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War-Torn Hearts of a Western Love

Ida’s love ignites from a single touch, while George’s scars conceal battles untold. As fate beckons them back together, can they rewrite a destiny marred by promises?

Ida has cherished a secret love for her brother’s best friend since childhood. This flame kindled the day his lips touched hers in a bittersweet goodbye. As the years unfold, her heart remains a beacon of hope amid the darkness of war’s trials. But when George returns to town, bearing visible and unseen scars, Ida’s world teeters on the verge of irrevocable change. Can she bridge the chasm between her enduring affection and the enigmatic man he’s become?

George, a soldier shaped by the crucible of conflict, returns to town welcomed by Ida’s embrace only to push her away, even though he craves her presence the most. Despite his heart’s longing for her, the weight of a solemn promise to her dying brother binds him, compelling her towards a union with another man to secure her future. Can he untangle himself from the chains of obligation and follow the yearnings of his heart?

As Ida and George find themselves standing at the crossroads of their intertwined fates, the wealthy tycoon to whom Ida’s brother bound her future emerges. But things aren’t always as they seem. Can they navigate the treacherous terrain of love and loyalty and liberate themselves from the iron grip of the past?

Written by:

Western Historical Romance Author

4.3/5

4.3/5 (98 ratings)

Prologue

Golden Oak, Colorado

1864

 

“Whoa, Apple. That’s a girl.”

The clomping footfalls of Ida’s mare slowed to a stop, and she reached a hand around to give the horse’s pure white hair a soothing stroke. Ida slipped from the saddle, and made short work of fastening the reins to the post that was fixed between Billy’s General Goods and what had once been Golden Oak’s first and only barber shop.

The war had brought industrialization to Golden Oak, and the barber shop had been sold and was in the process of being torn down. The parcel of land the shop sat on was large enough that some bigwigs from the city had insisted on snatching it up.

Ida’s heart broke to see the familiar building being taken apart piece by piece, but she supposed that was just the way of the world lately. Especially the world since the war had started. Nothing would be the same in the country anymore. Her family had come from Mexico to settle there for a reason.

There was opportunity, expansion, and growth. Times were changing, and the only real option was to adapt or be left behind. Still, Ida had been born and raised in Golden Oak, and the changes that had swept over the town affected her deeply.

She felt a knot in her stomach, though it didn’t keep the smell of fresh bread from making her stomach rumble, as she made her way to the post office across the street. Golden Oak had always been a modest town, but bustling and full of kind, community-driven people. They’d always had everything they needed there, no more, no less. If the modern world wanted to come there, Ida was confident that it wouldn’t take away her home’s true charm.

“Miss Black! Pleasure to see you, ma’am,” Grady said, nodding to her from behind the counter. He adjusted a small pair of round spectacles that were sitting on the bridge of his nose. “I’ve got something for you.”

“It’s nice to see you too, Mr. Grady,” Ida replied, conscious of her formal tone. She could get away with being as unladylike as she wanted back home at the ranch, but she tried her best to fit in whenever she rode into town. She got enough funny looks for refusing to sacrifice the slacks she wore for hoop skirts, but there was no way she would be compromised in her ability to handle her horses. They meant everything to her.

Grady slipped a letter across the counter to her. When she saw the post markings, it felt like all the air left the room for a moment. It was from George. George. The man she had promised herself to. The man she was going to marry.

She clutched the letter to her chest and smiled brightly at Grady. “Thank you. You take care now.”

“Likewise, ma’am,” Grady said with a cheerful grin.

It took everything she had not to run out the door so she could devour George’s words. Ida had been waiting for months and months to hear from him, to get news about the war, about how he and River were doing. Questions had been piling in her mind and now, finally, they would be answered, and she might get a tender word from her beloved.

Ida tucked the letter securely into her saddlebag and mounted her horse. She gripped the reins tightly all the way home, encouraging Apple to go from a steady trot to an outright run. Normally she would have taken her time on the long journey home, she loved being out with Apple.

