Isabella Montgomery sat across from her father in his large office. She was familiar with every other inch of the house, but the office was foreign to her. Her father never allowed her into the office unless he had something urgent to discuss. Isabella’s palms were sweaty, and she fought the urge to wipe them on her fine embroidered skirt. The last time she had been in his office was the day he had told her that her mother had passed.
“Lovely weather we’re having, isn’t it, Father?” Isabella said, her voice coming out in a squeak.
He ignored her as he stared intently at the papers in front of him. Charles Montgomery was one of Sagebrush Creek’s premier businessmen. His father before him, Jedidiah, had been a prospector who found gold a few decades prior. Although Jedidiah had found the gold, Charles was the one who had turned it into an enduring fortune that lasted once the goldmine petered out.
Isabella had hardly seen her father in the two years after her mother, Victoria, had died. She was alarmed to see more grey hairs in his thick black hair and a neat mustache. There were also a lot more fine lines around his eyes and mouth. He seemed to be aging rapidly, and Isabella’s heart clenched with worry. What would she do if he died? The thought of being truly alone terrified her.
“I’ll be with you in a moment, Isabella.” Charles sighed.
He always seemed to sigh when he spoke to her. Isabella noticed that he barely looked at her anymore, and it cut her deeply. She supposed that it wasn’t his fault since she resembled her mother so closely.
Isabella had flaming red hair, which fell past her shoulders in tight ringlets. The latest fashion was to wear one’s hair in a sleek chignon, but Isabella couldn’t bear to tie her hair back. Her skin was fair, like her mother’s, and she had almost the exact same fine features as Victoria. Charles had often remarked that they looked like a pair of porcelain dolls. The only feature Isabella inherited from her father was his bright green eyes which always changed color, depending on the light.
“That’s alright,” Isabella said, feeling her cheeks heat up. She didn’t point out that he had been the one that requested her presence, and yet he was treating her like a nuisance.
A few more moments passed, and Isabella found that the silence was overwhelming her.
“How are our railway stocks faring?” she asked, leaning forward in her seat to take a peek at the documents in his hand.
He looked up at her over his spectacles, his eyes flashing dangerously.
Isabella winced. Patience wasn’t her strong suit, and whatever patience her father had possessed had died along with Victoria.
“It would be best if you minded your own business,” Charles said, pinning her down with a glare.
She gulped and nodded meekly. Their relationship hadn’t always been so strained. There had been a time when Charles spoke freely about his business. When he had married Victoria, he had gained possession of her substantial dowry. Victoria hadn’t been one to sit back and allow her husband to manage her fortune without her input. From the very start, she had advised him in financial matters.
Charles, unlike many of his peers, valued her wisdom and frequently went to her for advice. Victoria’s father had been a shrewd businessman, while Charles’s own father had been preoccupied with spending his fortune as quickly as possible. Charles often said that Victoria’s family had saved them from financial ruin.
While Isabella was stung by her father’s increasing emotional distance, she couldn’t be angry with him. He had lost his true love. Although she wished that he would see that she had lost a mother, a confidant, and her best friend. Life was unbearably lonely without her mother, and she sensed that she was losing her father with every day that went by.
“Mama always said that…” Isabella started, but she trailed off when Charles glared at her again.
She gulped and looked around the office. It was a finely decorated room with dark wood panels. A family portrait graced the wall at the back of Charles’s office. In the portrait, he stood tall, and Victoria sat in the chair in front of him, holding baby Isabella.
Their comfortable manor house resembled the Edwardian mansions built in England as Victoria had immigrated from England when she was still a young girl. Although Victoria had spent most of her life in Texas, she had retained her posh English accent until the day she died.
Isabella clutched her hands tightly in her lap. While she had no idea why her father had summoned her to the office, she had something that she desperately wanted to talk to him about. She had been waiting until he next joined her for dinner, but it had been weeks since she had last seen him in the dining room.
