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The day was perfect for a leisurely stroll. Since my arrival in Silver Springs, the weather had been ideal, with moderate temperatures, warm sunshine, and no heavy rainfall. I thought about Nicholas' sister. This was the best possible climate for a woman who was in poor health, or for someone like me, looking for a new part of the country to call home.
I'd never intended to heed Emmett's warning about venturing out alone in Silver Springs. Without the encumbrance of an escort, I could take any direction I chose and stop when I grew tired or desired a change of activity. Glorying in a heady sense of freedom, I walked on, more intent on seeing sights than memorizing directions. Gradually I wandered into a rougher part of town.
Coming to a standstill at a corner, I made an attempt to orient myself. From a saloon named the Lost Duchess, the merriest music imaginable spilled out into the air, along with laughter and shouting, all of these sounds mixing together to suggest that the people inside were having a rousing good time.
The Lost Duchess was a tempting destination, but I wasn't reckless enough to venture inside unescorted. Turning to walk in a different direction, I almost stumbled over a bundle of fur blocking the middle of the sidewalk. The obstacle was a small black and white dog, a bony and filthy creature that whined and stared at me with a wary, yet beseeching look in its dark eyes. I reached down to touch it, but it rose awkwardly and limped down the street.
While I was occupied with the animal, two brightly dressed and bejeweled women emerged from the Lost Duchess. Entranced by their glittering attire, I watched as they approached two cowboys who weretying their horses to a post. After a few seconds of talking and laughter, the women went back inside, taking their new friends with them.
Wishing I could follow them into the light and the music, I took a step forward. At that moment, I saw Nicholas.
He came out of the Lost Duchess and paused to consult his pocket watch. Without looking around, he walked off briskly in the direction taken by the dog.
The man was definitely Nicholas. I, who had studied his features discreetly during the long hours on the train, could never mistake him for another. Obviously he hadn't seen me, and something about him was different. He had changed his way of dressing. Now he wore the same kind of clothing as most of the other men in Silver Springs.
What was he doing here? Setting aside the axiom that a lady doesn't pursue a gentleman unless she is in the profession of doing so, I set out to overtake him. He had a head start, however, and moved much faster than I could. Eventually, he turned down a narrow side street where the shabby dwellings were draped in shadows.
Pausing to catch my breath, I saw that I had wandered even farther away from the more populated area of town. The sounds of shouting coming from a building above me were more indicative of a brawl than revelry. I heard a woman's scream, a burst of tipsy laughter, and a child's wail. I couldn't see Nicholas.
Slow down, I told myself. Think. Nicholas was emphatic about his two-week stay in Denver. Could he have changed his plans, his way of dressing, and, most important of all, his intention of contacting me when he arrived in Silver Springs? Was it possible that I was mistaken, that the man wasn't Nicholas after all?
As I pondered my next move, I noticed two strangers approaching me. They were rougher in appearance than any of the men I'd seen thus far, with heavily bearded faces and malice in their manner. An Indian stood behind them.
According to Jeremiah, cowboys were respectful of women, but lonely men looking for female companionship were a force to be reckoned with. I, of course, had blithely ignored the warning.
My heart beat rapidly, and my thoughts spun around in a mad fashion. I wasn't afraid of the cowboys, who now addressed me in a familiar manner, but the Indian terrified me.
How could I have been so foolish to follow Nicholas into peril?
The dangerous situation I anticipated didn't materialize. The men invited me to accompany them into the Lost Duchess. When I didn't respond, they simply laughed and went into the saloon without me.
That left me alone on the street with the Indian who might still pose a threat. With his long black hair and burning eyes, he looked ferocious. My imagination, always ready to take off in a gallop, added a tomahawk and garish face paint.
One step at a time, at first slowly, then rapidly, I began to walk away. A quick glance over my shoulder told me that the Indian wasn't following me. My main priority was to find my way back to Main Street, which I thought I would be able to do.
Then I saw Nicholas again, ahead of me, about to round a corner. I called his name. In the sudden stillness, my voice sounded unnaturally soft.
He kept walking, and that was the end of the matter for me. I couldn't follow him. I wouldn't. Surely he had seen or heard me, but had failed to recognize me, or, more likely, had done so and chosen to ignore me.
That was so painful a conclusion that I reached blindly for another one.
Maybe the man wasn't Nicholas at all but his double. The real Nicholas Breckinridge was still in Denver, where he said he would be. I grasped for an explanation that wouldn't show me in such a foolish light, but I felt it wasn't true.
All I had for my efforts was a thoroughly muddled idea of my present location. I set off in a few wrong directions but soon recognized the buildings that lined the way to the Silver Palace. I hoped that Emmett, who was undoubtedly savoring his dinner in the hotel dining room, would never know how foolish and shameless I'd been.
At a fast pace, I set off for the edge of town. With my eyes fixed on my destination, I didn't see the small missile until it crashed into my legs, its agonized yelp lost in the slamming of a door. The black and white dog bounced off my body and landed in the dust. Whimpering in pain, it made a frantic, futile attempt to get up and lay down again, panting but otherwise very still. She was a female, and her distress tore at my heart.
In my softest voice, I said, "You poor little thing. Don't be afraid. I'm going to take care of you."
She whined but didn't move.
Although I knew the danger in approaching a wounded animal, I couldn't keep away from her. She, however, had other ideas. Still whimpering, she managed to rise on three shaky legs and one damaged one and limp away. Where she had lain I saw a small pool of blood.
With no thought of my recent misadventure, I set out after her.
From somewhere behind me I heard pounding hooves. I felt my arms close around fur barely stretched over bone just as a sharp pain exploded on the side of my head. The world came to a shuddering halt.
Through darkness and pain, I was aware of the soft bundle slipping out of my arms. A familiar voice shouted my name. I rolled over in the street and came to rest against a hard wooden surface.
Strong arms lifted me up. The hoof beats were now distant echoes, but I heard my name spoken in a voice I thought I recognized. A sense of safety wrapped itself around me. Everything was going to be all right now.
I whispered, "Nicholas?"
From the faraway place to which I'd gone, I heard the name repeated in a voice that sounded like thunder.
The voice was filled with scorn, and I drifted away from the approaching storm, but I took my last vivid realization with me. Nicholas had led me into this danger and walked away.