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A Western Historical

A young lady seeking a particular kind of husband.

A ranch full of cowhands who have long adored her from a distance.

A foreman who’s got his hands full … and his heart on the line…

Sophie Vandercook leaves her post as an instructor at an Academy for Young Ladies in St. Louis, and heads to the OS Ranch in Wyoming Territory with a plan. It seems the perfect place, since her older half-brother is employed there. There’s just one thing in her way — the ranch’s foreman, Nate Abbott.

Nate has a ranch to run, a vital roundup to get through, and a bunkhouse full of cowhands smitten from afar with a young lady they all consider Our Sophie. So there’s no time – or reason – to consider exactly what her letters might be stirring in him. Then Sophie arrives in Wyoming.

Secrets tumble, problems multiply, and the OS outfit is turned on its head wondering if Sophie will wed a cowboy?

Excerpt:

PROLOGUE

St. Louis 1888

“Oh, Sophie, did he make you an offer? What did he say? What did you say? You didn’t – Oh, you couldn’t have -”

“Alice, cease peppering Sophie with questions,” scolded Louisa, though her expression was quite as questioning as Alice’s. “You sound as skittish as one of the students.”

Rather than answer her fellow instructor’s questions in order, Sophie responded to the unspoken one that gathered in all the others.

“Yes, I refused him.”

Alice emitted a squeak.

Louisa’s gasp was controlled, and quickly followed by her own question. “Again? But, Sophie, you are not in a position to refuse respectable offers of marriage – whatever will you do?”

The last was a question she had been contemplating when Alice Drenner and Louisa Scroggins returned to the garret room they shared.

Sophie Vandercook did not flinch from facts.

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She knew herself to be neither beautiful nor pretty. Her dark hair was plentiful and glossy. Her features regular, if undistinguished. She presented a neat and pleasant figure, and one attired in good taste.

She had a good understanding of literature, a rudimentary knowledge of French, a native ability at arithmetic. She had no pretensions to being as talented a watercolorist as Miss Drenner or as practiced a musician as the widowed Mrs. Scroggins, although she had passable skills in both pursuits.

Indeed, in assessing her accomplishments, Sophie held chief among them to be her willingness to scrupulously assess a situation, then to marshal her weapons and form a plan.

The first element of her assessment was that Louisa Scroggins was not entirely accurate in saying that Sophie was not in a position to refuse respectable offers. Although fairness noted that it was not Louisa’s fault for drawing an erroneous conclusion, since Louisa did not possess all the information.

Sophie was fully aware of how fortunate she was to have inherited a satisfactory sum from her mother. Fortunate in comparison to her fellow instructors at Mrs. Forestell’s Academy-indeed, even in comparison to the redoubtable Mrs. Forestell herself-and fortunate in that her father had been unable to squander that sum as he had all others he had encountered.

That Walter Vandercook had been unable to obtain dominion over her inheritance was thanks to the foresight of the maternal grandfather Sophie had met precisely once – and, as that occasion occurred in her infancy, she had no recollection of it.

As a result of the prosperous Philadelphia merchant’s visit to St. Louis to meet his highly unexpected son-in-law, Bertram Boynton had tied up his youngest daughter’s inheritance entirely for her support and for the education and support of her children.

As it happened, Sophie remained Viola Boynton Vandercook’s only child. Sophie’s strongest memories of her mother were of a woman continuously in a decline, right up until she faded into death in Sophie’s twelfth year.

Walter Vandercook had immediately adjusted Sophie’s status at Mrs. Forestell’s Academy for Young Ladies from day student to boarding student, freeing himself for what he termed business pursuits, as well as freeing himself from maintaining a home for Sophie. To Sophie’s knowledge the only business he had ever pursued had been trying to break Bertram Boynton’s will.

He had achieved no progress in that endeavor when he passed away shortly after Sophie reached her seventeenth birthday. That left her not only an orphan, but in possession of precisely one living relative she had met: her half-brother, Gerald.

Jerry Vandercook, some dozen years older than Sophie, had figured little in her life since he had departed St. Louis – under circumstances not entirely clear to her – when she was almost nine years old.

She did not receive a reply from him to her missive communicating their father’s death until a year and a half had elapsed. His letters that followed had been stilted and sparse – not unnatural, considering they had barely known each other when he left. Of late, however, that had changed, and a correspondence had grown between them that had become quite … remarkable.

“Sophie,” Alice said, still squeaking, while her kind, blue eyes filled with tears, “two offers of marriage – what if you don’t receive another?”

“I don’t seek the domestic life you hope for, Alice.”

“But then do you plan to stay here forever, like Miss Stanley?”

