BY: RAMONA FORREST
She’s left with nothing and has no means of survival…
In the Depression-plagued rural Wisconsin of 1932, Annalee Lines loses her husband to an accident and her home to a fire within a few short months of each other. The abusive husband she can do without, but with her home and possessions totally destroyed, Annalee and her two children are now destitute. She’d been supporting her family by caring for the daughter of a widowed engineer, but with no home of her own, she can’t even do that. With memories of her brutal marriage fresh in her mind, Annalee vows never to tie herself to another man—but unless she wants to live with her sour-faced, forbidding parents, she may have no choice.
He offers everything…but at what cost?
Widowed engineer Jack Harrison mourns the loss of his beloved wife. Left with a small daughter, Sissy, Jack turns to Annalee for daycare while he works. Since he’s not interested in remarrying, the arrangement is perfect—until Annalee’s house burns down and she’s left with no option but to move in with her parents. If she does that, she’ll no longer be around. He’s unwilling to leave Sissy with anyone else but Annalee won’t risk her reputation by being a live-in babysitter, so Jack comes up with a plan: they’ll get married, Annalee and her children will move into Jack’s house, Annalee will take care of Sissy, and Jack will provide everything she and her children need. Annalee reluctantly agrees, after extracting a promise from Jack that this will be strictly a business arrangement, with no intimacy required or expected. Everything goes according to plan—until Jack kisses her at the altar.
Now Jack no longer wants to keep his promise and Annalee is terrified. Her first husband was cruel, and Annalee doesn’t care for intimacy…but how long can she keep her new husband at arm’s length?
TAYLOR JONES SAYS: In A Marriage of Convenience by Ramona Forrest, Annalee Lines is a new widow with two young children. Her husband was a beast and Annalee is glad to be rid of him, even though she has no idea how she will support her children. A friend suggests that she can take in children to earn her living and Annalee quickly agrees. Her first customer is Jake, a widower with a three-year-old daughter. But when Annalee’s house burns down, she is given a choice, move in with her harsh and forbidding parents, or get married. Since Jake doesn’t want to lose Annalee as a care giver and she won’t risk a scandal by being live-in help, he proposes marriage—strictly as a business arrangement. Annalee agrees but not long after the wedding, she realizes that Jake may not want to continue the marriage in name only. He wants a “real” wife. Oops.
As always, Forrest’s characters are charming, especially the children, the writing is good, and the plot is solid with some interesting twists and turns.
REGAN MURPHY SAYS: A Marriage of Convenience by Ramona Forrest is set in 1932. The heroine, Annalee has had a hard life. The man she married turns out to be a monster and continually abuses her, in addition to being a lousy provider. When he dies in a freak accident, she would have been ecstatic, had she had some way to support herself and her two young children. With no skills other than as a homemaker, she decides to go into the day care business. Jake, a widowed engineer with a good job, hires Annalee to watch his young daughter while he works. Annalee discovers a talent for care-giving and Jake is thrilled with her. However, when a spiteful friend burns down Annalee’s house, our heroine is forced to accept Jake’s offer of marriage. She makes it clear to him that she is not interested in the more intimate parts of marriage, and he assures her that it will be a marriage in name only and he would not ask her to have sex with him. Reassured (silly girl), Annalee marries him and moves into his home. It doesn’t take long for Jake to decide their agreement isn’t working and he wants more. Now she has a new dilemma—how to keep her hunk of a new husband at arm’s length.
Forrest is one of my favorite authors, due to the fact that her characters are so appealing and easy to emphasize with and her settings are so authentic. A Marriage of Convenience is equally well thought out. I found the book to be a thoroughly entertaining read.
Annalee Lines sat in the front row of the faded, whitewashed Baptist Church. That area, by custom and long use, had always been the designated area for close family mourners. She let her tears flow–they were a cleansing thing for the heart, as well as the soul. As she wept, she comforted her four-year-old son, Buckley, and held her two-year-old daughter, Sarah, on her lap. Sitting close beside them were her two closest friends, Amy Lassen and Carol Woods. They sat there to hold and support her in her loss.
