Until Tomorrow

Until Tomorrow

Jill Marie Landis

August 2017 $16.95
ISBN: 978-1-61194-778-6

Can two yearning hearts learn to beat as one?



 
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Dake Reed is a jaded soldier traveling home from the Civil War when he stumbles across an ambushed wagon—and a helpless newborn in need of a mother.

The last thing Cara James expects to see is a lean and handsome stranger riding across the lonely prairie with a baby in his arms. She’s nothing but a backwoods girl with sky-blue eyes living on a Kansas homestead, making rag dolls . . . and dreaming of a better life.

Desperate to find someone to share his burden, Dake uses his sweet-as-molasses drawl to coax Cara into leaving everything behind and joining him on his journey. As Dake and Cara travel to a place they both hope to call home, Cara dares to dream it’s not just the child who needs her tender touch . . . but the man.

Jill Marie Landis is the New York Times bestselling author and seven-time Romance Writers of American Finalist for the RITA Award. Long known for her historical romances, Jill Marie Landis also now writes The Tiki Goddess Mysteries (set on the island of Kauai, Hawaii, where she lives with her husband, actor Steve Landis).

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Excerpt

Prologue

"Oh God! That one might read the book of fate!”

Shakespeare,King Henry IV, Pt II, III

September 1867

THE LONE HORSEMAN rode beside the Neosho River, following twists and turns through the slough grass that bordered its banks. To his mind it seemed he had been riding across Kansas for weeks. In reality, it had only been days. As he dogged the river’s edge he crossed flat, low plains and broad valleys, thankful for occasional stands of red cedar, lin­den, oak, and black walnut that offered shelter on nights when he was far from a settlement. Pressing southeastward, he left behind Fort Dodge and the open prairie, a windy, boundless universe of yellowed grasses he hoped never to lay eyes on again.

His clothes were new. Unfamiliar. Foreign after seven years in Union blue. Headed for Alabama, Dake Reed certainly had no use for his old uniform. The sutler at the fort had assured him Levi Strauss denims would be far more suitable to the trail.

Not only was he outfitted in the new pants and shirt, but he was the proud owner of a fringed buckskin jacket. He had admired the but­ter-colored piece enough to buy it for an outrageous amount from a Kiowa scout. The jacket was finely tanned to a velvet softness and fit the width of his shoulders as if it had been tailored expressly for him.

In a matter of days Dake had grown curiously attached to the buck­skin. Perhaps, he decided, because it not only offered more comfort than the heavy navy wool he had worn so long, but because it was neither blue nor gray, colors associated with the war. Slipping on the buckskin had been like fitting himself with a new identity symbolic of his last stint of service on the frontier. The war and the military were finally behind him. Now he journeyed along a trail toward not only his past, but an uncertain future.

He shifted in the saddle and adjusted the brim of his black hat, pulling it low over his brow, and focused on a curious dark spot on a rise far ahead of him. From this distance he could not make out exactly what that object might be. Dake spurred his horse and rode on, knowing sooner rather than later he would be passing by it.

As far as he could tell, he was nearing Oswego, a settlement on the west bank of the Neosho, little more than a trading post with a well and a ferry that operated on the river—but since the war a traveler couldn’t be too sure about finding anything where it used to be. The closer he came to the Missouri border, the harder it was to stem his growing anxiety. When he had left home, he thought he would never return to Alabama. Indeed, both the war and his military career had kept him away for years. Then, a month ago, about the time he was faced with the decision whether or not to reenlist, a worn envelope, obviously forwarded and reforwarded through military channels, had finally reached him, calling him home.

The dark spot on the horizon had become a rectangular shape, some­thing boxlike and alien on the tufted hilltop covered with side oats grama grass. Out of habit, Dake nearly held up his hand to summon a scout forward until, with a solitary pang, he remembered he was entirely alone. After three days on the trail he still hadn’t become fully accustomed to keeping company with only himself. It was a curious state after being in command of ranks of men for so long. He shoved his hat down tight and kicked his horse, a spirited bay named General Sherman, into a canter.

Within a few hundred yards he realized the rectangle was actually the un­derbelly of a wagon tipped on its side. He was nearly upon it when he recognized household goods strewn on the ground and realized the dark shapes lying not far away were bodies that had been left like broken dolls on the bloodstained dry grass.

His blood ran cold. Dake palmed the handle of his gun. It slipped out of the holster, a whisper of metal against leather.

There was no sign of a team of horses. Whoever attacked the travelers had either stolen the animals or driven them away. As Dake dismounted, his gaze flicked over the body of a man, a handsome, light-skinned Negro lying deathly still, facedown in the grass, his neck twisted at a ghastly angle. Dake had seen enough of the carnage of war to know the man was beyond help. Blood stained the back of the traveler’s coat, the homespun wool was punctured with bullet holes.

Spying a woman’s crumpled form, he hurried to her side. He knelt be­side the Negress who appeared a few years older than the man. One look at the blood that oozed from the bodice of her gown and he knew that anything he did to help would be of little use to her now. Gently, so as not to cause her any further pain, he touched her shoulder. Her skin was al­ready cool. He lifted her wrist as he pressed his other hand against the artery in her neck. Nothing.

Dake leaned back against his heels, sick at heart. The end of the war had not stopped the hatred and senseless bloodshed, merely driven it under­ground. Briefly, as he stared down at the woman’s lifeless form, he wondered where these prairie pilgrims had been headed, what dreams had spurred them on? What hopes had sustained them through slavery and then newfound freedom—freedom that carried them to this brutal end on the Kansas plain?

