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By Melody Carlson

Fresh out of finishing school, Julianne Blackstone is eager to return to her sister’s ranch in Colorado, but her parents have other plans. Plans that involve money, matrimony…and mayhem.

While helping in her mother’s chic dress shop, Julianne rekindles an old friendship with young attorney Levi Stanfield and his father Judge Stanfield. But when she discovers her father’s self-serving plans are at odds with the law, her own life is placed in peril.

Torn between her parents and a strong sense of justice, can Julianne find her place in this new western world?

Chapter 1

Early June 1890

Colorado Springs

Julianne Blackstone was nobody’s fool. Except perhaps when it came to her parents. But after two years of finishing school, she planned to outsmart them. So when she got back into Colorado Springs, instead of returning to their fancy new home like they fully expected, Julianne hired a wagon at the train station.

“I want you to take me to the Double W Ranch,” she told the young man.

“The Double W?” He tilted his cowboy hat back to give her a closer look.

“It’s only a few miles outside of—”

“Oh, I know the Double W Ranch all right, and I’m more’n happy to take you there.” He grinned. “Or anywhere.”

Naturally that offer made her uncomfortable, but she was desperate. Despite coming home a day sooner than expected, her fear was that her father would show up and escort her home. Well, to his home anyway. It sure wasn’t hers.

She gave the young man a stiff nod. “Thank you, but I only need to get to the Double W, and I will reimburse you for your time.”

“No need to pay me, I’m headed that direction anyway.” He grinned again.

She rewarded him with a polite smile, and he jerked his thumb to where porters were loading a crate onto a boxcar. “I just brung in a heap of cowhides for the east bound then I’m headed home. Got an empty wagon and no one to keep me company.”

“That’s mine.” She pointed to her trunk just unloaded from the baggage car. “If it’s not too much trouble, I hope we can leave directly.” She attempted nonchalance as she coolly glanced around the train station. Hopefully no one had tipped off her parents about her early arrival.

The young wagon driver, with the help of a porter, got her heavy trunk onto the wagon bed, then, removing his hat to display a messy head of poorly cut tawny hair, he introduced himself as Ned Greer. “And don’t you worry none, Miss, cuz the Double W is right on my way home.”

He helped her onto the buckboard then clucked his tongue, snapped the reins, and they were on their way—straight through town. She hoped he wouldn’t notice her hunkered down slightly, using her hat’s wide brim to shield her face as his wagon rumbled down Main Street. She wanted to sneak a glance at her mother’s dress shop up ahead but feared she might be spotted. And so she turned away, fixing her full attention on the driver.

“It was so fortuitous that you happened along right when you did,” she said in an overly bright tone.

“Huh?” His brow creased as if confused.

“I was very lucky you were at the train station,” she interpreted. “Just when I needed a ride too.”

“Oh, yeah. That was lucky. For me too.” He beamed at her.

She smiled back at him, not because she wanted to lead him on, but because they were now passing the dress shop and she could imagine her mother gazing out the plate glass window in front. “I haven’t been home in so long. I’m very eager to see the beautiful countryside again.”

“You mean the Double W is your home?” He cocked his head to one side. “You related to the Davises or something?”

“Delia Davis is my older sister.” She almost added half sister but didn’t think it necessary. By now she recognized Ned. They’d probably met at a church picnic or barbecue or something. He was several years older and from a neighboring ranch. But he obviously was unable to place her. Probably because she’d still been in pigtails and pinafores at the time.

As they left town behind them, he chattered away about local goings on, but she only half listened as she soaked in the rolling hills of the Colorado countryside, the red rock formations contrasting against the intensely blue sky. June was such a pretty time. And the rain must’ve been abundant this year because the hillsides looked lush and green. Hopefully there’d be no water rights battles going on this year.

