Authors: Joan Johnston
That was not to say that the men she had met in the West had not been deferential. She was given the same courtesy—and curious attention—as any other woman in this womanless land.
A bullwhip cracked over the team of oxen, accompanied by a plethora of expletives, but Verity couldn’t see that the enormous, lumbering animals increased their pace even a little.
She looked worriedly toward the horizon where her son and his fiancée had disappeared over a rise in the grassy terrain. “How much chance is there, really, of their meeting up with Indians?” she asked the teamster.
“It’s a gamble, lady.” The bullwhacker spat into the dirt again. “Maybe they will, and maybe they
won’t. Out here, the stakes are high. Lose, and you lose your life.”
Verity’s hands tightened unconsciously on the reins, and her horse sidestepped. She didn’t care much for gambling. She invariably lost.
Rand was an excellent shot, and so was Freddy, for that matter, but neither of them carried weapons. Surely they would stay close enough to reach the safety of the wagon if they were attacked.
She shivered. This was a frightening land, brutal and violent. She hadn’t wanted to come to the Wyoming Territory, but once the decision had been made, there was no turning back. Every shilling she and Rand had was invested in this venture. The wagon held a year’s worth of supplies, everything they would need to set up housekeeping when they reached their destination.
As for the land itself, she was forced to admit it was breathtaking. The grass grew tall and undulated like a green, wind-tossed sea. The vastness of this lonely place was overwhelming. They had ridden for two days without seeing another living soul except antelope and jackrabbits. It was difficult to believe there were murdering savages out there somewhere. And that this was going to be her home.
Verity shivered again.
Who would have thought that the only thing of value the Earl of Rushland would leave her at his death was a cattle ranch in the Wyoming Territory? Rand, who had inherited his father’s title, but nothing else, had been persuaded to come along to
help his mother run the ranch. Only days before they left their homeland, he had chosen an English bride and brought her along with him.
But really, this was the last place Verity wanted to be. Because
was here. Somewhere. The man she had once loved more than life. The father of her son.
Miles had left England twenty-two years ago and never returned. She had kept track of his travels through stories that circulated among the
. She knew he had spent some time on a whaler out of Boston, and that he had owned a sugar plantation in New Orleans. He had headed for Texas just before the War Between the States, and she had held her breath for four years while he fought as a member of the Confederate army.
After the war, he had bought a cattle ranch in Texas. It was a year or so later that she learned through
gossip that Miles had driven a herd of cattle north and settled in the Wyoming Territory. What she had never learned, what she had never dared to ask, was why he had never come home to England. She had lived all those years fearing that he would return, take one look at Rand—who had his father’s black hair and gray eyes—and instantly surmise the truth.
That day had never come. She prayed it never would.
Fortunately, Wyoming was a big place, so their paths were unlikely to cross. Nevertheless, she would have felt better with an ocean still separating them.
When she crested the rise, the scene that greeted Verity made her stomach knot.
Rand and Freddy were laid low across their saddles, fleeing a band of savages on horseback. There had to be at least ten of them brandishing guns. Their wild, bloodcurdling yells echoed on the wind.
Her first instinct was to chase after them, but the teamster must have realized what she intended, because he reached out and grabbed her reins near the bit.
“Let me go!” she cried. “I have to—”
“There’s nothin’ you can do, lady. It’ll all be over ’fore you get there.”
She wanted to deny his words, but before her horrified eyes she saw the half-naked Indian brave in the lead aim his rifle and fire. Rand jerked in the saddle and nearly fell off, but somehow managed to hang on.
“He’s been shot! My son’s been shot!”
She watched Freddy slow her mount enough to catch Rand’s reins and take off again. Before the Indians could catch up to the two of them, they had crossed a ridge and disappeared.
“We have to do something! We have to help them!”
The bullwhacker shook his head. “Sorry, ma’am. Ain’t nothin’ nobody can do for ’em now. We’d just git ourselves killed if we make a fuss.”
She spurred her mount, intent on freeing herself. Her horse plunged and curveted, but the teamster’s hold was inexorable.
