About the book
She was the one to heal his wounded heart…
After years of struggling to make ends meet, Isabelle Logan is about to begin a new life.
Having left the grim city of Grimepass, she moves to Stephill of Wyoming where her brother has successfully built his ranch. Apart from a home there, she finds love in the eyes of her neighbor: a mourning cowboy.
Since the terrible loss of his wife, Harvey Willerson has dedicated his life to the last piece he has of her: their son. Having rejected any possibility of finding love again, he has devoted himself to raising his boy. His affection for Isabelle tears him apart: loving her feels like betraying his deceased wife.
But there are enemies hiding in the shadows of the ranch, ready to wreak havoc. With the clock ticking against them, they must defend their land before they see it burnt to the ground.
And when they finally think they're safe, another deadly threat shatters their peaceful moments. Because danger lurks behind more than one face…
Stephill, Wyoming, 1879
“Breathe, honey,” Harvey Willerson said as he looked down at his very pregnant wife − mostly because he had no idea what else to say. “It’s going to be all right. Just keep breathin’.”
Her face was red and strained, her eyes squeezed shut as the pain tore through her like a bolt of lightning. He clung to her hand, squeezing it as tight as he dared as she threw her head back and cried out, the agony in her voice a searing lance through his heart.
Marla, the midwife, bustled about, giving instructions to his wife to keep breathing and keep pushing. But seeing her in this much pain had him starting to worry that something was wrong.
“I - is this normal?” he finally asked. “Should she be in this much pain?”
Marla gave him a soft smile. “First child?”
A wry grin touched his lips. “That obvious?”
“Child birth is often painful,” she explained. “There is nothing to worry about.”
His wife let out a shriek he was sure they could hear clear across the rapidly growing country and it set his heart thundering in his chest. Marla positioned herself between his wife’s legs and he saw a frown pull her lips downward. Harvey suddenly had the feeling, or maybe a flash of intuition, that something was terribly wrong.
“What is it?” he asked, his voice trembling.
“The child is having difficulty,” she said and then looked up at his wife. “I need you to give me a really good push now. Push hard.”
She gripped his hand tightly, practically squeezing all feeling out of it as she strained so hard he was sure she’d pass out with the effort. Her scream of pain filled the small room, burrowing down hard into his very soul. His wife, the woman he loved, was in agony and there wasn’t a damn thing he could do about it. He had never felt so helpless in all his life.
“I can almost get him out,” Marla called. “One last push now. Make it your biggest yet.”
The scream that erupted from her throat made him cringe and look away. He simply could not bear to see her in such pain. And then everything fell silent. It was as if the world around him had stopped and was holding its breath.
A moment later, the cry of his child filled the room and his heart started to beat again. He opened his eyes and looked over at Marla, who was holding the baby with a wide smile on her face. His vision blurred with tears as he looked at the bundle of absolute perfection in Marla’s hands. He felt a tear of joy roll down his cheek as he turned back to his wife.
And for the second time that day, he felt his heart stop. He knew, the moment his eyes fell upon her that something was wrong. Terribly wrong. Her eyes were glassy, her grip on his hand suddenly weak.
“Wh - what’s happened?” he asked.
Marla’s face blanched and then he saw the pool of scarlet spreading out on the bedspread. Fear surged within him and he trembled, squeezing his wife’s hand as if he could impart his life force into her. As if he could will her to stop bleeding.
Marla shoved the baby, now swaddled in a thin blanket, into his hands. He looked down at the baby − he was so small. So delicate. Every feature on his baby was so fragile and yet so perfect. Tears now streamed down his face − both at the joy of his new child and in anguish and fear for his wife.
“Come on honey,” he said. “You have to see our little angel. You have to see just how beautiful he is.”
Marla worked frantically − he couldn’t guess at what. She talked to his wife throughout, encouraging her to hang in there. To stay with them. To stay with their child. And with every syllable she uttered, his heart sank deeper and deeper into his chest as a cold numbness settled down over him, wrapping him tighter than the child’s swaddling.
Marla was crying, doing everything she could to revive his wife. But he looked down into her wide, unseeing eyes and knew the truth of it. He’d seen the glassy-eyed, vacant stare of death many times before. His wife. His beloved wife and the mother to their beautiful baby boy was gone.
Carrying his baby gently, he turned and walked out of the room. He passed through the house in an utter daze, his mind unreeling images of his life with her. The dark numbness held him tight as he saw her face on the day they were married, as he recalled how radiant she looked. He remembered her voice and how excited she’d been to tell him she was pregnant with the child he now held. And the memory of how she smelled, the sweet and flowery scent of her body and hair as they lay together in bed and talked about their future lingered in his mind.