“So you’re Mrs. Davis’s little sister?” Ned drawled out for what must’ve been the third time as he finally turned into the long drive that led directly to her sister’s gracious ranch house. It all looked as lovely and inviting as ever. Roses were even blooming on the trellis next to the wide front porch. “But I know you’re not Miranda. That’s just as plain as the nose on your face.”

“That’s right. I’m Delia’s youngest sister.” Julianne reached for her satchel, which she’d stowed at her feet. Eager to escape this overly friendly fellow and his endless chitchat, she spoke quickly. “Miranda married Jackson O’Neil. And now they have two children and live over at the mine—”

“Oh, yeah, yeah, I know Jackson. He’s a good man. But I don’t recall Mrs. Davis having another full growed sister.”

Julianne forced a smile. “Well, she does. And I’m her.” She pointed to where the drive curved in front of the house. “Just stop there. Thank you.”

He told the team to whoa then looked up at the tall white house then over to the barn and outbuildings. “I always thought this was the prettiest ranch I ever seen. Sure was a shame when Winston Williams got killed like he did. Shot by his own foreman too. People still talk about it sometimes.”

She nodded as she tossed out her satchel, ready to depart her talkative driver. “Yes, I wasn’t here then, but I heard the story. Very sad.”

He hurried around to help her down.

“Just put my trunk there,” Julianne instructed. “One of the hands will take it up to the house.” She thanked him again, reaching for her satchel, but he grabbed it first.

“So Mrs. Davis has got two full growed sisters? One that’s married and one that’s not?” Leaning against the sideboard, he peered curiously down at her.

“I realize it’s a little confusing.” Julianne never enjoyed trying to explain their slightly fractured family. “You see, Delia—Mrs. Davis—came out here from the East Coast to see her father, Winston Williams. As you know, this was his ranch. His second wife was Miranda’s mother, which makes Miranda his stepdaughter, and Delia’s stepsister, but no actual relation to me.” She reached for her satchel, but he held it ransom.

He scratched his head. “So how’re ya related to the Double W?”
“Delia is my half-sister. We have the same mother.” She couldn’t hide her exasperation.

“So your last name ain’t Williams?”

“No. My brother Julius and I have a different father than Delia. We are both Blackstone—”

“Is Jefferson Blackstone your pa?” Ned’s brows shot up.

Julianne cringed then nodded. She knew her father had acquired quite a reputation as a politician in the fast-growing mining town. She also knew from Delia’s letters that his progressive politics weren’t popular with everyone. Particularly ranchers. But nothing surprising about that since Julianne didn’t get along too well with her father either.

“Sorry to say my pa don’t cotton up to Jefferson Blackstone much.” Ned grimly shook his head as he leaned back against the buckboard. “Don’t like outsiders coming in and trying to change things. Specially things they don’t know nothin’ about.”

“I’m sure your father is not alone in his opinions about, uh, Mr. Blackstone.” She tried to be patient as she waited for Ned to unload her trunk from the back of his wagon, but knew she was at his mercy.

“So you’re little Julianne Blackstone.” He nodded like some kind of light had gone on. “Delia’s little sister. I remember you now. You were just a kid last time I saw you.” He set down her satchel to reach for the trunk.

“Uh-huh.” She snatched her satchel and stepped away, hoping Ned might take the hint, but he was still just standing there gawking at her with way too much interest. “I’m very eager to see my sister.” She peered over toward the bunkhouse, wishing one of the hands would notice her and come over to help with the trunk, which Ned seemed to have completely forgotten, but no one else was around just now. So she reached for a handle herself.

“No, no,” he told her. “I’ll get that.” He tugged the heavy trunk to the edge of the wagon bed then muscled it down to the ground. “There you go.” He grinned at her, standing tall and squaring his shoulders, as if she’d be impressed by his manly strength. She was not.

“I thank you very much for the lift,” she told him. “Very neighborly.”

“Oh, yeah, I can be right neighborly, Miss Julianne. Our ranch is just a few miles thataway. I s’pect I’ll be seeing lots more of you now that you’re home from that fancy school you was talking about during on our nice little ride.”

