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October 26, 1889
McKenna Frasier shivered as a gust of blustery autumn wind sent red and gold leaves tumbling down Bramble Lane. Her fingers felt cold and stiff from gripping the invitation to Mr. and Mrs. Henry Bramble’s Hallowe’en Revels so tightly.
McKenna couldn’t remember when she’d last been so anxious about a social event, and that was significant as she’d attended New York costume balls and formal dinners hosted by everyone from the Astors to the Vanderbilts.
She’d once been so fearless.
No, make that naive. She hadn’t ever truly understood the rules of New York society, or the consequences, until it was too late.
Dr. Jillian Parker, seated next to McKenna, gave her a light pat of reassurance on her arm. “Don’t be nervous. Just be yourself and everything will be fine.”
McKenna nodded, and pressed her lips together, wanting to believe Jillian, but as the handsome, red brick mansion at the end of the street came into view, her stomach rose and fell, her thudding pulse now matching the brisk clip-clopping of the horses’ hooves.
She couldn’t get sick here. It wouldn’t do.
Jillian leaned closer to McKenna, her voice dropping so her husband, who was driving the carriage, wouldn’t hear. “Mrs. Bramble wouldn’t have sent an invitation for the party if she didn’t want to include you.”
“That’s because I forced the issue,” McKenna answered lowly.
“You didn’t know you were forcing the issue. It was an honest mistake.”
McKenna struggled to smile. She knew better.
When the invitation didn’t arrive for the Brambles’ Hallowe’en party, she shouldn’t have asked Jillian to make enquiries. A true lady would have accepted the oversight with grace and quiet dignity, but McKenna being McKenna, didn’t quietly accept situations. She had a long history of making mistakes, starting with her childhood. As a girl, she’d been criticized countless times for her strong personality and passionate temperament. Her mother had done her best to teach McKenna that a lady was to always be cool, collected, and self-possessed, and to be fair, she was that… at times. But then there were situations, where she wouldn’t, couldn’t, accept fate, fighting it, wanting a different outcome.
Like with the Brambles’ party.
Heartsick over not being included, she’d approached Jillian Parker—her only friend so far in Crawford County—to discretely enquire about the invitation, wondering if it had gone missing. McKenna was mortified to learn later that the invitation hadn’t gotten lost. She hadn’t been invited.
She would have cried, if she was a crier.
Instead, she lay awake at night, listening to the wind, the hoot of owls, and the distant howl of wolves, telling herself she was silly to care so much. It was just a party. She’d attended hundreds of parties in the last few years.
During the day, she focused her energy on her pupils, the lessons, and learning how to become a better teacher. It was one thing to study literature and the arts in college, but another to actually teach those subjects, along with math, science, and history.
Just when she’d finally resigned herself to not going, and felt peace about the situation, one of Mr. Bramble’s bank employees arrived at the school yesterday afternoon with the coveted invite, and a handwritten note from Mrs. Bramble, asking McKenna to please join them tomorrow, writing that the annual Hallowe’en party wouldn’t be complete without her.
McKenna didn’t know how to react to the sudden appearance of the invitation. The emotional ups and downs of the past few weeks had rattled her, reminding her of the roller coaster at Coney Island, with all the wild dips and thrills. She’d loved and hated that ride. It had been both exciting and terrifying, and now, looking at the Bramble’s imposing, brick mansion in front of her, she felt the same excitement and terror.
They were here.
Jillian flashed McKenna a smile. “Courage,” she said.
McKenna managed a matching smile. “Always,” she answered breathlessly.
But as they disembarked from the carriage, McKenna’s legs felt anything but steady. “What if people know I wasn’t supposed to be here?” she whispered to Jillian.
Jillian slid her arm through McKenna’s. “There are only three of us that know. You, me, and Mrs. Bramble—”
“And Mr. Bramble.”
“Men never know anything about parties. I’m sure Mr. Bramble is clueless.” She squeezed McKenna’s arm. “So go in, hold your head up, and smile. Give people a chance to get to know you. The real you. Not the one people think they know from the newspapers.”
“You’re so confident.”
