Cleaning floors shouldn’t be anyone’s favorite way to spend a Monday afternoon, but it was Ava’s. The way the bubbly soapy foam made soft mountains and washed away the grime that gathered through the week was satisfying to her soul.
A little girl with blond, curly hair and wide brown eyes appeared at the end of the hall. Lottie was her name, if Ava remembered correctly. She’d come in with a few new children a couple of days ago. “The headmistress wants to see you.”
“Thank you, Lottie. I’m almost finished here.”
Lottie bit her lower lip, then shuffled away around the corner. Ava’s heart ached for her. Many children came through the orphanage with no family or anyone to care for them. The orphanage became their home, the headmistress the closest thing to a parent they had. That had been the case for her, as well as the dozens of children who lived there now.
She finished up the floor with a final scrub and set the pail of dirty water off to the side, then headed to the headmistress’s office. It had been a while since she’d been called there.
Her heart pitter-pattered against her rib cage. She was eighteen, and this day had been coming, but it seemed too soon. Her footsteps sent hollow little thumps through the mostly empty familiar halls. The younger children were in classes for the day.
The headmistress’s door loomed in front of her, bringing back plenty of uncertain memories from the past. The headmistress had never been unkind to her. In fact, most of the time she’d been quite the opposite. Even so, her heart fluttered a bit in her chest when she had to see her on an official matter.
She knocked softly on the hardwood door.
“Come in,” sounded immediately on the other side of the door.
Headmistress Anna sat behind a large wooden desk, with plenty of dents and scratches, showing the use from many years.
“Good morning, Ava.” Anna set her quill down and adjusted her chair a bit. “I know you’ve been expecting this, but we are expecting more children next month, and your bed is needed.”
The headmistress was nothing if not blunt.
“I know, it’s just…” Ava searched for a good reason that would convince no-nonsense Anna that she needed more time there.
“You’re eighteen, Ava. You’ve been here three years longer than many others.” Anna lifted her hands to stop Ava from speaking. “Before you tell me that you need to stay for Leon, I have to say that I know you want to, but you can’t protect him forever, not unless you are prepared to care for him yourself as a mother. There’s an orphan train going west next week. He will be on it, and if all goes well, he’ll have a family when they get out west.”
“But…” Would he find a family? Leon’s wide, shy eyes and soft stuttering voice filled Ava’s mind. If he hadn’t gotten a family in the last three years, despite the dozens of couples looking for children, then it was doubtful.
“Ava, you have to let him move on in life, and you have to move on in yours. We can’t keep you here any longer.”
“What if I go with the train?” she blurted out. She had no one in life but the one person who had been a brother to her, and he was depending on her to make sure he ended up in a good place.
“Go with the orphan train?” The headmistress’s eyebrows shot up. “Why would you go with? It would be more expense for nothing. No family wants an eighteen-year-old girl.”
“Not for a family, but to help you. I mean, surely you’ll need someone to help with the children. If you take me, you won’t have to have one of your other workers go along with you. You won’t have to pay for my return trip. I will stay somewhere out west. Then if Leon doesn’t find a family, I’ll…”
“You’ll what?” The headmistress watched her with a relentless, demanding gaze.
“I don’t know what I’ll do, but I promise I will figure it out. I will find a job there. Please think about it. It will be more beneficial for you in the long run.” Ava clenched her fists, waiting for a response.
“Alright. You can come. Prepare your things, as well as those of the children on this list. You’ll be out there on your own, you know. Are you prepared for that?”
Ava nodded decidedly. Her parents, as well as anyone who might have known her or cared for her had abandoned her long ago. She wasn’t about to do the same to Leon.
“That’s all then.” The headmistress waved her away and Ava didn’t stick around for her to change her mind. She needed to find Leon and tell him the good news. An ache tugged on her heart. The selfish part of her didn’t want Leon to find a family and leave her behind. However, the nine-year-old little boy still had a chance at normalcy. She, however, had already passed that age and knew better than to expect to be a part of Leon’s new life for long. Yet she entertained the thought of somehow getting a job and caring for him.
