Unbroken Hearts, page 1part #1 of Easton Hearts Series
Sarah pulled her arms from the dress and lowered the bodice until it hung loosely around her waist. She heard Cal's sharp intake of breath.
She felt clumsy. Her hands trembled. Naked to her hips, her mind made up, she boldly turned back to face him.
"Sarah! What are you--"
Her jades locked onto his golden browns. "You said we could be together whenever and however we want." Her face pinched with determination, and her eyes flickered back and forth as she desperately searched for words for the union she'd never known. "I want you to do it. With me."
The longing in her eyes shattered him. Gently he reached his hand to touch soft skin as his eyes devoured the round white fullness of her breasts.
"Sarah, you're sayin' you want to be my woman. Now? You're sure?" His voice was low, hoarse.
She nodded and whispered and fisted her hands. Despite the threat from Crane, despite the humiliation of the white pony, despite her station in life, she would have him. . . .
A Romance of the West
By Anna Murray
Unbroken Hearts, Copyright 2008 by Renee Murray. All rights reserved.
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever, without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews.
Sarah Anders soldiered up the trail, her brow creased with pain, exhaustion, and frustration. Even the buffalo grass, clinging to balding wheel ruts, was betting against her.
She slowed, and her green eyes slid back along the wagon track to settle on a splitting shoe seam. Tugging soberly at loose brown tresses that hung about her oval face, she considered her dim prospects.
A scant hour had passed since the trainmaster had brutally culled them from the string; now the remnant rumbled away into a vast horizon, oxen toiling heartily, straining against canvas-covered box wagons in their attempt to escape the hellish heat. A half-mile distant, Sarah could hear Charles Petit's voice pounding out a bass murmur. It was punctuated by the hiss of snapping whips drifting back like sharp accusations.
"Keep the pace! Yer draggin' us back!"
She smiled bleakly at the memory of "Cap'n Chawles". A burly-boned bull and stern as a schoolmarm, with a lump of tobacco packed firmly in cheek, he was true to the nickname. Ghastly lips gushed oil between gaps in his black teeth, and the captain's low growls paralyzed every soul, right down to little Lars Bentsen.
Thus it was when Uncle Orv's wagon hit a hole and came up lame. Petit cussed. In a hastily-called wagon council meeting four weary men caved to his decision: Sarah, her sister Emily, uncle Orv and cousin Joey would be left behind to make repairs as Petit's flock moved on. The halted party was left to catch up as best it could.
Sarah stared at the waving grass, shy prairie dogs, and buzzing insects surrounding the broken-down rig. Sighing, she lifted her mud-caked skirt and made her way over uneven ground to the makeshift camp where pot-bellied Orv grunted and rose from a squat alongside the wagon.
Orv's hungry eyes squinted as he raked her rail-thin form. She stood warily at a distance, squaring herself to blunt his anger. Better me than Emily, she thought.
"Gal, don't jis stand there!" Orv flung a hammer though the air. It landed three feet short of his target. "Git yerself an' that good-for-nuthin' chit down ta' dat water. We's got shirts need washin'."
Sarah bowed her head slightly. She'd spent eight of her nineteen years with this ginned-up guardian. She knew better than to argue.
She spun on her heel and hailed Emily.
Em was intent on braiding blades of grass. Sarah waved again and caught the child's gaze. She signaled the order to collect dirty shirts and trousers. In short order Emily was twisting pants and shirts into a ball she tucked tightly against her chest.
Sarah ventured a glance at Orv, who was busy shoveling a batch of grief to his son. Recalling the lazy stream they'd passed, she stole the opportunity to grab their last sliver of lye soap and two towels. A proper wash would surely mend her mood, she thought.
Orv was cursing over the toolbox when the girls slipped away.
Sarah and Emily wandered over a rise and down a hill, where they were welcomed by rough growth hugging a lazy stream. Pausing at the steep bank, Sarah winked playfully at Emily.
"I say we shuck and wash ourselves first."
