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A Blind Bride for the Lonely Cowboy Preview

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A Blind Bride for the Lonely Cowboy Preview

About the book

Tormented by the people around him, Mark’s only hope seems to be a blind mail-order bride. But will love be enough to overcome the traumatic past that connects them?

Rose is a brave, blind woman who cannot take her family’s mistreatment much longer. And then, as a Godsent sign, she stumbles upon a mail-order bride ad and she makes the hardest decision of her life: she travels to the Wild West in search of a new life. But ending up on the scarred and distant cowboy’s ranch was not what she expected, neither the love that follows. Will she be able to show him that love is the way to salvation?

Mark is looking for a bride. Scarred due to an accident, his days are spent in solitude, fixing up the ranch. Until the day his bride arrives and to his disappointment, she’s anything but skillful in ranch work. But as she tries to prove herself to him, he finds a lost feeling of longing resurfacing. Will he realize that getting married to her was the best thing that has happened to him?

Rose and Mark’s love is put to a test when their disagreements arise. Is their passionate love strong enough to overcome all their difficulties and face their past together?

Chapter One


Rose Smith had long since become used to being treated like a little more than a nuisance, but that didn't mean she liked it. It was simply that it was easier to ignore it than try to react, because standing up for herself never did much good when she was living with those that mistreated her. Being blind was difficult enough, without letting people get to her.

Today was no different. She stood in the kitchen of their home, facing out of the window across to the neighbor’s place and beyond without really seeing any of it, while trying to ignore the hushed whispers in the next room over. Even the crackle of the heat and the bubble of fresh soup for supper didn’t drown out the voices, nor did the absent tap of her fingers against the wide kitchen table that she had been using to chop vegetables just minutes before.

"It's about time that girl found a husband," Mama hissed, voice low as if to whisper; although truthfully she was still as clear as day in the otherwise quiet home. Sometimes, Rose wondered if she really did want to be heard. "Rose is twenty-two now, and almost everyone her age in town is already courting. If she doesn't hurry, there will be nobody left."

"What she needs isn't a husband," Papa replied coolly, "it's a job. Do you really think Rose is ready for married life? I doubt she could even look after a husband, let alone make him happy. At the very least, she should be working for her room here. But we know that isn't possible with her... condition."

They expected her to work for room and boarding like she was living at an inn or boarding house? They were her parents for goodness sake, and this was her family home. Did they not realize how much she did for them while they were out all day? The only reason the house was even liveable was because Rose spent most of her time cleaning up after them. Her nose crinkled at the thought. Anger won't help you, she reminded herself sullenly, this is your lot, and you can deal with it. As she had for the last twenty-two years.

Her thoughts were quickly silenced by a knock at the front door, all the way down the long, narrow hallway.

"That will be Rose's little friend Martha again," Mama muttered, already leaving the living room to answer. "I swear we see her more than Rose some days."

Rose's stomach clenched in annoyance as she darted from the kitchen, sliding into Mama's path before she could get to the door. Somehow, she managed not to bump into any walls or doorframes; she had long learned her way around this house. "I'll answer," she piped up, injecting some false cheer into her voice, "I'm sure Martha won't be here for long."

Mama, who had cool grey eyes and a narrow face, always looked so stern when she frowned. Rose couldn't see it, but she had heard of how Mama's expression struck terror into others. "Rose, dear, do you really need to see Martha today?"

"She likes to help me in the garden," Rose answered defensively. Oh, she always hated this conversation - and they had gone over it a million times already. "It isn't as if we sit around and talk all day; she helps me in the garden for an hour or two, and then we go into town to get the groceries together."

"Yes, well, most girls could do those things alone."

"Mama, you know I can't go into town alone. What would you rather? That I sit inside by myself all day and never talk to anyone at all?"

"When you have a husband, my dear, you won't be able to go out whenever you please." Mama huffed, indicating a scowl.  "There will be expectations, and I doubt your husband would be pleased with you for going off with her every day."

A dull ache had settled in the back of Rose's skull. "I see Martha twice a week at most," Rose muttered, but already the will to fight was draining from her. Biting down on her lip, she added, "I know you don't think much of me, Mama, but I don't think you quite understand that having a husband and living your ideal life isn’t right for everyone. I do a lot for you and Papa, even if you refuse to see it—"

"Enough." Mama's words were final, and it sent a shudder down Rose's spine. "You do nothing for this house, Rose; you refuse to find a husband and you can't get a job, and you spend your days with that girl. You're lucky that we still allow you to live here."

