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An Unwanted Bride for the Isolated Mountain Man

He’s the reserved rancher drawn into unexpected duty.

I am the bride ship passenger with no other options.

Even though his eyes are cold when I ask him to marry me, I can’t back down… I’ve got no other options.

Lucas, a man of few words, stands by his heartbroken best friend as he seeks a bride through the bride ship program. But when his friend changes his mind, Lucas is faced with a bride in need of a groom. Now, he must make a choice that will change his life forever…

Emma, seeking a fresh start amid the economic turmoil, joins a bride ship. Marrying the first man she meets seems like her last option. But fate has other plans when she finds herself abandoned and in desperate need of a husband. With nowhere else to turn, Emma’s journey leads her to Lucas’s doorstep…

In the heart of the Sheep Wars Lucas and Emma’s paths cross in the most unexpected of ways. Forced into a marriage of convenience, they discover that their makeshift union might be the key to survival—and perhaps even true love…

 

In Sheep Wars’ midst, their fates align,

A bride ship’s hope, a love divine.

Lucas’s choice, Emma’s plea,

Together they find what was meant to be.

Written by:

Western Historical Romance Author

Prologue

Laurelwood, Southeast Virginia, December, 1879

 

The mournful wail of the whistle echoed across the small platform as the locomotive began to hiss like an angry cat. Plumes of white smoke rose into the air and the platform trembled as the wheels began to turn, their iron spokes catching the last rays of the day. With a low groan, the train inched forward and as it did, the knots in Emma’s stomach tightened uncomfortably.

“Goodbye, Emma!” Beth Hockley called, hanging out of the carriage window. “I’ll miss you!”

Emma blinked back tears, not wanting her little sister to see her cry. She did her best to smile encouragingly as she waved her arm. Emma had been eight when Beth was born, and they had not spent a single night away from each other in almost eighteen years.

“Goodbye, Beth!” Emma cried, her throat raw with emotion. “Look after yourself.”

The sound of the train’s engine grew louder as the pistons pumped, steam hissed, and the whistle shrilled again. The train gathered speed and Emma’s heart ached with longing as it began to move away, taking the last of her family and a piece of her heart with it.

Emma held Beth’s gaze for as long as she could. She wanted to remember her sister just like this: her thin face flushed with anticipation and her blue eyes wide with excitement.

Emma watched until the last car was swallowed up by the horizon, then she turned away, unable to stop the tears from rolling down her cheeks.

“Don’t worry, Miss,” a young train porter said, smiling at her sympathetically. “You’ll see her again, I’m sure.”

Emma said nothing as she reached into her pocket and removed a small, white handkerchief. She dabbed her cheeks as she tried to swallow the lump in her throat.

Tucking the handkerchief back into her pocket, Emma turned to go.

It was late afternoon now, but she had no money for a carriage, so she would have to walk the three miles back to the ranch.

As she crossed the street, a group of women turned to stare at her. Emma glanced down at her plain brown wool dress that was faded and worn from being washed too often. The hem above her scuffed boots was frayed and torn in places. She knew how she must look, but there was barely enough money for food, let alone dresses.

While most girls would have bowed their heads in embarrassment, at this stage, Emma couldn’t be bothered. There was no point pretending to be something she wasn’t. So, she walked past the group of women with her held high and her nose in the air. Like her mother used to say, it’s the soul inside them boots that matters most, not the shine on them.

Emma walked up the street as an icy wind blew through the wooden buildings, and she pulled her shawl tightly around her shoulders.

She’d lived in Laurelwood all her life. It was a small town in southeast Virginia, and she’d had fond memories of the place when she was a child, but things had changed in recent years. The Civil War had seen to that.

Though only eleven years old when the war began, Emma could still remember the town as it had been. Now, as she walked up the street it looked as if the skin had been peeled away, revealing its skeleton.

The main street buildings that once stood proudly carried the marks of time and hardship. Their facades, weathered and worn, sagged under the weight of history. Boarded-up windows and crumbling brickwork told the stories of lost businesses and shattered dreams.

Fifteen years had passed since Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered his troops to Union General, yet Laurelwood still bore the scars.

