"The Redemption Of An Outlaw"
a Western Historical Romance Novel,
by Evelyn Boyett
Beth Hampton was a pampered, privileged daughter of the Arizona governor. Jesse Crane was an outlaw.
Beth wanted to find purpose in her life, to escape an unwilling marriage arranged by her father and overcome the tragic loss of her mother. Jesse wanted to live a quiet life on his ranch, fleeing from a criminal past and a difficult childhood.
Circumstances throw the two of them together in the most unlikely way and they discover that survival means they must rely on each other. However, trust isn’t something either of them is familiar with nor does it come easily.
With outside forces trying to drive them apart, Beth discovers an inner strength she never knew she had, while Jesse learns there is a good man hiding behind all of his past misdeeds.
Will the two of them be able to overcome all of the obstacles that are separating them or will they find that there is no redemption when others want to control one’s destiny?
"The Redemption Of An Outlaw" is a historical western romance novel of approximately 80,000 words. No cheating, no cliffhangers, and a guaranteed happily ever after.
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The sun rising over a Utah morning was a beautiful sight to behold. It was so beautiful, in fact, that it was nigh impossible to look at it and doubt that anyone but God could be responsible for such chilling splendor. It was the stuff people lived for, and when they didn't have it, the stuff people's dreams were made of.
Utah was the kind of country that seemed to go on forever. It was painted with broad strokes of color from the most vibrant splotches of paint on God’s palette; His gift to the people who were brave enough to traverse its terrain. The red of the rocky skyline against the startling blue of the vast, open sky was enough to make a man want to weep.
Jesse Crane, although not a man prone to weeping by any stretch of the imagination, considered the effect of his current home as he pulled himself from bed and stretched his arms high over his head, wincing a little at the pain in his stiff back.
“Lord,” he whistled, bending forward slowly to touch his toes, but only making it halfway down, “I sure could use some help around here. If you’re listening up there.”
He stood and glanced up at the ceiling before shaking his head. He was halfway amused and halfway disgusted with himself for bothering with such a stupid suggestion. Jesse had no doubt that God answered prayers.
That He answered the prayers of men like him, though? That was another matter entirely. Jesse had a feeling that, at some point, a man simply lost his right to barter for favors with the Lord. If that was the case, then Jesse’s platform with the Big Guy had run out a long, long time ago. At this point, asking a favor from the nearest neighbor was almost too much to hope for and Nate Brinkley, the name of said neighbor, was no saint himself.
“Enough, old man,” he grumbled to himself as he got into his britches and hooked his suspenders over shoulders that already ached.
In truth, Jesse was only thirty-years-old. On a morning with a good chill, though, he felt closer to sixty. His could not be described as an easy life, not by anybody’s account.
He did his best to be good and keep his head down these days, sticking to honest, hard work, but his body was still riddled with aches and pains of the poorly healed wounds of his misbegotten youth. In combination with the daily grind of keeping his homestead up and running, it made for tired nights and achy mornings to be sure.
“That sunrise, though,” he whispered, glancing out his window before heading out into his home’s modest front room and onto the porch.
That sunrise was right and it was every bit as awe-inspiring today as it had been when he’d first come to Utah three years ago. All of the richest colors a person could imagine in some of the wildest, most free territory he had ever seen. And Jesse Crane was a man who had covered a lot of territory in his day. He’d just never come across a place he liked so well.
If God was still looking out for him, and that was something he was none too sure of, leading him to his little piece of land in Utah must have been part of the plan. The land was hard and often times unforgiving, but it was to be respected and it never took what it did not deserve.
Everything Jesse received from his piece of property was something he had earned, and he could rest easy at night knowing that. Resting easy was something men like Jesse didn't often come by and there was no way he was going to take it for granted.
“Get, why don’t you, you mangy beast? Why you always running under my feet that way?”
Buddy, Jesse’s mangy pup, looked up at him with his one remaining eye and pointedly did not move a muscle. As pups went, Buddy was just about as disobedient as they came and never appeared to be even a bit sorry about of it.
Buddy had come to Jesse the same way that everything else in his present-day life had come – through accident and circumstance. Jesse had not long been on his little piece of land when he had walked out his front door to find the mutt waiting patiently on his porch. No amount of admonishments had sent the dog away and now he was the only family Jesse had.
Family. Family was something Jesse thought of often during these long, work-filled days. Jesse had grown up without any family to call his own. His most distant memories were of a woman with no features he could still remember.
He could not have been more than two or three years old, and yet the feeling of love and safety he had felt in her care remained with him still, all of these long years later. Even with no way of knowing for sure, he could only assume the woman had been his mother.
It had been the only time in his life when he had known such love and care. He still had no idea what had become of that faceless woman, nor did he have even an inkling of who his father might have been. All he knew of his history was that he had once had a mother for the briefest amount of time, and then for reasons he could not know, she had been gone.
The memories that came after were stronger and far more plentiful than those earliest ones. Those were the memories that haunted him in his dreams, haunted him even after all of these years.
Jesse had grown up in an orphanage, if growing up was what it could be called. The minders of the children in that hellacious place had not cared a lick for their charges. They had cared only for the donations they received from well-intentioned, charitably minded fools who knew nothing of where their money would really go.
