Authors: Joan Johnston
“You have to go after them! You have to do something!” No fishwife had ever sounded so shrill, but she couldn’t help the sharpness in her voice. Terror squeezed at her, stealing calm, stealing reason.
The soldiers parted as Miles climbed over the top of the ravine on horseback.
“Who is it you’re looking for, Verity?” His gray eyes were wintry, his voice equally cold.
Captain Bennett turned to Miles with a questioning look. “You know this lady?”
“Captain Bennett, may I present Lady Talbot, Countess of Rushland.”
She heard the sneer in Miles’s voice, the virulent loathing. She would have given anything to go back and change the past. But it was too late. She stared at the man whose life she had saved at the expense of her own happiness. It was sadly ironic that he despised her so much.
The captain tipped his hat and nodded his head in lieu of a bow. “Ma’am.”
“What are you doing out here alone?” Miles asked. “Where’s the rest of your party?”
“You’re a little late asking that question,” Verity retorted.
“I was busy earlier.”
She wasn’t sure whether he meant rescuing her or kissing her, but the flush skating up her throat would have answered for either reason.
“Chester died a year ago,” Verity said. “I was traveling with my son, Randal, Lord Talbot, his fiancée, Lady Winnifred Worth, and some men we hired in Cheyenne to drive our wagonload of supplies. I suppose the teamsters are back there somewhere.” She gestured agitatedly over her shoulder.
“My son—” She swallowed over the constriction in her throat. “The last time I saw my son and his fiancée, they were being chased by Indians. I think Rand has been shot.”
Miles and Captain Bennett exchanged glances.
“You’re going after them, aren’t you?” she asked, her gaze skidding from one grim-lipped face to the other.
“We’ll take a look around, ma’am,” the captain assured her. “Only …”
“What Captain Bennett is loath to say is that we probably won’t find your son or Lady Winnifred alive. If we find them at all. The buffalo have likely wiped out all sign of their direction,” Miles replied.
Verity reeled. Miles reached out to catch her, and she jerked herself free. “Don’t touch me! Don’t you dare come near me again!”
His shoulders squared, and his lips flattened.
“We’ll take you to the fort, Lady Talbot,” the captain said. “And arrange for an escort to ride with you back to Cheyenne.”
“Why would I want an escort to Cheyenne?”
“This is no place for a lady.”
“I have land here, a ranch. When my son is found—and he will be—we’re going to settle there and raise cattle and Thoroughbred horses.”
“It’s Lady Talbot,” she snapped. “And I’ll thank you not to forget it.”
“I’ve lived with it for the past twenty-two years,” Miles said in a low, fierce voice. “I’m not likely to forget it now.”
He sounded hurt and angry. But she was the one who had suffered. She was the one who had been forced to marry against her will.
“It’s dangerous for you to live out here alone,” the captain said.
“That’s my concern, Captain Bennett, not yours.” She was every inch the countess she had learned to be, her voice imperious, her body ramrod straight in the saddle. The captain backed down, as others had before him.
“I want a half-dozen soldiers to find that wagon and make sure it arrives safely at the fort,” the captain said.
Verity was surprised at the finagling that went on as the young men volunteered for what she thought could only be hazardous duty. Moments later the soldiers were on their way.
“Form them up, O’Malley,” the captain instructed the top sergeant.
Sergeant O’Malley roared “Column of twos!” and the men lined up quickly behind him. Miles spoke for a moment to the four men besides himself dressed in civilian clothes, and they dropped to the back of the line.
Verity rode beside the captain. She bit back an objection when Miles rode up on her other side, boxing her in. She wouldn’t give him the satisfaction of knowing his presence made her uncomfortable. He was doing his best to be irritating, and she was determined not to succumb to his provocation.
But the ride was long and dusty and boring. She hadn’t seen Miles for more than twenty years. Curiosity forced her to speak.
“Why are you riding with the soldiers?” she asked.
“A bunch of Sioux raided my ranch, killed one of my cowhands, stole a bunch of my cattle. My men and I were out looking for the culprits when we ran into this cavalry patrol and decided to join forces.”
“You have a ranch around here?” It was a disconcerting thought.
“A couple thousand acres along the Chugwater. Of course, I only have title to about five hundred acres of it, along with a house by the river. The rest of what I claim is government land. But my cattle are grazing there, so I guess that makes it mine.” He raised a brow. “Where’s that ranch of yours?”
She raised her eyes to his. “Along the Chugwater.”
“Looks like we’ll be neighbors.”
She hesitated a moment, then said, “I look forward to meeting your wife.”
“I never married.”
Her glance shot to his. But he wasn’t giving away anything. Oh, he had aged well. He was more handsome now at—forty-three?—than he had been at twenty-one, even considering the ragged, years-old scar that raked one side of his face. She supposed it was the lines that gave his face character—the furrows in his brow, the creases around his mouth, the tracks of crow’s feet at the corners of his eyes. And, of course, the scar, a slashing white rift in skin burnished by the sun and weathered by the seasons.
She could see the years had hardened him, putting muscle on his lean frame. His hands had burned brown and were she knew from his touch, callused. He looked as unforgiving as he obviously was.
The years of not knowing whether he was happy, whether he had found another woman to love, had been bad enough. Seeing Miles again, finding him hale and hearty, arrogant and unforgiving—oh, that was much, much worse.
He had abandoned her to Chester and gone on with his life. It was a hard truth to accept. Easier, of course, when it was staring her in the face. Maybe now she would be able to let go of the past. Maybe now she would be able to forget Miles Broderick, Viscount Linden, second son of the Earl of Vare, and go on with her life, without the regret, without the painful memories that had plagued her.
She wanted to ask, needed to ask, why he had stayed away from England for so long. But she couldn’t. Because he was liable to start asking questions of his own. Her secret had been too deeply buried for too long to be exhumed now.
