Trying to ignore the erratic beating of her heart, Elizabeth O’Reilly moved the heavy fabric and peeked beyond the curtains.
She rubbed her hands together in an attempt to relieve some of her anxiety. Tonight was a big night for her. Since she came to St. Louis last year, Elizabeth had done everything she could in her efforts to rebuild her life since the passing of her parents.
“No, don’t think about them now,” she scolded herself.
If she thought too hard about her mother and father, she was liable to lose her concentration. And that could not be risked. Already she felt an itch in her throat that she was doing her best to ignore.
Tonight had to be perfect.
“O’Reilly! You’re on in five minutes!”
Elizabeth let go of the curtain and jerked back. Looking toward Edward Johnson, the stage manager, she nodded. “Five minutes.”
She felt her stomach flutter.
This was her last chance. Since she had managed to get herself a contract at the largest theater in the city, MacDonald’s Emporium, she had worked her way up to having her own place in the spotlight.
After a long time of scrubbing the floors and offering backup for other performers, a spot had been made available for her. Only nineteen years old and she was performing on stage. It had always been her dream.
Except that she was close to ruining this special opportunity within the first two months. It was mortifying. She had messed up weeks ago by suddenly going hoarse in her first song, and she still didn’t understand how that had happened. She’d done her voice exercises, drank some juice backstage, and then wound up failing in front of the crowd. The memory still made her blush.
The second time, Elizabeth tried to make up for her error by learning a brand-new song that she was told was very popular in Chicago. Most of the time, she liked to try out songs she was writing on her own. It had served her well growing up. But this had not gone in her favor when her manuscript paper disappeared, and she was made to look like a fool in front of the crowd once more.
Everyone who worked at the theatre only had so many opportunities. It was good fortune alone that was giving her this third chance.
Yet everyone’s boss, Mr. Royal Lewinski, had given her the appropriate scoldings during those times. And he had reminded her this morning that she was down to one more opportunity.
“My last chance,” Elizabeth reminded herself.
To say she was nervous would have been an understatement. She took measured breaths to try and stay calm. In and out. With a hand over her red hair and brushing it down to her sides, she tried to contain the butterflies that seemed to be struggling to escape. Bile started to rise up in her throat, and she swallowed hard.
“Three minutes, Elizabeth!”
She glanced back and nodded. “Three minutes.”
Coming up beside Johnson, Antoinette DeVere looked between them. Then she looked up at Elizabeth with a smile. Antoinette was a fellow singer who had started working here just a few months before Elizabeth herself. They were decent friends, though she thought Antoinette had been distant of late.
“Are you ready, my girl?”
“I am. I think so. I’m prepared to dance and sing anything I need to,” Elizabeth told her with a sheepish smile. “I have to get this right, or I’m in terribly big trouble.”
Her friend wrinkled her nose. “So I heard.”
That gave Elizabeth pause. “Does everyone know?”
Studying Antoinette’s face, she tried to see what her friend was thinking. But the woman’s expression was still somewhat closed. Although she was nearly ten years older, Antoinette was a stunningly beautiful woman with wheat-colored hair and amber eyes. More than once, Elizabeth had seen a gentleman stop in his tracks just to admire her.
“I am afraid so,” Antoinette admitted. She had the lilt of the French, though she had left her homeland when she could barely walk. It went over well with the audience, she always said.
Elizabeth slouched. “Are they mocking me?”
“No. No, it’s much worse.”
“What?” She clapped a hand over her mouth, hoping she hadn’t been heard. Leaning in, she asked, “What do you mean? What is going on? You know the cast so much better than I, Antoinette. You must tell me if something is wrong.”
With a sigh, her friend glanced over her shoulder and then gave a slight shrug. “Well, perhaps it isn’t that bad. I may be exaggerating. Or perhaps not, I don’t know. But they think you are cursed.”
Her mouth dropped open. “How can that be?”
Although Elizabeth had never considered herself particularly religious, she knew that working in a theatre left everyone very superstitious. They lived on ghost stories, rumors, and lucky charms. It was entertaining most of the time.
