About the book
He showed her that even in the darkest of nights, the stars will still shine...
Refusing to marry a complete stranger, Hope Trousdale flees to Nevada after responding to a Mail-Order Bride ad. Hoping to meet her best friend there, what she finds shocks her to the core: the latter has mysteriously gone missing.
While investigating a series of troubling missing girl cases, sheriff Owen Rundel meets the latest victim's best friend. From the moment he sees her, he knows he has to protect those eyes no matter what.
But while searching together for the missing girl, Owen’s worst fear becomes real: Hope suddenly goes missing as well…
With a dangerous criminal of unknown motives lurking in the shadows, Owen must quickly find Hope before it’s too late, but also save the town from its worst nightmare.
Hope knocked on her father’s study door. He was always in his office when home, so she knew where to find him once she returned. It did not matter to him that it was Sunday, a day of rest. Something like that did not exist in his mind. The business world doesn’t stop for anything, was his favorite saying.
“Come in,” he called out and Hope opened the door and entered.
“Hello, Father,” she greeted him, walking the short distance to stand in front of his desk.
“Hope,” he greeted her back, not lifting his eyes from the papers that were scattered in front of him. No doubt those were billing receipts, all kinds of contracts, requirements, lists, etc.
Hope found his work rather boring, not that she would ever utter such a thing to his face. He loved it, and that was all that mattered. Besides, she was grateful for all the abundance she was living in, thanks to it. The Trousdale family empire would always be run by her father, and one day, in the far, far future, by her husband. She was her mother’s daughter, after all, she inherited no affinity for such a dull business.
“You wanted to see me,” she prompted.
“There’s a matter I want to discuss with you,” he replied, frowning over some contract. She did not want to keep him away from his work since he was clearly far too busy.
“I already know what it is,” she replied, trying to make this visit short for his sake. In any case, she couldn’t contain herself, the excitement started to rise inside of her once more. Her twenty-first birthday was nearing and she really needed to start preparing for it. Suddenly, six months did not appear to be enough time for everything she wanted to do.
Oh Lord, I wish it to be perfect, she prayed with all her might.
“You do?” He asked in surprise, finally lifting his head to look at her.
“Oh, yes,” she said with a smile.
“How? I barely made all the arrangements myself.”
“I guessed it.”
He chuckled, leaning against his seat. “You were always my clever girl. So you have no objections?” He wanted to know.
“Of course not. Oh, Daddy, it is going to be grand. I cannot wait.”
He smacked himself against his knee, clearly pleased. “Honestly, my dear, you take me by surprise with your attitude. I am very happy by this turn of events. Very happy, indeed.”
Hope was happy he was happy. This birthday was truly going to be the best. She was very fortunate to have such a loving father.
“We shall announce the engagement on your birthday, then. That will give us plenty of time to prepare everything.”
“Yes, Father—” and then she registered his actual words. The engagement? “I do not understand,” Hope said, sitting down in one of the chairs opposite his desk.
“What is the matter, my dear?” He asked with concern. “You do not want to wait until your birthday? You young girls can be very impatient,” he chuckled at his own words.
“What engagement? I thought we were discussing my birthday party.”
Now it was his turn to look perplexed. “Why would I bother with the party? That is your mother’s affair. I took care of your future.”
“My future?” Hope exclaimed.
“Yes, you are to be wed by the year’s end,” he announced.
“I will not marry that old man, Mr. Hewitt,” she declared.
Her father looked shocked. “Of course not.” Her relief was short-lived. “You are to wed Mr. Hewitt’s son.”
His son? Hope believed Mr. Hewitt had a toddler, not a grown man of a son.
“He is a fine lad that I have heard many great things about, and even more importantly, he is an heir to the Hewitt’s wealth. You will be very well taken care of,” her father looked rather pleased with himself saying that. “And will continue to live in a fashion you are accustomed to.”
Hope’s ears were ringing from all the thoughts inside her head. One particular word stood out from all the other noise.
No, she screamed inside her head. Nononononononono.
“I do not know Mr. Hewitt’s son,” Hope replied weakly. Mr. Hewitt was one of her father’s most recently acquired acquaintances.
Hope wasn’t trying to be cynical, it was just that her father met a lot of people regularly, all to maintain his status as one of the most successful and powerful businessmen in the state. Lately, there could not be a dinner party thrown or some other social event held that Mr. Hewitt was not invited to, as well.
