The plains of Wyoming were just that: plain. The light of dawn hadn’t yet broken the Eastern sky, but the gray mist that came before it interrupted the dark monotony that had been the scenery beforehand. Carlie didn’t think she had ever seen a bleaker landscape. But then maybe that was just her nerves talking.
“Mama! Mama! Can I see? Let me see!” The little voice broke through Carlie’s reverie, excited and far too awake for the lack of light in the sky.
Maybe, Carlie thought, it has something to do with that voice, too.
“Josie, why don’t you try lying down for just a little bit longer?” Carlie coerced, patting the seat of the ever-bumpy wagon next to her with no real hope in her tone. Josie wanted to see everything. Carlie was almost certain that if she would allow it, Josie would trot alongside the wagon and the horses just to ensure she didn’t miss anything about their trip.
The three-year-old ball of energy only laughed, trying to clamber her way into her mother’s lap with all the determination of a person six times her size in order to peer out the window. Her black hair hung in messy ringlets about her face, the ribbon that Carlie had tried securing them with hanging haphazardly off to one side, and her eyes so green that Carlie couldn’t help seeing her late husband in them.
“Mama,” Josie whined, narrowing her eyes and trying to peer through the dim lighting to what adventures she imagined hid behind it.
“Okay, how about I make you a deal, then?” Carlie coaxed, taking her daughter in her arms and setting her next to her instead of on her lap while her free hand rustled in the bag at her side. “How about I give you your hidden puzzle book and if you stay very, very quiet and rest with it, then I will let you look out the window as soon as it is light enough to see anything. Deal?”
Carlie, even in her own exhaustion, had to stop from laughing as her daughter turned her face to her contemplatively. “Puzzle book?” Josie asked suspiciously, trying to peer around Carlie’s body and to the bag.
It took some rummaging, with all of the different things Carlie had needed to add to the bag over the course of their trip in order to keep Josie occupied. Josie wasn’t used to sitting in one place, she had yet to master that skill. Carlie’s late husband had liked to joke that she came out of the womb running, and he wasn’t far off. She had never traveled either, having never had a need to before now.
All of it added up to a special nightmare that Carlie was trying her best to navigate.
“Yes,” Carlie promised, pulling the book out finally and thanking God that it was the book she had been hoping it would be. “Your puzzle book,” she teased, dropping her face and running her nose over those black ringlets affectionately.
Little hands reached and grabbed at the book through a fit of giggles and it was all that Carlie needed. Just that little moment in time to remind herself why she was in this jolting wagon, battling motion sickness and heading back to a town she hadn’t visited since before her marriage.
Josie settled into Carlie’s side gladly after that, holding her book and looking for the images it wanted her to point out, green eyes peering happily at the pages. It only took a handful of minutes before those eyes were drooping as well, just as Carlie had expected.
It was hard to get Josie to acknowledge that she needed sleep, but if one could trick the little girl into being still and silent…
Within moments the puzzle book slipped, falling onto Josie’s chest, and Carlie took it off, folding it closed next to her and adjusting the small blanket around the girl’s tiny form before settling back into her seat herself.
The quiet, while welcome, was heavy.
With Josie talking and crawling about everywhere, it was easy to stay distracted. Without that to occupy her, the reality of her journey settled back atop her shoulders like a too heavy, weighted quilt.
Making it to Laramie the day before had been hard enough. The familiar accents and greetings had been like immersing herself back in her childhood, as folks called out and asked if she needed help or where she was heading. There was no such thing as privacy in places this small, she well remembered.
She just hadn’t remembered how friendly everyone was. After living in New York for so long it felt almost stifling, the questions and the concern. She knew it was worse because she was a woman traveling alone, too, and that sparked an all too painful reminder every time she thought about it.
Oh, Brandon, what would you think now for us moving back here?
Helena’s Wallow was a far cry from the sophisticated education that they had wanted for their daughter. There would be no ballet, no theater, nothing of the plans that he had prattled on about while Carlie was pregnant with Josie.
Helena’s Wallow had none of that. It had very little in the way of anything social, with only four hundred or so people in it.
