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  • Three Grooms for one Mail Order Bride


February 1888. El Paso, Texas, USA

Kate Kasse

Kate was usually a precocious, well-behaved girl, or at least she tried her best to be all the time she was home or else her father would be displeased. She hated displeasing him, and she liked the way he looked at her when she did what he asked of her. When she did something he liked he would cheer and lift her up, before making her feel dizzy by spinning her round and round. Then he would gently place her back on the ground and watch her laughing as she veered this way and that. It was exciting to feel accepted in such a way by him.

The alternative was the exact opposite. When she failed to complete a task, or if it wasn’t completed to his liking, he would no longer speak to her. She would then often go to bed hungry, having sat in silence in the house all evening at the table opposite him with an empty bowl in front of her. Meanwhile he would eat all of his food and her own while she was watching him with a complaining belly, not being allowed to speak.

Kate had thick, jet-black hair that she got from her mother, which she was immensely proud of and was all she had left of her. Kurt’s hair was now grey at fifty-five years old, but it had never been close to the same color as hers even when he was younger. In his youth he sported long light brown locks. He became famed for it and went by the nickname “Blondie” locally.

But that was a long time ago. He had it cut short for his military service during the Civil War, and he now kept it short partly out of habit and partly for practicality. Kate shared her parents’ brown eyes and was self-conscious of the freckles she had inherited from her father, which were more pronounced in the summer.

She was teased for them at school, predominantly because the other girls had discovered how much she resented them. She was teased even more due to her awkwardness around the other students, who played and conversed with maddeningly visible ease. She wasn’t allowed to talk to the boys, and it didn't take her long to become an outcast amongst the girls who discovered that she was of another ilk to them either.

It was hard growing up with a father who was at once so strict and secretive, especially as he was the only person in her life who would speak to her at length. Although he was cold, he never mocked her, and listened to her every word, analyzing them carefully. Kate had never known anything different, so the way she fit into his mould was always known to her as the ‘correct’ way to behave. She never managed in childhood to discover the source of the glaring disparity between the ‘correct’ way to behave at home versus the way the other students behaved at school.

Her father had a monopoly on secrets in the household, and she knew very little about him even as he was required to know everything about her. There wasn’t a secret, a desire, or a preference she had that he didn’t demand to know of. Being her father’s daughter, it was useless trying to keep any of this from him. He always knew when she was being dishonest and always got the truth out of her eventually. This led to the charges of additional household crimes, which included thoughts which would displease her father in addition to actions.

By the time she was twelve years old she dared not lie to him. She knew telling him that she was going out to find some work locally in order to bring in some more dollars when she was instead going elsewhere was the wrong thing to do. She knew that this would result in the harshest punishment of all.

She learned that lesson the hard way, through trial and error. One day she had been invited to go horseback riding with a girl from school she wished to befriend. It had come out of the blue, and the opportunity to make a close friend was one Kate knew she had to accept. She couldn’t imagine growing older without one close friend like the other girls had. If she could befriend this one girl, she could prove to herself that she could be just like the other girls, and not be as strange as they made her out to be.

The girl’s family lived in town, unlike Kate who lived beyond the outskirts and rarely saw anyone else. She was immensely jealous of the girl’s seemingly idyllic life, and this was such an exciting prospect to her that she didn’t hesitate before she accepted the invitation. It was only then that she began to plan how this was to come to fruition and how she was to evade her father for the duration of the activities of the day.

She knew her father, being a practical man, would never agree to such a frivolous waste of her time, especially as the girl or her parents had little to offer them strategically by forging a friendship between them. Therefore, in order to go, she fabricated some fictitious employment for herself that would earn her those few extra dollars which would be useful to them. She hoped he’d never find out that she was anywhere else but the seamstress’ workshop all afternoon.

Meanwhile she hoped she could use this opportunity to make a true friend for the first time in her life, and to experience how it felt to have somewhat of a normal childhood if not just for a day. She had never thought about what would happen to her when she inevitably returned home penniless once the day was over, but at the end of the day it was irrelevant anyway. She was prepared for what was to come later, but even if it was just one mundane childhood memory, it was something she would reflect back upon for many years to come.

She was riding with that girl, racing her up and down her paddock on the edge of town while both children laughed gleefully. They laughed and laughed as they rode round and round the meandering course the girl’s father had set up with kegs and piles of chopped wood. The course included several easily navigable jumps which sent them flying out of their saddles momentarily, as their legs weren’t long enough to reach the stirrups. That was the most exciting part of the gauntlet for both the girls and the horses alike. They ended up discarding the majority of the track and instead galloped in parallel lines oscillating back and forth along the paddock fence, taking it in turns to jump the biggest hurdle of all.

