Omaha, Nebraska, 1892
Ignoring the bite of the cold December breeze swirling about her, plucking at the hem of her black woolen coat, Juliette Blanchard closed her eyes and allowed herself to be swept away by the fantasy she’d relived again and again these past months. The dream that would soon be a reality. Vivid in her mind, a lone eagle soared over the breadth of the small oxbow-shaped lake, its regal wings spread in graceful flight. Beneath him, the water shimmered and sparkled, kissed by the midday sun. Lazy waves lapped against the shoreline that stretched toward hills crowned with trees and punctuated with wildlife. Here, embellished by her imagination, nature pulsed with springtime abandon. Fragile sprouts had burst into color, and dazzling hues of green painted the land as far as the eye could see.
All that was missing was her beloved hotel.
But soon, it would be there, real and vibrant. Her creation. The fruits of her design and ambition to make it happen.
Slowly, her eyes opened. Three hundred acres sprawled out before her, all part of her dream, too.
“It’s perfect, isn’t it?” she breathed. “The water. The trees. The gentle slope of the land. It’s all so perfect.”
“Indeed.” Stephen Dunn, the entrepreneur who intended to purchase the acres, nodded, clearly pleased. “As long as one is not deterred by the lack of leaves, the brown grass, and this damned Nebraska cold right now.”
“There isn’t a finer place to build the hotel,” she added, more convinced than ever of her choice, despite the dull color of the lake, clouded with ice that managed to sparkle beneath the sun. “None this side of the Missouri.”
“I suspect not east of it either, Miss Blanchard.”
“No.” She’d spent countless hours in research and had painstakingly investigated every suitable body of water in the Midwest and beyond.
But this, this had always been her favorite. And now her dream would come true.
“I’ve designed the hotel so the guests will be spared the morning sun when they have breakfast on the patio. On the other hand, the outdoor pool will soak up the heat from the hottest part of a summer’s day. Families can lounge to their heart’s content.”
From the time she’d been ten years old, the serenity of this little patch of Nebraska had captivated her. Even after moving to New York three years ago to continue her studies in architecture, she’d not forgotten it.
“The land, of course, will make a fabulous golf course, don’t you think?” Again, her mind envisioned the well-manicured greens, the bunkers, even the tiny balls being lobbed about. “Gentlemen will come from all over the country to play here.”
“Your enthusiasm is most catching.” Dunn beamed. “I can hardly wait to break ground.” He turned to Charles Hatman, the Omaha land developer in charge of the project. “I trust the building contractor is prepared to begin as soon as the ground thaws and we give him a date?”
“Yes, sir.” Hatman puffed on a cigar, his attention as rapt on the three hundred acres as Juliette’s had been. “The bids are in. Construction crews are assigned. Materials are ready to be ordered.”
“Good. Very good,” Dunn said.
Excitement spiraled through Juliette. Only one detail remained, a formality at this point, and the deal would be final. She glanced at the diamond watch piece that had once been her mother’s and noted the time. Once her meeting was done, she could catch the afternoon train that would begin her return trip to Buffalo, just in time to celebrate Christmas. And what a finer gift to herself could there be, when the meeting was done?
“The bankers are waiting for us, gentlemen. We have papers to sign, and I don’t want to be late.”
Dunn chuckled. “No grass will grow under her feet, will it, Charles?”
She smiled at his teasing. He was highly recommended by her Aunt Louise, a renowned architect in her own right; indeed, the man had financed many of her aunt’s famous designs. Juliette was honored by his interest in her hotel.
In the time she’d been conferring with him, they fell into a comfortable business relationship. Still, until the project was complete, Juliette intended to remain professional and attuned to every detail.
Oddly enough, Hatman made no response. Just puffed vigorously on his cigar and stared at the land beyond the lake.
He looked inexplicably grim. She exchanged a quick glance with Dunn. She arrived in Omaha only last evening with her younger sister, Camille. Hatman and Dunn met them after breakfast, and they rode directly out here. While she knew Dunn well enough, she hadn’t met Hatman before today, though they corresponded many times via her aunt’s office in New York. Perhaps the man was always this tense.
“Shall we go?” she asked and pivoted toward the carriage where Camille waited for her.
“Certainly.” Dunn extended his hand, indicating she was to precede him.
But Hatman didn’t move.
“He won’t sell,” he said suddenly.
