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A Love to Last Forever
by Tracie Peterson
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A Love to Last Forever

November 1879

Lady Effingham offered Lord Wodehouse a coy smile, Beth Gallatin read in the privacy of her room. She beckoned him forward with a simple nod and batted her eyelashes at him as he approached. "You are possibly the most beautiful woman in the room," he told her. "Only possibly?" she asked, frowning. She then gave him a seductive look that had never failed to entice the heart of any suitor.

How is that done?
Beth wondered. She put the book aside and went to pick up her mirror. For a moment she studied her features. She wasn't a bad-looking woman; in fact, many had told her she was quite lovely. Touching a hand to her cheek, Beth thought herself a bit too pale, perhaps, but otherwise her skin was smooth and youthful.

"And why not? I'm only twenty-two." She stared hard at the reflection again, but this time she tried her best to give what she thought might be a seductive expression. It didn't work, however--she looked as though she might be sick instead. She tried again but was equally frustrated with the result. "Now I look angry or at least unhappy."

She put the mirror down. "What makes a woman seductive?"

She'd often observed the soiled doves at Rafe's Saloon as they crooned and called to the passing cowboys. They would pose against the porch supports with hints of smiles upon red, pouting lips. Was that seductive?

Beth glanced at the clock and realized she'd lost track of the time. Reading had a way of doing that to her, and The Courtship of Lady Effingham was most mesmerizing. Beth could easily put herself in the place of this opulent character--this daughter of a duke. How romantic it all was. Lady Effingham lived on an ancient estate, the child of English nobility. She was the most beautiful of women, with golden yellow hair and blue eyes, and every man who saw her was dying of love for her.

A heavy sigh escaped Beth's lips once more. "My hair is reddish brown, and my eyes are more green than blue. And as far as I can tell, there isn't a single man in the world dying of love for me."

Well, there was Nick Lassiter. Beth knew she'd caught Nick's eye since she'd come to the area with her father and sisters several years ago. Nick was definitely handsome--a dark, brooding sort, rather like Lord Wodehouse. Beth couldn't suppress a giggle as she imagined Nick dressed in fine English attire, bowing low before her.

She gave a curtsy as if the event were truly happening. "Oh, Lord Wodehouse, how very dashing you look today." She laughed once again.

Beth knew she was acting like a silly child, but she was a hopeless romantic. Proof could be found in the stacks of books and dime novels that were hidden at the back of her closet and out in the shed. Anytime she was in Bozeman, Beth would secretly buy one or two books and hide them away for quiet moments when she could dream.

But what about Nick?

He was handsome enough, and he made her laugh. Kind and polite, he always managed to stir something inside her. Of course, sometimes that something was anger, but he could definitely bring about a response.

"And he is attending church now," Beth reminded herself. She'd always tried to keep her heart free of entanglements where Nick was involved because he wasn't a God-fearing man. She had known him to take a drink at Rafe's Saloon. And once when he had burned his leg quite badly, Beth recalled he had said a curse word. But at the time, that seemed completely understandable. Surely God made provision for such things.

"But is he the man of my dreams? Is Nicholas Lassiter my Lord Wodehouse?" How could she know? How was a person supposed to figure out whether or not someone was their true love? Did love always sweep you off your feet and make itself known? Or could it creep in and surprise you?

Knowing that her sister Gwen was bound to come looking for her, Beth tucked the book away and headed downstairs. She paused for a moment at the sight of Gwen kissing her husband good-bye. This was their routine most every morning as Hank headed off next door to open his store.

They're so in love, Beth thought. A twinge of jealousy wrapped itself around her heart. How was it that Gwen had found love twice in her life and Beth hadn't found it at all? Gwen had been married to Hank's younger brother, Harvey, but then he'd died and now Gwen was married to Hank.

Beth blamed her singleness on their father. He had dragged them from one place to another after the death of their mother many years ago. George Gallatin was too restless to stay in one place, and his daughters were victims of his wanderlust. Beth had hated him for that, yet she knew it wasn't really her father she hated so much as the disruptive way of living he imposed upon them.

She frowned. Thoughts of their father always brought guilty feelings. Prior to his death the previous May, Beth had overheard him talking about moving again. She'd been livid but, because she was eavesdropping, had said nothing. But she had prayed. She had asked God to stop them from moving, no matter what it took. What she hadn't counted on was that it would take the death of her father.

