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Texas TerritoryJuly 1836
Brandon whipped the rope above his head in a circle until it felt "right," leaned in cautiously on his weak leg, testing its ability to handle his full weight and then launched the rope toward the spindly pine thirty feet away.
Missed. For the third time.
He yanked off his hat and with his forearm wiped the sweat from his brow. A low chuckle sounded to his right.
He spun around and immediately regretted the quick move as a bolt of fire raced through his right ankle. Tall and solid, his brother sauntered up, an older, rougher version of himselfwithout the limp.
Brandon resettled his hat on his head. "Thought I was far enough from the hacienda to avoid an audience."
Jake dropped the reins to his horse. With a practiced hand, he whirled his rope overhead, letting loose at just the right moment. It sailed through the air and landed neatly around the young tree.
"Playin' to the gallery," Brandon mumbled. As always.
Jake shrugged his shoulders and dismounted. He strode to the tree to remove both lines and then tossed Brandon's back to him. "You're thinking too hard. Gotta get that big brain of yours out of the way."
Easier said than done in Brandon's case.
"Just takes repetitiondoing it so much that your body takes over naturally."
"I can think of only one thing that comes to me like thatand it ain't lassoin' a tree."
Jake grinned. "Well now. That so? Didn't think that was a part of your medical education. Must be more to your past than I figured." He nodded at the pine. "Give it another go."
Brandon didn't want anaudience. Not even his brother. He gathered in his line. "No, I'm finished. What are you doing back from Bexar so soon?"
"Got done early. Couldn't stand stayin' longer. Lot of sickness there."
Brandon pressed his lips together. He figured the doctor in town could use his help, but he couldn't bring himself to go. His doctorin' skills weren't what they used to be not since the war. "So how'd you find me?"
"Followed your tracks," Jake said. "Gotta admit it was a hell of a lot easier than last time.
"A rabbit couldn't hide his tracks in all this mud."
"The rain did help," Jake admitted.
"Next time I'll give you more of a challenge."
Jake had come after him when he had taken off for Texas to fight with the freedom fighters. Now they were both stuck herefor different reasons. Jake's reason being infinitely better than Brandon'sand prettier.
"Picked up some ground mustard and laudanum in town."
Brandon frowned. "What for?"
Jake shrugged. "Just thought it might help you earn your keep."
"Who says I'll keep on doctorin'?"
Jake studied him with those penetrating blue eyes. "Well, while you're making up your mind, someone might need the medicine. Seems to help enough with your leg."
Laudanum took the pain away all rightof more things than just his injury.
"We need to make plans." Jake ignored his surliness. "Franklin will be here any day now."
"I figured he'd stay with us, although I can't quite imagine him using my table as a bed." Just the thought of his formal, impeccably dressed estate manager lying prostrate on the exam table gave Brandon the willies, his mind conjuring up the image of a funeral wake.
Jake looped his rope on his saddle horn. "He could stay in the cabin."
"Considering his feelings about dust and disorder the cabin would be a disaster." Tidiness had never been one of Jake's virtueshe'd actually never owned enough things to bother with keeping tidy. Brandon, on the other hand, had grown up under Franklin's tutelage and knew everything had a placea concept even further ingrained with his medical training. However, since coming to Texas, he'd let that compulsion slide quite a bit. "He'll be more comfortable at the big house."
"My thoughts, too," Jake said. "Juan has a lot going on with Victoria's family staying until the wedding. One more shouldn't break him."
"It's decided, then." Brandon strode to his horse and fixed the rope to the saddle. He didn't particularly want to talk about Franklin. He figured he'd hear more than his share of criticism when the man arrived. "I see you got your ears lowered in town."
"And a shave. A haircut wouldn't hurt you, too."
Brandon swiped a hand through his hair. He'd never worn it this long when he lived on the coast. It just didn't matter anymore, but apparently it was important to Jake that he clean up a bit for his big day.
"Being my brother and all, you're gonna have to think of a toast." Lines crinkled around Jake's blue eyes. "Say something great about me. Lie if you have to."
