Excerpt from Say You Love Me

     Jacie did not want to wake up, but something was nudging her foot, hard. She forced her eyes to open, then instantly shrank back in horror.
     The man was framed by the setting sun, a flaming red and gold halo streaming around him. He stood with fists at his hips, legs wide apart as he stared down at her.
     Horrified to think Black Serpent had found her, his name instinctively escaped Jacie's lips, but when the man spoke, she knew it was her original nocturnal visitor.
     "I am not Black Serpent. My name is Luke. And you needn't be afraid. I won't hurt you."
     Her panic lessened but only a little, because she was still scared out of her wits. She thought of the knife she had stolen from Black Serpent, which she had tied to her ankle, but realized he must have seen it, for her skirt was tangled up about her knees.
     He stepped to one side, and the sun was suddenly blinding in her face. She raised her hands to shield her eyes, then held them out to fend him off as he dropped to one knee beside her. "Don't touch me," she said hoarsely, angrily. "This is all your fault, anyway. If I hadn't thought Black Serpent was you, I'd never have walked out that door so trustingly."
     "I can't help it if you mistook someone else for me. Now drink. You need water." He raised her head and held a canteen to her lips. She drank eagerly, but he withdrew after she had taken only a few sips. "Too much will make your stomach hurt. Now tell me how you escaped."
     Suspiciously, she said, "You're one of them. Why should I tell you anything?" Then she noted how he was dressed. Though bare-chested, he wore army trousers tucked into knee-high boots. His hair hung all the way to his shoulders. An Indian in stolen clothes, no doubt. "Did you kill a soldier to get that outfit?" she asked sharply.
     "Get something straight, Miss Calhoun. I'm not one of Black Serpent's followers. I'm an army scout... sometimes. And you can trust me. I swear it."
     "And how is it that you know my name?"
     "I asked Captain Logan. But that's not important. I want to know how you were able to get away from Black Serpent."
     "There was whiskey in some of the boxes they stole from the fort. They got drunk and passed out." She was not about to confide she had drugged Black Serpent. That was her secret, and just because this man said he could trust her didn't mean she would do so.
     "So you stole a pony and rode away," he said, admiring her courage.
     "Yes, I rode all day, but I must have passed out from hunger and the heat. It's a wonder they didn't find me before you did."
     "Well, I sure didn't have any trouble, but I've seen Black Serpent and his friends when they drink too much. They probably don't feel like coming after you and may not bother anyway, since they got what they were really after—guns and ammunition. But I'm not taking any chances." He allowed her a few more sips of water, then stood and held out his hand to her. "We need to get out of here." He felt sure Black Serpent had not told her about Sunstar, or she'd have been screaming to high heavens, demanding to be taken to her.
     Jacie raised up on her elbows. "I don't want to go back to Bird's Fort. Captain Logan isn't doing anything to help me find my mother. I'd rather go to Fort Worth."
     "I'll decide what to do with you later when we get a chance to talk. Right now, we're getting out of here."
     Jacie allowed him to help her up but stood her ground when he started walking toward his horse, a huge white stallion. "Mister, I can't see that we've got anything to talk about. You know why I came here in the first place, but you don't want to help me, so the least you can do is point me in the right direction."
     He turned to sweep her with an amused gaze of scrutiny. She had spunk. Spirit. He admired that. Another woman probably would not have managed to escape Black Serpent in the first place, much less stand up to a stranger in the wilderness. But he was losing patience. He had seen the Indian on horseback watching from a distant rise and thought he recognized him as one of Black Serpent's men. He had turned back, no doubt to report what he had seen, and Luke wanted to get the hell out of there. If they caught up with him, he would have to face a dozen men by himself, and he had to consider the safety of the woman.
     "Well are you going to help me get to Fort Worth or not?" She was annoyed by the way the corners of his mouth quirked in a smile, as though he found her an amusing child. "If not, then I'll manage on my own somehow."
     She looked around for her pony and saw that he had maneuvered himself up to a rocky ledge to nibble at a patch of wildflowers. She was relieved to see the satchel was still tied on, and she lifted her skirt to climb up, then saw that her knife was no longer strapped to her leg.
     In response to her accusing glare, Luke said, "I figured it was asking for trouble letting you keep it."
     "I'd like it back, please. If I'm going to be traveling alone, I need some protection."
     "You would only hurt yourself." He clambered up quickly to grab the pony's reins and bring him back to level ground before adding, "Besides, you aren't going to be traveling alone. Like it or not, you're coming with me."
     "And just what do you plan to do with me? I told you, I'm not going back to Bird's Fort."
     "And I never said that's where I'm taking you. Now are you going to get on your pony or do you want me to throw you on him?"
     He would, too; she could tell by the smug way he was watching, waiting for a chance to make good his threat. She swung up onto the pony's bare back. "Some soldier you are," she lashed out at him, "refusing to help a lady."
     "I never said I was a soldier, and I haven't made up my mind that you're a lady."
