Authors: Donna Fletcher
Tags: #Historical Romance, #19th century
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events or locales is entirely coincidental.
All rights reserved.
Copyright 2011 by Donna Fletcher
Published by Donna Fletcher, 2011
Kensington Publishing Corp/Zebra Books
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A Thirsty Mind
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“He’s here! He’s here! The lord’s here!” screamed Billy Johnson, his hands waving in the air as he ran with all the speed his eight-year-old body could muster down the main street—and the only street—that ran through the town of Little in the Dakota Territory. “The lord’s here!” Billy repeated in an even louder wail as he flew past Ferguson’s dry goods store.
Billy yelled the news to Henry Smith, the president of Smith and White Bank. Mr. Smith, looking distinguished in his dark suit, disappeared with a flourish inside to collect his staff and usher them outside.
Billy continued on, although his screams were now unnecessary. The whole street was well aware of the lord’s approach and almost, if not more, excited than Billy. This was the major event the whole town had anticipated for the last six months. It had kept the gossiping tongues of Little busy day and night. Everyone looked forward to the lord’s arrival. Well, almost everyone.
Billy came up on the jailhouse at full speed, darting around old lady Hanson with a wide smile at his sly maneuver and a quick glance back to admire his skillful step. The next thing he knew, he was on the ground on top of Lillian Prescott, the sheriff’s daughter, a lady who clearly spoke her mind.
“Damn it, Billy, why don’t you watch where you’re going?” Lil snapped before the boy could even scramble off her.
Billy stood, offering his hand and an apology. “Gosh, Lil, I sure am sorry.”
Lil ignored his helping hand and stood on her own, but accepted the apology with her usual good-natured smile. “I’ve had my share of dust on me but you’d best be careful. It could have been my father you collided with.”
Billy’s eyes widened considerably. He didn’t want to get on Sam Prescott’s bad side; he was the sheriff and a good one at that. It was because of him that Little remained the quiet, peaceful town it was.
“I’ll be more careful, Lil, I promise. It’s just that I was so excited. I can’t wait to tell my ma and pa and sister Jenny about this. And will I have stories to tell when school starts!” Billy beamed with a smile that ran from ear to ear. “The lord’s finally come to Little.”
Lil shook her head and watched Billy run off to keep delivering the news. And from the looks of the street, it appeared nearly the whole town was out for the lord’s arrival, though the lord wasn’t actually a lord. If Lil remembered correctly, her father had explained that the lord was really a baron or an earl. But that information was lost among the gossips. The townsfolk had it set in their minds that he was a lord, and whatever degree of nobleman he was, they intended to have in Little.
“Didn’t expect to see you out to greet him,” Holly Davin said, walking up to Lil. An ample smile filled her round face, accenting her flawless complexion, and her silky brown hair was gathered in a mass of curls on top of her head. Over forty, with few wrinkles and a shapely figure, Holly didn’t look anywhere near her age.
Lil greeted her best friend with an equally pleasant smile. “I’m not here to welcome him.”
“Not the least bit interested, huh?” Holly teased.
Lil was accustomed to Holly’s playful taunts. It was what she liked best about her, that and the fact that Holly had taken a serious interest in Sam Prescott, Lil’s father. “Not the least,” Lil assured her.
“You never can tell. He could be prime husband material. He’s rich. You know he bought the old Winston spread, fifty thousand acres plus. Then there’s that fancy house he had built up on the hill where the old log cabin used to stand. And, of course, there’s all the fancy furnishings he had shipped here to fill the place. I’d say his wife will live in luxury. And that sounds like prime husband material to me.”
Lil sent her a scathing look. Holly knew perfectly well Lil wasn’t in the market for a husband. The town had labeled her a spinster at the ripe old age of twenty-one, and that was just fine and dandy with her. She liked her freedom, had since she was young, and had no intention of relinquishing it to a husband. She had raised herself since the age of six when her mother had died in childbirth. Her baby brother, barely three pounds, had survived only an hour. She’d learned how to cook and clean and care for her father. Her father’s job, being as demanding as it was, had left her on her own quite often. She had found the lack of supervision and restriction to her liking. She wasn’t about to change that now, and least of all for the fancy-pants Lord Rudolph Sherborn from England.
“If I wanted a husband, which I don’t, I certainly wouldn’t choose a foreigner who probably doesn’t know the first thing about the West, raising cattle, or handling a gun. In other words I’d want a genuine
not some pampered milksop.”
Holly’s full laugh rippled through the busy crowd. “You’ve got him pegged before you’ve even met him.”
“Don’t tell me you don’t remember last year when Henry Smith arranged for those English lords to come over here for a hunting foray?”
Holly smiled in remembrance. “It was a hunting foray all right. Henry was hunting for their money to invest here.”
Lil giggled. “But it didn’t work out that way. Those pampered gentlemen couldn’t stand our way of life. Uncivilized, one of them called it.”
“I recall the term ‘barbaric’ being used quite often.”
“They were more concerned with their appearance and comfort than anything else.”
“Oh, I don’t know about that.” Holly winked. “I clearly remember one being quite taken with you. He couldn’t keep his eyes off you and kept talking about your hair and its unique color.”
“You would think he never saw a strawberry blonde before.”
Holly shook her head. “You really don’t understand men. It wasn’t only the rare color of your hair that attracted him. You’re petite and quite shapely, besides being beautiful.”
Lil didn’t deny or blush over Holly’s honesty. She simply didn’t take the compliment seriously. It didn’t interest her in the least that people thought of her as beautiful. Her father had often commented on her looks and how she should be aware of a man’s intentions. But she was intent about no man’s intentions. They simply, at the present, held no interest for her.
