Douglas County, Oregon, 1886
Serena bowed her head until her chin grazed the collar of her dusty red gingham shirt and gripped the mare's saddlehorn with both hands. Lord, if You're listening, I need Your help!
The journey from Ohio had been harder than she'd expected. Much harder. Her backside ached from the hours in the saddle, and she wondered if she could dismount without stumbling.
Please, God, I'm tired and now that I'm finally here, I'm scared. Don't let me make a fool of myself out here. At least not until I've got what I came for.
She clicked her tongue at the mare and moved to the crest of the hill. In the wide valley below, fields of green alfalfa undulated like an emerald sea, whipped by the hot July wind. Serena caught her breath. How beautiful it was! So unbelievably beautiful.
And it was hers! Part of it, anyway. She urged her mount along the trail skirting the meadow toward the white painted ranchhouse at the end of the rutted road. Dismounting unsteadily, she removed her hat and flapped it against the trail dust clinging to her riding skirt, then with a twist of her head, she tossed back the single thick braid that fell over her shoulder.
At her knock, the front door swung open and a young woman in a blue striped workdress peered out. The thin face was flushed, and she balanced a squalling baby on one hip.
"What do you want?" the impatient voice queried.
Serena blinked. "I'm sorry to bother you, ma'am. I'm looking for Mr. Carleton Kearney."
The sharp hazel eyes narrowed. "What for?"
Taken aback, Serena hesitated. "I-- I have some business to discuss with him." She watched the woman's flat bosom expand and then deflate as she shifted the child to the other hip and pursed her unsmiling lips.
"What kind of business?"
"It's a legal matter, Mrs. Kearney. If you could just tell him I'm-- "
"I expect he's in the corral, next to the barn." The woman jerked her narrow chin to indicate the direction.
Serena's gaze traveled past the wide porch to the trim, russet-stained outbuilding beyond. A split rail fence encircled a large open space, inside which a man was working with a horse.
"Yes, I see. Thank you, Mrs.-- "
The door slammed before she could finish. Serena flinched.
What was the matter with the woman? Was it so obvious, then, that she was part Indian, despite the way Mama had raised her?
Even Mama had dressed in print dresses with petticoats and proper drawers; she'd done it to please Pa, and so her daughters would fit into the white community. Now Serena wondered if her normally fair skin was so tanned she looked ... foreign.
Well, no matter. She'd encountered such rudeness before. She was here, and she'd come to stay. Drawing a quick gulp of air into her lungs, she stepped off the porch and headed for the corral. Pa had said folks out in Oregon were generally friendly. But then Pa hadn't spoken to anyone in Wildwood Valley for more than twenty years. She hoped Mr. Kearney would at least be polite.
She studied the tall, well-built figure in the corral yard. Close to forty, she guessed from the silver in his dark sideburns, but he moved like a much younger man, his motions quick, his body relaxed. He walked with an unstudied loose- limbed grace that made her breath catch.
He held the restive roan mustang with a short length of rope in one hand while he advanced toward it, talking softly. "Whoa, boy, that's it. Easy, now. Easy." Keeping the rope taut, he reached his free hand to stroke the animal's nose. "Easy, boy," he repeated, his voice gentle. "You're a good old boy. Easy, now."
The horse backed away, but the man kept on talking, soft and low. Little by little, the roan settled down, then took a hesitant step forward. Serena knew just how the animal felt. It was hard to trust.
"Easy, now. Come on, boy." The man smoothed one hand over the roan's neck. "That's right, eas-- "
The horse jerked away.
"Damnation!" Eyes the color of a summer sky pinned her right where she stood. Under his dark mustache, the well-shaped lips pressed together into a grim line. "Just who the hell are you and what are you doing out here?"
Serena blanched at his tone. Hard and cold as steel, the sound was so unlike the low, gentle murmur of a moment ago she wasn't sure they came from the same person.
"I-- Oh, I'm sorry!"
He swung away from the horse and planted his dusty leather boots in front of her. "Sorry," he repeated, his tone skeptical.
Serena gathered her courage and lifted her gaze from the hip-hugging denim trousers to the buttons of his shirt, then moved up to the bronzed, regular features and the unkempt dark hair visible under the wide-brimmed hat. She avoided the penetrating blue eyes, concentrated instead on his forehead, now creased into a frown.
"Sorry," he repeated in a low drawl, "is a word overused by the blundering fools of the world. Don't you know better than to interrupt a man working with a horse?"
Serena raised her chin a notch. "Under the circumstances, 'sorry'is the best I can do. The animal is already spooked."
One dark eyebrow quirked. "Would you mind telling me-- "
"My name is Serena Hull," she said quickly. "Jeremiah Hull was my father."
Carleton Kearney rocked back on his boot heels and stared at her. "Jeremiah Hull," he echoed. "Well, what do you know. We always wondered .... " His voice trailed off. He nodded slowly, studying her. "And Walks Dancing is your mother. I should have known," he said in a gravelly voice. "You've got her eyes."
