Single father and rancher Tate Lockwood already has his hands fulland now he's been asked to escort a woman through the Western frontier! But beautiful Sophie Montgomery is as strong-willed as she is brave. And although she's not the conventional tutor he wants for his sons, she just might be the perfect fit.
Sophie, still recovering from heartbreak, is ready to start life afresh. And that includes a startling new ambitionclimbing Longs Peak in the Colorado Rockiesas well as teaching Tate's boys. When she starts to fall for this motherless family, Tate, who's suffered losses of his own, is reluctant to return her feelings. And yet, maybe they can help each other navigate the terrain of newfound love
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Early May, 1879
"You're absolutely sure you want to do this, Sophie?" Effie Hurlburt, never one to mince words, watched her houseguest pack. "The Estes Park area is barely settled. It's not too late to change your mind."
Sophie Montgomery finished folding a flannel petticoat and then turned to Effie, her eyes dancing. "Run from a challenge? You've come to know me over the past weeks. Do I seem faint of heart?"
Laughing, Effie threw up her hands. "Stubborn. Strong. Independent. That's you. I should've known better than to question your determination." The older woman took Sophie's hand in hers. "Regardless of what you encounter, please know you're always welcome here."
"That's a comfort. You and the major have given me a much-needed sanctuary, but it's time I made my own destiny."
"Very well, my dear. Mr. Lockwood will be here at five for dinner. You two will need an early start for your trip into the mountains tomorrow." She turned in the doorway and once more looked appraisingly at Sophie. "You will be in my prayers."
After Effie left, Sophie sat on the edge of the bed, her mind racing. Effie wasn't the only skeptic. Sophie's entire family had, in one way or another, questioned her judgment. Although it had been difficult for them, they had accepted her decision to leave Kansas and relocate to Colorado. What neither they nor the Hurlburts could understand, though, was why she would resolve to spend six months living alone in the mountains.
Sophie stepped to the window and drew the lace curtain aside. There they werethe glorious peaks rising majestically from the plains, their snowcapped summits sparkling in the afternoon sun. They were beautiful from afar, but what she had been unable to convey to others was their compelling call, as if they were summoning her back to life. No longer content merely looking at them, she wantedno, neededto be in them. Everyone had been too polite to call her crazy, but she knew that's what they thought. To be charitable, those who loved her also feared for her safety. That was one worry she didn't have. Realistically she knew she would encounter harsh weather conditions, wild animals and the lack of creature comforts. She'd heard the stories, read the travelogues, seen the drawings. But the beauty and freedom awaiting her made up for any deprivations. She was a rancher's daughter, accustomed to hard days driving cattle and haying, and a fair shot if she did say so herself. If Englishwoman Isabella Bird could trek through the Rockies alone in 1873 and write a book about her adventures, Sophie Montgomery could likewise flourish there.
She went to the closet and removed the last of the garments she was taking to the mountainsa plain green dress, a knitted scarf and a shapeless felt hat like the ones her brothers wore. Tonight, in celebration of her upcoming adventure, she would wear a fine gown of ice-blue satin. It would be the last time in many months. Please, God, let this be a beginning. I've had enough of endings.
Tate Lockwood folded the document and stowed it in his inside coat pocket. Done. The money he got from selling his stock in the Central City mine coupled with his recent inheritance from his parents' estate had made him a wealthy man, so he could speculate in the silver fields opening up at Leadville and on the western slope of the Rockies. Leaving his Denver lawyer's office, he turned down Broadway and strode toward his hotel. He took satisfaction from how far he'd come since the grueling days of getting his hands grubby in mining operations to now, when his livelihood resulted from investing and reaping profits. There was much he missed about the culture of a mining campthe competition, the rapid changes of fortune, the streets bustling with all manner of menbut it was no place to rear two young boys. It had been a good decision to build a house in Estes Park, where they could grow in the peace and quiet of the high mountain air and learn to hunt and fish. He smiled to himself, recalling little Toby's tussle last summer with the rainbow trout he'd finally landed.
