The wind was bitterly cold and bit like a swarm of icy gnats at any exposed skin. CeCe Atkins wished she could cover her whole face as she stood on the station platform waiting for her train to arrive and begin boarding.
She had a weeklong journey ahead of her and she was quite excited to get underway. She was heading to a town called Dullcreek, which was apparently a few hours from San Antonio. No one she had asked knew much about the town of Dullcreek, except that a gang of bandits, called the Desperados, had once considered it their hometown. Apparently, that was years ago, and all was good there now, since their claim to infamy had moved on.
CeCe would be staying on a ranch with a man she had only met through letters. After finding Oliver Matthews’s advertisement in the paper, she had been drawn to answer it, saying she was interested in meeting him. He replied to say the same kind of thing, and they set up a regular correspondence.
When that was no longer enough, Oliver had asked her to come and stay with him in Texas at his ranch. He would meet her in San Antonio because there was no railway line to Dullcreek. He would collect her there and asked that she wear a yellow scarf so that he would know her on site. She had agreed and now it was all about to begin; the whole adventure of it.
CeCe felt that wonderful mixture of excitement and nervousness fill her as she watched the steam engine chuff its way up to the platform. Soon she would be wending her way to Texas to meet Oliver. Her journey was about to begin. She had never been further west than Chicago, and she was eager to get started. She wanted to see the city fall away and the open expanse of the countryside fill her window. It was going to be glorious.
Her trunk was heavy, and she struggled a little with moving it closer to the train. One of the wheels was stuck, and she gave it a little kick to try and get it unstuck. The doors to the train compartments were not open yet though, and she had no need to hurry. There was nowhere to go yet. The staff must be doing something on the train. Perhaps they were making sure that everything was ready for the passengers.
Several other people looked up and down the platform too, as though they were also wondering when they would be allowed to board and get settled.
“Miss Atkins?” a voice said behind her, making CeCe start in surprise.
CeCe turned. “Yes?”
“Are you Miss Celeste Atkins?” a woman with a sallow, lined face asked. CeCe didn’t recognize her despite wracking her memory to see if a name sprang to mind. “Are you the daughter of Jasper Henry Atkins of Pennsylvania?”
“Yes, what is this about?” CeCe asked, frowning. She turned her head and looked briefly at the train. A porter was walking along the platform, opening the doors as he went. “I’m afraid you caught me at a bad time. I’m about to leave for Texas, you see.”
“I do see,” the woman said and handed something to CeCe.
Taking it, CeCe frowned. “What is this?”
“It’s tintype,” the woman said. “Can you identify the people in the picture? It was taken around ten years ago.”
CeCe studied it and gasped. More like thirteen. But yes, she knew the two young girls in the picture, despite not having seen one of them for years. The one on the left with the auburn hair, that was her aged ten and the one on the right…
“What is this about?” she asked.
“I see you do recognize the picture,” the woman said with a sign of relief. “I am Mrs. Rodgers from the Good Hope Christian Orphan Asylum. And I have been trying to track you down for two days. You are a most difficult woman to find. However, your landlady was most helpful. She said you would be here on the platform, and she gave a good description of what you were wearing. I really must send her a thank you note.”
“Oh? And why are you looking for me?” CeCe asked when Mrs. Rodgers stopped speaking for a moment. “What can I do for you?”
“It’s not for me that you can be of service,” Mrs. Rodgers said. “This is about your nephew.”
CeCe raised her brows in surprise. “My what?” she asked.
“Your nephew,” Mrs. Rodger said.
“I don’t have a nephew,” CeCe said. “I’m afraid there has been some mistake.”
“No, there is no mistake,” Mrs. Rodgers said. “Here.” She thrust an envelope at CeCe. Reflexively, CeCe took it and opened it. She began to read.
I know this is out of the heavens, and you probably haven’t thought of me in years, but I have thought of you. Pretty much constantly. You see, I always wanted a sister. I never dreamed that I would find one in a different family than mine.
CeCe stopped reading. This had to be some sort of joke. Her trembling hand turned the page and her eyes slid to the signature. She gasped.
“Yes, it is from your half-sister, I believe,” Mrs. Rodgers said, kindly. “I regret to inform you that Anabel, with whom you share a father, has died. She was quite ill for a long time and stayed in our hospice at the end. She wrote you this letter in her last days.”
What should one say to something like that? CeCe didn’t know, so she didn’t say anything. Anabel dead? But how? She hadn’t even known that her half-sister was ill.
