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Martha (Orlan Orphans Book 13) by Kirsten Osbourne (1)

Chapter 1

Edna Petunia Sanders beamed at her adopted daughters as they sang proudly in church. Years after she and her husband had taken the fifteen orphans into their home, she was still amazed at how unique and special each one was. In the rows ahead of and behind her sat the daughters who’d already married, along with their families. The twins, Ruby and Opal, were the oldest. Now, each woman had not only a husband and children, but also her own set of twins! Edna Petunia could barely keep track of all of her daughters, let alone their bountiful offspring.

Evelyn, who’d married a handsome rancher, obtaining a spirited stepson in the process, was almost the same age as the twins. Next came Gertrude, Betsy, and Hope. Each had found her true love, and now they sat near Edna Petunia, rocking fussy babies and calming excited children.

Edna Petunia took note of Penny’s boys in particular. Her husband, Tom, was the seventh son of a seventh son, and Tom swore that Penny would bear him seven boys as well. They were well on their way to making that prophecy come true, and Penny seemed like she had her hands full as she quieted the boys. One had his leg out as if he were going to climb on top of the pew, but Penny picked him up before he could get very far.

In addition to the children Penny had birthed, she and Tom had also adopted several orphaned boys, who lived on their massive property outside of Bagley. The older boys stood next to the younger ones, looking handsome and grown-up in their starched white shirts and brown trousers. The McClains tried to make it to Nowhere for church at least once a month, but it was a bit of a drive for them.

At the front of the church, Sarah Jane watched her husband proudly. Micah Barton was the pastor of Nowhere’s only church, and in the short time he’d been in town, he had developed a wonderful community that Edna Petunia loved being a part of. Though Edna Petunia had scolded him on more than one occasion for performing marriage ceremonies for one of her overly excited orphans, she had to admit that he was a wonderful husband and father.

Behind Edna Petunia were Minnie, Alice, and Dorothy, sitting with their husbands and children. When they’d first taken the orphans in, Edna Petunia had prayed that there would be enough young men in Nowhere to marry all of her orphans. She’d later realized that she needn’t have worried. Her daughters seemed to attract men in droves!

Sitting beside her and her husband, Cletus, were the girls who still lived in their spacious Nowhere home. Theresa, Hattie, and Katie sang sweetly, their melodies ringing out through the small but tidy church. Cletus often told Katie she had the voice of an angel. Edna Petunia’s gaze continued down to the end of the row. Martha, the other daughter who still lived in the Sanders’ house, stared solemnly ahead, her lips barely moving.

Edna Petunia frowned. No matter what she or Cletus did, they could not seem to get through to Martha. She was polite and respectful and always did her chores. Her behavior wasn’t an issue. The problem was that she was too serious. She was a year older than Theresa, Hattie, and Katie—the same age as Dorothy. But unlike Dorothy, who was outgoing and bubbly, Martha was reserved, shy. Edna Petunia thought she might never marry.

The thought made her sad. Edna Petunia saw how much joy her daughters’ families brought them. She wanted the same opportunities for Martha. All she knew about Martha’s past she had learned from Cassie Hayes, the matron who had brought all the girls to live in Nowhere after the orphanage in New York had sent them away. Cassie had told Edna Petunia and Cletus that Martha’s background was the most mysterious of all.

One day, a small girl had been found sitting in the street in front of the orphanage. While other nearby children played, laughed, or skipped, this little girl sat quietly, hugging her knees to her chest. The women who had run the orphanage had taken her in, washed the dirt off her face, and given her clean clothes to wear. But every time they touched her, Martha would flinch.

All these years later, Martha’s behavior hadn’t changed much. Though Edna Petunia’s girls were a close and loving bunch, Martha always shied away from hugs and other displays of affection.

Edna Petunia sighed. Even if there was another eligible bachelor in Nowhere—and there wasn’t, as far as she could tell—Martha would probably run away from him the first time he tried to touch her. Edna Petunia didn’t understand why Martha was still so skittish and solitary. She and Cletus had tried everything that they knew how to do. Now, her husband took her hand and squeezed it. Edna Petunia felt a ripple of delight buzz through her body. After years of marriage, Cletus Sanders could still make her blush.

