It was fascinating to watch the landscape change. Dense woods and rolling hills turned to expansive pastures and flat fields that seemed to go on for miles and miles. Used to the hustle and bustle of Philadelphia, Elizabeth sat on the edge of her seat with her nose practically pressed to the window. Her fingers rubbed restlessly over the stack of papers in her lap as she watched the scenery flying by.
She didn’t think she’d ever been so excited about anything in her life. For the first time ever, she was embarking on an adventure. Her life in the city had always felt so dull. Secretarial work at the bank had hardly been her dream. It was hard for her to feel settled when there was something inside of her always yearning for more. There was a place she thought she belonged, and it wasn’t in the city.
Maybe Dwight had picked up on that. A month ago, he’d eagerly told her that he’d liquidated his assets and planned on buying some land out west. She’d felt the ground shift out from beneath her feet when he’d asked her to come with him. As his fiancée.
It wasn’t the sweeping romance that she’d dreamed of, but she did love Dwight in her own way. As one of the bankers who’d hired her, he was always kind to her and looking out for her. She’d never even realized that he saw her as anything but a friend.
He would make a good husband, and she would make him a good wife. She was determined to do that. After all, he’d be giving her the life she’d dreamed about ever since she was a little girl.
“You seem excited, my dear. Is this your first time on a train?” An elderly woman happily knitting in the seat across from her car smiled gently at her and introduced herself as Helen. There were four women in the car when they started, but the other two had disembarked at the last stop. Now it was just her and the elderly lady. The large six-seater section was meant for single women traveling to see family. The crush red velvet of the seats that matched the heavy red curtains along the window seemed to swallow the two of them whole. The older woman had spent most of the trip knitting or napping, which was fine. Elizabeth wanted to be alone with her thoughts and prepare herself for what was waiting for her at the next stop, but it looked like she couldn’t avoid her companion forever.
“It is,” she admitted.
“Meeting my fiancée. He came out here a couple of weeks ago to finalize the details on some land he bought. We’re going to be married as soon as we get settled.”
Helen’s eyes lit up with glee. “That’s lovely, my dear. Is your family coming to meet you for the wedding?”
At the mention of her family came a dull ache to her heart. It had lessened over the years, but it was still there along with the lurk of dark fear. “No. Just me.” It was easier just to leave it at that than explain that she’d lost her parents when she was a child in a vicious stagecoach robbery. The only survivors had been her and her childhood friend Johnnie. Apparently the robbers had too much heart to murder children, but they had left both of them orphans.
Elizabeth was sent east to distant relatives, cousins of her parents. They’d been kind to her and raised her as their own, and she’d always be grateful to them, but the loss of her parents still cut deep.
Without even realizing it, she rubbed her fingers over the stack of papers. Helen noticed. “Letters from your sweetheart?”
Immediately, her cheeks flushed, and she looked down. “No. These are from a…pen pal of mine. They live out west and have been giving me tips.” She learned a long time ago that mentioning she had a male friend who had written to her for years always raised some eyebrows.
It wasn’t anything to be ashamed about. Johnnie had never written anything inappropriate or hinted at romance. He’d simply been her friend. Sometimes, she’d dreamed that they’d be more. Sometimes, she’d dreamed he would do just what Dwight had done and ask her to live a life with him out west.
But they were the dreams of a child, and at nineteen, Elizabeth needed to be practical.
“What about you?”
“My daughter came out here several years ago. She thought, much as I imagined that you think, that there was something glamorous about the west. Now she’s about to have her first baby.”
Elizabeth smiled at the pride in the older woman’s voice. “A grandchild! I’m sure you’re happy about that. It sounds like your daughter has made a success of things. Now she’s about to start a family.”
Immediately, the older woman’s features hardened. “She sold herself as a bride and discovered that her husband was nothing but a cruel drunk. I’d say the best thing that could have happened to her was when he drank himself to death, but he left her in the early stages of pregnancy. It’s taken me this long to get my affairs in order and go down to take care of her.”
“That’s terrible.” Elizabeth shuddered and searched for something to say to comfort the woman, but her mind came up blank. She’d been lucky with Dwight. She had a man who cared for her, a man she cared for as well. “I can’t even imagine.”
“You won’t have to imagine it, my dear. You’re going to see it first hand,” Helen said calmly as she went back to her knitting.
At that, Elizabeth stiffened her shoulders. She thought it was unfair for the woman to judge her life when she knew nothing about Elizabeth. “Dwight isn’t like that. He’s been a friend of my family for years, and I know that he’s a good man.”
“I apologize my dear. I didn’t mean for you to think that I expected it to happen to you. I just mean that the west is harsh. You are going to meet people living a hard life. You need to prepare yourself for that. I’m sure your friend mentioned that.”
In fact, in his last letter, Johnnie had congratulated her on her upcoming wedding vows but cautioned her decision to leave Philadelphia. He’d written the same warning that echoed in Helen’s voice, and Elizabeth had taken some offense to it. She hated knowing that her oldest friend, the man she’d used to dream of marrying, didn’t think she was tough enough to handle life on a ranch.
