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Cahill Crossing, Texas springtime, early 1880s
Quin Cahill dismounted from his horse, then stared at the string of saloons and dance halls that lined the north side of the newly completed railroad tracks. He doubted his parents would have approved of the disreputable businesses that had sprung up in the town that bore their family name
The tormenting memory of losing both parents at oncenot to mention the devastating family split that had followedput a scowl on Quin's face and left an empty ache in his heart. Squaring his shoulders, Quin forced aside the bleak thought and decided to treat himself to a drink at Hell's Corner Saloon before he crossed the tracks to the respectable side of town to pick up supplies.
"Afternoon, Quin," Sidney Meeker, the baldheaded, dark-eyed bartender, said as Quin strode across the planked floor.
Quin nodded a greeting as he leaned against the bar. He glanced around the saloon to note several unfamiliar faces at the poker tables. Cardsharps, he supposed, all waiting to prey on off-duty soldiers from nearby Fort Ridge, the cowboys from neighboring ranches and trail drives and the tracklayers who were constructing iron rails westward.
Sid arched a questioning brow as he dried off a shot glass, then set it aside. "How are things going on the 4C? Still having trouble with rustlers and squatters cutting your fences?"
Quin took a welcomed sip, allowing the liquor to slide down his throat and wash away the bitter memory of his brothers and sister bailing out on him and how hard he'd worked to take up the slack. "Not as much trouble as I had a year ago," he said before he took another drink.
"That's good news for you and the other ranchers in the area." Sid absently wiped the scarred bar with his dish towel. "Especially the new owners of the ranch west of your spread. I saw 'em climb off the train this morning."
Quin jerked up his head and frowned. He had been trying to purchase that run-down ranch for six months. Some highfalutin family had bought out the other investors from Boston and England that had run the spread long-distancewhich almost never worked. Quin had written several letters to the headquarters in Boston and made a generous offer to M. G. & L. Investment Group. He had received notice that someone named McKnight had acquired most of the shares.
Sid grinned, exposing his horselike teeth. "It was a sight to behold at the new train depot. Boxcars of fancy furniture, a new breed of cattle and stacks of lumber arrived with 'em." He inclined his bald head toward the door. "Folks scrambled out of here to watch. Most of the ones who showed up at the station were offered jobs of transporting wags of belongings to the ranch."
Quin smiled wryly, then took another drink. This was the perfect chance to meet his new neighborwho wouldn't last long when he realized the ranch house had fallen into disrepair and part of the livestock had been stolen because only a skeleton crew of hired hands had been retained to watch the place.
"Quite an entourage," Sid continued as he propped both elbows on the bar. "One well-dressed gent with fancy manners and three women. They purchased a two-seated carriage from the livery and headed west a few hours ago."
Quin's lips quirked in wicked amusement. He could imagine the cultural shock those Easterners would encounter. While it was true that Cahill Crossing had increased in population since the coming of the railroad, social events here were infrequent. Sure, there was the occasional school function to raise money for supplies and church socialsthat sort of thingbut nothing compared to the gala affairs rumored to take place in New England.
He predicted his uppity neighbors would turn up their aristocratic noses and scurry back to Boston soon. And Quin was going to be first in line to offer to take the property off their hands. The land west of his ranch had an excellent water source, pastures of thick grass and wooded hills to shade the livestock during oppressive summers and to block the brutal blue norther winds during harsh winters.
Yes, indeed, Quin was going to get his hands on that tract of land, just as he had bought up other available property to fulfill his father's dream of expanding the 4C Ranch.
"And Bowie, Leanna and Chance should be here to help me," Quin muttered resentfully.
Sid arched thick black brows and frowned curiously. "Pardon?"
"Nothing." Quin set the empty glass on the bar, then spun on his boot heels. "I need to pick up supplies. Thanks for the drink, Sid."