Of course, his wife had left him little choice when she'd abandoned them four years ago. His jaw worked as he fought the rage that could still take hold of him when he recalled Ramona's perfidy. He'd worked his fingers to the bone to raise the money for his young family to come from Philadelphia to join him in Central City. He'd built her a magnificent two-story house on the hillside and furnished it with items imported from the East. He had promised Ramona splendor and ease, and he had succeeded in providing it. But apparently he had misjudged her and miscalculated what it took to please her. From the moment she set foot in Colorado, she had made it known daily that she had never bargained for steep, unpaved sidewalks, a view of shanties in the distance or a husband more often in smelly work clothes than a suit. Nor had she found any joy in motherhood. A crying baby was a source of headaches and a tumbling toddler, a nuisance beyond bearing. Only rarely could Tate remember how he'd ever fallen under the spell of whatever charms she'd initially seemed to possess. Looking back, he admitted he mistook frivolousness for fun, flirtation for adoration and self-indulgence for beauty. More fool he. Never again would he fall under the spell of a female.
Dodging a buggy careering down the street, he groaned. Females. Why in the world had he burdened himself with escorting an idiot woman up to the park tomorrow? If he didn't think so highly of Robert Hurl-burt, his mother's cousin, he would never have agreed to such folly. No doubt Miss Montgomery had read the recently published A Lady's Life in the Rocky Mountains and figured she could replicate Isabella Bird's adventures. Not likely. He certainly hoped the major didn't expect him to play nursemaid. Once he deposited her at the cabin she'd rented, she was on her own. He hoped she had made arrangement for adequate provisions, but he seriously doubted she had. Folks up in the park were good enough about sharing, but had little tolerance for those who looked upon a trip there as a lark.
Well, he'd take her measure tonight at the dinner party. Fortunately it wasn't required that he like her.
No matter the occasion, the dinner clothes that had been like a second skin in the East had come to feel suffocating to Tate. He adjusted his collar and cravat before knocking on the Hurlburts' door. He hadn't long to wait. Effervescent Effie flung open the door and embraced him in a cloud of lavender fragrance. "Tate Lockwood! Dear boy, it is a treat to have you here once again."
"The pleasure is mine, Effie. As always I will enjoy your company and that of Robert, and your fine meal will help fortify me for the trip home."
"Ever the flatterer." She took him by the arm. "I'm eager for you to meet our friend Sophie." She led him into the parlor, where Robert stood by the fireplace, one arm on the mantel, talking to a small woman with a nimbus of redorange curls perched on a straight-backed chair. "Tate Lockwood, may I present Sophie Montgomery."
He made his way across the room and picked up her small hand. "Miss Montgomery."
Her hazel-green eyes sparkled. "It's lovely to meet you. I am so appreciative of your offer to escort me to Estes Park."
My offer? Little did she know it was only as a favor to Robert that he was undertaking such a mission. He turned and shook hands with Robert. "A pleasure to see you again, sir. What word of our family?"
The major's recitation kept Tate from dwelling on the woman sitting across the room. He had expected a hatchet-faced, sturdily built female, not a tiny one with lustrous hair, twinkling eyes and a dusting of freckles, wearing a becoming and stylish gown. She wouldn't last a week in the high country.
After the news of the relatives had been shared and thinking it might be ill-mannered of him to ignore this Miss Montgomery, of whom Robert and Effie were obviously quite fond, he addressed her directly. "Have you known Effie and Robert for some years?"
"I had never met them until earlier this spring, but I have long heard wonderful stories about them. My brother Caleb was stationed at Fort Larned, Kansas, then under the major's command. It was there he met the post surgeon's daughter Lily Kellogg. If I'm not mistaken, our Effie was a bit of a matchmaker." Sophie smiled at Effie. "Am I right?"
Effie nodded vigorously. "Those two. Born for each other, they were, but blind as bats about it. It would be fair to say I gave them a bit of a nudge."
"And it worked!" Sophie was alight with pleasure. "Lily is now my dear sister-in-law."
"That's not all," the major interjected. "After Caleb mustered out and married Lily, they settled in Cotton-wood Falls, Kansas, and Lily's father and sister moved there, too, and even without Effie's assistance, another match was struck."
"A perfect match," Sophie added. "Lily's sister Rose and my brother Seth, neither of whom ever thought they would marry, found each other."
Effie leaned forward, eager to add to the conversation. "Here's the great part. They were brought together when a little half-breed boy was abandoned in Rose's barn. While Rose and Seth were falling in love with the boy, they ended up falling for each other at the same time."
"That's quite a story." Tate didn't know what else to say. Apparently some people were lucky in love. He wasn't one of them.
Effie stood. "You and Sophie have a big day tomorrow, so let's adjourn to the dining room."
The four of them sat around a circular table laden with a beef roast, mashed potatoes, gravy, stewed tomatoes and yeast rolls. "You haven't lost your touch," Tate said after the first bite. "Delicious."
"My serving girl helped. She'd never cooked a day in her life when she came to me, but she's learning."
