He smiled and took her valise. “My dear, I think you will be very happy here. Sooner or later, you know, this land is bound to be opened up to white settlement, and it's rich landâlots of opportunities.”
Twilight took off her hat and sighed. “So many Indians. That big one who watched me made me shiverâjust the way he stared.”
Her stepbrother frowned. “Oh, that's Matt Folane. Lately, he's gone to calling himself Yellow Jacket. He's a heap-big warrior among the Creeks. He's been on a tear lately since his niece died.”
“It's not important.” The balding man dismissed it with a shrug as he tried to take her hand. “I'm so glad you came, my dear. Sorry to hear about all your trouble.”
His hand was clammy, and she pulled away from him and walked about, looking over the place. She'd always had an uneasy feeling that Harvey would like to bed her. But if that were the truth, why had he introduced her to Pierre Dumont and played matchmaker? “Your offer was a godsend, Harvey. I had reached the end of my rope and didn't know what to do next.”
He made a sympathetic clucking sound. “Well, now, what else is a helpless woman supposed to do except depend on gallant men to help her? Especially a widow whose brave husband died for the cause.”
She brushed back a stray wisp of hair. “Frankly, I hate to admit it, but it didn't seem like Pierre at all, to go and become a hero. He never struck me as having a lot of courage.”
“Oh, now, now, I'm sure he was very brave.” Harvey watched her, trying to appear reassuring. To be honest, he thought Pierre Dumont was the yellowest varmint he'd ever met. There must have been some financial angle in it for him to join up. Well, what did it matter? Harvey now had the lovely Twilight here and under his control.
“To tell you the truth, Harvey, I feel like a hypocrite for wearing mourning black. It wasn't a very good marriage. I don't know why you urged me to marry him.”
Because I owed him a bunch of gambling debts,
and Pierre would forgive them for a relative
. He feigned a mournful expression. “I'm sorry about that, my dear. I really thought he'd make you a good husband. With our father giving all our slaves their freedom and then going off to help the wounded, we were both left rather penniless, you know.”
Her beautiful dusky lavender-gray eyes filled with tears. “Dear Daddy, I miss him so.”
The old rascal,
giving away all that human wealth.
Owning twenty-five slaves would have made Harvey exempt from the Confederate army. Instead, he'd had to fake a limp and flee to the Indian Territory. Now the damned war seemed about to follow him here. “Yes, dear Barton. He was like a real father to me, too, after dear Mummy died.” He must not appear too curious. “Uh, didn't Pierre leave you anything?”
Twilight shook her head and turned to look out the window at the trees that were dropping red and golden leaves. “I found out the bank was about to repossess the plantation about the time he was killed. He had debts, Harvey.” She turned and looked at him intently. “Did you know Pierre was a gambler?”
He feigned shock. “Why, how terrible! I had no idea. Well, that's all behind you now. Let's get you settled. I'll take your luggage into the back room, my dear.”
“Oh, I hadn't noticed your limp.” Her tone was so sympathetic. “What happened?”
He turned and gave her his most pitiful look. She need never know he got that limp from putting pebbles in his boot. “Oh, I did a brief stint in the Alabama Volunteers after you moved to Virginia. A minor wound during the height of a battle, and now I'm useless for our great and glorious cause.”
“Well, I'll look after you and help you run the store.”
“I was counting on that.”
“What?” she looked up. Was she suspicious?
“I merely meant that with your soft heart, I knew you'd be a major comfort to me.” If he could only get her in his bed. “I'll take the loft, and you can have the back room.”
“I do hate to put you out. Perhaps I could find a room to boardâ”
“I wouldn't hear of it.” Harvey made a dismissing gesture. “After all, we are family. Oh, the major's wife has invited us for tea tomorrow.”
Twilight frowned. “Must we? I'm afraid I'm not feeling very sociable.”
“But of course we must,” Harvey said. “Young Captain Wellsley's mother is visiting from Texas. They're quite wealthyâlots of land and cattle.”
“All right.” She shrugged. “Whatever you think.”
“Good.” She was a spineless jellyfish, Harvey thought. She'd do anything he said. As much as he'd like to sleep with his beautiful widowed stepsister, he had something bigger planned. He would love to get his hands on Captain Franklin Wellsley's wealth. “Now, you just settle yourself in, my dear.”
Carrying her luggage, Harvey led her into the back room, where there was a chest of drawers and a bed. “Sorry if it's not quite as nice as what you had back home. Things are pretty crude out here on the frontier, and these Indian girls just don't know how to be proper maids.”
“It's just fine,” she reassured him, looking around. “Later I'll start doing a little cleaning and dusting, help around the store.”
“My dear, I really don't expect maid's work from a well-brought-up Southern lady.”
“I reckon I should learn to stand on my own feet and make my own decisions.”
“Southern ladies can't be expected to do that,” he hastened to assure her. “Now, you just leave everything to me. I'll take care of you; just don't worry your pretty little head about it.”
The bell at the store's entry jangled.
“Here,” he said as he put her valise by the bed, “sounds like I've got a customer. I'll close the door, and you rest awhile. Later we'll have supper and I'll show you around the fort.”
She nodded and watched him leave the room. Then she walked over and collapsed on the bed. What had she gotten herself into? This country looked wild and untamed and full of savages. How she longed to be back in the security of the old homestead, the Alabama plantation where she'd been raised, where Daddy had always taken care of her after Mother had died. She wouldn't admit it for the world, but she had never really liked her stepmother, who seemed too interested in what Daddy owned. However, Daddy had outlived the greedy, unloving woman and then been killed himself, out in the field doing surgery on wounded troops during the first few weeks of the war.
