Was a letter delivered to the wrong person or was God in it?
When Englishman Nate Trowbridge inherits his uncle’s American ranch, he and his sister Leonie travel to Colorado. Nate plans to become a gentleman rancher and to marry Emmaline Chiswick, the daughter of family friends in Denver.
But Nate’s orderly world is turned upside down when his proposal letter to Emmaline is accidentally delivered to the wrong woman. When a redheaded adventuress arrives on his doorstep, demanding that he honor his offer of marriage, Nate is outraged at her nerve but also attracted to her beauty.
But when Molly Clanahan refuses to be bribed and also refuses to leave his house, Nate finds himself on the horns of a dilemma. In his wealthy social circles, where reputation is everything, the presence of a voluptuous unmarried woman in his home is a recipe for disaster.
But the longer Molly stays, the more Nate begins to suspect that she isn’t the greedy gold digger that she seems. He starts to believe that she’s taken refuge in his home because she’s hiding from something.
When Molly suddenly disappears, Nate decides to solve the mystery of her real identity and plunges into a series of events that will threaten his reputation, challenge his courage, and bring him face to face with pure evil. Because the search will take him to the lowest and vilest places in the West, and force him to decide if the truth is really what he wants.
Or if he wants Molly herself.
“Denver to Cheyenne and points north, boarding now on Platform One!”
Nate Trowbridge pulled a golden watch out of his vest pocket and checked the time. To his satisfaction, the Denver Pacific Railway kept a precise schedule, even with its minor runs. Since he was shortly going to be living in one of the smallest towns in Colorado, it was comforting to know that the DPR wasn’t going to penalize him for it.
Unlike some others he could name. Nate smoothed his moustache in irritation.
His butler in London had been close to tears but had solemnly informed him that he couldn’t possibly live in a place as uncivilized as the American frontier.
“There are natives there, sir,” Jeffers had told him in a horrified voice. “They live outdoors, in the rain, and barely wear clothes. And the settlers, they say, are only slightly different.”
Nate returned his watch carefully to his pocket and gestured for a porter. It had been a deuced inconvenience to lose his butler, but he had risen to the occasion. In Jeffers’ absence, he’d packed his own bags, and he had filled several large trunks with what he considered the bare minimum for a young gentleman in transit―twenty changes of clothes, five pairs of shoes, five pairs of boots, a half dozen hats for various activities, a complete shaving and toilette kit, Bay Rum and aftershaves, a few sets of matching tie tacks and cufflinks, and some amusing books and magazines.
Besides which, he had also packed a few things as gifts for his little sister Leonie, who had come over from London before him and had been staying with their friends the Chiswicks in Denver. He had collected Leonie but was holding her gifts back until they arrived at their new home, when he would present them. Leonie was inordinately fond of silly, frippery things.
Nate glanced down at her and smiled indulgently. Leonie had amassed quite a collection of fripperies. Her own line of trunks was almost long enough to qualify as a train in its own right.
“Well, was Denver amusing?” he inquired. “I suppose you and Francie kept yourselves busy.”
Leonie glanced up at him, and her blonde curls bobbed. “We were very entertained,” she agreed and twirled a frilly parasol from her gloved fingers. “There are so many young men in Denver! And all of them are so … so different from the boys in London!”
Nate raised an eyebrow. “Here now,” he objected, “is that any way for a young lady to talk? You don’t want to give people the idea that you’re a manhunter, my dear,” he admonished her and pinched her nose. “Probably the fault of those ridiculous romances you’re forever reading.”
Leonie giggled and pulled her face away. “Oh, Nate! You’re so old-fashioned,” she complained. “You’re even worse than Momma and Poppa were! Can’t I even talk about boys? I’m sixteen now, you know,” she reminded him significantly.
“Yes, you’re ready for parliament, I daresay,” he mumbled and flagged down a porter.
“Can you see to our bags?” he asked and pressed a crisp bill into the man’s hand. The porter’s face lit up.
“Certainly, sir! Where are they?”
