Authors: Elizabeth Lane
The mare had been twisted onto her side by the
momentum of the overturning buggy. Only the angle
of her straining neck kept her head out of the water,
and she was weakening fast. Clearly terrified, she
laid back her ears and rolled her eyes as Harriet approached.
“Easy, girl…easy, there,” she murmured,
praying with all her heart that she wouldn’t have to
shoot the poor animal.
This time the cutting was even more difficult. The
leathers were twisted and soaked with water, and the
icy cold numbed Harriet’s hands, making them slow
“How much longer?” Brandon’s voice grated with
impatience, concern and pain. Glancing toward the
overturned carriage, she could just make out his dark
outline beneath the chassis. He was leaning back
against a boulder, the lower half of his body pinned
beneath the icy water. Even though he was in no danger
of drowning, Harriet knew it was urgent that she
free him and get him onto the bank. Over her protests,
however, he had insisted she take care of the
What a stubborn, proud, irritating, impossible
man he was!
“Harriet, I asked you how much longer.”
“I’m working as fast as I can,” she said, wishing he’d
just be quiet. “I should have her loose in a few minutes.”
“How’s she doing?”
“Hard to say—” Harriet winced as the blade
slipped and jabbed her thumb, leaving a dark bead of
blood. “Her head’s still up. We’ll soon know the rest.”
“Fine,” he said. “Just hurry.”
Harriet felt the sudden give as the knife sliced
through the last of the harness that held the mare. Her
heart hammered as she lifted the sodden collar from
around the straining neck. “Come on, girl,” she
coaxed. “Get up now.”
The mare’s legs worked furiously as she struggled
to right herself. Harriet had tried earlier to determine
whether any bones were broken, but with the darkness,
the mare’s thrashing legs and the icy, moving
current, there was no way to be sure. Either way,
Duchess had spent her strength. If she was too
chilled and exhausted to get up, they were going to
“How’s she doing? Can she get her feet under
her?” Brandon’s voice rasped with anxiety.
“Not…yet.” Harriet moved through the knee-deep
current and braced herself behind the struggling
mare. Bracing against a rock, she pushed with all her
strength against one massive, water-slicked shoulder.
“Please, Duchess…” she murmured under her breath.
“Please get up…”
She might as well have been trying to move the
Rock of Gibraltar. The mare’s legs kicked against the
icy current, but the heavy mass of her body did not
budge. Either she had broken a leg, or she was too
chilled and exhausted to get on her feet.
From beneath the overturned landau, Harriet
could hear Brandon cursing in helpless frustration.
She could see the fumbling motion of one hand as
he moved it under his coat. Her heart plummeted as
she realized he was working the pistol out of its holster.
She found herself praying silently that the gun
would be too wet to fire.
“Take it,” he growled. “Put her out of her misery.”
Harriet paused for breath, her arms supporting the
mare’s straining neck. “Oh, please,” she begged, tears
welling up in her eyes. “There has to be something
more we can do! Let me help you get loose. Maybe
then we can—”
“My leg’s broken, Harriet,” he said in a blade-thin
voice. “I can’t see it, but I can tell it’s bad, and I don’t
think you’re strong enough to lift this buggy off me.
I’d take care of Duchess myself, but I can’t get a clear
shot from here, and I don’t want to wound her. Now
come get this damned pistol. Then, if you can’t get
her up, do what you have to!”
Harriet could not answer him. She was gazing
down at the soft-eyed mare and choking on her own
sobs. Brandon was right, she knew. If Duchess
couldn’t stand up, a bullet in the brain would give her
a swifter, more merciful death than freezing or
drowning. But the thought of pulling the trigger sickened
“Harriet, did you hear me?” Brandon’s voice
rasped with impatience, but Harriet detected an underlying
thread of anguish. He cared for this beautiful
mare, she realized; and he couldn’t bear to
watch a cherished animal suffer because a silly,
weakhearted woman couldn’t do what was required
The mare’s eyes were dark velvet pools.