As eager to escape Ned’s overly accommodating company as she’d been to escape finishing school, she thanked him for what she hoped was the last time. Then clutching her satchel, hurried up to the house.

It wasn’t so much that Ned Greer was an uncivilized, unsophisticated, rough-hewn, clodhopping cowboy, although he was. Julianne wasn’t a snob—at least she hoped she wasn’t. After all, she’d always had great respect for the hands that worked her sister’s ranch. But something about Ned Greer’s interest in her made her very uneasy. Probably because it was a stark reminder of what her parents had in store for her. According to her mother’s last letter, Julianne was prime marriage material now, and they already had a number of influential prospects all lined up for her.

Chapter 2

“Julianne Margaret!” Delia shrieked happily when she opened the front door. “What on earth are you doing here?”

Julianne stuck her lip out in what was probably meant to be an offended pout. “Aren’t you the least bit glad to see me?”

Delia laughed as she grabbed her baby sister into a big bear hug, holding her tightly. “Of course, I’m delighted!” She finally released Julianne, and still holding her by the shoulders, just stared at her. “You’re a sight for sore eyes.”

Julianne was smiling, but her eyes were misty. “You are too.”

“And you’re all grown up—and what a beauty you’ve turned into.”

Julianne shrugged with nonchalance as she unpinned her wide-brimmed blue hat, the same color, Delia noticed, as her sister’s eyes.

“But what are you doing here?” Delia asked. “And a day early too.”

Julianne quickly explained her plan to outwit her parents. “It’s as if history is repeating itself, Delia.” She unbuttoned her gloves. “According to Mother’s last letter, my father is determined to arrange a marriage for me. Just like he did for you before you ran away.”

Delia grimaced to remember. “So I’ve heard.”

“And you didn’t even warn me?” Julianne slapped her gloves across her palms with a scowl.

“I was trying not to interfere.” Delia didn’t want to admit that she wasn’t exactly on speaking terms with Julianne’s father, or how that made things awkward with their mother.

“Well, I’m hoping that you’ll let me stay here on the ranch with you.” Julianne looked imploringly at her with wide blue eyes. “I can help with the children, or the kitchen, or with horses, or—”

“Of course, you’re welcome to stay.” Delia put her arm around Julianne’s shoulders. “For as long as you like.”

Julianne pointed to Delia’s split skirt. “Are you going for a ride? Or coming back from one?”

“On my way out. I try to get my ride in while the children are napping. I ask Ginger to sit up there with them. It gives her an excuse to put her feet up.”

“Want any company?” Julianne looked hopeful.

“I’d love it.” She grinned. “I already pulled out your old riding clothes and gave them a good airing out. Just in case you decided to come visit after you got home.”

“Home?” Julianne glumly shook her head. “Where is that anyway? Not with Mother and Father. Not if I can help it.”

“Let’s not think about that now. Your riding things are all laid out in the guest room, which you can use for as long as you like. Go get changed and I’ll see to the horses. Most of the men are out moving cattle today, but Caleb was getting Dolly saddled up for me, but I’ll let you ride her.”

“Not if you planned to—”

“I know how much you love that horse. I really prefer Jax, but I’ve been trying to keep Dolly in shape. I’ve been taking turns with them, so she’d be ready for you.”

Julianne hugged her again. “You’re the best sister in the world!”

“I’m your only sister.” Delia laughed as she reached for her dad’s old cowboy hat. “Now, hurry and get changed. We’re burning daylight!”

As Delia strode out to the stables, she wondered about her mother. Jane Blackstone wouldn’t take it lightly that Julianne had come to the Double W first. And her stepfather…well, Delia didn’t care to think about Jefferson right now. Why spoil a perfectly good afternoon?

Julianne almost felt guilty for enjoying herself so much on the ride with Delia. What would Mother say if she knew? Hopefully she had no idea…yet.

