About the book
"You're my only hope in this cruel world..."
Irene Brandt has no choice but to move West.
After her father grows terribly ill, her reputation is on the line as nasty rumors about his supposed gambling addiction spread around and her relatives refuse to offer her aid. When she comes across an intriguing Mail-Order Bride offer, however, she knows she has finally found her escape.
Dan Cray has always had one problem: responsibility. After he inherited the ranch from his father, he never accounted for the barrage of threats he would receive. Especially not from his own uncle. When he sets up a Mail-Order Bride, he never expected Irene to show up.
As their love grows stronger, family threatens to tear them apart. Struggling to get used to the Western life, Irene feels isolated and alone. Once strange attacks occur in the ranch, she asks for the help of multiple people in her province; something Dan refused to do. But one of them hides behind his friendly mask, veiling his sinister motives...
Late Spring, 1882
Irene sat on the edge of her red silk and mahogany parlor chair, looking back and forth between the two men seated across from her. At one end of the small room, a fire blazed on a hearth set into a warm, dark, brick wall. The parlor in the Brandt house glowed with oiled woods and rich velvet upholstery.
“Could—could you explain that again, please?” It wasn’t that she didn’t understand the words that Mr. Anson, her father’s attorney was speaking; it was that her state of mind wouldn’t allow her to grasp it.
The two men looked at each other, and then the second man spoke up. “Miss Brandt,” he began.
“And who are you again?” Irene asked.
“I’m Charles Sullivan, Miss Brandt. I was your father’s accountant, and Mr. Anson and I are handling the estate together.”
“Why don’t I know you? It seems I would be acquainted with my father’s accountant.”
Mr. Sullivan glanced briefly at the floor before meeting her eyes again. “Your father only hired me recently.”
Irene was still reeling. Just two days before, a police captain and the coroner had come to her door to give her the news that her father was dead of heart failure. She knew enough to know that “heart failure” was a term that simply meant the heart stopped. Did they not know why he had died, or were they just not telling her? They escorted her to the morgue so that she could identify him. They wouldn’t allow her more than a cursory look through a window, just enough for her to say, yes, it was him. Once his funeral arrangements had been made, she would be allowed to claim the body and put him to rest.
Now these men, Misters Anson and Sullivan, had come to pay her a visit with even more shocking news.
“As you may know,” Mr. Sullivan said, “last year there was a bank panic in New York. However, what you might not know is that your father lost a lot of money when that happened.”
Irene shook her head, speechless.
The attorney, Anson, spoke again. "Your father has spent a lot of time and money over the past year, attempting to recoup his loss. It was up and down at first, but then some men approached him at the Washington Park Jockey Club and convinced him that they had a way out of his dilemma.”
“My father’s not a fool!” she said, hotly.
“No one is implying that your father is a fool. He had a daughter whom he loved very much, and to whom he wanted to leave a sizeable fortune. He was afraid he had lost too much during the banking crisis,” the attorney attempted to reassure her.
“And so…?” she asked.
“He did really well for a little while, but on Monday last, he got himself in a dither, and came into my office demanding to have all of his deeds and titles, and every coin. There was nothing I could do to stop ‘im,” Sullivan said.
“Monday last? That was the day he—the day he died.” Her last word faded away as though her breath had left her, and she could barely speak it.
“Yes, we quarreled about it. Mr. Anson here will back me up as we work in the same office.”
She looked at Anson, but he didn’t respond. He swallowed as though his tongue were too dry.
“What happened after that?” Irene wanted to know.
Mr. Sullivan turned toward Mr. Anson, but Anson put his hand on the man’s arm and tried to deter him with a look.
“What happened after that?” she asked, again.
Mr. Sullivan cleared his throat but spoke hoarsely. “We’re not entirely sure, but….”
Mr. Anson gave her a look that said, “We don’t want to tell you, but we don’t want to lie to you, either.”
She was suddenly exasperated and angry. “Tell me what?”
“He took it all in his satchel, and, the next thing we knew, he was dead.”
“Where is his satchel now?” she demanded to know.
They both squirmed in their seats.
“His satchel was found, not far from where he collapsed, but it was empty.”
“Where did this happen?”
The two men were united in shaking their heads. It was obvious they knew, but they weren’t about to tell Irene.
After a few seconds of silence, she said, “Obviously you know more than you’re willing to say. But did you at least report the empty satchel to the police?”
