Summer nights in New Orleans meant bullfrogs and katydids trying to outdo one another like there was some pageantry award for whichever group could sing the loudest. It also meant thin bed sheets and a whole lot of windows left open to try and catch whatever breeze might break up the hot, sticky humidity that hung so thickly it might as well have been an ever-persistent fog in the air.
Sweating in such heat would be no surprise, although the figure thrashing about on the bed with sweat beading both on her brow and making her already tangled bed sheets cling to her even further didn’t seem at all concerned with the heat. Her whimpering was low, almost as if, even in her sleep, she was afraid to be too loud and draw attention to herself.
She thrashed about, her whimpers growing louder and louder until suddenly she sat up on the bed, the dark tendrils of her brown curls matted to either side of her face from the combination of sweat and tears that had mussed them so.
Her soft brown eyes swept the room quickly, wild in their fear and yet still somehow almost apologetic as she sank back against her pillows, her sigh so heavy that it seemed to sink her whole body into the mattress with it.
She was alone in her room, much to her relief and chagrin.
Marie didn’t know which bothered her more, the fact that she had been having such a nightmare to begin with or that her heart still raced so heavily after waking from it.
“Chien jappô li pas morde,” she whispered, listening to the steady rumble of her father snoring traveling all the way from downstairs as she tried to calm her still-choppy breathing. It was a silly saying, she knew. The barking dog, in her experience, did bite, no matter how the saying went.
It had just been a favorite of her brother for so many years, whispering it as their father had hollered and raged, his voice competing with the sound of the pots and pans he tossed about.
The barking dog doesn’t bite …
But he sure did snore. Steady and loud, the noise grating to her ears as she huddled down into her sweat-soaked sheets and closed her eyes to try and recenter herself.
It was hard enough to do after as vivid a nightmare as she had just had … but with that snoring …
How could he sleep so deeply? How could he sleep so peacefully?
Despite Marie’s best intentions, her thoughts were tinged with a kind of venom, her stomach churning as she tossed the sheets back and felt the pseudo chill from the light breeze against her damp skin.
She could still hear his voice raised, not in a snore, but in anger. She could feel his fists against her soft belly as he drove her back into the wall for whatever perceived slight she had given him that evening. Despite now being awake, she was still living through the memories her nightmare had conjured up, her hands shaky as she stripped her bed of the wet sheets and moved to change them for a drier, cleaner pair.
She moved so quietly even with that snoring, tiptoeing around her own room, fearing to wake up the man she called Father.
It didn’t matter that he was crippled now.
It didn’t matter that he couldn’t make it up those stairs on his own and couldn’t lay a hand on her anymore. Her brain didn’t seem capable of separating history from the present.
She knew if she were to tiptoe downstairs, she would find the bottle of whiskey he had opened that evening at dinner nearly, if not entirely, emptied. The bottle would still be sitting on the table, the glass he had eventually given up on even the pretence of using somewhere next to it, holding his chewed tobacco instead.
Cerise, her new stepmother, hadn’t quite adjusted to cleaning up after him yet. Ten years as his mistress hadn’t prepared her for the reality of being Mrs. Fontaine.
Marie wasn’t sure that she would ever fully adjust.
Unlike her mother, dead only a year, Cerise hadn’t weathered the fall of their house. She’d married Marie’s father for his name and supposed standing, for the love she thought the man bore her. She’d married him, imagining the maids and help expected of an upper-class French Creole family with the last name of Fontaine.
Cerise hadn’t been there as a glass a night had turned into two, and two into three, and so on until the whole bottle had become a regular occurrence. Cerise hadn’t been there for his lavish spending of the fortune his father had left him, the betting and the presents given as a way to try and make up for those dishes or furniture that had been broken the night before in his stumbling anger.
It hadn’t been Cerise who had taken more and more money out of their rapidly decreasing accounts to pay the sheriff to keep Marcus Fontaine out of jail. Nor had it been Cerise who had weathered the man’s fists as his anger turned physical, and the drink enhanced it.
No, that had been Marie’s mother.
And it had driven her into an early grave because of it.
Marie sometimes worried that it would chase her to it as well.
Even if he couldn’t beat her to within an inch of her life any longer, the fear was still there.
It was a fear that clogged the back of her throat so tightly at that moment that it felt almost like a physical obstruction. She could feel his mean, hard brown eyes on her despite knowing he was still downstairs. She could see how his body swelled with his anger, his barrel chest expanding as his lips twisted viciously. She could see it because such memories were ingrained into her mind more vividly than any other.
Putting new sheets on the bed had calmed the shaking in her hands. It had even slowed her breathing.
But that fear was still there, burning in her chest and making her breath catch at the sound of that snoring down below shifting.
Shifting, she realized as she paused to listen, but it hadn’t stopped.
