Authors: Joan Johnston
She had suspected he wasn’t playing fair. Of course, he wasn’t playing at all. He was deadly serious, and a great deal was at stake in the contest. He wanted to possess her, body and soul.
Well, two could play the same game. From now
on, she intended to fight for happiness. She would do whatever it took—scheming, conniving, conspiring—to win Miles’s love back again. Thanks to Miles’s insistence on marriage, they would be legally tied together while she worked toward her goal.
“Are we done?” Miles asked the chaplain.
“You may kiss the bride,” the chaplain said.
“I don’t think—” Miles began.
She turned to face Miles and put her arms around his neck. The boldness of even that small action took all the courage she had. She would get better at it, she was sure. For now, it appeared she had done enough. Miles lowered his head toward hers. She closed her eyes and held herself still, waiting for the touch of his lips.
They were soft and warm and a little damp.
He lifted his head, and she raised her eyes to seek his. He looked—oh, she hoped he was—a little bit confused.
Moments later Miles was being slapped heartily on the back by his hired hands, and Mrs. Peters was embracing her.
“Please say you’ll stay here with us, at least for tonight,” Mrs. Peters said.
“We have to get moving,” Miles answered for Verity. “If we leave now, there’s still a good chance we can catch up to those Sioux.”
“Everything seems so sudden,” Mrs. Peters said, concern etched on her brow.
“Miles and I were childhood sweethearts,” Verity
explained, telling a little, but not all, of the tale. “Please don’t worry about me.”
Too soon Verity found herself being ushered outside. Six saddled horses and a mule loaded down with supplies were tied to the hitching rail. Miles helped her mount astride, which was easier with the split skirt but felt no less awkward once she was in the saddle, then mounted himself, while his four cowhands stepped into their saddles.
Colonel and Mrs. Peters stood together on the veranda with their arms around each other and waved good-bye.
“Be careful with that bride of yours,” the colonel admonished Miles.
“Good luck, Mrs. Broderick,” Mrs. Peters said. “I hope you’ll bring your son and his fiancée to visit once you find them.”
“I will,” she promised.
. At least she was no longer the Countess of Rushland. In England, if she ever returned, she would be Lady Linden. Viscountess Linden. It was a step down in rank, but one she didn’t in the least mind taking.
One of the men grabbed the lead attached to the mule’s halter, and they all headed north across the length of the quadrangle. In a very short time the fort had disappeared behind them. Verity’s eyes naturally strayed to the four men Miles had brought along.
Miles had told her he had eight hired hands in all, but half the cowboys had stayed behind at the
ranch to tend to the stock. She wondered if they were anything like these four.
As Miles had introduced them one by one in the colonel’s parlor before the wedding, the four men had removed their motley mixture of high-crowned, curly-brimmed Western hats.
“This is Shorty,” Miles began.
She recognized right away that Western folk had a refined sense of humor. Shorty was the tallest, skinniest man she had ever seen in her life. She had smiled and said, “Hello, Shorty.”
“Ma’am.” He blushed pink as a boy caught stealing from the altar plate in church, stuffed his hat back on his head, got nudged hard with an elbow in the ribs by the man to his right, and snatched it back off again.
“This is Red,” Miles said.
She supposed Red must once have had red hair, but he was bald as an egg. It wasn’t just his head that was missing hair. He had no beard, no eyebrows, not even eyelashes. It gave him an odd, sinister appearance. “Good afternoon, Red.”
“Nice to meet you, ma’am.” He had a disconcerting way of looking at her that made her feel like he could see inside her. She was the one who lowered her gaze first.
“This older fellow here is Frog,” Miles said.
Before he spoke, Verity thought Frog must have gotten his name from his badly bowed legs.
Two words out of his mouth, and she knew it was his voice that had labeled him. He croaked like
a bullfrog. She managed to say “Nice to meet you, Frog,” without succumbing to the urge to laugh.
“Finally, I’d like you to meet Tom Grimes.”