“That was perfectly wonderful,” Julianne told Delia as they walked the horses into the corral. “I haven’t had that much fun since I was last here.”

“Was the whole time at finishing school that bad?” Delia swung out of the saddle.

“It’s not that it was terrible exactly.” Julianne patted Dolly’s sleek neck. “It’s just that it wasn’t here. I love it so much, Delia, I wish I could live out here forever.”

“No reason you can’t.” Delia looped her reins over the rail.

“Howdy, ladies.” Old Caleb approached them with a wary expression. “So that’s where Jax went off to. Can I help you with those—” His eyes popped open wide. “Well, I’ll be hogtied and hornswoggled, if it ain’t Miss Julianne all growed up.” He tipped his hat. “Good to see you, missy.”

Julianne smiled at him. “Good to see you too, Caleb. You’re looking well.”

“For an ol’ cuss.” He rubbed his grisly chin. “You know I’m past seventy now.”

“Well, you seem to be holding up just fine.”

“He sure is,” Delia agreed. “He can run circles around some of the younger hands.”

“Just the lazy ones.” Caleb reached for Dolly’s reins.

“Speaking of lazy, where’s that no good brother of mine?” Julianne teased.

“Julius ain’t got a lazy bone in his body,” Caleb defended. “He’s out roundin’ up cattle with Wyatt right now. But he didn’t expect to see you till Saturday. Delia’s planning a welcome home shindig for you. Reckon that won’t be much of a surprise now.” He winked at Delia. “Sorry.”

“It’s all right, Caleb. Julianne would’ve heard about it anyway since she’ll be staying here.”

“Reckon you’ll like that,” he said to Delia. “You always being outnumbered by men folk.”

Delia nodded. “Having Julianne here will be a real treat.”

“I haven’t even told my parents yet,” Julianne confessed.

Caleb chuckled. “What they don’t know won’t hurt them none. Welcome home, little lady.”

“Please don’t tell Julius I’m here,” she said. “I want to sneak up on him.”

“No chance of that today,” Delia told her. “He and Wyatt won’t be home until late day tomorrow.”

Julianne adjusted her hat’s brim against the afternoon sun. “Then it’ll just be us girls and the children.”

Delia nodded. “Speaking of children, Billy and Baby Lil might be awake by now.”

“I can’t wait to see them. I wonder if Billy will remember me, and I’ve never even met little Lilly.”

“Billy knows you by the photo you sent us from school, and he’s been very excited to know that Aunt Julianne’s coming home.”

“Home.” Julianne sighed happily. “It does feel like home.”

“Julius is looking forward to seeing you too.” Delia paused on the front porch, turning to look out over the ranch. “He might not show it much, especially since he works so hard at trying to be a rough tough cowboy, but he has missed his twin sister.”

“Really? He never bothered to write me a single letter.”

“You know he’s never been too interested in things like reading or writing.”

Julianne rolled her eyes. “I’m well aware of it. Plus Mother has written to me about it enough times. She and Father weren’t very pleased with Julius’s choice to stay on here as a ranch hand.”

Delia pursed her lips. “Believe me, I know. But it is his life. I hope they can respect his right to choose for himself.”
“And for me too?” Julianne peered curiously at her sister. “Would you support me in my decision to live my own life too?”

“You know I would.” Delia wrapped an arm around her as she opened the front door. “Unfortunately, you’re going to need my support.”

“Mama, Mama!” A towheaded blond boy came barreling down the stairs at full speed.

“Billy,” Delia called out, “we walk not run in the house. Now come say hello to your aunt Julianne.”

Billy stopped mid-step, staring hard at Julianne. “You’re my aunt?” he asked with a furrowed brow.

“Of course.” Julianne knelt down with her arms widespread. “Don’t you remember me? I used to take care of you when you were little.” She grinned. “But look how big and grown up you are now, Billy Boy.”