It had been hard and rough in a hundred different ways, growing up in that filthy, dog-eat-dog place, and it had taught Jesse nothing of the proper way to navigate the world. What it had taught him, and this it had taught him all too well, was how to lie and fight and steal. By the time he was only ten years old, he knew with utter certainty that those were the only ways to make it in the world with any degree of success.
Jesse had finally fled the orphanage when he was fifteen years old, ridding himself of the cursed place once and for all. He knew now that he had still been nothing more than a boy when he had gone, a boy green behind the ears and all too susceptible to the more evil-minded folks in the world. At the time, though, he had been convinced that he was as good as a full-grown man and it was with that total certainty that he had gone to meet his fate.
That fate had come in the form of a man who had seemed to have everything Jesse wanted and lacked: security, money, and most importantly the kind of authority that meant he would never find himself at the mercy of another man’s whim again.
He had been too young, too full of piss and vinegar, to understand what it meant to trade one subservient position for another and by the time he had started to figure it out it was far too late.
Without ever really intending to, Jesse had become one of the most wanted criminals in the states. When he had realized it was no longer the life for him, he'd had to flee. He had gone underground, running until he'd found his piece of land and settled down.
The money he'd brought with him from his escapades had been enough to get him started, and for the last couple of years, he'd made his way quietly, causing no trouble and attracting no attention. It was everything he'd thought he'd wanted and for a while, it had been more than enough.
But lately? Lately, Jesse wasn’t so sure. Keeping up the homestead on his own took far more out of him than he ever realized it would, keeping up everything from the house itself to the livestock to maintaining the land.
Learning how to run the fields had been a steep learning curve indeed. Doing it all on his own had been even steeper still. A wife to help around the house would have gone a long way towards alleviating some of the pressure threatening to do him in. A wife to help with things like cooking and cleaning, to keep him from feeling as if the whistling wind outside of his door was the last and best friend he would ever know. A wife, and perhaps a handful of kids as well, to help tend the fields and to fill his home with sound.
Having had no family with which to grow up, Jesse had never considered having one of his own. To have that changing now was a strange feeling, an odd thing to come to terms with, but that didn’t make it any less true.
It wasn’t just that a handful of children running around would be able to lessen his own load, although that was undeniably true. Jesse had seen enough of the energy of children to know that they would work tirelessly to get their chores done and then go run around like banshees as if they’d never worked a day in their lives. It was the idea of having something of his own, something that truly belonged to him, and of leaving something better once it was finally his time to leave the world.
The sound of a horse's hooves pulled Jesse out of his thoughts and he put a hand up to his eyes to shield them from the rapidly rising sun. What he saw riding towards him was enough to drive most of the morning's good mood right out of him and to leave a decidedly sour taste in his mouth.
He thought to himself, and this with some distaste, that it was as if thinking of his neighbor had summoned him. It was the sort of thing rumored to work on the devil himself, and although he understood that the thought was unfair, he couldn't entirely drive it from his mind.
It wasn’t that Nate Brinkley was altogether a bad man, although Jesse sometimes had his private suspicions. It was more that he was a man who had too much power over Jesse, something he could not easily abide.
Nate was one of the few men who knew enough about Jesse to know that he could not just travel into town whenever the mood struck. He couldn’t even ride into the small collection of homes and businesses to pick up his supplies to keep the farm running. He couldn’t do these things for the same reason that he couldn’t go into town to court a woman and maybe, someday, make her his wife.
Jesse was a wanted man, a man everyone believed to be dead. This included both the outlaws he had once run with and the lawmen who had relentlessly tracked him, and Jesse was willing to attract the attention of neither one. He couldn’t afford to. All it would take was just the rumor of his still being alive for all heck to break loose. It would attract the attention of every self-respecting bounty hunter in the states. That was something Jesse couldn’t risk. Not after working so hard to remove himself from the business once and for all.
Nate didn’t know Jesse’s entire history. Jesse would never have allowed a thing like that. He did know that Jesse valued his privacy, his isolation, above all else however, and he was willing to lend a hand. He was willing to help with the necessary trips into town. Willing to help, that was, for a price.
“Nate,” Jesse called in greeting.
He couldn’t seem to make himself put any kind of enthusiasm into his voice, although that was what polite behavior dictated. If Nate noticed, though, he didn’t let on. He looked pleased as punch to be there and Jesse couldn’t blame the man. He reckoned he’d be in a pretty good mood, too, if he had the opportunity to take so much for so little effort.
“Well, hello, there, boss,” Nate called back cheerily, hopping down from his mount easily. He stood with his hands on his hips and did a slow turn, surveying Jesse’s land as if he was the one who owned the place. In some ways, Jesse supposed he sort of did.
“I’ve told you, Nate, there’s no need to call me boss,” Jesse said, the friendliness in his voice growing thinner still.
“Well, I guess I know that, but I like to show my respect, seeing as this is your land and all.”
“Much appreciated,” Jesse answered grudgingly. “Now, how about you tell me what’s brought you here?”
“Of course, you would be wondering a thing like that, wouldn't it you?” Nate asked, laughing like he’d just said the cleverest thing in the world instead of merely stating the obvious.
“It’s just that it’s a little early, is all. Didn’t expect you this time of day. Didn’t expect you until next week, truth be told.”
