The fire danced before her, entrancing Anna.
At last, the long and cold winter was coming to a close. She could smell Spring in the air. Already the sun was beginning to shine a little brighter and a little warmer.
And yet, it would be different from any other year, without her mother around.
Their last autumn as a family had been difficult. Her mother had fallen ill and passed away. It had all happened so quickly that Anna still didn’t feel that she’d had a proper chance to say goodbye.
At seventeen, Anna wasn’t ready to be without her mother.
She looked over to find her father beside the fire. He wore his fur hat pulled down to his bushy eyebrows and beckoned to her. She swallowed, walking over to join him with the supplies she had pulled from their saddlebags.
“Here,” she murmured.
The man nodded his thanks before turning back to cook the hare he had caught just a short while before. She had set the trap, but it had malfunctioned. Her father had ended up pulling out his gun and shooting it so they would have something to eat for the evening.
Now, they sat side-by-side quietly.
She could tell that he wanted to say something.
At six-foot-four-inches, Samuel Ackerson made for an intimidating man who could never hide a secret. His black hair and thick handlebar mustache made him look older than his late thirties, but she supposed he wanted that to happen.
He was the sheriff for their town, and he didn’t want to ever get caught appearing weak.
“Aren’t you hungry?”
Shrugging, Anna turned to give him a tight smile. “Not really. But I suppose I can eat.”
The two of them were headed back to their hometown of Cripple Creek, Colorado, and would arrive in the morning.
Since her mother’s passing, her father kept her by his side. He said it was to keep her safe, and for her to learn valuable skills.
This was something that he had always believed, of course. She remembered being a child and learning how to hunt and track sign in a way that not even the boys her age knew how to do.
“What are you thinking about?” her father asked after a minute of silence.
Hesitant to mention her mother, Anna diverted her thoughts and answered, “I’m just thinking about Uncle Rich.”
He shifted and shook his head. “He’ll come around,” her father said. “Don’t worry.”
She turned to look at him thoughtfully. Though everyone still saw her as a child, she wasn’t a fool. Anna saw the looks that people sent her way when they thought they knew best.
And they worried still with her father taking her everywhere. No one seemed to think that she was safe or happy.
Especially her uncle, Richard Till.
He was her mother’s older brother and owned the large house beside them. Uncle Rich had wanted her to move in with him after her mother’s passing, but her father said that wouldn’t happen.
It was a complicated relationship between her father and her uncle, but she hoped that eventually they would find peace. Everyone had to learn to live with grief one way or another.
She knew her uncle would be furious about her being out there. Their day of work in rounding up the bandits had been hard. But she had been kept away from the fight, and she had learned more about the local fauna.
It was an unorthodox way of living, but she enjoyed learning and spending time with her father.
“It smells good,” she said as she forced herself to focus. “Is this a celebration meal?”
He chuckled. “I don’t know about that. You don’t want me getting prideful now, do you? Too much celebrating might go to my head.”
“Never,” Anna retorted. “I think you’d give the honor to anyone else if you could.” Then she sighed. “I just wish I could have been there. You know, when you caught Red Barrel? You talk about taking me everywhere. And then you don’t.”
Nodding, he turned to check on their roasting meat. “I know. But you understand why I couldn’t take you, don’t you?”
“To keep me safe, of course.” Anna shrugged.
To her surprise, he tutted. “I did that for you and my deputy, Edgar. He’s young too, and eager. Neither of you was taking into account how dangerous this could be.”
She wrinkled her nose at his explanation even though she knew he had a valid point.
Edgar Jamison was a bright young man who was hardly two years her senior. He wore two large guns strapped to his sides and was ready to show everyone how to use them.
As for herself, her shooting skills were subpar, and she knew how heavily she relied on her father.
Their supper was proof of that.
She nodded and leaned against him. “Thank you,” Anna told him. “For catching the most notorious bandit in Colorado. And for supper.”
Just like she had hoped, that garnered a laugh from her father.
She accepted the food with a grin, and the two of them enjoyed a hearty meal before settling down for the night.
The next morning, Anna opened her eyes, hearing voices.
It was early and they hadn’t been expecting company. She sat up to try and discern who might be out there.
Could it be Edgar?
