The Scarred Rancher’s Unforgettable Bride – Ava Winters

The rustling of the leaves behind her, quickened Sophie’s heart as she sat on her horse in the middle of nowhere. The sound shifted her eyes to the growing shadows that stretched out towards her. Sweat moistened the palms of her hands despite the sun barely inching over the horizon. She held fast to the reins and breathed in deep to calm her rattled nerves. Her heart felt like stones in her chest as her eyes narrowed to see through the dark skies. “Stay calm,” she said more to herself than to the horse as she rubbed her hand over the steed’s thick neck. The beast under her huffed and snorted as it stomped its feet to the ground unruly and defiant. Sophie swallowed the lump forming in her throat as she waited. Every second that ticked by only caused the fear to grow within her. The terror sank its claws into her and squeezed the courage from her veins. For a second, Sophie wondered what had possessed her to come out here alone. Chewing on her bottom lip she tightened her grip around the reins for some security and stability. Her heart pounded in her chest as she felt exposed, but she knew she had to stay despite very fiber in her being screaming at her to run. “No,” she said defiantly as she straightened her shoulders and back. “You can’t back down now.

This was your idea.” She kept her eyes locked on the horizon, waiting nervously for any signs of life to come over the hill. A lonely cry of a hawk startled her as her eyes flickered to the dark blue skies. Clashing against the navy blue was a single speck of black and white. She squinted her eyes as the sun’s early light kissed the horizon and scattered the shadows about her. “Easy there,” she said as her horse stomped and grunted. She could feel the tension in the morning air. There was an uncertainty about the morning that she knew her horse could feel. Neither one knew what was coming over the hills, but they understood the significance of it. Tiny specks emerged on the horizon as the sunlight kissed the hills.

Sophie gasped and clung to her saddle. Her heart pounded and rolled around in her chest as she watched the specks grow and come into view. “Here we go. Remember the plan. Just stay calm, this will work,” she said to herself as she tried to keep her hands from trembling. It all came down to this single moment and she knew it. The pressure in her chest tightened as she counted three men galloping at break necks speeds over the hills. “Well, what do we have here?” one of the men shouted as he rushed towards Sophie. The crackle in his eyes and the shimmer of his rifle caught her off guard. She knew these men were dangerous, but until that very moment she had no clue what she was really up against.

“Ah gotta say, I’m impressed. Here I thought you weren’t going to come alone.” The man’s lip curled up at one corner as his eyes shimmied about. Sophie knew what he was looking for, it was the same thing she wanted, a way out, an escape. “So, do you know what I asked for?” he said, as his men came up around her blocking off all avenues of escape. Sophie tried to keep her eyes locked on the man before her. Afraid her fear would seep through her voice, all she could do was nod. “And? What say you?” The man glared at Sophie stealing the very warmth of her blood. She closed her eyes for a split second and mustered all the courage that sank into the depths of her being. “You’d better kill me,” Sophie said as she opened her eyes and stared down the villain before her.

“Kill me now, because if you don’t I promise you, you’ll regret it.” “Well now, there’s something that I think I can manage,” the man said as his companions laughed as their horses kicked up dust around her. Sophie’s eyes widened as the dark-haired man held her gaze. The rifle at his side slipped from its holster and shimmered in the light of the sun. “Go on then,” Sophie said. She exhaled sharply as her hands trembled. A slight whimper escaped her lips as the man pulled back the hammer of his rifle with a twisted smile itching at the corner of his lips. Sophie jumped as the crack of gunfire filled her ears. Chapter 1 One Year Earlier The white envelope weighed heavily in Sophie’s hands as her timid eyes lingered on the swift flowing letters. Although she had received several letters before, the flow of the black ink scratching through the white stunned her.

As she finished reading the last line, she exhaled unaware she had been holding her breath the whole time. Carefully, she folded up the white sheet of paper and stuffed the letter neatly back into the envelope from which it came. Swallowing hard she glanced to the open window where the summer breeze drifted through kicking up the lace curtains her stepmother insisted on having. “What is it?” Lenore asked pulling Sophie out of her daydream. Sophie glanced to the letter in her hands that seemed to burn hotter with every passing moment. Panic swept through her as she tried to peel her eyes off the neatly scribbled letters that addressed the note to her. “Well? Out with-it child!” Lenore snapped as she sat her embroidery circle on her lap. Sophie’s attention drifted from her stepmother’s irritated face to her father’s. “Who sent you the letter? And who could you possibly know from Tennessee?” Lenore pursed her lips together as her eyebrow rose up. The glare sent chills coursing through Sophie’s arms.

“Father,” Sophie’s voice cracked as she swallowed the lump forming in her throat. She watched as her father lifted his head up from his morning paper and stared casually at her. There was a kindness in his gaze that reminded Sophie so much of Nadine. “I have to tell you something.” “Whatever you have to say to your father,” Lenore chided as she lifted her head and drew back her shoulders. “You can say to me as well. Your father and I don’t keep secrets from one another.” Pulling in a long deep breath, Sophie tried to concoct a lie that would explain the letter she rubbed with her thumb. Sophie’s eyes flickered to the black ink that spelled out her name and smiled. “I’ve been corresponding with a gentleman in Tennessee,” Sophie blurted out.

The instant the words escaped her lips she wished she could retract them. “Excuse me,” Lenore’s voice dropped as her eyes popped. For a split-second Sophie wondered if Lenore was having a stroke. The veins in her stepmother’s forehead bulged as her neck strained. “You have been doing what?” Sophie tried to hold onto the courage but with each passing moment it faded from her. “I’ve been writing to a rancher in Tennessee,” Sophie’s voice was barely a whisper as she tried not to bring her eyes to Lenore. Yet, there was no escaping the wrath of her father’s wife. “Are you out of your mind child? What on God’s green earth possessed you to do such a thing. William? Are you listening to this? Do you hear what your daughter is doing? This is unacceptable. You will stop this at once,” Lenore said as she lunged for Sophie.

