“No one will notice; no one will notice,” Penny told herself quietly.
She clambered off her horse, tied the saddle to a nearby hitching post, and hastened into the church building.
Her poor attempts to convince herself no one would look her way did not pan out. Or rather, no one had been told not to notice her arrival.
Penelope Jamison Webster, best known as Penny, was late once again for church. Her heart thudded and her cheeks flushed as folks turned to look over their shoulders at her in the crowded building. The room suddenly felt warm, though it had been a cool morning. Heat flooded over her as she ducked her head, praying that her cheeks were not yet the same color as her red hair.
An empty bench lay off to her right that she hurriedly took, keeping her eyes averted.
Their pastor, Luis Everardo, didn’t falter once from his preaching. Soon everyone was facing the front of the church again. The older man seemed to be teaching about how important it was for people not to be lazy.
Such a thought made her want to laugh. It felt like she hadn’t had a moment to breathe in a long time. Living in Heartland, Texas, didn’t allow for a slow life. Besides, she’d never been allowed to be lazy. She’d been working in one form or another every day of her life.
Even church, it seemed, required effort on her part now.
Penny smoothed the creases from her dark skirt. There would be no mourning clothes now, though she supposed there were women who might judge her for such a matter.
Penny shrugged. They could judge her for many of her habits if they so desired. Besides, there was hardly anything she could do about it, anyway.
Although she had prided herself on being punctual, such plans had gone out the window five weeks ago when she suddenly lost her husband. Todd’s passing had left her floundering more than she liked to admit.
“A sleepy soul will not make it to heaven!” Pastor Everardo said. “A woman must not waste her time abed. She must cleave to her husband, her home, and the pitchfork.”
Her lips pursed at that. What did he know, a man who had never married? She had spent five years married to Todd Webster. That had given her plenty of time to know that a woman had more than enough to do than cling to her husband. As she listened to the pastor go on, she wished he would also scold the men.
But the men she wished to have scolded were not in the building.
Although Penny had planned her morning carefully not to be late once more to church, her plans had soured when she stepped outside. The majority of the ranch hands had gathered around the large house with their arms crossed and scowls on their faces.
“When are you selling?” the foreman, Henry, had demanded.
“What are you talking about?” Penny had asked him in return, confused as well as annoyed. The man hadn’t even bothered to greet her. She had never particularly liked him with his sour attitude, but she’d left it alone since her husband had needed the man’s skills.
Another voice had popped up. “You know what. You’ve got to sell the ranch now. Hand it over to someone who knows what they’re doing.”
Heat had spread over her cheeks then as well. Penny stood on the edge of the porch, tempted to get closer but not willing to give up the one spot where she was actually taller than another adult. Being hardly five feet tall did not help when she wanted to showcase her strengths.
“I’m not selling,” Penny had told them loudly. She had tried her best not to let her voice shake. “I never was going to. This was my husband’s ranch, and now it is mine. The law says so. You all know me. I’ve worked alongside every one of you over the years. Not only do I know the work and the cattle, but I know the ledgers better than anyone. I don’t know why folks thought anything else would change. But if you can’t stand the thought of working for a woman, then you’re free to leave.”
At the time, she had thought they were brave words.
But it only took her a minute before she was begging them to stay as they saddled their horses and packed their bags. Most of them, it turned out, had too much pride to be managed by a woman.
Now Penny sat in church and fumbled with her dark red hair. It was a humid day, so she knew the curls had to be going every which way. She ran numbers in her head as she considered she had only eight men left out of the twenty she’d had yesterday.
A large ranch like the Paradise Hills Ranch could not be managed by only eight men. Well, eight men and a woman.
She had decided to attend church still, not only so people wouldn’t grow suspicious in town but also in an attempt to find peace. She listened with one ear as she lost herself in her thoughts.
There would be much work to do when she returned to her ranch after the sermon ended. The remaining men had told her they could manage for a few days but not for long. Projects were put on hold while the men figured out what to handle until she hired more help.
How was she going to do that?
