Authors: Lena Goldfinch
Tags: #historical romance, #mail-order brides, #sweet western, #Victorian, #sweet historical western romance, #brides, #mail order, #Christian romance, #bride, #marriage of convenience, #wedding, #clean romance, #historical, #Seattle, #sweet western romance, #Christian fiction, #sweet historical romance, #sweet romance, #Christian romance frontier and western, #clean reads, #inspirational romance, #love, #nineteenth century
INDIGO ROAD PUBLISHING
SWEET HISTORICAL ROMANCE
Pepperell, Massachusetts, February 1866
omewhere along the way I went off course
It was no way for a young lady to ride.
No, nor could most young ladies track a pheasant through a dense dawn-lit thicket of trees. Most young ladies couldn’t shoot an acorn off a branch at fifty paces. Not a “proper” one anyway.
None of that quite mattered until now. Nothing had been more important than freeing the restless energy bubbling up inside her, like a teakettle set to boil. Things changed last Monday when Jack came home from his travels with sweet womanly Melody on his arm. That was the day Becky’s youthful fancies died a hard and painful death.
She was starting to think maybe Papa was right, a shocking thought in itself. Maybe there was something to his favorite quote, “The Lord’s wanting ‘a quiet and gentle spirit’ from all womankind, not your loose-limbed hoyden ways, Rebecca Sullivan. You’re a disgrace to womankind.”
Papa’s lectures came fast and frequent enough that perhaps she could be excused for not taking them much to heart. But at church yesterday, the preacher held up the Good Book during the worship and quoted nearly those same words. Her heart had squeezed to a halt right then and there as she sat in her pew, and she’d sunk into the deepest thoughts.
She might’ve passed it off as a misunderstanding, but that night she’d waited until after her parents were abed and crept downstairs to peek into her father’s big black leather Bible for herself. He forbade her and her younger sister, Rachel, to touch it. Just looking at it too long could spark a long lecture. Even knowing he looked down on women reading the Bible, Becky had to see with her own eyes what it said. That night, she fingered the leather binding with a mixture of reverence and anxiety for several moments before she turned to the page her father kept marked with a wide slice of black ribbon. And there the words were, stark on the page.
She’d wanted desperately to read more, but heard the sounds of someone stirring above. Afraid her father was about to come down and catch her, she’d stopped reading. She’d read enough anyway to know that what Papa and the preacher had said was true.
Did that make her “a blight” on all womankind?
Was that why Jack had abandoned her for that oh-so-proper, young Southern lady?
It was a worry.
Becky had quickly replaced the Bible on the kitchen table —at the precise angle her father had left it—and doused her lamp. Later, as she’d lain in bed, she couldn’t close her eyes without seeing those same words again:
gentle and quiet
As she galloped across the field now, the anguish struck her afresh, as chilling as the nor’easter gale that was bending the dead corn stalks round her, like a sea of dull gray.
Was God punishing her by taking away her only love?
Was he trying to get her attention?
She slowed China to a walk to allow them both a chance to catch their breath. Cold air filled her lungs, so cold she ached from it. But that was nothing compared to the empty places inside of her. She could feel them growing and growing, until that was all she had left. It was time to make some decisions. Past time.
She looked up at the gathering clouds, seeing in them the face of God looking down at her with a frown that would stop a buck at a full run. It hurt to think the Lord didn’t look kindly on her natural inklings—that she offended him by her nature—but there was no doubting it on a day like today.
“Lord,” she whispered up to the sky, “I know I’m not all I should be.” A tear warmed her cheek, and she said more softly, “And I’m sad to say it. I’m not sure if I can change my ways, but I want to please you. You know that. I want...I want... I don’t know. I don’t know what I want. I just know I’m not happy. So if it’s your will”—she swallowed a hard lump in her throat—“then please take these hoydenish ways from me. I’ll be whatever you want me to be...even if it is a proper lady.” She paused to consider the threatening clouds, then added for good measure, “I should probably also apologize for not being more respectful of Papa in my heart.”
She bit her lip.
She’d tried her best to please her father, but all her “Yes, Papas” only seemed to reap more lectures. All she’d wanted her whole life was one good word from that man. Maybe that was her trouble... Maybe she’d allowed his lack of praise to fill her head with bitter thinking. It shouldn’t matter what any man did or didn’t say. The Good Book had a thing or two to say about respecting your parents. She knew that well, since he’d quoted those words to her often enough.
So in the days that followed, Becky set out to become a proper young lady. It wasn’t easy, especially on the days when her rifle—the one Jack had given to her years ago—needed to be polished and cleaned. And on the days when she took China out for exercise. Keeping to a sedate pace nearly killed both of them, but she tried. It didn’t help that all of New England—or all of Pepperell, Massachusetts anyway—still saw her as Becky Sullivan, the grocer’s wild daughter. Some even called her a hoyden behind her back, she knew.
Surely, her determination couldn’t be faulted. She prayed “Dear Lord, please give me a quiet and gentle spirit” in the morning, in the afternoon, and late at night too. If heartfelt petitions alone could change her, she’d be a proper young lady in no time.
Seven long days later, Becky walked China through Farmer Tucker’s tilled field, noticing a premonition of change in the breeze. The air was unseasonably warm, and she spotted a few crocuses stretching their eager purple faces to the sun. It seemed a fitting backdrop as any for an answered prayer.