But today, she couldn’t wait to shut herself in her bedroom and pour over George’s words. It had taken far too long to hear from him and now that it was finally happening, her entire body seemed to be filled with a frantic, eager feeling that wouldn’t go away until she had opened that letter.

After what felt like an eternity, Ida found herself sitting at the small rolltop desk in her room, holding the letter with trembling hands. She hungrily read the letter, but her elation quickly turned to tears.

 

Ida,

I’m sorry it’s taken so long to write. Times out here have been hard, for more than one reason. I hope you’ve been well and that you aren’t too overwhelmed by things at the ranch. I wish every day I could be there helping you again like I did when we were kids. I guess I never really saw myself fighting in a war, or being anywhere so far from home.

I know you are probably eager to hear how we’re doing, but Ida, I’ve got some really bad news. River passed away last night. I can hardly even believe it as I write this. The words feel hollow and fake, but you have been the only thought in my mind since it happened.

He’d been injured in battle the day before, but he was optimistic about his injuries and asked me not to write you about any of it. He thought he would be able to do it himself, but his wounds were worse than either of us realized.

Writing was out of the question, and I was forced to go out on a mission, so I wasn’t there when he passed. But he told me many times that if anything happened to him, he wanted me to tell you how much he loves you, even though you already know that. I’m so sorry I have to be the one to give you this awful news, but I thought it would be better to hear it from me than from a stranger.

Our company is honoring him well, and we all consider him one of our bravest. I know you would be proud of him, the way he fought. You know how passionate he was about doing the right thing. He may have been slain, but he fought hard against the rebels and died in an honorable way.

The arrangements are being made so you won’t have to worry about any of that. I will be sure to say a prayer over him on your behalf. Just try to take good care of yourself and know that your big brother will always be watching over you from heaven.

All my love,

George

 

Ida read the letter over and over again, her mind refusing to believe the truth of the words that she was reading. Her older brother was gone? There was no way. He had been everything to her. After their parents had been killed in a barn fire, River had taken her under his wing. He was only two years older than Ida, but he’d stepped up to take care of her like a full-grown man.

Things had been rough, but they had both been raised on the ranch and had a good idea of what needed to be done to keep the place running. River had been in line to inherit the property anyway, so their father had been teaching him meticulously since they’d been very small.

When they’d been left on their own, River hadn’t seemed to grieve for long at all before hopping into action. He’d had the burnt down barn torn the rest of the way down and rallied people from town to help him build a new one. Their parents had risked and lost their lives to rescue most of the animals and try to extinguish the flames, so the new barn stood like a glaring reminder of how everything in life could change in an instant.

But why River? Why her strong, gentle brother? The man who had once promised he was invincible and wouldn’t leave her until they were both old and gray. The man who, as a boy, had taken her with him on hundreds of adventures, using his powerful creative mind to make an ordinary world seem magical? Even after their parents had died, his sense of humor had been there like a blanket, on nights that might have been impossible to survive otherwise.

How was it possible that he was gone?

The idea of never seeing him again was just too much. Grief tore at her chest and, with tears streaming down her face, Ida wandered aimlessly throughout the house, having no idea what to do with the heaviness of her feelings. Alone. She was truly alone now.

“Ida?”

Ida found herself snapped out of her state and her focus fixed on Winona, the farm hand she had hired once the men had gone off to war. She was a lovely, strong-willed Native American woman of the Dakota tribe. She and Ida had that strength in common, though Ida’s descendants were Mexican, not Native American. Still, she had recognized her as a kindred soul almost immediately, and when she heard about how Winona’s entire family had been lost to the war, it hadn’t been a difficult decision to give her a place on the ranch. And she was certainly glad she had.

Winona’s gentle brown eyes were fixed upon her and full of concern. “Ida? Are you alright?”

Ida tried to reply, but couldn’t find the words. A sob wracked her chest and Winona took a step toward her. “Did something happen…?”

The gentle brown eyes fixed on the letter that Ida was holding clutched to her chest and a look of understanding flashed across her features. “River?”

