CULLEN FOUND KIT at her wagon pacing, not in a normal back and forth pattern but in random circles. He watched from a distance. When she started mumbling, he decided to make his presence known. He’d spent the past hour working out details of his plan, a plan that needed Kit’s agreement. Her bleak expression and bloodshot eyes made the prospect doubtful. He quashed the uneasy feeling and approached her with levity. “If you’re having second thoughts, I’m prepared to kidnap you. I had ancestors who did that successfully, by the way.”
Kit quit pacing. “I’m this close,” she said pinching her thumb and forefinger together, “to throwing up my hands, stomping my feet, and screaming hysterically.”
Levity isn’t going to work.
“My stomach’s upset, and I can’t stop thinking about the baby. Where is she?”
“Maybe she’s standing right here all grown up.”
“It’s the not knowing,” she said, ignoring him, “that’s gnawing at me like a coyote chewing off a leg to escape from a trap.”
“You’re not trapped. And if there’s going to be any gnawing on limbs, I’ll be the one doing the gnawing.”
“So am I.” He picked her up and set her on the tailgate. “Once we find your mystery man in San Francisco you’ll have answers.”
“You don’t know that.”
He paused to consider a response. Since meeting Kit, there had been times he thought he’d lost all power of logical reasoning. This, however, was not one of those times. He didn’t believe farmers from Illinois would have had a twelfth century Celtic brooch, but a wealthy gentleman from San Francisco? That, he could believe. “Are there details you haven’t told me that led you to believe you might be the Murray’s baby?”
Kit tented her fingers and appeared to contemplate his question. “You need to read Dad’s letter.” She reached inside the wagon and grabbed her journal off the bed. When she opened the book, the page flipped to the first caricature she had drawn of Cullen.
“That’s what you were drawing at the Noland House. I caught a peek before you closed the journal. What does it say underneath?”
She turned the book around so he could read the caption.
“Rescued by a tall glass of sweet tea, swaying in a hammock under a large shade tree.” The allegorical cartoon represented him as a glass of tea in a hammock under an oak tree. Interesting that Kit sensed he offered her both protection and pleasure.
With mounting interest, he turned the pages. The children had been right. His pictures were the only cartoons. He discovered in her drawings a gifted artist. Her sketches revealed depth and emotion.
She pulled a piece of paper from the journal and dangled it in front of his face. “Read.”
The creased letter had scorch marks around the edges. “Did you set it on fire?”
A rose-colored flushed tinged her face. “It’s a long story.”
He steeled his features and remained impassive while he read. When he finished, he slipped the letter back inside the journal. “Sean MacKlenna should not have kept this from you.” He considered the letter for a moment longer before he spoke again. “You’ve taken a bloody shawl and a journal entry and formed a hypothesis you can’t prove unless we find Heather’s body.”
“Either Baby Heather died and was buried somewhere along the nine-hundred-mile trail from Independence to South Pass, or she was sent into the future,” Kit said.
“There’s another possibility.”
Kit jumped to the ground. “What?”
“The murderers took the baby.”
She splayed her fingers and shook them like jazz hands. “Then…then we have to find them.”
He picked her up and set her back on the tailgate. “Whoa.”
“But don’t you see? We have to?”
“There’re no clues. No names to put on wanted posters. No descriptions to give the authorities.”
She sucked in an exasperated breath.
He rubbed up and down on her arms, trying to relax her tense muscles, but it was only tensing her more. “Don’t go getting your bloomers in a wad.”
“You’re giving me that mischievous-blue-eyed-look, Cullen. Can’t you see I’m having an identity crisis? Find a hot spring where I can take a long bath. Then, you might get lucky in South Pass.”
He smiled. “You up for a ride?”
Kit quickly backpedaled. “I can’t ride off to a hot spring with you.”
“Marry me at noon and you can.”
Her shoulders sagged. “I don’t even know who I am.”
“You’re Heather Murray.”
“No, I’m not.” She smacked her hand on the tailgate.
His lip twitched at her unusual display of surliness. “I love you. Your name doesn’t matter to me. ‘A rose by any other name would smell so sweet.’”
“Damn those books. I wish you’d give them all away.” She slid off the tailgate and resumed pacing, then stopped, and planted her hands on her hips. “I might be Heather, but I’ll never know for sure. So absent proof, I think I’ll just keep my name.”
His face split into a huge grin. “It’s a beautiful and unusual name.”
“It was my granny’s name, and her granny’s, and her granny’s granny. I don’t know who had it first.”
“Marry me this afternoon?”
Sarah peeked around the corner of Kit’s wagon. “Am I interrupting? I just heard the news. Congratulations. But why the gloomy look?”
A sudden babel of noise descended upon the encampment. “What’s going on?” All the women on the wagon train were walking toward her carrying flowers and an assortment of calico dresses. “Everybody knows. Not just the Barretts? How’d that happen?” Kit asked.
