Chapter OneMontana Territory, 1870
She would never, in her long, long life, forget that first sight of him, riding through fresh snow high as the breast of his Appaloosa stallion, with the sky broad and ice blue at his back. Never forget those gleaming golden moments when she thought he was someone he was not.
Abigail, her six-year-old daughter, stood beside her at the window, perched on an upturned crate and peering through breath-fogged glass. "Look, Mama, he's come for us! I told
you he would -- isn't he spectacular?"
Evangeline Keating bit her lower lip, tying to diffuse the swell of reckless anticipation and plain fear rising within her. The rider was indeed "spectacular," at least in build; his shoulders looked muscular and broad under his fleece-lined leather coat, his legs were long and straight, and he handled the reins with an easy grace that testified to a deep affinity with horses.
She could not make out his features, nor the color of his hair, for he wore a battered hat, pulled down low over his face, no doubt as a protection against the cold wind of that morning when a heavy snow had arrived early, catching the landscape by surprise.
She didn't really need to see him clearly, for she carried his likeness in her reticule, and had studied it over and over again. "Spectacular," Evangeline echoed at last. She was thinking of what would be expected of her, once the ceremony had been performed, and almost, but not quite, regretting her decision to come west and marry Mr. John Keating, her late husband's prosperous cousin. It wasn't as though she'd had any real choice, after all. Charles had left her with nothing, willing his farm and other assets to his son, Mott, conceived of his first, true and sainted wife, Clara.
Mott had expected to inherit Evangeline, along with the property and his father's money, a prospect that still caused her to shudder whenever the thought overtook her in an unguarded moment. Their small Pennsylvania town had been depleted of eligible men, as had the surrounding countryside, owing to the ravages of the late and tragic conflict of arms, and Evangeline, left with no honorable means of support, was desperate to marry.
Just when she'd begun to fret that she would have to give in and accept Mott Keating as a mate -- his father, at least, had been a mild-tempered man, if not precisely kind -- the letter had arrived. Mr. John Keating, a lonely but well-situated rancher, wrote to extend his condolences. He also enclosed a murky tintype of himself and a bank draft of not inconsiderable size, made out to Evangeline.
If she cared to make the journey west, he stated, he would marry her and raise her daughter as his own. He claimed to be an easy-going man, God-fearing, with simple wants and expectations. He had been among the first to drive cattle up from Texas, and there was a good, sturdy house on his property, one that wouldn't let in the rain. He had a fine and trustworthy partner, who kept mostly to himself. The work was hard, he admitted, and the ranch was a lonely place, there being few folks about. There were virtually no women, no schools as yet, and no churches, although Mr. Jacob McCaffrey, who, with his wife, June-bug, ran the Springwater station, a stagecoach stop some ten miles away, could be persuaded to preach a sermon now and again.
Evangeline had packed her and Abigail's few belongings into a single trunk, and ridden the railroads from Philadelphia to St. Paul, where they had boarded the first of numerous stagecoaches, traveling across the Nebraska and Montana Territories. The journey had taken weeks, calling upon every personal resource of courage, stamina and persistence Evangeline possessed. Only hours ahead of last night's blizzard, exhausted, hungry and cold to the marrow of their bones, mother and daughter had at last reached the Springwater station, where the McCaffreys, had made them welcome.
The rider gained the barn, dismounted and, after dragging open the door, led the puffing horse inside. In a few minutes, he came out again, blowing clouds as he slogged toward the station. When he raised his head and saw Evangeline and Abigail at the window, a grin flashed across his face, as dazzling, in its own way, as the sun-washed snow.
Evangeline stepped back quickly, reached up to touch her hair, which was an unremarkable shade of blonde, by her reckoning, but very neatly tended. She was, at her own assessment, neither plain nor pretty, with her tall, sturdy frame and strong hands. She had brown eyes, good teeth, healthy skin, and a shy, rare smile. She knew how to work, she was honest, and she was smart with numbers and words. She could grow vegetables, raise chickens, milk cows, keep a clean house, cook and sew. All in all, she was quite adequate as wife material.
She shook out the skirts of her blue calico dress, musty from so many weeks closed up in the travel trunk, and when she looked up, her gaze collided with that of June-bug McCaffrey, a small, gracious woman with a compassionate manner.