He had taken the posse with him further ahead to make their way quickly back to town. Red Barrel’s gang had been quickly rounded up by his father and brought back to where she had waited with the others.
“I just think we need to go back.”
Yes, it was Edgar all right. But why?
She hurriedly dressed, craning her neck to hear more of the conversation that was being held in low tones.
Though her father wanted to take her everywhere, he certainly had a way of pointing out that he didn’t actually want her to know everything.
“I mean it,” Edgar said a little louder. He sounded annoyed and even frightened. “I rode all night to get back here, Sheriff. I’m serious. We missed someone; I heard the gang talking. They said there was someone else out there with them.”
She stumbled out of her tent just as her father started to hush his deputy from talking too loudly. “Do you know who the bandit might be?”
Edgar hesitated, looking from her father over to her.
“Oh. I don’t know. No, I just know there’s still someone there. But I’m sure it’ll be alright, young lady,” he added.
She suppressed an eye roll. “Then we have to go back.”
Turning to her father, she watched him mull over the idea. He knew that they couldn’t just walk away and hope nothing more happened.
If there was still someone dangerous out there, then he had to stop them.
“All right then. I’ll go now. Anna, you should go back with Edgar.”
“No.” She stepped forward. “I’m coming with you. I’ll be careful,” she added. “And I won’t get in your way.”
Already he was moving around to close up camp. “Fine. But you’ll do everything I say, understand? We’ll go back and look. If we don’t find anyone, then we turn for home. I want to be there for the prison transfer of Red Barrel and his gang.”
Edgar was given a few more directions before he galloped back to town while Anna helped her father pack up.
Then they were on their way.
They reached the gorge sooner than anticipated. Copying her father to slow down, soon they were walking the horses.
Where the red sand had been flat with the occasional bush, now the earth rose in large formations and cliffs overhead. Biting her lip, Anna knew that this meant danger lurking behind everything they couldn’t see.
“Is this where you found them?” she whispered when her father stopped.
He raised a hand for her to be quiet. Anna felt the tension grow.
The world was silent around them, too silent for her liking. She searched for movement while her father led her around to where she found a small entryway between two cliffs.
A sick feeling settled in her stomach.
“Don’t,” she started.
Her father shot her a stern look before dismounting. “Stay here. I’ve been in there before, all right? It goes ten feet around to the left, and then opens up to a small clearing.”
He walked over and brought her a handgun.
“I’ll be alright,” he said gruffly. “Just hold onto this for me, do you understand? No matter what you hear, stay put. I’ll return soon. I love you, Anna.”
She couldn’t find her voice before her father turned and disappeared into the alleyway.
Bile rose in her throat. How long was she supposed to wait?
Then came a shout echoing in the silence. Her heart thudded as a shiver ran down her spine. She didn’t recognize the voice.
But she couldn’t just stay there.
Anna quickly made her decision. She gripped the gun and ran after her father.
The tall sandy walls curved left and grew closer together the further she went in until they suddenly ended. Her chest heaved as she gulped in air.
Finally, Anna arrived at the clearing that her father had mentioned.
It only took a second to find him. He was fighting with another man. Guns were left on the ground as they fought with their fists.
Fear gripped her tightly, but Anna couldn’t move. All she could do was watch.
The other man was bleeding badly from his nose. He got a hand on her father and shouted angrily. “I’ll get you! I’ll get everyone in Red Barrel’s band!”
She blinked, wondering if she understood right.
“What?” her father shouted before elbowing the man in the chest. “I’m not one of them! Who do you think I am? I’m the—”
“I’ll find Red Barrel and have his head! And yours, so get off!”
Anna watched anxiously as her father started to step back. He kept a hold on the man’s arm but was not trying to hurt him.
“You can’t, do you hear me? Quiet down and listen! I’m Sheriff Ackerson, and you can’t threaten me! You’re under arrest. I said calm down!”
But he wasn’t calm.
Even from a distance, Anna could see the crazed look in the strange man’s eyes as he ripped himself free of her father’s hold. That’s when he dropped and grabbed for his gun.
“No!” Anna cried out. She raised her own weapon and pulled the trigger.
Chest heaving, Anna tried to think. But her thoughts were a mess. She had aimed for his head but missed.
