Caroline knows what a real union of hearts should be, and the major's polite, no-nonsense offer hardly qualifies. Still, she accepts for the children's sake, little knowing the complications the marriage will bring to test her confidence and her faith. Yet in this unusual match, Caroline starts to see a glimmer of something strong and truethe makings of the family she never thought she'd find
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Wheeler Springs, Wyoming, October 1876
Tristan Willoughby Smith didn't like to be kept waiting, and he'd been waiting for three days for the arrival of the quinine he needed to treat his malaria. He'd also been waiting for the arrival of the Bradley sisters. He'd hired the youngest, Miss Caroline Bradley, to be the governess to his children. He'd hired the elder sister, Miss Elizabeth Bradley, to serve as a nurse and advisor for the treatment of the disease he'd contracted in the West Indies.
Tristan had a high tolerance for the fevers that came with malaria, but he had no patience at all with tardiness. A former major in the British army, he expected people to do what he told them.
He expected such obedience from his children.
He expected it from the men who worked his cattle ranch.
Mostly he expected such discipline from himself.
He also expected discipline from the stage line scheduled to deliver the quinine he needed to control his fevers. With his hands on his hips, he stared down the windblown street that made up the heart of Wheeler Springs. The stage was three days late. He'd contracted the disease four months ago. The year before it had taken his wife, Molly, leaving him alone to care for their two children. To protect them from the disease, Tristan had come to Wyoming with Jonathan Tate, his best friend and former second in command. Wyoming was as far from malariaand his home in Englandas Tristan could get. It was also eighteen hundred miles away from the Philadelphia pharmaceutical company that manufactured the quinine. If the quinine was lost, he'd be in dire straits.
As much as Tristan needed the medicine, he needed Caroline Bradley even more. The new governess didn't know it, but he had plans for her that went beyond tutoring his children. He had plans for Jon, too. If malaria put Tristan in an early grave, his best friend would be the executor of his will and guardian of his children. Under no circumstance did Tristan want his children returned to his family in England. As the third son of a nobleman, Tristan had no importance. That fact had been drilled into him by his father, Harold Smythe, the Duke of Willoughby, and he didn't want Freddie and Dora growing up under the same cloud.
He also wanted them to have a mother, especially if the malaria took his life. Whether Tristan lived or died was up to God, a being he viewed as a Supreme Commander who gave orders without discussion. Tristan would submit to God's decree, but he couldn't bear the thought of leaving Freddie and Dora without a family. That's where the new governess came in. It was high time Jon settled down. If Tristan died, he expected Jon to marry her and give the children a mother. He'd ruled out the oldest sister for this particular job. The Bradley sister, named Elizabeth, was twelve years older than the younger one, and in her letters she'd stated her dedication to nursing. The governess, however, had written eloquently about her love of children.
The wind kicked a tumbleweed across the street. For the first day of October, the air held a surprising chill. Or had the chill come from within, the first sign of yet another attack of illness? Tristan glanced up at the sky. The fevers usually started late in the day, and the sun had yet to reach its peak. Still, the chill was enough to show him that he couldn't wait any longer to find out what had happened to the stage. A military man, he sized up the obstacles between the railhead in Cheyenne and Wheeler Springs.
The Carver gang could have held up the stage. Indians could have attacked.
An afternoon storm could have washed out the road and taken the stagecoach with it.
Tristan had a fertile imaginationa blessing to a poet but a curse for an army officer and a bigger curse for a man with malaria.
The door to the stage office swung open and Jon strode forward. He was forty-two, seven years older than Tristan, but he hadn't lost an ounce of the muscle that made him a formidable captain in the West India Regiment. Neither had he lost the dour expression he wore around everyone except Tristan's children. Five-year-old Dora had Uncle Jon wrapped around her little finger, and Freddie, almost ten, lived in the man's shadow.
Jon had gone to speak with Heinrich Meyer, the owner of the inn that served as the stagecoach stop. Looking at his friend, Tristan felt a familiar dread. "It's bad news, isn't it?"
In private, Jon had stopped calling Tristan "sir" five years ago. The formality signaled trouble. In a habit from his days in uniform, Tristan laced his hands behind his back. "Go on."
"The bridge over the gorge is out."
Tristan blanked his expression, but his belly clenched. Two days ago a storm had ripped through Wheeler Springs. Runoff from the hills would turn the Frazier River into a torrent. The first time he'd ridden over the bridge that spanned the gorge, he'd called it a rickety abomination. Without the bridge, the stagecoach would have to take a longer route from Cheyenne or return to the city to await repairs. Even more worrisome, the coach could have been washed into the gorge. He imagined it lying on its side in the river, the quinine crystals saturated and useless. He thought of the governess and her sister injured or dead.
"We need to find the coach," he said to Jon.
"And quickly." His friend lowered his voice. "The Carver gang is in the area."
The Carvers had advanced from rustling cattle to robbing banks and stagecoaches. They were tough, crass and mean. The thought of the governess and her sister being trapped between Wheeler Springs and Cheyenne and at the gang's mercy made Tristan's neck hairs prickle.
"Get the horses, will you?" He'd have preferred to take a wagon to carry the women and their belongings, but the downed bridge made it necessary to go on horseback.
Jon gave him a quelling look. "You're not well. I'll go with Heinrich and his son."
"No, you're not."
"I am," Tristan said evenly. "I have to be. I'm almost out of quinine and you know it."
"And if you get feverish?" Jon knew how to be honest but respectful. "You'll be more of a burden than a help. Stay here, Tristan."
"Don't argue with me." Tristan hadn't lived his life sitting on the sidelines, and he didn't intend to start now. He'd felt worse and done more. "Not only do I need the quinine, but the new governess and her sister are possibly stranded between here and Cheyenne. They're my responsibility. I'm going and that's final."
