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December Love

Historical stories of Mail-Order Brides

and their Texas grooms

 

 

 

December Love

 

 

 

Jamie Adams, Mildred Colvin,

Linda Cushman, Regina Tittel

 

 

[* http:www.facebook.com/midwestchristianromanceauthors/*]

 

 

 

 

Historical Christian Romance

December Love

Copyright ©2016 by Mildred Colvin, Jamie Adams, Linda Cushman, Regina Tittel

All Rights Reserved

Shakespir Edition

Cover photo copyright © Steve Debenport

 

Scripture portions are taken from the King James Version of the Bible.

 

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or to events is entirely coincidental.

 

No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means without permission in writing from its author except for brief quotations in printed reviews. Thank you for respecting the author’s work.

 

 

 

 

Dedication

 

To our readers! Without you, we’d have no reason to write.

May God’s best be yours!

Chapter 1

 

 

Florence Foster stepped through the door of Rex and Lily’s new store, Barlow’s Tack and Trade, as a bell clanged overhead. Her daughter, Lily, turned from the bolts of fabric. Her hands stilled on a length of printed blue and white floral. “Florence, I didn’t expect to see you again this week. This is the third time you’ve been to town, isn’t it?”

Though the words held a hint of accusation, Florence pretended not to notice. Time would see them past their strained beginning as mother and daughter. She eyed the piece of fabric Lily had finished folding. “A return?”

“Not exactly.” Just then the bell rang again, and Lily brushed past to attend a customer.

Florence weighed the folded material in her hands. More than likely, someone had intended to make a dress. Had Lily cut the amount in advance only to learn the hopeful buyer couldn’t come through with the money? Tsk. Tsk. Running a business was quite a leap from handling mere secretarial duties. Lily could benefit from Florence’s years of knowledge.

Once the customer left, Florence caught Lily’s attention. “You’ve made lovely choices in your selection of fabrics … but do you think anyone here can afford them? I imagine the average income in Mesquite Gulch is quite lower than in Chicago.”

Lily’s chin lifted. “Trust me, I’ve spoken with most of the women here. Everything you see on our shelves is in response to what Rex and I have been told.”

Now it was impossible to dismiss the tone in her voice. Why was she taking offense? Florence had only meant to help. “If you want my advice—”

“I don’t!” Lily snapped. Her sharp comment was followed by a deep breath of air before she closed the distance between them. Lily took Florence’s hands in hers. “I know you mean to help, but I need you to believe in me. Rex and I can do this.”

The bell rang again and Will entered. He smiled broadly, “Looks good. You young’uns seem to know what you’re doing.”

Florence’s eyes widened at his comment. How could he think that? Didn’t he see they had overstocked in several items that would take forever to sell? Not to mention the niceties that were outside the pay range of the community.

Lily left her standing there and welcomed Will to a shelf of jarred vegetables. “We’ve traded with some of the residents around town. See anything you like?”

“Are those hot peppers?”

Lily read the label. “Yes, would you like one?”

“Give me two.”

Back in the buggy, Florence sat quiet on their return to the ranch. With her secret aired out, she was free to love Lily as the daughter she truly was … if only Lily would accept her. Why couldn’t her daughter see she was only trying to help? Somehow, she had to find a way to open Lily’s eyes to all she had to learn.

Will pulled the horses to an abrupt halt. Florence grabbed hold of his arm and the side of the carriage to keep from careening forward. “What on earth?”

“That’s what I want to know. You haven’t said a word since town. What sort of bee has gotten under your bonnet?”

She swallowed the sudden rise of emotions and stared off to the side.

“You know I don’t have any patience for secrets—”

“Believe me, Will, I know.” An exasperated sigh tumbled out. “It’s Lily. Could you not see the errors she and Rex are making in their store? I tried, gently mind you, to show her where they might consider stocking less of certain items or—”

Will’s bark of laughter cut her off. “And let me guess, she wants to do things her way and not listen to Mama?”

Florence didn’t know how to respond. Yes, that was it, but it was hardly amusing. If she and Rex didn’t listen, they could easily lose the business they’d only just begun.

“Florence, you’ve only been her mother for a month and a half, and ever since then you’ve tried to tuck her under your wing like a little chic.” He held her attention with a rough-skinned finger under her jaw. “She no longer needs you leading her to corn. She’s a grown woman.”

She jerked her face away. Who was he to say her daughter didn’t need her? Will had all the tenderness and understanding of a thunderstorm. Though the ground might need watered, a slow soak benefited the plants far more than a torrential downfall.

*

Florence peeled another carrot and nicked her finger. “Ow.”

Mabel heard her small cry of distress and hurried over to peer at her hand. “Not again.” She grabbed a rag and held it against her finger. “Why don’t we take a little break? You have a seat while I grab some coffee.”

Florence eagerly complied. It wasn’t like her to make mistakes in the kitchen. She had to clear her head and concentrate. If only it was that easy.

Mabel slid a cup in front of her and sat down. She took a sip and waited all of two seconds. So much like Will, she didn’t beat around the bush. “You’ve been distant ever since you and my brother came back from town. Did something happen between you two?”

A sarcastic laugh fought to be released, but always poised, Florence held it back … but not her thoughts. Nothing ever happened between her and Will. That was part of the problem. Did the man not feel the same for her as she did for him? For months, she’d tried to control her building affections. Although he’d already outlived his doctor’s dire prognosis, he still wasn’t a healthy man. Common sense said not to give away her heart, yet her heart had taken the leap without her consent. And here she was, stuck in Texas with an outspoken, dying man and a new daughter … neither of whom wanted her.

“Florence,” Mabel touched her arm, “you can talk to me.”

“Sorry, Mabel.” She patted her hand. “I know. I’m just not sure where to start.”

*

Will Logan knocked the dust from his hat against his leg as he left the barn. Restless and needing more to do, he’d helped Zack and his men lead sheep onto different pasture. Though everything had gone well, the work had left him more tired than he’d expected. He missed the times when he could jump a mount and ride all day. Yet, he was still able to keep up with several ranch hands. Perhaps the doctor had misdiagnosed him. After all, he hadn’t had a spell in over a week. The doctor hadn’t expected him to live past Christmas and here it was already nearing the end of January. Maybe he was getting better.

His stomach growled. There was no mistaking he still had an appetite. Will hoped the women had a mess cooked up as he was hungry enough to eat a whole steer.

He stepped through the kitchen door and breathed deeply. “I smell fried potatoes.”

Mabel turned from the stove. “But you won’t get any standing there as dirty as a pig. Go wash before you touch something.”

He laughed and made his way across the floor as Florence entered the kitchen. He drew to a stop and their gazes locked. She sure was a pretty woman … no, she was beautiful. Like a water-hole springing up in the dry desert, she had a way of making him thirst.

She leaned to the side and pointed behind him. “You’re leaving a trail.”

He glanced back at the dust left in his wake. “That’s what happens when men have been working.”

Her perfect brows rose in the way he’d become accustomed to and knew he was in for a reprimand.

“The women have been working too. So march yourself back outside and dust off before you mess up the rest of the house.”

Beautiful and bossy, Florence had a way of controlling everything around her. But he couldn’t complain. Between her and Mabel, the house had never stayed so clean. He crooked a grin and waved his hands in surrender. “Fine. Fine.” He passed his sister again on his way to the door. “Stop rubbing off on her, will you?” he laughed.

“Like you’ve ever listened to me!” Before he stepped outside, he saw her turn and say to Florence, “I’ve never known that man to go back out and clean off for anyone before. I wish you would’ve come sooner, you could’ve saved my back a lot of work.”

The women’s laughter faded as he considered what was said. Why did he take extra care for Florence? He couldn’t remember doing this for his first wife. Of course, she never called him out on much. Raised in Texas like him, they were both accustomed to the dirt of the ranch.

Although Florence was as refined a woman as he’d ever met, she didn’t appear to be in a hurry to leave Texas. In fact, she seemed intent on staying since Lily had married Rex. The thought warmed his heart. The house would never be the same if she did leave. He enjoyed teasing her as much as she liked to boss him. They’d formed a solid friendship, and as far as he was concerned, she was welcome to stay as long as she wanted.

After cleaning up, Will joined the women at the table. He never failed to be affected by the remaining empty chairs. However, now that his sons were married, in time the table might become crowded with grandchildren. With a smile, he bowed his head for prayer. “Father, we thank you for the food we’re about to eat and for the many years you blessed us with a full household. Thank you for blessing this ranch and all those who call it home. Amen.”

He lifted his head and concentrated on filling his plate. The women seemed quieter than normal, but one could never tell what went on in their heads and for the most part, Will knew better than to ask. He dove into his meal, savoring every bite. “Oh, where’s the peppers I bought from Lily today?”

Mabel’s mouth firmed. “Will, I don’t think those would be good for you.”

“Nonsense.” His eyes searched the kitchen. “I see them.” After retrieving a jar he enjoyed several with his meat and potatoes. Although he’d gone to town several times this week, it always seemed to be after lunch. He’d missed the spicy dishes offered up by the Sagebrush diner, although tonight’s potatoes were plenty flavorful. “Whoever fried the ’tators did a perfect job.”

“That would be Florence,” Mabel nodded across the table with a pleased smile. “Adding garlic to them was a wonderful idea. I’ll have to make them this way for Oswald.”

“Speaking of your husband,” Florence asked, “how is he? You mentioned receiving a letter, but I forgot to ask.”

“Good but ready for me to come back home.” She looked at Will. “Considering how well you’ve been doing, I might be making the trip fairly soon.”

“Well, don’t get yourself all hurried up.” He glanced between the women. Mabel’s presence acted as a hostess of sorts between him and Florence. He didn’t want Florence to feel she could no longer stay, and he sure didn’t want her to leave.

He took a long drink of water then wiped his chin with a napkin. The peppers were hotter than he’d expected. A twinge of pain shot across his chest. Was he already stressing about Florence leaving? Surely it was too early to start worrying.

 

 

Chapter 2

 

 

Florence walked beside Mabel and listened to her talk about the coming garden. Why she was sharing the information was beyond Florence. It was too early for one thing and by spring, neither of them would be here. Oswald wanted his wife home and Florence … where was she to call home? She didn’t feel it would be right to leave Will until she was sure he was healthy enough to survive on his own, but without Mabel’s presence, she couldn’t very well stay. And with Lily and Rex still newlyweds, she wouldn’t invite herself into their home.

