The long journey across the West ended in sorrow for one hopeful mail-order bride. Dani Baxter stepped off the train in Colorado only to learn that her intended had died suddenly, leaving three young daughters behind. And suddenly she knew why God had sent her hereto make this family whole again.
But her late fiancé's brother, Beau Morgan, a bounty hunter obsessed with vengeance, believed that was his duty. He proposed they marryin name onlyfor the children's sake. But as she came to know him, she realized she wanted more, much more. And she wondered if even this lost man could somehow find peace in a woman's loving arms.
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Castle Rock, Colorado
"You know the story of Cain and Abel?"
"Patrick was Abel. I'm Cain."
Daniela Baxter gaped at the man in the doorway. Un-shaven and bleary eyed, he looked enough like Patrick to be his brother. Except Patrick would never have answered the door in dirty trousers and a wrinkled shirt.
Patrick and she were engaged to be married. Tomorrow. At the church she'd spotted outside of town. When he'd failed to meet her at the train depot, Dani had hired a buggy and driven the five miles to his dairy farm. She'd expected her fiancé to greet her with a smile and an apology for missing her train. Instead, a stranger had answered the door. She'd asked for Patrick by name and been assaulted by his sneering question about Cain and Abel.
Her insides knotted. "I don't understand."
Dani blinked. "I must be at the wrong house."
The road had forked a mile west of town. She'd guessed and taken the straighter of the two trails.
The man with Patrick's eyes studied her more closely. "Who are you?"
"Daniela Baxter. I'm his fiancée."
She and Patrick had been introduced through letters by Kirstin Janss, his cousin and Dani's best friend. They had corresponded for six months. He'd written often about the town of Castle Rock, his growing dairy business and his three young daughters.
The man's gaze stayed hard, but his voice softened like hot caramel, sweet but still sticky. "I'm sorry, miss. Patrick died five days ago."
Gasping, Dani clutched her reticule. It held her only picture of the man she loved, the one he'd taken just for her. He'd combed his thick hair with pomade and dressed in his Sunday best, a black suit with a crisp shirt. She knew his dreams. He knew hers. She loved him. She loved his daughters and yearned to be a mother, both to his girls and the babies to come.
The porch started to spin. Dani grabbed the rocking chair for support, but it tipped, throwing her to her knees. As she hit the threshold, pain shot through the marrow of her bones.
A strong hand gripped her elbow and hauled her to her feet. "Don't faint on me, lady."
As tears filled her eyes, he dragged her to a chair in the front room where she collapsed on the cushioned seat, taking in the horsehair divan and a scattering of flower petals. She smelled lilies and realized a coffin had sat in this room. Patrick her love. An anguished cry exploded in her throat.
The man shouted into the kitchen. "Emma! Get some water."
Dani pushed to her feet. She'd come to be a mother to the girls, not a burden. "I'll be fine."
The man glared at her. "You don't look fine."
"Who are you?" she demanded.
Before he could answer, Patrick's oldest daughter came into the room with the glass of water. Judging by the tight pull of Emma's brows, she disliked this man. "Here," she said, shoving the glass in his direction.
He put his hands on his hips. "It's not for me." He indicated Dani with his chin.
The instant the child turned, her oval face brightened with hope. "Dani?"
"Yes, sweetie. It's me." Dani crossed the gap between herself and the child and offered a hug.
Emma clung to her like moss on a tree. Long letters had made them friends over a span of months. Grief made them family in an instant. Water from the tipped glass sloshed down the back of Dani's dress, but she didn't care. Holding Emma brought Patrick to life. He'd written proudly of his girls. Emma, Ellie and little Esther, who'd been born on Easter Sunday. We'll have more, Dani. I want a son. She'd written back about Edward, Ethan and Elijah. He'd countered with Earl and Ebenezer. Laughing to herself, she'd cried uncle in the next letter.
Dani released her grip on Emma, took the glass and set it on the table. "Where are your sisters?"
"Upstairs," Emma said. "Esther's taking a nap."
Emma, barely ten years old, had the tired eyes of a young mother. Who would take care of the girls now? Not this man with tattered clothes and bristled cheeks. As Dani turned in his direction, he paced to the front window. Standing with his feet apart, he peered through the glass, studying the sky like a man expecting a storm. Dani tried to imagine Patrick striking such a belligerent pose but couldn't.
The picture in her reticule showed a man with gentle eyes. He had described himself as wiry and slight, a man with the rounded shoulders of a dairy farmer. The stranger at the window stood six feet tall and ramrod straight. Judging by his stance, he bent his knee to no one.
Dani knew better than to judge by appearances, but the stranger had declared himself to be Cain, the brother who'd surrendered to sin rather than fight for his righteousness. Cain had murdered Abel and been doomed to restless wandering. Even so, God hadn't left Cain. Cain had abandoned God.
Dani put her arm around Emma's shoulders, then spoke to the man's back. "Perhaps the three of us could sit down."
He faced her but stayed at the window. "I'll stand."
In that case, so would Dani. "We haven't been introduced."
