Authors: Patricia Hagan
who was with me through it all…
and lives forever in my heart
Late summer, 1917
Misty lavender fingers of dawn crept stealthily upward from the dusky horizon, gently brushing away the last vestiges of darkness in preparation for the birth of a new day. Gently sloping pastureland, quiet shadows of night dredges, disappeared into the jutted ledges and beyond to the sleepy Mediterranean waters, a murky purple ribbon to the distant horizon.
The opulent Coltrane Casita, reminiscent of the era of El Cid, stood as regal lord, of all, as though nature were merely its serfage.
Within the house, Colt Coltrane awoke with a start. He sat up in bed, groggily tried to fathom what had jolted him from such a sound sleep.
Then it came to him.
This was his son’s wedding day.
He felt no particular elation, and chided himself for that. He knew he couldn’t ask for a finer daughter-in-law than Valerie. And there was no doubt in his mind that she loved Travis to a fault. After all, she had waited four years for him to graduate from the military academy at West Point, which had to have been hard on them both. They’d seen each other maybe half a dozen times during that period, because Valerie had been living in Spain with Kit and Kurt.
Valerie was a pretty girl, Colt mused, intelligent, charming. He had nothing against her personally and reminded himself once again that she couldn’t help her family background.
With a deep sigh of resignation, he got out of bed and crossed the pink marble floors to the balcony. He could see the vaqueros as they began their morning chores, tending the cattle and horses.
He yawned, stretched, drank in the sweetness of the jasmine and roses in the garden below. Once again he thought how glad he was he’d kept the ranch during those years he and Jade had roamed the world in search of peace, because when they realized they wanted to return to Valencia and settle down near their grandchildren, it was all there waiting for them.
He laughed softly. Yes, he
a grandfather, all right, and proud of it and them.
Kit and Kurt had named their little boy after Kurt’s father, Joseph. But little Joe, at three years, was a Coltrane through and through. No doubt about that. And little Natasia, two years old now, was named for Jade’s mother but was the image of her grandmother, blessed with those same, awesomely beautiful eyes, a radiant shade of green that could only be described as jade.
Thoughtfully, he turned to look back inside the bedroom, where his wife lay sleeping on the strawberry satin sheets.
She was still the most beautiful woman he’d ever met, and he loved her as much as, if not more than, when he had asked her to be his wife, twenty-four years ago.
Colt went to her now, to lie down beside her and gather her in his arms. And with merely the gentle brush of his lips against hers, she was coaxed easily from sleep and eagerly on to the passion that always left them shaken and awed with wonder.
Afterward, their naked bodies entwined, she was strangely quiet, and Colt could sense her tension, suspected the reason. He waited a few moments, then gently asked, “Do you want to talk about it?”
She sighed, rolled away from him and onto her back. Dully, she replied, “Would it help if I did?”
“Probably not. We’ve had over four years to talk about it. What’s to say, anyway? She’s going to make him a good wife. He loves her. She can’t help it if her father is a son of a bitch who nearly destroyed us once. That was a long time ago, and we’ve got to stop thinking about it. Besides, he’s disowned her, and it’s not likely any of us will ever hear from him again.”
“Maybe he’s dead by now.” She felt no guilt in hoping he was…even though she knew he wasn’t.
Colt didn’t comment, was not about to tell her that he knew Bryan Stevens was very much alive, that he’d had the Pinkerton Agency on retainer to keep him informed of the bastard’s activities. Stevens was living the life of a recluse on the island near Bermuda he’d named “Isle of Jade”, back when he’d so cunningly convinced Jade
was dead, manipulating her into marrying him, nearly twenty-two years ago. Valerie’s mother, Lita, had died the year before, and Stevens had not sent word to Valerie. When he had disowned her for running away from a prearranged marriage to wait for Travis, he had obviously put her out of his mind and heart forever, even though he knew where she was and how to reach her.
“Instead of brooding about the past, I should be giving thanks you were able to use your influence to keep Travis from being sent to the front,” Jade said. “It’s a miracle he wasn’t sent over with the first soldiers to France in June.”
Colt turned away. He couldn’t tell her that their son wanted to do his duty and fight for his country. So, after a brief honeymoon, he
going to the front. Valerie knew, of course, and agreed that Jade should not be burdened with the news till absolutely necessary.
He reached for his robe, then walked over to the velvet cord that would bring Carasia with morning coffee. Reminding Jade that the wedding breakfast was at ten, he headed for the bathroom to get ready.
There was much he was having to keep from Jade these days. Damn, he dreaded the time when he would have to tell her
was going into the war, too—not in the infantry but to the diplomatic corps.
Jade was not going to react well to both the men in her life going off to war. She was already distressed over the trouble in her native Russia, where a revolution had led to the abdication of her distant cousin, Czar Nicholas, and the disappearance of their close friend, Drakar, who had also been the husband of Colt’s deceased half sister, Dani.
So, no matter how deceitful it might be, Colt wanted to delay giving her further cause for anxiety.
Jade did not move, merely stared up at the ceiling, lost in painful ghosts of the past. Colt did not know she’d had detectives make sure she received periodic reports of Bryan’s activities. It had been horrifying to learn he was alive four years ago, after thinking him lost at sea all that time, and added to the nightmare then was the ghastly possibility her son might be in love with his half sister. She had been tortured by that fear for years and, seeing no other way, had confided her past to Valerie, how there was a chance Bryan could have fathered the twins, Travis and Kit, because the night he had kidnapped her, attempting to prevent her reunion with Colt, he had raped her.