She found Leon sitting on his bed in the sleeping area. His legs were tucked underneath him, and he was playing marbles on top of the blanket. She’d managed to save some money from little odd jobs around town to get him the marbles. The way his eyes lit up made every penny worth it.
She sat down on the edge of his bed, tucking the list the headmistress gave her into her apron pocket.
“Ava, I’m getting b-better.” Leon motioned to the marbles. With her, his stutter was almost nonexistent. It came out most when he was nervous or afraid.
“Of course you are. In a few more days, you’ll be a professional and not another child in this orphanage will be able to beat you.” Ava tousled his blond hair. “Listen, I just came from talking to the headmistress.”
“You’re getting sent away, aren’t you?” Leon’s lower lip trembled.
“No, no. That’s not happening at all. We are going west together on the next orphan train.”
“T-t-together?” Leon’s big eyes peered up into hers.
“Yes, we are going to go together. I am going to try to be there to find you a good family.”
Leon shook his head and looked down at the bed. “N-no one wants me.”
Ava touched his shoulder, giving it a gentle squeeze.
“What’s the matter? It’s exciting! We will ride on a train together and go to several towns. We’ll get to see a little more of the world than just New York.”
“I…what if n-no one wants me to be in their f-family?”
“They’ll want you.” Ava cradled his cheek with her hand. How could anyone not want Leon? He wasn’t the strongest of children, and he might sound different with his stutter, but his heart was bigger than anyone’s.
He loved everyone better than almost everyone, and he deserved the world in her opinion.
“Why c-can’t I stay with y-you?”
Ava swallowed. She’d considered the option on more than one occasion. After three years at the orphanage with no family, it wouldn’t be too hard to convince the headmistress to hand Leon over to her care, but could she really care for him?
She wasn’t sure that she could be responsible for him. How would she feed them or provide a roof over their heads? The way everyone would look at her wasn’t even what would bother her most, but the worry of not finding a good place for them to live was.
She hadn’t been able to earn a living, even though she worked a couple of hours a day outside of her duties at the orphanage. She’d never lived in the real world, outside of the long grueling days at the orphanage. She had no idea how hard it would be to become a parent to a child, even a wonderful childlike Leon.
“If I could take care of you, I would, Leon. But don’t you want a mama and a papa, and siblings?”
“No.” Leon leaned into her, wrapping his arms around her waist. “I wish I could just stay with you.” He didn’t even stutter as he said the words. They came out as naturally as she’d ever heard them. If only someone would give Leon a chance, they would have to fall in love with him, just like she had. She wasn’t his person. She couldn’t be. She placed her hand on his soft hair, resting her chin on top, wishing, just wishing things could be different for both of them.
“It’s bigger than I imagined. How about you? What do you think?” Ava surveyed the huge beast of a train while holding tightly to Leon’s hand.
They were standing in front of the train that would carry them west. She’d seen trains coming and going from New York and would hear them from the orphanage, but she’d never seen one up close like this and had never ridden one.
If she was nervous, and a bit frightened, she was certain that Leon was. She looked down at the little boy who had become the center of her world these past three years. He squeezed her hand and looked up bravely.
“W-we’ll be okay.”
Yes, they would. They were together, and she’d be able to make sure he was all right, properly settled, and hopefully with a family who would love and cherish him forever. Her chest already ached at the idea of not being a part of his joys and sorrows, and yet it was a necessary thing.
She imagined him with a mother who would love him, tuck him in at night, and read him bedtime stories. That was all she wanted, a father who would take him to do the chores around the farm, and teach him how to be a proper man with love and kindness. All the things she’d never had, even when she thought she did as a child, were the things Leon deserved.
“Come on, we can do this.” She put on a brave smile. If only Leon could see the paralyzing fear right below her skin, then he would refuse to get on that train, like her brain was screaming at her to do.