"You bet!" Emily eagerly bobbed and dropped the burdensome laundry. They stripped down to drawers and camisoles, and gingerly waded into the cool water. Shivering like new colts as they stood in the sunless shelter of the scrub pine bank they giggled through chattering teeth and splashed their arms, legs, and faces. Emily's blond mane and Sarah's deep cinnamon flew like pennants on the warm breeze.
"Captain Petit said we'll be safe?" Emily's hands plumbed the water and spun tiny whirlpools.
Sarah smiled at the tiny hands and voice. "Truly. No Indians," she cooed as she ran the soap up an arm and rubbed.
Indeed it was hard to let go of the nagging fear. Every night on the trail they'd observed the men taking precautions to ward off a surprise attack. The camp was made in the open, in the shape of a large circle. Oxen, horses, and dogs were placed outside the circle, and the resulting arrangement looked like a western corral. Guards were assigned, and these were changed three times during the night.
Suddenly a shout pierced through the howling wind. The sisters froze and strained forward. Joey? More shouts came, undeciperable, but the gunshots that followed needed no translation.
Emily blanched. Her blue eyes flew wide with terror, and her throat tightened around a strangled sound.
"Hush!" Sarah exhaled.
Needles pricked painfully as she grabbed at a tree branch, and sticky pine tar coated her hand. Wincing, Sarah pulled and scrambled out of the water, straight up the steep bank. She seized onto Emily's hand, half-dragging the young girl behind her.
They reached flat ground and found their clothing. Four shaking hands worked frantically, pulling dresses over soaked drawers and camisoles.
"Get down!" ordered Sarah.
The girls slid onto their bellies, and inch-by-inch, like ants, they crawled up the hill until they could see the trail. Sarah kept Emily close at her side, shushing her every few feet. Upon making the top she pulled Emily behind the cover of a large rock.
Without a second thought, Sarah threw her damp, sticky body over her sister and burrowed her half into hot dirt. An eternity seemed to pass before she stoked up the courage to peer around the rock edge and down the brushy slope.
Then she pushed up, and breath rushed from her at the sight that unfolded below. Two ugly, leering men pawed through their possessions, which had been tossed haphazardly off the wagon.
Her eyes collided with the worst of it: Splayed lifelessly on the ground were Uncle Orv and Joey.
Oh my God. Oh my God. Sarah sucked in short, ragged gasps.
Over her hammering heart she heard snippets of bandit conversation, riding on stiff gusts up the gentle slope. Sarah's quaking knees pushed to get a better look at the outlaws.
"Where'd da' sonofabitch keep his money?" spat a ruddy-looking man. His appearance was mean; a scar traced straight across his neck where he'd been hard-bitten by a hangman's rope.
"Ya' check dem bodies?" This erupted from a shorter, bulgy-eyed man.
Sarah's eyes burned with helpless anger at the plundering. The older man unhitched and slapped old Buck and Whistler. As the oxen trotted away she noted that two fingers were missing from the man's right hand.
The murdering devil-banter continued as Sarah shifted and dragged her feet
"Yay . . . here 'tis, bottom o' da' tool box . . . jus' twenty-five dollar. Damn it! What dem thinkin' totin' puny cash?"
"Lookie, dis' fiddle be worth somethin'!"
Sarah's heart sank. The fiddle, cradled with its bow in a wooden case, had been her father's joy. It was the last she had of him and their sweet musical evenings together. Papa had taught her to play jigs, reels, and waltzes. Inside she was screaming with fury.
One aching foot slid out from under her.
Three-Fingers' head flew up.
Sarah 's heart beat thunderously
"Thar's someone thar!"
The scar-necked man drew a pistol from his pants and ran up the hillside, ripping round the rock.
Sarah groaned. They'd been discovered!
"Ho! What 'ave we here!"
Three-fingers ran to join his partner. "Couple o' skirts!"
