Tuesday, September 1, 2020

NEW RELEASE - Hannah's Hardship

I'm very excited for this story. Those of you who know my style of writing, know that I like to bend boundaries - stretch the limits of my imagination. Well, in Hannah's Hardship, it's a mail-order bride romance, but I've pushed the line with this plot. I hope you enjoy reading it!

Montana, 1889


Hannah Ross had finally hit rock bottom. There was only one way to go from here. Up. And she was determined not to let life drop her again.

She stepped off the stagecoach and took in her new surroundings. Stumptown appeared to be a friendly small town. Then again, looks could be deceiving. Hopefully, she’d left behind her ruined reputation in Colorado, never to see anyone from that area again. Her mother understood and gave her blessing.

“Here’s your trunk, ma’am.”

Hannah glanced at the stagecoach driver, who unloaded the passenger’s trunks. She moved to hers and grasped the handle, and then collected her satchel. Since she had traveled quite often over the past five years, she knew how to pack light.

Taking a deep breath for courage, she moved out of the street and to the boardwalk. From the conversations in the stagecoach as the four passengers neared the logging town, there weren’t many women who took up residence in Stumptown. If Hannah had known that, she might not have answered the newspaper ad for a mail-order bride.

Since she was sixteen years of age, men had been attracted to her. At first, Hannah had been innocent to their charm and lies, but it wasn’t until she had turned twenty-five before she learned a hard lesson. She placed her hand on her belly and frowned. She would soon have a child because she had believed that a man actually loved and wanted to take care of her.

Of course, it had all been a lie.

When she discovered she was pregnant, she confronted the man who had once professed his undying love to her. The next day, he skipped town. Two days later, rumors were already circling through the social-mills, and people were gossiping behind her back. Hannah couldn’t walk down the street without people throwing her glares. Some mothers even turned their children away from Hannah when she greeted them with a smile.

Hannah blinked back the tears. She wasn’t a terrible person, so why did everyone judge her so harshly?

That’s when she decided to get out of Colorado. Being a mail-order bride was the only way she knew how to survive. However, she needed to consummate the marriage quickly in order for her soon-to-be husband to think the child was his.

Hannah glanced up and down the street and at the handful of lumberjacks who had come into town. So far, she only saw one woman, and the lady looked old enough to be Hannah’s grandmother.

Perhaps she should not have answered the first newspaper ad she read. Or, she should have asked around about the odd little place of Stumptown, before agreeing to this mail-order marriage. Being in close spaces with so many men made her nervous.

She sighed impatiently and looked up the street again. Perhaps her groom wasn’t going to meet her, after all. Hannah might have to ask around to see who knew Mr. Easton. She’d come this far, and she was determined to find a husband today.

“Pardon me, miss.”

She turned and rested her gaze on the middle-aged man behind her. He squinted through his spectacles at her as if not seeing her very well. The man was overly plump and didn’t have a lot of hair on the top of his head. Instead, the hair covered the sides and hung low, nearly to his shoulders.

“Yes?” she replied.

“Are you lost?”

She nearly spit out a laugh. Thankfully, she was in control and held it in. “Actually, sir, I’m not lost, but I am looking for someone.”

“Eh?” He leaned closer, turning his left ear toward her.

Apparently, this man had both sight and hearing problems. “I’m looking for Mr. Easton.”

“Which one? There are three Easton brothers.”

Oh, dear. Three brothers? “Um, I’m not sure.”

“The brothers are Maverick, Bryan, and Joel.”

She tried to remember if during her brief correspondence via telegram with Mr. Easton if he had ever used his first name. Sadly, she couldn’t recall. But none of those names were familiar. 

“She’s with me, Cooper.”

When another man came up behind her from out of nowhere, she nearly jumped out of her skin. Why couldn’t men just greet her naturally? Did it make them feel powerful to scare her?

The rugged cowboy grinned as he slid an arm around her waist and pulled her against his body. His hat rode low on his forehead, shadowing his eyes. The whiskers on his face appeared that he and razors were not very good friends. However, it was the stench of alcohol that made her blood turn cold with fear. She knew firsthand how drunkards acted around her, and she wanted to get far away from this one.