It had been so terribly painful to confide the horror, to actually put all her anguish into words to another, but Valerie had quickly dissipated her fears. She could not, she vehemently assured Jade, be related to Travis, because Bryan Stevens was not her real father!
She had then gone on to explain how she found out the truth one night when Bryan was in a drunken rage. He’d screamed at her that she was not his daughter, condemned her as a bastard, taunted her that her mother had been a waterfront whore and couldn’t remember the names of all the sailors and bums she’d taken to her bed. He’d married her out of pity and regretted it ever since. And the whole time he ranted, Valerie sadly recalled that her mother had just sat in shameful silence, head down, tears of anguish trailing down her cheeks.
Jade’s heart had gone out to Valerie, and the two had become close since, each carrying the other’s secret. So she had no real trepidation about the marriage, except that Valerie would always be a reminder of those dark, ugly days.
The last report on Bryan was like all the others—he never left the island. She knew Lita had died but had no intention of telling Valerie, did not want her to know she felt it necessary to keep her father under periodic observation.
Hearing that Colt was finished with his bath, she hurried to take her own.
When she came out, he was having coffee and juice on the balcony. She joined him, noticed his mood had become somber, and decided it was her turn to prod. “Maybe
need to talk about it.”
“It’s not the wedding.”
Jade did not have to guess what he meant. “Marilee.”
“Right.” He poured a cup of coffee as she sat down opposite him. “She showed up for the wedding. I’m surprised. I thought once she got out of that school she hated, she’d go her own way. She can sure afford it, with the trust fund Mother left her.”
Jade had always sensed that Colt had never been able to feel any true affection for his half-niece. His feelings, or lack of, had apparently also rubbed off on Travis and Kit. Oh, not that anyone was ever
to Marilee, or unkind. They just subconsciously regarded her as an unpleasant reminder that the late family patriarch, Travis Coltrane, had once been married to someone other than Kitty. No matter that at the time he had believed Kitty was dead. The scar was there, and Marilee was living proof—for the “other woman” had been her grandmother.
Ironically, it had been Kitty who adored Marilee and had taken it on herself in widowhood to raise her as her own after fate cruelly repeated itself. Marilee’s mother, Dani Coltrane Mikhailonov, had died in childbirth, as her mother, Marilee Barbeau Coltrane, had when she was born. Ironically, it happened the same day Travis Coltrane died.
Drakar, Marilee’s father, had been so distraught that he’d placed his infant daughter in Kitty’s arms and returned to his homeland to try to lose his grief in service to his Czar.
Jade, however, felt a special affinity for Marilee. After all, she had loved Drakar like a brother for as long as she could remember, and Colt’s remark now inspired her own displeasure over the way Marilee had never truly been accepted. “It doesn’t make any difference how much money she has,” she said irritably. “She’s still a young woman, and there’s a war going on. And need I remind you no one has heard from Drakar in months? We’re all the family she has.”
“Okay, okay, so she doesn’t have anywhere else to go,” he conceded, “but she acts so depressed, it’s contagious. This is supposed to be a happy time.”
“She’s worried about her father. We all are.”
“I thought you told me she had a beau,” he then said.
“All I know is that she wrote me a while back that she’d become close friends with a girl from Austria, a Hapsburg, no less. Her family had moved to Zurich to escape the war. Marilee met the girl’s brother and seemed quite taken with him, and I had the impression he was courting her, but she hasn’t said anything else about him.”
“I’m surprised Valerie asked her to be maid of honor,” Colt said. “They hardly know each other.”
“I asked her,” Jade said, “to help her feel like part of the family.”
“The truth is,” Colt said, “I love Marilee. So does Kit and Travis. But she has no spunk, no spirit, no personality. If she can find a man to marry her and take care of her, that’d be the best thing for her.”
Jade pondered that, then reluctantly, sadly, nodded.
Within the bedroom, about to step onto the balcony to invite herself to join them for morning coffee, Marilee froze.
They had not heard her knock on the outer door, and Carasia, whom she’d just passed in the hall, had told her they were on the balcony, so she had let herself in and wished she had not.
When she could trust her rubbery legs to move, Marilee fled back to her room.
She didn’t belong and never had, but she was going to see this wedding through, and then, by God, the Coltranes would not be bothered with her again.
She rolled over onto her back, stared up at the lace canopy, taking deep breaths to try and quell the turmoil within. The more she thought about what she’d just overheard, the more depressed she became.
It bothered her that she had never in her whole life made a decision concerning her own welfare. It had not been necessary. Kitty had pampered her. Then she’d gone off to school, where teachers and counselors made the rules. So here she was, grown, educated, and everyone thought she was so weak and helpless that her only hope for survival was to get married and have a man take care of her and make all the decisions.
She had to admit she had been thinking seriously of accepting Rudolf’s proposal, and now she found herself worrying whether the temptation had been due to her own subconscious telling her she could not face life on her own. After all, she could not truthfully say she loved him, but then how was she supposed to know what it would feel like if she did? His kisses gave her no particular thrill, but, again, no other man had ever kissed her, so how could she know?