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Marietta, Montana – March 19, 1890
It was all very well to be popular and in demand, but this was almost ridiculous. The tiny shop for Johanna Design on Main Street was standing room only today as apparently every woman in Marietta had come to Johanna’s for a fitting this afternoon, filling every chair, stool, and sofa cushion.
Pressing two fingers to her throbbing temple, Ellie Burnett wished she could make a hasty exit, but she’d come to town expressly for the purpose of having the final fitting of her Easter dress, and as it was a ninety-minute drive each way from her father’s ranch in Paradise Valley in good weather, she couldn’t just leave and return later. The road through the valley could be treacherous, particularly in sleet, snow, or rain, with mountain run off flooding the Yellowstone River and, yes, the sun was shining right now, but Montana weather was mercurial, and the gusting winds could blow storm clouds through at any moment. And then there was her ill father and how difficult it was to leave him… how guilty she felt each time she left him…
She drew a slow breath, trying to calm herself. Everything would be fine. Everything would work out. She’d get her Easter dress, and she’d look fresh and desirable. Marriageable. Because God knew she needed a husband, and fast.
Her stomach churned at the thought and, suddenly overly warm, she unbuttoned the lapel of her coat, and drew another breath, willing herself to calm down. Hysterics were never appealing, much less in a room crowded with women. What she needed to do was focus on her goal of securing the right proposal. It shouldn’t be this hard. Montana was full of single men. All she needed was one good man… that didn’t make her skin crawl.
Ellie was reaching for another coat button when a very harried Johanna Douglas appeared from behind a brocade curtain, cheeks flushed, wisps of dark honey hair falling free from her chignon.
Ladies surged towards Johanna and the modiste dealt with each politely but firmly, even as she walked quickly towards Ellie. “It’s not ready,” Johanna said softly, taking Ellie’s arm, drawing her away from the others. “I’m so sorry. If I could have sent word, I would have.”
“Nothing is ready?”
“The jacket could be. In an hour, or two, probably two. But that is all I have for you to try on. Everything else is still in pins.” Johanna squeezed her arm. “I am so, so sorry. I know this isn’t a good time for you, either—”
“It’s fine.” Ellie exhaled and forced a smile, hiding her disappointment. She couldn’t, wouldn’t, make Johanna, not only the best seamstress in Marietta, but Ellie’s closest friend, feel bad. “I think that also means there’s no time for tea.”
“Oh, and how I’d love to sit for a bit and catch up. You have no idea how much I’d love a good gossip right now. The things I could tell you!” Johanna wrapped her arm around Ellie and gave her a quick squeeze. “I do miss you.”
“It’s a shame you’re just so good at what you do.”
Johanna laughed, just as Ellie intended. “Come back Friday, if you can,” Johanna said, even as she lifted a hand to stop a customer from interrupting. “I promise to have it done then.”
“I’ll see what I can do.”
“And if that doesn’t work, I’ll come to you. Sinclair and McKenna have been pestering Mama and me to come for supper so it wouldn’t be a problem.”
“You’re already so busy—”
“Never too busy for you.” She linked arms with Ellie and they squeezed through the crowd, heading for the door. Johanna’s voice dropped to a whisper as she asked. “Ellie, how is your father? I’m worried.”
Ellie’s throat tightened. “I’m worried, too.”
“We knew this was inevitable, but I see the writing on the wall now, and it’s terrifying.” Eyes burning, Ellie blinked hard. The relentless weight in her chest made breathing difficult, never mind talking. She couldn’t imagine the future without her larger than life father. It had just been the two of them since she was five and her mother died in childbirth, the baby buried with her in the cemetery. “No one still knows, though, but you, and I’m so grateful you’ve kept our secret.”
“Why unleash the wolves?” Johanna said sympathetically. “If men understood your situation they’d take advantage of it and that’s not the kind of husband you want to attract. Fortunately, you are strong. Stronger than any woman I know,” she added, giving Ellie a swift, fierce hug.
Ellie held back the sting of tears and managed a mocking smile. “I have to be. Papa wouldn’t have it any other way.”
