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Oklahoma Indian Territory
A bout of tremors attacked her knees and Millie St. Clair grasped the handrail of the train that had jostled her for miles on end. Swallowing hard and blinking, she hoped the scene before her might change.
They were naked.
Leastwise from the waist up-a sight she'd never seen before-yet they milled around the railway platform as freely as others who were fully clothed.
"Good heavens," she muttered.
The porter took her arm. "Ma'am. Step down, please. There are other passengers behind you."
"Oh, yes, of course, forgive me," Millie stammered. It took considerable effort to unlock her knees and lower her feet to the metal steps and then onto the wooden platform, for all that skin was shocking. It couldn't help but hold her attention. Fortunately, the porter, with a solid grip on her elbow, aided her the entire way.
He'd been a kind man, offering smiles and asking about her comfort several times since she'd boarded the Missouri-Kansas-Texas rail line back in Missouri. His elderly face, complete with bushy gray brows and deep wrinkles that reminded her of a garden gnome, held compassion now as he pointed toward a small building at the edge of the wide wooden platform. "Your baggage will be placed along that wall."
A goose egg formed in Millie's throat as her gaze once again snagged on the shirtless men mingling in the crowd. This was known as Indian Territory, so encountering some was expected, but she'd had no idea they walked around half-dressed. In public no less.
"Is there someone to meet you?" the porter asked, tugging her farther out of the way.
"Y-yes, yes, my br-husband was to send someone," she managed to say. Husband. No matter how odd it was, she had to remember to refer to Seth Parker as her husband, not her brother-in-law, as he truly was. One slip of her tongue would send her back to Virginia, and that couldn't happen. Leastwise not before she settled things. For years she'd dogged Rosemary's footsteps, righting wrongs and cleaning up after her older sister, but this was by far the most imperative. Perhaps the one that would convince her sister that life was worth living.
Willing her nerves, and the familiar sorrow sitting heavy in her heart, under control, Millie did her best to pull up a smile for the porter, as well as tug her gaze off all the dark-shaded skin of the bare-chested Indians. "My husband's sending someone from Fort Sill to pick me up."
"Fort Sill?" The bobbing of the porter's Adam's apple above his smartly buttoned-up collar sent a shiver all the way to her toes.
"Yes." The air was so hot and dry her lips cracked as soon as she wet them, and a chill settled around her spine. "Fort Sill," she repeated. Her home for the next three months. A mere snippet of time, considering it would save a child from becoming motherless. That's what had kept her putting one foot in front of the other since this trip had started.
"Rosemary's just like your mother was," Papa had always said, which was a fear Millie had lived with for as long as she could remember.
She didn't have a single memory of the woman who'd given birth to her. Other than a few stories others had shared, her mother was nothing but a name. One that filled Millie with sadness, and only intensified when she thought of her sister following in their mother's footsteps.
The porter had disappeared among uniformed men, women dressed in everything from common calicos to eastern gowns as stylish as those in Millie's trunks, and of course, the Indians with little more than tight-fitting britches and soft-soled, knee-high moccasins. Some, she noted, now that she could see beyond the bronze-colored skin that had been so shocking, had on army jackets and pants, but even they had very long hair and feathers in their hats, as well as ornate necklaces hanging around their necks.
A weary pressure settled inside her chest. Seth Parker might not have sent someone to escort her. There was no way to know if he'd received the message of her impending arrival. It had been sent; she'd seen to that herself, five days ago, before boarding the first of several trains with so many separate railroad names she'd long ago lost track.
Someone jostled her elbow, almost pivoting her in a circle.
"Excuse me," a man muttered, rushing past.
She nodded, but he was gone, one among many bustling about. The noisy surroundings, as well as the town-from what she could see of it-did suggest things were somewhat civilized in Indian Territory, which provided a bit of a comfort. She'd harbored considerable fears about residing at the fort, bearing in mind she'd never left Richmond before this trip.
Setting her traveling valise on the ground, Millie pulled down the hem of her waist-length jacket. The coal smoke and dust from the trains had turned the pale green traveling suit grayish, and her hair was so stiff she didn't dare remove a comb for fear every last strand would break off. But in a few miles, her travels would be over.
Then the real work would begin.
