One Last Letter

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One Last Letter

Published by Crimson Romance 

A romantic hardened by reality… 

Evelyn Lancaster turned her back on her love for ranch hand Jesse Greenwood when she was sixteen to pursue a career and marry into wealth that could save her father’s struggling ranch. Now twenty-three, she works hard to keep the property afloat, but no suitor has stirred her heart the way Jesse did. After her father falls ill, she needs all the help she can get to keep the ranch running.

A cowboy returning to what he left behind…
After making his fortune, a newly wealthy Jesse has returned home to see his younger sister married. Still smarting from Evelyn’s rejection, he finds the tables have turned, and now only his investment could save the ranch that he vowed to never step foot on again.

When he agrees to help her salvage her family legacy, they must overcome their pride and painful past to work together. As long-held emotions rekindle, Jesse pretends indifference, only to admit his true feelings in an unsigned letter left on Evelyn’s porch.

Evelyn finds the missive and writes back, beginning a furtive correspondence. She dares to hope her mystery admirer is Jesse, but then another man comes forward to claim the letters as his own. Will one last letter give them the courage to say yes to love on the wild Texas plains?

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EXCERPT:

1869

Dearest Eve,

I hope this letter finds you. I’m praying you write back to this one, Eve, because Lord knows I’ve been spending way too much time writing to you and not enough time helping your father out. Spelling’s improved, though. I can say that much. You taught me well.

Do you remember that, Eve? When the sun was down and I’d sneak out to your front porch and you would meet me there? Back when your dad didn’t have that big old guard dog, back when you taught me how to read and write by lantern behind your house?

I hope you remember that. Memories of you are all I seem to have nowadays. I can’t ever forget your face, but I’m sure the years have changed it a bit. You could send a picture, you know. My address hasn’t changed.

Or you could send a letter. I know you’re busy with school and all that, but I’m starting to feel like you’ve forgotten me.

I’m still back here at Hamilton, Texas. I’m still waiting.

Say something, Eve.

—Jesse

Jesse Greenwood looked up from the paper he was writing on to the blue sky in front of him. A year. A whole year since he’d seen her long black hair flying behind her as she raced across the field on the back of a horse, challenging her mount with verbal commands and physical kicks every chance she found. A whole year since she’d made him promise he would keep writing to her while she was away. A year since he’d spoken to her at all.

Maybe she didn’t receive his letters. The idea had dawned on him before, especially when he was all by himself out on the ranch. Maybe her father kept the letters from him. Maybe someone at that fancy school of hers burned them before they could reach her hands.

He watched the herd of cattle graze on the pasture. The cattle were lazy, chewing cud all day and staring blankly at any lone cowboy who tried to herd them. They didn’t worry about not receiving letters.

One letter out of—how many was it now? Thirty? Forty? Every spare moment he had ended up filled with writing to her. Maybe it was time to give up. He swallowed feelings of surrender. No, he’d promised to write.

Jesse sighed. After putting away the paper, he headed back toward his horse. Promises sure were hard to keep when you didn’t know if the other person gave a damn. As he herded the cattle to head back to the ranch, the sun began to set. The fading light filled the sky with deep purple and orange hues. There was no way Eve could see that sunset off on the East Coast, where the sun probably never shined and children probably never learned how to race horses.

“Hey, Greenwood!”

He turned his head at the call of his name. Another one of the ranch hands, Preston, rode up next to him. The beginnings of a beard peppered Preston’s jawline, reminding Jesse that he hadn’t shaved in days. He didn’t really shave anymore, ever. There didn’t seem much incentive when Evelyn wasn’t around.

As if reading his mind, Preston slapped Jesse’s back and whistled low. “Your girl’s coming home.”

Jesse nearly dropped the folded letter in his hand. He tucked it into his pocket instead and tightened his hands on his reins for a better grip. “What did you just say?”

Preston arched an eyebrow and grinned. “You heard me, all right. Evelyn Lancaster’s headed back to Hamilton.”

While his eyes never strayed from the cattle he and Preston were taking back to the ranch, Jesse’s body was on autopilot. With the trail to the ranch memorized, his mind whirred, trying to process the information Preston had given him.

Preston headed off in the opposite direction and took the cattle from the other side as another ranch hand opened up the gates. Jesse waited until Preston finished trotting around the extent of the corral. Either Preston’s daily check of the corral needed more time today, or he was just taunting Jesse. He stepped out of the stirrups and jumped to the ground, his hand drifting to his pocket where the letter lay in the process. When Preston finished, he finally let go of his reins and also dismounted.

