When she inherited a remote ranch, she wasn’t expecting to find love and a new family there. Can she trust him now that their past keeps coming after them?
Having inherited her beloved uncle’s ranch in Nevada, Nelly agrees to the biggest challenge of her life, leaving behind London’s high society. But while she fights for her newly found freedom, facing all the difficulties to adjust in the Old West, an unexpected love is emerging. Will she learn to trust him and embrace her new life in the ranch?
Having a deep secret, Louis keeps to himself. This way, no one will ever get hurt again. But now that a new boss has arrived, Louis realizes that this is not an easy task. As they spend time together, he is faced with his greatest fear. How can he trust again while his past is still haunting him?
When a dispute about Nelly’s land blows out of proportion, Nelly and Louis will have to fight. Even if that means sacrificing what is most valuable to them. How can they save the land that they now call home and protect their love at the same time?
London, March 1888
The swirl of gowns, as young women were twirled around the richly decorated ballroom of the Duke of Devonshire’s mansion, could barely be heard above the waltz being played. Nelly has a headache and was not one of the women dancing. Instead, Eleanor Nelly Worthington sat in the corner, hiding from her stepmother, and praying that none of the men would attempt to get on her dance card, which she’d managed to keep mercifully blank. At twenty-four, she was much older than some of the other young women, but that was fine with her.
Watching the dancers, Nelly felt herself stifling a yawn. It had taken hours to get ready for tonight’s ball, the largest one of the season, and Nelly wished for nothing more than to crawl back into her warm bed. Of course, her stepmother would never hear of such a thing. Tonight, was to be her crowning achievement, the night when she convinced the Duke of Devonshire’s son and heir to give Nelly a glance.
The thought of James being interested in her caused Nelly to release an unladylike snort. James, who upon his father’s death would become a peer of the realm, would never look at someone like Nelly. It wasn’t that Nelly was homely. With her long red hair, large blue eyes, and fair skin, she was often compared to a porcelain doll. The only thing that could be held against her was that her slender build was out of fashion, as her stepmother constantly reminded her.
James might dance with her, but she was not a serious contender because she was not an aristocrat. As a duke, James would be expected to marry someone of his own station, which Nelly certainly was not. Nelly’s family was wealthy, much wealthier than James’ own, but they weren’t titled, which in London society was a very important.
Nelly didn’t care. She’d sooner cut off all her hair than allow herself to be tied down in marriage, especially to a man as boring as James.
That was what Nelly contemplated as her father strode towards her looking frazzled. “Father?”
His appearance startled the dancers, and they stopped their polite conversations to turn their attention and ears towards Charles Worthington and his oddity of a daughter.
Nelly instantly knew that something was terribly wrong. Though her father did not care for propriety as much as her stepmother, he was not a man prone to dramatics.
“Come with me,” he said. His white gloved hand gripped her elbow as he led her out of the ballroom and away from the prying eyes of society. Nelly was certain that the moment they were out of view, the town would begin tittering about her father’s action, each person developing their own theory as to why Charles Worthington would pull his daughter abruptly away.
“What’s going on?” Nelly asked, her voice trembling slightly.
“I’ll tell you when we get in the carriage,” he told her.
They stood outside in the cool air waiting as the Devonshire footmen brought round their family carriage.
“Where is Charlotte?” Nelly asked. Surely, whatever has happened isn’t so dire that he’d leave his own wife behind, Nelly thought.
“I’m here,” Charlotte said as she came rushing out with her expensive stole wrapped elegantly around her shoulders. Charlotte opened her mouth, to denounce her father’s actions, but one look from him and she decided against speaking.
The three of them looked a sight as they stood in the drizzle awaiting their carriage, each one getting wet from the downpour.
Nelly was nervous. She couldn’t stop tapping her foot. She hadn’t seen her father like this since her mother died, and her stomach dropped at the thought. Her mind raced as she began thinking about beloved relatives who might have passed on. There weren’t many left, and surely none that would cause her father this much outward grief.
As their carriage approached, Nelly released a small sigh. She wanted to get out of the rain, and she wanted answers.
“Now tell us what is going on,” Charlotte said as the three of them settled into the carriage. “This isn’t like you, and you are scaring both of us.” Her tone was short and clipped.
