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The American Heiress Brides Collection
By Kimberley Woodhouse, Lisa Carter, Mary Davis, Susanne Dietze, Anita Mae Draper, Patty Smith Hall, Cynthia Hickey, Lisa Karon Richardson, Lynette Sowell
Barbour Publishing, IncCopyright © 2017 Lisa Carter
All rights reserved.
Montana Territory, 1880
How had this happened to her?
Eugenia Rutherford stared in dismay as the train chugged out of sight. When she told Daddy how they'd cast her off the train like a common criminal — he'd fix their wagon for good. Daddy didn't suffer fools gladly.
But then she remembered. She couldn't tell her father. She'd run away to prove a point.
The depot sign swung in a light July breeze. Surveying the hardscrabble mining town of Silver Strike, her nose wrinkled. Apropos, considering who she was — the daughter of one of the richest men in California. A silver king.
She just hadn't counted on being unceremoniously dumped in the middle of Nowhere, Montana. Maybe she'd gone too far this time.
No sign of a porter. Grimacing, she clutched her valise and picked her way over the railroad track toward the station. She couldn't wait to shake the dust off this one-horse town.
Visor shading his brow, a man pored over a train schedule at the ticket counter. She rapped her gloved knuckle on the pane of glass, and he jumped.
He scowled. "What?"
Not the usual deferential treatment to which she was accustomed. Her mouth tightened. Maybe Daddy needed to buy this whole stinking town and teach them a lesson.
"I'd like a ticket to Chicago, if you please."
He mumbled the price of a ticket.
"I'm Eugenia Rutherford, and I don't carry money."
"No money, no ticket."
She frowned. "Do you know who my father is, sir?"
"I don't care if you're the queen of Alibaba. No money, no ticket." And with that, he snapped the window closed.
"How dare you ..."
But what now? She did a slow one-eighty and spotted the ornate Silver Strike Hotel at the end of what passed for Main Street.
Daddy would wire her some credit. Might as well get a decent meal and a room for the night. Although, what this last outpost of civilization considered a decent meal was anybody's guess.
* * *
Next move, yours.
Cort crushed the telegram in his fist.
"Bad news, mister?"
Cort glanced at the telegraph operator. "The worst."
He'd found Mrs. Anderson's note when he returned to the house from the fields. She'd resigned and "borrowed" his buckboard, which she promised to leave outside the telegraph office. Hired right out from under him by the confounded sender of the telegram.
Women. They were all alike. Loyalty meant nothing. Good riddance to the lot of them.
Except ... What was he going to do about Granny?
Since the stroke, she needed constant care. His energetic grandmother had shriveled into someone he no longer recognized. Her vivacious spirit reduced to a low ember. The doc told Cort not to expect her to live long.
Cort wouldn't wish to prolong her life. Not the way she was now. But he missed her. Really missed her.
He'd already left her too long alone at the homestead.
Ten-year-old Luke, from the foundling home, who ran errands for the telegraph office, plucked at Cort's shirtsleeve. "Who's gonna take care of ole Miz Dahlgren now?"
Cort exhaled. "A good question, young man. A very good question."
The boy stuffed his hands in his trousers, which needed patching. Something his grandma had done in her spare time — making new clothes for the children at the Home in Silver Strike near their old homestead.
"I'm purt near strong as a growed man." The boy flexed a nonexistent muscle. "I know the way to your farm. I happen to be in the market for extra work."
"Oh you are, huh?" Cort rolled his tongue in his cheek till a thought struck him. "How do you know where we live? I didn't realize you'd been to the homestead before."
"I delivered a telegram to Mrs. Anderson yesterday."
"You didn't happen to read — I mean notice — what it said, did you? Or who sent it?"
Luke squared his thin shoulders. "I did not, sir. I am a professional."
Fair enough. Besides, Cort could well imagine who'd sent the first telegram to the farm. That blasted man was playing chess with people's lives. But to shanghai an elderly woman's nurse was diabolical even for him. And for what purpose?
Cort hadn't the foggiest idea. Next move, yours. What did that mean?
