For the Roses
(Джулия Гарвуд - "Две розы")
- прим. Lady Morgana
THE ROSE - BOOK 1
No man is an island, entire of it self;
every man is a piece of the continent, a
part of the main; if a clod be washed
away by the sea, Europe is the less, as
well as if a promontory were, as well as
if a manor of thy friends or of thine own
were; any man's death diminishes me,
because I am involved in mankind; and
therefore never send to know for whom
the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.
Devotions upon Emergent Occasions
New York City, 1860
They found her in the trash. Luck was on the boys' side; the rats hadn't gotten to her yet. Two of the vermin had already climbed onto the top of the covered picnic basket and were frantically clawing at the wicker, while three others were tearing at the sides with their razor-sharp teeth. The rats were in a frenzy, for they smelled milk and tender, sweet-scented flesh.
The alley was the gang's home. Three of the four boys were sound asleep in their make-do beds of converted wooden crates lined with old straw. They'd put in a full night's work of thieving and conning and fighting. They were simply too exhausted to hear the cries of the infant.
Douglas was to be her savior. The fourth member of the gang was taking his turn doing sentry duty at the narrow mouth of the alley. He'd been watching a dark-cloaked woman for quite some time now. When she came hurrying toward the opening with the basket in her arms, he warned the other gang members of possible trouble with a soft, low-pitched whistle, then retreated into his hiding place behind a stack of old warped whiskey barrels. The woman paused in the archway, gave a furtive glance back over her shoulder toward the street, then ran into the very center of the alley. She stopped so suddenly her skirts flew out around her ankles. Grabbing the basket by the handle, she swung her arm back as far as it would go to gain momentum and threw the basket into a pyramid of garbage piled high against the opposite wall. It landed on its side, near the top. The woman was muttering under her breath all the while. Douglas couldn't make out any of the words because the sound she made was muffled by another noise coming from inside the basket. It sounded like the mewing of a cat to him. He spared the basket only a glance, his attention firmly on the intruder.
The woman was obviously afraid. He noticed her hands shook when she pulled the hood of her cloak further down on her forehead. He thought she might be feeling guilty because she was getting rid of a family pet. The animal was probably old and ailing, and no one wanted it around any longer. People were like that, Douglas figured. They never wanted to be bothered by the old or the young. Too much trouble, he guessed. He found himself shaking his head and almost scoffed out loud over the sorry state of affairs in general, and this woman's cowardice in particular. If she didn't want the pet, why didn't she just give it away? He wasn't given time to mull over a possible answer, for the woman suddenly turned around and went running back to the street. She never looked back. When she was almost to the corner, Douglas gave another whistle. This one was loud, shrill. The oldest of the gang members, a runaway slave named Adam, leapt to his feet with the agility and speed of a predator. Douglas pointed to the basket, then took off in pursuit of the woman. He'd noticed the thick envelope sticking out of her coat pocket and thought it was time he took care of a little business. He was, after all, the best eleven-year-old pickpocket on Market Street.
Adam watched Douglas leave, then turned to get the basket. It wasn't an easy task.
The rats didn't want to give up their bounty. Adam hit one squarely on the head with a jagged-edged stone. The vile creature let out a squeal before scurrying back to the street. Adam lit his torch next and waved it back and forth above the basket to frighten the other vermin away. When he was certain they were all gone, he lifted the basket out of the garbage and carried it back to the bed of crates where the other gang members still slept.
He almost dropped the thing when he heard the faint sounds coming from inside.
"Travis, Cole, wake up. Douglas found something."
Adam continued on past the beds and went to the dead end of the alley. He sat down, folded his long, skinny legs in front of him, and put the basket on the ground. He leaned back against the brick wall and waited for the other two boys to join him.
Cole sat down on Adam's right side, and Travis, yawning loudly, hunkered down on his other side.
"What'd you find, boss?" Travis asked, his voice thick with sleep.
He'd asked Adam the question. The other three gang members had elevated the runaway slave to the position of leader one month ago. They'd used both reason and emotion to come to their decision. Adam was the oldest of the boys, almost fourteen now, and logic suggested he, therefore, lead the others. Also, he was the most intelligent of the four. While those were two sound reasons, there was yet another more compelling one. Adam had risked his own life to save each one of them from certain death. In the back alleys of New York City, where survival of the fittest was the only commandment anyone ever paid any attention to, there simply wasn't room for prejudice. Hunger and violence were masters of the night, and they were both color-blind..
"Boss?" Travis whispered, prodding him to answer.
"I don't know what it is," Adam answered.
He was about to add that he hadn't looked inside yet, but Cole interrupted him. "It's a basket, that's what it is," he muttered. "The latch holding the top closed looks like it could be real gold. Think it is?"
Adam shrugged. Travis, the youngest of the boys, imitated the action. He accepted the torch Adam handed him and held it high enough for all of them to see.
"Shouldn't we wait for Douglas before we open the thing?" Travis asked. He glanced over his shoulder toward the entrance of the alley. "Where'd he go?"
Adam reached for the latch. "He'll be along."
"Wait, boss," Cole cautioned. "There's a noise coming from inside." He reached for his knife. "You hear it, Travis?"
"I hear it," Travis answered. "Could be something inside's gonna bite us. Think it could be a snake?"
"Of course it couldn't be a snake," Cole answered, his exasperation evident in his tone of voice. "You got piss for brains, boy. Snakes don't whimper like… like maybe kittens."
Stung by the retort, Travis lowered his gaze. "We ain't never gonna find out lessun we open the thing," he muttered.
Adam nodded agreement. He flipped the latch to the side and lifted the lid an inch. Nothing jumped out at them. He let out the breath he'd been holding, then pushed the lid all the way up. The hinge squeaked, and the lid swung down to rest against the back side of the basket.
All three boys had pressed their shoulders tight against the wall. They leaned forward now to look inside.
And then they let out a collective gasp. They couldn't believe what they were seeing. A baby, as perfect and as beautiful as an angel from above, was sleeping soundly. Eyes closed, one tiny fist in mouth, the infant occasionally suckled and whimpered, and that was the noise the boys had heard.
Adam was the first to recover from the surprise. "Dear Lord in heaven," he whispered. "How could anyone deliberately throw away anything this precious?"
Cole had dropped his knife when he spotted the baby. He reached for it now, noticed his hand was trembling in reaction to his worry over what might be hiding inside the basket, and shook his head over what he considered cowardly behavior. He made his voice sound mean to cover his embarrassment. "Course they could throw the baby away. People do it all the time. Rich ones and poor ones. Makes no difference. They get tired of something and just toss it out like dirty water. Ain't that right, Travis?"
"That's right," Travis agreed.
"Boss, didn't you listen to any of the stories about the orphanages Douglas and Travis were telling?"
"I seen lots of babies there," Travis announced before Adam could answer Cole's question. "Well, maybe not lots, but some," he qualified in an attempt to be completely accurate. "They kept them up on the third floor. None of the little buggers ever made it that I recollect. They put them in that ward, and sometimes they just plumb forgot they were there. Least, I think that's what happened." His voice shivered over the memories of the time he spent in one of the city's refuge centers for displaced children. "This little mite wouldn't never make it living there," he added. "He's too small."
"I seen smaller down on Main Street. The whore, Nellie, had one. How come you think it's a boy baby?"
"He's bald, ain't he? Only boys come bald." Travis's argument made perfectly good sense to Cole. He nodded agreement. Then he turned to their leader. "What are we gonna do with him?"
"We ain't throwing him away."
Douglas made the announcement. The other three boys jerked back in reaction to the harshness in his tone of voice. Douglas nodded to let them know he meant what he'd just said, and added, "I seen the whole thing. A fancy-dressed man in coat and tails climbs out of this expensive-looking carriage. He's got this here basket looped over his arm. He's standing under the streetlamp, so of course I see his face real clear. I seen the woman's face too. She'd been waiting on the corner for him, I figured out, when he gets out of the carriage and goes right to her. She keeps trying to hide her face by pulling the hood down over the top of her head, and the way she's acting makes me think she's good and scared. The man starts getting angry, and it don't take me long to figure out why."
"So? Why was he getting angry?" Cole demanded to know when Douglas didn't immediately continue.
"She didn't want to take the basket, that's why," Douglas explained. He squatted down next to Travis before going on. "She keeps shaking her head, see, over and over. The man's talking up a storm and pointing his finger in her face. Then he pulls out a fat envelope and holds it up in front of her. She comes around then. She snatches it out of his hand as quick as lightning, which makes me think that whatever is inside the envelope is important, and then she finally takes the basket. He climbs back inside the carriage while she's tucking the goods in her pocket."
"Then what happened?" Travis asked.
"She waits until the carriage rounds the corner," Douglas told him. "Then she sneaks into our alley and throws the basket away. I didn't pay the basket much attention at all. I thought there was maybe an old cat inside. Never guessed it could be a baby. Don't think I would have left if I'd known…"
"Where'd you go?" Cole interrupted to ask.
"I'd gotten mighty curious about the envelope in her pocket, so I followed her."
"Did you get it?" Travis wanted to know.
Douglas snickered. "Of course I got it. I don't have the reputation of being the best pickpocket on Market Street for nothing, do I? The woman was in a hurry, but I got into her pocket in the thick of the crowd pushing their way onto the midnight train. She never knew I touched her. Stupid woman. Bet she's just about now figuring out what happened."
"What's inside the envelope?" Cole asked.
"You ain't gonna believe it."
Cole rolled his eyes heavenward. Douglas liked to draw things out. It drove the others crazy. "Honest to God, Douglas, if you don't…"
Travis interrupted his threat. "I got me something important to say," he blurted out. He wasn't the least bit interested in the contents of the envelope. His thoughts were on the baby. "We're all agreed we ain't throwing the little fella away. So now I'm wondering who we're gonna give him to."
"I don't know anyone who'd want a baby," Cole admitted. He rubbed his smooth-skinned jaw the way he'd seen the older, more sophisticated thugs do. He thought the action made him look older and wiser. "What's he good for?"
"Probably nothing," Travis replied. "Least ways, not yet. Maybe though, when he gets bigger…"
"Yeah?" Douglas asked, curious over the sudden excitement that came into Travis's voice.
"I'm thinking we could all teach him a thing or two."
"Like what?" Douglas asked. He reached out and gently touched the baby's forehead with his index finger. "His skin feels like satin."
Travis was warming to the possibility of educating the baby. It made him feel important… and needed. " Douglas, you could teach him all about picking pockets. You're real good at it. And you, Cole, you could teach him how to be mean. I seen the look that comes into your eyes when you think someone's wronged you. You could teach the little fella to look like that too. It's real scary."
Cole smiled. He appreciated hearing the compliment. "I stole me a gun," he whispered.
"When?" Douglas asked.
"Yesterday," Cole answered.
"I seen it already," Travis boasted.
"I'm going to get good shooting it as soon as I steal me some bullets. I'm gonna be the fastest gun on Market Street. I might be persuaded to make the little fella second best."
"I could teach him how to get things," Travis announced. "I'm good at finding what we need, ain't I, boss?"
"Yes," Adam agreed. "You're very good."
"We could be the best gang in New York City. We could make everyone afraid of us," Travis whispered. He was so enthralled over the possibility, his eyes shone bright. His voice took on a dreamy quality. "Even Lowell and his bastard friends," he added, referring to the rival gang members they all secretly feared.
The boys all took a moment to look at the pretty picture Travis had just painted for them. Cole rubbed his jaw again. He liked what he was imagining. He had to force the eagerness out of his voice when he spoke again. "Boss, you could teach him all about them books your mama taught you about. You could maybe make him as smart as you are."
"You could teach him how to read, and he wouldn't get whiplashes across his back for learning the way you did," Travis interjected.
"If we keep him, the first thing we got to do is take that sissy dress off him," Douglas announced. He glared at the long white gown and shook his head. "No one's ever gonna laugh at him. We'll see to it."
"I'll kill anyone who even snickers," Cole promised.
"All babies wear those things," Travis said. "I seen them before. It's what they sleep in."
"How come?" Douglas asked.
"They don't need walking clothes because they don't know how to walk yet."
"How we gonna feed him?" Cole asked.
"You can see the bottle of milk someone put in the basket. When it's empty, I'll get him more," Travis promised. "He probably don't have teeth yet, so he can't eat real food. Milk will do for now. And there are also some dry nappies-I'll get him some more."
"How come you know so much about babies?" Cole asked.
"Just do," Travis answered with a shrug.
"Who changes him when he piddles?" Douglas asked.
"I say we all gotta take turns," Cole suggested.
"I seen them nappies hanging on the lines behind McQueeny's house. There were little clothes hanging out to dry too. I could get the little fella some. Say, what are we going to call him?" Travis asked. "Anyone got any ideas?"
"What about Little Cole?" Cole suggested. "It's got a nice ring to it."
"What about Little Douglas?" Douglas asked. "It's got a nicer ring to it."
"We can't name him after one of us," Travis said. "We'd fight about it if we did."
Douglas and Cole finally agreed with Travis. "All right," Cole said. "The name's got to be something real important sounding."
"My pa's name was Andrew," Douglas interjected.
"So?" Cole asked. "He dumped you at the orphanage after your ma died, didn't he?"
"Yeah," Douglas admitted, his head downcast.
"We ain't gonna name the little fella after anyone who would throw a kid away. It ain't right. We got standards, don't we? This one already got himself tossed in the trash. No use reminding him with your pa's name hanging over his head. I say we call him Sidney, after that fancy fella who used to run the numbers over on Summit Street. He was a real mean one, Sidney was. You remember him, don't you, Douglas?" Cole asked.
"I remember him all right," Douglas replied. "He was mighty respected."
"You got that right," Cole said. "And he died of regular causes. That's important, isn't it? No one snuck up on him and did him in."
"I like the sound of the name," Travis interjected. "Let's take a vote on it."
Douglas raised his right hand. It was coated with dirt and grime.
Cole and Travis both raised their hands. Adam didn't move. Cole seemed to be the only one to realize their boss hadn't offered much to the conversation in the past several minutes. He turned to look at their leader. "What's wrong, boss?"
"You know what's wrong," Adam answered. He sounded old, weary. "I have to leave. I don't stand a chance of surviving in the city. I've stayed far too long as it is. If I'm ever going to be free and not have to worry about my owner's sons finding me and taking me back, I have to go West. I can't live any kind of life hiding in alleys until the dark of night. A man can disappear out in the wilderness. You can understand, can't you? I shouldn't have a vote about the baby. I won't be here to help raise him."
"We can't make it without you, Adam," Travis cried out. "You can't leave us." He sounded like a frightened little boy. His voice cracked, then broke on a loud sob. His fear of being abandoned by his protector terrified him. "Please stay," he begged in a near shout.
The noise jarred the baby. The infant flinched in reaction and let out a whimper.
Adam reached into the basket and awkwardly patted the baby's stomach. One touch and he immediately pulled back. "This baby's soaked through."
"Soaked through with what?" Cole asked. He started to reach for the bottle to see if there was a crack in the glass.
"Piddle," Travis answered. "Best get the nappy off him, boss. Otherwise his backside's gonna get sore."
The infant was struggling to wake up. The boys all stared in fascination. None could remember ever being this close to anything this tiny.
"He looks like he's full of wrinkles when he squiggles up his face like that," Douglas whispered with a snort. "He's a cute little bugger, ain't he?"
Cole nodded, then turned back to Adam. "You're the boss for now, Adam. You got to take that nappy off."
The oldest didn't shrug off the responsibility. He took a deep breath, grimaced, and then slid his hands under the baby's arms and slowly lifted him up out of the basket.
The baby's eyes opened. In the light from the torch Travis held up, they could all see how blue the color was. "He could be your little brother, Cole. You both got the exact color of eyes."
Adam's arms were rigidly extended in front of him. He had a pained expression on his face. Sweat beaded his forehead. He was obviously terrified holding the infant. He didn't know how hard to squeeze, and heaven help him if the little lad started to cry. He didn't know what in God's name he would do then.
In a hoarse whisper he asked Cole to please lift the gown and undo the nappy.
"Why me?" Cole complained.
"Travis is holding the torch and Douglas is too far away to get around my arms," Adam answered. "Hurry now. He might start squirming again. I'm afraid I'm going to drop him. He's so light, it's like holding air."
"The little fella's a curious one, ain't he?" Travis remarked to Douglas. "Look how he's studying each one of us. So serious for such a tiny bit of a thing."
" Douglas, reach around me and wipe my brow," Adam requested. "I can't see for all the sweat pouring down into my eyes."
Douglas snatched up a rag and did as he was requested. Adam was acting as though he were holding a piece of delicate dynamite. His concentration was intense and almost painful to watch.
Travis was the only one to see the humor in the boss's reaction. He let out a hoot of laughter. "He ain't gonna explode, boss. He's just like you, only smaller."
Cole wasn't paying any attention to the chatter going on around him. He held his breath while he worked on the nappy. Touching the soggy cotton made him want to gag. When the thing was finally released, it fell in a heap on the ground next to the basket. The boys all paused to look down and frown at the offending garment. Cole wiped his hands on his pant legs, then reached up to pull the gown back down over the baby's chubby thighs. He completed the task before the truth dawned on him.
And then he looked again, just to make certain.
Sidney was a baby girl. A bald baby girl, he qualified. He immediately got good and angry. Just what in thunder were they going to do with a useless, no account, never-amount-to-anything girl? He started to shake his head. His mind was made up all right. He wasn't going to have anything to do with her. No, sir, not him, not ever. Why, they ought to toss her right back into the trash.
She changed his mind in less than a minute's time. He was in the process of working up a real scowl when he happened to glance up at her face. She was staring right at him. He leaned to his left, out of her immediate line of vision. She followed him with her wide-eyed, trusting gaze. Cole tried to look away. He couldn't. He didn't want to keep staring at her, but he couldn't seem to make himself stop.
Then she went in for the kill. She smiled at him.
He was lost. The bond was formed in that instant.
The others fell like dominoes.
"We got to do it right." Cole's voice was a bare whisper. The other boys turned to look at him.
"Do what right?" Travis asked the question the others were thinking.
"There can't be any more talk of us being the best gang in New York City. We can't keep the baby here. It wouldn't be right. She needs a family, not a bunch of street thugs bossing her around."
"She?" Adam almost dropped the baby then and there. "Are you telling me you think Sidney 's a baby girl?"
"I don't just think it, I know it," Cole announced with a nod. "She don't have the necessary parts to be a boy baby."
"God help us," Adam whispered.
Cole didn't know what he found more amusing, the look of horror on Adam's face when he implored his Maker's assistance, or the strange sound he made in the back of his throat when he croaked out his plea. He sounded as if he were choking on something big, like a chicken leg.
"I don't want no girls around," Travis muttered. "They ain't good for nothing. I hate every last one of them. They're just a bunch of complainers and crybabies."
The other boys ignored Travis. Douglas and Cole were both watching Adam. Their boss was looking ill.
"What's the matter, boss?" Cole asked.
"A black shouldn't be holding a lily white baby girl," Adam said.
Cole snorted. "I watched you save her from getting eaten up by the rats. If she was older and understood, she'd be mighty appreciative."
"Mighty appreciative," Douglas agreed with a nod.
"Besides," Cole said. "She don't know if you're black or white."
"You saying she's blind?" Travis asked, stunned by the very possibility.
"She ain't blind," Cole muttered. He let the youngest member of the gang see his exasperation. "She's just too little to understand about hating yet. Babies aren't borned hating anything. They have to be taught. When she looks at Adam, all she's seeing is a… a brother. Yeah, that's what she's seeing, all right. And big brothers protect their little sisters, don't they? Ain't that a sacred rule or something? Maybe this little one already knows that."
"I made a promise to my mama," Adam told the other boys once again. "I gave her my word I would run as far west as I could until I found a place where I'd be safe. Mama told me there was a war coming, and when it was all over and everything was decided, there's a good chance she'll be free. She promised to come after me then. I just have to keep myself alive until that day comes. I promised her I'd survive, and a son doesn't break a promise to his mama. I have to run for her."
'Take the baby with you," Cole told him.
"They'd hang me for sure," Adam scoffed.
"Hell, they're gonna hang you anyway for killing the bastard who owned you, remember?" Cole said.
"If they catch you, Adam," Douglas interjected. "And you're too smart to let that happen."
"I'm feeling a might brotherly toward the baby too," Cole announced.
The other boys immediately turned to look at him. He became embarrassed over the way they were staring at him. "There ain't no cowardice in admitting it," he quickly added. "I'm strong, and she's just a puny little thing who needs brothers like Adam and me to see she grows up proper."
"Proper? What do you know about proper?" Douglas asked. There was a snicker of disbelief in his voice.
"Nothing," Cole admitted. "I don't know nothing about being proper," he added. "But Adam knows all about it, don't you, Adam? You talk good, and you read and write like a gentleman. Your mama taught you, and now you can teach me. I don't want to be ignorant in front of my little sister. It ain't right."
"He could teach all of us," Douglas said. He wasn't about to be left out.
"I don't guess I'd hate her if I was her big brother," Travis grumbled. "I'm gonna get real strong when I'm all growed up. Isn't that true, Douglas?"
"Yeah, it's true all right," Douglas confirmed. "You know what I think?"
"What's that?" Adam asked. He smiled in spite of his worries, for the little one had just given him the silliest grin. She was sure pleased with herself. She seemed to like being the center of attention. For such a tiny thing, she held considerable power over all of them. Her smile alone made him feel all warm and comforted inside. Her easy acceptance of him was melting away the painful knot he'd been carrying around in his belly ever since the day he'd had to leave his mama. The baby was a gift magically given into his care, and it was his duty to see that she was nurtured and protected and cherished.
"I sometimes wonder if God always knows what He's doing," Adam whispered.
"Of course He does," Douglas replied. "And I think He would want us to come up with another name for our baby. Sidney don't seem right now. I sure hope she grows some hair. I don't cotton to the notion of having a bald little sister."
"Mary," Cole blurted out.
"Rose," Adam said at the very same time.
"Mary was my mama's name," Cole explained. "She died having me. I heard tell from neighbors she was a right good woman."
"My mama's name is Rose," Adam said. "She is a right good woman too."
"The baby's falling asleep," Travis whispered. "Put her back down in the basket, and I'll try to slip another nappy on her. Then you two can argue about her name."
Adam did as he was instructed. They all watched as Travis awkwardly put a dry nappy on. The baby was sound asleep before he finished messing with her.
"I don't think there's anything to argue about," Douglas said. He reached over to cover the baby while Adam and Cole both muttered their reasons again for wanting the baby named after their mothers. Douglas knew a full-blown argument was developing, and he wanted to stop it before it went any further. "I say it's all settled. Her name is Mary Rose. Mary is for your mama, Cole, and Rose is for your Mama Rose, Adam."
Cole was the first to see the rightness in the name and the first to smile, Adam quickly agreed. Travis started to laugh, and Douglas hushed him by shoving his elbow in his side, so he wouldn't wake the baby.
"We have to make plans," Douglas whispered. "I think we should leave as soon as possible, maybe even tomorrow night, on the midnight train. Travis, you got until then to get the things we'll need for Mary Rose. I'll buy the tickets for us. Adam, you'll have to hide in the baggage car with the baby. Is that all right with you?"
Adam nodded. "You figure it all out, and I'll do it," he promised.
"How are you going to buy the tickets?" Cole asked.
"The envelope I took from the woman who threw Mary Rose away was stuffed with money. There were some old-looking papers with fancy writing and seals on the paper, but I can't make out any of it because I can't read. I know money when I see it though. We got us enough to get as far as Adam needs to go and stake us some land."
"Let me see those papers," Adam asked.
Douglas pulled the envelope out of his pocket and handed it to their boss. Adam let out a whistle when he saw all the money tucked inside. He found two papers and pulled them out. One was filled with numbers and scratches he couldn't make out, and the other sheet looked like a blank page torn from a book. There was only a little bit of handwriting on the top, giving the baby's date of birth and her weight. He read the words out loud so the others would know what he'd found.
"It weren't enough they threw her away. They even thrown out her papers," Douglas whispered.
"I didn't have papers when I was dumped at the orphanage," Travis said. "It's a good thing I already knew my name, isn't it, Cole?"
"I suppose so," Cole answered.
Travis shrugged off the matter as unimportant. "I got a suggestion to make now, so don't interrupt me until you hear me out. All right?"
He waited until everyone nodded before he continued. "I'm the only one of us who knows for certain I'm not wanted by the law, and nobody's looking to find me, so I say Mary Rose should carry my last name. Fact is, if we're gonna do it right, like Cole says we should, then everyone should take my last name. Brothers and sisters are all part of the same family, after all, and they all got to have the same last name. So I'm saying, from this minute on, we're all Claybornes. Agreed?"
"No one's going to believe I'm a Clayborne," Adam argued.
"Who cares what anyone else believes?" Cole asked. "We ain't asking for approval, just to be left alone. If you say you're a Clayborne, and we say you're a Clayborne, whose to say you ain't? Anyone who challenges you has to get through the rest of us first if he wants to make trouble. And remember," he added, "I got me a gun now. Soon enough I'll be able to handle any trouble that comes our way."
Douglas and Travis nodded. Adam let out a sigh. Douglas put his hand out over the basket, his palm down. He looked at each of the other gang members.
"I say we run for Mama Rose and we become a family for our little Mary Rose. We're brothers," he whispered.
Travis put his hand on top of Douglas 's. "Brothers," he vowed.
Cole was next. "We run for Mary Rose and Mama Rose," he pledged. "We're brothers until we die."
Adam hesitated for what seemed an eternity to the other boys. And then his mind was finally made up. His hand covered Cole's. "Brothers," he vowed in a voice shaking with emotion. "For the Roses."
July 3, 1860
Dear Mama Rose,
I'm writing to you in care of Mistress Livonia, and I pray this letter finds the two of you in good health. I'm going to share with you all the wonderful adventures I've had heading West, but first I have something very important to tell you. It's about your new family. You have a namesake now, Mama. Her name is Mary Rose…
John Quincy Adam Clayborne
Montana Valley, 1879
The baby was finally coming home.
Cole waited next to his wagon for the stagecoach to round the last bend in the road. He was so excited, he could barely stand still. The cloud of dust coming from above the hill indicated she was close. He couldn't wait to see her. He wondered if she'd changed much in the past months, then laughed out loud over the foolish notion. Mary Rose had been all grown up when she'd left for her last year of school. Other than acquiring a few more freckles on the bridge of her nose, or letting her hair grow a little longer, he couldn't imagine any significant changes.
Lord, he'd missed her. They all had. Life on the ranch kept them running from sunup until sundown, and it was only at dinner that they all ached to have her around trying to boss them into eating something new and different she had prepared for them. She was a fine cook when she didn't stray from the familiar, but none of them could abide the fancy French sauces she liked to pour over everything.
The stagecoach was over an hour late, which meant that crusty old Clive Harrington was doing the driving. He would have had to catch up on all the gossip with Mary Rose before they started out. Clive would demand her full attention, and knowing what a soft heart his sister had, Cole knew she wouldn't rush him.
They were fast friends, but no one in Blue Belle could understand why. Clive Harrington was a cantankerous old buzzard who constantly scowled, snapped, and complained and was, in Cole's estimation, a thoroughly disagreeable son-of-a-bitch. He was also as ugly as sin. The walkways in town would clear at the first sight of him, unless Mary Rose was around. A magical transformation took place then. Clive went from ferocious to meek. Not only did he act as though he were everyone's best friend, he also wore a ridiculous, ain't-life-grand grin from morning until night. Harrington made a complete fool of himself doting on Mary Rose, and all because she doted on him. She really cared about the old coot. She took care of him when he needed caring, made certain he was included in their holiday dinners, and personally mended all of his clothes for him. Harrington always took ill once a year, usually around roundup time, but sometimes a full month before. He'd appear on their doorstep with his hat in one hand and a dirty handkerchief in the other, asking for a bit of advice about how to cure his latest mysterious ailment. It was all a ruse, of course. Mary Rose would immediately park old Clive in the guest room and pamper him for the full week it always took before he felt fit again.
Everyone in town called Harrington's week of infirmity his annual getaway, and from the way the old man was dabbing at the corners of his eyes and rubbing his nose with his handkerchief while he slowed the horses, Cole surmised he was already planning his next holiday.
The stagecoach had barely rocked to a stop when the door flew open and Mary Rose jumped to the ground.
"I'm finally home," she called out. She picked up her skirts and ran to her brother. Her bonnet flew off her head and landed in the dust behind her. She was laughing with sheer joy. Cole tried to maintain his somber expression because he didn't want Harrington spreading the rumor he'd gone soft. Cole liked having everyone in town fear him. His sister's laughter proved contagious, however, and Cole couldn't control his reaction. He smiled first, then burst into laughter. Appearances be damned.
Mary Rose hadn't changed at all. She was still just as dramatic and uninhibited as always, and, heaven help him, she'd be the death of all the brothers, who constantly worried about the way she always wore her heart on her sleeve.
She threw herself into his arms. For such a little thing, she had the grip of a bear. Cole hugged her back, kissed her on the top of her head, and then suggested to her that she quit laughing like a crazy woman.
She wasn't offended. She pulled away, put her hands on her hips, and gave her brother a thorough inspection.
"You're still as handsome as ever, Cole. Have you killed anyone while I was at school?"
"Of course not," he snapped. He folded his arms across his chest, leaned back against the wagon, and tried to frown at her.
"You look like you grew another inch or two. Your hair seems more blond too. When did you get that scar on your forehead? Did you get into a fight?"
Before he could answer her questions, she turned to Harrington. "Clive, did my brother shoot anyone while I was away?"
"Not that I recollect, Miss Mary," he called back.
"Any knife fights?" she asked.
"I don't think so," Clive answered.
Mary Rose seemed convinced. She smiled again. "I'm so happy to be home. I've made up my mind. I'm never leaving again. Adam isn't going to make me go anywhere, no matter how good it might be for my mind or my soul. I'm all refined now, and I've got the papers to prove it. Lord, it's warm for spring, isn't it? I love the heat and the dirt and the wind and the dust. Has Travis gotten into any fights in town? Never mind," she added in a rush. "You wouldn't tell me if he did anything wrong. Adam will though. He tells me everything. He wrote more than you did, by the way. Is the new barn finished? I got a letter from Mama Rose just the day before school ended. The mail arrived right on time too. Isn't that something? We live in such modern times. What about…"
Cole was having trouble keeping up with his sister. She was talking as fast as a politician. "Slow down," he interrupted. "I can only answer one question at a time. Catch your breath while I help Harrington unload your baggage."
A few minutes later, her trunk, boxes, and three valises were packed in the back of the wagon. Mary Rose climbed up on the flatbed and started sorting through her things.
Cole told her to wait until they got home to find what she was looking for. She ignored his suggestion. She closed one box and turned to the second one.
Harrington stood next to the wagon, smiling at her. "I sure missed you, Miss Mary," he whispered. He blushed like a schoolboy and gave Cole a quick look to make sure he wasn't going to laugh at him.
Cole pretended he hadn't heard the confession. He turned away before he rolled his eyes heavenward. His sister was obviously pleased by Harrington's admission. "I missed you too, Clive. Did you get my letters?"
"I surely did," he replied. "I read them more than once too." Mary Rose smiled at her friend. "I'm happy to hear it. I didn't forget your birthday. Don't leave just yet. I have something for you."
She was diligently sorting through her trunk and finally found the box she had been searching for.
She handed it to Clive. "This is for you. Promise me you won't open it until you get home."
"You got me a present?" He looked flabbergasted.
She smiled. "Two presents," she corrected. "There's another surprise tucked inside the first."
"What is it?" Clive asked. He sounded like a little boy on Christmas morning.
Mary Rose took hold of his hand and climbed down out of the wagon. "It's a surprise," she answered. "That's why I wrapped it in a box with such pretty paper. Thank you for the ride," she added with a curtsy. "It was very lovely."
"You ain't mad because I wouldn't let you ride up on the perch with me?"
"No, I'm not angry," she assured him.
Harrington turned to Cole to explain. "She begged me to let her sit up there with me, but I didn't think it would be fitting for such a dignified young lady to be riding shotgun."
Cole nodded. "We need to get going, Mary Rose."
He didn't wait for her agreement but turned and got up on the seat of the wagon. He took the reins in his hands and asked his sister to quit dawdling.
She had to chase after her forgotten bonnet first. Clive was clutching his present with both hands while he slowly walked back to his coach. He acted as if he were carrying a priceless treasure.
They were finally on their way home. Cole answered her questions while she removed most of the evidence proving she was a refined lady. She took off her white gloves first, then pulled out the pins holding her prim bun together at the back of her neck. She wasn't satisfied until the thick, blond mass floated down her back.
She let out a sigh of pleasure while she threaded her fingers through her curls.
"I'm so sick of being a lady," she said. "Honest to heaven, it's such a strain."
Cole laughed. Mary Rose knew she wouldn't get any sympathy from him.
"You wouldn't laugh if you had to wear a corset. It binds a body up as tight as a coil. It isn't natural."
"Did they make you wear one of those things at school?" Cole was horrified by the idea.
"Yes," she answered. "I didn't though. No one could tell, after all. I never got dressed in public."
"I hope to God not."
He had to slow the horses when they started the steep climb up the first ridge. Mary Rose turned around so she could watch to make sure her trunk didn't fall off the back of the wagon.
Once they'd reached the crest, she turned around again. She took off her navy blue jacket, draped it over the back of the bench, and started unbuttoning the cuffs of her starched white blouse. The collar was chafing her neck. She unbuttoned the top three buttons.
"Something odd happened at school. I didn't know what to make of it."
"Make of what?" he asked.
"A new classmate arrived in January. She was from Chicago. Her parents came with her to help her get settled."
Mary Rose shrugged. "It's probably nothing."
"Tell me anyway. I can hear the worry in your voice."
"I am not worrying," she said. "It was just so peculiar. The girl's mother was born and raised in England. She thought she knew me."
"She can't know you," he said. "You've never been to England. Could you have met her someplace else?"
Mary Rose shook her head. "I'm sure I would have remembered."
"Tell me what happened."
"I was walking across the commons. I smiled at the new arrivals, just to be polite and make them feel welcome, and all of a sudden, the girl's mother lets out a scream loud enough to frighten the stone gargoyles on top of Emmet Building. She scared me too."
"Why's that?" he asked.
"She was pointing at me all the while she was screaming," Mary Rose explained. "I became quite embarrassed."
"Then what happened?"
"She clutched her chest with both hands and looked like she was going to keel over."
"All right, Mary Rose. What'd you do?" He was immediately suspicious his sister wasn't telling him everything. She had a habit of getting into mischief, and she was always astonished by the trouble that would inevitably follow.
"I didn't do anything wrong," she cried out. "I was acting like a perfect lady. Why would you jump to the conclusion I was responsible for the poor woman's condition?" she asked, sounding wounded.
"Because you usually are responsible," he reminded her. "Were you carrying your gun at the time?"
"Of course not," she replied. "I wasn't running or doing anything the least improper. I do know how to behave like a lady when I have to, Cole."
"Then what was the matter with the woman?"
"When she finally calmed down, she told me she thought I was a woman she used to know. She called her Lady Agatha Something-or-other. She said I was the spitting image of the woman."
"That isn't peculiar," he decided. "Lots of women have blond hair and blue eyes. It's not unusual."
"Are you saying I'm plain?"
He couldn't resist. "Yeah, I guess I am."
It was a lie, of course. Mary Rose was the complete opposite of plain. She was really very beautiful, or so he'd been told over and over again by every eligible man in town. He didn't see his sister that way. She was sweet and good-hearted most of the time, and a little wildcat the rest of the time. She used to be a brat, but now that she was all grown up, he guessed she wasn't such a pain after all.
"Adam assures me I'm pretty," she argued. She shoved her brother with her shoulder. "He always tells the truth. Besides, you know very well it's what's inside a woman's heart that really matters. Mama Rose thinks I'm a beautiful daughter, and she's never even seen me."
"You about finished being vain, Mary Rose?"
She laughed. "Yes."
"I wouldn't worry about the coincidence of looking like someone else."
"But that wasn't the end of it," she explained. "About a month later, I was called into the superior's office. There was an elderly man waiting for me. The headmistress was there too. She had my file on her desk."
"How'd you know it was your file?"
"Because it's the thickest one at the school," she answered. "And the cover's torn."
She looked at her brother and immediately knew what he was thinking. "You can quit smiling that know-it-all smile of yours, Cole. I will admit that my first year at school didn't go well. I had a little trouble adjusting. I realize now I was simply homesick and was trying to get thrown out so you'd have to come and get me. However," she hastily added, "I have had a perfect record ever since, and that should count for something."
"Tell me about the man waiting in the office," he said.
"He was a lawyer," she said. "He asked me all sorts of questions about our family. He wanted to know how long we'd lived in Montana and why our mother didn't live with us. He wanted me to describe to him what my brothers looked like too. I wouldn't answer any of his questions. I didn't think it was any of his business. He was a complete stranger, after all. I didn't like him at all."
Cole didn't like him either. "Did he explain why he was asking all these questions?"
"He told me there was a large inheritance at issue. I think he went away convinced I wasn't a long-lost relative. I've made you worry, haven't I?"
"A little," he admitted. "I don't like the idea of anyone asking about us."
She tried to lighten his mood. "It wasn't all bad," she said. "I hadn't studied for my English exam because Eleanor kept me up half the night complaining about some latest slight. Since I was in the office, I got to wait until the following day to take the test."
"I thought you weren't going to put up with Eleanor again."
"I swear to you I wasn't," Mary Rose replied. "No one else would take her for a roommate though, and the mistress practically got down on her hands and knees begging me to take Eleanor in. Poor Eleanor. She has a good heart, honest she does, but she keeps it hidden most of the time. She's still a trial of endurance."
Cole smiled. Eleanor had been the one wrinkle in his sister's otherwise perfect life. Mary Rose was the only student at school who would suffer the young woman's presence. The brothers loved hearing Eleanor stories. They found the woman's antics hysterically funny, and when any of them needed a good laugh, an Eleanor story had to be dredged up.
"Was she as ornery as ever?" he asked, hoping his sister had a new story to tell.
"She was," Mary Rose admitted. "I used to feel guilty telling all of you about her, but then Travis convinced me that since no harm was done and she'd never find out, it was all right. She really can be outrageous. Do you know she left school a full week before everyone else? She didn't even say good-bye. Something was wrong with her father, but she wouldn't tell me what it was. She cried herself to sleep five nights in a row, then she left. I wish she'd confided in me. I would have helped if I could. Her father wasn't ill. I asked the headmistress after Eleanor took off. She wouldn't tell me anything, but she puckered her lips, and she only does that when she is really disgusted about something. Eleanor's father was going to donate a large sum of money so the mistress could build another dormitory. She told me it was all off now. Do you know what she said?"
"She said she'd been duped. What do you suppose she meant by that?"
"Could be anything."
"Just the night before Eleanor left, I told her that if she ever needed me, all she had to do was come to Rosehill."
"Why'd you go and tell her that?" Cole asked.
"She was being pitiful, crying like a baby," Mary Rose explained. "I wouldn't worry about her showing up at the ranch though. It's too uncivilized out here for her. She's very sophisticated. But she hurt my feelings when she didn't say good-bye. I was her only friend, after all. I wasn't a very good friend though, was I?"
"Why do you think you weren't?"
"You know why," she replied. "I tell stories about her and that isn't at all nice. Friends shouldn't talk about each other."
"You only told us about incidents that really happened, and you defended her to everyone at school. You never talked about her there, did you?"
"Then I don't see the harm. You've never criticized her, not even to us."
"You also made sure she was invited to all the parties. Because of you, she was never left out."
"How did you know I did that?"
"I know you. You're always looking out for the misfits."
"Eleanor is not a misfit."
"See? You're already defending her again."
She smiled. "After I've talked matters over with you I always feel better. Do you really believe the lawyer will quit asking about us?"
"Yes, I do," he answered.
She let out a sigh. "I missed you, Cole."
"I missed you too, brat."
She nudged him with her shoulder again. The talk turned to the ranch. While she'd been away at school, the brothers had purchased another section of land. Travis was in Hammond getting the supplies they needed to fence in a portion of the vast expanse so the horses would have enough grazing space to see them through the winter.
Cole and Mary Rose reached Rosehill a few minutes later. When she was just eight years old, she had named their home. She'd found what she believed were wild roses growing out on the hillside, declared it was a message sent to them from God telling them they were never supposed to leave, and all because her name was Mary Rose and so was her mama's. Adam didn't want to dampen her enthusiasm. For that reason, he didn't tell her the flowers were pink fireweed, not roses. He also felt that naming their ranch might give his sister an added bit of security. The name stuck, and within a year, even the residents of Blue Belle were referring to Clayborne homestead by the fanciful name.
Rosehill sat in the very middle of a valley deep in the Montana Territory. The land was flat around the ranch for nearly a quarter of a mile in every direction. Cole had insisted on building their home in the very center of the flat expanse so he would be able to see anyone trespassing on their land. He didn't like surprises; none of the brothers did, and as soon as the two-story house was finished, he built a lookout above the attic so they would always be able to see anyone trying to sneak up on them.
Majestic, snowcapped mountains provided the backdrop on the north and west sides of the meadow. The east side of the homestead was made up of smaller mountains and hills, which were useless land for ranchers because of their need for rich grazing pasture. Trappers worked the eastern slopes, however, as beaver and bear and timber wolf were still quite plentiful. Occasionally a worn, weary trapper would stop by the house for food and friendly conversation. Adam never turned a hungry man away, and if their guest was in need of a bed for the night, he'd put him in the bunkhouse.
There was only one easy way into the ranch, and that was from the main road that led over the hill from the town of Blue Belle. Outsiders were pretty worn out by the time they reached even the riverboat stop though. If they used wagons to haul their possessions, it usually took them a good day and a half more to reach Blue Belle. Most didn't bother to go farther than Perry or Hammond; only rugged, determined souls, or men on the run, ever continued on. While there were occasional whispers of gold hidden in the mountains to the north, none had actually been found, and that was the only reason the land had stayed uncluttered. Decent, law-abiding families, hoping to homestead free land, crossed the plains in prairie schooners or took their chances on any one of the multitude of riverboats navigating the Missouri River. By the time most of these families got to a large town, they were happy to stay there. It was somewhat civilized in the larger towns, which of course was a powerful lure to the eastern, church-going families. Honest folks cried out for law and order. Vigilante groups heard the call and soon cleaned out all the riffraff hanging around the larger towns, including Hammond.
In the beginning, the vigilantes were a solution, but later they became an even more threatening problem, for some of the men got into the nasty habit of hanging just about anyone they didn't like. Justice was swift and often unserved; hearsay was all the evidence needed to have a man dragged out of his house and hanged from the nearest tree limb. Even wearing a badge gave one no protection from a vigilante group.
The real misfits and gunfighters looking for easy money, who were quick and cunning enough to escape lynching, left the larger towns like Hammond and settled in and around Blue Belle.
For that reason, the town had a well-earned seedy reputation. Still, there were a few good families living in Blue Belle. Adam said it was only because they had got settled in before they realized their mistake.
Mary Rose was never allowed to go into Blue Belle alone. Since Adam never, ever left the ranch, it was up to Travis or Douglas or Cole to escort her on her errands. The brothers all took turns, and if it wasn't convenient for any of them to leave their chores, Mary Rose stayed home.
Cole slowed the horses when they reached the crest of the hill that separated the main road into town from the Clayborne estate. Mary Rose would ask him to stop the minute they reached the last curve that led down into their valley below.
She was as predictable as ever. "Please stop for a minute. I've been away such a long time."
He dutifully stopped the horses and then patiently waited for her next question. It would take her a minute or two. She had to get all emotional first, then her eyes would fill up with tears. "Do you feel it? Right now, do you feel it the way I do?" He smiled. "You ask me that same question every time I bring you home. Yes, I feel it."
He reached for his handkerchief and handed it to her. He'd learned a long time ago to carry one just for her. Once, when she was still a little girl, she'd used the sleeve of his shirt to wipe her nose. He wasn't about to ever let that happen again.
They had a panoramic view of their ranch and the mountains beyond. No matter how she remembered it, every time she came home, the first sight of such beauty would fairly overwhelm her. Adam told her it was because she gloried in God's creation and was humbled by it. She wasn't so certain about that, but the vibration of life coming from the land did stir her as nothing else could. She wanted her brothers to feel it too, this link between God and nature, and Cole would admit, but only to her, that yes, he did feel the pulse of life beating all around them. The land was never quite the same from glance to glance, yet always enduring.
"She's as alive and beautiful as ever, Mary Rose."
"Why is it you and Adam both call Montana a woman?"
"Because she acts like one," Cole answered. He didn't blush or feel embarrassed talking such foolishness, because he knew his sister understood. "She's fickle and vain and won't ever be tamed by any man. She's a woman all right, and the only one I'll ever love."
"You love me."
"You're not a woman, Mary Rose. You're my sister."
She laughed. The sound echoed through the pine trees. Cole picked up the reins and started the horses down the gentle slope. They had lingered long enough.
"If she's a woman, she's taken us into her embrace. I wonder if my roses are beginning to wake up yet."
"You ought to know by now the flowers you found aren't roses. They're pink fireweed."
"I know what they are," she replied. "But they're like roses."
"No, they aren't."
They were already bickering. Mary Rose sighed with contentment. She kept her attention focused on her home. Lord, she was happy to see her ranch again. The clapboard house was rather unimposing, she supposed, but it was still beautiful to her. The porch, or veranda, as Adam liked to call it, ran the length of the house on three sides. In the summer they would sit outside every evening and listen to the music of the night.
She didn't see her eldest brother working outside. "I'll bet Adam is working on his books."
"What makes you think so?"
"It's too nice a day to be cooped up inside unless there was book work to do," she reasoned. "I can't wait to see him. Do hurry, Cole."
She was anxious for the reunion with all of her brothers. She had gifts for everyone, including a box full of books Adam would treasure, drawing paper and new pens for Cole to use when he was designing a new building to add to the ranch, medicine and brushes for Douglas to use on his horses, a new journal for Travis to keep the family history in, several catalogues, seed for the garden she, under Adam's supervision, would plant behind the house, chocolates, and store-bought flannel shirts for all of them.
The reunion was every bit as wonderful as she knew it would be. The family stayed up well into the night talking. Cole didn't tell his brothers about the attorney who had visited Mary Rose's school until after she had gone up to bed. He didn't want her to worry. He was worried, however. None of them believed in coincidences, and so they discussed every possible reason the lawyer could have to want information about the Clayborne family. Douglas and Cole had both done unsavory things when they were youngsters, but time and distance from the gangsters they'd preyed upon had convinced them their crimes had been forgotten. The real concern was for Adam. If the attorney had been hired by the sons of Adam's slave master to track him down, then trouble was coming their way.
