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Cowgirl for Keeps (Four Stones Ranch) by [Gouge, Louise M.]
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Cowgirl for Keeps (Four Stones Ranch) Kindle Edition

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Length: 288 pages Word Wise: Enabled Enhanced Typesetting: Enabled
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About the Author

Award-winning Florida author Louise M. Gouge writes historical romance and women’s fiction. Married to David Gouge for 48 years, she is mother of four amazing adult children and grandmother of eight absolutely perfect grandchildren. With a BA in Creative Writing and a master's degree in Liberal Studies, Louise teaches composition and humanities at Valencia College in Kissimmee, Florida.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

Denver, Colorado May 1883

I tell you, Percy, my uncle's American enterprise will be a disaster. Look at these ragtag masses." Garrick Wakefield waved a dismissive hand toward the crowds milling about the Denver train station. His gesture stirred up the stench of burning coal and unwashed bodies. "It's far worse than I expected."

Most travelers on the platform beneath them were clearly lower class. Unkempt children dashed about with no parental restraint. Cowboys—he shuddered at the term—wore guns strapped to their dusty, wrinkled trousers. Beggars sat against the depot's brick walls, their hands lifted in supplication to all passersby. In grating American accents, hawkers advertised their wares. How Garrick longed for a pastoral English countryside.

"Tut, tut, old man. It's not so bad." Percy, ever the optimist, could afford to overlook the chaos. A cousin from Garrick's mother's family, with an unentailed inheritance to spend as he wished, Percy didn't face a future dependent upon another man's whimsy. "I find this country delightful."

"Indeed? How so?" Garrick spied a mother on the lower platform struggling with tattered baggage and several children. Compassion welled up inside him. Where was the woman's husband? If he could get through the tangled crowd, he'd offer to help. Why didn't one of those cowboys or another closer man lend a hand? Their neglect validated Garrick's disdain for the lot of them. If she came closer, he'd step down and offer assistance.

"Look at the beautiful scenery." Percy indicated the mountains to the west. "Every bit as majestic as the Scottish Highlands, what?" His eyes brightened. "Can you not feel the call to climb them?"

"I'll grant you that. But remember the endless rivers and plains we crossed to get here." At least they'd traveled by train, not in oxen-drawn covered wagons such as those they'd passed along the way. "Too much wasteland."

A conductor called "All aboard," and the crowd moved toward the train's open doors, where uniformed porters assisted passengers up the steps. A quick glance down the length of the platform assured Garrick that his and Percy's valets were seeing to their trunks.

"These Americans have no manners, no refinement. If Uncle could see them, he'd change his mind about this business venture." After a lifetime of prejudice against all things American, Lord Westbourne had met one single gentleman rancher and revised his opinion of the entire country. He'd sent Garrick to build a hotel, not in Boston or New York or even this growing city of Denver, but in some village in southern Colorado, barely a smudge on the map.

"Come now. Not all Americans are the same." Percy elbowed Garrick and nodded toward two ladies rising from their seats on the lower platform.

After taking a few steps, the stylishly dressed young misses turned to glance toward Garrick and Percy before moving toward the train. Something struck Garrick's midsection, and he looked down to see if Percy had hit him. No, the shock was entirely internal and caused by the exquisite girl in the lavender traveling suit and matching hat. Her stunningly beautiful countenance bespoke an English heritage: a porcelain complexion framed by shiny dark brown hair upswept in an attractive coiffure. Her elegant posture and carriage suggested she might very well be used to gracing London's finest drawing rooms. If propriety didn't prohibit his addressing her, he'd step forward straightaway and introduce himself.

"Did you see her?" Percy sounded breathless. "Have you ever seen a more beautiful lady? Why, a man could be tempted to propose on the spot based upon her looks alone."

Garrick huffed out a sigh. Of course Percy was joking, but with fortune enough to last beyond a lifetime, he could well afford to consider marriage. Conversely, Garrick had lost all such expectations at the age of nineteen when his childless widowed uncle had remarried. His young bride had borne him three healthy sons in his old age. Yet hadn't Garrick himself encouraged Uncle to remarry in his loneliness? That was as it should be.

