The Proud Rancher’s Fearless Bride – Ava Winters

Ada Ferguson was luxuriating in a pleasant dream. She was sitting at an elegant uptown restaurant with her little sister, Myra, and their parents. The chic bistro was all stained glass windows, velvet drapes, and marble floors, and Ada’s family had taken her there as a special treat. Their booth was carved oak topped with elaborate stained glass panels, and their table was covered in white linen and fancy silverware. All of them had dressed in their best finery to honor her eighteenth birthday. For that special occasion, they were all pretending to be rich Vanderbilts instead of merely middle-class New Yorkers. Her shining auburn hair was piled on top of her head and styled in a fancy bouffant as a sign that she was now a young woman. She was wearing her best white Sunday dress with the blue satin sash, and she smiled as a uniformed waiter set a perfect frosted silver bowl in front of her. It was piled high with sparkling vanilla ice cream, and as she watched the waiter poured hot chocolate over its snowy shoulders. His arm happened to brush up against her as he stepped back. “Happy eighteenth birthday, Ada!” her father smiled, and they bumped spoons and laughed before digging into their ice cream. Ada closed her eyes and savored the rich vanilla as it swirled in her mouth; but she accidentally dropped a dollop onto the front of her dress. She frowned in her sleep and blotted the ice cream off with a napkin; but something wasn’t right. She could feel something there still. The sensation of movement on her chest made her mumble, open her eyes, and then open them wider in terror.

A hulking shape loomed over her in the darkness, and the stench of gin almost made her gag. A strange man was bending over her! Ada slowly registered that the stranger’s hands were on her chest. She surged bolt upright, shoved the man’s hands away, and sucked in air to scream at the top of her lungs; but the stranger clamped his hand over her mouth, hard. “Hush, girlie,” a thick, smug voice crooned at her ear, “ain’t nothing wrong. Just relax and enjoy it.” Ada twisted her head, got one of his thick fingers between her teeth, and did her best to bite it right in two. The intruder howled in pain and yanked his hand back, and Ada clawed her way off the little bed and half-fell onto the cold floor. She scrambled up and stood trembling in her thin cotton shimmy. She would’ve bolted out of the bedroom, but the intruder was between her and the door. She glanced desperately toward the hall as the stranger knelt over her bed, swore, and nursed his wounded hand.

Myra’s troubled voice piped in from the corner of the room. “Ada, what’s going on? Ada?” Ada grabbed a wooden chair and pushed it out in front of her. “Get out of here!” she gasped at the shadowy figure. “Get out or I’ll scream and raise the house!” The man staggered up from her bed and propped himself against the wall, and Ada watched him in terror. After her happy dream, it took a few long, sickening moments to realize where she was. To accept that this bleak, cold bedroom was real, and not some hideous nightmare. The man staggered to his feet and muttered: “Now listen, girlie.” He turned to wag an uninjured finger at her. “I can make things easy for you here, or I can make ‘em hard.” Ada’s mouth twisted in revulsion.

“Mr. Shelton?” The shadow half-fell onto the bed, and the frame creaked and groaned. Tyrone Shelton lifted his face in the darkness, and he waved a lazy arm. “You scratch my back, girlie, and I’ll scratch yours. You understand?” Ada was seized by uncontrollable trembling, but she replied in a low, throbbing voice: “Get out of here.” “You ain’t the boss here, missy,” the man told her, and tried unsuccessfully to rise. “I am. You and that little blind sister of yours is orphans. Charity cases! You got nobody and no one, you hear me? Nobody’s gonna come take you out of this shelter. If I throw you out you’ll be living on the street, and it won’t be long before you’re doing things for all kinds of men to get money to buy food.

