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Mud Creek

Mud Creek

At age seventeen, Helen Pendleton considered herself to be a modern woman, eager to embrace the new century. While the normal path for a female in her New York town was matrimony and children, she shocked her parents by planning to attend college and hoping to eventually become a schoolteacher. So when her neighbor, Albert, surprised her by proposing marriage, she was smugly confident in her decision to decline his offer.

Yet time and adversity changed everything.

Three years later, with her parents deceased, and college a fading memory, she and her sister, Violet, are in dire straits. Their father’s business is bankrupt, and they’re losing their home. Violet’s erratic behavior compounds the situation. She suffers from wild mood swings and carouses at night with young men who will only get her into trouble. Helen is desperate and would do anything to protect her sister from scandal. As she reaches her lowest ebb, she receives a letter from Albert.

After she spurned him, he and his family moved west, pursuing their dream of homesteading in the Dakotas. When he hears of her dilemma, he offers marriage again, tempting her with tales of his prosperous ranch and the fine house he’s built for her out on the prairie.

With Helen out of ideas or options, she accepts his proposal. She’s abandoned her prior certainty that she can be free and independent, and she’s anxious to get Violet out of the city, feeling that her sister’s condition will improve in the quiet serenity of the country. But Albert has lied to Helen about his life on the Great Plains. He has no aptitude for ranching, and his family’s homestead is a bleak, barren place where wind, weather, and isolation guarantee that their survival is always in question.

Helen arrives in the Dakotas, with an ill, destructive Violet in tow, thinking they’ll benefit from the security and leisure Albert has promised. So she’s unprepared for the grueling reality that awaits. Trapped in a downward spiral of work and worry, and wed to a man she could never love, she must find the inner strength to endure the hand that fate has dealt her.

Bestselling novelist, Cheryl Holt, paints a world of triumph and tragedy, of joy and sorrow, where people are tested to their limits and the best and worst of humanity is revealed. Mud Creek is a tremendous, accessible, and heartrending book that whirls to a gripping climax, featuring Ms. Holt’s most memorable characters in years.

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CHAPTER ONE

Maywood, New York, 1897…

“What do you think?”

Helen Pendleton sat at her dressing table and stared into the mirror.  She tipped from side to side, admiring her new hat.

She’d seen it in a shop window, and after only a bit of cajoling, her father had let her buy it.  It was very gaudy, containing no small amount of feathers, birds, and flowers, and it utterly dwarfed her face, but she liked it anyway.

She peered over her shoulder at her sister, Violet, who replied, “You look like you have an apple orchard on your head.”

“A very lovely orchard, though.  Wouldn’t you agree?”

“No, I wouldn’t agree.”

Helen was sixteen, and Violet two years younger.  While their features were very much alike—blond hair, blue eyes, petite stature—they were different in every other way.

Helen was placid, calm, reliable, and responsible.  Violet was wild, boisterous, devious, and a constant trial to their parents.  Helen had just graduated from high school and was a stellar student.  Violet hated to study and had difficulty learning.

There had been lengthy, fraught family discussions about ending her formal education, about having her work behind the counter at their father’s mercantile.  Finally, it had been decided that she’d fare no better as a store clerk.  She hadn’t the patience for dealing with customers and was likely to wander off if she grew bored.

Plus, there would be the shame of failure by a Pendleton daughter.  Helen’s parents, Charles and Mildred Pendleton, were pillars of the community.  If gossip spread about Violet, how would she ever find a husband?

It was Mildred Pendleton’s continual worry and sole objective:  ensuring her daughters made excellent marriages.  She didn’t take into account that her daughters didn’t wish to wed, deeming their attitudes on the subject to be silly and irrelevant.

Violet said, “I don’t know how you can balance all that weight.”

“I look pretty.”

“You look ridiculous.”

Instantly, Helen gave up the quarrel.

It was pointless to bicker with Violet.  She had strong opinions and couldn’t be deterred from holding them.  She detested the fashion trend toward ostentation, the use of so many frills and bows, but her loathing was due to the fact that she couldn’t stand still while laces were tied or buttons buttoned.

And she enjoyed being contrary.  If Helen liked something, Violet would say she didn’t—simply to aggravate Helen as much as possible.

As a result, Helen had assumed the role of peacemaker.  Between herself and Violet.  Between Violet and their parents.  Between Violet and the entire world.  Most days, it seemed that Helen’s only function was to tamp down her sister’s more extreme antics so she’d stay out of trouble.

A knock sounded on her bedroom door, and Helen’s mother, Mildred, peeked in.  Mildred was forty-five, and it showed.  Her hair was gray and thinning, her pleasant face lined with fatigue.  She was exhausted all the time, and no matter how carefully she ate or rested, her general malaise never improved.

When Helen gazed at her mother, she saw the life she, herself, refused to have.  Her mother had been wed at fourteen—Violet’s age—to a man she hardly knew, then she’d birthed babies year after year after year.  Helen and Violet were the only two who had survived.