“Right, well, I thought you might be running low on a couple of things. The last shipment I hauled in here didn’t look like enough to last a man until next week. Especially with it being the end of the year and all. People tend to run shorter on things than they expect towards the end of the year. At least they do in my humble opinion.”
“It’s very kind of you to think of me,” Jesse answered, waiting for the rest.
No way, no how was he prepared to believe that Nate had come to him on this fine morning simply out of the the goodness of his heart. There would be a more pressing motive, to be sure. There always was. If there was one thing Jesse had learned during his hard-won years, it was that stark truth.
“And you’re mighty welcome. To tell God’s honest truth, though…”
“Yes?” Jesse asked, allowing the question in his voice to hold itself evident. This was the part he was waiting for. The part that came next was Nate’s real reason for coming to see him today, and that was something Jesse could take to the bank.
"Well, Jesse, to tell you God's honest truth, I mostly came today so I can pick up what's due to me. The end of the year's coming for me, same as you, and I'd like to take the portion of the crop I've earned."
"Right, of course, you do. I've got it all packed up for you in the barn. I'll help you load it up."
“Thank you kindly, Jesse, I’d be most obliged.”
Nate tipped his hat at Jesse and Jesse, despite the clenching feeling in his chest, tipped his hat in return. It was hard work, loading up the wagon Nate would take with him back to his land and later return.
By the time he saw the man off again, it was late afternoon. Nate’s wagon was small and required multiple trips to get the job done. The sun was already making its way back down the sky to the place where it would take its evening rest.
"Come on, you old rascal," he said to Buddy, who sat by Jesse's feet as Nate rode off into the distance, "let's get ourselves back inside. I'm afraid our work for the day isn't quite done yet. What do you say, feel like keeping me company?"
Buddy barked in return and the two of them made their slow progress back into the modest house.
The work that came next was something Jesse was looking forward to even less than what he had already done. He had never been a numbers man, never been properly educated, either, but keeping his land running properly required that of him now. The end of the year meant that it was time to balance the books, a long task he liked even less than mucking the barn.
“Got to do it, though, don’t we?” he said to Buddy, who barked again in a show of solidarity.
“That’s right, we do. Now, let’s get to it.”
He sat down at his desk, a basic thing he had built himself the week he’d finished the house, and started going through what he’d spent and what he’d earned. He had a pretty good idea of where he stood, financially speaking, and it was one he was so married to that he checked over his calculations three times before admitting to himself that he’d got them right.
“Well, I’ll be,” he whispered to himself, hating the nervous sound of his own voice. “How in tarnation did this happen?”
One hundred dollars. The year was almost up and he was one hundred dollars short of where he should be. No matter how many different ways he tried to make things fit together, that was the unavoidable conclusion he kept returning to, whether he liked it or not. He was one hundred dollars short of where he had predicted he would be and the crops he'd just finished helping Nate drive off with weren't even the last of what he owed.
It would do him in, giving Nate anything else. That was what the paranoid little voice in the back of his head was insisting now. One hundred dollars short and another shipment to Nate would see Jesse’s homestead go under before the next year was through.
It was everything he'd worked for, this little piece of land. It was the only thing he had to show for the last thirty, often times miserable, years of his life. His homestead and his anonymity, they were the only things he had left. Letting out a string of curse words that would have made a more refined man blush, Jesse retrieved a bottle of whiskey from his woefully bare cupboard and sat down heavily in front of the kitchen window.
If he couldn't keep his land going, he would be lost. Losing it would mean he would lose everything and he just couldn't see himself starting over again. Not after everything he'd been through to build this new life for himself. It wasn't a perfect life, not by any stretch of the imagination, but it was his and he didn't want to lose it if it could be helped.
Buddy’s loud, insistent yaps were the first thing to alert Jesse to the fact that his companion had left him to drink alone. Jesse was halfway to a standing position when he heard the sound of hooves hitting the cold earth yet again.
“What in tarnation is it now?” he muttered, throwing back the rest of his liquor with a grimace.
It wasn’t Nate come back, that was for sure. Any idea Jesse might have had about that being the case was wiped clean away by the understanding that it was not one but several horses pulling up to his house now.
“No,” he hissed to himself, his heart immediately beating out of control in his chest, “no, no, no!”
He looked around the stark kitchen for anything he could use as a weapon. The rifle was in the bedroom, but if he couldn't make it that far he was going to have to have something with which to defend himself. The odds of this being a purely social call were slim, seeing as nobody but Nate even knew he was alive.
“Jesse!” a familiar voice rang out loud and clear through the evening sky. “Jesse Crane! Boy, you in there? Because if you are, you better come out and greet an old friend.”
Forget speeding up; Jesse’s heart just about stopped at the sound of that voice. A ghost might as well have walked into his kitchen and knocked him over with a feather. It would probably have been less of a surprise.
“Virgil?” he asked, his voice coming out as nothing more than a croak.
There was no way the man outside could hear him and that was probably for the best. If it was really who he thought it was standing at his front door, Jesse needed a moment or two to think.
Virgil Mosley was, perhaps, the most prominent person from Jesse’s past. Aside from the orphanage, he was the thing that most often featured in Jesse’s dreams.
Virgil was the ruler of one of the most infamous outlaw gangs in all of Arizona, the place Jesse had landed when he’d finally grown the balls to flee the orphanage. Jesse had fallen in with Virgil and his crowd easily, fitting right in with their lawlessness, and happily, too.