“I did,” Mr. Anson said quickly.
“And did you think to engage the Pinkertons?”
“The Pink—? No, why?”
“If I must answer that question for you, you either know where the contents of the satchel are, or you don’t care. Which is it?”
“I think that’s enough questions and answers for today, Miss Brandt. There is much more to this, and I believe we would be better served by having you come into my office in the morning,” said Mr. Anson. “This setting is uncomfortably intimate.”
“Too close. Personal. I would prefer a more business-like atmosphere. Shall we say ten o’clock?” he suggested, handing her his card.
Perhaps he was right, she thought. Although she wanted to demand the remaining answers now, it was early evening, and it would not be proper for two men to be seen leaving her home after dark.
“Ten o’clock,” she said and showed them to the door.
A million things were swirling in her head right now, but a lot of things she would have to sort out for herself. She had the rest of the evening to do so.
More than a thousand miles away, outside the small, dusty town of Benson, Texas, not too far from San Antonio, Dan Cray was riding among his beeves. The sun was hot, and he was glad he had switched to his new palm straw hat today.
He stopped to mop his face with his kerchief and made his way to stand in the shade of the huge, spreading oaks. The oaks stood sentinel beside the broad creek. Early rains were coming, but the grasses had not yet overwhelmed the wildflowers. He took a deep breath and looked around at the brilliant bluebonnets and fiery red and yellow Indian paintbrushes that carpeted the hills.
The cattle didn’t need him today. They had plenty to feed on, and right now there were no calves to worry about. The yearlings were looking good, and his father would be pleased. If he were here.
Three weeks ago, his father had dropped dead. They said it was heat stroke, but he was skeptical. His father was a robust man and was smart enough to know when he’d had too much Texas sun. Dan hadn’t been with him that day, and now he would never know what really happened.
With no parents or siblings to help, he had to make all the funeral arrangements by himself. Luckily, his father was a church-going man and a well-thought-of person, so the church people had helped immensely. He was glad he had the help of the priest of the Benson parish to help him make the arrangements.
His Uncle Kevin—his mother’s brother—and Kevin’s wife, Melinda, had breathed down his neck about not spending too much money on something that was just a “show” for someone who didn’t care anyway because he was dead.
The priest brought them up short by telling them that funerals were for the living, to help them to grieve, allow them to comfort one another, and to celebrate his father’s life in Christ.
Kevin stepped back then, but he kept his brow furrowed, and he and Melinda kept stealing frowning glances back and forth.
“It’s not like we’re back East where funerals are elaborate, but my father was a wealthy man who deserves a full church funeral and all that entails,” Dan had said.
Kevin was his mother’s brother, not his father’s. His sweet mother, Evelyn, God rest her soul, had passed away when Dan was just a teenager. Sean Cray had met and fell in love with Evelyn Hart and married her. They came to Texas in 1840 and just squeezed under the deadline to receive six hundred and forty acres from a land grant. They had invited Kevin to come and claim a parcel, but Kevin showed no interest. Twenty-five years later, Kevin had served in the Civil War. He returned to Virginia where he married Melinda, a once widowed and once divorced woman. Melinda was the one who had convinced him to come to Texas.
By then, Sean’s six hundred and forty acres had grown to more than sixteen thousand acres as he leveraged the money he made in his successful cattle ranch and other investments.
When Kevin and Melinda arrived, Sean and Evelyn offered three hundred and twenty acres of their own land to them, the same amount Kevin would have received if he had come to Texas during the land grant.
They received so little gratitude in return. Kevin had begun to show resentment toward Sean once his sister, Dan’s mother, was gone. He had even gone so far as to call Sean a coward because he hadn’t served in the War.
Dan’s father had been a Northerner and his family had never owned slaves, so he didn’t feel it was his battle. He had done his part for the war effort by providing beef for the soldiers. Remembering that brought Dan’s thinking forward to the reading of the will. He needed to get back to the ranch and clean up because the reading was that afternoon at the attorney’s office.
When he got back to the house, Maria, their cook and housekeeper, had a repast prepared for him of tortillas and her best beans. The aroma of Dan’s favorite dishes, the beans seasoned with Mexican spices, onions, and peppers—and the warm, baked smell of the tortillas—smelled like heaven. First, though, she brought him a tall glass of lemonade which he drank all at once.
“Are you okay, Mr. Dan?” she asked.
He nodded with a mouthful of beans and tortillas.