"Aye, this one's wee," he observed, his flint-eyes skipping off Emily. Then he grabbed Sarah's arm, hauled her up, and shoved her against the rock.
"P-please, don't hurt my sister!"
"Naw, you got mo' fer a man," he spat, and his eyes strayed down to her full breasts, made more prominent by her gaunt frame. Scar-neck twisted her arm, painfully driving her to the ground.
Sarah felt the wind knocked from her as he slammed his body down upon her. She began to struggle against his weight and sweat. Oh, but he was strong.
She felt him tugging at her dress, wrenching at the tired fabric until it was twisted above her knees. Oh God. Oh God. The wretched man was ripping at her drawers and digging those awful, dirty fingers into her smooth skin.
As he reached between them she tried to bring her knee up. She bit hard on his neck. Angered, he drew a knife and slashed her leg, drawing blood. Leaning on one elbow he brought the knife to her face, threatened, grunted and kicked her knee down. Then he fumbled to loose his belt. This task complete, he moved to find the slit in her drawers. Sarah's back and head throbbed, and her body grated against the hard packed trail.
"Hurry up!" Three-fingers poked a sharp boot toe at Scar-neck's backside.
Scar-neck ignored his friend.
"Damn, you hear? Injuns is comin'!"
But I ain't got in her yet!"
The Indian threat persuaded Scar-neck to draw himself off Sarah. His face and neck were brightly flushed.
"Next time gal," he panted.
Sarah's back and thigh hurt, and she was only dimly aware of the bandits hurriedly moving away from their hideous crimes as they swung onto their horses and bolted. Their fleeing hooves echoed a dull and hollow thud.
Dazed, Sarah quickly brought herself up and reflexively pushed her dress back down.
Emily was several feet away, rocking back and forth on her knees, biting at her fist and moaning as if she'd been punched in the belly.
Sarah jumped to her feet. She wobbled, slumped back to the ground, and was sick. After a minute she wiped the back of her hand across her brow.
"I'm ok. It's ok," she insisted. "Did they hurt you?" She sat up again and met Emily's gaze.
The younger girl stared at the blood smeared on the back of Sarah's hand. "No. Oh but Sarah, he hurt you."
Anger rose in Sarah. She'd worked hard to protect her sister's precious childhood after her own had been shattered. No good could come from talking about this assault, she thought. "Em, I'll be all right. I'll be ok." She hiked up her dress to examine the wound on her thigh. It would likely leave a scar. She pressed her hand against it to stop the bleeding.
"Yes," she replied tersely as she twisted her hands across her midsection. "Listen," Sarah breathed low, "forget what you've seen! There's no use in dwelling on it."
The young girl bit her lip and nodded.
They heard hoof beats approaching. More trouble was riding straight for them.
"Indians!" Emily shrieked and pointed.
They sat erect on their sturdy horses, midnight hair and trappings floating on the breeze. Naked above the waist, their legs hung bare, all long sinewy copper muscle.
Slack-jawed, Sarah stared at the men. The strange natives appeared as mystical silhouettes against the rolling velvet-prairie backdrop. The pair paused at the scene of the tragedy, and the older one dismounted and walked around the wagon, slowly and quietly surveying the damage. His wary ebony eyes lit upon Uncle Orv and Joey.
Standing a scant distance away from the carnage Emily trembled and glued herself to Sarah's side.
The Indians appeared to understand what had happened to the pioneer family. They spoke in low tones, in a strange language.
Sarah was focused keenly on the older warrior. While his body and face were stone, she saw something akin to sympathy flash in his eyes. The younger Indian advanced, prodded the bodies, and retreated back onto his horse when the older one waved him away. Then the elder looked into Sarah's face, saw the blood on her hands, and he pointed to a grass-overgrown spur path.
"To your people. Not far." He gestured toward the north and swiftly stepped onto his mount. The Indians dug their heels into the horses and rode off, leaving the dazed sisters clutching each other and staring.