Murder, they all knew, would never be forgotten. Adam had taken one life to save two others. It had been accidental, but the circumstances wouldn't be important to the sons. A slave had struck their father.
No, the father's death would never be forgotten or forgiven. It would be avenged.
An hour passed in whispered discussion, and then Adam, as head of the household, declared it was foolish to worry or speculate. If there was indeed a threat, they would have to wait to find out what it was.
"And then?" Cole asked.
"We do whatever it takes to protect each other," Adam said.
"We aren't going to let anyone hang you, Adam. You only did what you had to do," Travis said.
"We're borrowing trouble," Adam said. "We'll keep our guard up and wait."
The discussion ended. A full month passed in peaceful solitude. It was business as usual, and Travis and Douglas were both beginning to think that perhaps nothing would ever come from the lawyer's inquiry.
The threat finally presented itself. His name was Harrison Stanford MacDonald, and he was the man who would tear all of their lives apart.
He was the enemy.
November 12, 1860
Dear Mama Rose,
Yore sun wanted me to show off my writing skil and so I am writing this her letter to you. We all work on gramer and speling afther Mary Rose goes to sleepe. Yore sun is a fine teecher. He dont lauf when we make misteaks and he always has good to say when we dun fore the nite. Since we are brothurs now I gues you belong to me to.
Harrison Stanford MacDonald was learning all about the Clayborne family without asking a single question. He was a stranger in town and therefore should have been met with suspicion and mistrust. He had heard all about the wild and rugged, lawless towns dotting the West and read everything he could get his hands on as well. From all of his research, he'd learned that strangers inevitably fell into one of two groups. There were those men who were ignored and left alone because they kept to themselves but looked intimidating, and those men who got themselves killed because they asked too many questions.
The code of honor that existed in the West perplexed Harrison. He thought it was the most backward set of rules he'd ever heard. The inhabitants usually protected their own against outsiders, yet took it all in stride when one neighbor went after another. Killing each other seemed to be acceptable, providing, of course, that there was a hint of a good reason.
On his journey to Blue Belle, Harrison considered the problem he would have finding out what he needed to know and finally came up with what he believed was a suitable course of action. He decided to use the town's prejudice against strangers to his own advantage by simply turning the tables on them.
He arrived in Blue Belle around ten o'clock in the morning and became the meanest son-of-a-bitch who ever hit town. He acted outrageously suspicious of everyone who dared to even look his way. He wore his new black hat down low on his brow, turned up the collar of his long, brown trail duster, kept a hard scowl on his face, and sauntered down the middle of the main road the residents called a street, but which was really just a wide dirt path, acting as if he owned the place. He gave the word "sullen" new definition. He wanted to look like a man who would kill anyone who got in his way, and he guessed he'd accomplished his goal when a woman walking with her little boy caught sight of him striding toward her and immediately grabbed hold of her son's hand and went running in the opposite direction.
He wanted to smile. He didn't dare. He'd never find out anything about the Claybornes if he turned friendly. And so he maintained his angry hate-everyone-and-everything attitude.
They loved him.
His first stop was the always popular town saloon. Every town had one, and Blue Belle wasn't any different. He found the drinking establishment at the end of the road, went inside, and ordered a bottle of whiskey and one glass. If the proprietor found the request odd for such an early hour, he didn't mention it. Harrison took the bottle and the glass to the darkest corner in the saloon, sat down at a round table with his back to the wall, and simply waited for the curious to come and talk to him.
He didn't have to wait long. The saloon had been completely empty of customers when he had entered the establishment. Word of the stranger's arrival spread as fast as a prairie fire, however, and within ten minutes, Harrison counted nine men inside. They sat in clusters around the other tables spread about the saloon, and every single one of them was staring at him.
He kept his shoulders hunched forward and his gaze on his shot glass. The thought of actually taking a drink this early in the morning made his stomach want to lurch, and he didn't have any intention of swallowing a single sip, so he swirled the murky amber liquid around and around in his glass and tried to look as if he were brooding about something.
He heard whispering, then the shuffle of footsteps coming across the wooden floor. Harrison 's hand instinctively went for his gun. He pushed his coat out of the way and rested his hand on the butt of his weapon. He stopped himself from pulling the gun free, then realized that what he'd done instinctively was actually what he should have done if he were going to continue his hostile charade.
"Mister, you new in town?"
Harrison slowly lifted his gaze. The man who'd asked the ridiculous question had obviously been sent over by the others. He was unarmed. He was also old, probably around fifty, with leathery, pockmarked skin, and he was about the homeliest individual Harrison had ever come across. Squinty brown eyes the size of marbles were all but lost in his round face, for the only feature anyone was ever going to notice was his gigantic potato-shaped nose. It was, in Harrison 's estimation, a real attention getter.
"Who wants to know?" he asked, making his voice as surly as possible.
Potato-nose smiled. "My name's Dooley," he announced. "Mind if I sit a spell?"
Harrison didn't respond to the question. He simply stared at the man and waited to see what he would do.
Dooley took his silence as a yes, dragged out a chair, and sat down facing Harrison. "You in town looking for someone?"
Harrison shook his head. Dooley turned to their audience. "He ain't looking for anyone," he shouted. "Billie, fetch me a glass. I could use me a drink, if this stranger is willing to share."
He turned back to Harrison. "You a gunfighter?"
"I don't like questions," Harrison replied.
"Nope, I didn't think you were a gunfighter," Dooley said. "If you were, you would have heard Webster left town just yesterday. He was looking for a draw, but no one would oblige him, not even Cole Clayborne, and he's the only reason Webster really came to town. Cole's the fastest gun we got around here. He don't get into gunfights anymore though, especially now that his sister came home from school. She don't abide with gunfights, and she don't want Cole getting himself a bad reputation. Adam keeps him on the square," he added with a knowing nod. "He's the oldest of the brothers and a real peacemaker, if you ask me. He's book smart too, and once you get over what he looks like, well, then, you realize he's the man you should go to if you got a problem. He usually knows what's to be done. You thinking of maybe settling around here or are you just passing through?"
Billie, the proprietor of the saloon, strutted over with two glasses in his hands. He put both of them down on the table and then motioned to a man sitting near the door.
"Henry, get on over here and shut your friend up. He's making a nuisance of himself asking so many questions. Don't want to see him killed before lunch. It's bad for business."
Harrison gave only half answers to the questions that followed. Henry joined them, and once he'd taken his seat, the proprietor pulled out a chair, hiked one booted leg up on the seat, and leaned forward with his arm draped across his knee. The three men were obviously fast friends. They liked to gossip and were soon interrupting each other with stories about everyone in town. The threesome reminded Harrison of old-maid aunts who liked to meddle but didn't mean anyone harm. Harrison filed away every bit of information they gave him, never once asking a question of his own.
The talk eventually turned to the availability of women in the area.
"They're as scarce as diamonds in these here parts, but we got us seven or eight eligible ones. A couple of them are right pretty. There's Catherine Morrison. Her pa owns the general store. She's got nice brown hair and all her teeth."
"She don't hold a candle to Mary Rose Clayborne," Billie interjected.
Loud grunts of agreement came from across the room. Everyone inside the saloon, it seemed, was listening in on the conversation.
"She ain't just pretty," a gray-haired man called out.
"She's a knock-your-breath-out-of-you looker," Henry agreed. "And as sweet-natured as they come."
"Ain't that the truth," Dooley said. "If you're in need of help, she'll be there to see you get it."
More grunts of agreement followed his statement.
"Injuns come from miles around just to get a swatch of her hair. She gets real exasperated, but she always gives them a lock. It's as pretty as spun gold. The Injuns think it brings them good luck. Ain't that right?" Henry asked Billie.
The proprietor nodded. "Once a couple of half-breeds tried to steal her off her ranch. They said they got themselves tranced by her blue eyes. Said they were magical, they did. You remember what happened then, boys?" he asked his friends.
Dooley let out a hoot of laughter. "I recollect it as sure as if it happened yesterday. Adam weren't no peacemaker that day, was he, Ghost?"
A man with stark white hair and a long, scraggly, white beard nodded.
"No, sir, he weren't," he shouted. "As I recall, Adam almost tore one of the half-breeds clear in half. No one's tried to steal her since."
"Miss Mary don't get herself courted much," Billie said. "It's a shame too. She should have two or three babies pulling at her skirts by now."
Harrison didn't have to ask why she wasn't courted. Dooley was happy to explain. "She's got herself four brothers none of us is willing to take on. No sirreee. You can't get to her without going through them. That's why she ain't married up yet. You'd best stay clear away from her."
"Oh, she won't have nothing to do with him," Ghost shouted.
Dooley nodded. "She only takes to the bumbling ones and the weaklings. Seems to think it's her duty to look out for them. It's because she's so sweet-natured."
"I already told him that," Henry said.
"She drives her brothers crazy the way she drags home the pitiful ones. Still, they got to put up with it," Billie said.
"She likes us, and we ain't weaklings." Dooley obviously wanted to set the record straight.
"No, of course we ain't," Henry agreed. "We wouldn't want you to get the wrong idea, mister. Miss Mary likes us because we've been around so long. She's used to us. You can get yourself a gander at her in a couple of hours. We like to line up in front of the store around noon so we can get a good, close look at her. She's always got something real nice to say to each one of us. I'm hoping her brother Douglas rides shotgun with her today."
"Why's that?" Billie asked.
"My mare's acting fussy again. I need the doc to take a look at her."
"If you're in need of a good horse, Douglas has a stable full," Dooley told Harrison. "He tames the wild ones and sells them every now and then. He's got to like you though. He's peculiar about who gets hold of his horses. He ain't a real doctor, but we like to call him such."
"He don't like it none, Dooley. Says he ain't a doctor and we shouldn't be calling him one," Ghost called out.
"I know that," Dooley shouted back. His exasperation was apparent in his tone of voice. "That's why we never call him Doc to his face. He's got a special way with animals though, and he's good with his remedies."
"What kind of business are you in?" Billie asked Harrison. "I'm just being neighborly, mister," he added.
"Legal work," Harrison answered.
"That won't make you enough money to put food in your belly, at least not on a regular basis. You do anything else?"
"Then you're a trapper," Henry decreed.
Harrison shook his head. "Not exactly," he hedged. He was on a hunt now, but he wasn't about to tell these men he was searching for a stolen child. She would be a fully grown woman by now.
"You're either a trapper or you ain't," Henry said. "You got any equipment to trap with?"
'Then you ain't a trapper," Henry told him. "What about ranching? You ever try your hand at ranching? You've got the build for it. I don't recall ever seeing anyone as big as you are, or as wide across the shoulders. A couple of the Clayborne brothers come to mind, and Johnny Simpson, of course, but I think you might be a half a head taller than any of them."
"You willing to tell us your name?" Henry asked.
" Harrison," he answered. "My name's Harrison MacDonald."
"You got a last name for a first name, don't you?" Dooley remarked. "Will you take offense if I call you Harrison, or do you want to be called MacDonald?"
"Call me Harrison."
"Guess I should if you're gonna be settling here. You got yourself a real different-sounding twang in there with your words," he added. He hastily put his hands up. "I don't mean you no insult. I'm just wondering now where you come from."
" California?" Henry guessed.
"I'm thinking Kentucky," Ghost called out.
Harrison shook his head. "I was born in Scotland and raised in England," he answered. "Across the ocean," he added in case they didn't know where those countries were located.
"The town could use a lawyer," Billie interjected. "We don't have any around these parts. If Adam Clayborne doesn't know the answer, then we got to go all the way to Hammond to get the help we need. Hanging Judge Burns will be happy to have you around. He gets upset when he has to work with… what does he call us?" he asked Dooley.
"That's the word. If you ask me, the law's gotten mighty tricky. There are too many papers to file with the government."
"Ain't that the truth," Ghost called out. "Getting a piece of land used to be easy. You just squatted there and it was yours. Now you got to pay money and fill out papers."
"So you going to settle here then? I'll bet Morrison will rent out the storefront across the street from his store. You could put your shingle out and maybe earn a couple of dollars every month."
Harrison shrugged. "I'm not sure what I'm going to do yet. I might settle down here, and then again, I might not. It's too soon to tell."
"You got enough money to hold you over until you decide?" Henry asked.
Harrison knew better than to admit he was carrying money.
"No," he answered. "I don't suppose I have enough to last more than a couple of days."
"You'll get along," Dooley advised. "You're big and you got muscle. You can always hire out and work to keep food on your table."
"That's what I figured," Harrison lied.
"What exactly are you doing in Blue Belle?" Billie asked. "I know it isn't any of my business, but I'm curious to know. You mind telling us, mister?"
"Call me Harrison," he said again. "I don't mind telling why I'm here. I'm on what I'm pretty certain is a wild-goose chase. At least the man I work for believes my trip will end up running after a dream."
"You already got yourself a job?" Dooley asked.
"I've taken a temporary leave."
"So you could end up staying here. Is that the way of it?" Henry asked.
"I suppose I could."
"I say you should stay," Billie announced. "Don't work for anyone but yourself. That's our way. You don't have to answer to anyone."
"You mind answering a question about the law?" Ghost asked.
"What is it you want to know?"
"I'm thinking hard about stealing a horse," Ghost announced. He stood up and walked over to the table. "The fella I'm thinking about robbing stole my woman years back, so, the way I see it, I ain't really doing nothing wrong. The law's on my side, right?"
Harrison leaned back in his chair. He stopped himself before he smiled. The question was amusing, but he didn't want Ghost to think he was laughing at him.
"Sorry to disappoint you," he said. "Pride might be on your side, but the law isn't."
Dooley slapped his hand down on the tabletop and let out another hoot of laughter. "That's what I told him," he announced in a near shout. "Pride will get him hung by the vigilantes if he steals Lloyd's horse."
Ghost didn't like Harrison 's answer. He walked away from the table muttering to himself. His question opened the door for others, however, and for the next hour, Harrison dispensed free legal advice. Although he'd been educated at Oxford and had done his apprenticeship in England, he also worked for a man who owned two manufacturing plants. Because the company regularly shipped to the American east coast, Harrison had had to familiarize himself with the laws regulating export and import.
The difference between the way the law was interpreted by the courts in England and in America fascinated him. He tirelessly pored over any material about unusual decisions and cases that he could get his hands on.
His associates thought it was dry reading indeed, especially the older cases he'd wanted to discuss with them. He was told it was boring material at best, and it reminded them of all the mandatory reading they'd had to suffer through while at university. Harrison didn't agree. He loved reading the philosophers, especially Plato, and he enjoyed reading the opinions of the scholars who founded his country's government as well. But most of all, he loved the law. The discipline of the court system appealed to him. He thought it was imperative to keep up with all the latest decisions so that he could eventually become one of the best in his field. Good wasn't enough for him. Harrison strove for excellence in everything he undertook. Unfinished puzzles drove him crazy. Whatever he started, he finished.
His passion for the law and his compassion for his fellow man had made him unpopular in many circles. Because he worked for the powerful Lord Elliott, he had never actually been blackballed, although he'd certainly come close on several occasions, and all because he took on unpopular cases. He was rapidly getting a reputation for being a champion of the less fortunate in London 's slums. He hadn't set out to become anyone's champion, of course, and if anyone had told him at school that he would eventually become a criminal lawyer, even on a part-time basis, Harrison would have thought he was out of his mind.
The unsought distinction had cost him his engagement to Lady Edwina Horner, who informed him in a letter that she couldn't abide being married to a scandal-setter, whatever in God's name that meant. Men who still called themselves his friend tried to warn him that he had to get over his ridiculous notion that the poor in England should be entitled to the same rights as the rich. Harrison, however, refused to accept such an elitist, self-serving view.
"Maybe them laws in England are different from our laws," Ghost suggested. He strolled back across the room and gave Harrison a hopeful look. "I'm thinking that maybe I wouldn't get hanged, if I stole the horse, because Lloyd started the dirt first."
Harrison shook his head. Ghost, it appeared, wasn't ready to give up his plan.
"I've studied enough American law to know you'll still be found guilty."
"Even though he wasn't on the square and he started the dirt first?"
While Harrison wasn't familiar with either of those odd expressions, he still felt he was giving sound advice. "Even so."
Another round of questions followed. All the curious who'd started out watching him from across the saloon had filed over to Harrison 's table and now formed a half circle. None of them seemed to be in any particular hurry to get on with their day.
The doors to the saloon suddenly flew open. "Miss Mary's coming. Cole's riding behind her."
The man who shouted the announcement bounded off at a trot down the walkway.
The reaction to the news was astonishing to witness. Every single one of the men jumped to his feet and ran outside. Dooley was almost knocked to his knees in the stampede. He eventually regained his balance and turned back to Harrison.
"Ain't you coming along? You ought to at least take a peek at our Miss Mary. She's worth your time."
Because Dooley might have thought it peculiar if Harrison hadn't shown an interest, he got up from the table and followed the old man out the doorway. Harrison wasn't in any hurry to meet the young woman, however, and Dooley was already down the block and halfway across the street before Harrison reached the hitching post in front of the corner building.
His hunt could very well end in just a few minutes. Harrison was suddenly filled with all sorts of conflicting emotions. He had made a promise to Lord Elliot that this adventure would be his last attempt to solve this puzzle, and if Elliot turned out to be correct, then traveling all this distance had been just another wild-goose chase.
He let out a weary sigh. The facts, Elliot had argued, were indisputable. Mary Rose Clayborne couldn't possibly be his daughter. Victoria was an only child. Mary Rose had four older brothers. Yet while that information had been verified by the attorney in St. Louis, the man had also included several other comments Harrison found intriguing. Mary Rose had been on her guard throughout the interview and refused to give even the names of her brothers. The attorney reported that although she'd been extremely polite, it was apparent to him that she was afraid. The superior hadn't been able to persuade the young lady to cooperate.
The headmistress had proven most helpful however. She told the attorney that two of Mary Rose's brothers had traveled with their sister to the school at the beginning of each term. She hadn't met either one, hadn't even seen them at a distance, and, therefore, couldn't describe the gentlemen. She had heard a disturbing rumor about one of the brothers, but she refused to give the attorney any details.
She declared she wasn't a gossip and that Mary Rose was a model student, once she'd made the adjustment to life in a boarding school, and the vile rumor one of the girls had started was quickly stopped. No one would ever have believed it anyway, of course. Gossip was for peasants and not for proper young ladies.
She couldn't be pressed for more.
Harrison shook his head. Gossip couldn't be relied on, of course. It was probably just as Elliot had predicted it would be. Another case of two women looking somewhat alike. Elliot had urged Harrison to let it go, as the older man himself finally had, and accept the soul-destroying evidence that little Victoria Elliott had died shortly after she'd been taken. In his heart, Harrison knew Elliott was right, but every time he looked at the man who had protected Harrison 's father for so many years, he would become compelled to go on just one more hunt.
Harrison believed he was a realist, yet even so, his gut instinct had told him to go to Montana and find out the truth for himself. He wasn't completely grasping at rainbows. He had already been in America when he had received the wire regarding the latest sighting, and Chicago was just a day's ride away from where he'd been staying. It didn't take him any time at all to go to the outskirts of the city to talk to the woman who believed she'd met Elliott's daughter. After talking to Mrs. Anna Middleshaw and hearing the report of the attorney he'd then had interview Mary Rose, he decided it would be worth his while to go into the wilderness. Mrs. Middleshaw didn't appear to be a woman given to theatrics or emotion. She was actually quite level-headed. She believed with all her heart that she had seen Lady Victoria. Her argument was valid. No one, she said, could look that much like another without being related. Harrison wanted to believe she was right.
He braced himself for disappointment and stepped off the wooden walkway. The gleam of metal caught his attention. He half turned to look back down the walkway and saw what looked like a shotgun barrel protruding from an alley about fifteen feet away. Whoever held the weapon had it trained on the group of people standing in front of the general store.
Harrison recognized Henry and Ghost and Dooley, but there were three other men he'd never seen before standing in a circle on the opposite walkway. A man with light yellow hair stood next to Henry, but when he took a step back, the barrel of the rifle came up. Yellow Hair moved again almost immediately, however, and Dooley inadvertently blocked him from ambush. The barrel of the rifle, Harrison noticed, lowered once again.
He decided he would interfere. The group of men filed inside the general store. Harrison removed his coat on his way across the road, tossed it over the hitching post in front of the walkway, and then went inside.
The scent of leather and spices filled the air around him. The store was large, about the size of one of Elliott's stables back home. There was a wide aisle that ran the length of the store, and two other smaller aisles on either side. Weighted-down, bowed shelves were lined with jars of food, piles of clothing, leather goods, picks and shovels, and so much more the eye could barely take it all in. The entire store was built out of several different kinds of wood, though mostly pine, just like the rest of the buildings in town.
Harrison had never seen such a disorganized, stuffed-to-the-rafters establishment in all his life. His obsession with discipline and order made him mentally blanch at the chaos before him. Bolts of colorful fabric were haphazardly stacked into a lopsided pyramid on top of a round table in one corner of the store, next to three giant-size pickle barrels. He watched an unkempt man reach down and take out a large pickle from the brine, then wipe his wet hand on the edge of a lace fabric that drooped down from a bolt over the side of the table. The material fell to the floor, barring the man's path, and so he simply stepped over the bolt on his way back to the front of the establishment.
Working amid such chaos would have driven Harrison out of his mind. How in God's name did the proprietor ever find anything? Harrison let out a sigh, put the matter out of his mind, then moved to the side of the entrance where he planned to stay until he spotted Yellow Hair in the crowd.
Where in thunder was the man? Harrison was at least a head taller than everyone else inside the store, yet still couldn't find Yellow Hair. He couldn't have disappeared into thin air, though in this mess Harrison guessed anything was possible.
Dooley waved to him from the left side of the store. The old man stood in front of a counter, talking in a whisper to a pretty brown-haired young lady. She had to be the owner's daughter, the one named Catherine Morrison. Dooley motioned for him to come over to the counter, but Harrison shook his head and stayed right where he was. He didn't want to take the chance of missing Yellow Hair. If Dooley thought his behavior was rude, Harrison neither minded nor cared.
A few minutes later he heard Dooley say something about "being shy." Since Dooley was looking at him when he made the comment,
Harrison assumed he was referring to him. The notion was ridiculous.
The Morrison woman caught his attention when she waved at him. She leaned halfway over the countertop and gave him a provocative, come-and-meet-me smile. He didn't smile back. He wasn't in the mood to be social right now, for he felt that warning the stranger was more important.
He didn't normally interfere in another man's affairs, but he fervently believed in equal treatment and fair play. Ambushing an unsuspecting man was a damned cowardly thing to do, and Harrison could never abide a coward.
He ran out of patience. He decided he was going to have to go find the man, but just as he started to move, Yellow Hair appeared at the end of the main aisle, carrying a sack of wheat or flour he'd hoisted up on one shoulder. While Harrison waited for him to get to the entrance, a young woman skirted her way around Yellow Hair and came hurrying toward Harrison.
Dear God, she was Lady Victoria. The beautiful young woman walking toward him had to be Elliott's long-lost daughter. She was the spitting image of the man's late wife. At the first sight of her high cheekbones and her brilliant blue eyes, Harrison took a deep breath and forgot to let it out. Astonishment paralyzed him. His heart started thundering inside his chest until it became painful, and he was finally forced to breathe again.
He couldn't believe what he was seeing. The lovely woman looked as if she had just stepped out of the oil portrait of Lady Agatha that hung above the fireplace in Elliott's library. The clothes were different, yes; yes, of course they were, but by all that was holy, even the spray of freckles across the bridge of her nose seemed to be identical. Harrison suddenly didn't care how many brothers she had. It was just as Mrs. Middleshaw had said. No one could look this much like another without being related.
Mary Rose Clayborne. The closer she got to him, the more subtle differences became discernible. Her eyes were a little paler in color than her mother's in the portrait of her as a young woman. Harrison let out a sigh of frustration. The exotic, almost almond shape of her eyes and her facial bone structure seemed to be the same as her mother's; yet, now that she was coming closer to him, he couldn't be absolutely certain. Hell, she even looked a little bit like Yellow Hair. She had the same color of hair. No, the color wasn't quite the same. Hers was a lighter yellow streaked with honey-colored strands throughout. God, she was beautiful, but she could still be Yellow Hair's younger sister, and hell and damnation, how could that be possible when she looked so much like Elliott's wife?
He'd been too young when he'd last seen Lady Agatha to remember significant details now about her physical appearance. He had been only ten when she and her husband left for America to attend the grand opening of their plant near New York City. He remembered foolish little-boy things about her, such as the wonderful way she smelled, like flowers after the rain, and the way she smiled at him, with such love and kindness in her eyes. He remembered the warmth and tenderness of her hug, but all of those memories, treasured though they were by a boy who had lost his own mother, weren't going to help him.
He had never seen Lady Agatha again. After her return to London, she'd stayed in her bedchamber day and night, clothed in black, he'd been told, and closeted away in darkness while she mourned the disappearance of her four-month-old daughter.
Was the woman walking toward him Lady Victoria? God help him, he didn't know.
His mind frantically sought for a way to find the truth. Then he remembered what Dooley and the other men had told him about Mary Rose Clayborne. She was the champion of the weak. Hadn't Dooley also told him that she drove her brothers crazy because she was constantly dragging misfits home with her? Harrison suddenly had a new plan.
He was no longer going to be the meanest son-of-a-bitch who ever hit town. That charade had gotten him the information he needed and acceptance by the men in the saloon. The pretense wouldn't work now, at least not with Mary Rose Clayborne. She liked odd ducks, and so he decided to become just that. He was going to be a bumbling, naive city boy who didn't have enough common sense to stay alive. He only hoped he could pull the deception off.
Mary Rose Clayborne noticed the stranger almost immediately. He had his arms crossed in front of his chest and was leaning against the ledge of Morrison's window. He was a giant of a man, impossible, really, not to notice, with dark brown hair and wonderfully expressive gray eyes. He was handsome, she supposed, in a rugged, outdoors way, but appearances weren't important to her. He certainly looked unhappy to her. Honest to heaven, he looked pale enough to make her think he'd seen something very distressing.
Like a ghost, she thought to herself. She smiled then, because it was such a silly notion. Only Ghost ever saw spirits from the other world, and only after he'd dipped into his homemade brew that guaranteed visions. A ghost, indeed.
Still, she wished he didn't look so unhappy. She decided to introduce herself to him. Perhaps he would tell her what was worrying him. She might be able to help.
Just as quickly as the idea to meet him came to her, she decided against it, because she'd finally noticed he was wearing one of those fancy gunbelts around his hips. A six-shooter was neatly tucked into the holster. Mary Rose realized the stranger could very well be just another gunfighter in town for the sole purpose of antagonizing her brother into a gunfight, and, by God, if that was the case, she wasn't about to be gracious or helpful. Why, she might even shoot him herself.
She knew she was jumping to conclusions. She decided her best course of action was to ignore him. She reached the entrance and tried to open the door for her brother. Cole was right behind her, but his hands were occupied holding the sack on his shoulder.
Harrison quickly moved to block her exit. He leaned against the door and waited for her to look up at him.
She took her sweet time.
"I wouldn't go outside just yet, ma'am."
He shook his head. "No, I wouldn't."
She stared stupidly up at his face. He finally smiled. She almost smiled back. She stopped herself in time. She stood only a foot away from him and, therefore, had to tilt her head all the way back so she could get a close-up look at his eyes. There was a definite sparkle there, she noticed. She couldn't imagine what he found so amusing. His color was back as well, and he smelled quite nice to her. Like the outdoors and leather, she decided, and because his skin was so bronzed, she knew he spent a good deal of time in the sun.
Mary Rose shook herself out of her stupor. "Why don't I want to go outside?" she asked.
Harrison knew he was going to have to quit staring at her so he could answer her question. God, she was pretty. He noticed her scent, so light and faint, very like the scent her mother used to wear, and, hell, he knew he was behaving like a schoolboy, but he couldn't make himself stop. He couldn't stop smiling down at her either, because she was so damned lovely, of course, but also because it was both possible and impossible for her to be Elliott's daughter.
Reality was quick to bring him back to the present.
"Open the door, Mary Rose," Yellow Hair ordered. He was staring at Harrison when he muttered the impatient command.
"This gentleman doesn't want us to leave just yet," she answered. She turned to her brother and lifted her shoulders in a shrug. "I don't know why."
Cole glared at Harrison. His tone was scathing when he said, "Look, mister, there are easier ways of getting an introduction. If you want to meet my sister, wait until I unload this. Then maybe I'll let you talk to her."
Mary Rose couldn't let the stranger be misled. "He won't let you talk to me though," she explained. "My brother never lets me talk to strangers. My name's Mary Rose Clayborne. And who are you, pray tell?"
"Harrison Stanford MacDonald."
She nodded. "I'm pleased to meet you, Mr. MacDonald. May I go outside now?"
"I'd like to talk to your brother first," he said.
She backed up a space and stepped on her brother's foot. "Are you a gunfighter?"
She made the question sound like an accusation. She didn't give him time to answer, having obviously concluded that he was. She frowned up at him and shook her head.
"You can just forget about getting my brother into a draw. He isn't at all interested. I suggest you leave Blue Belle, sir. You aren't welcome here."
"For God's sake, Mary Rose. I can talk for myself. You a gunfighter, mister?"
Harrison shook his head. He was thoroughly bewildered by the turn in the conversation. "No," he answered. "I'm not a gunfighter." He turned back to Mary Rose. "Exactly what is it you think I'm here to draw?"
Her eyes widened. "Cole, he doesn't know what a draw is. Where are you from, Mr. MacDonald?"
She frowned over his answer. "Why are you in Blue Belle?"
"I'm looking for a place to settle down."
"Then you aren't here to fight my brother?"
She stopped frowning at him, but her voice was still filled with suspicion. It was apparent she wasn't completely convinced.
He decided to answer her question with one of his own. "Why would I want to do that, ma'am. I don't even know your brother."
She let out a happy sigh. "Well, then," she whispered. She brushed her hair back over her shoulder, in an action he found utterly feminine, and smiled sweetly up at him.
"I didn't think you were a gunfighter, but I couldn't be absolutely certain. When I think…"
Cole wouldn't let her finish the complaint she was about to make. "For God's sake, Mary Rose. Open the door."
"But I haven't introduced you to Mr. MacDonald yet," she protested.
"I don't need to meet him," Cole muttered. " Douglas is waiting out front with the wagon. Just open the door."
Mary Rose didn't seem to be at all affected by her brother's surly tone of voice. She continued to smile up at Harrison and acted as if she had all the time in the world to talk to him. "My brother's name is Cole Clayborne. He has a middle name, but he's sensitive about it, and he'd kill me if I told you what it was. Cole, I'd like you to meet Mr. Harrison…"
"Mary Rose, I swear to God I'm gonna drop this heavy sack of flour right on top of your head."
She let out a sigh. "My brother's really very nice, sir, once you get to know him."
Harrison wasn't convinced. Cole didn't look like the sort who could ever be nice. The scowl on his face seemed to be a permanent fixture. Only one thing was certain. Mary Rose's brother wasn't going to wait much longer. Harrison decided he'd better hurry up and tell him about the ambush before the impatient man went storming through the closed door. He looked strong enough and irritated enough to do just that.
"There's a rifle trained on you," he began. He kept his voice low so the other customers wouldn't overhear him. "Whoever wants to shoot you is hiding in the pass-through across the street. I thought you might want to know."
Cole immediately lost his irritation. "You get a look at the fella?"
Harrison shook his head. "I considered trying to shoot the rifle out of his hands, but the truth is, I only just purchased this gun and I haven't tried it out yet. I probably would have ended up hurting someone."
"That's the general idea," Cole told him, his exasperation obvious in his tone of voice.
"Sorry I couldn't help you out," Harrison said then. "But until I learn how accurate…"
He let the sentence trail off uncompleted. He would let Mary Rose and her brother draw their own conclusions.
He didn't have to wait long. Mary Rose let out a little gasp. "You're wearing a gun and you've never used it before?"
He hadn't had to lie to her again, but he hadn't told her the truth either. He deliberately withheld pertinent information, knowing full well she would be led down the path he wanted her to take. The way he was manipulating her didn't sit well with him. Still, he would do what was necessary in order to gain her confidence so he could find out what he needed to know, and since she took in the misfits, he concluded he would have to become one. "Are you out of your mind?" she asked him then. "I don't believe so," he answered.
"Dear God, don't you know any better than to walk around town armed? As big as you are, you're bound to get into a fight. You'll get yourself killed in no time at all. Is that what you want, Mr. MacDonald?"
Her hands moved to her hips, and she was looking at him as though she thought he didn't have a lick of sense. She reminded him of a teacher reprimanding one of her students. He never had any teachers who were this young or pretty though. Most were old and dusty and as dry as dead leaves.
She was obviously concerned about him. Odd, but he liked the attention she was giving him. Being a misfit wasn't going to be so terrible after all.
Harrison tried to look worried. "No, ma'am. I don't want to get killed. I want to learn how to use my new gun. I can't do that, can I, if I keep it packed away."
Cole let out a loud sigh. Harrison immediately turned back to him. "Would you like me to carry that sack outside for you? I could put it in your wagon and go find the sheriff."
"We don't have a sheriff in Blue Belle," Mary Rose explained.
Harrison didn't have to pretend surprise. "Then who keeps the order here?"
"No one," she answered. "That's why this town is such a dangerous place for someone like you. You were raised in the city, weren't you, sir?"
He tried not to chafe over the pity he heard in her voice. "Yes, as a matter of fact I was raised in the city. Please call me Harrison. Sir and mister are too formal for out here."
"Fine," she agreed. "I'll call you Harrison. Please take your gunbelt off. You really shouldn't be wearing one. I'll bet someone told you it was fashionable attire in our territory, didn't he? Or did you read that it was?"
"I read that it was necessary equipment."
She let out a sigh. "Oh, dear."
Cole had waited long enough. He leaned over, propped the sack of flour against the wall, stood back up, and then rolled his shoulders like a bear to get rid of the crick in the side of his neck.
Harrison and Mary Rose moved out of his way when he reached for the door. Cole didn't seem to be overly concerned about the ambush. He nudged his sister further away from the opening, took his gun out of his belt, and then opened the door just enough to let a crack of sunshine in.
Douglas was waiting out front. Cole's brother stood on the street, next to their wagon, leaning against a hitching post. He appeared to be sound asleep. Cole whistled to get his attention.
Harrison watched Mary Rose. Her behavior puzzled him. The second her brother reached for his gun, she covered her ears with her hands and stared up at the ceiling with a resigned expression on her face.
" Douglas, hit the ground."
Cole barked the command a scant second before he leaned out the doorway, took aim, and fired three rapid shots. The sound of exploding gunfire ricocheted around and around the store. The glass window shivered from the noise.
As quick as lightning he put the gun back in his holster. "That ought to do it."
And then he picked up the sack of flour and strolled outside. His casual attitude was a little surprising, of course, but what most amazed Harrison was the fact that the majority of patrons inside the establishment weren't showing the least bit of curiosity. If they thought it was peculiar for Cole Clayborne to fire his weapon out the doorway, they certainly weren't letting it show. Did this sort of thing happen every day? Harrison was beginning to think that maybe it did.
"Cole, you forgot to thank Harrison," Mary Rose called out.
"Thanks for the warning," Cole dutifully called over his shoulder.
His gratitude sounded shallow to her, but she didn't take issue with her brother. She knew it was difficult for him to ever say thank you to anyone, and he must have found it grating indeed to know a stranger had saved his life.
"Who was trying to ambush you, Cole?" she asked.
"You're welcome," Harrison called out at the very same time.
Cole tossed the sack of flour into the back of the wagon with the other supplies they'd already purchased, then turned to answer his sister's question.
"It was probably Webster. The son-of-a…" He stopped himself before he completed the rest of his dark opinion of the vermin waiting to ambush him. "He was sore because I wouldn't fight him last week. Guess I should have killed him then. He'll only try again. I winged him though, so he'll have to mend first. You about ready to leave, Mary Rose?"
"In just a minute."
She turned back to Harrison. "It was very kind of you to warn my brother. He's really very appreciative. It's just difficult for him to show it. He doesn't like owing anyone anything, even gratitude."
"Your brother doesn't owe me gratitude. Anyone would have done what I did."
"I wish that were true," she replied. "Perhaps in Scotland one neighbor helps another, but around Blue Belle, things are different."
He nodded, accepting what she told him as fact, and continued to stare at her while he tried to think of something else to talk about. It didn't take him long to start feeling like a simpleton. She was slipping right through his fingers, but he couldn't think of a single thing to say to keep her near him. for just a few more minutes.
The irony of the situation wasn't lost on him. He was a lawyer, for God's sake, a man who spent his days debating, cajoling, and arguing in order to make a living, yet now he was speechless. If that wasn't a contradiction, he didn't know what was.
Lord, she had lovely eyes.
The second the thought popped into his head he realized he was in trouble. The young lady smiling so sweetly up at him was turning his mind into mush. He was thoroughly disgusted with himself. He knew better than to let a physical attraction get in the way of his plans.
Mary Rose supposed she had lingered long enough. She didn't want to go home just yet, however, and she told herself it was only because she was concerned about the kindhearted stranger.
"I was wondering…"
"Yes?" He blurted out the word like a little boy about to receive a gift.
"Why do you want to learn how to shoot?"
Hell, he was going to have to lie to her again. It was becoming difficult for him. Perhaps if she hadn't been looking at him with such trust and innocence in her gaze, it would have been easier.
The truth wasn't going to help him now, because he knew that if he admitted he was actually quite skilled with a gun, she'd go sailing out the doorway and never look back.
It was galling to his pride to pretend to be inept. He'd won awards at university for his accuracy on the range and in the field, and while he'd served in the military, he'd learned how to be fast. Six-shooters were the common man's choice of weapons, however, and as much as he disliked the gun, he had still made it a point to learn how to use it. He had to admit the gun had come in handy, and his speed had saved his hide more than a few times.
"Please tell me, why do you want to learn how to use a gun?" she asked him again.
"I'm thinking about becoming a rancher," he told her. "I believe the weapon will be useful."
"We have a ranch a few miles outside of town. It's called Rosehill. Have you by chance heard of it?"
It was a ridiculous question, and she was sorry she'd asked it as soon as the words were out of her mouth. Of course he hadn't heard of Rosehill. The man had only just arrived in town. Still, the inquiry was all she could come up with to keep him talking, and, Lord, how she loved hearing him speak. His unusual accent was almost musical to her, with its deep, vibrant burr.
"No, I haven't heard of your ranch," he answered.
They continued to stare at each other for another minute before Mary Rose once again turned to leave. She had made it all the way out the front door when she stopped.
Cole and Douglas were both watching her. Her brothers were leaning against the back of the wagon. Both men had their arms folded in front of their chests, and each, she noticed, had one booted ankle crossed over the other. They had resigned expressions on their faces.
They were used to Mary Rose lingering.
She smiled at the two of them before turning back to Harrison. She was happy to see he'd followed her outside. He was looking at Douglas and probably wondering who he was, she supposed. She would have to remember to introduce him after she finished telling him her plans for his immediate future.
She simply had to do something to help the man. He looked so alone and lost.
"I simply cannot leave you here on your own."
She gained his full attention with her announcement. "You can't?" he asked.
She glanced over her shoulder to see if her brothers were still watching her and saw that both weren't only watching, they were also frowning with obvious disapproval. She smiled at them, just to let them know she was quite happy to be talking to the stranger, and then she took hold of Harrison 's arm and motioned for him to walk with her away from the entrance. She wanted to put some space between the two of them and her brothers. She also needed privacy for their discussion, because she knew her brothers would try to interfere if they had any idea of what she was planning to do.
"No, I certainly can't leave you here. You're going to get into trouble if I don't do something."
"Why do you think I'll get into trouble?"
"Why?" she repeated.
She couldn't believe he needed to ask. Still, she could see how puzzled he looked. Heaven help him, the poor man didn't even realize his own jeopardy. It was her duty to explain his circumstances to him, she decided.
"You've all but openly admitted you don't know how to defend yourself. I'm certain several customers inside the store heard you. Everyone in town seems to make it their business to know what everyone else is doing and saying. Word will get around, Harrison, and as much as it pains me to admit it, our lovely town does have a fair number of mean-headed bullies. As soon as they hear you're vulnerable, they'll come after you. You won't be safe here."
"Are you suggesting I'm inept?" He looked astonished. She decided she was going to have to be blunt with him. Even though she was probably going to hurt his feelings, the truth was for his own good. "You are inept."
He had to remind himself he was pleased by the way things were progressing. She was making him her responsibility. Dooley and Henry had been right about her. She really did take to the weak and the vulnerable.
Still, his pride was taking one hell of a beating. It was damned grating for any woman to think of him as a weakling.
He decided to make a fainthearted protest just to appease his own ego. "Ma'am, I don't remember telling you I couldn't take care of myself."
She pretended she hadn't heard him. "I'm afraid you're really going to have to come home with me."
He tried not to smile. "I don't believe that's a good idea. I'm bound to get the hang of using this new gun of mine. I paid a lot of money for it. I'm sure it's accurate."
She looked exasperated. "Guns aren't accurate. Men are. Coming home with me is a sound solution. Please try to understand. You're such a big man, and you're therefore a fair target. People here have certain expectations."
He didn't know what she was talking about. "What does size…"
She didn't let him finish. "It's expected that you'll fight to protect yourself and your possessions, and if you don't learn how to use your fists and your gun, you'll be killed before the end of the week."
She deliberately softened the truth so he wouldn't become overly alarmed. Actually, she didn't believe he'd last a full day on his own. "I'm certain my brothers will be happy to teach you everything you need to know. You did save Cole's life, after all. He'll be pleased to offer you instruction on shooting so you can take care of yourself."
Harrison had to take a deep breath before he spoke. He knew his own arrogance was getting in the way of his plans now, but God help him, he couldn't stop himself from arguing with her. He was certain he could act a little vulnerable. He wasn't about to pretend to be completely inadequate. Damn it all, there had to be an easier way.
"I really can take care of myself. I'm not certain how you got the idea I couldn't. I've used my fists before and I'm…"
She didn't want to hear it. She shook her head at him, added a pitying expression, and then said, "Thinking and doing are two different kettles of fish, Harrison. It's dangerous to believe you're skilled when in fact you aren't. Have you ever been in a gunfight before?"
He had to admit he hadn't.
"There, do you see?"
She acted as though he should have figured everything out by now. He wondered if being in a gunfight was some sort of ritual required before she would believe he was adequately prepared to live in Blue Belle.
"Have all the men who live here been in gunfights?" He sounded incredulous. He couldn't help it. A lawyer should never be led around in circles, and Harrison had never had it happen to him before, but this delightful woman was doing just that, and he was in a quandary trying to figure out exactly how it had happened.
"No, of course not," she answered.
"Then why did you ask me if I'd ever been in one?"
She gave him an exasperated look.
"Surely you noticed that the men inside the store weren't wearing gunbelts," she said. "Most don't. A message goes right along with the weapon, Harrison. If you wear a gun, you have to be prepared to prove you can use it. I'm pleased to know you haven't been in any gunfights, and I sincerely hope you never have to kill anyone. Guns shouldn't be used for sport or vengeance. We kill snakes and other vermin, not men. Unfortunately, some of the people living here, and others drifting through, well, they don't seem to know the difference."
"I noticed your brother was wearing a gun."
"That's different," she insisted. "Cole has to and you don't. Gunfighters looking for a reputation pester my brother all the time, because they believe they're faster than he is. Their arrogance eventually gets them killed, though not by Cole's hand. He hasn't killed anyone in years. He's not a gunfighter," she added in an emphatic tone of voice.
She seemed to want him to agree with her. "I see."
"He has to wear the gun to protect himself."
"He only became proficient so he could keep all of us safe. It wasn't his fault he was fast. You're going to have to learn how to defend yourself too, if you want to settle down out here. Besides, if you're serious about wanting to learn how to ranch, Rosehill is the ideal place for you. You'll have wonderful teachers. Adam might even pay you to work for us, and you can learn as you do."
"My oldest brother," she explained. "I have four. I'm the youngest in the family, then Travis, Cole, Douglas, and Adam."
Since she was being so open with him, he decided to ask her as many questions as he could.
"Are you parents still living?"
"My mother is," she answered. "She lives in the South right now, but she'll be joining us soon. You should go and get your things. If you like, I'll walk with you."
"Don't you think you should ask your brothers before you offer their services?"
From past experience, she knew that asking their permission wasn't a good idea. "No, I'll ease them into agreeing. Do call me Mary Rose, or just plain Mary, like everyone else in town does. Do you have a horse and wagon, or did you ride into Blue Belle on the stagecoach?"
"I have a horse."
"Shall we go then?"
She was obviously through discussing the matter. She stepped off the walkway, smiled at her brothers as she passed them, and headed for the stables. Harrison must have taken a minute or two to make up his mind, because he didn't catch up with her until she was halfway down the road.
"The gentleman next to Cole is my brother Douglas," she told him. "I believe I'll wait a little while before I introduce you to him. His mood is bound to improve."
"He does look irritated about something," Harrison remarked.
He'd given the man a close inspection when he strolled past him. Harrison walked by Mary Rose's side, with his hands clasped behind his back, while he considered a delicate way to ask her about Douglas.
"Is Douglas a stepbrother?" he asked in what he hoped was a casual tone of voice.
"No. Why do you ask?"
"He doesn't look like you or Cole. I never would have guessed he was related. He reminds me of a friend of mine named Nicholas. He was born and raised in Italy."
"I don't believe Douglas is Italian. He might be Irish. Yes, I believe he is."
"You believe he is?"
She nodded but didn't offer any additional information. Harrison was thoroughly confused. "Did your father marry a second time?"
"No. Cole and I are the only ones in the family who resemble one another."
He waited for her to tell him more. She didn't say another word about her brothers, however, and, in fact, turned the questioning around on him.
"Do you have any brothers?"
"What a pity," she concluded. "Being an only child must have been terribly boring for you. Who did you fight with while you were growing up?"
He laughed. "No one."
No wonder the poor man didn't know how to defend himself. It was all making perfectly good sense to her now. He didn't have any older brothers to teach him all the necessary things he needed to know.
Harrison glanced back over his shoulder to get yet another look at Douglas.
His conclusion didn't change. He still didn't believe Douglas was related to Mary Rose. Everything about his physical appearance was different from Cole's. Douglas had curly black-brown hair and dark brown eyes, a square chin, and wide, yet pronounced, cheekbones. Cole's facial features were more patrician in structure, and his nose was almost hawklike. Harrison couldn't tell which one was older. Odd, but they appeared to be about the same age. Perhaps only a year separated their births, he reasoned, and perhaps too, Douglas was simply a throwback to one of their ancestors.
