Author's Note: This is an AU story in which Louise arrives in Rock Creek for a different reason.

Chapter One

Louise awoke. She knew it was morning but she willed her eyes to stay closed, instead choosing to stay in the dream from which she was still waking. In her dream she was a young girl again, enjoying a beautiful spring day. Carefree, she was lying on her back in the long grass of a meadow as her trusted horse, Star, grazed nearby. Louise lay looking at the clouds in the sky allowing her imagination to wander as she watched clouds change into the shape of horses and other animals. She became lost in time until she heard her mother's voice calling her for dinner.

Then, the memory was gone. She lay there, just a few minutes longer trying to hold on to it, but the moment was fleeting. She knew it was time to get up as she had heard the noise of the honey wagon as it made its way down the street. The sounds of the horse's hooves on the streets were slow and steady as the man retrieved the waste from each house.

She opened her eyes and let them become accustomed to the darkness of the room. She could see her breath as it seemed to solidify in the cold air around her as she exhaled. She was glad she had worn her gloves and socks to bed the night before. She heard a slight moan of complaint from the bed as she pulled the blanket back to get out of bed. Leah was still warm beneath the covers and did not appreciate the chill Louise had allowed under the covers.

Leah did not have to wake up yet as her work started later. Samantha, the other maid, was still snuggled in the bed. It always took her longer to wake and she was often late in the morning. As the ladies maid, Samantha had a higher standing amongst the servants in the house. But for her duties, Louise had to get up first. Her job as the scullery maid was to start the fire in the kitchen so that the cook, Martha, was able to make breakfast for the family.

The maids of the house all slept in the same bed up on the top floor of the house in the attic. The three girls worked hard all day long before collapsing into the bed at night.

Lou did not want to wake them as she quickly shed her nightdress and pulled on her pantaloons and camisole. Her grey wool dress hung over the back of the chair with her petticoat as she moved swiftly to dress. Grabbing the brush she dragged it through her long auburn hair before pinning it up in a twist. Her boots were beside her bed as she stepped into them and quickly laced them up. Then she dashed out the door as she slipped the mop cap over her hair and scampered down the back stairs.

The kitchen was dark as she grabbed the apron off the peg behind the door and pulled it on to cover her dress. She then made her way over to the fireplace. Searching its embers for life, Lou was able to coax a small flame out of it. She added more kindling until it leapt to life. She welcomed its heat as it warmed her body. Louise pulled up a stool to the fire and sat there in silence allowing her body to warm and reminiscing while staring into the flames of the fire. How different her life was now, she had been born into a privileged and wonderful family full of laughter and joy. That was . . . until . . . sadness welled up inside of her. No! She scolded herself, no. There was no value in bemoaning the past; there was nothing she could do to change it. She was grateful to have a bed to sleep in and a roof over her head. After her mother died of consumption followed by her brother and sister, her father suffered a sickness of the mind. He gambling away everything they owned including her life and home. He had disappeared one night, never to return. At the tender age of sixteen Louise found herself without a home or a family. Even the family of the boy whom Louise was betrothed abandoned her. A girl with no status or money was not going to be good enough for their son, no matter how the two felt about each other. Louise and Nathan's future was torn apart. Life was not fair; she had learned that at a tender age. She believed as time went on that her life was destined to be that of a servant locked in this ungodly cycle of bone tiring work.

It was a good stroke of luck that day as Martha was out shopping in the market that morning. She was a strong robust woman in her late forties. She had a stern mouth, mahogany colored skin and soft brown eyes, and she saw that Louise was starving as Lou had wandered around the market stalls. Louise looked half starved and confused when Martha laid eyes on her. She felt sorry for the young waif, she looked so famished. Yet there was a gentle sweet quality about the girl which attracted her to Martha. Martha approached Louise and offered her an apple from her basket which Louise eagerly took and devoured. Watching her, Martha felt a motherly instinct overcome her and she offered Louise employment at the house she and her husband James worked for. The scullery maid had left and there was a position open.

Louise had jumped at the opportunity. At the very least she had a roof over her head and food in her stomach. That was three years ago and Louise had been content here, at least. . .she was as content as she could be at the house.

The house was a large mansion in New York City close to a park. It was the home of Mr. and Mrs. Ernst Schurman and their family of three boys. Mr. Schurman had made his fortune in the railroad. The oldest of the boys Preston, was away at boarding school while the two younger boys, Adam and Philip, were home with a tutor. They were a mischievous pair of young men. They managed to terrorize every tutor the Schurmans had hired. The current one had been with the boys for three months.

Louise was roused from her memories as she heard Martha entering the kitchen through the door.

"Good morning Louise," she said with joyous ring in her voice. "My, but it is a cold one out there! You had better make sure that is one roaring fire as I need to warm my old bones." Her eyes twinkled when she spoke. As if to make her point she briskly rubbed her hands up and down her arms in a big hug.

Louise smiled as she watched Martha. She had great respect for the woman who had saved her from starvation. "I'll be back in a moment with the water," Louise reluctantly stood up from her place by the fire. She grabbed the buckets off the floor and headed to the pump to retrieve the water that was needed to start the day.

When she returned she lifted the bucket to the pot in the fireplace, pouring the water into to heat.

"Are the other two up yet?" Martha queried to Louise.

"No," Louise smiled back at her. "You know how difficult mornings are for them." Leah, was a year older than Louise, with golden hair that when unbound hung down her back in ringlets. She had almond shaped green eyes that peered through a face that had seen too much hardship for such a short life. Her mother had sent her to work at the house five years ago, hoping that she would have a better life then the one at home. As the oldest of seven children she was the one to be kicked out first. Food was scarce in their household and her mother never knew when her husband's paycheck would actually make it home instead of to the local pub.

Samantha was the same age as Louise. She had beautiful thick black hair and brown eyes that sparkled and danced when she was happy. As the ladies maid, Samantha was trained in the areas of social graces and manners. The one thing that Louise had noticed was the special bond between her and Martha. Louise had noticed the lingering, comforting touches and looks that passed between them.

The rest of the daily routine was monotonous for Louise, starting breakfast and helping clean up afterwards. A quick stop for tea when James, Martha's husband came in to visit. He was a tall striking man with brown hair that was starting to grey at the temples, giving him a very distinguished look. He loved his wife dearly and took every opportunity to tell her so. Louise enjoyed the banter between the married couple. It almost made her believe that love truly existed in this world. Martha was very closed about her past and whenever it came up she expertly diverted the conversation away from it. Than when it was time Louise had to help start the noon meal followed by the evening meal. Once everything was cleaned Louise all but fell into the bed each day exhausted.

Life had held this simple routine for the last three years.

"Louise," Martha called out to her. "I need you to run into town this morning and pick up a few things at the market." Martha would often ask Louise to run errands for her. Louise was able to read and write. As well, Louise was able to barter with the local peddlers; under that sweet innocent smile Louise knew how to handle herself.

"Here is a penny so you can pick up a piece of peppermint for yourself," Martha smiled as she handed Louise the money.

"Thank you!" Louise joyfully clutched the money in her hand and stuffed it deep into her skirt pocket. Then she removed the apron and grabbed a shawl. Throwing it over her shoulders she grabbed her straw bonnet and tied it over the cap on her head. Picking up the basket, Louise ran out of the house and down the back stairs out onto the street. It would take her the better part of an hour to walk there.

The city was starting to come to life as Louise walked towards the market. The peddlers and shop keepers were starting to display their wares. The sashes over the store windows were being rolled up and the draft horses were making their way down the back streets, bringing their merchandise to the shopkeepers.

In the downtown market Louise stepped carefully down the street around the garbage and rotting carcasses of animals. Louise held a hanky to her nose in a futile attempt to block out the smell. She had never liked the city and it had always been a dream of hers to leave it one day. However, her dream seemed to be more elusive with each and every passing month. How could she leave? Where would she go? She felt trapped and ensnared into the life she was living.

"Louise!!" she heard the familiar voice of Mr. Laughton above the growing clatter of the city. Mr. Laughton had been selling pots and pans on the same corner of the street out of his cart for years. He was a kindly, older gentleman with grey hair and clear grey eyes. "Louise!" he called again.

Louise made her way over to him, "Well, good morning, Mr. Laughton." Her smile was infectious. He enjoyed seeing her on the occasions she came into the market. She was such a tiny little thing with bright brown eyes. She was such a delight to talk to. "I am still waiting for you to accept my marriage proposal, don't you know?" His eyes twinkled as he reached out and grasped her hands in his gnarled ones.

"Mr. Laughton!!" Louise always responded in mock horror. "If you were not already spoken for, I would jump at the opportunity," she laughed, her eyes sparkled. "But you are already married, so I will have to live the rest of my life knowing that I missed out on the greatest opportunity of my life. You've spoiled me for anyone else." Louise lifted the back of her hand over her brow and rolled her eyes upward.

He grabbed her by the other hand, "Seriously Louise, you are a fine young woman. You should find a nice young man and settle down."

"Oh Mr. Laughton," Louise giggled. "And just who would you recommend?"

"That boy Stephan Miller, he is a good boy!"

"Maybe one day," Louise sighed wistfully. "Maybe one day." Louise waved goodbye and went about purchasing the items Martha had on the list. Then, last on her list was the candy. She walked into the store and made her purchase. The shopkeeper placed it in a small paper sack and handed it to her. Louise made her way back outside and found a small bench to sit down on. Taking the candy out of the bag she slipped a piece into her mouth and began to savor the sweet taste.

She watched the city life around her. A mother walked by with a child on her back and another clinging to her skirt. A cart went by filled with flowers pulled by a small grey donkey. The streets were full of people yelling and pushing. There were crowds of people pressing each other, the smells and the sounds reaching a crescendo, assaulting her senses. Louise was filled with a feeling of sadness that her life had no other place to go other than to repeat itself in the hopeless circle that it had become.