The only thing it had worth going back for, Carlie knew, were her parents.
As much as she didn’t want to be returning home to them, a widow with a three-year-old in tow, she knew she had little choice. New York had nothing in the way of employment opportunities for a widowed mother. Even less with how Brandon’s father had interpreted the will.
Carlie didn’t want to burden her parents, but she had little choice.
She sighed at the thought, watching the first vestiges of golden yellow break in the far sky.
“You won’t stay here,” Mr. Ellis said scathingly, his silver eyebrows raising in disbelief. He had barely spared a glance to his sleeping granddaughter on the chaise, volume rising with the words.
Carlie was astounded, looking back at him for a loss of words. “I—” she stuttered, looking around at the comfortable home she and Brandon had made over the past years in her own form of confused disbelief. “This is my home,” she whispered, unable to come up with anything else to respond to him with.
“Was,” Mr. Ellis said sharply, his shrewd green gaze so much more removed than his son’s had ever been. “I think we’ve been quite accommodating, allowing you to stay here the past year, really. We need to sell the house and recoup the losses from Brandon’s death. Surely you understand.”
“The losses,” Carlie repeated woodenly, her eyes snapping back to him with no less surprise. She hadn’t been aware of any losses. The lawyers had said everything was in order, that the estate should see them through for years yet to come, advising them to put some in stocks and bonds as Brandon had meant for them to be…
She hadn’t bothered with any of it, trusting her father-in-law to take over as he saw fit, with his mutterings of how Brandon would have wanted it and what Brandon had planned for.
She had been too grief stricken…
She supposed that had been her first mistake, allowing herself to wallow in that grief and expect the people around her to share the same faith and stalwartness of her late husband. Her second had been trusting the man Brandon had kept from his finances for years before Carlie had even met him.
But, oh, Brandon.
It had been so hard to wipe away the memory of his crooked smile, front tooth chipped from a riding accident when he was younger. He had been older and handsome, debonair even. It was like a fairytale, meeting him and being swept away to New York.
Generally, fairy tales had tragedy in the beginning, though, not in the middle.
The sun had long since made its way into the sky by the time the familiar outskirts of town started to flash by the wagon window.
True to her word, Carlie held Josie in her lap, arms wrapped around her daughter’s squirming body as she tried to lean out of the window to point things out. It was almost enough to make Carlie laugh again, the nonstop excitement of newness and wonder that radiated off of Josie.
The familiar sights were enough to make her heart hurt, though, that homesickness she had ignored for so long leaching its way up the back of her throat.
She could remember a time when she had wanted nothing more than to settle down and raise a family in this very town, appalled at the very idea of leaving.
Had anyone but Brandon been the one to ask her, she was sure her answer would have still been no. Brandon just had a way about him. Terse, somewhat controlling, but romantic despite all of that. He had shown Carlie things that she hadn’t even known were possible, opening her eyes to the light on the other side of the Wallow…
But now, she was back.
“Mama! Mama! Look! Is that them?” Josie asked, jumping in Carlie’s lap and pointing at two random strangers walking hand in hand down the street they had turned onto.
Main Street. Very little had changed in the years since Carlie left, the shop fronts and streets all still the exact same.
“No,” Carlie laughed, calmly putting her pointing fingers down and nuzzling into the side of her daughter as she nodded off in the direction the wagon was heading. “Grandma and Grandpa will be over there.” Certainly not holding hands walking down the street and looking to be Carlie’s age rather than a good deal older. “They’re going to meet us at the stables,” Carlie promised, infusing excitement into her tone despite the dread in her belly.
How long had it been?
She knew her parents were excited to meet their only grandchild, just as she knew that they were excited to have her home, as well… but it had been so long.
She wanted to point the pair out to Josie as they pulled up into the stable, to tell her, “Look, there they are,” but her words dried in the back of her throat the moment she saw them.
They had aged. Of course, they had. She didn’t know why she had been expecting to see them looking the same as they had been the day that she had left. She had aged, as well. She was softer, less thin and sprightly than when she had left.
Even as the wagon came to a stop, she couldn’t stop noting the differences in her head. The more profuse wrinkles the both of them now held, her mother’s graying hair, her father’s slightly stooped posture.