Kate turned her horse around and lined up another jump. As the horse accelerated towards it and she felt the wind rushing through her hair, she noticed something dark beyond the jump. Her heart sank when she saw her father’s mean, freckled face watching her coldly from afar, his hands in his pockets. Even from such a distance his statuesque stillness was a clear indicator of his quiet rage, and her blood suddenly ran cold.

She froze as her reality penetrated the quiet sanctuary of the pasture; the fantasy of the childhood that could have been, and she lost concentration just as the horse jumped over the barrel. She took flight from the saddle just as she always did, but when she landed again it was heavy enough so that she lost her grip on the reins. They were whipped out of her grasp and she fell from her saddle as the horse continued without her. At last, she landed painfully on her back on the grass, which had thankfully cushioned her fall, with a thud.

She looked up at the blue sky ahead of her for a moment while she nursed her head and prepared herself for what was to come. It was so unfair, she thought. She had only wanted a single afternoon but even this would be cut short.

“You need to pay better attention, Kate!” the other girl yelled at her impatiently as she dismounted from her own horse and came trotting over to check on her, “What’s the matter with you?”

“I’m sorry. I have to go now. Thank you... thank you so much... for inviting me,” Kate stuttered to her friend as she got to her feet and dusted herself off.

She ignored her new friend’s protestations as she hurriedly restabled her horse and began the long walk over to her father with her head bowed in shame. At first he said nothing, and as she got closer to him he turned and walked in the direction of home in silence, while she struggled to keep up running behind him.

Kate knew the silence would continue long into the night. She couldn’t bear it, and she knew she had to try her best to avoid those repercussions. At this stage, it couldn’t get any worse for her. The scorning would only be followed by more silence and an absence of that evening’s dinner. She couldn’t decide which part of it was worse, and which she should try to negotiate herself out of.

“I’m sorry,” Kate whispered, trying to explain herself, as she knew what was awaiting her when she reached their destination.

“That girl barely seemed like a friend to you, the way she yelled at you like that,” Kurt said.

“Oh, she was only upset about the horse. She’s nice really,” Kate explained.

“Stop. Stop making excuses for her,” he commanded as he stopped in his tracks and wagged his bony finger at her, “Lying is pointless. One faithless act always leads to another, and trusting the wrong people always ends in disaster.”

“Why?” she asked, sensing that she had some chance to avoid the coming hours of insufferable silence. In truth she knew the story, as Kurt had told it many times before. It was one of the few tales about himself that he told her.

“When I was away fighting in the war, I had two men in my unit who I became good friends with. We got to know each other little by little, trusting each other more and more until eventually I could say with confidence that I trusted them with my life. We spent all day and all night together and we had a bond where I thought we would do anything for each other if called upon. In the end they betrayed me. They let me go the first chance they had to prove I meant anything to them other than some cheap words. And when it’s someone you expect more from, the betrayal hurts you much worse than it would coming from a stranger.”

“How did they betray you, Father?” Kate asked.

“They left me for dead on the battlefield. I had been shot in front of them by the advancing infantry, and as I lay bleeding in the mud I looked back for them, believing they would close the distance that was necessary in order to pull me out. Instead, I watched the pair of them turn tail and flee from the enemy along with the others. I was then practically trod upon by my other brothers-in-arms on their way out of the battlefield. Not a single one of them stopped to help me up. I was just another one of the fallen, one to be tallied for that day’s losses like we were rotten produce from the ranch.”

“But it was those two men who I considered my real brothers who had hurt me the most, because I would have gotten both of them out of there. They had fooled me into thinking they cared about me, and so I had cared about them. I would have taken a bullet for them too. Don’t ever repeat my mistakes, my daughter, as it could cost you your life one day. Get your head out of the clouds, you gain nothing by trusting people and nobody is truly your friend. The only family you have is bound by blood.”

Chapter 1

August 1897. Galveston, Texas, USA

Kate Kasse

Kate and her father Kurt, stood out on the Texan plains somewhere in Galveston County with two other men, the dry summer air around them scorched like unseen heated knives in Kate’s back, and their damp clothes clung tightly to them due to the humidity, which was heightened this close to the coast. These conditions made the waiting all the more uncomfortable, and made them all the more impatient.

She was now a young woman of twenty-one years of age. She was assured and assertive, and had been successfully molded into her father’s image through the decade of reinforcement he had worked so hard on. The timid twelve-year-old girl she used to be was now long gone. She had become his instrument, although she was also far stronger than she used to be and no longer feared him as she did once.