Beth also hadn't counted on the sense of relief she'd felt when, at his funeral, she'd realized he could no longer force them to move. She was ashamed, but she couldn't deny the truth of her feelings.

"Oh, there you are," Gwen commented as she turned in the doorway. "I thought perhaps you were sick."

"No, just lazy," Beth said with a smile. She came down the few remaining steps and glanced out the still-open door. "Looks like another nice day."

"Yes, it's been so mild, I thought I might open everything up and air the place out again today."

"I suppose it will snow soon enough, so we might as well take advantage of the nice weather," Beth admitted. "I'll do some more laundry. There's additional bedding that I can hang out to air, as well."

"That would be good. Mr. Murphy and his men are due back today, and I'm sure they'd appreciate everything crisp and clean." Gwen fussed with an errant strand of hair before smiling at Beth. "I do believe Mr. Murphy is rather sweet on you."

"Adrian ... ah, Mr. Murphy is very nice." In her thoughts about Nick, Beth had nearly forgotten Adrian. "But he seems to enjoy traveling too much."

Gwen looked at Beth with a puzzled expression. "What's wrong with that? His job with the railroad survey team requires that he travel."

Beth swept past Gwen. "I like it here."

"That doesn't mean you can't travel."

Beth frowned. "I think I'm traveled out. Do you realize we've lived here longer than any other town or city?"

"I suppose so. I guess it's never been that much of a concern to me."

"Well, it is to me. I like having things in their place, and I like knowing where that place is. It gives me a sense of belonging, and that comforts me. I think the only thing that could entice me to leave would be to have a home of my own, but even then, I'd want it nearby."

"But surely you wouldn't pass up true love for such a reason."

Beth thought about this for a moment. Adrian was quite attentive, and like Lord Wodehouse, he seemed charming and interesting. "I suppose I don't know," Beth finally admitted. "I've never been in love before. I would have to weigh the matter with great care. It seems to me that if a man loved me, he would be willing to adapt and make changes for me."

"But you wouldn't have to change for him?" Gwen asked with a smile.

Beth realized she'd probably said too much. "Oh, it isn't important. I don't know why I went on so about it." She glanced around the room. "What would you like me to start on first? Is there still baking?"

"Yes." Gwen started for the kitchen. "I have five loaves of bread rising. We need to make dinner rolls, as well."

"I can certainly help with that," Beth said, hoping her sister would just forget about their conversation. She hurried past Gwen and immediately went for her apron. The last thing Beth wanted was to have to explain why she felt so fiercely about staying put. She'd never told her sisters about her secret shame--her relief at their father's passing--and she never intended to.

"I know you want to avoid my question, but I do wish you would consider it carefully," Gwen said.

"What question?" Beth asked innocently.

Gwen rolled her eyes. "You know perfectly well what question. Do you truly believe you shouldn't have to change?"

Beth finished securing her apron before looking up at Gwen. "I would hope that God, knowing my heart, would send me someone who'd be happy with me as I am."

"And if He doesn't?"

"Well, I haven't really given it much thought." But that was a lie, because it was all that Beth thought about. "I suppose I could just stay single all of my life." She offered a forced smile. "I'll be the spinster Gallatin. I'll bake cookies for children and grow very plump eating fruitcake."

Gwen laughed. "Oh, there is no chance of you being a spinster. You are much too pretty and too kindhearted. Besides, if not Mr. Murphy, there's always Nick."

"But he isn't a Christian."

"Well, I don't know about that. He's been attending church with Simon, and Hank tells me they've discussed the services on more than one occasion. Perhaps he is closer to God than you're giving him credit for."

Beth nodded. "Perhaps." She thought again of Lord Wodehouse and Nick in English attire. It was an amusing thought and immediately put her in a better frame of mind. "At least Nick seems content to live right here."

Hours later Nick was pushed to the edge of Beth's thoughts as she strolled along the banks of the Gallatin River with Adrian Murphy.

"I'm glad you had some time to walk with me. I wanted to talk to you about ... well ... my leaving."

Beth tried not to sound surprised. "Leaving?"