“Have you heard a word of what I’ve said?” Mabel stopped with her hands on her hips.

“I’m sorry, Mabel.” Florence stooped to pick up a weed and twirled it between her fingers. “You’re telling me about a garden I won’t be here to tend.”

“Why won’t you be here?”

“I can’t stay here forever.” She picked off a leaf, then another. “I should move to town anyway, to be closer to Lily.”

Mabel’s eyes narrowed. “Lily loves you, that much is evident, but right now she needs to spread her wings.”

“Right now she and Rex are blundering decisions about what to stock—”

“You have to trust it all to God.”

Florence huffed. “I’ve heard preachers say that, but they’ve never been in my situation. After leaving Lily in an orphanage most of her life, I can’t deny her now. Even if she doesn’t see her need for help, I can’t sit back and let her fail.”

Beside her, Mabel took a deep breath. “Tell me something, while she was at the orphanage, weren’t you a constant in her life?”

“Of course I was. And I didn’t just bring her toys and clothes, I taught her all I knew.”

“And you’ve trained her well. You’ve done all the watering you need to, now watch her grow.”

Florence tossed the weed to the ground. Mabel was right, but it wasn’t in her nature to not do anything. “Then I’ll go back to Chicago.”

Mabel waved a finger at Florence. “Name one thing Chicago has over Texas?”

Her pride.

Chicago had nothing over Texas, but in the city, she could hide her broken heart from the man she loved and busy herself enough to give Lily room. She turned, pretending to take in the landscape while letting her eyes dry.

As always, Mabel’s perception missed nothing.

“And honestly, what would you do in Chicago? Your business manager is doing fine without you there to oversee things.”

Escape Will and his lack of interest in her? Her heart twisted with the self-omission.

Mabel linked their arms and steered them back to the house. “I think there’s more at stake here.”

Uh, oh.

“Tell you what, why don’t you take some time off. Leave your worries behind, and that means your business too. Go to Fort Worth for a while.”

“What’s in Fort Worth?”

“I will be, soon. Consider it a vacation from everything that’s troubling you. Just unwind.”

*

Will stomped around inside the barn, making more noise than needed. A stalled mare, healing from a sprain, raised her head and snorted.

“Something bothering you?” Richard Barlow, Rex’s father and Will’s foreman, sauntered in from the pen.

“You might say that.” Will rubbed his hands together. His calloused palms made audible from the friction. “My sister’s thinking about heading back to Fort Worth.”

Rich nodded his head. “Makes sense. I’m sure her husband has missed her.”

Will ground his teeth. Yes, Oswald would like to have his wife back, but the selfish truth of the matter was, Will still needed her. “If she leaves, then Florence will feel she can’t stay … we wouldn’t have a chaperone.”

Rich shrugged. “Then marry her.”

“You must have sand between your ears.” Will yanked a towel from a hook and swiped dust from a saddle. “What good would it do to marry Florence if I die a month down the road?”

The man grew quiet as he glanced over toward Will. “So far the doctor has been wrong.”

Will sighed and swiped the towel over the toe of his boot. “I had another spell last night.” His head shot up. “But they don’t need to know. I don’t need hens smothering me day and night.”

Rich simply shrugged. “Have it your way. As long as you figure your way is what’ll work out best.”

Will grumbled under his breath and left the barn. As he came up on the front of the house he spotted Florence sitting on the porch. If she was out here, then breakfast wasn’t ready yet, he might as well join her.

Will climbed the front steps as Florence smiled good morning. The act didn’t reach her eyes. Was she as troubled as him?

He sat in a nearby chair unsure what to say. The awkwardness grew until he couldn’t sit still. “Did you not sleep well?”

Florence startled before her widened eyes narrowed in thought. “No, I slept fine.”

He waited for her to add something else and when she didn’t, his aggravation grew. “Then what’s wrong? You’re not still upset over Lily, are you?”

“You have all the tenderness of a cactus, Will Logan.” She rose from her seat. Will wasn’t ready to let her leave. He jumped up and grabbed her arm, causing her to fall back against him.

The scent of Florence, roses and lilacs and everything pretty, embodied his senses. Suddenly, all Will could think of were her lips and the honey-dewed sweetness he was sure they held.

His gaze reluctantly left her mouth and slowly climbed to her eyes. Like a shy colt, something new and lively skittered across their vibrant blues. Did he dare venture further?

She made the decision for him as she pulled away. A hue of crimson climbed her neck. “Excuse me, I’m needed in the kitchen.”

“Hold up a minute, Florence.”

“Yes?” The hopeful tone held a link to her heart. A heart he had no right to. Not in his state of health.

“I … I do care when you’re upset.”

The light in her eyes dimmed. Will struggled with where to go from here. “And … well I’m not very fancy with words.”

Her brow rose the way it often did before she shot off orders to someone, yet she said nothing.

He shoved his thumbs in his pockets and resisted rocking back on his heels. “And you look real pretty this morning.” He inwardly cringed. Where had that come from? He was such a dope when it came to expressing his feelings, especially around Florence.

“And you don’t need to worry about Lily. She’ll come around, she just needs time to be a wife. Soon enough she’ll be running to you with all kinds of questions. Just don’t be too bossy with your answers, and you two will do fine.” Pleased with his quick save, he crossed his arms and gave a satisfied nod.

Florence shook her head in a slow back and forth motion. Had he said something wrong? Why were women so complicated? Instead of explaining her reaction, she disappeared inside with the click clack of her shoes diminishing toward the kitchen.

 

 

Chapter 3

 

 

“It’s time to go back home. Past time!” Florence was still muttering when she entered the ranch’s spacious kitchen. “I should know better than this at my age. Chicago’s where I belong.”

Mabel pulled a pan of biscuits from the oven. Her brows pulled together as she looked at Florence. “What’s that about Chicago?”

Warmth flooded Florence’s cheeks. What could she tell Mabel? Oh nothing much. It’s just that I’m in love with your little brother but if I’m upset it bothers him. Which, of course, means he can’t begin to understand what I’m feeling. But why should He? He’s strong and stoic. He thinks everyone should hide their feelings the way he does—if he has any. To her horror, tears burned the backs of her eyes. She couldn’t cry. She wouldn’t.

“Sit down, Florence, and tell me what’s going on?” Mabel pulled out a chair. “Did my brother say something to hurt your feelings? Whatever it was, I’m sure he didn’t mean it the way it sounded.”

Florence looked from Mabel to the chair. She’d like nothing better than to unburden her heart. Between trying to understand Lily, and now Will, she’d strung herself tighter than the barb wire around Will’s pasture. Except Will had come across quite clear with his meaning. He didn’t want to see her upset. “Men can’t stand to see a woman cry. That’s all it is.”

“You cried in front of Will?” Mabel’s lips twitched. She went around the table and pulled out another chair. “Sit down a while. It won’t hurt Will to wait for his breakfast while you tell me what’s going on. Won’t take but a minute I’m sure, and I could use the sit-down time.”

Florence stared at the other woman before sinking to the chair waiting for her. “No, I didn’t cry, but Will said he didn’t want to see me when I’m upset.”

Mabel grinned. “Probably meant he didn’t want you to be upset. That’s a man for you. Can’t say what’s on his heart so he says something dumb. Don’t mind him, and don’t even think about going back to Chicago. Remember, we talked about—”

“Who’s going to Chicago?” Will’s booming question flew across the room as he stood in the doorway, a shocked look on his face.

Mabel stood. “I’ll just see to getting breakfast on the table. Maybe you two might like a moment to talk.” She snatched up the biscuits and disappeared into the dining room.

Florence examined the floor. Please, open up and let me sink into your depths. When nothing happened she knew none of her wishes would come true today.

Will glared at her as he sat where Mabel had been. “You aren’t going to Chicago.”

“Oh, really?” She straightened and returned glare for glare. “What gives you the right to tell me what I can or can’t do?”

For the longest time their gazes locked together tighter than her strong box in Chicago, and that’s where she was going if he didn’t give her a good reason to stay. Please, Will, say something. Like my love for you should be enough. Yes, that would do it. Please, please.

His eyes flickered before he looked down. “I already told you I don’t like seeing you upset. We’re friends, aren’t we? Good friends.” He rubbed his hand over his chest. “There’s plenty of room here, and we’ve gotten used to having you around. I reckon Mabel would miss you if you left.”

The air rushed from Florence’s lungs. How could he say such things? “Let’s go eat breakfast, Will. Mabel’s waiting.”

She stood and walked out ignoring her name as it came from his lips in a soft caress. The old man should take lessons from his boys. They’d all three wooed and won their brides in less than three months’ time. But that was the problem, wasn’t it? Will didn’t want a bride. He wanted a friend who was never upset. Well, she was upset now!

By the time she reached the table, the hurt had wormed its way deep. She straightened her shoulders and lifted her chin determined to not let anyone know. After all, she had no reason to raise a fuss. If he couldn’t return her love, she should welcome his friendship. William Logan was a nice man. He was only trying to help. He’d opened his home to her, and she was grateful. It wasn’t his fault he didn’t love her. Forcing a smile to her lips, she looked at Mabel, who stood watching as if she thought she might break in two. “Is there anything else I can help with?”

“No, it’s all on the table.” Mabel turned toward the heavy footsteps coming from the kitchen. “Let’s all sit down and eat.”

Florence felt Will’s presence as he shuffled past her and took his place at the end of the table. She turned her smile on him before sitting down and bowing her head for the prayer.

*

The hollow clopping of the horse’s hooves against the road to town sounded as gloomy as the sky above. Raindrops plopped against the top of the buggy while Mabel guided it toward the stagecoach station. Florence was glad for the dry buggy, but not for the silence that surrounded her. Was Mabel as sad at her leaving as she was?

Will hadn’t made a sound of protest since their talk yesterday before breakfast. It was just as well. Seemed every time either of them opened their mouth she felt worse. All she got was his sympathy when she wanted his love. How hard could that be, Will? Obviously too hard for him.

Mabel pulled the buggy to a stop in front of the station and turned to Florence. “I don’t suppose I can change your mind?”

