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  Excert 1 of 2

The first encounter between the heroine Laura and the hero Michael does not go as either of them expected:

Starlight, Colorado, 1910

Laura shoved an escaping lock of hair back beneath the sweat-soaked band of her battered hat. The whole mass of silver-gilt was plastered to her head and rivers of perspiration ran down her face, dripping from her chin. She swore a most unladylike oath at the drunken teamster who had been unable to drive his load from the mine to town. Her mother would be appalled to hear such language. Even her father had learned to restrain the more colorful cursing of his youth to please his wife. But growing up around miners in Rhys Davies' employ, she had heard more than her share of swearing.

In fact, she was good at it.

Every stitch of clothing Laura wore itched. She was broiling in the heat as southwestern Colorado experienced one of the hottest days of summer. "And I'm driving this wagon because Willie's still puking his guts out back at the mine," she muttered with more oaths. Before she reached home, she had better practice curbing her tongue.

"Damn blasted miners and teamsters are a bad influence on a gal," she said with a grin. But in spite of dirt, heat and the danger of mine cave-ins, she loved running the family's silver empire. Let her brothers sit all clean and proper behind businessmen's' desks. What a boring life that must be!

Laura had known she was the apple of her father's eye because she had always bested her three rowdy brothers. After she grew up, she strove every day to prove herself worthy of his trust when he placed her in charge of the family's silver mines. He had always said she had more grit than anyone else.

The prosperous town bustled with people filling the sidewalks as she sat on the wheeler, or lead mule, a perch that allowed her to control the ten span team. They moved steadily down the wide street, heading for the train depot where the silver ore would be loaded onto rail cars headed for the smelter. Suddenly, she heard a loud snap and felt the lead lines attaching the wheeler to the mules behind him break.

She used her surprising strength, yanking on the break line. The leather snapped as well. Laura swore again. She could not control the wagon! A long heavy strip of leather dragged the ground. The brake line was tangled in the harness gear.

The team, startled by the loss of balance on one side picked up speed. "Blast Willie for not taking care to oil the leather," she ground out. She should have checked the lines more carefully before taking over the drive yesterday. Realizing the team could no longer be controlled by the lead mule or the brake line, she turned and began to stand on her heavy saddle, ready to jump to the next mule behind him. She would have to leap from one mule to another until she reached the wagon brake.

Laura steeled her nerve for her jump, knowing if she didn't do it successfully over five mules, she could be trampled beneath the hooves of the panicked animals. She had to reach those brakes!

Michael Jamison had gone riding outside town to gape at the splendor of the San Juan Mountains. Such magnificent wild country he had never imagined before he came west. Texas around Josh Cantrell's place was flat and unimpressive by comparison. His thoughts were interrupted by the sound of a huge freight wagon lumbering with increasing speed down the wide muddy street. It was obviously out of control. A mere boy stood up as if he would jump away from the coming catastrophe. He was obviously panicked.

"He could be hurt or killed," he muttered to himself as he raced toward the wagon. Leaning precariously off his saddle, he reached one long arm around the youth's thin waist and yanked him to safety on his horse. The "boy" screeched a string of amazing oaths and struggled to get free of his grip.

That was when he realized he had made a grave mistake. This was no boy but a woman dressed in men's filthy, baggy clothing! Her greasy old hat flew off her head and a long mass of pale hair cascaded down her back. She continued struggling, kicking at his leg and pounding on his chest and abdomen with small leather-encased fists as she swore.

Although an excellent horseman, Michael was thrown off balance by her shifting weight and the blows she reined on his stomach. One surprisingly hard punch knocked the wind from his body. He loosened his grip on her and she flew to the ground, landing in the muddy street.

Still cursing, the female teamster rolled quickly to her feet and raced after the wagon. The massive wooden frame tilted on two wheels now as one side of the team pulled ahead of the other. Realizing that she was closing on the wagon, which could crush her when it overturned, Michael spurred his stallion into a ground-eating pace.

The wagon tipped, spilling its massive load of ore across the road. The panicked mules broke free of the weight they had been pulling and raced down the street. Somehow, the female had grabbed a hold of the rear of the wagon at the last second before it overturned. She threw one long leg over the gate and hung on for dear life while an avalanche of rocks bounced and scattered across the street.

Now dusty and filthy, Laura waited it out as the rear gate offered what meager protection it could during the melee of flying ore. It slowly skidded to a stop and she jumped clear, enveloped in a cloud of dust. She saw the dude who had caused her plan to go awry riding up to her.

"Are you injured?" he inquired in an English accent.

"No thanks to you, you damnable, stump-stupid imbecile!" she railed as the dust cleared, depositing a generous amount of gray powder on her mud-covered body.

"I was attempting to save your life, miss."

"Save my life!" she echoed.