“Mama always said that we should face our troubles head-on,” Isabella tried again, pushing forward when he glared at her, “and I’ve noticed something rather concerning these past few weeks. It would seem as though Marcus Blackwood has been cutting his prices and actively pursuing many of our long-term clients.”
It was an unspoken rule in the house that Marcus Blackwood was not to be mentioned. When Jedidiah had come to Sagebrush during the gold rush, it had been a tiny town with a church and a handful of houses. The Montgomerys and Blackwoods had turned it into a bustling town that grew more each year. Unfortunately, the two families didn’t get along and it was a well-known fact that the patriarchs, Charles and Marcus, would sooner curse each other than say a word of greeting.
“Is that what you’ve been doing instead of pursuing charitable endeavors like your mother before you?” Charles asked in annoyance.
“I happened to notice these things while I was carrying out my Christian duty,” Isabella said, lowering her eyes humbly.
Inside, she railed and protested her father’s unfair criticism. She worked hard to help the poor and needy in Sagebrush.
“Good, that’s what proper young ladies should be doing,” Charles said firmly, “I allowed you too much freedom in the past. I see now that I should have placed more emphasis on your training to become a proper young lady befitting the Montgomery name.”
“I’ll do whatever you expect, Father, but Mama often worked along with you…” Isabella started, but her father held up his hand to stop her.
“Your mother’s situation was vastly different, Isabella,” he said with a grimace, “not every man will be as patient as I was with her. Other men will expect their wives to be able to run a household and take care of social engagements. It’s high time that you ought to be married. If you don’t have a fortune to recommend you, then you should at least have manners and proper decorum.”
Isabella’s nails bit into the inside of her palm. It was her trick to keep herself from reacting too emotionally. If her father got the sense that she was on the verge of tears, he would dismiss her immediately.
“I’m sorry, I don’t understand,” Isabella said with a frown, “I thought Mama set aside a dowry for me when I was born.”
“That money is what’s keeping us afloat at the moment,” Charles said flatly, and Isabella’s eyes widened. “I’m afraid that the damage to our businesses is severe. There’s much that you don’t know.”
How could I? Isabella asked herself. Her father never spoke to her about anything anymore.
“It needn’t be so dire,” Isabella said, trying to reassure herself as much as him. “What if we considered a partnership? We’re still a force to be reckoned with, and the Montgomery name still carries a lot of weight in this town.”
“And who would ask to partner with a sinking ship?” Charles asked sarcastically.
“Marcus Blackwood,” Isabella said quietly.
Charles leaned back in his chair and watched her thoughtfully. His expression was inscrutable, but Isabella took the fact that he hadn’t interrupted her as a good sign.
“He’s a formidable businessman,” Isabella plowed on, “and he owns many properties in town. They say he’s got a finger in every pie from here to Austin. Surely, he would see the benefit in partnering with us. If we could bury the hatchet, then it might save us.”
“And what about the rumors that he’s a madman?” Charles asked her.
She grimaced. Marcus Blackwood had a dubious reputation in town. People whispered all sorts of stories about him. A few months before Victoria died, Marcus’ own wife, Erika, had died in a tragic carriage accident.
“I’m sure reports are exaggerated,” Isabella said with an easy laugh. “If anyone can understand the depth of his loss, it’s us. Perhaps that could be the force that binds us together? Besides, he hasn’t allowed his grief to impact his business.”
Charles winced, and Isabella realized the insensitivity of her words. She wished that she could take them back, but she knew it wouldn’t do any good.
“I doubt Marcus has any idea what I’ve lost,” Charles said venomously. “The man has a black pit for a heart. You shouldn’t speak of things you scarcely understand.”
“Please accept my apologies, Father,” Isabella said, her ears going red. “I didn’t mean any harm. I would also never consider partnering with Marcus Blackwood unless it was strictly necessary.”
