The Disguised Rancher’s Heart (Preview)

Chapter One

Though every one of Emma Anderson’s joints ached, from her fingers to her back, and her knees, she continued scrubbing the floorboards, for being seen slacking was a punishable offense. Most of her twenty years of life had been the same. That was what it meant to be an orphan in the workhouses of New York City.

Her calloused hands and bruised arms trembled as she dragged her unprotected knees across the rough floors of the workhouse in which she was staying. Her thoughts raced on most days with dreams of escaping her dire situation, but that day, as her dirty blonde hair fell in loose strands over her shoulders, she felt the great weight of hopelessness holding her down like a boulder.

She no longer felt hope for the future but was beginning to accept her grim reality as the only future she had left. Pausing a moment, she stared at her dirt-blackened fingers and blinked away a tear. Crying wouldn’t do her any good. She had learned that as a young girl on her own.

She could only hope that her death wouldn’t be as ugly as so many she’d witnessed among the poor. With accidents and diseases running rampant through the city, especially among the homeless and those with the lowest income, Emma was afraid of such an outcome. That always puzzled her. How could she be afraid of death and living at the same time?

Once she’d stretched her sore fingers, Emma clasped the worn-out brush with her left hand and continued scrubbing furiously. She resumed her repetitive, exhausting work, humming a quiet tune to distract her weary mind. From the small entrance, a familiar figure entered holding a steel bucket and a bunch of rags. Their eyes met, and Emma almost gasped aloud when she caught the glint of life blazing through her friend’s emerald eyes.

“Are you alright?” Emma whispered when Sara Forks reached her, stealing a glance over her hunched shoulders to see if anyone else was within close range. They seemed to be in the clear.

Sara’s brunette hair fell in loose curls around her thin face, giving a certain elegance to her otherwise haggard appearance. Ever since Sara’s parents had died when she was thirteen, she had been Emma’s bunkmate and protector. Their friendship had immediately blossomed into a strong bond of sisterhood.

“Can’t I be smiling?” Sara teased, kneeling. She splashed water onto the floor which Emma had cleaned, and wiped it with the rags, leaving it as spotless as old wood could be.

Emma chortled. “Not without a good reason.” She bumped her shoulder against Sara’s, which was hard, almost like bone against bone between the malnourished women.

“Maybe there is a good reason. What if I were to tell you that I had a letter from a man?” Sara asked, her tone edged with nerves. Emma held her friend’s green eyes and realized the truth in them.

“I’d be happy for you,” Emma whispered. “Anything is better than this.” Her voice hitched; she felt unable to tell her friend that she wasn’t sure she could keep going without her. Whenever she had felt like giving up, Sara had been there to hold her hand like fairies in stories, steadying her. She was her pillar.

Sara’s cheeks colored slightly and she smiled, resting one of her thin hands on her chest. “Well then, I have very good news.” She put a hand on Emma’s, her callused fingers coarse against Emma’s skin. “I received a letter from a man who has promised my freedom… and another for you as well.”

“Both of us?” Emma asked, her mind slow to understand and accept her friend’s words.

“Yes,” Sara whispered and fished two folded pieces of paper out of her pocket.

For an instant, Emma feared the housemaster would appear and strike their hopes to bits, but a nervous glance around the vacant hallway served to ease that concern while her friend continued. “Both of the letters we sent out have been answered.”

The memory didn’t produce a clear or hopeful image for Emma since she’d had little to do with the process. Four weeks before, Sara had told her that she’d mailed some letters for the two of them to be mail-order brides using her street contacts.

It was to be their escape from this life that was really no life at all. Yet, the weeks had passed and Emma had buried any hope she had of receiving an answer. Hope bubbled in her chest now that she knew they’d both received a response. That was only dampened by the question of what those responses contained.

“Really?”

Sara nodded and handed Emma one letter. The paper had lovely ink strokes on it, but the symbols were meaningless to Emma’s eyes. She pushed the letter back to Sara with a slight shake of the head.

“Can you read it for me?” she whispered, staring down at her bent knees.

“Of course,” Sara whispered, her eyes flicking around the room cautiously.