During the war, their town had been occupied by both Union and Confederate forces. Raids by opposing forces to confiscate supplies, disrupt transportation networks, and undermine enemy morale were common in the region. These raids devastated their local economy and infrastructure.

They were, of course, not alone. Southeast Virginia had been close to several key battlegrounds of the Civil War, including the Peninsula Campaign and the Siege of Petersburg. As a result, the region experienced substantial military activity, including battles, troop movements, and occupation by forces. This caused widespread destruction of property, infrastructure, and livelihoods.

As Emma walked, her thin-soled boots echoed against the uneven cobblestones. A sudden movement made her turn her head, and she saw a sandy-colored dog sniffing at the ground, its ribs visible beneath patchy fur as it scavenged for scraps

A short while later, she passed the general store, its paint faded, the windows grimy with neglect. She glanced inside at the weathered, old shopkeeper rearranging the items in the window. He returned her look with tired eyes.

As the town disappeared behind her, Emma could not help but feel the weight of the past pressing down upon her. Each step seemed to carry her further into heartache and despair.

Would she ever be able to escape this place? Or, like the town, would she crumble and sag, and waste away into nothing but a distant memory?

She made her way down the long, winding path towards home. The road was rocky and uneven, parts of it still icy from the recent snow. Emma kept her head down, but it did not stop her brown eyes watering from the cold.

By the time she arrived at the ranch gate, she was stiff, her lips were chapped, and the tip of her nose pink.

She trudged up towards the house, hesitating momentarily as she reached the top of the rise in the road. Nestled in the valley below was her home, yet over the past six years, it had felt less like a home and more like a place she hardly recognized.

Even from where she stood, one could see the peeling paint and bowing porch, the way the house seemed to hunch against the weight of its own decay, an unwilling victim to the ravages of nature. Broken shutters hung askew, and the roof had more shingles missing than attached. The yard was overgrown, weeds sprouting through the cracks in the weathered floorboards of the front porch as if they were determined to reclaim the house inch by inch.

It hadn’t always looked this way, but like the town, the war had changed things. Death had changed things.

Emma sighed softly to herself as she clutched her shawl around her body again, folding her arms around her waist. She walked down the road to the house. As she approached, a small gray cat with yellow eyes came running from the house and circled around Emma’s skirt, purring for attention.

“Hello, Ash,” Emma said, leaning down to scratch the cat behind the ears. “Did you miss me?”

The cat purred in reply as Emma picked her up and carried her around the side of the house. She tucked Ash under her left arm as she reached for the doorknob and pulled open the backdoor, its swollen wood groaning in protest.

Ash jumped out of her arms and onto the floor of the kitchen as Emma stepped inside. She removed her shawl and hung it on the hook behind the door before walking over to the fire. Pulling open the stove door, she then reached for the coal bucket.

After adding more coal to the fire, Emma stoked it with a pair of metal tongs. She closed the stove door again and walked across the room to fetch a chair. She dragged it across the stone, its wooden legs scraping against the floor, and sat down in front of the stove to warm her cold hands.

A moment later, Ash jumped into her lap, kneading her skirts before settling down to sleep.

As the world grew darker outside, Emma absentmindedly stroked the pet, her mind drifting back to the day Beth, her younger sister, had come home with the cat.

“Really, Beth,” Emma had chastised. “As if we need another mouth to feed.”

“We won’t have to feed her,” Beth promised. “She can catch mice and rats.”

In the end, Beth had been right. Ash was entirely capable of feeding herself, and she’d grown plump on the many mice and rats she’d caught in and around the house.

Emma sighed again as her feet prickled uncomfortably, finally beginning to thaw from the long walk from the train station. She was glad to have Ash now that everyone else was gone.

Turning, she glanced over at the rectangular table in the corner of the room. It was a large table made of pine, with enough chairs to seat seven people.

If Emma closed her eyes, she could still remember them all sitting there. She could hear the chatter and laughter, the clinking of forks and knives, the smell of her mother’s beef stew filling the warm room, and the twinkle in her father’s brown eyes, reflecting the glow of the paraffin lamp.

They’d been such simple times, but the family had been together and happy. It seemed like a lifetime ago now.

Emma turned back to the fire, the kitchen feeling emptier and lonelier than ever.

