Tomorrow's Constant Hope
The last thing a woman on the run needs is to find herself married to the richest rancher in Texas…
Keely O’Brien has spent the past five months on the run, but no matter what she does, she can’t seem to evade the ring of dangerous criminals that killed her brother in Chicago. When she spots an ad for a wife from the owner of a small ranch on a remote stretch of Texan desert, she knows she’s found the perfect hiding spot. The Wolf Point Ring might be searching far and wide for her, but they wouldn’t think to look in tiny, sun-scorched town of Twin Rivers, Texas. Now if she can just keep her new husband from finding out why she really married him…
Agamemnon “Wes” Westin’s feet might be firmly planted in West Texas soil, but his heart is running… Running from the loss of his first wife and stillborn daughter, and running from the fear of suffering loss again. Unfortunately, he has little choice about needing to marry, but he does have a choice about who he marries. If he has to share his roof with someone, he wants a woman who works hard and doesn’t complain. That’s why he decides to run an ad for a bride, claiming that he owns a small ranch, rather than the sprawling cattle empire he inherited from his father. After all, what woman is going to be upset when she finds out her husband is one of the richest men in Texas?
When Wes discovers Keely is hiding from criminals who want her dead, he can’t help but protect her—even if she’s irate with him for lying about the size of his ranch. When danger arrives in Twin Rivers, both Wes and Keely find themselves facing their deepest fears. Will they let their pain and past losses ruin their dreams? Or will Wes and Keely find a way to forge a new life together?
Twin Rivers, Texas; October 1885
It was about to begin. The first day of the rest of her life.
Keely McBryan drew in a nervous breath and peeked through the crack in the door of the pastor’s office where she stood. There were an awful lot of people in the sanctuary. Not necessarily what she’d been hoping for when all she needed was a pastor and two witnesses for her marriage to be legal. But she wasn’t going to complain, not when this marriage would solve her biggest problem and put the mess of what had happened in Chicago behind her for good.
She forced her shoulders to relax. The large number of people would be fine—as long as a tall, wide-shouldered man with a pair of blue eyes as cold as ice didn’t pull open the door of the church and walk inside.
The door at the back of the sanctuary opened, and a shadow filled the space.
She froze, just for a second, but she couldn’t help the way her breath clogged in her chest and her lungs refused to draw air. Then the man entered and took a seat in one of the back pews.
The breath involuntarily released from her lungs, rushing out of her in a giant whoosh. Not Lester Mears or anyone that worked for him.
Why had she even thought it was him in the first place? It had been eight months since she’d fled from Chicago. Eight months that she’d stayed hidden. Mears couldn’t have followed her here. He hadn’t even been able to track her to Springfield, Missouri, where she’d been hiding for the past four months—and she hadn’t had any papers to prove her false identity when she’d fled to Springfield.
Now she had identification claiming she was Keely McBryan, and her name was about to change again—legally and permanently.
So why had she thought of Lester Mears when the door opened?
It had to be nerves. Pledging the rest of her life to a man was a big decision.
But it was also the best way to let herself live again. She was tired of running. She was tired of hiding. She was tired of looking over her shoulder and jumping at shadows.
This marriage would give her a new name and a place to belong.
Which was why she couldn’t be too upset about all the people filling the sanctuary of the little church or the dinner that was to follow. If she was going to start anew in Twin Rivers, Texas as the wife of a local rancher, then it seemed having a big wedding followed by a dinner was the expected thing to do.
“Are you ready?” the pastor’s wife said from behind her.
Keely turned to face the dark-haired woman that wasn’t quite old enough to be her mother.
Was she ready?
Was marrying a stranger something a woman could ever be ready for?
She drew in a breath and urged a smile onto her face. “I suppose I am.”
“Excellent,” the other woman said. “As soon as the music starts, we’ll step out the side door here and head around to the back of the church so you can walk up the aisle.”
“All right.” Keely glanced out the crack in the door to the sanctuary one more time, then pressed her hands over her stomach to clamp down on the sudden bout of nerves.
“I can do this,” she whispered to herself.
Then the piano began playing, and she followed the pastor’s wife outside.
This was the first day of the rest of her life. She was determined to make it not just a good day, but a good life.
What if he was making a mistake?
Wes stood at the front of the church, holding the gloved hands of the woman who was becoming closer to being his wife with each word that Preacher Russell spoke.
No, this couldn’t be a mistake. Not after what had happened last month in San Antonio with Lucille Inverly. Not after what had happened last summer with Lydia Hootler.
