When Rose McKinney learns of the death of her father, she leaves St. Louis and her life at the Purple Moon, one of the best cathouses in the city, and moves to the ranch she has inherited. What she doesn't expect is the men here need a boss more than a whore. When Cameron Blake arrives on her ranch run by Darius McKinney, he knows he's found a home for him and for his son, Josh. What he never saw coming was someone murdering his boss and now he would be the one dealing with the beautiful Rose McKinney.
Release Date: August 7, 2014
Genre: Historical Romance
St Louis, Missouri — 1882
The incessant knocking on her bedroom door brought Rose McKinney from a sound sleep. It had been late when her last customer left the night before and in no way did she want to get out of bed. She pulled on her wrapper to cover her nakedness and hurried to answer the door.
“What do you want?” she said before she recognized her boss, Madam Celeste Devereaux.
“Get dressed, Rose. There’s a lawyer here to see you.”
“Tell him to come back tonight. I don’t do anyone in the mornings, you ought to know that Celeste.”
The older woman smiled. “This one isn’t a customer. He’s here on behalf of your father.”
Rose felt like the floor had been pulled out from beneath her feet. All her life she’d heard the story of how Darius McKinney came looking for her mother on the night she was born, but he’d been too late. Josie Sullivan was already dead when he arrived. Since then he’d sent money several times a year to leave her with a substantial bank account. Letters had come with the money always asking her to come to his ranch in Montana. She certainly didn’t want to go west. Life wasn’t perfect here, but she couldn’t fathom fighting Indians, and living on a cattle ranch didn’t sound much better.
“Now get your tail dressed and downstairs,” Celeste ordered when Rose made no reply.
Rose didn’t take time to do more than wash up, put on some makeup, and don a day dress before going to the parlor. The lawyer sitting there was one who graced her bed more than once over the years.
“It’s good to see you again, Rose,” Thaddeus Waldman said when she entered the room. He got to his feet and kissed her hand in greeting. “I’m sorry to bring you bad news, but your father has been murdered, leaving you his ranch, the Rocking M. The will says you must go to Montana to claim your inheritance.”
“Can’t you just sell the damn thing and bring me the money?” she said. With the sale of the ranch, she could easily meet the price Celeste was asking for the Purple Moon.
“I’m sorry, but that isn’t an option. The will is very specific about the fact you must live on the ranch for at least a year before you can sell it.”
Rose looked around the parlor. This was the only home she’d ever known. Celeste had raised her since birth. She had also handled the money Darius McKinney sent with great regularity. How could she leave here to go to the wilds of Montana?
“This is a good opportunity for you, my dear,” Celeste said. “You need to find out if this is something you might like.”
“How could I like living anywhere but here?” she protested.
“You won’t ever know unless you try. I can’t say I won’t miss you. I feel as though I’m your mother, but as such I think this is an opportunity you need to take.”
Rose knew Celeste was right, but it was hard for her to accept she would be leaving St. Louis behind.
* * * *
Cameron Blake looked out across the ranch he called home. So much had happened in the past few weeks, he wondered if he’d still be welcome here by the end of the year.
He’d left Nebraska ten years ago after his wife died in childbirth leaving him with a three-year-old son to raise on his own. In the blink of an eye, he’d lost his beloved Martha as well as the daughter who would have been their second child.
Cameron worked for Martha’s father and against his wishes, married his daughter. On the day after the funeral, Martha’s father, Cornelius Slade, started legal proceedings to take Cameron’s son, Joshua, away from him. As soon as he heard the news, he took Joshua and left Nebraska. The first thing he did was to change their names and disappear.
After three years of drifting, he’d finally found a place to put down roots when he arrived at the Rocking M ranch located close to the Canadian border. From his friends and family back home he heard his former father-in-law hadn’t given up his search for Joshua, but Cam felt he was safe here.
His boss, Darius McKinney, took the two of them in and treated them like family. He’d taken a liking to Joshua, treating him more like a favored nephew than the child of one of his hands.
Just weeks ago Cam found Darius on the north range. They’d been losing a lot of cattle and each man on the ranch took turns riding nighthawk. It had been early morning when Cameron went to relieve his boss and found the lifeless body, along with at least twenty head of cattle missing.
Within hours of Darius’ funeral, a lawyer came out from town to tell the hands the ranch had been left to Darius’ daughter, Rose, and she would be arriving to take over the running of the ranch within weeks.
The announcement sent a shock wave through the hands causing several of them to quit rather than work for a pesky woman. Being short-handed Cameron put Josh in the saddle with the men. He had no idea what would happen when school started again in the fall. He refused to cheat his son out of an education just because the Rocking M was short handed. With any luck, the new owner would insist on a new foreman and he could find a more suitable job to support Josh.
