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The Cowboy's Promise of Forever in Kansas

“Sometimes, love ain’t about how long you’ve known someone. It’s about findin’ that spark, that connection.”

In the vast frontier of Kansas, Clara, a resilient young widow struggling to make ends meet, takes a leap of faith and becomes a mail-order bride. Little does she know that her arrival will unravel a secret she hid from her prospective groom—a young son she concealed out of shame. As Clara’s world collides with this brooding rancher, will she find the family she longs for?

Roger, having recently inherited his father’s land, seeks solace on the isolated ranch, vowing never to love again. But when Clara and her son arrive, his world is turned upside down. While anger initially flares at Clara’s deception, her son’s infectious charm melts Roger’s heart, prompting a journey of self-discovery and a battle against his own wounded pasts. Can a marriage starting out as a business deal lead him to true happiness?

Clara and Roger must confront their fears and embrace a love they never expected. As a conniving uncle threatens to tear them apart, will their newfound family be strong enough to create a future brighter than they ever imagined?

Written by:

Western Historical Romance Author

Prologue

Little Oak, Oklahoma

1879

Clara Eaves sat at the worn oak kitchen table, the glow from the oil lamp casting a warm, yellow light across the room. She looked at her son, Ben, his small face scrunched in concentration as he traced his pencil over the parchment. Ben was only six, his wisps of golden hair matching his father’s, his blue eyes a mirror image of him, as well. The homework was taxing, but Clara was determined to see him educated.

Ben held his pencil tightly, carefully copying down the sentence that Clara had written for him to practice his penmanship. His handwriting was messy at best, but Ben was a fast learner. She was sure that he could improve it in no time. He had learned to read simple books when he was four, and he only struggled on bigger words he had never seen before.

Clara watched as he finished the sentence, noticing a mistake right away.

“Remember, darlin’, the ‘e’ goes before ‘i’,” she instructed, pointing out the mistake in his spelling. Ben nodded, erasing the word ‘believe’ and rewriting it correctly.

She watched proudly as her son finished the sentence he was writing. When he was finished, Clara pointed to it and smiled.

“Very good, honey,” she said. “Now, I want you to read it out loud to me.”

Ben nodded, staring intently at the words. It took him a minute, and he sat reading to himself silently, his lips moving as he tried to work out the pronunciations of the words before he read them aloud.

“Tomorrow is the… holiday… festival, I believe,” he said. His enunciation was slow and deliberate. But he was learning quickly, and Clara was proud.

“Very good, Ben,” she said, ruffling his hair. “Why don’t we take a break to have some cookies?”

The six-year-old boy’s face lit up, and he nodded.

“You’re the best, Ma,” he said.

Clara gave him a gentle bop on the nose, gazing lovingly at her son.

“You are, my darlin’,” she said.

She left Ben at the table, going over to the oak cabinets and pulling out the tray of sugar cookies she had made that morning. The sun was setting lazily lower in the sky, and she knew she would need to start supper soon. But Ben deserved a treat for doing so well on his schoolwork. She was sure that a couple of cookies wouldn’t ruin his appetite.

She took a couple cookies off the plate, returning it to its cabinet. Then, she walked back to the table, handing them to her son with a smile.

“Just don’t tell Pa,” she said, winking.

Ben shook his head, biting eagerly into one of the cookies. Clara sat back in the chair next to him, flipping through the pages on the table. She decided that the next lesson would be arithmetic.

Her husband, Thomas, was really better with the subject than she was. But she had to admit that she was enjoying practicing with Ben. Besides, Thomas worked hard on their Oklahoma ranch every single day. She could never trouble him about helping their son with his schoolwork, even though she knew he would gladly help. Thomas loved his wife and son with his whole heart. And Clara and Ben loved him just as fiercely in return.

Suddenly, the kitchen door swung open with a loud creak, causing Clara to jump. A ranch hand, young John, was panting heavily, his face as pale as the moonlight streaming in through the window.

“Ma’am… there’s been…” Tommy gasped, struggling for breath. “An accident.”

Clara’s heart stopped. She motioned him forward, patting Ben, who was now watching with wide, curious eyes gently on his arm.

“What do you mean?” she asked, startled by the sudden intrusion and confused about what could be so urgent that the ranch hand rushed to get her. “What accident? What’s happened?” Something in her belly was tugging at her. But she couldn’t pinpoint why. Her mind wouldn’t let her understand right away.

John shifted uncomfortably, averting his gaze.

“It… it was out at the cattle run, ma’am,” he said.

