The smell of yeast, butter, and flour filled the kitchen. The room was just barely bathed in the early morning light that broke through the windows, lanterns still lighting the darker nooks and crannies of the space as two women moved easily around one another within it. They looked like mirror images of one another, or perhaps shadows, their fingers kneading the dough in front of them from where they stood at opposite ends of the counter.
The older woman was carried her age well, the fine lines and wrinkles that marred her perfectly porcelain skin only noticeable in the shadows cast off of the lanterns. Her white-blonde hair was pulled back into a severe bun, a smattering of stray curls escaping at the nape of her neck and along her hairline. Flour coated the front of her apron and both of her palms, all the way up to her elbows.
The woman across from her was younger, her skin a light shade of olive. Her blonde hair almost shone red in the glowing light. Her strawberry-blonde locks were folded into a loose braided bun, more than just a few tendrils escaping the hold and curling in a wave-like pattern along her pretty face. She was obviously a younger, slightly altered version of the older woman that she worked next to, her features not quite so strongly Germanic.
“I just cannot abide by his refusal to accept rejection,” the younger woman murmured. Her voice was pitched low, her irritation corralled carefully within the frame of her sentence so as to not allow her voice to carry too far beyond the kitchen itself. Her fingers kneaded the dough she was working on more forcefully, her strawberry-blonde brows drawing into a v on her forehead. She was irritated, though she fought to keep it from being too apparent.
It was all too evident on her expressive features, however.
“Catherine,” the older woman chided, her voice even softer, “maybe he just doesn’t want to accept it is all.” Her words were as gentle as her tone, grace layering her every movement.
“Mama,” Catherine Farris sighed with exasperation filling her tone, “it’s not just his persistence.” Her chin notched over her shoulder as she looked back behind them, as if checking the door that led out of the kitchen and into the rest of the house. “I plain just cannot stand the man, as a man.” Her near-whisper grew even more agitated before she cut off, exhaling heavily in the short silence following. She didn’t want her father walking in on the conversation they were having any more than she wanted to be having it at all.
Mrs. Farris’ eyes moved carefully over her daughter in that time, her fingers working more slowly through the already tacky dough. Catherine pretended not to notice, but she could feel her mother’s gaze, heavy like the sack of flour between them as her own gaze was all but forced to her own work in her silent shame.
“You don’t like the man as a man?” Mrs. Farris asked after a moment. Her tone was light, despite the obvious weight behind her words. “Or you just plain don’t like him as a person?”
Catherine’s eyes shot up to her mother, surprise stretching her features at the verification that was being asked of her. “Is there a difference?”
The older woman laughed. As she began rolling the dough into small, even balls, her eyes softened slightly. “Oh, child, yes. There’s a difference, and the fact that you have to ask is answer enough I suppose…” She trailed off and shook her head, lifting one shoulder in a shrug. “But what’s the difference either way? If you don’t like him, then don’t be around him.”
Catherine sighed again, picking her own dough to pieces and trying to copy her mother’s movements. Her brows furrowed further as she stared at the pieces in front of her as if they held all the answers to the questions she had. “It’s not that easy, Mama,” she muttered. “Everyone loves Mr. John Cassock. Everyone thinks he’s charming and suave… Even Papa! He’s the one who’s pushing me towards the dratted man. Every time he’s with Papa, Papa calls me over!”
Mrs. Farris bit the inside of her cheek, so obviously avoiding Catherine’s eyes that the younger girl wanted to scream in order to recapture her attention… but she’d been raised too well, with her manners too instilled into her. Instead, she bit the inside of her own cheek, her eyebrows raised.
“Your Papa thinks that you’re of marrying age,” Mrs. Farris explained slowly, obviously being careful with the choosing of her words. She weighed each one on the edge of her tongue before even opening her mouth to utter them, more careful even than when she got caught between the German and English languages.
“And you are, are you not, mien liebling? You have shown no interest in any other boys around the area, and so your Papa is just trying to secure your future…”
Catherine felt her throat close up from the way her mother worded it, afraid that she meant to defend her husband’s actions. She was afraid of what it would mean should she actually do so, of what kind of a future that would paint out for her. She had come to her mother, specifically, in the hopes that she might talk to her father for her.
Mrs. Farris glanced up, taking in the panicked expression on Catherine’s features and immediately softened her features even further, murmuring something in German that Catherine couldn’t even hear.
“But you do not want that, do you, Catherine?” Her blue eyes sparkled with a sad kind of understanding. Something shifted behind her expression, though—a fleeting shadow of emotion that Catherine didn’t recognize, nor did she ever think she had seen on her mother’s features before.
