About the book
He let her into his heart and she took away the demons of a lifetime…
Desperate to escape her evil father, Amelia Donnel thinks her reply to a Mail-Order Bride ad may hold the key to her salvation. But when she meets the cowboy she’s been corresponding with all this time, she comes face to face with an unpleasant surprise: he seems unable to recognize her.
Living a lonely life on his ranch, Oliver Gyles carries the burden of his deceased father’s darkest secret. With no intention of getting married, he is shocked to see a beautiful lady standing at his doorstep, looking for her fiancé.
What starts as a misunderstanding, blooms into a myriad of emotions they couldn't have foreseen...
But his father’s last wish haunts Oliver and the past comes back to take Amelia away from him. Fighting his demons to save his love while there’s still time, he will soon find out what really happened the night his father died in that fire...
Rattleridge, Montana, 1890
Oliver woke up coughing. White smoke filled the room and flames licked up the walls of the small ranch house. He leaped from his bed and rushed to his father’s room. It was empty. Where is he? Why didn’t he wake me up?
“Pop!” He yelled amidst the sound of crackling flames and burning wood. “Pop!”
There was no answer.
Oliver rushed back into the living room and stood in horror as flames entirely engulfed the ceiling. Every wall was burning. The remnants of his father’s hunting trips were now smoldering and impossible to recognize. The moose head was just a burning black protrusion from the wall, the bear’s head had fallen to the floor, its snout barely visible amidst the flames. The smoke was suffocating and he coughed loudly as he tried to find his way through the black clouds and orange flames.
“Pop!” he called again. Still, there was no response. His heart beat harder. I have to find him. Why is no one answering me?
“Melvin!” he called, hoping his voice would reach the ranch hand who slept in the barn. There was only silence
Oliver ran for the door as the ceiling beams cracked loudly. Embers rained down and he shielded his head beneath his arm. He yanked on the door and tumbled out of it, looking up in shock at the dark sky and the glowing flames. None of this seemed real. It was as if he was walking in a nightmare and trying to find his way out of it.
A dark figure came out of the barn. “Pop?” Oliver rushed toward the figure.
Melvin coughed loudly, “It’s just me.” He was tall and lank, in the firelight, yellow crowned his head.
Oliver was frantic. His father was the only family he had left. “Where’s my father? Where is he?” His heart was beating so loudly he could barely hear his own voice.
“I don’t know.” Melvin shook his head fiercely. “I was sleepin’ when the heat woke me. I just got myself outta there. I haven’t seen him.”
“Pop!” Oliver called with renewed vigor. He started running toward the barn, “Pop!”
“I’ll check the house,” Melvin called after him.
The barn was burning, but Oliver braved the flames as he rushed in through the open doors. Smoke immediately filled his lungs and he began to sputter as he called out to his father. Every stall was empty. Fortunately, the horses had been pastured for the evening, but for now, all he wanted was to see his father safe and sound.
“I can’t find him anywhere,” Melvin declared when they once again met outside the house. Oliver’s eyes turned to the building that was once their home. He swallowed hard. His father was in there, he knew it. He didn’t know how, but he was sure of it.
Oliver ran for the front door but found his efforts thwarted by Melvin’s strong hands. “Stop! You’ll get yourself killed!”
“I have to find him!” The young man yelled back as he extricated himself from the other man’s hands. Melvin didn’t understand. Oliver ran straightaway into the house. Pop must be hurt, badly enough that he could not speak or else he would have said something, called out to one of us by now. Pop needed him, and Oliver would not leave him.
Beams lay across his path as Oliver returned inside the burning house. He could no longer tell wall from flame and the smoke was so thick his lungs felt as if they were burning. He rushed to-and-fro amidst the falling debris, shielding his head with his arms as best he could. He patted out flames as they caught his pants, burning his hands.
Oliver stared at the kitchen door. It was surrounded by flames. He steeled himself, picked up his leg and kicked it as hard as he could. Instantly, the weakened wood gave way as flames leapt in every direction. He could feel the heat against his leg, but he had no time to think of it. His father’s body was half-hidden behind the stove.
Oliver could scarcely think. His hands moved of their own will as he attempted to stamp out the flames that covered his father’s body, his own hands feeling the sting of the fire.
“Wake up, Pop!” He yelled as he tugged on his father’s charred garments. He moaned slightly at Oliver’s attempts to rouse him but did not stir.
Guthrie Gyles was a large man, almost twice his son’s size, but there was nothing in the world that would stop Oliver. He bent his knees, grabbed hold of his father’s limp body and hoisted him over his shoulder. Every muscle ached and his leg wobbled under the strain of his weight. A rain of flames fell upon them as they crossed the living room. The brave young man yelled out in pain as he felt his skin burn, but he did not stop. He could not stop. His father needed help and there was no one else. He made it to the door and finally fell under his father’s weight.
Oliver heard the sickening crack of the roof giving way as Melvin rushed to their aid. They dragged the large man’s body from the burning building. Oliver was in tremendous pain. His arm was an angry red, the skin melted through at some points, with dark charring in others. He paid no heed to it. His father was in much worse condition.
“Pop?” The same burns that marred his arm covered his father’s body. His clothes were stuck to his skin, and some of his hair was gone, lost to the flames.
“Pop?” he called again. His father groaned.
“You got to wake up, Guthrie!” Melvin looked out at the perimeter of the property and leaned in close to the burned men. “I got a bad feelin’. Somethin’ ain’t right about this.”
Guthrie’s son looked around him. He understood his friend. Now that the threat of losing his father had passed, he was wondering how the fire had started at all. They were very careful. How had his father wound up in such a state on the kitchen floor that he could not escape the flames? His gaze met Melvin’s.
“Someone did this,” he stated. His brow furrowed. “But who?”
Melvin shook his head. His father groaned.
