Collier Pembroke had never seen his brother so frightened.
Excusing himself to Lady Vivian, he made his way across the ballroom, past sombreros, feathers, war paint, and fringed shirts celebrating a Wild West theme. When he reached his older brother he asked, "What happened in France?"
"I need to marry," said Edgar.
Collier stiffened, as if struck by an arrow from one of the brightly painted bows being bandied about. They had a deal!
Rather than discuss this publicly, he steered his brother to the terrace, away from the heart of the party. Several guests nodded as they passed, particularly ladies. Despite his relative youth, Collier had managed his family's estate for two years; people knew him. Besides--blond and charming, the two eldest of the Viscount of Brambourne's sons made an attractive pair, even with slashes of aboriginal "war paint" decorating their cheeks.
"You are joking," he accused, once alone in the not-so-fresh air of the London terrace. "And I hardly find it amusing."
Edgar sank onto a balustrade. "I need a drink."
When Collier signaled a waiter, Edgar asked for bourbon instead of his usual Couvoisier. "What I'd really like is absinthe," his brother admitted once the waiter left. As if anyone drank absinthe in polite company!
But societal acceptance rarely influenced Edgar's preferences.
"You have to marry whom?" More than a little curious, Collier felt only relief when Edgar said, "Anybody."
"So you've not put some innocent into the family way, then?"
"Good heavens, no! I could if I had to, though." Edgar's frown matched his war paint. "Really. I'm rather sure of it."
Collier's eyes narrowed. "And 'ruin your life,' as you so often put it?" And ruin mine, too?
His only hope of inheriting rested on his older brother never marrying, never siring heirs. Until now, Edgar's particular tastesand distasteshad complemented just such a plan. Lord Edgar Pembroke wished to neither work, marry, OR inherit more than he needed for his amusements. Collier, though, wanted it with a determination beyond his twenty-six years.
But clearly, something had changed.
"That was before I saw him!" insisted Edgar. "He was so."
Edgar clenched and unclenched his gloved hand, shook his golden head. "Broken," he whispered.
"Your friend?" tested Collier. "The one in France." To mention the notorious playwright's name at a ball, even in assumed privacy, could be social insanity. One did not openly consort with convicted "deviants."
No, one traveled secretly to France to visit them after their release from jail, instead. At least, one did if one were Lord Edgar Pembroke, heir to Brambourne.
Collier simply stayed in England, did most of the work, and tried, as ever, to keep his brother out of trouble.
When the waiter brought their drinks, Edgar downed his far too quickly for a man of his upbringing. "They ruined him," he repeated. "Auctioned his possessions, banned his work. His wife sends him 150 pounds a yearwho can survive on that? He's not seen his children since before the trial. Good Lord, Collier! I thought if anybody could maintain his spirits through two years in prison it would be he, but he didn't, not really, and now."
Collier, accustomed to his brother's histrionics, waited.
"I mustn't take that chance," insisted Edgar, shaking his head. "I have to undo some of the damage I may have dealt my own reputation. Our family's reputation."
"And you think defrauding some poor woman into marriage will help?" Collier could not keep the disgust from his voice.
Music, from inside, nearly muffled Edgar's, "Yes, I do."
"Your friend's marriage hardly helped him."
But Edgar wasn't listening. "I'm sorry. We had an understanding, and I'd not have broken it if this weren't so consequential. But II've turned over a new leaf. I will marry. I will sire heirs. Andand I've told the Guv'nor as much."
Edgar's vehemence unnerved Collier even more than had the thought of him getting some woman with child. "Father?"
Then Edgar, eyes begging sympathy, handed him the letter. "I told him I'd like to start managing our properties myself."
Collier did not have to break the wax seal or unfold the crisp paper to know what it said. Everyone knew what happened to second sons who got in their older brother's way. They vanished, exiled to the ends of the earth.
Though some fathers would tell them so in person.
"We'll say you're traveling on business," continued Edgar. "That we're sending checques for expenses, not remitt--"
"Bastard." Collier interrupted one ugly word with another. From overseer of Brambourne to "remittance man," just like that?
"You can go to America," suggested Edgar, gesturing through the open doorway toward society's mockery of the Buffalo Bill Show that had so delighted Her Majesty. "Have adventures."
Adventure? From across the room, Lady Vivian Fordham peeked coyly at them both from behind a fetching purple bandit mask. She too was part of the future Collier had built--in England.
"I'm sorry," repeated Edgar, wincing at his own betrayal.
