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Brave Rock, Oklahoma
Gideon couldn't have heard right. His ears must be clogged. Or he was dehydrated, which would explain why he'd misunderstood the cavalry officer. Extreme thirst and heat could do that to a man.
Glaring at the fortyish man who'd introduced himself as Private Jesse Wellington, he demanded he repeat his previous statement.
The polished buttons marching down the middle of Wellington's navy blue uniform rose and fell with his long-suffering sigh. Tall and distinguished, the officer had streaks of silver at his temples that lent him a sage air. "I'm here to inform you that your claim to this land has been challenged."
Challenged? "You're joking, right?" After all, he'd planted his stake deep into the earth with his own two hands.
On April 22, the day of the land rush, thousands of settlers had raced to claim a piece of this Oklahoma prairie for themselves. Thanks to President Cleveland and his decision to make the Unassigned Lands available to settlers, scores of people from all parts of the country had seized the opportunity to start over, to build new and better lives for themselves and their families, he and his brothers included.
The private smirked. "The United States Army isn't in the habit of joking about such matters, Mr. Thornton. Mrs. Evelyn Chaucer Montgomery, along with her brothers, Theodore, Brett and Reid Chaucer, are disputing your claim."
His gut knotted up below his sternum. Chaucer. A name embedded in his consciousness, going as far back as his toddler years to the time of the war between the states, a name associated with trouble and turmoil, hatred and discord. The Chaucers-Southern sympathizers to the core-despised his family for their loyalty to the North and its cause. That they had turned up here, in this start-up community of Brave Rock, struck him as downright suspicious.
Beyond Wellington's left shoulder, three men stood shoulder to shoulder, their olive skin and European features marking them as Chaucers. Because they were familiar to him and uninteresting, he skipped right over them to focus on the slender female dressed in head-to-toe black. Her head was bent so that her bonnet's brim hid the top half of her face.
Gauging from her gold-kissed skin and the black-brown hair whispering against her nape, Chaucer blood ran through her veins. The vague recollection of a twin sister drifted through his memory. Before he could pin it down, however, he noticed another member of their party. A small child. A boy with disheveled black hair and huge brown eyes in a face that hadn't yet lost the fullness of toddlerhood. A boy around the same age as his Maggie
Shying away from the life-sucking grief, Gideon slammed the gateway to the past shut. Wrested his gaze away from the small figure clinging to his ma's skirts and planted it firmly onto the soldier.
"I've been here eight days, Private. Why are they just now disputing the claim?"
"Because we had a funeral to arrange, you-" Theo leaned forward. Brett put up an arm to block him.
"You've wasted your time. These people have misled you."
Wellington didn't so much as blink. "They contend that Mrs. Montgomery's late husband, Drake, staked this plot and that it rightfully belongs to her and her son, Walter."
Montgomery. The inexperienced rider who'd foolishly followed him the day of the land rush? His gaze flew to the widow's face, now fully visible beneath the curved brim, delving into eyes the color of thick, sticky molasses. The exotic beauty countered his scrutiny with open challenge, her dainty chin uplifted and her high forehead lined with determination. Slashing black brows arched above flashing, thick-lashed eyes, and rounded cheekbones were balanced by a lush pink mouth. Disdain radiated from her bristling stance.
"I'm sorry for your loss, ma'am," he said directly to her, with effort not allowing his gaze to lower to the boy at her side, "but you're mistaken. Before the land rush, I studied the maps carefully and chose this plot because of its distance from town and proximity to this offshoot stream. I discovered a shortcut, a path hazardous for anyone who isn't a strong rider."
He recalled the exact moment he'd realized someone was trailing him. The surprise. The urgency, the drive to reach the land first. He had waited too long for this opportunity, hadn't been about to let it slip through his fingers. "I planted my stake. When I looked back, I saw Montgomery's horse stumble and pitch sideways. He was crushed."
A quiet gasp drew his attention once more to the female. A small hand pressed against her son's back tucked him closer to her, as if her touch alone were enough to spare him life's harsh realities.
Eager to be done with this unpleasant scene, Gideon pushed out the rest of the story. "I checked on him. Saw that he was alive and in desperate need of medical help, so I sought out my brother's fiancée, Alice Hawthorne. She's a skilled nurse. I thought-" He scraped a hand along his unshaven jaw, the bloody images coming into focus. "We were too late to save him. By the time we returned, Mr. Montgomery had already passed."
