Along the Columbia River, 1836
The pounding hooves finally stopped. The pounding of Hannah’s heart did not. Outside, the storm raged, and rain pelted the roof as the wind howled. Chills raised the skin on her arms, and water dripped onto the rough floor from the hem of her dress. Had there been light inside the small space, she would have seen the water did not run clear. Instead, it stained the floor red as it saturated the wood.
Hannah clutched the book tight to her chest and looked wildly about, trying to see in the veil of darkness. Her eyes adjusted, and she was finally able to make out a bit of detail. The room was small, with only two windows, one with a broken corner where the wind pushed through, bringing a spray of rain with it to dampen her face and spot the leather binding of the book she held.
Time had run out. She had hoped and prayed the gods would give her more, and now she understood it was not to be. Just as had happened to so many of her sisters as they had pressed westward in the hope of finding safe haven, she had failed. Her powers could no longer aid her, and soon her spirit would be set free from the restraints of this earth. She would join those who had gone before her. She looked forward to gazing upon faces she had not seen for many years. She ached for what she would leave behind. Now she prayed only that her daughter would remain safe. Deep in her heart she had to believe what she’d done would carry her precious daughter to a long life.
Leaving her beautiful, trusting daughter outside the gates of the fort was risky, but she had to take that chance. All they had built, all they had sought rested solely in the hope of the child of her heart.
She held the vision of her little girl’s face in her mind and the book close to her body. How many had died to protect the wisdom between its pages? It would do her no good to think of that now. As the last, she had to protect the knowledge it contained. Perhaps in the future the gods would lead her descendant to it. She had written her words to the child she prayed would one day be born and walk the same path as she.
A flash of lightning lit up the cabin, and though she had spent many days and nights in this room, it was the first time she noticed the space between the boards of the floor. Dropping to her knees, she laid the book next to her and began to work at the crack with her fingertips. As she pried, slivers from the edges of the floorboards dug into her skin. Blood dripped as she clawed at the boards until she had loosened two of them enough she could pull them free. Her blood soaked into the leather of the book as she maneuvered it through the opening. At last it lay flat on the ground below. She had created it herself and hoped the attention she had given it would keep it safe and intact. After she replaced the boards, she kneeled on them and began to chant, holding her arms out at her sides, palms toward the heavens. Her words were low, drowned by the raging storm outside. No one would hear them anyway, save the gods she prayed to.
As her words trailed away, she heard the sound of approaching hoofbeats. They had found her trail again and were tracking her as if she were a deer fleeing from the slaughter. She pressed her bloody fingers against her lips to stop the scream that threatened to burst forth. A metallic taste filled her mouth.
She sagged to the floor, and the pain began to push at her spirit. On the shelves at the walls hung herbs she could use to help ease her discomfort. She did not move. It did not matter any longer if she was in pain. It did not matter if they found her. It would be useless to run; she had nowhere left to hide, and she lacked the will to even try. Curling into a ball, she closed her eyes, and calm settled over her. Her daughter was safe, which gave her peace. So too did the knowledge that a time would come, had to come, once more for the power of the book to be released.
It was not this night. She had left what little magic she could summon with the book and the spell to keep it hidden at least for a little while. It had to be enough.
The door slammed against the wall, and a gush of wind and rain poured through the opening. A spray of cold rain water whipped across her face, only to slide down her cheeks like the sobs she did not have the strength to produce. Rough hands grabbed her arms and dragged her back out into the storm, her blood surely leaving dark streaks across the wooden floor. She could barely feel their harsh touch or the wind or the rain.
“No, no, no, and no.” Molly Williams could hardly grasp a disaster of such proportions. She stepped back and ran her hands through her hair. Standing in the open door of the walk-in freezer, she stared at what was left of her week’s work: piles of sodden cake, dripping decorations, and running colors. The fire that had started in one of her ovens overnight had turned her business into a huge wet and worthless mess, one that smelled nothing like its usual sweet scent of vanilla. Now it reeked like a nearly dead campfire.
The fire marshal stood behind her. “It’s not a total loss, but we’ll have to complete the investigation before you can move toward repairs.”
Molly turned and stared at him. “Investigation?” It was a fire, plain and simple. Button it up and let her get back to business. How hard could that be? Then it hit her. “You think I did this?” She waved her arms to encompass the mess that less than twelve hours ago had been a shining operation filled with wonderful baked goods and prize-winning cakes.
His neutral expression didn’t change, and she suspected he was quite experienced at dealing with distraught victims. And she was a victim, regardless of what he thought. “Ms. Williams, you have to understand that it’s routine procedure to trace the source of any fire. I’m not saying you did or didn’t do anything. The fire will tell us the full story. It always does.”
All right, she actually did understand. It was just hard to stand in the middle of the charred shell of her dream and not want to stomp her feet and throw a childish tantrum. It wasn’t fair. It had taken ten long years to make this place a success, and now it all, literally, had gone up in smoke. She’d given up so much to make a go of it, including a personal life. Now she had nothing. No business. No one to go home to.
Her shoulders dropped and she sighed. She blinked, though she told herself it was against the smoke that rose from the still-smoldering remnants of her business and not because she was close to tears. “I understand. How long?”
“We’ll have our part done in a week or two. Once your insurance company has our report, you’ll work with an adjuster to restore your business. Hard to estimate how long that will take.”
She looked around and shook her head. “What do I do in the meantime?” She wasn’t really asking him, but herself.
He shot her a sympathetic look, and she sensed he didn’t believe she would torch her own business to collect on insurance money. He’d be right. She would never, ever destroy what she’d worked hard to build, and she found a little solace that he did consider her innocent. “Take some time off,” he suggested. “We’ll do what we can as soon as we can.”