One wouldn’t have guessed this looking at her now, as she was dressed in her Sunday best and looked much like any other young woman of her age who had enjoyed a comfortable, humdrum childhood in Texas. This belied the truth of the very unorthodox upbringing she had. Additionally, this dress was of course not what she would have chosen to wear on this day, nor any other day, but it had been selected to create the perfect damsel in distress for her hero to rescue her in.

This unsuspecting hero was who they were currently waiting to appear over the horizon. Meanwhile, she prepared herself to be as interesting as possible to him, which involved being whatever the perfect romantic interest was. She found there was a fine balance to be stuck between being assertive yet agreeable; between whimsical and capricious. She had to know what she wanted, but that couldn’t be too different from whatever it was he wanted as well.

There would be a distinctive transitional period beforehand, where she had to seem as helpless and desperate as possible in order to attract his attention and appeal to his caring nature at first. This would give way to her being eternally in his debt and gratitude, which she expected he would take full advantage of after insisting no such debt existed, as that was the gentlemanly thing to say. If it all went well, they would have created the perfect example of “it was meant to be” within weeks.

While they waited, beads of sweat dripping from their brows, she allowed her mind to wander. Having observed this hero for so long from afar, much like the way one observes wildlife, she wondered what he would be like in person. She wondered whether she would be fond of him, and thought about how easy it would be to have him do her bidding. She knew young men, and it was never too difficult provided they were sufficiently attracted. Fortunately, she wouldn’t have to wonder much longer, although each second seemed to take even longer than the last and she questioned whether they would ever see the sun begin to set.

“Pay attention,” Kurt commanded her, distracting her from her thoughts.

“I am,” she snapped back, irritably, although this was a lie. She never needed to ever hear what it was he was saying again. The plan had been in the making her whole life and only minor revisions and slight tweaks had been introduced in the preceding years.

“Shall I go through it all again for the benefit of our colleagues?” he asked.

“It wouldn’t hurt to,” she replied diplomatically, though equally disinterested.

“Alright, is everyone listening?” he asked. This was directed specifically to the two other men who were standing behind them, bickering with one another through hushed voices.

One of the men was very tall and thin; the other was balding, short and plump. Kate stopped listening once they came over to hear what Kurt had to say. She knew it could only benefit them, as they were integral to their plan’s success as well as being new to it.

They didn’t look like the kind of men she would choose to have as essential crewmates, but unfortunately that made them the perfect casting for the role they were to play. She could see in their eyes that they were essentially hollow in between the ears. They would need to have the plan forcefully embedded into them, or else all would be lost.

For the last six months of their lives the Kasses had been staying near the town of Galveston, Texas, in its namesake county, watching Scowler’s Ranch from afar. They watched those who lived there whilst remaining unseen by them. This consisted of the Reed brothers, John and George, their family, and their friends coming and going. Meanwhile they began to formulate the finer details of their plan to integrate her carefully and seamlessly into their lives, much like a cuckoo bird. Hence, it was known to them as the Cuckoo Plan.

It was called this due to the parasitic nature of the cuckoo bird. They will embed their own eggs into the nest another bird created, perfectly timed so that those eggs will be the first of the bunch to hatch. The other bird will feed the chick believing it is its own kind while the cuckoo pushes the other eggs out of the nest so only it remains.

The Reeds now had an expansive family living on the ranch, consisting of several generations, and even more pseudo siblings as well as honorary aunts and uncles who they treated akin. The Kasses relied on taking advantage of their welcoming nature, which Kurt had identified as being both their biggest weakness and their best chance of success.

There had once been two possible routes for her, and the original plan necessitated the pair competing for her affections, which would have made both feel like they were more in love with her than they really were. However, the younger of the two brothers had fallen in love and departed the ranch with his sweetheart a short time ago.

This brought the second plan forward as no doubt the older one’s thoughts had drifted towards marriage after attending his brother’s wedding. If they didn’t insert her into the household now, he could be gone soon too, as soon as he found an appropriate suitor. The plan only needed to be tweaked one last time, to increase her chances of appealing to the younger brother, as he was the only key to the door to the family.

Just like Kate’s father said, trusting the wrong people always ended up in disaster. The Reeds kept their front door unlocked because they believed in the best of people. Her father had believed that too once, and had seen how devastating it was. Now he always locked their door, and now it was their turn to repay the favor quid pro quo. There could have been one hundred kind souls who had turned up on the doorstep of this ranch at Turning River before now, but it would only take one wicked person to destroy them from within.

