The Prospector’s Only Prospect
Ordering a bride was supposed to be easy…
After eight days in a cramped stagecoach, divorcée Marigold Davis already regrets her decision to come to Denver City to marry. She certainly didn’t realize she’d signed up for mosquitos, mud, and scores of rough men eyeing her like a hot meal on a cold day. But with her life in Kansas all but incinerated, Marigold needs a husband. Even if she’s not the bride that gold prospector Virgil Gardner is expecting…
Virgil Gardner has a reputation as a grumpy hard-ass, and he’s fine with it. He’s also no fool – this is not the woman he agreed to marry. It takes a tough-as-nails woman to survive the harshness of a Rocky Mountain gold claim, and this whiskey-eyed, gentle beauty is certainly not the type. Now it’s just a matter of how quickly she’ll quit, so he can find a wife who will stick. Someone who can care for the only thing he values even more than gold–his children.
But Marigold isn’t about to give in. Cramped in a one room shack. Berry picking turned into a bear escape. Or, cooking for an entire crew of bottomless pits. She’s got more grit than most. And just when Virgil starts to realize his replacement bride might be the treasure he’s been looking for, an unannounced guest arrives… to change everything.
Humor and romance collide in USA Today bestselling author Dani Collins’ all-new western series, starting with a mail order bride’s unexpected arrival in 1859 Colorado.
“Collins mines the setting for both danger and humor, providing the perfect backdrop to this sensuous romance. Readers won’t want to put this down.” ~ Publisher’s Weekly Starred Review
The Prospector’s Only Prospect
"An educated woman willing to homestead and care for three children isn’t panned out of any old stream, is she?"
— Marigold, The Prospector's Only Prospect
This book started with an editor saying, “I’m looking for a Western romcom, maybe with a hero with kids.” I said, “What about a mail order bride?” She said, “Sure.”
So I wrote a few chapters, not sure I could even write a book set in old-timey times. Her reaction? “Where’s the rest?”
That was in mid-2020. The book probably would have come out sooner if I’d finished it that year, but life and pandemic and loss got in the way.
Some good things got in the way, though. My daughter said, “I was reading about divorce in the 1800’s…” and I instantly knew my heroine should be divorced. That meant I had to research divorce law, which was different in every state. I also learned about passenger pigeons and the Oregon trail, revolvers and cholera, and how gold was used as currency. (Sometimes gold dust was stored in goose quills.)
That’s all fun window dressing to a story about a grumpy hero who doesn’t know how to father his children, but learns to show the love he hides beneath his gruff manners. The heroine finds agency and acceptance among the colourful miners of the frontier and gets the family she always longed for along with a husband who really, truly loves her.
I’m so thrilled with how this book turned out. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it.
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The Prospector’s Only Prospect
Denver City, Territory of Kansas, July 13, 1859
After eight days of steady travel, every bone in Marigold Davis’s body creaked when she stepped down from the stagecoach. She was rattled and rumpled and no doubt smelled of her fellow travelers’ cigars, which at least disguised her lack of a recent bath.
The Leavenworth City & Pike’s Peak Express Company had touted itself as “tremendously comfortable,” but that was a gross overstatement. Perhaps it wasn’t their fault that any carriage ride longer than an hour made her sick, but the drunken mule driver, the windstorm that had left her blowing into her gloves to warm her hands, and the mosquito swarms that had pocked her face with bites hadn’t helped.
The few hours she’d been offered a bed, she hadn’t dared fall asleep, not with only a muslin wall to protect her from the soldiers and waystation handlers who’d never taken their eyes off her. And the little food she’d managed to eat at those places had been difficult to choke down and keep down.
She was unfit for a coffin, let alone an introduction to her prospective bridegroom.
For a time, she had thought she might be dead. The first days of limitless nothing had had her edging toward prairie fever. She’d been saved by her glimpse of bison, but soon the land had begun to roll even more than her stomach. She had finally arrived in Denver, and a fresh knot of anxiety formed in her belly over what might await her. Based on recent experience, resounding disappointment, most likely.
