Rancher’s Bride – Linda Ford

Seventeen-year-old Tilly Kinsley was trapped in the spare bedroom where she had ducked out of sight at the sound of knocking. She pressed her palm to her jaw, feeling the tender uneven texture of her burn. She would stay hidden until the visitor left. Pa answered the door. “Hello. Welcome. Come in.” A deep voice replied. “My name is Lance Eldon. I’ve come seeking your help.” “By all means. Let’s sit in the parlor.” Footsteps sounded down the hall and into the room across from where Tilly waited, hardly daring to breathe for fear of alerting anyone to her presence. There came a shuffle of chairs then Pa spoke again. “Please, go ahead.

” “It’s about those two girls out in my wagon.” Tilly eased to the window and glanced out. Indeed, two children leaned over the wagon box, watching the parsonage. She remained invisible behind the curtains and studied them. The older one’s bonnet hung down her back revealing a tangle of golden brown hair. Tilly couldn’t guess her age from the little she saw of her, but she was considerably bigger than the younger child whose limp bonnet partially covered her blonde hair. Both wore worried expressions. Tilly moved back to the closed door and listened to the conversation in the other room. The visitor was speaking. “They are my stepdaughters.

Their mother passed away last winter. I knew they would be difficult following the loss and expected some challenging times with them. But things have not improved. An aunt stayed with us for a few months. After she left, I got an older lady to take care of them, but she said we were too far from civilization and she wouldn’t stay. For good measure, she added that the girls were as uncivilized as wild animals. Now my cook is the only one there for them. She’s getting on in years and is crippled with arthritis and can’t keep up with them.” Tilly shifted her gaze to the window even though she couldn’t see the girls from where she was standing and felt a twinge of sympathy for them. She’d been left on the doorstep of the preacher and his wife when she was a baby.

She’d often struggled with a feeling of abandonment even though the Kinsleys were so loving and kind that, for the most part, she was content with her lot in life. Or at least she had been until recently. She realized she had unconsciously pressed her hand to her face again and slowly drew her fingers across her cheek and away. She turned her attention back to the conversation across the hall. Pa was talking. “So, you’ve come here hoping I could offer a suggestion?” “No, Preacher. I’ve come to ask you to take the girls and raise them as you’ve done with your daughters. I understand they are all adopted.” Tilly’s heart went out to the two girls perched in the wagon awaiting their future. Did they know that their stepfather was trying to give them away? Unexpected anger rose within her.

The man didn’t deserve to be their father. Thank goodness he could turn them over to her ma and pa. They would give the girls love and acceptance. There was a moment of silence in which Tilly knew Pa would be praying, and then he cleared his throat. “Mr. Eldon, I would like to say yes to your request, but I’m afraid I cannot.” Tilly gasped and then clamped her hand to her mouth lest she be heard. Pa was saying no? When had he ever done that? “But what am I to do with them? They can’t be left with my cook, and I can’t stay home to watch them. I have a ranch to run.” “Surely there is someone who would be glad to help you out.

Someone who wouldn’t mind being a distance from Glory.” There came a humorless laugh she knew wasn’t her pa. Then words filled with bitterness. “No one would stay once they realize how difficult the children can be.” Tilly leaned against the frame of the door, her thoughts in a whirlwind of confusion. She knew what it was to be judged. Rejected. In her case it was because her face was marred by a burn. She had grown ugly. She’d been working for the Raymond family.

The son, Chester, had paid her special attention, and she’d held out hope that he would offer marriage. Until the accident that resulted in damage to her face. He’d said she was ugly. He could no longer bear to look at her. Before she realized what his words meant, her things were taken to the step and she was expelled from the home without enough money to cross the country and join her parents. She’d appealed to old friends of the family, and they had purchased her a ticket. By the time she got home, she was all cried out. All that remained was a steely determination to never again let someone take advantage of her. Nor be so easily taken in by external appeal. The idea of being with children who, in her experience, were far more accepting, and at the same time, living far away from town appealed.