As Louise's eyes swept across the scene in front of her a sign in a window caught her eye. She stood from the bench and walked over to it. It said, ' Wives Wanted.' As she continued to read more of the poster she realized that it was a notice. Men were looking for women interested in coming out west to start new lives and become wives.

Louise caught sight of her reflection in the glass of the window. She sighed as she looked at herself. She tucked a stray hair back up into her cap, her eyes were too big and her stature too small. No wonder men did not look at her twice, she decided; she was far too plain to be noticed. She laughed at herself; even these men would not be interested in her, and they were desperate.

"Excuse me," a voice beside her made her jump. Turning, Louise saw a man standing in the doorway of the store front. "Can I answer any questions about the poster?" he inquired.

"No. . . I. . . maybe," Louise heard her own voice say. The next thing Louise knew her feet had taken her inside the tiny office, as if they had a mind of their own and she had been unwillingly led there by an unseen force.

"Please, have a seat," the man said to her. She looked at him. He seemed trustworthy enough. He appeared to be in his mid-forties, a stocky man with some hair that he had combed over to cover the bald spots. He looked up at her over the top of his glasses.

"My name is Pearson, Alfred Pearson. I saw you looking at the poster." He paused, "Let me explain how it works. We provide a service for people. You see there are men out west who are in need of female companionship and our company helps to . . . facilitate young women who are interested to seek out their companionship," he cleared his throat softly. "If you are interested I have here a number of introduction letters that have been written." He looked over Louise. She was pretty enough but she was petite, probably she wouldn't last the winter. She was slight in her stature and those hips were not wide enough to give birth. The western life would probably kill her in a year.

Louise cautiously looked at the letters he pushed in front of her. He waited and watched for her reaction. He wondered what was her situation in life, why would she entertain the idea of moving west, what was she running from? In the moment Louise seriously considered the opportunity. He was giving her a way out of the city. He was offering her the chance to go back to the wide-open spaces and to take some measure of control back over her life. She fingered the pages in front of her. Was she crazy to think like this? What kind of woman offered herself to a complete stranger?

As if to read her mind, "You can read the letters and if you wish and if there is one that interests you, then you can write a response letter." He paused, "You can read and write, can you?"

"Yes, yes I can," Louise responded as she grasped the first letter.

"Once you are both satisfied with your choice, you will continue to write for a short while, until I can make arrangements for you to leave and go out west. Once you arrive you will get the opportunity to meet each other. Then you will be married and you will start your new life."

New life, the words rung clear with hope in her heart. She started to read.

There were eight letters in all but the one that she felt most drawn to was the one from an older man by the name of John Strang.

My Name is John Strang, I am fifty years old. I live on a small farm outside the town of Rock Creek. I am looking for a wife to help with the chores on the farm.

I am a bachelor and I have never married. My father passed on years ago and my mother just of recent months. The farms has a few animals; horses, a cow, pig and chickens. I grow grain and there is a vegetable garden.

I require that my wife to be of amicable spirit and with an agreeable face. -John Strang

I have enclosed a picture of myself.

Surely, a man who spoke about his animals had to be kind and gentle, Louise thought as she looked at the small picture he had enclosed. Louise felt drawn towards his letter. Finally after perusing through all the letters she looked up at Mr. Pearson "I would like to write him," she found a new courage from deep within herself, as she pushed the letter back to him across the table.

Pleased with his new recruit, Mr. Pearson quickly grabbed a sheet of paper and a pen and gave them to Louise. "Here you are just; write about yourself, then give me the letter and I will post it to him. I should have a response back in a month. Come by the office and we will see if he wants to continue correspondence with you."

Louise wrote the letter and handed it back to him with trembling hands. Picking up the basket with the items for Martha, she rushed out the door. The warm sun bathed her face as she stepped out of the office. She looked up at the sun now shining down on the city and was saddened to see that there was so much smoke over the city from the numerous fires and it blocked some of the brightness. Walking down the street she had to sit on a small stone wall. She was numb to the hustle of the city around her. Overwhelmed with what she had done, emotions took hold of her. What kind of a woman did this sort of thing? Maybe he would not even respond. That was it, he would not respond to her letter. In that thought she felt temporary comfort and release. Picking up the basket, she continued on her way back to the house.

"Child!!" Martha hustled over to Louise as she entered through the back door of the kitchen, taking the basket from her. "I was so worried about you. Did you have trouble in the market?" Martha appeared flustered to Louise.

Samantha was sitting prim at the table, watching. She appeared annoyed to Louise, she could not help the feeling that she had interrupted a conversation between the two women.

Samantha's eyes narrowed as she watched Louise. She was jealous of Louise; she had been since the day her mother brought home the orphan girl. Louise was so tiny and pretty. Samantha was aware that Preston had noticed the lowly scullery maid. She had her sight set on Preston and no low class maid was going to come between her and her dream. . . the dream she and Martha, her mother had. They had planned this for years, well parts of it.

Years had passed since they made their way up from Charleston and the details had become a little hazy for Samantha. But she remembered how frightening it had been, Martha would not turn around. She was determined to get Samantha away from there. Samantha had been a young girl and she never understood why they had to leave. Martha would never answer the question whenever she asked. They travelled by night and hid in the bushes by day. They took food from kind souls along the way and stole when they needed too. Samantha remembered the trip, she was cold and hungry. She saw the fear in Martha's face and the heard the terror in her voice. They had chanced upon the Schurman house as a position had opened up and Martha was able to secure the position as a maid. In time, Martha had endeared herself to the family. Martha wanted Samantha to have a better life and she paid the Schurman's tutor to teach Samantha in the evenings.

Over the years Samantha had matured into a fine young lady. But no longer did she share her mother's dreams. She had dreams of her own. Dreams, which were causing a rift between mother and daughter.

"I'm . . . sorry," Louise stuttered. Samantha was suspicious that Louise had been up to something as she looked flustered. Martha lightly brushed Louise's cheek with her hand, "Are you alright Louise? You look a little pale."

Louise smiled and did not look up, so that her eyes did not meet Martha's as she was afraid that Martha would see right through her. "No, no I. . . just lost track of time, " Louise fibbed.

Samantha tapped her fingers on the table in annoyance and finally pushed away from the table, "We'll talk later alright Martha." She said as she picked up her gloves off the table and left the room.

Martha watched Louise as removed her shawl and replaced it with her apron. Her head was still down staring, as if there was something remarkably interesting with the toes of her boots. There was something, Martha thought, something that girl was not telling her. She watched her for a moment longer before attending to the dessert she had prepared for the meal later on in the day.

Louise hurried up the back staircase to her room and hid the rest of her candy under the mattress. She stood there for a moment and looked around the room. It was small and dark, the only furniture was the bed in the middle of the room and a dresser which held their clothes. A tiny window was the only source of natural light. Louise started to think about what life would be like out west, at the very least it was an escape from all of this. The air would be clean and she would be able to see forever. She would once again feel the wind as it blew upon her face and feel the warmth of the sunshine on her body. She would hear the song of the morning warbler and the singing of the crickets in the setting sun. She made up her mind in that moment if he would have her then she would go.

Chapter Two

The next two weeks were like a blur to Louise. Her mind often wandered to John Strang. What was he like? Would she have the courage to go through with her idea if he accepted her?

Day blended into monotonous day.

One day during her morning break with Martha Louise summoned the courage to bring up the subject with Martha. "Martha," Louise looked up from her tea cup. "Do you ever think about the future?"

Martha looked at her thoughtfully, "I used to," she sighed. "But not anymore. I'm too old for that now. My future is here, with the Schurmans and James. I have everything I need here. I am a fortunate woman, James was here as the head groomsman for the house, and he asked me to marry him after I moved here."

At times it seemed like it had happened to another person. When she allowed her memories to surface they came back in vivid color to her, every emotion, taste and sound intact. She felt her palms start to sweat and her heart pound as she recollected the night she ran. It was the start of the rainy season; she had been stashing dried food away for weeks. Richards's father had been selling the slaves off the plantation, as times had been hard. The master's health was failing and his son, Richard, had left for Charleston. War was coming and Richard had been chosen to lead the south into a new era.

Martha knew that her time would come soon. Samantha was such a beautiful child, her dark brown eyes, rich black hair and porcelain skin would command a high price on the auction block. But the future for Samantha was bleak at best, her skin color made her appear more white then black but she was the daughter of a black slave. That meant as a mulatto, she would most likely end up in a brothel. The thought of the future her daughter would be forced to live made Martha desperate. She did the only thing a mother could do, she ran.

It was dark, a fine rain had started earlier in the evening making the earth slick. Martha woke Samantha from her sleep and carried the child as far as she could. Martha stayed close to the water so that the trail would be hard to find and the dogs would not catch her scent. The rain washed away whatever trace that there was. The journey was hard, many times Martha cried herself to sleep, but never questioning her reason for running when she looked down into the face of her child. This run for freedom was for Samantha. It took months of hiding and walking until Martha felt safe. She stole dresses along the way from a farm, which had been hanging out to dry to replace the tattered and stained slave gowns they had been wearing.

If James had not found them that day, Martha was not sure what would have become of them. He was driving the wagon back into town with wood he had picked up at the mill when he spotted the two walking along the road. He stopped to ask them if he could take them some place. At first Martha was skittish, but Samantha was too exhausted from the journey and they could use a little compassion. As they drove along James picked up on the tell tale signs that they were slaves on the run. The ill-fitting clothes, the scars around Martha's wrist. He knew the signs; his mother had been a slave. Martha immediately found a soft spot in his heart and he asked her if she would be interested in working at the house. The rest was like a dream come true for Martha. James became her husband and she felt safe at the Schurman's house. The war had passed and she had heard nothing from her old life. She only remembered it at times like this.

Samantha had matured into a fine young lady. The money Martha was spending on tutoring was giving Samantha the skills to be a real lady. Unfortunately, Samantha did not see things the same way as Martha did. Martha was frustrated with her daughter's attitude, she did not want to work at the opportunities she was being handed. Instead, Samantha believed that one day she could marry someone like Preston. That social rules would have no bearing on one's wishes and dreams. Martha would shake her head in frustration with the child, maybe in the future, but not now.

