Second-Chance Bride – Linda Ford

They were gone again. Twenty-two-year-old Freyda Haevre stared at the empty corrals. The gate had somehow come unlatched and was pushed open to allow her two plow horses to escape. She jerked about and fixed her gaze on the low house not more than a five-minute walk from where she stood depending on whether she was going for a neighborly visit or chasing after a team of difficult horses. The home of Ward Rollins. A widower with two little boys. She’d met him three times. The day she’d moved here and gone to claim her horses that he had been keeping for her, and twice since, when her horses were missing. They’d gone back to the place where they’d spent the four months since her husband had died. Freyda understood the animals were used to getting fed over there, but she needed them to stay home. Just as she needed to learn how to hitch them to the farm implements so she could break new land, plant a crop, and meet the requirements of the Homestead Act. “Then I shall own this bit of land.” She squeezed the words past her tight lips. She would prove to everyone, herself included, that she could manage on her own. There was only one thing to do.

She hitched up her skirts and strode along the path that connected the two homesteads. It was a well-beaten track, as if Baruk had gone back and forth a number of times before his death. As if Ward Rollins perhaps had come over a few times to help Baruk and maybe care for the animals while Baruk was ill. And now the path was trampled by the hooves of two draft animals that refused to stay home. As she neared the Rollins’ place, shrieking rent the air and sent her nerves into a frenzied dance. She broke into a run, praying her petticoat wouldn’t trip her. The sound led her to the far side of the house. A woman had the oldest boy by one arm and laid a willow switch on his back again and again. The liten gutt clamped his lips together and endured the whipping as the heavy-set woman struck him again and again. But the younger boy screamed, “Papa, Papa, Papa!” Freyda didn’t care if it was any of her business.

Didn’t care if she was rebuked for interfering. She strode forward and was about to stop the beating when footsteps pounded past her and a big hand grabbed the woman’s arm. “Enough.” Ward Rollins had come to the rescue of his small son. Freyda stepped back, shivering before the fury making Ward’s voice as hard as last winter’s ice and his face dark with rage. He reached for the crying younger boy and lifted him into his arms, at the same time drawing the older child, with his silent tears, to his side. “Mrs. Wright, you are done here. Pack your bags. I will take you back to town.

” The woman sniffed and looked down her nose. “Your children are wild and unmanageable. Mark my words, they are going to turn into good-for-nothing riffraff.” “That’s enough. Get your things ready.” The woman marched away, her head high. Ward shot Freyda a look that forbade her to say anything or interfere. Not that she had a mind to. But if he hadn’t shown up, she would have given Mrs. Wright a piece of her mind.

Her business or not. Ignoring Freyda, perhaps expecting she would leave, Ward bent to the older boy. With his fingertip, he wiped away the tears. “You don’t deserve that kind of treatment. No one does.” “Yes, Papa.” Freyda’s throat tightened at the way the boy’s voice quivered. “Poor little lamb,” she murmured, more to herself than anyone. Ward straightened. “What can I do for you, Mrs.

Haevre?” “I’ve come for my horses.” She nodded toward the patch of grass by the barn where they grazed placidly. Ward’s attention went the same direction. “Help yourself.” If only it was that easy. She had tried, and failed, to have any control over the big animals. With a pinch of spice, she thought it wasn’t unlike him trying to control his boys. In the few days she’d been at her farm she’d twice witnessed Mrs. Wright trying to shepherd the boys back to the house. It was like trying to corral wild cats.

“I’m ready to go,” Mrs. Wright called from the step. “Come along, boys. We have to take her to town.” “Papa,” the younger one cried. “I don’t want to ride with her. Please, don’t make me.” The older boy pressed to Ward’s side and shivered. Ward looked from his boys to the waiting woman who tapped her foot. One hand held her belongings, the other opened and closed at her side.

Freyda watched that hand and put her own to her neck as if she needed to protect herself. Without thinking, she took a step closer to Ward and his children. She couldn’t say if she wanted his protection or if she wanted to protect the boys. “Why don’t you leave them with me?” The words surprised her. Wasn’t she supposed to be learning to handle her horses so she could get a crop in the ground? But she understood how frightened the little boys were. “I’m sorry, but I’ve forgotten their names.” Everything was so hard to remember in English. “This is Milo.” Ward indicated the boy quivering at his side. “He’s six.