Kurt had made her recite the plan to him twice the night before, just to ensure she knew it by heart as they became more anxious about the prospects of their success, having invested so much time into it. It would be no good repeating the plan for a second unsuspecting victim. It had to be this ranch, and it had to be the Reeds. Therefore, they would get one opportunity to succeed, or else they would be forever suspicious of them and the door to them would be forever locked. There could be no mistakes.

“Can we have our money now?” one of the goons they had hired asked, snapping her out of her scheming.

“Only half now. The other half comes after we’ve finished, when you report back to my father, once the job is done. Just as we agreed,” Kate replied coldly, and her father behind her allowed himself to smile proudly just for a second, which went unseen by her.

“Oh, we’ll get the job done. Don’t worry about that,” said the other, portly mercenary.

Kate rolled her eyes as she had very little faith in this hired help. They were as cheap as hiring a farmyard animal for the day. Hiring sentience or autonomy cost extra and most labor provided either brains or brawn, rarely both. But they looked to be just the sort of barbaric men who would be chasing down a young woman on her own. This was why they had been hired, after all, but the irony of their number one rule being don’t trust the wrong people while simultaneously trusting the least trustworthy people in the state wasn’t lost on her.

“Remember your part, my daughter. Don’t worry about anything else. That’s my job,” Kurt said to her protectively as he grasped her chin in his palm and looked into those eyes that had passed from him to her, just like the torch of revenge which she would enact on his behalf. Then, he kissed her forehead and mounted his horse. He took the reins for her own steed too and carried it along with him, so that they wouldn’t be there when their target arrived. It was just her and the men they had hired now. She longed for the moment to come now even more than she had before.

“How are we supposed to know what time the boy will be here again?” the tall, slim man asked as he scratched his head.

“You like to ask a lot of questions, don’t you?” Kate asked as she fought against the instinct to roll her eyes again, “We’ll know when we see him coming, won’t we? Leave the planning and the details to me and my father. You’re here to play a part. If you play it well enough, you’ll get paid. If I were you, I’d be focused on that. I’ll tell you when to move. That’s all you have to think about for now.”

They watched Kurt until he had disappeared fully from their sight, heading back to their camp a short distance away out of eyeshot and earshot. It took him a long time as he was still carrying the other horse, but they still had plenty of time to wait. Kate shaded her eyes with her hands to look up at the position of the sun, verifying the time as best she could. It was well past noon now as the sun had already started to fall again.

“Why are you looking up there? He isn’t coming down from the sky, is he?” the short, fat man asked with an arrogant sneer, having been emboldened by her father’s departure and feeling he didn’t need to be as cautious in the presence of a woman.

Kate sighed and then ignored him. They waited another few quiet minutes as they tapped their feet impatiently, looking in the direction of Scowler’s Ranch, waiting for the very specific person they needed. Sure enough, they soon saw the figure they sought riding a horse and emerging from the estate. It was unfolding exactly as they had envisioned at last, and Kate sprang into action.

All those years of planning and preparation had come to a head and their future prosperity now hung on the coming minutes and seconds. Whereas before they seemed to last an eternity, now they burst forth like a broken sand timer, and she raced to assemble her men before the narrow window of opportunity was slammed shut forever.

“Now!” Kate called in a commanding voice, akin to the way her father ordered, before taking off running as fast as she could down the hill like she was leading a cavalry charge. This left the men behind her to scramble clumsily onto their horses.

While she screamed as loudly as she could she saw the boy look in their direction. She wasn’t sure if he had seen her yet, but she knew it was done, and there would be no going back. She just had to hope they would play their part as well as they had promised they would. She had supreme confidence that she would do the same.

Chapter 2

June 1898. Galveston, Texas, USA

Gideon Reed

Gideon Reed, the son of Roberta and John Reed, loved to ride. He had loved riding his whole life, from the first time he was placed onto a horse, at age four, and giggled as he looked around at the world beneath him. Although admittedly he had loved it particularly more in the past few years, and for vastly different reasons, as it gave him a little bit of privacy away from the business of the bustling ranch, and his extensive family that lived and worked on it.

The house, which was now worn out having seen no maintenance in all its years as the cornerstone of the ranch, was now so full it was on the brink of bursting, if it didn’t crumble first, and there was no expectation of privacy there anymore. All of the generation that preceded him and their close friends each had children of their own, and it seemed as though they all spent the majority of the time squeezed into their house to enjoy his parents’ hospitality.

Paradoxically, Gideon only felt like he could relax and be alone with his thoughts when he was out on the open fields where anyone could be watching him and he would never know. He had more peace there than in his bedroom where his younger family members would frequently burst into his room demanding his perpetual mediation for their latest squabbles.

