It was a wet day in Cross Creek, Texas. The dirt roads were pitted with mud holes and nearly washed out by the creek that gave the town its name. Coaches slogged through the muck and created ruts that only deepened with the next coach. The whole town mourned the loss of Douglas Ittner. He’d been the kind of man to show up to church every Sunday and check in during the week to make sure that Lenora, the church secretary, was doing all right. Of course, she usually had a basket of muffins for him to take home as well. She, like every other widowed woman in town, had hoped to become his next wife.
He was close to the owner of the saloon and the other local ranchers, and the whole town thought of him as a friend. There were bright smiles wherever he went. Even the horses seemed to respond to him like no other.
They all felt the loss, but for Georgiana Ittner, her world was crumbling. Last week, her father had been strong and healthy and berating her for choosing the ranch over a husband. Now he was gone, taken by an illness that had been swifter than the wind.
“Georgie,” Marjory whispered. “Georgie, I don’t think I can do this.”
“It’s all right, darling.” Wrapping an arm around her fifteen-year-old sister, Georgie kissed the top of Marjory’s head. Sitting on the other side of her, Markus, Marjory’s twin, grabbed her hand and squeezed. They were just returning from the funeral at the church, a long drawn out affair, and now everyone was returning to the Ittner ranch for the wake.
Georgie knew just how Marjory felt. None of them had slept last night. She’d been too shocked to even think of going to bed, and she knew the twins had felt the same. Harriette, her younger sister, had returned with her husband Solomon late last night, and they’d just sat around the fire and stared at each other.
She hadn’t been able to cry yet. Marjory wailed, and even Markus, who wanted to be strong and manly, shed some tears. Harriette’s eyes were rimmed red and her cheeks puffy, but Georgie just felt numb.
They’d lost their mother seven years ago when the twins were just children, and Georgie accepted the role of taking care of the family, but her father hadn’t abandoned them. He’d kept the family together, and now that he was gone, she didn’t know if she could do it.
The twins were still in school. Markus was old enough to work, but Douglas had always dreamt that his boy would go to a university and become something important like a lawyer. Marjory, of course, was still too young to marry, but Georgie wanted her little sister to find her independence outside of a husband and marry for love like Harriette had done.
So she would raise the twins like her father had planned and prepare them for their futures and manage the large horse ranch. Somehow. Georgie loved the work even though her father wasn’t keen on having her work so much. He wanted her to marry and settle down and have a family of her own, but she didn’t understand men as much as she understood horses. She understood their wants and needs. She could talk to them, and they didn’t judge her or condemn her ideas. Sometimes, she felt like they could see into her soul.
“If you want to go to bed when we get back, that’s fine. Everyone will understand,” she tried to assure her sister. “Markus, how do you feel?”
His lips trembled, but he nodded his head resolutely. “I’m fine, Georgie. I’ll stay and greet everyone.”
“Then so will I,” Marjory murmured as she straightened and wiped her cheeks. Georgie couldn’t help smiling. Since they’d learned to walk, Marjory and Markus were attached to the hip. As they grew older, Markus used to pretend to be annoyed with the fact that he was a twin, but the truth was that whenever they were separated, he would wait anxiously until they could be together again. If Markus would stay, then Marjory would try. They needed each other.
“All right, but if you need to be alone or you need to rest …”
“I’ll make sure that she gets to her room,” Markus interrupted. “I’ll watch out for her. You don’t have to worry about us, Georgie.”
“Sweet boy, when are you going to learn that I am always worried about my loved one.’ Georgie smiled gently. The coach stopped, and Georgie inhaled sharply. They were here. Home.
Although it didn’t feel like a home without her father.
“Mind your dress, Marjory. The ground will be wet,” she said quietly as she opened the door. Picking up her own skirts, she carefully descended and looked behind them. The other coaches were lining up with townspeople. Most brought dishes to help feed the masses, and Lee Ann, their housekeeper, had agreed to stay behind and help get the house ready. It broke Georgie’s heart to ask just as it probably broke Lee Ann’s heart to agree. Although her father had never said anything, Georgie always suspected that Lee Ann was the reason that her father never remarried.
The large beige two-story farmhouse was their father’s pride and joy. He’d built it with his bare hands when he was courting their mother in an attempt to woo her when she proved too stubborn to marry him. He used to say that he’d poured all his love into that house, and he’d told their mother that if she married him, they’d be protected in that house, and she would also be surrounded by warmth and happiness.
