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By Denise Hunter
Truly YoursCopyright © 1999 Barbour Publishing, Inc.
All rights reserved.
Sara Donaldson hunkered down low on the cellar steps. Above her shone a ribbon of light where the cellar door met the kitchen floor. Normally, a rug concealed the entrance, but now it was slightly askew after Sara's rush into the dark hiding place.
The shout, accompanied by the slam of the door, caused Sara to jump, and she bumped her head on the wooden door. A hand flew to cover her mouth.
"Sara, where are you, brat?" he slurred.
The sound of his heavy boots as he ascended the stairs to the second floor caused Sara to go limp. Perhaps when he didn't find her in her room he would collapse on his bed.
She clutched the bulky traveling bag to her stomach and settled back to wait, hoping she wouldn't miss her train. If she hadn't been waylaid on the way home from work by that pitiful dog, she'd be well on her way to the depot instead of being trapped in the damp cellar.
She shivered and snuggled deeper into her tattered overcoat. After her mother died, Sara had become the target of Pete's rampages. She winced with the memory of her mother's beatings. She knew she would never forget the sounds she'd heard from the sanctuary of her room—the gruesome sound of flesh pummeling flesh.
Her mother had worn the evidence of Pete's brutality like a badge of survival. The puffy discolorations on her face and body never had time to heal completely. Just as Sara had started to see some semblance of her mother's natural face, he'd repeat his brutal assault.
Some nights he would come home sober now, and others he would come home wild and ruthless. Last night had been the latter, and Sara's jaw smarted from the blow she'd received.
The edge of the wooden step dug into her thigh and she quietly shifted her weight to alleviate the discomfort. The rustling of paper reminded her of the envelope in her pocket. She slipped her hand into the cavity and curled her fingers around the well-worn paper.
Three months ago her best friend, Helen, had shown her the advertisement from the Boston Herald. "I thought you might find this interesting," Helen had said. The ad read:
Desire good Christian woman, age 21–28, to marry Kansas rancher.
Must be willing to live away from city.
Send letter of interest to:
Cedar Springs, Kansas
"You can't be serious! I don't know anything about this man. Aside from that, I'm only nineteen, as you well know. Anyway, he wants a religious woman."
After Helen left the room, Sara had tucked the ad into her pinafore to reread later. She wasn't an impetuous young woman, and what had made her save that ad, she didn't know. But on that day the thought was planted in her head, and it took root like a seedling in rich soil.
The thumping of heavy footsteps jerked Sara's mind to the present. Her heart rate accelerated, and she parted her lips to quiet her breathing. Pete could be like a panther when he was stalking someone. He'd found her more than once, and she'd paid for her evasiveness.
He reached the bottom of the stairs. His footsteps paused for a moment, then grew louder.
The floor above her groaned. She instinctively sank lower, wishing she could somehow melt into the grungy floor beneath her.
The step she huddled on creaked under her weight. The sound seemed to echo through the darkness. She squeezed her eyes shut and held her breath. The footsteps scraped to a halt directly overhead. Please, oh, please ...
The door above was flung open and light shattered her damp hiding place. Sara's scream caught in her throat.
"You worthless piece of garbage! How dare you hide from me!"
He grabbed the collar of her dress and hauled her up from the depths of the cellar like a wet kitten held by the scruff of its neck. The neck band tightened painfully around her throat and her bag fell to the floor with a thud. Her fingers pulled at the choking material, but she got relief only when Pete flung her across the table.
A muffled sob escaped as she hit the floor, landing on her right leg. She gasped for breath and looked up to see the murderous expression on Pete's face. He moved toward her.
Gathering her feet under her, Sara scooted backward, a futile effort that placed her against the wall behind her. Not for the first time, she pleaded. "Please ... I didn't ... I was only ..."
Pete stopped. Sara stared in confusion as he raised a hand to his head. He started to speak, then closed his mouth. His whole body wavered like a timbering tree. He shook his head, as if trying to clear it, and blinked several times in rapid succession. Sara watched, her breath caught in her throat. Pete took one final step forward before collapsing, taking a rickety chair down with him. His head hit the floor with a thump, only inches from her feet.
Sara sat, immobile. His eyes were closed, and he breathed shallowly through his gaping mouth, emitting fetid puffs of breath.
She cautiously slid up the wall. Stepping around his massive body, she grabbed her bag, then scrambled across the room. The room passed in a blur, and Sara made no effort to be quiet as she threw the door open, letting it bang against the wall.
Without delay she dashed over the threshold and scurried down the wet street, sloshing through puddles in her rush. Her pale yellow dress billowed out behind her as she disappeared into the fray of wagons and pedestrians.CHAPTER 2
Nathan McClain had just finished rubbing down the black stallion when the heavens opened up and shot volleys of cold water into the dry dirt. He'd known it was coming, had smelled the promised rain in the air, and was grateful to be in the barn for the moment.
