The Proud Rancher's Fearless Bride

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"The Proud Rancher's Fearless Bride"

a Western Historical Romance Novel,
by Ava Winters


His mail-order bride will be the one who will show him the way towards redemption. But how can he follow when their ranch is under attack?

Ada is a protective young woman who unexpectedly loses her parents. Along with her blind sister, they stay in a local women’s shelter, but it’s getting dangerous for them to stay there. She accepts a mail-order bride offer to fend for her sister’s needs. Meeting her aloof husband, though, brings extra baggage. However, whenever she sees how protective he is with her sister, her heart softens. How can she show him that forgiving yourself is the only true way towards love and affection?

Noah is a proud and emotionally-guarded young rancher. He still hasn’t overcome the tragic death of his family. He places an ad for a marriage of convenience just so to have the ranch in order and perhaps someone to talk to. When he meets Ada, his world is shaken. He starts seeing himself as her devoted husband and as a father to her sister. However, it’s difficult for him to say out loud his feelings. How can he surpass his deep wounds and accept that loving Ada is his only redemption?

When Noah’s lost brother comes to town, he comes with secrets. How can Noah and Ada devote themselves to each other and their new family when the circumstances drive them apart?

Chapter One

Ada Ferguson was luxuriating in a pleasant dream. She was sitting at an elegant uptown restaurant with her little sister, Myra, and their parents. The chic bistro was all stained glass windows, velvet drapes, and marble floors, and Ada’s family had taken her there as a special treat.

Their booth was carved oak topped with elaborate stained glass panels, and their table was covered in white linen and fancy silverware. All of them had dressed in their best finery to honor her eighteenth birthday. For that special occasion, they were all pretending to be rich Vanderbilts instead of merely middle-class New Yorkers.

Her shining auburn hair was piled on top of her head and styled in a fancy bouffant as a sign that she was now a young woman. She was wearing her best white Sunday dress with the blue satin sash, and she smiled as a uniformed waiter set a perfect frosted silver bowl in front of her. It was piled high with sparkling vanilla ice cream, and as she watched the waiter poured hot chocolate over its snowy shoulders. His arm happened to brush up against her as he stepped back.

“Happy eighteenth birthday, Ada!” her father smiled, and they bumped spoons and laughed before digging into their ice cream.

Ada closed her eyes and savored the rich vanilla as it swirled in her mouth; but she accidentally dropped a dollop onto the front of her dress. She frowned in her sleep and blotted the ice cream off with a napkin; but something wasn’t right. She could feel something there still.

The sensation of movement on her chest made her mumble, open her eyes, and then open them wider in terror. A hulking shape loomed over her in the darkness, and the stench of gin almost made her gag.

A strange man was bending over her!

Ada slowly registered that the stranger’s hands were on her chest. She surged bolt upright, shoved the man’s hands away, and sucked in air to scream at the top of her lungs; but the stranger clamped his hand over her mouth, hard.

“Hush, girlie,” a thick, smug voice crooned at her ear, “ain’t nothing wrong. Just relax and enjoy it.”

Ada twisted her head, got one of his thick fingers between her teeth, and did her best to bite it right in two. The intruder howled in pain and yanked his hand back, and Ada clawed her way off the little bed and half-fell onto the cold floor. She scrambled up and stood trembling in her thin cotton shimmy. She would’ve bolted out of the bedroom, but the intruder was between her and the door. She glanced desperately toward the hall as the stranger knelt over her bed, swore, and nursed his wounded hand.

Myra’s troubled voice piped in from the corner of the room. “Ada, what’s going on? Ada?”

Ada grabbed a wooden chair and pushed it out in front of her. “Get out of here!” she gasped at the shadowy figure. “Get out or I’ll scream and raise the house!”

The man staggered up from her bed and propped himself against the wall, and Ada watched him in terror. After her happy dream, it took a few long, sickening moments to realize where she was.

To accept that this bleak, cold bedroom was real, and not some hideous nightmare.