The two guided their horses back toward the stable. Jesse could feel Preston’s eyes studying his expression. “I ain’t lying. She’s back for good.”

His throat felt dry. “How would you know that?”

Preston chuckled. “Heard it from the big bug himself. ‘Make sure Blue Star is ready, Preston.’ That was when I asked. Boss said she’s come back to be married. Heard she’s become real pretty now, too.” Preston took off his beige hat as they stepped out of the stable. Once they reached the house, he stamped his feet on the mat in front of the porch door. A plume of dust flew up from the mat in a cloud, a tribute to the day’s work on the ranch. He brushed off the dirt from his clothes, taking extra care to appear presentable.

Jesse raised an eyebrow.

Preston shook his head. “Not trying to make myself look good for Evelyn—she’s your girl.”

Jesse took off his black hat and stepped inside. “Not talking about her, Preston. I know who you’re trying to impress.” Preston Dean had been chasing Jesse’s baby sister for the last year, not that Jesse approved. He figured Preston’s interest in her would fade, the way the rest of his friend’s annual infatuations did. Thankfully, Loretta Greenwood hadn’t shown any interest in him, and Jesse planned to keep it that way.

“She’s not too much younger than Eve was when you two got all lovey-dovey. If I wanted to do the same with your sister, then I—”

Jesse shot his friend a warning look, but Preston smirked. “You just wait and see. Loretta will come around.”

The two walked down the hallway of the bunkhouse Mr. Lancaster had provided for his ranch hands. Their heavy footsteps thudded against the wooden flooring. The hallway was empty, and Jesse guessed all the other cowboys were eating at the cookhouse.

Beds lined the back of the bunkhouse, each one stacked a level on top of each other to conserve space. The boss hadn’t provided them with much, but a clean bed was all Jesse needed. It had been hard trying to find a job after his parents died; landing a place as a ranch hand had also meant Loretta could work in the kitchen and sleep in the big house, which seemed more than generous to him.

He swallowed hard and pulled the letter from his pocket. The folds seemed to ruin it somehow, and he smoothed the paper with care on the nearest table. So she’d returned to be married. His heart knew who she wanted. She’d told him so; she didn’t want to marry anyone else.

His heart beat faster, and he felt perspiration begin to gather in the base of his palms. Her father must have come around after all.

There was a knock at the door from the back entrance. Too early for the other ranch hands to return from supper. Preston nearly darted forward to answer the door, but Jesse shot him a stern look. If it really was Loretta at the door, he certainly didn’t want Preston greeting her.

He set his black hat on the table before he walked over to the doorway. What was she thinking? It really wasn’t proper for his sister to come to the bunkhouse at this time.

He opened the door. “Loretta, I told you for the last time to stop encouraging Preston into believing that . . .”

His voice trailed off once his eyes recognized the figure standing on the other side of the doorway. His eyes widened, and he felt his pulse racing.

The girl at the door was definitely not Loretta.

“Hello, Jesse.”

  • • •

Evelyn Lancaster wanted to run away as fast as possible.

It was a mistake. It was one colossal, gargantuan mistake. Worse than Athens ordering the death of Socrates. Worse than Persephone being kidnapped by Hades. What did she think she was going to do? Seconds ticked by as she found herself unable to say anything more. Her mouth felt dry. What was she supposed to say?

He’d changed, more than she would have ever imagined possible. The boyish frame was filled out, and extra years working on the ranch had defined the muscles in his arms under his coarse brown shirt. He’d even grown taller—past six feet, she guessed. His shoulders were broader, and his cheekbones seemed more pronounced than before. His face carried even more of an aristocratic air, but his body seemed undeniably more masculine.

Yet the expression was the same. Jesse Greenwood’s same reticent, admiring expression hadn’t changed as he continued to stare at her like she was hand-blown glass. His brown hair still flopped lightly in front of his eyes, causing him to brush it away.

“Hey, Eve.”

She winced. She hadn’t heard that nickname since she’d left Hamilton, Texas, for the female seminary in Massachusetts. No one there ever called her Eve. During classes she’d been “Miss Evelyn” and “Miss Lancaster.”

She cleared her throat. She’d anticipated the awkwardness but not the simple difficulty in forming words. “I returned home a few hours ago. I thought I should stop by and say hello. Is Preston here? Are any of the other ranch hands here?”

Jesse blinked. He didn’t respond for a few seconds. The adoring expression morphed to one of disbelief. “Eve, did you get my letters?”