“I’m stronger than I look.” She said it more to herself, more for herself, than to her riding companion.
Helen smiled. “I hope so, my dear. You’re going to need to be.”
The scenery outside began to slow, and Elizabeth looked out to see the first glimpses of a small town outlined in the dust. As they drew closer, the whistle sounded, and a conductor came into the car and announced their destination.
Richbrook. Elizabeth was home.
The platform was bustling. Feeling a little overwhelmed and slightly in awe, Elizabeth gripped her bags tight and stood frozen as she stared. Around her, people hurried by and bumped into her, shouting in her ear. A few even shot her dirty looks when she didn’t immediately move out of the way, and Elizabeth shook herself out of her reverie. Re-adjusting her grip on her bags, she took a deep breath and plunged into the crowd.
Dwight was supposed to meet her, but as she weaved through the group and crossed the platform, she didn’t see him. It didn’t worry her. She didn’t stand tall enough to have a great view, but she could rectify that. Changing direction, she headed to the benches. Around her, people shouted names and laughed in greeting. Some cried and embraced each other. Some clasped hands and hurried toward the coaches lined up on the road outside. It was heartwarming to see so many reunions, and it made Elizabeth anxious for her own.
Placing her bags on the bench, she held the back and climbed up. Careful to find her balance, she scanned the crowd. In the sea of faces, she didn’t catch those familiar twinkling blue eyes and that happy smile.
Could Dwight have forgotten? That didn’t seem right. In his message to her, he’d sounded so eager for her to join him.
A tug on her dress caught her attention, and she looked down to see a small child with tears streaking down her face. “Do you see my mom? I’ve lost her,” she cried. The girl couldn’t have been older than five. She wore a bright yellow dress with a matching ribbon in her hair.
“What’s your name, sweetheart?”
“Betsy,” she child sniffed.
“It’s nice to meet you, Betsy. My name is Elizabeth.” Reaching down, Elizabeth helped the girl up on the bench. “I’m going to hold you up. If you see her, you’ll point her out to me, or maybe she’ll see you first, okay?”
Betsy nodded. As she hooked her arms under the child and lifted her, she swayed just a little bit. The girl was heavier than she looked. “Don’t squirm,” Elizabeth laughed a little breathlessly. “Now let’s see what we can see.”
With her legs around Elizabeth’s waist, the child perched on her waist and clutched at her neck. After a few seconds, Betsy started crying harder. “I don’t see her! I don’t…Momma!”
At the girl’s shriek, Elizabeth winced. Following the child’s gaze, she saw a slight woman’s expression ease into relief as she and a man hurried through the crowd. “Betsy! Betsy!” the woman yelled.
As the woman neared, Elizabeth eased Betsy back on the bench. The child hopped into the man’s arms and screamed “Daddy!” as he whirled her around. Elizabeth carefully moved down as well, and the woman embraced her hard.
“Oh, thank you! She was right by my side, and I let go of her hand just for an instant to give her a treat from my pocket, and when I looked down, she was gone!”
“I just wanted to pet the puppy,” Betsy said mournfully as she buried her head in her father’s neck.
Elizabeth reached up and tugged on the girl’s hair. “She was very brave and very bright. She found me looking over the crowd and asked for my help.”
At that, Betsy smiled and nodded. “I am brave!”
“Is there any way we can thank you?” the mother asked.
“Actually, maybe you can. I’m supposed to meet my fiancé, but I think we might have gotten our communications a little mixed up. I’m going to hire a coach, but I don’t know the address. His name is Dwight Holt, and he just recently purchased a ranch.”
The woman shook her head. “My daughter and I just got here, but I’m not familiar with the town. Daniel?”
Her husband pursed his lips. “I think I may have met him at the general store. I can’t remember his name, but he had a friendly face, and he was buying a new dress for his girl for when she joined him. I do remember her name. Are you Elizabeth?”
Relief swept through her followed by surprise. Dwight was buying her a new dress. He was the sweetest man. She pressed her hands against her chest and smiled. “Yes, I am.”
“He was getting settled on the old Milner property. I don’t know the address, but everyone here knows of it. It’s just a short distance from town. I’d take you there myself, but we’re going in the opposite direction, but if you’ll follow us, I’ll get you a coach and ask the driver pointed in the right direction.” Before Elizabeth could protest, Daniel held up his hand. “It’s the least we can do.”
“Thank you. I appreciate that.” It was good to know the town’s residents were so nice. She felt like she was going to fit right in.
Daniel found her a coach, and within the hour she was on her way to see Dwight. The driver told her it would be just under an hour’s ride, so she reached into her reticule. Her hands brushed over Johnnie’s letters, but she pulled out Dwight’s instead. Puzzled, she skimmed through it instead. At the end, he mentioned that he would be eagerly waiting on the platform for her when the train arrived. There had been no delays in her travels, so what had kept him?
