Comanche Moon

Comanche Moon
Virginia Brown

May 2012 $15.95
ISBN: 978-1-61194-138-8

Can love grow from revenge and possession?


 
Our PriceUS$15.95
Code978-1-61194-138-8
 
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Synopsis | Reviews | Excerpt

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The Comanches did her a favor when they killed her loutish husband on her wedding night. But now this Southern belle is the possession of a fierce, blue-eyed warrior called Hawk . . .

Zach Banning, known as Hawk among the Comanches, is caught between two races, two cultures, two lives. Deborah Hamilton is a Mississippi beauty who came to the Texas territory for an arranged marriage. Little did she know, her new husband’s people have earned the Comanches’ hatred. They enact their vengeance on her wedding night, kidnapping Deborah along with other women and also the settlement’s children.

She expects the worst at the Comanches’ village, but instead finds kindness alongside the challenges. But when Hawk barters her away from her owner, intending to seduce and possess her, Deborah finds herself in a battle of wills laced with deep desire.

Virginia Brown is the author of more than fifty novels, including the bestselling Dixie Divas mystery series. Look for many more of her classic historical romances, coming soon from Bell Bridge Books.


Reviews

"…full of tough, gutsy characters and action!" -- Clare O’Beara, Fresh Fiction

"Deborah is aheroine that you can truly like! Her couragein the face of adversityis admirable…had me laughing out loud at times. … a delight to read!" -- Tyra Tuisalega, Tyra’s Book Addiction

"…family feuds, secrets, romance, suspense… really a great book!"-- Amanda Poole, LibraryThing


Excerpt

Prologue

Presidio County, Texas

1859

"I don’t know who did it,” the boy said. He met his father’s angry gaze calmly. "I only know it wasn’t me.”

"Somebody left that damned gate open, Zack, and now my prize mare’s running loose.” Daniel Miles glared down at him with hot rage glittering in his pale eyes. Shadows flirted with sunlight in the dusty barn, and a shaft of light threw a wavering square across the floor. Zack shifted warily, and a hot glare struck his eyes.

"It wasn’t me,” he repeated in a monotone, blinking at the bright light.

Fury reverberated in every syllable as Daniel Miles ground out, "You’re lying, Zack. If your brother didn’t leave that corral gate open, and you didn’t do it, then I guess you want me to believe that it just blew open.”

Zack’s eyes narrowed fractionally, and he stepped out of the light. He sensed what was coming, and knew that it wasn’t the open gate that fueled his father’s rage. Zack flicked a wary glance toward his older brother. Sixteen-year-old Danny stood as still as a fence post, his face as white as buttermilk beneath his tan. Zack instinctively knew that Danny was the guilty one, and he also knew that Danny was too frightened by their father to admit it. Mentally squaring his shoulders, Zack waited silently.

"Don’t stand there just looking at me!” Miles bellowed. His big hands curled into fists, and his beefy face creased into furious lines. "I want to hear you admit it for once.”

When there was no reply, no indication that Zack had even heard him, Miles swung a heavy hand in a backstroke that caught the boy on the left side of his face. Zack reeled but did not fall, his dark hair lashing into his eyes as he quickly regained his balance and stood upright again. A small trickle of blood formed at one side of his mouth, but other than that, he gave no sign that he’d even felt his father’s blow.

As Zack steeled himself for the next blow that he knew would fall, he glimpsed his brother’s wince and almost felt sorry for him. It didn’t matter if he was taking the blame for Danny. Not anymore. It had ceased to matter months before. This scene was becoming increasingly frequent, and he didn’t even know why. All he knew was that for some reason, his father had begun to hate him.

For over two years he’d done what he could to appease his father’s rage, but it had been useless. Now he just accepted the unrelenting hatred and resentment without comment.

He didn’t know what to expect next.

Daniel Miles didn’t leave him wondering long. With his face still contorted in rage, he reached for the buggy whip hanging on the barn wall. His expression altered to grim satisfaction at seeing some reaction from Zack at last.

Taking two quick steps backward, Zack heard his own voice crack with uncertainty. "What are you going to do with that?”

"Teach you some responsibility,” Miles growled. He gave the whip a snap, and it cracked loudly in the air.

"I won’t be whipped,” Zack said in the flat, emotionless tone that always seemed to enrage his father. "I’m not an animal.”