“No.” Florence shook her head. “You’ll soon be going home to your husband. I can’t stay here with the way things are. And I don’t see anything changing.”

“Do you love him?” Mabel’s intense look released the tears Florence wished would dry up. After a sleepless night of soaking her pillow, she’d expected dry eyes today.

She swiped at her cheeks leaving room for her eyes to fill again. “Yes, but it doesn’t matter, Mabel. He doesn’t care for me in that way.”

“Maybe. Will has a hard time expressing how he feels.”

“I think he’s made it clear we’re only friends.” Florence blotted her eyes on the handkerchief she pulled from her purse. “But that’s all right. He’s a wonderful man. I’m privileged to count him as a friend.”

Mabel grunted. “What about Lily? Are you going to tell her goodbye?”

Florence took a deep breath. “I already did more or less. The last time I was in town, I mentioned going back to Chicago, and she acted like she didn’t care. Oh, Mabel, I’m almost afraid to go back to that life. What if word gets out about Lily?”

“What do you mean?” Mabel’s eyes narrowed.

“I had a child out of wedlock. Do you have any idea what my business associates could do with that? I’d be ruined if word got out in Chicago.” Florence stared at Mabel as a void took over her core. “I can’t go back there.”

“Then go to Fort Worth like I suggested in the first place.” Mabel’s eyes danced above her smile. “Let Will think you’ve gone to Chicago while you stay close by. I know the perfect place. You can stay at the Queen City Hotel. It’s respectable and quiet. You’ll enjoy it there and have time to think things over. Decide what you want to do. After all, you can’t give up on Lily.”

“No, I can’t.” Florence weighed the options and didn’t find any pointing toward Chicago. After a while, she nodded. “I’ll do it. I’ll go to … where’d you say? Queen Hotel?”

“Queen City Hotel. When you get to Fort Worth tell a cabbie. He’ll know the way.” Mabel glanced around the side of the buggy. “I thought I heard something, but I guess not. I see the rain has stopped. The stage should be here soon.”

Florence turned her gaze toward the station not far from where they sat. Pounding hoof beats drew her attention to the road. A team of four horses pulled the familiar stage coach through a puddle, splattering rain water before stopping in front of the station.

As Florence climbed down on her side of the buggy, a young man hurried away and crossed the street behind them. Had he been walking past or standing nearby? She glanced around but saw no one else he might have been visiting with. She shrugged. It wasn’t worth worrying about.

Her heart picked up its beat as she shifted her thoughts to the next few days. Maybe she was running away from Will and a love she couldn’t deny, but this would give her some needed quiet time to think and pray. Lily didn’t want her help, and Will didn’t want her love. Surely there was a way she could stay in Texas, her adopted land, without becoming a burden to the two most important people in her life.

She picked up one of her bags from the back of the buggy. The tag with her name and address had been torn off. How did that happen? She looked around searching for the answer.

The young man who’d hurried away from the buggy stood watching her from across the street. He turned away, revealing a jagged scar along his cheek. Something cold snaked along her spine. She shook off the feeling. She needn’t worry about him. She was leaving Mesquite Gulch.

Maybe forever.

 

 

Chapter 4

 

 

Will stood inside the open doorway of the barn staring out toward the drive from the road. Sometimes he felt as old as the land he loved. “… for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.” According to the third chapter of Genesis, he might be that old. A wry chuckle escaped before he suppressed it. Didn’t set well with the load he carried today.

Florence. He brought the little blonde woman to mind as a lump formed in his throat. She was gone. Chicago’s gain and his loss. Already the place seemed way too quiet. How could he live without Florence?

He snorted. He couldn’t, but he couldn’t have lived with her either. Not for long. His time on earth was drawing to a close maybe even before he reached his fiftieth birthday. He rubbed his chest as pain moved through it. Physical or emotional, he wasn’t sure. Maybe he’d ask Mabel to fix chili for supper. Good cooking should go a long way to ease the pain in his heart. At least, he could pretend it did.

A wagon wheel squeaked followed by the neigh of a horse excited to return home. As if thinking about her had caused her to appear, Mabel drove in, directing the horse toward the barn.

He stepped out to meet her and reached for the reins as she tossed them toward him. He caught them in mid-air then stepped forward to help her down.

“Don’t bother.” She brushed him away. “I can manage fine. If you’d take care of the horse, I’ll get supper started.”

“I’ve been hankerin’ for a big bowl of your good chili.” He glanced around the horse to see how she took his suggestion.

“I suppose you want one of those hot peppers diced up in it.” An upward twitch of her lips encouraged him as did her comment, bringing a rumble to his stomach.

“That would be mighty fine if it isn’t too much trouble.” Just thinking about it set his taste buds dancing.

“Aren’t you going to ask about Florence?”

Mabel’s unexpected change of subject twisted his insides. Maybe he wasn’t so hungry after all. “I suppose she’s on the way to Chicago. Don’t figure there’s need to talk about what’s done.”

“She caught the stage all right.” Mabel stared at him as if she was trying to gauge his reaction.

He shrugged and led the horse into the barn. No need to rehash what couldn’t be helped. So Florence was really gone. His loss hit him like a fist to the chest. He stopped a moment to ease the impact. She wouldn’t be coming back. He gulped a deep breath past his pain and trudged on.

After unhitching the horse and rubbing him down, Will poured out a measure of grain then turned him out into the pasture. He tinkered around with one thing and another in the barn finding nothing important to do, but not wanting to go into the house and listen to Mabel talk about Florence.

As the dinner bell rang, the clopping of horse’s hooves came to a stop outside. “Hey, Aunt Mabel. Got enough fixed for us, too?”

Able and Faith no doubt.

“Sure do. Come on in.” Mabel sounded far too cheerful. “Well, look who’s coming there. Looks like the whole clan’s riding in.” Her laughter rang out. “Good thing I fixed a big pot.”

A horse neighed, answered by another. Zack called out and Josh answered. The girls’ voices blended with his sons’, but he couldn’t distinguish who said what. Their voices all became a blur of laughter and chatter as Will froze in place. He weighed his growling stomach against the urge to hide away from anyone who might mention Florence. Might? There was a yard full who would want to know where she was, and the boys would soon be coming into the barn anyway. As a ragged sigh rushed out, he threw his hammer on the workbench. Couldn’t a man have any peace and quiet anymore? Of all times for everyone to converge on him!

He straightened his spine and strode to the door determined to keep his feelings private. He wasn’t about to cower in his barn. “Well, look who’s come for supper, Mabel. I hope you’ve got plenty.”

“Enough for this bunch.” Mabel grinned at the group, looking as pleased as if she’d gathered them there.

Will cast a suspicious glance toward her. When would she have had the time? “Seems strange you all coming at the same time.”

“Yeah, that’s what I thought.” Josh looked at his brothers then back at Will. “Tempe mentioned we should see how you’re doing, and I agreed.”

“Yeah, that’s why we’re here.” Zack slipped his arm around Ida. They shared a loving look.

Will held out both arms. “As you can see I’m fine.” He turned to his oldest son. “So Able, did you and Faith come to see about my health too?”

Able looked at his wife while one eyebrow rose. “Uh, not exactly.” He turned back toward Will. “But we’re sure glad to see you looking so well.”

“It’s my fault we’re here.” Faith stepped close to Able. “I … ah, I sort of burned our supper.”

Able snorted then slipped his arm around Faith and pulled her closer. “It’s charcoal, but for a good cause.” He looked around at all the expectant expressions as Faith seemed awfully interested in her clasped hands. A wide grin spread across his face. “She got interested in cutting up some cloth for little sleeping gowns.”

Tempe squealed and bounced across the yard to grab Faith. “I’m going to be an aunt.”

“So am I.” Ida moved forward for a three-way hug as the two younger boys congratulated their older brother.

Will held back and shared a smile with Mabel. Faith and Able didn’t know how much he needed this right now, but Mabel probably did. How he wished Florence could be here to share his joy.

*

“Oh-h-h.” Will rolled from one side to the other. The burning in his chest made it impossible to sleep. He looked at the window. Still dark outside. If he could get out a good burp some of that pain might leave with it. While he waited for another pain to move through his chest he brought Florence to mind. Maybe the Lord would take him home tonight. Would she miss him? Going to his heavenly home didn’t excite him the way it should. He’d rather have Florence and a healthy heart. Then he wouldn’t have let her leave his side.

The kids had asked after her as he’d known they would. Didn’t make it any easier, but he’d told them she went back to Chicago. Mabel hadn’t said much. She probably missed her too. No wonder his heart was acting up again. Lord, I’m ready to go if You’re ready for me. But if not, help me get over Florence. Be with her and let her be happy there in that big city.

As the night wore on, Will shifted positions more times than he could count and never found relief. When he woke to the early morning light coming through his window, he shook his head. How he’d managed to return to sleep with all that burning in his chest, he didn’t know.

The rest of the week fell into a sort of pattern. He worked when he could, ate enough of Mabel’s good cooking to help him forget Florence no longer sat across the table from him then fought the pain in his chest that seemed to get worse each day.

He sank to his easy chair one day after dinner and leaned forward pressing a hand against the middle of his chest as the pain nearly took his breath away.

“I’m hitching up the buggy, and we’re going to the doctor.” Mabel hustled from the room before he could stop her.

He shook his head. Nothing the doctor could do, but once Mabel got her mind set, there was no stopping her. He pushed from his chair and followed, shuffling his feet behind her.

“Won’t do much good to make this trip to town.” Will frowned at his older sister as she scrambled to claim the reins, refusing to let him drive. “If I’m dying, there’s nothing Doc Brown can do.”

“Maybe you aren’t dying.” Mabel’s words came across as rough as her driving. “You’ve already outlived his prediction.”

They argued their opinions all the way to town. Once on Main Street, Mabel guided the horses to the doctor’s house and stopped in front. “Come on. Let’s find out what he has to say.”

Will harrumphed. He already knew what the doc would say. Soon Mabel would see their trip to town had been a waste of time.

Twenty minutes later, she stepped ahead of Will into Barlow’s Tack and Trade. “Humpf! That man’s a quack. I never before heard such hemmin’ and hawin’ around as he was doing. You need to go to a real doctor.”

