Journey back in time to the heartland of Iowa, where three women find healing and hope through the loves God brings to their lives. Tessa feels completely abandoned. . .until a kind man named Gideon begins healing her shattered heart. Pearl has no hopes for romantic love again. . .until Hubert comes to town and convinces her to dream once more. And Tillie knows Everett will never heal emotionally from the scars he sustained in a fire. . .until she can convince him his scars represent something beautiful to her.
About the Author
Connie Stevens lives with her husband of forty-plus years in north Georgia, within sight of her beloved mountains. She and her husband are both active in a variety of ministries at their church. A lifelong reader, Connie began creating stories by the time she was ten. Her office manager and writing muse is a cat, but she’s never more than a phone call or email away from her critique partners. She enjoys gardening and quilting, but one of her favorite pastimes is browsing antique shops where story ideas often take root in her imagination. Connie has been a member of American Christian Fiction Writers since 2000.
Read an Excerpt
Brides of Iowa
Three Loves are Sweet Surprise along Willow Creek
By Connie Stevens
Barbour Publishing, Inc.Copyright © 2011 Connie Stevens
All rights reserved.
Willow Creek, Iowa, 1881
Looking into Mama's face had always been like looking into a mirror, but not anymore. The skin on Mama's face hung over her cheekbones, creating gaunt hollows where beauty once resided. Tessa wiped her tears with the hem of her apron. For the first time in months, the lines between her mother's brows smoothed out. Her struggle was over.
"Mama." Tessa's own whisper echoed within the wagon canvas. "Oh Mama, please don't leave me here. Take me with you." Brokenness more cruel than anything she'd ever known invaded her heart with an onslaught so brutal she couldn't remember how to breathe. She straightened out her mother's fingers and laced them together in a posture of prayer, hoping against hope those fingers would squeeze hers once more. They didn't.
With leaden legs, Tessa slid to the end of the tailgate and lowered herself to the ground. Dawn had broken, but the morning mist still lingered over the unfamiliar town. Papa hadn't returned to their rickety wagon all night. Why wasn't he here? No doubt he drank himself blind again.
God, I need help. I don't know what to do.
She forced her eyes to scan her surroundings — for what, she wasn't sure. The edge of town where Papa left the wagon yesterday didn't offer much of a vantage point. A giant elm tree and thick underbrush offered meager privacy from the nearest building, the livery. Horses dozed in the corral, uninterested in her plight. The rest of the town seemed set apart, as though a line had been drawn in the dirt that she and her family weren't permitted to cross.
Farther down the street, a patchwork of brick and board buildings lined up like mourners in a funeral procession. An occasional sign, hitching rail, or picket fence broke the monotony of weathered storefronts, but the silent buildings offered no hint of the people residing within. Was there anybody in this town who could help her do what needed to be done?
Under different circumstances, she might consider this a pretty little town. She moved forward and crossed the space between the wagon and the corral, stopping at the watering trough in front of the livery. Her reflection in the still water startled her. A stranger — weary and disheveled — looked back at her. She dipped her cupped hands into the trough and lifted cool water to her face. With wet fingers she smoothed her hair. The cramped muscles in her back protested as she straightened to look down the street. Papa was nowhere to be seen.
Tessa's feet balked. Part of her heart was back in the wagon, stilled and unbreathing. Her constant source of unfailing love was now silent. Gentle, uncomplaining Carly Langford, her precious mama, would never call her "honey girl" again.
As she stood anchored in place by her grief, the gradual sights, smells, and sounds of a town awakening from slumber stretched their arms and yawned a greeting to the sun. Frying bacon and fresh-perked coffee wafted on the air. Then a rooster crowed. Strange sounds seeped into her awareness, and she realized it was birds chirping to each other in the trees. Eventually shopkeepers opened their doors to welcome the start of a new day. The comforting music of a town where everything was as it should be.
How could such cheerfulness exist? What was the matter with these people? Tessa wanted to scream for everyone to stop. Didn't they care that her mama just died?