The bandit staggered back, wavering. There was blood spilling through his dark blue shirt. Falling to his knees, he growled and then picked up his gun.
She gasped as he locked eyes with her. What was she supposed to do? Her mind had stopped working, unable to believe this was happening. She had tried to help her father, yet in doing so, she had made herself the target. She had given away her position.
The man raised his gun. Anna opened her mouth to scream, and couldn’t.
Her father ran between her and the bandit. The gun went off and he collapsed on the ground, unmoving.
Only then did Anna find her voice. “Papa! No!”
She collapsed in the dirt. It felt as though she had been shot as a new kind of pain ripped through her.
A howl escaped her lips, echoing through the gorge. The world seemed to shake. But no matter what happened, the earth couldn’t bring her father back.
It had been five years.
Five painful years since Anna lost her father, mere months after her mother’s passing.
Though she recalled the nosy voices and the watchful eyes when they gossiped about her father, her town only seemed to grow worse with time.
“There’s the Sheriff’s daughter,” McHaney had said from outside his forge. “What are you doing around town on your own, young lady?”
Cripple Creek was never going to change.
Anna couldn’t imagine it getting any better in another five years. Her heart thudded as she leaned down by her horse’s long neck, feeling the world fly by them.
He was a good horse, a fast horse. Lightning had once belonged to her father. It felt like the last connection she had with him.
And he treated her well in return. His long legs stretched, widening his gait as they galloped from town.
Anna closed her eyes.
She could feel her hair flowing behind her, streaming in the early summer wind. The sun shone above them. It felt as though it was staring her down, however, and all she wanted was to hide.
She could ride for days if she wanted. Maybe she could leave this place once and for all, finally free of the memories that still haunted her.
But where would she go?
It was that question, the voice of reason, that prevented her from just taking off.
Anna told herself that someday she would leave her home. It seemed there was nothing there for her any longer. Or rather, nothing that she wanted.
Tightening her jaw, she saw movement in the lane as she neared her house. She first thought it came from her own small home. Instead, it was the door opening from the large house beside hers.
Anna bit back words as she straightened up and forced Lightning to stop. The animal obeyed quickly upon their arrival.
It was there she watched Uncle Rich limp down the step, carrying a bucket. She swallowed, noticing a puddle that had yet to go away since their most recent rainstorm. If she had splashed him, Anna knew she would never live it down.
Her jaw locked as she watched him. Anna could hear the voices from town still talking about her father, but realized she never heard anything about her uncle.
He finally looked up. Uncle Rich was halfway to his gate, rubbing his bad hip, when he squinted at Anna.
The man had never really liked her father, having wanted his sister to marry someone with a safer job.
It had always been a cause of contention between her parents and him. Even now, she ached for the chance to talk with someone about the pain she still bore but knew he wouldn’t listen.
“What did they say this time?” he asked in his gravelly tone.
Everyone had always said she couldn’t hide her feelings. Swallowing, Anna scowled while her shoulders slumped in defeat.
“It was just the usual drivel,” she admitted grudgingly. Her hands tightened on the reins. “They won’t stop. No matter what I say, no matter what I do, all they can talk about is my father…” she paused to inhale deeply.
Shaking his head, her uncle sighed and then asked her, “How long is it going to take for you to stop letting everyone get to you?”
That wasn’t exactly the comfort that she wanted. Frowning, Anna dismounted and tugged the hair from her face.
“Why is it up to me? Why can’t you blame them, Uncle Rich? They’re the ones who keep talking. I don’t think that I can ignore it.” She shuddered. “It’s like they’re trying to hurt me.”
“Anna, you can’t let this keep affecting you. This heartache and bitterness that you’re holding onto are what killed your mother. Her constant worry weakened her. She was trying to protect you from a life like this one. You’re not paying her any respects by allowing yourself to suffer.”
She pursed her lips as she looped her horse’s reins over the fence before coming through the gate.
Uncle Rich had been saying that for years. Her mother frequently fell ill, and Uncle Rich would stop by with hot soup and a reminder that it was all because of the man she married.
Used to this, Anna had always set his idea aside. But part of her began to wonder if her uncle might have a point.
