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Prologue

South Dakota, 1888

Laughter filled the air when he stepped outside.

Turning away from the door, Desmond Delaney saw his wife tickling their daughter as they ran around in the snow. Little Caroline giggled madly as she raced in circles to no avail. Her boots crunched in the snow and her eyes were sparkling.

He hefted his bag higher over his shoulder. Grinning, he climbed down the steps of their home and joined them on the path.

“Watch out, Carrie,” he teased. “She’s going to get you again!”

“You better run,” his wife, Melody, added when she glanced at him. She offered a quick wink before turning her attention back to her children. “Come here, you.”

“No!” Carrie screeched loudly. She had the strongest lungs of anyone Desmond knew.

Glad that she wasn’t screaming in the house, he chuckled. Then she came running his way with her arms in the air. He immediately crouched down.

Shifting the bag to his side, he reached out to scoop his daughter up in his arms.

Little Caroline clung to him happily as he lifted her up in the air. She looked up with the biggest smile on her face. It was as if nothing could spoil the happiness of this day.

How could it? Desmond kissed the top of her head before turning to his wife.

It was the last day of 1888. They were ready for the New Year and all that might come their way. Life in South Dakota had been good to him for the last six years. It seemed to only get better every day.

“Come along, you two,” Melody sang. She gestured toward the end of the lane before giving him a pointed look. “Don’t make me carry the two of you.”

“But what if I want you to?” he asked her innocently. Then he dodged a playful slap on the arm from her. “Don’t worry, dear. I can carry you as well. One of my ladies for each arm, hm? What do you say?”

She squirmed when he wrapped an arm around her. “I say that you’ll probably make us fall over. Just because I want to be outside doesn’t mean I want a handful of snow falling down my dress. Again,” she added with a pointed expression.

It could have something to do with their Christmas Day snowball fight. But probably not.

Desmond put up his hand in defence before adjusting it around his daughter. “All right,” he assured his wife, “No snowballs today. I promise.”

“Mhm,” she said skeptically, clearly not believing it. “Well, you had best keep it. Even if I don’t make the same promise.”

“What?” His mouth dropped open. “But you have to!”

But Melody laughed, shaking her head. She took the bag off his shoulder and adjusted it on her own along with the basket in one hand. Now, she was carrying all the supplies for their picnic.

Though the day was cold, the two of them couldn’t help but want to spend some time outside. The skies were clear, and the sun was shining above them.

He supposed the snow wouldn’t melt much, but it felt warmer than it had for a few weeks now.

Their small farm was colder than his time in Ohio. That was not something he had expected. But fortunately, he’d had six years to get used to the chill. It still bothered him, but he didn’t let it stop him from getting his work done. This was his home, and he was committed to it.

Free land was hard to refuse, after all. The Homestead Act had immediately drawn his attention when he was hardly twenty years old.

Working in a factory, Desmond had always wondered what it would be like to live out of the city.

So, he grabbed the opportunity when he could. Everything had quickly changed after his arrival. He had settled in the northeastern territory of the Dakotas where he met Melody on his first day in town. Part of him felt certain it was one of the reasons why he had chosen the land nearby. Even then, he couldn’t bear to part with her.

The farm was doing well, though small, and he had learned how to work with the particular sod that so many folks still struggled to understand. It was bone-weary work, but he liked working with his own hands and bringing something into fruition. Melody enjoyed the work as well, so the two of them spent their days outside with their few animals.

Except for today.

Desmond couldn’t remember finding so many excuses to celebrate life until his wife came into the picture. She liked to work hard, but also believed in having fun in other forms.

“A picnic,” she had proclaimed that morning. “That’s what we should do!”

He had glanced up from where he sat at the table while feeding little Carrie. “A picnic? There’s snow everywhere, dear. I would think you’d want to stay inside by the fire. We could read books, or you can make another wood carving.”

Melody had simply beamed at him. “A picnic, Desmond. Last one of the year.”

There was no way for him to resist her. Chuckling, he had accepted their plans. “A picnic it is. We can go out by the lake and enjoy the view.”

Now he looked around to see the world around him. The Dakota territories were rather flat. A few trees stood up in the distance. Behind his house, he had planted a dozen of them just a year ago. But those were all the trees he could see in the plains before him.

Instead, it was a world of blanketed white. The ground sparkled beneath them. Desmond fixed his grip on his daughter who had begun to squirm.

She was four years old and was always looking for a way to show them just how independent she was. But only if she knew she was safe.

“Down,” she decided. “Papa? Down!”

“All right,” he assured her as he stopped. “Walk carefully, Carrie. I don’t want you slipping, do you understand? No running.”

The moment he set her down, however, she stopped listening. The child took off running ahead. Her hands waved up in the air as she went.

Desmond turned to his wife who simply shrugged.

“She’ll learn,” Melody said after she laced his fingers with hers. “One way or another, she’ll learn.”

“To listen or not to run?”

Her lips twitched. Giving his hand a squeeze, Melody inhaled deeply as she turned back to the path before them.

It wasn’t much of one since the snow had begun to fall for the season. But there was a slight indentation that could be seen if one knew where to look. He had cleared the path for them, along with a few others, years ago.

It was covered in stones that led down to the lake that sat just beyond a mile from their home. The stones melted away some ice, so the pathway always had a little less snow.

They crunched through the snow hand in hand. Carrie ran ahead of them, still squealing excitedly. She loved going on adventures out of the house.

She was very easy to please. He liked to think they all were. They were simple folks just looking for a way to lead a quiet life, finding happiness wherever they could manage. He wasn’t sure his heart could grow any fuller before bursting.

