Okay, so it’s really re-release day, since Howard Haskell Takes A Bride was originally released as part of the Love’s Prelude box set. So if you purchased that box set, you already have Howard. But if not? Woo hoo! Now is your chance to see how the romance of Haskell, Wyoming’s founding father came about! And many apologies for those who prefer the sweet version, because this story is spicy-spicy, and really can’t be told any other way because, well, you’ll see. Why not get started on chapter one now? Then pop over to Amazon to purchase it for 99 cents!
Cincinnati, Ohio – 1844
Spring was a beautiful time of year for a ball. The elite citizens of the burgeoning town of Cincinnati, Ohio all agreed. They had come out to new mayor Henry Evans Spencer’s home in droves to prove it. Spirits were high amidst the swirling colors of ball gowns and the trilling of strings that played the latest dance music. Laughter blended with the melody. Well-dressed black servants—servants, not slaves this far north, although plenty of people in town supported slavery—carried trays of sweet wine and punch through the revelers.
Mayor Spencer’s ballroom windows were open to let in the breeze blowing off the Ohio River and the many canals that had so recently been built. Cincinnati had become a hub of commerce, thanks to those canals and its proximity to the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers. It was the fastest-growing city in the United States, although the length and breadth of the country turned its attention more and more every day to the vast expanse of land to the West—the unknown frontier.
Elizabeth Ayers let out a heavy sigh and peeked through one of the ballroom windows, her eyes searching the western horizon. Whatever was going on in the untamed wilderness, it was probably a damn sight better than the insufferable ball.
“What I heard was that Mr. Bond passed her a secret missive in public, right under her mother’s eyes.” Her friend Madeline related the bit of gossip to their group with eager eyes…and more than a little gloating.
“How scandalous of her,” another friend, Henrietta, gasped.
“What did she do with the missive?” the third friend who made up their group, Isobel, asked.
“Well, first she…”
Elizabeth let her mind drift as Madeline went on with the story. She didn’t care what the snotty Miss Gertrude Havers had done to flirt with an unsuitable gentleman. She didn’t care about gossip and innuendo. Her heart ached in her chest, as if it was being called by some unseen force that she could feel but not hear. The western horizon was dark, but the darkness, the unknown was filled with excitement. The story of the West had only just begun to be written. Handfuls of settlers and trappers had made the perilous journey to places with strange names like Oregon and California. They’d brought back stories of rich land and opportunity for those willing to risk all to take it.
Elizabeth was not a risk-taker. She knew that, just as she knew Gertrude Havers was a fool to accept a love note from a man her parents didn’t approve of. But all the same, she longed for something different, something grander, something…more.
“Why, she must be daydreaming of him now.”
It took several more seconds for Elizabeth to catch that her friends had stopped gossiping and were now staring at her. With a start, she dragged her gaze away from the window.
“What?” She patted her coal-black hair, wondering if a piece of the elaborate style she’d had Trudy, her family’s black maid, fix for her was coming loose.
Elizabeth’s three friends exchanged knowing looks and coy smiles.
“See, I told you. Luckiest girl in Cincinnati,” Henrietta said.
“Or rather, Jonas Armstrong is the luckiest man,” Isobel added.
Ice ran down Elizabeth’s spine. “Yes. My parents are very happy with the match.” She glanced down, hoping to hide how unhappy she was.
“Jonas Armstrong is the handsomest, most enterprising young man in Cincinnati.” Madeline congratulated her. “He’s going to be as rich as Croesus before he’s thirty years old, if his father’s business empire continues the way it has been.”
“And we’ll be able to say that we’re best friends with his wife,” Isobel laughed.
Elizabeth tried to smile. She tried to encourage herself to feel something for her fiancé, to be grateful for the position she was about to take in society. The best she could manage was mild interest, but it didn’t outweigh the mountain of resentment at being handed off to a man she’d hardly had time to get to know as a pawn in her father’s business dealings.
“You can do more than simply call yourself a friend to the wife of the richest man in Cincinnati,” Elizabeth said. “You can rescue her from the drudgery of fulfilling that position.” Indeed, she would need her friends around her once her life was shackled to the rock of responsibility.
Her friends laughed. “You sound as if you’re going to the gallows instead of to a bed of satin.” Madeline cuffed her on the arm.
“I would give anything to be in your shoes,” Henrietta sighed.
“Would you?” Bold as brass, Elizabeth slipped out of her dancing slippers and pushed them across the floor with her toe to her friend. “Here you go.”
More tinkling laughter sounded from her friends, but all Elizabeth could think was how good it felt to wiggle her toes.
Before she could sober up and retrieve her shoes, prickles shot up the back of Elizabeth’s neck. She glanced up, subtly searching the crowded room to discover the source of the prickles. Someone was watching her. The light and color and sound of the ball was a raging distraction, but that didn’t stop the feeling. Her heart beat faster, as if fate was tapping her shoulder.
And then she saw him. Half a room away, standing in the frame of one of the French doors leading to the balcony, stood the most striking man Elizabeth had ever seen. He was tall, inches above the whispering couple that stood beside him. His shoulders were broad and his brown hair perfectly coifed. Most arresting of all was his smile. It was broad, bold, absolutely sure of itself. His smile reached his eyes, illuminating them across the distance. If she hadn’t known any better, Elizabeth would have thought that he was the mayor—no, the president, the king, the emperor. Her heart fluttered up to her throat, and she could feel the heat rise to her cheeks. The regal young man—master of all he surveyed—was smiling at her.
“Who is he?” Isobel asked what Elizabeth’s heart was crying out.
Henrietta and Madeline turned to look as well.
Madeline hummed and tsked. “I think that’s Mr. Howard Haskell.”
“Who?” Henrietta wrinkled her nose.
Howard Haskell. Elizabeth repeated the name in her mind and heart. Something about it sizzled. Or perhaps that was his smile. He looked at her as though she was a rival to the sunrise. No one had ever looked at her with such longing, such appreciation before. Her heart beat double-time.
“Do we know him?” Isobel asked.
“No, and from what I understand, we don’t want to.” Madeline tilted up her nose.
“Why not?” Henrietta asked.
Madeline sniffed. “He’s an upstart nobody from who knows where. My papa says that he’s been nosing around Commerce Street for months now.”
“Why would anyone want to do that?” Isobel made a face.
“Maybe he’s in business?” Henrietta offered.
“More likely he’s looking for a job or trying to get involved in one scheme or another,” Madeline said.
“He could be a businessman himself,” Elizabeth offered. Yes, with a proud smile and confidence like that, she had no doubt he was an entrepreneur of some sort.
Madeline sniffed. “Him? Not likely. Everything I’ve heard suggests he’s loud, brash, and coarse. He’s certainly not our sort, you can be sure of that.”
Elizabeth nodded, but she wasn’t so sure. Howard Haskell had an air of excitement about him, a presence that made her feel as though he was inches away, even though he was at the other side of the room. He gave her a feeling, several feelings, and one of those was that he was indeed completely her “sort.”