It was delivered with such an emotionless chill, that Rose could scarcely breathe. She took a stumbling step back until her shoulders hit the front door. Rose didn't even notice that tears had sprung to her eyes, not until she felt them roll down her cheek. "Do you really think so little of me?"

"I think that you need to think very carefully about your future."

Watering eyes turned to Papa, or at least his vague direction, who stood as stoic as ever by the living room door. He had said nothing throughout this entire exchange, but was Rose really surprised?

Another knock roused Rose from her thoughts. She scrubbed at her eyes, swiping away the tears, and turned away from her parents. "If you'll excuse me, I have things to pick up in town. I'll see you this evening." Then, without another word, she swung open the door and darted into the cool afternoon.

Martha stood there on the bottom step, and Rose could just imagine her thick arms wrapped around her middle to keep out the cold. They were complete opposites, Rose and Martha; where Rose was all dark, bouncing curls and pale skin, Martha's hair was so pin straight that even curling rags couldn't give it any volume, and her skin was a warm tan. Even their height was either end of the extreme; where Martha was tall and bulky, Rose was small and svelte. From this distance, Rose couldn't see much more than the vague outline of her, though.

"You know that I love you, right Rose?" she asked slowly, "but I heard every word of what went on inside. Are your parents really threatening to throw you out of your own home?"

Even standing two steps above Martha, Rose was barely able to match her height. It was easier to make eye contact this way, because Rose could see a little better when they were directly face to face, but she still cast her gaze aside. "I don't think they really will," she replied softly, "it isn't the first time they've threatened to. I'm just getting so tired of it all."

Martha laid a reassuring hand on Rose's shoulder. "I know. They never give you a break, do they?"

"On Tuesday, they asked me to clean the entire house before they got back from visiting the Marshall's, except they arrived home two hours early and still got angry at me for not finishing in time. I'm convinced they came home early in the hopes of catching me out, just so they would have something to argue over."

It wouldn't have been the first time, either. Mama and Papa didn't have the best relationship, anyone could see that - but the one thing that united them was their mutual frustration over Rose. Sometimes they started arguments with her just so they wouldn't shout at each other; it was almost like entertainment to them.

"They want me to marry," Rose added after a moment, and the thought made her gut coil. "Everyone knows there are no eligible men here."

Martha only sighed; and suddenly she was leading Rose down the front steps and around the back of the house, towards the little garden they spent so much time in. Luckily, it was the one place that both of her parents hated. "You know what this means?" Martha gushed as she set Rose down on the wooden bench by the oak tree. "It means that you have to leave. How do you feel about Oregon?"

Rose blinked up at her, heart skittering against her ribs. "There are worse places to go.”

Martha collapsed onto the seat beside her. "Yes, I know that! What I mean is, would you like to?"

"I don't suppose I've ever thought about it."

"Then think, because I've got a solution to your problem."

Rose had no time to ask before there was a newspaper in her lap, the enormous pages threatening to tumble to the ground. She grabbed at them with awkward hands, bundling them all together - before turning her uneasy gaze to Martha. "What is this?"

"Read and find out. Page twenty-four. I actually brought this along to tell you they're planning to rebuild the old Sheriff's office, but this seems more important." She leaned forward to flip rapidly through the pages, only stopping when they landed on number twenty-four as promised. "Read it!"

It was an advertisement for something, the heading Oregon men looking for wives glowering at her from the top of the page. There were three adverts in total, apparently one for each man who had applied. Rose had to hold it almost right to her nose in order to see - Martha knew that she couldn't read well with her condition, but she was also the only one to ever try to inspire some independence.

It took her a moment to realize what this was; it was a mail-order bride agency.

As if reading her thoughts, Martha simply nudged her shoulder and said, "Read the one for Mark Dannings, he's the best of the lot."

With little choice other than to humor her, Rose did. She had to squint until her head ached, but she managed to make out the blurry words.

