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By Judith Stacy
Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.Copyright © 2004 Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.
All right reserved.
Chapter OneSanta Fe Trail, 1844
She'd gone to hell.
Lily St. Claire pressed the damp cloth to her brow, desperate for a moment's relief. She'd died. Yes, that must be it, she decided. Because right now, she had to be in hell.
The covered wagon lurched, a wheel finding another rut in what some overly optimistic guide - a man whom Lily believed truly deserved to be cast into the pit of eternal hellfire - had referred to as a "trail." She braced her foot against a wooden trunk and grabbed the edge of the narrow bunk to keep from toppling to the floor.
A mournful groan reminded Lily that she was very much alive despite the heat, the suffocating wagon, the foul stench of sickness. The man lying on the damp sheets mumbled incoherently. Sweat trickled from his fevered brow, soaking his hair, his tangled gray beard and his thin white nightshirt.
A stranger, really.
For weeks - Lily wasn't sure how many - Augustus St. Claire had burned with fever, flailed his arms, conversed with unseen people, even Lily's mother, dead twelve years now.
Lily dipped the cloth into the bucket of tepid water and laid it on her father's forehead. Fear and guilt crept into her thoughts. Fear that he wasn't getting any better. Guilt that he was dying before her eyes, and she didn't know how to help him.
A wealthy businessman from Saint Louis, Augustus had stunned Lily when he'd told her of his plan to explore the West, to expand his business holdings in the wilds of Santa Fe. His plan to send her away.
Since her mother's death when she was seven years old, Lily had lived in boarding schools. Fine institutes all, catering to the daughters of the wealthy. She'd just graduated from Saint Louis's most prestigious academy for young women, prepared to do what was expected of her and take her place among polite society, when her father had revealed his intentions.
He'd wanted her to move to her aunt Maribel's home in Richmond, Virginia, where Lily could take up the sort of life she'd been raised to lead. He told her harrowing accounts of Indian raids on the Trail, stories of disease and hardship. Yet for all his attempts to discourage her, Lily insisted that she accompany him. She had to take this chance - perhaps her very last chance - to get to know the man who was her father.
The trip had promised to be an adventure. Before leaving Saint Louis, Lily had been contacted by the editor of the newspaper and was asked to chronicle the trip in a series of articles. She'd packed her journal, her paints and brushes, intending to write poetry and sketch the scenery along the way.
Setting out, she'd envisioned she and her father working side by side to start the new business, carve out a living together in the new land. Finally, they would truly be a family. Lily's heart had soared at the prospect. Perhaps, she'd hoped, he might even tell her all the things she'd longed to hear about her mother.
But barely two weeks into the journey, Augustus had sliced open his leg with a hatchet while attempting to split kindling. A deep, nasty cut; Lily had nearly fainted at the sight.
Her years at boarding school had been spent learning deportment, etiquette, menu planning, the proper way to supervise a household staff. Madame DuBois's lesson plan had contained nothing about medicine.
With no doctor on the wagon train, a few of the older women had told Lily how to care for her father. She'd forced herself to look at the gaping wound, the oozing mustard-colored pus, and endured the stench. She'd sat at his bedside tending to him endlessly. Yet despite everything she'd done, his condition had only worsened.
And grew worse by the hour.
A slice of sunlight cut through the wagon's dim interior, bringing a welcome breath of fresh air with it as Jamie Nelson pulled back the canvas opening. He was only fifteen years old, yet he handled the team of horses like a grown man.
Augustus had hired the Nelsons, a family also heading west, to assist them on the journey. Though they traveled in their own wagon, Mrs. Nelson cooked and cleaned for Lily and her father, while Jamie, their oldest son, took care of the horses and drove the wagon.
Lily's stomach lurched. "Are we there?" she asked, unable to keep the excitement from her voice.
"No, not yet," Jamie said, holding the reins, looking back over his shoulder.
"Is your mother coming?" she asked, her words more a plea than a question.
"Ah ... no, Miss Lily," he replied with an apologetic dip of his head.
Why not? she wanted to scream. Why hadn't they arrived at the fort yet? Why wouldn't Mrs. Nelson walk back to her wagon and help nurse Augustus?
And why wouldn't someone make this nightmare end?
"You - you want to come sit up front for a while, Miss Lily?" Jamie asked. He gulped. "With ... me?"
Excerpted from Cheyenne Wife by Judith Stacy Copyright © 2004 by Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.. Excerpted by permission.
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