Isabella had seen the way her mother had winced every time Marcus’ name was mentioned. When she was still a young girl, she had been walking along a wooded lane with her mother when they heard a galloping horse approaching. Before Isabella could look up, Victoria had pushed Isabella behind her. Marcus had stopped and said something to Victoria. Isabella didn’t remember the conversation, but she recalled vividly how her mother’s hands had shaken when Marcus finally rode off. Ever since then, Isabella had avoided him like the plague.
“Is that so?” Charles asked, leaning forward.
His gaze pinned Isabella down, and she felt like he was studying her. She almost squirmed at the sudden attention, but she managed to stay still.
“He would have to come to the house,” Charles said, and Isabella got the sense that he was testing her.
“I would be the perfect hostess,” Isabella said with a demure smile. “Mother taught me well. We’ve been Marcus’ competitors for years. I’m sure we have a few assets that he would like to get a hold of.”
Charles raised an eyebrow. His expression became conflicted, and he leaned back in his chair. He folded his hands over his stomach and sighed.
“I’m not sure you know what this will mean for you,” Charles said.
“Oh, Father,” Isabella said with a worried frown, “don’t fret about me. Mama raised me to be a strong and capable woman.”
“That she did,” Charles said with a fond smile. “She was a mighty fine woman.”
Isabella nodded enthusiastically. It had been a long time since her father had referred to her mother. The simple act of reminiscing together warmed Isabella’s chest, and she felt as though things could eventually return to normal. All they had to do was save the family’s fortune.
“And I’m sure that she’d advise that peace is the best option,” Isabella said sagely.
She was confident in her own knowledge since her mother had always told Isabella to be the bigger person. Victoria had always said that a quarrel was the devil’s opportunity for mischief.
“I’ll take this into consideration,” Charles said, his tone suddenly turning cold. “Now, I’m sure you’re wondering why I wanted a word with you?”
Isabella nodded slightly and held her breath.
“Our finances are in dire straits,” Charles said matter-of-factly. “It may be a matter of time before we will have to reduce our expenses and adopt a lifestyle to which you are unaccustomed. I’m forewarning you because I don’t want you to act unreasonably when it happens.”
“I understand, Father,” Isabella said determinedly. “I’ll prepare myself.”
Ethan Cooper hated Sagebrush Creek. Although he had grown up in the town, it held no appeal for him. As soon as he was old enough, he’d hopped on the first train heading west with a heart full of hope and a head full of dreams. Then, six months ago, he had gotten the news that changed his life forever, and now he found himself back in the forsaken town with the weight of the entire family’s expectations on his shoulders.
“Howdy, Ethan!” the old Sheriff, John Matthews, called when he saw Ethan riding past the jail.
Ethan tipped his hat. He hoped it would be enough, but of course, the nosy old man wouldn’t let him go that easily.
“How’s your mama doin’?” John asked, leaning against the wooden beam that held the porch roof up. His thumbs were hooked in his britches, and he was chewing on tobacco.
Most of the men in town chewed tobacco, but Ethan didn’t see the appeal.
“She’s doin’ just fine. Thanks for askin’,” Ethan said, slowing his horse, Speedy, down.
Speedy snorted in irritation, and Ethan patted the horse’s neck soothingly. He knew exactly how the horse felt. The horse was hitched to a small wagon as Ethan was making a supply run. His mama used to come into town and meet up with her friends after she was done shopping. Unfortunately, she rarely left the ranch anymore. She simply didn’t have the energy to return to her old life. Ethan was worried that she was becoming a recluse.
“It’s a cryin’ shame about your brother,” John said, shaking his head somberly. “When he went, I was sure your poor mama’s heart wouldn’t be able to take it. Poor thing. And so soon after, she lost your daddy, too.”
“He didn’t go anywhere,” Ethan said, narrowing his eyes. “He was murdered. Ain’t that right, sheriff?”