“Here is a wonderful spot. Right there. By that bush,” Melody said as she pointed off the past as they arrived at the lake. “That one.”

It was just a simple spot near the lake with no shade. Desmond couldn’t quite tell why this particular spot was better than any other, but he didn’t mind following after his wife.

The two of them laid out the first blanket from the bag carefully before them on the ground.

He noticed the blanket was the one that his wife had quilted while pregnant with their daughter. That warmed his heart. He glanced at the two beautiful girls in his life before studying the nearby terrain. It had changed since leaving their home.

Only by the lake were there hills and trees. The shoreline was just a few yards away with the ice reflecting the sunlight their way. The blanket of snow made everything sparkle around them.

He paused to admire the view before him while his wife pulled out a few snacks from the bag.

“Don’t go too far,” Melody called when she looked up at Carrie.

He turned to see his daughter dancing in crooked circles as she stared up at the sky. Snow was beginning to fall, and she was grabbing at the snowflakes. Desmond glanced up and wondered about the clouds. There were very few still above them. Hopefully they would not grow any heavier.

“That girl is most assuredly your daughter,” Melody murmured as she stood up and walked around the blanket to her husband. She gave him a knowing smirk before shaking her head. “She never listens.”

“What?” he protested. “I listen. I listen all the time.”

“Oh really?” She giggled and then gave him a flirtatious look with her raised eyebrow. “What about this morning when I was telling you where your boots were? Or what about last night when I was asking you to bring in more water from the well? Or—”

Wrapping his arms around her, Desmond gave her a kiss. “I swear I was listening.”

“Right. Listening just as well as I can ride a horse,” Melody said. She had always been afraid of horses. Her father had been in an incident when she was a child, and she had never overcome her fear. Though Desmond was working with her on that, she was still a while from riding a horse. “You’re ridiculous, dear.”

He tutted and gave her a playful pinch on the elbow. A wicked idea came to mind as he smirked at her. “Oh really? You think I’m ridiculous?”

She squealed, jumping away from him. “Don’t you dare.”

A laugh escaped his lips as he reached out to tickle her around her ribs. Melody screeched, stumbling back. She stuck her tongue out at him as she reached over to poke him in the stomach and then took off running.

“What?” Desmond laughed and ran after her.

The two of them started a game of playful tag, laughing and tickling one another as they raced about. His heartbeat sped up with exhilaration.

It was a beautiful day and would be the perfect note to end the year on. Chasing his wife to the water’s edge, he finally caught her, and they tumbled onto the ground.

He had been careful to make sure she didn’t get hurt. Now he was the one on the ground with his arms wrapped around her to keep her safe.

They looked at one another breathlessly with wild grins on their faces. Her blonde hair fell over her shoulders all around him.

For a minute, neither of them said anything.

“I’m really wet now,” Desmond finally broke the silence.

Melody’s eyes widened in confusion and she started to laugh. Pulling herself up and off of him, she shook her head. “You always know how to kill a moment.”

That was not true. He sat up to give her a tender kiss before leaning back to wink at her. “You were saying?”

She rolled her eyes, but there was a wide smile on her face. Desmond chuckled as he stood up.

Then he helped his wife up, and the two of them held hands on their way back to their blanket.

“Oh bother,” Melody confessed. “I’m damp all the way through as well. Maybe we shouldn’t have. I’m freezing.”

Desmond glanced over to see her shivering. He pulled out the second blanket for her. Then he started to pat the snow off his clothes. It was indeed freezing since the snow had soaked through his layers.

“Perhaps we should go. Let’s grab Carrie and… Where did she go?”

His wife paused to look around.

“She has to be around here somewhere,” Melody said. “There’s no one around for miles. And her chubby little legs won’t let her get too far.”

That made him chuckle. “All right. Well, let’s make sure she’s not freezing, too, hm?” He raised his voice. “Carrie? Caroline!”

Desmond’s smile wavered slightly when there was no response.

He looked around through the lumps of snow. There were a few indentations to show that his daughter had been wandering nearby just a little while ago. But some of the snow had already been melted and it was hard to see where she might have gone.

“I’ll go look for her,” he said after a minute. There was an uneasy feeling in his stomach, but he pushed it aside. Carrie had to be close by, so there was no reason to worry.

He made his way around one of the small hills he had seen their daughter nearby when they last looked. But she wasn’t there.

Scratching his head, he started back to his wife who had put the quilt down. She saw he didn’t have their girl and frowned.

“She has to be here somewhere,” Melody said tersely.

“I’ll find her, don’t worry,” Desmond assured her. He crossed to the next hill, but there was no sign of her. He walked around it and shook his head when he saw Melody watching him.

It was then that he realized he couldn’t ignore the tightness in his gut. He didn’t want them to panic, but something felt wrong.

There was no trace of Carrie anywhere.

“Carrie!” He shouted. His throat grew tight, but he didn’t stop calling her name. “Carrie!”

Melody gasped. “The lake! Check the lake!”

They shared a fearful look as they realized that she might have fallen in.

“Go look over there,” he pointed to one end and then started down as well. They scrambled through the snow, scanning for footprints or any sign of their daughter. His wife called out with her voice breaking. Though he tried to remain calm for them, it was growing more difficult by the moment.

“Carrie!” he shouted. His voice echoed off the surrounding peaks.

He looked for footsteps and any other sign of his precious child. But there was nothing. There was nothing that he could see. The white wonderland before him had been beautiful just a mere hour before. But now, all Desmond could see was despair.

