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Charity Barnham lay facedown and spread-eagle in the tree house, staring through a crack in the floor. Only a minute or so before, she'd been alone with her misery, but the whinny of a horse and a disturbance in the thick brush of the hillside had put an end to that. The rider reined in directly beneath her, swung down from the saddle and spoke soothingly to his black and white pinto gelding.
When the intruder swept off his hat and set it carelessly in a crook of the tree -- one of the footholds Charity had used to climb to her leafy sanctuary -- she saw that his hair was fair, the color of late-summer honey, and long enough to brush the collar of his black canvas coat.
Her heart skimmed over a few beats. She knew every man who worked on the Double B, her father's ranch, and most of the population of Jubilee as well. This man didn't fall into either category, which meant he was a drifter at best, and an outlaw at worst. Either way, she didn't relish the prospect of an encounter.
She hoped he hadn't noticed Taffeta, her black mare, grazing in the little meadow at the top of the hill.
The stranger whistled softly through his teeth as he began unsaddling his horse. His motions were easy and deliberate; it was almost as if he knew she was there, as if he were teasing her by taking his time.
He tossed the saddle aside, slipped the bridle off over the gelding's head, and watched for a moment or two as the animal made its way down the bank to drink thirstily from the creek. Then, to her profound perturbation, the man proceeded to set up camp. Just far enough from the tree for safety, he made a circle of stones, then got busy gathering dry sticks and branches for firewood. From his saddlebags, he took what looked like a length of fishing line.
She tensed, ready to flee the minute he disappeared around the bend in the creek. He didn't look like a greenhorn; surely he knew that the gelding would have scared off any trout that might be passing by; if he wanted to catch anything, he'd have to go downstream to the swimming hole, where the water was wider and calmer.
The pinto, thirst assuaged, moved off into the sweet grass to nibble.
The man, shedding his long coat and thus revealing a Colt .45 riding low on his left hip, strode to the creekbank, hunkered down there to dig a mess of earthworms from the wet ground with the blade of a hunting knife, then tucked the squirming handful into the pocket of his vest.
She let out a long, slow breath. Now he would leave, and she could scramble down from the tree, find Taffeta, and be away before the stranger ever noticed her.
Instead, as if to thwart her, he walked out onto a log, fallen across the creek during the last big windstorm, baited a hook, and cast his line.
She muttered something unladylike and calculated her chances of making it down the trunk and up the hillside without catching his attention. Impossible, she decided. He was only about twenty yards away, and he looked agile, able to close the distance between them as fleetly as a grizzly on all fours. On the other hand, she reflected, he might be a perfectly decent fellow, just a weary traveler, going innocently about his business.
The .45 and the ease with which he wore it belied that idea, though. The pistol, heavy as it was, might have been a part of his anatomy. He could be a lawman, she concluded, her mind racing, but it was just as likely that he was a gunslinger, a claim jumper or a bounty hunter. Such men were not, of course, to be trifled with.
It was about then that he pulled in the first fish.
She sighed in exasperation. At this rate, she would be imprisoned in this dratted tree until the man broke camp and moved on. Taffeta would wander home, riderless, and within minutes the whole ranch would be in an uproar. Her father was bound to turn the countryside upside down and inside out, looking for her, thinking she'd taken a spill riding or even gotten herself kidnapped. He was protective where she was concerned.
The gunslinger -- by now she had decided for sure that this man was trouble -- having put the flailing trout out of its misery with a quick motion of his knife, rebaited the hook and cast the line again. The whole process was repeated four times before he brought his catch back to the edge of the stream, where he left it in the cold water, secured by a twig. The pinto, by this time, had wandered some distance away, but Charity didn't waste a moment hoping the man would go after it; he simply whistled, and the beast raised its head from the grass, flicked its ears, and ambled back toward camp.
Beneath her indignation, her impatience, and an overwhelming sense of caution, she felt a swell of resentment. There was about this man an elegance of motion, an elegance of thought, that said he commanded singular powers. Instinctively, Charity knew that things came to him -- not just horses and trout, but people and even events -- because he summoned them. This insight both intrigued and unnerved her, for she was of an independent nature, strong in her own right, yet here was someone who surely made her match. A worthy adversary.
