Happy Book Birthday to Isabella’s Calico Groom (within Calico Ball: Timeless Western Collection, Book 1). As the “Look Inside Feature” on Amazon will allow you to read the first 10% of our collection, you’ll be introduced to Carla Kelly’s charming Keeper of the Western Door… but you’ll miss out on an into to both Sarah M. Eden’s novella and mine (Isabella’s Calico Groom). I’ve provided the whole first chapter here for your chance to “Look Inside”.

Chapter One

Evanston, Wyoming Territory

March 1890

 

Dr. Henry Merritt lived simply.

Despite requiring little for himself, his spending overwhelmed his earnings.

Dangerously so.

Until he paid all he owed, his creditors would not extend additional credit. He couldn’t restock his dental cabinet nor feed his horses.

He rested his head in his hands and stared at the ledger’s columns of numbers.

Late February sunlight, weak by nature, puddled on the hardwood floor. After his last patient an hour ago, he’d banked the fire in the stove and donned his winter coat.

No patients, no coal.

Something must change. Soon.

He fiddled with an envelope containing another request from the local newspaper fellow, Thomas Fisher. It’s not every day a talented graduate of Pennsylvania College of Dental Surgery settles in a humble railroad town and competes with a woman for business. Readers find such things fascinating.

The first three requests had flattered. The latest offered compensation enough to pay rent through March. Or pacify one or more creditors.

The bell over the door tinkled as wintry wind swirled inside. “Going out, are you?” Doc Joe, a medical doctor and Henry’s closest friend, smiled without a care.

The coat told a tale, but not the correct one. “Thought I might.”

Henry’s stomach growled. He’d forgotten the box lunch Mrs. Linden had prepared for him.

“I’ll walk with you. Glorious day. Marginally warm.”

“Above freezing yet?”

“Positive thoughts, Doctor. Positive thoughts.” Joe chuckled. “Or grow facial hair like a true Wyomingite.”

That morning, icy wind had frozen tender membranes in Henry’s nose during the four-block walk from the Linden home. “I’ll survive another few months until spring.”

He found his keys in the desk drawer, tucked order forms and bills inside the ledger, and shut the book to avoid prying eyes.

As he tugged on his gloves, he peered through the glass onto Main Street. A gentleman bundled in a heavy coat hurried past, revealing Dr. Isabella Pattison, DDS—the bane of Henry’s existence.

A deep pink flowerpot hat, covered in silk flowers and ribbons, perched upon her head. Her costume, hidden beneath a figure-hugging black coat and matching muff, was likely the same shade of raspberry.

A flamboyant waste.

Mrs. Trolinger and daughters visited with Dr. Pattison and Joe’s wife, Dr. Naomi Chandler, as if dear friends. The Trolinger girls had been terrified of him. The children, apparently, weren’t scared of her.

The women discussed fashion, evidently, as Miss Pattison raised the hem of her dark pink skirts to reveal high-heeled boots. She must’ve said something humorous, as Mrs. Trolinger and Doc Naomi laughed.

The girls took in the Parisian styles with awe.

He turned his back on the nonsense outside. “Why do ladies expend fortunes to dress fashionably?”

“Some, Naomi tells me, merely enjoy fashion.”

“Evanston men outnumber ladies four to one. If she hadn’t scared every bachelor away with enormous dressmaker bills, she’d have married long ago.”

Married meant leaving dentistry, and that meant an end to Henry’s mounting financial troubles.

Joe chuckled. “Whistling the same old tune?”

“You know how I feel. Women do not belong in a man’s domain. Not in an office, and not in a coal mine.”

“Jealous?”

Shame washed over him, hot and bitter. The woman’s business grew by preying upon his own.

“Come outside.” Joe opened the door. “I’ll introduce you.”

A stale topic of conversation if ever there was one. “No, thank you.”

Hungry, grumpy, and broke. Now was not the time to pretend niceties.

Joe chuckled in his sunshine-filled way. “As you’ve said, my friend, for the last ten months. Make that eleven. Sooner or later, you must greet the woman.”

“Why? I know who she is. And she, I.”

“I’m surprised.”

“No surprise here. I’ve not deviated in the year since Miss Pattison hung her shingle.”

One glimpse, and he’d been snared by an attraction so strong, he’d followed, desperate to learn her name.

