The Lost Heiresses
It’s one thing for a girl to lose her way, quite another to lose her heart…
Genny Hayes could charm a bear away from a pot of honey. But raised in the forests of Yosemite, she’s met precious few men to practice her smiles upon. Until a marvelously handsome photographer appears in her little corner of the wilderness and she convinces him to take her clear across the country and over the seas to England, where she has a titled grandmother and grandfather waiting to claim her. On their whirlwind journey, she’ll have the chance to bedazzle and befuddle store clerks and train robbers, society matrons and big city reporters, maids and madams, but the one man she most wants to beguile seems determined to play the gentleman and leave her untouched. Until love steps in and knocks them both head over heels…
Release date: August 18, 2015
Publisher: Lyrical Press
Print pages: 248
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Behind a Lady's Smile
For two days, Mitch had noticed . . . someone. He wasn’t quite sure whether it was male or female, but that didn’t matter. Out here in the middle of nowhere, where a man could disappear and never be found, a man had to be careful. A man had to make certain his rifle was loaded, his canteen was filled, and he listened to his gut. And right about now, his gut was telling him whoever had been watching him for two days was up to no good.
“You wait here, Millie.” Mitch patted his mule and tied her to a scraggly white pine. If Millie really got in a mind to escape, the sapling wouldn’t do much to keep her in place, but he very much doubted Millie would get in the mind to do more than nibble on some grass.
Mitch was no stranger to the mountains of Yosemite. He guessed he knew them better than most. He knew how to walk silently and he knew when to make a noise that might scare a grizzly away. That was one creature he wasn’t ashamed to admit he didn’t much care for. He’d seen the results of a bear attack and was quite certain he didn’t want to be on the receiving end of those razor-sharp claws. Other than grizzlies and men with guns, he wasn’t afraid of much else. A man who’d seen and done what he had learned not to be afraid.
Whoever was trailing him was high up, likely taking little peeks over the rocks that jutted out above him like crooked teeth. He climbed silently, his boots pressing into the thick cushion of pine needles, until he was pretty sure he was above his prey. He scanned the area, Winchester in hand, fully loaded and ready to fire. And then he saw a movement, a flash of hair.
“Well, damn,” he whispered, looking at the girl through his gun sight. At least he thought it must be a girl with that long, pale braid down her back. She was lying on her stomach, no doubt staring at Millie and wondering where the heck the man she’d been spying on had disappeared to. His eyes moved down, following the trail of her braid, until he reached the decidedly feminine curve of her backside. Definitely female.
Now, he didn’t like holding a rifle on a woman or a girl, but he’d learned the hard way that women and girls could be just as dangerous with a gun as a man, so he wasn’t about to take any chances. If any of his friends back home saw him, they’d probably punch his jaw. But this wasn’t New York City and that girl was no debutante, and so he held his gun on her real careful. She turned her head and he saw the delicate curve of her smooth cheek, and seeing that bit of feminine beauty in such an unlikely place did something odd to his stomach. It was like seeing the first crocus after a long and terrible winter. He eased his gun down; the girl didn’t have a weapon that he could see, and he relaxed slightly.
“Looking for someone, darlin’?”
It happened so quickly, he wasn’t even sure what occurred. She shot up to her feet, took one step back, and a rock beneath her foot slipped—then she disappeared, just like that, over the edge, backward. He heard a sickening thud and then a scream and his blood ran cold.
“Shit.” Mitch ran as fast as he could through the rough terrain, his ears filled with the sound of a female crying out in agony. He flew around a cluster of large boulders, grateful at least that she was still screaming. Screaming meant she was alive.
There she was, lying on her side, clutching one leg, which was obviously and grotesquely broken. He swore again and ran over to where she lay. And damn if she didn’t try to scuttle away when she saw him, her bright green eyes filled with as much fear as pain.
“I’m not going to hurt you,” he said, hunkering down beside her. She looked up at him, eyes wide, her face smudged with dirt, making it difficult to determine her age. “I promise.”
She just stared at him, panting like a trapped, frightened animal and he wondered if she could speak. What the hell was this girl doing out here anyway? There wasn’t a town for miles, and the only people he’d seen since he’d been in the valley were his own crew. She was dressed in oversized men’s clothing, sleeves and pant legs rolled up to accommodate her smaller size.
“My name’s Mitch Campbell,” he said, softly, looking her over to see if she had any other obvious injuries. Her arm had a nasty scrape, but other than that, he couldn’t see anything. “What can I call you?”