Hope had nothing against that man, she heard he was a widower with just one son, so she assumed her father felt sorry for him since they were new in town and wanted them to feel welcome. Robert Trousdale clearly did not solely accept them out of the goodness of his heart. There was some kind of a business plan in there as well, she was sure of it. Hope did not have the opportunity to meet Mr. Hewitt’s son. As a matter of fact, no one did. That was not uncommon if the son was a small boy.
Hope heard that Mr. Hewitt was a rather rich man and owned cotton plantations in the south. Her father was simply trying to find a way to capitalize on Mr. Hewitt’s connections and wealth because that was what he did.
There was just one thing, though. Hope did not care for the way Mr. Hewitt looked at her. It gave her the chills, having his eyes always trained on her. She felt observed, measured, judged and she did not appreciate the sentiment one bit.
“There will be plenty of time for that until the wedding,” he said with a wave of his hand. Hope knew her father was trying to be reassuring but wasn’t.
No, every part of her body rebelled against that idea. She did not want to get married, especially not to a complete stranger.
“Daddy, I do not wish to marry someone like this. What if I don’t like him?” She tried to voice her concerns.
“What is there not to like?” He countered rhetorically. “I already told you everything you need to know.”
“It is already settled, Hope. Mr. Hewitt and I are to open ten more factories together. And there is nothing better in fortifying our partnership than joining our two houses together.”
So this is nothing more than a business transaction to him, Hope realized, instantly getting mad. She should have known, she fumed. There was always an angle with her father, and apparently, no one was spared from his business maneuvers.
“They are going to be glorious, Hope. The most modern factories ever seen,” he mused, looking into the distance.
Hope saw red. She stood up and smacked her hands against his old oak desk, forcing him to focus on her one more time.
“I will not marry Mr. Hewitt’s son or anyone else for that matter, simply so you can collect some business points in the process, and you cannot make me.”
Hope was so enraged she felt like tearing and breaking everything in front of her and having the biggest tantrum in her life. She did not care if she spoke out of turn or about the fact that she raised her voice. Her mother would snap and chastise her for showing such un-lady-like traits, but her mother was not there.
At the moment she was enraged and hurt that her father decided to use her in such a manner. Because that was exactly what he did, use her. There was no other word she could use to describe it.
“What did you say to me?” Hope’s father snapped back, matching her level of irritation.
Hope knew her father had a bad temper that could easily flare up whenever he was displeased at something or someone. He was rarely like that with his family. Beware if he did not get his way business-wise. However intimidating her father looked in these moments, Hope did not back down. She inherited her temper and sense of self-worth and pride from him, after all.
“You heard me,” she replied like a spoiled, stubborn brat. A part of her knew she had to calm down a bit and speak with her father in a more rational way. Unfortunately, her mouth and her brain did not communicate well at this time. “I will not be sold off to some random man simply so you can get a better business deal.”
His eyes narrowed, staring at her. “This is hardly being sold off,” he smirked. “You will be settled for life, and your children as well.”
“I do not wish to be settled!” she threw those words back at him. Hope did not want to get married in the first place. She loved her life in her parents’ house. She loved her lessons, and all the hobbies, not to mention all the social events she attended throughout the year. And did not want to change that.
“And what do you want, to live like a pauper? Have to work every day for life?” Hope’s father asked yet did not give her a chance to respond. “Hope, it is time for you to grow up and abandon all these foolish notions! You will be twenty-one years old soon. And it is time you accept the world as it is, a hard and difficult place where you can’t get everything you want.”
You did. Her father had gotten everything he wanted. Hope wanted to throw those words back in his face, but something stopped her.
Despite the fact that Hope’s family was one of the wealthiest in the state, her father was always looking for ways to generate even more money. That is his raison d’être.
“You can never be too rich or too powerful, Hope, remember that,” he liked to say to her.
“There are times when you have to compromise. Marriage is nothing more than a business transaction.”
How very romantic of you, Father.
He sighed. “Maybe this is all my fault. I shielded you from everything, wanted you to grow up in abundance. Now I see the error of my ways.”
Hope recoiled as if he slapped her. He thought she did not know how the world worked? If she was grateful for one thing to her father, it was for the education he provided her with. The best tutors available that money could buy were always at her disposal and they not only taught her how to read, write, and play instruments, some of them, the few great ones, taught her how to think as well. She was capable of observing the world as it was and seeing all its flaws. It hurt her feelings that her own father thought of her as fickle. Just because she chose to see the best this world had to offer did not mean she was blind to everything else.