It wasn’t until he’d started having doubts about the life of an outlaw that Jesse had started seeing Virgil for the kind of man he was and Virgil had been none too pleased about it, either. Things had come to a head when Jesse had witnessed Virgil and his men raping a woman too weak and small to ever have a chance of defending herself. That wasn’t the kind of thing Jesse went in for, not then, not now, not ever.
Virgil had made it very clear that he didn’t want Jesse going anywhere. In the end, it was Virgil as much as the law that Jesse had made his escape from. He hadn’t seen hide nor hair of the man nor his gang since he’d come to Utah. Apparently, that was about to change.
“Boy, you in there? Never known you to be the kind to run and hide. Then again, never would have thought you’d turn tail and run, either. We both know a man can surprise you, given half a chance.”
"Virgil," Jesse answered, more loudly this time. He wasn't happy to hear from his living ghost, but he'd rather die than let the man accuse him of cowardice on his very own land. He took one last pull of whiskey, this time from the bottleneck itself, and slammed it back on the table before making his way to his front door.
“Well, well, well. Look what the cat drug in,” Virgil said with a wide, toothy grin.
“From where I’m standing, it looks like you’re the one got dragged, seeing as this is my property and all.”
Virgil’s smile never faltered, if anything widening a little with the observation. Jesse was no fool, though, not by a longshot. The little glimmer of Virgil’s temper that flashed briefly in the man’s eyes was not lost on Jesse by any means. He needed to play it cool here, and while he was at it, close to the vest. Allowing himself to believe that this was only a visit from an old friend would be a mistake. Possibly, a grave one.
“Jesse, you really want to banter about semantics here? After years of not seeing each other? Doesn’t seem like much of a reunion.”
“No, I guess it doesn’t. So why don’t you tell me what brought you here?”
"Well, you did, kid. Of course, you did. Why else would I be in this shithole?"
"Watch it, Virg," Jesse said, careful to keep his voice good-natured, "that's my home you're talking about."
“You’re right. I extend my deepest apologies. Maybe it’s just because I ain’t actually been inside of your home yet. Because, you know, you haven’t invited me?”
“Is that why you came here, boss? That why you’ve got a couple of men with you, too? Just to see the inside of my home?”
“No, ‘course, it ain’t. You know me well enough to know I wouldn’t waste a trip over something like that.”
“No, I wouldn’t imagine so.”
“Why don’t you invite me in, Jesse, my boy? Let’s have a nice, long talk over a meal.”
Jesse nodded and turned back to his home, a place that didn’t feel safe for the first time in all of his time there. The feeling of Virgil and his men walking so closely behind him made all of the hairs on the back of his neck stand up on end, but what could he do? They were here, and unless he was very careful, they weren’t leaving without doing some kind of damage.
“I’ll say it happily, Jesse, you make a mighty fine meal, if you don’t mind my saying so. Never took you for a cook.”
“I’m not much of one, Virgil. I think we all know that.”
“Come on, don’t sell yourself short, kid. This was one heck of a meal.”
Virgil looked around at his men for confirmation and all three of them nodded vigorously. That was a move Jesse was very familiar with. He remembered the days of agreeing with Virgil regardless of what existed in your own mind. Now that the outlaw was sitting across from him, he was remembering all kinds of things.
He had allowed himself to believe that Virgil and his men would pick up and ship out once their simple meal was done. Or if not to believe, at least to hope. There wasn't a lot to make a meal out of in his cupboards at the moment, but he'd whipped something up that was enough to let them leave satisfied. Now that the beans and dried meats were gone, there was nothing left but drink and if Jesse’s memories of the Virgil gang were accurate, they would blow through all of that sooner rather than later.
Any idea of Virgil picking up and shipping out without any kind of confrontation was long gone, but he would be more than a little appreciative if he could get them out of his home with some whiskey still in the bottle to help him get to sleep. In the interest of making that happen, Jesse cleared his throat and spoke.
“So, Virg, why don’t you go ahead and tell me what brought you here? Maybe who clued you into my being here in the first place.”
“Aw, come on now,” Virgil said in a long, maddening drawl, “you know I never tell.”
“That’s right. I seem to remember that,” Jesse answered, nodding his head in agreement. Truth be told, he didn’t really need an answer to that question. Nate was the only one who had known that he was there. Hell, he was the only one who knew that Jesse was alive. It would seem that taking part of Jesse’s crops wasn’t enough. Apparently, he was taking what he could get from Virgil, now, too.
“Anyway, is that really what you wanted to ask me? What’s it been, two, three years? Surely you’ve got something more pressing on your mind.”
“I do,” Jesse said, giving up all pretense and cutting right to the chase, “what are you doing here, Virgil? Why’d you bother dragging yourself all of the way out to Utah?”
“Would you believe me if I said it was just for your company?”
“No, I can’t say that I would.”
“Let’s get right down to it, then. I want you to come back. I want you back in the fold.”
Jesse sat, momentarily unable to move. He should have known this was what it would come down to. There was no reason for Virgil to be there other than to get what he wanted. He was the kind of man who never did anything without getting something out of it in return.