However, at the age of twenty-five, instead of anticipating an inheritance of title, wealth and lands, Garrick had been forced to revise his expectations and work for his living. He wouldn't mind so much if he didn't also have to provide for Helena's dowry. His younger sister must make a good match even if Garrick never could.

"Yes, she's quite lovely." A melancholy twinge stung inside his chest. Though it would be ill-advised, Percy could pursue the young beauty if he liked. Garrick could only admire her from afar. Or he could redirect his cousin's attention. "Her companion is rather pleasant looking. Perhaps her ginger hair denotes an Irish heritage."

"It's the redhead I admire, cousin." Percy laughed in his merry way. "As it appears we'll be on the same train, it's a shame we've no one to introduce us. What a jolly chat we could have with them as we travel."

Profound relief flooded Garrick's chest. Which was ridiculous, of course. Even though they fancied different girls, as Percy said, they had no proper way to meet them. Nor would it be wise to do so.

A piercing whistle cut short his thoughts as a westbound train approached on the second track. Garrick glanced toward it and saw a small child, one belonging to the harried young mother, toddle after a red ball between the tracks. Did no one closer see? Driven by horror, Garrick plunged down the steps and through the crowd, using his walking cane to move people aside. Others now saw the danger and cried out.

Garrick dashed onto the track and snatched the child back moments before the great black engine chugged into the station, steam blasting from its undercarriage. He restored the toddler to his hysterical mother. Beside her, a teary-eyed lad of perhaps fourteen years held a small girl.

"Thank you, sir. I didn't see Jack wander off." He stuck out a grimy hand. "I'm Adam Starling."

"How do you do, Adam?" Moved more than he cared to admit, Garrick shook the lad's hand. Clearly he endeavored to be the man of the family. Garrick knew very well the problems faced by an eldest son. As others congratulated him, he brushed past them. His train would depart momentarily, and he must drag Percy from his stupor induced by watching the scene. Poor chap. He always hesitated in times of crisis. Perhaps on this trip he'd learn to be a bit more aggressive.

"We should board." Garrick nudged his cousin's arm.

"I say, old man, brilliantly done." Percy walked beside him toward the first-class coach. "Nothing short of heroic."

"Nonsense." Garrick hated such praise. If he were a true hero, he'd have saved another Jack five years ago. The hapless village boy had sunk beneath the black surface of Uncle's lake before Garrick could reach him. His lifeless body was found in a marsh days later and returned to his widowed mother. If only Garrick could have reached him.

Remorse wouldn't restore life to that Jack, but it did spur him to help the less fortunate whenever possible. Besides, if he craved admiration for today's actions, it was from the beautiful young lady in lavender, who'd boarded the train before he even noticed the child's dire circumstances. Too bad she hadn't observed the drama.

A foolish thought, but a momentary diversion from the unwelcome duties that lay ahead. Lord, help me had been his cry to the Almighty since losing all of his expectations, and would continue to be until his dying day.

Rosamond Northam waited until she and Beryl Eberly sat down in the first-class coach before venting her indignation. Even when she did, the lessons learned at Boston's Fairfield Young Ladies' Academy didn't fail her.

"Gracious, what an arrogant man." She spoke in a soft tone, holding back harsher words she'd have used three years ago. Being back home in Colorado, back among her own people, would challenge every lesson she'd learned, especially when a foreigner—an Englishman at that—criticized her beloved homeland, particularly the state of Colorado.

"His friend seemed pleasant enough." Beryl spoke wistfully and stared out the window as if searching for the men. "Dignified, too."

"Don't look for them." Rosamond gently patted Beryl's hand, her heart twisting with concern.

"I wonder if they'll be on this train." Beryl glanced over her shoulder and gasped softly. "They're sitting back there on the other side. Do you suppose we could meet them?"

