For Aaron Drake, his word was his bond. But when he promised his dying friend he'd "hold on to hope," Aaron had no idea what he was getting himself into. Because "hope" is Hope Gatlinhis friend's bride-to-be, already en route to Colorado. Aaron's duty is clear. He'll meet Hope at the train and ask her to be his wife. Yet who could have guessed that the woman would say no!
Agree to a marriage of obligation? No, Hope wouldn't do it. However, the more time Hope spends with the grieving widower, the more she finds herself falling for the sweet, protective man. But Hope will only marry for love. Can Aaron learn to care again?
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Boulder, Colorado 1891
Aaron Drake slapped the leather reins, racing his team of horses faster over the dry and dusty road toward the train station. It seemed that all of Boulder was out this evening, moving at a snail's pace through the city streets. His shirt was drenched in dirt and sweat from cutting down trees on this warm May day, but he took little notice as he kept his focus trained on the rutted street.
His good friend, Paul, had sent him to meet the five-forty train, although Aaron had no idea who or what was supposed to be waiting for him.
"Yee-haw! Get on!" he hollered to the team, swerving around a single horse carriage, parked off to the side of the road.
He swiped at beads of perspiration that trickled from beneath his straw hat not from heat but from the anxiety that had wrapped him tight.
Not more than three hours ago, Paul had been pinned beneath a felled tree. Aaron and his brothers, Ben and Zach, had been helping Paul harvest trees in order to build an addition onto his home. They'd been at it from sunup, chopping away at a record pace when the gigantic bur oak suddenly split three ways, barely missing Zach and pinning Paul beneath a section.
Now Paul was struggling to hang on to life, gasping for air even as he'd urged Aaron on to the train station.
Aaron hadn't wanted to leave, but he'd been desperate to do something to helpespecially as he recalled how many times Paul had been a lifesaving breath of encouragement in Aaron's bleakest hours over the past months.
Hold on to hope .
Those words had come hard but insistent from Paul as he lay gulping in pain.
Aaron slapped the reins and whistled to the team, praying that Paul would take a turn for the better by the time he returned. Would God hear his plea this time? The past ten months had played out as one senseless tragedy after another, and Aaron had been hard-pressed to find God in the midst of it all. In the grand scheme of things, he had to wonder if there was still hope to be found.
He just didn't know anymore. The day his newborn boy and his wife had died ten months ago had been the day a part of him had died, too.
Tugging his hat tighter over his forehead, Aaron kept his head low, avoiding the stares of several townsfolk. He rarely made an appearance outside work and church. He'd thrown himself into his job building fine pieces of furniture with his brother Joseph, and like so many of the buildings erected here in Boulder, he'd put on a respectable false front, keeping mostly to himself to avoid folks' pitying remarks. Life was just easier that way.
He'd started doubting that the pain of his loss would ever fade. The ache was always with him. Deep down, he blamed himself. And he blamed God. He longed for relief from the crushing weight of it all yet felt helpless to help himself.
Just as he'd been powerless to help Paul.
Pulling on the reins, he slowed the team of horses, drawing them up to the hitching post at the Union Pacific Railroad Depot as he pushed his silent struggle aside. He set the brake and glanced at his pocket watch. He'd made good time but was still twenty minutes late to meet the five-forty. From the ghostly trail of coal smoke lingering in the late afternoon sky, the train had already departed.
Aaron tethered the team and strode up to the platform, glancing around. He wasn't even sure what he was looking for. A package? A delivery of some sort? Maybe some distant relative come for a visit. Paul hadn't been specific, and with the way he'd labored to get out the few words he had, Aaron hadn't wanted to tax him for more information.
He jammed his hands into his pockets as images of the accident flashed through his mind. Clamping his jaw tight against the cavernous feeling of desperation, he dragged in a steadying breath and scanned the platform.
"Goodness gracious, what are you doing here, Aaron Drake?" a voice called with grating familiarity.
It was Mrs. Beatrice Duncanself-imposed town matron, bearer of any and all information and general busybody. She could irritate a man till he clamored to sit atop the nearest roof, but she could also warm a person's heart with her genuine demonstrations of concern. Right now, though, she was the last person he wanted to see.
He dragged up some good manners, then tipped his hat with a halfhearted nod. "Mrs. Duncan."
