Separated from her father for ten years, Charlotte was determined to leave Boston and travel to Kansas with or without her mother’s permission. Propriety be damned! If it wasn’t proper for a young girl to travel alone, she’d disguise herself as a boy.
Life was lonely in the old west. A man was considered lucky if he had a steady job, a roof over his head and an obedient wife. Ranch foreman Slade Hazard already had two out of the three. A couple of docile ladies lived in Swiftwater, Kansas, and would fit his needs nicely. He might not be in love, but he’d be a faithful husband, a good provider and hopefully, in due time, a father. Yep, he knew exactly what he wanted, that is, until he met Charlotte “Charley” Henry.
The train ride to Cheyenne had gone off without a hitch, just as Charlotte thought it would. The jaunt on the stage taking her to Swiftwater, Kansas, should be a cinch. Even better, the tall, broad shouldered man sharing the stagecoach was a dream come true. A pity she couldn’t reveal her true gender to the handsome Slade Hazard, and try a bit of flirting.
Then the stagecoach is held up by a trio of bandits. Slade is determined to keep the passengers safe, even if he has to threaten the unruly “boy” with a good strapping. Charley’s sassy mouth lands her into trouble and when the truth of her gender is in danger, she has no choice. She must reveal herself to Slade. Charlotte had never been spanked in her entire life, but Slade soon remedies the matter more than once. Her dream man wouldn’t dare take her across his knee, but would she be content with a man she could run roughshod over?
Slade thought he knew what he had wanted in a wife, but he actually enjoys sparring with the fiery redhead. Is it possible to fall in love at first sight?
When Charlotte disappears just as the prisoner is released, more than one man fears for her safety. But who will find her first?
While the townspeople of Swiftwater went about their business, Silas Henry stood in front of the stage depot, unsure about what to do next. No matter how much he had cajoled, the little girl sobbing against his neck wasn’t going anywhere. Charlotte was a sweet child, but when her mind was set, he could stand on his head and she still wouldn’t cave. She clung to him like a monkey and refused to let go.
He looked over at his soon to be ex-wife who, in turn, shot him a knowing glare and crossed her arms over her chest. Dust billowed around her tapping foot. Silas knew exactly what Katherine was thinking. He was the one who had spoiled the child and now he would be the one who’d have to deal with it. During the past nine years Silas couldn’t bring himself to spank Charlotte, no matter how badly she had behaved and he wasn’t about to start now. He would not send his baby girl away with a sore bottom as her last recollection of their final day together. He’d resort to pleading, first.
"Please don’t cry, Charlotte. You’ll make yourself sick if you continue on this way."
His plea had caught her attention and he silently thanked whoever was responsible. She drew back and studied him for a second or two, then tugged on his ear, indicating he should move closer. "You have a secret to tell me, eh?" She nodded vigorously. Silas adjusted his hold and angled his head so she could whisper in his ear.
"It’s all my fault we’re going away." Her breath still held the sugary scent of the berries she had eaten earlier with her toast.
"Why would you think that, Rosebud?"
Charlotte sniffed and rubbed her wet, swollen cheeks with the back of her hands. "I was bad at school." She tossed a rueful glance in her mother’s direction before continuing in a much lower tone. "Mama says I don’t behave like a girl. I’m sorry, Daddy." A lone teardrop had escaped her rough swipe and soaked into her hairline before Silas could brush it away. The child was much too smart for her own good.
Charlotte had captured his heart from the moment she’d been born. He had given her his love freely and eagerly, but in the end it hadn’t made one bit of difference. Although she carried his name, she was not his true daughter. Her mother had every right to leave and take her own flesh and blood with her.
Katherine’s agitated huff reached his ears. The driver of the stagecoach shouted the last call to board. It was time to say goodbye.