“Anyway, she left you something, well, someone,” Mrs. Rodgers said. Stepping to the side, she briefly revealed a little boy in an ill-fitting coat who must have been standing behind her the whole time. He looked to be about four or five-years-old. As she stepped to the side, he followed, disappearing behind her again.
“Oh, for heaven’s sake, Walter,” Mrs. Rodgers said, trying to pry the child from the back of her coat. “This is your Aunt CeCe. She is going to be taking care of you from now on.”
CeCe’s brows rose. “Hold on! Just a moment there…What do you mean that I will be…?” she looked down at the little face. “I haven’t spoken to Anabel in a long time. I can’t…” she swallowed, fear gripping her insides. What did she know about raising children? Nothing. They had never been part of her plan. “I’m about to leave for Texas. This trip was planned weeks and weeks ago. I…” Staring into Mrs. Rodgers’s impassive face, CeCe saw a complete lack of understanding. Her expression remained pleasant and neutral.
“I understand that you are a working woman,” Mrs. Rodgers said. “But there is no one else.”
“But…” CeCe protested.
Mrs. Rodgers sighed. “Walter, why don’t you keep an eye on the luggage?” she asked. The boy nodded owlishly, his eyes large and fearful.
Taking CeCe by the arm, Mrs. Rodger led her a little way from the boy. He stood by CeCe’s trunk, having placed a carpet bag beside it. He didn’t take his green eyes off them, but stood staring at them from under a blonde fringe of hair. He looked so like Anabel had as a little girl that it was uncanny.
“Miss Atkins, the problem that I have at the moment is that you are Walter’s only living relative,” Mrs. Rodgers said. “It’s a case of either you take him, or he stays at the asylum indefinitely. And I can assure you, Miss Atkins, that we are woefully under-funded, understaffed, and overfull. There are too many children without relatives who can take them and since you are able-bodied and young, I see no reason for you to refuse.”
CeCe closed her eyes and rubbed her face with a gloved hand. How could this be happening? Months of setting things up and now everything was about to be ruined by one little boy. And it wasn’t even his fault. It seemed that CeCe’s unfaithful father was causing trouble in her life, even from the grave. She couldn’t ruin this. This had to be flawless. Her trip to Texas was vitally important and also secret. Could she tell Mrs. Rodgers why she was traveling all that way? No. No, she couldn’t. She had been ordered not to breathe a word to anyone.
“I can’t believe this,” CeCe said, shaking her head.
“Believe it, because it’s true,” Mrs. Rodgers said. “You are this young boy’s only hope for a bright future. You’re his family and there is no better place for a child to grow up than with those he shares blood with.”
“What about the father?” CeCe asked, desperately trying to find options.
“Not in the picture,” Mrs. Rodger said. “Anabel sadly never married the man and didn’t mention him on Walter’s birth certificate either. He is a mystery. Even on her deathbed, she wouldn’t tell the sisters working in the hospice a single thing about him.”
“That’s unfortunate,” CeCe said.
“We think perhaps he is a man of power, and there was an affair,” Mrs. Rodgers said, the happy light of spreading gossip shining in her eyes.
CeCe looked at Walter. He had her father’s green eyes, the same eyes she shared with him too. They were a constant reminder of the man who had ripped her family apart. The train wouldn’t wait forever, and CeCe had to make a decision. Would Oliver be upset with her for bringing Walter? Perhaps it would be a good test for him.
“Good, so it’s settled,” Mrs. Rodgers said, taking a step back towards Walter.
“Hold on, I never said yes,” CeCe said, grabbing her arm to stop her. “I never said I would take him.”
Mrs. Rodgers gave her a look. It said that she knew that CeCe was obviously going to take him because he was family. “You didn’t say no, either,” she said. “Take him with you to Texas. There’s nothing stopping you.”
“I don’t have a ticket for him,” CeCe said. “And I’m going to Texas to meet a man—”
“Good luck to you,” Mrs. Rodgers said, thrusting a piece of paper at CeCe. “Sign there.” She pressed her finger to the paper.
“No,” CeCe said. “I want time to think about this. It’s a big decision.”
“And you’ve thought it through. You hardly have time to worry about it now. Look, everyone is boarding the train. Sign here and make it all official,” Mrs. Rodger’s said. “Or don’t. Either way, Walter is now your ward.”
She took the paper back and went to Walter. She had a couple of words with him and then came back to CeCe.
“If I can give you one piece of advice, go easy with him. Anabel died a month ago, and he’s still getting used to the idea of her being gone,” Mrs. Rodgers said. And then, just as swiftly as she had appeared in CeCe’s life, she was gone.
A porter came by calling all those heading west to board the train.
CeCe had to do something very quickly.