“Pop?” he called again as he focused on him. His father continued to moan in pain, but slowly, his eyes opened and he looked at him. Oliver felt relief fill him. “That’s it, Pop, open your eyes. I’m here. Melvin’s here. Everything’s gonna be all right,” he assured his father.
His father raised a shaky hand and grabbed his arm. He tried to speak but faltered.
“Don’t talk, Pop. We’re gonna get you out of here. Get the doc to look after you.” He searched the night. The horses were out in the pasture, if the fire hadn’t spooked them. It would take him more than half an hour to retrieve them, and even then there were no saddles. It was going to be difficult to get his father on a horse in his state, but he had to try.
“Melvin, keep an eye on Pop. I’m gonna try to get the horses,” he stated. Melvin nodded his agreement, and Oliver started to stand, but his father stopped him.
“Son,” he said in a breath so low that Oliver could hardly hear it.
“What is it Pop? I won’t be long. I need to get the horses so we can get into town. You need help.”
“There ain’t no help for me,” his father whispered as he continued to grip his arm. “This is my last rodeo,” he continued. He grimaced in pain.
Oliver wanted to help him. He had to. He was the only family he had.
“Don’t talk like that,” he urged. “You’ll be just fine once the doc takes a look at you.”
“No, I won’t,” his father continued. “Before I die, I need you to know the truth. I need you to know why this happened.”
Oliver’s brow knitted. “What’re you talking about? Know what?”
His father’s eyes turned to Melvin momentarily. What did the other man know that he did not? He stared at them both as he waited for an explanation.
“My past,” his father answered. He coughed hard and groaned in pain.
“Your past? What’re you talking about?”
He could think of no one who would want to harm his father or them. They lived a quiet life since his mother’s death and had done everything to make the small ranch what it was together. It was all they had, their great dream, and they had worked tirelessly to make it come true. Why would anyone want to do this to them?
“My life wasn’t what I told you,” his father answered. “I wasn’t the man I led you to believe. I did my best to be a better man for your mother,” he stated. “But it doesn’t erase the man I was before her…and after her.”
Oliver was confused. What was his father saying? What did he mean that he tried to be a better man? What had he done? What was he hiding?
His father sucked in a ragged breath. “I have done some terrible things in my life, son. Horrible things. Things I will forever regret. Now, they’ve caught up to me…to us.”
He raised his eyes to Melvin, but the older man refused to look at him. It was clear to Oliver that he knew all of this, but like his father, had kept it a secret from him all of this time.
“It doesn’t matter, Pop. None of it matters,” he insisted.
“It does,” his father countered. “It won’t end here,” he continued.
His jaw clenched in anger. “Don’t try to talk any more. You have to be all right,” he continued despite his anger. “You have to make it through this.”
His father shook his head lightly. “No, son. You need to hear the truth. You need to know. It’s time I told you my secrets, but first, I need you to promise me that you will not repeat my mistakes. That you will stay out of the trouble I always found myself in.”
“Promise me,” his father demanded. “You must do it. I promised your mother I’d take care of you. I tried, but after today, I don’t think I’ll be around to guide you anymore. I need to know that you’ll be all right.”
“I’ll look after him,” Melvin interjected. “You just keep still now. You need to rest. Mind your strength.”
His father closed his eyes, his breath shallow. He was getting weaker by the second. Oliver could see it. His father was dying. He would not prolong his agony, or allow him to pass with whatever it was that was burdening him. Oliver’s hand trembled as he closed it into a fist. “I promise, Pop.”
His father’s eyes opened slowly, but not entirely. He looked at him and smiled weakly. “Then it’s time you knew the truth.”
Thinvale, Idaho, 1893
Life was never easy for Amelia Donnel. She could remember no time in her life when things went well, when her father showed her love or affection. He never spoke a kind word to her from the day she born. No matter what she did, it was never good enough for him. She could never find favor in his sight.
She knelt beside her bed and looked at the empty jar, which once held several months of savings. Amelia had worked tirelessly as a maid for the mayor and as a barmaid in the local saloon to save that money. She hoped to use it to make a better life for herself.
Tears stung her eyes but anger kept them from falling. She clenched her fist tightly. She thought she had hid it so well, but it was clear that she had not hidden it well enough. There was only one person who could have taken it.
Amelia got to her feet, with the jar in hand, and rushed from her bedroom. He wasn’t going to get away with this. She wouldn’t let him. He was always taking, but not this. She wouldn’t allow him to take this.
“What have you done with the money?” she demanded the moment she stepped into the living room. The Donnel house was small, even for their town. There was one room, which served as their living room, dining room, and kitchen. To the right were two small bedrooms, each barely able to hold a bed far less any other furniture. The first belonged to her father, and the second was Amelia’s.
Her father sat in the corner, his legs spread wide, a bottle of whiskey dangling from his fingers as it hung between them. He didn’t look around at her entrance.
“Father?” Amelia yelled. Her breath was rapid and her pulse beat so loudly that it was a constant din in her ears. How could he do this? Why did he do this?
He glanced at her with dark eyes. “What are you going on about?” he drawled. He brought the bottle to his lips and took a long drink. “What money?”
“You know what money!” Amelia challenged. She couldn’t believe he could be so callous about it. “Do you know how hard I worked to earn that money?” She inhaled a deep breath. “What did you do with it?”
Her father took another long drink. He smirked as a dribble ran down his chin. “What does it matter to you what I do with my money?”
Amelia’s eyes grew large at his statement. “Your money?”
“Yes, my money,” her father continued. “Anything in this house belongs to me.”
“No one would ever believe it since you don’t do anything around here,” she retorted. “And that wasn’t your money, it was mine. Now, what did you do with it?” She stalked toward him and held out her hand. “I want it back.”
