CULLEN WALKED THROUGH the veil of dust kicked up by Stormy’s hooves. His feelings for Kit had become too convoluted, and he didn’t want to discuss her with Braham. She would become ammunition in Braham’s battle to keep him from marrying Abigail.
His friend stood beyond the swirling dust, arms folded, glaring. “What’s gotten you all riled up?” Cullen asked.
“Never seen you act like that. What the hell is going on?”
“Not a damn thing.”
One of Braham’s brows rose in an ironic arch. “I beg to differ.”
Cullen untied Jasper’s reins from the hitching post and put his foot in the stirrup. “It’s complicated.” He groaned. Did he really say that?
“I’ve got to get back to the wagon train. You coming?”
Braham mounted, wearing an almost secret smile. “You’re showing your foibles, Cul, and that’s always entertaining.”
“Glad to provide you some sport.” Cullen spurred Jasper into a lope.
“Mr. Montgomery.” A soldier waving a handful of letters stopped him. “Mail arrived. Any of these folks traveling with you?”
Cullen flipped through the stack and removed several letters. Braham pulled up beside him, and Cullen handed him an envelope. “Looks like a letter from your father.”
Braham studied the return address, then folded the envelope and put it in the lining of his hat. “I’ll read it tonight.”
A twinge of longing needled its way into Cullen’s gut. If he’d received a letter from his father, he’d have ripped into it immediately. He shook off thoughts of home, tucked the mail into his saddlebag, and rode out.
Braham eased his horse into a trot. “Are you going to tell me, or not?”
Cullen knew he’d have to give in to Braham’s curiosity or be badgered relentlessly. It was better if Braham heard the Kit MacKlenna story from him and not rumors from John or Henry. He turned his horse toward a grove of cottonwood trees lining the North Platt River and dismounted. He threw the reins over a branch, walked to the water, and picked up a handful of river stones.
“The secret to stone skipping is finding the perfect rock, he said, “It has to fit in your palm, be flat but not too flat, rounded on the ends, and heavy enough to withstand the wind, but light enough to hit its mark.”
He rolled a rock in each hand, testing its weight, then held one between his right thumb and middle finger. “When you find the perfect stone, you’re filled with expectation. This is a perfect stone for skipping, but if you toss a perfect stone using perfect form into rough waters, the stone might sink right away.”
He stood with his feet shoulder-width apart then flicked the rock toward the water with the snap of his wrist. The stone skipped once before sinking. “Perfect stone, perfect throw, turbulent water.”
He pulled two cigars from his pocket, handed one to Braham, lit the other, then sat down in the shade. “I met Kit the day before we left Independence. Most striking woman I’ve ever seen. She needed a family to travel with, and I knew folks who needed financial help. I introduced them and negotiated an agreement.
He remembered watching from the window after Kit left the freight office and knowing in his gut that he had to help her, and only partly because she resembled the lady in his childhood vision.
“Over the last few weeks, I’ve spent time with her. Beneath that sassy exterior you’ll finding a grieving woman.”
Braham flicked his cigar’s gray ash. “What do you suppose you’d find if you look beneath your exterior?”
Cullen didn’t want to look and didn’t want anyone else to either.
“What’s happened between the two of you since Independence?”
Cullen gave Braham a synopsis, barely mentioning what happened the morning he stormed out of her wagon.
Braham chomped down on his cigar. “You haven’t talked to her since?”
“The words we had at the fort were the first since—”
“You acted like an arse. What the hell’s the matter with you? She should have shot you, or cut off your bullocks.”
“I appreciate you seeing my side.”
Braham leaned against a cottonwood tree and rolled the cigar between his thumb and fingers, not saying anything.
Cullen pressed the heels of his hands to his forehead trying to relieve the headache that started during the hurried walk to the track. “She told me she was going to Oregon to get away for a while. Why would a woman go to Oregon and keep a farm in Kentucky?”
“Did you ask her?”
“She didn’t want to talk about it.”
