AUGUST 12, 1868
Julia folded another blouse and laid it
atop the other articles in the trunk. She and Mandy were trying to
select only the items Julia would need for her elopement—to Julia,
“necessity” meant at least one steamer trunk.
“Jason’s so nervous he can hardly eat,”
Julia said. “I think he would have moved his leave forward if the
fort weren’t so darned short-handed. He’s had that wagon he borrowed
packed for three days.” Her clothes were strewn all over Mandy’s
“Well, he only has to wait one more day.”
Mandy handed her cousin a red plaid dress, one of the few practical
dresses Julia owned. “Then as soon as you two get far enough away,
you can get married. You’ll be Mrs. Jason Michaels.”
“Has a nice ring to it, doesn’t it? Mrs.
Jason Michaels. Oh, Mandy, I can’t wait.” Julia’s face glowed
happily, like a little girl whose secret wish was about to come
true. Mandy wondered if her cousin’s bright cheeks reflected her
enthusiasm for getting married—or her anticipation of the honeymoon
ahead. She felt her own cheeks redden at the thought.
“I really think we’ve done a good job of
planning so far,” Julia said. “If my calculations are correct, my
father’s men probably won’t even get here for another week. With our
head start, your three-week trip, and the weeks it will take the men
to return and restart the search, Jason and I ought to have plenty
of time to get married—and enough time alone for Father to worry I
might be pregnant.”
Julia smiled as if Mandy were a naive
child, and shook her head. “Sometimes, Mandy, I just don’t know
Mandy refused to be ruffled.
Julia packed a lacy chemise, then sniffed
a bar of honeysuckle soap Mandy had given her as a present and
packed it away. Suddenly Julia giggled.
“Do you remember the time we put the
Chinese firecrackers in old Mrs. Finch’s stove?
Mandy laughed. “‘We’ didn’t put the
firecrackers in the stove—you did! But it certainly was funny. Mrs.
Finch kept saying, ‘What did I put in those pies?’ She actually
thought she’d made the stove explode!”
Mandy sank down on the bed and wiped tears
of laughter from her eyes. She looked over at the younger girl.
“I’m going to miss you, cousin.”
She and Julia hugged, knowing it would be
months, maybe even longer, before they would see each other again.
But there was no turning back now. Mandy wondered briefly at the
path each had chosen.
She glanced over Julia’s shoulder, her
gaze drawn to the street outside the bedroom window. A man in
buckskins and another in a dusty black suit were being pointed
toward the house. Their horses, well lathered, looked as though
they’d been ridden hard.
“When you get to—”
“Julia!” Mandy interrupted. “Look at those
two men over there.” She pointed down the street. “They’re coming
toward the house. You don’t suppose? . . . Surely your father’s men
couldn’t be here yet!” Mandy peered back out the window.
“Oh, my Lord!” Julia shrieked, quickly
counting on her fingers the weeks since she’d first written her
father. “If he wasted no time, if he was determined from the
start—it might be them!”
The words sent Mandy into a panic. She ran to the window, wringing
her hands. Beads of perspiration gathered at her temples.
What had she
gotten herself into? How could she have ever agreed to Julia’s plan?
She closed her eyes and slowly opened them again. The men were still
coming toward the house—and getting closer.
“We have to be calm, Mandy,” Julia kept
saying. “We’ve played this scene twenty times. We just hoped to have
a little more warning, that’s all.”
Mandy could barely comprehend her cousin’s
words. She couldn’t move or speak. Her eyes were glazing over. The
“posse,” as she had laughingly nicknamed them, looked even more
dreadful than she’d imagined.
“Mandy, please. Just keep calm,” Julia
said, as if Mandy were going to a ball instead of embarking on a
thousandmile journey across the toughest country on the continent.
“Everything’s going to be fine. You go put
on your ‘Julia’ clothes, just in case. I’ll keep an eye on the men.”
They’d altered several of Julia’s dresses—a rose batiste, a soft
pink muslin, a riding habit—by shortening them a few inches and
taking in the waists until the dresses fit perfectly. Mandy hadn’t
worn such pretty clothes in years.
“It probably isn’t even the right men,”
Julia was saying, but she didn’t sound convinced. “I’ll hide in your
father’s room just to be on the safe side. If it is them, you’ll
have to start acting now. You get them away from here. I’ll leave a
note for Mrs. Evans saying you had to leave urgently to visit your
sick Aunt Adelaide over at Fort Casper, just as we planned. I’ll be
sure to tell them an aide from the fort came to take you back. Mrs.
Evans is expecting me to leave, so there’s no problem there. When
I’m finished, I’ll go to Jason. We can leave as soon as it’s dark."