Only to be doused by a proverbial bucket of icy water.

The sign painter had sought to clarify the spelling of her name.

Dr. Isabella M. Pattison, DDS.

He’d abruptly returned to work.

“The surprise,” Joe said, “is that you avoid a colleague for reasons you cannot explain.”

“I can explain. I choose not to.” To avoid further conversation, he led the way outside.

More men walked by, raising their hats. Over the friendly hellos and rush of Wyoming wind, Henry was drawn by Dr. Isabella Pattison’s joyful laughter.

Why, after nearly a year had passed and numerous paying clients had quit him, preferring her, must he still find her captivating?

No, today was not the day for introductions. “Just remembered. I’ve an appointment with The Chieftain.”

He hated to grant Thomas Fisher an interview, given all he’d read a year ago, when Fisher lambasted “the lady attorney”, Sophia Hughes, née Miss Sophia Sorensen.

What choice did he have?

The offered sum might be his only salvation.

Isabella slipped on the ice.

Linked at the elbows with Naomi and Sophia, she managed to remain upright.

“No one told me Wyoming winters last eight long months.” How she missed the mild winters of Los Angeles.

Sophia chuckled. “Makes a New England nor’easter seem tame, doesn’t it?”

“I survived the Great Blizzard.” Naomi shuffled forward several more steps.

“Inside.” Sophia, a stickler for details, seldom allowed exaggerations.

“I wasn’t at home when the storm began.” Good-natured jesting among the best of friends.

In mid-March the sun offered light until suppertime, but very little heat. “I’ve been frozen since October.” Three flannel petticoats. A flannel combination. Two pair of wool stockings. Still, Isabella’s circulation choked with ice floes.

“Your blood will thicken eventually. Or so Joe tells me.”

Sophia, on the other end, muttered, “As will your skin.”

“Thick skin? Extra pounds of padding?” Five pounds gained required Isabella to let out the seams of every costume. According to Mother’s dressmaker, a lady’s measurements never increased.

She noted a silent message between the others. “What?”

“Nothing.” Naomi responded with finality.

“Obviously something. I do know the meaning of thick-skinned.” Her two closest friends were fierce protectors, and she loved them for it. “Tell me what you heard.”

“I heard nothing.” Naomi, ever the calming influence, smiled with reassurance.

“What did you read?”

Another look between attorney and medical doctor.

Four more icy, mincing steps along Main. Isabella caught the longing on Sophia’s lovely features and her calculation of the time required to reach Evanston City’s office.

“Planning a timely interruption won’t protect you.” Isabella aimed for light and careless but fell short. “I’ve heard and read plenty since announcing my determination to pursue dentistry. I’d rather hear the judgment from you than someone else.”

A gust of wintry wind scampered by, piercing Isabella to the skin.

Sophia held her winter hat upon her head. “You know how I feel about Thomas Fisher and The Uinta Chieftain.”

The weekly published today, Thursday. “What did he write?”

“Nothing new.” More soothing from Naomi.

Isabella’s pulse quickened. “Let me guess. Criticism of females who demand entrance into a man’s world? Taxing ourselves with education?”

One of her tender spots, inflicted by cutting words. Many from those who should love her most.

The storm howled, but her friends remained silent.

“I’ll find a copy of the paper. Perhaps at our meeting.” One step farther. Then two.

“You win. I’ll paraphrase.” Sophia’s sharp mind likely recalled every word. “It is only when she despises to be a helpmeet for man, a joy to the household—” Sophia’s tone mocked a high-and-mighty man who knew everything—“only when she has lost all maternal instincts and determined to destroy all that tends to make her lovely and lovable to man—only when she has become a man-hater—”

“I’ve heard enough.” Isabella swallowed a knot of fury. That man!

“You do realize this is rubbish?” Sophia always called a spade a spade. “Absurd. Absolutely farcical.”

She’d heard this argument over and over. Some went so far as to label her choice in professions a moral depravity, a stark weakening of reciprocal love between a noble man and a pure woman.

Utter balderdash.

Naomi squeezed Isabella closer. “Joe swears by his good friend, Isabella. He’s truly not as uncaring and cold as he seems.”

Oh. Him. Henry Merritt. “He’ll be at this meeting, won’t he?” All professionals had been informed their presence was required.