There was a small voice in the back of her mind telling her to give up, that it wasn’t worth it. Women didn’t manage ranches. It was a hard life out west already and a property like theirs––hers, she was still getting used to that––required constant effort. And it most certainly required more than nine pairs of hands to tend to everything.
The closing song began. Everyone stood, so she followed. She had forgotten her hymn book for the second week in a row. Using this chance to look around, she wondered if she might be able to hire new ranch hands who would be willing to help her out. They could pay fair wages, and the bunk house was kept clean. The cook had stayed as one of the eight men, so that had to help.
All she had to do was find a man willing to work under a woman.
Finally, the song ended. The pastor said his parting words, and then everyone began moving about with their voices rising. Moments like this were perfect for friends to come together when they didn’t typically have time to talk during the week.
And hopefully, a perfect chance to hire help.
Penny slid out of her row and made her way to the other side of the church building. There were three columns of benches since the building was wider than it was long, with large windows letting in light. She passed several familiar faces, nodding as she moved along with determination.
“Ah, Mrs. Webster,” Pastor Everardo called to her from behind a family to her left. “I thought I saw you.”
She gritted her teeth. The man was quickly becoming a pestilence in her life. If he wasn’t preaching about a woman’s place, he was hinting at how a widow was meant to remarry.
If she ever did––not that she wanted to––it certainly would not be to him.
Trying to avoid the older man, Penny quickly darted behind another row and a group of men who had gathered in a haphazard circle. Every one of them was at least a head taller than she and a bit wider. She angled herself into the group in a desire to be hidden from the pastor as well as take a chance to speak with the men.
“Ah, Mrs. Webster,” the mayor said as he noticed her first.
She jerked her gaze over to the man. Julius Levine, a man near his fifties, was large and broad with white-yellow hair. He smiled and showed off his silver tooth. That smile had never held particular comfort for her.
“Good day, Mayor Levine,” she responded politely. Penny looked around, knowing she had to take her chance to talk when she had it. “I’m looking to hire ten ranch hands, maybe seven if that’s all I can get. Just temporarily. Is there anyone looking for work? Or does someone have a few ranch hands to spare?”
The men exchanged glances while others chuckled.
“Didn’t you have enough men last month?” the foreman for the mayor’s ranch asked skeptically. “You poached three of ours last winter.”
“I did not,” she retorted. “I don’t poach. The people we hire come to us because they want to work with our ranch. It’s not my fault if they want to leave you.”
The words slipped off her tongue without thinking. The foreman raised an eyebrow as though to throw her own words back into her face. For the third time that day, Penny felt her cheeks flushing in humiliation. She balled her hands into fists.
“It’s spring,” another rancher noted. “Everyone needs more ranch hands.”
“Sure is. You’re lucky to have anyone at all right now.”
Penny started to glare at the last speaker. But before she could open her mouth, the mayor was patting the man’s back and giving her a grin.
“It’s a tough life indeed. Ranching can’t be what you’re looking for, Mrs. Webster. You should know that by now. Your husband, God rest his soul, wouldn’t want that for you. Maybe it’s time you sold out.”
“You don’t know what my husband wanted,” Penny responded shortly. “And I’m not selling. I already told you that.”
“Then perhaps you should focus on the ranch and keeping your men in line,” he returned with a tight-lipped smile.
He turned to the other men and changed the topic without giving her a chance to reply. She was immediately forgotten.
“I told you about the twins, didn’t I?” Levine guffawed as he slapped his foreman’s back. “Runts of the bunch, but they’re growing fast enough; I think they’ll make fine bulls by the end of the year.”
It became quickly evident that she had been pushed out of the conversation. Penny made one last attempt to get someone to talk to her, but the men were done. She wasn’t welcome in their circle.
She huffed and moved off, asking a few men chatting nearby who had been known to take on extra work. But all of them had a reason to say no, leaving her uncertain if they denied her because of her gender or because they truly couldn’t help. Either way, she was in an unfavorable predicament.
Making her way outside, Penny walked slowly past the rest of the crowd who had stepped out into the sunshine.