Quin mounted the bloodred bay gelding, with its sleek black mane and tail. He'd named him Cactus because of his prickly disposition. Quin had overheard some of his hired hands mutter that Quin and Cactus were a helluva lot alike. Though Cactus was a bit hard to handle at times, the horse had amazing stamina and endurance that was invaluable on trail drives. Plus, Cactus had never abandoned Quin the way his two brothers and sister had when the going got tough.
Tugging the packhorse behind him, Quin passed the train depot and Chateau Royale Hotelthe fancy new establishment constructed to accommodate passengers from the railroad and stage depot. He smiled as he dismounted at the general store on Town Square. How he wished he had been there to see the look on McKnight's face when he arrived at the run-down ranch house. No doubt, the man would be begging Quin to take the mismanaged property off his hands. Very soon, Quin would add another tract of land to the sprawling 4C Ranch.
Adrianna McKnight gaped at the clapboard ranch house that cried out for a fresh coat of paint and the bare windows that needed bright curtains. There were no gardens to give the place a speck of color. Nothing to welcome her home.
"Good heavens! I traded cooking in a posh Boston mansion for this?" Ezmerelda Quickel, the short, round-faced, red-haired cook, chirped as she stared goggle-eyed at her new home.
Adrianna pasted on an optimistic smile as she swiv-eled around to glance directly at Ezmerelda, who had half collapsed in disappointment on the backseat of the buggy. "I'm sure we'll be in a more positive frame of mind after we recuperate from our exhausting journey. Hopefully, the interior of the house is in better condition than the exterior."
"Let's hope so, Addie dear," Beatrice Fremont, the longtime housekeeper, harrumphed distastefully. "But I have the uneasy feeling I'll face a pile of dust and I'll be sneezing my head off while I try to set this residence to rights."
Hiram Butler, her man of affairs who was like an honorary uncle, glanced this way and that, then said, "I knew Texas claimed to be wide-open range country and wooded hills, but goodness! Our nearest neighbor must be miles away!"
Honestly, she was surprised anyone had volunteered to make this long journey after she had purchased the shares in this Texas ranch. Save those shares belonging to her first and only cousin, Rosalie Greer Burnett. Rosalie had cautioned Adrianna in her last letter that the property had been neglected because the previous manager had embezzled money meant for the upkeep of the home. But this?
Adrianna had planned to construct a new addition to enlarge the existing house but she hadn't anticipated remodeling the entire residence! Still, she needed this change of address, this new challenge to prove to herself that she was capable and that she counted for something besides tramping around ballrooms in Boston, fending off adventurers who sought to attach themselves to her vast fortune.
By heavens, Adrianna Kathleen McKnight was going to put this ranch on the mapor die trying! She wasn't the witless debutante her so-called friends in Boston pigeonholed her as. She had disappointed her departed father because she had only made a halfhearted attempt to become the dignified lady he had expected her to become when he introduced her into society. Adrianna had tried for her father's sake. Unfortunately, she had been unhappy and she had been untrue to her nature, while trying to live up to his expectations.
Now, after Reuben McKnight's lengthy illness, Adrianna had taken Cousin Rosa's suggestion to move west and begin a new life for herself. She would make her father proud that she had inherited his knack for business. She was not an empty-headed china doll destined to become the trophy wife for some snobbish social climber.
Mustering her resolve, determined to meet the difficult challenge, Adrianna grabbed hold of her full skirts so she wouldn't swan dive from the carriage, subsequently embarrassing herself in front of all the local workers she'd hired to transport and unload her cargo.
"Please cart the luggage upstairs," she instructed in an authoritative tone that would have done her father proudor at least she told herself that he would approve of her emulating his impressive organizing skills. "Then bring in the furniture. I will direct you where to put it."
"What about all this lumber?" one of the off-duty soldiers she'd hired called out.
Adrianna gestured toward the storage building west of the house. "Stack it over there, if you please." Drawing herself up to full stature, she marched onto the porch that surrounded the house. When she unlocked the front door, her spirits suffered a crushing blow. Whatever furniture had once filled the corrupt manager's home was gone. So were the rugs. Dust covered the floors, staircase and windowsills.
