Wyoming Territory ~ Summer 1884
This couldn’t be happening. Not unless he’d stumbled into one of those silly romance novels his aunt used to read.
Nolan Key had only read the one that summer he’d lost his leg, but what else could explain the ridiculous stipulation in his father’s will? How could the town’s interim lawyer have rattled off those sentences as if they’d made sense?
Yet he’d gone and thanked Mr. Wright like an imbecile, taken his leave, and stared at the building across the street for who knew how long until his brain finally kicked in.
He had to find the lawyer again. Surely he’d misunderstood the terms.
As Nolan rushed past Doctor Ellis’s office, he was glad to see the old man wasn’t on his porch. Doc likely would’ve hollered at him, reminding him for the hundredth time he wasn’t supposed to run, hop, skip, or jump with too much vigor, lest he rub his stump raw in his artificial leg.
But then, the doctor hadn’t been the one who’d just received such preposterous news.
Perhaps Dad had once read a whole stack of Aunt Edith’s dime novels, for where else would he have gotten such an absurd idea? To keep the ranch from his only son just because he wasn’t married? And to leave it instead to his nephew Matt?
If only Matt’s younger brother were still alive and could have inherited. Though Lionel hadn’t had any Key blood in his veins, he would’ve realized he had no business running a ranch and would’ve handed it straight back to Nolan.
Matt, however, was another story.
Why had his father let him work his tail off to prove he could handle the place if he’d never planned to give it to him? It would’ve been better if he’d just shipped him off to live with his mother when she’d been alive.
Upon seeing the lawyer walking into the laundry, Nolan rushed around a group of ladies and doubled his limping tromp. “Mr. Wright!”
The dark-haired young man didn’t appear to have heard him and stepped inside.
Eric Wright had to be intelligent considering he’d obtained his law degree at such a young age, but he’d surely misunderstood what the last lawyer had written in his father’s will. No man should lose his livelihood because his dead father decided he ought to be married. Perhaps Dad’s brain had been addled at the end of his life and no one had realized.
Nolan shoved his way through the laundry door. The bell announcing his presence barely registered as he worked to catch his breath.
“Mr. Wright,” he breathed heavily. “I need you to explain my father’s will.”
Eric turned from the empty counter and frowned. “I’m sorry, I thought I had.”
“But you said if I didn’t get married in three months, my cousin gets the ranch.”
“But that’s ridiculous.”
The young man’s expression was sympathetic, but he only stood there watching Nolan gulp air.
He pressed a hand against the stitch in his side. If Dad’s posthumous demands hadn’t befuddled his brain, he would’ve ridden his horse instead of running halfway across town. “My father must have been suffering from dementia—either that, or the last lawyer was crazy. Who’d include such a thing in a will?”
“Someone who really wanted you to get married?”
Nolan tried not to scowl. How many times had he told his father he’d never marry, and Dad had told him, “never say never?”
“Do you have witnesses who’d attest to his not being of sound mind? Without that, the last lawyer drew up the paperwork believing he was. Therefore, the will is valid.”
Nolan pulled at the front of his shirt and swiped at his clammy skin. He could probably scrounge up a few people who’d say his father was cantankerous, but not loony.
“Here you are, Mr. Wright.” The laundress, Miss Stillwater, walked in from the backroom. The tight lines around her mouth didn’t match her cheery tone. “I’m sorry it took me so long to wrap, I just—” She stopped and winced.
Had she hurt herself?
She smiled wider, but not brighter, and pushed the twine-encased package forward. One damp blond curl clung to her cheek.
Maybe it truly was hot in here, and not just because he’d hobble-run across town.
“I’m grateful for your business, Mr. Wright.”
“No problem, Miss Stillwater. Thank you.” Eric began pulling change out of his pocket and turned to Nolan. “I’m afraid if you don’t have a legitimate case against your father’s sanity, we’ll have to follow his wishes.”
“But I can’t.” Nolan shook his head, as if doing so could make this situation go away. “It’d be like admitting this made sense.”