But something like this could ruin her.
Shaking her head, Elizabeth clutched her friend’s arm. “Are you sure of that? Very sure? What did you tell them when they said that?”
“I’m sorry, but they didn’t want to listen to anything else,” Antoinette informed her. “I know they are silly, but what could I do?”
She jumped at the sound of Johnson so close. The wild look in his eyes told her that she hadn’t been paying enough attention. Panic seized her. How many times had he been saying her name? She must be late on the stage.
Her last chance.
Gasping, she whirled around and hurried toward the curtains. Footsteps pattered behind her, though she knew better than to turn back. Every second mattered now.
One last chance was all she had. It was all Elizabeth could think about as she ran her hands through her hair, felt for any wrinkles on her stage dress, and then stepped out into the bright lights of the MacDonald Emporium stage.
As she moved, she felt the anxiety change into something new. Something wonderful. Her blood sang, and she couldn’t stop smiling. She always thought she was prettier when she was on stage. Though Elizabeth considered herself to be of average height and average looks, her red hair shined in the bright lights, and she felt herself blossom. This was what she lived for now, these moments on the stage.
“Well, well!” she cried out on her way to the microphone standing at the center. “What have I found here in St. Louis? Are these my people?”
“Yes!” everyone cried out in thunder as they clapped for her.
Waving to the loud crowd, Elizabeth nodded. “How wonderfully kind of you to join me here this evening. Thank you for being with us at the MacDonald Emporium. Now, allow me to return the favor. How would you like to hear “Come Lie In My Arms, My Darling”?”
When more shouts sounded, she beamed. “Then I sing tonight just for you. Each and every one of you.”
All she had to do was a slight head tilt toward the right in order for the pianist, Rupert Walden, to start playing. The popular melody came easily to him. It was a romantic song most everyone would know, since it was at least ten years old. During her thirty minutes of stage time, she liked warming up the crowd with something sweet that she knew everyone enjoyed.
Most of her nerves were completely gone by the time she was halfway through the song. Most of the crowd was joining along with her in the chorus, and she was feeling wonderful.
It was going to be just fine, she told herself.
Elizabeth proudly made it through the first song of her set. Tonight was an excellent crowd. She’d been told they had a full house. Everyone was enjoying themselves, which she adored. Her nerves were going away, and she was confident she could go the rest of the way. All she needed was for nothing else to go wrong.
Halfway through her second song, however, something was wrong.
She clasped her hands together as she belted out the words. It was a cheerful song with a hearty rhythm. A silly but familiar tune that she had put her own words to that always kept the crowd involved. They had started clapping and stomping along with the first verse.
But as she finished the second, Elizabeth began to lose steam. She couldn’t hear the crowd any longer. The smile on her face felt a little forced. Looking around into the candlelight of the crowd, she searched for some sort of clue.
Perhaps a fight had broken out somewhere. Maybe she had something in her teeth. There were too many possibilities.
Thinking through her options, she backed up a few feet. She danced a few steps and readied to go through an extended twirl where she would be able to wipe her hand across her mouth in case there was something there.
“And there the lady sat, all pert with her hat,” Elizabeth cried out. She nodded to herself as she stuck out her foot and excused her spin. Her skirts waved out around her ankles. Her hand crossed her mouth, but she didn’t feel anything.
“Whoa!” she thought she heard the crowd shout out.
Hope soared from within. That must have meant they liked the spin. Her heart pounded as she caught herself and stopped to look out at the crowd. Throwing her arms up into the air, Elizabeth opened her mouth to launch into the chorus––
And the curtains came down all around her.
She heard something fracture but never had a chance to look up. Heavy fabric fell over her. The world went a dark red and then black. Crying out in surprise, Elizabeth stumbled and fell over.
Her knees banged hard on the ground. Though she tried to catch herself, the fabric caught her hands, and she lost her balance. She banged her elbow with a groan. Breathing hard, Elizabeth tried to think. It was just a curtain, wasn’t it? Maybe the piano was still playing. She could go back to her song. Maybe it wasn’t even that noticeable.