Gideon had his mother’s famed emerald green eyes, but was well-built just like his father. He was now twenty-two years of age but he had surpassed his father in height by the time he was sixteen and was now the tallest in the family. Also like his father, he had grown up on a ranch, and so was more comfortable on horseback than he was with his feet on the ground.

There wasn’t a task on the ranch he couldn’t perform expertly, and he dreamed nothing but a future of being at the head of its furthest expansion one day. Due to the frequency of new arrivals in the family, the need to expand outwards was inevitable.

Equally, he only discovered just how much work there was to be done when he had taken on much of the responsibility for the livestock himself. This came as his mother and father slowed down and eased into retirement, which meant catering for their grandchildren full time.

His brother, Wilson, had only just married earlier that year after a short courtship with a woman he fell in love with at first sight, and thus was the first of them to leave the ranch. This left Gideon without his best friend and confidant as well as the other boy who the majority of the ranch’s chores were delegated to.

He dearly missed his brother, as by departing the ranch he may as well have been departing the country, provided they rarely ventured further than the town of Galveston anymore. But Wilson had never been as emotionally tied to the ranch as he was. He respected Gideon’s plans for it and had decided early on that his future lay elsewhere.

In some ways it was a welcome relief for him when Gideon agreed to take it on, as he knew it would have broken his parents’ heart and won him no favors amongst the extended family had he sought to sell it in favor of ventures further afield. Gideon had provided him with a way out with his sweetheart, and he couldn’t blame his brother for taking it.

Still, the day arrived faster than he had hoped it would, as indeed Wilson, as well as his bride, were scarcely of marriageable age, and it made him all the more grateful for his increasingly scarce daily rides he so cherished. All of the cousins in the world couldn’t replace Wilson. They had been inseparable since the day Gideon was born. They still wrote to each other often, but it wasn’t the same.

He often thought of how his father had gone to fight in the war when he was only seventeen years old. He could scarcely imagine doing the same, even now. It made him think that his father was incredibly brave, but equally he couldn’t resolve in his mind that this was the same person as the John he knew. He was a perpetually easygoing man and he couldn’t imagine him ever taking a life. He hoped he never had, but he never asked, John never said anything, and he wouldn’t have it any other way.

Gideon was cantering with his horse just beyond the outskirts of the ranch, taking the same route he always did, which had become somewhat of a ritual for him. He allowed himself to think about the tasks he had left for the day which awaited his return.

This was the time he used to formulate his day and organize his swirling thoughts into a clear schedule, an activity that calmed him. He needed to reshod Lightning, the horse he rode upon, but the horse didn’t seem to be in any discomfort. He took good care of the animals, and ensured no maintenance was ever overdue. Unlike the house, the animals just like the family needed to know they were loved and the best way to show that was to tend to their needs.

Suddenly, he was broken out of his thoughts by a shrill scream echoing throughout the otherwise tranquil landscape. It felt completely out of place. It was a feminine scream of distress, which cut through his peace like a knife and sent the hairs on the back of his neck on edge.

Without another thought he turned Lightning towards the direction of the sound, although he couldn’t yet see anyone. He took off at a gallop to look and see what the commotion was and find whoever it was who needed help.

Although they were well beyond the outer boundary of the ranch, the Reeds were known to take responsibility over the surrounding area to ease the pressure on the Galveston Sheriff, as it was even further from the outer limits of the town. It was the first time Gideon had been called upon in such a way without his father though, as the area was generally as peaceful as it looked.

Across the plains, after a few minutes of riding and scanning the landscape, he could clearly see the figure of a young woman in a panic on the horizon. She was running as fast as she could from two black horses which pursued her like swooping birds of prey.

The men who were riding those horses yelled out after her with mocking, goading voices, but it was quieter than her cries and was too far away for Gideon to hear what was being said. Not that it mattered, as even from such a distance Gideon could see how sinister their intentions were.

The young woman who fled ran as fast as she could away from them, her long black hair whipping behind her in the wind, but she could not compete with the powerful legs of the horses and Gideon watched as the gap between them closed dangerously fast.

He was frozen for a moment in shock. He was fearful of what would happen when they inevitably caught her, and the danger she was in was both clear and rapidly approaching. With nobody else for miles around him he knew this rescue fell upon him, and so with a whip of the reins he took off at a blistering pace in order to catch up to them. Lightning was true to his name and he knew he would intercept them in no time at full speed. What would happen then, he did not know.