Blinded by tears, Harriet flew at the mare, slapping
the wet flanks, jabbing the massive rump with
the toes of her boots. “Get up!” she shouted. “Get up,
blast you to hell!”
… The words bounced off the cliff
and echoed down the narrows. The silence that followed
was like a deep, shocked gasp, as if Harriet’s
language had stunned nature itself. For the space of
a breath, everything seemed to freeze. Then, suddenly,
the mare began to snort and thrash and roll.
With a powerful lurch, she staggered to her feet and
stood quivering in the water, all four legs braced solidly
beneath her heaving body.
“Oh!” Harriet was beside herself. The tears spilled
out of her eyes and flowed freely down her cheeks
as she flung her arms around the mare’s neck and
pressed her face into the sleek, wet hide. “Brandon!
Can you see her? She’s up! She’s all right!”
“I see her.” Emotion roughened his voice. “Get her
out of the water before she slips and falls again. Then
come over here. I think I’ve figured out a way to get
this damned buggy off my leg.”
The mare needed no urging. She lunged up the
bank to stand on the narrow road, next to the big gelding
who was her harness mate. The two horses nuzzled
each other, both of them nervous and agitated.
Wet and half-frozen, Harriet struggled through
the swirling creek to reach the overturned buggy. In
the beam of moonlight that penetrated the shadows
beneath it, Brandon’s face was as pale as marble. He
was in worse condition than he’d let on, she realized.
“Here.” He thrust a coil of waterlogged rope into
her shivering fingers. “I managed to grab this before
it floated away. Tie one end to the front axle—that’s
the one above my head. Is Captain still wearing any
“His collar.” She glanced toward the road, where
the two horses stood in the lee of an overhanging ledge.
“Fine. Use the collar to anchor the rope around his
chest—be careful of the way you rig it, you don’t
want to choke him. Let me know when you’re ready
to pull. I can help lift and guide it from…here.” A
spasm of pain passed across his face. “Can you reach
Harriet strained upward, grateful for her height.
“Yes…I’ve got it.” She looped one end of the rope
around the buggy’s stout front axle and tied it snugly.
Then she slung the coil over her shoulder and staggered
toward the rocky bank. With every step she
prayed that the rope would be long enough to reach
the road. Otherwise she would have to coax the gelding
back into the creek and risk breaking its legs on
the slippery rocks.
She reached the bank with rope to spare. Yes, it
would be all right, she thought as she clambered up
to the road. All she needed to do was to rig the rope
to the gelding’s collar and let the horse’s strength
move the buggy off Brandon’s leg.
And then what? She had no medical training. If
the break was a simple fracture, she might be able to
splint it well enough to hold while she helped him
out of the water, but if the break was as bad as she
She would cross that bridge when she came to it,
Harriet resolved. First catch the horse and attach the
rope; then move the buggy; then do what she could
to see that Brandon was safe and comfortable and,
finally, get some help. Only when she broke the
mountainous task into smaller steps did it all seem
The hulking bay snorted and laid back its ears at
her approach, warning her to be careful. “Easy, Captain,”
she murmured. “Easy, boy, I’m not going to
Both horses seemed skittish. But then, they’d just
survived a fearsome ordeal, Harriet reminded herself.
It would take some time for them to settle down—
time that, for Brandon’s sake, she could not afford.
Slowly she uncoiled the remaining length of rope.
If she could slip the end of it beneath the padded
leather collar and tie it fast, the first step would be accomplished
and she could get on to moving the buggy.
As she moved closer, the gelding snorted, stamped
and backed against the cliff. Now she had the horse
cornered. It would just be a matter of—
From the ledges above, a blood-chilling scream
shattered the darkness. Harriet’s heart dropped into
her stomach as she realized what she was hearing.
Merciful heaven, how could she have forgotten about
that mountain lion?
Panic-stricken, the horses plunged this way and
that. Whinnying in terror, the mare wheeled on her
hind legs and bolted up the road. The gelding followed,
its big body slamming Harriet hard against the
As the sound of hoofbeats faded in the darkness,
she slumped to the snowy road and lay still.
randon twisted beneath the overturned landau,
cursing like a mule skinner as the pain rocketed up
his leg. The angle of the chassis hid his view of the
road, but it didn’t take a genius to figure out that
something had gone horribly wrong.