The wind howled a lonesome refrain while Sarah moved slowly and deliberately to clean up the camp. A rush of emotions flowed through her, and suddenly she felt limp.
And yet, they'd survived. She ripped a strip from a clean rag, tied it around her wound, and collected the remnants of their clothing and personal items, shoving them into a satchel. As afterthought, she picked up Orv's battered portable writing desk -- a simple wooden box that held his letters.
Drawing what strength they could muster from each other, Sarah and Emily linked arms and walked briskly up the path toward the town.
Miss Lola Brackle could scarcely believe her good luck.
At last the ill winds of her fate had shifted, and sweet destiny had driven a beautiful drifter straight through her whiskey-stained front door.
Oh yes, she'd do nicely. Lola's mortared face transformed from an aging granite fortress to softness stirred with sweet emotion. Paint and powder couldn't conceal the anticipation shining deep in her pigeon-gray eyes.
Leaning stiffly against the doorjamb Lola sized up the lovely-but-destitute young woman who sat fidgeting on Lola's best shipped-all-the-way-from-New-York parlor sofa -- a cherished piece that had escaped tobacco spittle, beer tipples, and assorted other fluids common to her business.
It was always something, Lola thought.
The madame drew a deep breath, and on the exhale she felt a curry brush dragging up her throat, riding on the burning aftertaste of the previous evening's brandy. Oh yes, always something.
Grimacing, Lola turned her attention to another something, making a quick assessment of the damage left in the wake of the previous night's gale. The relentless crashing of bone-jarring gusts had finally eased to a gentle ripple, and now smooth waves rolled calmly across the prairie grasses. Slanting her gray eyes upward, Lola's gaze slid across her five fancy windows. Only one had suffered a slight crazing down the right-most pane.
Then her gaze lit again upon that best something,the fine young filly, trimmed with silky chestnut hair, comely green eyes, and a cameo-ivory face. After a cleaning and brief initiation to the business, thought Lola, this little something, slender but sturdy, would truly be grand.
Madame Lola gleefully folded her hands together. The girl's youthful body would yield a mother lode, certainly more than enough to escape the rising debt she owed her loan-vulture landlord, Mr. Jack Dullen.
Lola scowled at the thought of Dullen; the man had gone and raised the rent, just as she was getting ahead. Her stomach roiled as she recalled his demands to be her partner, and in more ways than one.
Yet, Lola had found success in a town where a woman needed the bra
Suddenly the new something raised a trembling hand to her throat and coughed. Startled, Lola broke from sweet reverie and raked her fingers through her orange hair. Surely, she told herself, any slight illness could be quickly brought to heel or, God help her, staved off with medicines. She prayed it wasn't consumption.
The young woman coughed again. Lola felt urgency bite at the pit of her belly. She wasn't a heartless woman; she'd thought to give the new girl a day to rest, to get situated, eat a few good meals, and feel safe. Now Lola released all good intentions, and, unyoked from her conscience, she steered a new course.
This time the prize won't slip through my grasp, she promised. A pink flush rose in her ruddy cheeks, and she resolutely locked plump hands together. After all, business was business. This dove was as pretty as any decent woman in town. Prettier, damn it. The girl would look downright stunning wearing a fancy frock instead of that coarse old work dress.
In her mind Lola sorted through the house wardrobe. Her eyes darted fiercely to and fro as she pondered each dress, assessing the color, cut, and fit. An inexplicable motherly pride gripped her as she chewed on details of jewelry and makeup. She thought about how fortunes could rapidly change in a one-horse mining town.
Lola grunted, awkwardly dragged herself into the parlour, and settled with a graceless thud on the sofa next to the girl.
"You ever entertain men?"
Lola's tone was easy, as if she were commenting on the weather or a new cake recipe. She plopped her hands onto massive thighs and sat back heavily, jarring tendrils of bright hair loose and sending them burning down the sides of her puffy cheeks.
The girl's smooth expression drew into a frown, and she studied the smoke-soiled paintings sprawled across the uneven ceiling.