Jude brand

Behind the Ranges, Book I

If a valley full of gold doesn't tempt him to stay with her, will love be strong enough to overcome his wanderlust?

The Queen of Cherry Vale cover
eBook ISBN 978-1-60174-009-0
The Queen of Cherry Vale cover
Trade Paperback ISBN

"...a beautifully written adventure rich with historical detail, finely-drawn characters, and gripping drama."~~Muriel Jensen

Hattie saw her salvation coming over a hill. Dropping the Dutch oven carelessly into the coals, she ran to meet him.

He halted as she came up to him. She thought his nose twitched, and she wished she'd known he was coming. She could have washed her face with her precious lilac soap.

She stood before him and looked up into those far-seeing blue eyes and wondered if she had the courage to do what she must.

"Evening, ma'am," he said, and his voice was the same deep rumble she remembered.

"Good evening," she said, hearing her own voice high and trembly. "It's Mr. Lachlan, is it not?" The colonel had spoken to the factor at Fort Hall and learned that Emmet Lachlan was a man to trust. If he couldn't get them safely to the Columbia, Captain Grant had said, no man could.

He inclined his head, and his lips moved into that mocking smile again. "It is indeed. And how may I be of service to you?"

From the gleam in his eye, she had a feeling she knew exactly how he'd like to be of service to her, but he made no threatening move, nor was there disrespect in his voice.

Hattie bit her lip, wondering if she was mad. She'd been ready to go to the colonel, to plead with him for a few more days to decide. Of all the possible candidates for her husband, only Bruce MacLeod came close to someone she could imagine in her bed. The others made her cringe with disgust or shiver with loathing. And while Bruce was hale and hearty, he was still nearly sixty and set in his ways.

"Ma'am?" He was watching her, until Hattie felt like a mouse under a cat's scrutiny.

"I'll tell you what you can do to help me, Mr. Lachlan. You can marry me."

The ruddy firelight showed Emmet enormous eyes, a tip-tilted nose, and a mouth made for kissing. He smelled her fear and something more.

A faint echo of lilacs.

There was no fear in her face, though, only resolution, as she lifted a proud chin. "Why?" he demanded. Any notion this crazy had to have a pretty good reason and he wanted to know what it was.

She nibbled her lower lip with white teeth. He waited. Finally she looked up at him. "Because I need a husband and you look like a good man."

A man's voice raised in anger, a woman's shrill reply, came from the wagons circled not fifty yards away. "Come on," Emmet said, grabbing her wrist and leading her back the way he'd come, down the narrow trail to the creek and up the other side. He had no idea what she was up to, but he'd have no eavesdroppers while he found out. She followed, unresisting. When she stumbled he slowed, reminded that she was a woman, and small. And weak.

The bonfires between the wagons were mere sparks in the darkness and her face was only a paler shape floating in the night when they reached his camp. "I don't need a wife," he said, "but I'm willin' to listen." His hands itched to touch more than her wrist. He settled on one of the angular black rocks that littered the canyon's edge. "Talk."

He sensed, rather than saw, her rubbing the wrist he'd pulled her along by. "I said it all," she told him. "I need a husband." This time her voice trembled slightly. "As far as Oregon, anyway." The last was spoken over her shoulder as she turned away from him, to face into the night.

"Why? Are you breeding?"

His eyes, once more adapted to the night, were held by her fragile nape as she shook her head. Thus he saw, rather than heard, the deep sigh that lifted, then lowered her shoulders. He saw how worry or exhaustion weighed them down. And again he caught the faintest odor of lilacs, more like a memory than a scent.

"There's a rule in the train," she said, her voice tight and bitter-sounding, "that there's no single women allowed. If I don't choose my own husband tonight, the colonel will choose one for me. I don't like any of his candidates, so I chose you."

"How'd you manage to stay unmarried this long?" he said, thinking that the men in the Whitehead train must be curiously blind not to have seen her beauty, her fire.

"Two weeks?" She grimaced. "Back where I come from, a widow gets a year to mourn."

Emmet hadn't had much schooling, but he could add two and two. "You're the widow?"

She nodded, and he thought he saw the sheen of moisture in her eyes. "My husband--Karl--had camp fever. He died the day before we got to Soda Springs."

This was the first time he'd heard of a rule like that, although he knew some of the trains were like petty dictatorships. Pegleg Smith had been yarning one night they'd camped together. He'd told of a train where the captain decreed all dogs were to be shot. Most had, before some of the members stood up for themselves. And there was the one in which each family had to have a testimonial from a pastor, that its members practiced humane and Christian principles. "Why didn't you go back," he asked, "when your husband passed on?"

"I can't. Not now. Not after it's cost me so much to get this far." Her eyes closed, her mouth twisted. "And there's nothing to go back to."

"What will you do when you get to the Willamette Valley? You can't farm alone."

"Why can't I? Karl wasn't really a farmer. He was a cabinetmaker. I took care of the livestock and the orchard. Silas and me, that is."

"Who's Silas?" he demanded, knowing her too young to have a son to help her farm.

"He's...he's my hired man. And he's my friend."

Conscious of an unreasonable jealousy of Silas, Emmet said, "I'm no farmer."

She looked away, showing him a profile so pure, so lovely he ached. "I don't want a husband who'll stay with me, just one who'll get me there."

"Say I was to marry you and see you to the Willamette," he said. "Would you share my bed on the way?" Damn! Just thinking about her naked and writhing in his arms was getting him hard.

He felt her tension as she pulled away. He let her go, having trapped more than one frightened critter with patience and gentleness.

"I need a man to drive my wagon," she said, standing just out of reach, "and to help with the chores. That's all. Thank you kindly for considering my proposal, Mr. Lachlan. I should have known you weren't interested." A small sigh came to his ears, so faint that he might have imagined it. "I'll be going now. We start out early in the morning." She all but disappeared in the darkness.

He strode after her, catching her as she attempted to pick her way along the narrow path that slanted along the canyon wall. "Wait," he said again, holding her with a light touch on her arm. "You've got to chose a husband tonight, or the colonel will do it for you?" He deliberately put his contempt for the pompous train leader in his voice.

He sensed rather than saw her nod.

"Whoever he picked, you'd have no choice about where you slept?"

This time he felt the movement of her head as her hair tickled his chin.

"So why not me?"

"Because...." Her words came to his ears like a whisper of wind. "...because I'm afraid I could come to care for you."

Once Emmet had found responsibility thrust upon him, and when it ended he'd sworn he'd never again take another's fate into his hands. Now he saw the trap he most dreaded yawning at his feet. Saw it, and still he stepped willingly off the edge and into its teeth.

He couldn't help himself. She was so brave. So comely. And she smelled of lilac.

"I'll see you to the Willamette and I'll hunt for you and guard your stock," he said, taking her hand and guiding her along the trail until the wagons were again in sight. Before he released it, he pulled her briefly against him, wanting just one more hint of her lilac scent. "And I'll sleep alone," he said into her hair, knowing it was about the most damfool promise he'd ever made.

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