So why did he have the sudden urge to drop Keely’s hands and tell the preacher to wait?
He’d been over his options too many times to count. He had to get married, plain and simple. And if he didn’t take some initiative and choose a wife for himself, a woman he couldn’t stand was going to trap him into a marriage he’d hate. He’d gotten a handful of letters for the ad he’d placed for a wife, and Keely McBryan had seemed like the best fit.
But the plan he’d formed after Lucille Inverly had snuck into his room in San Antonio seemed far different now that he was standing here in front of half the town, pretending that getting married was something to celebrate.
He didn’t feel like celebrating. Taking his new wife home, showing her the ranch, and explaining who he really was, yes. But celebrating?
There wasn’t all that much to celebrate this time around. Now, last time…
Wes bit the inside of his cheek hard enough he tasted blood. Nothing good would come of thinking about the day he’d stood in this very spot, pledging his life to a woman he’d loved wholly and completely.
“Um, Wes?” Keely whispered, then squeezed his hands harder.
He looked down at her. She was staring at him with wide green eyes, eyes that quickly narrowed. She pressed her lips together and glanced at Preacher Russell.
Only then did he realize the preacher had stopped talking. He looked in the preacher’s direction. The man stared back at him, a hint of consternation creasing his brow.
Something told him if he looked out at the packed church, he’d find every single eye pinned to him too.
“Say ‘I do,’” she gritted.
Were they at that part already?
Wes swallowed, but the words stuck in his throat, and he couldn’t seem to move his lips.
Keely gripped his hands even tighter.
“I do.” The words that finally sputtered out of his mouth were loud enough they could probably be heard at the newspaper office across town.
Preacher Russell cleared his throat. “And Keely, do you take this man to be your lawfully wedded husband?”
“I do.” Her words sounded just as bold as his, but something flashed in her eyes, and she kept her grip on his hands just hard enough he had trouble thinking about Abigail again.
At least until it came time to recite his vows. Then he couldn’t quite stop himself from remembering how Abigail had looked in her wedding finery the last time he’d promised to honor and cherish a woman for the rest of his life…
Or until she died.
Wes swallowed. He had to stop this. Now. He’d known whomever he married wouldn’t be able to fill the hole in his heart Abigail had left. It shouldn’t surprise him that his petite new wife with curly red hair and green eyes looked nothing like Abigail either. Hopefully their differences in appearance meant he wouldn’t be remembering his late wife every time he glimpsed his new one around the ranch.
“I now pronounce you man and wife.” Preacher Russell’s words rang through the church, causing Wes to suck in a breath. “What God has joined together, let no man put asunder. You may now kiss the bride.”
Wes lifted the small, gauzy veil over Keely’s face. Their eyes met, and he was struck by the intensity in them—and was that a glimmer of hope too?
Hope in what? Not in some kind of love match or true marriage between them. He’d been clear he wasn’t looking for that in his letters. He’d told her he’d wanted a woman who was willing to work around the ranch, and she had agreed to take on housekeeping duties.
So what was the hope for?
Preacher Russell cleared his throat and muttered, “Kiss your bride, Wes.”
Wes slammed his eyes shut and brushed his lips against Keely’s so briefly he wasn’t actually sure they’d touched. Then he turned her to face the crowd.
Keely’s grip on his hand turned to stone, and she stared at a figure at the back of the church.
“Is that a camera?” Her voice was soft enough that others couldn’t hear, but there was nothing soft about the words themselves. “What is that man doing?”
“That’s Glen from the newspaper. I assume he took a picture or two of us during the wedding.” The newspaper had come out and taken one of him and Abigail standing at the front of the church when they’d been married, then had sold the picture to bigger papers in the city after it had been developed. Wes had bought a copy of the picture from the paper himself and still had it tucked away in the drawer of his nightstand.
“The paper!” Keely squeaked, loud enough for others to hear this time.
“We need to walk down the aisle. Everyone is staring.” He tugged on her hand, but the movement did no good. She just stood at the front of the church, shooting death glares at Glen.
If people were going to stare, he might as well give them something to stare at. Wes turned and scooped her up into his arms.
He’d known his new wife was small when she’d stepped out of the carriage and the top of her head hadn’t even reached his chin. But he wasn’t quite prepared for how delicate she felt in his arms, like one of her bones might snap if he held her too tightly.
But he had to hold her tightly, because she started to squirm.
“What are you doing?” she whispered. “People are staring.”
“They were staring before too. When you refused to walk down the aisle.”
“Put me down. I don’t want all this attention.”