He stepped out onto the porch and looked at the green, lush world outside and sobbed for his loss. But as the child in his hand gurgled and wriggled, he knew that he had to keep himself together, to lock away his grief, and remember all he had gained as well.
Blessings and curses often walked hand in hand.
Grimepass, Montana, 1880
“Trust me, this will all be for the best,” Mark said.
“Best for who?” Isabelle replied. “Leaving me here alone certainly isn’t the best thing for me.”
A soft smile touched his lips. “You have our family home to live in so you won’t be out on the streets,” he said. “You have a job −”
“If you can call being leered at and fondled by foul, disgusting men all day a job.”
Mark continued undaunted though. “You have some money so you won’t go hungry. Your basic necessities are provided for. You will be fine.”
“Fine. That is such a relative term,” she spat back. “Who will I talk to? Who will listen to my stories about which filthy man I had to stab for putting his hands on my backside? Loneliness may be the death of me.”
He laughed. “I doubt you would actually stab somebody.”
“You never know. I have come close a number of times.”
“And you have plenty of friends who will not only listen to your stories but help you plot your revenge,” he argued. “I doubt that loneliness will be your undoing.”
“Fine. Then boredom will be.”
He sighed and put his hands on Isabelle’s upper arms, squeezing her tight. Her brother looked deeply into her eyes and tried to calm her down, but she was not having it. She knew this day was coming and dreaded every sunset that drew it closer. And now that it was here, she was angry at the passage of time − as well as what he felt was a necessity.
All Isabelle could do was make the one argument she had been making since he first told her of this idea. An argument he shot down every single time. But she thought she would throw it out there one last time to see if she could persuade him.
“We are doing just fine here,” she argued. “As you said, we have a roof over our heads and food in our bellies. What more do we need?”
He sighed and gave her the same patient smile he gave her every time they had this conversation. And it aggravated her no less this time than it did all the others.
“We are scraping by here,” he said. “Don’t you want more out of life? Don’t you want to thrive?”
“Grimepass is played out. There is nothing for us here anymore,” he said. “There are no suitable suitors for you. Our parents are dead. This town is stagnant. I’m going to a place that’s growing. Where the opportunities are plentiful. Think of it − never having to work in a place where disgusting men leer at and fondle you all day. Wouldn’t that alone be worth it?”
She sighed. Frustrated. If she closed her eyes, she could remember what Grimepass used to be. She remembered walking through town with her family, passing through shops that sold fashionable clothing, more books than she could have read in a lifetime, and more kinds of candies than she even knew existed − though her parents had always been conservative in laving sweets upon she and her brother. She remembered spring concerts in the park and community celebrations on the town common.
Isabelle looked out across the landscape of the only town she’d ever known and knew that place was gone forever. The wind kicked up dust devils in the distance. It wound its way around the dry scrubby brush of what had once been lush grazing land with a large lake that had since dried up. The withered, blackened silhouettes of trees of once abundant orchards and farmland dotted the world around them − the trees every bit as dead as the town she clung to.
Isabelle knew the town she clung to was nothing more than a memory anymore. Most of the buildings were weathered, falling apart. A once vibrant community was decaying as more people fled for greener pastures − quite literally. She clung to the memory of the town simply because deep down, she feared letting it go would be the same as giving up the memory of their parents. And Isabelle didn’t know if she was ready for that.
She knew everything her brother had said made sense. But Grimepass, as played out as it was, was the only thing she knew. She’d been born and raised here. For better or worse, this was their home.
But he was right. The town was not growing. New people were not flooding in like they had before. In fact, many were heading west. To seek their fortunes and make a life for themselves. And as the population dried up, so too did the opportunities to advance themselves and as he put it − thrive.
Grimepass was withering on the vine and deep down she knew that unless they did something, they would wither along with it. She didn’t like it, but he was right.
He held her gaze intently. “It won’t be long before I send you word that a better life is waiting for you,” he urged. “It won’t be long before I send for you to come. Trust me.”
It wasn’t a matter of trust. It was a matter of her never being alone and on her own before. She hadn’t been lying when she said she would be lonely and bored. But more than that, she would be afraid. As Grimepass withered, it had allowed some rather unsavory elements to bloom.
He had taught her how to fight and shoot − he’d taught her how to defend and protect herself. But that did not banish the fear completely since she did not know if it came down to it, if she had to use one of the pistols he’d bought for her, that she could actually pull the trigger.
As if sensing her thoughts, he took her hand and gave it a gentle squeeze, a gentle smile touching his lips.
“You’ll be fine. You’re tough, smart, and you don’t take grief from anybody,” he said. “Most of the men in this town know to steer clear of you already.”
