by Niki Turner
Based on Persuasion
Annie Ellis fell in love with Ford Winters at the tender age of 19, but her family persuaded her to end the relationship. Eight years later and still alone, Annie is resigned to life as a spinster. She pours her frustrated passion into teaching art at Austen Abbey. When Annie’s spendthrift father and sister nearly bankrupt them, an unknown investor’s offer to lease the family’s ranch is their only hope. The investor is none other than Ford, who made his fortune in Colorado’s silver fields and has returned to Texas to show the woman who broke his heart she made a terrible mistake. But when her family tries to manipulate Ford, he realizes Annie didn’t stand a chance against their scheming ways. Now Ford must prove to Annie that true love needs no persuasion, only faith.
“I heard he’s a gambler.”
“Becky’s cousin said he’s an outlaw.”
The Austin society matrons huddled in front of the Jeanette C. Austen Academy for Young Ladies—fondly known as “Austen Abbey”—resembled hens surrounding a grasshopper, ready to peck the poor insect to death. Annie swallowed and ducked behind a hedge that kept her out of sight, but not out of earshot. If they caught sight of her, she would become the hapless grasshopper.
“Bad blood, I’m telling you, there’s no getting around bad blood. Annie Ellis ought to thank her pa and sister for their wise counsel all those years ago,” announced one self-righteous voice.
Heat suffused Annie’s fair cheeks as if she’d eaten one too many hot peppers. Careful to stay behind the concealing foliage, she hurried toward the back of the school.
She slipped through the gate in the wrought-iron fence, climbed the back porch steps, and entered her sanctuary. Classes were in session, so the hall was silent. She rubbed her knuckles against the hard, hot lump of emotions lodged in her chest. Part of her wanted to run away, but she had responsibilities to her students and to the Abbey. And, she sighed, nowhere to go. She couldn’t even afford a train ticket out of Travis County.
Somewhere in the vast building the chime of a hand bell signaled the end of the current class session. Doors opened and girls fluttered into the hall like so many bright butterflies. Annie glanced at the watch pinned to her plain shirtwaist. She had enough time before her painting class to meet with Headmistress Collins and ask if the rumors were true. Was Ford Winters really returning to Austin after an eight-year absence? Ford was distantly related to Augusta by marriage, so her reports were less likely to be skewed by Austin’s penchant for the sensational.
Annie threaded upstream through the flow of students on their way to their next classes. Reaching the headmistress’s office, she caught her reflection in the window at the end of the hall and grimaced. She would never be a beauty, no matter how many times she sought out a mirror. She patted her drab brown hair to make sure it was suitably restrained and smoothed wrinkles from her serviceable gray serge skirt before she knocked on the polished door.
“Headmistress Collins? It’s Annie Ellis. Could I speak with you?”
“Certainly, my dear. Come right in.”
Annie pushed the door open, struck anew by the room’s welcoming atmosphere, bedecked in rich shades of emerald green. Seated behind an oversized desk, Augusta Collins wrote in her daily ledger in what Annie knew was perfect, precise penmanship—tracking student attendance and grades and who knew what else. Sunlight streamed through the half-moon window behind her, giving the vague impression Augusta was somehow not of this temporal realm. Annie was awkwardly aware of her feet sinking into the deep carpet.
“And what, pray tell, can I do for my favorite art teacher?”
A bit of the icy chill Annie had felt since hearing the rumors about Ford melted under the headmistress’s kind reception. “I’ve heard Ford Winters is returning to Austin, and I wanted to ask if you knew anything about it.” Her words tumbled out in a rush.
Augusta leaned back in her chair, her expression a blend of fondness and concern. “Annie, you should sit down.”
Annie checked her watch. “I only have a few minutes until my class.”
“It will be all right if you’re late once.”
Annie’s heart fluttered against her ribs like a trapped bird. Augusta Collins would never suggest tardiness as an option under normal circumstances. She dropped into the tufted brown velvet chair opposite Augusta’s desk and pressed shaky hands into her lap.
“Noah told me he spoke with you at length about options for funding the Kelly Ranch.”
Annie flushed. Talking to the bank president had been embarrassing and unpleasant, in spite of his efforts to comfort her. The Kelly Ranch was all she had left of her mother’s family, and Annie was determined to save it from bankruptcy. She’d finally acquiesced to the idea of offering investors an opportunity to purchase shares in the property. Thus far there’d been no takers.
“I’m sorry, ma’am, but what does this have to do with Mr. Winters?”
“I hope you will forgive me, but I took the liberty of telegraphing Ford to inform him of the opportunity.”
Opportunity. She should have been affronted or angered by Headmistress Collins’s announcement. Instead, anticipation quivered through her nerves and settled at the base of her spine in a warm hum.
“Annie, I know there has been talk around town about Ford’s…er…activities since he left Austin.”
And his former relationship with you.
Annie ignored the unspoken words. Eight years earlier she’d yielded to her father and sister’s beleaguering about Ford’s “questionable parentage” and “insufficient prospects for the future” instead of following her heart.
“I’ll have you know,” Augusta continued, “I wouldn’t have contacted Ford about the Kelly Ranch if I had concerns about his moral code.” She tapped her well-manicured fingers on the desk’s surface in a steady rhythm.
Annie met Augusta’s gaze. She was ashamed to admit that Ford’s morality was the least of her concerns. She had loved him once. If she were honest with herself, she still loved him. Ford Winters invaded her heart and mind with debilitating frequency.
“Annie, dear, I give you my word, Ford has accumulated his wealth through legal methods, no matter what the local gossips say.”
Annie considered Augusta’s words and sucked in a breath. “So he’s coming here to purchase shares in my…our…the Kelly Ranch?”
Augusta reached into her desk and withdrew a fat envelope. “Noah Whitley has scheduled the paperwork to be signed later this morning. I told him I would pass this along to you.”
Annie reached for the envelope with a shaking hand. “That’s so soon.”
“Noah was under the impression your situation was urgent.”
“Yes, it is. I just wasn’t expecting…” Annie’s hand dropped into her lap and her chin fell to her chest, stricken by what the contents of the envelope meant to her life.
Annie’s grandparents had homesteaded the Kelly Ranch, and Annie loved the place as much as her mother and grandmother had. Her mother, Amelia, aware of her husband’s and youngest daughter’s weakness when it came to money, had given Annie legal control of what remained of the family’s property before her death. Annie could legally refuse Ford’s purchase of shares of the property, but for the sake of her mother’s love for the ranch, Annie would endure anything.
“I don’t have a choice.” Her statement was laced with resignation.
Augusta rose from her chair and came around the desk, skirts rustling. Unbidden, she wrapped her arms around Annie in a gentle lemon verbena-scented embrace. “My dear, there is always a choice. Unfortunately, the right thing to do is rarely the thing that appeals to your flesh.”