Before her a modest casket lay positioned at the front of the church. Dressed in the only suit he’d owned, lay her husband of five years, Gerald Lines. He’d met his death in an accident while working for the WPA. The foreman, his weathered face a mask of regret, had explained to her how he’d slipped in the mud as his horse pulled a loaded scoop down an embankment. Somehow, the scoop, heavily loaded with wet sand, had overturned. The man said that the metal rim of the scoop had caught Gerald under the chin, dealing him a fatal blow. It had happened in an instant, he’d said.
Annalee wore long sleeves today, though it was a gently warm, early spring day in this small town of Delano, Wisconsin, in the year 1932. She carefully touched her upper arms, feeling the tender and painful bruises left there only three days ago by that still form laid out before her.
Her son Buckley tugged at her arm and murmured, “Momma, is Daddy asleep?”
She put her finger to her lips to caution silence as she shook her head. She’d tried her best to explain the concept of death to him, but wondered how much he understood. The boy shed no tears today. His little face was pale and still. Sarah lay quietly in her lap. She had only shuddered and turned away when she looked upon her pale, dead father. Annalee well understood the child’s fear, even of a dead man. How well she knew about that.
Going back over her life with Gerald Lines, she had few good memories. Those were of the first few months she’d known him. She thought back to the way he had been, a tall, very handsome, dark-headed man with deep black eyes. He’d had a seemingly pleasant manner and a charming smile. She had fallen hard, quickly, and deeply in love with him. Oh how exciting it had all been–back then.
He’d appeared from somewhere else–another state, Illinois, he’d said. Strangely, he’d never mentioned his family, other than the fact that he’d had a brother. She’d had no address to inform any other family member of his loss, having never met mother, father, sister, or brother, or any other of his people.
After a short courtship, they had married. Annalee remembered how happy she’d been that day, marrying this handsome, church-going man. Several of her friends had looked fondly on him, too, but he had chosen her. She’d felt like a queen on her wedding day.
Annalee felt a frown cross her face as she remembered how quickly things had changed. Living day-to-day with him, she’d never thought of him as a lazy man, just one who never found the right job to suit him. Along with a very meager living, she’d quickly discovered that Gerald Lines was a hard man to live with. It had begun with a very brutal wedding night. She’d been unable to forget the way he’d forcefully attacked and painfully initiated her into the life of a married woman without any thought or consideration of her untried, virginal state.
Other than the nightly pain of the marital bed, he’d been pleasant enough, and they’d had fun together at times, too. But after living a few happy months with him, something happened–a small incident really–to change even that. In an anger-filled instant, he’d changed toward her.
A few months into the marriage–after Gerald had gone from job to job, never able to keep one for more than a paycheck or two–Annalee had dropped an egg on the floor. It had seemed a small thing to her, a simple little accident. But Gerald had suddenly changed, becoming enraged with her. In surprise, she’d watched his handsome face turn red with fury. And on that day, she’d felt the back of his hand for the first time.
The stinging pain of it had sent a soul-shattering shock through her. The memory of that first incident had become permanently burned into her memory. From that day on, an icy coldness had crept into her heart and never left.
Her father had never treated her like that, and certainly not her mother. But in a rage devoid of thought or reason, her husband had struck her as if she had done something evil. But dropping one small egg on the floor? Maybe she had been to blame for that little mistake, but she had never imagined a man would hit a woman so cruelly over something as minor as that, or for any reason, come to think of it.
Annalee knew it wasn’t right for a man to brutally strike a woman, especially not a woman he’d promised to love and cherish. She’d stood her ground asking him, “Why worry about one egg, when you can’t keep a job for more than a month or two?” She was in the family way by then, and they had a coming child to worry about.