“No, Mama,” Catherine whispered, moisture pricking the backs of her eyes. “John Cassock… there’s something in his eyes… They’re cold, even when he’s pretending to be warm. He says all of the right things, at all of the right times. But, Mama…” Catherine trailed off, her voice choking in the back of her throat.
“But he is not for you. You trust your gut, as you should.” Mrs. Farris nodded, sighing as she placed the last rolled ball of dough on a sheet in front of her. “I knew you did not care for him, but I was not sure…” She shook her head slightly and ignored Catherine’s questioning gaze once more as she crossed the kitchen, wiping her hands on the front of her apron as she moved. “I found an ad in the paper…”
She cut herself off that time, glancing at the door much in the same manner that Catherine had before fishing around inside of a small, curved box from within one of the kitchen drawers. From the box she drew out a sheaf of folded papers, carrying them back to the flour-covered counter where they had been working and setting them very gently on top of a dish towel.
“I knew you did not like him, and there was an ad for a bride. Asking for a bride,” Mrs. Farris corrected herself quickly, unfolding the papers to reveal a mess of letters scrawled in an unfamiliar hand. “There was a man in Texas looking for a wife to join him on his ranch, and when you first said that John Cassock did not suit you… Well, I thought that I would answer it, just to see.”
Catherine had long since stopped even pretending to roll the biscuits into balls, her hands stilled on top of the counter as she stared between her mother and the letters that her mother had revealed. It was as if she had been sucker-punched in the stomach, the amount of surprise and shock that had been dealt her so sudden that she hadn’t yet even begun to recover from it. “A mail-order bride?” she surmised, her voice quavering somewhat in the resounding silence.
“Catherine,” Mrs. Farris sighed, using the tips of her fingers on her one clean hand to brush the stray, curling tendrils of strawberry-blonde hair back from her daughter’s forehead. “We must discuss this fast, before your Papa’s morning chores are finished, and that means you must think fast, too.” Her voice was matter-of-fact as she lifted Catherine’s face by the chin to meet her gaze frankly. “I write this man because it is for you.” Her English slipped some in the fervor of her hurried words.
Catherine nodded, just slightly, within the grasp of her mother’s fingers, only to show that she was listening, despite her shock from the words.
“Marriage is a sacred thing, yes,” Mrs. Farris continued, her blue eyes flashing suddenly severe in the conviction of what she was trying to impart. “It is a sacred thing, but a marriage of convenience is no less a marriage than one made out of love and promises. Love is good, when you can find it, but you can grow your own love… with tending and care, much like a garden.”
Catherine felt her mother’s finger brush the sides of her face from where she still held Catherine’s chin, her touch more tender than the words leaving her mouth.
“Love, though, between a man and a woman? It is elusive and it is rare. It is like catching water between your hands—even if you manage it, hands alone are not meant to hold it… the water will slip out without the right tools. Maybe your Papa and I are not the best examples of this for you, but we are happy with one another. Ours isn’t a romantic love, no, but it is still a love.” Mrs. Farris’ voice dropped further, her thumb brushing over the bridge of Catherine’s nose before her hand retreated entirely.
Catherine hung on her words like they were gold, her lips parted slightly at the sudden window into her parents’ marriage that she had never been given before. Marriages were a sacred thing, her mother had just said, but it was the first time that it had ever been discussed that way in this house. Marriages had always been treated like a private sort of thing, with her parents’ being the most private.
Catherine knew Mrs. Farris had come from Germany, answering an ad to become a frontier wife herself. She knew her parents had first met at the altar where they had agreed to marry, and she knew that soon after her mother and father had had her eldest brother… and then her second-eldest brother, and then her.
She knew everything else after firsthand.
Her parents weren’t quarrelsome. Catherine hadn’t grown up listening to rows with raised voices and snappy commentary. They weren’t affectionate, though, either. They slept in separate beds in their room, never holding hands like some of the other couples Catherine had seen, with smiles rationed between them like salted meat in the winter.
“But,” Catherine started to mumble, her eyebrows furrowing again. This time, her mother covered her lips with the tips of her fingers, a small, tender smile lilting her lips.
“Hush, liebling. It is still a love; you are overthinking this.” Mrs. Farris’ eyes warmed so brilliantly they almost shone green as Catherine stared into them, her expression intense. “Your father is not an affectionate man. He does not bring me flowers on holidays, he does not show his love through excessive sentiment or physical affection… But he has given me a good life. He has provided for me, he has raised three children with me, and he has never once raised his voice in anger at me. Not once. He is a good man, and he has made me happy. I would not change my life. But the choice of whether or not you take this same path, that is only yours to make.”