Work indeed. Pretending to be her sister would be the most challenging thing she'd ever done. Not in looks- people had been confusing the two of them forever, and she had cut her hair. It no longer hung to her waist in the simple braid she'd favored for years. For this journey she'd had to twist it around the hot prongs of a curling iron, then pin it up in a fashionable way. Rosemary had shown her how, though Millie still didn't have the knack her sister did. Maybe because it was a frivolous waste of time. Rosemary had changed her hairstyle so many times over the past years Millie sincerely doubted her sister remembered how she'd worn it when marrying Seth. Besides, Millie had larger worries. Such as hoping she'd recall what Seth Parker looked like. It had been five years, and she'd seen him only once. Mistaking someone else for her so-called husband could prove disastrous.
Yes, when played against everything else, her hair was truly the least of her concerns. Picking up her satchel, Millie moved forward, elbowing her way to the little building with a sign proclaiming Tulsa in faded red letters.
Two of her trunks sat there. She set her traveling bag on one and stretched up on her toes, attempting to peer over or around heads sporting every type of hat imaginable for a glimpse of her additional luggage-or rather, Rosemary's.
The high-pitched screech of the train whistle and the shout "All aboard" echoing over the crowd had her searching harder.
People rushed by, bounding up the metal steps, and steam started hissing from beneath the locomotive. Surely the train wouldn't leave before all her belongings were unloaded. The distance between most of the previous stops had been lengthy; even when she wasn't switching trains there'd been time to walk about, stretch her legs.
Bubbles of anxiety filled her stomach and Millie scrambled on top of one trunk. Using a hand to shield her eyes from the sun, she scanned for a round bald head ringed with gray hair. Sighing in relief at the sight of the porter dragging a trunk behind him, she climbed down. The crowd diminished a bit, leaving more room for the man and his assistant to deposit her other trunks next to her.
"Thank you," she said earnestly. "I was getting worried."
The porter, wiping at the beads of sweat running down the sides of his face, eyed her quizzically. "Ma'am," he said, "you do realize how far away Fort Sill is, don't you?"
She smiled and nodded. "Yes, the train agent in Richmond-Virginia, that would be-informed me I'd have to take a wagon the last few miles." Patting the varnished trunk he'd set down, she continued, "That's why I was getting worried when I didn't see this trunk. I'll need a parasol out of it."
"A parasol?" The porter shook his head. "It's pert' near two hundred miles to Fort Sill from Tulsa, ma'am."
"Surely not t-two hundred."
Stunned, she sank onto one of the trunks behind her. Air refused to catch in her lungs despite several tries. Once able to speak, Millie asked, "Surely there's another train-"
"No." The porter paused momentarily as the locomotive whistle sounded again. "Trains from here head straight west and straight south. Nothing goes through the center. That's the heart of Indian Territory."
Stretched out in bed, with nothing but a sheet covering his lower body, Seth Parker watched the sun crest the pointed tops of the stockade walls out the window of his loft bedroom. Tension had ahold of his spine like a snapping turtle latched on to a stick. Had for the past ten days. Ever since he'd dispatched a wagon to pick up his wife.
As the sun inched higher, disgust, dread, anger and a plethora of other things boiled together inside him, leaving a taste in his mouth so bad no amount of rinsing would help.
Today was the day. It could have been yesterday, so he should at least find gratitude in having had one more day of peace in his life. But yesterday was over, and that meant she'd arrive today.
Unless, of course, she'd changed her mind. That possibility would suit him just fine. It would mean he'd sent two men and a wagon to Tulsa for no reason.
Shaking his head, Seth stared at the beamed ceiling. Cutter and Wilson were good men, but they'd probably never forgive him for hauling Rosemary St. Clair-or Parker, if she was using his name-across Indian Territory. Five days of her attitude
What did she want? They hadn't seen each other for five years. Their so-called marriage had been a sham from the start. His ire hadn't lessened in the years since she'd crawled into his bed and lied about what had happened the next morning, and it grew now as he lay here remembering it.
The conniving little wench. He'd been so exhausted a herd of buffalo could have stampeded through the room and he wouldn't have awakened that night. Since then, though, he slept with one eye open.
Throwing back the covers, Seth swung his legs over the edge of the bed. What could she possibly hope to gain by coming out here? Why hadn't she just signed the divorce papers and put an end to this misery? He'd sent her five sets. One a year. Every time an army lawyer visited the post, he filed another petition, and not once had she sent them back-signed or unsigned.
