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About the Author
Constance Bennett is the award-winning, bestselling author of twenty contemporary and historical romances. A native of Missouri, she spent four years in Los Angeles performing live theatre and studying film and television acting before returning home to launch her writing career in 1985. Her Harlequin Superromances, Playing by the Rules and Thinking of You, were both nominated by Romantic Times as Best Superromance in their respective years of publication, and Playing by the Rules went on to win a Romantic Times achievement award as Best Romantic Mystery of 1990. Two years later, Bennett received the first of her two prestigious Rita Award nominations from Romance Writers of America. Her Berkley/Diamond historical, Blossom, was nominated for a Rita in 1992, and in 1995, her Harlequin Superromance Single . . . with Children was nominated as Best Contemporary Category Romance. It was also her first Waldenbooks bestseller.
Read an Excerpt
Apacheria, in the white man's year 1847
Hidden deep in the shadows of branches, He Stalks the Gray Wolf crouched by the river, studying the reflection of the full moon that shimmered on the water at the fork of Cottonwoods Joining. The river was quiet, its voice soft as it spoke to the moon. Gray Wolf strained to hear its words, for the river was wise, and tonight it was wisdom Gray Wolf sought.
On the opposite shore, beyond the trees, he could see the waning campfires of the Many Mountains band, and behind him he knew that identical fires burned inside and out of the Red Canyon wickiups. The two camps reflected each other as the water reflected the moon; so alike, and yet so very far apart.
Would it always be so? Gray Wolf wondered bleakly, remembering all the great and noble speeches he had heard at the peace council that day. Some had advocated peace; others had shouted that there could be no peace. Gray Wolf's people had been at war with the Many Mountains band for longer than any of the elders on either side could remember. If this meeting of the warring bands did not resolve the conflict, the petty, futile feud would continue.
But Gray Wolf did not believe the feud would last for many more generations. In his heart he knew that if all the bands of the White Mountain Apache did not unite as one, there would soon be no Apache left. His people had an enemy lying in wait that was far more powerful than any single tribe, even more fearsome than the hated Mexicans, who had made war on the Apache for a dozen generations. The White Eyes were coming, and they did not understand that this was Apache land, that the Apache were a proudpeople.
Gray Wolf considered himself a fearless warrior, and there were many in his band who agreed. But it would take more than bravery to hold back the White Eyes. There had to be a way to make his people see that, and so he had come to the river to ask the spirits to tell him how.
Behind him, Gray Wolf heard a rustle of leaves so soft it might only have been a trick of the wind. He tensed, waiting to see who approached, and then relaxed again when a faint tinkle of beads and a rustle of buckskin identified the intruder.
"You should not be here, Mother," he said quietly without turning. "My father has had a difficult day, and he will want you beside him."
The wife of the Red Canyon chief knelt beside her son. "Your father is in council with the elders and will not miss me for some time, I think." She reached out with a mother's hand to stroke Gray Wolf's hair. "You are troubled tonight."
Her show of affection was hardly proper, but Gray Wolf did not pull away. Instead, he smiled and lightly chided her. "If my friends see us, they will taunt me mercilessly and ask if I still suck at my mother's breast."
Round Maiden smiled. "Your friends would not dare taunt you, for they know how swift and sure your vengeance would be. They know that, like your father, you are a great warrior."
"Great warriors' mothers do not stroke their sons' hair and speak to them as though they were children."
Round Maiden withdrew her hand and sighed. "Very well, I shall not treat you as my son."
Gray Wolf turned to her, and his eyes smiled with love and respect. "Now you go too far."
She looked at her strong, handsome son, and pride swelled in her heart. "Tell me what troubles you, my son. Your father said that you spoke most eloquently at the council today. You should be proud."
His face grew hard and he turned once again toward the rustling river. "But my words fell on many deaf ears," he said, unable to hide his frustration.
"Then tomorrow you will make them hear."
"And if they do not?" he asked angrily. "What will happen then? Will our petty quarrels with the Many Mountains people go on forever?"
"There is much hatred between our two peoples," she answered philosophically.
"But for what reason?" Gray Wolf asked in disgust. "In the time of my father's grandfather, a Many Mountains brave stole the horse of a Red Canyon brave. He paid for his thievery with his life. The quarrel that began there should have ended there, but instead, many lives were lost. The years passed, but our people and theirs refused to forget, and now we steal each other's cattle to prove our worth as warriors, and we hurl insults at one another." Gray Wolf spat into the tall grass at his feet. "Our foolishness sickens me."
"That is because you have a wisdom others do not possess, my son."
"But there is a real enemy awaiting us, Mother, and our people do not see the danger. The Inday of the White Mountain must begin to live as one or we shall perish. Why do they not understand that?"
