By Melody Carlson
An education back East?
That’s the last thing Miranda Williams wants, but since her stepfather had noted it in his will, her stepsister Delia is determined to see it through. But Miranda doesn’t want to go East, and she certainly doesn’t want to be subjected to more schooling. As Delia’s wedding day approaches, Miranda is certain her only chance of salvation lies in finding a groom—fast!
And at first she thinks all is going according to plan when Jackson O’Neil from a neighboring mine begins to pay her attention and sets her heart to fluttering. But Jackson has his own dreams, dreams of heading to Alaska and striking it rich in gold.
With new friends, old bitterness, and an ocean of possibilities, how will Miranda find her way to a future of her own?
Double W Ranch, Colorado
Miranda Williams desperately longed for a change. Or perhaps she simply wanted to change herself. She wasn’t even sure as she slid the peach satin gown over her head. It had been altered for her to wear at stepsister’s wedding, and she had to admit it was a gorgeous garment. As she struggled to button the back of it, she wasn’t sure it was possible for her to change. The past few months only seemed to reveal just how spoiled and stubborn she truly was. Not to mention just plain silly and childish. But being around Delia this summer had triggered something in Miranda. She knew that her stepsister had something that she wanted. And it wasn’t just the ranch that Delia had inherited from her father.
And it wasn’t Delia’s fancy eastern gowns and pretty jewelry. It wasn’t even Delia’s handsome fiancé, Wyatt Davis. Oh, Miranda would’ve loved having all those things for herself. And she’d certainly tried to snatch them. But now she realized that had been very wrong…and the consequences severe. Still, she longed for something more…something she couldn’t even put into words.
On Saturday, Miranda would stand by Delia as she repeated wedding vows with Wyatt before a small crowd of family, friends, and neighbors. While Miranda was honored, she knew herself well enough to know she’d being fighting back feelings of envy…and self pity. Delia’s happy life just seemed to cast a dark, sad shadow across Miranda’s. Just one more reminder of her own immature selfishness. Would she ever grow up?
Miranda sighed as she studied her image in her bureau mirror. With her auburn curls pinned up with a silver comb that had belonged to her deceased mother, she actually did look somewhat grown up. The problem was, despite recently turning seventeen, she felt very much like a child. And despite recent demands to be treated more like an adult, Miranda suddenly wanted to turn back the clock. And she didn’t want to go back East to attend the university that both her stepfather and Delia had decided would be perfect for her. Miranda was definitely out of sorts!
“Oh, my! You look beautiful!” Delia exclaimed as she entered the bedroom. “That color is lovely on you, Miranda.” She examined the bodice. “Ginger did an excellent job of altering it.”
Miranda nodded. “But it’ll be too short for you now.”
“That’s perfect since I’m giving it to you. As well as a couple of other things that you’ll need in Philadelphia. Not fancy dresses, although there will be a few formal events at the university.”
Miranda cringed at the word university. Everyone kept assuming she was glad to be sent off to a strange school in a strange place—and to be fair, this was partly her fault since she’d sort of played along. But as her departure date drew closer, her confidence shriveled.
“What’s wrong?” Delia asked as she finished buttoning the back of the gown.
“I don’t know…just a little out of sorts today.” Miranda sighed. “Maybe it’s the heat. It’s been awful hot the last few days.”
Delia went over to close the window. “Better shut this to keep what little cool air there is inside. It has been hot. Even the chickens looked droopy this morning.” She chuckled. “But at least your bedroom is on the cool side of the house.”
“One thing to be thankful for.” Miranda frowned.
Now Delia peered curiously at her. “Are you upset about being moved back to your old room? Because you know—”
“No, no, that’s all right.” Miranda sniffed as she glanced around the small, cluttered room in need of tidying after she’d carelessly dumped her things in here. Truth be told, she had been rather miffed at getting kicked out of the master bedroom she’d claimed after her stepfather was murdered. But then she realized it rightfully belonged to Delia since she was the true heir of the Double W. And it would belong to both Delia and Wyatt after they married. Besides Miranda’s attempt at squatter’s rights, that room had never belonged to her. Nothing on the ranch really belonged to her…anymore. She was only the stepchild…Delia was Winston Williams’ real daughter.