She beelined toward him, grabbed his upper arm and tugged him toward a small gathering of folks on the platform. "If this isn't perfect timing, I don't know what is. There's a special someone that I want you to meet."
"I'm kind of in a hurry." Aaron would've dug the heels of his worn boots into the thick wood, but he didn't want to put the woman off balance. "Maybe another time."
"No time like the present. That's what I'm always saying." She waved her hand in clear dismissal. "Say, I don't believe I mentioned it to you last time you were in the mercantile, but I arranged for my niece from up around Long-mont to have herself a nice little visit. Thought it'd be nice for the two of you to meet. And wouldn't you know she just came in on the train." The woman stopped cold in her tracks. The way she peered at him, as though she'd just snared a rabbit for dinner, made his gut clench with dread. "And then here you are, too," she added, her hinting words dropping like bread crumbs down a dark, dreary trail.
He wasn't hungry and didn't feel lost, either.
She perched a hand at her thick waistline and smiled like some well-fed house cat.
He could see what was coming just as clear as the errant wisps of bright orange hair framing Mrs. Duncan's round face. Folks had been trying to nudge him toward remarrying, and Mrs. Duncan had been leading the pack, but it'd take an act of God to get him to love again. He couldn'tnot after losing his beloved Ellie. It would feel too much like betrayal.
Ignoring her not-so-subtle manipulation, he did a quick scan of the platform. "I'm afraid I won't be able to meet her right now. There's been an accident out at Paul's place and"
"I heard all about that," Mrs. Duncan put in, as though referring to some trivial tidbit of information. "Poor soul."
Aaron set his back teeth in frustration. On the way into town he'd stopped and informed Sheriff Goodwin about Paul's accident, and apparently word had already spread. He could only imagine to what degree the story had been distorted by now.
He balled his fists against the trembling that still shook him deep as he recalled the desperate look on Paul's face as he'd pleaded for help. Aaron and his brothers had worked frantically to free him. Finally, with the aid of Paul's workhorses, they were able to lever the log off enough to pull him from beneath the overbearing weight. Maybe there was a chance
The grim expression on Ben's face had said more than any words memorized from his medical textbooks.
Once they'd gotten Paul back to the house, Aaron would've done anything if it meant relieving his friend's paineven a little. Paul had weakly pleaded, "Hold on to hope. Promise me you'll hold on to hope."
Aaron promised, gently squeezing his friend's hand to seal the vow.
"I heard that the sheriff sent for the minister. If you ask me that does not bear well for Paul." She gave her head a dismal shake. "Not at all. Folks only do that when they're taking their last bow before knocking on death's door."
"Mrs. Duncan, I'm sorry, but"
"Good thing you and your brothers were there. What was it that happened, anyways?" she prodded, angling her head his way. "Dora Trumm she heard tell"
"Really, I can't go into it this minute." Or any other minute. The situation was gruesome, and folks didn't need to hear every last detail of Paul's accident.
"Bea. Come on, we're heading out," Horace Duncan called as he gave Aaron an understanding kind of nod. "Gotta get this girl home before she collapses from her journey."
Mrs. Duncan narrowed her gaze on Aaron. "You'll have to stop over and have dinner with us so that you can meet my niece," she whispered, sliding her proud gaze to the lanky young woman with mouse-brown hair, a long face and even longer teeth. "I figure you're getting ready to start looking for a new wife. It's been what two years since Ellie passed?"
Aaron swallowed hard, realizing once again that his pain was his alone. No one really understood the way he suffered. "Ten months."
Her squinty eyes sprang open. "Land sakes, that just flew by."
In truth, the time had crept by, scraping nearly every bit of hope from Aaron's soul.
He couldn't go back in time and change what had happened, but conceding to the loss didn't mean he'd peacefully accepted any of it. He'd been struggling to turn over whatever fresh new leaf he could find in the floor of his soul, attempting to find some hope, but so far he'd found pitiful little.
"Bea, are you coming?" Horace called from halfway down the platform.
Mrs. Duncan gave her head a curt shake. "The girl's right as rain, sturdy as an oak, I tell you. But my Horace, he gets himself worked up into an impatient huff."
"You better not keep him waiting, then." Aaron breathed a sigh of relief as she bustled away to catch up to her family.