Pique and pride had kept her from telling Miles the truth about Chester the one time, years ago, when the opportunity had presented itself. Now she was afraid of what he would do if he knew.
“It’s not over,” he said in a voice too soft to be heard except by her.
“Between us,” he said.
She met his eyes and felt a shiver roll through her. “What do you want from me, Miles?” she asked in a voice equally soft, equally urgent.
“Revenge, Verity. I want revenge.”
“Hang on, Rand! Oh, please, hang on!” Freddy pulled Rand’s horse after her as she spurred her mount to greater speed. But she was losing the race for freedom. The savages were gaining and would soon capture them—if they were lucky enough to be captured rather than killed outright. Except, when she remembered the sorry state of Rufus’s head, she thought perhaps she would rather be dead when the Indians performed their surgery. If she weren’t so close to tears, she would be laughing, the whole situation was so ridiculous. She had only come to this godforsaken land on a dare. A dare!
Of course she liked Randal Talbot a great deal. Of all her suitors, the young Earl of Rushland was the one most willing to join in some outrageous escapade she forwarded. And he was handsome,
with aristocratic features, a lean body that showed to advantage in the latest fashions, unruly black hair, and devilish gray eyes.
But he hadn’t any money, not a jot. Which made him totally unsuitable in her parents’ eyes. Naturally, that unsuitability made him all the more attractive to her. If her mother hadn’t objected so strenuously to Lord Talbot, maybe she would not have felt the need to rebel in the way she had. “I absolutely forbid it!” her mother, the Duchess of Worth, had said when Freddy casually mentioned Lord Talbot’s marriage proposal over breakfast one morning.
She hadn’t intended to say yes to Rushland, she was just making polite conversation. After all, he was only twenty-one, and besides, when he kissed her—which she had let him do twice—it was very pleasant, but that was all. Her married friend, Isobel, Lady Osborne, had assured her that she would know the right man when she found him, because when she kissed him, he would make her toes curl.
Lord Talbot was not the right man.
But her mother’s response had set up her hackles, and she had risen to Rushland’s defense. “Is it because he didn’t come to you and Father first?” she demanded. “That’s old-fashioned, Mother. Young men seek permission from a lady for her hand these days. I’m sure Rushland will be around to visit Father soon.”
“The duke will not see him,” her mother snapped.
“Father wouldn’t dare deny him!”
“Wouldn’t deny whom?” her father asked as he took his place at the head of the breakfast table.
She waited for the footman, Frith, to pour her father’s coffee, and for him to take the first sip before she answered. The duke was a bear before he had his first drink of coffee in the morning. “Wouldn’t deny Randal Talbot an audience. You see, Father, Lord Talbot has proposed.”
“Marriage, Father,” she replied, barely keeping the exasperation from her voice. Really, for all his shrewdness in politics, he could be obtuse about personal matters.
“Who is this Randal Talbot?” The duke leaned back as Frith placed a plate filled with delicacies from the sideboard, his favorite kidneys and shirred eggs and some toast, in front of him.
“The Earl of Rushland, Father.” She watched him relish a bite of eggs.
The Duke of Worth loved food, and it showed. Despite his short height, he managed to look substantial rather than fat. Freddy had inherited her petite stature from him and from her mother, both of whom would have done well on Lilliput—as much for their narrow attitudes as for their size. Which brought her back to Rushland.
“I think you may have known Lord Talbot’s father, the fifth Earl of Rushland,” she said.
“Eh? Thought he died,” the duke said absently, now well into the kidneys.
“He did,” Freddy said patiently. “Last year.”
“And didn’t leave a thing to his heir but debts,” her mother interjected.
“Money isn’t everything, Mother,” Freddy retorted.
“It is something to consider, pet,” her father said, dabbing at his mustache with his napkin. His mustache was his pride and joy, and he kept it neatly trimmed and waxed. He had eschewed the popular side whiskers worn by most of his friends. “You like nice things. Nice clothes, nice horses, nice parties. Nice things cost money.”
“I know that, Father. But you have money.”
He chuckled. “Yes, pet, but when you marry, you’ll be depending on your husband to support you.”
“I have trust funds—”
“That come to you at thirty,” he said. “And not a day before. I’m sure your husband will appreciate your fortune when the time comes. You’re only seventeen, pet. There are a few years to be lived in between. I have faith in your mother’s judgment about these matters, and so should you.”
The butler, Smythe, entered the dining room and announced, “You have a visitor, Lady Winnifred.”
“Who could be calling so early?” the duchess asked, eyeing her daughter.
Freddy heard the unspoken message.
No gentleman would commit such a solecism
“The Earl of Rushland, Your Grace,” Smythe replied to the duchess.
“Tell the young man we’re having breakfast and to come back at a decent hour,” the duchess said.
Freddy rose and tossed down her napkin. “I’ll see him now.”
The duchess rose, clutching her napkin in both hands. “I think not!”
“Sit down, both of you,” the duke said. “I insist on a civil breakfast.”
“I’ll excuse myself then, Father, so I won’t disturb you and Mother any further.”
“Winnifred, I insist—”
She was gone, shutting the door on the mouths of parental authority. She took a deep breath and let it out, a feat much easier to accomplish since she had left off wearing corsets. Her mother had said a word or two about that, as well, but it hadn’t made any difference. Freddy refused to be bound up like a prisoner in the docks just because it was the fashion.
She hurried to the drawing room of their London town house, knowing that was where Smythe would have left Rushland waiting.
He looked particularly handsome this morning in a dark brown frock coat, white linen shirt, fawn breeches, and black boots. There was a glint of mischief in his eyes as he smiled at her and held out his hands. “Good morning, Lady Winnifred. Did I cause a problem coming so early?”