They sat in silence for several minutes. Then Braham said, “We have the same eyes.”
“Green eyes aren’t that uncommon.”
“She has gold flecks in her right eye. I have them. My father has them. He said his brother had them, too.”
“What are you implying?”
Braham picked up one of the stones Cullen had piled into a pyramid and tossed it into the river. It skipped twice before sinking. “Nothing, nothing a’tall.”
“Yellow hair. Green eyes with gold specks. You’re both left-handed. Her family is from Callander, too. You could be cousins.”
“Cousins? She said you told her about me. Did you mention the resemblance?”
“Thought it might be my imagination.”
“I’ll write father and ask him about the MacKlennas. He lost his only brother close to thirty years ago. His two sisters married Fraser brothers, and none of their families immigrated. If there’s a connection it must go back another generation. Curious though, isn’t it?”
“Only a coincidence.”
“Whether she’s my cousin or not has little to do with you. What about Abigail? How does she fit into your master plan now?”
“Nothing has changed. Kit is honeycombed with secrets. I’m intrigued, that’s all.”
CULLEN CLOSED KENT’S Commentaries on American Law and laid it on the ground beside him. He’d read the same four pages several times. After years of preparation, he stood on the cusp of his plan coming to fruition. He had a position with a San Francisco law firm and a politically connected potential bride. But doubts were boring holes in his plan. Or was it one doubt in particular?
He had declined an invitation to play cards with the post commander and refused to play the winner of a chess match between Henry and John. Now his mind was jumbled with thoughts he shouldn’t have.
In a hazy dusk lit by a waning moon, he walked away from the campfire and took a thoughtful turn around the wagon train’s perimeter, eventually finding himself at the river. In spite of his sister’s death, bodies of water, whether an ocean or a pond, brought him solace.
He replayed the horse race in his mind. Where could Kit have learned to ride with such natural balance and fearlessness? The training must have started at a young age. But what kind of father would put an impressionable young girl on a racehorse? He wouldn’t even put the son he intended to have on a racehorse.
It had been an intense race with anxious moments, but he never doubted she’d win. As he thought back over the past several weeks, he realized this time he wasn’t angry. Scared, but not angry. Maybe he knew her better than he thought, or maybe he now had more faith in her ability to do extraordinary things. He couldn’t let her walk out of his life. Neither could he offer to marry her until he did the honorable thing and talked to Abigail. He could ride ahead to California and explain that he’d met someone else, then meet up with the wagon train at some point in Oregon. He weighed the thought in his mind, but knew he couldn’t leave. He’d made a commitment to Henry and wouldn’t abandon him.
The scent of vanilla wafted through the warm night breeze, and desire flooded his body. His gaze scoured the semi-darkness. He spotted a dark, gray form leaning against a nearby cottonwood tree. “I haven’t seen you since you rode out of the fort this afternoon.”
“You must not have been looking,” Kit’s quiet voice answered.
“I stopped by the Barretts. You weren’t there.”
“You found me now.”
He moved into the shadow, closer to her. “You knew I wouldn’t allow you to race, didn’t you?”
“Sometimes it’s easier to ask forgiveness than permission, and we weren’t exactly speaking.”
The pain in her voice fed the knot in his throat.
She swept the ground beside her. “You’re welcome to share my little spot of river-front property. The ground’s not particularly comfortable, but the view is to die for.”
He sat cross-legged and rested his forearms across his thighs. “I owe you an apology for acting like a cad.”
“Is that for last week or this afternoon?”
Her face turned into the moonlight, her lips slightly parted. “You hurt me.”
Each softly spoken word cut a gouge in his gut. He reached for her hand, but she pulled away. “Kit—”
“We needed to stop before we went too far.” The breeze stirred her hair, and she pushed flyaway strands from her face.
“Taking scalps wasn’t necessary.”
“Would you have preferred a calm discussion over coffee?”
He flinched and felt a shiver of disquiet.
Tears filled her eyes, but she held his gaze. He held hers. Then she gathered her skirt and stood. “We have nothing more to say. Go to California and marry Abigail. I hope you’ll be very happy.”
