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Dodge City, Kansas, April 1873
The maid guided Ella's familiar gentleman caller into the dining room. Ella offered him her gloved hand and he held her fingers briefly, his smile unusually stiff, before pulling out her chair. His demeanor signaled a warning; but she didn't allow her curiosity or concern to show.
She seated herself at the table elegantly set with gold-trimmed dishes and sparkling silver, where five other couples were already absorbed in their own conversations and flirtation.
"The sky was especially pretty today," Ella said, her flawless French accent as natural as drawing breath. "It was a lovely afternoon for reading on my balcony."
"It's a nice evening, as well," he replied.
He'd called twice a week for the past three years, and still their dinner conversation centered on the weather and other trivial topics. She understood that he was married, though he'd never mentioned his wife's name or anything about his family. Ansel Murdock was probably in his middle to late forties, held a stockholder's position at the livestock exchange and belonged to a gentleman's club as well as the local Episcopal Church.
But on Monday and Friday evenings, he visited Ella— or Gabrielle Dubois, as she'd been known by and referred to since she was ten years old.
They ate their roasted duck and steamed asparagus, but when the mousse was served, she sipped coffee while he enjoyed his delicious-looking confection. She had never been served a dessert, though she'd managed to sneak a taste or two when no one was looking.
At last the meal was over and a maid served sherry in tiny crystal goblets. Ella most often carried hers upstairs to enjoy later. He accompanied her now, his unfamiliar impatience unnerving. He was always a gentleman and never in a hurry.
She locked them inside her room and set her glass on the inlaid table that sat beside a plush fainting couch. "Would you like me to wind the phonograph? I have a new Edison cylinder."
"Gabrielle, I have some difficult news."
She posed on the deep blue velvet upholstery, artfully arranging the folds of her yellow tulle gown.
"What is it, Ansel? Are you ill?" She masked her concern before a frown could crease her brow.
"My health is excellent. But the fact is, I am relocating. I have an opportunity I can't pass on, and well, my wife wants to move back East now that our boys are off to university."
Her heart sank at his news, but she kept her expression pleasant. "Oh, I see."
Mr. Murdock retained her exclusive attentions. Because of his generous monetary hold, no other revenue was expected of her. Once he was gone, she would be assigned a new gentleman. And if the new man wasn't rich enough or willing to retain her exclusively, more than one caller would be required.
As though he sensed her thoughts, he said, "You're young, Gabrielle. You are by far the most beautiful woman in all of Dodge City and most likely Kansas, for that matter. You won't lack for attention."
How well she knew. There had been many inquiries, but Mr. Murdock's retention kept those other companions at bay. "You're right of course. I do hope your move is beneficial for all concerned."
Cordial, never defensive, always congenial and favoring male opinions and desires, those were her ingrained behaviors. Neither the dozen concerns flashing through her mind or her precarious future were reflected on her face or in her body language.
Ansel stepped close and cupped her cheek, an unusually demonstrative gesture. "You are a rare treasure, Gabrielle. I shall miss our evenings."
"As shall I," she returned. "Ma vie changera." My life will change. "Je crains demain autant que je regrette hier." I fear tomorrow as much as I regret yesterday.
"Such sweet words of love, my pet," he said with a smile. "I have something for you."
He often brought her perfume or jewelry, but he hadn't arrived with a package in view. Now he slid a hand inside his suit jacket and extricated a slim leather folder. Opening it revealed a ledger. He turned his hand so she could read a deposit report. The balance took her breath away.
"It's a bank account. I considered cash, because it's more prudent, but in the long run, this is secure. Your money is safe, and no one can steal it."
Ella looked from the bankbook to his face. No money had ever been exchanged between them. His paying discreetly kept the veneer of their relationship as lovers in place. Madame Fairchild paid Ella as she did all the other girls, after an allowance for food and clothing was deducted. Granted the gentlemen's fees were exorbitant, but champagne was costly, and Ella's seamstress truly was a Frenchwoman. Ella lived in splendor and ate in elegance, but had very little money to show for four years in the parlor house.
"It's something to fall back on. Something that's all your own and no one else knows about." He closed the ledger and pressed it into her hand. "Understood?"
She nodded. She'd never had more than a few dollars in her entire life. Her mind raced with the coming change and this unexpected windfall.