It was a thick blanket that had hidden their child away. He spun in circles before running off down the lake. She had to be somewhere around there. Carrie would come back to them. She had to.

As he ran, Desmond prayed, Lord, help me find my daughter.

Carrie had to be safe. It was his responsibility as her father to be there for her. He repented for not having had his eyes on her the whole time. But he would do better.

Please. I’ll do anything. I’ll go anywhere. Just bring her home, Lord.

 

Chapter 1

Indiana, 1892

“The Lord is always watching you. He knows your mistakes and sins.”

Eva McKeen blinked several times before straightening up her seat. She had started to doze without realizing it.

A yawn began to itch in her throat. Immediately, she gritted her teeth to force it back, not wanting to be that type of person in church.

Their doddering pastor continued rambling away on the pulpit about everything the Lord saw.

Another yawn came forth, catching her off guard. Eva clamped a hand over her mouth to hide it. She glanced around to find her stepmother, Rose McKeen, glowering at her on her right.

Eva put her hand down and turned back to Father Adams to listen.

But it was hard. His sermon was going around in circles as it usually did. Everyone in Allenfield knew not to expect too much from the man over the last couple of years. She didn’t usually mind.

Except today, she was exhausted.

The day was still early, yet she had been up for several hours already. Most folks had only risen an hour or two before church. But she had been up since before dawn to prepare their next meal once they made it back home.

A pot roast.

Eva couldn’t be more frustrated that her stepmother had requested a pot roast. It had required a lot of work too early in the morning.

She had prepared the meat and the vegetables to go with it. The food had been left cooking slowly over the embers that she had kept in their cart iron stove.

Hopefully, it would be cooked by the time they returned home. If it wasn’t, she didn’t know what she would do.

Suddenly, a sharp elbow jammed her in the ribs. Eva winced, jumping up to attention. She put a hand over her side and then looked up.

Her stepmother was glaring at her.

“Stop slouching,” she whispered in a harsh tone. “We simply can’t take you anywhere, can we?”

Eva didn’t know how to reply.

She swallowed hard and lowered her gaze as she heard a chuckle from Rose’s other side. Peeking around their mother were her twin half-brothers. Jack and Everett were six years younger at eighteen years old. And they were sniggering at the sharp reprimand she had just received.

Looking away, Eva wished for the hundredth time that day alone to be anywhere else. She didn’t want to be around these three people then or ever.

But what was she to do? They were the only family she had left. Her mother was gone. When she was a child, her father had remarried Rose who had given birth to the twins. It was only three years ago now that her father had passed away from consumption.

She had no one and no money.

This was the only family she had, but they had never cared for her. She had waited for years in the hopes that her stepmother would wrap her up in arms of love, but it never happened.

Eva finally gave up, but it had not made life much easier. She had accepted this unhappy life with people who didn’t care for her.

The town didn’t care either.

“So, you had all best watch yourselves. Your actions, your words, and especially your thoughts. The devil will catch you all if you’re not careful,” the pastor continued on as he nodded enthusiastically along with his own words. “Don’t let the devil into your hearts or your homes.”

She straightened her shoulders and glanced around. There was no one looking at her. There never was.

Many times in the last couple of years, Eva had prayed that someone might take pity on her and marry her. That would help her be free of this family. But no one would take her.

“Up,” Rose hissed when she didn’t budge. “Do you think anyone wants to keep you here longer than they must? Move it, you bony little goblin. What must I do to have a decent daughter in the house of the Lord? Eva, come along.”

Keeping her head ducked low allowed her the ability to avoid talking to anyone. She hurriedly followed after her family as they made their way outside into the sunlight.

It was cool for the last day of May, she thought. A wind swept right through her, making her shiver.

Eva bit her lip as she looked up to find her stepmother and half-brothers already halfway down the street. Her heart quivered before she picked up her speed to catch up to them.

The three of them walked with linked arms on their way down the street.

As usual, she remained behind them while they moved about. It was how they always walked as a family and everyone in town knew it. Even if they ever let her walk up with them, Eva thought, she wouldn’t want to do it.

Walking behind them just reminded her of how alone she was. She looked over her shoulder at the congregation who still milled about near the church, finding a few couples holding hands together.

The sight made her stomach flutter. She wanted that. More than anything, she wanted to find happiness with someone.

If only someone had wanted her!

“We’re very lucky that Pastor Adams is still with us,” she heard her stepmother speak up ahead of her. “He says many wise things. We must watch ourselves and do our best. Eva, that means you. I hope you were listening.”

“Yes, ma’am,” she responded automatically.

If no one in Allenfield wanted her, Eva pondered, would anyone else be willing to take her?

This question had been weighing on her mind for a while. Three weeks, to be precise. Three weeks, four days, and a couple of hours.

Ever since she had found a copy of the Marriage Times magazine at the general store when she was making purchases for the family.

Now, it was safely hidden away under her rickety little bed. No one would ever bother to look through her things.

They found joy in coming up the ladder to her loft just to remind her she was allowed no privacy or time to herself but were disgusted by the idea of touching anything she had.

So, she had her magazine hidden safely away. Eva reviewed it most nights to give herself hope, even if it was unrealistic hope. She would look at the ads that had been placed and see stories about what had worked out.

Yet there was one that she always returned to.

A farmer in South Dakota was looking for a wife to help him take care of his home and his land. He was a cowboy, a man, someone out West who could maybe be right for her.

Walking home behind her family, Eva wondered yet again about writing to him.

What was stopping her? She didn’t have much of a life there. All she did was cater to her stepmother and half-brothers. There was nothing here for her to cling to.