“Really? I thought those were just rumors,” she overheard the mayor’s niece, Jane, say to another woman. “A mail-order bride. In Heartland! I’m sure the Carols will appreciate another hand on their ranch.”
“Truly. And even though she has a husband now, she’s teaching the Carol children. Can you imagine? All eight of them. She certainly has plenty to do.”
Eight children. Penny shook her head on the way to her horse. At only twenty-three years of age, she knew she should have been growing a bundle of children herself. But it hadn’t happened in her years with Todd. Their marriage had been an odd one, and not having children had only reinforced that for her.
“Perhaps it’s best for now,” she murmured while turning her horse for home. “I would surely be in worse trouble with tots on my hip. Perhaps a family isn’t for me. All I have now is the ranch.”
Riding for home, Penny mused over her options. And yet she couldn’t stop thinking about the young women talking outside the church.
The notion of a fellow marrying a mail-order bride seemed to be growing in popularity. While she couldn’t dream of marrying someone she had never even seen––though it was near enough to her own relationship––or imagine leaving everything she had to be with someone else, she considered the large house she had to herself and all the help she needed to keep the ranch running smoothly.
There was an idea in the middle of all this. Penny could feel it in her blood. Letting the sun warm her, she rode home with her thoughts spinning out a new idea that just might save the Paradise Hills Ranch.
And, in turn, that would save her.
Dreamless sleep vanished as Cal jerked awake.
He sat up and clung to the branches of the tree he had slept in before he looked around with a frown. For a moment, nothing was familiar to him. His body tensed. There was no bed for him to claim, no house or family. But most of the time, he had a good idea where he was waking up.
Then he shifted and had another reason to frown. Calvin Hawkins, known for the last half of his life as Cal Rider, was sore in a way he couldn’t ever remember being. He had scars to prove he’d seen rough days. But there was something about the stiffness in him now that reminded him he wasn’t as young as he used to be.
He reminded himself that he was only twenty-eight. That couldn’t be very old, could it? If he was lucky, he had twice that to go in his lifetime.
“Not that my line of work would allow that,” he grumbled, climbing down from the tree he had slept in.
The young oak had branches just strong enough to hold his weight with thick stems and leaves that had kept him hidden from view when he first climbed up the night before. It was large enough to let him hide and rest, unlikely to fall out unless he wiggled too much. He had spent enough nights in spots like this to know he couldn’t wiggle. Yet that didn’t seem to help him much as the tightness in his shoulders seemed to worsen.
A groan escaped his lips as he landed on his feet.
Trying to ignore the aches and pains, Cal stretched his back again and looked around. He was on the corner of a street just on the edge of town. But it wasn’t his hometown or any place he had been before. Having arrived here last night, he and the rest of the gang had scoped everything out first. Then they had begun their mission.
The memory slowly came back to him.
He froze. How could he forget? His original lookout spot had not been in this tree but down a row of houses.
They had been on the other side of town. All the men of the Golden Rope Gang were ready for action when the sun set, looking for an opportunity to rob one of the richest families in Texas. The Rodriquez family descended from conquistadors but now lived quietly without fuss. But the Golden Rope Gang’s ringleader, Jamison No-Good, had received promising information that the Rodriquez family was sitting on a lifetime’s worth of gold.
It wouldn’t have been his first robbery. However, Cal feared it was the last.
He had been assigned to handle the horses for the evening. It was a boring job, but he would still get a share of the spoils. Even though he was meant to be looking out for trouble that came their way, he hadn’t been able to act when the guns started firing from inside the house before the gang even entered.
The information No-Good had been given was a ruse. A trap. Trouble.
Of course, their leader was in front of them all and didn’t stand a chance of escape. Cal saw him go down, though he wasn’t sure if it was because of an injury or something else.
Shouts had erupted. The gang spun in circles while pulling out their guns. But more men were coming out of the house, several of them spilling forth into the dark evening like cockroaches. There was no stopping or escaping them.
Cal hadn’t known what to do.