With a shy smile, he cautiously continued, but just a few feet from Julianne, he stopped. His expression grew wary, as if about to bolt. But before he could escape, she swooped him up into a big bear hug. “I missed you so much, Billy Boy!” She landed a big kiss on his warm rosy cheek then tickled his tummy just like old times, and laughing and squirming, he wriggled away from her.

“I gotta tell Baby and Ginger that Aunt Julianne is here,” Billy hollered as he took off for the stairs.

“Come and meet Baby Lil.” Delia reached for the stair rail. “I’m sure she’s awake by now.”

After a happy reunion with Ginger and a quick cuddle with her sweet baby niece, Julianne went to change out of her riding clothes. She took her time now to look around the guest room. The linens were fresh, and on the little side table was a small vase of pink roses. Had Delia been actually expecting her? While she’d been riding, someone had moved her trunk up here.

As she unpacked a few things, Julianne was grateful for Delia’s invitation to remain at the ranch. Oh, she knew the offer didn’t come with any promises of a long-term situation, but Julianne felt she’d be welcome. The only fly in the ointment would be her parents. But as she dressed, she practiced the excuse she would give her parents. Delia had a lot to take care of, and Ginger was slowing down with age, and Daisy had her hands full with cooking for the ranch. Delia would need help with the children and running the household. And Julianne would do everything possible to make life easier for everyone on the Double W. And she would also make herself indispensable to her sister.

As pleased as Delia was to have Julianne home, and as happy as she felt to have her little sister stay on at the Double W, she knew this would come with a price. Her mother would be upset that Julianne had come out to the ranch first. Especially since she’d been so eager to show off her new home. A home that Delia knew they could scarcely afford.

As Delia changed out of her riding clothes, she thought about the frilly pink room Mother had set up just for Julianne—including a closet filled with the latest fashions. Some dresses seemed a bit impractical with their ridiculously large, puffed sleeves, but Delia had kept her thoughts to herself. She knew that Mother was eager to have Julianne under her roof. And that Jefferson was even more eager to have Julianne under his thumb.

Delia could just imagine how her stepfather would act greatly offended when he discovered Julianne’s plans to remain on at the ranch. Jefferson was an expert at putting on dramatic airs. Especially when it suited his purposes—or his politics. Truth be told, Delia wasn’t too concerned over his reaction, but she didn’t want to hurt Mother. Especially since she’d worked so hard to restore their wobbly relationship these past few years.

But she kept these thoughts to herself as she and Julianne played outside with the children. It took no time for Billy to completely warm up to his aunt, proudly showing her all around the farm and introducing her to every animal. Then, during supper with the children, she listened to Julianne’s rather dismal tales of finishing school. Although Julianne had learned many skills that might aid her in becoming an admirable wife and mother, she clearly had not enjoyed the experience. It sounded nothing like Delia’s college days, a time she still remembered with gratitude.

“The worst part was being stuck indoors all the time and no horses,” Julianne said glumly. “I’m so glad it’s over with.”

“Did they teach you to cook?” Daisy asked as she started to clear the dishes.

“They tried,” Julianne told their cook. “But I’ll never be as good as you. Your biscuits are still amazing.”

“I’m sure Daisy will be glad to continue your training.” Delia winked at Daisy as she picked up her plate. Daisy giggled as she carried the dishes to the kitchen.

“So what was the best part of being at school?” Delia asked Julianne. She hoped they could end this conversation on a happier note.

Julianne’s brow creased for a long moment, and then she held up a finger. “Type writing!”

“What’s that?” Billy asked.

“You use your fingers on a machine.” Julianne wiggled her fingers up to show Billy. “And the machine prints the letters out on paper nice and neat. Just like you’d read them in a book or newspaper.”

“Type writing?” Delia repeated this with interest as she extracted sleepy Lilly from the highchair and onto her lap. “Were you good at it?”

Julianne nodded proudly. “Very good, according to the school secretary. I was allowed to work with her three afternoons a week. That was my favorite thing. If I had to earn my living, I would become a type writer in a nice office somewhere.”