He stiffened when a low, pitiful moan suddenly issued from some­where near the upturned wagon bed. The sound sent a chill along his spine.Dake stood, shoved his hat back on his forehead, and walked around the wreckage. There, on the ground amid a ripped bag of flour, scattered rice, and other discarded goods, lay another woman, this one fair and blond. Her face was covered in dust and perspiration. She gasped in pain as her hands twisted in the folds of her bloody skirts.

He knelt beside her, brushed the tangled hair back off of her face, and whispered, "Ma’am?”

"Thank God,” she murmured with her eyes closed. "My baby. Save my baby.”

Dake’s glance shot around the area of the shattered wagon searching for any sign of a child but there was none. There was nothing beyond the wreckage save acres of open land and a backdrop of wide blue sky. He tried to think of a way to forestall telling her that her child was missing.

"Ma’am—”

She grabbed his wrist. The blood on her hands smeared his flesh like a brand. "No time. Hurry. The baby.”

He stared down at once elegant silk skirts. They were not only worn and faded, but blood-soaked. He watched the large, dark stain spread, a blossoming flower of death.

Baby.

He glanced once at the woman’s face, at the golden lashes resting upon sunburned cheeks. The burn garishly highlighted the sickly pallor beneath it. She licked her cracked lips with her tongue and moaned again, clutching at her skirt.

Dake wasted no time. He bolstered his gun and jerked her skirt up to her waist. Swallowing, he forced himself not to recoil at the sight between the woman’s legs. An infant lay in its afterbirth, soaked in the lifeblood of its mother.

"My baby—” She struggled to raise her head but fell back. Her eyes were open. They were a deep, rich brown.

Dake reached out and lifted the fully formed boy from the ground. Ra­ther than leave the infant in the dirt, Dake laid the still babe on his mother’s stomach. The woman raised her hand to touch it, felt the slick skin coated by blood and mucus, and let her hand fall away. Born and raised on a plantation where life, death, and procreation were the sidelines of slavery, Dake knew enough about birthings to know what to do.

Ripping a length of narrow lace trim off of the woman’s petticoat, he quickly twisted it around the umbilical cord and tied it off. The knife in his boot slid out without protest and sliced through the fleshy cord. He put the blade on the ground, wiped the mucus out of the baby’s mouth with his finger, and hefted the boy up by his ankles, gave him a sharp slap on the bottom. Dake smiled when rewarded with a lusty, angry cry.

"Thank you... ” The woman’s voice was so weak now he could barely make out her words.

In a glance he saw that she was still hemorrhaging. A sinking, gut-searing instinct told him there was nothing more he could do for her. As the baby continued to howl, he searched the strewn contents of the wagon for a blanket and found a pile of bedding. Quickly, he ripped a sheet into a workable, ragged square and twisted it around the baby. Nestling the little boy in the crook of his arm, Dake returned to the mother’s side and knelt down again. He knew he didn’t have long to find out all he needed to know.

"Ma’am, what’s your name?”

She licked her dry lips. "Anna. Anna Clayton.”

Even though he was forced to bend close to hear the words she whis­pered against his ear, he recognized a soft, cultured Southern accent, much like his own. "Miss Clayton, can you tell me where you’re from? Where’s your family?”

"Gadsden.”

Alabama. And not all that far from his home in Decatur. "Your hus­band?” Dake pressed.

She drew a deep, shuddering breath. Her fingertips scratched help­lessly at the dry earth beneath them. "Dead.”

Dake had expected as much. When he’d seen no sign of her husband he quickly determined the young widow, accompanied by her two serv­ants, had been intent on homesteading in Kansas. By the looks of her, there wasn’t much time left.

"Who did this?” He wanted to know. The other bodies had grown cold by the time he had reached them. No telling how long the woman had labored over the birth. The perpetrators of the crime had time to be long gone.

There was no answer except a long, shuddering sigh before the once lovely girl, barely old enough to be a mother, slipped into death. The child in his arms squirmed and tried to nuzzle closer to Dake’s chest. He held the boy out and away from his buckskin jacket.

Damn. What now?

Dake sat back on his heels and tipped his hat back on his head as he sur­veyed the scene. The sun rode low in the sky. He wished he could dig graves and say a few words to bid them peace and farewell, but it was late afternoon and there was no time to bury the bodies before dusk.

He didn’t intend to camp out in the open either, not with three bodies bound to draw the timber wolves out of the trees. Gently, Dake laid the baby on a bed quilt he found in the rubble and walked back to its mother. He pulled the woman’s lifeless body next to the edge of the sideboard of the wagon and crossed her arms over her breasts.

The glint of sunlight on gold caught his eye and he carefully examined a rolled gold bracelet on her wrist. Distinctly engraved with a unique star and crescent design, he knew the piece would be easily identifiable to her relations, so he pressed the clasp and slid the bracelet from Anna Clayton’s wrist. He pocketed the piece of jewelry and then went to retrieve the other two bodies.

When he had the servants laid out beside their mistress, he reached up, grabbed the sideboard, and rocked the heavy wagon until it began to tip over. He jumped back, felt the ground shudder slightly as the heavy wood hit the ground, creating a vault that would protect the dead from wolves and other carnivores—at least for a time. He quickly dismissed the thought of the grisly discovery the next traveler who happened along the river would find beneath the overturned wagon.

Dake found the infant asleep amid the bedding. He picked him up again, realizing the little boy weighed less than a minute. He was dwarfed by Dake’s big hands. The babe looked much like any other newborn with its damp, slightly curled tuft of tawny hair, nondescript nose, and round face. The infant looked more like a shrunken, wizened-up old man than a newborn. Dake grabbed up the faded quilt and walked over to General Sherman, who waited, ground-tethered, nearby. Dake debated for a mo­ment over how to carry the baby, then decided buttoning it inside his buckskin jacket would free his hands. He tore off a length of sheet and tightly swaddled the baby with another layer of cloth to protect the inside of his jacket.