In the gang, it was every man for himself. They never aimed to save each other––each man took care of his own skin. As the others tried to work on this, he had done the same. He had freed the horses and let them loose, even his own animal, in the hopes of creating a shield or distraction. Then he’d turned tail and run off.
Since the house was right on the edge of town, he had reasoned that if anyone did escape, everyone looking for the gang would move outward. Hiding in town where they would inevitably be found was a foolish idea.
His foolishly brilliant idea.
He would have never made it far on foot. Besides, he’d been hidden back in the shadows. No one had seen his face. It was most likely that no one was even looking for him.
“I might be free, but what do I do now?” he mumbled.
The aches from sleeping stiffly in the tree were going away. Looking around, Cal stopped worrying about that as he tried to figure out what he would do next. He couldn’t even remember the town’s name, and he was on his own without his horse or saddlebags.
Cal took one step and then another.
Supposing he might try to see if someone from the gang had also escaped, he started down the street. It was a pleasant-looking town with wide lanes and sidewalks on both sides of the few streets he came across. Looking for the town center, he finally found folks moving about with horses and wagons and opening shops.
“Morning,” he said to everyone he passed by, tipping his hat and offering his most charming smile.
If no one knew who he was, they wouldn’t think twice except for the grin he sent their way. Even though he was wearing wrinkled clothes with dust on his boots, his good looks would keep the townsfolk from wondering about him too much. His ability to charm folks with a smile or two had helped him out a lot over the years. His sandy blond hair lightened in the sun while his skin darkened. Brown eyes and long lashes ensured a woman’s attention, while his tall, thick build kept men from thinking they could put one over on him.
The only thing that might bother a person was the fact he was missing half his left ear. But since he kept his hair shaggy and his hat on, no one was likely to find out about that.
He whistled down the lane and finally found himself at the general store. He went in, and keeping his head low, pretended to browse the shelves while his eyes searched the place carefully. They didn’t seem to have a newspaper at the moment, making him frown. He supposed he would have to find someone to talk to. Eyeing the folks in the large shop, Cal was just wondering where to start when someone rushed in the door to answer all his questions.
“Pa! Did you hear?” called a young boy who couldn’t be older than twelve. Breathless, he bumped into a table before reaching the counter. “There was a shootout last night. I told you I heard something!”
“Ben, who have you been talking to?” An older woman passed by with her arms filled. Judging by the same shade of chestnut hair, she was his mother.
Her scolding didn’t deter the boy as he turned to the bald man at the counter, who bent over to peer at his ledger.
“Pa! I told you. There was a gang in town. They tried to get the sheriff, but the sheriff caught them instead. All of them! Can you believe that? Judge Poughkeepsie already sentenced them to jail this morning. I heard they were getting carted off now. Can I go watch?”
“Definitely not,” his mother scolded him. “Go wash up. Dear, you have customers.”
Their conversation went on, but Cal had heard enough.
He knew all about Poughkeepsie. The judge oversaw most cases in Texas, traveling about as needed. He was a short man with a wide middle, always wearing a scowl. Cal had a feeling that most folks in every town nearby knew just who he was. A stern, vindictive man.
Granted, Cal supposed, that might have to do with the fact that he was responsible for upholding the law in a mostly lawless territory. Dealing with trouble had a way to ruin a good mood.
Memories came to mind, and he put on his own scowl. He certainly knew Poughkeepsie. And if the man was in town, then he would be the one person in town who knew who Cal really was.
Although Cal had been able to shy away from most familiar faces, always on the move with the gang and ready to explore the west, he couldn’t do that around the judge. The ruthless man had faced him down in court twice. The first time Cal faced the law after his first crime as a young man. His stepfather’s death. Four years later, he had been caught during a train robbery and sent before the judge as well.
Twice he had glared at the old man holding a gavel; twice he had been sentenced for his crimes. And twice, the Golden Rope Gang had helped him to escape.
But if Poughkeepsie caught him now, Cal knew, no one could save him.
