Lucy Marsh's worldly resources are running out, but she's fiercely determined to care for her younger brother and sister. When she discovers that their father's recent death was no accident, Lucy is eager to leave town. She accepts a proxy marriage she believes will provide safe refuge. But trouble follows her to Texas where her new husband is surprised to suddenly have a wife and children to care for.
Nate Stanton always hoped he'd marry someday, but running the family ranch meant he had no time for romance. When his father deposits Lucy Marsh—a city girl—on his doorstep, with two siblings in the bargain, he expects ranch life will send her running on the first train out of town. But Lucy is made of tougher stuff than Nate imagined. When danger moves in, Nate finds he'd give anything to protect Lucy and the children he's grown to love. Even if it means giving up his ranch.
Blue Moon Promise is a story of hope, romance, and suspense . . . immersing the reader in a rich historical tale set under Texas stars.
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BLUE MOON PROMISEUnder Texas Stars
By COLLEEN COBLE
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2012 Colleen Coble
All right reserved.
Chapter OneLucy Marsh pulled her threadbare coat around her neck and hurried down the snow-clogged street. Glancing behind her, she saw only the snow drifting onto run-down houses. The rapid thump of her pulse began to calm, and she managed to breathe through her tight lungs.
Maybe it was her imagination. For the past week she'd caught a glimpse of the same man every evening after work, and until today, she told herself he must live in the same general area. But she'd left early today and he had still been there. This time he seemed to watch her. A black coat covered him and he wore a hat pulled low over his face, so only the twitch of his smooth-shaven chin appeared. When she stopped and stared at him, he darted around the corner of the building.
She took the opportunity and dashed across the street, skirting the horse and carriage blocking her path to the house. The roof leaked and wind blew through the boards and under the windowsills, but it had been home for ten years. Glancing behind her again, she saw no sign of the man so she hurried up the steps.
Pressing her hand to her stomach, she paused and wished she didn't have to go inside. What was she going to do now? Mrs. Hanson had been apologetic about letting her go. It was hard times and not her work that necessitated firing her. But the hard facts didn't feed them. While 1877 had been a bad year so far, Indiana had been particularly hard hit.
But she would find a way. She always managed.
The steps to the porch took careful navigation. They tilted to the front, and it was easy to lose her balance. She paused outside the door. The children would worry, so she tried on a smile. When it stayed in place, she turned the doorknob. Before she could open the door, Amos Cramer's gruff voice stopped her.
"One moment, Miss Marsh," he panted, hurrying up the steps toward her. He was a large, red-faced man with sparse gray hair and a handlebar mustache. He parked himself in front of her door and wheezed, struggling to catch his breath.
She had tried to be kind to their landlord until Mr. Cramer mistook her kindness for romantic interest. Now she just tried to stay out of his way when he came to collect the rent. Her back against the door, Lucy pressed away as far as she could to escape the strong odor of stale perspiration that drifted toward her.
He crowded closer. "I'm afraid I have some bad news for you." His muddy gaze slid avidly over her face and hair.
Lucy pressed tighter against the wall, though it gained her no space between the odious man and herself. What now? She didn't think she could endure more bad news.
"I've decided to sell out and go back to New York. I've had an offer I can't refuse for this place. The new owner plans to tear it down and build a store here." He hesitated and rubbed his lips with a dirty handkerchief. "I'm afraid I must ask you to leave within the next seven days."
Lucy gasped. "A week? How can I find something else in a week?"
Amos shrugged. "I'm sorry, my dear. You might try that boardinghouse over on Canal Street. They might have an opening." He pursed his lips and raked her figure with his gaze before turning and waddling away.
Lucy's throat grew thick. She couldn't cry, not now. Tears would frighten the children. Fingering her locket, she straightened her shoulders and pushed open the door.
Her three-year-old sister launched herself against Lucy's legs. "Lucy, you was late." Eileen stuck out her lower lip. "We has company."
