Willa – first chapter – page

When Jacob Chalmers arrives in Coldwater Creek to marry Mary Armstrong, he’s devastated to learn she has married someone else. Nursing his wounded pride at Mary’s betrayal, he advertises for another bride.

Willa Stewart’s mother has too many mouths to feed, so Willa leaves home and becomes Jacob’s mail-order bride. She is immediately attracted to him and hopes that one day, she will have his love and a family of her own. However, Willa’s newfound happiness is shattered when she discovers Jacob’s motive for marrying her.

Betrayed and angry, Willa draws away from Jacob, sparking a bitter conflict between them. Meanwhile, Jacob, still haunted by Mary’s betrayal, fights his growing attraction to Willa.

When circumstances change, Willa realizes she needs to try to forgive Jacob and give their marriage a chance. But can Jacob forget his past with Mary and fully commit to Willa?



         Chalmers stepped off the stagecoach and tugged the collar of his jacket higher around his neck. It might be springtime in Kansas, but Montana was still in the firm grip of winter.
        His heart pounded with a mixture of excitement and nervousness. He hadn’t seen Mary since the autumn before and he couldn’t wait to hold her again, kiss her and make her his wife.
        The trip had taken much longer than he’d expected. As he’d made his way northwest from Kansas, snow and frigid temperatures had slowed his pace, and a late winter storm had destroyed a bridge and stranded him in a small town near the Wyoming border. He’d written to Mary, but since the bridge was necessary for mail to get through, he wasn’t even sure his letters had arrived.
        He took in a deep breath, feeling the brisk Montana air fill his lungs as he adjusted the brim of his hat, shielding his eyes from the late afternoon sun.
Coldwater Creek was like many of the other towns he’d seen dotting the landscape on his trip north—a main street lined by false-fronted buildings, men on horseback and driving wagons, women strolling down the boardwalk.
        A voice called out. “Look out!”
        Jacob turned to face the voice a mere fraction of a second before the stagecoach driver heaved his valise in his direction, barely avoiding being knocked off balance by the weight. “Thank you,” he muttered.
        The driver nodded at the acknowledgement and flicked the reins. The stagecoach moved away, leaving Jacob and his valise wondering where to go next.
        Two older men strolled toward him. “Excuse me,” Jacob called out as they passed by. “Do you happen to know where I can find Mary Burell?”
        “Burell?” One of the men scratched his scruffy beard. “Can’t say it sounds familiar. You might want to check at the mercantile. All the ladies shop there so they likely know where she lives. It’s just down there.”
        “Thank you,” Jacob replied, tipping his hat before making his way down the street in the direction the man had pointed.
        As he approached the mercantile, Jacob couldn’t help but feel a pang of worry. What if Mary had given up on him and moved on? It was a possibility he dreaded more than anything else. He shook off the thought, forcing himself to focus on finding her as soon as he could.
        The mercantile was empty when he stepped inside. The young woman behind the counter smiled and greeted him. “Are you new in town?”
        “I am. I just arrived on the stage.”
        “Welcome,” she said. “My name is Joanna. I hope you’ll be happy here. What can I do for you?”
        “I’m looking for Mary Burell. Do you know where I might find her?”
        “Mary? Sure do,” Joanna answered. “She lives just on the edge of town in the white house with the dark green shutters and roof. You can’t miss it.”
        “Thank you,” Jacob said. “I appreciate your help. I’ll back to pick up supplies once I know where I’m going to settle.”
        “I look forward to seeing you soon then.”
        Jacob’s heart raced as he left the mercantile and followed the boardwalk to Mary’s home, praying silently that she was at home.
        As the house came into view, anticipation at their life together beginning washed over him. At the same time, anxiety niggled at him that things might not be as he expected once he saw her again. Was their love strong enough to withstand the distance and time that had separated them?
        There was only one way to find out, and Jacob steeled himself as he strode up the path to the door, hesitating for a brief moment before raising his hand to knock.
        The door swung open and Mary stood in the entrance. She’d gained a few pounds, but she had a glow about her, making her look even more beautiful than he remembered. His breath caught in his throat. “Mary!”
        Mary’s eyes widened and a flush rose in her cheeks. But there was no welcoming smile, so sparkle of joy in those eyes.
        “Jacob!” The word came out as a shocked breath. “What are you doing here?”
        Something was wrong. Very wrong. Why wasn’t she running into his arms, telling him how much she’d missed him? A chill washed over him.
        “What do you mean?” he asked. “You know why I’m here. I’m here to marry you.”
        “Jacob, I—” Mary started.
        Her expression sent alarm bells through him. “What is it?”
        It was only then that he noticed how her hands and arms were crossed over her stomach, protecting a definite bump. His chest tightened. “You’re…” He couldn’t even force the word past his lips.
        “I’m sorry. Jacob, I’m married,” Mary whispered as her gaze met his once more, tears glistening in her eyes.
        “Married?” Jacob repeated, feeling his world crumble around him. “But how? Why?”
        “I had no choice,” Mary murmured, wringing her hands nervously.
        “Tell me, Mary,” Jacob demanded. “Tell me what happened. Were you assaulted? Were you—?”
        She glanced away from him, shame written across her face. “No. I didn’t mean to… I didn’t think you were coming.”
        “I promised.”
        She lowered her head. “I’m sorry, Jacob. My reputation would have been ruined.”
        “Your husband…” Jacob muttered, his heart breaking with each word she spoke. His mind raced, trying to understand how the woman he loved could have betrayed him the way she had.
        “When is the baby due?”
        “In three months.”
        “You left Kansas in October.”
        “Jacob, I still love you,” Mary whispered, her voice cracking with emotion as she reached for his hand.
        He pulled away. “Love me?” he scoffed. “If you truly loved me, you would have waited for me.”
        “I didn’t think you were coming. You were supposed to be here shortly after Christmas.”
        “Excuse me?”
        “When did you let him bed you? How long did you wait for me? A week? Two? It sure doesn’t look like you waited any length of time at all.”
        “It was…” she began.
        Jacob couldn’t say why he’d even asked. It didn’t matter now and he sure didn’t want to hear the details of her betrayal.
        With one last look of disgust, he turned on his heel and strode away from the house, his shoulders slumped in defeat as the weight of his broken heart threatened to crush him.


