About the book


In the midst of the storm, they still found each other...

When her family’s old foe returns to town, Olivia Wagner’s quiet life is shattered. As the vendetta between the Wagners and the Paytons is reignited, the town prepares for yet another war.

With his parents’ death still heavy on his shoulders, Marc Payton must take care of his sister and family ranch. Danger lurks around every corner, but things change the minute he lays his eyes on the beautiful Olivia Wagner.

Their love is forbidden, transcending the decades-old feud....

When a terrible “accident” occurs, Olivia and Marc must set their differences aside and unite forces. Racing against a ticking clock to rescue a helpless family from certain doom, their love will be tested...twice.

A terrible storm is brewing extremely close to them and they don't even know it.

Chapter One


“Come on, Marc, the service is starting!” Clarissa Payton said to her brother as she looked towards the church.

Marc Payton drew a heavy breath as he tied the reins securely to the post. He stroked his faithful black steed Spirit next, and made one more go at checking the fastenings, although there was no reason to. Clarissa looked kindly at her older brother with an understanding smile on her young face. It was, after all, a momentous occasion, although a rather somber one. Marc was on his way to Sunday church, for the first time since their parents, Anna and John Payton, died.

The steps towards the church were difficult. He couldn’t shake the image of his parents’ caskets being carried out of the small white church. It still felt surreal. His parents had succumbed to a fever quite suddenly and they deteriorated fast. Marc had been studying in San Francisco when he received the telegram with the news of his parents’ ailing health. He immediately booked the train back to his hometown of Eloy, Arizona, but was too late.

By the time he arrived, both his parents had died. His younger sister, Clarissa, greeted him at the ranch, tears streaming down her soft cheeks. He held her in his arms as the reality washed over him. His parents were gone… And now, the family cattle farm, the Blue Willow Ranch, was his responsibility.

As he walked up the church steps, the parishioners stared at him, not too subtly. He noticed William Carter, his father’s old friend, and his wife, Sylvia, smiling kindly at him as he entered. He took off his Stetson, making his dark hair fall over his eyes, and looked around for his sister, who had already taken her seat.

Clarissa had changed much in the years Marc had been in San Francisco. She had been just a kid when he left, but now she was a young woman. But Marc thought that she was too naive, and she was much too interested in giggling with her girlfriends and writing letters all day long.

Clarissa was sitting next to her friend, Sarah Carlson. They had been friends since they were little girls; Sarah was the daughter of the church verger, Timothy Carlson. She had inherited her father’s flaming red hair and, unfortunately for her, her father’s looks as well. She had a kind nature and always became very flustered around Marc.

Marc was very tall and muscular, with piercing green eyes, just like his father. He had, however, his mother's jet black hair, the same as his sister, who was the spitting image of their mother, with pale blue eyes. He was articulate and always seemed to gain the attention of the young women in Eloy. Even here, at church, they would put their heads together and whisper as they took a look at him, giggling softly, their cheeks rosy from blushing.

He paid them no attention. Marc was in no way an old man, but since he’d been back, he often felt as if he had lived far longer than his years. The recent burden of taking care of the farm, and especially taking care of his sister, was trying. Although he seemed to have the aptitude and mentality required for taking care of a ranch, he just hadn’t imagined doing this so soon.

He looked ahead toward the altar, and in an instant, he was transported back to a few weeks ago when he’d last been here. The whole town had shown up to the funeral. Even the Wagner brothers, Andy and Frank, had been there.

The Wagners lived on the neighboring ranch, the Rosewood Ranch. For as long as Marc could remember, there had been bad blood between the two ranches. It had all begun years and years ago when he was just a little boy. Someone had poisoned their well, and Marc’s father was sure the brothers’ father, Roy Wagner, was behind it.

Marc’s family had lost a lot of cattle, and the Wagners had profited from their loss. Roy Wagner had always vehemently denied the accusations and was absolutely furious that they would even suggest it. This rivalry was known to everyone in town and the decedents had inherited the feud. Marc had cared much more about it when he was a boy. It had seemed logical and the right thing to do — to honor the family feud.

But now, he could not really bring himself to care too much about it. It was a part of the past. And since both Roy Wagner and his wife were gone now, just like his parents, he didn’t see the benefit of fueling the flames of this fire. Marc had a calm demeanor and was a stoic soul. He definitely had not inherited his father’s wild temperament.

As he walked down the church aisle to sit next to his sister, the familiar organ music began. Predictably, Sarah’s face became a deep shade of red as she noticed Marc. He chuckled quietly as he looked away from her, to spare her even more embarrassment. He looked up, expecting to see old Graves, the church organist, but saw instead a young, beautiful woman playing.