“Come on, Walter,” she said, taking him by the hand and her trunk in the other. He tried to carry his carpet bag, but it was too heavy for him. CeCe had to try holding it under one arm and bring it along to the ticket office.
There was an old man in the booth.
“Excuse me, I have a ticket for a compartment to San Antonio Texas, and this boy needs to travel with me but has no ticket,” she said.
The man stared at her. “Why didn’t you buy his ticket at the same time as yours?”
“It’s complicated,” she said. “We only met today.”
The man didn’t question her more. Did this sort of thing happen often?
The man gave her a ticket for Walter. “Because you have a sleeper and he’s under twelve. He travels free. You’ll have to pay for his meals in the dining car, though.”
“Thank you,” CeCe said.
They were calling the last of the passengers to board.
Balancing the luggage and trying to run while holding Walter’s hand, CeCe made her way to the train. The conductor was walking along, closing the doors and making sure they were locked. CeCe spotted a porter and waved him over. The young man came quickly.
“Yes, ma’am?” he asked.
“We have tickets on that train,” CeCe said, showing him.
He nodded, took her trunk and the carpet bag, and led them to their sleeper compartment. They just got inside and closed the door as the conductor reached them. He made sure the door was locked and had a swift word with the porter, who had shoved the trunk and carpet bag into the compartment.
The train huffed and puffed and with a squeal began to move slowly forward. It picked up speed quickly and soon the platform and the station were left behind. In no time, Chicago was nothing but a smoggy line on the horizon, and then it disappeared entirely.
CeCe wasn’t sure how she felt about it. Chicago had been her home for a while and now she was leaving, possibly never to return.
It took a couple of days for Walter to begin to speak to CeCe. At first he kept to himself, staring out of the window until it became too dark outside to see anything. Then he would eat and go to sleep.
If she asked him something, he would answer. But he wouldn’t come to her for help with anything; even things he struggled with. She had to go to him and offer help and then sometimes he would accept it and sometimes he would refuse.
It was a tricky situation. CeCe had no idea what to do with a child who was grieving the loss of his only parent. She thought back to how sad she had been when she lost her mother to a wasting illness that sucked the life out of her. But CeCe had been seventeen and so how she dealt with the loss was different to Walter.
But how could she know? He didn’t speak much and all her efforts to engage him in conversation fell flat. He just wasn’t interested, it seemed.
After the third day of sitting in the dining car and watching Walter watching the world go by, CeCe tried again.
“How are you feeling, Walter?” she asked.
“Fine,” he said, not taking his eyes off the scene out of the window.
“Are you sure? Because I think you might be a little…” CeCe felt a tap on her shoulder.
“I don’t mean to intrude,” a woman said, looking down at her. She was a matronly sort with a plump figure and a large, bright smile. “But would your little boy like to play with my two? He seems rather lonely. They’re playing snap, and there’s more than enough cards to go around.”
Walter turned at the woman’s voice and nodded.
CeCe, confused, and a little surprised at Walter’s sudden enthusiasm for anything, smiled at him and said he could go.
The woman took Walter’s seat, uninvited, and she and CeCe turned to see her two dark haired children, two boys playing cards in a booth.
“Mrs. Euphemia Waterford,” she said.
CeCe introduced herself.
“Is he yours?” Mrs. Waterford asked.
CeCe shook her head. “He’s my nephew. His mother died a month ago.”
“Oh, I’m so sorry,” Mrs. Waterford said. “Well, at least he has you. Were you close before his mother died?”
CeCe shook her head again. “I met him moments before we boarded the train. I don’t know what I’m doing with him. I can see that he’s sad and upset, as I would expect him to be, but he won’t talk to me, and I don’t know what to do.”
“Why do you think you have to do anything?” Mrs. Waterford asked.
“Well, I…don’t I?” CeCe asked.
Mrs. Waterford shook her head. “So long as he knows you’re there for him. It will all be fine.”
“Well, of course, I am there for him,” CeCe said. “If he wants to talk.”
“No, dear,” Mrs. Waterford said, shaking her head. “Little children don’t tell you how they’re feeling with words. It’s their actions that speak to you. Tell me what he does.”
“Nothing,” CeCe said. “He eats, sleeps, and stares out of the window. He doesn’t like being touched, so I leave him alone.”
“Let me tell you my two cents’ worth,” Mrs. Waterford said. “I’ve watched you two these last few days, and it’s clear that you don’t know each other. There’s not much you can do about that, but spend time together. That means engaging with each other. Play cards, draw pictures, read a book together. Don’t expect him to talk a lot. If you show you’re willing to come to him, he will meet you halfway. They always do.”