Mark Dannings is a young Oregon man who owns a modest ranch on the outskirts of town. Thirty years old and can offer a warm, comfortable home in exchange for wifely duties such as cleaning, cooking, and minor ranch repairs. Looking for a woman between twenty and thirty-five years old.

Rose barely made it to the end of the paper before having to set it back down. Her eyes adjusted back to their usual focus, the world a blurry fog around her, and she huffed out a long exhale. "You want me to become a mail-order bride?"

"Isn't it the ideal situation?" Martha asked. She leaned in close, close enough that Rose could almost see the sparkle in her eyes. "You get a new life in a new place, and all the adventure that comes with it. You'd have a husband, so you wouldn't be alone - and any decent man wouldn't mind having to be a bit more patient with your, uh..."

"Blindness?" Rose interjected with a raised brow. "It isn't taboo to say the word, you know."

The truth was that Rose wasn't completely blind, and she hadn't always been so. Rather, her vision had been fine when she was a baby, and it wasn't until she was three that her vision started failing. A fire had left her eyes damaged, but the decline was gradual. Perhaps one day she would be left completely blind; but for now, she had at least retained the ability to make out vague, blocky shapes; if only from a very short distance.

Completely blind or not, however, it didn't change the fact that people still often refused to say it out loud. Even her own best friend.

That wasn't the point of this conversation, however, and Rose found herself fumbling for the newspaper again. "Do you really think this will solve my problems?" she murmured.

"I think it doesn't hurt to write to Mr Mark Dannings and see what happens," Martha replied kindly, "I'll help you write a letter today, if you like."

It was a ridiculous idea. Utterly absurd; and yet Rose couldn't shake the feeling that it was her one chance to get out of this awful house, and away from the parents that considered her no more than a burden. "I think you might be right," she answered finally, "but Oregon is so far away."

"Which is exactly why it's perfect," Martha replied. Already she was sliding from the seat, wood creaking beneath her. "What do you say?"

"I think you're insane," Rose replied honestly, "but I also think that I'd rather like to visit Oregon sometime soon."

 

Chapter Two


  Rose had never been on a train before; it smelled of sweat and overheating bodies, the stench making her eyes sting as she clambered aboard. Worse was the noise; dozens of voices clamored over one another, fighting to be heard until everything melted together into a mess of wordless shouting that left her ears ringing.

People shoved past one another without a care for who they knocked into; most of them continued on without so much as an apology, leaving Rose directionless. She could make out the dull, shapeless forms of the people around her, but the colors all bled together and it was impossible to tell one person from another. It was just one mass of shifting, ever-changing blots of color.

"Excuse me," she asked the first person to walk past, "could you tell me where cabin nineteen is, please?"

The person in front of her only sighed; it was definitely a woman, because a man would have outright ignored her. Like the last two had. "Last cabin on the right," the woman yelled, shouting to be heard over the din, "at the end of the carriage."

That was a long way to walk, and she didn't have Martha to lead her now. She was lucky to have had Martha at all, considering that the ticket man had nearly refused her entry to the train platform without a ticket of her own. Yet Rose steeled herself, grip tightening on her suitcase, and took in a long, deep breath. "Thank you," she said to the woman, and then turned to make the long way down the train carriage.

The further she moved, the more crowded it became; she had to fight past people as they crowded in the narrow corridor, squeezing past those she could and simply darting aside from those she couldn't. Hardly anyone seemed to notice her small frame as she made her way slowly down the carriage, and more than once she bumped into someone, only to have them curse or yell as she retreated abruptly.

This was a terrible idea, Rose cursed herself, and suddenly she wished for Martha by her side. Not only as a guide, but because she knew Martha would have had no qualms about parting the crowd. Despite being only nineteen, Martha had an air about her that made people part without even having to be asked.

Rose would have loved her friend's intimidating presence right about now. She was lost in the crowd, hands pressed against the wall to try and guide herself, and yet unable to make out one cabin door from the other. How was she supposed to find hers, when everything felt the same?

"Excuse me miss, are you quite all right?"

Rose spun on her heel, eyes searching out the owner of the voice. There was somebody in front of her wearing dark brown, but that was all she could make out. "I'm just looking for cabin nineteen," she replied calmly, despite the racing thud of her heart. Until this moment, she had never quite realized just how sheltered Mama and Papa kept her.