"Shh!" Rosamond sent her a scolding frown. "No, we can't meet them. Why would you want to? If anything, I'd like to show the dark-haired man just how unrefined we can be, as in behaving in our old cowgirl ways, talking loudly with improper grammar." She smothered an undignified giggle and risked a quick look their way. My, the dark-haired man was handsome to a fault. Too bad good manners didn't accompany that well-formed face and physique. "But someone else in this coach may be traveling to Esperanza. Our school's reputation would be ruined before we even build it if we teachers behave in an unseemly fashion."

Beryl's face lit briefly with humor. "That dandy could use a comeuppance, but I wouldn't wish to offend his friend." She settled back in the leather seat and gazed out the window again.

Rosamond's heart ached for Beryl. The middle child in a family of five girls, she'd been every bit a cowgirl like the rest of them until she had been shot during a bank robbery and almost died. Rosamond and the five Eberly girls had grown up riding, shooting, branding—anything a cowboy did. But Rosamond's family had three grown sons and a passel of hired hands to tend to the many duties around Four Stones Ranch, so her parents agreed to her dream to build a high school for Esperanza. With the Lord's blessing, they could construct the school this summer and open it in September. Rosamond hoped Beryl's parents would let her teach rather than return her to ranching.

A well-dressed older couple took the two seats facing the girls. On the trip across the country, other such couples and matrons had offered themselves as chaper-ones, and these two did the same, engaging Rosamond and Beryl in conversation and keeping at bay undesirable men. The lady smelled of rosewater just like Mother, and the gentleman of cherry tobacco like Father. What pleasant reminders of home. Upon the couple's arrival, Rosamond saw Beryl relax a little. Perhaps her interest in meeting the young man was generated by a desire to feel safe. Rosamond could find no fault in that. Maybe the Lord would make a way for Beryl to meet the nicer Englishman, hopefully without his arrogant friend nearby to crush her spirits.

For her own part, at twenty-one, she'd given up on romance. None of the eligible men she'd met in Boston had found her personal ambitions compatible with their need for a docile Society wife. Nor did she wish to assume the many responsibilities of a rancher's wife. Without doubt, God called her to educate the youth of Esperanza; therefore, she'd be a spinster.

The train chugged out of the station and rumbled southward along the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains, where the morning sun illuminated snowy peaks. Rosamond drank in the beloved sights of her home state.

Later they passed Pikes Peak, and in time her beloved Sangre de Cristo Range came into view. Her heart skipped. She would arrive home in just one more day.

After a night in a Walsenburg hotel, Rosamond and Beryl boarded the westbound train for their last day of travel. Rosamond sat on the aisle in the middle of the car and whispered to Beryl. "Don't look now, but those sissified Englishmen boarded after us." She nodded toward the closed window. "You can see their reflections."

Beryl's face brightened for the first time since they'd awakened that morning. The closer they traveled toward home, the bleaker her mood. Too bad a handsome foreigner was the one to cheer her. To Rosamond's dismay, her friend did turn. And look. And smile!

"Tst!" Rosamond kept her voice low. "Don't do that. Remember our lessons in deportment. It just isn't done."

"I know." Beryl sighed. "He started to tip his hat, but his friend stopped him."

"What?" Rosamond glanced back at the other man. He tilted his head, and surprise crossed his well-formed countenance. He seemed about to smile. With a haughty sniff and lift of her chin, she faced the front. That snob kept his friend from showing a common courtesy to a tender soul like Beryl and then attempted to flirt with her. The very idea!

The train moved forward, and Rosamond's heart skipped. They'd be home by midafternoon.

"Let's talk about our plans." She must divert Beryl's attention from the Englishmen. Although they'd exhausted just about every subject during their long trip, she never tired of her favorite one. "I'm thankful Father's already approved the building of the school, but I hope he'll let me supervise its construction."

"Aren't four classrooms too many?" Beryl chewed her lip, and Rosamond reminded her with a quick shake of her head to stop that bad habit. "With only the two of us teaching…"

"I'd really like more rooms, but I think four is a good start." Rosamond's heart raced. Soon she'd put her ideas to work. "We'll need to hire more teachers before you know it. Maybe we should build two stories from the outset."

