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"Turn around, you son of a bitch."
Thomas West heard the emphasizing click of the pistol cocking. The woman's voice was not familiar. He lowered the razor pressed to his throat and lifted the towel, wiping off the remaining suds with measured strokes as he hoped that she would not plant a bullet in his kidney.
He turned to the woman, trying to place her. Full green skirts and a deerskin jacket revealed little about her age or shape. The wide-brimmed hat cast her face in deep shadow, showing only the stubborn set of her chin and the thin, grim line of her pressed lips.
She looked prepared to kill him. In his mind he'd given no woman cause. Though one had given cause. "Sarah?"
The corner of her mouth quirked, and she lifted her chin to reveal familiar gray eyes. His breath caught. Time had stolen the round face, replacing soft features with high cheekbones and a pointed chin. Faint lines engraved the fine skin at her eyesher beauty no longer pliant, but etched in granite.
"Mrs. West now," she said, rubbing his nose in it.
He gritted his teeth, refusing to acknowledge her marriage. Fourteen years, and the pain was as fresh as the day he had first heard the news.
"You promised to come back," she said, keeping the gun level.
"And you promised to wait."
A flicker of emotion changed her expression from steel to sorrow. She blinked, and the muzzle dipped. Recovering quickly, she focused and aimed. Thomas braced for the bullet.
"I need your help," she said.
"Funny way to ask, creeping up on a man and pointing a gun at his guts."
"Just wanted to ensure your attention."
He swabbed the towel over his cheek again, removing the sweat with the remaining soap. "You have it."
She released the hammer. "The Indians took my daughter. You're going to help me get her back."
He scowled. "You want help? You'd best ask the girl's father." A vicious smile widened her full lips. "You are her father, Thomas."
The razor slipped from his hand, clattering off the planking. He scraped against the rough cedar shingles as he sat with a thud on the wooden porch. Somehow Sarah had shot him without ever pulling the trigger.
His ears rang with the thunder rolling through his brain, as her words echoed like a rifle shot through a box canyon. Her fatheryou arefather. The faithless woman who could not wait for his return had borne him a child. The possibility of it sank its teeth into the marrow of his bones. But Samuel had told him Sarah's words butted against his brother's as he tried to understand what was happening.
Memories flashed through his mind. The air had been scented with pine when Sarah crawled through his bedroom window that last night before he headed for the goldfields. She came to him and loved him and promised to wait forever.
A few months later she had wed.
He sat motionless as Sarah squatted before him, the smile gone as she stared at him with fierce intensity.
"You hear me?"
Thomas nodded. She holstered her pistol and strode across the porch to the water barrel, returning with a dipperful. She held the offering to his lips. He swallowed the warm water as he gazed at the face that had not left him for so much as a day in fourteen long years.
Had she tracked him all the way from Illinois?
Water dribbled down his chin, soaking the front of his shirt. She righted the dipper and flung the dregs out into the yard. He watched the water arc and fall, changing the dry dirt into droplets of mud. For the first time, he noted a freckled gelding, saddled and packed for the trail, resting a hind hoof as it stood beneath the old cedar.
Thomas met Sarah's gaze, searching the face he had once hoped to see every morning for the rest of his life, back in the days when he believed women could be faithful. Before Sarah tore his heart from his chest and threw it in the dirt like the water dregs.
When he found his voice, he didn't recognize the strangled thing it had become. "You sure she's mine?"
She snorted. The ladle swung from her fingers as she headed back to the rain barrel, taking her time, as if counting to ten.
"When we find her, you can judge for yourself."
She stopped at a safe distance, far enough that he couldn't see the blue flecks in her eyes. He staggered to his feet, making it to the upright beam supporting the porch roof. His stomach heaved, poised to expel the contents of his breakfast. He kept it down by force of will, refusing to humiliate himself before her.
Sarah closed the distance to a few paces, then hesitated, pinning him with a wary gaze. He studied her, searching in vain for a strand of silver in her thick chestnut braid. His red-gold hair had faded at his temples before he hit thirty. More white crept into his crown, stealing its former radiance. She retained her rich hair colorthough the innocence was gone from her eyes, along with the hope. In their place shone grim determination.
"They have my daughter. I want her back, and you're going to help me."
Her chest heaved as she stood before him, the picture of a mother defending her cub.