The woman - at least Rose assumed they were a woman - shifted closer. She put a gentle hand on Rose's shoulder and guided her a little to the right. "That's my cabin too," the woman replied kindly, "let's find it together, shall we?"

Relief flooded over Rose so fast that her legs wobbled, threatening to throw her to the ground right there. Without much choice in the matter, she allowed the woman to guide her down the crowded corridor - and then finally, into a cool, empty cabin room.

"There. This is only a two-bunk room, so I suppose it must just be us two." The woman collapsed onto the bed, the gentle whoosh of her skirt following behind.

Rather than sitting, Rose took a moment to familiarise herself with the room. Her hands skimmed across the wall until she met soft sheets - the bed. It was narrow and low to the ground, unlikely to be comfortable, but it smelled clean and the bedding was soft, so it would do. Past that, there was a little cupboard and drawers, a hollow space to put her suitcase - and then the cool glass of a window. She at least hoped it could be opened, because with so many people sharing one train, Rose couldn't imagine that it would be comfortable.

Finally, Rose lowered herself onto the bed and set her suitcase down. The thing had been weighing her down since she got here, but now her shoulders relaxed. "I'm Rose," she introduced to the woman across the room. From this distance, she was nothing more than a vaguely humanoid splash of brown against a blurry backdrop.

"Ruth," the woman replied. Her voice sounded young, no older than Rose herself. "What brings you to a train for Oregon?"

Ah. Of course she would be curious about the strange blind girl headed so far from home. Rose found herself flushed pink, ducking her head to stare uneasily at the ground. "I'm to meet a man," she said softly, "I'm to be his wife."

"Oh." Although Rose couldn't see her face, she felt the surprise in Ruth's voice alone. "But how do you know him, if you've never met before?"

Now Rose's cheeks were scarlet, so hot that she could feel it reach her neck. "We met through an agency," she replied, unable to even attempt to look Ruth in the eyes. Now that she had said it aloud to a stranger, she realized how ridiculous it must have seemed. "It's convenient for us both," she continued, feeling the rising need to defend herself, "and it might not be traditional, but it's something that we both need, so it only makes sense—"

"Rose," Ruth cut in then, and there was a smile in her voice, "you don't have to explain anything to me. In fact, I completely understand; I'm traveling to Oregon to marry too."

Oh. Well, that did make things much easier, didn't it?

***

Mark

Mark had been standing in this stinking station for forty-five minutes now, if the grand clock above him was correct. The train was due at half-past eight and it was only just rolling into the station, shrieking and groaning as it went. Honestly, this whole thing had been a waste of his day when he could have been on the ranch, fixing up the barn or contending with any one of a dozen chores that needed doing today.

He watched as people began to spill from the train. It wasn't usually so busy, especially on a Monday evening; but the stream of people disembarking seemed to simply go on forever. He didn't know what Rose looked like, not beyond a vague description of 'petite, small, and with short curly brown hair', but so far there had been nobody to fit even that simple description.

It wasn't long before the train began to empty; now that people weren't pushing and shoving, it was easier to focus on each individual face. An old, grey couple clambered out, followed by a young woman with her two children. A slender man in a full suit. Plenty of women by themselves, but none of them had short hair.

Perhaps she has decided not to follow through, Mark reasoned; and he felt a stutter of relief at the thought. This whole mail-order bride concept hadn't even been his. If she isn't on this train, then I can just go home—

Oh, wait. The very last people to disembark were two women. They were both young, struggling with too-large suitcases as they stumbled along the platform. One had a lock of flowing black hair that hung in her eyes, even as she tried to brush it away. The other had brunette curls that reached only to her shoulders, pinned back behind her ears.

That had to be Rose Smith.

The taller woman caught his eye and tumbled over, still heaving her outrageously large baggage as she went. "Excuse me sir," she said brightly, "might you be Mark Dannings? It's just that you're the only one left waiting."

Mark glanced around - and yes, sure enough, most of the passengers and those waiting had already left. It was strange to see the station so quiet; but as theirs was the last train of the night, nobody had reason to wait any longer. When he turned back to the girls, he forced a smile. "That would be me," he answered, "which means that you must be Rose and... I'm sorry, I wasn't expecting two."