Cullen tried to hide a self-satisfied smile behind his hand and a fake cough. “I might have told Braham.”
“Might have? And who else?”
“I think I told Henry, too,” Cullen said.
“You think. And who else?”
Kit tapped her foot. Not a good sign when there wasn’t any music playing. “And John sent Sarah to find out what I thought of your plan.”
Sarah’s cheeks flushed.
“Cullen.” Kit huffed.
“I was afraid you might want to wait until we reached San Francisco. I needed help persuading you to marry me today.”
“I’ll marry you this afternoon because I can’t think of anything I’d rather do than soak in a hot spring.” She turned with a flourish and hooked arms with Sarah. “Let’s go see what the ladies have planned for an afternoon wedding.” Kit gave him an over-the-shoulder toodle-loo wave. But before she strode out of sight, she turned and flashed the most breathtaking smile he had ever seen. His body sizzled. He cupped his hands around his mouth and yelled, “I’ll be waiting for you at noon.”
“Two o’clock, Cullen. Not a minute earlier.”
AFTER KIT SOAKED in a tub of lukewarm water, Sarah helped her into a rose-colored, calico gown trimmed in ruffle lace with a cotton underskirt, another one of her mother’s creations.
Sarah fluffed Kit’s dress. “You’re a beautiful bride, and your groom is a handsome man.”
“He is, isn’t he? I hope he’ll shave for the occasion.” Kit twirled in her crowded quarters. “Everything in place?”
“Until he gets his hands on you.” Sarah patted her cheeks in mocked embarrassment.
Kit wiggled her eyebrows. “He’s not too subtle about his needs.”
“At least you’re a widow and know what to expect.”
Her face heated and grew hotter as the blush approached her hairline and beyond. Yes, she was aware of what to expect and not because she was widow.
“It’s almost two o’clock,” Henry announced, knocking on the side of her wagon.
“Give me five minutes.” Pre-wedding jitters now had her wrapped in cold tentacle. How in the world could she remain so calm in death-defying situations yet panic at the thought of making a public profession of her love?
“Will you check on your daughters? They’ve been holding their bouquets so long the flowers are probably squashed.”
“Or, Tate and Tabor ate them,” Sarah said.
“That wouldn’t surprise me. They consider everything consumable.”
Sarah swiped at the corners of her eyes. “I can’t tell you how happy this wedding makes me.”
Kit took a deep breath. Tears threatened to ruin the glow of her freshly scrubbed skin and pinched-pink-cheeks. She swished Sarah away. “Go before I start crying.”
Sarah hugged her. “I hope Frances doesn’t embarrass you this afternoon. She said this morning that she was going to be a big sister when you have a baby. Lordy, I don’t know where that child gets her ideas.” Sarah punctuated the statement with a combination eye-roll, tsk-tsk. “I’ll see you outside.”
Many of the ideas came directly from Kit. She’d been subtly turning both girls into suffragettes. And if she had to guess, she’d say Sarah secretly encouraged the indoctrination.
Kit had one last thing to do before she presented herself. Pin the ruby brooch to her dress. Whoever her birth mother was, she sensed the woman would be pleased. She patted the jewelry, and smiled. “I hope you don’t whisk me away.”
Henry knocked again. “It’s time, missy. The boy will cut a big gut if he don’t lay eyes on you right away.”
Kit had no idea what that meant, but it didn’t sound healthy for Cullen. She peeked in the mirror again, pinched her cheeks, and patted the brooch. Let’s go get married. She opened the wagon flaps and gazed into Henry’s face, a face she had once thought of as old and leathery. Now she saw only a loveable, no-nonsense man.
“You look like a princess.” He held up rough, calloused hands and lifted her off the tailgate. Skirt and petticoats swished through the air. When he set her velvet-shoed feet on the ground, he pulled her into his arms for a fatherly hug. “I’m mighty proud to step in for your pa.” His keen eyes captured hers. “You ready to marry my boy?”
“I’m ready.” She kissed his cheek, then stood back and looked him over. “You’re quite dashing in your Sunday finery.”
A blush rushed to his face. “I clean up nice, don’t I?”
She laced her hand into the crook of his arm. “Real nice.”
Henry signaled Mr. Cameron, who began to play Bach’s Minuet Number Two on his fiddle. Kit’s heart warmed with delight. Cullen must have spent hours with the musician perfecting the arrangement. Although Mr. Cameron was talented, his repertoire did not include classical music. Until now.
Henry and Kit walked toward the river. The crowd had assembled on both sides of a four-foot-wide path, sprinkled with red Indian paintbrush. Cullen stood at the end of the path between Reverend Hamilton and Braham, facing the gathering with hands clasped behind his back, gazing only at her. Rarely was he without his black hat. His hair lay in easy waves combed off his face. Her legs trembled at the breathtaking sight of her groom. Her step faltered, but Henry kept her upright. Her misstep probably went unnoticed by all except Cullen. When she regained her footing, an easy grin split his face.