In that house, they’d raised four children, and Georgie always felt that her father had been right. The love had been there.
Would it still be there now that her father was gone?
“Georgie, are you coming?”
Realizing that she was lost in her thoughts, she blinked and looked at Harriette. They shared the same hazel eyes, traits from their mother, and the same small frame and dainty nose. Although she was two years older than Harriette, she always appeared younger because she was nearly half a foot shorter. Harriette was willowy, slender, and graceful whereas Georgie had always been curvier and more awkward.
The twins were tall and slender as well. They shared their father’s chestnut hair with Harriette, but Marjory had been graced with her mother’s dark auburn tresses. For years, Harriette used to lament that she didn’t have any red in her hair. It got to the point that Georgie had threatened to cut hers off if her sister didn’t stop. Sometimes, the only way to stop her sister’s dramatics was to be just as dramatic.
They’d used to be close, but that year leading up to her wedding to Sol, Harriette had become jealous and more spiteful over little things. Georgie and her father shared a special bond because of their love for horses, but he loved all his children equally. Harriette didn’t understand that. She used to slyly point out on multiple occasions how she was marrying first even though Georgie didn’t mind. Georgie had no use for a husband.
Georgie had often wished that marriage would settle Harriette down, but she’d barely even seen her sister after the marriage. Harriette wanted nothing to do with the ranch. Her new husband ran the general store in the next town over, and she took advantage of the extra social time. She rarely came back to visit her family.
Maybe now they could somehow mend the rift between them.
“Yes, of course. I’m coming.” Picking up her skirts, she followed her sister inside.
Lee Ann had done a wonderful job with the house. She’d pushed the furniture back against the walls to make more room, and she’d added the extensions to the banquet table to make room for all the food. The dining room chairs and stools were moved to the living room, and she’d moved the footstools from the bedrooms to create more seats for the guests.
She’d thought of everything.
Quietly slipping through the growing crowd, she found the older housekeeper in the kitchen fussing over a pie. In her mid-fifties, she’d raised her own kids and even had some grand babies that she visited often. Her beautiful gold-spun hair was greying, and she had more wrinkles, but she was still a beautiful woman with a wonderful heart. For a long time, Georgie had looked to the woman for the guidance that she would have gotten from her mother. It was easy to see why her father had kept her around, and she feared the day that Lee Ann would tell her that she couldn’t work anymore. Georgie herself was only a passable cook, and Marjory was a terrible one. Not to mention the enormous task of trying to keep the house clean.
“Lee Ann,” Georgie whispered. “Everything looks and smells wonderful. I can’t thank you enough.”
“There’s no need to thank me,” Lee Ann said as she turned and grabbed Georgie’s hands. Smiling through the tears, she squeezed them. “You know that I adore you and the twins and would do anything for you. How was the service?”
“It was lovely although the weather is abysmal. I want you to stop working and fussing now,” Georgie demanded. “I want you to join the rest of the guests and enjoy yourself as much as you can. Right now, you’re not a housekeeper. You’re a member of this family, and you should have time to mourn.”
Lee Ann nodded her head and wiped her tears. “There will be plenty of time to mourn, but I think I’d like to hear about how everyone loved your father.”
Just like she did.
“Go on. I need to speak to father’s solicitor in the office, and then I’ll be joining everyone. Markus has promised to keep an eye on Marjory, so there’s no need for you to worry about anything.”
“In that case, I’ll keep an eye on Markus. You know that boy. He’s always too busy looking after his sister to mind himself,” Lee Ann said as she undid her apron. Beneath, she wore the blue dress that Douglas had always said looked so pretty on her. Smoothing a callous hand over her blonde hair, she took a deep breath as if she was fortifying herself.
Georgie’s heart broke as she watched the housekeeper walk into the living room. When they thought that no one was looking, Lee Ann and her father would exchange glances that made Lee Ann blush and stutter. Her father would often take her hand, which she would immediately snap away, but a few minutes later, she’d find a reason to touch Georgie’s father’s arm.
Georgie didn’t know what had kept them from embracing their relationship, but she knew that Lee Ann more than anyone was having regrets right now.
Gathering herself, she turned and headed to her father’s study. As she stepped in, she felt the memories were smacking her in the face and taking her breath away. When she was younger, her father would sit at the mahogany desk and bounce her up and down on his knee while he looked over the books and drank his bourbon. When she was older, she’d sit in that maroon leather chair and argue with her father about changes that he needed to the ranch to keep up with the times.