"You could've been trampled or crushed by that load," he snapped impatiently at the ungrateful creature. "I merely thought--"

"If you ever had a thought it would bust your skull wide open!"

Now he was getting as angry as the termagant. "You could've fallen!"

She snorted indelicately. "If you took a fall, you couldn't even hit the ground, Sir Lancelot!"

As they traded insults, and she cursed like the teamster she apparently was, Michael realized they were acquiring an audience of townsmen. No one appeared shocked by the female's colorful vocabulary. It was obvious she came from a very impoverished background.

Then a disturbing thought struck him. "I say, will your employer dismiss you for costing him money?" he asked, trying to oil the waters and escape the gaping bystanders.

She chuckled. "Not likely. He's my father."

"Miz Davies, you all right?" a second teamster in shabby jeans and a plaid shirt asked, worry etched on his creased and sun-blasted face.

Michael was thunderstruck. Davies? Rhys Davies was one of the richest men in Colorado and a personal friend of Josh Cantrell.

Excert 2 of 2

After their first encounter, Michael is in for an enormous surprise when he accepts Rhys Davies' invitation for dinner that very evening.

"So this is Dragon's Lair," Michael Jamison murmured as his driver pulled up in front of the Davies mansion set on a hill a half mile or so outside of town. It was quite impressive, three stories tall made with native rust and gold sandstone. Massive turrets and at each end of the huge structure seemed to be lookout towers to warn of invaders. Two fierce Welsh dragons guarded the front steps as if inspecting each visitor to determine friend or foe.

"Yessir, it is the biggest, fanciest house in southwest Colorado," his hackney driver said. "Mr. Davies used native stone but the builder come all the ways from Germany, or so I heerd tell."

Wide bow windows of stained glass reminded Michael of the huge cathedrals of Europe. Lush evergreens and whispering aspens, obviously native growth, were complimented by lavish flower beds. The lovely vegetation surrounded the mansion, softening it somehow.

Michael stepped down and adjusted his suit, brushing an imaginary spec from the expensive dark gray wool. Even without spending the last year in the American west, his skin was darkened by years lived south of the equator.

He instructed his driver to take his rig to the large stable set back from the mansion, then to go to the kitchen where the servants customarily ate dinner. He walked briskly up the massive stone steps to the porch and used the heavy brass door knocker to announce his presence.

A tall man with sun-streaked brown hair graying at the temples opened it, a glass in his hand, which winked with a ruby ring. His smile was wide and engaging as he gestured for Michael to enter, saying, "I saw your rig pulling up. You must be Josh Cantrell's friend Michael Jamison."

When his host offered his hand, Michael shook it and replied, "And you must be Rhys Davies. A pleasure, sir."

As the two men below exchanged pleasantries and Rhys offered his guest a drink of excellent whiskey, Laura and her mother argued about the daughter's dislike of formal ladies clothing that the fashionable Mrs. Davies so loved.

"But the new designs have straight, clean lines. Look, they even allow a lady to display her ankles and slippers, making it ever so easy to move."

"I don't like the feel of silk and all these sheer fabrics. It makes me feel like I'm parading around half dressed. She tugged at the low, rounded neckline of the stunning aqua gown.

"Nothing is showing that is the least improper," Tory remonstrated, taking her daughter by her arms and guiding her to the long oval mirror on the wall.

The young woman staring back at Laura was like a stranger, someone impersonating a proper female. How could she ever explain this to mama? She did admit the gown and slippers were beautiful--yes, that even she was beautiful in a fragile sort of way she did not like.

Sighing, she capitulated. Let's get this fancy dinner over. I have some shipment reports to tally and that new mining engineer's assay papers to go through." At her mother's look of admonition indicating what she would say about her demanding job, she swiftly changed the subject. "Just who is this dude from back east who's so all-fired important Daddy has to entertain him at home?"

Tory's beautiful face lit up with an amused smile as she replied, "You do recall from our last trip to Texas meeting Mr. Cantrell?" At Laura's confused nod, she said, "Well, this gentleman is a close friend of the earl's. I understand your father and Josh might be going into a cattle venture together."

At the mention of cattle, Laura's interest picked up. A Texas cattleman. Andrew's father Sug Kendrick had originally come from Texas. "Well, I've learned a few things about cattle from Andrew."

Tory smiled even though she did not especially like either the Wyoming cattle baron or his son, who were rough and crude and, she felt, were a bad influence on her daughter. "Excellent. You shall get along famously then, I'm certain!"

Michael and Rhys were standing in the double doorway between the immense foyer and the front parlor when the women descended the winding staircase. The Englishman had heard about Mrs. Davies, a famous beauty who had created a big scandal in Starlight when she married a Welsh immigrant. He had run a huge saloon when she took his eye. By the time he had won her hand, he was already the richest man in the region.