Could heartache kill a person?
She was still looking for something to say when he muttered under his breath. Uncle Rich seemed to grow more cantankerous every day. Missing what he said, Anna caught the second half.
“… Should have learned to keep a house. That would be more useful now than shooting a gun.”
Thinking of guns always sent a shiver down her spine. Anna crossed her arms for warmth before giving her uncle a stern look.
“That work is easy. Besides, I can cook and clean a house,” she pointed out to him. “But the world is a strange place, Uncle, and it doesn’t wait for us to learn how to stand our ground.”
It was what her father used to say when he was teaching her how to hunt and sharpen a knife. She remembered his smile, feeling a pang of misery that her father wasn’t here to say these words himself.
Her uncle just shook his head. “Get the mail, won’t you? Then you can help me water these flowers.”
Rich liked to make bold statements and then let them fly without holding a conversation.
Anna turned back to her saddlebags and brought out the pile of mail she had gone out to collect.
“Just a letter from Wisconsin where that friend of yours lives,” she noted. “And I grabbed three newspapers for us to read.”
“Oh? Hm.” He beckoned for her to come over so she could hand him the letter. She held onto the other papers in her hand. All she did was glance down at them, always thinking there was never anything interesting to read.
But something caught her eye.
With her uncle occupied reading his letter, Anna straightened out the issue that she found between two newspapers.
A mail-order bride issue.
The term sounded familiar as she opened it up. She read about folks who wanted to get married and were wed without having met each other. It caught her attention, making her wonder what it would be like to get married.
She had just turned twenty-four and none of the boys in town had ever caught her eye, and they certainly kept their distance from her.
But what if they didn’t?
It was hard not to imagine what her life might have been like had she listened more to her mother and learned how to be a responsible wife and an attentive mother.
Would that have changed anything, maybe keeping her mother alive longer? Would the pain in her chest now be any lighter?
“Humph. Charlie here thinks he needs more seeds from my garden. As if I didn’t already send him over a dozen?” Uncle Rich grumbled aloud. “I don’t know why I even write to him.”
She looked up, a small grin breaking out on her face. “So, you’ll stop?”
The man ground his teeth. “I’ll think about it.”
It was impossible not to laugh at the scowl that he wore since she knew he didn’t mean it.
He wrote to Charlie in Wisconsin, the Maybelles in Texas, and Taylor in North Dakota. They were all pen pals who had been writing about their gardens for the last ten or so years. Sometimes Anna felt certain that he only kept his yard nice so he could brag to all his friends who weren’t even there in person.
“You will,” she assured him. Anna let out a deep breath before tucking the issue in her dress pocket. “But not now. I see you trying to be lazy. It’s time for chores. I’ll put Lightning away and then bring out more logs for your fireplace.”
She left him grumbling there as she led her horse away to the corral behind their houses.
Taking her time, she couldn’t help but glance down at her pocket.
She found her curiosity growing about the mail-order bride issue. There were ads for those who wanted to find someone to bring into their lives.
Anna wondered if this might be a good idea. At the very least, it would be better than in her own house.
No one else lived there except the silence and sadness from her past. Anna tried to spend her time elsewhere whenever she could. Though she wouldn’t consider it fun to spend time with her uncle, she would rather be with him than alone.
But as always, he eventually bid her farewell so she could go back to the empty house.
Anna knew she couldn’t stay there forever.
Every night, the heartache seemed to grow heavier. There had to be something she could do to let go of the past, to escape the pain.
He glanced out the window, tapping his pen on the table.
All he wanted to do was return to bed. He could lie down, close his eyes, and put the world away.
While Matthew Blackson knew this to be a very unreasonable idea, especially since it wasn’t even noon, he couldn’t help but think about his soft pillow.
He let out a sigh and dropped the pen to rub his eyes.
His twenty-sixth birthday was hardly two weeks away. While he knew this was a fact, he could hardly conceive that so much time had passed.
Yet part of him felt older, as if he had already lived seventy years.
Shaking his head, he straightened up and looked down at the scrap of paper that he had been working on all morning. He pursed his lips when he was reminded of how little progress he had made.
It didn’t need to be long, just a sentence or two. Four at most, perhaps, and then he would be done.
