Authors: The Captain's Woman
Sam ended the argument by tucking Victoria’s arm in his. “I’ll escort you home. As you said, it’s only a few blocks. And it gives me a chance to talk to you about what happened last night.”
The warmth that had coursed through Victoria moments ago was nothing compared to the fiery heat that suffused her now. Not for the world would she admit that the last thing she wanted was to
about last night. What she wanted, rather desperately, was to repeat it.
“I want to apologize, Victoria.”
“You were a guest in my sister’s home last night. I shouldn’t have abused her hospitality by trifling with you the way I did.”
Victoria would hardly classify that shattering kiss as a mere trifle. That Sam viewed it as such stung. Rather badly.
“As best I recall,” she returned, “it was
Perhaps I’m the one who should apologize.”
“Perhaps you should,” he agreed with a quick grin that almost—almost!—disarmed her. “As I said, you took me by surprise last night. That’s no excuse, however. I’m sorry. I assure you it won’t happen again.”
That wasn’t at all what she’d hoped to hear him say. The fool! The blind, chug-headed fool!
THE COLONEL’S DAUGHTER
THE HORSE SOLDIER
A SAVAGE BEAUTY
This book is dedicated to the nurses
and Red Cross workers I served alongside—
with my most profound respect and admiration.
February 15, 1898
henever Victoria Parker looked back on the cold, snowy night that plunged her into a wrenching passage from girl to woman, her heart would ache at the absurd arrogance of youth.
She supposed more generous souls might excuse her conceit that blustery February night. After all, she’d celebrated her seventeenth birthday only a few months before. Not only did she stand poised and eager on the brink of womanhood, but she thrilled to the promise of the new century about to dawn.
The old world was rapidly giving way to the new. Electric lights now flickered in most major cities. All across the country, female suffragettes were demanding the same right to vote that the state
of Wyoming had granted its women two decades before. Railroad tracks and telegraph lines now spanned the American continent, once so vast and seemingly limitless. And for just a few pennies, eager patrons could enjoy rousing concerts, touring vaudeville acts or that incredible new invention, the moving picture show. With the utter confidence of the young, Victoria quite honestly believed the coming century held only the promise of grand adventures and great passions.
Not that she was unaware of the dark clouds gathering on the horizon. After thirty-five years of peace following the War Between the States, a strident call to arms was once again sounding across the country. It had begun three years ago, when Cuban rebels mounted yet another insurrection to throw off the yoke of their hated Spanish masters. To deny the rebels their supply and support base, the Spanish military governor had moved hundreds of thousands of peasants off their farms into reconcentration camps. There they died, day after day, week after week, from sickness and starvation.
American businessmen with interests in Cuban sugar plantations had raised the initial alarm. With their profits threatened by the continuing turmoil, they’d become increasingly vocal in their demands for intervention by the United States. American reporters in Havana had added to the urgency by detailing in their dispatches the atrocities committed
by Spain. Some of those stories, to be sure, contained as much fiction as fact. But moral outrage over the situation in Cuba ran high, and newspaper giants like Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst shrewdly continued to fan the flames with story after story. Victoria herself had contributed to the war fever by helping her papa draft indignant editorials about the abysmal situation.
Her thoughts that fateful February evening weren’t centered on war or female suffrage, however, or even on the plight of the Cuban peasants forced into
Her most pressing concern as she sat before the dressing table in an upstairs bedroom at the Double-S ranch was her hair.
“Wherever is that maid?”
Grimacing at her reflection, Victoria struggled to tame her strawberry curls into the smooth, pouffy chignon made so popular by Charles Dana Gibson’s sketches. At the same time, she kept an ear tuned to the faint sound of laughter and the chink of glasses drifting from the floor below. Elise Sloan’s birthday party was already underway. If Victoria didn’t hurry, she’d miss the festivities completely.
She and her parents had intended to arrive early, but a sudden fall of snow had made the eight-mile carriage ride to the Sloan ranch outside Cheyenne an exercise in sheer determination. Elise and her mother, Suzanne, had escorted the late arrivals upstairs to thaw out and change. Unfortunately, the
maid who had delivered a pitcher of hot water and promised to help the young miss dress must have been diverted by other duties.
Eager to get downstairs, Victoria snatched hairpins from the dressing table and stabbed them into her scalp. The chignon slipped precariously to one side.
And here she’d so wanted to look her best tonight!