Michael felt certain he could charm Rhys' lady. The daughter was another matter, especially considering their first disastrous encounter that afternoon. He tried not to be nervous yet could not imagine how a woman of Victoria Davies' background could have such a termagant for a daughter.

An elegant slender woman with pale gold hair that had a bit of gray blended in walked down the stairs. She was truly a beauty with classic features. Her smile first alighted on her husband and the obvious love they shared was charged with enough wattage to light the whole town of Starlight as he moved toward her and took her hand at the foot of the stairs to present her to Michael.

Just as Michael was flashing his white smile and making a courtly bow for the lady, a second woman descended the steps. She, too, was a beauty with her mother's silver gilt hair piled in a stylish poof atop her head. Artful curls escaped from their confinement to frame her face, which was a blend from each of the handsome parents.

The instant Laura had heard the Englishman's voice, she knew it was him! That dreadful would-be knight to the rescue she had exchanged insults with that afternoon. She held back as her mother continued down the steps and greeted their guest. No help for it, she would just have to endure dinner table small talk, then let her father take him off to discuss business over cigars and brandy.

I will be polite...if it kills me!

When he caught sight of her, the wretched Limey looked as if he had been poleaxed. Laura smiled inwardly. When she was gussied up this way, men in town acted like fools, even if they were still afraid of her. She imagined this foreigner would be no different. What had he expected? That she would come downstairs to join her parents for dinner wearing denims and wielding a bullwhip!

Pasting a false smile on her lips, she approached them. As her father made introductions, she placed one delicate hand on his arm, then said, "We've already met, Papa, although I did not know his name at the time. Mr. Jamison was the one who caused my ore wagon to overturn on Washoe Street."

Such a dulcet tone...and such nerve. She was actually blaming him, damn her beautiful eyes! They were the same remarkable shade of turquoise as her mother's. He took her hand and bowed smartly over it. "My apologies, Miss Davies, but I believe you had already lost control of the wagon before I rescued you from a team of runaway mules."

Victoria blanched. "You didn't tell me something so dangerous had happened, Laura, only that a wagon had overturned and the shipment almost missed the train."

"I didn't want to worry you, Mama. It started because Willie McGiver was too sick to drive his load--and I was coming home anyway." She cast a venomous glance at Michael. "Besides, Willie never did learn how to take care of his harness leathers. One broke. I should've checked better but we were running late."

Rhys, placed an arm around his wife's slender shoulders and said soothingly, "Laura told me about the accident, love. No one was hurt, although, I do believe we owe our guest considerable gratitude for his timely intervention...something Laura omitted to mention," he added with a meaningful look at the young woman.

Michael saw her clench her small tanned fists, partially hidden in her slightly flared skirt. "I merely grabbed her from the seat of a mule as she was leaping--"

"I was going for the brake--and I would've made it, too, if he hadn't grabbed me before I could make the last jump," she said, glaring at the accursed Englishman.

"Perhaps we had best adjourn to the parlor and I'll ring for wine and appetizers," Victoria said smoothly, moving between her spitting-mad daughter and their guest before the entire evening was in shambles.

Rhys led her into the capacious room furnished with elegant pale rose velvet settees and chairs that matched the rose pattern in the wallpaper. It was as understated and elegant as any fine drawing room in England that Michael had ever seen, and as the second son of an earl, he had seen a surfeit of magnificent homes.

As a servant brought a silver tray laden with small meat-filled pastries, Rhys poured from a chilled bottle of white wine and handed his wife and daughter each a stem. Raising his glass of whisky in a toast, he said, "To Mr. Jamison.

Mrs. Davies did likewise and after a heated look from her father, Laura grudgingly followed suit.

Michael could see that this was galling the spoiled hellion, but he had business to transact for his old friend Josh, now Earl of Hambleton. He smiled and made a slight bow, accepting the toast and drinking from his glass of the excellent whiskey. He knew Laura Davies wished it was laced with strychnine.

As they were seated around a beautiful redwood tea table, they sampled the sumptuous bits of beef sliced paper thin and piled on small crusty pieces of French bread. "This is superb beef. Is it local?" he inquired, using the opening to direct the conversation away from Laura's heated looks.

"It's from the largest ranch in Wyoming. My fiancée is the heir," she replied.

If he lives in Wyoming, it's the only way you'd be able to maintain a relationship. Michael usually charmed women of all ages and backgrounds, but he had never encountered one like this. How could the filthy foul-mouthed teamster of this afternoon morph into such a bloody beautiful woman? Her mother must be the reason. Judging by what he had gleaned from local gossip, her mother had taken a brash young Welsh immigrant and turned him into a respectable gentleman, just as Sabrina had done for Josh when he came to England.

"Now, Laura, you know you and Andrew have not yet announced a formal betrothal," Mrs. Davies said gently.

