Hannah Welsh was jolted awake by a tremendous coughing in the next room. She stumbled out of bed, bleary-eyed and exhausted, but propelled by that familiar feeling of panic.
Their little home was tiny, essentially just two rooms with a small porch. Hannah’s mother, Caroline, slept in the single box-shaped bedroom, and Hannah took up a corner of their living room every night.
Caroline had suggested more than once that she and Hannah could share the tiny box room, but Hannah always refused. Her mother needed peace and quiet to sleep—heaven knew she only got a few hours of undisturbed sleep a night anyway.
She pushed open the creaky, old door that would never close all the way and peered into the darkness beyond.
In the darkness, someone drew in a ragged, labored breath. “I’m quite alright, darling. Go back to bed.”
Hannah pressed her lips together. She could hear that horrible rattling in her mother’s lungs again.
“I’ll fetch you some water.”
Hannah fumbled for the candle. Most people seemed to have oil lamps and more modern forms of lighting, but Hannah and Caroline could only afford candles. This one was burned almost to a stump, and there was no money to buy another. With the candle lit, Hannah could see that her mother was sitting on the edge of her bed, curled over and trying in vain to smother racking coughs.
They always kept a bucket of clean water indoors for drinking, and Hannah quickly fetched her mother a cup of water and brought it to her.
“Here, Ma. Drink.”
“I don’t mean to wake you,” Caroline coughed, gulping gratefully at the water. “You’ll be leaving for work in only a few hours.”
Hannah’s heart sank at that realisation. The Hattersley family, a rich English family who lived on the edge of town, liked their maids to begin work at six-thirty in the morning, sharp. With an hour’s walk from where she lived, that meant that Hannah had to leave no later than half five.
That left her with around two more hours to sleep, and Hannah was already exhausted. She couldn’t let her mother know that, of course.
“Not to worry, Ma,” Hannah said, putting on a cheerful expression. “I’m sure I’ll find a moment to rest at the Hattersley’s.”
She would not, of course, and if she did, she would be fired on the spot.
Another racking cough shook Caroline’s body, and she pressed a handkerchief to her mouth. It came away stained red, but Caroline hastily folded it up in her hand.
“We should call the doctor,” Hannah said.
Caroline shook her head. “With what money, love? You won’t get paid until the end of the week.”
“Yes, but you need to see Doctor Gemmell now.”
Caroline reached out with a shaking hand, cupping her clammy palm around Hannah’s cheek. She smiled softly. “My little worry box. It’s just a cough, that’s all. Now, get yourself back to bed, or you’ll be fit for nothing tomorrow.”
Hannah returned to bed, but she did not sleep. She curled up on her little mattress in the corner, eyes open in the darkness, and listened to her mother coughing away her life in the next room.
“It’s laundry day,” Mrs. Biggert, the housekeeper, informed Hannah as soon as she walked through the door. “Better hurry.”
Hannah wanted to cry. If Mrs. Biggert had noticed Hannah’s pale, tearstained face and the dark circles around her eyes, she hadn’t said anything. She quite likely did not care. Hannah knew better than to cry in front of her mother, and so she saved her tears for the cold, tiring walk to the Hattersley house.
Hannah picked up the heavy copper washtub and hurried after Mrs. Biggert.
The housekeeper glanced behind her. “Good heavens, girl, what are you doing? You do laundry outside.”
“Could I have a word with you, please, Mrs. Biggert?”
The housekeeper sighed. She was a middle-aged woman, around forty, with graying brown hair forced into unnatural corkscrew curls. The black housekeeper’s dress drained her, making her look sallow and older than she really was. She seemed to have a particular dislike of young, pretty maids. Hannah never considered herself particularly attractive, but apparently, she looked well enough to be a target.
It didn’t matter whether Hannah looked tired, or sunburnt (pale skin really was a curse), or whether she tightly tucked her chestnut hair under her maid’s cap. Mrs. Biggert’s expression still hardened when she laid eyes on Hannah. She always seemed to make Hannah do all the worst chores.
“What is it, girl? We have work to do, the family is having guests tonight. Which reminds me, you will need to stay later tonight.”
Hannah blinked. “But I leave at half six.”