But you, my dear, still have your whole life ahead of you." Martha paused, "Tell me child, is this what you've been brooding over for the last few weeks?"

Louise nodded her head looking down at her cup, griping it in her hands.

"Ah hah! I knew something was up!! What's his name, "Martha's eyes lit.

Louise giggled, "No, no, it's not like that." Louise bit her lower lip before continuing. How do you tell someone something like this? "Martha," Louise took a deep breath before continuing. "I am so grateful for all you have done for me here, but I feel so trapped. I am a slave in this house with no hope or future, just the monotony of every day work at the whim of a mistress." Louise was unable to meet Martha's gaze and had missed the look of horror that had crossed Martha's face. "When I was in the market a few weeks back . . . I saw a poster looking for women to locate back west." Louise took a deep breath. "So . . . I went in to ask about it and before I realized it I had written a response letter to a gentleman farmer out west." Louise did not want to look up and see the disapproving look of her friend. "Martha, I want more out of life than this. I want to be able to breathe fresh air and live in a place where you can ride forever and not see anyone. I want to be able to be free and have adventure in my life. I'm not afraid of hard work and he couldn't treat me worse than the way I've seen other men treat women. That is except James." Desperate to convince Martha, Louise pleaded, "I don't even know if he'll accept me."

Martha reached across the table and clasped Louise's hands in her own, "Sweetheart, all I want for you is the best. I don't agree with what you are planning to do. If your heart is set on this I have no choice but to let you go. Your heart must always be free to love whom you chose. Do not sell yourself to this man." She squeezed her hands, "However, if he mistreats you in any way. I want you to let James and me know. We will send you money and get you out of there and back here. Remember that no man is the master over your body." She leaned forward and met Louise's eyes with her own. "Do you understand?"

Louise smiled, "Yes I do."

"So, when is all of this going to happen?" Martha sat back in her chair.

"I haven't received a letter back yet to see if he has accepted me. If he does then Mr.Pearson , the man from the agency, will make the arrangements for me to go out to Rock Creek, which is the closest town to where the farm is." Louise continued to chatter away while Martha watched and listened. She could not help but notice the sparkle in Louise's brown eyes; she had not seen that look in the last year she had worked in the kitchen. Her face and actions became more animated as she spoke of the possibility of moving out west. She is such a beautiful girl, Martha thought and her smile lights up a room. And Louise had no idea that she was that attractive.

The conversation was interrupted as Mrs. Schurman entered. She was a tall woman with a tiny nose and rosebud lips. Her dark grey eyes were framed by her dark brown hair which was elegantly piled onto the top of her head. She moved with the poise and grace of a fine lady as she came into the kitchen. "Martha," she said, taking no notice of the scullery maid who was disappearing into the shadows. "I would like to talk to you about preparing a menu for a small party I would like to have. Preston has graduated from school and I would like to invite some of his friends over to celebrate. "

Louise knew that it was time to take her leave from the kitchen. It was not her place to be in the same room as the lady of the house. So she wandered up the back staircase to her room to wait. Leah was in the room changing into her black maid's dress for the afternoon.

"Did you hear the news!?" Leah was flushed as she fixed her blonde hair under her mop cap. "Preston is coming home!"

"Yes," Louise sighed lying down on the bed. "Mrs. Schurman is in the kitchen right now planning a party for him."

"Great, more work for us," Leah's eyes flashed brightly. "He is so devilishly handsome. Don't you think Louise?!"

"If you like that sort of guy. . . rather like an octopus if my memory serves me right."

"Oh Louise, you are so fussy," Leah laughed. "Maybe he'll fall head over heels in love with me!!"

"You dream too much Leah," Lou said as she watched her friend. "That only happens in fairytales, real life is not like that."

"You live your dream and I'll live mine!" Leah flounced out the door towards the staircase to go back to work, leaving Louise to dream on the bed. I wonder what John will be like Yes he was older, but he seemed kind and caring. Louise thought to herself before quickly chastising herself, she had not heard anything back yet.

The next day Martha asked Lou if she would run into the market to pick up some things in preparation of the party. Louise was only too pleased to run the errand, as it would give her the opportunity to stop by the office and speak to Mr. Pearson.

Once she had all the items on Martha's list she walked over to the office. She stopped outside the door gathering the courage she needed to face possible rejection. Once again she caught a glimpse of her reflection in the windowpane. How could she ever catch the eye of any man here she scolded herself, so plain and skinny. Gripping the handle with her hand she felt it give way in her grasp and the door creaked open. There looking up from his desk was Mr. Pearson.

"Well well, well," he leaned back in the chair looking up at her. "I wondered when you would show up. I received your response letter back from Mr. Strang last week." He reached down into the side drawer and pulled out a white envelope. Handing it to her he said, "You may go over there to that chair and read it." He pointed unceremoniously to a small chair in the corner.

Louise fingered the paper nervously before breaking its seal, she was trembling. Quickly she scanned the letter, her hand clasped her throat, he was saying yes!!! Consciously slowing down her breathing she went back to the beginning of the letter and re-read the words slowly and deliberately. He had accepted her as his wife. Lou immediately felt a wave of fear and apprehension cross her soul. Was she making a mistake? No, there was something about his letter, the kind way he wrote even though his words were somewhat childish, that gave her the belief that this was what she had to do. She stood up from the chair and approached Mr. Pearson.

"So?" he looked at her over his glasses.

"Yes," Louise said with a resolute tone in her voice. "I will go."

"Good," his face brightened at the prospect of the finder's fee he would receive. "Give me a few days and I will make all the travel and meeting arrangements. Have a good day Miss McCloud," he called out after her as she stepped out into the bustle of the street.

"Louise! Louise!" Mr. Laughton's voice rose above the racket.

Louise dogged a dray wagon as she crossed the street to meet him. "Mr. Laughton," she greeted him happily in reply.

"Louise, have you met that fine young man yet? You know the one I told you about," he inquired with a shine in his eye.

"Mr. Laughton," she teased. "You were the only one for me. How could anyone else hold a candle to you? Besides," she leaned into his ear and whispered. "Besides, I have been spoken for!"

"What!!" he grasped her arm with his gnarled fingers. "My dear! I am so happy for you Louise," he pulled her close to him and planted a kiss on her flushed cheek.

I'm spoken for. The words rung clearly in her heart. Somebody wanted her. Somebody out there wanted Louise McCloud. She practically skipped back to the house.

When she returned, the house was in an uproar.

"Louise, here, change into one of the black serving uniforms," Martha called to Louise as she entered the kitchen. "Leah is upstairs unpacking Master Preston's trunks. I need help in the dining room and you are the only one here." Martha was busy placing a jellied salad on a tray. "Here," she handed Louise the soup tureen. "Take this out and start to serve it."

"Where's Samantha?" Louise hissed. She did not want to go out into that room at all.

"Don't you worry none about Samantha," Martha responded tartly. "She's my concern, not yours."

Louise dashed into the corner and quickly changed from her grey dress into the black one Martha had tossed her. It was a little snug but she managed to get into it. Grabbing the tureen she backed into the room. As she turned to face the room she saw the family seated around the dining room table. The room was enormous and a large oak table in the center. Mr. and Mrs. Schurman sat at each end on the table while the brothers all sat on the sides. The scene brought back a flood of memories as it was only a few years ago that Louise had sat around such a table as this, engaged in conversation with her family. Louise felt her eyes mist as the memories overcame her. In her mind she saw her family sitting around the table engaged in conversation, not the Schurman's.

Preston was animated in his conversation; the younger boys were mesmerized by his stories from school. Louise set the terrine down on the serving sideboard and took one of the soup bowls to fill it. Once she had done that she moved over to the table and began to serve the family.

Preston was the same age as Louise. He was tall and lean with dark brown hair with copper tips. His smile was a crooked and his complexion was a little ruddy. His dark eyes flashed as he smiled.

Preston watched the maid with great interest. He recognized her as one of the house maids and was quickly ware of how much she had changed. He studied Louise intensely, over his time away she had matured. Her figure was well rounded and proportioned. He licked his lower lip as she bent over the table to serve his brothers. Her lips were full and lush, her features delicate and refined. Her eyes were now bright, and a deep shade of velvet brown. He shifted uncomfortably in his seat as his body responded to her presence. He continued to rake his eyes over her, she was one little morsel from the kitchen that he would need to sample.

Louise was aware of the attention she was receiving from Preston. She felt his eyes boring into her, making her feel as if she wanted to vomit. Desperately she wanted out of the room. Her chest heaved as she tried to catch her breath, making it worse as he watched. The tightness of the ill fitted gown accentuated her small waist and pushed up her breasts. Her task now done, she quickly left the room but not before Mrs. Schurman had taken notice of the exchange. Martha entered the room carrying the salad and cold ham.

"Did you see him!!" Samantha burst into the kitchen excitedly.

"Who?" Louise asked as she replaced her dress.

"Oh, don't be so prim, . . . Preston, you ninny!!"

"Yes, he's there," her voice flat.

"So . . . is he still as handsome as ever?!" she was bouncing in front of Louise in excitement.

"Yes, I guess so . . . if you are attracted to that sort. So, now that you are here you can serve the family for Martha. I have other chores to attend to." Louise removed the black dress and handed it back to Samantha, she grabbed the bucket from behind the door and headed out to the pump house. There would be many dishes to clean today.

Chapter Three

Over the next few days Louise waited to hear word from Mr. Pearson. Martha noted the quick step and joy in Louise.

Preston started coming into the kitchen more often, pretending to be hungry or searching for his wayward brothers. Martha always had food set aside for the boys who had such healthy appetites, but she was well aware that food was not his reason for his being in the kitchen. She watched him as his eyes scanned the room whenever he came in. She knew that he was looking for Louise. She too had noticed his attention towards Louise in the dining room that day, as fleeting as it was his intent was obvious. Martha did her best to keep Louise away from the room there were always errands to run around the property. Preston had a reputation and Martha was all too aware of it.