She shook his hand. “Thank you.” Looking down at the soot she’d transferred from her hand to his, she added, “Sorry.”
He shrugged. “Not to worry, Ms. Williams. It’s an occupational hazard.”
A pair of arms wrapped around her from behind, and she jumped. Winnie. She’d recognize the scent of her perfume anywhere, even standing in this mess, and it was a lovely thing to smell right now. She turned and embraced her friend, no longer able to hold her tears in check, and they flowed down her cheeks. “It’s gone. It’s all gone.” She choked, sounding like one of those wounded heroines in a sappy romantic movie. The day was just getting better and better.
Winnie kissed her cheek and then turned her toward the front door. At least it was still intact, so she could pretty well button up the place while the fire department did its investigation. “Not all gone,” Winnie countered. “Temporarily out of commission. Come on. Let’s get out of this furnace. It’s depressing.”
“You think?” If it depressed Winnie, how did she think Molly felt?
Her sarcasm didn’t even faze her best friend. “Absolutely. Come on.” Holding Molly’s arm, Winnie led her outside where the air was clear, though the lingering scent of fire wafted out behind them. She shivered, and tears welled in her eyes again. She longed for it to all be a nightmare that she would wake up from any minute.
Using her sleeve to wipe away her tears, she stood a little taller. She refused to make a spectacle of herself out on the street. Darn it, she had her pride even if she didn’t have a shop. “I don’t know what I’m going to do.”
Winnie, as usual, didn’t miss a beat. “I do. Come on, this way. Let’s have a little coffee while I explain your game plan.” She couldn’t imagine what Winnie had in mind, given that Molly had called her only an hour ago to relay the bad news.
At the coffee shop half a block down—the same small shop that bought her baked goods every day to sell with their specialty beverages—she sank into one of the chairs on the outside patio. “I’m glad you have a plan because I’m completely lost.” Lost seemed like a very inadequate word for what she felt. It was just the best her brain could come up with at the moment.
“Sit tight,” Winnie commanded her as she pushed open the shop’s door and disappeared inside. Less than five minutes later she returned with two lattes. One she set in front of Molly and one she held on to. “Okay. Now let’s talk about what we’re going to do.”
Molly turned the warm cup between her hands. “We? This is my mess. You have a job to get back to.” They’d picked different paths after they finished culinary school. Molly had turned her love of baking into a successful bakery, while Winnie became the executive chef in one of the most successful restaurants in the city. So successful, she opened a second one last year. Both were doing fantastic.
Winnie sat up straighter and smiled. “Well now, here’s the kicker. I’m on vacation for two glorious weeks.” She leaned back in her chair, turned her face to the sky, and spread her arms. “Two weeks.” She lowered her arms and looked at Molly once more. “So, this is what’s going down. You, me, and Angus are going on a walkabout.”
She was taking a sip of the latte and almost spit it out. “A what?”
“We’re heading south and doing some day hikes along the Umatilla and Columbia rivers. We’ll spend a night or two in cool places like Hood River and probably even Portland. It’ll be a blast.”
“And I would want to do that why?” Winnie was way more adventurous than Molly and way more impulsive too. Molly was too often conservative, and her friend was about the only one who could get her out of her comfort zone. Sometimes it was pretty sweet. Sometimes not so much. Like right now, when all she really felt like doing was going home, opening a bottle of wine, and polishing it off while she felt sorry for herself.
“Because it will get your mind off all of this. By the time we get back, the fire department will have their report submitted, your insurance company can help you start rebuilding, and you’ll be a hundred times more relaxed.”
“I’m not going to be a third wheel. Besides, I have to think about Loba.” Her valid objection was twofold. Trotting along behind Winnie and her honey would totally suck. She also didn’t want to stick her beautiful German shepherd in a kennel. Loba was sensitive and would pick up right away on the mood this fire had brought on. It wouldn’t be fair.
Winnie waved her hand dismissively. “Trust me, you’ll be a welcome addition to this adventure. Angus is doing some hands-on research about the trails, tribal lands, and history of the area. I told him I’d tag along, and now you and Loba are going too. It’s a win-win for all of us.”
“Research?” For some reason that was what jumped out at her.
Winnie nodded. “He has a keen interest in the history of the Pacific Northwest and has been working on a book. He wants to hike around, make some notes, and take a few pictures. So, what do you think? It’ll be fun.”
“I didn’t even know Angus was a writer.” If Winnie had told her before, she’d forgotten.
“He’s a man of many talents. Now, come on. What do you say? Up for a little adventure?”
She took a breath and started to argue some more, then changed her mind. Winnie might have a good point. If she stayed here, she’d just sit around moping and probably drink way more wine than was good for her. At least if she was hiking along the river, she’d be busy, and the endorphin release would help make her feel less depressed without needing alcoholic intervention. “All right, third wheel it is.”
Winnie’s smile lit up her face. “That a girl. Trust me, it’ll be fun.”
Now that she’d had a few minutes away from the catastrophe, she could put things more into perspective and realized what she had to do if she was to leave town for a stretch of time. She finished off the last sip of latte and set the cup on the table. “Before we go, I want to walk back to the store.”
Winnie rolled her eyes. She knew exactly why Molly wanted to go back to the bakery. When friends were as close as they were, they couldn’t hide much from each other. “Come on. You know that stuff is just fantasy.”