The man staggered to his feet and muttered: “Now listen, girlie.” He turned to wag an uninjured finger at her. “I can make things easy for you here, or I can make ‘em hard.”

Ada’s mouth twisted in revulsion. “Mr. Shelton?”

The shadow half-fell onto the bed, and the frame creaked and groaned. Tyrone Shelton lifted his face in the darkness, and he waved a lazy arm.

“You scratch my back, girlie, and I’ll scratch yours. You understand?”

Ada was seized by uncontrollable trembling, but she replied in a low, throbbing voice: “Get out of here.”

“You ain’t the boss here, missy,” the man told her, and tried unsuccessfully to rise. “I am. You and that little blind sister of yours is orphans. Charity cases! You got nobody and no one, you hear me? Nobody’s gonna come take you out of this shelter. If I throw you out you’ll be living on the street, and it won’t be long before you’re doing things for all kinds of men to get money to buy food. You think about that, missy!

“Now I’ll give you a day or two to study on it. But if you’re smart, you’ll let me in when I come knocking at this door. I can get you a better place to stay. Better clothes. Better food!”

Ada pulled her trembling mouth down and shook her head in disgust and anger. Her voice suddenly jumped from a whisper to a shout.

Get out, get out, get out!” she screamed. “Get out, do you hear me? Get out!”

Sssh, sssh,” the man hissed angrily. “You wanna wake my wife?”

Ada backed away from him, and her fury collapsed into despair. She dropped the chair with a clatter and her shoulders heaved with silent sobs.

Myra’s voice jumped up in the darkness.

“Get out of here, mister, if you don’t want your wife to catch you. I know my sister, and she’s about to go crazy screaming!”

“All right then. I’ve said my piece,” the man mumbled, and wallowed back and forth a time or two before he rolled out of the bed, stood up, staggered back a pace, and then reeled across the room and out the door. As soon as he was gone, Ada darted across the room in her bare feet, slammed the door, and locked it tight. She slid down the wall, sobbing silently, and Myra’s small voice reached out for her like slender arms.

“Don’t let him scare you, Ada,” her voice piped. “We’re going to be all right. No matter what happens.”

Ada bowed down until her brow touched the floor; but after a moment or two she raised her head wearily, squared her shoulders, and slowly wiped her eyes.

“That’s right Myra,” she replied in a toneless voice. “We’ll be all right.” She stood up, turned around, and walked back to the edge of her bed.

Ada stared down at the defiled and rumpled covers. The smell of gin and an unwashed body clung to them.

Myra sat up in the dark and tossed her covers back. “You can sleep in my bed tonight, Ada,” she murmured. “There’s room. Come on.”

Ada wiped her eyes and padded across the cold floor to pick up the wooden chair. She walked to the door, jammed the back of the chair up against the knob, and only then returned to her little sister’s bed.

She grabbed the edge of the covers and scooted in. Myra’s head sank down onto her shoulder, and Ada reached out and put her arm around her little sister.

Myra raised her face. “Mr. Shelton was drunk, Ada,” she murmured. “He was addle-pated—smack out of his head! I bet he’ll be mortified tomorrow morning, to think of how low-down he acted. He won’t bother you again, you wait and see.”

Ada frowned, but nodded. “That’s right, Myra,” she murmured. “He’s never going to bother us again.”

Because I’m not going to give that old dirty devil the chance, she thought to herself grimly, and stared up at the ceiling. We’re getting out of this place.

Her resolve slowly melted into prayer, and she added: Oh, Lord, please show me how!

Chapter Two

“Everybody bow your heads. I’ll say grace for us this morning.”

A dozen women and girls were gathered in the big, mostly empty dining room of the Shelton Home for Destitute Women. Mrs. Thelma Shelton, a plump, cheerful strawberry blonde of about forty, clasped her pale hands on the table and bowed her head.

Ada bowed her own head and stared down at her lap as Mrs. Shelton’s bright voice floated out over the long, plank-board breakfast table.

“Thank you, Lord, for the food on our table and for a new day. Please give us the strength to do useful work, and to love you and others. Amen.”