"You’re an insolent whelp, and you’ll do as you’re told by God, or I’ll skin you with this!” The whip snaked forward before Zack could move out of the way, catching him across his chest and slicing through his shirt and skin as easily as if they were only warm butter.

Zack looked up in disbelief. Then pure, murderous fury welled inside him. He was ready when the whip lashed toward him again, and caught it with one fist. The frayed tip coiled around his arm, cutting red marks into his brown skin.

"I won’t take this!” he spat angrily, and gave a jerk that yanked the whip from Miles’s hand. The butt-end skidded along the hay-strewn floor of the barn, stirring up chaff. Swinging the whip by the end, Zack threw it across the barn where it curled against a post and fell in a tangled heap. His chest heaved with anger, pain, and sorrow. He furiously blinked back tears as he faced his father.

The words he wanted to say wouldn’t come. He didn’t know how to ask why. He didn’t even know what questions to ask. He was only fourteen. All he knew was how to resist.

Daniel Miles started toward Zack with all the force and power of an enraged bull, his big hands reaching out to- grab him. His fingers barely caught Zack’s shirt as he dodged in an agile twist, and there was a rending sound of tearing material. Zack was already tall for his age, but without the brawn of a man. He was wiry, not muscled, and certainly no match for the bigger, stronger fury that pounded at him.

When Amelia Miles reached the barn, running at the heels of her eldest son’s urgent summons, her husband was out of control. He’d managed to back the boy into a corner and had retrieved the whip, and he was using it with vicious force. Not a sound came from the corner where Zack crouched with his arms over his head, just the whining crack of the whip against flesh.

Shocked to the core of her reserved English nature, Amelia reacted immediately. "My God!” she cried, rushing forward to grab her husband’s arm as he lifted it again. "What are you doing to Zachary?”

Panting, his eyes wild, Daniel turned toward his wife. He winced silently at the stark censure in the blue eyes so much like Zack’s, and Daniel slowly lowered his arm as he gazed at Amelia. The whip hung limply in his hand.

"I will not tolerate this,” Amelia said sharply, and pushed past him to go to Zack. The boy was huddled in a bloody heap on the barn floor, his face turned to the wall. His arms were still over his head in a futile effort to deflect some of the blows. He didn’t make a sound when his mother spoke gently to him. She put her hand under his arm to lift him.

"Danny,” Amelia said over her shoulder to the anxious youth hovering in the background, "go and put some water on the stove. Get out the salve and clean cloths. Your brother will need them.”

Zack lifted his head at last to look at his mother. There was no anger in his eyes now, only a bewildered pain that cut at her more harshly than any words he could have uttered. A gash streaked his cheek with blood, and his blue eyes met hers.

"I don’t understand,” he said simply, in that calm, toneless voice that she’d become accustomed to hearing. "I just don’t understand.”

Her heart aching, Amelia walked him past her husband, only pausing when Miles said harshly, "I don’t want that half-breed bastard here another day. I can’t stand looking at him.”

Amelia felt Zack stiffen beneath her hand, and knew the time had come to tell him the truth, to admit the truth to herself.

"Why didn’t you tell me?” A fine paleness tinged his dark face as Zack looked at his mother with accusing eyes. "All these years...”

"I wasn’t certain, Zachary. And neither was your fath—was Daniel. It was so close in time, and we both hoped that you were... were his child.” Amelia’s voice broke.

"And now you tell me that my real father is some Comanche in New Mexico Territory, a damn renegade who kidnapped you and—and—oh God.”

Zack couldn’t continue. His customary impassivity was no protection against the cutting pain that sliced through him now. He sucked in a deep, steadying breath.

"At least now I understand why Pa—Daniel—hates me,” he said after a moment of choked silence. He winced against the pain of the cuts and welts on his back, chest, and arms as he reached for a clean shirt.

"As you grew older,” Amelia said into the silence, "it became more obvious that you were not his. When you were small, with your blue eyes and dark hair like mine, you could still have been his child. We prayed for it to be so.”

"Tell me about him,” Zack said abruptly, and Amelia did not have to ask whom he meant.

She straightened, a characteristic gesture that Zack had always associated with English gentlewomen. The years had not altered her cultured English accent, and it lent a fine clip to her words as she lifted her chin and met Zack’s gaze.

"We lived in New Mexico Territory then. My father had been deeded a land grant by the governor in Louisiana, and he gave it to Daniel and me for a wedding present. The land was not as populated then, though Indians sometimes raided. When your brother was only a few months old, one of the Comanche who came to buy beef from us saw me out riding. He’d seen me before, and always stared at me.”

