Time s Enduring Love
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Libby Strammon believed her life was on track. A young woman of the tumultuous 1960's, she worked hard to fulfill her dream of becoming a doctor so she could open a practice in the small Kansas farming community where she was raised. But when a perilous storm sweeps her back a hundred years into the past she is forced to rely on her instincts while navigating the changed world that a hundred years difference has wrought. Kansas Volunteer, Lieutenant Matthew Dome's magnetic attraction to the slightly odd woman who appeared out of nowhere wars with past promises made—promises he'd failed to keep. He yearns to have the fascinating spitfire by his side, but can't let go of the past and his guilt long enough to convince himself she belongs in his life. When circumstances send Libby and Matthew into danger, and a buried secret is revealed, Libby races against time to choose between returning to the 20th century she is familiar with or remain with Matthew who loves her but failed her once before?



Publié par
Date de parution 01 janvier 2015
Nombre de lectures 1
EAN13 9781772996623
Langue English

Informations légales : prix de location à la page 0,0032€. Cette information est donnée uniquement à titre indicatif conformément à la législation en vigueur.


Time's Enduring Love
Christine Eaton Jones and Beverly Petrone
Writing as Tia Dani
Digital ISBNs
Amazon Print978-1-77362-064-0

Copyright201 4 by Christine EatonJones and Beverly Petrone
Cover Art by MichelleLee
All rights reserved. Without limiting the rightsunder copyright reserved above, no part of this publication may bereproduced, stored in or introduced into a retrieval system, ortransmitted, in any form, or by any means (electronic, mechanical,photocopying, recording, or otherwise) without the prior writtenpermission of both the copyright owner and the above publisher ofthis book.
* * *
We dedicate thisbook
to Christine's maternalgrandmother, Elizabeth, whose
strong pioneeringspirit created the premise for th e book .
Chapter One
Pre-Territorial Kansas
Near The Smoky Hill Trail, 1846
Katherine Meyers stood a few yards away fromthe wagon camp and shaded her eyes against the relentless sun.Where are the children?
Perspiration trickled along the side of herface, over her jaw and neck to seep into the damp collar of herdress. Katherine swallowed to moisten the parched scratchiness inthe back of her throat and inhaled a slow measured breath throughher nose, hoping to help relieve the dryness. Pungent, motionlessair, heavy with the scent of animals and cooking fires blisteredthe inside of her nose.
A stray lock of pale, blonde hair escapedKatherine's coiled braids and plastered against her moist skin. Shebrushed away the lock and scanned the dry prairie once more. Wherewere they? They should have returned by now.
She wished she had gone with her daughter andthe other children to search for wild plums so she could make acobbler. This morning she thought the chore would keep themoccupied while the men spent the day repairing cracked and brokenwheels and tongues. They were close to the homesteads where all thefamilies could begin their new lives. Even the women voted to takea day of light work. The cobbler was her contribution to thecelebration of their success to the long journey.
A breeze fanned her face, and a small bud ofunease crept up her spine. Katherine spun in a circle seeingneither their hats, nor their heads bobbing above the tall grass.She hurried toward the wagons nestled in a stand of cottonwoods tofind her husband. John would know where the children would searchfor plums. He always knew.
* * *
"Let's go. Joseph and Luke already left forcamp with the plums. Your folks are gonna get worried. We'resupposed to be back a long time ago."
Nine-year-old Matthew Domé removed the frayedhat John Meyers had given him and dragged his fingers through hisdark black hair. On her hands and knees next to his feet, John andKatherine Meyers' four-year-old daughter, Elizabeth, watched a pairof caterpillars crawl along a low-growing bush. "Come on. Let's gowatch your mom make her cobbler."
"Ooh, Matthew, look." Elizabeth smiled up athim. "Aren't they funny?" Beside her, lying on the ground, was thecloth doll that went everywhere with her. She gathered up Cleo andclasped her to her chest. "Come see."
Matthew sighed and dropped to his knees. Lukeand Joseph were right. The little girl had him jumping throughhoops. All it took was one look from her green eyes and he'd cavelike old Mr. Jameson did whenever his new wife started simpering athim for whatever she wanted.
Matthew stared at her in bemusement. He knewhis two friends snickered behind his back whenever Elizabeth bossedhim, but he couldn't help himself. She made him feel needed. Shetrusted him, and trailed after him, as if he was the wagon master.Sometimes, when missing his parents hurt too bad, and he fought tokeep the tears inside, Elizabeth seemed to be the one who knew.She'd put her arms around him and whisper, "It's gonna be okay.I'll always be here to love you."
"Matthew, you're not looking."
Matthew dutifully glanced at the fat, wigglyinsects swaying on a branch. "Yeah, they're funny all right." Hereached for Elizabeth's hand and pulled her with him as he stood."We gotta go."
"But, I wanna see a baby rabbit. You promisedyou'd show me one." Elizabeth gave him a brilliant smile, her eyestwinkling in the sunlight. She lifted a small stubby finger infront of her freckled nose. "You told me you never...ever...breakyour promises."
He groaned. "You're worse than MaryEllen."
Elizabeth straightened to her full height andstomped her foot. "I am not like Mary Ellen. Momma says Mary Ellenis spoiled."
At her quick show of temper, he grinned. Shehad spirit and wasn't afraid to let someone know it. "Yeah, I guessyou're not spoiled. I'd say you're just right." He thought aboutwhat he said and quickly amended his sentence. "For a girl, Imean."
If Joseph and Luke got wind of what he'dsaid, his two friends would never let him live it down. "Okay, youwin. We'll go find a baby rabbit. Then we head for the wagons." Hegave her a glare like Joseph's father would do whenever they wereunderfoot. "And, I don't vant any back-a-sass from du, girl."
Elizabeth laughed and clapped her hands."Ooh, you sound like Mr. Basgal."
Without warning, she flung herself againsthim and wrapped her arms around his waist. "I love you, Matthew.Forever and ever."
His chest constricted by her words. He bentand lightly kissed the top of her head. "I'll love you forever andever, too. Now, come on. Let's go find a baby rabbit."
Minutes later, they crouched, side-by-sidebetween two large rocks, half hidden from view. He whispered in herear and pointed. "There's one. See?"
Elizabeth nodded in wide-eyed wonder. Severalfeet away, a grey bunny moved slowly around a small hole. Twolarger rabbits sat beyond. The baby's nose wiggled rapidly as itwatched the older ones move away in slow hops, noses twitchingclose to the ground.
Elizabeth whispered, "Why are the momma andpapa leaving?"
He smiled at her seriousness. "They'reprobably looking for food."
"Why are they leaving their baby behind?"
"'Cause it's safer."
Elizabeth glanced at the doll in her arms."I'd never leave Cleo."
Matthew's smile widened. Her steadfastloyalty was another thing he liked. If she cared so much about adoll, she would undoubtedly care for her own family and never leavethem like his parents did him. Someday, when they were both grownup, he'd marry her.
"Something smells." Elizabeth wrinkled hernose and stood.
Matthew inhaled sharply. The stench of burntgrass irritated his nose. "We'd better get to the wagons."
Before he had a chance to pull her, shetugged on his hand, forcing him to turn around. "Over there. Thesky's red and black!"
Matthew noticed the color of the horizon thesame moment he felt a low rumbling beneath his feet.
Before them, all three rabbits bolted,disappearing into the tall prairie grass.
Panic pierced deep into his chest, nearlycrushing him. He shoved Elizabeth in the direction the rabbits hadsprinted. "Run, Elizabeth, as fast as you can. A fire iscoming."
Without demanding her usual "why", sheran.