All their plans for the robbery––and for everything meant to come next––had fallen apart. There was a sudden weightlessness to him as he walked out of the shop. He felt as though he might fly away without something to ground him. Except there was nothing there to help.
Shoving his hands in his pockets, Cal wondered what to do. He walked out the door and back into the sunlight. There had been so few moments alone in the past. It always meant he had company and didn’t have to be on his own and make his own decisions. Life was easier when someone else had all the ideas. All he had to do was go along with them in that scenario.
His heart thudded in his chest. Crossing down the street, he supposed it was time he started thinking for himself.
The first thing to do was figure out where to go next. Once he did that, he could start piecing together a plan on how to get there. Did he want to stay in Texas? That didn’t seem like the best idea. And yet, Texas was a big territory, and only one man knew his identity.
He had always wanted to go to Mexico. Maybe he could go there. Even though he had nothing now, he could see about robbing a place. A house, that store, or something else nearby. Wandering down the street, Cal considered his options. He wound up passing through the shops attempting to scout out areas as well as feed his boredom. He wasn’t used to doing nothing.
In the third shop he passed through, he passed by the newspapers for the surrounding territories. If he didn’t feel like completing a robbery on his own, he supposed he could take on a job.
That was something he had done before. More than once. Intrigued, he picked up the nearest paper and started to look at the options available. He’d needed to help the gang scout out assorted properties in the past. He’d worked on a ranch, in a kitchen, and even a boarding house or two. With a little effort and a chance to watch the experts, he could usually pick up most skills.
One ad caught his eye.
“Matchmaker on ranch seeking helping hands with an opportunity to wed. Men and women needed. Housing and food provided. Come to work and leave when married. All ages welcome so long as you can work.”
The very idea made him laugh. Was there an old couple in need of work on their ranch? “A poor plan,” he said to himself with a chuckle. “I can’t imagine that working.”
Cal put the papers down and started back outside. Musing over all the ads he had read, he found that it was the last one that stuck with him. He laughed and yet found his thoughts coming back to it again and again. There was no need for him to marry. It wouldn’t be seemly. He wasn’t the type to settle, and besides, a decent woman wouldn’t take a criminal for a husband. Too much had happened in his past to allow for such a future.
And yet, he supposed, a ranch like that might be the perfect place to hide in plain sight.
Three months had passed since Penny had first put out her adverts about helping to matchmake singles in return for their labor. Three long––but fairly successful––months.
Humming, she knew there was much to be done. Ranching was hard, but she was getting better at it every day. She was short a couple of ranch hands, and there had been struggles because of it. They’d nearly lost cattle in the last rainstorm, and she’d almost missed her chance to can all the beets, among other problems.
But she was hopeful, and that was important.
While the work wasn’t easy, Penny had expected that. Her life had never been easy in the past, so she would have been surprised if it had taken a different turn. It was hard work, and yet, she enjoyed tending to the cattle and managing the ranch.
If Todd had been there, Penny thought, he would have been proud of her. Then she caught herself––if he were around, he would have never let her do half the hard jobs she was doing now to take care of Paradise Hills Ranch.
Her memories of her late husband were fond. And yet she knew he had held her back, wishing her to live spoiled when all she knew was hard work. She had gone to the ranch from the forges and learned everything she could when her husband looked the other way.
Back then, it had been something to keep her busy. Now, thank goodness, it was keeping the ranch alive.
“Ma’am? Cattle are looking good. All sickness from last week seems to have cleared from the herd,” Jarvis Rudders, her foreman, noted as he rode up before her.
“Thank you, Jarvis. I’m greatly relieved,” she said and gave him a friendly smile. “You’ve done good work here. I appreciate it.”
The mild-mannered man tipped his hat. He was a handsome enough fellow who had spent most of his life working hard in one way or another. He’d been one of the first men for her to hire on her own, searching for work that wouldn’t have him down in the mines. He hadn’t even cared if she could find him a wife, something he had deemed improbable, and just wanted something else in his life.
But she was going to get him married. She had already determined that. She had seen how Olivia, the newest girl from Boston, had eyed him during her first Sunday supper. The two of them would be a fine match.