"You're lying." Her voice was huskier, deeper than he'd expected.
His spine stiffened. "Be very careful, madam. That's a serious accusation to levy at a complete stranger."
Rather than cower at the current of steely warning in his voice, she took a step forward. "I want to see the stake."
"As do I." Theodore glared at Gideon, the heat of old rivalries stirring to life in his dark eyes, punctuated by the once-straight nose that was now slightly offset.
Ignoring him, Gideon looked at Wellington, who nodded in agreement. "In order to sort this out, we need to see it. Shall we walk or ride?"
He weighed his options. Refusal didn't appear to be one of them. Besides, the sooner he proved his case, the sooner he'd be rid of the Chaucers. "It's about fifteen acres south of here. We'll ride."
Spinning on his heel, he strode over to the corral and, ducking between the rails, signaled Star. The two-year-old palomino lifted his head and met him at the gate. After a brief touch on his muzzle, Gideon swung up onto his broad, bare back.
A light breeze carrying the scents of sunbaked earth, hardy grass and sweet hyacinths gave him a brief respite from the overhead sun's scorching heat. The near-constant breeze was one of the first things he'd noticed about his new home in central Oklahoma. Whether it was due to his proximity to the Cimarron River slicing through the grasslands or the absence of substantial hills in this area, he didn't know and didn't care. In his opinion, he and his brothers couldn't have picked a better place to start fresh. Ruggedly beautiful countryside, fertile land and, best of all, remote. With 160 acres to call his own, he didn't have to see another living soul until he wanted to.
Unless folks chose to drop in on him unannounced. A scowl created deep lines around his mouth as he waited for the group to pile into their wagon.
He led them south, away from the Cimarron, through verdant pastures thick with yellow and orange flowers, along the stream bank dotted with sweeping cottonwood trees to the place where he'd staked his claim. Very near to where Mrs. Evelyn Chaucer Montgomery's husband had perished.
For a brief moment he allowed himself to feel compassion for the young widow. He knew all too well how it felt to lose a spouse with absolutely no warning. No preparation. She must be in shock still.
Then he shoved it aside. She'd labeled him a liar. He should expect no less from a Chaucer.
Sliding smoothly to the ground, he waited for the rest to catch up, anticipating their reaction to the proof. The officer perused his surroundings with keen interest. He wondered what misdeeds the man might've committed to have robbed him of his rightful rank; a man of his age and experience was not a mere army private for no reason.
The Chaucer brothers' hungry gazes gobbled up his land, Theodore in particular wearing a too-confident expression. Taller and leaner than the other two, he had sandy hair that set him apart from his siblings. The second eldest, Brett, was shorter, broader and less aggressive, but still a pain. Reid was Gideon's least favorite. Cocky. Short fused. Unpredictable.
Once out of the wagon, Mrs. Montgomery handed the boy off to Reid and strode for the wooden stake sticking out of the ground beneath a hackberry tree. The sweep of her full black skirts through the tall grass frightened a pair of cottontails that scurried in the opposite direction. She was oblivious, however, to all else save that stake.
Too bad she was in for a disappointment.
But when she yanked it out of the ground and read the name, the satisfaction and relief flashing across her expressive face did not indicate disappointment at all. Confused, Gideon walked toward her as if in a dream, his feet reluctant to carry him where he wanted to go.
"It's Drake's," she said in a triumphant whoosh, holding it up above her head like a torch.
"I knew it." White teeth flashed in Brett's face as he looped an arm about her waist and whirled her in a circle.
Pulse sluggish, thoughts muddled, Gideon extended a flat palm. "Let me see that."
Laughter fading, Brett lowered her but didn't release her. Her big brown eyes locked on to him, and the brief moment of rejoicing leached from her countenance. She extended the stake without a word.
He took it. Studied the scrawled letters.
Montgomery, Drake Sutton-
"This can't be right." Stunned, Gideon stared at the hole in the ground. Cast about the surrounding ground for answers. Where was his stake?
Wellington asked to see it.
"I don't understand." Gideon numbly passed it to the officer.
Wandering to the steep bank where his opponent had lost control of his horse, he rehashed the events of that day. There'd been only the two of them. Land rush rules stated that once a man's stake of possession was planted in the 160-acre tract of his choice, he had to hold that claim and defend it against other settlers. Leaving to fetch help meant Gideon had risked losing his plot. He hadn't been able to ignore a dying man's need, however. He hadn't hesitated to make the right choice.