She swallowed hard. She had to be an example to both Leon and the other children. Headmistress Anna was busy getting the other fourteen children on the train. Her haggard eyes met Ava’s with a little glint of relief.
“Why don’t you take them and get them all seated at the back of the passenger car? They have been most kind to donate a section for the children, in hopes it will help them find a home.” She wiped a tear from the corner of her eye, looking down at the little people she’d spent most of her life caring for. Headmistress Anna’s demeanor toward everyone in the orphanage was often gruff and uncaring, but it was only an outer shell she used to cover her inner sensitivities. Ava was a firsthand witness to how much Anna cared and did everything in her power to make sure the children in the orphanage had a better chance at a good future.
She took over, rushing and nudging the children toward the entrance of the train, then down a long, narrow hallway. She put them in their seats, checking each one had their bag of belongings and their coat properly buttoned up. So many hopeful faces. They all deserved good homes.
Leon had situated himself between two boys his age. They were two out of many who were occasionally kind to him and included him in their games. He was busy showing them his marbles, which fascinated the other boys, causing their eyes to light up with sparkles.
Ava smiled softly. He would find a family, a good one. He had too.
“All ready to go?” Gabriel Miller asked Jericho. He’d been waiting on his friend, as well as assistant for what seemed like an hour.
“No, not yet. Not all of us have servants to pack our stuff for us,” Jericho grumbled, but it was all in good nature.
Gabriel stepped into the room and punched Jericho playfully in the arm. His friend wasn’t wrong. His parents were the wealthiest in New York and spared no expense on him or anyone in their household. Sometimes he saw the servants more than his own parents. He flopped down into a nearby chair, causing it to creak underneath him.
“So, how do you feel about going to California?” He wanted Jericho to want to go, besides his parents were paying for him to go.
“Great. I’ve never been, and you always have plenty of tales to tell when you return. I’m surprised they haven’t sent me sooner. It’s dangerous to travel alone these days.”
Gabriel scoffed. He was glad Jericho would be coming with him too, but it had nothing to do with safety. He’d made the trip between New York and California at least half a dozen times. His parents were only insistent on Jericho coming for safety because they’d seen three stagecoach robberies in the papers this last month.
“It’ll be a whole lot of fun. I can’t wait to get on the road, and I don’t want to miss the train.”
“Fine, fine. I’m coming.” Jericho closed the clasp on his satchel.
“Where’s the rest of your stuff?”
“What do you mean?” Jericho held up the satchel. “This is everything. I don’t need half a dozen crates or suitcases like some people.”
Gabriel chuckled, then shook his head with incredulous disbelief.
“You spent all that time packing one satchel?”
“Most certainly! Now who was saying we were in a hurry?” Jericho seemed more amused by his astonishment than anything. Gabriel laughed as he followed Jericho.
They’d been friends for the last six years since the day his parents hired Jericho’s father on as the gardener and Jericho as an assistant to carry out errands and keep an eye on him.
Money could buy a lot of things, but one thing that it could not buy was friendship, or having people that cared about his well being. Jericho accompanied him to school, stuck around him, and reported any ill incident to his parents.
People learned quickly to steer clear of bullying him or making his life difficult very quickly. Unfortunately, Gabriel would have preferred not to have his parents be so involved in his friendships and lack thereof, because it made people afraid of him, and afraid of getting close. He quickly realized he was destined to be a loner, always wondering why people were talking to him or had any vague interest in him.
Jericho always acted like a friend to him, never held his position over Gabriel’s head, and it was easy to forget that he was paid in the first place, but it was a fact that was stuck in the back of Gabriel’s head. He wished that he knew for sure Jericho was his friend just because and would continue to be, even if the money stopped coming.
His parents stood in the parlor, his mother dabbing the corners of her eyes with a pale blue handkerchief.
