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By Constance O'Banyon
Dorchester PublishingCopyright © 1985 Constance O'Banyon
All right reserved.
Chapter OnePhiladelphia, October 1847
Claudia Landon floated from group to group chattering happily. She had become famous for giving the most elaborate parties in all Philadelphia, and she was in her element when playing hostess.
Her laughter bubbled out when she was caught from behind, by a gentleman whose wife had not attended the party tonight. Sam Boyer had been pursuing Claudia for some weeks now, and when he planted a kiss on the nape of her neck she shivered with delight. Realizing others were watching, she tapped her overamorous guest playfully on the shoulder with her fan.
"Sam, what will the others thinks?" she asked in a throaty voice, giving him her most beguiling smile.
"Meet me later," he whispered near her ear.
Claudia only smiled at him before she walked over to a group of ladies who had their heads together gossiping.
"Are you having fun?" she inquired of the ladies, playing the perfect hostess. She knew the old crows would like nothing better than to see her fall on her face. They came to her parties only because everyone who was anyone came. She endured them because they brought respectability to these affairs.
"Claudia, my dear, what a lovely gown you have on. You must tell me who your dressmaker is so I can give her my patronage," one of the women said.
"I would be happy to give you her name; she lives in Paris, you know. As you are aware, I go to Paris each spring to have a new wardrobe made up."
The woman's eyes narrowed jealously. "Tell me, my dear, how does your husband feel about your going out of the country? I understand he is an invalid. Why is it that we never see him?"
"Yes, poor dear Howard had a stroke some years past that left him partially paralyzed. His speech is garbled, and he never sees visitors."
"You are to be commended for taking such good care of him. I understand that you also look after the large shipping business. Surely, that can be a trial for a woman?"
"I have no choice, Mrs. Hammond. Someone has to do the job. You know how hard it is to get honest workers. If I didn't keep my finger on the pulse of the business, they would rob me blind."
"I understand that the business doesn't really belong to you or your husband. It is rumored that everything belongs to distant relatives, and you and your husband are merely the custodians," Mrs. Hammond said.
Claudia watched as the women's eyes gleamed with obvious satisfaction. Mrs. Hammond had found and hit Claudia's one vulnerable spot. "One should not listen to rumors, Mrs. Hammond," Claudia said, moving away. The fun had suddenly gone out of the party for her. All she wanted was for everyone to just go home.
When the last guest had departed, Claudia made her way upstairs. She stopped before her husband's bedroom door and opened it quietly. She tiptoed to his bed thinking he was asleep, then saw that his eyes were open staring at the portrait that hung over his fireplace. She had hung the portrait of the James family in Howard's room, thinking to irritate him, but his eyes were always glued to it, and it was beginning to irritate her instead. She followed his eyes and knew he would be staring at Joanna James.
"You just can't get her out of your mind, can you, Howard? How does it feel to look at her day after day and know you can never have her? How does it feel to know that she preferred her Indian lover to you?"
Howard turned red in the face, and Claudia felt she might have pushed him too far. Above all, she had to keep Howard alive. Only through him was she able to control the Jameses' empire. Should he die, she would be out in the cold. She smiled to herself at how people called her the devoted wife looking after an invalid husband. What they didn't know was that she was tied to Howard for the rest of her life. They also didn't know that at night many of her lovers came up the backstairs and made their way to her bedroom. She had learned to be discreet, since she didn't want any scandal to touch her life.
"You are not to upset yourself, Howard. We must take the best of care of you." She leaned forward and placed a kiss on his forehead, and his angry eyes showed his distaste.
"Poor Howard, you do so hate being married to me, don't you? Don't I take such good care of you? Don't I see that Cook prepares your favorite meals? Don't I allow that portrait of Joanna to hang in your room so you can just stare at her all day?"
Howard closed his eyes, cursing the sickness that had made him an invalid. He wished for strength so he could strangle the life out of Claudia. Yes, he was grateful for the portrait-it was the one thing that kept him alive. He had to stay alive long enough to see Joanna and Tag return so they could take care of Claudia. Claudia hated Joanna and Tag-Howard knew she feared that one day they would come back to Philadelphia and she would have to face them. Once he had schemed and planned, trying to steal the James fortune from them, but now he wanted only to see them get it back.
Claudia tucked the covers about Howard's neck and walked over to the lamp that burned below the portrait. She would have blown it out, but Howard showed his disapproval with a guttural grunt. She shrugged her shoulders and walked toward the door.
"If you want to spend your nights and days staring at Joanna, far be it from me to complain. After all, you have so few pleasures in life now. Didn't I leave Joanna's room just as she left it-as you asked me to? Don't I look the other way when you have Barlow carry you into that damned room so you can feel close to her?" Claudia smiled as she moved across the room. "Good night, Howard. I hope you will sleep well."