Anything was possible, he knew, and damn but he was anxious to find out if he was wasting his time or not.
"You don't look Irish."
"I don't?" She smiled up at him and continued walking. She was obviously unwilling to discuss the matter further.
"Mary Rose, where in thunder are you going?"
Her brother, Douglas, shouted the question. She turned around. "I'm going to the stables," she answered in a near shout of her own. She hurriedly turned around again, quickened her pace, and only then called out the rest of her explanation.
"Mr. MacDonald will be joining us for supper."
The two brothers watched their sister all but run away from them. Cole waited another minute and then put his hand out, palm up, in front of his brother.
Douglas let out a low expletive, reached into his pocket, and pulled out a silver dollar.
"Never bet against a sure thing," Cole advised.
Douglas slapped the piece of silver into his hand. His gaze stayed on the stranger. "I don't get it," he muttered. "He looks fit enough to me. He towers over Mary Rose. Hell, he's over six feet tall, and he's got muscle, Cole. You can see he does."
"I see," Cole replied, laughing.
"He moves like you do, I noticed right away, and his gaze doesn't miss a thing. Honest to God, I can't understand what she sees in him. He looks kind of normal."
Cole was gloating because he had won the wager. Douglas found his behavior irritating.
"Damn it, he's wearing a gun. I'd be wary of him if I met him in a dark alley."
"It's a new gun."
"He's never used it."
"Then why is he wearing one of those fancy new gunbelts?"
Cole shrugged. "I guess he figured he should. There isn't a single nick on the leather. It's got to be brand-new too."
"Is he stupid then?"
Douglas shook his head. "He's gonna get himself killed."
Cole's smile widened. "And that's why our sister is bringing him home."
Douglas wanted his money back. "You knew all this before you made the bet?"
"You could have asked. You didn't."
Douglas accepted defeat. His gaze went back to the stranger. He watched until he disappeared around the corner of the stable.
"Dooley told Morrison he's from Scotland. Said he was book-smart too."
"Then he's a city boy?"
Cole nodded. "Seems so," he agreed. "He can't shoot his new gun, and I don't think he can fight. You didn't see any scars on his face, did you?"
"No, I didn't see any scars. I guess he'd have some if he'd been in any knife fights."
"My point exactly," Cole said. "I talked to him for a couple of minutes. He sounds educated, but he doesn't seem to have any common sense. He told me he was afraid to shoot at Webster. Said he was worried he might hurt someone."
Douglas laughed. Cole waited until he'd calmed down, then said, "If he had any sense at all, he wouldn't be wearing a gun. He's giving everyone the notion he's qualified."
"It's a shame," Douglas remarked. "Someone that big ought to be able to fight. He could be a real mean one if he only knew how."
Cole agreed. "It's a crying shame all right."
"What did Mary Rose say his name was?"
"MacDonald," Cole replied. His grin was wide when he added, "A-Crying-Shame MacDonald."
February 11, 1861
Dear Mama Rose,
We got into a little trouble in St. Louis. I was carrying Mary Rose on my hip and a troublemaking man came along and tried to bother us. The baby's got curls now, all over her head, and she's right friendly to anyone who looks at her. Well, she smiled at the man, showing off her four front teeth and drooling down her chin, and he starts in wondering in a loud voice how come she don't look nothing like me. He kept trying to take her from me too, but Cole came along and of course he looks just like little Mary Rose's brother what with the same yellow hair and blue eyes. Anyways, he snatched our baby up in his arms and tells the mister to mind his own business.
The troublemaker got us all thinking we should keep on going until we find us a place where people mind their own business. Adam's thinking the prairie might be far enough away from folks, so we're packing up our lean-to and heading out tomorrow. It's a shame you can't write back to us yet, but just as soon as we get ourselves situated, we'll send you our whereabouts.
Adam's looking over my spelling now and he says to tell you we got to get us a proper cabin. Mary Rose is crawling everywhere and the dirt we call a floor inside the lean-to is sticking to her hands and knees. She tries to eat the dirt when we aren't looking. None of us know why she does that. She sure is a happy little thing though. We all got to take turns putting her down for her nap. She sleeps with one of us every night and I got to tell you, I'm getting sick of waking up with her piddle on me. She wets through everything we put on her. Guess that's usual though, isn't it?
We sure wish we could see you so we'd know what our mama looks like.
Your favorite sun, Douglas
Douglas was vastly amused by his brother's nickname for Mary Rose's latest charity project, but his mood drastically changed when he got a good look at Crying-Shame's stallion. He suddenly wanted to kill the man. It didn't matter to him that MacDonald might not be able to defend himself. If the son-of-a-bitch was responsible for the mount's pitiful condition, then, by God, he deserved to die.
Cole had ridden down to the stables in the wagon with his brother. The owner, a red-haired, potbellied giant of a man named Simpson, told them Mary Rose and the stranger were out back by the corral. Cole was going to collect his and Mary Rose's horses, but Simpson kindly offered to saddle the gelding and the mare and bring them out, and so Cole rode with Douglas around the corner to where MacDonald's horse was being housed. They'd only just rolled to a stop when Douglas tossed Cole the reins and reached for his shotgun. The weapon was propped on the seat between the two men. Cole was quicker than his brother. He snatched the shotgun out of Douglas 's hand and threw it into the back of the wagon.
He knew what his brother was thinking. "Find out first," he suggested in a low voice. "Then you can kill him."
Douglas agreed with a curt nod, then jumped to the ground. He stormed over to the corral, where Mary Rose and MacDonald stood watching the animal.
She had been stunned speechless at her first sight of the horse but was quick to recover. She kept her attention on the stallion while she tried to understand why anyone would treat him so maliciously. White, puckered scars covered almost every inch of his coat. She couldn't imagine how the poor thing had managed to survive.
She decided she'd better get the particulars. "How long have you owned the horse?" she asked in a voice strained with worry.
"Almost three weeks now."
"Thank God," she whispered. She was going to ask him another question, but then she spotted Douglas coming toward them and she immediately hurried to put herself between the two men. She could see rage on her brother's face.
"He's only owned the horse three weeks, Douglas. Just three weeks."
Harrison found her behavior puzzling. "Why are you shouting?"
"It was important for Douglas to hear me. I didn't want him to kill you."
If he was startled by her bluntness, he didn't let it show. His attention turned to her brother. He noticed how red and mottled Douglas 's face was and immediately understood. Douglas was staring at the stallion, enraged on the animal's behalf.
" Douglas has become an expert in the care of most animals," Mary Rose said. "Ranchers come from miles around just to get his advice. My brother has a particular fondness for his horses. He's also extremely protective, and when he saw the scars on your animal…"
"He only saw the scars."
"Yes," she agreed. "Someone used a whip on him, didn't he? Do you know, I thought his coat was white until I got closer, then I could see a hint of gold. Who did this to him?"
Douglas had reached the two of them and now stood with his hands fisted at his sides while he studied the animal and listened to the conversation. He was trying to get rid of his anger and finding it an almost impossible task.
"I don't know who was responsible," Harrison replied. "I asked, but no one knew. I forget about the scars. I just see MacHugh."
"MacHugh? What a peculiar name," she said before she realized she might be insulting him. "I mean to say, what a fine name," she hastily corrected. "Peculiar and fine," she ended, with a nod so he'd believe she was sincere.
She was going to great lengths not to injure his feelings. He smiled in reaction. She really was a sweetheart and appeared to be completely unspoiled. If that was the case, then she was going to be a refreshing change from all the other women he'd known in the past.
He wondered if she realized how incredibly lovely she was.
He pulled himself back to the topic at hand. "I named him after a crusty ancestor of mine. I saw certain similiarities."
"That's one damned ugly horse."
Cole made the judgment from behind. Harrison didn't turn around when he answered him. "Get past the scars and you'll see he's one damned fine horse."
"You think he's fine?" Mary Rose whispered the question.
She let out a barely noticeable sigh. She could feel her heart melting. Harrison was a good and decent man. It was such a rarity for any man to ever look beyond the surface, at least that was the conclusion she'd come to after having to fend off several arrogant, opinionated suitors, and she could really name only four other men who had conquered the ability to look deeper, into a person's heart. Her brothers were all good and decent, even when they didn't want to be, and perhaps Harrison was too. Lord, she hoped she was right. Good men were so difficult to find these days, especially in Montana Territory.
They also tended to die young. Their high standards and their values got them killed. But not this one, she vowed. Come heaven or purgatory, she was determined to help him learn how to get along in the wilderness. Besides, it really wasn't all that difficult once you got the hang of it.
MacHugh was busy putting on a show for his audience. He was rearing up and snorting and acting as if he had just been fed a bucket full of crazy weed. Harrison was used to his theatrics. He knew MacHugh was trying to intimidate them, and from the worried look on Mary Rose's face when the stallion came charging toward the fence, he concluded she was duly impressed. She moved toward her brother Douglas, seeking his protection without even realizing it.
Harrison found himself wishing she'd moved toward him.
"Does he let you ride him?" she asked.
Douglas had calmed down enough to join in the discussion. "Why would he buy him if he couldn't ride him, Mary Rose? Use your head, for God's sake," Douglas instructed her.
"I would have purchased him anyway, even if I couldn't ride him," Harrison said.
"Well, now, that's plain stupid," Cole remarked.
Harrison didn't take offense. "Perhaps."
"Because of the similarities you saw?" she asked.
He nodded. "Tell me what they were," she said then.
"The horse is every bit as stubborn as my ancestor was reported to be," Harrison said. "There was fire in his eyes, but something else too. Patience, I guess, for the men who didn't understand him."
She sighed again. "Patience," she whispered.
Harrison nodded. He couldn't imagine what had just come over her. Her eyes had taken on a dreamy, faraway look. He wondered what she was thinking about.
She thought she might be falling in love. It was a fanciful, schoolgirl notion. She didn't care. As long as she didn't tell anyone what she was daydreaming about, it was all right, wasn't it?
"I figured I could learn a few things from him," Harrison told Douglas. "I'm short on patience."
He really would make a wonderful husband, Mary Rose decided. He wanted to be patient.
"He's got strong legs," Douglas said. He moved closer to the fence. "Actually he's quite sound. Did you look him over? In his mouth?"
"No diseases you know about?"
"Where did you get him?"
"Right outside of Hammond, at Finley's place. Have you heard of it?"
Mary Rose's eyes widened. "You went to Finley's? Dear God, he only buys horses he's going to kill for the meat he sells. How much did you pay for him?"
"Twelve dollars," Harrison answered.
"Then you were robbed, MacDonald." Cole happily volunteered his opinion.
Douglas disagreed with his brother. "I'm not so sure he was, Cole. He might have gotten a bargain."
"I did get a bargain," Harrison insisted. "And I was extremely fortunate. If I'd been an hour later, MacHugh would be dead."
"And that is why you would have purchased him even if you couldn't ride him."
Mary Rose was smiling over her conclusion. She turned to Cole. "Isn't he sweet?" she whispered.
"He's stupid," Cole whispered back.
Harrison heard the exchange. He shrugged and then walked around to the gate. MacHugh followed him. The horse acted as if he wanted to tear Harrison from limb to limb, yet when he walked inside the corral, MacHugh gave him only a hard nudge before settling down.
He stayed meek and willing until Douglas tried to get near him. Harrison grabbed hold of the bridle and soothed the panic away.
Mary Rose's brother shut the gate behind him and walked forward. The horse immediately started fussing again.
"Stand where you are," Harrison called out. "Let him come to you. If you don't move, he won't hurt you."
Douglas agreed with a nod. He stood with his legs braced apart and waited to see what the stallion was going to do.
He didn't have to wait long. As soon as Harrison let go of the bridle, the stallion came charging across the corral. Mary Rose was certain MacHugh was going to kill her brother. She wanted to scream a warning, and it took all her discipline to keep quiet. Cole was sure he could see fire in the stallion's eyes and immediately reached for his gun. By God, he'd shoot the damned thing before he'd let it trample his brother to death.
"Don't you have any sense, Douglas?" Cole whispered.
MacHugh stopped a few inches away from Douglas. He wasn't through with his terror tactics, however, and had to rear up twice before he finally decided to behave.
Mary Rose's knees had gone weak. She moved closer to Cole and leaned against him.
"You can touch him now, if you want to," Harrison told Douglas. He walked over to stand next to the stallion. "I told you he wouldn't hurt you. He just likes to put on a show. Are you all right?"
He added the question when he noticed how pale Douglas 's complexion was. Mary Rose's brother had to swallow before he could answer. "You forgot to mention he was going to scare the hell out of me."
He reached out to pat the stallion. MacHugh promptly shoved him back a good foot. Douglas let out a hoot of laughter. Then he tried again. "Up close, I can see how fine he really is. You just have to get past the scars first. He's one of the soundest animals I've come across in a good long while." There was grudging admiration in his voice when he added, "You chose well."
Harrison couldn't take the credit. "I didn't choose. He did."
He didn't elaborate, and Douglas didn't ask. He seemed to understand.
"He's almost seventeen hands, isn't he?-and surprisingly gentle for a stallion," Douglas remarked.
"We've got bigger in Scotland," Harrison replied.
"Is that where you're from?"
Harrison nodded. "I understand you're Irish," he said, hoping to get Mary Rose's brother to talk about his background.
Douglas looked surprised. "Who told you that?"
The brother smiled. "Then I guess I am… sometimes."
What the hell was that supposed to mean? Harrison wanted to ask, but he wisely chose to turn the topic back to the stallion, for he could see the brother was already closing up on him. The flash of a smile vanished as quickly as it had appeared. He looked wary now.
"Don't let MacHugh fool you. He's only gentle when he wants to be. He can be deadly, especially when he's feeling cornered."
Douglas filed the information away. "A lot of men feel the same way."
He introduced himself then and told Harrison he didn't mind having him come home for supper. A tenuous bond formed between the two men. Douglas 's love for all animals and Harrison 's obvious affection for MacHugh had given them something in common.
Cole had stood idle for as long as he was going to. He wasn't about to let his brother one-up him. If Douglas could get near the hellish animal, then he could too.
A few minutes later he had suffered through the same godawful ordeal that Douglas had gone through. It took Cole a little longer to get his color back.
Mary Rose wanted to be next. Both brothers ordered her to stay outside the corral.
"MacHugh is partial to women."
Harrison 's casually mentioned remark didn't sway Cole or Douglas. They were both diligently shaking their heads when their sister came marching inside.
"She never listens to us," Cole muttered.
Douglas thought he should defend her. "She's got a mind of her own," he told Harrison.
"I can see she does."
Mary Rose stopped right inside the gate and tried not to look afraid. She wanted to close her eyes, but she didn't dare. Her brothers would laugh then, and she'd be mortified because Harrison was watching.
The stallion ignored her. She waited several minutes before she finally moved closer.
MacHugh finally trotted over to her. She patted him and cooed to him and treated him very like a baby, and he responded in kind. It was obvious he liked her scent, and he seemed greedy for her affection.
"You're going to like Rosehill," she whispered. "You might even want to stay with your friend, Harrison, for a long, long time."
She knew she was daydreaming about impossible things. She'd only known the man for twenty or thirty minutes, and one of the first things he'd told her was that he was only thinking about settling down in the area. He could decide the life was too harsh here and pack up and leave before winter set in.
She peeked around the stallion to look at Harrison. Then she became a little breathless again. She couldn't imagine what was the matter with her.
She didn't believe her bizarre reaction to the man was due to the fact that he was handsome. Granted, she did find him attractive, but that wasn't what made her breath catch in her throat.
It was because he was such a nice man. It hadn't taken her any time at all to come to that conclusion. He was extremely kind-hearted as well. MacHugh was living proof of that fact.
She couldn't stop staring at him. Could an infatuation strike this quickly? All the girls at boarding school insisted that it did, but she hadn't believed their foolishness.
Now she wasn't so certain. Her brothers had insisted that eventually she would get married, and in her heart, she knew they were probably right. Yet until today, the mere possibility of being saddled with the same man day in and day out for the rest of her life had always made her feel nauseated. She wasn't feeling at all sick to her stomach now, however. Everything was suddenly different. No man had ever made her feel breathless. She thought the condition might very well be a requirement one had to suffer through when one was caught up in an infatuation.
The way she would feel if and when he ever kissed her was another requirement, she supposed. She had been kissed only a couple of times. The experiences had been as pleasant as being kissed by jellyfish. She had been completely repulsed.
Mary Rose decided she would have to find out how Harrison kissed. She let out another little sigh just thinking about it. She knew she was being shameless. She didn't care.
She gave MacHugh one last pat and then turned around and walked out of the corral. The stallion meekly followed.
Both brothers had noticed their sister gawking at Harrison. He had noticed too and was now trying to understand what had come over her.
Then they all heard her singing.
"What the hell's the matter with her?" Cole asked his brother.
"She's daydreaming," Douglas speculated.
Harrison didn't say anything. He continued to stand in the middle of the corral and watch Mary Rose. She was acting peculiar all right. When she was staring at him, she had a bemused expression on her face. What had she been thinking about? It bothered the hell out of him that he didn't know.
She was beginning to show signs of being unpredictable. Harrison didn't like seeing that trait in anyone.
Knowing what others were thinking was essential in his line of work. Granted, he wasn't a mind reader, but he was a good judge of character and could usually predict reactions.
"Give it up, MacDonald," Cole said before heading for the stables. He had waited long enough for old man Simpson to get off his rump and saddle his horse. He would take care of the chore himself.
"Give what up?" Harrison asked Cole.
Douglas was walking toward his wagon. "Trying to understand her," he called over his shoulder. "You're never going to figure Mary Rose out."
Cole turned around when he reached the back door of the stable. " Harrison, don't you think you'd better catch up with your horse? He's trying to follow my sister home."
Harrison let out an expletive and started running. What in thunder was the matter with him? He hadn't even noticed MacHugh had left.
From the surprised look on Harrison 's face, Cole knew he hadn't noticed. He had a good laugh at Crying-Shame MacDonald's expense, and he didn't particularly mind at all that he was being downright rude.
Cole certainly hadn't been surprised by MacHugh's turnabout in loyalty. The stallion wasn't acting any different from most of the other creatures who roamed the area. They knew a good thing when they spotted it.
Man or beast, it didn't seem to matter. They all followed Mary Rose home.
She lived in the center of paradise. Harrison stopped when he reached the rise above the Clayborne property. He stared down in fascination and wonder at the valley below. Lush spring grass covered the floor of the valley and swept upward into the mountains beyond. The green was so brilliant and intense, it was almost more than the eye could take in, and he found himself instinctively squinting against it. It looked as if the sun had fallen to the earth and turned itself into emeralds. Everywhere he looked, the grass sparkled with leftover dew. Splattered against the glorious carpet were pink and yellow, red and orange, and purple and blue wildflowers, so plentiful in number it wasn't possible for anyone to count them. All the flowers were ablaze with their own rich hues. Their sweet perfume mingled with the clean fresh air of the valley.
Mountains as old as time stood regal and proud on the north and west sides of the valley, and a wide, clear blue stream meandered down the eastern slope.
The land was breathtakingly beautiful and so much like his glen back in the Highlands, he was suddenly melancholy for Scotland and the home he'd been forced to leave.
How could one piece of heaven remind him so much of another? He wouldn't have believed it was possible, yet there it was, spread out before him like one of God's exquisite robes.
The melancholy vanished as quickly as it had come, and he was suddenly feeling tremendous peace and contentment.
Tranquility wrapped around him like a warm, heated blanket. He was comforted and soothed and replenished. His hunger for home abated with each breath he drew.
He could stay here forever.
The realization jarred him. He immediately forced himself to block the traitorous thought. His heart belonged to Scotland, and one day soon, when he was wealthy enough and powerful enough, he would go back and take what belonged to him.
He finally turned his attention to the Clayborne ranch. He had imagined they would live in a log cabin, similar in style to all the others he'd seen on his travels, but the Claybornes lived in a two-story, white clapboard house. It was quite modest in both proportion and design, yet he still found it quite regal.
A veranda, supported by white posts, circled the house on three sides. Everything appeared to have been freshly painted.
There were two large barns behind the house, though still some distance away. The buildings stood about fifty or sixty yards apart and were surrounded by corrals. He counted five in all.
"How many horses do you have?"
"It seems like hundreds at times," she answered. "Our income depends on our horses. We raise them and sell them. We really never have more than sixty or seventy, I suppose, and sometimes as few as thirty. Cole brings in wild mustangs every now and then. We also have cattle, of course, but not nearly the number Travis thinks we should have."
"And Travis is the youngest brother?"
She thought it was terribly sweet of him to try to keep everyone straight in his mind.
"Yes, he's the youngest brother."
"How old was he when you were born?"
She gave him a curious look. "He was nine, going on ten. Why do you ask?"
He shrugged. "I just wondered," he replied. "Does Travis look like Douglas, or does he resemble you and Cole?"
"He looks like… Travis. You ask a lot of questions, Harrison."
"I do?" he replied for lack of anything better to say.
She nodded. "What do you think of my home?"
He turned to look at the landscape once again before answering her. Simply telling her that her valley was beautiful wouldn't adequately describe the feeling the wondrous area gave him. He didn't understand why it was so important for him to find the right words, but it was important somehow, and he was determined to be as exact as possible. Paradise deserved more than a moment's reflection. It demanded recognition.
And so he ended up speaking from his heart. "Your land reminds me of Scotland, and that, Mary Rose, is the highest praise a Highlander can give."
She smiled with pleasure. The look in Harrison 's eyes indicated his sincerity. She suddenly felt like sighing again. Dear heavens, how she liked this gentle man.
She leaned to the side of her saddle so she could get a little closer to him. "Do you know what I think?" she whispered.
He leaned toward her. "No," he whispered back. "What do you think?"
"You and I are very much alike."
He was instantly appalled. She was out of her mind if she believed they were anything alike. Why, they were complete opposites in his estimation. He'd already figured out she was all emotion. He sure as hell wasn't. He rarely let anyone know what he was thinking or feeling. He was also extremely methodical in everything he undertook. He hated surprises; in his line of work they could be deadly, and so he carefully thought out every plan of action before he made any decisions. He demanded order in his life, and from what he'd heard about Mary Rose, he could only conclude that she thrived on chaos. She was also sweet-tempered, terribly naive, and openly hospitable to strangers. And trust-good God Almighty, the woman seemed to trust everyone she met. It hadn't taken her more than five minutes to make the decision to take him home with her. For all she knew, he could have been a cold-blooded killer.
Oh, no, they weren't anything alike. He didn't trust anyone. He was a cynic by nature and by profession.
She couldn't possibly understand how she'd misjudged him, however, because she didn't know anything about him. She had innocently accepted what he had told her, and as long as he continued to pretend to be an unsophisticated city boy who wore a gun only because he thought he was supposed to, then she was going to continue to believe they really were soul mates.
"Don't you wonder why I think we're alike?" she asked.
He braced himself. "Why?"
"You look at things the same way I do," she answered. "Do quit frowning, Harrison. I haven't insulted you."
The hell she hadn't. "No, of course not," he agreed. "Exactly how do we look at things?"
"You see with your heart."
"I learned a long time ago to put logic and reason above emotion," he began. "My philosophy of life is really very simple."
"And what might your philosophy be?"
"First with the mind, then with the heart."
She wasn't impressed. "So you never allow yourself to just… feel? You have to think about it first?"
"Of course," he agreed. He was pleased she understood. She would do well to follow his rule, he thought.
"How exact you are, Harrison."
He smiled. "Thank you."
She rolled her eyes heavenward. "Adam's going to like you," she predicted.
"Why is that?"
"My brother shares your philosophy. I believe I drive him crazy sometimes. I'm sorry he worries so, but I can't help the way I am. When I look at my valley…"
She suddenly stopped. And then she started to blush.
"Yes?" he asked.
"You'll think I'm crazy."
She took a breath. "You may laugh if you want, but sometimes I feel a bond with the land, and if I'm real quiet and just let myself listen and feel, I can almost hear her heart beating with life all around me."
She watched him closely. He didn't smile, but she thought he looked as if he wanted to. She felt the need to defend herself.
"I thought you felt it too, Harrison. I'm still not so certain you…"
"Mary Rose, will you get moving? Honest to God, I've wasted the entire day waiting on you."
Cole bellowed the order from behind. Mary Rose immediately nudged her mount forward.
"My brother doesn't have much patience for dillydallying. He's really very easygoing. He just likes to hide it."
That had to be the contradiction of the year. Harrison didn't think Cole had any patience at all. He found himself wondering why someone hadn't killed the man by now. Her brother wasn't just hot-tempered; he was also the most abrasive individual Harrison had ever come across.
And that seemed to be his better quality.
The youngest brother met them outside of the main barn but had to wait for an introduction. Harrison had already dismounted and was busy trying to talk MacHugh into going inside the stable. The stallion wasn't in the mood to cooperate. He reared up several times and then started snorting and stomping and slamming his head into Harrison 's shoulder.
Harrison ordered MacHugh to behave. The animal must not have liked his tone of voice. MacHugh pushed him again, but put more muscle into it. Harrison landed on his backside in a cloud of dust.
His lack of control over the animal was damned humiliating. Mary Rose was sympathetic. She kept pleading with her brothers to do something to help. They were smart enough to stay away from the beast. Douglas was smiling. He was polite enough not to laugh, even when Harrison landed on his backside a second time.
Cole wasn't as reserved. He laughed until tears came into his eyes. Harrison really wanted to kill him. He couldn't, of course, at least not if he wanted to stay for supper and find out who the hell these people really were. He had already figured out the redheaded brother standing behind Mary Rose was either Adam or Travis.
Cole's laughter caught his attention again. Perhaps Harrison could just put his fist through the obnoxious brother's face and, hopefully, break a few bones. What was the harm in that? It took all Harrison had not to give in to the urge. Reason prevailed. Mary Rose would probably get upset if he beat the hell out of her brother. She'd also realize he could take care of himself.
God, he hated that deception, and right this minute, he hated Cole Clayborne just as passionately.
Harrison had had enough of MacHugh's temper tantrum. He let the stallion win. He let go of the reins and walked over to the corral. MacHugh let out another loud snort, stomped around a bit, and then followed him.
The horse trotted into the center of the ring and stood as still as a stone while Harrison stripped him of his gear.
"If you jump the fence, MacHugh, you're on your own. You got that?"
" Harrison, come and meet Travis," Mary Rose called out.
"What kind of name is Harrison?" Travis asked in a voice loud enough for Harrison to hear.
"A family name," Harrison called back. He draped the saddle and the blanket over the fence, shut the gate behind him, and walked over to meet the youngest of Mary Rose's brothers.
"What kind of name is Travis? Irish?"
Travis smiled. "Could be," he replied in a gratingly cheerful tone of voice.
What the hell kind of answer was that? He couldn't ask because Mary Rose had already jumped into an explanation of how she had met Harrison and how kind and thoughtful he was because he'd warned Cole of an ambush.
Harrison watched Travis during her lengthy explanation and one thought kept running through his mind. No way in hell. This man couldn't possibly be a relative. He didn't look anything like any of the others, though the more Harrison thought about it, not looking like the others seemed to be the one trait they all shared. Hell, Travis looked more like MacHugh.
The comparison made Harrison smile. Travis had reddish brown hair and green eyes. His face was square shaped. Mary Rose had a perfectly oval face. Travis was about the same height as Douglas, but he didn't have his bulk. The youngest brother was reed thin, and he lacked Cole's muscle.
Harrison decided nothing more could surprise him. If she tried to tell him Travis happened to have a twin brother who was a full-blooded Crow, he wouldn't bat an eye. He might even be able to keep a straight face when he asked the twin if he happened to be Irish too.
He started paying attention to the conversation when Mary Rose told Travis that he would be staying for supper. Her brother didn't look irritated by the announcement. In fact, he looked resigned.
Harrison had only just decided this brother wasn't nearly as abrasive as Cole, but the man quickly changed his mind.
"You've got guts to ride such an ugly horse."
"Travis, don't be rude," Mary Rose ordered. "I wasn't being rude," he replied. "I was giving Harrison a compliment. It does take guts." He turned to his guest. "Sorry if you took offense."
" Harrison, are you gonna saddle up MacHugh tomorrow?"
Cole shouted the question from the back of the wagon.
Harrison was immediately suspicious. "Why?" he shouted back.
The brother lifted the sack of flour onto his shoulder before answering. "I want to watch."
Harrison knew he would regret it if he said anything at all, and so he forced himself to keep silent. It almost killed him.
He watched Cole cross the veranda and go inside the house and only then noticed the tall, black-skinned man leaning against the pillar. The stranger was quite impressive looking, with wide shoulders, silver-tipped hair, and round gold-framed spectacles that made him appear scholarly. He wore a muted red plaid shirt open at the collar and dark brown pants. He looked very relaxed and thoroughly at home.
Harrison wondered if he was another lost soul Mary Rose had taken under her wing and invited home for dinner. If that was the case, the man had obviously decided to stay on.
"Don't pay any attention to Cole, Harrison. He likes to tease. That's all. He doesn't mean to hurt your feelings. He's actually a very gentle, understanding man."
She smiled up at him to let him know she really expected him to believe that nonsense. It took a good deal of willpower not to laugh right in her face.
"For heaven's sake, Mary Rose, Harrison 's a man, not a little boy." Travis gave the brotherly criticism and fell into step beside their guest. "You'll get used to my sister, but it's gonna take a while. She's always worried about everyone's feelings. She can't seem to help it. Just ignore her. We do."
After giving him that sage advice, he ran on ahead.
"Just one more brother to meet, and then you'll know everyone. Hurry up, Harrison. Adam's waiting for us."
Mary Rose ran up the steps, but stopped next to the stranger. Harrison assumed she wanted to introduce the other guest to him before they went inside to meet Adam.
He was mistaken in his assumption.
"Adam, I'd like you to meet my friend, Harrison MacDonald. He's from Scotland."
Adam moved away from the pillar to face Harrison. "Is that right?" he replied. "Welcome to Rosehill, Mr. MacDonald."
Harrison was too stunned to speak. He glanced down at Mary Rose, then looked back at Adam. He didn't know what he was supposed to do or say now, and neither one of them was giving him any clues. They simply stared back at him and waited to see how he was going to react to the announcement.
He would have loved to have had a detailed explanation as to why the black-skinned man was calling himself her brother and why she was accepting him as such.
He finally gathered his wits about him. It wasn't his place to ask any questions, and they certainly didn't need to explain. He just wished to God someone would.
"It's a pleasure to meet you, sir. Your sister very kindly invited me to stay for supper. I hope it won't be an inconvenience." Harrison extended his hand in greeting. Adam seemed surprised by the gesture. He hesitated for a second or two, and finally shook his hand.
"It won't be any bother at all. We're quite used to Mary Rose inviting strangers home for supper." He paused to smile at his sister. " Scotland 's a long way from here."
Harrison agreed with a nod. "Supper's waiting," Adam announced. "You can wash up inside."
He led the way. Mary Rose followed. Harrison stood where he was and tried to sort out all the wild possibilities rushing through his mind.
He couldn't get anything to make any sense. How in God's name had she ended up with four such diverse, couldn't-possibly-be-related brothers?
Mary Rose held the screen door open and patiently waited for him.
He finally shook himself out of his trance.
"About Adam…" she began.
"Yes?" He braced himself for another one of her surprises, fully expecting to be flabbergasted again.
"You haven't asked yet, but I thought I would tell you anyway."
He felt like cheering. Finally. He was going to get some real, honest-to-God explanations.
She smiled up at him. "He isn't Irish."
July 1, 1862
Dear Mama Rose,
We're having an awful time trying to get the baby to quit wetting her drawers. Being boys like we are, we do things different. The baby caught Travis one afternoon, and she's been standing up ever since. We tried to explain to her that girls don't do it that way, but she won't listen to reason, and now we're starting to think maybe she doesn't understand she's a girl. Adam swears she's as smart as a whip, but she's also as stubborn as Cole, and you know how mule-headed he can be. We all figured we needed a woman to help us out with the problem. Adam thought he should take the baby over to Belle's shack, since she's the only woman in the entire area. Cole pitched a fit over the idea. He didn't want little Mary Rose hanging around a whore, but I thought it ought to count for something that Belle was so good-hearted. Besides, everyone knows she hates what she has to do to put food on her table. Why, she hates whoring so much, she tells every man who calls on her how sad and blue she is. It's gotten so folks don't even call her a whore anymore. No, they call her Blue Belle…
Your loving son,
Supper became an interrogation. The tables were neatly turned on Harrison, and while he was pretty certain he could have taken control of the questioning at any point, or at the very least put a stop to it altogether, he chose to go along with the game and be as accommodating as possible. He had an ulterior motive. The questions asked by the Clayborne brothers and their reactions to his answers gave him a good deal of information and insight into the family.
Each man used a different approach. Cole tried to be as blunt and intimidating as possible, Douglas was direct and often offered personal bits of information about the family, and Travis was both methodical and diplomatic. Adam was the most elusive. He maintained a rather stoic expression throughout dinner. Harrison was never given even an inkling of what he might be thinking.
Adam was the antithesis of his sister. Mary Rose was as easy to read as an elementary primer. Her every reaction showed on her face and in her eyes. Harrison had never met anyone quite like her. She was open and honest and wonderfully tenderhearted, and those qualities made him want to get closer to her.
He was honest enough to admit that he was also physically attracted to her. She was a beautiful woman, and he would have had to be dead not to notice. Her eyes mesmerized him, and that sweet mouth of hers made him want to think about things he had no right to even consider. Not even in his dreams.
But, while her beauty made him notice her, it was her heart that kept him interested.
Luckily, his discipline saved him from making a complete fool of himself. He stopped himself from blatantly staring at her during supper.
Her brothers weren't as controlled in their behavior. They stared at him from the minute the food was placed on the table until the plates had been taken away. They were rude, knew it, and didn't seem to give a damn.
They waited until their coffee cups had been refilled to begin their grilling. Harrison leaned back in his chair and let them have at him.
The pecking order in the family had been established as soon as the family took their seats. Adam sat at the head of the table, a position of importance Harrison found both significant and intriguing. Mary Rose sat on his left side and Cole was on his right. Douglas sat down next to his sister, and Travis, the youngest brother, sat down next to Cole. Harrison was seated at the opposite end of the table and faced the man he silently called the patriarch of the Clayborne family.
"Did you get enough to eat, Mr. MacDonald?" Adam inquired.
"Yes, thank you. The stew was excellent. Please call me Harrison."
Adam nodded. "And you must call me Adam," he suggested. "In England, some men hold titles. Is this true in Scotland?"
"Yes, it is," he answered.
"What about you, Harrison. Do you have a title?" Douglas asked.
He didn't answer. He felt uncomfortable discussing the topic and had to admit to himself he was even a little embarrassed. A titled gentleman suddenly seemed pompous to him and certainly out of his element in these mountains.
"Well, do you?" Cole demanded to know.
"As a matter of fact, I do," he admitted. "The title has been passed down from generation to generation, a tradition really."
"What is your title?" Adam asked.
Harrison sighed. There didn't seem to be any way out of the admission. "I am the Earl of Stanford, Hawk Isle."
"That's an awful lot to be saddled with growing up," Douglas remarked. "Were you born with the title?"
"No, I inherited it when my father died."
"What do people there call you? Sir?" Cole asked.
"And others?" Cole persisted.
Cole grinned. "Sounds mighty fancy to me," he remarked. "Do you have lots of money and land?"
Mary Rose could tell their guest was uncomfortable. She decided to put him at ease by stopping the discussion about titles.
"Adam made the stew for our supper. It was his turn to help Samuel."
"Who is Samuel?" Harrison asked.
"He's our cook," she explained. "You haven't met him yet. He sometimes sits at the table with us, but he was busy tonight."
"No, he wasn't," Cole told his sister. He turned to Harrison. "He pretended to be busy. He hates strangers. You won't see him until he's good and ready to let you see him. What made you decide to leave Scotland?"
The switch in topics didn't take Harrison by surprise. He almost smiled over the ploy. He'd used the same technique many times in court. The goal was to get the witness to drop his guard and answer without even thinking.
"I wanted to see the States."
Cole didn't look as if he believed him. Harrison didn't bother to try to convince him. He didn't say another word, but simply stared back and waited for him to ask another question.
"I understand from Mary Rose that you want to learn how to ranch," Douglas interjected.
"Why?" Travis asked.
"The life appeals to me."
Travis obviously wanted him to go into a more detailed explanation. Harrison refused to accommodate him. He was going to make him work to find out what he wanted to know.
"It's backbreaking work," Douglas told him.
"I imagine it is," Harrison agreed.
"What exactly do you find appealing about ranching?" Travis persisted.
"Being outdoors," Harrison answered. "And working with my hands."
"There are lots of things you could do to get outdoors," Cole interjected.
"You sound like you've been cooped up in an office," Travis said.
"Yes," Harrison replied. "I do sound like that, don't I?"
"Well, were you?" Travis asked. His frustration in not getting a more satisfactory answer was apparent in his tone of voice.
"Most of the time I was in an office," Harrison admitted. "But lately I've been able to do some traveling on business matters."
"Who do you work for?" Douglas asked.
"Lord William Elliott," he answered. "I've taken a leave from my duties, however."
"So he's got a fancy title too," Douglas remarked.
Harrison agreed with a nod but didn't go into more detail.
And so it continued, on and on and on. Harrison would occasionally give an obviously evasive answer or deliberately go off on a tangent just to find out which brother would bring him back to the question they wanted answered. It was curious and surprising to him that Travis, the youngest brother, proved to be the most doggedly determined. He was also quite analytical.
He would have made one hell of an attorney.
"Why didn't you stay in the states?" Travis asked.
"The'states'?" Harrison repeated, not certain he understood the question.
" Montana isn't a state," Douglas explained.
"Yes," Harrison said. "I'd forgotten that fact. Do you believe the area will become a state soon?"
"It's only a matter of time," Douglas told him.
He was going to expound further on the topic of statehood, but Travis cut him off. "So why did you come all this way?"
They had come full circle once again. Harrison could barely hide his smile.
"I wanted to see the land. I believe I already mentioned that fact, Travis."
"Please quit pestering him," Mary Rose pleaded. She leaned forward then, with her elbow on the table and her chin resting in the palm of her hand, and smiled at Harrison.
"What do you think of our home?" she asked.
Harrison watched Adam while he answered her question. The oldest brother hadn't said a word for quite some time. He looked half asleep, and Harrison was beginning to think he wasn't even paying attention to the conversation, yet the second his sister put her elbow on the table, he slowly reached over and touched her arm with one hand. It was a very subtle reminder. Mary Rose instinctively turned to her brother to find out what he wanted. Adam didn't explain. Harrison knew he didn't want to draw any attention to her breach in manners. He must have applied a little pressure on her arm, however, because she suddenly straightened up in her chair and put her hands in her lap.
Then she smiled at Adam. He winked back at her.
Harrison pretended he hadn't noticed what had just happened.
He moved his cup from one spot on the table to another and shifted his position in the hard-backed chair.
"Your home is beautiful," he remarked.
"You haven't seen all that much of it," Douglas protested.
"He saw the first floor," Cole interjected. "And that's all he's ever going to see. The upstairs is off limits, Harrison."
"There are just bedrooms up there," Mary Rose hastily added. She frowned at Cole for sounding so rude, then looked at their guest once again.
Harrison smiled at her. "The house took me by surprise. I didn't expect…"
Cole cut him off. "Did you expect us to live like barbarians?"
Harrison had taken about all he was going to take from the abrasive man. He decided to goad him just enough to make him lose his temper.
"Do you believe I would think you live like barbarians because you occasionally act like one?"
Cole started to stand up, but Mary Rose changed his mind.
"He didn't mean to insult you," she told her brother. "You can be intimidating. Some might even call you a bully."
"They do call him a bully," Travis said. "At least in town they probably do."
Cole shook his head. "I can't take the credit for something that isn't true," he said. "People think I'm antisocial, Harrison. Unfortunately I still haven't earned the nickname of bully. I'm working on it."
Cole turned to his sister. "Thanks anyway, Mary Rose."
She let him see her exasperation. Then she explained to Harrison. "Out here, being a bully does have certain advantages. People tend to leave you alone, and Cole likes that. Therefore, your remark that Cole acted barbaric was actually a note of praise. Do you see?"
"Are you telling me I just gave him a compliment?" He tried not to sound incredulous, but knew he'd failed when the brothers smiled at him.
Mary Rose wasn't smiling. "Yes, actually you did," she said.
He wanted to vehemently disagree. Yet she had sounded so earnest and was now looking so worried he wouldn't go along with her outrageous fabrication to placate her brother, he decided to play along.
"Then I guess I did."
He didn't choke on the words. He thought that was a laudable effort on his part. She looked relieved, and Harrison decided that swallowing his pride had been well worth the effort.
"What surprised you?" Travis asked.
He couldn't remember what they'd originally been talking about. It was Mary Rose's fault, of course. She was so happy he was trying to get along with Cole, she smiled at him. Harrison didn't believe she was flirting with him or trying to act coy, but she was still twisting his mind into knots all the same. She was so damned sweet and pretty. Provocative too. He couldn't stop himself from imagining what she would feel like in his arms.
" Harrison?" Douglas called his name.
"Yes?" he said. "What did you just ask me?"
"I didn't ask you anything," Douglas replied. "Travis asked."
"If you'd quit staring at our sister, you might be able to concentrate," Cole said.
Travis told his brother to quit baiting their guest and then repeated his question. "I wondered what surprised you about the house."
"It looks very modest from the outside," Harrison explained. "Yet inside…"
"It's just as modest," Cole told him.
"If you aren't really looking, I suppose," he agreed. "But I always notice the details."
"And?" Cole asked.
"The attention given to the details surprised me," Harrison admitted. He was careful to keep his gaze away from Mary Rose. He refused to even glance in her direction. "The moldings in the entry are spectacular, and the detail on the staircase is just as impressive."
"Moldings?" Travis repeated.
"The border, or edging, between your ceilings and your walls," Harrison explained.
"I know what they are," Travis returned. "I was just surprised you noticed such a detail."
"I didn't expect to find so many rooms. You have a large parlor, this dining room, of course, and a library filled to the rafters with books you certainly didn't purchase around here."
"Cole designed the house," Mary Rose boasted. "All the brothers helped build it. It took them years."
"He wouldn't let us help with the banister or the walls in the entry though. That's all his work," Travis said.
"You've just given Cole another compliment, Harrison," Mary Rose said.
Harrison was sorry to hear it. He didn't want to find anything impressive about Cole Clayborne. The man had the manners of a boar. Still, his craftsmanship was superior, and Harrison knew it must have taken him months of painstaking work. He had to admire the man's talent and his discipline.
"What else surprised you?" Douglas asked.
Harrison wanted to smile again. From the expressions on the brother's faces, he knew they weren't simply curious about his opinion of their home. They seemed eager to hear praise.
"You have a piano in the parlor. I noticed it right away."
"Of course you noticed it," Cole said. "It's the only thing in there."
"It's a Steinway," Douglas announced. "We got it when Mary Rose was old enough to learn how to play."
"Who taught her?" Harrison asked.
"The piano came with a teacher," Douglas explained. He grinned at Travis before adding, "Sort of anyway."
Harrison didn't know what he was supposed to conclude from that odd remark. He decided not to ask. He would save his questions for more important issues.
"How old were you when you began your lessons?" he asked Mary Rose.
She wasn't certain. She turned to Adam to find out. "She was six," he answered.
"I was seven," Harrison said.
"You play the piano?" Mary Rose looked thrilled over the notion.
"Of course he plays the piano," Cole scoffed. "He can't fight or shoot, but, by God, he can play the piano. Well, piano playing isn't going to keep you alive out here."
"He could play in Billie's saloon," Douglas said.
"And get himself shot in the back like the last one?" Travis argued.
"Why'd he get shot?" Harrison asked the question in spite of his decision not to make inquiries unless the answers gave him information about the family.
"Someone didn't like what he was playing," Cole told him.
Harrison nodded. "I see," he said, though in truth he really didn't understand.
"Why did you learn how to play the piano? That seems peculiar to me," Cole said.
"It was all part of my education," Harrison explained. He wasn't offended by Cole's attitude. He was actually a little amused. The brother seemed to think that playing the piano was something men didn't do.
"Then you were sorely educated," Cole said. "Girls play the piano. Not boys. Didn't your father ever take you out back and teach you how to use your fists?"
"No," Harrison answered. "Did yours?"
Cole started to answer the question, then changed his mind. He leaned back in his chair and shrugged.
"Have you ever heard of Chopin or Mozart, Cole? They were composers," Harrison said. "They wrote music and they played it… on the piano."
Cole shrugged again. He obviously wasn't swayed by Harrison 's argument. Harrison decided to change the topic. "Where did you get this china?"
"There are only six cups, and two don't match. We don't even have plates. I got the cups in St. Louis so Mary Rose could have tea parties."
"I was much younger then," she said. "Serving tea was part of my education."
"And who taught you?" Harrison asked, smiling over the picture of Mary Rose as a little girl learning how to be a proper lady.
" Douglas did," she answered.
"We all had to take turns," Douglas hastily added.
From the look Douglas gave his sister, Harrison surmised he wasn't at all pleased she had told him about their tea parties. Mary Rose pretended she hadn't noticed Douglas 's glare.
"Our fascination with your reaction to our home must seem odd to you," she said. "We don't usually ask our guests to tell us what they think, but you're very worldly and sophisticated."
He raised an eyebrow over her opinion of him. She interpreted his look to mean he didn't agree.
"You are sophisticated," she insisted. "The way you speak and the way you look at things tells me so. You have obviously been raised in a refined atmosphere."
"You seem the type who would appreciate quality," Douglas said. He was damned thankful they had gotten away from the subject of tea parties. "Most of the people around here don't care about the finer things in life. I don't fault them. They're busy carving out a living."
" Hammond is becoming refined," Travis said. "We get the rejects here in Blue Belle."
"Because it's lawless out here," Cole interjected.
Everyone nodded. "I guess we wondered if you thought we measured up," Travis said. " Douglas is right. The folks around here haven't even looked inside our library, and they sure haven't asked to borrow any books. Adam would let them, but they don't seem to have the time or the interest."
"Have you read all the books in your library?" Harrison asked.
"Of course we have," Cole said.
"Travis failed to mention that the majority of our neighbors don't know how to read, and that's why they haven't asked to borrow any books," Mary Rose said.
Harrison nodded before turning to Travis again. "You asked me if I thought you measured up," he reminded the brother. "To what standard? Yours or mine? If you filled your house with treasures for the sole purpose of impressing others, then no, in my opinion, you haven't measured up to any standard. But you didn't begin with that goal in mind, did you?"