Lily stood behind the high counter in back scribbling on a tablet. She stuffed it in her apron pocket and looked up with a bright smile. Probably heard Mabel’s annoyance with Doc Brown and the sharp rap of her shoes against the wooden floor.

Will couldn’t blame his sister. The doc still held to his first diagnosis of a bad heart. Will shrugged. He was going to die. Might as well get used to the idea.

“How are you, Mrs. Harris, Mr. Logan?” Lily’s eyes sparkled. Looked like marriage agreed with her.

“I’m fine, but if that quack down the street knows anything, Mr. Logan should be layin’ on his deathbed.” Mabel, as usual, spoke what she thought.

“Oh, I hope not!” Lily’s eyes grew round as she turned toward Will. “You look well.”

Mabel grunted. “What he needs is a real doctor.”

“Like Dr. Brennon in Chicago.” Lily looked to Mabel as if she would be the one making the decision. “When any of the girls needed a doctor, he’s the one the orphanage always called. Mrs. Foster said he was the best. I know she’d agree he could help.”

Chicago? “Hold it one minute!” He raised his voice a mite more than he meant to but didn’t back down. “I’m not running after her. I’ll not go to Chicago.”

“I didn’t mean that.” The confusion in Lily’s eyes almost broke through the barrier he’d thrown up at the mention of Chicago and Florence. “I just meant—”

“Lily’s right. You need to see another doctor, Will, but not in Chicago. It’s time for me to see about Oswald. He’s been asking when I’m coming. This last letter seemed insistent. You can go with me, and we’ll stop in to see Dr. McCowan. I’ve trusted him for years and guarantee he’ll figure out what the problem is.” Mabel stepped away. “I’ll let you two visit while I pick up a few things.”

Will shook his head as she walked away. “She’s been bossing me around since I was born. I guess that’s what older sisters do.”

“I wouldn’t know.” Lily stared at her hands. “I never had a sister—older or younger.”

“You know Florence loves you, don’t you?” He tried to soften his voice although Mabel was the only other one in the store.

Lily interlaced her fingers on the counter. Her momentary silence spoke volumes of doubt. “She gave me up as a baby, and now she’s moved away. That’s an odd way to show love, don’t you think?”

Will brought Florence’s image to mind and again saw the hurt in her eyes when he couldn’t give her a reason for staying in Texas. She was hurt by Lily for sure. Maybe even over him, but she didn’t know how he felt any more than Lily understood her. He took a deep breath. “We can’t always see what’s going on with someone else. We don’t know all the opposition they face that keeps them from doing what they want. Florence couldn’t be the mother she wanted to be. I’d say she did the best she could by staying close to you. We don’t know what she faced at home with first her parents then her husband. Maybe you’re looking at this the wrong way. Could be she loves you more than you know. Even enough to give you wings.”

As my love for Florence must set her free. Will looked up as a tear rolled down Lily’s cheek.

She brushed it away and straightened. Her expression cleared, and a soft smile touched her lips. “I’m sure you’re right, Mr. Logan. I’ll think about what you’ve said. I hope you get a better report from Mrs. Harris’s doctor.”

Will stepped back as Mabel rejoined them with her purchases. If this new doctor could find a cure for his sickness, would Florence give him a second chance?

*

Florence blinked her eyes to focus on the blurred page before her. She’d read the third chapter of Ephesians enough she should know it by heart, but tonight she had no idea what it said. She’d lost Will. If not from his sickness, from lack of love. Or both. He said Mabel would miss her! Obviously, he wouldn’t.

A knock at her room brought her heart to life. Will! He’d followed her. She jumped up letting her Bible slide into her chair then rushed toward the door, and pulled it open.

A young man stepped forward, a newspaper clutched in his hand. “Hello, Mrs. Foster. I apologize for the late hour, but I have something urgent to discuss with you about your businesses in Chicago.”

He lifted the newspaper, and she read the banner at the top of the front page. “‘The Chicago Morning Herald’. Who are you? What has happened?”

“If I may come in, I’ll be happy to explain.” He took another step, crowding her.

Her heart pounded. “I’ll meet you in the lounge downstairs.”

“I don’t think you want that.” The tilt of his lips mocked her, yet his voice sounded sincere, even compassionate. “What I have to say shouldn’t be overheard.”

Her breath caught. “Tell me what’s going on.” She took a step back as he moved forward.

He closed the door and held up the newspaper. His concerned demeanor changed to a sneer. “How would you like your name splashed across the front page of this and other Chicago papers? I know you have a daughter named Lily Barlow, who was born out of wedlock.” He took a step forward with each accusation. “I know she grew up in an orphanage while you married well and became a wealthy woman. Quite a juicy story, isn’t it, Mrs. Foster? One you’d like to keep private.”

Florence clutched her dress at her throat as the room grew dim. She blinked to keep from swooning, and the man came back into focus, the scar on his cheek standing out. The same scar as the man who’d watched her from across the street in Mesquite Gulch.

Murray.

The kids had talked about him. Faith put that scar on his cheek when he’d tried to take advantage of her. Oh, Lord, help me! “What do you want?”

He shrugged. “Money, what else? Give me what you have, and I’ll keep quiet.” His voice lowered to a threat. “Send me on my way empty handed and I’ll make sure everyone in Chicago knows your dirty secret.” He lifted the paper again. “Oh, and everyone in Mesquite Gulch too.”

A vision of Lily settled her decision. She couldn’t let her daughter be hurt any more than she already had been. Florence’s knees gave way, but she clutched the back of the chair. “All right. But I don’t have much with me. I think about fifty.”

“Make it one hundred and I’ll forget everything I know.” Murray’s smile below the scar seemed more like a sneer.

“I’ll see what I can find.” Florence dug through her purse and counted out one hundred dollars while her heart pounded a hard rhythm.

He snatched the money, saluted her, and let himself out.

Her knees gave way as the door clicked shut, and she fell to the floor lifting her Bible from the chair. “Lord, what have I done!”

 

 

Chapter 5

 

 

“No! I won’t.” Will shot from his easy chair and paced the living room, glaring at each of his sons gathered around him. Just like they had two days earlier, the whole lot of them had stopped by for dinner. He stopped in front of his sister. “Mabel, you put them up to this notion, but you can forget it. I’m not going to Chicago, or Ft. Worth, or anywhere else to see a doctor. I thought you invited the kids for another relaxing family dinner, not to badger me.”

“Now Dad, listen to reason.” Zack left his chair and leaned against the mantle. “You just now jumped up like a teenager. If you listened to Doc Brown, he’d have you lying in bed writing instructions for the grave diggers.”

“Doc has done a good job of taking care of this family, and I’ll stick with him until the end.”

“The end just might not come so fast if you’d …”

“Zack, I said ‘no’, and that’s what I mean,” Will roared.

Silence settled over the room. The clinking of dishes being washed in the kitchen stilled as Will’s new daughters-in-law waited to see if his stormy temper had passed.

“The least you could do is see my doctor in Fort Worth.” Mabel glanced up from the sock she was darning. “The trip might do you some good. Get your mind off your problems for a while.”

Will snorted. “Off my problems?” Memories of Florence’s eyes holding him captive, waiting in vain for some word of endearment, flooded over him.

“That’s what I said. You have problems, one of which is believing some physician who does nothing but listen to your heart for thirty seconds and says you’re a gonner.”

He swallowed back the acid that seared his throat and rubbed the burning pain in his chest. “I don’t have any problems except my meddling sister and sons who won’t accept the fact that I’m dying.” He slumped into his chair, closed his eyes, and ran a calloused hand over his clammy face.

“Mr. Logan?”

Will opened his eyes to find Ida standing in front of him. He gulped away the rancid taste in his mouth that always occurred with the heart spells. “What is it, girl?”

“I know I’m new to the family and have no say in the matter, but please do this for your sons. They’re very blessed to have a father. I never knew my daddy, and I always wanted one. I finally have a father in my life. You’ve worked hard and built this ranch. You’ve taken care of every problem that has arisen for years. If this was a sick cow or horse you’d find help for it. Please do as much for yourself.”

Tears stung Will’s eyes, and humiliation allowed him to see his health troubles from a different view point. His family loved him. They were grown men with wives, but they still needed him. He took Ida’s hands in his and smiled. “You’re right, Ida. I’m being selfish. I’ll go to Fort Worth, and if that doctor recommends a specialist, I’ll go to Chicago.”

Whoops resounded from around the room. “Well, I don’t believe it!” Able smacked his hands together. “A little bitty, red-headed woman has broken old Iron Will and wrapped him around her tiny finger.”

“Iron Will?” Will’s eyes twinkled. “I haven’t been called that for years.”

“Maybe not to your face, but you’ve been called that plenty around here lately.” Zack moved to Ida and wrapped an arm around her shoulders. “Thanks, honey. Maybe he’ll still be around to bounce his grandchildren on his knees.”

Will’s brows lifted. “Babies? Ida, is there something you’re not telling?”

Ida’s face turned scarlet. “No, sir. Zack means Faith and Able’s child.”

Mabel stuffed the sock into the basket of mending at the side of her rocker. “I’ll send a telegram to Oswald and let him know we’re coming. When will you be ready to leave, Will? Tomorrow?”

“No, I have to get Barlow lined out on what to do before I can leave. If I end up going on to Chicago, I’ll be gone a long time.” He turned to Ida. “Didn’t you say you have friends in the city?”

“Yes, Hans and Polly took me and my mother in when we were penniless and living on the streets.” Her eyes danced with excitement at the idea of seeing them again. She wanted them to see her cowboy, to know that she was safe, loved, and happy.

“Why don’t you and Zack come with me? How long will it take you to be ready?”

A grin spread across Zack’s face. “We’ll be happy to come with you. It’s going to take a day or two to get everything ready. I lost my right arm when Rex quit and opened the store in town.”

“We’ll plan on leaving Thursday. That should give you boys plenty of time to get plans made.” A mischievous smile played on Mabel’s lips. “We’ll get to Fort Worth Friday morning. I’ll tell Oswald to meet us at the Queen City Hotel for breakfast. Then we can go see Doctor McCowan.”

*

A board creaked in the hall. The nurse was coming. To take her baby. Tears poured from Florence’s eyes, and she cradled the tiny bundle close. She’d get up. And run. They would never catch her. Never take her baby girl. She kicked her covers off and tried to stand. It was no use. She was too weak. She cried out, and woke to find herself standing at the side of her bed in the hotel.

