Authors: Wild Heart
A Division of Diversion Publishing Corp.
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New York, NY 10016
Copyright © 1995 by Jane Bonander
All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book or portions thereof in any form whatsoever.
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First Diversion Books edition May 2013.
For my editor, Caroline Tolley
With special thanks to Don and Marsha Stewart, who live in the shadow of the Devil Mountain and have requested a story be set there; to Jack Harrison, Director of Outreach Docent for the Shadelands Museum, for his wonderful tour; and to Liv Harper, for getting me out of my painted corner. Again.
rapped in a blanket and buried alive.
Angus squatted next to the howling bairn, studying it. Thick, black hair grew low on its forehead. Eyebrows, dark as Satan’s, were pinched together over eyes that were squeezed shut. Its mouth was open as it continued to wail, lips quivering over toothless gums.
Angus raised his eyes to the river, as if searching for the transgressor who had buried the babe and left it to die. He couldn’t imagine a woman doing such a thing, not even here, in the devil’s own wilderness.
When he’d first heard the bairn’s cries, he’d thought it was an abandoned coyote pup. But as he’d drawn closer to the mound of Indian manzanitas, he knew he was wrong.
Angus unwrapped the babe. It was a boy. Pudgy arms and legs kicked free, flailing in the air. The length of the cord that had once supplied him with life lay slack against his belly. It was just beginning to shrivel. With one great breath, the bairn inhaled, then expelled a sound that came from deep within his lungs. A harsh, scolding sound that undoubtedly condemned those who had put him there. An arrogant sound, to Angus’s ears, coming from one so small.
The babe stopped crying when Angus touched him. He opened his eyes, which were a stormy blue, the color of the skies over Angus’s Scottish homeland. Angus fingered the blanket, noting that it was not an Indian wrap. But the child was a half-blood, in spite of the color of his eyes.
Angus stood, hands on hips, and studied the boy. What in the devil would he do with a bairn? Baptiste, his trapping companion, would no doubt drive a stick through the child’s heart and roast him for dinner, reminding Angus that they did not need another mouth to feed, especially one that could not feed itself.
But Baptiste’s squaw might take pity on the squalling thing. After all, it was half Indian. He couldn’t very well leave the boy by the river to die.
Stepping to his saddlebag, Angus pulled out a flask of whiskey and two sugar lumps, giving one to his mount. The other he wrapped inside his bandana and dripped whiskey over it. He returned to the bairn and, with clumsy hands, picked him up, resting him in the crook of his arm. The babe latched on to the sugar tit, and within moments was asleep.
Angus put him back on the blanket and wrapped him in it once again. “Aye, laddie,” he whispered, “even in repose ye look angry with the world.”
He wondered at a woman who could dispose of her flesh and blood like animal scat. He glanced toward the north, toward John Sutter’s adobe-walled fortress of New Helvetia, and wondered if perhaps the woman had come from there. A servant, maybe. Someone who wouldn’t be examined too closely as her time for birthing came.
He got to his feet and returned his gaze to the boy. Again, thoughts of what he’d do with such a handful troubled him greatly. Dare he keep him? Raise him as his own? Could he, Angus McCloud, be a father? Aye, as odd as it might sound to others, he could imagine such a thing. The thought was not distasteful to him.
There were many times when he yearned for some of the softness that had been in his early life, back in Scotland. When he tried very hard, he could transform bird song into music, and envision his sweet mother playing Mozart on her tinny piano.
He was still a stranger in this rough, harsh land, but he desperately clung to his memories lest he become as callous and vulgar as Baptiste.
Returning to his saddlebag, he removed the wooden box that held his beaver castoreum, then scooped out a handful of mud, depositing it on the grass near the water’s edge. He put a small portion of the yellow gummy castoreum from the beaver’s gland on the mud, hoping to lure a beaver to his trap, then returned the box to its place.
He picked up the bairn again, and, anticipating the vile, howling protest from Baptiste’s tongue, he nevertheless swung himself and the bairn into the saddle and headed for their cabin in the woods.
Those were the words that had come to Julia’s mind weeks before, when she’d first glimpsed the new man her father had hired. Now, as Wolf McCloud disappeared into the barn, those words rang in her ears again.
