Secret Burdens of the Heart (Preview)


East Boston, March 1898

Isabel walked quickly through the streets of Eastie toward Boston harbor to the south, Breed Island to the east, and Chelsea Creek to the north. The air redolent with the scent of the sea and heavy with the humid, salty tang, she blended with the pedestrians and street vendors as she made her way through the crowded environs of Wards One and Two, separated from the main section of Boston proper by the harbor, wrapping around the southern and eastern ends of her neighborhood.

She walked quickly down the sidewalk, past tenement buildings constructed of brick on the lower floors, wood on the upper, windows flung wide to catch the hint of breezes that slowly made their way inland from the sea. At times, she eyed dozens of sheets and sorted laundry hanging from clotheslines strung between the buildings, attached to small pulleys that allowed dwellers to hang the clothes for drying high above the streets. The laundry flapped in the slight breeze from the sea, sometimes snapping but mostly hanging limply. Children of various ages played in the streets while vendors pushed their carts selling their wares or vegetables. She wrinkled her nose as she passed a cart filled with fish and hurried on.

She had hoped to walk along the sidewalks of the newly developed Wood Island Park, with its lovely picnic areas and green spaces, past the ball field and tennis courts that had just opened. The park provided an oasis for the inhabitants of East Boston, enabling them to escape the dense housing, asphalt, concrete, and the press of crowds that filled the streets every day, a large majority of them first- or second-generation immigrants. Walking along, she heard snippets of Irish accents, the guttural consonants of her German heritage, the lilt of French and Portuguese, and a bit of Italian, though lately, she had noticed an influx of Russian Jews.

The park was one of her favorite spots these days, where she luxuriated in the cool sea breezes, relaxing beneath the shade of elms, oak trees, and maples, some of which were over two hundred years old. Along her way toward the small cemetery a few blocks away yet, she passed several acquaintances who greeted her as she passed by.

“Good morning, Isabel. How are you?”

She quickly recognized an older woman from her church. “Hello, Missus O’Connor. I’m doing just fine, thank you.”

“And your father?”

“He’s fine,” she lied with a smile. She looked ahead, pretending she was late. “I look forward to seeing you on Sunday. Good day!” She moved forward quickly but barely a block later, felt a light touch on her shoulder. She turned to find herself looking up into the face of Millicent Rutherford, the butcher’s wife. She forced a smile. “Good morning, Missus Rutherford. I see you’re out and about with chores as I am.”

“Yes, errands for my husband.” She frowned. “How is your father doing, Isabel? Feeling any better?”

Isabel bit back annoyance. “Yes, he’s better. Thank you for asking.”

“Poor man,” Millicent tsked. “To be felled by a bullet and from….” She paused.

Isabel watched the older woman’s cheeks flush with color and heaved an inward sigh.

“Yes,” Millicent rushed on. “My Joseph experiences bouts of pain in his joints when the weather is so muggy. Why, it makes it just about impossible for him to get around, which is why I’m taking care of some business for him today. I can just imagine how frustrated your father must feel, stuck in that wheelchair and…well, you tell your father I wish him well.”

Isabel forced a smile. “I will do that, thank you.”

Again, she rushed on, not really caring if she was perceived as rude. Oh, what these people would think if they knew the truth about Karl Altmann, her abusive, alcoholic father! They only saw him on his best behavior on Sundays at church, but what would they say if they learned that he had so often beat Isabel and her brother Heinrich, or Henry as he was more commonly known these days, when they were growing up, and of course, her mother, Marta—

“Give him my best, won’t you?”

“Of course,” Isabel murmured. Her stomach tightened into a knot, and she tightly clutched the small bundle of wild and slightly wilted flowers that she had plucked from the yards of an abandoned house not far from her own.

She continued to walk as quickly as she dared, keeping her face down as much as possible, avoiding the nods or quiet greetings and curious looks from those who knew her as well as those who didn’t. Her neighborhood, the entirety of East Boston actually, was home to hard-working, impressively loyal, and family-oriented individuals. The scandal that had rocked her family was still fodder for many of them, even though years had passed.

