|Simpson Creek, Texas|
July 7, 1868
"Simpson Creek!" the driver called out as the coach rolled onto the bridge over the creek that had given the town its name.
"Thank goodness," grumbled Violet's brother Edward, Viscount Greyshaw, rubbing his back and glancing resentfully at the top of the coach after the driver hit yet another rut. He grabbed for the overhead strap to steady himself. "He does that on purpose," he muttered, then added, for the hundredth time, "I don't know why Nick chose to live so far from the coast. Barbaric place, Texas. Too big by half."
Normally, her elder brother was the kindest of men, but the two of them had been on the road for several days now, first on the stage line that ran from Indianola, on the Gulf coast, to Austin. They'd had to cool their heels in the Texas capital for several days until Friday, when the stage to Lampasas ran again. Once in Lampasas, however, they had learned there was no regular stage that ran the final thirty miles to Simpson Creek. It had taken a sizable bribe at the stagecoach station to convince an off-duty driver to take them the rest of the way. They had not gone a mile when Edward had voiced his suspicion that the coach had been retired due to its lack of springs and threadbare cushions.
Violet ignored his complaining as she stared raptly out of the window on her side of the coach. "I think it's a darling little townso quaint and picturesque. So very Old West." She could already imagine penning a letter in which she described it to Geraldassuming there was a place to post a letter to her beau back in England. And she could use Simpson Creek as the basis for the fictional town in the novel she was writing. "Oh, lookis that the church where Nick and Milly were married?"
"The very one," her brother murmured, his tone softening somewhat. "It's the only church in town, so everyone attends it."
They rolled past a row of storefronts on either side and finally pulled up in front of a hotel.
"Driver, will there be time for us to have luncheon before we go on to the Brookfield ranch while you obtain a fresh team?" Edward inquired as he descended the coach.
"I'll be changin' teams, all right," the driver said, beginning to lift down the trunks that had ridden on top of the coach during their journey, "but I cain't take you out to no ranch, Mr. Greyshaw. I got t' git back t' take the Lampasas-to-Austin run at six in th' mornin'. I'm gonna be plumb tuckered out as it is."
"That's Lord Greyshaw," Edward told him curtly.
"And how in blazes are we to get to my brother's ranch with all this luggagewalk?"
"Like as not y' could hire a wagon at th' livery, sir," their driver said cheerfully, unfazed by her brother's anger. "Follow me, if yore of a mind t' take care of that now. That's where I'm goin' to change horses."
"Out of the question," Edward said, and turned to Violet. "I suppose we shall have to hire someone to drive us to Nick's ranch. I certainly hope we can find a better-sprung carriage than that poor excuse for a coach."
Really. One would think Edward had never been to Texas before, and experienced the reality of traveling here, Violet thought with amusement. Before she could say something to soothe her brother's ruffled feathers, though, she caught sight of a handsome blue roan trotting toward them.
If there was anything Violet appreciated more than books, writing and the Earl of Lullington, it was superior horseflesh. The approaching roan was the finest example of equine excellence she'd seen since she regretfully bade goodbye to the chestnut hunter Gerald had offered to loan her for the hunting season. He'd hinted he was going to give it to her later as a wedding present.
More powerfully muscled than the thoroughbred hunter, the roan had fire and spiritand savvy. She had gleaned that word from one of the many books she'd read about the American West. It was from the Spanish word saber, meaning he knows. And this horse looked like he knew plentythe perfect horse for a cowboy.
The hunting set decreed a proper horse should be bay, chestnut, black or gray, and would have decried the roan's unusual color as flashy. But Violet thought the hue ethereally beautiful. Then, as the horse nosed in to a hitching rail at the store next door to the hotel, her eyes rose to its rider, and she forgot all about the roan.
Tall and rangy, he wore dusty denims and a vest over a shirt of faded blue. His sleeves were rolled up to the elbow, showing forearms bronzed by the unrelenting western sun. A wide-brimmed hat left his upper face in shadow, but she could see an angular jaw shadowed with several days' growth of beard, a long nose and black hair covering the back of his bandanna. He dismounted with a grace that made Violet release an appreciative sigh. There he was, the epitome of the Texas cowboy, tying his horse's reins to the hitching post and totally unaware of his perfectionor her scrutiny.
"Violet, what are you staring at?" Edward demanded. "I said, we'd better go into the hotel and see if there's someone who can direct us to a trustworthy driver."