He blanched when Collier said, "You will be."
When she left the Land Office, Laurel knew to seek out her father and confess. Jacob Garrison would frown on any of his girls riding alone into town, much less what his second daughter had just done there. Best that he hear it from her.
But love tempted her away from her good intentions.
Halfway to her family's ranch and the battle that awaited her, she reined her bay gelding off the worn track. Snapper responded with ears up and head high. Together, they escaped for the treeline, up inclines of varying steepness, past large boulders and small meadowsrunning away, and yet going home. The same wildness that had gotten Laurel into so much trouble across her eighteen years spurred her on toward sanctuary.
She didn't stop until she reached the high pine grove.
A one-room plank shack slumped in disrepair, testament to four years of Wyoming's harsh winters. To Laurel, it held heaven. Swinging her knee up and over the top pommel of her sidesaddle, she hopped to the ground with more agility than elegance, rubbed Snapper's broad forehead, then hurried to the rough-hewn door.
She had to brace her shoulder and push. Her booted heels dug into the dirt, and she heard a rip from her shirtwaist. But the door, dragging the ground on worn leather hinges, slowly opened.
Wide enough for a woman, anyhow.
Eagerly she slipped into shadows lit by one small windowinto peace, belonging happiness. She drank in the afternoon cool, planned where to put a bed, a table. Relaxing into the enormity of what she'd done, Laurel knew she'd found the love that could endure her entire life.
As of today, this abandoned shack in the foothills of the Bighorn Mountains was hers. Not her father's, or some husband's--hers! So were the trees, a stretch of creek, and the columbine that misted blue across patches of meadow. She'd just joined a growing number of Girl Homesteaders populating the frontier, and she now owned a quarter section--a whole hundred and sixty acres--of Wyoming.
For this, she would risk her father's reproach. Still, her head came up when she heard her horse nicker a clear greeting outside. Along with everything else about ranching, her father knew his second daughter too well.
Taking a deep breath of her air, Laurel squeezed out the barely open door and squared her narrow shoulders. Time to face the consequences.
And as usual, her consequences sat a worn California saddle, double-cinched atop a tall buckskin.
One of the earliest ranchers in the Sheridan area, Jacob Garrison had earned every white hair on his head, every deep crease in his bearded face. He would stop at nothing to protect his ranch and family whether they wanted his protection or not.
As he drew his buckskin to an easy stop, his gray eyes shining with disapproval from the shadow of his black Stetson, Laurel felt more acceptance from the land than from him. Again.
"I guess you heard," she admitted, waiting for certain reprimand. "I filed on the claim."
"So they say," drawled her father. He didn't dismount.
"I didn't outright lie," she assured him. She cared what he thought. "I didn't say I was twenty-one. I just swore I was as old as Clarence Perry and Stubby Harper. And that's true."
She hadn't liked doing even that. But when this beautiful stretch of land came available for a second time, after she'd thought it lost, what choice did she have?
Nobody had balked at Clarence or Stubby filing claims!
Her father grunted, non-committal, and his gaze swept across the shack, the trees the thick wilderness of it. His silence worried her. He was not a talkative man, but neither was he ambivalent--especially when his daughters bucked him.
Laurel had known that even before her older sister shocked the family by marrying up with a sheep farmer.
"Don't you have anything to say to me?" she asked.
And in that simple answer, she felt her peace with this place drain into uncertainty. "Why not?"
That knocked the wind out of her, sure as pitching off a horse. Her response--"What?"--did not carry the confidence she would have liked.
"Hard enough for a full-growed man to prove up a claim." Like the man who had quit this one, to go east? "Much less a girl. Not alone."
"I can work hard," she insisted. "I'll start small, just a few head! I'll have hay cut for them before autumn, for the horse, and...."
She faltered to silence.
"Maybe you could." It wasn't the praise she longed for, but it soothed her some. Then he added, "But you ain't hazardin' winter up here. Not alone."
Too late, she realized just what she faced. Papa's disapproval, she could ride out. But his fear for her safety....
Nobody could stand against that, especially with the truth about Wyoming's deadly winters on his side. Even cowboys who wintered in line camps did so in pairs.
"There are residency requirements," she reminded him. "To prove up this land, I have to live off it. I can't leave for the winter. I can't leave my cattle!"
From the height of his saddle, her father said, "Best not buy any, then. You'll be home this winter, where you belong."