“My dear boy, are you sure you have to go again? It’s always agonizing, hoping that you’ll come back, but not truly knowing until you’re here again.” His mother shook with sadness. It took strength not to be bothered too much by it. If he dwelled on her feelings too much, he’d be likely to forgo his trip to visit his uncle altogether, just for her peace of mind.
“Now, now, dear. He’s twenty-one for goodness’ sake. This is not the first time he’s traveled to California and won’t be the last.” His father pulled in a long breath on his pipe. “Don’t make the lad feel bad.”
Gabriel approached them, trying to shove away the awkwardness of goodbyes that he hated so much.
“I’ll write you and don’t worry, Uncle Malcolm is waiting for me. I’ll arrive perfectly safe and then be back in a few months. Maybe I’ll even strike it lucky and make a fortune on gold mining while I’m out there.”
“Don’t say such a thing.” His mother shook her handkerchief at him. “Do you know how dangerous it is mining for gold? It’s bad enough he’s going to visit. You won’t be a gold miner! You can’t be!” His mother nearly wailed her words, emotion gripping her.
“Oh, come now, darling.” His father wrapped an arm around her while winking in Gabriel’s direction. He’d once felt embarrassed by their antics and back and forth, but these days he found it amusing more than anything else.
They loved each other and still treated each other like best friends. That was more than some marriages could say.
“I will be fine, Mama. You don’t have to worry about me. Uncle Malcolm would never let me be injured or do anything too dangerous.”
“Well, at least we have that to be thankful for,” she grumbled. Her reluctant respect for his father’s brother wasn’t new either. She came over and wrapped him in a vice-like hug. Despite her small figure, her arms were like metal straps around him, full of vigor and determination. She was the type of mother he was certain would race across the Wild West to find him if he ever found himself in trouble.
She took a step back, and his father was next.
“You sure you don’t want us taking you to the train station?”
“No need. I’m sure Jericho and I will barely get there in time to board, and little else. No need to upset Mother more than she is already.” Saying goodbye to his father was always a bit awkward. Did he hug or shake hands? His father never seemed to know either until the very last moment came and they did one or the other on instinct.
His father leaned in and gave him a bear hug, reminding him of when he was younger and would receive such a greeting every day after school. It was a welcome memory.
“Do be careful, son. Your mother is right about some things. Just be cautious.” His father stood back with a protective glint in his eye. His father was a wise man. He always knew when to be more worried, and when he could relax. “I’ll expect a letter from you at your earliest convenience.”
Gabriel nodded. It took another two goodbyes and a dozen more worries from his mother before they were finally in the little carriage heading for the train station.
“Ready for this?” he asked Jericho.
“More than you know.” Jericho smiled bigger. The train was just as wonderful as he remembered it. They made their way to a private passenger car. It was only for him and Jericho, with a sleeping area, a dining area, and a lounge section to relax in.
Peering through the window at the other passenger cars made him even more appreciative of his accommodations. The seats were packed with people and even children. There were a lot of people headed west. If they could stay on this luxurious train car the whole way, he’d be relieved and even looking forward to all of this, though for the last two days, they’d have to take a stagecoach.
That was his least favorite part of all, but there was little he could do about it. For now, he’d try to enjoy himself and save the worrying for later. It would be a shame to let his father’s money go to waste. He sat down in one of the comfortable chairs near a small window and rested his head against the back. This was going to be a good trip. He had a feeling it would be more than memorable.
“Stand tall.” Ava adjusted Lottie’s little shirt collar. Lottie met her eyes.
“I’m scared,” she whispered so softly Ava barely heard her.
“Why would you be scared?” Ava touched her cheek. “You might find a new family.”
Lottie’s eyes widened. “Do you really think so? With a real mama and a papa?”
“Yes, I think so. The right couple is going to see you, and they’ll whisk you away. God is watching over you, Lottie, and I know he’ll send something good your way.”
“Thank you.” Lottie’s eyes brightened a tiny bit. “I hope they’ll like me. I’d be a good daughter.”
