Authors: Annie Lane
or those who care
, encourage and inspire
Copyright Annie Lane © 2015
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior written consent of the publisher.
The characters and events in this book are fictitious, and any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is coincidental and not intended by the author.
June 15th, 1886
harlotte Bates took
a deep breath and closed her eyes. The hot summer air clung to her skin and the moon shone brightly through the bedroom window high above her head, making sleep more difficult with each passing hour. Stuffy and cramped – if anyone ever asked, that was the way she always described Saint Anne’s orphanage.
She had been there now for ten long years. It wasn’t much to look at, walls covered in overgrown vines and moss, but it was all she’d had to call home in a really long time.
Charlotte recalled two things most clearly of the night she arrived – the steam rising high from the horse’s thick rump, and the clippity-clop of its hooves on the frozen ground as the wagon pulled away again.
Mistress Belle was the first to encounter the terrified child standing all alone on the front steps that stormy night, and for that small mercy Charlotte would be eternally grateful. Belle had ushered her inside, cleaned her up and fed her a bowl of steaming broth. Then she’d rocked the poor child in her arms, singing softly in her ear as she drifted off to sleep.
From that day on Charlotte lived in the woman’s shadow, finding comfort in her kind, brown eyes and her warm, nurturing soul. One that reminded her so much of her own mother.
Evelyn Bates had passed away when Charlotte was just six years old, and her daddy had never quite gotten over it. He died two years later to the day. The cause of death was never made clear but Charlotte always believed he finally gave way to a broken heart.
The only thing she had left of either of her parents was an old lace handkerchief the color of strong tea and tattered around the edges. Her mother had crocheted it herself and carried it down the aisle with her on her wedding day. Charlotte held it close to her now, breathing in the lingering scent, and hoping with all her heart that someday she, too, would walk down an aisle clutching the handkerchief.
She dreamed of finding a wonderful man – a man who would love her deeply. A man who would shower her with affection. For now, though, the handkerchief served as a reminder of a time gone by, and she sighed as she tucked it away safely inside her pillow slip.
“Rumor has it Mr. Graynger returns tomorrow,” Beth whispered softly as she leaned across her mattress, searching for Charlotte’s silhouette in the dim light. “His trip back East must’ve been successful or he wouldn’t be traveling home again so soon.”
Elizabeth Edwards was Charlotte’s best friend. Her only friend in fact, and Charlotte’s chest grew heavy with the thought that their friendship was destined to change. Once she turned eighteen she knew it would mean the end of her time in the orphanage. Girls of age were promptly turned out on the street with barely a few dollars to their name.
Charlotte had been taught in school that Seattle was a thriving city, offering a world of possibilities. But she knew the truth – it held little opportunity for a young girl with no business sense or work experience. Besides her skills in the kitchen and laundry, she figured she was about as useful to the growing economy as a shiny, copper penny with a hole in it.
Eighteen. They had one month left. That was all.
Charlotte lay still for a minute, quietly considering the implications of her friend’s statement… “Yes, I know … unfortunately.” Charlotte shuddered beneath the sheet, pulling it up tight under her chin.
Despite the warmth of the room, a cold shiver ran through her. The mere mention of Mr. Graynger’s name caused her heart to pound. She squeezed her eyelids tight, but the image of his whiskery face, greasy hair and beady, coal-black eyes was never far from her mind.
She would never forget those eyes as long as she lived.
They were soulless, empty and flat. The way they grazed over her body made her skin crawl. It wasn’t at all the same way she’d seen her father sneak glances at her mother as she worked in the garden, or the way he’d smiled at her when she brushed out her braided hair before bed. No, this was different. There was no worship or adoration in Mr. Graynger’s expression. He was vulgar instead. Lustful and wanton, and Charlotte had been uncomfortably aware of him watching her for years.
She’d caught him staring at her one evening after supper, not long before she turned sixteen. Instead of retiring for the evening, like he so often did once the meal was cleared away, he lingered around the kitchen for entirely too long as far as Charlotte was concerned. His cold eyes followed her every move, from the sink, to the larder, to the fire. The blossoming curves of her figure were quite obviously his sole focus, and Charlotte cringed now at the memory.
The fact that she would soon be of legal age played on Charlotte’s mind, and she rubbed her forehead as an ache began to build. “Mistress Belle also mentioned he’d be bringing with him two infant boys from Idaho, not even six months of age she reckons.”
