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An Unexpected Family for the Rugged Mountain Man

When the grumpy cowboy finds an unexpected bride on his doorstep, he is determined to send her away. But a baby to care for and this feisty woman’s passion will change his mind and destiny forever.

In the untamed frontier, Sophie escapes her mistreatment as a mail-order bride, seeking love and a fresh start. Little does she know that fate has other plans, leading her to the gruff mountain man who is a hard shell to crack. As they navigate their feelings for each other, a doorstep baby unexpectedly enters their lives, drawing them into a web of danger and intrigue. Will she find the family she always yearned for?

Simon prefers his solitude until fate intervenes, and a mail-order bride unexpectedly arrives at his doorstep. People fear him due to his imposing figure, but when this feisty, petite woman fearlessly confronts him for refusing to marry her after her long journey, he finds himself intrigued and amused. With a doorstep baby to care for, Simon can use all the help he can get. Can this stay a marriage of convenience when love’s lines are blurrier than ever?

With a wealthy and dangerous man searching for the baby, Sophie and Simon must protect the child and confront their pasts. Will their love endure the trials, or will sinister forces thwart their chance at happiness?

Written by:

Western Historical Romance Author

Prologue

Oatman, Arizona, 1853

 

Six-year-old Sophie Thompson tugged at her pink cotton skirt, worried that it had gotten creased while she was climbing under the table looking for Mittens. Her little kitten was forever getting herself trapped in the most inconvenient of places.

She smoothed her skirt again but it was no use—as soon as she removed her hand, the fabric wrinkled again. Sophie looked up at her mother with her pale blue eyes, hoping she would not notice. She had gone to a lot of effort to make sure that Sophie would make a good impression and would not be happy to know that only moments earlier she’d been crawling around the kitchen floor.

“Stop fidgeting,” her mother warned.

Sophie straightened her shoulders and folded her small hands behind her back. Her white blouse felt scratchy and beads of perspiration ran down her back as they baked under the hot Arizona sun.

“There they are,” her mother said.

She craned her neck, trying to get a look at the buggy now coming in through the ranch gates. Sophie knew how important this meeting was—her mother had spoken of little else for the last few weeks.

As the buggy came closer, the gravel crunched loudly beneath its wooden wheels and Sophie’s stomach fluttered wildly. The feeling reminded her of the time she went on a walk with her father. She’d caught a butterfly with checkerboard wings and had cupped it carefully in her hands. As it tried to fly, its fragile wings beat against the skin of her palms. This felt the same, only the fluttering sensation was stronger.

“Remember what I told you,” her mother said.

Sophie nodded, but the truth was, her mother had given her so many instructions that morning that she’d forgotten most of them. In one ear and out the other, her father used to joke.

The buggy came to a halt and the door swung open. Sophie’s palms were sweaty as she plastered a smile onto her face.

Out of the buggy stepped a large man with copper-colored hair and a beard to match. He had small, dark eyes and a flat nose. He wore a tailored linen suit the exact shade of the bay trees her father had planted near the vegetable garden. Around his neck he wore a silk cravat and his black leather shoes were so well-polished that Sophie was certain she’d be able to see her reflection in them.

“Mrs. Thompson,” the man boomed as he stepped down. “What a breath of fresh air it is to see you again.”

Sophie looked up at her mother, whose cheeks had turned a pretty shade of pink.

“You do know how to flatter a woman, Mr. Colton,” she replied. “And please, I insist that you call me Lauren.”

Sophie looked up at her mother again, never having heard her speak in such an affected tone.

Behind Mr. David Colton, another head emerged from the buggy. His son was the spitting image of his father, with the same copper-colored crop of hair and dark eyes. Unlike his father, however, his nose was long and his chin was sharp. Sophie’s mother had told her all about Frank Colton. He was thirteen years old and the apple of his father’s eye.

Frank climbed down from the buggy and as he did, Sophie saw that he too was dressed well. He wore a crisp white linen shirt and a pair of bay-green trousers that reached just below the knee. It was strange to Sophie to see such well-dressed people. She was so used to more practical, durable clothes like denim pants and canvas vests, the clothes that her father and the ranch hands wore. They seemed entirely out of place to her against the backdrop of the old barn, with its rotting roof and the wonky woodshed. She knew what her father would call them—he’d call them a pair of fancy Dans.