“Gramma, Gramma, Grandpa,” Josie squealed as those doors opened. Any thought of holding the little girl back was lost as she bounced from the wagon into the waiting arms of the grandparents she had never met.
Carlie could hear the exclamations of joy, hear the laughter and the happiness, but she took her time getting out herself, unsure if she was going to be met with the same response.
“Carlie,” a deep voice said almost reverently as she finally got out herself, her father’s eyes shining as he looked at her.
Her mother and father stood side by side, her mother holding Josie on one hip and taking Josie’s pinching and pulling at her face in stride as Mr. Dean took a step closer. He stopped just shy of reaching out for Carlie, his arms hanging awkwardly at his sides as he grinned at her.
The tension was unmistakable, but so was the relief in his face at seeing her once more.
“Dad,” she answered, more stiffly than she had meant. She didn’t know what to do with her arms either, if she was supposed to offer him a hand to shake or reach out and hug him. Once upon a time, she would have flown at him much the same way Josie had when they had pulled up. Once upon a time, he would have grabbed her and pulled her into a hug even if she hadn’t.
“You look tired,” Mrs. Dean pointed out, her gaze sharp as she looked over Josie’s unkempt ringlets to Carlie. Her brown eyes were shrewd, traveling Carlie’s person with a look of relief-tinged worry that was hard to miss. “And you’ve started wearing your hair up.”
Carlie didn’t know how to answer the first statement. She was sure she did look tired, traveling as far as she had with Josie and only her to ensure that they made it here alright. On top of budgeting what little money she’d had left to make sure that they could make it this far at all… “Yeah, it keeps Josie from tangling it,” Carlie mumbled, addressing only the second statement.
“You used to tangle your mama’s hair something fierce when you were her age.” Mr. Dean laughed, his eyes straying to Josie once more before he held his arms out for her. “Come here, pumpkin, let your grandma say hi to your mama. I’ll show you the road we’re going to take back home.”
“You live in town?” Josie whispered, her voice full of awe as Carlie’s father carried her outside.
“Did you and Brandon not live in town?” Mrs. Dean asked, her disapproval clear in her gaze as she looked back at Carlie. Her eyes were still fixed on her and Carlie didn’t know if it was out of concern or just cataloging what difference there may have been over the years.
“We did. We lived in New York, it was hard not to,” Carlie answered shortly, unwilling to start in with her mother on Brandon again.
Her mother had never taken a shine to him, no matter how hard he’d tried or how much Carlie had tried talking him up. She hadn’t seemed to dislike him, though, until they announced their plans to move away from Helena’s Wallow. Then had come the list of things that made him unfit.
The fact that she could still feel that way, after all these years and his death, was more than Carlie thought she could yet stomach. She braced herself for the tirade of things said about him, but was surprised when instead her mother reached out.
Her fingers were thinner, though still strong as they gripped her forearm in an awkward squeeze as her mother nodded. “You know your dad is just going to take her to the house now, do I need to pay to have your luggage brought?”
“No ma’am, I saved,” Carlie muttered, dipping down into her pockets to search for the coins she had put aside.
Her mother only waved her off, shaking her head and bustling away from her and toward one of the boys on the other side of the stable. He looked familiar, but young enough that Carlie had no hope of remembering his name on her own. She was left to watch as her mother put coins into his hand from her own pockets, waving and smiling as she made her way back to Carlie.
“That’s the Carroltons’ boy, you remember him?” she asked as she came back, threading her arm through Carlie’s after an awkward pause and leading her toward the door where Josie and her grandfather had disappeared before.
“I remember the Carroltons,” Carlie answered slowly, looking back over her shoulder in surprise. “I thought they had a young son, though…”
“Well, he was when you left. Little school-aged kid, now he’s going on fourteen, but tall enough to have everyone thinking he’s much older. He works in the stables now. He’ll be bringing your luggage in just a moment and we can go ahead and get you and Josie settled…”
She trailed off and the pair of them walked in silence, a silence that Carlie was grateful for the nearer and nearer they got to her childhood home. If her parents had changed, the house hadn’t. There wasn’t a single thing different between this place and the one in her memories as they walked up the front walkway, the garden alight with the same vibrance she had so loved growing up. Even the flowers seemed just the same.