He smiled and pushed back his light brown hair. "Well, my team will be heading back East to rally with the men who sent us. We're going to discuss the various routes and surveys and probably won't be back to the area before spring--maybe summer."

"That's too bad. I know we'll miss you all." Beth toyed with a stalk of dried grass. As she straightened, Beth grew aware of Adrian's nearness. She smiled. "It's been very good for our business to have you here."

"I was hoping you'd say something more personal."

Beth looked at him and shook her head. "More personal? What do you mean by that?"

"I thought we were starting to get to know each other pretty well. Perhaps there might be something more permanent for our future."

"Our future?" Beth asked, knowing she probably sounded ridiculous repeatedly echoing the things he said.

He grinned and took hold of her hands. "You must know that I esteem you greatly. I enjoy our time together."

Beth thought of Lady Effingham and her various courtships. What would she say at a time like this? Adrian hadn't declared his love for her--he'd said he esteemed her. Beth wasn't even entirely sure what he meant by that, but it didn't stir her heart as she had supposed such words might.

"I hardly know you," Beth finally murmured. Her response was nothing like the daring and confident Lady Effingham, but it would suffice.

"I feel like I know you very well," he said, rubbing the back of her hands with his thumbs. "But I'd like to know you even better. I was hoping you might wait for me."

"Wait for you?"

He nodded. "Until spring, when I return."

Beth tried to lose herself in Adrian's gaze, but something held her back. "I can't make you promises, Mr. Murphy. It wouldn't be right for either of us. Especially since we have no real understanding."

He frowned and traced a pattern with his fingers as his caress moved up her arms. "Maybe this will change your mind." He leaned forward and closed his eyes, and Beth realized he meant to kiss her.

"There's a bear," Nick's voice boomed out, causing Beth to jump back. "Or I should say a bear's been seen in these parts. Since it's warm, he's not gone to hibernate just yet."

Beth's body trembled from head to toe. Like a naughty child who'd been caught pulling the cat's tail, she felt her face flush and looked away. Adrian appeared to feel no such embarrassment.

"What kind of bear?" Adrian asked.

"Black bear. He was bothering folks earlier in the year and now seems to be back at it again. He's no doubt looking for extra food."

"No doubt."

Beth looked up and tried to steady her wobbly knees. "Thanks for letting us know."

"Well, you can't be too careful," Nick said, fixing Beth with a stern gaze. "A lot of animals will take advantage of the weak."

Beth realized he meant to imply Adrian, and for a moment she found it rather thrilling. Nick was jealous! It was just like chapter six, when Lord Wodehouse found Lady Effingham dancing in the arms of the American sea captain.

"Well, I suppose it would be best to get back to the house," Adrian said, glancing down river. "I wouldn't want anything to happen to you."

Beth pulled her thoughts back to the moment. "Yes, I'm sure Gwen is wondering where I've gotten off to. There's always a lot of work to do, and I must do my share." She looked at Nick and smiled. "Thank you so much for the warning."

Nick watched the couple walk off together and fought the urge to follow them--to come between them. Adrian held on to Beth possessively, and she certainly didn't fight him to release her.

Is Murphy what she wants?

The thought was annoying and discouraging all at once. I'm just a simple man. I'll probably never have exciting stories or romantic words to give her. He knew from their conversations that Beth seemed caught up in a world of which he could never be a part. She read books that took her far away from Gallatin House.

Does she want to leave this area? Does she want riches and wealth? He shook his head as Murphy escorted her out of sight. Nick had wanted to court Beth ever since her father had brought them to the area. He'd enjoyed her enthusiasm for life and her playful nature. Even after enduring her pranks, he still found her captivating and charming.

So what should he do about it? She always put God between them. Her reply when he'd asked to court her in the past had been that she couldn't because he wasn't a Christian.

And lately Nick could see why. To be a true believer, as he understood it, meant to give a real commitment to change your life and live it in a way pleasing to God. It wasn't about just saying the words; it was far more important to live the truth of what you believed. As his brother had once commented, "Anyone can say they're saved by God from their sins, but their life ought to show that to be true. It ought to look different from the person who isn't a man of God."

That made sense to Nick, but he still wasn't completely convinced that he could be an honest-to-goodness Christian. His life had been marred by bad choices. Could God forgive that? Would God even want him?