“It wasn’t easy for me when I first moved here. Marietta needed a veterinarian, but they didn’t want me. Their new veterinarian was not supposed to be a woman. But I’ve been here five years now and they’ve come to accept me. With time, they’ll also accept you.”
Twenty-nine year old Sinclair Douglas saw McKenna Frasier the moment she entered the parlor in her persimmon and spice gown, her dark hair pinned up, tendrils already slipping free. Knowing McKenna, those were not artful pieces teased from the chignon, but curls that had already worked themselves loose.
She’d always found it difficult, if not impossible, to contain her intense beauty and energy. Her vivid brightness was both a strength and weakness, and now that she had been exiled from New York, he suspected it’d become an overwhelming liability in Crawford and Park Counties. He’d heard New York society was strict, and punitive, but small towns could be even harsher, and today would be a test. He wasn’t sure if she knew there had been a vocal minority who’d protested her hiring, claiming her immorality and scandalous reputation should have made her ineligible for the teaching position in Paradise Valley.
Fortunately, it was just a minority of the community.
Unfortunately, that same minority was present at the Brambles today.
Sinclair had been angered by the barrage of criticism and cruel comments, but there was little he could do without making the situation worse. She wasn’t his anymore. And, in hindsight, she probably never had been.
He watched her accept a cup of punch from their hostess. Her hand was not entirely steady as she held the cup. He’d never known her to be afraid of anything before, but then, she’d never been so vulnerable before.
He hated this. Hated that her family had cut her off. Hated that society had cast her out. Hated that she had no one now. But she’d created this situation. She’d made her choice.
His chest squeezed tight and he turned away, retreating into the library where she was no longer in his line of sight.
He wasn’t surprised that she still affected him. He’d loved her for so long, it was difficult to not care, but she wasn’t his responsibility. She wasn’t his, period.
She’d never be his. Not now. And not because he couldn’t forgive her—he could do that, and eventually he would—but he didn’t trust her. How could a man marry a woman he didn’t trust? How could he create a family with a woman who lacked integrity… honor?
He stepped past a cluster of ladies who all paused to smile at him. He nodded, smiling grimly, recognizing all three. One was a married woman, the wife of the reverend, and the other two were young single women who’d taken the train to Montana to find husbands. He knew because the reverend’s wife had made several attempts to introduce him to the young ladies.
He didn’t like to be rude, but he wasn’t interested.
He wasn’t sure when he’d be interested in settling down.
He’d been ready a year ago, though. He’d been looking forward to a life with McKenna. They had a future planned out, and he’d purchased land, built a home, saved money for the day he’d need to provide for her.
He’d thought she was looking forward to the same future.
He was wrong.
Sinclair stepped back against the bookshelf to allow a young woman and her mother to pass. The young woman smiled up at him from beneath her lashes. He gave her a brief nod, wishing he was anywhere but here, in an overheated house with too many overdressed people. He rarely attended social events, preferring the solitude of his ranch and his own company, over artificial gaiety and meaningless conversation.
He’d come today because McKenna would be here. He’d come knowing their paths would cross and he thought it was time to put the past behind them, including the accompanying awkwardness. It would be easier once it was behind them.
Or so he’d told himself before he saw her arrive, her dark eyes so expressive, a hint of pink staining her cheeks.
It’d been five years since he’d last seen her and yet he wasn’t as detached as he wanted to be.
But it was difficult to be detached about McKenna.
He’d loved her since he was sixteen, almost half his life. It wasn’t easy to pretend she didn’t matter, and for the past eight weeks, he’d tried to prepare for the moment they would cross paths, having expected it from the time she arrived in Marietta on the train, tensing every time he arrived in town and spotted the swing of an elegant skirt or ribbons stitched against a stylish bonnet.
He’d thought he’d known how he would handle the meeting—a brief, civil acknowledgment—before continuing on, because he wouldn’t cut her. He felt no need to embarrass her or make her uncomfortable, but he certainly wouldn’t converse. There was no reason to speak at length on anything. There was nothing between them now. Not even the kisses. Those kisses clearly had meant nothing to her. Those kisses were apparently as insignificant as the promises she’d made him.