As Delia helped her out of the silky gown, Miranda felt starkly aware that she truly was the stepchild. Hadn’t everyone gone out of their way to make that clear once Delia arrived? And with the reading of the will, it all grew crystal clear. Delia was the true heiress. She got everything. And, sure, her older stepsister had been generous enough, but it wasn’t the same as if Miranda were lady of the house like she’d dreamed of…that was hard to let go.
“What is it then? Why are you scowling like that?” Delia sat in the wooden rocker by the window. “I’ve noticed you’re unhappy these last few days. Please, talk to me.”
Miranda tried to sort and sift her thoughts. “Oh, I don’t know. It’s a lot of things. I’m not even sure what…” Wearing only her chemise and bloomers, she sat on the edge of her bed and, folding her arms in front of her, tried to contain her emotion…and tears.
“Well, I’m not surprised.” Delia sighed. “You’ve been through a lot, Miranda. We both have. And there’s so much going on lately. I can understand how it might take its toll on you.”
Miranda just shrugged. Delia’s sympathy just made the lump in her throat become harder.
“Besides losing your mother, even though it was awhile back, you just lost your father and you—”
“You mean your father.”
“He was your father too, Miranda. And you got to spend almost ten years with him. Years I never had.” Delia’s green eyes grew sad. “And, more importantly, I know how much he loved you.”
“I guess so.” Again, she shrugged. “But he didn’t always approve of me. I know he thought I was a silly flibbertigibbet sometimes. I’m sure he would’ve liked me to be more like you.” She looked at Delia with teary eyes. “I wish—I wish I were more like you.”
Delia got up and, hurrying to sit next to her, put her arm around Miranda’s now trembling shoulders. “Oh, darling.”
“But I’m not like you,” she sobbed. “I’m a selfish, spoiled brat.”
“No, you’re not.”
“I am too. I heard Ginger and Daisy talking the other day. They said that very thing. They both think I’m a selfish, spoiled brat.”
“Maybe you used to be like that,” Delia said gently, “but you are growing up. You help out a lot more now. Remember how grown up you acted when Wyatt first arrived? Even Ginger was impressed with how you jumped in to help.”
“It was only because I wanted to impress Wyatt. Because I wanted to steal him from you, Delia.” Tears streamed down her cheeks. “And that’s worse than selfish. It’s horrible. I’m not only a spoiled brat, I’m conniving and evil and—”
“No, you’re not.” Delia laughed. “It’s no wonder you went after Wyatt. You recognized a good man when you saw one.”
“Even though I knew he was your man?”
“Well, that was a bit indiscriminate. But I give you credit for recognizing Wyatt was a much better choice than poor Marcus.”
“Poor Marcus?” Miranda turned to Delia with anger. “Marcus was a murderer! He killed our father.”
“I know.” Delia grimly shook her head. “I still have to work to forgive him for that.”
“I will never forgive him. Never!”
“Well, for your sake, I hope you do forgive him, Miranda. Someday…when you’re ready—”
“Never!” Miranda declared with heartfelt conviction. “He ruined everything. He was a beast and a liar and a murderer. I’ll hate him until the day I die. And longer!” Now she was crying harder than ever.
Delia handed Miranda a clean hanky. “Like I said, little sister, you’ve been through a lot. It’s no wonder you’re out of sorts. But have you really told me everything that’s troubling you?”
Miranda wiped her nose. “No…there’s one thing I haven’t mentioned to you…or anyone.”
“What is it?” Delia looked intently at her.
“It’s about going to the university…in Philadelphia. It’s frightening—it scares me to death.”
Delia actually smiled. “Oh, is that all?”
“Is that all?” Miranda wadded the hanky into a tight ball. “I’ve never been anyplace bigger than Colorado City and Denver. I will be a fish out of water in that big city. I will be completely lost there.” She bit her lip, knowing it wasn’t truly the big city that disturbed her. In a way, she looked forward to that part.