Molly wasn’t offended. She understood where Winnie was coming from. Few believed in the power of her birthright. It had taken her a lifetime to even begin to understand a tiny bit of it, and she still didn’t know it all—just that the powers were passed from mother to daughter and continued generation after generation. As the most recent of the witches in her line, she felt it important to leave a blessing on her bakery before she walked away. Her powers were far from established yet, though her family assured her that they would come in time. Right now, she did what she could with what she had. In this moment of extreme powerlessness, it made her feel as though she could take back a little.
She put a hand on Winnie’s and smiled for the first time since the call had come in from the fire department. “Humor me.”
Winnie stood in the bedroom doorway and watched Angus fold clothes and tuck them into the dark-green pack. God, he was beautiful. Not that she’d ever tell him. He’d hate it, but there it was. His thick black hair and hypnotic green eyes had sucked her in the first time they met. It wasn’t his looks that had locked up her heart though. Lots of pretty-boys were around and were plenty shallow enough to think that was what mattered. Not to Winnie. She was far more attracted to his brains and his courage and his passion. Not long after they’d met, she’d realized she was hooked. He was the one her soul spoke to.
That was her blessing and her curse. She knew what he meant to her but didn’t have a clue what she meant to him. Maybe that’s why she’d jumped so quickly on the idea of Molly coming with them on this adventure. She was afraid. It was easy to tell Molly what to do and how to do it, all while sounding supremely confident. It was entirely different when it came to her own life.
“You’re sure it’s okay for Molly to come along? I really should have called you first.” She’d worried about it all night, and now in the morning sunlight, she was still second-guessing her invitation. In hindsight she’d realized what she’d done could be a major faux pas. This was his trip, and to not ask him first was just plain rude.
Angus looked up and smiled, the crinkles at the corners of his eyes so appealing. “Babe, I’ve told you, it’s fine. The more the merrier. We’ll have fun, and it will get her mind off the fire.” He walked over and put a hand on her cheek. “It was so kind of you to do this for your friend.”
She smiled as the warmth of both his words and his touch flowed through her. His open heart always amazed her. She’d never met anyone like him. “I know you wanted some time alone together.”
“We’ll have time together, but there’s always room for a friend in need.” He kissed the tip of her nose.
“How did I ever end up with someone like you?” It wasn’t an idle question. He was more than she’d dreamed of, a bright, shining light compared to her dim bulb.
His smile grew and he winked. “Just lucky, I guess. Now get your arse in gear, and let’s see if that pack of yours is ready to go.”
She might be a dim bulb, but she was his dim bulb. Her smile matched his, but instead of leaving to get ready, she wrapped her arms around his neck and pulled him close for a kiss. “In good time.” She had her own fire burning, and he was just the one to put it out.
An hour later they loaded their two packs into the back of the dusty SUV Angus loved as much as if it had been a million-dollar sports car. She didn’t see the appeal. Her little hybrid was perfect for just about everything, not to mention quiet and fuel efficient. “Are we missing anything?” he asked as he tucked several gallon bottles of water in beside the packs. Of course, considering all he was putting in the SUV, maybe her hybrid wasn’t quite as perfect as she liked to believe.
She tilted her head and laughed. “Really? You’re asking me? I’m counting on you to lead the charge on this one. If you want a fabulous dinner for six, I’m your go-to woman, but this,” she pointed to the gear in the back of the SUV, “this is your call.”
He slung an arm around her shoulders and stared at what they’d piled in. “You do have a point, my lovely. I should undoubtedly double-check my Mistress of the Kitchen’s gear.”
“Yeah. Good plan.”
He did it too and, after several minutes of inspection, told her, “Yes. I believe we’re ready to set sail. Molly has a pack?”
“She said she did. I think she does a little hiking around here with Loba, although I don’t really know what that means in terms of gear.”
“No worries. I’ll give the contents of hers a look-over too,” he said as he crawled behind the wheel. “Then we’ll get this party started.”
Winnie leaned back against the seat and smiled. She was ready for an adventure. It had been a long time since she’d taken any days off, and spending it now with the two people she loved the most was perfect. The sun was just beginning to peek over the mountains, filling the morning with a beautiful glow. It was a fantastic way to start a vacation.
Molly was sitting on the front porch at her house, a light-blue pack at her side, waiting for them. It looked brand-new. Maybe her hiking with Loba was a bit more casual than Winnie thought. Oh well. If Angus could get her squared away, he could do the same for Molly.
Angus jumped out and jogged over to the step. “Mind if I check that over before we take off?” He inclined his head toward the pack.
Molly yawned, stretched her arms over her head, and nodded. “Probably a good idea. I haven’t hiked much more than an hour or two at a time. I included what I thought we might need, along with food and water for Loba. Let me know what else I should take. You know I’m used to getting up before dawn to go to work. I don’t usually put together a pack this early in the morning.”
He rummaged in it and then straightened up, smiling. “Fine job, my dear Molly.” He patted her shoulder. “We’re ready to go.” Angus put the pack alongside theirs, and as Molly crawled into the back passenger seat, Loba jumped up beside her.
“All right, scout leader, where are we going?” Molly asked.
Angus put an arm on the back of the seat and turned to face her. “How are you?”
She blew out a long breath. “To be honest, Angus, I’m not sure. My life just went up in smoke. I don’t know if I should dig deep and be strong or say screw it and go find a regular job. Let somebody else worry about the business while all I do is bake.”
He nodded. “Been there, my lady. But,” he turned to Winnie and smiled, “I say dig deep. You never know what’s waiting for you on the other side. If you give up, you’ll never know.”
Winnie’s heart swelled. It was no big mystery why she loved this witty, adventurous man, though she continued to hold back and not tell him. Fear always blocked her. She couldn’t risk him rejecting her love. All the what-ifs cascaded in on her any time she gave it serious consideration.
