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The Extended Epilogue

Prologue

Dallas, Texas

April 2nd, 1865

It seemed so fitting to the young teenager sitting outside the fire station’s side door that the day was gray and overcast, a perfect match to the mood that he’d felt from the moment he had crawled out of his bedroll that morning. It was springtime, though the usually-warm sunshine that tended to accompany the days was conspicuously absent today. There were very few people out and about in the streets of Dallas, though with how the weather looked, that came as no surprise.

The youngster’s name was Trevor, and he was no stranger to gloomy days. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d truly felt comfortable or had his fill to eat. Yet, he’d survived this long, a testament to what a young man who was determined to live could accomplish. And his life had taught him valuable lessons, like using every scrap of his ingredients when cooking food, or just for how long a man could stretch a loaf of bread. Not to mention the fishing and hunting skills he’d managed to pick up in his spare time.

Trevor was what most would consider a relatively handsome young man. His high cheekbones gave way to a pronounced chin, giving him a faintly elf-like appearance. Add to that, his dark brown hair that was cut in such a way that it peaked up at his forehead in what his barber had called a pompadour, and he felt like a million bucks. His arms and legs were beginning to get thickly-muscled from his years of working hard jobs just to make ends meet, and he feared that gave the other townsfolk some kind of bad impression about him.

Still, he felt like impressions of him were starting to shift. He’d done his fair share of odd jobs for various townsfolk despite how little they’d offered as a reward. So long as he could fill his belly and find the occasional reprieve from the elements, he considered himself a lucky boy. However, that didn’t mean that he wasn’t bitterly aware of just how empty some parts of his life felt.

Orphaned at the young age of seven, Trevor had found himself in a situation where there was no other family around to take him in. That left him to fend for himself, often being taken advantage of by adults who used his innocence as an excuse to pull tricks on him or cheat him. Yet, Trevor had done his utmost not to let such occasional setbacks dampen his spirits or turn him bitter towards his fellow man.

He could tell by the heavy moisture of the air that a strong storm was making its way toward Dallas, the dark clouds and faint sounds of thunder in the distance only reaffirming his suspicions. Not that the rain had waited for the clouds to arrive, the light drizzle effectively soaking his clothing through until he could feel the chill of the wind nipping at his very bones. He sneezed gently, watching the few people who were out go about their business.

There were a few couples huddled close to one another beneath their umbrellas, chatting with excitement about what eatery they were going to or how much they looked forward to their dates. He heard another couple talking about their fears of letting the woman meet her lover’s parents, a faint pang going through his heart at the sound of the word.

Parents.

Instantly, the memories began to flash through his mind like the distant lightning, each one bringing a fresh wave of sadness. In the old days when his parents were still around, his family would spend rainy days inside huddled around the fire. His father would have assisted his mother in making the special chicken pot pie soup that he loved so much, the mouthwatering aroma filling the house.

His mother would be carefully pulling bread bowls out of the oven, carefully allowing them to firm up a bit before each one would receive a liberal portion of soup right inside. To finish it off, a crack of black pepper on top to add that little extra flair. They would sit at the dinner table while his father asked him various riddles and played word games with Trevor and his mother.

When they would finish their meal, they would sit by the fireplace laughing and talking. His mother would sit and do some knitting while his father would tell stories, acting out different parts to keep Trevor entertained and to help pass the time. His mother would often warm up some apple cider for them to drink, adding a bit of cinnamon to make it taste just right.

Those memories provided some of the only warmth he’d had in the past few weeks. Sure, he could sometimes manage to make a campsite where he could light a fire, but today’s weather was definitely not going to allow for that. He couldn’t bring himself to go and approach Randall, the butcher, two days in a row— especially with how generous he’d been with giving Trevor a warm meal the night before. Trevor didn’t want to wear out his welcome too soon.

His stomach let out a pitiful growl, but he barely registered it now. He would subsist by eating an apple here or a piece of bread there, rationing out his food like a miser counting out coins. Even now he was on high alert, knowing at any moment someone could come along and tell him to leave his little alcove and he’d once again be left to the elements.

“Hey, kid, stop blocking our doorway,” came a gruff voice from behind him, followed by the distinct sensation of the side of a boot being tapped against the bottom of his spine. “This isn’t a public park.”

Immediately, Trevor stood up and hurried away, offering no reply and making no fuss. At least five minutes out of the rain was still a nice amount of time to allow a little of the feeling to return to his fingers. He couldn’t risk causing a scene. Someone could accuse him of stealing again, and that would only further increase the difficulty he had getting assistance from the townsfolk. His only consistent friend he’d found had been the local pastor.