After Claudia had gone, Howard's eyes returned to the portrait of beautiful Joanna. If ever a man was obsessed by anyone, he was obsessed by Joanna. In his mind he would talk to the picture, and in his mind she would answer him back. Each day would bring new hope that Tag and Joanna would return to claim what belonged to them. Howard knew they would come sooner or later, and his only hope was that he would be alive to witness their return.
Howard thought of the past when he had driven Joanna and Tag away from their home. Even then he had been obsessed by Joanna's loveliness. If only he hadn't tried to make impossible demands on her and Tag at the time, perhaps they never would have left.
What good did it do to dwell on past mistakes, he wondered, knowing it wouldn't change anything.
Howard Landon was now a sick old man with nothing to keep him company but his memories. His eyes became heavy, and he closed them, wishing he could have just one night's restful sleep. He had nothing to live for, except the hope that Joanna and Tag would return to Philadelphia.
He felt a chill move over his body and shivered. "Come soon, Tag and Joanna," he whispered. "Come home before I die, so I can make up to you for the past."
The old man slipped off into an unrestful sleep. His dreams were haunted by the girl in the portrait.
When Claudia reached her bedroom, she sank down into a chair, leaned her head back, and closed her eyes. For some reason she didn't find the parties fun anymore. She was becoming discontented with her life. Why couldn't she be happy when she had everything she had ever wanted: money, power, and many friends.
Standing up, she removed her gown and tossed it onto the foot of the bed. She knew why she wasn't happy. None of this belonged to her-it all belonged to Joanna and Taggart James.
Sitting down on the foot of the bed, she removed her stockings and shoes and dropped them to the floor. Sometimes the hatred that burned in her heart for Joanna and Tag seemed like the only real thing in her life. Claudia smiled to herself-soon she would be free of Joanna and Tag for good. She had already found the means to send them both to their deaths. She was waiting for word from the three men whom she had sent to rid her of her two most hated enemies.
She lay back on her bed and smiled to herself. How wonderful her life would be when she no longer had to fear Joanna and Tag.
Hearing a fumbling at the door, Claudia sat up and watched as Sam Boyer entered the room. "Why, Sam, what are you doing here?" she purred.
"You knew I would come," he said, advancing toward her.
"What about your wife?" she asked, as he stood above her allowing his eyes to roam over her body.
"My wife is gone and you are here," he told her, lowering his body on top of hers.
As Sam Boyer found her lips, Claudia closed her eyes. For a time she could find forgetfulness in Sam's arms. For now she could forget about Joanna and Tag.
Taggart James sat beside the Milk River, absent-mindedly skipping stones across the smooth surface. It was a cold October morning, and he could see huge chunks of ice floating down the river. Raising his eyes, he looked toward the distant mountains, which were snow-covered and had the appearance of a huge, impregnable fortress. Those mountains seemed to divide and protect the Blackfoot Territory from the rest of the world.
He sighed inwardly as his eyes moved to the dense forest where he knew the snow would still be very deep. The countryside had the appearance of a winter wonderland, and his heart was filled with the majesty and beauty of it all.
Lately, however, there had been a restlessness within Tag, and while he tried to ignore the feeling, it gnawed at his insides day and night.
Tag stood up, revealing the fact that he was very tall. The morning sunlight reflected off his golden shoulder-length hair, which was encircled with a wide leather headband. His face was deeply tanned, emphasizing his deep blue eyes, which were framed with long, dark eyelashes. His face was ruggedly handsome-there were dimples in his cheeks that would make themselves known whenever he smiled or frowned. The buckskin shirt Tag wore fit snugly across his broad shoulders, and his buckskin trousers shaped his long, muscular legs. He wore fur-skinned moccasins that were laced to the calves of his legs.
Tag seemed to have no control of his thoughts as his mind began to drift back in time. He remembered his life as a boy, and the wonderful adventure he had shared with his family when they had first moved to Philadelphia from England. He remembered vividly when his mother had died of the lung sickness and his father had been killed in the far-off Oregon Country. He could still feel the same helplessness he had felt when he and his sister, Joanna, had been left at the mercy of their Uncle Howard, who was a cruel and bitter man. Tag could still see Howard Landon's face so clearly in his mind that sometimes he had a strong urge to return to Philadelphia and face the man who had robbed him of his birthright.
Tag's father, Russell James, had left Tag and Joanna a considerable fortune. There was the huge shipbuilding factory in Philadelphia, not to mention the export business, with a fleet of ships that sailed all over the world. But Uncle Howard now controlled the James empire, and Tag could feel his hatred for the man like an ache deep inside him. In truth, Howard Landon wasn't even really Tag's uncle. He had married Tag's Aunt Margaret, who was now dead.