A sunbeam streamed through the high window at the ceiling which cast a magical glow around her. Her long blonde hair curled slightly at the ends, framing her trim figure. It appeared as if it was flecked with gold and she looked angelic. Her face had a delicate beauty to it and her brown eyes were the color of chestnuts.

 While she played the piano in total concentration, one could admire her long, delicate fingers flying in a steady and knowing manner that only a virtuoso could possess. She moved her hands gracefully and the congregation followed her and sang the familiar tune in harmony.

I cannot believe my eyes. Could this angel be the little, awkward Olivia that I’ve known since we were children? I remember her as a timid child, always hiding behind a book, not as this beautiful angel! Could this really be Olivia Wagner?

***

The pastor was speaking, but Marc barely made out a single word. Olivia’s beauty was so captivating that he felt that only strong forces would be able to make him look away from her. She played the final psalm, and as the service finished, she disappeared from the church like a dream at daybreak. Marc got up, holding onto his hat, and began to shake peoples’ hand.

“Marc, I’m glad you came, my boy,” William Carter said, patting his shoulder paternally.

“Me too,” Marc said, his mind still full of the images of Olivia.

“You look better than the last time I saw you, I must say,” William said honestly.

“It is as if I’ve been touched by an angel,” Marc said. “Coming here proved more therapeutic than I ever could have imagined.”

“That’s remarkable,” William said as they walked out of the church together. “I didn’t know you were such a man of the church.”

“Neither did I,” Marc said thoughtfully. “Roy Wagner’s daughter sure has blossomed into a beautiful young woman,” he added.

“Oh, Olivia is like a gift sent to us down from heaven,” William said, smiling at his younger companion.

“She sure is,” Marc replied.

William’s reply was interrupted by the arrival of Sylvia Carter. “It’s wonderful to see you,” she said smiling warmly at him. “I’ve just been telling your darling sister that you should join us for supper tomorrow.”

“What a great idea, Sylvia dear!” William exclaimed.

“Thank you for the kind offer,” Marc said gratefully, “I would very much like that. My sister is many things, but a good cook she is not, unfortunately!”

William and Sylvia laughed, and Marc looked around for his sister. Since he’d been back, Clarissa had made many attempts to cook for them. But she seemed to have a unique ability to only cook either bland or burnt food — sometimes both. Marc sighed, seeing his sister clutching Sarah’s arm, the two whispering and giggling. 

One of these days I really need to get serious and find a wife. The sooner, the better. I need a partner and Clarissa surely could use a role model. She seems so frivolous and still acts like a young girl. He wondered if Olivia was betrothed to someone…

Clarissa and Marc made their good-byes and walked back to the carriage. Marc untied the reins and helped his sister step up onto the carriage. Soon they were riding away from the town center, towards the road that led to their ranch.

They rode in silence. Clarissa looked out to the prairie deep in thought. Marc didn’t blame her, as it had been a painful time for him; he had been plagued by an avalanche of thoughts about the ranch, his parents, and his sister since he returned. But now, he realized his mind felt clearer than it had since he had come back.

***

As they rode towards the ranch, Seamus O’Leary, their old worker, greeted them. He had worked at the ranch almost all of Marc’s life. He was getting on in years, had bad knees, and his eyesight was rapidly getting worse.

O’Leary walked towards the carriage, helping Clarissa jump down. He then immediately began unfastening the horses from the carriage.

“I will start preparin’ dinner,” Clarissa said.

“Great,” Marc replied, trying to sound sincere for his sister’s sake.

Clarissa went inside the house, and Marc helped O’Leary, leading the horses into the stable.

As Marc guided his horse into the stall, he looked up at the roof of the stable. He would need to repair the roof soon, he mused, as he stared through the large hole through it. Right now he could let it be as the weather was still, but the summer was over now.

There is so still so much that I need to do to make up for the time lost. However will I manage?

“How was the service?” O’Leary asked, pulling Marc away from his reverie.

“It’s was… It was good,” Marc said, thinking of Olivia again. “I’m glad I went.”

“That’s nice,” Seamus replied, coughing but trying to cover it.

“That cough doesn’t sound too good,” Marc said, concerned.

“It’s nothing,” Seamus dismissed.

“Are you sure?” Marc asked as the man coughed again. “I think you should go see Doctor Bourne.”

“There’s no need,” O’Leary dismissed again. “This is just a head cold, that comes with the change of season, that’s all.”

“I think I’ll fetch another bale from the loft,” Marc said, noting that the horses would need more hay. He walked towards the wooden ladder that led to the stable loft. He put one foot on the first step and as he put his weight on it the step broke. He fell backward but managed to keep from hitting on the stable floor.

