Emily isn’t about to marry just any man, but falling in love with two hot ranchers might be more than this respectable young lady can handle.
Emily St. Claire is wealthy, beautiful, young and very eligible to the single men of Manitou Springs, Colorado. The Wild West isn’t safe for a woman alone, but she isn’t about to marry for anything but love. Her charitable efforts put her in touch with all manner of people, and while she’s respectable, she causes gossip around the small town as she tries to help prostitutes and orphans. Still, she does want a family of her own.
Two handsome young men catch Emily’s eye, but Jack and Henry are so close. How can she pick one of them without destroying their friendship and their partnership? When she finds them in a compromising position, she’s shocked and intrigued. Emily never considered herself conventional, but the men open her eyes even more to how inclusive and varied love can be. Society would never approve, yet it doesn’t feel wrong for the trio. Being courted by two men at once is wild, but committing herself to them is pure madness and pure ecstasy as well. They must keep their ménage secret until they’re sure how to plan a future together so no one will suspect or discover the truth. 1878 isn’t ready for what they have to offer.
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Manitou Springs, Colorado, USA — 1878
When Reverend Young finally dismissed the congregation from Sunday service, Emily St. Claire breathed a sigh of relief. She kept her composure and exited the small wooden church painted white. Smiling at the ladies, Emily appreciated the sympathetic nods.
"We're all so very sorry about your father, Miss St. Claire. But we're very glad you're back," said Reverend Young.
"Thank you. Lovely sermon today." Emily felt the eyes of the town on her as she waited for her companion Alice Lange, to finish a conversation.
The young widow had been selected by Emily's father as a companion to his single daughter when he fell ill. It had worked out perfectly until Mr St. Claire had died and Emily had been compelled to spend the mourning period with her sister and brother-in-law in Denver.
Sheriff Drake tipped his hat. "I'm sure being back here is dull compared to life in Denver. Do you intend on moving there to be with your sister? I can deputize some men to secure your belongings and escort you and Mrs Lange."
"Thank you, but I won't be moving. My father loved Manitou. He struck his silver and copper near here and built that lovely home for me." She'd been putting out rumors of her leaving since the day she'd returned.
Alice walked up to Emily, and it was a relief. The pair headed for Emily's home not far from the church on the same end of town. The lovely spring day made the exercise delightful but as men fell into step behind the pair, she wished they'd brought the wagon.
"What could they want? The men were staring at me all through church," she whispered to Alice.
Alice glanced back casually and cleared her throat. "The mercantile owner, the sheriff, the reverend plus a few other single, respectable men are all following us."
"This is ridiculous." Emily walked faster, but avoided breaking into a run.
"Your new wardrobe is the envy of every woman in town. The trimmer silhouette and subtle bustle is most becoming." Alice dabbed a handkerchief over her brow.
"Men don't care about fashion. They've not lowered the necklines." Emily toyed with the slightly belled cuff at her elbow. The lavender gown was new from her Denver days. She owned a great deal of black, but had put a portion of her substantial inheritance into a new wardrobe and some bolts of fabric for future replacement pieces. The newer fashions were more comfortable. More practical jackets complimented the layered skirts with a slight bustle. It was much better than the hoop skirts of her youth.
"You're a lovely young woman who is staying in Manitou," Alice said.
The demure choker around Emily's throat felt a bit tighter. "They can't be serious."
"Some of those men aren't in town except for church and supplies. They won't have much opportunity but to call today. Not all are objectionable," Alice said.
The women ascended the porch steps. Her home was the grandest in Manitou with etched glass and no expense spared. The housekeeper opened the door for them.
"Hello, Sarah." Emily stepped a foot inside and saw the old woman warily eyeing the men out front.
"You've got callers, Miss St. Claire." Sarah nodded.
Emily turned and plastered a ladylike smile on her face. "Gentlemen, what can I do for you?"
"Miss St. Claire, your intention to stay is a blessing to the town," said Young.
"Thank you." She knew her charitable efforts could be considered excessive, but it was useful, and she employed some individuals, of course. She also shopped liberally.
"However, you must take certain factors into account. For your reputation," the sheriff added.
"My reputation? Mrs Lange is my constant companion. You doubt her respectability?" Emily asked curtly.
Young held up a hand. "No one doubts anyone's honor or respectability. However, a single woman alone is a danger. In a big city where they have women's boarding houses or in Denver with your sister, that's a different situation. Out west in a town like this, with so many single men, and helping —"
"Orphans and fallen women need help too. I don't need your permission to be charitable with my money." Emily's headstrong antics had often given her father fits, but staying in a big city like Denver had proven she wasn't a fool. Growing up with a dreamer for a father, she'd watched him rise to a man of status because of his mines. The world had changed its view of him. So change was possible and rules were meant to be broken.
"Maybe it'd be best if you did move to Denver?" The sheriff shrugged. "I can't protect you all the time. Not like a husband. Or a brother-in-law."
"You want me to leave?" Emily eyed the shotgun they kept near the door. Generally it was to ward off wolves or strangers sniffing around.