Another deep sob escaped Ida and she nodded, offering the letter to Winona. She didn’t know how to say that River was gone. Not yet.

Winona took the letter gingerly from Ida’s hand and she scanned its contents before giving a slight nod. Instead of speaking again, she stepped toward Ida and scooped her into her arms for a tight hug. Ida let herself unravel in the safe space of the Dakota woman’s embrace. “I’m so sorry, tanka. I know he was special to you.”

Winona’s words made Ida’s heart lurch. Tanka meant “younger sister,” which was a term of endearment that she’d bestowed upon Ida, who was younger than she was by about a decade. Usually she loved to hear it, but in this context it only hurt more. She was River’s younger sister. River who was gone now. River who had been extremely special to her. The last of her family. Her anchor in a vast, lonely world.

“I can’t believe he’s really gone,” Ida whispered into Winona’s shoulder. “I’ll never see or speak with him again. This can’t be real.”

“No, no,” Winona said, her voice as comforting as it could possibly be under the circumstances. “He’s not gone. Not really. He’s up in the sky with the Star People now.”

Ida’s deep grief was put on pause for a moment as she tried to understand what Winona meant. “Star People?”

“Yes. My people believe that death is not the ending of a life, but a shift. A change. When we die, we don’t just disappear, but we become something even greater. Our spirits will live forever, Ida, and it is in the stars, in the form of those bright pinpricks of light, our ancestors and loved ones dwell. I believe even you, and I, and River, will become Star People, and watch over the ones we love. We may leave our earthly bodies, but our spirits will help to guide them toward the everlasting light.”

Winona’s words calmed Ida’s tears, and the woman led Ida to the table and sat her down. “Now. I know you had a long ride to town and back, so I’m going to make us some supper. I want you to eat every bite even if you don’t feel like it, okay?”

Ida nodded numbly, her eyes fixed on the letter that was now beginning to look worn and crumpled in Winona’s hands.

Winona seemed to sense Ida’s attention and sat the letter back down on the table. Ida wanted to read it again, but she couldn’t bring herself to look at the words. Instead, she listened as Winona sang a soft, gentle melody full of words that she couldn’t understand. Soon the scent of a delicious stew wafted in the air. Ida’s stomach growled again, just as it had when she’d smelled the bread up in Golden Oak, but this time, she had no desire to fill her stomach. All she had was sorrow.

But Winona was well-versed in the ways of grief and sat a bowl of the stew down in front of her anyway. “Eat now, tanka. You will need your strength.”

Ida nodded, and forced the meal down. She was quiet as Winona filled the silence with more stories about her people and the family she had lost. Ida tried to focus and listen, but all she could do was turn her mind back to her brother. To the last time she had ever seen him. Would it be the last time she would ever see George, too?

“It’s getting late,” Winona said, standing up to clear the table. “I’m going to take care of the dishes now. You should try and get some rest.”

Ida nodded. “Soon,” she murmured. “I’m going to check the horses.”

Winona smiled at her and disappeared with the dishes. Ida stood, stretched, and walked outside, taking a deep breath of the ranch’s sweet night air. She did her nightly rounds; cooing to each horse and petting them, checking on their food, water, and bedding, then returned to the porch. She sat on the steps instead of going inside, feeling a little bit like if she went in too soon, she might suffocate.

Her eyes wandered to the stars, and she tried to imagine which one might be River. Was he looking down upon her right now? What must he think of her, having such an emotional tantrum over his death? Maybe he would understand. But most likely, he would tease her for it and try to remind her in his way that she just had to keep going. No matter what.

“If you’re up there, River, please… please stay with George. Bring him home to me. I can’t do this alone. I really don’t think I could handle losing both of you.”

Her eyes glittered with tears, as she thought once again about the last time she had seen George and River, just before they had headed off to war. River and George had been best friends ever since the day when, at sixteen-years-old, George had shown up seeking work and River had hired him. They’d made fast friends, and although Ida wasn’t sure about him at first, over time she’d seen that there was no one out there quite like that man.