She bit her lip. “I did.” Evelyn resisted the urge to embrace him. Doing so would only make it harder to answer his questions with a lie. Instead, she stood rooted to the spot. She wouldn’t move a muscle; there was too much she could regret. “They were nice letters. Thank you. But I burned them.”

His eyes became cool steel, all traces of admiration in his eyes melting away. “Burned them? But you . . .” His jaw was set. “Eve, why didn’t you write me back?”

“I was busy.” She tore her eyes away from Jesse’s searing gaze and tried to look behind his shoulder. The sinking feeling in her chest was surely no more than an echo of the past. She needed to leave before all rationality left her. “Just let all the other ranch hands know I stopped by.”

“Stop. Eve, I said stop.” Strong hands grabbed both of her shoulders, and she looked up in alarm toward his furrowed brow and confused expression. His voice was so much deeper than she’d remembered. “That’s all? You couldn’t once respond to me?”

She struggled to push against him, but he held her in place. His tone was rough. It increased in volume, rising with each word that tumbled out of his mouth.

“What about the promise I made to you? When you told me that you wanted to marry—”

“Enough!” Evelyn yanked herself out of his hold and glared. She breathed deeply, as if the extra air would give her the courage she couldn’t truly conjure up. “I remember what you are referring to. I did receive your letters. I thank you for them. But I did not respond to you because whatever we had before I left for school . . .” She gulped. The polite tone of indifference faded. “This has to end.”

The reaction was immediate. His features crumpled as she stepped back. His jaw went slack, and she saw his hands at his side ball into fists. He looked like someone had just punched him in the gut. Evelyn’s heart broke as she watched him step toward her.

“Neither of us has any money.”

“So? We never worried before. We said we’d run away . . .”

She let out a bitter laugh. “To where? Where would we go?”

“Anywhere. Away from here.” He edged closer. “You don’t have to listen to your father.”

“This has nothing to do with him. This is my choice, not his.”

A pause. “I wish you chose a different one.”

She wished he wouldn’t say anything further. The longer she listened to him, the more her walls of resolve crumbled. Saving the family ranch came before her personal choices.

“You are referring to a conversation from a year ago.” She smoothed out her dress, as if wiping away the wrinkles would wipe away the intensity of the conversation. “I may have said certain promises with foolish hope . . .”

“That wasn’t foolish hope, Eve.” His voice was guttural. She swallowed when she looked away from her skirt to his clenched fists. The muscles in his forearm tightened as he spoke. “We were in love. We are—”

“Stop. Do not speak of that.” She narrowed her eyes at Jesse. How could he be so inconsiderate? “Four years has changed us. It has changed my perspective.”

Bitterness marked his tone. “It’s given you amnesia, apparently.”

If only. Evelyn pressed her lips together. Images of kissing him by the light of the moon in the stable, sketches he made of her behind the house, poems she read to him after they had finished racing horses around the ranch when his hours finished. All the memories threatened to overwhelm her, and she swayed slightly.

“Know what I think?”

She bristled, and he didn’t wait for her response.

“I think you’re scared.”

Anger flashed through her. Scared? Never. Practical? Definitely. “I am a realist, not a coward. I am giving up on you, Jesse.”

He remained silent. She wanted him to reply, to say something, anything. Any words seemed better than the heavy silence that fell between them instead.

She finally looked up. His eyes met hers with a fierce glare. There was no sadness in his expression, only bitter betrayal. His fists had not unclenched. Evelyn believed that if she reached out, her palms would meet the invisible wall suddenly erected between them.

“We are not possible together, understand?” She struggled to keep her voice even. “I need to marry someone who is more financially secure, Jesse.” She stepped back again, away from the barrier between them. “I understand that I told you differently before, but time has passed. It is better for both of us if we just forget . . .” Her voice lowered. “Forget we ever knew each other at all.”

He didn’t even slam the door. Jesse shut it with as little sound as possible, the lock barely making a noise as she heard the bolt slide into place.

She bit her lip. If you didn’t tell him now, you would have to tell him later. You did the right thing. Those unbidden feelings, and her body’s instincts, had been so much easier to suppress when she was away from him. Every muscle inside Evelyn wanted to run forward and slam her hands against the wood until he opened up and she jumped back into his arms.

Instead, she turned around and walked back toward her home.

  • • •

The next few weeks blurred together in a torrent of tears and indecision. All the eligible young men in the surrounding area had asked her father for a chance to court her. Her father brought up each one at supper, highlighting their fine qualities and numerous bags of cash to their name. He never mentioned it out loud, but his message was clear: The ranch was no longer his priority, but hers as well.