Amen, Mr. Shelton rumbled from the other end of the long table, and Ada’s face flushed with anger, though she was careful not to look at the smug, oily scoundrel. If she looked at him, her whole face was going to contract in disgust.

Then too, she didn’t want to draw his attention.

Ada glanced wryly at Mrs. Shelton’s bright, happy face. It was plain that the woman either didn’t know or didn’t believe that she had a husband who crept into girls’ bedrooms at night and molested them in their sleep.

Ada’s eyes moved from Mrs. Shelton, down the length of the table. She glanced at one pale, downcast face after another and wondered how many other women and girls living there had suffered an unwanted midnight call from Mr. Shelton.

The thought made Ada desperate, because his wife was the only ally she had in the world. Mrs. Shelton had been an angel to them, had rescued her and Myra off the streets and given them a place a stay when they were homeless. Because of her, they had a solid roof over their heads and daily food to eat for the first time since they’d been evicted from their parent’s apartment. Thelma Shelton had given her a job as a seamstress, which had allowed her to earn and even save a bit of money. She was even teaching Myra how to knit.

Mrs. Shelton was the one person Ada believed she could trust; but then, she’d trusted Mr. Shelton and he’d betrayed her trust. Maybe Mrs. Shelton was a wolf in sheep’s clothing, too.

Ada shot the older woman a narrow glance, but eventually had to acquit her. Peace sat in smiling serenity on Mrs. Shelton’s brow, and good will practically radiated from her eyes. Surely, that look of cheerful innocence couldn’t be faked.

Still, she could hardly ask Mrs. Shelton to protect her from Mr. Shelton without making an enemy of her; and if there was one thing she and Myra couldn’t afford, it was enemies.

That skulking devil had been right about one thing: they were orphans, homeless, alone, and penniless. On top of that, Myra was blind and needed special schooling.

 Ada closed her eyes and resisted the impulse to put her head in her hands. The last three months had been one long nightmare. In one terrible afternoon, she and Myra had lost not just their parents, but their sheltered, pleasant life in their family’s midtown apartment.

Ironically, Myra had sensed it first. They were sitting together in their father’s library overlooking the street. She’d had her nose in Great Expectations, and Myra was reading a braille version of Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson, her favorite author.

Myra had inclined her ear and frowned.

“Do you hear that, Ada?’

“Hear what, dear.”

“That noise down in the street. People are shouting. I can’t make out what, but they sound terribly upset.”

She’d put her book down and walked over to the big picture window overlooking the street. “It looks like there’s been an accident. A carriage got run over by a freight wagon.”

The words had no sooner rolled off her tongue, than there had come an urgent knocking at the door of their suite. When she’d gone to answer it, a grim-faced policeman had been standing there with his hat in his hand.

“Ada?”

Ada opened her eyes. The girl to her left was passing her the breadbasket.

Ada felt Mrs. Shelton’s eyes on her, took the basket, and picked out a piece of bread for herself and for Myra.

“Ada, you’re looking a bit pale,” Mrs. Shelton observed. “Is something wrong, dear?”

Ada swallowed a bubble of hysterical laughter and mumbled: “I’m feeling a little sick this morning, Mrs. Shelton.”

Thelma Shelton’s mild eyes clouded. “I’m so sorry, dear. Try to eat a little toast, if you can, and stay away from the coffee and bacon.”

“Yes, Mrs. Shelton.”

Ada lowered her head, frowned at her plate, and thought fiercely: We have to get out of here. But who would take in two penniless girls, and one of them blind?

I don’t have enough money to put a down payment on an apartment. I don’t even make enough money with my sewing to cover the rent.

Maybe I could share the apartment with some other people, and together we might swing it.

Ada looked down the table at the other women and wondered if any of them would be willing to strike out on their own and share an apartment with her.

She considered Mrs. Williams and her little two-year-old daughter. Mrs. Williams was a young redheaded woman with big, soulful blue eyes, but she was in the shelter because her husband beat her and had almost killed her one night.