Nate turned to point at a large cart, groaning under more than twenty trunks, and the man’s face fell, but he swallowed and gave them a sickly smile. “Yes, sir.”
Nate extended his arm; Leonie took it, and they strolled down the platform toward the first-class carriages.
“Have you seen Uncle Clayton’s house yet?” Leonie asked him, and Nate shook his head.
“No. But they tell me the main house is heavily damaged,” he sighed. “There was an Indian attack,” he told her and widened his eyes for dramatic effect. “Devilish business.”
Leonie’s eyes widened appreciatively. “Oh, Nate, how exciting! Do you think we’ll meet any Indians?”
“I trust not,” he replied faintly. “I’m told the ones in question were rounded up and carried off to another state.”
Leonie’s pretty expression darkened. “That’s just my luck, too,” she complained. “Nothing exciting ever happens to me!”
“And that’s the way we’re going to keep it,” he muttered and helped her climb the narrow steps into the train car.
The interior of the club car was as opulent and comfortable as Nate could wish, but he would never have dreamed of traveling in anything but private compartments. He presented their tickets to the smiling man just inside, and they were led immediately to a beautiful, and comparatively roomy, salon.
He sat down in a plush seat opposite his sister and sighed as an ornate menu was pressed into his hand.
“Would you like some time to decide, sir, or shall I take your lunch order now?”
Nate pulled off his kidskin gloves. “I’ll have black coffee and a steak, medium rare, with new potatoes. And the lady will have café au lait and the chicken cordon bleu, with spring vegetables.”
“Very good, sir.”
The waiter took their menus, bowed, and retreated, but as soon as he was well out, Leonie frowned at him.
“You won’t even let me order for myself!” she pouted. “I’m not a child anymore, Nate!”
He returned her glare with a mild look. “I know what you would’ve ordered. It saves time,” he replied.
“I get so put out with you,” Leonie complained, but Nate gave his little sister a fond glance. Leonie was sunny-tempered, and her pouts never lasted for long.
“Nate, you’re simply going to have to get a house in Denver. How am I supposed to find a husband if I’m stuck way out in the wilderness, where there are no parties or dances? Francie tells me that there are nointeresting people in Indian Rock whatsoever.”
Nate’s eyes were on the passing scenery. “You mean, there are no boys in Indian Rock, I expect,” he murmured. “We’ll see. I need to confirm that the house is still standing before I can throw glittering parties to ensnare eligible young men.”
“You make that sound like it’s wrong.”
There was a knock at the door, and soon the porter entered pushing a narrow cart covered with silver. He pulled hinged trays out from the wall to form trays and set them with linen and silver before pouring hot coffee into two china cups.
Nate raised one to his lips and murmured: “Will we have time to finish lunch, do you think before we arrive at Indian Rock?”
The porter nodded. “Yes, sir. It’s still more than an hour away. I’ll give you plenty of warning. It’s such a small place; you’ll miss it if I don’t.”
He winked, grinned, and disappeared to bring their meal, but the cloud returned to Leonie’s face, and Nate suppressed a sigh and watched wearily as the wild scenery rolled past.
A discreet knock on the door, a little under an hour later, alerted Nate that their stop was imminent. He folded the newspaper that he’d bought at the station and answered, “Yes?”
A uniformed porter opened the door. “Indian Rock will be coming up in thirty minutes, Mr Trowbridge.”
“Thank you. Can you have our trunks ready?”
The door closed, and Nate returned to his paper. The Denver news was full of glowing prophecies about the business opportunities that Colorado’s new statehood was sure to bring. That was of interest; he had an ambition to build his uncle’s ranch back up again and to continue its reputation as an influential concern.
Nate turned the page, and the society column caught his eye. Their friends the Chiswicks were leading lights in Denver society, and their recent charity ball had been written up in the paper. Nate twitched his moustache in distaste and suffered a flicker of mortification on the Chiswicks’ behalf. No respectable family wanted its doings bandied about in the press for all to see.