"This is Ruth," Rose cut in, and her smile was nervous. Oddly, when she looked at Mark, her eyes didn't quite meet his. Rather, they were focused on something just past his left shoulder. "She was just helping me off the train."

"I have to be off," Ruth added, "my fiancé and his family will be waiting for me outside." With that, she darted off but made sure to offer a friendly wave as she went by. "I gave you my address, right? Make sure to write me, Rose!"

Mark stared after her retreating form, before rolling his eyes and turning back to Rose. She was pretty, he supposed, with bright and earnest blue eyes and freckles splashed across her cheeks. Even her hair, although shorter than most women's, had a charm to it.

"Where to, Mr Dannings?" Rose asked, jolting him from his thoughts.

"Please, call me Mark," he replied automatically. They were going to be married, after all. "Take a walk with me?"

They did walk, making their way out of the stuffy station and into the cool, comfortable afternoon. The roads were straight and there wasn't a hill in sight, but Rose still seemed to walk a little too carefully as they made their way outside.

Well, that was a question for later. "I want you to be aware of my expectations before we reach the ranch," he said, "we can discuss it on the way there."

Rose visibly paled. "Will we be walking?"

Goodness, no! What a thing to consider. "I hired a coach, and it's waiting around the corner. I didn't know if you could ride or not, so I took the safer option."

"Safer option?"

"I know that city women don't often learn to horse ride, but I'm sure you've at least used a wagon or coach before, correct?"

Her uneasy hum of agreement wasn't too inspiring.

Yet soon the coach drifted into view; it was a simple wooden thing with two horses out front, and admittedly it wasn't in fantastic condition. The coachman didn't offer to help them inside, leaving Mark himself to help Rose up the steps. She stumbled more than once, feet unable to grab the boards, before she collapsed awkwardly into the seat.

In the end, the two of them sat across from each other as tense silence filled the space between them. Rose stared off into the distance, perhaps watching the scenery float by, but she didn't offer a word.

That was good, really, because it gave Mark the chance to say, "I'll expect you to help out around the ranch and house. My uncle is visiting so I can help him sort out his inheritance, which means I won't have as much time for other duties as usual."

Rose's eyes narrowed. She turned to him, but once again those bright eyes didn't quite meet his face. "I can cook and clean without issue, and it won't take me long to get acquainted with the house."

"It isn't just about the house," Mark replied coolly. Cleaning was all well and good, but every woman could do that. "I'll require help with the horses, and the barn, as well as the cattle. They need bringing in if the weather gets bad, and we rotate the paddocks every four or five weeks."

She was silent. Eerily so, if Mark was truthful. Eventually, she sucked in a breath and fixed her uneasy gaze on him, although she still didn't meet his eyes. "I'll do what I can, Mark, but my condition leaves me with certain... limitations."

Mark found himself scowling. What exactly did she mean by condition? In the three letters he had received from her, not once had she mentioned anything like that. "If you're sick, then I am happy to wait until you recover, but I hope it won't take you too long."

"I'm not sick," Rose replied, and her voice tightened. "I don't have the flu or a simple stomach bug, I'm afraid to say."

The longer he stared at Rose, the stranger it became. Her distant gaze, eyes seemingly looking at nothing; the way she held herself so tightly, as if unsure of where she was. Then there was her mention of limitations, and the pieces started fitting together. Rose Smith, his future wife, was blind.

Which meant that she couldn't do much of anything around the ranch, the whole reason he had brought her here to begin with. Fantastic.

"You didn't know?" Rose muttered, and her thick brows furrowed. "I told Martha to mention it because she insisted on dictating the letters for me..." she trailed off, turning away.

Well, this rather disrupted Mark's plan. Irritation fluttered in the pit of his stomach but he shoved it down. There was no time to argue even if he had wanted to, because now they were trundling down the long, uneven path that led to the farmhouse. He could see it now, a dark blotch against the sky, as they traveled closer.

The farmhouse wasn't an attractive thing, not really. It was an enormous, hulking shape painted slate gray that didn't match with the rest of the ranch's buildings, all made of natural wood. The one benefit to Rose's blindness was that she couldn't see how ugly her new home was.

Mark had to help her climb down from the steps, one hand against her waist while the other reached for her suitcase. She wobbled on the cobbled path, even in flat shoes, and she had to cling to his arm in order to make it up the porch steps. In the time it took Mark to dart back to pay the coachman, Rose hadn't even made it to the door.