“The comments in today’s paper weren’t Fisher’s typical prattle.” Resignation dampened Sophia’s tone. “He interviewed Dr. Henry Merritt at length.”

Henry Merritt. The dentist whose office stood one block from hers, across Main.

The man who refused to acknowledge her on the street. The man who had yet to allow introductions. The fellow who’d hated her on sight for no discernible reason.

She’d ask—again—what she’d done to offend Henry Merritt, but neither of her friends knew. They’d both asked their husbands—how did Joe and Chadwick consider Merritt a friend?—but obtained no answers.

“One direct quote,” Sophia said. “‘I’m a young man, doing fairly well in my profession, and hoping someday to have a home of my own with a wife to reign over it, but the Lord deliver me from one of these professional women! Our own beloved Evanston, Wyoming Territory, is near to overrun with professional women.’”

“All three of us.” Naomi tried to lighten the conversation with a wry chuckle. “Three professional women, overrunning a city of two thousand souls!”

“Naomi, hush. This is the important line: ‘My practice suffers to the point I may never afford to have that grandest desire—that home of my own and an angel wife to therein reside.’”

“He blames me?” Fury pounded with every quickened heartbeat. “I’ve done nothing. How might I be responsible for his business or his lack of a wife?”

Dr. Merritt had proved discourteous, conceited, and cruel. Tonight, he’d earned fiendish. And wicked.

“Shall we take you home?” Naomi halted their caravan. “We’ll return and tell the mayor and council you’re unwell.”

“Absolutely not.” Indignation rattled Isabella’s bones. “I will attend this meeting, even if that man will be present.”

She’d show him she was made of sterner stuff. She’d show graciousness in the face of assault. She’d be herself, a contributing, helpful member of society.

“I fear,” Naomi whispered, “both men will be present.”

Fisher and Merritt.

“Thank you for telling me all you read. Let’s hurry inside where it’s warm.”

“Doctor.” Fisher, the newspaperman, took a seat beside Henry in the city’s council room. “Your piece ran today.”

He’d not seen it yet, thanks to his first busy afternoon in weeks. Three patients made vague comments about his interview in the paper. Perhaps his luck had turned.

“I’ll read it soon.” The interview, less than a quarter hour in duration, probably filled a scant two inches. He’d locate it on page three, wedged between advertisements for patent medicines.

The compensation had been generous enough to keep his office open another month.

The upstairs room filled quickly. Two druggists, medical doctors from the new Wyoming Insane Asylum, three dentists, the city civil engineer, the county bridge builder, and four attorneys.

All three women had chosen prominent seats, front and center.

Between the people and the potbellied stove in the corner, the room slowly warmed. Waning light filtered through spotted windowpanes. Lamplight glowed from three wall sconces.

“Ladies and gentlemen.” Mayor Raymond Gardner’s heavy mustache curtained his teeth. Darkly stained hairs denoted chewing tobacco, a habit that spoiled a set of should-be pearly whites. “We approach the closure of a challenging decade. Wyoming Territory has faced the most difficult winters on record. This very season, our own county suffered yet another destructive season for our ranchers and their cattle.”

What did the city’s professionals have to do with ranchers and what newspapermen called the “Cow Killing Winter”?

The mayor stood a little taller. “Wyomingites are strong. Resilient. We’ve braved the worst, and we’re still here. It’s time we celebrate our tenacity and our spirit. Thus, on behalf our elected city officials, it is my pleasure to extend to you, our fine professionals, the honor of working in committee for the grand occasion of Statehood for Wyoming.”

A rush of whispers and voices indicated excitement. Several men applauded.

The record books would remember 1890. Statehood had been a topic of discussion in every circle for years, especially since the constitutional convention convened in Cheyenne last September.

Mayor Gardner grinned widely, if the spread of facial hair could be trusted.

“Committee?” Leave it to Thomas Fisher to ask questions. “For what, precisely?”

“Evanston intends to celebrate in the grandest style. Statehood for Wyoming!”

A round of applause, muffled by the gloves many still wore.

The mayor acknowledged the applause as if he, and he alone, were to credit for territorial advances. “Numerous committees, involving every citizen of Evanston and Uinta County, will prepare a week-long celebration, from Independence Day through Friday, July 11. A parade with marching bands. Fireworks, suppers, a theatrical production. Bicycle and foot races. Musical programs. Military reenactment. And, as Wyoming will be the forty-fourth state, a forty-four gun salute. Speeches! And,” he paused for emphasis, “a grand gala ball.”