He glanced around the church. Every eye was pinned to them, but everyone had smiles in their eyes and laugh lines around their mouths. “They’ll only think this odder if I put you down halfway down the aisle. Besides, I can’t be the first man to carry his wife out of the church after their wedding.”
She gave a small huff. “Fine.”
He strode the rest of the way down the church, holding her like he might if they were in love and he was about to carry her over the threshold of their house. They passed through the wooden doors of the church, and he carried her down the steps. Most of the food for the dinner had already been set up on the table in the yard, so Wes turned that direction, then set her down.
“I need to find the man with the camera,” she blurted, scanning the churchyard.
“I’m right here,” Glen said from behind them. “Gotta say, that was brilliant, Wes. Never seen a man carry his wife out of church like that before. The town will love it. It’ll be on the front page of the paper come Wednesday.”
“Front page?” Keely strode straight to Glen and plopped her hands on her hips. “There will be no front-page news story and certainly no picture. Now give me the camera plate from the wedding.”
“You want both of them?”
She scowled. “Just how many pictures did you take while we were standing up there?”
Glen shrugged. “Three or four. You stand in the same spot for most of the ceremony. I took as many as I could, hoping one wouldn’t be blurry.”
“Keely,” Wes stepped forward. “I asked the paper to send a reporter to our wedding. I figured you’d want an announcement. Most weddings around here get a full article.” And theirs was sure to be on the front page, seeing how he was owner of the second largest ranch in Texas.
“I don’t want any mention of the wedding. I never said I did. The only thing I want is those camera plates.” Keely turned to him.
He opened his mouth, but something about the look on her face stopped him from speaking. Her face had drained of color, and was that a flicker of fear in her eyes?
He scratched the side of his head. Most women would be tickled pink by the notion of pictures of their actual wedding.
“Does this mean you won’t pose for a picture before the meal starts?” Glen asked.
“Absolutely not.” Keely shot a death glare at the reporter.
“Sorry, Glen.” Wes offered him an apologetic smile. “Looks like we’ll have to pass.”
The reporter pressed his lips into a flat line, then withdrew a notepad and pencil from his shirt pocket. “Fine then, any comments for the paper about the wedding?”
“I said no article!” Keely screeched.
“Is everything all right here?” Daniel Harding, one of Wes’s closest friends, came up to them.
Past Daniel, the churchyard had filled with people, and it seemed like every one of them was staring at him and Keely. Again.
“We were just having a little…” Wes’s voice faltered as he glanced at Keely. Her face was even whiter now than it had been a moment ago.
“You were saying?” Daniel crossed his arms over his wide chest, the tin star of his sheriff’s badge glinting in the sunlight.
Keely took a couple steps to the side, putting Wes between Daniel and her.
Did his friend have to act so all-fired intimidating? Daniel wasn’t intimidating once you got to know him. But given the wide breadth of his shoulders and the way he towered over most people in town, he could certainly look frightening.
“Mrs. Westin was about to try telling me what I can and cannot put in the paper. But last I checked, she doesn’t own the paper, so she doesn’t have any say over what goes in it. Good day, Sheriff.” Glen turned on his heel and stalked off.
Daniel raised an eyebrow at him. “What’d you do to set Glen off?”
He wasn’t sure. Or more to the point, he wasn’t sure what had set his new wife off. Even now he could feel her behind him, standing so close the heat from her shoulder radiated into his back.
“Good grief, Daniel.” Anna Mae—Daniel’s sister and the one who’d done most of the planning work for the dinner—came up to them. “It’s your best friend’s wedding. Would it kill you to smile?”
“Best friend?” Keely’s question from behind him was so soft Wes barely heard it.
“I’ve been smiling.” Daniel held up his hands.
“Then why is Wes’s new bride cowering behind him?” Anna Mae quipped. “Looks as though you’ve scared her silly, and on her wedding day, no less.”
“I didn’t scare her,” Daniel protested.
But Anna Mae was already tugging Keely out from behind him. “It’s Keely, right? I’m Anna Mae Harding.”
Anna Mae drew Keely straight into a hug, a wide smile plastered to her face.
Wes bit back a laugh. His new wife looked stiff as a fence post in Anna Mae’s arms, but given the way Anna Mae was smiling, she was too taken with the notion of making a new friend to notice.
“Don’t you worry about my brother none. The oaf doesn’t realize how intimidating he can be. Now come on.” Anna Mae tucked one of Keely’s hands in hers. “The women are still getting the food ready, and there are some people you need to meet now that you’re an official part of Twin Rivers. I’ll deliver you back to Wes before the meal starts.”