"That money will take care of you when you need it, so keep this booklet safe."
Ella crushed the folder to her breast, against her wildly beating heart. Tears came to her eyes and she turned her head, blinking to dry them.
"Gabrielle." He took her chin on his curled index finger and raised her head so she was forced to look up at him. "Leave here while you can still make a life for yourself. Right now you're young and beautiful, but a day will come when you're no longer the most desirable girl."
How well she knew. Her mother had barely been forty when she'd died, but she could have passed for Ella's grandmother. Ella had heard talk of women no longer in the blush of youth sent to the bordellos and worse. She lived with the fear of a similar fate.
"Do you understand?"
She nodded. "Je comprends."
Seeming content that he'd eased his conscience where she was concerned, he moved to stand beside the wooden valet and removed his jacket. "Yes, my pet, I will most certainly miss you."
Mr. Murdock had been gone well over an hour. Ella had bathed and sewn the bankbook into the hem of the velvet traveling coat she'd only worn once. Unable to concentrate on reading, she sat before the cold fireplace, staring into its depths when a timid knock sounded at her door.
She got up and slid back the bolt. "Celeste?"
The petite girl in the well-lit hallway checked behind her. "May I come in?"
Ella opened the door wider and stepped aside. The other girl had never been in Ella's room before, and her eyes widened as she looked around, taking in the elegant furnishings. She didn't remark.
Celeste had already washed her face in preparation for sleep. Closing the door, Ella cringed at the sight of the girl's still-healing lip and nose, which she'd carefully concealed all week. Her straight hair, dyed a coal black because Madame Fairchild believed redheads were a detriment, had been knotted atop her head.
"Are you hurt?" Ella asked. A few slaps or an occasional punch were tolerated, and the servants could have tended to her injuries if that had been the case. Ella couldn't think of any reason why she'd come to her room.
"No, but she let him come back," the girl said. "Just like nothing ever happened. I knew she would."
Ella nodded. She'd known, too.
Celeste reached under her shawl and produced a scrap of newspaper, which she unfolded. "Look at this."
Ella took the crumpled newsprint and read.
Several gentlemen of means in the Wyoming Territory seek young, intelligent, refined maidens of a loving disposition for the purpose of matrimony. Railroad tickets provided upon acceptance by our liaison.
Celeste blinked up at her. "What's a liaison?"
"A contact person."
"I'm done taking punches." Celeste's tone revealed her determination. "I'm getting out of here."
Ella's heart pounded at her words. "You're—you're leaving? "
"And I'm never looking back." She studied Ella's expression. "I grew up with a ma and pa, Gabrielle. I had a family once. I went to school and did things like other people, so I know this house is no life for a woman. There's better. I don't care if I have to go hungry on the way to someplace else. I'm getting out of here. All the shrimp cocktails in the world aren't worth a black eye or sore ribs every Friday night. I've already sent a wire in reply."
Ella stared at the clipping until her fingers trembled. For the first time the possibility of leaving became a reality. She desperately wanted to change her situation. With Ansel Murdock gone, her fate now fluttered in the breeze. She could end up like her mother: unloved and alone. The possibility made her feel sick.
She'd been out in public a few times and had learned her skin wasn't thick enough to endure the scorn of the townspeople. It was acceptable for a man to visit a parlor house, but immoral for a woman to work in one.
And now…now she had a bank account just waiting. "Ella," she said.
Celeste frowned. "What?"
"My name is Ella."
Sweetwater, Wyoming, May 1873
Nathan still had reservations about this plan to bring in young women with the intent of matchmaking. The territorial board of directors had strongly suggested he needed a wife to protect his family image if he wanted his name on the ticket to run for governor in the fall. Somehow the talk had evolved into sending for brides, and by no objective of his own, the watchful eyes of his peers and supporters were now upon him.
Leland Howard was the only other man in Sweet-water with a home big enough to entertain a crowd that included the town council members and their wives, all the single businessmen and the newly arrived mailorder brides. Together, the men had decided the Howard place was the best location, being neutral ground and not giving Nathan the advantage of the women seeing his home before they met him.
"That little one's pretty," Tom Bradbury said.