In shock, she’d seen his eyes narrow at what she’d said. His clenched fist had wavered in her face as he’d grabbed her shoulder in anger. He threatened her and shook her cruelly. And after that day, he seemed almost eager to take out his rage on her. She had only to look at her battered body in her mirror to be reminded of it. She continually wore bruises of many colors, both healing and fresh. After that incident, getting the back of his hand had become a regular event until his punishment had advanced into utter brutality. From then on, when she looked at him, she no longer saw a handsome face. And she felt nothing but fear and revulsion.
Annalee had always been careful to hide the shame of her bruises. She made sure she wore long sleeves and longer skirts to hide the marks on her legs, and used powder on her face if she had a disfiguring bruise to hide.
After the abuse began, Annalee, upset and fearful–in pain and shock–had gone to her parents. At that time, they still lived in her small town of Delano. In tears, she’d related to them the details of Gerald’s brutality.
But she’d found no comfort there and came away deeply disappointed in her parents. They offered her no support.
Her mother had only said, “I’m very sorry to hear about that, but you’ve made your bed, my daughter, and now you must lie in it. You must be careful how you do things, and do try to make him happier. Then Gerald won’t feel the need to strike you like that.” Her mother had turned her back on Annalee. “We cannot interfere in your marriage, nor can we help you.”
Her father had reddened in the face and clenched his fists, but he’d never uttered a word or made a move on her behalf against her husband.
Her mother, a good, church-going woman, believed that the man was the head of the home. When you married, you lived with your husband and did as he wished. “God will guide you, my girl, just keep praying and he will change, you’ll see.”
Her words had finally come true, but if it had come about through fervent prayer, it was certainly not in the way her mother had expected.
Instead, God had stepped in. Annalee felt a sense of gratitude to Him for the release she felt this day. Maybe God had no hand in his death, she didn’t know, and she had no idea of what the future held for a widow with small children. But she was free of her husband’s hateful vengeance and, deep inside herself, she was glad he was gone.
In her heart, Annalee felt no guilt that she secretly rejoiced at seeing her husband laying in that box, cold and stiff. How many times, with her jaw clamped tight, had she thought, God forgive me, but if he would die–I would be free of his ugly, staring looks and his nasty, evil temper.
Annalee frequently looked at that casket sitting up in front of the church on two sawhorses that had been covered with a deep-red velvet throw. With her teeth tightly clenched, she silently swore to herself, If I die for it, no man will ever touch me in that ugly way again–Gerald’s way. If I die of starvation, I will never allow it to happen to me again–never! And if any man ever touches one of my babies–God help him!
Annalee felt herself getting heated and angry over a problem she no longer had. She quickly got hold of herself and quelled her wayward thoughts. She raised her eyes and then bent down to kiss the top of her daughter’s head, carefully directing her attention to Pastor Benson as he intoned the traditional words to send her husband on his way to heaven–or that other place–and to lay him in the ground.
Her reddened eyes had dried. If she had wept at all this day, it was from a deep sense of relief. Or maybe a beginning stab of fear about how she could care for her babies. If those attending the services thought she was a heartbroken, grieving woman, she was glad for her reddened eyes. It helped create the picture of the bereft widow, and she was satisfied if they thought that.
Annalee truly believed she’d been a failure as a wife and as a woman. She had no doubt about those things. But she was a good mother to her babies and had pride in that to cling to. Otherwise, her sense of trust, self-worth, and her confidence as a woman had been shattered by that cold man lying in the box at the front of this simple little church.
The feeling that she should never have had to endure such treatment from any man was always with her, and that alone brought frequent tears to her eyes. She never could understand why her husband had been so cruel. That question had never been answered. Maybe it had something to do with his family. She didn’t know, but she strongly suspected harsh treatment somewhere in his younger years. What else would cause such anger and fury? Maybe that was the way he’d been treated and the reason he no longer cared to acknowledge any one of his relatives.