She had spent countless nights daydreaming about a future where she and George were together, married and with several children. It would be a perfect life, raising their children on the ranch and being with a man like George. Handsome, brave, strong, and caring. She wanted nothing more, and she suspected that he’d developed similar feelings for her.

But he had always been a gentleman, and maybe it had intimidated him to feel those things for her. They were all friends, but who could say how River might react to someone he had hired showing an interest in his baby sister? George could have lost his job, and Ida could have lost George in the process. Neither of them had ever pushed it, but there was unspoken tension there. Sometimes she wondered if she was crazy for believing in it, but most of the time it felt as sure as the sun in the sky.

The war had been the talk of the town, and George had been characteristically quiet about his thoughts on it all, until one day when he came looking for River. River wasn’t home yet, so Ida had offered him a drink. They took their iced tea out to the porch and sat together on the big, sturdy swing her father had built.

“I’m enlisting, Ida,” he said suddenly, turning those heavenly eyes upon her and gripping her with his serious expression. His handsome face was clouded over, and he sat his tea down, turning his body to face her. “But before I do, there’s something that I have to do.”

Ida had furrowed her brow, wondering what on earth he might be talking about. Sensing the gravity of the situation, she followed suit and sat her tea down as well, shifting to look him in the eye, even though every time she did it made her stomach dip in the most peculiar way.

“Is it something I can help you out with, George? You know I’d do anything. You’re practically family,” Ida said, lacing her fingers together and setting her hands in her lap. He seemed so serious all of a sudden, it was almost making her uneasy.

To her relief, George uttered a wry chuckle, and she watched the way his face transformed from dark and pensive to a dimple-creased lightness. “I suppose you could say that,” he said, reaching out to place his hand over her wrists. She couldn’t help but elicit a soft gasp of surprise as a surge of electricity seemed to travel from his fingertips straight to her spine. When he began to lean toward her, she thought that she was dreaming.

His lips were against hers, gentle, sweet, full of a tenderness and a longing that had been between them with no words or expression since they had been teenagers. She let her eyes flutter closed and returned the kiss, feeling as if it were the most natural and yet the most earth-shattering thing that had ever happened to her.

“I just knew that I couldn’t leave without doing that,” he murmured once he had broken the kiss. It took a moment for Ida to recover, and when she did, she looked up at George with glassy eyes. She knew what he was saying. He didn’t know whether or not he would ever get another chance, because he was making a terrible, dangerous decision. A decision that could take him from her for the rest of her life.

But she didn’t want to think about it that way. Instead she offered George a bright smile, shifting her hands from under his so that she was holding his one large hand in her two smaller ones. “A girl could get used to that,” she said with a soft laugh. “It’s a shame you’re planning on leaving, now that I’m going to know just what I’ve been missing.”

George chuckled, using his free hand to run his fingers through his sandy brown hair. “I’m sorry that it took me so long.”

Ida smiled and shook her head. “No, don’t be sorry. It was just right.”

They heard the sudden sound of the door to the back porch slamming shut, signifying that River was home and had come in from the other side of the house. Her instinct was to jump away from George as if they were doing something wrong, but instead she stayed still for a moment, just enjoying his nearness. Finally she pulled her hands away and stood, leaning down to kiss George on the cheek and collect their glasses.

“River is home. He’s going to be glad to hear about your decision. You know how passionate he is about all of this war nonsense.”

“It’s not nonsense, Ida,” George said, standing up beside her. “I’ll just go find him now.”

Ida nodded, her eyes following George as he disappeared into the house. She took in a deep breath before following, her mind busy with the implications of everything that had just happened.

A month later, she stood on the same porch, watching George and River talking like two men in on a conspiracy. Both of them were dressed to the nines in their uniforms, each with suitcases at their feet. The heaviness in her chest wouldn’t go anywhere. She was going to be left alone on the ranch for who knew how long.

Ida didn’t know what she would be doing now that the ranch was losing its two most steadfast and strong workers. She was capable, but she already did a fair share of work and couldn’t reasonably replace to men and do her own work at the same time. She would have to hire some help or things were going to get ugly.