Amelia paused and looked down at her delicate hands, folded in her lap like small flowers. Zack stared at them, and thought of her stroking him as a child, those small, fragile hands always busy and comforting. The lamp on the table flickered briefly as shadows outside the rambling frame house deepened into dusk.

Listening as his mother related how the young Comanche had stolen her that day, kidnapped her, and taken her as his wife, Zack began to understand a great many things. He had always looked different from his father and brother. They were both light-skinned and blond, while his mother had dark brown hair, blue eyes, and pale skin. Not Zack. His hair was darker, more coarse and thick, and his skin turned a deep bronze in the sun. Now it all made sense. It also left him virtually homeless. He couldn’t stay when Daniel hated him so badly.

When his mother had finished, her voice trailing into silence, Zack stirred at last. "I have to go.”

Her eyes flew to his. "Go where?” she whispered in a pained voice. "How will you live? You’re so young ...”

"I don’t know where. I have my rifle, and I’m a good shot. I’ll get by.” His words sounded heavy and tortured even to his own ears, and Amelia buried her face in her palms. "I’ll be all right, Mother,” he said softly, emotion quivering in his voice for the first time. "And I can’t stay here. Not anymore. You know that.”

Amelia Banning Miles rose as slowly from her chair as if she’d just aged twenty years. She crossed to the cherry cabinet she’d brought with her from England and opened a drawer. Fumbling inside it for a moment, she withdrew a cloth bundle and turned back to her son.

"This was ... was his. He gave it to me when he set me free. He said he didn’t want to let me go, that I was a good wife.” A faint smile touched the corners of her lips. "I think, in his way, he loved me. But Daniel had roused most of New Mexico Territory, and the soldiers were so close that he knew he was endangering everyone in his tribe for a white captive. So he took me back. Daniel insisted that we sell our land and come to Texas. None of us knew about you at the time ...” She paused to clear her throat. "Then I found out, and thought—since there was a chance you might be Daniel’s child after all—” She jerked to a halt and thrust the cloth-wrapped bundle into Zack’s hands. "Your father gave me this and told me if I ever needed him, I was to show it. Any Comanche who saw this would know I was not to be harmed, and would take me to him. You may want to use it someday.”

Zack took the bundle without unwrapping it. He felt nothing inside. No pain, no anger, nothing. Only a dull acceptance of what his mother had told him.

He left that night, and a full moon shed bright light across the Texas plains as he rode his horse at a brisk trot. A Comanche moon, he’d heard it called, and he almost smiled at the irony. Life had a certain justice, he supposed.


 

 

Chapter 1

Sirocco, Texas

1871

A wedding is always a happy time. Or at least, that is what Deborah Hamilton had always believed. Yet somehow, her own wedding had left her exhausted, and she had to force herself to smile and nod at the well-wishers attending the grand wedding reception. It had to be just the strain of all the preparations that left her drawn and weary.

Her father had been planning this for months. All the important guests he’d wanted to impress with his improved circumstances were at the Velazquez hacienda for Deborah’s marriage to the heir of the Spanish fortune—except John Hamilton himself. But Deborah hadn’t expected her father to attend her wedding to Miguel.

Miguel. Deborah slid her gaze toward him and attempted to smile. The wedding festivities had left many men drunk, and her new groom was no exception. He swayed at her side with the effort to stand, and his lustrous dark eyes skimmed the crowd of dancers erratically. Deborah bit back a sigh. She’d had to deal with inebriated men before, but never one that was her husband.

"Don Miguel,” she whispered when he staggered and she had to grab his arm to steady him, "perhaps you should sit down beside me for a while.”

His gaze sought hers, and his mouth split in a grin as he hugged her clumsily. "You are anxious to lie with me, sí? And I thought my pale little bride would have to be coaxed into playing the part of a wife!”

She winced at his crudity, but kept a polite, trained smile on her face as the young men with him laughed and made vulgar jokes. At twenty-three, Miguel was only three years older than she was, and she supposed she should feel fortunate. Her best friend in Natchez had married a man thirty years her senior, and had considered herself lucky that he still had most of his teeth. Suitable men were scarce after the conflict between the states had ended.