Laura understood her parents had their doubts about the Kendricks family, so she bit her tongue. Arguing in front of that British braggart would only give him satisfaction.

"Perhaps the senior Mr. Kendrick would be interested in the kind of livestock improvements I'm representing from Josh Cantrell," Michael said to Rhys. "With your backing, the largest cattle ranchers might purchase breeding bulls and new hybrid cattle that Josh has developed. Josh understands that vast open range country to the north is in need of superior stock."

"As a matter of fact, yes, I know Kendrick and many other Colorado and Wyoming cattle barons suffered huge losses during the bitter winters late last century. If Josh has bred a new tougher strain, I imagine they'd be open to making a deal," Rhys replied. "And my bank would certainly be interested in Josh's terms."

"This is a unique blend of tough Texas longhorns and English Herefords, newer and better than any stock currently on the market, which is sadly depleted."

"If Josh believes his beeves could survive in Wyoming and Montana when the mixed breeds died off before, I'm willing to make loans to Kendrick and others--with proper collateral," he added with a shrewd grin.

Just then, the Davies butler announced dinner.

Rhys offered his lady his arm and Michael was obliged to offer his to Laura. As they followed her parents into the formal dining room, he whispered to her, "Progress. You haven't bitten my fingers off...yet."

Her hand clamped on his arm with the strength of a woman used to handling heavy rigs of mules. "Why would I start with mere fingers when I could just rip your whole bloody arm off?" she whispered in reply.

Ignoring the very impolite English oath, he smiled as he seated her. "Touché. I stand warned."

Laura wished he did not have such an amazing smile. He was as darkly tanned as any range rider she had ever seen. His straight black hair framed a thin chiseled nose and his eyebrows arched above deep blue eyes, as striking as her father's eyes, although that was where the resemblance ended. This man was almost...pretty, she thought pettishly. One of those inbred English dandies, yes, that was what he was.

"Do you have a title of some sort?" she asked as he took his seat across from her.

She was waiting to pounce. Michael knew it as the first course of rich consommé was served. Raising his spoon, he replied, "No, my eldest brother inherited. I have been making my own way for many years."

"Doing what?" she inquired in that damnable dulcet tone.

Spying. "I worked for his majesty's government in the foreign service, which is where I became friends with Josh Cantrell. Now I am retired."

"Awfully young to be doing nothing. Does your titled family support you now?"

"Laura, really, that is a rude question," her mother said with a warning look in her eyes.

Odd, but when irritated with her recalcitrant offspring, the gracious lady's turquoise eyes could shoot that same dangerous spark, Michael mused.

Realizing that Laura was about to rejoin her battle with their guest and upset her mother, Rhys said, "I'm certain Mr. Jamison's income is not the reason he's come to Colorado. He's simply doing a favor for our mutual friend Josh. We'll discuss the details of a deal in the cattle business after dinner."

Laura knew that when her father's facial expression matched her mother's she had best behave...if she were wise.

Michael wanted to defuse the awkward situation, so he interjected, "My income is no mystery. I have a government pension for my service abroad. When Josh offered me the opportunity to come to these magnificent mountains, how could I resist?"

"How indeed," Laura said beneath her breath, but her father interjected a reminiscence of his first trip out west after growing to his majority in New York City. The conversation moved on to various innocuous topics that gave Laura no further openings for rejoining the battle with Michael.

The Englishman noted how attuned the termagant's parents were to each other's non-verbal queues. It was obvious to him that they had a love match much like his grandparents and parents. He pitied this Kendrick fellow if the cattleman was actually foolish enough to marry Laura Davies.

For her part, Tory watched the way her daughter and their charming guest kept slipping unwilling glances across the table. The Englishman was not only polished and charming, but also incredibly handsome. If only a bit of that would influence Laura's behavior. Tory sensed that there was an almost unwilling attraction between them. Just like Rhys and me from our first meeting.

Sadly, she doubted if anyone in Colorado or Wyoming would wed a woman with Laura's reputation except Andrew Kendrick. Neither she nor Rhys trusted his motives. For all she could dress and act like a lady when it suited her, Laura far preferred the hard, dirty and dangerous work running the family silver mining operations. Still, there was a tiny thread of hope when Michael again studied Laura when she looked away.

Damn, how can she morph from that filthy, foul-mouthed teamster to this incredible beauty? Michael simply could not get over the change. The wriggling body he had felt beneath her sweaty shirt and heavy denims was now revealed in full feminine splendor. She filled out the sheer silk gown in all the right places. Her hair gleamed like the silver and gold from Colorado mines, softly framing an amazing face. How could a female with such delicate features utter the ghastly oaths he had heard her lush lips speak? Perhaps this was a mystery worth pursuing...or not--if he were wise.


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