He walked down the road, seeking some new place where he could huddle himself away from the cold and rain for a little while. One shop whose lights never seemed to be lit caught his eyes from where it sat between a barber shop and the local watchmaker. He’d never seen any business operate out of that building for as long as he could remember.

Perhaps, that would provide him the shelter he needed. An unattended shop would likely attract little attention, and he doubted the landlords would be anywhere around at this time of night, so he could be gone before anyone would be bothered by his presence.

Unfortunately, he had been a little too optimistic. No sooner had he made his way to the storefront and sat down than he heard the sound of footsteps on wood echoing from within the store behind him. The jingling of the bells on the front of the door made Trevor wince as he shot back up onto his legs.

“I’m sorry if I was blocking your way, sir.”

The man who walked through the front door was tall, bespectacled with a handlebar mustache and a three-piece suit and impeccably shined shoes. His eyes were blue, though there was a warmth about them, amplified by blond hair spilling out beneath the bowler hat that was currently perched on his head.

“You were not in my way, dear boy. This entryway is quite wide. I imagine you ducked under the canopy here because you got caught in the rain on the way home.”

“Yeah, something like that,” Trevor said, rubbing his arms gently and watching with embarrassment as water splashed down on the ground beside him from his sleeve. “I was just trying to give my clothes a minute out of the rain. I’ve been rained on for the better part of half an hour now and I fear I may catch a cold if I stay out in it much longer,” Trevor replied respectfully, keeping his eyes averted from the obviously upper-class gentleman. Trevor had learned a long time ago that he could only get by making certain that he didn’t offend the members of the upper crust.

“Yes, I admit that this weather surprised me as well. I had been out for an enjoyable little stroll as I came by to examine this storefront that I am shocked to hear has sat abandoned here for the last ten years. I’m wondering why that is so, and I was taking a look inside since I am currently debating on whether or not to purchase it. However, you can feel free to stand beneath it for as long as you like to keep you out of the rain.”

Trevor nodded appreciatively, watching as the mustached man grabbed an umbrella from inside the doorway and opened it. The gentleman took a couple steps off the verandah, pausing as he looked back at Trevor.

“I know it might not be much help with how wet you already are, but I do have a spare umbrella in here. You could use it on your way home.”

“That won’t be necessary, thank you,” Trevor said, trying to slowly edge around the man so that he could leave. He didn’t want the man to know that he was homeless. The harsh words would usually always follow once people learned that part of his secret.

“Do you not live far from here?” the man asked conversationally, his blue gaze now piercing into Trevor where he stood. “Or is it something else you are not telling me?”

Trevor swallowed gently and said nothing. The only sound for a moment was the rain as it fell steadily down onto the roof of the building above them. It seemed that his silence was more than enough for the stranger, whose eyes seemed to become softer as he cleared his throat.

“I don’t want to pry, son, but would I be correct in assuming that you don’t have a home to go back to?”

Trevor simply lowered his head, nodding numbly. It was always so degrading to have to admit his situation, especially when it opened the door for people to judge him negatively because of it. Trevor had expected much of the same kind of treatment from this man, so that was why what happened next came as such a surprise to him.

“No one should have to be out in dreadful weather like this. If you have nowhere else to be, would you do me the honor of coming home with me? A hot meal and a warm place to spend the night don’t sound so bad, do they?” he asked, the man raising his hand when he saw that Trevor was about to protest. “Don’t consider it charity. If you are one of those men who insists on working for his keep, I’ll be more than happy to provide you some chores you can do for me to earn your keep instead. Doesn’t that sound a fair score better than freezing out here in the rain?”

The answer to such a question was obvious, though Trevor couldn’t understand why this random stranger was going out of his way to be so nice. The mention of a hot meal had caused his rebellious stomach to growl loudly, reminding the young teenager of just how long it had been since he’d been able to put something warm in his stomach.

“So, I just have to do a few chores and then you’ll let me eat?” Trevor asked shyly, his fingers fidgeting nervously.

“Oh, perish the thought. You can eat and rest first, and once you are at full strength, we’ll talk,” the stranger replied. “Now come along, young man. Let’s not keep that dinner waiting.”

