Book in the ‘Sky Ridge’ Series
©2017 Stephanie Payne Hurt
Cover Designer: Ally
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in this book is not based on any person, living or nonliving.
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Joy Ryder sat by the
window, watching the rain pound the ground. She’d always loved
storms, they made her feel alive. As the lightning flashed and the
thunder roared, Joy closed her eyes and smiled. During a storm, she
could get lost and forget everything around her.
The storm was over
with too quick. She stood up and walked over to start dinner. Her
papa would be home soon and be expecting food on the table. Joy baked
two loaves of bread early that morning, so she sliced them and place
two slices in the heated iron skillet to toast. After they were
lightly brown, she slathered strawberry jam on each piece and placed
them on a plate. While she fried two slices of ham, she sliced a
potato and laid the pieces in the pan with the ham, then covered it.
Papa walked in just
as Joy was plating the ham and potatoes. He hung his cowboy hat on a
hook by the door and then walked over to wash his hands in the basin
by the door.
“It smells good
Joy. I’m so hungry I could eat the sole of my boot if you fried it
up.” Hank Ryder said as he sat down at the table.
They joined hands
and her papa blessed the food. “How did your day go?” Joy asked
as she poured him a glass of water.
“I was able to get
the back fence mended. At least now the cows can’t escape.” He
took a bite of ham, then looked at her. “Then I went into town. Did
you know the Summer dance is this Saturday?”
Joy looked up with
surprise. “Is it this Saturday?”
“Yes. I thought
we’d go. It would be nice to see our neighbors and have some fun.”
Hank cut a piece of potato and put it in his mouth with a grin.
“You’ve become quite a cook. Your mama would be proud.”
“Thank you, papa.”
Joy said, then looked back down at her plate, pushing her potatoes
around the plate.
Hank’s expression was concerned.
For a few seconds,
Joy was unsure if she should tell papa about their visitor today.
Then she knew that keeping it from him would only make things worse.
“Mr. Clayborn came
Hank put his fork
down and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “What did he
“He wanted to see
you and said that the taxes are overdue. He also said that if you
didn’t pay it by the end of the month, he would take the farm. Can
he do that?”
“Yes, baby girl,
he can.” Hank reached across to cover his daughter’s hand with
his, “We’ll just put it in God’s hands and pray that the
harvest next week will be good.”
“But what if the
crops don’t bring in as much as you’re hoping for?”
“It’s in God’s
hands and that’s all that needs to be said. Now, what’s for
dessert? I thought I smelled apples baking when I rode up.”
Joy smiled, knowing
apple pie was her papa’s favorite. “You were right.”
After dinner, Hank
went out to check on the animals while Joy cleaned the dishes. Joy
was still thinking about the tax on the property. What would they do
if Mr. Clayborn kicked them off their farm?”
That night as Joy
lay in bed, sleep evaded her. She was worried, which she knew was
wrong, but it was hard thinking about not living on the farm. She’d
lived on this farm her whole life. Her mama was buried under the
large oak behind the barn, along with her baby brother that only
lived to be a month old. This was home.
Over the next couple
of days, Joy tried not to think about the taxes, but focused on
helping with the farm. Then on Saturday morning, her best friend rode
up to visit. Lori had been her friend since they were little. They’d
attended school together, walking hand in hand every day.
“I can’t wait
until the dance tonight. Maybe tonight Dirk will notice me.” She
whirled around, pushing wisps of hair back into her bun.
throw yourself at him this year. You know that it isn’t lady like.”
Joy said as she poured them both a cup of tea.
“Joy, I don’t
want to be an old maid and this is the last year before that’s what
we’ll both be. No man will want an old maid for a wife.” Lori
said in her usual dramatic fashion.
we’re eighteen doesn’t mean we’ll be old maids. I know that
when the man God has in mind for me comes along, I’ll get married.”
Lori rolled her eyes
and stood up. “Joy, you’ve got to be real here.”
They talked a while
longer, then Lori went home to get ready. Joy got out her father’s
best shirt and pants for the dance. Then she pulled out her favorite
dress. It was a deep baby blue and had little white flowers
embroidered around the neckline. She pulled her hair from the bun it
was in and brushed it until it shown like the sun. For some reason,
she wanted to leave it down tonight.
Joy and her father
arrived early for the dance. Hank wanted to have a chance to speak
with the other farmers before the festivities started. Joy walked
around, speaking to everyone and looking for Lori. As she stood near
the food tables, she noticed a handsome man walk up to the table and
place two pies at the end. When he looked up, their eyes locked. Joy
was awestruck for a moment.