While the sun moved behind the tips of the trees on the western horizon, the man made his fire, fetched a small, scorched fry pan from his gear, and began cooking the trout. The scent rose through the branches of the tree, teasing her rumbling stomach.
At home, Peony, the family cook, would be setting out supper. Fried chicken, peas from the kitchen garden, mashed potatoes, gravy. Charity emitted a small groan and rested her forehead on her now-folded arms. How long had she been cowering in this tree? One hour? Two?
When she raised her head, the stranger was looking directly at her -- though of course he couldn't have seen her, for it was the height of summer and the tree was thick with leaves. His eyes were blue-green, his grin was audacious, and she felt a sweet, tightening sensation, deep within, just looking straight into his face that way.
"I reckon you ought to come down now," he said. "Because after I eat my supper, I plan to bathe in that stream yonder."
Her eyes widened, and she swallowed. After a few moments spent collecting herself, she got to her feet and shinnied down the tree trunk, nearly stepping on his hat, which still rested in the lowest crook of the branches. Covered with dust and cobwebs, she shook out her divided skirt and brushed busily at her blouse. Her light blond hair was coming loose from the many pins and combs required to restrain it, and she supposed her face was splotched with dirt into the bargain. She was twenty-three years old, well past the age for such foolishness; she'd just been caught lurking in a tree house, and her pride was nettled.
She saw no point in asking how the man had known she was there, though she wondered mightily. She had, until then, fancied herself to be capable of great stealth, like an Indian medicine woman or a hunter. Now she would have to reassess that perception, and that was irritating.
The stranger pulled his supper from the fire and set it aside with an expert motion of one hand, rose from his haunches, and sauntered toward her. He moved, as she had noticed before, with a disturbing, animal-like grace. She was at once drawn to this man and frightened enough to turn on one heel and run like a startled deer. Only the formidable power of her own will kept her from making a scrabbling dash up the hillside.
Stopping a few feet from where she stood, head tilted slightly to one side, hands resting on his hips, he regarded her with a look of insolent amusement. "Well," he said, as though that single word were a complete thought all in itself. "Were you planning to pass the night in that tree?"
She met his gaze squarely, even though her heart was thundering against her ribs. "If necessary," she admitted.
He laughed and the sound found its way into her very soul and echoed there. "You don't need to be afraid of me, Miss Barnham. Or are you somebody's missus by now?" He folded his arms and studied her thoughtfully.
She was fresh out of patience and under every inch of her skin, renegade nerves ran riot. "How do you know my name, sir?" she demanded.
He flashed that wicked grin again. There was an arrogance in him that should have been insufferable but instead made him even more attractive. "I couldn't have forgotten you," he said with a nod toward the chattering stream. "After all, I nearly drowned, hauling you out of that water."
"Luke Shardlow," she breathed, amazed. And that time, she took a step back, resisting the odd power he seemed to have over her.
The aqua-colored eyes narrowed slightly, and some of the easy geniality was gone from his manner. "I see the Shardlow name is still poison around here, just like it always was."
She felt a pang at that, though she couldn't have identified the emotion behind it. The name was accursed, after all -- Luke's father had gone to prison and later hanged for the murder of his wife, and his elder brother, Vance, was wanted for a whole string of vicious robberies. Luke himself had left Jubilee -- nobody seemed to know where he'd gone -- after old Trigg Shardlow's trial, when he was around fifteen.
"I-I'd better be getting on home," she said.
"I'm not about to hurt you," Shardlow said, with a note of mingled sorrow and disgust in his voice. Then, without another word, he turned his back on her and walked away, toward the campfire. The gelding was snuffling at the fish cooling in the frying pan, and Luke growled a command that sent the animal skittering backward.
She didn't move. "I never thanked you properly for saving my life," she said clearly.
Luke turned, looked at her over one shoulder. The grin, though tenuous, was back, and he inclined his head slightly in acknowledgment of her words.
"Did you get a beating?" she asked, wondering even as she spoke why she was lingering. It was like passing a finger back and forth through a candle flame, daring the fire to burn her, talking to a Shardlow. Suppose he was an outlaw, like his brother?
"Pardon?" he picked up the frying pan, assessed the contents for horse damage, and apparently found nothing amiss.