Chapter 1

Toledo, Ohio

December 12th, 1875

It was all that the young black-haired girl could do to keep moving as the cold wind threatened to pull every one of her hard-fought breaths straight from her lungs. She’d experienced her fair share of winters in Ohio, but this one was gearing up to be one of the worst she’d ever seen in her whole life. Her only saving grace was that she was right outside of her house, a few short steps all that stood between her and the wonderful warmth of her home.

Taking the stairs two at a time, the young woman grabbed the brass doorknob in her gloved hands and tugged on it. She could hear ice cracking around the frame of the door, the door hesitating for a moment before it swung open with another rough tug from her.

If she never had to deal with another winter day again, she would have gladly sold her soul. As it was, all she could do was force her way into the house and then violently push against the inner part of the door, slamming it closed on the cold that seemed to be trying to follow her inside.

Pulling her thick hood back, the mirror next to the door offered a better glance at the young girl. Her jet-black hair was long and curly, pinned back from her face but otherwise allowed to tumble free, as she finished removing her jacket. She winced as chunks of snow slowly broke off the garment and dropped onto the wooden floors, already beginning to turn to water thanks to the temperature change between inside the house and outside of it.

“I am sick, and I mean sick, of Toledo!” she shouted out, kicking off her boots on the carpet in front of the door, stomping out the rest of the snow that had gotten caught on her socks. The coldness of the fabric clinging to her skin was something she was eager to be rid of, but her bedroom was all the way upstairs.

“Is it too much to ask to live in a place where the wind does not hurt my face just because I am standing outside?”

“Welcome home, Verity,” came her mother’s simple reply from the sitting room. “Rambunctious as usual, I see.”

Verity Wayne made her way into the family sitting room, unsurprised to find her mother sitting with her younger sister, Millie. The three ladies looked nearly identical, with Millie and Verity having inherited their mother’s distinctive black hair and green eyes. “You can’t tell me that you don’t think it is cold out there, as well.”

“Oh, make no mistake, it is quite cold,” Verity’s mother replied, chuckling gently. “I just don’t see why you have to be so dramatic about it all. Your sister is such an actress sometimes, isn’t she, Millie?”

Millie giggled, sitting still like a good girl on the wooden chair in front of her mother while the older woman braided her hair. This was often how the three ladies spent their time while sitting in their small home, especially during the cold winter days that prevented them from being able to enjoy outdoor activities. Yet it was not all bad. Verity knew a good number of games from her own youth that she would often use to help her and her younger sister pass the time.

“I’m not trying to be dramatic, I’m just stating a fact. It is colder than ice outside, and I have had my fair share of it. I long for warmth and sunshine again, and that is something that this winter has left me sorely lacking. Though I suppose it could be worse…” Verity said, a soft smile spreading across her features. “I could be this cold and have Anne Harder’s beaked nose,” she snarked with sarcastic mirth.

The three women giggled together at that, since none of them were very fond of the gossiping Anne Harder. They had lived next to her ever since they had moved to Toledo in the aftermath of Verity’s father passing, and while the woman had been a relatively unoffending neighbor, her knack of gossiping had begun to wear on them. There was only so much interest that Verity could feign on the subject of her neighbor’s private affairs.

Still, all was not rainbows and sunshine in the house. As a twenty-two-year-old woman, Verity was privy to much more than her fourteen-year-old sister was allowed to be. She knew that while her father had left them some money in his passing, money was beginning to run thin. Her mother had budgeted everything better than anyone else could have given her situation, but Verity was not naive enough to think her mother could keep it up forever.

She could already see the permanent worry lines that were etched on her mother’s forehead and the corner of her eyes and mouth that had not been there even five years ago. Verity often did her best to make little jokes and to keep the conversation light as a way to make things easier for both her mother and sister. There was no use stressing her mother out further, and Millie was being kept ignorant to their money problems at Mrs. Wayne’s request.

Mrs. Wayne laughed gently then, a small smile on her face. “I guess it is a good thing that we’ve been talking so much about a change of pace lately. I can think of no better time for us to seriously consider a change of location. If we are miserable up here in the cold, crowded north, perhaps the warm, spacious south is the cure to our malady.”

“You aren’t talking about going to Texas again, are you?” Millie asked, the teenage girl looking like she had grown somewhat tired of hearing her mother’s gushing speech.

“What would be wrong with Texas? It is a land of warmth and sunshine, one that holds a dear place in my heart. It is where I was born, and it was never as crowded there as it has felt here in Ohio. It is like we have to fight for our place here, and our family simply has never been the kind to endure pointless struggles,” Mrs. Wayne said, finishing the last of Maggie’s braids and slowly rising from her own chair. “The skies there are bigger and bluer than anywhere else in America. It is a land that was built on dreams and ambitions, where we could cultivate our dreams rather than settle for less than them.”