He swallowed a sigh. Still, it was understood that parties and balls were necessary when a family had three daughters, as the Chiswicks did. Leonie’s friend, Francie was the youngest, Rose was the middle child, and Emmaline was the oldest.
Nate stared at the paper momentarily without seeing it. Emmaline was a beautiful, elegant young woman, and very soft-spoken. He’d had the pleasure of her company two or three times since coming to Denver. Emmaline had dark hair, a creamy, perfect complexion, and a slender figure.
Nate folded the newspaper neatly in half and placed it on the seat beside him. After a few confirmation visits, he was satisfied that Emmaline Chiswick would make him an admirable wife.
The Chiswicks and the Trowbridges had often intermarried, over three generations and two continents, and he had decided to uphold the family tradition. Once he was settled into his new house and had established his business, he meant to write Emmaline and propose marriage.
And in spite of their slight acquaintance, the offer would not surprise her. It was the tradition of their families for the prospective groom to make one formal appeal, and for the prospective bride to accept through a proxy, usually her father.
There would be plenty of time for him and Emmaline to get to know one another after they were married.
Leonie pressed her bright ringlets against the glass of the window and cried: “Oh, there it is, Nate! And look―have you ever seen a tinier little station, in all your life?” she giggled. “I’ve seen doll’s houses that were bigger!”
Nate glanced up and had to bite back a shocked exclamation. He’d been prepared for a small town, but no one had given him any warning just how small.
The whole of Indian Rock consisted of a single dirt road with a handful of clapboard buildings. The Indian Rock train station was hardly bigger than a guard shack, and Nate looked at the tiny platform and feared that it actually might be too small to hold their baggage.
There came another knock at the door. “Sir, this is your stop.”
Nate sighed, pulled on his gloves, and extended an arm to his sister before they sallied forth to inspect what their uncle had left them.
To Nate’s relief, their luggage was waiting for them on the platform when they debarked the train. He gave the hopeful porter two crisp bills, and the man’s face brightened. “Thank you, sir!”
Nate walked to the rear of the platform. He had telegraphed the staff of the ranch two days before to warn them of his arrival. And when he looked, to his relief, there was a carriage waiting for them on the road below, and also a wagon for their things.
The man driving the carriage took off his hat and extended a hand. “Afternoon, Mr Trowbridge.” He smiled. “Welcome to the Circle T!”
Nate shook his hand limply. “Thank you,” he murmured. “My sister and I have traveled from Denver, and are tired. Are our rooms ready?”
“Yes, sir, as nice as we can make ’em. The house did get pretty busted up in the fight. You’ll see what I mean.”
“I daresay,” Nate muttered and extended a hand to help Leonie into the carriage before following. “Well, drive on. I suppose we’ll see for ourselves.”
The man touched his hat and jumped up into the driver’s seat, and soon they were rolling down a dusty dirt road.
As they crashed over the fourth pothole, Nate made a mental note that the road desperately needed to be repaired, and the springs on the carriage were severely lacking. He determined to buy a new rig just as soon as one could be delivered. They were jouncing over every pothole and rock on the road, and the dust was so bothersome that they were soon digging for their handkerchiefs.
But one thing almost made up for the wretched ride and the near-deserted town—the glorious landscape. Nate felt his mouth falling open more than once as he scanned the breathtaking sweep of the rolling green meadows, ringed by distant gray mountains. The countryside reminded him almost of the Alps, with its near vertical mountain slopes, its bright, chattering, ice-cold streams, and its vivid greenery.
Wildlife surprised them at every turn. A deer bounded out of the underbrush, vaulted across the road ahead of them, and disappeared into a stand of aspens. A hawk swooped down to perch on a tree limb on one side of the road and watched them with its fierce yellow eyes as they passed.
Leonie tugged at his sleeve, crying: “Look, Nate, there!”
He turned just in time to catch a glimpse of a huge creature with antlers as broad and high as a wagon.
The driver saw them staring and laughed at their expressions. “That’s a moose,” he told them, nodding toward the creature. “You have to be careful of them. They can be dangerous, and they’re faster than they look. I’ve seen one clear a nine-foot fence!”