He had rolled over. Or maybe he had pulled the sheets up under his chin. It didn’t matter so long as he was still asleep. But every shift, every change, only made her more aware of his presence downstairs–which only heightened that fear still racing through her.
Her mother was dead.
She made herself repeat it in her head as she tidied up after herself.
Her mother was dead, and her father was remarried.
He couldn’t hurt her with his fists any longer, but that didn’t mean that he couldn’t hurt her at all. And Marie knew that the lull in his anger recently had been his being on his best behavior for his new wife. She knew it had been an act to make Cerise settle in, that sooner or later, the facade would start to crumble.
He’d only been drinking half of a bottle a night in the previous weeks.
And the bottle would only be the precursor to everything else.
Marie knew it and understood it was why the nightmares were coming more frequently. She knew her state of unrest was a warning sign, a great big, blaring signal to try and caution her of what was to come.
And even though it only seemed like she was cleaning her room, she was listening.
Her steps were still whisper-soft as she moved across the room, pulling the chair in front of the desk in the corner out and sliding carefully into it as she pulled out a book from under a stack of others. She very carefully opened it, pulling pages apart to get to the hidden cache beneath them.
The newspaper clippings she had taken from the paper to hide amongst her things were spread out slowly on the desk in front of her, her eyes scanning those ads that had been placed and picked through so carefully. A man in Dallas looking for a mother for his six children. A man from Wichita seeking someone to help him run his shop. On and on their wish lists and reasonings stretched …
And nestled in the midst of them all was one she knew the words to without even having to read. Because they were words she had written, about herself, searching for a husband who sought only companionship and a good life.
She was searching for a way out.
Her way out.
She just had to go through the letters already sent to her in response to her posting and weed out the ones that didn’t sit right with her. She had to find, in the lengthy correspondences, which man she had the best chance of having a happy, calm life with.
It was a prospect almost as daunting as listening to that snoring from downstairs.
Her whole body froze again as that snoring shifted, snuffling and coughing overtaking the gentle rumble and making her bite down hard on the inside of her cheek as she heard that coughing moving. She could practically see him, even with a whole floor of the house between them, his barrel chest heaving as he threw his legs over the bed.
She could hear the not-so-gentle thrum of his voice, his words only slightly muffled by distance as he barked orders at Cerise to help him get out of bed and to the bathroom.
“What use are you then?” he snarled as his voice raised enough for just that one line to travel clearly up the stairs.
Marie closed her eyes to hear it. More and more as the nights wore on, he was getting to the point that she knew he would start demanding she come down so he could be taken care of. More and more, he was growing comfortable under his new wife’s gaze.
More and more, that ability for her to slip away became slimmer and slimmer.
She tucked the letters and newspaper clippings carefully back into the book, inhaling sharply as she hid it again at the bottom of the pile before rushing to slide back into bed.
The sheets were dry even if her anxiety hadn’t lessened any.
One day she would know what it was like to go to sleep without fearing what she might wake up to. One day it wouldn’t be such a drawn-out process for her to get her body to relax enough to actually fall asleep in the first place.
It was that one day she focused on, her eyes closed, and the sheets pulled up underneath her chin as she tried to imagine what that would be like, how freeing it would be.
“What would you want in a man then, mon cher, if not Cade Beaufort?” Mrs. Aberforth asked as she fanned herself zealously. August’s heat had obviously gotten to her. Little beads of perspiration formed in her slowly graying blonde hairline as she paced in front of the grocery store shelves. “He is handsome, well-liked, and has enough money to buy up half the town if he so chose!”
“That’s his daddy’s money, Mama,” Tabitha Aberforth sighed, rolling her eyes as she trailed after her mother. “Cade is nice …”
“But he’s not Danny Dupont,” Mrs. Aberforth guessed, sounding fed up with the very thought of the boy she had named.
Marie tried not to eavesdrop. She didn’t care who Tabitha Aberforth was sweet on. She didn’t care how little Mrs. Aberforth liked it. But the general store was full, people bustling about doing not much of anything at all, and some just there for the shade it provided from the hot late summer sun blazing outside and making the store window glint.
She was only half listening anyway, her mind on the letter tucked into the front of her dress despite the near-constant movement as she added groceries to the basket hanging in the crook of one arm.
The mother and daughter’s voices became somehow at once more hushed and emphatic, like little wasps darting about one another in the breeze.
“Danny Dupont and Tabitha Aberforth! Oh, how my mama is going to hate that she sent me for the lemons today,” Adaline Brough whispered, the words more of a giggle than anything else as she fell into step next to Marie without so much as a proper hello.
Adaline was tall for a woman, nearing five foot seven, with broad shoulders like her daddy and all of her mother’s beauty to soften features that would more often be considered masculine. She was the kind of beauty that drew eyes for more than just one reason, and it was clear in how she carried herself that she neither knew nor cared for such things.
“Hush, you,” Marie responded, still only half listening to the pair as they wandered further and further off, their wasp-whispers going with them.