David Colton and his son walked across the narrow stretch of gravel to where Sophie and her mother stood. Sophie did not take her eyes off them, her stomach still fluttering.

“Allow me to introduce my son,” Mr. Colton said. “This is Frank.”

“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Mrs. Thompson,” Frank said.

“And you, Frank,” she said. “Your pa has told me so much about you.”

For a moment, Sophie thought she might be invisible, until her mother placed a hand on her shoulder.

“This is my Sophie,” she said. “And Sophie, this is Mr. Colton and his son.”

Sophie’s mind was racing as she tried to recall the exact words her mother had told her to say. But no matter how hard she tried, they would not come to her, and she felt the hand on her shoulder grow heavier, more disapproving.

“I am sorry,” Mrs. Thompson said. “She’s just a bit shy.”

Sophie looked up at Mr. Colton and she saw his dark eyes harden for a moment, and her throat went dry.

“Why don’t we all go inside? I am sure you are all parched from your travels.”

Mr. Colton pulled his hard gaze away from Sophie and back to her mother.

“That would be most welcome,” he said.

Sophie did not move as her mother led Mr. Colton and his son into the house.

“Sophie?” her mother called back. “Come inside and help me in the kitchen.”

Sophie did not want to go into the house; she wanted to turn and run until the house was no bigger than the head of a pin. But she knew how important this was to her mother, and so she took a shaky breath and went back inside.

As Sophie passed the sitting room, she saw Mr. Colton and his son were seated in the two arms chairs by the window. She dropped her eyes as she passed, afraid she might catch Mr. Colton’s hard gaze again.

“There you are,” her mother said as she stepped into the kitchen. “Really, Sophie. Would it have been so hard for you to say hello to our guests?”

“I am sorry, Ma,” Sophie apologized. “I could not remember what you told me to say.”

Mrs. Thompson shook her head and sighed. “Well, help me with the lemonade.”

A few minutes later, Sophie was seated beside her mother on the threadbare sofa. They’d done their best to get the place into shape for Mr. Colton’s arrival, but Sophie knew that her mother was still ashamed by the state of the furniture and the holes in the ceilings and mold on the walls.

“Sophie,” her mother said after a few moments. “Why don’t you show Frank around the ranch?”

Sophie looked across at Frank, who met her gaze, and she found the same hardness in his dark eyes that she’d seen in his father’s eyes.

“That sounds like an excellent idea,” Mr. Colton said, putting his glass down on the table. “Frank was just saying how much he is looking forward to living on a ranch.”

Sophie looked up at her mother but did not move.

“Go on now, Sophie,” she said. “Mr. Colton and I have some things we need to discuss.”

“You too, Frank,” Mr. Colton said.

Both Sophie and Frank got up from where they were seated and left the room. Neither of them spoke until they were outside.

“What do you want to see first?” Sophie asked.

Frank shrugged. “I don’t care.”

“I thought you wanted to live on a ranch?”

Frank snorted rudely. “My father just said that to impress your mother.”

Sophie frowned. “So he was lying?”

Frank looked down at her and smiled. “I knew you’d be a little goody two-shoes.”

Sophie frowned again, not quite knowing what Frank’s words meant but clearly understanding the intention behind them was to be cruel.

Frank walked over to the barn and peered inside, and from the way he wrinkled his long nose, she knew he didn’t like what he saw.

“Just because our parents are getting married doesn’t mean we are family,” he said, turning to look at Sophie.

“I know,” Sophie said.

They fell into silence again for a few moments. Sophie did not like Frank or the way he was turning up his nose at her home. She loved the ranch and all the memories it held.

“This place is a dump,” Frank said, looking around.

“It’s not!” Sophie retorted, her face growing warm.

“It is,” Frank said. “But I guess that will change after they are married.”

Sophie said nothing, but she hated the way Frank knew more things than she did. Like the reason her mother wanted to get married again. After all, her father had only been gone a few months.

“I am bored,” Frank whined.

“My pa used to say that only boring people got bored.”

“Well, your pa sounds like an idiot,” Frank said.

“My pa was the best man in the whole world.”

“But not clever enough to stop himself from falling off a horse and breaking his neck.”