And yet, she couldn’t get her stepmother’s words out of her mind. What if I really am nothing more than a swarthy, bony goblin?

Those were Rose’s favorite names for Eva. They were words that had been pressed into her for as long as she could remember. Sometimes it felt as though they were written right on her skin because she could not escape them.

“Eva! I want to eat in the next twenty minutes,” Rose announced as they stepped inside. “It’d better be ready.”

“Yes, ma’am,” Eva told her automatically.

The coat rack was right next to them in the hall. But the other three still tossed their coats and hats into her arms before making their way into the parlour to sit.

Their coats and hats weighed her down before she could hang them up.

Making her way into the kitchen, she was relieved to find that the pot roast had not been under-or over-cooked. Eva sighed as she set the dish out to cool. This gave her a chance to set the table and slice a few pieces of bread that she had made the day before.

Sunday meals were always the fanciest, and she tried her best to make them nice.

“Finally,” her half-brothers cried out when she called to her family to let them know they could eat.

The two boys bounded in on either side, elbowing her as they went. She couldn’t avoid them and winced without saying a word.

Rose followed after, taking her seat at the head of the table. But she raised a hand as Eva started to her chair.

“I don’t think so.”

Glancing at the three people before her, Eva wavered. “I’m sorry?”

Her stepmother cocked her head and offered a smile. It was tight-lipped, however, with the edges turned down. Eva shrunk back, wondering how anyone could wear such a bitter expression.

“I said no,” Rose declared. “It’s Sunday and I would like to enjoy my meal in peace. You’re ruining it, Eva. Look at you! You’re a mess. Besides, you embarrassed all of us in church today, so consider this your punishment.”

Eva’s mouth opened. “I can’t eat? But… But I made it.”

She felt a lump form in her throat. Swallowing hard, she glanced at the twins who snorted and began to whisper to one another.

This all felt like a horrible joke. Though they weren’t typically nice to her, they hadn’t been this rude before.

“If there’s anything left, then you can have it. There must be rules, Eva. This is my house, and you will respect me. Now, what did I just say? No sitting with us. Get out of here. You’re going to make me sick if I have to keep looking at you.”

Her breath caught in her chest.

Unable to say anything in her own defense, Eva hurried out of the room. There were tears forming in her eyes, making it hard for her to see. But she knew where she was going. She went down the hall and climbed up into her loft.

The tears spilled over once she was alone.

As she thought about what had just happened, Rose knew she couldn’t stay there any longer. She had to get out of there. How was she supposed to live the rest of her life in this manner?

Clumsily climbing onto her bed, she reached under the straw mattress for the magazine.

The pages opened to reveal the advert she wanted.

The cowboy in South Dakota was a widower who needed a hard-working woman to join him on his land. It would be a hard life, but he would give her a roof, keep her safe, and care for her. They could build a life together. Surely, a life out there couldn’t be as bad as the one she had in Indiana.

It said nothing of beauty. Eva reasoned that he wouldn’t mind her appearance if she could work hard enough. She knew she wasn’t a looker, for her stepmother could never stop talking about her unfavorable looks.

But she could work. She was very good at it now. No one else cleaned or cooked or did any such work like she did. Surely, she could be the one he could marry, a hard worker looking for a better life.

Quickly, she wiped a tear off the magazine and sniffled. If she couldn’t stay there forever, then at least she could try to make a life elsewhere with this man.

Nothing could be worse than staying an eternity with her stepmother and half-brothers.

So, Eva pulled out a fountain pen and started writing.

 

Chapter 2

His wagon creaked and swayed across the dirt road on his way into town.

Desmond slouched in his seat while he kept a loose hold on the reins for his two horses. They were good animals and already knew the way into White River.

This meant he didn’t have to worry about the road or anything else.

Which was good, as it was a long journey getting back there.

Though it had been a concern once he first settled on his land, there was little need to travel into White River for most of the time. His farm had grown, and after purchasing more land, he had brought on more animals and more help. It was a decently sized ranch now that thrived with the help of his cowboys.

This was a good thing that he tried to care about.

But over the last couple of years, he wasn’t sure if even the ranch was worth the trouble. His life had changed drastically just four years ago. All the hope that he’d had for the future was suddenly gone. The laughter and the love and the light were gone.

He tried to press forward, but sometimes he wasn’t certain why.

A heavy sigh escaped his lips before he brushed his hair back over his shoulders. He had meant to cut it a few months ago, but he hadn’t. Just like he had meant to comb his full red beard. But he didn’t.

The hair would keep growing no matter what he did, so it was hard for him to see any reason in doing just that.

So, he made his way ten miles into White River. He could purchase enough to get him through the rest of the winter until the spring.

Going outside in the snow only brought bitter memories back for him, and he didn’t want to come back if he could help it.

Christmas was right around the corner and he didn’t care for it.

He made a trip to the blacksmith’s forge and by the stables for some leather. Then, Desmond trudged his way over to the Dry Goods store.

He used to love going there. There were always little treats and wares for the children. But without his girls around, Desmond could hardly bear to look at them.

“There you are, Desmond.”

Looking up, he found his good friend, Henry Aspen. He was the only person he talked to anymore besides his ranch hands.

Looking the man over, Desmond used up the little energy he had to offer a grim smile.

“It’s good to see you again,” Henry added.

They had known each other for quite a few years. The other man had skin several shades darker than his with a tall, lanky build. His blue eyes cut a striking figure, along with the curly hair he kept cut short. He was dressed in clean clothes and was clean shaven, so that Desmond couldn’t help but notice just how different they looked in every way.

The hesitation in his friend’s gaze made it clear that he saw it, too.

