From the Heart Friday: Rachel’s Valley

Are you looking for a heartfelt weekend read?
Take a peek at this week’s From the Heart editor’s choice.

Rachel’s Valley

Title: Rachel’s Valley
Author: Alice Patron
Genre: Historical Romance
Format: Paperback and eBook

Rachel's Valley

Description

Not long after saying “I do,” Rachel Wood finds herself abandoned by her husband in a mining town in the West. After a year and a half of waiting for his return, she needs to move on. She responds to an ad in the newspaper and becomes the caretaker for two girls in the small town of Breckenridge, Colorado.

The moment he sees the beautiful young woman climbing into his wagon, widower Clint Harvey second-guesses his decision to hire someone to teach his daughters. But Rachel Wood is just what his girls need. And it doesn’t take long to realize that she is exactly what he needs, too—if only she didn’t keep holding him at arm’s length. 

Clint is the only man who has ever shown Rachel true love and friendship, and it becomes almost unbearable to not let herself fall for him. But she doesn’t want to cause a scandal in such a small town, so she keeps her marital status under wraps. But when she finally receives a threatening letter from her “husband,” she beings to question whether her marriage was even legally binding in the first place. 

Now, she must unravel the status of her supposed marriage before her chance of happiness with Clint has passed—and follow God’s law no matter that outcome, which just might be the most difficult thing of all.

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Chapter 1

RACHEL CLOSED HER EYES AND let her exhausted body fall onto her much-too-thin mattress on the floor. Well, not actually her mattress, but the mattress she had slept on for the last twenty-three months.

She was in a town of dreamers. Daily, men came into town, believing their fortune lay just beneath the soil. And daily, she saw other men leaving town; men whose burnt-out dreams had matured them in only a few weeks’ time, men who realized that dreams couldn’t make a living. At least not in this town.

She turned onto her stomach and reached to the other side of the bed. She pulled up the edge of the mattress enough to uncover the loose floorboard. A hiding place was necessary since a boarding house was just the sort of place that valuable belongings could easily disappear in, even inside her locked room. Especially in an ever-changing mining town in the West where the faces were different from week to week.

She reached in and took out the two things hidden there: five dollars and some change, and the clipping from yesterday’s newspaper. She gently unfolded the clipping she had taken out of the Denver newspaper that circulated in Givens Grove and read it again, although she knew the contents well. Wanted: caretaker/tutor for 2 girls. Room and board. $2 per month. Send application to Breckenridge, Colorado Post Office, c.o. Clint Harvey.

The bell tinkling above her head brought a deep sigh from Rachel.

She quickly stood, rubbing her temples as she did so.

“Coming!” she called out as she neared the front door. Whoever it was at the door was knocking loudly. She didn’t want him to rouse the whole house.

She whipped the door open and ushered the man inside. “Are you staying the night, Sir?” she asked.

“Yes, Ma’am.”

Rachel grabbed a fresh pillow and blanket from the stack inside the entry closet, then stepped into Mr. Barker’s office for an oil lamp. She didn’t need the light to find her way in the dark, but she knew the new boarder would need it. She turned toward the man, the lit lamp in one hand and the pillow and blanket in the other. As the man looked down into Rachel’s face, his eyebrows rose and a smirk made one side of his mouth come up. Now that she could see him properly, she saw what she saw in so many of the boarders that came through Givens Grove—his hair was long and disheveled, he had a beard that still bore remnants from his supper, and the state of his clothes would not pass the approval of any mother she knew.

Rachel took a small step away from him and tried to keep her tone formal. “You’ll be in room three. This way, Mister.” She said it with a little more disdain in her voice than she meant to use. She walked quickly up the stairs, assuming the man would follow.

“Wait, honey, slow down.”

Rachel clenched her teeth and closed her eyes momentarily. She swung around. “Listen…”

The man interrupted her by grabbing her hand roughly as she faced him. She could smell his rancid breath even before he spoke. “Hang on, Princess, I ain’t going to do nothing.” The smirky grin returned to his face. “I just was wondering, what are you doing tonight? I ain’t feeling too sleepy.”

She could tell the man was drunk. Usually, they were when they showed up to rent a room after midnight. “Here is your room, Sir,” she whispered, setting the lamp on the candleholder by the door and not giving him the satisfaction of an answer to his question.

“Why don’t you tuck me in?” he said as he pulled on her free arm to try to get her into the bedroom. She could hear a few of the boarders stir inside the shared room.

She yanked her arm firmly from his grasp, tossed the bedding from her other arm on his bedroom floor and ran down the stairs as fast as the darkness and her skirt would allow, listening to the awful man laugh at her from his open bedroom door. She shut her door and bolted it. At least she hadn’t had to wake the whole house by calling for Mr. Barker. That was always an embarrassing ordeal.