Matthew stumbled after her. The wagon masterhad warned them about prairie fires. He insisted everyone,including the children, participate in fire drills. But thepractice sessions had been with adults nearby, not the two of themalone. He and his buddies looked at them as a way to break up themonotony. Now he understood why the adults took every commandseriously. Prairie fires were not games.
Behind him, the fire storm gained speed,heading in the same direction they ran. Frantically, he searchedfor some kind of protection. At that pace no way could they outrunthe blaze.
Several panicked prairie hens burst from thetall grass, taking flight. As he ran, Matthew watched them go. Thewagon master told them birds and animals had an instinct fordanger. If they followed the birds they might find a way toescape.
One bird swooped downward, calling Matthew'sattention to a small dirt cave half buried in the sloping ravine.Barren of any vegetation, the hole looked large enough for both ofthem to crawl into. Matthew grabbed hold of Elizabeth's shoulder,pulling her to a stop. "Over, there, go."
The little girl stumbled to a halt. She shookher head. "No. I want my momma and papa."
Bits of ash floated around them. A few landedon his cheek with stinging heat. "The fire's too fast. We have tohide. Once it's gone, we can go find your parents." He jerked hertoward the cave. "Crawl in."
"Get in." He pushed her ahead of him. "It'ssafer in the back for you."
Hugging Cleo tight, Elizabeth wiggled in andhe scooted behind her. When they could go no farther, he slid hislegs on either side of her body and wrapped his arms around her.Hugging her close, he yelled in her ear, "I'll protect you. Ipromise." Her slight body trembled and he gave her anotherreassuring squeeze. "We're safe. You'll see. Nothing will happen tous."
Black, nauseating smoke reached them first.Coughing, Matthew withdrew his handkerchief with a trembling handand tied it around her mouth and nose. Lowering his head, heshouted in her ear, hoping she could understand him over theoncoming roar. "Breathe slowly, okay?"
Elizabeth nodded then twisted so she couldbury her face against his shoulder. She lifted her hand and pressedit against his chest. "I'm scared."
"So am I. But it's almost over."
Searing heat seeped into the cave. Herfingers curled into his shirt. "It burns. Hold me tight. Don't letgo."
"I won't. I—"
Blinding flashes of brilliant reds andyellows exploded around them, followed instantaneously by anenormous inward suction of air. The floor of the cave lifted thenjerked spasmodically as if being wrenched in several directions atonce. The opposing forces tossed them over and over like hisparent's wagon had when it had been caught in the flash flood.
Matthew finally landed on his back with ajarring thud stealing what breath he had. But it was in that stillvacuum of awareness; he noticed his arms were empty. From a far,Elizabeth screamed his name then abruptly stopped.
Struggling for air, Matthew pushed himselfonto his hands and knees. Darkness surrounded him. He rubbed hisgritty eyes, trying to focus in the pitch blackness. "I'm coming,Elizabeth. Keep talking so I can find you."
For several heartbeats the silence continued.Then boulders and dirt rained down around him, slamming his bodyback into the ground, covering him. A large rock, with a jaggededge, slashed his forehead. More dirt followed. Mixture of bloodand dirt darkened his eyes and his senses reeled. As he collapsedinto a blackened crater, a horrifying thought flooded his mind. Ina matter of seconds he would be dead and Elizabeth would be gonefrom him forever.
Chapter Two
Western Kansas, July, 1966
Libby Strammon twisted her mass of blondehair into a bun and anchored it with several pins. Perspiration ranbetween her breasts to be absorbed by her already soaked bra. Thehundred-plus-degree heat was tolerable outside, but in the truck'scab it was agonizing.
Fifteen grain trucks in front of her, and Godknew how many behind, roared to life. Libby switched on her owntruck's engine and shifted into first gear, letting her truck rollforward. Strains of 'Hey Paula' emerged from her transistor radioas the high squeal of metal brakes grinding on metal could beheard. She stomped simultaneously on the brake and clutch and lether truck roll to a stop inches away from the one in front.
Even though the line crawled at inches perhour, she was aware of commotion around her. Empty grain trucksrumbled past, returning to the cutting fields. Cab doors slammed,followed by voices calling out up and down the grain line. The snapof a baseball hitting a leather glove preceded a male voice singingoff-key.
In the background, the grain elevator's hugedryer hummed, drying uncountable millions of tiny grains still toowet for storage. Libby inhaled deeply and smiled. The aroma ofdrying wheat lay heavy in the air, reminding her of her mother'sbaked bread. Harvest was in full swing, and she loved every minuteof it.
At the unexpected voice, Libby twisted to theleft. Standing by the truck's window was her younger cousin, JennyDomé. "What are you doing in town?"
"Richard's combine broke down and needs a newpart, so I rode with him to get it." Jenny grinned, her brown eyesfull of mischievous humor. "We saw you in line and thought youmight like to have this." She held up a pop bottle dripping withice.
Libby grabbed the soda. "Jenny, you're adarling." She drank thirstily then ran the chilled bottle acrossher forehead, down her face, and around her neck. "Hmmm, it'sheaven. Where's Richard?"
"At Howard's Implement picking up the part.He'll swing by here when he's ready to leave, but I'll ride backwith you." Jenny scooted between the two trucks and opened thepassenger door. As she hopped into the cab her dark ponytail dancedwith its usual exuberance over her shoulder. "Richard wants to getmarried since we've graduated high school. Should I say yes?"
Libby choked then swallowed. "Why ask me? Youtwo have been together since seventh grade. I'd think you'd knowwhether you love him or not. Have you shared this with yourparents?"
Jenny studied her fingernail. "Not yet. Wewanted your opinion first. You've already done the collegething.”
Libby grimaced. "I wouldn't say my collegeyears were always exciting. I was too busy proving to myself Icould go to medical school."
"Hey, guys, miss me?"
Both of them jumped as the passenger door waswrenched open and a broadly built young man with sandy blond hairleaned into the cab.
"Richard." Jenny punched his shoulder. "Don'tdo that. You scared us."
"Ouch, lady." Richard rubbed his shoulder buthis eyes twinkled with amusement. "I've got news."
Libby knew how mischievous Richard Basgalcould be. She instantly went on guard. "What?"
"The Strammon, Domé and Basgal families aregoing to be filmed by the Kansas Historical Society during theFounder's Day Celebration. And...get this...we're going to be infull costume."
* * *
A sweet smelling August breeze brushedagainst Libby's face as she sat on the wooden swing beside herfather. Harvest had ended. Now came the time to relax. After manylong days, late nights, and lots of high tension, it seemed rightto do nothing. Except enjoy the county fair and upcoming Founder'sDay Celebration. Earlier tonight they'd attended the RemembranceDance held at the county hall.
She ran a hand down the beautiful 1800'sstyle blue taffeta costume Jenny's mother made for her. This year'sfestivities marked exactly one hundred years ago when her dad'sancestors arrived by stage and were involved with a battle betweenKansas Volunteers and renegade Indians.
Tomorrow's festivities would climax with thereenactment of the attack on Dead Horse Station. She and her fatherwould play the part of his ancestors.
The idea of the reenactment being filmedthrilled her. Libby glanced at her gray-haired father with pride.He looked so attractive in his outfit. Aunt Mary had outdoneherself with his brown worsted-wool traveling suit with asoft-brushed felt derby. Both costumes looked identical to theoriginals on display in the court house museum.
She scooted across the swing and rested herhead against her father's broad shoulder. "It's peaceful tonight,isn't it?"
"Uh-huh." He sent the swing swaying with hisfoot. "Pretty peaceful."
A sudden swell of love for the quiet manfilled her soul. Libby kissed his weather-beaten cheek.
He quirked an eyebrow then smiled. "What wasthat for?"