Once again, he lay the babe on the quilt on the ground while he unbut­toned his coat. Next, he bundled the child inside and was able to close his jacket most of the way, although the buttons were strained. He deftly rolled the quilt and tied it on the back of his saddle atop his own bedroll.

With one hand on the precious cargo inside his jacket, Dake mounted up. He pulled the brim of his hat down, readjusted the reins, and turned his horse southeastward again. With a glance at the late-afternoon sun, he tried to assure himself he was bound to reach a homesteader’s cabin, if not a settlement, before dark. Somewhere, he reckoned, somewhere in this expanse of land and sky, he’d find someone willing to help him care for Anna Clayton’s orphaned child on the way to Alabama, even if he had to pay them.

The infant inside his jacket protested the motion of the horse with nothing more than a small, catlike mew, before he snuggled down next to Dake’s heart.


 

Chapter One

God always gives a spider enough thread to spin a web...

Nanny James

NOTHING BUT A series of seldom-used wagon tracks marred the high prairie swell that surrounded the James homestead. With summer’s crop of com harvested long since, dried-brown and broken stalks stood in skeletal relief against the setting sun. Beyond the cornfields, a stand of timber hugged a low ridge, while fronting the acre of forest stood a lone black walnut tree. Beneath the deepening shade of its ancient twisted limbs, the observant traveler could discern four wooden crosses. Three weathered, one new.

Kansas, this land so haunting in its very loveliness, gave in abundance; a garden of wildflowers every summer, larkspur, sweet William, prairie roses, and Japan lilies, beds of wild onion; moonlight bright enough to plow by; coal for the gathering. But not all the land gave was good. Torna­does swept out of the sky without notice, wind and rain often drove them­selves through wooden walls or sent swollen rivers and streams over their banks.

Set into the hillside beyond the walnut tree, a weathered, shin­gle-roofed dugout was nearly invisible. To the naked eye the place looked deserted. Inside, Cara Calvinia James hummed softly to herself as she finished decorating the pine tabletop with the only matching place setting she owned. Stepping back to admire her handiwork, she studied it a mo­ment before she adjusted the dried larkspur in the cream pitcher and pulled it closer to her dinner plate.

"There. Pretty festive, if I have to say so myself,” she mumbled aloud.

She picked up the thread of a song she’d been humming and sang a cho­rus of "Beautiful Dreamer.” With a quick spin that sent her mended, calf-length skirt swirling, she lifted her arms in imitation of a waltz with an invisible partner. Her toes brushed the hard-packed dirt floor as Cara twirled barefoot around the table that stood in the center of the one-room dugout.

She danced across the room to the doorway where a red Indian blan­ket, its edges frayed where it caught on the rough wooden door frame, swayed in the breeze. Pushing it aside and ducking beneath, Cara stepped out to see how her birthday supper was coming along. She pushed her wild mane of curly blond hair out of her face and glanced westward. With her hand shading her eyes, she stared into the red ball low on the horizon and admired the fiery glow of sunset that stained the sky with brilliant streaks of pink and orange.

In the center of the clearing before the house, a spot she used as her outdoor kitchen in summer, a fire burned low under a blackened pot that held a range hen she’d set to boil. No hoecakes for her tonight. This was her birthday, and like her Nanny James often said, "Happiness is a habit you have to cultivate.”

Just because there wasn’t anyone around to wish her salutations, Cara reckoned if she couldn’t hold her own festivities for her twentieth birth­day, then the world had indeed become a sorry place.

Cara reached down for the long-handled spoon resting on a crate not far from the fire. She shoved it into the pot to lift the hen and test its done­ness. It was almost time to add the carrots and onions.

The vegetables were bagged in gunnysacks, stacked against one wall of the house with the rest of her meager possessions. The only things she’d yet to pack for her journey out of Kansas was the collection of handmade dolls now lining a plank shelf set on wooden pins that bordered the room. Nearly twenty dolls in all. She’d made them herself out of scraps of mate­rial—bits and pieces of clothing so worn they could no longer be used. Some had faces of nuts and dried apples; others were made entirely of rags. One of her favorites had a head and body formed of a bedpost.

Before she started making them, she’d never seen dolls with calico faces, but somehow, after she had sewn on their button eyes and the touches of ragged lace and shredded rag hair, she thought them endearing, if not downright beautiful.

Cara pulled four carrots out of a sack and then reached deep into an­other for a fat onion. Intent on using the dented dishpan sitting outside on a rough wooden bench, she thanked the Lord once more for the abun­dantharvest of vegetables this summer. It was a far piece to California, that much she knew. She was assured she wouldn’t starve before she found a place to settle down and look for work.

No matter what the future might bring, Cara vowed as she picked through the vegetables that she wasn’t about to let herself be forever bound to this lonely scrap of land five miles from her nearest neighbor. This place had been part of her father’s dream, not her own.

Everett James had always been a dreamer. But by the time Cara was ten she had stopped believing that her father’s dreams would ever come true. Their emigration to Kansas, his "big opportunity” sponsored by an Eastern abolitionists’ group, was supposed to have been their eventual ticket to California, but they never got there. The dream ended when he was murdered by pro-slavery advocates who had infiltrated Kansas from Missouri. Though she was still a child at the time, she was forced to do her share in the fields alongside her granny, her mother, and her older brother, Willie. Not only had they nearly starved to death that first winter, but they lived in constant fear of roaming bands of border ruffians intent on driving out settlers who would vote to make Kansas a free state.