Rachel dropped onto her bed again and grabbed the crinkled newspaper clipping next to her. She couldn’t live this way anymore. That boarder tonight had certainly not been the worst she had encountered, but he was the pile of manure to tip the wheelbarrow of stink that seemed to make up her life. She pulled a clean sheet of paper from the top of her small stack of borrowed books at the foot of the bed.

Two years was just a little too long to wait for Roger. Besides, like so many in this town, her dreams were really starting to burn out.

*****

Rachel rose early the next morning, her excitement overcoming her exhaustion from the day before. It took her mind a few moments to remember why she felt so antsy.

“The letter!” she remarked to herself. She scrambled to the other side of the mattress and again lifted the floorboard.

“I hope this works,” she said to no one in particular in a half-whisper as she lifted out her letter. “Please,” she said, directing her thoughts heavenward, “I need this job so badly. I can’t take one more day of this!”

As if on cue, Mr. Barker rapped his usual three staccato knocks on her door.

“I won’t miss that wake-up call,” she said quietly, her eyes lighting up at the thought.

“I won’t miss this mattress,” she muttered to herself as she sat up and massaged a kink in her shoulder. She looked around the small “room” she had lived in for almost two years. “And I won’t miss this room, either.”

Mr. Barker had justified giving her the tiniest room, which was probably originally meant as a closet in the large house. It didn’t even have a window. But since she was so petite, he concluded that she had better stay there rather than take up valuable customer living space.

For the first time in a long time, Rachel sighed out of contentment. She wouldn’t miss much of anything at the boarding house. Not the long work hours, nor the lack of women to befriend in town, but she especially wouldn’t miss the miners that constantly came and went through Givens Grove that were taken by her beauty. Their unfiltered comments were always unwelcome, no matter how handsome the man may be. She was a married woman. And whether they knew that or not, she resented all those men for any hint of flirtation, no matter whether their words were kind or unkind. It was just ironic to her that, in her youth, she had flaunted her beauty and exulted in the fact that she could win over almost any man’s attention. Now her looks had become a burden.

With that sobering truth in mind, Rachel changed into her plain, brown work dress, brushed and tied up her thick, auburn hair, and hurried out of the boarding house with her letter.

“Hello, Rachel,” old Mrs. Givens cheerfully greeted her as she unlocked the post office door for her friend. Her eyebrows came together in concern. “Another letter for Roger?”

Rachel managed a half-hearted smile. “Not this time.” She held out the letter to Mrs. Givens.

“Breckenridge,” Mrs. Givens murmured, “who do you know there? I’m not even sure where that is.”

Rachel took a deep breath and smiled. “I’m hoping to get taken on as a governess for a family there.” Though the advertisement asked for a caretaker and tutor, Rachel thought governess wasn’t too far stretching the truth. It sounded more sophisticated.

“Oh!” Mrs. Givens looked up from the letter in surprise. “I’m not going to lie, that would be a fair bit better than what you’ve got at the boarding house—I know how Mr. Barker works you to the bone. But what about Roger? What if he comes back?”

“I was actually hoping you could help me, Mrs. Givens.” Rachel said. “If Roger comes back, or sends a letter, could you pass the word along to me at the address on that envelope?” she asked gesturing with her head to the letter Mrs. Givens now held.

“Oh, I see,” Mrs. Givens said, a look of relief on her face. “I was hoping you weren’t giving up on him.”

“He’s my husband,” Rachel said. “I can’t give up that easily.” No matter how much I wish I could.

Mrs. Givens reached across the small counter and gave her a motherly pat on the shoulder. “Well, don’t you worry none, Rachel. You have my word; I will send a letter if I hear anything about your husband.”

“Well, Mr. Barker has probably noticed my absence by now.” Rachel turned and opened the post office door as she thanked Mrs. Givens.

“You poor dear,” Mrs. Givens said, as if Rachel couldn’t hear her.

*****

Thoughts of the hoped-for governess job had faded for Rachel. For the first week, she told herself the post must be slow to get to Breckenridge. She wasn’t even sure how far away it was. But at the end of the second week, she had started looking in the paper for other positions—mainly in Denver where there was a better chance of finding respectable work. She knew she needed to leave Givens Grove. Her job at the boarding house wasn’t always so terrible, she admitted to herself, but now she felt a sliver of excitement when she thought of living somewhere where the people would not know her only for her disappointing marriage. She was almost as tired of the looks of pity from the women and married men as she was of the looks of lust from the single men.

Rachel was in the middle of making up the beds with fresh sheets when old Mrs. Givens came hobbling and huffing up the stairs. Rachel dropped the sheets on the nearest bed and hurried to the head of the stairs.

Mrs. Givens was trying to catch her breath as she grabbed the banister and hauled herself up to the top stair. She held out a thin letter to Rachel and caught her breath, fixing her shawl as she did so. Rachel smiled as she realized her friend must have been in a rush to reach her. Her usually tidy bun was somewhat disheveled.