Though the war had ended over six years before, it had left behind too many widows. Yes, Deborah Hamilton counted herself fortunate that her father had not married her to some impoverished gentleman with impeccable antecedents and empty pockets. Of course, that would not have been John Hamilton’s style. He appreciated money, and all the benefits that went along with it. He also appreciated the increased business his firm would receive with the Velazquez fortune as one of his investors.

Miles of the Velazquez rancho spread along the border between Texas and Mexico, and had once been a part of Mexico. Since 1847, it had been within the boundaries of Texas, thus losing some of its vast acreage after the peace treaty had set the Rio Grande as the southern boundary. But it was still a considerable size, and would make a formidable inheritance for the children she and Don Miguel would have. As her husband, Miguel would be able to lay claim to American citizenship, as would any child from their union, thus ensuring the future of the Velazquez rancho. Military rule in Texas had ended the year before, and now the years of uncertainty and battle with the American government would end. Yes, it all worked out wonderfully for everyone. Even Deborah.

She was reasonably content. Miguel was young, and if a bit crude and immature, he was handsome and courteous. It could have been much worse, especially for a well-bred young lady from Mississippi. Her lot in life should improve dramatically.

Deborah slid a glance toward her cousin Judith, who had accompanied her to Texas. An orphan, Judith had left nothing or no one behind. Perhaps Judith would find a husband soon, too. She was certainly pretty enough, with pale gold hair and bright eyes as blue as the wildflowers strewn across the wild Texas hills. Deborah prayed the move to Texas would be good for her.

A faint smile curved Deborah’s mouth as she saw her cousin flirt with a handsome young caballero, who bent over her hand with a gallant flourish. There was a world of difference between her and Judith. Judith was ebullient and vivacious, where Deborah was quiet and reserved, betraying her mother’s English heritage. Deborah even spoke in the same soft, cultured tones her mother had used, with a trace of the English accent that Elizabeth Hamilton had kept until the day she died. Deborah’s quiet gentility often seemed at odds with the brilliant mane of russet hair she’d inherited from her father, and the soft brown eyes that could regard the world with a hint of mischief.

That gentility had made her acceptable to Miguel Velazquez, she knew. Ordinarily, he would have wed a woman of his own class, who’d grown up in the strictures of Spanish life.

Miguel wrapped a heavy arm around Deborah and leaned close to whisper in her ear. His breath was spiced with tequila, and she turned her face slightly away as he said, "The night drags on, amanté, and I grow anxious for you. Come—let us hide from the others for a while.”

A pang of nervous fear shot through Deborah, and she looked at him with glazed eyes. No one had told her exactly what happened on a girl’s wedding night. All she knew, was that it involved extreme intimacy, and that little fact she’d overheard from one of the servants. Only her innate dignity kept her voice cool and steady.

"It would be an insult to leave our guests, Don Miguel. They expect us to lead the dancing shortly.”

Loud music filled the air; guitars throbbed and horns soared while brightly attired guests whirled across the stone tiles of the huge patio lit with colorful lanterns.

"There are to be fireworks before the customary dance,” Miguel coaxed softly. His dark eyes flared with hot lights that made her quiver. "We can rejoin them then, and no one will even know we have been gone.”

Deborah suppressed the urge to refuse, pressing her lips tightly together as she stared at him in dismay. Miguel was her husband. If he insisted, she must obey. It was what she’d been taught from childhood, what she expected.

Yet she had not expected that he would lead her to the shady arbor where grapevines curled tightly on wooden frames. It was remote and private, but she had thought he would take her to their elegant bedchamber.

"Don Miguel—here?” she murmured doubtfully as he stopped and pulled her close. Her head began to ache, and fear pounded through her even harder. She had thought there would be a maid to help her undress, to brush out her long russet hair and tie pretty ribbons in it. Then she would don the lovely nightdress she’d brought with her from Natchez. But this—this was so sordid, so demeaning.

"Sí,” he was muttering thickly as he pushed her up against the wall of the arbor. His hand tugged clumsily at the bodice of her elaborate gown. "Here is just as good as anywhere else, my lovely wife. And we don’t have to wait for everyone to pay us compliments first. Or for the endless toasts that will be drunk before we can find our pleasure in bed.”

Deborah tried to reconcile herself to the fact that he would not be dissuaded, but couldn’t keep from stiffening as he pawed at her. His hands pushed impatiently at her gown, ripping it in his haste and tearing off the intricate roses sewn onto the bodice and sleeves. She ground her teeth together and tried to think of anything but the moment and what he was doing.