He turned to Miss Stillwater and patted her well-oiled countertop. Surely he could get Eric to see how absurd the will’s terms were. “Miss Stillwater, do you read those dime novels the mercantile sells?”
“Um, no.” She gave him a strange look. Her blue eyes appeared weary, but there was a sparkle in them.
“Why not? Because you find them ridiculous? Contrived? Their plots nothing like real life?”
“I simply don’t have the time, Mr. Key.”
“I should’ve known you’d not waste hours on drivel. You are one of the more sensible women in town.” He turned back to Eric. “But surely you see how completely bizarre his stipulations are? A novel’s mustache-twirling villain would be the kind to force his son into this, not a sane, flesh-and-blood man.”
Eric pushed a small stack of coins toward the laundress and picked up his package. “Actually, I’d think the twirling-mustache kind of villain would do much worse. I’ve read a dime novel or two.” He headed for the door and held it open for Nolan to pass through.
Nolan frowned at having the door held open for him. Long ago, he’d given up informing people a wooden leg didn’t stop him from using his arms, so he stepped through without a fuss.
Eric let the door slam behind them.
“All right, fine. My father evidently wanted to leave earth in a wake of drama, but that doesn’t mean I have to participate. How can I save my ranch without going through wedded nonsense?”
Eric stopped on the porch’s edge and rubbed at the hint of beard growing along his jaw. “You could ask your cousin to relinquish his claim.”
And that was even less likely to happen outside of a dime novel than the current predicament he was in.
“I’ll let you know if I think of anything, Mr. Key.” Eric tipped his hat and headed west, likely toward the McGill mansion on the outskirts of town where his friend lived.
Nolan dropped his hands to his sides and looked up at the clouds looming over the dusky blue mountain ridge surrounding town.
God, I’m nowhere near as godly as Job, so my questioning you about this won’t come as a surprise, right?
You got me through the loss of my mother and my leg, but how am I going to survive without my ranch?
Corinne counted the change in her cash box, as if the young lawyer’s coins might have magically multiplied and she’d find more money. But unfortunately, there was barely more there than before. Glancing out the window, she could see Mr. Key standing outside, face upturned toward the chaotic, cloud-filled sky hanging heavy over the ridge.
What had all that fuss been about with Mr. Wright? Mr. Key had always been the quiet type, his father, too. She couldn’t recall the elder Mr. Key speaking a word to her beyond asking what they owed, and she’d certainly had never seen the younger so animated.
Earlier, he’d been sweaty, and his eyes wide and round, flinging his hands around as if he were rearing up like a spooked horse.
Mr. Key’s father had never given her the impression of being a soft-hearted man, but what could he have done to make his son think him a villain?
She rubbed at the space between her thumb and forefinger where it’d been throbbing since she’d awakened. Though the younger Mr. Key had been nice to her the two years she’d lived here, he’d never complimented her—and she’d been glad he hadn’t. Though having a man call her sensible was likely the best compliment she’d ever received.
But the cherry on top was that his compliment hadn’t been followed by a request for her to consider his court.
If men weren’t ignoring her because her position in town wasn’t much higher than a servant’s, they seemed to believe she’d bow down at their feet, thankful they’d offered her an escape from laundry in exchange for a lifetime of arduous work by their side.
Of course, most of the men doing the asking were either ancient, toothless, or made her skin crawl.
Now, if one of them had been of Nolan’s caliber … He wasn’t particularly striking, but he did have a decent face upon broad shoulders.
No, what was she thinking? Corinne shook her head and placed the cash box back under the counter. He’d called her sensible, and she needed to be so. She was no dime novel heroine who did ridiculous things to capture a man’s attention.
Not because she hadn’t been that way before. Oh no, she’d been plenty naïve years ago, undone by charm and seduced by the promise of security.
She scooped up a solitary stocking sticking out from beneath the counter and stood. Now whose was this?