“Not tonight you don’t. I doubt they’ll finish dining until nine or ten, then there’s the clearing up and the washing up to do. You’ll be lucky to get home for midnight.”
“I… I can’t. My mother—”
“—Will still be there when you get home,” Mrs. Biggert snapped. “If you aren’t willing to work, there are plenty of women in this town who will.”
Hannah swallowed hard. “My mother’s ill, Mrs. Biggert.”
“That’s your concern, not mine. Now, what did you want? We’re wasting daylight.”
“I… I wondered if I could have an advance on my wages.”
Mrs. Biggert tilted her head to one side. “The weekly wages are paid on Saturday.”
“Yes, but… well, we haven’t any money, and my mother needs a doctor.”
The housekeeper pursed her lips. “Stay late tonight without complaining, and you can have half of your wages now.”
Hannah breathed a sigh of relief. That would pay for the doctor. Doctor Gemmell already charged them less than he should, but his rates were still too high. Each doctor’s visit ate up a good portion of Hannah’s weekly wages. Caroline occasionally tried to do something to earn money, from making baked goods to sell at the market (they didn’t sell, and the baking only wasted ingredients), to knitting and sewing clothes. Her health would not allow her to do anything.
“Thank you, Mrs. Biggert.”
She gave a thin smile. “Oh, don’t thank me. You’ll work hard for this, I assure you.”
“I could help with the cooking…”
“I think not. Your cooking is abysmal. No, you’ll scrub the floors ‘til they shine once you’re done with that laundry. After that, I’ve a list of chores for you as long as my arm.”
Hannah walked home as quickly as her sore, cramping legs could carry her. Mrs. Biggert had not been exaggerating about staying on ‘til late. It was past midnight, and Hannah had had to walk home in the pitch black alone. Mrs. Biggert had allowed her to take a lamp to light her way on the condition that she returned it tomorrow. The oil would come out of her wages, of course.
The moon wasn’t out tonight and thick clouds covered the stars. If it hadn’t been for the battered old oil lamp, Hannah was sure that she would have gotten lost. The dirt streets were deserted, and now that the heat of the sun had gone, the little Chicago town was cold. Hannah shivered and walked faster, nervously glancing around her.
The coins that made up half of her wages clinked in her pocket. Tomorrow was Thursday and would be much the same as today. Hannah would have no time to visit the doctor to ask him to call. She would have to wait until her half day on Friday. Hannah was still lost in her plans when their little shack came into sight. Lights were blazing in the window, and Hannah walked a little faster.
“Ma?” she whispered, pushing open the door.
Caroline sat in a threadbare armchair, the only seat in their house that was anywhere near comfortable. She was slumped forward, chin on her chest, and for one terrible moment Hannah thought…
Caroline’s head bobbed up, and she blinked. “Hmm? Oh, you’re home, Hannah. Why are you so late? I was worried.”
“Mrs. Biggert made me stay late.”
“Your stew is cold.” Caroline gestured toward the pot on the stove, which Hannah knew from experience would be a bland cabbage and potato stew. It wasn’t particularly tasty, but cabbages and potatoes were cheap, and it didn’t take much for Caroline to prepare. Some days, however, she was too weak even to lift a single cabbage. On those days, Caroline would lie in bed all day, hungry and thirsty but unable to get anything for herself until Hannah returned.
“I don’t mind. I’m so hungry, I would eat anything,” Hannah joked. “It was pure torture, serving plate after plate of delicious food and not able to eat a morsel.”
“Aren’t you allowed to eat the scraps?”
“No, Mrs. Biggert gives it to the pigs. Or at least, that’s what she says. I think she keeps the good leftovers for herself, though.”
Caroline grimaced. “I hate that woman.”
“You’ve never met her, Ma.”
“I don’t need to.”
“Well, I have good news.” Hannah took out the coins with a flourish and set them on the table. “I have half of my wages early. We can afford to have Doctor Gemmell see you before the week’s end.”
Caroline stared down at the coins and did not smile. “It seems like a waste.”
“How can it be a waste?”
Caroline looked up at her daughter, and Hannah had to turn away from the anguish in her mother’s eyes. “I’m not going to get better, Hannah.”