One by one, the others were taken by the land. Her mother died of ty­phoid three years ago. Nanny James followed shortly after. And Willie, her serious, ever responsible big brother, had passed on a month ago when he fell from a borrowed hay rake and broke his neck.

She missed them all—her father and his dreams, her mother’s easy smile, Nanny’s intuitive wisdom. But she took Willie’s loss the hardest, for he had been her constant companion and closest friend.

Feeling isolated and alone, Cara stared off across the land and blinked back tears. Her nearest neighbors lived a half day’s walk away. A boister­ous family of ten, the Dicksons had come to bury Willie after she walked over to ask them for their help.

Hooter Dickson, the second eldest son, had up and asked her to marry him on the spot. Cara took one look at the near toothless, thin-haired Hooter and refused. Without feeling the slightest bit offended, Hooter promised to help her put out her com in the spring, but she felt no compulsion to stay to endure the loneliness and fight the elements alone. Instead of wallowing in her sadness, she had decided to take destiny by the reins and that was exactly what she intended to do come morning.

Vegetables in hand, she sat down on the bench and took up her paring knife, set to peel the carrots before she dunked them into the somewhat clean water in the dishpan. Intent on her work, she heard the sound of hoofbeats before she saw the lone rider materializing out of the west, headed straight toward her door.

Set against the low rise, the dugout was not easy to find even when a body was looking for it, but the smoke from her outdoor kitchen must have given it away.

Excitement, curiosity, and caution bubbled up like an emotional stew in­side her as Cara set the carrot and knife aside, shoved her blond hair back off her face again, and shielded her eyes with her arm. It was a man all right. A big one from the looks of him outlined against the setting sun.

She darted inside, picked up the loaded pistol she kept on a stool be­side the door, and then stepped back out. Since the war there had been so many displaced drifters on the land that Willie had always warned her that it was wise to take care before inviting a stranger in. Standing with the gun concealed in the folds of her faded yellow skirt, she was ready to face the man on the huge bay.

He rode straight up to the dugout. Cara watched him dismount and wondered if he’d been wounded for he moved as gingerly as a man twice his age and kept one hand on his potbellied stomach. Beneath the brim of his low-crowned black hat, his sun-darkened features were ruggedly hand­some.His nose was unbroken. Deep creases bracketed his lips. His finely tapered brows were straight, not arched.

She met his eyes and in one glance Cara knew she had never seen eyes of such a deep, clear green. They appeared fathomless, yet there were shadows lurking in their depths. There was no comparing him to anyone she’d ever met. Hooter Dickson didn’t hold a candle to him. This stranger was incredibly handsome.

She forced herself to break the hold of his steady speculative gaze. She looked down at his dusty boots, flicked her sight up to the holster strapped to his thigh.

Her hand tightened on the pistol. Cara stepped forward. "How do, mis­ter?”

Dake Reed shifted the bundle hidden by his jacket, unwilling to wake the infant sheltered against his shirtfront because it had been mewling pitifully off and on since he had ridden away from the wagon. He glanced around the hard-packed dirt yard before the dugout. A broken wheel, bits of wire, a bottomless cane chair with a missing leg, assorted piles of scrap wood, bones, antlers, weeds, and pieces of wooden crates littered the ground.His gaze paused on the rag that covered the doorway. It probably hid any number of odd inhabitants if the look of the wild-haired blonde standing barefoot in the dirt was any indication.

He studied the blonde from beneath the brim of his hat. Of medium height, she was so slight that her faded yellow dress hung on her shoulders; the bust and waistline came nowhere near embracing her slender frame, but he could see the rise of her firm breasts along the dipping neckline. Since the dress was two sizes too wide and a foot too short, her lower calves and ankles showed beneath her skirt. Her feet were streaked brown with the dry prairie earth. She stared up at him with sky-blue eyes that barely shone through a tangle of curls that kept falling forward into her face. As he watched, she shoved her hair back for the third time. Dake was tempted to ask if she’d ever thought of tying it back and found himself dismissing a sudden vision of having the pleasure of brushing it for her.

She had a wide mouth. Next to her eyes, her full, pouting lips would tempt a saint to taste them. Physically, she didn’t appear to be out of her late teens, but there was nothing young about the wariness in her eyes as she stared up at him.

Dake had to force himself to recall what he was about to say to her. Fi­nally, he stared over her head at the dugout. There was no sign of anyone else about. He looked down at her again.

"I need your help,” he said without preamble, praying there might be a soft spot in her heart for children.

She peered up at him curiously. "Johnny Reb, huh?”

There was no denying his drawl. He had given up trying to lose it. "I’m originally from Alabama, ma’am. Union Army, though.”

He watched her slowly arch a brow and stare up at him speculatively as if weighing the truth of his words. She didn’t relax her stance at all. "What is it you need?”

He patted the mound beneath his jacket. "I—”

She cut him off. "Are you wounded?”

He blinked. "Why?”

"Because you stepped off that horse like an old-timer and you’ve been holding your stomach ever since.”

He looked down at his hand where it rested on the front of his buck­skin jacket. "Mind if we go inside?”

"I do, sir. I don’t know you from Adam.”

Dake nodded. So be it. He began to unbutton his jacket, slowly and care­fully, keeping one hand on the infant tucked inside. When he looked up again, he saw amazement in the girl’s eyes.

"I’ll be battered and fried,” she whispered, stepping forward. In a hushed tone she asked, "What have you got there?”

"A baby.”