“Please, sir,” she said in a steady voice that didn’t match her quaky nerves, “leave me alone.” When he didn’t do as she asked, she turned her pleading gaze to the older man. “Please, help me?”

The cowboy laughed. “Cooper ain’t gonna help anyone. He can’t even help himself.”

The older man frowned, and his gaze dropped to the ground, obviously bothered by the cowboy’s rude comment. She shot a glare at the drunk. “You will release me, sir, or I will scream for someone else to assist me.”

“Come now, my beauty. Ya know we were meant to be t’gether.”

Disgust twisted her stomach. “I’m waiting for—”

“Take your hands off her. Now!”

She hadn’t realized another man was standing by her until she heard his strong voice. The man with broad shoulders, who appeared to be around her age – give or take a few years – threw the drunkard a glare. When the cowboy looked at the other man, his body stiffened, but he slowly dropped his arms from around her.

Inwardly, she groaned. She didn’t want to cause any trouble. Then again, the last few years of her life have been nothing but problems.

“No need gettin’ upset, Mav,” the cowboy said, “I was just teasin’ her.”

The look on Mav’s face clearly let her know that he wouldn’t tolerate the cowboy’s playfulness. Although Mav was younger than the cowboy by a few years, his tall length and strength were evident. Hannah was certain many men feared him.

He grasped the cowboy's arm, pulling him away from her. “Fred, go home and sleep it off before I summon the sheriff.”

“Yes, sir.” The cowboy stumbled away, tossing a few scowls at the man with broad shoulders.

Mav ran his gaze up and down Hannah’s attire. She’d worn one of her nicer traveling suits, one that she had specifically made for her trip to see her mother in Ft. Collins. Her mother worked for the wealthy Colorado rancher, Wayne Lindon. At the time, she’d worn the outfit to impress Wayne. Now, because of the dusty journey, she felt like a dust rag.

When the tall man’s gaze finally met hers, he nodded. “Can I assume you are Hannah Ross?”

Her heart lifted in relief. “Indeed, I am. And are you Mr. Easton?”

He nodded. “Yes, I’m Maverick. Forgive me for being late.”

She tried to smile through her jittery nerves. She hadn’t expected Mr. Easton to be such a handsome man. His sandy-brown hair was shorter than most of the men she’d seen so far on this trip, but it made him appear more educated and refined. He had the bluest eyes she’d ever seen – like gazing into a beautiful summer sky on a clear day. She couldn’t help wonder why a man like this would want to find a mail-order bride. Then again, her mother’s boss, handsome Wayne Lindon, had done that very thing, too.

“I don’t believe you are late,” she told him. “I think the stagecoach was just early.”

Maverick gave her half a smile. At least that was better than the scowl he’d given the drunkard. The one he threw at the cowboy was fierce. How many men cowered to Mr. Easton’s command when he looked that way? Hopefully, she wasn’t marrying a man who easily lost his temper.

“Is this your trunk?” He pointed to the luggage beside her.

“Yes. Just one trunk and my satchel.”

He lifted her trunk with ease, setting it on his shoulder as he headed away from the boardwalk. She nodded to the older man with the spectacles who continued to watch her and Mr. Easton with a dropped jaw and hurried after her soon-to-be husband. He stopped at a wagon that was the cleanest one she’d seen in a long time and placed the trunk in the back. She handed the satchel to him, and he placed it next to the trunk.

As he assisted her up to the seat of the wagon, she realized how big his hands were – and calloused. At least that meant he was a hard worker. That bit of information was good to know.

Maverick climbed in next to her before taking the reins and urging the two-horse team forward.

Every few seconds, he glanced her way before returning his attention back to the road. Uncomfortable, she shifted on the seat, wringing her hands in her lap. Should she start the conversation? If so, what could she possibly talk about with a stranger?

“Miss Ross,” he said, breaking the awkwardness between them. “I must say, I’m surprised that you’re so lovely.”

She hitched a quick breath. Was that his way of complimenting her? He definitely needed to work on his charm. “Well… thank you.”

He chuckled. “I thought the only women who signed up to be mail-order brides were… well, plain-looking.”

“Do you know anyone who married a mail-order bride?”