"For being the most wonderful father a girlcould have."
"Why thank you, honey. You're pretty specialyourself."
"I mean it. You're the best."
"You're glad to be home, I take it."
She released a loud sigh and leaned back."You know, there wasn't a day in med school when I didn't thinkabout home."
"Having second thoughts about being adoctor?" His brows pinched showing concern.
"No, I'm still determined. Only this summer Iwanted to help you with the harvest, to be part of reaping thefruits of man's labor for a change, not repairing hisdestruction."
Her father seemed to understand but saidnothing.
"And, Doctor Breitman's job offer is a dreamcome true. After all my hard work, the state boards are the laststep." She knocked on the swing's wooden slates. "I'll pass themcome hell or high water."
"Doc's impressed by you. When I spoke withhim last month, he couldn't stop talking about how gifted yoursurgical abilities are." Pride ran through his voice. "Says you'rethe best intern to walk into his hospital in years."
Libby smiled. "And, me, a woman, too. Can youbelieve it?"
"Certainly." He gave her a hug. "Your mom andI believed you were meant for something special. We raised you tothink the same."
"You succeeded." She made a wide, dramaticsweep of her hand. "I'm like Strammon land, productive andprosperous. In some ways," she grinned, "You and Mom cultivated mylife to be like your fields." Her grin widened. "So I could donothing but become a bumper crop."
"A bumper crop." He burst out laughing."Libby, what a way to compare yourself."
The evening breeze stirred and blew acrosstheir faces. Her father frowned and stopped the swing. He stood andstepped to the edge of the porch. "Wind's coming up. A storm'sbrewing." He climbed down the steps and studied the sky. "I reckonI best check the well pump I put in yesterday for the cattle on thesouth range. If we get any heavy rain, I want to make sure it'srunning properly."
"You want me to come along?"
"Sure." He glanced over her costume then downat his own. "No sense taking the time to change. We won't belong."
Libby shadowed her father down the narrowsidewalk leading to the large barn where he kept his newpickup.
As he reached the double doors, he paused."By the way, are you ready for tomorrow?"
"The reenactment? Sure am." Libby giggled."You should have seen Jenny tonight. Sashaying around in the dressher mother made, saying..."
Libby swayed back and forth, imitating hercousin's drawl, "I'm sooo proud it was a Domé who led those poor,brave men to fight and save the stage station from blood-thirstysavages."
Theo chuckled and opened the pickup'spassenger door. "Sounds like Jenny, all right. What did Harry's boyhave to say? I'm sure he wouldn't let a remark like that gounattended."
"He didn't. Richard said if it hadn't of beenfor his Great-great-grandfather Basgal's accurate shooting theremight never have been a Jenny Domé around today to brag. Of course,both started arguing. Before long everybody was taking sides androoting for either the Basgals or Domés."
"What about you? Who did you root for?"
Libby arched an eyebrow. "Me?" She lifted herskirts and stepped up into the pickup. "I rooted for theIndians."
* * *
The storm's intensity increased after theyhad checked the pump and headed for home.
Libby glanced out the pickup's window at theapproaching lightning. Each flash lit the dark sky with brilliance.Goose bumps prickled her skin, and she suppressed a shiver. As theyturned down the dirt road dividing the Basgal's land from theirown, the wind changed directions, beating against their rearwindshield.
"Dad, I'd swear the storm is following us.How come it hasn't started to rain?"
“I don't know.” In the gleam of the pickup'sdashboard lights her father's gaze darted between the dirt road andthe threatening sky. "We best get home."
"Could it be a tornado?"
"Possibly. Only I haven't seen one quite likethis."
Libby flipped on the radio, hoping for aweather report. She turned the dial rapidly in both directions."Nothing. Only static."
Earlier the halos of electrical currents hungin the night air after each lightning bolt dissipated. Now thehalos were coming together, joining forces, changing from atranslucent color to a pale blue. A spark of fear bloomed intoterror.
A blinding white flash, followed by adeafening crack of thunder, rattled the entire pickup. Libbyscreamed and dove toward her father so she could bury her facebetween his shoulder and the back of the pickup's seat. Pulsatingenergy waves hummed through the vehicle, then, quickly,disappeared.
Deafening silence filled the cab. No longerwere there sounds of wind or heavy thunder, like a switch had beenflipped off, shutting down the force behind the storm. Libby liftedher head and stared at her father. Not only had the storm stopped,so had the pickup's motor.
Her father fumbled with the keys, turning theignition on and off. Only the extra keys on the ring jangledagainst the steering column. Dropping his hand away from theignition switch, he cleared his throat. "It's dead."
He ran a shaky finger around the high neckcollar of his costume. "Electricity from the lightning must haveshorted out the alternator. Thank God, the tires kept usgrounded."
The tight fitting bodice and undergarments ofLibby's costume no longer seemed fun. She shifted uncomfortably andforced a laugh, hoping to lighten their mood. "We're quite a pair,you know. Here we sit in a brand new, 1966 dead pickup, all dressedup in our 1800's costumes waiting to see if a silly storm is over.Why, if a stranger should happen along and—."
"Oh, my God!"
The color in her father's face drained. Hestared past her...out the passenger's window. Twisting around Libbygasped. In the distance, heading toward them, was a circular halomuch like the ones she had seen earlier, only this one appearedlarger. Its circumference stretched from the ground upward, almostthirty feet.
Libby's stomach knotted as the halo movedwith renewed flashes of lightning. Tiny waves of electrical, blueenergy also rolled across the stubble-cut wheat field, heading inthe direction of the ring. The revolving circle appeared to feed onthe blue energy, along with anything else it could sweep up withinits path. Chaff from the harvested wheat, tumbleweeds torn loosefrom their roots, and debris blown into the field by earlier windwere all sucked within its nucleus.
"We have to leave. Now!"
At her father's hoarse voice, Libby turned tohim. Desperation churned through her making her stomach hurt evenworse. "Aren't we safe in here?"
"Not from this." He groped for the door'shandle and grabbed her hand, pulling her with him. "This storm'slike nothing I've ever seen. It's absorbing everything in its path.There's a cellar in the old stage station. Let's go."
For once Libby was grateful the famous stagestation stood near the boundary of their land. She scooted half outof the pickup before remembering the first aid kit she had packedfor her father and insisted he always carry with him. "Wait." Sheleaned over the seat and withdrew the bulky carrying case. "We mayneed it."
He nodded and grabbed the case. As theyhurried into the field the wind battered them, pushing them back.Her father drew her close, letting his large body protect her fromthe buffeting wind. Together, they struggled half-bent across thefield.
Libby glanced to her left and couldn't stop ashudder. The ring slowed. She had the strangest sensation it wastrying to decide where to go next. Several yards beyond the ring,the pickup, hazy and distorted, appeared almost transparent.
Another brilliant flash exploded this timefollowed by a loud thunderous roar. Vibrations throbbed against herbody, and the wind shifted direction. It headed southwest, the samedirection as they ran.
Stinging fragments of wheat chaff burned hereyes. How had the wind changed so quickly? There was a tug on herarm. Her father leaned toward her and shouted in her ear.
"Libby, run faster than you ever ranbefore!"
A forgotten nightmare from her childhoodflashed through her mind. Only this was no nightmare—this was real.She tried to move but her legs failed to obey.
"Please sweetheart," her father yelled, "youhave to run."
Libby took a deep shuddering breath andpropelled herself forward. Within seconds, miraculously the newlywhitewashed stage station appeared out of the darkness, sheswallowed a sob as relief spilled through her.
While her father fumbled with the metallatch, Libby blinked back tears. All efforts to make the stationappear realistic would be destroyed. Across the way, she couldbarely make out the small well. They had rebuilt it to be identicalto the original found in an old photo belonging to the Basgal'sfamily.