She swallowed and looked away. “Genevieve Hayes.”
Mitch was stunned. More than stunned. She sounded decidedly British. Upper-class British, like that Lady Something-or-other who’d come to New York when he was a kid to give a speech on abolition. “Where are you from, Genevieve Hayes?”
“Here. I live here.”
She closed her mouth tightly and pushed herself back, then let out another terrible cry of pain.
“Miss Hayes, I swear to you I’m not going to hurt you. I want to help you. You’re hurt. Looks like you broke your leg pretty bad, and I can’t just leave you out here to fend for yourself. If there’s someone nearby who can help, let me get them and I’ll be on my way. Please.”
She looked away again, no doubt weighing her options. “My father died eight months ago.”
“And your mother?”
“When I was eight.”
Holy God, she’d been living on her own for nearly a year. “Do you know anyone else? Anyone else living nearby who could help you?”
She shook her head. Hell. She was alone, with a badly broken leg—a condition he was partly to blame for—and Mitch became painfully aware that his plans for the next few days were about to change drastically.
“All right. I need to see that leg of yours. I’m going to have to cut off your pants leg. Just the right one, okay? I’ve set more than one bone, in case you were wondering.” He tried to sound confident, but the truth was, the thought of setting her leg was making him slightly ill. He had set two broken bones in his life, one during the War Between the States and one on the trail not three years prior. But he’d never set a bone so obviously broken and never on a girl. Hell.
He took out a wicked-looking Bowie knife and her eyes grew even wider. “Miss Hayes, will you please stop looking at me as if I’m going to murder you?”
Her expression didn’t change, but her breath hitched slightly and he wondered if she were trying not to cry. As gently as he could, he cut away the fabric of her pants, revealing her leg. “Holy Mother of God.” He had to look away.
She let out a low moan.
“Don’t look at it,” he said, himself unable to look at her leg for long. “This is good. It didn’t break the skin so there’s no chance of infection. And I think you only broke the one. Okay?”
She nodded and two tears slipped down her cheeks, leaving clean tracks in their wake.
“I don’t have any whiskey,” he muttered, mostly to himself. “I’ll be right back. I need to get something for a splint.” He jogged to where he’d tied up Millie, and without thinking, he grabbed the camera tripod still tied to the mule’s back and snapped one of the legs in two. Perfect. In less than five minutes, he was back.
“Good, you’re still here,” he said, and thought he’d nearly won a smile.
He reached into his pocket and drew out an incongruously clean piece of linen, carefully embroidered with his initials by the sweetheart he’d left at home five years ago. She’d long since married another, but he kept the handkerchief anyway, not for any other reason than it came in handy. It was the last vestige of his New York life tucked in his trail jacket. “It’s clean. Put it in your mouth and bite down hard. This is going to hurt like the dickens. I don’t want to hurt you, you understand? But I have to set this leg or you’ll never walk right again.”
“Do what you must,” she said, taking the handkerchief from his hand. She fingered the soft cloth, noting the embroidery, before lying back down and stuffing it into her mouth.
She nodded and closed her eyes.
“Please, God,” Mitch said, grabbing hold of her leg as gently as he could just below her knee and wrapping his other hand on her slim ankle below the break. And then he pulled and she screamed, instinctively trying to push away from him with her other leg. Instantly, his skin was bathed in sweat, his hands were shaking. “Hold still. Please, Miss Hayes. I’m almost there.” Another pull and then he could feel the bone almost snap back into place. Sweat dripped into his eyes despite the cool late May air, and he wiped at it impatiently with his shoulder.
“How old are you, Miss Hayes?” he asked, trying to distract her from what he was doing.
She pulled the cloth from her mouth, her face pale beneath the dirt. “I’m not certain, but I think twenty.”
Placing the wooden pieces on either side of her leg, he carefully wrapped strips of her ruined pant leg around the splint, wincing each time she cried out. “You don’t know?”
“Lost track, I’m afraid.”
Finally, he was done. He knelt, head down, breathing heavily, with his hands on his thighs, never in his life so glad for a task to be completed.
“It feels quite a bit better now. Thank you.”
He smiled. She sounded so damned proper.
“We have to figure out where to put you. You can’t stay here and you can’t come with me to camp. We move around too much and I don’t think that would be good for you.”
“There are more of you?”