It was not uncommon in the morning, after Louise had risen early to start the morning chores, that she would hear a creak on the back staircase and some young lady was descending. Preston had been entertaining in his room through the night and the young ladies would attempt a discreet exit down the servant's stairs. They would barely acknowledge Louise's presence as they slid out onto the back alley away from the house. A chill ran down Louise's spine as she watched the last girl disappear into the early morning chill. The last girl looked more disheveled than the one before, her clothes slightly torn and bruising noticeable on the side of her face.

The next two days were full of preparation in the kitchen as they created the various courses for the party planned to welcome Preston home. Mrs. Schurman hovered around the kitchen more than usual as she fussed over the most minute detail.

Every hand was needed that night to help out with the party. Louise knew that she would be exhausted afterwards as when the meal was over her job of cleaning up the dishes pots and pans would just be starting. She brushed her up into a loose bun on the back of her head and pinned the starched white cap onto her head. Each of the girls was dressed in the same black wool gown wore by the servants in the house. Martha had each of them stand up and pass her inspection before they were allowed into the main room to serve.

"Oh!" Martha exclaimed looking at Louise. "I have something for you." She rummaged around in the pockets of her skirt, before pulling out a letter. "This came for you today. A man delivered it to the back door this afternoon." Louise reached out for the piece of paper. This was it, the next step in her life. Lifting it and touching it to her lips her eyes sparkled.

"Martha do you know what this is?" Louise said excitedly. "It's the letter from Mr. Pearson!" she quickly broke the seal on the back and read his instructions.

"Well, well! . . . Tell me what he says. I don't have all day!" Martha scolded merrily.

"He says to meet him at the train station on Thursday at two o'clock in the afternoon. We will be leaving shortly after that. There are three other girls as well who will make the journey. Well,. . . " Louise folded the letter and placed in her pocket. "At least I won't be travelling alone. I am glad about that." She smiled at Martha. "You realize Martha that means I only have two days left!" Louise's hand flew up to cover her mouth, her eyes wide. "Oh my!! It all seems to be happening so fast."

Martha reached out and took Louise in her arms, "I will miss you so much my dear. But we both know that you have never been truly happy here. And if anyone in this world deserves to be happy it's you. But is there anything I can say or do to change your mind?" her eyes misting over.

Louise shook her head, "No, he wants me, and in some strange way I feel like it is my destiny to go there. Martha he wants me. . . me. I can't stay here, I'll die in this city, no hope, no future. No, I will take my chances out west."

With a final squeeze Martha said, "Then so be it. Now . . . we have a party to do!!"

The musicians were playing softly as a background to the evening conversation as the guests arrived. The small party that had originally been planned for tonight had grown into a grand social event. Louise sighed as she looked at the girls. They were beautiful in their dresses of silks and brocades. The dresses had short puffed sleeves and open necks. Their hair was perfectly coiffed into ringlets, while others had their hair styled elegantly into rolls. The men wore jackets and vests with matching trousers and they stood around the room awaiting the arrival of the guests.

Louise sighed she remembered how much she used to love to dress in her fine clothes and rich satins, spending the night laughing and giggling with her friends. She remembered how handsome Nathan had looked dressed in his finest for a party. That was a time so long ago, memories and ghosts of a lost past. A past she was better off forgetting that she ever had.

Louise moved gracefully amongst the young people with a tray of refreshments. As she passed Preston she could feel his lustful stare upon her. She purposefully did not meet his gaze with her eyes. She was uncomfortable in the same room with him and she jumped as he reached out for a glass allowing his arm to brush up against her chest. She saw the curl of his lip as he attempted a smile at her. Louise quickly moved across the room away from him.

Once all the guests had arrived they were seated at the massive table in the dining room. The meal started with a consommé soup followed by a course of quail in bread croustades dressed in lettuce. Louise busied herself around the room when she was called to be in service by Mrs. Schurman, otherwise she stayed out in the kitchen preparing the food.

Anna rolled her eyes as she returned to the kitchen with her hands full of dirty plates. Those girls they've invited tonight are a test. Nothing is to their liking and they won't eat a thing. I'm not sure what they are protecting about themselves, not one of them is very pretty."

"Ah my dear," Martha chucked her under the chin. "Money can cover up a lot of vices, don't you know that," She laughed softly. "Now finish clearing the table and when Mrs. Schurman rings the bell, bring in the next course. I need to go check on the cakes."

Leah came into the room and pulled a chair up to the table, "I am starving!" She declared, pulling the vegetables closer to herself. The servants were only allowed to eat once the family had finished the course and now that there was a small break they were able to sit and have dinner. "I'm glad those girls don't eat much, which means more for us!" She reached across the table and grabbed a piece of the quail.

Louise sat down beside her and cleared her throat. This was not going to be easy to tell them goodbye. "Leah, Samantha," she kept her eyes looking downward. "There is no good way to tell you both this other than to just say it. . . I am leaving my position here on Thursday."

"Thursday!!" they chorused together. "Louise, no!" Leah blurted out.

"It's hard enough to say goodbye, to both of you, please don't make it harder." Tears started to flow down Lou's face. "Both of you have become very dear to me, you are like sisters to me and I love both of you. But this is something I need to do. . . for me."

"Where will you go? What will you do?" Samantha pleaded with her, leaning towards her and grasping her shoulder. "Lou . . . please don't go!" she lied. Samantha had been jealous of Louise from the moment her mother brought her into the house. Poor Louise, her mother had almost tripped over herself comforting and caring for her. Oh, Louise was never rude, but everyone loved her. And she was just a lowly scullery maid, not deserving of her mother's affections. And she was certainly not deserving of Preston's long looks, those looks belonged to Samantha.

"Samantha," Louise responded and took her hands in her own. "I am dying here in my spirit. If this is all there is in life I can't do it anymore. I want open spaces, quietness," and then she said softly, "Someone to want me. I have no romantic prospects and I never will here."

Louise could hear the muffled sobs coming from Leah. "I will write you both, I promise."

Just then the sound of the shrill sound of the bell broke up the conversation.

We'll talk later," Louise promised as they wiped the tears from their faces.

The three girls picked up the next course and entered the room. The dinner continued on into the wee hours of the night before the guests finally departed for home. Once they had left, Louise looked over the dishes. She knew that she would be cleaning until the morning; she sighed to herself as she picked up the first pile and headed to the sink. Martha came up behind her, "Louise, go to bed, no one will be up early in the morning anyway." She gave her a hug before grabbing her shawl throwing it across her shoulders and heading out the door to the rooms she and her husband had across the park. Gratefully Louise trudged up the stairs to their room.

She barely felt the pillow beneath her face as she fell asleep exhausted.

The next morning Louise, Samantha and Leah dragged themselves out of bed. Martha was already hard at work in the kitchen. "Well good morning girls!" she chirped.

"Argh," growled Leah, "My head still hurts from last night and I can't keep my eyes open. How do you do it Martha!!" Leah sat at the table with her head in her hands.

"Age and wisdom, my dear. Age and wisdom," her eyes twinkled, "Now come, I've started the breakfast so you two can start serving and finish it. Louise, I'm afraid you have the dishes. I need to go to the market and pick up a few things so I will be back later." Martha picked up her basket and her shawl before heading out the door.

Louise buried the dishes in the hot water and started her task. It took her hours to complete all of them. Samantha and Leah had left the kitchen and had gone upstairs to attend the morning chores.

He stumbled into the kitchen to look for her. His eyes swept the room before he saw her leaning into the fireplace at the back of the room. He had been watching her since he had come home. She had blossomed into such a beautiful young woman. Quietly he crept towards her; no one else was to be seen. Louise felt his breath hot on the back of her neck at the same time his closed his hand on her forearm. "There you are you sweet little thing," Preston's voice was low and husky. With force he spun her around to face him. Louise struggled against his grip. She was terrified. She tried to step away from him but he was too strong and he pulled her body against his. His lips crushing her own, bruising her lips as he kissed her. She could taste liquor on his lips when he kissed her. Louise tried to cry out but he pressed his mouth over her muffling her cry. Her fists balled, she hit him in the chest repeatedly while trying to wiggle out of his grasp.

"Now now, Lucy. . ." his speech slightly slurred. "I know a wench like you enjoys a little rough housing!" His eyes bored holes in her as he slammed her body up against the stone wall of the fireplace. Louise felt the air leave her lungs from the impact of the blow and no sound came out of her throat. His hand held tightly to the neck of her dress and she closed her eyes as she heard the sound of the material tearing in his hands. Her hand flew to the torn fabric in a futile attempt to hold it together. Rage and anger boiled up in her as her hand snaked out slapping Preston across his face. The pain only served to enrage him and he slapped her back, throwing her across the room to the floor. Lording over her as she cowered, he leered at her beneath him. "Now that's more like it," as he dropped to one knee beside her. He reached out and let his fingers trace the outline of her mouth where her lip was starting to swell. Louise again closed her eyes and whimpered. No one was around to help her and it would be his word against hers. So, with no one to rescue her it was all up to her. Desperately she looked about the room, her eyes darting, looking for something, anything. Then before he knew it, she had grabbed the dustpan from beside him and swung it at him, aiming for his head. There was a horrible sound as the metal made contact with his head and he fell unconscious to the floor beside her. In that same moment Louise heard someone scream out her name.

"Louise!!" Martha stumbled across the room to get to Louise. Louise had pulled herself into a sitting position still clinging to her dress now in tatters. James was right behind her as Martha ran to Louise's side. James turned his attention to Preston.

"Is he. . . is he?" Louise struggled with the words.

After what felt like a long time James responded, "No, but he is out cold. Quick," he looked at Martha, his tone of voice commanding. "Go fetch Mark from the shed, go. . . go!!"