Verity could hear her mother’s excitement growing in her voice with every word, nodding along with her hands clasped together. While Millie might think it silly, Verity couldn’t think of anything better than what her mother suggested. Why should they continue this lifestyle of gradual ruin when they could relocate and try getting a new hand dealt?

“A bigger grasp to reach out to the Lord, right, Mama?” Verity said with a gentle smile, moving over by her mother and placing a hand on her shoulder. “Why don’t I go ahead and cook dinner tonight. You should take it easy today.”

Mrs. Wayne clasped her daughter’s hand gently, a weary but grateful smile appearing briefly on her face. “Thank you, Verity. I don’t know what I would do without you.”

The words caused a pang of guilt to go through Verity, her eyes briefly moving to look down to the floor. She couldn’t help but feel bad about still being in the house despite already having reached adulthood. Ladies her age were supposed to have gone out and gotten married by now, living with their husbands outside the home and only coming to visit her family every now and then to check in on them.

“Tell me about the Wrens again, Mama,” Verity said gently, forcing herself to smile and to look back at her mother. She was relieved to see the look of happiness that crossed her mother’s face, though she could see a hint of sadness in her mother’s eyes as well.

“Oh, what a lovely family they were. They were our next-door neighbors back when we lived in Texas, when it was just the three of us. They were the kind of couple that I had always dreamed to be a part of. The way that they would look at one another like no one else in the world existed was the kind of thing you only ever read about in cheesy love stories,” Mrs. Wayne said with a deep sigh, smiling as she reminisced. “They were the ones who convinced me to wait for your father while he was gone to the war when every fiber of my being told me that he was likely never coming back.”

“What made them stand out to you like that?” Verity asked, sighing dreamily at the thoughts that filled her mind. Sweet little gestures like whispered words of affection in public. Surprise bouquets of flowers when he returned home from work. Cooking his special meal just because she knew he’d had a long day.

“They were the kind of people whose love for others shone through in everything that they did. It was obvious to everyone who saw them that they lived for one another, and that tended to rub off on people. I know your father seemed to be in competition with Mr. Wren at times, and he would do many wonderfully romantic things for me as a result. Oh, how I miss him,” Mrs. Wayne said gently, wiping her eyes quickly.

“What was Papa like?” Millie asked, having only been six when their father passed away and thus not possessing many memories of him. “Was he not normally a romantic person?”

“Oh, your father was romantic. Just in his own special way,” their mother replied with a soft laugh. “He wasn’t like all the other men in Dallas, and that was what had drawn me to him in the first place. He was a devilishly handsome man who had a joke or an insult depending on which was needed for every occasion.”

“When did the two of you meet?” Millie asked, her eyes big as she gazed up at her Mama. “Did he steal your heart at first glance?”

“Surprisingly enough, I didn’t really like him at the end of our first date. He’d said some things that came off as slightly rude, though I later realized that I had misunderstood him, rather than him genuinely trying to insult me. But the more times he courted me, and the more time that we spent together the sweeter we grew on one another,” Mrs. Wayne replied, her gaze looking distant and sad now.

“I seem to remember the Wrens had a son,” Verity said, cutting in on the conversation before her mother began weeping.

“One that they loved very much,” her mother replied quickly, her hand moving up to hastily brush at her eyes. “I do wonder how they are doing these days. Maybe we will be able to run into them again if we go to Texas.”

“If your heart is truly set on going, then I see no reason to oppose it,” Verity replied, kneeling down next to her mother and taking her hand gently. “I trust you, and I have a feeling that after losing Papa, it would be best for us to remove ourselves from the place where we’ve spent the past five years grieving. It’s time to move on, for all of our sakes.”

Millie hugged her mother’s shoulders gently, and Verity could see that her mother was silently thanking her as the older woman squeezed her hand. “You girls have been so good to me. Let’s do our best to make it through this winter, and then we will be out of here as soon as the snow thaws enough to travel.”

Verity smiled and nodded at that, climbing back to her feet and walking cheerfully toward the kitchen. “If that is settled, let’s figure out what we’re having for supper!”

Chapter 2

Dallas, Texas

February 2nd, 1876

Trevor was older now, a young man of twenty-three rather than the scrawny twelve-year-old who had once huddled out on doorsteps just to avoid the rain. His work had caused him to become thickly muscled in his arms and legs, his beard kept trimmed down to prevent him from looking wild. Rather than filthy rags and shoes that were barely being held together, he was dressed in a three-piece suit that had been tailored especially for him, and his shoes were polished to a pristine shine.