Lori walked up and
spoke, but Joy didn’t notice. She finally tapped Joy on the
shoulder. “Hey, have you gone deaf?”
“Lori, who is that
man at the food tables?” Her words were spoken low and only meant
for Lori’s ears.
“Oh, that’s Nash
Collins.” Lori said as though it was a sin to say his name.
“Collins? As in
the Collins that own Sky Ridge Ranch?” Joy turned to Lori for
“The one and only.
He’s the old of the sons and the only one not married. But from
what I hear, he’s all work and no play.” Lori said, fluffing her
hair and moving her eyes over the crowd of people.
“He’s over there
Lori.” Joy pointed toward the far side of the street where the
looking for Dirk.” Lori said, her eyes darting his way, then down
at her toes.
“Who are you
trying to fool?” Joy said, then looked back toward the food tables,
but found that the handsome man was gone.
think about it Joy. You know that he’s half Indian, so you don’t
want to pursue that. Besides, from what my papa says, he’s not
looking for a wife.”
“I was just
looking, nothing more.” Joy said, turning red.
“Uh huh. Well,
let’s mingle, shall we?” Lori linked her arm through Joy’s and
walked toward the area cleared for dancing.
The night wasn’t
too warm, just the right temperature. But it would get cooler as the
sun went down. Joy and Lori walked around, talking and laughing. Then
the dinner bell rang, letting them know it was time to sit down for
the feast. Joy had brought two apple pies and a loaf of bread.
Joy walked over to
where her papa stood. She noticed that he was frowning at the person
he was talking to. Then she realized it was Mr. Clayborn. Her papa
was standing straight and stiff, evidently upset.
excuse me, I promised my daughter that we’d sit together.” Hank
grabbed Joy’s hand and walked toward a table.
“What did he
want?” Joy turned to look at the man as they walked away.
yourself over it. This is a party.” He kissed her forehead, then
pulled out a chair for her to sit at. “I’ve invited some people
to sit with us.”
“Who?” Joy said
with a smile.
and his wife Leona, also his brother Nash.”
Joy almost fell out
of the chair. How could she sit at the table with that man and not
stare at him? He was too pretty to be a man. Then someone walked up
behind her and spoke in a deep voice. Her papa looked up and stood to
shake the man’s hand. It was Nash Collins. Everything inside of Joy
quit working right. Her brain refused to register thought and her
mouth went dry.
Nash sat down beside
“Nash, this is my
daughter, Joy.” Hank said as they began to eat from the bowls in
the center of the table.
Joy looked up at the
man who, even sitting towered over her. “Hello.” She said, her
voice sounding like a mouse.
Nash just looked at
her, then nodded. “Hello.” His voice was crisp and held no
emotion, except possibly anger, but how could he be angry with her,
they’d just met? Joy also noticed that he avoided her eyes, looking
at the top of her head.
The conversation at
dinner centered around crops and the price that corn was pulling this
year. Charles wife Leona sat with one of her toddlers in her lap, so
conversation with her was out. So, Joy just sat in her chair, trying
to push food into her mouth and not look at the man sitting next to
her. A couple of times, their knees touched, making her gasp. By the
time the dessert was served, Joy was a bundle of nerves.
“Nash, you have
got to try my Joy’s apple pie. It’s the best around.” Hank said
with a proud smile and a wink at Joy. Of course, Joy felt like
crawling under the table.
“Apple is my
favorite.” Nash said, his gaze moving to meet Joy’s, but he
didn’t smile or show any emotion.
Nash took a big bite
of the pie, then looked up at Joy’s father. “Hank, you didn’t
lie. This is good pie.”
“I told you, it’s
the best.” Hank smiled, giving Joy a pat on the shoulder. “My Joy
cooks just like her mama, God rest her soul.”
Joy had never liked
to make the center of attention, but now all the men at the table
were looking at her and she felt as though her face would burst into
Knowing that she
needed to be polite, she managed to say, “Thank you.”
The music started
just as everyone was finishing their food. Hank pulled Joy’s chair
out and stood with her as they watched several people move onto the
makeshift dance floor.
“Come on papa,
let’s have a dance.” Joy said, her eyes lit with excitement.
Every year, her and papa always shared the first dance, it was
“I’ll grab the
next one, but Nash here, maybe he’d take you for the first dance.”
Hank said, grinning down at his shocked daughter.
trying to catch her voice. “I’m sure Mr. Collins has better
things to do than dance with me.” Joy said, humiliated that her
papa had offered her to a stranger.