As men hurried to help with unloading, she stepped out of the way, hugging her carpetbag as much for comfort as from fear of losing it. It was third-hand and threadbare, but all she possessed.
Her only family, her sister and uncle, had been left behind. The sheer isolation of this new place hit like a kick to the face.
Marigold pressed her back to the exterior wall of the Express office while she got her bearings.
Dear Pearl, she mentally composed to her sister. The frontier optimism continues unabated in Denver “City.”
What a joke that word was. She couldn’t see one cobbled street or painted storefront or even a single cherry tree, despite her research telling her Denver had been founded on the banks of Cherry Creek. All she saw was chaos and wagons and a sawmill at the river that seemed to have started more structures than it had finished. If roads were laid out, the buildings were placed too sparsely on the trampled, muddy ground to tell.
Across the creek lay the slightly more robust settlement of Auraria, but it was also a hodgepodge of shops, shanty shacks, sod huts, tents, wagons, and teepees. Like this side, some of the homes were in proper rows with fences marking the borders of the homestead. One had several lines of denim trousers and gray shirts, so she supposed it was a laundry service. She could hear the faint ring of a blacksmith’s hammer and the bark of a dog, but otherwise, she was surrounded by men and horses and the funk of manure.
She didn’t see women of any description.
And there, beyond the South Platte that Cherry Creek flowed into, rose the muscled peaks of the Rocky Mountains. They were so imposing, they seemed to compress the breath out of her.
She had longed to see mountains again. It had been the one glimmer of anticipation that had kept her spirits up while she’d endured this journey. The Rockies weren’t like the Appalachians, though. There were no soft green wrinkles and folds that had bunched around her like a comforting blanket when she’d been a child in Bedford, Pennsylvania.
These were sharp, broken teeth, craggy and hewn and forbidding as they shot upward above the tree line and attempted to tear holes in the silk-blue sky.
I should have stayed in Topeka.
She’d had nowhere to stay there, though. No place that was safe. No place that wanted her. It was the story of her life to hear the words, You can’t stay here.
“Lady, are you waiting for mail? If not, move away from the window.”
She glanced at the wiry man wearing filthy clothes and muddy boots. His eyes were bright beads in a face of scraggly gray whiskers and brows. Men who looked equally disreputable were gathering behind him.
She moved to enter the Express office, but an employee barred her.
“We close while we sort the mail,” he told her.
“I only want to—”
He closed the door in her face.
“—wait for my party out of the wind.” Marigold bit back a huff. She wasn’t a timid woman, but after four years of her uncle’s politics getting them into confrontations of ever more serious natures, she’d learned that even the battles worth fighting could leave you standing in the rain at midnight while your home went up in flames.
Turning from the door, she looked for a place to sit. Not here. Danger scented the air. The line of men continued to grow, and she knew it was only a matter of time before—
“Hey, lady. Are you married? You want a husband?”
“Looking for the cathouse? I’ll show you where it is.”
“What’s that you’re wearing?”
Oh, these infernal bloomers.
Marigold sent a dismissive smile toward the men. “I’m waiting for someone.”
“Mr. Virgil Gardner.” She didn’t know what she would do if she had missed catching him. She didn’t have money for a boarding house.
“You’re his bride?” A series of grimaces and skeptical brows rippled across their faces. It was a collective Yeeshthat wasn’t the least bit encouraging.
Before she could say, Not exactly, she heard her status as his bride being relayed over one shoulder to another, down the line. Men even stepped out to look.
“Her?” More brows wrinkled as they stared unabashedly. “Huh.”
The man closest to the mail window rapped on the glass and called through it, pointing. “That’s her. That’s Gardner’s bride.”
The mail window screeched open. The clerk who’d closed the door on her poked his head out.
“You’re Pearl Martin?” He frowned at her bedraggled appearance. “He said you’d send a letter to tell him when you would arrive.” He snapped his fingers at the men. “A dollar to fetch Gardner. His wagon’s at Pollock’s, but try the saloons.”