Mrs. McCaffrey glanced at her husband, Jacob, who was seated near the natural-rock fireplace, mending a harness. He was a gentle soul, impressive in size, with a somber expression and a head full of dark hair.
"Now, June-bug," he said quietly, "don't go interferin' in this."
Evangeline had almost worked up the nerve to ask what he meant -- it wasn't the first such exchange between the two since she'd arrived and stated her intention to marry John Keating -- when there was a thunderous knock at the heavy door, only briefly preceding a rush of winter air and the entrance of the tall man she expected to marry. Behind her, Abigail, who hoped for a pony of her own, not to mention a father, fairly jumped up and down with excitement.
Evangeline might have introduced herself, indeed, she was just stepping forward to do so, when the newcomer swept off his hat, revealing a head of fair, sun-streaked hair. His finely made face was ruddy with cold, and the look in his eyes, a bright blue green, was at once curious and amused, chagrined and bold.
Evangeline's stomach, wedged into her throat only a moment before, plummeted back into its rightful place, landing with a sickening lurch. "You're not Mr. Keating," she managed.
He studied her for what seemed like a long time, his expression unreadable. Then, at last, he replied. 'No, ma'am," he said simply. "I'm not."
While Evangeline was absorbing his announcement -- Abigail, hovering at the edge of her vision, was still at last -- the man held his hat in both hands and nodded to the McCaffreys. "Jacob," he said, by way of acknowledgment "Miss June-bug."
"You'll want some hot coffee, after a ride like that," June-bug decreed, bustling between the three trestle tables set out for the service of guests, with the stove as her intended destination. She was trim, with brown hair only faintly touched with gray, radiant skin, and eyes of an intense blue. "Some breakfast, too, I'll bet. You sit yourself down."
Evangeline stood stock still, afraid to move or speak. The man might well be an emissary for her future husband, but an inner sense, coupled with the odd glances the McCaffreys had been passing back and forth, told her that something was very wrong.
Mr. McCaffrey, ever the gentleman, set his harnesses aside and stood, running his broad, work roughened hands down the sides of his black woolen trousers. "Mrs. Keating," he said, after clearing his throat once, "this here is Scully Wainwright. He's partners with Big John, there at the Circle JW. Scully, this is Mrs. Keating."
Woodenly, Evangeline put out a hand. Wainwright hesitated, then wrenched off his heavy leather gloves and reciprocated. "Mrs. Keating," he said. There was a steadiness in him that ran deep, she sensed that right away, and despite a slight twitch in his jawline, he didn't once try to skirt her gaze.
"I was expecting my future husband," she said. No sense in beating round the bush, Evangeline thought.
He sighed, thrust a hand through his wild-man hair. Whoever he was, he needed tending to; his beard was growing in, his hair was shaggy and up close she could see that his shirt-collar wanted turning. No doubt he had holes in the heels and toes of his socks, too.
"You better tell her straight out," Jacob said, taking Wainwright's coat and moving away. There was in Jacob's manner something of a man who has just flung a handful of gunpowder into a bonfire.
"I was hoping you would have done that already," came the rueful answer. Scully didn't look away from Evangeline as he spoke, but she could tell he wanted to, nonetheless.
Abigail had come forward now, to stand just behind Evangeline, clutching her mother's skirts with small, strong hands.
Jacob took up a place beside June-bug, at the other end of the long room, with its exposed beams, spotless tables and plank floors. They conferred quietly as they worked at busy, invented tasks, and made a point of paying no attention to the drama unfolding just out of earshot.
Wainwright gave another sigh. "Big John isn't here. Right now, it's just me, the ranch, and a few cattle," he said, all in one breath.
Evangeline considered what it would mean to journey back to Pennsylvania, persuade the scorned Mott to marry her after all, and felt her courage wane with such swiftness that she had to sit down on the bench beside the nearest table. Abigail clung to her even more fiercely now, all her attention fixed on the towering form of Scully Wainwright.
He must have looked like a giant to the little girl; even to Evangeline, he was Goliath. The obvious fact that he was the most reluctant of messengers made no difference. It appeared that she and Abigail had traveled a long, hard road for nothing.
"What," Evangeline forced herself to begin, "do you mean, Mr. Keating isn't here? He wrote to me, proposing matrimony. He sent a bank draft..."
Wainwright sat down at the end of the bench, straddling it, resting one elbow on the t...