He pushed off the bed and crossed the room, lifting his clothes from the chair and pulling them on with all the joy of a man heading to the gallows.
Marriage was the last thing he'd ever wanted, and he wanted this one dissolved. Had since the day it had happened.
She should, too. Her father, General St. Clair-a man Seth had held in high esteem-had passed away four years ago, so she had no reason to continue the pretense.
Dressed, Seth made his way to the ladder and climbed down the rungs. She wasn't going to like the living quarters, that was for sure. Besides the simple accommodations, a rough-hewn three-room cabin with a loft, there was the desolation of the fort, the weather, the landscape. None of it was going to be to Rosemary's liking. She'd lived in the general's posh Richmond home her entire life.
"Morning, Major," Corporal Russ Kemper said, carrying two cups of coffee through the open doorway.
"Morning." Seth took a cup and went to lean against the doorjamb as the rising sun erased the darkness of the cabin. His office had a window, but neither this room- the kitchen, dining room and parlor all rolled into one- nor the bedroom behind it did.
The living quarters, or barracks, as the army called them, were two rows of cabins facing each other, with the large open courtyard of the fort between them. As a major, the man in charge, Seth was assigned officers' quarters, one of the four houses flanking the fort's headquarters building, and was entitled to move in there, especially now that his wife would be living with him. But hell would freeze over first. If Rosemary wanted to live here so bad, she'd have to do it right here, in this little cabin, with Russ Kemper snoring the roof off every night.
A shiver zipped up Seth's back, so sharply he stiffened, and he had to step onto the covered wooden walkway running the length of the row of cabins to shake it off.
Russ slept in one bed, him in the other. Where would Rosemary sleep?
A smile formed, the first one he'd felt in days. The first one he'd felt since getting the telegram telling him to pick her up in Tulsa.
She'd have to figure out her own sleeping arrangements. His house was full.
Seth finished his coffee and walked back into the cabin. "Ready for some breakfast?"
A young man, barely eighteen, with big eyes and long legs, Russ nodded. "Always."
Together they angled across the courtyard to a building along the back where all the single men ate. Which was most of the forty-five men at the fort. Only four had wives, not counting Seth, of course. Six more had Comanche wives, but they lived outside the compound. The only Indians allowed to reside inside the fort on a regular basis were the four Comanche maidens who assisted the cook, Briggs Ryan. That was four more than army rules allowed, but Seth liked to keep his men happy, and hungry men weren't happy. And Briggs, a six-and-a-half-foot-tall Swede with hands that could wrap around a cannonball as if it was a marble, wasn't happy without his maidens.
After breakfast, a hearty meal that sat in Seth's stomach like lead with all the commotion going on inside him, he ordered the M troop to mount up for drills. It would suit him just fine to be gone when Rosemary arrived. It'd suit him fine to be gone the entire time she was here.
That wasn't his luck. He'd barely arrived back at the fort, having spent three hours in the hot September sun-which in Indian Territory was as hot as the August sun most days-when the sentry in the guardhouse signaled a wagon was approaching.
With his jaw locked and his temples pounding, Seth turned his mount over to Russ, and after splashing water on his face, planted his hat on his head and made his way to his cabin. Meeting her in his office would be the best thing for everyone.
It was there, at his desk, that he got the first glimpse of her. Frowning, for it was a perplexing sight, he pushed his chair back and stood to get a better look out the window. Mirth was a good feeling, and when it bubbled up the back of his throat, he let it out. This he had to see in person.
Leaning in the open doorway, shadowed by the overhang, Seth watched the wagon roll to a stop several yards away. A chuckle still tickled his throat, and he covered it with a cough as people started gathering, catching their first glimpses of his wife.
She was holding a once-fancy umbrella the wind had reduced into a misshapen frame of sticks waving several haphazard miniature flags, and her hair was bushed out as if a porcupine sat on her head. The skirt flapping around her ankles sent up puffs of dust as she climbed down, aided by Ben Cutter, who gestured toward the cabins. Throwing her shoulders back, she started walking across the hard-packed ground.
Seth was biting the inside of his cheek, for she certainly looked the worse for wear, but then a frown formed, tugging hard on his brows. He didn't remember her having a limp. Then again, they hadn't spent more than a couple hours together, and most of that time had been used up with her father convincing Seth to say I do.