This is story has been knocking around in my head for almost two years already. I have a few chapters written and *gasp* an OUTLINE of the rest! (No, I am not ill, thanks for asking.) I’m not giving much away yet except that it’s Edwardian era, not Regency. Oh, and there is a love triangle. And a forced marriage. And horses!
Wyoming, United States
Colonel Richard Andrew George Fitzwilliam, second son of the Earl of Matlock and special envoy of Her Majesty’s Army, drew his horse to a halt. He patted the beast with some satisfaction after their long gallop, and searched his saddle bag for his field glasses. The purportedly well-traveled road he followed was little more than two deeply-worn wagon ruts, with several meandering animal trails beaten along its edges. The blossoming grasses and scrub brush of the valley below him seemed home to a multitude of small birds, creeping rodents, and he had even glimpsed a few snakes—he had no idea if they were harmless or not. As his horse panted, he took a moment to appreciate the terrain. Stunning country, this!
Richard pressed the glasses to his face and swept the vista from his right to left. Rolling, golden hills in the foreground gave way to jagged, snow-capped peaks in the distance. As far as the eye could see, not one earth-bound human soul flitted about the rugged landscape. It was desolate, wild, and staggeringly immense. He lowered the glasses, his face reflecting the fascination and the undeniable call echoing in his heart. America, with all its rough savagery and backward ways, was far more boundless and glorious than he could ever have imagined!
He had been the first to loudly protest this assignment. He was a leader of men, and rightly ought to be with his men as they struggled on the Boer front. His superiors, however, thought otherwise. More than good men, what the army needed most was good horses, and rapidly. His reputation as a fine judge of horseflesh and an accomplished master of the cavalry had cemented the war office’s opinion that he should be the one to replace Colonel Marcus at this backwater outpost. One thousand horses every two months—that was what he had been ordered to procure, and they had to be of a hardy type to withstand the rigours and deprivation of war. He almost snorted to himself as he lifted his field glasses again. With an order of that size to fill, the army did not need a judge of horseflesh, but a bulk merchant! He doubted that even the best cavalryman could assemble what did not exist. Her Majesty’s army would simply have to take what was available, and hope for the best.
Richard grimaced down at the rangy brute that had been assigned to him when he had stepped off the train. It was not an auspicious beginning, if this was intended to be an honour to his rank. To call the creature a Thoroughbred was a stretch. He seemed willing and at least somewhat trained, but he was a raw-boned thing with a head which could have suited one of the long-faced cattle he had passed. How Darcy would laugh to see him astride such a monstrosity! Ah, Darcy! How this savage land would appall you! His genial face split into a grin beneath the glasses as he appreciatively scanned the horizon once more. Three miles to the west, along this crude wagon road, had been his directions….
His fingers flinched on the glasses as a moving figure dashed across their magnified view. Pulling them down, he squinted his eyes and then trained the glasses once more on the galloping horse. It was cutting a path almost diagonal to his own, and flying at breakneck speed. He leaned unconsciously forward in the saddle. Was that a thatch of long, curly brown hair streaming behind the rider? Why, yes, it… it was a woman! She rode astride, her wide-legged split skirt flapping in the wind and her hat fluttering by long ribbons behind her. He swept the terrain again, and found no other horses nearby. A runaway!
Without a second thought, Richard’s experienced eyes projected a path to intercept the wayward steed. He put heel to his mount, and they were off in hot pursuit. The leggy brown horse performed better than he had hoped, and in little time at all—though it seemed much longer—they had nearly caught the flying little range pony. He angled a bit more sharply towards it, his hand outstretched to catch the horse’s bridle.
The woman had seen him now. Wide eyes met his own, and her mouth rounded in a single, inaudible syllable just as he closed in on her. “Whoah, there!” he called, snatching the reins and giving a firm tug to bring the little pinto into line beside him. “Steady, boy! Miss, are you w—” he began to ask, but in that instant, she slashed across his face with the curious long ends of her western reins.
“Unhand my horse!” she cried, and swung her reins again. “Get back, sir!”
Yelping as if he had been scalded, Richard dropped the rein and lurched away. “I mean you no harm, Miss!” he protested. “I only thought to stop your runaway!”
The fury drained from her features, replaced quickly with wry amusement. “My runaway?” she laughed. “I am glad you informed me I had such a problem, for I might have mistakenly continued to enjoy my ride.”
“You… you were not in any danger, Miss?” he stammered. Naturally, he had known many a bold female rider—why, his sisters enjoyed a splendid gallop as much as any man, and his cousin, Georgiana, followed the hounds whenever she got the chance. The reckless abandon with which this woman tore across the range, however, was altogether new to him. “I… I do beg your pardon. Forgive me for frightening you,” he backed his horse away, touching his hat.