Martha jumped to her feet after making sure that Louise was all right and scurried out to the shed. She immediately found Mark and dragged him back to the house. As they entered the kitchen James stood up from beside Preston's prone body. Mark's eyes were like saucers as he saw the scene before him. "You will say nothing if you want to keep this job, understood!" James growled at him. Mark stood in the middle of the room and nodded. "Now, grab his legs, we are taking him back to his room up the back stair case." Mark grabbed the legs and together they hoisted Preston into the air. Grunting and groaning they carried him back to his room.

No one saw the figure in the corner of the room, her eyes narrowed and her mouth thin and firmly set. She watched the scene before her. Like always, Louise was the center of her mother's attention. Samantha pulled back into the shadows, sight unseen.

"Sweetheart!" Martha stroked Louise's brow as she sat crouched on the floor shaking. "Are you alright?"

Martha pulled Louise into her chest and held her, rocking her tiny body in her arms while a flood of tears came from Louise. Shock had set in and the realization of what had just happened was becoming very real to her as she absorbed the events of the last few minutes. Louise pulled abruptly away.

"Martha!" Her voice sounded terrified. "He'll put me in jail! My life is over!" Her breathing becoming shallow and fast as she fought to control the rising panic within her.

"It's not safe here, you must get out of here," Martha rose from her place beside Louise and reached for the inkbottle and paper. She quickly wrote out an address and handed it to Louise. "Here is the address of our apartment across the park. And don't forget the key. It is a bit of a walk, but it'll do you good to clear your head." She pulled the shawl from around her shoulders and placed across Louise's. "Here, this will cover the dress, now get out of here. I'll bring your things to you tonight. James will take care of Preston. Now get out of here, run!!"

Louise has never been so scared in all her life. Her boots made a clattering sound as she scurried across the walkway as quickly as she could. One hand holding the torn dress together with the shawl and her hand holding up the skirt of her dress so her feet did not tangle in it. She only stopped running when she could no longer breathe. Finding herself in the park she stopped and sat down on a bench. She looked around at the idyllic lives around her. Small young boys were floating their boats in the pond nearby while their mothers and nannies watched protectively over them. Why did life have to find ways to torment her? Every time she was happy something happened to take it away. She started to cry, believing that her life was never destined to have happiness and it would elude her forever.

James and Mark were exhausted lugging Preston's limp body up the stairs. Samantha had just come around the corner carrying the bedding to change his bed sheets. Her hand flew to her mouth to stifle a cry when she saw the scene in front of her.

"Don't say a thing!!" James warned. "Open his door and then go and grab a bottle of whisky from the cellar along with a glass." Samantha stood there frozen. "Now!!" his voice was cross and commanding.

They finally were able to get Preston onto his bed and he still had not yet come to. That was quite the left hook she gave him, James smiled. "Mark, you can go, but you will not tell anyone what just happened here. Preston is a little under the weather from his party last night. That is all anyone is to know. Understood!" Mark again nodded in agreement. Whatever had happened here was not his concern. He was fortunate to have a job and he would say nothing to keep it if this is what it took.

James set about fixing the room. He pulled off the boots and threw them across the room so that they looked like they had been removed quickly last night. He then went about removing his clothes until he had him stripped. At that moment Samantha appeared in the room with the bottle and glass. James poured a little in the glass and spilled a little across Preston's still lips. He then placed both on the side table before gesturing Samantha out the door. He closed the door behind them. Turning to Samantha, "Just go about your daily routine, when he will wakes up we will stick to the story he just slept late this morning."

"What in the world is going on around here!!" Samantha whispered harshly pretending not to know.

"The less you know the better Samantha," James said. He turned and headed down the stairs. Louise was a good girl and she did not deserve any more bad luck in her life. If his plan worked when Preston woke up he may have a fuzzy memory of the morning's events, but he would be confused. They would all stick to the same story. With time, Preston would hopefully believe the lie that nothing happened with Louise that morning; it must have all been a dream.

Louise found the apartment easily. Slipping the key in the door it opened easily and she entered their home. At last, she felt safe. Louise lay down on the couch exhausted by the emotional toil of the day.

The next thing she was aware of was Martha shaking her arm.

"Louise, Louise," she repeated softly as Louise roused from her slumber. "Hey sleepy head, time to wake up."

Louise rubbed her eyes, confused as to where she was. As she wakened she started to remember to events of the last few hours. "Martha!" she grabbed her arm as Martha was now sitting beside her. "What's happening now!! What did he say . . .is he alive?"

"You sure hoofed him good!" James laughed. "No, you didn't kill him but he was out for a while. Remind me not to get you angry." He laughed heartedly. "Don't worry about him, he woke up a little confused. We told him over and over that he had just woken up. He finally believed us. And as for you. . . as far as the Schurmans are concerned you have gone to care for an elderly sick Aunt for a few days." Color rose on his face, "I know it's a little lie, but it's not like they know if you have family or not."

Louise smiled sheepishly. "I was only trying to get away."

Martha smiled at her through lips pressed tight, "You will stay here tonight. Preston is still at the house and he has a whopper of a headache. Mrs. Schurman came into the kitchen to tell us he had celebrated a little too hard last night. So obviously she is none the wiser. I think we pulled it off. But you can't go back, it is just not safe." Martha turned around and reached for a bag, "Now here are your clothes. I had the girls pack up your stuff."

Louise pulled the bag onto her lap, "But this isn't mine." Lou looked at the new tapestry bag with handles.

"That was why I went into the market today. I wanted to get you something as a going away gift. Look on the top."

Louise opened the latch to peer into the bag and there on the top was a white lace nightdress. "It's beautiful," Louise exclaimed as she fingered the lace. With James in the room she did not want to pull it out. "But you shouldn't have done this!!"

"And why not," Martha mockingly protested.

"And take this," James pressed money into Lou's hand.

"But . . ." Lou started to protest.

"No, you will need some money, take it, I insist."

"You've done so much for me already. How can I ever repay you both? I don't know where I would be or if I would still be alive if you two hadn't saved me."

Martha wrapped her arms around Louise. "You have been a breath of fresh air, Louise. It pains us to see you go but now we know for sure that you can't stay here. You are not safe anymore."

"I wanted to say good bye to Samantha and Leah," Louise said wistfully. "They are like sisters to me. I thought I'd have more time."

"Why don't you write them a note and once you're gone tomorrow I will read it to them. I know that they'll understand. Besides, once you're settled you can write them as well."

Chapter Four

Louise stood on the train platform clutching her bag in front of her. Her eyes searched the throngs of people amassed there. She felt pushed and shoved as the people jostled her. Mercifully the goodbyes had been fast. Both Martha and James had to get back to the Schurman's, so there were tears and hugs and promises made to keep in touch.

Then out of the corner of her eye she spotted Mr. Pearson. Louise moved over towards him.

"Miss McCloud," he tipped his hat to her. "We are just waiting for one other young lady and then we will board the train. "I would like to introduce you to your traveling companions." He stepped aside to reveal two other women behind him. "Miss McCloud, may I introduce to you Miss Adda Hooper and Miss Mildred Spence." Louise stepped towards them and offered her hand in friendship. She felt an immediate connection and sisterhood towards these women, who for whatever reason had decided to take the same gamble on life. Adda was a solidly built girl about the same age as Louise. Her face was slightly pock marked and her dark eyes and a little close set. Mildred, the second lady, was older. Her face was haggard, showing that she had worked hard and was not afraid of it. Her eyes were light green and her hair a brilliant shade of red. After a few minutes had passed there was a flurry of activity when a young woman ran up to the group.

"Oh, I am so sorry!!" she grabbed Mr. Pearson's hand. "I stopped to talk to that kindly gentleman over there." She pointed out an older man on the corner. "He was so nice I just couldn't pull myself away from him." The young lady chattered away endlessly for a few minutes before Mr. Pearson interrupted her. "Miss . . . Miss Birch," he tried to cut her off. "Please, Miss Birch, let me introduce you to your traveling companions." Mr. Pearson was then able to make the introductions of the other women. Louise was amused by the newest of her traveling companions. She was tiny like Louise with long dark hair; she had a cute button nose and a small mouth. Her eyes were bright and blue. Louise secretly hoped that the man who had chosen her was slightly deaf, as Wanda Birch had still not stopped talking.

"Gather your things ladies," Mr. Pearson announced talking over Wanda's chatter. "It's time."

Fear and excitement coursed through Lou's body at the same time. This was it, this was the moment, and there was no turning back. Not that there was anything to turn back to. Louise gripped her bag tightly and followed him up the steps of the train. She found a spot for herself on the wooden bench of the train and tried to make herself comfortable. The trip would be long and difficult. She gazed out the window and watched. She heard the steam release from the engine and the groan of the steel as the engine pulled forward. The car lurched and she heard the shrill, piercing sound of the whistle announcing the departure. Slowly the station disappeared from her view. She listened to the sound of the train, clickity clack, clickity clack . . . you'll never go back, you'll never go back, clickity clack, clickity clack. Louise was soon lulled into sleep by its song.

When Louise awoke she found that the scenery out the window had changed. There was a gentle sway of the train as it careened across the countryside. At first upon leaving the station, Louise noticed that it was home crammed against home, building on top of building. As they continued there were spaces between them. The spaces were now becoming wider until there were fewer and fewer buildings. The next day all Louise could see out the window was space. Wide open spaces, every once in a while she could see cattle and deer grazing in the fields, undisturbed as the train flew by. Days and nights blended into each other.