Her words seemed to hang in the air, forming a canopy of guilt over him.
He watched her slender form move away, out of his life. Her tears played a mournful aria in the smooth, cool moonlight. Go after her, you idiot. He stood and took a step, but stopped and jabbed his boot heel into the dirt. Then he turned and walked toward the river.
BRAHAM GAVE UP trying to sleep. He wrapped a blanket around his shoulders and walked down to the river. A thin veil of clouds hid a rose-yellow moon within a deep sea of darkness, the kind of darkness that clouded his soul. In his pocket was a nine-word telegram from Mr. Phillips that Braham’s father had included with his letter. He’d read it twice. The second reading punctuated the reality.
Riding with friends. Horse spooked. Abigail fell. Died instantly.
If Cullen knew about Abigail’s death, he would ride to California immediately even though there was nothing he could do. If he left the wagon train now, what would happen to Kit?
An angel’s voice out of the darkness startled Braham. “It appears I’m not the only one who can’t sleep tonight.”
He turned, tracking the musical sound he’d heard earlier in the day. His quick intake of breath sounded like a bellow in the night’s stillness. Even though he’d only seen Kit in a short-haired wig and trousers, he would have known her anywhere. Thick blonde hair a man could lose himself in fell loose around her shoulders. He clenched his fists at the sight of the small waist his hands would span.
“I didn’t mean to surprise you,” she said.
“You’re lovely. . .”
Her gaze held a hypnotic intensity. “From the look on your face, you’d think you’re trying to solve the problem of world hunger. I might have some ideas, if you’d like to talk.”
He shook his head. “My problem isn’t as complicated as feeding the world.” He spread his blanket on the ground, then drew his left leg back and made a deep bow with his hand pressed across his abdomen. “May I offer my lady a seat?”
She took his proffered hand. “So tell me your not-so-complicated problem.”
Enchanting. “A client had a dilemma that kept him awake at night. He had a secret. He knew if he shared it, it could devastate people he loved. But if he didn’t share it, people he loved could find happiness, but it could cost him the love of the people he wanted to protect.”
She didn’t answer right away, but when she did, her voice wasn’t much more than a whisper. “Secrets are dangerous, Mr. McCabe. When they concern the lives of people you love, you don’t have a choice. You protect them and live with the consequences.”
He wasn’t expecting that answer from her, but she validated his decision. He would live with the consequences. “Cullen tells me your family originally came from Callander.”
“My adoptive parents’ family is from Callander. I was abandoned as an infant.”
“A changeling. That explains everything.”
The soft trill of laughter floated on the night breeze. He didn’t know if he was relieved or disappointed she couldn’t be a cousin. Gold flakes in green eyes—a coincidence.
They talked about horse breeding and racing and life in Kentucky until the first shaft of buttery light appeared on the horizon, opening their cocoon of darkness to a new day.
“It’s been a pleasure getting to know you, Miss MacKlenna.”
“Please call me Kit. After spending the night with you I think we can call each other by first names.” She gave him a bright grin.
“You are brazen, my lady.”
“And you sir, a perfect knight.”
He helped her to her feet. “Until we met again, ma’am.”
She squeezed his arm. “I understand why Cullen cares so much for you. You reflect each other’s good qualities.”
“And I understand why he holds you in such high regard. You’re a woman of mystery and intelligence, with a sharp wit stirred into the mix.”
“It’s the mystery that intrigues him. But it also distances him.”
He reached for her hand, brought it to his lips. “If I can ever be of service, I hope you’ll call on me.”
She laughed softly. “If I have dragons to slay, I will.” She studied him for a moment. “Has anyone ever said you and Cullen bookend each other?”
“Same height, same build, different coloring. I wonder…well, never mind. Goodbye.”
Braham folded the wool blanket into a perfect rectangle while he thought about Cullen’s master plan. As far as Braham could see, that plan just folded like the worst hand of poker.