Sophie patted Effie's hand. "She has an excellent teacher."
"Do you cook?" Tate asked.
"Almost all my life. My mother died in childbirth with me, so as soon as I could reach the stove, I was cooking for my brothers, Seth and Caleb, and my father."
"I'm sorry about the circumstances, but I'm sure your family appreciated your culinary efforts. However, cooking in the mountains is a different matter."
"I'm sure I shall manage." She looked straight at him. "Yes, I know it takes longer for water to boil at high altitudes and for cakes to bake. To the extent that I could, Mr. Lockwood, I have tried to prepare myself."
He doubted anything could prepare her for what she'd encounter. "That's all one can do, I suppose." He cleared his throat. "I presume you are acquainted with Miss Bird's mountain adventures?"
"Yes. I hope to prove as intrepid as she. Although I'm sure some of the challenges I encounter will surprise me, I have confidence I can deal with whatever befalls me."
How can the woman be so impossibly naive? "I wish you well."
"As do we all," Robert said. "I admit when Sophie first proposed this adventure, I was skeptical. I've seen frontiers, and they can be most inhospitable, especially to women. But this gal?" He looked fondly at the young woman. "She's fearless. In our short acquaintance, I've seen her outride many men I know. I'm an old cavalryman, and I know horses. So does she." He shook his head emphatically. "If any woman can make it in the mountains, Sophie has my vote."
Tate glanced at Sophie, noting the blush coloring her cheeks. She couldn't weigh much over a hundred pounds. How would she face down a bear? "Time will tell," he mumbled, aware he sounded churlish.
"So it will," she replied merrily. "I can't wait for tomorrow."
"Is this your first trip beyond Kansas?" he asked, scooping up a roll and buttering it. In the pause before she answered, he glanced up. For some reason, her smile had faded and a sudden melancholy clouded her expression.
"No, I, uh, I spent 1876 and 1877 in New England studying history and classics at an academy for women." Hesitating for a moment, she went on. "I was at a point in my life where I needed a change."
When she didn't elaborate, he noticed both Robert and Effie were busying themselves with their meals. Well, he might be a man of the mountains, but he hadn't forgotten all social graces. He'd stumbled into awkward territory and the only way out was to change the subject. "I'm a Pennsylvanian and even attended university there. I hadn't been much of anywhere until I came to Colorado. I believed all the newspaper accounts about making a fortune in the West."
"And did you?" she asked in a neutral tone.
"As a matter of fact I did."
Robert beamed. "Our boy here has not only done well for himself, he has made quite a name in the mining and banking communities."
"Congratulations," she murmured, bent over her meal. Then she looked up. "It's the land of opportunity. That's what I'm seeking."
He couldn't imagine Estes Park would offer her that. "What kind of opportunity?" he asked merely to keep the conversation alive.
He wasn't prepared for her candor. "The opportunity to find myself. To learn who I am all by myself. To discover what I'm meant to do now."
In the now he heard a mournfulness that caught him off guard. Maybe she wasn't quite the flibbertigibbet he'd judged at first. Her last word suggested a history. A burdensome one. His question had led them far beyond dinner-party conventions. "It's a good place to do that," he finally said.
Effie came to the rescue. "I would like to pack up some of the remaining food for your journey."
"That would be welcome," Tate said.
"When should I be ready in the morning?"
"I will be here at six. Have your horse packed and saddled, and we'll be off soon after to go to the livery to pick up the wagons loaded with our supplies and summer provisions. Prepare yourself, Miss Montgomery. It is a long, uncomfortable trip."
She lifted her head in a way that suggested defiance. "I can handle it, sir."
From that point on, Effie dominated the conversation with tales of the military wives she'd met, some suited to the life and others woefully unprepared.
When Tate rose to leave later in the evening, the others followed him out onto the front porch. A breeze cooled the air. Overhead a canopy of stars twinkled in the ether. "Come back soon, son. Bring the boys," the major said, patting him on the back. "The boys?" Sophie asked.
"Tate has two young sons. Charming little fellows," Effie explained.
"I should like to meet them." Sophie approached him and held out her hand. "Good night, Mr. Lockwood. Until tomorrow."
He stood there, momentarily stunned into silence. She only came up to his shoulder, but her eyes held his in an unflinching gaze. Her hand was warm. He pulled away, hoping his abruptness wasn't discourteous. "Until tomorrow," he echoed, then thanked the Hurlburts and went to the barn to mount his horse, all the while thinking, Never was there an unlikelier mountain adventurer.
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