Having to carve out a life on her own as a midwife, the last person Lessie MacKenzie expected to see on her doorstep was her missing husband…the injured Yankee she was forced to marry, who disappeared the next day, and whose kiss still lingered on her lips
Eli MacKenzie wanted only one thing after the Civil War…to establish his medical practice in New Hope, Kansas. His dream turned to despair when he discovered someone sold his property. And that someone appeared to be the woman who haunted his every dream the past two years…and now claimed to be his wife!
Brought together by chance and united by their desire to forge a future, will a secret from Lessie’s past threatens to destroy their new found love?
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Eli followed the woman’s gaze. A dozen or more hats, bonnets, lace gloves, and shawls edged with fringe stared back at him. This can’t be my property!He stepped back and read the scrolled lettering on the sign above the doorway—Thompson’s Fine Millinery. Pulling the map from his back pocket, he smoothed the creases with his fingers. He counted the number of businesses from the corner. The town appeared to be growing, and he was glad of it, but something didn’t add up. He stepped off the boardwalk into the street. “One, two, three, four,” he counted again. By this time, the group of women had moved on, still chattering and still leaving him bewildered. He charged up onto the planked boardwalk and jiggled the knob.
“Ain’t nobody there, sonny,” a voiced called out behind him. “Those Thompson gals done went up to Kansas City last week. Gone shoppin’ for more geegaws . . . or somethin’.”
“This is my property!” he barked, trying to release some of the frustration. He took in a great gulp of air and looked at the man.
The wizened face of the old man broke into a gap-toothed smile. “No, it ain’t.”
Raking a hand through his hair, Eli slapped his hat back and forth against a muscled thigh, creating a puff of brown dust. “Where is the sheriff’s office?”
The man raised a bony finger and pointed in the general direction of the saloon. “Just past the Rhinestone. It ain’t gonna do you no good, sonny. Sheriff Fuller headed out just after breakfast. He’s bringing one of the Mitchell boys to the sheriff in Lecompton. I s’pect he be back, oh, say suppertime, thereabouts.”
Since the old man appeared to know much of the goings-on in New Hope, Eli asked, “Who else might be able to help me?”
The man scratched a spot just above his temple and pursed his lips. “You might want to try Pennington’s over yonder. Maudie and ol’Abner been here since ’49. They was on the way to Californy to git gold. Wagon done broke, and Maude decided she weren’t goin’ no further. They know jist about everyone and everything goin’ on in town.”
Eli thanked the man and strode across the dusty street at a quick pace, taking the steps to the mercantile two at a time. The bell above the door jangled merrily as he entered the store, whose interior was only slightly cooler than the outside. Two men sat by an open window, playing a game of checkers, each contemplating his next move.
A woman, who was as wide as she was tall, came from behind a long wood-hewn counter. With her dark hair peppered with gray, Eli surmised she was on the shy side of fifty years old.
“Good morning,” she chirped happily, her bright blue eyes full of warmth, and he thought, a hint of mischief, “I’m Maude Pennington.” She put forth her hand. “Can I help you find something?”
“Pleasure to meet you, Mrs. Pennington. I’m Eli MacKenzie, and I need some—”
“Eli MacKenzie!” she cried, pulling him into a fierce hug. “Praise be to God you’ve come home!” Releasing him, she raised her hands to the heavens in thanksgiving. “Lessie has been praying for your safe return . . . and that boy of yours . . . oh my, what a blessing!”
Eli felt as though the wind had been knocked out of him. He certainly didn’t recall anyone by the name of Lessie or siring a child. He was certain thatwas something he would have remembered. “Mrs. Pennington, I think there’s . . .”
Maude Pennington waved a dismissive, ink-stained hand to stop him. “Call me Maude,” she insisted. “Wait right here.” She let loose with a high-pitched wail. “Abb-ner!” she cried, dragging out the first syllable. “Abb-ner!”
Heavy footsteps pounded on the floor above, and then on the stairs. A man, as tall and thin as Maude was short and round, stooped when he reached the lintel of the staircase opening. Over six feet tall, Abner Pennington easily matched him in height, but Eli guessed he had a good thirty pounds or more on the rail-thin storekeeper.
“Lord-a-mercy, woman, stop yer caterwaulin’! Yer screaming could pop the pennies off a dead man’s eyes!”
Despite his growing annoyance, Eli lifted the corners of his mouth into a grin when Abner Pennington stood next to his wife. The proprietors of the mercantile reminded him of the nursery rhyme, Jack Spratt.
“It’s him,” Maude said simply.
“Him? Who?” Abner looked questioningly from his wife to the customers in the store.
Maude gave Abner a less-than-gentle shove in Eli’s direction, “Eli . . . Eli MacKenzie . . . Lessie’s husband!”
Husband!Eli’s stomach pitched. The word implied he was married, yet he had no memory of a wedding. Or a wedding night.