“Hi, Henry,” Desmond mumbled. Glancing over at the bag of feed he had been eyeing, he picked up two of them.

As he walked around to look for other items on his list, his friend followed him around.

The two of them had met when they were making their way to South Dakota nearly ten years ago. Both of them were young and hopeful for the future ahead of them.

They had nearly purchased land beside one another. But the O’Connells had settled just before Henry made his choice, so the man had chosen another plot just a few miles down the road.

He had a good-sized ranch now as well, that he ran with the help of Ethan Cowell, a cowboy who had stopped in town nearly ten years ago before deciding to settle down with the job Henry had offered him.

Desmond and Henry were busy men excited to work. In the first couple of years, they had done their best to meet up once a month. That had all gone well until the accident.

Everything had changed when Carrie disappeared.

The world grew dim for him. Even when he tried to mend what was left in his life, he couldn’t. Especially when Melody passed away. Desmond had lost everything he cared for, struggling to find a reason to keep moving on.

Henry tried to be there for him.

Desmond appreciated the support, for he knew he could no longer be the man he once was, but knew it was all futile. His life was never going to get any better.

“How have you been?” Henry asked him, trailing behind in the next aisle. “How’s the ranch?”

“Fine,” Desmond grunted.

The other man nodded as they met by the counter. “Good. I’m glad. It’s been a while, Desmond.” He nodded while paying the shopkeeper. “Say, you’ve got some time on your hands, don’t you? Let’s go over to Betsy’s. We can sit down and talk. You can tell me about your cows.”

Before he could say anything, Henry picked up one of his heavy bags of feed.

Desmond opened his mouth to protest, but the man was already walking out the door. He was forced to follow behind and then layered his purchases into his wagon nearby.

Henry took a deep breath as he eyed him up and down. “It’s been rough, hm?”

Desmond wasn’t sure how to answer that. Life was always rough.

The last four years had been miserable with no end in sight. To say anything else seemed foolish. So, he just shrugged.

The man nodded, before sighing. “I see. Well, how about we catch up? You won’t be coming back in town for some time, and I’ll be going on a cattle drive before the snow catches up on us. Join me for a drink, Desmond.”

He never knew what to say anymore. Shrugging, Desmond scratched his neck. The beard itched, but he wasn’t ready to commit to getting rid of it.

“I don’t know, Henry,” he said at last. His voice was hoarse from the lack of frequent use. “There’s not much to say.”

Tutting, the other man shook his head. “Don’t you think that. We’re old friends, Desmond. It’s time we sat down and talked again. You don’t want me having to trek over in my snowshoes again, do you?”

No, he didn’t.

Last Christmas, Henry had come out to visit his ranch just as a blizzard began.

The man had holed up with him for a few days which had only soured Desmond’s mood more since he liked to be alone. During his entire stay, Henry had worked on convincing him to get up and do something. It had been a very annoying winter.

“Fine,” Desmond relented after a minute. “One drink. But not at Betsy’s. Then I should get back on the road.”

“As if you enjoy driving,” Henry scoffed playfully before giving him a wink. “I know you. You’ll take any excuse not to do any driving.”

That just made him raise an eyebrow. “Do you want me to get that drink or not?”

His friend rolled his eyes in a good-natured way. The man had always had a strange sense of humour. They set everything down properly in his wagon and then crossed to the end of the road to get their drinks at the other saloon in town.

Cooper’s was a small bar at the back of the carpenter’s shop.

It was quiet and only permitted a few folks at a time, which is how Desmond liked it. He had never cared for the loud carousing that always went on at Betsy’s.

Following Henry through the shop to the back, he eyed the thick layer of sawdust spread on the ground that soaked up any spilled drinks.

This place was just as he remembered it. Desmond couldn’t recall the last time he had been there, but it must have been a while since the paint was beginning to peel and there were new stools put up at the bar.

“Two beers,” Henry requested before turning to Desmond. “See what you’ve been missing out on? Cooper’s needs you, Desmond. The people miss you. Don’t you, Bart?” he looked up at the barkeeper who just grunted as he poured their drinks.

“Thanks,” Desmond mumbled. He glanced around to see a few eyes on him. They all looked away quickly. Shaking his head, he turned back to Henry. “You know I have no interest in people.”

Taking a sip, his friend shrugged before looking around the room himself. “Come on now. People are social creatures. I know life is rough, but surely you still want to be around folks once in a while. We were used to seeing you more frequently. You should at least come out to visit my ranch, Desmond. Perhaps before I leave town?”

He offered a shrug so that he didn’t have to say no and didn’t have to commit to anything.

Sipping his drink, Desmond listened to Henry talk about how well his ranch was thriving and how many cattle he would be moving in the next month or two.

Then Henry talked about the other ranches in town as well, giving him an update about all that had been happening over the last couple of months.

But it was hard to pay attention.

There was noise everywhere, even if it wasn’t nearly as loud or busy at Betsy’s. Desmond could hear the whispers across the room. There was the sloshing of drinks and the clinking of glasses.

He wanted to be back on his ranch. At least that place was quiet.

Nor would anyone be there to judge him. The silence and solitude of the ranch life allowed him to find a small semblance of peace. There was no one there to hassle him. He could think of his past freely and he could put his grief to the back of his mind when he was ready.

That didn’t happen often, but he liked having the possibility.

“Don’t you want to bring people back into your life?” Henry asked him, sounding hopeful. The man moved the glasses away. “Think about it, Desmond. You still have some years ahead of you. We both do.”

“Maybe,” Desmond said before taking his glass back. “I’d rather spend the rest of my days alone.”