He had heard the scream of the cat and the clamor
of horses stampeding up the road. But from Harriet
Smith he had heard nothing at all.
“Harriet!” he shouted with all his strength.
… The name echoed down the
canyon, mocking his efforts as he struggled to see
past the side of the landau. Where in hell’s name was
the woman? And where was the cat? Cougars were
shy animals and generally didn’t attack humans, but
if Harriet was hurt or unconscious, this one might see
her as easy prey. The loaded Colt .45 was in his hand,
but he couldn’t shoot what he couldn’t see. The only
thing he could do was fire into the air and hope to
frighten the beast off.
Praying that the Colt wouldn’t be too wet to shoot,
he thumbed back the hammer, pointed the pistol out
the open side of the landau, aimed for the sky and
squeezed the trigger.
The report thundered down the narrows, echoing
and re-echoing off the cliffs. Brandon held his breath
as the sound died away, straining to hear.
“Harriet!” he bellowed at the top of his lungs.
“Are you all right? If you’re out there, blast it, answer
Still nothing. Nothing but the rushing sound of the
creek, the mournful sigh of the wind and the utter silence
of falling snow.
Lord, what had happened to the woman? Had the
cougar finished her off? Was she lying in the snow,
trampled by the horses? Had she slipped in the water
and drowned on her way back to the road?
Brandon felt as if a leaden weight had settled into
the pit of his stomach. True, he had never liked the
prim schoolmarm, but he had to admit she’d shown
admirable pluck in freeing the horses from the
wrecked buggy. For all her prickly disposition, Harriet
was a good woman, he sensed, resolute and
strong of spirit. If anything had happened to her, his
part in it would haunt him for the rest of his life.
But that didn’t mean he’d ever forgive what her
brother had done to Jenny, let alone bless their union.
Will Smith’s offense was beyond forgiveness, and if
Harriet had been killed or injured because of the
boy’s reckless action—
“Brandon?” The faint voice floated through the
darkness from the direction of the road. Brandon’s
body went slack with relief as he realized it was truly
Harriet and not some trick of his imagination.
“Are you all right?” His throat was so tight and
raw he could barely speak.
“Yes…” She sounded shaky and uncertain, like a
child just roused from sleep. “I don’t remember what
happened…must’ve been knocked out when—” She
gave a sudden gasp. “Oh, no! The horses! They’re
“They’re gone, all right.” Brandon forced a wry
chuckle, trying to make light of the grim situation for
her sake. “Judging from the way they lit out when
they heard that cougar, I’d say they’re probably halfway
to Johnson City by now.”
“But how are we going to get you out of the water
without the horses?”
“Don’t worry, we’ll manage it,” Brandon said,
hoping she wouldn’t ask how. In truth, he was fresh
out of ideas, and his predicament was worsening
with every minute that passed. “Is that cat still
around, or did my shot scare it off?” he asked, deliberately
changing the subject.
“You fired a shot?” She still sounded dazed. “I
don’t remember hearing that. I was trying to rope the
horse and the cougar screamed and… Sorry, I’m still
a bit dizzy…got to sit down. How’s your leg?”
“Can’t feel a thing,” Brandon lied through
clenched teeth. Maybe it was a good thing he
couldn’t see how bad the leg really was. Growing up
in Kentucky, he’d known a man who’d crushed his
ankle in a bear trap. When blood poisoning had set
in, a backwoods doctor had been forced to amputate
the poor fellow’s leg below the knee. Not a good
thing to remember at a time like this.
“I could go for help,” Harriet said. “Johnson City
can’t be all that far.”
Brandon shifted against the rock that supported
his weight. “We’re about halfway between Dutchman’s
Creek and Johnson City, so either way it’s
about seven miles. But in your condition, you’d never
make it, especially in this weather. Right now, the
only smart thing you can do is find yourself a sheltered
spot below the cliff and hunker down until
somebody comes along who can help us.”