"How do you know we didn't?" Cole asked.
"Simple deduction," Harrison replied. "The piano isn't in the parlor collecting dust and admiration. You purchased it with the intent of training your sister. You could have used the money to buy other things, but you chose a piano instead. You all wanted your sister to have an appreciation for music, and that tells me you understand and value education in all forms. Admitting you've read the books in your library is another indication. As for being sophisticated or cultured, well I think perhaps you're far more sophisticated than you want anyone to believe. Without a doubt, you're all well educated. The titles you've chosen to read told me that."
"None of us went to a university the way you did," Douglas pointed out.
"Going to university is only one avenue to gain knowledge. There are others. A degree isn't insurance against ignorance. Some of my colleagues have proven that."
"You're complimenting us, aren't you?" Travis asked.
"Yes, I suppose I am."
Mary Rose sighed loudly enough for everyone to hear. Harrison turned to smile at her. She immediately smiled back.
"The piano is my favorite possession," she said. "Did you have one special thing back home you hated to leave?"
"My books," Harrison answered.
Adam nodded. "I'm partial to my books as well," he admitted. "It seems we have a common interest."
Harrison was pleased the eldest brother had once again joined the conversation. Adam was proving to be an extremely reserved man, and therefore he was the most difficult to understand. Harrison wanted to draw him out so that he could find out more about him, but he knew he would have to proceed with caution.
"I noticed the meditation you have framed in your library," he remarked.
"The what?" Travis asked.
Before Harrison could answer, Douglas asked, "Do you mean the poem Adam put up on the wall?"
"Yes, it is one of my favorites," Harrison said.
Cole decided to challenge him. "You've really read it? I don't know what book Adam found it in, but it took him hours to copy it down just right and put it in a frame. He made sure he wrote at the bottom where it came from so folks wouldn't think he was trying to take credit for writing it."
"Of course I've read it, many times in fact. I probably have it memorized by now."
Cole didn't look like he believed him. "Let's see if you know it by heart," he challenged. "Recite the poem from start to finish."
Harrison decided to accommodate him, even though he thought it was a bit childish.
"No man is an island…"
He missed only one line. Adam supplied it for him. The eldest brother was still impressed, if his smile was any indication, and Harrison began to think that of all the brothers, he and the eldest were probably the most alike.
Mary Rose was smiling like a proud teacher, pleased with her student's performance.
Harrison felt like an idiot.
"Well done," she praised. "Adam plays the piano," she blurted out. "You share that interest as well."
"Now, why'd you go and tell him that?" Cole demanded. He looked as if he wanted to throttle his sister.
She didn't care for his glare or his surly tone of voice. "You've been terribly rude tonight," she said. "You know better, Cole. Harrison is our guest. Kindly keep that in your mind."
"I don't need you to tell me how to act or what to say, Sidney. Why don't you keep that in mind?"
She let out a gasp. "You're insufferable," she whispered.
Harrison wasn't certain what had just happened. Mary Rose was furious with her brother, and if glares could kill, Cole would have been slumped over in his chair by now. The reason for her anger didn't make sense, however. Calling her by a man's name seemed to be the cause, yet he couldn't imagine why.
Curiosity made him ask. "Did you just call your sister Sidney?"
"I did," Cole snapped.
"Because she was starting to act a little too uppity."
"Listen, Harrison. Out here, it's dangerous to ask questions. You should remember that."
Harrison began to laugh. It wasn't the reaction Cole expected. "What's so amusing?"
"You're amusing," Harrison said. "You've spent the last hour questioning me."
Cole smiled. "It's our house. We make the rules. You don't."
"Will you stop being so inhospitable?" Mary Rose demanded.
She was going to continue to berate her brother, but Adam changed her mind. He leaned forward in his chair and looked at her. Mary Rose immediately sat back and closed her mouth. Then Adam turned to look at Cole. The abrasive brother immediately sat back too.
Adam had obviously demanded a truce, and what impressed Harrison was the fact that he hadn't said a word.
"If you aren't too tired, Harrison, I'd certainly like to hear about Scotland," Adam said. "I've never had the opportunity to go abroad, but I've done a fair amount of traveling with my books."
"Do you think you'd like to visit Scotland one day?" Mary Rose asked.
"Yes, of course I would, but I'd see my home first."
"And where is home?" Harrison asked.
"Home is Africa," Adam replied. "Surely you noticed the color of my skin."
His smile was sincere. He wasn't mocking Harrison; he was simply being blunt.
"Were you born in Africa?" Harrison asked.
"No, I was born into slavery down south, but as soon as I was old enough to sit still and listen, my mother and father told me wonderful stories about their ancestors and the villages they came from. I would like to see the land before I die."
"If it's still there," Cole interjected. "Villages get burned down."
"Yes, 'if,' " Adam agreed.
"You won't go to Africa," Douglas said. "You never go anywhere."
"I think you'd like Scotland," Harrison predicted, bringing the topic back to what Adam wanted him to talk about. "There are similarities between this valley and sections of the Highlands."
"Tell us about your home," Travis said.
Harrison did as he was requested. He spent another five or ten minutes talking about the land and the estates, and ended by saying, "My father's bed was always in front of his windows so he could look out at his land. He was content."
He stopped himself from saying more. "I apologize for rambling. You've figured out by now that it's dangerous to ask a Highlander to talk about his home. He's sure to bore you for hours."
"You weren't boring," Cole said. "You were eloquent," Adam assured him.
"You mentioned your father's bed was in front of the window," Cole said. "Was he bedridden?"
"For how long?"
"For as long as I can remember. Why do you ask?" Cole was feeling as low as a worm. He remembered asking Harrison why his father had never taken him into the backyard to teach him how to use his fists. The reason was apparent, of course. The father couldn't. God, he was disgusted with himself.
"I was just curious," Cole answered. "What happened to your father?"
"A bullet pierced his spine." Cole visibly winced. "Then he was paralyzed?"
"Was it an accident?"
"No." Harrison 's answer was curt.
"But you stayed with him, even when you were old enough and could have taken off," Cole said.
The remark bordered on obscene in Harrison 's estimation. "Yes, I stayed with him. I was his son, for God's sake."
"He might not have stayed with you if you were the one in the bed day and night. Most fathers wouldn't."
"You're wrong," Harrison said. "Most fathers would stay. Mine certainly would have."
"You did your duty by staying," Cole said with satisfaction. He seemed to have worked everything out in his mind. Harrison was insulted. "It wasn't a duty."
"Are you getting hot under your collar?" Cole had the gall to smile when he asked the question.
Harrison suddenly wanted to smash his face in. His voice was biting when he said, "You insult my father's honor and mine, voicing such a twisted opinion."
Cole shrugged. He wasn't impressed with his guest's anger. He turned to Adam. "We have to toughen him up. Are you willing to take him on?"
"Perhaps," Adam allowed.
"He's got enough bulk, but he also needs gumption," Douglas interjected.
Cole snorted. "He stayed with his father, didn't he? That's proof enough he's got gumption. Travis, what do you think?"
"It's all right with me. He seems a little too interested in our sister though. That could be a problem."
"Everyone takes an interest in Mary Rose. I'd wonder if Harrison didn't. I say we give it a try."
The brothers nodded consent. Mary Rose couldn't have been happier. She clasped her hands together and smiled at Harrison.
He couldn't believe they had all discussed him as though he'd already left the room. Their rudeness was so outrageous, it was almost laughable.
Mary Rose stood up. Harrison immediately did the same. None of the others moved.
"You've been invited to stay with us," she told him. "This time everyone is agreeing. It's amazing, really," she added with a nod. "Cole usually doesn't agree with anyone. He likes you. Isn't that nice?"
He couldn't resist giving a dose of honesty. "Not particularly," he said.
Everyone laughed, including Mary Rose. "You have a wonderful sense of humor, Harrison."
He hadn't been jesting, but he decided to leave well enough alone. Mary Rose walked around the table so she could face him. "I'll show you where you'll be sleeping. Adam, may we be excused?"
"Yes, of course. Good night, Harrison."
She turned to leave. Harrison thanked the brothers for supper, added his good night, and then followed their sister. None of the brothers followed him. He was somewhat surprised, especially after Travis had voiced his concern about his interest in their sister.
Neither he nor Mary Rose said a word until they were on their way to the bunkhouse. There were at least a thousand stars in the sky to light their way.
"You like my brothers, don't you?"
"Some of the time," he replied. "They're a strange group."
"Not strange, just different."
He clasped his hands behind his back and slowed his step so he could walk by her side. He considered several ways to gently broach the topic he wanted to discuss and finally settled on being blunt.
"May I ask you something?"
"Why didn't you warn me?"
"Yes, about Adam."
"Why would I warn you? You would either accept him or you wouldn't. The choice was yours."
"None of you are related by blood, are you?"
"No, none of us are. We're still a family, Harrison. Blood doesn't always determine bonds."
"No, of course not," he agreed. "You became a family a long time ago, didn't you?"
"Yes," she replied. "How did you guess?"
"You act like siblings. You're protective and loyal to each other, yet argue over minor, inconsequential things. The way you treated each other during supper told me you've all been together a long, long time."
"We have," she agreed. "Isn't it beautiful out here?"
He didn't want to talk about how pretty it was. She was deliberately changing the subject, however. He decided to let her have her way. There had been enough questions for one evening. He'd find out more tomorrow.
"Yes, it is beautiful. The air clears the mind."
"If that is all you noticed, you've been living in the city too long."
He was in full agreement. "You can't always see the stars in London. The air is filled with dirt and fumes. It clouds the view."
"It's very like that in New York City," she remarked.
He missed a step. His heart felt as though it had just stopped beating. "What did you say?"
She repeated her comment. "You seem surprised," she said.
He guessed he hadn't done a very good job of masking his reaction. He forced a smile. "I was surprised," he remarked in what he hoped was a casual tone of voice. "I didn't realize you'd ever been in New York City."
"I was just a baby, so of course I don't remember what the city looked like, but my brothers remember. They told me it was very crowded with factories and smoke and hordes of people milling about."
Harrison took a deep breath. The puzzle was coming together. He still needed to find out who had taken her from her parents and who had helped the boys get all the way to Montana Territory.
"Only parts of New York City are crowded," he said. "It's actually a very interesting place."
"You have to be careful there, don't you?"
"You should be careful everywhere."
"You're sounding like Adam again. He's always telling me to be careful. I sometimes don't pay attention to my surroundings," she admitted. "Travis was amazed I didn't get robbed in St. Louis while I was at school. It's safe here though, on the ranch. I never want to leave again. I become terribly homesick."
He didn't want to hear that. "You might like England and Scotland," he suggested.
"Oh, I'm sure I would. I know there are beautiful places I've yet to see. I would miss my valley though. There's so much to do and see here and never enough hours in one day. I'm constantly finding out new and interesting things. Do you know I just heard about a woman living all alone up on Boar Ridge. Her family had just gotten settled in when they were attacked by Indians. Her husband and son were killed. She was scalped, and left for dead. But she survived. Travis told me he heard Billie and Dooley whispering about her. Everyone thinks she's crazy. The poor woman has been all alone for years and years, and I only just heard about her. I'm going to go and see her, as soon as I can get Adam to agree."
"If she's crazy, she might be dangerous, Mary Rose. You shouldn't…"
"You're sounding just like Adam again," she interrupted. "Now that I know about the woman, I have to try to help her. Surely you understand."
Harrison turned the topic just a little. "I could be content living in your valley. I think perhaps you could be content living in Scotland or England, once you made the adjustment."
"Why? Because it would remind me of home? Isn't that very like loving one man because he reminds me of another? I would appreciate Scotland, Harrison, but I don't believe I would ever become content. Home really is best."
He let out a sigh. "You're too young to be so resistant to change."
"May I ask you a personal question? You don't have to answer if you don't wish to."
"Certainly," he agreed. "What is it you want to know?"
"Have you kissed very many women?"
The question caught him off guard. "What did you just ask?"
She asked again. He didn't laugh because she looked so damned sincere.
"What made you think about kissing?"
She wasn't about to tell him the truth. Every single time she looked at him, she thought about kissing. From the moment she'd witnessed how kind and gentle he'd been with his temperamental stallion, she'd thought about little else. She wanted him to kiss her, and even though she knew that what she wanted was quite brazen, she didn't care.
"I was just curious. Have you?"
"I guess I have."
"Do you think about kissing someone first, then you kiss her, or is it all more spontaneous?"
"You think about the strangest things."
"Yes, I do."
They reached the entrance to the bunkhouse. He put his hand on the doorknob and turned to look at her.
"Do you remember what I told you earlier in the day when we were looking down at your valley? React first with the mind, then with the heart. There's your answer. I always think before I act."
She looked disappointed. "You're a very disciplined man, aren't you?"
"I like to think I am."
She shook her head. He didn't know what to make of her obvious disapproval. Being disciplined was an asset, not a liability. Didn't she understand that basic principle?
"I'm not so disciplined."
He nodded. He had already come to the same conclusion. He opened the door and backed up a space so she could go inside first if she was so inclined.
She didn't move from the doorstep. "There are twelve beds inside, but you'll be all alone tonight. If you need anything, please let one of us know."
"Where does Douglas want MacHugh bedded down?"
"Put him in the first stall on the left," she answered. "There's more room. I imagine his feed is waiting for him. Do you think he'll be more agreeable to going inside now that he's had time to get used to us?"
"What about you, Harrison? Are you getting used to us?"
Her question made him smile. "Yes, I am."
She smiled up at him. God, she was pretty.
"May I ask a favor of you?"
She was standing just a foot away from him, with her face turned up toward his, and, Lord, her eyes had turned into the color of sapphires in the moonlight. He didn't dare look at her mouth. He knew he'd forget his control if he did, for even now he was thinking about what she was going to feel like pressed up tight against him. The urge to taste her was making him rigid. Her softness and her warmth beckoned him to lean down and take what she wasn't even offering.
He was out of his mind. "What favor do you ask?"
His voice sounded brittle to him. She didn't seem to notice. She obviously didn't realize the effect she was having on him either, or she wouldn't have leaned up on her tiptoes so she could get closer. She smelled wonderful. Like wildflowers after the rain. She rested the palms of her hands against his chest. His heart began to hammer a wild beat inside.
"Will you think about kissing me?"
He hadn't thought about anything else.
"Hell, no, I won't think about kissing you."
His rejection stung. She thought he acted as though she'd just asked him to think about kissing a goat. She was immediately embarrassed by her boldness. Her hands fell to her sides. She had made a complete fool of herself, but she was going to have to wait until later to die of mortification. Now the only important issue was trying to maintain a little dignity.
It took work on her part. And, Lord, it was a terrible strain. She wanted to pick up her skirts and run like lightning back to the house, but she wasn't about to act like a child. She stood her ground and forced herself to look up at him again, just the way a fully grown-up woman would.
"I couldn't help but notice how appalled you sounded. Was the idea atrocious to you?"
"I wasn't appalled. Men don't become appalled."
He sounded angry now. She didn't ask him if he was, though, because she supposed he would only tell her men didn't ever get angry either.
"Good night, Harrison. Sleep well."
She wasn't jesting with him. The crazy woman didn't have a clue what she had just done to him. Sleep was out of the question.
He leaned against the doorframe and watched her walk back to the house. She acted as if she didn't have a care in the world. She had just turned his mind into mush and his stomach into knots, and, damn it all, he wouldn't have been surprised if she'd started in humming.
He wondered how blase she would be if he told her what he really wanted to do to her, and what he wanted her to do to him with her sweet, provocative mouth.
He could stop himself from wanting to take her to his bed. He reminded himself he was a man, not an animal, and he could certainly control his primitive urges. He had almost convinced himself too, but then he happened to notice the gentle sway of her hips when she walked, and his imagination immediately filled his mind with all sorts of carnal images.
Sleep well? Not bloody likely.
August 4, 1862
Dear Mama Rose,
We had a terrible scare last week. Mary Rose got real sick. We should have known she wasn't feeling good earlier in the day, but none of us even considered that sickness could be the culprit for her unusual foul mood. She always acts real cheerful, but Tuesday last, she started out behaving like a hellion. She got worse by afternoon. Douglas had washed her favorite blanket, the one she likes to hold up against her nose while she sucks on her thumb, and when she spotted it drying on the bushes, she threw a tantrum none of us will ever forget. Our ears are still ringing from her piercing screams. She missed her nap altogether and wore herself out crying. She wouldn't even let Adam comfort her, and she wouldn't eat a bite of her supper. Since she usually has a good appetite, we finally realized something was wrong. By midnight, she was burning up with fever.
We all took turns sitting with her and sponging her off, and when we weren't holding her hand or rocking her in the chair, we were running into each other while we paced.
The fever lasted three days and nights. She looked so little and helpless in her bed. She needed a doctor, but there weren't any to be had, not even in Hammond.
I don't believe I've ever been so afraid in all my life. Cole was frightened too, but he hid it behind his anger. He went on and on about how wrong we had been to bring a baby into the wilderness. He was wrung out with his guilt, and so were we. We knew he was right, but what were we supposed to do back then? Leave the baby in the garbage so the rats could get to her?
Loving someone this little and fragile scares all of us. She depends on us for every little thing. We always have to remember to cut her meat into tiny squares so she won't choke, and making sure she doesn't step on a snake takes everyone's constant attention. Some days I get so scared inside worrying about her, I can barely get to sleep.
I prayed all the while she was sick. I even tried to bargain my life for hers. I guess God wanted us all to stay around a little longer though, because on Saturday morning, the fever broke and Mary Rose came back to us.
Douglas and Adam and I were so relieved, tears came into our eyes. I'm not ashamed to admit it because no one saw us. Cole hid his tears too. He ran outside and didn't come back home for almost an hour. We all knew what he'd been doing. His eyes were as red as ours were and just as swollen.
Keep praying for us, Mama Rose. We can use all the help we can get. We're sure praying for you. Now that the fighting is getting so close to you, we're more afraid for you than ever. The papers we get are full of old news, but Adam's trying to keep us up with all the battles being fought. The way it looks now, the South might win this war no one will officially call a war yet. Stay safe, please. We need you.
P.S. I almost forgot the good news. Just two weeks ago, the Morrisons arrived. They plan on building a general store down the road from Blue Belle's shack. Everyone is mighty pleased about that, of course. It's going to be a luxury to be able to order our supplies so close by. The mail will eventually be delivered to the store as well, though still only just once a week.
The Morrisons have a daughter named Catherine. She's about a year and a half older than our Mary Rose. Our sister needs a friend to play with, at least Adam says she does, and since the Morrisons seem to be decent folks, Cole doesn't have any objections about getting the little girls together.
Harrison was up at the crack of dawn. He hadn't slept well at all. He had awakened during the night when Cole crept into the bunkhouse and searched through his things, and after he had left, Harrison couldn't go back to sleep. He'd thought about asking Cole what it was he was looking for, but after mulling the idea over, he decided to continue to pretend to be asleep.
He hadn't been worried Cole would find anything significant. Harrison wasn't carrying any important papers or files with him. All the information he had gathered, along with the report he'd received from the attorney in St. Louis, had already been posted back to London. He was still damned irritated, and depending upon his mood later in the day, he might or might not decide to make an issue out of the intrusion.
His mood didn't improve. After he washed and dressed, he went to the barn to take care of MacHugh. He then spent at least twenty wasted minutes trying to coax the stubborn animal into leaving his stall.
He wanted to take the horse back to the corral. MacHugh wanted to stay where he was. He knocked the bridle out of Harrison 's hands, and when Harrison had picked it up and started toward the stallion again, MacHugh tried to trample him. The ungrateful beast was making enough noise to wake the household. Harrison finally ran out of patience. He cursed the animal for several minutes, and in several languages, and although it didn't make MacHugh settle down and behave, Harrison still felt a hell of a lot better for having vented his frustration.
He finally threw his hands up in defeat. If MacHugh wanted to rot in the stall, that was fine with him. He left the gate open, turned to leave, and came to a quick stop. Cole and Douglas were standing just inside the entrance to the barn, and from the ugly grins on their faces, Harrison knew they had witnessed MacHugh's tantrum. "There's food up at the house," Douglas informed him. "When you've finished eating, Cole's going to put you to work."
"Doing what?" Harrison asked.
"I was going to let you help me break in a couple of mustangs, but from the way I just saw you handle your horse, I've changed my mind. Why don't you stay in the house and play the piano?"
Harrison 's temper ignited. He remembered Cole's reaction when Mary Rose blurted out that Adam had also learned how to play the piano, and Harrison decided to give the arrogant brother a little well-deserved prodding.
"Do I play before or after Adam has a turn?" Cole came rushing toward him. He stopped just inches away. The brother didn't look angry, however. He looked worried. Harrison was confused by the reaction.
"Listen, MacDonald, the only reason Adam learned how to play was so that Mary Rose would. He had to act like he was enjoying learning. You got that straight? He didn't want to; he had to."
Douglas also felt it necessary to defend the eldest brother's motives. "We don't want you getting the idea Adam isn't manly. He can hold his own in any fight. Can't he, Cole?"
"Damned right he can. What do you think about that,
Harrison didn't even try to be diplomatic with his answer. "I think the two of you are crazy." He figured they had to realize they were out of their minds because they held such stupid prejudices. Any kind of prejudice was just plain ignorant, and in Harrison 's estimation, it was also completely unreasonable and illogical. Therefore, it was crazy.
Douglas turned bright red in response to Harrison 's opinion. Cole kept his reaction hidden. Harrison gave up on the two. He tried to walk past them and go outside to get some fresh air. He was thoroughly disgusted.
Cole blocked his path. Douglas nudged him out of the way. "Don't hit him yet," he told his brother. "I want to ask him something."
"Why do you think we're crazy?" He sounded bewildered.
"You both believe that only women should be allowed to play the piano, isn't that right?"
Neither brother answered. Harrison shook his head. "Your attitude is both ludicrous and completely illogical. Adam is an accomplished man," he continued. "It's to his credit that he is so well-educated."
He turned his full attention to Cole. "You, on the other hand…"
Douglas interrupted him before he could finish.
"I don't want any roughhousing in my barns," he announced. "The horses get riled up. Cole, I don't see why Harrison can't help with the mustangs."
"I'm certain I'm capable enough," Harrison interjected. "It can't be all that difficult, and it sure as hell can't require much intelligence."
"Why do you say that?" Douglas asked.
Harrison smiled. "Cole does it, doesn't he?"
It took a second or two for the insult to register. Harrison patiently waited. He expected Cole to either go for his gun or use his fist. He was prepared for either reaction.
Cole's eyes widened. He took a step back, shook his head, and then burst into laughter.
Harrison was severely disappointed. He wanted to fight.
"You're an easy man to like, Harrison," Cole told him. "Honest to God, you are."
"Next time you go through my things, I'll shoot you."
Cole looked surprised. "You heard me last night?"
"Damned right I did."
"You're getting sloppy, Cole."
"I guess I am. I didn't think I made a sound."
"Exactly what were you looking for?" Harrison asked.
"Nothing really," Cole replied. "I was just curious."
Douglas rushed to explain. "You should understand his curiosity," he said. "It was difficult for us to believe you couldn't fend for yourself, as big as you are. Of course, once you mentioned you played the piano, I understood how it was."
"Exactly how was it?"
"You know… with your father sick and all… Cole, you shouldn't have gone through his things. It wasn't hospitable."
"You told me to," Cole reminded his brother.
Douglas couldn't remember making such a suggestion. The two brothers got into a rather heated argument. One thing led to another, and before long they were arguing about something that had happened years ago. If Harrison had been standing close to a wall, he was certain he would have started slamming his head into it by now. The Clayborne men were making him crazy.
He decided to take control of the conversation. "I can fend for myself," he snapped, forcing the two of them to leave their childhood grudges behind. "I do want to learn about ranching, but you two don't have to waste your time teaching me how to fight or shoot. If you'll step outside, I'll be happy to prove it."
Cole laughed. "How are you going to prove it? Shoot us?"
Harrison shook his head. "The idea does have merit," he admitted. "However, I've decided I'll just beat the hell out of the two of you."
Douglas gave him a pitying look. "Not knowing how to defend yourself isn't anything to be ashamed of, Harrison. We'll teach you what you need to know. I'm happy to see you've got a temper though. You'll have to be a little hotheaded if you want to get along with people."
"Maybe," Cole agreed. "But it's also the way it is around here. You want some respect or don't you?"
Harrison gave up trying to reason with the mule-headed men. He knew he was responsible for planting the misconception in their heads that he was inept. It had seemed like a good idea at the time. Mary Rose took weaklings in, and so he pretended to be just that.
It suddenly dawned on him that he was being as illogical as the brothers. He was getting exactly what he wanted. He should have been pleased.
He wasn't though. And all because he didn't want Mary Rose to think he was weak.
What in thunder was the matter with him? Harrison left the brothers and went to the house. He forced himself to concentrate on the real reason he had traveled all the way to Montana. Lady Victoria. He didn't have any doubts left. Mary Rose had to be Lord Elliott's long-lost daughter.
He wished he could just pick her up, toss her over MacHugh's able back, and drag her back to England where she belonged. There were, however, several giant obstacles barring his path. First, he had to find the mastermind behind the kidnapping. Until the culprit or culprits were found, the Elliott family wasn't safe.
The other obstacles standing in the way of reuniting the grieving father with his daughter were the Clayborne brothers.
Damn it all, he wished he didn't like them. Even Cole was beginning to make him smile with his ridiculous notions about life. All the brothers' obvious love for their little sister was something he had to admire. And respect. And so was their loyalty to one another.
None of them was going to let her go without putting up a fight. And just what the hell was he going to do about that?
Harrison didn't believe Mary Rose would prove to be too much of a problem. She wouldn't fight the inevitable; at least, he didn't think she would. Granted, she wanted to stay in her valley for the rest of her life, but he knew her feelings would change when she found out she had a father waiting for her back in England. She was simply too kindhearted not to go and at least meet the man. Getting her to stay in London would be her father's problem. Harrison 's work would be done.
He quit mulling the matter over in his mind, picked up his step, and was just about to turn the corner so he could go directly into the kitchen from the back door, when he spotted Mary Rose hurrying in the opposite direction. She was headed toward the smaller barn, and from the indirect path she was taking, it didn't take him long to realize she didn't want to be noticed by anyone. She carried a brown wicker basket with a rounded handle looped over her arm.
"Good morning, Harrison," Travis said from behind.
Harrison turned around. "Morning," he replied. "Where's your sister going? She seems to be in quite a hurry."
Travis smiled. "She's sneaking off. I know where she's headed though. I'm going to give her a couple of minutes, then follow her. Adam's going to be angry when he finds out."
"Finds out what?"
"Mary Rose is paying a call on Crazy Cornelia."
"Is she the woman who survived the Indian attack?"
"You already heard about her?"
"Your sister mentioned her last night."
"Corrie's the one, all right. Word has it she's crazy as a loon. Guess if you got scalped, you would be too. Even the Indians stay away from her now. They're afraid of her. So are most of the people in Blue Belle. They're talking about burning her out."
"Burning her out of what?"
"Her cabin," Travis explained. "A trapper thought the place was deserted. She almost blew his head off with her shotgun when he tried to get near the door. Corrie's been holed up there since the attack, and that was over fifteen years ago. Anyway, now that Mary Rose knows about her, she's determined to pay a visit. She thinks the woman could use a friend. Adam told her she couldn't go. He said it was too dangerous. No telling what the woman will do. I knew Mary Rose wouldn't listen though. She never does. There she goes now. Honest to God, Adam's going to kill her."
Travis took off at a trot. "Tell my brothers where I'm going, all right?" he called over his shoulder.
The brother was armed for trouble. Harrison was pleased to know that all the Clayborne men watched out for their little sister.
He heard Travis mutter something about being damned tired of being inconvenienced, and found himself smiling in reaction.
It was the last moment of joy he experienced for a long, long while.
Breaking in mustangs wasn't difficult. It was impossible. Harrison didn't get the knack of it for a full week, and during the days in between, he suffered one indignity after another. He was black and blue everywhere. His humiliation was just as painful for him. He spent more time on his backside and shoulders in the dirt than on his feet and, in general, provided a vast amount of entertainment for the Clayborne family.
Cole's timing was superb. No matter what task he was involved in, he always happened to be near the corral whenever Harrison went flying off the saddle. The brother always reacted the same way. First he would give an exaggerated wince for Harrison 's benefit, then shake his head and say, "That's going to hurt." Laughter inevitably followed.
Harrison wanted to kill Cole, of course. Going after him would have required strength, however, and he simply didn't have any to spare.
He couldn't make up his mind which time of day was worse. In the evenings, his entire body throbbed in agony, and in the mornings he felt as if rigor mortis had set in. He walked around like an old, bowlegged man. Honest to God, he even groaned like one.
Mary Rose came to the bunkhouse late one evening, but fortunately he still had his pants on. He'd gotten his torn shirt off, then collapsed onto the bed, facedown. He didn't even lift his head up when she walked inside.
"Oh, Harrison, your back is a mess," she whispered. She sat down on the side of the bed and gently patted him. "Adam sent some liniment to soothe your muscles. Would you like me to put some on your shoulders?"
He needed it on his backside, but he knew it wouldn't be proper for him to ask.
"You're all tuckered out, aren't you?" she asked.
He didn't answer her. Mary Rose opened the bottle and poured some of the cold liquid on his back. Then she started to massage the aches away. She wrinkled her nose in reaction to the scent and hoped Harrison wouldn't notice.
"What in God's name is that stench?"
He looked toward the open doorway, thinking the odor must have been coming from outside.
"It's the liniment," she explained.
"God, it's foul."
"The horses seem to like it."
He lifted his head. "You use this stuff on your horses?"
She pushed his head back down on the pillow. "It's all right to use on people too. The smell will fade in a minute. Try to relax. Let me work the liniment into your muscles. You're going to feel better in no time at all."
He didn't believe her. His backside was still going to ache. "Leave the bottle," he suggested. "If the liniment works, I'll put some on my… leg."
"All right," she promised. "Close your eyes and try to rest."
Five minutes later, he thought he'd died. Her hands were magical against his skin. His muscles were soothed, but he wasn't the least bit aroused by her closeness or her touch, and in his mind, that could only mean he was already dead.
He groaned with pleasure so she wouldn't stop soothing him.
She thought he had fallen asleep. His face was turned toward the doorway. He looked peaceful to her, and ruggedly handsome. His hair had fallen down to cover his forehead. There was a day's growth of a beard, a shadow really, and she was suddenly filled with curiosity to know what it felt like. She felt safe enough because he was sound asleep and wouldn't know how brazen she was being. She touched his forehead first, then grew a little bolder. She noticed a bruise on the side of his temple and slowly circled it with the tips of her fingers. His skin was smooth and warm to her touch.
She grew bolder and traced the profile of his perfectly formed nose and cheekbone. She trailed her fingers down the side of his face to his neck. The bristles from his growth tickled her. She wanted to touch his mouth, gave into her urge almost immediately, and slowly explored it just as fleetingly with her fingertips.
There wasn't anything about the man she didn't like, she realized. He really was as beautiful to her on the outside as he was on the inside, where it mattered most. In his heart.
She leaned closer and kissed his forehead. She couldn't believe how audacious she was being. She was usually very reserved, sometimes even shy around men, but tonight… with Harrison.
She let out a little sigh and kissed the side of his cheek. Then she straightened up and began to massage his shoulders once again. She didn't want to stop touching him. What was the matter with her? She could feel herself physically reacting to Harrison, but because of her inexperience, she didn't have the faintest idea what she should do about it.
Stop, she supposed. She didn't stop though, because she liked the way his skin felt under her fingertips. He was warm and muscular. Her stomach tingled and quivered like she was filled with butterflies.
And when she thought about kissing him again…
"What are you doing in here with a half-naked man? Don't you have any sense at all, Mary Rose?"
Cole made the criticism from the doorway and walked over to the side of the bed.
"Keep your voice down," she whispered. "He's asleep. I left the door open so it would be proper for me to be in here. Besides, he may be half naked, but he's also harmless. I won't take advantage of him. I promise."
She didn't think it was a good idea to mention she'd already taken advantage. Cole wouldn't understand her curiosity. How could he when she couldn't?
"Don't talk like that. It isn't ladylike. I never thought you'd take advantage of him. You wouldn't know how."
"I should though, shouldn't I? Don't you think it's about time you explained a few facts to me?"
"Later, Mary Rose. We'll talk about all that later."
"You always say that," she whispered. "Never mind. I've figured it all out on my own."
Cole wanted to change the topic to a less delicate one. He squatted down next to Harrison so he could get a closer look at his face, then stood up again.
"I can't tell if he's breathing. Is he?"
"Of course he is."
"He looks dead."
"He isn't," she assured her brother. "At least not yet. When are you and Douglas going to let up on him?"
"We're teaching him what he needs to know if he's going to take up ranching."
"You're killing him."
He smiled over how incensed she'd sounded. "No, we aren't. Harrison 's tougher than he looks."
She let out an inelegant snort. "No, he's softer than he looks," she corrected. "Has he gotten any better at breaking in the horses yet?"
Cole sighed. " Douglas keeps telling me he has. I can't see any improvement though. Harrison 's a touch loco, Mary Rose."
"Why do you think that?"
"He talks to the mustangs. Douglas says he lays it all out for them, then gets up in the saddle and expects them to understand and cooperate. He never raises his voice either, and the only time he curses is after he's finished for the day. You better come on back to the house. It's late."
Cole started to leave, then changed his mind. "By the way, Catherine Morrison's father told Douglas that Catherine wants him to ask Harrison if he would like to court her."
Mary Rose was astonished. And furious. She hid her reaction from her brother and applied herself to the task of soothing Harrison 's muscles.
"That's ridiculous," she said. "The Morrisons don't even know Harrison."
"They're going to invite him for Sunday supper," Cole told her.
"He can't go."
"Why can't he?"
"He's going to be busy."
"Travis sure isn't going to like hearing about Harrison getting an invitation. Your brother's kind of partial to Catherine."
"I can't imagine why. I don't like her at all."
"She's uppity and a flirt," Mary Rose said. "She's brazen too."
"I never noticed."
"You're a man. Of course you never noticed. Men never notice such things. Besides, she never flirts with you. She's afraid of you."
Cole grinned. "It makes you kind of mad, doesn't it?"
"What makes me mad?"
"Some other woman taking an interest in Harrison."
"I am not angry."
If Harrison hadn't been pretending to be asleep, he would have disagreed. The gentle massage she'd been giving him had turned into a pounding. He didn't know how much longer he was going to be able to put up with the beating.
"Someone has to look out for Harrison. He's very naive, you know."
"You don't say."
"He's overly trusting too."
"Is that right?"
"I'm serious, Cole, so you can quit smiling like that. Harrison is a kind, gentle man. Surely you've noticed."
"I can't say I have," Cole replied.
"All of us should be watching out for him. He's our responsibility."
"Exactly what is it you think Catherine's going to do? Bite him?"
"I wouldn't put it past her," Mary Rose said. She knew she was being unreasonable. She didn't care. "I realize I'm being uncharitable, but I do believe Catherine can turn into a viper. I think you should tell the Morrisons Harrison isn't interested."
Cole rolled his eyes heavenward. "Harrison and I are going to town tomorrow to pick up a couple of harnesses. He can tell Morrisons yes or no about Sunday supper when he's invited. The decision is his to make, Mary Rose."
"I'm going to town with you."
Harrison had taken all the pounding he was going to. He opened his eyes just as Cole turned around and walked out the door.
"You can stop beating on me now," he said.
She jumped a foot when he spoke to her. "You're awake."
He didn't think it was necessary to agree.
"Do your shoulders feel better?"
The sting in his muscles was actually worse because of her overly enthusiastic pounding.
"Yes, thank you."
She recapped the bottle, put it on the floor next to her, and stood up.
"When did you wake up?" she asked, trying to sound only mildly curious. She was in a panic, wondering how much of the conversation he'd overheard. Dear Lord, what if he hadn't been asleep at all? What if he'd only been resting? Did he know she'd kissed him?
"Just now," he lied. "Why?"
She was blushing. Harrison wanted to laugh but he didn't because he knew she'd become even more embarrassed. He rolled off the bed and stood up. His bare feet were cold against the wooden floor. He was standing entirely too close to her, knew he should move, but couldn't seem to make himself.
"I wondered if you heard Cole," she stammered out. "He came inside to check on you."
"Thank you for worrying about me."
She looked startled again. "Why do you think I'm worrying about you?"
"The liniment," he replied.
She relaxed. She turned toward him. " Harrison?"
"I was telling Cole I'm going to make a very special supper Sunday. I'm cooking everything myself. You'll be sure and be here, won't you? I'm going to an awful lot of trouble. I might even invite Dooley, Henry, Billie, and Ghost."
He was trying hard not to laugh. "That sounds nice."
She smiled. "Would you like to meet my friend one day? I think she'll like you."
"Crazy Corrie?" He was immediately intrigued.
"Please don't call her crazy," Mary Rose asked. "She isn't, you know. She's shy, and cautious. Wouldn't you be if you'd been attacked by Indians?"
"Yes," he agreed. "Did she talk to you?"
"No, but she's getting ready to," she answered. "I could tell."
"If she didn't talk to you, how could you tell she was going to? Did she smile at you or…"
"Oh, I didn't see her. She wouldn't let me."
"Then how could you possibly know she's not crazy?"
"She didn't shoot me."
He closed his eyes and counted to ten before he started questioning her again.
"Tell me exactly what happened. Did you knock on the door? Did you go inside?"
"I never got near the door. I didn't even get as far as the porch. She really is very shy, Harrison."
"How close to the cabin did you get?"
"I made it as far as the clearing in front," she answered. "She shot the ground in front of my feet. She deliberately missed me. She was letting me know she didn't want me to come any closer."
"Then what did you do?"
"I told her who I was and that I had only just found out about her. I also mentioned how difficult it had been finding the cabin. It's hidden, you know. Anyway, then I visited with her. I told her about my family. I had to shout every word, of course, so she could hear me, and when I knew my voice was going to give out, I told her about the basket I had for her. There were jars of jellies and baked bread, and cookies too. I asked her if I could please leave it for her. I made certain she didn't misunderstand my motives. I wasn't offering charity, just friendship. Every woman has a little bit of pride. I didn't want to offend her. I believe she understood. She let me walk a few feet closer. I didn't try for more. I left the basket and told her I'd come back tomorrow with another basket full of welcoming gifts. I also asked her to please leave the empty basket in the clearing so I could take it back home."
"Do you plan to go there every day?"
"No, I couldn't do that. There wouldn't be enough time for anything else, and I have so much to do around here. Once Corrie starts talking to me, and we've gotten to know one another, then I'll probably go just once a week for a nice long visit. I believe we'll become good friends. You haven't told me yes or no yet."
"About having dinner on Sunday?"
She nodded. "If you're going to go to the trouble to cook a special meal of course I'll be here." He paused. "Adam was angry you left without telling anyone where you were going, wasn't he?"
"He wasn't angry. He was disappointed." She let out a sigh. "That's far worse. If he yelled at me, I wouldn't have felt as guilty."
"Are you going to tell him about your plans for tomorrow?"
"We already discussed it. I have his approval. Understand, Harrison. He doesn't want me to ask his permission to do anything. He realizes I'm capable of making my own decisions. He just wants me to be cautious. I promised never to go there alone. You're going to catch a cold," she added. "You should put a shirt on. Good night."
She turned to leave. He wanted her to stay a little longer. He grabbed hold of her arm and said, "Wait."
She turned back to him. "Yes?"
"I've never met anyone like you."
God, he couldn't believe he'd said that. He felt like a simpleton. "You're very kind," he said.
Mary Rose remembered all the terrible things she'd said to Cole about Catherine Morrison just a few minutes before and couldn't in good conscience go along with Harrison 's misconception.
"No, I'm not kind," she admitted. "I try to be, but sometimes I turn into a shrew. I can even be cruel."
Harrison didn't let go of her arm. He started to pull her closer to him. He knew he had lost his mind, because for the first time in his life he couldn't and wouldn't let good sense prevail. He had already decided not to get personally involved with Mary Rose.
He was still going to kiss her.
"What are you doing?"
"Bringing you close to me."
"I want to kiss you."
She was astonished. "Are you serious?"
He'd drawled out the word, made it sound incredibly seductive. She almost sighed out loud, but stopped herself in time.
"Do you want me to kiss you?"
"That isn't the issue." She paused. "I don't understand," she admitted then. "You have barely spoken to me all week, or even looked my way… and now you want to kiss me? Harrison, I don't believe you're being very logical."
She sounded stunned by her own conclusion. He laughed. "I'm not being logical."
"Why do you think you want to kiss me?"
She'd turned the tables on him. Now she was being the analytical one.
"I believe in fair play."
She still didn't understand. He pulled her up tight against his chest, lowered his head, and kissed her forehead. Then he took hold of her hands and put them around his neck.
She didn't resist. She still looked thoroughly puzzled, but not at all uneasy. He hadn't put his arms around her yet, and wouldn't if she gave him any indication of fear or refusal.
"You kissed me," he explained. "Several times I recall. Now it's my turn, and that, Mary Rose, is what I call fair play."
"Oh, God, you weren't sleeping, were you?"
She sounded mortified. She turned her gaze to his chest. Harrison nudged her chin back up with his hand. He kissed the side of her cheek, just the way she'd kissed him, then kissed her on the bridge of her nose.
She got over her embarrassment almost immediately. "You must have enjoyed it," she whispered.
"No, I didn't," he told her.
"You didn't? Why not?"
"You were driving me crazy. You kiss like a girl."
Her fingers began to toy with his hair. She was surprised by how silky it felt. She let out a little sigh and moved closer to him. She loved the feel of his skin against her. The heat, and strength, radiating from his body warmed her.
"Show me how you would like to be kissed, Harrison."
He finally put his arms around her. Then he told her to open her mouth.
She tried to ask him why, but then his mouth settled on top of hers and she forgot all about asking him anything. A shiver passed down her spine and she instinctively tightened her hold on him.
It was the most amazingly wondrous kiss she'd ever experienced. His mouth was almost hot against hers, demanding and yet gentle, and then his tongue moved inside her mouth to rub against hers. The passionate way he kissed her made her weak with pleasure. She clung to him, squeezing herself tight against his chest. She felt embraced everywhere. Her softness was surrounded by his arms and his thighs. She felt him shudder, knew then he was just as affected by the kiss as she was, and suddenly realized she was every bit as powerful as he and just as much in control of what would or wouldn't happen.
His mouth slanted over hers hungrily, with blatant ownership, but all of her inhibitions were gone now, and she kissed him just as eagerly.
He ended the kiss much before she wanted him to, but she refused to move away from him even when his hands dropped down to his sides. She rested the side of her face against his chest. She heard the thundering of his heartbeat. Or was it hers hammering inside her head?
He was breathing as raggedly as she was. "I didn't want to stop."
Her whispered confession sounded bewildered. Harrison took a deep breath, trying to regain some semblance of control. He was still reeling with his own bewilderment and astonishment, for in truth, he'd never felt such instantaneous hot passion with any other woman.
"Did you want to stop?" she asked.
She sounded breathless. He was pleased to know she'd been just as affected as he was.
"No, I didn't," he admitted. "And that's exactly why I did. Let go of me, Mary Rose. It's time for you to go home."
She didn't want to leave, but she guessed she would have to. It wouldn't have been polite or ladylike to try to nag him into kissing her senseless again. She slowly turned around and walked to the doorway.
She looked back at him when she reached the step. She wanted to tell him good night. The words got trapped in her throat, however, and she simply stood there staring at him. He looked so amazingly perfect. He stood in the glow of the oil lamp, and in the light, his skin took on a golden tone. He leaned against the bedpost, and when he shifted his position, she could see the muscles ripple under his skin. Douglas had told her Harrison had the strength of three men, yet she knew he would never use his physical power against her.
"I feel safe when I'm with you."
She was surprised she'd said the words out loud. Harrison smiled. "You should feel safe with me. I would never hurt you, Mary Rose."
"Did I kiss like a girl again?"
He shook his head. "No, you kissed like a woman. What happened tonight can't happen again. I never should have started something I can't finish."
He threaded his fingers through his hair, his frustration apparent with the action. "We can't become involved."
"We're already involved."
"No, we aren't," he said, his tone hard, unbending.
She didn't understand what had come over him. She nodded, then turned and walked away. She tried to reason it through while she got ready for bed. After an hour of trying to sort it all out, she finally gave up. She knew Harrison was attracted to her, for the way he'd kissed her told her so. She wasn't the patient sort, but she decided she would have to try to be patient until she figured out what his problem was. There had to be a good reason why he didn't want to pursue a relationship with her. The man had a reason for everything he did. She guessed she would have to wait until he told her what it was.
And then she would find a way around whatever obstacle was holding him back.
She put on her slippers and her robe and went downstairs to the library. Adam was inside, rereading one of his favorite books.
Her brother was sitting in a worn, brown leather easy chair. A fire crackled in the hearth, warming the room.
"Adam, may I interrupt you?"
Her brother looked up and smiled. "Of course," he agreed. He closed the book he'd been reading and put it on the table next to his chair.
There was another identical brown leather chair flanking the other side of the fireplace, but she walked past it and sat down on the footrest next to Adam's feet.
"I wanted to talk to you about Harrison."
"Is something wrong?"
"No," she assured him. "Nothing is wrong. I like him… very much. I think he likes me too. He seems to, anyway."
"Then what's the problem?"
She looked down at her lap. "I asked him to kiss me last week. He finally got around to agreeing tonight."
She looked up at her brother to see how he was taking her confession. Adam didn't show any reaction. He took his spectacles off, carefully folded them, and put them on top of the book.
"He kissed you."
"Yes," she replied.
"And then what happened?"
"He told me he wasn't ever going to kiss me again."
"I see." A slow smile eased his expression. "Did he tell you why?"
"Yes, he did," she answered. "But his explanation didn't make any sense at all. I know he enjoyed kissing me. He looked like he did, and he felt like he did, but he only kissed me once, and now that I've had time to think about it, maybe he didn't like it as much as I did."
"You said you liked kissing him. I think we need to talk about that."
"I did like kissing him, very much. I like him, Adam. He told me we couldn't become involved, but he wouldn't give me any reason why we couldn't. Maybe he's trying to protect me from heartache," she continued. "Perhaps he knows he's going back to Scotland, and he doesn't want to begin a relationship only to leave. He might also be like Cole."
"How exactly is your brother?"
"Cole doesn't want to be trapped by any woman. He's always telling me he'll never get married. Do you think Harrison feels the same way?"
"I don't know him well enough to answer your question, but I do know Cole. He's all talk, sister. He just needs time to meet the right woman. Then his attitude will change."