“You won’t feel lost there, Miranda. And I already told you that Wyatt’s Aunt Lilly and Uncle George are coming to the wedding. I wrote a letter to his aunt, and she wrote back saying she looks forward to meeting you and she even offered to help you to get settled in the city and—”
“That’s not really what I meant.” She took in a deep breath. “I’m really worried, Miranda. To be honest I’m scared to go to the university.”
“But why? It’s a wonderful school. I loved it there.”
Miranda bit her lip, wondering how much to disclose…. “This is the real truth, Delia. I know I’m not smart enough. I will be a complete failure, and it will be terribly humiliating for me…and a disappointment to you. I know it.” She felt relieved to have thrown her cards on the table. “I’m just plain stupid.”
“That’s not true. I read through your school materials in our father’s library files. And I realized not only was he a very good teacher, I could see that you’re quite smart.”
“I might be smart about some things. But not like you. Everyone talks about how intelligent you are, Delia. I’m not like that. Even though my schoolwork looks fine to you, you don’t know how long it took me to complete my assignments. Father tried to be patient with my lessons after my mother passed, but I know he felt I was slower than molasses. I honestly don’t think I can succeed at higher education and I don’t—”
“You just need to give it a chance. There were lots of girls in college who were, well, not so academic as you’d think and, well, they just had to work a bit harder, but they—”
“No, no, that’s not me, Delia. I can’t do it. And I don’t want to do it.” She was crying again. “I would rather stay here and tend chickens and milk cows and scrub floors and—and—anything!”
Delia looked amused. “Interesting…since you’ve never been particularly interested in farm work before. And I suppose that’s an option, but I can’t believe you’d want to settle for that. Our father had higher hopes for your future.”
“Well, then I could get married. I’m sure there are plenty of nice men around here who’d be willing to marry me. I suppose I was so stuck on stupid old Marcus I didn’t pay attention to other fellows.”
“But you’re barely seventeen, do you really want to marry? And to just anyone?”
“I’d rather be unhappily married than lost and miserable at some Eastern college.”
“You can’t be serious.”
“I am! I think I’d do anything not to be sent to that university.”
Delia slowly nodded. “All right. I hear what you’re saying. I’d like to give this some careful thought, Miranda. And some serious prayer. I know our father wanted you educated like I was, but maybe there’s another solution.”
“Yes!” Miranda grabbed Delia’s hands. “There has to be another solution.”
Delia squeezed her hands then slowly stood. “Thank you for being honest with me about this.” She picked up the peach gown, carefully hanging it on the wardrobe door before she turned to look at Miranda. “Try not to worry about it, honey. This is supposed to be an exciting week, remember? Uncle Enoch is coming on tomorrow’s train. And we have a lot to keep us busy these next few days.”
Miranda tried to feign enthusiasm. “Yes…I do want to enjoy the wedding preparations. And I do feel better now. Thanks.”
“Somehow, we’ll figure this all out. Maybe Wyatt will have some advice.”
Miranda thanked her again, and after Delia left she did feel a bit better. But she still felt absolutely certain that she did not want to attend the women’s university. Delia had frequently told Miranda about her schooling, trying to convince her it would be a great experience, going on about how intellectually stimulating her classes would be, and how fun it would be to live with other smart young women. But the idea of being cooped up with a bunch of bookworms scared Delia witless. She knew she’d never be able to read all those books or keep up with that kind of intense education. Furthermore, she didn’t want to!
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Delia found Wyatt out by the bunkhouse. He’d been staying out there since they’d announced their engagement. “If you’re not busy, I’d like to talk to you,” she said as she approached him.
“Never too busy for you. In fact, I was hoping to speak to you about something too.” He laid down the halter he’d been repairing then bent down to pet Hank. The faithful dog, as usual, was right by her side. “Care for a before-dinner stroll?”
“Thank you.” She linked her arm in Wyatt’s. “And now I’m curious. What do you want to speak to me about?”
“Not so fast. You said you have something to tell me. Ladies first, I insist.”He winked.