He put the drink down. A movement caught his eye when he wiped his mouth clean. Henry was tapping his fingers quickly against the bar table. He did that whenever he was nervous.

Desmond looked up at his friend’s face and frowned.

“What is it?” he growled.

“Nothing,” Henry started hesitantly, but then he winced. He never had been a good liar. “I mean, I just…”

Crossing his arms, Desmond pursed his lips. “Hm?”

“You’ve been alone for so long,” the man said slowly before sighing. “I worry for you. You know that. So, I was thinking that perhaps… well, maybe you could use someone else in your life.”

Desmond started to stand up. “I don’t think…”

But Henry put his hand on his arm. “Just hear me out! Come on, Desmond. I’m not trying to play matchmaker, I promise. I’m not trying to make you find love or start over, or anything like that. But you need help out there. You need someone to take care of you.”

“I’m not sick,” he said pointedly. “So, I don’t need a nurse or a maid.”

Henry made a face before a sheepish smile crept up his face. “Don’t be angry, will you, Desmond? I’ve been writing to someone on your behalf. I’ve, well… I’ve arranged for a mail-order bride to come here for you.”

“You did what?” Desmond’s voice raised an octave. “What are you talking about? That’s crazy!”

Both dazed and furious, he could hardly understand his friend’s absurd idea.

He didn’t know what to think or what to say.

Henry quickly stood up and put his hands up in the air. “Come on, Desmond! Think about it. You don’t need life to be any rougher. Winter will be back before you know it, and I won’t be there for you. Even now you have to know that you need to have someone there. No one wants you going insane, especially when winter comes around.”

The pointed look he gave only frustrated Desmond more.

Sure, the winters were hard. But they had to be hard for everyone.

Except he could hardly remember anything about them because of the black holes he always felt himself sinking into during that time. They passed him in a painful blur until spring arrived, forcing him to recover and prepare for it at the end of the year again.

“How dare you?” Desmond growled. “That’s not in your right. You don’t get to interfere with my life like that! What did you even tell the girl? That I don’t know her? That she knows I don’t want her?”

Henry hesitated. “Well…”

Throwing his hands up in the air, Desmond stormed out of the saloon. The room was suffocating him. It felt like everyone was staring at him. His skin crawled as he stomped out into the street. He looked around and then started for his wagon.

Following closely behind, his friend was on his heels. “Desmond! Come on, now. Her name is Eva. Eva McKeen. She’s coming in two days from Indiana. That’s days of travel! She needs a home. She needs a place to live.”

“I’m not listening,” Desmond called over his shoulder. “I don’t know her.”

Henry panted as he hurried after him, still calling out information about the young lady. “She has long, brown curly hair. Brown eyes, too! She can clean and cook, you know. All she wants is a home, Desmond.”

“Then she can find another one. You can take her in,” Desmond retorted. He clambered into his wagon and threw a harsh glare down at Henry who struggled to meet up at his side. “That was a bad idea, Henry. I’m not getting married again.”

“But, but Desmond,” Henry pleaded. “Talk to me. Consider it, won’t you? Come now. What will happen to her if you don’t take her?”

Picking up the reins, Desmond shook his head and nudged his horses to start moving. “Then you can break the news. It’s your fault she’s coming here,” he added before turning to the road.

Henry called out for him once more, but Desmond didn’t respond. He hunched his head down. Tightly gripping the reins, he just shook his head in disbelief. That was the dumbest thing he had ever heard of someone doing.

Starting out of White River, he swore he wouldn’t come back for the next couple of months. Then, he would start avoiding Henry.

As for the woman, well, Desmond forced any guilt out of his mind. This wasn’t his fault. Even if she was pretty and even if she needed a home, he told himself that it wasn’t up to him to fix anything for her.

He couldn’t stop thinking about what Henry said all the way home.

The sun eventually began to set, creating soft colours in the sky. The colour emphasized the landscape around him. There were hills surrounding the road, making him take several turns along the way. Mountains rose in the distance, but they grew even further away as he headed toward his home.

Along the way were three other ranches that he passed. There were cattle grazing and roaming nearby, separated by their fences. He scowled at every animal that looked his way, wishing that no one could see him.

Once he got home, then he would truly be alone. Desmond moved along a little faster.

He had picked the flattest range he could find that included the best dirt to grow anything in. There was tall grass before he reached his property line.

The house came into view quickly afterward.

It was a large sod house he had dug into a single hill. Melody had loved the idea and had eagerly helped him build it once they married. But it didn’t bring him joy like it used to.

His barn was a little ways down the road, and he headed toward it. Built of rough timber, it carried most of his supplies and only had a single corner stall for any sick animals. Outside was the corral for the horses if they weren’t turned loose.

Desmond felt a weight lift off his chest as he pulled up by the barn.

He was home.

Bringing the horses to a stop, he stood up on his headboard to look around. There were a few of his cow hands at work in the distance, checking on the cows. Everyone was living and working just like they were meant to.

Sighing, he jumped down and started to unharness his team, so they could be brushed down and then set free for the evening to roam. He had just set them off in the corral and was coming back to his wagon when he heard something.

Desmond froze, wondering what it was.

He glanced around to hear a small rustling. Stepping closer to his wagon, it got a little louder. Something was on there, moving around the bags of feed. Then there was a small thud as something banged into his barrels.

Quickly, he grabbed a hatchet on the door of the barn. Hopefully, they weren’t rats, but he wasn’t sure what else it could be.

So, he reached in and moved one of his bags to get a closer look. That’s when he heard a squeak.