From the edge of their row, Martha Sanders looked down at her feet. She could tell that her adoptive mother was staring at her, and her cheeks felt hot with embarrassment. Martha didn’t like attention, and that was all her parents seemed to want to give. She knew she wasn’t a strong singer like Katie or confident like Sarah Jane. She wasn’t as sweet as Dorothy or as honest as Hope. Compared with her sisters, she felt plain and boring. Sometimes she thought she didn’t deserve to belong to the Sanders family, where everyone was kind, loving, and generous. Compared to her sisters and her parents, Martha felt like she didn’t have anything to offer.

Martha mouthed the words to the song. She wasn’t confident enough to sing out loudly, but she didn’t want anyone to think she wasn’t paying attention. She was offering praise in the only way she knew how—quietly. Her eyes drifted to the opposite side of the church, where Mary Sibley batted her eyelashes dramatically as she sang. Martha could hear Mary’s warbling so clearly she’d have thought she was standing right next to her. Martha fought the urge to shake her head. She liked almost everyone in the town of Nowhere, but Mary was an exception. The only daughter of a banker and his wife, Mary had been spoiled all her life and acted as if she were better than everyone else.

Martha turned her head back toward Micah. She knew she shouldn’t focus on the negative. Overall, she had a very good life in Nowhere. Although she didn’t fit in, her living situation was all she had ever dreamed of—she lived in a large, rambling house with a huge, loving family. Her parents were good and treated her with dignity and respect. Her sisters were kind, thoughtful, and funny. As a young girl, Martha had never thought a life like this would be possible.

The song came to a close, and everyone shut their hymn books. Micah said a few more words, then dismissed the parishioners. The people of Nowhere sauntered through the church, greeting each other, hugging, and laughing. They exited through the doors and went out onto the lawn, where they continued to talk.

Martha’s sister Penny was one of the last to come out of the church. She carried two of her sons, one in each arm, and another, Robby, had clenched his arms around her leg. She moved slowly, waiting patiently for Robby to walk along with her.

“Do you need some help?” Martha asked.

“Aunt Martha!” Robby cried. He let go of his mother’s legs and flew over to Martha.

Martha chuckled and picked him up. “Hello, Robby.” She was so much more comfortable holding a child than she was conversing with an adult.

“Thank you,” Penny said gratefully.

Edna Petunia walked over to her daughters. “Penny, you look awful!”

Martha’s jaw dropped. She still hadn’t gotten used to how forthright Edna Petunia could be at times.

But Penny simply laughed. “I have four sons and twelve orphans. I’m exhausted! So no, I don’t look my best. But Tom doesn’t mind.”

“What don’t I mind?” Tom sidled up to Penny, slipping an arm around her. Tom was tall, handsome, and broad-shouldered. Martha wondered if all of his brothers looked just like him.

“I was explaining to Edna Petunia that we have our hands full as far as children are concerned, and that my appearance isn’t my top priority.” Penny smiled at her husband.

Tom smiled back at her, kissing her right on the lips. Martha looked down, embarrassed. “As far as I can tell, your job is to raise our boys—both the ones you gave birth to and the ones we’ve taken in as our own—and you’re doing an amazing job at that.” Tom paused, thinking for a moment. “I do wish you had more help around the house. I’m out on the ranch all day with my men, and there’s no one to assist you with your household duties. Too bad we don’t have any daughters.”

“Maybe you should borrow one of our daughters!” Edna Petunia joked.

Cletus Sanders strode over and pinched Edna Petunia’s bottom. She giggled like a schoolgirl. “What’s all this about borrowing one of our girls? They’re not for sale or rent!”

Tom wore a funny expression on his face. “I know you intended it as a joke, Edna Petunia, but that’s not a bad idea.”

“What idea?” Cletus sounded grumpy.

“Maybe one of your sisters could help out around the house. They could help you with the children and cooking, cleaning, laundry. I know most of the girls are already out of the house with their own families, but one of the younger girls. Like Martha!” Tom continued.

Everyone turned to stare at Martha. She felt the tips of her ears turn red.

Penny turned to look at Tom. “We can’t ask Martha to do that. We live so far away. She’d spend half the day traveling to and from our house.”

Tom had an answer ready. “She can live with us! We have two empty cabins right now. One’s for the new hired hand starting tomorrow, and the other can be for Martha.” Tom and Penny’s property was so large that it had a series of cabins on the grounds. Orphans that Tom and Penny had adopted typically stayed there, but some of them moved away once they were old enough to strike out on their own.