The smack filled her ears moments later as her father slapped her hand away from him. Amelia clutched her throbbing hand with the other as she glared at him.
“There’s nothing to give you,” he said with a smirk. He laughed at her and took another drink.
“All of it? How could you spend it? It was there yesterday. How could you spend sixty dollars in a day?” she asked incredulously. “I worked so hard to earn that money. It can’t all be gone,” Amelia argued in disbelief.
Her father put the bottle of whiskey to his head and ignored her once more. “My house. My money. I don’t have to answer to a wench like you.”
Amelia’s brown eyes glared at her father with anger, hatred, but mostly disappointment. No matter how many times she wanted to believe things could change, it was always the same.
“You’re incredible. You call it your money? When was the last time you held down a job to earn money?” she yelled. “I do everything around here and you just sit there and drink yourself silly every day. Look at this ranch. It would fall apart around you if it weren’t for me. I do everything, plus I work in town.”
Her father glared at her. “And who made you Miss High and Mighty to preach at me?” he lunged to his feet and stumbled in the process. It was the middle of the day and already he was drunk. “This is my house. If you don’t like it, you can get out of here!”
“Maybe I will!” Amelia yelled back at him. “We’d see what would become of you then.”
“My life would be a million times better with you out of it!” her father retorted. “Lord knows why He ever gave you to me. You were bad from the start. You killed your mother! Anything that kills its own mother shouldn’t be allowed to live.”
His words cut her deeply, though they weren’t the first time Amelia had heard them. Her father blamed her for her mother’s death. Her mother, Nora, died bringing her into the world. Her father had blamed her for that her entire life. Amelia often wondered why he kept her at all when he felt that way toward her, but he had. Sometimes, she thought it was to torture her, and make her pay for the crime he believed she’d committed.
Her lips trembled as she fought the urge to respond. She knew it was pointless. The argument would only continue endlessly and she had no time for it, nor the heart. She needed to get to town and the mayor’s house. She had some laundry to do for him that day before she came home to work the land.
Amelia tossed the glass jar in the fireplace and heard it shatter against the stone hearth as she walked away. Her father’s laughter followed her.
“That made sense,” he laughed. Amelia didn’t turn around.
The mayor wasn’t at home when Amelia arrived. She was thankful for that. The last thing she needed was to be scolded for her lateness.
“Good morning, Mrs. Hill,” she said as she nodded at the housekeeper. The mayor had the largest house in the entire town. It was two stories, made of the best wood money could buy, painted in blue with white trim. It had servants’ quarters, a large kitchen, a parlor, living room, dining room, a music room and three bedrooms for the mayor, his wife and his two children, Penelope and Linda. It was also the only house in town with a laundry room and indoor plumbing. It was the kind of house Amelia could only ever dream about.
The older woman frowned at her. “You are late, Miss Donnel,” she commented. “Would you like me to give this work to someone else?” she continued. “I am sure there are other women who would appreciate their employ.”
Amelia lowered her eyes. “No, Mrs. Hill. It won’t happen again.”
“It better not,” she replied before she turned and left Amelia to go about her work.
Amelia passed through the hall, and would not have stopped if it something had not caught her eye. It was a face, one unlike any other she had ever seen before. Amelia stopped to look at it.
He was handsome. His jaw was square and strong, his lips thin and his eyes large. She could not tell the color. His cheekbones were high and his nose straight, but it was the mop of curly hair on his head, and the bright smile on his face, that made her pause to appreciate his appearance.
Amelia had no formal education. Her father did not think it necessary for her to read and write when he could not, so he never sent her to school. Fortunately, the schoolteacher, Mrs. Puck, did not allow her father’s boorish opinions to stop her from teaching Amelia when she visited her house to clean her floors. That was why she could read the ad that lay beneath the photograph now. She read it aloud.
“Strong, hardworking, kind, and lonesome man, seeks a bride. Candidates should be between the ages of eighteen and twenty-six, unafraid to work, evenly tempered, attractive, and willing to travel. Oliver Gyles, Rattleridge, Montana.”
Her brown eyes looked at the blurry photograph once more. If he was so handsome in such a poor photograph, how much more would he be in person?
“What are you doing?” Mrs. Hill’s voice interrupted her thoughts.
“Nothing, Mrs. Hill,” she answered.
The older woman walked toward her and peered at the photograph. Her eyes glanced back at Amelia. She chuckled. “Were you looking at this?”
“Yes, Ma’am,” she replied.
“Do you know what it says?” she teased. “Of course not,” she added quickly. “A washerwoman who can read? How absurd.”
Amelia kept silent. Mrs. Hill was a nasty woman who thought herself superior to every other person in town because she was the mayor’s housekeeper. “I’ll go about my work now,” Amelia answered emotionlessly.
Amelia walked away from the woman and did her best to remain calm as she walked to the laundry room. There, she found Millicent Roach already at work. The young woman was twenty-four, two years older than Amelia, but she was already married with three children all under the age of five.
“I was wonderin’ what happened to you today,” Millicent stated.
Amelia smiled meekly. “One of those days,” she replied as she tied her apron around her waist. She looked at the large piles of linens to be cleaned and pressed. She took a deep breath and got to work.
She filled the basin with water and soap flakes and began to wash the bed linens.
Amelia’s mind kept thinking of the photograph she’d seen. A small smile spread across her face as she remembered the image.
“What’re you smilin’ at?” Millicent asked.
Amelia turned to look at the other woman. “You’ll think I’m silly,” she replied.
“No, I won’t,” Millicent insisted. “Tell me. Anythin’ that can make you smile like that is worth knowin’.”
“I saw a photograph of the most handsome man I’ve ever seen,” Amelia admitted as she stopped her work to look at her friend. “I can’t stop thinking about it.”
“Where did you see this?”
“Upstairs. It was in the newspaper,” she explained.