Ordinarily, Victoria didn’t concern herself unduly with her appearance. She didn’t have to. Her mother’s inherited wealth and her father’s prominence as owner of one of the city’s leading newspapers assured her place in Cheyenne society.
Her parentage aside, Victoria could, quite without conceit, take satisfaction from her natural attributes. The nipped-in, hourglass fashions of the day perfectly suited her narrow waist and generous curve of bust and hip. Her sparkling, china-blue eyes and Cupid’s-bow mouth had inspired some rather wretched, if enormously flattering, poetry. But it was her dancing smile, disguising as it did the hint of obstinacy in her nature, that enchanted every unattached male within two hundred miles.
Elise’s handsome young uncle, Samuel Garrett. The former cavalry officer who persisted in treating Victoria with careless, big-brotherly affection. The
man she’d known most of her life but only decided to marry a year ago.
She remembered the date exactly. March 22. Sam had just resigned his cavalry commission and returned to Cheyenne to take over management of the Garrett family’s business affairs.
Victoria had barely turned sixteen and was thoroughly enjoying the attentions of her many admirers. She’d also just begun scribbling quaint little stories for her father’s paper and was quite puffed up with her own importance. Yet she’d taken one glimpse of the tall, broad-shouldered officer who stepped off the train and experienced the most ridiculous, most intense quivers in the pit of her stomach.
In the months since, the odd sensations had intensified every time her path happened to cross that of Elise’s uncle. Since Sam and his parents, like Victoria and hers, lived in town, that occurred with satisfying frequency.
Not that Sam had any inkling of her tumultuous emotions, of course. Although spoiled outrageously by her doting mama and papa, Victoria was Wyoming-bred and range-smart beneath her sugar-spun beauty. She possessed far too much intelligence to let Sam Garrett know he set her pulse to pounding whenever he handed her into a carriage or took her in his arms for a waltz.
But tonight, Victoria thought, stabbing another
hairpin into the soft, shining swirl, she intended to bring the man to his knees.
“There! That will have to do.”
Satisfied that the loose chignon would hold, she swung around to survey the dinner gown hanging on the wardrobe door. A small, feline smile curved her mouth. If the yards of exquisite lace decorating the sapphire velvet didn’t start Sam sweating beneath his frock coat, the scandalous neckline would surely do the trick. No doubt the icy winds rattling the windowpanes would raise gooseflesh all over her arms and chest, but she considered the chill a minor inconvenience in her carefully planned campaign.
Now she needed only to squeeze into her new, straight-front corset, lace up her petticoats, pull on the deliciously wicked gown and float downstairs to join the party.
The sound of footsteps brought her off the dressing stool. She could manage the corset strings herself if necessary, but needed the assistance of another woman to achieve a truly wasplike Gibson Girl waist. Hoping it was the maid, Victoria threw her flowered silk robe over her chemise and knickers and peeked through the door.
The sight of a slender, black-clad female making her way down the hall brought an exclamation of relief.
“I’ve been waiting for you. Do, please, come and help me with my corset strings.”
The young woman who turned in response to her summons looked nothing like the Irish maid who’d delivered the hot water earlier. Instead of a snub nose and slightly crossed blue eyes, she possessed the unmistakable features of a Plains Indian. Her broad cheeks and dark eyes bespoke Sioux, or perhaps Cheyenne, blood. So did her raven hair. She wore it parted in the middle and braided into a heavy knot at the back of her neck.
Victoria couldn’t remember seeing her at the Sloan’s sprawling ranch house before, but servants arrived and departed with regular frequency in the West. Particularly young, attractive females like this one.
“I’m rather late,” Victoria admitted with a rueful smile. “Will you assist me?”
“Yes, of course.”
The reply was low, melodious and surprisingly cultured. Her skirts rustling, the woman glided back along the hall. When she stepped into the light thrown by the electric sconce, the glow cast a rich sheen over her dress. The black gown might be plain and rather too large for the wearer’s slight build, but it had been cut by the hand of a master. As had the jet choker encircling her slender throat.
Victoria was just beginning to suspect she’d mis
taken another late arriving guest for a servant when footsteps pounded up the stairs behind them.
“There you are!”
The rich, deep baritone spun her around. Her pulse leaping, she watched Sam mount the last few stairs and hurry toward her. He was so tall, so weathered by both his native Wyoming winds and his years in uniform. And so strikingly handsome in the white tie and tails he’d donned in honor of his niece’s birthday! Below his thatch of light brown hair, streaked by the sun and rigorously pomaded into a neat part, his eyes gleamed with eager anticipation.