John eyed him carefully, as if he was sizing Ethan up. Ethan immediately felt guilty about snapping at the old man. John had likely just been trying to express his sympathy. Ethan swallowed the lump that had jumped into his throat at the mention of his older brother.
“Like I said, it was a cryin’ shame,” John said, shaking his head. “Why don’t you stop by my office sometime? I can show you some of the things I’ve been workin’ on. It might put your mind at ease.”
Ethan nodded, but he knew it would be a while before he went to the sheriff’s office. John was a good man, but he was aging rapidly. Once, he had been an imposing man who was taller than anyone else in town and better with a gun too. It was the reason why the town had asked him to be sheriff. When Ethan was young, John had seemed like a legendary figure. Now, Ethan was just as tall as the sheriff and almost as good of a shot.
It had been six months since Ethan’s brother, Ryan, had been shot, and no one had been arrested. Ethan wouldn’t admit it to his mother, but he got the sense that whoever had shot Ryan had fled long ago. There was little chance of ever getting justice if they relied on the sheriff.
“Thanks, sheriff,” Ethan said, nudging Speedy in the ribs to get him going.
As he rode away, he felt John’s eyes following him, but he refused to look back. While he had grown up in town, he still felt like a stranger. Worse yet, when he was working on the family’s ranch, he felt like the worst kind of traitor. Ryan was the one who had inherited the ranch after their daddy died. He had always talked about what he would do with the place and how he would run it. Now, he was gone, and Ethan was left to pick up the pieces. He felt like he was stealing his brother’s place.
In all honesty, if it weren’t for his mama, he would have sold the place and moved on. Cooper Ranch was never supposed to be his, and he hadn’t planned on returning so soon. When he was still the second son, he was free to do whatever he wanted. So, he had traveled and taken on jobs further west. He had worked on several large ranches and had gotten dreams of opening his own ranch in wilder territory. It had been an adventure that he never wanted to stop.
As he rode through town, he saw various signs announcing whether the Montgomerys or the Blackwoods owned a place. There was the Blackwood Tavern, and the Montgomery Wood Works. It made him sick to his stomach.
“These folks need to be taken down a peg or two,” Ethan grumbled to Speedy.
More often than not, Ethan found himself talking to his horse. He knew it probably made him a madman, but Speedy was a good listener, and the horse seemed to understand him in a way that most people didn’t. Well, most people except for Jake, one of the ranch hands on the ranch.
When he neared the general store, he found Jake already waiting outside with the supplies that they needed.
“Well, you certainly took your sweet time!” Jake called, shaking his head when he spotted Ethan.
The general store, like most buildings in Sagebrush, was made from wood and had a wraparound porch. Back when Ethan had been younger, there had only been one general store for miles. That all changed when Charles Montgomery had opened another one across town. Of course, that one stocked more luxuries that the ladies wanted. Why they thought they needed lavender soap was beyond him.
He was perfectly content with the soap that his mama made on the ranch. In his opinion, a woman needed to have the skill to make whatever she and her family needed. His own mama baked, sewed, crafted, and built. She often bugged him to find a nice girl and settle down, but he would not settle for anyone. He had no time for the senseless, spoiled girls in town. Ethan wanted a woman who could handle herself.
“I would’ve been here sooner, but I got stopped by the sheriff,” Ethan said, hopping off Speedy’s back and helping Jake with the sacks.
Jake knew how much Ethan hated going into town and had volunteered to go ahead to gather the supplies, then meet Ethan afterward. Of course, since Jake was doing Ethan such a big favor, he had reasoned that he was entitled to an afternoon off. Ethan didn’t argue with him since he would rather do without one ranch hand for an afternoon than spend more time in town than he had to.
“How delightful,” Jake said with a mischievous grin. “I’m sure you must have been thrilled.”
“Maybe you’d work harder if you talked less,” Ethan grumbled.