"Well, I can see that.” She reached out with her finger and brushed the tawny down on the baby’s head. Magnetically, a thin curl looped around her finger. "Boy or girl?”

"Boy.”

"Yours?”

"No. Definitely not mine,” he assured her.

"Where’d you get it?”

"I was just following the Neosho and came upon three people who’d been ambushed, homesteaders from the looks of them. The woman had just given birth. She had two servants with her, both dead. She told me her name and where she was from and then she died. I’ve been looking for a place to stop for two hours now. Yours is the first place I came to.” She was staring at the baby so hard he wondered if she had taken in all he had said. He added as an afterthought, "I’m Dake Reed. Until last week I was a captain in the army, stationed at Fort Dodge.”

Dake stared down at the girl’s blond curls and watched her smile at the baby as he pulled it all the way out of his jacket and cradled it in his arms. The sheets he’d swaddled the baby in were stained with its mother’s blood and the mucus it had been born in. Dake frowned at the damp spot on the front of his shirt and thought of the price he’d paid for the beauti­fully tanned buckskin.

The girl stepped back a pace and crossed her arms. It was then he no­ticed the pistol in her right hand. "I’m Cara. Cara Calvinia James.”

She didn’t move, nor did she make an offer to take the baby from him. In fact, she was studying him in a measuring way, as if making up her mind whether or not to believe him at all. Finally, she nodded toward the dug­out. "Bring him in.”

They were both forced to duck beneath what barely passed as a blan­ket to enter the low doorway. Dake bent nearly double. Once through, he straightened in the darkened interior. The place smelled of must and onions. The back wall had been cut into the low hillside. Most of the dwell­ing was nothing but raw earth. As he crossed to the table, he noticed the room was incredibly bare of any amenities and nearly dark as a cave.

Muted light filtered through oiled paper at the two small windows in the front wall. The table, three mismatched chairs, and a sagging rope bed against one wall were the only pieces of furniture in the sparse room. Surely Cara Calvinia James didn’t live here alone?

"You can put him down over here.” Gun in hand, Cara pointed to the table and watched the big man awkwardly holding the baby in the crook of his arm. She watched him take note of the single place setting at one end of the rickety table.

He looked up slowly, regarding her intently. She lifted her chin a notch and stared back. Her hand tightened on the gun butt. It was hard to imagine that anyone who had stopped to aid a dying woman and carry a newborn to safety might harm her, but as she had told him earlier, she didn’t know him from Adam and baby or no, until she thought she could trust him, she wasn’t about to take her eyes or her gun off him.

The baby cried out and quickly forced their thoughts back to the prob­lem at hand.

"Do you have a cow?” he asked.

"A cow?” His voice was deep, his drawl so slow that she repeated the word in order to discern what he meant. Then with a shake of her head, she informed him, "I did. Just sold her along with the pigs. Got a good price, too. Twenty dollars.”

"Damn,” he mumbled.

Offended by what she thought was a slight, Cara said softly, "I thought it was good money.”

Dake shook his head as he lay the infant on the table. "I mean, I’m sorry you sold her. This little boy needs milk. I don’t know how long he can go without eating.”

"I’ve still got a goat that gives milk,” she volunteered.

He reached down to unwrap the naked child. "Do you think that would work?”

Cara Calvinia James shrugged. "I don’t see why not.” The baby was a mess, his skin blotchy with dried blood. "Do you think you should wash him off or something?” She was frowning down at the stump of the baby’s umbilical cord and the stained blanket beneath it.

"He might catch cold.” Dake shook his head. He had learned enough growing up on a plantation to help deliver a baby, but the details of child care were out of his realm. "You think washing him so soon will hurt him?”

"I don’t mean for you to drown him. Just wipe him off here and there. And he needs a diaper, I know that much.”

Dake Reed looked hopeful. "Do you have any?”

"Nope.” She flushed almost immediately. "But I’ve got some clean rags I keep... for emergencies.”

"Maybe you can tend to that while I go out and milk your goat?”

"Me tend to him? I don’t know anything about tending a brand-new baby.” The thought of him leaving her alone to tidy up the slippery bundle on the table filled her with dread. What if she dropped the wriggly little thing?

She looked away from the baby and glanced up. The man’s nearness startled her. She had been alone so long that to suddenly have this Dake Reed towering over her, his green eyes thoughtful as he stared back, made her catch her breath. She moved back a step. Who was he really? she won­dered. He appeared both clean and sober, not to mention handsome, but the deadliest snakes often came in the prettiest skins. Here he stood asking her to care for a baby he had pulled out of his coat and she didn’t know enough about babies to fill a thimble. The only children she had ever been around were some of the Dickson brood and she had never been there for any stretch of time.

She caught herself watching him stare and stepped back again. "Mr. Reed, I have no idea how to handle him. It seems to me, you’ve been doing just fine. Besides, you go after Miss Lucy yourself and you’re liable to wind up with a rupture where you don’t want one.”

"Who’s Miss Lucy?”

Cara sighed. "My goat. She’s probably down by the creek and I don’t ex­pect she’ll let you milk her, let alone bring her back. What if I go milk her while you tend to the baby?”

Before Dake Reed could protest, Cara made her way to the door. She paused on the threshold and then glanced back at Reed.

"You wouldn’t be thinking of riding off and leaving that baby here with me once I step out to get Lucy, would you?”

He shook his head with a smile. "No, Miss James, I wouldn’t. After all, I made a promise to his dying mother that I’d see him safely back to Alabama and I intend to do just that.”

"Well, then fine. I’ll go.”