He found himself standing outside the storefront that had miraculously been the last doorstep he’d ever had to camp out on. It had been in this very place where his decision to accept dinner with a kind stranger had ultimately reshaped his entire destiny. The bell jingled merrily as he crossed the threshold, laughing softly as his young assistant Malcolm came jerking awake at the sound.

“What is the matter, Malcolm? You stay up too late thinking of that little lady you’ve been jabbering about all week?” Trevor asked, teasing and unable to hide the wide grin that suddenly spread across his face.

“I wasn’t sleeping, I was just resting my eyes,” Malcolm replied unconvincingly, pressing his hand against his mouth to try and stifle the yawn that soon followed.

“Yeah, sure you were,” Trevor replied evenly, biting the inside of his cheek gently to keep himself from laughing. “You were just training your third eye to help you watch over the place, right?”

“Maybe if you paid me a little more, I’d be more inclined to put more of my eyes on guard duty,” Malcolm replied light-heartedly, a faint smile spreading across his cheek.

“Didn’t I just give you a raise?” Trevor asked, his eyebrow rising.

“You did, which is why I’m now using both my normal eyes to watch the shop,” Malcolm said, gesturing around to the mostly empty space. “Not that it is a problem. It is too early for us to have customers.”

Malcolm was a thin, somewhat sickly looking fourteen-year-old that Trevor had taken under his wing after being placed in charge of the store by his very generous benefactor. The boy had dark brown hair that matched his eyes, though he had a bony chest and narrow shoulders as well as small, delicate looking hands and feet. Trevor had often given Malcolm flak about the fact that he had yet to have even a trace of facial hair despite being a teenager, which always got a rise out of the otherwise sleepy teen.

“You see, Malcolm! I told you that if I waited just a little while longer that Trevor would be back here. You owe me a quarter,” Matilda said with a smile, stepping out from behind a shelf. Matilda was a bit of a tomboy, with short cut brown hair and kind green eyes that always twinkled mischievously. She was the widow of Trevor’s former shop assistant, who’d tragically been gunned down a few years previously during a robbery when Trevor had been out of town restocking their supplies.

Malcolm stuck his tongue out at Matilda. “Yeah, yeah, you always know everything, Matilda,” he said dismissively, though it was obvious there was a lot of affection felt by both sides. “A bet is a bet, though.” Reaching into his pocket, he pulled out the coin and flicked it toward her, Matilda snatching it out of the air with a triumphant smile.

“Pleasure doing business with you,” she said, playfully testing the dime with her teeth before slipping it into the pocket of her coat. “Do come back any time you have more money you don’t mind losing.”

Trevor chuckled softly under his breath as he made his way behind the shop’s counter, heading to the back office so that he could hang up his hat and coat. It was a simple life as a baker, but it had allowed him to live comfortably and to work for his living. That was good enough for him. He pulled on his apron before stepping out, looking at the two of them. In his hands was a pile of letters, which he set gently in a pile on the countertop.

“I need you to make sure that these get picked up when Murphy comes later with the mail,” Trevor said, stepping away from the letters and going to check on the ovens. Prepping his station to get started on that day's baking, he couldn’t help but notice the faint laughter that was coming in from the front room. There was a faint rustling sound, and when Trevor stepped into the doorway, he was unsurprised to find Malcolm standing where his mail was.

“Malcolm, what do you think you are doing?” Trevor said neutrally, knowing fully well what the little rapscallion was up to. He cursed himself silently for not having separated that particular letter from the pile, as he could see that Malcolm was now holding it up in the air like some kind of prize.

“Yes, what have you got over there?” Matilda asked, glancing between Malcolm and Trevor with a grin that would put a Cheshire cat to shame.

“What do I have, Trevor? It’s your only chance to come clean before I look for myself,” Malcolm teased, slowly stepping toward Matilda.

“I don’t see how it is either of your business, and I would like to remind you that at the end of the day I am your employer. I believe a certain level of respect is due to me. I don’t want to get angry, but you are stepping over your boundaries in this instant. Do not incur my wrath,” he finished shortly, his tone coming across a bit angrier than he’d intended.

“You shouldn’t poke the bear,” Matilda said to Malcolm, looking over at him. “If it isn’t something that he is trying to share, you shouldn’t be talking about it.”

