THE WAGON TRAIN traveled across the South Platte’s Upper Ford, arriving at Windlass Hill, six weeks and five hundred miles from Independence.
Henry blasted his trumpet and the wagons pulled into a circle. While the men unyoked the teams and chained the wagons, Kit helped Sarah start the campfire and put coffee on to boil. The exhausting routine never let up. Not on rainy days. Not on dry days either when the choking dust crept into Kit’s food and hair. She didn’t mind being gritty. It was never getting clean that drove her crazy.
She shook dust from her apron. “Cullen’s coming for supper when he finishes his meeting.”
“Lordy,” Sarah said, “that man has more get-togethers than a parson in springtime.”
Kit made a mental note to add Sarah’s colloquialism to her ever growing list. “He’s trying to figure out the best way to get down the hill.”
“He doesn’t need a meeting to do that. Go around the blooming thing is what I say. Told John that just a bit ago.”
Frances finished arranging a handful of wild flowers in a cup of water and placed the arrangement in the center of the table. “Momma, can Mrs. MacKlenna take me to see the bad hill?”
Kit rubbed goose bumps from her arms. Every time someone called her Mrs. MacKlenna she got a creepy-crawly feeling. The name reminded her of all the lies she had told. She needed a new name. The grooms and hot walkers on the farm had always called her Miss Kit. Maybe that would work for the children?
“Since we’re traveling sisters, do you think you and Elizabeth could call me Miss Kit instead of Mrs. MacKlenna?”
Frances’ eyes lit up. “Can we Momma? That’s easy for me to say.”
“I don’t reckon it matters none.” Sarah waved a large wooden spoon. “You two go on now. Dinner’s about ready.”
Kit snagged Frances’s hand. “Come on. Let’s hurry.”
A few minutes later they stood at the top of the steep incline at the head of Ash Hollow and stared down at the jagged scar leading to the springs below. A breeze picked up and beat Kit’s skirt around her legs, just as the scar and the hardship it represented hammered concern into her heart.
“We’re going down that?” Frances’s rose-tinted face pinched with worry.
“Going around the hill would take us miles out of the way.”
“But is it safe?”
Kit didn’t think so, but strong and resilient Frances constantly worried about others. Kit didn’t want to add to the child’s growing alarm. When she spotted Cullen walking in their direction, she decided to turn the question over to him. He could answer it without upsetting Frances. “Here comes Mr. Montgomery. Ask him?”
Frances folded her arms and waited for Cullen to come within hearing distance. “Are we really going down that hill?”
He crouched to be at eye level with her and pressed his forearms against his thighs. “Hundreds of wagons have already gone that way. We’ll be safe enough. ”
She twiddled her fingers against her elbows.
“I need for you to do something special while your pa and I get the wagons ready.” He gently tapped her chin. “Stay close to Mrs. MacKlenna—?
Frances shook her head. “Momma said I could call her Miss Kit.”
Cullen cocked an eyebrow. “Then stay close to Miss Kit so she won’t wander off and get hurt. Will you do that?”
“I’ll watch her, but will you take our wagon down first?”
“Why would you want to do that, honey?” Kit asked.
Frances gave an easy shrug. “If the Barretts go first, everyone will know it’s safe.”
“To be so trusting,” Cullen said.
“Children are naturally. Then they grow up, get hurt, and forget.”
“Or they’re lied to,” he said.
“Mrs. Montgomery.” Elizabeth came to a running stop, breathing hard, with Tate at her side.
Frances lifted her chin, expressing an I-know-more-than-you attitude. “Momma said we could call her Miss Kit.”
Elizabeth glared at her sister, and Tate, not wanting to be left out planted his front paws on Kit’s chest.
“Down, Tate.” She pushed him away and brushed the dirty prints from her blouse.
Elizabeth tugged on Kit’s arm. “Will you take us exploring?”
“Are your chores done?”
“Yes, ma’am,” the girls said in unison.
“Are your lessons done?”
“Yes, ma’am,” Elizabeth said, but Frances stuck out her lower lip and didn’t answer.
Kit gave the child’s bonnet strings a teasing pull. “What’s the matter?”
Frances curled her bottom lip. “I lost my pencil.”
Kit whispered in Frances’s ear loud enough for everyone to hear. “I have one you can use, but it’s a secret pencil.”
Elizabeth planted her fists on her hips. “How can it be a secret if I know about it?”
Cullen smiled. “I’ve seen Miss Kit’s pencils. They’re magical.”
Frances jumped up and down, clapping. “Will I draw like Miss Kit, too?”
“You might draw better. I haven’t seen her drawings.”