But he couldn’t find the right words.
Matthew couldn’t resist the urge to look back out his window to the ranch.
The sun was shining and he could see his cattle milling around. There were hills in the distance, rocky terrain to the left, and to the right were the flat prairie fields filled with tall grass.
Matthew felt as though he knew every corner of his land.
His parents had bought the land in Cimarron, the outskirts of Colorado, and built up this ranch before he and his brother were born.
Yawning, he leaned back and closed his eyes for a minute. Maybe a quick nap would help him think.
He opened his eyes as the rattle of a teacup on a saucer which was set on the table echoed loud in the overall quiet room.
Matthew stirred, looking up to find Linna Urwin, his neighbor, putting her hands on her hips.
The older woman raised her eyebrows with her black eyes glittering. Her skin had been various shades of sunburns all his life, though she appeared even more red than usual with the mid-morning light on her face.
“How can you possibly be tired?” she asked him.
A sheepish smile spread over his face. Of course, it was a licorice root tea she had made him. “Good morning, Linna.”
“Mhm,” she said as she eyed him warily. “It’s too early for a yawn that big. Being out in the sun should wake you up. What are you doing?”
He started with a hot blush, moving to cover the paper with his hands.
Though she was in her early fifties, the woman was spry; she snatched up the paper before he could stop her. He groaned, squirming in his seat.
How was he to explain himself?
Linna had lived just south of his family all his life and after his parents passed, she had made it her duty to take care of him.
This was on top of her having her own family. She brought him food every week and helped him make lists of supplies he needed in town.
The kind woman even tidied up occasionally, though it embarrassed him, so he had been putting in more of an effort to do the job himself.
And now she was reading his scribbled-out ads for his mail-order bride issue.
Unable to believe this was the sort of man he had grown up to become, Matthew rubbed the back of his neck and prayed that Linna wouldn’t laugh at him. Though he tried to read her face, the paper did most of the job by hiding her from him.
Whistling, Linna set the paper down.
He snatched it away as she said, “Interesting thoughts you have there. What are you doing with this, exactly?”
He gritted his teeth for a minute, not wanting to explain himself. But it was impossible not to answer the woman’s persistent gaze.
“I… I need help,” Matthew tried to reason. “And I can’t have you helping me forever, so I thought I could see about bringing a woman here. It makes sense, doesn’t it?”
Linna scoffed as she put her hands on her hips. “What, you don’t need me anymore?”
Giving her a look, he answered, “I didn’t say that. It’s just…”
But she snapped her fingers at him. When she stared him down like that, it was impossible to turn away.
“I’m not a fool, Matthew. Stop with those excuses because you’re better than that. Now, what are you doing?”
There was an anxious fluttering in his stomach. Linna wasn’t his mother, but he still felt that familiar guilt rising. It had been years since he felt like a child in his own home.
But Matthew wasn’t sure what to tell her. This was something he had been thinking about for a couple of months. It was only him there with the occasional visit from Linna.
Seeing a particular issue on one of his trips to town, he had taken it home and started to think about it.
Living on a ranch and running it was hard work. He wanted this home and he wanted it to thrive. And part of him didn’t want to do it on his own any longer.
“I…” he took a deep breath before he forced the truth out. “I just thought it might be time. To marry, I mean. My parents were married and already had Brandon and myself by my age. And it’s not like you have hinted at this before. I guess I just want someone new in my life. Someone that will stay.”
Linna’s lips curled into a wry smile. “I think that’s a mighty fine idea. But you don’t need to be searching for strangers, do you? What about all the girls in town?”
Hesitating, he drummed his fingers on the table. There was energy buzzing through his body. He wasn’t a big fan of hard conversations like this.
Matthew shook his head with a sigh. “I don’t think that could happen. Most of the girls I know are married now. Then the rest… none of them would be a good fit. It’s just, they won’t see… they know Brandon,” he added grudgingly.
It had been a while since he had said his older brother’s name. Usually, it just brought back the bitter memories of the last time he had seen him.
That had been six years ago.
Tutting, Linna shook her head. “Come now, that boy is as good as dead.”
His body jolted as he looked up at her. How could she say that?