Sophie’s chest rose and fell as she glared at Frank. He knew nothing about her father.

“Stop talking about him,” Sophie said, blinking back tears.

“Why?” Frank jeered. “Does talking about your dead daddy make you want to cry? Huh? You big crybaby—”

Without thinking, Sophie kicked out her right foot as hard as she could, and her shoe hit Frank square on the shin. He cried out in pain as he lifted his leg, hopping around for a moment before he turned back to Sophie.

“You’re going to be sorry you did that,” he said.

Before Sophie had a moment to think, Frank pushed her with all his strength, and she hit the barn wall and fell to the ground with a thud. She lay on the floor, trying to catch her breath, as the blow had pushed all the wind from her stomach.

When she was finally able to breathe again, Sophie pushed herself up onto her knees. Her back ached and her head was pounding. When she was finally able to get to her feet, she used the barn wall to steady herself. She looked around for Frank, but he had disappeared.

As she made her way back around the house, Sophie caught sight of herself in the porch window. Her skirt was covered in dust and her long plait had been shaken loose and strands of hair now hung around her face.

“Goodness gracious, Sophie,” her mother said as she stepped into the sitting room.

“What on earth have you been doing?”

Sophie said nothing as she caught Frank’s eye.

“I tripped,” Sophie lied.

Her mother sighed. “You’d better go upstairs and get changed.”

Sophie turned and left the room. She had lied only because she’d been afraid that Frank would tell them that she’d started it by kicking him in the shin. She did not want to get in trouble with her mother.

Sophie did not come back downstairs until Mr. Colton and Frank had gone. As she watched the buggy disappear down through the gate, a wave of relief washed over her.

“Sophie?” her mother said from the other side of the door. “Are you in here?”

“Yes, Ma,” Sophie said.

Her mother turned the doorknob and pushed open the door. “What are you doing up here?”

“I was just changing my dress.”

Her mother frowned but said nothing for a moment.

“Mr. Colton and his son have gone back to their hotel in town to freshen up,” she said. “But they will be back for dinner.”

The relief that Sophie had felt only a moment ago evaporated into thin air.

“When you are dressed, come downstairs and help me,” her mother said, turning away.

“I don’t think you should marry that man, Ma,” Sophie blurted, unable to stop herself.

Her mother turned around to look at Sophie again.

“They got hard eyes,” Sophie said. “And Pa used to say that the eyes were the windows to the soul.”

Her mother sighed softly. “I know this isn’t easy and you are too young to understand, but I am doing what is best for us.”

Sophie said nothing, but she could not believe that marrying Mr. Colton was the best thing for them.

“Come down when you are dressed,” she repeated.

Then without another word, she left. Sophie turned back to the window and sighed. She wished her father were still alive. Things had been so much better then.

Just as her mother had said, Mr. Colton and Frank returned for supper that evening. As Sophie sat at the table in the kitchen, she said nothing. Mr. Colton sat across from her, in the place where her father used to sit. Frank sat beside her.

Despite his fancy clothes and accent, Frank had poor table manners and his arms protruded like the wings of a chicken, leaving Sophie with barely any space to eat her dinner. Yet no one seemed to notice. Her mother barely looked her way as she doted on Mr. Colton, hanging on his every word. Sophie had never seen her mother like this before, so wide-eyed and girlish. She could not really explain it, but it made the hairs on her arms stand up.

“So, son,” Mr. Colton said, looking at Frank as he leaned forward in his chair. “What do you think of our new home? Our new family?”

Frank nodded as he looked up from his plate. “I think it’s great, Father.”

Mr. Colton nodded and smiled. As Sophie watched, he reached across and squeezed her mother’s hand. Her mother looked into his eyes and smiled. Sophie looked around and saw that everyone but her was smiling. No one looked at her, no one asked her what she thought, no one cared. She may as well have been invisible.

Chapter One

Oatman, Arizona, 1867

 

Almost fourteen years had passed since that night. Sophie had eaten thousands of dinners since then and yet nothing had changed. She still felt invisible almost all of the time and when her family did notice her from time to time, she usually just wished to be invisible again.

“Sophie?” her mom called from the sitting room. “Will you come in here, please?”

Sophie sighed softly to herself. She’d hoped they would not notice her but one of the floorboards had betrayed her. She turned around and walked back to the sitting room. She did not go inside but stood, leaning against the doorway.