“I’m just tired and hot, and I have to get to the lawyer’s office.”
“I know,” she said. “I took the freedom of drawing a bath for you in the atrium.”
He looked up at her and smiled. “Mighty thoughtful of you, Maria.”
“I knew you might be in a hurry.”
“Thanks,” Dan said as he got up from the table, wiping his mouth with a linen napkin which he then laid on the table.
He arrived at the attorney’s office for Mr. Jacobsen to discuss the estate. Kevin and Melinda were already there and looked annoyed at having had to wait on him. Dan looked at the clock in the office and knew he was right on time, so he ignored the looks.
“Good!” Jacobsen said. “We can get started.”
Jacobsen looked through several papers before him, then got some preliminaries out of the way. Finally, the will reading began.
“This is the last will and testament of Sean Adrian Cray. I, Sean Adrian Cray, being of sound mind and body, and not under any undue or untoward influence to make these decisions, do declare this document to be my final wishes.”
The attorney droned on about whose responsibility it was to do what, who would take care of final expenses, and who the executors were to carry everything out. Most of it, Dan already knew. The room was hot, and he was struggling to stay awake.
Jacobsen finally got to the part about inheriting the ranch, and he knew it would soon be over. Neither his father nor his mother had any living relatives other than Uncle Kevin, so he assumed that the controlling operation of the ranch and some of the land would be given to Kevin and Melinda, and that he would be free to continue his carefree life as a drover among the cattle. Well, maybe he would oversee the cowhands. That might be interesting. He was already looking forward to their next drive to San Antonio.
His daydreaming was interrupted when he heard the attorney say, “In the interest of keeping the ranch and its fortune in the Cray family name…” The words jerked him upright. What was he hearing?
“In the interest of keeping the ranch and its fortune in the Cray family name, I leave the entirety of my estate to my son, Daniel Everett Cray.”
“To my brother-in-law, Kevin Hart,” the attorney continued, “I give full title to the three hundred and twenty acres which he has developed, as well as a generous sum of thirty thousand dollars in gold.”
Thirty thousand dollars? Dan wondered. Just how vast are the Cray family holdings, anyway? He had never wanted for anything in his life, but he also had never paid much attention to that kind of thing, to his detriment, perhaps. He had just taken it for granted.
“There is a letter here from your father, Dan, detailing what all you needed to know if and when this came to pass.”
Dan was stunned. Suddenly, Kevin jumped up from his chair, purple in the face. “I—I don’t know what to say. He gets everything?” And then, “When can I collect my money?”
“Well, we want to be sure there isn’t going to be any need for probate.”
“We want to be sure no one is going to contest the will.”
“Are you expecting that to happen?” Dan asked, open-mouthed.
Jacobsen glanced furtively toward Kevin. “Not necessarily. We just need to publish a notice in the county newspaper to ensure there are no more heirs out there, or any outstanding creditors of which we currently have no knowledge.”
“Is that common?” Dan wanted to know.
Jacobsen nodded. “Standard procedure. I’ll be back in touch with you both after a while. It takes about sixty days for it to settle out.”
“Sixty days!” Kevin cried out. “You tell a fella that he’s got thirty thousand dollars coming to him, but he can’t have it for sixty days or more?”
“Standard procedure, Mr. Hart,” he said, lowering his own voice in an attempt to calm things.
Jacobsen turned to Dan. “Everything is going to be wrapped up rather tightly for the next couple of months, so you just let me know what you’re going to need for payroll and operating expenses for the ranch.”
“Oh, I see. Dan here has access to whatever he wants or needs despite any probate procedure. But I’ve got to wait till the last dog’s hung before I get a dime.”
“I shouldn’t have to explain it to you, Mr. Hart. Dan can’t have ‘whatever he wants,’ but it wouldn’t be fair for the farm workers to not get paid because their boss died. He’ll get what he needs to run the ranch.”
“Hmph,” Kevin grunted, looking over his shoulder as he and Melinda walked out.
Mr. Jacobsen turned to Dan. “You read through that letter when you get home, and then let me know if you have any questions you think I can answer. Let me know, too, when you have a list of monthly recurring expenses.”
Dan accepted the envelope, turning slowly and leaving the attorney’s office behind.
Who had been doing all of this before now? Good grief, had he been so insensible to this all along?
