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Wyoming Territory, summer 1890
Hadn't he promised himself not to get into a situation like this again?
Jonas White stood on the dusty street in his Sunday suit, letter clutched in his hand, gazing up at the fine house. It seemed too much of a coincidence that his neighbor and closest friendalthough they were two generations apart in agewas related to a wealthy banker when Jonas desperately needed a loan. And the letter Jonas had promised to deliver for his friend would grant him access to the banker he'd been trying to see all day.
But Jonas had stopped questioning the Lord's hand in things once he'd met his neighbors, the Nelsons, just over five years ago.
Staring at the light spilling from the glass-paned windows onto the large, well-kept yard reminded Jonas of another place and time, and how as a child he'd often looked in on some of Philadelphia's wealthy families. Like those stately town houses, this house was ostentatious. Two-story and much larger than the other homes on the street. Or in the whole town of Calvin, Wyoming, for that matter.
Jonas resolutely pushed the painful memories to the back of his mind. His daughter needed him to do this, and he couldn't fail her.
Sounds of voices and tinkling china trickled out from the wide-open front door. Was the banker hosting a party? If so, this might not be the best time to call, but Jonas needed to take care of business before the woman who was watching Breanna for him left town on the next Eastbound train.
He brushed at some dust on his jacket sleeve and took a deep breath, reminding himself that his loan was a reasonable request. If only he felt more comfortable interacting with high-society people like the banker, but his upbringing didn't exactly lend itself to that.
Trudging up the steps before he could change his mind, Jonas entered the elegant home. The entry hall was empty, but voices drew him to a parlor packed with people.
One or two of them shook his hand, welcoming him as he moved through the crowded room. Most ignored him. Jonas scanned each face, looking for the portly man with salt-and-pepper hair that he'd glimpsed briefly on the boardwalk this morning. No sign of the banker.
Conversations ebbed and flowed around him as he moved through the parlor and into another lamp-lit room in search of Mr. Castlerock. He knew he was out of place, and the disdainful looks he received from some of the partygoers only confirmed it, made him feel as awkward and unwelcome as he'd felt at eighteen in the Broadhursts' Philadelphia home.
"Can I help ya, son?"
Jonas turned at the voice and caught sight of a plump woman with an apron covering most of her ample figure. Here was someone from his class, someone who could help him. Relief flooded him.
"Yes, I'm looking for Mr. Castlerock. I'm to deliver this letter, and I need to speak with him on another matter"
The woman took the letter from Jonas. "I'll put it aside for the boss. If he sets it down during the party, he'll never remember where he put it in the morning. Last I saw him, he was in his study, down there " She nodded toward a door down the hall and her voice trailed off as she bustled away in the opposite direction.
"Thanks," Jonas murmured to her departing back.
He couldn't be sure which room she'd meant to indicatethere were two doorways on the left and one on the right, so he peeked into each as he passed. Finally, he had no choice but to enter the room at the end of the hall.
So intent was he on locating the banker, Jonas didn't notice her at first. But as he tried to slip through the crowd without bumping into any of the fine furnishings or well-dressed guests, he caught a glimpse of upswept copper curls, burnished to fire by the lamplight.
He'd only ever seen one person with that color hair in his entire life.
Jonas froze, dumbstruck, as a tall man in a black jacket moved away and his view became unhindered. It was her, with the laughing blue eyes he remembered and wearing the frilliest, fanciest peach-colored dress he'd ever seen.
The girl he'd admired from afar, back in Philadelphia. Penny Castlerock.
He'd guessed from the unusual surname that she might be a relation to the wealthy banker, but never imagined he would see her here. He'd thought she would be married to a Philadelphia businessman by now. What was she doing in Wyoming?
Penny Castlerock caught sight of the farmer the moment he stepped into her father's study, where some of the guests had congregated. His dark suit was ill-fitting, in contrast to the tailored jackets worn by her father's acquaintances, but the suit's ugliness couldn't hide the muscled shoulders most likely earned through days of backbreaking labor in a field somewhere. His crown of blond hair showed a noticeable line where his hat must have rested earlier in the day.
And there was the hat. Clutched in one hand against the farmer's leg. The man appeared to be looking for someone, if his roving brown eyes were any indication.
The moment those intelligent brown eyes spotted her, he froze, a thunderstruck look on his face.
While he seemed vaguely familiar to her, she couldn't be sure she'd met the man before. And while she prided herself on the unusual shade of her hair and had taken extra pains to powder away the smattering of freckles she could never completely eliminate, she usually didn't elicit such a strong reaction upon a first meeting. It was quite flattering, even if he was only a farmer.
She moved to intercept him, breaking off a conversation with her dear friend Merritt Harding, the local schoolmarm. After all, a lady's duty was to ensure all guests' needs were met.
With advice from Mrs. Trimble's finishing school ringing in her ears, she greeted him with a warm, "Good evening," and the best smile she could procure after spending a long hour with her father's guests.
He emitted a strangled sound, not words, and gripped his hat in both hands, holding it almost as if it was a shield in front of him.
"There's punch on the serving buffet just through here, if you're thirsty." Penny extended her arm to indicate the dining room.