He reached for the revolver at his waist as he neared, relieved that he had remembered what his father said. He always told him you never know when you might need a firearm and it would always be too late when you wished you had it. He knew now how true this was, being so thankful to find it there.

He didn’t like firing it and never practiced shooting, but in a world in which everyone had one, being the odd one out was like being deaf, dumb, or blind. When the Reeds were the law by proxy in these outer fields it was a necessity. Drawing it, he said a silent prayer for help in the face of danger that was to come. He grasped the weapon firmly, as firepower was the only thing which granted one authority this far out of town.

“Stop!” he shouted once he was in earshot. The girl looked behind her towards the source of the sound, her eyes widening in a silent cry for help. Then she fell suddenly, tripping over her skirts and landing with a hard thud, face down in the grass. The men slowed then too, seeing that she was caught in their trap, circling around her with their horses and laughing like hyenas.

She gathered her skirt in her hands and looked around her for an escape route which no longer existed. The men didn’t seem to pay much attention to Gideon at first, who was still some distance away, but instead circled her round and round, goading her as she became ever more fearful and desperate.

As she looked over to him pleadingly, Gideon’s fury at the injustice of the situation and their predatory nature exploded to the surface. He aimed his revolver at them, throwing caution to the wind as they both stopped to block the way between him and her.

“Stop or I’ll shoot! Leave her be!” he demanded, watching them through his trembling front sight. The taller of the two, who seemed to be the brains of the operation, only sneered back at him with no less audacity than he had before he was at gunpoint.

“You’re looking pretty green with that toy in your hand, boy. You shouldn’t make threats if you can’t follow through with them; you might end up getting yourself hurt. Didn’t your daddy ever tell you that, or are you going to learn something today?”

“I've learned plenty, and if I'm forced to, I can use this pretty well,” Gideon proposed, his brow furrowing as he cocked the hammer of the revolver back with his thumb, his finger wrapping over the trigger.

The girl then stood up, looking just as frightened, and staggered away from the men, looping outward and then towards Gideon as she looked from one to the other, waiting to see who would act first.

“You aren’t treating her like you should treat a lady,” Gideon said, “That’s a major offense around these parts. Didn’t anyone ever teach you that?”

The men only laughed mockingly at him and drew their own guns. Gideon could hear his blood pumping through his veins as he realized how a wrong step now could be his last. He pointed his own firearm from one to the other and back again, overcompensating with bravado and doing his best impression of the western heroes from the books he used to read.

“If you really think you can shoot me before I kill the pair of you then be my guest and we’ll find out soon enough,” he said. He was glad when his voice didn’t shake and he sounded just as heroic as he had hoped. He was banking on these being the sort of men who took no risks and in calling his bluff. They were the sort of men who would only chase down lone, unarmed women with no horse, after all. They would never attempt such devilishness if they themselves were either alone, unarmed, or unmounted. Fortunately, he was correct.

“He’s not worth it,” the portly one sneered.

The tall one glared back at him, shooting his gun in the air.

“If we see you again, we won’t hesitate. Let that be a warning for you. You’d do well to heed it.”

“Same to you, and I’ll be ready for you next time. I’ll have a few guns on each of you then,” he whispered to himself.

As they took off back the way they came, Gideon dismounted his horse and approached the woman who was still stumbling towards him, catching her breath and mourning a small tear in her dress.

“Where are you headed? I can give you a ride to wherever you need,” he offered her as he showed her his palm.

She hesitantly took his hand, and he helped her up and then into his saddle. But no sooner was she seated behind him with her arms around him for stability than she passed out behind him.

He felt her warm cheek on the nape of his neck, her jet-black hair caressing him in the breeze, and he could smell her sweet breath when he turned to look at her. The intimacy was inescapable, and he felt himself growing hot with embarrassment.

He looked around them, wondering if there was anyone else he could employ the assistance of, but there was no one. He couldn’t think of where to take her so he headed back home. His mother would know best.

Chapter 3

Kate Kasse

When Kate came to, it didn’t take her long to notice that she was now inside the proverbial nest as the hatched cuckoo chick. It looked as though she had been provided with an entire bedroom to herself. The bed she was in was soft and warm, and she could smell that the sheets were fresh, which implied to her that she was welcome. She was confident she was not going to be imminently turned back outdoors as soon as she awoke and proved she could walk. The first part of the plan was evidently an immense success. Now it was time for the second part.

She saw an older woman with graying blonde hair and kind, green eyes bustled busily around the bedroom, refilling a water pitcher, which had been set beside her bed on a small table. Through half-closed eyes she looked around her and saw a young man around her age sitting in a chair by her side. She recognized him. That was the man who had come to rescue her from the hired goons. He was the one she needed to impress.

