THE WAGON TRAIN reached Chimney Rock, five hundred seventy-five miles and thirty-five exhausting days from Independence and half way to South Pass. The rock’s buff-colored, sandy clay finger was visible on the horizon and had been for the past twenty-four hours. If the little girls had asked how much farther one more time, Kit would have put them on Stormy and taken them on ahead, which would have really irritated their brothers who were just as excited to see the most famous landmark on the trail.
Henry found a level spot close to the river, and they camped in the shadow of the rock.
Frances came to the supper table with two drawings. She handed one to Kit and the other to her ma. “I drew pictures of the Chimney.”
Kit put down her fork and studied the drawing. “This is wonderful. When’d you do this?”
“Yesterday, when we were far, far away. How tall is it?”
Kit put her finger to her cheek. “Hmm, about three-hundred-and-twenty-five feet.”
John crinkled his brow. “How do you know that?”
Kit passed Frances’s drawing around the table for everyone to see. “Somebody measured its shadow, didn’t they?”
John propped the drawing up in front of him. “Well, I never heard that.”
Kit shrugged. “Maybe I’m wrong.” Or maybe I just gave them the twenty-first century measurement.
“There’s plenty of room to carve our names. Can we, Pa?” Elizabeth asked, batting her eyelashes.
Where’d she learn to do that?
John looked over his shoulder toward the landmark, scratching his chin. When he turned back around he said, “Eat your dinner. Soon as you’ve done your chores, we’ll go see it.”
Frances pumped her fist like a champion. “Yeah.”
Kit put her hand to her forehead and lowered her head. What have I done?
After dinner, John hitched the buckboard and drove the family over to the rock where he chiseled their names in the sandstone. Kit sketched a picture of the family with Chimney Rock and the pine and juniper-dotted bluffs in the background.
As an artist, she paid special attention to the dichotomy between the land’s breathtaking beauty and the unrelenting hardship they faced, and she tried to show that in the drawing’s coloring and shading. On another sheet of paper, she jotted random notes: Nebraska’s rugged beauty, Wyoming’s swales and ruts, Sweetwater River valley to South Pass, South Pass—final destination.
How in the world would she ever be able to say goodbye to the Barretts? In a short time, she had come to love them. She shook away the thought and went back to drawing. In the midst of sketching John, her fingers began to tingle, and she dropped the pencil. The man in the drawing wasn’t John. It was her father. Her head started swimming, and she fell smack into the memory of the crash. She was once again riding in the backseat of the car as it careened off the road, smashed through a fence, and into an oak tree.
“Kit, what’s the matter?” Sarah’s voice sounded garbled and distant.
“I don’t feel well…”
The next thing Kit knew she was sitting in a rocking chair back at camp with her head resting on the stenciled, wide-curved rail. John and Sarah hovered over her. “What happened?”
“You fainted.” Sarah wiped Kit’s forehead with a wet cloth.
John pulled his eyebrows into a frown. “I’ll leave you two to sort this out.” He and Sarah gazed at each for a brief moment, long enough for a conversation with their eyes. Kit glanced away feeling awkward, and if she were honest, envious.
“Tell me what happened,” Sarah asked.
“I was drawing a picture of your family, but instead of sketching John’s face, I drew my father’s. Then I was back in the car—” She stopped before she revealed too much. After a moment, she continued. “Life is so uncertain, and there're do-overs."
Sarah laid the washcloth aside and pulled a chair next to Kit. Their knees pressed together, layers of cotton softened the bone-to-bone touch. Sarah’s rough, work-worn hands patted Kit’s calloused ones. “You know what it means to be free. That’s what you feel when you ride your horse or play the guitar, but I’m not sure you understand freedom. If you did, you wouldn’t be stuck in pain’s clutch. You’re hurting. I see it in your eyes. But you’ll heal. You’ll be whole again.”
Sarah sat back in her chair with a sigh. “Your story is a tapestry with intricate detail work. Sadness is woven throughout with different shades of gray threads. It’s time to open your heart and let joy weave bright colors through your masterpiece.”
Sarah held up her hand to silence Kit. “I can’t promise we’ll all make it to Oregon, but I promise we’ll stay together and see this through to the end. You can’t give up. Keep in your heart the knowledge that we walk through the valley of the shadow. We don’t stay there. Take this journey and every journey one day at a time.”
Kit wiped away her tears, overwhelmed by the depth of Sarah’s wisdom.
“Cullen should be ready for supper. Wash your face now and take him dinner. We’ll talk again.”
KIT CARRIED A plate of food to Cullen and sat on the tailgate waiting for him to wake. A low sweep of clouds reminded her of home. Sunset on the farm was like no other, especially in early fall when the cool air whipped through the trees, sprinkling a treasure of gold over the bluegrass. While she missed home, she wasn’t ready to return.
The low rumble of his voice pulled her from her thoughts. “Either I’m sicker than I thought, or something else has upset you.”
She swung around. “What makes you think something’s wrong?”