"Well, that makes it a whole lot easier," Brandon said sarcastically, but inside he was truly honored to be part of his brother's wedding. Eight months ago, at their father's funeral, he would have never thought it possible. They had both been too stubborn, too mule-headed to make the first move after a long line of subtle rejections.
He picked up Jake's hat from the ground, slapped it against his thigh to dislodge the dust and then tossed it to him. "Victoria has no idea what she's getting herself into."
Jake's smile widened. "One big adventure. That's me. Let's find Diego."
Brandon mounted his sorrel and once Jake was on his horse they headed west across the prairie to the hacienda. The air after the storm had lightened considerably, and the sun peeking through a hole in the clouds promised to dry things out.
"You given any thought to what you're gonna do after the wedding?" Jake asked.
"No." And he didn't want to think about it now.
"Considerin' going back with Franklin?"
Brandon shot a dark look at Jake. He couldn't return to the life he'd once had. Too many things had changed.
"Just wondering. You don't talk about it."
"I'll let you know when I sort it out myself."
"Suits me. Just thought you had a job waiting. Figured you'd take over Father's practice."
At one time, that had been Brandon's dream. Not now. Not ever. That life was officially over. "Nothing I have to get back to," he said, keeping his voice even.
"Aren't you curious about who Caroline married?" Jake persisted.
Brandon pressed his lips together. She'd had plenty of choices among his friends and colleagues. For her to accept another so quickly after he'd left for Texas well, he still reeled from the news. He'd been stunned. Thought they had an understanding, especially since she'd sent Jake to find him. All the while he'd been fighting Mexicans in Texas he'd believed he had something to go back to once the territory was free. The entire thing left a sour feeling in his stomach. He'd trusted her and she'd thrown it back in his faceand hadn't even had the decency to write him a letter.
"Caroline and I " Brandon started, and then stopped. No point spending time thinking on it. "It was over a long time ago."
"That's not the way it sounded to me."
"It's the way it was." He cast a sharp look at his brother. "Believe me."
"For the record, I'm glad she's married. She's someone else's worry now."
"Well, you're better off without her. If you can't trust her to wait a few months, you can't trust her at all."
"Just back off, Jake," he said, his voice hardening. He'd come to the same conclusionespecially now that he couldn't return to his old life. He was lucky to be rid of her.
In moments of lucid honesty, his conscience would squeeze him, telling him that he'd played a part in losing Caroline. After all, he could have stayed in Charleston and swallowed his pride, could have confronted her. He didn't have to leave.
Like hell, he grumbled.
Turning away fromhis brother's probing, he concentrated on the slope of the hillside to the hacienda. From this distance the large U-shaped house looked inviting and well kept. It was only as they drew closer that evidence of the Mexican Army encampment there several months ago marred the landscape. Ruts fromheavy artillery bisected the expanse of prairie to the east. Where the tents and campfires had been, weeds had grown up and choked out the prairie flowers. Nearer the house, trees had been destroyed for firewood.
He closed his eyes and took a deep breath of the sweet air, clean now since the rain had come. Here, for a brief moment, he felt at peace. If only it could stay like this. If only Franklin weren't coming and bringing remnants of his past life with him.
Brandon set his jaw. It would only be for a week or so. Just long enough to settle their father's will and get Jake hitched. He figured he could deal with it that long.
A shout sounded from the cluster of pines near the house. A rider appearedwhite horse, big hat.
Jake whistled through his teeth, piercing the afternoon quiet with an ear-shattering noise. "Diego!" He stood in his stirrups, grabbed his hat and waved it over his head.
Diego spotted them on the ridge and kicked his mount into a gallop, riding bareback so fast that his hat slipped off his head and bounced against his back.
"He's riding hard. Something's wrong," Brandon murmured. He adjusted his seat, pressed his knees to his mount's flanks and urged his horse down the slope.
As soon as Diego pulled up on the reins in front of them, Brandon realized the man's cotton pants and shirt were soaked through. "What is it?"
"A wagon's stuck in the river."
"An old man is caught up. His head is above water, but I don't know how long he will last."
"Water level is too high. It's made that crossing dangerous." Jake glanced over at Brandon, his gaze resting momentarily on Brandon's injured leg before turning once again to Diego.