"Oh, my," Elda crowed as she poked her red head around Adrianna's shoulder to inspect the place. "Bea, brace yourself, dear. It's as bad as we thought."
When Bea elbowed her out of the way, Adrianna stepped aside, but she clamped hold of the petite housekeeper's elbow, in case she fainted in distress. Sure enough, Bea staggered sideways, as if knocked off balance.
"Lord have mercy!" Bea bleated as her wide-eyed gaze circled the hall and parlor.
"I appreciate everyone's loyalty in coming with me, but if you want to return to Boston and more familiar surroundings, I will understand," Adrianna insisted. "I will purchase rooms at the new Chateau Royale Hotel in town and you can be on the first train east, if you wish."
Bea strode forward to run her forefinger over the dusty banister. "And leave you in these abominable conditions?" she said, and sniffed. "I stood by your mama and papa and I am not abandoning you. Even if it takes me a month to remove this pile of dust I will get it done."
"I feel the same as Bea," Elda spoke up. "Or at least I think I do. Let me have a look at the kitchen first."
They trooped off in single file and Adrianna sagged in relief when she entered the kitchen to note the stove, pantry cupboards and worktable were where they were supposed to be. She glanced through the dirty window and noticed the summer kitchen stood behind the house.
"I'm staying, too," Elda announced decisively.
"I insist on a bucket of paint to freshen up these plastered walls," Bea said as she fussed with a coil of coal-black hair that had worked loose from the bun atop her head. "And no telling what varmintsthe two-legged, four-legged and eight-legged varietieshave prowled around this house."
Adrianna pivoted to face her stoic accountant, who was scrutinizing their new home as studiously as he pored over financial ledgers. "What about you, Butler? Do you wish to return to town and stay at the hotel?"
Hiram Butler drew himself up to full statureall five foot ten inchesthen brushed a speck of lint from the sleeve of his stylish jacket. "I gave your father my word that I would make sure you got off to a good start without him, my dear. I intend to honor that vow."
Adrianna inwardly winced, wondering if all three devoted employees had made this trip because her father had wrested promises from them on his deathbed.
Adrianna waved her arms in expansive gestures. "You are hereby released from any vow you made Papa," she decreed. "I intend to make a go of this ranch and to be near Cousin Rosa and her new husband. Boston has nothing for me now."
"We are staying," Butler declared after he received nods from Bea and Elda. "You, dear girl, are all the family we have. Besides, I am not going anywhere until I spend more than the passing moment we had at the train depot to determine if that Lucas Burnett character is good enough for our Rosalie."
Adrianna flung her arms around Butler's neck and practically squeezed the stuffing out of him. Then she hugged Bea and Elda. "I love you all and I am humbled by your loyalty during this adversity." She stepped back, blinked the sentimentality from her eyes and added, "And this ranch is definitely an adversity I intend to overcome. The first order of business is to get our bedrooms into a habitable state."
She spun on her heels to breeze through the empty dining room. "We need a place to collapse after a hard day's work."
"That is exactly what we have ahead of us," Bea insisted. "As soon as I change out of my traveling clothes I will roll up my sleeves and get started on this place. At least our bedrooms will be free of dust by tonight."
While the threesome directed traffic to have their belongings carted upstairs, Adrianna strode outside to oversee the stacking of lumber and the corralling of her herd of purebred Herefords into the pens beside the oversize barn.
Although Adrianna had sold the opulent mansion in Boston, she had retained the country estate where she had grown up raising prize cattle and horses. The place held sentimental memories of the freedom and happiness she had enjoyed during the first eighteen years of her life.
Before she had been instructed to behave like the proper, dignified lady her father insisted she becomeand never could.
"Never again am I going to try to live up to anyone's expectations," Adrianna vowed fiercely. "This is my independence day. I'm going to make something of myself!"