Could she do it? She stood up straight and sucked in air. She could do anything she put her mind to. Moving quickly so she didn’t have a chance to change her mind, she opened the door and crossed the hall. “Pa.” She remained in the doorway, her face turned to hide her right side. “I couldn’t help overhearing your conversation. If you approve, I will take care of the girls.” “I heartily approve. It will be the best arrangement for all involved.” She nodded though her neck felt strangely stiff.

“Mr. Eldon, this is my daughter, Tilly. Tilly, Mr. Eldon.” She forced her gaze to the visitor. She managed not to let her mouth fall open. For some reason, she’d expected something far different than this handsome, brown-eyed man. A face with strong lines and deep grooves in his cheeks, hair as black as midnight. He could be a young forty-year-old, or an old-looking twenty-year-old. It was impossible to guess his age.

She swallowed hard, twice, hoping for a jolt of courage. What difference did looks make? Except she would have been more at ease around someone with jagged features. Someone who didn’t see beauty when he looked in the mirror and ugly when he looked at her. There was no graceful way to withdraw her offer. Nor did she want to. She would be caring for two girls. Surely, she could avoid him. “That’s a very generous offer.” He pushed to his feet. “I’ll bring them in.

” Bring them in? What did he mean? Then it hit her with such force she stepped back, her heart lurching halfway up her throat. He had misunderstood her offer. She did not want to stay in town and care for them. She forced herself to calm down. “I’ll get my things and accompany you to your place.” He ground to a halt. “You want to look after them at the ranch?” “It’s their home.” She heard the sharpness of her words and stopped. When she had calmed her inner turmoil, she began again, softly, gently. “They will be more comfortable in familiar surroundings.

” Pa rose, a pleased smile on his face as if satisfied with this turn of events. “Your cook would provide chaperoning, wouldn’t she?” Mr. Eldon opened his mouth. Closed it again without speaking. Lifted one hand. “I suppose so.” “Then I agree with my daughter. The children would do best at their own home.” Tilly silently added, she would do best far away from town. Far from the curious stares, the sympathetic tsks, and invasive questions.

LANCE MANAGED to make it to his feet and follow Mr. Kinsley from the room. But it proved impossible to sort out his thoughts. He’d hoped to leave the girls here. Surely, they would be happier in town. Away from him. Valerie, the oldest, at ten, had made her feelings abundantly clear. She didn’t like him. And she managed to always pull her three-year-old sister, Emily, to her side. Lance went with Mr.

Kinsley to the kitchen and sat at the table with a cup of coffee before him. He clenched his hands together and pressed them between his knees. How was he to get out of this offer without offending the preacher? Miss Kinsley didn’t look very old. Hardly more than a girl herself. How could she hope to control his two stepdaughters? There were times they had proven to be almost more than he could handle both physically and mentally. He had to tell the preacher his concerns. Before he could think of a way, the other man spoke. “My daughter is very vulnerable at the moment. I hope you bear that in mind.” Lance nodded though he had no idea what the man meant by that.

Preacher Kinsley continued. “She’s very self-conscious of her burn.” Lance sat up. “Her burn?” “She kept her face turned away.” Mr. Kinsley’s smile was regretful. “She was injured a few weeks ago. She’s already had to deal with rejection and unkindness because of it.” The smile fled, replaced with steely challenge. “I would not look kindly on her having to deal with more.

” “I’m sure that won’t be a problem.” The man across the table might be a preacher, a man of God, given to good works and likely many other wonderful things, but there was no mistaking his warning. He wanted Lance to know he would not tolerate anything happening to his daughter. Surely, he didn’t think Lance would see the young lady in a romantic way. Lance could have assured the man he wasn’t interested in his daughter romantically. He’d tried that with the girls’ mother and didn’t care to do it again. “Good.” Mr. Kinsley smiled, apparently satisfied with Lance’s answer. Footsteps descended the stairs.

“Here she comes now. Remember what I said.” Miss Kinsley hovered in the hall, almost out of sight. “I have my things.” A small case stood on the floor behind her. Lance rushed to his feet and turned to face the young lady, meeting her gaze for the first time. He saw what her father meant. There was an angry red patch of skin along the right side of her face right at the jawline. He held her gaze, not looking directly at the burned area, knowing that her father watched him for any sign of shock. Even more than that, he felt the silent challenge in Miss Kinsley’s eyes.