“How do you know all this?” CeCe asked, marveling at the advice she was being given.
“Experience,” Mrs. Waterford said. “I was a governess in a fancy house before I got married myself. I’ve seen what death in the family can do to children. It’s best to distract them and give them something to do. When they want to cry, hold them and tell them it will be all right. Don’t yell and don’t put your grief on them.”
“I’ll try,” CeCe said.
“Good, let’s go join the game,” Mrs. Waterford said.
They moved to the booth, and the children dealt them in. Soon they were all playing snap with great enthusiasm. CeCe watched Walter, who was smiling and seemed to be enjoying himself. She found that her heart, which had been feeling heavy wrapped up in sadness for him at losing his mother, and her own grief, was feeling lighter. Finding things to do together seemed to be the best way to engage with Walter. He even spoke to her.
“You have to put your hand on the cards if you call snap!” he chided her.
“Oh, I am sorry,” CeCe said after making what he clearly thought was a rookie mistake.
By the end of the afternoon, CeCe couldn’t thank Mrs. Waterford enough. This was the most she had managed to do with Walter since meeting him.
From that moment on, things changed between them. CeCe found that her annoyance at being saddled with a child out of the blue ebbed and then disappeared. She found that she quite liked Walter. He was a thoughtful, quiet child who liked to draw and flip through the pages of journals and magazines he found.
Taking more of Mrs. Waterford’s advice, she started reading him stories from his books at night before bed and that made a world of difference to him. Walter started smiling at her and joined in the laughter when they reached a funny part in the story. It seemed he was starting to trust her.
“Things look better between you,” Mrs. Waterford said, around day six of their journey. The train had stopped to refuel, and the passengers were allowed to stretch their legs. Walter, Ellis and Carl ran ahead of Mrs. Waterford and CeCe, who always took advantage of stops to get out and take a walk.
“They are,” CeCe said as they walked along the track that served as a road in this little dusty town. “I can’t thank you enough. I thought if I left him alone he would come to me, but why would he? We didn’t know each other. We’ve been drawing and looking at things in journals together. I think we are finding our feet.”
“Good,” Mrs. Waterford said. “At least now he knows you care. You see, you can’t just say you care. You have to show them and that takes time. But you’re making the effort and that’s what counts.”
The boys were horsing around. Walter had picked something up and the other two descended on him like little vultures. Something happened and Walter cried out, falling to the ground.
CeCe didn’t think, she just pelted forward. “Walter!” Her heart was stuck in her throat. Was he hurt? Was he all right?
Carl and Ernie stood and turned to their mother, the excuses already tumbling from their lips.
We didn’t mean to!”
“It was an accident!”
CeCe knelt in the dirt and inspected Walter. He had fallen to the ground and was holding his hand out, which was bleeding.
“Are you okay?” she asked. His knee was also cut and a dirty mess.
“They were too heavy,” Walter said. “I fell. I’m okay. My rock cut me.” He held out his hand. He wasn’t crying. The stone had lovely colors on it, but it was clear that it had caused the cut on his hand with its sharp edge.
CeCe took out her handkerchief and wiped the dirt from his palm. There was a little trickle of blood that had already stopped. She wiped it clean. Then she cleaned his knee, hauled him to his feet and dusted him off.
Ellis and Carl apologized, and a moment later they were all playing again.
CeCe’s heart soared though. As she had helped Walter to his feet, he had given her hands a tight squeeze. As he did so, he beamed up at her. She was getting there. She would never be his mother, but she could be his guardian and she could learn to love him.
Time flew by and soon the train was ready to go again. They had to run to get back in time and all boarded just before the train started off again, speeding west.
When it was their last day on the train, Walter asked CeCe to read him a bedtime story as usual. And this time, he asked her to sit with him on his bunk.
Walter climbed into bed and CeCe followed, letting him rest against her as she held the book so they could both see the pictures. CeCe began to read. It was a simple children’s story about a mouse who lived in a church steeple.
One day the mouse met a cat, and the cat chased him and tried to catch him. The mouse only just got away. The next day the same thing happened and on and on until the mouse realized that the cat had moved into the house with the human who came to ring the bell every Sunday. That was the pastor, but the mouse didn’t know that.
The story went on with the mouse trying various ways to get rid of the cat. Eventually, he realized that the cat wasn’t going anywhere. He tried to make friends with the cat, but the cat wasn’t interested. That is until another horrible cat came to the church. Then the mouse and the first cat worked together to scare the other cat off.
It was a fun story with a lot of funny bits.