Trevor took another step toward Malcolm. “Give it here, boy. I don’t want to get rough with you, but I’ll give you a right hard punch in the shoulder so help me I will.”

Malcolm was past the point of listening. Moving out from behind the counter with the letter still grasped tightly in his hand, he began to read:

“Dear sir, we thank you for taking the time to submit your ad for a mail-order bride to Happy Endings magazine, a published periodical intended purely for the purpose of helping men and women find their soulmates since 1860.”

Malcolm let out a cackle when he finished, while Trevor stood there in stony silence with a furious red blush working its way up his entire face. That had been his private business, and Malcolm had just gone and blurted it out for anyone to hear. When he looked over at Matilda, however, he was relieved to see that she was having a slightly different reaction.

She clapped her hands together enthusiastically, her eyes suddenly glittering with interest. “You filled out a mail-order bride ad? Why didn’t you tell me that you’d finally done it? Were you nervous when you submitted it?”

Trevor held up his hand against the flood of questions, grinning despite himself. “I was, but more so about what the people I knew would say about it rather than for fear of being rejected.”

Matilda cast a glance over in Malcolm’s direction, the young teen still making a face over the news. “Why would you ever do such a thing?” he asked, sounding grossed out in the way only a young teenager could when talking about marriage.

“Because when you get to a certain age, you start wanting to have a family of your own,” Matilda said gently, stepping over to Malcolm and plucking the letter from his hand. “Independence is nice, but it hardly compares to having someone with whom you can share your happiness and sadness with.”

It was obvious that Malcolm was still not understanding their point. Not that Trevor had really expected him to. At fourteen, Trevor hadn’t held much interest in female company either. He’d been far too distracted by trying to prove his worth to his benefactor, and the upkeep of the store had been more than sufficient to keep him occupied.

“If he wants a wife, why doesn’t he just find a woman who lives here in town and marry her? Why fill out an ad to try and find some out of towner you’ve never met before?” Malcolm asked, his words met by laughter from both Trevor and Matilda.

“I am afraid that you just aren’t at the point in life where you’d understand just yet,” Matilda said, petting over the top of Malcolm’s head and ruffling up his hair despite his protests.

Trevor had been silent this whole while, unable to bring himself to voice his true feelings on the matter. He wanted a family, sure, but that wasn’t all. More than that, he was longing for the atmosphere he’d been chasing ever since his parents had passed away. He wanted games around a fire with hot drinks on a cold, rainy day. Wanted to feel like he actually belonged, rather than just occupying another family’s space.

He would forever be grateful to the mayor and his wife for having taken him in as a son of sorts, but that was probably wishful thinking on his end. He didn’t suspect any foul play on the mayor’s behalf, as the man had done nothing but be kind to Trevor ever since they’d met, but still Trevor would find doubts lingering in the back of his mind.

Despite his best efforts, Trevor had constantly found himself at odds with the mayor’s daughter. They had been of a similar age, so Trevor had hoped they’d have a chance of getting along since they were some of the only people of their age group in town. However, those hopes had found themselves dashed almost as quickly as they had risen.

I can worry about things I’m not able to change later. For now, my only job is to bake the day’s pastries, and by golly that is what we are going to do. Reaching out to Matilda for the letter she was holding, Trevor stuffed the letter into his back pocket and made once more toward the back room where the ovens awaited him.

“Oh, and Malcolm. Since you wanted to go about sharing my private business during work hours, I’m sure you’ll have no problem bringing in the new bags of flour all on your own,” Trevor said, watching the look of regret immediately enter the fourteen-year-old’s eyes.

“What? Trevor it was just a little bit of lighthearted fun!” Malcolm exclaimed, stamping his foot gently. “Why are you punishing me?”

“Because in life you need to learn that people won’t always be able to stop you from doing what it is you want to do. But you have to be prepared to accept the consequences for taking those actions too,” Trevor said with a faint smile. “Accountability, Malcolm. That is the lesson I’m teaching you here.”

He heard Matilda begin to tease Malcolm as he headed into the back, chuckling as he grabbed a bag of flour and set about getting started on making the day’s bread. He kneaded and folded the dough with the practice that had come from working at the bakery for the past eight years, humming a song from his childhood as he worked.

Whether or not he felt embarrassed by Malcolm calling out the fact that he’d filled out an ad, Trevor still found himself feeling hopeful for what could come next for him. Hopefully, the woman who responded to his ad was looking for the same things he was. After all, you could make any place your house. But you needed love to make it a home.