“You’d be more interested in it too, mon ami, if you weren’t so preoccupied,” Adaline teased, following Marie as she veered off to the tables set up by the front windows.
The sun’s heated rays were bright even through the glass, warming both girls’ features as Marie set her basket and other things down atop one of the tables to slide into the chair behind it. Despite the store’s activity, no one was sitting at the other three tables. The usual occupants, the older men usually gathered to drink their morning coffee and gossip about the goings on around town, had all been chased away by the afternoon hour and the sun.
“Keep your voice down,” Marie begged of her friend, worried eyes sweeping the store behind Adaline as she settled in at the table.
She huffed, though not unkindly, as she pulled up another chair to join Marie. There was no fear in her bright green eyes, but then there rarely ever was.
Adaline came from a good family, in all manner of speaking. Her daddy came from a well-known line of businessmen, her mama from a trading company ‘empire,’ and though everyone in town knew they had been in an arranged marriage, they could all be forgiven for forgetting such a fact with how obviously in love the two were. Adaline had never known a day of uncertainty or fear in her home, as adored by her parents as they were by one another.
Marie had always envied it, though she was hardly focused enough to do so as they both leaned towards one another over the table.
Marie knew she was on borrowed time. Her stepmother and father would be expecting lunch soon, and if they knew she’d stopped to dawdle … Well, it was a headache that Marie didn’t want to deal with, even just theoretically.
“Did he write again?” Adaline pressed, barely waiting for Marie to get fully settled.
Marie laughed, although even that noise was tense and uncomfortable as she pulled out the letter from her dress. “He did,” she confirmed, her lips twitching softly as she put the letter on the table.
“And?” Adaline asked impatiently.
“And I haven’t had time to read it yet!” Marie answered with a roll of her eyes. “I only just picked it up from the post office!”
“Well, what are you waiting for, mon amie? Open it already!” Adaline teased, unbothered by Marie’s nerves.
Out of all the responses she had received to the marriage advert she had put in the paper she had only answered one herself.
Daniel Bell, a sheriff from Candle Valley, Nevada, had moved her to do so. His letter was frank and to the point, absent the flowery and obviously false promises that so many others had included in their first letter. He’d spoken about his job, friends, and family, and been as nervous to have written to her in the first place as she had been to put the ad in the paper.
“Marieeeee,” Adaline whined, eagerly leaning forward as Marie slowly opened the envelope.
Dear Miss Fontaine,
My ma was tickled pink to hear that you asked after her fritter recipe. I’ve included the instructions she wrote down for you on the folded paper behind this letter. I hope you enjoy them half as much as we do, although my pa says there’s no way you can’t.
I can’t say there’s much crime out this way, since you asked, but we have our occasional problems, nowhere near what the bigger towns and cities have to deal with, though. A part of me wonders if I shouldn’t embellish the facts a little seeing that I’m the sheriff, and I don’t want you getting the wrong idea and thinking me lazy or idle, but for the life of me, I wouldn’t even know what to say to make it more exciting.
I do have a routine of sorts. I didn’t mean my first letter to come off as if I just sat around on my hands all the time. Work does require a lot of my attention, but to be honest, it isn’t nearly enough to be as fulfilling as I had once thought it to be. I spend my time not working helping my friends on their farms or helping my ma and pa around their house. Every Sunday, I have dinner with them, and I know that might seem like a bit much, but I reckon I’d better warn you about it now rather than spring it on you later.
I do have a good life, you’re right, but it’s lonely. There are plenty of women in town, but none I haven’t grown up alongside to view more as family than a potential wife. I always reckoned I’d meet someone new who moved into town, and that would be that, but honestly, the days are long, and the older I get, the more I find myself longing for the kind of relationship my parents have.
I always reckoned I’d already be married with kids by now, but that just hasn’t been what has happened, and I think I’m ready for that next stage in my life. I never really thought I’d actually respond to any ad in the paper, even when looking, but something about yours caught my eye.
Maybe it’s too forward to say that I felt a connection, even in that first letter, or maybe I’m fooling myself on account of my loneliness. And maybe I’m being far too upfront with you on all these matters, but I’m not interested in being anything but honest if the goal really is to make something of this.
You asked me to tell you about myself, but I don’t quite know how to begin. What is it that you want to know?
What are your favorite colors? Your favorite season? I reckon the seasons might be a mite different between Louisiana and Nevada. Does it snow there in winter? All I’ve ever heard of it is that it’s got a lot of swamp land and that y’all talk a mite funny. Meaning no disrespect, as it is, I’ve been told a time or two that my accent is a bit funny too.
I’m writing to you from work and my deputy has just made his way back in, so I’ll leave you with those questions and like about a hundred more unasked.
Hoping to hear from you soon,
Marie could hear Adaline bugging her for the news as she read, but she still found herself smiling sillily at the letter she held, her chest warmer than she would have liked to admit.
