Charlotte was woken by a tremendous crash from outside. A dog started to bark nearby, and muffled curses floated up through her open bedroom window.
Something that sounded like a glass bottle clattered across the street, and there was more shuffling and thumping.
She sighed, rolling herself into a tight ball.
Would it be the worst thing if she just left him out there? It was a cold night, but it wasn’t as if he would die. Served him right, after all. She guessed that it was somewhere between two and three in the morning. He could sleep in the gutter and wouldn’t know the difference between that and his bed.
Outside, the dog kept barking, and a cat meowed ferociously. Charlotte squeezed her eyes closed, imagining lights flicking on in their neighbor’s windows, curtains twitching. They were already unpopular enough in their run-down section of town, and they didn’t need any more reason to make their neighbors dislike them.
Sighing, she rolled out of bed, shivering in the cool night air. Pausing only to shrug on a robe over her nightgown and slip her bare feet into a pair of clogs, she hurried down the rickety stairs into the main part of the house.
The Cooper house was somewhat dilapidated, the sort of place that should have been long since torn down. It was originally built to be a cottage with only one story, but two bedrooms had been added under the sagging eaves, with a ramshackle set of ladder-stairs leading up to it.
It had probably been a pleasant little house when it was first built, long before a younger Raymond Cooper and Charlotte, his tiny, serious-faced niece, took possession of it.
Charlotte avoided the splintered floorboards and low-hanging beams without thinking, not even needing to light a candle. Even so, the squeal of creaky, water-saturated boards followed her across the floor.
She twisted the rusty key, just so, in the rustier lock, a knack she’d known since she was small. She slid across the bolt with a throat-clenching scrape and pushed open the door.
Instead of opening out into the main street, the Cooper house—which only had one door, only one entrance in and out—opened into an alleyway along the side of the house. Like most alleyways in this part of Chicago, it was choked with rubbish, bags of garbage, loose trash, and worse. Charlotte was never sure whether she’d open the door to find unsavory people lurking in the shadows, just as shocked at the interruption as she was to find them there.
Tonight, though, she only saw Uncle Ray, propped up against the wall opposite, trying unsuccessfully to pick up a half-empty bottle of whiskey. He was forty years old, her father’s younger brother, although he could easily pass as ten years older, or even more. His reddish hair was turning white, thinning back from his hairline, and years of drink, debauchery, and bad living was turning his face red, his nose bulbous, cheeks crisscrossed with broken veins.
He barely noticed her, too intent on his task. The bottle rolled further away from his grasping fingers, cheap alcohol slopping out and soaking away between the filthy cobbles.
“You’re too loud, Uncle Ray,” Charlotte said shortly. “It’s too late, too. You said you’d be back earlier.”
He smothered a burp. “A man can do what he wants in his own house, can’t he?”
“You’re waking the neighbors.”
Uncle Ray slurred something that was not complimentary at all to their neighbors. Charlotte sighed, raking a hand through her hair. The wind was getting up, whipping strands of auburn hair around her face, loosening the braid she’d tied her hair in for sleep.
Charlotte’s hair was remarkably long, at least waist-length. Part of her was proud of her impressive mane, but it was also incredibly inconvenient. More than once, she’d considered cutting it off and selling it, when they were dealing with particularly tough times. It had never come to that, though.
“Come on, Uncle Ray, you need to get inside. Hurry, now,” she said briskly, jerking her head. “If you don’t come in right now, I’ll go back inside myself and lock the door on you, and you can sleep out here all night.”
Uncle Ray scowled but made a bold attempt to roll to his feet.
“Nag, nag, nag, that’s all you do, girl.”
“I wouldn’t have to nag at all if you didn’t roll home drunk every night,” Charlotte retorted. “Up you get, quickly.”
Even as she spoke, Charlotte realized with a sinking heart that it was too late. Uncle Ray had passed beyond the threshold of drunkenness where he could support himself. His legs were like jelly, and he was clumsy and uncoordinated. He made it halfway to his feet, only to topple sideways into a pile of rags and rubbish.