Rachel took the letter in one hand and Mrs. Givens’s arm with the other hand. “Come sit down for a moment, Mrs. Givens.”

“Thank you, Rachel.” Mrs. Givens wobbled over to the bed and sat next to Rachel’s clean stack of sheets. “Now,” Mrs. Givens said between breaths, “what does the letter say?”

Rachel unceremoniously tore open the thin envelope and took out the note from inside. She nervously read aloud: “Miss Wood, I’m pleased to offer you the position as caretaker for my daughters. The pass is clear. Please come as soon as transportation can be arranged. Send word of your plans so that I can meet you at the post office at Breckenridge when you come. If I don’t receive any word from you within two weeks, I will assume that you have made other plans, and I will continue looking to fill the position. Sincerely, Clint Harvey.”

Rachel sat down by Mrs. Givens, unsure of what to do or say. She was going to leave Givens Grove!

Mrs. Givens patted Rachel’s leg. “Well, I’m going to miss having you around. This town could use more respectable women like you.” Then she stood up and looked down at her. “But I’m happy for you, Rachel.”

As Rachel stood and hugged her plump friend, she realized it was the first time she had done so. Now that she would be leaving Givens Grove, she felt that Mrs. Givens was the one person she might actually miss.

“There, there,” Mrs. Givens said, pulling Rachel back from her. “You just make sure you stay the same good person as always.” Mrs. Givens raised one finger at Rachel, reminding her of one of her mother’s lectures. “Don’t go falling for another man. You hold out for your Roger, and I’ll let you know the moment I get word about him.”

Rachel laughed lightly. She had a habit of laughing whenever she felt nervous or uncomfortable. “I promise I won’t do anything a respectable woman wouldn’t do.” She tried to put on a more serious look to reassure Mrs. Givens. “I promise I won’t ‘go after another man’. I can’t. As long as there is a chance that Roger is alive, I’ll wait for him.” Not that Rachel was at all worried about falling for another man. She had lived and worked alongside men, by herself, for twenty-three months and not once had she felt tempted by any one of them.

“Good.” Mrs. Givens seemed satisfied. “Well, I left the post office unattended. I’d better get back.”

“Thank you for bringing the letter.”

“You are welcome, my dear.” Mrs. Givens turned and walked out of the room. Rachel faintly heard her say, “The poor dear,” as she hobbled downstairs.

Once Mrs. Givens was out the door, Rachel raced down the stairs herself. Mr. Barker might not notice her absence for a few minutes, so this was as good a time as ever to find a ride to Breckenridge. Mr. Givens was usually at the corral, at this time anyway, hiring out horses to miners for the day.

*****

As Rachel dried the last of the supper dishes that night, she felt she was ready to break the news to Mr. Barker. She’d had time while cooking and serving the food to rehearse what she would say, and her boss was always in his happiest mood after mealtime. She had prepared his favorite—fried ham and cheese sandwiches—to help his mood as best she could.

She walked into his front office where he was taking a monthly payment from one of their regular boarders. Even better. A full stomach and a payment.

“Rachel, what can I do for you?” he said rather amiably as the boarder shuffled past her out the doorway.

Rachel bit her top lip, took a deep breath, then began. “Sir, I just want to say that I am so grateful for this job that has allowed me to stay in Givens Grove for these past two years.”

She noticed his eyebrows rise as if questioning what she would say next. She knew it would be better to make it short. That way his anger wouldn’t have a chance to build.

“I’ve applied for a job as a governess in Breckenridge, and I just received a letter back that I’ve been accepted for the position.”

Rachel instinctively took a step back as Mr. Barker slowly got up from his desk.

After a couple of muttered curses from Mr. Barker, he said, “Well, being a governess will suit you, I suppose.” He shrugged, then added, “You know, if you last more than three days at it.”

Well, that went rather well, Rachel thought. “Are you going to be able to find a replacement?”

“Yeah, I suppose I will be able to,” he said. “There’s always a disaffected miner that’s looking for work. Not that any of them would do half as good as you.” He stood and ran a hand over his nearly bald head. “I hope you know what kind of a situation you’re leaving me in, though. My boarders are going to be upset when they don’t see a pretty face around here anymore.”

“Oh.” Rachel couldn’t think of a reply to that.

“When do you leave?” Mr. Barker asked calmly.

“A week from today. Mr. Givens will be taking me up.”

Mr. Barker sighed. “Fine.”

Rachel hadn’t expected for this conversation to go so well. She figured she’d better take advantage of his momentary good nature. “I just need to send a letter to the family, so they know when to expect me. I’d better go now before the post office closes. It shouldn’t take more than ten minutes.”

“Just make sure you are back and starting on your nightly cleaning within ten minutes, or I’ll have to turn you out today!” Mr. Barker sat down at his desk again and waved Rachel away with his hand.

As she hurried out the door for the post office, Rachel suddenly felt a weight lift off her shoulders and was filled with a sense of hope she hadn’t known in almost two years.

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