"Oh, Miss James—”

She turned around again, one hand on the door frame. The blanket lifted with the breeze. So did the hem of her skirt. She watched his eyes drop to her hemline and then trail back up to her face.

"Yes?”

"You’re liable to get tired hauling that gun around with you. I swear to you that I’m an honorable man. You have nothing to fear from me.”

Cara felt her heartbeat quicken and the color in her cheeks rise. The baby in the center of the table was now sucking on its hand, its sleepy, ink-blue eyes blinked up at the tall man trustingly. She felt the weight of the gun in her hand and made the decision, for good or ill, to take Dake Reed at his word.

As she lay the gun on the three-legged stool near the door, she said to him, "There’s a pot out in the yard you can use to heat some water.” With that, she ducked beneath the blanket and left him on his own.

IT WAS ALMOST dusk when Cara started back to the dugout carrying a quarter bucket of goat’s milk. The creek was not more than a few minutes’ walk, but sometimes Lucy tended to wander farther than was convenient. Still, like a well-wound clock, Miss Lucy always showed up in time for milking.

When she was close enough to make out the outline of the hillside, Cara’s mouth began to water at the scent of boiling poultry and cursed her forgetfulness once again. For the life of her she couldn’t figure out why keeping track of time was so important when one set out to cook anything. Now her greatly anticipated birthday meal had probably boiled itself off the bone and not only were the vegetables not in the pot, but for hospital­ity’s sake she would have to invite Dake Reed to sit down and share what little she had.

For that matter, she knew she couldn’t just send him on his way once darkness fell, not with the baby to look after. It just wouldn’t be right. Besides, it was prairie tradition to share food and lodging with passing strangers. Visitors were few and far between and the appearance of travel­ers usually initiated a celebration. She could remember every occa­sion when the family gathered around the table listening long into the night as weary pilgrims related bits of news of far-off places.

Yes indeed, it was the right thing to do, and she knew it, but no one had stopped by since Cara had been all alone. She hoped to get a sense of what type of man Dake Reed might be before she came right out and asked him to stay the night.

As she rounded the front of the house she found him standing in the yard in the halo of lamplight that eked out of the windows. She paused for a moment to watch him before he noticed her. It looked as if he’d lit every lamp in the place. He had pushed back the blanket that covered the door and was pacing back and forth creating a moving silhouette of a man with a child cradled high against his shoulder. She saw his hand move as he patted the baby gently on the back and knew in that moment that he would be true to his word and do her no harm.

"I found her,” Cara called out, only to be met with a curt shushing sound. She swung the bucket as she walked over to Reed and looked up at him. "What’s the matter?” she whispered.

He whispered back, "He’s been crying and fussing since you left. He’s just now quieted down.”

"Did you get a diaper on him?”

It was a moment before he answered. "I did, but don’t ask me how. He’s as slippery as an eel.” She watched his shoulders dip as he sighed and added irritably, "I’m so hungry what patience I had is gone.”

As she watched him carefully shift the baby to his other shoulder, she felt her heart melt. "I knew it,” Cara mumbled, thinking of the small range hen in the cook pot. Her conscience demanded she ask him to supper even though she had thought to celebrate her landmark birthday alone. "Mr. Reed, I know this situation is as awkward for you as it is for me—”

"Probably more so,” he mumbled as he adjusted the infant to his other shoulder and tucked in the quilt when one small, pink foot thrust itself out from beneath the blanket.

"—but it just isn’t right to turn a man and a helpless little baby out into the night, so if you can see fit to feed him, I’ll get the supper on.” She started to move past him and then stopped, "I planned to leave at first light, though, so I hope we can both go about our business then.”

The look of relief that crossed his face made her happy she had ex­tended the invitation. Cara decided then and there not to worry about what she would do about spending the entire evening with him in the small confines of the cabin. She would deal with the sleeping arrangements when dinner was over with.

"How much do you think I should give him?” Dake Reed glanced down at her breasts, as if he were gauging the amount of nourishment a woman’s breasts might hold.

Cara felt her face flame and lowered her gaze. Her breasts were well de­veloped and firm, in spite of the fact that she’d grown so thin of late.

Embarrassed and more than thankful for the encroaching darkness, she turned away and said, "Feed him until he’s not hungry anymore.” Cara avoided meeting his eyes again. She stared at the bundle on his shoulder instead. The baby was dwarfed beneath Dake Reed’s strong, tanned hand. "You don’t think we could accidentally give him too much, do you?”

"Hell, I don’t know.”

She heard the immediate frustration in his tone and remembered he said he was hungry—and he was no doubt disappointed that she knew as little as he about caring for a child.

Taking mercy on him, Cara smiled and forced a cheerful tone. "If it wasn’t so late I could take your horse and ride over to the Dicksons’ and see if Mrs. Dickson has a bottle with a rubber nipple she could spare. But I guess feeding him any way we can is better than nothing. Maybe you should just try little bits at a time to see how he takes to it?”

"Who are the Dicksons?”

He sounded so hopeful that she hated to have to inform him, "The fam­ily that settled northeast of here, but it’s too late and too dark to ride over with a baby now.” She continued to carry on a line of amiable chatter as they moved toward the dugout. "They offered to buy my land when they came to help me bury Willie,” she added.

"Your husband?”

Cara turned to face him and hated the pity she recognized in his eyes. His expression dredged up the sadness again, the intense loneliness she had battled for the past weeks. Cara started to speak and found she had to clear her throat before she could say the words aloud. "My brother. He died a couple weeks back.”

"I’m sorry,” he said softly. He sounded as if he actually meant the words that a stranger would utter just to be polite.