"Why do men think of marriage as a trap? Women aren't taking away their freedom, for heaven's sake."
"In some ways they are," Adam replied. "Once married, always married. If a man has made the wrong choice, he's trapped, isn't he?"
"I suppose, but the woman is also trapped."
Adam's mind began to wander. He was thinking about Harrison now. He realized he needed to find out more about their guest. If Mary Rose was becoming involved, it was Adam's duty to make certain Harrison didn't hurt her.
"What were you thinking about just now?"
" Harrison," he answered. "I realized we don't know all that much about him. I believe you should give yourself some time to get to know him better before you ask him to kiss you again."
She agreed with a nod. "I'll try."
"Cole told me I needed to have a talk with you about men and women and…"
"Intimacy." She supplied the last word before he could.
"We already had our talk years ago."
"I remember, and I thought you remembered too, but your brother said you asked him to tell you all about the facts of life again. He doesn't think you understood. Didn't you?"
"Yes, you made it all perfectly clear."
"I thought I had. You certainly asked a lot of questions."
"And you patiently answered every one of them. You're the only brother who made any sense. Travis started out giving me all sorts of parallels about trees and bees, and then he jumped into a couple of parables from the Bible. When he recited the one about the loaves of bread multiplying, I was completely lost. He told me I was like a loaf of bread and that one day I would also multiply. I asked him how. He threw up his hands and sent me to Douglas."
"And what did Douglas tell you?" Adam had heard all of this before, but he enjoyed the retelling just as much.
"He told me to use my head. He was extremely gruff. The topic made him terribly uncomfortable. He wouldn't even look at me. He reminded me that I lived on a ranch, kept adding, 'for God's sake,' and suggested I look around me. Then I'd be able to figure it all out. I told him I had been looking around for all of my eleven years and I still hadn't figured anything out. In desperation, he pointed to the horses and told me that when I was all grown up, I'd be just like a filly and a man would come to me just like a stallion."
Adam laughed until tears came into his eyes. "Now tell me again how you reacted to his comparison."
"I was highly insulted, of course, and disgusted. That's when he sent me to you."
He dabbed at the corners of his eyes with the backs of his hands and finally calmed down. "If you remembered our talk, why did you ask Cole to explain?"
"I couldn't stop myself," she admitted. "His reaction is so amusing. He blushes, Adam, really blushes. He gets all flustered too, and that's very unusual for him. I'll probably ask him again and again, until he finally catches on."
Adam laughed again. "Go right ahead. I'm dying to know what comparison he'll eventually come up with. It's bound to be a dandy."
He let out a sigh, then turned to a more serious issue. "And now think we had better talk about how you felt when you were kissing Harrison."
And so they did. Mary Rose didn't feel the least bit uncomfortable or embarrassed because she was with Adam. He always put her at ease. There wasn't any subject she couldn't discuss with him. She could say whatever was on her mind and not worry he would be appalled or disappointed. The bond between brother and sister was as strong as iron, and her trust in his judgment was absolute.
He was concerned she might have been frightened by her physical reaction to Harrison. Passion was sometimes misinterpreted, and often, what one didn't understand, one feared. He didn't want his little sister to be afraid of anything or anyone. She should embrace life, not hide from it, the way he'd had to all these many years.
"A man can want to bed a woman without loving her. Do you understand?"
"Yes, I understand. A woman can behave in the same manner, can't she?"
"Yes, she can."
"You want me to realize that wanting and loving don't always go hand in hand."
"Don't worry about me. You're worried because I'm innocent, but remember, being innocent doesn't mean I'll be foolish."
They talked for a few more minutes, until she became too sleepy to stay up any longer. She kissed her brother good night.
"I wish Mama were here. I miss her."
"Someday soon she'll be joining us," Adam promised. "Her nightmare can't continue much longer. Mistress Livonia may have a change of heart and let her leave. I doubt Mama would want to go anywhere until after Livonia dies. She's totally dependent on Mama now."
"I cannot imagine what it would be like to be blind. I don't believe I would turn mean, though, the way Livonia did."
"She needs your mama more than you do, Mary Rose… for now, anyway."
"Are her sons so very cruel that they would really turn their backs on their mother?"
"You know the answer to that," he said. "They'll do anything to get her money. Rose and Livonia have their own cottage behind the property the sons already sold off. They're getting along all right now. As long as Livonia 's sons leave them alone, no harm will come to either one of them."
"You send them money regularly, don't you?"
"We do what we can. Go on up to bed now. I want to finish this chapter on the Constitution. I plan to nag Harrison into a debate tomorrow night, and I want to be prepared."
"I'm going to write Mama another letter tonight before I go to sleep. I need to tell her about Harrison. She'll want to know every detail."
"I thought you already told her about him."
"Yes, but that was before he kissed me. I need to tell Mama about that. Good night. Love you."
"Love you too, sister."
Mary Rose went to bed a half hour later. She fell asleep thinking how perfect her life was. She lived in a beautiful valley with wonderful brothers, and now she had a dashing suitor who would eventually pursue her. She would lead him a merry chase first, of course. Then she'd let him catch her.
Her plans were grand, and, oh, how perfect her life was.
She was falling in love.
May 17, 1863
Dear Mama Rose,
We've heard so many conflicting reports about the war, we don't know what to think. Both the North and the South are taking credit for every victory. By the time we get any news, it's all so convoluted, it doesn't make sense. All we know for certain is that thousands of young men are dying. We're all trying hard to do as you say and not worry about you, but it's difficult. You're in our thoughts, in our prayers, and in our hearts.
Your letter was a blessed relief. We were so thankful to hear from you after nearly a month of waiting, we celebrated with a special dinner. Cole made squirrel stew, Douglas made biscuits, and I cut up fresh vegetables from our garden. For dessert we had baked apples and a piece of peppermint candy. After we'd eaten our fill, we took turns singing. I thought Cole and I weren't too bad, but Douglas and Travis were plumb awful No one was as horrible as little Mary Rose. Your namesake doesn't actually sing; she screams. I've been toying with the notion of getting her a piano when she's older. We would have to find a teacher, of course, to give her the necessary training. Now I'm not so certain it's such a good idea. If she can't carry a tune, maybe we would be just wasting our time. Still, it's important for her to have a well-rounded education, and an appreciation of music is important. Her brothers and I talk about the advantages we want her to have. Travis insists that she learn how to speak French. He says all well-educated men and women know at least one other language. Right now we're concentrating on English. The baby's grammar is still pretty raw. She's forever getting her verbs mixed. We took your advice and don't overdo correcting her though, and we always try to praise her for every little task she completes. She likes to please us, and when she's happy and smiles at us, well, it seems as though sunshine has just come inside our cabin. She lights up a room, Mama, like a thousand candles burning bright.
Cole showed us a design he'd made of the house he wants to build. We were stunned by the detail. None of us knew he had so much talent. I think he's taking on more than he can chew though, but I didn't squelch his enthusiasm. The design is for a two-story house with five bedrooms, and it's as grand as any of those fancy plantations down South. I did suggest he make the outside as plain as he could so we wouldn't draw attention to the family. People see an expensive home and they start to wonder what's inside. Then they become resentful, at least from my experiences watching people that's the conclusion I've hit upon. If someone has something better, they think they should have it, even though they aren't willing to work hard. Folks in Blue Belle aren't like city folks, however. We all tend to appreciate anything anyone else has. I've got seven books in my collection now, and Travis wants to go to Hammond next week and see what goods he can barter for there. Douglas has started breaking in a couple of wild mustangs he and Cole captured. Douglas has a knack for communicating with animals. He says they don't actually talk to him, but they let him know when something's wrong.
We're all slowly figuring out what we can do to contribute to the family. It's interesting to me how God gave each one of us a special talent. I've got a head for numbers, so I keep the records straight. There's quite a lot of paper work involved in filing for land, and I also started a ledger and write down every bit we spend. Morrison has started offering credit to us. He says we only need to pay him once every other month for the supplies we take, but he charges interest on his kindness, and in my mind, that's a loan pure and simple. If we don't have enough money in the cigar box, then we go without. I don't ever go into town. I've taken your advice and try not to draw too much attention to myself. Everyone has come out here to meet me, and I believe they've gotten used to me. New arrivals are a little surprised when they hear there's a black man living amongst them, and when they meet the rest of the family, I'm sure they're befuddled. Cole says that because everyone else in Blue Belle accepts me as ordinary, the new ones figure it must be all right. Winning the Morrisons' friendship helped, of course. They got into real trouble when their roof caved in. I went into town then to help build a new one. Mrs. Morrison kept Mary Rose for us, and even though our sister insists little Catherine hit her and pulled her hair, we all are sure she had a good time playing with a new friend.
I've strayed from my topic, haven't I? I was telling you how God gave all of us a special talent. Then I started bragging about myself. Now I'll tell you about the contributions my brothers are making. Cole's still practicing with his gun so he can protect us and kill game for supper, and while I think he's got a talent for being quick and accurate, none of us want him to become a gunfighter. I'm happy to report he also has a talent for building. He helps everyone else too. Douglas works with the horses they caught, and Side Camp has already said he'll buy one as soon as my brother gets him saddle trained. Douglas wants to build a barn before starting on the house. He and Cole are still arguing about what is going to come first. Cole will let Douglas win, but he's going to make him suffer before he gives in.
Travis has become the procurer for the household. The boy can talk anyone out of anything. Whenever we need something, we tell him and he finds a way to get it for us.
We don't know what special talent the baby has yet. It sure isn't in the area of art though. I've enclosed a drawing she made for you. It's supposed to be a picture of our little cabin, but I don't think you're going to be able to tell. It looks like a bunch of scribbles to me. She was proud of her work, and so of course we all praised her and told her how fine it was. She doesn't like us to call her baby anymore. She won't answer to the name Mary either. We have to say her full name if we want her to answer us. It seems foolish to call her Mary Rose Clayborne all the time, but it means a lot to her and so we go along.
She asks about a hundred questions a day. I still think she's smarter than the rest of us put together, and from the way she gets us to do things for her, my brothers believe I'm right.
We don't let her misbehave too much. If she won't obey, we make her sit by herself until she's ready to be part of the family again. She doesn't like to be left out, and she looks plumb pitiful. Cole always wants to give in because he has such a soft heart, but he too understands the importance of helping her understand certain behavior won't be tolerated.
I'm not so certain about how miserable she feels sitting all alone though. Just yesterday, she and I were working in the garden together. She wanted me to stop work and take her inside and get her a piece of peppermint candy. When I told her no, she went in the cabin and got it anyway. She knew she was going to get into trouble because she didn't just eat one of the pieces. She ate every last one of them. A few minutes later, she came outside again wearing the evidence of her misdeed (her face was covered with pink coloring), and she was carrying her blanket and the rag doll Travis had made for her. She marched right past me and went all the way across the yard and sat down on a log. Then she started in wailing and acting pitiful. She's got all of us figured out, Mama. I had to turn my face away from her because I couldn't quit smiling.
I'll stop for now. Travis and Douglas have already given me their letters to you, and Cole's just finishing his. We sure appreciate the way you include a sheet for each one of us with our names written on the fold. We all like having a private minute with you, and when Mary Rose is older and can read her own, I'm sure she'll appreciate your thoughtfulness too.
My brothers have been talking about joining up and doing what they can to help the North win the war. I get angry every time one of them mentions it, and I think I finally convinced them that although their hearts are in the right place, they can't leave. We all made a promise to our sister, and we all have to put her first. Travis didn't think the baby needed all four of us, but after I pointed out how each one of us makes an important contribution, he felt better. It's true, Mama. It takes four almost grown-up men to look after Mary Rose. It's a hard life out here. It takes everything a man has inside just to survive.
We pray for those good Northern soldiers every single night.
I don't want to end this letter on a sad note. We were surprised the pretty locket you sent actually got here. The package wasn't even torn. Mary Rose caught us looking at it. We told her you had sent it to her, but that she wasn't supposed to have it until she turned sixteen years old. Well, Mama, she threw quite a tantrum. None of us gave in though. We did come up with a compromise. We promised she could look at it every night before she goes to bed. Now we have another ritual to add at night. We're up to three. She has to have a sip of water, a bedtime story, and now she has to look at the locket.
She sure is a piece of work, and my, how she makes us smile.
I love you,
Gentle, sweet-natured Harrison turned into a raging maniac right before Mary Rose's eyes. She couldn't believe how terrible the day turned out to be. At supper that night, she told Adam her entire day had been a nightmare.
And it was all Harrison 's fault. She was so furious with the man, she still couldn't speak to him.
The morning had started out pleasantly enough. She spent a good hour getting ready to go into town. She wanted to look as pretty as possible for Harrison. She didn't believe she was being vain, and usually what she wore only had to be functional for her to be happy. Today was different, however, because the man of her dreams had kissed her the night before, and she wanted to look beautiful for him. She knew she was probably being silly, but she couldn't seem to care. After trying on three different outfits, she ended up wearing a pale blue riding skirt with a white blouse. She tied her hair back with a blue and white ribbon. She wasn't overly thrilled about her appearance, but it was the best she could do with the looks God had given her.
She soon realized she needn't have gone to all the trouble. Except for a terse good morning, Harrison didn't pay her any attention at all.
Everyone but Adam went into town with her. Travis wanted to pick up a package, Cole and Harrison were going to collect the new bridles, and Douglas rode along so he could talk to the blacksmith about shoeing a couple of horses. Mary Rose had a shopping list of supplies she thought her new friend, Corrie, could use.
Being ignored by the stubborn guest was fine with her. She was furious with him because he refused to listen to reason. He insisted on wearing his gunbelt and gun and gave Cole the ridiculous argument that he'd loaded up his old, reliable gun and would be just fine if trouble came their way. She couldn't believe how muleheaded he was being. Granted, her own brothers were armed, but they were all skilled and wore the weapons for protection. The ignorant gunfighter named Webster, and some of his misfit associates, were still on the prowl, and until the Claybornes were certain they had all left the territory, the brothers needed to stay on their guard.
Because it was Thursday, no one in town was expecting to see any of them. Mary Rose had diligently prayed that Catherine Morrison had stayed home today and wasn't in the store helping her father. Mary Rose didn't want to have to watch the woman flirt with Harrison because such blatant tactics were bound to make her nauseated. Harrison was so naive. Most men were when it came to the ploys used by certain women. Harrison wouldn't know what Catherine was up to, but Mary Rose would. Women understood each other. Catherine wanted to snare Harrison. Finding a man wasn't difficult in the valley. They outnumbered women by well over a hundred to one. Finding a good man was another matter altogether. They were as scarce as diamonds.
Mary Rose didn't believe she was jealous. She was just looking out for Harrison. He was her guest, after all. Catherine Morrison was just going to have to find someone else to chase.
On the way into town Mary Rose must have asked Cole and Douglas at least five times to look after Harrison. The two brothers soon got tired of promising her they would. They told her to quit nagging them. She would have asked Travis, but he and Harrison were riding their mounts side by side, and she didn't want the man she wanted protected to know she didn't think he could take care of himself. He couldn't, of course, but she didn't want him to know she realized it.
Luck was on her side. Catherine wasn't in the store. Mary Rose saw Harrison talking to Catherine's father, but the conversation lasted only a minute or two, and then Harrison was being introduced to Floyd Penneyville, another new resident, and the topic turned to the annual cattle roundup that had ended just three weeks before. Both Floyd and Harrison were sorry they'd missed all the excitement.
Dooley caught up with her just as she was leaving the store. She was on her way to the stables to collect Douglas. Cole and Travis and Harrison were all talking to Floyd.
"Morning, Miss Mary. My, you look right pretty today."
"Thank you, Dooley."
"Henry chased me down," he said. He remembered his manners then and immediately took his hat off. "We'd already sent word to Cole that Webster had some cronies with him. I guess, from seeing the brothers, he's expecting trouble."
"One must always be prepared for any eventuality," Mary Rose told her friend. She was quoting Adam, of course. He was always telling her to be prepared.
Dooley followed her outside and walked by her side down the wooden walkway.
"Anyways, Henry told me you were taking supplies to Crazy Corrie. Was he fibbing me or telling the truth?"
"He was telling the truth," she said. "Corrie isn't crazy. I would appreciate it if you'd tell your friends so. She's my friend, Dooley."
"That's exactly what Henry said you'd say. I got some bad news for you, Miss Mary. Bickley and some of his vigilante friends is going up to the ridge to burn Corrie out. They think she's a danger to folks."
Mary Rose was appalled. "How dare they," she cried out. She grabbed hold of Dooley's arm. "Have they left yet?"
"No, but they're getting ready to," Dooley explained. "Henry and Ghost are keeping them busy bragging. You know how Bickley is. He likes to boast about hisself. He's the devil's own brother, Miss Mary. I wish he'd go on back to Hammond where he belongs. He's got no business trying to be a big man here. Some of his friends got to be bad to the core. One's so ugly, he makes me want to puke just looking at him. Calling themselves vigilantes, like they're something special."
The old man paused to snort. He would have spit, but he didn't think Miss Mary would appreciate it.
"Where are they now?"
"Inside the saloon. They're itching to leave though. Henry's running out of questions to ask, and you know how Ghost is. Ever since he started making his own brew he's been acting real funny. It takes him a long time to figure out what folks are talking about. He can't concentrate is what it is, cause he's got all them spirits talking to him all the time. Course, getting hit by lightning didn't help him none, but I'm still saying he'd be right in the head if he'd stay away from liquor. Miss Mary, where are you dragging me?"
"To the saloon."
"You aren't thinking about going inside, are you?"
"If I have to, I will," she said. "I've got to put a stop to this."
They were running down the walkway. Dooley was soon out of breath. "Let me fetch your brothers, Miss Mary," he begged between gasps. "You wait right here."
Mary Rose saw the wisdom in getting some assistance. She agreed to wait and had only just sat down on a bench outside of the warehouse when Bickley and his cohorts strutted outside. Their horses were waiting, their reins tied to the hitching posts in front of the saloon.
She didn't dare wait any longer. She prayed to God the men weren't liquored up. She didn't know Bickley but she'd heard stories about him, and none of them were worth repeating. His appearance was every bit as nasty as his character. He had long, stringy, brown hair and beady eyes. He looked like a sneak, she thought to herself, and from all accountings, that's exactly what he was. Bickley was only a couple of inches over five feet. Adam said he was a little man trying to be big.
"Bickley? Might I have a word with you?"
Mary Rose stood on the corner of the walkway and waited for the leader to acknowledge her. She hoped he would come over to her alone and that his friends would wait by the doors of the saloon.
He turned at the sound of her voice. He gave her a grin, squinted his eyes against the sunlight, and sauntered over to her. She was sorry to see his friends followed him.
"What might I do for you, Miss Mary?"
Bickley was sour from the stench of liquor and old sweat. She wasn't surprised he knew her name. There were so few women living in Blue Belle that all the men who lived in the town and in the surrounding area knew who the women were. She was even known as far away as Hammond.
"Are you and your companions going up to Boar Ridge?"
"That's where we're headed, all right. We're going to burn out that crazy woman before she kills someone. We respect the law, and since Blue Belle don't have a sheriff, I figure it's our duty to take care of things around here."
I can't imagine why you would think anyone around here is your responsibility," she said. "You live in Hammond, not Blue Belle. We take care of our own here."
She wanted to tell him to go back where he belonged and start minding his own business, but she didn't offer the suggestion for fear she'd antagonize him into doing something rash.
"There's a sheriff in Hammond," he said. "He don't want my help. Folks around here will be more… appreciative."
One of his cohorts chuckled. Mary Rose diligently tried to control her temper. She took a deep breath and then tried to reason with the vile creature.
"Just yesterday I went up to the ridge and had a nice long visit with the dear woman. Corrie isn't crazy. She's shy. She doesn't like outsiders trying to pry into her life. No one does. Corrie only likes people who live around Blue Belle."
"You're trying to keep us from doing our duty, aren't you?"
"Corrie is my friend. I want you to leave her alone." Her tone had taken on a hard edge.
"I don't have to listen to you. I got my mind set. Don't I, boys?" Mary Rose couldn't keep her temper contained another second. "If you bother that sweet woman, I shall personally go to Judge Burns and sign a petition. I'll charge every single one of you with attempted murder, and my friends in Blue Belle will appreciate watching you hang."
Bickley didn't cotton to being threatened. Especially by a woman. Liquor made him forget all about the Clayborne brothers. It was time someone took the uppity bitch in hand. He was just the man to see the duty done. He would shake some sense into her and have her quaking with fear in no time at all.
"Who do you think you are to talk to me like that?" he asked in a shout that caused spittle to drip down his chin.
"I'm a woman who knows an ignorant fool when she sees one." she replied.
Bickley wasn't overly intelligent, but he was certainly quick. Before she realized his intent, he grabbed hold of her upper arm, squeezed hard, and tried to pull her toward him. She kicked him soundly in his leg, right below his kneecap. Pain shot up into his thigh. He used the back of his hand and struck her across the face, and when she didn't cry out, he used his fist to hit her again.
"Are you plumb loco, Bickley?" one of his friends asked in a nervous whisper. "Let go of her before her brothers start shooting."
"I ain't letting go of her until she begs me real nice. I'm hurting her all right. I know I am. I'm gonna keep squeezing her arm until I snap her bone clear in half if she don't start telling me how sorry she is for sassing me. If her brothers try to stop me, I'll shoot every one of them. Just see if I don't."
Mary Rose had been temporarily stunned by the attack, but she quickly recovered. She could taste blood in her mouth and knew the corner of her lip had been torn. Her chin felt wet too, and she thought blood was pouring down from the injury. She didn't waste time worrying about it. Her mind had cleared sufficiently for her to remember what her purpose was. She was going to keep Bickley from going up on the ridge, no matter what the cost. She kicked the horrible man once again, much, much harder this time, and when he doubled over, she used her fist to knock him clear off his feet. Adam had always told her she had a mean left hook. She meant to prove she was worthy of the compliment.
She expected Bickley to let go of her, but he held tight until he had almost hit the ground. Then he sent her flying into one of the hitching posts. She struck the side of her head and collapsed to the ground.
She was knocked unconscious. She awakened a minute or two later, with pain exploding inside her head. She closed her eyes and tried to concentrate on making the throbbing inside her skull stop. There was a horrid roaring sound ringing in her ears.
She couldn't make it go away. The sound intensified, even after she'd opened her eyes and her vision began to clear. She thought she was feeling better because she wasn't seeing sparkling lights everywhere. Men were suddenly tripping over her to get to their horses. One man kicked her in the stomach. She cried out and doubled over and tried to roll onto her side. Another man used her hip as a stepping stool in his haste to get up on his horse. He tore her skirt with his spurs.
She was still in too much of a daze to protect herself. It was a miracle she wasn't trampled to death by the horses or the cowards trying to run away. She couldn't seem to make her eyes stay open. She felt someone lift her, and then her mind went black again. She floated between darkness and light for several minutes, and when she next awakened, everyone was running away. She sat up just in time to see Bickley kick his horse into a full gallop. She tried to stand up, thinking she had to go after him before he hurt Corrie, and she almost made it to her knees, but what happened next so surprised her, she fell back on her bottom again.
Sweet and gentle Harrison had been transformed into a barbarian. He appeared like an avenging angel out of thin air and literally leapt up into the air to attack Bickley. The bellow of rage she was hearing came from Harrison.
He was in a fury. He plucked Bickley from his saddle and threw him halfway down the road. Then he went after him. Everyone was shouting at the same time. Mary Rose wished to God the racket would stop. The noise made her head hurt all the more. Harrison wasn't making any noise now. He was fully occupied killing Bickley with his bare hands. From the look of deadly calm on his face, she didn't have any doubt about his intentions. If someone didn't stop him, he would kill the man who had attacked her.
She was stunned speechless. Harrison 's expression sent chills down her spine. He looked so… methodical. He certainly didn't fight like a gentleman. For that matter, neither did Bickley. He tried to pull his gun out and shoot his tormentor, but Harrison kicked the weapon out of his hand. Bickley reached for his knife then. Harrison seemed pleased by his tactic. He actually smiled. He waited until Bickley lunged toward him, then moved as quick as lightning and snatched the knife out of his hand.
A rifle shout sounded in the distance. Mary Rose spotted Douglas walking toward her. He had the shotgun propped against one hip and his six-shooter cocked and ready in his other hand. The men who'd tried to get away weren't riding their horses now. They walked back to the saloon in front of her brother. Douglas must have caught them in front of the stables, Mary Rose concluded.
Cole stood behind Harrison. He had his arms folded across his chest and smiled with satisfaction as he watched Bickley try every dirty trick possible.
Travis was suddenly kneeling by Mary Rose's side. He gently lifted her into his arms and stood up.
"Dear God, sister. Are you all right?"
He sounded frightened. She didn't nod for fear the movement would make her head hurt more. "I'm fine, really. You've got blood on your shirt. Are you all right?"
"It's your blood, not mine. It's all over the side of your face. He really belted you, didn't he?"
"Travis, what took you so long to get here? I've been waiting and waiting."
"Mary Rose, it all just happened. You must have gotten knocked senseless. Are you sure you're all right?"
"Why is Harrison pounding Bickley? He isn't supposed to know how to fight. Go and stop him before he gets hurt. Bickley's mean enough to kill him, Travis."
"Now, why would I want to do that? We all saw what the bastard did to you. Harrison 's fast, isn't he? He was on top of Bickley before Cole or I could even get to the corner."
"Please put me down. I can stand on my own."
"You'll only go after Harrison if I let go of you. He won't kill Bickley," he promised. "Cole probably will though. Just wait until he gets a gander at your face. You're a real mess, little sister. You've got blood spewing out of your forehead and more pouring out of the side of your mouth."
Henry and Ghost hovered like old-maid aunts behind the pair. Travis turned to the men. "Watch my sister while I go help Harrison, will you?"
"Give her to us," Henry said. "We'll protect her. Won't we Dooley?"
"Of course we will," his friend promised. He was still panting for breath. He had only just reached the general store to get the brothers when Bickley came outside and started hurting his Miss Mary. "Everything happened mighty fast."
"That's the truth," Henry agreed. "Lickety-split was how quick it happened."
Henry lifted Mary Rose into his arms and held her tight against his chest. In his attempt to comfort and shield her, he was inadvertently making it impossible for her to breathe.
"She don't weigh more than a feather," he remarked.
"Please put me down. Let me lean against you and Dooley."
"All right," he agreed. "But if you get dizzy, I'm picking you up again."
"Make her promise to stay here," Dooley suggested.
Henry thought that was a grand idea and made his hostage give him her word.
Ghost had come outside the saloon and was standing near the doorway. Henry turned to him. "Go and fetch a chair for Miss Mary, will you, Ghost? We'll sit her down against the wall. Then get us a bowl of water and some clean towels. They're behind the bar. We got to clean up Miss Mary before Cole sees her."
"I'm thinking you should be more concerned about that Harrison fella. He's a bigger worry than Cole."
"He's already seen her," Henry said. "Why do you think he's so mad?"
"Looks like he's about finished with Bickley. Think he killed him?"
"No. Bickley's still wiggling in the dirt."
"Could be the death wiggle," Dooley suggested. He rubbed his jaw and squinted at the man writhing on the ground.
"Knowing Harrison and how he feels about the law, I don't think Bickley's a goner."
Dooley didn't agree. "Make you a nickel wager."
"You got it."
"If Bickley's dead, I win."
Henry nodded. Mary Rose sincerely hoped both men would stop talking. She kept her attention focused on Bickley's cohorts. Douglas was forcing the five men to walk toward Harrison. They were still armed, and she was worried one or two of them might decide to try to shoot Harrison or Cole.
"I saw one of them fellas kick our Miss Mary right in her gut," Henry whispered. "Another one stepped on her, hard. Yes, sir, he did. Ain't it a pity for men to treat a lady like that?"
Dooley agreed it was a pity. He thought about it a few seconds more and then felt compelled to tell her brothers and her avenger what the men had done. He hurried over to the edge of the walkway.
" Harrison? Cole? One of them fellas kicked your Miss Mary right in her gut. The ugly one stepped on her. Hard too. Almost killed her, he did. Someone else tore her pretty dress. Yes, sir, that's what they did all right."
Mary Rose wanted to strangle Dooley. He was deliberately inciting Harrison and her brothers. Before she could hush Dooley, it was too late. Harrison had heard every word. He didn't say anything. He didn't have to. His expression said it all.
"Why'd you go and tell Harrison? Cole's better with a gun," Henry remarked almost absentmindedly. He half dragged Mary Rose closer to the road so he'd have a better spot from which to watch the fight brewing.
"I told Harrison and Cole," Dooley said. "But I'm thinking Harrison 's much meaner. You see how he took after Bickley. Besides, Cole heard what I had to say. Those men do anything else to you,
She gave Dooley a scathing look. If Bickley's friends had done anything else to her, she wasn't about to tell the town crier. She pulled away from Henry and made it past Dooley before they realized she'd gotten away.
"Catch her," Henry called out. "If there's shooting, she'll get herself done in trying to interfere. She's still in a daze, Dooley. You can see she is."
Dooley caught her around her middle and pulled her back to stand next to Henry again.
"What was I supposed to fetch?" Ghost asked the question from the doorway. Henry patiently reminded him what his errand was while Mary Rose once again edged her way to the corner.
She never took her attention away from Harrison. He stood ten or fifteen feet in front of Cole and Travis. Her brothers protected his back and had their attention on the men coming toward them.
The ugliest one of the bunch reached for his gun. Cole shot the weapon out of his hand before it had completely cleared his waistband.
The other men immediately raised their hands. They apparently didn't want to get into a gunfight.
Harrison turned to Cole. "Stay out of this," he ordered. "They're all mine."
Cole grinned. Travis shook his head. "You'll get killed and Mary Rose will get real pissed," he whispered so only Harrison and Cole could hear him.
Harrison had already turned back to Bickley's friends. "Take your guns off," he ordered.
He waited until they had complied with his order, then removed his own belt and gun and tossed both to Travis. Cole kept his six-shooter trained on the group. He had five bullets left, and that was all he needed to kill every one of them if they tried anything underhanded. He wouldn't put anything past the vile creatures. One could very well have another gun tucked away. He hoped to God someone did. He really wanted to shoot at least one of them.
He was denied the opportunity. Harrison beckoned to the men to come to him.
"Is he going to take all of them on at once?" Travis asked his brother.
Harrison answered. "Damned right."
Cole smiled again. Both he and Travis stepped back to give Harrison more room.
"This ought to be good," Cole drawled out.
Mary Rose suddenly wished she had her gun with her. If it had been handy, she was certain she would have shot everyone in the street, including her brothers and Harrison. Cole actually looked as if he was enjoying himself. She'd shoot him first.
She refused to watch any longer. Harrison disappeared into the middle of the group of men. Then bodies started flying.
She had seen enough to give her nightmares for a week. She turned around and walked inside the saloon. She sat down in one of the chairs near the window but refused to even glance outside. Ghost was standing in front of the bar, having a drink. When he spotted her, he put the bottle down, scratched his head, and tried to look bewildered instead of guilty.
"What was I supposed to fetch, Miss Mary?"
"Never mind, Ghost. Enjoy your beverage."
"It's a might better than my brew."
"Don't you want to watch the brawl like everyone else in town?"
"I'm getting ready to watch," Ghost said.
Mary Rose closed her eyes. She ached everywhere. She felt like crying. Lord, she'd actually looked forward to today's outing. Oh, well, at least things couldn't get any worse. She found some comfort in that belief.
She was wrong though. She wasn't through being tormented.
"You can come on outside now, Miss Mary. You really ought not to be in the saloon. What would Adam think?"
Dooley asked the question from the doorway. "Ghost, ain't you fetched…"
"What was I supposed to get?"
"Water, bowl, towels," Mary Rose wearily supplied.
Ghost smiled. "Now I remember." He poured himself another drink while he nodded. "Yes, sir, I do remember."
"Here comes Harrison and your brothers," Dooley said.
If there had been a back door, she would have used it. She didn't want any of them to see her like this. At least that was the excuse she gave herself. She didn't want to think about the real reason. Harrison had completely changed his behavior. She didn't know how she felt about that. He'd looked so ruthless. Honest to God, she hadn't thought he had it in him.
"I don't want Harrison to see me, Dooley. Make him wait outside."
Dooley hurried over to her. "He already seen you good, Miss Mary. Who do you think it was who moved you? He made sure you was breathing and all, and then he went after Bickley."
Cole and Travis both came inside just as Dooley finished his explanation. Harrison followed.
"I don't remember," she admitted. She kept her gaze on her lap, still not certain how she was going to react when she looked at Harrison again.
"You were knocked out, Mary Rose. Of course you don't remember. You should have killed him, Harrison, or at least let me at him," Cole muttered.
" Harrison broke Bickley's hand," Mary Rose said.
"No, he didn't. He just twisted it peculiar," Henry told her. " Douglas is dragging them all into the warehouse while Morrison gets some rope."
"How come?" Dooley asked. "Are we going to have us some hangings?"
"No," Henry returned. "Some of the folks are going to drag them back to Hammond. The sheriff there will probably lock them up."
"Isn't there a doctor around here we can take Mary Rose to?" Harrison asked.
Cole shook his head. "Closest one lives in Hammond."
"That's too far," Travis interjected. "Let's take her to Morrison's house. Mrs. Morrison will take care of her."
"I would like to go home."
"In a little while," Cole promised. He squatted down next to his sister. In a whisper he asked, "Why won't you look at us?"
"I don't want to," she answered. "I want to go home. Now."
"Are you mad at us?"
She nodded, then promptly winced over the pain the movement caused. She never should have sat down, she realized. She'd gone all stiff. She wasn't even sure her legs would work.
"Then why don't you yell or something?"
"It would hurt too much," she admitted. She tried to stand up and promptly let out a loud groan.
Cole was suddenly shoved out of the way. Harrison scooped Mary Rose up into his arms. He was incredibly gentle with her. When that fact registered in her mind, she could almost look at him.
"What's the matter with her?" Travis asked. "Is she scared?"
"No, she's mad," Cole told him. "I don't want to be around when her temper explodes."
"I'll wager you've never seen anything like it, Harrison," Travis He and Cole both burst into laughter. Mary Rose was offended by their callous attitudes. "I cannot imagine what you two find so amusing," she snapped. "We're laughing because we're happy you weren't killed," Travis said. She didn't look as if she believed him. Cole tried to calm her down. "Look at it this way. The day has to get better, doesn't it?" She grasped the hope. Yes, things did have to get better. Unless Harrison started showing off again.
September 1, 1863
Dear Mama Rose,
Your daughter has quite a mouth on her. Yesterday morning she told Cole to hush up, and just a few minutes ago, she told Travis to mind his own business. We're always so astonished to hear her talk like that, we have to work real hard at not letting her know how funny we think it is. She loves to try to boss us around, and lately she's been repeating cuss words she's heard Cole say. We all learned an important lesson, of course, and we're trying hard not to say anything improper. She's spending quite a lot of time sitting by herself, and, Lord, can she cry. She can be a little stinker all right.
We have started taking turns teaching her the alphabet. She's still too young to get the hang of it, but she enjoys having the attention. Travis got her a chalkboard and two boxes of chalk. She ate one of the pieces of chalk, and that made her sick. I don't think she'll eat any more of them.
Everyone's worried about you, Mama Rose. What with the war going on, and none of your letters getting through to us, we get anxious. We pray you and Miss Livonia are safe. It sure would help us get through the days if we'd get a letter from you. We know you write, but the post service is in such a confusion now, we aren't even sure you're getting any of our letters. I believe God will look out for you, and that when this is over, you'll be a free woman, and you can come join your family. The baby needs you so…
God protect you,
She never should have tempted fate. Things progressed from worse to horrible. Ten minutes after she'd suffered her humiliating attack, she found herself in the most ludicrous position. She was seated in a chair with her feet propped up on a stool in the Morrisons' parlor. She was all by herself. Everyone else had disappeared into the kitchen. Catherine's mother had gone to fetch cloths and water so she could clean up Mary Rose's face, while her daughter entertained their other guests at the kitchen table.
Mary Rose told herself she deserved the misery she was suffering. She had made unkind remarks about Catherine, and even though most of the uncharitable opinions were true, she couldn't complain when Catherine lived up to her every expectation. At first-when Mary Rose walked inside the house, anyway-Catherine had pretended sympathy. She'd had an audience then. She gave quite a grand performance. Why, she even became tearful over what she kept calling her dear friend's hideous condition. Mary Rose wasn't fooled. She'd figured Catherine out years ago. Even as a little girl, Catherine pretended to be the perfect child in front of her parents and Mary Rose's brothers, but the second their backs were turned, she'd grab hold of Mary Rose and take a bite out of her. Time, unfortunately, hadn't improved her disposition or her behavior. Her sympathy for Mary Rose ended the minute Mrs. Morrison ushered the men into the kitchen. Catherine haphazardly slapped a towel her mother had given her against Mary Rose's face and went chasing after Harrison.
Travis, Cole, and Harrison were all seated around the kitchen table eating portions of the blackberry cobbler Mrs. Morrison had only just taken out of the oven. Dooley joined them. From where Mary Rose sat, she could see Harrison clearly. And Catherine, of course. She was hanging all over him. When she served him some dessert, she put her hand on his arm and draped herself over his shoulder to place the bowl in front of him. It took her an eternity to straighten back up. Harrison didn't seem to mind.
Having to watch Catherine flirt and not being able to do anything about it was purgatory. Travis wasn't about to be left out. He was competing for Catherine's attention, throwing out one perfectly stupid compliment after another. Catherine preened like a cat.
"It sure was something the way you got so mad, Harrison," Dooley praised. "I thought you were out of your mind taking on all them fellas, and I'll bet you didn't even feel the punches you were getting."
Harrison shook his head. "No, I wasn't out of my mind. I knew exactly what I was doing."
Dooley wasn't finished talking about the excitement in town. "Who would have thought it possible," he remarked. "A fancy lawyer like you being able to fight so mean."
Cole went completely still. "He's a lawyer?"
"Sure is," Dooley said.
Cole slowly put his spoon down and turned to Harrison. Then he punched him in the side of his jaw.
Harrison flinched in reaction. The punch stung. He rubbed his jaw and glared at Cole. "What'd you do that for?"
"Cause you're a lawyer," Cole answered.
He picked up his spoon again, turned to his bowl of cobbler, and then said, "Why in thunder didn't you tell us you were a lawyer?"
"It weren't no secret," Dooley blurted out. He walked over to the stove and leaned against the edge of it. There weren't any seats available unless he went into the parlor, and he wasn't about to leave the kitchen for fear he would miss some important piece of gossip.
The old man shoveled in another heaping spoonful of dessert and then said, "Everyone in town knows what Harrison does for a living, Cole. We even talked over the notion of him opening an office across the street from the general store. Yes, sir, we did."
"You hit me again, and I'll flatten you," Harrison said.
"I hate lawyers."
"Apparently so," Harrison said dryly. "Mind telling me why?"
"I would have punched you myself, but Cole was quicker," Travis muttered.
"Cole pretty much hates everyone, Harrison. Ain't you figured that out yet?" Dooley asked.
Travis finally answered Harrison 's question. "We hate lawyers because they're always poking their noses in where they don't belong. Someone ought to round them all up and hang them. We could have a picnic after."
"We almost had us a bunch of hangings this morning, Miss Catherine," Dooley said.
Harrison looked into the parlor to see how Mary Rose was doing. He'd been looking every other minute just to make certain she was all right. Mrs. Morrison was taking forever getting her supplies ready so she could take care of Mary Rose, and Harrison had about used up all his patience waiting for someone to help her.
"What are you staring at?" Cole asked him.
"Your sister," he admitted. He started to stand up. "I think I'll go see if I can help…"
"Let the Morrison women see to her," Travis advised. "Women like other women nursing them."
Harrison sat back down again. In a low whisper, he said, "It's taking the women a hell of a long time to get to it, isn't it?"
"All in good time, Harrison," Travis said. He glanced over his shoulder to look at his sister, then turned back to the table. "She's fine. Don't worry about her."
"Someone has to worry," Harrison stubbornly insisted. "You and Cole act as though she skinned her knee. She was knocked out, for God's sake. She could be…"
"Don't let her know you're concerned."
Cole gave the warning. Travis grinned. "Sound advice, Harrison. You'd do well to remember it."
Harrison couldn't believe how unfeeling the brothers were. Cole guessed what he was thinking when he saw how incredulous he looked.
"She's little, but she's tough."
"She's probably feeling like hell," Harrison said.
"For God's sake, don't ask her how she feels," Travis warned.
"You're a lawyer, you figure it out," Cole answered. "You really thinking about giving up on the law and learning to ranch?"
"Yes," Harrison replied. "That's exactly what I'm thinking about."
"Mr. MacDonald, I just love the way you talk," Catherine Morrison said. She leaned forward to brush against her guest while she put a linen napkin down in front of him. "It's so unusual. Isn't it, Travis?"
"I think he sounds like he's got something caught in his throat," Travis muttered. He wasn't at all happy to hear Catherine say anything nice about another man since he was thinking about becoming interested in her in the future.
"Oh, Travis, you're just adorable when you tease like that."
Cole and Harrison shared a look of exasperation. Harrison thought the young woman had taken coyness to a new height. She was extremely transparent. Cole wasn't as kind in his opinion. He thought Catherine was acting like a desperate, husband-hunting old maid.
Travis thought she was about the sweetest little thing in Blue Belle.
Catherine wasn't finished flirting, but Mary Rose was finished listening. She couldn't stomach sitting in the parlor any longer. She wanted to go home and get some comfort and some care. If the cuts on her forehead and her mouth hadn't stopped bleeding on their own, she figured she'd be dead by now for all the attention she was getting. Probably no one would even notice she'd died, at least not until they ran out of cobbler. She knew she was feeling sorry for herself. That was all right. She might even decide to wallow in self-pity for the rest of the day.
Sitting in the chair had made her stiff. She stood up and almost lost her balance. She staggered forward, straightened up, and then turned to look in the kitchen to see if anyone noticed. They hadn't. She wasn't surprised, of course, for everyone was still fully occupied gobbling down cobbler.
She went outside and saw the horses were tied to the fence. Douglas came riding up just as she stepped off of the porch.
"You look a sight, Mary Rose."
"Is it any wonder? I was attacked, Douglas. When I think of all…"
He stopped her before she could really get into her list of ills. "Now, now, no use complaining."
Her brother dismounted and started toward the porch. "Where is everyone?"
"Inside, having some of Mrs. Morrison's mighty fine cobbler. I wouldn't know, of course. No one offered me any."
"There you go again. Complaining won't make you feel better."
He reached her side and awkwardly patted her on her shoulder.
"Yes, it will," she assured him. "I like to complain."
"I know." He sounded resigned.
Then he smiled at her. His amusement set her off again. What in heaven's name did she have to do to get a little sympathy around here?
"When I think about all I've been through today, I…"
"Where were you going all by yourself?"
"Home," she answered. "And don't you dare try to stop me."
It finally dawned on him that she really was feeling miserable. She looked close to tears. "All right," he soothed. "We'll go home. You wait right here. I'll go get the others. We'll all ride together. I'll hurry, I promise."
She pretended to agree so he would leave her alone. She knew what was going to happen. Douglas 's promise was sincere, but once he got into Mrs. Morrison's kitchen, he was going to forget all about taking her anywhere.
Men. They were all so incredibly easy to sway. Pat them on their heads, give them something to eat, and they'll follow you anywhere. Add a smile and a few stupid compliments, and they'll immediately forget all about their other responsibilities.
Like a sister dying on the front porch, she thought to herself.
By God, someone was going to comfort her, even if she had to go all the way to Hammond and hire a complete stranger to be sympathetic.
It took her a long while to get comfortable in the saddle. Then she started for home. She forced herself to brush off her bad mood. She didn't feel all that bad. Mary Rose was a big believer in measuring each awful incident with something else awful that had happened in her life. Each painful and or humiliating trauma was immediately categorized in her mind as being as bad as, or not as bad as, or worse than something else. And as bad as being attacked by Bickley was, it still wasn't as bad as the bee attack. To date, nothing had even come close.
She'd almost died from the bee stings, at least Adam told her she'd been standing at heaven's door. She didn't have any recollection of being that ill. She just remembered the pain. She hadn't complained, even when her brothers begged her to.
"Mary Rose, slow down and wait for us."
Douglas shouted the order. She did as he demanded, but when he reached her side and she noticed he was wearing several crumbs of cobbler at the corner of his mouth, she gave him a hard frown and then ignored him.
"Can she ride on her own?" Harrison asked her brother from behind.
"She's trying," Mary Rose answered.
"Would you feel better if you rode with me?" Cole shouted the question.
"I doubt it. My backside is killing me. You've obviously forgotten what happened."
"And you're gonna remind me, right?"
She almost smiled. She stopped herself in time. She didn't want any of her brothers to catch on to her game. It would ruin all the fun for her if they realized that one of the reasons she complained was because they hated it so.
"I was brutally kicked and…"
"No use going over it, Mary Rose."
Cole reached her side and took her into his lap. "There. Now you'll feel better."
She might have agreed if he hadn't sounded so damned cheerful. He was acting as though nothing out of the ordinary had happened. All the men were, even the showoff, Harrison. She decided to make Cole miserable and immediately started complaining again. Her brother really was trapped with her. She could whine all she wanted, and he couldn't do anything about it. Usually, the minute she started listing her grievances, everyone would leave. She'd figured that out years ago. And that was exactly why she'd begun her game. Whenever she wanted privacy, she would start complaining, then sit back and watch her brothers trip all over themselves in their haste to get away from her. Her ploy was effective, and when something worked, one didn't mess with it.
Her goal now was to get back on her horse and be left alone. She needed privacy so she could think about Harrison 's bizarre behavior. In the blink of an eye, his entire personality had changed. It was as though he'd been caught up in some sort of a spell. What in heaven's name had happened to the gentle man she'd liked so much? She was going to have to sort it all out in her mind before she could look at him again without getting angry.
Cole didn't want to let her ride on her own, but he soon got tired of listening to her. He gave her to Douglas. He didn't even last five minutes. Then Travis got stuck with her.
Three down and one to go, she thought a bit smugly.
"Listen, Mary Rose, you're making my teeth hurt listening to you," Travis muttered. "Why don't you wait until we get home and then sit down and write a long letter to your mama. You can tell her all about how poorly you're feeling."
"No, I can't," she replied. "Mama doesn't want to hear it. She told me it wasn't proper for a young lady to complain, even when she enjoys it so."
Travis laughed. "You used to write and tell on us, didn't you?"
"I was very young then," she defended. "Mama made me stop. She said I wasn't being loyal to my brothers and that I shouldn't ever tattletale. Mama would be sympathetic if she could see me now. Why, I was punched and…"
" Harrison, you want to take a turn?" Travis shouted.