A pang she didn’t even know she had been feeling seemed to soothe as they walked up the front porch steps, Josie’s laughter echoing from inside.
“You’ll be in your old room,” Carlie’s mother said after a moment, sounding far away. “We weren’t sure if you wanted us making a room up for Josie too or not yet, so we just put her in with you for now…”
“Oh, Mama, Josie’s been staying with me since…” Carlie cut off suddenly, her throat closing around the words. Not only because of the strain between the two of them regarding the subject of her late husband, but also for her inability to put into words what had happened. “The accident,” she finished lamely, letting her arm fall limply away from how her mother had twined it through hers.
“Well,” was all that her mother said, her own voice tense. “You know, after you hurt your arm when you were a girl, you tried staying with me and your father in bed for months and months after.” She sounded strained, even with the laugh that she added at the end, and Carlie wondered if she sounded that awkward herself.
Her mother led her up the steps to where her father was already in the room with Josie, showing her all around the too familiar room with a kind of excited glee.
There wasn’t much that had changed. The four-poster bed at one end of the room was made with her favorite sheets, her sketches from before she had left still pinned to the walls at random, and the window seat that she had favored over the years on the far wall still sat with books full of dogeared pages.
The nostalgia that Carlie felt stepping into the room was overwhelming, her chest seizing as she turned slowly about the space. “I…”
“Thomas!” Carlie’s mother reprimanded, still standing just there by the door. “Thomas! Put Josie down and let the two of them get settled… Dinner is still at the normal time, mind you, and we’ll have Becket bring up your cases.” She addressed the latter half of her statements to Carlie matter-of-factly, narrowing her eyes at her husband as he put his granddaughter down somewhat sheepishly on the window seat and followed her direction.
“You know, Anna,” he started, his tone almost plaintive, but Carlie’s mother just waved her hand to stop him, pursing her lips and forcing a smile onto them as she turned back.
Carlie couldn’t think of anything to fill the silence with. As much as she didn’t want to shoo them from the room they were allowing her to take back, it was so much all at once that she almost appreciated her mother’s insistence that she have that time. “Thank you,” she murmured, her emotions overwhelming her to the point that she only managed a whisper. “The both of you…”
“Nonsense, Carlie,” her mother waved away her thanks as easily as she had her husband’s voice. “We’re just glad to have you home. You know where everything is, you can holler if you need anything. We’ll leave you to get settled now.” She turned the last half of her words that time to her husband, almost warningly as she shooed him from the room.
Carlie walked to the door after them, standing idly in the door frame for a moment before slowly closing the old, oaken thing and turning to rest her shoulder blades against the closed door.
Josie was flipping through the books that had been stacked by the window seat, humming quietly and smiling to herself, and Carlie chose to focus on her instead of the room that made her throat close up. Josie looked… happy, fiddling about as she was and framed by the sun coming through the open shutters of the window.
And that was what all of this was about, wasn’t it? Josie being happy and taken care of. That was all that Carlie needed to be focusing on.
“Alan Joseph Lansky!” Della Walcott called out, her voice the kind of perpetually irritated that was saved for running late on Sundays and her brother only. “If you don’t come out of that office and face me yourself, boy…” she threatened, her volume rising with every word.
Alan only closed his eyes, wishing her away and for her voice to be a figment of his imagination.
He knew the action was rude and that he could easily come to regret it later. The pile of paperwork sitting in front of him on top of his desk coupled with his late night on patrols the night before did not patience make, though.
The sigh that left Alan was almost perfunctory in nature as he hefted himself out of his office chair, opening the door and stepping out into the front portion of the sheriff’s station with raised brows. His sister, like he had expected, stood just inside of the front door, her hands folded over her massive belly and her eyes narrowed expectantly.
“Care to tell me why I’m getting full-named before dinner time on a Monday, or are you just putting in practice for that litter you’re carrying?” Alan teased as he eased his way out of his office and out into the lobby where his sister moved her hands from her stomach to her hips.