With one final nod, to punctuate his decision, her father reined his buckskin in an easy circle, then rode off downhill toward the ranch--the empire--where he'd filed his own claim twenty years earlier. In that time cities had been born, railroads had moved in, and most of the free land worth working was taken. Folks said the frontier was vanishing.
Laurel meant to keep at least a piece of it for herself.
Despite a lifetime's conviction that her father's word, like God's, finished the matter, she shook her head.
"I need my own place," she whispered as he rode into the trees. "My own life. It's time."
She still had three good months before winter would sweep down the Rockies to terrorize her claim. In three months of hard work, who knew what she could accomplish?
"I'll prove it to you," she insisted softly.
Maybe if she said it often enough, she'd make it true.
* * *
The ends of the earth, for Collier Pembroke, turned out to be somewhere in northeastern Wyoming. The train that carried him there had its comforts, thank the Lord. He could still travel first class, instead of crowding onto an immigrant-class cattle car, despite his own alien status.
But Hell with burnished walnut fittings, plush brocade seats, and a dining car was still Hell.
Accepting charity from his only relative on this side of the Atlantic surely placed him in the third level, at least.
"It's a lovely residence." Mrs. Alexandra Cooper, his older cousin, spoke the first proper English Collier had heard since New York City. "We often hire it for the summer, while the Garrisons are in the country, and it offers a great deal of room."
"Garrison is your partner?" clarified Collier, glancing at her American husband. A stylish, dark-haired fellow with graying temples and a thick moustache, Benjamin Cooper's dancing blue eyes belied his advancing age and distinguished position as a gentleman rancher.
"Now, Jacob might say I'm his partner," corrected Cooper pleasantly, with that odd familiarity that Americans so often adopted. Jacob, indeed. "Or his segundo--his second. He figures doing most of the work puts him on the moral high ground."
"If you'd not provided financial backing, he'd have nothing with which to work," assured Alexandra loyally.
Her husband laughed. "Could be the Circle-T wouldn't exist, darlin', but Jacob Garrison will always find work to do."
Cooper had came from good family, Collier understood, before some foolish war had ended America's southern aristocracy. His background showed in his ability to leave labor to the laborers, as well as in his choice of a wife if not in his speech.
"Perhaps you could suggest some investment opportunities in the area," asked Collier, forcing the words out. But they all knew his traveling on business was a pitiful excuse for his expulsion. If the desiccated wasteland rolling past the Pullman palace car window was any indication, Wyoming held no more opportunity than had the heat of Texas.
The red dirt, exposed rock, and occasional bits of rolling brush called tumbleweeds certainly fit the description.
"Well, son," drawled Cooper, "I'll be honest with you. The beef bonanza's 'bout over. Most of our foreign investors pulled out after the Die-Up, and I can't say as folks wept to see them go. You'll have to do some lookin', for your opportunities."
The Coopers' young son, who until now had managed to be seen but not heard, spoke up. "Uncle Jacob says there's always opportunity for a man who's willing to work hard."
"Hush, dear," said his mother. "Mr. Garrison is a lovely man, but he is decidedly middle class."
"He's as rich as Father!"
Alexandra flushed. Collier glanced quickly out the window, to hide his own amusement at the boy's gaffe, while she explained why true gentlemen never mentioned money in public.
How often had Collier heard the same speech? In the last half year, he'd found the lesson came more easily when one had money. His own remit... rather, expense account, barely provided.
Hell. At least in Texas, they'd played polo.
"So you see," finished Alexandra, "if we did not employ people to do the work for us, where would they be? It's the natural order of things."
"You haven't been reading that Darwin fellow again, have you?" teased Cooper.
"Benjamin!" Now Alexandra turned away, properly put out.
Collier asked, "You're familiar with Darwin's theories?"
"Ever' once in awhile," admitted Cooper, eyes dancing, "you Brits smuggle one of them newfangled books over here."
"May I ask what you think of his theories on survival of the fittest?"
Alexandra protested"Collier, really!"and put her gloved hands over their son's ears.
"I think," conceded Cooper, with excellent aim, "that it's about as far from that primogeniture business what's sent you out here as an idea can get."
Exactly. Collier decided not to underestimate this man's intelligence, despite the thick drawl.
The boy, even with his mother's hands for earmuffs, asked, "What's prime... primo...?"
"Primogeniture," explained Alexandra, "is a law in Britain which allows only the eldest of a nobleman's sons to inherit. It keeps our estates from being parceled into tiny, useless plots."
"No matter how competent the eldest son may or may not be," Collier added grimly. But if he could prove himself the fittest....