“Will we meet Mr. Matthews tomorrow?” Walter asked, half asleep as he was by the end of the story.
“Yes,” CeCe said. “Now remember, you’re a bit of a surprise, so let me talk to him when we find him, okay?”
“Okay,” Walter said. “I like being a surprise. I’m like a Jack-in-the-box.”
“Yes, but no jumping out and scaring people,” CeCe said. She had learned quickly that children tended to take things literally.
Soon Walter was asleep. He began to groan and moan, and tears rolled down his cheeks. CeCe held him and stroked his hair and he settled. Perhaps he was dreaming about Anabel. It wouldn’t be a bad thing if he was. Perhaps this was how he dealt with losing her, crying in his sleep over her.
CeCe wished that she had been nicer to Anabel when she was alive. All those letters that Anabel had written to her that CeCe hadn’t answered lay in a guilty pile in her mind. She hadn’t even been able to bring herself to read this last letter her sister had written, either.
She went to bed a little later, feeling wretched.
The next morning, the train pulled into the San Antonio station. Walter and CeCe were dressed and ready. They had packed up the night before and when the train came to a halt, they opened the door and stepped out onto the platform.
CeCe was wearing a yellow scarf around her neck to help Oliver to find her. She looked around the small station and couldn’t see a man wearing yellow. He had said he would wear a yellow woolen hat.
“Where is he?” Walter asked.
“I’m not entirely sure,” CeCe said thoughtfully. Oliver had to be there somewhere. He just had to.
San Antonio, Texas
Oliver Matthews stood against the wall of the station and watched the people disembarking from the train. There were so many. He tried to look at all of them, but soon gave up. Many seemed to know where they were going and so he ignored them. He was pretty sure that CeCe Atkins wouldn’t have any idea and would stand around looking lost.
Also, they had agreed to wear yellow; she a yellow scarf and him a yellow hat. He had his covering his unruly blonde hair.
There were just so many people. He wasn’t short, but he still wished that there was something to climb up on to see over everyone’s head. That way he would be able to spot a woman wearing yellow for sure.
He began to look around for something, a bench, a step, anything that would put him well above everyone else, when suddenly someone tugged on his jacket. Looking around, he saw a small boy standing beside him smiling up at him.
“Can I help you?” he asked.
The boy nodded. “Are you Olver Matthews?”
“Oliver Matthews,” Oliver said.
The boy nodded. “Is that you?”
“Yes,” Oliver said, frowning. “Who are you?”
The boy held out a hand for him to shake. “Walter Atkins,” he said, grinning. How old was he? He seemed really little.
“Good to meet you,” Oliver said. He bent down to shake the little man’s hand, not sure what was going on. When he looked up, there was a woman standing behind the boy. She was short, had freckles on her nose and rich green eyes. She was also wearing a yellow scarf.
“Morning,” the woman said. “I’m sorry, Walter just ran off and I couldn’t leave the luggage.”
“But this is him,” Walter said. “He’s got a yellow hat like you said.”
Oliver straightened. “Oliver Matthews. Are you CeCe Atkins?”
The woman who might be CeCe nodded and smiled. His heart skipped a beat. She was really pretty. He liked her auburn hair and the way she smiled. Oliver was relieved. He didn’t want to be one of those men who would only marry a woman if she was beautiful, no matter what her personality was like. However, he was truly relieved that she was lovely to look at.
“I am CeCe Atkins,” she said, holding out her hand to him.
He shook it and as he stared into her hypnotic eyes, completely forgot to let her hand go.
“Could I have my hand back?” she asked. “I might need it.”
“Of course, I’m so sorry. I am a little surprised,” Oliver said, looking from CeCe to Walter and back again. He felt heat rising in his cheeks and looked around as though remembering something. Things were not going as planned, and this unsettled Oliver. Who was this child? Why hadn’t CeCe mentioned him before?
“Yes, I should imagine you are quite surprised,” CeCe said. She looked worried. “Could we go somewhere and talk for a little bit? Things happened just as I was leaving Chicago and well…” she gestured to the boy who looked a lot like her.
Was he her son? They had the same last name, but then why hadn’t she told him about the boy? What was going on here? Perhaps a talk was in order. Oliver didn’t like surprises. He didn’t like secrets, despite having a whole chest of them himself, and this development was unsettling him.
There was a little coffee shop across the street from the station. Oliver took them there and ordered himself and CeCe a coffee and Walter a large cocoa. The boy was thrilled and spent the time spooning the hot liquid into his mouth with every sign of immense enjoyment.