Millicent looked at her curiously. “In the newspaper? What was it doing there?”
“It was the photograph of a man who was looking for a wife,” she answered.
“A mail-order bride ad?” Millicent questioned. “You were lookin’ at one of those? I didn’t think you were the type to be interested in such a thing.”
Amelia frowned slightly. “Why not? Don’t you think I want to be married one day? Have children?”
“It’s not that, it's just you can’t be sure with those things,” Millicent explained. She stopped her ironing and wiped her brow with the back of her hand. She was a plump woman, with a large grin and an equally large gap between her front teeth.
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, you might end up with someone who’s just like your father,” Millicent answered. “You need to be very careful. Anyone can say something in a letter. It doesn’t make it true.”
Amelia considered her friend’s remark. She was right. Just because Oliver Gyles was handsome, didn’t make him have a good heart. Only time and acquaintance could reveal such things.
Millicent smiled. “What’s his name?”
Amelia laughed. “Oliver. Oliver Gyles.”
Their day continued as usual after that. They talked some of the ad but that was soon set aside when Mrs. Hill came to inform them that the mayor was expecting guests and more clean linens were required. They would have more work before the day was through.
That evening she found herself thinking of Oliver Gyles once more. A mail-order bride. She never thought about such a course in her life, but Amelia could not deny its appeal. A young, handsome man who might want her for a wife, a new life in a new state, and a chance for a happy home. It was more than she had ever hoped for in her life. Still, Millicent did have a valid point and one that gave Amelia pause in her consideration of the ad. The last thing she wanted was to replace one tyrant with another.
She was tired as she stepped onto the small porch. It was too late to work the land, and she was sure the thought of doing so had yet to cross her father’s mind. She did have to tend to the cows and the animals before going to bed. Her day was far from over.
Amelia milked the cows and the goats. She fed the animals and collected the eggs before entering the house. She walked in to find her father where she left him, though a little worse for wear. He opened his eyes as she walked into the room.
“What are you doing here?” he slurred.
“I live here,” Amelia replied, as she walked across the room and set the basket of eggs on the small table near the stove.
Her father stumbled to his feet behind her. “I mean, why did you come back?”
She looked at him in confusion. “I live here,” she replied. “Where else would I be?”
“Anywhere else but here,” her father answered as his voice began to rise. “I thought you’d finally left. That I was finally rid of you.” He staggered toward her. “Why can’t I get rid of you?” he yelled. He turned and staggered back to his chair, grumbling with every step.
Amelia watched him go and for the first time in her life, his action toward her did not yield the usual sense of hurt and disappointment. On the contrary, this time, she felt resolve course through her veins. If he wanted her gone, then she would see to it that he got his wish.
She put the eggs and milk away before she strode to her bedroom and closed the door. Her father remained, muttering in his seat, as she passed him. She was too tired to argue with him further or to prepare a meal at that time of night. It would not be the first time they went to bed hungry. Amelia was the sole, functional person in the household. Everything should not be left up to her, but it was, and sometimes she simply did not have the energy to carry on.
It will not be the last time I go to bed hungry.
Amelia held her stomach as she sat on the edge of her bed. She allowed herself to fall back against the sheets as she rubbed her hand at her stomach’s complaints. She stared up at the ceiling and imagined the face of a man she had never met before. Surely, Oliver Gyles could be no worse than her father? A man, who looked as he did, and asked for a wife as he had, could not be so. There was only one way to find out. She would have to write to him.
She bit her lip at the thought. How would she go about this? She would not want anyone to know her plans, not even Millicent. Whatever she did, it had to be done in secret. Amelia began to formulate a plan to get the information from the newspaper and writing implements.
Mrs. Puck. She would have what I need, and my visiting her would be nothing to question. She would also keep my secret as she did before.
A smile spread across Amelia’s delicate features as she rolled onto her side and pulled her knees up onto the bed. Tomorrow, she would find the newspaper and write to him. She was sure he couldn’t be worse than her father, and it was a chance for her to see someplace new. Somewhere far better than where she was.
Somewhere I can be happy.
Amelia lay on her bed, excitement causing her heart to dance an elated beat as she prepared to go about her household chores. The days were much brighter now, and her happiness spilled into everything she did. She rose with a bound and cheerfully set about her day.
“Your eggs and bacon,” she stated as she set the food before her father. She set the plate of flapjacks on the table with the butter and maple syrup. She brought over the pot of coffee and poured it for him. Her father didn’t like milk and sugar, but she put them on the table for herself before taking her seat.
Her father eyed her suspiciously. “What are you so happy about?” he questioned as he stabbed his fork into the stack of flapjacks and pulled out two in one go.
“Nothing,” she replied with a smile. “Can’t a person just be happy?”
“Not without cause,” her father countered. “And you’ve been smiling like a Cheshire cat the past few weeks.”
Amelia smiled brighter. It pleased her that her happiness seemed to annoy her father more than her unhappiness. “I’m surprised you noticed,” she commented. She folded her hands and gave thanks for the meal before pouring herself a cup of coffee.
“Don’t take it to mean that I care, because I don’t. You were just so annoying running around here like you came into some inheritance,” he commented with annoyance.
“Don’t worry Father, if I did, I’d be sure not to keep the money anywhere you could find it,” she answered smugly.
Her father launched a scathing gaze in her direction, but she ignored him. She had much better things to consider, such as the letter hidden away in the pocket of her skirt.
The day passed quickly with that thought in mind. Amelia stayed on the ranch doing what needed to be done. Her father went into town to the saloon to gamble and drink as usual. She didn’t mind, she was thankful for the quiet and the privacy. It did not even bother her that he was spending money they could not afford to lose, she was far too happy to consider it.