"If you say so, sir."
Jon emphasized sir not as a sign of respect but as a way of telling Tristan he was being a fool. If Tristan became ill, Jon would be stuck with him. An obvious solution loomed. He'd simply refuse to fall ill. He glanced at the sky. If they rode hard, they'd reach the river before dusk. "Get supplies. We'll leave immediately."
"I figured you'd be stubborn." Jon looked peeved. "Heinrich sent his son to ready the horses."
Shoulder to shoulder, the men paced to the mercantile. While Jon ordered supplies from the storekeeper's wife, Tristan weighed the facts. The ride to Cheyenne took two full days, three if the weather muddied the roads. A stagecoach station sat between the city and the town. He and Jon could be gone a week, maybe longer.
He had to get word to Bert Howe, the ranch foreman, and Evaline, his housekeeper and the woman tending to Freddie and Dora. Tristan had no worries about the ranch, but he worried greatly about his children. They tended to be nervous about his whereabouts. He had to get word to them that he'd be gone longer than expected. He kept a house in Wheeler Springs, and he knew just the man to deliver the message. Noah Taylor was Tristan's houseman,
Evaline's husband and a former sergeant in the West India Regiment.
"I need to speak with Noah," Tristan said to Jon. "Someone has to let Bert and Evaline know what's happened."
Jon nodded and went back to purchasing supplies. Tristan crossed the street at a rapid pace, glancing up at the sun and wondering again about the sheen of sweat on his brow. He hated being ill. It turned him into the skinny boy who'd grown up on his father's massive estate.
England had stopped being home the day he'd walked out of his father's study. As a third son, he'd known early that he had limited prospects. He just hadn't expected his father to be so blunt about it or so cruel.
You have no place here, Tristan. Join the army. Become a clergyman. I don't care what you do.
That parting had been fifteen years ago. Tristan had never been interested in religion. In boarding school he'd been taught to believe in God as a father. If the Almighty was anything like the duke, Tristan wanted nothing to do with him. He accepted God's power, submitted to His authority, but felt no love for Him. Instead of joining the church, he'd used a portion of a large inheritance from an uncle to purchase a commission in the British Army. To make the break from his father complete, he'd changed the spelling of his name from the aristocratic "Smythe" to the more egalitarian "Smith." Tristan missed England, but he'd never go back to his father's estate. If the malaria claimed him as he feared, he wanted to buried at the ranch he called "The Barracks."
Of course he didn't want to be buried at all. He wanted to see Freddie become a man and Dora a wife and mother. Given a choice, he'd die an old man with a soft belly and a head full of gray hair.
But he didn't have a choice. God controlled his fate the way a commander waged a war. Tristan could only lead the battles in his control, which meant ensuring his children wouldn't be returned to England. It wasn't likely the duke would have an interest in Freddie, and it was certain he'd consider Dora a worthless girl, but Tristan had still made legal arrangements to name Jon as guardian. Silently he gave thanks he hadn't been born first. His oldest brother, Andrew, was heir apparent. He'd married Louisa Hudgins, the woman Tristan himself had hoped to wed. She and Andrew had probably produced a dozen children by now. Tristan's second brother, Oscar, would have married as well, though he'd been legendary for his romantic capering.
Putting his thoughts aside, Tristan strode to his town house. Stepping through the front door, he called to Noah. The man stepped immediately into the foyer. Tall and black, he carried himself with the military bearing he'd earned in the West India Regiment. The WIR was composed of free blacks and led by white officers from England. Most of the officers considered the post undesirable, at best a stepping-stone to another assignment. Tristan had felt otherwise. In his own way, he knew how it felt to be judged inferior. He'd led his men with pride and they'd fought with courage. When Tristan made the decision to settle in Wyoming, he'd invited Noah to work for him.
"Good morning, sir." Noah spoke with the singsong tones of the Caribbean. "Any word on the stagecoach?"
"The bridge is out. Jon and I are going to look for the passengers." He didn't mention the quinine. Needing medicine stung his pride, and Noah already knew the importance of it.
The former sergeant gave him the same look he'd gotten from Jon. "If you'll excuse me, sir. Is that wise? You're not well, and"
"I'm well enough." Tristan hated being questioned, a fact Noah knew better than most men. That he'd dared to bring up Tristan's health showed both respect and caring.
Tristan took the command out of his voice. "I need you to get word to The Barracks. The children will be worried."
"I'll see to it."
"Thank you, Noah." Tristan turned back to the door. "Sir?"
"Mrs. Harvey just delivered a letter." She was the postmistress and very conscientious. "It arrived with last week's stage. She apologized for misplacing it. I put it in the study."
"Who is it from?"
Pennwright was his father's long-time secretary, a man who joked that his name had doomed him to his occupation. When Tristan had been sent to boarding school, Pennwright had written regularly. The correspondence had started at the duke's direction, but it had continued for years out of affection.
"I'll look forward to it when I return," he said to Noah.
Satisfied, Tristan walked to the livery where he found Jon waiting with their mounts and two packhorses. If they found the women, the females would have to ride to Wheeler Springs. As for their possessions, they'd take what the horses could carry. When the bridge was repaired, he'd send a wagon for the rest. He welcomed the thought of having such a problem. The alternativethat they'd find the coach destroyed and the driver and women deadcouldn't be tolerated.
Looking grave, Jon handed him the reins to his favorite horse. Tristan preferred a spirited mount and the stallion he'd named Cairo had speed and intelligence. A sleek Arabian, Cairo was black with a matching mane and tail. The stallion obeyed Tristan, but he did it with an air of superiority.