He led Thunder to his stall, shut the gate, and shoved his worn black hat on his head. He bounded the fifty yards to the farmhouse, his hat little protection from the deluge, then vaulted up the wooden steps, two at a time, to the wraparound porch. After removing his hat and boots, he stepped into the house and was greeted by the aroma of Hetty's mouthwatering pot roast.
"Nathan, is that you?"
"Yeah, Hetty. Sorry I'm late." He padded into the kitchen.
Hetty's husband, Gus, shoveled a heaping spoon of potatoes into his mouth. "You'd best get to eatin' if you want me to save you any."
Hetty snapped a towel at Gus. "Never you mind this husband of mine. There's plenty for the three of us, with leftovers, too. Why don't you scoot upstairs and get yourself into some dry clothes? I'm keepin' a plate warm for you."
"Think I might just do that."
Minutes later Nathan reappeared, wearing cotton trousers and a blue plaid shirt. Hetty removed his plate from the top of the stove and set it in front of him as he seated himself at the head of the table.
"Did you take Thunder out for some exercise?" Gus pushed his plate away and leaned back in the sturdy oak chair.
"Yeah, that's why I was late."
"Listen to that," said Gus, referring to the rain pattering on the roof. "Looks like spring has finally arrived."
"Not a moment too soon for me," Hetty said. "You know how anxious I am to get those vegetables planted. There's nothin' like puttin' seeds in the earth and lettin' God grow us some tasty food."
"Don't get too anxious now, darlin'. We may be in for some late frost this year. Weather's been mighty cold for April."
"Don't I know it! It's been messin' with my garden plans! Why, if it doesn't warm up soon, our crops won't be in before cold sets in again!"
When Nathan finished his food, Hetty cleared the dishes and hung the towel to dry.
Gus rose from the table and went to collect his hat. "You 'bout ready, darlin'? This old man is tired tonight."
"Oh, Gus, you're only forty-nine. Besides, you've got more pep than most twenty-year-olds." Hetty joined him at the door.
Gus laughed and looked pointedly at Nathan. "You see there, Nathan? That's why you need a wife. Keeps you thinkin' you're young!"
"Now hush up, Gus. That boy don't need no advice from you."
Once they'd gone to their cabin, Nathan stoked the fire, then lowered his body into the tan, fabric-covered chair, his considerable weight causing it to groan in protest. His black shoulder-length hair was still damp on the ends where his hat had not covered it. The house was silent, except for the crackling of the fire, punctuated by an occasional snap.
Nathan settled back in the chair and let himself reflect on the last ten months. It was hard to believe Pop had been gone that long. The night he'd died had been the saddest of Nathan's life, but he couldn't help being relieved that Pop's suffering was over.
He was in a better place now—probably griping to his wife about what a stubborn boy she'd left him to raise alone. The corner of Nathan's mouth rose as he pictured his wiry pop laying into the mother Nathan had never known. She'd been a sturdy woman, judging by the portrait that hung over the fireplace. Her wavy brown hair had been worn up, and she'd had green eyes; Pop had said they were greener than grass in the springtime. Nathan had never known her, though. Never grieved for her the way he'd grieved for Pop.
The pain he'd felt at his father's passing had soon turned to hurt and anger when an attorney named VanCleeves, from Wichita, appeared on his doorstep just three days after Pop's death.
His father, Mr. VanCleeves informed him, had hired him to draw up a will at the beginning of his illness. Nathan accepted the envelope Mr. VanCleeves drew from his suit coat pocket, and read it. The wording was complex—almost foreign—to Nathan.
He regarded Mr. VanCleeves with a blank look and shook his head. "I'm sorry, but I'm afraid the meaning just isn't sinking in."
"Quite all right, Mr. McClain; I'm happy to explain. As you know, your father held the deed to the McClain Ranch, which his father had passed on to him." Nathan nodded and Mr. VanCleeves continued. "Naturally, your father wanted to pass the ranch on to you, you being his only child and all. He knew that this ranch has been your life ever since you were old enough to sit in a saddle. He was worried that you would go through life dedicated solely to running the ranch."
Nathan's brows drew together. "What are you getting at, Mr. VanCleeves?"
"Let me speak plainly to you, Mr. McClain. Your father confided in me that he felt if things were left as they are, you might never marry and start a family of your own. He didn't see interest on your part in your settling down and taking a wife. Of course, he realized there are few marriageable young women in the area. But still, more than anything, he desired to see you happily married, with a lovely woman and children to call your own. I'm sure you're aware of the deep love your father had for your mother. You see, Mr. McClain, he wanted that for you as well."
"I know all this, Mr. VanCleeves. My father was always trying to persuade me to take someone to a church social or a picnic, and I would do it. Still do sometimes. But I have no desire to marry. I just can't see myself settling down with a woman, and my father knew that. I'm content with my life here on the ranch. It's what I know ... what I love."