Sensing, perhaps, her own disheveled state, she reached to settle her wide hat over her wild, wind-tangled hair. “You are new to the area,” she observed, with a little curve to her brow and an impish smile about her mouth.
Suddenly a little shy, he could not stop himself from biting his upper lip. How her eyes did sparkle when she smiled! “Colonel Richard Fitzwilliam, at your service, Miss. You are correct, for I am only arrived today.”
She lifted her chin in a little nod of acknowledgment as her smile widened. “In that case, Colonel, I might suggest you take care of the prairie dog holes when you race your horse off the road like that. Another of your colonels crippled two horses in that way last year.” With a mercurial little wrinkle of her nose, she offered him one last smile, whirled her stubby-legged pinto, and darted off along her original course.
Fitzwilliam’s own mount attempted to bolt after the other horse, and had he not his orders, he would have been scarcely less inclined himself. He stared after her. What a singular young woman! He remained thus, gazing after the receding wisp of flowing dark hair, until she had completely disappeared. Americans were a strange lot.
“The English are so strange!” Katherine Bennet, better known as Kitty among her sisters, crossed her arms and gazed out the window at the street below.
“Why do you say so, Kitty?” her eldest sister asked mildly. Jane reclined with one of Elizabeth’s books, trying to remain focused on the authoress’ hundred-year-old dialect as she whiled away the afternoon.
“They send ever so many officers over for the horses! Look, five new men in uniform have just come from the train.”
“More English men in uniform?” gasped Lydia, the youngest. She bolted to the window and fairly shoved her older sister aside to afford herself a better view. “Oh, I simply adore the way they talk!” she gushed. “I could listen to them prattle on about tea and crumpets all day!”
“It is not tea, but war they speak of, Lydia,” admonished Mary—one of only two out of the five Bennet sisters who had any information at all on the subject. “If you listened to more than their accents, you might know that for yourself.”
“Yes, but why should I trouble myself? Neither topic makes any sense to me, but it makes me giggle every time they say ‘R-oi-ght, then!’”
“Oh,” Kitty sniggered, “or the way they walk so stiffly, as if they had a broom handle stuffed up the backs of their coats!”
“All soldiers must march like that, Kitty, not just the English ones,” Jane commented in amusement.
“I do not think it at all proper,” Mary interjected, “that we ought to mock men of good character so.”
“Who said they had good characters? Anyway, what does it matter, as Uncle Gardiner will not allow us to speak to them!” Lydia pouted and flopped to the little sofa seat next to Jane.
“Lydia,” the eldest sister reasoned gently, “we are living in his house now. Surely our uncle has a right to determine whom he will host in his own home, and since he provides for us, we must heed his wishes.”
“Oh, bother, Jane. Father is paying him for our board, you know.” Kitty protested.
Jane opened her mouth to explain how very much more the generous keep on six women must be costing their uncle than the meagre amount their father provided each month, but it was a fruitless argument. Her better sense prevailed, and she turned her attention back to the book. How did Lizzy read such flowery prose? She could not even follow it most of the time!
“Oh, my girls!” The door burst open to admit their mother, who still wore her bonnet. “You will never guess what I have just heard! That Colonel Marcus—you know, I always thought him such an agreeable man, though your father did not—his replacement is arrived today, and he came to pay his respects to your uncle before he departed. He says the new colonel is named Fitzherbert, or something like that it was, and he is the son of a duke back in England! Fancy that, girls! Why, he must be the wealthiest soldier in the whole army, and he has come here! What a fine thing it is!”
“Now, Fanny,” a stern, masculine voice issued from behind her, “you must not go on so.”
“Oh! Uncle, is it true?” Kitty and Lydia bounded to their uncle with pleading eyes and softly clinging hands. “Can such a man truly exist?”
“I saw him in the mercantile,” Mary added neutrally. “He surely does. Oh, Lydia, you act as if he must be descended from Apollo! He is just another Englishman.”
“But a duke’s son!” cried the youngest. “Uncle, please tell me if it is true!”
“Not entirely,” Uncle Gardiner finally managed to interject. “He is the son of an earl, which is a considerable step down from a duke, if I understand properly. He is likely a second son as well, or he would likely not be in the army. So, you see Fanny, he is not quite the prize you first took him to be. Do be good enough to let the poor man alone to attend his duties while he remains in the area.”
“I shall not believe you,” objected his sister. “Even the second son of an English earl must have his means, and to have been given such a prestigious appointment! He must be very well connected.”
“Mother,” Jane reasoned, “I do not think the horse buyers are given much honour within the regiment. I think if you were to ask him, he would much prefer to be commanding soldiers.”
Mrs Bennet would not be deterred. “But that is so dangerous! No, surely the preferred appointments are ones such as these, where a colonel may still wear his uniform and serve his country in safety.”