And this is Kit. He’s four.” “Pleased to meet you both.” Freyda extended her hand toward the pair but withdrew it when she saw how they both jerked back. Her thoughts blackened. How many times had they endured whippings from that woman that they shrank from an ordinary gesture? “They will be safe with me.” She spoke to Ward. His mouth tightened. “You’ll forgive me if I say I have no reason to accept that as the truth.” “And perhaps what Baruk said about me?” She hoped her husband had thought of her from time to time while he was in America and she was in Norway waiting for him to send for her.

“Yes, Baruk was a decent man.” “Thank you.” “I’ve said it already, but I’ll say it again. I’m sorry about your loss.” “Thank you.” They’d had this conversation the day she arrived. She’d accepted his condolences even though she didn’t deserve them. She hadn’t known Baruk that well when they married. Seems about the only thing either of them cared about was getting to America. They’d been married six weeks when he made it clear he would go ahead without her.

That was almost two years ago. What she remembered of him was tangled up in dreams and disappointments until she wasn’t sure what he was really like. “Mr. Rollins.” the woman on the step called. Her tone said she’d had enough waiting. Ward looked into the distance as if seeking an answer there. Or perhaps wishing he could escape the problems of this place. Freyda didn’t know why she should try and convince him to let her look after the boys, but she did. “You can rest assured we’ll do quite fine for the time it takes you to go to town and back.

” Three faces studied her with doubt and trepidation. Ward had dark brown hair. His equally dark brown eyes pierced into her thoughts. She steeled herself not to look away though she was aware the two little boys, with coloring matching their father’s, wore the same wary expression he did. “Mr. Rollins.” Mrs. Wright’s voice carried enough impatience to overfill a trough. “I’m coming.” He put Kit on the ground and took each boy by the hand.

“Come along. We have to go.” The boys hung back. “Boys, come.” But the boys dragged their feet. “Not with her,” Kit said. He wrinkled up his face, preparing to cry. Milo simply looked at his papa, his expression hard with stubbornness. Ward slowly came round to face Freyda. “If you would keep them until I get back, I would be grateful.

” “Of course.” She half considered pointing out that she had already offered, but knew better than to rub salt into the wounds of his already battered state. The boys followed him to the barn. Freyda didn’t want to follow them, but neither did she want to go to the house and visit with Mrs. Wright. “You will have your hands full with that pair,” Mrs. Wright called. “Ja?” Dare she hope the woman would be put off by being answered in Norwegian? “Their father lets them run wild. Won’t allow anyone to discipline them. He’s had four housekeepers and dismissed them all because they tried to tame those wild boys of his.

I doubt he’ll find anyone else willing to come and take care of them. ” “Ja?” “Spare the rod and spoil the child. That’s from the Bible you know.” “Ja.” Freyda clamped her teeth to keep from pointing out that Mrs. Wright’s discipline was harsh. Thankfully, Ward led the horse and wagon from the barn at that point, putting an end to anything more the woman might say. The boys stuck so close they were almost a part of him. Ward went to the house where Mrs. Wright waited.

As he drew closer, the boys put more and more distance between them and their father. Freyda eased toward the house as well. Ward would need assurance that she would watch his boys carefully. Ward took Mrs. Wright’s belongings and put them in the wagon then reached out to help her up to the seat, but the woman sniffed and heaved herself upward on her own. She stalled about halfway then yanked her skirts and plunked down heavily on the seat. Ward climbed up beside her, but didn’t flick the reins or tell the horses to move on. He stared straight ahead, his jaw muscles bunching and unbunching. Then his shoulders rose and fell as if he took in more than the usual amount of air. “Boys.

” He brought his gaze to them. “I’ll be back soon. Be good.” Milo held Kit’s hand. “Yes, Papa.” Mrs. Wright snorted, bringing a dark flash to Ward’s eyes. He gave Freyda a look that sent a tremor up her spine. His warning couldn’t have been any clearer. He would not tolerate any harm coming to his boys.