The reverend stepped closer. "Of course not. The truth is, we've all got a mind to court you. You've been swimming in your grief for so long, perhaps it's still not appropriate."
"But it would be prudent," the sheriff added.
Too many men was a big problem out west. A woman alone, even a widow like Alice, was in danger from strange men of poor character. Emily never thought she'd have to worry about that here. Maybe she was too trusting?
"Your father was a good man. He wanted to keep you young and innocent forever. But you're grown now, miss. Men will come calling," the sheriff said.
Emily was twenty-two, old enough, certainly. But she had no intention of being forced into marriage. She'd rebelled against her father's overprotection in many ways. Trading with the Indians when it was safe and riding horses too fast around town. The fact that he hadn't pushed her to marry was the one thing they'd always agreed on. Not that she didn't want to marry the right man at the right time.
Looking at the group again, she hid her disappointment by fussing with the demure bracelet of amethysts at her wrist. It was worth more than most of those men earned in a year. Of course they wanted her for a wife. She was rich.
The only two men she was interested in weren't among the group. The Bonner men were a pair of cousins who had a ranch on the edge of town. One was serious and reliable while the other was more friendly and daring. Both were strong and attractive enough to haunt her dreams. Neither of those men had been in church or had ridden out to see her today.
"You should marry. A single respectable woman isn't safe out here. It's just not done," Young said.
"And if you insist on educating former prostitutes and taking on orphans for stable boys, you might not be so respectable for long. Get married and you'll fix it all." The sheriff shrugged.
Emily stepped back into the doorway and grabbed the shotgun. Pulling it up to her shoulder, she aimed a few inches shy of the feet of her suitors and fired into the soft dirt. Alice ran inside the house as the men stepped back and shouted at Emily.
"Get off my property." Emily put the shotgun back and went inside.
Sarah shut the door and locked it. "Lunch will be ready promptly, miss."
"Thank you, Sarah." Emily let the housekeeper help with her hat.
Alice shook her head. "The men are sorry about your father and not quite sure what to make of you now. Single women alone aren't always well received. I felt plenty of those stares when my husband died. A widow with children is one thing, then you're still a mother and always will be. I'm not sure why it's different but that's how things are. I am respectable and will do my best to keep you so too. But marriage would resolve a lot. You'd have more freedom." Alice sighed and studied her quilt square.
"I remember when Mr Lange died." Emily moved into the parlor with embossed wallpaper and her favorite green damask couch and absently picked up a book she'd been reading. When Alice's husband had died, it had taken very little time for the men to talk about the pretty young widow as though she were an abandoned gold claim ripe for mining.
"Your father's offer of work as your companion was a godsend." Alice sat and took up her sewing. "His failing health and passing has kept the bachelors at bay. But now you've got no excuse. There are plenty of choices."
"I can take care of myself. I won't be pressured into marriage." Emily walked up to the front window and glanced through the lace. "A few are still out there."
"Fools. You might not want pressure, but men don't always listen to women's wishes," Alice said softly.
"They want my money. Women need the vote," Emily said.
"We do. We need a great many things, but if you agreed to a walk or picnic with a man or two, it'd look like you were open to the idea. You don't need to rush into a wedding. Simply show your intention to settle down. Pick a suitor or two. It'll put the others in their place."
"You are a clever woman." Emily smiled and headed for the back of the house.
"We have to be. Where are you going?" Alice asked.
"Out for a bit. I can't think now. I need a ride. Have lunch without me. I'll eat later. I don't need a chaperone for a quick ride in the woods." Emily wanted time to think.
"Very well. But don't be too long or I'll send a search party after you," Alice called.
Not bothering to change into the proper dress for riding, she headed to the barn where she rubbed the nose of her favorite horse. The ranch hand, one of the orphaned teens who she kept on as long as they went to school and church, rushed to saddle it. With his help, she hopped on and rode for freedom. The fact that the Bonner men were in the direction she headed was a happy accident.
Maybe Denver would be better? With a brother-in-law around, men wouldn't be swarming her. She enjoyed attending the theater and having endless stores to browse in, plus there were more charitable organizations to help.
She still liked it better here. The quiet time to read and enjoy nature would never be possible in a big city. Also, it was much easier to know who truly sought and needed her help. Women were less likely to be taken advantage of when they knew people.
Being near where her father had finally found success meant something as well, but she couldn't describe it. Her life hadn't always been so proper or laced with riches. In her heart, she had her father's dreamer spirit. He'd wanted to find silver and gold. She wanted to help people and be free of the corset women had been saddled with. If her brother had survived the Civil War, he'd understand. He'd be here with her now and she'd be safe without a husband.
The utter arrogance of the single men in town made her gallop the horse. There were plenty of whores in town, so why did the men have to bother her? They wanted her money — it was as simple as that. If love was involved, it would be a different story.
Avoiding the main road, she came up on the Bonner ranch from behind. A big spread of horses and cattle showed they were successful. The house was large and sturdy but modest.
They were cowboys to the core. Certainly not the most conventional men in town, but she wasn't always traditional either. Her desire to get women the vote hadn't gone over well. At least the Bonner men hadn't mocked her like some had for wanting women's suffrage. The handsome cousins kept to themselves, traded with the Indians when they could, and always helped anyone who needed it.