Now she would never see him at the desk again.
James Pace, their solicitor, had a wife who was seven months pregnant. The missus wanted to give birth at her sister’s house up north, so James was leaving in the morning. Georgie hated talking about business on the day of her father’s funeral, but she understood his reasons.
To her surprise, James wasn’t alone in the study. Harriette and Sol were in there as well. “Georgie,” James said in his low and gravelly voice. “I am so sorry that we’re having to do this now. Really, if there was anything that I could do …”
Holding up her hands, she stopped him. “There’s nothing that you need to apologize for,” she said as she tried to smile at him. “Just let me know what we need to do to transfer the deed for the ranch.”
As he cleared his throat, James looked from her to Harriette and back again. “About that, Georgie, I’m afraid that the ranch won’t go to you.”
“What do you mean? Father didn’t name me in the will?”
“He did,” the solicitor said slowly, “but I can’t legally pass it on to you. The law says that land can only be inherited by a married woman and a man. Since Markus isn’t of age yet, the ranch reverts to Harriette.”
Georgie’s resolve cracked just a little as she swung her head to stare at her sister. “Did you know this?”
“Sol suspected something like this might happen,” her sister said softly. When Georgie continued to stare at her, Harriette’s face grew red with angry. “Before you climb up on your soap box and remind me that I have no business running a horse ranch, I’ll tell you that Sol and I have no desire to take the precious ranch away from you.”
“Harriette,” Georgie cried out as her heart broke just a little more. “That is not what this is about. I’m just stunned.”
“It’s all right.” Sol reached out and grabbed his wife’s hand. Tall and broad with a head of thick brown hair and thin gold-rimmed glasses, he was the quiet voice to Harriette’s temper. Although Georgie had never thought that Harriette would end up with a man more brains than brawn, she could tell that they fit. “Georgie knows that you’re not here to hurt her.”
“Where does that leave us?” Georgie asked.
James took the pile of papers that he’d placed on the desk, shuffled them neatly, and placed them in his case. “That leave us with this. Because it is your father’s funeral, I was not able to speak with you, and since I am leaving first thing in the morning, it will be at least three months before I return to file any paperwork. If you are married when I return, then the ranch can legally pass to you.”
“Well, that’s wonderful,” Harriette breathed as she clapped her hands. “Everyone knows that you’re going to marry Leo anyway, so now is the perfect time, and he’ll be an asset around the house and with the horses.
Georgie immediately stiffened. She was having a hard time reconciling herself with the fact that she was going to have to marry in three months. She certainly wasn’t ready to think about marrying Leo Orrick.
“Thank you, James. Please stay and have some food and join in on the stories. If I don’t see you before you leave, I hope that you have a safe trip, and your wife has a healthy delivery. I can’t wait to snuggle your baby when you return,” she said briskly. She wanted this whole atrocity behind her so she could focus on celebrating her father’s life.
“Ladies, I am so sorry for your loss. Douglas was one of the best men that I knew. This town is going to mourn him for years to come.” Touching her arm gently, he smiled at them before walking out of the office. Harriette and Sol followed them casting her uncertain looks before they followed him out.
Marriage. It was just one more burden on her shoulder, and her knees started to shake. She wasn’t sure how much more of today she could take. Gripping the back of the chair, she closed her eyes and took a deep breath. Now was not the time to fall apart, but she wanted the tears to come. She wanted to release some of the tension in her body, but all she felt was anxiety. After putting off her father’s desire for years that she marry, it looked like she was going to have to make her way to the church alter anyway. Who on earth was she supposed to find as a husband?
The ranch was profitable and would draw fortune seekers, but she didn’t want just anyone. The horses weren’t to be exploited. They were to be cherished. Not to mention the twins. Although they weren’t children, she still needed to know that she could trust her husband with them.
It was all just too much, but she took a deep breath and straightened. She couldn’t hide in the office forever, and she wouldn’t be able to solve her problems today.
Knowing that she needed to make an appearance at the wake, she walked back to the kitchen and promptly ran into the person that she never wanted to see.
Leo’s father and her father were best friends although it didn’t start out that way. He’d owned the only other horse ranch in town, and their relationship grew out of a heated competition until Douglas bought out his horses. Since then, Leo’s father had turned the horse ranch into a cotton farm, and they’d become close friends.