“I have lots of younger cousins, so I’m quite familiar with children.” His expression didn’t lighten and she knew her information hadn’t impressed him. Mrs. Wright gave another snort. “I’ll guarantee you have not dealt with children like those two.” “Enough,” Ward muttered, and flicked the reins. Freyda and the boys watched the wagon rumble away. As it turned onto the main road, Freyda sucked in a deep breath and faced the boys. “What should we do?” The pair stared at her, their expressions blank as if they hadn’t heard her. She chuckled.

She had a little cousin who did the same when he didn’t want to do something. “Would you prefer to play by yourselves?” Milo grabbed Kit’s hand and they raced away, not stopping until they were out of sight behind the barn. Freyda shrugged. She could hardly blame them for being wary of her. She could go inside and wait. But she hadn’t been invited to make herself at home. Surely an oversight. Ward couldn’t expect her to stand in the middle of the yard for the hour it would take him to go to town and back. She pushed open the door, stepped into the house, and glanced around. It was much like the home Baruk had built for her.

A roomy kitchen with a round table in one corner. The chairs were pushed in tight to the table. Something wasn’t quite right about them. It took a moment for her to realize the chairs were precisely the same distance apart, as if someone had used a measuring stick. She took a quick look at the rest of the room and saw that everything was so neat and clean, she wondered where the boys had eaten their meals. Shaking her head to dismiss the question, she glanced into the sitting room. Again, it lacked any evidence of children. No toys. No books. No dust.

Nothing out of place. Three doors led off the room. Bedrooms, she supposed. She wouldn’t look. That was making herself too much at home. It must be getting close to noon. Should she feed the boys? She returned to the kitchen and opened a few cupboards. Everything was lined up like soldiers on parade. Mrs. Williams certainly was particular.

This house looked like no one lived in it. Back home in Norway, children ran in and out of the houses of their parents, their aunts, and cousins. There was always noise and activity and evidence of projects on the go. The narrow door by the cupboards led to the pantry and Freyda found bread and cheese. She’d make the boys sandwiches. They must be getting hungry. She half expected them to run through the door and say so. But, of course, they were shy, with her being a stranger and all. She sliced the bread and made sandwiches then looked around for milk. She found none.

Perhaps they stored it in the well. Never mind, they would make do with water. She went to the pump to fill a bucket. It was so quiet. Her neck tensed. Mor always said too much quiet with children spelled trouble. Freyda listened for the sound of boys at play. Nothing. Her skin prickled as she ran toward the barn. She dashed past it in the direction she’d last seen the pair and skidded to a halt when she saw Kit.

He rocked back and forth, a keening sound coming from him. But where was Milo? Freyda’s gaze went the direction Kit’s did and her heart slammed into her ribs. Milo clung to a chain swinging from the hayloft. The chain ran around a pulley and seemed to be held stable by a piece of wire. But should that wire give way… ON THE TRİP TO TOWN, Ward couldn’t think past the way Mrs. Wright had been whipping Milo. His anger kept him silent for the entire trip. But after he left her at the home of her sister, the reality of his situation hit him. He’d been through several housekeepers, all progressively worse. He wouldn’t make his boys endure that again.

But he couldn’t plow or seed without someone to take care of them. Maybe in another year he could manage them on his own, though they would not enjoy decent meals if he had to both farm and cook. Mrs. Wright was correct when she said the boys were wild. He couldn’t leave them unsupervised. But there wasn’t another woman in Grassy Plains—spinster, married, or widowed—that he would trust his boys with. He accepted the truth—Milo and Kit would simply have to accompany him to the fields as he worked. His knuckles cracked a protest to the way he squeezed his hands around the reins. The boys needed their mother, but she had died eighteen months ago. She’d never taken to the rigors of farm life and when she got the grippe, it seemed she just gave up.

Even her boys weren’t enough to make her fight. He pushed aside the regrets of his marriage and planned how he would take care of the boys without help. If only he could count on Milo to keep Kit safe. Milo had a dark streak through him. Ward blamed it on the disinterest his mother had shown in him and then the harshness of the caregivers Ward had found since Dorothy’s death. His home came into view as he mulled over his problems. He cast an anxious eye about the place, trying to locate the boys. Or Mrs. Haevre. He saw none of them and flicked the reins to hurry the horses along.