Abner’s bushy eyebrows shot up, and a wide grin split his face. “Glad to meet you. Glad to meet you, son,” he acknowledged, grabbing Eli’s hand and pumping it up and down several times. “I’ll wager Lessie is mighty glad to have you home.”
Eli shook his head. The flush of embarrassment crept up his neck and seared his face. “I . . . uh . . . came straight from the station,” he admitted, and then without preamble asked, “Is that property next to the Sentinel—”
“Oh, you know Lessie done sold that building to the Thompson twins a week after moving here,” Maude informed him airily. “She said you both wanted a bigger place outside of town. Then she up and bought the Sadler farm, lock, stock, and barrel. She’s a treasure, that Lessie.”
Sold his property? Eli’s anger was fast approaching its zenith. How had this woman-Lessie apparently was her name—sold the property without a copy of the deed? Not to mention, how could she have afforded to buy a farm?
“And a real hard worker,” put in Abner. “Most of the harvest in front of the store came from your place.”
Behind him, a man’s voice added, “Though she’s a mite tall, she ain’t hard to look at neither.”
Surprisingly annoyed that some other man found his wifeattractive, Eli turned in the direction of the man and tamped down the urge to knock him in the nose for the sneer on his mouth. Instead, he found himself looking at a half dozen customers gathered near the counter. Apparently, they had long ago given up any pretense of shopping and now were listening outright to every word.
Playing along with the game he suddenly found himself in, Eli asked, “Abner, if you could give me directions, I’ll be on my way to see my . . . my family,” Eli said, again surprised that he felt an odd sort of pleasure saying the words.
“I’ll do better than that, son. I’ll come with you,” Abner offered.
Eli held up a hand to stop him. “I appreciate your offer, Abner, but, well, it’s been a while since we, uh . . .” he began, and then noticed the unidentified man—the one who found his wife appealing—eyeing him suspiciously.
“Where are you from, mister?”
The little gathering pressed forward as one, waiting for Eli’s answer. “Back East.”
Instant recognition registered on Abner’s face. “Lord-a-mercy!” he breathed. “Lessie’s done married herself a Yankee!”
With the war two years past, the animosities between the North and the South persisted still, especially here in Kansas. “We were married before the war.” Priding himself for being an upright man, he wondered how he could lie so easily to protect this woman who had sold his dream out from under him.
Grabbing Abner’s crudely drawn map scrawled onto the back of his now useless deed, Eli wasted no time in getting to the livery. He secured a team and wagon, then retrieved his trunks from the stationmaster. Though the tendency to drive as though the hounds of Hades were nipping at his heels, he reasoned a logical approach would be best. Getting there quicker wasn’t going to change the outcome. Drew’s dream, now his dream was gone, but he’d gained a wife. A wife who he couldn’t remember marrying. Picking up the reins, he released the brake and made a clucking sound with his tongue.
When Eli arrived at the second bend in the road, the homestead in question came into view. It was the place where he’d glimpsed the smiling woman and child waving at the train. The woman paused at the top step, shielding her eyes with one hand.
There was something strangely familiar about her sturdy frame and the halo of curling tendrils framing her oval face. As he drove closer, Eli was hit full force with the sudden realization. She was the woman who haunted his dreams and sustained his spirit through those terrible days in a Confederate prison. And now, somehow, she was his wife!
He pulled the wagon to a stop in front of the porch. The woman, with one hand resting between her throat and her heart and her other hand inside an apron pocket, stepped away from the house. She stared at him with wide amber-colored eyes as though he was a specter from beyond the grave.
“Mrs. MacKenzie, your husband is home.”
Born and raised in western Massachusetts, Jo-Ann Roberts was fascinated by America’s Old West and always felt she was destined to travel on a wagon train following the Oregon Trail. With her love of history and reading, she began reading historical romance during high school and college. Victoria Holt, Jude Deveraux, and Roseanne Bittner were among her favorites. Influenced by her father, she fell in love with John Wayne, James Garner, and her all-time favorite, James Stewart and grew up watching Wagon Train, Bonanza and Rawhide.
A firm believer in HEA with a healthy dose of realism, Jo-Ann strives to give her readers a sweet historical romance while imparting carefully researched historical facts, personalities, and experiences relative to the time period. Her romances take her readers back to a simpler time to escape the stress of modern life by living in a small town where families and friends help one another find love and happiness.
When she isn’t creating believable plots and relatable heroes and heroines, Jo-Ann enjoys spending time with her husband, children and grandson. She also enjoys baking, quilting and eating way too much chocolate.
After 38 years in public education in Connecticut and Maryland, she’s now calls North Carolina home. She is a member of Romance Writers of America, Heart of Carolina RWA, and the 2018 Winner (Historical Category) of NEORWA’s Cleveland Rocks Romance Contest.