On Sunday Gallatin House was packed with people as they gathered to hold church services. Curt Flikkema, the circuit rider, was preaching, and Beth was pleased to see that Nick and Simon Lassiter were in attendance. It was the third time she'd noticed them in the services, and Beth could only hope that the preaching was affecting them both. After all, Gwen had mentioned their talking about spiritual matters with Hank. Surely that was a good sign.

She felt funny coming face-to-face with Nick again after nearly being kissed by Adrian. Amazingly enough, he had said nothing about the encounter and treated her as though it had never happened. Beth had thought to try to explain the matter, but then she couldn't figure out why it seemed so important that he should know.

"Guilt is the result of knowing that we had a choice to make and did not make it well," Pastor Flikkema began. "We did not choose the path we knew to be the right one."

Beth slid down her seat a bit and nervously smoothed out the dark green material of her wool skirt.

"Folks are often overcome by guilt. One simple and seemingly innocent choice or attitude takes them down the road to destruction and before they know it, they've made a mess of things."

This was far from the topic Beth had hoped to focus on. She knew she'd made poor choices during her life. Everyone had. She'd watched her mother die and felt terrible grief and guilt from not being able to stop it. Of course, Beth had been able to reason that away. She was a child. There was nothing she could have done at the age of seven. She'd blamed their father, however, for not being there.

Beth frowned and lowered her head as the pastor continued. It had been a long time since she'd thought about blaming her father for their mother's death. She had approached him about it when she'd been a girl of thirteen. It seemed important to take him to task after he had rather casually commented that God had taken their mother and unborn sibling to heaven because He had need of them.

"We had need of her, too," Beth had told him. "If you'd been here, she wouldn't have died."

Her father had studied her for a moment. "Bethy, the Lord gives and takes away. Your mother could have lived, only if the Lord so chose."

"But if you had been here," Beth countered, "you could have gotten her help. You could have saved them."

"Do you suppose the good Lord didn't know she was by herself? Do you suppose my working the far acreage was just an oversight on His part?"

His casual manner of passing the blame to God had angered her. Beth didn't want to blame God. God was, after all, her only solace these days. No, it was her father's fault. He hadn't protected them as he should have, or her mother might be alive even now.

"Sometimes," Curt's voice boomed out, "there is a liberty and freedom in facing the truth and accepting that no one else is to blame--no one but ourselves."

Beth straightened and folded her hands. The words pierced her heart. No one to blame but ourselves? Didn't she already blame herself for so much? There wasn't liberty in that. The only thing she found there was more guilt to heap upon that which she already bore.

Staring at her interlaced fingers, Beth tried her best to appear unmoved by the pastor's words. She had so long wrestled with her guilt that she was certain no one could help her. After all, while she hated feeling the way she did, Beth couldn't honestly say her father's death didn't relieve her. With Pa dead, they were free to stay in Gallatin House and run the business without fear of needing to move on in a week or a month.

It's not that I don't miss him, she admitted to herself, because I do. I loved Pa as much as Lacy or Gwen. If he could have been like a normal father and settled down in one place, I would have wanted him to live forever. She re-laced her fingers. Did that make her a terrible person?

How many times had she asked herself that question?

"Jesus offers to free us from our burden of guilt. He offers it through His forgiveness. See, we're all guilty of something--some of us bear more of a burden than others, but we've all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, just like Romans 3:23 says in the Bible. Sin surrounds us with guilt, but it would be even worse for us if we made the wrong choice about what to do with that sin and guilt."

Beth shifted uncomfortably. It was as if God were speaking directly to her through Pastor Flikkema. But I've tried to be free of the guilt. I've tried not to think about my horrible feelings.

She glanced to where Gwen sat smiling and nodding. No doubt her sister had learned the secret of dealing with such things. She had been obsessed with the shame of having gone to a fortune-teller just before their mother died. Gwen had blamed herself for their parents' deaths, believing herself to be cursed. Now she sat there smiling. How was it she could so easily put aside the past, but Beth couldn't?

Maybe because her fears weren't real, and mine are. Gwen wasn't really cursed, but I really am glad that there won't be any more moves to come. She sighed and caught sight of Nick watching her. She looked away quickly and tried not to think of anything. It was just too dangerous to let her mind wander.

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Tracie Peterson

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