She plowed the field early. It took hours and her hands were red and sore by the time she was through, but she was contented when it was done. They had one plow horse and a single blade plow that she walked with to guide it and ensure the rows were straight. She set to work sowing the seeds for the corn immediately after, which took far longer. They had to be planted a few inches apart or the quality of the yield could be compromised come harvest time. It was backbreaking work but she did it without complaint.
That evening she made dinner of day-old roast beef, that she received from the mayor in appreciation for the hard work she and Millicent had done to help prepare his house for his special guests over the past months. It seemed their dear mayor wanted to pursue a place in higher office, that of governor. All of the staff received such a reward for making his efforts so successful.
Amelia ate alone. Her father remained in town. She did not want to think of the condition he would be in when whoever took pity on him brought him home. She didn’t care, either.
Once the house was in order, and there was nothing left for her to do, Amelia washed, shut herself up in her room, and finally opened her letter. It was her joy at the end of a long day and she used it as a way to motivate herself to get through it.
She sat up in her bed and opened the note. Months had passed since she started corresponding with Oliver Gyles. She had pursued her plan, gotten his information, and written to him only days after seeing the advertisement. Five months had passed since that time, and she found herself more and more enamored of the man. She smiled as she began to read to herself.
My dearest Amelia. I write to you as I watch the sun setting over my ranch. I wish you could see it with me. The clouds are streaking across the sky, white set against blue and purple in the east. The sky looks like it’s on fire in the west as the sun sets beneath the mountains. It looks like someone painted it with a line of blue, then purple, then rising up to orange and yellow. The mountains look as if they could touch it. Do you like sunsets? I don’t think I’ve asked you that before. There is so much I don’t know about you. So much I want to know.
Her heart fluttered at the words. Amelia cherished every letter she received from Oliver. Sometimes, she read them ten times over just to convince herself of what she had read the first time. It seemed like a dream to have someone care so much about her, and be so interested in the things that interested her.
I want to know more about you, Oliver.
She continued reading. I’m sorry you have to work so hard. It isn’t fair what your father does to you. A man should take care of his family. It’s his responsibility.
Amelia’s forehead wrinkled slightly. Since she and Oliver had grown closer, she had revealed a lot about her life, including her situation with her father. Oliver always had something comforting to say, yet there was something that troubled her.
Despite the length of time that they had corresponded, she still felt as if there was a lot she did not know about Oliver. He rarely shared anything about himself the way she did. She knew nothing of his past, except that he lived in Rattleridge his entire life. He was the sole owner of a property there, but she knew nothing about his past or his people. Amelia had asked, but he seemed to be avoiding those questions each time. She believed there might be some pain associated with that, so she stopped asking. She knew what it was to want to keep certain things private. She could understand why Oliver would want to keep some things a mystery. It only seemed to add to his allure.
I try to imagine what you look like. Each time I come up with something different, she continued to read. It’s a shame that you don’t have any photographs, but I understand why that isn’t possible.
Amelia sighed. She would have loved to send him a picture. He had sent one to her after they started writing to one another. She looked at it every day. She kept it hidden behind a loose board in the hayloft of the barn. Her father never did anything that could resemble work so it was safe there. He had no reason to go into the barn at all except to get a saddle, and even in that, he would leave the responsibility to her. It was a much better hiding place than her room.
What does your laugh sound like?
The question made Amelia smile. How could she describe her laugh to him? He often asked questions that provoked her to think. Oliver liked her to describe herself, the things she liked, her dreams. Since becoming acquainted with him, she had discovered there was so much more she wanted in life, more than she had ever considered before. He made her turn her dreams from ideas in her head to words on paper. Once written down, they seemed even more real and possible.
I want to see you, she continued to read the letter. My imagination is not enough. I know you are even more beautiful than I can fathom. I know that might seem silly to you, but I know, from what you’ve written to me, that you have the kindest heart of any person I’ve ever met. Even with your father. He treats you poorly, but you still love him and try to do what’s right by him. Not many could do that. That alone makes you a beautiful woman.
Amelia thought of her conduct with her father. She wished she was as good as Oliver thought her to be, but she wasn’t always that way. Sometimes her father’s treatment got the better of her and she lashed out. She always regretted it after, but the man had a way of provoking her. She loved him. She always had loved him. He just didn’t love her back and no matter how hard she tried, it didn’t seem that he ever would.
That night, Amelia fell into a peaceful sleep, the thoughts of Oliver and his kind words repeating in her mind. She also thought of the letter she wanted to write back to him. She would visit Mrs. Puck the next day and put it on paper.
Amelia twisted her golden hair into a tight bun at the base of her neck. She wore a smile on her slender face as she looked into the small piece of mirror nailed to her wall. There once had been a proper mirror, but her father had broken it in a fit of rage years ago and it had yet to be replaced.
Her brown eyes seemed bright as she checked her appearance. Amelia was not a tall woman, in fact, she was rather short at just over five feet tall. She was slender, but well-shaped, with delicate curves.
She walked out of her room and out the front door. She pulled on her leather gloves as she stepped down from the porch and walked toward the barn. She was wearing a simple white blouse and long brown trousers that she’d sown herself, after getting a pattern from the local seamstress. It was a style growing in popularity, and which made work around the ranch a lot easier.
“Where do you think you’re goin’?” her father questioned as he stepped out the door behind her. He remained on the porch as Amelia turned to answer him.
“I’m going into town,” she replied with a smile. “Do you need anything?”
He squinted in her direction. “You’ve been goin’ into town a lot lately. What’re you up to?”
“Nothing,” Amelia replied as she turned with a smile.
“I know you’re up to somethin’!” her father bellowed after her. “You best not bring shame to my house or my name!” he continued to yell at her. “A woman whose actin’ like you are has to be up to no good. You mark my words, girl! You better not shame me!”
She refused to turn around or to answer her father, despite his provocation. She didn’t care what he thought of her or what he said. The only words she cared about were Oliver’s.