Sorrow tightened her throat again. Instead of commenting, she merely led the way into the dugout. He had, indeed, lit all the oil lamps at once, an extravagance she never allowed herself, not when she wasn’t certain when she could afford more fuel. But since tonight was hopefully the last in the dugout—and her birthday to boot—Cara didn’t complain as she set the bucket of milk on the table.

She watched Dake Reed as he entered, curious to find out everything she could about him, but determined to hold back her questions because he seemed so concerned with seeing to the child. Trying to lighten the mood, she asked, "Have you thought of a way to feed him?”

"Maybe we could spoon it into him.”

Cara leaned against the table and folded her arms. "I don’t think so. He might choke if he goes at it too fast. Could we make a”—she felt her cheeks grow hot again and refused to meet Reed’s eyes—"a teat? I have some muslin.”

He pulled out a chair and shrugged as he lowered himself slowly so as not to disturb the sleeping baby. "Try it. You could dip it in the milk and give him a little bit at a time.”

Cara paused where she stood near a barrel stuffed with clothes, yam, and fabric. It was full of items she had hoped to use to make more dolls when she reached California. Cara shook her head. "You mean you could give him some a little bit at a time.”

He sighed. "Fine. While you put the dinner on the table.” Then, in a low tone she was still well able to hear, he added, "If there’s anything left of that chicken out there.”

Dake watched Cara Calvinia James’s pert little bottom twitch as she bent over to dig deep into a barrel of fabric scraps, yam, and bits of yel­lowed lace. In that position, her raggedy dress was so short that from where he sat he could see her calves nearly up to her knees. He’d never seen a decent woman in anything like it. He also wondered at her lack of modesty. Didn’t she know any better than to flash her legs at a grown man?

As he watched her toss piece after piece over her shoulder while she sought out muslin, he found himself speculating on her immediate situa­tion and decided that Cara Calvinia James had definitely been in the midst of moving out.

The evidence was everywhere. Foodstuffs in burlap lined the front wall. Behind them stood a somewhat orderly line of crates and barrels, very few if they held all her worldly possessions, as he guessed they did. There were a few household goods still in evidence, a set of mismatched chipped plates and cups, a few pieces of cutlery, pots that were blackened from cooking over the open fire, a broom made of twigs. He’d seen better in the slave quarters at Riverglen.

There was no sign that anyone else lived here. Dake found himself won­dering how long she had been on her own. Perhaps, he thought, it was the intense isolation that had led her to make the whimsical dolls that lined the only shelf in the room.

Dake had nearly jumped out of his skin when he earlier discovered the odd assortment of faces that stared down at him with sightless eyes. At first it seemed eerie, but when he walked nearer and took a better look at the dolls he couldn’t help but smile. Either Cara James was color-blind or she found nothing strange about dolls with floral, blue, green, or char­treuse faces—not to mention the others made of walnuts, something dried and shrunken, and wood. Each rag doll had a slightly different, but­ton-eyedexpression. On the others she had painted whimsical expres­sions.

"Found it,” she said, drawing his attention once again as she waved the muslin over her head. She hurried to another small box and found some scissors and thread, hastily cut the material into squares and piled them one on the other. Then she drew the wad into a nipple shape and tied off the length. "I hope this works.”

"Me, too,” Dake said with another sigh. Not for the first time did he think he had made a promise that would prove more than he could handle. He was surprised when Cara reached out for the baby, but gladly handed the infant over to her.

"No need to look so glum, Mr. Reed. As my grandma, Nanny James, used to say, ‘Few delight in a sorrowful man.’ Now, let’s see about getting some milk down this little boy.”

While Dake stood by, Cara dipped the muslin teat in the goat’s milk un­til it soaked up a goodly amount, then she rubbed it against the baby’s lips. The child pushed it back with his tongue, swallowed what little liquid was left there, smacked his lips, and then began to fuss. Cara tried again. This time the hungry infant pulled desperately on the muslin, nearly suck­ing it dry before Cara could get it away and dip it into the milk again.

Dake leaned over her shoulder and watched in amazement. "He likes it.”

She looked back at him and laughed. "He’s eating like a little shoat.”

No matter how much she might protest feeding the baby, the girl held the child against her with a natural ease. When she peered over her shoul­der and smiled up at him, Dake was taken by the radiance of her smile. It shone through her dirt-smudged face and tousled curls, both sensual and innocent at the same time. He could almost taste her lower lip and feel his teeth nipping it gently. He felt his mouth go dry.

For the first time since he’d laid eyes on her, Dake realized that this girl was not merely pretty, but in the right setting and with a little groom­ing, she would be downright beautiful. He felt himself quicken and was reminded of just how long he’d been without a woman. He straightened abruptly and forced himself to step back, unwilling to spook the girl since she trusted him enough to lay down her weapon.

"I’ll try to feed him if you want to get supper on.” He reached out and took the baby, then sat down in the chair she vacated. It took more than one try before he learned how much milk the muslin could hold and soon there was milk running down the baby’s chin and neck and splattered on his own lap, but the infant was slurping peacefully as Cara made her way out the door.

By the time the baby had been fed, swaddled in more of Cara’s pre­cious fabric, and put to sleep in the center of the grass-stuffed ticking on the bed, Cara called Dake to supper. His stomach rumbled in response and his mouth watered at the smell of succulent chicken.

"It’s not much,” she apologized, "just range hen that’s cooked to soup and some day-old hoecake, but it’ll fill that hole in your stomach. There’s coffee, too, of a sort. It’s been scarce since the war so I mix what I have with dried carrots to make it go further.”

Confused, she watched him when he moved to stand beside her, one hand on her chair. When he pulled it out for her with a slight bow, she looked down at the chair and back up at him. Finally comprehension dawned.