Feeling his heart pound, Matthew wondered if she was right. He had tried to keep those fears at bay, but it didn’t always work.
Especially if someone else brought them up.
Linna leaned over to pat his shoulder with an apologetic smile. “That wasn’t supposed to sound so harsh, Matthew, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to sound cruel. I suppose I just don’t like to keep my hopes up.”
Nodding, he swallowed hard before slumping back in his chair. He couldn’t blame Linna. She hadn’t been there that day.
It had been a bright, sunny day in town when Red Barrel and his gang came to town. They had arrived to steal what they could. In their hurry to leave, they opened fire on everyone.
Both of his parents were hit, caught in the crossfire.
Matthew still remembered walking just a few yards around the corner, caught by a few nice window displays. His birthday was right around the corner and he wanted a new saddle.
But thoughts of gifts and the future had vanished when he heard the shots and turned to see his parents collapse.
Brandon was right there beside him. Always the faster one, he had run over to their parents. When he knew they were dead with certainty, the older boy had stood up with a dark look in his eyes that Matthew had never seen before.
Everything had changed.
In a way, he had lost all his family that day, because Brandon soon disappeared into the wild so he could hunt down Red Barrel.
And now there Matthew was, feeling the past hang over his head. Everyone in town knew about his family. No one ever knew what to say to him, so they tried not to say anything.
“I just want to move on,” Matthew whispered. Living in this house alone wasn’t helping, so he thought it might be best to bring in companionship to start anew.
“Ah,” Linna murmured.
He rubbed his face and sighed. “I appreciate all that you do, you know. Thank you, Linna, for the food and the help. But it would be wrong of me to expect you to care for me forever. It makes sense to find a wife.”
“I understand,” she admitted while she took the seat beside him. “Your mama was a wonderful woman, you know. Anything you need, I’ll be here for you no matter what.” Then Linna took a deep breath. “So, let’s see this advert again.”
Swallowing hard, Matthew pushed the piece of paper back over to her. He bit his tongue while he watched her read. “Well?”
“It sounds rather stuffy.” She chuckled. “Nobody cares about the size of the house or how much cattle you have. The women want to hear about you.”
He wrinkled his nose. “Can you write it for me?”
She gave him a look before shaking her head. “After the talk we just had? I think not. No, this needs to come straight from you.” Standing up, she winked. “I believe in you. Just be honest and true. And get rid of that malarkey there.”
A sheepish smile crossed his face as he turned back to the page. Reading it again, Matthew supposed he could see where her concerns arose.
Soon, Linna left him to return to her home. Matthew stayed at the table, reading his notes over and over again.
It felt like an impossible task. What was he supposed to say? What did the women want to hear?
Eventually, he couldn’t take it anymore. He didn’t have all day and couldn’t spend any more time bellyaching. The ad needed to be written and done with.
Matthew shook his head and scribbled out a couple of lines before he tucked it into the envelope. Whatever he had written would have to do for the issue and for any women who might want to come out West for him.
Though he knew this was terribly unlikely, he could still feel his hopes rising slowly within his chest. Maybe this wouldn’t work out, but what if it did?
Taking a deep breath, Anna straightened her shoulders and paced around the room.
She walked back and forth on the worn-out rug, her thoughts all a blur. Her heart hammered in her chest as she tried to figure out what she was doing.
Perhaps this was just a crazy idea, a notion she had to best ignore.
Her breaths were deep, with her chest expanding and deflating, trying to focus on anything but the papers on the dining room table. She took a side glance over at them and then shook her head before focusing again on the rug.
“Maybe I’ve gone mad,” Anna murmured.
The house was silent, never giving her a response. She knew that was best, but part of her wanted someone to be there to tell her what to do. What if she was being crazy? What if this was a terrible idea?
Her thoughts turned to Uncle Rich. She gazed out the window where she could see his house.
The man was probably working in his garden already, wrists deep in dirt and weeds. But if she told him, Anna had a feeling he would just scowl and tell her to be happy with what she had.
“Is this enough though?”
There was still no answer.
Beside the piece of paper on the table sat the late issue of the Marital Times. It was the newest one and she had gone into town that morning to pick it up. Anna felt silly for having started to read them so avidly.
But she couldn’t help it.