She and the other girls passed the time chatting and getting to know each other. Mildred Spence was a widow; her husband had died in an accident at the train yards last year. She was getting a little long in the tooth and felt that if she were going to be married again she would need to move out west. She had no family or children from the marriage so she was now all alone in the world. Adda Hooper was a very pleasant young lady. Her father had chosen a man for her to marry who just happened to be a friend of his. Adda could not stomach the thought of having such an old man as a husband so she jumped at the opportunity to get away from him. Wanda talked endlessly about everything and nothing. Her family had suggested she marry a man from out west as there was no dowry to offer anyone and for some reason, that seemed to be beyond her grasp, no suitors ever came by the house. Mr. Pearson was never out of sight of the women. He seemed to Louise to be becoming increasingly agitated as the trip progressed, almost nervous. Louise closed her eyes and feigned sleep, as Wanda droned on in the background.

There was a palpable excitement in the car as the passengers started to become more animated in their conversations. It started slowly at first and built up as they were now becoming closer to St. Joe. Louise pressed her face to the glass of the window and watched in wide-eyed wonderment at the city she had only heard about. The train finally came to a stop and the call went out from the conductor to leave the train. With legs wobbly from sitting over so many days, Louise grasped her bag and proceeded to the platform where she met the rest of her companions. Mr. Pearson was definitely troubled. His eyes darted amongst the crowd as he herded the women towards the local hotel. He had secured three rooms for the next few days until the stage could take them to Rock Creek.

"Now, now," he stuttered nervously. "I want you all to stay together. You are not to talk to anyone or leave the hotel. Am I making myself clear?" He removed his hat and wiped his sweaty brow with his forearm.

All of the girls nodded in agreement. The last thing any of them wanted was to walk around town. They were tired and exhausted from the trip. They requested a bath be brought up to the rooms and each of them took a turn in the tub before lying down to sleep. A bed had never felt so soft and wonderful as the bed she now shared with Wanda. Louise drifted off to sleep ignoring Wanda's persistent questions.

Louise woke early as the rays of the morning sun were peeking in the room. She had spent the last few years up at the crack of dawn to work so she found herself unable to sleep in. Silently she slid out of bed and found her clothes discarded in last night's haste to get to bed. She quickly dressed and stepped out into the hallway. She knew that Mr. Pearson had warned them not to stray but curiosity got her and she stepped out of the hotel into the morning air. The city was still quiet; she could hear the occasional dog barking. She found a bench and sat there enjoying the peace and serenity of the day. At last she sat there and inhaled the morning air, pure, clean and invigorating.

She wandered into the dining room for breakfast only to see Mr. Pearson, who had not even missed her. Louise sighed a sigh of relief.

After a few minutes all of the girls found their way down for breakfast. The day was busy as Louise had seen a dress shop from her window in her room and had spent the better part of the day choosing a few outfits with the money James had given her. Her wardrobe was rather small and pathetic as she only had her servant's dresses and two other outfits. The dresses, skirts and unmentionables would be ready right before they left on the stage.

Mr. Pearson made sure the girls stayed around the hotel unless he escorted them. Louise and the others found that the people of St. Joseph's were very friendly, at least the men were. No matter where they went, a gentleman would stop and begin to converse with them. Louise had never had so many compliments before. Wanda was thrilled with her new found audience, which nearly drove Mr. Pearson to distraction.

Louise felt excited and nervous as she handed her bag to the driver of the stagecoach. This was the final part of the journey. She picked up her skirts and climbed in to take her place in the coach.

The coach rocked wildly as it crossed the plain. The trip itself was difficult, the passengers found themselves tossed about the coach as it hurtled towards Rock Creek. The closer they came to Rock Creek the quieter they became as nerves over took the group, and no one said a word. The dust and grime from travel in a coach seemed to be everywhere. The stage was slowing to a stop in front of the local hotel and Louise felt relief from the constant jostling and bouncing she had endured.

~*~*~*~*~**~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

The last number of days in Rock Creek had been quiet. Kid stood outside the sheriff's office and leaned back against the wall. He and Noah were on duty today but there had not been anything to do. They all took shifts helping Teaspoon out as well as taking rides for the Pony Express.

"Kid!!," he heard the voice of Leslie Campbell break through his day dream. He looked across the street to see her coming towards him with her best friend Frances tagging along behind her.

"So, lover boy," Noah leaned over and snickered. "Here comes your dream girl!"

Kid groaned, turned and looked, staring at his so called friend with eyes that warned Noah he was going to get him later. He was tired of the constant teasing he endured from him and the other boys. He had no interest in Leslie. Yet she always seemed to drop by the office for a visit when Kid was on duty. It was as if she knew his schedule better than he did. It wasn't that she wasn't cute, she was. Her dark brown hair framed her face beautifully, accentuating her brown eyes. He just didn't have a feeling of connection with her. She talked about everything and he listened. Her friend Frances was always with her and rarely said a word. Leslie stepped up onto the porch and slipped her arm through Kid's. She adored Kid. Ever since she laid eyes on him she had branded him as hers. Every girl in town was well aware that Leslie had designs on Kid.

"Did you miss me?" she giggled with his arm firmly in hers as she snuggled closer to him. "Did you miss me?" she giggled with his arm firmly in hers as she snuggled closer to him.

Kid stepped away trying to lose her grasp on his arm. "No. Can't say I did," Kid said a little too brusquely.

The afternoon stage was pulling into town and it caught his attention. It was the most interesting thing that had happened all day. He and the other boys enjoyed watching the new arrivals come in from the east. The tender foots came with dreams of fortune and of a new life here in the west. But today was a little different. He watched as a small man wearing a bowler hat departed first from the coach, followed by four women. He turned and helped each of the ladies out of the coach.

"Tsk, tsk, tsk," Leslie clucked. "There is the newest shipment of mail order brides." Leslie pretended to be offended. "Imagine giving yourself away like that. No better than a common whore," she sniffed with disdain.

"Now aren't you just a little hard on them?" Noah responded, a little annoyed with her. After all what did she know about people who had to make tough choices just to survive? She lived a privileged life here. Noah was all too familiar with life's difficulty.

Kid was not aware of the conversation around him. He was watching the young beauty that had just descended of the coach and was waiting for her bag to be handed down to her. He watched her as she turned and looked around town, her brown eyes large and expressive. The sun was catching the copper highlights of her hair as she remove the bonnet from her head to see the town more clearly. He was captivated by her beauty and her smile as she stood there waiting. Kid started moving towards the coach at a good clip when Mr. Pearson saw him coming. Kid had every intention of helping out this young lady and as a lawman he was duty bound to make visitors welcome. He ignored the female voice behind him calling him back.

Mr. Pearson grabbed Louise's arm and pulled her into the foyer of the hotel. "You go up to your room and rest," he said as he pushed her towards the stairs. "I'll bring up your bag in a moment." Louise disappeared up the stairs as Kid made his way into the hotel. He watched her longingly as she disappeared up the stairs.

Mr. Pearson dabbed his brow with his hanky. This was going to be hard. He had to keep the single male population away from the women for three days. He knew what had happened out west. Colleagues of his had taken out a ship full of brides out west to be wed. But when the ship stopped for a break in San Francisco they let the women off the ship to see the town. Not one woman made it back to the ship; all of them wed men from the town. The men were standing on the dock with gold in their hands offering it to the ladies in exchange for marriage. Here they weren't in town an hour and already there was a young man sniffing around Louise. He would not receive his finder's fee of three hundred dollars each until each of the women married.

After a bath and a change into clean clothes Louise made her way down to the dining room. A table was being held for them in a side room. Mr. Pearson was doing everything in his power to keep ladies away from prying eyes until they were safely wed.

Louise swallowed hard as she entered the reserved dining room. She did not like the tight confides Mr. Pearson had placed around them. They were under strict instructions not to go anywhere, unless he escorted them. She bristled under the expectations. She had survived the street of New York; surly she would survive the streets of Rock Creek.

Louise settled herself at the table and pasted a smile on her face as she looked around the table. She desperately tried to settle her fears and nerves. This was it; in her mind there was no turning back. She had made it to Rock Creek with a promise to marry a stranger. For the first time in a long time she was unsure of what she was doing. She knew in her heart that she needed to leave New York. But she was a woman; her choices in life were few. She determined in herself that this was the best choice she could make and she would make it work. Resolutely she picked up her fork and played with the potatoes on her plate. She would make this work.

Kid usually took his meals back at the station, but tonight he wanted to see if he could manage an introduction with the young lady who had captured his attentions. He sat in a corner of the room where he could see her sitting there. He watched her, intently memorizing every detail of her delicate features and slender body. He studied her shy smile and her rosebud pink lips. He watched her intently as she laughed; her eyes seemed to laugh as well. He was curious as to what it was that she had been through that would make her choose to become a mail order bride. He was so lost in a trance that he did not realize that he had been spotted.

Mr. Pearson quickly moved from his seat when he saw the young deputy sitting at a table across the room staring at Louise, his meal, cold and untouched in front of him. He stood in the doorway and locked eyes with Kid before slamming the partition door closed. The message was pretty clear to Kid; he was going to have to use another way to meet her, but how?

Louise had seen the handsome cowboy staring at her, his eyes felt like they had bored a hole in her. She blushed at the thought of someone staring at her. It had been a long time since Nathan had told her how pretty she was. Somehow the years disappeared in that moment and she felt wanted and beautiful again. She was flattered to have the compliment of the young lawman's attention. She felt her face color, but if he knew her past, as a lowly servant, he would not give her a second look.

Kid pushed his meal away, frustrated. He had lost his appetite.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Chapter Five

Once again Louise woke early; rested and refreshed from her overland journey, she was eager to start the day. She dressed quietly and headed down the stairs and out the door. She loved the quietness of the morning, nothing had happened yet to the day to cause it to go wrong, it still held promise for it to be perfect. The morning songbirds were chirping as she took a deep breath of the fresh air, enjoying its fragrance. The sun was bright and warm on her face. Across the street she noticed the stable beside the sheriff's office and she heard the low whicker of the horses. Unable to control herself, she ran across the street to go and visit the animals.

