She must run away from a trap laid by a man she trusted. He needs to fix his broken family. Can a mail-order bride with a haunted past and a rancher swallowed by sorrow find love in each other’s arms?
“Would life ever stop being so cruel to her and those she loved?”
When Iva finds out that the death of her parents was her fiancé’s machination, she is ready to do anything to escape this ruthless man. With the help of her best friend, she secretly sneaks out and becomes a mail-order bride to find herself with a grumpy rancher and his little son. How can she manage to melt the ice of his heart and create the family they both seek?
When Jerry’s wife passes away, he buries his grief by working hard on his ranch and this tears him away from his only son. Thinking that motherly love is all his boy needs, Jerry decides that a marriage of convenience will solve his problems. But he does not expect that Iva’s bright eyes will challenge him and make him fall in love again. How can he trust her with his heart when her past is but a mystery?
Jerry and Iva both seek to escape their hardships but find their hearts beating faster for each other. When Iva’s past catches up with her though, will she sacrifice herself to save the two boys she loves more than anything in the world?
Her nightmare was always the same…
She’s at the kitchen window gazing out at her father, Ethan Whitlock, who’s kneeling by the ranch’s corral fence out front to fix something. His black hair curls at the brim of his hat. The August sun is turning the fields of Whitlock Ranch pink and washing the tin roof of the pig shed with gold as it sets. It catches the tops of the fence posts, where they are worn smooth. Iva loves this time of day, as the lolling sun begins to relax her and her daily chores wind down. Her hands linger over the task of washing. Soon the moon will chase away the dog-day heat.
That’s when she sees them. They are swift: three riders on the road in broad-brimmed hats, chaps fanning out from their horses’ sides. Who is this, come so late in the day? The pig buyer was already here. And three of them?
“Iva! Johannah!” Ethan Whitlock shouts; he is still kneeling, but has seen the riders and calls to Iva and her mother, “To your places!” His brown eyes flicker in the dusk. He licks his lips, nervous.
Dropping to the pine floor, Iva crawls to the blue kitchen cupboard beside the stove. Her palms sweat, picking up dust. Her heart is having a fit. She opens the cupboard and removes the large bowls inside onto the floor, making space to crawl in. The last time I was in here, she thinks, I was but 13—six years ago—will I still fit? She enters the cupboard and pushes at its back until it gives way on small hinges. Beyond is their secret cubbyhole. Swiftly, she reaches out to reposition the bowls as camouflage and closes the outer cupboard door. Relieved to fit in the hiding place again, her heart nonetheless does somersaults in her chest.
The cubbyhole is disguised by the firewood chest in the next room. It does not simply offer her refuge from strangers seeking to harm her family. Inside is also a small Smith & Wesson pistol for Iva to use for her protection. Iva can hear the bed upstairs in her own bedroom, creaking as her mother sprawls across the medallion quilt with the blood-red central hexagon, rifle in hand, aiming out the window. Mother, she begs silently, aim true. She pictures her mother upstairs, impossibly slim in her tight-wasted lilac dress. Her loving eyes, green as the back of a Washington dollar, are slit now, tracking the strangers.
In the kitchen cubbyhole downstairs, Iva’s gaze falls on the pistol buttoned to the wall with a simple leather strap. She knows how to use it. She knows enough to kill a man. Never has this occurred to her so starkly. That time she was 13, it turned out to be just a nice family, she recalls. But tonight? She wipes her sweaty palms on her blue checked skirt and takes up the Smith & Wesson. Its ivory handle is a comfort in her hand. Dear lord, she thinks—she doesn’t want to kill anyone, but she has the element of surprise on her side. Her breath quickens as she imagines leaping out from the cupboard with the pistol cocked.
“Bryant, from Sioux Falls,” comes a strange voice from outside. “He said get Whitlock to take a look.”
She strains to visualize her father.
There is the sharp report of guns fired. Has her father shot, or been shot? Oh, God, for a view of the men outside!
“George! George!” Her mother screams from upstairs.
Iva’s breath catches in her throat—she’s choking—and then it comes back in gasps. Father! Father! She cries internally, her face contorting and tears spilling over her cheeks. Then: Be still, Mother! she begs without a noise. She shrinks farther into the cabinet.