She strode by butcher shops and grocery stores, a haberdashery and a bakery, none of them open yet as the sun had barely risen, now casting a buttery yellow glow over the tenements, narrow townhomes, and occasionally, a single home with a tiny, postage-stamp sized yard as she neared the park. Her own home, just off Chelsea Street and facing a small triangular intersection, was a narrow, three-story walkup, ill-kept and barely maintained by her father and her lazy new stepmother, Magdalena, formerly her father’s mistress.

She scowled, the image of her nearly sixty-year-old father and his thirty-year-old second wife prompting another surge of anger to rise in her chest, reaffirming her decision. At twenty-six years of age, well beyond the age at which women were considered old maids, Isabel felt a desperate need to get away, to move away as far as she could from Boston to make a new life for herself. Somewhere. Anywhere.

Her older brother, Henry, had been gone for the past eight years. On the cusp of her eighteenth birthday, an ugly, tragic fight had led Henry to shoot their father in defense of Isabel and their mother after their father attacked them with a knife. Her father had been paralyzed from the waist down. Henry had run from the house, but not before their mother called him a monster and banished him from ever returning home. He had ultimately been arrested and sent to prison for attempted murder.

Warm tears filled Isabel’s eyes as she thought of her brother being punished for saving her and her mother. She had briefly thought of going to Pennsylvania, where he lived now, but hesitated. Prison had traumatized and hardened Henry, leaving him an angry and often unstable, and violent individual. He’d had his sentence extended more than once for fighting while in prison. She hadn’t seen him since he had been released several years ago, though he worked as an apprentice blacksmith in Trenton. Although he had managed to stay out of prison since his release, he’d been briefly jailed for violent fights as well as his associations with a number of local criminals there.

Isabel pushed thoughts of her brother aside as she made her way into the small cemetery. Some moss-covered tombstones leaned precariously, weeds and dead shrubs poking up through thin patches of dirty snow still carpeted the ground in places. She’d come to say goodbye to the woman who had called herself Mother, a woman that Isabel still carried extremely mixed feelings for.

Marta Altman had not been a very demonstrative woman, rarely offering a hug or a kiss, but Isabel remembered her mostly from the days prior to her tenth birthday, at a time when she could still recall times of laughter and happiness in their home. Until her father lost his job on the docks after injuring his knee. He had turned mean then, drinking heavily and growing emotionally distant and increasingly abusive. Her father had turned into a man who found everything to complain about and nothing to praise.

Isabel strode slowly through the cemetery, heading for the southeast corner, toward the simple stone marker with her mother’s name carved upon it. ‘Here lies Marta Altmann – 1838-1890’. She stood in front of the grave for several moments, wondering if her life would’ve been different if her father hadn’t gotten hurt on the docks, if he hadn’t started drinking, if his abuse hadn’t destroyed everything. She wanted to love the woman lying in the grave, wanted to have fond memories of her, but ever since that horrible day when her mother had banished poor Henry from their home, everything had changed.

“How could you do it, Mother?” She crouched down and placed the flowers at the base of the headstone. “How could you punish Henry for trying to protect you, to protect us?”

Of course, there was no answer but the sound of bare branches scraping against one another in the breeze from the harbor. She’d come to tell her mother what she planned, that she might never return to visit this grave in the small cemetery….

“I’m leaving, Mother. I’m leaving Boston.” She looked around through the trees. “There’s nothing for me here. I’m twenty-six years old with no marriage prospects here, living with a bitter, crippled father and that horrid Magdalena.”

Her father had married Magdalena, his former mistress, not three months after her mother had died from a mysterious illness not long after the night of the shooting. He had grumbled about his wife’s funeral expenses even though she had been buried in a simple, plain pine coffin. She had the smallest headstone that the stone maker produced. Isabel didn’t doubt that her father would’ve preferred her mother be buried in a pauper’s grave out on Breed Island. Now that she had a plan in mind, a way to leave East Boston behind her forever, she felt it was her obligation to visit here one last time, to tell her mother about her decision.