"That day when I fell into the stream. You said your pa was going to whip you for ruining your clothes."
"You didn't fall," Luke pointed out, the affable defender of truth. "You waded in, after a frog prince or something." He paused and shook his head at the memory, then answered her question. "No, I came out of that one with my hide intact. The old man was off someplace, I guess. Otherwise occupied." He glanced toward the brilliant, fading sun. "You'd better get on home, Miss Barnham. They'll be looking for you."
She nodded, turned and started up the hillside.
Sitting cross-legged on the ground, a few feet from the fire, Luke ate his supper and watched the dying sunlight flicker on the surface of the stream. Although he had his demons, like everybody else, he was used to solitude and at peace with his past, turbulent though it was. His reflective mood had, in fact, nothing to do with the frustration and shame of being old Trigg's younger son; no, he was thinking about Charity. How much she had -- and hadn't -- changed in fifteen years. The spark in her slate gray eyes that said she was on comfortable terms with her own spirit and the world around her. The proud, graceful way she carried herself. She was tall and, though slender, womanly in a way it would behoove him not to consider too carefully or too long. Feminine she most definitely was, but there was nothing fragile about her.
He chuckled, remembering her bristly discomfiture at being stuck up in the branches of that venerable oak. He'd noticed her right away, of course, for he'd taken refuge in the same place many times, as a boy. And in the interim, hard experience had taught him not to make camp underneath any tree without making damn sure he knew what was up there. Once, he'd been jumped by a cougar, and lost a good horse and a strip of hide off his back in the ensuing dispute. On another occasion, a man he was tracking had laid for him in the same way, and he'd almost lost that scrap, too. He had scars to show for the lesson.
His meal finished, he ferreted a bar of soap wrapped in cheesecloth from his saddlebags and headed toward the creek. Reaching the water's edge, he unstrapped his gunbelt and laid it carefully on a flat rock he'd long since chosen for the purpose. Then he kicked off both boots and tested his fast-moving bath with a toe.
He drew in a harsh breath at the chill, but he'd been on the trail for the better part of a week, and figured he probably smelled like his horse, which left him with little choice in the matter. The home place, though private, was nothing but a pile of rotted timber and cobwebs now -- he'd already been by there. He could have gone to Jubilee's one rooming house for a decent bed and a hot bath, he supposed, but the return of Luke Shardlow, after all these years, was bound to draw attention. He wanted time to get his bearings before he made his presence known.
So he got out of his clothes and flung himself, blue-lipped and cursing, into the biting cold of the water. It was, given some of the thoughts he'd been having about Charity Barnham, a good decision, however painful. After a lot of splashing and sputtering, and another fit of swearing, he came out again, clean. Or at least reasonably so.
He kept a spare set of clothes rolled up in his blanket, and hastened into them, dancing there in the sweet summer grass like a one-legged man on a bed of hot coals. It was a good quarter of an hour before his teeth quit chattering, but the bath had left him feeling a certain exhilaration. If he'd been anywhere else, he'd have been ready for a night of drinking, card-playing and woman-chasing, but this was Jubilee. Here, more than any other place on earth, he needed to keep his wits sharp -- to watch and listen and, at the same time, give the impression that he was in town purely to raise hell.
That last part shouldn't be so difficult, given the family reputation.
After donning the gunbelt again, he whistled a summons to the pinto, called Shiloh, and staked the animal on a lead long enough to reach the stream bank. He started to make his bed in the grass, as twilight fell, then changed his mind and climbed up into the tree.
The platform of old weathered boards was much as he remembered it, except that Charity's scent lingered there, with the green smell of the leaves and the odors of pitch and dust. She'd apparently swept with a branch or something, for the place had a tidy look about it. In her haste to depart, she'd left behind the stub of a candle and a battered book. Grimm's Fairy Tales.
He smiled, thumbing the pages. Miss Barnham, it would seem, was still looking for a magic frog. Fancy that, after all these years.
He spread the bed roll carefully, stretched out with a sigh, and slept.
Charity had been right in thinking she would be late for supper -- the dishes had been cleared and her father and Mrs. Quincy -- Blaise -- the attractive widow he planned to marry come the fall, were lingering over coffee. Aaron, Blaise's ten-year-old son, had already been sent to bed.