Sophie looked at the packet of her brother’s letters, neatly tied with a piece of rose ribbon left over from trimming her best summer hat last year. With crisp movements, she replaced the packet in the wooden box that slid precisely into the trunk at the foot of her bed.

“I don’t believe I’m suited to a life devoted solely to teaching.”

Upon the death of her father, Sophie had taken her immediate circumstances in hand without hesitation. She had approached Mrs. Forestell with the suggestion that she change her status at Mrs. Forestell’s Academy for Young Ladies once more, this time from student to instructor.

Mrs. Forestell had not only been agreeable, but also much relieved, as Sophie later learned from a recounting by Tad, the boy who ran errands for Cook and Mrs. Forestell.

Tad had repaid Sophie for her gift of a peppermint stick by relaying an overheard conversation in which Mrs. Forestell had told her visiting sister that by adding Sophie to the Academy’s staff, she had acquired a competent instructor and had avoided a potential dilemma. For she had greatly feared that Sophie might have contemplated hiring out her services as a governess.

Mrs. Forestell had seen arising before her the unwelcome choice between denying a recommendation to a young lady she felt an unusual degree of fondness toward or producing a recommendation for a young lady she felt was singularly unsuited to the position of governess. Mrs. Forestell had sufficient experience of the subdued and pliant role a governess would be expected to play and of Sophie Vandercook to know that they were not suited.

Better, far better, for Sophie to remain at the Academy, where she was one among several. Mrs. Forestell herself could head off any potential troubles that arose from Sophie’s … forthrightness. Yes, forthrightness, which was an admirable quality, in some circumstances. Although not in Sophie’s.

Far from feeling any of the pangs at that assessment that Tad had apparently expected, Sophie concurred. She had considered and discarded governess as an occupation for many of the same reasons.

Sophie found instructing pleasant, if not a passion. That, and other considerations, made her current position satisfactory for now, though not for a permanent role.

Mrs. Forestell’s Young Ladies’ Academy was not, perhaps, the first choice for the very best St. Louis families. But it sat solidly amid the respectable options. The young instructors at the Academy mixed not only with their charges, but not infrequently with their charges’ families. Four instructors over the years of Sophie’s time at the Academy had married after such an introduction. (Others had also married, but much more prosaically, and those marriages were seldom recited as talismans of hope among the remaining staff.)

Sophie’s first offer of marriage had come three years ago from an acquaintance of her father’s, and had occurred not long after official mourning had ended for that gentleman. Sophie, applying in her own mind Tad’s colorful vocabulary, considered that the old toad had come sniffing around because he’d had an inkling of Sophie’s inheritance.

If the man had understood exactly how much that inheritance would be on her twenty-first birthday, he would no doubt have been more persistent. But on the advice of her grandfather – contained in a letter written to his daughter that Sophie had found among Viola’s possessions – Sophie had allowed no one to know the extent of her inheritance, including her father.

Without that knowledge, Miss Vandercook’s first suitor had been disinclined to pursue the matter after her decidedly sharp-tongued response to his proposal.

Even without any knowledge of Sophie’s inheritance, her more romantic-minded colleagues had understood her brisk refusal, because that individual was neither handsome nor young. But as they made clear now, they could not fathom why she had refused Harry Jenkins, the elder brother of a student and the scion of a most respectable family.

“He was far too young,” Sophie said.

“But, Sophie,” Alice pointed out, “he’s your age. And you cannot say he is not handsome.”

“And he most certainly has read a book,” added Louisa, in reference to a charge against Sophie’s previous suitor, “Consider that lovely bound book of poetry he presented to you.”

“Precisely,” said Sophie. “He’s a very nice boy, but his thoughts all come from poetry, and none from sense.”

She, on the other hand, had enough sense to see that not only would his family disapprove, but that Harry and she would not suit. Her refusal had been entirely different from the first. Indeed, she had tried to turn him away before he proposed, but he did not heed her hints. So she had provided a gently-worded but unmistakable refusal.

It was a fortunate circumstance that Mr. Jenkins had chosen Sunday afternoon on which to make his offer.

For three hours every Sunday evening, all three of the Academy’s youngest instructors were free of any duties. Each had a small amount of additional time free during the week, as well as one whole Sunday afternoon each month, but those were rotated so at least one remained available to Mrs. Forestell. Thus, Sunday evening was the only time when the three friends could be assured of an opportunity to converse together.

When summer provided enough light, they walked in nearby Lafayette Park. Other times, they attended concerts or lectures. But on a blustery, rain-soaked March evening, they were happy to sit at their ease in the small attic room they shared. Quickly changing to wrappers to spare their dresses, they huddled together like schoolgirls, under a quilt Sophie’s mother had made for her birth.