“Ten of us working for the United States Geological Survey. My job’s to take photographs. See Millie over there? She carries around my equipment. Since you’ve been spying on me for two days now, I’m pretty sure you saw me working.”
She nodded. “But I didn’t know what you were doing.”
“Government wants to know what’s out here, to see if there’s anything to see.” He tilted his head and studied her. “How long you been out here?”
“We moved here after my mother died.”
“And where were you before that?”
“Philadelphia. That’s where I was born.”
“Then why do you sound like you came from England?”
Her face lit up so suddenly, Mitch was momentarily stunned by the change. Despite living in the wilderness most of her life, her teeth were straight and white and not a single one was missing. She was very nearly pretty.
“I do? Truly?”
“Like you’re best friends with the queen.”
“My parents came from England, so I suppose I talk the way they did.”
“Makes sense. So, Miss Hayes, where do you live now?” He looked around. “I haven’t seen a house since we came into the valley.”
She craned her neck to look back up the mountain. “Up there a ways.”
Mitch looked up past the rock hanging and saw nothing but pines and more rocks, then looked back at her. “How far?”
“Do you see that rock that looks like a bear’s head?”
Mitch looked up and saw nothing but big pine trees. “To the right. Our cabin is just below it.”
And there it was. He cursed. She didn’t look like a heavy thing, but he wasn’t certain he’d be able to carry her all that way. Putting her on Millie would be far too jarring and he was in no mood to listen to any more female screams. He’d have to carry her.
“I don’t suppose you can walk it,” he said, anticipating the shake of her head. “All right, then. I’ll carry you.” He hunkered down by her side. “Put your hands around my neck and see if you can hoist yourself up a bit with your good leg.”
“Perhaps I could try to walk?”
“Miss, I’m pretty certain you can’t even stand, never mind walk. Now put your hands around my—”
“I could at least try . . .”
“Put your goddamn hands around my neck or I’m going to put them there for you. If I was going to kill you, I would have done it by now.”
The look she gave him nearly made him laugh, part anger, part rebellion, part something he couldn’t put his finger on, a certain devilishness that was about as unexpected as her being out in the middle of this wilderness. She put her hands around his neck and let out a scream when he straightened, bringing her slowly to a standing position. “Holy Jesus, will you promise to listen to me from now on?”
“Yes, sir,” she said, her hands still around his neck. She was shaking like a leaf and he was afraid she was about to faint. Cursing himself a thousand times for frightening her off that cliff, he carefully lifted her into his arms. She tried not to scream, he could tell by the way she clamped her mouth shut and closed her eyes, but it came out anyway. Every time he hurt her, he felt sick. And hell, she weighed nothing. Didn’t this poor girl eat?
He began walking, trying to be careful not to jostle her, but maneuvering around rocks and trees made his task nearly impossible. More than once her broken leg tapped against a trunk or branch and she’d stiffen and cry out as if someone was sticking a knife into her. Or smashing her broken leg. Her arms were tight around his neck, her face buried against his neck. He could tell how much pain she was feeling by how tightly she pressed her head against him.
Mitch had carried more than one woman in his arms, mostly to a warm soft bed, but none had felt like this one. There were no soft curves, no creamy flesh. This girl was hard and pointy. Hell, he could feel the bones of her spine against his arm. She’d been living alone for eight months, through what was no doubt a difficult winter, slowly starving to death.
And she didn’t smell like any woman he’d ever held either. There was no sweet perfume, no floral scent. She didn’t smell bad, just different. Like clean dirt heating up on a summer day. He nearly laughed out loud at that thought. Imagine telling a woman she smelled like dirt and trying to convince her it was a compliment.
Despite her slight weight, she was getting heavier with every step he took. Just when he thought he’d have to set her down, he saw a tiny building not twenty yards away. A man could walk right by that small cabin without even knowing it was there. “I see it. Almost there.” He was looking at the cabin so he didn’t see the branch lying across his path. His boot got caught and he started going down, knowing there was nothing he could do.
It was almost worse than the first time, worse than when he’d set the bone. Genny, already dizzy with the pain, nearly lost consciousness as they hit the ground. She screamed, she couldn’t help it. But she screamed into his shirt so it wouldn’t seem so loud. Even to her own ears, her screams were terrifying. They lay unmoving, with her still in his arms. As they’d fallen, he’d twisted his body so that she fell atop him. His chest worked like a bellows beneath her, his arms were like solid, warm bands around her, giving her comfort as the searing pain began to ebb.