The most viable options, as Jesse saw them, were that he wanted Jesse dead or that he wanted to utilize Jesse’s particular brand of talents. If it had been the first, there would have been an attempt on Jesse's life right at the start, well before the group of them sat down to break bread. That left only the latter. Jesse supposed he should be at least mildly relieved. Instead, he felt the sense of dread inside of him thicken.
“Virgil, I appreciate the offer…” he started to say, clearing his throat again reflexively and hating how weak it made him sound.
"That's kind of you, and mighty polite, but I don't want your appreciation. I want you to say yes. Let's just say for one job right now, before you have a chance to see if you've still got a taste for the life."
"I already know the answer to that. I don't. I'm out. I quit that life for a reason, and there's nothing that'll make me want to get back in."
“I hear you, partner, I really do. The thing about it is, we need you. I’m not saying that I want you to come on permanently. I understand that might be just a little bit too hasty under the circumstances.”
“The circumstances, huh? What circumstances might those be?”
“I don’t know,” Virgil answered quickly, his face the picture of earnestness. “That’s something only you can say. Whatever kind of life you built for yourself here, I suppose.”
"Right. A life I intend to keep if it's all the same to you."
“And I don’t see why you shouldn't. Except I need you to help me with this one last job. Once that’s done, we can see what you want to do moving forward.”
"I don't think you're hearing me, Virg," Jesse said, his minimal amount of patience beginning to wear thin. "I said I'm out. I mean out for good. I'm not coming back for any one-time job, no matter what you think you're going to offer me."
“Enough to keep this place running for the next ten years, for starters. How’s that sound? You sure you don’t want to be a part of that?” Virgil asked with one eyebrow artfully arched.
Despite himself, Jesse felt himself flush. Virgil was hitting uncomfortably close to the only thing that might actually tempt Jesse to give into Virgil’s request. He knew from personal experience the kind of money one of Virgil’s jobs could pay out.
Forget keeping his land going for the next ten years. It might even be enough to ensure his safety for the next twenty if he was careful. Saying no to something like that felt like saying no to his own life. Still, there were some things that just weren't worth the risk. Putting in with Virgil and his men was one of those things.
“I can’t do it. It’s tempting, I won’t lie about that, but I can’t.”
Jesse watched Virgil’s face, watched it closely, and his stomach dropped with what he saw. The man’s face changed in an instant from pleasant and hopeful to hard, cold, and endlessly calculating.
“Here’s the thing, kid,” Virgil said with false sadness, “I hear what you’re saying. I just can’t accept it.”
"No. No more excuses. I need you on this job, and you're going to be compensated one way or another. If you won't come of your own accord, though, I'm going to have to make it a thing you can't afford to turn down."
"You wouldn't," Jesse said in a dead, foreign voice. "It's against your code to turn on one of your own kind."
“Don’t be a fool. You stopped being one of my own when you left us high and dry. As for what I would and would not do, it would be a mistake to underestimate me. I’ll do just about whatever it takes to get what I want and right now, I want you on this job.”
“And if I refuse?” Jesse asked, despite already knowing the answer.
"If you refuse, you might as well give yourself up for dead right here and now. The way I hear it, there's plenty of lawmen who would dearly love to know that you're still alive. Hell, who knows? I might even get myself a reward."
Jesse looked into his old boss's eyes and knew that he was beat. All of this time spent trying to leave his past where it belonged, and all it took was one visit for the work to be undone.
“All right, Virgil, you win. One job. One job and then I’m done. Promise?”
“I promise, kid, that I surely do.”
Virgil stuck out a hand to shake and Jesse grudgingly obliged. He wouldn't go so far as to say he believed the man, but then again, that didn't really matter. He was past the point in time where his beliefs held any weight. He was living on hope and prayer alone, now, and God help him for it, too.
"He never lets me do anything, Olive. It’s like he thinks I’m still a child! It’s maddening, don’t you think? So maddening a girl could scream.”
Beth looked down at the cat in her lap with expectation, almost as if she believed the pampered feline would suddenly be able to talk. Instead, Olive only sat there perched upon Beth’s lap, the expression in her eyes at best indifferent, at worst full of contempt. Beth sighed heavily and pushed the cat gently out of her lap, hopping lightly to her feet as the animal hissed and gave a half-hearted swipe of the paw.
“You’re no help at all, do you know that? You might as well be on father’s side, for all the good you’re doing me.”
Olive mewed, somehow managing to make it sound chastising, and walked primly away, twitching her tail with each step of the paw. Beth watched her pet's progress with half a mind of going after her and then sighed and thought better. It wasn't Olive's fault that she had her freedom when Beth herself did not. There was really no need for the both of them to be miserable.
Besides, there could be nothing more ludicrous than envying the freedom of one’s pet. If that was where she was, if that was truly how low she had fallen, Beth was surely in need of some kind of a change.
“What do you think, Ollie?” she whispered after her rapidly disappearing feline. “Is it time for a change?”
It was a silly question. She knew it was time. Even at the tender age of seventeen, very soon to turn eighteen, there was one thing she understood utterly and completely. She was not now and would never allow herself to become the sort of girl to be satisfied with her own unhappiness.
That kind of woman was far from foreign to Beth, although when she thought on it, she wished fervently that it had been so. Even now, so many years after the sad death, all Beth had to do was close her eyes to see the misery that had followed her mother everywhere she went.
