Authors: Joan Johnston
There was nothing gentle about this man.
She stared out the colonel’s window onto the immense parade ground at the center of the fort and considered her choices.
Fort Laramie, located at the junction of the Laramie and North Platte rivers, wasn’t much of a refuge from marauding Indians, to Verity’s way of thinking. There were no stout walls, no walls of any kind, just wooden buildings arranged around a central quadrangle with the river curving around one end of it.
There were blue-coated soldiers aplenty, several two-story barracks’ worth, and maybe that was all that was needed to hold off the savages. She had to be out of her mind to consider leaving what safety the fort offered to travel into the wilderness with a man who despised her.
But she couldn’t bear to stay behind, to wait and wonder what had happened to Rand and Freddy. She had to know.
“I’ll go with you,” she told Miles. “However, since my wagon was lost, I don’t have anything to wear besides—”
“I’m sure my wife will have something to fit you, ma’am,” the colonel offered.
Verity wanted to refuse, but realized it would only be foolish pride speaking. “Thank you, Colonel Peters. I would be much obliged.”
“I’ll meet you at the colonel’s quarters in an
hour,” Miles said. He turned without another word or look and left the colonel’s office.
Verity took a deep, calming breath. In an hour they would be on their way to find Rand and Freddy. She could last another hour without going to pieces. She knew she would be all right once they were on the trail.
Help is on the way, my dear ones. Be strong. We shall soon have you safe
She turned to the colonel and forced a smile onto her lips. “I’m ready, Colonel Peters.”
The colonel walked her to his home, a white clapboard house shaded by a deep railed veranda on each floor, one of several structures that he explained were officers’ quarters, all set along the southwest side of the parade ground, at the bend in the river. As they entered the house she saw that the stairs took up half of a long central hallway with rooms branching out to either side.
“This is my wife, Mrs. Peters,” the colonel said, as he introduced the two of them in what turned out to be the parlor. “This is Lady Talbot, dear, the Countess of Rushland.”
“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Lady Talbot,” Mrs. Peters said with a welcoming smile. The woman dipped a slight curtsy which Verity would have considered her due in England, but which seemed out of place here.
Verity put a hand under Mrs. Peters’s arm to assist her out of the curtsy. “I’m the one imposing on you. I hope we can be friends.”
She could see Mrs. Peters was pleased by her overture. “I’d like that very much,” Mrs. Peters said. “We don’t get many white women out here. I’m glad to meet you.”
“I thought you might help Lady Talbot freshen up and find something for her to wear,” the colonel said. “She has a long ride ahead of her.”
“Of course, darling,” Mrs. Peters said to her husband. “I’ll take care of everything. Now shoo, go back to work.”
Verity watched, entranced, as the colonel leaned down to give his wife a quick buss on the cheek, which raised roses among the wrinkles. Familiarity in public between spouses was another difference from the world she had left behind. Most upper-class English gentlemen confined contact with their wives to the dance floor and the bedroom.
The endearments between husband and wife, the
, were stranger still. She fought back a rush of envy, a wistful longing for what might have been. Surely if she had married Miles all those years ago, they would have used such expressions for each other. She forced such thoughts away. She had learned to make the best of what life offered rather than sink into melancholy over what she couldn’t have. It was the only way she had survived the past twenty-two years.
“Let’s see what we can do to get you cleaned up,” Mrs. Peters said as she led Verity toward the kitchen that was appended to the back of the house. “Although,” the elderly woman said, her
brown eyes sparkling with laughter, “I don’t know what the colonel was thinking of to imagine anything of mine would fit you.”
Verity could see why the colonel had believed his wife might find something for her to wear. They were both unusually tall women. The resemblance ended there. Mrs. Peters was broad-shouldered, small-bosomed, and stout. Perhaps the colonel remembered her as she once had been.
The older lady pursed her lips. “Perhaps I can take something in. At least the length will be right,” she mused.
“Sit here,” she ordered Verity, pulling out a chair at a small wooden table in the kitchen. The lever squealed as she primed the pump and filled a bowl with water. She found a clean cloth and some carbolic in a brown bottle and sat down beside Verity.
“That’s a nasty scratch,” she said as she surveyed the damage to Verity’s cheek.
“My horse threw me.” Verity inspected her hands. “Thank goodness I was wearing gloves. There isn’t much damage to my hands.” She pulled off the torn gloves, gritting her teeth as the leather rubbed against the bloody scratches on her palms.
“This might sting a little.” Mrs. Peters daubed the cloth with carbolic and applied it to Verity’s cheek.
Verity hissed in a breath. The antiseptic acid burned like fire.
“Sorry, dear. It’s the only thing I know to do.” Mrs. Peters repeated the process with Verity’s
palms. “Shouldn’t leave any scars after you heal,” she said. “Lucky for you. Your hands are quite beautiful, and so soft.”
The contrast was apparent. Mrs. Peters’s hands were rough and reddened from whatever harsh soap she used and callused from hard work. Verity looked at her own hands, soft and smooth except for the new scratches. She had never done any physical labor in her life. The butler, the footman, the cook, the housekeeper, the groom, the gardener, and the maids had done everything, and Leah had kept her company. But the servants were all in England, and Leah had died two years ago from an infection of the lungs.
Now she had to rely on her own ingenuity and willingness to work. She was willing. She just wasn’t sure how she would ever be able to learn everything there was to know. Verity wondered—not for the first time, and she suspected not for the last—whether she had made a mistake leaving England, whether she would be able to survive in this new land. But she didn’t have much choice. The ranch was the only home she had left.
Mrs. Peters kept up a steady stream of chatter as she led Verity to her upstairs bedroom and began rummaging through her wardrobe. Verity kept waiting for the questions.