Whatever argument Catherine had been going to make fled her like sand through the eye of an hourglass, her lips parting silently and her breath whooshing out all at once in the words’ place.
“He is not an affectionate man,” Mrs. Farris repeated slowly, her gaze sharpening. “But he is not a John Cassock, either. I did not fear marrying him.”
The words hung heavy between them, heavier than any that had come before, and Catherine felt her eyes drifting to the letters in front of them. The handwriting wasn’t neat and precise, but it wasn’t terribly messy, either. There were no flourishes to his penmanship and ink even stained the page in places in small splotches.
“And Papa?” Catherine asked softly, her fingers running over those pages. John Cassock’s writing was neat. There would be no ink splotches when he wrote—every letter would look like it came from a typewriter, with so much over-done affectation to his words that even a simple missive would read like a love letter… and yet Catherine would know it was false. Her mother was no fool, she had been talking to this man for some time. If he had given her any reason to doubt his character, Mrs. Farris wouldn’t be suggesting this now. “How does he feel about this? Does he even know?”
“Marriage is a sacred thing,” Mrs. Farris repeated knowingly, shaking her head slightly. “I do nothing without my husband’s agreement, nor he without mine. You will be fine. I know it. You only need to agree to it…” She trailed off, looking at Catherine expectantly.
And Catherine felt the world as she knew it fall from under her feet.
The stagecoach windows were like portals into a whole other world, flashing scenery like a moving picture as it passed. They had long left the land of green and plentiful behind them, the lush hillsides replaced with oranges and browns broken up by only occasional shrubbery. Catherine didn’t think she’d seen so much as one whole tree since back before their stop in Lubbock, Texas. Maybe she was being dramatic, but she certainly didn’t feel as though she was.
The land appeared so flat, too, the horses’ hooves the only steady noise that she could hear besides the creaking and cracking of the carriage that she rode alone inside of now. The last passenger had been dropped off several stops before Lubbock, but she didn’t much mind. She enjoyed the time alone with her thoughts—both to gather them and to think about how she had come to be there.
She was southern-bound, still from Boston, on her way to meet her husband-to-be… Even if that phrasing seemed just as foreign to her as the landscape outside of the stagecoach.
Her nerves chomped at the bits of her patience even more than the horses at those in their mouths, excitement and fear in equal parts like cold hairs up her spine. It had almost been enough to chase her off of the platform back home and back into her mother’s warm arms.
It was the thought of John Cassock that had stopped her.
In the months leading up to her departure, he had grown more and more discomforting. Firstly, in his attentions, and secondly in the manner in which he had begun speaking to her and approaching her following the news breaking of her impending departure. Suddenly, John Cassock had been everywhere.
Catherine hadn’t been able to so much as sneeze without seeing him out of the corner of her eye. It had become so remarkable and so uncomfortable that Catherine had stopped leaving her home unescorted.
That reminder had been the final push she had needed to allow herself to be handed up in that stagecoach and leave her family, her life, and all that she had ever known behind her.
All of the words exchanged between a stranger and her mother.
Words that she clutched in her hand even now as the stagecoach shook with movement. She had pored over those letters in the time between her finding out about them and her leaving. The once neatly-pressed pages were now creased from how often she had unfolded and refolded them, her favorites worn thin from how she had run her fingers over the lines.
When she had first looked at the letters, she had thought that they seemed messier, more real, but upon reading the words within she had been surprised even further. The words were elegant, composed of so much more depth than she had been prepared for. He spoke of his ranch often, of the trials and tribulations he had faced since having settled the land there… and of his favorite parts of living on it. He spoke of the horses and their personalities, the heat of the sun and how it could drive a man mad.
His letters read like well-composed narrative and, now that she was on her way to marry him, she couldn’t help trying to picture the man who would have written such beautiful descriptions.
She imagined him to be handsome, though not so much that he would be overly aware of it. He would be somewhere between beautiful and rugged, so as to think that he needed to rely on posting an ad rather than just picking from the list of available girls in his hometown. He would be well-off enough to have bought his land in the first place, maybe a prior businessman, or at least someone who had attended a more formal education… She was dreaming, and she knew it, but she had a picture in mind of some red-haired, well-formed, gently-spoken man waiting for her at the station.