Thankfully, neither Jonah nor his intended wife remarked upon Charity's late arrival and hasty slapdash ablutions; they were too caught up in each other for that. Jonah stood and drew back his daughter's chair, and Mrs. Quincy favored her with a bright smile. Peony, who had already made her opinions of folks who couldn't be bothered to get themselves home to supper known in the kitchen, when Charity arrived, carried in a plate of lukewarm food, still grumbling, and plunked it down in front of her.
Never graced with a delicate appetite, Charity began to eat almost before the aging cook had drawn her hand back. "Who owns the old Shardlow place?" she asked.
Jonah's expression turned solemn. He was a powerfully built man, in his mid-fifties, with brown eyes and plenty of gray in his dark, still-thick hair, and Blaise was envied, far and wide, for his devoted affections. "Still in the family, I suppose," he answered. "If there's any family left, that is."
"Oh, there is," she replied, between bites. "Luke is back -- I saw him tonight."
Jonah had been raising a china coffee cup to his mouth, but at his daughter's words he set it down again -- slowly and with a care vastly out of proportion to the demands of the task. "Where?" he asked simply.
"By the creek." She reached for a biscuit, sighed because it was cold, and buttered it lavishly. "He's camped there."
Blaise, pleasantly solid, reasonably intelligent, despite her sometimes flighty ways, and possessed of a head of gleaming chestnut hair, always neatly and rather elegantly coiled at her nape, paled slightly. "Charity, you didn't -- ?"
"Speak to him?" she finished cheerfully. "Well, I didn't intend to, but as it happened, I wasn't given an alternative. I was up in that oak tree, and he rode in and started making camp beneath it. I couldn't very well stay there all night."
Though of course she might have done exactly that, if Luke hadn't guessed that she was there. She saw no need to go into excessive detail, however.
Jonah leaned slightly forward in his chair. He could look as stern as a hellfire and brimstone preacher when he wanted to, though in truth he was the kindest of men. His deep voice rumbled, low and charged with contained energy, like thunder gathering force on a not-so-distant horizon. "From what I know of that boy, you'd have been better off to wait him out."
"What were you doing in a tree?" inquired Mrs. Quincy. Dear Blaise, she was generous and sweet, but so besotted with Jonah that she tended to miss things, and chime in when the conversation had already moved on without her.
Jonah patted Blaise's elegant hand, but his gaze had not left Charity's face since she spoke. "What happened?" he demanded. "What did he say? Did he lay a hand to you?"
She pushed her plate away. "Nothing happened," she answered evenly. She wasn't surprised by her father's reaction -- the Shardlows were notorious for miles around, after all -- but it disturbed her all the same. If Jonah, a fair-minded man, would ask such questions, then Luke had been right in calling the Shardlow name poison. It seemed unjust, to judge a man purely by the deeds of his family.
She wondered what her father would say if he knew Luke had once saved her life.
Jonah's jaw tightened visibly, then relaxed again. "I'd better ride over there and find out what he wants," he said, with grim resolve.
Blaise made a small, fussy sound and began to fan herself, even though the dining room was almost cool enough for the fireplace to be lit. "Good heavens, Jonah, you mustn't. He may be an outlaw. Suppose he shoots you?" Her first husband, Malcolm, had been killed in a hunting accident and she was understandably sensitive where guns were concerned.
"If he was of a mind to shoot anybody," Jonah pointed out reasonably, patting Blaise again and keeping Charity pinned to her chair with his level gaze, "I reckon we'd know it by now. I'll talk to him in the morning."
"I'd best go look in on Aaron," Blaise said, rising distractedly.
Jonah stood as well, and did not sit down again until she had left the room. "What," he asked, echoing the widow Quincy's earlier inquiry, "were you doing in a tree?"
She sighed. There was no point in lying to Jonah, he'd learned to read her face a long time before. "I needed to get away," she said softly. "To hide, if you will. I just couldn't deal with -- with things."
"Things?" Jonah raised his thick eyebrows quizzically.
"I wanted to think," she said, faltering. To weep in despair, though she wasn't about to admit that. To make frantic, impossible plans to escape before Raoul returned from Texas with several hundred head of longhorns to add to the large herd already ranging from one end of his grandfather's ranch to the other. They made a sort of reverse dowry, those cattle.
