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  • A Sheriff to Tame the Fiery Bride’s Heart

Prologue

It was supposed to be like any other uneventful Monday morning. The sun had risen high in the sky, allowing the heat of its rays to fill the world with a happy warmth. On any other day, Sheriff Rodney Jacobs would have been starting his shift by taking a small patrol around town. Today, however, was different.

The sound of bullets whizzing through the air and the loud crack of gunfire broke the morning silence. That alone would have kept most civilians hidden safely away in their homes, cowering as they waited for someone to come and deal with the brigands responsible. Rodney, however, was not perturbed in the slightest. As he knelt behind the general store, twin pistols in his hands, he was the picture of calm and collectedness. He had just finished unloading both guns’ worth of bullets in the direction of the bandits, and was fastidiously swapping out the bullets in each gun’s chamber. He made sure to count each one out loud to himself, to ensure that he didn’t leave one of the spent cases in his pistols by accident.

The sheriff was a ruggedly handsome man, with his pure black hair and honey-colored eyes. His beard, while neatly trimmed, still managed to look bushy and full, though he had no moustache to speak of. His body was slim and well-built, a result of the farm work that he had done when he was younger. It had also instilled within him a strong sense of self-confidence, which had served him well when the job of sheriff was offered to him when the previous one stepped down.

“All right boys, you’ve had your fun but enough is enough!” Rodney called out, noticing that the sound of bullets had temporarily ceased. “There’s no way that you can get out of here. Just surrender and I’ll make sure that we pick out a very nice cell for each one of you to have to himself.”

“That’s a good laugh! You are entirely outnumbered, and we got rifles and shotguns, as opposed to those two little six shooters you have there. Are you delusional enough to believe that you can take us on all by yourself?” shouted one of the bandits.

“If you are, we’ll be happy to serve you a reality check,” shouted the second bandit, his nasally voice easily distinguishable from the other two. “You wouldn’t be the first sheriff that we’ve taken care of in our day. You’d be better off just walking away right now!”

“Well, unfortunately for you I was never the type to just walk away when people were up to no good,” Rodney shouted back in response. “I guess that means you fellas aren’t going to be coming quietly like I’d hoped you would. You can’t hold me responsible for what happens next.”

“What does it matter what you do? You should have never become sheriff!” This was a third man, who Rodney assumed was the ringleader. “Don’t you know that this little town located between the West Fork of the Trinity River and the Clear Fork of the Brazos has land and wealth that you could only dream of? There isn’t a man alive who wouldn’t come to Texas to try and strike it rich here, and so long as that rings true, you will never have peace! Even if you lock me and my boys up today, there will just be another group of men tomorrow who will try to do the same things. Just face it, Sheriff. Men like you, with your morals and your talks of justice are nothing more than blowhards.”

Rodney was shaking his head the entire time the bandits were speaking. Such misguided fools these men seem to be. “You know boys, you could be right. The battle between good and evil has been waged ever since the world began, and it is probably doomed to continue until all the world ends. But just as there are men like you who would choose crime and evil over what is right, there are men like me. Men who choose goodness and justice, and even if I were to die today there will come along another man to take my place.”

The bandits laughed, the sound echoing up and down the road. Any pedestrians who had been around had all run for cover at this point, something that the sheriff was thankful for. That meant he didn’t have to worry about any innocent civilians getting caught in the crossfire. He stepped out from his cover and began walking in the direction that the shots were coming from. He could feel the wind of the bullets as they flew past him, but still he kept walking.

Rodney reached up and gripped the bear tooth necklace that hung around his neck. This good luck charm had been given to him by one of his Native friends, Malu. Rodney kept it hung around his neck for safekeeping and good luck. Malu had killed the bear in question when he was younger, and he’d worn it as a sign of pride for years. When Rodney had rescued Malu from the slave traders, Malu had gifted the necklace to Rodney as a sign of friendship. He claimed that it would protect Rodney wherever he went.

The bullets continued to miss him, as if the very wind around Rodney was pushing them slightly off track. Then, despite how long the sound of gunfire had been ringing out, the shots stopped. Rodney chuckled as he heard the tell-tale sounds of empty guns clicking, raising his voice as he spoke again. “I knew that I would have to wait for a bit, but you boys actually ran out of ammo faster than I thought you would.”

“You snake, how could you have known that we’d run out? We stole plenty of bullets!” the nasally-voiced man shouted, obviously distressed.