Shuffling them, she read through Dwight’s description of the property. It had been a rare find for Dwight. The previous owner, apparently a lifelong bachelor, Milner, had passed away without any heirs. He owed no debts, and Dwight had managed to purchase the property before anyone could start bidding on it or the livestock. In his old age, the man had thinned the livestock, but he still had several dozen sheep, cattle and chickens. Dwight was about to start hiring some help so he could purchase more cattle.
He’d sounded so excited. Elizabeth’s fingers trembled as she smiled. She didn’t even realize how excited she was to see him until she was so close.
A rancher’s wife. It would be hard work for sure, and Elizabeth knew she’d have to toughen up. The housework she was used to and the work at the bank wouldn’t even come close, but Elizabeth was ready for it. It was a small price to pay to achieve her dreams of finding freedom in the land.
When the coach slowed to a stop, she looked out the window and felt her heart skip a beat.
Something was wrong.
Another dark coach hitched up to two chestnut horses was parked outside the beautiful farmhouse. Its black sheen contrasted with the dull white of the house, and she felt a knot form in her stomach.
Dwight hadn’t forgotten about her arrival. Something or someone had waylaid him.
Hastily thanking the driver, Elizabeth brushed aside his offer to bring her bags in and grabbed them herself as she hurried to the house. She didn’t even have time to enjoy the beauty as she raced in the door and dropped her things on the polished hardwood floor. “Dwight! Dwight!”
A door creaked open upstairs and a tall and thin distinguished looking man began his descent down the stairs. “You must be Miss Stone. I’m Dr. Cranston.”
“Doctor?” Elizabeth whispered as she pressed her hands against her belly. Her body started to tremble. “Why does Dwight need a doctor?”
When he reached the bottom, he looked at her with eyes that swam with sympathy. “Miss Stone, I am so sorry. Your fiancé fell very ill last week. I’ve done everything I can to make him comfortable, but there is nothing I could do to help. He’s been waiting for his woman. He’s been waiting for you, my dear.”
“No. No!” A lump formed in her throat, and she hurried past the doctor up the stairs. She found Dwight in his bed, pale as death with a sweat sheen covering his face. Close to bursting into tears, Elizabeth took a deep breath and forced herself to calm down. “Dwight,” she said softly as she reached for the cloth in the washbasin by the bed. “Dwight, it’s me.”
“Miss Stone. Elizabeth,” he said hoarsely as he opened his eyes. They were just as blue as she remembered, but instead of playful and bright, they were dull and filled with exhaustion. “I’ve been waiting for you,” he coughed.
“I’m here.” Pressing the cloth to his face, she reached for the glass of water on the table and held it to his lips. “I’m right here. I’m going to take care of you so you can get better. We have a lot of work ahead of us.”
She knew what he was going to say. He was going to tell her he wasn’t going to get better, and she didn’t want to hear it. She needed to cling to a thread of hope. “I love the house. It’s beautiful, although I can see that it needs some work.” Her eyes drifted over the inch of dust and dirt covering the windowsills, but it wasn’t important. “Once we’re done fixing it up, it’s going to be absolutely perfect.”
“Hush. You need to rest. We can catch up when you’re better.”
“My sweet Elizabeth.” He grabbed his hands and squeezed hers. In that touch, she could feel his weakness and felt the tears fill her eyes. “I did this for us, and I know I’m letting you down. I wanted to take care of you. I wanted to grow old with you.”
“We can still do that,” Elizabeth cried as she sank down next to him and pulled his hands up to her lips. “We will!”
“You were always so full of hope and love. I wanted to give you everything.” His body shook violently as he coughed, and she held the glass up again.
When he settled, she smoothed a hand over his head. “Rest now, Dwight. We can talk when you’re stronger. I’ll be right here when you wake up. I’m not going anywhere.”
“No time. Get the doctor, Elizabeth. He knows what to do. We must act quickly.”
“Act quickly?” Bewildered, she stared at him. “Dwight…”
“Now. Hurry, Elizabeth!” At the note of urgency in his voice, she quickly stood. She didn’t want to leave him, not even for a second, but she couldn’t ignore his plea. After one last glance at him, despair settled deep in her chest, and she hurried back out to get Dr. Cranston.
The sun was setting in brilliant golden hues over Steelevale. Johnnie Pratt walked out of the barn with money in hand. Stopping outside, he rested his foot on the lower rung of the fence and pulled off his hat and beat it against his leg to get the dust off. It flew through the air and settled on his already dirty chaps. Pushing the hat back up, he opened the envelope and thumbed through the bank notes. The job hadn’t lasted nearly long enough. He’d been hoping that the bosses would keep him on for a couple more weeks, but their previous ranch-hand had rebounded quickly from his injury and returned to work.
The pay had been good. Johnnie couldn’t complain about that.
“Everything good, boy?” Joseph growled. The ranch manager looked and sounded years older than he really was. His face had leathered under the western sun, and his voice was hoarse and cracked. He had a no-nonsense attitude that Johnnie could appreciate. Joseph ran a tight ship and didn’t seem nearly appreciated enough by the uppity family living on the big house on the hill.
Johnnie always despised men who dared to call themselves ranchers but couldn’t dirty their hands with real and honest labor.