When Georgie turned sixteen, her father started dropped subtle hints that she should consider Leo as a husband in a few years, especially since Leo had no interest in cotton and had a talent with horses. At first, she’d been interested. Leo was only a few years older than her, handsome, charming, and well liked by all. She’d already developed a healthy schoolgirl crush on him. He was the golden boy of the town with the handsome face and the charming smiles.
Then his father had died, and on the eve of his funeral, she’d witnessed him in the barn mistreating the horses. After that, she watched him closely and without the eyes of a starry-eyed girl. The more she saw of him, the more she saw the darkness in him. The smiles that never quite reached his eyes. The sweet words that never seemed genuine. The idea of marrying him and introducing him to her babies was more than she could take, and she vowed never to marry him.
When their mother died, she’d used the twins as an excuse, and everyone said they understood. Everyone except her father, but she couldn’t tell him the truth because she knew that it would break his heart.
“Georgie.” His face was drawn in sympathy as he immediately wrapped his large arms around her and pulled her into a hug. “I am so sorry. Douglas was such a wonderful man. He was there for me when I lost my father, and I will be here for you now. I understand what you’re going through, my dear.”
She stiffened in his embrace and tried not to shiver in disgust. Politely extricating herself, she smoothed a hand over her skirts. “Thank you, Leo. I appreciate your condolences.”
“I know that you need time to mourn, and I’m willing to give you however much time that you need. Just know that I am here for you, and when you’re ready, I’m ready to take our relationship to the next level.”
Relationship? Georgie almost laughed in his face. His patience had obviously grown thin, and for the last year, she’d had to use some creative methods to dodge him. He might think that they had a relationship, but she’d been sure to never find herself alone with him and never to favor his smiles or encourage his advances. She wouldn’t even sit next to him at church.
“Leo, I …”
“Georgie, I know you need to marry,” he said in a low voice. “I know the law. Harriette doesn’t want the ranch, but she’s going to get it anyway. I can help you with that.”
He needed to be more careful. His words were starting to sound more like a threat than a comfort. “Leo, I just buried my father. I can’t think about that right now. If you’ll excuse me, I need to check on the twins. I’m expected in the living room.”
“Of course. I understand.”
As he stepped aside, she squeezed past him in the hall and headed to the living room. On the way, she spotted the newspaper on the table in the foyer. Lee Ann must have missed it when she was straightening it. Picking it up, she unfolded it out of habit as she walked to the kitchen to put it away.
Her eyes scanned over most of the news until she caught the posts at the bottom. She’d seen them every week and never thought much about them, but now her breath caught in her throat, and she looked up anxiously. She couldn’t, could she?
Bending her head, she looked at the first post.
Youngest Daughter Seeks Husband. Eighteen years of age. Can cook, clean, sew, and sing. Willing to travel.
Perhaps the answer to her problems wasn’t the charming Leo who had a hidden cruel streak but a perfect stranger.
A mail order husband.
The sun was blazing in the skies above as Jeremy stabbed the bale of hay with his pitchfork and lifted it off the wagon and into the fields. Cattle grazed without a care in the world for as far as the eye could see and sweat dribbled down his forehead. Three days of freedom, and he was still doing manual labor.
At least now he was getting paid.
Tossing down the pitchfork and fishing out the canteen, he took a long drink and patted the flank of the dappled mare in front of the wagon. “I have to say, you’re better company than what I’m used to. No complaints. No whining. No moaning about how you’re innocent. And you certainly pull your weight.”
The horse snorted and swung her head around to stare at him. He winked. “You smell better than most of them too.”
“Talking to the horses, now?” Gaffney asked as he pulled the brim of his hat a little lower and walked down the path toward him. “I had my suspicions about you when I hired you, Mayhew, but I didn’t think you were crazy.”
“Crazy or not, the job is done,” Jeremy pointed out. An hour earlier than the ranch manager had wanted, too. That meant he was either going to earn some extra coin today or he would be spending a little extra time at the saloon.
“Yep. You did good, too. I’ll ride back with you to the barn.” Hopping up in the seat, he waited until Jeremy climbed aboard and urged the wagon back. As far as ranch workers went, Gaffney wasn’t all that bad. He wasn’t above getting his own hands dirty, and he seemed to like the work. Jeremy was even more impressed when he saw that the older ranch manager had a slight limp. It was probably an injury from the war. Even out here in the west, he saw the decimation that the battles had left behind. Broken men. Some were young boys who had signed up with dreams of grandeur. Others were older men who thought they were fighting for the right reasons.