The man still didn't move, and she struggled to keep her smile in place. Common courtesy demanded he answer her, but he remained silent. And his stare was bordering on rude.
What was he doing here? Her father usually only included those he deemed "important" and she wasn't sure this farmer fit the bill.
"I'm sorry, have we met before? Perhaps you're one of my father's acquaintances?" she asked, when the silence between them became fraught with tension.
"Penelope, darling, there you are."
Penny half-turned at her father's booming voice, relieved for the interruption from the awkward one-sided conversation. Why didn't the farmer say anything?
"Father, I've just been greeting one of our guests. This is Mr.. " She left off her sentence to allow the farmer to offer his name, but instead he moved past her and extended his hand toward her father.
"Sir, I need to talk to you in private, if you have a few moments."
So the farmer could speak. But she still didn't know his name.
Her father's face creased as if he couldn't quite place the man. "I don't believe we've met. What can I do for you?"
"It's a business matter, sir." The farmer glanced briefly at Penny, just a flash of his brown eyes.
Penny was used to being excluded from her father's business, but it was a matter of contention with her. She felt women were intelligent enough to be involved in business matters, but her mother had always deferred to her father, leaving Penny no choice but to do the same.
Her father chuckled, not a kind sound. "I'm sorry, son, but I don't discuss business matters during my private parties."
Penny knew that was an exaggeration. Her father often had an after-dinner cigar or drink with his associates to talk business. Why didn't he want to speak to the farmer?
"You're welcome to make an appointment at the bank."
Her father took her elbow, obviously considering the conversation finished, and began to guide Penny away from the farmer.
"Sir, I've been to the bank twice today, trying to see you."
The farmer's statement was louder this time, drawing looks from others in the study.
Penny's father didn't stop, but she saw his face redden from the corner of her eyea sign he was becoming irritated. "I'm sorry to hear that, but I'm a very busy man, you know."
Penny stifled a snicker. Yes, and her father was also full of his own self-importance. She almost felt sorry for the farmer, and probably would've if he hadn't caused an uncomfortable scene.
"I need a loan," the farmer called out as Penny and her father moved away, his voice becoming desperate, intense. "I've a homestead with a cabin and a barn to put up for it."
Her father's face was now crimson, indicating his mood had moved from simply irritated to angry. That did not bode well for the farmer.
"Son, you'll have to come to the bank and talk to me during business hours."
With that final statement, her father swept from the roomas much as he could in the press of people now craning their necks to see what the raised voices were aboutpulling her along with him.
"The nerve" he sputtered, apparently unable to form coherent sentences. "Embarrassing me in front of guests"
"You could've granted him a private audience," Penny admonished softly.
She knew her words were a mistake as her father's face purpled. As he opened his mouth to rebuke her, they were interrupted.
"Ah, Penelope. You look positively striking this evening." A familiar, nasally voice silenced her father, giving Penny a reprieve. For now. She knew her father would have much to say to herprobably in a tiradeonce the guests had taken their leave. However, this interruption wasn't one she particularly desired.
She forced a smile, knowing her father was also schooling his own features. The Castlerock family was nothing if not proper when in public. Her father's position on the town council demanded no less. Nor did the man himself.
Her father's business associate, Herman Abbott, half-bowed over her wrist, and Penny couldn't help but note the clamminess of his grip, much like a limp, dead fish. She reclaimed her hand and tucked it into the folds of her gown, wishing she could wipe away the disgusting feeling but not daring to.
She couldn't help a glance over Mr. Abbott's skinny shoulders to the long case clock to gauge how much longer she had to participate in tonight's event.
"I was hoping to speak to you tonight," Mr. Abbott went on, apparently not noticing her inattention. "With your father's permission, I'd like to take you on a buggy ride tomorrow morning. I've just had the carriage resprung," he said as an aside with a proud look at Penny's father.
"I'm afraid that won't be possible," she inserted before the men could decide for her. "I'm going to help Mr. Silverton at the bank. Mrs. Shannonthe bank teller" she explained for Mr. Abbott's benefit, "just had her baby and he has not been able to find a replacement yet."
She hadn't promised any such thing, but the bank manager would indulge her if she arrived early enough. She had no desire to spend time with her father's associate. Not only was he older, much closer to her father's age than Penny's, but there was something about him that made her uncomfortable
"You know I don't like you working in the teller window," her father hissed. To Abbott he said, "Our family is certainly of a station that my daughter has no need to work. Of course, her mother and I encourage her to help those less fortunateshow compassion for the common man and all"
Penny gritted her teeth, hoping her facial muscles approximated a smile while the two men chuckled. While she enjoyed the fine things her father's money bought, such as the taffeta gown she wore this very moment, she didn't think that same wealth gave her father reason to lord it over those around him.
The men's arrogant posturing bothered her, and she allowed her mind to wander. Why had her father dismissed the farmer so abruptly? The man seemed familiar to her, though she couldn't recall a name. Had her father been in such a hurry to partner her with Abbott that he'd been unnecessarily rude to the man?
And why couldn't her father sense that she had no interest in Mr. Abbott? Of all her father's associates, there was something about Mr. Abbott that unnerved her. It wasn't that he looked at her inappropriately, per se. But something behind his eyes.