“I saw how much ammunition you stole, and I know how many rounds your guns can hold. You may have taken higher-caliber ammo, but you have weapons that can only hold so many shots. That means that you bled through the ammo shooting at me just now, trying to get at me through the store. I’ll give you one final chance to come along with me and stay in the land of the living,” Rodney said, towering over the three men as he came to a stop before them. Now that he knew they couldn’t shoot him, he had the upper hand.

One by one, the men begrudgingly dropped their empty guns to the ground. “Curse you,” said a brown-haired man with a thick moustache, his eyes the same color as his hair.

“I don’t know what you expected by trying to hold up the bank when it is right next to my office,” Rodney said, motioning for the three men to slowly turn around. “Start walking toward it, boys. You know the way.”

“Sheriff! I can’t believe you just walked through a hail of gunfire like it was nothing!” shouted Jason Aarons, the town’s senior deputy as he rode up on his horse. Behind him were members of the Texas Rangers, whom Rodney had sent Jason for when the robbery had first started. The brown-haired man had streaks of red when the sunlight hit him just right, his green eyes always startlingly warm yet intense at the same time. He was dressed similar to Rodney, with cotton pants and shirt covered with a flowing overcoat and a hat to shade him from the intense Texas sun.

“Stop gawking at me and help me escort these men to jail,” Rodney snapped, watching his deputy scramble to obey him. The bandits were slowly tied up and thrown onto the back of horses, with Rodney sitting by to watch the whole thing. He had always possessed the kind of voice that befit an alpha type male such as himself, one that people were quick to obey.

Figuring that he could leave the rest to his deputy, Rodney made his way back into the office. He should have felt happier, knowing that the bounty that would come from the bandit’s capture would leave him sitting pretty for a while now. Especially on top of the huge bounty he had claimed a good two or three months back for the capture of Alejandro “Lupus” Cavalaro, the notorious leader of a Mexican gang who had been committing a wave of crimes up from below the border and into the area around his own precious town.

Maybe it is time to hire some kind of help. It would help him and Jason tremendously, since it was becoming increasingly obvious to Rodney that if any major event of a large scale were ever to go down in town, that they would be not only outgunned but outmanned as well. That was not a situation he wanted to find himself in.

On the other hand, maybe he could just retire early and leave those worries to his replacement. He could find himself a wife and settle down, have a family of his own. There were more than enough women willing to line up for his hand in marriage thanks to his reputation and wealth, so why didn’t he go for that? Maybe because it felt just as fake and unfulfilling as everything else in his life. He was thirty years old, and who knew how much longer he had in this world? His good luck had held out this long, but Rodney knew all too well that everything had its limits.

Walking into the office that he shared with Jason, Rodney practically collapsed into his chair. Kicking his feet up on his desk, he couldn’t help but notice how exhausted he felt. It was probably because he’d burned his breakfast that morning and hadn’t gotten his proper nutrients that day. As he was about to close his eyes to catch a quick bit of rest, something on Jason’s desk caught his eye.

He could see the tell-tale cover of a bridal catalogue, a woman’s visage with a veil painted tastefully on her head staring up from it. Rodney couldn’t help but chuckle at the thought that Jason was considering settling down, too. He just couldn’t see his friend as the settling down type, especially given his known womanizing ways.

Laughing softly to himself, Rodney slowly pulled his hat down over his face, blocking out the light. The darkness was soothing, the scent of leather both calming and familiar to him. With his eyes closed, the tension that he’d felt in his forehead lessened. He let out a soft sigh of relief, but he didn’t drift off right away like he’d thought he would.

Instead, he found himself thinking about the bridal catalogue. As cynical as he’d become, he couldn’t deny the fact that having someone to come home to would be a welcome change in his life. The bachelor’s life was nice and all, but the absence of companionship was hard to overcome. One could only be so content with their own company, he believed.

But would the woman that he chose love him only for his money and not him as a person? He didn’t want to end up in one of those relationships where both partners were secretly miserable but stayed together so they could use one another. He didn’t think that his money should be the price for companionship. There was just something wrong with the thought of paying someone to love him.

He already scoffed enough at the men who would spend time with the ladies of the evening, finding it beneath him. He wanted someone who genuinely enjoyed his company. Someone who could help him slowly bring down the walls that he’d brought up around himself. In a world where he was required to always put on a strong face and seem in command of everything, he needed something that let him put down his weapons every now and then.