"Never mind," Mary Rose whispered. "I'm finished complaining."
Travis didn't believe her. He all but tossed her into Harrison 's lap. She let out a loud groan when she landed on his hard thighs.
He told her to lean against him. Once she had adjusted to his steel-like frame, she finally relaxed just a little. She kept her gaze directed on the trail ahead and thought about the tender way he was holding her in his arms.
Her mind began to wander. She suddenly realized she must look a fright. What an odd thing to think about now, she decided. Her foolish worry about her appearance was yet another contradiction floating around in her head. She knew she wasn't being logical about Harrison. She couldn't make herself look at him just yet. Granted, he had all but scared the curl out of her hair when he'd gone after Bickley and his friends, but then, ten minutes later, she hadn't been able to stomach watching Catherine flirt with him.
She must still be befuddled from hitting the side of her head against the post.
Harrison couldn't stand the silent treatment any longer. He moved her hair out of his way and leaned down close to her.
"Are you in pain, Mary Rose?"
"You need a physician," he announced. "I could ride to Hammond and get one."
"I don't need a doctor," she assured him. "I feel fine, really."
He gave her a little squeeze. "Try to relax."
A few minutes later he whispered her name again with that intoxicating brogue of his, and she suddenly wanted to sigh and shiver at the same time. She diligently resisted both urges.
The hit on her head must have knocked her senseless. She was angry with Harrison, wasn't she?
"Why won't you look at me? Did I scare you?"
He sounded amused. He was being kind and considerate now and very, very sweet. She wanted to kick him.
She wouldn't answer him. Harrison let out a sigh. "Forget I asked," he said. "I must have been mistaken."
Several more minutes passed in silence. Guilt finally forced her to tell him the truth.
"You weren't completely mistaken. I wasn't afraid of you. I was afraid of what had happened to you. You told me you could take care of yourself, but I didn't believe you. I don't like men who fight."
"You must hate your brothers then."
"I love my brothers. I don't love you."
He knew she didn't love him. Of course she didn't. Still, it bothered him more than he cared to admit to hear her tell him so.
"I'm still not certain what came over me," he said.
"Are you given to spells, Harrison?"
She sounded genuinely concerned. He tried not to laugh. "I don't think so. When I picked you up in my arms, something snapped inside me. I can't explain it. You were limp and bloody, and I couldn't tell if you were breathing. I didn't know…"
She was astonished by what he was saying. She couldn't stop herself from interrupting. "You picked me up? Dooley said you did, but I didn't believe him."
"You were out cold," he explained. "So you can't possibly remember. You were in danger of being trampled by the horses. I had to do something to protect you. I know, I was a little late getting to you, wasn't I? You were sprawled out on the ground and you weren't even trying to protect your head, for God's sake."
The memory of seeing her in such a helpless state made him shudder.
He instinctively tightened his hold on her, and she realized Harrison had been afraid.
"After you picked me up, what did you do?"
"I noticed you were still breathing before I lifted you off the ground. I should have calmed down then, but I didn't. Something snapped inside of me. I put you down where I knew you'd be safe, and then I went after the bastard."
She was barely paying attention to what he was saying now. She was too busy gloating. Hadn't she told him they were very alike? And my, how he'd argued with her. She remembered every word he'd said. She also remembered quite clearly how appalled he'd looked.
She wondered if it would be rude to say she'd told him so. It was about time he admitted she'd been right.
"So you, in fact, didn't take time to think about the situation? You just reacted, didn't you?"
He knew exactly where she was headed with her question. He gave a shrug and tried not to smile. Lord, she was clever.
"I didn't say I was…"
"Yes, you did say. You got your philosophy a little turned around, didn't you? You remember. First with your heart, then with your head."
"It's the other way around."
"I know," she answered, a smile in her voice. "I think you must have forgotten. Do you realize what a lovely compliment you've just given me?"
"Really? You just insulted me."
She laughed. She obviously wasn't the least contrite. The sound of her joy reached her brother, Cole. He nudged his horse forward so he could ride alongside them. He immediately noticed how close Harrison was holding his sister. He appeared to be hugging her.
"Aren't you holding Mary Rose a little too tight for respectability?"
"Mind your own business, Cole," Harrison said.
Mary Rose smiled. Cole looked startled. He wasn't used to being sassed by another man. All her other guests had been too timid to talk back to any of her brothers. Harrison wasn't like anyone she'd ever known before.
Cole decided not to press the issue. He turned to his sister. He gave her a wide smile. She thought he was trying to be sweet, a rarity for him. When he continued to smile, she realized something else might be the cause.
"Why are you grinning at me like that?" she asked suspiciously.
He wasn't about to tell her the truth. His poor sister looked downright pitiful. Her hair was practically standing on end. The blue and white ribbon was dangling down the front of her neck. Dried blood caked her forehead and her chin. There was more on her neck. She was going to have heart palpitations when she looked at herself in a mirror.
"I'm happy you're feeling better," he told her.
He continued to ride by their side. Mary Rose wanted him to leave her and Harrison alone. She wasn't finished making Harrison tell her how he'd felt. He wouldn't say another word as long as Cole was hanging around. She needed privacy all right, and there was only one sure way to get it.
"I'm not feeling better."
"You just laughed. I heard you."
"I was delirious. I'm in terrible pain. Have you forgotten what happened to me? My head throbs and my hip is…"
She didn't need to go on and on. Cole took off. She watched him take over the lead and let Travis trail behind him. Douglas stayed well behind the group so he could protect their backs from any surprises.
"Now then, what were you telling me?"
"Mary Rose, I'm really concerned about you. Are you in terrible pain? You need a doctor," he once again insisted.
She patted his hand. "I'm fine, really. Now I remember," she continued. "You just can't help it, can you, Harrison?"
"You're sure you're all right? You sounded so weak and ill when you were telling Cole how poorly you felt. I'm really going to have to insist you see a physician," he said again.
She patted his hand. "It's sweet of you to worry. I'm fine, really. You can't help it, can you?"
"Help what? Being sweet?"
She smiled. "No, you can't help caring about me." Now he would tell her what he was feeling in his heart. "Of course I care about you. I care about your brothers too. You all took me into your home and fed me. You gave me a bed and…"
"Pat them and feed them, and they'll be forever beholding."
"What did you just say?"
"Are you going to look at me?"
"I'm getting ready to," she said. "Promise me something first."
"What is it?"
"Don't have any more spells. Be who I think you are. All right?"
"I don't have spells, Mary Rose, and I'm going to have to figure out what you think I am before I can accommodate you."
She believed that was fair enough. She finally turned to look at him. She quickly wished she hadn't bothered. Harrison looked startled, but only for a second or two. Then he gave her the same silly grin Cole had given her just minutes before.
He explained his behavior before she could ask. "You kind of remind me of Ghost."
"That bad?" she whispered.
He tried to organize her curls. They seemed to be everywhere. She reached up to help him. "Didn't I look like this in town? You weren't smiling then?"
"I was upset in town. I'm not upset now. Besides, your hair…"
"What about my hair?"
She pushed his hand out of her way so she could smooth her curls properly. "Is it standing on end? Oh, Lord, do I really look like Ghost?"
"No, his hair has a part on the side. Yours doesn't."
"Mary Rose? You'll never guess who's waiting for us," Cole shouted. "Clive Harrington's standing in our front yard."
Cole shouted the news from the lookout above the ranch. She immediately forgot about her appearance. She told Harrison to hurry and catch up with her brother.
"Clive must be sick," she called out.
Cole shook his head. "I don't think he is."
Travis was the next one to reach the rise. "Now, what is his stagecoach doing in our front yard?"
Something must have happened. Mary Rose was sure of it. Clive had a strict policy. He never drove his vehicle onto anyone's property. He said it went against his principles. He left his passengers at the various crossroads along his route. It was up to them to figure out how to get home. Guests received the same treatment. Clive didn't concern himself about strangers getting lost. He didn't worry about their baggage either. He told Mary Rose he had more important matters to think about.
He had hinted he'd change his rule just for her, of course, but she insisted he treat her like everyone else. She didn't want special consideration. Clive thought she was an angel, sent down from heaven to help him keep to his standards.
She and Harrison finally reached the vantage point above the valley. She spotted Clive right away, pacing back and forth in front of his horses.
"Something terrible has happened," she announced. "Look how agitated poor Clive is."
"Where's Adam?" Travis wondered.
"He must be inside the house," Douglas guessed from behind.
"It's terrible all right."
"Don't borrow trouble, Mary Rose," Harrison advised. "It could be just the opposite. Something wonderful could have happened and the stagecoach driver is anxious to tell you all about it."
She half turned in his lap so he could see how exasperated she was by his ludicrous suggestion.
"Maybe he got robbed," Travis speculated.
"I doubt it," Cole replied. "Everyone around here knows he never carries anything of value."
"Please hurry," Mary Rose pleaded. "I have to help Clive. He's in trouble."
"It might not be bad news," Cole argued. " Harrison could be right."
"After the morning I've had. Of course it's bad. I deserve it."
"Are you going to start in again?"
"I said some mean things about Catherine," she told her brother.
"Everything I said was true, but I still shouldn't have said them. In my defense, I will tell you that if you had any idea what I had to suffer growing up with her for my only companion, you would get down on your knees and beg my forgiveness. Yes, you would. Why didn't you just give me a rattlesnake to play with? I would have been safer."
Travis smiled at Harrison. "Mary Rose is still mad Catherine cut her hair. She likes to hold a grudge."
"The haircut was the least of it. Either start down the hill, or please get out of my way."
The brothers finally moved. They reached the ranch a few minutes later. Clive hurried over to help her down to the ground. "Lordy, Lordy, what happened to you, Miss Mary?"
"Bickley punched me."
Clive became outraged on her behalf. "I'm gonna kill him for you. Just see if I don't."
"Now, Clive, don't get all riled up. It isn't good for your digestion. Bickley and his friends are being taken back to Hammond. The sheriff will take care of them. It's very sweet of you to be concerned about me. You're such a dear friend."
"Are you in pain, Miss Mary?" Clive asked. He wasn't convinced he should let the matter drop.
"No, no, not at all," she assured him. "Once I wash my face and change my dress, you won't be able to tell anything happened to me."
"And comb your hair," he suggested.
She immediately tried to smooth her curls down again. "Now, tell me why you're here. Is something wrong?"
"Something's wrong all right," he answered. "I'm so thankful you're finally home. You got no business going into Blue Belle today, Miss Mary. It ain't Saturday. Did you forget?"
"No, I needed supplies to take to another friend. It was a special circumstance."
"All right then, if it was special," he muttered. His mind returned to his dilemma. "Even though you look like you got yourself run over, you're still a sight for these sore eyes. I need your help something desperate. You just got to help me. You just got to."
She shot her brothers an I-told-you-it-was-trouble look before giving Clive her full attention again. "Of course I'll help. Just tell me what's wrong."
"You got to get her out of my stagecoach. She won't budge. She wouldn't even let Adam get near the door. She started in shouting at him. She said she wasn't going to let no hired hand greet her. It weren't proper. That's precisely what she said, all right. I tried to tell her how things were around here, but she wouldn't listen. She won't believe Adam's your brother. I could understand her doubt. She ain't from around here, so she ain't used to things. Adam finally gave up and went on back inside. He didn't want to get shot. She was threatening to do him in if he got near the coach again. Your brother offered me a comfortable chair and a cool drink. I didn't dare take him up on his offer though. I couldn't leave her out here alone. No telling what she'd do to my coach if I turned my back on her. I tried to soft talk her out, Miss Mary. Nothing worked. She demands a proper greeting, and she says she ain't getting out until she gets what she wants. She's been roosting in there a good two hours. She's something else, Miss Mary."
"Who do you have inside?" Douglas asked. He had already tried to look in the window, but a dark drape blocked his view.
"Miss Border." He shuddered when he whispered the name.
"Eleanor?" Mary Rose was thunderstruck. She couldn't believe what Clive was telling her. What in heaven's name was Eleanor Border doing in her front yard?
Douglas whirled around and stared at his sister. "The Eleanor?"
Clive tugged on her arm before she could answer her brother.
"You just got to take her off my hands. I swear I'll do anything you ask. I'll even beg if you want me to."
Cole was the only brother who was amused by the news. His eyes sparkled with delight. "You're already begging," he said. Then he started laughing. The notorious roommate they'd heard all those outrageous stories about, the woman who had made Mary Rose miserable for years now, had come to pay her respects.
"What is she doing here?" Travis demanded. He was good and angry.
"Did you invite her?" Douglas asked.
"Sort of," she hedged.
"What does'sort of mean?" Douglas asked. He stomped over to stand in front of his sister. "Well?"
"I did invite her, but only because I was certain she wouldn't ever take me up on my offer. She doesn't like the frontier. She thinks it's barbaric and uncivilized. Douglas, do quit glaring at me. What's done is done."
"Has that woman ever been west of St. Louis before?" Travis asked.
"No, but she still doesn't like it," Mary Rose explained.
"I want you to tell me she isn't the same Eleanor you've been talking about all these past years," Douglas demanded.
He latched on to her other arm and wasn't going to let go until she gave him what he wanted.
"You know perfectly well she's the same Eleanor," his sister whispered. She tried to pry off his hand so she could go and get her houseguest.
"I could wring your neck for inviting her, Mary Rose," Travis muttered.
"You're acting like a child," she said. "And lower your voice. I don't want her to hear us talking about her. She has tender feelings."
Cole burst out laughing again.
"Clive, take her back to Blue Belle," Douglas suggested. "She can stay in one of the rooms above the saloon."
"Be reasonable, for heaven's sake. Only drunks stay above the saloon. Eleanor's a delicate and refined lady."
"I don't think any of you understand my problem here," Clive cried out. "I got to get rid of her if I'm ever going to make Morton Junction before nightfall. People are waiting on me."
"Yes, of course," Mary Rose soothed. "We'll help you."
Clive wasn't listening. He was on a roll and wasn't about to stop. He'd been storing up his frustration for two long hours. It was time to get it all out.
"If folks around here find out I broke my own principles and brung her right to your front door, I'll never be able to hold my head up again."
He turned to the brothers. "I'm telling you, men, she's something else. I ain't going against her. She already put a hole in my best hat. Thank the Lord it weren't perched on my head at the time. She told me she'd shoot me down like a dog if I misbehaved on her. I don't know about her being delicate, Miss Mary. I only know you got to do something quick. I want to get out of here."
"I'll get her out right this minute," she promised. " Douglas, please let go of me. We have to be hospitable. We've already been rude by making her wait."
Harrison stood by MacHugh's side and watched. He was astonished by everyone's reaction to the unwanted guest. Needless to say, Eleanor Border had captured his curiosity.
"Do you think I'm going to let you welcome her after she was rude to my brother?" Douglas asked.
"She didn't understand."
"Exactly what didn't she understand?" Travis asked. "You heard Clive. He said he told her Adam was your brother."
"She obviously didn't believe him," Mary Rose countered.
"She threatened to shoot him too," Clive interjected.
Cole quit smiling. "She what?" he said in a near shout.
"I never told anyone about my family. Cole, calm down. You insisted I keep quiet about everyone. Remember? All of you told me over and over again not to mention any details about our family." She lowered her voice when she added, "Eleanor probably thought Clive was trying to dump her."
"I was trying to dump her," Clive shouted.
Mary Rose closed her eyes. Douglas was still tugging on her arm, and Clive was on her other side pulling on her hand. Honest to heaven, she wasn't up to this today. She hurt all over, and she really didn't want to waste time trying to fix something that couldn't be fixed. They were stuck with Eleanor Border whether they liked it or not.
"She'll apologize to Adam," she promised.
"Or what?" Travis asked.
"Or she'll leave," Mary Rose promised.
"What about me, Miss Mary? She called me an ignorant mule. She said I didn't know what a bath was. She said a lot of other nasty things about me too, but I ain't gonna repeat them. She's got the sting of a hornet, I'm telling you. And for what? All I did was try to pitch her out at the junction. Was that a crime, I ask you? You know I've got my standards."
"Yes, I know. No one's ever going to find out you broke your policy to bring her here. None of us will tell anyone. Eleanor's going to apologize to you too, Clive. She'll pay for a brand-new hat. Will that make you feel better?"
Clive looked like he wanted to weep with gratitude. Mary Rose patted him.
"You're a good man to put up with her. I know how she can be. She was my roommate at school. I'm so sorry you were inconvenienced."
Clive leaned forward. "And terrorized, Miss Mary. I ain't afraid to admit it."
Cole rolled his eyes toward heaven. "I say we set the coach on fire. She'll get out fast then. I'll buy you a new one, Clive."
Mary Rose closed her eyes again. She decided not to waste any more time soothing anyone. She pulled away from her brother and ran over to the side of the stagecoach.
Clive backed up all the way to the steps leading up to the porch.
Mary Rose knocked on the door and then tried to open it. It wouldn't budge.
"Eleanor, I'm home now. Please open the door," she called out.
"It's Mary Rose."
She heard the click of the bolt as it was unlocked. She opened the door then and climbed inside. Before anyone could see inside, she shut the door behind her.
There was enough of a crack between the curtains for light to filter inside the coach. Mary Rose took one look at Eleanor and was immediately flooded with guilt over all the stories she'd ever told about her. Her old roommate looked terrified. She was huddled in the corner of the coach and was visibly shaking with fear. Tears streamed down her face.
Mary Rose sat down on the bench across from Eleanor and started to lean forward to take hold of her hand. She noticed the gun then. Eleanor was holding it in her lap. The barrel was pointed at Mary Rose.
She wasn't alarmed. Just nervous. Eleanor was looking at her, but Mary Rose didn't think she was really seeing her.
"When did you get a gun?" she asked.
"Do you know how to use it?"
"Not yet. I'll learn."
"Guns are dangerous, Eleanor. You shouldn't be carrying one."
"I cut my hair. Do you like it?"
Mary Rose wasn't at all surprised by the question. Eleanor had always tended to be a little self-involved. Her appearance came before everything else-apparently even terror.
The poor woman was so frightened, her hands were shaking. She had a wild look in her eyes, and Mary Rose was suddenly reminded of a deer trapped in a tangled mass of brier.
Eleanor was a strikingly pretty woman with dark black-brown hair and vivid green eyes. Her hair used to be shoulder length but now only just covered her ears. It was curly everywhere and very pretty.
"Yes, I do like your hair. It's lovely."
She kept her voice whisper soft. She didn't want to startle Eleanor, and her movements were slow and measured as she reached over and turned the weapon until the barrel pointed toward the floor. She then gently pried the gun out of Eleanor's hand. Her friend watched what she was doing, but didn't try to stop her.
"You don't have to be afraid any longer. You're safe now. Everything's going to be all right."
"No, it isn't going to be all right. Nothing can ever be the same. I didn't want to come here. You know how I dislike primitive conditions."
"If you didn't want to come here, why did you?"
"I didn't have any other place to go."
She finally really looked at Mary Rose. Her eyes filled with fresh tears.
Eleanor looked miserable and still very afraid. Mary Rose decided to find out what had caused her to become so frightened. Her friend had always been quite unemotional at school and somewhat cold-hearted. Except late at night, Mary Rose remembered. She would hear Eleanor weeping then.
"You're a contradiction, Eleanor," she remarked. "Tell me about your father. Weren't you going to Europe with him after you finished school?"
"It was all a lie," Eleanor answered. "Father ran away. He didn't even tell me he was leaving. He just… ran."
"The authorities came to the school to question me. I found out what Father had done then. I had to leave the school of course. The headmistress was furious. It seems that Father had promised her funds to construct a new building."
"She couldn't just toss you out," Mary Rose protested.
"She did," Eleanor insisted. "The last of the fees hadn't been paid. The investigators told me Father had taken money from other people. All these past years he's been stealing from his clients with one scheme after another. He lived high and mighty. He was always impeccable in his dress, always insisted on wearing the latest fashions. He must have had over fifty suits in his wardrobe. Father always had a young woman latched on to his arm."
"And?" Mary Rose prodded when she didn't continue.
"He didn't want me dampening his social position. I was a constant reminder to others how old he was getting. He stuck me in boarding school so he wouldn't have to have me around."
"You can't know if he wanted you or not."
"Yes, I can know. He told me so many times, I got sick of hearing it. He never wanted me. My mother tricked him into marriage by getting pregnant. She died having me, but she had a ring on her finger, so she was probably content."
Mary Rose was appalled by what she was hearing. Her heart went out to Eleanor. She was careful not to show her compassion openly, for Eleanor would undoubtedly think she was feeling sorry for her.
Mary Rose was feeling sorry for the poor woman, but she didn't want her to know it.
Pride. It certainly got in the way of practical solutions.
"I thought you and your father lived an exciting life. Did you go to all those exotic places on your vacations…?"
"No, I never went anywhere. I stayed with the housekeeper at home."
"But the stories you told me about…"
"I read about all those places. That was all. I wanted to impress you."
Eleanor shrugged. "I don't know."
"Why didn't you just tell me the truth?"
"I had my appearances to keep up," she muttered. "Like father, like daughter, I suppose. Besides, you would have pitied me."
"What happened to your father? Where is he now?"
"I don't have any idea. No one does. The authorities are still looking for him. I should be thankful he paid some of my tuition, but I'm not. He used other people's money. He didn't leave me a note telling me where he went. The police didn't believe me. I was taken to a jail and had to stay there for two nights. It was horrible. They finally had to release me. It is all a big scandal, of course. People as far away as Chicago hate me because I'm related to him. Everyone seems to think I know where he's hiding. The authorities were watching the house night and day. It was unbearable. I hid behind the drapes and tried to pretend nothing had happened."
"I'm so sorry," Mary Rose whispered.
Eleanor didn't seem to hear her. "I thought we owned the house, but we didn't. Our landlady threw me out. I didn't know where else to go. You told me I could come to you if I ever needed you. Did you mean it?"
"Yes, of course I meant it."
"You won't send me away?"
"No, I won't send you away," she promised. "Were you worried I wouldn't let you stay because you and I haven't always gotten along?"
"You're the only person at school who put up with me at all. I know I can be difficult. I was hateful to you because I knew you were feeling sorry for me."
"I didn't feel sorry for you. Are you about ready to get out of the coach?"
Eleanor reached for the door handle. Mary Rose stayed her hand. "Wait just one minute," she asked. "I'd like to talk to you about my brothers before you meet them. Adam…"
"The man with the black skin?"
"Yes," she answered.
"You aren't going to believe what that horrid driver told me. He said the dark man was your brother. Can you believe such outrageous…"
"Adam is my brother. Because he is the oldest in our family, he is also the head of the family."
Eleanor's mouth dropped open. "You can't be serious."
"I'm perfectly serious. You're going to have to apologize to him before you can come into our house."
Eleanor was flabbergasted. She leaned back against the cushions and stared at Mary Rose. "How in heaven's name…"
"How isn't important," Mary Rose insisted. "Adam is my brother, and I love him with all my heart."
"He can't be your brother."
Mary Rose was weary of trying to convince her. "He is," she insisted abruptly, for what she decided was the last time. "Adam and my other brothers raised me from the time I was an infant. We're a family, Eleanor, and family comes before everything else."
"Do people around here accept all of you?"
Mary Rose let out a sigh. "We've been here a long time. I suppose everyone's used to us. Well? Are you going to apologize?"
Eleanor nodded. "I didn't mean to offend him. I didn't say anything mean, Mary Rose. I thought the driver was lying to me. He had already tried to toss me out in the middle of a dirt road. Can you imagine?"
"The driver's name is Clive Harrington. He's a good man. You're going to have to apologize to him too. You really shouldn't have shot at him."
Eleanor shrugged. She obviously wasn't overly contrite. "I didn't mean to shoot at him, but I don't believe I want you to tell him that. He might get angry if he knew the gun just sort of went off."
"He's already angry."
"It was an accident," Eleanor insisted. "Why do I have to apologize to him for something I didn't mean to do?"
"You could have killed the man."
"You also inconvenienced him," Mary Rose told her. "And you hurt his feelings. I promised him you'd say you were sorry. I also gave my word that you would purchase a new hat for him. You put a hole in the only one he owns."
"I can't buy him a hat. I don't have enough money."
"Then I'll give you enough," Mary Rose said. "Just don't let Clive know. Pretend you're going to buy the thing with your money."
"Why do you care about his feelings?"
"Clive is my friend."
"Oh, all right," Eleanor muttered. "I can tell you're going to be stubborn about this. I'll apologize and I'll buy him a new hat. Why didn't you tell me about Adam? Were you afraid I would tell the other girls?"
Mary Rose shook her head. "Why would I care if you told anyone or not?"
"Because you would have been shunned."
Mary Rose's patience was worn thin. All she wanted was a hot bath and a little comfort. She knew she wasn't going to get either of those things until she got her houseguest situated.
"We know all about prejudice, Eleanor. Being shunned by a group of ignorant girls means little to me. Frankly, my brothers and I have learned not to waste our time on people who hate. All my brothers are wonderful, proud men. I'm not ashamed of my family."
"Then why didn't you say anything?"
"Family is private," Mary Rose explained, repeating what she'd been told over and over again by her brothers. "Who we are and what we do isn't anyone else's business."
"Now that I think about it, you never told me about your other brothers either," Eleanor said. "I knew you had four, but that's all I ever knew. Are they… like Adam?"
"Yes," Mary Rose replied. "They're just as kind and good-hearted. Douglas and Cole are a little more stubborn though."
Eleanor couldn't seem to get her wits about her. She was still reeling inside from the shock Mary Rose had given her.
"We can get out now."
"In a minute," Eleanor whispered. "Things are different out here, aren't they?"
"Conditions are different here than in the city," Mary Rose replied. "But family is family, no matter where home is."
"What in heaven's name is that supposed to mean?"
"Now that I know about your father and what your family life was like, I can well understand why you wouldn't understand. Once you get used to all of us, I think you'll like living here. It's stifling inside, Eleanor. Can't we get out?"
"Adam is head of your household and for that reason, I shall respect him. I give you my promise."
Mary Rose shook her head. "No, you will respect him because you should. His position in the family isn't important. Meet him,
Eleanor. I promise you that once you get to know him, you'll respect him because of who he is, not what he is."
"Honestly, Mary Rose, you're always trying to mix me up. Adam's the only one who can make me leave, isn't he?"
Mary Rose gave up trying to reason with the woman. "Oh, for heaven's sake," she muttered. "I want a bath. Will you please stop arguing with me and get out?"
Eleanor finally noticed how horrid Mary Rose looked. "What happened to you?"
"A difference of opinion," she replied.
"Your brothers didn't…"
"Of course not. Honestly, Eleanor, we aren't barbarians. I'm getting out before I faint."
"It is hot in here, isn't it?"
Mary Rose reached for the door latch. "You will be gracious to everyone, won't you?"
She wouldn't have demanded the promise if she hadn't known just what Eleanor was capable of. "Don't you dare try any of your nonsense on my brothers. They won't put up with it."
"You know what I'm talking about."
"Give me an example."
"The look of disdain you give everyone," Mary Rose said. "And the…"
"Oh, all right. I'll be nice. Lord, I only hope I know how."
Mary Rose wondered the very same thing. She finally opened the door and tried to get outside. The heat had made her weak, and the burst of fresh air was as refreshing as a drink of cool water after a day in the garden.
The door knocked Harrison. He'd been standing close by, waiting to see if Mary Rose needed his help. He offered her his hand and helped her step down to the ground.
He looked worried. She smiled to let him know everything was all right. She still had Eleanor's gun in her hand, but kept the weapon pointed to the ground until Harrison spotted it and took it away from her. He tossed it to Cole who immediately tucked it into his gunbelt.
Eleanor climbed out of the stagecoach a minute later and stood next to Mary Rose's side. She squinted against the sunlight and kept her gaze directed on her friend.
Because Harrison was the closest, Mary Rose introduced him to Eleanor first. Then she made her brothers come forward to meet their new houseguest.
Clive was standing by the steps. He still looked as though he wanted to string Eleanor up from the nearest tree.
Eleanor and Mary Rose walked over to face the driver. Eleanor finally whispered an apology.
Clive wasn't satisfied. "You got to say it loud and clear so everyone will hear, and you got to call me Mr. Harrington, real respectful-like."
Mary Rose had to nudge Eleanor into complying. Clive never smiled, but Mary Rose could tell he was pleased by Eleanor's apology because his scowl wasn't as dark.
"Miss Mary, will she keep her word about buying me a hat?"
"Yes," Mary Rose promised.
Clive nodded. He strutted back to his stagecoach, muttering under his breath all the while. Mary Rose knew his bluster was all for the men's benefit. Clive couldn't act relieved, not if he wanted to keep his mean reputation in tact.
The driver climbed up on the perch, took the reins in his hands, and then called out to Mary Rose. "I was feeling a bit poorly early in the week, but now…"
He paused in his explanation to glare at Eleanor. "Now I ain't too sure how I feel. How long is she gonna stay?"
"For a spell," Mary Rose answered. "There's always room for you, Clive. You know that."
"I'm feeling better," he said. "I might be able to fight off this illness… for a spell. Bye now, Miss Mary."
"What was that all about?" Eleanor asked.
Mary Rose waved to her friend before answering. "He's telling me he won't get sick until you leave. Why don't you go and sit in one of the chairs on the porch while I go inside and talk to Adam. It's going to take a while," she predicted. "He's going to have to welcome you before you can set foot in our house."
"What if he won't welcome me?"
Mary Rose didn't want to think about that possibility. "Adam is compassionate. I'll have to tell him what happened to you. Will you mind?"
"Will he tell everyone?"
"No," she assured her.
Eleanor agreed. "Do I have to sit there alone?"
Mary Rose looked around her for someone to keep Eleanor company. Harrison became her only candidate for the task, but only because he was the slowest one getting away. Cole had already reached the main barn, and both Travis and Douglas were hot on his heels.
Harrison didn't particularly want the duty, but he was gallant enough to do as Mary Rose asked.
He made her beg first, however, which she thought was extremely rude of him.
She had to chase after him too. "Will you slow down?" she demanded when she finally reached his side. "Why are you frowning like that?"
"I was concerned about you," he admitted. "You shouldn't have gotten inside. She had a gun, Mary Rose. You could have been hurt. She already shot at Clive," he reminded her.
"Eleanor wouldn't hurt me, or anyone else for that matter. She's afraid, Harrison. She's had a bad time lately. Be kind to her."
Harrison knew he was going to have to be a gentleman about this. He shouted to Douglas to come and get MacHugh, and when the brother arrived, he followed Mary Rose over to the porch.
She was finally able to go inside the house. Adam was in the library, sitting behind his desk. He was diligently working on one of his ledgers and didn't notice her standing in the doorway for a minute or two.
She patiently waited, and all the while she fought the tears gathering in her eyes.
She finally gave up trying to remain composed. She was fighting the inevitable, after all. For as long as she could remember, she'd been disgustingly predictable. Regardless of the severity of the insult or injury done to her, she could always control herself and maintain her dignity until she got home and spotted her oldest brother.
Then she would fall apart.
Today she proved to be as predictable as a downpour during a picnic. All it took was for Adam to notice her.
"Oh, sister, what happened to you?"
Mary Rose promptly burst into tears and threw herself into her big brother's arms.
February 13, 1864
Dear Mama Rose,
We just finished poring over a month-old newspaper Travis traded some skins for up near Perry, and a gentleman by the name of Benson reprinted Lincoln's speech he made in Gettysburg. We had already read about the battle there back in July, where so many brave men gave their lives. Benson said our President made the speech on the site of the cemetery he dedicated on the site of the battlefield. Adam wept when he read the words, and he copied it all down just right so we could send it to you.
Cole thinks you've probably already read it, Mama, but we all think it's too important not to read at least twice.
You and Lincoln are in our prayers.
Mary Rose threw herself into Adam's arms and wept like a little girl. He put his arms around her and patted her until she calmed down. It took her several minutes to regain control. Then she sat on the edge of the desk and poured her heart out. She told him all the horrid details of everything that had happened to her in town. She lingered over the Catherine Morrison episode. Adam examined her injuries while he listened, calmed her with his gentle voice as he said, "Is that so?" over and over again. In no time at all she was feeling fine again.
Her brother took her to the kitchen and washed her face so he could get a better look at the wounds to determine if stitches were going to be necessary. She held her breath until she heard the verdict, then smiled with relief over his decision. Stitches weren't needed after all.
She was finally ready to get on with the business of the day. She started to give Adam his handkerchief back, noticed it was soaked with tears and old blood, and tossed it into the laundry basket instead.
Her brother suggested she go upstairs and get cleaned up. He returned to the library to finish his work. "Relax this afternoon, Mary Rose. You've had enough excitement."
She chased after him. She couldn't pamper herself with a bath as long as Eleanor was sitting on the front porch fretting. She needed to get her settled in, and then she was going to take the supplies she'd purchased to Corrie. She had made the woman a promise to return today, and Mary Rose didn't want to break her word.
"I've indulged myself in childish self-pity long enough," she told her brother. She stood in the doorway and watched Adam take his seat behind his desk once again. She noticed the ledgers were open, knew then she was interrupting his work, but decided he was just going to have to be patient a little longer. The books could wait. Eleanor couldn't.
"Don't forget to put some medicine on those cuts."
"I won't forget," she said. "We need to talk about Eleanor now. She's waiting on the porch. I told her she couldn't come inside until you gave permission. Will you talk to her… in private? She wants to tell you what happened to her before you make up your mind to let her stay or not."
Adam was surprised by the request. "In all of your life, have you ever known me to send anyone away?"
"No, but Eleanor's a different situation. She's going to throw the family into chaos for a little while. Are you in the mood to put up with her?"
"What about your brothers? Shouldn't they have a say?"
"They'll do whatever you think is right," she countered. "Cole will be difficult, of course, but he'll figure out a way to avoid her until she settles down."
Adam leaned back in his chair and gave his sister a speculative look. "Exactly how long is Eleanor going to be staying with us?"
She couldn't look at him when she gave her answer. "For a spell."
"Is that right? And exactly how long is 'a spell,' Mary Rose?"
She shrugged. "I wish I knew," she whispered. "Talk to her, please? She's scared. She needs a safe place."
Adam let out a sigh. He stood up and came around the desk. "All right," he agreed. "Go on upstairs now. I'll take care of Eleanor. Her last name is…?"
"Border," Mary Rose answered. "Shouldn't I stay down here while you talk to her?"
Adam shook his head. "That isn't necessary."
She started up the stairs to the second floor. Adam was almost to the front door when she turned and called out to him.
"I want to make certain she…"
He turned around and looked up at her. "She what?"
"Apologizes to you. She insulted you, Adam, and I don't want her to come inside my house until she tells you she's sorry."
"Oh, for heaven's sake, go on upstairs. You're giving me a headache. I'll deal with Eleanor."
Adam opened the screen door. Eleanor was sitting in one of the wicker chairs talking to Harrison. Their other houseguest wasn't sitting. He was leaning against the post with his arms folded across his chest, looking both irritated and bored.
Adam waited until Eleanor had finished complaining to Harrison about the heat.
"Miss Border, will you come inside to the library with me? I'd like to talk to you."
He raised an eyebrow over her reaction to his request. He hadn't raised his voice, but she acted as though he'd just shouted at her. She jumped to her feet so quickly, she toppled over her chair in the process.
Harrison reached down and straightened the chair back up again.
Eleanor started toward Adam, then suddenly stopped. She clasped her hands together. "I can't come inside, Mr. Clayborne."
"You can't? Why not?" Adam asked.
"Mary Rose told me I couldn't until I apologize to you. I'm sorry, truly sorry, if you were offended. I didn't believe that horrible driver. I thought he was lying to me so he could get rid of me. I certainly didn't wish to give you the impression that because you're… you know, well, that I couldn't… because that wasn't it at all. I didn't even believe that man had driven me to Mary Rose's house."
She eventually had to pause for breath. Adam hadn't blinked an eye during her explanation. Harrison was impressed. He couldn't stop smiling. He wanted to ask her to explain exactly what Adam was, just to watch her squirm, but because he was a gentleman, he didn't give in to the urge.
Cole didn't have any such reservations. Being a gentleman obviously didn't rank high on his list. He had just reached the steps leading up to the porch when Eleanor started her convoluted apology.
"Adam's a 'you know'? What's that?" he asked her.
She turned to frown at the brother. "I was apologizing because I didn't believe Adam was Mary Rose's brother. She only told me she had four older brothers and a mama who lived in the South somewhere, but she never gave me any details. I will admit, I never asked."
She paused to look Cole up and down. "Your sister was obviously jesting with me in the stagecoach when she said you and the other two were just like Adam. You aren't, of course."
She dismissed the brother from her thoughts then and there and turned back to Adam. "May I still come inside, sir?"
"Please," Adam said. "You're welcome to stay with us."
"Wait a minute. I still want to know…"
"Let it go, Cole," Adam suggested. His tone didn't leave room for argument.
Eleanor walked over to the doorway. She waved her hand in Harrison 's direction, in an action that reminded him of England 's queen.
"Fetch my bags out of the dirt and put them in my room," she commanded.
Cole grinned at Harrison. He smiled back at the brother. Then Harrison turned to Eleanor. "Sorry, Miss, but I can't fetch for you," he announced. "I'm not allowed on the second floor."
Harrison went down the steps. "Guess that leaves you to do the fetching," he drawled out on his way past the brother.
"Be sure to dust them off before you bring them inside, Kyle," she commanded.
Harrison heard a blasphemy and decided then and there that the day was beginning to look better. He spotted Douglas running out of the barn. MacHugh was chasing him. The stallion was obviously in one of his moods and was taking his bad temper out on the brother. Yes, sir, the day was looking better and better.
"Adam, I want to talk to you about something important," Cole called out. He had to shout at his brother so he'd hear him above Harrison 's laughter.
Adam let Eleanor walk past him before answering Cole. "I won't be long," he promised.
"What do you need to do?"
"Talk to Miss Border," he answered. "It shouldn't take any time at all."
Adam was partially correct in his estimation. The talk with Eleanor didn't take any time at all. It took three long hours.
The private discussion started out strained. An hour later Adam found himself in the most ludicrous position of getting the front of his shirt all wet again. Eleanor turned out to be a little like Mary Rose. After vehemently insisting she never, ever cried, she wept all over him.
Cole got tired of waiting for Adam to finish up. He was determined to talk to him about Harrison. Finding out their houseguest was an attorney had rattled him. He wanted to get Adam's take on the situation before he made a real issue out of the discovery.
He heard all the commotion inside the library, opened the door to find out what was going on, and then stood there watching in stunned disbelief. Eleanor had her arms wrapped around Adam's waist and was sobbing and trying to talk at the same time. Cole couldn't make out any of the words. It all sounded like gibberish to him. Adam's reaction was amusing to watch. He stood there in the center of the library with his hands up in the air, looking as though he'd just been told to reach for the sky. Cole's brother appeared to be horribly uncomfortable, and definitely helpless.
Adam finally reached down with one hand and awkwardly patted Eleanor on her shoulder. He noticed Cole watching from the doorway, glared at him because he was smiling, and then motioned him to leave.
Cole immediately closed the door.
Neither brother mentioned the incident during supper. Eleanor had chosen to stay in her room. Mary Rose had taken a tray of food up to her and a fresh pot of tea she hoped would calm the overwrought woman.
She was the last to join everyone at the dining room table.
"Sorry I'm late," she said. "Eleanor isn't going to come down and eat with us tonight. She's all tuckered out."
She took her seat adjacent to Adam. "She certainly likes you," she whispered to her oldest brother. "Of course, she doesn't realize yet how stubborn you can be."
"I don't believe she likes Adam at all," Douglas interjected. "Fact is, I think she might be prejudiced."
Cole shook his head. He had thought the same thing until he saw her with her arms wrapped around Adam. She wouldn't be holding on to someone she hated.
"No, she's just rude," he told the family.
"You sure?" Douglas asked. "I don't want her around here if you aren't sure."
"What do you have a bee in your bonnet about, Mary Rose? You're frowning like you're stewing over something or other," Travis asked.
"I refused to give her permission to ride up to the ridge this afternoon," Adam said.
"I am not a child. I don't understand why you think…"
"We have a houseguest," Adam said. "Kindly remember that."
She immediately closed her mouth and turned to Harrison.
"Can't we start? I'm starving," Douglas asked. He reached for the bowl of potatoes but stopped when Adam asked him to wait another minute.
" Harrison? Do you happen to speak French?"
"Yes. Why do you ask?"
"I'd like you to indulge us for this evening."
"Certainly," Harrison agreed without having the faintest idea what the brother had just asked of him.
Adam turned to the family. "We've been remiss, these past weeks and have gotten out of the habit of saying our blessing. Mary Rose, would you like to lead us in grace?"
She nodded agreement, then bowed her head and folded her hands together in prayer.
"Au nom du Pere…"
Harrison was once again astonished by the Clayborne family. Each and every one of them spoke French throughout the meal. Mary Rose, he noticed, had the strongest vocabulary, and he assumed she had studied the language while attending boarding school. Understanding French and Latin would have been requirements. She wasn't simply skilled, however. Both her accent and her ease in speaking the language indicated to him that she'd been studying for a long, long time.
Travis was amusing to listen to, for while he was fluent, he had a noticeable twang in his voice. He slaughtered some pronunciations. A Frenchman would have cringed hearing them.
The prayer Mary Rose had recited before supper was familiar to Harrison, but he couldn't quite put his finger on where or when he'd heard it before.
"May I ask a question?"
"Again? What now, Harrison?" Cole asked.
Harrison ignored the brother's sarcasm. "The prayer you all said is familiar, but I can't remember where I've heard it before."
"It's a Catholic prayer, called grace," Mary Rose answered. "We recite it before meals."
"Good God Almighty, you're Catholics."
He hadn't realized he'd spoken the thought out loud until he noticed everyone was staring at him. They were looking quite astonished and mystified.
"What have you got against Catholics?"
"Nothing," Harrison answered. "I was just surprised. I don't know why, but I assumed you'd be… something different."
"We are," Mary Rose told him.
"You're what?" Harrison asked.
"Different. We aren't always Catholics."
He leaned back in his chair. His mind was still reeling over the news. Lord Elliott was bound to be horrified. Their family didn't just belong to the Church of England. They owned the front pew.
And why in heaven's name did Harrison think the Claybornes would have joined the Church of England?
He smiled over his initial reaction to hearing the news. Lord Elliott was going to love Mary Rose just as much. He would, however, diligently try to convert her.
It finally registered with him what Mary Rose had just said about being Catholics some of the time. She wasn't making a lick of sense.
"Wait just a minute," he said. "You can't be Catholics some of the time. It's all or nothing. I know. My best friend is Catholic."
"Yet you still dislike…" Cole began.
Harrison wouldn't let him finish his comment. "I do not dislike Catholics. I was surprised to find out you were Catholic. There isn't any more to it than that."
"Why can't we be Catholics some of the time?" Travis asked.
"We are," Mary Rose insisted.
Harrison decided to play along. He would slowly force them with logic and patience to realize they couldn't jest with him.
"All right, let's assume you're Catholics some of the time. Mind telling me when you are?"
"April, May, and June," she replied.
He didn't bat an eye. "What about July, August, and September?"
"Lutheran," Travis told him.
Harrison was impressed. The brother hadn't cracked a smile.
"And the next three months?"
"We're different again. We're Baptists, or at least try to follow their rules."
Harrison had had enough. "Mary Rose, are you about finished…"
He was going to ask her if she was finished jesting with him. She wouldn't let him complete his question, however.
"No, I'm not finished," she interrupted. "Now where was I?"
"January," Cole reminded her.
"Jewish in January, February, and March, and in April…"
"Jewish in January?" He practically shouted the words.
"Now, what in thunder do you have against the Jewish religion?" Cole asked. "You seem to have a lot of grudges against an awful lot of people."
Harrison closed his eyes and counted to ten. Then he once again tried to wade through the mire of confusion the Claybornes had just tossed him into and find some sort of reasonable explanation.
"I do not have any grudges," he snapped. "I'm just trying to make some sense out of you people. None of you can be all of those religions. It's a mockery to each and every faith if you only believe their sacred doctrines three months of the year."
Adam finally took mercy on him. "We're learning all we can about the different religions, Harrison. We believe it's important to understand and respect another man's beliefs. Do you believe in the existence of God?"
"Yes, I do."
"So do we," Adam replied. "We don't belong to an organized church, however."
"Probably because there aren't any in Blue Belle," Douglas interjected. "Folks talk about building a church, but then they start arguing over the kind it will be, and so nothing gets done."
"You were probably raised to be a member of your father's church, weren't you?" Travis asked.
"Yes, I was," Harrison agreed.
"As a child, it wouldn't have occurred to you to think about joining any other church. None of us had fathers around to guide us. We do what we can, Harrison."
He couldn't fault their reasoning. "Self-education," he said.
"And understanding," Adam supplied.
Harrison nodded. "There are many different religions. Will you try to learn about all of them?"
"Even after we have committed our minds and our hearts and our souls to a specific religion, we will continue to keep an open mind about the beliefs of others. Knowledge is freedom, and with freedom comes understanding."
"There are several Jewish families living in Hammond. We visit with them as often as possible. Some of the residents there dislike them. As ridiculous as it seems, they tend to dislike what they don't understand. Some even mock. Their ignorance is shameful. None of us were born Jewish, and we are therefore unable to become practicing Jews; at least from the information the families have shared with us that is the conclusion we have reached. Their traditions are rich and meaningful to them, and we find that the more we know about their faith, the richer we become. Any man who lives by his beliefs is to be admired, not mocked. Now do you understand?"
"Yes," Harrison returned. "Now tell me why you speak French," he continued. "Do you wish to understand how the people in France live?"
Even though he was seated at the opposite end of the long table from his host, Harrison could still see the sparkle that came into Adam's eyes.
He prepared for frustration once again.
"We speak French because it's Thursday."
"And?" Harrison prodded with a grin.
Mary Rose smiled at him. "And we always speak French on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays."
Here we go again, he thought to himself. He knew exactly where this conversation was headed. "Is this discussion going to be like the one we had about the Irish?"
"Perhaps," she allowed.
"What did he mean about the Irish?" Travis asked.
Mary Rose turned to her brother to explain. " Harrison wanted all of us to be Irish. I can't imagine why it was important to him, but it was. I simply tried to be accommodating. He is our guest, after all. I wanted him to feel welcome."
"So that's why you told him I was Irish," Travis said with a nod.
"You are Irish, Travis."
"I know that, Cole. I only wondered why it was important to him. He's a strange duck, isn't he?"