It had been a mistake to employ him, but her father wouldn’t have believed her even if she had expressed her misgivings to him. She couldn’t claim that the man didn’t work. He was the best man they’d ever hired. It was all those other things about him that bothered her every waking minute. Who was she kidding? He’d even begun to invade her dreams.
She glanced at baby Marymae, who kicked happily on a blanket nearby, then leaned on her hoe, unable to get the man out of her mind. Disreputable. Dangerous. Even that very first day, she’d read him like one reads a book.
Inky hair to his shoulders and dark, dusky skin that hinted at his Indian blood. Cheekbones sharp enough to cut glass. The flash of white teeth behind a cocky smile. His blue eyes, rimmed in brown, hinted at an impulsiveness that wasn’t safe to trust. When he sat astride his stallion, arrogant and bold, his hips and thighs moved rhythmically, suggestively, with the horse’s gait. The name … Wolf … was fitting in its texture, for it conjured up further wariness in those wise enough to sense it.
Yes, she’d read him like a book. Unfortunately, it was not the kind of book a decent young woman should read, although Josette devoured them like berries and sweet cream. If they had been fattening, her sister would be enormous.
Wolf McCloud emerged from the barn and strode toward Julia, appearing every bit as malevolent as a dime-novel villain. Her pulse quickened and she lowered her head, hiding her face beneath the brim of her father’s battered hat. She hacked away at the dirt around her pole beans with a vengeance.
“Well, good morning, Miss Julia.”
Lord, even the sound of his voice was indecent, sending tattletale shivers over her flesh. “Good morning.” Her answer was abrupt.
“You’re looking especially lovely today. Not many women could wear that getup and still look like a woman.”
She tensed against his mockery, knowing full well how she looked in her father’s old woolen trousers and oversized shirt.
“Save your breath, Mr. McCloud. Your glib tongue does nothing for me.” She wasn’t as easily bamboozled as her sister. Josette fawned and preened around him like a fool. Sadly, that was her normal behavior around
“Ah, lovely Julia, you have no idea what my tongue could do for you.”
The innuendo sent a rush of blood to Julia’s cheeks, and her heart pounded foolishly. She wondered again, for the umpteenth time, why he’d been hired. She also wondered why she didn’t report his insolence to her father.
“And please,” he added, his voice smooth as whiskey, “as long as our tongues have become so intimate, why don’t you call me Wolf?”
In spite of the blush that prickled her neck, she stopped working and looked up, catching the smile that tugged at his lean, sensuous lips. Wolf, indeed. A preposterous name for any man but this one.
“Why, I’ve made you blush.” He sounded pleased.
“Don’t flatter yourself. I know your kind well, Mr. McCloud. You’re certain your shocking mouth will make a woman clasp her hands to her bosom and swoon. I find it in poor taste and, much as you’d like to think so, not the least bit provocative.”
“I see.” He studied her, his face thoughtful but his eyes dancing with danger. “But you’ve used the words mouth … bosom … and taste … all in one sentence, Miss Julia.
who’s being provocative?”
Her traitorous nipples tightened beneath her shirt. It was the way he’d drawn the words out, that’s all. She had no control over her body, but she certainly had control of her own mind. With the hoe gripped in her fists, she dug fiercely at the dirt. “I will not give you the satisfaction of continuing this ridiculous verbal sparring, Mr. McCloud. I have work to do. I’m sure you do, too.”
He leaned close and pulled the brim of her hat up so he could look at her. “But it’s not verbal sparring, Miss Julia.”
“Well, please entertain me with your vast knowledge of words, Mr. McCloud. What else would you call it?”
He gave her a lusty, sin-filled smile. “Why, verbal intercourse, naturally.”
She felt the words as though they were fingers, stroking the fires of her latent desires. With the utmost effort, she bent to her task again, more to keep him from seeing the effect his words had on her than anything else. She knew that beneath her prim exterior was a darker side. A side that was drawn to the danger this man exuded.
A side I will keep hidden until I take my last breath on this earth, so help me God.