Chapter 1

The sound of wailing and shouting shattered the silence that normally pervaded the quiet house. The shriek of a woman’s voice was all that could be heard, echoing up the stairway to the bedroom where a young girl had spent many of her happiest moments with her sister. Their family had been well-off, and they’d lived the kind of life that made them want for nothing.

“I won’t take anything back!” the woman shouted again, her voice practically causing the windows of the house to rattle in their frames. Sitting in the living room, the young girl who owned the upstairs bedroom sat on the newly-purchased loveseat, her green eyes that matched the ones of her mother and her sister, staring blankly ahead. She was dressed in a cute frilly blue dress that her father had bought for her, her younger sister sitting beside her wearing a matching outfit.

“Now dearest, there is no reason for you to lose your temper like this,” Imogen’s father’s voice came through the wall. “This is just a minor setback in a larger scale operation. I’ll just borrow some more funds from the bank and place another bet. I just need one good win and I can turn this all around.”

“You stand here with our family on the verge of ruin and gambling is still all you can think of? Did you finally drink away the last of your senses?” shouted Imogen’s mother, the loud roar of pottery as it shattered into pieces signalling the high stakes of the argument. “Do I need to toss something at your head to knock some sense back into you?”

The younger girl, named Maria, turned her head and pulled on her older sister’s sleeve, speaking for the first time. “Imogen? Is it really true? Did Father really lose all of our money?”

“We’ll sell every last thing that you own before I return anything of mine. I have done nothing but be a dedicated wife to you through everything you’ve put us through, and you couldn’t even fulfil your duties as the head of this family. What happened to always providing for me and the girls?” Imogen’s mother shouted, the sound of something else smashing against the wall behind them causing Imogen and her sister to wince. “You pathetic excuse for a man! You drunken imbecile!”

“We can’t really be ruined, can we? This is just another one of Father’s terrible jokes and he’ll come clean on his prank in a moment, right?” The desperation in her sister’s voice would have broken Imogen’s heart at any other time, but right now, she couldn’t feel much of anything. Her parents had argued before, but it had never been anything of this magnitude. Her father must have really messed up bad this time.

“If Mother is saying that we’ve lost all of our money, I doubt that it is a joke. She helps keep track of the finances, remember?” Imogen replied, disbelief weighing heavily on every word that she said. The sound of glass shattering again caused them to fall silent as their mother’s voice grew louder and louder, her words becoming incomprehensible. Their parents must have been starting to move deeper into the house to make sure the girls could not listen to them, which Imogen was thankful for. “This is just great. Why did this have to happen now?”

“Imogen, how is it possible that we lost all our money? Didn’t Mother used to tell us that our grandfather left plenty of money for the family?” Maria’s voice was filled with confusion. “How could Father have lost everything? He should have had plenty of money to keep up the house. Mother even said so!”

“Come now Maria, don’t be naive. Did you not once wonder why our father was gone so often in the evenings? Did you not once question whether his late nights and expensive drinking habits were really part of a business? Who would pay Father to drink?” Imogen’s voice was filled with anger, her hands clenching and unclenching. She was just now recognizing the warning signs, though it was far too late now. She was on a train with no brakes hurtling down the track, and she had no way to jump off. She’d have to ride it out, no matter where she ended up.

“I just figured their business was doing well,” Maria said sadly, looking down at her feet. “Father was always in such a good mood when he would come home.”

“Wishful thinking. I should have recognized his change when our vacations started to take place more and more at horse races or boxing rings. He was placing bets this entire time,” Imogen said dismissively. “He was probably only cheerful because he was so full of brandy that he could barely put one foot in front of the other. You know how too much of the drink makes him loopy.”

“Bets? What do you mean by bets?” Maria asked, her constant questions causing the vein in Imogen’s temple to throb. “Father just told us the other day that he was on the verge of a breakthrough and that our lives were going to get even better. That was why he went out and bought us new clothes and new jewellery for Mother, right?”

“Maria, are you truly so naive? Do you need to have this spelled out for you? Our father is a g-a-m-b-l-e-r. He wagered our money on some sport in the hopes that he’d be able to earn more money. I don’t know about you, but it seems pretty obvious to me that his guesses were not good. He probably made that stupid all-or-nothing bet he was talking about at dinner a couple days ago and lost our entire fortune all in one night. Now we are going to end up out in the cold with no money, no food, and nothing to our names,” Imogen snapped. “Do you understand that? We are poor! Penniless!”