Silas hunched down and set Charlotte on her feet. He tugged on her long auburn braid in much the same way she had done with his ear. She stepped between his knees and knew to listen carefully. "There’s no need to apologize, Rosebud. Just think, you’ll be going to a new school in the fall that’s just for young ladies. No silly boys allowed. You’ll meet lots of other girls your own age and you’ll get to see the sights." He tapped her on the nose. "There’s not much to see here in Kansas. Just lots of dusty prairie and smelly cattle." He struggled to keep his own tears at bay while Charlotte’s streamed easily down her cheeks.
"But I like the dusty prairie and smelly cattle," she wailed, not in the least bit concerned who heard her. "I don’t want to see the sights. I want to stay here." Despite the agony of the situation, his mouth tilted upwards at her cross remark.
"Charlotte, get your fanny on the stage right this minute." Charlotte fixed her bow shaped mouth into a pout and folded her arms over her chest. "Do I have to?" Silas nodded and she sighed. "Okay. Promise to write?"
His throat swelled, his breath hitched. This was not as easy as he had thought it would be. Granted, they might not share the same blood bond, yet he swore his heart was being ripped from his chest. Silas ran a hand through his hair. "Of course I will write, but you know how busy it gets at the ranch so it may not be a lot."
Charlotte patted his cheek. "That’s okay. I’ll do the writing." She hugged him one last time. Her expression mulish, she stomped past her mother, kicking at the stones along the way.
Katherine shook her head in disappointment. "I’m so embarrassed. I sincerely hope Miss Hinkle cures Charlotte of her temper. My sister highly recommends the woman and her school for young girls." She sighed. "Oh, how I envied my sister after Mama passed away."
Silas knew. It was a story she had shared with him often, especially in the beginning.? Her father was an itinerant preacher, but he hadn’t had an ounce of charity in his heart. One daughter had gone to Boston with a wealthy aunt and lived a pampered life. The other daughter had stayed behind to cook and clean and scrub for her stern, unloving father. When a handsome, smooth-talking gambler stopped by to water his horse, he’d swept her off her feet with empty praise and foolish promises. She’d been left in a family way, and her father had tossed her out like yesterday’s garbage.
The shadows beneath her eyes were emphasized by the paleness of her cheeks. "Silas, thank you for being there for me when I had no one else to turn to. Papa had already wired Aunt Tilda and relayed all the sordid details about my transgression. The only reason I can go to Boston now is because she’s dead and left her entire estate to Rachel."
Silas clenched his jaw. "Your father has no reason to talk about transgressions. The way he treated you and your unborn child, tossing you out into the world with no place to go ? that was the greater sin, in my book. Man of the cloth, my ass."
"Silas, please, he’s still my father. A grandson might have softened him."
Silas rarely lost his temper, but her words cut deep. He seized her shoulders in a vise-like grip. "Charlotte is a delightful, loving child. Don’t you dare wish her life away just to seek that bastard’s forgiveness."
"I love my daughter," Katherine replied vehemently. "I watched poor Mama work her fingers to the bone. She took in wash, mended torn clothing and kept house both inside and out while Papa went around preaching the Word. I swear the hard work aged her before her time and I will not see my daughter do the same. I want more for Charlotte. I’ll make sure she marries a man who has the means to care for her every need. She will not waste away on some ranch in the middle of nowhere."
"What about love?"
"Love?" Katherine scoffed. "Love won’t keep her belly full, nice clothes on her back and warm from the cold."
"Love can do wonders, Katherine. Will you tell her the truth about her real father?"
"Probably not. No good would come of it. I will tell her about our divorce when she’s old enough to understand." She surprised him by lightly touching his cheek. Silas couldn’t remember the last time they had been physically close. "You are a very honorable man, Silas Henry. I’ll be forever grateful for what you have done for my daughter and me. I sincerely hope you find someone to love you as much as you deserve. I’ll send the divorce papers once I get settled in Boston."
"Can Charlotte come visit once she’s older?"
"I doubt it. The only way to get ranch life out of her system is to avoid it completely." She hesitated a moment, then said, "Goodbye, Silas."
During the conversation, they had meandered closer to the stage. Silas stood off to the side, out of the way of other passengers.
Charlotte poked her head out the window. "Bye, Daddy, don’t worry none. We’ll see each other again. I promise."