He scrubbed the back of his neck with his hand. The way Granny was fading, he didn't think he'd have long to worry about her situation. He'd truly be alone then.
Feeling a kinship with the orphan, he reached into his pocket. "I'll keep your offer in mind, young fella." He pulled out a penny. "Why don't you treat yourself and get something sweet at the mercantile?"
Luke drew himself up, all four foot eight inches. "I work for a living, sir. I don't take handouts."
An interesting attitude for a foundling, but he couldn't fault Luke's work ethic. Or his budding entrepreneurship.
"Call it an investment in the future. And remember me when you make your first million, okay?"
Luke grinned and took the coin. "All right then. I'll buy taffy. I can split it with the little guys at the Home."
Enterprising and generous. He ruffled Luke's windblown hair. No wonder his grandmother had been so involved with the orphanage before the stroke last winter stole her vigor.
Cort headed to the mercantile to leave an employment notice on the bulletin board. Could use some divine help right about now, God. He had to find someone to take care of Granny, at least through harvest.
* * *
Hitching her skirt free of the mud clogging the street, Eugenia maneuvered past the wagons rolling down Main. She dodged the horses tied at the railing outside the mercantile and hurried to the boardwalk.
She stopped at the telegraph office to wire her father. "I'll be in the hotel restaurant waiting for his reply."
This wasn't turning out like she'd planned. In a snit last night, she'd thrown a few garments in her valise and stormed off to the train station near the Rutherford mansion in Sacramento. Her name — her father's name — had been enough to get her a seat in first class in lieu of an actual ticket.
Eugenia never bothered to carry money. She was a Rutherford. Rutherfords didn't need coinage.
She regretted the harsh words between her and her father. They'd always been close, but Daddy had to understand she was an independent woman. She didn't intend to be used as a marriage pawn to further his empire.
They'd argued over the copper king fellow, the latest in a long line of would-be suitors.
Eligible bachelors from the best families, as well as others who were self-made. But she'd turned up her nose at them all. Like the upstart copper king who'd had the nerve to call her spoiled.
Looking down her nose at him, she'd shown him the door last February. "I prefer a clean-shaven man to a rough-bearded yokel like you." Her father had been incensed at her behavior.
She was determined to marry — or not — at her own pleasure.
Most women married for love or money. She had no need for money — Daddy made sure of that. As for love?
She'd never been in love in her life. Nobody — including Daddy — could make her do anything she didn't want to do. And marriage topped the list.
Her widowed father had never denied her anything she wanted. Daddy needed to understand how determined she was to be in charge of her own destiny. It wouldn't take long for him to see things her way while she visited her dear friend, Muriel, in Chicago.
"I don't carry money." She smiled as the waitress presented the bill. "I'm Eugenia Rutherford, you see."
The waitress blinked at her. The people in this town didn't appear too bright.
"My father will compensate you for the meal and accommodations once he wires me the money."
The waitress opened her mouth then. And what followed wasn't pleasant. Outraged, Eugenia demanded to speak with the hotel manager.
"You're going to speak to the manager, dearie," snarled the waitress. "We know how to deal with moochers like you."
"Moocher? How dare —?"
The manager proved no more helpful than his staff. Instead, he wrapped his beefy hands around her upper arms and hauled her out of the chair.
"Unhand me," she yelled. "I demand you unhand me."
The manager towed her toward the lobby. "You'll pay your bill or we'll settle this with the sheriff."
Dragging her heels, she caught hold of the reception desk. "Sheriff?"
But he shoved her toward the front door. Making a spectacle. Of her, Eugenia Alice Rutherford.
"What 'bout her bag, Mr. Penrod?" the waitress called.
The manager grunted as Eugenia's shoe smacked his shin. "Toss it on the street."
And without further ado he tossed her onto the boardwalk.CHAPTER 2
Cort emerged from the mercantile to find a crowd gawking outside the hotel.
The hotel manager dumped a squawking, screaming blond woman — petticoats and all — onto the boardwalk. The girl who waited tables screeched for the sheriff. For somebody — anybody — to help.
What on earth?
Cort crossed the street with long strides just as the caterwauling woman sprang at the manager. She swung back her fist. Cort inserted himself between the two as she threw a punch.