Libby's mind crashed to the present, and shescurried through the open door. The minute she stepped inside, herfather slammed the solid pine door, throwing the thick wooden plankacross the frame surrounding them in darkness. Only by a flash oflightning could Libby see her father pointing toward thekitchen.
She felt her way across the main room. In thedarkness, his heavy breathing sounded ragged and Libby wondered ifhe was all right. Pain lanced through her thigh as she bumpedagainst a solid object. She reached out and touched the smoothsurface of a table. She paused, trying hard to get her bearings."Here's the kitchen table. Where's the cellar?"
"Inside the pantry." A door hinge squeaked,and her father released a straining groan, "Blast, this trap dooris heavy." When the door landed backward with a loud thud, thewooden boards shook beneath her feet. A lantern was thrust into herhands. "Slide your feet until you feel the opening with yourtoe."
Libby inched her right foot forward andalmost immediately felt the floor end. She gathered her skirt hemin one hand and bent down. With the lantern tight against herchest, she fumbled around until she located the first wooden step."Found it. I'm going down."
"Good, we'll light the lantern at the bottom.I don't want to—"
The low, deep, now familiar humming warnedthem the storm crushed closer. A shrill, keening whine vibratedabove the hum. Blue-white light glowed outside the kitchen windowand filtered into the station.
With light coming into the building, Libbycould see enough to scramble down the narrow steps. Her fatherfollowed, pulling the heavy trap door over them.
The instant he secured the door all lightdisappeared. Despite the quiet, they could still hear the sounds ofwailing wind and low humming. Above them, the building rattled andmoaned against the storm's force. The dirt walls and flooring ofthe cellar trembled from the turbulent power.
A fine layer of dust touched Libby's nose andcheeks. She wiped her face with her sleeve. "How long do you thinkit will last?"
"Not sure. But one thing's for certain, we'renot leaving until it's completely quiet."
Her father's footsteps receded. She heard thefamiliar snap of a catch being released. He was opening the firstaid kit.
"Where are the matches?" His voice seemedsmall in the darkness.
"In a small metal cylinder. You can't missit. The edges are ribbed."
A scratching followed the sound of metalbeing unscrewed. An orange and yellow flash exploded into light,with the pungent smell of sulfur.
"Give me the lantern," he said.
When she offered it to him, her fatherflinched and the match tumbled over and over, flickered once thenwent out.
"Dad? What—"
The matches were suddenly thrust into herother hand.
"Don't move, Libby. Light the lantern, butdon't move."
The agony in his voice frightened her. "Areyou all right?"
His only answer was a pain-filled moan.Libby's hands shook while she tried to hold onto the lantern andstrike a match against the flinted edge of the cylinder. "Whathappened? What's wrong?"
"S...snakebite, twice. Rattler, I must havestepped on him," His voice trailed away for a second, thenreturned. "Got me in the right calf. The other bite is higher whenI fell."
"A rattlesnake?" Libby stiffened. Why didn'tit warn us?"
“Caught him by surprise, I guess." Her fathermoaned again. "Lord, it hurts."
Snake venom reacted quickly. She needed theantivenin from the first aid kit fast. Inhaling a calming breath,Libby struck the cylinder with the match.
To her relief, the match flared and thelantern gleamed as its wick caught. She lifted the lantern high andfound her father on his knees. His head bent, as if trying tocontrol the pain.
Libby peered into the shadows. Several brokenchairs and other items lay in a heap. On the ground near them was adistinct dusty snake trail. The reptile must have moved on.
The idea of a rattlesnake coiled a few yardsaway terrified her. She turned from the cluttered corner andrummaged through the first aid kit, finding the syringeimmediately.
"Roll up your sleeve. I'm giving you aninjection, and then let's get you comfortable." She withdrew theneedle from the small vial of serum. "I have to put a tourniquetaround your calf and the other bite." Her gaze met his. "Where isit?"
Her father hesitated then tossed the heavyworsted wool jacket on the ground beside him. He rolled up hissleeve. "Near my groin. We might be lucky. It was the second bite.Less venom."
Close to an artery. Hopefully the injectionand tourniquets stop the poison. She forced a smile, pointing tohis coat on the ground. "Get ready."
Hours later, Libby leaned over her father'sprone body. She placed her fingertips on his wrist. His skin felthot, and his pulse, though weak, thrummed steadily. She slipped herfingers into the palm of his hand. "Doing good. I've removed thevenom with the suction cup, and your pulse is stabilizing. But incase there's poison still in your tissues, you must remainquiet."
His fingers curled around hers, squeezinglimply to acknowledge her words. Feeling his weakness, she kept hertone light. "I think the storm is over. It seems quietoutside."
A faint smile appeared on his lips."Probably. Storms this fast don't last long. Not sure about thisone. It's a granddaddy."
Libby placed a finger to his lips. "Don'ttalk. Rest while you can." She chewed on her lower lip, hating toleave him down in the cellar alone while she went for help. Shepulled the lantern close to his head. Libby gathered her skirts inone hand and started to stand. "I'm going for help, I—"
"Watch it. You'll hit your head."
Libby ducked instinctively. Directly aboveher, a rough beam supported the station's floor. A shiver traveledthrough her when she realized how lucky they had been earlier. Inthe dark, either or both of them could have collided with thebeam.
Libby gave her father another reassuringsmile. She bent and patted his shoulder. "Thanks for the warning.I'll be right back."
"Okay, honey."
Bits of cobwebs and dirt clung to her taffetaskirt, and she stepped away from her father to shake it clean.
At her movement, a whirring noise shatteredthe silence. Her hands clenched the fabric, and she froze, herheart pounded. Bloody hell, the snake was still here.
Keeping absolutely still, Libby held herskirt above her ankles and searched the darkened corner. Less thansix feet away, underneath the broken chairs and half-hidden in theshadows of the lantern light, the largest prairie rattler she hadever seen, uncoiled and drew into an S-shape. Horny rings on thetail vibrated to a pulsating blur. Hypnotically she followed therhythmic pattern.
Then it moved. Toward her. Everything sheremembered about rattlesnakes avoiding people flashed through hermind like a cruel joke. As if locked in an infinite rhythm with thereptile, she watched as it continued its sideways loop towardher.
Suddenly, with lightning speed, therattlesnake struck. Instinctively Libby lunged backward slammingher head against something solid. Sparks danced before her eyes andher vision spiraled into darkness. But not before she noticed thejagged edge of the rusted pail crash down behind the snake'shead.
While the reptile thrashed in a grotesquedeath-dance at her feet, a ringing filled her ears. Through thetunnel of darkness, she realized what her father had done. In hisweakened condition, he had risen to his knees and used the pail tosave her life.
But would it be at the cost of his own?

Chapter Three
July, 1866
Matthew Domé stepped from the barn andstretched his six-foot frame. Crisp morning air washed fresh fromlast night's storm greeted him. He tucked his blue military shirtinto his pants and glanced around. Today would be a nice one.
A slender form appeared from the back of thelarge, two-story, whitewashed house sitting less than three yardsaway from the barn. He watched the older woman cross the area andhead for the woodpile. Matthew chuckled and dutifully hurried totake the load of wood she'd gathered. "Good morning, Katherine.You're up early."
Katherine Meyers Strammon laughed, brushing awisp of graying blonde hair away from her cheek. "I'm always upthis early." She yawned behind her hand. "No thanks to the stormthat kept me awake for most of the night."
Matthew followed her to the house,remembering other mornings when he'd carried firewood for her.While he growing up, she'd always had a way of making his choresseem appreciated rather than expected. His affection for the womanknew no bounds. They had twenty years of helping each other. Shewas his friend, confidant, and substitute mother, the only familyleft to him.
