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She stood facing him, hands on her hips, elbows jutting, feet firmly planted, as though to sprout roots and become a part of the landscape, like the giant pine trees around them. Her brown eyes flashed beneath the limp brim of that silly leather hat of hers, and tendrils of dark hair, its considerable length clasped at her nape with a gewgaw of some sort, danced against her smooth cheeks. In that moment, for all that she stood barely taller than his collarbone, Skye McQuarry seemed every bit as intractable to Jake Vigil as the Sierras themselves.
The last time they'd met, months before at a dance in town, she'd been a mite more gracious. Now, in her unwelcoming presence, Jake, well over six feet and brawny after years of swinging axes and working one end of a cross-cut saw fourteen hours a day, felt strangely like a schoolboy, hauled up in front of the class for some misdeed. It made him furious; he, too, set his feet, and he leaned in until their noses were only inches apart. He would have backed off if he hadn't been desperate, and never gone near her again, but there it was. He was fresh out of choices, or soon would be.
"Now, you listen to me, Miss McQuarry," he rasped, putting just the slightest emphasis on McQuarry, since the name alone, to him at least, conveyed volumes about ornery females. "I made you a reasonable offer. If you're holding out for more just because of that little bit of gold you've been panning out of the creek, you're making a foolish mistake."
Skye tilted her chin upward and held her ground. She couldn't have been more than eighteen, and though she was pretty as a primrose, she showed no signs of wilting, either from the unusually hot May sunshine or from the heat of his temper. "And if you think you're going to strip my land of timber -- for any price -- you are the one who's mistaken!" Amazingly, she stopped for a breath. "These trees haven't stood here for hundreds of years, Mr. Vigil, just so you can come along and whittle them to slivers for fancy houses and railroad ties and scatter the very dust of their bones across the floors of saloons -- "
Jake was at the far reaches of his patience. He'd already explained to this hardheaded little hoyden that the land was choked with Ponderosa pine and Douglas fir, among other species, that thinning them would merely leave room for the others to thrive. He closed his eyes and searched his thoughts for an argument he hadn't already raised.
She took advantage of the brief silence and rushed on. "Furthermore, these are living things -- I won't allow you to murder them for money!"
They were standing in the middle of a small clearing -- Skye's portion of an enviable bequest -- with tender spring grass at their feet and Primrose Creek glittering in the sunlight as it tumbled past. In every direction, the timber seemed to go on and on, dense as the hairs on a horse's hide, skirting the Sierras in shades of blue and green. It was in that tenuous moment of reflective silence that Jake remembered his own lost timber and was inspired to take another tack.
"It's only May," he pointed out, "and we went all of April without rain." He jabbed a finger toward the thickest stand of timber, where the trees stood cheek-to-jowl, their roots intertwined, competing for soil and sun and water. It was a natural invitation to fire on a truly horrendous scale, and Jake had seen enough flaming mountainsides to last him until the third Sunday of Never. "What do you think is going to happen to those precious trees of yours if we get a lightning storm?"
She paled at that, and, though he supposed he should have taken some satisfaction in the response, he didn't. "I'll tell you what, Miss McQuarry," he went on furiously. "They'll pass the sparks from one to another like old maids spreading gossip over the back fence!"
Her mouth -- it was a lovely, soft mouth, he noticed, and not for the first time, either -- opened and promptly closed again. Then, in the next moment, her gaze narrowed, and her brows drew closer together. Her hands sprang back to her hips. If he hadn't known she was a McQuarry, her countenance would have given her away all on its own. "You're just trying to scare me," she accused.
"Ask Trace," Jake challenged. Trace Qualtrough, the first outsider brave enough to marry into the hornets' nest of McQuarry women, was Skye's brother-in-law, having taken her elder sister, Bridget, to wife. Damn, but that family was complicated; it gave Jake a headache just trying to sort them out. They were hellions, every one of them, that much was certain; two pairs of sisters, first cousins, and the best land in the countryside was deed to them, free and clear.
In point of fact, Bridget and Christy didn't always get along with each other, but a grievance with one was a grievance with them all, and Jake knew -- hell, everybody knew -- they would stand shoulder-to-shoulder, like their trees, against any challenge from an outsider.