“I’ll dance with
you.” Nash said as he took her hand, leading her toward the floor.
His facial expression never changed. It was almost as though he
regretted agreeing to this dance.
Joy just knew she’d
faint from lack of oxygen. What was happening? Her papa always danced
the first dance with her. She looked up at the back of Mr. Collins
head as he led her toward the other dancers. Why would he want to
dance with her? If she went by his demeanor, he didn’t want to
dance at all.
Nash stopped and
turned to face Joy. “Ma’am.” He grasped her hand, and pulled
her into a loose embrace. Nash made sure that there was at least two
inches between them so no tongues began to wag. All he needed was
more gossip about him. Since his mother had been a full-blooded
Cherokee, people in this town thought he was nothing but trouble. His
two brothers had it easier since they were born to another mother.
As they moved around
the dance floor Nash avoided her eyes. Joy wondered what he was
thinking about. He kept his gaze on a spot beyond her right shoulder.
Of course, this man was a lot older than her, so he was probably just
being nice to her papa. But, Joy’s mind went to the fact that her
papa had invited Nash’s family to sit with them during the meal.
Her papa had never mentioned the Collins family at home. Maybe he and
Nash’s dad had been friends, but why wouldn’t she know about it.
Another weird thing was that her father usually sat with his friends,
so why suddenly was he interested in the Collins family.
When the song came
to an end, a gentleman tapped Nash’s shoulder, asking to step in.
Nash let her hand drop as he stepped back, allowing the man to dance
with her. Joy watched as he walked to the sidelines and watched them
move around the dance floor. It was odd the way his eyes moved with
them, almost in a protective stance.
dances, Joy walked over to grab a cup of punch. The night air was
growing cooler as the sun disappeared behind the far mountains, so
Joy pulled her shawl around her shoulders as she moved to stand with
Lori. Of course, Lori was ogling at the sheriff.
“Do you think if I
ask Dirk to dance, he will?”
Joy giggled, then
linked her arm in Lori’s. “Well, the only way to find out is to
ask.” Then her gaze moved to where the sheriff stood beside Nash.
She averted her gaze when Nash looked up at her, narrowing his eyes
as though just the thought of her looking at him annoyed him. What
was his problem?
“You don’t think
anyone will think bad of me, you know... asking him to dance?” Lori
whispered, holding her hand up to hide her face.
worry about it.” From what she could see, the sheriff and Nash
looked like they were in deep conversation. Then suddenly, both
looked up toward her and Lori. “Don’t look now, but the sheriff
is looking your way.”
“Oh Joy, I would
just die if he asked me to dance.” Lori said, dancing from one foot
to the other as Dirk started walking toward them, followed by Nash.
“Oh, my goodness. He’s walking toward me... I can’t breathe...”
Joy gave her a pat
on the back. “Just breathe. This is it... Stay calm...” Even
though she gave her friend this advice, she was having a hard time
following it herself. Nash was looking at her strangely, which set
her nerves on end.
Dirk stopped in
front of Lori, tipping his hat at both. “Ladies, I do hope you’re
enjoying the festivities.”
wonderful.” Lori said with a little too much exuberance.
“I’m glad to
hear it.” Dirk pulled his hat off, twisting it in his hands. “Miss
Lori, would you like to dance?”
“Yes, I would.”
Lori smiled over at Joy, then took the sheriff’s extended hand.
Joy watched as the
sheriff escorted Lori out to where the other dancers were. She could
see the broad grin on Lori’s face. This was the moment her friend
had been waiting on. Then her gaze went to the man standing beside
her. He hadn’t spoke, but just moved to stand beside her, leaving
only a couple of inches between them. He was an odd man, that was for
Nash could feel Joy
watching him. He knew that he should ask her to dance again, but the
truth was, he didn’t have time for all this social activity. He’d
made a promise that he intended to keep, but how did he go about it.
This young woman had no idea what was going on. She was an innocent
in all of this and was about to be introduced to a whole new world.
“Miss Ryder, would
you like to take a spin around the dance floor, again?” Nash said,
never looking down at her. His hard life had made him rough around
the edges and even harder to handle social situations. The only
person that knew how much he struggled was Dirk. They’d been
friends for a long time and he understood Nash. He understood Nash’s
need to stay on the ranch and avoid the looks that always came when
he was around. Dirk had never looked at him with anything other than
Joy froze for a
moment, her mouth going slack. Then she looked up into his deep brown
eyes and was lost. “That would be nice.” She finally managed.