Six years had passed since her family had sat together around the table, six years since their parents had passed away unexpectedly, leaving them with nothing but a failing ranch and crippling debt.

At one point, Emma had genuinely believed they could make it work despite everything; if they all just stuck together, they could hold the place together and weather the storm. But she’d been wrong.

Martha, the eldest of the Hockley children, married a traveling salesman a few months after their parents died and left town that night with only a note to explain her sudden disappearance.

The next to go was Harry, the middle child. He got a job driving cattle and was happy, for the most part, though Emma hadn’t seen him for almost four years now.

Thomas, the second eldest, struggled with grief over their parents’ death, turning to drinking and gambling. He’d sold almost everything that wasn’t nailed to the floor to fund his addictions.

In many ways, Emma had been relieved when Thomas didn’t come home one day. She had worried, of course, that something might have happened to him, but he’d written a few months after he disappeared. In his letter, he’d promised not to come home until he was better, until he had conquered his demons. That was three years ago.

After Thomas left, it had just been Emma and Beth, the two youngest of the Hockley brood. They’d done their best to keep things going, although they were surviving and not living.

Then, a few weeks ago, an unexpected letter had come from a second cousin of their mother’s, inviting Beth to come and live with her in New York City.

Beth hadn’t wanted to leave Emma behind, but she knew it was too good an opportunity to miss. Beth would get a good home, an education. As the late lamb of the family, Beth had lived most of her life in hardship, not remembering a time before the war. Emma knew this was her chance for a better life, a better future.

They’d all left, and now only Emma remained in the house that was no longer a home. Just a place full of ghosts and memories.

She sat in her chair until the kitchen grew dark, then she got up and lit the small paraffin lamp, illuminating the room with a dim glow. She then heated some soup and carried it carefully over to the table, but as she sat down, she realized she wasn’t hungry. Emma sat back in her chair, looking at each empty seat, before sighing heavily.

In the middle of the table was the most recent newspaper Beth had scavenged from the street the day before. Emma reached for it, eager to distract herself. She paged through the paper, squinting at it in the dim light.

As she turned to the classified section, a half-page advertisement caught her eye. She leaned forward in her seat as she read.

 

Attention Single Women

 

Are you seeking adventure, love, and a fresh start in the vast expanse of the West? Look no further. The opportunity of a lifetime awaits you aboard the bride ship bound for Cedar Ridge, Texas, this Spring.

 

Join us as we embark on a voyage to the rugged frontier of the Lone Star State. Leave behind the familiar confines of the East and embrace the promise of the untamed West. In Cedar Ridge, opportunities abound for hardworking women like yourself to carve out a new life and find true love.

 

Imagine the excitement of stepping off the gangplank onto the bustling docks of Cedar Ridge, greeted by the warm Texas sun and the welcoming smiles of your future neighbors. With its sprawling ranches, fertile farmland, and vibrant community spirit, Cedar Ridge offers endless possibilities for a fresh start.

 

But that’s not all! As a passenger aboard our bride ship, you’ll enjoy comfortable accommodations, delicious meals, and the camaraderie of fellow travelers embarking on the same journey of hope and opportunity.

 

Don’t let this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity pass you by. Take the first step toward your future: come aboard the bride ship bound for Cedar Ridge, Texas. Your new life starts here!

 

For more information and to reserve your spot, write to us today. Spaces are limited and the deadline for reservations is January 31, 1880. Don’t delay — Your future awaits in Cedar Ridge.

 

Emma sat back as she stared at the advertisement, her mind racing.

She had heard of bride ships before, but never seen one advertised around her hometown. Westward expeditions like the California Gold Rush meant that there ended up being a scarcity of women in many frontier communities. Bride ships carried eligible women to these settlements so the influx of men would have the opportunity to marry and start families.

Was it possible for her to journey on a bride ship and start a new life out west?

She’d never thought about such an endeavor for herself, but now that the last of her siblings was gone, Emma was alone. No man in Laurelwood interested her; most were already husbands and fathers. She couldn’t keep up the house and land all by herself and she had long dreamed of seeing more of the world.

Emma stared at the advertisement, and she could not help but feel, as apprehensive as she was, that maybe she’d come across it for a reason.

A nightjar clapped its wings together outside the window, and Emma jumped, startled by the sudden noise.