Scrambling out of the curtain, she breathed hard. It was clumsy work before she crawled out. Then she staggered up to her feet and threw up her arms in a shaky attempt to pose.
There was no chance to talk to the crowd again, however, when she glimpsed a familiar figure standing just off stage.
Mr. Royal Lewinski had the shiniest bald head she’d ever seen, with an impressively bushy dark mustache. His looks were dramatic with wide shoulders, his height, and spindly build. But it was worse now as he glared at her from the shadows, motioning for her to go off stage.
“Oh no.” She bit her lip and looked out to the crowd.
This couldn’t be it, Elizabeth told herself. It couldn’t be the end. Her thoughts began spinning. She didn’t know where else she could go. Joining a theater or troupe was nearly impossible. No one had wanted her when she first arrived. If she left the Emporium, she would have nothing.
Although she was fairly certain she said some parting words to the crowd, Elizabeth’s mind was blank when she finally went to obey her boss. Johnson and half the cast hovered nearby, watching.
She liked a crowd but not that kind.
She pushed some of her red hair from her face while trying to smile for him. “I’m so sorry, Mr. Lewinski. I don’t know what happened. The curtain just fell. I tried to get out––”
“Get on stage, Antoinette. You. Come with me.” He grabbed Elizabeth’s arm and led the way off stage.
His handle on her was rough, though Elizabeth was sure he didn’t mean it. She sniffled. When they passed the pianist, Mr. Rupert Walden, and their conductor, Mr. David Monahan, she saw their worried expressions. The two of them had always been very kind to her, along with the other musicians. She tried to smile as she let their boss direct her down the hall.
“I really am sorry,” she said once they reached Mr. Lewinski’s office. “I didn’t know what else to do. I mean, the curtain––”
“Stop blaming the curtain. That’s all you do, blame everyone else.” He let go of her to grab something from his desk. It only took him a minute of looking around to bring a folder of papers out.
Elizabeth’s lip quivered. That was her file. Her contract. “Mr. Lewinski, please. I didn’t touch the curtain. At least, not until it fell on me.”
“This was your last chance. I told you what would happen.” He grabbed his red pen and scribbled over the papers. The man hardly bothered to look her way. “This is it for you, I’m afraid, Elizabeth.”
Unable to believe he would be so cruel, that anyone could be so unjust, she struggled to build her defense. “Mr. Lewinski, this isn’t right. I didn’t touch those curtains. When they fell, that wasn’t my fault. You can’t blame that on me. I did what I could, didn’t I? Then you pulled me off stage. I could have recovered. If you had just let me finish my set––”
“No more. You’re done here.” He pushed the folder across the table to her. “Go find somewhere else.”
Elizabeth felt herself shaking. She gulped, putting a hand over her abdomen where her insides felt tight. “But what if they don’t want me?” She recalled what Antoinette had said. “They all think I’m cursed.”
“Then find someplace where they don’t think that. But I want you out of here. Now.”
Clumsily grasping at the folder, Elizabeth staggered from the office. She gulped and glanced down the hall toward the back door. How could she just go like this? Since her boss––former boss––remained at his desk, Elizabeth decided to go in the other direction, back toward the stage.
“What are you doing here still?” one of the musicians, Reed, asked her on her way through. “Didn’t Lewinski sack you?”
“Yes, I just need to see if anyone knows about another opportunity,” she said in a rushed whisper. “Do you know of any theaters that might need a singer? A dancer, even?”
He raised an eyebrow. “Who, you? Never.”
“What? Why not?”
Shrugging, he answered. “Because you’re cursed. Everyone’s been talking about it all week. I even heard someone from the Macintosh talking about you. No one is going to book you since Antoinette said that.”
The name made her pause. “What? Antoinette?”
“Sure. She’s the one who spread the rumor. I was with Lenny when she came around and said it the other week. No one had heard a thing before that, far as I can see,” he explained with a sheepish shrug.
Lenny was a harpist and the biggest gossip in the city. As Elizabeth made the connections, she covered her mouth. Another singer, Debra, had told her not to trust Antoinette. But Elizabeth had thought they were friends. They should have been friends.