“Now, Fanny,” Mr Gardiner asserted with finality, “you may put such notions aside. English soldiers do not come to the American frontier in search of a wife. If they entertain feminine companionship at all, it is not done with regard to the dignity of the lady. While under my roof, I will not allow—”
He never finished his statement, for at that moment, the door opened behind him again. Elizabeth’s entry might have passed quietly enough, had her mother not determined to enlist her aid against her uncle. Apart from Jane, who had already mildy disagreed with her, Elizabeth was the only one of her daughters who had ever proved capable of dissuading Mr Gardiner from his course.
“Lizzy!” she bubbled. “Oh, Lizzy, did you see all of the officers just come from the train?”
“Hmm? Oh, yes, I heard something of that. I think most of them had already gone off to the corrals by the time I returned. Oh, Jane, I knew you would like that book! Tell me, how far have you come?”
Jane held up the book with a faintly wan expression. “Five chapters. You said it gets better?”
“Oh yes, most assuredly.”
“Lizzy!” interrupted her mother. “You must hear all about the new officers! Did you know that Colonel Marcus is to be replaced?”
“I believe it was his replacement I encountered on the way home. Rather high-handed, if I do say so. Oh, Uncle Edward, Father said that he needs a new order of shoes and nails for the remounts.”
“I will see he gets them, Lizzy.” He smiled, a twinkling expression of victory, and patted his niece on the shoulder. “Mary and Lydia, I believe it is your turn to help your aunt in the mercantile this afternoon. Do run along, girls, she has several new bolts of fabric to sort and shelve.”
Mary stood placidly enough, but Lydia began to whimper. As the youngest daughter of Thomas Bennet, former rancher, one would naturally expect that she had encountered her share of work. However, by Lydia’s birth, the ranch had known several years of relative prosperity before that last year, when sickness had struck down the Bennet herds and forced the family into insurmountable debt. Lydia’s days of labour had been short enough, and she felt, with all the more resentment, the demands her uncle placed upon her in exchange for her keep. An instant after expressing her typical reluctance, however, a new thought came to her. She flushed up, her eyes and cheeks bright, and turned to a little looking-glass at the end of the room to see that her hair fell as she liked it.
“I believe,” Uncle Gardiner commented drily, “that the British have all gone on to their duties with the horses, Lydia.”
“Uncle,” she came near, her tones serious and wheedling, “do you not think that I should wear my hair up, as do Jane and Lizzy? It would look so much better for the mercantile. I think I could sell twice the fabric and notions to the lady customers if I looked the part.”
“When you turn seventeen, and not a day before. Off with you, now!”
Lydia scowled slightly, then turned to give herself one last look in the glass. She tilted her head, pressed back her shoulders, and gave a sharp tug at the back of her blouse to wrap it more snugly into her skirts.
Uncle Gardiner cleared his throat.
Lydia sighed loudly, and departed with Mary.
“Lizzy, how was Father today?” enquired Jane.
“Oh, I do wish you would not ride out to that horrid place alone!” Mrs Bennet lamented. “Goodness knows what might befall you in that horse buying camp.”
“While there, I am always with Father,” Elizabeth objected. “He is quite well today, by the way. You know he was kicked last week, but he is mending well enough.”
“Lizzy,” Uncle Gardiner sighed, “I fear your mother is right. There are simply too many strange men about town now. I do not think you should be taking rides alone—nay, nor even with one of your sisters. Perhaps Billy Collins can ride with you. I do not think any will trouble you so long as you’ve a man with you.”
Elizabeth groaned. Not her cousin! Billy could scarcely sit a horse without being strapped to the saddle, and nobody prattled such banalities! “What of John Lucas, Uncle? We would be quite safe with him, I am sure.”
“John Lucas works for Mr Drysdale now, and will be wanted at the rail yard. I can spare Billy well enough.”
Elizabeth rolled her eyes toward Jane, finding a sympathetic gaze awaiting her. Uncle could spare their cousin so well because Billy was essentially worthless, and everyone knew it—save for Billy. That Uncle Gardiner still kept his brother-in-law’s cousin employed was more a testament to his generosity than any merit on Billy’s part.
“Come, Lizzy,” soothed their uncle. “I know you will not argue with me. You heard what happened with Mary King—why, it makes my blood boil just to think of it! I cannot bear for such to befall you on your visits to your father.”
Elizabeth was still pouting, but only faintly. In a last half-hearted objection, she offered, “Mary King was walking after dark, Uncle Edward. I am mounted, during the day.”
Her uncle only lifted a brow, smilingly shaking his head. Dearly as she loved him, she could do little but concede.
“Cheer up, Lizzy,” chirped Kitty. “Just wait until Mother tells you all about the new colonel. He is a duke’s son!”