Her lovely gown with seed pearls and silk roses adorning the skirt in tiers was pushed up around her waist, bunched in looping folds over her many petticoats. Miguel swore softly in Spanish, and his motions grew rougher and more impatient.

"All these clothes—MadreDíos! Take them off now.”

"But Miguel—” Deborah gasped when he jerked at the laces holding her soft cotton drawers around her waist, and heard the rip of material. His fist closed around a wad of cloth as he tugged it free.

When his hand seared across the bare, quivering flesh of her stomach, Deborah closed her eyes. She barely felt his mouth on her lips, her cheek, and the arch of her throat as he tilted back her head. Night air whisked over her shrinking flesh when he pulled down the bodice of her gown, ripping the exquisite embroidery in the process. Miguel’s mouth traced hot, wet trails over her skin, and Deborah shuddered at the invasion, wondering how much worse it could get.

Even as her mind screamed No!, she knew that the worst was yet to come. She heard Miguel fumble with the buttons of his trousers, heard his panting breath as he swore softly at the delay. Then the hot, rigid press of his flesh against her bare thighs made her jump. Revulsion shot through her, and despite her vow not to protest, not to plead, she shoved hard at him with the heels of her hands.

"Miguel! Stop that—you must stop at once, please. Listen—the fireworks have begun. They will be looking for us to lead the dance...”

He groaned. "Not yet, not yet. I go too fast... and you are not ready for me... I understand. Let me kiss you, so that you will be ready for me...”

Not understanding what he meant, Deborah knew only that he wanted to kiss her, and she lifted her lips with a kind of desperation. That much she did not mind. A kiss, after all, was proper between a husband and wife. Miguel’s mouth was wet, and his kiss searching as he held her close, her bare breasts crushed against his ruffled shirt front. Gold buttons on his vest dug painfully into her skin, and she tried to ease the sting by twisting away.

That only made Miguel hold her more tightly, his hands closing cruelly around her upper arms. He ground his hips against her, and reached down with one hand to lift up her skirts and stroke the downy triangle between her legs. When she shuddered, he grew more excited. Ignoring her cry of horror, he slid a finger into the soft heat of her body.

Never had Deborah imagined such shocking pain. It shot through her like a flame, and her nails dug into Miguel so hard she should have brought blood. He didn’t seem to notice it. He was panting, and dear God—he was trying to push his swollen organ into her, shoving her up against the wall of the arbor so hard she couldn’t move or even draw a breath.

As he strained against her, Deborah tried to remove herself from time and place. She heard Miguel curse vaguely, the words mixing with the loud pops of fireworks that Don Francisco, Miguel’s uncle, had bought for the evening’s festivities. They sounded faraway, muffled by the harsh rasp of Miguel’s breathing and her own smothered cries. Delighted screams rose in the distance as the fireworks exploded, and she felt a detached sense of dismay that she was not there to see the display.

The dark shadows in the arbor grew lighter, and she could see Miguel’s face now, taut and straining as he tried to plunge his rigid staff between her thighs and into her body. Her flesh resisted, her nails dug more deeply into his back as he shoved against her, and she heard him swear again.

Half-sobbing, Deborah saw Miguel lift his head, his dark eyes focusing on her face.

"Díos,” he muttered, "I am sorry to hurt you.” He put up a hand to cup her cheek in a soft caress. She gave a moan that made him flinch.

Deborah saw his mouth open, but no words came out. He looked faintly surprised, a little puzzled, and then he was sliding limply toward the floor of the arbor. She stared numbly, not quite able to comprehend the swiftness of this change, unable to understand the small, neat hole just above his left ear. Blood spurted from it, dripping down Miguel’s face as his body sagged uselessly against her legs. She stared at him stupidly.

"Miguel... ?”

Fireworks exploded again, a rattling firestorm that popped and popped. Screams pierced the night more loudly, and this time Deborah understood.

They were not the screams of delight she’d thought, but screams of terror and pain. As Deborah crouched, frozen in the darkness of the arbor with her wedding gown still hanging from her bared breasts, she saw a shadow silhouetted against the bright background of rising flames and death.

Tenor stilled her voice, and she sat paralyzed as a painted, half-naked warrior stepped into the opening and looked down at her. Smoke filled the air and stung her eyes, and Deborah heard the jubilant yells of the raiding warriors rise high above the screams of death.