“Please, Lord, not the nightmares again,” she sobbed and sank back on the bed. She clung to her tear-soaked pillow, the bundle that should have been her baby. The horrible dreams hadn’t troubled her for years.

“It must have been that evil man’s threats that have stirred up these demons from the past.” She slipped to her knees. “Lord, please help me. My life is in ruins, maybe in danger from that man named Murray. Those who are most dear to me have made it clear they don’t need me. I’ve poured my life into watching over Lily, but failed her miserably. You alone know what is in Will’s heart, and You know I love him.” Tears leaked through her fingers, splattering on the wood floor. “My whole life has been spent living a lie. Even my devotion and service to you have been a sham. Lord God, I realize, finally, I must put You first in my life. Only then will You lead me out of the tangled mess I’ve created.”

Florence stood and walked on shaky legs to check the lock on her door. It was secure, but she still wedged a chair under the door knob. Would anyone be able to break in? Who would help her if she screamed? She peeked through the curtain of her second-story room. Streaks of pink radiated from the amber glow of a sun struggling to climb over the horizon.

Unable to sleep, Florence dressed and slipped down to the dining room.

The proprietor’s wife bustled in with a steaming pot of coffee. “Good morning, Mrs. Foster. You’re up and about early this morning.” She set the coffee near a stack of cups. “I hope there was no problem, and I trust you slept well.”

“Thank you, Mrs. Bradley. I slept fine.” Florence tried to smile, but knew she did a poor job of it.

Mrs. Bradley cocked her head and studied her. “Sit down a moment and tell me what’s going on. I can spot trouble a quarter mile away.” She placed two cups of hot coffee on the table.

The load on Florence’s shoulders lifted the instant she began to tell her story to the friendly proprietor. Mrs. Bradley was so much like Mabel she asked if they were sisters.

“Mabel Logan?” Mrs. Bradley laughed. “Guess she hasn’t been a Logan for years, but she was when I first met her. We’ve known each other since we were teenagers.” She paused, looking out the window at the sunrise, and a deep sigh shook her thin frame. “My, that was a long time ago, and things have really changed around here since then.”

“Have they changed that much? I heard gunshots last night and horses galloping through the street below my window.”

“Oh, that’s nothing compared to what it used to be. Yes, this used to be a lawless, rough place. Everybody carried a weapon, even us girls.” She giggled. “Your friend Mabel once shot the toes off a man who wouldn’t stop harassing her.”

An idea formed in her head while Florence sipped her coffee. “Do you know how to shoot?”

“Sure. It isn’t a skill I use often but,” Mrs. Bradley reached under her apron and placed a derringer on the table, “you never know when a robber will think a lady is an easy target.”

Florence carefully touched the pistol with one forefinger before lifting her gaze to meet Mrs. Bradley’s eyes. “Would you have time to teach me how to use one of those things?”

Mrs. Bradley chuckled. “You bet! Young Mr. Scarface will need to be ready to dance when he comes begging for more money.”

A satisfied sigh floated from Florence’s smiling lips. She nodded as she spoke. “Yes. He will be back, and this time he’ll face a true Texan, not a chicken-livered Chicago woman.” She leaned back and crossed her arms, very unlady-like, but she was finished with putting on airs. She was Florence Foster, and she’d never go running away from her problems again.

“Good for you!” Mrs. Bradley slapped the table and jumped up as a client came in for breakfast. She leaned in close as she discreetly slipped the derringer back under her apron and whispered, “After you send that toe-less creep hobbling away, you get back on the stage and go meet your stubborn old Will Logan. Get him by the ears and tell him how you feel. That’s what it’ll take to get through his thick skull.”

“I’ll do it!”

*

For the first time in years, Florence felt at peace. Her heart was right with the Lord and Savior, and she’d made some important decisions for her life. The outcome of those choices would be in God’s hands. She strolled the streets of Fort Worth until she’d found a bank that appeared sound and prosperous. She entered and approached the teller.

“I’d like to open an account here, please.” She smiled to herself as the teller asked her address. “Mesquite Gulch.”

He scratched down more information before he cleared his throat. “In case of your demise, who do you want as your beneficiary?”

“My daughter. Lily Barlow, also of Mesquite Gulch.” Florence breathed deeply. Her daughter. Her baby was grown. It would be up to Lily to make the next move if she wanted a closer relationship. She’d done all she could for her, and had gone about it the wrong way. But that was in the past. She couldn’t undo it. She would understand if Lily chose not to forgive her.

“Ahem! Ma’am?” The teller was staring at her with bug eyes.

“I’m sorry. I must have been wool gathering.”

“I, uh, see. I asked if you had funds to open your account with us.”

“Yes. I have a check from my bank in Chicago, and I’ll also have a wire coming in later today.” She placed the check on the counter in front of him.

His eyes bugged out farther.

She tightened the strings of her purse and wondered if she’d made a mistake choosing this bank. “Does your bank handle a wire transfer of funds?”

“Oh, yes! Yes ma’am.” He grabbed the check and scrambled off the stool he’d been perched on. “I’ll be right back, ma’am. Don’t leave. I have to clear this with the president.”

The teller was talking and gesturing wildly, and Florence dropped her gaze. Evidently they weren’t used to a single woman having money. She stared at the toes of her kid leather shoes. She’d had plenty of money all her life, and it had never brought one ounce of happiness. Why couldn’t people see that?

“Ma’am? Ma’am?” The teller was staring at her again with those huge eyes.

“Yes?”

“My boss would like to know if you are Mrs. Foster of Foster Shipping and Imports. He has a brother who is a captain of one of the ships.”

“Yes.” She smiled at the man watching them and nodded. “Small world, isn’t it? Thank you for helping me today.”

She stepped back into the street and marveled at the turn of events. Sooner or later, news of Lily being her daughter would reach her corporate headquarters. She’d cheat them out of the chance to gossip. A letter to her employees and to the editor of the Chicago Morning Herald would set the record straight. And she’d announce her plans to set up a home for unwed mothers and provide a place for them to work and keep their babies. It was time to stop the double torture of young women who were humiliated by pregnancy then deprived of their children. She felt like singing with joy at the thought of helping women.

The next stop was a gun shop, followed by an enjoyable hour at Mrs. Bradley’s house on the edge of town. Florence practiced shooting until she was comfortable with the pistol. They strolled back to the hotel late in the afternoon. The pistol made a comforting bump with every step she took.

“I’m going to my room early this evening. I purchased a novel at the mercantile, and I’m ready to relax.”

“Will you be all right if your blackmailer comes back?” Mrs. Bradley asked.

“Yes, I’ll be fine. I have a plan. And I’ll be leaving in the morning for Mesquite Gulch.”

“So soon?”

“Yes. I’m ready to face the future and whatever God has in store for me.”

 

 

Chapter 6

 

 

“Will, have you packed yet?” Mabel’s voice echoed through the quiet house.

Will tugged on his ear and opened the doors of his wardrobe. What was he supposed to take? His honeymoon was the only time he’d traveled anywhere, and that was years ago. He grabbed an extra shirt, folded it, and stuffed it in his coat pocket before he sauntered into the kitchen.

Mabel covered a basket with a cloth and placed it on a work table. “We’ll need to leave in a couple of hours, and I’ve fixed us some sandwiches so we won’t have to buy anything for supper.”

“Sounds good to me. I’ll check the stock in the barn and be back soon.”

“Could you set your bags here with mine by the door so we don’t forget anything?” Mabel nodded toward a couple of bulging parcels by the back door.

“Uh, what bags?” Will ducked his neck deeper into his collar. He felt a scolding coming.

“Didn’t you pack some extra clothes?”

“Yeah. I’ve got a shirt.” He pulled the wrinkled garment from his pocket.

“William Logan, you’re not going on a cattle drive. You’ll need extra clothes. Where’s your razor? Do you even have a comb to take?”

“What do I put it in? I don’t have any bags.” He shoved his hands in his pockets. “Why do I allow you to boss me around anyway? I’m not six years old anymore.”

“Then stop acting like you’re six, and think about what you’ll need. Put your clothes on your bed and I’ll bundle them up. Don’t forget socks. We’ll stop at Rex and Lily’s store and buy a carpet bag before the stage comes. That means we’ll need to leave a little early, so don’t wander off.”

“Yes, mother!” Will slammed the door behind him. He’d had enough of Mabel’s overbearing meddling. It was time for him to start eating with the boys at the bunk house so she could go home to her husband. He could pay the girls to clean the house once in a while.

Girls. A frown brought his brows into view above his eyes, and he breathed deeply of the crisp, winter air. The boys were all married and settled. Soon there would be grandchildren. He was happy for them, but his life loomed before him as barren as the windswept prairie. He stared into the distance. How much time did he have left? It was in God’s hands, but it didn’t matter if it was days or years. It would all be empty without Florence.

“Why did I let her slip away?” He muttered to himself while he made the rounds through the stables and nearby pastures. “I couldn’t offer her a future when I don’t even know if I have one myself. It would’ve been a rotten thing to do to a woman, marry her then leave her a widow.”

He grabbed a post maul from the tool shed and marched to the corral that Barlow was building behind the barn. All his pent-up frustration was spent pounding a post deep into the ground. “There,” he huffed. He wiped sweat from his brow and checked his pulse, something he’d been doing often. A steady, strong, beat thrummed beneath his finger. “Hmm, that doesn’t feel weak at all.” He shook his head. It never made sense when the heart spells occurred, but he was positive there was a problem. A serious problem.

A quick check of his pocket watch brought an end to his musing. He replaced the post maul, hitched the horse to the buggy, and entered the house. The egg basket sat beside Mabel’s bags. He started to walk past, then looked again.

His clothes and shaving kit? In the egg basket.

“Mabel, what are my things doing in the egg basket?”

His bellow brought Mabel out of the pantry. “I didn’t have anything else to put them in.”

“I’ll not go parading through town with my drawers in a basket for everyone to see.”

“Settle down. We’ll leave the basket in the back of the buggy, buy a bag then put your stuff into it. Nobody’s going to see your underwear.” Mabel tucked some cookies into the picnic basket. “Are you ready?”