Chapter 3

February 3rd, 1876

Verity found herself waking up a few hours after she had tried to lay down for bed, her thoughts making it impossible for her to quiet her mind enough to stay asleep. There had been something about her mother’s melancholic expression the other day that told Verity that her mother was keeping something from her. Finding that staring up at the ceiling was doing nothing for her, she flung her covers aside and pulled on her slippers.

The house was quiet as she walked, the floorboards creaking faintly beneath her slight weight. She was dressed only in her faded blue nightgown, her black hair hanging in messy waves down her shoulders and back as she went. The moonlight streaming into the window helped guide her in the darkness, only stopping when she found herself standing outside of her mother’s door.

She could not hear the familiar gentle snore that she’d come to associate with her mother being asleep, sending a pang of worry through her. Verity was no fool, and she had noticed just how dark the circles beneath her mother’s eyes had begun to grow these past few weeks. Millie might not have worried about it, but that didn’t stop the eldest sister from doing so.

Making her way gently into her mother’s room, she noticed a few abnormal things. Her mother’s bed lay empty, the small lantern that her mother kept shining brightly on the desk. Sitting in the tall backed wooden chair that she used for her desk, Mrs. Wayne sat slumped on the desk. As Verity slowly moved closer, she could begin to hear the soft, pitiful sobs her mother was letting out.

“Mama, are you all right?” Verity asked softly, moving to stand directly behind her mother’s chair. She immediately caught sight of a crinkled letter held tightly in her mother’s hand pressed against her heart, as well as the grocery list. Verity felt her heart sink even further in her chest as she saw the multitude of items that had been crossed out or made smaller in quantity out on the side. At the bottom of the paper was a large number of crossed out sums, an obvious attempt by her mother to try and shrink down the grocery bill.

Seeing her mother looking so defeated and hopeless broke something inside of Verity. She sank to her knees beside her mother, her face pressing against her mother’s leg as she felt her own tears beginning to stream down her cheeks.

“Oh Mama, I’m so sorry. It is all my fault. If you didn’t have to worry about providing for me, you and Mille could live in relative comfort.”

“Oh, foolish girl, who has put such thoughts in your head?” her mother asked chidingly, stroking over the top of Verity’s head the way she used to when Verity was a young girl. “I wouldn’t be able to enjoy my days half as much if I didn’t have the both of you here.”

“Mama, you don’t have to lie to me,” Verity said, pointing to the grocery list on the table. “Do you think I haven’t noticed you coming back with less and less groceries each time? Do you think I haven’t noticed you taking smaller portions so that Millie and I can eat our fill?”

“It is a mother’s duty to ensure that her children have what they need to survive until they can go out into the world and start a family of their own,” Mrs. Wayne replied, gently lifting up Verity’s head so she was looking at her. “We are just going through some hard times right now, that’s all. It is nobody’s fault because none of us have done anything to cause it. Life just throws you unexpected situations sometimes.”

“What were you reading that made you so sad, Mama?” Verity asked, trying to change the conversation for now. She sniffled gently as she looked up at the letter her mother was holding. “Is it bad news?”

“I’m not sure if you could call it that,” Mrs. Wayne replied, wiping her eyes quickly with her sleeves. “Though, I’m not sure it is a good thing either. This is the last letter I ever received from Jennifer Wren as a goodbye.”

“A goodbye? I thought the two of you kept up a correspondence after we left. I remember you excitedly writing letters to her for holidays and whatnot,” Verity replied, clearly confused. “What would have made her stop writing to you?”

“Oh, it was my fault,” her mother replied wistfully, shaking her head as more tears dripped down her cheeks. “I got caught up in the bliss of finally having found a husband of my own and starting a family in a new place. I tried to keep up my letters to her, but I fear they grew more and more rare as the years went by. Eventually, I stopped getting letters from her. I guess maybe she just decided to focus on her own life as well.”

“Well, I don’t suppose I see anything really wrong with that. I mean, it must have hurt to lose contact with your best friend and all, but you were moving on to happier times in your life. I’m sure she didn’t begrudge you that,” Verity said, putting her hand gently on her mother’s shoulder.

“Go ahead and read it,” Mrs. Wayne insisted, gently pushing the letter into her daughter’s hands. “It has served as a good luck charm for me all these years. I can only hope that wherever Jinnie is that she is doing well.”