I love you. Wait for me. I’ll be back soon. There will never be anyone else for me…
And he, naïve boy, had waited. Patiently, because he had to. Patiently, because he wanted to. He’d wanted her to be happy. He hadn’t understood her desire to go to college or travel abroad, because people like him didn’t do those things. People like Sinclair Douglas filled her father’s mines, and worked the smelters, and laid the railroad tracks crossing the West.
But she’d been raised in luxury, spoiled by her doting father, a father who was a self-made man himself, and Sinclair understood ambition, and how Mr. Frasier wanted everything for his daughters, and McKenna, a Frasier to the core, wanted everything, too.
Sinclair had thought he was part of everything, so he’d harnessed his hunger and impatience, encouraging her to study and winter in Italy and summer in England.
While she’d traveled, he’d worked and saved, taking on every challenge, seeking every promotion, knowing if he remained a lowly miner, he’d never get her father’s approval to marry her, but if he proved himself, if he rose through the ranks and became a manager, maybe, just maybe Mr. Frasier would respect Sinclair enough he’d consent to the marriage.
Like most miners he knew, he worked seven days a week, and then on the rare day off, he’d write to her, laboring over the letters, rewriting when his sentences leaned too much or he’d dribble ink, smearing the words and staining the page.
Penmanship wasn’t his strength. He could read and write, but it wasn’t easy for him, not like math. Math was no problem. He’d never met a series of numbers that didn’t intrigue him.
But when he sat down to write her, he smashed his insecurity and penned a letter, determined to be entertaining, which wasn’t necessarily easy when he worked in the bowels of the earth, but he was good at what he did, a miner like his father. He worked hard, too, just like his father. But he hoped to be luckier than his father who’d died young. Fortunately, his hard work did get noticed, and while McKenna was entering society, he was sent to Marietta to manage Frasier’s new copper mine, making him the youngest manager to ever run a Frasier mine.
In Marietta, he wrote her less frequently, not only because her correspondence was more erratic, but he was exhausted. Mining had always been dangerous, but Frasier was pushing the production in the Marietta mine, ignoring safety protocols to meet the nearly impossible quota.
It was better writing to her less often. It meant he didn’t have to work so hard to hide his anger towards her father. Frasier didn’t seem to care whether his work force lived or died. They were all dispensable, and a new immigrant Finn or Serbian could replace one of his experienced Cornish or Irish workers. It didn’t matter if the man left behind a wife and children. It didn’t matter if they suffered miners’ consumption. It wasn’t Frasier’s problem. It was Sinclair’s. This was why Sinclair had been made the manager, so Frasier didn’t have to trouble himself with reality, and practicalities.
So he smashed his frustration, and focused on his job, saving every letter McKenna did write as a testament to the promise she’d made him. She loved him. She’d be back. She was his, and had been his since they were just students in Butte, until gossip reached him in the mines that McKenna Frasier has been disinherited. The Frasier heiress has been disowned.
He didn’t believe it. He couldn’t believe it. But the scandal filled the papers. People loved to see the high and mighty fall, and no one was higher or mightier than beautiful, wealthy McKenna Frasier.
He hadn’t wanted to read the stories. He’d wanted to distance himself from the gossip but, in the end, he’d had to read them. He’d had to understand just how McKenna had become another man’s.
And now she was here in Marietta, in the parlor of the Brambles’ house, and he realized that as important as she’d been to him, it was time to let her go.
McKenna lost Jillian almost immediately after they entered the handsome, red brick mansion, and had been grateful when Mrs. Bramble approached her, warmly welcoming her, and offering her a glass of punch to refresh her after her trip from Paradise Valley.
They visited for a moment, and then Mrs. Bramble was called away and McKenna faced the formal parlor, a faint smile on her face. The Brambles’ home was Marietta’s grandest, and this afternoon, it appeared that all of the doors of the downstairs rooms had been thrown open to create a series of large rooms perfect for entertaining.
She spied a lavish buffet across the hall in the dining room, while just beyond the parlor, children and adults alike were playing games in the library. The carpet on the opposite side of the parlor had been rolled up for dancing, and a pianist played while a half dozen high-spirited children darted between the adults in a boisterous game of tag.