Clara glanced at the open door, noting that the young man was alone. She would have expected her husband to come with the young, distraught ranch hand. She bit her lip, looking at the ranch hand nervously. She rose to her feet, her chair screeching against the wooden floor.

“Where’s Thomas?” she asked, her voice trembling.

John just shook his head, his eyes filled with fear.

Clara took another step toward the young man, reaching out toward him with a shaking hand.

“Where is Thomas?” she repeated. She already knew the answer. But she hoped against hope that she was wrong, that he was only tending to whomever had been injured in the accident.

Once again, the young man shook his head. When he looked at her again, there were tears in his eyes. He looked over at Ben, who had also left the table and joined his mother, holding on to her hand.

“Still layin’ where he fell,” John said finally.

Clara’s stomach flipped, tying itself into knots. Thomas was the most skilled rancher she knew. Even better than her own father had been. In the seven years they had been married, he had never gotten so much as a splinter. What could have happened to cause an accident involving him, especially at the cattle run?

Without a second thought, Clara rushed out of the house, the cool night air stinging her hot face. She headed straight for the cattle run, her skirts bustling around her legs as she ran. Her vision blurred from the combination of tears and the cold air rushing into her eyes. But she found the cattle run without a problem, even in the weak light of the moon.

It didn’t take her long to find her fallen husband. Three more ranch hands surrounded him, all of them shouting instructions to each other. She ran straight to them, nearly tripping as she reached them. The sight that greeted her was one she would never forget. Her husband was lying motionless on the ground, his body clearly broken. His eyes were closed, a bland expression on his face that belied the chaos around him.

Clara dropped to her knees beside him, her hands shaking as she reached out to touch him. “Thomas,” she murmured, her voice choked with tears. “What happened?” She put her hands on his face, brushing his sweat-glued hair out of his closed eyes.

The men fell silent and looked at each other. She looked up at them, her eyes pleading with them to answer her. There was a long, painful moment of silence. She didn’t realize that Ben, confusion etched on his innocent face, had followed her, until he grabbed her arm.

“Mama?” he asked, his voice sounding small and frightened.

Clara looked at him, trying to find a bravery she didn’t at all feel.

“Ben, go back inside,” she said with no conviction.

Ben shook his head, clinging more tightly to his mother.

“What’s wrong with Pa?” he asked.

Clara was about to repeat her demand for her son. But the young ranch hand, John, stepped forward and took Ben’s hand.

“Come on, Benny,” he said, trying to keep his voice even. “I need your help feeding the horses.”

Ben started to protest. But Clara nodded, nudging the boy toward the ranch hand.

“Go on, now,” she said. “Stuff still needs doin’. We’ll take care of your pa. You go finish up his chores.”

Reluctantly, Ben nodded. He slowly followed John away from the group of men, looking back over his shoulder as he did so.

Once her son was safely out of earshot, Clara looked at the men again.

“What happened?” she asked again, her voice filled with desperation.

The oldest ranch hand, Jerry, rubbed the back of his neck.

“Not exactly sure, Mrs. Eaves,” he said. “One minute, the cattle were herdin’, pretty as you please. The next, they were stampin’ and stompin’ like something spooked the daylights outta them. Mr. Eaves went over to see what the matter was. Next thing we knew, there was a stampede, and he was… like this.”

Clara looked around wildly, as if finding whatever had spooked the cattle would somehow make her husband all right again. She realized that, in all the time she had had her hands on his face, he hadn’t moved. She sobbed, touching his battered neck with a trembling hand. She felt for a pulse, praying that she found one.

“He’s still alive,” she said, sobbing again with relief when she found a weak but very present pulse.

The men started murmuring to themselves, looking bewildered. But it didn’t take Jerry long to start issuing orders.

“Barney,” he barked, pointing to a ranch hand that resembled an older John. “Go get the wagon ready. Walter, you help me use those boards we brought to make a stretcher to slide under him.”

The men nodded, getting straight to work. Clara had to move to give the men room to work around her husband. Her heart and mind raced as she watched them construct the makeshift stretcher from boards and cattle rope around her husband’s broken body. How had this happened? How could things have gotten so out of control that Thomas couldn’t keep the cattle from trampling him?

The other ranch hand pulled up with the wagon just as they finished pulling the rope taut on the stretcher. Clara watched with horror as they lifted her husband off the ground, and she saw the blood-stained ground beneath him. They loaded him hurriedly into the wagon, Clara climbing in behind him. As she settled in the floor of the wagon beside her husband, she saw Ben running up.

“Ma, I wanna go with you,” he said.

Clara shook her head, exasperated and worried to death about her husband.