Alice sighed now. “I was afraid you had refused him, because he appeared so romantic and tragic when he departed, looking back at the house in such despair.”

“You shouldn’t have been peeping out the window,” said Louisa.

“If one were to have a husband, one of a romantic and tragic nature would make for a very uncomfortable home,” Sophie said with decision.

“But Sophie, don’t you want a husband? Someone to take care of you?” Alice asked.

Sophie’s most vivid early memory was of her father barreling out of her mother’s sitting room just as Sophie, guided by her nurse, approached. She and Nurse had stepped back against the wall to prevent being trampled. After he clattered down the stairway with imprecations that Sophie could only be grateful she had not recognized at the time and thus could not recall now, Nurse tightened her hand on Sophie’s and led her into Viola’s room.

Mama had dabbed at her eyes with a scented handkerchief. She was a slender form reclining on a chaise, saying in her soft, thin voice, “All I ever sought was a man who would look after me, and cherish me. I was sadly mistaken in your father, Sophie. So sadly mistaken.”

At that time, and for some time afterward, Mama’s sadness had brought tears to Sophie’s eyes.

As she had grown older, however, her sorrow had given way to resolution. She would not be so used. Her mother’s solution had been to reside all her hopes and expectations in a husband – one roll of the matrimonial dice, as Tad would say. That was not Sophie’s solution. She had no need of taking up dice of any sort, for her hands held the reins of her future.

She said, “A husband of the right sort.”

“Oh, yes,” breathed Alice. “One with whom you can share devotion.”

“One who is responsible and a good provider,” said Louisa, who might not have found it necessary to teach at the Academy if her late husband had possessed those qualities.

“One who is absent,” amended Sophie.

“Absent?” they chorused, staring at her.

“Yes,” Sophie said firmly.

Louisa recovered first. “But if a husband is absent, how could you enjoy the–.” She colored. “-benefits of marriage.”

Alice’s eyes widened and Sophie could see questions trembling on her lips. She turned the conversation in a more useful direction.

“I could enjoy the benefits of marriage that are important to me. An unmarried lady-” Even one with sufficient means and of a mature age. “-is not viewed as eligible to establish her own household. Society expects her to live with other members of her family. But a wife gains many freedoms that an unmarried woman does not enjoy. And even more freedoms if she is not hampered by her husband’s presence.”

“But you would not have your husband’s company,” protested Alice.

“And so would not need to cook and clean for him and tend his wishes every day.”

“That is true,” acknowledged Louisa. “But how will you find such a man, Sophie? If he is mostly absent from St. Louis, won’t it be quite difficult to find him, become acquainted sufficiently to elicit an offer, and marry before he departs again?”

Sophie was nodding long before Louisa completed her recitation. “You are quite correct. St. Louis is not at all the place to acquire an absent husband. I have a plan.”

“A plan? But whatever will you do, Sophie?” Alice asked.

“I shall go to Wyoming.”


Chapter One

Wyoming Territory

“Nothing from our Sophie?”

Before Nate Abbott answered the question put to him, he consciously smoothed out a frown he could feel tightening his forehead.

The frown plus the squeezing inside his head usually told of a storm coming. A bad one. Since he’d come west, that’s the only time he’d gotten the sensations. Not like when he’d live at home, back in Ohio.

But he’d checked the sky before he and String stepped into Kirwin’s Mercantile to pick up supplies for the OS Ranch. Clear as could be. Besides, he hadn’t had any of this storm’s-coming pressure in his head until they’d been inside awhile and he’d taken inventory of the mail for the OS. Still nothing from St. Louis.

The motion of easing his frown raised his hat brim just enough for the sun’s reflection off a watering trough to slice into his eyes, so he used his free hand to adjust his hat to restore the perfect shadow.

Only then did he say, “Nope.”

“But her last letter said she was sending us a surprise. Why would she make us wait this a-way, with no letter a’tall?”

“No telling.

“It’s already been longer’n ever before since she wrote. What if something’s happened to her?”

“Nothing we can do.”

“But she could be sick or somethin’. Maybe one of us should go back East, check on her.”

“Boss isn’t going to let one of his hands go off now. Maybe winter, but -”

“Winter! Winter’s just ended!”

“Next winter.”

“Why that’s – that’s-” String worked his mouth, searching for a word. “-Months off.”

Nate had nothing to say to that acute observation.

The door to Kirwin’s Mercantile opened, and Nate stepped clear, tugging String by the arm. String was unaware. His jaw had joined his mouth in the struggle and the toll on them made him sound half-strangled. “Next winter! Why, why there’s no tellin’-”

“I beg your pardon, gentlemen,” came a feminine voice.