They all came back looking the same.
In addition to being loyal to the land and the work, Gaffney also didn’t ask a mountain of questions about Jeremy’s past which Jeremy appreciated.
Leaning over to spit out a wad of tobacco, the older man cleared his throat and straightened. “I know you’re done for the day, but I had a worker who didn’t show and a cow about to give birth. You spend the night and keep an eye on her, and I’ll throw in a bonus for you.”
“Yeah?” Jeremy shrugged. “That could work. You got anything for me in the morning?”
“The owners will be back tomorrow. They aren’t too keen on me hiring wanderers.”
Jeremy doubted that was true. Gaffney didn’t seem like someone who bent the rules when the bosses were away. Slowly, he turned his head and stared at the man. “You went into town today. I guess you asked around about me.”
“You told me that you spent some time working at the ranches in Patience. I know someone who’s got family there, and Patience is the town closest to the prison up there. I’m sorry, Mayhew. You’ve done good work here, and if it were up to me, I’d keep you on for as long as I can. You work harder than all the other men here, but the bosses have this rule. No convicts.”
Grunting, Jeremy leaned back. “As far as rules go, it’s not a bad one. So why are you giving me an extra night?”
“Like I said, you’re a hard worker. I figure you just got out, so you need the extra money. I feel bad that I can’t do more.”
“You’re the only person I know who feels bad for a convict.” As the wagon rolled out, he looked along the plains and breathed in deeply. His five years in prison had been a nightmare. He still remembered the day that they came for him. Five U.S. marshals and the local sheriff just for him. He hadn’t been afraid. He knew that it was coming, and he didn’t bother putting up a fight. The trial had been a calm and collected affair, and he’d faced his prison term. It was probably less than he deserved, and the memories of his last job didn’t haunt him any less.
Jeremy didn’t even realize the toll his body had paid until he was walking along the dusky road for freedom and finally relaxed for the first time in five years.
“I figured a man as young as you didn’t get sent away for murder unless you escaped before your sentence was done.”
Gaffney was aiming for the truth, and Jeremy figured that the man earned it. He was throwing him a bone. “Robbery,” he muttered.
“Well, just don’t plan on stealing anything here.”
“Trust me, I’m not planning on doing anything that would get me sent away again. I’m on the road to redemption.” He didn’t think that he could stomach another moment behind bars.
The wagon rolled to the stop in front of the barn, and Jeremy slid off his seat.
The road to redemption. A quiet life under the open skies and doing honest work. Jeremy could handle that, even if that meant leaving his hidden fortune behind.
That night, Jeremy sat in the dark and met the solemn gaze of the cow who was moving slowly but restlessly around the pasture. Looking for a place to give birth, no doubt. Gaffney was right. His heifer would probably go into labor in about twenty-four hours, but it wouldn’t be tonight.
An owl hooted in the distance, and Jeremy looked up at the stars and took a deep breath. The stench wafting off the livestock nearly took his breath away, but he didn’t even care. Every night of his freedom had been spent looking up into the night sky and taking in the stars. Before, they hadn’t meant much to him, but there were certain things that he’d missed in those five years, and the stars were one of them.
“This is how you enjoy your nights now, Jeremy? Sleeping with the cows?” a familiar voice cut through the night.
Stiffening, Jeremy slowly sat up and dropped his hand down by the gun that lay in the grass next to him. Only one figure walked towards him, and while they had history, it didn’t mean that Carter wasn’t dangerous. He’d already proven that his loyalty was with their old crew.
Jeremy’s old crew. Carter hadn’t quit.
“My pockets were a little light when I got out,’ Jeremy said in a casual voice. “I’m doing a few extra jobs to get back on my feet again.”
“Back on your feet?” Carter snorted as he sat down on the chair that Jeremy had next to his bedroll. Tall and lanky, Jeremy’s old friend wore a dusty brown wide-brim hat even though there was no need to protect his eyes from the sun. His pistol swung on the holster by his side, but Carter didn’t make a move to go for it. He either didn’t know Jeremy had his finger on the trigger of his own weapon, or he knew that Jeremy would hesitate before shooting.
There was a time when Carter was Jeremy’s closest friend, an adopted brother, but times change.
“Yeah. Back on my feet. I’ve spent five years in prison,” Jeremy reminded him although there was no need. To help clear his conscience, Jeremy named several of the more dangerous crew members during his trial, and during his five years of incarceration, he’d seen more than one familiar face. Carter, however, was one name that he kept to himself. In spite of everything that they had been through, he couldn’t turn him in.
