To My Readers:
Here is a little extra for you, a prologue to Hill Country Cattleman for which there wasn't space in the book, but I hope those of you who have been keeping up with my Simpson Creek characters will enjoy it!
Simpson Creek, Texas July 5, 1868
"Nick, dear, there's a letter waiting for you," Milly Brookfield, holding their toddler son on her hip, told her husband when he came to the kitchen for his morning coffee. "I didn't think of it in the excitement of your coming home yesterday, but it's from England, from your brother!"
Nick stopped in the act of pouring the steaming brew into a crockery mug. "From Edward, or Richard?"
"From Viscount Greyshaw," Milly said, in her best put-on English accent to give his elder brother his proper title. Mixed with her Texas drawl, however, the comical result made Nick chuckle as he accepted the letter and sat down to peruse its contents.
"I hope it's not bad news," murmured Milly, setting little Nick down with his carved horse on wheels. Then she poured her own cup of coffee and sat down with her husband. "Perhaps it's good news--a new baby in milord's nursery—or in Richard's. Oh, I wish they could all come for a visit!"
He studied the elegant copperplate handwriting below the creamy paper with its engraved letterhead. A frisson of unease skittered across her shoulders as she saw her husband's sunburnt brow furrow.
"Be careful what you wish for," Nick muttered darkly.
Milly set her coffee cup down. "What do you mean? Are they coming for a visit? When? Oh, dear, I'll have to get busy sewing curtains for the spare bedrooms—"
Her husband put up a hand to stem the tide of excited words flooding from his wife's mouth. "Only Edward and Violet are coming."
"Why? Good heavens, nothing's happened to Edward's wife, has it? Or their children? I thought Violet was being presented to the Queen this year…" Her voice trailed off as she watched Nick rub his eyes as if trying to ward off a headache.
"No, Amelia's fine, merely as worried about Violet as her husband and Richard are," Nick said. His gaze shifted to the window and he gazed out over the corral as if the answers might be out there, instead of only his bay stallion rolling in the dust.
"Nick, are you going to tell me what's going on, or do I have to snatch that letter out of your hand and read it for myself?" Milly cried at last.
"Sorry, sweetheart," he said, turning back to her with a gentle smile that didn't quite reach his eyes. "Violet's developed a rather inappropriate relationship with the Earl of Lullington, who owns the estate bordering Greyshaw."
"But—but she's only what, sixteen?" Milly asked. "I thought you said she was still in the schoolroom when we met."
"She was, then, but some time has passed since then, Milly darling. Now she's achieved her majority, and thanks to that cad Lullington, is in danger of developing a rather fast reputation which Edward is afraid may ruin her chances for a good marriage if things continue as they are. Apparently he cannot trust Lullington to do the right thing and stop encouraging our impetuous and naïve sister. Edward wants to have Violet stay with us for a time, long enough so that tongues will cease wagging about her. Hopefully, when she returns to England, having been exposed to another way of life and what Edward terms our 'common-sense approach' her chances of making a good marriage, if not a brilliant match, will be restored. Edward will escort her here and then return for her when it seems time."
"I—I see," Milly murmured, quailing at the thought of riding herd on a rebellious young lady of the English aristocracy until her father deemed her sufficiently reformed enough to go home. Oh dear, she thought. Lord, we're going to need all the guidance You can give us!
Something of her misgivings must have showed on her face, for Nick put out a hand and touched her wrist. "Don't panic, sweetheart. If my lordly brother didn't think we were up to the responsibility, he wouldn't entrust her to us. It'll be fine."
"But she'll be used to such fancy things," Milly said, thinking of the luxurious clothes, food and surroundings she imagined Violet Brookfield was used to. She gazed around her at the plain everyday furnishings of their kitchen, the roughhewn table and chairs, the whitewashed walls, the iron cookstove in the corner of the room…
"If a ranch in San Saba County, Texas is good enough for her brother, it's good enough for Violet," Nick said, reminding her that he, too had grown up in centuries-old Greyshaw Hall before going off to be an officer in Her Majesty's Bombay Light Cavalry.
"Wh-when might we expect his lordship and your sister?" she asked, trying to sound calm. If she started today, and gave the entire house a thorough cleaning, and tomorrow drove into town to pick up some cloth at the mercantile—only it had better be a fancier sort of cloth than what she'd been planning to use for those curtains--
Nick glanced at the letter again, and she saw his eyes widen.
"Milly, when did this letter arrive?" Nick asked.
All that sun on the trail had tanned his cheeks a deep brown and lightened his hair past its usual tawny gold, which made his eyes even more impossibly blue, she thought absently as she tried to recollect when she'd last gone into town and stopped at the post office. "About a week or so ago, I think." she murmured. "As I said, I forgot to mention it last evening, what with everything..." She blushed as she remembered just how enthusiastically she had welcomed her husband home last night.
"Why didn't you open it?" he asked. His tone was curious but there was still that crease in his brow that worried her, for something was obviously worrying him.
"Nick, it's from your brother," she responded logically. "I thought you should see it first. Why?"
"Because, sweetheart, Edward planned to set out with Violet just as soon as arrangements could be made after sending this letter. Which means he and Violet might arrive any day now."