Leonie turned to him and giggled, and Nate allowed himself to smile.
When they turned into the ranch gates at last, Nate was favourably impressed with the scope of his new property. His Uncle Clayton’s ranch was every bit as big, and a good deal more beautiful, even than their family’s ancestral holdings in Devon. Of course, the land here was wild and untended, but there was a good fifteen-minute drive from the gates to the front door, which he considered the correct scale for a proper country house.
Leonie leaned out a bit to catch sight of the house as it crept into view. “Oh, Nate!” she gasped.
As they rounded the last bend in the drive, and the big house slowly crept into view, Nate felt his mouth drop open at the sight that met his unwilling eyes. The house had been an elegant white-columned mansion, but it was missing its front door. The whole entrance had been smashed in as if a locomotive had ploughed through it. All of the first-floor windows were shattered, and many more on the second-floor, and the whole façade was pockmarked with bullet holes.
“Good heavens!” Nate gasped and gripped the back of the driver’s seat. “It’s devastated!”
Their driver glanced at them apologetically over his shoulder. “There was a regular battle here, all right,” he told them, “twixt the U.S. Cavalry and the Cheyenne Nation. No love lost there, I can tell you.”
Nate shook his head in disbelief. “But―but I was told that the house was still liveable,” he stammered. “It’s standing open to the world!”
The man glanced back at him again. “Oh, it’s still good,” he assured them. “The first floor got the brunt of it, but the second floor is still almost just like it was, ’ceptin for a few bullet holes in the walls. You still have locking doors up there, anyway.”
“Why―we can’t possibly―turn the rig around, this instant,” Nate commanded.”We’ll have to return to Denver. I wouldn’t think of spending the night in such a―”
Their driver frowned at them in puzzlement. “Go back, you say? Why, mister, the train don’t stop here again until tomorrow night. You’re going to have to bunk up here for at least that long unless you stay at the hotel in Indian Rock. I’ve been there before, Mr Trowbridge, and if you take my advice, you won’t chance it. There’s no tellin’ who’s been there before you, and last time, I came away scratchin’.”
Nate stared at him in speechless outrage and turned away to keep from blurting the very ungentlemanly words that flashed across his mind. He was going to fire the lout who’d given him such a false report. What had his name been―Will, that was it. Will something-or-other.
But in the meantime, it seemed he had no choice but to make the best of a very unsatisfactory situation. With a mighty effort, Nate regained his composure, turned to Leonie, and put on his most reassuring expression.
“Well, my dear, since it can’t be helped―it seems that something exciting is going to happen after all,” he told her.
Leonie smiled at him weakly, but her eyes were uncertain, and he felt moved to pat her hand. “There, there,” he soothed. “Buck up. We’ll―we’ll live like the wild Indians, out in the open. It will be an―an adventure.”
To his annoyance, their driver seemed to find that funny, though he wouldn’t explain why he was laughing. Just one more irritation to add to an outrageous afternoon.
When they pulled up to the entrance at last, to Nate’s horror, the destruction was even worse than he’d feared. Shattered glass covered the front steps and foyer like a prickly carpet, and the smashed double doors lay twisted and splintered on the walkway. Spent shell casings and broken arrows littered the ground. The front steps and entryway were heavily stained with what looked like dried blood.
“We can’t walk through this. There must be a side entrance,” he told the driver.
“Yessir. The kitchen door, around the side of the building. It’s not quite as bad. Watch your step, miss.”
Nate reached for Leonie’s hand and led her through the appalling debris of what must have been a massacre. Nate found himself mumbling: “Don’t look, Leonie,” and “keep your eyes on me.”
Their driver picked his way through the debris littering the grounds and around the left side of the house. At the back, there was a small portico, but its door was hanging askew, and debris covered the ground.
Nate gingerly led his sister through a maze of smashed and broken furniture that had been piled up against the door as a barricade. He found himself in a large and well-appointed kitchen, but here, too, the signs of a savage conflict were everywhere.
