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Warburton, Indian Territory
Early Spring, 1898
"Seth is dead, Lucy."
Lucy Willis stood and began to unfold and refold the freshly washed laundry. "I know he's dead, Star. I watched your husband execute him."
The sharp words hit their target dead centre. Star Hillhouse dropped her bone china teacup. It struck the edge of the pine table and shattered, sending a spray of hot chamomile tea across the front of her lace-trimmed blouse. She gave her stepsister an angry look, her eyes darting towards the door leading to the back porch. "Lucy, please. Jason didn't want to shoot Seth. He had to. You know that." Star paused and removed the shards of china from her lap. "Jason still has nightmares about that day," she said softly.
Lucy sighed and retrieved a clean towel from the nearby linen drawer. "I'm sorry, Star," she said as she blotted up the tea. "I know being ordered to execute Seth tore Jason apart." She set the damp towel aside then sank down onto the pressed back chair she'd been sitting on earlier, regretting both her words and the tone with which she'd said them.
Star patted Lucy's hand. "I don't mean to push you so, but I can't help it. You've been a widow for five years and you're only twenty-three. You should think about accepting some of those offers to step out you've gotten. A lot of men around these parts would show more interest if you'd only give them half a chance."
Before Lucy could tell her stepsister--again--that she had no desire to "step out", she was interrupted by her son, Joshua and Star's daughter, Nita, who burst into the kitchen bickering as they invariably did. Star soothed Nita's injured feelings and handed eachchild a cookie from the plate in the centre of the table, then sent them out to the barn where her husband was tending to a new foal.
Star waited until the children left the back porch before speaking. "As I was saying, it's high time you let yourself live again. Lord knows I'm not suggesting you need a husband to feel complete, but a little male companionship would be good for you, and for Joshua, too."
"No, Star, I--" Lucy was interrupted again; this time by the shrill cry of her new nephew.
After Star left the room, Lucy took a gingersnap from the plate on the table and crumbled it as she thought. She did the same to a second cookie and then a third, debating the decision she'd been putting off for weeks.
She didn't want to go on being "poor young Widow Willis" whom everyone was anxious to either marry off or protect. She expected such behaviour from her parents and a few friends, but not her sister. Star, with her strong opinions on women's independence should understand, but she didn't.
Though sorely tempted by the prospect of leaving Warburton and its dull, placid future behind, she was hesitant to throw her young son's life into such upheaval. And yet, the more Lucy thought about it, the more she felt she had to do something drastic to enrich her own life.
"Perhaps I'll head out to the pasture and graze. Some days I feel like a dairy cow." Star quipped when she returned to the kitchen a short time later. She stopped in her tracks upon seeing the mound of cookie crumbs in front of her stepsister. "Granted, they aren't as good as yours, but...."
Lucy looked down, blushing. "I'm sorry. I'll clean it up."
"Leave it." Star sat next to Lucy and took hold of her hand. "What's the matter? I haven't seen you do that in ages."
Lucy gave Star an embarrassed smile. "Not since Joshua was born and I wondered how I'd support us."
It had been frightening to be so alone with a child to raise. At times Lucy still felt like the lost girl who'd cried herself to sleep on her husband's side of the bed. She didn't like that feeling. She didn't like it at all. Her attention returned to the present when Star spoke.
"Don't you dare be too proud or too embarrassed to ask for help if you need it. No one has to know; not Mother or Daddy, or even Jason. I've got a tidy nest egg from my articles and my share of the profits from the newspaper. Whatever you need is yours. Pay me back if and when you can."
"It isn't that," Lucy said. "I've been thinking of teaching full time instead of tutoring. I'm thinking of accepting Christine Ames' offer to teach at the Indian school over in Sweet Medicine."
Lucy was astounded when Star's expression went blank and an uncomfortable silence descended over them like a damp shroud. Many people had raised objections to her considering the job at the Cheyenne reservation school, That's not the name of the school so I would think only Cheyenne needs the cap but Star had been her strongest supporter. Until now. This made no sense. Star was half Choctaw, her husband a fullblood, as was Lucy's late husband, Seth.
"Star, if you say I shouldn't waste my time because they're uncivilised 'Blanket Indians'--"
"That's patently ridiculous, Lucy, and you know it. If they don't wish to find a way to mix their heritage with the 'modern world' that's been thrust upon them, they're only making it harder on themselves." Star paused. "I'll miss you. And what about Corby and Sabrina?" she asked, referring to her husband's widowed cousin and his young daughter whom Lucy had been looking after since birth.
Lucy smiled sadly as she thought of leaving the handsome sheriff and his little girl behind. "I care about Corby, of course, but there's no grand passion between us the way there is between you and Jason."
"What Jason and I share physically is wonderful, but it isn't everything, Lucy. You and Corby have been friends for ages and Josh loves him. Perhaps if you gave it more of a chance."
"I did," Lucy confessed. "Corby and I made love once, but something was missing. I felt sort of--empty--afterward."
"Do you want to talk about it?"
"There's nothing to say."
Star pushed some of the cookie crumbs around with her index finger. "I have the feeling you've already decided. When will you go?"
"Soon. Can you look after Josh while I run into town and wire Christine?"
"Of course. I'll have Jason drop him off at your place after dinner."
As she left the telegraph office that afternoon, Lucy couldn't help but wonder what awaited her in Sweet Medicine and what had driven the previous eight teachers away in the short span of two years.
However, her questions and vague worries melted away once she returned to her little farmhouse and dug out the crate of teaching supplies she'd never really used.