“Looks good. Thanks,” Johnnie drawled as he stuffed the money in his pockets. “I might be in town for a couple more days. You think you might need anything else?”
Joseph looked thoughtfully at the grazing cattle in the distance and sighed. “Truth is we could use hands like yours on a more permanent basis, but Mr. Gilligan pinches pennies when it comes to the work. He wouldn’t let me hire you on.” Joseph scowled, and Johnnie could practically hear his thoughts. In the past couple of days, he’d seen enough of the wife and the daughters to know they were spoiled with the latest fashion and usually only opened their mouths to demand for more.
Mr. Gilligan pinched his pennies to please his wife.
“Besides, the wife spent too much time looking at you, and I don’t need that kind of trouble.”
Johnnie immediately stiffened. “I would never lay a hand on her.”
“I believe you, but Mrs. Gilligan likes to get what she wants.” Joseph scratched the beard forming on his chin and sighed. “I’ll keep an ear out and see if I can find you more work, but the truth is we had a group of guys sweep through a couple of weeks ago who took up most of the temporary spots. You’re probably going to have more luck in the next town over.”
“Yeah. Thanks.” Johnnie hadn’t planned on moving on. He’d given Steelevale as the town for Elizabeth to find him to let him know she’d made it safely to Richbrook, and he didn’t want to leave until he’d heard from her.
He had mixed feelings when he read Elizabeth’s last letter. A mixture of relief and sadness when he’d learned she was going to marry. Single, Elizabeth had always been a tormenting temptation for him. Through her letters, he’d known that the girl he’d protected all those years ago had blossomed into a beautiful woman, but she was safely in the city and away from his rough lifestyle. She deserved a good man for a husband, and because she’d spoken of this Dwight Holt often, Johnnie believed that Dwight would be the husband she needed.
Of course, that bitter relief was quickly followed by the horror of learning that Elizabeth and her fiancé were moving out west. Not only that, but she would be traveling alone.
Alone. What kind of man let his nineteen-year-old fiancée travel alone? One who didn’t realize how raw and brutal the west could be.
The letter, folded and safe in his pocket, was wrinkled from his crushing fist while he swallowed his anger and fear. In her letter, she’d sounded pleased and excited.
I know how close you must be to getting your own ranch started. I can’t wait for Dwight and I to visit. I’m going to be so proud of you, and I’m sure that Dwight can learn from your wisdom.
Her words echoed in his head, and he felt like a fraud. He hadn’t lied to her. He was closer to finally getting a down payment on some land, but wasn’t nearly as close as she seemed to believe. He was still the nomad, wandering from town to town and looking for work when he could find it.
At least with Dwight, she had some stability. That made him feel better.
In his mind, he could see the little girl who cried for her dead parents. At six, Elizabeth had been a slight thing made mostly of big curls and giant dark chocolate eyes. Twice her age, Johnnie was almost grateful that Elizabeth had needed him. Still a child himself, he was near to tears after watching the robbers take the lives of their family and their driver and strip away their valuables. Holding on to her, comforting her, had given him the strength to keep a stiff upper lip and do his best to protect her until help arrived.
Even now, he could still hear the coyotes howling in the distance and getting closer and closer before two US Marshals arrived like an answered prayer.
So fierce and angry, Johnnie had trained the gun, taken from the driver and heavy in his hands, on the Marshals and declared that they would not hurt Elizabeth.
Days later, she was gone, and the letters and memories were all that he had of her.
And now she was to belong to another man. How long before her new husband demanded that they stop their correspondence?
With a sigh of regret, he said goodbye to Joseph and headed back to his stallion, Bullseye. The ebony horse was one of the reasons that Johnnie wasn’t as close to his financial goal as he wanted to be. A year ago, one of the ranches Johnnie had worked in Nebraska was starving Bullseye as punishment for throwing the ranch owner. In his fury, Johnnie had used nearly everything he had to convince the owner to sell him Bullseye, and he’d used whatever was left over to nurse him back to health.
It was that kind of story, and others like it, that Johnnie had held back from Elizabeth. He hadn’t wanted her to know that her romantic ideas of his life were far more brutal and harsh.
“Hey, boy. Ready to go back to town?” he whispered as he untethered the stallion. Bullseye, a loyal but hardheaded horse, gave him a suspicious stare, and Johnnie sighed. He suspected that the stallion had his eye on a pretty mare, one of the reasons Bullseye had moved to an outside pasture rather than with the other horses.
The Gilligans would balk at a nomadic ranch-hand’s stallion getting too cozy with one of their prize mares.
“Trust me, boy. I know how you feel.” Johnnie swung up into the saddle, put his back to the ranch and headed into town.
The job had been good. Very good. He had a good chunk of money now. Bullseye needed re-shoeing, and Johnnie could have used a new pair of boots. He’d take the rest to the bank in Crossdale where he kept a small account.
Except that now it wouldn’t be just a small account.
Smiling a little, Johnnie headed back to the inn and paid for stall for Bullseye. Tipping the groomsmen a little extra to make sure the horse got a little extra care, he headed to the tavern.