As easily as that, Jake let Christy sneak into his mind. Christy, who, with her younger sister, Megan, owned the land on the other side of Primrose Creek. Beautiful, spirited Christy. A long-buried ache twisted in his heart, and, employing his considerable will, he quelled it, retreated into the familiar state of numbness he'd been cultivating ever since he lost her.
"I don't need to ask Trace," Skye said, wrenching him back from his reveries as swiftly as if she'd grabbed the back of his collar and yanked him onto the balls of his feet. "This is my land. Granddaddy left it to me, and I decide what happens here."
Jake heaved a great sigh. He'd already tried buying Bridget's timber rights, and Megan's, too, and neither of them had given him a definitive answer, one way or the other. He'd be damned if he'd approach Christy with any such request, even if it meant bankruptcy -- and it just might, if he couldn't fulfill the deal with the railroad. Besides, the finest stands of trees grew on Skye's share of the tract.
He was way behind schedule, and although he had modest holdings of his own, he'd already harvested the best stands of timber, those that hadn't burned the previous summer. To cut any more before the trees had time to come back would be plain stupid; despite appearances to the contrary, the resources of the West were not inexhaustible, and Jake knew it.
He heaved a great sigh. "I never should have wasted my breath trying to reason with a -- with a -- "
Skye raised one delicate eyebrow. "With a woman?" she asked softly. Dangerously. No doubt, she was still bristling from their conversation at the dance, when he'd suggested she leave off chasing the stallion and turn her mind to more feminine pursuits, and she'd taken offense at the remark. Neither of them had caught the bay, as it happened, but Jake figured she hadn't given up on the idea any more than he had.
"With a McQuarry!" Jake snapped. He wanted to give his temper free rein and bellow like a bull, but he knew he couldn't afford the indulgence. He had to win this argument, and soon. The fact that it seemed impossible only made him more determined.
Her very expressive mouth curved into a smile that made Jake want to kiss her and, at one and the same time, turn right around and head for his horse. Damn if she wasn't even more confusing, even more hog-headed, than her cousin Christy, and that was saying something. "If that's supposed to be an insult, you'll have to do better. I'm proud of my name."
He looked around, maybe a little wildly, at the empty clearing. He couldn't remember when he'd been more exasperated with anybody, man or woman. "What are you going to use to build with, if you refuse to cut your precious trees?" It was a gamble; she had house-room at Trace and Bridget's place, everybody knew that, and as a single woman, she might elect to live right there until she married. On the other hand, she was who she was, a McQuarry female, and her people were an independent lot, making and following rules of their own. She'd probably live in a chicken coop if she took a notion.
For all of that, he could see that her confidence had ebbed again, the way it had when he mentioned the possibility of fire. Perhaps she was envisioning vast tracts of timber reduced to charred stumps and wisps of smoke in a matter of hours, as he was.
"I've got gold," she said. "I mean to buy lumber. To build my house, I mean."
Jake grinned without humor. He set his hands on his hips again, mirroring her stance; there wasn't another lumber yard within three hundred miles, and they both knew it. "Suppose I don't want to sell?" he inquired. He was being mulish, for sure and certain, but he couldn't seem to help himself. Something about this complicated woman set his nerves to singing, and not only was the music downright unsettling, but he felt compelled to dance to it.
Color surged up Skye's neck to pulse, apricot pink, beneath her high cheekbones. Jake felt a swift, grinding ache somewhere deep inside. "That's ridiculous," she cried. "Selling lumber is your business!"
"Exactly. And I decide when and if I'm willing to sell. Just like you."
From the look in her eyes, she wanted to kick him in the shins, but she must have found it within herself to forbear, for Jake remained unbruised. At least, on the outside. "You're doing this because you have a grudge against my cousin," she said, that obstinate chin jutting way out. "Christy married someone else, and you're taking it out on me."
Her words sent such a shock jolting through him that she might as well have struck him with a closed fist. The sensation was immediately, and mercifully, followed by a sort of thrumming numbness. "I don't do business that way," he insisted, but he'd taken too long to reply. He could see that by the narrowing of those brown eyes.
"Don't you?" she countered, folding her arms, and turned her back on him, big as life. He couldn't recall the last time someone had dared to do that.