"I'm Beau Morgan. Patrick's brother."
Emma clutched a fistful of Dani's dress. Dani took the reaction as a confirmation of a warning in Patrick's letters. He'd mentioned his brother just once. He's not someone you should know, Dani. Not a man I'd trust with my girls. Patrick had been vague about his brother's shortcomings but clear about his intent. I made a will years ago, before Beau went crazy. As soon as we're married, I'll change it. I want you to adopt the girls.
Dani's throat tightened. Why had God taken Patrick now? Why not a year from now, after they were married and settled? Why not fifty years when they were old and gray? The questions rose like a vapor but vanished as quickly as morning mist on a hot day. God's ways were higher than hers; His knowledge greater. At her mother's funeral, Pastor Schmidt had preached from Isaiah, paraphrasing the ancient prophet. "Who among you walks in darkness and has no light? Let him trust in the name of the Lord " Dani had leaned on those words every day since her mother's death. Isaiah had seen the future and persevered. Dani didn't have his foresight, only her faith that God was good, but she knew how to persevere.
She touched Emma's cheek. "Your pa's listening in Heaven, so I'm talking to him as well as you. No matter what happens, I won't leave you and your sisters."
Did you hear that, Patrick? Rest easy, my love.
Emma nodded in short bursts that made her eyes flicker with desperation. Dani lifted her gaze to the man at the window. What had he said to these children? Had he offered the slightest bit of reassurance? More than ever, they needed the comfort of familiar things, the promise they'd be together and that God Himself shared their grief.
Staring back at Dani, Beau Morgan sealed his lips in a hard line, then turned back to the window. Framed by lace curtains and panes of glass, he stood with his arms crossed and his feet spread wide. If he'd been wearing boots, Dani might have been intimidated. Instead she saw a hole in the heel of his sock. A tug on the yarn would unravel the entire garment. She suspected the man's life was in the same sorry shape and prayed he'd be eager to leave Patrick's daughters in her care.
Thoughts of the girls mixed with the scent of the lilies. Looking down, she squeezed Emma's shoulders. "Can you tell me what happened?"
Emma opened her mouth but sealed it without making a sound.
Dani looked to the man by the window. Hate glinted in his eyes. "It was ugly. Emma doesn't need to relive it."
The child shook her head. "I want to remember. He said he loved us. He said"
"Emma, don't." Beau Morgan glared at Dani. "Patrick was struck by lightning. Emma found him."
Dani gasped, then closed her eyes. "Dear Lord in Heaven, be with Patrick. Be will all of us."
The man snorted. "I wouldn't call the Almighty 'dear.'"
Dani stiffened at the lack of respect. "Patrick had faith. He believed"
"That's fine for him," the man replied. "But the Almighty and I don't see eye to eye, not anymore."
Emma choked on a sob. "It was my fault. I knew a storm was coming, but I didn't tell him."
The man scowled. "It's not your fault, kid. You didn't make it rain."
"But I knew!" Her voice rose to a wail. "He went to see Pastor Josh about the wedding. I asked him to buy some ribbon for Esther's dress. If he hadn't gone to the store, he'd have been home before the storm."
Dani trembled with regrets of her own. Patrick had wanted a September wedding. She'd pushed for June. If she'd shown more patience, he'd be alive. She knew her thoughts were crazy. She didn't control the weather. A lightning strike What were the odds? She thought of Patrick's last letter. Storms are common, Dani. Life here is hard. Are you sure you want to marry me?
She'd written back. I love storms!
Noah had built an ark. Christ had calmed a stormy sea. She'd seen blizzards in January, tasted the cold and watched tornadoes drop from summer clouds. She'd felt the fear and clung to her faith. Not once had God let her down. She refused to doubt Him now, yet how could she not wonder, just a little, if God had blinked and left Patrick to die?
Weak in the knees, she led Emma to the divan. "When did it happen?"
Mr. Morgan shot her a look of warning, then spoke to Emma. "Go upstairs. I'll tell her."
"No!" the child cried.
Did this man really think silence would spare Emma the memories? Dani had been the same age when her mother died. She'd brought home a cold from school. Leda Baxter had nursed her daughter and died of pneumonia. Silence had turned Dani's childhood home into an open grave, leaving her alone with the same twisted guilt plaguing Emma. No way would she leave the child to suffer as she had.
Dani took Emma's hand. "What happened, sweetie?"
"The storm turned the sky black." Her voice dropped to a murmur. "I sent Ellie and Esther to the cellar, then I came up here to watch for Pa. I stood right there."
She pointed to a spot in front of the side-by-side windows looking into the yard. Beau Morgan's back blocked the view, so Emma leaned to the side to see around him. Dani craned her neck, as well, but he put his hands on his hips, blocking the view with his bent elbows. When Emma walked to the edge of the window so she could see the yard, Dani joined her. Standing behind the child, she placed her hands on Emma's thin shoulders and followed her gaze down the road to a distant pine.
"Do you see that tree?" Emma asked.