A tall, dark-haired young man stood behind her. His image wavered through her tears. "Miss, are you all right? Can I call somebody for you?"
She blinked back the tears and drew in the deepest breath she could manage. "A preacher. I need a preacher."
The stranger took her by the elbow and guided her to the board sidewalk. "Why don't you sit down here, miss? I'll go find the preacher and bring him. Can I get you anything?"
Tessa shook her head. The movement felt numbed and disconnected. As soon as she sat, the stranger strode away down the street. A slight breeze lifted the wisps of hair that lay along her cheek. "Oh God, I wanted to go with Mama. Why couldn't You take me, too?"
The rooster crowed again. A pair of little boys ran down the boardwalk, their laughter trailing strangely in their wake.
The wide doors of the livery opened, first one then the other. A wiry, whiskered man in a leather apron propped a rock in front of each door. He returned inside but reappeared a few moments later, dragging Papa by the arm. "Get on outta here. This ain't no hotel for drunks."
Papa stumbled over his feet, hitting the dust with a thud. His half- empty whiskey bottle broke on impact. Curses spewed from him as he got to his knees, contaminating the air with vile oaths. He squinted in her direction. "Tessa! Tessa, that you?"
Tessa squeezed her eyes shut, wishing she could block out the sound of her father's voice. Where was he when Mama needed him? "Yes, Papa, I'm here."
Papa staggered to his feet and kicked the remaining shards of broken glass. "What're you doin' just sittin' there, girl? Get me some breakfast."
A dull throb at the base of her skull caused Papa's demands to ring in her ears. "There is no breakfast, Papa. Nothing but the corn dodgers left from yesterday."
Storm clouds built behind her father's eyes. "Whadja say to me?" His voice slurred, and his watery, bloodshot eyes narrowed into slits. "You miserable little brat. How dare ya talk that way to your papa!"
He drew his hand back and slapped her across the face, sending her sprawling into the dirt. The metallic taste of blood touched her tongue, but she didn't care. Nothing Papa did mattered now. Her heart was numb.
Papa lurched over to where she lay in the dirt. He grabbed her arm and yanked her up then backhanded her again, knocking her backward against the livery door.
"Hey! Stop that!" The unfamiliar voice seeped through her daze. "What's the matter with you, mister?" The same stranger who told her he'd get the preacher stood before her. "Miss? Are you all right?"
She blinked and realized two men held Papa up by his arms and that another older man stood beside the dark-haired stranger.
"Are you all right, miss?" The older gentleman with thin, silver hair echoed the younger man as he bent to peer at her.
What difference did it make? "Yes, I'm all right."
"I'm Pastor Witherspoon. Gideon here says you need a preacher."
Gideon? Tessa slid her gaze to the tall young man. His dark scowl was fixed on Papa, but when he turned to look at Tessa, his eyes immediately softened into something foreign. Is that what sympathy looked like?
"Do you know that man?" His voice was low and even. The young man's finger pointed at Papa, who stood with splayed legs, swaying as though the breeze would blow him over.
"He's my father."
"Where is your mother, child?" Pastor Witherspoon touched Tessa's hand.
In order to answer the preacher, she would have to give voice to words she didn't want to speak. Loathsome, ugly words. But the preacher awaited her answer.
"Mama ... Mama's in the wagon. She's ..." Tessa couldn't allow the word to cross her lips, as though holding it back would erase the reality. If she didn't speak it, it simply wasn't so.
The man called Gideon strode across the yard in front of the livery to where the wagon sat partially concealed by low-hanging branches from the elm and drew aside the flap. He stepped up and leaned inside the canvas then exited slowly. "She's dead, Preacher."
"Dead!" Papa roared. "I told you!" He pointed his finger at Tessa. "This is your doin'. It's your fault. If it weren't for you, I'd still have a wife. You killed her, sure as I'm standin' here. Your mother's death is on your head, you no-good, miserable —"
"That's enough!" The dark-haired man drew back a fist.