Round Maiden reached out to touch her son again, but stopped herself. Gray Wolf was right; he was a man now -- a fine young brave who no longer needed a mother's comfort. Still, she could not resist trying to soothe him with her words. "They do not understand, my son, because they have not seen what you have seen."
Gray Wolf's eyes turned cold at the memory of the Blue Coats, and to ward off the evil of the White Eyes, he instinctively fingered the thunderbird medallion that hung to the center of his chest. Two moons ago he had watched the soldiers march through Canyon Day, their numbers stretching as far as the eye could see. Hidden among the great rocks on the canyon's ridge, he had kept pace with them, studying their fine horses and excellent weapons. They rode foolishly in the open, making no attempt to hide themselves from enemy eyes; but then, with their numbers so great, they had little reason to fear anyone.
When they made camp, Gray Wolf had crept close, as invisible as the wind. He listened to their strange speech and wondered at their even stranger ways. Through the night he had studied them, and when they were asleep, he had moved silently into their camp. When he left, he took with him two of the Blue Coats' rifles so that he could show his people proof of what he had seen.
The experience had made a deep impression on Gray Wolf. He had seen white men before, but never in such numbers. He had heard tales of the Blue Coats who had come to Apacheria to make war with the Mexicans, but until he saw them for himself, he did not realize how formidable an enemy they might be. If the Blue Coats decided to make war on the Apache, the people of the White Mountains would be doomed unless they stood together.
That was why Gray Wolf had urged his father to seek a peace council with the Many Mountains people. The two Apache bands were broken into many local groups, and these were divided into small family clans. To bring the scattered groups together at one time was no small feat, but both bands had made the long journey from their winter homelands to Cottonwoods Joining because their chiefs had demanded it. They had set up their temporary camps and agreed to a truce. Then the talks had begun.
At first Gray Wolf had been encouraged by the peace council, for there were men in both bands who understood the need for unity. There were others, though, who were blind to the danger and preferred to perpetuate a feud whose meaning had been lost long ago. Their stupidity angered Gray Wolf.
"Do not worry, my son," Round Maiden said, wishing she could ease some of the burden he had taken onto himself. "It is a good sign that Blue Bear was able to persuade his people to come here. There will be peace. Wait and see. The elders and the braves will argue, but soon gifts will be exchanged and we will live with the Many Mountains people as brothers again."
Gray Wolf studied the moon's reflection on the water. "I hope you are right, Mother."
Round Maiden stood. "Pray to the Mountain Spirits for guidance, my son. Perhaps they will give you the words you need to sway the council tomorrow."
She moved away as silently as she had come, and all was quiet on the river again. Gray Wolf knew that he, too, should return to camp; but whatever had drawn him to the water held him there, as though the answers he sought would be delivered if only he waited with sufficient patience.
A single cloud drifted over the moon, darkening the water and the woods on either shore. Voices from across the river broke the tranquillity of the night, and Gray Wolf peered into the blackness, studying the vague shapes that cautiously emerged from a stand of cottonwoods. The cloud unveiled the moon, and suddenly the shapes were no longer vague; three maidens slipped toward the river's edge carrying their tus baskets for water.
Two of them giggled nervously as they scanned the opposite shore for signs of their enemies. Their eyes passed over Gray Wolf several times, but he was deep in the shadows and they could not see him. He watched, wondering if the maidens, despite their nervousness, were secretly hoping to catch a glimpse of a Red Canyon brave. He had seen his sisters behave as these maidens were behaving, pretending shyness and fear while hoping for something unusual to alleviate the dreariness of their daily chores. It would be a wonderful story to tell when they returned to camp -- how they had been spied upon by their evil enemy and how they had bravely performed their task despite tremendous fear. But the giggling maidens did not hold Gray Wolf's attention for long. They were foolish, and Gray Wolf had little patience with silly women.
The third maiden was far more interesting. She was taller than her timid companions, but not so tall as to be grotesque, and she moved with a regal grace. She did not giggle or feign shyness, but scanned the opposite shore without fear. With the eyes of a discerning hunter, her gaze moved unerringly to Gray Wolf's hiding place.
He was certain she could not see him, and yet it seemed that she sensed his presence. While the others filled their tus, the graceful one stood poised on the riverbank, watching, curiously unafraid of the darkness and the dangers that might lurk within it. The moon made her black hair, bound in a beaded nah-leen, shine like ravens' wings, and Gray Wolf wished desperately that he were a little closer, that the moon were a little brighter. He wanted to know if the graceful one was as beautiful as she was brave.