Steelevale was a good town. When he was younger, he’d spent several years here, the longest he’d ever stayed after starting to travel, working on a single ranch. The people were used to nomads and welcomed them with open arms. Men like him were cheaper than long-term workers and after a job they paid good coin at the inn and tavern to relax and have a good time before they moved on.
It had been nice to return.
“Johnnie Pratt!” a voice slurred. “I haven’t seen you in years. Where you been?”
Turning, Johnnie chuckled. Levi Merritt, the son of a wealthy rancher who’d hired him last time he was in town, was splayed out on a bench with a bottle in his hand. Johnnie had liked Levi’s father. He’d been an honest and hard worker, and Levi had his moments as well, but he also had his demons. Johnnie could relate.
Still, Levi was the closest Johnnie had to a friend, even after all this time, and it was good to see him.
“Levi. I was just thinking I needed to pay you a visit tomorrow. I would have come sooner, but I found work right away, and it’s kept me busy for the last couple of weeks.”
“Should have come sooner,” Levi grumbled. “Might have saved me some money.”
“I thought your woman told you to stop drinking last time that I saw you, and that was almost a year ago,” Johnnie joked as he sat down.
“Pretty Penelope. She’s the reason I’m drinking. Passed me over for my brother when he inherited the ranch. She was only after the land and the money,” Levi said mournfully.
“Your father is gone?” Johnnie shook his head as guilt settled in his heart. How had he missed that? “I’m sorry, Levi. You and Tripp aren’t splitting the work?”
“No.” Levi narrowed his eyes and hissed through his teeth. “We were supposed to split the land, but Tripp found a legal loophole to muscle me out. He is making a mess of things. Fired all the men who were loyal to my father and replaced them all. He’s driving the ranch into the ground. My father always did have a blind eye when it came to Tripp.”
“So your brother is still an ass and your father is gone and your girl left you. I guess I can see why you’re holding tight to that bottle.”
“What about you and your girl? You marry her yet?”
“I don’t have a girl,” Johnnie reminded him.
“Yeah you do. That girl you write letters to, although I guess she’s a woman, isn’t she? The blonde from Philadelphia. You read her letters every night.” Levi took another swig. The rust red strands in his auburn hair were fiery under the sun, and he looked like he hadn’t shaved in days. He needed someone to haul him back home and get him cleaned up.
“Elizabeth,” Johnnie finally acknowledged. “She’s actually nearby. Richbrook. Her fiancé just bought some land.”
“Fiancé?” Levi narrowed his eyes. “You let your woman get away from you?”
“She was never mine,” Johnnie said evenly as he leaned over and took the bottle away from Levi. HIs friend gave it up easily and slumped back. Johnnie wasn’t even sure Levi was listening anymore. “She was just a friend, and I’m happy for her. The man that she’s going to marry is a good man. A banker and a friend of her family.”
“A banker? Who’s going to work the land out west?” Apparently he was listening. Levi started to laugh so hard that he almost turned purple. When he started to cough, he leaned over and struggled to breathe. Johnnie pounded him on the back.
“Owning land is the American Dream.” Johnnie ought to know. It was certainly his dream.
“Yeah. Well, good for her. I guess she was smart not to go for you.” Levi reached for the bottle and frowned when Johnnie pulled it away. “Don’t be like that.”
“Come on. I’ve got a room where you can crash for the night. You need to sober up, eat some food, and clean up. You smell worse than a barn on a hot summer’s day. Then you’re going to get a lawyer and figure out a way to get the ranch away from your brother.”
Levi snorted. “Won’t do it. The ranch was never my dream. Not like it’s yours. Never really felt like my birthright. Maybe that’s why Tripp was able to take it from me so quickly. I think it’s time to cut my losses.” He turned his back and stared at the tavern. “Feel like playing with the cards tonight?”
He knew it was coming. Levi lived for the risk. The problem was that while Levi liked to start trouble, he was always the one on the ground when it was over, and it was always Johnnie and the Merritt fortune bailing him out. “No. I do not. You’re a bad player sober.” Johnnie relinquished the bottle to Levi and stood. “But I need some food in my belly.”
“I may not be any good, but you are.” Grabbing the bottle like it was gold, Levi tipped it up and drank heartily from it. “I know that look in your eyes. You’ve got some money in your pockets. Why not double it tonight? Maybe even triple it?”
The idea had some merit, but Johnnie was hesitant to push his luck. The pay was the most money he’d had in his pockets for a long time.
“Maybe tomorrow night.”
“Group of wanderers are in town,” Levi said. His eyes cleared just a little, and he smiled charmingly. “They’re easy pickings.”
“I’m a wanderer,” Johnnie chuckled.
“Yeah, but you’re not like them. They just want money and women. They don’t have goals like you. I’ve been giving them some time to get deep in their cups and get some money in their pockets.” He winked and held up the bottle. “Only one I’ve had this afternoon.”
Knowing that he’d been played, Johnnie groaned and shook his head. Levi always did know how to play people. “Let them think that you’re drunk and an easy target?”
