Authors: Gail Ingis
Table of Contents
SOUL MATE PUBLISHING
Cover Design by Fiona Jayde
This book is a work of fiction. The names, characters, places, and incidents are the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, business establishments, locales, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
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Published in the United States of America by
Soul Mate Publishing
P.O. Box 24
Macedon, New York, 14502
The publisher does not have any control over and does not assume any responsibility for author or third-party websites or their content.
Most of all, thanks to my husband, Tom Claus,
who edited and proofed every word.
He helped with research, especially geography,
and reminded me of the difficulties and dangers
19th century travelers faced crossing the Wild West.
Tom has shown me what happily ever after means.
For that, and for a million other reasons
this book is dedicated to you, Tom.
Thank you to editor Tammie Bairen at Soul Mate Publishing for her enthusiasm for this book, and for Debby Gilbert’s publishing and support.
My gracious thanks to my great friends and cheerleaders of the Connecticut Chapter of Romance Writers of America without whom this journey would not have been possible, and especially the mighty Kristan Higgins who suggested I join CTRWA and who carried, encouraged, nurtured, and mentored me from the beginning.
Personal thanks to fellow writer, Brenda Lewis, who gave me countless hours, without whom I could not have gotten a word onto paper.
End-to-end thanks to my tireless mentors and critique groups, for kindness and answers to my endless questions—especially Katy Lee, Paula Sharon, Joy Smith, Frances Brown, and Jamie Schmidt, who directed me to my editor and publisher at Soul Mate Publishing.
Thank you for assistance in research to Elizabeth Montgomery, syndicated author of nonfiction and for her Beta read. To my daughter Linda Ingis Sklar, who supported me each step of this journey.
Deepest thanks and appreciation to Sandy Tritt and Charl F.B. King, for their suggestions, wisdom and guidance.
Thank you, dear reader for spending time with this book.
I welcome your letters and correspondence.
Catskill Mountain House, 1863
The animated chatter stopped, and all eyes turned to Leila as she stepped onto the porch, bathed in morning sunlight.
She froze in the doorway and stared at her husband. Heat crept into her face, and she pressed a trembling hand to her heart that all but ceased to beat.
Hank leaned his hand against the veranda wall, close to a riot of red curls. Giggles emanated from the woman’s pouty red lips as his other hand traced a line from her chin to her cleavage. He tilted his hips toward her, chuckling.
A dull ache gripped Leila’s heart. She had to escape. Her eyes skittered to her mother.
As always, the matriarch was impeccably groomed, not a gray hair out of place and her smooth face stoic, but icy blue eyes censured her.
Leila’s mouth tightened. Everything in her screamed rebellion.
Hank’s head turned slowly. His bloodshot eyes fell on her, and his fine mouth slipped up at one corner into a sardonic smile.
He was drunk again. Another piece of Leila’s heart shattered. Fighting humiliation, she stared at the amused faces that swam before her blurred vision.
Escape. She had to escape. Lifting her chin, she walked across the veranda and sailed down the wide steps with all the dignity she could muster.
Once out of view, she looked back at the Mountain House perched on a ledge surrounded by the imposing Catskill peaks. This was once a happy place for her, but nothing made her happy these days. She drew a shuddering breath and turned to the view of rolling forests below in scattered sunlight. A brook meandered through the lush vegetation, sparkling in the afternoon sun.
A sob escaped her. Hank’s betrayal tore at her as surely as talons. She lifted her voluminous skirts and ran down the slope toward the water. A breeze sighed through the long grass and set seed heads swaying in its wake. Her flying feet crushed a path through the grass.
She stopped, harsh breaths escaped her constricted chest, and tears fell. She clenched her hands, as she tried to combat the pain of betrayal. Her stomach churned, and bile crawled up her throat.
“He’s killing my love.” The breeze swallowed her whisper. Her dream marriage to a dashing author had turned into a nightmare.
Sissy, with her brazen red hair, and even more brazen behavior, is stealing him. She’s wanted him since she met him at our betrothal.
Leila would never forget the look of malice and anger on Sissy’s face at her wedding.
Leila’s knees buckled, and she sank onto the grass. Teardrops clung to her lashes, blurring her vision as she focused on watery stains that spread in uneven circles on her rose-colored day dress. Leila sniffed and dashed the tears away with her fists.