“We’ve seen them.” Elizabeth shrugged. “She makes cartoons out of you.”
Cullen crossed his hands over his heart. “Cartoons? I’m crushed.”
The children giggled, and Kit chuckled. “Say goodbye to Mr. Montgomery. We have to go. Supper’s ready” She clasped their hands and led them back toward the wagons, walking around patches of shrubbery and over lumpy terrain covered with wind-blown sand.
Cullen’s deep, contented laugh followed.
A man who understood the joy of laughter was special. A man who could take fifteen minutes to banish an eight-year-old’s fear was even more so. Kit couldn’t deny that he plucked at her heartstrings creating an alluring sound. But why now when there was no possibility of a future?
“Do you and Mr. Montgomery kiss?” Elizabeth asked.
Kit let go of the children’s hands and sucked in a deep breath. The precocious little girls had a habit of asking whatever was on their mind. She let the question hang in the air.
Frances picked up a rock and studied it. “I saw Adam and Allison kiss.”
“Really? When’d you see—” Kit’s foot caught on a root. She pitched forward spread eagle, tucked and rolled, and landed on her back under a bush. “Ouch.”
“Are you hurt?” Elizabeth’s voice rose with alarm.
A distinctive rattle stopped Kit’s heart in the middle of a beat. The snake struck in a moment of horror, burying its fangs into her right thigh. Blue blazing terror shoved her into the bowels of a dark, empty hole. The cold-blooded creature slithered away.
Elizabeth screamed. Frances screamed. Tate barked. They all ran away, leaving Kit alone and injured. The kind of messed-up, mixed-up, dead-in-an-instant injured. White-knuckled, heart stopping, fear-of-dying—injured. Her chest constricted. Without a weapon, she had no protection if the snake returned. She scooped up two rocks, gripped them with ice-cold hands.
Stay calm. Stay still. Moving will spread the venom faster. But sitting still amidst a possible den of snakes was a bad idea.
The bite should soon be swelling and bleeding. But how long afterwards? Immediately, or a few minutes? With her dress hiked up, she could see that only a trickle of blood had seeped through the trousers she wore under her skirt, and her leg wasn’t ballooning into a mass of poisoned tissue. Those were good signs.
Panic tied her up with tentacles of fear. Even if it meant spreading the venom, she had to get out from under the bush.
Don’t panic. Take slow breaths, and get out. Now.
“Kit.” Cullen’s voice penetrated her fog of fear. His feet pounded in the sandy soil. “My God, what happened?” He pulled her out from under the bush.
“Where’s the bite?” The urgency in his voice did nothing to calm her.
She pointed to the bloody spot and small tear in her trousers. He drew his bowie knife. “I’ll have to suck out the poison. This will hurt, but I have to do it.”
“No you don’t.” She swatted at his arm. “Help me to my wagon.”
“Damn, Kit. This is serious.”
She grabbed his shirtfront and jerked him down until his face was inches from hers. “You are not going to cut and suck and get germs in my wound. If you don’t carry me back, I swear I’ll walk.”
“Like hell you will.”
She shoved him aside and tried to stand.
“Hold on.” He scooped her up and ran hell-bent for camp. When they reached Kit’s wagon, he placed her on the bed.
“Help me. I have to take off my pants. It might be a dry bite.”
“What the hell’s a dry bite?” With his jaw shadowed by several days’ growth of whiskers, he had a hard and angry appearance.
She clawed at her boots. “I’d be in excruciating pain by now, if there was venom.”
“Be still. I’m not convinced you’re right.” He removed her boots and again tried to cut her pants.
“Stop! I’ll take them off.”
If he cut her trousers, she couldn’t replace them. There wasn’t a corner Gap store anywhere between Ash Hollow and say…1969. She bunched up her skirt at her waist then unbuttoned the pants and pushed them down over her hips.
He yanked off the trousers and tossed them on the floor. Lodged in the wound six inches above her knee was a snake’s fang. Seeing the grooved tooth poking out of her skin stretched her band of control to the point of breaking.
He pinched the fang between his fingers, but she pushed his hand away. “Wait. Get my medical box.” She pointed over her shoulder. “It’s by the trunk.” Everything she needed and could explain would be in there. He tossed his hat on the rocking chair, grabbed the box, and opened it.
“Hand me the vial on the back row at the end, the small forceps, and a piece of gauze.” She splashed antiseptic wash from one of the unlabeled vials over the wound and then removed the fang with the forceps. The punctures barely bled. She spread antibiotic ointment she’d previously squirted into an unlabeled vial over the wound, and then wrapped her leg with gauze. He returned the vials to their slots and closed the box.