“Dear Miss Anderson, I thank you for your letter and would be most grateful if you are still interested in pursuing marriage with me. The ranch hands and I will be waiting in Fort Smith, Oklahoma. Inside the envelope, you shall find the directions, and a train ticket has been sent in your name awaiting you at the station.”

By the time the last sentence came to an end, Emma’s chest thrummed with each beat of her excited heart. Her eyes widened and she slowly released the tense breath she had been holding in her lungs.

Turning to face her friend with a smile, she asked, “We’re going to Oklahoma? What’s his name? And what does yours say?”

Sara’s face fell, her happiness vanishing for a moment before she looked down at the other letter in her hands. Clearing her throat, she confessed in a low voice, “I… won’t be going to Oklahoma with you. I’m sorry. But… in order to get us both out of here together, I had to write for husbands in different states.”

Her glistening eyes returned to meet Emma’s as a smile curled at her lips again. “We’re going to be free from this wretched place, Emma. This man has accepted you, and given you the promise of a new life, and life I have no doubt will be far better. His name is William Montgomery.”

Emma wanted to cry and cling onto her dearest friend, as though that would ensure they never had to part from one another. It couldn’t keep them from going separate ways, she knew, so instead, she blinked back her tears and squeezed Sara’s hand in encouragement.

She asked again, “What does yours say? Where will you be living your new, wonderful life?”

Sara blushed and beamed with her eyes downcast. “My husband-to-be lives in the Dakota territories, on a large plantation, and is looking for someone to marry right away and carry on his legacy.” As the words flitted out of her mouth, Sara already seemed to be smitten.

Any situation compared to theirs was worth falling in love with, and Emma hoped that time would bring her heart to that same state. As it was, though, she was still in shock that she and Sara would not only be leaving this place in different directions, but they would also soon be married.

At least, that would be the case if they made it far enough. Knowing the housemaster and his wife, and remembering how loath they were to lose free labor, Emma wondered if this was a future worth dreaming about. One look into Sara’s brilliant eyes gave Emma her answer as she dove into her friend’s arms for an embrace.

Keeping her voice hushed, Emma asked, “The tickets are at the train station, but how will we get to the train station?”

“I’ve thought about that,” Sara whispered as they let go of one another. “We mustn’t leave too early in the night, or else they’ll have more time to realize we’re gone and guess where we are. One of my friends slipped me a written schedule of when our trains will be leaving tomorrow, so as long as we sneak away before dawn, we’ll be set.”

“You two!” the harsh voice of the housemaster’s wife bellowed, and Sara scooted away, covering the letters with the hem of her dress. Were they to be discovered, then surely the housemaster would ensure that the two of them never made it to the train station and their new lives.

Each grabbed her working tool and began scrubbing the floors again. That didn’t spare them from the sharp reprimand. “Gossiping is forbidden under this roof! What do you take us for? You both know the rules, and I won’t stand for this disrespect.”

“Yes, ma’am,” both of them answered in unison, their heads bowed low.

She wheeled in front of them and focused her scowling gaze down upon them. Her dark eyes were drawn into slits. “Since you have the time to talk, I take that to mean the work is too easy.”

“No, ma’am,” Sara said, her voice devoid of any emotion.

“Silence,” she croaked. Emma shot a look toward Sara, her shoulders sagging while the older woman handed down their sentence. “Tonight, you’ll be heading to the dress rooms where you’ll sew petticoats until your fingers bleed. Then, only after I decide you’ve made enough, you can eat your gruel and go to bed.”

She sneered, folding her arms, unaware that the happiest day of their lives was waiting just on the other side of that long, painful night. Despite the harsh end to their day, Emma wanted to smile, as she at last understood what they would be leaving behind forever.

By that time the next day, that place would be miles behind both of them and that made Emma want to sing. Humming quietly while she worked, she met Sara’s eyes and found in them the same spark of joy that she was beginning to embrace as well.

***

All the while she had worked, Emma had been too full of excitement to bother about the pain and stiffness in her joints, though she looked forward to rest. When they’d finally been allowed to go to bed, however, she found herself unable to sleep.