Penny would worry about that later.
“Let’s keep a close eye for the next week just in case,” she went on. “We’ll need to make sure that nothing else comes our way to cause the animals to become sick. No need to lose the chickens or the pigs either.”
“I’ll let the men know,” Jarvis said.
She thanked him and let him go his way before climbing back into the saddle. Always ready to make sure she was working as hard as anyone else on the ranch, if not harder, Penny decided to take a break from the ranch work to go check on the women up at the house.
Her horse climbed the crest that led to her home. It was a large ranch house, something Todd had built years before they wed, that deserved to be used and properly cleaned since she didn’t have the time.
It had a fine white trim and was built out of sturdy redwood. She remembered arriving just after her short wedding ceremony, her jaw dropping over the understanding that she would live there now. Todd had talked about how quickly he had built it and how hard he had worked to make it to his own design.
There was spacious room to work in the kitchen with a separate room for people to dine. In the front of the house were two parlors, one that was simpler and dressed for men and the other for women with lace and pillows on chairs. A large closet encapsulated the rest of the space alongside a small bedroom now used for storage.
And that was only the ground floor. The top floor boasted four bedrooms beside her own, along with a large study she used for her library and to work through the ledgers.
Penny couldn’t help smiling at the sight on her way up toward it. The wraparound porch was spacious with extra rocking chairs she had purchased just the other month. Although one of the men had offered to make them for her, she knew she couldn’t spare his talents elsewhere.
Overall, it had to be one of the finest homes she had ever seen.
The thought made her chuckle wryly. She hadn’t exactly grown up looking at the large houses and elegant homes. Rather, she’d kept her head down with hopefulness for something simple. Anything would be better than the small home she’d been raised in for the first eighteen years of her life.
It hardly made sense for her to be here now, but she had quickly come to love her home. She never desired to leave it. She also wished to do right by Todd. Although her marriage with Todd was more friendship than love, she wanted to keep the ranch running just as he would have liked.
Of course, he hadn’t ever included her in the labor. She had kept the books for him and handled lists and numbers, but he hadn’t wanted her to get out in the dirt with the men.
“It’s no place for a lady. And you are a lady,” he would insist. “The house is yours. Isn’t it enough?”
She never knew how to tell him it wasn’t because it should have been. The house was wonderful. A perfect place to live. But a cozy and quiet life was too lonely for her. She wanted the fresh air and a good challenge, which were easily found on a ranch.
“Penny! I was wondering if you were ever coming back.”
Blinking, Penny brought her horse to a stop to find they were already close to the house. And standing on the steps of the back porch was one of her dearest friends, Stella Josephs.
“What are you doing here?” Penny cried out. She hastened off the horse to meet her.
They hadn’t had too much time together of late. If Stella wasn’t quietly handling her father’s haberdashery when he was ailing, she tended to hide in the corners. At twenty-five, she was older than Penny and truthfully had little else in common. Especially since Stella was tall, thin, and had dark hair. She was twice as quiet and cared more for her father than anything.
Grabbing her friend in a hug, Penny gave her a broad smile. “And here I thought I’d have to trick you into coming here again.”
Stella’s pale cheeks blossomed with pink. “Oh, you don’t have to do that. You knew I would come back eventually. It’s just so busy with the store … How many people do you have here exactly?”
Since Penny had begun bringing in young women to work her inexperienced matchmaking skills on them, Stella had stopped visiting so often. They’d grown close as young girls in town and had stayed that way even when Penny married and moved a little further out of the way.
Penny knew it was disappointing to spend less time with her good friend, but there had also been something delightful about having the house filled with other people again.
Todd had occasionally brought guests to stay with them. Sometimes it had just been him and her. But even then, the house had felt lived in. For months, it had been so empty that Penny had hardly been able to stand it.
She hadn’t thought her plan would work very well, but she thought it was working. That it would work. Sending out several ads, Penny had invited both men and women to stay with her on her ranch. They would send a letter, and if she accepted them, they would be given room and board. Then she would teach them valuable skills useful on a ranch and see about matching them up for couples.