“Not personally, no, but I have acquaintances who know men who have.” He paused briefly. “So, why did you want to be a mail-order bride?” His gaze moved over her dress again. “I mean, you don’t appear to be down on your luck, and I’d think that you attract men easily.”

She gritted her teeth. If he only knew. But no, she wouldn’t tell him the real reason. However, she could confess what led up to her pregnancy.

“A few years ago, I had decided to join a traveling group of stage performers against my widowed mother’s warnings. I didn’t realize how that life-altering decision would ruin my life. People spread false rumors about me, and I was no longer considered a lady. Men didn’t look at me as wife material any longer.” Hannah inhaled deeply, trying not to allow her past to upset her. “Soon, I realized that if I didn’t find a husband, I would be considered an old maid, and yet, I couldn’t find a man who wanted me as a wife.” She shrugged. “That’s why I answered your ad in the newspaper.”

She waited for him to say something, or to realize he didn’t want her. But he continued guiding the team of horses away from the center of town. It was too early to sigh with relief, though. Not until the ring was on her finger, and their marriage was consummated.

A gust of wind seemed to come out of nowhere, and her hair blew around her face.  Perhaps she should have worn a bonnet, after all. This was another thing her mother had tried to instill in Hannah, but her rebellious side wanted to be free from restrictions of all kinds.

She grasped the bulk of her hair and tried to hold it still. He glanced at her again and grinned.

“You’ll need to get used to Montana’s weather, and especially the wind.”

She nodded. “I shall try to adapt quickly.” There was a lengthy pause between them as the wind seemed to pick up speed. “What about you, Mr. Easton? You are a handsome man, so why did you decide to seek a mail-order bride?”

Chuckling, he removed his hat as it threatened to fly with the wind a few times. “You were in town a few minutes ago, Miss Ross. Did you see all of the single young women I had to choose from?”

She tried not to grin. “True. I didn’t see many women at all. However, you could have gone to another town to find a wife.”

“I could have, I suppose, but I didn’t want to.”

Maverick’s attention stayed on the road. As she studied his profile, she could see there was something else – something he wasn’t telling her. “Go on,” she encouraged. “Why don’t you want to find a wife elsewhere?”

“The truth is…” He sighed heavily and pulled the wagon over on the road before bringing the horses to a stop. He faced Hannah, looking deep into her eyes. “I really don’t want to get married.” He shrugged. “I don’t think I’m ready for a wife and children, yet. However, my grandfather feels differently.”

At first, her gut twisted. He didn’t want to get married. He had to, instead. Would she have time to find another man who would accept her as his wife, and especially, the illegitimate child growing inside her?

“Why…” She cleared her throat. “Why is your grandfather involved in this particular decision?”

“You see, Miss Ross, my grandfather still owns the lumber yard, along with the sawmills. He has grandsons who do the actual running of each place, but we still have no financial backing except for him. Just recently, he has decided that his grandsons need to find wives. He wants us all wed within six months, or we’ll forfeit our inheritance.”

She gasped audibly, not expecting to hear that explanation. “Why that’s… barbaric. That is absolutely medieval. I didn’t think wealthy people still blackmailed their families in such a way anymore.”

Chuckling, he rolled his eyes. “Grandfather is a very backward thinker, so for him to give us that stipulation doesn’t surprise me.”

“Are your two other brothers going to look for mail-order brides, too?”

He shrugged. “I’m not certain how they plan on finding their brides, but for me, the only way to get this completed quickly was to find a mail-order bride.”

She breathed slightly easier. At least he wasn’t sending her on her way. And yet, she either needed to charm him enough to consummate the marriage, or she needed to confess. However, he admitted to not being ready for a wife and children.

Oh, decisions, decisions…

Another gust of wind blew from behind her, and she fell against Maverick. His arms circled around her, keeping her from falling off the seat. She pressed her hands against his chest and looked up at his face. His forehead wrinkled with worried lines as his gaze looked up at the sky.

“I fear, Miss Ross, that the winds from the canyons are too strong to continue our journey.”

“What shall we do?”

He glanced down at her and shrugged. “Find someplace to hide the wagon and horses before they blow away.” He nodded. “And, if we were wise, we’d hide with them.”

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