He was just so forthcoming, writing to her as if he were penning a journal entry rather than trying to entice her interest. And, if she were being honest, that was part of what drew her to him. She didn’t have a whole breadth of experience with trustworthy men, much less ones that were honest and as good as it seemed that Daniel was.
“Marie!” Adaline sighed exasperatedly, and despite herself, Marie giggled before handing the letter over to her friend.
She had to admit, also, that his job was a good part of what had drawn her to him in the first place. Overly used to crime or not, his being a lawman spoke of a kind of security that Marie had never dreamed of imagining.
The way he spoke about his family, so easily interjecting them into his letters, and clearly speaking of her to them as well, was another positive she hadn’t thought to look for.
“Oh, Marie,” Adaline sighed, her romanticism shining in her bright gaze. “He’s not nearly as romantic as that lawyer from Colorado …” The but was clear in the way she trailed off, scanning the letter again.
Marie’s lips twitched, rolling her eyes softly as she looked out the window with amusement clear on her face. “That wasn’t romance, mon amie. Those were just flowery words. That man didn’t know me from Eve, and you know as well as I do his job means he knows how to use his words. I don’t want a silver-tongued devil.”
“You’re always so pessimistic,” Adaline accused good-naturedly, folding the letter back up carefully and handing it back to Marie with a laugh. “But I do like the way this Daniel writes, even if it is rough. He seems to be a mama’s boy. Ce c’est bon.” She nodded decidedly.
“Yes, his attachment to his family is a plus,” Marie distractedly agreed, looking down at the folded letter. “I like … Well, I think I quite like how blunt he is. Even if you find it rough.”
He sounded honest, and the way he spoke of his life made it sound ideal to Marie, even if he worried that it sounded boring or lonely. In a town surrounded by people, Marie felt far lonelier than the life he described to her.
“That’s all that matters,” Adaline said softly, reaching across the table to squeeze Marie’s hand with her own. “If you like the sound of him …”
“I think I do,” Marie said slowly, hesitation lining her features and tone. Daniel spoke of a connection, but Marie knew better than to trust that feeling herself. He sounded honest, and he seemed like a good man. But she didn’t want to be taken in by sounding and seeming.
More than anything, she wanted peace and safety. She longed to be out of New Orleans, away from her family and all the drama that came with it.
“All you can do is keep writing to him and see,” Adaline said in understanding. Even if she didn’t share Marie’s same reservations, she knew her friend well enough to respect that she had them. “Now hurry up and write your response so I can take it to the post office to be sent, and you can make it back before your wicked stepmother starts caterwauling about town.”
Marie snorted in surprised amusement, pulling out the parchment and pen she’d brought with her to do just that.
She knew Adaline was right in hurrying her along. Cerise and her father would be expecting her back sooner rather than later and, for any of this to work out how Marie had planned, they couldn’t know what she was doing.
She just had to hope that the precautions she was taking to keep them from doing so were enough. And she had to hope that her gut was right about this man she was writing. She longed for the ‘boring’ that Daniel wrote of – the security that came through his evenly-tempered letters.
It was all she had, that hope.
“You said there are plenty of women out here?” Logan repeated, holding the letter Daniel had earlier reluctantly handed over away from his face as if what he was reading was really all that shocking. “Plenty of women where? Ain’t no women out here that aren’t already married, too young, or too old,” he grumbled, pushing away from the desk as if offended that Daniel had said as much.
Hot and dry. Those were the only two adjectives to describe the days and how they’d been, the plants seeming to wither despite the short rainfall they’d had earlier that week. There was no moisture left from it, sapped by the sun and the ever-thirsty soil.
Daniel didn’t mind the heat so much, though. With the difference in temperatures as stark as it had been, the cattle rustling scheme that had been running for the past month or so seemed to have taken a break, trying to avoid the dry heat of the day, and chased away by the more frigid temperatures after sundown. It told Daniel, more than anything else, that they were probably dealing with an out-of-town outfit.
It didn’t change that he still needed to look into it and track the rustlers down, but it made it somewhat less urgent.
“There are plenty of women out here,” Daniel argued, the back of his neck hot as he leaned forward to try and swipe that letter back for himself. “Women our age that are equally unmarried too. I didn’t say there was a lot. I just said plenty.” He hardly thought he was lying to have said as much.
“If there were plenty’a women out this way, wouldn’t be so many of you hopping on them bridal adverts like you have,” Logan pointed out, his eyebrows raised.
Daniel snorted as he finally succeeded in snatching the letter back, his green eyes only slightly narrowed. He hadn’t thought that anything he said was anywhere near an exaggeration, and he didn’t much like the thought Logan thought he had. He knew several women his age, unmarried even. Like he had told Marie, it was just that he’d known them all so long that it was hard to look at them as anything other than familial.
Logan’s laughter brought his gaze back to him, his brows furrowing slightly at the too-amused expression his friend looked at him with.