Jake laughed heartily and picked up another heavy sack. “I’m the hardest worker you have. It’s why you love me so.”
The corners of Ethan’s mouth threatened to curl into a smile. Jake was always smiling and joking. He was the happiest person that Ethan knew. They were friends because Jake understood that Ethan didn’t mean anything by his grumbling. In fact, Jake was the only person who never took Ethan’s surliness seriously.
Jake slowed down as a pair of young women walked past them. One of them was slightly plump with fair hair and a pleasing smile, while the other had a mass of shocking red hair and a pert face.
“My, oh my,” Jake said, leaning against the side of the wagon. “I think it’s high time we came to town more often, don’t you?”
Ethan looked up in the same direction and scowled. He recognized Isabella Montgomery right away. Everyone in town knew her. She was the closest thing they had to nobility. He watched as she leaned toward her friend and said something under her breath. Her friend burst out laughing, and Isabella smiled, clearly pleased with herself.
He noticed, despite himself, that her forest-green day dress complemented her eyes nicely.
“Don’t get distracted!” Ethan barked at Jake. “We’ve got work to do ,and you already got most of the afternoon off.”
“You’re a miser,” Jake complained good-naturedly. “I barely had any time off because I was too busy running back and forth taking care of your errands. I swear you gave me more chores than is necessary.”
“Maybe you would have got them done quicker if you hadn’t been gawking at Isabella Montgomery the entire time,” Ethan pointed out.
She was still standing on the corner of the street. A basket hung from her arm as she spoke animatedly with her friend. Ethan wasn’t watching her; he could merely see her from his peripheral vision. It wasn’t his fault that she was making such a racket.
Jake blushed and mumbled something as he bent down and picked up a heavy sack. They had run out of feed on the ranch, and Ethan felt like he had failed spectacularly. The feed had never run out when Ryan or his daddy was in charge. It was just another reminder that he wasn’t doing a good job. While he had worked on plenty of ranches, he had never run one on his own before. He was terrified that it was only a matter of time before the ranch went under.
When they were done packing up, Ethan dusted his hands and double-checked everything. His mama had asked for some fabric for a new dress and some other household necessities. He also made sure that they had all the feed that they needed. A ranch was only as good as its animals.
“I heard old man Blackwood is fixin’ to buy the mine up by Poplar Hill,” Jake said, leaning against the wagon.
“I pity those poor miners,” Ethan said with a grimace.
Most people in town worked either for Marcus Blackwood or Charles Montgomery. While some viewed the two families as a godsend, Ethan saw them for what they were. Somehow, the poor got poorer while working for Charles or Marcus. In the meantime, both Marcus and Charles were richer than Croesus.
“I second that,” Jake said with a chuckle. “Sometimes I think I’m one of the last people not working for them. You know about two weeks back, there was a brawl between Charles’ sawmill men and Marcus’ traders? I swear, this feud is gonna be the end of Sagebrush.”
Ethan rolled his eyes. Ever since he could remember, the Blackwood and Montgomery families had been fighting. No one was certain when the feud began, although his mama was sure that it had something to do with a woman. She said that men only fought like that when wounded hearts were involved. Ethan thought that a woman was a foolish thing to be fighting over.
Isabella let out another tinkling laugh as she and her friend headed toward the bakery. Ethan turned automatically at the sound. She had a pleasing smile with full lips and small, straight teeth. He shook his head and looked away. Isabella was the most spoiled girl in all of Sagebrush. Ethan was certain that a full day’s worth of work at the ranch would probably be the death of her.
“Leave your speculation for your next day off,” Ethan told Jake. “Come on, there’s work to be done. Don’t think I don’t know what you’re doing.”
“What am I doing, Boss?” Jake asked, widening his eyes innocently.
“You’re trying to stall, and just for that, I’m giving you half of Henry’s evening chores.”
“What?” Jake’s mouth dropped open. “That’s hardly fair. Henry never does his morning chores, so that’s gonna be a slog.”