There is the sound of boot heels stomping on the kitchen floor, then stampeding upstairs.
In the dream, Iva pulls her knees to her chest and hides her face.
“No! Please, no!” Her mother’s voice is frantic.
There is another shot.
There is the sound of something being dragged across the floor…
She woke as she always did; sobbing, sweat soaking her blue nightgown, her mother’s last words ringing in her ears.
“Mother—father—someday we’ll all be together again, in the sweet afterlife,” she whispered into her dark bedroom. She wiped her eyes on the sleeve of her nightdress and wrapped her arms around herself, trying to fall back to sleep.
Her parents died in that attack, some 18 months ago. The nightmares came every few days. Iva had no power over them. The events of that terrible evening replayed themselves in her head, over and over, running ruts down her brain. The sounds were most vivid: her parents’ voices, their fear, the shots that killed them, the attacker’s boots on the kitchen floor as they pulled the safe with the Whitlock Ranch fortune out the door.
Iva lost everything that night. Her nightmares became her most vivid memory of her parents. As terrible as the dreams were, Iva tried to love her parents through them.
After a scant few hours of sleep, Iva rose with the sun. Taking her brown muslin dress from the large garderobe, she slipped it on and buttoned it, then selected stockings from the drawer.
Downstairs, Lennie Bandy, the ranch’s longtime hand, glanced at Iva as he flipped a griddlecake. He’d been making breakfast for all of them—Iva, himself, and his wife, Martha—since the death of Iva’s parents. It was one of many duties Lennie and Martha had taken on in the wake of the attack.
That morning, Lennie’s lean form and light brown coloring reminded Iva more than ever of a cinnamon stick. The freckles on his cheeks crinkled a bit as he squinted at her inquisitively.
“Morning, Iva,” he said. “Sleep okay?”
“Well enough,” she said.
Martha gave Iva a warm smile from the table, where she was tatting socks. Always busy, always kind, Martha was the soul of goodness in the household.
“Well,” Martha said, her cornflower blue eyes sparkling, “help yourself. Nothing was solved on an empty stomach.”
Iva’s heart skipped. Martha’s simple advice made Iva suspect that the couple heard her mewling the previous night, and her cheeks turned pink.
She took a plate and some food.
“My mother always said the same,” she said. “Is that Iowa wisdom?”
Both Martha and Lennie chuckled. “That’s just wisdom wisdom,” Martha said, pulling Iva’s chair out for her.
Lennie loaded up his own plate and came to the table.
“We’ll halter-break the pinto this morning,” he said.
“Nice weather. The frost’ll clear,” Martha said mildly.
Iva took a couple bites of her food.
“I was thinking I’d go into town this afternoon and see Penelope,” she said. Penelope was her best friend; the two were peas in a pod except in looks: Iva was brown as an Indian, while Penelope was all peaches and cream, with strawberry blond hair. By contrast, Iva’s stick-straight hair, brown as worn leather, stuck out funny in braids. “Is there anything you need at the store?”
“I could stand to have more pins for that quilt,” Martha said. She ruffled her yellow dress pocket and pulled out some coins. “Buy some pins for me and some penny candy for yourselves,” she added with a smile, pushing the money across the table to Iva. At 19, Iva was old enough to tend to herself and small chores in town.
Iva’s chest warmed.
“Thank you kindly,” she said. Her eyes felt full as she gazed at them. Lennie and Martha, who had worked the ranch since before Iva was born, had shown her new love, in a way that made her feel like family. She wished they could do away with her nightmares, as they had banished so many other concerns. Iva rose and cleared the plates to wash.
Spring mud thickened by the side of the road, but the road itself was dusty. Iva walked primly, turning to admire her pointed boot prints. She swung her satchel at her side. She’d be in town in another half hour.
She heard the cart behind her as she bent to pick a cowslip. Apprehension prickled the hair along her neckline. Every hoofbeat carried the potential for a new attack. I dream it almost nightly, and days, hear its echo in every horse’s approaching step—the sound of killers, Iva thought desperately. Have the same men come to finish me?
She slipped her hand into her pocket and fingered the knife her father had given her. He’d sharpened it on a strop and then taught her how to wield it.
“Keep this blade as sharp as your wits and you’ll be fine,” he’d said to her.