“You are,” Hannah insisted. “If we can just afford to buy your medicine, and have the doctor…”
“It won’t help. All we can do is buy me a little time.”
“Then it’s worth it.”
“Not to me!” Caroline snapped, suddenly angry. “You should be saving your money. You should be planning your own future, not working as a drudge for that wretched Hattersley family. It fairly kills me to see your spirit crushed.”
“My spirit is fine, Ma. I have to work, otherwise we’ll starve.” Hannah paused, weighing her next words. “We could always write to… to Fath…”
“No,” Caroline interrupted sharply. Then softer, she repeated, “No.”
“He might be able to help.”
“Even if he could, he wouldn’t. Your father left us, remember? We don’t need him.” Caroline reached out to squeeze Hannah’s hand. “He abandoned us.”
“He wrote to me. He wanted to make amends, remember?”
Caroline shook her head. “He gave you hope and never turned up. He’s a liar and can’t be trusted. I’m sorry, love. We’re on our own here.” She reached out to cup Hannah’s face with her hands. A soft smile spread over Caroline’s face. “My beautiful girl. Don’t let this life break you down. Promise?”
“You need to think about your own future, about… about what you’ll do when I’m not here.”
“That won’t happen any time soon,” Hannah said firmly.
Caroline’s mouth pursed as if she intended to argue, but she said nothing on the matter. “It’s time for you to go to bed, darling. You must be exhausted.”
Robert ducked behind the corner of a house just in time.
The man he’d been tailing, a portly gentleman with an ugly, white wide-brimmed hat and a droopy moustache, whipped around to look behind him. His pale blue eyes raked over the landscape and skipped over Robert’s hiding place. Satisfied that he was not being followed, the man turned around and continued on his way.
Robert cursed under his breath. His quarry was moving faster than he had expected. He was heading into the heart of Chicago, and Robert suspected that he was aiming for one of the big train stations. If that happened, the man could easily lose Robert in the crowds. If he got on a train without Robert, all was lost. If he was clever, he’d change directions a few times, so that Robert would struggle to trace him.
I’d better nab him before he goes much further, Robert decided. He couldn’t risk losing this commission too.
In his pocket, Robert had a small square of tattered, folded paper. There was a bad sketch of his quarry on the front and a few details scrawled below. The man was Edward Piper, and he was wanted for a myriad of crimes, including murdering a local sheriff who tried to apprehend him.
None of that was any of Robert’s concern. It really didn’t matter whether his quarry had stolen someone’s wallet or murdered half a dozen people. All that mattered was the fee. Edward Piper wasn’t a large man. Robert complacently decided that he was larger and stronger, and there was unlikely to be a serious struggle.
Robert ran ahead, skirting around the little rows of shacks that masqueraded as houses, getting ahead of Mr. Piper. It was at times like this Robert appreciated the fact that his father had taught him how to slink around silently and unseen. Far too many bounty hunters blundered along, firing off pistols and riding on steaming, neighing horses.
No, there was more to it than that. Robert wore earth-colored clothes that allowed him to disappear against virtually any background. Nobody would remember a sandy-haired man wearing a shirt the color of sand and trousers the color of mud, even if he was tall and handsome (he’d been told).
Poor Edward Piper never saw him coming. Robert came barreling out from a narrow alleyway between the houses, hitting Piper at full speed and knocking him to the ground. Piper cried out and struggled, managing to pull out his pistol. Robert stamped on his wrist, and the gun went spinning across the dirt, out of reach. Piper cursed and fumbled at his belt, no doubt seeking out another weapon, perhaps a knife.
Robert wasn’t about to let that happen. Using his superior strength and weight, heaved Piper onto his stomach, quickly and expertly tying his hands behind his back. Realising that he was caught, Piper began to shout and thrash.
Perhaps if he’d been up against a less experienced bounty hunter, Piper might have gotten away. But he wasn’t, so he didn’t.
“You’ve done a fair job,” Mr. Wesley observed, pushing over a bag of coins toward Robert. “A lot of bounty men have lost Piper and you manage hunt him down in under three days.”
Robert shrugged, hefting the bag of coins in his hand. He’d worked with Mr. Wesley for years; it was much better than strolling around towns looking for Wanted posters. Wesley took his cut, of course, but it was worth it.