“Ready as I’ll ever be.” He scooped up the baggage and opened the door for Mabel.

“Good afternoon, Miss Mabel.” Richard Barlow stood near the buggy with three mounted ranch hands waiting nearby.

“Hello, boys. Did you come to see Will before he leaves?”

“Barlow,” Will barked. “What brings you here?” Will stuffed Mabel’s bags into the back and stood holding the egg basket.

“Nice suitcase there, boss.” Barlow’s lips twisted under his heavy mustache.

Will shoved the offending container out of sight. “Very funny. Now, what are you fellows doing here? Is there a problem?”

“Well, yeah, there is. Carlos,” he nodded toward a man sitting astride a lean mustang, “just got in from down around Brownwood. He said some rustlers were driving a herd of cattle with mixed brands. Several of them had your brand.”

“Gather up all the men my sons can spare, and we’ll leave this afternoon. I’ll get a couple of supply mules packed. Tell them to meet here at,” he checked his watch, “five o’clock. That should give everyone plenty of time to get ready.”

“Will…” Mabel’s stern voice cut through his thoughts.

“I’m not going to Fort Worth. How do you think this ranch will function without me?”

“The same way it would function if you was six feet under.” Mabel’s sharp retort cut.

“Wha…?”

Guffaws were quickly smothered behind gloved hands when Will glared at the men.

“She’s got you there, boss.” Barlow’s teeth shone white beneath his mustache. “Me and the boys will fetch the cattle back.”

“What if there’s trouble?” Will paced beside the buggy. There would be shooting unless the thieves could be caught by surprise.

“There’s already trouble. We’ll be careful. Carlos recognized some other brands so we’ll have plenty of men with us.” Richard placed a firm hand on Will’s shoulder. “Go see the doc. That’s more important than a few head of beef.”

“Get a deputy to go with you. Have him keep the younger boys from doing something stupid. We don’t need anybody to get hurt.”

“We’ve got this, boss. Have a good trip. Hope you get some help for your heart.” Richard Barlow swung onto his horse and began giving orders. In a matter of seconds, the men rode away in different directions.

“Come on, Will. We’re supposed to meet Zack and Ida at Rex’s store.”

Will grunted. “I reckon Barlow can handle things.” He climbed aboard and took the reins.

*

A million stars twinkled in the vast Texas sky, a scene Will never tired of. Mabel had propped herself into a corner of the stage. Ida’s head lay on Zack’s shoulder as they sat on the opposite seat. The swaying of the stage had lulled them to sleep.

He gazed at the stars again, and wondered if Florence could see them from Chicago. Lily told him Florence lived in the stately home her father had built years ago. Florence had a house maid and gardener to care for the estate.

A snort escaped Will. What had she thought of his rambling ranch house with only his sister to cook and clean? Mrs. Foster hadn’t hesitated a moment when she helped Mabel. She was more than willing to pull her share of the load.

Heaviness settled over his chest, and he knew it had nothing to do with his heart. He missed Florence. He needed her near him. He’d go on to Chicago. He had to see her.

He settled back in his corner and watched the stars through the small, rectangle window. Did they sparkle brighter? Yes, he believed they did.

*

A board creaked in the hall outside Florence’s door. Her heart pounded when the knock came. She placed her book on the night table and stood. Her breath came in ragged gasps, but she forced herself to move to the door.

The rapping on the door increased, louder, quicker.

Florence stood behind the chair she had wedged against the door. “Who?” Her voice wavered. She took the derringer from her pocket. The cold metal lent her a small dose of courage. “Who is it?” she managed to ask.

“Your friend with the newspaper.”

“What’s your name?”

“Mur…none of your business,” he snapped.

“Go away. I don’t have any more money.”

“Ha! I don’t believe that for a minute.” The man’s voice rose. “Open that door and let me in, or so help me I’ll send a wire to Chicago and smear your good name.”

“I … I’ll have to get money from the bank in the morning. Meet me outside the front door at nine tomorrow.” Florence could hear his feet shuffling. He tried her door then slid a knife blade through to check the bolt. “You can’t get in. I promise I’ll meet you on the walk out front tomorrow.”

“I don’t believe you. You’ll slip away.”

“No, no I won’t. I’ll do anything to keep from having that disgraceful information printed. How much do you want?”

A slight chuckle sounded from outside the door. “Five hundred should keep the gossip mill quiet.”

“Five hundred? That’s too much.” Florence rubbed a nervous finger over the barrel of the pistol. It was tempting to shoot him through the door, but she didn’t want to damage the Bradley’s hotel.

“Have it your way. Telegrams carry news quick as a flash.” Murray chuckled again.

“I’ll see what I can do. Go away.”

“Sure I will, little rich woman. I’m going to the bench right in front of this hotel, and I’ll be there all night. If you slip out the back way, I’ll be headed to the wire office.”

“Oh, please, don’t do that. I’ll be there with the money.”

Florence pressed her ear to the door and listened as his footsteps went down the hall and to the staircase. His boots clomped with a hollow ring as he descended. She inhaled deeply and fell to her knees. “Thank you, God, for helping me through this. Stand by me tomorrow and guide me in everything I should do.”

The night was spent in fitful sleep and much prayer. Daylight found her arranging her hair in the latest fashion. She pinned her hat at a jaunty angle and donned her traveling dress. Today she would begin facing her fears. First would be the blackmailer, Murray. She had a feeling he would be the easy one to deal with. Next she would travel back to Mesquite Gulch and have an honest talk with Lily. Facing Will Logan was going to be the hard part. What did Mrs. Barkley say to do? Take him by the ears and tell him she loved him? Oh, my, that was not the way a lady should attract a man’s attention, but it was the only way she knew to talk to him. They were a different breed of men in Texas. She was a Texan now so she’d play by their rules.

She rolled her shoulders and massaged the back of her neck. Nerves threatened to get the best of her. For the tenth time she checked the watch on her locket. Seven thirty. She packed her clothes and carried the bags downstairs to stow in the corner of Mrs. Barkley’s kitchen. She’d pick them up after she faced Murray.

“There he is, the lily-livered skunk.” Mrs. Barkley nodded toward the plate glass window. “He’s been on that bench since I got here this morning.”

“I have an appointment with him at nine.” Florence poured herself a cup of coffee with steady hands.

“Look at this.” She extended the full cup toward Mrs. Barkley. “I didn’t spill a drop.”

Mrs. Barkley nodded in approval. “Sometimes the hardest part about facing your enemies is deciding you’re going to meet them face to face. You’ll do fine. Move to a table where Murray can’t see you, and enjoy the coffee. Do you want breakfast?”

“Not now. Maybe later.”

Millions of thoughts raced through Florence’s mind while the huge grandfather clock in the hotel lobby ticked. What if she missed his feet? What if he took the gun from her and shot her? Would she have to pay his doctor? She pulled her novel from her handbag, tried to read, but couldn’t focus. With a sigh, she slipped it back inside her purse.

The clock in the lobby began striking.

One.

Two.

Florence stood and, under the pretense of smoothing her skirt, took the derringer from her pocket. She concealed it behind her purse as she pushed the door open and stepped out.

“Good morning, Mr. Murray. Nice day, isn’t it?”

He whirled toward her. “How did you know my name? Well, never mind. It doesn’t matter.” He pointed a finger at her nose. “Hike it to the bank, lady. I’ll be right behind you.”

“No. I’m not playing your game anymore.” Florence met his gaping stare with a steady gaze. From the corner of her eyes she was aware of people advancing toward the hotel. A few patrons stood inside near the door.

“This isn’t a game.” Murray’s voice rose, and the scar on his cheek turned purple as the veins in his neck bulged. “Hand over the money right now, and we’ll not give these people anything else to gossip about.”

“No.”

“Yes, you will. I know where your sweet daughter lives. I can make life miserable for her, and you too when word of this gets to Chicago.” Murray sneered and held out his hand.

“Oh, I do have something for you.” Florence drew the hammer back on the pistol, squeezed her eyes shut, and pulled the trigger. Dust exploded between Murray’s feet.

“Are you crazy?” he yelped. “Give me that.” He reached for the gun.

This time Florence kept her eyes open. The shot brought a loud curse from Murray as it connected with the toes of his right foot.

“Here, lady! What are you doing?” An older man joined Murray and propelled him toward the bench.

He must be Murray’s accomplice. Florence took a shot at his feet and missed.

“Hey, don’t shoot me!” he yelped.

“Let me at her!” Murray jerked away from the gentleman and lunged at Florence.

Florence aimed at Murray’s other foot and pulled the trigger. A spurt of blood made her gasp.

“Now look here, woman. There’s a better way to settle…”

Boom! The bullet hit the boardwalk near the older man and echoed through the street. People were running from all directions. Someone was calling her name, and it sounded a lot like Mabel.

“No! Florence, don’t shoot him. That’s my husband.” It was Mabel. And Will was with her.

Will? Her fingers gripped the derringer, and the gun went off again. Will jumped as dust puffed beside him.

A rough hand grabbed her arm and wrenched the gun from her hand. She whirled and swung her purse at the attacker. Her eyes met the shiny star on the man’s chest right before the heavy novel in her purse connected with his nose.

 

 

Chapter Seven

 

 

“Sheriff, I insist you release, Florence. She’s not a criminal and doesn’t belong in jail.” Mabel slapped the palm of her hand against the table top, her voice rising with each word. Will waited for the lawman to respond to his sister’s request, but Roger Ralston didn’t budge from his chair. The fierce look on Mabel’s face would have felled a lesser man. “You have the wrong person behind bars.”

Will’s heart squeezed tight. The thought of Florence sitting on a cot in the back of the building staring at bars was more than he could stand. Were there outlaws back there as well? He jumped from the bench and stormed toward the door that separated the front office from the cells.

The sheriff cleared his throat and removed the cloth from his swollen face. His eyes were on Will as he spoke to Mabel. “The woman shot up my town and broke my nose. I don’t care whose friend she is, I’m not dropping the charges.”

“We’ve already told you she was only trying to protect herself.” Mabel had been arguing her case from the moment the sheriff led Florence away from the front of the hotel. It was no use, yet Will was proud of his sister’s perseverance. “Murray is to blame. Florence was being black mailed by that beast.”