Yes, she had cried today, mostly from fear and uncertainty of the future, but not for her own sorrow or losses. Annalee had done a lot of thinking over these things. Positive that those frequent incidences had seldom been her fault, her head rose a bit higher. Life alone wouldn’t be easy. She already knew that. She faced living on her own with two babies to bring up. But, in spite of what lay before her, she believed she could find a way to feed them and care for them without the dark, threatening shadow of an angry man hovering over her, a man ever anxious to hurt and brutalize her, and seemingly without thought or reason.
Their rented home might be small, and had often seemed crowded, but she’d kept it clean, and things were always done up. Worries nagged at her mind about her children, Buckley and baby Sarah.
Her husband had barely made enough to keep them in food, kerosene for the stove and lanterns, and coal and firewood for the big, cast-iron cook stove they used during the winter months. Annalee had learned to get by with as little as possible, but with the children, there were things she had to have. There were a few jobs out there for men to work at–but a woman with babies, as far as she knew, had little chance of earning her way.
In these lean Depression years, working for the WPA, the federally sponsored Works Progress Administration had been the only work her husband could find. It was a government created public works project to keep some of the people busy and put a bit of money into circulation. Many folks snickered behind their hands, referring to that group of workers as “We Poke Along,” but for a woman, there wasn’t even a public works job like that available.
She’d never told her pastor about the abuse, in spite of the fact that she and her husband were regular church goers. She felt if her parents offered her no help, her pastor no doubt held the same beliefs about marriage as her parents, and she couldn’t bear to hear that business again about the man being the boss. Having decided that, Annalee believed she had nowhere to turn.
Her thinking of the past was interrupted by her close friend, Amy Lassen, who nudged her and whispered, “What’s going on with you? Are you all right?” She looked at Annalee. “You had such a far away, an almost lost look on your face.”
“Just thinking of things in the past, that’s all,” Annalee whispered back.
She’d never told her best friend about the abuse she’d suffered, either, and that had kept her even more isolated. But she’d been unable to face the shame of Gerald’s abuse and tried her best to keep things looking normal.
Returning to the present, she hugged her son and daughter close and directed her attention on the choir as they began to sing one of her husband’s favorite hymns, The Old Rugged Cross.
Another nearby friend, Carol Woods, had been very quiet. Yet, Annalee had seen so many tears streaming down her friend’s face she’d began to wonder about it. Who did Carol cry for–surely not Gerald? Annalee wondered what could possibly occasion that much sorrow for a man who wasn’t hers. Of course, her friend was being supportive–a good friend, offering sympathy.
Her parents sat in the row behind. They had driven in from Arnott to be here for the services. They had relocated three years ago, and the drive took them nearly an hour. She believed their old Model T was barely running by the way it shook and rattled as it moved along the graveled roads. It looked so rickety, she wondered what would happen if they hit a rock.
Her husband had owned a Model A Ford Coupe, which was fairly new. She hadn’t driven it much, as Gerald usually had it at his job if he had one. Gas was up to ten cents per gallon these days and too much for her to pay with her husband’s inadequate wages. She’d found she’d rather walk for her needs. Their small village of Delano, Wisconsin, was small enough that nothing was very far. She used the kids’ little red wagon for hauling them and the few groceries she could afford. Of course, they enjoyed the outing as well.
She’d been glad to see her parents but no longer looked to them as a source of help. They barely kept their own heads above water. Sadly, she’d noticed this time that her father had suddenly appeared to have grown older. He seemed even more bent over from his job at the Arnott Creamery where the local farmers brought their milk to be processed. Her mother’s hair had turned totally gray by now, too. Annalee wondered how much longer she would have them and felt a few more tears flow.
The service had ended in a prolonged prayer and almost before she realized it, her friends were escorting her out to the waiting cars. Her parents came along behind. Her mother had given her a quick hug, and it had felt strange, like some distant relative or someone she barely knew. Touching had never been their way, never having been demonstrative or affectionate. Her mother did manage to offer in a weak voice, “Annalee, if you can’t feed your babies, you are welcome to come home to live with us. We’ll manage to take care of you somehow.”