Maria’s eyes welled up with tears and the younger girl began to wail and sob as the situation sank in. Imogen realized she was being cruel to her younger sister, and that was unfair of her. After all, Maria had nothing to do with their current situation. Reaching over, Imogen gently pulled her sister onto her lap and gave her a tight hug.

“I’m sorry, Maria. I shouldn’t have spoken to you like that. I’m just frightened, that’s all. I don’t know what is going to happen to us now, and it is making me short-tempered,” Imogen said apologetically, stroking over the back of her sister’s head gently. It was taking all of her willpower not to cry herself. She’d seen the way that people without money were treated. She herself had been one of the best examples of one who knew her station and relished in it.

“Are we going to be okay?” Maria asked, her eyes glittering with tears as she gazed up at Imogen. Despite them having the same green eyes, Imogen’s hair was black like their father’s, while Maria had light blonde hair like her mother.

“I honestly don’t know. I wish I knew what to say, but I’m afraid that words fail me,” Imogen said, wincing visibly as the sound of her parents shouting began to grow closer once more. She began to hum loudly, choosing one of the songs that she and her sister loved dearly. Just like she used to do when they were younger, Imogen did her best to try and drown out the sound of the arguing. She reached over and grabbed a hair brush, hoping that combing their hair might help to soothe her and her sister’s nerves.

However, unlike all those times when they were younger, Imogen’s mind was filled with terror at the prospect of what might come next. As a cosmopolitan socialite she only knew one way of life, which was the one of luxury and contentment that had been her norm until now. She wouldn’t be able to bear the sight of all her possessions being auctioned off in front of her, nor could Imogen bear the thought of her socialite friends turning their backs on her now that she was no longer “one of them.”

Fair-weather friends, just as suspected. She should have known that the people she’d convinced herself were part of her circle were shallow. They’d done a similar thing to Melanie Shor when her father’s ships had been lost at sea and her family had lost their savings, and now it was Imogen’s turn.

She wanted to rage at her father. To go into the next room and throw things at him and yell at him like her mother was. But she knew that wasn’t going to do anything for their situation. At the end of the day, they would still have no money. They would have to move to New York and live amongst the same kind of rabble that Imogen had never had to be kind to before.

She didn’t want to have to accept that. She didn’t know if she could accept that. Who would prepare their meals, and more importantly, how would they procure food to begin with? It was all more than a young woman her age should have to deal with. She should have been focused only on garnering the attention of suitable bachelors her age whose wealth was great enough that her parents would approve.

She had just begun to talk seriously with a charming young boy named Charlie whose father had run the town notary. He had an interest in horseback riding and marksmanship, which were two things that had always fascinated Imogen greatly. Her father didn’t own any firearms himself, so she didn’t have any knowledge of them outside of the books she had read.

Now she would disappear without a trace, and he would never spare her another glance once he discovered her family’s financial situation. The warm smiles and the flirtatious charm to which she’d grown accustomed would give way to awkward silences and eventually, he’d stop talking to her altogether.

“Imogen, please tell me that we’ll be okay,” Maria whispered softly, her body still shaking. Imogen could clearly see the tears that were still leaking down her sister’s cheeks. The girl was only eight years old, roughly half as old as Imogen was, who was ten years her senior.

“Oh Maria, I promise you that no matter what happens, I’ll do what I can to keep an eye out for you. We might be losing our money, but no one can ever take away our dignity as long as we don’t let them. Money can be lost and money can be gained. Things might seem like they are bleak now, but maybe one day we’ll find that it was just a hurdle in our life we had to overcome,” Imogen said soothingly, continuing to pet along the back of her sister’s head.

Imogen was just grasping at straws now, but it seemed to do the trick. Maria’s body stopped shivering, though she didn’t make any move to pull away from Imogen either. The raven-haired young woman smiled, resting her head on top of her sister’s head. She wasn’t sure how reassuring her words had been, but it was better than just admitting that she was doing her best not to break down and cry herself.

Imogen did her best to hold back sobs, hiding each hitch of her breath with a fake cough. She had to be strong. She had to help keep Maria calm. More than that, she needed to keep herself from having a fit of anxiety. It felt as if something heavy was sitting on Imogen’s chest, making it difficult for her to breathe.

The door leading to the living room slowly pushed open, revealing their red-faced mother. There were streaks in her makeup, and her hair was dishevelled now, with stray hairs sticking out in random spots. “I’m so sorry that you girls had to hear that. Pack up your suitcases with whatever you can carry. I fear that we are going to have to go stay with my sister for a while.”

