Free for a limited time
Publisher Sunflower Publishing
Free for a limited time
He married from desperation.
She married for survival.
On the harsh Canadian prairies in 1886, they need to rely on one another. But can necessity ever result in love?
Annie wasn't honest when she entered into a proxy marriage with Noah. But Noah had secrets and lies of his own, and losses that broke his heart. He'll never let himself care that much again. The pain is too great.
Annie may be young and inexperienced, but she's wise in the ways of love. Can she help Noah find the path to trust and happiness?
February 22, 1886
"She’s good and late. Prob’ly hit a blizzard.”
The garrulous man also awaiting the arrival of the westbound train tugged his knitted cap closer around his ears and huddled into his woolen overcoat, eyeing Noah’s heavy buffalo coat with envy. “That’s some coat you got there, mister. You shoot the buffalo yerself?”
Noah nodded, wishing the man would go pester someone else and leave him alone. He wasn’t in any mood for small talk this afternoon.
“You a rancher hereabouts?”
Noah nodded again, a curt nod.
"Only just moved out here me’self,” the man went on. “Don’t know many folks yet, takes time. Name’s Morris, Henry Morris.” He held out a mittened paw.
“Noah Ferguson.” Noah shook the extended hand. Any other day, he’d have welcomed this stranger to the Canadian West, taken time to get to know him, but today he was too distracted.
"Nice meetin' ya, Ferguson. Waitin’ on my wife Sadie and the kids, comin’ out from the East,” Morris confided, then waited expectantly.
When Noah didn’t respond, Morris shifted from one foot to the other and then gave up. "Well, no sign of the train, and it looks like we’re in fer a real blow, way that wind’s pickin’ up. Don’t know about you, but I’m about freezin’. Why not come along inside the station house with the rest of us? No tellin’ how late she’ll be.”
"Thanks. I’ll be along presently.” Relieved to be left alone, Noah thumped his mittens together and stamped his booted feet, pulling his scarf up and his weathered Western hat further down, painfully aware of the cold on his newly shaven cheeks and chin.
What the hell had possessed him to shave off his beard this morning? His rugged features might look better without all that wild black hair, but the beard might also have kept his chin from freezing, waiting for this damnable train.
And after all, what did he care how he might appear to her? It wasn’t as if he had to court her; the marriage was over, the legal bond established between them. She had insisted on a proxy marriage before she left Toronto on the four-day train journey that was bringing her here to Medicine Hat. Against his better judgment—and the advice of the only lawyer in town—Noah had agreed.
He’d wanted it all over and done with. He’d signed the papers and sent the money for the fare, and now that she was almost here, his gut was churning. He wished to God the train would get here so they could be done with this awful first meeting, he and Annie Tompkins.
Annie Ferguson, he corrected himself. Annie Ferguson, his second wife. Tall, she'd described herself. Thirty-four, on the thin side, and plain, which suited him just fine. He’d been relieved to read her description of herself; after all, this was no love match, far from it.
Instead, it was a practical solution for them both. She was a soldier's wife, widowed in the Rebellion of 1885, a farm woman trapped in the city, working in some dingy factory to support herself and her young daughter while longing for the country life she'd known as a child.
And as for him, this marriage was a desperate measure.
He thought of his cranky, bed-ridden father, being cared for at this moment by a kindly neighbor, then deliberately forced his thoughts back to his new wife.
Redheaded, she’d said, which worried Noah some. Was it true, what they said about a redhead’s temper? There’d been no sign of it in the eight letters she’d sent during the past months, and Lord only knew he had no experience of women’s temper and no desire to learn.
Molly had been the sweetest of women. In their three years of marriage, Noah was hard put to recall times when she’d even come close to losing her temper.
Molly. Without warning, bitter rage at his loss welled up in him, rage so intense that his tall, well-muscled body trembled with the force of it, and he clenched his teeth and knotted his hands into fists inside the blue wool mittens his dead wife had knitted for him.