They’d had four older brothers and three younger sisters who’d all perished from various accidents and illnesses.  The heartache had taken a toll on their mother, as had her many pregnancies, and Helen couldn’t comprehend why any female would yearn for an existence filled with such drudgery and pain.

Helen had bigger plans for herself.  She was a modern woman, rushing toward the new century.  When she married, she’d pick her own husband, and it would be a man she trusted and loved.  Not some stranger her father invited home to supper.

She had applied to teacher’s college and been accepted.  Upon graduation, she would work as a teacher, would eventually earn her own money and perhaps even have her own apartment.  Her independent ideas scandalized her mother and humored her father—he thought she was going through a phase—but Helen was resolved to seize more for herself than had been allowed to overburdened Mildred.

Times were changing, and Helen intended to change with them.

“Helen, dear”—her mother murmured so her voice wouldn’t carry down the stairs—“you have a visitor.”

“Who is it?”

“Albert.”

“Oh, gad, Mother,” Violet complained.  “We don’t need that fusspot darkening our day.  Can’t you tell him she’s not here?”

“Violet!” Mildred softly chided.

“Well, he is a fusspot.  Don’t deny it, Helen.”

“I won’t.”  Helen chuckled, then sighed.

She didn’t want to talk to him, but she couldn’t decline.  He was their neighbor and had been her brother’s best friend when they were boys.  She’d always been kind to him, which was probably a mistake.  It was clear he envisioned them sharing more than a mere friendship, but Helen had never done anything to encourage his interest.

He was four years older than she was, pushing twenty and eager to marry, but she wasn’t about to be tied down at the exciting age of sixteen.  On the one occasion when she’d proudly informed him about her being accepted into college, he’d stared at her as if she was babbling in a foreign language.

“I’ll be right down,” Helen said.

“I’ll let him know.”  Mildred hurried away to deliver the news.

Helen and Violet waited until her footsteps faded, then Violet flopped onto Helen’s bed, mimicking, “I’ll let him know!”  She stuck out her tongue.  “How can you be so nice to him?  I get sick to my stomach from how tedious he is.”

“He’s not that bad.”

“Thank goodness Arthur didn’t come, too.  I’d have jumped out the window to avoid him.”

Arthur was Albert’s brother, younger by a year.  Recently, he’d adopted Albert’s plan:  two brothers marrying two sisters.  What could be simpler or more convenient?

But if Helen wouldn’t suit with stodgy, plain Albert, the notion of Violet paired with Arthur conjured images of a terrible carriage accident played out over and over in slow motion.

“Arthur is not so bad, either,” Helen claimed.

Violet wrinkled up her nose.  “Speak for yourself.  I think he’s horrid.  He’s so boring, I fall asleep just from looking at him.”

“You do not.  He’s funny; you said so yourself.”

“He’s a pest, and I’ll be so glad when they move away.”

Their father, Walt Jones, had sold everything, and they were heading for a homestead out west in the Dakotas.  The catalyst had been an ad he’d seen in the newspaper, announcing the release of what might be some of the last public land ever available for settlement.  The prospect had been too enticing to resist.

Walt had always hankered to live on the Great Plains.  He’d grown up reading dime novels about gunslingers, buffalo hunters, and Indian fighters, and he’d longed to be part of the action.  But his father had ordered him to stay in Maywood, to marry and work in the family store.

He’d complied, but over the decades, he’d seethed with discontentment, furious that he’d abandoned his chance to trek off to the wilderness.  The fact that he knew nothing of farming or ranching or the pioneering life hadn’t tempered his yearning.

The wild era of cattle drives and lawlessness was over, but the lure remained.  He was no different from the hoards that had undertaken the same arduous journey over the prior century, but there was no more staid, sober person than Walt Jones.  It seemed so odd that he would be the one to join that daring crowd.

Helen’s mother couldn’t figure out why his wife, Florence, hadn’t put her foot down and stopped him, but Florence was timid and brow-beaten and couldn’t stand up to Walt.  If he told her she had to pack up all she owned, then trudge off to a godforsaken homestead, she would go without complaint.

“You’ll miss Arthur once he’s left,” Helen insisted.

“Don’t make me laugh,” Violet scoffed.

She flounced out, and Helen shook her head with exasperation, as she took off her hat and laid it on the dresser.  She glanced at the mirror, checking that her hair was tidy, then went downstairs.

As she reached the bottom, her mother was hovering, and Mildred leaned in and whispered, “Promise me you’ll listen to what he has to say.  Don’t be difficult.”

Helen scowled.  “What do you mean?”

“Just listen!” Mildred repeated, and she shoved Helen into the front parlor and closed the door.