Verity looked at Tom closely, wondering why he didn’t have a nickname like the others. He had intense brown, almost black, eyes that were heavy-lidded, a sensual mouth and a beaked nose. His whole body seemed tense, as though at any moment he might spring into action. She noticed he was the only one besides Miles wearing a gun, a revolver in a fancy holster tied low on his hip. She wasn’t really looking for what she found. Her eyes skittered away from the huge erection making his jeans bulge.
“Back off, Tom,” Miles said in a soft voice. “This one’s already taken.”
Tom licked his lips like he was hungry, and she was a plate of rare roast beef and Yorkshire pudding. She had never met a man who was so rudely blatant about what he wanted from a woman. She saw the challenge in Tom’s eyes and the tautness in Miles’s body that eased only after Tom said, “Whatever you say, boss.”
It appeared Tom was well named after all—Tom as in
. She shivered at the lecherous look he gave her. Why on earth would Miles have hired such a man?
“Tom is deadly with a gun,” Miles said. “He never misses what he aims at.”
With the threat of Indians looming, she found herself feeling a little more tolerant of Tom’s company than she might have been under other circumstances.
Especially since it was clear Miles had no intention of allowing Tom to importune her.
“How far will we be traveling today?” she asked Miles.
“There’s plenty of daylight left before we have to start looking for a place to lay down a bedroll.”
“Isn’t there somewhere we could spend the night with a roof over our heads?” Verity asked.
“Do you want to find your son, or spend a comfortable night inside?”
Her cheeks burned. “That’s not fair. You know Rand and Freddy—Lady Winnifred—come first with me.”
“There aren’t many folks living around here. If there was a place I thought we could stay—”
“What about the Hanrahan place?” Tom suggested.
Miles grunted thoughtfully. “Maybe. We’d have to spend most of the night riding to get there. Hardly seems worth it. Verity?”
“I …” She was so very tired of riding. Her inner thighs already ached as a result of being spread unnaturally over the broad back of her mount. But a glance around at the wide open spaces gave a certain appeal to four walls and a roof. “I’d rather ride for the Hanrahan ranch,” she said.
Miles shrugged. “Fine with me.” He angled himself in the saddle so he could see the four men riding behind them. “You boys spread out and ride on ahead to see if you can find any sign of those Sioux. If we’re lucky, they’ll stay with the cattle.
They won’t be able to drive them hard without losing some, and they won’t want to do that. Their prisoners should also slow them down.”
Red licked the edge of a cigarette paper, rolled the smoke one-handed to seal the tobacco inside, then stuck it in the corner of his mouth. “Injuns’ll probably just kill them two if they make any trouble.”
Verity stared straight ahead and struggled not to reveal the despair she felt at that bit of plain speaking.
“Damn it, Red. Keep your opinions to yourself,” Miles said.
“Aw, hell, boss. I forgot—Sorry, ma’am.”
“You boys get moving,” Miles said. “If you run into trouble, fire a warning shot and the rest of us will come running. If you hit a trail, fire two shots and leave sign which way you’re headed. If nothing turns up, we’ll all meet at the Hanrahans’, spend the rest of the night there, and move on tomorrow. Any questions?”
There were none.
“I’ll head straight north with Mrs. Broderick. See you later, boys. And good hunting.”
Verity watched the four men ride off in different directions. “Aren’t they afraid they might run into the Indians when they’re all alone?”
“A man learns to keep his eyes and ears open. If they see any sign at all, it’ll be hours old. They’ll be careful.”
“How many hours before we catch up to the Indians?”
He eyed her askance. “I think you’d better prepare yourself for the possibility that we won’t catch up to Rand at all.”
Verity forced herself to remain calm. Ranting and raving wasn’t going to change anything. “We have to find them, Miles.”
“I hope we do” was all he said.
They rode for a long time without speaking. Verity watched the sun sliding down over the horizon with a feeling of panic. She had lived all of her married life in London, where there was a constant glow of light even at night. It had been years since she had experienced the utter blackness of night she had known as a girl growing up in the English countryside.
“How are we going to find our way in the dark?” she asked.
“Once the sun goes down, we’ll have to stop for a while and wait for the moon to come up.”
“It’s frightening to be out here in the middle of nowhere with night coming.”