His chest deflected her well-aimed blow. He didn't even stagger. But caught off balance, she teetered. Arms flailing, she fell backward.
She landed with a plop and an oozing squish into what he preferred not to imagine. Laughter erupted from the crowd. Squeezing her eyes shut, the troublemaker moaned.
The telegram crinkled in his pocket. He got his first good look at the crazy woman. Suddenly, everything became clear.
And his stomach sank to the bottom of his boots.
Covered with muck, she was a sorry sight. Despite the expensive, now ruined dress, she was a bedraggled woebegone sort. He shouldn't laugh. But he couldn't help it.
He loomed over her. "Pride goeth before a fall, eh?"
"More like pearls before swine." She blew a strand of hair out of her eyes. "You are no gentleman."
He smirked as he offered his hand. "And you smell nothing like a lady."
At first, she refused to take his hand. But unable to stand up on her own, she gnashed her teeth and seized his hand. Ignoring the tingle of electricity of her skin against his fingertips, he pulled her free of the cloying mud. For his reward, she glared at him.
The sheriff pinned her arms behind her back. She cried out at his rough treatment. "We'll see how you like cooling your heels in a cell."
Her Royal Haughtiness probably deserved jail time, but Cort didn't like to see a woman manhandled. "Maybe we can work out something to everyone's satisfaction."
Cort angled toward the manager. "As long as the hotel is compensated, would you be willing to drop the charges, Mr. Penrod?"
Mr. Penrod straightened his string tie. "If she'd been able to pay her bill, we wouldn't be standing here now."
Sheriff Turnbull didn't loosen his grip on his prisoner. "Whatcha have in mind, Cort?"
"Granny's nurse quit this morning."
Murmurs of commiseration arose. His grandmother, one of Silver Strike's pioneering women, was a beloved figure.
"That's too bad."
"That's a raw deal."
"That's tough, son."
Cort nodded. "Fact is, I'm in a bind. I've got no one to watch out for Granny at the homestead while I'm in the fields."
He hooked his thumbs in his belt loops. "If I pay her bill, she can reimburse me by taking care of Granny till harvest is over."
Sheriff Turnbull curled his bushy, mustached lip. "She'll rob you blind the first chance she gets. And head for the hills." He shook the girl for added emphasis.
It took everything inside Cort to restrain himself from knocking the sheriff's hand off her arm. He kept his coiled fists at his side. "What about you, Mr. Penrod?"
The manager's forehead creased. "As long as I get what I'm owed —"
"You'll get what you're owed all right." The girl vibrated like a taut bowstring. "All of you. Soon as my daddy —"
"Stop talking. Right now." Cort's chest rose and fell. "I've never told a woman to shut up in my life, but so help me, if you don't close your mouth this instant —" She lunged at him.
Only the sheriff's grip prevented her from pounding him.
"You'll do what, farm boy?"
She was either the bravest woman he'd ever met — the whole town ready to lock her backside in jail and throw away the key — or the dumbest.
He couldn't decide which. Stubbornness, she possessed in spades.
"You take care of my grandma, or you can enjoy the cold comfort of the Silver Strike lockup." He relished having the upper hand with this slip of a miss for once. "Your choice."
* * *
This was outrageous. This was extortion. Blackmail.
If Eugenia weren't so horrified, so totally without resources — so without Daddy — she'd tell this homesteader what he could do with his job offer.
She took a breath. "That won't be necessary. As I tried to tell Mr. Penrod before he assaulted me, my father will settle the bill. This has been a terrible misunderstanding."
Cort — wasn't that what the sheriff called him? — arched his eyebrow. "Only misunderstanding is you thinking you can go into a place of business, consume their product, and then refuse to pay."
"That's not what happened."
"It's exactly what happened."
The telegraph operator pushed to the front of the crowd. "Your father refused to send any money, Miss Rutherford."
Her mouth fell open. "What?"
"Says you made your own mess and now you can lie in it."
"H-He wouldn't do that. There's been a mistake." She lifted her chin. "He wouldn't abandon me here."