Hope planned on saying something else to her father but reconsidered after his little speech. She took a deep breath, trying to sound as calm as was possible, under the circumstances.
“I understand what you just said perfectly, and it is just as important you understand me. I refuse.” Hope remained determined.
The only indicator her father was deeply displeased was the tightness of his jaw. He, too, was trying not to lose his temper. They even thought in the same way. We are the same. “Do not make this difficult, Hope.” His warning was very subtle, yet it was there.
Oh, she planned on being even more difficult if needed. Still, she decided to make one last effort and plead with her father to reconsider. Hope sat back down. “Please, Father, I beg of you. Do not try to force me to marry someone I’ve never met. I want to love my future husband,” she confessed. The second those last words left her mouth she knew she had made a mistake.
He snorted as if she said the most ridiculous thing he ever heard. “Love, Hope? Honestly.”
That made her anger spike back up. “Don’t you want me to be happy? Do you even care?”
After hearing his comment on love, she wanted to ask if he even loved her, but stopped herself at the last moment. There were some things she was not prepared to hear.
“You will be happy,” he replied sternly, “with the choice I made for you.”
No, I refuse, Father.
“One day you will realize that and be grateful.”
“As you said yourself, Father, it is your choice, not mine. And it will never be mine,” she vowed. She could not say where all this courage to speak to him in such a manner came from but it was too late to surrender now.
Hope’s father looked at her for a couple of heartbeats, then straightened up in his seat and grabbed hold the first document that lay in front of him. Or at least it looked that way to her.
“We will discuss all the details when you are less emotional,” he said dismissively. He was already reading and making notes as he went, which infuriated Hope even more.
“I will not be dismissed like that, Father, and I will most certainly not calm down. This is not going to pass so we will discuss it now.”
Or you could simply accept the fact that I am not going to be married.
“Where is Mother?” Hope realized her mother should be a part of this conversation. She was certain her mother would defend her right to choose for herself. Mother wouldn’t allow me to be married off as a part of a business deal. Or would she? Hope wavered for a moment. She banished that thought instantly.
Blissfully, her mother chose that moment to enter the study. She was bringing tea for Hope’s father. Georgia Trousdale was known for her organizational talents. Hope’s father sometimes joked that if that was a paying job, her mother would build another empire simply because she was that good. It was not easy choreographing everything and at times her mother really looked like she was at the end of her rope. The rewards were vast, on the other hand, and it was apparent her mother really enjoyed doing it. The fact that it helped her husband was a bonus.
“Mother,” Hope exclaimed, jumping back to her feet to rush by her mother’s side. “Please reason with Father,” Hope begged, grabbing her by the hand.
That action nearly made her mother drop the tray, so Hope immediately released her, realizing the mistake she almost made. Her mother hated messes.
Hope’s mother put the tray down onto the desk and started pouring the tea in the cup. Hope found the whole endeavor maddening. Here Hope was, having the biggest crisis in her life and her mother was too preoccupied with making sure her father got his afternoon tea to bother with anything else.
“Mother, please tell Father this is not acceptable,” Hope tried again.
“So he told you,” her mother replied calmly, conversationally, looking at her husband.
“Yes, he did,” Hope chose to reply before her father could answer. “And I do not want to be traded off as one of his properties,” she spat out.
Her mother frowned, displeased. Hope was showing so many emotions that her mother deemed unworthy of any well-behaved young woman of her status.
“Honestly, Hope, that was very theatrical of you,” her mother said condescendingly.
Hope looked at her incredulously. She could not believe this was happening. “So, you agree with him?” Hope’s voice went so high she was certain neighboring dogs heard her without any problem. Mother as well?
“Father knows what is best,” Hope’s mother replied simply.
No. Hope rebelled, shaking her head. This cannot be. She came here so full of joy, thinking something else would happen, only to be blindsided in the worst possible way with this terrible news. How could her life turn upside down in mere minutes?
“This is my life. No. I will not accept this.” She simply couldn’t.
Her mother sighed. “We only think about what is best for you and for your future.”
“Precisely,” her father agreed.
“No. Stop saying that. If that was really the case, you would consider my opinion and my emotions as well.”
And her opinion was that she would rather watch hell freeze over than get married.
“Do not be foolish, Hope.” Her mother looked quite fed up with her, and the feeling was mutual.
How to make them understand? Hope was desperate. “I want to be in love with my husband and if that makes me foolish, then so be it.”