Lucy looked toward the single chair in the tiny parlor. A man with gray hair and penetrating charcoal eyes sat regarding her calmly before he stood. There was something forbidding in his face, and she inhaled. Please, God, have mercy. Her gaze sought and found her brother, Jed. Twelve years old, he'd been a handful all year. His hangdog expression did nothing to calm her fears.
His gaze remained on his worn shoes. "Uh, Lucy, this is—"
"I'll introduce myself," the gentleman interrupted. He stepped toward her and stared into her eyes. "Henry Stanton of Larson, Texas." He shifted his gray Stetson in his hands. "Your father was my boyhood friend. I came as soon as I heard of his death."
Henry Stanton. Lucy struggled to remember if her father had ever mentioned him. She knew her parents had grown up in Texas. Her Uncle Drew was still there. "I'm delighted to meet you, Mr. Stanton. How did you hear of our father's death?"
"His wife wrote me asking for help, so I decided to make a stop here on my way back from Chicago. Is she here?"
Lucy shook her head. "Catherine left right after Father died."
The man frowned. "Left? I don't understand."
She didn't like to speak ill of anyone, but he had to know why Catherine wasn't here. "Her, uh, friend showed up and she left with him."
"She abandoned her children?" His voice rose.
Lucy looked to where Eileen was playing with her doll. The child didn't seem to be paying attention. "I cared for them anyway," she whispered. "Catherine wasn't good with children."
"I see." He pointed his hat at Jed. "Your brother is in a heap of trouble, miss. He lifted my wallet when I talked with him on the porch."
Stealing? She stared at her brother and the guilt washed over his face. "Jed, how could you?" It was too much. She sank onto the edge of the bed and buried her burning eyes in her hands. Her shoulders heaved as she tried to get her emotions under control. The events of the past few weeks had drained her. When she raised her head, she found Henry with a speculative look on his face.
"Please don't distress yourself, Miss Lucy. Young Jed's behavior will be corrected on the ranch."
"On the ranch?"
"Tell me, Miss Marsh, are you a Christian woman?"
Standing again, she straightened her shoulders and exhaled. "Why, yes, sir, I am."
"I thought as much. God has led me here for a purpose." He smiled. "I have a proposition for you."
Her pulse quickened. Perhaps there would be a way out of these dreadful circumstances yet. "What would that be, Mr. Stanton?"
"Have you read in the Bible how Abraham sent a servant out to find a wife for Isaac?"
"Of course." Lucy's heart sank before beginning a rapid beat against her chest. Surely he wasn't offering for her hand. He was old. Older than her father.
"That was my main purpose for this trip, though my son has no idea of my mission. Now that I've met you, I believe you will do nicely. Nate needs a wife like you."
His son. Lucy's limbs went weak. The room spun, and she sat back on the edge of the bed.
"I can see I've shocked you."
Lucy eyed the man. "Is—is your son a Christian?"
Mr. Stanton smiled. "That just confirms the Lord's leading me here. As soon as I clapped eyes on you, something reared up inside me and I knew you were the right one for my Nate. Yes, my boy is a Christian." He put a hand on her shoulder. "I have my son's signature to act as his agent in all business matters for this trip, so if you agree, I will arrange a proxy marriage. Right after the ceremony we'll leave for Texas. A train leaves at one o'clock tomorrow afternoon."
"Why would we not return to your ranch and see if your son and I would suit?"
"You don't know my boy. He is apt to send you packing rather than listen to reason." He shook his head. "No, this is the only way."
It felt wrong to surprise this unknown Nate. Lucy held up her hand. "I'd rather know we suit before I pledge my life to a man. And give him a chance to get to know me as well."
He thrust out his chin. "This is my offer, Miss Lucy. It's the only one I'm making." He nodded at her siblings. "Think of your brother and sister. They will have warm beds and plenty of food to eat. Fresh Texas air and plenty of room to grow up."