She sighed again. Resigned to the fact that this was going to happen whether she liked it or not. She looked up at him, holding his gaze − silently hoping it wouldn’t be for the last time.
“Just be safe,” she said. “And send for me as soon as you can.”
“You can make book on that.”
They embraced tightly and she did her best to hold back the flood of tears that wanted to come pouring down her face. When he finally released her, he gave her a kiss on the forehead before grabbing his things and taking them down to the wagon. He loaded them into the back then climbed onto the seat, and gave her a wave as he picked up the reins.
She watched him leave in a clatter of hooves and a cloud of dust, feeling more alone than she’d ever felt in her life.
Grimepass, Montana, One Year Later
Isabelle − Izzy to her friends − carried a basket of fresh biscuits into the bakery section of Turley’s General, the store where she had been working for the past year. It wasn’t her ideal job, but it was an honest day’s work and in that, she took some small sense of satisfaction.
She laid the biscuits out in the glass case and felt her stomach growl. She was hungry but didn’t feel up to making a full meal when she got home. There was little joy for her in cooking for one. Usually, she subsisted on things that did not require much in the way of preparation.
She eyed the fresh biscuits and decided she would buy a few to pair with the fresh strawberry jam she had in the larder at home. Not the most elegant meal but it would fill the void. She vowed to make herself an actual meal tomorrow.
“You about done for the day, Isabelle?”
Izzy turned to find Mr. Turley standing behind the counter, giving her a smile. He was a kind man about her father’s age − or would be her father’s age, if he were alive. He had wild curls of dark hair on his head, a thick mustache that hid his top lip, and sparkling dark eyes behind his round spectacles. He was only an inch or two taller than her and had plenty of padding around his midsection. Mr. Turley had an infectious laugh, a mind sharper than a straight razor, and Isabelle liked him immensely.
“I am. I was just going to buy up some of these biscuits.”
He frowned at her. “You need to eat better than that, Izzy,” he chided. “You need to take better care of yourself.”
She laughed. “Tomorrow. I’ll make something with vegetables.”
He eyed her for a long moment and then nodded. “See that you do, or I’ll have Jenny bring you something and force feed it to you if she has to.”
Isabelle laughed. His wife Jenny was a fantastic cook and had made plenty of meals for her over the past year. Isabelle was always grateful that Mr. Turley and his wife took such good care of her and wished they would think about moving somewhere they could prosper and thrive.
The sad truth was, if she did not buy those biscuits she had just laid out, most of them would go to waste. With so many families having moved out of Grimepass, there was not much call for fresh baked goods − the drunkards in town certainly did not purchase much.
But the Turleys had both been born and raised in Grimepass and they clung to it tighter than lichen clings to a stone. They kept that small spark of hope that things here will turn around − although the fact that they opted to remain childless spoke to how much hope they actually carried within them. Izzy supposed that was one reason they had embraced her the way they had − they saw her as something of a daughter figure.
Isabelle dropped a few biscuits into a bag and took them around the counter with her where she reached into her bag. Mr. Turley put his hand on hers and shook his head.
“Save it,” he told her. “I’m just glad they won’t all go to waste.”
“No, I insist, Mr. Turley.”
“Nonsense,” he replied. “Put those coins away.”
Isabelle hesitated a moment before giving him a smile and tucking her coin purse back into her bag. She slung it over her shoulder and then Mr. Turley helped her into her cloak.
“It’s getting chilly out there,” he said.
Isabelle smiled and kissed him on the cheek. “Thank you, Mr. Turley. You are the best.”
“Do me a favor and remind Jenny of that?”
“Oh she knows,” Isabelle said with a smile.
She left the shop through the rear door and pulled her cloak tighter about her shoulders as she stepped into the narrow alley that ran between the saloon and the hardware store next door. Isabelle emerged into a day that was indeed growing chilly as Mr. Turley had said. Slate gray clouds covered the sky overhead and a wind that was growing steadily kicked up dust, carrying it down the street.
She stepped from the alley to the wooden walkway that ran along the storefronts on the main road through town. What was left of the storefronts anyway. She passed the empty shell of the building that once housed old man McGrath’s bookstore − a place she’d spent countless happy hours in. She passed the dress shop and the candy store. Those buildings had been cleared out and now served as flop houses for the transients who lived in town or passed through it.
More of the shops in town were boarded up than not and one building at the far end of the street that had burned to the ground remained in charred ruins. It had been left for the wind and elements to dispose of since nobody had thought to build something new on the plot.