“Love is for poor people,” her mother snapped with disdain. “You have to think about your legacy. Besides, I married your father in an arranged marriage and we are truly blessed.”
Hope was stunned for a moment. Her mind did not know what information to process first. Her mother had just made some statements that completely confused her, to say the least.
“I do not want your life,” Hope replied eventually. When everything was spread out on the table, when everything was said and done, that was what counted the most. And even Hope wasn’t truly aware of that until she said it. She did not want to live as her mother did. Sure, she had her events, clubs, and friends she liked to gossip and play cards with, but to Hope that simply wasn’t enough.
Hope did not want to sound ungrateful. She thanked God every day for everything she had. She loved her life and all that it entailed, it was just that as of late, she started to feel like something was missing.
Hope wanted more out of her life, plain and simple. Because you only get one. She wanted to learn so much more, she wanted to see more things, experience everything this life had to offer. Only then would she feel like she truly lived. Not simply accept the role her father and mother chose for her.
Playing house with a complete stranger, some dull husband her father chose for her, was not on her list of things. Realizing all this calmed her completely.
Hope nodded to her father and mother. “If love is for poor people then I wish with all my heart to be poor,” she announced, raising her chin ever so slightly. Hope’s intention wasn’t to upset her parents, only speak the truth. Sadly, they did not see it that way.
“You do not know what you are saying,” her mother was outraged, placing a hand across her heart.
Her father stood up, placing a hand on his wife’s shoulder, offering comfort. “I gave you everything, and this is the gratitude I get,” he growled.
“You crossed the line, Hope, go to your room this instant,” her mother ordered.
“With pleasure,” Hope replied simply. She was aware this was far from over. For now, it was prudent to retreat. The emotions were running too high.
“And do not come back down until you apologize,” her mother added.
Hope turned on her heels. “See you in fifty years then,” she muttered to herself.
“What did you say, young lady?” Her father asked in all seriousness.
Hope started marching toward the door. “I said goodnight, Father, Mother.”
“It is not even lunchtime yet,” her mother stated, clearly confused by her words.
“I won’t be joining you for meals, I lost my appetite,” Hope explained. Maybe for good.
“As you wish,” her father replied, guessing her true meaning. It was better if they stayed out of each other’s hair for a while.
Hope could not believe her mother and father did this to her. She expected a big birthday gift, and oh Lord, did she get one.
Do they really expect me to be all right with this? By their reaction, it was more than obvious the answer was yes. They did expect her to do what she was told because she always did. Hope always tried to be a good daughter, and please her parents in any way she could.
When her father wanted her to learn how to play the flute, even though she already played the piano perfectly, she took up the flute. His reasoning was that every other respectable young lady in town knew how to play the piano and he wanted Hope to stand out. In other words, when they entertained guests, her father wanted to brag about how exceptional and unique Hope was. The same could be said for Latin, riding, fencing, archery, and ballet. Until she hurt her ankle so badly her mother decided it was not for her.
And truth be told, Hope loved the attention all that variety brought her. That was the reason she never complained while learning, doing all those things. Those extra traits made her more popular in their circle of acquaintances, but this arranged marriage was something else entirely. In her mind, that was taking things too far. She couldn’t simply say, “Yes, Father,” this time and do what he wanted. Because that would go against everything she believed and everything she was as a human being.
Even with all that in mind, Hope was no fool. Despite all the words she said to her father and mother, Hope was very much aware she did not live in a fairy tale. She knew most of the marriages were arranged, especially among the wealthy, who wanted to remain that way. However, she never believed something like that could ever happen to her. The way she was brought up, Hope always assumed she would be left with the ultimate right to choose.
How foolish of me. Slowly walking up the stairs toward her room, Hope was still in a state of utter disbelief. She needed to get over that and fast. I need to find a way to make Mother and Father see reason. But she knew the chances of changing their minds were rather poor. They seemed pretty convinced they were doing the right thing in arranging her marriage. They are wrong. She prayed to Heaven for some guidance.
Entering her room, she realized all the fire had disappeared from her body and now she simply felt spent, tired. She flung herself across her bed. Mother would be so displeased. She was wrinkling the dress as she moved her legs this way and that simply to make sure it was properly ruined. And then she realized her act of rebellion would only mean extra work for their servants—her mother wouldn’t be bothered in the slightest—so she stopped.
She returned to wracking her brain with more pressing issues than her attire. I need to make Father nullify this engagement. At the moment no one even knew she was to be wed to Mr. Hewitt’s son. Dear Lord, I don’t even know his name, came a sudden thought. So there was not going to be any harm if they simply canceled it. Apart from her father losing a great deal of money.