Silas remained in the middle of the street. People passed by in front of him, wagons and carriages navigated around him, but his focus was solely on the stagecoach taking away his reason for living. Charlotte’s promise gave him the strength to finally turn away and make his way home. With her stubbornness and tenacity, he was sure he’d see her again.
"Really, my dear, you must learn to leave such menial tasks to the stable hands and concentrate all of your attention on me."
Ogden Livingston! Nineteen-year-old Charlotte Henry wrinkled her nose. The sickening odor of sweat would drift in her direction at any given moment. The boring popinjay perspired profusely no matter if he moved about or stood placidly in one spot. It wasn’t ladylike to harbor such appalling thoughts, but it was the truth. Miss Hinkle, her former teacher, had taught her to always be polite and wear a smile even if she was in a miserable mood. Be pleasant all the time. It was the only way to land a suitable husband.
If Charlotte had to go through life pretending to be something she was not, then it’d be best all around if she remained an old maid. As for the nasty thoughts, Charlotte knew enough not to voice such derogatory insults, but there was nothing wrong with thinking them.
With all her worldly knowledge about being a lady, Charlotte often wondered why Miss Hinkle wasn’t married.
"I like spending time with the horses." She continued to brush the satiny coat of the gentle mare. She wished Ogden would go away and leave her in peace. Instead, he circled the animal so he could catch her eye. He cleared his throat, drawing her attention to her footwear. "At least you had the common sense to wear boots." He shuddered. "Let us take this conversation outside. It smells utterly disgusting in here."
Charlotte wasn’t aware they were having a conversation. Usually, Ogden commanded, and people listened, but not her. Besides, it wouldn’t make a bit of difference out in the fresh air if he came along. At least the horses had an excuse?they were animals.
But, she had to be on her best behavior. Her mother considered the Livingstons close friends and had made it clear to Charlotte that their thirty-year-old son would be a perfect match. As his wife, Charlotte would have status and money.
Charlotte truly disliked disappointing her mother, but she wouldn’t marry Ogden if he were the last man on earth. She might have learned all she needed to know about being a lady from Miss Hinkle, but the older girls at school had been a greater source of information when it came to the marriage bed and a man’s private part. After learning what went where, Charlotte vehemently opposed the idea and stated she would rather be hung by her toenails than have a man’s dangly part shoved inside her body.
The girls had been quick to add that when she found the right man, she’d welcome such intimacy. The man meant for her would make her tummy tingle and she’d have trouble breathing. Her woman’s place would moisten and her nipples would ache. She sighed with relief. Her tummy didn’t tingle when Ogden was near. It churned from nausea. She had trouble breathing, but only because he stank. Thankfully, Ogden’s closeness kept her most personal parts dry and her head ached instead of her nipples.
Charlotte had learned quite a lot at the school for young ladies. Some good, some naughty, and if her mother ever found out, she’d swoon. Katherine Henry was faint at heart in that respect. Whenever Charlotte would ask her mother about delicate female issues, the subject was closed before it started.
She took a deep breath and was immediately reminded of Ogden’s presence. "There’s nothing wrong with me brushing down the horses. It occupies my time and besides, I enjoy doing it."
Ogden’s displeasure was evident in the way his brows narrowed and formed a V. "As my wife, I’ll expect you to put aside this abnormal preoccupation and concentrate fully on my needs."
His wife? His needs? She almost laughed out loud. That cravat tied around his neck must have cut off the oxygen to his brain. How many times must she turn down his marriage proposal until he’d go away and leave her alone? The gall of the man to simply assume she’d become his wife.
Now that her morning was entirely ruined, Charlotte relinquished the curry brush to Davey, the young stable boy, who crossed his eyes and made a point of waving his hand under his nose. She muffled a giggle and managed to face Ogden with grim determination. Be firm. She straightened her shoulders. She was a lady.
"Mr. Livingston," she repeated, her tone steady, her stance unbending. "I am honored by your regard, but I’m afraid I must disappoint you yet again. As I have mentioned many times before, I am not ready for marriage."