This isn't going to be easy, he warned himself with a scowl, but let's just get today over with first.

Inside, the farmhouse was lit only by a handful of candles flickering on the side table in the hall. He wondered idly if Rose even needed light, but quickly pushed those thoughts from his mind. "Arthur?" he called into the quiet house, "I'm home, and Rose is here too."

It took a moment for the uncle in question to appear. Just like Mark himself, he had deep brown eyes and darkly tanned skin, although Arthur's tan was relatively new since coming to the ranch. He smiled as he approached, pausing in the hallway just a few feet away. "Took you a while," he said brightly, "the housekeeper has been itching to leave, but I asked her to stay so she could meet Rose as well."

Mark only hummed in response. "Well, this is her. Rose Smith, meet my uncle, Arthur Dannings."

Arthur stuck out a hand, but Rose didn't take it. Mark had to nudge her shoulder twice before she seemed to realize, and she awkwardly grabbed for his hand - nearly missing - before shrinking back with a nervous smile.

"I've already informed Rose of my expectations for her," Mark said now, "and tomorrow I'll show her the ranch. I've made a list of chores for the week to get you started, Rose, but it's only simple things—"

"Mark," Arthur chided, and he rolled his dark eyes. "It's late, and I'm sure Rose is tired from her journey. I'm sure this talk can wait until tomorrow morning?"

Perhaps it could, but Mark thought it easier to get all of that out of the way now and be done with it. After all, if they were to be living together then wasn't it best to know what to expect straight away? According to Arthur, maybe not.

"It's lovely to meet you, Rose," Arthur continued, and he gestured to the living room. "Would you like to sit and rest your feet? Our housekeeper, Clementine, is eager to meet you. I'll have her bring tea for us all."

Rose's smile was bashful and sweet, and it made Mark's heart stutter strangely against his ribs. She was beautiful, and yet he couldn't shake the feeling of betrayal somehow. This was going to be more complicated than he thought.

Still, he ushered Rose into the living room and saw that she was comfortable, turning to throw another log into the fire. The living room itself was small and simple, with only a scattering of armchairs facing the fire. The navy blue wallpaper had been popular once, but now it was dated and made the room too dark, even during the afternoon. He could admit that perhaps it needed amending; but having Rose help with such a thing was out of the question. She wouldn't even know what she was decorating.

Rose shifted in her seat, tugging at her sleeve while staring at the fire. For him, such a thing would have made his eyes sting, but Rose wasn't bothered by the brightness at all. "I don't mean to be a bother," she said softly, "I really am more capable than people think."

Mark hovered by the fireplace, letting the warmth seep into his cold bones. "Really?" he asked - and it wasn't supposed to be a challenge, merely an inquiry, but he knew as soon as he saw Rose's expression that it was a mistake to ask.

"I'm not some spoiled child who gets to laze around all day and do as she pleases," Rose muttered, "I do what I can, and I'm a fast learner. I've spent my whole life adapting, and I can do it here just the same."

Mark wasn't entirely sure that he believed her, and that was just the problem.

 

Chapter Three

   Rose

Tense silence surrounded the living room. Rose didn't dare speak, because she didn't even know what to say, and instead took to gazing at the crackling, flickering fire. It was beautiful, the way the soft orange and bright yellow all melted together to create a lovely kaleidoscope of color. She could still vaguely remember what fire was supposed to look like from her younger days, but she rather thought it looked better like this. Even if she couldn't understand the shape or the detail, the colors were transfixing.

Eventually, soft footfalls alerted Rose to the presence of someone new. She recognized Arthur's voice as he introduced a woman named Clementine Brown. "She's our housekeeper," Arthur explained, "she comes twice a week - Mondays and Thursdays, specifically. No doubt you two will be seeing a lot of each other. Er, that is..."

Oh, right. Mark must have informed Arthur at some point of Rose's sight issues. Embarrassment curled in her stomach but she shoved it down. "Delighted to meet you, Miss Brown," she chirped in her attempts to ease the conversation on. "But I have to ask - if you've a housekeeper, then why am I needed for cleaning?"

"Clementine can only do so much two days a week," Mark replied, "and she doesn't cook for us nor do any work outside. She simply keeps on top of routine things."