Her mother’s hopeless tone did nothing to encourage Annalee to give that offer a lot of thought. If she stayed with her parents, she would have to suffer all over again her mother’s continual negative comments and ways. Annalee had been away from home too long, and her own housekeeper, to want to return to that.
“Thanks, Mom. We’ll be all right.” Annalee did her best to sound hopeful, and hoped she had.
She wondered if her husband had an insurance policy. She’d heard of people having a thing like that and hoped it might be true. She decided to look into his belongings when she got home, to see if a policy might exist. If so, it would be a great deal of help to her now.
The casket was carried out by six men chosen from Gerald’s work crew and loaded into the faded, old hearse for the trip to the local cemetery. What flowers there were had been loaded in with the casket. She and the two children were taken in her parent’s old car for that last ride. During the drive, her father asked, “Any idea how you’ll get on now with Gerald gone, Annalee?”
“We’ll be all right, Dad.” She wasn’t sure of that at all, but she didn’t plan to burden her aging parents. She’d find a way. Others had, and she knew she would–somehow.
As they drove into the cemetery, the narrow graveled drive took them past monuments dedicated to many others, and of many generations. There was a large WW monument in the center of it, dedicated to soldiers lost in the Great War, as it was called. She realized she wasn’t the only one to suffer a loss. And after driving through the rows of grave markers, it came home to Annalee that death comes calling to everyone at one time or another.
When the car lurched to a halt, Annalee saw a mound of dirt piled high beside a deep hole in the ground. Seeing it, a shock ran through her as she imagined lying in an airtight box, all those terrible feet below the surface. Her throat tightened at the thought of the blackness and suffocating closeness. Even Gerald, for all his cruelty, didn’t deserve a thing like that. She hugged her children close and shook her head to rid herself of those upsetting thoughts, as she and her children took their seats before the open grave site.
Annalee told herself that the man who dwelt in that body was gone. He was no longer even a part of that body. All that was physically left of Gerald Lines would eventually become dust as Pastor Benson had just said.
Over the years, she’d visited the cemetery with her parents to place flowers on a long-dead relative’s grave. She’d known that feeling then, and felt it. That person they’d come to visit was no longer there–merely a name of someone lost. But now, she understood far more deeply that change and the way it affected a family and those left behind
She settled back to listen to the pastor’s final words, and noticed her stomach felt empty. I should be feeling guilty for thinking of the food we’ll have after this burial service, but I don’t. And I don’t feel guilty for being glad Gerald is gone from my life.
The table at her small home was groaning from the many dishes her neighbors had brought to her. It was their usual way of offering what comfort they could at this sad time. It was customary–everyone did it, including Annalee.
Mary Jensen, her close neighbor, often watched her children when Annalee did her shopping alone. Mary had asked to take the children to her home after the services were over, and Annalee planned to take advantage of her offer. They needed to be away from this depressing event.
She turned her attention to the pastor again to hear, “…ashes to ashes, dust to dust,” as he tossed a handful of earth down onto the casket.
When had they lowered it? She hadn’t really noticed, being lost in thought the way she’d been.
But she’d paid attention when Bucky had grabbed her arm and cried, “Momma, where are they putting my daddy?”
She did her best to explain as much as possible, in hushed tones, that his daddy was no longer in that body until the pastor motioned for her to toss a handful of dirt down onto Gerald’s casket.
Annalee didn’t mind doing that. It was a final gesture and one she found easy enough to do. She dropped the handful of earth and brushed her hands together, as though washing her hands of an unhappy period in her life. After the final intonation, she took her children by the hand and slowly walked away.
She felt a hand on her elbow. “This way, Annalee. You’re wandering.” It was Amy who guided her along toward their car. “Are you all right, An? Losing a husband and father has to be about the hardest thing for a family to endure.”