“Are you sure about this? Now is the time to change your mind. Once you’re out there, it’s too far to come back at the drop of a hat. It’s a two-hour ride in ideal conditions.” “I’m sure.” She donned her bonnet and pulled it forward to partially hide her disfigurement. Mr. Kinsley edged past Lance. “Tilly, I will ride out in a few days to check on things.” “Thank you, Pa.” She turned toward the door.

“I’m ready.” Lance followed her, carrying her case. They crossed to the wagon. As soon as Valerie saw them, she scuttled to the far side, jerking Emily after her. Her scowl had the power to sour the freshest milk. He put the case beside the crate that held the girls’ belongings. “Miss Kinsley, these are my stepdaughters, Valerie and Emily.” He gave their ages. “I’m pleased to meet you,” Miss Kinsley said. “Who are you? Is that your case? Why did he put it in the wagon?” The angry questions burst from Valerie while wide-eyed Emily pressed to her sister’s side.

“She’s going to take care of you girls,” Lance said, knowing he sounded as weary and uncertain as he felt. “You said we were going to stay here. I don’t want to go back.” Lance felt the displeasure in the child’s tone like acid poured into the wounds of his heart. “Wait here,” he told the girls. “I need to speak privately to Miss Kinsley.” He indicated she should follow him a short distance away, but not out of sight. He didn’t know what Valerie would do. He only knew he didn’t trust her. He needed to tell Miss Kinsley all the things she should know so she could change her mind.

“The girls are not happy living on the ranch.” He paused. Even though the truth was painful, he must speak it. “They don’t like me.” Miss Kinsley had been pointedly looking away from him, but at those words, she faced him. “Why?” “I am at a loss to know. Perhaps because I am not their father. And with their mother gone….” Priscilla had begged him to marry her, but had soon grown to despise him, and he figured her attitude had rubbed off on the girls. “What happened to their mother?” At least she kept her voice soft.

No harsh tones of accusation such as he’d grown used to hearing from Valerie. “She passed away. She was frail from the start.” “I’m sorry. It must have been difficult for all of you.” “It was. It is. I want you to understand what you are getting into if you go to the ranch.” She waited. “The girls are—” How could he tell her without seeming to be harsh and critical? “Afraid? Hurting? Lonely?” That might well be, but so much more.

“Rebellious. Disobedient. Defiant.” Her gaze held his. He didn’t know her. Didn’t know the nuances of her expression, but he couldn’t miss the disapproval in her eyes. Defense rose within him. “You think I’m being harsh.” “I have no idea what to think of you. I know nothing about you or your situation.

But I do know how it feels to know I’m not wanted.” She gave a brisk nod. “I believe I’ll get along just fine with the girls.” And with that, she walked back to the wagon and waited for him to help her up to the seat. He did so. “Very well. But don’t say I didn’t warn you.” A scuffle came from behind him and he turned in time to see Valerie jump to the ground and drag little Emily after her. The pair ran down the street. “Stop!” Of course, they didn’t listen.

He tore after them. He knew he could outrun them and so did they, but that didn’t make them slow down. If Valerie could find a place to hide, she would. In the past, she’d made him search for them for hours. Once he’d not found them until after dark. It was only Emily’s whimpering that allowed him to discover their hiding place. He felt awkward running, being more used to being on the back of a horse, but he managed to catch them before they reached the alley. He scooped up Emily and caught Valerie’s arm. “Let me go.” She tried to shake free and dragged her feet in the dirt as he returned to the wagon.

Mr. Kinsley watched from the doorway, his face a study in worry. Likely he was having second thoughts about letting his daughter go with Lance. No doubt a dozen people had witnessed the scene with the girls. Lance was certain Miss Kinsley would have seen enough to make her change her mind. And then what? He couldn’t manage the pair on his own. There wouldn’t be anyone willing to take the girls after witnessing that little episode.

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