He was easy enough to picture, it was the ranch she had trouble with. She had been raised in town her entire life, but the way he described his land made even the dirt and clay that made up the ground sound beautiful, so she wasn’t terribly worried.
At least, that was what she was trying to tell herself as those hooves slowed to a more and more regular beat, the scenery passing by slower and slower with each passing second.
Before too long they were passing buildings, far fewer and with more space between than she was used to seeing in a town… but she had noticed that, the further they got out west, the smaller the towns became. The last place where they had stopped for the night had housed only two inns in the entire town, and both of them only a handful of businesses apart.
Her palms felt sweaty and cold all at once, a clammy sort of nervous excitement settling over her as the stagecoach shuddered to a stop. Her breath felt trapped between the spaces of her ribs, her face both hot and cold at the same time—like her body didn’t know which direction to go in and so was trying to pull her in both.
Catherine could both hear and see the gentle murmurings of a crowd outside near the platform. She had gotten used to the gathering of people from town at each stop; whether they had come to collect packages or just to hear news from nearby, there were always at least a few people waiting.
Her skin felt tight as she pulled her skirts about her, scooting over to the door as she heard the stagecoach hand clamoring down from his seat up top to get to the door. She had become so familiar with the routine over the course of her journey that she didn’t so much as bother to try and appear as if she was waiting, pulling her small clutch into her stomach as Thomas opened the door.
“Ready, miss?” The gangly, blonde-haired youth asked with a grin, holding his hand out and all but vibrating in his own excitement. It had been the same at every stop.
With Catherine’s nerves as fraught as they were, however, it was hard to even meet his gaze.
She hummed some noncommittal greeting, unable to even work a full sentence out as he helped her down from the stagecoach, his mouth going a mile a minute as she nodded mutely.
She couldn’t hear what he was saying to her. She could barely even see him, a blonde blur in the corner of her vision as her eyes focused on the gathering of people near the platform. There weren’t many, certainly not as many as some towns that they had stopped in, but even that few suddenly felt like a large crowd. Very few bonnets broke up the crowd, the number of people there disproportionately male—and she found herself trying to pick her future groom out of the faces around her.
There were plenty of men, in suits, in nice church clothes… but any time she thought her eyes might have found him, the man looked away and she found her heart sinking. What if he didn’t come? Woodenly, she took her suitcases from Thomas, mumbling something in response to whatever he was telling her and still just as unable to focus on him as she had been before.
She’d feel bad about that later, she knew, but she couldn’t help stepping off to the side, her eyes still searching the crowd with a lackluster goodbye to one of the men that had ferried her across state lines.
People moved forward for their packages, others starting to call out to one another, but still Catherine didn’t see the man in her mind who had matched the words she’d all but memorized by heart at that point.
She ran her gaze over the crowd once more, almost smiling at the shorter gentleman with the jet-black hair that grinned over at her from where he stood near the back. His face was easy and gentle, the brown of his eyes alight with a sort of recognition.
But her appraisal was cut short by someone stepping in front of her field of vision.
“Catherine? Catherine Farris?”
The voice didn’t come from further back in the crowd, but from right in front of her, the voice low and not in the least bit melodious. It sounded like coffee poured over gravel, even just the utterance of her name blunt and unrefined. Her eyes jerked to the man in front of her in surprise, her eyebrows lifting slightly.
He was a tall gentleman, taller than her by at least a head and half, with bright blue eyes and the barest hint of brown hair showing beneath the brim of his hat. His features were sharp and angular, coarse facial hair dotting his face in a manner that suggested he hadn’t bothered to shave for several days, though it was obvious he did so from his lack of beard. He wasn’t unattractive at all, but red dirt was smudged across the brim of his nose and further down, as well.
A trail of it stemmed from beneath his chin, as if he had transferred it there by scratching, but it also clung to his clothing. Clothing that had seen finer days… and a while ago, at that. His shirt was torn over by his right shoulder, the buttons looser in their holdings than they should have been.
More out of place than all of that, though, were what he had to either side of him.
His arms were down and to his sides, his careful expression regarding her appraisal emotionlessly… but the same couldn’t be said for the two small children whose hands he held. Catherine had no experience with children, but she knew that the two before her were too young to attend school. They both had large, expressive dark eyes, their skin tone and hair both more darkly complected than the man whose hands they held, but there was no denying that he was of some relation. It was in the arch of their eyebrows and the shape of their eyes, if not the color.