“Hey, Slim,” Rufus said. “Lookee there.”
Verity’s eyes followed where the man’s shotgun pointed.
“I’ll be hornswoggled,” the teamster said. “If it ain’t the damned cavalry to the rescue!”
Verity stared in disbelief as a double column of blue-coated cavalry appeared, riding at a gallop. A second look revealed that several of the pursuers weren’t in uniform. They all disappeared over the same ridge that had swallowed everyone else.
The cavalry provided enough distraction to cause the teamster to loosen his hold. Verity saw her chance and viciously spurred her horse. The mare leapt forward, jerking the reins free. Verity leaned forward as the wind blurred her eyesight, heading her mount in the direction everyone else had gone.
The Thoroughbred she was riding was bred for speed over short distances. In a country like this, where the grass had no beginning and no end, Verity knew she had to catch up to the cavalry quickly, or she would find herself lost and alone in the wilderness. She willed one of the soldiers to look back and notice her. But no one did.
She fell steadily farther and farther behind.
Suddenly the cavalry whirled their horses and fled back in her direction as though the devil were on their heels. She heard a sort of rumbling, like thunder, but a glance upward revealed a cloudless August sky. Without warning, her horse plunged and reared. The sidesaddle didn’t provide enough
to hold on to, and she felt herself bouncing helplessly off the animal’s back.
As the Thoroughbred bolted, she flew through the air, skidding to a stop on her face, shoulder, and hip. Her stylish beaver hat came loose and rolled away. She lay stunned, her scraped cheek nestled against the cool grass. Beneath her the earth trembled, as though giant feet trod upon it. She heard—felt—the cacophony of sound rolling toward her. Dear God, what could it be?
She shoved herself upward the length of her arms and stared, amazed and confused by what she saw.
Huge, shaggy, hump-backed creatures spread across the landscape like a raging muddy river as far as the eye could see. They had nearly caught up to the cavalry, which was galloping away to the east, away from the horde.
It took a moment for the reality of the situation to sink in. She searched quickly for her mount, but the Thoroughbred was long gone. There was no way she could escape the rising tide that threatened to overwhelm her.
Instinct made her scream, a primeval cry for survival.
The wind carried the high, keening sound over the rumble of thousands of hooves.
And someone heard it.
She stared with disbelieving, joyful eyes as one man separated himself from the others. He wasn’t wearing cavalry blue, but the gold of buckskin. His horse was an odd shade of gray, and it was
smaller, sturdier than her Thoroughbred. The animal was shiny with sweat, and a lather of salty foam showed along its shoulders and chest.
She struggled to her feet, not an easy job with the yards and yards of lavender velvet that surrounded her. She gathered as much of her skirt as she could in her hands to get it out of the way. She had expected her savior to slow his mount as he closed the short distance between them, but he continued at a full gallop, as though he had no intention of stopping.
She felt her heart sink.
A quick glance revealed that the river of animals was edging closer. He must have decided she wasn’t worth the risk. She watched him come, bent low over his mount, his face lost in the horse’s flying mane. She felt the copper taste of fear in her throat. She was going to die. In this wilderness. Crushed to death by thousands of thundering hooves.
Her long hair had come loose from its pins and flew like a ragged golden flag across her face. If this was the end, she wasn’t going to watch it happen. She turned her back on death, on disaster. She curled her arms around herself, to keep her insides from flying apart. She resisted the urge to run, to grab at whatever chance she might have for a few more moments of life. That would only prolong the inevitable.
In what she believed to be the last moments of her life, the image of a once-beloved face rose before her. Miles, as he had looked before the accident
that eventually left the right side of his face with a slashing scar from temple to throat—handsome, youthful, insouciant. Miles, holding her in his arms, smiling tenderly down at her, one eye blackened by a grown-up bout of fisticuffs with his nemesis, Chester Talbot. Miles, gray eyes icy with rage as he confronted her in the vestry of St. George’s, the day she had married his enemy.