Chapter 2

Rodney could feel his irritation slowly beginning to rise. In any other circumstances Rodney would be happy to have the attention of a group of women directed solely at him. However, it was the way they were acting that was grating on him.

It had started with only one woman who had followed him when he was conducting business with the town butcher. He’d only noticed her by chance, catching her reflection in the glossed window of the butcher’s shop. When he went inside, he heard the sound of the bell jingling merrily behind him. Glancing over his shoulder, he noticed that the woman hadn’t made any movement to follow him inside.

He needed to refresh his meat cellar of horse and bull meat now that his stores had gotten low. A little poultry probably wouldn’t go amiss either. “How are you doing today, Ben?”

The solid thwok! of a large cleaver slicing through meat on the wood cutting board beneath it was followed by a groan and the cracking of knuckles. “Every day that I continue to wake up is a good day, Sheriff. The fates have been good to me, fickle as they might be.”

“I need my usual order, Ben,” Rodney said, looking through the glass case behind which various cuts of meat could be seen. “Cellar is starting to look pretty bleak at my house.”

Ben chuckled at that, wiping his hands clean on his apron. “It has been over a month since you’ve been in my shop, aside from the other day when you busted those bandits and followed up on the gunshots whose bullets managed to find their way into my shop. Thankfully, me and mine managed to walk away unharmed.”

“How many times can I apologize before you will let that go? How could I have known that they would rob the gunsmith and unload every bit of ammo they could to try and stop me from apprehending them?” Rodney replied dryly, crossing his arms in front of his chest.

“I don’t blame you entirely,” Ben amended, chuckling lightly. The large African-American man loomed over the sheriff, Rodney’s head barely coming up to the butcher’s chest. “I do think you should give some thought to hiring a few more deputies to aid you in your duties.”

“Funny you should mention that,” Rodney said, stepping up to the counter and watching as Ben moved around in the back area. “I just had a similar thought myself.”

Once he had gotten what he came for, Rodney exited the butcher’s shop and found himself face to face with four different women.

“Good afternoon, ladies,” Rodney said politely, tipping his hat in their direction.

“A very good afternoon,” replied a redhead in a yellow sundress, her comment accompanied by giggles from the women surrounding her.

“Uh huh,” Rodney said, heading to the green grocer painfully aware that he was being followed by the gaggle of women that had now formed. It was flattering, but their constant laughter gave him the impression that he was being mocked, and he couldn’t stand that.

At least Jason isn’t here to see this. No sooner had Rodney thought the words did he hear Jason’s voice call out his name, making him close his eyes and mouth wordlessly to the sky “why me?”

“You seem pretty popular today, Sheriff,” Jason said, raising his hat and looking over at the group of ladies with his most charming smile. “I’ve yet to see so many beautiful women in one place before. But are my eyes mistaken? They all seem to be following you.”

“You can take all of them if you want them,” Rodney mumbled just loud enough for his deputy to hear. “I can’t do anything as long as they are tailing me like this. I feel like I’m being followed at all times!”

“Well, if you don’t mind me charming them with my moves,” Jason began, a wide smile crossing his features. “I suppose I could be of some help to your situation.”

“I certainly don’t see how you could make things any worse,” Rodney growled, watching as his deputy puffed out his chest and strolled brazenly up to the group of women that had been following him.

“Will you look at that hair,” Jason said smoothly, having immediately settled on the redhead that had started everything. “I bet that your hair was kissed by the god of the sun himself. The Irish would have a special name for women whose hair embodied the bold redness of their people, but I’m afraid I don’t know it. I’d rather just call you by your first name, if you’ll give it to me.”

Rodney couldn’t help but roll his eyes, but he had to admit that Jason got exactly the reaction he’d wanted. How could he so effortlessly converse with women while Rodney found it to be one of the hardest things in the world to do? Each time he tried to talk to them he found himself tongue-tied and ended up making a fool of himself. It had been the one weakness that had managed to stick around through his teenage years.

Still, with the women now focused on Jason, Rodney had the chance to slip away. He needed to get his groceries back home, and frankly, he wasn’t feeling too sociable. It would always devolve into pleasantries, since everyone who knew him always acted like they were walking on eggshells when he was around. It was probably just a result of his occupation, but it was another reason why he was considering retiring.