"I checked the barn," he said, breaking thesilence. "Everything seems to be all right, except the roof.Anything in the house need fixing before I leave?"
"No." Katherine smiled at him fondly. "Ideclare, Matthew, you spoil me."
Surprised by her words, he shrugged. "Neverenough. If you hadn't taken me in after my parents drowned, I'm notsure what would have become of me."
Katherine's expression saddened. "I'd sayit's more the other way. Having you with me kept me sane after thefire took John and Elizabeth."
He noticed a familiar look on her face andknew she was heading toward their standing argument. She latchedhold of his arm and several pieces of wood tumbled to his feet.
"Matt, I know you don't want to talk aboutit, but for the strangest reason this morning I feel I must. Idon't know, maybe it was the storm, but it got me thinking onceagain how fragile life is."
"Don't, Katherine."
"I prayed on this and God answered. It's timefor us to face our pain and move on."
Matthew shook his head refusing to allow thepain to rise again. He owed it to Elizabeth. No words could explainhow he felt when she was ripped from his arms. He'd failed her.Like all the others. John Meyers, his parents, and Katherine'ssecond husband, Anthony. Everyone he'd come to care about, exceptKatherine, had died because his inability to save them.
Matthew stepped over the fallen firewood."Moving on, isn't my problem, Katherine."
"It wasn't your fault."
He lurched to a stop, dropping several morepieces of wood and closed his eyes, feeling the familiarscratchiness behind his lids. "Yes, it was. I promised to keep hersafe. I should have held her tighter."
"Accept her death as God's will."
God's will? No God would will a four-year-oldchild like Elizabeth to die so senselessly. He shook his head.There had to be an answer for her death. All these years, he sensedit. Someday he'd find out what and why.
To this day it haunted him he'd been the onlyone found in time. For Elizabeth there had been no body, no Cleo,or his handkerchief. Some suggested she'd been buried too deep tolocate.
Katherine's hand on his arm pulled him fromhis thoughts. "Do you think it was any easier for me? I lost bothmy husband and my daughter. I wanted to die, but I...there was youI had to think of. I had to go on living, accepting what lifeoffered me. When someone comes along who makes you feel aliveagain, you grab for happiness and hold on. Anthony did that forme."
"And look what it got you," he said curtly."Another death."
In the early morning sunlight, her eyesglistened with tears. "It's true," she replied, blinking them away."The Lord took Mr. Strammon from me, but in His goodness, He leftAnthony's grandson for me to love and care for just like He gave meyou." Touching his upper arm, she nudged Matthew toward the house."Enough of this. I've made up my mind. It's time you moved on. I'llsee you married and happy if it's the last thing I ever do."
"Then, Katherine, you better live forever,because I'll never marry."
He stared into the distance. As a boy, he'dwanted to marry Elizabeth and she'd been taken from him. Both menKatherine loved died tragically...because of him. His parents diedbecause of him. How could he condemn another by risking hislove?
Seeing his shuttered look, Katherine sighedand opened the kitchen door.
Matthew followed her into the spaciouskitchen.
She took the rest of the wood from him andplaced it in the large wooden box beside the stove. "Poor, James.He crawled into bed with me about three this morning. Said thelightning and thunder scared him. After what happened to hisgrandfather, I didn't have the heart to say no."
Matthew glanced toward the stairs leading tothe second floor. Katherine's step-grandson had been through a lot.Even more than Matthew at his age. James had witnessed his parent'sdeath when the horse pulling their carriage spooked and spilledthem over an embankment. A month later his grandfather was murderedby Indians.
Matthew couldn't get Anthony Strammon's deathout of his mind. Five months ago, Matthew had promised to help mendfences. But at the last minute, he was called to patrol the area.Anthony decided not to wait for him and went out by himself. By thetime Matthew caught up with him, it was too late. Anthony had beenmutilated almost beyond recognition.
Bringing the body back to the farm was worse.Thank God, he'd ordered his men to wrap Anthony tightly in ablanket. The shock of James seeing his grandfather's maimed bodywould have been too much for a boy of five. How Katherine managedto get through preparing Anthony for burial, he'd never know. ButKatherine was strong. For twenty years she'd eked out a home andlife for both of them, never once letting tragedy pull her down.Katherine was one of those rare women who loved and accepted lifeno matter what.
Matthew strode to the wall near the back doorand lifted the rifle resting on two pegs. "Any sign ofIndians?"
Katherine was bent over, placing wood intothe large stove. "No. Not since...since..."
She hesitated, then finished. "It must havebeen a band of renegades passing through. Anthony happened to be inthe wrong place at the wrong time."
He checked the rifle. It was well-oiled andloaded. "Maybe. You have the other one where I told you?"
"Yes, right by the front door." Katherinedusted her hands. She gave him a long look. "James and I are assafe here as anywhere else. Tim's always around if I need help.I'll be honest, after Anthony's funeral, I had worries, but forsome reason, I feel things are going to get better."
"Good morning."
The skinny, narrowed-shouldered man Matthewhired as farm help stood in the doorway. "Quite a storm last night,wasn't it, Miz Strammon?"
"Yes, it was." Katherine motioned toward thestove. "Would you like a cup of coffee, Tim, before breakfast?"
"Yes, ma'am." The red-haired man hurried overto the cupboard and picked out a mug. "I have to say, for sure, youmake the best coffee this side of the Mississippi." He glanced atMatthew before pouring the coffee. "I stopped by the barn. Josephsaid to tell you they're ready to leave."
Matthew drained his cup and placed it on thesideboard. "Thanks." He strode over to Katherine and gave her akiss on the cheek. "I'll swing by this way in a week to check onyou and James."
Katherine reached out, preventing him fromwalking away. "You'll be going by the Wilson farm on the way backto the fort. Do me a favor and drop off these jars of preserves.Harriet's expecting them."
Hearing the widow's name, Matthew groaned."You never give up, do you?"
Katherine picked up a basket and the sparklein her eyes spoke volumes. "What are you talking about? I promisedHarriet some preserves. Can I help it if you're going her way?"
"No more than Harriet Wilson can help lookingfor a husband to ride herd on her wild brood." Matthew sighed. "Allright, I'll drop these off. But not today. I planned to ride outtoward the stage station then head for the fort." He opened thedoor and stepped out into the sunshine. "And, I sure as hell won'task her to marry me when I do stop by."
Matthew heard a pot slam down on the stove.Katherine's voice reverberated from the house. "Oh, bitters andsmelling salts. Tim, did I tell you Matthew Domé is the moststubborn man in the whole world?"
"Uh...no, ma'am. I don't believe so."
Matthew chuckled and headed for the barn.
An hour later, Matthew and his men topped aslow rising mesa. From behind him one of his men hollered, "Riderscoming fast from the east."
Matthew twisted in his saddle. Two horsemenheaded their way at a fast clip.
"Yo, Patrol!" One of the riders waved his hatover his head. "Indians. Heading toward Dead Horse Station."
Matthew spun his mount in their direction.Joseph reacted a second later. The rest followed instantly behindhim. When they galloped abreast the first rider, who had alreadyspun his horse around, Matthew yelled, "Any stages due?"
The man hunched over the saddle and slappedthe reins against his horse's side. "I hope not. Found Indian signsabout a week ago. Knew they'd return this way. Sent word to JohnAckerton not to let any stages through. Hopefully he got it intime."
* * *
"Libby. Honey, wake up."
Her father's voice seemed to come fromcavern. Libby struggled to regain consciousness. "Dad?"
A deep sigh of relief drifted to her ears."Thank God. You're all right."
