UNDER A PRAIRIE MOON
“He is the most frightening, handsome man I have ever seen”
Although these words had been written in another time, in another woman's diary, Kathy Conley thought they described Dalton Crowkiller perfectly. He was the kind of man a woman would sin for, die for, if she could only keep him in her arms.
But the dangerous half-breed belonged to the untamed West, and he'd been claimed by another woman long ago. Time itself would keep him and Kathy apart...until he was given one last chance to change the course of his life. Together, they found there was no past, no future, only the wonder of the present, the raw, aching desire between them, and a fierce love that could be satisfied, but never quenched.
July 28, 1873
A lynch mob was an ugly thing. Dalton Crowkiller stared down at the handful of men who surrounded him, his heart pounding like a runaway locomotive, his throat desert dry, his palms damp. He shifted in the saddle, feeling the rough edge of the noose rub tighten around his neck.
The big bay beneath him stamped restlessly. In moments, someone would give the horse a sharp slap on the rump and there would be nothing between him and death but a few feet of rope.
He swallowed the bile that rose in his throat as he tried to imagine what those last moments would be like. If he was lucky, the drop would break his neck and his dying would be quick and merciful. If not...
He shook the gruesome image from his mind as his gaze shifted to the woman standing in the distance. The breeze stirred the hem of her long white nightgown and ruffled the collar of the blue silk robe she wore over it. Her hair, the reddish-brown of autumn leaves, tumbled over her shoulders. She was staring back at him, her eyes wide and scared and guilt-ridden.
His gaze imprisoned hers. If she had the nerve, she could save him. She was the only one who could.
Come on, he thought, come on... He stared at her, willing her to find the courage to say the words that would free him. Damn you, I don't deserve this...
She took a half-step forward, her expression uncertain. Hope flared in his heart. Flared and died when she turned and ran up to the house, leaving him to face his fate alone....
With a sigh, Katherine Marie Conley wiped the tears from her eyes. Crying wouldn't help. Nothing would help. Wayne was gone. Her old life was gone, and it was time, past time, to accept it and get on with a new life.
Filled with determination, she turned away from the pretty, slow-moving stream and looked up at the house that was now her home. It stood on a small grassy rise, a rambling two-story ranch house that had once been the showplace of three counties. A wide cement driveway led up to the veranda, which ran the length of the front of the house and wrapped around the southeast corner where the kitchen was located. A creaky old rocker stood in one corner of the porch.
The property was hers now, hers to do with as she pleased. It was a shame the Conley's had let the place get so run down. The paint, once white, was now a dirty gray. There was a hole in the attic roof big enough to drop a cow through, which was sure to mean a heck of a leak when it rained. One of the upstairs windows was broken. The barn was in even worse shape.
The house had been in Wayne's family for almost a hundred and twenty-five years. Since he was the oldest son, it had been passed on to him when his grandfather passed away, and now it was hers. Of course, it had been remodeled several times in the course of the last century. The outhouse and wash tub had been replaced with modern plumbing; electricity had done away with candles and tallow lamps. Sadly, no one in Wayne's family had chosen to live here for the last twenty or twenty-five years.
The house hadn't been left empty all that time. Wayne's family had rented it out to hunters or to city people looking for a rustic getaway, but no one had stayed longer than a few days at a time. Wayne had told her that everyone who ever stayed at the ranch claimed to have heard strange noises in the night, or to have seen lights flickering in the barn. Things disappeared. An item left in the living room would mysteriously turn up in the kitchen. Keys were lost. Wayne had dismissed the tales as nonsense.
To Kathy's knowledge, no one had stayed in the house for the last four or five years. It had taken her two days just to sweep out the cobwebs and make a dent in the dust.
Kathy sighed. She didn't believe in ghosts or goblins or things that went bump in the night. She didn't believe in aliens or monsters. She wasn't afraid of the dark. And she certainly wasn't afraid of an old house, even if it was supposed to be haunted.
She wasn't afraid of hard work, either. She was, in fact, looking forward to it. Fixing up the old place would give her something to do, something to think about besides Wayne and how empty her life was without him. They had never come here together. Except for the fact that it had belonged to Wayne, there were no shared memories of the two of them in this place. If she was lucky, she would work so hard during the day that she would be too exhausted at night to do more than eat, bathe, and fall into bed.
Dusting off the seat of her jeans, she started walking up the narrow dirt path that led to the back porch, imagining how it would look when flowers replaced the tangled mass of weeds and sticker bushes that lined both sides of the path.
She felt a rush of cold air as she neared a huge old oak. Once, when he was telling her about the property, Wayne had mentioned this tree. It had been a hanging tree, he'd said. According to legend, the last man to have been hanged there had put a curse on the ranch. Kathy didn't believe in curses, either, but according to legend, every Conley who had tried to make a go of the place from that time to this had failed. The cattle had been sold, and then, acre by acre, the land had been sold off, until all that remained in the family was the house and the five acres that surrounded it. Five acres where there had once been thousands.
Another gust of cool air brushed her cheek; she glanced up at the leaves of the tree, but no wind moved among the branches. The air was quiet and still. She felt a sudden sense of unease slither down her spine. She thought of the movie she had watched the night before, remembering how the hero had remarked that cold air was a sure sign of a restless spirit.
She was turning away from the tree when she saw what looked like a body hanging from one of the branches. With a gasp, she took a step backward, her hand pressed to her throat. And then she laughed. It was just a drifting shadow.
Chiding herself for letting her imagination run wild, Kathy turned away from the hanging tree. She didn't believe in ghosts, she reminded herself, but this would certainly be the perfect spot for a haunting if what Wayne had said about the tree was true.
Shaking her head at such nonsense, she walked briskly up the path. She would finish unpacking this afternoon; tomorrow she would decide which pieces of the old furniture she would keep, and then call the Salvation Army to come and haul the rest away. If she started painting on Monday, she could have the downstairs done by the weekend. It would take weeks, perhaps months, to fix the place up. But it didn't matter. If there was one thing she had plenty of, it was time.
Time. She thought of all the bumper stickers she had seen - So many books, so little time. So many men, so little time. So much chocolate, so little time...
She smiled as she wiped away the last of her tears. A hot fudge sundae was just what the doctor ordered.
* * *
The sound of a woman crying roused him from a deep, dreamless sleep. How long had he been drifting this time, he wondered, floating weightless, mindless, at the edge of eternity?
He watched the woman wipe away her tears and knew, at last, what Hell was. It was being able to see a woman and not touch her; hear the soft sound of her weeping, and not be able to comfort her. He had always been a sucker for a woman's tears; this one had wept as though her heart were breaking, and there was nothing he could do about it. Nothing at all.
He stared up at the hanging tree, and wondered when it would end.