But what if I can’t do it?
What if she could not stop this from happening? Hope banished that thought immediately. She couldn’t think like that. There was always a way. She simply had to think hard and find it.
You can do it, Hope, she started encouraging herself. If you learned to deal with Mr. Mackenzie, you can deal with anything. Mackenzie was a really mean, grumpy, old man, who taught her Latin. She just needed to have good, solid arguments on her side next time around. Her first mistake was losing her temper. Her second mistake was mentioning emotions. She needed to show her father it would be a better business decision to let her be. How on earth am I going to do that?
Then something else occurred to her that put her mind at ease. If talking failed, she always had another option at her disposal. She could make them abandon this course of action. She would behave in such a horrible way, Mr. Hewitt himself would call off the wedding. Nobody wanted a nightmare as a wife or a daughter-in-law, and that was precisely what she was going to turn herself into.
Only if everything else fails. Despite everything, Hope did not want to tarnish her father’s reputation and that put her in a very strange, uneasy position.
How far am I ready to go to free myself of this engagement? Hope shuddered. That word, engagement, made her feel sick to her stomach. She did not want all this upon herself. Maybe that was the real sign she was no longer a child that could only deal with childish things. This was her first test of maturity. Looking back at her tantrum, she handled it badly. On the other hand, she was unpleasantly surprised and simply acted accordingly.
Hope could not stop hearing her father’s voice inside her head. This is all for my good, she fumed. Then why did it feel as though she was being punished, not rewarded? Because as it turned out, she was not as meek as everybody believed.
If or when I decide to get married it is going to be on my own terms and no one else’s. And the consequences be damned. Hope was unyielding about that. She absolutely meant what she said to her father. She would rather lose everything in her life and be poor than have to marry someone without love.
Lucky for her, the angels listened.
Hope needed a concrete plan. Sabotaging the wedding any way she could or antagonizing her future husband-to-be did not feel like enough. She needed some extra cards up her sleeve, just in case. Mr. Hewitt—Junior, she decided to call him that since she did not know his actual name, nor did she wish to— proved to be difficult and hard to shake. The promise of a substantial amount of money could be reason enough for most men to go through any ordeal. Hope just prayed Junior would lack the necessary willpower to deal with her.
Realizing this was going to be just the first of many sleepless nights, Hope stood back up, only to then sit behind her desk. Since two heads were better than one, Hope decided to ask for some assistance. And there was only one person she wished as her accomplice.
Jessamine was her best of friends in the entire world. Sadly, she wasn’t here anymore. Jessamine did not die, or anything horrific like that, she simply moved away to a different state.
As far as Hope was concerned, she could have moved to the Moon, the distance between them was just as vast. They still wrote to each other constantly and that was of great comfort to Hope, that they managed to remain friends.
Jessamine’s family worked for Hope’s family for a very long time. Hope never treated Jessamine like she was anything other than her dear sister. They were the same age, birthdays only a week apart.
Hope always believed she and Jessamine would grow old together, such was their bond. And it almost broke her heart when they decided to move away a year ago. Hope begged her father to give Mr. Reynolds anything he desired so Jessamine could stay, but it did no good. And eventually, Hope understood why. Mr. Reynolds had to do what he thought was best for his family. An opportunity arose and they moved to live at the edge of the world. Hope was highly exaggerating. They settled in the West, in a town called Rippingate, where they bought a small farm they could work and live on without depending on anyone else apart from fickle Nature.
Mr. Reynolds always dreamed of becoming a farmer and once he grew tired of the city life he made that dream into a reality. And Hope was genuinely happy for them, even though it meant she lost her friend. They still wrote to each other, and that meant everything to Hope. She liked to read about all the things that happened to Jessamine since she moved from Aligate. At times, life in the Wild West did not sound as Hope pictured it.
Jessamine will know what I am to do, she thought with confidence, taking a blank sheet of paper and starting to write her dear friend a letter. She had so many thoughts inside her head that were battling for dominance, it was difficult for her to sift through everything and actually start.
Stop! She commanded herself. Take a deep breath, and start at the beginning. And that was exactly what she did.
Once she managed to actually start, the words simply flew across the page at an impressive speed, and onto another one. She filled sheet after sheet, even though she did not have that much to say.