     "I'm very much a lady, but the behavior of others forces me to forget that sometimes. You needn't concern yourself with me any longer. Good day." Jacie dug her heels into the pony's flanks and popped the reins to send him into a swift gallop. She would find her own way, by God.
     Ahead loomed mountains, in between were rock formations. If she could get far enough, maybe she could hide from him, and—her heart turned over at the sound of the thundering hooves coming on strong. She was a fool to think the little pony could outrun the stallion.
     In seconds Luke was upon her, reaching out to grab the reins and snatch them away from her, bringing both mounts to an abrupt halt. "You try that again and I'll hog-tie you and throw you across his back. Now just calm down, because I don't have time for your tantrums."
     Her mouth twisted with scorn. "I'm not going anywhere with a damn heathen Indian—"
     "You're too pretty to be using such language. And I'm not a heathen. I'm very well educated."
     "Black Serpent spoke English. Am I supposed to believe he's educated?"
     He laughed. "I taught him. I also learned Spanish at the mission school, and I speak the languages of all the Plains Indians. I consider myself civilized and peaceful, like the rest of my band. Forget Black Serpent. He's no longer one of my people. That's all you need to know for now."
     Jacie was annoyed by his arrogance and pushed aside any admiration she might have felt to discover how learned he was. "You still haven't told me why you won't help me."
     Still holding her reins, he kneed his horse into a gentle trot, keeping the pony right beside him. "I am helping you."
     "You refuse to take me where I want to go."
     "I might change my mind later." He noticed the lavender flowers blooming among the rocks they passed and thought out loud, "Your eyes are the same color."
     Jacie could have told him how she came by her name but didn't. It was none of his business. Besides, she was beginning to fear she was no better off than when she was with Black Serpent, and that she must again be ready to seize any chance of escape.
     Luke was struck to think how there might actually have been a survivor of that long-ago massacre; the girl could have been the infant for whom Sunstar's milk was intended. But there was no time to ponder the situation now.
     He took a strip of dried buffalo meat from a saddlebag and gave it to her. "This will have to do till we make camp, and then I can fry up some bacon and beans. You're nothing but skin and bones. I don't know why they even wanted you, but at least they led me to you."
     He nodded skyward with a crooked smile, and Jacie also looked up to see large gray birds circling in a giant sweeping pattern. "Vultures," he said.
     Jacie shuddered and began to chew the buffalo meat with a vengeance.
     He gave her back the reins, confident she would not be so foolish as to try to outrun him again.
     When they came to a stream, Luke led them down the middle for quite a distance. Finally leaving the water, Jacie watched as he used a knife--not hers, she noted--to hack two large branches from a scrub brush, securing one to each horse's tail. She saw that any tracks made in the dirt and sand were obliterated by the sweeping motion.
     "That's smart," she said, as though she really didn't think so. "But tracks won't be seen at night anyhow."
     "They would be in the morning, and that's when Black Serpent will begin his search. If he got as drunk as I think he did, he'll spend today screaming with his head pounding." She felt like telling him it was probably worse than that but decided not to.
     They rode for a time in silence, layered veils of pink and orange misting around them as the sun sank lower in the west. Then shadows began to creep from rocks and brush and soon they were surrounded by darkness. "We're going to get lost," Jacie said uneasily. "How much farther do we have to go?"
     "Comanches don't get lost, and you'll know when we get there."
     She knew he was being sarcastic and could not resist snapping at him. "You say you want to talk to me before you decide if you'll help me, but all I get from you is foolish banter. Can't you be serious?"
     Though she was not about to let him know it, Jacie found him fascinating, despite how vexing he could be. She could tell he was intelligent and she also found him attractive—but not like Michael. Michael was charming and polished, never a hair out of place, except for the one unruly curl forever toppling onto his forehead, she recalled fondly. Michael was handsome in an almost pretty kind of way, with long, dusty lashes framing incredibly soft blue eyes, lips that were perfectly sculpted, smooth skin with never a shadow of a beard. Always impeccably groomed and manicured, he was a gentleman through and through. Luke, by comparison, was ruggedly handsome. She found herself drawn to his dark, almost black eyes and the penetrating way he could look at her as though seeing all the way inside to know what she was thinking.
     His body was that of a warrior, hard-muscled, raw-boned, trained for combat and survival. He probably had the cunning of an animal and feared neither man nor beast, and though she had known him but a short while, Jacie realized she felt safe—safe from others. But she was still leery of what he planned to do with her once they bedded down for the night.
     Suddenly she was swept with a little tremor of guilt to realize that the first time she had thought of Michael since Luke found her was to compare the two. Something told her it would be best if her time with Luke went swiftly. She actually found his raw and rugged good looks vastly appealing and chided herself for such nonsense. He was the enemy. Michael was her fiancé. The sooner she completed her mission and returned to Georgia, the better.
     She decided to try and come to some understanding with him. "You said you wanted to talk before deciding what to do with me, and since this night seems to go on forever, why not do it now?" she asked waspishly.
     "I thought you might want to wait till you've eaten and had some rest."
     "I'll rest easier if you promise to take me to Fort Worth tomorrow. Now just what is it you want to know?"
