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The Republic of Texas
At seventeen Creighton Stewart didn’t need anyone, and she liked it that way. That was why she’d been particularly disturbed by father’s heated rejoinder during their argument that morning: “Perhaps a husband can curb your tongue!”
Cricket hadn’t meant to holler at Rip, or to call him a noodleheaded lumpkin. But if he thought a husband was going to do any better at controlling her than her own father, well, he was a worse wag-wit than she’d accused him of being. Besides, it was his fault she was the way she was. What man in his right mind would willingly choose to raise his daughters as sons?
Thanks to her father, Cricket possessed all the skills necessary to survive on the Texas frontier without the aid of another living soul. That sort of self-reliance was a real advantage in a wilderness where she might meet Comanches or Mexican bandidos or outlaw drifters over the next rise. Actually, Cricket and her nineteen-year-old sister, Sloan, had taken to Rip’s survival lessons like a newborn calf to a cow’s teat. However, their eighteen-year-old sister, Bayleigh, had never managed to meet Rip’s high standards of excellence. The truth was, Cricket admitted, Bay didn’t even come close.
Still, she should have known better than to try to convince Rip that it was a waste of time to send Bay out hunting. He didn’t want to hear it. Rip Stewart hadn’t become the richest gentleman planter in Texas by giving up. His last words as she’d stormed out of the house had been “Take Bay with you. Make sure she does the tracking. And don’t come home empty-handed!”
Cricket shook her head as she watched Bay draw her bow to take aim on a stag. Bay’s arms hadn’t the strength to hold the bow cocked for long, and they were trembling so much it was spoiling her aim. That wouldn’t have been so bad, except Bay kept taking her eyes off her target. Was it any wonder Cricket had called her father a stubborn oat-eater when he’d insisted that Bay only needed a little more practice?
Cricket opened her mouth to suggest that Bay raise the angle of her arrow upward, but before she could speak, Bay yanked the gut bowstring and loosed the shaft. Cricket watched the arrow dart, swift and — totally off the killing mark.
“You’ve only wounded him, Bay. Another arrow. Quick!”
The deer bolted and was gone from sight before Bay even had another arrow out of her quiver.
Bay toyed with her bowstring distractedly. “I’m sorry, Cricket. His eyes kept pleading with me not to do it, and at the last second — ”
“At the last second you jerked the bowstring instead of just releasing it.”
Their prey had disappeared into the heavy growth of sagebrush and gnarled mesquite as completely as if it had never existed, yet the fierce yowling of Cricket’s three half-grown wolves in full chase gave raucous witness to Bay’s failure.
Tears welled in Bay’s eyes, making Cricket instantly contrite for the sharpness of her reprimand. At least Bay didn’t flinch with a bow and arrow like she did every time she shot a Kentucky rifle. However, the choice of weapons wasn’t really the problem. The truth was, Bay simply had too soft a heart for killing. Cricket distinguished between a too-soft heart and compassion. She couldn’t bear to see the wounded suffer, either, so she’d learned to kill quickly and cleanly.
“What do we do now?” Bay asked, keeping her eyes focused on the whitened knuckles that held her bow.
Cricket encircled her older sister’s shoulders with an arm clothed in fringed buckskin and gently tipped Bay’s chin up with a callused finger. “My wolves will keep pace with the stag over this rough terrain. I’ll catch up and kill him. You follow me as quickly as you can, and ... keep trying, Bay. You’ll learn to do better.”
“No, I won’t.”
Cricket wasn’t about to argue, since she agreed whole-heartedly with Bay. She sighed in sympathy with Bay’s plight. “You’re right. You won’t. I guess I’ll have to take another stab at convincing Rip this is a bad idea.”
Bay shuddered. “Do you really think another shouting match like the one you two had this morning is going to make any difference?”
“All right, so I lost my temper a little. Next time — ”
Bay arched a brow in exasperated disbelief. “A little?”
Cricket grinned. “Maybe more than a little. But it was in a good cause. You’re right, though. If I just kept a tighter rein on my temper — ”
“Nothing you say is going to change his mind.”
Cricket possessed more than a little of Rip’s bullheadedness and wasn’t as willing as Bay was to give up the fight. “That doesn’t mean it isn’t worth another try in this case.”