"I wasn't staring, Edward," she protested, even though she knew very well she was, "but I think perhaps that man over there might be able to help us."
Licking her dry lips to moisten them, she strode forward, ignoring Edward's hasty "Violet, stop right there! You can't just go up to any stranger you see!" The cowboy looked as if he was about to go into the store. If he did, she might well lose her chance.
Even if he couldn't help them get to Nick's ranch, he might know someone who could. And she didn't want to deny herself the experience of having that deliciously dangerous-looking fellow focus on her for a few delightful seconds. All fodder for my novel, she told herself.
"Oh, sir!" she called. "Please wait! WeI'm in need of your help."
He'd just set one booted foot on the boardwalk, but at the sound of her voice, he stopped, turned around and whipped his hat off his head.
The single syllable was uttered by a voice that was hoarse and husky, as if he'd been riding a long way without water. It was drawn out in that entrancing drawl that delighted her English ears. She hoped she could reproduce it somehow on the pages of her manuscript.
Even more gratifying was the way his dark eyes widened as he studied her, the color rising in his high, sun-bronzed cheekbones.
Raleigh Masterson had never expected to see such a golden-haired, blue-eyed example of absolute female beauty in the dusty streets of Simpson Creek, Texas, much less that she would speak to him. He suffered a moment of agonizing regret that he had decided to go to the mercantile for a new shirt before his long-awaited visit to the combination barbershop and bathhouse down the street. But once he was clean, he'd want to wear a new shirt, not the same one that he'd worn over miles of trail back between Abilene, Kansas, and Simpson Creek.
If he had gone to the bathhouse first, though, he'd probably have missed seeing this vision of female flawlessness. She wore a traveling suit of dark burgundy trimmed with white, its narrow waist flaring out behind in a dainty bustle that swayed as she glided toward him. She wore a hat of matching burgundy cocked forward on her head. It was little more than a confection of stiffened fabric, ribbon and silk flowers, and sure wouldn't provide any shade like a bonnet would, but he thought it was mighty pretty all the same.
She possessed a milk-and-roses complexion he'd never seen on any woman used to the Texas sun, and lips that put him in mind of a rosebud. The eyes she focused on him were large and the bluest blue he'd ever beheld. Her expression betrayed none of the disgust so exquisite a lady should have shown from looking at such a trail-scruffy character as himself, but surely she was just being polite, said, I'm in need of your help, sir," she said, looking a little uncertain now, the color rising in those lovely cheeks.
He realized he'd been staring at her for several seconds. He started to tip his hat, then realized he was already holding it by the brim in his hand.
"Y-yes, m-ma'am," he said, realizing he was stammering. Idiot. Not only do you smell like a sweaty old longhorn and look like a saddle bum or worse, but you're stuttering like you spent the past hour drinking rotgut whiskey. He cleared his throat, and added, "How can I help you?"
She smiled then, and Raleigh was sure he'd died and gone to heaven. Any moment now, he'd be hearing harp music.
"Wethat is, my brother and I" she said, with a nod over her head at Edward "are on the way to a ranch, but the stagecoach driver was unable to take us the rest of the way. So we were hoping you might be able to direct us to where we might obtain a driver and a carriage to transport ourselves and our baggage ."
Then his brain caught up with his ears, and he realized that the foreign pronunciation of her words was an English accent.
"You folks kin of Mr. Brookfield?" he asked. Nick Brookfield was the only Englishman he knew, and he'd become well acquainted with him on the trail the past couple of months.
Now her face became as radiant as the sun on a spring morning. "Why, yes. You know him?"
"Yes, ma'am," he said. "We just trailed two thousand head a' cattle clear to Abilene together."
Her eyes widened. "All by yourselves?"
He laughed. "No, ma'am. There were ten of us, countin' the chuckwagon cook." Modesty prevented him from saying he'd been the trail boss of the outfit.
The man she'd identified as her brother approached now, a pale fellow dressed like a fancy Eastern gent, wearing a bowler and a black frock coat with a brocade vest. He looked suspiciously at Raleigh before addressing his sister.
"Violet, is this man able to help us reach Nicholas's ranch?"
Violet, that was her name. She looked more like a Rose to him, but he wasn't about to quibble. Her name was none of his concern, anyway.