“Fine.” Suppressing her curiosity, she quickly relayed Miranda’s concerns about school. “What do you think? My father so wanted her to have the same educational opportunity as I enjoyed. And I do think it would be good for her.”
“Because it was good for you?”
“Yes.” She nodded as they took the trail up the hill. “I’m grateful for my education.”
“But Miranda is not you.”
“No, of course. I understand that.”
“And, from what I can see, she’s not the academic type. I’ve tried to get her interested in reading some good books and, well, she hasn’t the slightest interest.”
“That’s true. But she’s only been taught at home. Perhaps if she had some more formal schooling. If she just gave it a try.”
“But you just said she’s completely opposed to the idea.”
“Yes, but I’m supposed to act as her guardian.”
“Even if you forced her to go…well, you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make her drink.”
Delia sighed. “I know you’re right, but I do want to honor my father. He made his intentions clear in his will.”
“No doubt, he wanted the best for Miranda. But maybe your university isn’t the best thing. For her.”
“You could be right about that.” She turned to him. “Now, enough about Miranda. What did you want to talk to me about? Curiosity is killing me.”
“Well, I received a telegram today. In response to a wedding invitation.”
“Oh, is it your aunt and uncle? I hope they’re still coming.”
“As far as I know. Although I realize it’s hard for Uncle George to leave his boot factory. Still, he didn’t want Aunt Lilly to make the train trip alone.”
“Oh, good. Then is it Uncle Enoch? He’s rather elderly. But I was so looking forward to seeing him. Has something happened to prevent—”
“No, no, this isn’t in regard to him. In fact, Caleb recently got a letter from Enoch. It sounded as if he’s in good health and eager to return to the ranch for good. It seems the East does not agree with him.”
“I’m not surprised.” She glanced down at the beautiful ranch her father had so carefully created. “I bet he’s missed this.”
“So, tell me, who sent the message? I can’t think of anyone else who’d send a telegram.”
“Well, I wasn’t going to mention this. Not until I knew for sure.” His expression looked slightly guilty. “I have a confession to make.”
“A confession?” She looked intently into his mossy green eyes. Wyatt had never deceived her before. But to be fair, she’d only known him for a few months. Still, she knew him well enough to trust him implicitly.
“You see…I invited someone without consulting you, Delia. I honestly didn’t think they’d come, but I thought perhaps it would be a good way to mend some fences.”
“What fences? What are you talking about?”
“I invited your family.”
“What?” She stared at him in horror. “My family? You mean my mother? My stepfather? My siblings?”
He nodded somberly. “Remember after we became engaged and started to plan a wedding? You mentioned how it would be sad not to have your own family here?”
“Yes, but I realized it was impossible, Wyatt.”
“Well, about the time we set out wedding date, I noticed your parents’ Pittsburgh address in your writing things in the library…and, well, I was so excited about everything that I took the liberty of writing to them at the same time I wrote to my aunt and uncle. So, anyway, I invited your family to come out here for our wedding.”
“Well, I’m sure they must’ve declined your gracious invitation. Is that what the telegram said?”
“Not exactly.” He rubbed his chin with a furrowed brow.
“You do remember what I told you, don’t you? How enraged my parents were after I refused to marry old Henry Horton—for his wealth.” She grimaced to remember the horrid disagreement. “It was an awful scene. My stepfather said he never wanted to see me again.”
“But they are coming, Delia.” He looked intently into her eyes. “Please, tell me you’re not angry at me.”
She blinked. “I—I’m not angry. But I am shocked. I just can’t—can’t believe it, Wyatt. Are you saying my whole family is coming? My mother, stepfather, and Julianne and Julius?”
“The telegram said to expect the four of them.”
“But my stepfather completely disowned me. Why would he agree to this?”
“Maybe he’s forgiven you.”
“I find that hard to believe.” She frowned.
“Well, perhaps your mother persuaded him.”
“I’ve never seen my mother persuade him of anything.”