Why are you here? What happened to your own clothes?
But the colonel’s wife managed to keep a dialogue going without once indulging her curiosity.
“I suppose you’re wondering what I’m doing out here,” Verity volunteered. She held herself still
while Mrs. Peters measured and pinned the waist of a brown corduroy skirt that was split into two legs to enable her to ride astride.
Mrs. Peters eyed her keenly. “I figured you’d tell me if you wanted me to know.”
“I came here with my son and his fiancée—” She was surprised when her throat constricted. She had to swallow to clear a path for speech. “They were captured by Indians,” she said evenly.
“I’m so sorry. So very, very sorry.”
Verity took one look at the sympathy on Mrs. Peters’s face, registered the tone of her voice, and realized the woman was offering her consolation on her loss. “They’re not dead,” she said sharply.
Mrs. Peters didn’t contradict her, but it was plain she didn’t believe her, either.
Rand couldn’t be dead. She had given up too much for her son, had changed her life forever because of him. Her happiness had revolved around him, and his happiness had always ensured her own. God couldn’t let him die. She would do anything to get Rand back, promise anything. Only, please, God, he couldn’t be dead!
“Mr. Broderick is going to help me search for my son and his fiancée,” she explained to the older woman.
“Miles Broderick is a good man. If anyone can find them, he can.”
Verity felt reassured as much by Mrs. Peters’s assessment of Miles’s character as by her confidence in his tracking ability.
“What brought you here, if I may ask?” Mrs. Peters said.
“My son and I plan to settle on a ranch my late husband purchased as an investment.”
“As I understand it, the ranch house is situated where the Chugwater runs into the Laramie River.”
“Oh?” She frowned. “Who sold your husband that place?”
“A man named Loomis, I think.”
Mrs. Peters’s lips pursed, and she made a sound in her throat.
“Is something wrong?”
“Wouldn’t be Ben Loomis sold you that ranch, would it? The Muleshoe Ranch?”
“Yes, it was. I believe it is called the Muleshoe.”
“What?” Verity asked, alarmed by the look on Mrs. Peters’s face.
“I knew that Ben Loomis was no account, but I never thought he would do anything as low-down as this.”
“As what?” Verity said.
“That ranch of yours, the one Ben sold you, well, I think he also sold it to somebody else.”
“What are you talking about?” Verity felt her heart skittering around in her chest. She had never counted on this, never counted on fraud. Although she shouldn’t be surprised, not really. That was how Chester had lost his very large fortune, investing in every harebrained scheme presented to him.
This was disaster on a scale she hadn’t imagined. The loss of the wagonload of supplies was a minor setback in comparison. It simply wasn’t possible that the ranch she had counted on becoming her son’s heritage, the only home they had, belonged to someone else.
“Are you telling me that someone is living on the Muleshoe Ranch right now?”
“That’s exactly what I’m saying,” Mrs. Peters replied.
“Who?” Verity asked.
“Why, Mr. Broderick bought the place near two years ago.”
Verity breathed out a shaky sigh and put a hand to her head where the pulse was pounding at her temple.
Of course it would be Miles. How had he done it? Was he a part of the swindle? Was that what he had meant when he said he would have his revenge? Had he known all along that both of them laid claim to the same piece of property?
The echoing knock at the front door made Verity jump. Oh, God, that was probably Miles now! What should she do? What should she say?
“I’ll be finished here in a moment,” Mrs. Peters said, knotting a thread in the hem and cutting it with her teeth. “Why don’t you go downstairs and make Mr. Broderick comfortable in the parlor?”
Verity hastily put back on her lavender velvet riding skirt. She gripped the banister with her fingertips to spare her scraped palm as she headed down the steep stairs. Her mind was scurrying to
make heads or tails of the information she had just gleaned from the colonel’s wife. What did it all mean? Was it sheer coincidence? She couldn’t believe that. How had she been so neatly manipulated into such a trap? What further revenge did Miles have in mind for her?
She would demand that he tell her his intentions. But she was afraid, so very afraid, to hear what they were.
“Is it true you’re living on the Muleshoe Ranch?” Verity asked the instant she opened the door.
Miles hadn’t planned to keep his possession of the ranch a secret. He just hadn’t expected Verity to find out about it so soon. Perhaps it was better this way. She might as well know going in that she had no choices, that they had all been taken away from her.
“Yes,” he said. “I’m living at the ranch.”
She made an agonized sound in her throat. Her eyes slid closed, and she clasped her lower lip with her teeth. He was afraid she was going to faint.
“You never were very good at handling the little misfortunes in life,” he taunted. “That hasn’t changed.” He had kept the good side of his face turned toward her more because of habit than anything else. But he realized he didn’t want to make
it easier for her. He wanted to remind her of what she had done.
Her eyes snapped open, and she glared at him—until he turned fully to face her. Then her glance skipped away. But she didn’t bother refuting the accusation. It was true, and she knew it.
“Are you going to let me in?” he asked.
She stepped back and clutched the doorknob as he walked by her. She gestured—what an elegantly polished move it was—toward the parlor. “Mrs. Peters said to make yourself comfortable.”
He stepped into the meagerly furnished room, which had a couple of maple tables covered with doilies, a horsehair sofa, and a wing chair arranged around a Turkish rug in front of the fireplace. He stood by the mantel and gestured to the pale rose sofa. “Come join me.”
It was an order, but he was surprised when she obeyed it. He watched her walk toward him, a vision of dignity even in her disheveled state. She settled herself on the sofa and played with her velvet skirt, straightening it around her, avoiding his eyes, avoiding him. Only he wasn’t going anywhere. Sooner or later she would have to look at him. She would have to confront the mutilated features that had so revolted her that she had repudiated her engagement to him and married another man.