"Where are we?"
"We're in the station's storm cellar,remember?"
Libby opened her eyes and focused on a faintlight. Slowly she became aware of her father's haggard face leaningover her. She lifted a hand to brush his unshaven jaw. "You lookterrible. You've got dirt on the end of your nose."
He chuckled. "Wait till you see yourself.You're no princess, either."
Libby's memory returned with a thud. "Thesnake." She tried to sit up. Her world spun, and she made a franticgrab for her father's arm. "Ooh ow. I wacked it good." She tenderlyprobed the swollen knot on the back of her head where she'dcollided with the low beam. Libby inhaled softly and brought herfingers closer to the lantern. No sign of blood. Encouraged, shedid a quick mental check-up of her senses. Other than a throbbinghead, everything else seemed to function properly. Her vision nolonger wavered and she wasn’t nauseated. Thank goodness for small,or should she say large favors? It could have been worse. She'd hitthe beam hard.
"How are you feeling?" Her father studied herthrough the lantern light.
"Not bad, all considering. Have a bit of aheadache."
"How about some aspirin?" Theo rummaged inthe first-aid kit. "I'll get you three."
When he held out the white pills, Libbynoticed his pallor. "Thanks. Three should do it." She popped theminto her mouth and struggled to swallow without liquid. "Speakingof feeling. How are you?"
"Pretty good."
Libby ran her hand down his sleeve and feltfor his pulse. The erratic beat worried her. "You'd better lie backdown. I'm going to see if I can get some water from the well.Richard said they had it working again. We both could—"
She stopped mid-sentence as footsteps poundedacross the kitchen floor directly overhead. Gunfire boomed andmuffled sounds of excited voices filtered through the ceiling."You've got to be kidding? They'd actually go ahead and film thereenactment after the storm? Besides, wouldn't they wonder where weare? We were supposed to be in this scene."
Her father remained silent. While she lookedup, he had laid down again. Libby bent and touched his cheek. Hisskin felt clammy under her fingers. Beads of perspiration coveredhis upper lip. The exertion he expended to kill the snake andtending her must have drained his remaining strength. Libby hurriedacross the darkened cellar, avoiding first the low beam and then,more importantly as far as she was concerned, the dead snake.

Chapter Four
Using the wide frame of the kitchen's door asa shield, Matthew crouched beside Joseph. To be heard over thegunfire, he yelled into his friend's ear. "Make your shots count.There are too many of them. We could run out of ammunition."
Joseph nodded and rested his Springfield onthe windowsill. His rifle sight followed an approaching renegade,then a second later an explosion rocked the entire kitchen. "Gotone," he shouted triumphantly, sliding to the floor to reload."There's justice for a murdering thief."
"Keep alert, Joseph. You're the best shotwe've got."
Joseph could man the kitchen alone for a fewminutes. Matthew needed to check the three men guarding the front.They were spread thin, but with luck they could hold off theIndians and keep them from destroying the station and stealing thehorses and mules.
A volley of gunfire splattered against thewall directly over his head. Matthew instinctively dropped to thefloor. While he waited for the fusillade to die down, he thoughtabout his men, Weller and Oleson. They and the two station'soperators had barricaded themselves with the livestock in the barn.With them shooting crossfire, their patrol might have a chance.These renegades wanted horses, and wouldn't stop until theysucceeded or too many of their group were killed. Matthew and hismen had one choice, stand and fight.
The pantry door suddenly swung open andslammed against his head, sending his hat flying across the room.Red-hot pain exploded on the left side of Matthew's brain, whilewaves of white light flashed before his eyes. Joseph yelled insurprise when someone leapt from the pantry. Matthew lunged,tackling a fighting, squirming body, barely able to keep his handson anything solid. It didn't help that several layers of materialcovered his head.
"Get off me. I've got to stop theshooting."
Matthew stiffened. Surely, he hadn't heardright. Indians didn't speak fluent English.
His prisoner squirmed harder and Matthewtightened his grip. Expecting to find sinewy, rock-hard musclesacross a male chest, he found only softness—feminine softness.
"Matt...!" Joseph's choked voice penetratedas realization hit. "For God's sake, you're wrestling with awoman."
Matthew's grasp sprung open, and indesperation, he pulled and slapped at the material over his head.Once clear, he gaped in stunned disbelief. Between his knees, withher skirt and petticoats bunched up around her waist were thegreenest, angriest eyes this side of Katherine's. They flashed likeemeralds in the sunlight.
His tongue began to dry before he realized hestared at her with his mouth open. Matthew clenched his jaws shutwith a snap. He dropped his hands on either side of her shoulders."Where in the hell did you come from?"
* * *
Libby glared up at the handsome psychoticholding her down. Where did she come from? The question should bereversed. She should be the one asking—where did he come from?She'd met all the people from the Kansas Historical Society wantingto be part of the reenactment. This man was none of them.
His tanned, rugged face hardened, and hisdark brown eyes narrowed. "I asked you a question, lady."
"Stop talking. Get off." She shoved hard onhis midsection. It was like pushing against a cement wall. "I said,get off."
"Not until you answer me. This is no placefor a woman."
Libby felt probed like a cell under amicroscope. She hated it when people remarked she was a woman. Wasshe back in medical school? No matter. She'd set the othersstraight, she could do it with this man as well. "Excuse me? Whatplanet did you escape from?"
"My father is dying, and you're treating melike a pain in the ass. Let me up. He needs help." She struggled tosit, but like his chest, his arms and broad shoulders provedunmovable.
"No, it's too dangerous. Bullets are flyingeverywhere. You might get hit."
To prove his point shots continuously rangaround them and she heard several pops explode against the walls inthe kitchen. She sniffed, mentally giving kudos to the sounddepartment for their realistic sound effects. "We don't have toworry about the shots. They're only blanks."
This character took his part too seriously.Libby gritted her teeth and grabbed his forearms. His uniformsleeves were rolled up, and the corded muscles tensed beneath herfingertips. She yanked up and out, hoping to force his arms awayfrom her shoulders, but they were like steel pillars. She pulledharder. When he still didn't move, she pounded on his chest withdoubled fists. "I said, let me up!"
A brief expression of what might have beenpain crossed his face, but he didn't budge. Exasperated Libby gaveup and lay there panting. What was wrong with him?
"Matt, Sam's hit!"
Concern flashed across his features. His gazedarted to the front room. "Damn." He looked again at her. "Staydown. You hear me?" Without waiting for an answer, he scrambled upto a half crouch and disappeared through the doorway.
Like heck, she was going to stay put. Libbystruggled to her knees and hesitated, not sure which way would bethe quickest to find help. Go out the back door or follow herantagonist.
"Lady, you better keep down, if'n you knowwhat's good for you."
At the familiar voice, Libby whirled. Shescanned the back of the man who calmly fired his rifle out a brokenwindow. "Richard, thank God. I need your help." She sprinted to hisside and tugged on his arm. "Dad's been bitten by a snake. He's inthe cellar. We need to send for an ambulance."
To her surprise, Richard dropped down fromthe window. He stared at her, as if she'd lost her wits. "Lady, Isure as hell don't know what you're talking about. I don't knowabout no cellar, and I don't know your dad. But, one thing I doknow. My name ain't Richard. It's Joseph."
"What?" He had to be Richard. Libby leanedforward and studied his face. For the first time, she noticedweathered creases along his cheeks. A thin scar trailed down hisleft side of his jaw. Libby inhaled deeply, tamping down herchangeable emotions. Despite the uncanny resemblance, he wasn'tRichard.