He took her hand in
his and led her through the people in between them and the other
dancers. Nash put his hand around her waist, pulling her closer than
before. He chanced a look into her eyes, which was a mistake.
Hardening his jaw, he pulled his eyes away and stared at a spot just
behind her on the ground. If he let himself feel anything for this
woman, then he’d be hurt.
As they started to
move to the music, he knew that this was a mistake. He could smell
the lavender scent that drifted up from her hair and it made him
crazy. He stopped moving for a second.
something wrong?” Joy said as he looked down at her with a strange
snapped, then started back moving. Everything inside of him wanted to
run for the buggy and leave, but he’d promised his brother that
he’d be social and that’s what he was doing.
Joy stared at the
button in the middle of his chest, trying not to look up into those
hard eyes. He wasn’t a happy man, it was quite evident from the
scowl that seemed to always be on his handsome face. Joy couldn’t
imagine how he’d look with a smile. Was he capable of smiling? That
was a silly thought, everyone was capable of smiling, it was just
some people didn’t smile. Maybe he was sad about something. She
looked up at his face, trying to figure out what made him so stern.
“Why are you
staring at me?” Nash said, snapping his head down to frown at her.
“I... I... well,
do you ever smile?” Joy said, realizing that she should have kept
her mouth shut. It was one of her biggest problems, she didn’t know
when to keep her thoughts in her head.
Nash’s jaw tensed
as he looked back up at a point beyond her shoulder. “That’s a
little forward, wouldn’t you say?” He clenched his teeth together
as he tried to keep from looking down into her blue eyes.
Joy looked back down at the button in the middle of his chest. “I
just thought that you’d be real handsome if you smiled every once
in a while, instead of looking like you bit into a bad apple.” Joy
could have kicked herself. She’d done it again. She’d opened her
mouth and inserted her whole leg.
Nash stopped moving
and dropped his hands from her waist. “Look, I’m here to please
my brother and that’s it. So, if you want to dance with a man that
smiles, be my guest.” He indicated several men standing on the
sidelines waiting for a chance to dance with Joy. But as he looked at
their faces, he decided he didn’t like the thoughts of her dancing
with anyone else, which only made him angrier.
notice, he grabbed her arm and started walking toward the punch
table. Joy pulled at her arm, but it was no use. When he stopped just
beyond where everyone was standing, he turned and looked down at her.
“How old are you?”
Joy gave him a
strange look. “What?”
“It’s a simple
question. You do know how old you are, right?” Nash said, pulling
his cowboy hat off and running his fingers through his hair. He had a
feeling she was a lot younger than him, but how much, he wasn’t
why?” Joy said, fidgeting with a piece of lace on her sleeve. Why
did this man make her feel so out of sorts?
Nash stood still for
a moment, then he grabbed her arm again and started walking toward
the sidewalk that ran along the side of the street. He wasn’t sure
where he was going and why he was dragging her with him.
“Can I ask where
we’re going?” Joy said, looking back at the party which was
disappearing behind them.
He didn’t say
anything, just kept walking until they reached the sheriff’s
office. Nash opened the door and walked into, shutting the door
behind him. What was he doing? This girl probably thought he had bad
intentions. For a long moment, he just stood in the middle of the
floor, looking toward the back wall.
“Are you alright?”
Joy said, putting her hand on his arm. “Is there something I can
help you with?”
Nash let out a
strangled sound, then he turned to face her. “Do you know how old I
am?” His eyes bore into hers as he waited for her answer.
“I don’t know,
maybe twenty-five.” Joy said with a shrug. Where was he going with
“I’m thirty. I’m
twelve years older than you.” Nash moved a step closer to her, then
he reached out to touch her cheek.
understand, why are we talking about our age difference?” Joy
tilted her head, trying to understand what was happening, but not
“Joy, I’ve been
meeting with your father for a couple of weeks.” Nash said, his
voice suddenly low and husky.
“You have. Why?”
Her heart began to slam into her ribs. Something was wrong, but what?
Nash turned his back
to Joy as he tried to find the words. Hank was supposed to talk to
Joy, but he said he just couldn’t do it. Why he thought Nash would
do this better, especially since he was a stranger, he didn’t have
a clue? But, he’d given his word.
“I’m going back
to the party.” Joy turned to leave, but Nash pushed the door
closed, propping his arm over her head, holding it shut. “Please,
just let me go. You’re scaring me.” Her voice trembled as she
pulled at the door.
“We need to talk.”