Nelly hated agreeing with her stepmother, but at this point, she must. Her father was scaring her.
“Josiah’s perished,” her father said, his voice gruff with emotion.
For a moment, Nelly scrunched up her face as she searched her brain for the name Josiah. When it came to her, she gasped.
“Uncle Josiah?” Nelly asked. Her father nodded, clearly too choked up to speak. He turned his face away from the two women in the carriage, but Nelly could see the tears shining in his eyes.
“A letter arrived this evening informing the family,” her father told them after he took a few quiet moments to collect himself.
Nelly wasn’t sure what to say. She hardly knew Uncle Josiah. Her father rarely talked about him unless it was to curse his name when the responsibilities of being a Worthington fell solely on his shoulders. Josiah had always sent Nelly trinkets from America and sweet letters telling her about his experiences.
Though Nelly hadn’t known Uncle Josiah, she’d always secretly felt him to be a kindred spirit. Only he’d been brave enough to escape the expectations of the Worthington family whilst Nelly was simply buying time until she became stuck forever.
Being a woman is a terrible fate, Nelly thought.
For the past year, Nelly had been forced to attend a myriad of social events. Her father was adamant about her finding a husband to inherit his fortune, and he didn’t much care if Nelly wanted that for herself or not.
“What are you going to do?” Charlotte asked. Nelly felt guilty for not doing the same, for not offering her father some sort of comfort, but she didn’t really know what to say or do. Grief was an oddly isolating emotion, something that Nelly remembered from when her mother passed.
“There’s nothing to do,” Charles said gruffly. Nelly noticed him swipe a tear that had escaped, and her heart ached for her father. Though they disagreed on many things, she adored him. “His employee sent the letter informing me that he’d already been buried. Apparently, Josiah left instructions to be interred somewhere on his own land.”
That sounded reasonable to Nelly, but she could hear the hurt in her father’s voice.
“We’ll have prayers said for his soul during church,” Charlotte said. From the eager look on her face, she wanted to do something to assuage Charles’s grief.
“You’d need every person in the congregation, perhaps even all of London, to say a prayer if you wished to deliver Josiah’s soul unto heaven.”
Nelly tried not to laugh at her father’s words. It didn’t seem like the appropriate time, especially since her father probably spoke out of grief-ridden anger rather than true sarcasm.
“Still …” Charlotte said, her voice calm, “we will speak with the bishop, find some way to honor Josiah.”
This time Nelly did roll her eyes. From what she knew of Josiah, he’d not been a particularly religious man, and all of this trouble felt like a way for Charlotte to be important rather than for her to honor her fallen brother-in-law, one whom she’d never even met.
“We’ll do what you think is the best, dear,” Charles said.
The clomping of the horses, and rattle of carriage wheels on the cobbled streets of London, were the only sound as they made their way home. The Duke of Devonshire’s estate was slightly outside of the city center, which meant they were in for a long ride.
“There’s more,” Nelly’s father said, breaking the cloud of quiet reflection that had slid over the three of them.
“More?” Charlotte asked. She sounded just as confused as Nelly felt. What more could Josiah’s employee have written in the letter he sent to her father?
“Josiah died without any heirs,” her father told them.
Nelly wasn’t shocked by that. Josiah never mentioned a wife or children in any of the letters he sent her, though he generally told her more about the freedoms in America rather than anything biographical.
“That should make things rather simple,” Nelly said. From the way her father and grandparents spoke about Josiah, Nelly couldn’t imagine that he had much for an heir to argue over.
“Not quite,” her father said. This time he turned his full attention on her. His crystal blue eyes, so much like her own, stared intensely at her. His gaze made her nervous, and she tried not to squirm in her seat.
“What do you mean?” she asked.
“Josiah amassed a large amount of land in Nevada,” her father told her.
“Nevada? How horrible.” Charlotte shuddered. Nelly tried not to laugh at Charlotte’s expression. Charlotte thought that any country outside of Europe was inhabited by heathens. She might have tolerated, or even been excited by, the idea of Josiah owning land if it had been in New York, but she certainly did not think much about his holdings being in Nevada.