“Well, CeCe, tell me what happened,” Oliver said, trying to keep his voice even. He didn’t want her to see just how irked he was. “I have to be honest. I’m not really one for surprises. I have never liked them and this one is quite…” His eyes flitted to Walter who was oblivious that anything was wrong as he paged through a journal CeCe had given him.
“I don’t like surprises either,” CeCe said. She glanced at Walter. “This is probably going to sound outlandish. I’ve been trying to work out how to do this since I left Chicago and well, there’s no way to tell this story other than from the start.”
What followed was a tale Oliver found challenging to keep track of. It seemed that CeCe’s father had been unfaithful to her mother when CeCe was just a little girl. He had been a traveling salesman, and fallen in love with another woman and married her, having CeCe’s half-sister Anabel when CeCe was two.
Neither wife and child had known anything about the other until CeCe was ten years old. That was when her father arranged for the families to meet because he had been promoted at work and wouldn’t be traveling anymore. He couldn’t bear to lose one or the other and wanted them all to live together.
“Well, my mother was having none of that,” CeCe said. “She divorced my father. Anyway, soon after that meeting, Anabel started writing letters to me. It seemed her mother was angry with our father too and also divorced him. Neither of us had a father then, but she said we could have each other. I blamed her for my family breaking up and so I hardly ever replied to her letters.”
“It seems that Anabel never forgot about me and when she was dying of an illness in Chicago, she left her son, Walter, to me,” CeCe said sadly. “I didn’t know that she had a child, or that she was sick. I didn’t know any of it until he showed up on the station platform in Chicago as I was boarding the train to come here.”
Oliver blinked, hoping there was a punchline somewhere in this whole tangle of story. It had to be someone’s sick idea of a joke.
“Are you serious?” he asked when none seemed forthcoming.
CeCe nodded. “I’m afraid I am. I am his guardian; heaven help the child.” She smiled weakly, as though that was the joke.
“What about the father?” Oliver asked. “Surely, he would like to raise his son?”
CeCe bit her lip and smiled sadly. “It seems that my sister didn’t marry the man she had a child with. I know this doesn’t speak well of my family… nothing in this story does, but I can assure you that I am not like my half-sister or my father. My mother raised me right. On her own. She was something else. Such a strong woman.”
“I’m sure she was,” Oliver agreed. He could see a lot of strength shining through in CeCe and it was plain that she cared about the boy. Her eyes kept darting to where he was sitting, as though to make sure he was still there.
This was a lot to take in. Oliver tried to sort through the myriad of feelings that were coursing through him. Mostly, he was in shock. He had been nervous about meeting CeCe and now those nerves had changed into a feeling of bewilderment. It wasn’t supposed to be this complicated.
“I understand if you don’t want Walter and me to come to the ranch with you. He is a surprise, and you didn’t ask for a wife and a child in one package on your doorstep. I just didn’t know what to do. I mean, he arrived as the train pulled into the station. There was no time to send a telegram or anything. I am really sorry about all this.”
“I’m not angry,” Oliver assured her, taking a sip of his coffee. “Really, it was just unexpected. That’s all. I think I’m struggling to wrap my head around the story you told me. You said you didn’t talk to your sister? So why did she leave her son to you?”
CeCe shrugged, her green eyes going wide. “I wish I knew,” she said. “It sounds like there is no one else. And I couldn’t leave him in the orphan asylum.”
“No,” Oliver agreed. No one should have to grow up there without a single person caring about them. “No, you did the right thing bringing him here. Texas is a good place to raise your children.”
“So, can we stay?” CeCe asked, a light suddenly coming in her eyes.
Oliver searched her expression for any sign of duplicity or subterfuge, but found nothing but honesty there. As crazy as it seemed, this story was the truth. There was only one thing to do.
“Well, Mrs. Gomez is going to be thrilled,” he said, thankful that growing up with his little brother had made him an expert in spotting a lie.
“Mrs. Gomez is your housekeeper, right?” CeCe asked.
Oliver nodded. “Well remembered. Yes, she had two sons of her own. They are grown men now, but she will love to have Walter under her wing.”
“Oh, thank goodness!” CeCe said, sounding and looking relieved. “I really don’t know anything about raising children.” She swallowed. “I mean, I thought there would be time to learn about them before having to jump in and raise one.”
Oliver smiled. “I understand. The idea of being responsible for someone else is daunting.”
She nodded and placed her hand on his and looked deeply into his eyes. “I knew you were a good one when I saw your advertisement in the paper. Something about it said that this man was honest and true.”