Bursts of laughter and the hum of conversation drowned out the musicians, but no one seemed to notice. The Brambles’ Hallowe’en party, in their grand Bramble House, had become an annual tradition and, from the squeeze, it seemed all of Marietta was here. Outside, crisp red and gold leaves rolled down the lane while inside everything smelled of cinnamon spiced cider and succulent roasted ham.
Encouraged by the laughter and chatter, McKenna approached a group of women, all young mothers with babies in their arms, or toddlers nearby. “Hello,” she said with a smile, “I’m McKenna Frasier—”
“I’m sorry.” A tall woman in dark blue cut her short. “We’re having a private conversation.”
The other women stopped talking. They all looked at McKenna without expression. For a moment there was just silence, and then one of the babies fussed and the mother shifted the baby to her shoulder, and the women looked the other away.
McKenna’s heart did a painful one-two and she dipped her head, holding her smile. “Apologies for intruding.” She kept smiling even as she turned away.
Her lips curved as she stared blindly across the room, unable to focus on anything, the rejection so swift it made her head spin and her stomach rise and fall in a nauseating whoosh of sensation.
She shouldn’t have come.
She wasn’t wanted here.
And, yet, now that she was here, what could she do? Cower in a corner? Run down Bramble in tears? Look for Dr. Parker and beg the veterinarian and her husband to drive her home… a good hour and ten-minute drive?
No, she couldn’t do any of those things, and so McKenna kept her chin high, her gaze on the peak of the big mountain rising in the distance. She’d been told once the mountain had just been known as Marietta Mountain, but in the last few years it had been renamed Copper Mountain, after the valuable ore had been discovered.
She focused on the snowcapped peak, her lips tilted, as if enjoying the splendid view in this splendid room.
She smiled as if she was having the most wonderful time, and she’d keep smiling until she returned home tonight, because she’d rather die than let these women know they’d hurt her.
Gracefully, she crossed the room, chin up, head high, until she reached the opposite corner and, once there, sipped her punch and tapped her toe to the music, as if shame didn’t threaten to drown her. It was bad enough being shunned by the scions of New York, but to be scorned in Marietta made her doubt her sanity. If she wasn’t wanted in frontier Montana, where could she go?
Her emotions rolled, matching her thoughts.
She was beginning to understand. She was finally seeing what she’d missed before.
She hadn’t had visitors because she lived so remotely in the valley. Her lack of callers was not due not to the distance, but to her.
McKenna’s hand shook ever so slightly as she lifted the punch cup to her mouth, pretending to sip, barely wetting her lips as she focused on a group of children bobbing for apples on the far side of the room, needing the distraction to keep tears from welling.
She had not cried since arriving in Montana early August. She would not cry now. And it was foolish to let these people hurt her.
They were strangers. They didn’t know her. They didn’t know the truth. And she was not about to begin defending herself. Her father might have disowned her, but she was still a Frasier. She knew her value. She had worth. Society—and her father—be damned.
But just thinking of her father put a lump in her throat.
Patrick Frasier had a reputation in New York and Butte for being fierce and driven—overly ambitious—but the criticism was also something of a compliment, as he was a self-made man, a true industrialist and, even more importantly, a doting father. He’d loved his girls, giving them every opportunity, from trips abroad to the best education, including the four years he’d paid for her to attend Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York. She’d loved Vassar, and had made lifelong friends there, but her father regretted sending her to college, blaming the liberal education for ruining her.
Education hadn’t ruined her. She’d ruined herself trusting the wrong man. Vassar wasn’t to blame. She was to blame for thinking all men were men like her father. Or Sinclair.
McKenna swallowed hard again, the lump growing in her throat.
Sinclair Douglas had loved her. He’d wanted her. He’d waited for her.
But she’d thrown him away, along with every advantage she’d been given. And now she was starting over as a teacher in Paradise Valley’s first school, living in the simple log cabin that had been built on the corner of the school property, giving her a place to work and stay. Giving her survival. If not meaning.