He watched her in helpless irritation for several moments, then spun around, stormed over to his horse, a gray and white stallion he'd dubbed Trojan, and mounted. "You know where to find me," he said, and then he headed for town.
Skye waited until she was sure Jake Vigil was well out of sight before letting down her guard. With the back of one hand, she dashed at the tears of fury and frustration clinging to her cheeks. Maybe he was right, and she was being unreasonable, she thought. Maybe, by refusing to sell him so much as a twig of the timber growing on her land, she was punishing him for loving Christy the way he had.
The way he surely still did. She hadn't missed the way he'd reacted to the mention of her cousin.
Skye heaved a sigh and glanced up at the sun, the way someone else might have consulted a pocket watch. She'd best stop standing here and get on home; she'd promised Bridget she'd look after Noah and the babies while she and Trace went to town to pick up a load of supplies, and after that, she and her cousin Megan planned to gather wildflowers to press in their remembrance books. No sense standing around mooning over a man who would never see her as anything more than an obstacle between him and six hundred and twenty-five acres of prime timber.
She took one last, long look around at her land, where she planned to build a little cabin all her own, along with a good barn, and make a life for herself. She'd been saving the money she'd made panning gold, and pretty soon she'd be able to put up her buildings, buy a mare in foal from Trace and Bridget, and start a ranch all her own. The bay stallion, once she roped him in, would give distinction to her brand.
Just a week before, she'd nearly captured the exquisite bay stallion, wild as a storm wind, up near the tree line, but he was wily, and, in the end, he'd managed to elude her. That hadn't dimmed her determination to bring him in, though; she was set on the plan, and there would be no going back.
Trace and Zachary had promised to help with the building, and others would pitch in, too, Primrose Creek being that kind of town, but what good was a lot of willing labor without boards to make walls and floors and ceilings?
Head down, thoughts racing far ahead, like willful children, Skye started back toward Bridget and Trace's place, following the edge of the creek the way she always did. She had a room of her own with them, but the Qualtrough family was growing rapidly, and it wouldn't be long until things got real crowded. Besides, she couldn't help wanting to begin doing something real, something that was her own. As things stood, she was merely marking time, waiting for something, anything, to happen.
Within a few minutes, Skye rounded a curve in the creek, and her sister and brother-in-law's holdings came into view. The structure, fashioned of hewn logs, was large and sturdy, built to last. The door stood open to the fresh spring air, welcoming. Her six-year-old nephew, Noah, was running in circles in the front yard, whooping and hollering like a Paiute on the warpath, and Bridget immediately appeared on the threshold, smiling and wiping flour-covered hands on a blue-and-white checked apron.
Bridget was a beauty, with her fair tresses, perfect skin, and cornflower blue eyes. She was a small woman, and she looked deceptively delicate, even fragile. Skye had seen her face down Indians, bears, and the Ladies Aid Society, all without turning a hair.
"Did I just see Jake Vigil ride up the bank on the other side of the creek?" she asked. As her son raced past, she reached out and snagged him by the shirt collar. "Merciful heavens, Noah," she said good-naturedly, "that will be enough. Try being a quiet Indian."
Skye shaded her eyes with one hand. "He wants to cut down my timber," she said, as if that were an answer to her sister's inquiry.
Bridget sighed. "And you refused."
"Of course I did," Skye retorted, a little impatiently perhaps.
Bridget set her hands on her hips. "Why?"
For a moment, Skye couldn't recall what her reasoning had been -- being near Jake always addled her -- but then it all came back to her, like a flash flood racing through a dry creekbed. "He means to raze every tree on my land to the ground, that's why."
"Nonsense," Bridget scoffed. Like the rest of the McQuarrys, Bridget was never hesitant to express a differing opinion. "Jake's a very intelligent man, and he wouldn't do any such thing."
Skye had heard about the way some of the mining companies were ravaging the countryside, down Virginia City way and in other parts of the state, too. Why would the lumber industry be any kinder? "In any case, I told him no. And do you know how he responded?"
Her sister waited, no doubt to indicate that indeed she didn't have the first idea.
"He won't sell me the lumber I need for my house and barn. Even though I have cash money to pay him!"