His dad did an awful lot, and he was an extremely busy man, while he had allowed Dan to live the carefree life of the cattle drover, and all-around ranch hand—the things he really loved to do. Dan’s finest hours were working with the horses and the cattle and keeping those things tight. He had always thought of himself as contributing a lot to the work at the ranch, but suddenly, it seemed like a dip in the bucket.
And no one to help him. What was he going to do?
Irene woke the next morning to the sun streaming in her bedroom window. Why was it so bright, she wondered? But, in the next thought, she remembered that it was the maid who used to close and open the curtains every night and morning, but Father had let the woman go a few weeks before.
When Irene had asked him why he let her go, he simply shrugged and replied that they had a cook and a housekeeper, and he thought that it was too extravagant to have a chambermaid as well. It hadn’t even occurred to Irene that there might be a problem with money. Her father had funny whims now and then, so she rarely thought too much of it.
Now she started thinking back to other things that might have been out of the ordinary. She recalled him cracking down on Cook for buying wines that were “too rich” for his blood. She had thought he was speaking of a health matter, but now, she wondered again whether it had anything to do with finances.
Immediately upon arising, thoughts began to crowd her head concerning her conversation with Misters Anson and Sullivan. As soon as that was happening, she felt a sharp, stabbing pain over her right eye.
If she were going to attend this meeting today—and there was no question that she would—she needed to relax. There was no sense at all in speculating—she would have answers soon enough. At least all the answers they could give her right now. Why did this all have to be such a big mystery?
She felt the pain over her eye again, and it made her think. Her father had been subject to those headaches, too, when he was stressed over something. Had something so devastating happened that it caused him to have a fatal attack of apoplexy?
It was a lovely Spring day in Chicago, but it tended to get warm in the afternoon, and she wasn’t sure what to wear. She was tempted to wear the sweet, bluebell-colored princess dress she’d had tailored for her, but she wanted to appear taller and more like someone with whom to be reckoned. Instead, she chose a long, thin, vertical-striped dress in two shades of peach with ecru-colored lace trim.
She was barely medium height and buxom, but this dress managed to make her look almost stately. She wore corsets, of course, but no bustle. She didn’t care if the bustle was coming back into style. Some women found it fetching to stick out in front and back, but she wasn’t one of them.
She put on her new, silk, high-button shoes which made a striking combination with her outfit. The doorbell rang as she was looking at herself in the mirror for the last time. That would be her carriage. She opened the chifforobe and quickly grabbed her curled grosgrain ribbon bonnet with the faux wild roses and greenery. She pinned it atop her piles of glistening copper hair and glanced back at herself in the mirror as she left the room.
Perfect. Just the effect I was looking for.
She was glad she had given herself an hour to get there because it took almost all of that time to wend around, avoiding the market streets on their way downtown. She almost wondered if it wouldn’t have been more prudent to have gone through the markets.
She arrived at the address she had been given, and the driver helped her down out of the carriage.
“Pick me up here again in two hours,” she said. If it didn’t take that amount of the time, she could do with a walk to look at the shops which she hadn’t done for quite a while. If it took longer than that…well, it had better not. That’s all she had to say.
She hiked her dress for the walk up the stairs, looking up at the imposing building. Yes, this was definitely a place her father would do business. She entered the building and was directed to the elevator. It took her to the third floor, where she quickly found the office of David Anson, Esquire and Charles Sullivan.
She looked at the clock in the hall, and saw that she was a bit early, but looking around, there was really no place to wait. When she entered the office, the two men sat, looking at her expectantly. Both rose at the same time, each touching their fingers to her extended gloved hand and inviting her to sit down.
Mr. Anson spoke first. “I have here the coroner’s report from your father’s autopsy.”
“His autopsy? Don’t they need my consent for that?”
“Indeed,” he continued, “and they usually would get it before performing the autopsy. But there are times when the circumstances are such that they proceed without the consent of the next of kin. That is, if the circumstances seem unusual or…or….”
“Or foul play is suspected,” Sullivan finished his sentence.
“Foul play?” Irene looked up from the paper she was examining, quickly scanning their faces.
“But this is likely not foul play,” Anson hastened to assure her. “It seems your father had fallen and struck his head hard enough to induce a brain-bleed, followed quickly by apoplexy.”
Irene shook her head as if trying to clear it. “Honestly,” she said, “I feel like I’m about to have apoplexy. These kinds of incidents run in our family anyway, but I had no idea about the fall or a possible suspicion of foul play.”