Mildred was a stickler for proprieties and never permitted Helen or Violet any liberties.  So finding herself shut in with Albert was worrisome.  Apparently, he and Mildred had hatched a scheme together, one that Helen was certain she would loathe.

Determined to brazen it out, Helen forced a smile and walked over to where he was seated on the small sofa by the window.

He started to rise in greeting, but she waved him down.

“Sit, sit, Albert.”

“I will.  Thank you, Helen.”

The maid had served him a tray with lemonade and slices of chocolate cake.  He’d always been a sloppy boy, and he’d grown into a sloppy man.  He had cake crumbs stuck to his shirt, but he didn’t notice, and Helen didn’t mention them.

He scooted over, making space for her on the sofa, but she took the chair across instead.  Once previous, she’d sat by him, and he’d boldly clasped hold of her hand.  She’d embarrassed them both when she’d retrieved it and placed it on her lap, and she wasn’t about to give him another opening.

He was simple, quiet, and modest, plump with good health and inflexible in his attitudes.  And he was absolutely wrong for her.

Why was she so picky?

Much of her problem, she realized, was due to the romantic magazines Violet sneaked home.  They were filled with stories about handsome, dashing cads, and Helen had read too many of them.

They made her pine for things she couldn’t name, but in her entire sixteen years, she’d never met a man who qualified as a scoundrel.  The men in her world were exact replicas of her father, of Albert, of his father, Walt.  They were unassuming family providers who toiled six days a week and went to church on Sunday.

Helen wanted someone extraordinary, while Albert was ordinary in every way.  Average height.  Average looks.  Unremarkable brown hair that was already thinning on the top.  Grey eyes that never sparkled with mischief.  He never understood her jokes and behaved like a fussy nanny.

“What brings you by?” she asked.  Stalling, she poured her own glass of lemonade.  “I would have thought matters so hectic at your house that you’d be too busy for socializing.”

“I told Pa”—his Pa being his father, Walt—“that I couldn’t pack another trunk until I’d spoken to you.”

“About what?”

“I have a proposal for you.”  When she frowned, he rushed to add, “Promise you’ll hear me out.”

His comment was awfully similar to what her mother had whispered in the hall, and Helen nearly leapt up and clapped a palm over his mouth to block what shouldn’t be uttered and could never be retracted.

“Of course, I’ll hear you out.”  She hid her dismay.  “What is it?”

“We’re leaving next week for the Dakotas.”

“Yes, I know.  It will be so strange to have you gone.”

“Our train pulls out first thing Monday morning.”

“Yes, I know,” she stated again.

“And…”  He tugged on his collar, blushed bright red.  “And…I’d…I’d like you to come with me.”

“Come…with you?”

“Yes.  I’m asking you to marry me.  I’m saying it straight out:  Will you marry me and come with me and my family to the Dakotas?”

“Oh, Albert…”

“I realize you’re set on college, and you have a lot of peculiar ideas about your future, but—”

“My ideas are not peculiar,” she huffed.  “I simply want to be a teacher, and I don’t consider the decision brash or hastily made.  It’s what I’ve always wanted.”

“I apologize,” he quickly said.  “I didn’t express myself very clearly.  You pine for a different life than the one your parents envision for you.  But why does it have to be college?  Why does it have to be teaching?  Why does it have to be here in Maywood?  Haven’t you ever wondered if you could find what you’re looking for out west?”

“No.”

“Perhaps you haven’t given it enough thought.”

“I haven’t given it any thought, because it’s not an option that appeals to me in the slightest.”

“The three of us—Pa and Arthur and me—are going to select plots of land that are adjoining, so if you’re worried about the isolation, don’t be.  Ma would be close by, so you’d have female company.”

Helen could think of nothing more grating than to have trembling, meek Florence as her only neighbor.

“I’m not worried about the isolation, Albert.  You’re not listening to me.  I’m glad for you and your family.  I’m glad that you’re pursuing this dream for yourselves, but I am not interested in marrying or moving west.”

He kept on as if she hadn’t spoken.  “We’re pooling our resources so we can ranch as a team.  We’ll do really well that way financially.  The first year, I should be able to build my own house.”

“That’s marvelous, Albert.  I’m happy for you.”

“I’m aware that it’s last minute, and I should have asked sooner.”

“It wouldn’t have made any difference.”

“If you don’t care to travel with me on Monday—Ma says you probably couldn’t be ready by then—we could wed before I leave.  You could come next summer after the house is finished.”

He was so excited, like a boy in a candy shop.  Maybe he would succeed at ranching in the wilderness.  Maybe her parents would end up being wrong.  Maybe Walt, Albert, and Arthur would grow fat and prosperous in the Dakotas.

But Helen didn’t imagine that’s how it would happen.  Her parents had seen too many people return from the west, broke, busted, beaten down.  She craved no part of a marriage to Albert or exile to the middle of nowhere.  He didn’t have a clue what they were facing, and she wasn’t willing to place herself in a predicament where so much of the outcome was unknown.