“Seen you sit there before with a straight back and square shoulders, swinging your legs. You don't look like that now.”
She stood and stepped to his side. “If you can read me so well, tell me what you see.”
He studied her face. “A woman full of life and love but afraid to live it. Afraid to feel it.”
“Ouch. Sorry I asked.”
He took the plate and set it aside, then pulled her down to sit on the bed beside him. “You're much more than you appear to be.” He traced the veins in her hand with his fingertips. “You pour gifts out on others, but you tenaciously guard your heart.” He brought her hand to his lips and kissed the inside of her wrist. His warm breath sent tingles up her arms and across her shoulders. “No one can give you the reassurance you want.”
Beneath a growth of whiskers, his face had thinned, but his voice held calmness and compassion that spoke from the soul of the man enshrouded in layers of a complex personality.
“I got the same lecture from Sarah. Most of the time I’m fine, but then the grief and guilt hit me, and I feel like I’m starting all over.”
He caressed her hand. “You’re not starting over. I see healing in your eyes, which I might add, don’t have tears at the moment. And you’re not biting your lip to keep them away, either.”
Was it true? Was she really getting better? Or was she just hanging on until the next big wind sucked her into another vortex. Another big wind was on its way. Every healed bone in her body told her so.
THREE DAYS HAD passed since Kit returned from the cave and found Cullen seriously ill. He now walked a few steps around camp and found reasons to bark at John and Henry. He saw her approaching the buckboard. “I’m not riding in that wagon again. I’ve got a horse. I’m getting on it.”
Jasper appeared as if by magic. Cullen had a co-conspirator. She glanced around and caught a flash of Adam’s plaid shirt on the other side of the wagon. Traitor.
If Cullen thought he was well enough to ride, he could just sit his sorry ass in the saddle, and she’d see how long he could last. With his innate stubbornness, it occurred to her that he might make it until the nooning, so she packed a lunch basket.
“Mount up, Mr. Montgomery,” she said. “I’ll get my horse.”
The weather was perfect—the kind of day that defined spring. She sketched in her journal as they rode across the prairie. The clouds formed odd shapes that drifted at a leisurely pace across the robin’s-egg-blue sky. Colored pencils would be nice. Wildflowers splashed the tall grass with vivid purples and golds. In between the sky and wildflowers was a view of Scotts Bluff that added mystery to the landscape. And looming beyond the bluff was snow-capped Laramie Peak, a vivid reminder of the ascent into the Rocky Mountains.
From an artistic perspective—sublime to dangerous—it didn’t get any better.
When Cullen stretched, his saddled creaked under his weight.
“You sure you’re all right?”
He crossed his hands over his saddle horn. “You’ve asked twice in the past hour. My answer is the same. Fine.”
She lowered her head and looked at him over the top edge of the sunglasses she wished she were wearing. “Don’t get testy.”
There was no pleasure in his expression when he glanced at his arm for the umpteenth time. The pinprick and discoloration had faded, but he remembered. As she’d discovered, Cullen never forgot anything, and she knew he found it irritating that he didn’t understand what she’d done to him. To get his mind off the pinprick, she hummed a few measures of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor.
“Shall we work our way through Bach?” he asked.
“You can’t stump me.”
“Would you like to place a wager?”
“I would, but I know you don’t bet.”
He chuckled. “I’ll make an exception.”
“And what would you bet?”
He glared at his arm as if the appendage had betrayed him. “I’ll give up an annoying habit.”
She burst out laughing, startling Stormy who danced sideways. “Okay boy.” She patted his neck. “I was going to ask what annoying habits you have, but a list formed in my mind immediately.”
He slapped his chest. “Ouch”
“Well, what habit did you have in mind? I’ll decide if it’s worth a wager.”
“I had hoped if I called enough attention to this pinprick, you’d tell me where it came from. But our donkey-determination has butted heads.”
“So what’s the bet?”
“If I stump you, you’ll tell me what you put in my arm. If you stump me, I won’t mention it again.”
She waved her arm in a grand gesture. “You go first.”
They went through Bach’s instrumentals and vocals then moved on to Mozart. Toward noon, Cullen’s shoulders slumped, but she knew he’d never admit to being tired.
“I think Stormy picked up a rock. I need to stop.”
“There’s shade ahead. Can you make it to that overhang?”
The real question was, could he? She pulled two Tylenol from her shirt pocket, “Take these.”
He popped them into his mouth, then swigged water from his canteen. “What—”
She gave an inward groan. “Swallow the pills.”
He corked the canteen. “I was going to ask what the word ‘Tylenol’ means.”
“It’s taken from the chemical compound cetylaminophenol. And if you’d rather not take them, I won’t give you any more.”
“Whoa, I’m not complaining. Two pills and my aches go away. But I think I’ve discovered your secret.”
“You have a laboratory on your farm in Kentucky where you make mystery pills. Then you give them to patients to test their healing potential”
She wrote in her palm with an invisible pen. “Dear Laboratory Assistants. The patient reports that after taking two Tylenol his pain goes away.” She glanced at Cullen. “Can I report anything else?”