“Why the long face?” River called to Ida, his voice light and teasing. “Are you sad that you’ll have to muck the barns by yourself for a while?”

Ida laughed, surprised by how close to her thoughts River’s words were. “I wouldn’t have to if you two would just stay here with me.”

“You know how important this is, Ida,” River said, his dark eyes intense upon her. She found it remarkable just how like their father he looked. Their proud Spanish heritage was worn well by her handsome brother. “We’re doing this for the greater good. You just have to keep the place from falling apart too much until we get back.”

His words brought a knot to her stomach, but she didn’t want to think too much about that. Instead she forced a bright smile. “I think I can manage things for a couple of months,” she replied. “Give me more credit than that.”

River laughed heartily. “If there’s one thing about you, my sister, it’s that you are stubborn. But it’s not always terrible because it also means you’re a very good worker.”

Ida scoffed as River and George both laughed. She caught George’s eye and swallowed, cracking a smile but not quite knowing what to do with herself.

“I’m going to take these to the carriage,” River said, eyeing the look between the two and lifting the two suitcases. It was obvious he wanted to give them a moment alone, which only seemed to embarrass Ida more.

“Okay, thanks River,” George said, clapping his best friend on the shoulder. He hesitated until River was moving to step onto the porch with Ida, whose mind was racing a mile per minute. She seemed to get a grip on herself pretty quickly though, which was a relief. She didn’t want George to think she was weak. He was used to seeing her being independent and fierce throughout their time on the ranch, so she wasn’t going to stop that now that they were about to part ways for a while. In fact…

“You know, I always thought I would end up marrying you,” she said, trying to keep her tone as casual as possible. She noted the way George’s eyes snapped to her face, but she didn’t let it deter her. She didn’t want to see him leave without getting everything off her chest. “I know you kissed me before you enlisted and everything, but we never really talked about it. So I want to talk about it.”

George glanced in the direction where River had disappeared, then to Ida. He didn’t have to say it out loud for her to understand that he was being conscious of how much time they had left to speak privately.

“Okay,” he said softly.

“You know you feel like family to me already,” she continued. “I’d like for that to be official one day.”

“You want to marry me?” George asked, his voice low and his different colored eyes fixed upon Ida intently. It made her heart tremor with a combination of many different feelings, but she held her ground and nodded.

“I do, George. I want to marry you.”

“I…”

George couldn’t seem to find the words, but he gave a single, resolute nod and then reached out, gripping Ida by the waist. His strong arms pulled her close, so close that she could smell his musky aftershave. She braced herself against his chest as he pressed a sizzling but tender kiss against her lips. They stayed that way for several long, blissful moments before he pulled away and smiled just as River reappeared from around the house.

“That should be everything,” he said, pausing at the porch steps. “Come down and give your big brother a hug before we leave.”

Ida nodded and raced down the steps, throwing her arms around River, and squeezing him tightly. He hugged her back just as tightly, both of them seeming to be aware of the possibility of a worst-case scenario. Tears were welling in both their eyes as River pulled away, clearing his throat. “Take care of this place for me, Ida. It means everything.” He offered her a watery smile before turning around and beginning to walk away. “I love you.”

“I love you too, River,” she managed. George began walking down the porch steps, following River’s lead. Ida pressed a hand to his shoulder, making him pause beside her.

“I’ll wait for you,” she murmured.

George cleared his throat and nodded, then followed River off to war. A war that River would never return from.

Ida looked up at the stars one last time, pleadingly. “Bring him home to me, River,” she whispered again. Finally, she went inside, resigned to spending a long, sleepless night in bed.

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    • I’m so happy that you’re already hooked, Kathy! Can’t wait to hear your overall opinion once you’ve finished it. Happy reading!🙏🤠

    • I’m thrilled to hear you’re already hooked my dear Cecelia! I can’t wait to hear your overall opinion once you’ve finished the story of Ida and George. Happy reading!❤️

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