He sighed, looking at the wood splinters all around him. He bent down to pick them up. As he turned around to get the tools necessary to repair the stair, O’Leary walked towards him, holding plywood and the tool bucket.

“You go on in now, son,” he said to Marc. “I’ll finish this.”

“We’ll do it together,” Marc said. He didn’t want Seamus to have to spend his Sunday working on this, as he knew he had been too unwell to go to church, which bothered him more than he would ever tell Marc.

Seamus nodded his head, and Marc began pulling the remainders of the broken step off the ladder. Seamus handed him the wood and Marc positioned it so it aligned with the other steps. The wood was a different color but would have to do for now. Marc nailed the step to the ladder while Seamus held it tightly in place. In a short while, they had replaced the step. Marc put his weight on it to test it, and it held him. He climbed the rest of the steps, which didn’t break but were fragile.

He grabbed one of the hay bales and threw it down. He looked around the loft at the remaining hay. Haying season was almost over, and he would need to work hard to have enough for winter.

Marc climbed down the steps and sighed again as he looked at the mismatched ladder.  “I will need to replace the entire ladder soon enough,” Marc said. “And the roof will need fixing soon.”

“All in good time, all in good time,” O’Leary said calmly.

“You’re right,” Marc replied.

Seamus coughed an ugly sounding cough again.

“I will have Clarissa bring you some tea,” Marc said.

“Oh, you shouldn’t be bothering with me,” he said.

“I insist,” Marc said firmly.

“Well, all right then,” Seamus thanked him.

I worry that O’Leary is wearing himself out. He cares as much about this ranch as I do, perhaps even more. Maybe finding some hands would make our life easier... Marc thought as he was entering his home. The first thing that greeted him was the smell of burning stew. He sighed and removed his Stetson, hanging it on the hook by the picture of his parents. He gently stroked over his mother’s face and gave the image of his father a small bow of the head.

As he was entering the kitchen, Marc saw Clarissa sitting at the kitchen table, completely immersed in a letter she was writing. He couldn’t help but chuckle as he peered into the pot on the large stove in the middle of the kitchen. There was the half-burnt concoction of his sister’s making.

Perhaps this will even taste better a little burnt, he chuckled. Marc loved his sister and was sure that one day she would get the hang of the cooking, but she wasn’t there yet. As he removed the pot from the fire, she finally looked up from her letter, with a comical look of guilt painting her face.

“I was just…” her voice trailed off.

“Being distracted?” Marc asked her.

“Yes?” she replied guiltily. “Is it ruined?” she asked with a grimace.

“Nah, it’s fine,” he said grabbing bowls for them. “Will you go now and serve O’Leary some tea? He’s been coughin’ an awful lot.”

“Of course,” she said, grabbing the letter she had been writing and hurriedly shoving it in her pocket, then got up to prepare the tea.

Marc stood by the kitchen table. He and Clarissa were just starting to get a semblance of routine going. The house was quieter as the stream of guests had stopped after the funeral. People had brought food and supplies, but Marc was ready to begin taking control of the ranch, no—of his ranch.  

Clarissa returned a short while later and they sat together and ate in amicable silence. The stew turned out to be quite bland and had a burnt aftertaste. She seemed distracted still, and with all those letters she had been writing Marc could not help but wonder what could possibly be occupying her mind so.


Chapter Two


Olivia Wagner stood in the kitchen, a sweet melody playing on her lips. She was preparing the pie that was for dessert tonight. Carefully, she poured the sweet peach filling into the rustic red pie dish. She then pulled the pie crust over, neatly tucking the ends together, closing the seams.

This is going to be a tasty pie, she mused happily as she popped the pie into the hot oven, pushing a strand of hair away from her face.   She had a shy smile and would much rather disappear behind a book than attend a crowded function. Not that she attended many of those. She mostly stayed home, tending to the house, or playing the piano but, sometimes, she would take a book and sit by the river that marked the edges of Rosewood and the beginning of the neighbouring Blue Willow Ranch.

Time for mother’s braided bread, Olivia thought as she stretched the dough she had prepared that morning. She divided the dough into three sections and began gently braiding the parts into a neat ring. Next, she brushed the bread with butter.

This always made her smile. When she was a little girl her mother would make this bread every Sunday and Olivia had always wanted to help her. Her mother allowed her to use the brush.