“Pa, Pa, you gotta come quick,” Josh shouted as he reined his horse to a halt in front of his father.
“Slow down, son, what’s wrong?”
“Ned and I were on our way to help Dave when we found him shot. Ned stayed with him and sent me back to get you and the wagon so we can get him back here. He ain’t dead, but he’s bad off.”
Before Cam could answer his son, a cloud of dust indicated a wagon was on the way into the dooryard. “This has to be the new owner. You go and hitch up the wagon, and I’ll stick around here long enough to meet her then come down to the corral and ride out with you.”
Josh nodded and rode toward the barn where the wagon would be hitched and waiting for Cam to join him.
* * * *
Rose expected someone to meet her at the railhead with a carriage, but when no one was there, she inquired about getting to the Rocking M. To her dismay, the only transportation she could arrange was a buckboard. After the two and a half hour ride, she concluded, these people had never heard about springs on wagons. If she didn’t know better, she would have accused the driver of hitting every hole and rock along the road on purpose.
“I’m sure this ain’t what you’re used to, ma’am,” the man said as he leaned over the side of the wagon to spit a stream of tobacco juice to the ground.
“No, it’s not, and it’s Miss and not ma’am.”
“I didn’t know. I figured no one your age would be unmarried. Guess girls do things earlier out here than they do in the big city.”
Inwardly, Rose groaned. The last thing she wanted was to be married. She enjoyed the attentions of the men who came to the Purple Moon. As soon as she could dump this ranch she’d inherited on some unsuspecting slob, she would return to St. Louis and buy Celeste out.
The road leading to the ranch was long and dusty. All the way, she fretted about what the dust was doing to the dress she’d chosen to wear today. She’d hoped to make a good enough impression on the men who worked for her that by nightfall she’d have one of them in her bed. With luck, she could charm one of them enough to talk him into buying this ranch so she could get back to the only life she knew.
She didn’t know what she expected, but it certainly wasn’t the sprawling ranch house that seemed to appear out of nowhere once they crested a hill. It looked well kept and in the dooryard was a man waiting for her. As they pulled up to where he stood, she studied his face. He couldn’t be much over thirty and was ruggedly handsome. His brown hair was neatly trimmed, and he was clean-shaven. She liked that in a man.
“You must be Miss McKinney,” he said, extending his hand to help her down from the wagon. “I’m your foreman, Cameron Blake, but most folks call me Cam. I’d like to stay and help you get your things into the house, but I need to ride out. There’s a problem out on the north range. Once you’re settled, you’ll realize the ranch comes first. The house has been cleaned out for you.”
He turned his attention to the driver of the wagon. “Can you help Miss McKinney get her things inside, Pete?’
“Sure thing, Cam. You mentioned the north range, you ain’t having more trouble with rustlers are you?”
“I’m afraid we are. I’m on my way there now to bring Dave in. Can you send the doc out here when you get back to town? I just sent Josh down to hitch up the buckboard to bring Dave here. He was with Ned when they found Dave shot.”
“You got Josh riding with the men? What are you thinking? He’s hardly more than a kid?”
“I don’t have much choice in the matter. We’ve lost more hands than I like to think of in the past few weeks. Guess everyone’s edgy since Darius got himself shot. After this, they’ll probably be leaving in droves.”
Rose watched as Cam turned from them to make his way to the barn. “What in the hell have I got myself into?” she muttered, more to herself than anyone else.
“There’s been a pack of trouble out here ever since Darius was killed. Your pa was one of the best, but folks are worried. More and more ranchers are losing cattle, and the ones riding nighthawk are getting shot and even killed for their efforts.”
“Then how can I get rid of this place?” she demanded. “I don’t intend to get myself killed.”
The man spit tobacco juice onto the ground. “Ain’t likely to happen anytime soon. Until these rustlers are caught, you won’t be able to give this place away. No one in his right mind wants to take on something like this. It just ain’t right what’s going on, but no one seems to be able to do anything about it.”
She looked one last time at the man who was climbing onto the wagon, along with the young man who must be Josh. This was going to be an interesting place to live, at least until the rustlers could be caught and she could sell out.
“According to the will, you have to stay one year,” Thaddeus had said.
A year seemed like a lifetime, but she needed the money the sale of this ranch would bring her. Somehow, she’d make it. It would give her plenty of time to get to know the men in this area and find out which one would be willing to buy the ranch.