Levi always did get off on the thrill of taking people’s money. It never did make sense to Johnnie since his friend always had plenty of it. He bet even though he didn’t get the land, Levi was still well off. Unfortunately, Levi never did seem to be happy. He always thought that more money was the answer.
Maybe it was. It was certainly the answer to Johnnie’s problems.
Studying his friend, he dipped his hands in his pockets. One set of fingers brushed over the money and the other brushed over the letters. Drunk laughter burst from the tavern, and he looked up at it thoughtfully.
“One game,” Johnnie decided. “And then you’re getting a room and a bath.”
Rubbing a hand furiously over his face, levi reddened his skin, stood, and winked. “Want me to pour the rest of the bottle on you so you smell as well?”
“If I’m going to take their money, I’m doing it honestly.”
Levi rolled his eyes. “That heart of gold is going to get you into trouble one day. You mark my words.”
Johnnie didn’t respond. In truth, he felt like his heart of gold was covered in layers of grime from all the years of failing.
Maybe tonight he was finally going to turn his luck.
An hour after the doctor spoke to Dwight and left, he returned with another stranger. Elizabeth had tended to Dwight, even when he fell into a deep asleep that slowed his breath to the point that she grew frantic, but when the stranger softly said his name, Dwight’s eyes opened. “Give us a minute, sweetheart,” he wheezed.
Elizabeth started to protest, but Dr. Cranston took her hands and led her out of the room. When the door closed behind them, she leaned against the wall and pressed a hand against her mouth to stifle a sob.
“Not here, my dear,” Dr. Cranston whispered as he led her down the stairs. Her knees threatened to give out, but she gripped the handrail and made it down the stairs. After she collapsed on the settee in the living room, Cranston disappeared into the kitchen and returned moments later with a cup.
Thinking it was water, she drank deeply and felt the burn as the alcohol slid down her throat. Coughing, she held it up while her eyes watered.
“My apologies. I should have warned you what was inside of it,” Cranston smiled gently and sat in a chair across from her. “I thought you could use something strong.”
“I feel like I stepped into a nightmare,” Elizabeth whispered. “He should have sent a letter the moment he fell ill. I would have come sooner.”
“You were already on the way,” the doctor reminded her. “Not even fear of death can make the trains move faster.”
Death. As her hands trembled, Elizabeth took another sip and hoped the bourbon would settle her. “Can you tell me what happened?”
“It’s difficult to say,” the doctor said carefully. “Your fiancé told me that he started to feel unwell shortly after arriving. Sometimes a long trip like that combined with stress and anxiety can weaken the heart. My best guess is that he fell ill from exhaustion, and in his weakened state, he’s been unable to heal. He has no wounds to indicate an infection, but from his raspy breathing, something has settled in his lungs.”
“He was so excited to do this. I thought…” Elizabeth squeezed her eyes shut. “I thought maybe he was doing it because he knew it was my dream.”
“Perhaps, but he also strikes me as a man who needed to change his life. He felt the city had made him soft.” Cranston shook his head. “This is not your fault, my dear. You cannot think that. You need to focus on yourself.”
“If Dwight doesn’t…” she took a deep breath. “If Dwight doesn’t make it, I’ll have nothing. I’ll have to go back home. My reputation…”
Her reputation would be in ruins. It was one thing for her to travel with a group of women to her fiancé, but it was another to go home unwed. She’d likely never find a husband. If the bank didn’t rehire her…
It felt foolish to fear for her future when Dwight was barely hanging on. She pushed it away. “Who is the man he’s talking to? Is he a specialist of some sort? Can he help?”
“Benjamin Gains is not a doctor. He’s not here for Dwight’s benefits. He’s here for yours, and I know and trust him. He’ll do right by you just as Dwight is doing. That man loves you.”
Confused, Elizabeth stared at him. The doctor wasn’t making any sense, but before she could ask, the door opened, and Benjamin called her name. “Miss Stone. Mr. Holt is asking for you.”
Placing the glass down on the table, Elizabeth stood and smoothed a hand down her pale grey dress. It had wrinkled on the train, and while she wasn’t vain, she wished she had returned to Dwight looking prettier.
Clinging to the strength that was rapidly slipping from her, Elizabeth climbed the stairs. Dwight was propped up on some pillows, and there was a stack of papers by the bed. Benjamin didn’t follow her in, so Elizabeth closed the door behind her.
“Elizabeth.” Dwight patted the bed. “Come sit with me. We have much to discuss and only a little time.”
“Don’t say that!” Elizabeth whispered as she reached him and grabbed his hands. They were alarmingly cold. “You have to hold on, Dwight.”
“I remember the first time I laid eyes on you. You had just turned sixteen and your family had purchased the prettiest green dress for you. I was new to the bank, and your family was interested in moving their money. I’d never seen anyone so lovely.”
Elizabeth smiled and intertwined their fingers. “I remember that day. My cousins were asking me to be on my best behavior because they wanted to impress you. I thought you had kind eyes.”
“You were too young for marriage, but I wanted to stay in touch. I formed a friendship with your family. When you wanted to work, I got you the job even though I suspected you hated it.” He chuckled. “You always seemed to have too big of a spirit for the likes of Philadelphia.”