“L-litter?” she echoed in an outrage that couldn’t have been real. Her brown eyes, so similar to his own, narrowed dangerously as she waddled a step forward, her pointer finger out and jabbing into his chest within moments. “Don’t think that by insulting me you’re going to make me forget why I’m here in the first place, Alan Joseph!”
Alan chuckled, stopping once he was in front of her to lean his hips against the desk behind him, crossing his ankles and leaning back as he watched her swell with righteous fury. Sometimes he thought he just enjoyed riling her up, something he knew her husband would go lecturing him for if he were to find out, especially now.
“And what, Della Darling, are you here for?” he drawled, full-naming her back and biting back a grin at the way she bristled at the sound of it. She never had liked her middle name, complaining about how condescending it sounded even when they were children.
“It’s Monday,” she stressed pointedly, raising her own brows and shifting from foot to foot as if to try and redistribute her weight. Unsuccessfully, which was unsurprising given just how big her belly was in proportion to the rest of her body.
“I said that,” Alan answered easily, pausing as if he were waiting for her to explain. When all she did was huff, he sighed again, waving his hand as if to give her permission to tell him off again.
“The new girl!” Della cried out in exasperation, throwing her hands up and stumbling.
Alan reached out instantly, offering a steadying hand and helping her set herself back to rights as he hid an even bigger sigh. Right, the new girl. The Deans’ prodigal daughter, as luck would have it. She’d been home for almost a month and Della had been pestering him to welcome her ever since she had run into the young woman and her mother shopping a week after her arrival.
“I’ve been busy, Del,” he reminded her tiredly, not removing his hand from her bicep out of fear of her stumbling again. She was only six months pregnant, though she looked closer to twelve, and he had to assume it was because she was carrying more than one child. Everyone else said twins but Alan was starting to feel like there might be four or five in there, a joke that neither Della nor her husband Billy appreciated being said aloud.
Although Alan knew she’d just be tickled pink if she were to give birth to that many. She and Billy had been trying for almost ten years now and this was the first pregnancy that had stuck. Alan was kind of hoping there were at least three little buggers in there, himself. Even if Billy waxed poetic about the dangers.
“When are you not busy?” Della groused, slapping independently at his hand and holding herself straight with obvious difficulty. “You’re always busy! Off doing exciting sheriff things,” she grumbled, glaring at him half-heartedly.
Alan couldn’t stop the laugh that left him, shaking his head in amusement. “Exciting? I wish this town was more exciting, it’s in desperate need of liveliness.” He snorted, pushing off of the desk and taking the arm she held out to him in reflex, groaning as she used it to lead him toward the door of the station. “It’s the slowness of it that has me so busy, I have no excuse not to do paperwork that way.”
“So that’s what you were doing today?” Della asked curiously.
Alan knew the tone of her voice, though he didn’t place it before nodding, and he knew the minute her expression lit up that he had made a mistake.
“Good! Then you won’t mind escorting me over to the Deans’ house so that I can have lunch with Carlie! She said she has some of Josie’s old clothes that I can have, and you know how I feel about baby clothes!” She talked over whatever objections Alan may have given gleefully, practically dragging him down the street in her waddling haste.
He was going to have to suggest to Bill that they put her on some type of medication for calming her down again. It was about that time of the month for him to at least try and suggest such a thing.
“You know, you could have just asked,” he griped good-naturedly, fighting off a smile at her antics as they made their way down the street.
“Only for you to come up with some other excuse again? No thanks.” She dismissed him so easily he was beginning to think it was a waste of trying.
“Uh-huh,” Alan muttered, turning into the Deans’ front walkway and coming to a near dead stop at the sight on the other side of the garden half-wall.
He’d been in Helena’s Wallow for five years, knew every face and every voice that belonged to the town, and many that came through visiting, so he knew for sure and certain that the woman standing on the other side of the wall had to be the newcomer. He didn’t know what he had expected, and maybe that was his fault for not giving it any kind of thought, but he hadn’t expected the vision waiting on him.