In the first stall was a beautiful bay, the second, a pretty paint and in the last stall a dark grey. Each of the horses hung their heads over the stall doors eager to meet the visitor and looking for food. Louise caressed and scratched their heads behind their ears. They dipped their velvet muzzles into her hands as she stroked them.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Kid had not slept well that night. He dreamed all night about the pretty lady with the long auburn hair. He had tossed and turned so much that he gave up trying to sleep after picking his blankets up off the floor for the fourth time. He finally relented and gave in; he sat on the edge of his bunk and pulled on his clothes for the day. Maybe a ride would help him put this in perspective; after all, he reminded himself, she was here to marry someone else.

He walked into the barn, and it took a moment for his eyes to adjust to the darkness. There, in the shadows was the outline of a female form. His heart missed a beat and he held his breath as she turned to meet him.

"Oh! I'm sorry! I know . . . I know that I probably shouldn't be here . . . but I could not help myself." Louise reached up as Katy pushed her face into Louise's chest. "They are so beautiful."

Kid was almost afraid to say a word. Afraid she would run. "No. . . no," he chided himself for stuttering. "That's Katy, she loves to be scratched like that." As if on cue Katy nuzzled Louise's neck. "See, she likes you." Kid exclaimed.

After a moment of silence Kid coughed. "I should introduce myself," he reached out his hand to her. "My name is Kid."

"Kid, is that your first or last name?"

"No," he shook his head. "My friends just call me Kid."

Taking his hand in hers, she said, "My name is Louise McCloud."

"Pleased to make your acquaintance Louise," Kid held her hand longer then it was appropriate, he did not want to let go of her hand.

Louise pulled her hand back and turned to continued to caress Katy's face and neck and Kid could not help the feeling of jealousy that Katy was receiving her loving touch.

"I'm sorry Kid," Lou stepped back out of the way. "I'm interrupting your work."

"No!" he said quickly, "I was just coming out to ride."

The joy that shone from Louise's face now quickly darkened. Kid noticed it immediately. "Do you ride Louise?" he asked hopefully.

"I haven't ridden in years, not since I was a young girl."

"How about I saddle up the bay for you and we'll go out for a short ride."

Louise peered nervously over at the hotel. It still looked very quiet; there were no signs of life there yet. She knew Mr. Pearson had warned them explicitly not to go out without his escort, but she would be with a lawman. What could that hurt?

"I'd love to Kid." Louise was ecstatic with the chance to ride again. It was the one thing she missed the most from her life with her family. To feel the wind whip across her face and to feel the strength of the horse under her, was to taste freedom and divine joy all at once.

Kid had never been happier than with the way things had worked out and he saddled the bay and Katy. She stood beside the bay and lifted her leg for him and on cue Kid bent down and grabbed the slender leg in his hand as he helped her up into the saddle. The warmth of her body next to him and the well-muscled leg in his hands made Kid lose his words. Louise completely was unaware of the effect she was having on the poor boy as she settled her skirts around her on top of the horse.

He leapt up onto Katy's back in one fluid move but not before he heard Louise's laughter as the mare bolted away from the stable and out onto the plain. At first he was horrified and he thought the mare had run away with Louise. Katy raced after the bay mare, Kid urging her on. But the closer he got to her he realized what a fine rider Louise was. Her seat and her hands were perfect, a smile lit up her face, her eyes were bright and full of joy.

"You've ridden before?" he called to her, as they both reined in their horses to a jog.

"Yes!" her face glowed. "I practically grew up on the back of a horse. My mother called me her little centaur. I love to ride; there is nothing in the world like it."

They rode together for an hour, laughing and talking about everything and nothing. Kid could not believe how easy she was to talk to. His heart almost broke when she broke the magic by saying, "I really need to get back to the hotel. Mr. Pearson will have a heart attack if I'm not there."

Kid figured at this point he had nothing to lose so he said, "Why don't you come back tonight and say goodnight to the horses?"

Louise was quiet as she thought about the idea, playing with the mane on the bay mare with her fingers. Her head told her it was wrong but her heart won out. "After my roommate is asleep I'll come and say good night to the horses." They were behind the hotel and Louise slid off the mare before Kid could help her down. "I'm sorry to leave you with the work of cooling down the horses and putting them away, but was out longer then I should have been." She smiled sweetly and handed the reins to Kid. He sighed as he watched her walk away. Never had he come so close to heaven and touched an angel.

He led the mare over to the stable. Jimmy was standing outside watching him come up the street. He could not help but notice the silly grin on Kid's face. He walked over and took the reins of the bay mare. "So, I take it you finally got a chance to talk to her?"

Kid was over the moon and no amount of teasing would spoil this moment. "Yes I did, her name is Louise McCloud." He went about busying himself with Katy's tack, while Jimmy unsaddled the bay.

"What do you know about this girl?" Jimmy asked.

Kid thought for a moment, "Not too much. We just sorta talked, about everything . . . and nothing in particular." He realized how strange that sounded but it was true. Louise had so easy to talk to, she didn't drone on about fashion or peoples bad habits. All he knew was that she was perfect.

The boys were out attending to their chores and Rachel was busy in the bunkhouse when Kid found her. "Rachel?" he asked, "Can I ask you a question?"

"Always Kid," she responded as she swept the floor.

Kid sat down at the table, his hat in front of him while he played with the edge of it. When he didn't say a thing Rachel realized the seriousness of this moment.

"Rachel. . . I met this girl . . . young lady," his voice was low and soft. He did not want the others to hear what he had to say. Rachel stopped her cleaning and came over to sit beside him. In a motherly way, she placed her hand on his forearm.

"And you're taken with her, right?"

He met her with silence.

A broad smile broke out on Rachel's face, "Kid, when I met Henry, I knew right away he was the one for me. There were no others like him, the way he moved, and the way he spoke, when he touched me . . ." Rachel blushed. "My memories are good ones, Kid. No matter what, I am so glad we had the time together we did. I took a chance at changing my life from saloons and gambling halls to. . . Well," she leaned back away from him and waved her hand across the air. "For this!!" She turned back to Kid. "If your heart is pulling you towards her, I'll tell you from experience, listen. . . or you will always miss out."

The rest of the day Kid was distracted, he could hardly wait until tonight. He floated through his chores at the ranch and no matter how hard Cody tried; he could not dampen Kid's spirits.

That evening while all was quiet, Lou slipped away from the hotel and snuck over to the stables. She had filled her pockets with apples and carrots for the horses. Katy nickered as she entered the barn and slung her head over the door for Lou.

"Looks like I have a little competition," Kid chuckled. "Seems my horse has taken a shine to you."

"Only because I bring her treats," Lou held out a carrot, laughing softly as Katy's soft lips nuzzled her hand.

"No, I think she is a good judge of character." Kid replied back. Kid desperately wanted to keep the conversation going. "Why don't you come early tomorrow morning and we'll ride again, only this time you'll tell me about yourself."

"There really isn't much to tell you Kid," Louise was looking down as Kid had stepped closer to her. Her heart was beating wildly, her mind was screaming, she should not be leading this boy on. "I gotta go," she whirled and dashed out the barn door. Kid reached out to grab her arm only to find air. She was gone.

A perfect day had been ruined, and he stomped back to the bunkhouse.

He was disappointed to find that everyone was still awake when he got there. He tried to slip in the door and quietly go to bed. But the boys would have none of that. They were eagerly waiting to tease and torment Kid.

"So Kid," Noah's eyes were bright. "How come you were so gussied up tonight?"

Kid tore his shirt off swearing as he heard the ping of a button hitting the floor somewhere in the bunkhouse. Kicking off his boots and throwing his pants over onto the dresser he dropped into bed.

Noah and Cody looked at each other curiously. Both realized that they were not going to get any details out of Kid tonight. But they sure were enjoying torturing Kid.

Sleep had not come easy for either one of them. Louise was well aware of the game she was playing with his heart. She swallowed hard as guilt washed over her; she had no right to him. It had started so innocently at first. She was flattered that a man would be interested in her that way. She was convinced, though, that once he met her true self he would no longer show any interest in her. Yet, he had persisted. And now she found herself drawn to him. Remorse over took her, as she knew she was not free to make any promises to him. She needed to tell him tomorrow before this got way out of hand. Life was cruel, that was a lesson she had learned early and often in her short life.

The sun was barley up over the horizon when Louise awoke and slipped from the bed. She had placed her split skirt out for today so she was able to dress quickly. Wanda woke and groggily spoke, "Where are you going?" She yawned and stretched.

"Shhh it's still early, go back to sleep. I'll be back in a couple of hours."

"Mr. Pearson was furious yesterday when he could not find you. I covered for you."

"Thanks," Lou said. "I appreciate it. I won't be gone for too long, I promise. There is something I just need to do." And the door closed silently behind her as she left the room.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Lou could not tell Kid. She tried to, but his bright blue eyes and charming smile disarmed her and deep down she was unable to break the perfect world they had created by bring up the conversation of her upcoming marriage.

Kid was elated, they had ridden every morning and said goodbye every night in the stable. Despite the cloistered life she had during the day, Louise had been able to get away for those few hours.

On the third afternoon they were riding up to the back of the hotel as they usually did to drop Lou off when she knew she had to say something, now.

"Kid," her voice was soft as she looked down at the neck of the mare she was riding; she was unable to make eye contact with him. Her fingers twisted in the horse's mane. "I . . . can't meet you anymore." She heard his sharp intake of air and turned to face him. "Please don't make this harder than it has to be. We both knew this had to end. I know you know why I'm here." Tears started to well up in her eyes. "I want to thank you for everything you've done for me. You made me fell wanted and . . . Loved." The last words were softly spoken, because saying them was tearing her apart. She forced her eyes tightly shut to stop crying, so she could not see the pain that was registering on his face.

"Lou, you don't have to marry him!!" Kid was pleading; he reached over and placed his hand on her arm. Lou felt as if the heat from his hand would burn a print there forever.

"Yes, I do, don't you see," she started to softly sob pulling away from him. "I'm here because he sent for me. I owe him that."