"Yes, sir," he said. He thought about offering his hand, but he was hot and sweaty from a morning of chores, and he didn't want to dirty the fancy gent's gloves. "I'm Raleigh Masterson, foreman of the ranch right next to the Brookfields', Colliers' Roost. I'd be happy to help you get there. Reckon I could rent a rig at the livery." Paying for the rental was no problemhe was flush with cash from his profit from the trail drive, and he knew Nick Brookfield would reimburse him if his visiting brother neglected to. Regretfully, he bade goodbye to the idea of a new shirt, bath and shave. At least for now.
"This is my brother, Lord Greyshaw," Miss Violet said. "And I'm Miss Violet Brookfield, of course."
He didn't know why her brother had one last name, and she another, but he figured he could puzzle that out later.
Greyshaw gave him a lordly nod. "Very good of you. We're much obliged."
Miss Violet cast a wistful eye back at the hotel. "I was hoping for a bite to eat and a cup of tea while we were in town, Edward. The food at the stagecoach station was abysmal, wasn't it?"
Raleigh saw her brother shudder in agreement.
"Perhaps you're right, Violet. It's still quite a distance to the ranch. If you wouldn't mind the delay, Mr. Masterson?"
Raleigh saw a way to kill two birds with one stone. "Not at all, sir. And please, call me Raleigh. It'll take a while for me to get a rig hitched up and load your luggage," he said, nodding toward the stack of brass-bound trunks sitting in the dust where the driver had left them.
"By that time you can have a nice, cozy dinner at the hotel. Meanwhile, no one will bother your trunks here."
"Won't you join us, Mr. Masterson?" Miss Violet asked. "I'd love to hear about the trail drive. I've never spoken with a real Texas cowboy before."
There was nothing he'd like better, but her innocent invitation had left Violet's brother looking like he'd swallowed a horned toad whole. And besides, with them eating a leisurely dinner at the hotel, he'd have time to run over to the livery and tell Calhoun what he needed to rent, knowing the liveryman would hitch up a team for him. While that was happening, he could buy a shirt at the mercantile, have a quick bath and a shave and be back by the time the pretty lady and her brother were done with their meal.
"That's right kind of you, ma'am, but I've eaten," he said. It wasn't really a liehe'd eaten Cookie's biscuits and gravy at sunup. "I'll just go arrange a rig while you have some vittles. Take your time, and I'll have it waiting outside the hotel when y'all are finished."
There wouldn't be time to soak in hot soapy water till his fingers got pruney as he'd planned, but that was all right. He'd like to correct the unkempt impression he must have made, even though he knew an aristocratic lady like Miss Violet and he lived on separate planes entirely.
Violet watched the cowboy walk away, appreciating his easy, long-limbed stride and the way his spurs jingled over his boot heels with every step. Unconsciously, she let out another sigh of feminine appreciation.
"Violet Rose Alicia Brookfield," sputtered Edward behind her. "Whatever were you thinking to invite the man to dine with us? You mustn't be so familiar with a man you've just met, a mere cowboy. And don't think I didn't see the way you looked at him, young lady. I haven't brought you across an ocean to protect your good name only to see you ruin it within your first few days in Texas. You must think of your position, your"
"Edward, don't be pompous," she said, interrupting his tirade and taking his arm to steer him toward the hotel. She figured he was cranky from hunger. "This is America, after all, and you told me things are much more informal here. Besides, the man just offered to do us a service. I wish he had agreed to dine with us. You know I want to write novels about the Westinterviewing a cowboy over a meal would certainly furnish me with ideas."
"That's just what I'm afraid of," Edward muttered.
It wasn't as if she'd fallen in love at first sight, she told herself, even if the interested look in the depths of Masterson's dark eyes had sped up her pulse. No, she loved Gerald, and he adored her, as he told her so often. When her time in Texas was over, she'd return to England and they'd be married, just as Gerald had promised.
"You know how I feel about this notion of your being an authoress. You are a lady, Violet, the daughter and sister of a viscount. The nobility does not engage in trade, and selling a manuscript for money certainly constitutes that. I should think you'd understand by now that having your nose in a book all the time has left you naive.. "
It had been an oft-repeated refrain on this journey, and one she was too tired and hungry to listen to at the moment. She wanted to think about the cowboy she'd just met, and how she'd describe her book's hero so that he resembled Raleigh Masterson.
It was hard, being so far away from the man she loved, but she was determined to look on her time in Texas as an adventure. She would be richer in experience when she returned to Gerald, and then they could live happily ever after, she was sure of it.
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