“You need to stay here with John,” she said, watching as the flustered ranch hand trotted up to Ben.

Ben shook his head, scrambling to get into the back of the wagon.

“Pa is hurt, and I wanna be with him,” he said, his voice thickening with tears.

Clara’s heart broke. Thomas was Ben’s father, and he had just as much right to worry about him as she did. And if going to the doctor with them would help him feel a little better, she couldn’t deny him that.

“All right,” she said. “But you stay right with me. No matter what.”

Ben nodded, pulling himself up into the back of the wagon. He curled up beside his father at Clara’s side, patting him gently on the shoulder.

“Pa?” he asked softly as the wagon pulled away from the ranch. “Can you hear me? You gotta be okay, Pa. You just gotta.”

Clara’s heart ached, and she put her arm around her son.

“We’re gonna do the best we can, sweetheart,” she said. “Everything will be all right.”

But as the wagon rolled along, Clara wondered if that was true. Thomas was clearly terribly injured, and he hadn’t even flinched when Clara or Ben touched him. A whirlwind of thoughts and emotions swept through Clara’s mind, blending anxiety with a fierce determination to protect her family. She thought about the harsh reality of losing Thomas, the man she had loved since they were young, the man who had been her rock and the father to their precious son. A shiver ran down her spine as she imagined a world without him, a future where she would be left to shoulder the burdens alone.

How would she break the news to Ben if the worst were to happen? How could she explain that his hero, the man he idolized, might never come home with them? Clara’s heart ached at the thought of the pain her son would endure, the void that would be left in his young life. She vowed to be there for Ben, to shield him from the harsh realities of the world for as long as she could, and to provide him with the love and support he would undoubtedly need.

Clara’s mind raced, envisioning a multitude of scenarios that could unfold if Thomas were to pass away. She wondered if she would need to sell the ranch, the place they had built together, in order to survive. The idea tore at her soul, for the land held so many memories, so much of their shared history. But practicality demanded its consideration.

Would she have to seek help from neighbors and friends? Could she find a way to keep the ranch afloat, preserving the legacy they had worked so hard to create? Clara held her unconscious husband, his head cradled in her lap as they bumped along.

At the plain wood clinic, with the dull metal sign that read Dr. Sullivan, they were met by the physician. His face was a mask of professional concern as he looked Thomas over. Jerry quickly explained everything to the physician as they got the stretcher inside and back to an examination room.

Clara kept Ben in the waiting area, which was furnished with a couple of basic wooden chairs and a long bench, and a potbelly stove in the far corner, no doubt for warmth in the winter months. The secretary’s desk was just as bland, with a round paperweight holding down a stack of files.

As Clara waited for Dr. Sullivan to examine Thomas, she sat beside Ben on the bench, wringing her hands nervously. Ben clung to her skirt, his small body trembling. Clara held him close, wishing that she could summon words of comfort for the child. But she knew that if she spoke, she would begin to cry, which would only upset the boy further. So, they sat in silence, listening to the rustling and low voices of Jerry and the doctor drifting out from the exam room.

Finally, the doctor came out to address Clara.

“I’m so sorry, Mrs. Eaves,” he said softly, his voice barely audible over the sound of her pounding heart. “I did everything I could. But I’m afraid he was hurt too bad, and it was too late to help him.”

Clara felt the ground sway beneath her. She fell into a chair, her mind reeling.

“No,” she whispered, refusing to believe it. “He can’t…”

But the truth was all over the doctor’s face. Thomas was gone. The love of her life, her partner, her everything was gone. Her sobs filled the small room, the sound echoing through the emptiness that had suddenly surrounded her. Ben clung to her tighter, tears streaming down his own face. She held on to her son and the two of them cried. Her worst fears were confirmed. Now, she and Ben would have to find a way through life all alone. But how would they ever manage without Thomas?

Chapter One

Little Oak, Oklahoma

1880

A candle flickered as Clara stepped into the small, sparsely furnished home she shared with Ben and May Eaves, her mother-in-law, the warm spring breeze fluttering the makeshift curtains in the cracked living room windows.

The aroma of stale bread and spent candles hung in the air, a poignant reminder of their dwindling funds and the hardships they’d endured over the past year. The faded, threadbare rug rested pitifully between the tattered tan sofa and worn coffee table that was adorned with dingy old doilies. She closed the door quietly, noting the complete silence in the nighttime darkness that filled much of the little house.

Her days were spent behind the counter of the general store, and her nights scrubbing the floors of the local hotel. Her body ached with exhaustion, but she tried her best to keep her spirit from being broken.