“I’m sorry, Albert,” she said.  “I just can’t.”

“I understand.”  He nodded, studying her.

An awkward silence ensued, then suddenly, he slid from the sofa and fell to one knee.  He clasped her hand tightly enough that she couldn’t pull it free.

“I have to risk all, Helen,” he declared.  “I won’t have another chance.”

“What are you talking about?  Get up, get up.  You’re embarrassing me.”

“I love you,” he claimed.

“No, no.  You can’t possibly mean that.”

“I do, Helen.”  He drew her closer.  “You’re everything I want in a wife.  You’re beautiful and kind and smart and loyal.”

“Loyal?”  She seized on the word, deeming it an odd choice to describe her character.

“Yes, loyal.  Don’t sell yourself short.  You support Violet, no matter how outrageously she acts.  You never judge her; you never criticize.  You’re her champion.”

“She’s my sister,” Helen tersely responded.  “Why wouldn’t I stand by her?”

“Your devotion only proves how right I am in asking you to come with me.”

“I don’t know what to say, Albert.  You’re not listening to me.”

“Say yes.  Say you’ll have me; say you’ll wed me.  Make me the happiest man alive.”

He paused, on tenterhooks, and in his fervor, he looked a bit crazed.

She yanked away and stood.  He rose, too, but grudgingly.

“I could never want anyone but you,” he ardently decreed.

“That’s enough.  Please stop.”

“I’ll wait for you,” he absurdly insisted.

She winced.  “Don’t think that way for a minute.”

“No, I’ll wait.  I’m very patient.”

“You shouldn’t be.  Not about this.  You should find someone else.  You should ask someone else.”

“No, no, it has to be you.”

She tamped down a groan, deciding she would throttle her mother after he left.  He had taken her hand again, and she was using it as leverage to propel him toward the door.

“You should go,” she told him, but he persisted with his entreaty.

“At the moment,” he said, “you’re opposed to my idea, but you never know what might happen.  Six months from now, a year from now, you might change your mind.”

“I won’t ever change my mind, Albert.”

“Have faith in me, Helen.”

“I have faith in you.  I just can’t do as you’re suggesting.”

“I’ll write,” he vowed.

“I hope you will.”

“I’ll keep you apprised, so you can track the preparations I’m making for your arrival.”

“Don’t make them for me.  It will be a wasted effort.”

“No, it won’t be.  I’m so sure about this.  We’re meant to be together.”

She reached for the doorknob and jerked the door open.  Her mother was lurking in the hall, pretending she hadn’t been eavesdropping.

“Albert,” Mildred said, “are you leaving so soon?”

“Yes, Mrs. Pendleton, but I’ll stop by in the morning.”

“Wonderful.  We always look forward to seeing you—especially with so few days remaining before your departure.  Give my regards to Florence, won’t you?”

Helen flashed a glare, indicating that her mother should be silent.  Mildred ignored her and escorted Albert out onto the front porch.

“Until tomorrow, Helen.”  He appeared forlorn and lovesick.

“Good-bye.”

Her mother urged him on his way, and when she turned to Helen again, she immediately went on the offensive.

“What is wrong with you?” Mildred demanded, sweeping by Helen and into the parlor.  “He offered you the opportunity of a lifetime!  You didn’t even consider it.”

“Mother, you knew what he was going to say, didn’t you?”

“Well, of course, I did.  He and Walt talked to your father last night.”

“You agreed that he could propose?”

“Why wouldn’t we?  We’ve been acquainted with them all our lives.  We’ve often suspected that the two of you might—“

“Might what?  Marry?  Me and Albert?”

“Yes.”

“Are you insane?” Helen fumed.  “Don’t you know anything about me?”

“I know enough to realize that you can’t be left to arrange your own future.”

“Albert and I are completely incompatible.”

“No, you’re not.  He’s absolutely what you need.  He’s steady and reliable, and he would temper all your worst traits.”

“My worst traits?  Which ones would those be?”

“You’re a dreamer, Helen.  You’re all pie-in-the-sky with how things ought to be rather than how things actually are.  It’s a dangerous way to carry on.”

“Is it dangerous that I want to be a teacher?  Is it dangerous to want more for myself than what you had?”

Mildred scoffed.  “Oh, I see how you thumb your nose at me for my pathetic choice of marrying your father.  You’ll eventually learn that there’s no greater blessing for a woman than her husband and children.”

“When I wed, it will be for love.”

“Love fades quickly, Helen.  Stability endures.  Stability you can count on.”

“I don’t want stability.  I want happiness.”

“Then I’m positive your teaching certificate will bring you much cold comfort in your old age.”

“And marriage to Albert would be better?  How could you put me in such a horrid predicament?”

“Horrid!  We merely allowed a proposal from a very appropriate young man.  What was so horrid about it?”