“Interesting.” Delia felt amused to imagine her little sister working as a type writer, but wondered what their mother would say? Before she could mention this to Julianne, Ginger came in and announced it was time for the children to bathe and get ready for bed.

“Let me help,” Julianne insisted. Jumping from her chair she swooped Baby Lil from Delia’s lap. “You just sit here and relax, sis. Ginger and I will take care of everything.”

Delia was reluctant to remain behind, but then just decided to enjoy it. Who knew how much time Julianne would actually get to be out here with them on the ranch? While the children were being readied for bed, Delia made a pot of tea then went upstairs. After she tucked the children in, listened to Billy’s prayer, and kissed them both good night, she invited Julianne to join her for tea.

“Let’s take our tea out to the porch,” Delia suggested. Partly because she wanted to be out of earshot of anyone while she broached the subject of Mother and Jefferson, and partly because it looked like they were in for a beautiful sunset tonight.

After they were settled in the rockers and enjoying the colorful June sunset, she asked Julianne the hard question. “So…how do you plan to tell Mother and, uh, your father about your plans to remain on here at the Double W?”

Julianne let out a long, loud sigh. “I haven’t completely figured that out yet.”

“It’s not exactly simple, is it?”

Julianne sipped her tea. “I do plan to explain that I think you can use my help here, Delia. In the house and with the children. After all, Ginger is getting older. Daisy helps when she can but running the kitchen and keeping our ranch hands fed is a full-time job. And Billy, I’m discovering, is quite a handful. And it probably won’t be long before Baby Lilly is walking. Then you’ll really be busy chasing the two of them around.”

“I would definitely appreciate the help. Especially if it allowed me more time to be outside overseeing more things on the ranch. The larger livestock keeps Wyatt pretty busy, but I like to take care of the chickens and gardens and things. Billy’s learning to help and acts like he knows it all sometimes. Like he did for you this afternoon. But you can’t expect a four year old to do all that.”

“He’s very smart for his age.” Julianne smiled. “And so much personality.”

“That’s for certain.”

“Anyway, I’m hoping Mother and Father will understand and respect my decision.” Julianne’s tone sounded a bit uneasy.

Delia nodded, unsure of how to respond. Julianne couldn’t really expect her parents to support her in this decision, could she?

“And if they don’t like it, well, why should that concern me? It is my life after all.” She looked hopefully at Delia. “Right?”

“I agree, but if Mother and Jefferson do put up a fuss—and they probably will—I want you to be prepared for it.”

“I have no doubts my father will put up a very big fuss, Delia. And to be honest, I don’t care what he thinks.” Julianne stuck her chin out with a defiant expression. “I know he has definite plans to marry me off. Mother has said as much in her letters. Oh, she wraps it all up in nice words, saying how we’ll all socialize with picnics and parties and gatherings and such. But I know my father is ready to marry me off to his wealthy influential friend. I’m sure he’s pressured Mother into believing it’ll be a perfect match—and that I’ll be happy about it.” She scowled.

“Mother’s mentioned this to me as well.” Delia wasn’t sure how much to say, but felt Julianne deserved the truth.

“Of course, Father’s reasoning for this arranged marriage is entirely self-serving. He obviously has no concern for my feelings. I can tell by Mother’s letters, they believe sending me to that expensive finishing school, gave them the right to marry me off to the highest bidder.” She turned to Delia with tear-filled eyes. “I didn’t want to go there in the first place. And now this. Well, they won’t get away with it. Women are not chattel. We may not have the vote, but we still have rights.”

“I know. And I agree.” Delia cringed to remember the time her stepfather had pulled this same thing with her. No wonder Julianne was upset.

Julianne reached for Delia’s hand. “I’m so glad you support me on this.”

“I do support you. But if it’s possible, I don’t want to make this too hard on Mother.” She quickly explained how she’d been restoring that relationship. “And, really, I don’t think she’s as sold on this idea as Jefferson.”