It was so surreal, just lying on her solid mattress on the floor and thinking about the new life that awaited her. Even though she couldn’t read, she had stashed the letter under her pillow to help her dream about her future husband. Her mind whirred, imagining what he would look like, fleshing out varying versions of the details.

She turned to lay on her side and let out a soft sigh. A part of her held some guilt over her joyful anticipation, along with the fear that she was counting her chickens too soon. Even if she and Sara were both to make it out of there safely, many who had worked there before would never get that same freedom.

A year before, cholera had struck with the rage of a wildfire and cleared out many of the people with whom she shared the room. It was a miracle that Sara and she weathered the storm, considering how fast these diseases spread throughout workhouses.

Lying beneath her thin blanket, she closed her eyes and hoped that she wouldn’t wake up to learn that she’d been dreaming all that day. They had to get out, whether she was more deserving of a new life than those she’d be leaving behind or not.

If she and Sara failed to escape the following morning, Emma feared the consequences. A shiver ran through her and she turned her mind back to her hopeful daydreams.

I wonder if it is a big family, all nestled together on the ranch. I can’t wait to breathe in fresh air and watch the vegetation grow.

Her fingers and toes curled at the idea of clean air and open space awaiting her outside these cramped, musty rooms. Her heart burst with warm hope that seemed to warm her whole body at last. It was only a moment before a twinge of terror replaced it, and she shivered, suddenly gripped by an alarming set of questions.

What does it even mean to be a wife? Do I, an orphan of the slums, have what it takes to be a good wife? How would he expect me to act? What if he or his family are as cruel as those I’ve been living under my whole life?

It was amidst this bombardment of fears that she fell into a fitful sleep.

Chapter Two

Emma rose through a thick fog into consciousness, her eyes heavy with sleep. She became aware of Sara’s whispering voice and clenching fingers around her shoulders. “Emma. Wake up. We have to go. Remember the letters? Our new life?”

The room was in almost complete darkness apart from the faintest light from the outside window, which was too high and small for even their slight frames to go through. While Emma blinked heavily and began to pull herself up, Sara pushed her back down with a gasp.

The sound of Sara slipping back into her own bed was met with the beam of light from a lantern just outside the door. Emma closed her eyes again, this time without the need to fight against sleep as her heart pounded. If they’d been caught before they even began, they were out of hope.

Soft breath sounds and the occasional cough from other workers were nearly drowned out by the thrumming of Emma’s heart in her ears. Soon, although it felt like hours had passed, footsteps retreated and the lantern light disappeared, leaving the room in utter complete darkness again.

Seconds ticked by while Emma lay in a cautious state of optimism. Then, she felt Sara beside her again, whispering, “It’s now or never.”

Emma lurched out of her bed, and scrambled to put on her stained and patched overdress, stockings, and shoes. Sara was already dressed, but Emma could hear the soft scratch of her lifting their shared comb and putting it into her pocket.

The two crept hand in hand toward the door, silently listening for any hint of those who patrolled the workhouse at night. As they passed the last mattress, the soft breath of sleep ceased from its occupant. Emma glanced down with her heart beating fiercely.

Whoever it was had woken up, and if she chose to give Sara and Emma away, it would have been the easiest thing in the world to do. The sound of movement made Emma jump, afraid that the woman in the bed was getting up to yell.

No shout came, but the woman seemed to have only rolled onto her side. Emma drew in a trembling breath, grateful for the moment’s respite before Sara pulled her forward into the doorway. After having been checked on every night during the years they’d stayed there, Emma was aware of the slight creak the door made when opened wide enough.

Sara must have been as well, for she cracked the door and slipped through it sideways, keeping the opening as small as possible. Emma followed suit, holding the edge of the door with her free hand as she stepped lightly into the hall.

Sara peered into the long corridor lit only by the streetlamps through the windows. Emma stayed close, squeezing her hand for dear life, and trembled slightly. There would be no telling how much trouble they’d face should they be caught. Nothing but the possibility of true freedom would have been deserving of such risk.

“It’s quiet,” Sara whispered, and she beckoned Emma forward while taking light steps. “Let’s go, now.”

Like tomcats prowling in dark alleyways, the two friends darted about in the foreboding hallway which stretched before them much further than Emma remembered. Heart thrumming, she kept pace with her courageous friend and dared not make a sound.