Mandy just stared out the window, unable
to accept any of this as real. It had all seemed like a game up
until now. Learning to flirt, learning to swoon. Julia even gave
Mandy lessons on how to cry on cue, although she wasn’t able to
master the art. Julia’s slim hands on Mandy’s shoulders spun her
“Please, Mandy,” Julia pleaded, “if you
care about my happiness, you’ll do as we planned. You’ve got to keep
those men away from Sacramento City as long as possible. Jason and I
Still Mandy stared blankly, trying to
register her cousin’s words.
Julia closed her eyes. Her bottom lip
trembled, and large tears rolled down her cheeks. It was a good act,
and it always worked. But this time Mandy was sure the tears were
She shook her head as if to clear it,
embraced her cousin quickly, determined not to let her down, and
hurried to her narrow upright chest beside the window. She pulled
out Julia’s rose batiste dress and tugged at the pins holding back
her hair. She stepped into the low-cut dress, designed to display
Julia’s ample bosom, as were all her dresses, and worked the buttons
that closed up the front. Feeling warm air on parts of her skin
rarely exposed caused Mandy’s cheeks to flame. God, how would she
ever be able to carry off such a deception?
She straightened the bodice of the dress
and powdered her nose. Julia grabbed a brush and fluffed Mandy’s
hair, now cut shorter to curl just above her waist. Several wispy
tendrils curled near her ears.
Mandy checked the mirror, adding a little
rouge to highlight her cheekbones and a bit of color to her lips.
The thick swatch of hair she had worn across her face was brushed
back, exposing more of her creamy complexion. Gold flecks, much like
her cousin’s, glittered in her green eyes.
With her chestnut hair brushed out and
curling loosely, her décolletage showing for the first time, and the
tightwaisted dress enhancing the figure she usually took such care
to hide, she looked beautiful. Though she’d always known she was
attractive beneath her plain facade, it felt wonderful now to look
like a woman—a beautiful woman, just like her cousin. If it weren’t
for the circumstances, Mandy would have been thrilled.
They finished in minutes. Mandy summoned
her courage. She knew she looked like Julia, but she certainly
didn’t feel like her. Her whole body felt numb, and there was a
distinct buzzing in her ears.
The men were dismounting in front of the
“You know, Mandy,” Julia whispered as she
headed toward the bedroom door, “going to California might turn out
to be the best thing that’s ever happened to you.”
Mandy sighed. “Maybe—if your father
doesn’t kill me when I get there.”
Julia laughed. “I wish I could be there to
see his face.”
Mandy grimaced at the thought and a sinking feeling gnawed at the
pit of her stomach.
God, she must be
out of her mind!
Three loud raps on the door put the plan
into motion. It was now or never. Mandy checked to be sure her
father’s bedroom door was tightly closed, Julia well hidden within,
as the pounding became more insistent. She squared her shoulders,
tossed back her hair, and marched resolutely to the front door. She
opened the door only slightly.
“Miss Julia Ashton?” A tall, dark-haired
man peered at her through the narrow crack. The man was dressed in a
well-tailored black suit so covered with dust it appeared almost
gray. From his unkempt hair and unshaven appearance, it was obvious
he’d ridden long and hard.
Giving him a look of disdain, as she was
certain Julia would have, she stared haughtily back at the man.
“What do you want?”
He seemed aware of her regard and began
almost apologetically, “I’m sorry my friend and I did not have time
to dress properly for the occasion, Miss Ashton. My name is James
Long, and this is Travis Langley. We’ve been sent by your father to
bring you home.”
Travis Langley! The name sent chills down her spine. She could
barely make out a second shape behind the door, but she remembered
the big man well. Now their plan was doomed to fail before it ever
got off the ground. She stood in the doorway trying to decide what
to do. More than two years.
Would he remember
her? Would he recognize her? She hardly recognized herself.
“Noooo!” she cried, slamming the door in
their faces and throwing the bolt. She could hear their voices
through the planking.
“Damn! We should have known better,” said
“Now we’ll have to break in,” grumbled
Mandy dashed for the window, lifted the sash, climbed over the
sill, and slid to the ground, running out through her tiny garden
and off toward the stables. She knew they would catch up with her,
but she needed to give Julia time to get to Jason. Her heart beat
wildly. She couldn’t believe she was actually doing this. And now
she had Travis Langley to contend with. Of all the bad luck!
How could fate
have sent someone she’d met before?
Hawk wedged a steel-hard shoulder against
the pine boards of the door. The wooden latch snapped easily,
propelling him into the room. James followed close behind. Chintz
curtains billowed through an open window, making it clear the lady
“You follow her. I’ll circle around and
cut her off,” Hawk directed. James nodded and ran for the window as
Hawk made his way back out the front door. It would be easy for him
to overtake her small stride. Hawk’s temper flared as he pictured
the disheveled young woman with the ample bosom, chestnut hair, and
wide green eyes he’d glimpsed through the crack in the door. She was
definitely not the child-woman he’d expected. Her breathtaking
appearance had caught them both off guard. He wouldn’t let it happen