Beth's mother had been a small woman, both in the physical sense and in some way that was more difficult to define. She was the kind of woman that could be standing in the middle of a room and still, somehow, difficult to see. Her presence in a place had always seemed fleeting like she was already halfway out the door even while she was still in the middle of a conversation.
As such, Mrs. Lillian Hampton had been, perhaps, poorly matched with Beth’s father, Norman Hampton. Father was the kind of man who seemed to use all of the oxygen in the room and when that wasn’t enough, to send someone out to fetch him more.
He was a politician, a man who could talk to anyone about anything for hour upon hour and never grow tired. Quite to the contrary. The more he was around his constituents and yes, even his doubters as well, the stronger and more energetic he became.
It was in direct contrast with Beth’s mother, this social rejuvenation, and Beth still wondered from time to time if that was part of why her mother had done what she had done. She had wondered if maybe her father’s love for an audience had sucked a little more life out of her mother each and every day until, at last, there was none left for her to live.
Lillian Hampton had thrown herself from the back balcony of the Hampton home, falling three stores and coming to rest beside the garden she had only infrequently tended. In the flurry of activity that ensued, Beth had been forgotten by all who might tend to her and so she had crept out into the gardens to have one final look at her mother's face.
She had been whisked back inside as soon as one of the maids had thought to look down and discover her there, but what she had seen was something she could never, never forget. For upon her mother's face, there had been the sweetest kind of smile. Her mother had almost never smiled in real life, much more prone to fits of crying, but in death, whatever sadness had ailed her was finally relieved and the smile upon her lips made her look, at long last, happy.
“No,” Beth whispered to herself vehemently, almost violently, “No! I will not be like her. Never like her.”
In truth, Beth was in no real danger of becoming like the mother she had so little memory of. No memory at all outside of the poor woman’s sadness. Beth was naturally happy and full of a longing for adventure. She wanted to experience everything life had to offer her, to experience each and everything to its fullest.
That desire for experience was the root of her current unhappiness, as well as her fear that she might someday become like her mother, as unlikely as that truly was. She wanted to be a part of the party.
“Well, Ollie, it sounds sort of silly when you put it that way, doesn’t it? All of this dissatisfaction over a party and nothing more.”
Because Olive was no longer there to answer her with her resolute mew, she had to answer herself. Perhaps it was silly, at least on the surface, but she didn’t honestly think so. Because her father’s refusal to let her attend his victory party was a symptom of a much larger problem, a problem she saw getting much worse before it had any chance of getting any better at all.
The party taking place on the bottom floor of the elaborate Hampton home was in honor of her father, Norman Hampton, who had only just become Arizona's governor.
Beth just knew that everyone at the party must be telling her father about how he had always been a shoo-in; about how there had never been any doubt of him taking the position of governor to begin with. It might have been true, and it might not have. In the end, Beth supposed, it didn't really matter all that much. He had won and now what sounded like half of Arizona crowded the bottom half of Beth's family home.
"Half of Arizona here and yet his own daughter not permitted to join. His own daughter, but for his son, it's perfectly all right."
And that was it, the true heart of her discontent. Jacob was, even now, downstairs and schmoozing with the party goers as if he could belong nowhere else. Two years younger than Beth and yet he was allowed to mingle with the revelers, drinking champagne and availing himself of as many of the passed canopies as he wished.
"It's just not fair," she said to herself, almost as if somebody might be able to hear her.
She was aware that her exclamation could only sound petulant, but found herself unable to feel any other way. It wasn’t fair. It wasn't fair at all, no matter what explanation her father chose to give. Jacob was allowed to come and go as he wished around the house and around the city at large. He was allowed to do just about whatever he pleased and nobody batted an eyelash.
“But not me, right, Olive? Never me, not ever. Not even now that I’m basically grown.”
Beth groaned and threw herself backward on her bed, staring up at the ceiling, her face the perfect picture of discontent. The sound of laughter, growing ever more boisterous with flowing drink, only served to make her more restless.
She could still see her father’s serious, almost earnest face as he had sat her down earlier that morning. He had left the task that late, almost as if he had been afraid of her response. As it turned out, he’d had every right to be, if what he had feared was something bordering dangerously on the edge of a tantrum.
He had given her many reasons why it would be best for her to remain sequestered in her room where nobody would be able to see her and she had done her best to refute them all. Finally, when he had grown tired of her arguments, he had played the card she could never defeat.
"You are too young and too good to understand what darkness lies in the hearts of men. Even good men, once plied with drink, may find themselves utterly incapable of restraining themselves when they see a beautiful girl. Seeing as you are the most lovely young woman I have yet to see, I cannot risk having you around my constituents and my colleagues. I cannot risk what might befall you if there should be a lapse in my vigilance."
The words were so strong in Beth’s mind that her father might as well have been standing in the middle of her room right now and delivering it all over again. She picked up a pillow, considered it for a moment or two, and then heaved it across the room.
It narrowly missed striking a gas lamp she had inherited from her mother and landed on the floor beside a heavy set of drapes. A low, unhappy hiss told Beth that she had come too close to Olive’s hiding place, which meant that she would not be rejoining her for a social hour anytime soon.