Now that she could finally see him up close, she thought he was quite handsome, and although he was very tall he was perhaps older than he looked as his clean shaven face accentuated his boyishness. Looking at him, she would have guessed he would be quite naive, but she was mightily impressed with his courage in facing a danger that he believed to be very real. She hadn’t expected that of him, but fearlessness can be a product of naivety just as it can be a product of courage.

The way he sat, with his chair angled towards her, reminded her of the way one would sit at the hospital bed of a loved one who was ailing, so clearly her wellbeing was of interest to him. The chair itself also clearly didn’t belong to the room, as it was newer than the rest of the furniture and there wasn’t a table for it to be positioned in front of. It looked like a dining room chair, and therefore he must have carried it up from downstairs in order to sit by her. This meant he expected to be there a long time, which pleased her.

The setup of the room, however, made Kate feel like a hospital patient, and she hated feeling vulnerable. How could she be certain he wasn’t there under false pretenses? In reality, he could be watching her to make sure she wouldn’t make off with the contents of the drawers. Was he her protector or her jailer? Nothing bound her wrists and the door to the room was wide open, as was the window to allow the fresh breeze in and cool the room to a comfortable temperature. It seemed strange to her that one would project themselves as caring that much for someone they knew so little about.

When she was ready for the next stage of her performance Kate stirred. Then she sat up sleepily, doing her best impression of someone who was sore and tender. Indeed, she had in fact hit her head firmly on the ground when she had tripped, which wasn’t part of the act, and it was now throbbing. It was a small price to help sell the lie. Especially when she had the mark to prove it was authentic.

She looked around her with confusion, as though she remembered nothing, seeing these strange and potentially concerning surroundings of a stranger’s bedroom and its occupants as if for the first time. The woman turned around from the window when she heard her weary yawn, looking glad to see her conscious and giving her a broad and genuine smile.

“Hello, I’m so glad you’re awake! I heard you took a nasty fall,” she began, “It’s very nice to meet you. You had quite an ordeal out there, didn’t you? My name is Roberta Reed. You’re in a bedroom in our home and you’re very welcome to stay here as long as you need to recover.”

“And I’m Gideon. I’m the one who rescued you from those outlaws,” Gideon said with gusto before Kate could respond to the older woman. She had to stifle a giggle at how clearly rehearsed Gideon’s introduction was. He evidently was waiting for his opportunity to impress her, and because of that she knew she had been very successful in her efforts.

Kate remained quiet. The more she said the more she risked incriminating herself. She would play the shy, bashful damsel as best she could which would only endear herself to them even more, much like an abandoned fawn they must have no choice but to adopt her.

She knew the more she projected this role the more the Reeds would be inclined to protect her from the dangers that surrounded them. It was as though she had lived all her life in a cave which was entirely sealed from the outside world, and had no means with which to avoid falling victim to it. She needed a young man, just like Gideon, to protect her from it, and clearly he had reached that conclusion just as they had prepared him to.

“It’s very nice to meet you both. You’re very kind. I’m Kate Moore. I’m awfully sorry to be such a nuisance. No doubt you had other plans for the day, and here I am ruining them,” Kate said as timidly as she could, using her mother’s maiden name as they had planned, as the name Kasse would no doubt be recalled by the patriarch of the family as one of his most trusted brothers-in-arms.

No doubt one would remember the name of the man they had left to die, and Kurt likely still occupied his thoughts in his waking hours and his dreams while he slept. It was at odds with the image of her coming to bring light into his life that she wished to project. One was harsh reality, and the other whimsical fantasy. Who wouldn’t choose the fantasy, after all?

“You have nothing to apologize for, my dear girl. And you’re no nuisance at all. You’re a welcome guest in our home,” Roberta cooed back to her. She was the mother hen indeed.

“Yes. You were the one being victimized. It’s those outlaws who should be apologizing to you for what they did. You wouldn’t need to be here if it wasn’t for them,” Gideon told her. She looked down and covered her face so that she would look sheepish. In reality, she had to hide the flash of rage which had erupted within her at being referred to as a victim. What’s more was how casual it had rolled from his tongue, as though it was so obvious to all that she was an innate victim.

She had been taught never to be a victim to anyone, and couldn't bear to be pitied as she found it intensely disrespectful. She decided she already despised this woman she had created, which apparently this young man would fall in love so easily with. She reminded her of the other girls in school who wouldn’t play with her.