“Lord almighty, you’re really worried about this, aren’t you? I thought you weren’t taking this whole advert thing seriously anyhow. What happened to all of that it’s not for you talk you started out with?” he teased, slapping the side of his knee and flashing his too-white teeth in a large, amused grin.
“It isn’t. It wasn’t,” Daniel corrected himself, sighing heavily. “Lord, I don’t know, Logan. I know a lot of men around town have been using the adverts, and there’s been more than a fair few of those relationships that seem to have turned out real happy even … it’s just that …”
“You expected some family to move into town with a blushing daughter for you to make your bride by bumping into her at church on Sunday and taking her home to your mama,” Logan teased, his southern accent growing even thicker. He was from further south, down around the Texas panhandle, and even though he’d been living in Candle Valley for going on ten years, he still had that deep drawl that came with it.
Daniel grunted, sitting back in his chair with a small frown at how Logan described it. The whole thing sounded romantic and fantastical, but it was exactly what Daniel had been hoping would happen all of these years … and it just never had.
“Aw, calm down, boss. I’m just jerkin’ your chain. Ain’t nothing wrong with you writing this gal. I’ll tell you them Cajuns and Creoles are something else. My daddy used to say getting mixed up with one of them would either be heaven or hell. She sounds real sweet, though. I don’t see how it’s much different from your mama or daddy introducing you to a girl really. It’s just … the newspaper is your mama and your daddy here …” He trailed off, looking unsure of his wording, but it was short-lived. Quicker than Daniel could make sense of what he’d said, he was already grinning again.
“She does sound sweet, doesn’t she?” Daniel asked, looking at the letter and barely waiting for Logan to respond. His eyes caught sight of the little caricature that she’d drawn in the margin of the letter, the words catching his attention right quick after it.
Dear Mr. Bell,
My favorite color is green, although I couldn’t begin to tell you what hue of it. I think it changes with the seasons. By the way, fall has always been my favorite. It’s still warm enough to keep warm without a whole lot of layering and when the leaves start to change color, I think it looks real pretty down here, swampy or not. We get snow every now and then, though it rarely lasts long enough to mean much of anything at all. Nothing like what I hear from further north.
I wouldn’t know about talking funny; I think we talk relatively normal, although I do know not everyone uses so much creole French as we do so liberally. I’ve had to catch myself quite a few times from including it in my letters, but that’s easier than in person, being that I can always rewrite these.
I’d like to know your favorite color and season as well, although I think I have more questions than you did. Perhaps you’ll think me too forward now, but what is it that you’re wanting to do with the rest of your life? I reckon your job has a shelf life, or maybe I’m mistaken. Did you always want to be sheriff? What do you imagine you’ll do when you retire?
What made you want to get into the job you have anyhow?
I want children. I know that seems very forward to bring up, but I figure as we’re communicating this way, there’s less chance of subtly introducing such conversation. I like children, though I can’t say I have a ton of experience with them or even that I would want them right away. But being that I am twenty-six, maybe I’m just overly aware that many women my age are already mothers. Do you like children? How many do you think you would want? And please, if your answer is anywhere more than four, kindly cease writing to me.
(That was a joke, and maybe a poor one. Although I’m not sure I wouldn’t actually mean that. Like I said, I have very little experience with children.)
There’s a woman living on the outskirts of town here with thirteen children. Every time I see her with her children in public, I think how hardy she must be and am in awe of how much activity there seems to be.
Plenty of women sounds, at least, like I might have a chance to make new friends.
Is that getting ahead of myself?
I’ve never courted before. I know that it would be different between the two of us and our letters and what would happen in person, but I can’t help feeling as if I am at a disadvantage never having experienced anything of the sort.
Are you sure you want to pursue an old maid such as myself? My grandmere had a saying she tacked onto things, ‘does not a spring chicken make,’ and I think it’s rather applicable here. Twenty-six years does not a spring chicken make.
I think I’m putting my foot in my mouth over and over again here, and I’m on a bit of a time restraint myself, so I’m going to gracefully bow out here. Humor doesn’t come across on paper as well as I intended it to. And I’m still writing.
Hoping not to have scared you off,
“Daniel … Daniel …”
The repetition of his name turning into his title had Daniel’s head jerking up from the letter, the back of his neck heating up all over again at having been so preoccupied just rereading it.
“You were looking like a moonstruck calf; that’s what you were,” Logan joked, laughter tinging his words. “I swear, Sheriff, I ain’t never seen you get so turned about by nothing, and I think I’ve known you long enough to be able to say that with some kind of authority.”
Daniel couldn’t deny the assessment, his head shaking slightly as he ran his hand down his face with a snort. “I didn’t think I’d be as invested in this,” he admitted sheepishly. “I wrote her because I liked how her ad was written, and I’d just gotten back from Carol and Steven’s wedding, and I thought ‘why not,’ you know?”