Martha cleared her throat. “I would be happy to help.” She actually liked the idea of being away from the big boisterous family she was a part of for a little while. No one would be watching her and wondering what was wrong with her.

“Are you sure?” Penny’s expression looked hopeful.

Martha nodded. “Of course. You have enough to worry about. Let me help take a few things off your mind.”

“Sounds like a fine idea to me.” Cletus looked around at his daughters, wife, and son-in-law. “Not that anyone asked me!”

They all broke into laughter. Martha wondered what it would be like to live in one of the cabins. It would be the first time in her entire life she’d ever lived on her own. She had her own room in the Sanders’ house, but this seemed like it would be different.

It was new and scary, but it was also a little exciting.

* * *

The day was bright and dry as the horses clipped along toward the McClain Ranch. Katie, Hattie, and Theresa had helped her pack a trunk that contained all of her clothes and belongings. Now, Cletus drove the wagon out of Nowhere toward Bagley.

Each time she visited, Martha was struck by how large and beautiful Penny and Tom’s home was. The cabins lined the front of the property in neat, orderly rows. Tom rode out on horseback to greet them.

Cletus parked the wagon, and Martha rushed to climb down, not wanting anyone to come to her aid, for that would mean they had to touch her.

“Good morning!” Tom declared.

Martha found herself smiling. Tom was so kind and cheerful, it made her forget her nervousness and apprehension about living in a new place.

“You’ll be in Cabin Five, right over here.” Tom gestured toward one of the cabins that was right next to another one. “The new man, Andrew Ford, will be in the cabin over there. He shouldn’t trouble you at all. He’ll be up early to begin his work. He’ll take his meals in the bunkhouse, so you won’t see him in the evening either. But please let me know if it bothers you at all to be situated so close to him.” Tom wore a look of genuine concern on his face.

“Thank you, Tom.” Martha nodded to show her understanding. She appreciated his consideration. He was a good man, and Penny was lucky to have him as her husband and the father of her children.

“I’ll leave you to get settled now. I have some work to do. If you need anything, Penny’s in the main house. She told me to tell you not to worry about lunch today; take some time to get your things in order and go over to the house once you’re ready.” Tom looked around the small cabin. “I reckon that’s about all there is to say. Is there anything else you need before I get back to work?”

Martha considered it but couldn’t think of a single thing. “No. Thanks again.”

Tom nodded and smiled at Cletus. “Good to see you, sir.”

Cletus grinned and clapped Tom on the back. “You as well, son. Take care of our girl now, you hear?”

“Of course, sir.” Tom’s tone was solemn as he looked Cletus straight in the eye.

“See you later, Martha.” Tom waved and exited the cabin.

Cletus eyed the trunk he’d dragged into the room. “Would you like some help unpacking?”

Martha shook her head quickly. “No, thank you.”

“At least let me stay and provide some company while you put your things away,” Cletus offered.

“No, you don’t need to do that.” Martha looked at the floor. She knew Cletus was only trying to help, but he was making her uncomfortable by staying. She hated asking anyone else for assistance. She could handle unpacking.

“Nonsense. I want to. Where should I leave this for you?” Cletus pointed at the bulky trunk.

Martha swallowed. “I think you should leave, Cletus. I’ll be fine here. The trunk is fine where it is.”

Cletus opened his mouth to say something but thought better of it and frowned. “Well, if you insist. Martha, you know you can always come back, right?”

“What do you mean?” Martha wasn’t sure what Cletus was hinting at.

“If things don’t work out here. You always have a home with us. You know that, right?” Cletus continued.

Martha blushed, surprised and grateful. “Thank you, Cletus.”

Cletus pulled Martha close for a hug. “We’ll miss you, Martha. Come back and have dinner with us any time.”

Martha felt stiff in Cletus’s embrace. She knew that he only wanted her to be happy, but she’d always been uncomfortable with people touching her in any way. She tried to hug him back, but her moves felt tense and unsure. “Thank you, Cletus.”

Cletus stood back, brushing his hands against his pants to get the dust off. “Anything else you need, Martha? You say the word.”

Again, Martha shook her head. “You should get going. You’ll be late for work.”

Cletus held an office on Main Street as the town judge, and he worked long hours each day, ensuring safety and justice for the people of Nowhere. He nodded. “See you in church, then.”