“I’m so sorry, darlin’,” he said, his voice low. Then he let out a string of foul words. They lay that way for some time, until Genny wondered if he’d hurt himself. Then what would they do?
“Are you injured?” she asked finally. She felt his chest move, little jerky spasms, and she realized he was laughing.
“I am not injured, Miss Hayes. I’m just scared to death to move in case I hurt you more. I’m not certain I can take hurting you again. I’m about to die from it.”
“I’ll try very hard not to scream again.”
His grip on her tightened slightly. “You go ahead and scream. I’ll move real slow and you just hang on as tight as you want. We’re almost there. See?”
He pressed his nose against her hair and took a deep breath. Then he chuckled again, though she didn’t know why.
“Can you put your good leg down and brace it against the ground? Good girl. Now, I’m going to sit up and get us standing again. You ready?”
She took a deep, shaking breath, knowing what was coming next. She’d never known anything could hurt this much. She’d always figured childbirth was the worst pain. She remembered her mother screaming when she was trying to have her little brother or sister. She was only eight, but she remembered it like it was yesterday, how she thought her mother was being silly for crying so much. In her world, the most painful thing she’d experienced up until then had been a badly scraped knee. Surely having a baby couldn’t hurt more than that.
But when her mother died, Genny realized there was a pain much, much worse than a scraped knee. There was pain that could kill you.
“I’m ready,” she said, even though she wasn’t.
He stood, slightly shaking. She could feel the tremors move through his body like a small earthquake. She held on tight, letting out only a small sound when the pain got too bad. Her father had always said she was too tough for her own good, just like her mother. Genny had never thought of her mother as tough. She was soft and sweet and would sing to her right after her prayers. Genny knew she was nothing like her mother. Her mother had been special and beautiful; she would have known that even if her father hadn’t said it.
Then Mitch lifted her up into his arms and she didn’t cry out at all. When they got to the cabin, he kicked at the door and it swung open. “We made it,” she said. “There’s a bed to the right.” She still slept up in the tiny loft, but she knew sleeping in her father’s bed for now would be more practical.
He deposited her on her bed and stepped back, looking around the one-room cabin. Genny’s memories of her home in Philadelphia were vague images of long staircases and red carpeting. She wasn’t certain she was remembering her home or some hotel they’d stayed in on the way to California. The ceilings had soared above her head and there were a dozen rooms to explore. At least that’s how it seemed to an eight-year-old girl. She couldn’t be sure if the memories were real or if she was simply remembering her father’s tales of what their life had been like. He got tired of talking about it after a time.
“Homey,” Mitch said, but there was something in his eyes that made Genny think he didn’t like what he saw. She kept the place neat and clean, but it didn’t have soaring ceilings or red carpeting. “Do you have drinking water?”
“There’s a stream out back. The dipper and pail are by the door.”
He grabbed both and was gone.
For the first time, Genny began to think about her predicament. She knew nothing about broken bones or how long they took to heal. But she figured it would be days before she could walk. What was she going to do? She needed to eat. Already her stomach was rumbling. Her last meal had been a day ago when she’d eaten the last bit of a king snake she’d cooked two nights before.
Mitch walked in, bucket and dipper in hand, and knelt by the side of her bed. “Here.” He laid a hand behind her head and helped her to sit so she could take a long drink. “I’ll leave it here so you can reach it.” He stood and looked down at her, hands low on his hips.
“Listen, I’ve got to go tell the men what happened. I’ll get some supplies and come back. I’ll be gone until morning. Do you think you’ll be all right?”
No. “Yes, I’ll be fine.”
He gave the cabin a dubious look. “You have any food?”
“I ate the last of what I had yesterday. I was planning to go out today to look for something.”
He gave her a sharp nod, but she had a feeling he was swearing silently. He was a man who liked to swear. “I’ve got some cornbread and jerky back with Millie. I’ll bring that by before I go.”
Genny had been alone for eight months in her cabin and it was strange to see another person there. But when Mr. Campbell was gone, it seemed unusually empty, the way it had when her father had first died. It was a small cabin, but it had seemed terribly big and lonely right after it had happened. Her father had done the best he could, but no man could fight an angry female grizzly. When she’d found him, he’d still been alive, torn up pretty bad and weak from loss of blood.