Every muscle in her body was tense as if they’d been pressed through a clothes wringer. A crisp, early morning air swept through the dank corridors, and the only other sound was the soft padding of their worn-out shoes along the floorboards.

Just before turning the corner, Sara stopped, abruptly backpedaled, and shoved Emma into a storeroom close by. Two sets of footsteps echoed passed the other side of the door, and the creaking of a lantern accompanied the low voices.

When the footsteps had gone, Emma slumped against the door and broke into a relieved grin. Every inch of her was shaking, but they hadn’t been found yet. She couldn’t see in the dark room what Sara’s expression might have given away, but from the sound of her sigh, Emma guessed she felt the same.

“Come on, let’s get out of here before the sun comes up.” Sara gave Emma’s hand a reassuring squeeze and they rushed out of the room together, throwing caution to the wind. Though they still went as quietly as possible, speed seemed to be Sara’s aim then, and they drew nearer to the exit at last.

Sara maintained the lead until they reached the window at the end of the second hall. That was to be their escape, it seemed, as it was more concealed than the front door. The only trouble that remained was getting it open and reaching the ground without being caught.

They were on the second story and Sara must have deemed it safer to climb down the newly installed fire escape in the dark than it would have been to brave the staircase with sentries on guard. Had laws not required the ladders to be attached to the tenement building not long before, Sara and Emma might have had a much more treacherous climb ahead of them.

The window had also been left unsealed due to the new law, and therefore it slid open with relative ease. As Sara worked on that, Emma watched with wide eyes for any sign of movement from around the corner or outside. There would be no credible excuse they could give if they were caught now.

Emma gathered her skirt, tucking it under her and tying it for climbing. Sara did the same, then they helped each other to climb through the small opening and across to the ladder. She kept looking out over her shoulder in all directions, hardly able to breathe with the fear that they might be spotted at any second.

The metal was cold beneath her fingers as Emma gripped onto it, heaving her weight across open air until her feet found purchase. Sara clutched the shoulder of her dress until Emma had gotten all four of her limbs onto various rungs of the ladder and begun her descent.

Sara quickly followed, and the ground seemed to rush up to meet them. Emma’s legs wobbled while she stepped to the side, clearing the way for her friend, and at the bottom, they both scrutinized their surroundings.

Once sure that it was clear, they dashed together toward a path between buildings. Just out of view of the street, they untied their skirts and let them fall back into their natural state. The worst should have been over, yet Emma still worried that they might be stopped along the street by fellow early-morning pedestrians and interrogated on where they’d come from and why.

That proved to have been an unnecessary fear. They made it to the train station—following Sara’s crudely drawn map of the city streets—within ten minutes of leaving the workhouse tenement. The small building beside the train track had a window where one man waited, and several others sat sleepily on benches inside and out.

Sara led the way to an unoccupied bench across the doorway from a sleeping elderly woman with a suitcase. They plopped down onto it and Emma placed one hand on her chest in the hope of slowing her heart to its normal rhythm. Her breath came in gasps, but she was finally able to relax her aching muscles in the knowledge that they had made it.

They caught their breath, and then their eyes locked together for a moment before they both burst into a fit of relieved laughter. The woman on the other bench stirred, but all Emma could think about was squeezing her friend tightly.

“Okay,” Sara whispered, and pulled out of the embrace. “I’ll go check on our tickets. Your train will be here soon.”

More people arrived slowly, hauling luggage of all shapes and sizes, and the platform only grew more crowded as Sara returned to the bench. Soon, the distant whistle of a train signaled its approach and Sara squeezed Emma’s bony fingers.

“This is it.” Her eyes glistened in the early morning light, matching Emma’s own desire to cry over their imminent parting. “Are you ready to begin the beautiful new life that awaits you?”

The engine pulled into the station and filled the air with steam before Emma could bring herself to answer. Around them, the station bustled with activity, from street vendors selling portable foods to paper boys running around supplying the daily news.

There were queues of travelers awaiting their train rides everywhere, and the ferocity and scale of people didn’t daunt Emma as it normally might have. Instead, it filled her with hope that things had truly changed and would only continue to get better if she could bear to get on the train and leave her dearest friend behind.