Logan nodded, his eyes shining with obvious understanding. As lippy as he was about the entire thing and as rough as his sense of humor was, Daniel knew that he got just as lonely as Daniel. He just approached his with sarcasm and an endless fount of humor.
“For what it’s worth, I like her, boss,” he offered, his lips twitching as he looked back at the letter.
Daniel knew that a good part of that was probably for as sarcastic and upfront as she had been. “She keeps saying she’s being too forward or getting ahead of herself, but I’ve considered asking her more than once if she’d want to come down now and do our courting here in person … I just know that’s not exactly how this works.” Even if he wished it were.
“Boy, howdy, no boss, could you imagine how awful that’d be if it didn’t work out? Not to mention expensive. Give it a little while longer yet. You’ve only been corresponding, what? One month? Two?”
“Almost one month,” Daniel answered after a moment. He knew Logan was right; it was just that he was impatient.
And try as he might to hide it, he was a romantic. Marie was lovely, from her sarcasm and wit to how eloquently she spoke, even in her bluntness. His eyes fell back to the funny drawings she had left alongside the sides of her letter, and he couldn’t help smiling.
“Give it time, Danny boy. Get to know her more,” Logan said with surprising wisdom. “No use putting the cart before the horse.”
Daniel sat back, his thumb brushing just beneath one of those drawings as he considered his friend’s words. “You think I’m being foolish, having written to her like I did?” he asked suddenly, that worry plaguing him since he’d first sent that letter resurfacing once again.
“Awkward, maybe,” Logan answered readily, not so much as pausing before he did. “But if it lessens your worry any, so is she. The both of you are talkin’ all kinds’a crazy in my opinion, but that don’t mean much, I don’t reckon.” He laughed, his head tipping slightly as he sat up straighter, stretching as he paused and looking slightly contemplative.
“Because we’re moving so fast?” Daniel questioned, trying to listen with an open mind.
“Nah. Y’all are just talkin,’ really. Don’t see nothing wrong myself with being upfront about what the two of you want here and now so you don’t waste one another’s time. I think … Well, I think that the craziness of it is just how easy the two of you are talking if I’m being honest with you.” Logan looked perplexed by his own admission, sitting back with a ragged exhale and shaking his head.
Daniel didn’t quite know what to say, so he didn’t try saying anything. Instead, he stared at the drawings she’d made in the margins and thought about what all had been said.
Logan said it seemed easy, but it didn’t feel all that easy on his end. He felt as if he reread every letter twenty times over before he actually committed to sending it, and then even worried about how it would be received for days afterward.
He liked writing to Marie but sending the letters and knowing what to say in them didn’t come without its fair share of complications.
It felt like one of the scariest and hardest things he had ever done, putting so much trust in a woman hundreds and hundreds of miles away. Hoping against all hope that, even though she was the first ad he’d answered, that she would be the only one he’d have to.
He hadn’t lied–not to her or Logan.
He was lonely. And being on his own had started to make him feel weary.
He wanted the companionship a good woman could bring, to settle down into the life he had only been half-living up to this point. He had everything else he wanted … save for a family.
Maybe the crazy part was expecting Marie to fit into what he was looking for.
He didn’t know one way or another; all he knew, sitting there reading her letters, that maybe it didn’t feel so crazy when he was reading or responding to her as much as it did in the time between the two things.
“You stupid idiot,” a voice boomed, rattling the windows with the bass and fury behind the words.
A cup flew from the table into the wall following the outburst, the smell of brandy filling the air so pungently that there was no denying that the substance was falling in rivulets from where the cup had crashed down the wall.
“How hard is it?” Marcus Fontaine slurred, his brown eyes narrowed, and his meaty fist closed so tightly on top of the table that his knuckles stood out blanched white against the rest of his bronze skin. “I pay for the food. I pay for your clothes. I pay for everything in this house!” Spittle flew from his lips, decorating the tabletop like drops of rain. “And all I ask for in return is a warm dinner when I come home.”
His words were menacing, the anger very clear beneath them, and despite knowing that he couldn’t stand quite quick enough to reach her, Marie still felt her insides trembling violently at the thought of him going to stand up. Though the bruises he had left last were long healed and whatever scars might have decorated her over the years had faded, her memories of receiving them hadn’t.
“It was warm when I put it on the table,” she explained, her voice patient and even, holding no hint of reprisal.
She didn’t get a chance to speak again, though. His fist lifted and slammed so the whole table shook with the action.
“But it isn’t warm now!” he yelled, his pupils dilating as he sat forward.
Despite her best intentions, Marie took a quick step back. Her heart hammered in her throat as she tried to swallow the fear that rose with her heartbeat. “I–”
“I told you that you were cooking too early,” Cerise murmured spitefully from where she sat, cutting into her ‘too cold’ chicken. She looked up, her black eyes flashing manipulatively as she lied so plainly and without even a pause before doing so. “I told you he was going to be home later this evening.”