Like a bolt of lightning, the events of that evening came back to her, as vividly as though she was dreaming them again. She shook her head to clear it. Iva! She ordered herself. Keep your wits sharp now.
Iva kept her gaze aimed ahead as the wagon drew up. Out of the corner of her eye she saw that it was a fine two-horse coach.
“Afternoon, ma’am,” said a silky voice. Iva was curious about the voice, but her heart simultaneously quickened with apprehension. She didn’t recognize the voice.
“Afternoon,” Iva said, still looking ahead. The chestnut horses shone. Iva had a weakness for horses.
“Where are you headed this afternoon?” the strange man asked. His voice was like the low note of the grindstone at the mill. Out of the corner of her eye, she noted his dark hair, almost black, fringing around the edges of his hat. A coloring like hers, like her father’s. Iva turned fully to gauge him before answering. His eyes were almost golden, his skin darker than Iva’s, although his was clearly from the sun and not from Portuguese blood. The man pulled up the horses as Iva looked him over.
“To the general store,” she said. She laid a hand on the nearest horse, which bowed its head. Iva softened even further. “And to see a friend.”
“Thought I’d noticed you in town,” the man said. “Lucky friend.”
Iva reddened. She dropped her eyes and tucked a lock of glossy brown hair behind her ear.
“It’s not like that,” she said, suddenly defensive. “Penelope has been my bosom companion since we were barely old enough to use spoons.”
“Spoons, huh?” He said, gazing off towards town. “I’m sure there’s been more than one fella found his heart spooned out because of you two.”
Iva met his eyes.
“If you’re implying that we flirt, you are surely mistaken,” she said with indignance. “Penelope is pure as snow and I’m wholesome as oats.”
The man threw his head back and laughed.
“Come ride with me then,” he said. “I like a woman smart as she is pretty.”
He seemed kind and she has never enjoyed banter like this, so she gathered her skirts and climbed up beside him. She felt relieved to smile at someone new. It had been such a long time. Perhaps companionship can arrive as suddenly as danger. But no, she realized just as quickly. She should never have accepted a ride. Iva glanced around feverishly to see if anyone might have seen her. She’d made a bold move. It wouldn’t do to have people talk.
“Gus Daugherty,” the man said, and handed her a calling card with a fine etching of a horse. It was one of the only calling cards Iva had ever seen and its raised ink shone in the sun. “Horse breeder, businessman, regular man about town.” He paused, doffing his hat. “And you are?”
“Iva Whitlock,” she said, her voice coming out fainter than she’d intended. Ahead, the first buildings of downtown were visible. Iva breathed a little easier, knowing they were close.
“Pleased to make your acquaintance, Ms. Whitlock,” he said. “If you have the same effect on me as you’ve had on my geldings, we’ll get along fine.”
Iva paused, noting that the horses were indeed stepping out nicely, their manes catching the breeze.
“I have effects on all animals,” Iva admitted lightly.
“Do you, now?” The man asked, chuckling. His laugh was easy but somehow gave Iva pause, like silk spoiled on a common occasion and demanding too much care.
“Animals like me,” she said with a humble shrug.
“Is that so?” Gus asked. “Well, these two chestnuts certainly like you.”
Iva blushed again. She didn’t recall feeling this warm since last summer, and it wasn’t just the weather.
“I’m in town on business, but I’d be pleased to accompany you home later,” he continued in her silence. “You said the Whitlock ranch?”
“Whitlock, yes.” Iva said, studying her hands in her lap. “I’m not sure I can take you up on that.”
“Here’s what we’ll do,” he said brightly. “You walk past the inn on the way out of town at 4:30. Then the only people who’ll see us are the innkeepers, and they’ve seen everything. We’re of slight interest to them. How does that sound?”
Iva knit her fingers, trying in vain to resolve her feelings. Gus was nice to talk to, but Iva could not be sure of his intentions. Is there any harm in accepting a courtesy from a respected businessman in broad daylight? She wondered. The trials of the past 18 months flooded her again. Surely, I can grasp this chance at a carefree conversation, after all this time! Who are other people to dictate every move I make?
“Martha and Lennie expect me at 5,” she said finally.
“These animals will make it there by quarter-of.” he said, winking again.
