THE WAGON TRAIN followed a difficult stretch of trail over a rocky road and seven miles of deep sand before arriving at Fort Hall on the Snake River. The trip had worn Kit out, as well as everyone else. Dust covered her hair and clothes and left a gritty, disgusting taste in her mouth.
July 12, 1852. Nothing special about the date other than it marked the seventh week of pregnancy and her first serious bout of morning sickness—at six o’clock in the afternoon. She wanted to be home in her own bed with her own toilet to throw up in, and her own shower to wash off the filth, and her own sink to brush her teeth.
“How can I help you?” Cullen’s furrowed brow conveyed his empathy, which she didn’t want.
“Leave me alone. Don’t touch me. This is your fault. Go away.” She collapsed on her bed as if someone had pushed her. After twelve hundred miles, her reserves were empty. Time to wave the white flag.
“Walk to the fort with me?” he said.
“It’s a misnomer to call that collection of adobe buildings a fort.”
Cullen squeezed his lips between his thumb and the crook of his index finger in an attempt to downgrade a laugh to a mere chuckle.
She huffed. “You’re laughing at me. I can tell. Your shoulders are shaking.”
He stilled himself, posture erect. “I’ll work on my acting skills.” His lulling voice was both calming and reassuring.
“Adam is developing into quite a thespian. I’m sure he’ll be glad to help you.” The sarcastic bite in her tone of voice distressed her and gave her another reason to refer to herself as a shrew.
“I’m sorry you’re sick. Do you have any medicine?” Cullen sat next to her, his bright eyes teasing and mischievous.
She sank her elbow into his rib cage.
“Stop laughing at me.” She’d take a sprained wrist, a broken bone, anything but a queasy stomach and huge, swollen boobs. The misery shaved off a layer of her resolve to stay in the nineteenth century. “Tums will help my stomach, but not these,” she said, cupping her breasts. “They’re so sore.”
“Tylenol will make you feel better.” He sounded like a damned commercial. Johnson & Johnson would probably hire him on the spot to pitch their product. He kissed her cleavage. His warm breath tickled, and she shivered, not because she was cold. She tilted her head, peeked at him through lowered lashes, found him gazing not at her, but inwardly as if watching and listening to a silent voice. He leaned back on the bed and pulled her into his arms. “You want to go home, don’t you, lass?”
There was a moment of utter stillness. She bowed her head, feeling defeated. “In weak moments, yes.”
He pulled pins from her hair, massaged her scalp. “This is a weak moment. Your eyes are filled with doubt.” The circular pressure relieved tension in her head and shoulders but increased it in her breasts and between her legs.
She rolled her head in circles matching the movement of his fingers. With each rotation, her respiration increased. “You know what your massages do to me.”
“I thought you needed relief.” His voice was a sexy rumble.
He slid her dress up over her thighs. “Your stomach may feel poorly but the rest of you…” He flashed his dimples as he unbuttoned his trousers. His erection jutted from a mass of dark, wiry hair. Atremble with anticipation and too anxious to delay, she straddled his legs, slid down the length of him, pulled him deep into her body. She forgot about her stomach and the dust and dirt. His arousing scent hypnotized her. She lost herself in her need for him and in the blue eyes that gazed up at her, saying I love you.
Frantically, she tossed off her blouse and jerked down her chemise. The fabric crumpled into a thin ring around her waist. She leaned over, letting her breasts sway inches from his face. He swirled the tip of his tongue around her right nipple.
A hiss slipped between her lips as she dissolved into the pleasure he gave her.
His rapid breath mingled with hers. She moistened her lips with a flick of her tongue as each nibble took her another step in her search for completion. She wanted him, needed him, her life would stop without him.
He teased her to the edge of climax, mumbling erotic words in a language she couldn’t understand. A gripping sensation began at her core and spread outward like a ferocious wave, pulling everything in its wake, unstoppable, unquenchable, and unfathomable.
They clung together in a pulsing rhythm of release, tied by an invisible cord binding them in their love, together for all time.
If anything happened to him, she’d fade away to the dark side and there’d be no pulling her back.
THREE HOURS LATER with supper over and dishes put away, Kit left the Barretts and strolled back to her campsite singing When the Dew is on the Grass. Tate and Tabor pitter-pattered behind her for a short distance, then circled back to play with the children.
Guess I’m not as much fun anymore.
Maybe the animals didn’t think so, but Cullen had a different opinion. Whatever had ailed her earlier, he’d healed with a kiss and a touch and, well…other things.
Guilt, however, wagged its sticky little finger at her for acting so snarky. He didn’t deserve to be the brunt of her foul moods. Their time together was too precious.
The sound of his voice drifting from the far side of her wagon stopped her mid-stride.
“…throwing gold around like they’d found the mother lode. Bragged about panning for gold at Dutch Flat. The Hudson Bay Company employees said their story didn’t add up.”
“Why’d they think that?” Kit smelled John’s tobacco and imagined him pointing both his pipe and his question at Cullen.
“Didn’t seem the type to do a day’s lick of work,” Cullen said.
She tiptoed toward the end of the wagon, censuring herself for spying but too intrigued to walk away.
“Do you think they’re the wagon train killers?” Henry asked.
She gasped, quickly covering her mouth.
“Hard to say,” Cullen said.
“Which way they’d go?”
Each slingshot question drew her closer to unwittingly revealing her presence.
“West toward Fort Boise,” Cullen said.
“Are you going to tell Kit?”
She waited through his pause, expecting him to say of course.
“No. I’ll tell her I’m going scouting and will be gone overnight.”