“Dwight, why are you telling me this?”
“I’ve loved you for years, Elizabeth, and I am going to take care of you. The only regret I have is that I didn’t get to marry you.” He tapped his fingers on the paperwork. “I’ve transferred the deed of the property into your name. The ranch is yours, free and clear.”
Shocked, Elizabeth stared at him and tried to process what he was saying. It wasn’t unheard of for women to hold land. The Homestead Act had made that possible, but in Philadelphia it was non-existent. “Dwight, I don’t know anything about running a ranch.”
“You are a bright woman, Elizabeth. Your parents were ranchers. You knew that. It’s in your blood, and the townsfolk will help you. All you have to do is ask. I know that you’re stubborn and don’t like asking for help, but this is important, Elizabeth. This is your future. When Benjamin comes back in, you’ll need to sign the papers.”
“I can’t! If I sign those papers, Dwight, it means that you…that you…”
“Elizabeth, I’m dying. I know how little time I have left. You can’t spend it arguing with me. I can do this for you, and I want to. But before you call Benjamin in, you have to promise me something.”
“Anything,” Elizabeth choked out as tears filled her eyes.
This time, when he smiled, there was pain in his eyes. “I had always hoped that you would grow to love me. That’s not possible now.”
“What?” Shaking her head, she squeezed his hand. “Dwight, you don’t know what you’re saying.”
“No, I do. I know that you are fond of me, but I also know that you didn’t love me. Not like I love you. I know I could have made you happy, and I had hoped that in time you would feel it for me. I was okay waiting. You are the kind of woman worth waiting for, Elizabeth. But now it’s not possible, I want you to know that you’re settled. There is money for you and property. Don’t take a husband because you feel you have to. Wait until you are in love. You deserve that, Elizabeth.”
Leaning over him, she rested her head on his chest and sobbed. He stroked his hands over her hair gently, comforting her. It felt backwards. She should be comforting him, but as she pressed her head to his chest, she could also hear the life draining from him. She had no idea how long they stayed like that with him whispering to her.
“It’s time, Elizabeth,” he said hoarsely. “Call Benjamin.”
Sitting up, she wiped the tears and framed his face with his hands. “I wasn’t expecting your proposal. I had no idea that you saw me as anything other than a secretary, but it felt right. I wanted to be your wife. I’d never been happier being on that train and thinking of our new life together. That’s the feeling I’m going to keep with me.”
Kissing him gently on his forehead, she stood and called for the attorney. Tears blurred her vision and there was a dull roar in her ears, but she signed the papers where he pointed. Her arms were heavy every time she lifted them, and she could barely hear him as he spoke and explained.
“Go wait outside, my dear. I don’t want you to see this.”
Gently, she embraced him. “Watch over me, Dwight, and know you’ll always be in my heart.” Before she broke down, she hurried from the room. Benjamin followed her and quietly asked the doctor to return. Elizabeth tried to go to the living room, but the attorney led her outside.
“You need some fresh air, my dear,” Benjamin said softly. “Come and talk with me.”
“Is there more to discuss?” Her voice was dull as she sat heavily on the steps. “In truth, I’m not sure I understand any of this.”
“That’s all right. We can talk more about it when you’re feeling stronger. I’m going to go ahead and file the paperwork though. I simply want to give you my condolences. Dwight hasn’t been here long, but he was quickly making friends. I actually grew up on the land adjacent to this. My younger brother Kenneth still manages the ranch. He lives in the yellow house over the hill there. We have two sisters. Susan is your age. Maria is a little younger. They’ll be good companions for you.”
Sniffing, Elizabeth tried to wipe away the tears. “You didn’t want the ranch?”
“I’m a law man. Livestock was never my calling,” he chuckled. “Luckily, Kenneth was born to work the land. He’ll be an asset to you. He also lost his wife a year ago, so he’ll understand what you’re going through.” Benjamin looked a little uncomfortable, but he reached out and squeezed her hand. “Richbrook takes care of their own, and now you’re one of us.”
“I’m going to file the papers. I’ll check back on you tomorrow. I am sorry for your loss, Miss Stone, and I hope you find some peace here.”
Peace. The idea sounded so foreign to her as he headed back to his coach. She stared at the dust that rolled up under his wheels as he left. In the silence, she rested her head on the post and looked up toward the sky. Briefly, she wondered if she’d feel the moment of Dwight’s passing. Would she feel his spirit lifting in the air to heaven?
Lost in her own thoughts, she didn’t notice the new coach coming down the hill. When it stopped at the house, she stood. Thinking that maybe it was Benjamin returning or his family coming to introduce themselves. She gripped the railing, but it was three different men who stepped out.
They were all dressed well, but it was the older man in the middle, in his black suit and what looked like a brand new hat, that commanded power. Even the dust seemed repelled by him. A silver chain gleamed as he pulled out the pocket watch and glanced at it almost impatiently before tucking it back in his pocket.
He didn’t even remove his hat as he approached her. In fact, it looked like he wasn’t even going to acknowledge her. “Excuse me,” she said as forcefully as she could as she blocked his path. “Can I help you?”