“The only reason to suspect foul play at all is the empty satchel. Where are the contents? Who wanted them and for what reason? Did they hurt your father to get them? All questions we have ourselves, as I’m sure you do.”
Irene looked to the side, to the floor, then back at the men. “Have you contacted the Pinkertons yet?”
“The police don’t want outside interference at this point,” Sullivan said.
“Don’t want—! I don’t care what they want. I’ll hire them myself or I’ll hire a private investigator.”
Anson and Sullivan exchanged glances.
“Well, that’s going to be somewhat difficult,” Sullivan said.
Sullivan sighed deeply and said, “Because your finances have been completely wiped out.”
Irene shook slightly as she rode home in the carriage. Nerves? Fear? Both? Just shock, maybe. The men had been straightforward but as gentle with her as possible, explaining her situation.
They had dug into their own pockets to give her what she would need to pay the housekeeper and the cook with severance, and hopefully, to buy a few groceries, too. But one thing they made perfectly clear—in order to survive, she would have to sell her house as quickly as possible. Even after she sold the house, she would only have enough to subsist on for a few weeks because the majority of the money would go to the bank to pay the mortgage and other bills.
Gone were the visions of giving her beloved father the kind of send-off and celebration she wanted. She had imagined a white carriage hearse bearing him to the church and then to the cemetery with all his friends and business associates accompanying the carriage.
But, according to Anson and Sullivan, her father had few friends left and virtually no business associates. And, of course, no money left for anything but a small memorial service. Thank God he had purchased his cemetery plot next to her mother when she died, or he would end up in a pauper’s grave.
She broke into tears as the word “pauper” crossed her mind. Never in a million years could she have imagined it. Why hadn’t he told her? Why hadn’t he let her help?
When she got home, she dressed more comfortably and went in search of the cook and the housekeeper. The cook wasn’t to be found, but Abigail, the housekeeper, was nearby.
Irene was too flustered to be delicate about it, or to carry on light conversation when all she wanted to do was have something resolved. Paying the women their severance and telling them they could remain there until the house was sold was uppermost on her mind at the moment.
“Abigail, do you know where the cook is?”
“Yes, Miss Brandt,” she responded. “She’s gone.”
“Gone? You mean to the market or to visit someone?”
“No. I mean she’s gone, and she’s not returning.”
“Why?” Irene wanted to know.
Abigail just looked at her and swallowed. “There—there are already rumors that your father was murdered because of his gambling debts.”
“Gambling debts? Oh, no, no, no,” Irene said. “The coroner’s report shows that he fell and struck his head which led to him having apoplexy.”
Abigail nodded jerkily. “Yes, that’s probably true, but they’re saying he was struck down at the racetrack. That he had come to pay as much of his debt as possible, but they killed him instead.”
Irene gasped. The racetrack? Suddenly those far-flung pieces in her mind came together and things began to make sense. She remembered Anson and Sullivan telling her about her father’s jockey club, and the men who had a “solution” for him to recoup his money losses. The up and down nature of his “recovery” from losing the bank money. His head trauma and the empty satchel.
That narrowed things down a lot. That gave the Pinkertons a more focused area of investigation. But then she remembered that the Pinkertons were only investigating bank-related incidents, and this was no longer that. And she had no recourse to a private investigator because she had no money to pay them.
How did news travel so fast? Why was she the last to know? Was any of it true, or just some nibby-noses jumping to conclusions?
“Why did Cook just jump and run, though? I have her severance pay and was going to tell both of you that you can stay here until the house is sold.”
“You’re selling the house?”
“Yes, sorry—that's what I was coming to see you about. I have nothing left, not even for a funeral for my father. I pray there’s enough food in the larder to sustain us for a few weeks.”
“Well, I wouldn’t worry about severance pay for Cook, the way she has run off. You take that money and buy what we need.”
At Abigail’s kindness, Irene began to weep for the first time. Abigail had been her nanny when she was a child. She had been with the family since before Irene was born. Cook, on the other hand—what was her name again?—had only been with them for less than a year. Less than a year! That immediately sent her reeling into suspicion, but perhaps it was wholly unwarranted. She cried into Abigail’s arms for several minutes, then declared she was going to bed.
“Taking to your bed is probably a good thing to do for a while. I may be the housekeeper and not the cook, but I make a mean chicken soup. I’ll make some for us, and bring you up some, later.”
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