 

 

Chapter 2

The nightmare went on and on. Deborah Hamilton Velazquez was numb with exhaustion and fear. She was not alone. There were others who were captives, mostly women, and a few small children. All of them had passed the point of screams or protests in the past days, and simply endured. It was enough for the moment that they were alive.

Judith was tied on a horse just in front of her, and looked back as they rode along single file. Her blue eyes were dazed when she whispered hoarsely, "They’ll kill us, you know. Or worse. Oh God, Deborah, what can we do?”

Forcing the words past dry, stiff lips, Deborah murmured, "Be brave. And pray. I don’t think hysteria will help us now.”

When Judith nodded numbly, Deborah turned her weary thoughts to her questionable future. In the space of a few minutes, her entire life had changed. Gone was her husband, dead in a grape arbor, and gone, too, were most of the men attending the wedding fiesta. She’d glimpsed the bodies sprawled like broken dolls on the hacienda grounds. Then the descent into pure terror had erased everything from her mind but the need to survive.

That survival instinct kept her going now, in the face of exhaustion, hunger and cold. Fear had been relegated to the background. More important needs had surfaced.

Chestnut strands of her hair hung limp and tangled in her eyes, masking her vision as she tried to keep up with the steady pace set by the men she’d heard one of the other captives call Comanche. Her legs were sore and aching, and her body bruised from several falls. Only the driving certainty that soldiers would give pursuit kept her from surrendering to despair at times. Surely, there had been at least one survivor from that night to alert the Army.

By the time the Comanche warriors rode their horses down into a pine-choked valley, it was almost a relief. Even if death awaited them at the journey’s end, it had to be better than this nightmare of bruising travel and constant threats in a language none of the captives understood.

They were dragged from their horses and bunched together in the center of a village of tall, hide-covered tents. The captives huddled miserably. The returning warriors whooped as they greeted their families, and the air was filled with noise. Comanche children ran and squealed, and dogs barked while the white captives waited, kneeling in the dirt, some with tears, some with dry sobs, some shivering with apprehension.

In the ensuing melee, Deborah stood with her head held high, too numb to react. The tatters of her lacy wedding dress hung in folds from her slender frame. Her eyes focused on a spot far distant from the chaotic village. Bright streamers of her hair draped loosely over her shoulders, and her face was calm and composed as she seemed not to notice those around her. She alone stood stiffly upright.

That was how Hawk first saw her.

Seated beside the chief, he watched as those who had gone on the raid returned victorious. They laughed and boasted of their prowess, the easy victory they had enjoyed. The men had been drunk, the raid almost too easy.

Hawk’s gaze swung inevitably toward the captives. As was common on such a foray, only some women and a few children had been brought back. Most of the women were dark-haired, which was as expected. Not many whites had settled in the area where the war party had gone to steal horses; the raiders’ target had been a huge Spanish hacienda on the border.

Yet, one of the women had bright tresses the color of the sun. And the woman who stood so quietly in the center of the captives had richly hued hair of a deep auburn. It was unusual, and caught Hawk’s attention. His gaze grew sharper as he noted the elegant dress clinging in stained white satin to her slender curves. It had once been beautiful, but was now torn and dirty. The skirt hung limply, and Hawk knew enough about the clothes such women wore to see that the many petticoats she’d once worn had been discarded, whether by necessity or accident was pure conjecture.

He allowed none of his thoughts to show on his face. It remained expressionless, eyes fathomless, his mouth set in a straight line of indifference. Hawk felt no sympathy. It was simply the way of things. Life and death were an unending cycle, and it didn’t matter where a person lived, but how a person lived. Happiness was an abstract emotion, something he hadn’t thought about since he was a young boy. He was a man now, and thought as a man. A man was not to think of only personal satisfaction, but of the good of his people, his father said, and he followed that advice.

Yet Hawk’s gaze returned repeatedly to the young woman standing stiffly with her chin tilted and her eyes grave. There was something about her that arrested his attention. Perhaps it was that she showed no fear. Nothing showed in her face, no reaction at all. The rest of the women were sniveling and weeping, but that one slender girl stared straight ahead in an unblinking gaze.

Night fell, and the villagecelebration went on. Fires leaped high, and the raiders danced and bragged beneath the sky. Deborah had ceased to think. She’d ceased to feel. Her arms were numb where the ropes had been tied too tightly on her wrists, cutting off circulation. Some of the women had fallen asleep, yielding to exhausted fear. The children who had been captured were taken from the group by some of the Comanche women.

