Trace was on foot when she saw him again, carrying a saddle over one shoulder, a gloved hand grasping the horn. His hat was pushed to the back of his head, and his pale, sun-streaked hair caught the sunlight. His blue-green eyes flashed bright as sun on water, and the cocky grin she knew oh-so-well curved his mouth. Oh, yes. Even from the other side of Primrose Creek, Bridget knew right off who he was -- trouble.
She had half a mind to go straight into the cabin for Granddaddy's shotgun and send him packing. Might have done it, too, if she hadn't known he was just out of range. The scoundrel had probably figured out what she was thinking, for she saw that lethal grin broaden for a moment, before he tried, without success, to look serious again. He knew he was safe, right enough, long as he kept his distance.
She folded her arms. "You just turn yourself right around, Trace Qualtrough, and head back to wherever you came from," she called.
No effect. That was Trace for you, handsome as the devil himself and possessed of a hide like a field ox. Now, he just tipped the brim of that sorry-looking hat and set his saddle down on the stream bank, as easily as if it weighed nothing at all. Bridget, a young widow who'd spent three months on the trail from St. Louis, with no man along to attend to the heavier chores, knew better.
"Now, Bridge," he said, "that's no way to greet an old friend."
Somewhere inside this blatantly masculine man was the boy she had known and loved. The boy who had taught her to swim, climb trees, and ride like an Indian. The boy she'd laughed with and loved with an innocent ferocity that sometimes haunted her still, in the dark of night, after more than a decade.
Bridget stood her ground, though a fickle part of her wanted to splash through the creek and fling her arms around his neck in welcome, and hardened her resolve. This was not the Trace she remembered so fondly. This was the man who'd gotten her husband killed, sure as if he'd shot Mitch himself. "You just get! Right now."
He had the effrontery to laugh as he bent to hoist the saddle up off the ground. Bridget wondered what had happened to his horse even as she told herself it didn't matter to her. He could walk all the way back to Virginia as far as she cared, long as he left.
"I'm staying," he said, and started through the knee-deep, sun-splashed water toward her without even taking off his boots. "Naturally, I'd rather I was welcome, but your taking an uncharitable outlook on the matter won't change anything."
Bridget's heart thumped against the wall of her chest; she told herself it was pure fury driving her and paced the creek's edge to prove it so. "I declare you are as impossible as ever," she accused.
He laughed again. "Yes, ma'am." Up close, she saw that he'd aged since she'd seen him last, dressed in Yankee blue and riding off to war, with Mitch following right along. There were squint lines at the corners of his blue-green eyes, and his face was leaner, harder than before, but the impact of his personality was just as jarring. Bridget felt weakened by his presence, in a not unpleasant way, and that infuriated her.
Mitch, she thought, and swayed a little. Her bridegroom, her beloved, the father of her three-year-old son, Noah. Her lifelong friend -- and Trace's. Mitch had traipsed off to war on Trace's heels, like a child dancing after a piper, certain of right and glory. And he'd died for that sweet, boyish naïveté of his.
"I've got nothing to say to you," Bridget said to him.
He took off his hat and swiped it once lightly against his thigh, in a gesture that might have been born of either annoyance or simple frustration, the distinction being too fine to determine. "Well," he replied, in a quiet voice that meant he was digging in to outstubborn her, should things come to that pass, "I've got plenty to say to you, Bridget McQuarry, and you're going to hear me out."
His gaze strayed over her shoulder to take in the cabin, such as it was. The roof of the small stone structure had fallen in long before Bridget and Skye, her younger sister, and little Noah had finally arrived at Primrose Creek just two months before, after wintering at Fort Grant, a cavalry installation at the base of the Sierras. Right away, Bridget had taken the tarp off the Conestoga and draped it over the center beam, but it made a wretched substitute. Rain caused it to droop precariously and often dripped through the worn cloth to plop on the bed and table and sizzle on the stove.
Trace let out a low whistle. "I didn't get here any too soon," he said.
Just then, Skye came bounding around the side of the cabin, an old basket in one hand, face alight with pleasure. She was sixteen, Skye was, and all the family Bridget had left, except for her son and a pair of snooty cousins who'd passed the war years in England. No doubt, Christy and Megan had been sipping tea, having themselves fitted for silken gowns, and playing lawn tennis, while Bridget and their granddaddy tried in vain to hold on to the farm in the face of challenges from Yankees and Rebels alike.
Good riddance, she thought. The last time she'd seen Christy, the two of them had fought in the dirt like a pair of cats; they'd been like oil and water the whole of their lives, Christy and Bridget, always tangling over something.
"Trace!" Skye whooped, her dark eyes shining.
He laughed, scooped her into his arms, and spun her around once. "Hello, monkey," he said, with a sort of fond gruffness in his voice, before planting a brotherly kiss on her forehead.
Bridget stood to one side, watching and feeling a little betrayed. She and Skye were as close as two sisters ever were, but if you looked for a resemblance, you'd never guess they were related. Just shy of twenty-one, Bridget was small, with fair hair and skin, and her eyes were an intense shade of violet, "Irish blue," Mitch had called them. She gave an appearance of china-doll fragility, most likely because of her diminutive size, but this was deceptive; she was as agile and wiry as a panther cub, and just about as delicate.
Skye, for her part, was tall, a late bloomer with long, gangly legs and arms. Her hair was a rich chestnut color, her wide-set eyes a deep and lively brown, her mouth full and womanly. She was awkward and somewhat dreamy, and though she was always eager to help, Bridget usually just went ahead and did most things herself. It was easier than explaining, demonstrating, and then redoing the whole task when Skye wasn't around.
"You'll stay, won't you?" Skye demanded, beaming up at Trace. "Please, say you'll stay!"
He didn't so much as glance in Bridget's direction, which, she assured herself impotently, was a good thing for him. "I'm not going anywhere."
Behind the cabin, in the makeshift corral Bridget had constructed from barrels and fallen branches, the new horse neighed. He was her one great hope of earning a living, that spectacular black and white paint. She'd swapped both oxen for him, barely a week before, when a half dozen Paiute braves had paid her an alarming visit. His name, rightfully enough, was Windfall, for she'd certainly gotten the best of the trade. Granddaddy would have been proud.
People would pay good money to have their mares bred to a magnificent horse like Windfall.
Her little mare, Sis, tethered in the grassy shade of a wild oak tree nearby, replied to the stallion's call with a companionable nicker.
A muscle pulsed in Trace's jaw. Even after all that time and trouble, flowing between them like a river, she could still read him plain as the Territorial Enterprise. If there were horses around, Trace was invariably drawn to them. He was known for his ability to train untrainable animals, to win their trust and even their affection. All of which made her wonder that much more how he'd come to be walking instead of riding.
"Where's the boy?" he asked. "I'd like to see him."
Bridget sighed. Maybe if he got a look at Noah, he'd leave. If there was any justice in the world, the child's likeness to his martyred father would be enough to shame even Trace into moving on. "He's inside, taking his nap," she said shortly, and gestured toward the cabin.