Unfolding the letter gently, Verity allowed her eyes to slowly scan across the letter. Inside she could see very neat, crisp handwriting written out in black ink. Despite the years that had passed and its now crumpled state, Verity managed to decipher what was written:

Dear Sophie,

It is with great joy that I present to you this letter. Now that you will be heading out into the world with your new husband, I am sure that life will lead you on any number of fantastical journeys. I pray this letter keeps you in good spirits in times of sadness or hardship and know that my thoughts are with you always. If you are anything like the strong young woman I know you to be, I know you will make it just fine. I only pray that your husband will be able to make you as happy as my Michael has made me.

Your dearest friend always,

Jinnie Wren

“Jinnie gave that letter to me on the day that I set out from Dallas to answer your father’s mail-order bride ad,” Mrs. Wayne said softly, her eyes looking distant as she reminisced. “I don’t know how many times I’ve read it throughout the years, but tonight is the only night that I don’t quite feel comforted by it.”

“I know it isn’t what you want to hear, Mama, but don’t you think it is about time that we face facts? It is about time for me to begin looking into living on my own. That way you can finish raising Millie without so much stress on your head all the time,” Verity said, stroking over the back of her mother’s hand gently. “After all, we would be lost if you were to get sick and pass away on us because you try to bear the burden of everything alone.”

Mrs. Wayne took a deep breath, laughing softly as she patted the back of her daughter’s hand in return. “You don’t need to feel like you have to leave. Our situation is not so dire that you need to convince yourself that you are a burden.”

“I know you say that I am not one, but that isn’t all. I want to live in a place with the warm open skies and the kind of life that you always talk about having had when you were back in Dallas. If you could be away from the place this long and still have good memories attached to it, then I can only imagine what it might hold for me!” Verity said excitedly.

“But how would you get there, sweetling? I fear I do not have the money to help you travel such a distance,” Mrs. Wayne replied sadly.

“Well, I was thinking that perhaps I could find someone else who would be willing to pay my travel fees,” Verity said gently, noticing the look of confusion on her mother’s face and deciding she would explain more. “I brought a mail-order bride catalogue back home with me the other day, but I haven’t had the courage to look through it by myself. Do you think that might be a good option for me?”

“Go and fetch the catalogue,” her mother said kindly. “We’ll see what they have to offer.”

Roughly five minutes later, Verity and her mother were sitting side by side at her mother’s desk, flipping through the pages of the catalogue, and quietly reading through various ads for one another. It was eye-opening to see just how many different letters there were, each asking for different things. One ad asked for a beautiful Spanish woman with a passion for dancing and cooking. Another asked for a strong woman with a good back to help him on the farm. And so the ads went on, until Verity thought that perhaps she wasn’t what a husband was looking for.

At least, until her mother let out an inarticulate cry, eyes going wide as her finger stabbed at one of the pages. “Here, Verity, this one right here. Take a look!”

“‘Seeking a woman who doesn’t mind the lesser things in life but doesn’t seek to look impoverished either. I need a partner not just as a wife, but as someone who can help return to me the feeling of contentment I last had when my family was together. I’m looking for more than just someone to come cook and clean for me. I need someone in whom my fears can be confided, someone with whom I could be trapped inside on stormy days and still laugh and enjoy myself with them. I want hot cups of tea and games on rainy days kind of loving. If that is something you can understand and want too, drop me a line’,” she read aloud, smiling gently.

“Did you notice who wrote it?” Mrs. Wayne said, tapping at the name on the bottom. Signed in neat handwriting was the name Trevor Wren. Verity felt herself take in a deep breath, the feeling that fate was guiding her in this moment growing more and more with the passing minutes. “Do you think it is the same Wren as Jinnie?”

“There is only one way for me to find out,” Verity said with a gentle smile. “I’m going to have to send a reply to him. At the very least, we can find out if we are barking up the wrong tree or not.”

“And what about the contents of his letter? He’s going to expect you to reply to the things he mentioned,” her mother prodded, causing Verity to let out a slight huff of indignation.

“I know, Mama, I don’t need to be told that,” Verity said, chuckling softly. “We will just have to put our faith in Jinnie that she has been giving us luck even through these years that have passed.”

“Verity, sweetheart, what did you think about his words? About wanting someone more than just a wife, but someone who could make him feel at home again?” Mrs. Wayne asked softly, looking into her daughter’s eyes.

Verity felt small tears prickle at the corner of her eyes as she thought about the mysterious letter writer, her hand tracing over a small dark spot on the ad where a teardrop had fallen and smudged a bit of the ink.

“I know exactly how he feels.”

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