"You don't owe him your life!" Kid was beside himself to think that he was losing her. "You're not some sort of slave! I'll . . . I'll pay him myself!!!"

"No," Louise said as she dismounted, "I'm a servant; my life has never been in my control. My life has been one of constant disappointment. You," she reached up and touched his leg with her fingertips causing the muscles in his legs to tighten, "have been the best thing to happen to me in years. Kid, you made me feel wanted and alive. I want to thank you for the last few days, for letting me experience what it is like to be myself. . . to be free."

"No . . . Lou, listen, tonight come one more time. To say goodnight . . . to me this time."

"Alright, one last time," she said as she slipped into the back of the hotel. She knew that she should not see him again. It was wrong and painful for both of them, yet the pull was to strong.

Breakfast was being served as she entered the dining room. Wanda pulled a chair out for her to sit beside her, "He didn't notice you were gone." Wanda peered at her more intently. "Are you alright?" She noticed the tear stains on Lou's face. "Are you worried about meeting him today? It's normal you know. We are all a little nervous."

Louise nodded her head in agreement. It was better to let them believe that she was worried about meeting John, her future husband, rather than tell them the truth. She looked at her meal that was placed in front of her. She had no appetite to eat it.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

John Strang was nervous as he left the small cabin he had lived in for years. Today was the day he was going to be introduced to his new wife. He wondered if he had made the right decision. He had been a bachelor for so long, could he adapt to someone else in his life? It had been so lonely since his mother had died eight months ago. The animals on the farm were some sort of companionship but he was looking forward to having someone to talk to. He straightened his string tie again and stepped up into the buckboard to head into town.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

The girls had spent some time getting ready for their meetings which would take place over at the church social hall. Louise chose a pale blue dress that accentuated the brown of her eyes. She pulled her hair up into a loose roll behind her head, and she was ready. Wanda was nervous to meet her fiancé and remarkably it caused her to be quiet.

Kid had returned to the way station after the ride. He was a desperate man. He was losing the woman he loved. They had only been together for a few days, but it didn't matter, he knew he loved her.

He finished his chores in record time. Noah had offered to do some of them. Kid was snappish and his speech was curt. They all knew he needed space and to get away. They would all benefit by that.

He had to talk her out of this ludicrous idea. She could not marry this man. He made his way over the church hall. He was disappointed to see that they had already congregated there. He looked through the window and saw her. She looked so beautiful and small sitting in the chair. Her hands were tightly folded on her lap. He watched, shocked, as John Strang a local bachelor and hermit stepped before her and handed her a bouquet of yellow daisies. Louise rose from her seat and accepted them. John was tall and lanky, his brown hair showing some flecks of grey revealing his older age. He was nervous and shy, unable to make eye contact with Louise. Kid wanted to scream, to bang on the window, to make her stop, but he was frozen in place, unable to believe what he was seeing. He was going to lose her.

Each of the ladies met with their intended spouses. Wanda finally met Rufus Clark, a rather well fed young man. He seemed delighted with her. He was soft spoken so the fact that he could not get a word in edgewise was not a problem for him. He looked at her with adoring eyes, and Louise was happy for her. William Huestis was introduced to Mildred. He was about the same age as Mildred and a widower himself with three small children. Adda had been by chosen by Frank Atkinson, a cattle rancher from Blue Creek. He had black hair and a bright white smile against the darkly tanned skin of a rancher.

John was pleased with Louise. She seemed like a fetching woman, she fit his advertisement requirements. She sure was pretty, he was sure his mother would have approved of his choice. Each couple made their way over to the restaurant so that they could become better acquainted before their marriages tomorrow.

Later that night, as the moon hung high in the night sky, Louise snuck out of the hotel without being seen. She had promised Kid she would come, she needed to say goodbye.

He was waiting for her, and as she stepped into the barn he moved quickly to her side. Louise was instantly aware of his presence. Her body was aroused by the warmth of his and becoming electrified by hardness of his body. Kid wrapped his arms around her and drew her close to him. He ran his fingers through her hair. "I can't let you do this," he whispered into her ear.

"We won't talk about this tonight," Louise lifted her face to meet his. She reached up and wrapped her arms around his neck and pulled him down towards her. She closed her eyes as their lips met for the first time. She tasted the salt on his lips from the sweat of a hard day's work and her tongue danced across his mouth as he opened his to receive her. He deepened his kiss, allowing her greater access to his mouth. She sighed as he broke away. They were panting now, their hearts beating wildly. Louise took Kid by the hand and led him into the feed room. Closing the door behind them, she gently pushed Kid down onto the hay. He was mesmerized and unsure as to what she had planned. After latching the door, she stood beside him on the hay and began fingering the buttons on her blouse until each button had become undone.

"Are you sure about this, Louise?" Kid watched as she leaned over to kiss him.

"I've never been surer of anything in my entire life," she lovingly smiled back at him.

Exhausted, they pulled apart, the sweat of their bodies making them shine in the moonlight that came through the window of the feed room. "Lou, you should have told me." He rolled over towards her and played with her hair.

"Would you have taken me?" she asked, staring back at him with those beautiful brown eyes.

Kid thought for a moment. "It's a little late now." He smiled at her, caressing her cheek with his hand.

"I. . . "Lou's voice choked on the words. "I wanted for once in my life to take a bit of joy and happiness. I wanted to love and be loved in return. . . just one time."

"Lou, you can't marry him now, not after we just. . . I took your . . . "

Louise placed her fingers over his lips, "Don't spoil this moment Kid, please. I'm sorry I let it go this far, that I've used you."

"But Lou!!"

"No Kid, I told you!!" exasperated, she scrambled to pull her clothes back on. Kid grabbed his clothes struggling quickly to get them on. "Don't ruin this moment, I'm begging you," she pleaded. "I know that I was wrong . . . to lead you on like this." Tears started down her face, "But for one moment of my life I wanted to be gloriously happy, to be with someone. I took the chance, please don't hate me." She reached out on tenderly laid her hand on the side of his face. "Can't you see I've never been in control of my life? The only decision I made was to come here and marry John. Now even that was a mistake. How was I supposed to know about you? But without him I would never have met you; we would never have had this moment. That's all we can have . . . this moment. Maybe I was wrong, selfish, to do this to you, but I had no other gift to give you. You have made me feel things that I have never felt before."

"Lou! How can you become his wife now? . . . I can't let you do this!"

"Kid, you don't understand," her face contorted with angst. "I owe him, don't you get it! I promised him I would be his wife. I don't have a choice." She sobbed, "Don't you understand, I've never had a choice."

She scrambled to get dressed and then she slipped her feet into her slippers as she ran for the door. Kid was right behind her and caught up to her outside the barn. He was able to catch her grabbing her arm just as Mr. Pearson came around the corner. He had been looking for Louise for an hour. When he found out she was out of her room and he was scared. As he saw the two in the moonlight and saw her flushed face and the piece of hay in Louise's hair, he knew he had every right to be worried.

"There you are Miss McCloud," he tried to stay calm as he placed his arm around her shoulder, guiding her away from Kid. "I have been looking for you!"

"We . . . were just talking and. . . lost track of time. The deputy has been kind enough to tell me all about Rock Creek." Louise allowed a fake smile to cross her face. "I think I'm going to like it here." She turned one last time towards Kid, who was standing outside the barn frozen in place. The color drained from Kid's face as she walk away from him. "Good night Kid," she said over her shoulder,

"Thank you for everything."

Louise crawled into bed that night and holding her pillow she wept until she could cry no more.

Kid watched her until she disappeared into the hotel. He willed her to turn around and run back to him. He went back and waited in the barn praying she would sneak out again. Threads of morning light came through the cracks in the walls and he awoke with a start, realizing he had fallen asleep on the hay. Once again he waited, hoping that she would show for her morning ride, but she never came. He decided it was best to back to the bunkhouse and clean up. Then he needed another plan. Panic was starting to take over as he felt her slipping away from him.

The boys were in rare form that morning. They teased Kid mercilessly as they had noticed that he had not slept last in his bed last night. Kid was not in the mood to entertain their jokes and innuendoes. And his foul mood only heightened their curiosity as to what had transpired between him and Lou.

Mr. Pearson decided to marry Louise off first. He was afraid that she might bolt on him and he would lose his money. So the group stood in the front of the church while Louise and John were called first. Louise stood at the altar clutching the wild flowers in her hands in a borrowed wedding dress and pledged to John her faithfulness in marriage.

John watched his new wife during the ceremony and he became worried as he noticed that her body was rigid. He became concerned that she may be worried about marrying him; after all, he was older than most grooms. The minister continued to recite the vows and Louise responded to them, never looking at John.

The minister finished performing the ceremony finally pronouncing them husband and wife. John turned to Louise as she turned to him and he bent down to plant a kiss on her lips, he wasn't positive but he thought that he saw a tear form in the corner of her eye.

Each couple made the same promise to each other. Mr. Pearson was pleased; today he had made a good commission.

The ceremonies over, the couples made their way out onto the porch of the church. Just as Kid was riding Katy down the street towards the church. He pulled Katy to a dead stop as soon as he saw Lou and John on the steps. John turned once more and kissed Lou on the cheek as they stood on the landing. Kid felt vomit in the back of his throat, he was too late.

His eyes locked with Lou's as he stared at her. Anguish washed over his face as he watched John slip his arm around Lou's waist and guide her towards his wagon.

"Kid!! Kid!" a shrill voice pierced through the air and Kid turned to see Leslie running towards him. He dismounted, and then watched Lou, as Lou turned slightly to look at him. Louise saw the pretty young lady running towards Kid and watched as she threw herself into his arms. Despite the stabbing pain in her heart, she was glad that Kid had someone else in his life. Their eyes locked for a moment but she broke away from his gaze. A tear slid down her cheek as she turned away and it fell onto the wedding bouquet.

Leslie hung onto Kid's arm babbling away noise that Kid could not pay any attention to. He watched as the love of his life drove away with her husband.

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