Nathan followed Tom's gaze. The woman he spoke of was tiny with straight jet-black hair and a pinkish complexion. She lifted her hazel-eyed gaze and scanned the crowd, her discomfort momentarily obvious. Too timid for the wife of a governor.
Well, he wasn't governor. In fact, he had yet to see his name on the ballot; but a wife was a lifetime commitment. He needed one who would be an asset to a campaign and his following terms in office, not to mention a suitable life companion.
As if he was actually thinking about this. He turned to the buffet table and studied the impressive spread. Glancing back at the gathering, a group of men huddling nearly shoulder to shoulder caught his eye. Curiosity got the best of him, and he joined them. Another heated discussion about the demonetizing of silver, no doubt. Those who owned or held shares in mines had debated the bill before President Grant at length.
One of the men noticed Nathan and took a step back in deference to his approach. Another did the same, and an opening formed. Nathan walked right into the center of the gathering. It was there he discovered the most breathtaking creature he'd ever laid eyes on.
Her deep rose-colored dress bared her shoulders, revealing ivory skin as smooth and rich as heavy cream. Her tawny gold hair had been swept into one of those fashionable styles with dangling curls that women seemed to favor. The shiny tresses cascaded over one slender shoulder.
She was replying to something one of the men had asked, when she must have sensed the change in the atmosphere. Her attention flitted from face to face until she spotted him.
Eyes as blue and luminous as a clear mountain lake returned his gaze. High cheekbones and gracefully arched brows gave her a look of sweet sophistication, but her mouth.
Nathan's visceral reaction to the woman surprised him more than anything could have. Her generous lips immediately conjured up sultry images and planted a dozen uncharacteristic fantasies in his head.
He couldn't take a deep breath. This was what it would feel like if someone stood on his chest.
"Nathan," Leland said, urging him forward. "This is Miss Ella Reed from Illinois. Miss Reed, Mr. Lantry."
She offered him her hand. "It's a pleasure, Mr. Lantry."
Her voice was deeper than he'd expected, her diction flawless, her tone sultry without being improper.
She extended her gloved hand, and he took her fingers, touching fabric, but imagining warm soft skin. "The pleasure is entirely mine, Miss Reed." He glanced at the men who'd obviously been monopolizing her attentions. "Have you had a chance to eat?"
"Not yet. I am a bit hungry."
The others took their cue and made their departures. Nathan offered her his arm and led her toward the buffet. "The company of lovely young ladies is uncommon in this part of the country. I'm afraid these men would occupy your entire evening if you let them."
"Everyone's been most kind so far. We've been given splendid rooms at the hotel. The staff is accommodating, and the food is good."
He handed her a plate and located his own.
After selecting a tiny veal tart, she added a few dates to her plate. She stood gazing at a platter of individual chestnut puddings longer than the necessary time it took to select one.
"Is there a problem?" he asked.
"Oh, no," she answered, glancing up sheepishly. "I don't often eat desserts. These look irresistibly good."
She used a flat silver utensil and selected two.
Nathan reached for a fork and handed it to her. "Would you like to sit?"
"I would," she answered with a nod, but she continued to move around the end of the table. Passing the tiny sandwiches, she went directly to the eclairs and used silver tongs to select one. A sugar-encrusted bit of chocolate followed.
He led her out a set of doors to the Howards' garden, lit by burning torches, and gestured to the stone bench.
Miss Reed seated herself and arranged her skirts. He liked the way she carried herself, gracefully, confidently. He liked everything about her: her slender neck and the smooth expanse of skin above the bodice of her dress, where a gold locket winked in the torchlight. Her waist was impossibly narrow.
She took a dainty bite of the pudding and closed her eyes. "Exquisite."
He couldn't help a smile. She held half a plate of sweets. "Are you a cook yourself, Miss Reed?"
Her pleased expression vanished and a concerned frown marred her forehead before she seemed to catch herself and her skin smoothed once again. "Cooking was not one of my studies. But I'm a fast learner and could pick up the skill quickly if need be. Is cooking a requirement of a wife in Sweetwater?"
"I apologize. My question was a bumbling attempt at conversation. I'm sure you could learn to cook. I'd wager most of the men here tonight are unconcerned about cooking skills."
She held her plate in her lap and cast him an interested glance. "Are you seeking a wife, Mr. Lantry?"