Oliver tried not to flinch as heat touched his cheeks again. Heaven knew he was trying to be honest and true, but there were stains in his past that no amount of scrubbing could erase. What made it worse was that he hadn’t told CeCe anything about his life except the most basic things. His nerves twanged again at the thought of being less than honest with her. It was just for now, he would ease her into the truth about him and his family and his brother.
“Well, if you’re done with your coffee and the young man is ready, we can head on out to the ranch,” Oliver said in a much brighter tone than he had meant to. It sounded forced to his ears, but CeCe and Walter smiled.
Walter was very excited as they climbed into the cart moments later. CeCe sat up front with Oliver, leaving Walter in the back with his bag and CeCe’s trunk. The little boy sang songs to himself softly as he watched the world go by around the cart.
It was a warm day and soon CeCe and Walter had their coats off, wearing only their jackets against the cold wind. Oliver hadn’t bothered with a coat that day except in the early morning ride out to the station.
“What is the ranch like?” Walter asked as they traveled. “Do you have cows?”
“Yes,” Oliver said with a chuckle. “We have cattle and horses and a few goats. My mother loved them, and we keep them in her honor. Although sometimes I think they’re more trouble than they’re worth.” It was odd to have someone ask questions like that and call cattle cows, but Oliver was glad the boy was interested.
“Why?” Walter asked.
“Well, goats like to eat everything,” Oliver said, explaining as Hector, Mrs. Gomez’s husband, had explained it to him a long time ago. “Often they come into the kitchen garden and eat all our vegetables and herbs. Mrs. Gomez gets really angry when that happens. She loses her sense of humor completely.”
“My mama used to lose her sense of humor too,” Walter said sadly. “But now she is in heaven with all the angels, and she will never be in pain or lose her temper again.”
He said it in a manner that made Oliver think that someone had drilled that little speech into his head. Perhaps it was someone at the orphan asylum who had come up with it. Perhaps it was meant to help him to understand what had happened.
As someone who had also lost both parents, Oliver knew that thinking they were in a better place did wonders to make him feel better.
“Do you think I can ride a horse?” Walter asked, changing the subject so rapidly that Oliver was momentarily lost. “I really want to learn.”
Oliver grinned. “Sure thing, Walter,” he said, heartened at the boy’s words. He had seemed quite a bookish child and Oliver had been worried he might not like the farm. “But first you’re going to have to learn how on a pony.”
“Why? I want to be a cowboy when I grow up,” Walter said.
“Well, that’s how it’s done,” Oliver said, smiling happily at the boy. “First you learn on a pony and then on a big old horse.”
Walter considered this. “Well, if we have to do it that way,” he said and went back to his solitary station at the back of the cart, watching the world go by, humming something to himself.
“He’s always like that,” CeCe said. “At least he’s been like that all week with me. He asks a few questions, goes away and thinks about them and then comes back.”
Oliver nodded his understanding. His brother Daniel was like that. Well, no, Daniel had been like that. There was no telling what his younger brother was like now. Not after everything.
“Are you okay?” CeCe asked him.
“I’m perfect,” he said, pushing his brother from his mind and forcing a smile. Did he know he was forcing it? He hoped not.
It took them two hours to reach the ranch and by then they were quite hungry. Oliver drove them to the back door and helped them to unload. Then he handed the reins over to Mrs. and Mr. Gomez’s eldest son, Juan, who went to rub the horses down.
“And who is this little man?” Mr. Hector Gomez asked as he helped Walter with his bag.
“I’m Walter Atkins,” Walter said. “And I’m five.”
“Well, I am Hector Gomez, and I am fifty-three years old.”
Walter’s mouth hung open. “That’s so old!”
Hector laughed, holding his belly. Not that he had one. He was remarkably fit for an older man. “Come on, Walter, I will help you bring your things inside,” Hector said. “Are you going to be staying with us?”
Walter looked at CeCe. She nodded.
“Ah, and this must be Miss Atkins,” Hector said. “Don’t you worry. My Maria will take good care of your little boy.”
“He’s not mine,” CeCe said and then swallowed. “I mean, he’s only recently become mine.”
“Ah, there is a story there,” Hector said. “Maybe you can tell us over dinner later. But for now, we have work to do.”
“Yes,” Oliver said. “Let’s get these bags inside.”
Maria was in the kitchen as usual. She was making something that smelled delicious. Her cooking always smelled like that, and Oliver breathed in heavily with his nose in the air as he stepped inside. She was greeting CeCe and Walter as though they were long-lost relatives, hugging and kissing them both on the cheeks. Walter giggled but CeCe looked nervous at the attention.
