blur of movement and grabbed her right arm, yanking Grace into the room. His wool jacket was coarse against her arms, patched and ripped in places, and its sweat and alcohol stink made her dizzy.
Grace cried as loud as she could, “Let me go!” hoping someone would hear; hoping her Pa would hear. The man’s too-large face grinned down at her with rotted teeth, graying hair tufting from under the brim of a stained bowler hat.
He whispered, his low voice dropping to a threatening animal tone. “Well, if it ain’t the little bar sinister ‘erself.”
What did that mean? Grace tried to shrink away from that dark voice as the stranger pulled her toward the front door. Something had changed in her mother’s expression. The light from the lamp reflected a new, wild glow in her eyes. “Don’t you dare touch her!”
In a panic, Grace again tried to pull away from his grip, but the skin of her arm felt like it was tearing loose from her body. She whimpered in pain, and that set her mother to step forward.
The stranger stopped moving, tightening the grip on Grace’s arm. Pain radiated through her shoulder and forced Grace to push closer to him, desperate to find a position where it didn’t hurt so much. She hit his chest with her free hand, but all she connected with were the rough folds of his coat.
The man reached with his free hand into a coat pocket. He was going for a gun!
Grace’s father’s half-asleep voice broke through the moment. “What is going on?!” He stormed down the steps like an angry, rescuing angel.
Grace screamed, “Pa!” as relief flooded through every corner of her body — until the intruder whirled around and swung something small and heavy from the pocket. Not a gun, but an odd leather sack filled with sand or rocks. It impacted hard against her father’s temple. Pa didn’t make a sound; he simply spun at the bottom of the stairs in a half-turn before collapsing at their feet.
Grace’s mother fell to the floor beside him, lifting his bleeding head and calling Pa’s name. Grace tried to scream, but the stranger had wrapped his arm fully around her and then covered her face with his large hand, pushing open the screen door behind them. She felt dizzy, smelling dirt and rawhide and sweat.
The stranger re-pocketed his weapon and then half-dragged her toward the front door. No! He was taking her. Grace screamed into his filthy hand and twisted, working one arm free. She lashed out, trying to hit any part of him, and she connected with the lamp, crashing to the floor. The room exploded with light. Grace caught a glimpse of the kitchen beyond, a few framed photos along the room’s wall, whose glass reflected the sudden explosion of the lamplight. With a grunt, the man squeezed her harder and ran out into the yard, dragging Grace with him through the dark.
Outside, everything around them seemed eerily silent. Grace could hardly breathe and tried to squirm and fight against him as her bare toes dragged along the hard ground. He was too strong. All Grace managed to do was bring more hurt against herself. They rounded a corner of the stables and met up with a horse she did not recognize, waiting in the gloom and loosely tied to a stubby acacia tree. A deep sobbing tried to work free from Grace’s chest, but everything was happening so quickly, and the man held her tightly.
Then the silence around them shattered as the screaming began from the house. At the sound, Grace cried out and pulled away when the stranger pulled the horse alongside them. He moved faster, tightening his arm under her as he mounted the horse, then pulled Grace’s thin, thrashing frame up and sideways across the saddle. Its horn dug into her ribs as they took off in a gallop. She cried out again and again for help; for anyone to hear, no longer caring what might happen to her. Her voice was drowned by other voices coming from the ranch house.
Screams, and the rising growl of a fire. A fire Grace understood she’d started in her panic to be free. God help them. Help me!
They rode into the night, leaving the ranch engulfed in flame. Her home was burning, she was being stolen away, and everything she knew was collapsing around her.
The memory of this man’s words to her mother – she’s my flesh and blood – drifted to her consciousness one more time before Grace became too overwhelmed and fainted across the saddle.
Flagstaff Springs, Arizona
Seven Years Later
After working her red hair into a ponytail and pressing it all under the thin white bandanna, Grace Clark used the roughest scrap of burlap to scour the kitchen counter, scrubbing it smooth. Everything had been wiped with a wet cloth, catching the relentless dust from the open windows. Everything fell to the floor to be swept later. She hated this particular chore, as it hurt her wrists. Sometimes Grace wished she’d been built more like their neighbor, Theodosia, the wide-shouldered, smiling matriarch of the ever-growing Benoit clan. Older than her by a generation, the kindly woman had inherited her ancestors’ wide-shouldered Prussian physicality, more suitable to running a homestead like hers. In contrast, Grace was thin and petite, hardly taller now than when she’d been brought to this place. Even so, the last seven years had made her stronger in many other ways — at least she liked to believe so.
Her nineteenth birthday would arrive in a couple of weeks. Sometimes she worried that if God didn’t somehow have a miracle waiting for her before then, she would never leave Frank Clark’s house.
I’ll be a spinster working all day for a man who was my biological father, who nevertheless stole me from my home.
Grace felt a familiar pang of guilt and glanced around the kitchen. The small room was in the back corner of Frank’s ranch house, large enough for the heavy cast iron stove and a heavy block table beneath the windows. Curtains swayed in a breeze Grace could not feel.