Amelia swung her leg over the back of her white stallion and walked him out of the barn. Her father was still on the porch when she passed by. He glared at her and then spit in her direction. “You look like a tart with your hair done up like that.”
An urge to respond rose up in her chest, but Amelia beat it back. She would not allow her father to spoil her mood. “I left breakfast in the oven for you. You can eat it if you like or throw it out if you don’t want it. It doesn’t really matter. I’ll be in town all day so you’ll have to manage on your own for lunch and maybe for dinner, as well.”
He shook his head at her. “And where in town might you be, and what might you be doin’? It ain’t your day to work at the mayor’s house.”
She smiled. “Goodbye, Father.”
Amelia kicked her heels into the horse’s sides and immediately the strong beast took off at a run. She leaned forward against the wind and kept her eyes on the sky ahead of her. She could hear her father’s angry yells behind her but she could not decipher them. All she wanted to hear were the words that repeated in her head, the things she wanted to tell Oliver Gyles.
She arrived at Mrs. Puck’s house less than an hour later. She tied her horse to the tree outside the one-story house and walked briskly to the door. She knocked twice and a few minutes later was still standing there. She was about to leave, thinking Mrs. Puck had left home, when the lady answered the door.
Her former teacher welcomed her with a smile, a hug and an apology for making her wait so long. Her once dark hair was now completely grey, but that was a process that had started early in Mrs. Puck’s life. She had a head of salt and pepper by the time she was forty, and now at fifty, it was silver.
“Amelia,” Mrs. Puck said as she embraced her. “You’re here earlier than I thought. I was just finishing up some things when I heard you know. I’m sorry to keep you waiting.”
“I’m sorry I interrupted. I can come back later if you’d like. You know what? I better come tomorrow. I’m very sorry for troubling you all the time. I sort of took it for granted that you’d always be available.” Amelia continued to apologize as she turned toward her horse.
“Don’t be silly. Come on in. I have everything ready for you.” Mrs. Puck took her by then shoulders and promptly turned her about.
Amelia walked into the house. Mrs. Puck had always lived alone. Her husband died before she came to Thinvale and she had never remarried. Her home was nicely decorated with ornaments that couldn’t be found in town. Mrs. Puck was a woman from the east who had come to Idaho to teach. Amelia used to listen to her stories of New York and Chicago, and dream about the places the other woman had seen.
The writing desk was set beside a window that looked out onto the mountains. It was made of mahogany and was highly polished. Mrs. Puck took great care with her things. The paper and ink were already laid out for her. The fountain pen was in the drawer.
“I’ll go fix us some tea. I made some scones yesterday. I can bring you some,” Mrs. Puck suggested.
“Thank you,” Amelia said with a smile as she sat at the desk. “I’d like that.”
She retrieved the pen from its place and set about writing.
My dearest Oliver,
I was so pleased to read your letter. I fell asleep thinking of what I would write to you today. Now, it seems that there is too much to put on paper.
I wish I could see the sunset you described. I don’t get to enjoy it here. I’m always at work and there is always something to do. I don’t get to take pleasure in many things. I’m glad you do.
I can’t describe my laugh to you. I tried to think of the words but they just didn’t seem right. I suppose it’s because I don’t hear my own laughter very often. I have few things to laugh about, but since meeting you, I do have more to be happy about.
Oliver, is this real? We write each other all the time, and I feel as if you really know me, but I’m not sure how much I know about you. Your words have birthed a delight in me that I never imagined I might enjoy, but there is still so much I feel I don’t know. Who are your people? What was your mother’s name? You avoid the questions. Why? Is it something painful? Am I wrong to be asking you these questions? I hope you will be honest with me and tell me if I am. I know what it is to have subjects you would much rather forget, and if these are some of them, then I won’t press you. I do hope though, that you might one day tell me all about it.
I think about you so much. You are the single joy I have in each day. I try to imagine what your voice sounds like when I read your letters aloud. I try to make it as if you were talking to me. I long to have a real conversation with you. I long to meet you in person and see if you are everything I imagine. I hope you wouldn’t be disappointed with who you find.
She traced her fingers over the letter when it was finished, and folded it. She tucked it into an envelope. She would mail it that day before she went to the saloon. Mrs. Puck sat nearby enjoying her tea. She hadn’t disturbed her when she returned, but now that Amelia was finished her letter, she spoke.
“Come, sit by me,” she instructed as she patted the seat beside her. “Tell me more about your Mr. Gyles.”
Amelia smiled. Mrs. Puck was in every way the mother she never had. She walked over, sat beside her, and began to read Oliver’s letter to her. Mrs. Puck looked at her with a smile as she read.
“He sounds like a fine young man,” she stated when Amelia finished reading. She touched her cheek lightly. “I hope he is all he appears to be in his letters and more. You deserve it.”
Amelia didn’t comment. She smiled and rested her head on Mrs. Puck’s shoulder as the woman squeezed her hand gently. “Things are turning around for you, Amelia Donnel. I know it.”
Thinvale never looked as good as it did that day. Amelia walked down the dusty street with a bright smile on her face. There wasn’t much to the town. There was the station, where telegraphs were received and where the coaches came in to pick up and deliver passengers. They were too small a place for a train, so those who wished to come to their town were forced to ride half a day by coach from the nearest train station in Colverton.
The rest of the town was made up of the sheriff’s station, the boarding house, the saloon, the blacksmith’s, a few homes and the mayor’s office. The church marked the entrance of the town to the north. McClintock’s, the general store where everyone came to get their food, clothing material, or sell their goods, was to the south. It was a one-stop-shop for everything and because of it, the McClintocks were the wealthiest people in town. Amelia did laundry for them, as well.
