Authors: Joan Johnston
She placed her hands in his, because it would have been awkward not to, managed an equally
brilliant smile, and said, “Nothing that I couldn’t handle, Lord Talbot.”
“I couldn’t wait any longer for your answer.” His face held a boyishly eager expression that made her feel guilty. She hadn’t encouraged his suit, but she hadn’t discouraged it, either. She knew he put more weight on the kisses she had allowed than she did. But how was she to find her Prince Charming if she didn’t kiss a few frogs first?
“You haven’t spoken to my father,” she said, stalling for time.
He looked surprised. “I thought you were making this decision.”
She felt a spurt of irritation because he was right, and because she had decided not to marry him and didn’t want to hurt his feelings by telling him so.
“I must seem in a ramshackle rush to get this done,” he confessed with a grin that she found entirely too charming, “but Mother and I have decided to emigrate to America, and I want to take my bride along with me.”
“What?” His thumb was caressing her wrist and drawing a tingling response that she didn’t understand, seeing as how he was
her Prince Charming. She freed her hands and tucked them behind her back in the folds of her blue India silk dress. She had been so distracted by what she was feeling that it took her a moment to absorb the essence of what Rand had said. Her green eyes shot wide with disbelief. “You’re
The grin flashed again. “I know it sounds unbelievable,
but when the will was read, all Father left to Mother was a ranch somewhere in the American West. There’s a condition in the will that makes it impossible for her to sell the property for five years, or some such nonsense, so she’s decided to go there to live. I couldn’t very well leave her to manage a ranch all by herself, could I?”
“No,” she murmured. “I suppose you couldn’t.”
“Anyway, I think it’s a marvelous opportunity. I shall go to America and make my fortune.”
He reached for her hands again, and she found herself giving them into his keeping.
“I want very much to take you with me as my wife.”
His voice, vibrant with feeling, made her stomach shift sideways. His heart was in his eyes, and Freddy wasn’t proof against the entreaty there. She felt herself swaying toward him. At the last possible instant, she caught herself and took a step backward instead, agitatedly brushing back a single auburn curl that had slid forward onto her shoulder. “When did you decide all this?”
The grin was back, but his eyes were wary, conceding she had the power to devastate his hopes. “This morning, actually. At breakfast.”
“That couldn’t have been more than an hour ago.”
“More like half an hour,” he admitted.
Apparently Rushland didn’t look before he leapt any more than she did. But crossing an ocean was a pretty big leap, even for her. “You expect me to go with you to America?”
He sobered. In fact, she had never seen him look more serious in his life. Her heart began thumping a little harder. She had always thought of herself as an adventuresome person, but it was slowly dawning on her that she had no desire to leave her family and go so far away.
“Lord Talbot, I—”
He caught her chin between his thumb and forefinger and lifted her face up to his. Her breath snagged in her throat.
“I love you very much. Please don’t say no.”
She swallowed, somehow, but had no idea where to go from there. She felt tears sting her nose as he tucked the persistently errant curl behind her shoulder.
“I can’t promise much in the way of worldly goods,” he admitted. “At least, not at first. I can and will promise to do my utmost to make you happy.” His thumb caressed her cheek. “The only question is, do you love me?”
“Of c-course I l-love you,” she replied quickly, stuttering a little at the misrepresentation of her feelings. She loved him as a friend, as a fellow mischiefmaker, as a rebel every bit as opposed to authority as she was. She didn’t love him as a woman should love the man she was pledged to marry. “I—”
“Take your hands off my daughter.”
The duke stood in the doorway, the duchess beside him, her hand curled through his arm, both of them looking terribly regal.
Rushland’s hand came away quickly and
clenched into a fist at his side. He nodded to her father, but there was nothing deferential in the gesture. “Your Grace.”
“This interview is at an end,” the duke said.
“Winnifred, this matter is best left between the gentleman and me.”
Freddy took the single step necessary to put her at Rushland’s side and slipped her arm through his in an imitation of her mother’s pose. “Since the gentleman has asked me to become his wife, I think this concerns both of us, Father.”