She lifted her chin a notch. She would stay, for the Double B was in her blood, an extension of her very soul, but she did not want to marry the man her father had chosen for her, and she'd made no secret of the fact. Jonah, fearing that she would someday find herself alone, with neither husband nor brother, uncle nor father to look after her, had sworn to leave his holdings in the care of a flock of city lawyers if she refused Raoul's suit. She didn't care about the money, of which there was a great deal, but without the ranch sprawling around her in all directions, she wasn't sure she would even be able to breathe. And she didn't trust the lawyers to hold the land.
"I do not love Raoul," she said carefully.
Jonah closed his eyes for a moment. "Your mother and I were married because our fathers were partners, back east." His tone was at once gentle and intractable. "Together, we built this ranch. We had you. And two people never loved each other more than Rianna and I did." He paused, struggling with old emotions. "Raoul is a good man, Charity. Surely you don't hold his -- well, the circumstances of his birth -- against him?"
Raoul Montego was thirty years old, with a mane of dark hair and eyes that were nearly black. His father, Jubilee's version of the Prodigal Son, had never married his beautiful Mexican mother, Maria, and in the end, had abandoned them both. Raoul's grandfather, owner of the second largest ranch in that part of the territory, had learned of their existence by accident, and sent for them when Raoul was twelve. The young woman who had carried him in her body had soon perished of a fever, yearning for her homeland and calling out for the man who had betrayed her. Raoul, bitter and proud, had remained, but he had taken Maria's surname, not his grandfather's.
"You know," Jonah persisted quietly, "how much Raoul cares for you?"
The words had the power to wound. This time, it was Charity who closed her eyes. "He deserves a woman who loves him in return. Please, Papa. For the last time -- don't make me do this. Let me wait for the right man."
Jonah blinked away a sudden sheen of tears. "Raoul," he said at length, his voice hoarse, "is the right man. This time next year -- maybe much sooner -- you will see that." He paused again, then went on. "Raoul will be back any day. In a month, he will be your husband and a half interest in the Double B will pass to you. I'm asking you, as your father, to trust in my judgment and stop tormenting yourself this way."
She clamped her teeth down hard over her lower lip. Then she spoke just once more. "If I were a man, instead of a woman," she said, "I would not have to pay for my birthright with my body. It would be mine as a matter of course!"
Had Jonah Barnham been of another sort, she felt sure he would have slapped her. As it was, he simply sank back into his chair with a broken sigh, and she bolted from her chair, headed for the large archway that opened onto the entry hall. By the time she reached her upstairs bedroom, with its expansive view of the land and the mountains beyond, she was nearly sick with frustration.
For a time, she paced, too agitated to be still. Then, when some of her emotion was spent, she sat down on the edge of her bed and kicked off her slippers. Her soiled riding boots had been left, at Peony's insistence, on the small porch off the kitchen.
She went to her desk, a delicate thing that had traveled, despite its fragility, across the rolling seas from England and then over the rails and trails to Jubilee and finally to the ranch, where her father had presented it to her on the occasion of her sixteenth birthday. She cherished the piece, not only for its beauty and its sentimental value, but because to her it symbolized the singular strength of womanhood. Though finely made, and certainly beautiful, it was also useful, and formed to endure.
From a drawer, she took a pen and her leather-bound journal. Ink at the ready, she turned to a fresh page and began to write -- not about Raoul, or her seemingly insurmountable differences with Jonah, the patron saint of all mules and blast-proof tree stumps, but about Luke Shardlow.
The dream sent him hurtling upward into wakefulness, and he had already drawn and cocked the .45 before the stars came into focus, silver speckles of light among the dark leaves of the oak. A sweat colder than creek water covered him like a liquid skin, and his heart thundered so loudly that, for a few breathless moments, he could not come to grips with the fact that he was twenty-six, not fourteen. That the screech he'd heard in his sleep was not his mother's, but merely the cry of an owl.
"Shit," he muttered, and sat up to ease the pistol back into its holster. Here he'd gone to all the trouble to freeze his ass off in the creek, and he'd sweated through the only clean clothes he had left. For the hundredth time, or maybe the thousandth, he told himself he was going to have to stop living like this. Get himself a wife, and that ranch he'd been saving for ever since he'd earned his first nickel mucking out stalls in a livery stable.
