Denver, Colorado Territory - 1871
“Elizabeth, have you taken leave of your senses? You could have married Jason Pembroke!”
Beth Underhill winced when her cousin Graham’s fist hit the polished mahogany dining table, but she held his gaze without faltering. “Jason Pembroke doesn’t care for me any more than Trey McShannon does.”
Graham sneered at the letter lying on the table. “The man’s a dirt farmer. You have no idea what kind of an animal he is or what kind of a shack he lives in. You know nothing about him at all.”
Beth held tight to her hope that Mr. McShannon’s letters had given her a true impression of the man and his home. In the face of Graham’s doubts and hers, she had nothing else to cling to.
“I know he expresses himself like a civilized man.” What more could she ask of a stranger? The Matheson Matrimonial Agency didn’t concern itself with emotions. In the months since her Aunt Abigail’s death, Beth had come to believe she’d be wise to do the same. “And whatever else Mr. McShannon might be, I doubt he’s a fraud and a cheat like Jason Pembroke. I told you what I found out about his railroad contracts. If you don’t believe me, ask some questions yourself.”
No doubt Graham already knew everything there was to know about Mr. Pembroke’s business affairs. As long as the man stayed on the right side of the law, he’d be satisfied. This was Colorado Territory, not Philadelphia. Here, a man might be hanged for stealing a horse, but not for supplying food to railroad navvies at ridiculously inflated prices.
“Jason is a smart businessman. He’s not doing anything illegal. And what do you know about railroad contracts?”
You’d be surprised, cousin. The process of settling her uncle’s estate, and then her aunt’s, had taught Beth more than she’d ever wanted to know about the vagaries of railroad and mining investments. “I know Mr. Pembroke is greedy and unscrupulous. And even if he weren’t, I wouldn’t marry him. He wants a wife with breeding and all the social graces he doesn’t have himself, and he thinks I’d look good enough on his arm to outweigh my lack of money. That’s as much as he cares for me. He didn’t even bother to propose to me before he approached you.”
Hands in his trouser pockets, Graham paced the length of the room and back. He stopped in the patch of spring sunshine that poured through the window overlooking the street – a relatively quiet street, a good distance from the raucous activity of downtown Denver. Here, it was easy for Beth to imagine she was back in the old home in Philadelphia where she and Graham had both grown up, twenty years apart. The home Graham had never truly left in any way that mattered – just like Aunt Abigail and Uncle Robert.
ncial situation, your choices are going to be limited. You found that out with Daniel Hunter. If you’d agree to go back to Philadelphia, you’d stand a better chance–”
Of what? Meeting more men like Mr. Pembroke, willing to take Beth at a discount for her looks? Or like Daniel Hunter, who’d courted her for a year and made her think he honestly cared for her, then backed away when he learned that she had no significant settlement to bring to their marriage?
“No. I’m tired of being a commodity, Graham, and I’m tired of boys who pretend to be men. That’s why I wrote to the Matheson Agency. I’m going to Wallace Flats, and I’m going to marry Trey McShannon. And if I’m not happy with him, I’ll go to Isobel James in New York and try to make a living from my art.”
Graham put on a pitying smile. Beth had long ago given up expecting anyone in the family to take her painting ‘hobby’ seriously, even though Aunt Abigail had continued to indulge her with lessons until Uncle Robert’s death. A lady needed something to fill her time.
“Your art? You really are living in a dream world. Well, you’re of age and what money you have is your own. I can’t stop you from doing as you wish, but don’t expect me to pick up the pieces when it all falls apart.”
“Understood. I’m leaving on Friday.”
Graham stalked out without replying. Legs suddenly shaky, Beth pulled out a chair and sat at the table, in the middle of the elegant dining room – the kind of room that could still be hers if she used her head instead of her heart and let Graham find her a husband.
Was she out of her mind? Or just desperate to escape the trap she’d felt closing around her since the end of the War Between the States, when she’d been officially put up for sale in the marriage market? She picked up Mr. McShannon’s last letter and read it again, though she knew every word by memory.
Dear Miss Underhill,
Thank you for explaining your position so honestly. I will be honest with you in return.
For the last four years I have been living outside of Wallace Flats, a day’s stage ride south of Denver. My homestead is ten miles from town. I built the house to meet my own requirements, which are simple, but it is weather-tight and clean. I have no idea if you are the kind of woman who could be content with a dirt floor, but if you are, you might find it comfortable enough.
My nearest neighbors are two miles away, and I go to town no more than twice a week. If you are very fond of social life you’ll find it dull here, but if you enjoy solitude, there is no lack of it. I find the countryside beautiful, but many find it bleak and of little interest.
What I can offer you is this: if you think you could be satisfied with my situation here, I will pay your way to Wallace Flats. I think a one-year trial period, as husband and wife in name only, would be wise. Next spring, if we decide we aren’t mutually suited, we can separate with no questions asked, and I will pay you a hundred dollars for your time. If this is agreeable to you, please let me know through the agency.
A straightforward business proposal. Wasn’t that more palatable than the offers Beth had received from the men Cousin Graham sent her way? Mr. McShannon’s proposition – a more accurate word than ‘proposal’, really – held just as much affection, and a lot more honesty.
Be grateful for that, Beth. It’s a rare commodity
. But a homesteader? She could hardly blame Graham for thinking her crazy.