It was easy enough to advise others, like Molly, but when it came to herself, she was a coward. Maybe she had the strength and just hadn’t uncovered it yet. Or maybe she didn’t. She was too chicken to find out. She opted instead to live for the moment, satisfied with the tenderness he shared in words like these. It was enough.
She returned his smile with a sincere one. “He’s right, you know, Molly. It looks pretty bleak right now, and yesterday was a very bad day. By this time next week, though, I’m betting things will be very different.”
“Lord, I hope so.”
Winnie reached back and took her hand. “It will, I promise, and we’ll be right at your side.”
Molly squeezed her hand, and a small smile did wonders for her face. “I’m going to hold you to it.”
It was about three hours before they reached Umatilla, Oregon. Angus muttered that they would have gotten here quicker if they hadn’t stopped in Kennewick for coffee. As far as Winnie was concerned, it was no big deal. After all, it wasn’t like they had a schedule to keep. The day was young and all theirs to do as they pleased. Now that they were here, they would hike the trail along the Umatilla River for an hour or two, let Angus take his pictures, and then pile back into the SUV to head farther down the highway to the Columbia River.
They’d have enough time to hike a little bit there too before they would find a hotel for the night. Tomorrow, they’d start all over again—travel along the river and hike a new trail. It would be a grand adventure that would hopefully take Molly’s mind off the fire. Or at least take some of the sting out of the tragedy.
This should be an interesting trip for all of them—challenging for her and Molly, given they were not the types to get out and enjoy nature on a regular basis. And challenging for Angus as he herded two non-nature women. Loba, well, Winnie figured, she could roll with anything. It was going to be fun.
Aquene felt the change the moment the spirit entered her, and she knew what she must do. Tiloukaikt also understood the journey she was compelled to take, and he gave her his blessing. The Great Spirit had bestowed an honor upon her, and she would do everything in her power to live up to it. For Tiloukaikt it did not matter that she was not one of his warriors. He embraced the spiritual journey as deeply as he did the way of the warrior, only one of the reasons he would one day become a powerful leader of her people.
Nearby, Tilla stood patiently waiting. She was a good horse, a beautiful horse, with her pale hair and black mane. She had been Aquene’s since she was a colt trying to stand on unsteady legs, and they had grown up, becoming equal partners. Now was no different, for they would discover the path of enlightenment together just as they had experienced life together. She could not picture a world where she did not share each step with Tilla. When her horse was with her, Aquene was never alone.
In her pouch she placed dried salmon, fresh and dried berries, a smaller bag with dried herbs, and the beads her mother had worn before she traveled on to the spirit world. Around her neck hung a small leather bag filled with what she knew not and did not need to, for it was a gift of protection that gave her great comfort. She would not require much else, for she was skilled at many things. Had she been born male, she would have been a warrior. She did not care that she was not a man. The Great Spirit had seen fit to make her as she was, and she found no shame in that. Though she did not fully understand what she was to discover at the end of her quest, she knew it would be the thing that would fulfill her destiny.
“Must you go?” Alumpum stood patting Tilla, a frown on her face. Tilla snorted, and Aquene smiled. She sometimes believed that Tilla was jealous of Alumpum, thinking she loved her more.
As with Tilla, Aquene had grown up with Alumpum. Side by side they had learned to make the knee-high moccasins each of them wore now. Their mothers had taught them to weave the mats that, as one, they could use to build a house and just as easily take it back down. They could dry the salmon caught along the banks of the river, dig rich roots, and pick the berries so wonderfully sweet. Together they had learned the magic of the herbs that could make powerful medicines. It was as if they had been born of one mother rather than two.
Now the universe was taking them in different directions. Soon Alumpum would join Ouray, and they would share their lives until their days were done. It made Aquene happy for her sister-friend. She thought of her with children and knew what a good mother Alumpum was meant to become.
But it was not to be for her. Many young men had made clear their interest in Aquene, and though she tried to feel happiness in their offers, she could not find it within herself. She did not experience the joy inside that she could see on Alumpum’s face each time she gazed upon Ouray. Her heart did not capture the sunshine that lived inside her friend. She did not believe it ever could.
She put a hand on Alumpum’s shoulder. “I must go. The Great Spirit,” she looked out over the horizon, “tells me I must follow the wind. Out there my destiny is waiting for me. I can almost hear it calling.” It was what she felt deeply inside her. A will that seemed to come from somewhere magical pushed her forward, away from the place she called home and the people she loved. Fear did not hold her back, for she was ready to take the first step.
“Why can you not stay? Wynono looks at you with longing. He would give you strong children and much happiness. He would treat you well. You would live a good life together.” The pleading in her voice touched a warm place inside her.
Aquene smiled. She knew of the look in Wynono’s eyes. Many times she had seen it, and her heart was sad for him. She could not return to him what he offered her so freely. It could never be, and she did not desire to give him false hope. She would not do that to him or any other man of her people. She must stay true to her heart and her calling. With this journey even Wynono would at last see and understand that her path was away from him and not to him. He would find another and, with her, the happiness she would deny him.
Aquene leaned into Tilla, inhaling the unique, musky smell of the horse. It soothed her, as did the feel of her coat against Aquene’s cheek. In a moment, she pulled away and looked over at Alumpum. “He would, my sister, and yet I will not take from him what I cannot return to him. My heart is not his. It will never be.”
Alumpum put her hand on Aquene’s face, her eyes dark and soulful. For a long breath her friend stared into her face. At last a calm expression crossed her features, and she nodded slowly. “Your heart belongs to no man, my sister. I believe I have always known and did not speak of it, for I wanted you to be as I am. You are not, and that is as it should be.”