“Careful, darling, careful,” she would say and gently guide her hand. Olivia had been so young when her mother died, and this was one of her most cherished memories. How wonderful would it be to do this with a daughter of my own…

Olivia could barely remember her mother anymore; the memories were few but precious. She had died in childbirth ten years ago, along with Olivia’s unborn sister. Roy Wagner, her father, had died five years ago, from old age, leaving Andy in charge of the home. The oldest son of Roy Wagner was firm and loyal to the memory of their father. With his large hands, wide chest, and strength, one would have thought he was made to be a rancher. He was adamant about keeping the running of the ranch the same as before. Andy was hard-pressed to make changes.

Olivia’s other brother, Frank, had accepted the changes so far. As Sundays were celebrated as days of contemplation and rest at the Wagner residence, the family sat together around the table. Olivia honored the family tradition of making a roast on the day. Her mother had always said that eating a good, hearty meal on Sunday would have a good influence on the coming work week.

That Sunday had begun like any other. Olivia woke early to prepare the day’s roast and had put on her powder blue dress for church. She rode with her brothers in their carriage, and they arrived early, like always. They took their seats in the third row from the altar. Olivia held her book of psalms close to her heart; it had been her mother’s and it was one of her most prized possessions.

Suddenly, the harried-looking Timothy Carlson came running down the aisle. He had scooted into the row in front of them, stopping in front of Olivia, Andy, and Frank, breathing heavily. Olivia played their conversation over in her mind.

“Olivia…” he had said, stopping to take a deep breath. Old Graves is ill.” Timothy had said, mopping his forehead with a handkerchief.

“Oh no, I hope it’s not serious,” Olivia had said concernedly.

Beside her, Andy had shaken his head disapprovingly, and Frank covered his chuckle with a cough.

“He’ll be fine. But we don’t have an organist,” Timothy had said, trying to ignore her brothers.

“Oh…” Olivia had said, feeling anxious.

“Would you, dear Olivia, play for us? We would be so ever grateful!” he had said pleadingly.

Olivia had looked nervously at Andy, who nodded his head. She looked back at the man and sighed.

“All right, I’ll do it!” she had said with a resoluteness that didn’t entirely convince him, or herself for that matter.

She had followed Timothy from the pews to the front of the church where the old organ was. Her fingers had been cold with nervousness, and she had taken a deep breath as she had sat at the carved pump organ. She had been much more comfortable playing the piano, although she could play the organ as well.

Olivia had leafed through the hymn-music book, finding the correct psalm. Her heart had beat rapidly in her chest, and she had taken a deep breath to calm her nerves. As the pastor began walking into the church aisle, he signaled that she had ought to start playing.

Everything was going smoothly, Olivia mused. She had continued playing, knowing the hymns very well, and the service continued. Her nerves had calmed, and she had even begun enjoying herself. During the pastor’s sermon, she had turned to see him speak and that’s when she noticed him... Her cheeks burned hot from the memory. She had looked back to the pews, and her heart jumped as she noticed a familiar face sitting in the back rows. It was Marc Payton, and he was staring at her intently.

Marc…

I wonder whether he remembered me? It has been so long since I last saw him. He has matured, and that has only served to enhance his good looks…She hadn’t seen him in years. She knew he was back in Eloy after the tragic passing of his parents, but she hadn’t seen him since he returned. She had been out of town, visiting her Aunt Mary during the funeral.

Why was Marc Payton staring at me, and with such intensity? He’s still just as handsome as ever. It had not been proper of her to blush inside a church, on a Sunday no less! But she could not stop the way her heart had beaten. For the remainder of the service, she had found it challenging to quell her curiosity, but she had persevered and managed to keep her attention on the music in front of her.

***

“Let us read together,” Andy said, standing up from the sitting room and walking to the kitchen table as Olivia finished preparing the bread. She took off her apron and sat at the table next to Frank. They took each other’s hands and prayed in silence before Andy began reading from the old family Bible. Andy had an excellent voice.

They were a devout family, and Andy truly had been blessed with his deep timbre and passion. He spoke with conviction and fervor and would have made an excellent preacher had his life gone in another direction.

The loss of their mother nearly ruined their father, who became cold and distant after her death. Andy had only been twenty years old at the time, but old enough to realize what he needed to do. He stepped up like a man ought to. Frank had been a teenager when their parents left them, but he tried his best to help the family.

But Olivia ended up being the force that guided them onwards. Her gentle laugh and sweet smile could melt ice, and whenever the house seemed to fill with sorrow, she would sit at the piano and play beautiful music. Olivia was the apple of Andy’s eye, and he regarded her as a mixture of a sister and daughter.

Andy took his role as the head of the house very seriously. He often said that Olivia and Frank needed more guidance, a firm yet gentle hand to guide them and keep them focused. Lately though, Frank had begun to speak up, making suggestions that Andy was usually against. A rift had begun erupting between the two brothers, pushing Olivia into the middle, as she tried to hold her two brothers together.