“Winnifred,” her mother warned. “The Duke of Worth’s only daughter wouldn’t dare do something so stupidly impulsive as to engage herself to this … this
Maybe if her mother hadn’t used that precise word, maybe if Freddy hadn’t glanced at Rushland at that precise moment and seen the flash of wounded pride, maybe things would have turned out differently.
“Oh, I would dare, Mother,” she said in a brittle voice. “I’d dare a great deal more. Lord Talbot and I intend to be married as soon as possible and sail for America, where we shall live on a ranch in the wilderness.”
“I won’t allow it.” The duke was agitated enough to twist at the perfect curl of his mustache. “You’re only seventeen. There’s not a clergyman in England who’ll perform the nuptials without my consent.”
“Then we’ll be married in America,” Freddy replied.
Her mother faltered, leaning heavily against her father, and Freddy saw the tic in her father’s right eyelid that appeared whenever he was truly angry.
“I forbid it,” the duke said. “Rushland, you will leave this house immediately.”
“If he goes, Father, I go,” Freddy threatened.
She waited for her mother to plead with her father for reason. But the duchess’s face remained as unsympathetic as the duke’s.
And they wondered where she got her stubborn, independent streak
“You’ll be locked in your room, young lady, if that’s what it takes, until you come to your senses,” her father warned in a dire voice.
“You can keep me locked up, but as soon as I can manage it, I’ll escape.” She turned to Rushland. “Don’t leave without me. I’ll join you as soon as I can.”
Rushland took one look at the duke’s choleric color, gave her a quick nod, and made as dignified an exit as any thwarted suitor could.
Her father had locked her up, and she had proven as good as her word. That was how she had come to America as the fiancée of a man she didn’t love and had never intended to marry. At least she had managed to put off the wedding.
Freddy had been meaning to tell Rushland for weeks that she couldn’t marry him, that she had only been proving to her parents that they couldn’t control her life. Somehow the right moment had never presented itself. Now they were both likely to
die without her ever having said anything. She glanced over her shoulder to see how Rushland was faring. He was still holding on. Barely. “Don’t let go, Rand!”
“Leave me,” he shouted. “Save yourself.”
“Shut up and hang on,” she snapped back.
Freddy was unprepared for the lasso that settled around her shoulders, equally startled when a quick jerk tore her out of the sidesaddle. She was falling before she could extend a hand to save herself.
“Rand!” she cried in terror. “Raaaand!”
“Oh, God! Fredd—”
His voice ended abruptly, as though someone had clamped a hand over his mouth. Or clubbed him. Or cut his throat.
All those thoughts raced through Freddy’s head in the seconds it took her to land—rather painfully—flat on her back. For a moment she lay stunned, aware of her fate, but unwilling to accept it.
Her eyes widened as she spied the crowd of painted faces that quickly surrounded her on horseback. She would have gasped, but when she tried to breathe, breath wouldn’t come.
The Indians seemed intent on terrifying her—and they were doing an exceedingly good job of it—screeching and whooping and waving their rifles. The noise was deafening, and though her mind filtered the sounds, she couldn’t make out a word of their guttural gibberish.
Freddy searched for Rushland, but kept lowering her eyes because what she found was so …
foreign. She had never seen so much naked male flesh. Actually, being gently raised, she had never seen
naked male flesh. The scene before her was rather overwhelming. She was aware of vivid impressions rather than individual men.
Burnished copper skin. Flat male nipples. Broad, muscled chests. Good Lord! She could even see thighs and knees! Of course one knew men had them, but it was rather a revelation seeing them exposed—bony and slim, stout and thick. In other circumstances, she would have been fascinated. Unfortunately, she was too terrified to indulge her curiosity.
Abruptly the noose around her shoulders tightened, and she was dragged to her feet.
Despite the pain, she came up fighting, teeth bared, fingers curled into claws. “You’ll have to kill me before I’ll let you touch one hair on my head!”
The Indians laughed and pointed.
Her eyes narrowed. She didn’t think the situation was the least bit amusing. When a space opened between two horses, she darted toward it.