Mrs. Tate bustled in. “Miss Stillwater, you must take care of my tablecloth at once. The Ivenses have agreed to come to supper, and look what I’ve found.” She heaved a wad of fine silk fabric onto the counter and pointed to a smattering of grease stains.
Despite the numbness in her fingers, Corinne pulled the fabric closer and spread it out for inspection. “I have several jobs in front of you. I don’t think I can get to it until—”
“But they’re coming tonight! You have to get this done right away.” Though the woman was on the heavy side, her nose was thin and she was adept at looking down it.
“Did I tell you it was the Ivenses?”
“Yes, you did.” Now that the McGill family was practically disgraced, the Ivens family was not only the richest in Armelle, but also the most important.
“I’m sorry, I can’t—”
“I’ll pay you triple.”
How could she pass up that offer? Even if she did have to work past closing time.
All she’d wanted to do since waking this morning was return to bed. Though her hands would likely continue to ache, she couldn’t let go of the hope that one day, sleep would once again be a respite from pain. Despite the warmth rushing to her eyes, Corinne nodded.
“Thank you, Miss Stillwater. I’ll put in a good word for you.” And Mrs. Tate left.
Where was the old woman planning to put in a good word for her? Or did that just mean she’d refrain from tittle-tattle and say a kind thing or two about her for the next few weeks?
Corinne gathered up the tablecloth and forced herself not to drag her feet on the way back to the washbasins.
If only being a damsel in distress—and having a hero sweep in and save her—were a sensible plan.
But it wasn’t, so she must rescue herself. She’d done it before; she’d do it again. Though it would be nice to be carried off to some castle and be waited upon by servants. A shame she hadn’t the time to read any of those dime novels and pretend for half an hour each night such a possibility existed.
Romantic, charming heroes, however, could not be trusted.
She dropped Mrs. Tate’s tablecloth onto her worktable and took up her special mix of chemicals and rubbed it into the stains, noting how low her canisters of caustic soda and powdered limestone were.
Even if she could find the time to read, she’d not waste her money on a novel. She needed more chemicals. A pregnant friend of hers was breaking out in a rash when doing her own laundry, and every soap on the mercantile shelf caused a reaction. Corinne had yet to figure out a mixture that would clean well and not irritate her friend.
Women didn’t need knights to swoop in to save them—if any could. Their real hope lay in inventions that would cut down, if not eradicate, the backbreaking work required to survive. Then they’d all have time to read as many outlandish dime novels as they wished.
After pretreating Mrs. Tate’s tablecloth, Corinne sat to allow her hands a rest. She reread the advertisement she’d clipped from the newspaper yesterday for a special set of irons.
Would she ever be able to do what this woman had—or at least before someone else beat her to it? She glanced over at the washing dollies she’d built and abandoned, for none had worked better than the one she’d bought from the Montgomery Ward catalog. Her thoughts for a special iron had not made it past ideas on a page. Before she’d had time to make a prototype, this Mrs. Potts had invented and was selling something even better than she’d dreamed up. Two of the irons in the set could be heated while the other was being used, all double pointed, so they could iron both ways. Plus, they retained their heat longer than average if the advertisement was to be believed.
With enough timesaving inventions like this, maybe one day, the life of a laundress wouldn’t be such a pitiable position.
Flexing her stiff fingers, Corinne pulled the small vat of lace she’d started soaking closer, and her heart skipped a beat. Had she gotten the stain out?
She wrung the water from the fabric then hurried to the window to inspect the fancy needlework in the sunlight. Were the rust stains gone? After inspecting one side, she glanced at the other. Her grin grew until she pulled on the lace and noticed the weakened threadwork.
Her eyes slammed shut and her shoulders sagged. So close, but she couldn’t sell a stain remover that ate through fabric.
She trudged over to the washboard and started working despite the nerves that ran from her fingers to her elbows protesting vehemently.
The only kind of knight she could be tempted to daydream about was one who ordered his squires to wash Mrs. Tate’s tablecloth for her. And since that would never happen, laundry, for the time being, would be as painful and drudgery-filled as it had always been.