The idea had stuck to her to the core, never really leaving after she had read that first catalog. It was impossible to stop herself from yearning to go somewhere else.
What would it be like to marry someone she had never met before?
A shaky breath escaped her lips. There were too many questions that she couldn’t answer. But she knew she didn’t want to be in Cripple Creek forever.
It was her home, but it hadn’t felt that way in years. That morning in town, Anna had taken the wrong turn on a street she had been on a hundred times.
And then there were the people.
While Uncle Rich said that she should stop caring about what people said, Anna couldn’t make that happen. Every time people talked to her, their words felt like needle pricks in her skin.
She was tired of this life. The home no longer brought her the comfort she sought, and every day grew harder. Perhaps if she left, then she could let go of this pain.
Maybe there was someone out there that would be different.
They wouldn’t call her the sheriff’s daughter and they wouldn’t watch her when she walked through town. With someone else, maybe she could learn to heal from this horrible heartache that never seemed to go away.
Like the man in the ad.
None of the other ads she had read before had drawn her attention like this one had. As Anna paced around, she threw a glance over at the page she had been studying. Already she had memorized the couple of lines it had included.
Matthew Blackson was his name, and he lived just a few towns over, on the corner of Colorado.
He talked about his ranch and his desire to have someone there with him. The man also made a mention of how he had no one else in his life.
The way he had penned those words had struck a chord within her. She felt the same way, and something told her that he understood loss. Maybe not in the way that she did, but in a way that would mean that they could move forward together.
She also liked how Matthew said he wanted a wife to help him on the ranch but didn’t seem to care where she came from or what she looked like. He just wanted someone there with him.
Most of the other ads by men seemed to mention wanting beautiful and placid wives.
Anna couldn’t help but hesitate, however, wondering how much help she could be keeping in mind the way her father had raised her.
What if she still wasn’t enough? Or what if he did want her?
She didn’t know what to think. Never before had she tried anything like this, and it made her nervous.
There was a knock at her door.
Jumping, Anna whirled around before hurrying to the front of her house. She swallowed hard as she patted down her dress to get rid of the wrinkles. Then she opened the door, revealing the general store owner.
“Mr. Harvey, hello,” Anna started to say.
To answer the unsaid question of why he was there, the older man held up her basket. She stared, seeing her morning’s purchases of thread and brown sugar in there.
“Good morning, Anna,” Mr. Harvey said. His voice was tender and low as if he thought she was a frail, old woman. “You left this behind, so I thought I would bring it to you. Here you are.”
“Oh. I didn’t realize… Well, thank you. That was kind of you to come all the way out here.”
Offering a polite smile, Anna nodded and reached out to accept the basket. But he spoke again just as she wrapped her fingers around the handle.
Mr. Harvey nodded. “Of course, dear. Anything for the sheriff’s daughter.”
Her body stiffened. He was giving her a small sympathetic look. Of course, he would do something so kind only to stab her in the heart.
“I am not the sheriff’s daughter,” Anna suddenly snapped. “I’m not related to him!”
She yanked the basket from him and promptly slammed the door before Mr. Harvey could say anything else.
Her heart beat loudly in her chest, deafening her. Staring at the closed door, she gulped in several deep breaths.
Anna could never stay angry for long. It only took a few seconds to regret her temper. Closing her eyes, she put the basket down and leaned against the door for a minute. It gave her the support she needed to remain standing.
“I can’t stay here anymore,” she murmured aloud.
It was time that she accepted this at last and did something about her future. Anna knew in her heart that this would keep happening if she stayed. It could even get worse.
Leaving the basket on the floor, she hastened over to the table.
She had to write to Matthew Blackson.
Picking up her pen, Anna wasn’t sure what would be best to tell him. But she started to write anyway.
Her words spilled out onto the page. Though she had never managed a ranch, she wrote, she could run a house and learn the rest. Then she mentioned that she knew immense loss and wanted to be somewhere new where she could start fresh.
Once she was done, Anna sealed the letter. Then before she could talk herself out of this, she rushed down to the post office.
If she didn’t do this now, Anna wasn’t sure she would be able to do it later. The letter was sent off, and she returned home, wondering if her life was about to be changed forever.
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