“Okay, you’d better get on. Mine will be the next one,” Sara said. Her voice hitched. “Remember, you’ll be meeting a gentleman called William Montgomery when you arrive. He’s the head of Lancaster Ranch just outside of Fort Smith.”

She reached into her wearied pocket and brought out a ticket, holding it between them. Tears brimming in Emma’s eyes, she grasped her friend into a powerful hug, and for a long moment, the girls stayed glued together, tears running down their sooty cheeks.

Strangers glanced at them with narrowed, judgmental eyes, but neither one of them cared what outside eyes perceived.

“I will miss you, my sister.” Emma choked on the words, swallowing hard against the lump in her throat. “This is the first time I’ll be leaving the city, and without you… I don’t know if I’ll be able to survive at all.”

Sara chuckled, the sound vibrating against Emma’s neck. “Oh, you’ll be fine. You’ll have Mr. Montgomery, and however many ranch hands he has, to look after you. I’m sure you’ll do your share of looking after them, too–” she pulled back a little and brushed Emma’s hair out of her face while they both sniffled.

A small smile showed on Sara’s sooty, tear-streaked face as she added,  “–especially once you start to have beautiful, country babies.”

Emma laughed, untangling herself from Sara. She dabbed a dirty finger against her own cheek and wiped away the flow of tears. “Babies? And what will you be doing?” she asked, holding Sara’s vivid green gaze.

“Ah,” she wagged her finger playfully. “I, my dear friend, will be busy driving my husband crazy with my feminine grace and taking charge of the household. And, of course…” she smiled like the little conspirator she was, but soon that gave way to a sorrowful knit to her brow, “…I will miss you, Emma. More than anything.”

Emma winced, willing herself not to cry anymore. It was time to say goodbye, and she wanted to leave Sara with the hope that they would both have all of their dreams fulfilled on the other side of the track. “I’ll miss you too. And… this isn’t goodbye, right? We’ll stay in touch, somehow.”

She couldn’t bear the thought that she’d never see or hear from Sara again, yet she didn’t know how to read or write. In the next moment, Sara dispelled that worry with a warm smile. “Of course we will! I’ll send you a letter as soon as I arrive, and you can ask your soon-to-be husband to read it to you. Then you simply dictate a response, and I’m sure he won’t mind doing so.”

The idea of asking Mr. Montgomery for anything more than accepting her as his bride made Emma’s stomach clench. Of course, it would be worth doing something a little daring in order to keep Sara in her life by mail, so she quickly nodded her agreement.

A blaring train whistle disrupted their tearful goodbyes, and Emma stood for a moment before Sara pushed her toward the train. “You have to board now. I love you, Emma. I’ll send you a letter right away.”

Turning away was one of the hardest things Emma had ever done in her life, but she did it and climbed the steps onto the passenger car. Weaving her way to a nearby, unoccupied bench seat, she looked out of the window to watch as Sara waved and smiled at her.

Emma waved back, smiling with every ounce of strength she had left and hoping that Lancaster Ranch would be all she had ever wanted out of life. The train hissed and began to pull forward, slowly passing the only family Emma had left as Emma pressed against the glass, stealing one final look.

Sara dropped her hand just before she vanished from view amidst the crowd. Emma sat back in her seat and clasped her letter between cold fingers. Before she had the chance to begin mulling over all that had happened since the day before, the conductor walked through the center aisle.

She handed her ticket to him and turned toward the window. The sun had begun to show above the horizon, now that the tall buildings of the city were being left behind them at an increasing speed. It wasn’t until he cleared his throat expectantly that she turned back and realized he only wanted to punch the ticket.

Her face flushed as she accepted it again and she looked at her hands until he was out of sight. No, she told herself. She would not begin her new life in a puddle of shame. She raised her head, turning back to the window and breathing in her last breath of New York City air.

From that moment on, she was free, and nothing was left to tie her to that place. Sara was free as well, and once they reached their new homes, they would be able to exchange letters without sneaking around ever again. They could finally live in the light, and that was something to rejoice about.