Carter shrugged. “You got lucky. It was your first offense, but five years is still an awfully short sentence. The crew, well, they wanted you dead after what you’d done, and I couldn’t blame them.”
“Really, Carter? After all that we’ve been through, you would have killed me?”
“You hid the loot. You turned on us, and them you took what belonged to us!” Carter hissed. “What choice did we have?”
“You didn’t deserve it. None of you.” Slowly, Jeremy stood and gritted his teeth. He’d made some mistakes in his life, but that last job, robbing that stagecoach, would haunt him until the day that he died. If it was the last thing he was going to do, he’d make sure that not a single member of his crew profited after that horrendous day.
If Carter felt at all threatened, he didn’t show it. Instead, he leaned back in the chair and tipped his hat back to stare down at Jeremy. “You were always a fool. What we did was dangerous. Did you really think that no one was going to get hurt?”
It was useless to argue. The night before the heist, he’d stared at Carter and wondered when things had changed between them, and now, he knew that Carter’s loyalties were with the crew. There was nothing left of their friendship, and it made Jeremy’s heart ache. “There’s nothing left of the bounty. I sold off what I could and gave the money back, leaving a little in every church that I passed as I rode to get away from you. If you’re looking for it, you’re going to be looking for a long time.”
“I happen to know that you’re lying,” Carter said as he slowly rose to his feet and put his hand to the holster of his gun. They eyed each other under the dim light of the moon. “I followed you for six days, and you didn’t go into any church. I bet you were afraid that God would strike you dead.”
Six days. That meant that Carter had no idea where Jeremy had stashed the loot because it was two weeks before Jeremy parted with it. It also meant that Carter had followed Jeremy for almost a week before Jeremy lost him, and that was five years ago. How was he going to get to the loot now? He needed to evade Carter, and he was out of practice.
“Just so you know, you’re still alive because we haven’t found where you hid the loot. That’s good for you, Jeremy. Give it to us, and we can part ways real friendly like. You can live your life and never have to worry about us.”
The air between them was tense and heavy as they continued to stare at each other, each with their hands gripping the handles on their guns. In the distance, some of the cows mooed, and Jeremy exhaled slowly and relaxed. Releasing his hold on his weapon, he rolled his shoulders. “Fine, but it’s been five years, and I didn’t exactly draw a map to it. I’m going to need some time to find it and dig it up.”
“Sure thing,” Carter said as he relaxed as well. “I’ll be sticking around to keep you company. I’m sure that I can help you dig.”
“I’m doing a job here, and I won’t get paid if the ranch manager finds you with me in the morning. Get a room at the inn, and I’ll meet you for breakfast,” Jeremy instructed as he sat down.
“The thing is that I don’t trust you, Jeremy. Your loyalties have been skewed in the past, but we used to be friends, and I don’t want to mess up your job here. You won’t be given a cut of the bounty, so you’re going to need the money. I tell you what. I’ll go ahead and get that room, and I’ll even treat you to breakfast in the morning. If you try to skip town tonight, I’m going to come back here and pay a visit to that ranch hand that you like so much. Yeah, I’ve been keeping an eye on you since you got out of prison. I know everywhere that you’ve been and everyone that you’ve spoken to. So if you try to leave, he’s going to be the one who pays the price.” He smirked. “Have a good night, Jeremy.”
It didn’t surprise Jeremy that Carter would threaten an innocent man to get what he wanted, but it angered him nonetheless. When Carter and Jeremy had joined the gang, they swore that it would just be a couple of jobs to make enough money to buy some land and grow some roots. As children, they’d been nobodies in an orphanage and were destined to grow up as nobodies. No one to love or support or believe in them. When the war started, they were drafted into battle and treated as expendable, but through all the odds, they had both survived.
On the other side, though, there were no opportunities for them. No one wanted men haunted by battle work on their lands. When the gang rose through town, men in the same situation as they were in, and recruited them, it seemed like they had no other choice. They swore to each other that they only took from those who deserved it, and nobody got hurt. After seeing all the death in battle, Jeremy couldn’t be responsible for any more deaths.
But it had been just words, and Jeremy and Carter found themselves quickly in over their heads. After several brutal years, Jeremy had wanted out, but he wouldn’t leave Carter behind.