Marie couldn’t speak. She’d told her nothing of the sort–not in any of the two hours it had taken for Marie to put everything together, not before she had been prepping the ingredients. She’d only sat in the kitchen corner, looking mournfully over whatever she had been attempting to knit as Marie had worked.
The veins in Marcus’ neck throbbed, the mottled red coloring of his face growing even darker as he leaned forward. “Ca va,” he snarled. “The next time this plate hits my table and that food is cold, you can lick it off the floor where I’ll throw it. You hear me?”
His words were clipped, the violence flashing in his eyes enough to make Marie nod mutely as she stood stock still, like a deer stuck in the crossfire.
“Why don’t you give him your plate?” Cerise asked, her voice sugar-coated venom. “You did make yours last, didn’t you? Stands to reason it would be warmer …”
Marie said nothing, looking at her father as his eyes flicked between the two women, contemplative even amid his rage.
“Well, go on then,” he groused when Marie made no move one way or another.
Silently she lifted the plate, handing it over to him and taking a quick two steps back before he could reconsider, possibly trying to strike her with her close enough.
She’d no sooner stepped back than Cerise was smiling, her faded beauty like an ill-fated mockery in light of the ugliness twisting her once pretty features. “I’m sure you have chores that need doing.”
Marie didn’t wait for her father’s dismissal on that one, only turning on her heel the moment Cerise had spoken to flee the scene.
The lump in her throat felt almost painful, the hot tears built behind her eyelids refusing to actually fall. She didn’t want to cry. She didn’t want to be upset over any of it at all. But she was, and no matter how hard she tried, there was no denying as much.
Cerise said chores as if Marie hadn’t already completed everything that needed doing around the house throughout the day. She’d done them all as well as the errands that had to be run around town earlier in the day, but Marie wasn’t about to argue that point. She was only too glad to be out from beneath both of their hateful stares, on her own on the other side of the house as she tried to find something to busy herself long enough until they had both eaten their fill.
Like a light at the end of a very dark tunnel, the letter she had tucked into her apron earlier that day when Cerise had wandered into the kitchen called to her.
Somehow, over only a few short months, he had become a source of hope. His letters were like little pieces of a promise leading to somewhere brighter, somewhere better, somewhere that her father and stepmother couldn’t touch …
She was careful, pulling the letter out of her apron again, looking around the room and peering down the hallway to ensure that Cerise hadn’t decided to follow her before finally pulling it all the way out.
Even just her name in Daniel’s handwriting on the front of the envelope made her smile as she wandered over to the desk on the far side of the room, gracefully folding herself down into the chair as she slipped the paper out from within the envelope.
My dearest Marie,
I made sure to say an extra prayer for you in church this Sunday, as you requested being that you wouldn’t be able to make Sunday services yourself. It pains me to know that you are missing them when you’d so clearly rather attend, but I understand sometimes that familial obligations make such things hard to accomplish. I’ll admit it does comfort me to know that such a thing is as important to you as it is to me.
I find, as the weeks go on, that we agree on more and more. I’m glad my joke of wanting eight children, in response to your own joke on ceasing writing to you, went over as well as it did all those letters ago. I will admit to having thought about it more, outside of joking, since the subject was brought up. You don’t have to worry about me wanting a whole passel of youngins, that’s for certain. As a single child, I’ll agree with your statement that a child should grow up with siblings, though. I do think it is something I missed in my childhood. I always wanted a brother. Please refrain from telling my mother as much when you arrive as I think I’m past the age of wanting as much, though.
I find myself looking more and more forward to your letters. The days between them seem to stretch endlessly. Especially in comparison to how quickly I fly through reading them when I do have them.
I finished fixing my ma’s soil in her herb garden bed like you recommended with cycling. She says she grows more and more fond of you for it. She already used eggshells, like you said, but she said that the coffee grounds were a new idea for her and she wouldn’t be disappointed if they flavored the herbs any. I assured her, of course, that you said they don’t.
Hearing about you donating to the orphanage near you was inspiring and reminded me of yet another thing we both find important that we hadn’t even discussed. I think charitable work is a truly important task to undertake when done to help and not for attention. I can’t say I do as much as I’d like, but after reading your letter, I cast some thought as to what I could accomplish in the coming week.
All I could think to do was offer Widow Jenkins help with her firewood, which I did. I think I’ve slacked some there as she didn’t seem to have much of a store left from the last time I helped. Given that the weather is becoming more and more chilly, I’ll have to fix that.
I truly can’t imagine what a swamp looks like, though you’ve tried again and again to show me. Don’t think I didn’t notice the character you drew of a man sinking into one in the margins last time, either, I surely did. I get a kick out of those drawings. I reckon it’s one of those things you need to see to truly understand. The idea of the air being so humid you can feel the swamp waters in it is also a foreign concept.