Before he could throw the punch, the preacher grabbed his arm. "Gideon!" Pastor Witherspoon turned him away from Papa. "This young lady needs our help now, and her mother needs a Christian burial. Let's get busy and do what needs doing."
Gideon nodded, cast another withering glance at Tessa's father, and motioned to the livery man in the leather apron. "Cully, can you take him back behind the barn and let him sleep it off?"
"I ain't sleepin' now. I got things to do." The familiar belligerence of Papa's tone stung Tessa's ears. She knew better than to believe these men could change his mind.
Pastor Witherspoon stepped forward. "Sir, your wife's funeral is going to take place in just a little while. Why don't you go clean up and get some coffee, and when we're ready for the burial, you can —"
"I don't have time for no buryin'." He threw a glare at Tessa and pointed his chin at her. "She can do that. I got business." He shrugged off the men on either side of him. "Leave me alone. I got things to do."
He stalked down the street, leaving the small group staring after him.
All except Gideon. He looked at Tessa with such sympathy and compassion that she nearly lost control of what little resolve she had left.
She looked away and stiffened her spine. Papa would be drunk the rest of the day. It was up to her to see to it her mother was treated with the respect and caring she deserved. "Pastor, can you help me bury my mother?"
The elderly preacher took her hand and patted it. "Of course, child."
Gideon stepped forward. "I'll take care of it, Pastor. If you can look after Miss ..."
"Langford," Tessa supplied. "Tessa Langford. My father is Doyle Langford, and Mama ... Mama's name is Carly."
The preacher turned to Tessa. "Come with me, child. Mrs. Dunnigan at the boardinghouse will give you something to eat and a place to freshen up."
Tessa hesitated. "I have no money. I can't even pay for a decent burial for my mother."
Pastor Witherspoon waved his hand and nudged her ahead of him like the declaration of her poverty wasn't anything he hadn't heard before.
Two hours later, a small group stood around the freshly dug grave on a rise beyond the edge of town. A scattering of makeshift crosses and headstones dotted the grassy area where butterflies played tag among the wildflowers and cicadas provided the funeral music.
Mrs. Dunnigan from the boardinghouse stood beside Tessa and patted her shoulder. Gideon and two other men, each holding his hat in one hand and a shovel in the other, stood opposite the mound of dirt. They listened while the preacher read from the Psalms.
Tessa thought it fitting that he read from Mama's favorite book of the Bible. She felt a brief wave of relief that Papa saw fit to stay away, but guilt immediately assaulted her for thinking so. Despite Papa's hateful words and drunkenness, something within her longed for his approval. Couldn't he see she'd tried her best to take care of Mama? He'd always blamed her for Mama's illness and told her she was a sorry substitute for the son Mama never had. Was she the reason he sought solace from a bottle?
After the preacher finished reading and praying, Gideon approached her with a bunch of yellow daisies and blue cornflowers. "Here." He shuffled his feet and handed her the flowers. "I thought you might like to put these on your mother's grave."
When she lifted her eyes to his face, the tenderness she saw there unsettled her. Other than Mama, she couldn't remember anyone ever defending her or extending kindness to her. She barely knew this man. Only his name: Gideon.
She accepted the wildflowers and mumbled a thank-you. Bowing her head, she closed her eyes so she wouldn't have to watch the body of her mother lowered into the hole. Oh, how she longed to feel the comfort of Mama's arms around her one more time.
She held the flowers to her face while the men filled in the grave. Then she sank to her knees and laid the flowers on the fresh mound. "Mama," she whispered through her tears. "What am I going to do without you?"
* * *
Gideon watched as Mrs. Dunnigan coaxed the poor girl away from her mother's grave and walked her back to the boardinghouse. With her father a drunk and her mother gone, what kind of life would she have now? She appeared to be close to his sister's age, and he hated to imagine Martha being left in such a depressing situation.