“I’ll do it.” A less-than-spry man of sixty-odd years took off in a hitching trot.
Marigold opened her mouth to correct their assumption that she was Pearl but shut it again, saving her breath for the man who had written, I enclose a prepaid ticket on the Express. You’ll find me to be a fair, respectful man to all but liars, cheats, and thieves.
“Do you drink out of your own barrels?” Virgil Gardner asked Cecil Dudley, keeper of the Dudley Saloon.
“It’s not what your men are drinking. It’s how much,” Cecil insisted, mustache quivering uncertainly.
“The hell it is.” Virgil leaned his arm on the bar top. Like the floor, the surface was gummy as a sugar birch in spring, but he ignored it and dipped his chin to level Cecil one of his most intimidating stares. “I know the difference between a hangover from too much whiskey and gut rot from moonshine. I don’t care how you turn a profit, Ceese, unless it interferes with how I turn a profit. If you poison my men again, you and I will talk further.” Virgil found it best to be vague with his threats. It kept him from having to follow through on things he didn’t really want to do.
As perspiration broke out on Cecil’s brow, someone burst into the saloon, calling out, “Is Virgil Gardner here?”
Virgil slowly turned his head, keeping one eye on Cecil. Fear had its uses, but it made men do stupid things.
“I’m here, Skip.” He recognized the old-timer as one of the men who had worked for them in Quail’s Creek between prospecting his own claims.
“She’s here.” Skip took a few limping paces toward him.
She? There could only be one she looking for him.
Skip nodded proudly, as if he’d been the one to arrange her arrival himself.
Well, wasn’t that as convenient as rain after planting? Virgil had written that he came to Denver City every second Wednesday for supplies, but he had thought she would write to tell him when to expect her, not just show up. It would seem that Pearl Martin was as “cheerfully accommodating” as she’d promised. That boded well for their future.
Virgil sniffed the whiskey Cecil had poured him from the bottle labeled Real Kentucky Bourbon before he knocked it back. He hissed out the burn.
“That’s what I want you to serve my men when they come in, not whatever you and the missus cook up in the shed.”
“We’re still getting the hang of it,” Cecil muttered, sniffing the bottle.
Virgil dropped his foot off the rail and shifted to see his reflection in the cloudy glass behind the bar. He smoothed his hair and resettled his hat on his head. There wasn’t anything he could do about the puckered scar down the left side of his face. It put some people off, but it came in handy when he wanted to make a saloonkeeper shit his britches, so he didn’t mind living with it.
He’d warned his future wife about it in his letter so she wouldn’t be too shocked by the sight of him, but he wished he had a fresh haircut to make a better impression.
Cecil had the sense to keep his hands where Virgil could see them, but he sounded constipated when he said, “How do I know if a man is working for you?”
“If he’s paying with our promissory notes, that’s a good indication, isn’t it? Anyone who lies about working for me will have me to tangle with. Do you think anyone is stupid enough to do that?”
“No,” Cecil said glumly.
Exactly. The few who did lived to regret it. Or died before he could settle with them, which was why Virgil preferred to threaten consequences rather than have to live with them—in some cases literally.
“S’pose you should have one on the house,” Cecil said in a conciliatory tone as he topped up Virgil’s glass. “Seein’ as you’re gettin’ hitched. Best wishes to you. May your love be true.”
The handful of men in the saloon tapped their glasses, then raised them in a cheer.
Virgil winced. Toasting to his love made him feel self-conscious and foolish.
“She’s here to mother my children. We’re not in love.” He glowered at the group of them until they shrank in their seats.
“What’s wrong with being in love?” a young man asked his companion in an undertone. “I want a sweetie to love me. Don’t you?”
“That is nineteen talking, knucklehead.” Virgil shouldn’t have given the kid any mind, but he’d been that young and stupid once. He wished someone had warned him how it would turn out. “What you think is love is that snake between your legs, looking for a burrow. Keep your heart to yourself, or the woman you give it to will stomp all over it.”
Virgil shot his whiskey, buttoned his coat, and walked out to meet his bride.