His brothers, Elijah and Clint, had accompanied Alice. Clint had gone to alert the authorities, and hours later Theodore and Brett had arrived to confirm the deceased man's identity and take the body for burial.
Returning to the group, he addressed Wellington. "My stake was here when I left. Montgomery must've somehow removed it and replaced it with his own before he died."
"That's preposterous!" The widow pushed out of her brother's arms. "You honestly expect us to believe a dying man cared one way or another who got this land? Drake would've conserved his energy. He would've waited for help to come. He certainly wouldn't have risked aggravating his injuries."
Staring down at her, he pulled in a bracing breath. "I understand you're hurting right now-"
"Don't patronize me, Mr. Thornton." She faced off against him. "I know all about you and your family, how you cheat and scheme your way through life, not caring who you trample on your way to the top. I know exactly what happened here the day my husband died." Lifting her chin, she condemned him without a trace of evidence. "You saw an opportunity to steal the land and you took it. In your arrogance, you didn't even bother to change out Drake's stake with your own. You didn't expect us to challenge you, did you?"
Gideon opened his mouth to speak. No words came out. First she'd called him a liar. Now she was accusing him of being a thief? Outrage churned in his gut. The independence he'd dreamed of for so long, worked so hard for, was suddenly in jeopardy.
All because of this woman.
Evelyn wasn't about to let this mountain of a man intimidate her. "This land belongs to me and my son. It's Walt's rightful inheritance. I won't let you take that away from him."
Bringing his face near hers, the man bared his teeth. Glacial gray eyes impaled her. "This is my land." He jammed a thumb to his broad chest. "I'm not simply going to hand it over to you."
Gideon Thornton spoke slowly and with great deliberation. But beneath the facade of control, she detected the smoldering anger in him, a river of molten lava scrambling to be unleashed. Taller than her by a good three inches, he had a powerful body that looked as though it had been carved from stone and hands that could no doubt easily hoist her into the air and carry her to parts unknown. He was one impressive male.
All right. Maybe she was a smidge intimidated. She'd never let it show, though. Had learned her lessons early. Growing up with three brothers had toughened her, forced her to fight tooth and nail for everything she'd ever wanted. Though she'd sometimes bemoaned her lot-was one sister too much to ask?-there were times her experience came in handy.
This was one of those times. One of the most important. This land meant independence. A future for her and Walt. No way was a Thornton going to rip it from her grasp.
"I'd appreciate it if you'd cease with the name slinging." With his face this close as he spoke, she couldn't ignore the overall impression of wolfish magnificence. The chiseled cheekbones, strong nose, firm mouth. Eloquent brown brows-the only refined feature in his wild appearance-framed cold, glittering eyes the color of rainy skies. From the dark scruff along his hard jaws and chin, it was clear he'd misplaced his straight razor. "I'm neither a liar nor a thief," he said through clenched teeth. "Your parents and brothers have fed you a pack of lies about us."
"My parents were God-fearing, decent people." Unlike your traitor of a father.
As if he'd read her mind, his brows slammed together. Whatever stinging retort he'd had planned was cut off by Theo.
"Private Wellington, you've seen the proof. Kick this trespasser off my sister's property."
Wellington held up a hand. "I can't do that."
"Why not? We have the stake. Surely-"
"I don't have the authority to settle your dispute. At this point it is my responsibility to suggest you work together to reach a compromise."
"Compromise? You have no idea what you're asking." Theo shook his head. "I wouldn't give a Thornton the satisfaction."
"Then your dispute will have to be taken up in court. Unfortunately, there's a backlog of cases. There's no way of knowing how long it will be before your case can be heard. It would be best for all of you to vacate the land until the dispute is settled."
"Out of the question." Gideon looked as unmovable as a mountain.
"I have no intention of leaving," Evelyn shot back.
"If you both insist on staying, you'll have to share it while you wait for the judge to hear your case."
"That's not acceptable," Brett clipped out, his hand slicing through the air. "You've seen the stake. Thornton is clearly taking advantage of the situation."
As her brothers argued with the older officer, Evelyn and Gideon glared at each other, locked in a silent battle of wills. No way was she sharing Walt's inheritance with this man. For his part, her nemesis appeared equally appalled at the prospect.