Nausea hit, and she gagged. Cullen grabbed a bowl and a towel off the table and placed the bowl under her chin, but she didn’t vomit. Sweat broke out across her forehead. She waved the bowl away. “Would you mind wetting the towel?”
He filled the washbowl with water from the pitcher and soaked the cloth. After wringing it out, he knelt beside the bed and wiped her forehead.
She reached for the washcloth. “I’m not a child. I can wash my own face.”
He blocked her hand with his arm. “No, you’re not a child.”
She glanced out through the open flaps in the front of the wagon. The threatened rain had moved out leaving the clouds soft and white, framing a blue sky. Thinking about how she would sketch the scene provided a distraction she desperately needed. She didn’t want to think about the snake. And she definitely didn’t want to think about the man who was tenderly washing her face.
“You’ve got a scratch, here.” The pad of his thumb skimmed her cheek.
“There’re trigs and dry leaves in your braid.” He pulled a leaf from her hair. “I’ll get the rest.” He spoke calmly against her ear, each word a gently rolling wave of cool water. His long, slim fingers worked through the braid, untwisting the strands with ease. Her scalp tingled with each little tug. “Where’s your comb?”
She was hesitant to say anything, not fully trusting her voice. “On the table.”
He stood and collected her brush. She took it from him quickly before he had a chance to untangle her hair. She needed to concentrate on the snakebite not on Cullen’s breath caressing her neck with the softness of cashmere.
Watching her, he furrowed his hand through his own hair, creating creases in the lush, dark waves always hidden beneath his hat.
“Cullen,” John yelled from outside the wagon. “We just heard. What can we do?”
Cullen drew back the bonnet flaps, gripping them so tightly his fingers turned white.
“How is she?” John asked.
“She says the snake didn’t release any venom.”
“How’d she know that?”
“I don’t know.”
“Do you believe her?”
“I believe she believes it. I’ll let you know if we need anything.” He dropped the flaps and turned back to her with the parched look of a man with no hope of a drink.
There was an undercurrent of steamy tension inside the wagon.
He crossed one arm over his chest, grasped his other elbow, and plucked at his chin, playing with an invisible goatee. “When you jumped into the water to save the Springer boy did you believe you could rescue him?”
“When you pushed on his chest did you believe you could save him?”
“Do you have that belief, that confidence now?” He seemed to stare right through her, evaluating her answers.
Her hands stilled with plaits of hair twisted in her fingers. “Yes.”
He sat in the rocking chair and twirled his hat. “You’re too calm.”
“What would hysteria accomplish?”
“How can you be so blasé. What would you have done if the bite had venom?”
She would have opened the brooch and never looked back, but she couldn’t tell him that.
The veins in his neck pulsed, and his eyes were like hard, blue marbles.
“Can we can talk later? I’d like to rest for a while.” Tears clustered at the corners of her eyes. She ached to be held, but he didn’t offer. Go away, Cullen Montgomery, and let me cry.
“Rest. I’ll be back.” He jumped off the tailgate, hitting the ground with a thud.
The clustered of tears now rolled down her face. She’d always lived in a community of caring people who knew when she needed hugs. Sarah and the children would hug her, but she needed more, much more. Alone and confused, she buried her face in her pillow and wept silent tears.
CULLEN RETURNED TO find Kit asleep. Her breasts lifted in rhythm with her soft breath. He peeked beneath the sheet. A small amount of blood had oozed through the gauze. Should he change the dressing? No. She’d been particular about her care and wouldn’t want him touching the bandage.
Her flawless, golden-tinted skin, beckoned. His fingertips burned to touch her. How did her legs and belly become bronzed? Had she lain naked in the sun with her husband? Was the lass a sybarite?
He had never found muscular legs arousing, but hers were provocative. Would they grip and fold around him? Would they squeeze and pull him deeper into her body? Had her husband encouraged her sensuality, and what kind of lover had he taught her to be? Cullen’s body throbbed. He wanted her and had little doubt he would have her. What shocked him was his belief that making love once would not sate his desire for her.
The scrap of pink fabric she wore puzzled him. He’d seen his share of women in various stages of undress, but had never seen anything resembling the garment, almost like a loincloth. It wasn’t Parisian, and as far as he knew, not oriental, either. What was the point of wearing such a skimpy, and, he and to admit, erotic garment?
From the corner of his eye, he caught something glinting against the floor of the wagon. He looked closer and noticed the gleam came from a piece of jewelry pined to the waistband of her trousers. He picked up the pants and inspected the pin, a Celtic design brooch made of silver and Iona marble. Heat radiated from the blood red stone. Did she, like his Celtic ancestors, understand the power in the ruby, or could the brooch be only a family heirloom?