Only Carter hadn’t wanted to leave. He liked the prestige that he found in the gang, and he didn’t mind the blood on their hands. Now the man that he’d loved more than anything was comfortable holding a gun to his head and threatening those around him. They were enemies.
As he watched Carter stroll away, Jeremy knew that his old friend was too far gone to be saved.
Sitting back down in the bedroll, Jeremy glanced over at the pregnant heifer. She wasn’t paying any attention to him. It was if she knew that he wasn’t going to stay long.
Somewhere along the way, he’d lost hold of that dream to have a place of his own. Before prison, he’d moved from town to town with the crew, systematically robbing banks and wealthy coaches. Now he’d always have the stigma of a criminal following behind him, chasing him everywhere that he went. Who’d accept him now?
“The only way to let go of the things you’ve done in the past is to focus on what you’re doing in the future,” the older man said to him. He’d managed to pull himself up in a sitting position on the cot and massaged his leg.
Jeremy looked up from the stew he’d been stirring in the pot and whipped his head around. The man had been unconscious for nearly two days. He was starting to think that he’d be digging a grave before the week was over, but it looked like he was wrong. The stranger was going to pull through.
“What makes you think that I want to let anything go?” Jeremy demanded. In the past week, he’d grown surly. The abandoned shack he’d found in the middle of the woods didn’t speak of much, and he had no idea if the owner would be coming back, but he needed to rest. He didn’t think anyone was following him, but he couldn’t be sure.
“Son, you’ve got nothing but regret in your eyes.”
“Maybe I just regret taking the time to save you,” Jeremy grumbled as he turned back to the stew. He’d checked the older man over after he’d dragged his wounded body into the shack. There was nothing but a hunting rifle and a knife on him, and Jeremy had relieved him of that instantly. With that nasty wound on his leg, he wasn’t going far even if he did recognize Jeremy’s face.
The man lifted up his pants leg and grimaced. When Jeremy had found him, he’d been caught in a hunting trap. From the looks of it, he’d been bleeding for at least a day. If Jeremy had left him there, he would have died. “Never should have gone hunting on my own.” The man sighed. “I’ve been getting these dizzy spells lately, but it’s my eldest child’s birthday, and I promised her a feast.”
“You’ve been here for two days, so I’m guessing that her birthday has come and gone.”
“Two days!” the man growled. “Georgie will be having the whole town up in arms and looking for me.”
That didn’t bode well for Jeremy. He tensed and took stock of his supplies to figure out how long it would last him if he left tonight.
“Of course, I’d been tracking that stag for miles. I’m probably not even in Cross Creek anymore.”
Jeremy relaxed. “No. You’re not in Cross Creek.”
“You saved my life, boy. I figure at the very least, you’ve earned the right to know my name. It’s Douglas. Douglas Ittner.”
Douglas Ittner of Cross Creek. A man with a family probably hadn’t moved in the past five years.
Tomorrow, he’d meet Carter at the inn and travel with him for a few days in the opposite direction. When he got a chance, he’d slip away and head for Texas.
It was time to see if Douglas was a man of his word.
“A Secret Buried in the Ranch” is an Amazon Best-Selling novel, check it out here!
Georgie Ittner always had the freedom to keep men at bay and spend her time and love on the horses of her father’s ranch. But when her father dies, she discovers that she must marry if she wants to keep the land. Unwilling to wed herself to a man with dark secrets, she shuns Leo, her longtime suitor, and places an ad in the newspaper for a mail order husband. However, is a mail order husband the solution she is looking for or everything will fall apart?
Jeremy Mayhew is a man looking to put his past behind him. Recently released from prison, he’s content to rebuild his life from the ground up. But when the past won’t leave him alone, he has no choice but to face it head on. Traveling to Texas to see the man who’d helped him once before, he’s stunned to learn that Douglas Ittner is dead. Needing to buy some time, he weds Georgie under the identity of her mail order husband, but he never counted on falling in love or finding a family. Will he be able to escape his past although it is coming after him?
His past is catching up, and his new identity isn’t as secret as Jeremy would like. When the truth comes to light, Georgie will have to decide whether to trust her head or her heart as she gambles everything to protect the ones she loves. Will Jeremy and Georgie be able to overcome the difficulties and stay together? Are their feelings strong enough to rebuild their relationship and trust?
“A Secret Buried in the Ranch” is a historical western romance novel of approximately 80,000 words. No cheating, no cliffhangers, and a guaranteed happily ever after.