Cole nodded. Then he turned to Harrison. "Maybe he wanted us to be Irish, and then again, maybe he didn't. You'd think, being from Scotland and all, he'd want us to be Scots, and not Irish at all. Exactly what have you got against the Irish, Harrison? What have they ever done to you?"
Harrison suddenly had the urge to pound his head against something hard. He couldn't imagine how the conversation had gotten twisted into a defense of the Irish.
He took a deep breath and tried to be reasonable once again. "I don't care if you're Irish or not," he said.
"Why not?" Cole demanded.
Harrison glared at the offensive brother. He decided that trying to have a normal conversation with any of the Claybornes was simply too difficult for him. He was ready to concede defeat.
"I pray to God I never have to cross-examine any of you in a courtroom," he remarked dryly.
"Now what's wrong with us?" Douglas asked. "We've been real hospitable, haven't we?"
"You people are completely illogical, that's what's wrong with you," Harrison announced. He didn't care if he insulted them or not. Frustration, after all, had its limits.
"Maybe we're just a little too logical for you," Cole reasoned. "Ever think of that possibility?"
"I simply wondered why you speak French three nights of the week," he replied.
"Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays," Cole had the gall to remind him with a grin.
The brothers were all enjoying his frustration. Harrison was slow to catch on this evening, but he wasn't completely dimwitted. He decided they had all had enough sport.
He deliberately changed the subject. "Mary Rose, are you feeling all right?"
"Yes, thank you," she answered.
"She took quite a pounding this morning," Harrison told Adam.
"Apparently so," Adam agreed. His voice was mild, pleasant.
"She looks better," Douglas remarked.
"Better" didn't adequately describe how she looked to Harrison. He thought she was just as beautiful as ever, bruises and all. Her forehead had a bump near her temple the size of a small rock. He couldn't see the cut, however, because her curls covered it. The corner of her mouth was also swollen. It probably stung, he thought. It didn't matter to him. He still wanted to kiss her.
"He's doing it again, Cole."
"Who's doing what, Douglas?"
" Harrison 's gawking at Mary Rose."
"I was simply taking inventory of her injuries," Harrison defended. "You're very resilient, Mary Rose. You're to be complimented for your stamina."
"I'm not at all delicate," she replied. She gave Adam a quick frown before she added, "My brothers can't seem to understand that fact."
"Don't start with us, Mary Rose," Cole warned.
"Don't start what?" she asked, looking as sweet and innocent as a babe.
"You look delicate," Harrison admitted out loud.
"Well, I'm not, so don't get the notion you can tell me what to do. I get enough of that nonsense around here."
Harrison raised an eyebrow over the vehemence in her tone of voice. Mary Rose obviously was in a rotten mood. He wasn't certain what had set her off, but he was intelligent enough not to ask her to tell him what the problem was. She looked as if she wanted to tear someone's head off. His, he decided, was fine right where it was.
"Don't ask her any questions," Cole said in a loud whisper.
"I wouldn't dare," Harrison replied.
"What was it you wanted to talk to me about?" Adam asked Cole.
" Harrison," Cole answered. "I wanted to talk to you about our houseguest. I got tired of waiting for you to finish talking with Eleanor, so I went back to work. Anyway, I know now why Harrison asks so many questions. He just can't help it. You heard what he said about cross-examining us in a courtroom, so you've figured out by now…"
"He's a lawyer," Travis interjected before his brother could finish.
Cole frowned at his brother because he'd stolen his thunder. Then he put the rudeness aside and continued on.
"He thought he had told us, but I think maybe he forgot on purpose. He must have guessed we wouldn't have allowed him to stay with us if we'd known what he did for a living. We got our standards, after all."
Douglas looked stunned by the news. Cole was puzzled by his reaction.
"Weren't you listening to him a couple of minutes ago? Only lawyers cross-examine people," Cole said.
"I wasn't paying attention," Douglas admitted. "Why didn't he admit it to us? He had plenty of opportunities."
"It's extremely rude to talk about a guest when he's in the room," Harrison interjected.
"Isn't it better than waiting for him to leave and then talking about him behind his back?" Cole asked.
"You shouldn't talk about him at all," Harrison instructed.
"Why didn't you tell us?" Douglas asked.
"He thought he had mentioned it," Cole said. "Everyone in town knows, even Dooley."
"Well, we didn't know, now did we?" Douglas said. "Honest to heaven, I'm mad enough to hit him."
"I already did," Cole boasted.
"Yes, he did," Mary Rose said. Her frown was scorching. "Right in Morrison's kitchen. Your brother has excellent table manners, Adam. Wouldn't you agree, Harrison?"
Everyone at the table turned to see whose side he was going to take. Harrison decided to be completely honest with his answer. "Perhaps," he allowed. "However, I will admit I was going to hit him back, but then I noticed you were watching."
"You knew I was watching?" she asked.
He nodded. Her frown intensified. "Yet you still let Catherine Morrison drape herself all over you?"
"She wasn't draped all over me, was she, Cole?"
Since their guest had defended him a minute ago, Cole felt he had to do the same.
"No, she wasn't. She was just being polite, wasn't she, Travis?"
"Maybe a little too polite for my liking," Travis said. "But she was real polite with me too, so I guess it was all right."
"In other words, she was also draped all over you," Mary Rose snapped.
Harrison happened to look at Adam then. He was surprised to notice he was smiling. Mary Rose's reaction to Catherine obviously amused him.
"Why do you care what she does to Harrison?" Cole asked.
"I happen to believe a hostess should be a little less hospitable," she muttered.
"She was hospitable all right," Cole replied.
"Mary Rose, if you'd quit being stubborn and let go of your grudge against Catherine because of the things she did to you when you were little girls, you'd see what a nice woman she's become. Why, she's sweet and innocent and kind-hearted."
Adam suddenly changed the subject.
"I have a question I'd like to ask all of you," he announced. He waited until he had everyone's undivided attention, and then said, "I'm curious to know where all of you were while Mary Rose was getting beaten. Anyone mind telling me?"
Everyone started explaining at the same time. Cole was so rattled by what he felt was implied criticism, he forgot to speak French while he gave his list of reasons why he wasn't looking out for their sister.
Mary Rose was right in the middle of the shouting match. She kept insisting she was perfectly capable of looking out for herself. No one paid any attention to a word she said.
Harrison was fascinated by the change that had come over Adam. He was, as an Englishman would say, bloody furious. It was the first time the oldest brother had ever shown real emotion. The look in his eyes was every bit as chilling as his voice. Travis was coming up with some dandies for why he wasn't watching out for his sister. Cole wasn't making much sense at all, and Douglas was still trying to get his excuses in.
Just as surprising to Harrison was his own behavior. He hadn't simply joined in the argument. He was in the thick of it. He was every bit as loud and obnoxious as Cole was each time he tried to be heard over the others.
He was having the time of his life. Suppers back home were always dignified. And boring. No one ever spoke above a whisper, and no one ever interrupted anyone else to make a point. Only unimportant issues were ever discussed, and Harrison hadn't realized until now how terribly dull his life had been, and how very, very controlled.
"Adam, will you please listen to me," Mary demanded in a near shout. She pounded her hand on the table to get his attention. "I want you to acknowledge that I am a fully grown woman and can take care of myself. Don't you realize how insulting this discussion is to me?"
She didn't like his answer. "You may be excused now, sister. Why don't you go into the parlor and practice your music? I haven't heard you playing in a long while."
She wanted to protest. The look on her brother's face changed her mind.
Everyone stood up when she left the dining room. They were following Harrison 's lead. As soon as their sister was out of sight, they sat back down and started yelling again.
Harrison didn't continue to fight for Adam's attention. He leaned back in his chair and watched the brothers battle it out.
Cole had calmed down sufficiently enough to speak French again. He was now cursing in the language. He seemed to know every colorful blasphemy in the French vocabulary.
"Honest to God, she was there one minute, then she was gone. All I did was turn around and she disappeared on me."
His explanation was the only one that made any sense. Travis was still hedging with his excuses, and nothing he said was at all plausible. Douglas was fully occupied accusing Cole of not paying attention. He reminded his brothers that he was inside the stable and therefore couldn't possibly have been expected to watch Mary Rose. No man could be in two places at the same time.
"Then why did you expect me to be inside the general store and outside at the same time?" Cole asked.
"All right, all right," Travis shouted. "I was on my way over to see Catherine. I should have stayed in town, but I thought you were watching her, Douglas."
Adam turned his gaze on Harrison. "And what were you doing?"
He didn't give any excuses. "I take full responsibility. I got involved in a discussion about the cattle roundup and simply didn't notice her leaving the store."
Adam nodded. He scanned each face before he spoke again. "This cannot happen again. Mary Rose can take care of herself. I realize we aren't her keepers. She also shares the blame because she went searching for trouble. She knows better. She didn't even have a gun with her," he added with a shake of his head. "Our sister let her anger get the better of her. However, now that she's inside the parlor and unable to protest, I'll remind you that she is indeed delicate. She may not like her physical limitations, but that isn't important to us. She could have been killed."
"Yes, she could have," Cole agreed. "Bickley's short, but he's more than twice her weight and muscle."
"His friends were big," Douglas said.
"His friends? There were other men hurting her?"
The brothers flinched over the roar of Adam's displeasure. Cole and Travis turned to Harrison for help. Douglas stared hard at his coffee cup.
"No one else struck her," Harrison explained. "I was able to convince Bickley not to run away. Your brothers would have done the same thing. I just happened to be the first to get to her."
"How did you convince Bickley?" Adam asked. He'd calmed down enough to speak in a normal tone of voice.
"With my fists," Harrison admitted. "I lost my temper. I'm not sorry about that. I could have killed all of them, but I didn't. The men are being taken back to Hammond. The authorities will deal with them."
"What makes you think the sheriff will do anything?" Adam asked.
"Are you saying he won't?" Harrison asked.
"It's doubtful. We live in Blue Belle. The folks in Hammond take care of their own. God only knows, the sheriff has enough to contend with. He'll probably slap their hands and let them go."
"Do you think they'll come back to Blue Belle?" Harrison asked.
"Eventually," Adam said. "Trash always drifts through our town. I don't think Bickley will come after Rose though. You'd be his target, Harrison. I believe all of us should stay on our guards."
The brothers couldn't agree fast enough. Adam smiled. "I'm glad we cleared the air. Harrison, about a month ago, we purchased three hundred head of cattle from a rancher who lives near the falls. Will you be staying around long enough to help us bring them to Rosehill?"
He wasn't given sufficient time to come up with an answer. Douglas gave his opinion first. "He doesn't know how to rope a steer, Adam. Do you, Harrison?"
"No. But I…"
"Let me guess," Cole drawled out. " 'It can't be all that difficult,' right? Isn't that what you said about breaking in the horses?"
"I was perhaps a bit inept," Harrison conceded. "However, I'm certain that if you give me a rope and show me how to use it, I'll get the hang of it in no time at all."
"He's a glutton for pain, isn't he?" Douglas remarked.
"When are you going to realize you're completely out of your element?" Cole asked.
"Just after I smash your face in, Cole."
Everyone laughed. They didn't think he was serious. "Yes, sir, you sure are easy to like," Cole said.
"Why is that?" Harrison asked.
"You're the only one who stands up to him," Douglas explained. "That's why he likes you. You might not be too smart, but you sure have courage. Cole isn't used to anyone talking back to him."
Harrison shrugged. "How far away is this rancher with the cattle you purchased?"
"About two days' ride," Cole answered. "You can start working with a rope the day after tomorrow. You have to finish up with the mustangs first. You've still got that stubborn one to break in. Remember?"
Harrison let out a sigh. "I remember. The speckled one. He hasn't been ready to listen to reason yet. He's getting there though. I can feel him warming to the idea. He's a lot like you, Cole. Real stubborn. I'll probably have better luck with him tomorrow."
"You'd already be finished if you didn't waste so much time talking everything over with the horses first. They don't understand a word you say to them. You must realize that."
"I'm getting them used to my voice," Harrison explained. "They're stubborn, yes, but also frightened. I'm not the only one who talks to the horses. I've heard Douglas."
"He's right," Douglas admitted. "I do talk to them."
" Douglas, will you please go and remind Mary Rose it's her turn to clear the table? Harrison, you can have the duty tomorrow night."
"Certainly. What does the task involve?"
"Haven't you ever had to clean up the dishes before?" Cole asked.
"No, I haven't."
"You sure were pampered, weren't you?" Travis remarked.
"I suppose I was."
Douglas had gotten up from his chair and walked over to the door. He paused at the threshold, then turned around and hurried back to the table.
"I'm not going in there. You go get her, Travis."
Douglas sat down just as Travis stood up. "She's playing Beethoven," Douglas warned.
"Which one?" Travis asked.
He sat down again. "Let's send Harrison."
All the brothers laughed. Cole explained what was amusing.
"You don't want to mess with Mary Rose when she's playing Beethoven."
"She's in a real sour mood," Cole explained. "Whenever we hear The Fifth, we run the other way. You're safe if it's Mozart or Chopin," he added. "She's really pounding it out tonight, isn't she, Adam?"
His brother smiled. "Yes, she is," he agreed. " Harrison, are you ready to go into the library?"
Harrison agreed with a nod and stood up. He followed Adam out of the room.
The two men had fallen into the habit of capping each evening with a spirited debate. Harrison looked forward to the mental sparing. The first few times he allowed Adam to win, or at least he believed he'd allowed him the victories, but eventually his own competitive nature demanded he take a few wins as well.
Debating Adam was challenging. Harrison thoroughly enjoyed it, almost as much as Adam did.
He took his seat in one of the two soft leather chairs in front of the hearth and picked up the notebook from the side table. He moved the ink bottle and pen closer to his reach.
Adam poured each of them a shot glass filled to the brim with brandy. He handed Harrison his drink and then sat down across from his guest.
Harrison propped his feet up on the footstool. "What's our topic tonight?"
"I've given the matter a good deal of thought, and decided on the final invasion of Carthage." He seemed to savor each word he said.
"We can't talk about the end until we have examined the beginning," Harrison replied.
Adam slapped his knee. "Precisely so," he said. "The Greeks, you must realize, were a proud and highly intelligent people."
His opening statement established his position. Harrison countered with his thesis. "As were the Spartans. They were also invincible fighting men, with superior skills in every area, including battle plans. Their superiority cannot be disputed."
Thus the debate began. The two men argued for well over an hour. When Adam finally suggested a halt, Harrison counted up the points each had had to concede to the other. He and Adam were disappointed to find out the evening had ended in a draw.
Adam stayed in the library to read before going up to bed. Harrison said good night and started back to the bunkhouse.
Mary Rose was waiting for him on the front porch. Her golden hair was a beacon in the moonlight.
"Why aren't you in bed? It's late."
"I needed some air," she answered. "I'll walk with you."
Harrison waited for her at the bottom of the stairs. They walked side by side across the yard.
"I'm restless tonight."
"Didn't Beethoven help you get rid of your anger?"
She could hear the amusement in his voice. She smiled in reaction. "I wasn't angry, just frustrated. My brothers can be overbearing. They're forever trying to interfere."
"I don't think they interfere enough," he told her. "It's dangerous out here."
"And I'm a weak, little woman, right?"
He shook his head. "I'm not about to get into that discussion. I don't have a piano in the bunkhouse, and that would leave me to take the pounding."
"Then you believe I'm incapable…"
"I didn't give an opinion one way or another," he said. "You do have one habit that irritates me to no end, Mary Rose. You always jump to conclusions before you have all the facts."
Her hand brushed against his. "I do?" she asked.
"Yes, you do."
She deliberately brushed against him again. He didn't take the hint. The man was either shy or dense, she decided. Subtlety was wasted on him. She guessed she would have to be bold if she was going to get him to cooperate, and that conclusion irritated her to no end.
She grabbed hold of his hand and moved closer to his side. Harrison would either have to fling her aside or shove her, and he was simply too much of a gentleman to behave in such an ungentlemanly fashion. He was stuck with her, whether he liked it or not.
Her show of affection took him by surprise. He didn't pull his hand away. He squeezed hers instead and held on tight.
"You spend an awful lot of time talking to Adam," she remarked in what she hoped was a casual tone of voice. She was nervous about bringing up the subject, and she didn't want him to notice.
"You think so?"
"Yes, I do."
He didn't say another word. She kept hoping he would explain why, and when he continued to keep silent, she decided to prod him.
"I wonder why you talk to him every night," she began again.
Her voice was strained. He looked down at her to find out if she was just worried about something or actually afraid.
All he could see was the top of her head. She was staring down at the ground and wouldn't look at him. Her hand was trembling though, indicating she was very concerned about something or other.
He knew better than to take the direct approach to find out what was wrong. The only way to get Mary Rose to make sense was to go in through the back door.
"I enjoy talking to him."
"I thought you did."
"What do you talk about?"
"This and that."
"Be more specific."
"Why? What is it you want to know?"
"I was curious."
"We talk about all sorts of things."
"Like the war between your states, and why no one ever called it a war while it was going on. What did you think we were talking about?"
"I thought you might be asking him questions. You do tend to be overly curious by nature."
"What would I ask him questions about?"
"No, I didn't ask him about his background."
It wasn't until he'd given the admission that he realized how telling it was. He hadn't asked her brother one single question about his past. He had deliberately wasted perfect opportunities to try to find out more about the family.
He was astonished by his own behavior. He hadn't kept his priorities straight, and the realization appalled him. He had come to Montana Territory in search of the truth, yet now, when there was just one vital piece of information needed to fit the entire sequence of events together and find the culprit responsible for the kidnapping, he had ceased and desisted.
He understood the reason for his reluctance. The truth was going to tear the Clayborne family apart. Honest to God, it was tearing him apart just thinking about the pain he would cause all of them.
Mary Rose was holding on to his hand now, letting him feel her affection for him, but he knew that when she found out why he had stayed with her family, she would despise him.
He didn't want her hatred; he wanted and needed her love.
Harrison quickened his step. He was suddenly furious with himself. He needed time alone to think things through and come to some sort of resolution. He'd become emotionally involved with the Clayborne family without even noticing what was happening to him. He liked all of them, cared about them, worried about them. Hell, he even enjoyed disliking Cole.
Oh, yes, he had a lot to think about tonight.
" Harrison, I didn't mean to insult you by suggesting you would pry," Mary Rose whispered.
"I didn't think that," he replied.
"You aren't angry?"
"No, of course not." He slowed his step and tried to calm down.
"Then do quit squeezing my hand."
He immediately let go of her. "It's cold tonight. You should go back to the house," he said abruptly.
"I'm not cold," she said. It finally occurred to her that he might be trying to get away from her.
She fervently hoped she was wrong. "Are you worried about something?"
"Like what?" he asked.
"That I might kiss you again."
Her remark was absurd. He couldn't help but laugh. "I kissed you," he reminded her.
"All right, we were both culpable."
"Culpable," she repeated. "You're a lawyer all right. I wish you weren't."
"Lawyers bother us."
She shrugged. She wasn't going to explain any further. Harrison didn't let go of his question. He decided it was high time he got a suitable answer.
"Were you worried I would ask Adam questions about the family or about his background?"
They had stopped walking and now faced each other. The moonlight cast a golden canopy all around them.
"I just didn't want you to bother him. Adam doesn't like to talk about parts of his growing-up years. He was in bondage, Harrison. That is all you need to know."
"What does he like to talk about?" he asked. "Is the time he spent in New York City off limits for conversation as well?"
"How about the time he spent getting here? Will he talk about the journey, or should I avoid the subject altogether?"
"I don't believe he would mind talking about the journey. My brothers are quite proud of what they accomplished."
Harrison couldn't stop himself from taking hold of her and pulling her closer to him. It wasn't a physical response to her this time. He just wanted to keep her close for as long as he could.
She seemed to understand what he needed, for she put her arms around his waist and hugged him tight.
"You were very lonely growing up, weren't you?"
"If I was, I didn't know it," he answered. His chin dropped to rest on the top of her head. He closed his eyes and let himself feel the pleasure she was offering him.
"Until now?" she whispered into the collar of his shirt.
"Yes, until now."
She was trying to comfort him. Harrison was almost overwhelmed by her gentleness and her understanding. She had so much love inside her. She made him feel… complete somehow. Life had been empty, hollow, terribly cold. Mary Rose, sweet, loving Mary Rose. What in God's name was he going to do about her?
He finally forced himself to let go of her. Getting her to let go of him took a little longer. He had to pull her hands away from him.
"I'm not going to ask you to kiss me. You needn't worry about that."
"You need to go home, Mary Rose. Come on, I'll walk with you."
"But I just walked you to your home."
"Good night then."
She turned to leave, Harrison clasped his hands behind his back and watched her. He was completely caught off guard when she suddenly turned again and threw herself into his arms. She wrapped her arms around his neck, leaned up on her tiptoes, and gave him a long, thoroughly inadequate kiss.
He couldn't stop himself from taking over. His arms wrapped her in his embrace, and then he showed her how he wanted to be kissed. His mouth was hot, open, devouring. His tongue moved inside to mate with hers, and, heaven help him, he couldn't seem to get enough of her.
The kiss turned carnal. He never wanted it to stop. The husky little sound she made in the back of her throat intoxicated him.
Everything about her was magical to him, and when he realized he wanted much, much more from her, he immediately pulled back.
She stared up at him, her lips rosy and swollen from his kisses, her eyes misty with passion, and all he wanted to think about was pulling her back into his arms again.
"Good night." Her voice was a throaty whisper.
She didn't move. Harrison was inordinately pleased with her bemused state of mind. He understood that passion was new to her, and because she didn't have any experience to guide her, she was vulnerable because she trusted him. Mary Rose was a strong woman. She wouldn't allow any man to take advantage of her. She had high values and morals, but she was nonetheless vulnerable with him. It was, therefore, his duty to keep her from being hurt.
Harrison watched her until she reached the house and went inside. And still he didn't move. What in God's name was he going to do? Mary Rose was falling in love with him. He could have stopped the infatuation before it became more serious. Yet he had done nothing at all to discourage her.
Why hadn't he? Harrison blanched over the truth. It had been staring him in the face for over a week now. He knew exactly why he hadn't discouraged her.
He was in love with her.
August 2, 1864
Dear Mama Rose,
We read in the Hammond paper about another battle that was fought right around where you and Mistress Livonia live. Of course we all started worrying. We've heard so many terrible stories about the riots for food and medical supplies. A week after we read the paper, your letter arrived telling us you were doing just fine. You're probably shaking your head over our foolishness. You keep telling us to have faith in Cod and let Him do the worrying, but sometimes it's hard to hand things over to Him. We try, Mama. I guess that ought to count for something.
We're sure sorry to hear the new treatment didn't improve Mistress Livonia's eyes. Don't you think all those beatings her husband inflicted on her might have something to do with her blurred eyesight now? I remember seeing her all bruised and bloodied. Please tell her we're thinking about her and praying for a recovery from the cross she's been given.
I hope her sons are leaving the two of you alone. Some of the things they've done to their own mama makes us sick inside. How can her sons be so cruel? Cole's worried the boys will try to bother you the way their father did, but I told him to have more faith in you. As long as you keep on your guard and stay close to their mother, they won't dare come after you. I pray I'm right.
There was another of Lincoln's fine speeches reprinted in the paper. He gave the talk several years ago, Mama. Did you know he called us Black Men instead of slaves? Black seems more dignified to me than some of the other names I've heard. Cole wonders why everyone can't be just called men and women. He doesn't see any reason in having to be more specific. I wish it were all that simple, but people have strange notions about anyone who isn't just like him. Why does being a different color make people hate?
One night all of us brothers got into a discussion about the differences in the races. I asked Travis if he thought the men who wrote the Declaration of Independence for us worried about the color of a man's skin. It says in our laws that all men are created equal. I told my brothers I didn't believe Jefferson was thinking about including black men when he wrote down his rules for government, but Douglas said it shouldn't matter. Equal is equal, no matter what color your skin is or what religion you practice, and so on. We all ended up agreeing on one thing. A lot of southern folks never took the time to read the Constitution.
Mary Rose likes to help with the dishes now. She's careful with the two china cups Travis got for her. He promised her that as soon as he could barter for a couple more, he'd show her how to have a proper tea party. He's trying to find a teapot now, and knowing Travis, he won't fail. He doesn't know anything about what's proper, of course, but he is sure Mrs. Morrison will be happy to show him how it's done, and then we can teach our sister. Cole swears he isn't having any part in tea parties, but he'll change his mind. He always does.
Cole finally started work on our house. One thing after another prevented him from beginning the project last year. First there was the barn for Douglas, then winter set in before he could put in the cellar, and the following spring, he had to spend all his time hunting for food and horses to barter. We sold every one of the mustangs he captured. The mountains are filled with opportunities. Cole can't work on the house while his brothers work gathering up horses. He knows our income depends on catching the wild ones and training them before anyone else does. Douglas is getting a reputation around Blue Belle. Folks come from miles around to get his opinion on what should be done about an ailing cow or a persnickety hen. My brother does have a gift of knowing what should be done.
We've all started working hard to clean up our language because Mary Rose is swearing all the time now. Cole came up with the idea of writing a new word on the chalkboard every morning. We all have to use the word sometime during the day. He thought it would be good for all of us to increase our vocabulary, and of course sister will also benefit. She doesn't like to be left out of anything.
I'm enclosing everyone's personal notes to you. I'll write again real soon, Mama.
God keep you safe,
Friday turned out to be another lesson in humility. Harrison was up bright and early. He was determined to get the last of the horses he'd been assigned calmed down and decent before noon.
He missed his deadline by several hours, but by late afternoon, and at least ten bruises later, the speckled mustang was finally obeying.
Douglas was impressed with Harrison 's patience and endurance. He shouted to Cole to come over and see for himself what a fine job their houseguest had done.
"Look how sweet and docile Speckle is now," he remarked to his brother. " Harrison calmed him down all right."
Douglas had his arms draped over the top of the fence. He motioned for Harrison to ride Speckle over so he could give him a word of praise.
"You've done a remarkable job," he praised.
"I used patience and understanding," Harrison replied. He stared at Cole during his boast. "You would do well to learn a little of both."
Cole scoffed. "Patience and understanding? Hell, Harrison, you talked and talked until that poor animal would have done anything to get you to shut up."
Harrison refused to be goaded into an argument. He had better things to think about than Mary Rose's stubborn, never-give-an-inch brother.
He dismounted and removed both the saddle and blanket. Speckle followed him over to the fence. Harrison draped the equipment over the top, then took hold of the bridle and led the animal over to the largest of the corrals, where the other mustangs were being kept.
Going inside the fenced area with Speckle turned out to be a mistake. It took him a long, long time to get the bridle off the horse, for the other mustangs were crowding around Harrison and nipping each other in their attempt to get his undivided attention. Each horse apparently craved a little notice, and Harrison couldn't leave until he had patted and praised every one of them.
He took the long way around the corral so he wouldn't have to get into another discussion with Cole, picked up the blanket and saddle on his way, and continued on across the yard and into the barn.
Douglas and Cole both stared at the horses.
"Did you notice?" Douglas whispered to his brother.
Cole smiled. "I noticed all right." Then he shook his head. The mustangs were so besotted with Harrison they had circled the inside of the fence in a cluster and kept pace with their master as he walked around the outside.
"I've never seen animals act like that before," Douglas said. "Are you willing to admit Harrison 's talking might have worked a little magic?"
Cole shrugged. "I'll admit it, but not in front of Harrison. I wonder if he'll try to sweet-talk the steers into following him home."
"Probably will," Douglas replied. "Have you seen Travis?" he asked then.
"He's hiding in the barn."
Douglas didn't have to ask why their youngest brother had taken shelter inside the barn. The reason was sitting on the front porch.
Eleanor Border was rocking back and forth in Adam's favorite chair, while she fanned herself with Mary Rose's treasured, only-used-on-special-occasions fan.
Douglas and Cole both turned to frown at their unwanted guest just as their sister came hurrying outside with a fresh glass of juice for Eleanor.
"That woman sure is running Mary Rose ragged," Cole commented.
Douglas agreed with a nod. "Do you think she'll ever let our sister leave for the ridge?"
"I doubt it," Cole replied. "At least not today. Mary Rose has been trying to leave since early morning and it's going on three now."
"It's her own fault, letting the time get away from her," Douglas remarked. "She's going along with Eleanor's bossing. Mary Rose carried up two trays to her this morning. Eleanor didn't like the first breakfast cook prepared, so our sister fixed her another one." Cole shook his head. "She never lets us boss her around," he said. "Besides, she shouldn't have fixed her anything. Eleanor wouldn't be acting like a persnickety princess if she wasn't being treated like one."
"I think we should talk to Adam tonight," Douglas suggested. "He's being unreasonable about Eleanor staying here. You and Travis and I could gang up on him. We'll vote to give Eleanor the boot. Mary Rose and Adam will vote to let her stay, of course, but it won't matter. Majority rules."
Cole's conscience got in the way of his agreement. He couldn't block the memory of seeing Eleanor in such an anguished state. The poor woman had sounded plumb pitiful as she wept against Adam's chest. Even though Cole hated to admit it, the memory gave him a heartache.
"Let's not jump the gun, Douglas. I say we wait a couple of days before we put it to a vote. Adam must have had some sound reasons for letting the woman stay with us."
"Why hasn't he told us his reasons?"
"I guess he isn't ready to," Cole replied. "Maybe Eleanor will quit complaining in a day or so. She's about covered every topic around."
"She'll just start over," Douglas predicted. "She sure likes to hear herself whine, doesn't she?"
Cole smiled. He stared at the woman under discussion and couldn't help but notice how pretty she might be if she ever tried to smile. "It's the red in her hair," he told his brother. "Makes her temperamental."
"Travis has red in his hair, and he isn't temperamental."
"He's hiding in the barn, isn't he? That sounds a might temperamental to me."
Harrison walked over to join the two men. Douglas turned to him. "Can you believe it? Cole's defending Eleanor."
"I only said we should give her a couple of days before we take a vote to toss her out," Cole countered. "I think she's scared and that's why she acts bossy."
Harrison nodded agreement. "I believe she's frightened too. Being difficult must give her some sense of control over her current situation."
Douglas shook his head. "I think you both have turned into milk toast. I'm going with Travis over to Hammond to barter and sell a couple of my horses. Are either of you interested in tagging along?"
"Will you be stopping by Pauline's place?" Cole asked.
"Who is Pauline?" Harrison asked.
"She runs a house outside of the town," Douglas said. "Just past Sneeze Junction."
"She's…" Harrison began.
"Friendly," Cole supplied.
Harrison declined the invitation. Cole, Travis, and Douglas left for the junction a short while later. The brothers had made the assumption that because of the lateness in the day, their sister wouldn't still want to go up to the ridge to take Crazy Corrie supplies.
They were mistaken in their assumption. The duty of escorting Mary Rose would fall on Adam's or Harrison's shoulders.
Adam let Harrison decide. He called him into the kitchen and explained the situation. "One of us has to stay here and keep Eleanor company. The other one has to go up to the ridge with Mary Rose."
"I thought you never left the ranch," Harrison remarked.
"Where did you hear that?"
"In town. Dooley or Ghost mentioned it."
"I only avoid going into town, Harrison. The mountains are my home. I often hunt with Cole, and fishing is my favorite pastime," he added with a nod.
"I would rather go with Mary Rose," Harrison said.
"Can you use a gun or did you exaggerate? I don't mean to insult you, but I need to know you can protect my sister if the need arises."
"Yes, I can use a gun," Harrison assured him. "If it will make you feel better, I'll carry two."
"Strap a rifle behind the saddle as well," Adam suggested. "We've had only one bad run-in with a bear in all the time we've lived here, but this time of year they're roaming for food. You might take one by surprise."
"I'll be prepared for any eventuality."
"Mary Rose can hold her own, of course. I wouldn't want you to get the notion she wasn't educated. Cole taught her how to shoot to kill. Thank God, she hasn't had to use her expertise."
"We should get going," Harrison said then.
"Just a minute more, please," Adam requested. "I'm going to be blunt instead of dancing around the issue," he said. "Mary Rose is attracted to you, and from the way you look at her during suppers, I have to assume the attraction is mutual. I expect you to behave as a gentleman. I realize I'm insulting you, but Mary Rose is more important than your feelings right now. Do I have your word?"
Harrison wasn't offended. Adam was acting like a loving brother. Harrison wouldn't have expected less.
"You have my word. I'll keep Mary Rose safe, or die trying, Adam, and I will assuredly protect her honor."
Adam shook his hand and then walked with him to the front door. "I wish she'd wait until tomorrow, but she's stubborn, Harrison."
Adam smiled. "Yes, of course you noticed. I'll be curious to get your take on this Corrie woman. Mary Rose tends to see only the good. Watch out for her when she's talking to her new friend. I don't like the idea of a rifle being pointed at my sister all the while she's talking."
Eleanor stood up when the two men walked out onto the porch. She nodded to Harrison and turned her attention to Adam.
"Are you letting her go, Adam? It looks like rain. She'll ruin her clothes if she rides off into a thunderstorm. I do wish you'd tell her she has to stay home."
"Where is Mary Rose?"
"She's in the barn," Eleanor answered.
"Why don't you come inside with me. You can keep me company while I prepare supper."
Eleanor looked thankful for company. She eagerly nodded and followed Adam inside.
It took Harrison and Mary Rose two hours to reach the secluded cabin tucked up high on the ridge. The climb was slow, for the trail was broken in spots and nonexistent in other sections they needed to cross.
The time passed all too quickly for Harrison. The landscape held him in constant awe. It kept changing with every turn he made, as did the colors and the aromas, and it required his full concentration to keep his eye on Mary Rose too. His gaze wanted to linger on the cascading waterfall to the right of the zigzag path and the rolling hills on the left, thick with heavily scented pines, with clusters of small meadows tucked in between. Wildlife was plentiful in the area. The animals had come down from the higher peaks to shed their winter coats and feed on berries and sweet spring grass. There were deer and elk, mule bucks and red squirrels as thick as cottontails. A whitetail fawn, more curious than afraid, didn't move at all when they passed within inches of the animal. If Harrison had reached out, he was certain, he could have touched her brown, velvety nose.
Mary Rose became his eager guide in the wonderland. She gave names to all the wildflowers he'd never seen before and pointed out several plants the locals used to cure their aches and pains. When the trail was wide enough to accommodate both horses, they rode side by side. She stopped several times to point out animals and views she thought would interest him.
Her love for the land became more evident the higher they climbed. She pointed to a cow moose and calf feeding near a spring and whispered her opinion that they were simply adorable.
She stopped once again near the top of the ridge and motioned to the hill below.
"Brown bears," she whispered. "On the left of the stream. Do you see them, Harrison? One's just going in the water. If there were enough time, I would insist we watch them fish. They're much better at it than we are."
"How do you know they aren't grizzly bears?"
If she thought his question was foolish, she didn't let him know it. "A grizzly has a distinctive hump behind his head," she explained. "We don't see too many around here. Don't be disappointed. They can be troublesome."
"I read that some men who live in the mountains like to hunt the grizzly."
She rolled her eyes heavenward. "I'll bet you read that in a dime novel, didn't you? Those stories are all made up. Men hunting grizzly bears? Only very foolish men perhaps," she allowed.
The tiny frown that creased her brow as she gave the earnest explanation and the enthusiastic tone of voice as she instructed him made him smile.
He suddenly realized he was as much in awe of her as he was of the land.
"Why are you smiling? Don't you believe me?" she asked.
"I believe you. I'm smiling because you make me happy."
She was inordinately pleased with his compliment. "Thank you," she said.
"Why are we whispering?"
The look of surprise on her face told him she hadn't realized they had been whispering. She laughed with delight.
"Adam and I used to whisper whenever we were up here. I was much younger then, and he tended to let me have my way."
"But why did you want to whisper?" he asked.
"You'll laugh," she predicted.
He assured her he wouldn't. Then he had to promise. She made him.
"I whispered because I thought I was in God's backyard."
"You haven't been around many children, have you, Harrison?"
"No, I suppose I haven't. You really thought you were in…"
"Yes, I did," she interrupted. "It seemed appropriate to whisper to show my respect."
"And now that you're all grown up? What do you think now?"
She decided to be completely honest with him. "That I'm still in God's backyard."
He burst into laughter. She had to wait for him to quiet down before she spoke again. "I like it when you laugh, even though you promised you wouldn't. Whenever you smile, which is a rare occurrence indeed, the worry lines at the corners of your eyes crinkle up. It's very appealing. You do worry too much."
"I do?" He was actually surprised by her opinion. He couldn't imagine anyone worrying too much. The notion seemed foreign to him. When a man worried, he stayed on edge, always ready, always prepared for any eventuality.
"Oh, yes, you worry too much."
She softened her criticism by smiling at him. He immediately smiled back. And still they lingered. Neither one of them wanted to move. The moment suddenly became filled with promise. A new intimacy flowed between them, in this peaceful interlude when the outside world couldn't invade. Just now she belonged only to him. He didn't have to share her with anyone.
A clap of thunder sounded in the distance, but Harrison ignored the warning. So did Mary Rose. She was fully occupied staring at him. He was just as content to stare at her.
A twig snapped behind them. Harrison reacted with lightning speed. He turned in the saddle, his gun drawn and cocked, and waited for the next sound. A rabbit raced across the trail then, and Harrison put his gun away.
Mary Rose watched him in astonishment. She hadn't ever seen anyone move that fast, except Cole, of course, but brothers didn't count, and she couldn't help but worry about where and why he had developed the skill. Or was it instinct?
He was making her nervous again. There was definitely more than one layer to the man, and she didn't know how she felt about that.
"Now you're frowning. What's wrong?" he asked.
"The way you moved just now. That's what's wrong. You're used to being on your guard, aren't you?"
He didn't answer her. She shook her head. "You're a complicated man. You behave one way and then do something that changes what I'm supposed to think you are. I wish you'd stop it."
"Surprises can be good, can't they?"
"Intrigue," he replied. "Occasionally surprising someone could be…"
She didn't let him finish his argument. "I'm already intrigued. I like you just the way you are."
"You like me the way you think I am."
"You're driving me crazy, Harrison."
He laughed. "You make me crazy too, Mary Rose."
She turned away from him. "I won't get into a discussion of the flaws in your personality now. There isn't enough time. It's getting late, and if we don't hurry, I won't have any time at all to visit with my friend. Please quit dawdling."
Harrison wasn't about to let her have the last word. "I have never dawdled in my life."
Her unladylike snort was her rebuttal.
He wasn't irritated. In fact, he couldn't stop smiling. He hadn't felt this good in a long, long time. Peace and contentment seemed to radiate from the mountain. And when he looked into Mary Rose's eyes and saw the joy there, he felt as though he could do anything he ever wanted to do, no matter how impossible the obstacle. He felt… complete when he was with her, and all because of the trust in her gaze, and the acceptance.
Acceptance. Hadn't he spent his life trying to gain that? Wasn't that the true reason he had become so obsessed with his hunt to find Lord Elliott's daughter, so that he would accept him as an equal? Or was it all a payback for his kindness?
Harrison didn't have any answers. He knew he was grateful to Elliott for taking care of his father; yes, of course he was. He was the one man who didn't turn his back on his friend when everyone else in London did. He gave them money and took over the payment of the taxes, and when constant nursing became mandatory, he saw that they had the best staff available. Thanks to his generosity, neither his father nor he ever went without. Elliott had even financed Harrison 's education.
He owed a tremendous debt to Elliott, and because of honor, he would spend his life repaying. Harrison didn't shirk his responsibilities. And he certainly could never ask for anything more… even happiness.
Mary Rose. Lord, how she'd made him think about things that could never be. He was in love with her, and he had absolutely no one to blame but himself. He knew better than to get involved, and yet he'd done exactly that.
Elliott had made plans for his daughter within a month after her birth. Harrison hadn't been part of her future then, and he knew that when they returned to England, nothing would change.
Honor kept him from asking for her hand in marriage. He was neither worthy enough nor financially secure enough to give her his name.
He didn't want to think about his future. He decided he would appreciate the time he had with Mary Rose so that he could savor the memories on all the cold nights ahead.
He was thankful when they reached Corrie's cabin because there wasn't time to wallow in his misery.
Mary Rose wouldn't let him get close to the clearing. In fact, she made him stay a good half mile away. She explained she didn't want Corrie to become upset, and the first sight of him might very well upset just about anyone. He took immediate insult, of course.
"Exactly what do you think is wrong about my appearance?"
"You've got a days growth on your face and your hair has been in dire need of a trimming for two weeks now."
"So?" he demanded.
"I shall have to be blunt," she said. "You look menacing and… scruffy. I find you appealing. She won't."
He snorted with disbelief, then laughed over the sound he just made. Heaven help him, he was starting to act like her.
"I'm sorry if I've stomped on your tender feelings," she said.
"I do not have tender feelings."
"Yes, well, as soon as you open your mouth and speak, everyone knows how cultured and refined you are."
"Cultured and refined people can also be killers, Mary Rose. You make it sound as though an education ensures decency."
She shrugged. She didn't want to waste any more time arguing with him. The heaviness in the air indicated a storm was closing in on them, and she didn't want to get soaked until after she had a nice visit with her new friend.
She wouldn't even let Harrison carry the supplies into the clearing. She made three trips and finally finished stacking all of her gifts in a pile in the very center of the clearing.
Mary Rose was thrilled that Corrie let her get much closer to the porch this time. She saw that as real progress in their relationship.
She didn't mind at all that the shotgun was pointed at her the entire time she stood there. She was just thankful Harrison wasn't close enough to notice. He was bound to make a scene if he thought she was in danger.
He hadn't stayed where she'd put him, however. Without making a sound, he moved to a spot where he was both concealed by the foliage and yet had a clear view of the front of the cabin.
When he spotted the barrel of the shotgun protruding from the window, his heart damned near stopped beating. It was aimed at Mary Rose's middle. His initial reaction was to pull his gun free and shoot the barrel. It took extreme willpower not to interfere. He broke out in a sweat, of course, but after ten, then fifteen minutes passed, he realized the shotgun was all for show. He still wasn't going to take his gaze off the threat, of course, but he was finally able to breathe normally again.
Mary Rose's behavior and her one-sided conversation for the next hour were both bizarre and endearing.
She would never have gone on and on if she'd known he was listening, of course, and he didn't plan to ever let her find out.
After she had placed the last of the jars in her stack, she stood up and mopped her brow with the edge of her sleeve.
She apologized because she hadn't been able to keep her word and visit the day before.
"I always keep my word, Corrie, unless something terrible prevents me from doing so, and after I've told you about all the sorry things that happened to me, you'll understand my tardiness," she assured the woman. She then gave a full accounting of her time. Harrison noticed she didn't mention the reason why she had gone after Bickley. He assumed she didn't want Corrie to worry that the vigilantes might still come up to the ridge to burn her out. Mary Rose said only that she had a difference of opinion and tried to use reason when she conversed with the man. One thing led to another and another, and before she knew what was happening, she was being attacked.
Her recollection of the events made him smile. She didn't linger on the injuries or the pain she endured, or on the fact that she damn near got killed. No, she spent the time telling all about the lovely skirt that got ripped and how frightful her hair looked.
She wasn't finished telling about her woes. She went into a long explanation about her experience waiting in Catherine Morrison's parlor. That was when Harrison found out Mary Rose considered him her exclusive property. He didn't have to guess. Mary Rose told Corrie all about her right to "have" him. She even outlined all the reasons why he belonged to her.
"I took him home with me before he got himself killed. When I think of what could have happened to the poor thing, well, my heart just aches. Can he help it if he's inept or awkward? No, of course he can't. He's terribly naive too, Corrie. The man wore a gun into town and didn't even know how to use it. Can you imagine such idiocy. I swear he needs a keeper. God love him, he doesn't know how incompetent he really is. No one has the heart to tell him, except Cole. Harrison did fight those men after they tore my dress and messed my hair, but they were scrawny little men, so Harrison was able to get in a couple of solid punches. I worried about it for a while, seeing him fight and all, and then I thought about it and realized anger had made him stronger and luck had been on his side. He took me by surprise on the way up here, and then I had to think it through and realized I shouldn't have been surprised at all. You see, he thought he heard a noise, and he drew his gun lickety-split. He was fast all right, but the fact is he probably couldn't shoot his way out of a barn. Being quick isn't worth a sneeze out here if you can't hit anything, now is it?"
She paused to let out a long, exaggerated sigh. Harrison could feel his face heating up. He wanted to stomp into the clearing and set the little woman straight. By God, he wasn't that inept.
Mary Rose wasn't through tearing his pride to shreds, however. "You should have seen him trying to learn how to break in some horses for Douglas. It was a pitiful sight, all right. I hid up in my room and watched from the window so he wouldn't be more humiliated than he already was. It's a blessing he didn't break his neck, Corrie, bless his heart."
Harrison gritted his teeth together and started counting to ten. His temper had reached the simmering point.
"I don't want you fretting about Harrison," Mary Rose continued. "I only told you about him because he came with me up to the ridge. He's supposed to protect me. That's why I wore my gun, Corrie. I can keep him safe enough. Anyway, he won't bother you. He'd kind and sweet-natured, and you should know me well enough by now after our last visitation to understand I wouldn't put up with him if he were mean. Did I tell you about Catherine Morrison throwing herself at him?"
She guessed she hadn't told the woman and went into a long, blown-out-of-all-proportion explanation about all the wrongs the woman had done to her over the years. Mary Rose had stored up a lot of complaints about Catherine and she proceeded to tell Corrie about each one, going all the way back to their early childhood. Since Corrie couldn't or wouldn't tell her to stop, she became Mary Rose's dream come true. A trapped listener who couldn't run away.
Harrison had started out worried that Corrie would shoot Mary Rose because the woman was as crazy as everyone said she was, but by the time the one-sided conversation was finished, his concern had changed. Now he couldn't figure out why Corrie didn't shoot her just to shut her up.
Mary Rose kept interlacing comments about Harrison. His ego took one hell of a beating, and if she "blessed his heart" just one more time, he swore he was going to have to throttle her.
Her voice finally gave out. She promised her friend that she would return as soon as she could for another long visit and turned to leave. She suddenly remembered she hadn't mentioned her newest houseguest yet and promptly stopped in her tracks.
Both Corrie and Harrison then listened to another long discussion, about Eleanor.
"She's going to settle down real soon," Mary Rose predicted. "She may even turn out to be a good friend once she gets over feeling sorry for herself. My, how the time has flown. Do get your supplies inside before the rain comes. Bye now, Corrie. God keep you safe."
Harrison stayed where he was until Mary Rose left the clearing. The rifle barrel was moved from the window a minute later. He backtracked, making a wide circle around Mary Rose, and was back to the spot where she'd told him to wait before she got there.
"Did you have a nice visit?" he asked.
"Oh, yes," she answered. Her voice sounded hoarse. "She's a dear woman."