Well, at least Rose knew that she wouldn't always be alone in this big, old farmhouse. She assumed, of course, that Arthur and Mark both spent long hours on the ranch doing... well, whatever it was that ranchers did during the day. Papa worked long hours himself, and Mama was almost always socializing, so Rose was used to spending time alone when Martha wasn't around, but that didn't mean that she preferred solitude.

There was a rustle and someone - Clementine - sat down on the opposite armchair. All that Rose could make out was the dark grey of her hair, indicating that she was an older woman, maybe fifty or so. What was a woman of her age doing as a housekeeper? Well, considering Rose's own situation, she wasn't one to judge.

"It's a pleasure to meet you, Miss Smith." Clementine's voice was bright and warm, almost motherly. Rose could almost picture the gentle smile that went with it. "We've been looking forward to having you here. I'd like you to meet the other girls too - there are two other cleaning girls who come with me when I visit."

Three housekeepers? Even Mama and Papa hadn't had so many, preferring to keep things simple. Although to be honest, that was mostly because Mama was so fussy with how her house was kept, and she had never found enough staff to quite do the job to her exact liking.

"I'd like to meet them too," she replied eventually, "I'm sure you must have a system in place, and I'd hate to interrupt that by mistake. I'll admit, it might take a while for me to get used to being here."

Clementine's laughter was musical. "I'm sure we'll all get along just fine, miss. Oh, I brought tea for us all - how do you like it?" China clinked as Clementine poured tea, followed by the telltale sound of a teacup filling up.

"Just milk, please," she replied awkwardly. A small part of her enjoyed this, the feeling of being looked after - a larger part of her worried that everyone in this room saw her as incapable. Rose was perfectly capable of pouring her own tea and milk, thank you, she just did it a little differently than most. It was sweet that Clementine was trying, though.

Moments later, Rose was holding a delicate teacup and saucer. The steam rose up and warmed her face, the mild scent of tea soothing her nerves. She had always been a coffee drinker herself, but Mama had always said not to drink it after seven o'clock or she'd be up all night. Besides, she wasn't sure her nerves could take coffee just now anyway.

"I think it will be good to have you here," Arthur spoke as he drank his own tea. While Clementine poured, Rose had learned that he took it with one spoonful of sugar and no milk. Interesting. "I must admit that I worried for Mark, alone here for so long. I can't say my company has done much to improve his mood, either."

Although Rose would never admit so out loud, she had noticed Mark's apparent mood. Having hardly spoken the entire time they'd been together, it was easy to forget that he was even there. Was he always like this, or was it her arrival that had made him fall so silent?

"Arthur," Mark said coolly, "please don't embarrass me in front of Rose. I've done just fine these last years by myself, you know that."

"Perhaps, but I think it will do you good to have the company. You should have married ages ago."

Rose held her tongue. It seemed less and less like Mark actually wanted this, a thought that made her stomach turn. She had dropped everything to come here because she was a burden at home. Was she destined to just become a burden for Mark, instead? Slender hands clenched around her teacup, and she cast her gaze to the floor. If she was lucky, then everyone would think it was because she couldn't see.

By the time the tea was finished, conversation had flourished between Arthur and Clementine. Rose and Mark, however, both kept to themselves. It wasn't until Clementine began stacking teacups that Rose finally looked up, eyes fixed on her general location.

"Come and meet the girls," she insisted brightly, "Alice and May will be delighted to say hello."

"Shouldn't you be getting home?" Mark asked. Rose was learning to differentiate between him and Arthur. Although their voices were similar, Mark had a roughness to him, a slight edge in his voice that set him apart. And perhaps it was only her imagination, but he seemed to have a faint lisp as well.

"Oh, we can spare an extra few minutes," Clementine replied sweetly, "the girls were still finishing up in the kitchen anyway."

Clementine offered Rose an arm that she gratefully took, and together they wandered back into the hall. Unfamiliar buildings were always a strange experience for Rose; there were walls and corners and furniture, all of which posed a threat of bumping into or tripping over. She took each slow step one at a time, feeling with her toes for dips in the floor or things blocking her way. It wasn't easy, but Rose was used to the process.

