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Rugged & Relentless: Husbands for Hire, Book 1

One Charleston, Virginia, May 5, 1886

Sell it." Her sister's voice cracked on the second word. "Tell Lacey to sell it all and be rid of the accursed place forever." "Tell her yourself." Evelyn Thompson thrust a handkerchief at her sibling but offered no other solace. "Lacey promises some exciting news, and you've hidden inside too long, Cora."

"Mourning, not hiding."

"Lacey mourns for her brother but honors him by pressing on." But here is another matter. Lord, I can't allow the tragedy of the mines to bury my sister along with her fiancé. "We must change our plans and see to our futures."

The sodden handkerchief plummeted to the floor in Cora's first show of spirit in weeks. "I told you --- sell it. Sell every inch of Hope Falls we own. I'll never set foot in the town that took Braden, and no profit will be made from a ghost town. Tell Lacey to take the offer and not look back."

"You can tell your opinion to Lacey and Naomi in person."

"I can't." The fire in her eyes dimmed. "Evie, please."

The whisper tore into the very foundation of her relationship with her sister. For as long as she could remember, Evie'd sheltered, raised, and comforted Cora. Streams of mopped tears, scores of tended scrapes, hours of hugs invested demanded that she do the same once more. But their lives hung on the outcome of today's meeting.

If I can just get her there! "You can." Evie picked up the soiled handkerchief and thrust it into her sister's hands. "You must." With that, she summoned the carriage and headed Cora off when she made for the stairs. Instead, Evie thrust a black bonnet atop her sister's head and all but hauled her out the front door and into the waiting conveyance.

The Lyman house sprawled only a few short blocks away --- a simple walk the sisters had made hundreds, perhaps thousands of times. But not today. Today, Evie didn't trust her own ability to force her sister through a walk. Today, those few blocks yawned before her, stretched beyond recognition and filled with peril. Thus, the carriage. It wasn't until they sat safely seated inside that either of them spoke.

"I haven't stepped foot in that house since his memorial."

Cora's quiet words held no accusation, only resignation. Evie's stomach wrenched --- and not only from the jostle of the carriage, although that would not have been surprising. Any sort of sustained motion managed that unsavory effect. No, this time the sensation traced back to her own insensitivity in forcing her sister to face a lifetime of memories filled with her recently departed fiancé. It isn't the meeting Cora has been avoiding --- it's the house! That should have been obvious. She gave herself a mental kick. "Forgive me. I hadn't realized the reason you hesitated ---"

"Nor did I, to tell the truth. It wouldn't have occurred to me if you hadn't forced me out of isolation." A rueful smile played about the corners of Cora's lips for a brief moment before tightening into grim determination. "We're here."

Fashioned of stately brick and built along Georgian lines, Lyman House graciously watched over the end of a curved street facing an open park. It had, for at least three previous generations, watched over Lymans and seen them prosper. Until Braden and Lacey broke the delicate pattern. They first bore the misfortune to be orphaned --- albeit after reaching their majorities. But the real trouble seemed to be their disregard for more traditional British customs in favor of a thoroughly American spirit of curiosity and adventure.

A spirit Evie and Cora shared. A spirit that led to an impulsive investment in a promising mining town and, ultimately, Braden's death in a catastrophic cave-in.

So the flags flew at half-mast around the grand residence, and the servants wore black and, as they habitually wore black or gray, added a black armband to signal the household's loss. Solemn quiet completely unlike the usual hustle and bustle of the big place shrouded the building. Too much change in too little time. As she climbed the front steps, Evie fancied the house hibernated; the windows of its eyes and ears no longer flung open to catch the rhythm of the world around it, it slept. She shivered at the notion that it seemed to be waiting for something --- much the same way her sister had been ever since word of the Hope Falls tragedy arrived.

Mr. Burk opened the door before Evie so much as raised the knocker, disproving her theory that the house slumbered. "Miss Lyman and Miss Higgins await you in the morning room." They made their way past the grand staircase, to the left, down the second hallway, and into the third door on the right without any further guidance. The Thompson sisters counted as family, and all the servants knew it. Not one of them would say a word about how, with Braden gone, Cora would never become a Lyman in truth. Not the way everyone always expected. And if anyone dares show such insensitivity, I'll step on his toe. That should be enough to erase any thoughtlessness until the fool's foot heals. Evie's eyes narrowed. Slowly.

"Evie! Cora!" Lacey rushed to greet them, a froth of black fabric swirling about her feet as she sprang from her chair to flood them in hugs.

If the ponderous weight of grief seemed absent in Lacey's effusive embrace, it etched its burden upon her companion. Miss Naomi Higgins, who boasted a mere five years more than her charge, made her way across the room at a more sedate pace. Her thick muslin skirts dragged at her steps, the harsh black of mourning making the premature streak of pure white at her crown even more startling than usual.

"Naomi." Evie placed her hands on her friend's shoulders, exchanging an understanding glance before drawing her close. Although the slightly older woman seemed disapproving, the two of them shared a special bond. Naomi's propriety kept Lacey's exuberance in check much in the same way Evie looked after Cora. "Evie." Naomi sank into the hug as though allowing herself a brief respite before putting the starch back in her spine. "It's good to see you." She turned to Cora for a somewhat awkward embrace. "Both of you."