Why can’t I stop blushing? Iva wondered as she leaned back on the seat and drew a deep breath. Deep inside, she felt a glimmer of excitement—and surely Penelope would have an opinion on this particular matter with Gus.
Iva spurred the pinto on through the August heat. Yesterday’s brief rain was already nothing but a memory. The Whitlock fields lay yellow to either side of the road. It took a moment for her to realize what this weather, the tiny rain followed by searing heat, reminded her of: the evening the Whitlock ranch was raided and her parents were murdered in cold blood. It’s two years almost to the day, she thought to herself in wonder. Last year she memorialized the day with flowers, so she pulled the gelding up to pick some purple hyssop by the side of the road.
“Ma. Papa. We never forget,” she whispered as she tucked the blooms carefully into her saddle bag, then remounted. She felt somber and her heart seemed to beat more slowly with the memory and the oppressive heat.
Indeed, she’d doubted she’d ever feel whole again, after losing everything, but new hope had entered her life. It was a ray of spring promise in the form of a local brown-eyed man with fine horses that had stoked a slow joy in her, bursting now in the summer doldrums. She was on her way to discuss particulars of her fresh engagement to Gus Daugherty with Dillman Paisley, longtime lawyer to the Whitlocks.
I’d do well to stop in and see Gus, after Paisley, so Gus can see how well the engagement suits me. She was not unaware of the lovely image she made on her brown-and-white pinto. She could still feel the light kiss Gus had placed on the corner of her mouth yesterday, after he’d risen from his knee. Always the gentleman and yet… And yet she knew of the devil in him, could feel it radiate under her fingertips when she brushed pollen from his duster. It made her curious to know more.
We’ll have cherry pie on our wedding night, she thought with a smile. She recalled her mother telling her that it was wiles and a light step that capture a man, but she’d never said anything of the table. He surely has an appetite for my food.
The inn rose up at the edge of town in the near distance. Just a moment and she’d be there. Dillman Paisley had been advocating Iva’s matrimony with Gus Daugherty ever since the two started courting and would be very pleased to hear Iva had accepted the proposal.
At the general store she dismounted and hitched the pinto by the exterior staircase up to Paisley’s official quarters. Dillman Paisley, Esquire, read the sign, with a narrow hand pointing up the flight. She tried to think of how exactly she should put the news to him as she took the stairs quietly, unsure if Paisley was already tending to some legal matter. The door creaked quietly, and indeed, Iva heard voices coming from the back room, behind a closed door.
It was his laugh that stopped her in her tracks. It was Gus’s laugh but—different. Hard and cold. Gus, here? What business does Gus have here today? She wondered. She approached stealthily and listened hard.
“In any case, I am glad to see our plans have come to fruition,” came Dillman Paisley’s nasal voice. “The stock detectives were giving me a bit of a dust-up, saying what if the girl ever recognized them and —”
“I’ll handle Iva. She is smart but innocent. It’s still easy enough to convince her of things,” Gus interrupted, his emphasis cutting like an ice saw through Iva’s thoughts. She felt her knees grow weak. Who is this man, my betrothed, speaking about me as though I were a goose to harvest?
“Well, Mr. Daugherty, if your intended is pleased, then so am I. Shall we settle the matter of finances now, or…?” Paisley trails off. Iva suppressed a gasp. Her heart threatened to clamber up her throat. Gus was going to pay Dillman Paisley, her lawyer, for the “prize” of her engagement?
“No use waiting until the ceremony. She’s as good as mine since months ago. 10 percent of the take makes $30 even, Paisley, I’ll —”
Iva didn’t hear the rest. She skittered out of the office as though the ice in her heart had spilled to the pine floor. Nearly blinded by tears, she tumbled down the stairs and retrieved the pinto. She tasted salt on her lips before she thought to wipe her cheeks with the back of her sleeve. Aware of passersby, she kept a discreet hand at her mouth to suppress sobs. How could he take advantage of me like that, knowing I’d just lost everything?
Trembling, she loped to Penelope’s home, elegant red with a mansard roof. Flinging the horse’s reins over the porch railing, she fell through the front door and crumpled to the floor at the foot of the sweeping staircase.
“Pen! Oh, Pen!” she wailed. From above she heard a chair slide across the floor and feet come running.