Beryl nodded absently. From the way she kept turning her head to the side, Rosamond knew she wanted to look back at the blond man. If propriety didn't dictate otherwise, she'd have made sure her friend met him before the train reached Esperanza simply to annoy his companion. She quickly dismissed the thought. She'd put aside such spitefulness seven years ago when she'd become a Christian. How could she ask the Lord to bless her endeavors when her behavior didn't show His love to others? Even to rude Englishmen.

The train began to build up speed for the ascent to La Veta Pass. Rosamond always found this part of the trip exhilarating. Soon they'd be in the midst of the Sangre de Cristos. As a token of promise, fresh, crisp air seeped into the car beneath its front door and around the windows. She inhaled a long, satisfying breath and smiled in anticipation of seeing her dreams come true.

The moment the train began to accelerate, however, it slowed to a halt, the wheels squealing in protest against the iron rails.

"Wake up, Abel." A woman of perhaps thirty years, seated up front and facing the rest of the car, shook her sleeping husband. "Something's wrong." Abel slept on, clearly unconcerned, his head resting back against the front wall, arms crossed, legs stretched out and a wide-brimmed hat pulled over his face.

Beryl grasped Rosamond's arm. "Why are we stopping?"

"Shh. There, there." She patted Beryl's hand. "I'm sure it's fine. Probably something on the tracks. The men will see to it." Lord, please let it be something as simple as that.

Instead, gunshots erupted by the engine. Gasping, Beryl seized Rosamond's forearm in a vise grip. The coach's front door burst open, and three armed men rushed in. Dressed in rough coats and dusty trousers, with bandannas over the lower halves of their faces, they waved pistols. Outside, other men on horseback held the engineer and fireman at gunpoint. Rosamond couldn't tell how many were in the gang. She prayed no one would be injured, especially Beryl. She'd almost died in that bank robbery. Indeed, her confidence and fearlessness died that day.

"Hand over your money and gold." The leader jammed the barrel of his gun under the nose of an old man. "Gimme your valuables."

The poor man shook too violently to obey, so the outlaw shoved him down on the seat and dug into his victim's coat pocket, removing a wad of cash secured in a monogrammed money clip.

Another outlaw held out a brown canvas sack as if taking up a church offering. The third man helped himself to the sleeping man's wallet and the wife's wedding band and moved down the aisle.

At the front of the car, the sleeping husband awoke and stealthily rose up, tall and broad-shouldered, behind the last outlaw, gun in hand. Rosamond couldn't let him fight these outlaws alone. She pried Beryl's hands from her arm and bent down to her tapestry satchel. If she was careful, the outlaws would think she was retrieving valuables. Instead, she wrapped her hand around the handle of her Colt .45 revolver and tucked it into the folds of her skirt. She'd made sure it was loaded before they left the Walsenburg hotel this morning. Now, should she shoot the gun from the closest outlaw's hand or wait to see what the man up front did? With Beryl shaking and terrified, Rosamond couldn't decide.

"I say, what a thrilling adventure. A real Wild West holdup, what?" The dark-haired Englishman grinned as the outlaws came closer. "Did you plan it for our amusement?"

Rosamond watched him grip his ebony cane close to his side. With his other hand, he reached into his black frock coat, pulled out an engraved gold watch and swung it on its fob. "Do let me play. Come along, gentlemen, and take the pretty timepiece." Was he crazy or incredibly brave?

"Pip, pip, old man, such a lark." The blond Englishman laughed, but like his friend, his posture indicated he was ready for a fight. Rosamond's opinion of both men rose several notches. Dandies they were. Sissies they were not.

Product details

  • File Size: 646 KB
  • Print Length: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Love Inspired Historicals (July 1, 2015)
  • Publication Date: July 1, 2015
  • Sold by: Harlequin Digital Sales Corp.
  • Language: English
  • ASIN: B00SFQTOAS
  • Text-to-Speech: Enabled
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  • Word Wise: Enabled
  • Lending: Not Enabled
  • Screen Reader: Supported
  • Enhanced Typesetting: Enabled
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #356,910 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)
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