“Yes, I just forgot where we were going. I didn’t notice where your car was for a moment.” Annalee uttered a slight, embarrassed groan. “Thanks, Amy, you’re a good friend.” She looked around. “What happened to Carol?”
“I don’t know,” Amy replied. “She seemed awfully shook up for some reason. Wonder what’s the matter with her today.” Amy lowered her voice. “Did you see the way she was carrying on? It was like she’d lost a husband, instead of you.”
Annalee thought Carol was pretty hard to figure out at times. “I don’t know, Amy. Maybe it brings back some bad memories or something.”
“Or something,” Amy said, a distant tone in her voice. “Sometimes I wonder about her. She’s married, but she doesn’t seem that happy. They haven’t had any kids yet, either. Did you ever hear why that is?”
“Never heard, but I can’t worry about her life right now. I’ve plenty of my own problems to face, Amy, and I confess I’m worried that I can’t handle things alone.”
They reached the row of parked cars.
“Why not ride with me and Derrick? “Amy said. “We’re your friends, An, and will do whatever we can to help, you know that. And don’t you be so stiff-necked about asking, now, will you?”
“Thanks, Amy.” Annalee hadn’t even noticed Amy’s husband, Derrick, in the crowd. “We’d love to ride with you both. I’ll just signal my folks.”
After she waved to her parents, she herded her little ones and herself into Amy and Derrick’s fairly new Buick. The soft, cushiony seats were covered with heavy maroon velvet, and she sank happily into them.
The car smelled like ‘new car’ to Annalee and, as Derrick drove, it seemed to glide along like they were on a slick tarred road.
“This is a nice car, Amy.” Annalee felt herself melting into the luxury and softness, and quietly wondered if any time in her life she would own a car like this. She uttered a soft sigh.
Amy turned and looked back over the front seat. “Annalee, I will help you in any way I can, you know that.” Her expression was serious, but her eyes held a sparkle of excitement. “Maybe you could take care of kids. Why not? You’re good at it and wouldn’t have to leave your house. You could take in some money that way, you know, to help out.”
“That’s a good idea, Amy. If you hear of anyone needing that kind of help, please put in a good word for me.” Annalee felt a touch of excitement and a renewed sense of courage. She would be good at that kind of work. She certainly knew that job. Her house was small, but she could manage. After all, kids were small, too.
They reached her modest home and had gotten out to enter, when her parents came up. Her mother huffed, “We were all set to give you a ride, Annalee.” She seemed a little put out judging by the sour expression on her face.
“Well, Mom, Amy was right there. We’ve been good friends for quite a while now.” She introduced Amy and Derrick to her parents, and they walked into her home together. They were met with a houseful of well-wishers and mourners. Several ladies from the church had begun serving food.
Annalee let Mary Jensen take her children to her home across the street. She felt herself taken about, meeting the people who had come on this sad occasion. Many hands offered comfort, pity, and enough suggestions to set her mind in a whirl.
She gratefully and thankfully waited for them to finish eating and slowly depart. She craved time alone after the services and people crowding around.
The business of burying her husband had made her feel frustrated and tired. She appreciated everything, shed many tears, but her body was stiff with fatigue.
Later on, Mary Jensen brought her children back home, and they wandered about, lost in the confusion. Her mother had tried to hold them and talk to them, but they didn’t know her well enough and shied away. Little Sarah cried and reached out to Annalee.
She apologized to her parents, seeing they were hurt by the children’s rejection. “Don’t be upset with them, Mom and Dad. They don’t see you enough to know you very well.”
But they were upset as they took their leave, and Annalee waved them off with a sigh. Being left alone with her children to begin life anew as a young widow was all Annalee wanted right now. As the last person departed, she slowly shut the door and heaved another sigh.
She took baby Sarah on her knee and held Buckley close against her body. “My darling babies, I will do my best for you. We can do this together.” She repeated her thoughts aloud, “I can do this. I know I can.”
© 2014 by Ramona Forrest