"I hear you're some kind of bigwig in this town. Maybe you can get the army to send troops, because they sure as hell won't listen to me."
"When did you get so bossy?" he asked.
"The day I reached my last hope and realized it was you." He absorbed the verbal kick. He knew her well enough to know that it was true, that she would have asked each friend, called in every favor and begged for help from complete strangers before turning to him.
He wouldn't have thought it possible for her to hurt him any more, but she did. The woman was nothing but one big hurt from start to finish. Pain could not describe the scramble his gut had become. Sarah's arrival hit the dead spot in the center of his chest and tore open a fresh wound.
"You have some explaining to do," he said.
She challenged. "I have? That's a hoot, because I never did see your face after you left town. Still searching for your fortune, Thomas?" She settled a fist upon her hip. "Still planning to come back to me?"
The resentment rang in her voice. She sounded as if she hated him, as if she had been the one betrayed. He frowned at her as he considered what her words implied.
He had made his fortune in California, mining miners instead of ore, for all the good it had done him. Selling hardware to all those men had given him wealth. But money could not buy what he had lost. And now she stood on the porch scowling like a woman scorned.
"I wrote Samuel," he said.
Uncertainty flickered in her eyes. Confusion knit her brow as she leaned forward, leading with her stubborn chin. Damn him if he didn't want to kiss her still. He must be insane. He gritted his teeth, forcing hot air into his lungs through flaring nostrils until the urge to touch her faded somewhat, but not completely. Nonever completely.
"When?" she asked.
"Soon as I was able. Damn you and him both."
Now it was Sarah's turn to drop hard and sit on the porch step. She stared at the empty yard, muttering to herself.
"Letter. I never saw a letter. Why didn't he show me?" She glared up at him. "You never wrote me."
The accusation struck home and he shifted his attention, unable to meet the condemnation glowing in her eyes. He wouldn't tell her about the darkness or the sorrow when he realized that all he could ever be to her was a burden. How could he have known he would recover?
He longed to tell her but couldn't. "Samuel said you were married."
She buried her face in her hands. "I had no choice." "You had a choice. Why him?" "For the baby," she choked.
Thomas recalled his grief at discovering this second betrayal. He had been willing to give her up, but she had given him up first. Even her unfaithfulness hadn't made him stop loving her. It had only served to increase the pain at discovering she bore Samuel's child. But now she said it wasn't his brother's.
"I can't blame you." But it wasn't true. He did blame her, but not as much as he blamed himself. He cleared his throat. "Samuel was the better man."
Their gazes met, and he read his pain echoed in her face. "Was it the injuries, Sarah, that made you change your mind?"
She cocked her head. "Change my mind? I don't understand what happened out there, Thomas. What injuries?"
She didn't know. He stiffened, remembering the attack. Seeing Apache raiders rushing forward with short, thick clubs. Waking in the desert, feeling the sun, but seeing nothing. Hearing the screams and realizing they were his brother Hyatt's.
He couldn't breathe. He forced down the memories, locking them back into their cave. He wouldn't remember that time. Sarah's voice drew him to her again and he looked down at her lovely face.
"I knew something happened. But they wouldn't say. Finally, Samuel told me about the Indian attack."
So she married him. "He said you both died. Is Hyatt alive, too?"
A quick shake of his head was the only acknowledgment that Hyatt was gone. "But you were already wed by then."
Her eyes rounded for just an instant. "No, I wasn't."
He heard her but did not understand. It was wrong, this version of events, so he corrected her. "You married two months after I left."
She straightened, her posture a clear warning of an impending storm. "Thomas, I did not marry until after the letter arrived from Commander Russell."
He recognized the name he had fabricated all those years ago as a means of releasing her from a promise she should never have had to keep. Freeing her from him, or what was left of him after that terrible day. In many ways, every part of him that mattered had died in that desert.
All that had been left was his love for Sarah and his guilt over Hyatt. He didn't know where to turn. Certainly not to his father, who had condemned him for luring Hyatt to the gold fields when the family needed him at home, and not to his mother, who had made him swear to look after her baby boy.
So he had turned to Samuel, the responsible elder brother, who would know what must be done. Could it be possible that the person he had trusted most had betrayed him?
His head sank. Perhaps it was no less punishment than he deserved.
Sarah still stood rigid, waiting. "Who told you I was married?"