She'd been bursting with ideas but had put a teaching career on hold when she married Set Willis the man she'd loved since they were children.
Lucy's reminiscence came to an abrupt end when a knock sounded on her front door. She welcomed her brother-in-law's cousin inside.
Corby Hillhouse took his usual seat on the right side of the old velvet divan. "I just ran into Jace and he told me you decided to take the job way over in Sweet Medicine."
Lucy sat opposite him. "It isn't so far, just the other side of the territory."
Corby's friendly grin faded. "Still, it's rough over in Oklahoma, especially for a woman on her own with a child to take care of."
Lucy's high spirits drooped although she kept her pleasant expression. "My friend Christine said Sweet Medicine is a decent place for its size. They have a school and a church and a well-stocked mercantile, and a nice hotel."
"We have all those things here," Corby reminded her. I know."
Lucy felt the same strained silence that had fallen over herself and Star and it took her spirits down. She stood and began to pace the small room. "I do wish everyone would stop trying to make me feel guilty. I want a change. I need a change. Josh and I will be fine. I'm not deserting you all, I just need--something. Maybe this is it. Maybe its fate that made Christine keep offering me the job when the other teachers quit. I might have taken it before now, but you needed a wet nurse for Sabrina."
Corby got up and came to her. "You're more than a baby nurse to me and I think you know it." He took her hands in his. She pulled away. "I like you, Lucy. I always have. I'd be proud to call Josh my son and I know Brina would love to have you as a mother."
Lucy straightened her shoulders. She would not let guilt and a sense of duty sway her again. "I'm sorry, Corby, but it wouldn't work. That night ... it wasn't all it might have been."
"Things could change in time."
Lucy backed away. "But they might not. I'm sorry."
Corby nodded and took his hat from the divan. "If you change your mind..."
"I won't," she said with conviction as she walked him to the door.
"I know a bit of Cheyenne from my cow punching days. If you want a lesson or two before you head out I'd be happy to oblige."
Lucy smiled, feeling her spirits rise again. "I'd like that."
Across the Atlantic, Trevor Lynbrook was also experiencing a rise in spirits after lunching with a few of his old colleagues and spending time at a recently opened charity hospital. Of the half dozen aristocrats who'd attended the opening to receive their due public congratulations for donating to the endeavour, Trevor's smile had been the only sincere one.
For being back there, walking the immaculate halls, seeing the rows of unfilled beds, and breathing in the tart, antiseptic-flavoured air, had been like coming home. He had been rather disappointed there hadn't been any patients to visit. He would have loved to get right in there under the bandages and examine a fresh suture, or even clean out an infected boil. Of course, if he had, he would have heard--for the umpteenth time--You are no longer simply Trevor Lynbrook, physician. You are the Viscount Ashford, sole heir to the 12th Earl of Greylock . Your forebears have ridden alongside kings and married into the foremost families
of Europe. You simply cannot go around putting your hands on, wasting your time on that class of persons. It simply will not do. You have responsibilities. You have duties...
Still, it had been a great afternoon and with a little strategic manoeuvring on his part, he might be able to pay frequent visits to insure his grandfather's endowment was being put to proper use. Yes, he just might be able to get a piece of his old life back again.
"Here you go, Perkins," Trevor said in a chipper voice as he tossed his tall hat and silver handled walking stick to his butler. "I've decided to stay in tonight. I believe I'll dine in my room, but leave the brandy out. I rather like this feeling of clear-headedness."
"Yes, sir. But you have a visitor, sir. In the small drawing room."
Trevor took his foot off the bottom step of the curving staircase. He did not like the uneasy look in the older man's eyes. "Who is this visitor?"
"Lady Medford, sir. She said that she won't leave until you speak to her."
Trevor's spirits plummeted like a rock thrown from London Bridge. "I might as well get it over with."
Within five minutes, Trevor's face was hard, the look in his silvery grey eyes unrelenting. His tone was cold, almost vengeful. He fought against the vague stirring he felt at the sight of his former fiancée, so dark and lovely against the light grey of her mourning costume. "It took you two years to ask why I didn't go to Charlie's funeral?"
"He was your best friend," she replied, daubing at the corners of her eyes.
"He stole the woman I loved," Trevor shot back. He saw the truth in Gwynne's dark eyes, the truth he'd tried to deny for three years. It hurt worse than ever and served to strengthen the affirmation he'd been living under since she'd left him--that women were to be used as they used men. "What do you want, Gwynne?"
"I made a dreadful mistake, Trevor. Can you ever find a way to forgive me? I'll make it right. I'll do anything to make it right between us again.'"
The old Trevor would have listened, but the new Trevor would not allow it any more than his family would allow him to pursue his dreams. "What do you want, Gwynne?" he repeated, getting up to pour himself a large glass of brandy.
Gwynne wiped her cheeks, her eyes suddenly clear. "I'm penniless. Charlie had a mountain of debts. His solicitor graciously allowed me to keep the one insurance policy, but--"
"But you've wasted it on those Parisian clothes, lavish dinners and a dozen servants," Trevor said flatly.
"It wasn't wasted. There are certain standards which must be met if one is to be accepted into polite society, you know."
"Oh, I know," Trevor grumbled. "I know all about what 'polite society' demands." He tossed back the contents of his glass then poured another drink.
"Well?" Gwynne asked after a time.
"Do you want me to beg?"
"I want you to leave," he told her, as he reached for the bell pull.
"You'll live to regret this," Gwynne hissed as the butler opened the door.
Trevor drained the contents of his glass. "I stopped living a long time ago, my dear."