“Goodbye, Cletus.” Martha watched as Cletus walked outside of the cabin. A few moments later, she heard the crack of the reins and imagined the wagon setting off for town. Martha looked around the small cabin and hugged her arms to her chest. She couldn’t believe that the entire cabin was hers.

She stood still for a moment, listening to the sounds that surrounded her. Outside, birds and crickets chirped. Inside, everything was calm. In the corner sat a narrow bed with a homemade quilt perched on top. Next to it was a small night stand along with a wash basin and a sink. In the opposite corner of the room was a large armoire. Martha tugged on the handle, and it swung open with a small creak.

She breathed in the scent of cedar and walked over to the trunk, opening it. She took out a few of the clothes she’d packed toward the top of the trunk. She unfolded blouses and shook them out before hanging them in the armoire.

With each item of clothing that she put away, Martha felt more secure and settled in her new home. While she still felt strange being away from her adoptive parents, she was sure this new arrangement would be wonderful. She would get to spend more time with her nephews. She could tell Penny needed some help. She had looked drained the last time Martha had seen her in church, not at all her usual cheerful, bubbly self.

As Martha came to the bottom of the trunk, she pulled out a small rag doll. She gazed at it lovingly. Suddenly, the door to the cabin burst open, and a tall man sprang into the room, carrying two overstuffed bags.

Martha shrieked, dropped the doll, and took fearful step backward.

The man was tall and strapping. Martha felt her breath catch in the back of her throat. What was he doing barging in unannounced to her cabin?

The stranger looked at her curiously, then back outside, then back at her. “What are you doing here? This is my cabin.”

At the same time, Martha said, “This is my cabin.”

The man pulled a folded piece of paper from his pants pocket. “It says right here, I’ll be in Cabin—oh. Oh dear.”

“What is it?” Martha asked, curious despite herself.

The man’s face dropped as he looked around the room, realizing what he’d done. “I’m very sorry, ma’am. I owe you a sincere apology. It says here I’ll be in Cabin Six, but this seems to be Cabin Five. I’m good with letters but sometimes numbers can be confounding.”

Martha suppressed a bubble of laughter she felt rising up inside of her. Whoever this man was, he needed to get out of the cabin quickly. But she also felt strangely at ease with him. He was funny, and she wanted to know more about him. She took a deep breath. “It’s all right. I’m Martha. Penny’s sister.”

A look of recognition flitted across the stranger’s face. “Oh my! Please, let me start that again.”

To Martha’s surprise and amusement, the man went outside the cabin, set down his bags on the small porch, and reentered the room. He offered a hand. “Andrew Ford. Pleasure to meet you, please excuse my dreadful manners, and kindly don’t tell my mother about this. She’d be mortified.”

Again, Martha felt the urge to laugh. “It’s nice to meet you, too.” As he vigorously shook her hand, she felt a strange thrill in her stomach she’d never experienced before.

Andrew continued. “I’m here to work as a hired man for Tom McClain. He mentioned his wife was one of fifteen girls. Is that right?”

Martha nodded. “Our parents adopted all of us at the same time.”

“And I suppose you’re all spoken for?” Andrew asked.

Martha felt her ears and cheeks flush. She looked down at the floor, spying the forgotten doll. “No. Many of us have married, but a few of us are single.”

“Lucky for me then.” Andrew flashed her a grin, then seemed to recall his location. “Anyway, I should leave you alone. My sincerest of apologies for intruding, and I’ll apologize to Penny and Tom as well. I hope I didn’t frighten you.”

Martha shook her head. Though she’d been scared, she didn’t want to admit it.

Andrew’s gaze fell onto the doll on the floor. “Oh, I’m sorry. I must have made you drop this.” He bent down to pick it up and handed it to Martha. As his hand brushed against hers, she felt the same thrill as she had moments before. She pulled her hand back, stung, and Andrew looked at her with an expression of concern. “Are you all right?”

Martha looked away, clutching the doll. She was embarrassed that he was seeing her with such a childish toy, but he couldn’t possibly understand what it meant to her. “I’m fine. But you should be going.”

“Right.” Andrew shoved his hands into his pockets. “Well, again, I’m terribly sorry to trouble you. I hope I’ll see you around.” He turned around and walked out of the cabin.

Martha sat down on the bed, shaking from the surprise of her unexpected visitor. Her heart pounded loudly in her chest, and she tried to take a few deep breaths to calm herself. How could this unfamiliar man produce such strong feelings in her?