Bridget looked pleasantly impatient; she cocked her head to one side and studied her sister with amusement. "Sounds to me like you two have reached a standoff. Both of you are plain stubborn, and that's a fact."
Skye felt color thump beneath the skin covering her cheekbones. "If you feel that way, why don't you sell him some of your timber?"
"Maybe I will. I haven't decided the matter."
Before Skye was forced to answer, Trace came whistling around the corner of the house, leading a team of two bay mares hitched to the family buckboard. The wagon rattled and jostled behind them.
Noah raced toward his stepfather. "You're going to town!" he crowed. "Can I go? Can I go?"
Trace ruffled the boy's gleaming brown hair and crouched to meet his eyes. He was as devoted a father to Noah, his late and best friend Mitch's child, as he was to the twins Bridget had borne him just the year before. Gideon and Rebecca were their names, and they were sunny toddlers now, with fat little legs and ready smiles. "Well, now," he said very thoughtfully in a confidential tone of voice, rubbing his chin as he pondered the situation, "I was kind of counting on you to look out for the womenfolk while I'm gone. Your Aunt Skye and little Rebecca, I mean. And then there's Miss Christy and Miss Megan, over there across the creek." He paused, sighed at the sheer magnitude of the task. Skye noticed he didn't include Caney Blue, the forthright black woman who ran the cousins' household; even Noah wouldn't have believed she needed a caretaker. "Gideon isn't quite big enough to handle the job, you know. I mean, suppose something happens that only you could take care of?"
Noah's small chest swelled with pride. He saw the babies as his special charge, and now that they were ambulatory and usually heading in two directions at once, he liked to keep an eye on them. Just the way I always looked after him, Skye thought with a small, sad smile. He was growing up so fast, Noah was. Before she knew it, he'd be a grown man, leading a life of his own, maybe even riding away for good. It made her heart ache to think of that.
"I'll watch out for the whole passel of 'em," the little boy said staunchly.
Trace did a creditable job of hiding a smile, though Skye saw it plainly, lurking in his eyes. "I'd appreciate that," he said with a grave nod of his blond head. "You and I, we'll make our own trip to town tomorrow morning," he finished. "No women allowed."
Noah beamed. "No women," he confirmed.
"What are you teaching that boy?" Bridget demanded, but there was a note in her voice that sounded suspiciously like laughter.
Trace rose easily to his feet. "Never you mind," he told his wife, grinning and mussing Noah's hair once again. As if it wasn't trouble enough keeping that child tidy. "We had some things to discuss, Noah and I. Personal stuff."
"Man-to-man," said Noah.
Bridget smiled and shook her head as she reached back to untie her apron. Trace's gaze followed the rise of her shapely breasts with a glint of admiration, and something as tangible as heat lightning passed between them.
Skye averted her eyes. She loved her sister better than anyone else in the world -- she might not have survived all the grief they'd endured back in Virginia if not for Bridget, not to mention the long journey west that followed, but there were times, all the same, when she envied her a little. It seemed to Skye that Bridget had everything: a handsome, dedicated husband; three healthy, beautiful children; a house and land and horses. Although women were denied the vote and men could legally lay claim to any property their brides brought into a marriage, Bridget remained the sole owner of the six hundred and twenty-five acres she'd inherited from Granddaddy, and she often bought and sold livestock on her signature alone. Trace had an interest in the horses, of course, and in the investments the two of them made together, but he let Bridget tend to her own affairs. The two of them were partners in the truest sense of the word.
"We won't be long," Bridget promised when Skye joined her in the cool, shadowy interior of the house. The babies were in Noah's room, asleep in the little railed beds Trace had built for them, but they'd be awake soon enough, rambunctious as ever. "Is there anything you'd like us to bring back?"
Skye smiled ruefully. "A few wagonloads of lumber, perhaps?"
Bridget laughed and shook her head, draping her good shawl over her shoulders. She had crocheted the piece over the winter and liked to wear it because it made her feel dressed up. "I'm afraid you're going to have to give in and part with some of those trees," she said. "At least enough to provide logs for a cabin and some kind of shed."
Even that seemed like a travesty to Skye, who loved every pine and fir, every twig and branch on her property, but she gave a slight, rueful nod all the same. She longed for a home of her own, and besides, she suspected that Bridget was expecting another baby, even though she hadn't said anything to that effect.