Had she lost her sanity? She glanced aroundthe small kitchen. The smoothly-polished table she had helped moveinto the kitchen yesterday sat in the same place, but now itappeared worn and deeply scarred across the surface. Even thecurtains on the windows looked similar, but were faded and with aslightly smaller gingham pattern.
She ran a trembling hand over her forehead.Maybe the blow to the back of her head bruised her brain so hardher mental faculties couldn't comprehend the real from the unreal.Her hand dropped to her side. Of course. She'd focus on her truelife and ignore everything strange and weird. Her father neededhelp. She'd worry about herself after this crazy re-enactmentended. Libby spun and headed for the back door.
"Hey, come back here."
She had her hand on the door latch by thetime Richard-Joseph dropped his rifle and lunged at her. He grabbedthe hem of her dress and started pulling her toward him. "Lady, areyou crazy?"
Libby released the latch and turned. God,this ham was overacting his part to the hilt."I-am-going-to-get-help-for-my-father." She deliberately said herwords slowly so he'd have no trouble understanding her.
"There's Indians shooting at us out there, orhaven't ya noticed?"
"No, really, I would have never guessed."Scornfully, Libby bent and slapped at his hand while yanking at herdress. "Let go. You can start filming again after someone goes forhelp."
"Start what?" Richard-Joseph gawked at her,releasing his grip on her skirt. "Lady, you are crazy." He cupped ahand to the side of his mouth. "Matt, get in here, and I mean,right now!"
Libby ignored him. She yanked open thekitchen door and stepped outside. An arrow whizzed past her thigh,impaling her skirt to the door frame. She stared in surprise at aspotted black-and-white horse flashing past and the half-naked wildman clinging to its back. Other horsemen disappeared around theside of the station. She looked down at the arrow stuck in thedoor, then at Richard-Joseph. "They shot at me."
Strong hands gripped her shoulders. Beforeshe had time to cry out, she was flung from the open doorway.Sounds of ripping taffeta and the door slamming were minor comparedto the snarling voice in her ear.
"What do you have for brains, sweetheart?Sawdust? Of course they'd shoot at you! I told you to staydown."
"You tore my beautiful dress." Libby fingeredthe fine material. Her aunt was going to be terribly upset.
A sudden whoosh of a bullet whizzed past andimbedded itself into the wall next to her. A real bullet. Not asound effect.
"Forget your damn dress." The man, whominutes before had been fighting her on the floor, yanked her hardagainst him and secured her body with a tight arm around her waist.A pair of dark eyes drilled into hers. It wasn't hard to read theaccusations in their depths. He thought her mad.
Continuing gunfire rang in her ears. Sheswayed slightly. The smell of gun powder assaulted her nose. He wasright. God in heaven, she was insane. She had to be, there wasn'tany other explanation. The arrow was real. He was real. This wasnot a reenactment, but an honest-to-goodness battle where realdeath could be a possibility.
Or this had to be the worst nightmare she'dever had.
A terrible feeling of dread skittered acrossher nerve endings. If it was real then her unconscious father laydying below. She fought to hold back the tears. For the first timein her life, a feeling of insecurity washed over her. She mightaccept the impossible idea she was definitely in middle of theattack on Dead Horse Station but it also meant there would be noambulance, nor a sterile hospital waiting. She was the only one whocould help him now.
Libby blinked then grabbed the front of theofficer's military shirt. "I...you have to help me. My...my father,he's hurt." She pointed with her left hand at the pantry. "There'sno one else but—"
A searing pain traveled along her shoulderand burned a path down her arm. She stiffened, knowing what itmeant. One of those horribly real bullets had grazed her body.Libby gritted her teeth and said with disgust, "Great. Just great.Get forced back in time and get shot to boot."
"What are you talking about?"
Libby heard his growl, but no longer cared.Frustration had steamed past the point of control. She doubled herhand into a fist and let it fly. Her knuckles hit solid flesh, andshe heard a loud grunt.
For an instant, her impulsive action feltwonderful, but, it cost her. Waves of pain rippled up her back andclamped around the sides of her head. Tears formed behind herclosed lids, and she swayed dizzily.
"Damn," she whispered. "I never faint. Now,in less than twenty-four hours, I'm going to do it twice."
Then, as blackness enfolded her, Libbycollapsed to the floor in a heap of petticoats and bluetaffeta.

Chapter Five
Matthew twisted in the hall chair and glaredat Katherine's closed bedroom door. Since he'd deposited theinjured woman on Katherine's bed, he'd been frustrated. Hell, fromthe moment he first met her, he'd been frustrated.
It didn't help when she'd fainted and he'drealized she'd been hit by a ricocheting bullet, a fierce desire toguard and protect her trampled out every other thought. He'dgathered her in his arms, cradling her limp body to his chest likeshe was something precious. Nothing else mattered. Not themarauding Indians outside the station, not Joseph watching himbetween every shot fired, not even the idea Sam lay hurt in thefront room.
His irrational actions at the Way Stationmade him want to spit. In the heat of battle, he'd been as usefulto his men as a green recruit. Maybe less, because he allowed hisconcern over a female's minor wound take precedence over Indianswho could have killed them. Thank God, for Joseph and the othermen's lethal shots. The raiders soon tired of their attack and rodeoff.
With the Indians gone, things should havequieted down, but they didn't. Joseph went to the cellar, checkingon the woman's story about her wounded father. Matthew couldn'tforget the surprise in Joseph's voice when he yelled through thefloorboards, "There is a man down here. And a dead rattler bigenough to swallow a steer."
While three men clambered down to assistJoseph, Matthew commanded the rest to saddle up and ready the stageanimals to be taken with them. The woman had said her father layhurt and he hadn't believed her. But, when he saw the snakebites,time became the enemy. The man in the cellar needed doctoringpronto, and the closest healer was Katherine.
When they arrived at the farm, Katherinesnapped orders like a general. Before they knew it, Sam's shoulderhad been dressed and poultices applied to the stranger'ssnakebites. Katherine now tended the girl.
Matthew sat back, letting the tension drainfrom his shoulders. Maybe he should do something more than sit onhis butt. At least, ride to the fort with Joseph and his men toreport the attack. He wouldn't feel as useless as a hound barkingat a caterpillar. But he couldn't leave, not until he knewKatherine's last patient would be all right.
A need to protect her dug at him like a spurgouging him in the side.
He frowned at the thought. It wasn't only theneed to see to her welfare, something else drove him. After she'dfainted, and her closed eyelids blocked those green eyes, the colorremained fixed in his mind. Even now he could see her glaringangrily as she writhed beneath him. No doubt a woman like her couldget into a man's blood and make him want—
A new tension bulged against the buttons onhis canvas jeans, and Matthew shifted uncomfortably on the hardseat. Groaning, he tilted the chair back onto two legs and rubbedthe palms of his hands against his temples. Maybe Joseph's constantnagging about needing a woman brought it all on. One thing forsure, it couldn't be the vixen behind the door he needed. She wastoo argumentative, feisty, and mean-tempered to suit him.
The bedroom door opened and Katherineappeared. He snapped to his feet, but his knees continued towobble. Katherine didn't miss a beat.
"You look pale. What's wrong?" she asked.
"Nothing, I'm fine."
"No, you're not. Come to the kitchen. I'llget you some tonic."
Matthew grimaced and followed her down thestairs. "Forget the tonic. I'm fine. How's the woman doing?"
Katherine shot him a disbelieving look thenreached into a cupboard for her blue bottle. "If you mean MissStrammon, she's resting comfortably."
Matthew's jaw dropped. "Miss who?"
"Miss Libby Strammon. Her father's name isTheodore."
"Strammon, like in Anthony Strammon?"
"The same. I believe they are relatives ofAnthony."
"You believe?"