Beth would spend the entirety of the festive evening fuming and speaking to a cat who would not speak back, perhaps looking out of the window and wishing she was living a different person’s life. In short, she would have nothing to do but wallow, and that was something she simply could not abide. She would not tolerate it in a friend, so why on earth should she allow it in herself?
“Right,” she said to herself decisively, sitting back up again and looking around her large bedroom with a renewed sense of vigor. “That settles it, then. This simply cannot be allowed to stand. I won’t allow it.”
As was often the case, Beth began to feel worlds better practically the moment the decision was made. Having a task to set herself upon took away the sense of helplessness that had been so oppressively hanging over her head. It was replaced by a feeling of purpose, and as such, she marched to her armoire with her head held up high.
"Now!" she said decisively as if she were speaking to a large audience instead of only herself and a decidedly uninterested cat, "To find something suitable to wear!"
This proved more challenging than perhaps it ought and Beth found herself saying things under her breath she would never in a million years have said in front of her father or any other person, for that matter.
The trouble was that Beth had always been raised in a household with money. This meant she was never left to dress herself for nice occasions on her own, instead benefitting from the help of a maid. Or at least she had always considered it a benefit. Now, however, she was beginning to see it for what it was: a handicapping of sorts. Almost eighteen and she had never gotten herself ready for a party on her own, never set her own hair so that she knew how to get her strawberry blonde waves just right.
By the time Beth was finally ready, she was gripped with a sense of urgency that made it near impossible to move discreetly. She made herself go quietly, though, fully aware of the chance of being caught before she had more than traveled down the length of the hall.
It was not outside of the realm of possibility that her father would have set servants outside her door to keep watch, just in case she got a bee in her bonnet and decided to go on one of her adventures. For better or worse, her reputation for impishness preceded her.
She was more than a little pleased to find that the hall outside of her bedroom door was blessedly empty.
She was gripped by a faint twinge of regret at betraying the faith her father seemingly had in her, but she quickly shrugged it off, reminding herself that there would be no need for her duplicity had he trusted her to go to the party in the first place. After all, she had no intention of whiling the evening away in the company of derelict men whose only aim was to steal her virtue away before the night was through.
She wanted only to be allowed one wonderful dance with a handsome stranger, one turn around the ballroom before one of her father’s men discovered her there and carried her back to her ivory tower. That, and perhaps a nice cold glass of champagne.
If she could have those things, she thought she could content herself with spending the rest of the night back in her room. She might even be able to weather the storm of her father’s recrimination the next day, when he was tired out from too much liquor and fully prepared to inform her of just what a disappointment she had been.
Keeping these thoughts in the forefront of her mind, she crept across the hallway, wondering why it had never before felt quite so long or large. If she’d had to sneak the whole way down the large, sweeping stairs, she didn’t think she would have been brave enough to complete her mission. She would have made it halfway down before turning and fleeing for the hated comfort of her room.
Fortunately for Beth, she knew the Hampton family home like the back of her hand. She knew even better than her father, who for a politician had surprisingly little interest in history and all it had to offer. For example, he knew nothing of the secret passageways that ran behind the facade of the home’s walls. He did not know that the house had once belonged to an abolitionist, a widower that had made it his life’s work to see slaves to some semblance of freedom and safety. Beth’s father had not known what he was purchasing before moving his family in and as far as she knew, did not know to this day.
Beth, however, knew each and every passageway intimately. She had spent many a lazy summer day discovering their mystery. She had wondered time and again at what had taken place in the stuffy hidden halls. She could not help but shiver at the thought of the slaves who had slept and feared for their lives where she now played, the slaves that had been used to smuggle those poor souls up north.
Now, she said a silent thank you as she crept through her secret passageways, her plan starting to unfold before her very eyes. She would use these sacred halls to sneak down to the ballroom, where she would wait until she could emerge onto the floor and agree to a dance with the first dashing young man to ask.
She had little doubt that she would be taken up hostage again shortly after, but she would make herself be content. It was that idea of contentment that would haunt her later, once she was back in her room with a wildly beating heart and an anger beating at her temples that threatened to overwhelm. The idea that had she crept by at a different time, she might not have known the fate that was to befall her.
“Mr. Hampton, I really must tell you how pleased I am to be here. I can’t think of a better man for the job.”
“Please,” Beth’s father answered, “no ‘Mr. Hampton’ needed. Just call me Norman, won’t you? Seems only fitting, if we’re to discuss our particular kind of business.”
“Well, then, Norman it is, then. And speaking of our business, I’m more pleased about that even than you winning governor. I’m happy to have been able to be a small part of it.”
“Please, Lars, don’t sell yourself short! You were more than a small part, I’ll have you know. You were one of my primary contributors. That’s something I won’t soon forget.”
From her hiding spot inside of the wall, barely daring to breathe for fear of being discovered, Beth could not help but grimace in acute distaste. All she had to do was close her eyes for the briefest of instants to see the scene playing out in her father's office. She could see the solicitous expression on her father's face and the pleased look on Lar's face as well.
Beth had always disliked Lars Alston from the first moment of meeting him several years before. She understood that campaigns did not run unless properly funded and she knew that her father needed the money Lars threw his way. There was something about him, though, that Beth could not make herself trust. He always made her think of something slimy and not quite right, the kind of thing best kept at arm’s length.