Turning back to the house, she noticed Pete staring at her cleavage like a hungry kid looking at the jars of candy in the store. “I get five dollars for two hours,” she said in her sweetest voice.
Pete turned six shades of red. “Oh no, Miss McKinney. I ain’t interested in anything like that. My wife would have my hide. She don’t even like me going down to the saloon for a drink ‘cause of the women there.”
Never in her life had she been as ashamed of her actions as she was now. She’d lived in a house where men were part of her livelihood. She hadn’t ever considered what she did was wrong. Just the look on this man’s face told her he considered her dirty, and it wasn’t just because of the dust on her clothes.
Tears stung her eyes as she made her way into the house behind Pete. Inside, she was pleasantly surprised. The big living room was clean and dominated by heavy leather furniture that screamed the man who lived here had not had a woman in his life. Could it be he really loved her mother? If so, why weren’t they together? Celeste only said he appeared out of nowhere on the day she was born and left within hours of her mother’s death.
All her life, she viewed men as playthings, people who came to her to get away from the stress of their lives and not to be depended on. Were things different here? She doubted it, but Pete’s reaction to her earlier suggestion told her perhaps men lived by different standards in this backwoods wilderness than those she knew in St. Louis.
She thought of the man Cam going to the north range to bring back a man. If he were injured badly, the doctor would need hot water to clean the wound. After starting the stove, she brought in water from the well and put it on to heat. It would certainly be hot by the time any of them got here.
* * * *
“Was that the new owner, Pa?” Josh said as Cam climbed onto the seat of the wagon.
“Yes, it was. I don’t have a good feeling about this.”
“We ain’t gonna leave here, are we?”
“The word is ‘aren’t,’ Josh. You know better than that. To answer your question, I don’t know. I don’t want you going up to the house like you did when Darius was here. This woman isn’t the kind of person I want you around.”
Josh’s expression was one of puzzlement, but Cam didn’t expand on his opinion of his new boss. How could he tell his thirteen-year-old son that Darius’ daughter was little more than a whore? He’d never seen a more outrageous dress on a woman before. If she sneezed, her breasts would pop out of the low cut bodice of her dress. Just seeing her, told him it was time to move on, but at what cost to Josh?
“But why, Pa? Iffn she’s the owner, ain’t we supposed to be talkin’ to her about things on the ranch?”
Cam didn’t even try to correct his son’s choice of words. There’d be time for that later. Now they had to get out to the north range.
“I have to deal with her, but you have no business with a woman like her. It won’t be long before she decides she doesn’t want us working here anymore. When that happens, we’ll move on.”
“But I like it here, Pa.”
“I do too, but I don’t know if we’ll be able to stay. It just depends on how much she’ll be sticking her nose in our affairs. Right now, we have to worry about getting Dave back to the ranch. I told Pete to send the doc out here when he gets back to town.”
Cam was relieved when Josh didn’t ask a million questions that all started with why. His son was growing up and uprooting him now wasn’t something he relished doing, but he certainly didn’t want him around Miss Rose McKinney.
In the distance, he could see Ned’s horse. Scanning farther across the expanse of grass, he saw Ned kneeling next to a prone form that could only be Dave. He whipped the horses to a gallop and drove toward the two hands that remained loyal to the Rocking M.
“How’s he doing?” Cam said once he jumped down from the seat of the wagon.
“He’ll make it, but he won’t be much help for quite a while. I thought you’d be sending Josh in for the doc.”
“I didn’t have to. Pete brought out the new owner. I asked him to take her belongings into the house and then send out the doc.”
“The new owner is here? What’s she like?”
Cam shot Ned a look that said Rose McKinney was someone he didn’t want to discuss in front of his son. “She’s a woman, that’s for sure. I’ll let you draw your own conclusions. Now, help me get Dave into the wagon. You get in first, Josh, and you can hold his head, keep him from moving around too much on the ride back to the ranch.”
Josh nodded and hurried to get into the wagon so he’d be ready when his father and Ned lifted Dave’s lifeless looking body into the bed of the wagon.
Cam smiled at his son for remembering to put in blankets. He’d seen other gunshot victims and knew once they started coming out of the shock, they usually got the shakes. It would be best if they were able to keep him warm as well as secure.
As carefully as he could, Cam lifted Dave by his shoulders, while Ned took his feet. Once they had him in the wagon, Josh pillowed Dave’s head in his lap while Cam tucked the blankets around his friend’s body.
“It’s best if you ride back here with the boy, boss. I’ll tie my horse on behind the wagon so I can drive. I’ll try to give you as smooth a ride as possible.”