The noose jerked her backward, and she landed hard on her bottom. She was on her feet in an instant, lunging for another space. Again the noose jerked, and she went tumbling. She rose again, and again a space miraculously appeared between the shoulders of two horses. But she knew their game now and didn’t choose to play.
She halted where she was, panting, trembling like a wild animal that knows it is trapped. Her hat was long gone, but someone grabbed at the net
that still covered her hair. As she lurched sideways, it tore free, and her hair spilled in silken waves down her back all the way to her waist.
She heard the hissed-in breaths, the utter silence that followed as they stared at her auburn hair. She swallowed over the knot in her throat. She could see her fate written on their fascinated faces.
She groaned, remembering what the teamster had said. Being female wouldn’t save her. They would take her scalp all the same. She waited stoically for the final blow to fall. She wouldn’t scream or beg them for mercy. They would see how an English gentlewoman, daughter of a duke and descended from the blood of kings, chose to die with her head up and her chin held high.
“What are you called?”
Freddy was startled to hear English spoken by a strange voice and whirled to find the source of it. She stared, confused by what she saw.
Her captor’s eyes were black and inscrutable, but his nose was less flat, his lips less thin, and his forehead less high than those of the others. His skin was lighter, too, more golden than copper.
He’s not Indian
, she thought, and felt a thrill of relief run through her.
Another look made her question that conclusion. His black hair was long and straight to his shoulders, held at his brow by a narrow strip of rawhide, and his face was painted in yellow stripes like that of the others. His chest and arms—virile sinew and bone—were bare. Her eyes skimmed
down a wall of rippling muscle to the buckskin leggings that covered the rest of him. And saw his hand fisted around the rope that held her captive.
Her glance flashed back to his face. “I’m Lady Winnifred Worth,” she answered him at last. And with all the dignity she could muster, demanded, “Who are you?”
“I am called Hawk.”
“Are you a white man?” she asked.
His features hardened. “I am Sioux.”
That wasn’t the answer she had been hoping for. “Then how did you learn to speak English?”
“I went to the white man’s school.”
But didn’t care much for the experience, she concluded from the disdainful look on his face. “What are you going to do with me?”
“You are my prisoner.”
She swallowed, unwilling to speculate on what that meant. “What about Rushland?” When the English-speaking Sioux frowned in confusion, she rephrased her question. “What happened to the man who was with me?”
“He is dead.”
She let out a howl and attacked.
Freddy had the satisfaction of feeling her nails tear into Hawk’s skin before her wrists were gripped by iron hands and forced away. “You beast! You animal! Rushland never did a thing to harm you. Why did you have to kill him?”
The Sioux held her at arm’s length until she was too exhausted to struggle any more. “You are strong. You will make a good wife.”
” she shrieked. She struggled frantically against his hold, but she felt like a butterfly whose wings were pinned by giant hands.
“You belong to me now,” he told her. “You cannot escape.”
Her chin snapped up defiantly. “This is ridiculous! You can’t own me! I insist you let me go.” She tried to free her wrists, and when she couldn’t, resorted to kicking at him with her calfskin half-boots. Her enormous riding skirt got in the way, telegraphing what she intended, so he was able to shift easily out of her reach.
He snatched a handful of her hair and held on when she tried to jerk free. She yelped in pain and froze, panting with fright as she stared into his dark, fathomless eyes.
“You will bear many fierce sons for me,” he said.
She stared at him, disbelieving. Her heart thumped wildly as he began speaking to the others in Sioux. She tried to brace for whatever was coming, but her head was spinning, and she thought there was a very good chance she might faint. She ducked her head instinctively when one of the Indians loosened the rope and lifted it over her head. It took her a second to realize what was happening, but before she could run, Hawk grabbed her wrists and held them together while a second Indian twined a piece of rawhide around them several times.
Then Hawk let her go.
She waged a futile struggle against her bonds.
“You will only hurt yourself,” he said, laying a hand on her wrists. “To fight now is useless. There is no escape.”