“There’s the Ellie Burnett backbone I know and love.” Johanna opened the door. “But I am sorry to have wasted your time today. I really thought your dress would be ready but customers keep dropping in. Easter has become so busy, and even though I’ve been working nonstop, it’s not enough, not even with Mother’s help.”
Ellie began tugging on her gloves. “You’d said her eyes are becoming a problem.”
“She can cut the fabric and do hems and seams, but I can’t rely on her for the finer needlework. But next year it will be different, I promise. Now that I know the Easter dress is a thing here, too, and not just in New York.”
Ellie snorted. “I can’t believe Marietta has its own Easter parade.”
“You don’t intend to parade down Main Street and over to the Graff in your new gown?”
“Of course not! That would be foolish. I’ll be seen at the Graff, enjoying the Easter dinner buffet with you, not traipsing down dirty Main Street in my finest.”
Johanna bit into her lip. “Ellie, Sin has already invited Mama and me to be his guests for dinner, but I’m sure Sinclair would be happy to have you join his table, too. Should I ask him?”
“No,” Ellie said crossly, stepping outside onto the sidewalk. “It would be awkward for all, don’t you think?”
Johanna remained on the threshold. “Not necessarily. He’s happily married—”
“Yes, and he was my fiancé before he married her!” Ellie flushed, her cheeks annoyingly hot. She hated still being so sensitive about the broken engagement. “I know he was mine for all of five minutes but, still, it stings.”
“You’ll find the right man.”
“Hmph! My options are looking grim. But then you know I love a good challenge.” And then she gave Johanna a quick kiss on the cheek and a jaunty wave, and was off to untie Oisin from the hitching post.
Ellie lifted her elegant skirts with one hand and climbed into her smart black buggy. She shot a glance up, taking in the clouds sailing overhead, and then set off, leaving Marietta at a brisk speed, eager to escape town and the uncomfortable memories stirred up by her conversation with Johanna.
Last Fall, Johanna’s brother, Sinclair, had been the perfect suitor, and he would have been the perfect husband, too, but, by abruptly marrying his childhood sweetheart, the Copper King Patrick Frasier’s daughter McKenna, at Christmas instead of Ellie, Sinclair had embarrassed her, leaving her in the lurch.
It had been three months since then and Ellie still needed a husband, and there was nothing she hated more than being on the marriage mart, particularly when one didn’t just want a husband, but needed one, urgently. Those were not good conditions for a satisfying courtship.
Spotting a slow moving wagon in front of her, Ellie cracked her whip above her stallion’s ears, spurring Oisin faster so they could pass, and they did, most impressively, despite the strong wind whistling through the valley from Yellowstone. The wind was as much a part of Paradise Valley as the mountains and the river and strangers always remarked on the gusts, but she loved them. They made her feel unfettered and free—
From beneath the carriage came a low, shuddering crack and then the carriage lurched. Ellie threw out her hands to brace herself as the buggy suddenly tipped over but there was no way to stop from being flung out. From a moment she was flying through the air and then in the next, she slammed into the ground. The impact knocked the wind from her and she lay stunned and shaken, struggling to catch her breath.
What had just happened?
Blinking she looked towards her gleaming carriage, now sideways in the dirt. Oisin remained in place, appearing as confused as she felt.
Drawing another slow breath, Ellie wiggled her toes and then gingerly moved her arms and legs. Nothing seemed to be broken. Thank God. Who would take care of Papa if she ended up in a plaster?
Still trying to gather herself, she heard the jingle of a horse and the creak of a wagon slowing near her buggy. Pride kicked in. The last thing she wanted was to be found in a heap, in a ditch. She struggled to rise but her ankle buckled and she fell back onto her rear end, wincing.
“That was stupid,” a deep rough male voice said curtly. “You’re lucky you’re not dead.”
She couldn’t see his face, not with the sun in her eyes and the brim of his hat shading his features, but she heard the accent. A lilting Irish brogue. He hadn’t been born in Montana, or anywhere else in America. It didn’t help that the stranger dwarfed her—his shoulders were immense—forcing her to tip her head back to look into his face.