“I’ll light a fire. That’ll keep the critters away.”
“It’s not the four-footed animals I was worrying about.”
“The Sioux are long gone, Verity.”
“It isn’t the Sioux, either.”
He eyed her quizzically. Then his features hardened. “I have no intention of forcing myself on you tonight.”
She was grateful for the fading light that hid the flush staining her throat. Until Miles had brought it up, she hadn’t considered what he might
do to her when they stopped. She hurried to give him another reason for her distress. “I was thinking of how Rand and Freddy must feel. I can’t bear to lose my son, Miles. He’s everything to me.”
“What is he like?”
Verity was surprised Miles had asked, but more than willing to talk about her—their—son. “You’d like him.”
“A son of Chester Talbot’s? I doubt it.”
“He isn’t—” The words of denial were out before she could stop them. She caught herself before she revealed everything and then wondered why she didn’t just tell Miles the truth. He was bound to notice the resemblance to himself when he saw Rand. Her son reminded her a great deal of Miles at the same age, especially when he smiled.
But it would cause Miles needless pain if she told him he had a son and Rand was never found. Better to wait.
Lurking beneath her noble reason for hiding the truth was one a bit more selfish. If, God forbid, Rand was not found, she would never have to reveal to Miles the wrong she had done him. She would not have to live the rest of her life with whatever blame he would have heaped upon her for keeping his son from him. They would still have a chance at happiness together.
But she couldn’t resist telling him about Rand. Because when the two men met—and despite the consequences she was sure to pay, she hoped they would—she wanted Miles to have the best possible impression of his son.
“You would like Rand,” she repeated. “He’s a fine man.”
She ignored him and continued, “I’ve taught him to be considerate and thoughtful of other people’s feelings. He rides like he was born on a horse, and he can drive to an inch. He’s strong and courageous. He has no vices—”
“He sounds too perfect to be true,” Miles interrupted.
Verity flared up in defense of her son. “He’s a wonderful young man.”
“I would expect a mother to say that about her son. You’ll never convince me Chester Talbot could raise such a paragon.”
“Chester had very little to do with Rand,” she snapped. And then made a face because she had again revealed more than she had intended.
“Why not?” Miles asked. “The boy was his heir.”
“He … they didn’t get along.”
“I … They … Rand could never please Chester.” Because he had been Miles’s son.
“No, I suppose having a son like you describe wouldn’t be at all pleasing to a man like Chester Talbot. But I’m surprised he didn’t corrupt the boy with his own foulness.”
“I wouldn’t have allowed it.”
“How could you have prevented it?”
“I sent Rand away to school as soon as it was possible to do so.” It had been hard, heartbreaking really, to give up her son so young, but she had
known it was the only way to save him. “Chester was with his cronies a great deal of the time when Rand was home on holiday. And there were ways to keep them separated.” She had resorted to them all.
“What did the boy think of your machinations? Didn’t he miss his father?”
“No. No, he did not.” She didn’t explain herself and, thank God, Miles didn’t ask for an explanation.
She couldn’t very well tell him that Chester had barely spoken to Rand over the years except to criticize him, that he had refused to have Rand in his presence except on occasions when it would have looked odd for his son and heir to be absent.
Nor could she reveal the times she had held Rand as a child while he cried wretched tears, wondering what he had done to so displease his father that he didn’t want anything to do with him.
She had tried to explain to Rand that there was nothing wrong with him, that it was Chester’s fault he was unable to love his son. Rand had never given up trying to earn his father’s love, even though he had failed to the very end.
In the few hours before his self-inflicted gunshot wound in the chest had finally killed him, Chester had refused to see Rand. But Rand would not be denied. He had entered his father’s room and stayed alone with him for some time. When he had come out at last, he had been white-faced.
When she had asked her son, “What’s wrong? What did he say to you?” Rand had replied, “Only
what he has said before. Leave be, Mother. I am only sick at heart.”
Her horse stumbled, and Verity realized it was nearly impossible to see a foot in front of her. “Are we stopping soon?”
“I guess we’d better.”
“How long before the moon comes up?”