Hurrying off, Elizabeth went to go find the singer.
She didn’t have long. If Lewinski found her still there, he would get someone to throw her out onto the street before she had a chance to collect her belongings. She heard the blood course through her ears as she darted off toward the stage.
Antoinette was just walking back from her performance. “What a shame you didn’t stay to listen,” she remarked. “I had the house roaring for an encore. But what am I saying? I’m so sorry that happened to you, Elizabeth.”
There had been little comments like that all this time. Elizabeth had brushed off the rude notes, thinking that was just how Antoinette acted.
And it was how the woman acted. Through and through, she finally realized that Antoinette was not a nice person who could be trusted.
“You spread the rumor. Didn’t you?” Elizabeth demanded.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about, you goose. Why don’t you go rest? Tomorrow, you can find something else to do with your life. I’m sure you have a backup plan since we all knew you wouldn’t be able to sing forever. Then you can sit in the crowd and watch me perform. What do you say, darling?”
Brushing off her hand, Elizabeth glared at her. “I can’t believe you.”
The other woman froze. Her eyes narrowed, and she tilted her head. “You can’t believe me? Funny, because I can’t believe you ever thought you had a chance here. But good news for me, it seems, because no one will ever book you again.”
Even though Elizabeth was furious, there was nothing she could do about it. Antoinette was right. No one would book her for another musical role in this city again.
“You are a horrible person!” she managed to spit out.
Then she turned and fled, blocking out the sound of Antoinette’s giggles. It hadn’t taken long at all for Elizabeth’s life to suddenly be upended once again.
She gathered her belongings and ran out of the theater without any recourse or a single clue of what might happen next. All she had was a prayer in her heart for another chance.
Watching the sun set over the horizon, James Cattery let out a sigh.
Another day had passed. It was over. He could rest once more before thinking about another day.
Granted, the days were getting easier now. Last month had marked the eight-year anniversary of his settling here in Rhodeo, Texas. The tiny town was half a day’s ride from the nearest stagecoach station and three days’ ride from the nearest train. His boyhood days in Maryland had never prepared him for settling over here, especially with a ranch.
But here he was, making a life for himself. If one could call it a life. He rubbed his face before shaking his head.
The healing process was coming along better, but he still thought too much. James felt his mouth twitch; he wasn’t the only one who had told him that. Once upon a time, Marigold had said that as well.
She was on his mind now. He sighed and lifted himself from his rocking chair. Even though he wasn’t quite thirty, he was feeling older every day. Picking up the glass on the ground by his feet, James headed into his house.
“Tomorrow,” he murmured while readying for bed. “There is always a tomorrow waiting for us in our dreams.”
Falling into his bed, James closed his eyes and hoped that the world would be a little different when they reopened. He fell into a dreamless sleep until the shadows of the night began to fade again.
He woke up the following morning and sighed.
Just lying there, James could tell that nothing had changed. He wasn’t sure what he expected. A miracle? A dream? He glanced toward the creeping sunlight coming up through his windows before climbing to his feet.
Another day and the same routine. He washed, he dressed, he cooked, he ate, and he headed out onto his property.
“Is everything well?” he asked Harry.
The ginger twin looked over at him and nodded. “A perfectly pleasant night. The wolves sang most of the cows to sleep. I just finished a perimeter check, and we’re in the clear.”
Harry and Westley Siderdale had started working for him once he got the ranch started six years ago. The twin brothers were a couple of years older than him. They had run their father’s bookshop until that point, leaving it for their sister, Tracy, to manage while they took the first opportunity they got to work on a ranch like they had always wanted.
Apparently, the twins had caused quite a ruckus around Rhodeo in their youth. No one wanted to give them a chance until James started his ranch and found himself quickly overwhelmed with all the work.
“Good. Thank you,” James added after a moment.
“You’re looking a little tired there,” Harry noted. “Everything all right, Boss?”
“Sure. Yeah, yeah, it’s fine.”