“Thank you for your courtesy. No need to assist me to my feet,” she retorted, biting down to muffle the groan of pain as she staggered up once more, this time determined to stick. The world swam a bit, nausea rushing through her as she tried to put weight on her right foot. But she wasn’t going to let him know how much her ankle pained her.
He practically growled as he took her elbow, steadying her. “You’re hurt.” From someone else the tone would be one of concern. From him, it was an accusation.
She could feel the heat and pressure of his hand even through her coat and she didn’t like it. “I’m fine.” She tried to shake him off. “Let me see to my horse.”
“He’s in better shape than you,” he answered flatly, releasing his hold.
“How do you know?”
“I checked on him first.”
“A true gallant,” she muttered, brushing off her dirty skirt and then her scraped hands. She was lucky it hadn’t snowed or rained in the past week, otherwise she’d be covered in mud.
“He shouldn’t be punished for your recklessness,” he said, moving towards her buggy.
She glared at the Irishman’s departing back. His leather coat clung to the broad planes of his shoulders and torso, while his black hair hung in long waves to his shoulders. “I’m not reckless.”
“Then you lack skill, because you can’t drive. You’re a danger to all.”
Outraged, she limped towards her horse. “You don’t know the first thing about me,” she said, moving around her stallion, stroking Oisin’s flank and then his belly, and finally his shoulder. Thankfully, Oisin had come through unscathed.
The Irishman watched her as she completed her inspection. “I know enough to have kept my distance,” he said as she gave the stallion a last pat on the shoulder.
Ellie shot him a sharp glance. “What does that mean?”
“I understood you were quite intelligent. I’m sure you don’t need me to spell it out,” he said, taking off his hat to drag a hand through thick black hair, pushing the locks back from his brow.
Without the hat he looked different.
Without the hat he looked… familiar.
An uneasy sensation ricocheted through her as their gazes met and held. Oh no. No. It was him. The fireman from the night of her doomed engagement party last December.
She gulped a breath, cheeks hot, a frisson of awareness racing through her. She’d only seen him that one night, briefly, and then not since. She’d wondered where he’d gone and why he hadn’t attended any of the events in Marietta and, yet, here he was, on the side of the road, on the way to Emigrant.
She swallowed hard as she scanned his face. No wonder he’d made such an impression. Even in the afternoon sunlight, his eyes were dark, nearly as black as his hair, and his face was all hard, masculine edges and angles—high cheekbones, strong jaw, straight nose, firm lips.
Just looking at him made her chest grow tight. Her heart did a funny little beat. “We’ve never met,” she murmured, because that was also true. She’d seen him on the fire wagon when all hell was breaking loose, but they hadn’t spoken.
“Never have been introduced, no, but you’re Archibald Burnett’s daughter.”
It was impossible to ignore the coolness in his voice. “Do you not like my father?”
“I don’t know a single man in this valley who doesn’t respect him.”
So this was about her. Interesting. She lifted her chin a fraction, expression challenging “You’ve formed an opinion about me, then.”
“Unflattering it seems.”
“There’s no point to this. You’re already defensive.”
Her face prickled with heat. She ground her teeth together, forcing a smile, aware her strong personality rubbed some the wrong way, and yet she didn’t try to be offensive, she just wanted to be herself. But people loved having opinions and they loved to judge.
“I’m not allowed to know why you’re so critical?” she asked. “Unless this is about how I handle a horse? Perhaps you’re one of those old-fashioned men who don’t approve of women driving fast.”
“Indeed. I prefer a woman to be a lady.”
Ah. So he was one of those that liked to judge. Good to know. “And how am I not a lady?”
“You’re too obvious.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“You’re husband hunting, Miss Burnett.”
Her face burned but she wouldn’t let him know she was embarrassed. “Most young women hope to marry.”
His big shoulders shifted. “With you being more… determined… then most.”
She lifted a quelling brow but he merely shrugged.
“You’d be more successful, Miss Burnett, if you started behaving more like a lady.”
“I do not know what you mean.”
“No? Stop acting as if you wore the trousers.”