Another mystery surrounding the Widow MacKlenna.
Her life seemed very cryptic, and unless she chose to hand over the deciphering key, he would not easily uncover her secrets. He folded the wool trousers and placed them next to her pillow. Heirloom or mystical stone, she would want to know the jewelry was safe.
Gazing at her while she slept, he again found himself astounded by her beauty, not the current standard of beauty, but something else, something timeless. Pursed lips dared him to kiss her. Did he? No, he wouldn’t steal a kiss from her, but he would give her one on her forehead.
Her satiny skin was warm against his lips. The arousing aroma of vanilla and white flowers brought him to his knees. What was it about this woman that ignited his fury and confounded his logic and created an inextinguishable desire, making him forget his renowned self-control?
He inhaled a deep breath and blew it out, slow and easy. Kit was an enigma—tenacious and fearless, but at her center, fragile. With time, he would strip away every layer until he uncovered the true Kit MacKlenna. The question that plagued him was did he have enough time?
WHEN SARAH SHOOK Cullen’s shoulder, he woke to a dwindling light bathing Ash Hollow in an orange-yellow sunset. Confused, he shook his head, clearing it of the dream he’d had of his sister Kristen. She’d appeared to him as an ethereal woman with liquid blue eyes, and had guided him through a starless night toward a destination he couldn’t remember.
The dream disturbed him.
“I’ve brought dinner,” Sarah whispered.
He gestured with his thumb. “Let’s go outside.” Before leaving the wagon, he knelt beside Kit and felt her forehead, warm but not hot. He sighed and let go of his tension, or as much of it as he could.
Once outside the wagon, he remained standing while he ate, using the tailgate as a table. The air rustled around him in the last pitch of sunlight and the fresh smell of grass. Flecks of yellow gave the horizon a shimmery appearance. Over the last few weeks, he’d watched Kit study the sunsets and had wondered what inspired her artistically. Was it color or some vague sensation?
“Kit’s going to be all right, isn’t she?” Sarah asked.
The question tugged at his thoughts like a chain attached to an anchor at the bottom of the sea. “I’ve traveled throughout the world, but I’ve never met anyone, man or woman, with Kit’s tenacity. I’d be the last one to predict anything she might do, but I believe she’ll recover.”
“I was scared when she jumped into the river.” Sarah fiddled with her apron, ironing it with her hands. “The snake bite terrified me. Next time, and I know there will be a next time, Kit will likely give me an apoplectic fit.”
Cullen juxtaposed an image of Kit in the water and an image of the snake’s fang embedded in her leg. Something inside him bent and stretched. “I thought she was going to die. My heart was beating so fast I thought I’d drop where I stood.” He shoved in the last spoonful of stew and wiped his mouth with his handkerchief. “Thank you for the food.”
He leaned against the tailgate and crossed his arms. “When I started this trip, I thought I’d watch over her and protect her. Hard as hell to do when someone doesn’t want protection. I don’t believe Kit wants anyone to love her either, except maybe the children.”
“She’s been hurt, Cullen. Loving children is safe. She gives and they give back. But you’re like the land we’re traveling through—unknown and dangerous.”
He shoved away from the wagon gate with a level of anger that made him winch. “God, Sarah, I’d never hurt her.”
“That’s not what I meant by dangerous.” She placed the empty bowl into her basket. “Since that day in Independence when you rescued me from the overturning shelf, I’ve treated you like one of my boys.”
He gave her a teasing grin. “You speak to me like one of them, too.”
“Then I’m going to ask you a question same as I’d ask Adam. “What are your intentions toward Abigail?”
Cullen gave her a rote answer. “She’s a fine woman.”
“But do you have feelings for her?”
If John or Henry had asked these questions, he’d have told them to mind their own business, but he’d never be rude to Sarah. “Marriage to Abigail will be profitable, the beginning of a political force in California. She’ll give my father the grandson he’s been hounding me for.”
Cullen gulped hot coffee and burned his tongue. “Damn.” He dumped the coffee dregs and placed the empty cup into Sarah’s basket. “I’d best go help Henry.”
She looked as if she had something else to say but thought better of it. Instead, she picked up the basket and left him alone to sort out feelings he didn’t want to deal with.
Cullen lifted the wagon flaps and gazed at Kit. Her hair was disheveled, her cheeks flushed. All she needed were swollen lips, and she’d have the look of a well-loved woman. A look he intended to paint on her face. God help him.