Shivers of delight raced across Victoria’s skin. He’d never looked at her with such warmth before. Of course, he’d never seen her in only a chemise, knickers and a thin silk robe before. A blush heated her cheeks, but she retained enough presence of mind to tilt her head to a coquettish angle.
“You must excuse my—”
“They just told me you’d arrived!”
Startled, she realized Sam wasn’t addressing her. Or even looking at her.
His entire attention was fixed on the black-gowned woman. Catching her about the waist, he swung her in high, exuberant circles. Victoria jumped back, flattening herself against the wall just in time to avoid a sturdy boot square in the chest.
Laughing, the recipient of this rough-and-ready treatment braced her hands on his broad shoulders while she was swung in yet another circle.
“For pity’s sake! You’ll make me dizzy.”
“It would serve you right for slipping upstairs without so much as a hello.”
“I peeked in the drawing room. You were surrounded by Elise’s friends. All of whom appeared quite taken with her handsome uncle, I might add.”
He lowered her to her feet, a crooked grin slashing across his face. “There’s no accounting for the tastes of silly schoolgirls, is there?”
Victoria went rigid against the wall, but Sam remained too engrossed with the other woman to notice. His gaze roamed her upturned face with a hunger that slowly shaded to worry.
“You’ve lost weight. You’re thin. Too thin.”
Since his hands still circled her waist, Victoria thought waspishly, he was certainly in a position to accurately assess her condition.
“It’s been almost two years since John died,” he said, his voice gentling. “Do you still grieve for him?”
“I will always grieve for John Prendergast. He was my friend and my teacher as well as my husband.”
Prendergast! Victoria’s eyes widened. She’d
heard that name many times from her friend Elise. So this must be Mary Two Feathers Prendergast.
Elise had told her all manner of stories about the woman. Her mother, Bright Water, had been an Arapaho healer and a close friend of Elise’s own mother. Supposedly, Suzanne Sloan had wrangled an invitation for Bright Water to go East and study medicine with a Philadelphia physician. After an outbreak of typhoid decimated her tribe and took Bright Water’s life, her daughter had gone in her stead.
A mere slip of a girl, Two Feathers had taken a Christian name, trained with the gruff John Prendergast and eventually married him despite the wide disparities in their ages and backgrounds. Widowed several years ago, she’d returned to treat those of her tribe who still lived on the Arapaho reservation.
But why had she traveled to Cheyenne, so far from Wind River? And in this weather?
Evidently the same questions occupied Sam’s mind. Scooping up the coat the young widow had dropped when he’d spun her off her feet, he tucked her arm in his.
“Let me escort you downstairs to join the rest of the company. I’m anxious to hear why you’re traveling through the snows of winter.”
“I must wash my hands and tidy my hair before I’m fit for company,” she protested, drawing free.
“And,” she added with a smile for Victoria, “I must help this young lady finish her toilette.”
Sam acknowledged her presence for the first time. “Oh, hello, Victoria.”
To her sudden, sweeping fury, he actually reached out and chucked her under the chin.
“You’d better hurry into your dress. There’s a young lieutenant from Fort Russell downstairs who’s been pestering Elise for the past half hour, wanting to know where the devil you’re hiding yourself.”
“Indeed?” she said frigidly.
“Indeed,” he echoed, grinning, before his glance returned to the widow. The teasing light Victoria so detested faded from his eyes. “I’ll make sure my sister seats us next to each other at dinner. We’ve some catching up to do.”
“Yes, we have,” she answered, skimming a glance down his elegant frock coat and shirtfront. “I’ll tell you what brought me to Cheyenne and you must tell me how you find life now that you no longer wear a uniform.”
He hesitated for the barest fraction of a second before giving a careless shrug.
“Well enough. I’ll see you ladies downstairs.”
Their gazes on his broad back, neither woman moved. Still smarting from his avuncular and wholly patronizing caress, Victoria quietly seethed.
Mary watched him with a more thoughtful expression.
“He has a warrior’s heart,” she said softly, almost to herself. “Like his father.”
“I beg your pardon?”
With a little shake of her head, the widow turned aside the question. “Shall we do up your corset so you may find this lieutenant Sam speaks of?”
“Thank you, but I shall manage. I don’t wish to delay you when you have your own toilette to attend to.”
“A few more moments won’t matter. Come, let’s strap you in.”
Victoria’s entrance into the drawing room some ten minutes later went a long way to soothing her pique over Sam’s cavalier treatment.