Just wonderful, she thought sourly. At least that wretched dog, wherever it was, had stopped barking.
“I might… might need a hand up,” Uncle Ray managed.
Sighing, Charlotte stepped forward, trying not to think about whatever soft thing she could feel beneath her feet where it should be cobblestones. She’d lived here since she was six years old and had long since learned not to look too closely at the rubbish in the alley.
For her own good.
“Give me your hand, Uncle Ray,” Charlotte said, already calculating what to do next. If she could get Uncle Ray to his feet, they could stagger the few steps across the alleyway into the house. There, she could get him to the sofa, where he could sleep away what was left of the night. If he wasn’t inclined to go any further, he could just sleep on the bare floor.
Without warning, a dark figure detached itself from the shadows further down the alley, stepping close to her without making a single sound.
“He’s a useless old soak, ain’t he?”
Charlotte dropped Uncle Ray’s limp hand, backpedaling with a muffled shriek. She just remembered in time to clamp her hand over her mouth. Screaming here would only irritate the neighbors and wouldn’t’ bring any sort of help.
The man from the shadows grinned broadly at her shock. Even in the dark, Charlotte imagined that she could see the red-brown stains of tobacco juice on his teeth, as if he’d just torn out somebody’s throat.
“Come on now, Lottie, don’t you know me?”
She swallowed hard, trying to recoup her dignity. “Of course I know you, Mr. Donovan.”
Unfortunately, she added in her head.
Jacob ‘Jake’ Donovan was the sort of man who was well-known to the police, and equally well-known and feared by his peers. He was a thug, but a clever one. Clever enough to avoid capture at every turn, but ruthless enough to do his own dirty work.
He was somewhere between twenty-five and thirty, young for a criminal of such notoriety, and might have been handsome, in other circumstances. As it was, he was missing a front tooth from a fight, and the rest of his teeth were discolored with his habit of chewing tobacco. His nose was crooked from too many fights, and his hair was cropped too close to his scalp, almost shaved in patches.
He didn’t seem to pay much attention to his appearance. He was tall, too, looming over Charlotte with ease, muscles bulging under filthy, well-worn clothes.
Charlotte dropped her eyes, not liking to hold his gaze for too long. He might think of it as a challenge, or worse, a flirtation.
“I’ll help you get him up,” Jake said smoothly. Not an offer, but a statement. Charlotte said nothing, only backing away when he advanced. Jake gripped the back of Uncle Ray’s collar, and she noticed how her uncle cringed and whimpered at his proximity.
Hauling him to his feet with brute strength, Jake all but threw him through the open doorway, and would probably have stepped in after him, if Charlotte hadn’t quickly positioned herself in the doorway, hand braced on the door to shut it in a hurry.
“Thanks, Mr. Donovan,” she said lightly, tugging her robe tighter around her shoulders. “Goodnight.”
He leaned against the filthy wall. “Not going to invite me in for a nightcap? Or is that not proper enough for a prim little missy like you?”
She flushed. “It’s late, and I’m sure you’re tired. I know that I am.”
Jake eyed her for a long moment, his face expressionless.
“Huh. Well, goodnight, then.”
Without waiting for a response, he turned and swaggered away down the alleyway, quickly swallowed up by the dark.
Charlotte breathed out a sigh of relief. It wouldn’t be the first time Jake Donovan had flirted with her, or the last. He had a voracious appetite for women and got bored with the saloon girls quickly enough. He’d boasted more than once—within her hearing, no less—that he liked girls who posed a bit of a challenge, whatever that meant.
She shuddered, hastily shutting and locking the door in case he decided to come back for some reason. As she was turning to see what state Uncle Ray was in now, Charlotte caught a shadowy glimpse of herself in the hallway mirror.
It was the only uncracked mirror they had in the house, and Charlotte diligently kept it clean and polished. It had a cheap gilt frame that somehow gave the hall an air of shabby grandeur. Framed in this chipped, beloved mirror, Charlotte saw a grubby, dead-eyed girl. No more than twenty-two, she could pass for a few years older. Strands of lank auburn hair hung around a too-pale oval face, and shadowed, tired brown eyes looked out, ringed by lilac circles.