Her mouth opened, shocked by his planned subterfuge. She stomped from her place of concealment, fists to hips. “Like hell you will.”
Cullen dropped his foot that he’d been resting on the wheel spoke and walked toward her, sparks flying from the tip of his cheroot.
She rethought her rash decision to intrude. He wasn’t wearing the soft face of her satisfied lover. But she refused to be…what? Bullied? She crossed her arms. “I can’t believe you’d lie to me.”
“Why?” The question was a crossbreed of demand and curiosity. “Is that purview limited to you?” She raised her hand to slap him, but he wrapped his fingers around her wrist. “You’d slap me?”
She reclaimed her hand, staring at it as if it had acted on its own. “Never.” Tears trickled from the corners of her eyes. What in the world was wrong with her? Her emotions swung from one side of the trail to the other. Adam even asked her if Mr. Montgomery had turned into a snapping turtle.
A snapping turtle for Pete’s sake.
He wiped away her tears with his thumbs. “If I told you what I planned, you’d worry.”
“Did they say anything about the Murray’s baby?”
He shook his head.
“What does that mean? The killers didn’t have a baby in their arms, or tied to their horses, or what?”
“We don’t know they’re the killers. The fort employees I talked to said three men rode in, rode out, and weren’t carrying a baby.”
She took a steadying breath to calm her wildly beating heart. “I want to talk to them.”
Cullen’s eyes widened in surprise. “I’ll tell you what I know.”
“Did you get descriptions?”
“Like what—brown hair and stands this tall?” She held her hand at eye level. “I can get better descriptions. Please take me to the fort. If you don’t—”
“What? You’ll go by yourself?” He finished her threat, adding a challenging gaze.
“If I have to, I will.” She gathered her skirt and hurried away, but got only a few feet before Cullen scooped her into his arms.
Henry chuckled, but the laugh died on his lips when Kit and Cullen both glared at him. “’Pears you’ve got this under control, son,” Henry said, backing away. “We’ll be at John’s if’n you got anything more to say.”
“Put me down. I can walk.” At least he didn’t throw her over his shoulder like a sack of spoiled-rotten…something.
The corners of his lips curled. “I know you can walk. I’m just not sure where you’ve a mind to walk to.”
“Take me to the fort.”
“Memories fade. People disappear. It has to be now.”
He let out a long exasperated sigh and set her on her feet. “Get your pencils.”
Thirty minutes later, Kit sat across the table from the two men Cullen had spoken with earlier. For the next hour, they answered her questions about the shape of the suspected killers’ faces, their eyes, and hair coloring. She sketched, erased, sketched again, until the witnesses agreed the drawings were a reasonable facsimile of the men they had seen.
They refused payment for their time but asked for drawings of their sweethearts. It was almost midnight by the time Kit finished sketching.
“Let’s head back to camp,” Cullen said.” You need sleep.” He had sat at her side the entire time watching her and humming Beethoven.
As they left the fort, Kit walked close to him, snuggled underneath his arm. “Do you think their sweethearts exist?”
“Did you look at your drawings?”
“I usually don’t see a sketch until long after it’s done. Why?”
“Both men described the set of your eyes, your high cheekbones, and your willful chin.” He gave her a playful tap below her mouth.
“I think you’re imagining it.”
“You draw like you sing. Your range is extraordinary.” His tone was full of veneration.
“There’s nothing spectacular about my talent.” As a student of the arts, she knew her drawings hung from the bottom rung of the artistic ladder, regardless of the century.
“You, my sweet, have never watched yourself draw. You sketch fine lines as if you’re plucking stringed instruments. Broader lines have the rumble of percussion. The full orchestra plays between the chin and brow. You’re both composer and conductor. It’s brilliant.”
While there had been synchronicity between his humming and the movement of her drawing hand, she thought it accidental, not intentional. She swallowed a thick lump. “You’re the only person who’s ever heard me draw.”
“Aye, lass. Others see what you create. Not how you create it.”
Cullen sighed, his breath easing out and flowing into her. They were intertwining circles, soul mates. How did the brooch weave those circles? Did it start them? Or, did the stone complete them? She trembled, every muscle tensed.
What-if-questions bombarded her. The latest: If she were born in 1852, she and Cullen never would have met. And if they were soul mates, that didn’t make sense. Therefore, she must have been born earlier, much earlier, maybe 1824. If that was the case, she could discard the possibility of being Heather Murray. If not Heather, then who was she?
As they neared the wagons, Cullen said, “I want to take the drawings to Fort Boise. I might catch up with those men.”
“We’ll leave drawings there when we pass through. You don’t need to ride ahead and risk running into them.” A maternal tone voiced her growing sense of panic. “They’re dangerous men. Especially the one called Jess. There’s evil in his eyes.”
“I don’t intend to tangle with them, only inform the authorities.”
Her fear morphed into terror. “Don’t chase after them, please.”
“I thought you wanted to find the baby.”
“I’m not the Murray’s child.” Her denial sounded stronger than she intended. “The man in San Francisco will identify me. Let this go, Cullen.”
Clouds whipped across the face of the moon, and she could no longer distinguish his features in the inky void. A breeze spanked the bottom of her skirt and bound her legs, preventing her from moving closer to him, to the safety of his arms. An eerie quietness settled over the plains as if a hand covered the mouth of every creature, preventing even a whisper from escaping. In the stillness of the night, she sensed a malefic force.
As he’d done earlier, he scooped her up into his arms and carried her away. “There’s nothing to fear. We are joined in spirit as we are in body and nothing—not time, not death—will ever separate us.”