Very soon, Skye knew, she would become a burden. An image of herself as a maiden aunt, scrawny and terse and disappointed, made her shiver.
Bridget laid a hand on her shoulder. "Brew yourself some tea, if the twins leave you time. That will make you feel better."
Tea was the balm for most every ailment and strife, as far as Bridget was concerned. Skye nodded again, managed a slight smile, and went to the door, where she and Noah stood waving until Bridget and Trace and their wagon had rattled across the creek, up the bank, and off toward town.
Noah resumed his chief-on-the-warpath game and promptly woke the twins. Wails came from the children's bedroom, shared with their older brother, and Skye rushed to fetch them, one in each arm.
Gideon and Rebecca were golden, blue-eyed babies, good-natured and intelligent. Being just up from their naps, however, they were both wet and fitful.
Skye snatched up two clean diapers and carried her niece and nephew outside, where she laid them down in the soft, sweet grass growing by the creek, beneath her favorite aspen tree, and changed them. They were more comfortable after that, and thus more cheerful, and they sat crowing and gurgling in the shade while their young aunt washed her hands at the stream.
She was sitting cross-legged on the ground, tickling their noses with blades of grass and delighting in their amusement, when Megan came splashing across the creek, riding her small brown-and-white pinto mare, Speckles. A slender, vibrantly energetic redhead, Megan was Skye's confidant, and the two of them, the children of feuding brothers, had all but grown up together back in Virginia on their grandparents' prosperous farm. Unlike Bridget and Christy, who got along most of the time but rarely sought out each other's company -- and that alone was an improvement, considering the way they'd scrapped as children -- Megan and Skye were best friends as well as cousins. The two of them often panned for gold together, and Megan had used her share of the proceeds to buy Speckles.
Letting the mare's reins dangle, Megan plopped down in the grass and hoisted Gideon onto her lap.
"I had to get away," she confided in a dramatic whisper, as though her elder sister might hear her from way over there, on the other side of the water, up the hill and inside the house Trace and Zachary and their friends had made of an old Indian lodge with a room added on just for Megan. "Christy's in a pet." Megan brushed a wisp of copper-penny hair back from her forehead, and her green eyes sparkled with mingled love and irritation. "I declare, ever since she lost her waist, she's been impossible. We'll all be glad when that baby comes." Christy and Zachary's first child was due soon, any day, in fact, and while Skye knew they were both thrilled, it was also true that pregnancy didn't seem to do a lot for Christy's disposition. Zachary was the only one who could really manage her, and he'd been away a lot lately, with a posse, trying to track down whoever was robbing the freight wagons and stagecoaches between Virginia City and Primrose Creek.
"Bridget was like that," Skye confided. "Cranky, I mean. Last time she was expecting. It'll pass."
Megan sighed heavily. "I suppose," she said, and then lay back on the cushiony ground and held Gideon up with both hands, causing him to chortle with slobbery good cheer. "She still insists that I go to normal school and earn my teaching certificate so I can always have 'security.' " Rebecca, wanting to share in her brother's adventures, tugged at Megan's sleeve until she got a turn, too. "Why can't Christy understand that things are different now that we're finally safe, the four of us?" She paused and sighed in a typically theatrical manner. "I've grown up and changed my mind about a lot of things. I want to be a stage actress -- that's so much more exciting, don't you think, than teaching school?"
They often commiserated, Skye and Megan, being great friends; sometimes Bridget was the object of their frustration, but more often it was Christy. Skye felt especially charitable toward her elder cousin that day, though in truth it worried her a little, for she seemed to know Megan less and less these days. The rest of the family thought her fascination with the stage would pass, but Skye feared it wouldn't.
"She wants you to have a good life, that's all. What's so terrible about going to normal school, anyway? If you get tired of performing, you'll have that to fall back on."
Megan sat up, sprigs of grass caught in her gleaming hair, and held Rebecca on her lap, while Skye held Gideon. Noah, meanwhile, climbed deftly into the lower limbs of a nearby tree. "I don't want to learn another thing," she said in a familiar tone of determination. "At least, not about reading and writing and arithmetic. I want to travel all over the world, acting in plays, wearing splendid, sweeping gowns of velvet and silk, with hoods and tassels, and then come back to Primrose Creek, build a grand house on my share of the land, and live out the rest of my days in glorious notoriety." She lowered her voice. " 'She was once an actress,' people will say. I might even write my memoirs."