Wes raised an eyebrow at Keely and opened his mouth to ask if she wanted to go off with Anna Mae, but Keely was already nodding her head, a small smile inching onto her face.
It was the first time he’d seen her smile since arriving, and it looked downright cute.
“Don’t let Anna Mae talk you into anything too crazy,” he warned.
That was all the invitation Anna Mae needed to steer Keely into the crowd. Wes watched them for a few seconds, his wife’s small form and green dress almost unnoticeable beside Anna Mae’s full curves and brightly colored skirt.
“I feel like I’m supposed to say congratulations.” Daniel turned to him, the tiny creases around his mouth serious. “But part of me can’t believe you went through with it, not when you’re still grieving Abigail.”
Wes shoved a hand through his hair. If they’d been over this once, they’d been over it a thousand times. “If not Keely, I’d be stuck marrying Lucille Inverly or someone of her ilk. I’ve only known Keely for two hours, and I can already tell she’ll be a much better choice.”
Of the letters he’d gotten, she’d been the only person who made him smile. She hadn’t asked how big his house was or how many cattle he had. And there hadn’t been dollar signs in her eyes when she’d gotten off the stage either.
Daniel watched him, his keen blue eyes assessing far too much. “I just hope this isn’t a mistake.”
“It’s not.” The words came out just a little too quickly.
“Well, well, looks like the wedded bliss afforded most newly married folks has somehow escaped Wes.” Sam Owens sauntered up beside him, a thatch of reddish-brown hair hanging over his brow. “Why am I not surprised you look this serious on your wedding day?”
Wes glared at the auburn-haired man who had been his friend for over two decades. “Stow it.”
Sam only grinned, the smile spreading across his face making him look more like a fourteen-year-old than a grown man with a family of his own. “Seeing how she married you, I assume she was pretty happy when you told her how big your ranch is.”
“I haven’t told her yet.”
“What? Why not?” The grin dropped from Sam’s face. “You know you’re not going to be able to keep who you are a secret once she has a look at your ranch.”
“That’s how I plan to tell her. I figured I’d explain once she saw everything.” Wes shifted. It was a sound idea, wasn’t it? “Not even sure how to bring it up in a conversation, really. What am I supposed to say? ‘I know the ad I placed said I owned a small ranch, but it’s really the second largest ranch in Texas.’”
“Sounds better than keeping secrets from your wife,” Sam retorted.
“It’s not a secret. It’s just… I needed to make sure she wanted to marry me for something other than my money. You know how much time and work my father, Charlotte, and I have put into the ranch.”
And yet he had that sudden urge to scratch the place he couldn’t quite reach between his shoulder blades. Should he have told her about his wealth before the wedding?
If he had, how would he know that she’d married him because she wanted to and not for the size of his bank account?
Sam rubbed the back of his neck. “I see what you’re saying, but I’ve been in your situation before. Trust me, you’re better off being completely open with your wife. If you try keeping things from her, it will only cause problems.”
“I’m one of the richest men in Texas. How is that going to cause a problem?”
“I don’t know.” Daniel slung an arm around his shoulders and grinned. “I seem to remember you standing in front of the general store eight months ago, telling Sam he couldn’t marry his mail-order bride because she was sure to poison him for his land.”
Sam guffawed. “Forgot all about that. Yeah, Wes, how do you know Keely won’t decide to poison you when she sees how big your ranch is?”
Wes rolled his eyes. “I may have overreacted when I said that.”
More laugher broke from Sam. “You think?”
Daniel gave his shoulder a crushing squeeze, then let him go. “In all seriousness, if something goes wrong once you get Keely home, you can always fill out a petition for an annulment.”
“Can a judge grant an annulment on the grounds of sheer stupidity?” Sam gave Wes a little shove.
“No, but a judge can grant one on the grounds of fraud,” Daniel said.
Wes blinked, then looked around at the three of them. “No one here is committing fraud.”
“Ah… well…” Daniel winced. “Technically, you concealed information from your wife before the wedding, leading her to believe you’re someone different than you truly are. That’s considered fraud in Texas.”
Sam let out a bellow, then slapped him in the shoulder. “Looky there. If your new wife tries to poison you for your ranch, you got a way out of your marriage. Don’t you feel lucky?”
Wes’s lungs filled with laughter, Daniel and Sam joining in.
A bride he didn’t know, a ranch she didn’t know about, and the option for an annulment because he had too much money. Had there ever been a more unconventional way to start a marriage?
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