Her friend at last understood what many of her people yet did not. She knew of Aquene’s deepest desire and did not judge her because of it. Her friend was forever faithful to her, and it made her heart full. “You speak the truth.”
The smile that turned up the corner of Alumpum’s mouth made her eyes light up. “You are true and kind, wise and powerful. You are destined to make the Liksiyu the most powerful of all people. I feel the truth of it right here.” She placed her hand over her heart.
Of this, Aquene was not as certain. Nothing about this journey was clear to her except that she was compelled to go without company from any other. The path was hers alone to take, save for Tilla. Out there waiting for her was enlightenment and, most exciting, the future. It was important in ways she did not fully understand and, in reality, did not need to on this day. It was enough, for she had learned to be very patient.
Tiloukaikt joined Aquene and Alumpum. His faced was lined, his hair long and held back with a leather tie. His dark eyes could be cold and ferocious when they needed to be. They did not need to be so on this day. As he gazed into her face, his eyes soft and kind, it warmed her. Yes, one day he would certainly be a most powerful and wonderful leader. “You are ready?” His voice was deep and rich. She had always loved listening to him as he spoke in the language of their people. Like Aquene, he too could speak in the tongue of those who came to their land, but it was a language that did not hold the beauty and melody of their own.
She nodded and smiled. His visible belief in her made her even stronger. “I am ready.” Tears pooled in Alumpum’s eyes. Aquene’s were dry.
He put one hand on her head and stared deeply into her eyes. “There is power inside you, special one, and you must use it to survive what awaits you beyond the horizon. You will be challenged. You will be hunted. No man and no beast will harm you, for you carry within you the power of the Liksiyu. Always remember.”
To hear such praise from the man who was destined for greatness made her heart strong. She witnessed the might in him grow day by day. She felt power gather around him like storm clouds collecting in the sky. Like Aquene, he would soon realize his destiny, and she was sad that she would not be there to see it. She could not say why she knew this to be true, only that she did. His words made her believe that he too knew the truth of her journey. This was the last time they would gaze upon each other.
“I will do my best to seek the knowledge of the universe and bring it home.” Even as she spoke the words, they felt strange.
Tiloukaikt stared into her eyes for a long time, then slowly shook his head. “I know the Great Spirit will not bring you home to us. I see it in your eyes, and I hear it on the wind.”
Fear whispered through her for the first time. It was one thing to feel the tremors of change in her own mind, but to have one such as Tiloukaikt echo her thoughts back to her sent the winter breeze into her heart. “I will return.” Her words sounded hollow even to her.
His eyes turned sad as he said to her, “Your feet will touch this ground once more, but we shall not gaze upon each other again. Go, with the hearts of our people, and know that we are always with you.”
His words were not a mystery as she shared the wisdom behind them. Yet though she knew them to be true, she did not understand why. She longed to see the whole story, but it had not been shown to her. One day it would all become clear. She would cling to that faith in order to have the strength to leave her home.
The sky above was clear and blue, the few clouds wispy white and beautiful. Grasses swayed in the gentle breeze that brought with it the familiar sounds and smells of her home: cooking fish, curing meats, and women’s laughter. How could she leave and never return? How could she not follow her destiny? Each pulled at her, equally strong.
She mounted Tilla and reached out one last time to link her fingers with Alumpum. If what Tiloukaikt said was true, and she knew it was, she would never see or touch her sister-friend again. She wanted to remember her face and feel her warmth. After a moment, she let go and straightened up. It was time to go.
Then she looked to the west and began to ride. She did not look back.
Perhaps it was time to leave this place. Matthew Hopkins stood in the open window of the small room in the Oregon City home of missionary Tobias Seed and stared. He saw nothing and heard only the familiar sounds of the morning. Above him the sky was clear and blue, the sun beginning its trek across the horizon. All was calm, yet he sensed stirrings of the kind that called for his expertise.
Turning his head, Matthew studied the small book lying on the petite table. Bound in smooth, rich leather, it was beautiful and expensive in contrast to the rough top it lay on, which was very unlike the polished wood of his own furniture. Out here, he had grown accustomed to the lack of civilized surroundings, though he did not enjoy sitting at this table and in this tiny, drafty room. At the moment, it was the best he could do, so he ignored its crude nature.
He held his hand over the book as he thought about what he must add to it. His writings included all he had learned while walking this path. The knowledge the centuries had given him was valuable and his work much more complete than when he had written his first book. Short and concise, it had been filled with the important lessons he had learned during his career. Now he had little to impart to the latest volume, which was most aggrieving. Staying here could add nothing more to his most important work; he should leave.
Yet he could not. His writings were detailed with the teachings of this century, so why did he feel he had not completed the job? His thoughts returned to a night a year past. As the fire consumed her body, his work should have been finished. Still he was unable to leave behind this wild and unsettled place. In his heart, he knew why, though he was unable to let the words pass his lips. She was the one who left him feeling this way, for she had defied him even in death. She had bested him by leaving behind traces of her evil for another to discover and use. Until he righted that wrong, he could not leave this hell.
He had been following her and her kind since before his title and the delivery of his first masterpiece to the people. He had seen his destiny before his twentieth year and, with his father’s blessing, had embarked upon his most important journey. At the time he had not realized the extent to which his calling and fate would take him.
Unlike those he hunted, he had believed himself to be of mortal stock. After all, he had been there in 1634 when his father’s life ended and he was united with God in the Kingdom of Heaven. Holding his father’s hand as he made that crossing had filled Matthew with the glory that he felt awaited him once he fulfilled his own mission on earth. He had understood with perfect clarity that he was sent to cleanse the world of those who sought to spread their evil amongst the good and honorable people he offered his life to protect. Once his job was completed, he would join his father at God’s right hand.