“I was mortified, Mother.  I had to sit there and listen while he droned on and on.”

“That is the most ridiculous comment you’ve ever uttered, and I refuse to argue with you.  Go to your room.  You may discuss the issue with your father when he arrives home this evening.  I’m sure he’ll be delighted to deal with you when you’re throwing such a childish tantrum.”

Helen clenched her teeth, biting down on all the derogatory remarks trying to spill out.

She and her mother never used to quarrel, but in the past year, Helen had begun to see the world differently.  She would be relieved when her college classes started in the fall so she would have an excuse to be absent from the house for hours on end.

She spun and huffed out, climbing the stairs to her room where she found Violet lounged on her bed.

“I heard everything,” Violet hissed as Helen entered and slammed the door.

“How?”

“Albert was over by the window in the parlor.  His voice drifted up.”

“I’m so furious—with Mother and with him.”

“You won’t wed him, will you, Helen?  If you do, I’ll have to kill you to save you.”

“No, I won’t marry him, Violet.  Not ever, ever, ever.  No matter what.”

Sample Chapter

CHAPTER ONE

Maywood, New York, 1897…

“What do you think?”

Helen Pendleton sat at her dressing table and stared into the mirror.  She tipped from side to side, admiring her new hat.

She’d seen it in a shop window, and after only a bit of cajoling, her father had let her buy it.  It was very gaudy, containing no small amount of feathers, birds, and flowers, and it utterly dwarfed her face, but she liked it anyway.

She peered over her shoulder at her sister, Violet, who replied, “You look like you have an apple orchard on your head.”

“A very lovely orchard, though.  Wouldn’t you agree?”

“No, I wouldn’t agree.”

Helen was sixteen, and Violet two years younger.  While their features were very much alike—blond hair, blue eyes, petite stature—they were different in every other way.

Helen was placid, calm, reliable, and responsible.  Violet was wild, boisterous, devious, and a constant trial to their parents.  Helen had just graduated from high school and was a stellar student.  Violet hated to study and had difficulty learning.

There had been lengthy, fraught family discussions about ending her formal education, about having her work behind the counter at their father’s mercantile.  Finally, it had been decided that she’d fare no better as a store clerk.  She hadn’t the patience for dealing with customers and was likely to wander off if she grew bored.

Plus, there would be the shame of failure by a Pendleton daughter.  Helen’s parents, Charles and Mildred Pendleton, were pillars of the community.  If gossip spread about Violet, how would she ever find a husband?

It was Mildred Pendleton’s continual worry and sole objective:  ensuring her daughters made excellent marriages.  She didn’t take into account that her daughters didn’t wish to wed, deeming their attitudes on the subject to be silly and irrelevant.

Violet said, “I don’t know how you can balance all that weight.”

“I look pretty.”

“You look ridiculous.”

Instantly, Helen gave up the quarrel.

It was pointless to bicker with Violet.  She had strong opinions and couldn’t be deterred from holding them.  She detested the fashion trend toward ostentation, the use of so many frills and bows, but her loathing was due to the fact that she couldn’t stand still while laces were tied or buttons buttoned.

And she enjoyed being contrary.  If Helen liked something, Violet would say she didn’t—simply to aggravate Helen as much as possible.

As a result, Helen had assumed the role of peacemaker.  Between herself and Violet.  Between Violet and their parents.  Between Violet and the entire world.  Most days, it seemed that Helen’s only function was to tamp down her sister’s more extreme antics so she’d stay out of trouble.

A knock sounded on her bedroom door, and Helen’s mother, Mildred, peeked in.  Mildred was forty-five, and it showed.  Her hair was gray and thinning, her pleasant face lined with fatigue.  She was exhausted all the time, and no matter how carefully she ate or rested, her general malaise never improved.

When Helen gazed at her mother, she saw the life she, herself, refused to have.  Her mother had been wed at fourteen—Violet’s age—to a man she hardly knew, then she’d birthed babies year after year after year.  Helen and Violet were the only two who had survived.

They’d had four older brothers and three younger sisters who’d all perished from various accidents and illnesses.  The heartache had taken a toll on their mother, as had her many pregnancies, and Helen couldn’t comprehend why any female would yearn for an existence filled with such drudgery and pain.

Helen had bigger plans for herself.  She was a modern woman, rushing toward the new century.  When she married, she’d pick her own husband, and it would be a man she trusted and loved.  Not some stranger her father invited home to supper.

She had applied to teacher’s college and been accepted.  Upon graduation, she would work as a teacher, would eventually earn her own money and perhaps even have her own apartment.  Her independent ideas scandalized her mother and humored her father—he thought she was going through a phase—but Helen was resolved to seize more for herself than had been allowed to overburdened Mildred.

Times were changing, and Helen intended to change with them.

“Helen, dear”—her mother murmured so her voice wouldn’t carry down the stairs—“you have a visitor.”

“Who is it?”

