Three nightmarish years of marriage had shattered Brianna Wight’s sheltered world. Faking her own murder, she fled St. Louis…harboring terrible secrets that could mean her death.
The tragic loss of his Indian wife left Columbus Nigh a wanderer; necessity made him a wilderness guide. But now he found himself drawn to the enigmatic woman who’d hired him to lead her westward. Her gentle strength stirred his lonely heart…her tender beauty aroused his deepest passions.
But the perils of the Oregon Trail paled beside the murderous wrath of the man who tracked them across the harsh frontier. Brianna knew the only way to save herself and Columbus was to risk their tender love. Only then could she free herself from the horrors of the past—and embrace a rapturous future.
St. Louis, Missouri, April 1849
Brianna Wight’s heart pounded as she reluctantly followed her housekeeper’s son inside the dingy, cavernous livery stable. She felt as though she were entering the very bowels of hell.
Heat from the blacksmith’s shop blasted her delicate skin through her clothes and fluttered the veil covering her face as she waited for her eyes to adjust to the darkness. The flames leaping from the forge and the murky silhouettes of men, dancing about the fire like so many devils, were all she could make out.
Harsh, angry voices flew at her out of the blackness, like hurtled knives. Instant terror stiffened her body and she threw up an arm to shield her face.
“Wait your turn, stinkin’ squawman. Whaddya need yer horse shod for anyways? It’s only one o’ them Injun ponies. Get back to yer slut squaw an’ have her pick the lice from yer hair, why doncha?”
The voice that answered was soft, deep and—Brianna thought—deceptively calm, but the words were unclear.
“Why, you bastard!” the first voice yelled.
The sound of flesh and bone striking flesh and bone froze Brianna. Her heart stuttered. That sound was entirely too familiar, as was the pain that always followed. She tensed, waiting to feel the expected blow.
Instead, a man sailed toward her out of the smithy. Brianna screamed in the instant before he slammed into her. Together, they tumbled to the straw-littered floor in a tangle of arms, legs and skirts.
“You blasted squawman!” someone bellowed. “Look what ya done now. Get up, damn you! That’s a lady you’re laying on.”
Brianna fought for air and shoved frantically at the heavy man weighing down her already bruised and battered body. Pain from a hundred places threatened to rend her unconscious. Inside her head, a voice shouted,“It’s not Barret! Not Barret!” But the fear had her in its grip. She could not stop batting for her life, as she had been forced to do, so many times before.
Close to her ear a low rumbling voice muttered, “Hellfire! Give it up, woman. I ain’t gonna hurt you.”
Hands like steel bands pinned her wrists to the hay-and horseshit-strewn dirt floor. His panted breath warmed her cheek, smelling of tobacco, and, oddly enough, apples. Brianna felt her breasts flatten against his hard chest, felt that same hard chest expand and deflate along with hers, as they each gasped for air. Something stirred inside her, something she had never felt when Barret held her this way, something that left her confused, as well as scared.
“All right,” the low voice rumbled. “I’m gonna get up now.”
The weight lifted from her body. He towered above her, ten feet tall and at least three across. As she lay there staring up at him through her veil, still fighting off the fear, he reached down to offer her a hand up. She could see better now, well enough to note that his palm was dirty and callused, the smallest of the long, slender fingers missing a joint.
“You all right?” he asked, not unkindly.
Before she could gather enough sense and wind to answer, Sean and his mother were there, bending over her. Brianna groaned as they hauled her to her feet. Every bone in her body ached. It was all she could do to stay upright while Mrs. O’Casey brushed the dirt and straw from her rumpled skirts. She refused to give way to the tears and pain and terror that threatened to engulf her. If she couldn’t even survive one day of freedom without knuckling under, how would she live long enough to start a new life?
The stranger, glowering now at something said behind him, turned away. Muttering what sounded like a vile curse in a foreign language, he launched himself at his antagonist. Brianna and the O’Caseys barely made it out of the way before both men came hurtling toward them again, locked in a death grip, grunting, cursing, and sweating. Sean shouted for the liveryman.
Big enough to pull a wagon to Oregon by himself, Moses Longmire shoved one brawler up against the wall. The other he restrained with only a gentle hand on the man’s heaving chest. To the latter he said, “Calm down, Nigh. Ain’t nothing but a Kentucky farm boy, not worth bruising your knuckles on.”
Now that she was standing, Brianna saw that the man, Nigh, who had knocked her down, was tall—though ten feet was an exaggeration—and lean and lanky, all sinew and muscle without an ounce of fat to spare. His shoulders were broad, hips slim, legs muscular and slightly bowed from too many years on horseback. She blushed at the sight of his naked shoulder protruding from the neck of his buckskin hunting shirt where it had been half torn off him. As though aware of her reaction, he shrugged back into the thigh-length garment with easy grace.
Never had she seen a man like him. Half the whangs were missing from the fringed seams of his shirt and there was enough grease and ground-in dirt on it to bury a horse. If not for the lightness of his long, shaggy hair and the darker stubble on his face, she would have taken him for a savage.
“Sorry, Longmire.” Nigh wiped his bloodied mouth on his sleeve. “Bastard insulted my wife.”
There was arrogance as well as defiance in the way he flung his dirty, matted hair from his eyes. Brianna cringed at the idea that he might be throwing lice on everyone. When he picked up a wide-brimmed felt hat decorated with feathers and snake skin, and slapped it against his knee, she sneezed at the dust.
“Now why’d he go an’ insult Little Beaver?” Longmire was asking him.
The Kentuckian, still pinned to the wall, answered for himself. “She’s a squaw, ain’t she? I heard you askin’ about her. If you ask me, anybody who’d lie with a whorin’, lice infected squaw ain’t got no right walking the same streets as decent folk. Them red heathens wouldn’t hesitate to slit the throat of a white man. And I say whites as who mates up with ’em ain’t no better.”
Longmire glared at the man. “You know, Nigh, I’m wondering now why I tried to save that scum’s life.” With a wink he stepped away.
Swift as an arrow, Nigh let fly with a blow that knocked the air from the young Kentuckian’s lungs with a whoosh. A right cross finished the man. His eyes eased shut and he slid to the ground in an undignified heap. Nigh straight¬ened and dusted off his hands, while Longmire cackled gleefully.
“Goshdangit, Nigh, you ain’t lost none of your sap, have you, old hoss? That big mouth’s been hanging ’round here for days, haranguing me about the price of my oxen. You know dang well I’m cheaper than anybody else in town.”
For the first time, Longmire noticed Sean O’Casey standing with his mother and a woman in widow’s weeds. He hurried over and spoke to the widow: “Ma’am, you must be Sean’s friend, the one what needs to get to Independence. I hope you’ll overlook my friend’s rough-house behavior.” He jerked a thumb at Nigh. “’Twas the Kentuckian’s fault. Believe me, ordinarily, Nigh here’s as calm an’ reliable as an old granny.”
Even in the dim light Brianna could see the outraged pride still simmering in the plainsman’s stormy gray eyes, putting the lie to the liveryman’s words.
Stepping closer, Nigh squinted at her as though trying to see beneath the concealing veil. “Meant ya no harm, ma’am.”
Beside her, Sean coughed and cleared his voice. “Er, Mrs. Wight? This here’s the man I told you about, Columbus Nigh. He’s the one Ma and me hired to guide you to Independence.”
Brianna’s mouth opened but no sound came out. In horror, she stared at the crude, dirty man standing before her. Her stomach heaved. The room began to spin. A man with lice in his hair who lived with a squaw. A man as violent as the one she was running away from.