Serena gaped at him. "You knew my mother?"
"No, I didn't. I saw a photograph of her once. Jeremiah sent it to my brother's wife, Jessamyn Kearney. Some years back it was. There were three little girls in the picture, too. You've grown a good bit since then."
With an effort, Serena jerked her thoughts away from her mother. "Mr. Kearney, I've come out from Ohio, where my mother and father lived, because ... because .... " Her throat closed over the words.
"Alone?" he said, his tone disbelieving. "From Ohio? How in the hell-- "
"From Stark County, yes." She hesitated. "I came part of the way with a wagon train. When they turned south at the Platte River junction, an army cavalry unit let me travel with them. I rode the rest of the way on horseback."
"Jehosaphat," he breathed. "How old are you, anyway?"
Serena struggled to appear unruffled. "Mr. Kearney, is my age of concern here?"
"You mean is it any of my business? Can't say that it is, no."
She flicked a glance at him. The steady blue eyes were calculating. He had guessed how difficult it had been. Could he also see through the facade of calm she maintained to mask her unease? She worked to keep her voice steady.
"I'll be twenty-five next month. Old enough to travel two thousand miles to claim what's mine."
She saw him come instantly to attention, like a hawk protecting its kill.
"The ranch, is that it? That rundown spread my brother and I sold to Jeremiah years ago? Hell, I never thought he'd-- "
"It's mine, now, Mr. Kearney. In his will, Pa named me and my sisters to inherit, and I've got legal papers to prove ownership. We never knew he even had a ranch until he-- "
"How'd he die?" Carleton interrupted.
Serena swallowed hard and stared down at the tips of her riding boots. "Mama went into a white woman's dress store in Canton City one day," she said dully. "When she came out a man called her a name and when she didn't respond, another man shot her. Pa went to help her, and they ... they shot him, too."
"Bastards," Carleton breathed. "Damn Yankee bastards."
"About the ranch, Mr. Kearney," she reminded.
He looked at her sharply, his eyes blazing fire. As she watched, they cooled into two icy blue pools. "Well, now, Miss Hull. I don't mind telling you it goes hard on me to give up that land. It's near a thousand acres of winter grazing pasture. After Jeremiah up and left, I never expected-- "
"Pa always said you were an honest man, Mr. Kearney. I wouldn't have come all the way out here if I thought-- "
His voice hardened. "Don't push me, Sis."
Serena waited, gathering her thoughts and her courage. "I don't like this any more than you do, Mr. Kearney. Or Mrs. Kearney either, with a new baby and all."
"Mrs. Kearney?" A flicker of pain crossed his face.
"The woman at the house," Serena reminded.
"Mrs. Kearney is dead," he said in a flat voice. "That's my daughter, Alice. Step-daughter," he corrected. "Nowadays, she looks older than her years. The baby is my daughter, Sarah. My wife .... " He paused to draw in a long breath. "My wife died when she was born."
Aghast, Serena stared into tired eyes that seemed to look right through her. "Oh, I'm so sorry," she whispered. "So awfully sorry."
He said nothing. He turned away, working the horse rope between his two hands. "Can't be helped."
Unable to think of one sensible thing to say, Serena stared at his back. The broad shoulders drooped for an instant, then he slapped one end of the rope hard against his thigh. "Not likely you're gonna ranch out here on your own." He uttered it as a statement, not a question.
"Yes, I am. I came to take possession. I plan to raise cattle."
Serena hesitated. "If I have to, yes. I left my two younger sisters with Pa's maiden aunt back in Ohio. We sold everything we had to finance this trip. You see, I intend to make a new home out here for us--Jessie and Mary Irene, and myself. I-- we can't get far enough away from Stark County."
The rancher studied her with assessing blue eyes, and her heart lurched. After a moment, he shook his head and coiled the rope in his hands, muttering something under his breath.
"I beg your pardon?"
"Just some country words I reserve for green city folks who come out here thinking ranching's like raising turnips in their back yard."
"I think no such thing, Mr. Kearney. I'm prepared to work, and work hard. In fact, I-- "
Carleton tossed the rope onto a post in the fence and pivoted away from her. "Come on, Miss Hull. This is a ranch, not a vegetable garden. You'd best let me show you what you're up against."
Without looking at her, Carleton tramped toward the gate at the far end of the corral yard. "Hurry it up," he snapped. "My horse needs working."
He moved to the barn door. "Thad," he shouted through the opening. "Take over out here."
His lips set, Carleton tramped off in the direction of Hull's Lost Acres. The hands at the Double K had fancy names for everything; Lost Acres was their designation for the sections of land he and his brother, Ben, had sold off to Ben's deputy over two decades ago. The name didn't make him smile this morning.
Balls of fire, nobody'd heard a peep from Jeremiah for twenty-five years, and now this chit of a girl rides out plain as you please, claims she's his daughter and says she's gonna ranch it? Not unless hell froze over.