Maybe relinquishing his badge would allow people to finally let their guards down around him and be more casual. He was tired of being treated like he was different. He was just a normal man like any other that wanted what any other man wanted. He went to turn away from the sight of Jason and the group of women, bumping headlong into someone.

Rodney’s gaze immediately moved to the person, already feeling his apologies bubbling up. He realized that it was a woman he had bumped into, one with dark black hair but with eyes of such startling green that he thought he might get lost in them. They reminded him of the grass on a summer’s day when the sunlight hit it just right as to make it seem like the plants were glowing.

“I’m terribly sorry. Begging your pardon, ma’am. I was too caught up in my own thoughts to see you coming,” Rodney said apologetically. “I hope I haven’t hurt you. I know I’m a relatively solid person to be bumping into.”

“Don’t trouble yourself too much about it, sir. These kinds of things happen from time to time,” the dark-haired stranger replied, her small smile coming across as both genuinely sweet and slightly flirtatious at the same time. “I don’t think that anything is broken, so let’s thank our lucky stars for that.”

Rodney chuckled gently at that, grateful that she was taking it all so well. He glanced over his shoulder, noticing that neither Jason nor the other women were gazing in their direction. At least Jason is keeping them away. He looked down at the ground where he noticed that a single leatherbound book was now sitting open. Grimacing gently, he knelt down and lifted the book up, brushing dirt off of it before going to hand it back to her. “Sorry to make you drop your book.”

“Oh, it’s a book that I’ve read many times, don’t worry too much about it,” she said almost dismissively, though when she reached out for it he noticed that she was somewhat hasty when she took it from his grasp. His eyes immediately dropped down to the cover, recognizing the words Romeo and Juliet. “I carry it around with me because it is a lovely story despite the sad ending.”

Here was a chance for him to talk with her more, but he couldn’t bring himself to ask her to take a walk with him so they could spend more time in each other’s company. It would be too forward of him, especially since he was only talking to her by the grace of an accident. The sight of a piece of paper sticking up from the back page of the book caught his eye. “What do you have there?”

“It is a bounty poster that a friend of mine gave to me. She told me that I could find the sheriff of this town relatively easily if I looked for a large man who had a penchant for wearing a beat up old black leather hat. I take it that she must have been referring to you?” she asked, her hands moving behind her back as she peered up at him, standing on her tiptoes. “You are by far the tallest man I’ve seen around here, and your hat, if you’ll forgive me, matches the description.”

Just like that his enthusiasm was gone. Snuffed out like a candle in a typhoon. “I’m terribly sorry to give you the run around like this, ma’am, but you’ll have to head to the sheriff’s station and talk to one of the deputies if you have any enquiries about the bounties. I’m not currently on duty, and am actually in the middle of some errands myself.”

He stooped down, about to retrieve his baskets of groceries that he didn’t even remember setting down. Stopping halfway, he turned and cupped a hand to his ear as if he was listening to something. “If you’ll excuse me,” he said, hurrying away so quickly that he forgot his groceries where they sat.

He made his way back to the sheriff’s station and closed the door to his office, heart hammering in his chest as he began to silently berate himself. What he had originally thought was just a chance encounter had turned out to be just another woman who needed him because of what his job title was. He grumbled softly to himself as he slid into his chair, pulling a pile of bounty posters closer so he could rifle through them.

Jason came through the door a few minutes later, huffing as he struggled to carry the heavy baskets that held Rodney’s groceries. “You didn’t have to grab those. I could have gone back for them eventually.”

“Why’d you run off so quickly? There were plenty of women there who wanted a word with you. And that raven-haired beauty that you ran off on looked really put out. I had to apologize to her for your behaviour,” Jason replied petulantly.

Rodney shook his head, tapping his desk impatiently. He quickly recounted the events that had happened to Jason, explaining himself despite how foolish he knew it sounded. “As strange as it all may sound, I want a woman who doesn’t choose me for my money or reputation but because of my character,” he finished lamely.

“How do you intend to have that happen in a town where everyone knows your reputation and that isn’t likely to change anytime soon?” Jason said dismissively. “You might be dreaming of an impossible thing.”

“Maybe,” Rodney replied dismissively, glancing briefly at the Matrimony Times that still sat on Jason’s desk. “Maybe there is still a way.”

He’d laughed at it earlier, but maybe the solution to his problem was simply–and literally–staring him in the face. He’d just have to put a mail-order bride ad in the Times himself. It was finally time for him to take the reins out of the hands of the fates. He was going to start living his life by his own rules.