"Come on." The sheriff yanked her arm again. "It's jail for you till the circuit judge rides into town." He chuckled. "Next month."
"Wait." She tried pulling free. "This can't be happening."
"It's happening. So what's it going to be?" The Cort person tapped his dusty boot on the boardwalk. "I got things to do. Haven't got all day."
Switching tactics, she forced her eyes to water. "Please ... Don't make me go with him." She made a show of blinking rapidly. "He's mean. I'm scared."
Cort What's-His-Name rolled his eyes. "Put a cork in it, Rutherford."
Eugenia glowered. "That would be Miss Eugenia Alice Rutherford to you."
"Save the theatrics for the stage. Jail or join the ranks of us nobodies who work for a living?"
And somehow she found herself in a buckboard wagon beside this homesteading philistine headed for the valley outside Silver Strike.
Clutching the edge of the seat, she cut her eyes at him and gave him a scathing appraisal. A tan Stetson topped his short, dark hair. He had reasonably symmetrical features. A strong, clean-cut jaw.
His thin lips were currently flattened to match his forehead in what appeared to be a perpetual scowl. Dark eyes framed lashes the envy of any girl. Although her heart fluttered, there was nothing remotely girlie about her new employer.
Employer ... The notion sent a dagger through her heart. Silencing any would-be palpitations this dirt-farming homesteader evoked.
"If you're done sizing me up, Miss Rutherford ...?"
She stiffened. "Charming you are not."
His hands balled around the reins. But he kept his gaze fixed on the bend in the road. "I'm not required to be Prince Charming."
She sniffed. "No worries there."
A muscle ticked a furious beat in his cheek. "But I am your boss."
"You're not the boss of me. No one is the boss of me."
The homesteader looked at her. "That, I suspect, is the source of most of your problems."
His dark eyes glinted. "But you'll take care of my granny while I bring in the harvest or you'll find yourself in the lockup faster than you can say 'Eugenia Alice Rutherford.'"
She bristled. "You are a barbarian."
"Novel experience for you, isn't it, Miss Rutherford?" He didn't look the least repentant. "To find yourself without recourse or resources. Maybe you'll learn something from this experience of eating crow."
"Rutherfords do not eat crow." She sneered. "We serve it."
His eyes narrowed. "We'll see how you like dishing out hog slop and chicken feed. A comeuppance long overdue. And I, for one, intend to enjoy the show."CHAPTER 3
s the horses cantered past the played-out Silver Strike mine, Cort stole a glance at the infuriated young woman beside him. Eugenia Rutherford was beautiful, make no mistake about that. A man could drown in those cornflower eyes of hers. He pushed up the brim of his hat with his index finger.
But he'd learned the hard way it didn't matter how exquisite the cup if the contents were pig swill. And this spoiled heiress was nothing but a vain, prideful minx. God help the man who ever took on the herculean task of taming this one.
The valley opened before them, and she gave a small gasp of pleasure. Despite his determination to remain unmoved in her presence, he felt a small sense of satisfaction.
"Pretty, isn't it?"
About as pretty as Eugenia Alice Rutherford, but he didn't say that out loud.
Eugenia scanned the pine-topped ridges running parallel to the valley. Sunlight gleamed on the golden tresses of her hair like the wheat awaiting harvest in his fields. Her hair had come loose from its elaborate updo and fell in shimmering, silky waves to her shoulders.
Silk ... His hands flexed on the reins. But pretty is as pretty does.
Eugenia pointed at the prairie mansion looming beyond the trees. "What a glorious house."
Bucolic pastureland extended toward the mountain horizon. Bees droned above meadow flowers. Thoroughbreds grazed under the azure blue Montana sky.
He scowled. No surprise she'd be drawn there. Like called to like. "It's an eyesore on the landscape."
Excerpted from The American Heiress Brides Collection by Kimberley Woodhouse, Lisa Carter, Mary Davis, Susanne Dietze, Anita Mae Draper, Patty Smith Hall, Cynthia Hickey, Lisa Karon Richardson, Lynette Sowell. Copyright © 2017 Lisa Carter. Excerpted by permission of Barbour Publishing, Inc.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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