“But you’ll be in the creek all that time!” she argued,
her words floating to him across the water.
“You could freeze to death!”
“I’ll be fine,” he said, knowing it could well turn
out to be a lie. “Go on, now! Find yourself a safe hollow
before you catch your death of pneumonia!”
Harriet did not reply, but Brandon could sense her
hesitation. “Go on!” he barked. “You can’t do a
blasted thing for me right now, so you might as well
take care of yourself!”
The only answer was the banshee scream of the
Panic surged through Brandon’s body. “Harriet!”
he shouted. “Where the devil are you?”
“Here!” He heard her now, splashing through the
creek toward him. “Let’s just hope that big kitty
doesn’t like getting wet!”
“Did you see it?” He reached out and caught her
hand, pulling her under the edge of the buggy. She
was cold and trembling, her eyes huge in the darkness.
She shook her head in answer to his question. “I
didn’t take the time to look. But that cry—merciful
heaven! He sounds like a giant version of the tomcats
I hear yowling in the cemetery at night.” She
managed a brave little laugh. “Who knows? Maybe
he’s just serenading a lady friend.”
“I don’t think this is the mating season for cougars,”
Brandon said. “Until we’re certain he’s gone,
you’d better stay right here.”
Opening his sheepskin coat, he pulled her close
against the rock that was his anchor in the swift-
moving current. He had never given a thought to embracing
the maidenly Miss Smith, but holding her in
his arms was the only way to make room for them
both in the tight, dark space beneath the buggy. For
a long moment her body was tense and resistant.
Then, with a sigh, she sagged against him, curling
into the little warmth he had to offer. It was a matter
of survival, nothing more, Brandon told himself. It
would change nothing between them.
“How’s your leg?” Her voice was an intimate,
husky whisper in the darkness.
“Water’s pretty well numbed it,” he muttered, his
head swimming with the fragrance of her damp hair
against his cheek. “Probably a good thing, keeping
it cold like this.”
“I could try to look at it—or at least reach down
and feel it through the water.”
“Don’t bother. There’s nothing you can do until
we get help. Meanwhile, I’d just as soon not know
how bad it is.”
“I could try tipping the buggy off you. I might be
able to lift it from the open side.”
Brandon exhaled shakily. “Tipping the buggy
might do more harm than good. Leave it be, Harriet.
God didn’t appoint you to step in and fix everything
that’s wrong in this world!”
She glanced up at him with a puzzled frown.
“Now where did
silly idea come from? You’re
not going to pass out on me, are you?”
“I’m fine,” Brandon snapped, although he did
seem to be feeling light-headed. What if the injury
to his leg had cut a vein or an artery and he was
bleeding into the water, too numb to feel what was
A shudder passed through his body as he realized
that, for now at least, there was nothing to be done.
True, Harriet might be able to tip the buggy, but only
from the open side, which would throw even more
weight onto the crushed leg. To tilt the vehicle backward,
lifting it free, would require the strength of several
men or a horse. Meanwhile, a tourniquet around
his thigh might stop the bleeding, but it could also
cause the needless loss of his leg—a risk Brandon
was not yet ready to take.
Come morning, there were bound to be travelers on
the road. Dawn was hours away, but if he could just hold
out until then, everything would be fine. Everything…
Harriet was watching him with anxious eyes, their
long, black lashes beaded with moisture. She looked
pretty against the softly falling snow, he thought. All
damp and fresh and tousled, her face a mere handbreadth
from his own.
Someone—for the life of him, he couldn’t remember
who—had once told him that all women were beautiful
in the dark. But Harriet, he mused, would be at her
most beautiful in dawn’s rosy sunlight, her dark hair
spreading over the pillow like a silken fan, her cheeks
flushed with the memory of last night’s loving…
Brandon jerked himself fully awake. Hellfire, what
was he thinking? Harriet Smith, the sister of the no-
account who’d destroyed his daughter’s life, was the last
woman whose face he would want to see on the pillow
next to his own. She was the enemy—a prissy, irritating,
mule-headed, blackmailing bundle of trouble!