Marymae let out a baleful cry, jerking Julia out of her foolish musings. She dropped the hoe and hurried to the blanket, lifting the baby into her arms. When she turned, Mr. McCloud was still standing on the other side of the garden.
“Pretty baby. A girl, right?”
Julia looked into Marymae’s big, blue eyes, a trait both she and Josette shared. Now, at two and a half months of age, her fair hair had golden highlights, like Josette’s rather than Julia’s own, which reminded her more of wheat than of a precious metal. “Yes, she is pretty. But surely, Mr. McCloud, you didn’t come over here just to accost me with words or admire the baby. What do you want?”
His eyes always held a hint of something besides the mockery that was always there. She refused to look too deeply, for she might see it—that elusive, unspoken invitation that she’d met up with before in another man, and had foolishly answered.
He pulled his bandanna off and wiped his face, then snaked the cloth inside his shirt collar and wiped his neck. The shirt gaped, exposing a hard, bare chest, sleek with sweat. Julia’s mouth went dry.
“Is your sister around?”
Her spine stiffened automatically, and she put Marymae on the blanket. Her conversations with men always came around to Josette. “She’s in the house.” Probably reading one of those dreadful novels, Julia thought, her lips pursing. Josette was always in love with the idea of being in love, and those novels fed her foolish fantasies.
“Ah. Do I detect a note of disapproval? Or maybe it’s jealousy. You want me all to yourself, is that it?”
“Don’t be a fool. If it were up to me—” She stopped, warmth flooding her. If it were up to her, she’d fire buckshot into his retreating behind.
“If it were up to you—what, Miss Julia? What would you do with me?”
Never in her life had she met a man as bold and outrageous as this one. His very existence made her life miserable. He was a threat to her sanity, even if he only invaded her mind … and her dreams.
“What I would do with you is against the law, Mr. McCloud.”
He tugged playfully at the brim of her hat and smiled that smile again. “Sounds … provocative.” How glibly he threw her word back into her face! “Would I enjoy it?”
“I doubt it.” She gave him a secret smile of her own. “But I would.”
He threw his head back and laughed, a sound that sent her blood racing again. “I’m sorry we have to stop this verbal intimacy, Miss Julia, but I
looking for your sister. She has requested my services this morning, and your father approves.”
Oddly, he often sounded so … civilized, as if there were another man imprisoned inside this one, screaming to get out. She pursed her lips again, cursing her thoughts. It was only her imagination; he was what he appeared to be and nothing more.
McCloud studied her. “But I can see that you don’t approve, Miss Julia.”
“You can bet I don’t, Mr. McCloud. I can think of many things you could be doing rather than entertaining my sister.”
“Like, entertaining you?”
She nearly snorted. “It’ll be a cold day in hell before that happens.”
She returned to the garden and bent to her task again, grateful her face was hidden beneath her floppy-brimmed hat. She couldn’t understand why Papa gave Josette permission to take the ranch hands away from important work just to ferry her about. He didn’t seem to realize that Josette needed protection from men like Wolf McCloud. Not that it would do any good; Josette always found a way to disregard propriety and do what she pleased.
“Anyway, Josette has work to do,” she lied. “I’d rather you didn’t disrupt her routine.”
“And, her routine would be …” He paused, waiting for her to explain. Even without looking at him she noted the skepticism in his voice.
“Her routine is none of your concern, Mr. McCloud. Just take my word for it.”
Behind her, she heard the door open. Josette’s tinkling voice followed. “Good morning, Mr. McCloud. Were you looking for me?”
As usual, Josette sounded cheerful and ready to face the world, so long as the world revolved around her.
Julia continued working on the garden, gripping the hoe handle hard as she attacked the dirt around the squash. Josette invited the advances of men, pirouetting and dancing for them. Julia drove them away, thrusting and parrying her tongue like the sharp blades of a shiv. She hadn’t always been that way. She’d been a much softer woman once—before Marymae’s father swaggered into their lives. Sometimes she wanted to blame Josette for everything, but Josette was exactly what she and Papa had made her: frivolous, selfish, and unconcerned with anyone’s needs but her own.
“Yes, ma’am. You wanted me to drive you to that patch of gooseberries, remember?”