“You’d be wasting your breath. He’s got this grand plan for who we are and what we’ll become, and he isn’t going to let anyone or anything get in the way of his seeing it become a reality ... not even us. And Cricket, his threat about finding you a husband ... it was more than an empty threat. He’s seriously thinking about it.”
“Why? Just because we argued? I’ve bantered cusses with Rip for years.”
“You’ve never called him a knotheaded lobcock before,” Bay said with a grin.
“No, I’ve called him a lot worse,” Cricket retorted. “So why threaten me with a husband now?”
“You’re seventeen now. A grown woman.”
Cricket’s face contorted into such a wry grimace that Bay laughed. “Think for a minute. If all Rip’s dreams are going to survive he’s got to have grandchildren. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s planning to pick husbands for all of us.”
“Not for me. I’m never getting married.”
Cricket’s lips flattened in determination. “I say.”
“Then you better speak to Rip before he gets his mind made up.”
“He’d never force me to do something I didn’t want to do.”
Bay shrugged. “He wouldn’t have to use force — on any of us. Sloan would do what he asked because he’d take time to explain the good reason for it. I’d do what he asked because I haven’t the courage to defy him. And you ... you’d do what he asked because you love him and want to please him.” Bay held up a hand to stop Cricket’s interruption and continued, “Not that you wouldn’t fight him every step of the way if you didn’t like the idea. But in the end, you’d do what he wanted.”
“You’re wrong, Bay. About this you’re wrong. I don’t want to get married. And I won’t, no matter what Rip says.”
“Would it be so bad?”
“For me it would.”
“I can manage my own life. I don’t need some man telling me what to do. Besides, what kind of man would want me, anyway?” Cricket rushed breathlessly on so Bay wouldn’t have a chance to answer the question she’d raised. She wasn’t sure she wanted to hear Bay’s answer. She had a pretty good idea what the gentlemen planters along the Brazos River thought of Rip’s youngest brat. She wouldn’t set herself up to be rejected as a wife by any one of those pompous male popinjays. “I’m much better off by myself. There’ll be no husband for me, and you can believe I’m going to give Rip the sharp edge of my tongue the first chance I get. He’d better not — ”
Both girls whirled abruptly toward the agitated howling that rose on the wind like the moans of the bereft survivors of a Comanche massacre. The wolves had cornered their quarry. From the occasional agonized yelps it was apparent their prey was fighting back.
Bay’s eyes betrayed her alarm. “The wolves!”
Cricket had already mounted her pinto stallion, Valor, and paused only long enough to yell over her shoulder, “Follow as soon as you can. Don’t let Star get the bit in his teeth. That mustang is just waiting for the chance to set you down in some sagebrush.” Then she was gone.
With the confidence of experience, Cricket hugged closely to her mount’s neck. She guided him with her knees and the slim leather bridle as he galloped pell-mell across the rugged, rolling country, among the ancient oaks, stark and proud, still awaiting spring’s green mantle.
The howls of her animals soon became distinguishable, and Cricket could hear Rogue’s growl, Rascal’s answering savage bark, and Ruffian’s distressed yelp that was cut off suddenly in midstream by violent splashing noises. How strange. The wolves had caught their quarry in the water. The beast must be very sorely wounded, Cricket thought, to allow such a thing to happen. Hadn’t the arrow merely pierced the shoulder? She must be mistaken. Cricket hurried to put the frenzied creature out of its misery.
She broke from the trees at the edge of a small oval pond almost hidden by the thick brushy undergrowth. She arrived in time to see Rogue, her favorite of the three wolves she’d raised from pups, cracked upon the head by a large branch swung as a club. The wolves hadn’t cornered the stag Bay had wounded — they’d caught a man. And he was trying to kill her wolves! In an instant Cricket was off her stallion and standing spread-legged at the edge of the pond.
“You clabberheaded idiot! What the hell do you think you’re doing?”
The cacophony ceased, but a heavy tension lay in the air as though a thunderbolt had struck. The man in the pond stared at her, his eyes wide with disbelief. Then the young wolves abandoned him for the new arrival, their excited yowls drowned out by their splashing swim to Cricket’s side.
The stranger surged through the water after them with the shouted warning, “Watch out for those wolves!”
“Those wolves are my pets, you beanheaded jackass!”
The man froze in midstride, still wary, but clearly perplexed.
“Those vicious beasts are pets?”