Her freedom was not a taste she’d ever tire of, nor would she tire of her thirst to learn of medicine and the healing herbs old Doc Talbert eagerly taught her about. Just as some felt her hair color unique, she felt her position unique and one she would not readily relinquish.
“You’re a rare bird,” Holly said more seriously. “And I envy you your courage to be different.”
“Now, that’s a compliment I gladly accept and with sincere thanks.”
“He’s here! He’s here! The lord’s here!” Billy screamed as he ran by again. The croak in his voice made Lil certain he’d be hoarse by nightfall.
“I have work to tend to,” Lil said and turned to leave Holly on her own to meet the lord.
“Hold on just a minute, gal.”
That was the one voice that brought a measure of obedience and definitely respect from Lil. She turned back around. “You wanted me, Dad?”
Sam Prescott was an impressive man. He was in his mid-forties, over six feet tall, and his body was hard and lean. A few traces of gray marked his dark brown hair and full mustache. He had a generous smile and a gentle manner, except when dealing with those who broke the law. His good looks and pleasant personality sent many local ladies’ hearts to fluttering.
“I promised Henry Smith that we would both greet Lord Sherborn with him,” Sam said. “Or did you somehow forget I mentioned that to you?”
“No, I didn’t forget, but I did explain that I had work to tend to for Doc Talbert. He’s out at the Bailey place tending Joe Bailey’s broken leg.”
“Can your work wait at least thirty minutes?” Sam asked. “I really would appreciate your presence there. Henry gets so tongue-tied all the time and I don’t have the slightest idea what to say to this lord.”
Lil was certain she got her forthrightness and honesty from her father. He never demanded anything from her. He explained and allowed her to judge and weigh her decisions, and she always decided in his favor. “Thirty minutes,” she said.
“I’ll keep track of the time myself,” Sam assured her.
“Coming over for supper tonight, Sam?” Holly asked, watching his every move closely and finding her thoughts lusty.
“Yes, ma’am,” he said and sent her a playful wink that tingled her right down to her toes.
“See you around eight,” she called as Sam and Lil wove their way through the crowd.
Lil brushed at the dust on her brown skirt and ecru blouse with its high collar. She secured the few strands of hair that had fallen loose from the knot on top of her head. Several short strands remained free to fall over her forehead in gentle curls. She wasn’t particularly interested in making an impression on Lord Sherborn, but she didn’t want to shame her father or the town by appearing unmannerly.
Several wagons packed to the brim had already rolled past the bank where Henry Smith stood waiting for Lord Sherborn to arrive. Sam and Lil joined him, and his weak smile appeared to strengthen some.
Two more wagons followed, and behind them—to the loud gasps of astonishment from the crowd—appeared a grandiose coach. It was shiny black trimmed in silver, with two oil lamps attached on either side of the front, and it was pulled by four well-groomed and magnificent horses.
Its appearance brought a few words to Lil’s mind: inappropriate, useless, senseless. She wondered how he had gotten it this far and kept it so clean, plus keeping it in one piece. She also had no doubt that the occupant somehow bore a striking resemblance to the ostentatious coach.
When it pulled to a stop in front of the bank, the crowd hovered close, attempting to get a better look. The driver, obviously a hired cowhand, climbed down from the cushioned seat with a smile. He removed his hat and brushed at the dust on his clothes, and when he thought himself presentable, he opened the carriage door.
A hush descended over the crowd, and breathing suspended. A black boot appeared, as shiny as Lil had expected it to be, and was followed by black and gray striped trousers, a black brocade vest, a black coat, a white silk shirt, and a black cravat.
“What no walking stick?” Lil mumbled.
“Shhh,” her father reprimanded, though neither could conceal a smile when the silver tip of a black walking stick touched the ground.
Lil shook her head as her eyes traveled up the length of him. His form appeared in good shape, judging from the precise fit of his clothes, though he was most certainly out of place here in the West dressed like that, and—
Her thoughts skidded to an abrupt halt when her eyes reached his face. “Handsome” was not a strong enough word to describe his features. His eyes were a rare haunting blue, a color one could not easily forget. Lil felt certain of that when she heard many a woman around her gasp at the sight of them. His nose was slim and well shaped—perfect, actually. His cheeks and jaw were chiseled flawlessly, his lips were sleek and smooth, and his dark hair was tied back at the nape of his neck and looked to be, when loose, shoulder length. He held his head erect and his shoulders back; his brow appeared slightly lifted as though he peered down at everyone. He possessed an air of aristocratic arrogance, and Lil was completely put off by his obvious snobbery.
“Lor-Lord Sherborn.” Henry Smith stumbled over his greeting nervously as he approached the coach.
Lord Sherborn gave an almost undetectable nod as though granting Henry permission to continue.
Lil raised one brow slightly, an indication to those who were familiar with her manner that she was annoyed.
Henry continued with a bit more control, though his voice trembled and halted occasionally. “Lord Sherborn, as a representative of the town of Little, I wish to welcome you most warmly to your new home. We”—Henry extended his hand out over the crowd to demonstrate he spoke for the whole town—“are at your disposal and hope to help make your transition to this new land a pleasant one. Please don’t hesitate to seek our counsel day or night.”
Lil watched as Lord Sherborn took a deep breath, expanding his chest slightly and causing Lil to realize he was larger than she had first thought. She continued to watch him critically as he scanned the sea of eager faces. He didn’t return their smiles. He calculatedly studied all of them as though sizing them up for future reference. At that instant Lil decided her dislike of the lord. He was, as she suspected, a fancy-pant who cared for nothing more than himself and his title.