A knot of anger lodged in Brandon's throat. It wasn't like Jake to hesitate because of him. Leaning forward in his saddle, he kicked his sorrel. The horse lurched into a gallop down the slope.
They raced toward the river. A mile north of the big house they rounded the bend in the dirt road and slowed. Through the cottonwoods, they caught sight of the wagon half-submerged in the water. The ears on the two lead horses flicked forward nervously as the newcomers approached.
From the high bank, Brandon surveyed the surrounding hills, checking for signs of troublemost notably Comanche or hostile Mexicans. He didn't fancy getting ambushed in the middle of the river where he and his brother would be easy targets. Reassured of their safety, he headed toward the wagon. Only it wasn't a wagon, but a black carriage tipped halfway on its side against a large boulder and held there by the pressure of the current.
He dismounted and strode to the shoreline. The water sluiced by, crashing over large boulders as it raced downstream and created a terrific roar. The elegant crest on the carriage door lay half-submerged under the frothy surface and looked strangely out of place in this raw country.
Brandon swore suddenly under his breath as he recognized the fancy ornament. "That's Franklin out there!"
Jake's gaze shot to the crest on the carriage.
Brandon stepped into the rushing water, tensing against the slap of the current against his injured leg. Pain raced up his shin and stole his breath away in a gasp. A hundred white-hot needles jabbed at his ankle. He clenched his teeth together. Once he acclimated to the pain he'd be all right. At least he hoped so.
"Head back!" Jake growled in passing. "I can't worry about you, too."
"I'm not asking you to."
Slowly he made his way toward the carriage as Diego splashed into the water and raced ahead of him, catching up to Jake. The water coursed around Brandon as he maneuvered between a few boulders and sought to find stable footing on the smooth and slippery rocks in the riverbed. Although the day was warm, the water still felt as cold as ice.
Jake made it to the carriage first. A shriek echoed from inside the conveyance and bounced off the rock walls on the far bank. A woman's solitary enraged cry.
What the hell was a woman doing riding with Franklin? If in fact the man in the water was Franklin.
Brandon reached the carriage just as Jake thrust a bundle of wet sky-blue material and soggy blond hair at him. "Here! Take her! She's not making any sense with her ranting."
Momentum arched the woman halfway over his shoulder. Reacting in surprise, Brandon grabbed on as his weaker leg gave in and he lost his footing. They both slipped under the water. Her voluminous skirt tangled around his arms and face as he wrestled with the cloth, trying to establish a solid stance and get them both above the surface. His arm butted against a hard object. He grabbed the carriage wheel and steadied himself.
The minute their heads emerged above the surface another scream rent the air right next to his ear. The woman struggled and pummeled his back. "Put me down!"
"As soon as I get you to shore, ma'am," he said, trying to ignore the woman's hysterics and look for Franklin. He didn't have time to consider what the man was doing traveling with this she-cat, but he'd sure expect some answers laterbanking on the fact that Franklin was all right.
Jake appeared on the far side of the carriage.
"Franklin?" Brandon asked.
"He's all right, but he's stuck under the carriage. Diego and I can get him."
Brandon nodded. "I'll head to shore." He turned, taking one step toward the strip of sand on the bank when something stopped him, nearly pulling him over backward.
"What the "
The woman held tight to the cloth that disappeared under the coach.
"Let it go, ma'am."
"Let it go or we'll both go down again."
Still she wouldn't release the fabric.
"I gave you good warning," he said through gritted teeth. Quickly he whipped the knife from his belt and slashed through the cloth.
For a second her outraged gasp was all he heardthat and the roaring of the water. Then she found her tongue.
"How dare you! You don't know what you've done." She beat his back with her fists. "Put me down! You you imbecile!"
"Don't tempt me," he muttered. It would serve her right.
But it just didn't seem the thing to do when he was trying to rescue her. He took an unsteady step toward the shore. This direction, the force of the water was stronger on his ankle. Thankfully by now both legs were nearly numb. The woman wasn't much weight, but her wiggling didn't make the going easy. He had half a mind to spank her since she was acting like a child. Too bad it wasn't in his nature. Heck, in the current situation, rather than quieting her, it might make her that much more of a wildcat.