A dozen questions erupted.

“I know you’re anxious to learn what your committee will do.” Mayor Gardner rubbed his palms together.

Silence met the mayor’s glee.

Eduard Sperry, youngest of the attorneys, pushed to his feet. “Seems to me the city might want to ask if her professionals would mind volunteering their time.”

Mayor Gardner cleared his throat. “Why, yes, of course. That’s—that’s what I meant.”

Sperry lowered himself to his seat.

Gardner cleared his throat again and rubbed his palms briskly once more. “We ask for your generous support in this valuable undertaking. The culminating event will be the honor of our city’s fine professionals.”

“The ball,” Fisher stated.

Not one to attend dances, Henry hadn’t the vaguest notion of the responsibility a “gala ball” entailed.

“What variety of ball?” Naomi Chandler’s golden hair shone in the lamplight. She’d removed her hat, a front-row courtesy. Henry had liked her from the moment they’d been introduced.

“That’s for the committee to decide, Mrs. Chandler—excuse me.” The mayor pressed a palm to his chest and bowed slightly. “My apologies, madam. Dr. Chandler.”

Naomi nodded. “Are those present to constitute this committee?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“I suggest, Mayor Gardner, that we vote to answer the question posed by Mr. Sperry, and if all are in agreement, that we then presently determine the theme of the ball.”

The mayor was notorious for interrupting, interfering, and unraveling diligent planning. Smart lady.

“Now that our city’s finest know what the city’s elected ask, all in favor—that is, uh . . . those who are willing to volunteer their time to the celebration of Statehood for Wyoming, say aye!”

A round of hearty ayes seemed to echo in the room.

“Very well.” The mayor tucked his thumbs into his vest pockets and rocked back on his heels. “What do you propose?”

“Not so fast.” Sperry again. He raised his hand, high. “I vote no.” He turned his head about, seeking support from his pals. “Who else says no to this kindly offer to fill my week with more work?”

Sperry chuckled as several others, including the balance of the attorneys, raised their hands in unison.

“If we won’t donate our time, I suppose you don’t want us here.” Sperry rose, buttoned his coat, and motioned for his fellow attorneys to join him. “Anybody else want to reconsider their vote?”

A few turned their heads about as if undecided.

Naomi didn’t wait for numbers to diminish further. “With our committee subdivided, responsibilities will be easily managed. I suggest a calico ball.”

Fisher shifted in his chair. “A what?”

Questions buzzed throughout the assembled.

“Gentlemen?” The mayor scanned the men. “What say you?”

Dr. Edwin English, DDS, spoke up. “I say we follow Dr. Merritt’s common sense, printed by Fisher.” He winked at Henry. “Fine article, gentlemen.”

Most of the men applauded, even as Sperry and his contingency exited.

On the front row, the spines of three female attendees stiffened. Dr. Pattison, the littlest one, didn’t turn like her friends did. But her hat’s ornamentation quivered as if she . . . laughed?

What had Fisher printed?

The city engineer stood. “Aren’t balls a woman’s domain?”

Last winter, Naomi had put on a splendid leap-year ball. But to say any woman could excel in this assignment would be false. Lenora wouldn’t have attempted the feat, even to celebrate statehood. He shoved the unwelcome memories aside.

Male chuckling, inarguably good-natured, filled the lull.

“Precisely as Fisher and Dr. Merritt put in black and white.”

Henry cut a glance at Thomas Fisher. They’d not discussed this subject, even in passing.

Another asked, “Don’t balls plan themselves?”

The majority laughed, but not Henry.

Aggravation pinched Doc Naomi’s and Sophia’s expressions. Probably frustrated with Fisher’s article and the demeaning banter.

Dr. Edwin English buttoned his coat. “I say we leave this to the ladies.”

More raucous laughter, as two of the doctors from the territory asylum followed him toward the door.

A pang of . . . anxiety? . . . tingled down Henry’s spine. He’d expected better from his colleagues. Naomi needed support. “I second the motion.”

Three women turned as one and pinned him with fierce disappointment.