Juliette blinked in puzzlement and turned back toward him. “Who won’t sell?”
“The son-of-a-gun who owns these acres.”
Horror coursed through her. “What?”
Dunn’s chest puffed in indignation. “I thought everything was set, Charles.”
“Everything was—except the land.” Cigar smoke billowed in frustrated swirls. “He won’t budge.”
“But he must sell!” Juliette gasped. “This entire project depends on it.”
“You think I don’t know that, Miss Blanchard?” Hatman jerked the cigar out of his mouth and faced her. “He’s been stringing me along for weeks. I’ve done everything I could to convince him.”
“Why weren’t we informed of this problem?” Dunn demanded. “You led us to believe the sale was proceeding as planned.”
“Because I was sure it would.”
“You offered him the price we discussed?” Juliette asked.
“More.” Again, Hatman puffed furiously on his cigar.
The entrepreneur’s brow arched. “And he didn’t take it?”
“Claims he’s not interested.”
Juliette pressed trembling fingers to her lips. “Perhaps you should speak to him again. Offer him more money or—or something.”
“I’m telling you, it won’t do any good, Miss Blanchard,” Hatman said. “I rode out to his place right at sun-up. Figured it was my last chance to deal with him before we met with the bankers. Didn’t do me a bit of good.”
“A stubborn cuss, isn’t he?” Dunn muttered.
“Thick-headed like his pa was. Everyone knows the McCord boys are down on their luck. We’ve offered Tru the sweetest deal around. Why he won’t sell is beyond me.”
“Tru?” Juliette’s world tilted alarmingly. “Tru McCord owns this land?”
“But that’s impossible,” she said, heart pounding. “His father lost it. In a card game several years ago. He—”
Memories crashed in on her, stifling the words on her tongue. She hadn’t known, never dreamed…
“Don’t know how he came to own it, Miss Blanchard. He won’t say. But he’s had these acres for as long as I’ve been acquainted with him, which has been a good long while.”
Dunn frowned. “Doesn’t matter how he came to own them, just that he does. And he won’t sell.”
Juliette squared her shoulders. The entrepreneur’s brisk tone was a sober reminder of the seriousness of their dilemma. “Of course. That’s the crux of the problem, isn’t it?”
She would do well to hide her past relationship with Tru from these men. They had little interest in it, especially since a luxury resort hotel was at stake, as well as the enormous profits they would stand to lose.
But, oh, why Tru? Of all the landowners in the state of Nebraska, why did he have to own the acres she needed?
“Well, Miss Blanchard. There’s no use in meeting with the bank now, I’m afraid. Can’t buy land that’s not for sale, can we?” Dunn heaved a heavy sigh.
“I’m sorry,” Hatman said, genuine regret in his expression. “I did all I could. There are other sites available, however. I’ll draw up a list—”
“No.” Juliette spoke sharply. “There’s no other location that would be as well-suited for my hotel as this one. I’ve designed it specifically for this very spot.”
Both Dunn and Hatman studied her, then shook their heads in unison.
“A real shame,” Dunn said.
With Hatman beside him, he strode toward the carriage, and Juliette could feel the deal slipping through her fingers.
“Wait!” she called.
They halted, and she hurried toward them.
“I’ll talk to Tru,” she said and swallowed hard.
Hatman frowned. “Won’t do any good, Miss Blanchard. He won’t listen.”
“I can try.” What choice did she have?
“It won’t hurt if she speaks with him, Charles,” Dunn said. “We don’t have anything to lose at this point.” He gave her a faint smile. “Would you like me to accompany you, Miss Blanchard? Perhaps between the two of us we might convince him to sell.”
The weak side of her wanted to say ‘yes’, that she couldn’t face Tru again, alone, after all these years. But the proud side didn’t want the entrepreneur to see her beg.
Because if that’s what it took to get Tru McCord to give up his land, that’s what she’d do.
Get down on her knees and beg.
“No,” she said. “I’ll see him myself.”
“Very well, then.” Dunn patted her shoulder, a grandfatherly gesture of encouragement. Or perhaps it was one of sympathy for a lost cause, she couldn’t be sure. “You know where to find me. Do inform me how this meeting transpires, won’t you?”
Juliette managed a confident nod. “Of course.”
The businessmen climbed into the carriage, and after a long, troubled moment, Juliette joined them.