Joy whirled around
and pushed him away from her. “I don’t know what kind of woman
you think I am, but I’m sure papa is looking for me.”
father is the reason I need to talk to you.” Nash placed his hands
on her shoulders, noting that she was trembling.
“What does papa
have to do with you?” Joy said, crossing her arms across her chest
in sudden anger.
“Joy, my family
has money, a lot of money.” Nash said, trying to place his words
“OK, so what does
that have to do with papa?”
“Your father is in
a financial bind and I’ve offered to help him out.”
couldn’t imagine papa asking for a handout.
Nash knew that the
best way to tell her was to just come right out and just say it. “I
need a wife and, well, your father expressed his desire to make sure
that you were taken care of if something happens to him, so...”
Nash stopped talking when Joy gasped, moving back against the door.
“What are you
saying, my papa sold me to keep the farm?” Tears formed in Joy’s
eyes as she covered her mouth. Why would papa do this to her?
“It’s not like
that. We made a deal, one that will benefit both of us.” Nash said,
knowing this wasn’t going well, but he’d known that she wouldn’t
take it too well.
Joy turned, grabbing
the door knob again. Nash pushed on the door, keeping her from
leaving. He realized how much taller he was than her. She was a tiny
discuss this.” He said as he leaned toward her.
to discuss. I’m not marrying someone I don’t know, much less
someone I don’t love.” Joy pulled at the door again, but he kept
it closed. “Please, just let me leave.”
“I can’t until
we talk. Please, just turn around and look at me.”
“So, this is why
papa wanted us to sit together and then have a dance.” Joy turned
and walked over to sit on the bench beside the desk.
Nash followed her,
but he didn’t sit down, he was too nervous. “He wanted us to get
“Then get married,
right?” Joy pulled at the lace on her sleeves again. It was a
nervous habit; one papa was always telling her to stop.
“Yes, the taxes
are due on your farm, so what I’ll do is pay the taxes so that your
father can continue farming the land and living out his days there.”
Nash propped his booted foot on the bench. “We can be married on
Friday. The circuit preacher will be in town for the Sunday service.
Then you can move onto the ranch to live with me, as my wife.”
Joy sat quiet and
stiff as she thought about what he’d just told her. So, papa had
made a choice and she was supposed to live with it. On the other
hand, if she didn’t go along with this, they’d lose the farm and
everything. At least this way, papa could stay on the farm. But,
she’d be married to a stranger. Tears slipped from her eyes. There
was no other way.
spine, she wiped her eyes and stood up. “Fine. I’ll do what’s
best for papa.” Then she turned to face Nash. As she looked up into
his face, she wondered if she’d ever learn to love him as her mama
had loved papa?
“I’ll make the
arrangements to be wed on Friday. My youngest brother, Nicholas and I
will come to fetch your belongings early Friday morning.”
“Why do you need a
wife? Surely you could find one without forcing one to marry you.”
Joy said with a sad expression.
“Joy, it’s not
forcing, it’s just a business deal.”
answer my question.”
Cherokee, so, nobody wants their daughter to marry a half breed.”
He clamped his teeth together after saying those words.
“Why does it
matter if you’re half Cherokee?”
here don’t care for Indians, so, it’s in my blood. They don’t
want grandchildren that are half Indian.”
“So, you’d be
wanting children too?” Joy said in a whisper, not really meaning to
say it out loud.
“Don’t you want
“I guess I always
have, but...” Her words trailed off as she looked down at the
“But not with a
stranger.” Nash reached out and lifted her face toward his. “We
won’t always be strangers, I promise.”
Joy blushed, “Are
you sure that you want to do this?”
“I’d put it in
my mind that I’d never marry, but when your father came to me with
this proposal, I knew that it was my destiny, our destiny.”
“But you don’t
even know me.”
“We will get to
know one another. Since we will be sharing the same house, and the
same room, well, we’ll be together a lot, so it will give us time
to get to know each other.”
Joy’s head shot
up, “I’ll have my own room, right?”
Nash grinned then,
“Joy, we’ll be married, so you’ll share my room with me. It
will be our room.”
Joy backed up, “I
can’t do this. I’m sorry, but this can’t happen.” Before Nash
could react, she opened the door and ran back toward the party.
He stood there for a
few minutes, knowing that she’d get used to the idea that they’d
be married. She was young and innocent, not familiar with the ways of
the world. But, in time, she’d learn.
“Hey, where have
you been? I’ve been looking everywhere for you.” Lori said as Joy
came up the sidewalk.