String’s struggle to find words gave up the ghost, collapsing in mouth-open stupefied silence at being so addressed.

Nate, having had broader experience and even having been raised to consider himself a gentleman, touched fingers to his hat brim and stepped back farther. “Ma’am.”

But she didn’t pass by.

She stayed where she was, just beyond the door she’d closed behind her, regarding him steadily. And he returned the favor.

He’d noticed her inside – hard not to. She wasn’t from anywhere around here – that was certain considering her la-di-dah clothes. But it wasn’t entirely that had made him notice her.

She was an attractive little thing. Small, tidy figure, a tumble of dark curls that suggested they’d get wild given the least opportunity. But it wasn’t entirely that had made him notice her, either.

“The gentleman behind the counter said that you are representatives of the OS Ranch?”

“Ma’am?” If he didn’t name the suspicion growing in him, maybe it wouldn’t reach daylight.

“If you are associated with the OS Ranch, then it’s my hope that you are acquainted with Jerry Vandercook?”

“Jerry? Vandercook?” croaked String. “But he’s – ”

Nate trod on his foot. Hard.

He hadn’t had time or space to make it subtle. And even if String hadn’t yelped a protest, it would have been obvious something had happened, because the rowel of Nate’s spur caught momentarily in the tough material of String’s work pants. It tripped them both up, leaving them hopping around the narrow wood platform like a couple of toads for a minute.

“What the-?”

“Quiet,” Nate ordered. String clamped his mouth shut, though he gave his foreman a baleful glare. Nate returned it with a full measure of command, and added, “No cursing in front of a lady.”

Satisfied he’d stilled the cowhand, he faced the young lady who’d been watching with demurely clasped hands and an unsettling glint in her eyes. “Sorry, Ma’am, why would you be asking after Jerry Vandercook? You understand, we don’t just share another man’s business without cause.”

“That does you credit, sir. But I do have cause. I am his sister.”

“His sister!” Strong croaked. Nate only needed a look to quell him this time.

“That so, Ma’am?” He drawled it, trying to gain time.

It was an air of expectation around her – that’s what had made him notice her inside. Like the crackle in the air when lightning was about to strike. Plus maybe a tingle of familiarity. And it stirred in Nate Abbott the same uneasy mix of worry and awe produced by that force of nature.

“Yes, it is so. And I have come from St. Louis to visit him.”

“All the way from St. Louis, eh?” he repeated, thinking furiously.

“Yes, St. Louis,” she enunciated as if he might be daft. “After my long journey, I am eager to see him. I arrived yesterday by the stagecoach, and when the gentleman inside informed me that you are about to depart for the OS Ranch, it seemed providential. I hope I may obtain transport there from you gentlemen. I understand you have a wagon you brought for supplies and I beg a seat in it and a place for my bag.”

“Vandercook’s sister!” String erupted. “Why, you’re Sophie! You’re our-”

Nate swung around on him, facing the cowhand, keeping his shoulder to the observing young lady. “Miss Vandercook, String,” he said sternly. “Mind your manners with Miss Vandercook.”

String wasn’t the quickest, but he was well above Mulehead, who’d been kicked in the head by a mule three times that they knew of. String’s eyes widened at he met Nate’s glare, and the beginning glimmers of the complications rushing around them like a flooded creek sparked to life in his face.

“Beggin’ your pardon, Ma’am,” String mumbled. “No offense meant.”

“None taken, sir.” She stepped around Nate’s shoulder, to face him once more. “On the subject of my request -”

“It’s a rough ride,” Nate said, with little hope that the determined figure before him would be deterred by that. He knew stubborn females, and this sure as shooting was one or he hadn’t grown up with seven sisters. “And we don’t take it in easy stages. We gotta get back before sundown, so there’s no stopping.”

“Rattle your bones,” agreed String.

She smiled at the older man. A fleeting lifting of her lips that Nate could see had sent String into as senseless a state as a gallon of the strongest Cheyenne hooch.

“Thank you for your concern, but having come so far, I would be a poor thing to turn back now. And even if that were not so, my brother’s letters of this past year have made me long to see the places he writes of with such eloquence.”

The smile now gone, she turned back to Nate. He stifled all urge to wince at her comments.

She looked up at him, and he looked down at her. He couldn’t read anything more than the request she was making in her expression, and he wagered she couldn’t see anything at all in his, yet he had the notion that they were involved in some sort of showdown.

If so, he lost.

He couldn’t see any way around it. Not without casting away all hopes of bringing this around.

But with an avalanche of luck and some time to think, maybe he’d see a way. Some way.

“String, get the lady’s bag.”

COLLAPSE
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