She cried into her hands now, as he inched closer. Acting on impulse, he rested a palm on her shoulder. Instead of crumbling against him as she once had, she leapt to her feet, spinning about like a cornered badger.
"Don't you touch me. Don't ever touch me again." Her eyes glittered with a feral hatred. "You lost that right when you left me behind."
"Those Apache would have would have " The words lodged in his throat and he could not finish. "You'd be better off dead than with those savages."
"I've been dead for fourteen years." She dashed the tears from her cheeks with a quick scrape of her knuckles.
Thomas crossed his arms to keep himself from reaching out to her. "It was for the best."
"Don't tell me what's best. You wrote Samuel, but not me!"
"You didn't write at all."
"Because they told me you were missing! They all lied to me." She tore at her hair. "To keep me there. They knew, they knew I'd follow you if they'd told me. I wanted to search, but Samuel said I needed to protect the baby."
Her ranting rattled him badly. "Sarah?"
At the sound of his voice she seemed to remember herself. She leveled an accusing stare on him.
"When did you write Samuel?" "Late June, maybe." But he hadn't done the writing. Dictation, that was all he could manage back then.
Sarah stared out across the yard, thinking back.
As unexpectedly as lightning flashing from a clear blue sky, she launched herself at him and beat her fists against his chest until he captured her wrists and held her fast. Tears streaked her cheeks as she struggled against him, against herself.
"Why didn't you come for me? Why didn't you write?"
"You married Samuel."
"Because I thought you were dead."
He gripped her arms and gave a hard shake and she stilled.
"He said the baby was his, Sarah. He claimed the child."
"What?" Her eyes rounded in horror and then narrowed in an instant. Her voice rang with accusation. "And you believed him."
Guilt flashed through him as the wall of certainty, built over fourteen long years, cracked. He said nothing in his defense and she nodded her understanding.
"You should have written to me. I would have told you the truth."
He shook his head.
They stared at each other in silence. He dropped his voice to a coaxing tone. "Come inside, Sarah." Her shoulders drooped a moment. Then she drew herself up and mounted his front steps.
He opened the door to the home he'd built on three acres, big enough to give him the privacy he needed, but too small to farm. He never planned to farm anything again as long as he lived, because farms reminded him of Sarah chasing chickens in the April sunshine and of Hyatt milking cows.
She swung past him and he caught her scent. With it came another belly punch as the memories swept in, bittersweet and broken all to hell.
She'd thought him dead and turned to his brother. The simple explanation didn't dull the pain; if anything it made it worse, far worse to know that she'd loved him once. That she had acted from desperation. How much easier it had been to believe in her betrayal and blame her for it.
But why, of all the men in Illinois, had she chosen his brother? "When did you find out I was alive?"
She paused halfway down the hall, turning slowly to face him. "You remember Ben Harris?"
He did, had happened upon the man in San Francisco years ago and given him enough money to get back to Illinois where he belonged.
"He saw you in a fish market. He told us you were alive. By then your mother and father were gone."
Another bit of his heart crumbled to dust. There would be no forgiveness from that front, not that he deserved any.
"You broke your ma's heart as well. Why didn't you at least write to her?"
He had no answer, no words to convey his grief and guilt and weight of his failure. He had not kept Hyatt safe, nor had he brought him home. He lived it, but he would not speak of it. Not even to Sarah.
"I don't understand any of this. First I hear you are missing and then dead. I receive no word from you. Who is Russell and how could he have thought you were dead?"
He lowered his head in shame. "I'm Russell. I had that letter written after Samuel's . After he said you carried his child."
"Oh, Thomas, no."
She sobbed, and her knees gave way. He guided her to the narrow carpet runner and then released her wrists. He knew not to offer comfort this time. Instead, he crouched on his boot heels with his back to the wall. At last she raised her head.
"He's dead, Tom. Samuel died of cholera heading out here, two weeks before they took Lucie."
An instant later, a wave of regret struck as he recognized the possibility of ever setting things right between them had died with his elder brother. He sank onto the carpet. "When?"
So, the daughter he did not know existed had been taken by savages and the older brother he had idolized and envied had betrayed him and was now buried along some lonely wagon trail.
"My God," he muttered.
She blinked the tears from her eyes. "God won't help me. But you will. Do you understand, Tom? I want my daughter back."