True gentlemen, who made her feel beautiful and rare. She could never decide which of the two she liked better. Both triggered very unladylike reactions in her. Desire, lust and tingling were the best words she had.
When she did her charity work with the prostitutes, she'd heard them discussing men in detail so she believed it was natural. Emily knew the marriage bed wasn't always unpleasant. Her mother died before Emily was old enough to discuss marriage or personal matters, but Alice's tasteful input and the unavoidable view of farm animals mating had filled in the blanks on the basics.
There were plenty of nights she'd dreamed about the Bonner men in very carnal ways. The sensitive flesh between her legs throbbed from her just thinking about them. Alice was right. Emily was a woman and spinsterhood probably wasn't the best path for her.
Jack and Henry Bonner were the two men in town she'd even consider, but they were close. Kin like that didn't turn on its own. She couldn't come between them. Neither man had ever made any attempt to court her. Then life dragged her to Denver. She hadn't seen either of the men since.
Hearing noises in the barn, Emily hopped off her horse and tied the strong brown filly up to a rail behind the house by a watering trough. No one could see the horse from the road. She found a bucket of feed and set it where the horse could reach it. She patted the animal's neck then watched it drink and settle in.
"Good job," she whispered.
The animal shook its head and drank deeply. More sounds came from the barn and Emily's curiosity got the best of her.
Quietly, she pulled the door open and walked in. The huge barn had hay and stalls for the horses. Her eyes adjusted to the reduced sunlight and in the last stall she saw movement. Good manners said she should announce her presence, but she couldn't resist seeing the men at work. Maybe they were bare-chested with pitchforks in hand? After so much propriety in Denver, she needed a dose of functional reality that a small town gave. Propriety was good but not always practical.
As she peeked into the stall, she saw more than men working with hay. They were nearly naked and pulling the last bits of each other's clothes off. The shock set in and she gaped at them. Their bodies were so perfect and so close. What were they doing? She jumped when a gust of wind blew through the barn, whistling through the cracks.
The scathing sermons on unnatural acts and how war had twisted some men to lie with each other as they did with their wives haunted her. The reverend's words about how lust could taunt a man and that it had to be purged, flashed in her mind. She took a step back. It didn't look evil or dangerous. They remained the same two men she'd come to admire and care for a great deal.
Still, she couldn't look away as the smell of warm hay and the sounds of hoof stomps faded into the background. The men drew her in. They were good people. Jack had brown hair and eyes, a tanned hard body and muscles from days of physical work. His cock jutted out and she stared at it for a long moment. Her body tingled as though her instincts might take over to please him.
Then Henry's clothes hit the hay. He had lighter brown hair, green eyes and even more muscles than Jack. He didn't have a head for figures or business, other than negotiating, but he was fun. He preferred to do the work, and it showed.
His member was pointing up as well. Henry pushed Jack into the hay and knelt. Emily ached to join them, but two men? Together? There were names for that. Bad names and negative comments she'd heard from people.
Most of those same people also said bad things about the Indians and the liberated slaves.
When Henry kissed Jack full on the mouth, Emily gasped. They were so beautiful and tempting. There was no logic to it. Both men could find wives or prostitutes willing to give away their bodies. Unlike her mind, her body wasn't confused at all. She sighed and a bit of a moan slipped out.
The two men's heads snapped around to look at her, and she froze.
"Hey, Miss St. Claire. See anything you like?" Henry grinned.
Jack sat up. "We can explain, Emily. Please don't run. It's not what you think."
She licked her lips and took a step back. "I don't understand."
"Please, hear us out. You're a fair woman. If you go running to the town, we'll be dead by nightfall." Jack's voice revealed something she'd never heard from him before — fear.
No, she wouldn't run. She had a lot of questions and ideas darting through her mind, but leaving wasn't one of them.
Jack covered his erection with his denim pants and couldn't believe his eyes when she moved closer and sat in the hay. Her expression revealed surprise, not disgust.
"What other secrets are you two keeping? Are you really cousins?" She plucked a bit of hay from his hair. "What you're doing is ... You could each have wives. I don't understand."
Jack gawked at her. Emily was a vision with blonde flowing hair, big blue eyes, creamy skin and a curvy figure. The two men had talked about her plenty, but she was wealthy and proper, not a girl to be shared in the hayloft. Of course she didn't understand. They'd been so careful not to get caught, but today they'd slipped up.
"No, we're not related. It's just safer if people think we're kin." Henry tugged Jack's cover away and exposed him. "I'm sure it's a horrible shock, but I hope you won't turn us in to the sheriff."
"So you prefer each other to women. I'm sorry to interrupt. I should go." She looked at them both and started to stand.
"No, wait." Henry walked over and grasped her hand. "If we love each other, it's right. And we do like women too. It's complicated. We know you're sympathetic to the Indians, so do you believe they'll go to Hell because they won't convert to Christianity?"(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Runaway Cowgirl"
Copyright © 2014 Cheryl Dragon.
Excerpted by permission of Totally Entwined Group Limited.
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