Ada bit her lip and frowned. As much as she sympathized with the woman, she didn’t want a roommate who was being hunted by a murderous lunatic. She had enough problems.

Her gaze flicked over the others: an elderly woman who was almost ninety; a girl whose husband had tried to drown her because he believed she was cheating on him; a teenaged girl with some kind of mental problem who never said anything, and never responded to questions; and a Spanish girl who was learning to speak English and how to sew, so she could support herself.

None of them were good candidates, and despair washed over Ada in a black wave. What am I going to do? she wondered miserably.

Mrs. Shelton’s cheerful voice suddenly broke in on her unhappy thoughts.

“If you feel up to it, dear, why don’t you come and read to me this morning, instead of doing your sewing. It will be more restful for you, and it will free me to do a little needlework of my own. Bring Myra with you. I can help with her knitting lessons, while I’m at it.” She gave Ada a bright smile. “We could make it a habit this week, if you like.”

Ada returned a wan smile. “Yes, ma’am.”

Ada glanced down at Myra’s smooth, pretty face and consoled herself that with Mrs. Shelton at her elbow, they were safe from Mr. Shelton—at least for a few days.

Chapter Three

“And now, I’ll read the will.”

Noah Carter glanced up at his uncle’s lawyer, a bespectacled attorney named Jack Kingman. Noah rubbed his nose and settled more comfortably into the expensive leather chair in the lawyer’s study.

He’d come all the way out from Virginia to the tiny town of Ryeville, Kansas, to pay his respects to his just-deceased Uncle Abel. It wasn’t like they’d been close; his uncle had moved west when he was just a kid, and he barely remembered the man. It was just that his uncle was the last family member he had left.

Noah’s heart was still tender from the loss of his parents and his brother. Their deaths—all three at once—had been a hard blow, and the shock of it had knocked him sideways, hard. Even now, seven years later, he wasn’t over it.

Maybe he’d never get over it.

Still, he couldn’t figure why the lawyer had asked him over. He had no claim on his uncle, and he didn’t want or expect anything from him.

The lawyer started to read the will, and his bored voice droned on and on in deadly legalese, with all kinds of ‘wherefores’, ‘behooves’, and ‘insomuches’, and Noah had to keep a strict watch on himself to keep from nodding off. The little office was close and warm in the afternoon, and the summer sun on his shoulders made him drowsy.

“...therefore the decedent, Abel Carter, bequeaths his house and ranch, the Bar C, located outside of Ryeville, Kansas, to his only surviving nephew, Noah Carter, of Big Stone Gap, Virginia.”

The lawyer turned a page and cleared this throat before resuming: “The decedent’s estate is given freely, as a gift, and also includes what money remains in the decedent’s bank account after all lawful debts have been paid in full.”

Noah sat up sharply. He raised startled brown eyes to the lawyer’s expressionless face.

“Wait—what did you just say?”

The lawyer stared at him over his pince-nez glasses. “Your Uncle Abel made you his sole heir, Mr. Carter. Congratulations.”

Noah frowned and tilted his head because he wondered if he was dreaming. “That—that can’t be right,” he marveled. “I hardly knew the man!”

“Well, I did,” the lawyer told him dryly. “Your uncle was a fine fellow, and we were friends for years. Abel was a real family man. I never knew any man to be so loyal to kin. He wanted his ranch to go to his family after his death.

“He left a letter for you.”

Noah frowned as the lawyer reached into his vest, pulled out an envelope and handed it to him. To Noah’s astonishment, his name was written on the exterior in a strong, flowing hand.

“Take it.”

Noah took the envelope and stared down at it as if he expected it to go up in a puff of smoke.

“I assume you’re going to accept the gift,” the attorney went on. “Come back tomorrow at around this same time, and I’ll help you with the legal formalities. It won’t take long. Just a few forms to sign.” He glanced down at Noah’s stunned face.

“I suggest you read the letter at your earliest convenience, Mr. Carter; preferably before you return. Its contents may inform your decisions.”

Noah stared at him in amazement, then realized he must look a fool and closed his mouth. He stuck the letter into his jacket and offered his hand. The attorney shook it.