"Come." Lacey grabbed Evie's and Cora's hands, pulling them to a plush sofa and settling herself between them. "Have some scones or tarts --- Cook knew you were coming." Her smile may have fooled a casual acquaintance, but Evie saw beyond the brittle facade erected around a long-standing joke.

The Lyman cook constantly worried that Cora --- with her unending energy and impossibly tiny waistline --- needed to eat more. At the same time, she respected Evie's position as a restaurateur and never missed an opportunity to impress her. So the great joke at Lyman Place was that if they wanted to eat well, they need only invite a Thompson for tea.

Evie put as much warmth as she could muster into her answering smile and selected a scone --- although her stomach still roiled from both the carriage and the difficulties she couldn't keep from her sister. "How could I resist?"

From the look Cora shot her, at least one person knew she could have resisted easily. Evie didn't mind --- anything that made amusement flash across Cora's features was well worth the price. She nibbled at the edge of her scone before putting it down with undue haste. Really, daily carriage rides might do much to improve my figure... She shoved the thought back. Now wasn't the time.

With pleasantries out of the way, silence usurped the place of comfortable conversation and laughter. No more would their afternoons be filled with sharing updates from Hope Falls, poring over catalogs for their businesses, and making plans for their eventual trip out West to join Braden.

Wedding plans for Cora's big send-off evaporated like so much spilled milk, and no matter how old the adages about crying being no use, the sense of loss seeped into every niche of their lives. Everything left seemed soured, though Evie refused to say so. No. We'll make the best of things, just as we did when Pa died... Now there was land, interest in a mine to be partitioned off.

Decisions to be made about Evie's café and Lacey's general store out in Hope Falls --- the businesses in which they'd invested so much on the promise of their new lives. The businesses that now lay fallow in a soon-to-be ghost town. Those dreams kept company with men who'd never made it out of the mines. Lost forever.

"Well" --- Naomi cleared her throat --- "we can't sit here all day and hope the situation changes." She gave a slight wince at the word "hope."

They all did.

If Naomi could be counted upon to break the ice, that left Evie to keep chopping away at the frigid barrier surrounding their futures. "She's right. We need to discuss what we're going to do, ladies. Where do we go from here?" "Not Colorado." This from Cora, who looked as though she would have leapt from her seat if Lacey weren't still clasping her hand. "I'll tell both of you exactly what I told Evie --- sell it all and good riddance!"

Evie knew the others awaited her response to this outburst, but she held her tongue. This couldn't be her decision. Not only because Lacey held the principal investment, and they'd made promises to their friend, but because Evie felt torn between the two choices herself.

Part of her agreed with Cora. The venture had cost far more than they'd foreseen, wiping out her inheritance and savings. Then it took the ultimate price in Braden's life. Hope Falls. . . even the name, which once seemed whimsical, now sounded a sinister warning. A dark part of her mind, the part that whispered superstitions and imagined phantasms when tree branches scraped windows in the dead of night, urged her to protect her sister and wash her hands of the place once and for all. Not to be secretly melodramatic, she chided herself.

Evie focused on the more practical, and thus important, aspects of the situation. With the businesses not up and running and the town defunct, the chances of recouping even a reasonable percentage of those investments were all but nonexistent. And without Braden, Evie needed to think about how she'd support not only herself, but Cora as well. Could she afford to sell out? If they couldn't revitalize Hope Falls, could she afford not to? That's what it all came down to. That's what she'd come to find out. Evie returned Lacey's gaze in silent question, noting the barely perceptible shake of her flaxen head.

"My solicitor assures me that if we sell, we'll lose almost everything we've put into Hope Falls." Lacey bit her lip --- most likely thinking about how buying into the town so they could move with Braden and Cora had been her idea. "He also assures me that, with everyone leaving, the chance of recognizing a profit is negligible."

"What does that leave?" Heart thumping, Evie crumbled her scone into a fine powder, where at least it wouldn't cling to her waistline.

"Keeping the land until it becomes a more marketable asset is what Mr. Slurd suggests." Lacey's eyes narrowed. "I disagree. If selling it means we lose everything, and leaving it fallow means the same, we simply must find another way."

"How?" Naomi spread her hands in a fatalistic gesture. Her involvement more limited to a supportive role by virtue of her lack of personal investment, she didn't offer any outright opinions. "I don't see another option, unless another mining company would buy up the entire area." "There's been an offer, but it's ludicrous."

Evie's fists clenched at the sum Lacey revealed. It wasn't even what she'd paid to begin the café, much less enough for her, Lacey's, and Cora's stakes. Not to mention what Braden left in his Will --- why, he'd been co-owner of the mine itself. "Shysters!"

"Is there any way to bring the town back?" Naomi's question surprised Evie, who thought her friend would be more in favor of selling out and staying in Virginia.

"No. It floated loose from hell and needs to go back." Cora's voice sounded oddly flat. "There's no saving it."

Excerpted from RUGGED & RELENTLESS: Husbands for Hire, Book 1 © Copyright 2011 by Kelly Eileen Hake. Reprinted with permission by Barbour Books. All rights reserved.

Rugged & Relentless: Husbands for Hire, Book 1
by by Kelly Eileen Hake