“I hate her—hate that Sissy Lanweihr with her fiery red hair and-and worldly ways.” Grinding her teeth, Leila ripped off her fashionable bonnet and yanked the pins from her carefully coiffured hair and sent it tumbling over her shoulders to her waist. Sweat trickled down her bosom. The stays suffocated her.
“I want to be free.” She blinked and stared at a pearl-topped pin in her hand. “
I want to be free?” She swallowed hard. “I love him. When did he stop loving me?”
A mirthless laugh burst from her lips as she made a harsh realization. “He’s never said he loves me—maybe he doesn’t—never did.”
Her head snapped around. “Mama,” she whispered, and frantically scrambled in the long grass, hunting for hairpins. She fumbled with her mass of hair, trying to restore the coiffure.
“Leila, where are you? Don’t make me come down there to fetch you!”
Leila’s mouth tightened, and her fingers clenched around five pins. One pricked her, and she gasped. She dropped the hairpins and stared at a drop of blood oozing from her thumb.
“I will not go back,” she hissed. She crawled behind a tree and leaned against the massive trunk, facing the brook. Rebellion boiled in her heart.
“This is most inappropriate, Leila, but I shall deal with you later!” her mother shouted.
A giggle bubbled up, and she put a hand over her mouth.
. The high collar of the dress stifled her. She peeked around the tree to see if her mother had, indeed, left then she released the pearl buttons. A breathy sigh escaped her as the breeze brushed her bosom, which was exposed above the chemise and corset. Leila looked down at the bodice. She used to scream at her mother, “I will not wear that horrible corset!” But it was an uneven battle, and conformity always won.
Leila ground her teeth, flopped back and lay spread-eagle, looking up at the leaves dancing in the light.
Has my life ever been free? Damn the rules
. The warmth of the sun tickled her skin like a feather. She wanted to rip off all her clothes, feel the sun caress her whole body.
Oh, to be naked, free of restraints . . . free of a philandering husband.
She closed her eyes, breathed in the fresh mountain air and giggled. She’d already overstepped the bounds of propriety. Her mother and the ladies of Mountain House would be scandalized at her behavior. She could not care less. For now, she was free from the eyes of straight-laced busybodies.
Water gurgled around rocks. Crickets chirred, and birds flitted through the dappled shade. The background orchestra soothed her troubled spirit.
Memories of her youth in summer days flashed through her mind. Those were carefree times in the Catskill Mountains, when adventures sent excitement coursing through her veins. She stretched languidly, her mind drifting to games played on the mossy rocks in the brook. She’d challenged each rock to stay steady as she lithely jumped from one to the next until she reached the other side.
Oh, to do that again.
?” Jumping to her feet, she paused as she surveyed the swollen brook. Water rushed over rocks in foaming eddies, leaving a few exposed as it raced to a dark green pool.
I can do this
She left the bonnet on the grass where she had tossed it and stepped onto a moss-covered rock inches from the edge of the brook. Water swirled around her skirt like champagne, soaking her hem. With each step, her exhilaration rose.
I wish Hank were with me
. She scowled.
No, I don’t!
The next rock peeked above the water. The smooth black stone sparkled like an iridescent jewel between the mosses, beckoning her. There was enough rock showing for one foot.
Gingerly, she set her foot down and stepped onto the rock. She held her breath and jumped to the next rock. Once stable, she slowly put her weight on another. Buoyed by success, she planted herself. It held. She giggled, once more a child unburdened by the constraints of society. She held her arms out like the spars of a topsail. Halfway across the brook, confidence replaced caution. She skipped across three rocks, laughing with joy—only six to go.
As her tongue poked from the corner of her mouth, she balanced. Her foot slipped on slimy moss, and the rock wobbled. She gasped, searching for a secure foothold. Arms flailing wildly, she fought to regain her balance and then fell.
She squeezed her eyes shut and hit the rocks with bruising impact. Icy water engulfed her, taking away her breath. She floundered and clutched at the slippery rocks, but the strong current carried her relentlessly, and waterlogged garments hampered her efforts. Now the brook was her enemy. It tumbled her faster toward the pool. A scream tore from her throat before her head slammed into a rock.
The rapids were dragging her down
Art had been a lifelong pursuit for Rork Millburn. He hoped to paint several small works during his stay. He had set up on a flat, grassy area above a brook when a movement caught his eye. He ignored the distraction. The aroma of the juicy oil paints culled fond memories of his craft, like the times he spent in the Alps. He stepped back to examine his work. Satisfied and nearly finished, he’d captured the early sun-drenched mountains lush with wispy grasses, pine trees, and fields of flowers.