“I suppose we will have to figure out what to do with the land,” Nelly said. She didn’t know much about the law in England, let alone the law in America, but she did know that oftentimes not having male children ready to inherit could cause incredible problems. Her father spoke of that problem himself; it was partially why he was so desperate for Nelly to marry. He needed someone to leave his considerable fortune to should he perish.
“Josiah already figured it out,” her father said. His eyes remained on her, and she felt as though she were missing something important.
“That’s splendid, I suppose,” Nelly said hesitantly, unsure of what reaction would be the most appropriate.
“Is the ranch hand who sent you the letter set to inherit?” Charlotte asked. Nelly tried not to look suspiciously at her stepmother whose tone indicated that she thought it ridiculous that her uncle’s ranch hand was inheriting his land; it wasn’t as though Charlotte wanted the land for herself, but she did have very specific ideas about who should inherit and who should not.
“No,” her father said. Nelly tried not to get frustrated. It felt as though her father were drawing all of this out unnecessarily, and Nelly’s already thin patience was at an all-time low.
Nelly’s father looked more displeased at delivering this news than he did at the death of his brother, and it instantly made her wary.
“He left it to you, Eleanor,” her father spat out. “He left everything to you.”
Four weeks had passed since news of her uncle’s passing reached her father. Now, standing on the deck of the ship that would take her to her new life, Nelly could just barely make out the form of her father. He’d escorted her to the ship, reluctantly, but he’d come, nonetheless. It meant a great deal to Nelly that he supported her.
Thinking about the argument they had the night that she found out about Uncle Josiah’s death and her subsequent inheritance, Nelly felt a deep sadness over the words they’d yelled at one another.
In the end, they’d both recognized the stubbornness in the other, and they came to a mutual agreement. One that allowed Nelly to escape the confines of her society life and taste the freedom that her uncle willed to her.
The sound of the ship’s horn startled Nelly. Fear clawed its way into her chest, and a part of her wanted to run off the ship and throw herself back into her father’s arms. What am I thinking? Nelly had heard stories—gunslingers, cowboys, saloons, and desperados—of the American West, and she prayed that they were exaggerated. She wasn’t sure she was tough enough to survive if what she’d heard was true.
But what’s the alternative? Nelly wondered. Am I more prepared to be a society wife and mother? To sit inside a man’s house and be put on display?
Nelly knew the answer to that. She wasn’t.
She wasn’t sure what America held for her, but she knew that if she allowed her fear to take control, she’d end up living out her worst nightmare, which was to never amount to anything more than an ornament.
So, with one last look at her father, Nelly turned away, preparing herself for the next chapter of her life. The most exciting chapter.
Hopefully, I’m not getting in over my head. Nelly shivered at the thought. Nevada can’t be that terrible. Can it?
Thump! Nelly grabbed the window of the stagecoach to stop her head from hitting the ceiling. Groaning as the stagecoach hit a second bump in the road, Nelly tensed every muscle in her body in an effort to not go through the window.
“Wanna drink?” one of her traveling companions asked. The sweaty man, whose clothing was stained yellow with age, handed her a flask. Nelly wrinkled her nose at the smell of alcohol and her stomach roiled.
“No thank you,” Nelly said, her precise English accent drawing attention from the other members of their traveling party.
“Ya sure?” the man asked, the flask still extended towards Nelly. “Might help settle ya in. We’ve still got many miles to go.”
Nelly tried not to groan as she shot the man a small, tight smile. “I’m fine,” she said her voice slightly terse. Nelly didn’t mean to come off so snooty—she didn’t mind this man—but the idea of spending more time in a cramped stagecoach with several smelly men did not make her very happy.
“Here,” her traveling companion, Robert, told her as he handed her a flagon full of water. Nelly tried not to roll her eyes as the flagon was practically shoved into her lap. Robert, the escort her father had hired to take her from the ship in New York City to her new home in Paradise Valley, was driving her to lunacy. He was a friend of her late Uncle Josiah, who’d seen to her uncle’s affairs after his death. He’d offered himself as an escort to ensure that Nelly got to Nevada safely, but he’d been incredibly high-handed in his treatment of her, and Nelly was beginning to resent it.