"I'm glad we're getting back to the ranch, son, because that's what the will is all about. It states, as per your father's wishes, that you will inherit the deed to the McClain Ranch immediately. However, if after twelve months from your father's death you are not yet married, the ranch is to be sold. You will, of course, be entitled to all proceeds from the—"
"Sold! He couldn't have done that! This ranch has been in our family for three generations. Why would he force me into a marriage I don't want?" A relieving thought burst into his mind. "There's a way out of this, right? A man can't be forced to marry. My father's gone now. What difference could it possibly make if I were just given the deed?"
"Technically, Mr. McClain, you're not being forced to marry. You may instead sell the ranch after twelve months' time. As for the document itself, I'm afraid it's a perfectly legal will and I'm bound by law to see that its provisions are carried out to the letter."
Nathan sank into the nearest chair and ran a hand through his hair.
"I'm sorry to deliver this shock to you. I can see you need some time to adjust to the news. If you have any questions, feel free to contact me at my office in Wichita. The address is on the document."
Mr. VanCleeves saw himself out, and Nathan sat in the chair for what seemed like hours.
The next two months passed in a blur, and he found himself caught in a maelstrom of emotions, grieving one moment, angry the next. A haze of confusion enveloped him as he struggled to understand the reasoning behind his father's strange will. It was easier to dwell on his emotions than face the decisions he knew he had to make.
Nathan shared the news with no one; those around him attributed his moodiness to his father's death. Even Hetty left him alone to his thoughts. Not that he could blame her. He'd been as cranky as an old grizzly.
Six months had passed by the time he reached a decision. Marriage, unappealing as it sounded, was better than losing the ranch.
That decided, he considered whom to ask. Laura Reed was nice enough, and he'd known her most of his life, but it really wouldn't be fair to her. She deserved a normal marriage with a husband who loved her. And she was more like a sister to him than a wife. Besides, Mrs. Reed would be an unbearable mother-in-law.
He'd courted other young ladies but most of them were married now. And the others— well, he just couldn't picture it. Mara Lawton was new to town and she'd practically thrown herself at him, but he'd heard about her cruel rejection of Daniel Parnell and had concluded that she was a bit too snooty for his liking.
He didn't know where the idea came from. One minute he was saddling up Starbuck, the next he was planning what the advertisement would say. After he prayed about it, he listed it in the Boston Herald and waited to see what the response would be.
About a week after the advertisement appeared, there were three letters from Boston waiting for him at the post office. The next day there were two. They flowed in steadily for about a week. He had no idea so many young ladies would want to marry a Kansas rancher. It could make a man heady to think so many women would have him. Except they didn't know him from Adam. If Mrs. Leighton at the post office noticed the sudden spurt of letters—all from Boston—she didn't say anything. At least not to him.
The fourth letter he received was from a Miss Sara Donaldson. He knew when he read it that she was the one. She described herself as five feet three inches tall, slim, darkhaired, and twenty-one years old. She desired to start a new life out West, away from the city. What appealed to him most about the letter was its tone. The others ran the gamut from gushy to downright prissy, but Miss Donaldson's sounded sensible and matter-offact. Almost detached. This was what he wanted. A wife, yet not really. She didn't sound like someone given to teary episodes or hurt feelings, someone he'd have to tiptoe around all the time. She was probably plain-looking—who else would choose a husband from an ad?—but that didn't matter so much to him. In fact, he preferred it. That would make it easy for him to maintain a distance. No need to go getting involved with her.
He waited until the letters began to taper off, then wrote a letter telling Miss Donaldson that he'd been impressed with her letter and would appreciate it if she would meet him in Wichita in late April. He assured her the train fare would be taken care of and asked that she write and let him know if this was agreeable—and if it was, when she would arrive.
He received her reply shortly after he sent his letter. She would arrive in Wichita April 26, on the 6:00 train.
The flames slowly came into focus as his thoughts returned to the present. Three days away and he hadn't even told Hetty and Gus. He'd tell them tomorrow. Not the whole story, but at least the part about Miss Donaldson and his ad. There was no telling how they'd react. In fact, there was no telling how the town of Cedar Springs would react.CHAPTER 3
The blaring whistle of the steam locomotive startled Sara awake. She reached into her pocket. The timepiece she kept there read 8:00. Sara yawned. She would be glad to get into a genuine bed and sleep peacefully for an entire night.
Her thoughts carried her in another direction; tonight she would meet the man who would be her husband.
Helen had had her best interests at heart when she showed Sara that ad. Only Helen knew the truth of Sara's circumstances. Only Helen cared enough to help her find a way out.
It was her dear friend who had helped her compose her first letter to Mr. McClain. The contents of it made her a little uneasy even now. His advertisement had requested a Christian woman, and while she wasn't particularly religious, she did have a Bible, and she considered herself to be a good person. She'd also written that she was twenty-one years old—a fifteen-month exaggeration—since he'd requested an older woman. Other than that, she'd been completely honest, although she had omitted the details concerning her desire to leave Boston. There was no need to give him any ideas, after all.
Excerpted from Stranger's Bride by Denise Hunter. Copyright © 1999 Barbour Publishing, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Truly Yours.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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