“Jumpin’ Jehoshaphat!” Emma cried.

Ash shot across the room and leapt onto the windowsill, her bright yellow eye reflecting in the glass as she stared outside into the darkness.

Emma turned away from the window, stifling a yawn. It had been a long, emotional day.

“Come on, Ash,” she said, tucking the newspaper under her arm. “Let’s go to bed.”

After carrying her bowl to the sink, she walked across the kitchen. When Emma reached the doorway, she glanced over her shoulder, but Ash was still sitting on the windowsill, tail swishing back and forth.

Emma walked down the hallway to her bedroom, leaving the door slightly ajar for Ash. She got undressed, shivering in the cold night air. After pulling her nightgown over her head, she jumped into bed.

She rolled over, stretching her arm out over the mattress where Beth used to sleep. Emma would always complain about her little sister putting her cold feet on her, but now she missed those cold little feet.

Laying on her back, she stared up at the ceiling, which was covered in patches of black and gray mold.

Emma wished sleep would come, but it wouldn’t. The house was too quiet with Beth gone. Emma sighed, rolling onto her side again as she stared at the empty space beside her.

Eventually, she got out of bed and padded across the cold floor to the window. Emma stood, staring out at the moonlight. After a few moments, she turned away from the window and caught sight of the newspaper on the small wooden dresser.

It was a crazy idea to travel across the sea to marry a stranger, but the more Emma thought about it, the more appealing the notion became. For the past few years, she had been so determined to make something of her life, and yet what did she have to show for it?

The ranch was failing, her family was gone, and she was all alone with no prospects. There was a time when she hoped she might meet a man and fall in love, but it had never happened. And she was turning twenty-seven that year!

Perhaps this might be the opportunity she needed to turn her life around. A real adventure. Emma let her excitement overpower the bells in her head that warned about the dangers of a woman traveling alone.

Chapter One

Laurelwood, Southeast Virginia, March 1880

 

Emma’s chest tightened as she looked around the small, cramped room that had been her home for so long. She would miss the place, though it was so empty now.

Despite her nervousness about the next step, she could not ignore the pulse of excitement that raced through her veins.

This was it, the day she’d been waiting for.

With her suitcase open on the bed, Emma carefully gathered up her meager possessions – a few worn dresses neatly folded and stacked atop one another, each bearing the marks of countless mends and repairs.

She wished she were able to afford new things. As she packed, her fingers lingered over the faded fabric, tracing the familiar lines.

Next, Emma packed her two cream chemises, some stockings, socks and a few handkerchiefs. The only shoes she had were old boots whose soles were nearly worn through.

Once she’d packed her clothes, she turned her attention to the small wooden box that served as her only storage. It was a modest thing, worn from years of use, yet it held all that was dear to her – a handful of cherished mementos, a small, dog-eared Bible, and a few treasured keepsakes, her mother’s sewing kit, and her father’s penknife. Things she’d managed to save of theirs that were not worth much to anyone else.

She tucked the wooden box in the corner of her suitcase, using her clothes to protect it.

Emma sat on the bed beside the suitcase for a moment. Ash was curled up asleep on the pillow.

It was hard to believe that the day had finally come.

Two months had passed since Emma made her decision to join the bride ship and they had been some of the most challenging weeks of Emma’s life.

She’d struggled to sell the house—no one wanted it, and she couldn’t blame them. The buildings were dilapidated and falling down, and the land had gone unworked for so many years that it had become overgrown with weeds and shrubs.

At one point, Emma gave up on the idea of going because if she couldn’t raise the money by selling the ranch, there was no way she could afford passage on the ship. Then, by some small miracle, a neighboring rancher had offered to buy the place.

He did not plan on using the house but rather tearing it down and turning the whole area to pasture. Emma had struggled with this idea at first, hating to imagine the place just being gone, erased, as if never there. Yet, she knew that part of her had already said goodbye to her childhood home. Now that everyone was gone, it just wasn’t welcoming anymore.

So, she’d sold the property, for much less than Emma had hoped but it had been enough to secure her passage and have some left over.

The rancher had also agreed to look after Ash for her, which was a great weight off Emma’s mind. She hated the idea of just leaving the cat all alone to fend for himself.