“I know you would.” Ava patted the girl’s hair, then went one by one to the other children. Some of them, like Lottie, would find good families. Others would either be more likely to be adopted for labor, or not at all. Sadness tugged at her heart as her eyes landed on Leon.
He was such a handsome boy, so perfect. Most couples were immediately drawn to him until they heard him talk. He was brave though, his little shoulders thrust back and his head held high as people started approaching. The first couple came up to him. Out of all the children, they immediately walked down the line.
They were an older couple, with hair that held small streaks of gray, but they emanated kindness and gentleness. They’d be the perfect parents for him. If only he could have the luck to be adopted so soon.
“Why, look at you. You’re a handsome little fella, aren’t you, son?” the man asked, kneeling in front of Leon. His chest puffed out even more. “It’s nice to meet you. What’s your name?”
Ava breathed a sigh of relief. Maybe if they got to know him a little before they discovered…
“I-i-it’s nice to m-meet you t-too.” The stuttering was so much worse than it normally was. Sometimes he could say sentences, or even more paragraphs, without a single stutter. That only happened when he was comfortable and knew a person well. Of course, he was nervous and afraid of this situation.
The man did a good job of hiding his expression. It only filled his eyes. The woman, however, covered her mouth with her hand, a look of pity filling her expression.
“Well, little man, I do hope that a lucky family is able to give you a home today. Unfortunately, my wife is looking for a little girl.”
Ava’s heart broke as the couple stood and continued down the line to Lottie. Tears pricked the backs of her eyes. Why could no one see past the simple things that inhibited little Leon?
She wiped away one tear that escaped from her eye, forcing herself to put on a brave face. Leon’s gaze caught hers and she smiled at him. He needed all the encouragement he could get. He didn’t need to see her upset and sad for him.
The couples kept coming. The nice pair who’d considered Leon took Lottie home, and despite their dismissal of the little boy she’d come to love as if he were her own little brother, she was grateful that Lottie found someone who would be kind to her. At the end of the day, three more children had found homes.
Everyone who hadn’t found a home was crestfallen. She couldn’t blame them at all. Leon especially looked completely heartbroken. She sat down beside him on the train and wrapped an arm around him.
“Everything. No one w-wanted me.”
“Someone will want you, Leon. It’s only the first stop.”
Leon nodded, but his lower lip trembled and his eyes swam.
“Why do I h-h-have this problem?”
“It’s not your fault, Leon. Everyone is born different. One day, you’ll look back and you’ll see this stutter as a part of yourself, or maybe you’ll grow out of it and it won’t bother you anymore.”
“I wish I was grown up now. Then I could go live on my own and I wouldn’t need anyone to take care of me. At least I have you. You won’t leave me, will you?” Leon nestled into her side, his head resting on her chest.
“No, of course, I won’t,” Ava murmured her promise as her thoughts filled with memories. Those words sent little daggers into her heart. She’d heard them from someone she thought would never let her down. She rested her chin on Leon’s head as she allowed herself to be carried back to that day she hadn’t thought about in so long.
Ava scooted closer to her father in the pelting rain. His huge figure protected her from the rain. A gentle arm draped around her shoulders.
The horses’ hooves clicked against the cobbled street as they took a turn. He was all she had left now. It had been six months since her mother passed away, and so far, they were the worst six months of her life.
Her father pulled to a stop in front of a large house. Huge wooden doors loomed over her, and big windows with lamp light spilling into the street cast a welcoming glow to anyone who passed.
The wagon creaked as her father jumped to the ground and helped her down beside him. His hand engulfed hers with warmth, almost making her forget how cold she was.
He walked up the steps with a slow sort of reluctance to his gait. He knelt down in front of her at the door, but didn’t meet her gaze.
“Papa? Where are we?”
“A place where you’ll be safe. They’ll take good care of you here, darling.”
She shook her head. “You won’t leave me, will you?” her little voice quivered, reaching her own ears as if it belonged to someone else.