Amelia’s enthusiasm that day was sparked from Oliver’s last letter. Yes, it was some time since she last heard from him, but the memories of what he shared were enough to lift her spirits. She was sure she’d hear from him soon.
There is no woman I think more highly of. You are a treasure, Amelia Donnel, one that any man would be happy to call his wife. In fact, men would call him lucky to have you.
She felt her cheeks grow warm at Oliver’s sentiments. Could it be that he truly was considering her for his bride? She did not fool herself to think that she was the only one he might be writing to. He wanted a wife, he had to be sure that he was getting the right woman. That meant comparing sometimes. Still, she hoped that she was the only one that he was still corresponding with after all these months. That she was the one he thought was truly special—the one for him.
Her hair was laced in a tight braid with a red ribbon on the end. She felt like dressing special today, so she was wearing her dark red skirt with her white blouse. She didn’t have work in town today but had promised Mrs. Puck to get her telegrams from the station for her before she went to the saloon to work that evening.
“Good day, Mr. Van Dyke,” she said as she greeted the stationmaster. He was standing behind the counter with a letter in his hand. He wore a newsboy cap to hide the bald patch on the top of his head. His hair was otherwise thick and was black just like his beard and moustache.
“Good day, Miss Amelia. What brings you in today?” he questioned as he lobbed a smile in her direction and set aside his letter.
“I came to collect Mrs. Pucks’ telegrams. She told me she was expecting some news today,” she informed him as she smiled back at him.
Mr. Van Dyke adjusted his spectacles on his nose and looked over at the message board. He scanned the notes with a thin finger before plucking three thin strips of paper from one of the pins. “Here you go,” he said as he handed them to her. Mr. Van Dyke didn’t like waste and refused to use up half a sheet of paper for one message.
“Thank you,” Amelia replied as she took them. She stuffed the small notes into her pocket and turned to leave. “Have a nice day!”
“Wait,” Mr. Van Dyke called after her. “There’s one here for you as well.”
Amelia paused. A telegraph for her? She wasn’t expecting any. She looked at him for several seconds before walking back to the desk. “For me? Are you sure?”
The older man nodded. “Yes, right here. One for you,” he said, placing another thin note in her hand. He smiled at her. “I think you’ll be very pleased with what you read.”
Her eyes left the stationmaster’s face and gazed down at the note cradled in her palm. She began to read.
Amelia’s heart threatened to jump out of her chest the more her eyes took in the words before her. It was too good to be true. She had to be dreaming. She looked up to find the stationmaster staring at her with an amused look.
“I told you that you’d be pleased,” he commented, as he tried to subdue his grin.
Amelia looked at the words once more.
Amelia. Cannot wait any longer. Come to Rattleridge. Be my wife. Paid your passage. My man will be at the station when you arrive. Wear green dress you told me about. Oliver.
“Is this true, Mr. Van Dyke?” she questioned. She looked at the stationmaster in astonishment.
“All paid for,” he confirmed with a grin. “The funds arrived a few days ago with instructions. The telegram came before, but you didn’t come into town.”
Amelia blinked rapidly. She couldn’t believe this. It was more wonderful than a dream. “I can leave whenever I want?” she questioned.
“Yes, Ma’am,” Mr. Van Dyke confirmed. “You just tell me when you want to travel and I’ll punch your ticket.”
The stationmaster looked at her wide-eyed. “Tomorrow?”
“Yes. Tomorrow,” she repeated. “I want to leave for Rattleridge tomorrow.”
“Eager, aren’t you?” he said with a smile. He turned to prepare the ticket.
“Keep it here for me?” she asked quickly.
She didn’t dare bring it home with her. If her father found it, he was sure to take it. She wouldn’t risk that. Oliver had done so much in paying her way to join him in a new life. She would not let her father spoil it.
“If that’s what you want,” Mr. Van Dyke replied. “I’ll wait to punch it tomorrow then. The coach leaves town at seven for Colverton. You’ll get the train from there to Rattleridge.”
“Thank you, Mr. Van Dyke,” Amelia said with a large grin. “Would you send a telegram back telling him that I will be there tomorrow?”
The stationmaster smiled. “Of course.”
“Thank you so much,” Amelia said again as gratitude filled her heart. It felt as if everything was suddenly coming into place and she was nothing but grateful for it.
“My pleasure,” he replied with a nod.
“Have a good day,” she said to bid him farewell. She turned from the station, her steps lighter, her smile even brighter and her heart ready to take flight. She was leaving Thinvale. She was finally going to have a better life.
There was so much to do, but she had to be smart about it. She couldn’t afford for word to get back to her father. She rushed back to the station.
“Mr. Van Dyke,” she called as she entered.
“That was quick,” the stationmaster mused. “Something else I can help you with? You want to leave today instead?”
“No,” Amelia chuckled. “Not that. I wanted to be sure that you keep my leaving just between the two of us. You understand, don’t you?”
The stationmaster’s expression became more serious. “Yes. I understand perfectly. If I were you, I’d want to keep such tidings to myself. It wouldn’t be wise if certain people got ahold of it. They might try to prevent you from going.”
Her father’s ways were no secret to anyone in town. They all knew how he treated her, and some looked on her with pity because of it, others with admiration at how hard she persevered despite it.
She smiled at Mr. Van Dyke. “Thank you again.”
“Don’t you mention it,” he replied. He gave her a polite nod and turned back to his work. Amelia tucked the message in her skirt. She needed to tell Mrs. Puck everything right away and deliver her messages.
Morning could not come fast enough for Amelia. Once she told her former teacher of her plans, everything about her day had changed. The older woman offered her help in any way possible. She knew Amelia could not prepare to leave without it going unnoticed by her father, so she promised to pack her some food and prepare some things to help her on her way. She also would put aside some money for her. They would meet at the station the following morning.