After reading, Andy and Frank sat in the sitting room again, Frank attending to the fire and Andy reading, while Olivia finished preparing dinner.

“Frank, where are you going?” Andy asked as his brother stood.

“I’m fetching more wood for the fire,” Frank said. “The fire is dying out.”

“The fire is fine,” Andy said sternly. “Let us not waste time.”

“If you say so,” Frank said; he was irked.

“Dinner is ready,” Olivia called to her brothers, stopping Andy from admonishing Frank. They joined her in the kitchen, standing around the kitchen table. They held hands and bowed their heads. “Lord, thank you for this bountiful meal. Bless us and bless our parents who remain with you, under your ever-loving embrace, amen.” Andy uttered the meal prayer while Frank and Olivia echoed: “Amen.”

They sat down, and Olivia began cutting the meat and doling out the vegetables. They ate in contemplative silence, enjoying the food.

***

“That was delicious,” Frank said sweetly to his sister after they had finished the dinner.

“You truly were blessed by an angel to be so good at cooking,” Andy said.

“Thank you,” Olivia smiled at them.

She gathered up the plates and put them into the kitchen sink. She brought the pie she’d made and placed on the table. She brought smaller plates, and the silver dessert forks that she’d always pretended were treasures when she was a child.

“We also should thank you for your role in today's service,” Frank added, as he took a bite of pie. Olivia looked shyly at her pie dish.

“You certainly were a more enjoyable organist than old Graves,” Frank added. “You ought to play every time.”

“Let us not get ahead of ourselves,” Andy warned. “Olivia has many responsibilities here that she cannot neglect. I am, also, not sure a woman ought to play in church, at least not too often,” he added.

“I’m sure old Graves will be well enough to play next Sunday,” Olivia said. Frank scoffed, and Andy glowered at him. They ate their pie rather hurriedly, and Olivia played with her piece, as she was not really hungry anymore.

Andy returned to the comfy chair by the fire and started stuffing his pipe with tobacco. Olivia cleared the table and carefully covered the leftover food. She washed the dishes, and when she returned to the sitting room, her brothers sat in silence.

“How about a little music, before we go to bed?” Olivia said to break the tension. “Aunt Mary sent me a book of sacred songs, a recent publication — it’s quite wonderful.”

They agreed, and Olivia sat in front of the piano. She opened the book and began playing. The book housed a delightful mixture of American folk songs and sacred songs.

Aunt Mary was their late mother’s sister. She lived in Scottsdale, and they didn’t see each other nearly enough, in Olivia’s opinion. She sent Olivia books and music regularly, as her husband was a publisher, and she knew of Olivia’s love of reading and music. Andy didn’t approve of Mary, because she had run away from the man she was engaged to and married a divorced man instead.

Aunt Mary had never been to the ranch, as Olivia’s father would never have allowed it. Olivia’s mother saw her sister only a few times after she married Roy Wagner. Mary had no children, and she loved Olivia like she was her own.

Olivia had managed to convince her brother to allow her to see Aunt Mary in the past month, but only because Aunt Mary was gravely ill. During her visit, Mary had told Olivia that she regretted nothing in life, except not seeing her sister before she died. Life was too short for grudges and love should always be the answer. Olivia had held her and cried when she had to return home. But Mary wiped her tears away and told her not to pity her; her life had been well lived, she just had to take care of herself.

“I wish I had your courage, darling Aunt Mary. You lived your life true to yourself in the face of scrutiny from others.”

Aunt Mary had given her a journal of her mother’s. She had given it to her sister to keep the last time they met. Olivia still remembered her Aunt’s words: “Please guard it safely. When it is time you need to read it, you will know it. Keep it safe from prying eyes and above all from your brother, Andy. I am not so sure how much time I have left on this earth. This is for you to have, dear. It would be a way to get to know your sweet mother better.”  As Olivia had been so young when she lost her mother, she cherished every story about her and let other’s memories of her mother guide her into knowing her better.

Olivia still hadn’t read the journal. It was laying at the bottom of her wooden chest in her room. She was afraid of tarnishing the image she had of her family, of her parents’ marriage.

Mary had once mentioned that her mother had regretted marrying Olivia’s father. He was much older than she had been, and it had been her mother’s parents’ wish that they marry. She had chosen duty and family.

What will I discover about mother if I read her journal? I am terrified of the truths that lie in there.


Chapter Three


Marc got up early, as he always did. He walked into the kitchen and began preparing coffee. As he boiled the water, he thought how much he missed the creature comforts of living with his parents, especially his mother's cooking.

What I would give to wake up to the smell of mother’s homemade sausages and freshly made coffee, he mused. Going out to the day with a full stomach and returning home to a house that smelled like dinner, smelled like home. How I miss that...

