|Northeast Texas, 1894|
An ear-splitting shriek ricocheted through the forest, startling a raucous cloud of blackbirds from the roadside trees.
"Easy, Trib." Adam Barr patted the horse's neck as the animal shied. What now?
The buggy behind him slowed to a stop, but Adam ignored it, along with the uneasy questions from the three men seated inside. He'd promised to escort the men from Philadelphia to Texas, not be their nursemaid.
The wailing continued and Adam fought the urge to tilt back his head and answer with a wild, full-throated howl. He'd gritted his teeth so often these past few days the muscles in his jaw hurt. Taking on this job when more important business waited for him in Philadelphia had him in a foul mood, as his companions could no doubt attest.
After six years of biding his timesix years, two months and thirteen days to be exacthe'd thought he could finally pursue his goal without distraction.
If this assignment had come from anyone but Judge Madison
Adam scanned the brush-skirted hardwoods lining the trail. Whatever the source of that eerie sound, it was headed their way.
He eased his rifle from the scabbard. Anticipation stirred his blood. He might have to employ his "company manners" with his three charges, but this bellowing beast was another matter.
No telling what manner of creature roamed this forsaken backwoods. The wail was too high-pitched to belong to a bear. A large cat maybe?
He urged Trib closer to the trees. There seemed to be a pattern to the sound, a certain mangled cadence. Almost as if
Well, what do you know?
He leaned back. Not a wild animal after all. Too bad. "Do you think it's a wolf?"
Adam glanced over his shoulder. Chance's expression, like his tone, held more eagerness than worry. Did the kid think it would be some kind of lark to face down a wolf? Of course, from what Judge Madison had told Adam, the twenty-one-year-old was on this expedition precisely because he was prone to seek out trouble.
"Sounds more like an infernal wildcat." Everett adjusted his shirt cuff with exaggerated care, doing a creditable job of appearing unconcerned. But his British accent was more pronounced now, something Adam noticed happened when anything rattled the dandified cynic.
Mitchell, who controlled the skittish carriage horse with ease, refrained from comment. Nothing unusual in that. The loose-limbed bear of a man had spent most of the trip west with a sort of sleepy-eyed disinterest. What was different, however, was the subtle alertness that radiated from him now, as if he were a cavalryman waiting for the enemy to appear over the rise.
Another strident note drew Adam's focus back to the roadside. He didn't bother to disabuse them of the notion that it might be a wild animal. It'd do the pampered trio good to have something to worry about besides the unorthodox plot they'd gotten themselves embroiled in.
"Perhaps you should get the carriage moving," Everett said. "I'm sure our escort can handle this better without us to distract him."
"We shouldn't abandon Mr. Barr," Chance shot back. "He might need"
"This is about common sense, Junior, not courage," Everett interrupted. "Besides, I do believe Mr. Barr is more interested in getting rid of the lot of us than having us guard his back."
"I told you beforethe name's Chance, not Junior."
Adam's jaw tightened. Everett was right. Even if it had been a grizzly headed this way, he'd rather face that than listen to more of this petty bickering. This assignment couldn't be over soon enough to suit him.
A heartbeat later, the source of the ear-grating racket stepped onto the roadside. As soon as the creature caught sight of them, the discordant warble ceased.
"It's a man!" Chance's tone carried as much disappointment as surprise.
"Not quite." Adam didn't blame the youth for the mistake. The party responsible for that unmelodic braying wore baggy overalls and an equally oversize shirt, both of which had seen better days. There was even a smudge of dirt on one cheek to match those on the clothing.
But this was no man.
From Adam's closer vantage, he spied a frizzy brown braid long enough to brush the seat of the overalls. That, along with the slender neck and hint of curves below, proclaimed this person as most definitely female. He hesitated, though, to use the word lady. She appeared more a disheveled forest waif than a civilized being.
The girl seemed as startled as the men in the carriage. But a flicker of something elsedisbelief? wariness?shadowed her surprise.