“Yes, I have more anecdotal evidence.” He leaned out of his saddle and kissed her. “Add that to the letter to your laboratory assistants.”
She laughed until tears poured down her cheeks.
CULLEN STRETCHED OUT on a blanket and pillowed his head with folded arms. His black hat covered his forehead and eyes. “Tell me what you see.”
She glanced up and around. “A cloud-filled sky and a concentrated disturbance of vegetation.”
A wisp of a smile crinkled the corners of his lips.
“What do you see?” There was a bit of touch-me-tease-me in her voice.
“A beautiful woman I want to kiss.” His fingers wrapped gently around her arm, and he pulled her toward him.
“Not a good idea.”
“Tsk, tsk, not a good idea would be wasting the time we have alone.”
“You need rest.” She tried to sit, but he pulled her back down.
“Rest with me.”
“That’s all you want?”
“No, not all I want.” He moved with the speed of a man fully recovered.
Damn those pills.
Before she could escape, he had her beneath him, her head resting in the crook of his elbow. He traced the curve of her jaw with the back of his finger. “There is something so uniquely beautiful about you. Worldly yet innocent. I believe you’re from the Aegean Isle?”
“Nope, the far side of the moon.” She teased her fingertips down the length of his pulsing neck.
His lips met hers in a soft, seductive dance. “I’ve never met anyone from the far side before.” The sounds of the warm cello, the soft mellow flute, the rumbling beat of the kettledrum, the mysterious oboe, the soulful bagpipes blended in his voice and created a symphony that played to her heart.
“You have now.”
Cullen nuzzled her neck, sending silky shivers whispering across her skin. His hand glided over her breasts. “No corset for Kit MacKlenna.”
“Easier for you to touch me.”
“And taste you.” He unbuttoned her blouse, slipped his hand inside her camisole, and cupped her breast. “Yellow silk.” His voice was creamy and delicious. His thumb circled her nipple, eliciting heady sensations that rolled through her body, producing a dizzying explosion of pleasure. He lowered his head and took her nipple into his mouth.
Sizzling heat twirled her in a Viennese Waltz of surrender.
Her virginity had almost been stolen on a stormy night years earlier, and because of that she held on to it tenaciously, but now beneath the Nebraska sky, she wanted to give herself to the man she had fallen in love with—a man who could never be part of her life.
She traced the tip of her tongue around the shell of his ear, and whispered. “Make love to me.”
He shuddered and let out a long sigh. “Aye lass, there’s nothing I want more.” He gazed into her eyes. “I won’t take your maidenhead or risk getting you with child.”
He drew back with a gasp. “Good God, woman. Why?” He rolled away from her and jumped to his feet.
She took the verbal attack with a confused shudder. “They were in my backpack to use for emergency water storage—”
“You’d give yourself to me knowing I’m going to marry Abigail?” His voice was a deep wolf’s growl. His eyes smoked with fury.
“What a jerk. You’re crazy.” She clamored to her feet, but in her adrenaline rage, caught her shoe in the dress’s hem. She tugged on her skirt. “Thoughts of her didn’t stop you from touching me. If you’re going to marry the woman, marry her. But leave me the hell alone.” White-hot anger boiled inside her gut.
His lip held a sardonic crook. “You’ve known my intentions all along.”
“What are you saying? I’m a condom-toting slut?”
“That’s not what—”
She spun on her heels. “Go to hell, Cullen Montgomery.”
“Come back here.” He grabbed her arm, but she jerked it out of his grasp.
“Leave me alone.” She bunched up her skirt and mounted Stormy.
Don’t cry. Not in front of him.
She galloped away, found an isolated spot by the river, and dismounted. What in the world happened? Cullen had turned on her quicker than that rattlesnake sank his fang. The venomous betrayal went deep into her bloodstream. She had trusted him and even wanted to give…Oh, God, how could I have been so stupid?
She’d risked more than she could afford to risk, and he had violated her trust. She rubbed the scars on her neck. The memories heaved her into a Machiavellian chamber of horrors. Feeling violently sick, she threw up her lunch.
FROM A DISTANCE, Cullen watched Kit cry. His heart crawled into his throat and hung there, choking him. The only women he had known with condoms were the courtesans he visited in Europe. Knowing Kit had them sent his mind reeling in all sorts of deviant directions.
Was she offering herself to him for pleasure? If to him, then who else? The thought of another man holding her, touching her, kissing her filled him with the burn of jealously and fire of rage.
Now that his heart no longer thundered, he could see clearly. And what he saw made him cower in shame. In her pain and tears, her trust in him had shattered before his eyes.
He groaned like the ground erupting. “Lord, what have I done?”
Bits and pieces of the dream he had the night of Kit’s snakebite coiled into his mind. In the dream, she had left him, and he couldn’t find her. He yelled, but she didn’t answer. He grieved, but she didn’t return to console him. Kristen appeared and led him to the path he needed to take, but he woke before the journey began.
He had a sense he’d just taken the first step in that journey.