To top it all off, there was a smear of mud on her cheek. Charlotte lifted a shaking hand to her own face, wondering when she’d gotten that smear, and how long it had been there.
No wonder Jake was so bold with her and made fun of what he called her airs and graces. She looked no better than one of the saloon girls, albeit in more modest clothes.
Uncle Ray groaned, and Charlotte gave herself a little shake, straightening her spine. No time to get maudlin about her looks. They’d fade along with her youth, like everyone else’s did in this town, no point worrying about it. She turned briskly, placing her hands on her hips, and took in the sight.
Uncle Ray had made his way to the sofa, and was sitting in a relatively upright position, head sagging over the back, eyes closed.
“Uncle Ray? You can’t sleep like that, you’ll choke. Come on, lie down, on your side,” Charlotte said, her voice sounding hoarse and tired to her own ears. She was tired, but by the time she got Uncle Ray settled and asleep, there’d be no chance of sleeping herself. Besides, she’d stay awake now, straining her ears in case Jake returned. Charlotte thought uncomfortably of her open bedroom window.
Uncle Ray made a mumbling, gurgling noise, and sagged sideways onto the sofa. Charlotte got to work, pulling off his boots—caked with mud and filth, which she did not want them touching the sofa—and stripping him out of his overcoat. She took out a blanket, draping it over him, and placed a cup of water on the coffee table, within easy arm’s reach. After a moment’s thought, she put a bucket underneath her uncle’s head, in case he decided to vomit in the middle of the night. She didn’t much fancy scrubbing dried vomit off the floor in the morning. Not again.
“You’re a good girl, Charlotte,” Uncle Ray mumbled, eyes closed. “You don’t deserve any of this.”
“Well, you can stop coming home drunk at any time you like, Uncle Ray,” Charlotte said briskly. “Then I won’t have to put up with it, will I?”
“Watch your tongue, girl, or you’ll feel the back of my hand.”
“And you’ll feel the toe of my boot if you try any of that.”
Uncle Ray made a rumbling, hoarse sound that might have been a laugh, shifting under his blanket.
“You’re sharp, I’ll give you that. I don’t know where you get it from.”
“Not from you, that’s for certain,” she retorted, earning herself another laugh.
Uncle and niece had been together for the past sixteen years, since Charlotte was barely six years old, a silent, wide-eyed waif standing beside her father’s grave. Her mother had died years earlier, before Charlotte could remember more about her other than she was pretty and kind.
But then, of course, all children thought that their mothers were pretty and kind, so that didn’t mean very much.
Uncle Ray had done his best, as far as Charlotte could tell. Despite his sharp tongue and countless threats, he had never struck her, and usually made a valiant effort to save some of his wages for dull things like food, rent, and firewood.
He was more or less awake now, watching Charlotte bustle around the kitchen, following her with beading, half-opened eyes.
“I’ve always tried to do my best for you, girl,” he said suddenly. “I nearly married that widow—oh, what was her name? Because I fancied that you needed a mother.”
“If you’re talking about Mrs. Jules, I’m glad you didn’t,” Charlotte replied, not turning around. “She was a drunken old fool, and she didn’t like children very much. I’m not sure why you thought she was the one who’d make a good mother for me.”
“Well, she was the only one who’d have me.”
Charlotte chuckled at that, shaking her head. “What will I do with you, Uncle Ray? Maybe I should have just thrown a bucket of water on you in the alleyway and left you to it. It would have rinsed out the alley a bit, too.”
Uncle Ray smiled weakly. “You didn’t let Jake in, did you?”
She pursed her lips. “Course not. Do you think I’m an idiot? I wish you wouldn’t spend so much time with him. He’s a snake. A poisonous one, at that.”
“He’s got deep pockets, and lowlifes leave you alone if they spot Jake. It’s safety.”
“Those deep pockets come with interest, I expect.”