“Maybe not. But do you think she could stand up to him?”

Delia considered this. “She’s gotten stronger these past few years. Running the dress shop has been good for her. And thanks to the local mining successes, her business is doing quite well. Mother can hold her head high now.”

“She owes that much to you, Delia. You’re the one who helped get her started in the first place.”

“I was glad to help. It’s been good seeing Mother stand on her own two feet for a change. But I have to warn you, she still talks as if it’s their business. As if Jefferson is her partner somehow, or that he contributes in some way. But as far as I know, the only part of the partnership he shares is in the profits.”

“That’s exactly what I thought. And that fancy house they’re in—Mother has shared in her letters that they really can’t afford it. Father is still trying to keep up appearances. And you know how that goes.”

Delia nodded glumly.

“I think it’s so he looks like the big man around town. To help him in his political pursuits.” Julianne set her teacup down with a loud clink. “Well, I refuse to be part of it.”

“And Wyatt and I support you in that decision.” Delia cleared her throat. “Wyatt has actually met the man Jefferson picked out for you.” She didn’t want to admit that she’d sent Wyatt on an investigative mission several weeks ago.

“Really?” Julianne’s fair brows arched then she leaned over with interest. “Tell me more.”
“His name is Royal Dayton, and he’s older. A widower with no children. And it sounds like he’s a pretty smooth talker with political interests.”
“No surprises there.”

“And…” Delia wondered how to say this next part. “Wyatt mentioned that Mr. Dayton is considered a handsome gentleman.”

Julianne tilted her head then frowned. “You mean for an old man?”

“He’s probably around forty, and it seems he’s quite wealthy. He’s established several businesses close to an active mine near Cripple Creek. He got in on the cusp of this recent rush and bought up most of the nearby land and is about to establish a township called Dayton Springs. Right now it consists mostly of a store, hotel, and a few other businesses, mostly owned by Mr. Dayton, and he’s turning quite a profit from it.”

Julianne almost seemed interested now. “So far Royal Dayton doesn’t sound too terrible, Delia. Why would someone good-looking and wealthy need an arranged marriage?”

“That’s a good question. As you know, there’s always a shortage of good women in the West.”

“Yes, but that’s changing.”

“Also, like your father, Royal Dayton has political aspirations. I think that’s how they became friends.”

“Sounds like a match made in heaven. I mean my father and Mr. Dayton.”

Delia smiled. “So if Mr. Dayton hopes to succeed in politics, it could explain his need for an attractive, respectable bride by his side.”

“And one just fresh out of a respectable finishing school?” Julianne pursed her lips.

“That probably wouldn’t hurt.”

“What you’re saying doesn’t necessarily contradict Mother’s letters, Delia. It makes me wonder if I’ve overreacted. Oh, I certainly have no interest in an arranged marriage. Or any marriage in the near future. But maybe I’ve been too hasty to judge this Royal Dayton. Do you think I’ve been wrong?”

Delia slowly shook her head. “There’s one thing I haven’t mentioned. According to Wyatt, Mr. Dayton’s character isn’t exactly reputable.”


“To be fair, it could be just rumor and innuendo. But Wyatt is under the impression Royal Dayton, besides being an opportunistic businessman, is a bit of a philanderer too.”

Julianne wrinkled her nose in disgust. “A ladies’ man, of course. Now it all makes sense.”

“But we don’t know that for certain, Julianne. So let’s not think about it for now. Time will tell.” Delia forced a smile. “Let’s just enjoy this beautiful summer’s eve and being together.”

“You’re right.” Julianne took in a deep breath then slowly exhaled. “Tomorrow will take care of itself.”

“And if you write a note to Mother before you go to bed tonight, informing her of your early arrival and whereabouts, I’ll see that one of our hands takes it to town first thing tomorrow.”

“Thank you.” Julianne beamed at her. “For everything.”

Delia squeezed her hand. “You’re more than welcome.”