Marc had to prepare the ranch for the coming winter. Soon he would need to hire cowboys to help with gathering up the steers for sale. His father had usually hired the same cowboys every year, but they were getting old. Marc wondered what had happened to them, and if they still came to these parts.

He finished making the coffee, and after a quick cup, he went to the stable. O’Leary sat in the stable, shoeing the light brown steed that Clarissa usually rode.

“Good morning,” Marc said as he walked towards his black horse and stroked his mane.

“Morning, son,” Seamus replied as he hammered the horseshoe with practiced hands. “I felt better after the tea your sister made; she may have found something she can make without burning,” he added with a crooked grin.

“I will pass that on to her,” Marc replied with a chuckle. “I need to ride to town today to inquire about some cowboys to help with the steering,” Marc said. “Do you know what happened to Langston? I haven’t heard anything about him in a long while.”

Langston was a cowboy that Marc had known almost all of his life. He roamed between the counties and took odd jobs here and there, never one for wanting to settle down. A true roaming cowboy...

“Oh, he hasn’t been here in years,” Seamus replied as he began working on another leg on the horse. “Your father hired some traveling cowboys the past two years. The rumor is that Langston stole sheep from the Thorndike farm, up by the town limits, and has been on the run ever since.”

“What? I can’t believe it!” Marc said astonished. “He was an honorable man, trustworthy.”

“You know how the Thorndikes are. I wouldn’t put it past them to make something like that up,” Seamus said.

“Well, I’m going to get some answers. Could you please finish shoeing my horse soon? I’m riding to town later,” Marc said as he left the stable.

“You got it!” O’Leary called after him.

***

The smell of burnt eggs greeted him as he walked back into the house. A far cry from the memory of this home as it once was. He entered the kitchen and noticed his sister putting a jug of milk on the kitchen table, her back to the stove.

Why can my sister not be more focused? Her mind flutters like a bird in spring and how can she not smell that?

“Good morning, Clarissa,” Marc said emphatically.

Clarissa turned quickly to gaze at her brother. She rushed to the pan and removed the eggs from the fire. She looked nervously at her brother who had turned around.

“It’s only a little burnt, I think?” she said hopefully, looking into the pan.

“I’m sure it's fine,” he sighed as he walked to the kitchen table.

Clarissa portioned the eggs on two plates and put bread and butter on the table. As Marc ate the disappointing breakfast, his mind wandered to Olivia. I must see her again. She is all I can think of. An angelic presence that has come to mesmerize me and wash away all my trepidation and apprehension.

“O’Leary is shoeing my horse, and then later in the afternoon I will need to ride to town. As we’re meant to have supper with the Carters later, you will need to ride with me,” Marc said to his sister who was playing with her food. “You’ll need find something to occupy yourself while I attend to some business in town.”

Clarissa looked at her brother with a slight scowl on her face. “I can ride to town on my own,” she said fiercely.

“I don’t want you to ride alone,” Marc replied with equal determination.

“Marc, I’m nineteen years old!” Clarissa retorted. “I don’t need to be coddled.”

“This is not up for discussion!” he said with finality.

Clarissa opened her mouth to object but stopped. She knew she couldn’t argue with him. “Fine,” she said coolly, getting up to clear the kitchen table.

Marc sighed as he observed his sister. He didn’t know how to talk to her. He’d been away for so long, and she had changed so very much in that time. He still saw her as his little sister, not the young woman she was becoming.

***

Later on, Clarissa sat on the porch outside the house, and as usual had a piece of paper and a pencil in her hands. She loved writing letters. This one was for her dearest friend, Beatrice Hendricks. Clarissa had met Beatrice five years ago when Beatrice stayed in Eloy to help out her aunt. They became instant friends, and after Beatrice left back to Florence, Arizona, they corresponded with each other, keeping the friendship strong.

Clarissa was usually carrying a letter or two in her pockets, and she kept all of her treasured correspondence in a wooden chest in her room. She probably ought to spend more time concentrating on housework or cooking, but an empty piece of paper was too tempting. She could write a poem about the beautiful birdsong that woke her every morning, a letter with news to a dear friend, or even a love letter.

Clarissa folded her letter and pocketed it as she heard Marc’s footstep. She got up and fastened her hat, tying a neat bow beneath her chin. As her brother lead the two horses carrying their carriage, she gave him a little bow and laughed heartily. Marc shook his head at her silliness, and then they were off. Clarissa was not one to hold a grudge, and her annoyance from this morning seemed long forgotten.