        Willa Stewart woke to the familiar sounds of the bustling city outside her family’s cramped apartment window. The clatter of horse hooves on cobblestone mingled with the shouts of newspaper boys hawking the morning headlines. She opened her eyes and sighed, knowing it was time to start another long day.
        With some effort, she pulled herself from the lumpy mattress she shared with two of her younger sisters. They were still fast asleep, and Willa envied their ability to sleep so soundly. At nineteen, she felt the weight of responsibility for this family as much on her shoulders as her mother’s.
        She splashed some water on her face from the chipped washbasin in the corner and caught a glimpse of herself in the fragment of a mirror hanging on the wall. Her pale skin and tired eyes looked back at her as she ran her hands through her hair, trying to control her unruly chestnut curls.
        After changing into a well-worn dark green dress, Willa tiptoed quietly through the apartment so she wouldn’t wake the others. She heated up a small pot of oatmeal over the stove and rationed herself to only three spoonfuls, saving the rest for her younger brothers and sisters.
        The clatter of a key in the lock announced her mother’s return from the factory where she worked all night.
        Her mother tried to smile, but Willa noticed the exhaustion in her eyes and her defeated posture.
        “How was your night?” Willa asked, sensing something was wrong.
        Her mother sighed. “Oh Willa, it was dreadful. The manager called us all together and said the factory is closing for good. We have just two weeks left.”
        Willa felt the blood drain from her face, but she swallowed down the panic rising inside her and let anger at the factory owners take its place. “Don’t those men realize people rely on these jobs? Don’t they care?”
        Her mother shook her head. “They care only for profits. But we mustn’t despair. The Lord will provide, as He always has.”
        Willa envied her mother’s faith. Right now all she felt was fear. Fear for the future, for her family’s survival in the lean times ahead. But she swallowed those anxieties down.
        What were they going to do? She wrapped her arms around her mother, whispering words of comfort. Inside, however, her mind raced. How would they survive?
        While her mother ate a small bowl of oatmeal and drank a cup of weak coffee, Willa tidied up the little apartment as best she could, sweeping away the ever-present dust and grime.
        Her younger siblings began to stir and Willa helped the little ones wash up and get dressed for the day. She could see the hunger in their eyes as she portioned out the remains of the oatmeal. Her own stomach growled, but she just smiled and said she had eaten already.
        “You are such a good daughter,” her mother said, leaving Willa in the kitchen and heading to the bedroom to sleep now that the beds were empty.
        The day passed in a blur of chores—washing and mending clothes, preparing food from their meager supplies and generally keeping the younger children quiet so her mother could rest.
        Willa’s thoughts kept returning to her mother’s news. What would they do now? Willa had been taking in sewing for the past few years, but her skills were limited. Maybe she could start taking in laundry, or look after more children while their parents worked. Or maybe, once the factory closed, her mother could stay home and she could go out and find work.
        Dusk fell, bringing a chill to the air. Her mother woke and spent some time with the little ones before she left again to spend another twelve hours at the factory.
        Willa tucked the younger children into bed with an extra blanket against the cold. She kissed each sleepy head, wishing she could protect them from all harm. But the future stretched before them, bleak and uncertain. She would cling to hope and face each new day with determination. Her family needed her to be strong.