He stopped at the barn and jumped down, leaving the horses and wagon until later. Why did he hear nothing? He couldn’t remember the last time he’d entered the yard without the sound of the boys’ yelling, or the strident voice of Mrs. Wright or one of the women before her. “Milo, Kit,” he called, and strained to hear an answer. When he heard nothing, his neck muscles tightened. He trotted toward the house and threw open the door. Milo and Kit sat at the table, eating. Ward’s lungs released a gusty breath. Mrs. Haevre poured water into cups set in front of the boys.

She looked up at his entrance. Like her deceased husband, she had hair the color of straw. But unlike her husband, her blue eyes looked at him in a way that made him wonder why she disapproved of him. He and Baruk had gotten along just fine. Her gaze went past him. “You have brought someone to care for the boys? Ja?” He shook his head. “Couldn’t think of anyone suitable.” Not that it was any of her concern. “You would like a sandwich?” “Yes, please. Mrs.

Wright was a good cook. I’m going to miss that.” He hung his hat by the door and wiped his boots on the rag rug Mrs. Wright had placed there. Heaven help them if he tramped dirt into the clean house. Except it would now be his responsibility to keep it clean. Or let it get dirty if he preferred. The weight of that choice lay heavy on his shoulders. A man needed a woman to take care of the house and the children. He squared his shoulders.

“We will manage without a housekeeper.” Milo ducked but not before Ward caught the flash of a smile. Kit’s bottom lip trembled. “Who will feed us?” Ward sat at the table and thanked Mrs. Haevre for the sandwich she put before him. Bread sliced thick with generous slices of cheese. Quite a contrast to Mrs. Wright’s paperthin bread and almost invisible cheese. “I can make sandwiches,” he said to Kit. “Would you like coffee?” Mrs.

Haevre’s W’s sounded like V’s but then Ward had grown used to that in the months Baruk had lived nearby. “Yes, thank you.” “We’re done,” Milo said, and jumped down. He grabbed Kit’s hand and the pair hurried outside. Mrs. Haevre put a cup of coffee before him, pulled out the chair opposite, and sat down. “May I speak openly to you?” “Sure.” He guessed she would whether or not he gave permission. Baruk had said his wife was a headstrong woman. He’d said they’d argued because she wanted to come to America with him and help set up the homestead, but Baruk had insisted it was too much of a challenge for a woman.

Ward wondered what Baruk would have said to his wife now. She’d come on her own and planned to run the farm on her own. Someone ought to tell her how much work it was. But it wouldn’t be him. He had enough problems of his own to deal with. “Mr. Rollins.” No mistaking the warning in her voice. “I do not believe it is wise to leave your children unsupervised.” “I will supervise them.

” He kept his voice firm. “Do you not have crops to seed and plowing to do?” He took time to enjoy a mouthful of coffee before he answered. “Yup. Same as you.” That stalled her, as he had hoped. But only for a moment. “I will find a way,” she said. “I, too, will find a way.” She intertwined her fingers where her hands lay on the top of the table. “The difference is that I have to find a way to work with two horses.

It’s frustrating to discover that it is more difficult than I anticipated and that they seem to prefer your home to mine. But you have two little boys who can manage to get into a pile of trouble in only a few minutes.” He pushed aside his empty plate and swallowed the last of his coffee before he got to his feet. “I will help you take your horses home and then I must return to my own work.” She nodded and went out the door ahead of him. “Boots and Boss, come.” The horses came at his call. “Milo and Kit, come. We’re going to take the horses home.” He led a parade down the path to the Haevre place—two boys who scampered along at his heels, two horses who followed quietly, and a woman who walked on the other side of the horses.

They reached her corrals. “You’ll need to close the gate better,” he said. “It was closed securely.” “Make it more secure. I don’t have time to bring these horses back every day.” Especially now that he had to care for the boys on his own. “They must know how to open the gate,” she said. “Then figure out a way they can’t.” He handed her the lead rope for the two horses. “Thank you,” she said.

“And thank you for watching the boys for me.” They looked at each other. It seemed she was as much at a loss for words as he. So he sketched a good-bye salute, took his boys by the hand, and headed for home. “I can do this,” she called after him. “Me too,” he murmured, for no one’s ears but his own. How hard could it be to keep two little boys safe and fed on top of planting and plowing? He refused to answer his own question or think of the thousands of things that could go wrong.

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