There were holes worn through one thumb and two fingers. Noah had clumsily mended them.
It had been two years now since Molly and his eighteen-month-old son, Jeremy, had died within hours of one another, victims of typhoid, and in recent months he'd begun to believe this smothering, impotent, choking fury was gone forever, that time had eased the agony of his loss. Instead, here it was back again, as powerful as ever, and now there was this gnawing guilt as well.
I never wanted any woman but you, Molly. Still don’t, but I can’t do it alone anymore, not since Dad had the stroke. If you’d lived, Molly, I wouldn’t be in this damnable position, waiting to meet some stranger. I’ve had to invite her to share the house we built together, the bed we slept in. Damn it all, Molly, how could you do this to me?
He struggled for, and as always, recovered his self-control. He reminded himself with harsh honesty that his new wife would share as well the work of the ranch, the care of his father, the constant, ill-tempered demands of a once sweet natured man who'd become a tyrant since his stroke.
Noah swallowed hard and the last of the rage subsided, replaced with apprehension. He’d mentioned in his letters to Annie that his father wasn’t well, but he’d never really explained exactly what taking care of Zachary involved. Hell, if he had done so, no woman in her right mind would have agreed to come, would she?
Like him, Annie and her young daughter would just have to make the best of this situation. He brushed one hand across his eyes, clearing away the snowflakes that blinded him, and squinted down the track.
Far off down the rails a single headlamp flickered in the driving snowstorm, and over the sound of the wind he could hear the eerie wail of the steam whistle and the sound of an approaching engine. The train was coming.
At last, the waiting was done.
With a screech of brakes and a cloud of steam, the engine groaned to a halt. Outside the passenger car, it was snowing heavily, but through the frosted window Annie could see a small knot of people on the platform, staring expectantly up at the train.
An old man with a white beard was shoveling frantically to clear a path from the platform to the small wooden station.
“Med—i—c—ine Ha-a-a-t," the conductor called in his sing-song fashion, making his way down the crowded aisle to open the door.
After four endless days riding across empty wilderness, at last they’d arrived. Heart thumping so hard she was certain it would fly out of her chest, Annie tried to adjust the flamboyant hat Elinora had given her as a parting gift, but it wouldn't stay put.
Bets reached out and straightened it, and Annie gave her a grateful smile and a wink, trying to pretend bravado she was far from feeling. With trembling hands she gathered their bundles together, wrapped Bets’s wool shawl tighter around her, and followed the other departing passengers to the door.
Tilting her chin high, Annie lifted her skirts and stepped down into snow on legs that had turned to jelly.
Lordie, it was freezing. She paused and caught her breath as the cold air seared her lungs. Once the first shock was over, however, the icy air felt clean and invigorating after the stuffy train compartment, but it started Bets to coughing again.
Annie twisted her sister’s scarf up and over her chin and mouth, and then, feeling sick with nerves, she squinted into the snow and tried to pick out which of the men waiting a short distance away might be Noah Ferguson.
Thirty-six years old, he'd written. Tall, dark-haired.
Her eyes skittered past a short, round figure with a cable knit hat pulled down to his eyelids, lingered on a thin, red-faced man with a handlebar moustache and a brimmed cap, and then settled on the giant standing like a statue a little distance from the others, brimmed hat hiding his face, hands thrust deep into the pockets of a huge furry coat. Annie looked, and looked again.
Some sixth sense told her that this was her husband.
His gaze touched her face and flicked past her, to the passenger car where a very fat woman with several children was now being helped down the step. “Sadie,” bellowed the man in the knitted hat, racing over and throwing his arms around her.
There were no other passengers getting off. The conductor was closing the door.
The man in the heavy coat looked at Annie again, puzzlement in his frown, and Annie swallowed hard and said a silent, fervent prayer as he moved towards her.