“Jason, go back to that woman you saw me talking with and help her with the bounty she wanted information about. She seems eager to know more about the matter, and I know how much you love talking to the womenfolk,” Rodney said, eyes following Jason as his deputy made his way toward the door.

“If you say so, Sheriff,” Jason replied simply, and then he was gone.

Chapter 3

Imogen felt numb as she sat with a blank expression on her bed. Her bedroom, which had once been her only place of solitude and comfort within the large manor house, had been stripped of many of her valuables. Where once beautiful landscape paintings and other decorative pieces had hung now existed empty spaces, serving only as a constant reminder of her family’s current situation. Part of her tried to convince herself that they were just material trinkets and that they didn’t matter, but it was still quite a blow.

Gone was the beautiful gold mirror that used to hang on the wall across from her bed that she’d spent hours gazing at herself in before. It had been one of the few heirlooms that had been left to her by her grandmother when she’d passed away, and had been Imogen’s greatest treasure.

Grandma Madeleine had been a once-in-a-lifetime person that most people could never understand. The wife of a wealthy businessman who had travelled to many places with her merchant husband, had been like a goddess given form. Everywhere she’d walked, Madeleine had exuded a charm and grace that most women would give anything to match. Her mere look could capture you like you were under Medusa’s gaze, and Imogen couldn’t remember a single time where anyone, male or female, had talked back to her.

The pearl encrusted comb that her father had given her for her fifteenth birthday was also gone, as were a good number of the rings and necklaces that she’d been given over her short lifespan. Slowly but surely, the creditors were taking any items of value that they could find in the house. Imogen’s room was but one more victim of her father’s careless gambling, the rest of the house having received similar treatment ever since her father’s debts had come to light.

Piece by piece, they’ll take it all. Imogen was miserable, and not just for herself. As she finally managed to tear her gaze away from the empty spots on the wall, she caught sight of her mother walking past the open door to her bedroom. Her formerly radiant mother looked pale and ghostly, the laughter in both her eyes and lips long having fallen quiet. It was a very discouraging thing for Imogen and Maria to see, and Imogen had already had to do more than her fair share of consoling for her younger sibling.

While Imogen could accept the loss of her belongings with some measure of calm, Maria was the complete opposite. The lovely little dresses and expensive dolls and jewellery that their parents had bought her were tokens of their love, and to have them taken away felt to the young girl like her parents were punishing her. Like they no longer loved her and that was why they were taking everything away.

It wasn’t fair to either of them, especially Maria. Imogen hated her father for putting the family through this so selfishly. Her mother didn’t deserve to be reduced to the spectre that Imogen watched shuffle slowly past. There were stains on the older woman’s face from where tears had fallen so frequently that the tracks seemed permanently etched into her fair skin. Her blonde hair hung loosely around her face, stray hairs sticking out in random directions. Worse of all were the deep purple bags beneath her mother’s eyes, showing that the poor woman hadn’t slept well for days.

For yet another time in as many days, Imogen was infused with the powerful desire to not reduce herself to the state her mother was in. She wasn’t going to end up with a man who would stupidly ruin her life. She was going to find someone who could offer her safety and security and would love nothing more than the chance to dote on her for the rest of his life.

She’d even been dreaming about it lately, though she would never admit that to a single soul. She would often dream about a handsome man with black hair, his eyes a warm honey-brown color. Imogen had a special soft spot for men with brown eyes, as she found that they often had the warmest smiles. Together they would go on wonderful dates and he would buy her fancy trinkets, all while complimenting her beauty.

To help her fulfil this newly desired dream, Imogen had gone behind her parents backs and subscribed to the Matrimony Times. It served as a collection of ads, written by men, about women that they were hoping to find as a mail-order bride. She’d been reading it for the last week religiously, several issues of it spread out on her bed in front of her. She thought that she would have a plethora of choices, but as she read through each ad, she would ultimately find herself rejecting them.

Sometimes it was because they admitted to a strange habit, or because they were looking for more of a maid than a wife. That was not the kind of life she was looking for. She was horrible with cleaning and was less than thrilled at the thought of having to be solely responsible for keeping up a household. Her husband could take care of that or get the servants to do it, right?

On the thought of cleaning, she raised her eyes to look around her bedroom. Aside from the places she frequently occupied, the rest of her room had managed to accumulate a fine layer of dust. Just another testament to the change in the household, as cleaning used to be taken care of by the staff of maids that used to wait on her hand and foot. She wrinkled her nose as she felt a sneeze building, only for it to elude her at the last moment.