Cara sat. Dake hid a smile.

Without a word she dished up the hen. The flesh fell from the bones and floated in the broth that puddled on his plate. Dake chose a piece of hoecake from a pie tin in the center of the table. The bottom crust was as black as the pots and pans. He dipped it into the hen broth and took a bite. The bread tasted scorched and the broth was greasy. Cooking, obviously, was not one of her talents, but he was too hungry to care.

They ate in silence, each intent upon the meal, both eating as if it had been days since their last bite instead of merely hours. She paused between bites, her lips glossy from the hen grease, her blue eyes curious. "Where were you headed, Mr. Reed, before you found the baby and his ma?”

"Alabama.” He toyed with a leg bone as he thought of all the word con­jured up for him and wondered what he would find when he finally reached Decatur.

"And you say you fought for the Union?”

He nodded.

She set down a bone and proceeded to lick her fingers. He couldn’t seem to look away from the tip of her moist pink tongue as it flicked in and out. "You have family there?”

She watched the shadows in his eyes deepen. He frowned slightly. "Mama died of yellow fever a few years before the war. I recently learned Daddy died two years ago. My brother is back at our plantation, Riverglen.”

She scooted closer to the edge of her chair, staring down at her plate as she chose another portion of hen. "Your family must have been rich if you lived in a house with a name.” She peered at him through lowered lashes, wishing she could take the comment back. It was none of her busi­ness how much money he had. She could almost hear her own mama admonishing her for her bad manners.

Dake shrugged. "I guess you could say we had money before the war. At least, we had as much as anyone else in our place in the South. Most of what we had was tied up in slaves.”

He had paused a moment before he said the word "slaves,” as if loath to admit it. He took a sip of coffee. She watched him carefully when he didn’t know she did so. Without him admitting it, she could sense he had come from money. His clothes were clean as travel would allow, his hair and fingernails neatly trimmed. He carried himself proudly with an inborn confidence that couldn’t be denied. She wondered what he had looked like before the war years had added the shadows to his eyes and etched lines about the corners of them. Had a smile come more easily to his lips back then?

As she reached for another piece of com bread, Cara caught sight of her own uneven nails and vowed she’d try to scrub them a little cleaner when she washed up tonight. "Did your family lose their home during the war?”

He shook his head. "No, but I guess there’s not much left. At least that’s what I hear from a close friend of the family. Every male adult slave who could work the fields was worth a thousand dollars. Multiply that times the number of slaves a man owned and you’ll find that’s where most of the plantation owner’s wealth was invested. When the slaves were freed, the planters had to stand by and watch their investments simply walk away.”

"But if you fought on the side that took everything away from your fam­ily, how do they feel about having you home again?”

He picked up his coffee cup and drained it, then set it down as care­fully as if it were fashioned out of the finest bone china. "My brother doesn’t know I’m on my way back. One of the neighbors sent for me. She told me Burke is on the verge of losing Riverglen to the tax collector. I’m going home to see what I can do to help.”

Cara broke off a piece of com bread and ate it. "Speaking of neigh­bors, first thing in the morning, I’m heading off to my neighbors’ place to see if they’ll put up the money for the homestead like they offered a couple of weeks back. You’ll probably be wanting to head out early so—”

He was watching her carefully, his brow furrowed in thought. "What are your plans after you sell the place?”

Uncomfortable with the speculative look in his eyes, Cara squirmed on the chair and set it creaking. "I have plans, Mr. Reed, plans I’ve been dwelling on for a long, long time.”

"Which are?”

"Big changes. Up to now, life has dished out nothing but bones for my family, bones as bare as the ones on that plate of yours. Now that I’m alone, and this being my twentieth birthday, I don’t have a reason in the world not to go after what I want.” Cara crossed her arms and leaned back in her chair.

Her age surprised him. In the oversize gown, with her tousled curls, she looked no older than seventeen. He picked up a leg bone, chewed the meat off it, cracked it open, and sucked out the marrow before he set the pieces down on his plate. Dake dipped a piece of hoecake in the golden broth on his plate and took another bite.

"I’m set on heading to California as soon as this place is sold,” she an­nounced.

His meal suddenly forgotten, he was staring at her intently now. "Why California?”

Her eyes took on an almost fanatical glow. "It’s warm for one thing. And sunny. And there are miles and miles of sand beaches along the ocean. I’ve never seen the ocean, have you?” He shook his head.

"I want to open my own shop there,” she said proudly.

"What kind of shop?” He wondered what on earth she intended. From the looks of her, she wasn’t a seamstress, nor was she a cook.

"I’m a doll maker.”

"Ah. And you think there’s lots of call for that?”

"I hope so. I figure in a city like San Francisco, folks are too busy to make their own dolls and would buy ready-mades for their children. I’ve already got a good supply built up.”

Dake glanced around the bare-walled, one-room earth and wood shack. It was now or never. "If you would consider postponing your depar­ture, I can pay you handsomely to accompany me to Gadsden and care for the baby along the way, Miss James.”

Cara was speechless. She blinked twice. As her shock lessened, she fi­nally assured him, "There’s not enough money in the world, Mr. Reed. How can I start a new life in California if I have to worry about someone else’s baby first?”

While she had been talking, he had sucked the meat off of every last bone on his plate. He pointed to the little that was left of her supper. "You going to eat that?” She shook her head. He shoved the empty plate aside and pulled hers up before him. "If you go with me, you’d have a bigger stake for your move. Besides, it shouldn’t take us too long to get to Alabama.”

"What do you mean, us?”


 




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