In 1850 Marietta Randolf heads from Chicago to Nebraska in order to collect Zack, her orphaned nephew. During a snowstorm, which effectively delays her return journey, she discovers she is stranded in an unappealing land with Jase Kent, who happens to be a very appealing rancher!
Marietta Randolf pulled her aching body from the stagecoach which had shaken her insides for the last two hundred miles. Her tired gaze drifted over the vast Nebraska wilderness. She didn't like it. She could scarcely believe anyone would willingly live in the Nebraska territory, let alone her beloved sister Kathy.
The journey to Fort Kearney from Chicago had been a miserable one, especially since leaving the steamboat on the Missouri River south of Omaha. Stagecoach treks were not for city ladies; they were for mules and men and other wild creatures. Marietta found it amazing that in the modern age of the late 1850s, travel to the west was still so primitive.
She massaged the aching muscles in her back as best she could without drawing too much attention to herself. She doubted her body would ever forgive her for leaving civilization.
"Do you see your young man, Miss Randolf?" Mr. Henshaw, a fellow passenger, asked.
"My young man? Oh, you mean my nephew Zack." "Yes, ma'am. I don't see any children."
"Likely he's inside the fort. However," Marietta said, looking around, "I am expecting someone to meet me. I don't see him yet."
Mr. Henshaw tipped the hat hiding his gray hair, smoothed a hand over his dark suit, and lit his deep-blue eyes the way he'd done numerous times on the ride from the river. "I need to board the stage once again, Miss Randolf. The driver has taken down your bags. He's ready to leave."
Marietta eyed the driver who'd refused to give a body two extra minutes to rest anywhere along his route. "It's been a pleasure to know you, Mr. Henshaw," she said, looking at him again. What she told him was a lie, of course. He'd been a bother since they'd boarded the coach. His annoying parlance had blown through the conveyance as constantly as the prairie wind. In an apparent attempt to impress her with his intelligence, he unceasingly misquoted the Bible, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Charles Dickens.
Mr. Henshaw took Marietta's hand. "Again, Miss Randolf, I offer my sympathies over the loss of your esteemed sister. God be with you in your time of sorrow and always. He'll be with you in your new life with your nephew as well."
"Thank you, Mr. Henshaw," Marietta said, forcing a smile in the direction of the annoying man who was finally behaving in a gracious manner.
He released her hand and returned to the stagecoach. He waved from the window as the coach pulled away.
Marietta nodded and watched the violent vehicle shake and roll over the colorless prairie.
A sudden gust of late-November wind chilled her.
"God's Cathedral," she mumbled, repeating what Mr. Henshaw had called this
barren wilderness. Marietta would never understand how he saw Heaven in the countryside which, to her, surely had to be a reflection of Hell itself.
"I beg your pardon?" A deep voice startled her.
Marietta turned and found a man staring down at her. He was covered in black from hat to boots, except for the red bandana around his neck.
"Did you say something?" he asked, fastening his dark wool coat shut over his black shirt and waistcoat. "I heard you speaking and thought you'd seen or heard me approaching. Were you talking to me?"
"No, of course not. Just thinking aloud I guess," she replied, slightly unnerved at being met by such an attractive man. She'd been afraid all men who inhabited the prairie were as old and annoying as Mr. Henshaw.
He nodded toward her. "Nothing wrong with that." He took off his wide-brimmed felt hat, revealing a mass of dark molasses hair. "I'm Jason Kent, ma'am. Zack's been staying with me on my ranch," he said, fingering the brim of his hat.
Another chilling breeze washed over her. Marietta shivered and pulled her wool cape tight around her. "Thank you for looking after my nephew, Mr. Kent."
"It's been my pleasure." "How is Zack?"
"He's doing quite well, considering what he's been through. He wanted to come with me, but I thought it best for him to wait at the fort."
Marietta nodded and shivered again.
He reached toward her and tugged her cape tighter around her. "You're freezing," he said. "We'd best get you inside." He looked at Marietta's luggage and returned his hat to his head. "I'll have to make a couple of trips to take your things to the Carsons.'"
"I'm sorry to be such a bother," Marietta said as she watched the accommodating man easily hoist her heavy trunk on one shoulder while he picked up another of her bags. "No trouble, Miss Randolf. You've had a long trip. It's cold this time of year, and
you had to be prepared." He inclined his head toward the stand of buildings inside Fort Kearney. "Go straight ahead, ma'am. I'm taking you to Lieutenant Will Carson's quarters. His wife Amy has a place for you and Zack to stay tonight."
"How wonderful, and how kind of Mrs. Carson to take us in." The thought of being inside a real home again offered Marietta a great deal of relief.
"She's a fine woman, Miss Randolf. God-fearing and kind." He took a few steps in silence then asked, "Was your trip to your satisfaction?"
"Certainly not." "Problems, ma'am?"
"I'm afraid a stagecoach rides nothing like the surreys we have in Chicago. But then, our streets are more navigable than these rutted prairies."
"Yes, they are."
She stopped and looked up at him. "You've been to Chicago?" "Yes, ma'am. I was there when Clint met and married Kathy."
Marietta shunned the heartbreak which plagued her at the mention of Kathy's marriage. "You were there? At the wedding?"
"No, ma'am, I knew about the wedding, but I didn't attend. They eloped you
"You knew they were getting married? Why didn't you stop them?" "Stop them?"
"Yes, you should have stopped them, someone should have stopped them." If
Kathy hadn't married Clint, she'd still be alive.
"I don't think anyone could have stopped them, Miss Randolf. They were quite determined and both of age." He stared down at her, shifting the heavy burden he carried on his shoulder. "Did you try to stop them, ma'am?"
"Yes, of course," she said on a sigh, "but, if I couldn't make it snow in July, I couldn't stop Kathy from leaving with Clint." Kathy had possessed a mind of her own. She'd often ignored even the teachings they'd been raised on and done as she'd darn well pleased.
"Exactly, Miss Randolf. I'm not sure if even God Himself could have kept Clint and Kathy apart. They belonged together more than any two people I've ever seen in my life."
"Mr. Kent, I'd rather not talk about Kathy right now, if you don't mind." Losing Kathy to Clint had been bad enough. Now that she'd lost her to death, Marietta could barely stand to think of the pain of the loss of her sister. It ate at her like a disease.
"I'm sorry, Miss Randolf. I didn't mean to upset you."
She took a deep breath and let it out slowly. "Let's find my quarters for the night, please, Mr. Kent. I'm very tired."
"Yes, ma'am. That way." He inclined his head toward the fort.