The raised eyebrow showed that his team didn’t believe him. “Like it’s always fine? Boss, you should know you’re not fooling anyone. Westley was right: it’s clear as rain on your face. You should stop moping around. Why don’t you do something with yourself?”
“Aren’t I here? This is my ranch. There’s work to do,” James pointed out.
He sat on his horse as he glanced around at the property. It was 1849, and he was hoping that this time and open space continued to heal the hole in his heart. Hard work here helped. There were over two hundred acres of greenery that spread out into the valley. He had started with dairy cows and was now trying his hand with cattle and beef. It was a lot of work. He’d quickly taken on too much.
Even though James was aware of his misstep, he hadn’t given up. The distractions were needed. For the first five years after starting his ranch, he had hardly slept. Something was always going wrong. It kept him busy, and that was exactly what he had wanted.
But the pain of the past was easier to bear now.
His vision stopped by the willow tree that stood right outside the fence around his house. He stared at the hanging branches while Harry spoke. Although they were still a good distance from the tree, he thought he could make out the small shapes near the trunk. The crosses that he had worked weeks to carve were visited by no one but himself.
“It’s time you did something more. All you do is work,” the man was saying as though it was a complaint. “You need to do something with yourself. Get out there, enjoy town, meet someone.”
That brought James back to the conversation. He stared Harry down, though the man was hardly intimidated. The twins were too cheerful and good-hearted for that to happen.
Nor was James particularly good at intimidating people. He used to make a living by making people happy, not scaring them. A blue-eyed, brown-haired boy on stage wasn’t exactly a threat then.
“I’m not meeting anyone.”
“No?” Harry fixed the cigarette sitting on his lips with a sympathetic smile. “Come on, Boss. It’s been eight years.”
He scoffed. “If I didn’t know any better, I might think you were telling me to start courting someone. What do I have to do to convince this town that I’m not interested? I don’t want to marry anyone else.”
“You gave me and my brother a chance. All I want to do is remind you that you could have another chance as well. Trust me, if there’s anything I’ve learned in this life, it’s that we all have more than enough love to give to each other.”
His team had a way of making James want to laugh. Catching himself in time, he rubbed his hand over his mouth. Westley was notorious in town for his charm; the man was thirty-one years old, and by now, James was fairly certain Westley had done his part in courting every available woman in the entire town. Maybe in all of Texas.
Perhaps Westley didn’t even know how many girls he had charmed. There was no limit. Again and again, Westley could find some pretty girl willing to give him the time of day.
James knew he was different. He had charmed the ladies in his youth but only ever had eyes for one of them. Years ago, when he was a young man, he’d been interested in the pretty girls. Then he had found himself one, and all was made good in the world.
Times had changed.
“I’m not marrying again,” James told Harry stubbornly.
Rolling his eyes, the ginger chuckled. “I didn’t tell you to marry, Boss. I told you to find someone else. I never said it needed to be forever. Even a temporary friend would be a reprieve for you, I’m sure.”
“There are no reprieves for me.”
“Have you tried?”
James remained quiet. They both knew the answer to that. Every day was spent here on his two hundred acres. He worked, he explored the land, and he retired every night to his small house. There were days when he didn’t talk to anyone.
He scratched his cheek, only to realize he hadn’t shaved that morning. It was never high on his list of priorities. In his earlier career, he had to be clean-shaven at all times. But Marigold had liked the scruff.
“I mean it, Boss,” Harry insisted as he swung into the saddle of his own horse. “You’ve closed out the idea before you even gave it a chance. All these years, I can tell you’ve wanted to do more. You just need to stop playing chicken.”
“Thanks for the advice,” James replied dryly.
His man tipped his hat. “Anytime. Are you still going to town today?”
“The list. It’s Thursday.”
He went to town every other Thursday for supplies. Considering the last week, James supposed that his man was right.
“I suppose so. Do you have the list?”
Before he had even finished asking the question, Harry was passing a scrap of paper over. The man was talkative and altogether too cheerful, but he was beyond competent. Accepting the paper, James thanked him and started off toward town.
It wasn’t far into town. He and his horse moved slowly on the three-mile trek into Rhodeo.