She was taller than most women, a good sight taller than Alan’s short sister, with black hair that hung past her waist in gentle spirals that she was trying to gather back up into a bun. Bent at the neck, all he could see of her while she wrestled with her hair was her dainty profile and soft figure, but as she rose he felt almost as if he had been kicked plumb in the stomach by a mule.
She was the kind of woman that men left to war for, with large brown eyes and soft, slightly upturned lips. She looked almost effervescent as her lips creased into a smile that wreathed her whole face, the freckles alongside the bridge of her nose standing out all the more for the soft pink that infused her cheeks as she laughed.
She was otherworldly and show-stopping.
And Alan was staring.
Not that he knew he was staring.
At least, not until a sharp little elbow dug into his side and Della cried out, “Carlie!” for all the world as if she and this creature of light were the best of friends.
Della untangled her arm from Alan’s, heading over to Carlie with the kind of smile she normally only reserved for small children and her husband, arms outstretched and her eyes shining. Carlie met her hug with a kind of restrained enthusiasm of her own, smiling politely and her expression only faltering slightly as she looked over Della’s shoulder to see a stranger behind her.
“This is my brother Alan, I told you about Alan,” Della rambled, pulling back from Carlie and affectionately patting her own stomach as if to calm the spawn undoubtedly kicking within. “He escorted me over today since Billy was busy with his patients and I thought it was the perfect time for the two of you to meet.”
“Meet me! Meet me!” a small voice cried out gleefully. It was the only warning Alan received at all before a small tornado ran headfirst into his knees, a bundle of black curls so similar to the woman he was staring at trying to tackle him that he couldn’t misplace them.
Right, she was a widow.
He had forgotten that fact in the awe of meeting her, his mouth somewhat dry as he reminded himself that her husband had only been dead a year and she no doubt didn’t want some random man making eyes at her that soon. Was there a protocol for grieving? Was it rude of him even to be wondering about that?
“Meet you?” he asked engagingly, dropping down so that he was eye level with the grinning gremlin in front of him. “I can do that, ma’am,” he drawled, smiling lazily at the small beauty that looked so much like her mother it was almost adorable. “My name’s Sheriff Alan… and you are?”
“Josie Dean!” the little girl cried proudly, sticking her hand out and waiting for Alan to take it before clambering up onto his chest and swinging her arms about his neck. He stood there, laughing, only stopping at the mortified exhale from across from him.
“No, Josie,” Carlie muttered, putting her hand over her eyes and shaking her head. “That was mama’s maiden name. You’re Josie Ellis, I’m Carlie Ellis.” There was a hint of irritation in her words, though Alan didn’t know what from, and as he stared at her he realized he had forgotten his words again.
He hadn’t been tongue tied since he was in grade school.
“A Lesson in Trust and Hope” is an Amazon Best-Selling novel, check it out here!
Carlie Ellis had never thought of leaving her hometown, and by doing so, hindering her relationship with her parents. Still, starting a family and a new life in New York had brought her so much happiness, she wouldn’t have it any other way. Yet Carlie’s bliss would come to an abrupt end, after losing her husband suddenly. Left with no other option, there was only one place for her and her daughter, Josie, to return to; her family home. Amid mourning and reconciling with her parents, Carlie cannot even begin to think about the future, let alone finding love again.
Especially when family secrets put Josie’s life in danger…
Conscious of Carlie’s unfortunate situation upon her return in Helena’s Wallow, Sheriff Alan Lansky knows that courting her would be entirely out of line. When the urgent case of her daughter’s kidnapping falls in his hands, Alan puts his feelings aside and joins forces with Carlie to rescue Josie. Together they will need to beat the odds and uncover past secrets. But just when Alan thinks they are getting closer to finding Josie, somehow her captors always seem to be two steps ahead.
If only he could solve the case in time, bringing everyone out to the other side unharmed…
A series of tragic events will become the reason Carlie and Alan’s paths will begin to entwine more than either of them anticipated. Will they get to explore their emotions, or is the unveiling of hidden truths going to turn them both into victims of fate?
“A Lesson in Trust and Hope” is a historical western romance novel of approximately 80,000 words. No cheating, no cliffhangers, and a guaranteed happily ever after.