“The motion,” Naomi repeated, her posture defensive, “to ‘leave it to the ladies’?”

“You misunderstood. I seconded your motion. For a calico ball.”

If Naomi was pleased, she didn’t show it.

“Moving along.” The mayor ignored Dr. English and the two docs from the big hospital up the hill. “Objections?”

Seconds elapsed without comment. The door shut soundly behind the three men.

“What’s a calico ball?” This from the county bridge engineer.

“Mrs.—Dr. Chandler,” the mayor caught himself, again. “Honor us with a reply?”

Always a lady, Naomi presented as the New York heiress she’d been. “A calico ball is the fashion from New York to San Francisco and in every locale between. Invitees wear new costumes of calico, rather than silk, taffeta, or velvet. Our purpose? To pass the once-worn garments to those grateful to receive.”

Her bottomless heart matched Joe’s. No wonder they made an ideal couple.

“Who?” the mayor asked. “We haven’t tenements. Our churches have poor boxes to meet needs that arise.”

“Mayor,” Henry said, “if I may, I have a proposition. Our neighbors need the boon the calico theme provides.”

Barefoot children, fatherless. Hollow-eyed widows in rags.

Henry recalled his parents’ pride and refusal to accept charity . . . and the deprivation. “We have an opportunity to make a difference,” he insisted. “A legitimate difference.” He swallowed, crushed anew by the pain he’d suffered upon hearing news of the disaster.

Beside him, Fisher shifted. “November twenty-sixth. Nearly four months ago.”

Leave it to the newspaperman to recall the precise date of Almy’s most devastating mining disaster.

Heads bowed. A few crossed themselves.

As Henry held Mayor Gardner’s eye, memories of his own grief, buried in coal mines far away, crept in. “I can think of nothing finer than celebrating Wyoming Statehood with means to help our own. If any citizens of the soon-to-be State of Wyoming are deserving of our gift—” not charity, never charity—“the residents of Almy are.”

“Aye,” someone murmured.

“I’ll second,” a male voice stated with conviction.

Mayor Gardner nodded, as if his decision were the only that counted. “The motion carries.”

“Wait.” Thomas Fisher lumbered to his feet. “Will the widows and orphans we aim to help still be in Almy come summer? With their men no longer employed by the Union Pacific . . .”

How were these men so unaware? “They’ll be there.” Some had nowhere to go. Others ranched, and turned to mining for income.

“How do you know this?” The mayor tugged on his mustache. “We have months, yet.”

“I know.”

Chairs squeaked. Men shifted.

“I see.” The mayor’s mustache grinned.

Miss Pattison hugged Naomi tightly—her smile, brilliant and white, and filled with unmistakable happiness.

Must she be so lovely?

“A calico ball,” the mayor continued, “will be held in the fine city of Evanston this coming July. By the grace of God, and with the diligent work of our congressional conference, may our city see the finest calico ball in the history of calico balls.”

Over the last few minutes, Naomi assigned tasks to each subcommittee.

As the meeting disbanded, Naomi Chandler approached. Her lady friends flanked either side.

She took his hand in her firm grip. “Thank you, Dr. Merritt. I can’t conceive of a more suitable recipient of the funds.”

Funds? Wasn’t this about dresses?

Uncertainty must’ve shown on his face, because Sophia, Chadwick Hughes’s wife, stepped in. “Balls are an excellent revenue generator. Entrance tickets net significant funds.”

All three women nodded.

Naomi released him, and Chadwick’s wife, Sophia, shook his hand. Direct, firm, like an attorney.

Quite by accident, he’d turned to the third of their circle, the female dentist he’d successfully avoided for nearly one year.

The delicate fragrance of violets teased his senses.

Her smile punched him in the chest, hard and swift, and he found himself captivated all over again.

“Thank you, Dr. Merritt.” She offered her hand.

Because he had no choice, he took her hand in his.

[end of chapter one]

Copyright © 2018 Kristin Holt LC

Hooray! This brand new title is LIVE, today! CALICO BALL: Timeless Western Collection, Book 1 is available at all major eBook retailers. [Some of the links are not yet live; I’ll update this the moment I can find the links. If you discover the link before I do, please don’t hesitate to contact me!]

Learn much more about my novella in this collection by Timeless Romance:

Copyright © 2018 Kristin Holt LC