Finally sparing her glance, he stopped and studied her. “You must be Dwight’s woman. I’ve heard of you. Forgive me for my rudeness. The name is George Meyers.” He took off his hat and bowed with a mocking smile on his face. “I’m here to see your…is it husband now?”
Her belly tightened at his tone. It was obvious that he knew they weren’t married yet. “I hope you haven’t come a long way, Mr. Meyers, but I’m afraid that Dwight isn’t up for guests right now. You’ll have to come back another time.”
“Is that so?” He cocked his head and stared at her. Elizabeth just stiffened her back and jut out her chin. She had no idea who this man was or what he wanted, but she was not about to let him into the house and interrupt Dwight’s last moments. George moved his finger ever so slightly, and the two men reached for her. Elizabeth hissed and jerked away.
“Dwight is ill, and I will not have you barging in,” Elizabeth cried out as she pressed her back to the door. “I have no idea who you are or what business you have here, but I must ask you to leave.”
“Ill is he?” George’s eyes sharpened for a moment, and Elizabeth was puzzled when she saw the briefest of smiles. “Well, now. I did not know that, and I apologize if I scared you. I’m a lawyer. Mr. Holt and I had some business that we needed to discuss. Did he not tell you that?”
“I…” her voice just faltered. Dwight had just seen a lawyer. Why would he need another one? “I just arrived in town a few hours ago. I haven’t had a chance to catch up with him about business. When did he contact you?”
“We’ve been talking about things off and on for a couple of weeks now,” George drawled.
A couple of weeks? Was that before he met with the doctor?
“If we could just have a couple of minutes, ma’am. I promise that we won’t take long.”
Just then, the door opened, and Elizabeth nearly fell back. Cranston gripped her arms and kept her upright. He looked at George, and his eyes immediately hardened. “I’m sorry, Miss Stone. It’s over.”
“Dr. Cranston, I presume.” George stepped even closer. “I’m not sure we’ve met…”
“I know who you are,” Cranston said coldly. “I believe you should leave. This young woman had just lost her fiancé.”
“Dwight’s dead?” Elizabeth jerked at George’s cold voice, but Cranston squeezed her arm almost painfully, so she kept quiet. “Then I guess our business is at an end. My dear, I am sorry for your loss. Please let me know if I can help you during this difficult time.”
As he turned, he and his two men walked slowly down the path, but his voice carried. “Date the paperwork and get it filed,” George ordered. “And don’t bungle it up this time. I don’t want any more issues. This ranch is going to belong to me.”
Swallowing hard, Elizabeth waited before she turned to the doctor. “Who is that man?”
“Don’t you worry,” Cranston said soothingly. “He can’t take the ranch from you. Dwight has seen to that. The only thing you need to do right now is mourn. Dwight has already made arrangements for his burial. Benjamin and I will take care of the details. I’m going to take you to Kenneth’s right now. You shouldn’t be alone.”
“Alone.” Elizabeth squeezed her eyes shut. “I can’t believe he’s gone. I don’t…Dr. Cranston. I don’t know what to do!”
“Mourn, my dear. Just take the time that you need. We’re going to look out for you.”
“I’d like…” Elizabeth swallowed hard. “I’d like a moment with him.”
“All right, my dear. I’ll get your things. Take as much time as you need.”
Reaching back in the door, he grabbed Elizabeth’s bags and carried them to his carriage. Feeling like she’d lost all control over her life, Elizabeth went back indoors. She felt hollow inside. Dwight was gone, she knew no one in Richbrook, and now she was to mourn in the arms of strangers.
“The Love that Unites Us” is an Amazon Best-Selling novel, check it out here!
After a tragic incident, Elizabeth Stone was forced to separate from her childhood friend, Johnnie Pratt, and leave for good. Ever since that day, she has dreamed of going back and settling on a ranch. The chance to do so arises when she’s headed to Richbrook to start a new life with her fiance. Tragedy strikes again though when he dies and leaves her a deteriorating ranch to operate. But she’s not the only one who’s going after it! A cruel land developer will play dirty to try and force Elizabeth off her land. When she asks Johnnie to her help, will she unexpectedly find herself falling for him? Will she finally get her happy ending she dreamed of?
Johnnie Pratt has spent years traveling and working on ranches. His life has been anything but a piece of cake but he’s not one to give up easily. When he receives Elizabeth’s letter, he doesn’t hesitate for a second to drop everything to go find her. He only expected to help her start her ranch, but when he realizes the danger that she’s facing, he’ll do anything to keep her safe – even offer to marry her. Can he convince her that everything he does for Elizabeth comes from his powerful feelings towards her?
Tragedy is what separated them in the first place but it’s also what will bring them back together again. As love blossoms between the two, they’ll face the dark memories of their past and their fears in letting their guard down around each other. Will their love help them fight the enemy together so as to claim their well-deserved happiness?
“The Love that Unites Us” is a historical western romance novel of approximately 80,000 words. No cheating, no cliffhangers, and a guaranteed happily ever after.