You think about that, missy! “Now I’ll give you a day or two to study on it. But if you’re smart, you’ll let me in when I come knocking at this door. I can get you a better place to stay. Better clothes. Better food!” Ada pulled her trembling mouth down and shook her head in disgust and anger. Her voice suddenly jumped from a whisper to a shout. “Get out, get out, get out!” she screamed. “Get out, do you hear me? Get out!” “Sssh, sssh,” the man hissed angrily. “You wanna wake my wife?” Ada backed away from him, and her fury collapsed into despair. She dropped the chair with a clatter and her shoulders heaved with silent sobs.

Myra’s voice jumped up in the darkness. “Get out of here, mister, if you don’t want your wife to catch you. I know my sister, and she’s about to go crazy screaming!” “All right then. I’ve said my piece,” the man mumbled, and wallowed back and forth a time or two before he rolled out of the bed, stood up, staggered back a pace, and then reeled across the room and out the door. As soon as he was gone, Ada darted across the room in her bare feet, slammed the door, and locked it tight. She slid down the wall, sobbing silently, and Myra’s small voice reached out for her like slender arms. “Don’t let him scare you, Ada,” her voice piped. “We’re going to be all right. No matter what happens.” Ada bowed down until her brow touched the floor; but after a moment or two she raised her head wearily, squared her shoulders, and slowly wiped her eyes.

“That’s right Myra,” she replied in a toneless voice. “We’ll be all right.” She stood up, turned around, and walked back to the edge of her bed. Ada stared down at the defiled and rumpled covers. The smell of gin and an unwashed body clung to them. Myra sat up in the dark and tossed her covers back. “You can sleep in my bed tonight, Ada,” she murmured. “There’s room. Come on.” Ada wiped her eyes and padded across the cold floor to pick up the wooden chair.

She walked to the door, jammed the back of the chair up against the knob, and only then returned to her little sister’s bed. She grabbed the edge of the covers and scooted in. Myra’s head sank down onto her shoulder, and Ada reached out and put her arm around her little sister. Myra raised her face. “Mr. Shelton was drunk, Ada,” she murmured. “He was addle-pated — smack out of his head! I bet he’ll be mortified tomorrow morning, to think of how low-down he acted. He won’t bother you again, you wait and see.” Ada frowned, but nodded. “That’s right, Myra,” she murmured.

“He’s never going to bother us again.” Because I’m not going to give that old dirty devil the chance, she thought to herself grimly, and stared up at the ceiling. We’re getting out of this place. Her resolve slowly melted into prayer, and she added: Oh, Lord, please show me how! Chapter Two “Everybody bow your heads. I’ll say grace for us this morning.” A dozen women and girls were gathered in the big, mostly empty dining room of the Shelton Home for Destitute Women. Mrs. Thelma Shelton, a plump, cheerful strawberry blonde of about forty, clasped her pale hands on the table and bowed her head. Ada bowed her own head and stared down at her lap as Mrs. Shelton’s bright voice floated out over the long, plank-board breakfast table.

“Thank you, Lord, for the food on our table and for a new day. Please give us the strength to do useful work, and to love you and others. Amen.” Amen, Mr. Shelton rumbled from the other end of the long table, and Ada’s face flushed with anger, though she was careful not to look at the smug, oily scoundrel. If she looked at him, her whole face was going to contract in disgust. Then too, she didn’t want to draw his attention. Ada glanced wryly at Mrs. Shelton’s bright, happy face. It was plain that the woman either didn’t know or didn’t believe that she had a husband who crept into girls’ bedrooms at night and molested them in their sleep.

Ada’s eyes moved from Mrs. Shelton, down the length of the table. She glanced at one pale, downcast face after another and wondered how many other women and girls living there had suffered an unwanted midnight call from Mr. Shelton. The thought made Ada desperate, because his wife was the only ally she had in the world. Mrs. Shelton had been an angel to them, had rescued her and Myra off the streets and given them a place a stay when they were homeless. Because of her, they had a solid roof over their heads and daily food to eat for the first time since they’d been evicted from their parent’s apartment. Thelma Shelton had given her a job as a seamstress, which had allowed her to earn and even save a bit of money. She was even teaching Myra how to knit.