Ethan nodded grimly and got onto Speedy’s saddle while Jake hopped onto the back of the cart. He immediately banished the lingering picture of Isabella’s smile and headed back to the ranch. There was work that needed to be done.
“Thank you for accompanying me to Mrs. Harrold’s,” Isabella said as she and Lily walked into the bakery.
Lily’s youngest sister, Helen, had been manning the counter. As soon as she saw Lily and Isabella, she disappeared into the kitchen. Helen was thirteen years old, and all she cared about were the latest sewing patterns. She spent most of her time making clothes, so it was a struggle to get her to cover for Lily while Lily spent time with Isabella.
“I couldn’t let you go all on your own,” Lily said, waving her hand dismissively. “It’s much too far to walk without company. And Mrs. Harrold’s would have kept you there for hours if it weren’t for me.”
Isabella suppressed a smile. She loved spending time with Lily. The baker’s daughter was the only person in town that she felt that she could talk to after her mother died. Everyone else thought that she was stuck up and avoided her. Her mother had taught her that since they were privileged enough to have money, they should spend a good deal of time and effort on others. While some people appreciated her charitable works, some thought that she was condescending.
While it hurt her to know that people thought of her that way, she wasn’t going to stop being charitable simply because some people assigned sinister motives to her actions.
“I have no doubt about that,” Isabella said, “but thank you, nonetheless.”
Lily gave her a smile as she put on her apron and began restocking the bread shelves. Her father allowed her to spend some time with Isabella on the condition that she always caught up with her chores when they were done.
Usually, Isabella would leave immediately in order to let Lily get on with her work, but Isabella didn’t want to go home yet. Her father had informed her that Marcus Blackwood had accepted an invitation to dinner that night. It was a massive milestone, especially since she had been certain that Marcus would require more convincing before he agreed to bury the hatchet. However, her father had seemed fidgety all morning and hadn’t looked her in the eyes once. When she tried to talk to him, he kept finding excuses to leave the room.
When she left the house that morning, she’d had a strange feeling and looked back at the house. Her father had been standing at the window, staring at her with a strange expression. Isabella couldn’t shake the feeling that something bad was going to happen.
“Do you know who that young man in front of the general store was?” Isabella asked.
Lily knew everything about everyone. Most people stopped by the bakery at least once a week, and Lily was an incurable chatterbox. She had such a lovely demeanor that few people minded stopping to talk to her. As a result, she was usually the first person to know about any gossip.
“Oh, him,” Lily said. “He’s the Cooper boy. You know, Ryan’s younger brother?”
Isabella nodded. She knew most people in town from church. The Coopers were a faithful family who attended church every Sunday. Or they had been until Ryan died. Isabella shivered when she thought about poor Ryan. Unfortunately, since Sagebrush was expanding so rapidly, it also meant that the town attracted a certain unsavory element. She hoped that the criminals who had shot Ryan would be apprehended soon.
As Lily spoke, Isabella took her shawl out of her basket and wrapped it around her shoulders. It had been a warm spring morning, but the weather was cooling rapidly as the afternoon wore on.
“Those poor Coopers,” Isabella murmured. “Do you think they’d object to a basket of baked goods? I could head over there tomorrow or the next day. I delivered some to Mrs. Cooper right after Ryan’s funeral, but she was sleeping, so I didn’t stay long.”
“I wouldn’t do that if I were you,” Lily said with a wince. “Ethan’s a proud fella, and he probably won’t take it too kindly.”
Lily quickly set about gathering Isabella’s order. Every week, Isabella spent time taking alms to the poor. She liked to get fresh bread for each family. There was nothing that smelled better than fresh bread, and Isabella swore that good food could ease the soul.
“Some men are too proud for their own good,” Isabella said, rolling her eyes. “I’m sure his mama would love a nice treat, but because he’s stubborn, he won’t let it happen.”