Ellie went hot and then cold. For a moment she couldn’t think of a single thing to say, and then her shock gave way to rage. She drew a quick breath, fingers curling into a fist. If he were shorter, she’d slap him, as it was, she’d never reach his face. “What I do, and how I do it, is none of your concern, Mister….”
“So, please continue on, Mr. Sheenan, as neither your assistance or opinions are required. Good day.”
He didn’t go. He stood off to the side watching her.
She was determined to ignore him and so she focused on Oisin, her beloved black stallion given to her for her twenty-first birthday last summer. Oisin wasn’t just her favorite horse, he was one of her best friends and while he was unscathed, her carriage wasn’t so lucky, the axle had snapped in two.
The broken axle meant the carriage couldn’t be moved, but she could unharness Oisin and ride him bareback home. It wouldn’t be the first time, and no matter what this Sheenan thought of her, she was an excellent horsewoman. Her father, Archibald Burnett of Fort Worth, Texas, one of the original cowboys on the Bozeman cattle drive, wouldn’t have it any other way. A single father, he’d made sure she could ride and rope as well as any man, determined his daughter would survive life in Montana’s rugged Paradise Valley.
Aware that Mr. Sheenan was waiting for her to fall apart, she set to work unbuckling the leather harness. She crooned to Oisin as she worked, and gradually her hands stopped trembling, her nerves replaced by indignation as she peeled away the belly band and breastplate, leaving just the driving bit in place.
Mr. Sheenan was not a gentleman. He should have aided her, not simply stood back and watched. Sinclair would have helped her—
She broke off, jaw grinding tight, the ache in her ankle increasing by the second.
She couldn’t focus on the pain, though, and she didn’t want to think about Sinclair Douglas, either, or the fact that she had to have had the shortest engagement in Marietta’s history.
Taking the driving bridle lines in hand, she drew Oisin parallel to the buggy and used the buggy’s high step to seat herself. Oisin didn’t even twitch a muscle or flick his tail as she adjusted her swollen ankle and then settled her gown’s full skirts, giving them an elegant shake.
It was then, and only then, that she looked over at Mr. Sheenan. The late afternoon sun’s bright rays gilded him with light, preventing her from seeing his expression, but she certainly hoped he could see hers because she felt beyond insulted. She was livid. “As I said there was no need to trouble yourself, Mr. Sheenan. And, for your information, trousers do not make a man. Next time you meet a lady in distress, try some chivalry. Goodbye.”
And then with a flick of the lines, Oisin was off, delighted to be free of the buggy. She let him run, too, even though the canter bounced her ankle, but she was anxious to put distance between her and the arrogant Irishman and she’d suffer a little pain if it meant she could leave him in the dust.
The wind tugged at her hat, loosening the ribbons to the point that she shoved it back, letting it fall behind her head. Her long hair pulled free of the pins and by the time she reached the wood and iron gate marking the entrance to the Burnett ranch she knew she looked completely disheveled but she also felt completely, gloriously free.
Once inside the impressive gate, she slowed to a walk, letting Oisin cool down. “Well done, my love,” she said, smiling and patting his warm damp neck. “We made record time today, even without a saddle.”
As the sturdy two-story split-log house with the square dormer windows came into view, Ellie did her best to tidy her hair, braiding the thick red mass before coiling it and pinning it beneath her bonnet. She’d enjoyed her wild ride, but her father wouldn’t be pleased if she returned from Marietta looking like a banshee. She knew of banshees of course because her mother’s family, the Henleys, had been Irish, having sailed from Galway seventy-five years ago to settle in Boston.
Her father’s family were English, but he’d raised Ellie on the Gaelic fairy tales and myths her mother used to tell her, which was why Ellie had named her stallion Oisin, Oisin being the son of the great warrior Fionn MacCool and the goddess Sive.
Ellie embraced all things Irish, with the exception of Mr. Sheenan. He was the one Irishman she disliked intensely.