A light tapping at the window caught Emma’s attention and she turned to see a mockingbird on the outside sill. He stared at his reflection, fluffing out his feathers and parting his feet before he continued tapping furiously at the glass.

Emma looked over at Ash again, who opened one yellow eye, then closed it again. Well, it didn’t appear the cat would get up and chase the bird away.

After a few moments, Emma got up from the bed, and closed the lid of the suitcase with a sense of finality, the weight of her decision settling upon her shoulders. Yet what life would she have if she stayed here? There was nothing left for her now.

She walked over to the small bedside table and pulled open the drawer. Inside was a stack of letters from Samuel Thompson, the man that she’d been corresponding with since her decision to join the bride ship.

Samuel was a rancher in Cedar Ridge, and from what she had learned, he was a kind man who wished for a wife and family. He went to church, and did not drink in excess or gamble. She had enjoyed getting to know him and was excited to meet him in person.

In his letters, Samuel had also written of companionship and friendship. His words were full of warmth and sincerity. Yet there was something about the tone in which he wrote that made her believe he was sad.

It was this unexplained, unvoiced sadness, that had made her feel more connected to him. She’d known sadness too, so perhaps they could find happiness as they built a life together.

She carried the stack of letters over to the suitcase and placed them down on top of her clothes before closing the lid again.

Emma looked around the room. There was nothing left to pack. She walked over to where Ash was sleeping and sat down beside the cat.

“Well,” she said, a lump rising in her throat. “I’m leaving, Ash.”

The cat looked up at her, blinking yellow eyes.

“I’m sorry I can’t take you with me,” she said.

Reaching over, Emma stroked Ash’s head as the cat purred happily, closing her eyes again. Then she got up from the bed and fetched her suitcase.

In the quiet stillness of the room, she took one last look around. With a deep breath, she turned towards the door and left.

Emma walked down the narrow hallway with her suitcase clutched in her right hand. She pulled open the front door and stepped onto the porch. When she turned to close the front door behind her, the latches on her suitcase sprung open and the contents spilled out across the porch.

“Oh, fiddlesticks!” Emma grumbled.

She sighed as she knelt down on the spongy wooden floorboard and began to collect her things, which were now covered in dust and grime. All her careful packing gone to waste.

Emma worked quickly to shove everything back inside. She’d taken too long packing the first time and was already running late.

Just then, she caught sight of something glinting under the floorboards. It was her father’s pocketknife, which must have slipped through one of the gaps in the wood.

“Well, ain’t that a pickle,” she said, frowning.

Emma did not want to be late for her carriage, but she couldn’t leave it behind. So, she got up and left the porch. The grass was soft beneath her boots as she knelt down and crawled under the porch on her hands and knees.

A minute or so later, she emerged from under the porch with the penknife. She looked down at her hands, which were now caked in mud. The skirt of her dress was also filthy, but there was no time to change.

Emma grabbed her suitcase and hurried down the road. She was in such a hurry now that she realized she didn’t stop to say goodbye. So, she turned and looked at the house one last time.

In truth, she was not sad to leave the place behind her; she might have been once, but now she was more relieved than anything. For so long, she’d held onto some hope that one day she and her siblings would all be reunited again, that they’d sit together around the table and talk about old times. But holding onto that hope hurt, so Emma was grateful to be able to let it go.

She turned away from the house and raced down the road into town, almost twisting her ankle on a rock as she went. By the time she got into town, Emma was flushed and out of breath, beads of perspiration clinging to her forehead.

Emma had agreed to meet the driver on the road opposite the train station. He would take her to the port city of Norfolk which was just shy of forty miles from Laurelwood. If the trip was smooth, she’d be in Norfolk by the afternoon.

The carriage driver was a tall man with a long, thin face under a tweed flat cap over his dark hair. He wore a gray button-up shirt made of wool and a pair of black wool trousers. Over his shirt, he wore a thick wool coat in a slightly darker gray.

“Howdy,” Emma said. “I’m Emma Hockley.”

“You’re late,” he grumbled.

“I ran into a bit of bother,” Emma confessed. “Just as I was leaving the house my suitcase sprung open and my daddy’s pen knife fell down under the porch and well, I couldn’t leave it behind…”

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