“I answered an ad for a mail-order bride, Mother, my only hope of ever getting away and starting a life of my own. His name’s Virgil Bower. He’s a sheriff in a place called Caldwell, Montana.”

The branches continue to whisper overhead. Nearby, she watched a squirrel hovering on an overhead branch, staring at her, its tail flicking with interest. Despite the somber environment around her, Isabel smiled at the squirrel, almost envying the animal its sense of freedom.

She had had to resort to such drastic measures of replying to an ad for a mail-order bride, to the idea of marrying a perfect stranger, because no one had ever asked to court her, at least not after they saw firsthand her father’s gruff attitude nor hearing about her brother’s crime and imprisonment. And yet, when she had seen that ad, wondering if she were brave enough to reply, to venture across the country to a place she knew nothing about and marry a perfect stranger, she had thought of it as the perfect escape, a relief almost. After all, could any man be worse than her father? He was a sheriff, so most certainly he was a moral man, decent, and with principles, one who respected law and order.

She glanced down at the grave once more. “Anyway, that’s all I wanted to tell you. I’ll be leaving in just a few days, and no, Father doesn’t know, nor do I think he’ll care. I’ll leave him a note telling him what I’ve done, but I won’t tell him where I’m going, just in case.”

Just in case her father, who seemed to hate her, and Henry with a vengeance, got angry. He would hate her even more after leaving him completely dependent on Magdalena. He might hold such a grudge over her leaving home instead of continuing to act as his maid. He might, somehow, send someone after her to drag her back to Boston. She couldn’t let that happen. With a final look at the gravestone, Isabel bid her mother goodbye.

Chapter One

Isabel woke with a gasp and sat up in bed, her heart pounding and her mouth open in a silent scream. Her nightgown was damp, her bedding twisted around her legs. She nearly wept with relief when she realized she had woken from a nightmare in the middle of the night. The house was silent save for the sound of her father’s snoring from downstairs. Due to his condition, their family parlor had been converted into a makeshift bedroom for him, where he slept on a narrow sofa.

She resented the fact that he could sleep so soundly and deeply when he, the source of her nightmares, jolted her awake nearly every night with her mind filled with the sound of her father’s angry bellowing, the lash of his fist, his criticism, never having anything nice to say to anyone except Magdalena.

Isabel thought of the woman snoring softly in the room next to hers with a grimace. Her father had been having an affair with Magdalena behind his wife’s back for nearly a decade before she passed and didn’t take too much trouble hiding the fact. Magdalena was obsessively loyal to Karl Altmann, though Isabel couldn’t determine why. Isabel was more than aware that he would likely lash out at Magdalena once she was gone, if, that is, he woke out of his stupor long enough. Most of the time, he was drunk from first light until he passed out on his sofa every night. What Magdalena ever saw in her father, Isabel didn’t know and didn’t much care.

She swung her legs over the side of the bed and then softly tip-toed to the desk in the corner of the room. There, she struck a match and lit the small kerosene lamp that sat on the shelf above the desk. She sat down, wincing as the chair creaked beneath her. She held her breath for a moment, then sighed with relief as she heard her father’s snore once more.

She reached for the trio of books stacked on the right side of her desk, pulled the bottom one out, and opened it to the middle, where she had hidden three envelopes. With a smile, she retrieved the most recent one, dated just two weeks ago, and pulled the single sheet of paper from it to read the letter once more.

Dear Isabel,

I am happy to hear that you have accepted my marriage proposal. Herein you will find a money order which you can take to any bank in your city to convert into cash for your train fare to Montana. I am happy to know that soon I can open my home with you, which will certainly help to ease my loneliness and desire for someone with whom I can share my life.

I know that this situation is not exactly what either of us might have expected when it comes to courtship or marriage, but I promise you that I will do my best to be a good husband and provider for you. The town of Caldwell is filled with kind people, and although I cannot claim that there is no danger from outlaws or criminals in western Montana, I don’t have to be out chasing them as often as I used to. Truth is, I spend most of my days in town or riding through the county, taking care of the needs and minor disagreements among my neighbors.