He couldn't imagine how she knew that. "Did she talk to you?" he asked.
"No, but she's getting ready to," Mary Rose assured him. "We should get going, Harrison. It's late."
"How do you know she's getting ready to talk to you?" he asked, ignoring her suggestion to leave.
"She let me get much closer to the center of the clearing," she explained. "We're obviously friends now."
"Because she didn't shoot you."
"Yes," she said, pleased he understood.
He thought she was making as much sense as a two-year-old having a tantrum.
"You're being completely illogical," he told her. "You do know that, don't you, Mary Rose?"
She shook her head at him. "Is it illogical to look for the good in people? Everyone has feelings, Harrison. 'No man is an island.' Remember the passage both you and Adam are so partial to?"
"Yes, of course, but…"
"We cannot exist without each other. Do the words, 'any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind' mean the same thing to you that they mean to me? We're all part of the same family, Harrison. Corrie has needs just like the rest of us. Now do you see?"
"Point taken, Miss Clayborne."
Her smile was radiant. "I do believe this is the first argument with you I have ever won."
"We weren't having an argument," he replied.
"It seems like one. We need to leave now." She started toward her horse and glanced up at the sky above. "We're really in for a soaking. You do love to dawdle, don't you?"
He lifted her up into the saddle and gave her the reins. She folded her hands on top of the saddle horn. Harrison started to turn away, then changed his mind. He reached up and covered her hands with his.
She looked into his eyes to find out why he suddenly wanted to linger. His smile captured her full attention. Lord, how she loved it when he was happy. His eyes turned as warm and welcoming as sunshine. She felt the heat all the way down in her belly.
"You have a very good heart, Mary Rose."
She felt as if he had just caressed her. She was just about to thank him when he went and ruined it.
"I try to remember that whenever you make me crazy."
He let go of her and turned to go to MacHugh. In one fluid motion he swung up into the saddle. The gracefulness in the action impressed her. She guessed all the time he'd spent climbing back up onto the horses after he'd been pitched to his backside had taught him something useful after all.
"What is that comment supposed to mean?" she asked.
"It means I know what your game is. You're the one who spent entirely too long talking to Corrie, and so you've decided to blame me if we get soaked. I dawdle? I think not."
"You're too clever for me, Harrison." She lifted the reins and turned to lead the way home. "I never said I was perfect, did I?"
"No, you never did," he agreed with a laugh.
"You aren't perfect either. You're extremely argumentative, but of course you must realize that. You're also given to spells, but I doubt you can help that."
"You constantly jump to conclusions based on insufficient information. You do know that, don't you? And I don't have spells, woman."
"Most of the time you're a perfect gentleman, but in the blink of an eye, you can turn into a raging lunatic." What else could she call his affliction? The man had spells, and that was that. She wasn't going to argue about it now. She wanted to discuss something else just as important.
"You refuse to understand that sometimes one must act before one has gathered hundreds of documents to support a possible thesis. If I had waited until I had every bit of information about you before I invited you to come home with me, you'd probably be dead. So would I," she added. "From old age."
"In other words, you leap before you look. Isn't that right?"
"At least I dare to leap."
"That attitude is exactly why so many people die young out here."
"Action is often more effective than words."
"In an uncivilized world, perhaps. Remember, Mary Rose, we are all accountable for our actions."
"We don't live inside a courtroom."
"We should behave as though we did."
"It would kill you to agree with me, wouldn't it, Harrison?"
She laughed after she asked her question. He smiled in response. "Perhaps," he allowed. "I like to win."
"Life isn't about winning. It's about surviving."
"In my line of work, surviving and winning are the same thing."
She had to think about what he had just said for a long while before she gave him her rebuttal. She was obviously enjoying sparring with him. He was having just as much fun. He found her comments invigorating and refreshingly honest, even when she wasn't making a lick of sense.
The hell he had spells.
"I believe you should find another line of work."
He ignored the suggestion. "One really shouldn't get personal when one is debating."
"Is that what we're doing?"
"Yes. Are we debating?"
"I thought we were. What did you think we were doing?"
"Exactly what were we debating?"
He didn't have the faintest idea. He wasn't about to tell her so, however, and so he decided to make up something that sounded reasonable just so he could continue to argue with her.
"We are debating the differences in our philosophies of life."
"We and our? My, but those words do imply getting personal to me."
"Point given, Miss Clayborne."
She gave him a regal nod.
"I can sum up the differences between us in just two words."
"So can I," he assured her.
"Experience and observation. I experience life. You observe it. I'll wager you were going to say the very same thing."
"You'd lose your wager then," he countered. "I would say logical versus illogical, order versus chaos, sanity versus insanity…"
"Lawyers do love to go on and on, don't they?"
"You do realize you just called me illogical, insane, and chaotic?"
"You do realize you just said I only observe life? It isn't true."
"It's raining. I think we should stop."
Lightning lit up the sky. "It's going to get worse," he predicted.
"Probably. There are caves about a quarter of a mile from here. We have to backtrack just a little, and we should hurry now. The trail's going to become too dangerous for MacHugh and Millie."
He didn't want to stop, but darkness was already closing in on them, and it would have been foolish to try to go on. He had hoped to reach the peak above her home before night caught up with them. The trail was much wider there, safer for the horses. They could find their way back to the barn with or without light. Instinct and hunger would guide them.
Spending the night with Mary Rose was just as dangerous for him as treading over slick stones would be for the horses.
He would, of course, behave like the gentleman he had been trained to be. He had given Adam his word, and he meant to keep it. He would have acted honorably regardless of his promise, however. Behaving wasn't the issue. Frustration was going to be the problem, but there didn't seem to be any way to avoid it. He was going to have to suffer through the unnecessary test of endurance, no matter what. He gritted his teeth in anticipation of the miserable night ahead of him.
"Hurry up, Harrison," she called after him. "It's only a fine mist now, but in a few more minutes it's going to become a downpour. I don't want to get soaked if I don't have to."
Harrison thought she was exaggerating. A short time later, when he was soaked through to the bone and freezing, he had to admit she'd been right.
The cave they found was little more than a long, narrow overhang of rocks. There were two reasons they went inside. One, it wasn't occupied, which was a problem to be considered given the nightly habits of some of the animals in the area, and two, the floor was dry. The air was as damp and welcoming as sleet, but not too drafty, and so it would have to do.
MacHugh refused to go to the back with Millie. Harrison stripped the stallion of his gear and let him stand near the mouth of the cave. The horse changed his mind and moved to the back as soon as Mary Rose got a fire going with the twigs and branches Harrison had collected. He'd tried for ten minutes to get the damp wood to ignite. She was more experienced than he was, however, and knew how to stack the wood just right with dried leaves she'd gathered from the floor of the cave.
Harrison dried off the horses as best he could, then caught water in a makeshift bucket he fashioned out of the canvas he'd been intelligent enough to bring along, and gave the water to Millie. When she'd had her fill, he let MacHugh quench his thirst.
Mary Rose worked on drying the damp bedrolls and then made up beds for the night. She placed the blankets side by side.
He wanted his on the opposite side of the fire, but he didn't complain because he knew she was only using good sense. They would need to stay close together to share their warmth during the night.
She took off her boots, moved them away from the fire, then pulled out the gun he hadn't noticed until now tucked into the waistband of her skirt, and put it under the fold in her bedding.
Harrison went to the other side of the fire and stood there, trying to warm himself.
"Have you camped outside much?" he asked.
"You act like you have."
She knelt down and added a few more twigs to the fire. "I prefer my own bed, but one does what one has to do to stay warm out here. Isn't that right?"
"You aren't at all squeamish."
"Heavens, I hope I'm not squeamish. Did you think I would be?"
He shook his head. She didn't understand the world he had come from, where gently bred women fainted over the slightest suggestion of impropriety. So fragile was society, reputations could be ruined by inconsequential whispers. Queen Victoria set the standards for the day, of course, and she rigidly emphasized prudence in every undertaking, sobriety, and caution. Yet while she also showed the world what an independent thinker she was, the women in England Harrison associated with still didn't educate themselves to emulate her.
He and his best friend, Nicholas, were running with the wrong crowd. The women they associated with depended on others for their every need, including amusement. If any of them became bored, it was someone else's fault.
God, what a miserable, restrictive life he had known. It was too damned bleak to think about.
Mary Rose Clayborne. What a breath of fresh air she was. He hadn't believed she could take care of herself. Now that he had time to think about it, he realized he had made several erroneous conclusions about her, based on his own narrow-minded knowledge of the women from his past.
She certainly proved him wrong. He was impressed with her no-nonsense approach to their situation. He was beginning to think she had more common sense than he had believed.
Then she took her clothes off. His knees almost buckled under him when he realized what she was doing. His opinion changed in the blink of an eye. The naive woman didn't have any sense at all.
"What in God's name do you think you're doing?" His roar of outrage echoed around the stone walls.
"Put your blouse back on."
She ignored his command. She finished removing the garment and then bent down to take off her socks. She stood on her blankets so she wouldn't get her feet dirty.
She straightened up again, her wet socks in her hands, and smiled at him.
He was staring at her. She thought he might be looking at her locket.
"It's a pretty locket, isn't it?"
"My locket. I thought you were looking at it."
"I was," he lied. "Where'd you get it?"
"My mother sent it to me. It was a gift for my sixteenth birthday.
The locket doesn't open, but I don't mind. Can you see the engraved rose on the front?"
She started to walk to him so he could get a closer look. He put his hand up.
"I can see it."
"She said she chose the heart-shaped locket because our hearts are entwined. Isn't that sweet? One day I shall pass it down to my daughter."
"It's very nice," he remarked.
She nodded. "When I wear it, I feel closer to her, so of course I wear it all the time," she explained.
She patted the locket, let out a little sigh, and returned to the business of getting warm.
She handed her socks to Harrison across the fire. "Hold these for me please. They're just a little bit damp. Don't let them hang too close to the flames."
He was happy to help her because he thought she wanted her hands free so she could put her blouse back on.
"Don't stand too close, Harrison. Travis will be furious if I ruin them."
"You wear your brother's socks?"
He didn't know whether to laugh or shake his head. She smiled at him while she worked on undoing the ribbon at the back of her neck. He tried to stare at the ledge behind her right ear and not think about the white lacy underthing that was plastered against her skin. Every single time she moved, the swell of her breasts caught his attention. He could feel himself breaking into a cold sweat.
"Only when I can sneak them off the line before he notices."
What in thunder was she talking about? "Sneak what off the line?"
"Why don't you wear your own? Don't you have any?"
"Of course I have socks. I prefer wearing my brothers' though. They're thicker. I don't care what they look like. I only wear them with my boots, so no one ever sees them. Besides, they keep my feet warm. Isn't that all that should matter?"
She was only being practical, but he still didn't want her wearing any man's socks, not even her brothers'. That thought immediately led to another one. He wouldn't mind if she wanted to wear his socks. Fact was, he'd like it.
God help him, his mind had snapped. Happy now? he wanted to ask her. It was all her doing, driving him to distraction with every little movement she made.
"Put your blouse back on," he snapped.
She ignored him again. She spread her hair out behind her shoulders so the curls wouldn't clump together and take forever to dry, dropped the pink ribbon on the blanket, and only then gave him her full attention.
"Why would I want to put my blouse back on? I only just took it off. It's wet," she reminded him. "Oh, for heaven's sake. Quit looking like you want to strangle me. I'm only being practical. Do you want me to catch my death? You'd better get over your embarrassment and take your clothes off too. You'll get consumption, and then I'll have to take care of you. Do you think I want that duty? No, I don't, thank you. You would do nothing but complain the entire time."
Her hands had settled on the tilt of her hips while she argued her case, but once she'd made her position clear, she started fiddling with the back of her waistband.
His mind was simply too befuddled to realize what she was doing. He was occupied trying not to look at the front of her and turned his gaze to the fire a scant second after her skirt dropped to the ground. He should have kept staring at the wall, because the path his gaze took gave him an ample view of her legs. They were incredible. Long, shapely, perfect.
Exactly how much was he supposed to endure before this godawful night was over? Harrison didn't know, but he was certain his situation couldn't get any worse. This hope was all he had, he decided, and so he grasped it with the desperate determination of a drowning man clinging to a rope.
He stomped over to his saddlebag to see if he could find something for her to put on. He muttered obscenities about his lack of discipline all the while he searched.
He tried to get angry so he wouldn't think about anything else. Like her legs… her tiny waist… her creamy skin…
"Embarrassment has nothing to do with the problem of your undressing," he gritted out, just to set the record straight.
He tossed her a dark flannel shirt and barked out the order for her to put it on.
"Won't you need this to keep warm?"
"Put it on."
His tone of voice didn't suggest she argue with him. She put the shirt on. She had to roll the cuffs back twice, and after she'd secured all the buttons, she felt warm again. The shirt was gigantic on her, of course, and covered most of her thighs.
He ignored her gratitude. He sat down across from her with the fire between them and stared into her eyes. She sat down, folded her legs just the way he had, covered them with her blanket, and then picked up her blouse to hold it close to the fire so it would dry.
"I cannot help but notice you're glaring at me. Your voice was downright surly too. Have I done something to offend you?"
The look he gave her made her toes curl. Scorching didn't adequately describe it.
"I am not one of your brothers."
"I didn't think you were." She thought she sounded reasonable.
He thought she was as dense as a rock. "I'm not going to be able to take much more."
"Much more what? For heaven's sake, haven't you ever had to sleep outside? Haven't you ever been caught in a storm before? I can't help it if you're feeling uncomfortable."
He unbuttoned his shirt, took it off, and then held it up by the fire.
"I'm extremely comfortable."
"Are you going to take your pants off?"
"You don't have to get angry. Aren't they wet?"
"Not wet enough."
"I don't believe it's necessary for me to put up with your bad mood."
"You really don't understand, do you? No, I don't believe that, not for one second. You know damned well I want you, and you're deliberately tempting me. Stop it immediately, and I'll get over my bad mood."
The light was slow to dawn, but once it had, she found she wasn't embarrassed about her stupidity.
He wanted her. And she'd been wearing her brother's socks. Her face turned pink with mortification. Oh, God, she was dressed like a lumber lug. She just bet Catherine Morrison never wore her father's socks. No respectable, eligible woman with marriage on her mind would.
"Are we agreed?" he demanded.
"Yes, we are agreed."
Silence followed the truce. Mary Rose waited several minutes so he would have time to get over his anger.
"I usually wear silk stockings with lace around the tops," she blurted out.
He couldn't imagine why she wanted him to know that. She wasn't quite finished discussing her clothes, however.
"I rarely wear my brother's socks. I certainly wouldn't want you to get the idea I like wearing men's clothing. I don't."
"The thought never crossed my mind."
"Good, because I don't."
"This shirt is never going to dry."
Harrison turned the shirt over and only then looked at her face. Her complexion was as red as the flames.
"Are you feeling all right?"
"Yes, of course."
"Move away from the fire. Your face looks like it's getting burned."
The man was an idiot. And thank God for that, she thought to herself. She scooted back from the fire, hoped her blush would eventually fade, and tried to think about something inane to talk about. She wanted him to forget all about socks.
"I'm going to have to do dishes for a week."
"Why?" he asked.
"I didn't use the word of the day."
"The word printed on the chalkboard. I don't even know what it is."
Harrison closed his eyes and pictured the kitchen. Then he smiled.
"How did you…"
"Adam took me into the kitchen. I noticed the word then. I still haven't seen the cook, by the way. I don't think he exists."
"I don't know what it means."
"It means I think you made him up."
"The word, Harrison. What does infelicity mean?"
She smiled with pleasure. "I used it."
"But not in front of any of your brothers," he pointed out.
"Of course we have a cook. When he's ready to meet you, he'll show himself. Until then I suggest you give him a wide path. He's somewhat prickly. It's because he's led a life of infelicity."
Harrison laughed. "He's infelicitous, is he?"
"Most assuredly. You will be my witness. Testify on my behalf tomorrow night during supper."
"Your brothers will have tried to kill me by then."
"We're spending the night together."
He couldn't believe he had to remind her of their circumstances. "If I were your brother, I'd become angry enough to kill someone."
"My brothers trust us," she argued. "Adam would never have let you come with me if he believed you were a lecher."
"Wasn't lecher the word last week?"
"Tuesday," she said. "You aren't at all lecherous."
He shook his head. "You have been properly educated." He caught himself before he added the thought that her father was going to be very pleased with the effort her brothers had shown.
He put his shirt flat on his saddle with the hope the air would dry it during the night and sat down on his bedroll. He leaned back against the stone wall and closed his eyes. The stone wasn't comfortable against his shoulders, but he didn't mind enough to move.
"Are you hungry?"
"No, are you?"
She turned to look at him. "Don't worry about my brothers getting the wrong idea. Cole's the only one who will try to make an issue out of our situation, but he'll have to work at it. He'll probably hit you. That's all."
"No, he won't hit me."
"I won't let him. Once was enough."
"He might not see it that way."
"It won't matter. I won't let him hit me."
She let out a sigh. "I'm pleased to see you haven't lost any of your confidence," she remarked. "Spending the last week on your backside didn't affect your spirits at all."
"I did not spend the last week on my backside."
"If you say so."
"Let's talk about something else, shall we?" he asked.
"Yes," she agreed. "I just want you to know that Cole is actually the easiest of my brothers to roll over for me. He's really a very nice person."
"I didn't say he wasn't nice," he countered. "You've got him wrapped around your little finger, don't you?"
"No. He just doesn't like to see me unhappy. If he can take my side, he will."
He thought his interpretation was more accurate. "Was it difficult for you growing up without a father and mother?"
"I have a mother," she replied. "Mama Rose."
"Why doesn't she live with you and your brothers?"
"She can't… not yet. She'll join us as soon as possible."
"Do all of your brothers call her Mama?"
"Yes, they do. Why do you ask?"
"I just wondered. What about your father?"
"I don't have one of those."
"Don't you miss having one?"
"How could I miss what I've never had?"
Mary Rose decided her blouse was dry enough. She folded it and put it behind her, then went to work on her skirt.
Harrison watched her every movement. He thought she was an extremely graceful woman, wonderfully feminine and yet very practical. It was a fascinating combination.
"You're as unspoiled as your paradise."
"Mama Rose is Adam's mother, isn't she?"
"And mine as well."
"But she gave birth to Adam."
"Yes. How did you know?"
"Simple deduction. She lives in the South. You've never seen her, have you?"
"Not deduction, you guessed," she countered. "You don't know where my other brothers came from. They could have lived down south too. No, I haven't ever seen Mama, but I know her very well. She writes to me at least once a week, sometimes more. She never misses, not once since I started writing to her. During the war, when I was too young to read or write, she did miss sending letters a couple of times. I don't remember the time, but my brothers were very worried. She survived, of course, just like we did. When the time is right, she'll join us."
"But the time isn't right yet."
The quickness in her reply told him not to press the issue. He let it go.
Several minutes passed in companionable silence. He kept thinking about how pretty she looked wearing his shirt.
She kept thinking about how awful she'd looked wearing her brother's socks.
"What are you thinking about, Harrison?"
"How pretty you look."
She laughed. "You've been away from the city too long if you think I look pretty tonight. My hair's a mess and I'm wearing a man's shirt, for heaven's sake."
You're wearing my shirt, he silently corrected. And that made all the difference in the world to him. Seeing her in his favorite, worn-out shirt made him feel extremely possessive toward her. Everything about her aroused him. He wanted to protect her from harm, comfort her, hold her, love her. And in his heart, he wanted the same from her.
Harrison tried to think about his life back in England. Nothing about his daily routine appealed to him now, however. How cold and empty his life had been. Until he had come to Montana, he hadn't known what it was like to feel alive. He had always felt as though he were standing on the outside of life, looking in. He observed. Hadn't Mary Rose used just that word to describe him? He wondered if she had any idea how accurate her evaluation was.
"Now what are you thinking about? You look worried. Are you?"
"I was bemoaning the fact that I wore such a heavy skirt. It's taking forever to dry. Now it's your turn to tell me what you were thinking about. I shall only hope your thoughts weren't nearly as boring."
"You were thinking about practical matters. I wasn't. I was thinking about my life back in England."
"Don't you mean to say Scotland?"
"All my work is in England. I have a town house in London. I rarely have enough time to go back to the Highlands."
"Because of all of your work?"
"You miss the Highlands though, don't you?"
"I miss what it represents."
"What is that?"
He hadn't realized he was going to use that specific word until he said it.
"You've let duty become your chains, haven't you?"
"A man has to repay his debts before all other considerations."
"Do you owe your employer this debt? Is that why you've never had enough time to pursue your own dreams?"
"Yes and no," he answered. "Yes, I owe him a debt. But it's more complicated than that. My dreams have changed. I used to love what I was doing. I don't any longer. I think maybe you're right, Mary Rose. Winning isn't everything."
"I'm pleased to hear you admit it," she said. "You like our paradise, don't you?"
"And you're happy here."
"Then quit making everything so complicated. Stay and be happy. See how simple it is?"
"No, it isn't simple at all."
"I'll only ask you one more question," she promised. "If it were simple, would you stay here?"
"In a heartbeat."
She knew she'd just promised not to ask any more questions, but she couldn't stop herself from asking one more. "Have you made up your mind to leave then?"
She was gripping the edge of her skirt, praying he would tell her what she desperately wanted to hear.
"I haven't made up my mind about anything. I'm not being evasive, just honest. I don't have enough information yet to know what road I should take."
"I don't understand."
Her arms were aching from holding up the skirt to dry. She finally gave up and put it away. Then she moved back, covered her legs, and leaned against the rock wall next to Harrison. She sat so close to him her upper arm pressed against his.
She stared into the fire and let it mesmerize her. She didn't want to think about the possibility of Harrison leaving, not when she was just about to decide to fall in love with him, and so she tried to think about something else.
"I know you must be hungry. I'll be happy to find something to eat."
"Where?" he asked.
"Out there," she answered with a wave of her hand toward the mountain.
"I'm not that hungry. If you are, I could go outside and find something for you to eat."
She smiled but didn't look at him. Harrison had sounded arrogant when he spoke.
"You haven't had to stay out overnight much, have you?"
"Actually, when I was in service, I did," he replied.
"Do you mean the military?"
"Tell me about London. What's it like living there?"
"It's beautiful. The architecture is remarkable. Cole would appreciate the quality and the workmanship. I think you would like living in London," he added. "Once you got accustomed to the differences."
She couldn't imagine living in a city. Paradise was all she needed, or wanted. Why couldn't Harrison understand?
"Have you ever had to stay outside with a woman in the Highlands or in England?"
The question made him want to laugh. "I'd be married now if I had."
"The woman's reputation would have been ruined. Marriage would be the only honorable solution."
"But what if nothing happened? What if the circumstances were as innocent as ours are tonight?"
"It wouldn't make any difference," he answered. "She would still be condemned."
"What about the man? What would happen to him?"
"Not much," he admitted after a moment's reflection. "It isn't all absolute, of course. If she comes from a powerful family, or if an influential friend decides to help, there is a chance she wouldn't be shunned. A remote chance," he added. "But still a chance. Before you judge too harshly, I'll remind you that your society in New York is similar."
"It isn't my society," she argued. "Out here, we don't have time for such nonsense."
A sudden thought made her smile. "If what you say is accurate, then you would have to marry me tomorrow if we were in the wilderness in England. They do have their own paradise, don't they?"
"Yes," he assured her. "They do. There are untouched areas just as breathtakingly beautiful."
"What about my other question? Would you have to many me?"
She turned to look at him. He slowly turned to look at her. She saw the sparkle in his eyes and something else she couldn't quite put her finger on.
"Probably not," he told her. "My employer is a very powerful man in England. He would come to your aid."
She looked disgruntled by his answer. Harrison laughed.
She was getting a crick in her neck. She moved again, got up on her knees to face him, then leaned back against her ankles. The side of her thigh touched his.
He tried once again not to think about her closeness or her lack of attire. It helped if he stared at her forehead-not much, of course, but he was a desperate man. He would take what he could.
"Now why are you frowning? Tell me what you're thinking about?"
She didn't understand. He wasn't going to enlighten her. "You're a puzzling man, Harrison. One minute you're laughing, and the next you're frowning like a bear."
"Bears don't frown."
"I was being metaphorical."
"Another word on the chalkboard?"
She nodded. "I like the word. It sounds… intelligent."
"You're going to make me go stand outside, aren't you, Mary Rose?"
"You're being provocative."
"I am?" She was pleased with his remark.
"I haven't just given you a compliment. You're deliberately tempting me. Stop it."
She couldn't hide her smile. "Now you're gloating," he muttered.
She had to agree. She was gloating. "A woman likes to know she's appealing," she explained. "But I shall stop flirting with you just as soon as I figure out what it is I'm doing."
"You could start by taking your hand off my thigh."
She hadn't realized where her hand was draped. She immediately pulled away.
"Quit looking at me that way."
"Like you want me to kiss you."
"But I do want you to kiss me."
"It isn't going to happen, so stop it," he ordered again.
She tucked the covers around her legs, then folded her hands together in her lap.
"What would happen if we weren't discovered?"
"In England, after spending a night together," she said.
He thought they had finished discussing the subject. She was obviously still curious about the workings of his society, however, and so he answered her.
"We would be discovered. Gossip travels like the plague. Everyone always knows everyone else's business."
"Then do you know what I might do?"
"I'd give them all something to talk about. The people must be terribly bored, after all, to be concerned about everyone else all the time. I would become indiscreet. If I loved the man I was spending the night with, and if I knew he wanted to marry me and I wanted to marry him, well then I would…"
His hand covered her mouth. "No, you would not. You would have your own honor to protect. You would be true to yourself, to who you are."
It took her a long minute to finally admit he was right. "Yes, I would," she said. "Still, being a fallen woman does hold a certain fascination. I'd probably wear red all the time."
He shook his head. "Look at the cost," he suggested.
She rolled her eyes heavenward. "Ever the attorney," she whispered. "All right. We'll look at the cost. You're going to tell me all about it, aren't you?"
He nodded. "If you give up parts of who you are, eventually you give up everything."
He didn't realize she was agreeing with him. "If you lose yourself, you've lost everything."
"In other words, you aren't going to kiss me."
"You've got that right."
"You have bruises all over your chest. And your neck. I'll bet your backside's black and blue."
"You aren't going to find out."
She reached over and touched a bruise near his left shoulder. Her fingertips were warm against his skin.
He didn't think she had any idea of what she was doing to him. She was frowning with obvious concern over the beating his body had taken.
When she touched the bruise next to his navel, he grabbed hold of her hand.
"You'd better start taking care of yourself," she said. "I don't think you should go with my brothers to get the cattle we purchased."
"Because you'll probably break your neck."
"You've got a lot of confidence in me, don't you?"
"I believe in you."
Her words came out in a soft whisper, and, oh, how they touched his heart. Her belief in him was humbling.
They stared into each other's eyes for a breathless moment, then each looked away. Neither was willing, nor ready, to take the next step. Harrison knew he loved her but couldn't profess his love for her because they would be empty words indeed without a future together. He would have to declare his intentions to Lord Elliott first and only after he had proven himself financially stable enough to provide for his daughter in the style Elliott would demand.
Mary Rose was afraid to fall in love with Harrison. She was trying to protect her heart from being crushed. He had been very open and honest with her about the possibility of leaving, and who was she to keep him from pursuing his destiny and his dreams?
I am very practical, she decided with a good deal of self-disgust.
She wouldn't allow herself to grasp any possibility until she was assured of the outcome. She desperately wanted to protect herself, yet even now she was close to weeping over a future without Harrison.
"What are you thinking?"
She pulled her hand away from his before she answered. "Here today, gone tomorrow. What were you thinking?"
"That it would take me years to become financially equal to my employer."
They both sounded disheartened.
"If we were living in the city of London, I would probably have complete confidence in your ability to take care of yourself."
He raised an eyebrow. " 'Probably'?"
She smiled. She loved it when he sounded outraged. She knew it was forced, of course, and assumed he was also trying to move back into a safer, more casual conversation.
"No, not 'probably,' " she qualified. "I'm certain you could look after yourself."
"I would hope so."
"I don't think less of you. No, of course I don't. I believe in you, Harrison. It's your experience we're talking about now."
"What's wrong with my experience?"
"You don't have any."
She patted his knee in mock sympathy. "You've never worked with cattle before. I doubt you even know how to use a rope. Therefore, it would be dangerous for you. Have I injured your feelings again?"
"Go to sleep."
She decided not to take offense over the gruff order. "I am tired," she admitted. "Running up and down those stairs got old fast."
"Why were you running up and down the stairs."
"I had errands to complete."
She didn't answer him. Harrison shook his head. He understood how difficult the demanding woman was. He'd seen Eleanor in action when she'd taken on Travis. She wanted him to fetch something for her, and by God, after ten minutes of hounding, the brother had given in. He told Harrison he would have done anything to shut her up.
Mary Rose straightened her blankets and then stretched out on her side. She kept her back close to Harrison 's thigh, tucked her hands under the side of her face, and closed her eyes.
"How long are you going to let Eleanor run you around in circles?"
"For heaven's sake, she only just arrived. She hasn't been running me in circles. I'm merely trying to help her get comfortable."
"When the two of you are together and no one else is around, is she pleasant to you then?"
Mary Rose thought about the question a long while before she finally answered.
"Then why do you put up with her?"
She rolled onto her back and looked up at Harrison. He was scowling down at her. The man became upset over the oddest things.
"Why do you put up with MacHugh?"
"Why? Because he's a sound, reliable horse."
"So is Eleanor. She's sound and reliable."
"You can't know that for certain."
"You couldn't have known for certain your horse was sound and reliable either. You went with your instincts, didn't you?"
"No, I didn't. One look at MacHugh and I fully understood why he was being difficult. His scars speak for him."
"So do her scars," she reasoned. "Eleanor carries them inside, and perhaps, because people can't see them, the injuries done to her are even more damaging. She's often misunderstood."
Harrison moved down, stretched out on his back, stacked his hands behind his head, and stared up at the stone ceiling of the cave while he thought about Eleanor.
"Travis is getting ready to toss her out."
"No, he isn't."
"He can't hide in the barn until she leaves, Mary Rose. Douglas, I couldn't help but notice, is doing the same thing. You're asking too much from your brothers. They should have the same rights you have."
"They do have the same rights." She turned toward him, propped her elbow on the blanket, and then rested her chin on the palm of her hand so she would be comfortable while she argued with him.
"My brothers aren't very patient men," she began. "Still, they know they can't toss her out. It wouldn't be a decent thing to do. They're all honorable men, every one of them."
"There is an easy way to get Eleanor to behave," Harrison said. He turned his attention from the ceiling to her eyes and allowed himself to be mesmerized by their intense, bewitching color.
She scooted closer to him and leaned up. "How?" she asked.
"If something no longer works, you try something else, right?"
"Right," she agreed.
"Does Eleanor expect breakfast to be served to her in bed every morning?"
"She said she did."
"What would happen if no one carried a tray up?"
"She'd be furious."
"And hungry," he predicted. "She would have to come downstairs."
"I wouldn't want to be around when she did. Her anger is often quite worrisome."
"In other words, it's all for show. Ignore her anger. Simply state your position, give her the rules of the household, and…"
"When you eat, when you don't," he said. "That sort of thing."
"I see. And then what should I do?"
His grin was devilish. "Run like hell. You might try hiding in the barn with your brothers."
She laughed. "Everyone's going to love Eleanor once they understand her."
"She should have responsibilities to take care of for as long as she is here, assuming, of course, Eleanor plans to stay for a long while."
Mary Rose sat up and leaned over him. "If I tell you something, will you promise not to tell Travis or Douglas or Cole?"
"What about Adam?"
"He already knows."
She put her hand flat against his chest. His heart felt as if it had just flipped over. He couldn't stop himself from touching her and put his hand on top of hers.
"What don't you want your other brothers to find out?"
"Eleanor won't be leaving."
"Do you mean to say she won't be leaving soon?"
"I mean to say, not ever."
"Exactly," she whispered. "She doesn't have any other place to go. Now do you understand? She doesn't have any family. Her father ran away from her and from the authorities. He's done terrible things to other people, and the law finally caught up with him."
"What terrible things?"
"He took their money. He pretended to be an investor. He wasn't."
"He took their savings."
"What about Eleanor's mother?"
"She died a long time ago. Eleanor's an only child, the poor thing."
"Aren't there any aunts or uncles she could turn to?"
"No," she answered. "Most of the people in her town turned against her. She didn't have any friends to speak of."
"I'm not surprised."
"Show some compassion."
"Why? You have enough for both of us, sweetheart."
Her eyes widened. "You called me sweetheart."
"Don't be. I liked it. Say it again."
"No. We were talking about Eleanor," he reminded her.
"We shouldn't talk about anyone. It isn't polite."
"I just wanted you to be aware of Travis's current frame of mind. He really is getting ready to call for a vote and toss your houseguest out. You'd better talk to him."
She pulled her hand away from his and then reached up to stroke the side of his face. She felt the day's growth of whiskers under her fingertips and smiled over the pleasure the tickling sensation gave her.
He didn't stop her caress. He liked it too much. His hand cupped the back of her neck. His fingers threaded through her silky hair.
And then he pulled her down on top of him. He kissed her long and hard. He forced her mouth open by applying pressure on her chin. He was deliberate in his seduction, for the lure of tasting her once again overrode all thoughts of caution. There wasn't any harm in kissing her good night, or so he reasoned, and he was certainly experienced enough to know when to stop.
She opened her mouth for him as soon as she realized what he wanted. His tongue moved inside hers to take complete possession. She seemed to melt against him then. His mouth trapped her whispered sigh. And only then did he deepen the kiss. His mouth slanted over hers again. He was hard and hot against her, his tongue hungry to give her the taste of him inside her.
They mated with their mouths, their tongues, until she was overwhelmed by passion. Desire such as she had never known before swept through her body. Each time his tongue slid in and out of her mouth, she silently begged for more. Her nails dug into his shoulder blades, and her body rubbed against his, telling him without words how much she wanted him.
The sound she made in the back of her throat made him hungry to give her more.
A single kiss and yet, when he finally called a stop, they were both shaking with raw desire.
He buried his face in the crook of her neck and tried to regain his senses. He took a deep, shuddering breath, inhaled her wonderful light fragrance, and became more intoxicated by her. God, she was perfect. She felt so good, so right in his arms.
" Harrison, I can't breathe very well. You'll have to move a little."
He was on top of her. How in God's name had that happened? His arms were wrapped around her waist. He hadn't remembered putting them there. He had to take her with him when he rolled to his side so he could pull his hands free.
His lack of control appalled him. And yet he still held on to her. His knee was wedged between her thighs. He couldn't feel her skin through the fabric of his pants, but he knew she was silky everywhere. It made him even harder thinking about it.
Her arms were wrapped around his neck. Her fingers were driving him to distraction because she was still stroking him.
She leaned up and kissed his chin. She tried to let go of him. It was the decent thing to do, given their circumstances. She couldn't make herself behave, though. He felt too wonderful against her.
She tucked her head under his chin and closed her eyes. "Could we please sleep like this? We'll stay warm," she promised. "Just for a little while?"
He kissed the top of her forehead. "Just for a little while," he agreed.
She leaned back so she could look at him when she whispered her goodnight. She stared into his eyes, saw the tenderness there, and felt her heartbeat quicken in reaction. "Your eyes have turned as dark as night. You're a very handsome man."
His hands moved to cup the sides of her face. "And you're a very beautiful woman."
His thumb rubbed across her lips. They were rosy and swollen from his kisses. Her eyes were still misty with passion, and, God help him, he couldn't stop himself from kissing her again.
"You are so amazingly soft," he whispered a scant second before his mouth settled on top of hers. It was hard, demanding, incredibly arousing. Passion ignited within each of them. She was every bit as wild as he was in her bid to explore the taste and texture of him.
His hands caressed her neck, her shoulders, then moved lower until he was cupping her sweet backside. She moved restlessly against him. Her pelvis pressed against his knee. A surge of pleasure poured over her. He angled his head to the side and kissed her again, then shifted his position. He moved his knee away and gently forced her to straddle him. He pressed his groin against the junction of her thighs, caught her gasp with his mouth, and growled with his pleasure. He was mindless now to everything but pleasing her.
Passion flowed between them with an intensity of white-hot lightning. He couldn't seem to get enough of her. His hand slipped beneath the flannel shirt to caress her more intimately. He pushed the light fabric of her chemise out of his way and boldly took one full breast into his hand. His thumb rubbed across her nipple again and again, until it had become a hard nub ready for his mouth to devour.
She loved the way he caressed her. She moaned and arched up against his hand, silently pleading for more.
She never wanted to let go of him. She craved his closeness, the tenderness in the way he held her. She could feel his strength in the corded muscles under her fingertips and glorified in the knowledge that with each of her own gentle caresses, she gave him as much pleasure as he gave her. His nonsensical, sweet, loving words against her ear told her so.
She was overwhelmed by him. She knew he had enough strength to crush her, yet also knew he would give up his life to keep her safe. She tasted the saltiness in his skin as she placed wet kisses along the column of his neck, inhaled his male scent, entwined now with her own, and heard his heart beating wildly and in perfect harmony with her own racing heartbeat.
His caresses became more demanding, for her soft whispers of pleasure drove him now. He became desperate to get closer to her heat, to touch and stroke what he most wanted to possess. His hand moved down between her thighs, and he shuddered with yet another burst of uncontrollable passion. Her skin was as silky and sweet as he knew it would be. His fingers slipped underneath her clothing and found her at last. When he touched her and felt the warm dampness in her soft curls, he forgot all about holding on to his discipline. He stroked the fire inside her and burned with his own. His fingers brushed across the very spot he knew would drive her wild. He nearly came undone when she arched up against him and let out a soft cry of ecstasy.
He wasn't going to stop. He started to undo the buttons of his pants. His hands were shaking so much he could barely get the top one unhooked.
She felt his hard arousal pressed against her, and yet she didn't become afraid or worried. In her heart she knew he would stop touching her the minute she asked him to.
Her trust in Harrison was absolute. He was an honorable man. He would do whatever she asked of him, as long as it was honorable.
Dear God, what was she asking of him now? Wasn't he going to sacrifice his honor to please her?
She was sickened with shame. She didn't know if she had the power to destroy him, but she cared about him too much to risk the possibility.
She went completely still and squeezed her eyes shut so she wouldn't be able to cry.
"We have to stop now."
Her voice was a ragged whisper against the side of his neck. The words registered in his mind almost immediately. It took him a little longer to react.
And then he let out a loud, shaky breath, clenched his jaw tight, and forced himself to move away from her. It almost killed him.
The physical agony of his own frustration, and his stupidity, made him furious. What in God's name had he been thinking? Lust had driven him beyond any semblance of control. He hadn't been thinking at all. No woman had ever been able to get to him the way Mary Rose did. She was different all right, and dangerous.
She was having trouble catching her breath. The second Harrison had rolled away from her, she felt abandoned, alone. She shook with cold and with regret. Her shameful conduct humiliated her. No man had ever touched her so intimately. He had stroked her breasts, her belly, her backside, her… Oh, God, she was out of her mind. She couldn't stop the tears from forming in her eyes.
What if she hadn't asked him to stop? She knew the answer. He would marry her.
The thought didn't please her. No, it horrified her. Because of his integrity he would do the right thing. God only knew, he was used to the weight of responsibility. His shoulders should be stooped by now, for she knew he'd been carrying obligations from the time he'd been just a little boy. Responsibility had robbed him of his childhood.
She wasn't about to take anything more from him. She felt sick to her stomach and almost doubled over with her guilt. Trapping a man into marriage with lust was beyond shameful. It was unforgivable.
She sat up with her back toward Harrison and stared at the wall while she straightened her blankets. Her hair was hanging down over her face. She impatiently brushed it back and only then realized her hands were still shaking.
She knew she had to say something to him, offer him some sort of apology or explanation for her behavior, but she couldn't seem to find the right words to convey to him her feelings. Nothing she came up with seemed to be even barely adequate.
Harrison couldn't get comfortable. He sat up, moved back, and then leaned against the stone wall. He let the frigid rock cool his shoulders.
He still burned for her. He could taste her in his mouth and tried not to think about how good she'd been, how sweet and hot, and wet and…
"Hell." The word came out in a low groan.
She turned to look at him. He was staring at her. The coldness in his eyes shamed her even more than her own guilt.
He continued to stare at her for a long minute, until he realized she was making him hard again. Her eyes were still misty with passion, and her lips were swollen from his kisses. He'd scratched her face with his whiskers. He found the marks aroused him too. He knew that if he pulled her back into his arms, he would inhale his own scent.
Hell, he'd been all over her. He turned his gaze to the ceiling and tried to burn a hole through the rock.
"Do you understand what almost happened?"
She flinched over the anger in his voice. "Yes," she answered. "I understand. I suggest we don't ever let ourselves become… involved again. It's too dangerous."
"Damned right it's dangerous."
"I'm sorry," she whispered.
He didn't have anything to say about that. She turned to look at him again. Another clump of her hair fell over her left eye. She impatiently brushed it away.
His hair was as tousled as hers was. He looked as though he'd just awakened. She thought he was the most handsome man on earth.
She turned away from him. The silence was making her nervous. She looked at the fire, realized it was nearly out, and immediately added more twigs to the flames.
"Are you going to stay angry for long?"
"Go to sleep, Mary Rose, before I forget all about protecting your honor."
She whirled around to look at him. "Is that why you stopped?"
"No," he answered. "I stopped because you asked me to."
He looked at her again and immediately lost some of his anger. There were tears in her eyes. It finally hit him that he hadn't been thinking about her tender feelings at all. He was too busy being self-centered. God, he was a cad. She had never experienced raw passion before, the way she'd responded to him was proof of that truth, and the burning need inside her must have scared the hell out of her.
"Then what does my honor have to do with anything? You said you stopped because I asked you to stop."
He let out a sigh. He couldn't believe he had to tell her. "Sweetheart, I damned near took your virginity and your honor. A couple of minutes more and I would have."
It wasn't what he said but how he said the words that soothed her. His tone was softer, more civilized. And almost loving. She instinctively relaxed her shoulders and stopped gripping her hands together.
"So that is why you became angry?"
She took a deep breath. "I beg to differ with you."
"You do?" The sudden outrage in her voice made him smile. It wasn't the reaction she was looking for. "You're being very smug and male about this, aren't you?"
"I don't believe I am."
"Then I shall enlighten you. You didn't almost take anything. I could have given you my virginity and my honor. I chose not to. I'm the one who asked you to stop. You were busy unbuttoning your pants. Remember?"
He was astonished by the vehemence in her voice. He could feel himself getting angry again, and all because she reminded him of his own lack of discipline. "Tell me why you stopped."
She shook her head. 'You're a lawyer. You figure it out."
"You were afraid."
"Look, I know you wanted me. You were as hot as I was. I can still feel the marks your nails made on my shoulders. You do remember where your hands were, don't you?"
She could feel herself blushing over his reminder of how she'd behaved. She watched him draw one leg up and drape his arm over his knee. Every movement he made seemed to arouse her. God, she was despicable. She wasn't any better than a rabbit in heat.
"Of course I remember. I'm not sorry."
"Neither am I."
The emotion in his admission made her shiver and feel warm at the same time. Her reaction to him didn't make any sense to her.
She decided it was his fault. The man was deliberately making her crazy.
"Stop looking at me like that."
He did know. He turned to look at the fire. "You still haven't told me why you asked me to stop."
"And you aren't going to let up until I do. Isn't that right?"
"Yes," he agreed. "If you weren't afraid, what was it? You liked the way I touched you. Don't pretend you didn't. I remember how your body reacted. You were hot and wet for me."
Her gaze flew to his. He was staring at her again, and the look in his eyes made her want to melt. "Stop talking like that," she ordered in a voice that sounded horribly weak to her.
"Tell me why you stopped," he ordered once again. "Then I'll stop reminding you."
She closed her eyes. It was the only thing she could think to do to get away from him.
"For a lawyer, you're really dense. It wouldn't ever occur to you that maybe, just maybe I stopped because of your honor, not mine."
She knew he didn't believe her. She told herself she didn't care. Were all men as arrogant as Harrison and her brothers were? Heavens, she sincerely hoped not.
"Yes, Harrison, your integrity," she said again.
"You are serious, aren't you… My honor." The words came out in a whisper.
Well, hell, he still didn't know if he believed her or not. Yet when she opened her eyes and looked at him again, he could see the sincerity. He was thunderstruck and humbled.
"Your honor," she whispered back. Then she rolled her eyes heavenward and turned away from him.
She was obviously disgusted with him now. He didn't have time to think about that. He was fully occupied trying to figure out how he felt about her protecting him.
"You've got more discipline than I do."
It almost killed him to admit it. She thought he sounded offended by the possibility.
"How like a man to think he's the only one to ever consider such noble things as honor and integrity. Believe it or not, women can be protective too. It isn't a novel concept. It's plain reality. Haven't you ever heard of Joan of Arc? She gave her life for France 's honor, and for her own."
"Joan of Arc?" He would have laughed over the comparison, but he didn't want to get killed. "I don't believe she ever did what we just did, Mary Rose."
"Of course she didn't. The woman was a saint, for heaven's sake. I'm not. I wasn't comparing myself to her. I was simply saying that I knew you couldn't have lived with yourself if you had been intimate with me."
"I was intimate with you. Remember where my fingers were?"
"Oh, go to sleep."
She moved over to the edge of her blankets so she could get as far away from him as possible. She pulled the covers up, closed her eyes, and tried to get some rest.
He knew he should have stopped tormenting her, but her reaction was so incredibly pleasing to him he couldn't resist. The prettiest blush came over her cheeks when she got flustered.
He was also thankful she was irritated with him. He'd tried to make her angry on purpose, and knew that if they had continued to argue with each other, he would have succeeded. He wasn't being a cad. No, he was being noble, or at least he believed he was. If she was angry, she'd stay away from him. No woman wanted to kiss a man she was thinking about killing. It all made perfectly good sense to him.
Hell, who was he kidding? He was really trying to protect himself. She had already proven she had more discipline than he had. It wouldn't take much to make him forget all about his good intentions. All she had to do was crook her finger in his direction, and he'd be all over her again. He had gotten a taste of heaven, and he had to try to pretend he hadn't loved it.
He didn't sleep much during the night. He kept his gun in his hand near his side and listened for every little sound. He drifted off twice. The first time, the soft flutter of wind awakened him. Someone or something was inside the cave with them. Harrison stayed perfectly still. He opened his eyes only a sliver and saw the woman then. His reaction was immediate. His hand tightened on the gun tucked under the cover. It took all he had not to shoot her, and he thanked God she wasn't looking at him now. She had a quilt in her arms and was standing over Mary Ros