A human squeak.

A thief, he supposed, or something worse. So, he raised his hatchet and reached in with his other hand. He quickly found an arm and pulled them from his wagon onto the ground.

“Get off my—” he started to say loudly. But he stopped when he saw what he was holding onto.

Dangling in his grip was a child. It was not a man or even a woman. Shocked, Desmond couldn’t remember what else he could say as he looked at the kid. It was a girl.

A young girl who appeared to have more hay than hair at the moment. She had dirt on her face with a string of snot stuck to her lips.

He supposed she couldn’t be older than nine.

Desmond didn’t know what to say, let alone think. He blinked in disbelief. The arm he held was incredibly thin, and she looked half-starved. Whoever she was, life had been rough for her as well.

“Well,” he managed at last, “you don’t look like any rat I’ve ever seen!”

 

Chapter 3

Eva wrote her letter to the rancher and sent it out the very next day.

Life began to move quickly after that.

To her relief, there was a response within a matter of weeks. Soon a correspondence had begun, consuming her attention for the entire miserable summer.

Writing the few letters, she had to her gentleman out West had kept Eva hopeful.

It kept her praying for the life that she could have if she could just get away from her family and Allenfield. Her summer blew past into November.

Perhaps, there was something better out there for her. She prayed and she hoped until at last, a letter came with the invitation for her to go west and marry him.

Eva responded that very day just minutes before the post office closed. Then, she began to collect her small savings that she had been hiding around the house.

It took her a few days, but she reminded herself it was worth it. During her day of errands, she went out and purchased a train ticket.

The next morning, she was packed and ready to go.

Her heart hammered when she tossed the bags on the ground from the loft, climbed down, and looked to the parlour.

Rose was expecting her friends to come over that afternoon for their Bible study. The twins were there as well, chattering away as they discussed what they might do with themselves now that it was autumn.

They were meant to be searching for jobs now that they were done with school, but they didn’t care for hard work.

Eva wondered if that would ever change. She picked up her bags and went to stand before her family in the doorway of the parlour.

It was hard to believe she was doing this. All she had were two small carpet bags beside her. They contained her clothing, her letters, and a few memorable trinkets.

“Eva? There you are. Bring me some lemonade, child.”

“There’s no lemonade,” Eva responded automatically, then froze. She was twenty-four years old and had not been a child for a long time. It was time to let them know what she was doing. “I’m leaving.”

“To go where?” Rose scoffed. “Not without my permission.”

“I’m leaving Allenfield,” Eva said with a silent prayer that her voice would not shake. “I’m leaving this place and never coming back. I’ve found a man to marry out west, and I’m leaving right now.”

This had to be the only time she had ever received such a reaction from her words. Jack Everett whirled around, knocking over a vase of flowers. It fell and crashed on the carpet, glass and water everywhere. As for her stepmother, the older woman jerked in surprise and dropped her book.

“What?!”

“You can’t do that,” Rose said brusquely as she shook her head. “Don’t be ridiculous. You’re not leaving. Now clean up that mess and—”

But Eva interrupted. “No. I’m not cleaning that up and I’m not staying. My train leaves in an hour and I’m going to be on it. I won’t live here or stay with you any longer.”

Standing up, her stepmother shook a fist at her. “I won’t have it! How am I supposed to run this house without you? I can’t hire other help so quickly. You’re going to stay, Eva.”

“I’m not your maid,” she retorted, a fire beginning to burn in her chest. She had suffered a lifetime of attacks from that woman.

Knowing she was finally free; Eva had the courage to speak up like she never had before. “I am your daughter. I was, at least. But I won’t do it. Any place is better than this. You can’t force me, and you know it.”

Shrugging, Jack stood up beside his mother. Crossing his arms, he eyed her sceptically with a smirk. “You’re leaving to get married? Clearly, he hasn’t seen you. No one would ever want you.”

Everett joined his side. The two were always inseparable. “He’ll probably send you back, you know. Who would want someone like you?”

Her eyes burned as the tears began to creep into their corners.

Balling her hands into fists, Eva forced herself to keep them at bay. She swallowed the knot in her stomach and then shook her head. Maybe she should have just walked out.

But it didn’t matter now. She didn’t have to stay any longer.

“Goodbye,” she managed in the stiffest tone she could utter.

Picking up her bags, she started out the door. There were footsteps behind her however, so she hurried up a little in case of trouble catching up with her.

Eva made it out into the street before hearing the front door fling open. She looked over her shoulder to see her stepmother.

“You fool!” Rose shouted. “Just wait, you’ll be back! Trust me. Ungrateful wrench! You’ll be begging for us to take you in!”

Eva walked a little faster. She ducked her head and turned down the lane. Her stomach churned uneasily all the way to the train station.

Only once she was there, did Eva dare look behind her. But no one had followed her.

Soon the tension in her shoulders began to loosen. Though she was nervous about what might come next, she couldn’t help but be a little excited for the new life waiting for her. She was finally free.

Rose tried to concentrate on her hope during her journey, which was longer than she had expected.

The train took her west but only so far into the Dakota territory. Her bench had been hard and uncomfortable. There had not been a lot of food or drink for her since she had very little money. But Eva didn’t stop. She rode the train for several days before reaching the final stop in Grenville.

In Grenville, she boarded a stagecoach that was bumpy and smelly. That ride took three days because of all the stops that were required. By the time she climbed out of it for good, Eva wasn’t certain which of the two parts of her journey was more uncomfortable.

But finally, after an exhausting trip, she made it to the small town of White River in South Dakota.