“Albert.”

“Oh, gad, Mother,” Violet complained.  “We don’t need that fusspot darkening our day.  Can’t you tell him she’s not here?”

“Violet!” Mildred softly chided.

“Well, he is a fusspot.  Don’t deny it, Helen.”

“I won’t.”  Helen chuckled, then sighed.

She didn’t want to talk to him, but she couldn’t decline.  He was their neighbor and had been her brother’s best friend when they were boys.  She’d always been kind to him, which was probably a mistake.  It was clear he envisioned them sharing more than a mere friendship, but Helen had never done anything to encourage his interest.

He was four years older than she was, pushing twenty and eager to marry, but she wasn’t about to be tied down at the exciting age of sixteen.  On the one occasion when she’d proudly informed him about her being accepted into college, he’d stared at her as if she was babbling in a foreign language.

“I’ll be right down,” Helen said.

“I’ll let him know.”  Mildred hurried away to deliver the news.

Helen and Violet waited until her footsteps faded, then Violet flopped onto Helen’s bed, mimicking, “I’ll let him know!”  She stuck out her tongue.  “How can you be so nice to him?  I get sick to my stomach from how tedious he is.”

“He’s not that bad.”

“Thank goodness Arthur didn’t come, too.  I’d have jumped out the window to avoid him.”

Arthur was Albert’s brother, younger by a year.  Recently, he’d adopted Albert’s plan:  two brothers marrying two sisters.  What could be simpler or more convenient?

But if Helen wouldn’t suit with stodgy, plain Albert, the notion of Violet paired with Arthur conjured images of a terrible carriage accident played out over and over in slow motion.

“Arthur is not so bad, either,” Helen claimed.

Violet wrinkled up her nose.  “Speak for yourself.  I think he’s horrid.  He’s so boring, I fall asleep just from looking at him.”

“You do not.  He’s funny; you said so yourself.”

“He’s a pest, and I’ll be so glad when they move away.”

Their father, Walt Jones, had sold everything, and they were heading for a homestead out west in the Dakotas.  The catalyst had been an ad he’d seen in the newspaper, announcing the release of what might be some of the last public land ever available for settlement.  The prospect had been too enticing to resist.

Walt had always hankered to live on the Great Plains.  He’d grown up reading dime novels about gunslingers, buffalo hunters, and Indian fighters, and he’d longed to be part of the action.  But his father had ordered him to stay in Maywood, to marry and work in the family store.

He’d complied, but over the decades, he’d seethed with discontentment, furious that he’d abandoned his chance to trek off to the wilderness.  The fact that he knew nothing of farming or ranching or the pioneering life hadn’t tempered his yearning.

The wild era of cattle drives and lawlessness was over, but the lure remained.  He was no different from the hoards that had undertaken the same arduous journey over the prior century, but there was no more staid, sober person than Walt Jones.  It seemed so odd that he would be the one to join that daring crowd.

Helen’s mother couldn’t figure out why his wife, Florence, hadn’t put her foot down and stopped him, but Florence was timid and brow-beaten and couldn’t stand up to Walt.  If he told her she had to pack up all she owned, then trudge off to a godforsaken homestead, she would go without complaint.

“You’ll miss Arthur once he’s left,” Helen insisted.

“Don’t make me laugh,” Violet scoffed.

She flounced out, and Helen shook her head with exasperation, as she took off her hat and laid it on the dresser.  She glanced at the mirror, checking that her hair was tidy, then went downstairs.

As she reached the bottom, her mother was hovering, and Mildred leaned in and whispered, “Promise me you’ll listen to what he has to say.  Don’t be difficult.”

Helen scowled.  “What do you mean?”

“Just listen!” Mildred repeated, and she shoved Helen into the front parlor and closed the door.

Mildred was a stickler for proprieties and never permitted Helen or Violet any liberties.  So finding herself shut in with Albert was worrisome.  Apparently, he and Mildred had hatched a scheme together, one that Helen was certain she would loathe.

Determined to brazen it out, Helen forced a smile and walked over to where he was seated on the small sofa by the window.

He started to rise in greeting, but she waved him down.

“Sit, sit, Albert.”

“I will.  Thank you, Helen.”

The maid had served him a tray with lemonade and slices of chocolate cake.  He’d always been a sloppy boy, and he’d grown into a sloppy man.  He had cake crumbs stuck to his shirt, but he didn’t notice, and Helen didn’t mention them.

He scooted over, making space for her on the sofa, but she took the chair across instead.  Once previous, she’d sat by him, and he’d boldly clasped hold of her hand.  She’d embarrassed them both when she’d retrieved it and placed it on her lap, and she wasn’t about to give him another opening.

He was simple, quiet, and modest, plump with good health and inflexible in his attitudes.  And he was absolutely wrong for her.

Why was she so picky?