The absence of the letter from her hands was immediate. It was as if the letter weighed a bundle of bricks, and suddenly it was just gone. Sophie could feel a piece of her very soul being ripped away and tossed aside like it was nothing as her stepmother ripped the letter from her hands. With a quivering lip, Sophie nodded and stared at the cracks in the wood floor. “You’re right,” Sophie said as doubt swam about her mind. Each beat of her heart felt like a bull ramming the insides of her. Sophie tried to hold back the tears as she wrestled with the doubt. “Of course, I was foolish to do this,” Sophie said as she pulled in her lower lip trying to stifle the sobs that were bound to seep out of her. “Yes,” Lenore said as she turned the letter over in her hand. “How could you even think about leaving? Did you even think about what this would do to your father? And what about the chores that you have to do around here?” Lenore snorted as she straightened her back.

“I won’t allow you to continue this,” Lenore said as Sophie ground her teeth together. “He wants me to marry him,” Sophie blurted out. “He wants me to come to Tennessee and help him out there.” “And what makes you think you could do such a thing?” Lenore’s voice dropped as she spoke. “You barely get your chores done around here. And you want to go gallivanting on a ranch. Ha!” “I could do it,” Sophie said finding the willpower to talk back. William’s eyebrows drew up as he stared at his daughter in awe. Sophie’s heart drummed in her ears as her body tingled with fright and excitement. The adrenaline coursed through her veins like a wild river giving her the courage to speak.

“How dare you use that tone of voice with me,” Lenore said as she carefully placed the embroidery circle on the table beside her. Sophie cautiously stole a glimpse at Lenore before quickly turning her attention back to her father’s shocked face. “You don’t understand,” Sophie said shaking her head. “Oh, I understand completely. You thought you could just spring this on us and think we would be okay with it. Well I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but there is no way you are going anywhere young lady.” “Lenore,” William’s voice was deep but soothing. It was an unexpected tone, one that Sophie hadn’t heard in years. “Sit down and calm yourself,” he said setting his paper aside and leaning forward in his chair. “You can’t possibly be considering this?” Lenore gasped as her eyes darted from Sophie to William.

“I said enough,” William stated in a clear and stone tone that caused Sophie’s stepmother to slam her mouth shut. “Sophie.” She glanced at him doe-eyed looking for validation, but timid of his reaction. It had been forever since kindness and understanding graced his face, yet there it was plain as day for Sophie to see. Shock stabbed her as she sat up and rolled her shoulders back. “Who is this rancher you’ve been talking with?” A hint of a smile played at the corner of her father’s lips as he spoke. Sophie’s heart fluttered as hope sprang a leak within the depths of her being. “Arthur, Arthur Soul.” “And you say he is a rancher huh?” “Yes Papa, and he’s not much older than I,” Sophie said as she watched her father extend his hand to Lenore. The gesture startled her.

She watched as their fingers entwined with one another’s like they had done so many times before. This is it, Sophie thought. Just like every other time. He’ll side with her and that will be that. Sophie glanced to Lenore as a wicked and smug grin stretched across the woman’s face. “And just how old is he?” William asked staring at Sophie with concern. “According to his letter, he’s 25,” Sophie answered swallowing the lump forming in her throat. “Is this what you really want to do? Do you absolutely want to go out west and live on a ranch?” Sophie paused as she played with the dirt under her nails. It had been forever since she thought about what she wanted. All this time she had been living for other people.

Even now, it was her sister’s idea to become a mail order bride. As thoughts of Nadine faded in and out of her mind, Sophie nodded. “It is Papa,” she said drawing her eyes to meet her father’s. “Then go.” “What? You must be joking. You can’t send your daughter west to go live with a stranger. Have you lost your mind?” “Enough Lenore,” William said as his brow rose up and his face turned to stone. The expression on his face was enough to silence her stepmother. “Papa?” “I know you think I want to keep you here, and a part of me does. But you have your own path to go down and I can’t stop you.

” William turned to face his wife as the cold stone expression faded away. “If we try to keep her from going she may resent us for it. If we lock her down, one day she will run away. Change is inevitable Lenore. It’s time she goes out and finds her own way in this world.” As William spoke, he pulled the neatly addressed letter out of Lenore’s grasp and handed it back to Sophie. “But,” Lenore started but quickly grew quiet as William shook his head and pressed his lips into a tight line daring her to say another word. Sophie jolted to her feet as she stared at her father. She couldn’t believe he had sided with her. Never did she believe that she would be free to find her own path.

All her life things were planned out for her. Yet, here she stood looking out past the wrought iron fence that surrounded her father’s home and beyond the brick walls that trapped her. For a moment she wondered and dreamed what she was capable of outside her family home. Fear, purpose, hope, panic, all the emotions swirled inside of her as she contemplated her future and what lay before her. Every nerve in her body fired off as she tried to contain her glee. Shaking her head she threw out her arms and rushed to her father. The instant her arms curled around his neck she felt exhilarated. “I need to pack then,” she said pressing her lips to his cheek as she pulled away from him. A prick of uncertainty jabbed a hole through her glee. She stared at her father a moment as terror seeped in to ruin her moment.

“Go,” her father said as she watched tears swell in his eyes. Sophie nodded once and released her grip. Brushing out the wrinkles of her dress, she made her way through the house and up the stairs to her room. The instant she closed the door a frosty breeze zapped her excitement. Her eyes shifted to the leather-bound book resting on her nightstand. She rushed to the small little table and pulled open the book.


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