Eventually, the floor changed from soft carpet to cold wood, and she surmised that this had to be the kitchen. "May, Alice, come and meet Rose."

"Oh!" a new voice exclaimed - a young voice, barely that of a teenage girl. "Mr Dannings' new fiancée?" There was a scuffle of excited feet, followed by an exclamation of delight. "It's so good to meet you, Miss Smith! We've all been excited to meet you."

"We stayed behind just so we could meet you tonight," another voice piped in, "although maybe we should have let you rest. I hear that train journeys are quite exhausting."

She couldn't help but smile. Unseeing eyes flickered about the kitchen, but the two girls stood so close together that Rose couldn't hope to know which was which. They were wearing blue, perhaps some kind of maid uniform, but the rest was lost to her.

"May and Alice are sisters," Clementine explained, "they started working for me last year. As you know we only come twice a week, but if you need anything then please don't hesitate to ask."

Rose could only nod. How could she decline, without sounding rude? To put it as kindly as possible, Rose had lived most of her life learning to do things alone (or as close to as possible), without relying on others. How her parents could both coddle her so and leave her to her own devices, Rose would never understand.

Yet when she didn't reply, Clementine continued, "Mark can be demanding at times, but he has a kind heart. He just doesn't like to show it because... well, he hasn't always been treated the best."

"It's because he looks so scary," one of the girls - May - added. "When I first started working for Mr Dannings, I nearly fainted at the sight of him!"

"May," Clementine snapped, whirling to face her. "Don't go saying things like that. He can't help how he looks, and you're old enough to know it isn't kind to talk about people behind their back."

To her credit, May offered a muffled apology and fell quiet.

It raised questions in Rose's mind, though. Fainting at the sight of somebody seemed like an awful overreaction, especially considering he was their employer. Was he really so awful to look at, or was May simply an overdramatic young woman? She parted her lips to ask, only for embarrassment to sweep over her; it was none of Rose's business, really. So instead of asking, she simply shook her head and lowered her gaze.

It was May who spoke first in the following silence. "Please miss, you mustn't think poorly of me. It's only that Mr Dannings is a strange sort of man and it can be jarring at first. You get used to him quickly though, and he's treated us so very well since we started working here."

Clementine's gentle hand fell on Rose's shoulder. It was a motherly sort of touch, kind and careful, allowing Rose to pull away if she wished. "I'm sure you will fit right in," she spoke softly, "you're all anyone has spoken about in weeks since Mark announced that you were coming here."

Well, that was something. Rose had already decided that she rather liked Clementine, with her soft voice and careful hands. It's just that she wasn't entirely convinced that Mark, the man she was here for, was quite so confident that she belonged here. "Thank you," she said anyway, cheeks flushed with warmth, "I'm sure I will enjoy it here."

"You will," Clementine promised, "now, it's about time that the girls and I left - we've taken up enough of your evening."

Mark was waiting for them in the hall, evidenced by the clunk of his footsteps as he approached. "I'm sure you're tired," he said stiffly, "let me show you the rest of the house, and then your bedroom."

The air filled with soft goodbyes as Clementine and the girls departed. Rose wished they could have chatted longer if only to ask what May meant when she spoke of Mark, but their swift leave was accented by how quickly Mark whisked her upstairs as soon as they were gone.

Stairs were always the most difficult to navigate, and Rose had to carefully lift each foot and feel for the next step. By the time she reached the top, Mark was tapping his foot with impatience. He's not very gentle, is he? she thought with a frown.

"We have three bedrooms," he said, leading her past each door while Rose felt with her hands. "Mine and two spares. One, of course, Arthur is using right now, and one will be yours. We have a study too - you're welcome to use it whenever you need, but the desk is kept locked because I have all of my important documents in there."

Finally, as they reached the end of the hall, Rose's hand touched the last door frame. Her bedroom. It was small, and didn't have much more than a bed and a tall, dented dresser - but she had no use for things like a vanity table or a good view.

"I hope you'll be fine in here?"

Rose let her hands drift across the bed, pausing when she felt her suitcase there. When had that been brought up? "It will do just fine," she replied honestly, "thank you."

Mark nodded, or at least she thought he did from how the hallway light shifted. Then he said "goodnight, Rose. I'll see you tomorrow."

And with that, he was gone, and Rose was alone again.

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