Home, she was greeted by a stable hand who promptly took the reins from her, and then helped her down. She shared with had happened to the buggy, expressing her surprise and concern that a new buggy should suffer axle failure so soon after its purchase, especially as it was supposed to be brand new. The stable hand promised to take it up with Mr. Harrison, the ranch manager, and she gave directions on where the broken buggy could be found.
Ellie then struggled not to limp her way into the house, anxious to check on her father. She discovered him in the parlor in his favorite chair, his legs up on an ottoman, a blanket over his lap. She didn’t know how it was possible, but he looked even frailer than he had this morning when she’d set off for Marietta.
It was on the tip of her tongue to tell him about her adventures—or misadventures, including her concern that an expensive new buggy had a such a serious defect—when something in his expression made her hold the words back.
She moved to his side, taking small steps to hide her throbbing ankle. “Are you hurting terribly, Papa?” she asked, gently laying a hand to his brow and then his cheek.
“No more than usual,” he said gruffly, but the tiny white lines at his mouth and the deeper creases at his eyes gave him away.
“I don’t believe you,” she answered, lightly smoothing his bushy white and silver goatee, the perfect partner for his white handlebar moustache. He had a grand moustache. He’d always been quite proud of it, keeping the points meticulously shaped and waxed. “Should I send for the doctor?”
“Why? What will he do? There’s nothing anyone can do.”
“We can still go to New York. There’s that Dr. Coley in Manhattan—”
“There is nothing for him to amputate. Not unless you’re ready to be rid of me.”
The very idea made her chest ache. “Never!” She reached out to cover his hands with hers, his skin cool and thin beneath hers. “But he’s doing some experimental treatments—”
“I wouldn’t survive the trip east, Ellie. Turns out I can barely manage a walk around the barn.”
Understanding dawned. “Is that what you did today? Is that why you’re so tired?”
“I needed to let Harrison know to drive some of the sheep from the upper pasture.”
“You couldn’t send Mrs. Baxter?”
“She left early. One of the girls took sick.”
“Papa, what was so important that you couldn’t wait for me to come home?”
“I’ve got a young fellow who works for Avon Gilmore coming to pick up a dozen sheep. I wanted our Harrison to move them from the back pasture towards the house to make it easier.”
“This young fellow is coming today?”
“Should be here anytime now.”
Ellie suddenly had a sneaking suspicion she knew who the farmer might be, and she shuddered as she pictured massive shoulders, black hair, and a pair of unsmiling dark eyes. “Tell me he’s not Irish.”
“Thomas Sheenan is Irish.” Archibald’s eyes narrowed. “Why? What’s wrong with him?”
She wasn’t even sure how to explain what had happened on the road from Marietta. “I passed him earlier.”
“I don’t like him.”
“Why not? What did he do? Run you off the road?”
Her face warmed. “No. I had an accident. The buggy’s axle broke, and I don’t understand how as its supposed to be new, but when it cracked the wheel came off and I went sailing into a rut next to the road.” She drew a short, livid breath. “He witnessed the entire thing, and he stopped, but he wasn’t interested in helping. He was quite rude, actually.”
Her father frowned. “What did he do?”
“Nothing. That’s just my point. He stopped, but once he saw I hadn’t killed myself, instead of assisting me to my feet, he lectured me on my poor driving skills.” She felt her pulse quicken. She told herself it was because he’d been critical and overbearing and nothing to do with the fact that he was the handsome fireman she’d seen last December. She’d had dreams about the fireman, but her dreams were far nicer than the reality. “He knew I was your daughter, too, which makes it all the more aggravating.”
“I don’t know why you care what he thinks.” Archibald tipped his head back and closed his eyes, and drew a slow shallow breath. The air rattled in his lungs, making a faint wheezy sound. “You don’t have to socialize with him.”
“I know, but who leaves a lady lying in the dirt—”
“Did he not offer to help in any way?”
“Oh, he halfheartedly took my elbow at one point, but it was only after I’d given him a setdown.”
“I’m sure it was quite a setdown, too.”
“But it made no impression on him, Papa. He’s altogether too rude and too arrogant.”
“I hope his high-handed manners will not offend the sheep.”
She straightened, arms crossing over her chest. “I’m serious.”