        Jacob leaned his elbows on the bar in the Black Bear Saloon, his shoulders slumped, staring into his empty whiskey glass as if it held the answers he sought. The raucous laughter around him faded into the background, his wounded pride weighing him down.
        The saloon doors swung open, letting in a blast of dusty cold air. Jacob cast a quick glance at the man sauntering up to bar. The man nodded and met his gaze. “New in town?” the man asked.
        Jacob nodded. “Name’s Jacob Chalmers.”
        “Evan Hunter,” Evan said, holding out his hand. Jacob took it and shook it firmly.
        “What brings you to town?” Evan asked, signaling the bartender for two beers.
        “Came to get married.”
        “It’s not going to happen.”
        “Why not?”
        “Didn’t work out.”
        The bartender slid two glasses of beer down the length of the bar. Evan set one in front of Jacob before lifting his and holding it in salute before he took a long swig. Jacob followed.
        Around them, men talked and laughed while a grizzled man with a cigar hanging out of his mouth played an off-key tune on the piano in the corner.
        “Staying long?” Evan asked.
        Jacob hadn’t thought that far ahead. As he’d walked away from Mary’s house, the only thoughts in his head were to get himself a drink, food and somewhere to sleep until he figured out what he was going to do.
        He’d saved enough money to buy a piece of land, and his plan was for him to build a ranch where he and Mary would raise their children and grow old together. Now none of that was going to happen.
        Going back to Kansas was pointless. There was nothing left for him there. But staying here in Coldwater Creek, seeing Mary with another man, her belly growing with that man’s child… He wasn’t sure he could handle that. “Not sure,” he replied. “If I do, I’ll need to find some work.”
        Evan studied Jacob for a few seconds before he spoke again. “Well, I could use another hand at my ranch if you’re interested.”
        Evan had always believed there was an answer to every problem. Was this the answer to his? He couldn’t see the point in building a house and a ranch for himself. “I might be.”
        Evan drained his glass. “It’s not far. Anybody can tell you how to get there. Come by in the morning if you’re still looking for a job and I’ll get you set up in the bunkhouse.”
        “Much obliged.” As Evan headed out, Jacob felt the weight on his shoulders lift ever so slightly. He nursed his beer, lost in thought as the saloon buzzed around him.
        “Another?” the bartender asked, startling Jacob from his reverie.
        “Sure, thanks,” Jacob said, pushing his empty glass forward.
        The bartender refilled his glass and set it back in front of him. “So what really happened with that wedding of yours?”
        Jacob’s jaw tightened. “She married somebody else.”
        The bartender let out a low whistle. “That’s rough. There aren’t many available women here, at least not the kind of woman you’d want to marry.”
        Jacob took a swig of his beer. “I’m not looking.”
        “Well, when you are looking to start over, you could always send for a mail-order bride,” the bartender suggested. “Lots of lonely men out here look for wives back East. I could show you how it works.”
        Jacob looked up, a spark of interest taking root in his brain. A mail-order bride? He’d been looking forward to marrying Mary, to having a home, a family. And instead, she’d have everything he’d wanted. His thoughts turned to Mary and her betrayal
        No, he wasn’t ready to even think about falling in love again, but if she could just cast him aside like that, maybe he should show her he could move on, too.
        “Yeah,” Jacob said slowly. “Yeah, tell me more about that.”
        Jacob listened intently as the bartender grinned and launched into an explanation of placing newspaper ads and corresponding with potential brides by letter.         
        Maybe this mail-order bride thing was just what he needed to get over Mary. To prove to her and himself that he could find happiness without her.
        His pride wouldn’t let him walk away licking his wounds. No, he’d show Mary just how little she really meant to him.

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