Mrs. Shelton was the one person Ada believed she could trust; but then, she’d trusted Mr. Shelton and he’d betrayed her trust. Maybe Mrs. Shelton was a wolf in sheep’s clothing, too. Ada shot the older woman a narrow glance, but eventually had to acquit her. Peace sat in smiling serenity on Mrs. Shelton’s brow, and good will practically radiated from her eyes. Surely, that look of cheerful innocence couldn’t be faked. Still, she could hardly ask Mrs.

Shelton to protect her from Mr. Shelton without making an enemy of her; and if there was one thing she and Myra couldn’t afford, it was enemies. That skulking devil had been right about one thing: they were orphans, homeless, alone, and penniless. On top of that, Myra was blind and needed special schooling. Ada closed her eyes and resisted the impulse to put her head in her hands. The last three months had been one long nightmare. In one terrible afternoon, she and Myra had lost not just their parents, but their sheltered, pleasant life in their family’s midtown apartment. Ironically, Myra had sensed it first. They were sitting together in their father’s library overlooking the street. She’d had her nose in Great Expectations, and Myra was reading a braille version of Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson, her favorite author.

Myra had inclined her ear and frowned. “Do you hear that, Ada?’ “Hear what, dear.” “That noise down in the street. People are shouting. I can’t make out what, but they sound terribly upset.” She’d put her book down and walked over to the big picture window overlooking the street. “It looks like there’s been an accident. A carriage got run over by a freight wagon.” The words had no sooner rolled off her tongue, than there had come an urgent knocking at the door of their suite. When she’d gone to answer it, a grim-faced policeman had been standing there with his hat in his hand.

“Ada?” Ada opened her eyes. The girl to her left was passing her the breadbasket. Ada felt Mrs. Shelton’s eyes on her, took the basket, and picked out a piece of bread for herself and for Myra. “Ada, you’re looking a bit pale,” Mrs. Shelton observed. “Is something wrong, dear?” Ada swallowed a bubble of hysterical laughter and mumbled: “I’m feeling a little sick this morning, Mrs. Shelton.” Thelma Shelton’s mild eyes clouded. “I’m so sorry, dear.

Try to eat a little toast, if you can, and stay away from the coffee and bacon.” “Yes, Mrs. Shelton.” Ada lowered her head, frowned at her plate, and thought fiercely: We have to get out of here. But who would take in two penniless girls, and one of them blind? I don’t have enough money to put a down payment on an apartment. I don’t even make enough money with my sewing to cover the rent. Maybe I could share the apartment with some other people, and together we might swing it. Ada looked down the table at the other women and wondered if any of them would be willing to strike out on their own and share an apartment with her. She considered Mrs. Williams and her little two-year-old daughter.

Mrs. Williams was a young redheaded woman with big, soulful blue eyes, but she was in the shelter because her husband beat her and had almost killed her one night. Ada bit her lip and frowned. As much as she sympathized with the woman, she didn’t want a roommate who was being hunted by a murderous lunatic. She had enough problems. Her gaze flicked over the others: an elderly woman who was almost ninety; a girl whose husband had tried to drown her because he believed she was cheating on him; a teenaged girl with some kind of mental problem who never said anything, and never responded to questions; and a Spanish girl who was learning to speak English and how to sew, so she could support herself. None of them were good candidates, and despair washed over Ada in a black wave. What am I going to do? she wondered miserably. Mrs. Shelton’s cheerful voice suddenly broke in on her unhappy thoughts.

“If you feel up to it, dear, why don’t you come and read to me this morning, instead of doing your sewing. It will be more restful for you, and it will free me to do a little needlework of my own. Bring Myra with you. I can help with her knitting lessons, while I’m at it.” She gave Ada a bright smile. “We could make it a habit this week, if you like.” Ada returned a wan smile. “Yes, ma’am.” Ada glanced down at Myra’s smooth, pretty face and consoled herself that with Mrs. Shelton at her elbow, they were safe from Mr.

Shelton — at least for a few days.

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