Dusk had already begun to set so even though she couldn’t see too much yet, Eva did her best to keep her hopes up.

Especially since she had arrived a little sooner than expected. She thought she would have to spend a night in Greenville, but she had managed to catch the last stagecoach out for the day.

She wasn’t expected for another two days. But she decided she could spend one night in the town inn, and then go meet her intended husband the next day. It would use up the last of her savings, but she wasn’t sure what to do.

Hopefully he wouldn’t mind her early arrival.

“Pardon me,” Eva murmured as she made it inside to the saloon where the inn was situated.

The evening had just begun but there was plenty of carousing going on. Folks were walking around with drinks and cigars. Loud music played and there were several men playing card games around the room.

She tried to make her way through the crowd without touching anyone. But they were all pressed so close together. “Excuse me, please.”

The people scoffed and eyed her, but said nothing.

She forced herself to keep her head up high as she moved ahead. Her trip had not been the most pleasant. Even now, she was practically quaking in her boots.

Eva wondered for a moment if she had made a mistake coming so far.

As she headed to the inn, she acknowledged that the man she was supposed to marry might not like her after all, even after their letters. Maybe he would think she was ugly like her family had said.

But then she thought of her stepmother shouting at her.

Shuddering, Eva forced herself to be braver. There were a lot of unknown things in the world, but she couldn’t just ignore them. Her stepmother was cruel and always would be. Eva knew this.

I can’t go back to her. I won’t. I swear it on my soul that I will never crawl back there to ask for her forgiveness. This is my life, and she won’t have it.

She had come to be Desmond Delaney’s wife, and that’s what she would do.

“What a pretty lass,” a slurred voice whispered in her ear. A hand clutched her elbow as she jumped. Holding tight to her bags, Eva turned to find a man leering at her. His eyes roamed her body as she attempted to free herself.

“Please,” she started.

But then someone cut through for her. It was a large, busty woman with tight curly hair and an annoyed frown on her face. “Georgie, you’ve had enough to drink. Leave her alone! Off with you now. And you, dear, right this way. What are you doing here?”

Eva looked up hesitantly at her before risking a look around the saloon. There were still a few eyes on her. “I’m looking for a room, please. They said it was by this location, but the other doors are locked…”

“That’s because the inn is upstairs,” the woman explained. The annoyance washed away as she offered a sympathetic smile. “I’m Betsy. How long will you be staying with us?”

“Just tonight,” she explained. “I’ve come as a bride. A mail-order bride, you see, and I’m meeting my husband tomorrow. Desmond Delaney.”

Betsy’s eyes widened. “Oh? Oh. I see.” She hesitated, her brow furrowing before she suddenly cleared it up with a smile. “All right. Well, you should get some rest.”

Eva was shown to a room that was small with just a cot and a thin blanket. It smelled funny and there was dirt on the ground. But she thanked the woman and closed the door behind her.

She felt her confidence waver as she looked around, wondering if this was the sort of life, she had prepared herself for.

She gave herself a few minutes to collect her thoughts. But then her stomach grumbled, so Eva made her way downstairs to the saloon for a meal before she retired for the night.

It wasn’t much. There was a cold stew and stale bread with some water that didn’t taste very good. But Eva thanked the woman and began to eat.

She was starving and sat in the corner, watching the crowd from the corner of her eye. Eva was nearly done, when a shadow crossed her table.

Looking up, she jerked back in surprise at the imposing figure before her. A thin man with lines on his face stared down at her. He had shaggy black hair with an unkempt beard. It was the scar across his left eye that caught her attention though she tried not to stare.

“Good evening, miss,” he offered with a slight smile. The soft tone of his words contradicted his scruffy appearance. She could see the glint of guns on his hips as well as those hidden beneath his vest. Eva swallowed hard. “I hate to bother you. The name is Gilligan. Gilligan Toth. And my little girl went missing today here. We’re just passing through town and I’ve been looking for her all day.”

Her eyes widened in alarm. “Oh! That’s terrible. I’m so sorry, sir.”

He nodded slowly with a grave expression on his face. “I’m terribly worried for her, as you can imagine. She’s a tiny little thing with short blonde hair and big eyes. Then she’s missing her two front teeth. You haven’t seen her, have you?”

Eva tried not to squirm under his sharp gaze. She felt like he could see right through her. So, she tried to think about what he had said instead of how he looked.

As she tried to imagine what the little girl looked like, her heart went out for her, wherever she might be.

“I’m sorry,” she confessed. “I’ve only just arrived here myself. I haven’t met anyone before you.”

Someone cleared their throat. Both she and Mr. Toth looked over to the next table.

A man downed his whiskey before nodding to Mr. Toth. “I’ve seen the kid. She was over near the feed store this morning. Haven’t seen her since, I’m afraid.”

That had to be good news, Eva assumed. She looked over to Mr. Toth. The man rubbed his chin. Though she wanted to feel hopeful for him, there was something about him that didn’t sit quite right with her.

Before she could say anything to him, he suddenly left.

Eva watched him go in confusion. She thought he would have at least said farewell or something of the like, but there was nothing. The man disappeared out the door. Several others followed as well. They were all wearing guns tied to their hips, making her wonder if this was normal in White River.

Her throat grew dry as she tried to understand what had just happened. But there were no answers for her.

Eva ate the rest of her supper and then headed up to her room for the evening. Whatever was going on with Mr. Toth, she felt certain he would figure it out. Just like she would figure out how to build a new life with her future husband.

Yet even as she climbed into the small cot and closed her eyes, Eva couldn’t help but feel worried for the missing little girl.

Hopefully she was safe, wherever she might be.

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