Lily shook her head but didn’t say anything. Isabella sighed as she sat in the corner of the shop. The baker’s shop was a modest building with a small shop in the front. Most of the bottom floor was taken up by the massive kitchen. A door connected the kitchen to the front shop, so every now and then, customers could catch a glimpse of the baker’s domain behind the counter.
The front of the shop had large windows where fresh bread, rolls, and cakes were displayed in order to tempt some passersby into entering the shop.
“Well, Jake stopped by a few days ago to buy a cake,” Lily said thoughtfully. “Perhaps that was a treat for Mrs. Cooper?”
“Perhaps,” Isabella said, but her mouth twisted in amusement. She had her own theories about why Jake had stopped by, but she didn’t want to be unkind and tease Lily. It just seemed to her that Jake stopped by at the bakery more often than he needed to. “Speaking of treats, I need to buy one of your cakes for dessert tonight. Father told me that Marcus Blackwood is coming over for dinner, and the poor cook would massacre me if I dropped this on her at the last minute. You know how overwhelmed she gets when the menu changes.”
“Marcus Blackwood is coming for dinner?” Lily gasped. “Isabella Montgomery! How could you not tell me?”
“I just did,” Isabella said, blinking in surprise.
“Don’t you pretend to be all innocent with me,” Lily said, wagging her finger at Isabella. “You know this is monumental news. Why didn’t you tell me sooner? We could have been discussing this interesting new development all the way to Mrs. Harrold’s!”
Isabella blushed and looked away. She had purposefully kept quiet about the news of Marcus Blackwood’s dinner. Lily would want all the details, and Isabella wouldn’t be able to stop herself from expressing her unease about her father’s behavior. It was extremely likely that she was overreacting, and the last thing she needed was to voice her own fears.
“I’m terribly sorry,” Isabella said. “I simply wanted to focus on Mrs. Harrold’s. She’s been awfully melancholy after her husband’s passing. I also suspect that she’s lonely out in that isolated cabin.”
Mr. Harrold used to be a trapper before he passed. Since his work required him to be in the woods, he had chosen to build his homestead out in the woods. While he and his wife had been perfectly happy there, it was a lonely place for a widow.
Thanks to her weekly trips to Mrs. Harrold’s homestead, Isabella was well acquainted with the woods and the area surrounding Sagebrush Creek. Sometimes, when she was certain that no one would miss her, she spent time exploring the vast forest. During one of her stolen afternoons, she had found a dilapidated cabin. It was likely an old forester’s home, but it had been abandoned, and the forest had reclaimed it.
Isabella liked the thought of having a place to herself that no one else knew about. Once, she had taken a picnic with her and had left Mrs. Harrold’s house early in order to spend most of the afternoon in the cabin. It had been thrilling. Isabella hadn’t even told Lily about it, and that was part of its appeal.
“I suppose,” Lily said with a huff, “but that doesn’t mean that you’re going to avoid talking about it. I want to know everything! How did this happen?”
“Oh, Lily,” Isabella said, fidgeting with her hands uncomfortably. “I wish I could stay, but I still need to stop by a few more church parishioners. The pastor gave me a list of names that he thought could benefit from some brotherly love.”
“Goodness, that list of yours keeps growing,” Lily said, allowing Isabella to change the subject.
That was one of the things that Isabella appreciated about Lily. She never pried or stuck her nose where it didn’t belong. She was a chatterbox, but she also respected people’s boundaries. If someone tried to share harmful gossip with her, she would quickly change the subject. Lily was a sweet girl.
“I know,” Isabella sighed sadly. “I don’t know if I’ll be able to keep up with everyone on the list.”
She pressed her lips together and chastised herself for speaking out of turn. If she wasn’t careful, she would let slip what her father had told her. She could only imagine how her father would feel if people found out about their financial woes.