“Yes, you have told me over and over. Before I can do anything, I need proof. Like I said earlier, Mr. Murray knows not to leave town until Judge Jordan sorts things out. The judge is in court until this afternoon.” Ralston turned his gaze toward the ceiling and sighed before returning the cloth to the large bruise forming on the side of his cheek. “If she felt threatened, she should have come to me in the first place.”

“I want to see her.” Will had heard enough. They were getting nowhere talking in circles. All he wanted at the moment was to speak with Florence and make sure she was all right.

“Until the judge says otherwise,” the lawman practically growled with exasperation, “Only her lawyer is allowed back there.”

Will’s hand balled into a fist and with the other he clutched the collar of his shirt. He never should have allowed Florence to leave the ranch. What was wrong with him? How could he let the woman he loved leave without putting up any sort of fight? A tortured groan escaped his lungs.

“You need to stay calm, Will.” Mabel’s voice cracked as she rushed to his side. “Is it your heart?”

“No,” his reply was sharper than he intended. He loved his sister, but he’d had enough mollycoddling to last a lifetime. He wasn’t a child. His heart wasn’t the problem at the moment. At least not the one pumping blood through his veins. “I’m fine.”

“You need to see Dr. McCowan.” Oswald rose from the bench he’d been sharing with Zack and Ida and warily approached Will. His brother-in-law’s reunion with his wife nearly got him killed this morning.

“First, I intend to have a word with Murray.” The last time he’d seen the scoundrel a young deputy was escorting him to the doctor’s to have his foot looked at. If he wasn’t there, Will knew where to find him. “After that I’ll see about visiting the doctor myself.”

“Let me go with you, Father.” Zack said before he turned and gave Ida’s arm a gentle squeeze. “I’ll meet you back at Aunt Mabel and Uncle Oswald’s house.”

A worried look crossed Ida’s sweet face. “Be careful,” she whispered.

“No,” Will ordered. He didn’t need anyone else getting hurt. “You stay with the family. I can take care of this myself.”

“Now, Mr. Logan.” The sheriff threw his cloth onto the desk and narrowed his eyes. “We’ve had enough trouble in town today.”

“I’m not going to cause you any more trouble. I just need to set things straight.” Will tramped across the office floor and paused at the door. “I want to have a few words with the scoundrel.”

*

Other than the occasional outburst of voices coming from the front of the building, it was quiet in the back section of the jailhouse. The cells were cleaner than Florence imagined. Not that she’d ever put any thought into the cleaning rituals that went into running such a place. Without any chairs to sit on she gave in and took a seat on the cot. Apparently a thin mattress covered by a rough blanket was meant to serve as both bed and settee.

Alone and afraid, she released a deep sigh and buried her face in the palm of her hands. Her strong resolve to stand up for herself had unraveled faster than a ball of yarn left to a litter of kittens. She’d really messed up this time and in front of Will of all people.

What was he doing in town? Mabel must have told him she’d gone to Fort Worth. No, as much as she wished it were true, real life wasn’t like some romantic dime novel. He wouldn’t come chasing after her. He must be here to see the doctor. Zack and Ida had been there as well. In all the chaos of the morning, she hadn’t been able to speak with any of them. The look of shock and horror on Will’s face said it all. She was a disgrace.

Arrested.

One of Chicago’s most prominent business women behind bars in a small Texas town … that was sure to make headlines. She was finished, but her career didn’t matter. Not now, not ever really. Her true desire was for her heart to be set free to enjoy a life with those she loved.

A verse she’d learned as a child came to mind.

“Trust in the Lord with all thine heart, lean not unto thine own understanding but in all thy ways acknowledge Him and He will direct thy paths.”

Florence raised her face and wiped the tears from her cheeks. She wasn’t alone. As a child of God, He was always by her side. This time she bowed her head and prayed for God’s guidance.

Keys rattled outside the door. The lock turned, and the sheriff entered the hallway. “You have a visitor.”

Was it Will? Her heart fluttered. She straightened the skirt of her dress and then used her hand to press her hair in place. A man she’d never seen before approached her cell. Tall and thin, his weathered features showed his age. Clothed in an expensive dark suit, he wore a somber expression on his face. His eyes took in the cell, lingering on her for a moment before he turned to the sheriff. “Open the door, Roger.”

The lawman pulled a ring from a hook on the wall next to the door. The clanking of jingling keys drew her eyes from her visitor. She cringed at the size of the bruise on the sheriff’s face. He fumbled through the set until he found the one needed.

“Mrs. Foster, I’m Carl Stevens. Oswald asked me to represent you in court.”

“Court?” Florence gasped. She squeezed her hands on the cot’s metal frame. Of course, she was in jail, but surely paying a fine would be enough to settle any law she may have broken. She’d fired a gun in town. It wasn’t like she’d robbed a bank. Court was for criminals, outlaws, and greedy people with no future.

“It’s simply a preliminary hearing to be held before the judge.” Mr. Stevens explained. “I strongly doubt there will be any charges filed against you. From what I gather, after speaking with Mabel and Mrs. Bradley, Mr. Murray would be wise to drop any complaints he might have against you. Sheriff Ralston has already consented to do so in regards to his personal injuries just as long as you promise to leave town once the judge grants your freedom.”

Her shoulders slumped under the weight of his words. She blinked back tears and raised her chin. This was more serious than she’d imagined. All she’d wanted was to protect herself from being blackmailed, and yet she was the one to stand trial!

“Have no fear.” At least her lawyer appeared professional and seemed to have things well in hand. “The complainant is to meet with me this afternoon in my office. Once I explain the charges we will file against him should he file against you, I’ve no doubt he will recant. Just leave it to me.”

*

Will stormed into the Golden Slipper Saloon. It took a moment for his eyes to adjust to the dark interior. He ignored the customers’ stares and whispers as he scanned the room. Just as he expected, Murray sat in the back corner with a bottle in one hand and a shot glass in the other. He looked up from his drink and a fake smile quickly replaced the look of surprise on his face.

“Howdy, Mr. Logan.” Murray squared his shoulders and greeted Will while he approached the table. As if there was nothing wrong, he tipped his head toward a chair where he’d propped his left leg. He only wore one boot. His left foot was wrapped in a bandage. “Quite an interesting morning, wouldn’t you say?”

Will crossed his arm over his chest and stood silently. He could hear the blood pounding in his ears. The surroundings of the saloon seemed to slip away as he focused on Murray.

“I’m surprised to see you this far from the ranch.” Murray shifted in his seat and cleared his throat. “Care to join me for a drink?”

Without saying a word, Will continued to glare at the crook. As much as he wanted to yank the man from his chair and teach him some manners, this wasn’t the time or place. Will wasn’t a violent man, but the thought of Murray upsetting Florence, threatening her, following her from one town to another chilled his blood.

“I never touched her.” Murray set the bottle down and raised the palm of his hands.

“You took money from her.”

“We had what you could call a business deal.”

Will made a fist and stepped forward. Murray leaned away and brought up his elbow to shield his face. From somewhere near the bar a woman let out a sharp gasp. Surprise and shame washed over Will. He was standing in a saloon ready to get into a fist fight. All his adult life he’d tried to teach his boys to follow Christ by living a godly life. Fighting was not the way to handle this situation.

“That’s right, walk away.” Murray’s voice rose with each step that took Will farther away and closer to the exit. “I did nothing wrong and there’s no one that can convince me otherwise. The crazy woman shot up my foot for no reason. She’s where she belongs.”

Outside where the air was fresh, sunlight nearly blinded Will’s eyes. He crossed the street to get as far away from Murray and the saloon as possible. While taking a deep breath he scanned the area and pressed a fist into the burning ache in his upper abdomen. He sucked in air through his clenched teeth and checked his pocket watch. Three more hours before the judge could see Florence. He’d have to be patient. Meanwhile, he’d promised the family he’d see the doctor about the pain in his heart that flared up without warning.

The diagnoses he’d gotten back home had been as useful as a bucket of dried leaves for putting out a fire. It had come as a shock, but he wasn’t exactly a spring chicken. Will had lived a long and prosperous life. His boys were grown and able to handle every aspect of the ranch. At this stage, whether he lived or died didn’t make much difference … until he met Florence. Now that there was a sliver of a chance at winning her heart he had something to look forward to, someone he wanted to spend the rest of his life with. It was time to see a real doctor and get this heart situation settled. Then he’d be able to pursue the real desire of his heart, if that was God’s will.

 

 

Chapter Eight

 

 

This time the sound of keys rattling caught Florence off guard. She raised her head and let her hands settle onto her lap. For the first time since leaving the Logan Ranch peace cloaked her like a shield. Bathed in prayer, she was ready for whatever awaited her.

“Court ended early today.” It was Sheriff Ralston, and he was alone this time. He glanced her way before unlocking the cell. The iron bars creaked as he swung the door wide open. “Judge Jordan says he can see you in his office now.”

Florence rose to her feet. She brushed a stray strand of hair from her cheek and paused. The sight of the lawman’s face caused her to cringe with guilt. “Oh, I’m so sorry.”

“What?” His brow creased with confusion. He’d backed into the hall, waiting for her to exit the cell.

“Your nose,” she pointed toward the red swollen spot on the side of the man’s long nose.

“I’ve had worse.” He mumbled and used his hand to motion for her to join him in the hallway. “Get your things and let’s get going. You don’t want to keep the judge waiting. He wants to wrap this up before lunchtime.”

All she had was her purse and the book responsible for breaking the lawman’s face. Her cheeks warmed with shame. She gathered her belongings and followed him through the office and outside the building. The sun was bright and the streets were filled with carts as well as men on horseback. A busy little town, but nothing compared to Chicago. Still, Fort Worth was far more active then Mesquite Gulch.

With few words spoken, the sheriff marched across the street to the courthouse. With her head held high, Florence kept her eyes trained on his back as she followed. Instead of entering through the front of the building, they went around to the side alley where a door led right into the Judge’s chambers.

Heavy curtains covered the windows. It took a minute for her eyes to adjust to the room. After a moment, she noticed Mabel and Oswald as well as Mrs. Bradley seated on a couch next to a bookshelf. Mabel gave her a quick nod. The smile on her friend’s lips brought tears to Florence’s eyes. It was good to see a familiar face. With a wave of his hand, the sheriff instructed her to take a chair facing the large mahogany desk in front of the windows. She glanced around the room as she took a seat, but there was no sign of Will.