“Take us upstairs by the nearest way,” he commanded, and the man touched his hat and led the way through a small door to the left, and up a service stairway. To Nate’s intense relief, as they climbed, the bullet holes and scorch marks lessened, and when they stepped out into the elegant upper corridor, they might almost have been in some grand house in London.
“It is better up here,” he sighed.
Their guide leaned against one wall and pointed. “Here’s the lady’s chambers, through this door,” he told them, indicating the elegantly carved door at the end of the hall, “and then two-three guest rooms, and then the late Mr Trowbridge’s den, and his bedroom suite, at the other end.”
Nate fixed the man with a disapproving frown. “Why hasn’t this been cleaned up?” he demanded. “It looks as if it happened yesterday!”
“Yessir,” the man replied in glum agreement. “It’s just that we who lived on the place were thrown out of a job when Mr Trowbridge passed. Some left after the funeral, but the ones that stayed had their hands full with the animals. There’s lots of cattle on this ranch still.”
“And what with the doors smashed in, we figured it’d make more sense to worry about guarding the place than to clean it. The glass and the piles of furniture do discourage thieves.”
Nate looked at the man’s honest face and had the grace to go red. “I see. I’m grateful to the men who … who stayed. I suppose it’s been a challenge to keep the place going.”
“That it has, Mr Trowbridge. I won’t lie to you.”
Nate stripped off his gloves. “You may tell the men for me, that those who want to stay may begin work tomorrow morning, and that any back wages due will be added to their pay packets this Friday.”
The man looked up at him sharply. “Yes, sir.”
“And tomorrow morning, if anyone can be spared, have them ride into town and bring back any men who are willing to clean this debris away. I’ll pay the going rate, plus a bonus.”
“I’ll do it.”
Nate looked down the hall with a sigh. “Where’s the cook?”
The man rubbed his stubbly chin with one hand. “Well―there ain’t no cook here now, Mr Trowbridge. There used to be, but she left.”
“Where is she now?”
“She lives a bit outside Indian Rock.”
“Go and get her. Give her some money,”―he reached into his jacket and pulled out his wallet―“and tell her to buy what she needs in town, and then come and cook our dinner tonight, and our breakfast tomorrow. Tell her she’s working here again.” He handed the man a wad of cash.
The man looked up at him and grinned with tobacco-stained teeth. “That’s good news to a lot of people, I can tell you,” he replied; and he touched his hat again and disappeared down the stairs.
Nate watched him go with dark eyes and then returned ruefully to Leonie. “Shall we inspect the lady’s chambers?” he asked gently and extended his arm. Leonie gave him a wan smile, but took it, and together, they began to explore their new home.
That evening, Nate sat shrouded in cigar smoke and gloom in his uncle’s upstairs den. The leather chair was comfortable and deep, and the elegant room was mostly untouched by the murderous brawl that had ruined the rest of the house.
But Nate rolled his head back onto the chair and blew a smoke ring toward the ornate ceiling. For the first time, he wondered if Jeffers had been right. The American frontier was proving a very hard place indeed for a gentleman, to say nothing of a young lady like his sister Leonie.
The whole affair was strange.
His uncle’s house was a shambles, and what was more, the circumstances of his death were suspicious. Why would a healthy man fall down the stairs of his own home? Nate wondered if the official explanation―death by misadventure―had been the right one.
Of course, it was a moot point now.
Personally, he had very little memory of his uncle. His mother had spoken of Clayton seldom during his childhood, and when she did, it was in a tone that suggested there might be something wrong with him. But since Clayton lived in Colorado, and they lived in London, the awkward subject seldom came up.
That is until he received a cable from a strange solicitor in New York, informing him that Clayton had died and that as Clayton’s nearest relatives, he and Leonie had fallen heir to their uncle’s considerable wealth.
Nate sighed and tapped cigar ash onto an enameled tray. Nothing had proceeded as he’d expected, but he had embarked on this adventure, and he refused to accept anything less than success. He planned to restore his uncle’s estate and to marry Emmaline Chiswick, and he was going to carry them out no matter what outrageous hardships blocked the way.