Amelia tried to refuse. She didn’t want to take the woman’s money, but Mrs. Puck insisted. She wanted to be sure that Amelia was taken care of, just in case anything went wrong on the way or when she arrived. Amelia couldn’t tell her no, so despite her feelings, she accepted the generous offer.
She worked late that night and was exhausted by the time she got home. She did nothing but wash and go to bed. She ignored her father’s complaints about what a terrible housekeeper she was and the fact that he had to go hungry because of her laziness. She was washing out her hair when she heard his horse outside. A few minutes later, everything was silent, and Amelia was sure her father, had once again, gone into town to amuse himself with her money.
Despite her fatigue, Amelia wasted no time in collecting her things. She folded her few garments neatly and put them into an old carpetbag. It once belonged to her mother. It was floral in pattern and was once burgundy in color, but now it was faded and grey in patches. It didn’t matter. It was something that her mother owned and that was what made it special to her. It was also the only bag she had.
She packed it quickly, placing a knife and one of her father’s pistols inside of it. He wouldn’t notice it was missing until it was too late. The road could be a dangerous place and she was traveling alone. She couldn’t afford to go unarmed. She checked the contents one more time before she went to the hayloft to hide it.
She could hardly sleep all night. She was so afraid. What if her father found where the bag was hidden? What if he came home and caught her? What if she overslept and missed the coach?
She had a restless night. Amelia only allowed herself a few minutes of sleep before waking with a start. She watched the horizon from her window, eager for the dawn and the start of her new life.
The minute the sky started to lighten Amelia’s heart began to beat faster. She climbed quietly out of bed and dressed in her favorite green dress as instructed. She moved as fast as she could as she didn’t want to linger a second longer than she had to. She poked her head out of her bedroom door and almost gave herself away as her father’s sleeping form surprised her. She clapped her hand quickly over her mouth before she made a sound. She heard when he went to this room that night, but she had not heard him come out. However, it was clear that he had.
Amelia took a deep breath to calm herself. She lingered for several minutes to gauge whether he was awake. The sound of his snores soon eased her anxiety. She tiptoed from her room and out the front door as fast as her feet could carry her. Her father’s snores covered her escape.
She rushed to the barn and climbed the ladder to the hayloft. She grabbed her bag from its hiding place before saddling her horse. She took the reins and walked him quietly from the barn. She did not dare climb upon his back until they were far enough from the house to go unheard. Once she was sure, she climbed onto his back with her bag secured in front of her and raced toward town and her future.
Mrs. Puck met her at the station as promised. Mr. Van Dyke was waiting for her with her punched ticket in hand. He gave it to her and smiled at Mrs. Puck. “You take care of yourself, Miss Amelia,” he encouraged. “I hope you’ll write and tell us how you settle in.”
“Thank you, Mr. Van Dyke,” she replied as she shook his hand. “I will be sure to do that.”
“Don’t you worry, Gilbert,” Mrs. Puck replied. “I will be sure she doesn’t forget us.” She smiled at the stationmaster and then at Amelia. “After all, we love her.”
Amelia’s heart stuttered in her chest at the words. She’d never heard anyone say them to her before. She didn’t know how to reply. The words made her feel warm and slightly embarrassed. Her cheeks grew hot and she smiled demurely. “I love you too, Mrs. Puck.”
The older woman took her in her arms and hugged her. “I will miss you, Amelia,” she stated. “I have watched you grow from a child into a lovely young woman. Oliver Gyles better count his lucky stars that he was fortunate enough to find you.”
“I’m the lucky one,” Amelia replied. “Lucky to have someone in my life to care for me as you do. If it weren’t for you, I wouldn’t be here now. You taught me to read. You let me use your writing implements and kept my secret. You have always been good to me. I have tried to be as good to you, though I do not think I have ever measured up to it”
Mrs. Puck released her. “Nonsense. Having you in my life was like having a daughter. That’s what I thought of you. You always had a special place in my heart. You always will,” she assured Amelia.
“Coach to Colverton now boarding!”
The sound of the coachman’s voice made Amelia’s heart race faster. It was time.
“I have to go,” she said.
“I know,” Mrs. Puck replied. “Travel safely. Write to me as soon as you can.”
“I will,” Amelia agreed as she began to walk. Her heart was galloping like a stampede of cattle. She had to take several long, deep breaths to calm herself and even then, it still felt like it was racing. Would it beat as fast when she finally saw Oliver? Would it beat faster? A smile broke across her face. She was going to be a bride. Soon, she would be Mrs. Oliver Gyles.
Amelia was the first to board the coach. Four others followed. She didn’t know them and surmised they had to be passing through from one of the towns nearby. She placed her hands over her bag and held it close to her body as she looked out the window as the coach moved off. She waved at Mrs. Puck and Mr. Van Dyke. They waved back in unison. Mrs. Puck had agreed to arrange the return of her horse to her father. Amelia didn’t dare think of his reaction. It didn’t matter. He could no longer hurt her.
“Goodbye!” Mrs. Puck called out to her.
“Good luck!” Mr. Van Dyke added.
It wasn’t long before Thinvale disappeared from sight. It was her past and it was behind her now. She momentarily wondered what her father would do when he realized she wasn’t there, when he realized she wasn’t coming back? Would he be as happy as he always said he would be? Or would he finally realize that with her gone, there was no one there who cared for him? It didn’t matter. That time was over now and the path they had both chosen for themselves was set.
She didn’t look back. She would write, but she would never return to the town again, she knew that. Her life was ahead of her in Rattleridge with Oliver. She didn’t know what would happen, or who she might meet in this new stage of her life, but she welcomed it.
It can only get better from here. Goodbye, Thinvale. Hello, future.
Did you like this preview? Please, don't forget to leave me a comment below!
Want to read how the story ends?
For the Love of a Wounded Cowboy is now live on Amazon!