“You said you knew my uncle,” Noah rumbled in his deep voice.

“That’s right. Spent many a Saturday bird hunting with him.”

Noah raised puzzled eyes to his face. “Didn’t he have a wife, or children, or somebody closer than me to make his heir? I seem to remember something about him having a wife.”

The attorney gave him a sympathetic glance but refused to answer. “Again, Mr. Carter, read the letter. It will answer your questions much better than I could.”

Noah nodded, grabbed his hat, and walked to the door. He turned on the threshold and mumbled: “Thanks. I’ll see you tomorrow, Mr. Kingman.”

“I’ll be here.”

 

Noah walked out of the little office, down the wooden courthouse stairs, and out into the blazing heat of a Kansas summer. He put his hat on his head and strode down the dusty street to the two-story boarding house. He wiped his feet on the mat, opened the door, and blew past the dining room on his way up to his rooms. His landlady leaned out and called: “Lunch is on, Mr. Carter! Come now or go hungry!”

Noah mumbled a reply that didn’t make sense even to him, and he took the stairs two at a time. When he was inside his own room at last, he shouldered out of his jacket, threw his hat onto the bed, and sat down on its edge to read his uncle’s letter.

 

Ryeville, Kansas

June 1886

Dear Noah:

If you’re reading this, then I’m dead and Jack has just told you that you’re the new owner of the Bar C. I apologize for not writing to you sooner, but there’s a good reason that I never wrote and never visited your family. It wasn’t because I didn’t want to. I wanted to see you all very much. I wanted to be a part of your lives, but compelling circumstances prevented that.

It broke my heart when Isaac and Cora and David were stricken down by the grippe. I would’ve come then, except for a solemn promise that I made your parents before you were born.

Noah frowned and pulled his hand over his mouth. It had hurt him that Abel hadn’t come to the funerals for his parents and his brother. He’d assumed at the time that it was because the trip was too expensive; but now he saw that Abel had been a wealthy man. Abel’s thoughtlessness grated that old wound, and Noah adjusted his shoulder.

What was more, the tone of his uncle’s letter made him uneasy. He got the sense that it was building up to something he didn’t want to hear.

When your grandmother died, she left her farm in Big Stone Gap to your father and me. We split up the land into two parcels. Mine was on the back forty, and your father’s was up toward the old house, closer to the road.

But it was real hard times in Virginia after the war. None of us had money, and there was no work to be had. It was all we could do to make a crop. I finally gave up and told Isaac that I was going to sell my place and try my luck out west. It was a real hard winter that year, and your parents were just hanging on by a thread. Your parents had just had their first baby, too, a fine little boy named Ethan.

Noah stared at the jumble of words, then stared at them again, because they didn’t seem to make sense.

I have an older brother?

Noah pulled his hand over his mouth, and tears started to his eyes as he read on.

Isaac pulled me aside one day before I left, and he told me that he and your mother didn’t have enough money to raise their baby. I could see it just about killed him to admit it, and your mother was back in their bedroom with the door closed. I could hear her crying.

Your father asked me to take Ethan with me when I left and raise him as my own boy. He said they’d talked about it and figured that Ethan would have a better chance with me, than with them.

So I told Isaac that I’d take Ethan and raise him and then he asked me something that I know broke his heart.

He told me that it would be best for Ethan to think that he was my boy instead of theirs, so he made me promise to never tell Ethan who he really was. He broke down crying then, but he didn’t go back on it; he put Ethan into my arms and made me swear to raise him a Christian young man, and to do all I could for him. So I promised.

Isaac told me to never come back to them, to never bring Ethan near them anymore. For Ethan’s sake he wanted a clean break, and now that I’ve had time to see how it worked out, your father was right, though it was bitter hard for them.

By the time you and David came along, times were better, and your parents had built up the farm and had more money. I know they grieved for Ethan to their dying days, but I sent them letters now and then, just to let them know things was all right with us.