If she disliked Lars, though, she disliked his son, Henry, even more. She had known the younger Alston since the two of them were children in the play yard, certainly long enough to know what sort of man he was and would become. He was a cruel child and therefore could only become a cruel man. Cruel and angry, although even now Beth could not imagine what the pampered millionaire’s son had to be angry about.
He had been angry, though, very angry, and Beth shuddered with the memory of what that anger had led to ten years before. There had been a dog, an old, mangy thing that nobody would claim. It had hung around the schoolhouse when it was time for the children to play, barking and running from one child to the other excitedly.
Beth had loved that dirty little thing as had most of the other children at play. Henry had seemed to like the beast just as well as anyone else, right up until the terrible afternoon when he'd picked up a big rock and bashed its brains out. He had killed that dog right in front of her, and once the killing was done, Henry had laughed and laughed. He had still been laughing when the schoolmistress had run outside to fetch him, incapable of masking the horror on her face.
And now that she was in the business of remembering, Henry had kissed her once, too. It had been a couple of years after the incident with the dog when she had been ten and Henry twelve.
He had caught her by the arm as she prepared to make her way home, laughing when she cried out in surprise and then demanded he let her go. He had loudly made his intentions for her known so that the little band of his friends clustered behind him whooped and brayed with laughter.
She had protested, of course she had, but he had been so much stronger than she and she had been unable to do anything to free herself as he pulled her face into his. His breath had tasted of onions and something earthy, and when he had finally let her go, Beth had cried.
Even now, almost eight years later, she had nightmares about the incident. In her sleep, not often but still more often than she liked to admit, she dreamed about that foul breath and those terribly strong hands. Needless to say, she had made it a habit to avoid him whenever it was in the least bit possible.
“What can they be on about?” she whispered to herself so softly there was hardly a sound.
All memory of what she had snuck from her room to do was momentarily forgotten. With no understanding of why it might be so, a heavy stone of dread had taken root in the pit of her stomach, coiling around her insides like a fist intending to harm.
“Well, Norman, as long as we’re on the subject of things we won’t soon be forgetting, I’d like to revisit our conversation from earlier. Our conversation about your daughter.”
“Why, of course!” her father cried, unaware of the increasing horror of his eavesdropping daughter. Beth wondered if he would care if he knew that she was listening. She thought, with a not inconsiderable feeling of dread, that it probably wouldn’t bother him in the least.
“I suppose we should begin the conversation with a simple enough question; are you still of the same mind as you were when we spoke before?” Lars asked, his voice full of a fierce tension Beth did not like the sound of at all.
“I most certainly am,” Governor Hampton agreed enthusiastically, “and I’m not likely to change my mind anytime soon. I can’t think of anything that would please me more than to betroth my lovely daughter to your son. He strikes me as an honorable young man and one who will be more than capable of taking care of my girl.”
The conversation continued, Beth knew it did because of the droning sound of voices. For all the attention she paid them, however, they might as well not be speaking at all. The sound of her own horror was so loud that nothing else in the world seemed to exist.
As the full weight of her father’s last words hit her, Beth actually had to shove a fist in her mouth to keep herself from crying out. She had to bite down hard enough to leave marks and still she wasn’t sure she could keep herself contained.
Betrothed. That was the word her father had spoken, as much as she wanted not to believe it. Betrothed without her agreement or even her consultation, and to Henry Alston at that. Even having heard it with her own ears, Beth could hardly make herself believe it was true.
“You can’t,” she mouthed, her eyes wide with horror in the dark. “”You won’t!”
It was all she could do to keep from bursting out of the door disguised as a massive painting, no doubt surprising her father and Lars Alston badly enough to do them ill.
She would tell them, scream at them, all of the things flying through her head. She would tell them both that they had no right to marry her off without ever asking her opinion.
She would tell them that Henry had always been an awful boy who had grown into a deplorable man. She would happily avail Mr. Alston all of the rumors that had come her unwilling way about the kind of thing his darling son got up to. Gambling, rotten shady business deals, and perhaps worst of all, copious amounts of time spent in the brothels with women who would never be a wife.
She would tell Mr. Alston and she would tell her father, too, and by the time she was done her father would rescind his offer, never to be given again. Except that was not how the conversation would really go, and Beth knew it. Her father had not become the successful man he was by backing down when somebody expressed an unhappiness.
Although Beth would dearly love to think that her own objections and feelings might carry more weight than that of another person, she knew in her heart of hearts that it was not so.
Never in her life had Beth been able to dissuade her father from a decision once made. She had no delusions that she would be able to do it now, not if he was already in discussions with Mr. Alston.
She turned and fled, all thoughts of the ballroom and champagne punch long since abandoned. She was terrified that she would not be able to hold her feelings inside for the time it took to get back to her room, and she would be discovered inside of the walls after all.
By some miracle, she kept herself from making a sound until she was safely behind her own locked door. Once that was done she let out a great, gasping sob and flung herself across her bed.
Had she thought that she was unhappy before when it was only about a missed party? Had she really? She knew it was the truth and it made her feel like the world's worst fool.
Here was a real problem, a problem a little sneaking around couldn't do a thing to rectify. All of the options of her life, her hopes, and dreams for her future, seemed to narrow into the finest of points until getting away was the only thing she could see. She didn't know how, she didn't have the first clue about how she would make it happen, but she knew she would not become Henry Alston's wife without putting up a fight.
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