Deborah’s head turned, and she called softly, "Be brave, little ones.”

It had not escaped her notice that the children were treated kindly for the most part, with the women touching their small heads and crooning to them in soft voices. Maybe the children would be allowed to live, perhaps even adopted. Deborah harbored no such hope for herself or her cousin, who drifted into exhausted slumber with the others. The other women were Mexican, some of them servants, some of them guests who had come to attend her wedding.

Her wedding. That seemed like years ago, not days. Why had she never considered that something like this might happen to her? It had seemed so farfetched then, even when her friend LuEmma had warned her about the hostiles in Texas. Of course, having lived in Natchez all her life, LuEmma considered any other part of the world primitive and uncivilized. Now Deborah was inclined to agree.

She shifted position, her legs aching with the strain of remaining upright. She didn’t sleep for the simple reason that she was too frightened. Fires punctuated the darkness of the camp, red-gold flames lighting the camp and the figures of the dancers. It was a scene she’d never imagined, and Deborah felt fear prickle up her spine with malicious swiftness.

Gathering her fortitude, Deborah remained erect and watchful. Her eyes widened slightly when she saw a man approaching the captives. He walked with a lithe, powerful stride, and her throat tightened when she realized he was looking directly at her.

He looked so fierce, with jet-black hair worn long and loose. A feather dangled from a small braid over one ear, and the rest of his hair brushed against his shoulders. His face was dark and coppery, and he was tall, much taller than the others, she noted distractedly. Like the others, however, he wore only a large square of cloth between his legs, tied at his waist, leaving his broad chest bare. Knee-high moccasins clung to his calves, and he wore some kind of amulet on a rawhide thong around his neck.

Deborah was frighteningly aware of his presence, of the danger evident in his loose, fluid stride. When the Comanche stopped only a few feet away, she refused to avert her gaze. She met him stare for stare, her chin lifting in that quick gesture of pride that was inborn in the Hamiltons.

His eyes were clear and cold, his expression so indifferent that she almost lost her nerve. Fear pulsed through her nerves in singing waves, and her knees began to quiver.

It took all her self-control to keep calm, but Deborah felt that if she revealed the depth of her fear, it would only hasten the inevitable. Smoke from the campfire stung her eyes and nose, and there was an indefinable odor in the air that she couldn’t identify. She tried to concentrate on anything but the predatory gaze of the Comanche only a few feet away. He stood watching her without speaking for several moments, seeming to assess her, then turned and walked away. Deborah felt a wave of relief wash over her. Perhaps he would leave her alone, at least for a while.

But then she knew she had erred, for he returned with a buckskin-clad woman in tow. The woman looked to be Mexican, but he spoke to her swiftly in the deep guttural language Deborah had come to recognize as Comanche, and the woman nodded. She turned toward Deborah.

"That one wishes to know your name,” she said in halting English that Deborah had difficulty understanding. The woman had to repeat it twice before she was understood, and her voice grew sharp with irritation.

Deborah’s chin lifted slightly. "My name is Deborah Hamilton. May I ask what is to be done with us?”

The words were out before she realized she should have given her married name. It was only natural, she supposed, as she had been wed and widowed in a matter of hours. If she was to be ransomed, she needed to give her married name, and she opened her mouth to correct her mistake, but the woman had turned back to the cold-eyed Comanche.

At the man’s prompting she asked Deborah, "Where is your husband?”

"Dead.”

No emotion betrayed her, not by the slightest quiver of her voice. It did not seem like an odd reaction, not considering the other incredible events that had so drastically changed her life in such a short time. Her gaze focused on the Comanche. She deliberately met his steady stare again, and was struck by a difference she hadn’t noted before.

"You—you have blue eyes,” she blurted, startled at the discovery. She hadn’t thought about a Comanche having blue eyes, but it was obvious some of them did. At least, this one did. Flames reflected from a blue so intense as to be almost indigo, and the blue eyes in such a dark face were both frightening and familiar. She didn’t realize she was staring until he spoke, his voice a harsh, rasping growl.

"Haa. Keta tekwaaru. Kima habi-ki.”

Her perusal was quickly ended by the Comanche’s harsh comment. She didn’t understand the words, but the tone was easily translated. A faint shiver prickled her bare arms with gooseflesh, and she looked away without speaking.