"Can't say as a law like that would stand a healthy chance in these parts," Cooper noted. "Nor the fellow who proposed it."
But Wyoming was still Hell. It wasn't Brambourne.
And Collier would rather serve in Heaven.
* * *
During her first month homesteading, Laurel Garrison felt like the luckiest person in the world.
Her sister Victoria, always hungry for adventure, could not fully grasp it. Not even after roughing it alongside Laurel for the whole month... one reason Laurel had managed to spend even her summer months working her claim.
"I admire what you're doing," Vic insisted, rubbing liniment into Laurel's sore shoulders. "So does Mama." That had been a second reason. "And this is better than helping at the law office. But do you really want to do it for five years?"
Forearms braced wearily on her knees, Laurel watched the silhouette of aspens swaying between her and the stars, through a second window that she'd cut for herself. From a ridge, further up-mountain, she'd caught a distant glimpse of wild horses today, and she'd felt free.
She smiled. "Guaranteed."
When Vic dug into a particularly tender spot, even that was fine. Laurel had strained those muscles working her claim.
The two girls had cleared the cabin of brush and empty cans from its previous claimant, and even shot a few snakes. They'd blocked gaps beneath the walls with rocks and mud, and built their own bed of logs and rope. Vic's callused hands on Laurel's shoulders proved that the younger girl had provided more than her promised companionship.
Laurel's own palms felt like rock. Her left thumb swelled purple from a blow with the hammer. She'd scraped her knuckles raw, and torn a fingernail near-off. Laurel did nothing but work, stopping only when nighttime forced it.
She had so much to do! Irrigation ditches to dig to her late-season garden. Shingles to lay for the roof. Wood to chopalways more wood to chop, whenever she found fallen timber to drag home on horseback. During a Wyoming winter, firewood meant life over death. And she just had to stay the winter.
"If I write about our experience homesteading, I've got to explain it," insisted Victoria. She lightly slapped Laurel's sore shoulder, then wiped her hands on a flour-sack apron. Water was too dear to wash them, what with toting it from the gravel-bottom creek and who knew? With all Vic's scribbling, perhaps the younger girl's hands could use some liniment, too.
Laurel drew her wrapper back around herself, against the mountain chill, and rolled back onto their bed. She'd cut the straw that filled their tick-mattress herself. It crunched beneath her, smelling of her very own mountain meadow.
"Laurel," prompted Victoria at her silence. "Is it really worth all this? Look at you!"
Even avoiding their stained mirror, Laurel knew her face had sunburned, peeled, and burnt again. Her brown hair lightened on the ends, where her hat didn't cover it. She'd strained and sweated until her dresses hung too big on her.
"I'm not trying to win a beau," she pointed out mid-yawn--as if she'd ever been! "I'm trying to start a ranch."
"We already have a perfectly good ranch!" But Vic's voice seemed to recede beneath the whisper of aspen leaves, the haunting call of an owl. A tiger-moth fluttered about their coal-oil lantern, throwing odd shadows.
The Circle-T isn't ours, Laurel wanted to protest. Papa's leaving his half to Thaddeas.
But she must have fallen asleep, instead, because she woke to pre-dawn gray. Only the rat-tat-tat of a woodpecker, then the call of a jay, broke the stillness that wrapped itself, like a blanket, around her.
She crawled wearily over her sleeping sister to abuse her body and feed her soul some more, fortunate beyond measure
With only a few problems.
* * *
"I'm sorry, Miss Laurel," said Mr. Harper from behind his big, glass-covered desk. "Your, er, ranch simply is not a feasible investment for us at this time."
His smile faltered. "Pardon?"
She'd only been within the hallowed walls of the First Bank of Sheridan a few times in her life, usually with her mother. In fact, Laurel's mother was the only other woman she'd ever seen in here. It unnerved her to come alone. But she did know, from previous experience, that questions were permitted.
"Why is my ranch not a feasible investment?"
Mr. Harper glanced nervously out his office door, which he had properly left ajar through their interview.
Laurel felt the pull between her eyes that meant she was turning obstinate. She hadn't wanted leave her claim to come here. She hadn't enjoyed letting Victoria style her hair, powder her face, lace her into this bolero-jacketed, gored-skirted, green-serge excuse for a suit. And she despised asking for help.
But as a landowner, she had responsibilities beyond cutting wood and digging ditches. So she tried again. "Why isn't...?"
"Our criteria are rather complicated," Harper assured her.
"Maybe you could explain them."