Her main consideration was the children. While the thought of marrying someone she didn't know was most unappealing, Lucy had to consider the offer. They were about to be evicted, and she'd lost her job. How could she possibly support the children? "I'd like time to pray about it."
"I would expect nothing less from a good Christian woman. I'll return tomorrow at nine for your answer. If you're accepting my offer, have all your things packed. There will be no time to spare." His walking stick thumped on the floor as he walked to the entry.
When the door closed behind him, Lucy clenched her hands in her lap and turned to her brother. Too angry to speak, she just looked at him.
Jed swallowed hard and took a step back. "It was a dare, Lucy. I didn't mean to do anything wrong. I was just funnin'. I gave it back to him."
"A dare? You risked jail for a dare?" She buried her head in her hands. "Lord, help me," she whispered.
She lifted her head, opened the locket, and stared at the face of the unsmiling young woman. What would her mother have her do? Lucy squared her shoulders. This wasn't beyond her capabilities.
"On your knees, children." She sank to the floor. "We must pray."
LUCY PREPARED THE last of the beef in a thin stew for her brother and sister. She picked at a piece of dry bread and watched them eat. She'd always risen to the challenge, but tonight all she wanted to do was climb onto her cot and pull the covers over her head. The task appeared overwhelming and she was tired, so tired.
There was a rap on the front door, and she rose from the table to answer it. A glimpse through the window to the porch made her stomach plunge. Albert, Catherine's friend, was standing at the door. She wanted to throw the bolt and ignore the summons, but she forced herself to open the door.
His gaze skewered her. "Miss Lucy. You look lovely today."
His smile made her feel unclean. "What do you want?" She peered past his shoulder to the vehicle in the wash of gaslight, but no one was in the buggy that waited in the street.
He tipped his hat up with a finger. "Your mother sent me by for Eileen. If you'll just get her things together, we'll be off."
She blocked his entrance with her body. "I have no way of knowing if what you're saying is true." She couldn't turn her little sister over to this man. "I find it odd that you don't ask for Jed as well."
"I'm sure Catherine will want him eventually too, but right now, she wants Eileen."
Lucy tensed, her fingers on the door. "Then why is she not here herself to claim her daughter?"
His smile twisted to a snarl and he stepped toward the doorway, but Lucy slammed the door before he could block it. She threw the lock. "Go away!"
His shoulder hit the door, and it shuddered. "Open up," he growled.
The wood vibrated against her, and she held her breath. Please let it hold. Eileen had left the table and was hiding her face in Lucy's skirt. Lucy touched the top of her sister's soft hair. Staring at the lock, she prayed again for it to hold. After a moment, the battering against the door stopped. She wanted to peek out the window, but she was afraid the sight of her face would inflame the man even more.
Eileen whimpered. "It's okay," Lucy said in a soft voice. "I won't let him near you."
"He scares me." Eileen trembled against Lucy's skirt.
Lucy didn't dare admit the man terrified her as well. She had to be strong for Eileen and Jed. She glanced across the room and saw Jed with a rolling pin in his hand. "Check the back door," she mouthed.
He hurried to the kitchen. When he returned a few moments later, he gave her a nod. Lucy dared a glimpse through the curtain. Albert paced along the porch. He glanced at the door, then to his buggy before heading down the steps.
"You haven't seen the last of me," Albert shouted over his shoulder.
He lurched into his buggy. The whip came down on the horse's back, and the animal reared, then took off down the street. Albert glared back at the house as the buggy pulled away.
Lucy sagged against the window frame. He'd be back. She had only delayed the fellow. Next time Catherine might come too, and then what could be done? If Lucy refused to let Eileen go, Catherine would likely call the police.
Lucy's arms were leaden as she gathered the sobbing child in her arms and walked back to the table with her. "It's okay, he's gone, darling." All they had was one another.