In vivid scenes, she relived it all, the joy and the laughter … the disillusion and the anguish. The secret she had kept from Miles all these years would die with her at last.
One moment she was standing there certain her life was over, the next she was scooped up by a powerful arm and pulled across the saddle into the buckskin-clad man’s lap.
“Hang on!” he shouted over the encroaching beasts.
He spurred his mount, and she felt the gray horse respond with what had to be more heart than strength. The horde was gaining. They didn’t have a chance, but neither man nor horse seemed aware of that.
The ground dropped out from under them, and she realized the horse had skidded down on its haunches into a deep, narrow gully. The man headed the gray toward an overhanging lip of earth. He yanked his mount to a stop in the shallow refuge and slid off the winded animal, bringing her with him, his arm clutched under her breasts. He half dragged, half carried her, until his back was against a wall of dirt and stone.
“This is the best chance we have,” he said in a curt voice. “If we’re lucky, the buffalo will turn at the ravine or jump over it. If we’re not …”
He didn’t have to say it. She knew what their fate would be. She angled her head and looked up at him for the first time.
As their eyes met, she heard him gasp.
She turned to face him, eyes wide, mouth slack. “Miles?”
There was no more time for talk, for apologies, for regrets. The buffalo were upon them.
He pulled her into his arms, holding her tightly. She clung to him, terrified, holding on to him as to a strong oak in a windstorm. Oh, how familiar this felt. Miles. Her bastion of strength.
He smelled strange, of woodsmoke and leather and sweaty horse, not at all like a cultured English gentleman. His shoulders were broader, his body harder, but she fit against him the same perfect way. She felt his lips pressed hard against her temple and moaned deep in her throat.
It was a sound of yearning. For what had been. For what might have been.
His arms tightened around her, and she heard him make a guttural sound in his throat. A desperate sound. A hungry sound.
Then the earth shuddered and shattered as the buffalo leapt the narrow ravine and thundered over them. Dirt and stones sprayed around them. The air filled with dust. It was impossible to breathe. The end couldn’t be far away. Their moments were numbered.
His mouth found hers, and she tasted the bittersweetness of lost love. His kiss wasn’t gentle. It wasn’t tender. It had all the raw, aching passion of what had once been between them. His hands tangled in her hair and held her captive as his mouth plundered hers. She arched against him helplessly, surrendering to the inevitability of his power over her.
She loved him. Had always loved him. Would always love him.
He never trusted you. He never believed in your love
The pain was like an arrow in her flesh, the wound as excruciating now as it had been all those years ago. She clung to the remnants of the dream that had been shattered, let her fingers sift through his dark hair, arched her body into the strength of his. But it was as though her mind were detached from the rest of her, watching, judging the man who was making passionate love to her.
He broke the kiss and looked into her eyes.
And she knew. He had not forgiven her any more than she had forgiven him.
His eyes were drawn away by a voice at the top of the ravine.
The buffalo were gone, and she could see through the settling dust that the cavalry had found them.
“You okay, Mr. Broderick?”
“I’m fine, Captain Bennett.”
So he wasn’t called Viscount Linden here. In the very short time she had spent in America, she
had already learned that a man was judged strictly on who he was, rather than who his forebears had been.
“You all right, ma’am?” the soldier asked.
“I’m fine.” Verity took a step back from Miles. It felt like more.
“I’ll get my horse,” Miles said.
The captain reached down a hand. “Let me help you up here, ma’am.”
She allowed him to pull her out of the ravine, then stood, dusty and disheveled, in the center of what had to be two dozen mounted soldiers and—she counted four—civilians, who gawked at her like children ogling a freak at the fair.
The captain ordered one of his men to give up his horse and ride double with another soldier, and Verity quickly found herself mounted astride. It took some time to straighten her skirt to cover her legs. She had ridden astride as a very young child, but it felt strange to do so now.
“Did you find my son and his fiancée?” she asked.
The captain shook his head. “Sorry, ma’am. They’re long gone, along with those Sioux. We won’t catch up to them this side of the Platte.”