When he'd placed the bouquet of wildflowers in her hands, her fingers reminded him of the delicate bone china he sold in the mercantile. Her red-rimmed hazel eyes tore at his heart, and her wheat- colored hair escaped its sorry scrap of a ribbon and wisped in a dozen different directions. He was sure Mrs. Dunnigan would help her clean up, but what good would it do if she was destined to fetch and carry for a drunkard?
The image in his mind made him grateful he'd been able to keep the family business going after his father died two years ago. Running the mercantile might not be what he wanted to do, but at least he and Martha had a roof over their heads. Gideon sent a quick prayer heavenward to thank God his younger sister was about to be married in just a few months to a fine, godly man.
The sun was high in the sky by the time Gideon reached Maxwell's Mercantile. He unlocked the doors and propped them wide open to invite customers. If only opening the doors was all it took to bring in business. The reason for the recent decline in his sales clomped down the sidewalk at that very moment.
"Maxwell." Henry Kilgore puffed out his chest to display the ornate watch chain hanging from his vest pocket. The ever-present cigar stuck in his teeth made the man sound like he was trying to talk with his mouth full.
Gideon ignored the man and entered the store, pulling his dark blue apron from its hook as he passed the storeroom door. The last thing he needed right now was another visit from Kilgore.
"Maxwell, didn't you hear me?"
"I heard you, Kilgore. What do you want?" As if he didn't know.
"I was wondering if you'd given any consideration to my offer to take this place off your hands. You'll have to admit I've offered you a fair price. You don't really want to stand behind a counter waiting on people the rest of your life, do you? I thought you were a bright lad. You could do better than being nothing more than a shopkeeper. But maybe I was wrong."
Ire grabbed Gideon's gut at the implied insult, but he refused to give Kilgore the satisfaction of seeing the effect of his offensive remark. He picked up a feather duster and began flicking it over the glass jars lining the counter. "My father was nothing more than a shopkeeper, Kilgore, until you pressured him into an attack of apoplexy. He worked hard, earned an honest living, and managed to provide quite nicely for his family."
Kilgore threw his head back and guffawed. "You call this providing quite nicely? I don't see the customers beating down your door."
Gideon turned to confront the accuser standing in the middle of his store. "I think we both know why that is, Kilgore. Ever since you came to town a couple of years ago, you've been buying up as many businesses as you can get your hands on. Many of my longtime customers are now trading at your Willow Creek Emporium. I know you can't possibly be turning a profit from the prices you're charging there, especially since you have to pay someone to run the place for you."
Kilgore pulled a match from his vest pocket, struck it on the bottom of his boot, and lit his cigar. He puffed several times in rapid succession until the foul-smelling smoke caused Gideon to take a step backward.
"I don't need to make a profit. I'm making enough money from my other enterprises. I can afford to lower my prices for the fine citizens hereabouts."
Gideon snorted. "It's not the fine citizens you're concerned about, and we both know it. You think if you take enough business away from me, I'll be forced to sell out and then you can charge whatever prices you want. You don't just want to own Maxwell's Mercantile. You want to own the town. Well, let me tell you, Kilgore, if I ever plan to sell, it won't be to you, seeing as how you probably sent my father to a premature grave." Gideon jerked his head in the direction of the entrance. "There's the door. Use it."
Kilgore laughed, but no mirth filled the sound. "I'm a patient man ... for now. In another few months you'll be singing a different tune." He withdrew the cigar from his mouth and flicked the ashes on the floor. "Don't wait too long though, Maxwell. I make a practice of getting what I go after, and I just might lower my offer. Remember, I can buy and sell you ten times over if I want to." An arrogant smirk filled the man's face. He took a long draw on the cheroot and blew the smoke in Gideon's direction before sauntering toward the door.
Excerpted from Brides of Iowa by Connie Stevens. Copyright © 2011 Connie Stevens. Excerpted by permission of Barbour Publishing, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
ContentsLeave Me Never,
Scars of Mercy,