After all, she had her son and mother-in-law to look after. They were the remnants of a life she had loved, a life she had lost, and the reason why she had to press on and do the best she could, even though she still missed Thomas every day. It had been a year since his death. But some days, it still felt as though it was just a single day.

Creeping into her son’s bedroom, she found Ben curled up on his cot, moonlight cascading down on his cherubic face. A rush of affection flooded her as she brushed a lock of hair from his forehead, her heart heavy with the guilt of missed moments.

She was nearly always at work, trying to make enough money to make ends meet. The money she had when Thomas died had gone quickly, and she was almost out of money that she got from selling the ranch and their belongings. She had to work as much as she did just so they could have a little food each day. But it didn’t make her feel any better that she was essentially neglecting her son. Especially when he had already lost his father.

Tiptoeing out of his room, she went back down the hall, following the glow of another candle. She found May waiting for her in the kitchen, her face etched with worry and fatigue as she sat at the cracked oak table.

Clara saw that there were fixings to make a small meal laid out on the cast iron stovetop, and there was a plate pulled from the pine cabinets and sitting on the short oak countertop between the sink and the ice box. The older woman gestured toward the rickety chair opposite her, and Clara sank into it, the weariness of her long day seeping into her bones.

“Let me fix you somethin’ to eat, Clara,” May said.

Clara shook her head, smiling gently. They had the same conversation every night when Clara came home from work. But Clara knew there was already very little food. She almost always went to bed without supper, so that May and Ben could have more to eat. She occasionally bought a piece of bread and cheese on credit at the general store, one of the places she worked. Her boss was kind, but he worked her hard. She didn’t mind. She knew it was up to her to take care of her family.

“No, thank you, May,” she said. “I’m not hungry.”

May shook her head gently, giving Clara a look of sympathy and weariness.

“Clara,” May began, her voice as worn as the floorboards under their feet, “this ain’t no life for us, for Ben. You’re working yourself to the bone and hardly eating, and for what? To barely scrape by?”

Clara nodded, her throat tight with the bitter reality of their situation. She knew it was hard, but she was doing what she could to provide for her family.

“I know, May,” she said, looking down at her rough hands with broken, ill-maintained fingernails. “But it’s what I gotta do. We won’t survive unless I do this.”

May shook her head slowly, her wrinkling white brow furrowing.

“Clara, I know these past months have been incredibly tough on you,” she began gently. “I’ve watched you work yourself to exhaustion, trying to keep everything afloat. But I worry, my dear. I worry about Ben and the toll it’s taking on him. He needs his mother to be home more. He’s falling behind with his schooling, and even as his grandmother, I can’t fill in a motherly role in his life.”

Clara’s shoulders slumped, her gaze fixed on the ground. She knew May was right but admitting it to herself was difficult. The guilt she felt at neglecting her son weighed heavily on her heart. It had ever since she had to start working the two jobs. She could see it in Ben’s face every time she had to tell him that they couldn’t have a picnic or play at the nearby lake. She never even had the time to pick berries for pies with him anymore.

“I know, May,” Clara finally spoke, her voice tinged with regret. “I’ve been so focused on keeping us going, making sure we have enough to get by. But in doing so, I’ve been neglecting Ben. He deserves so much more than what I’ve been able to give him lately.”

May reached out, placing a gentle hand on Clara’s arm. “You’re doing the best you can, my dear. I understand that. But Ben needs his mother, not just someone who provides for him. He needs your love, your presence. It’s crucial for his well-being.”

A tear welled up in Clara’s eye as she nodded, a mix of gratitude and sadness washing over her. “I know, May,” she said again. “And I feel terrible for it. Ben has lost his father, and now he’s losing his mother to this constant work. He deserves better.”

May’s expression softened, her voice filled with compassion.

“You’re not alone in this, Clara,” she said. “We’re family, and we’ll find a way to support you. You don’t have to bear the burden alone.”

Clara looked up at May, her eyes searching for solace.

“I don’t want to let Ben down, May,” she said. “I want to be there for him, to be the mother he needs. But I fear I’m failing him.”

May squeezed Clara’s hand gently, her voice filled with reassurance.

“You’re not failing, my dear,” she said. “We all stumble, especially in times of hardship. What matters is that you recognize the need for change, and I believe you have. We’ll figure this out together.”

Clara took a deep breath, a glimmer of comfort igniting within her. May’s words helped her to feel a bit better. But she still needed to make changes. She knew she couldn’t continue on this path, neglecting her son and losing herself in the relentless demands of the finances. She had to find a balance, a way to be present for Ben while still managing the responsibilities that awaited her.