But the outrageous hardships had so far been formidable, and they just kept coming. Nate rolled his eyes back to the ceiling and sighed. They had barely gotten their dinner that evening. The cook arrived from town―a strange, silent woman named Maria―and had made them some weird local dish that had set their mouths on fire.
He had sent her back to the kitchen with a command to make steaks, and she had returned with a much more palatable meal, but even so.
Leonie was safely tucked away in a large and elegant suite at the end of the hall, but she was shivering in her new bed because there were bullet holes in the windows, and he had evicted an owl that had somehow gotten in and set up housekeeping in her closet.
The creature had flown right into his face, and he’d had the deuce of a time getting it out of the bedroom. Leonie had thought it was funny, and he was grateful for that, at least; that she hadn’t been frightened.
Once the house was properly cleaned and repaired, and an orderly routine established, he’d be able to move forward. But it was going to take a long time, much longer than he’d imagined, to be in a position to host parties, or even to receive guests.
He would overcome the difficulty, of course.
Nate tilted his chin up to the ceiling and blew another contemplative smoke ring.
The next morning, Nate was awakened by a soft rapping at his bedroom door. It was their driver of the day before, informing him that the men had arrived from town to clean up the house.
“Excellent,” Nate replied and reached for his robe. “They can start straight away. I’ll be down after breakfast.”
Nate walked into the big dressing room and began his morning toilette. He ran a doubtful hand over his chin, poured water out of a china pitcher into a matching bowl, and began to shave.
Morning light was streaming through the big bedroom windows, and he felt much better after a long sleep. The scent of coffee wafting up from below told him that breakfast was on the way.
Life was falling back into some semblance of order―however rough.
When he’d finished dressing, he walked down to the dining room, where a table from Leonie’s boudoir had replaced the one that had been smashed. He found his sister in high spirits.
“Oh, Nate, I can’t wait to tell Francie all about this,” she told him and took a sip of coffee from a china cup. “It’s such an adventure!”
Nate closed the door behind him because the sounds of heavy boots, and the sound of men’s voices, and the heavy scrape of lumber was threatening to drown out her voice.
“Well, that’s one way to look at it,” he replied and sat down opposite her. “But I wish you wouldn’t tell Francie about our difficulties just yet,” he added and shook out a napkin. “Let us salvage something of our family’s reputation!”
Leonie’s eyes widened, and she leaned across the table to murmur: “So you’ve noticed, too! I think Uncle Clayton wasn’t much liked,” she confided.
Nate took a sip of coffee. “You may be right, my dear. All the more reason for us to maintain the proprieties. We’re somewhat at a disadvantage, I think.”
Leonie’s brow clouded. “You mean people might dislike us because they disliked Uncle Clayton.”
“It is just possible.”
She raised rueful eyes to his face. “That’s hardly fair!”
“I won’t argue. It is human nature, nevertheless.”
The door opened suddenly to admit the cook―a short, round woman with dark hair and eyes. She carried in a steaming platter of scrambled eggs and bacon and set it down on the table. Then she turned without a word and walked out again.
Leonie followed the woman with her eyes. When the cook had disappeared, Leonie leaned across the table to whisper: “Is she going to be like that all the time?”
“She never says a word. It’s so odd!”
Nate took a sip of coffee. “Nonsense. Servants are supposed to be discreet. It’s a sign of good training.”
Leonie looked doubtful and filled Nate’s plate with bacon and eggs. “Francie told me that they don’t like the word servant, over here.”
“What word do they like?”
“They call them employees.”
Nate took a bite of scrambled eggs. “What’s the difference?”
Leonie looked thoughtful. “I don’t know. Leonie didn’t tell me that part.”
The door opened again, and Maria walked up to the table, deposited a bread basket full of biscuits and corn cakes, and marched out in stony silence.
Leonie watched her go and then rolled her eyes to Nate’s face. They looked at one another for a pregnant moment and then broke down in smothered laughter.
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