I’m sorry, Lord. I should be grateful for what I have. Help me trust You have a plan for me.
These prayers became rote over the years, especially since she’d turned the age of majority last year. She was legally free to go, but go where? Grace had only one desire in her heart, one true prayer she coveted every day: to find her family and learn if they were still alive after all this time.
Her mother’s name was Helen.
Thomas Brown was her true father’s name.
Sara was her sister’s.
William, or Billy, and Thomas were her brothers.
She practiced their names in whispers so as not to forget. More difficult was remembering their faces.
Grace still did not know if they were alive or dead. That fear was constantly burning in her chest for the first few years after arriving there.
In seven years, however, no one had come looking for her. When she was old enough that Frank allowed her to ride into town alone for errands or extra work, Grace did what she could to learn the fate of her family. Resources in these territories were spare at best, and information was mostly current or soon forgotten. Strangely, this lack of news gave her hope. If they’d been killed that night in the fire, surely someone would have come looking for the man responsible, or at least the young girl taken by him?
Thomas Brown, the man who’d raised her as his own, was not her biological father. The man sleeping off last night’s binge in the other room had that claim.
Her life before had been a lie. Grace tried to hold back resentment toward her mother, for the times as a little girl when Grace eagerly anticipated each new sibling’s birth, waiting to see who would share her most unique feature: the mane of red, Scottish – as she’d learned later – hair that refused to be fully-tamed atop her head. Her mother sported night-black hair, straight as a waterfall. No red with her Pa, either. Or Sara. Or her brothers.
Only the man snoring in the other room.
Frank Clark held another proof that he was who he said he was.
“You take a look at this,” he’d said the night they’d arrived here in Flagstaff Springs, handing the weeping girl an envelope, “before you go runnin’ off back to them liars. I assume you can read a little?”
The letter had been postmarked when Grace was only two years old. In it, Ma had pleaded for Frank to say nothing. Everything had been working so well for everyone. He had no obligation to raise a child, and her family need not suffer the disgrace the truth would foster. They’d made a mistake ‘after the dance,’ she’d written, but Thomas had been willing to step up, honor her and take Grace as his own. Frank was free, and he didn’t have to worry about anything. As a gesture of goodwill for his silence, she had included an undisclosed amount of money.
At some point, Frank Clark must have decided he could press Grace’s mother for more. That was when everything Grace had ever known fell apart.
Once she’d learned the truth, a strange sense of obligation took hold, much as she often tried to fight against it. Frank was unmarried and likely would stay that way for the rest of his life. A man like that needed help with things at home. If she truly was his daughter, she had a responsibility toward him, didn’t she? Honor thy mother and father, God told Moses on the mountain. Over the years, those words felt like chains shackling her to this house.
Grace scrubbed harder on a spot she’d already cleaned twice this morning.
Lord, I’m sorry I keep asking for the same thing. But you did say to be like the widow pestering that judge for justice. All I ask is that you show me, somehow, what has become of my family.
Help me to be right with you, no matter what.
As if to test this prayer, a deep voice bellowed from the bedroom in the opposite corner of the house.
“Girl, where are you?”
Grace slowed, tempted to pretend she hadn’t heard him. Of course, even the dead could hear Frank when he was tumbling out of bed in a mood.
She straightened a loose strand under the head scarf and said, as calmly as possible, “I’m in the kitchen. I’m cleaning.”
Frank Clark’s steps were heavy on the wooden floor as he appeared at the kitchen door. His large, muscular frame had softened over the years, pulling his features and overall posture lower. His face was swollen from another night of heavy drinking, flushed now with sleep. He squinted against the late morning sun.
“What time you supposed to be at Benoit’s place, girl?” He rarely used her actual name, always ‘girl’ or other, less respectful titles.
Grace gave the counter one last, determined swipe and made a show of folding up the burlap.
“They asked me to come by after I make lunch here.”
He blinked and glanced briefly behind him toward the old grandfather clock, which hadn’t worked in years. “Seems a bit early for lunch. Make me some eggs and fry up that ham. We still got some of that?”
His tone was always neutral, almost disinterested when he wanted something from her.
“We finished the ham yesterday,” she replied, trying to match his disinterested tone. Doing so always caused some hidden sadness to blossom inside her. If this was family and her being here was God’s will, why were they so cold to each other? Whenever Grace thought she could muster some civility toward this man, she remembered his face that night; what he’d done. For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways My ways, saith the Lord. That might have been in Isaiah. Verses came unbidden like this, usually when she found herself struggling to understand what her life had become.
Grace breathed in, trying to set her voice to soften a little before adding, “But we’ve still got some steaks. I’ll put the small one on with the eggs and have it ready for you before I leave.”
Frank opened his mouth to object, then apparently thought better of it. He moved back into the hall, disappearing like a snake into its hole.