I am sure that Caldwell will be quite different from what you are used to growing up in a big city like Boston. We are still, despite our nearing approach to the 20th century, a small, Western town with few amenities besides erratic bursts of electric services. We are a good day’s ride west of Helena, nestled to the west of the Big Belt Mountains, the Bridger range to the east, and the Boulder mountain range to the west. It’s beautiful, wild country, with mile after mile of open spaces, mountain peaks rising toward the sky, often snowcapped most of the year.

I know it may take you some time to adjust, but I can assure you that I am a patient and understanding man, and I will try to support you in every way I can. I greatly look forward to your arrival and will be meeting your train in Helena on the twenty-fifth of March, hat in hand and ready to wed before we leave the city to return to Caldwell as man and wife.

Until then, yours truly,

Virgil Bower

She sat in her room, listening to her father’s snores, a sense of despair once more coming over her and twisting her stomach in knots. She feared making a sound that might inadvertently wake her father. She had resented the good wishes passersby had given her to deliver to her father this morning. If they only knew what it was really like to live under her father’s roof. If they only knew of his bitterness, his gruff attitude, and his abrupt and explosive anger. That anger, often approaching rage, was now directed primarily at her and not her stepmother. Her brother was long gone, giving him only one target now. Her.

She glanced at her bed. Underneath, she had pushed, deep into the shadows under the head of the bed, a small suitcase, already packed, ready for that moment when she could leave and put this house behind her forever. Of course, she had said nothing much about her personal history in her letters to Virgil, not about her father’s drunkenness, his abuses, nor that her brother had been arrested and imprisoned for the attempted murder of their father…Who would want to marry a woman who came from such a family?

She hoped and prayed that she could find what she sought in Montana, the peace and safety that she longed for, a sense of belonging, to finally discover what it felt like to love someone and be loved in return. In moments like these, she thought of her brother Henry. Had he ever been able to overcome his anger and bitterness over what had happened to him? Would he ever forgive their mother’s betrayal? Their mother, Marta, had been an easy target for her father, her docile personality always wanting to please, though eventually, that striving to please her husband had been more out of fear of his vicious tongue or the occasional slap….

She lifted her hand and rubbed her fingers over the spot in the center of her forehead where a headache had begun to form just thinking about her life here. Her mother’s death—she had been asleep when it happened—whose fall down the stairs she didn’t think for a moment had been an accident though her father claimed it was. A tragic accident that had occurred only a short time after Henry had been banished after Henry had shot their father. The ill-tempered man had attacked her mother. Isabel had joined the fray and tried to pull her mother away from her father, who grasped a handful of her hair, his face mottled with rage over something she could no longer remember that had triggered the incident.

Henry had always been a bit overprotective of Isabel and of their mother, trying to shield them from his father’s rages. He had endured numerous beatings of his own over the years. Seeing Isabel and his mother enduring such abuse had caused him to snap. Years before that horrible night, he had grown bitter, as he bore more than a few scars from his father’s harsh treatment.

Thinking back on it as if it had happened yesterday, she knew she would never get the look on Henry’s face, his eyes wide with horror, the stench of gunpowder, and the memory of wisps of hazy, bluish smoke hanging in the air after the sharp retort of the gun. She would never forget the look on her father’s face as he stared at his son and the smoking barrel of the revolver as he fell to the ground. Isabel would never forget that moment her eyes latched onto those of her brother. She had seen a turmoil of emotions there and then his trembling hands, his face pale, his chest heaving with fear, dread, and relief.

Poor Henry. She hadn’t seen her brother since and wondered if he had taken after their father in more ways than one. Did he have their father’s temper? During their youth and until that night when their mother had sent Henry away, banishing him from the house, she had rarely seen her brother smile. She could only imagine how difficult his life had been since that night, not only being charged with attempted murder, regardless of the circumstances, which of course, were not divulged to the court to save her father’s reputation. Then all those years in jail….