The trip from the ranch to the town was not too long. The ride took longer, of course, with the carriage but Marc preferred to travel in this style when he took Clarissa along. He knew she was a fine rider but her fickle nature worried him, and he thought it was safer if he was responsible for her safety when traveling. It also gave her an opportunity to write, which he knew she loved to do.

***

Marc parked the carriage and tied the reins to the hitching post. Clarissa jumped down from her seat before he could offer her his hand. She stood close by him, looking around.

“You should stay here or at the General Store with William,” Marc said.

“Oh, please can I go see Sarah?” Clarissa pleaded. “She will be at the church now.”

“All right, but just for a little while. I will meet you at the General Store later,” he said after thinking for a moment.

“Thank you!” Clarissa said. She was thrilled and she tipped on her toes to kiss him on the cheek. “I just need to pop into the post office to mail this letter to Beatrice, then I’ll go straight to Sarah.”

Marc smiled fondly at her. Am I being too strict? he mused as he walked towards the town saloon, watching as Clarissa entered the post office. She was independent by nature and strong-willed.

***

Marc walked into the saloon. He knew that cowboys often stayed here and perhaps one of them would have some answers about Langston. The saloon was almost empty. At the bar, the owner, Mr. Martin, was polishing a glass. In one corner, a black-clad man sat with his hat covering his eyes. Marc did not recognize him. Slumped over another table was old Graves and Marc almost wanted to go and thank him, for without his drunkenness he would not have seen Olivia play at church.

“If it isn’t Marc Payton,” Mr. Martin said as he recognized him.

“Good day,” Marc said, tipping his hat.

“What brings you here on this fine Monday?” Mr. Martin asked. “It’s mighty unusual.”

“I have questions about Langston, the cowboy who used to work for my father,” Marc said.

At that, the black-clad man turned his head slightly. “I haven’t seen Langston in quite a while,” Mr. Martin said thoughtfully. “Not for a few years, I believe.”

“He was a good worker and proved helpful to my father. I heard a rumor that he’s on the run, do you know anything about that?” Marc asked.

“Not much more than that. I heard he got in some sort of trouble up at the Thorndike Ranch and since then, no one’s heard from him,” Mr. Martin said.

“Are you in need of a cowboy?” a gravelly voice spoke suddenly. Marc and Mr. Martin turned in the direction of the black-clad man who had finally looked up.

“I might be,” Marc said warily. “And who might you be?” 

“They call me Red,” the stranger replied simply.

“Red what?” Marc asked back.

“Red’s fine,” he said with finality.

“Why should I hire a man who has no last name?” Marc asked him.

“My last name has nothing to do with my riding abilities, son,” Red replied, eyeing Marc shrewdly.

“Fair point,” Marc said.

“Marc, can I have a quick word?” Mr. Martin said gesturing for him to come closer. Marc turned away from Red and walked closer to the bar.

“I would be mighty careful now, son. Cowboys like him are often times outlaws with a bounty on their head, and you could become an accomplice if he’s a wanted man found on your property,” Mr. Martin warned. Marc was about to reply when Red got up.

“I’m riding out tonight, but I will be back in a few days. I’m a good worker, and I charge a fair price. If you’re still in need of a rider, you’ll find me around,” Red said, finishing his glass and tipping his hat as he left the saloon. He had a slight limp, and his bootstrap clanked with every other step as he dragged his leg.

Marc left the saloon deep in thought, wondering about the man he had just met. He walked towards the General Store. As he neared, the door opened and the two Wagner brothers walked out.

He looked around, wondering if Olivia was there as well. Andy Wagner walked past him, giving him a stiff nod of the head. The younger brother, Frank, stared at Marc for a moment before bidding him good day hastily, then hurrying after his older brother. Marc walked into the store, slightly disappointed when he realized that Olivia was not there.

William Carter looked up from behind the counter as the door opened and beamed at Marc. “Good to see you, Marc,” William said.

“You too,” Marc replied. “Where is Clarissa? I told her to meet me here.”

“Don’t you worry. She went to the house with Sylvia to help her with supper,” William assured him. “They just left a moment ago.”

“Good, good. I just worry about her,” Marc said.

“You’re a good brother, Marc,” William said kindly. “Now I just need to close up here and then we can get going.”

Marc helped William close up, just like he’d done when he was younger. The Carters had been a big part of his family when he was growing up. William and his father had been close friends for many years, and whenever Marc went into town with his father, they stopped at the store.

The Carters were beloved in the town. They had no children, as their only son died in infancy. But they adored children, and the children of the town adored them.

 William was a short man with a great, white mustache that he combed carefully every morning. He had a large protruding belly and his eyes crinkled from years of smiling at his customers. Sylvia was slightly taller than her husband, very slim, and always wore her hair in a high bun.