How silly of her to expect him to be there. He’d made his feelings, or lack of them, clear when he let her leave the ranch. She squared her shoulders and gave Mabel a tight smile. How she wished they could chat, but a heavy silence permeated the room.

It wasn’t long before the interior door opened and the judge entered. She assumed he was the judge. A large man with a round face and a kind smile, he wore his dark cloak open in the front. A plaid shirt and pants tucked into the tops of his boots were a stark contrast to his formal robe.

It struck her that this was a man Will would like … appropriate yet practical. Not afraid to be his own man. She wished Will was here. Oh, why couldn’t she stop thinking about him?

“Good morning,” Judge Jordan made his way across the floor and rounded the desk. “Are we ready to begin?”

“No, your honor, we’re waiting on Mr. Stevens and one more person.” The sheriff answered and continued to explain as the judge took his seat. “My deputy went to get him. They should be here shortly.”

Mr. Stevens, her lawyer, had sounded confident about the outcome of her case when he spoke with her in the jailhouse. What if he didn’t show up? As fear started to rise in her chest she recalled her time in prayer. This was in the Lord’s hands. There was no need for her to fret. Whatever God’s will, that’s what she wanted.

A knock came on the outer door and butterflies filled Florence’s stomach until she saw who was responsible for the sound. Murray filed into the room followed by her lawyer and a young man with a badge pinned to his shirt. Her tormentor wore a sullen expression and kept his eyes on the carpeted floor as he hobbled to a seat against the back wall. The room was large, but the crowded chambers couldn’t hold many more people.

“All right, now that we’re all here, let’s proceed.” Judge Jordan folded his hands and leaned back.

It didn’t take long for Mr. Stevens to lay out the case. He had both Mabel and Mrs. Bradley confirm the facts. When it came time for Murray to give his side of the story sweat beaded his brow and his eyes darted about the room.

“Well, what do you have to say for yourself?” the judge bellowed.

Murray jumped from his chair and bolted for the door. The young deputy made a move to block him, but he easily pushed the lawman aside. Sheriff Ralston pulled his gun and one of the women on the couch screamed.

The door opened just as Murray reached for the handle. Will’s solid frame filled the entrance. Cursing under his breath Murray came to a halt and the sheriff pulled out his handcuffs.

“Am I late?” Will’s confused gaze darted about the room until landing on Florence.

Ignoring the quickening of her pulse, Florence tore her attention from Will and turned to face the judge. Mabel motioned for her brother to join her and Oswald on the couch. Although he crossed behind her, Florence was aware of every move Will made as he took his place.

“Under the circumstances, I believe it’s advisable to drop all charges.” Mr. Stevens spoke once the chaos in the room settled down.

“I agree. Now if you’ll excuse me I have a lunch appointment.” Judge Jordan pushed his robe off his shoulders and stood. “Mrs. Foster, you are free to leave. Mr. Murray, I will be seeing you in court.

“Deputy,” Sheriff Ralston ordered his assistant. “Lock this man up.”

*

Like a flock of birds spooked from the bushes, Mabel and Mrs. Bradley swarmed Florence, congratulating her with hugs and well wishes. Oswald shook the Judge’s hand and promised he’d lock up. Apparently satisfied their work was done and ready for lunch, the judge, the lawyer, and the lawman slipped out of the room.

Will frowned. Florence hardly looked his way. Perhaps she was uncomfortable having a crowd of folks staring at them. Or maybe … his jaw clenched. Maybe she was shutting him out. Distancing herself, just as he’d done the last time he’d spoken to her at the ranch.

He had accepted her leaving without a fight when he thought his ticker was on its last leg, but he wasn’t about to let her get on her sense of propriety and ride away from him again. Will squared his shoulders. Florence wasn’t going to get away, not if he had any say in the matter.

“Excuse me,” he pushed his way into the circle. “If you ladies don’t mind, I’d like to have a word with Florence.”

“Will,” Mabel huffed as she ignored his request. “Have you been to see the doctor yet like you promised?”

“Yes, I just came from his office.” His sister’s lips thinned as she waited for him to divulge more information. Florence hung back, but her eyes remained focused on him. “He says not to worry. All I need is to find a cook who won’t try to kill me.”

“What?” Mabel’s eyes glared with indignation.

“Take it easy, Sis.” A chuckle spilled from his chest. It felt good to laugh. He couldn’t recall the last time he’d been able to so freely. “The doctor said I need to stop eating spicy foods. Other than that he thinks I’ve got years of life left in me.”

Mabel threw her arms around his neck. “I’m so glad you listened to me.”

“What?” He pulled away from Mabel and caught a glimpse of Florence wiping the palm of her hand across her eyes before she turned away. Was she crying?

“Remember,” his sister proudly reminded him, “I was the one who suggested you see another doctor.”

Yes of course she was right, as always, but all he wanted was to speak with Florence. Somehow he needed to get alone with her. Before he could come up with a polite reason to be alone with the woman he loved, Oswald stepped between them. “Wife, let’s go get something to eat.”

“Alright, I just wanted …”

“We’re serving beef stew at the inn.” Mrs. Bradley caught on quickly.

A light of understanding shone in Mabel’s eyes, and a smile spread across her face. “Oh, I see.”

Finally, they were alone. As if to follow her friends, Florence reached for the purse she’d left on her chair. Will stepped forward, blocking her way. She gave him a questioning glare, but before she could speak he cupped the side of her face in the palm of his hand and placed a soft kiss on her lips. It was tender and brief, but so sweet. She leaned toward him and placed her hand on his chest. Encouraged, he wrapped his other arm around her waist.

When he pulled away, her eyes were closed and a hint of a smile lingered on her lips. He cleared his throat and her eyes opened wide. A blush crept up the length of her neck as she blinked rapidly.

“I’m glad your visit with the doctor went well.”

“Not half as glad as I am your visit with the judge went well.”

A smile tugged on the corner of her lips until her whole face blossomed like a spring rose. He liked making her smile, and looked forward to years of doing so, but he had to get her to see things his way first. The ranch needed a woman like her, someone to brighten the place up while adding a woman’s touch. He needed her.

“I’m afraid I made a mess of things.” Her sweet voice pulled him from his daydreaming.

“Nothing is messed up.” He feigned confusion and glanced about the room as if searching for something needing fixed. “As far as I can tell everything is perfect.”

“Will, I want to apologize for the way I left the ranch.” She clutched her purse to her chest as she spoke. “We’ve become good friends and you deserved better. You had so much on your mind, being sick and believing you were going to die …”

She thought they were only friends? Not after the kiss they’d shared. A long time widower, he still knew the difference between sisterly concern, and a soul-deep need that matched the longing of his heart.

“I love you, Florence.” He cut her off. “We don’t need to rehash anything. As far as I’m concerned the past is the past. All I want is for you to be my wife and live with me on the ranch.”

Her mouth gaped but no words came out. He’d done it again. She was upset, and he had no idea why. Maybe he should have consulted one of the boys about understanding a woman. It’d been so long since the last time he asked one to marry him.

Before he could apologize she dropped her purse and wrapped her arms around his neck.

“Yes.” Her sparkling eyes met his.

“You’ll marry me?”

“Yes.” She nodded her head. “I love you, Will.”

He hugged her close before pressing his lips to hers. After a moment they broke apart. She gathered her things while he made his way to the door. He held it open for her and said with a smile, “You know if you’d told me sooner how you felt we could have saved a lot of time.”

“William,” she warned with one brow raised until he gave her a wink and a smile to show he was teasing.

He tilted his head back and laughed while leading her away from the courthouse. They had a lifetime of laughter and kisses ahead of them. He placed her hand in the crook of his arm and thanked the good Lord for the wives he’d sent him and his sons.

 

 

*

 

 

ABOUT THE AUTHORS

 

Midwest Christian Romance Authors is a group of four authors who have written several series together and hope to write more as time allows. You can find Jamie Adams, Mildred Colvin, Linda Cushman, and Regina Tittel at Midwest Christian Romance Authors on Facebook to learn more about them and their writing. We all want to thank you for selecting and reading our work. If you enjoyed this story, please leave a review so others can find it and enjoy December Love too.

 

 

Other E-Books You Might Enjoy

by these authors:

 

Texas Brides Mail-Order Style:

Book One—Mail-Order Shotgun Wedding

Book Two—Corralling the Cowboy’s Heart

Book Three—A Bride by Christmas

Book Four—The Substitute Groom

Book Five—December Love

 

in Mammoth Spring, AR:

Rivalry & Romance—Book One by Regina Tittel

Wishes & Whims—Book Two by Jamie Adams

Friends& Foes—Book Three by Mildred & Jonathan Colvin

 

in Warsaw, MO:

One Rusty Spur—Book One by Linda Cushman

Two Lonely Hearts—Book Two by Mildred & Jonathan Colvin

Three in a Quandary—Book Three by Jamie Adams

Fourth Times the Charm—Book Four by Regina Tittel

 

*


December Love

At last, Will Logan can sit back and wait for the grandchildren to come. If he doesn't die first. Texas Brides, Mail-Order Style, a sweet historical western romance! Even after successfully finding mail-order brides for his sons, Will continues to have chest pains, and his sister is talking of going back home to Ft. Worth and her husband. But if she does that, he and Florence will be alone on the ranch and Florence will also have to leave. If his heart pains don't kill him, he'll for sure die from losing the city woman he's fallen in love with, yet all he can seem to do is stick his foot in his mouth when he tries to talk to her. Florence Foster has accomplished more than what she came to Texas for. Her goal was to help four young ladies find husbands, and she's done that and made an unexpected connection with her secret daughter as well. Her work is finished and she needs to return to Chicago, but how can she if her heart remains in Texas with Will? This Christian romance completes the Texas Brides, Mail-Order Style series that also includes: *Mail-Order Shotgun Wedding--Faith's story *Corralling the Cowboy's Heart--Temperance's story *A Bride by Christmas--Ida's story *The Substitute Groom--Lily's story Don't miss these clean and wholesome Christian Western romance stories of faith, hope, and love.

  • Author: Mildred Colvin
  • Published: 2016-12-10 17:20:11
  • Words: 16921
December Love December Love