He looked down at the fire and saw that it was only embers, but he felt chilled, as though it were January instead of mid-August, so he made his way out of the tree and built the fire up again. Then, using the small pot he carried in his bed roll and some of his precious and rapidly dwindling store of coffee, he brewed himself some midnight comfort.
Nickering, Shiloh ambled over and nuzzled him hard between the shoulder blades, nearly sending him sprawling into the small, crackling blaze. He laughed. "Get away, horse," he said. But he was grateful even for the presence of the pinto, because the shadow of the nightmare was still with him.
He stared into the fire, making no effort to push the memories from his head; it never worked. The best thing was just to face up to them, to endure. He'd stayed sane, since that final, horrible night, not by turning away from pain, but by enduring it, embracing it, outlasting it -- in much the same way he would have broken a horse to ride. He just stayed with it until it was done.
By his second mug of coffee, he was wide awake and his clothes were beginning to dry, though he still felt clammy. The pictures and sounds unrolled before his mind's eye, as vivid as if it were all happening again.
Trigg had come home drunk that night -- nothing unusual in that. He'd climbed up into the loft -- how much easier it would have been for everyone if he'd fallen from that ladder and broken his neck -- got a sleeping Luke by the hair, and hurled him some seven feet to the cabin floor.
Bellowing, he'd come after him, the old man had, stinking of moonshine and stale sweat and plain hate. "Bastard!" he'd screamed, kicking at Luke. "You ain't mine, you little bastard. Your whorin' mother made you in some alley."
Luke had started to his feet -- he hadn't been scared, just madder than hell -- and Trigg had laid him out flat with one massive fist.
He'd heard her sobbing then, pleading, trying to get between her husband and her son. Vance, Luke's half-brother, older by some five years, had been away that night. He'd missed the whole ugly incident.
Luke had gotten up, somehow, and Trigg had come at him again, shoving his wife out of the way with brutal force. She'd fallen, struck her head against the fender of the stove, and lay unmoving on the dirt floor. Trigg, suddenly docile, had crouched beside her, prodding, pleading. She hadn't moved.
Trigg had shaken her, harder and harder, but that time Luke didn't try to intercede. He knew, had known from the moment his father laid hands to her and sent her hurtling away from him, that this was the time, the night he had dreaded for as long as he could remember. She was gone.
He hadn't wept -- in a way, he'd been happy for her. Life had always been too difficult and illusive for Marietta Shardlow. Too painful.
Trigg, on the other hand, had bellowed with grief, gathered her up into his arms, carried her small, inert frame out through the gaping cabin door, into the first faltering light of a new day. Luke had tried to rise, but passed out cold before he ever gained his feet.
When he'd awakened, Vance was back from his travels, sitting at the table, watching him.
Luke lay curled into a ball, hurting everywhere, seething with silent, helpless, murderous rage. "He killed her," he said, after a long, long time. "He killed her."
Vance got up, crossed the narrow space between them, and leaned down to speak slowly and clearly. "You just imagined that, boy. Your ma, she was a delicate type. She just couldn't take this hard life we got here. Climbed up into the hayloft and flung herself down, that's what she did. You hear me, boy? That's what she did."
Luke had nodded. "I hear you," he said. But when Marshal Asa McCallum arrived a few hours later, to put the questions the law required, he spoke up. "She never jumped from nothin'," he'd said. "My pa murdered her." And then he'd recounted the whole incident, moment by moment.
McCallum had believed him, put a sobbing, half-drunk Trigg under arrest, and hauled him off to town, where he'd locked him up in the cellar of the general store, that being the closest thing the town had to a jail back in those days.
Trigg had come to Marietta's funeral, a few days later, handcuffed and under guard, blubbering and carrying on something fierce. He didn't know how he'd go on without his dear, precious wife, he'd wailed.
It rained that day, Luke recalled, rained long and hard. Turned the churchyard to mud and washed away any tears the other mourners might have shed.
Now, he held Trigg's features clearly in mind. You son-of-a-bitch, he told the image silently, you better hope I don't go to hell when I die, because if I do, the devil's only going to be half your problem.
Copyright © 2000 by Linda Lael Miller