“I got lucky. I got him just before he hopped on a train. He’d have been out in Chicago in a shot, and we’ve have lost him.”
Wesley snorted. “Luck, eh? You’re too modest, man. Are you ready for another assignment?”
“Not yet. I’m off to pay a visit to Mother and Hazel. If I go now, that dreadful man of hers won’t be around.”
Wesley pursed his lips in disapproval. “You’re a little old to be jealous about your mother getting a new fancy man.”
Robert’s gaze snapped up from his bag of money. “You haven’t met the man. Mind your own business.”
Wesley shrugged, unperturbed. “Whatever you say. Come back here when you’re ready to take on more work.”
Robert stuffed the bag of money into his pocket, listening to the coins clink with satisfaction.
“I will. Don’t you worry.”
The Stein House, as it had been dubbed by the neighbors, was an odd-looking building. It was tall and thin, with a rickety all veranda running around the bottom of the house. It looked like a lopsided old man and was painted in blotchy whitewash.
Robert paused before the house, suddenly lost in a memory of himself and his father whitewashing the house. That must have been almost ten years ago. He’d have been no older than twelve, and Mr. Stein hadn’t even begun to teach his son the subtle art of bounty hunting. It was a dangerous profession, he’d said, as they diligently painted the veranda. Inside, Mrs. Emma Stein was cooking dinner, and the delicious scent of it wafted out of the open windows. She was heavily pregnant and had insisted on the house being whitewashed before the baby was born. Emma was convinced that this time they would have a girl. Robert secretly hoped for a little brother.
I’m old enough, young Robert had insisted, and Mr. Stein—Robert Senior—had chuckled to himself.
No, you aren’t. Not by a long shot. Bounty hunting pays better than breaking your back on a railroad or tilling some fat ranch owner’s fields. You can be your own employer and do everything your own way. But it’s dangerous. One mistake—even a small one—and that’s it. You’re dead, perhaps leaving a widow and brood of children behind.
He’d been right. When Robert Stein Senior had made his own small mistake, six years later, he’d left behind only a widow and an eighteen-year-old son, who at least was capable of providing for himself, his mother, and a six-year-old daughter.
They could have gone like that for many years if that wretched Ryan Smith hadn’t arrived.
Robert clenched his jaw, forcibly pushing aside the intrusive memories.
This was why he didn’t care to go home too often.
For a few long moments, there was no answer to Robert’s knock. At one time, he’d have simply pushed open the door and walked in, but now he felt wrong-footed, somehow. More than once, Robert had arrived home to find Ryan here, and he felt like a stranger in somebody else’s family.
Inside, Robert heard his mother’s voice.
“That’ll be him now. Go on up to your room, Hazel. We don’t want you cluttering up the place.”
“Can I fetch my doll?” came a quiet voice in reply.
“No, you can’t. I told you that Ryan would be here at four. Why don’t you go out to play?”
“It’s too hot, Mama.”
“Go on, hurry!”
Then the latch clicked, and the door clicked open. Mrs. Emma Stein stood there, cheeks flushed and a wide smile on her face. The smile dropped off her face like a stone when she saw that it was her son.
“Oh, Robert. It’s you. I thought…”
“It was your fellow?” Robert smiled mirthlessly. “I’m afraid not.”
Emma stood in the doorway, fidgeting. Robert raised an eyebrow. “Can’t I come in, Mother?”
“Well, Ryan is coming soon. He’s bringing a piece of beef for our dinner.”
“I won’t insist on you sharing your beef with me.”
Emma sighed. “You make him uncomfortable, you know. You’re always glaring and asking strange questions.”
“This is my home, Mother,” Robert said. “Not Ryan’s. Are you going to let me in?”
Emma wordlessly stepped aside, and Robert came in. He didn’t bother to exchange pleasantries with his mother and went straight upstairs to Hazel’s room. Since his father’s death, the house had changed beyond recognition, especially since Emma had begun courting Ryan. Ryan often bought expensive pieces of furniture and encouraged Emma to rearrange the house.