"Don't you want a husband?" Skye asked, though the question was rhetorical because she knew the answer. Skye had business interests of her own to pursue, of course, but she craved a home and a family too and found it hard to comprehend that Megan had decided upon an entirely different path, especially since the two of them had wanted the same things for most of their lives. Skye got a lonely feeling just thinking of the changes in her closest friend.
"Perhaps," Megan relented, though grudgingly, "but not for a long, long time. He'd have to be older, with a great deal of money. An admirer, maybe, from my days on the stage."
Skye smiled. Megan was fond of Caleb Strand, a good-looking, dark-haired young man, employed as a sawyer with Jake Vigil's timber company, but he was only one of several suitors, and Megan treated all of them with affectionate disinterest. "What about your property? Surely you don't want to leave it." The McQuarrys were Irish at their roots, and love of the land was a part of them, body and spirit, like the penchant for horses and the willingness to put up a fight when one was called for.
Megan flushed slightly and brushed Rebecca's downy blond curls with her chin. "It'll be here when I get back, I reckon," she said. Her spring-green eyes, inherited from their beautiful grandmother, turned somber. "What about you, Skye? You'd like to marry, I know you would. And you could have a husband like that" -- she snapped her fingers for emphasis -- "if you weren't mooning over Jake Vigil all the time."
That morning's encounter with Mr. Vigil had all but convinced Skye that what she'd thought was love for him had probably been a mere infatuation. Still, trying not to think about him was like trying not to breathe, not to let her heart beat. Knowing she'd idealized him, in the privacy of her thoughts since that night he'd rescued her at the dance, from a mere and fallible man into some kind of noble personage didn't lessen the strength of her emotions at all. "I'm not doing any such thing," she protested.
Megan merely smiled.
"I'm not," Skye insisted. But she was -- wasn't she? Great Zeus and Jupiter, she wasn't sure of much of anything anymore.
"Oh, for pity's sake," Megan said. "Why don't you just rope him in and hog-tie him and be done with it? He's surely over his feelings for Christy by now. After all, it's been more than a year."
To Megan, and usually to Skye, too, a year was just shy of forever. That was one of the reasons Megan resisted going away to normal school and Skye wanted to start living like a grown woman. After all, she was eighteen. Lots of women had several children by that age.
Skye sighed. "That's just the trouble. I'm not so sure he is over her. The way he talks, McQuarry is another word for obstinate."
Megan shrugged. In the town of Primrose Creek, the male population far outnumbered the female, and a pretty young woman could have her pick of husbands. Megan had often pointed out that fact to Skye, forever trying to play the matchmaker. "I don't suppose you noticed," she said, "but Mr. Kincaid was quite taken with you." Megan had introduced her to the shy lumberjack, a newcomer to Primrose Creek, after church the Sunday before. "You could do worse, you know. He's thirty, and his teeth are excellent. You did notice his teeth?"
Skye giggled. "You make him sound like a horse up for auction. How are his feet? Maybe I should get him by the shin and lift one up, just to make sure he's really sturdy."
"Good teeth are not to be sneezed at," Megan said.
"I should hope not," Skye agreed.
Megan laughed and pretended to strike her a blow to the shoulder. This started a rough-and-tumble free-for-all, and soon all of them, babies, Noah, Megan, and Skye, were engaged in a lively mock wrestling match.
"Lord-a-mercy," boomed a familiar female voice, and everyone stopped to look up at Caney Blue. "What is all this carryin' on about?" the tall woman demanded, her dark eyes flashing with good humor. Caney had worked for the McQuarry family as a free woman, back in Virginia, along with her late husband, Titus. When Christy and Megan traveled west to claim their shares of the inheritance, Caney accompanied them. She'd been with them ever since, although she had plans to marry one Mr. Malcolm Hicks one day soon. Although obviously fond of her, Mr. Hicks had proven himself to be a hard man to wrestle down.