“I raised them myself from pups, and they’re not vicious.”
“Then perhaps you should have taught them better manners,” the stranger snapped, eyeing the bloody gashes the wolves’ sharp teeth had torn on his forearms.
“My wolves wouldn’t have attacked unless — ”
Cricket shut her mouth and squinted her eyes to avoid the barrage of flying water that assailed her from shaking pelts. By the time the wolves were done, a rainbow of crystal dew-flecks spattered her golden skin, the soft deerskin shirt that was belted at her slender waist, and the fringed leggings that hugged her lithe figure and disappeared into knee-high moccasins. Cricket leaned down to soothe the hurts of her beasts.
“Poor Ruffian. Oh, Rogue, look at all this blood!” Cricket knelt to check Rogue’s wound. “It’s not deep, boy. You’ll be all right.” Cricket smoothed the wolf’s wet fur one last time. She swiped the beast’s blood from her hand onto her buckskins as she rose to turn her magnificent fury back upon the object of her wrath.
Hip deep in the middle of the shallow pond, lowered club still held in readiness by powerful hands, stood the most proudly handsome man Cricket had ever seen. Water streamed down his face from his wet curls, dripped off his angled cheekbones and jutting chin, and shimmered like a mountain waterfall down his glistening body. His heart-shaped nostrils flared to bring air to the broad, still-heaving chest.
Cricket felt breathless, felt her pulse racing, but told herself it was concern for her wolves that had her so upset. Of course this rugged-looking stranger had nothing at all to do with her pounding heart. She knew better than to let herself think of any man that way. She clenched her trembling fingers into fists and stuck them on her hips.
The man’s nakedness had kept her eyes riveted to his body. Her stallion’s trumpeting neigh broke the spell and sent her attention to the source of the pinto’s interest. Hidden in a brush corral near the pond, five of Rip’s mares, which had been stolen a week past, circled in anticipation of the stallion’s command.
Cricket’s gray eyes narrowed as she brought them back to bear on the stranger. She searched the edges of the pond for the pile of clothing he’d doffed, and finally found it on the far side of the water. A smug smile twitched at the corners of her mouth. Well, well. Her wolves had certainly caught this horse thief with his pants down.
“Who are you and how’d you get here?” she demanded. She flushed as the stranger’s topaz eyes boldly assessed her tall, well-curved form.
“I might ask you the same thing,” he drawled. “You’re a long way from anywhere, little girl.”
“I’m plenty big enough to take care of you.”
“I’m sure you are. Would you like to join me, or shall I join you?”
The stranger’s brazen invitation caught Cricket by surprise, and her belly tightened in pleasure. As though sensing her reaction, the naked man took a step forward.
“You stay right where you are.”
The stranger smiled, his eyes revealing his amusement at her response to his blatant virility.
Cricket frowned as she realized the stranger represented a greater — and very different — threat than she’d first thought. She’d long ago made it plain to the gentlemen from the cotton plantations surrounding Three Oaks that Creighton Stewart wasn’t about to give them the only thing they wanted from her. This stranger was about to learn the same lesson — the hard way, if necessary.
“I asked you a question, you wet-goose lackwit, and I expect an answer. Who are you and how’d you get here?”
The mysterious man’s eyes focused on the bow in her hand and the quiver of arrows slung across her back, as though trying to decide whether she knew how to use them. Cricket smirked. Let him take another step toward her and he’d find out quick enough. Her smoky eyes flashed at him in contemptuous challenge.
Instead of answering her question he asked one of his own. “Who are you?”
“That’s none of your business.” Cricket glanced pointedly at the five horses the stranger had corraled within the bushy barrier. “But I think you’d better tell me where you got those horses.”
“Ah, mi brava, my fierce, wild one. You answer my question, and I’ll answer yours.”
Cricket calmly pulled an arrow from her quiver and slotted it in the bowstring. She pulled the bowstring taut, the arrow aimed at the thief’s heart, and asked again, “Where’d you get those horses?”
The intense, golden eyes that were his best feature in a face full of perfect features, scorned her use of the weapon, even as his jeering laugh filled the air.
Cricket pulled the bowstring tauter. The man’s gaze dropped to her hands, and the laugh caught in his throat.
“Be careful with that thing, Brava,” he cautioned. “I’m not ready to be spitted like a beef at Christmas.”