A few more touches
. . .
Again, the movement drew his attention, so he set the palette down. A woman nimbly crossed the brook. His artist’s eye drew in the image of her day dress flying up as she leapt from one rock to the next like a water sprite. Something stirred in him, something not related to the warm sun, earthy forest smells, or imposing mountains. It was something intangible deep in his soul. His keen eyes picked out her exquisite features. The sun danced on her brunette hair that fell in lustrous waves to a tiny waist. His fingers scrambled among paints and brushes until he found his monocle. He screwed it to his eye and snatched a breath. Her full mouth made for laughter, for kisses. He breathed in the spring air and conjured up emotions and images of a deep kiss. A kiss he'd never known. He shook free of fanciful imaginings.
Fool, just paint
A scream echoed across the valley and shot through him like a bullet. He scanned the brook below. “What in the world?” His breath caught in his throat.
The woman was gone.
Her bonnet still lay on the grass.
“My God!” Rork dropped the paintbrush and raced down the hill, the wind whipping his hair. Lungs burning, he slid down a steep drop to the brook. Running frantically along the bank, he searched the water where he last saw the woman. “Damn, where are you?” He wiped sweat from his brow.
A mangle of hair floated to the surface then sank again.
Rork ripped off his jacket and plunged into the frigid water. His heart pumped faster with each stroke as he swam to where he’d seen her hair. He caught a glimpse of fabric. Taking a deep breath, he dived.
There she is!
Grabbing her arm, he kicked hard and surged to the surface. The current had carried them to rocks further downstream. Panting, he dragged her from the water and lifted her in his arms. The weight of her waterlogged dress impeded progress.
She moaned, stirred feebly, and convulsed, vomiting water.
Thank God, she’s alive
. Slipping and stumbling on the uneven terrain, he made it to the grassy bank. His legs ached as he knelt, still holding her limp body in his arms. Thick black lashes contrasted with her ivory skin. His eyes traveled along her body.
Dear Lord, she’s beyond exquisite
. The soaked dress clung to her, outlining her petite figure, making her seem helpless—fragile. Her skirt and petticoats were hiked up, exposing her long legs to above her knees. He chewed his lip as unfamiliar emotions coursed through him.
Is she breathing
? Hesitating, he put his ear close to her mouth. A wisp of breath teased his cheek. He shuddered.
This is ridiculous
Her head rolled to one side, she groaned, and a slender hand fluttered to her throat.
He stared at the enlarging blood stain on his shirtsleeve.
He set her down on the grass and bent to examine the back of her head. Thick blood seeped into her hair. He parted her tresses and exposed a gash. Ripping off his shirtsleeve, he gently pressed it to the wound, staunching the blood. She flinched and tried to twist away. He withdrew his hand. “Miss, can you hear me?”
Her lips moved, but her answer was a silent puff of air.
He gazed at her plump lips.
A rosy tint crept into her deathly pale cheeks. The top buttons of her bodice were undone. He swallowed hard. Despite shivering from the icy water, blood flowed to his groin. His art expeditions had taken him across many continents, but he’d never seen such beauty in a woman. A stab in his chest, sharp and sweet, moved through him, as though he’d witnessed da Vinci’s
He didn’t know what to do. He figured she had to be a guest at the Catskill Mountain House as there were no other residences around. Icy dread cooled his thoughts of romance.
What will people think? What if she can’t remember what happened? Perhaps she’ll assume I attacked and tried to ravish her?
“Miss, wake up. You’re safe now.”
Hands trembling from cold and from the emotion she invoked in him, he returned her skirt to its proper position and attempted to button her bodice. Her chest rose and fell with each breath, distracting him. His huge hands fumbled with the small pearl buttons.
“Damn ham-hands,” he said with a dry mouth. “How does anyone ever get these buttons fastened?” Valiantly, he struggled on. “Damn.” He slipped his hand inside her bodice to get a better grip, and his fingers brushed against the soft skin of her bosom.
The woman stirred.
He withdrew his hand, wiped the water from her eyes, and smoothed hair from her face. “Hush. It’s all right. You’ll be fine.”
She pushed ineffectually at his clumsy fingers. Her thick lashes lifted, unveiling dark blue eyes.
“Lord above, your eyes are deep sapphire. Like an indigo sky.” The ground beneath Rork swayed as he tumbled into the depths of her lucent eyes.