Much of her problem, she realized, was due to the romantic magazines Violet sneaked home.  They were filled with stories about handsome, dashing cads, and Helen had read too many of them.

They made her pine for things she couldn’t name, but in her entire sixteen years, she’d never met a man who qualified as a scoundrel.  The men in her world were exact replicas of her father, of Albert, of his father, Walt.  They were unassuming family providers who toiled six days a week and went to church on Sunday.

Helen wanted someone extraordinary, while Albert was ordinary in every way.  Average height.  Average looks.  Unremarkable brown hair that was already thinning on the top.  Grey eyes that never sparkled with mischief.  He never understood her jokes and behaved like a fussy nanny.

“What brings you by?” she asked.  Stalling, she poured her own glass of lemonade.  “I would have thought matters so hectic at your house that you’d be too busy for socializing.”

“I told Pa”—his Pa being his father, Walt—“that I couldn’t pack another trunk until I’d spoken to you.”

“About what?”

“I have a proposal for you.”  When she frowned, he rushed to add, “Promise you’ll hear me out.”

His comment was awfully similar to what her mother had whispered in the hall, and Helen nearly leapt up and clapped a palm over his mouth to block what shouldn’t be uttered and could never be retracted.

“Of course, I’ll hear you out.”  She hid her dismay.  “What is it?”

“We’re leaving next week for the Dakotas.”

“Yes, I know.  It will be so strange to have you gone.”

“Our train pulls out first thing Monday morning.”

“Yes, I know,” she stated again.

“And…”  He tugged on his collar, blushed bright red.  “And…I’d…I’d like you to come with me.”

“Come…with you?”

“Yes.  I’m asking you to marry me.  I’m saying it straight out:  Will you marry me and come with me and my family to the Dakotas?”

“Oh, Albert…”

“I realize you’re set on college, and you have a lot of peculiar ideas about your future, but—”

“My ideas are not peculiar,” she huffed.  “I simply want to be a teacher, and I don’t consider the decision brash or hastily made.  It’s what I’ve always wanted.”

“I apologize,” he quickly said.  “I didn’t express myself very clearly.  You pine for a different life than the one your parents envision for you.  But why does it have to be college?  Why does it have to be teaching?  Why does it have to be here in Maywood?  Haven’t you ever wondered if you could find what you’re looking for out west?”

“No.”

“Perhaps you haven’t given it enough thought.”

“I haven’t given it any thought, because it’s not an option that appeals to me in the slightest.”

“The three of us—Pa and Arthur and me—are going to select plots of land that are adjoining, so if you’re worried about the isolation, don’t be.  Ma would be close by, so you’d have female company.”

Helen could think of nothing more grating than to have trembling, meek Florence as her only neighbor.

“I’m not worried about the isolation, Albert.  You’re not listening to me.  I’m glad for you and your family.  I’m glad that you’re pursuing this dream for yourselves, but I am not interested in marrying or moving west.”

He kept on as if she hadn’t spoken.  “We’re pooling our resources so we can ranch as a team.  We’ll do really well that way financially.  The first year, I should be able to build my own house.”

“That’s marvelous, Albert.  I’m happy for you.”

“I’m aware that it’s last minute, and I should have asked sooner.”

“It wouldn’t have made any difference.”

“If you don’t care to travel with me on Monday—Ma says you probably couldn’t be ready by then—we could wed before I leave.  You could come next summer after the house is finished.”

He was so excited, like a boy in a candy shop.  Maybe he would succeed at ranching in the wilderness.  Maybe her parents would end up being wrong.  Maybe Walt, Albert, and Arthur would grow fat and prosperous in the Dakotas.

But Helen didn’t imagine that’s how it would happen.  Her parents had seen too many people return from the west, broke, busted, beaten down.  She craved no part of a marriage to Albert or exile to the middle of nowhere.  He didn’t have a clue what they were facing, and she wasn’t willing to place herself in a predicament where so much of the outcome was unknown.

“I’m sorry, Albert,” she said.  “I just can’t.”

“I understand.”  He nodded, studying her.

An awkward silence ensued, then suddenly, he slid from the sofa and fell to one knee.  He clasped her hand tightly enough that she couldn’t pull it free.

“I have to risk all, Helen,” he declared.  “I won’t have another chance.”

“What are you talking about?  Get up, get up.  You’re embarrassing me.”

“I love you,” he claimed.

“No, no.  You can’t possibly mean that.”

“I do, Helen.”  He drew her closer.  “You’re everything I want in a wife.  You’re beautiful and kind and smart and loyal.”

“Loyal?”  She seized on the word, deeming it an odd choice to describe her character.

“Yes, loyal.  Don’t sell yourself short.  You support Violet, no matter how outrageously she acts.  You never judge her; you never criticize.  You’re her champion.”

“She’s my sister,” Helen tersely responded.  “Why wouldn’t I stand by her?”

“Your devotion only proves how right I am in asking you to come with me.”