The years had flowed by like an endless sea that brought new, creative ways of trying to disguise their evil. The witches he sought were clever but underestimated him each and every time. He was smarter than they and had the power of heaven behind him. One day soon, he would be victorious and his mission would end. First, he had to find the grimoire that she had managed to hide. As much as he wanted to move on, he could not, at least not until he found the book. He sensed that her magic was the strongest he had encountered thus far and that it would call to others. In fact, he knew it would.
He had destroyed her but had not, he feared, destroyed her power. Others would come, and he would need to be ever on guard for the signs that would tell him who was pure and who was wicked. Glancing out the window again, he decided it was most assuredly time to leave Oregon City and return to the cabin in the woods. He had missed something, he was convinced of it. He would return, he would find it, and he would end whatever evil she had brought to this land of great rivers and endless fields of wild grasses.
He smiled at the title. Even after all these years, all these centuries, he still never tired of the honorific. It was true that Parliament had never confirmed his claim to the title, but that was a petty detail. As far as he was concerned, God had conferred it upon him, a much higher council than the humans of Parliament. Thus, he had carried it with him year after year, never growing weary of the sound of it upon the lips of others, particularly when those lips were rosy and lovely.
“Miss Seed. How may I help you?” Prudence Seed was quite pretty, with her dark hair tucked beneath her white cap, her cheeks glowing with a touch of pink, and those very kissable lips. The familiar twinges assailed him.
She dipped her chin and could not quite hide her smile. He would like to flatter himself and say he appealed to her because he was a virile young man, but out here in the West, cultured men like himself were rare. This was an untamed land yet, and she saw few who were not crude explorers who wore the same clothes for months on end, did not shave their faces, and smelled worse than the animals they hunted. Someone like him, who embodied the best of refinement, was a treat, and even more so, she responded to his mysterious allure.
“Come sit with me.” He held out his hand and led her to the chair pulled close to the fire. For a woman who willingly gave up her life in the city for an unknown future in undeveloped lands, she maintained a grace and dignity that spoke loudly about her character. She enchanted him, and he longed to hold her in his arms and give of himself freely. That she was a maiden did not concern him. Out here in the wilds, the rules of polite society no longer mattered, at least not to him.
Her response to him seemed to match his own. She did not hesitate at his invitation to enter his private room and willingly put her small, warm hand in his. What he liked the most was her purity and her righteous heart. She was the kind of woman he had dedicated his life to protect.
As she sat in the chair with the firelight flickering over her beautiful face, he ran his hand down her neck. Her skin was smooth and soft and…what? He jerked his hand away. It could not be, not this beautiful, loving soul, yet his touch was skilled, and he knew the marks when he saw them…when he felt them.
She screamed when he jerked her head to the side, baring a long stretch of her pale neck. There it was as if mocking him by its very presence on one he had believed to be pure and with whom he had contemplated sharing his body: the mark of the witch. Against otherwise smooth flesh, it was raised ever so slightly, a splash of crimson that gave irrefutable proof that the devil himself had laid his fingers to her body. Disgust made his stomach lurch.
Her screams continued as he tore the hat from her head and the dress from her shoulders. They were alone in the house, for her brother had left on horseback before dawn on a journey to save the souls of the wild people who lived in the hills. He would not return for several days.
As her torn clothing fell away his worst fears were confirmed. Yet another mark marred the skin on her back. Such a bright future vanished in a breath. He knew of one way to save her soul, and he was the only one to do it. He put his hands around her neck and squeezed. Once, long ago, he would have used the water or the walking to wring forth her confession. No longer, for his skill in detection was divine. His diligence and prowess were sufficient to understand the horribleness of her sin and to issue the only judgment possible against her. He was inquisitor, jury, and judge. He came to cleanse the land, and so he would.
When her struggles ceased and her body at last fell limp, he picked her up and carried her from the room. With her draped across the back of his horse, he rode away from the Seed home and into the morning. The tree rose out of the stand clustered far from the house, strong and thick. Yes, it would do. He dismounted and took the rope from his saddle. It took only a bit of time before all was readied.
The heat of the blaze followed him as he rode away, the flames engulfing her as she hung from the tree visible for a long time. But he didn’t look back.
Near the John Day Dam
Molly was having second thoughts about the grand plan now that they were here. They’d spent a couple of hours outside of Umatilla hiking the river there and stopping every so often so Angus could take pictures. Then they’d piled back into his SUV, and at first she figured they would drive the Oregon side of the river as though they were headed to Portland. He surprised her when he went back over the river and into Washington once again. Heading west, he piloted them in the direction of Goldendale and the John Day Dam. She thought he would stop at Goldendale, but instead he chose a place called Cliffs Park. Though Molly was a lifelong Washington resident, she’d never even heard of Cliffs Park. Angus had made the journey from across the pond as an adult, and here he was full of more trivia and history about the place than she would ever be able to pull out of her head. She obviously needed to get out more.
She had to admit, the scenery was pretty. Usually if she was driving to Portland, she chose the Oregon side with its wide-open spaces and ubiquitous wind turbines. Not that this side didn’t host its share of turbines, but it still had groupings of trees that gave it a much different look and feel. She rather liked it and wondered why she’d never bothered to come this way before. Actually, she knew why. Speed was an issue because she was always in a hurry, and the Oregon side was faster. She never took the time to slow down and enjoy the view.