Unfortunately, the knowledge was burning a hole inside Isabella’s chest. She felt anxious all the time and was constantly trying to think of ways to help her father. The loneliness was killing her, and she wished that she could talk to someone about it. No. She wished that she could talk to her mother about it.
“You’re doing your best, and that’s all anyone expects of you,” Lily chided. “And if it’s getting to be too much, you should have a private word with the pastor about it.”
Isabella nodded, but she knew it wasn’t an option. When she was visiting some of the poorer families, she could sense that they wanted her to do more. People were grateful for the food and alms that she brought them, and it felt good to help where she could. At night, when she sat down for dinner, she always felt vaguely sick when she saw how much food was set out for just two people. They had a cook and two kitchen maids who cooked a veritable feast almost every night. Charles demanded that they eat well, as he was certain that a poor diet led to idleness and ill health.
She felt sick with guilt when she thought about what would happen if their money ran out. There were so many people who relied on her help.
“Isabella…” Lily asked, tilting her head slightly. “Is everything alright?”
“Oh, everything’s peachy,” Isabella said, forcing herself to smile. “Which cake do you think I should get for tonight?”
Lily hesitated, and Isabella could feel her friend’s scrutiny. She gave Lily a reassuring smile and tightened her grip on her basket. No one could know what was happening.
“My father can bake a white cake for tonight,” Lily said, giving Isabella a searching look. “I can have it delivered before dinner.”
“You’re too kind,” Isabella said with a smile.
Lily waved her hand dismissively and wrapped up the various loaves and pastries that Isabella would deliver to the poor. Once she was done, Isabella collected everything and put it in her basket. She peeked out the front window and noticed that Ethan and Jake were gone.
“Thank you kindly for a delightful afternoon,” Isabella said, giving Lily a kind smile. “I shall see you tomorrow.”
“Isabella…” Lily said, taking a deep breath.
Isabella clenched the handle of the basket so tightly that the wicker bit into her skin. She hoped that Lily wouldn’t ask anything that she wouldn’t be able to answer.
“Are you sure that everything’s alright?” Lily asked seriously. “I hope you know that you can talk to me about anything.”
Isabella almost teared up.
“You’re the sweetest friend a girl could ask for,” Isabella said sincerely, then she chuckled and gestured at the pastries on display. “Literally the sweetest.”
Lily smiled and rolled her eyes.
“I’m doin’ just fine,” Isabella said, forgetting to talk like a proper lady for a moment, “don’t you worry about me.”
“Her Heart’s Precious Legacy” is an Amazon Best-Selling novel, check it out here!
Isabella Montgomery is a young woman with an unyielding romantic spirit, refusing to succumb to a loveless marriage brokered by her ruthless father. Determined to safeguard her own destiny, she flees the clutches of the sinister Marcus Blackwood, seeking refuge in the rustic embrace of Ethan Cooper’s old cabin. Isabella finds solace in the company of the dashing cowboy and she soon realizes that true love hides in the most unexpected places.
In the tapestry of fate, will Isabella unravel the threads of duty and surrender to the symphony of true love’s call?
Haunted by loss and driven by a thirst for justice, Ethan Cooper had never expected to find comfort in the presence of a woman like Isabella. Although a dark cloud of vengeance looms over him due to the feud between the Montgomerys and the Blackwoods, Ethan reluctantly agrees to aid Isabella in her escape from Marcus’s clutches. With each passing day, their unlikely friendship deepens, stirring emotions Ethan never thought he would experience…
Can his love for her be the redemption he has been yearning for?
With their fates intertwined, Isabella and Ethan must navigate treacherous waters, risking everything for a chance at a love that transcends the shadows of their shared past. Will they seize the chance to rewrite the verses of their shared destiny, or are they meant to be mere players in a tragic tale written by the hands of others?
“Her Heart’s Precious Legacy” is a historical western romance novel of approximately 60,000 words. No cheating, no cliffhangers, and a guaranteed happily ever after.