"Are you still fixed on going to Kansas? Charlotte, a young woman traveling without a chaperone is not proper. Marry me. Your father will certainly be invited to the wedding and you can have a nice visit with him here in Boston."
"It’s not the same. I want to go back home to the ranch and do other things."
His jowls jiggled as he laughed. "I so love your sense of humor. Charlotte, you are a pearl. What in the world would a female want to do besides become a wife and a mother? It’s your lot in life, you know. It’s pointless to think otherwise."
Charlotte’s mood changed from composing serenity to downright fury. She should have shoved the curry brush in his mouth and sent him on his way. "Why is it that women are only expected to marry and produce children?"
"Is there anything else more important?" he demanded.
"I’d like to relax a little before I take on the role of wife and mother. I want to visit with my father. Perhaps ride astride across a pasture with the wind in my hair and the sun on my face."
"That is absolutely scandalous. You will rid your mind of such outlandish thoughts at once."
What a windbag. "And if I don’t?"
In the blink of an eye, her chin was caught between his thumb and forefinger. Charlotte pressed her lips together and glowered. She would not show him how frightened she was, even though her knees were knocking together beneath her dress.
"As your husband, it will be my duty to take a strap to your bare backside and teach you the error of your ways. Tsk, tsk, Charlotte, don’t you see? You’ve caused your mother enough grief. Her sister, your aunt has spent a ridiculous amount of money on your education. I’m certain Miss Hinkle taught you that nothing is as important as taking care of a man’s needs and presenting him with an heir to carry on his legacy."
Charlotte flushed. Now he expected her to be a brood mare. He leaned in closer. She shivered with revulsion and twisted her head so she didn’t have to look at him.
Charlotte didn’t pay much attention to servants chatter, but what she had overheard about Ogden’s violent tendencies toward women must be true, especially the women in the brothels he was known to visit. She cringed. As his wife, her life would surely be a nightmare.
She was extremely grateful to Davey for staying close by. If, at any time, she and Ogden were caught without a chaperone, her mother had the right to demand a wedding.
"Leave us, Davey. I’d like a word with my future bride in private."
His superior attitude ignited her temper. Charlotte stomped on his foot. Caught off guard, Ogden released his hold and spewed a string a lewd words.
"Stay right where you are, Davey. Mr. Livingston, I am a maiden. It is highly improper for you to even suggest such a thing. Also, you will not threaten me with physical harm ever again." There wasn’t a man alive who’d dare treat her in such a manner. A whipping? Ha!
Ogden raised both hands in surrender. "I apologize for my dreadful behavior and language. I’m just anxious to make you my wife, Charlotte, and take care of you. I promise not to place my hands on you in anger again."
"You will not place your hands on me in anger or in any other way again. Please leave."
He bowed and strode to the door. He paused without turning and said, "Please, give my regards to your mother. I’ll stop by at the end of the week when you’re in a more gracious mood. Good day, my dear."
After he was gone, Charlotte plopped on a bale of straw and pressed her ice-cold palms to her heated cheeks.
"Miss, are you all right?"
"I will be Davey, once I calm down." She pummeled the straw with her fists, which did nothing to ease her temper. "Oh, how I loathe that man." Davey’s eyes widened at her tantrum. "Sorry, I forgot." She changed her voice to a nasally whine and said, "A lady isn’t supposed to show her true feelings. Well, I’ve been holding this anger inside for far too long and if I don’t get it out I’m afraid I’ll explode."
Davey grinned. "Actually, it’s quite refreshing. I met Miss Hinkle once or twice. Your imitation of her voice was quite decent, I might add."
"You’re a good friend, Davey. I must collect myself before I go back to the house."
Once Charlotte made certain Ogden’s fancy barouche was gone, she gathered up her skirts and raced across the yard. She reached the terrace and stopped to catch her breath. Ogden was no longer a problem. She’d be on her way to Kansas when he came by at the end of the week. For now, her main concern was her mother. When Katherine found out she had turned down his marriage proposal for the second time there’d be hell to pay.