     "You told me you had reason to believe your mother lives with the Comanche, but I have a feeling you didn't tell me everything."
     "Are you sure you don't know of her?" she asked suspiciously.
     Luke braced himself, knowing he had to be careful what he said, because more and more it looked as though she could be Sunstar's child, and he was not about to reveal that to her. "A lot of white women have been taken by Indians. Most of them were killed. What makes you think she would still be alive?"
     She had told him about her mother running away from the fort but not how she came by the information. "A few years ago a man who was once a Texas Ranger heard about it, and when he was passing through Georgia he told my aunt."
     "So why is there just now a search for her? "
     Jacie did not want to confide Violet's deception but saw no other way. "My aunt didn't tell me till right before she died. Till then, everyone thought I was her daughter, including me. Even her husband thought I was his child. I know it sounds crazy, but she had her reasons, I suppose. All I know now is that I have to find my real mother and let her know I wasn't killed with the rest of my family. I believe the only reason she ran away from the fort to return to the Indians was because she felt she had no other world to go back to, but now she does, and I have to tell her that. Don't you see?" She looked at him beseechingly but could not see his face in the darkness.
     Luke did not know what to say. If the two were actually mother and daughter, he knew he had a lot of thinking to do before deciding to allow them to meet.
     "Have you heard of a woman like that?" Jacie prodded.
     "I hear many things, but there is nothing I can tell you." He reined in his horse. "We will camp here for a while."
     She wanted to ask him more, but he was dismounting, and she quickly did the same. There was scant light, but she could see yet another rushing stream with rocky banks. He pointed to a screen of scrub brush. "There is a hollow in the rocks beyond those bushes with room for the horses. We will take them there with us to sleep for the night after they've had water and grazed a bit. You go and tend to your personal needs while I make a fire." He took her knife from where he had tucked it into his belt and held it out to her. "There are snakes around that give no warning before they strike. Take this—though I doubt you know how to use it."
     "Keep believing that," she muttered under her breath as she went into the bushes.
     When she returned, a fire was burning. He had taken a pan from his saddlebag, and the smell of bacon sizzling made her mouth water.
     She sat down but kept her distance. "I want you to know I'm grateful to you for helping me hide from Black Serpent and feeding me but I have to say you seem to enjoy making me miserable by not helping me."
     "Maybe I am helping you avoid more misery."
     "And what is that supposed to mean?"
     "If I did know of a white woman who fit your description of your mother and I took you to her, it might only cause both of you grief."
     "But you'd have to give us a chance to find out. You would have to."
     "I did not say I knew of such a woman for sure," he hedged. "I only said if I did, it would be cruel to get both your hopes up for nothing."
     There were no plates, and Luke took his time laying the bacon on a rock to cool. "Eat. Then we will sleep. We are both tired."
     Jacie bit back the urge to beg him to tell her more, positive that he knew something he was not telling her but felt it best to bide her time and coax it from him bit by bit.
     She ate ravenously, and so did he. Then he left and returned with her satchel. "In case you need anything inside," he said, setting it at her feet.
     "As a matter of fact I do." Jacie opened it, reached inside for the baby blanket, and took out the locket and handed it to him. "Look at this and tell me if there is a resemblance to any white woman that you know."
     Curiously, Luke stared at the locket. He had never seen anything like it. Jacie opened it for him. Then, seeing what she explained was called a daguerreotype, he had to admit to himself it did look something like Sunstar and definitely resembled Jacie.
     "That is my mother. Her name is Iris Banner. She looks like me, doesn't she?"
     "I suppose." He closed the locket with an angry snap and gave it back to her. Sunstar's name had once been Iris, and now he felt a burning pain inside to realize he might lose her. And it was not fair. She'd had a chance at freedom once and refused. Now this upstart of a girl was going to tear her life apart, tear apart the lives of all his people. They loved Sunstar, and they needed her. If she left with Jacie, it would be like going to live with a stranger. And she would go, Luke was certain of that. She would feel bound to do so, because Jacie was her own flesh and blood. He would just have to protect her from herself, he decided fiercely. He would not let her make such a fatal mistake as to try and return to the white man's world now. She had been Comanche too long.
     He started to turn away, but Jacie reached out and caught his arm. "Listen to me, please," she said in desperation. "Awhile ago you said if you knew a white woman. I think you do know one. Please tell me about her. We have a right to know each other, Luke—"
     "Yellow hair," he cut her off. "The white woman I have heard of has yellow hair. Not black. And she is too young to be this woman." He nodded at the locket, which Jacie clutched with trembling fingers. "So there is no need to take you to her. Now make your bed and sleep."
     Jacie stared after him as he disappeared into the shadows. She was disappointed the woman he knew did not fit her mother's description but relieved and grateful to realize he had no illicit intentions toward her. Perhaps he had a bit of gentleman in him after all, which gave her hope she might eventually persuade him to take her where she wanted to go.
     Curling up on her blanket, she tried to dream of Michael... but thoughts of the Comanche known as Luke kept getting in the way.
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