A smile played at her lips and she leaned against the window, a wave of exhaustion finally having the chance to rest on her shoulders. Though she still faced a great deal of unknowns in the world, she had confidence that nothing could be as soul-rending as what she’d been through already.

Chapter Three

William fed the hissing flames and cracked several eggs into the heated pan on the wire rack above. Once he’d finished adding a full dozen, he topped them with a pinch of salt for flavor. By then, they’d started to turn white, so he scrambled them up, sucking in a breath of the soft, pine and smokey air around the firepit.

His hands were already greasy from running around early that morning making the ham and grits to go with breakfast. He stared out toward the rising sun and felt a sudden rush in his heart. The weather and aromas from breakfast held promises about a good day ahead. He only hoped that would turn out to be the case.

After pouring himself a cup of coffee from the pot that hung by the fire, he finished the eggs and piled them onto a plate on the nearby table under a pavilion. With the cooking out of the way, he doused the fire and reached up toward the bell hanging on one post.

He tolled it like an angry headmaster but grinned like a schoolboy. “A’right, wake up you sacks of lazy bones!” he bellowed, his voice echoing. “I won’t say it again! Get out here or I’ll chow down on this breakfast myself.” Lifting his cup from the table, he took a scalding sip while waiting contentedly for the rush that was sure to follow.

Evan was the first to emerge from the bunkhouse, yawning. His brown, soulful eyes locked with William’s smirking gaze, and he licked his bottom lip as if attempting to taste the aroma floating around in the air. “Mm. Ham?” he mused, the grogginess in his eyes already dissipating.

“What do you think, kid?” William teased, holding up an empty plate for Evan to load.

“I think I’ll help you finish all this off if the others don’t get out here fast enough.” Evan laughed and ran a hand over the top of his head to swipe back his chestnut brown hair.

Soon after Evan settled on the wooden bench beside the table, William’s other ranch hands appeared at the bunkhouse door looking like two beat dogs.

“Did you have to yell?” J.D. grumbled rubbing his temples. His lean, wiry frame scuttled over; he was clearly nursing another one of his headaches.

William turned toward the fire, opting to pour J.D. a cup of coffee to quell his guilt on the matter. While William held it out to him, Luke came up behind J.D. With an expression of sympathy, Luke patted his shoulder, then teasingly pushed past him toward the food.

“Whew! Will, you have outdone yourself this morning. What’s the special occasion?” Luke asked, peering up from his loaded plate with an inquisitive quirk to his brow.

William untied his apron and tossed it aside, then washed his hands at the pump and joined them on the bench. “What? Like I don’t cook for you lay-abouts almost every day.”


“The Disguised Rancher’s Heart” is an Amazon Best-Selling novel, check it out here!

Emma Anderson, a young woman marked by the scars of her past, makes a daring escape from a New York workhouse, seeking solace as a mail-order bride. Her journey brings her to the doorstep of William Montgomery, a rancher cloaked in mystery and burdened by his own grief. Emma’s arrival at William’s ranch opens the door to a future she never imagined, yet, she soon faces a stark realization: the man she was meant to marry has no intention of binding his life to hers.

Will she have what it takes to win his heart, or will the past he won’t talk about keep them apart?

William Montgomery, bound by the pain of loss and a secret mission that consumes his every waking moment, finds his life upended with the arrival of Emma. Having agreed to take on a fiancee only to maintain the illusion of a happy ending, he has no intention of falling for the timid and delicately beautiful woman living down the hall…

Will he have the strength to keep up the walls he built, or will she bring them tumbling down?

A bond grows between them, but secrets soon open a chasm. The sudden arrival of a stranger in town could spell disaster, tipping the balance toward an unknown fate. In a world where every shadow holds a secret and every heartache a story, can Emma and William navigate the challenges of the heart to find a love that endures?

“The Disguised Rancher’s Heart” is a historical adventure novel of approximately 60,000 words. No cliffhangers, only pure unadulterated action.

Get your copy from Amazon!

One thought on “The Disguised Rancher’s Heart (Preview)”

  1. Hello my dears, I hope you were intrigued by the preview of this inspiring love story and you cannot wait to read the rest! Let me know your thoughts here. Thank you kindly! Happy reading! ✨

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