“I don’t want to, child. I love you, more than you know, but I can’t…I can’t take care of you right now.”
“Papa, please…I’ll work harder. I won’t bother you. You once said you would never leave me.”
Her father sighed, deep and heavy, as if he couldn’t bear this conversation much longer.
“One day, you’ll understand, but I can’t explain it all to you now.” He tucked a piece of paper into what looked like an envelope in her hand. “Read this when you’re bigger, and you’ll understand. I love you, Ava. Remember that. If there was another way, but there isn’t.” He leaned forward and kissed her forehead and warmth filled her one last time, before he turned and trudged down the steps, his huge form retreating with the wagon and horses into the dark night and the pouring rain.
Her cries for him to come back fell on deaf ears as she huddled against the door.
Ava drew in a shaky breath. Her father never came back for her, and she’d read his letter a thousand times. She did understand why he thought that was his only option, but her heart still told her that there could have been others. Headmistress Anna had looked into it when Ava turned fifteen. He’d passed away a year after he’d left her. Maybe he had known he was going to die.
Her stomach turned as she hugged Leon closer. She would never abandon him, never.
“That’s all of it.” Ava checked the luggage, as well as the last six children who were left from the fifteen who had come with them west. They were all older children. Leon was the youngest of them. “Why not take the train to the next town?”
“It’s taking another route after it gets to the next town over. It will be easier for us to go from here. Someone from church offered to take us in their wagon to Carrion. It’s a small town about five hours from here. Then we’ll go with them to Silverstone. From Silverstone, if everyone doesn’t find a home, we’ll go to one more town nearby, then we’ll return here on the stagecoach, and go back to New York.” Headmistress Anna leaned closer. “How is Leon doing?”
“He’s…disappointed.” That didn’t begin to cover how Leon felt.
“Don’t worry, if he doesn’t find someone in Carrion, he’s sure to find someone in Silverstone. There are lots of farmers there and they’ll take almost anyone, even a nine-year-old boy. He’ll grow into a good enough ranch hand.”
The headmistress’s words were meant to be comforting, but they only intensified the ache in Ava’s chest. She didn’t want him to be taken as a simple farmhand, who would sleep in a barn and be treated as if he were nothing more than a bit of labor, barely worth what he ate.
She didn’t want that for anyone, especially not for Leon. She wanted him to have a loving family.
She climbed up into the wagon and got comfortable. It was going to be a long ride.
“A Love more Precious than Gold” is an Amazon Best-Selling novel, check it out here!
In a world where life has dealt her a tough hand, Ava Lawson, an eighteen-year-old orphan with a heart of gold, clings to her faith and her unwavering determination to protect the only family she has left – Leon, a sweet boy with a heartbreaking stutter. Together, they embark on a journey westward on the orphan train, in a desperate bid to secure a better life for Leon. Little did Ava know that fate had more in store for her when she stumbles upon an injured stranger in the woods, a man who possesses a life of privilege and emptiness; an encounter that will change her life forever…
Can Ava risk everything to protect the man who has touched her heart?
Gabriel Miller, a spoiled young man from a life of luxury, finds himself thrust into a perilous journey to visit his uncle in California, accompanied by his loyal friend and assistant, Jericho. However, when their stagecoach is ambushed by ruthless bandits, Gabriel is left injured and alone in unfamiliar territory. It’s in the care of Ava, a woman whose strength and selflessness captivate him, that he begins to question his own values. Yet as danger follows him he must navigate a treacherous path, not only to save himself but to shield the woman who has come to mean everything to him.
Can she be the one to fill the void of emptiness he has always felt?
As danger lurks at every corner, Ava and Gabriel, despite their differences and the threats that loom, find themselves drawn together by an unbreakable bond. Will they have the strength to overcome the perils that surround them or will their love story crumble under the weight of the challenges coming ahead?
“A Love more Precious than Gold” is a historical western romance novel of approximately 80,000 words. No cheating, no cliffhangers, and a guaranteed happily ever after.