“Come, come, your room is upstairs, and we will make a bed up for you,” Maria said to Walter. “Or do you want your own room?”
Walter’s eyes were wide. “I can have my own room?” he asked, the excitement bubbling out of him. “Oh, yes! Yes please!”
“Alright, we will sort it out for you. Maybe Oliver’s old room?” Maria asked, raising a perfect brow at him. Oliver nodded. There were toys in the attic he would bring down for Walter. Things would be fine. The boy would adjust to ranch life and grow up strong and proud. Maria would see to that. Her boys were both good men.
CeCe turned to Oliver. “I’ll see you later.”
He nodded. “I’ll bring your trunk up.”
“You might need some help,” she said.
Oliver waved her words away and trundled the trunk to the stairs. He soon found out that she was right. He did need help. Luckily, Hector was there and together they got the ungainly, heavy thing to the landing and then up to the next floor.
CeCe’s room was across from the one Oliver currently occupied. It was his folks’ old room, and he liked it because it made him feel close to them. Sometimes he missed his mother and father so much that it made his heart ache in his chest. He hoped that now, with CeCe and Walter in the house, the loneliness would dissipate, and he could feel alive and whole once again.
Soon they were all downstairs again and sitting around the kitchen table having lunch. It was burritos. Neither CeCe nor Walter had ever eaten one before and Oliver had a good chuckle watching them try to navigate the wrapped-up bundle of mince and vegetables.
“No, eat it with your hands,” Maria said with a giggle that sounded much younger than her years.
Walter industriously picked it up and bit the parcel. “This is good,” he said around the mouthful.
CeCe tried hers and smiled, nodding.
This was good. Things were going well. Oliver was relieved. He had imagined so many possible outcomes for this moment when his future met his past. This was one of the better outcomes.
They were halfway through their lunch when the sound of hooves thudding outside made Oliver, Hector, and Juan all stop eating and turn to look at the door. It flew open a moment later and Javier, the Gomez’s youngest son, came rushing into the kitchen.
“The fence is down,” Javier said without preamble. “The cattle are wandering out.”
“Darn it!” Oliver said, putting the rest of his food down on his plate. “I’m sorry, but we have to go and get them. There are too many dangers out there for cattle and horses wandering around. I will be back later, and we can have a family dinner together.”
“That sounds wonderful,” CeCe said.
“Let’s get going,” Oliver said, picking up the last of his burrito. He could finish it on the way to the stable.
The other men, also hastily munching their food, nodded.
To his surprise, Walter put his partly eaten burrito down and was about to go with them when CeCe stopped him.
“I think Mr. Matthews means that the men who work here should go,” she said kindly.
“But I want to help,” Walter said. “Mama always said I should be helpful.”
Oliver turned to him. “You know what? I think that you will be most helpful here. You have to get settled and so does your aunt. Maybe you can help her with that?”
“I really need the help,” CeCe said. “I don’t know where to put anything.”
“See?” Oliver asked.
Walter looked disappointed, but he nodded. “Okay. I’ll stay.”
“A Heartwarming Christmas Rescue” is an Amazon Best-Selling novel, check it out here!
CeCe Atkins stands at the brink of her Texan adventure, eager to meet Oliver, the man who ignited a spark in her heart through their letters. Little did she anticipate that a mysterious letter from an unknown half-sister would unveil a path of unforeseen connections. Entrusted with the care of her nephew, CeCe’s determined spirit melds with the intricate threads of family ties, creating a tapestry of unexpected love and kinship.
Amidst family and blossoming love, could CeCe weave a future where her wishes and her loved ones’ safety coexist with Oliver’s mysterious past?
Oliver Matthews is a man with a past shrouded in shadows and a yearning for a simple life. Struggling to shed the dubious reputation that clings to him, he dreams of love, family, and acceptance. Unbeknownst to him, his path is about to intersect with CeCe’s in a dance of danger, mystery, and romance. The secrets he harbors though may be the key to unlocking the mysteries of their hearts.
Will Oliver’s hidden past be the downfall of their budding connection, or can love truly conquer all?
Thrown together by circumstance, CeCe and Oliver must navigate a web of lies and deceit as they unravel a mystery that threatens not only their lives but also the future of those they hold dear. As they traverse the vast Texan landscape looking for the truth, their hearts become entangled, and the line between duty and desire blurs. Will their love withstand the tests of loyalty and trust? Can they unravel the twisted threads of deception to save Oliver’s brother and find the truth that binds them together?
“A Heartwarming Christmas Rescue” is a historical western romance novel of approximately 90,000 words. No cheating, no cliffhangers, and a guaranteed happily ever after.