She was one of the ladies in the church society that managed various events for the church, like the yearly bake-sale; her delicious pies always sold out first.

Once they finished closing up, they walked the short way to the Carters’ residence. As they neared, the dog, Tufty, bounced up and down when he saw his owner arriving.

“Get down, boy,” William said as he pushed the dog away. Tufty leapt over to Marc and licked his hand. Marc stroked his head and scratched him behind the ears. A delicious smell greeted them as they walked into the house.

“Sylvia, I’m home,” William called.

Sylvia appeared in her white apron with Clarissa at her heel. “Hello Marc, dear,” she said. “Go and rest while Clarissa and I finish dinner,” she smiled at the two of them.

Marc followed William into the sitting parlor, where the latter poured them whiskey. They sat in the chairs. “I met the strangest man at the saloon before,” Marc said as he settled in the comfortable chair.

“What were you doing at the saloon on a Monday?” William asked surprised.

“I was looking for information about Langston, the cowboy who used to work for my father. This man was a very peculiar cowboy, who only goes by the name Red,” Marc said.

“Well, the strangest folk cross through this town of ours,” William said.

“I will need cowboys soon, but I worry I’m too late hiring,” Marc confessed.

“You’re not too late. Right around this time, the town will be filling up with people looking for work,” William assured him.

“Yeah, I guess you’re right,” Marc said.

“You’re a good rancher Marc. As long as you lead with conviction and trust your instincts, you’ll be fine,” William said.

“Thank you.”

“Is there anything else on your mind, son?” William asked as Marc looked contemplatively into his glass.

“I haven’t been able to stop thinking about young Olivia Wagner,” Marc said, still staring at the amber liquid in his glass. “I would like to get to know her better.” William didn’t say anything but looked thoughtfully at Marc.

“You’re quiet,” Marc said looking at William.

“The Wagner boys, Andy, in particular, have inherited your families’ old feud, I’m afraid. Since Roy Wagner died they have become more reclusive; they hardly ever come to town, except for bare necessities, and for church, of course,” William said.

Could William be right? The last time we met, they were cordial, prayed, and gave their condolences at Mother and Father’s funeral. Are they still harboring the old rivalry? They are conservative, that’s for sure, and more pious than I am, but I am not ready to give up. Not at all.

“I think I will have a talk with Andy Wagner soon,” Marc said with confidence. “We can’t let the past control our future.”

At his words, Sylvia walked into the parlor. “Dinner is ready, gentlemen.”

They sat at the kitchen table with the delicious smell of steak-pie, beans, baked vegetables, and freshly baked bread ensnared their senses. Marc tried to contain himself so as not gorge on the food, but Sylvia chuckled as she filled his plate. Marc savored the first bite, enjoying the pleasant taste, and soon Sylvia was giving him third helpings.

“I think Clarissa ought to come by more often,” Sylvia said as the chatter about cattle died away. “I could teach her to make my famous pie,” she added with a knowing smile.

“Oh, that would be wonderful, wouldn’t it, Marc?” Clarissa said, looking hopeful at her brother.

“Yes…” Marc replied. “But you know I don’t like riding on your own to town,” he added, causing the hopeful look on his sister's face to falter slightly.

“Come now, son, she’s nearly twenty,” William said.

“What do you say about if she comes twice a week and helps us around the store. Then she rides in daylight, and you can join us for dinner and ride with her back home?” Sylvia suggested.

“And who knows, perhaps this would help you find a wife,” Sylvia teased. “You won’t meet anyone cooped up on that ranch. At least this way you have to ride to town more often.”

“Stop this, Sylvia,” William admonished his wife. “Marc will find a wife when he is ready.”

Marc smiled gratefully at William. The ladies from the church society had not stopped mentioning his lack of a wife since he returned from San Francisco.

“Alright,” Marc finally said. “Should we say the day after tomorrow?”

“Excellent!” William said.

“Thank you,” Clarissa said, her face filled with gratitude.

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  • This a very interesting preview that has wet my appetite for more. I am looking forward for the rest of the story.

  • I enjoyed reading the preview, it has a great story line, I love historical romance novels, and this sounds like a winner. Thank you!❤️

  • I like the beginning of this new book, almost like Romeo & Juliette but hopefully neither of them die! Can’t wait for the full version to be released

  • I’m very anxious to read the rest of this book to see what happens. I love Westerns and the first 3 chapters have my Ttention!

  • Looks like Marc’s got his work cut out for him in more ways than one. It’ll be interesting to see it all works out.

    • That is amazing, Gwen dear! Thank you so much for stopping by! Almost there for the rest of the story! 🙂