“Thank you,” she said tersely. Nelly did not wish to isolate her protector; after all, America was a foreign land that she was still learning about, but with every passing mile, she felt herself growing more tired of Robert’s overbearing behavior. Whenever he cautioned her or scolded her she realized that it lessened her status amongst her fellow passengers. It embarrassed her that these men might think her soft. It was likely that she was going to have to work with men like this on the ranch, and Nelly did not wish to appear like a silly little girl.
Sipping the water, Nelly thought about the future that lay ahead.
“Why’s a lady like ya heading out West?” the man who’d offered her the flask asked. Nelly was shocked. Most of the men they’d encountered on their journey had ignored her, and until now, her stagecoach companions hadn’t paid her much thought.
“I’m not a lady,” she said quickly. In England being a lady meant something different than it did here in America. It was another thing that was going to take some getting used to for her—everyone assuming that because she dressed nicely and wore her traveling hat, she was a lady. “And I’m heading out to begin running a ranch,” she told him proudly.
It shocked Nelly that no one turned up their nose at her when she shared her plans. In fact, most people wished her well and told her to look up a friend or family member once she got out West. At least they did all of that to her face. She was sure that when she turned her back they whispered about her.
If I had said these things in London, I would probably have given the ton multiple convulsions.
Nelly smiled at the thought, especially as she recalled how her stepmother nearly caught the vapors when Nelly shared her plans to take control of her inheritance herself by traveling to the American West.
“Are ya runnin’ from ya daddy to go off and be a ranch hand?” the man asked.
Snorting, Nelly shook her head. “No,” she said primly. “I own the ranch.”
The man released a low whistle, and she tried not to be too pleased with herself. It felt good to admit to owning something. As a woman, Nelly had never really had anything of her own. Even her jewels, which she left back in England, belonged to her father.
“That’s quite a tale,” the man said. Nelly scrunched up her face at his words. What does he mean? she wondered. Before she could ask, the stagecoach hit another bump in the road, and Nelly found herself nearly catapulting towards her chaperone, Robert.
“Bloody hell,” she cursed. The second the words escaped her lips, Nelly instinctively began to apologize. Though not a lady in the aristocratic sense, Nelly had still spent a great deal of time learning proper society manners, and she knew that cursing was not how a lady conducted herself in public. From the look on her chaperone’s face, he felt the same way her father did about well-heeled ladies cursing. But here in America, I’m not confined by society. Nelly thought to herself.
Nelly knew that America was not so different from England. It wasn’t as if she were going to the Caribbean or India, but she also knew that there were differences that might work to her advantage. Uncle Josiah’s land offered her freedom and wealth, which were things she would have had to marry for back in London. That was why she’d decided to take a chance and leave everything she knew behind.
Looking out at the terrain, Nelly couldn’t help but think of Uncle Josiah as the coach rolled past lush greenery. America fascinated Nelly. Being from London, she was used to seeing stone building after building, and even when one came across a park, it was generally choked with people. Heading west, Nelly noticed the sprawling land covered in nothing but green and, though there weren’t many people to see, Nelly couldn’t stop looking out the window. Everything fascinated her. Every tree, every cowboy heading West, and even every flower caught her attention.
The frontier felt like a fresh start for Nelly, and she prayed that she’d be able to start a new life, one without the yoke of expectation that she’d felt at home.
Thank you, Uncle Josiah, Nelly thought as she allowed the cool air to wash over her.
Louis grumbled as he worked on the broken buckboard. He’d need it in a couple of days, but the old structure had taken quite a beating during a late summer storm when a tree fell on it, broke an axle, and splintered the bench. Work on the ranch had fallen by the wayside after the death of Louis’ employer, Josiah.
Sighing at the thought of his former boss, Louis began inspecting the buckboard. It needed more work than Louis had planned to do, but it looked like he wouldn’t have the luxury of leaving it until he knew more about what would come next for the ranch. Louis would need the buckboard to pick up his new boss, Eleanor Worthington, from town. Josiah’s niece would be making her way into Paradise Valley in three days’ time. Louis did not wish to feel frustration, but he did. After all, he didn’t know Eleanor, and Josiah had never mentioned much about his family from London; and besides, Louis didn’t like change. He’d worked for Josiah for several years, and he’d appreciated the work. He also enjoyed the fact that Josiah left him to his own devices.