Henry escorted her to the front of the assembly. Cullen extended his hand and whispered, “The yellow gold of morning sun shimmers in your hair. Come with me lass and ride to Loch Lomond.” Once again, her step faltered. He had her hand though, and he would never let her fall. Since she was ten, he had been reaching out to her. Now she understood why she’d survived the crash. She was meant to love him and have his children.
And on this day, she was marrying him.
The wedding location wasn’t a church with the sun shining through stained glass windows creating rainbows on the walls. It was commencing on the prairie under a canopy of cotton ball clouds, swimming with a gentle breath of a June breeze cooling the hot afternoon air.
Perfect. Absolutely perfect.
The Reverend dabbed at sweat trickling down his temples. “Dearly beloved, we are assembled here in the presence of God, to join this man and this woman in holy marriage, instituted of God, regulated by His commandments, blessed by our Lord Jesus Christ. Forasmuch as these two people have come together, if there is any person who knows why they may not be joined in marriage, that person is required to make it known, or ever after to hold his peace.”
The minister paused. She heard the rustle of the crowd, a cough, a mummer, and then silence. She inhaled, noticing for the first time she’d been holding her breath. No one objected to the marriage, and the brooch didn’t hustle her off to the amber light.
“Do you, William Cullen Montgomery, declare in the presence of God that you know of no reason that you may not be lawfully married to this woman?”
“I do not.”
“Do you Kitherina Mary MacKlenna declare in the presence of God that you know of no reason that you may not be lawfully married to this man?”
“I do not.” She spoke in a clear, soft voice that sounded unfamiliar.
The minister prayed over their guidance and protection, and then he said, “Do you William take this woman to be your lawful and married wife?”
“Do you Kitherina take this man to be your lawful and married husband?”
“Who gives this woman to be married?”
Henry took Kit’s other hand and placed it in the minister’s soft, comforting palm. “I do.” The minister then joined Cullen’s hand with hers.
“Repeat after me,” Reverend Hamilton said to Cullen. “I, William Cullen Montgomery, take thee, Kitherina Mary MacKlenna, to be my wedded wife. And I promise to be loving and faithful, in plenty and in want, as long as we both shall live.” Cullen repeated the words, his voice low, almost a whisper. But she felt the words vibrating as if he wanted her to not only hear the promise, but also sense its true meaning.
Her legs wobbled, and Cullen squeezed her hands harder, infusing her with his strength and his promises.
The minister turned toward Kit. The ceremony was happening too fast, going by in an anxious blur.
“Repeat after me,” and she did, saying, “I, Kitherina Mary MacKlenna, take thee William Cullen Montgomery, to be my wedded husband.” She fell silent, shaking. The minister cleared his throat, encouraging her to continue. After a moment, she took a breath. “I promise to be loving and faithful, in plenty and want, as long as we both shall live.” Her tongue felt thick, unnatural, and she barely delivered the words.
The rest of the ceremony fell into a foggy world where she participated but was not fully cognizant of what was happening.
“I pronounce you husband and wife, according to the ordinance of God; whom therefore God hath joined together let no man put asunder.”
Mr. Cameron began to play his fiddle. The music infiltrated the fog and the mist lifted from Kit’s mind. “Mozart?” she asked.
Cullen smiled. “Allegro. Now, kiss me, Mrs. Montgomery.”
And she did.
Braham cleared his throat. “Step aside.” He brushed Cullen out of the way. “The best man deserves a kiss.” He kissed her on the lips. “You are a beautiful bride, Mrs. Montgomery.”
“And you are the most handsome best man I’ve ever seen.”
Henry stepped in, nudging Braham aside. “My turn.” He kissed Kit’s cheek, then hugged Cullen. “Mighty proud of you, son.” He sniffed a time or two before moving to make room for John and Sarah.
“Thank you, John,” Cullen said, “for asking me to join you on this venture. If not for you, I never would have met her.”
Kit heard Cullen’s comment, but she knew in her heart the brooch would have taken her to wherever he had been—Independence, San Francisco, London, Paris.
John patted Cullen’s shoulder. “I’m happy it worked out.”
Elizabeth and Frances tugged on Kit’s sleeve. “Will you still be our teacher?”
“But Mr. Montgomery’s going to California,” Frances said.
Sarah stepped forward and placed her hands on top of the children’s heads. “Come along, now. I’m sure Mr. and Mrs. Montgomery will tell us as soon as they’ve decided where they’ll live.”
A myriad of emotions churned Kit’s already overactive stomach. The Barretts and Henry had become her family. How could she leave them? Cullen lost his smile for a moment. He leaned in and whispered, “There’s plenty of time to decide.”
For the first time in her memory, she didn’t own a well-thought out plan. But Cullen had one. And she trusted him with her heart and her life.