Although she’d only had about eight weeks of this, she’d already set up two unions, had an idea for another, and was expecting three more people to arrive in the next couple of days.
While it wasn’t quite enough for a proper ranch, every pair of hands was a boon. The women tended to the house and the smaller animals while the men worked outside with the barn and cattle.
“I’m not telling you,” Penny decreed, deciding against answering her friend’s question about how many people were there. She looped her arm through her friend’s before tugging her toward the horse to tie the animal to a nearby tree to graze. “You would like the girls, Stella. They’re all very kind, and most of them are wise as well. You could use more friends.”
“But I like my best friend well enough,” Stella teased her lightly, lifting her slightly upturned nose in the air. “And that’s enough for me.”
Penny gave her a squeeze. “Agreed. Well, let’s take a walk, shall we? I can spare time from the girls. They’re doing just fine in the kitchen these days. Olivia made the most scrumptious pie. She made quite a mess doing it, granted, but I didn’t tell her that. Oh, while we walk, let’s stop by the vegetable garden. I think some creature has been in there.”
Before she could go further, however, Stella stopped her. She gave Penny a pout as she said, “That’s exactly why I’m here, Penny. You work too hard. You haven’t visited me in three weeks.”
“What?” Penny shook her head. “That isn’t possible.”
Stella put on a sober expression. “I’m afraid it is. Come now, you must have some time you can tear away. Even if it’s just to come with me back to the shop. Please? I miss you,” she added.
Although Penny wasn’t sure about it, Stella soon began to convince her. It didn’t take long before she felt compelled to go off just for a short while.
“Fine. But only a short while,” she added sternly. “I need to be back in time to help with supper.”
Stella nodded, beaming. “Good!”
It didn’t take long for them to be on their way. Not quite confident in her riding skills, Stella had borrowed a neighbor’s wagon to drive on the headboard. The pair talked cheerfully on the road into town. It was a fairly wet spring, so the earthy scents were stronger than usual. Penny realized she had had little time to enjoy a moment or the world around her since she had been so busy lately. Stella had been right that a break was due.
“How is your father?” Penny asked when they climbed down to the ground. “Has he been well?”
“Today he was,” her friend noted. “Last week was horrible. His cough kept him in bed all day long. I was constantly running up the stairs in the back of the shop. But he seems well today and didn’t mind working alone when I left.”
Nodding, Penny glanced at the haberdashery before crossing the street. “I’ll have to say hello to him before I go back home. Can we stop by the bank and then the general store? What?” she protested when Stella gave her a look. “I can’t help myself.”
“Fine,” Stella huffed before chuckling to show she wasn’t really upset. “Let’s go. I shall take what time I can have with you.”
It was the busiest lane in Heartland, so they had to wait for a few ranch hands and sheep, plus a wagon to cross before going to the other side. Penny worked quickly to note everything in her accounts, and then she directed Stella off to the general store.
“Oh no,” the brunette breathed when they stepped inside. “He’s here.”
A smirk spread across Penny’s face. Standing on her toes, it wasn’t too difficult to locate the man that Stella had noticed.
Her good friend blushed at the mere thought of Sheriff Ira Shelton. An older barrel-chested man with brown hair and scars from his youth as a ranger, he had settled in Heartland to protect the law. In doing so, he had captured Stella’s heart in a way that Penny hadn’t known was even possible.
“We must talk to him,” she announced.
“No,” Stella started, but it was too late for her.
Penny called out to the man at the register. “Sheriff! It’s good to see you, sir. Shopping? Stella and I are doing that as well.”
Turning, the man blinked at her as if they had never met, which she supposed they hardly had, and then looked at Stella. His stern demeanor didn’t seem to budge. And yet, Penny could have sworn he was nearly smiling.
“Good afternoon, Mrs. Webster. Miss Josephs. How do you do?”
The blush on Stella’s face was brighter than the sun. “Very good, thank you,” she choked out. “I … I … I have to buy string. Excuse us.” Then she tugged Penny away before the conversation could go on.