She poured her heart out, sharing everything with Jessamine. Hope was very saddened and heartbroken by this turn of events. Worst of all, she was outraged her father would trade her to another man in the name of profit.
It was not like there were no signs of her father’s shrewd business inclinations, and sometimes straight out ruthlessness, while dealing with other people in the past. It was no secret he valued money and power above all else. Nevertheless, Hope still believed that she, as his daughter, was somehow removed from that business aspect of his life, that she was an exception to the rule.
She was wrong. Everything in his life revolved around business, there was nothing else, which was sad. But Hope did not feel sorry for her father at the moment.
Now I know better. And the notion her parents could treat her, their daughter, in this way, was something she wasn’t so accustomed to dealing with. Despite everything, her father was right—Hope had lived a rather sheltered life up to this point, and perhaps she was a bit spoiled. That did not mean she was about to surrender and accept this as her fate.
At some point, Maria knocked on her door so Hope paused with her writing.
“I brought you some supper,” Maria announced, stepping inside, carrying a large tray. It was overflowing with everything. Apart from supper, Maria brought her some fruit, as well.
And even dessert, Hope noticed. Is this Father’s attempt at bribery? Hope thought, snidely. Probably not, he would aim higher. This was all Maria, since she was clearly worried about Hope. Hope was worried about herself as well.
Hope discretely hid the letter under some books. Maria was Hope’s maid, employed by her father, but Maria was dear to her and Hope did not want to put her in a difficult position. So Hope pretended to be looking outside the window. The window in her room overlooked the garden. The flowers were all in bloom now, yet they held no joy for Hope as they once did. Her father managed to spoil everything for her. But not for long, she promised herself.
Only then did she remember Maria was in the room with her.
“I am not hungry, take that away,” she instructed. “And you can retire for the night.”
Maria looked like there was something on her mind, but at the last minute she changed her mind about speaking out and simply nodded.
She probably heard the news of my impending doom, Hope exaggerated to herself. She had to admit, she did not like this side of herself. “Do you wish me to help you with your attire?” Maria offered, as Hope knew she would.
“No need, thank you, Maria, goodnight.” Hope had unfinished business with the letter and making other plans, stressing about her future, so she did not need any witnesses around. Besides, she was perfectly capable taking off her own dress and putting on a nightgown.
Maria wished her goodnight in return.
There are small chances for that. Hope sighed. She couldn’t allow herself to be too focused on the negative. The battle hasn’t even started yet. Hope needed all her wits and her willpower to outsmart her father. He was the most successful businessman she knew. On the other hand, she was his daughter.
She returned to the letter to Jessamine. “Please, help me. I need us both working on this problem,” she wrote to Jessamine. “I do not want to marry someone for the sake of money.” That fate seemed worse than anything to her. Worse than death. It was true she was very young and did not know anything about romantic love. However, to force herself to live without it for the rest of her life sounded terrible. “I love you, my dearest friend, and I’m looking forward to your swift reply,” Hope concluded.
She spent the entire night tormenting herself with all the possibilities regarding Junior. What if he is ugly? What if he is cruel? What if...what if? Her mind wandered from one horrible thing to the next as she watched the sky change colors. It slowly, almost imperceptibly, switched from black to dark blue, and eventually, to lighter tones. A new day was dawning. When the first rays of sunlight reached their garden, Hope finally stood up. She was completely stiff and her limbs ached. She ignored all that.
Not wanting Maria to find her wearing yesterday’s dress, Hope quickly stripped and after washing up, changed clothes. Her parents ordered her to stay inside her room, but she was not going to oblige them.
After her first act of true rebellion, she was really on a roll, she realized with mild amusement. Collecting the letter and securing it inside her purse, Hope slowly, as quietly as possible, descended down the stairs.
“You are up early,” Maria startled her. So much for leaving the house undetected, Hope thought to herself glumly. This mild setback was not going to discourage her from going out.
“Yes, well, I wanted to go for a walk, it is such fine weather.”
Maria looked at her, clearly not believing a word of that statement. Hope was not good at pretense. “And to go to the post office,” she added reluctantly.
“I could mail it for you,” Maria offered and Hope panicked. What if Father ordered everyone on the staff not to let her out of the house? No, he wouldn’t do that. It was far too extreme of a measure. So far, they only had one disagreement. Granted, it was a big one, but Robert Trousdale was a very rational man. If he wanted to make her do something, his methods would not be so mundane.
You believed that for the arranged marriage as well, the other part of her challenged. She shushed that part.