Lordie, he was big. She was tall for a woman, but he towered over her. There was a ruggedness and raw strength about him unfamiliar to Annie, accustomed as she was to city men.
She drew herself up and squared her shoulders, praying that she didn’t look as terrified as she felt. She attempted a smile and knew it was a dismal failure.
“How do you do?” Her voice was barely audible.
His face was all angles and planes, a stern, strong, handsome face, clean shaven and unsmiling.
"I’m looking for Miss Annie Tompkins. Rather, Mrs. Annie Ferguson,” he corrected. His voice was a deep baritone.
"That's me," she managed to say. She tried again to smile, but her lips felt paralyzed. "I’m Annie, and this is my—this is Bets."
Bets, her wide, feverish blue gaze intent on Noah’s face, made a small curtsy and then edged fearfully behind her sister, doing her best to stifle her coughing and not succeeding.
Annie cleared her throat, desperately trying to remember the dignified little speech she’d been preparing every anxious moment since she’d left Toronto. Not one word came to her.
"Hello, Noah Ferguson," she finally managed to stammer. "Pleased to meet you, I’m sure," she choked out, painfully aware that she sounded both weak-minded and simpering.
He didn’t respond. Instead, his coal-dark eyes slowly took in her hat, her face, then her figure. He looked her up and down. Annie refused to flinch under his gaze. She clenched her teeth as he stepped around her to stare at Bets before he once again turned his attention to Annie.
"You’re considerably younger than you led me to believe, madam. How old are you, exactly?” He was scowling down at her, and a shiver ran down her spine that had nothing to do with the snow swirling around them.
Here it was then, the first consequence of all her lying. There was nothing to be done except confront it head on.
"I’m twenty-two.” Annie tilted her chin as high as she could and met his coal-dark eyes, but after a long moment under his steady gaze, her bravado crumbled.
"Well, almost twenty-two. I’ll be twenty-one this June.” At the thunderous look on his face, she hurriedly added, "I know you wanted someone older, Mr. Ferguson. I was afraid if I told the truth, you wouldn't have me. Us. But I assure you, I feel a lot older inside than my years. If that’s any help.”
He actually snorted in disgust. He looked from her to Bets and back again. “Twenty years old. And with a fourteen-year-old daughter? That’s quite an accomplishment, madam.” His voice dripped with sarcasm.
If it weren’t so cold, Annie would have sworn this was hell.
“She’s—Bets is my little sister, not my daughter,” she confessed miserably. "I—I’ve never been married. I thought you might not—I thought—”
He stared at her until she gulped and was silent. "You thought I was fair game, and you told me only what you figured I wanted to hear. I take it most of what you've told me about yourself is nothing but a pack of lies. Is that so, madam?”
His voice was quiet, but lethal.
Annie desperately wanted to contradict him, but couldn’t. The fact was, a great deal of what she’d told him was a pack of lies. There was no denying it.
“Some,” she admitted miserably. “The part about growing up on a farm wasn’t exactly honest. But the part about me and Bets being hard workers, that’s the god-honest truth,” she burst out. "We worked from dawn to dusk in Lazenby’s cotton mill, anybody could tell you we were among the best. Just give us a chance, and we’ll prove it to you, Mr. Ferguson, I promise we will.”
"If I’d wanted farmhands, I’d have hired men.” He looked as though he was about to explode, and Annie steeled herself.
Bets had been choking back her coughing, but now it took hold of her with a vengeance and she doubled over, her face purple.
Annie drew the smaller girl close against her side and felt Bets’s whole body trembling. The wind had picked up and the snow was swirling around them.
Annie had been too distraught to even feel the cold, but now it suddenly thrust icy fingers past the inadequate barrier of her clothing, and she was miserably aware that the soles on her boots were worn through in places, letting the snow in.
"My sister’s sick, Mr. Ferguson. She caught the grippe on the train, and we’re both freezing cold. Please, couldn’t we talk this over at some later time?"