Julia felt a stab of anger. Gooseberries, indeed. Lord only knew what they would do when they got there.
“Oh, piffle, Mr. McCloud, don’t call me ma’am. Save that word for Julia. Call me Josette. Please.” She gave him a dimpled smile. “I’ve even brought a basket for the berries. See?”
Julia turned to watch her sister, whose innocent beauty went no deeper than the skin. At times like this, when she desperately wanted to see Josette’s flaws, she could find none. On the outside, Josette was lovely. Even in her plain blue calico, she was a vision. Her golden hair caught the sunlight, causing her to appear utterly angelic. Which was not possible, given Josette’s weakness for men.
Julia sighed, dropped the hoe between the rows of squash and went to pick up Marymae, who was fussing again. It was time for her nap, which was the perfect excuse to escape into the house. Julia couldn’t stop what she certain would happen, anyway. Not this time. But she sure as hell could prevent it from happening again. She would see to Mr. McCloud’s termination when her father came in for lunch.
“Why don’t you and the baby join us, Miss Julia?”
The invitation came as such a surprise, she almost choked on her tongue. “Don’t be ridiculous. I don’t have time to—”
“Oh, poor Julia never lets herself have any fun,” Josette interrupted. “She never learned how.”
The resentment that Julia was usually able to suppress flooded her, and she felt a sick knot of anger unravel in her chest. Flinging her sister a veiled look of hostility, she answered, “Marymae must be fed, then put down for a nap. I hardly have time to go gallivanting around the countryside, looking for
“Another time, then, Miss Julia.”
Although she didn’t hear any sarcasm in his words, Julia refused to look at him, for she knew she’d see it in his eyes. That, or gratitude that she wouldn’t be intruding on their little twosome.
“Josette,” she called, “be back before lunch.”
“Oh.” Josette’s delicate hand flew to her mouth. “Lunch. I should have thought to have Julia pack us one, Mr. McCloud.”
Julia rested Marymae against her shoulder and rolled her eyes to the heavens as she walked to the house. It would never dawn on Josette that if she wanted to go on a picnic, she could pack the lunch herself. Julia wanted to blame Papa for her sister’s behavior, but she knew she had to take part of the responsibility for it herself.
“I’m afraid I have work to do this afternoon, Miss Josette,” McCloud said. “I can’t be gone too long.”
“Oh, pooh,” Josette answered, making a moue. “I’d hoped we could spend the day together.”
Wolf McCloud actually chuckled. “As entertaining as that sounds, Miss Josette, I wasn’t hired to be your escort.”
Julia paused on the porch, taking her time, hoping to catch the rest of the conversation. She knew exactly what would happen if her sister and that … that rake-hell spent too much time together. She was afraid it might already be too late.
“Oh, but Papa would let you spend the day with me if I asked him,” she said, her voice sweetly seductive.
Julia could stand it no longer. “Josette!” She turned and glared at her sister. “Mr. McCloud has to drive a load of walnuts into Walnut Hill this afternoon. He is
here as your personal companion.”
Josette bit down on her lower lip and gave Julia one of her practiced looks of injury. She even had tears in her eyes. “Don’t shout at me, Julia, dearest. Please, don’t shout.”
Julia took a deep breath and shook her head. “Just … just don’t be gone too long, all right?” She eagerly escaped into the house to prepare lunch for Marymae.
But once inside, she crossed to the window and watched the buggy move away, Josette clinging possessively to Wolf McCloud’s hair-dusted forearm. Her stomach pitched downward, and she knew her worries were well founded.
She moved quietly around the kitchen, mulling over how she would approach Papa about her fears. She didn’t think she was jealous or selfish. In spite of what had happened between her and Josette, she considered herself quite generous.
But if Papa allowed Wolf McCloud to stay, Julia was certain that in nine months, perhaps even less, she would have another baby to care for. And that one wouldn’t be hers, either.
“Papa, Mr. McCloud is a dangerous kind of man to have around.” Julia had met her father at the washstand on the back stoop when he’d come in for lunch. She wanted to speak with him before Josette returned.
“Well, dang it, Julia. He’s a good worker. I hate to have to let him go. He’s the best man I’ve ever hired.”