Robert was sure it was Ryan who had encouraged Emma to force Hazel to move into a smaller box room, simply so that Emma could have a dressing room of her own.
Really, who needed a whole room to dress in?
Hazel had just turned ten years old. She looked a little like Robert and Robert Senior, and nothing like her dark-haired, brown-eyed mother. Hazel had long, straight, sandy hair, which normally had twigs and leaves and other paraphernalia trapped in it. She was a quiet, reserved girl, and Robert often worried about the treatment she received when he was not there. Ryan Smith did not particularly like children. He had been heard to announce that he would rather die than marry a woman with young children.
Why, then, was he pursuing Emma? She had no money, no influence, nothing to offer but herself. And yet, Ryan still pursued her, and Emma was very happy to be caught.
Robert knocked on Hazel’s door.
“Can I come in?” he asked and heard her exclamation of delight. Hazel came running across her room, throwing open the door and flinging her arms around her brother’s waist.
“I’m glad it’s you! I thought you were Ryan,” Hazel explained, pulling a face.
Robert frowned. “Why? Don’t you like Ryan? He hasn’t… he hasn’t hurt you, has he?”
Hazel shook her head. “No, but I don’t like him. He doesn’t like children very much. I’m not allowed to speak at the dinner table. He doesn’t even like me speaking very much at all. He says that children should be seen and not heard. He’s got all kinds of rules, and he makes me go to bed at six o’clock every night. It isn’t even dark then. I lie awake for hours, and if I stay up to read, he catches me and then I’m not allowed supper the next night.”
Robert felt a surge of anger. Then he realized that something was a little different about Hazel.
“Wait, where are your spectacles? You can hardly see without them.”
Hazel blinked up at him. As a child, they’d wondered why she struggled at school, barely able to read. The doctor had eventually worked out that Hazel was very short-sighted and prescribed a large set of wire-rimmed spectacles for her.
“Ryan says they’re ugly, and nobody likes a girl with spectacles. I said that I couldn’t read without them, and he said that ladies oughtn’t to read much anyway.”
Robert clenched his jaw. “You don’t have to mind him, you know. He isn’t your father.”
“That’s just it, Robbie. Ma says that he will be. She says he’s going to be my new Pa, and I’m to mind him now.” Hazel blinked large, blue-green eyes up at him. “Ryan says that I’m going to get married when I’m sixteen.”
“What in God’s name… that’s none of his concern. That’s six years’ time!”
“Ma said that, but Ryan said that we should be prepared, and that I could get engaged at fifteen. I said that I didn’t like any boys, and he told me he’d choose somebody for me, and I shouldn’t talk back to my betters.” Hazel paused, looking a trifle confused. “He says that every time I say anything at all. I didn’t think I was talking back. I thought it was just a normal conversation.”
Robert took a deep breath, waiting for the surge of anger to subside. “Well, that’s silly. You don’t have to mind Ryan, not now, not ever, and he doesn’t have the authority to make you marry anybody.”
Downstairs, there was a rap at the door. That must be the fellow himself. Robert straightened his waistcoat.
“Wait here, Hazel. I’m going to go and have a word with Mother. Go and put your spectacles on, you’ll give yourself a headache without them.”
“Ryan took them and gave them to Ma.”
“Fine. I’ll get them for you.”
Hazel watched him go, nibbling worriedly on her lower lip.
Robert didn’t fail to notice the way Ryan flinched as he came thundering down the stairs. He glanced at Emma, who carefully stepped in front of him, as if she were afraid for him.
“Robert, going so soon?” Emma said, visibly relieved.
“Not yet. Where are Hazel’s spectacles?”
Emma opened her mouth as if to argue, then thought better of it. She turned to one of the cabinets and unlocked a drawer. She took out Hazel’s spectacles and handed them wordlessly to Robert.
Ryan watched the exchange. He was a tall, lanky man, with a wispy goatee and a garishly colored waistcoat. He was reasonably wealthy, and that was something that had consoled Robert when he first began courting Emma.
“If you ever stop Hazel from wearing her spectacles again,” Robert said quietly and firmly, “I will knock you down where you stand, do you understand me?”
“Now, just a…” Emma began to intervene, and Robert rounded on her.
“And you, Mother, should be deeply ashamed of yourself for having allowed it.”