Shielding his eyes against the sun, Aaron wound around other passengers and those who'd come to greet them, then spotted a woman holding a parasol and an overstuffed satchel. She stood alone on the platform, flanked by five trunks, each big enough to outfit a small army. He glanced around, seeing no other passengers left unaccounted for and no parcels left unattended. Could this be who Paul had sent him to meet?
With a heavy step and an even heavier heart, he approached the woman, who labored to keep hold of her handbag, her parasol and at the same time tuck a fluff of green fabric down into her overstuffed carpetbag. She definitely didn't look as if she was from these parts, especially with the rich-looking, off-white gown she wore. Folks didn't dress like that around hereunless they were getting ready to walk down the aisle, of course. The graceful way she held herself once she got settled, staring off into the distance the way she was, made her appear almost like some fanciful statue, her dark hair gleaming like rich melted chocolate in the late sun.
He came to a stop and swept off his hat. "Excuse me, ma'am?"
She startled then pivoted to face him, nearly dropping her satchel. The brilliant smile lighting her fair face faded to obvious disappointment. "Yes?"
He inched the brim of his hat around in his hands. "Seems that you're waiting for someone. Am I right?"
She swept her gaze over a photograph she held. But when she attempted to tuck it into the side pocket of her bag, her parasol clattered down to the wood planks. "As a matter of fact, yes, I am. I'm sure he'll be here any moment."
"It looks like you have your hands full. Can I help?" He gave her a congenial smile as he bent to retrieve her parasol.
She eyed the frilly fashion contraption. "Thank you, sir. But I'm sure I'll be fine."
Aaron could've walked away right then, but the vulnerable look he glimpsed in her emerald gaze and the almost forlorn way she toiled to keep hold of all of her stuff nailed his feet to the wide-plank platform. "I don't mean to pry, but do you mind me asking who you're waiting for?"
She gave the hem of her fancy off-white bodice a gentle tug as though setting herself right, but as far as Aaron could tell, not one hair or fiber lay out of placecity slicker, no doubt. By the bird-in-a-roomful-of-cats look about her, she'd likely not be around long. Although when his focus drifted to the sea of enormous trunks that surrounded her like servants to some fair maiden, he had to wonder. It'd take a lifetime and then some to wear that many garments.
He glanced around one more time, certain he must've missed a parcel or passenger, because this woman surely couldn't have been who Paul had sent him after.
"I'm waiting for Mr. Thompson." She cleared her throat. "Mr. Paul Thompson. Do you know him?"
Aaron flipped his gaze to the woman. "Yes, I do."
He knew Paul almost as well as his own brothers. As sturdy on the outside as he was on the insidePaul's faith was unwavering.
Surely, there was something Aaron could've done to prevent the accident. Maybe if he'd been more attentive and noticed that the oak was splitting he could've warned Paul in time.
He pulled in a steadying breath. "Actually, Paul sent me to pick you up."
Confusion crossed her face, and that same faint look of disappointment came once again, making him feel downright awful. "I see. Was Paul detained, then?"
"I'll explain on the way out to his place. Why don't I get your trunks loaded up in the rig?" He glanced at the trunks again as he wondered what relation this woman was to Paul. And more, how he was going to break the news to her about the accident. "My name's Aaron Drake, by the way." He held out his hand to her, but her arms were too full to exchange any kind of handshake. "Here, let me take that for you."
"Thank you so much." The slightest blush colored her cheeks as she handed her bag to him. "It's nice to meet you, Mr. Drake."
"If you don't mind, Aaron is fine." Realizing that the satchel handle had ripped, he tucked it beneath his arm. "We're not much for pretense around here."
She paused. "All right then, Aaron."
"I'm a good friend of Paul'sbeen friends for years. Are you a relative of his?"
He took in her features, looking for some similarity, but where Paul was hearty and stocky in his build, this woman was delicate and refined. Her fair skin seemed as if to glow where Paul's skin showed the effects of countless hours of sunlight.
The hint of the smile he'd initially seen warmed her face. "I'm his bride-to-be."
"His what?" he choked out.
This woman was as opposite to Paul as a mountain lion was to one of Ben's pampered house cats. She seemed utterly unfit for the West. Was this some joke? Paul hadn't said anything, not one thing about some fancy bride-to-be. Surely, he would've shared this small bit of information. He'd often talked of having a wife and familysomedaybut he'd never indicated he was already halfway down the aisle.
"Did you say bride-to-be?"