Tag knew is uncle had no legal hold on the James estate, and he wondered why he didn't return to Philadelphia to face Howard Landon and assume his rightful place as head of the James empire.
Nine years had passed since Taggart had first come to live with the Blood Blackfoot tribe. After the wagon train he and his sister, Joanna, had been traveling with had been attacked by hostile Indians, Windhawk's tribe had given him and Joanna a home.
Joanna had married Windhawk, the legendary chief of the Blackfoot, and had found great happiness with him. Windhawk and Joanna now had a son and a daughter, and Joanna was content to stay with her husband, feeling no ties pulling her back to the white world.
Tag thought of his wife, Morning Song, who was the lovely sister of Windhawk. They were expecting a child. Though he loved Morning Song, there was something that kept tugging at him, drawing him back to the past. Inside his heart, there burned a strong bitterness and hatred toward the man who had robbed him and Joanna of their birthright. Although he tried to push his troubled thoughts aside, still, he yearned for revenge against his Uncle Howard. He knew deep in his heart that the time would come when he would have to face Howard Landon-and that one of them must die!
Inside Tag there raged a war, and he tried hard to put his troubled thoughts aside. But no matter how he tried, the past still pulled at him, and he couldn't seem to find the peace of mind he yearned for. Not even in the arms of the woman he loved could he block out the desire for revenge that burned in his heart. He knew he was torn between his loyalty for Morning Song and his need to right an old wrong.
Gazing downriver, Tag caught a glimpse of a magnificent stag bending its head to drink from the icy waters. Tag was suddenly overcome with the beauty and serenity of this land. How could he leave everything he loved to return to a world to which he no longer belonged? Here in this land where the Blackfoot dwelled, Tag had found love and a certain amount of contentment. He watched as the stag lifted its head and tested the wind. No, he thought, he wouldn't go to Philadelphia ... his life was here now. He was married to Morning Song. How could he leave her when she was expecting his child at any time? Let Howard Landon keep the James empire-Tag doubted it would bring the man happiness.
Tag watched the stag as it bounded up the hill, feeling a closeness with the animal. He, too, was a part of this land. The white world in which he had been born had no hold on him. Here, in the Blackfoot lands, he had found what most men search for all their lives without finding. He had love and peace of mind-except at those times when he couldn't control his thoughts and they drifted to his Uncle Howard.
Hearing footsteps behind him, Tag smiled to himself. His Indian training had allowed him to tell the difference in the way people walked. He could tell that the soft moccasin steps approaching him were those of a woman, and he knew it would be Morning Song.
"What kept you, my love? I have been waiting for you," he said, turning around and opening his arms to her.
Tag watched as Morning Song smiled at him. He drew in his breath as he looked into her dark eyes. Never had he met a girl who had her soft, gentle beauty. There was almost an aura about her as if she almost didn't belong to this world. Her ebony hair was worn loose and spilled down her back. Her features were soft and delicate, and her dark eyes were shining with love for him. Morning Song barely came to his shoulder. Small in stature, she carried herself straight and tall. His heart warmed at the smile she gave him.
She threw herself into his outstretched arms and beamed up at him. "I love you, my husband." She laid her soft cheek against his rough one, reveling in his strength when he swung her into his arms.
"Always love me, Morning Song." His voice was deep, and he tightened his arms about her. "Never stop loving me!"
She reached up and framed his handsome face with her hands. Sometimes it was still hard for Morning Song to believe that this young golden god loved her and that she was his wife. "Oh, Tag, I love you more than life itself. To stop loving you, I would have to die."
He gave her a heart-warming smile. "Why do you never call me by my Indian name, Morning Song?" he asked, kissing her on the cheek.
She laced her hands through his golden hair. "To the rest of the tribe, you are Night Falcon-but to me, you will always be my Tag."
He laughed heartily and set her on her feet. "You and Joanna will always keep me in my place by reminding me who I am, will you not?"
Morning Song smiled mischievously. "As long as your place is beside me."
Tag allowed his eyes to roam over Morning Song. Her doeskin gown was fringed and beaded with blue beads and green porcupine quills. The fullness of the gown hid the fact that she was carrying his child. Tag reached for her and clasped her tightly against him, feeling the roundness of her stomach. Turning her around, he molded her backside against him and lightly caressed her swollen stomach.
"I am getting anxious for the child to be born. It will be a new and exciting experience to be a father," he told her tenderly.
"You will not have long to wait, my husband. My mother says the child will be delivered before the new moon," Morning Song told him.
"In that case, we had better see that you do not overwork. I want you to start taking better care of yourself. I will see that Joanna and your mother help you."
Excerpted from Savage Spring by Constance O'Banyon Copyright © 1985 by Constance O'Banyon. Excerpted by permission.
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