Out of the car, she stood and stretched her arms up over her head. The John Day Dam below them served as a barrier between the Columbia River and Lake Umatilla. Impressive, yet she wasn’t quite sure of Angus’s choice in hiking areas. She was used to heavily wooded areas that blanketed the mountains and embraced the streams and lakes. In other words, lots and lots of pine trees. This was quite different. Oh, it was hilly enough, and the Columbia River was pretty damned impressive. It was just so different with its open spaces dotted by clustered stands of trees and sagebrush-peppered rolling hills. The effects of glaciers thousands of years earlier were impossible to miss. It was very cool and quite unique.
Apparently, Angus actually did have a plan, even if it wasn’t clear to her. She now knew he was working on a book about the people who originally called this area home and wanted to get an up-close and personal feel for the area. In her humble opinion, the Children of the Sun, or the Spokane Tribe, would be more interesting, but that was just her. She was, after all, born and raised in Spokane, so why not study the indigenous people of her own area? Winnie had told her he’d decided to make Spokane his home partially because of its history. It fascinated Angus, and when he wasn’t working as a voice-over artist, he was writing his nonfiction books. Perhaps he’d already completed his research on the Children of the Sun, and this was his next chapter. What did it matter anyway? She was just along for the ride.
With hands on hips, Molly looked to the south. While the view was stunning, it didn’t look like a very exciting hiking prospect. Near the river, the landscape featured lots of rolling hills, punctuated by rock cliffs, and as far as she could see, full of weeds, brush, and wildflowers. She kind of liked the low-lying brush, which put off a faint sage-like odor that smelled a little like the kitchen.
Though the landscape didn’t have the vast spread of trees so common in the Spokane region, this area had some trees and plenty of basalt rock cliffs. Thank you, prehistoric glaciers. While Angus might want to get a good feel for the early inhabitants and initial explorers, like Lewis and Clark, if he thought she was going to climb those rock cliffs or jump in a canoe to cross the river, he could jolly well think again. She appreciated the majesty that was represented here. She also respected it. The wide Columbia did not appeal to her sense of adventure, as she knew all too well about the currents that tore beneath the calm surface. Only a fool would challenge those waters. And the cliffs? Those babies were steep, creepy, and if folks were to be believed, home to plenty of snakes, as in rattlesnakes. No thank you, Angus.
Before she opened her big mouth, she stopped. What did she have to lose? Or that she hadn’t lost already anyway. It wasn’t like she could turn around, go home, and start baking for her loyal customer base. As it was, she’d had to turn over the projects she committed to for the next couple of weeks to her friend, Kristin, aka Tasty Cakes. She might never get those accounts back either, but she had to do what was best for her customers, given she was out of business temporarily. That left her here and with two choices: go home and be depressed about a situation totally out of her control, or stay here and accept Angus’s grand plan, and maybe, if she got lucky, have a little fun. This forced-vacation thing was a pain in the butt. Not that she had control issues or anything like that. Nope. Not her.
She decided to continue to hang with Winnie and Angus, and hope for that fun thing. She’d stay, but she still didn’t intend to climb to the top of any damn cliff. Angus would have to dangle a whole lobster tail and a big bottle of pinot before she’d even think about it, and the chance he had either of those things in his pack was pretty slim. She’d hike a while longer, sure, along the lovely rolling-hills sections with nice grass and trees. She’d breathe in the pleasant scent of sage and let it whisper soothingly along her senses. When they were done, they’d find a motel in Goldendale or maybe cross the river and hit one of the hotels in Hood River. She’d order wine from room service and then take a hot bath while Loba snoozed on the bed. Now, that was an awesome plan.
“Ladies.” Angus stood at the open back hatch holding their packs. He handed Molly hers and she slipped it on. “Water?” He seemed to have a mental list and was ticking off each item. Nobody was leaving either until he checked off each item.
She patted the side pocket of her pack. “Loaded up.” She might be a baker, but she wasn’t totally lost when it came to hiking. Granted, this area was a little more remote than her typical hike and, so far, a few hours longer than normal for her and Loba, but hey, she still knew water was the number-one item to keep plenty of in her pack. In her case, she had to carry double so both she and Loba had enough. Like most dog lovers, she’d even go without water if she had to in order to make certain Loba had what she needed.
“Good girl.” He smiled, taking the edge off the girl, which he knew she hated yet still loved to tease her with. As much as she liked Angus, he had a definite wicked streak. Actually it made her like him more.
“Thanks, boy,” she said softly as she slipped her arms into the straps of her pack.
His smile grew. Another thing she liked about him. He could take it as easily as he dished it out. He turned his attention to Winnie, who was still sitting in the passenger’s seat changing into her boots. “Come on, pokey,” he said around the side of the car. “Molly and I are ready to go. Kick it up.”
“Just hold your horses,” Winnie said. “Flip-flops aren’t exactly hiking footwear of choice, you know.”
He rolled his eyes as he looked at Molly. Probably a good thing Winnie didn’t see him do that. “That’s my woman,” he said under his breath. Then he peered up toward where Winnie sat with her legs sticking out of the open door. “Hey, babe, why exactly did you bother to change out of your boots when we left Umatilla?” Actually, Molly had been wondering the same thing.
Now Winnie rolled her eyes. “Because I wanted to. Got a problem with that?” That was Winnie. She did, as the saying went, go to the beat of a different drummer and, in her case, without any kind of apology.
He saluted her. “No, ma’am. Just asking.”
“Good. Then leave me in peace and let me get ready.” She returned her attention to the long laces of her tan boots. Looking at their newness, Molly had a pretty good idea why Winnie had shucked her boots so quickly. She hoped that if she was right, Winnie didn’t get blisters so bad she couldn’t walk. Been there, done that, and she didn’t want to go there again. Nor did she wish that kind of misery on her best friend.