“Will you stand up straight?” Mr. Colton barked.

Sophie straightened up slightly.

“We want to talk to you,” her mother said.

“I was actually just going out for a walk—”

“It’s not a question,” Mr. Colton said, his dark eyes flashing a warning. “Sit down.”

Sophie hesitated. She knew the price of defying him, and it was steep. For fourteen years, she’d felt like a mouse in a house full of cats.

“Sophie, please?” her mother said.

Sophie’s shoulders dropped as she stepped into the room. She took a seat on the sofa across from the two armchairs where her mother and stepfather sat. The furniture in the room was new; her mother had it all upholstered again a few months ago, to keep up to date with the latest fashions. That’s all she did now, her mother, play house.

“We want to talk to you about your future,” her mother said.

Sophie’s stomach sank but she said nothing.

“You are twenty this year, Sophie,” she continued. “That’s old enough to find a husband and to run a household of your own. I was about your age when I got married.”

“But I don’t want a husband,” Sophie said. “Or a household of my own.”

Her mother said nothing for a moment as she pursed her lips. Sophie knew this was not her idea, but she’d become so weak over the past fourteen years, so terribly afraid to speak up, that she really no longer had a single thought that was her own. She did whatever he wanted.

“There is a man in town,” her mother continued. “His name is Mr. Beaumont and he has shown an interest in you.”

Sophie’s eyes widened in horror. She knew Mr. Beaumont, she’d seen him in church. He was twice her age and his breath smelled of rot and decay from a lifetime of chewing tobacco.

“No, Ma,” Sophie said, shaking her head. “Please don’t make me marry that man.”

Sophie’s blue eyes were full of desperation as she pleaded silently with her mother, who still would not meet her eye. Had it truly come to this? Over the years, Sophie had wondered if her mother cared at all for her happiness, and now she knew that she could not. The hurt of knowing this, deep down in the very core of her heart, was almost worse than being forced to marry this old man.

“Mr. Beaumont is a well-respected man in town and is a gentleman,” her stepfather said sharply. “He is a good match.”

“He is one hundred years old!” Sophie insisted. “You can’t make me marry him—”

“I know he is a bit older than you,” her mother said. “But he has money and a nice home, he can offer you security and a comfortable life.”

Sophie stared at her mother, still refusing to believe they were actually suggesting she marry Mr. Beaumont. That money and security would be worth sharing a bed with that man for the rest of her life.

“What about Frank?” Sophie said. “He’s twenty-seven and still not married.”

“Are you suggesting that Frank marry Mr. Beaumont?” Mr. Colton asked dryly.

“It’s different,” her mother said.

Sophie shook her head bitterly. She knew that meant one day Frank would inherit the ranch and everything else, while she would inherit nothing, which was why she needed to get married.

“I won’t marry him,” Sophie said. “You can’t make me marry him—”

“That’s enough,” her stepfather said. “This subject is not up for debate. You will marry Mr. Beaumont, it’s all been arranged.”

Sophie did not take her eyes off her mother. “Please, Ma. Don’t let him do this.”

But as usual, her mother said nothing, and so Sophie got up from the sofa and hurried out of the room.

As she pushed open the back door, Sophie took deep gulps of air, trying to remember to breathe. She pressed her hand to her chest, and her heart was beating a million times a minute.

“So I guess you heard the news then?”

Sophie whirled around to see Frank leaning against the trunk of a large maple tree. He was chewing sunflower seeds, and as she looked at him, he spat a mouthful of shells onto the ground.

“I won’t marry him,” Sophie said, doing her best to stand up for herself, although she knew it was pointless.

“Of course you will,” Frank said. “Even if our father has to drag you down the aisle himself.”

“He’s not my pa,” Sophie said. “And you are not my brother.”

Frank smirked as he reached into his pocket and took out another handful of sunflower seeds, which he put in his mouth. Sophie glared at him as he chewed loudly with his mouth open.

Neither of them spoke for a moment, but Frank did not take his eyes off her. She was used to this—Frank had found pleasure in her pain for years. Their relationship had been decided on that very first day they met and the passing of time had only made it worse. Frank had never grown out of being a bully.