“Thank you, May,” Clara said, her voice resolute. “I need your help, your guidance. I want to be the mother Ben deserves, and I want to honor Thomas’s memory by nurturing our son.”

May smiled warmly, her eyes brimming with love.

“You’ve always had my support, Clara,” she said. “We’ll find a way to make things right. Ben is lucky to have you as his mother, and together, we’ll ensure he thrives.”

Clara nodded, sighing. “I just don’t know how I can make more time with Ben without shorting us of money we desperately need.”

May’s gaze was soft yet determined.

“I reckon it’s time you thought about a marriage of convenience, Clara,” she said.

The suggestion hung in the air, heavy and uncomfortable. Clara’s mind raced with a thousand questions, a thousand doubts. What if the man was cruel, or had no care for Ben?

“May,” Clara said, her voice barely a whisper, “what if I ended up with a man doesn’t care for Ben? What if he’s unkind?”

May’s grip on Clara’s hand tightened, the old woman’s strength surprising.

“We’ll make sure of it, Clara. We won’t settle for a man who won’t treat you and Ben right. But you need help, my dear. And Ben needs his mother.”

Tears prickled at the corners of Clara’s eyes, the weight of the world pressing down on her. She missed the days when Ben would cling to her skirts, when they had time to laugh and play. She missed her son’s childhood.

“I just want him to have a better life, May,” Clara whispered, her voice choked with tears.

May nodded, her expression kinder and more doting than Clara had ever seen.

“And he will, my dear,” May said, her voice filled with a determined resolve. “We’ll see to it.”

Clara looked into May’s gray eyes, seeing a very comforting resolve in them. In the year since Thomas died, Clara had watched her mother-in-law’s hair become drastically streaked with gray. Clara knew that she missed her son, just as much as Clara did. She felt terrible for the aging woman, but she could never allow herself to think too long about losing a son. She could never survive if something ever happened to Ben. Losing Thomas had nearly killed her. Losing Ben would finish the job.

She wanted to reject the idea of a marriage of convenience immediately. The possibility of getting a man who would be unkind to Ben once Clara had married him was great. And yet, May seemed confident in her words. Clara had to consider the possibility that she was only rejecting the idea of being a mail-order bride just because she didn’t feel ready to move on from Thomas. It was true; she wasn’t, and she didn’t know if she ever would be. But she had to admit that having a husband would solve the problems of money and a home. Clara and Ben could have a more secure life, and they could stop draining May of all her resources. Clara also knew that Ben would eventually need a fatherly role model. She could work her fingers to the bone but she could never teach him how to be a man.

After a moment, Clara nodded, her decision made. She would look for a marriage of convenience, a way to provide for Ben, to reclaim the lost time with her son. For Clara knew, love may have brought her to this crossroads, but it would be practicality that guided their way forward.

“Thank you, May,” Clara said, embracing the older woman. “Ben and I’d be lost without you.”

May nodded, giving Clara another tired smile.

“Likewise, honey,” she said. “But now, I’d rest much easier if I knew that you and Ben were taken care of proper, and that he had a father figure in his life.”

Clara nodded once more.

“Me, too,” she said.

May nodded, patting Clara’s hand.

“Go get some rest, dear,” she said. “I’ll be doin’ the same shortly, myself.”

Clara nodded.

“I sure am exhausted,” she said, rubbing her sore back as she stood. “Good night, May.”

Her mother-in-law nodded, yawning behind her leathery hand.

“Good night, dear,” she said.

With that, Clara made her way down the short hall of the small house, but she didn’t go straight to her room. Instead, she stopped by Ben’s room again, watching him sleep in the dim light from the half-moon shining in the window.

He was snoring lightly and murmuring in his sleep, just like Thomas used to do. Clara bit her lip, fighting back tears. Ben looked more like his father every day. And though Clara loved her son with her whole heart, it was painful for her to see the resemblances between Ben and Thomas. She would never let on, though. She could never let Ben think that it hurt her to look at him. Besides, it brought her a small bit of comfort that she still had a piece of Thomas.

Still, as she finally went to her room and laid her tired bones down in her stark, itchy bed, she couldn’t help crying softly. A whole year later and she still couldn’t adjust to lying in bed alone. And it still seemed terribly unfair to her that she, Ben, and May had lost Thomas in the first place.

She wiped her eyes and rolled over, turning her back to the empty space on the other side of her. And as she closed her eyes, she prayed for a night free of the nightmares that haunted her, of the day her husband died in her arms. I miss you so much, honey, she thought as sleep slowly took her. Please, guide me on this next adventure in our lives.

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