It was a thoughtless comment, and one Charlotte hadn’t meant anything by. She’d heard that Jake lent out money at a ruinous price, like most criminals of his ilk, but it was just gossip and rumor.
She hadn’t expected Uncle Ray to sit bolt upright, face suddenly white, eyes sharp and sober.
“What did you say? Who’s been talking to you? What have you heard?”
Charlotte paused, glancing back over her shoulder with a frown.
“What? What do you mean?”
Uncle Ray flushed red again, obviously realizing that he’d made a misstep.
Charlotte wasn’t about to let it go. Her uncle was not a good liar, and even if he had been, she knew him well enough to tell when he was hiding something.
And when Uncle Ray was hiding something, it was always for a very good reason. Usually because the thing was extremely bad or extremely shocking. Not the sort of thing that would just go away on its own.
“Uncle Ray, you tell me what you mean right now, before I throw you back outside.”
He lifted his chin defiantly. “I’m the man of this house.”
“You’re the only man in this house, and I’m the only woman. Tell me, right now, or so help me…”
“Fine! Fine. You want to know what’s going on? You think that you’re so grown you can hear the plain truth? Fine, I’ll tell you. I owe Jake Donovan money. Happy now?”
Charlotte closed her eyes. She’d suspected as much. It wouldn’t be the first time Uncle Ray owed money to bad people, but someone like Jake Donovan… well, that was bad. Real bad.
“How much?” she said quietly.
“I said, how much money do you owe him?” Charlotte snapped, the last of her patience fading away.
Uncle Ray told her, and she blanched.
It was a lot of money. More than she could ever earn by taking in laundry, and there was no way Jake would want to wait more than a month or two for his money. He might even want repaying now.
She swallowed hard, raking a hand through her hair. The braid was all but undone, long curtains of Charlotte’s hair tangling around her shoulders. Her fingers caught a knot in her hair, pulling painfully against her scalp, but she barely noticed.
“And do you know how we’re going to pay back the money you owe?” she asked tightly. “Have you even thought about it?”
Uncle Ray wouldn’t meet her eye. He’d turned green and leaned over the side of the sofa.
“We’ve come up with an arrangement. I can’t pay it back otherwise.” He mumbled.
“What arrangement? Uncle Ray, what arrangement?”
“He gets something else instead of money.”
Charlotte felt dizzy, as if part of her already knew the answer.
“What? What does he get?”
Uncle Ray dragged his red-rimmed eyed sorrowfully up, meeting her gaze.
“You,” he whispered, and immediately emptied the contents of his stomach out into the bucket on the floor.
“Love Delivered by Fate” is an Amazon Best-Selling novel, check it out here!
Trapped in a life she never chose, Charlotte Cooper is engaged to a dangerous criminal as a pawn in her uncle’s sinister game. Desperate for a fresh start and a chance at real love, she secretly corresponds with Xavier Collins, a widowed rancher in the West looking for a mail-order bride. With each word exchanged, their connection deepens, and Charlotte dares to dream of escape. When Xavier offers her a way out, she reinvents herself, leaving her troubled past behind…
In her daring quest for escape, could she unexpectedly stumble upon the tender embrace of true love?
Xavier Collins, a widower trying to balance ranch life and raising his son, welcomes Charlotte into his home, expecting a marriage of convenience. As their relationship unfolds, he finds himself captivated by her charm, though he senses she’s hiding something. Xavier grapples with guilt and suspicion, unsure if love can bloom in their unconventional union. But as he watches Charlotte bond with his son, he realizes there’s more to their connection than he ever imagined…
Is this charming stranger the one to trust with his fragile family?
Charlotte and Xavier embark on a journey of love and redemption, discovering the true meaning of trust and community. Yet, as their hearts unite, Charlotte’s past rears its head, threatening to shatter their newfound happiness. With danger closing in, they must confront their deepest fears and insecurities, choosing whether to stand together or flee. Can their love survive the test of truth, or will Charlotte’s past extinguish the flame that burns between them?
“Love Delivered by Fate” is a historical western romance novel of approximately 80,000 words. No cheating, no cliffhangers, and a guaranteed happily ever after.