“No, thanks, Maria,” Hope replied instantly, trying to conceal how nervous she was all of a sudden. “I will mail it.”
Hope did not object because she distrusted Maria in any way. Yes, this letter was very important for her and she wanted to see it sent off personally. Also, she wanted to leave the house, for just a bit. Simply to see if she still could. Hope’s whole perspective had changed in less than a day. This grandiose house did not feel like a home to her, more like a prison and she wanted, actually needed, some fresh air.
“All right, let me just get you a shawl,” Maria suggested. “It is a bit chilly this morning.”
Hope nodded, relieved. “Thank you. Just be quick about it, please.”
When Hope looked back at her life, she discovered a pattern she had ignored before, marking it as something usual. Her father really pushed her hard over the years. It was expected of her to excel at everything. Hope went to the best school, had the best tutors money could buy for her academics and music lessons alike. In exchange, she had best of everything: clothes, books, furniture for her room. Foolishly, she thought it was because he loved her. As it turned out, it was all an investment for Robert Trousdale, so he could sell her off one day to the highest bidder.
That day, unfortunately, arrived. Not if I have something to say about it. Hope was not going willingly and without a fight.
Ten new factories, Father threw that number into her face last night.
Is that my worth? Ten factories for your daughter’s happiness. Is that really a fair trade? Hope did not dare to answer these questions.
Maria returned with the shawl and she had one wrapped around her shoulders as well. Hope should have known her maid wasn’t going to let her go alone. It was far better than the alternative.
“I’ll go inform Mrs. Trousdale we won’t be long.”
“Don’t bother,” Hope said with a wave of her hands. “As you said, we won’t stay long.” And before her maid could protest or say anything else, Hope ushered her through the door. Hope did not want anyone to know she was sending this to Jessamine. Their correspondence was rather regular and usually no one in the house would raise an eyebrow. But the timing of this letter could raise questions, so she did not want to take any chances.
A part of her wished she never had to return to the house. That was a rather silly notion, to begin with. No matter how crossed she was at her parents at the moment, they were still her parents, and Hope loved them dearly. This will all pass, she tried to comfort herself.
Maria tried to engage her a couple of times in a conversation. Hope was absentminded.
“I do not feel like practicing my Spanish this morning, Maria,” Hope explained.
“Lo siento,” Maria murmured.
“That is quite all right, some other time, maybe.” Hope knew the maid was just trying to be helpful.
Hope sighed in relief once they reached the post office. It was foolish of her to put so much significance to a piece of paper, but it meant the world to her because she needed to know what Jessamine would write back about Hope’s problem.
“You really miss your friend,” Maria guessed. She was not wrong. She was not completely right, either. Hope nodded nevertheless, not wanting to elaborate.
There was no line at the post office so Hope conducted her business immediately. She paid a bit extra to the clerk in the office, stressing how important it was to her that this letter reached her friend as soon as possible, and he promised her that it would. She knew that the road was long and hard between her and Jessamine, but Hope prayed that with a bit of luck, the letter would reach its destination.
On her way back home, they ran into Kith. Hope loved Kith. He was her favorite cousin. Probably because he misbehaved the most and it was fun to be in his company. The things that happened to him because of his personality were always highly entertaining. Hope’s mother branded him a bad influence. Hope did not care, she spent as much time with him as she could.
All that was fine if you were simply a friend or a cousin to him, but if you were a girl enamored, Kith’s fickleness could pretty quickly turn any girl’s affection to resentment. Hope saw that happen many times in the past.
One day he will meet his match, Hope thought, sparing one last glance toward her cousin. Once she even thought that match was Jessamine, alas, that was when she moved away.
Kith chuckled approaching them. “You look rather pleased to see me, cousin.”
Oh, you have no idea, Hope felt like replying. Instantly, Hope wanted to tell him everything, despite him being the biggest gossip. Kith will know what to do. And Hope had ways to insure his silence. As it turned out, no type of blackmail was needed. Kith promised to stay quiet simply because she was his favorite cousin. The feeling was mutual.
“Maria?” Hope turned toward her maid once they all greeted one another.
“Would you be so kind as to go and buy me some roasted chestnuts. I feel a bit lightheaded,” Hope said, rubbing her temples as Kith watched her with slight amusement. Am I overdoing it? She lowered her hand.
“Better,” Kith mouthed so Maria could not hear him.
“You did skip breakfast,” Maria mused. “I will be right back.”
“We will be in the park,” Kith provided.