Beth smiled brightly, her long, red hair pouring over her pillow like a river of lava flowing from the edge of the bed. It had been some time since the orphanage had taken in babies so young. Beth burst with excitement, “Oh, how
, do you think she might allow us to help with their feedings, and their bath time and their…”
“I certainly hope not,” Charlotte interrupted, tersely. She clearly didn’t share Beth’s enthusiasm for children, and although she planned on having some of her own one day, it was a way down the track yet and not something she pined for in the same way Beth did. “I can’t think of anything worse.”
Both girls flinched at the sound of footsteps echoing on the creaky floorboards just outside their bedroom. They froze inside themselves as the door inched open, little by little, and a thin strip of candlelight seeped into the room. They buried their heads and evened their breathing and after a few long moments the door finally closed again. Mistress Belle didn’t have to say a word. She’d made herself perfectly clear.
Elizabeth rolled over. “Good night, Charlotte.”
“Good night, Beth.”
homas Ackerman sat
on his front porch, slowly rocking himself back and forth with the heel of his foot. The rickety old chair barely held his weight and creaked every time he moved, but it was all he had, and it was all he needed. Not that he was a big man by way of extra notches in his belt, only big in the way of having the strong, lean muscles of a young hard-working man. And as he rested there awhile, breathing in the fresh Montana air, minding his own business as he so often did, every one of those muscles ached. It’d been a long, hot day out in the fields, and Thomas was pleased with himself at just how much he’d accomplished. He’d mended the last of the posts, dug three more ditches and finally finished the fencing down by the dam.
The open plains of his cattle ranch stretched out before his very eyes, and he watched in wonder as the setting sun turned a deep shade of crimson.
His mind roamed freely over the last few weeks. He still couldn’t get what he’d done quite straight in his head. He’d played it out in his mind so many times that his palms grew clammy just with the idea of it. But he still came up short of a logical answer, so he just sat there a while longer, rocking back and forth. Things were about to change, that much he knew for certain. And Thomas didn’t like change.
No. Not one little bit.
He was a quiet man. He lived a simple life. Peace and solitude were his main companions, and for the most part he was more than happy to keep it that way. He kept to himself. He kept his distance from trouble, best he could. But something told him, deep down in his weary bones, that trouble was about to come looking for him, whether he chose it or not.
Earl Mason lived on the adjacent property to Thomas, with his boy, Earl Junior, who was affectionately known by all in the small town of Conrad, simply as ‘Junior.’ .He was eight years old. The boy and his Pa were inseparable, and even more so after Mrs. Mason lost her battle with the consumption. The last three years had been extremely tough on both of them; they were rarely seen without the other glued to their side.
Despite the fact that both Earl and Thomas each owned many acres of fine, rich soil, the lay of the land meant the two homesteads weren’t situated that far apart. They even shared a common drive, and from Thomas’s place – high up on the hill – he could look right across the valley to the Mason’s porch, and even beyond.
It was on that very porch where Thomas had let his guard down weeks before. It wasn’t one of his finer moments, that much he knew to be true. After an uncharacteristic night of whiskey-drinking and cigar-smoking to celebrate top dollar at the calf auctions earlier that day, the two men had got to talking about matters of the heart, something Thomas never usually did.
Romance wasn’t high on his agenda, or even on his agenda at all. After all, he had a ranch to run. And barns to build. And cow hides to brand, and a whole lot of other chores too.
Although the two men held each other in the utmost regard, Earl had noticed Thomas disappearing inside himself with each year that passed, and the longer he left it, the harder it would be to accept that the young man he’d come to know and respect – his neighbor and colleague – might die having never known the joy of love and companionship with a good woman.
Earl himself knew it only too well. He’d lived it and breathed it for the best part of a decade. He knew what it felt like to open his heart to another human being, and so he had eagerly shared with Thomas the advertisement he’d stumbled upon, the previous day in the matrimonial newspaper.
Thomas grunted and groaned at the suggestion of
one of those mail-order brides
, but according to Earl, there was nothing much finer than coming in at the end of the day to a clean house, a home-cooked meal and a warm hand to hold beside the fire. And so by the time they’d found the bottom of their whiskey bottle, Thomas was slowly coming around to the idea. Either that, or maybe the fact that he could no longer feel his tongue was toying with his usual good judgment.
Thankfully the two men had enough smarts left in them to leave off penning the letter to send to Seattle for the days that followed, when their senses weren’t so impaired and they weren’t talking quite so much gibberish.