Noah lowered the sheet of paper, put his hands to his eyes, and wept. Now he understood the odd grief that had shadowed his parents. Once, his mother had caught him raiding a bowl of blackberries. He’d come up with cheeks as full as a chipmunk’s; but something had suddenly struck the laughter off his mother’s face, and she’d fled the room with her hand to her mouth.

Once he’d overheard his parents talking late at night when they thought he was asleep. His mother was crying, and his father was saying bitterly: “I should’ve swallowed my pride. I should’ve begged on the roadside!”

Noah looked up at the ceiling and blinked back new tears. He’d mostly accepted his parents’ death, but the shock of this strange news refreshed his grief. His parents had taken their secret pain to the grave with them. They’d never burdened their sons with it.

Noah shook his head and lifted the letter to read on.

And now I come to the real point of this letter. I owe you an apology, Noah. I swore to your parents that I’d never tell Ethan the truth, and I wish now that I had kept that promise, but I didn’t. It bothered me and Sarah that we were keeping something so important from our boy. Sarah, especially. When she was in her last illness, she told me that she could only die in peace if I promised to tell Ethan the truth. So I promised her.

When Ethan turned sixteen I figured the time was right. Your parents were still alive then, and it would’ve given Ethan the chance to go see them, if he’d a mind. I thought he’d be grateful to know the truth, but I was wrong.

Ethan blew up when I told him. It must’ve come as a shock to find out that the people he loved most had lied to him. I told him that to me and Sarah, he was just as much our boy as if he’d been born to us, but nothing calmed him down.

He packed his things that same day and left, and I haven’t seen him since. I’ve done my best to find him over the years. I even hired a detective, and the man was able to tell me where Ethan had been, but not where he was. I’ve left letters for him in those towns, in the hope that Ethan would find them and write me.

He never did.

I would’ve passed my estate down to Ethan, but I don’t even know if Ethan is alive, and so I give it to you, Noah. It’s my deepest wish that if Ethan ever does return, the two of you will run the Bar C together and live there as brothers.

Ethan was last seen in Denver two years ago. I’ve enclosed a likeness of him. I imagine you’re curious.

I’ve also enclosed the key to the ranch house if you’d rather rest there than in a boarding house. Jack will give you the rest of the keys. You can trust him; he’s a decent man.

If you ever do meet Ethan, be kind and long-suffering to him for my sake and for your parent’s. He may be prone to fits of temper, but he is your brother, and I know he’s a good young man at heart.

God bless you, Noah.

Warmly,

Abel

 

Noah sat staring at the letter for a moment after he read it, then shook the remaining contents of the envelope out into his palm. A small key and a daguerreotype came tumbling out.

Noah lifted the picture, and tears stung his eyes again. Abel and Ethan were standing side by side. Noah’s brows went up. Ethan looked so much like their father that it was like seeing him come to life again. Ethan had their father’s dark hair, blue eyes, and square, stubborn jaw. Even as a young man he looked big and tall, like all the Carter men.

Ethan looked as if he’d inherited the Carter temper, too. Noah sighed. The Carter men had been famous back in Virginia as a fractious bunch, short-tempered and quick to fight. Their paternal grandfather had killed a man in an argument. He had to leave town and abandon his wife and children to avoid being hanged.

Noah stared at the picture, tilted his head, and speculated that Ethan was about fifteen in it; but even at that age, his eyes were defiant. They stared directly into the camera, as if he was challenging the photographer to fight. Noah sighed and pulled his hand across his short, dark beard.

Blood will tell, I guess, he sighed. He’s a Carter all right.

Noah’s eyes lingered on Abel’s face briefly before he put the picture away. Funny thing: he could pass for Abel’s son, because it turned out that he looked more like Abel than he looked like his own father.

Noah sighed, folded the letter up, and stuffed it and the daguerreotype into his wallet. Then he reached for his jacket, shouldered back into it, and grabbed his hat.

He’d decided to take his uncle’s advice and spend the night at the Bar C. He’d drawn a snoring neighbor in the next room over, and the walls were thin.

Chapter Four

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