Why’d you have to go and get yourself dead? Louis thought. He shook his head as he recalled the events that led up to Josiah’s death.
Josiah had been a man with a chip on his shoulder for absolutely no reason that Louis could figure out. After all, the man had been rich, unmarried, and free to do whatever he wanted. Life seemed good for Josiah Worthington, but he was always looking for something more.
Maybe it has something to do with his mysterious family, Louis thought as he began removing the remains of the splintered bench. His calloused hands barely flinched when they came into contact with the slivers of wood. He’d been working as a ranch hand and then foreman so long that his body had adapted to the physical exertions of his profession. The hard work wasn’t something that Louis minded. During times like this, when Louis’ head was filled with anxious thoughts, the work helped to calm him.
Why Josiah? Louis thought. Why did you constantly have to be so reckless?
He recollected the fateful night that stole Josiah’s life. Josiah was always reckless, which was something that Louis could normally control. But the night that Josiah decided to perform a horse stunt, Louis had been in town too far to talk Josiah out of pure recklessness. Louis hadn’t been able to do anything but pray for Josiah’s soul as he lay broken in the dirt.
And now everything’s an absolute mess. Things hadn’t been good on the ranch since Josiah’s death, but Louis managed to keep things together. He’d planned to leave the moment Josiah’s last rites were said over his grave, but when he’d found out that Josiah had willed the ranch to some niece, Louis felt an obligation to ensure that Josiah’s last wishes were fulfilled.
Of course, that was before Louis spent months exchanging missives with Josiah’s very difficult brother—the father to the young woman who now owned the ranch. Sighing once more, Josiah tried to release the tension in his chest. He didn’t care to be in charge of someone who knew next to nothing, and he especially did not wish to be in charge of some aristocratic darling who probably enjoyed trying on new gowns instead of dirtying herself in the mud taking care of the cows.
“Louis.” Amanda Carter came up behind him, her slight footsteps barely making a sound as she startled him out of his thoughts. Amanda had recently started working at the ranch, but Louis had known her for many years.
“What can I do for ya?” Louis asked, his Texas accent thick as his frustration grew. He tried to lessen his anger, but he found it harder than he anticipated. Thinking of the imminent arrival of the English miss had raised his hackles. He tried to control his temper, knowing that Amanda did not deserve to be on the receiving end of it.
He’d been desperate to find good help, and she’d answered his plea. She deserved nothing but his appreciation.
“When is Miss Worthington expected to arrive?” Amanda asked, her voice chipper. Louis had hired Amanda to help Miss Worthington since Louis hardly knew the first thing about women. Amanda would act as cook, housekeeper, and lady’s maid to the new arrival, which Louis hoped meant that she’d stay mostly out of his hair.
“She’s expected to arrive in three days’ time,” he told her tersely. Louis wanted to keep his mind focused on fixing the buckboard and not on Miss Worthington.
“We should get some new linens for her. The ones Mr. Worthington left behind are worn and nearly threadbare,” Amanda told him.
Louis sighed. He knew that he’d hired Amanda for this reason, but her words still created an uncontrollable irritation.
“I can’t get you into town until the buckboard is fixed,” he said.
Amanda sighed. “I imagine that that is going to take about three days?”
Louis said nothing but gave her a terse no. He focused hard on solving the problem of the damaged equipage, and it was all that he could focus on at this moment. Amanda sighed before she bid him goodbye and went back to the main house. Louis knew that he was being rude, but he felt that rudeness was preferable to an outburst of anger.
I should have fled when I had the chance, Louis thought. Some sort of ingrained sense of loyalty had kept him from leaving Paradise Valley and finding work elsewhere. It wouldn’t have been difficult considering that the entire West was being bought up by men determined to make their fortunes off the land, and most of them were looking for men like Louis to show them what to do. Sure, he wouldn’t ever find an employer who gave him the amount of freedom that Josiah Worthington did, but perhaps that wasn’t a bad thing.
After all, that relationship was why Louis stayed behind. Had Josiah not been so good to Louis when no one else was, Louis would have left the moment he was in the ground. Instead, Louis found himself facing down the possibility of the past repeating itself.
This is going to end completely poorly, Louis thought. He just prayed that whatever happened next didn’t land him back in jail.
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