No doubt they were mostly married by now to the boys who wouldn’t speak to her either. The Reeds seemed to be so fond of this young woman, however, and so she would have to live inside of her, like she was in a diving bell deep underwater, for the foreseeable future.

“Thank you for saving me from those mean old men, Gideon. It’s all such a blur now, but from what I remember of it you were so brave. You’ll have to remind me all about how it transpired from when you came galloping in,” she said softly through heart-shaped eyes. It took everything within her to make her so appealing to him, but she could see that he was weak.

Already, he shrank in front of her, and she could see him gulp nervously as he desperately tried to escape her heavy gaze which burned straight through him. Gone in an instant was the pity in his eyes, and she could already see the power she had over him in its place. That made her happy, as she could see now that she had nothing to be concerned about in that regard.

“What were you doing all the way out there all on your own? There’s nothing for miles and miles,” Roberta asked with a slight hint of suspicion. Kate could tell she had been mulling it over and it burst from her at the first opportunity. “Do you have folks who we can take you to or write to in order to come and get you? Where did you travel from?”

Kate looked sad again and shook her head forlornly. This was the part they had discussed earlier. The more helpless she was perceived to be the less the Reeds could feel able to separate themselves from her again. If they were to let her go and she was to meet a horrific fate they would never forgive themselves, as they were conscientious people, and so with the chase still fresh in Gideon’s mind she knew he never would. Not when she had tried her best to look as pretty as she did for him and his act of valor could still be repaid.

“I came out West from up North. What remains of my family still resides up there,” she explained. She realized she didn’t sound as sad anymore as soon as she began to recite the spiel she had been taught, but neither mother nor son had noticed, to her great fortune. Perhaps it was because she had noticed something else in what she said to pounce upon, which she found curious instead.

“That’s interesting. You don’t have a northern accent. I assumed you were from the South too,” Roberta observed, and Kate’s eyes widened. This one was sharp, she thought, and she would have to be more careful around her in the future. The boy would choose to believe, but she wouldn’t be fooled so willingly.

“Oh. My family was from down this way originally. I don’t know where from exactly, though. I guess I got my accent from them when I was growing up,” Kate explained as casually as she could. It didn't satiate Roberta, and her suspicions only grew.

“Why did you come all this way on your own, especially if your family is already familiar with the state?” Roberta asked her pitifully. Again, Kate covered her face with her hands to hide from Roberta while she tried to read her, as she couldn’t fake a blush. The cogs in her mind were turning as fast as they could formulate a story for her captors. Her father had provided her with something for this, but in the heat of the moment it had vacated itself from Kate’s mind.

“I answered an advertisement for a mail order bride from a man who lived near here. I had shared correspondence with this man for many months before coming out this way to meet him,” she stated, just as she had rehearsed.

“Who was it you were coming to meet? It would make more sense for us to write to him instead so that he can come and get you,” Gideon suggested. There was a slight waspishness to his voice which Kate didn’t recognize. He seemed like he believed her, and that was all that mattered for now. This fictional man who abandoned her would make the perfect enemy against which they would be willingly recruited.

“No, that won’t be possible. I’m afraid there’s more bad news in that regard. When I arrived, expecting to meet him, he wasn’t there waiting for me as he had promised. I was so worried, but I had remembered that he told me he lived near Turning River, in Galveston County.”

“Well, this ranch is in Turning River,” Roberta said, scratching her head.

“Oh, is it? That’s very fortunate! What are the chances? I had gone to the town and someone there gave me directions to come this way, but when I arrived at the specified address there was no man living there, only an elderly widow who had never heard of him. I thought it was all a horrible trick he had pulled on me and I was heading back towards town when I was then accosted by those horrible men.”

“I’ve never seen them before, but they won’t be bothering you as long as you stay close to the ranch, miss. I can promise you that,” Gideon told her boldly.

Kate then hung her head, conjuring the shame of a woman who would have been rejected and abandoned so far from her home in such a cruel manner. This was the shame of someone who was helpless, pitiful even, and she only once dared glanced upwards again when Roberta and Gideon looked at one another to see how satisfied they were with her tragic tale. Roberta silently poured her a large cup of water from the pitcher beside her bed, and she knew then that she was in.

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PrologueFirst Republic of Texas, 1813“I need a woman,” Gerald shouted, slurring his words. his voice thick with drink.

A Bride’s Game of Love

PrologueIdaho Springs, Colorado June 15, 1882 Dark hair wisps up against the rushing bright blue of the late

The Rescued girl’s secret

PrologueMarch 1872. Galveston, Texas, USA John Reed John Reed groaned as he sat down on the top porch

A Mail Order Bride’s precious heart

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