Ryan puffed out his thin chest. “I am only thinking of the child’s future.”
“Well, don’t. She’s not your child, and…”
“Thank heavens for small mercies,” Ryan muttered, not quite quietly enough. Robert fixed him with a glare, and the man visibly wilted.
“As I was saying,” Robert continued icily, “she is not your child, and you are not to set rules for her, is that understood?’
“I will be obeyed in my own house,” Ryan insisted, edging behind Emma.
“This is not your house.”
“It will be soon,” Emma interrupted, lifting her chin defiantly. “Ryan and I are engaged.”
Robert stared down at her.
He knew that it was none of his concern, but this would affect Hazel in ways he could not even imagine. How could his mother do this? How could she betray the memory of his father so easily—for this man? Robert Stein Sr. had been a noble, courageous, and fair-minded man. He’d worked hard for what he had and was generous as much as possible.
Ryan Smith could not have been more different.
“Engaged,” Robert repeated, and a look of triumph passed on Ryan’s face. He reached out and took Emma’s hand.
“Yes, engaged. Son, I know that you don’t like me…”
“I’m not your son!” Robert snapped.
Ryan paled but preserved, “I know you don’t like me, but I love your mother. I will give her the life she deserves.”
“And what about Hazel?”
Ryan hesitated. He wasn’t quite quick enough to hide the look of disdain on his face. Hazel was bookish, quiet but firm in her convictions, and used to great deal of freedom. She was not spoiled or badly behaved, and Robert was very proud of her.
Clearly, the feeling was not mutual.
“We haven’t decided what to do about Hazel yet,” Emma said.
“Decided? What is there to decide? She’s your daughter. This is her home. Surely you should have considered Hazel before making any decisions at all.”
“It’s my life,” Emma said mulishly. “I can’t help it that Hazel has taken an irrational dislike to my fiancé.”
“He forbade her from wearing her spectacles. That is hardly irrational.”
Anger flashed in Emma’s eyes. “I am marrying Ryan, and that is that. I don’t know what to do about Hazel. She’s made herself very difficult over the past few months and has become quite wilful and unpleasant. She won’t be happy about this. Ryan has suggested sending her away to school. He has offered to pay.”
“Oh, I’m sure he has,” Robert growled.
“Don’t be ungracious. He is very kind. Ryan knows plenty of good people, and when Hazel is old enough, she can marry a decent young man and her future will be assured.”
“Hazel wanted to study. She wants an education.”
“That’s hardly necessary for a young woman,” Ryan said, visibly growing in confidence now that Emma was standing between himself and Robert.
Robert ground his jaw so hard that his teeth squeaked against each other. “And what if Hazel doesn’t agree? What if I don’t agree?”
Emma met his eyes steadily. “Then there’s no place for her here.”
“Their Destiny’s Rocky Road” is an Amazon Best-Selling novel, check it out here!
Hannah Welsh’s life is far from perfect, but she is happy until her mother’s illness shatters their joy and separates them tragically. Hannah knows that the Wild West is not the right place for a woman left alone grieving, so she decides to find her estranged father, hoping to keep her safe. Left with almost no money and hope, she recruits an infamous bounty hunter to accompany her on her journey. Although their connection seems to be instant, Hannah is scared that he will betray her…
Will the man she just met but has to trust, sacrifice her for his own needs?
Robert Stein, a notorious bounty hunter, is facing a heartbreaking dilemma; his little sister desperately needs his help and support, but Robert believes that while he can easily track down a wanted man, he’s not competent to raise a child. To complicate things, his latest client, Hannah Welsh, is drawing his attention in a way he’s never experienced before. He cannot deal with this distraction though while he chases down criminals and puts his life in danger…
Can she be the reason he needs to give a chance on romance?
An unforeseen obstacle appears for the couple, in the form of Robert’s sworn enemy, who targets their newborn and growing affection. Will they be strong enough to put aside their fears and overcome the challenging circumstances to be together? Will their love prove to be greater than the enemies set against them?
“Their Destiny’s Rocky Road” is a historical western romance novel of approximately 60,000 words. No cheating, no cliffhangers, and a guaranteed happily ever after.