Remembering he still cradled the rifle, Adam resheathed it and tipped his hat. No point scaring her more than they already had.
Besides, she might be a good source of information.
He dug deep for the polite pleasantries that had grown rusty with disuse. "Good afternoon, miss. My apologies if we startled you."
"Good heavens, it's a girl." Chance's whispered-but-easily-heard comment only served to heighten the color in her cheeks as she broke eye contact with Adam.
"Or what passes for one in this barbaric wilderness." Everett didn't bother to lower his voice. "Do you think she speaks English?"
Adam narrowed his eyes in annoyance. Did the men think just because she looked like an uncivilized rube she didn't have feelings?
But before he could say anything, the girl snapped out of her slack-jawed immobility. Her lips compressed and her eyes flashed daggers. So, there was more wildcat than rabbit in her, was there?
Instead of baring claws, however, she bent down to pluck a stem of grass. Straightening, she favored them with a broad, neighborly grin as she stuck the weed between her teeth.
But something in her stance told Adam the claws were there, merely out of sight for now. He also noticed she didn't step away from the protection of the trees.
This girl was no fool. He mentally saluted her precaution, then leaned back in the saddle, ready to enjoy whatever performance she had in store for his companions.
"Howdy, gents." Her words were drawn out in a thick, rustic drawl. "I reckon I was a mite surprised at that, but no harm done. We don't get many strangers out this way, especially fancy-lookin' gents like you 'uns."
Her gaze flickered to Adam's again. Some trick of the light lent a luminosity to her irises, made them appear to change from green to blue and back again. The image of a statue he'd admired in a museum years ago shimmered through his memory. The scales of the dragon had seemed to glow, had rippled with a fluidity of color that was mesmerizing.
This girl's eyes were just like that.
She turned to the men behind him, and the spell was broken. Adam collected himself, annoyed at the fanciful turn his thoughts had taken. This trip must have worn on him more than he realized.
Mitchell remembered his manners first. "Are you all right, miss?"
She slid the stem of grass to the other corner of her mouth with bucolic nonchalance. As she did so, Adam saw her size up the speaker, no doubt weighing Mitchell's intimidating size against his concerned gaze.
She finally flashed a friendly grin. "Fit as a filly in a field of clover. Why'd you ask?"
Let it go, Adam silently advised. But Mitchell apparently hadn't figured out what was all too obvious to Adam.
"It's just, well, that screeching we heard. I thought maybe something had frightened you."
Adam watched for her reaction with interest. Would she dissolve into tears of mortification, or give Mitchell a blistering set-down for his innocent blunder?
To his surprise, she did neither. Instead she winced and gave a rueful smile. "My kinder friends call what you just heard a 'joyful noise.'"
Adam tilted his hat back with one finger. A female who could laugh at herself? Now there was a novelty.
Ruddy color crept into Mitchell's face along with the belated light of understanding. "I beg your pardon. I didn't mean any disrespect. I"
She smiled and raised a hand. "Don't fret none, mister. No offense taken. Why do you think I wait 'til I'm out in the woods to really give it my all?"
She looked around, including each of them in her gaze. "You fellas lost? There's not much out this way but trees and critters. If you're looking for the road to Bent Willow, you passed the turn about three miles back."
"Actually, we're looking for Miss Regina Nash." A flicker in her expression told Adam she knew the name. "I understand she's staying somewhere out this way." He'd hand it to the judge's granddaughter, she'd taken great pains to make it as difficult for him to find her as possible. But she obviously didn't know who she was dealing with if she thought a trek through the woods would deter him.
The girl nodded, pulling the stem from her mouth and waving it in the direction they'd been traveling. "Her place is about a twenty-minute ride farther on. Can't miss it." She rolled the stem between her fingers, eyeing him speculatively. "I was by there a bit ago, though, and it didn't seem like they was expecting company."
He swallowed a sour laugh. "No, I don't imagine they are." He watched her toss the blade of grass away, still intrigued by her in spite of himself.