“Father’s been planning this for a while,” Frank said. “To marry you off. But he was just waiting for the best offer.”

Sophie frowned. “What do you mean?”

Frank smirked again. “Are you really that naive?” he jeered. “You’re a broodmare, who Father sold off to the highest bidder.”

Sophie’s stomach turned. Was Frank telling her the truth? Had her stepfather really sold her off, as if she were just another ranch animal? Yet it made sense. Mr. Beaumont had no children of his own. After he died, the ranch would become Sophie’s. Her stepfather wanted Mr. Beaumont’s land, and the price was her freedom.

“You can’t be surprised,” Frank said, shaking his head in disbelief. “After all these years, you still haven’t learned, have you? Nothing you say or want matters in this family. Even your own mother doesn’t care about you.”

Frank was not wrong and Sophie knew it. She’d lost her father when she was six years old and she’d lost her mother the day she remarried. She’d been alone for fourteen years, but Sophie knew that she’d lived under her stepfather’s thumb for too long. She needed to escape this future that she did not want. All she needed to figure out was how to get away.

“I know what you are thinking,” Frank said.

Sophie met his eyes and she saw a glimmer of amusement in them.

“That maybe you could run away,” Frank continued, his tone mocking. “But you know he’d find you.”

Sophie said nothing but she knew Frank was right. If she ran, he’d find her and bring her back. So she needed another plan, a way that her stepfather could not get to her.

“Well, as much as I’d like to stand around all day chewing the fat. I’ve got work to do,” Frank said as he turned away. He paused, turning back to her. “Oh, before I forget to tell you—I hear Mr. Beaumont is looking forward to having lots of children.”

Frank waggled his eyebrows at her suggestively before he turned to go and Sophie felt bile rise in her throat.

Sophie turned and ran, as if trying to outrun her fate. She passed the barn and the stables and the cattle grazing in the eastern pasture. She ran until she found herself at her father’s grave and she fell to her knees, out of breath.

“I wish you were still here,” she said.

The headstones of Thompson family graves stood out against the blue sky that seemed to stretch out toward forever, like some waveless sea. The oldest of those tombstones belonged to Sophie’s great-grandfather and great-grandmother. The limestone had weathered over the years in the sun, wind, rain, and snow. Lichen in various textures and colors grew around the tops and sides, like some feathery blanket keeping the dead warm. Weeds grew from the base of the stones, a testament to the neglect over the years. Sophie could not recall the last time her mother had come to pay her respects, certainly not since marrying Mr. Colton.

Ever since her father’s passing, Sophie had come here nearly every day to talk with him. She had no idea if he could hear her, but it brought her comfort just being near to him. She’d barely got the chance to know him in the short years before he was taken from her, and yet Sophie felt closer to him than anyone else in the whole world.

Sophie did not know how long she sat there, staring at the tombstone. She only turned when she heard footsteps. The ranch foreman, Charlie Briggs, had been there for as long as Sophie could remember. He was an old man now, with a white beard, and yet he was still cowboying as if he were a young man. Over the years, Charlie had become a friend to her. Sometimes he was the only person in the whole world that she could talk to, besides her cat, Mittens. Charlie had no family of his own, and sometimes Sophie felt as if she were almost like a daughter to him.

“You all right?” Charlie asked. “You’ve been sittin’ here a long while.”

Sophie said nothing for a moment as Charlie sat down on the ground beside her, the bones in his knees creaking as he did.

“You wanna talk about it?” he asked.

“They are going to make me marry Mr. Beaumont,” Sophie said.

Sophie looked sideways to see Charlie frowning in disapproval. “But he’s an old man.”

Sophie shrugged. “My stepfather has it all arranged.”

“What does your ma have to say about all this?” Charlie asked.

Sophie shook her head. “Nothing. She never has anything of her own to say.”

Charlie put a hand on her shoulder. “So what are you gonna do?”

“I don’t know,” Sophie said. “But I can’t marry that man.”

Charlie looked thoughtful all of a sudden. “I might have an idea. Come with me.”

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  • With only having read one chapter, it seems to be very interesting. I’m looking forward to reading the rest to find out where, how, when, who?????

    • I’m thrilled to hear that you’re already intrigued Sherry! Happy reading and discovering!Can’t wait to read your overall review! 🌵❤️

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