The air here is dry and getting drier and drier as the season shifts. November is only just around the corner, and I’d aimed to spend more time conversing with you, to give you your last holiday at home and then approaching things, but I’m too impatient a man, it seems.
I didn’t know it was possible to miss a person between letters, but here we are, and here I do. You talk about cooking gumbo, and I long to try it. You mention wanting to see Nevada in the winter, and I want to show it to you. Not next winter but this winter.
I reckon it may be too soon to ask, but I’m asking anyhow.
Come join me here before Christmas. It’s too early to profess that you have my heart and soul, but not too early I don’t think to tell you that I think with a little time that’s exactly what you would have. I cherish our correspondence and mourn the lack of it when the time between mail grows too long. I always imagined proposing to a woman down on one knee with the flowers and the whole regalia that the west seldom seems willing to provide.
Write back and tell me that you’ll come to be my wife. I’ll arrange for all the transportation and ensure you have tickets you can pick up at the train station and a stagecoach waiting for you in Reno to ferry you the rest of the way.
I don’t want to waste the holiday season waiting and wishing. I’d like to start off this new year with you already my wife and starting on the path I know that we were meant to travel together.
So long as you’re agreeable. If you’d rather wait, so will I. I’m just hoping you are just as impatient as I am.
Marie didn’t think she had ever read a letter so quickly or gone back and reread certain lines as many times as she had to ensure she was reading them correctly. The way he had started and ended the letter wasn’t lost on her or her rapidly beating heart.
It wasn’t fear that made it race then but … anticipation? Nerves? Butterflies? She didn’t know enough to differentiate between the three, although she suspected it was some combination of all of them.
He was worried she would want to stay here – in New Orleans for the winter?
He could have written to her asking her to leave that night, and she would have done it. Knowing how true that was felt as surprising as it was unsettling as she thought about it.
It was only the end of October, approaching November. They’d only been writing to one another for a handful of months, but there was no one Marie looked forward to talking to more. He was right in saying it was too early to declare love. But Marie knew, even as unfamiliar as she was with such things, that what she felt certainly approached what she would imagine such a feeling to inspire.
Seeing the snow in the winter, starting a Christmas out as Marie Bell rather than Marie Fontaine … All of it felt more right than she could put in words.
But still, worry loomed behind all of her happy anticipation. Because guilt filled the corners of her happiness reading his letter and request. He knew her favorite foods, her favorite color, her thoughts concerning literature and the arts. He knew how much she liked cooking but despised sweeping. He knew many things about her that she had never thought to discuss with another person.
But he didn’t know about her family.
He didn’t know about her father or stepmother, about the dark parts of her past she was so eager to flee from. Not once in any of the letters had she dared to bring up those subjects or anything even approaching them.
It wasn’t just a fear of her letters being found either.
No, it was something deeper, something scarier.
She was afraid that his interest in her would wane if she were to tell him. She was afraid that seeing those scars would make him view her differently. That the idea he had formed of her would be tarnished, and he wouldn’t want her any longer. She feared that his words would go from sweet and tender and twist into something colder and harsher.
She was afraid of being rejected.
But she knew that she was going to accept his offer.
How could she not?
She would just have to find the right time and place, after reaching Candle Valley, to open up to him about her past. Hopefully, once there and after they had come to know one another better, it wouldn’t be such a daunting task. Hopefully, he would hear the truth of it, and not look at her any differently.
As she folded up the letter and tucked it back inside the books she kept it hidden in, she closed her eyes.
God, please, let this hope not be just a dream. Let this be real; let him be real. Her fingers closed into fists as she wished with all her might that it would be so. That Daniel would be as tangible as he felt in his letters and not something else entirely.
“A Love Haunted by the Past” is an Amazon Best-Selling novel, check it out here!
Marie knew little of the world outside of the dark, foreboding corners of her family home in New Orleans. She’d only ever dreamt of escape, but after her mother’s death, she finally started seeking it. She never would have imagined it would come in the form of involving herself with those bridal ads, much less moving all the way across the country to Candle Valley. There, an honorable and dedicated lawman will give her a second chance in life…
Can she open her heart to him or will her past continue to overshadow all attempts at happiness?
Daniel has lived a lonely life as a sheriff up until he meets his new Creole wife and falls hard and fast for her. Finding out the skeletons that lurk in her nightmares only further convinces him that he is meant to protect her and stand by her side. He wholeheartedly wants to build a new life with Marie and erase those shadows that haunt her…
Can he keep her safe when those nightmares become real though?
When Marie’s dark secret comes back into the picture, the couple’s faith and love are put to test. Can Daniel keep Marie safe from the past that haunts her or will their recent bliss come to a bitter end? In a test of family by blood and family found, what will win; the shadows or the candlelight?
“A Love Haunted by the Past” is a historical western romance novel of approximately 80,000 words. No cheating, no cliffhangers, and a guaranteed happily ever after.