Hawk saw her faint shiver and noted with appreciation her quick recovery. Her voice was soft, with a trace of an accent he recognized as English. He was glad she had a soft voice instead of an annoying screech, as many white women had.

With a wave of one hand, Hawk dismissed the Mexican woman and stepped closer to Deborah Hamilton. His gaze raked her from the top of her tousled russet hair to the tattered hem of her gown, pausing with deliberate inspection at the full thrust of her breasts. The torn bodice of her gown revealed more than it hid, and the creamy skin he saw beneath the ragged edges of material was enticing. Slender hips curved beneath the heavy skirt, and there was a flash of bare leg that piqued his interest.

Hawk allowed himself a moment’s speculation as to the exact nature of the body beneath the gown, then shifted his attention to her face again. Aristocratic bones sculpted an exquisite face, from her wide, gold-flecked brown eyes and thick dark lashes to her high, delicate cheekbones and the fragile sweep of her jaw. Her lips were full, with the top lip slightly shorter than the bottom, giving her the appearance of a sultry Madonna.

Even tousled and tangled, her hair beckoned him to put his hands in it. Thick auburn tresses waved around her shoulders, spilling over her breasts and back in shining curls. In daylight, it had caught the sun in fiery splinters; at night, it gleamed with a deep coppery beauty that reflected the firelight in elusive glimmers.

Desire hit him then, swift and hard, giving a name to the lure that had drawn him closer to her. This woman reminded him of the more pleasant things in life, before harsh reality had intruded, before he’d turned his back on that way of life.

Hawk’s gaze caught hers again, and he saw the quick widening of her eyes, the lifting of her lashes as she recognized something in his face. It gave him an unsettling feeling.

Pivoting on his heel, he walked away.

"She belongs to Spotted Pony. He is the one who reached her first.” White Eagle peered closely at Hawk. "Do you want her, my tua?”

Hawk did not answer his father. No answer was necessary. White Eagle knew that he wanted her, and that Spotted Pony would demand a huge ransom or a fight as payment. Neither one mattered to Hawk. He would just as soon do one as the other.

Plenty of ponies wore his halter, and he would not miss any for a ransom. And if the truth be known, he was restless and in the mood for a good fight.

He looked toward the center of the camp again. The fires had burned low. Deborah Hamilton had yielded to exhaustion and sat on the ground beside the blonde girl, her head tilted back and her eyes half-closed. She had to be bone-tired, yet she refused to relinquish her vigil. Hawk’s eyes narrowed slightly.

When he looked at his father, White Eagle’s face was turned toward the captives. There was a stark elegance to the older man’s features, a purity of line and bone that would have been called aristocratic if he were white. A faint smile curved Hawk’s mouth. As a Comanche, White Eagle was called anything by the white man but aristocratic.

Hawk hadn’t known what to expect from White Eagle ten years before, nor did he really expect anything from him now. There was an unspoken understanding between them that allowed Hawk to travel his own path without question, coming and going from the Comanche camp whenever he pleased.

Nothing was asked about his life away from the camp in the mountains stretching from Texas into New Mexico; it was as if he didn’t exist once he left Numunuu behind.Numunuu, Comanche for The Comanche People, had given him a vague sense of belonging, after years of aimless wandering.

Those lonely years made him appreciate the sense of family he had now. White Eagle made him welcome. Kwihne tosabitu, White Eagle, had been glad to see his son come home. He never said, but Hawk often wondered if his father disliked seeing him leave to go back to the white man’s world. This time, he’d decided to stay. He would do his best to fit in, to live, raid, even think as one of the People. There was nothing for him in the world he’d left behind, nothing but a sharp sense of failure.

Each time he joined Numunuu, Hawk stayed longer and longer. That made his young half-sister, Ohayaa, happy. Sunflower was a lovely, shy girl of thirteen, almost old enough to marry, but still too young to have a household of her own. She stayed in her widowed father’s tipi with her maternal grandmother, caring for him and her half-brother.

Hawk’s attention drifted back to the woman. She was still awake, still watchful, still hiding her fear. He felt a faint stirring of admiration and was surprised by it. He normally felt nothing for the captives brought in. This one was different, and he didn’t know why. It disturbed him. It left him feeling vulnerable, and he didn’t like that.

Rising to his feet in a swift, lithe motion, Hawk felt White Eagle’s appraising gaze on him as he strode from the camp to the silence of the woods beyond.


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