Cam appreciated Ned’s offer. He was worried about the wound Dave sustained. He’d seen men shot before and knew Ned’s words of encouragement were more for Josh’s sake than for his. If they got him back to the ranch alive, it would be a miracle. He could only pray the doc would be there when they arrived so he could tend to Dave’s injuries and give him a fighting chance of making it.
* * * *
As soon as Rose finished in the kitchen, she searched through the trunk Pete took into the bedroom just off the living room. She needed to find a less revealing dress than the one she wore. She hated the expression of disgust on Cam’s face when he looked at her. He saw her as a soiled dove as others referred to women like her.
When Celeste first learned Rose was going to the ranch, she’d tried to tell her the clothing she’d packed wasn’t suitable. Instead, Celeste had taken out half the clothes Rose had packed and added things she deemed proper for her new life as the owner of the Rocking M. Now, all Rose had to do was find them and see how well they fit.
In the trunk, she found a dress with a high neckline that made her look as pure as driven snow. She also found other dresses along with britches and shirts she could wear when she went riding.
As a child, Celeste insisted Rose learn to ride both sidesaddle like a proper lady and astride. Her riding instructor told her the astride part made her look more like a wild Indian than a proper lady.
Rose laughed at the memory. If the man who taught her to ride knew the life she’d lived for so long, he wouldn’t call her a proper lady. While she had the education her father financed over the years, she also received an education living and working at the Purple Moon.
She’d often heard the other girls talking about getting out of the business and leading respectable lives, but they were never able to do it. Things were different for her. She now had the chance, but did she really want it? She longed for the life she’d led in St. Louis, not the one she would be living on a ranch in the middle of nowhere. Unfortunately, the terms of her father’s will required she stay at least a year before she could consider selling the ranch. If that were to be the case, she would have to learn to be the respectable lady for which her father bought and paid.
She just finished changing her clothes when she heard a commotion outside the house. When she went to investigate, she saw the buckboard Cam took to the north range earlier pull into the yard outside the front door of the house.
Earlier he said the men who killed her father weeks before had wounded a man. She needed to see if there was anything she could do.
“How bad is it?” she said, as soon as she stepped out onto the porch.
“Bad enough that the doc better get here soon or we’re going to lose him,” Cam replied.
“Bring him in the house. There’s a second bedroom. You can put him there. I’ll see what I can do until the doctor gets here.”
Cam looked at her as though she was a poisonous snake waiting to bite the wounded man. “Just what the hell would someone like you know about taking care of a wounded man?”
“Probably more than you do. Just bring him in here and let me see what I can do. What do you have to lose? The doctor will be here soon, but at least I can make him comfortable and check the severity of the wound.”
She knew Cam was still skeptical, but the boy with him as well as the man who drove the wagon finally convinced him to do as she said. While they got the man out of the back of the wagon, she went into the house and pulled down the covers on the bed in the second bedroom.
* * * *
“Damn woman,” Cam muttered, half under his breath.
“She don’t look so bad to me, Pa,” Josh said as he trailed along behind his father and Ned.
“Don’t let her fool you. I know what kind of a woman she is, and I don’t want you anywhere near her. She’s not as respectable as her pa thought she was. Skunks don’t change, and they can’t wash the stink off themselves no matter how hard they try.”
As soon as they entered the downstairs bedroom, he realized Rose wasn’t there. Just like a woman to make claims she couldn’t complete. She probably got one look at all that blood and bolted like a scared calf.
“Can the two of you take off his shirt so I can see to his wound?”
Cam turned to see Rose enter the room, an apron tied around her waist and a pan of steaming water in her hands. Without saying anything, he helped Ned peel off Dave’s shirt. With that done, he stepped back.
To his surprise, Rose sat down on the bed and started checking the wound. “It went in here,” she said, as she laid a cloth soaked in the hot water on his chest. “Thank goodness it wasn’t a few inches to the left or it might have gotten his heart. I could see from his shirt it didn’t exit. That means it’s still in him. I’ll clean the wound as best I can. Then it’s up to the doctor to get it out of him. I’ve taken care of wounded men, but I’ve never done any cutting on them. I leave that to the professionals.”
Cam was shocked as Rose took charge of the situation. From the way she carefully cleansed the wound in Dave’s chest, it was evident she done this kind of thing before. She probably had to tend to some man who got out of line with one of the whores with whom she worked and got himself shot for his efforts. There was no other explanation.
Seeing the ugliness of the wound on Dave’s chest made Cam sick to his stomach. What she said about it being where it was made sense. At least it didn’t hit his heart. There was a chance he could make it if the doc got here soon. Otherwise, it was anyone’s guess.