“I don’t know what to say, Albert.  You’re not listening to me.”

“Say yes.  Say you’ll have me; say you’ll wed me.  Make me the happiest man alive.”

He paused, on tenterhooks, and in his fervor, he looked a bit crazed.

She yanked away and stood.  He rose, too, but grudgingly.

“I could never want anyone but you,” he ardently decreed.

“That’s enough.  Please stop.”

“I’ll wait for you,” he absurdly insisted.

She winced.  “Don’t think that way for a minute.”

“No, I’ll wait.  I’m very patient.”

“You shouldn’t be.  Not about this.  You should find someone else.  You should ask someone else.”

“No, no, it has to be you.”

She tamped down a groan, deciding she would throttle her mother after he left.  He had taken her hand again, and she was using it as leverage to propel him toward the door.

“You should go,” she told him, but he persisted with his entreaty.

“At the moment,” he said, “you’re opposed to my idea, but you never know what might happen.  Six months from now, a year from now, you might change your mind.”

“I won’t ever change my mind, Albert.”

“Have faith in me, Helen.”

“I have faith in you.  I just can’t do as you’re suggesting.”

“I’ll write,” he vowed.

“I hope you will.”

“I’ll keep you apprised, so you can track the preparations I’m making for your arrival.”

“Don’t make them for me.  It will be a wasted effort.”

“No, it won’t be.  I’m so sure about this.  We’re meant to be together.”

She reached for the doorknob and jerked the door open.  Her mother was lurking in the hall, pretending she hadn’t been eavesdropping.

“Albert,” Mildred said, “are you leaving so soon?”

“Yes, Mrs. Pendleton, but I’ll stop by in the morning.”

“Wonderful.  We always look forward to seeing you—especially with so few days remaining before your departure.  Give my regards to Florence, won’t you?”

Helen flashed a glare, indicating that her mother should be silent.  Mildred ignored her and escorted Albert out onto the front porch.

“Until tomorrow, Helen.”  He appeared forlorn and lovesick.

“Good-bye.”

Her mother urged him on his way, and when she turned to Helen again, she immediately went on the offensive.

“What is wrong with you?” Mildred demanded, sweeping by Helen and into the parlor.  “He offered you the opportunity of a lifetime!  You didn’t even consider it.”

“Mother, you knew what he was going to say, didn’t you?”

“Well, of course, I did.  He and Walt talked to your father last night.”

“You agreed that he could propose?”

“Why wouldn’t we?  We’ve been acquainted with them all our lives.  We’ve often suspected that the two of you might—“

“Might what?  Marry?  Me and Albert?”

“Yes.”

“Are you insane?” Helen fumed.  “Don’t you know anything about me?”

“I know enough to realize that you can’t be left to arrange your own future.”

“Albert and I are completely incompatible.”

“No, you’re not.  He’s absolutely what you need.  He’s steady and reliable, and he would temper all your worst traits.”

“My worst traits?  Which ones would those be?”

“You’re a dreamer, Helen.  You’re all pie-in-the-sky with how things ought to be rather than how things actually are.  It’s a dangerous way to carry on.”

“Is it dangerous that I want to be a teacher?  Is it dangerous to want more for myself than what you had?”

Mildred scoffed.  “Oh, I see how you thumb your nose at me for my pathetic choice of marrying your father.  You’ll eventually learn that there’s no greater blessing for a woman than her husband and children.”

“When I wed, it will be for love.”

“Love fades quickly, Helen.  Stability endures.  Stability you can count on.”

“I don’t want stability.  I want happiness.”

“Then I’m positive your teaching certificate will bring you much cold comfort in your old age.”

“And marriage to Albert would be better?  How could you put me in such a horrid predicament?”

“Horrid!  We merely allowed a proposal from a very appropriate young man.  What was so horrid about it?”

“I was mortified, Mother.  I had to sit there and listen while he droned on and on.”

“That is the most ridiculous comment you’ve ever uttered, and I refuse to argue with you.  Go to your room.  You may discuss the issue with your father when he arrives home this evening.  I’m sure he’ll be delighted to deal with you when you’re throwing such a childish tantrum.”

Helen clenched her teeth, biting down on all the derogatory remarks trying to spill out.

She and her mother never used to quarrel, but in the past year, Helen had begun to see the world differently.  She would be relieved when her college classes started in the fall so she would have an excuse to be absent from the house for hours on end.

She spun and huffed out, climbing the stairs to her room where she found Violet lounged on her bed.

“I heard everything,” Violet hissed as Helen entered and slammed the door.

“How?”

“Albert was over by the window in the parlor.  His voice drifted up.”

“I’m so furious—with Mother and with him.”

“You won’t wed him, will you, Helen?  If you do, I’ll have to kill you to save you.”

“No, I won’t marry him, Violet.  Not ever, ever, ever.  No matter what.”

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