Genny didn’t like to think about the way he’d died, but it was stuck in her head like a burr stuck in her hair. He’d made her promise to go home—home to England. She’d promised and had meant it. But winter was nearly on her by then and she couldn’t think of leaving. By the time the weather had turned, real fear had sunk in. England? She hadn’t the foggiest idea how to get there. She didn’t even know how to get to town for certain. Her father stopped bringing her with him when she was old enough to stay alone in the cabin for a few days. It had been years since she’d ventured far from home.
England was a world away, across the entire continent, and then across an ocean of endless water. How would she get there? She didn’t even know which direction to start walking. And so, even though it had been warm enough for weeks to travel, she’d stayed put. When Mr. Campbell had shown up, she began getting a niggling of an idea. Maybe she could follow him to a town and then she could ask directions from there. And if he said no, she’d pay him with her mother’s jewelry. The thought of going up to a complete stranger, though, had nearly paralyzed her. She hadn’t talked to anyone other than her father since the last time she’d been to town. Old Jake didn’t count; her father always said he was more ghost than man, though she’d never known what he meant.
She heard the clomp of Mr. Campbell’s boots outside and turned her head toward the door. When he walked in, his big body blocked out nearly all light from the entry. Her father had not been a big man, certainly not the kind of man who could have carried her up a mountain. This man was like a boulder, big, hard, and solid. Like a big, warm boulder, she amended. When he walked over to her, she could feel the floorboards shaking.
“I’ve got your cornbread and jerky.” He held up a large paper sack that looked like it held enough food for a week, not one night. He looked around for someplace to put it and ended up dragging one of the cabin’s two chairs across the room and setting it next to her bed. He stared down at her for a long moment before turning to leave. “I’ll be back in the morning,” he said, without looking at her, and Genny was certain that would be the last she’d see of Mitch Campbell.
The men back at camp thought it was hilarious that Mitch Campbell, of all people, would be babysitting a girl for the next few weeks, thanks to his own stupidity. Mitch wasn’t particularly known for his warm-heartedness and generosity, so at least some of the men were a bit suspicious of his motives.
“She rich? Got to be. Only thing you care about is money.” This was from Will, who teased him relentlessly about his stinginess. True, Mitch would rather drink water than whiskey and it had nothing to do with being a teetotaler and everything to do with the fact that whiskey cost money and water was free.
“She’s a looker. That’s it.” This was from Rainy Talbot, a man Mitch didn’t particularly like. He mostly didn’t like the look in his eyes when Rainy had asked if she was pretty, and so Mitch told him she was missing nearly all her teeth and her eyes were squinty. While he wouldn’t call the scruffy girl he’d left in the cabin a beauty, she might tempt a man who hadn’t been with a woman in a while. And Rainy Talbot wasn’t the sort of man who attracted women unless he was in a saloon flashing his money.
“Still, she’s a human being and injured and I caused it, so I’m gonna have to stick around until she can fend for herself. I’ll find you. You all stink so bad, I’ll just sniff the air.”
Mitch was going to miss them. They’d been a team for years now, moving across the country to record what they saw for the government. It was good work and it paid well. Plus, when they were on the trail, they weren’t spending money and Mitch had nearly saved up enough to start his photography studio in New York. It would be nice to be back in civilization again. Mitch was pretty close to packing it in, but he’d been having too much fun to settle down in one place just yet. Other than a few visits back home over the years to see his mother, he hadn’t been home since he was eighteen years old and joined the Union Army. Fortunately, the war ended before he could get himself killed or maimed, and he’d headed to Nebraska. He’d wanted to get as far away from smoke and noise as he could and Nebraska seemed like a good place to go. For three years he wandered, working odd jobs until he met up with the man who would change his life forever.
William Henry Jackson and his brother had a small photography studio in Omaha, and had been about to head out with the US Geological Survey. Will needed an assistant and Mitch signed on without even thinking. Like him, Will had spent time in the war and the two struck up an instant friendship. Will was leaving behind a new bride, but Mitch wasn’t leaving behind anything. The farther he could go from home and all the memories of the war, the better. And he’d be seeing sights no white man had ever seen before.
They’d traveled together during the summer months for the past five years, and Mitch felt sick about missing even a moment of this time. Every winter, Mitch would work for Will in his studio in Nebraska anticipating the next summer’s work. Yosemite was one of the most beautiful places he’d ever seen and now he’d be stuck in a cabin taking care of a girl. And it was his own damn fault.
. . .
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