Every day except Sunday, after finishing her chores and cooking her father’s meals, Grace would ride out to two neighboring homesteads to help out where she was needed for a few extra coins. What Frank called her ‘other workings.’ She wondered if he didn’t make more money from her work at other ranches than with his cattle, few as they’d become these days.
She wrapped a clean apron around herself and dropped a sweet pad of butter to hiss in the cast iron pan, praying silently, as she did every day, for that single miracle to set her free.
“Grace, you are such a lifesaver. I don’t know how I’d keep up with all this without you comin’ in like you do.”
Grace smiled as the woman practically danced into the front room. Though Theodosia Benoit was broad-shouldered and nearly as strong as any man Grace had met, she nevertheless glided about her home as if dancing to an opera only she could hear. Grace was here because this was one of her ‘other workings,’ but that would have only been a half-truth. She enjoyed cleaning for these people. The Benoit family’s burgeoning homestead was an oasis of light and kindness. They also needed the help, since Theodosia’s only daughter had married and moved to Oak Creek.
“Oh, I think you would do just fine without me, Ma’am,” she said, smiling but hardly pausing as she polished the legs of the tea table — that was what Theodosia called it. It was the large woman’s pride and joy, one of many such reminders of a possible high-born past. The sitting room was dotted with such dark and smooth furniture, raising everything else around them an exotic sense of style. Everywhere one turned, their polish filled the senses with the sweet, earthy scent of beeswax. Grace’s Friday chores always included polishing a particular table’s dark-stained top and delicate cabriole legs. The smell lingered on her hands long after she went home, a reminder that there was still light in some homes.
Theodosia lingered in the doorway to the kitchen, large hands rolling around themselves as if kneading invisible dough. She looked around the room, but they were alone. Mister Benoit would be out with the livestock until supper rolled around. After a few minutes of feeling the woman’s soft gaze resting upon her, Grace looked up.
“I’m sorry, Mrs. Benoit. Is there something else you need me to do right now? I’m nearly done with the polishing.” Grace stood with the soft cloth between her hands.
The other woman nodded and stepped fully into the room, removing the cloth from Grace’s hands and placing it on the little table. She then held Grace’s hands in her own.
Grace’s stomach suddenly tightened. This kind person must be about to release her from employment and was simply trying to find the right words. The thought made her look away, but Theodosia squeezed her hands gently.
“Oh, don’t worry, it’s nothing bad. I’m just afraid I might be overreaching with what I’m going to give you.”
Grace looked up into her face, surprised and a little hopeful. The tight nervousness in her belly disappeared. “Give me?”
Theodosia leaned closer, pressed a square of torn newspaper into her palm, and whispered, “Now you take this, and you decide on your own. But you’re a fine girl, and any man would be blessed beyond measure to have you. Can you read and write?”
“Yes, ma’am. Ma taught us all since we were young…” The mention of her mother brought her gaze down to the floor again. Their neighbors had all heard Frank’s story about Ma being his sister and how he’d brought Grace to live with him after her death. False as this story was, he held onto it as one of the few attributes he had, which allowed some status in the town. She never dared contradict it.
“Well, that’s good, that’s good.” The woman hesitated, still holding the small piece of paper against Grace’s hand with her own. “Again, Grace, please don’t take this the wrong way. I just saw this and prayed mightily before deciding that not letting you decide for yourself about this… might be a worse sin.”
“Decide about what…” but Theodosia gave her hands one final squeeze before drifting quickly away like a ghost back into the kitchen.
Grace stood in the middle of the room, the sweet aroma of beeswax still rising from her palms. Pressed into their midst was a newspaper clipping. An advert, though she could not tell from where—likely the town’s new local newspaper.
A man from Ash Fork was advertising for a wife to help him care for his ranch. Not an uncommon request. Grace had met two such brides, young women who’d come to town in response to similar ads. But why had Theodosia given — then, of course, she understood.
The idea that she suggested Grace might consider such a thing suddenly made her dizzy. Grace put one hand against her lips, never looking away from the paper. Her stomach hurt, and her legs felt weak, so she knelt beside the tea table.
She couldn’t possibly consider this for herself. Lord willing, she’d hoped marriage might be waiting one day, but it would mean much more than this small clipping from a newspaper.
At the same time, Ash Fork was less than a day’s ride from Prescott and the answers about her family she’d prayed for so long to come. The newspaper clipping shook between her fingers.
“No,” she whispered and looked around nervously. No one had heard. Grace straightened her shoulders and tried to stop the shaking in her hands. It didn’t work. As in a dream, she folded the paper into her apron’s front pocket and returned to polishing the table legs. One tear fell silently down her cheek. This might be the miracle she was begging for or just another chance of being disappointed again.
Theodosia said she had ‘prayed mightily’ before giving her the advert. Grace rubbed the last table leg harder, determined to do the same. She would pray and pray some more until she was sure this was from the Lord. If it was, she would do what she needed to get herself to Ash Fork, Arizona.
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