He stared at her expectantly, as did the children, and Catherine cleared her throat uncomfortably. “Yes?” Maybe her groom had been delayed on the road and had sent someone ahead to fetch her. Maybe he had been waylaid at the ranch, or maybe he had sent his family first to meet her. Her voice almost shook around the one word, though, phrasing it as a question and answer both as she hesitated still further.
“Oh, I’m so bad at waiting!” A feminine voice broke through the ensuing silence after Catherine spoke, excitement almost bubbling her words.
The woman who stepped around the family in front of Catherine was larger than life, and not just for the obviously protruding belly from beneath her dress. She had honeyed brown hair and dark eyes, but she looked nothing like any of the other three people that she was standing with. Her grin was wide, her brightly white teeth almost glaring in the sunlight. “I’m your sister-in-law,” she crowed, her hands clapping in front of her.
Her dress was fine, pretty silks that looked out of place on the dusty street, but she didn’t hesitate in the slightest at the lack of response she received at her announcement. “Well,” she corrected, “I’m your soon-to-be sister-in-law—Lordy, that’s a mouthful. I’m Missy Ellis Matthews, Jacob Matthews’ wife, and this here is my brother-in-law, Elias Matthews. Your soon-to-be groom.”
Missy spoke so quickly it was almost difficult for Catherine to follow, moving right past the groom mention to the two children in front of her. “And these two are Helen and Mitchell Matthews. We’ve all just been waiting to meet you, and I’m just not shy like the rest of you seem to be.” She prattled on easily, placing her hand over the top of her belly as she turned somewhat, only pausing to look back at Catherine.
“Are you ready?”
“Ready?” Catherine repeated dumbly, jerking her gaze off of Missy’s belly and back up to her face as she absorbed what all she had just been told. She hadn’t been expecting to meet her sister-in-law right off, and Elias was still nothing like she had imagined before getting here. She couldn’t help but wonder why Jacob Matthews had sent his children and wife with his brother and not come himself, but that was a distant thought as she hurriedly jerked her head. “Oh, yes, this is all that I have…”
Catherine trailed off as Elias let go of the children’s hands, gathering both of her suitcases up in his grip and turning to carry them off without another word. Short and to the point, she still hadn’t heard him speak more than her name. She followed almost in a daze as the five of them wandered off toward the wagon waiting off to the left of the platform they were standing on. After a few moments, Missy, herself, and the kids overtook Elias.
Missy kept walking, with Catherine still trailing dazedly behind her, but the kids fell in line with Elias as they passed.
“Your kids are lovely,” Catherine tried after a moment, her voice still strained as she walked with Missy.
“My kids?” Missy repeated with a loud laugh. “Oh, no. Helen and Mitchell are Elias’ kids,” she explained, looking at Catherine with raised eyebrows.
Catherine wanted to reply that she had known that, only she hadn’t. She wanted to be able to laugh or really have anything to reply at all, but all that she could do was turn and look at the man trailing behind them with confusion painted across her own features. None of his letters said anything about a child, especially not one of his own—not once.
“A Love Sealed at Sunrise” is an Amazon Best-Selling novel, check it out here!
At twenty-three, Catherine Farris knows that her father wants to see her married, but she is unwilling to choose the one man in town who has expressed an interest in her. Being rather desperate, when her mother comes to her with a mail-order-bride ad and a set of heart-warming letters from the author, she jumps at her only chance and goes west. Upon her arrival, instead of the eloquent and thoughtful man portrayed in the letters, she finds a hard-working rancher and father, rather short on words and emotionally distant. Although shocked at first, Catherine can’t help but feel charmed by his looks and his kind soul. Will she ever have the chance to break through the walls around his heart before it’s too late?
Elias is a widower set on trying to create a better life for his children, but running his ranch on the outskirts of town with two kids is far too demanding. Under these complicated circumstances, looking for a mail-order bride to help him shoulder the responsibilities of the ranch and childrearing, seems to be the simplest solution. However, when Catherine arrives looking breathtaking, he realizes that his life will never be the same again. Expressing his emotions has always been quite a challenge for him, but Catherine makes him want to try. How will he finally trust his heart and let go of his trauma in order to fully devote himself to her?
Right when the two of them start to feel closer to each other, a shadow from Catherine’s past appears, threatening to destroy everything they hold dear. Will they let the past ruin their newly created dreams, or will the sunlight of their love destroy any darkness heading towards them menacingly?
“A Love Sealed at Sunrise” is a historical western romance novel of approximately 80,000 words. No cheating, no cliffhangers, and a guaranteed happily ever after.