She shivered. How terrible his imprisonment must have been, coupled with the memory of his mother calling him a monster, her words damning him to prison while dedicating herself to nursing the real monster back to health.

Even after he had gotten out of prison, Henry had not come home to visit her. They had exchanged letters over the years, even when he was in prison. Those letters had been sent back and forth through an old friend of his in the neighborhood who passed the letters to and from Isabel in secret when she was out running errands. Never once since that night when their mother had sent him away had his name had passed her lips, nor of her father’s. She tried once to talk to her mother about Henry, but with one fearful glance over her shoulder, her mother had hushed her and told her to never speak of her brother within the walls of the house. Not long after, she was dead.

Whether out of fear of their father or hatred that Henry had shot their father, Isabel didn’t know, but perhaps it was a combination of both. Yet how a mother could treat her son in such a way when he had likely saved her life was beyond Isabel. She alone felt like she had some understanding of her brother. During his prison sentence, his letters were often filled with anger and erratic thoughts. She had wondered more than once if that night and his resulting prison term had left him disturbed and unbalanced. Due to his anger issues, she wasn’t sure whether she could trust Henry, and she certainly couldn’t deny that the thought of reuniting with him one day filled her with a sense of uncertainty.

She had told no one of her plan to marry a complete stranger through a mail-order bride service. With no real friends to confide in, she spent most of her time alone. After the shooting incident, no potential suitors had expressed any interest in courting her, thinking that somehow she might be tainted with the same instability as her brother was perceived to suffer from. She had long endured disparaging comments against her brother, the dismay that a son could attempt to kill his own father.

Yet they didn’t know. They didn’t know what Karl Altmann was really like nor his hateful personality. He spared only Magdalena from his rages, as she sat with him most of her days, expecting Isabel to wait on them hand and foot, to cook their meals, wash their clothes, and most importantly, keeping them both supplied with liquor. Yet in a few days, she would leave this house forever, leaving her father and stepmother behind her to forge a new future for herself in the far West.

Her heart thumping with trepidation, she once again reviewed her plan to retrieve the suitcase and sneak out of the house without anyone seeing. She had practiced the excuse she would give her father two days hence at nine o’clock in the morning. She would catch the ten o’clock train at the train station and not look back, not even once. Her heart pounded at the thought, her nerves on edge, hoping and praying that no one would see her leaving and making her way to the train station and that no one would inadvertently question her father about where Isabel had been going with her suitcase.

With a sigh, Isabel made her way back to bed, covering her head with her pillow to muffle the sounds of her father’s snoring from downstairs, her hopes and the excitement of leaving this place forever dampened with the fear of being caught before she managed to get onto the train.

She tried to envision what Virgil Bower looked like, what the town of Caldwell, Montana looked like, and whether she would be successful in finding the life for which she had always yearned. Then again, anything had to be better than this, didn’t it?

Chapter Two

Virgil stepped out of his small house at the edge of town just before dawn, sipping his coffee from a tin mug as he stood and watched the rising sun ever so gradually peek above the horizon. The glow cast the sky into brilliant shades of purple, magenta, orange, and yellow. A pair of sparrows greeted the morning sun while overhead, yet hidden in the shadows of the mountains rising behind him, came the screech of a red-tailed hawk looking for breakfast, echoing over the landscape.

For the first time in a long while, he felt a flurry of anticipation as he greeted the new day. He was a lifelong resident of Caldwell, Montana,  which nestled at the foot of the Bitterroot Mountains, almost a day’s ride south of Missoula. He felt hope burgeoning in his heart for the first time in a long while. Maybe his loneliness would ease now. His fiancée, Isabel Altmann, a woman he’d never met in person, had accepted his proposal of marriage from a mail-order bride service.

Though only a couple of years away from a new century, the town of Caldwell remained much as it had been a couple of decades ago; a small, remote western town on the edge of a vast wilderness, much of which was still wild, dangerous, and often deadly. Watching the sunrise, enjoying the warmth of the glow bathing his face on the otherwise brisk early fall morning, he smiled.