"I do." Dani looked at the charred branches and blackened trunk of a ponderosa. She'd passed it on the way to the farm.
"I saw the lightning strike. The air buzzed, then everything went white and thunder shook the house. A minute later, Pa's horse galloped into the yard."
Against her will, Dani saw the pelting rain, the mud, the empty saddle.
Emma's voice cracked. "Lightning hit again. Everything turned as bright as day. That's when I saw that Buck had no tail. His rump had a burn on it. I could smell the hair."
Beau Morgan reached across the span of the window and touched the child's back. His sleeve rode up his forearm, revealing tense muscles and a jagged scar above his wrist. "Don't do this to yourself."
As the child stared into the yard, Dani stroked her arms. The images in Emma's mind were sacred, hers to share or bury as her heart demanded. The clock ticked. Chickens pecked the dirt by the barn as Dani stared at the gouges left in the mud by Patrick's horse. Next time it rained, she'd stomp them flat.
Emma saw the marks, too. "I knew Pa was hurt, so I ran outside. Buck died right in front of me."
Dani held in a groan that would do no good.As a child she'd embroidered samplers with her favorite Bible verses. For God so loved the world Peace I give to you Staring into the empty yard, she felt the thinness of the thread shaping those words. She'd snapped it with her teeth or snipped it with scissors. Listening to Emma, Dani felt a new tension stretching her faith.
Emma's shoulders sagged. "I found Pa by that pine tree. His clothes were burned and he was lying in the mud, but he was still alive."
It wasn't like Dani to doubt God's ways, but she couldn't stop the anger welling in her middle. These children had already lost their mother. Why had God taken Patrick, too? She stared at the window where a pale reflection of Emma's face stared back. Tears trickled down the girl's cheeks, glistening like silver ribbons.
Emma squared her shoulders. "He looked me right in the eye, then he touched my nose like he did when I was little. He said he loved us, then he saw Mama. I know, because he called her name."
Dani refused to be jealous. Patrick had loved his first wife with a dedication she admired and wanted for herself. He'd called her Beth, short for Elizabeth. They'd been childhood friends. Two years ago, Beth had died of a ruptured appendix.
Dani gripped Emma's shoulders. "He's with your ma now. I know for a fact he's looking out for you right this minute."
"He loved you, too." Emma wiped her eyes, then faced Dani. "You said in your letters that you'd be our new mother. Pa's gone, but"
"I'm keeping that promise."
Dani hugged the girl hard. They sobbed together until the river of tears turned to a trickle. Grief would rain on them again, filling the wells, but for now they were spent.
Beau Morgan cleared his throat. "You may not be aware, Miss Baxter. I'm the girls' legal guardian."
Dani straightened, then met his gaze. "I'm very aware, Mr. Morgan. Patrick named you as executor several years ago." Her next words would settle the issue for good or start a battle she couldn't lose. "I have a letter in my trunk. It clearly states his more recent intentions."
"And what were those?"
"He asked me to adopt the girls."
"Contingent on marriage?"
Mr. Morgan raised one thick brow. "And the farm? Would he want you to have that, too?"
Dani hadn't thought that far. "I suppose." She needed a way to support the children.
Beau Morgan rocked back on his heels. "Miss Baxter, you're either naive or a con artist."
Dani's mouth gaped. "How dare you!"
"No, how dare you." His voice stayed as flat as a coin. "I'm a blood relative with legal authority. You waltz in here and announce you want my nieces and a farm that's worth a good amount of money."
"I don't care about the money!"
"Of course, you don't." His lips curled with contempt.
"Frankly, it doesn't matter what you want. I have an obligation to see to my nieces and I intend to meet it."
Staring into the man's eyes, a green that reminded her of dying grass, Dani saw good reason to trust Patrick's assessment of him as crazy. She judged him to be in his midthir-ties, a few years older than his brother, but far less settled. Judging by the ragged ends of his hair, he'd cut it himself with a knife. The dark blond strands brushed his collarless shirt like a worn-out broom. Dani's eyes skimmed across the denim that had once been green or blue. She couldn't tell which. The sun had bleached it to turquoise, a soft color that blended with the dust on his brown trousers and the unraveling yarn of his gray sock.
If he couldn't take care of himself, how could he manage three young girls? Maybe he didn't want to Perhaps he was eager to turn over guardianship and needed assurance of her honorable intentions. A woman could beat a mule with a stick or coax it with a carrot. Dani opted for the carrot. "I appreciate your concern, Mr. Morgan. In fact, I admire it."
"Once you see Patrick's letter, I'm sure you'll agree with me."
"Don't count on it, Miss Baxter. The world's full of liars. How do I know you're not one of them?"
Emma thrust herself between them. "Pa loved Dani!"
The man looked Dani up and down, assessing her appearance without really seeing her. Before leaving the train, she'd put on her prettiest outfit, a pink taffeta suit with a snug jacket and ruffled skirt, and a sweeping straw hat that dipped across her brow. The outfit made her feel pretty. She'd dressed for Patrick, not this rude man with holes in his socks.