Now, only a few legitimate businesses still stood − a restaurant, the general store/post office, a feed store, and a couple of others. By and large anymore, it seemed like the only businesses that thrived in Grimepass were the gambling halls, saloons, a couple of opium dens on the back streets, and other dens of vice.
Her brother Mark had been right about Grimepass being played out. The town wasn’t dying − it was dead. It just didn’t know it yet. It continued limping along, gasping and wheezing like a beast in its death throes. It seemed that every day, the good people of Grimepass left, taking their money and businesses with them, leaving the place more hollowed out and empty.
And since nature abhors a vacuum, with the outflow of good, law abiding people, the inflow of rough, hard, less reputable folk had steadily increased. Isabelle didn’t think it would be long before the town was run by nothing but thieves and murderers.
They practically ran the town as it was already.
She pulled her cloak tighter once more as she started off down the wooden sidewalk, ruminating on the demise and decay of the town she once loved, her mood dark and growing darker by the minute.
Isabelle’s musing was interrupted though, by the insistent voice of Charles calling to her from behind. He was a teenage boy who worked at the general store and had a crush on her. She heard him calling to her from behind and stopped, turning around to let him catch up to her.
“Hello Charles,” she greeted him.
“Uh hi, Miss Isabelle,” he replied, his pale cheeks flaring with color.
She gave him a small smile as he stood before her. He had red hair, brown eyes, and skin the color of fresh snow. Charles was tall and gangly − he was still growing into his body, as well as the hormones currently rampaging through him.
They stood there staring at one another for several long moments as he stared at her like she was a living work of art or something. The attention embarrassed her − she had never thought of herself as beautiful before.
It was easy to brush off the attentions of the cretins who catcalled and tried to grope her on the street. But having a sweet, innocent kid like Charles look at her like she was the most beautiful thing he’d ever seen was flattering in ways she was neither used to, nor comfortable with. But she silently reminded herself once more that Charles was a boy growing into manhood and often saw things through those child’s eyes.
“So, is there a reason you stopped me Charles?” she asked him with a smile. “Or are we simply engaging in a staring contest?”
He grinned sheepishly and looked as if he’d take it as a kindness if the earth swallowed him whole in that moment. He cleared his throat and tried to meet her gaze − and failed, looking away quickly.
“Right. Sorry,” he said and fished an envelope out of his pocket. “You got some mail and I just stopped you so I could give you the mail you got in today…”
As if realizing he was speaking too much, he let his voice trail away, leaving that awkward silence that marked most of their interactions. Isabelle felt a strong flush of excitement though. Her brother had written to her. Maybe this meant −
Could this be it? Could today be the day I’ve been waiting more than a year now for?
She bit back the thought, pushing it down viciously and crushed it beneath her foot. She had allowed herself to hope that it was time, that he was sending for her, with every letter she received from him. And every time, she’d been disappointed. Oh, she enjoyed hearing from her brother. She missed him immensely. But more than anything, she wanted to get the letter telling her it was time to join him.
Charles stood there staring at her while doing his best to make it look as if he wasn’t and the awkward moment between them stretched on. Finally she laughed softly.
“So, are you going to give me the letter, Charles?”
His face flushed a shade of red not found in nature and the poor boy looked as if he wanted to crawl into a hole and die right then and there. He pulled the envelope out of his pocket and handed it over. Their fingers touched briefly and quite by accident as she took the letter from him and he jumped back as if she’d scalded him. He looked at her with eyes filled with the purest emotion she’d ever seen before and it made her flush with embarrassment herself.
“Well,” she said, clearing her throat. “Thank you for chasing me down to give me this letter.”
“I would run to the ends of the earth for you, Miss Isabelle.”
Don’t laugh, Isabelle. You’ll crush his spirit and break his heart in one fell swoop.
The words were out of his mouth before he seemed able to think about them, let alone stop them. And when he realized what he’d said, his eyes grew wider than saucers and a small squeak passed his lips. Before he could actually keel over and die from embarrassment, Charles turned and fled down the street, running as if the Devil himself was on his heels.
Isabelle watched him go and laughed softly to herself. He was a sweet kid, but she didn’t feel worthy of the adulation he heaped on her. She quickly flipped the envelope over in her hand and felt a flutter in her heart upon seeing that it was indeed from her brother.
She resisted the urge to tear it open and read it right there on the spot though. It had become something of a tradition for her when she received a letter from Mark − she denied herself the instant gratification of reading it the moment she got it. Instead, she went home, made herself a cup of tea and read it like a civilized person. Though most days she felt about as far from civilized as a person could be. Her civility seemed to be withering as quickly as the town around her was.
Isabelle tucked the letter into her cloak and headed home to put on a pot of tea. Like a civilized person.
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