Strange, James supposed, how time changed things. His arrival here had been a happy one a long time ago. He remembered the first time he laid eyes on those streets, eager to be somewhere new. But coming here had changed everything for him.
The memories didn’t come back to him as strongly as they once did. He considered this on his way to the town center. Rhodeo was a decent little town with a large well, placed in the middle of an oval-shaped street. A few lanes were wrapped around it; they grew further apart until one had to walk pretty far to reach all four corners.
Looking around, James could hear Harry in his head, reminding him to live a little more. He ruffled his dark hair and felt the bristles on his cheeks. He really needed to remember to shave soon.
“Good morning, James. It’s good to see you again,” Leslie Haddock, the shopkeeper, remarked. “Is everything all right?”
“Hmm?” He looked through his list. “Oh, yes.”
“You’re looking a little rough,” the elderly man noted.
James looked up. Leslie Haddock hadn’t aged in the time he had been in Rhodeo because the man was already ancient. He had spurts of white hair and wrinkles on top of wrinkles. Still, there was a twinkle in his eye as he looked back with a kind smile.
“I suppose I have been better,” James grudgingly admitted.
“We all have been at one point or another,” the man replied. “But there is always another chance for us all. Today may be a better day. I can feel it in my bones.”
James hesitated. “You are quite the optimist.”
“As we all should be. It makes life a little more bearable.” Leaning over the counter, Leslie lowered his glasses. “Young man, you are not the only one to have loved and lost in this lifetime. But still, we carry on.”
It was as though the shopkeeper was trying to send him a message. Or the whole world was. This was confusing as it was annoying. Didn’t a man get to choose the way he lived?
Studying those pale blue eyes, James frowned. “How?”
Leslie straightened up and tapped the side of his nose. “That’s the secret, isn’t it? We all hurt in different ways. And we all heal in different ways. I would get started if I were you. Something tells me that you have a lot of years on you.”
Although James wasn’t sure how he was supposed to feel about that, he accepted the advice. He made his purchases. It was a shorter list than usual. Grain, rope, a bucket of nails, and the most recent newspapers.
Afterward, it didn’t take him long to get home. Soon he had put his purchases away and paused by the apple tree in front of his house to grab one to eat. He munched as he paused on the porch to read the papers.
One section of the classifieds kept catching his eye.
Although James tried to ignore it, he couldn’t. He finally read the advertisement all the way through. It was odd, he decided, the way a man or woman could advertise themselves for marriage to a stranger in this way. There was no guarantee of anything happening or ever working out.
But then Harry’s words once more came to mind, and James found himself wondering about a different sort of future.
“A Song Called Love” is an Amazon Best-Selling novel, check it out here!
When the talented singer, Elizabeth O’Reilly, finds herself trapped in a web of misfortune, her dreams of a successful theater career begin to fade. Desperate for a change, she takes a leap of faith and heads west, where marriage to a stranger awaits her. Welcomed by a small town alongside James, her future husband, Elizabeth steps into a world filled with endless possibilities. Yet, amidst her hopes for a new future, she discovers that clarity eludes her, and unraveling her husband’s mysterious past may present unexpected challenges.
Can she reconcile her curiosity with the need to build a life and relationship with him?
James Cattery, forced to rebuild his life years ago, carries a lingering ache in his heart for the family he lost and his forgotten musical career. Although he first thinks of himself as content on the ranch, he soon yearns for companionship. Elizabeth’s arrival breathes new life into his world, teaching him that tomorrow can be brighter. However, he guards his past closely, hesitant to share the truthâ€¦
Will James finally find the courage to open up and trust Elizabeth?
Elizabeth and James are eager to forge a life side by side, but understanding and trust become vital components of their bond. As they seek solace and healing through music, their pasts intertwine with their present. When faced with a new challenge that threatens their relationship, can the power of love expressed through melodies be their saving grace or the source of their downfall?
“A Song Called Love” is a historical western romance novel of approximately 80,000 words. No cheating, no cliffhangers, and a guaranteed happily ever after.