His smile tightened. "Miss Laurel."
"Garrison." He would not call her brother Mr. Thaddeas.
"Miss Garrison." Somehow he made even that sound like a pat on the head. "It might be easier for all involved if you sent your brother or father in to discuss this with me."
"It's not their ranch!"
"I am unsure," said Mr. Harper, "if it qualifies as a ranch at all until you've purchased some livestock."
"That's why I need the loan."
"Now Miss Garrison," chided Harper, "I've been patient with you because of your family's ties to Mr. Connors." Mr. Connors owned the bank. "But I have real business to conduct. If you want cattle, your family has plenty. As far as the First Bank of Sheridan is concerned, however, you are simply not a feasible--"
"Clarence Perry was a feasible enough investment," she pointed out. "Why did you approve his loan?"
"I refuse to debate this with you." Mr. Harper stood and went to the door. "Good day, Miss Laurel."
"Is it because he's a man?"
"I said good day, Miss Laurel."
She reached down and grasped the back legs of her chair, then raised her chin. "I'm the same age as Clarence," she reminded him. "And I advanced farther in school. So if there's any other reason..."
"Yes, Miss Lau--Miss Garrison." Harper only changed the appellation when she glared at him. "We did approve Mr. Perry's loan, in part, because he is a man. Men have business sense that ladies do not, as I believe you've just demonstrated. Men do not let their emotions override their judgment. Men have valid work experience, as does Mr. Perry. And men, might I add, reach their majority sooner and so are less likely to be evicted from their homesteads by their fathers before they prove up. Good day."
She stared at him, furious and mortified. It wasn't fair that men got special opportunities. It wasn't fair that the whole town knew Papa meant to keep her off her claim this winter. And that he could do just that wasn't fair either!
"Must I send someone for your father?" threatened Mr. Harper. So she stood. This was her interview, about her loan application, for her ranch. She would not be carried out, the same way her father had once carried her away from a roundup she'd refused to leave.
But she wished she had worn her cowboy boots under her skirt, the way she normally did, so that she could stomp on Mr. Harper's cloth-topped shoe as she walked by.
In these foolish, button-up girl shoes of hers, she'd damage her own foot as surely as his.
But she had to strike out somehow. So once she'd passed him, into the marble-floored foyer of the bank, she spun back to him and announced, "When I succeed with my ranch, Mr. Harper, I guess I'll do my banking elswhere. Good day!"
"Good day to you, Miss Laurel," said the banker wearily.
Stalking to the door, Laurel nearly collided with a gentleman who was entering.
"Pardon. Quite my fault." And he stepped out of her way to hold the door open. He had an accent; in her mood, even that annoyed her. Probably this foreigner would get a loan before she ever would, and for no better reason than that he was a ...
And he was that.
When she actually looked at the stranger, the worst of Laurel's rancor drained right out of her.
The fellow holding the door open for her had to be the prettiest man she'd ever set eyes on.
His golden hair caught late-morning sunlight like an archangel's halo, and he had full lips, and the brightest eyes she'd ever seen--lash-fringed eyes, silvery eyes that reflected the blue Wyoming sky. Darned if he didn't even outshine pretty.
She'd never seen so beautiful a man in her life.
When he gazed back down at her, she felt oddly as if the rest of the world faded off, as if nothing mattered more to him at that moment than her. He cocked his head gracefully, and his smile hinted at dimples in his perfect cheeks.
"Miss?" he prompted her, his British accent as thick as honey. "Are you quite all right?"
Flushing, she looked quickly down but couldn't keep from noting his fine configuration as she did. The man had a sleekness about him, like the line of a thoroughbred horse. The cut of his tailored coat, from the width of his shoulders to the slim tapering of his hips, complemented it beautifully.
But he wore pricey, cloth-topped shoes, like the banker's. Impractical. And he smelled of soap, as if sweat had never touched his handsome brow. Even his suit, a spotless tan linen, showed him unsuited for actual work.
What a waste.
Laurel looked back up at him. "No," she admitted. "I'm not all right. I wasn't born a man, so I must be incompetent."
She moved to pass him, then paused to add, "I guess I'm a better rancher than you are."
But he smiled, with real dimples this time. Despite his strong jaw, the smile itself pulled lopsided, boyish. It near about lit the afternoon. "No doubt," he agreed amicably.
Beautiful. What a waste.
Laurel stalked away to figure out how to get cattle, any cattle, without asking her family--or more men--for help.
And Collier Ellis Pembroke entered the bank.