After a much-too-tame ride, Becky returned to her father’s store to work her shift. She was perched high up on a ladder stocking jars of peach preserves on the top shelf, when Melody Duncan—
—walked in, wearing a perfect ladylike confection of a dress. Her arrival was about as welcome as—say—a spring blizzard catching you barefoot far from home. She stopped in front of a display of white flannel and exclaimed softly. From Becky’s vantage point, those dreamy-eyed looks could mean only one thing: Mrs. Melody Duncan was going to have a baby.
Becky gripped the ladder.
Leave. Please just let her leave now,
she silently beseeched the ceiling. As Melody exclaimed some more and made no move for the door, Becky was left with an unpleasant answer to her prayer:
She slammed a jar of peach preserves onto the shelf, next to the neatly arranged row she’d been stocking. The jars rattled in protest. She was lucky she hadn’t broken any.
Not exactly “gentle,” Becky. Or “quiet,” for that matter.
She blew out a sigh, fluttering a strand of her hair that had fallen from her topknot.
Continuing to stock the shelf was a futile delay, she knew, since she was the only one minding the register this morning. She’d have to face Melody Duncan—and offer her congratulations. She peeked under her arm, and Melody gave her a cheery little wave. Becky forced a smile.
Only a couple of weeks had passed since Jack came home with a bride on his arm. It felt longer. Surely enough time had passed for Becky to set her heart to rights, but not a day went by that she didn’t wake up with an empty ache in her chest. Jack was supposed to marry
, but instead he’d chosen someone else. The perfect Melody.
And now Melody was expecting Jack’s baby. The news shook Becky to the core.
She’d endured it when Jack bought the old livery—just two doors down from Sullivan’s Grocers—and set up shop with Melody. He’d always been interested in horses, so his choice was no surprise, but having them so close made Becky’s feelings of loss an ever-present ache.
She’d endured Melody coming into the shop nearly every day. That had only been the beginning of the woe though, for no matter how hard Becky had searched, she hadn’t been able to find a single fault in Melody’s friendly face, or her soft Southern drawl, or her gentle blue eyes, or her sweet perfectly ladylike manner...or even in that pale delicate-looking skin of hers.
Apparently the fault was Becky’s. She must have some permanent mark on her soul, an inability to extend charity to the young woman below her. She should have befriended the girl, should have swallowed her jealousy and hurt. A surge of recriminations assaulted her, and she slammed another jar of peach preserves onto the shelf next to the last.
“Rebecca Ruth Sullivan!” Papa’s voice boomed from the back room. “Stop banging those jars! You’re going to break something.”
Becky startled at the sound of his voice and nearly toppled off the stepladder. His tone was harsh and angry, the tone he most often used when addressing her. The only other tone she’d identified was the voice of quiet disappointment, which was almost always accompanied by an equally disappointed gaze. She gripped the shelf hard to keep from plummeting to the floor and bowed her head, resting her cheek against the coolness of the jars.
Please give me a gentle and quiet spirit
, she prayed for the hundredth time that morning.
“Yes, Papa,” she called, stifling a moan. Nothing she did ever pleased her father. The past week—had it only been a week?—she’d been on a quest to become the perfect daughter, a perfectly prim and proper young lady—like Melody. She was trying. But Melody having a baby was the last straw. She had to escape.
As Southern Belle wandered around the aisles below her, Becky strove to keep her heart from breaking completely in two. Cold air whisked around her ankles, causing her to shiver. Dipping her head, she saw Jack closing the glass-paned door behind him without a sound. He sidled up next to his wife and kissed her cheek, clearly unaware that Becky was balancing precariously above them. Did he remember kissing
, Becky? Did he remember that tender long-ago kiss that had led her to believe he’d marry her one day? As Becky watched him nuzzle his lovely wife’s cheek—right there below her—her memory of Jack’s kiss soured.
“Hello, darling,” Jack whispered in Melody’s ear, unfortunately loud enough for Becky to hear as she was practically on top of the pair. “I’ve missed you this morning.”
“I’ve been gone less than an hour, Jack.” Melody pulled away from him with a pleased blush. She gave Jack a playful swat and peeked up at Becky, looking somewhat mortified.
He had the grace to look chagrined when he caught sight of Becky and offered her a look of apology. He nodded to her. “Good day, Miss Sullivan.”
“Jack.” Becky refused to call him Mr. Duncan. She’d made a resolution, one that she was tempted to break, right along with her broken heart. What had compelled him to kiss Melody right
, practically under her feet? Under her feet, for goodness’ sake.
Well, the man certainly has a right to kiss his wife
, Becky told herself firmly.
But why here, Jack? Must you kiss her here?
Perhaps a hard ride on China would cure her, she thought. She’d been so good—riding like a blessedly proper young lady since she’d made her resolution. Surely, one little hard ride would be acceptable in the Lord’s sight, especially today when she needed it so. The wind in her face might just chase away her aching thoughts.
But for how long?
a nagging voice asked.
As long as she lived practically in Jack and Melody’s pockets, there was no hope of relief. She prayed, then and there, for a way out.
“Becky, quit lollygagging and come here,” Papa yelled, interrupting her prayer.