“Stella, that was rude,” Penny started to scold, but she couldn’t finish her words as the giggles spilled out. “I do wish one of you would propose and simply get it over with.”
Her friend blanched. “He doesn’t see me that way, you goose. I can’t believe you embarrassed me back there.”
Grabbing her needed items off the nearby shelves, Penny sniffed and shook her head. “It would have been a perfectly decent conversation. Am I not your chaperone? One day, Stella, you’ll overcome your nerves, and then you’ll overcome his heart. Just have a little faith in yourself.”
The pair talked about love and romance as they collected the rest of her items before making their purchases. By then, unfortunately, the sheriff was already gone. Penny made a mental note to watch for him at church on Sunday.
“Do you still want to see my father? You know, we could fit you for a new dress. That one is quite worn,” Stella added.
Penny glanced at the dress she wore and knew her friend spoke the truth. There were only two dresses now in her closet. This one, the working one, and her church dress. The rest of the time, she wore wide trousers that worked better for riding.
“I don’t know. Perhaps I should ask your father to sew me trousers. I might give up dresses altogether. What do you think?” Penny teased.
Stella immediately launched into a lecture about why she shouldn’t do that and how it could hamper her marriage chances. A second one. One that Penny had already decided would never happen. Though she hadn’t talked to her friend about it, she had determined there would be no one else. She didn’t need another marriage or another man.
She had her ranch, and that was enough.
They were crossing the road right then to the wagon and her horse. With her hands full with a sack of flour and spices, she found her idea quite good. Stella kept walking with a retort about her father’s senses as Penny stopped where she was to find her skirt had snagged on her boots.
Shaking her foot wasn’t working. Frowning, she tried stretching her leg to the side. She knew it had to look silly, but she had to get herself free somehow. Already that morning she had tripped over the long hem and nearly planted her face in the dirt.
Just then, someone shouted, “Look out!”
Penny jerked her head up to find a wagon racing right toward her. A young man had the reins and looked halfway terrified. Too late, she realized she was supposed to get out of the way.
But that was when strong arms grabbed her tightly and gave her a push, leading her right out of the wagon’s path.
Breathless, Penny stumbled into the stranger’s arms. She dropped everything and struggled to catch her balance. They held on tight when she wavered. Inhaling deeply, she straightened up intending to thank them.
That was when she found herself looking at one of the handsomest men she had ever seen. And he was grinning right at her.
“Ah, there she is,” he announced. “I’ve been looking for you.”
Just when she thought she had gotten the air back into her lungs, Penny found that she couldn’t breathe again.
“When Love Knocks on her Door” is an Amazon Best-Selling novel, check it out here!
Penelope Webster suddenly finds herself widowed with the Paradise Hills Ranch left in her inexperienced hands. Being a quick learner, Penny has an innovative plan to retain its glory and decides to bring in young men and women to work on the ranch, offering them in exchange for a place to live, learn, and eventually meet their match. While she is not interested in another marriage herself, she gladly helps everyone else find their soulmates. All until a charismatic stranger, Cal, knocks on her door and makes her heart skip a beat.
Will she be able to stay focused on her goal while giving love a second chance?
Calvin Hawkins is looking for a safe place to lay low, away from the prying eyes of the law and the Golden Rope Gang he has been part of for the past ten years. With the pretense of searching for an honest job to do, he is welcomed in an unconventional ranch, where he finds himself charmed by the fierce redhead who runs the place, Penny. All of a sudden, he is at a crossroads between his dreadful past and a future he had never dreamed possible. And while the law is on his tail, he can’t bring himself to leave her side…
Could she be the salvation he has been looking for?
The connection between Penny and Cal is apparent but uncovered secrets will plague their relationship. Can their love prevail giving them the courage to withstand outside forces determined to destroy everything? Or will they let their past choices ruin their dreams?
“When Love Knocks on her Door” is a historical western romance novel of approximately 80,000 words. No cheating, no cliffhangers, and a guaranteed happily ever after.