So why did he find himself gripped by the totally
insane desire to kiss her?
“How are we going to get out of this mess, Brandon?”
Her voice, though strained, was a velvet whisper,
warm and breathy against his ear.
“Right now, all we can do is wait.” He spoke with
effort, trying to make sure the words didn’t sound
slurred. “Sooner or later, somebody will come along,
and even if they don’t, the sun will come up. The cat
will go home to bed, and it’ll be safe for you to go
She frowned up at him, creating a tiny furrow between
her brows. “Maybe I should go now. You’re
hurt and cold and not getting any stronger.”
“Too dangerous.” His arm tightened around her
shoulders, as if to keep her with him. “If something
happened to you out there, we’d be even worse off
than we are now.”
“You’re right, I suppose.” She sighed and nestled
closer against him, needing his human warmth as he
needed hers. “Besides, how could I leave you here
alone? You could pass out and fall over in the water.”
“The rope.” Brandon’s vision blurred, then cleared
again. “You could tie it under my arms and wrap it
around the axle…” He could not put words together
to finish the sentence. Lord, was he bleeding to death
down there under the water? Would this be his last
chance on earth to hold a beautiful woman in his arms?
“Brandon?” Her face was close to his, her lips soft
and ripe and inviting. “What’s happening to you?
Are you all right?”
From high in the ledges, the cry of the golden cat
shattered the darkness. She shrank against him, instinctively
seeking protection. All he had to do was
tighten his arm and lean forward.
The kiss went through him like the first luscious
jolt of warm peach brandy. He felt the flicker of resistance
as he pulled her tight against his chest; but
it was only a flicker. With a little half sob, she melted
against him. Her arms found their trembling way
around his neck. Her fingers tangled in his hair, pulling
his head down to hers as her mouth softened beneath
his like wild honeycomb, woman-sweet on the
tip of his tongue. Her lips parted hungrily, wanting,
demanding more. “Oh…” she murmured, straining
against him. “Oh, Brandon…”
Those were the last words he heard as he tumbled
into darkness. His last conscious thought was that
this was indeed a lovely way to die.
Harriet caught his weight as he slumped forward,
his eyes closed, his breathing shallow. Her pulse exploded
into panic as she realized what must be happening
to him. Why hadn’t she realized he was losing
blood down there, under the water? No wonder he’d
looked so pale and drawn.
Laying him back against the rock, she plunged her
arms into the creek and groped her way down his leg.
By the time she reached the trapped ankle, her chest
was in the water, but her probing fingers found exactly
what she’d been hoping
to find—the splintered
sharpness of bone protruding through flesh just
above the top of his boot. Only the numbing cold of
the water and Brandon’s own stubborn will had enabled
him to stand the pain. But it hadn’t stopped the
Brandon been right about one thing. Tipping the
buggy onto its side would have rolled the vehicle’s
full weight onto his trapped foot and ankle, crushing
the bones. There was no way she could lift the buggy
off him safely and no way she could leave him to go
for help. All she could do was hold him, wait and
pray that someone would come in time.
Sitting up again, she gathered him into her arms.
He was deathly still, his face ashen, his breathing ragged
and shallow. Only after Harriet had settled herself
against the rock with his head cradled in the
hollow between her breasts, did the impact of that
soul-blistering kiss strike her with full force.
A shameful blush crept over her as she remembered
the velvety rasp of his unshaven jaw against her
skin and the soft roughness of his lips, bittersweet
like new spring raspberries. She remembered the
probing invasion of his tongue and how it had ignited
a liquid blaze in the untouched depths of her body.
Pure heaven—and absolute madness.
What on earth could have possessed her? Brandon
had been on the verge of fainting and could not be
held responsible for his actions. All he had done was
lean toward her, and she had done the rest. She had
to kiss him, Harriet conceded. But wanting
was one thing. Doing was quite another. She had behaved
like a shameless wanton. What was he going
to think of her?
But what Brandon thought of her no longer mattered.
His life was ebbing away drop by drop, and if
help did not arrive soon he would never open his