Once Maria was out of earshot he turned toward her. “I know you have something scandalous to tell me, so please do,” he said in his usual, cheerful manner.
“I am to be married,” Hope blurted out.
Kith chuckled. She hit him in the arm. That was certainly not the reaction she was hoping for.
“This is serious, Kith, Father is forcing me to marry some business partner of his, or rather his son.” Hope quickly told him everything.
“Not you too, cousin,” he exclaimed in exasperation.
Now that is an appropriate reaction.
“This life is rather cruel to us, don’t you think?”
“I will not do it,” Hope said stubbornly.
“That’s the spirit. I have been dodging marriage for years now.”
“You will have to teach me how to do that,” Hope only half-joked.
“With pleasure. Firstly, you will have to become a man.”
“Kith,” she chastised.
“What?” Kith chuckled. “All my methods work only if you are the same sex as me.”
She was completely serious, but he used every opportunity to jest with her. I should have known better.
Maria returned with their snack and that put an end to Hope’s conversation with Kith.
“This is not over,” she mouthed silently to Kith and he inclined his head, understanding her perfectly.
As it turned out, everything failed. Hope honestly tried to reason with her parents. She tried to use logic and business language knowing her father would approve, yet it did her no good. She was still to be married.
Jessamine is my only hope now.
Weeks and weeks passed until Hope finally received word from Jessamine. Hope was very much in a war with her parents. She did not want to change her mind, unfortunately, neither did they. So far she had not been prevented from leaving the house or seeing her friends. That did not change for her. Things that did change were the meals. Mother never missed an opportunity to scorn her and Father completely ignored her apart from when he barked a few orders at her. It was maddening, to say the least.
While she waited for the letter, her father tried to arrange a meeting between her and Kristopher Hewitt. Hope learned his name, not that it changed anything for her. She preferred to call him Junior in her private thoughts. It felt like a small rebellion to her in some way.
One fine day, shortly after she sent the letter, Father called upon her to inform her how her betrothed—she really detested that word—would be calling on her. He told her to dress properly for the dinner they would be attending. Hope calmly agreed, only to develop a sudden case of the shivers, so the meeting was canceled.
Hope successfully sabotaged every other attempt of her parents to get the couple together. The second time, she bruised her ankle when they were about to go for a walk. The last one was by far the hardest since her father was on to her. Somewhere along the line, her father started to suspect she was doing all this on purpose. Blissfully, Kith helped her get out of her appointment. She could always count on her crazy cousin to pull her out of trouble. Sometimes that entailed getting her into even bigger difficulty, however, that was a price Hope was willing to pay.
“This childish behavior has to stop,” her father shouted at her afterward.
When you stop, I will too. She did not say that out loud. “May I be excused?”
That infuriated him even more. “Go and reflect on what you’re doing to me and your poor mother.”
Hope did not let that bother her or prevent her from behaving in the exact same way in the future. Because that was precisely what was on the line. Her future. And she was determined to have it her way, at any cost.
Relieved she finally had the letter, Hope ran up to her room and tore the envelope, impatient to read what Jessamine had to say about her problem.
“What?!” Hope couldn’t help but exclaim, starting to go through it. She found Jessamine’s advice to be rather peculiar. And that would be the understatement of the year. It was utter nonsense.
“This is preposterous. How can she even suggest something like this to me?” She muttered, pacing around her room. Did she wait for so long, for this? I cannot believe it. Hope asked for help and this was what she got. This must be a jest, she thought, returning to the discarded envelope simply to make sure there was not a second letter inside. Unfortunately, there was not. That could only mean that Jessamine’s advice was genuine. She couldn’t stop reading through it over and over again.
She sat on her bed at some point, when her legs started to ache. She was really wearing out the rug inside her room.
“Maybe she has a point,” she continued to speak with herself after her tenth read-through. By then she knew it by heart.
At the beginning of the letter, Jessamine shared Hope’s outrage about her parent’s behavior, politely stating afterward how that was not an uncommon thing. Hope already knew that.
Then Jessamine proposed a plan that was rather simple and could fix everything, in a way. The bad part was that Hope had to sacrifice a great deal to achieve it. Mostly her freedom. Jessamine suggested, in all seriousness, Hope should start reading Mail Order Bride ads in hopes of becoming one.
That’s crazy. Could I actually do that? Hope smiled.
Did you like this preview? Please, don't forget to leave me a comment below!
Want to read how the story ends?
The Redemption of a Hunted Bride is now live on Amazon!