“So am I. You’re not a sheep. You don’t have to like him.” He opened his eyes, his gaze meeting hers. “Unless you’d hoped to make a suitor out of him?”
Heat washed through her and she felt her cheeks flame. “Heavens, no! As you said, I’m not a sheep.”
“Speaking of livestock, I’ve had two recent offers for the ranch. One is quite fair—”
“No, Papa. We already discussed this. We’re not selling, and I wish you hadn’t put the word out that you were considering returning to Texas. It doesn’t aid my case.”
“It’s better then letting them know I’m dying.”
“Yes, but we want a suitor that would like to work the ranch with me, not someone to replace us here.”
“But if you can’t find a suitor soon, you won’t be living here, not after I’m gone.”
“I had a suitor.”
“Douglas didn’t work out and that ended months ago. Perhaps you need to stop being so particular and accept one.”
Her lips compressed as she bit back her frustration. Her father had been quite progressive until recently. “Old age is making you old-fashioned,” she said, limping to the hearth to add a log to the fire, before taking an iron to poke at the embers, creating a shower of sparks. “I don’t know why you think I couldn’t manage here alone.”
“Are you hurt?”
“You’re walking oddly.”
“It’s nothing. It’ll go away.”
“Did that happen in the fall?”
“It wasn’t a fall. I was thrown.” She gave the embers another fierce jab, her frustration getting the better of her. “Quite spectacularly.”
“Then it’s a good thing you weren’t seriously injured. Have you sent someone to retrieve the buggy?”
“I have. But they may not be able to do anything until tomorrow.”
“I’d like to see the axel. It’s supposed to be new.”
“I thought the same thing. And, Papa, I can manage here. You know I can—”
“Not alone. Not after I’m gone. You don’t know men.”
She shot him a sharp glance. “I know you, and if I could manage you—”
“This is different. I’m your father, not a… not a—”
“But it’s true. You’re too young, and far too pretty. Your mama was far too pretty, too, and it’s a danger. Living here, alone, you’d be a target for every unscrupulous man, and I have not spent my life protecting you, only to leave you vulnerable now.”
“Then don’t die. It’s most inconvenient.”
He smiled crookedly and watched as she returned the poker iron to the fire tools. “You look just like her. Same glorious hair. Same sea green eyes.”
“But I’m not as sweet, I know.” She crossed to his side, kissed the top of his head. “You must feel absolutely miserable if you’re being sentimental. Why won’t you take some laudanum?”
“Won’t touch the stuff. Need to keep my wits about me.”
“For what, Papa? An Irishman who is coming to collect some sheep?”
“Pretty soon I won’t feel pain. At least this way I know I’m still alive.”
Ellie struggled to breathe around the lump filling her throat. “You’re making me sad.”
“That’s why we need to get you settled. We’re running out of time.”
She couldn’t answer, not when fear filled her throat and made her chest ache. He was so much weaker today than yesterday, and yesterday he’d been exhausted and frail. She couldn’t imagine a week from now. And a month?
She blinked hard, trying to clear the sting from her eyes. “Can I get you something? Have you had—” She broke off, listening to the voices outside.
They both listened. Ellie’s stomach rose and fell. “I think he’s here,” she said.
Archibald struggled to fold his blanket. “Well, go on up.”
“Up?” she repeated, taking the blanket from him and swiftly folding it into neat squares.
“Yes, up. Upstairs. That way you won’t have to deal with him again.”
“And how do you intend to manage? You can’t even get out of your chair, Papa.”
“Someone will send him through eventually.”
He was a dreadful, stubborn old man and she loved him more than life itself. “I’ll act as your hostess.”
“But don’t you want to go hide?”
“And when have I ever hid from anyone, or anything?” She gave him a reproving look. “Because I haven’t, and I’m not about to start now.”
A hard knock sounded on the front door. Ellie smoothed the front of her skirt. “I shall let the pig farmer in.”
“He’s not a pig farmer.”
“Apologies, mutton.” She swept away with as much dignity as she could muster, considering her tender ankle, and headed for the front door.
End of Excerpt