The maidens' voices drifted toward him. Their words were indistinct, but he separated the speakers easily, for the graceful one's voice was musical, like the gently flowing water when it called to the moon. Her tone was soft but stern as she spoke to her companions; Gray Wolf could almost imagine that she was chiding them for behaving so foolishly. She was a stone's throw from the camp of her enemy, but she was not afraid.
Did she trust the truce that had been agreed upon, or did she, like Gray Wolf, believe there were greater things to fear than her Apache cousins?
She knelt by the water to fill her tus, every movement poised and elegant, and suddenly Gray Wolf realized why the river had summoned him. The key to his search for peace was revealed to him.
Like a mountain cat he moved to the edge of his shadowed hiding place and stood. The moon touched him, and the graceful one raised her eyes. Upon seeing him, her companions shrieked in surprise and fled into the woods, but the graceful one rose slowly and betrayed no fear.
She Sings by the Willow studied the brave across the river. He meant no harm; of that she was certain, or he would not have revealed himself so boldly. She had known there were eyes upon her, but she had sensed no threat in them, and she sensed none now. The Red Canyon brave stood as though carved in stone, inviting Willow to satisfy her curiosity. Her sister, the moon, bathed him in light, and her father, the river, whispered to her.
Why are you not afraid, Willow?
Because I see nothing to fear, she answered in her mind.
Good. That is as it should be, the river replied. Go home now, my daughter, and wait.
For what? she asked, sensing something to fear for the first time.
For your destiny, the river answered as the moon hid behind a cloud. The Red Canyon brave vanished.
Hidden among the shadows once again, Gray Wolf smiled with satisfaction as the graceful one hurried into the sanctuary of the cottonwoods.
He, too, had heard the river speak of destiny, and tomorrow he would test the truth of those words.
"That is good, little sister," Willow said as she inspected the reeds and bear grass her youngest sister, Little Corn Flower, had woven into the shape of a small me'ts'at. The cradleboard was a nearly perfect imitation of the baby-carrier their mother had recently made for her newborn son, and Willow was impressed; not many young ones learned to weave so early. "Mother will be proud of you."
Startled at hearing her name spoken, Willow stood and looked up to see her cousin hurrying toward her. It was a sign of great disrespect to call another by name, and the offense was forgivable only in times of emergency. From the wild-eyed look on the face of She Carries Water, Willow knew it was not a time to be insulted. "What is it, cousin?" she asked anxiously.
"A brave rides into camp, Kayhatin! A Red Canyon brave. With my own eyes I saw him cross the river!"
"He comes here?" Willow asked, alarmed. "All of our men are gone to council. What could he want?"
"I do not know." She Carries Water looked frantically around Blue Bear's large encampment. "Where is your mother? Someone must greet our enemy."
Willow glanced at her family's wickiup where her mother had disappeared only a short time ago to nurse her son. "She is tending to my brother's needs and cannot be disturbed."
"Then you must welcome him."
Willow pursed her gently bowed lips, for she knew her cousin was right. As the daughter of a chief, she had been taught the ways of making visitors welcome. It was her duty. Other maidens, whose fathers had less influence than hers, were allowed the luxury of shyness. They were permitted -- even expected -- to hide their faces in the presence of strangers, but the daughter of a chief was required to act with bravery.
Deathly quiet reigned where only moments ago there had been laughter and the sounds of children at play in the many smaller camps that formed the larger one. Only the slow, steady clip-clop of a horse's gait marred the stillness as a single rider wound his way through the sprawling encampment.
"I will greet him," Willow said finally, moving out of the shade of the cottonwood where she and her sister had been weaving. As she hurried toward her mother's wickiup, past the smaller dwellings of her aging grandmother and her married sister, she glanced back and found that her shy cousin had disappeared. Her sister was trotting along behind her as though trying to keep up, but as soon as they reached the wickiup, the little girl rushed inside, leaving Willow to face the Red Canyon brave alone.
She walked forward several paces, and a moment later the brave came into view. He was mounted on a magnificent black horse outfitted with a fine Mexican saddle. Both proved that he was a great warrior who had fought bravely and successfully against the Inday's enemies to the south.
Willow was impressed by the brave's show of wealth, but she was even more impressed by the man himself. Dressed only in a breechclout and supple buckskin moccasins that clung to his calves, he was as fine a young man as Willow had ever seen. His broad chest and powerfully muscled thighs showed him to be a great runner, and the corded sinews of his arms and shoulders testified to his extraordinary strength.
Gleaming black hair, bound only by a red headband, flowed onto his shoulders, framing a lean oval face with high cheekbones and a firm, square jaw. Around his neck was tied a choker with four strands of eagle bone and nuggets of silver and turquoise; from this hung a medallion carved with the symbol of the mighty Thunder Eagle, and from this hung a single eagle feather. It was a necklace that invoked great power, and only a mighty warrior who had earned the right could wear it; otherwise, the god Usen would be displeased and would strike him down.