The next day, with Harvey insisting, Twilight made ready to go to tea at the major's home. Harvey helped her into his buggy. “You look lovely, my dear. I'm sure every young officer out here will be wanting to meet you.”
Uh-oh. Twilight frowned at him as he clucked to the horse and they pulled away. “Harvey, I really don't think I want to marry again . . .”
“Oh, but you will,” he insisted as he looked at the road ahead. “Of course, you'll have to pass a proper mourning period first. Some of these young men are very comfortably well off.”
Twilight didn't say anything, but she had a sinking feeling. Perhaps Harvey's offer hadn't been so generous after all. Perhaps he hoped to better himself by making a good match for his widowed stepsister. Then she bit her lip for thinking such unkind thoughts about him.
As they drove down the rutted road, she heard a sound and looked to one side. Just riding out of the woods on a fine paint stallion was that same big Indian she had seen when she arrived. He reined in and watched them, anger in his dark eyes.
“Oh, dear,” she whispered, “there's that savage again, Harvey.”
“I know. Pretend you don't see him.” Harvey sounded apprehensive. She looked over at her stepbrother. Sweat had broken out on his round face.
The savage was too mesmerizing to ignore. She turned on the seat and looked back. “Areâare we in any danger?”
The Indian was looking at her as if he couldn't decide whether he wanted to pull her clothes off and ravish her or maybe kill them both.
Harvey urged the bay horse to go a little faster. “I don't think so, but who knows with him? They say he hates all whites, especially Southerners.”
She glanced back over her shoulder again and wished Harvey would whip the horse into a gallop. The Indian was still glaring at her in a way that sent a shiver through her slight body. “Why does he hate Southerners?”
“He's Creek, one of the tribes run out of the South a few years ago so respectable, civilized whites could have their land.”
She thought about that. “Oh, yes, I do remember reading something about it. Why are they called Creeks?”
“I don't know. They call themselves Muskogee. They're distantly related to the Seminoles, or so I hear. But enough about Injuns.” He shrugged. “I've met the nicest young captain . . .”
“The Creeks were from our home state, weren't they?” She hardly heard Harvey, feeling the savage's angry eyes boring into her back as they drove on.
“That's right, Alabama and Georgia. I wouldn't tell any of them you're from Alabama, if I were you. Now, can't we talk about something else besides Injuns?”
She had annoyed him, and Southern ladies never annoyed anyone. “I'm so sorry, Harvey; that one unnerved me, is all. And don't worry, I don't intend to get close enough to any of them to exchange even one word. I'm terrified of savages.”
“Hmm,” Harvey said, and didn't look at her.
They drove the rest of the way in silence through the gold and red trees of autumn. Falling leaves swirled around the horse's hooves, and she found herself enjoying the wild, beautiful country. Soon they came to a cluster of the fort's buildings and pulled up before a large log cabin.
Harvey came around to help her down. “We must stay on very cordial terms with the officers. It helps my business. Besides, I'll need good connections when they start dividing up this Injun land.”
“But doesn't it belong to the Indians?” Twilight said, and she allowed him to help her down, noting that his sweaty hands lingered just a bit too long on her waist.
He guffawed. “For now. It's too good land to waste on savages. Sooner or later the whites will get it, and I want my share.”
It didn't sound very just, but Twilight swallowed back her misgivings. After all, what did she care about a bunch of wild savages who went about killing and scalping people?
They went up the steps and were met at the door by an Indian girl who ushered them into the parlor as she took their coats.
Two elderly women were seated on scarlet horsehair Victorian settees, and the one dressed in the pale gray-green color known as reseda green got up and came forward with a smile. “Ah, the delightful Mr. Leland. And this must be your dear sister?”
Harvey took her hand and kissed it. “So pleased to have been invited, dear lady. May I present my sister, Mrs. Dumont?”
Twilight curtsied. “So pleased to make your acquaintance,” she drawled.
“Such a brave girl.” The old lady took her hand and clucked sympathetically. “Your dear brother has told us how your heroic husband fell for the cause. Do come meet Mrs. Wellsley.”
The white-haired old lady on the settee wore a pale dove gray dress that signified light mourning. She nodded as Twilight curtsied. “So sorry to hear you've been widowed, but after all, it was for the cause.”
“Isn't it too bad?”Harvey said, “but she's bearing up well.”
Twilight and Harvey took seats, and Twilight bit her lip and looked away, guilty that she had felt so little when news of Pierre's death had come. “We are all making sacrifices, after all.”
The two older ladies nodded.
Mrs. Wellsley sighed. “I hear you're from Virginia. My son, Franklin, was there for a while before he was transferred to this god-awful place. I know he's quite disappointed not to be in the thick of the fray. It would have been so important to his late father. Franklin feels so useless stuck out here in Indian Territory, with no big battles to give him a chance to move up the ladder in rank.”
The major's wife frowned. “Now my husband says the Yankees are going to try to capture this land, so there may be a good fight here sooner or later.”
Harvey smiled. “So young Wellsley may get his share of medals after all under the superb leadership of the major.”
Both older ladies beamed at her brother, and Twilight tried to look interested. She was so very tired of war, and what good were medals to a dead man? But of course, she dare not say that. Instead, she looked around the room, furnished in the height of Victorian fashion with lots of knickknacks and ornate furniture. “This is very nice,” she murmured, hoping to change the subject from war.