* * * *
Rose wanted to cry at the sight of the injury to Dave’s chest. It was bad. She hoped the doctor would be able to extract the bullet without doing further damage.
Before she could do anything other than clean the wound, Doctor Myers arrived and took over the care of the man.
“You must be Rose McKinney,” Dr. Myers said, acknowledging her for the first time. “I’ve known about you for as long as I’ve known Darius. It’s a pleasure to get to meet you. I saw you sitting next to the bed and assumed you were caring for Dave before I got here. Do you have any experience with things like this?”
Rose nodded. “As part of my education, I learned a bit about medicine. I can assist you if you need me.”
“I would appreciate any help you could give me. You can start by bringing me more hot water.”
Rose turned to leave the room. The look on Cam’s face was one of disbelief. She knew he doubted her abilities anywhere but the bedroom. However, the next year would prove him wrong. If she had to stay in this god-forsaken country, she would make the best of it and use the education her father’s money bought.
Thankfully, she had a kettle of water heating on the stove when she went to the bedroom to care for Dave. As she ladled more water into another pan, her mind went back to the number of people she’d helped like this in the past.
When Rose was fifteen, Celeste had asked Dr. Wilson to train Rose to nurse the women in the house when they were sick or injured. If Rose were truthful, she’d enjoyed this portion of her education. Dr. Wilson took care of all the girls at the house and sometimes brought patients there to nursed. It was never talked about, but Rose was certain these men were outlaws. As she recalled, one of the men had been gut shot. Although she didn’t have enough education to help in taking out the bullet, she’d cared for him as he recuperated. Dr. Wilson told her that without her expert care, the man might have died.
Returning her thoughts to the man who now lay in her downstairs bedroom, she prayed she would be able to do the same for him. It would not bode well if he died while in her care.
Shaking the memories from her mind, she picked up the basin of hot water and left the kitchen. She needed all her senses about her for the task. It didn’t matter that Cam looked at her as though she was lower than dirt. The education she’d received while she lived at the Purple Moon would serve her well in her new life in Montana.
Both Cam and the man he’d identified as Ned looked pale when she returned to the room. It was understandable, considering the amount of blood Dave lost combined with the severity of the wound. She had no doubts the men who did this didn’t expect Dave to survive.
“Here’s the water. What else can I get for you?”
Dr. Meyer looked up at her question. “I’ll need someone to help me with the surgery. Are you up to the task, young lady?”
Rose nodded. “I’ve helped with gunshot wounds before. I would have helped him while we waited for you to get here, but I don’t have the expertise. I’m a decent nurse not an accomplished doctor and that’s what this man needs.”
“You should know what a man needs,” Cam muttered.
“I know more than you think I do,” she retorted.
Cam turned on his heel and left the room with Ned following in his wake. As Rose watched them, she knew by suppertime every hand on the ranch would know the new boss was a woman and one with a past none of them could forget. She’d been right when she told him she knew more than he thought she did. She was well versed in literature, medicine and knew enough about accounting that she had been keeping the books for Celeste for the past several years in addition to gracing the beds of some of the highest paying clients at the Purple Moon.
No matter what, she refused to allow Cam’s behavior to hinder her duties as nurse to Dr. Myers. Focusing her attention to the task at hand, she worked side by side with the doctor in order to be of assistance in the removal of the bullet.
“I don’t give him a snowball’s chance in hell,” Dr. Myers said when he finished stitching up the wound. “If he’s to have any chance at survival, he’ll require around the clock care. Since that’s impossible with only one of you, I’ll send Mrs. Johnson and Miss Cranston out from town to assist you.”
Rose started to protest, but Dr. Myers silenced her with a wave of his hand. “Don’t argue with me, young lady. I know more about you than you think. If you’re going to be accepted by these hands of yours, it’s best if you have help in caring for Dave. As I said, I don’t think he’ll make it, but if he doesn’t, it won’t be me who takes the blame. I saw the look on Cam’s face, and I realize he knows of your background as well as I do. Accept any help you can get and don’t question it. Neither of the women who will be coming out to help you will know of your past, unless you tell them everything you did in St. Louis. I’ll send them out as soon as I get to town, and I’ll be back again tomorrow to see how things are going here.”
Rose nodded. He was right, she had no right to expect the people who knew about her to accept someone who had grown up in a house like the Purple Moon and who had aspirations of purchasing it for herself. If she’d been smart enough to dress more demurely when she arrived, she wouldn’t have made such a bad impression on her new foreman. Her problems with the men were of her own making, and she would have to work her tail off to prove she was worthy to be the owner of this ranch.