Goodness knows it didn't have anything to do with her looks. In that grubby getup and with smudges on her face, and her hair indifferently tamed into a bushy braid, she lacked anything resembling sophistication or feminine wiles. No, it was more the glimpse of personality he'd seen in her eyes, and the complete lack of apology for her untidy appearance, even after the tactless comments from the men in the carriage. The girl seemed a product of her environment, completely lacking artifice or slyness.
"Do you live nearby?" he heard himself ask. "Can we give you a ride?"
Now why had he made such an offer? It wasn't like him to act impulsively. Too late to retract the offer now, though.
"No, thanks. I'm headed that'a way." She waved toward the trail behind her.
Adam nodded with more relief than disappointment. As interesting as this backwoods miss was, he didn't have time for distractions right now. The sooner he found Regina Nash, the sooner he could be done with this mess.
"Then I suppose we'll be on our way." He gathered the reins. "Good day."
"Nice talking to you fellas." She hooked her thumbs under the straps of her overalls and rocked back on her heels. "Tell Miz Nash I said hello when you see her."
Adam raised a brow. "Who shall I say sends her greetings?"
Being coy, was she? He'd already decided the girl wasn't quite as guileless as she seemed. That drawl was a bit too thick, that gleam in her eyes a bit too knowing.
Not that he thought the worse of her for it. Under the circumstances, she probably felt safer pretending to be simple. Living down to their expectations, as it were.
He turned back to the carriage. "All right, gentlemen. Time to move on." But as he set Trib in motion, Adam felt her gaze on him, like a prickle between his shoulder blades.
A moment later when he glanced back, however, she'd disappeared.
He mentally offered a salute. It was as if, by getting him to look back, she'd managed to have the last word.
Mitchell's gaze followed Adam's. "Who do you suppose she was?"
Everett clapped Mitchell on the back. "So, you like an earthy quality to your women, do you?"
Mitchell shot him a contemptuous glower. "The kind of woman I like is none of your concern."
Adam faced forward again, wondering why Everett took such pleasure in needling his companions. Did he think his polished manner somehow made him superior?
"Oh, she wasn't so bad," Chance offered. "Seemed a bit simple, but she was friendly enough."
Chance saw her as simple? Adam shook his head. Was he the only one who'd glimpsed the intelligence in those changeable eyes?
"What does it matter?" Everett's question had an irritable edge. "Until Miss Nash makes her selection, none of us has any business looking at another woman."
A pall descended on the trio. The clink of harness and the rattle of carriage wheels suddenly seemed unnaturally loud. The question of who would be selected as the sacrificial lamb in this unorthodox lottery rode alongside the carriage like a black-clad specter.
Would the man who drew the short straw really follow through with his end of the bargain? Adam shrugged off any feelings of sympathy for their predicament. They'd known the terms before they signed the contract. His only concern in this matter was to see everything settled according to the judge's wishes, and the sooner the better.
For six eternal, nightmarish years, he'd waited for the day he would be free to pursue the truth, to clear his reputation and unmask those who had blackened it. The proof he needed was almost within reach now, he could feel it.
Soon, very soon, he'd be able to exonerate himself, to reclaim the life that had been stolen from him.
But he couldn't do it from Turnabout, Texas.
His frustration over being forced to put his own plans on hold for even a day, much less four weeks, was burning a hole in his gut.
Not that he'd let on as much to anyone else. His ability to maintain an unperturbed demeanor through any situation was a matter of pride to him. And a major source of annoyance for his opponents.
It was an ability that had served him well in his years as a trial lawyer. The drive to hold on to that one piece of himself, to not let them take it away from him along with everything else, had helped keep him sane the last six years.
That, and the burning need to see justice done.
He nudged his horse to a slightly faster pace.
It would be nice if Miss Nash acted sensibly and dispatched this business with as little fuss as possible.
It would be nice, but given the situation and his own run of bad luck, he didn't hold out much hope.