“Why question this, Delia? Just be glad that you’ll have family here. You did mention it was something you’d dreamt of for your wedding. I did it for your sake, darling.”
“But I never dreamed it possible….” She was still trying to sort it out in her head—it sounded perfectly crazy. “Besides everything else, I don’t see how they could afford such a trip. They were in bad financial straits when I left. That’s the reason they were so determined I marry Mr. Horton. How could they possibly afford such a trip? Four round trip train tickets and traveling expenses?”
Wyatt rubbed his chin. “I sent them the needed funds.”
“What?” She shook her head. “Why would you do that?”
“Well, it was your mother who wrote back to me, Delia. Last month. It’s as you said, they were unable to come. Due to the expense.”
“That’s when I wired them the money.”
“Oh, Wyatt. I can’t believe you did that.” She hated the thought of him wasting his gold mining profits on what would certainly turn into a fiasco.
“They’re your family, Delia. I hoped it would make you happy. And if you’re worried about that money, you know how well I did up in Alaska. I can afford it.”
“I’m just afraid it was for nothing. Knowing my stepfather, he’s probably lost it at the horse races by now.”
“I don’t think so, darling.” He smiled. “The telegram was from your stepfather. He said to expect them on Thursday afternoon’s train in Colorado City. Same as my aunt and uncle.”
“Oh, my!” Her feelings were definitely mixed as she stared at the sheep grazing down below. The creek moved slowly this time of year, but at least it was moving.
“Please, tell me you’re not upset.” Wyatt sounded concerned. “I’d hate to think I angered you—just days before our wedding.”
She knelt down to stroke Hank’s sleek head and ears, trying to calm herself and to carefully sort her words before responding. “No, dear, I realize you did this for me. But…it’s a lot to take in.” She forced an uneasy smile, trying not to imagine what a fiasco this unexpected family reunion could evolve into.
He hugged her. “I understand. But remember you’re not alone. I’m by your side now. And think about it, Delia, won’t it be nice to have family here? You just told me last week that you were missing your siblings…and your mother too.”
“Yes, but that was because they were far away. You know what they say about absence making the heart grow fonder.” She sighed. “And my stepfather…well, to be perfectly honest, I haven’t missed him at all.”
“I know.” He waved toward the handsome ranch house, barn, and outbuildings. “At the very least, you can show him that despite rebelling against his plans for you, it turned out quite well. For you anyway. That alone should give you a glimmer of satisfaction.”
“You’re probably right.” Her smile grew genuine. “And I don’t mind for them to see all that my father accomplished with his life. I’d like for them to respect him.” She gazed down on the corral and stables, the pretty horses grazing in the back pasture, the orchards and gardens beyond the house. “And I’m sure Julius and Julianne will enjoy the country life.”
“You see, it was a good idea after all. Imagine your brother and sister running around here like regular farm kids. Maybe they’ll want to do some riding.”
“Yes, but now I’m wondering where I’ll put everyone. I’d planned to have your aunt and uncle in the master suite. And I wanted to put Uncle Enoch in the guest room and—”
“Caleb just told me that Uncle Enoch wants to be in the bunkhouse—just like old times. You know how he and Caleb go way back.”
“So I could put my parents in that guest room.” She thought. “And I could set up Julianne and Julius in the old nursery. It will be a full house and a lot of work for our household staff, but I suppose it will all work out.”
“Of course it will. And it’s only for a few days.” He leaned down to kiss her. “And after our wedding supper, you and I will be off on our wedding trip to Denver. We will leave our family behind to sort things out for themselves. In the meantime, I don’t want you to worry about it.”
Despite his reassurance, Delia couldn’t quite imagine how it would all turn out. The idea of her family making the arduous trip from Pittsburgh to Colorado City, just for her wedding—well, it was almost unimaginable. Especially considering the sour note they’d parted on. Although the twins would probably enjoy the train trip. Their visit to the “wild” West would give them something to brag about in school. But Delia’s mother, who was used to all her comforts? And her difficult stepfather? Well, anything could happen. Still, she planned to take Wyatt’s advice and instead of worrying, she would try to pray.
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