“Iva? Iva! What happened?” Penelope cried, dashing down the stairs.
Iva was dissolved in weeping and got no words out. Penelope pulled her up gently. “But you’re ice cold! Have you had a shock? Come with me.” The blond girl supported Iva up to her room and laid her on a blue velvet chaise lounge. She drew a chair near and wrapped her hands around Iva’s to warm them. “Tell me when you can, Iva.”
“It’s Gus. And Dillman Paisley. They’re in the league to trick me into marriage. They were behind my parents’ murder! Penelope! Can you imagine? I almost fell for my mother’s killer!” Iva reeled back upon hearing the words from her own mouth. Her whole body broke into hard shivers, despite the heat of the upstairs room. His black heart has chilled mine. Where will I go from here? How can I remedy such black deeds?
“How do you know this?” Penelope’s fine features were pulled smooth with intense concentration. Trying to take comfort in the familiar, Iva stared at her fine straight nose and flashing eyes, green as Iva’s mother’s.
Her voice trembled, the wings of startled doves, as she spoke. “I overheard them talking, just now, about men hired for the raid and about Paisley’s cut for my betrothal. Oh, Penelope! What’ll I do? I can’t go back to my old life ever again!”
Penelope had paled to the color of moonlight. Her lips trembled like a red maple leaf in rapids. “Iva, my heart breaks for you. And you are in grave danger.” Penelope stroked the other girl’s wet cheek.
Suddenly, Iva had to rise and pace to try to calm her heart. She hadn’t considered the continued danger to herself. “Pen, I’ve got to escape. I can’t stay here. They’ll come for me.”
Penelope nodded somberly. “That is a distinct possibility, I fear.” Her words were gentle but unyielding.
“But, escape how? And where? The attackers made off with everything; all that’s left is Lennie and Martha Bandy’s small earnings, I…” the words tumbled out but then came to an abrupt halt as Iva’s gaze fell on a newspaper. “…I must get a job.” She pounced on the paper. “Anything, anything within reason…” her voice was keen as a wild thing’s caught in a trap.
“Iva! That’s it!” Penelope took the newspaper from Iva and scanned it rapidly. “Here.” She read out loud: “A widower rancher in the Dakota Territories, 25 years of age, height 6 feet, weight 200 pounds, strawberry blond, brown-eyed, with son 3 years wishes to correspond with a lady of similar age, fully qualified to help make a happy home life. Object: a working matrimony of convenience.”
Iva looked at Penelope, aghast. “Pen, that’s a want ad for a mail-order bride!”
Penelope flung the paper aside and grasped Iva’s forearms. “It might be your best ticket out. Listen, it’s a speculative proposition, but you would do well to think on it. You are in dire straits.” Her friend smoothed Iva’s mussed brown hair. “We have to save you.”
With a chill that ran the length of her spine, Iva’s predicament fully dawned on her. It seemed so wrong to consider a marriage of pure convenience with an absolute stranger, but—What are my other options? she shrieked internally. She would have to consider it; it might be her only trap door to freedom.
All the way home, Iva considered what she would write in her first letter to the widowed rancher.
I am a rancher’s daughter, age 19 who has lost her family to a tragic plot. My home is no longer secure for me. I am seeking…
What was she seeking? Simple safety. Comfort in homely duties. A good man to trust. She had no particular experience with small children and wouldn’t mention it. It would sort itself, as her father used to say. It must.
Lennie was in the barn when she returned. He could tell as soon as he saw her face that something was terribly amiss. Iva confessed her awful discovery and the plan she was hatching to escape.
“I can’t bear to give up the ranch, Lennie, it’s the only thing I have left of Ma and Papa, but—” she broke off in tears.
Lennie laid a gentle hand on her shoulder. “Now, I will always be here for you and yours, Iva. You tell me what I need to do and, so help me God, I will carry it out to the best of my ability.”
Iva tried to collect herself. “To anyone who inquires, I am away tending a sick cousin.”
Lennie nodded gravely. “You best take the deed, then. It’s safest in your hands.”
The weight of this made Iva shudder. There was a small chance she could salvage the ranch, she saw, if she absconded with the deed. In a stranger’s home in the Dakotas, she might just save herself and her family land.
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