At least the worst of the shock was over. She might not yet be comfortable in her new skin, but she’d finally stopped writing her father, begging for his forgiveness, pleading for a chance at reconciliation. She’d stopped writing her younger sister, asking for help. She’d stopped writing her Vassar sisters heartbroken letters. Instead, she sought to amuse them with her adventures on the “frontier”. She told them about living in a split log house and cooking over an open fire and trying to wield an ax, and she’d continue turning the struggles into an adventure.
Her friends loved her letters and it felt so much better making them laugh then making them cry. She didn’t want or need pity. Her life wasn’t over. She refused to be a burden for anyone else.
Mrs. Bramble suddenly appeared at McKenna’s side. “Are you not playing games, Miss Frasier?” she asked, gesturing to the game of kissing the Blarney Stone which was now under way in the adjacent library.
McKenna glanced to where the young people were taking turns being blindfolded to try to kiss the white stone in the middle of the library table, and blushing, shook her head. “I’m enjoying watching everyone else,” she said.
“Games are a good way to meet people.”
McKenna forced a smile. “An excellent point.”
Mrs. Bramble smiled back. “The ghost stories will begin soon. Do find a comfortable seat because the curtains will be drawn and the children insist I extinguish all candlelight. They claim they like it spooky. We’ll see how they react once it’s truly dark.”
The hostess moved on and McKenna held her smile, her gaze skimming the room to see if there might be a suitable chair somewhere, when she spotted a tall man in the opposite doorway. He was dressed much as the other gentlemen in a narrow tailored sack suit, with a wingtip collar and a four in hand tie, except he looked nothing like the others filling the parlor and library, and not just because of his height. The breadth of his shoulders set him apart, no padding needed in his jacket to accent his frame. He was muscular through the shoulders and chest, and yet slim through the waist and hip.
She dropped her gaze when she realized he was also looking at her. She’d expected he’d turn away then, but he didn’t. She could feel his attention, and she grew warm beneath his intimate scrutiny. He had no manners. Did he think to take advantage of her fallen state?
Finally, she glanced up, straight into his face, thinking she’d give him a measure of her displeasure, but when her eyes met his, her lips parted with shock.
The room seemed to tilt and shift. Her legs were no longer steady. She put a hand to her middle to try to catch her breath.
She couldn’t believe it. She couldn’t…
What was he doing here?
She stared at him, astonished. It’d been years since she last saw him, four and a half at least. He’d been a frequent visitor during her mother’s illness and then again, after the funeral. But once she’d returned to Vassar, after the end of that awful January, she hadn’t seen Sinclair again even though she’d promised him she’d return as soon as she graduated in June.
But she hadn’t.
Instead, she wrote him that she’d been invited to travel with friends, and the invitations kept coming. Six months became a year, and then another year, and another.
Heart pounding, McKenna continued to drink him in, noting yet again the fashionable fit of the suit and the crisp white points of his shirt against his skin. He had more color than the last time she saw him. Clearly he wasn’t spending all his days underground anymore. His blond hair looked almost brown with the pomade to slick it back.
He was both familiar and unfamiliar at the same time. This afternoon, he wore the suit of a gentleman, but he’d never been a gentleman. He was a miner, one of her father’s men. And before her father’s man, he’d been her friend.
She sucked in a breath and turned away, looking blindly for a place to go, somewhere she could hide and recover from the shock.
It was too much, seeing him here. It was too much after everything that had happened.
The scrape of curtains across windows announced the start of the ghost stories. Candles began to be snuffed out.
McKenna slipped from the room, out into the hall, heading for the room upstairs where guests could leave their cloaks and coats. McKenna went there now, not knowing where else to go.
She paced the spacious bedroom twice, a knuckle pressed to her mouth to keep her from making a sound.
Once upon a time Sinclair Douglas had been her world.
Once upon a time, he’d been her sun and her moon and all her dreams wrapped up in one man.
But then she left Montana and discovered the world. And she fell in love with the whole world, realizing it was so much bigger than Butte. Realizing she had so much more that she could want and be, more than just marriage and motherhood. And so she reached for it all, forgetting what happened to Daedalus when he soared too high, flying too close to the sun.
She shouldn’t have jumped so high, wanting so much. She should have been content with quiet domestic comforts.
She should have been more like her sister, happy with the hearth, and home.
But she wasn’t.
End of Excerpt