Annie knew the moment had come when he could—probably would—turn his back on them and simply walk away. She knew he’d be well within his rights to do that very thing, leaving them to fend for themselves in a snowstorm in the middle of the wild Canadian west.
Desperation gripped her. If he left them, what in God’s name would she do? She had little money left; she knew no one in this barren, savage place. All she’d ever done was work in the cotton mill, and she was pretty certain there were no mills within a thousand miles of here.
She was terrified. She trembled with fear, and her stomach churned. She clutched Bets’s arm so tightly that the girl cried out.
Ferguson’s eyes held hers for what seemed an eternity, and with her last vestige of courage, Annie stared straight back, willing him—begging him, entreating him—to give her a chance.
Warm in his heavy coat, utterly furious at being deceived, Noah was suddenly conscious that the woman and her sister were shivering. He noted that their coats were thin, and they were poorly dressed for temperatures below freezing. The ridiculous hat with the bird's nest on it seemed about to blow away in the wind.
Annie was holding on to it with one arm and hugging her sister with the other.
The girl coughed again, hollow and harsh, and the ferocity of it coming from such a skinny little kid shocked him and added to the impotent anger he felt at his proxy bride.
The lying little trollop had saddled him with still another invalid, if the sound of that cough was any indication. The girl sounded as if she might have consumption.
The irony of the situation brought a grim smile. At least he needn't feel guilt any longer about Zachary. Annie Tompkins had far outdone him in duplicity.
Her lies were grounds for annulling the marriage, he knew that. He need have no qualms about washing his hands of both her and her ailing sister right there and then. No court in the land would say different.
But where would he be then? Noah raged. It would take months to get a response to a new advertisement, and spring wasn't that far off, with its dawn-to-dusk clearing and ploughing and planting of hay. There was his prized herd of cattle to tend to, chores to finish with no time or energy left at the end of the day to prepare meals and do the endless tasks a household seemed to require . . . tasks he had no skill for and despised. And most important of all, worst of all, there was his father, bedridden, needing constant attention and care.
He’d already hired two people in the past six months, one an elderly spinster he’d brought out from Lethbridge and the other a young Englishman, a drifter. Both had quit after only one week of dealing with his father.
It had become all too obvious to Noah that he urgently needed a wife. Wives didn’t just quit when things were tough.
But women of any sort were a rare commodity out here on the Canadian prairies, which was why he’d finally advertised in the blasted Toronto newspaper in the first place. And there hadn’t been much choice, when it came down to it; the only other woman besides Annie who answered his ad had been the widowed mother of six small children.
It seemed he was well and truly stuck with her. Lies or not, he urgently needed this woman he’d married. At the very least, he’d have to postpone judgment for a few days, perhaps a week.
With great reluctance, he decided he’d take her and her sister out to the ranch, and if the situation proved truly intolerable, he’d buy them a train ticket back to the city.
His voice was harsh. “Get inside the depot and get yourselves warm while I bring the horse and wagon around. The station master’ll give you hot coffee. Is that your luggage over there?" He pointed down the platform, where a single tin trunk and several carpetbags were all that was left of the pile unloaded from the baggage car.
At Annie’s timid nod, he turned on his heel and made his way past the depot and down the street to the livery stable, cursing himself for being a softhearted fool.
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Bobby Hutchinson lives, breathes, reads and writes books. She lives in a coal-mining town in the Rocky Mountains of B.C., Canada. She isn't a private investigator, she doesn't do phone sex for money, and she's not running a web dating service--but some of her wonderful (gregarious) female friends have done all of the above, and she's used their research for her books. She has directed traffic around construction sites, owned a boutigue and run several popular B&B's. She loves to cook, listen to guest's stories and eavesdrop on conversations at Starbucks. Her favorite quote is, “When you change the way you look at a thing, the thing you look at changes.” Hearing from her readers is the high point of any day.