Willow's maiden heart leaped in her breast at the sight of him, and she realized that this was the brave she had seen at the river. Throughout the long night her thoughts had turned to him and to the words the river had spoken to her. Could the two be intertwined? she had wondered. And now, with the sun, not the moon, high overhead, the brave appeared before her again. The river had told her to wait for her destiny, but Willow dared not believe that this strong, handsome warrior would be part of her future. If all went well at the peace council, his people and hers would be brothers again, but it would be many years before resentment between the bands died away enough for a brave from the Red Canyon band to risk tying his heart to a woman who had once been his enemy.
But knowing that did not stop Willow from feeling as shy as a maiden at her first social dance. For the first time in her life, she wished she were not the daughter of a chief. She had never seen such a wondrously handsome brave before, and she felt compelled to shyly hide her face as other women were allowed to do. But she had to do honor to her father, and so she stepped forward, her face tilted upward, her shoulders drawn back with pride.
"I bid you welcome, my friend. I am Kayhatin, daughter of the great nant'an of the Many Mountains people."
Gray Wolf looked down at the girl from his lofty perch. As he had known he would, he had recognized her as the graceful one the moment his eyes fell upon her. And she was the daughter of Chief Blue Bear, as he had suspected last night as he lay awake thinking of the encounter at the river. He had not dared believe, though, that she would be so lovely to look upon.
Her soft, dark eyes were fringed by long lashes, and every line of her face was perfection. As before, her shimmering black hair was bound in a maiden's bow with ribbons that trailed down her back to her trim waist, and her loose-fitting buckskin dress, trimmed with fringe and bits of iridescent shells, could not conceal her generous woman's curves. It seemed impossible to Gray Wolf that such a maiden had not yet taken a husband, and yet he knew that if she had, her hair would be unbound. Her voice was as rich and gentle as he remembered, and her courage was just as unmistakable.
Gray Wolf threw one leg over his horse's neck and slid smoothly to the ground, landing directly in front of her. Though her eyes widened, she did not step back. "Enju" -- it is good -- he said with an approving smile. "You welcome me as a friend, even though I am an enemy of your people and you know not why I come."
"If I welcome you as a friend, you are bound by honor to act as a friend," Willow replied softly. The visitor was tall, and he towered over her in a most disconcerting fashion. His smile was warm, though, and Willow felt her heartbeat quicken in her breast.
"You are not afraid of me?"
Willow felt many strange and wondrous things, but fear was not among them. Though it was difficult, she gazed steadily at his face. "No."
Gray Wolf nodded. "Just as you were not afraid of me at the river last night."
She lowered her head. The brave's gentle, knowing smile was too wonderful to look at. It made her ache with feelings she had never experienced before. "I was not afraid. Then or now," she replied softly.
"Enju. You do great honor to your father."
"I try in all things to do honor to my father and to my people."
Her head was still bowed, and Gray Wolf paused a moment to study her. Her beauty moved him so profoundly that for a moment he forgot the purpose of his visit. She was the most exquisite woman he had ever seen. "Do you believe that our two peoples should be at peace?" he asked finally.
The question surprised Willow and she glanced up. "It is not my place to decide what is best for my people."
"No," Gray Wolf said gently. "But you, too, have thoughts, and I wish to know them."
Willow frowned. "Is that why you came here? To ask this question of all the women?"
"I came to ask only you," he replied, capturing her gaze and holding it with an intensity that left them both feeling a little breathless.
The sensation was so overwhelming that Willow wanted to look away, but she could not. "I believe the Inday have too many outside enemies," she answered, amazed that she had the power of speech. "We should not fight among ourselves as well."
Gray Wolf smiled again. Her words were the ones he hoped to hear, but he had never expected to be so moved by them -- or by this lovely maiden. "Enju." It is good. He turned and mounted his magnificent black stallion as gracefully as he had left it; then he paused to look down at Willow. "Your father has a wise and beautiful daughter."
For the first time since the brave had ridden into camp, Willow felt a smile forming on her lips. "I will tell him you have said so," she replied, but the brave shook his head.
"You need not," he responded seriously. "I will tell him myself." Without another word, he turned the stallion and rode away as slowly and purposefully as he had come.
Rooted to the earth, Willow watched until he disappeared behind the wickiup of her uncle, and even after the brave had gone she stood there, pondering the meaning of the handsome warrior's strange visit. Her heart would not stop its errant drumming, and she realized with distinct pleasure that she did not want it to.
Copyright © 1991 by Constance Bennett
Table of Contents
ContentsPart I: The Legend,
Part II: The Shadow,
Part III: The Quest,
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