Matthew couldn't stop the sharpness in histone, and she gave him one of her famousdon't-take-that-tone-with-me-young-man frowns.
He was about to apologize when she addedunexpectedly, "They must be relatives, otherwise, why would theyhave the same unusual last name?" She reached for a spoon. "Nowtake this."
He waved a dismissive hand. "I don't wantit."
"Nonsense. Do you want your bitters by thespoon or in a cup of coffee?"
Matthew gave up and opened his mouth, feelinglike he was nine again, only this time he had to bend down to takethe spoon. After a quick gulp, he shuddered and rasped, "Now I'llhave a cup of coffee."
The tonic warmed his belly. Katherine wasright. He did need the restorative. At least the tension in hisjeans had disappeared. Matthew sat at the table and took thesteaming cup from Katherine's hand. "Did she say what they weredoing at the stage station?"
Katherine sat across from him. "No, and Ididn't ask."
"Why not?"
"Because she needed rest, not questions.They'll be staying for awhile. You can ask her later."
"Staying awhile?" The possibility thesestrangers staying at Katherine's rattled him, especially, since heplanned on coming back to run the farm. The father was an unknown,but having Miss Libby Strammon within arm's reach day and nightmight drive him crazy. Surely there was something he could do tochange Katherine's mind about her newfound relatives. "Don't youthink it's a bit suspicious they appear out of nowhere and have thesame name as your late husband?"
"No. People have faraway relatives comevisit."
"Not ones they don't know about. Maybethey're swindlers out to cheat you. After all, Anthony's violentdeath did make the papers in Kansas City. Anyone could read abouthis murder and plan to bilk his estate."
Katherine stared at him in amazement."Matthew Domé. How could you think of such a thing? Why the poorgirl is nothing more than a frightened and confused youngwoman."
"Frightened." Matthew snorted. "She surewasn't frightened back at the station. She was ready to go outsideand face the Indians all by herself."
"She was in shock. Her father had been bittenby a rattlesnake—twice. All she thought about was gettinghelp."
"How is the old man, by the way?"
Katherine eyed him with displeasure. "The oldman, as you call him, is weak, but he'll recover." As if to gaincontrol of herself, she cleared her throat then said softly, "Youwere wise to bring them here rather than taking them to the fort.The extra distance and time might have done him in."
Matthew shrugged indifferently. Since hefound out they called themselves Strammon, he wasn't so sure of thewisdom in bringing them here. "Maybe, but then again, maybenot."
Katherine's annoyance returned. "I declare,Matthew, what's come over you? I've never seen you act thisway."
"Nothing's come over me."
He'd told Katherine an outright lie.Everything had come over him, but he wouldn't admit it. Nor wouldhe acknowledge for the first time he'd lost control because anunwanted female had entered his life. If he confessed, Katherinewould tell him it was a sure sign he needed to get married.
Matthew touched the tender bruise below hisleft eye and winced. As far as he was concerned, the idea ofmarrying a headstrong woman who thought she could handle everythingby herself had as much appeal as hog-tying a bull buffalo.
"What happened to your eye?" Katherine asked,immediately picking up on his discomfort.
"The fool woman hit me with her fist."
"She did?" Disbelief shone in Katherine'sface. "You have to be joking."
He probed around his cheekbone. "Believe me,I'm not joking."
"But why? What were you doing?"
"Me?" Matthew glared at her. It didn't sitright she assumed he was the one in the wrong. "I didn't doanything to her. She up and hit me for no reason at all."
"I find it hard to believe, dear. Granted Idon't know her, but she doesn't strike me as the type who'd wallopa man for no reason. There must be more here than you'resaying."
Before he had an opportunity to answer, sheadded unsympathetically, "You better put something cold on youreye. It's turning ugly."
Matthew swallowed an oath and stood. Hehadn't even considered a black eye. Grumbling under his breath, hestormed to the water bucket next to the stove and grabbed up a dishrag. He squeezed the cold water out and stomped back to thetable.
"It'll need to be colder if you want it to doany good. You'd better get a chunk of ice from the ice house."
Katherine said it matter-of-factly. He groundhis teeth in frustration. He expected more sympathy than shegave.
"Maybe, I don't wanna get a chunk of ice," heretorted peevishly. "Maybe I want it just the way it is." Hedropped into his chair with a thud. Propping his elbow on thetable, he slapped the wet rag against his injured eye and gloweredat her with his good one.
Katherine sighed loud and long. Her fingerstapped on the table top with irritation. "Quit acting like aspoiled little boy. It doesn't become you." She leaned forward inher chair and glared at him. "Besides you know what I think aboutspoiled little boys."
Matthew jerked his head upward. The rag onhis face fell to the table with a splat. Something aboutKatherine's expression bothered him, and for a moment he couldn'tfigure out what it was. Then, he knew. It was her eyes.
Hell, it was happening again. Even withoutthinking about her, the frustrating woman managed to invade hismind and his body.
* * *
Within the confines of the bedroom, Libby'seyes snapped opened with a start. It happened again. Every time sherelaxed into the soft mattress, his face appeared in her mind likethe proverbial bad penny. She flung her arm over her face as if thecrook of her elbow could shield her eyes from his image.
"Lieutenant What-ever-your-name is," shegrumbled, "find someone else to bother. I don't need you messingwith my mind. I have enough to worry about."
Libby lifted her arm away from her face andstruggled to sit up, trying hard to ignore the dull pain rakingacross her left shoulder. "Hang on, dad. I'm coming."
"My God. I didn't dream all this. How did weget here?"
His voice sounded hoarse and strained, butcertainly stronger than it had been in the cellar. Libby inhaledslowly, willing her pain to lessen while she shuffled across thesmall room to his cot. Her father tried to raise his head. Shepatted his shoulder, needing to touch him, needing the comfort hiscloseness had always provided. "It's all right. Don't taxyourself."
He pointed to the wrappings around hiswounds. "What's this stuff on my leg?"
"It's some sort of drawing poultice. I thinkI got most of the poison out, but I figured it didn't hurt for thewoman to go ahead and place them on your leg. She said it workswonders."
"What woman?"
Libby understood his confusion. When she'dregained consciousness, her mind had reeled with the same sense oflost reality.
She placed her fingers on his neck and sighedwith relief at the steady rhythm of his strong pulse. "You don'tknow her. We're in her bedroom." Her smile slipped as she reachedfor his hand. "Uh, dad, you're going to have a hard time believingthis, but—"
"We've gone back in time, haven't we?"
Nothing he could have said would have shockedher more. "You know?"
"Yes, I suspected it the minute I lookedaround the room."
"But how could you possibly know? I onlyaccepted it because...because..." She trailed off, not knowingwhere to begin.
"The wardrobe."
She'd noticed the large wardrobe against thefar wall earlier but hadn't given the piece of furniture muchthought. It was intricately carved with fish-like grotesques. Twooverly-large doors carried bevel-glass mirrors. "I don'tunderstand. This one piece of furniture told you we went back intime?"
"Yes. This wardrobe belonged to mygreat-grandmother Strammon. The family brought it from Russia inthe early 1800's. It has been handed down generation aftergeneration."
Libby glanced at it again. "I've never seenit before."
"It was destroyed in a flood." He paused."Let's see, I was about ten when it happened. I'll never forget howupset my mother was when they found it completely buried inmud."
Libby touched the polished wood in awe. "Howdo you know it's the same one?"
"Because of the chunk of wood missing on theupper right-hand corner. I remember my mother telling me how it gotthere."
A deep gash ran along the grain. Libby ranher finger over the mark. "How did this happen?"
"My great-great-grandfather threw his knifeat a target drawn on the wall and missed."
Libby smiled. "Are you sure this could be thesame piece of furniture?"

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