As she was looking over the ads, a name caught her eye. Eyebrows scrunching, she picked up the ad and read it more closely. It was from a gentleman in Texas who was looking for a woman who didn’t care about money and who just wanted to love him for who he was. Why does his name sound so familiar?

Imogen glanced up at the blank space on the wall beside where her mirror had once hung. She used to have a photograph tucked into it in which she and a few of her friends had appeared in a newspaper, on which an article was printed on the back side. She slid off of her bed quickly so she could rummage around in the stack of belongings now piled up by her bed until she found the photo in question.

Flipping it over, her eyes were immediately drawn to the name that was written in bold print. Sure enough, it was the same exact name as the man whose ad she was now reading. It spoke of his sizable assets and his heroics during his time as a sheriff, something that took her by surprise. She’d never even considered courting a man of the law before, even if she did find the authority, they possessed to be rather attractive.

Besides, judging from his advertisement, he just sounded like a man who needed someone to help him feel complete. And as she gazed around at her room, knowing full well that more of her possessions would be sold off in the coming days, she decided she didn’t want to be around when that happened. Somewhere out there was a man that was honest, dependable, and hard-working. She was willing to deal with anything so long as it meant she wouldn’t die on the street or starve to death.

Finding herself feeling increasingly hopeful the more she thought about it, Imogen reached into her bedside cabinet and pulled out her golden stationary set. Her heart sank as she realized this would likely be the last chance, she ever had to use it, since it would likely be the next victim of her father’s pawning.

She decided to write this Sheriff Rodney a letter. It was the first time she’d ever answered a personal ad like this, so she was understandably nervous. She wasn’t entirely certain what she should say to him. It was important that she avoid coming across as too money-hungry, since that seemed to be the exact opposite of what he wanted.

Dear Mr. Jacobs,

I was browsing the Matrimonial Times when your ad caught my eye. I am looking to start a new life for myself, as things with my family have not gone quite as planned. New York life just isn’t for me anymore, and I’m more than open to experiencing new places. I can’t say that Texas has always been high on my list of places to visit, but I think it would be good for me to experience more of what the world has to offer. Your ad really struck a chord with me, one that I am hoping to be able to further explore as I get to know you better.

Imogen paused briefly, clicking her tongue as she considered what else to write. She didn’t want to come across as a jabber jaw. She figured she wouldn’t go into detail about her family’s situation just yet, for fear of scaring him off. No, for now she would play it slow and dignified. Like all good things, developing a relationship would take time.

Not that she had a whole lot of that, either. Knowing her father, it was only a matter of time before he tried to marry her off to someone in exchange for the money said man would be able to contribute in the household. She knew he loved her, but that wouldn’t stop a man like him from selling her out to the highest bidder behind her back. She shivered as she thought about some of the lecherous glances, she’d received from some of her father’s gambling friends when he used to play around the house.

Setting her pen back down on the paper, she quickly scrawled out a little more about herself. Her love of horses, enjoyment of hosting company for parties, simple things like that. She confided in him her deep desire to own a dog one day, as she had a fierce love of puppies. Her father, however, had never agreed to get her one. Maybe a golden retriever or a basset hound, or even a bloodhound would be fine with her.

After nearly losing track of how many times she had read the letter to make sure there was nothing else that she wanted to tell him, she finally sealed the letter in an envelope along with a photograph of herself. Pressing the wax seal against it brought a sense of satisfaction. She felt guilty that she would be leaving Maria and her mother behind, but it was for the best. Perhaps, if things went well enough with Rodney, she could send for them later.

Closing her eyes, she lay back on her bed. The house was actually quiet for once, but even that brought no sense of peace. The only reason why it was quiet was because her parents had nothing left to shout at one another, and who knew how long that would last? Maria had taken to shutting herself in her room and playing with the few dolls and toys that she had left. The sight was always too sad for Imogen, and all she could do was lend her sister a sympathetic shoulder and ear when she needed it.

She couldn’t help but giggle to herself with excitement, cradling the letter against her chest like it was a golden ticket to freedom. In a way, it was exactly that. She wondered what Texas was like. How the people who lived there dressed and spoke, how they spent their free time. All these questions and more bubbled up in her mind, but she had no answers just yet. If everything went well, she’d find out soon enough.

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