But each suitor seemed so weak. None of them would last a day managing a ranch. Everyone pointed to her father’s wealth as a reason for marrying her, and none seemed to show genuine interest in her beyond her physical appearance.

“If you’re shaking your head because of all the potential beaus you’ve rejected, I am not surprised. You’re wasting your time trying to choose one from that bunch.” Annie Inglewood, her best friend, cast a dismissive gaze in Evelyn’s direction. The redhead sat on a wooden bench next to Evelyn’s vanity, admiring her own reflection in the mirror. “Have you ever considered that maybe you’ll never accept any of the suitors?”

“Bosh! There are at least ten more I have not met yet.” Still, she wasn’t particularly enthused at the idea of meeting another ten bachelors who were most likely going to be as unappealing as the last six. “I could accept one of them.”

“None of them is Jesse.”

Evelyn drew in a quick intake of breath. “I need someone with more financial stability.”

“Then what’s wrong with the ones you’ve rejected?”

What was wrong, indeed? A sinking feeling settled in her stomach. “Or I could pursue a career of my own.”

“I doubt Jesse would ever stop you from doing something you wanted.”

Jesse this, Jesse that. When would she stop hearing his name everywhere she went in Hamilton?

Annie rolled her eyes and spun around, fixing Evelyn a critical eye. “Why are you so insistent on being married now, anyway?”

“The ranch can use all the financial support it can get.” She shifted her weight on the bed, realizing the contradiction between her words and behavior. Then why couldn’t she just tie herself to one of the rich fellows who expressed interest?

“Have a word with your father. I’m sure he’d listen if you just asked him for more time.”

Maybe Annie did have a point. Jesse could be out of the question, but maybe her father would postpone her marriage and her list of suitors for a few years. There was no time like the present to find out. Evelyn opened the door and walked down the hallway, toward the study. Annie called out her name, but Evelyn ignored her.

She stepped inside her father’s room. On one side of the study, the wall was lined with several rows of bookshelves containing dusty tomes ranging in topics from finance to law to agriculture. The sturdy spinning globe she loved so much as a child still rested on a small table in the center of the room. And behind the large oak desk, where papers determining the future of her family’s ranch were strewn, sat her father.

Thomas Lancaster set down the papers in his hand when he saw her enter the room. Rarely worn glasses perched on the bridge of his nose. His forehead was creased with worry, yet he smiled when he saw his eldest. “Evelyn, what is it?”

“Father, the list of suitors . . .” She mustered up enough courage to step forward. Her father’s large oak desk seemed imposing, but infinitely more intimidating was her father’s expectant expression. “I think we need to talk about who I want to marry.”

“Well, of course, go ahead.” He gestured his hand outward.

She paused. “I have been giving some consideration to my marriage and I—”

Before she could finish, Mr. Lancaster held his palm up to Evelyn to quiet her for a moment. His gaze shifted to a point behind her. “Come right in, Greenwood.”

She stood perfectly still as heavy footsteps approached her father’s desk. She had to remind herself to breathe as she sneaked a look out of the corner of her eye at the tall man standing next to her.

Jesse Greenwood’s expression was firm, the hard lines of his face even more stern than she’d ever seen them. He smelled of fresh morning air, dust from the trails, and a familiar musky scent that was uniquely his. Her body longed to turn her head toward him and bury her face in his shirt and wrap her arms around him—

No, that was in the past now.

He nodded to her father. “Just wanted to say goodbye, sir, before I hit the road.”

Her father smiled at Jesse. Or rather, she knew, he smiled at the lack of interaction he saw between Jesse and Evelyn. “I wish you the best of luck in California, boy. Whenever you want to return to Texas, my ranch is always willing to hire a hand with your skills.”

Her eyes widened, but she didn’t dare look at Jesse. Surely there was some mistake. He couldn’t really leave. Her stomach plummeted.

He just couldn’t.

“Loretta’s staying, though. She’s happy here. I’ll send money to her soon as I get settled out West.” He placed his hat on his head and adjusted the rucksack over his shoulder. “Much thanks for the horse you provided me, sir.”

“It’s the least I can do for your years of service, Greenwood. Best of luck on your journey.”

She scowled. More like the least he could do to show his appreciation that Jesse was leaving his ranch.

Jesse nodded again, and then turned to leave. He didn’t even glance in her direction. It was as if she was invisible to him now.

She heard his footsteps leave the room, felt the air shift as his familiar scent faded, and wanted nothing more than to run after him as fast as she could.

Instead, she stayed still.