The townspeople weren’t used to seeing Virgil smile anymore; his mother had remarked to him more than once over the years. Just past his thirtieth birthday and just past his fifth anniversary as sheriff of Caldwell and its environs, he was mostly a quiet man. Though his parents urged him to smile more often and warned him that he was quite intimidating to people who didn’t know him well, he didn’t know any other way to be, at least not since… not since Mary.

Besides, he was the sheriff. He was supposed to be intimidating. Yet it was Mary who had actually, if not purposely, propelled Virgil into the field of law enforcement, her memory that had prompted him to become a deputy seven years ago under Rafe Wainwright, upon whose retirement, Virgil won the election to become the town sheriff, hands down. Seven years ago, an outlaw had come through the region from Wyoming. Arlen Atwood had been a bank robber, a killer, a ne’er-do-well. He was a wanted man, and to be caught would mean the rope. He’d been on the run from the law as he rode pell-mell toward Canada, where he sought freedom. Unfortunately, nearly ten miles north of Caldwell, he had come across the isolated home of Samuel and Matilda Swanson and that of their daughter Mary late one night.

By mid-morning the next day, a Saturday, Virgil had ridden up to the house to take Mary on a prearranged picnic. It was on that day that he expected to propose marriage after a year-long courtship. Instead, he found them all dead, Samuel in the hallway just inside the front door, Mathilde in the kitchen, and Mary…his beloved Mary outside just past the garden. It was obvious she had been attempting to escape the mayhem as she ran toward the cover of trees nearby.

It was then that people began to remark that Virgil rarely smiled anymore. He had left his father’s ranch, where he had been expected to take over someday, and asked Sheriff Wainwright to hire him on as a deputy. His father, Orin, was still disappointed by Virgil’s decision to become a lawman instead of a ranch owner, although he now supported Virgil in his current career.

With a shiny new deputy’s badge pinned to his shirt front, Virgil had tracked Atwood down just shy of the Montana and Canadian border. After a gunfight in which Atwood’s shot missed, but Virgil’s didn’t, he had buried the outlaw there. Upon his return to Caldwell, he’d made a home in a small house at the edge of town ever since, doing his best to be a fair and decent man, to treat his loved ones and friends well. Yet as time passed, he found himself growing lonelier and more envious of his married friends.

He had felt a little bit awkward about using the mail-order bride service, even though it was still relatively common in these parts. After all, there weren’t many marriageable women in the wilds of Montana, and of them, none who wanted to be married to a man with such a dangerous job and an uncertain future. Even so, he felt embarrassed to even attempt to court a woman through the mail. He’d never admitted as much to anyone, even his best friend and fellow deputy, Caleb Gainey, but he liked to think of himself as a bit of a romantic. The idea of a traditional courtship appealed to him, but he wasn’t getting any younger.

“Secret Burdens of the Heart” is an Amazon Best-Selling novel, check it out here!

Having grown up in a home full of tragic and horrible memories, Isabel Altmann desperately seeks to escape, so she posts a mail order bride ad. The thought of marrying a stranger fills her with dread, yet she knows it’s her only hope. However, as she receives a reply from a man in Montana, she wonders if the horrible secret that stains her past is too dark to reveal to her future husband…

Is there someone out there who could truly love and heal her heart?

Sheriff Virgil Bower dreams of finding someone to share his life with, yet few women are willing to risk marrying him due to his dangerous job. After a short correspondence with Isabel, he extends a proposal of marriage, hoping for the best. Her beauty and kind heart enchant him from the very first moment, but soon shadows of their former lives will return to haunt them…

Virgil only wanted someone he could trust…

Secrets always have a way of finding their way to the surface, and Isabel’s secret has the potential to cause a definite rift in her new marriage. Can Virgil and Isabel overcome their fears, face the bitter truth, and move forward in love and trust, or will lies tear them asunder once and for all?

“Secret Burdens of the Heart” is a historical adventure novel of approximately 80,000 words. No cliffhangers, only pure unadulterated action.

Get your copy from Amazon!

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