While Eileen finished her stew, Lucy thought about her options. She made a list of possible places to apply for work, but the likelihood of finding a position was slim. Many were unemployed in Wabash. Even if the town had a poorhouse, that wasn't an option now that a new law forbade children from residing there. Without a job, she would have to turn the children over to their mother or they would all end up on the street. So what was she to do?
Hiding her fear from the children, she took the dirty dishes to the dry sink. Putting water to boil, she stared out the window at the yard. A tire swing hung from the lone tree. This place was the only home Jed and Eileen had ever known, but they were bound to have to leave no matter what happened. If she accepted Mr. Stanton's offer, at least the children would have food to eat and a place to sleep.
The thought of marriage to a man she didn't know was fearful, but she would do anything to keep them all together. It seemed she had no choice.
Chapter TwoNate should have felt a sense of contentment and peace, but something was off tonight, and he couldn't quite figure out what it was.
Standing in the corral, he went through the list of chores. The shapes of the cattle shifted on the darkening hillsides as they milled about. He'd checked the windmills and they were all pumping water, so the stock was hydrated. The chicken coop was locked up for the night. The horses were stabled and curried. Yet he struggled to relax the tense muscles of his shoulders.
He walked back to the barn and shoved the door along its tracks. The good scent of hay and horse rushed to his face as he stepped inside. He heard a sound behind him and turned, then saw Percy.
"Boss, supper is getting cold," the cook said. "I called you twice."
"What's eatin' you? You look like a new calf spooked by a goat."
There. "Did you hear that?"
Percy tipped his head to the side. "Hear what?"
The noise came again. A sliding, shuffling sound. "Someone's in the back stall," Nate whispered.
He pulled his gun and approached the stall. A figure burst from the shadows. The man leaped past Nate and darted out the open barn door. Nate ran after him. He caught a glimpse of the man's shirt as he vaulted around the corner of the barn. As he raced after him, Nate heard a jingle of horse tack. He rounded the barn in time to see the fellow mount his horse and ride off.
"Bring me a horse!" Nate ran toward the barn.
Percy was standing in the doorway, but at Nate's command, he ducked back inside. When Nate reached the barn, Percy was leading Whisper from his stall. Nate quickly saddled his horse and mounted, but by the time he got to where he'd last seen the intruder, there was no sign of the man.
His gut told him the man would head toward the road. Setting off in that direction, he chafed at the slow pace he had to take with the uneven ground. He didn't want to risk Whisper breaking a leg.
An hour later darkness had descended. He sat back in the saddle and looked down the hillside toward the road where the dim light of a lantern glowed by the darker shape of a buggy. The lantern swung in a man's hand as he stepped out to greet the rider who reined in at the sight of him. The light allowed Nate to recognize the man. Drew Larson.
He watched Larson talk to the intruder, and though Nate couldn't make out any words, there was no mistaking Larson's angry tone. Larson climbed into the buggy and took off. The other man followed on horseback. Had Larson hired the guy to poke around in the barn? It seemed likely. Deep in thought, Nate rode back to the Stars Above.
When he arrived at the ranch, he lit a lantern, then went to the stall where the fellow had been hiding. Holding the light aloft, he studied the space. One corner held a small pile of wood. Nate knelt and picked up one of the logs. The odor of kerosene was strong, and it wasn't from the lantern. The wood had been soaked in the stuff. Nate's gut clenched.
Did Larson hate them so much?
NATE RODE TO town and reported what he'd seen to the sheriff, who wrote it down with a bored expression and promised to look into it. Nate didn't believe a word of it. The man was lazy through and through. And a good friend of Larson's to boot.
Still disgruntled, Nate stalked down to the café, skirting the puddles in the stockyard. He paused to scrape the noisome muck from his boots before stepping into Emma's Café at the end of the street. Nate went to the only empty table on the opposite side of the dining room.
Excerpted from BLUE MOON PROMISE by COLLEEN COBLE Copyright © 2012 by Colleen Coble. Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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