"Is Christy still in a snit?" Megan asked, getting to her feet. She was holding Rebecca with an easy grace that said she would be a good mother one day, whether she thought so at present or not. "I'm not going home until she's over it, if she is."
"She's laborin' to push out that baby," Caney said. "I was hopin' Trace would be around, so I could send him out lookin' for the marshal. It ain't gonna be long."
"Trace is in town," Skye said.
"Zounds!" Megan gasped at almost the same time, and her face went so pale that all her freckles seemed to pop out on little springs. "I'll go and fetch him right this moment!" With that, she thrust little Rebecca at Skye, gathered up Speckles' reins, and mounted in a single smooth motion. All of Gideon McQuarry's granddaughters were accomplished horsewomen. He'd seen to that, teaching them all to ride as soon as they could cling to a saddle horn.
Before anyone could even say good-bye, Megan and the mare were splashing across the creek and up the opposite bank, disappearing into the trees.
"Is there anything I can do?" Skye asked quietly of Caney. Instinctively, she'd gathered the twins and Noah close to her skirts, as though there were a storm approaching.
"You just say some prayers," Caney replied, unruffled. "I'll head on back. I reckon she'll be wanting me close by, Miss Christy will."
Skye nodded. Her throat felt thick, and she wanted to weep, though her emotions were rooted in happiness, not sorrow. To her, the birth of a child was the greatest possible miracle; she'd imagined herself bearing Mr. Vigil's babies a thousand times, for all the good pretending did. Well, it was time she got over that foolishness, wasn't it, and moved on.
"You'll send word if you need something?"
Caney was already headed back across the rustic footbridge Trace had constructed by binding several logs together to span the creek. "You'll hear me holler out if I do," she said.
Jake Vigil stood in his great, elaborate, empty house, gazing out the window at the naked flower gardens and trying to work out what had gone wrong between himself and Skye McQuarry. He was shy, it was true, but he was normally a persuasive man, able to make others see reason, even if they tended toward the hot-headed side, the way she did.
The faintest, most grudging of smiles curved his mouth as he remembered Skye standing there before him, arms akimbo, guarding her patch of ground. She was young, but she was pretty, and she was nubile. He remembered clearly how beautiful, how downright womanly, she'd been that night last fall at the dance, and because of that, he was able to see past her shapeless clothes and sloppy hat. Getting by her willful nature would take a little more doing.
They were at an impasse, he and the lovely Miss McQuarry. Sooner or later, someone would have to give in, and it damned well wasn't going to be him. One way or the other, he'd get what he wanted -- with just one notable exception, he always had.
If he couldn't persuade Skye to sell him the timber rights he needed, he was bound to lose everything. He thrust a hand through his hair. It wouldn't be the first time he'd started over; at thirty-four years of age, Jake had taken his share of hard knocks and then some, and he knew he could survive just about anything. That didn't mean he relished the idea.
After some time had passed, he turned from the window and sank into the richly upholstered leather chair behind his broad mahogany desk. He tilted his head back and closed his eyes, thinking about Christy McQuarry -- now Mrs. Zachary Shaw. The image of her had kept him awake nights for the better part of three months, and he'd consumed a river of whiskey in a vain effort to put her out of his mind. Now, all of a sudden, he couldn't quite recall what she looked like. His thoughts kept straying back to Skye, with her chestnut hair and flashing, intelligent brown eyes. She was infuriating; that was why he couldn't get her out of his mind, he decided. She reminded him a little of Amanda.
Amanda. Now, there was a lady he would just as soon never think of again. The last time he'd seen her, she'd shot him in the shoulder with a derringer and left him to bleed to death. Though she'd taken the opportunity to clean out his cash box before leaving, of course.
He smiled again. He sure did know how to pick his women. First Amanda, trouble on two very shapely legs but good at pretense, and after her, Christy, who'd lured him to the altar and then abandoned him there to take up with Zachary Shaw. His smile faded. He'd made up his mind on that rainy, dismal occasion of his thwarted marriage that he'd guard his heart from then on and content himself with the attentions of the sporting ladies, over at the Golden Garter and Diamond Lil's, and he meant to abide by the decision.
Whether he wanted to or not.
Copyright © 2000 by Linda Lael Miller