Molly smiled when Angus went up and helped Winnie with her footwear. She loved the way these two were together—their teasing, their laughter, and their caring for each other. All the little things said so much without uttering a single word.
Throughout the years, she’d met all of Winnie’s boyfriends. Most she’d liked, which said quite a lot about Winnie’s taste in men. A few, however, not so much, and thankfully they’d faded away without a great deal of fanfare. Angus, well, he was, in her opinion, a keeper. She was pretty sure Winnie thought so too, which left her with only one question. When would the two of them meet on that page? From the outside looking in, it was hard to tell who the holdout was: Angus or Winnie?
If Molly weren’t here, maybe they’d finally be able to answer that question for themselves. With her along, they’d be at their best, and likely most conservative, behavior. Neither was bound to tip their hand with her and Loba traipsing along behind. She supposed they would sort it out in good time, and she hoped they decided to do it together. They were a perfect match.
When Winnie was finally booted up and, like Angus and Molly, had her pack on her back, Angus led them away from the locked vehicle. The day had grown progressively warmer in a pleasant and comfortable way. The sun on her face felt good, and the air was fresh and clear.
The Umatilla River ran strong as it merged with the Columbia River, and the sight was incredibly beautiful. With each step, she thought more and more that Winnie had been right. This was exactly what she needed to smooth out the rough edges the shocking fire had caused. A couple of days of this kind of exercise and communing with nature, and she’d be ready to tackle the mess back at the bakery. In fact, as she thought about it, she realized it could be an opportunity to make the changes she’d been wanting to for months. She would come back better and stronger.
An hour or so into their second hike, they stopped at a sunny spot near the river to eat. Boulders made great seats, and even better, the stones were warm from the sun’s heat. Kind of like her nice heated seat in her car back home. Loba dropped to a patch of grass and stretched out. She appeared to be enjoying their adventure as much as Molly was.
Slipping the pack off her shoulders, she dropped it to the ground, amazed at how light she felt now. It hadn’t seemed that heavy while they were walking. Only now when it was off her body did she realize how much effort it took to carry the pack. Sweat from the humid weather made her shirt stick to her back. After she shrugged to loosen the shirt from her body, she dug the folding water bowl out of her pack and filled it for Loba, who jumped up from her resting spot and quickly began to drink. When Loba was done, she returned to her grassy bed to sprawl out once more and close her eyes. Molly envied her ability to relax anywhere, anytime. More than once she wished she could do the same thing.
“Ladies?” Angus held up a bottle of wine he had miraculously pulled out of his pack. “Libations for the weary?” His grin spread across his handsome face. Wasn’t hard to see why Winnie was so drawn to him. Molly’s spidey senses detected that he had a fine soul. Right now, looking at that bottle of wine, she could switch sides and keep that man forever.
“Count me in.” She smiled. Now, this was her idea of relaxation. In fact, she could kick back on this comfy rock—well, as comfy as a rock got, anyway—and spend the rest of the afternoon imbibing as she watched the sun set. Loba might get bored after she woke up from her impromptu nap, but Molly was pretty sure she could make a day of it.
“Oh yeah, baby,” Winnie said on a laugh. “Now, this is a man who knows how to lead a hike.”
As she nodded and watched, Angus pulled a multi-tool from his pocket and uncorked the bottle. His acts of magic continued as he began to pour wine into collapsible silicone cups that, like the wine, appeared from his backpack. What other treasures did he have tucked away in there? A little brie? A loaf of crusty bread? She watched, but nothing else delectable came out of the pack. Darn.
They sat in the sunshine sipping the fresh white wine, which was lovely. Who needed French bread and brie when they had a wine that danced on the tongue? No drugstore, cheapo purchase here. This was the good stuff. She looked up to see Angus studying her, his head tilted.
“What?” She could almost see his mind whirling with some unasked question.
“Tell me about about the Old Ways.”
Well, that was a surprise, and for a second she remained silent. Molly rarely shared her heritage, and few people asked even if they knew of her background. Even fewer knew their language. Most people were familiar with the terms “witchcraft” and “Wicca.” Not many used the term “Old Ways.” She was a little impressed, though equally wary. For hundreds of years her family had been hunted and many destroyed for no other reason than because of what they were. Being a witch was rarely a matter of life and death these days, but still a social stigma lingered. Molly and others like her were very cautious when it came to sharing. She wrapped her normal life around her like a shield protecting her from a world that had too often failed her family. It was hard to let go of that shield.
Out here in the beautiful daylight, listening to the sounds of the water rushing by, she felt an unfamiliar desire to talk about her family and her life. Though she would be hard-pressed to explain why, she trusted Angus. “What do you want to know?”
He shrugged. “Anything? Everything? I grew up with stories of the paranormal and of the witches who could do both good and bad. The stories were meant to scare us into being good and to let us know about the presence of forces out there that could also protect us. The thing is, you’re the first real witch I’ve actually met. Or at least that I know I’ve met. You fascinate me, and I kind of like you a little bit too.”
She smiled. Lots of people shared her world, many friends old and new, yet none of them besides a select few had any idea what she was. That sounded kind of ominous, but most people wouldn’t understand. Oh, they’d catch the references to Wicca if she were to reveal to them her heritage. She could almost picture the smiles and the nods they’d give her. They’d think she was just a little out there and searching for some alternate way to express herself. Eccentric. Harmless. They’d be wrong. Not that she was a threat to anyone. That wasn’t the way it worked.
Her powers were real and developed to extraordinary levels through generations of her family. Not strong enough to prevent her bakery from catching on fire, however. Apparently, precognition wasn’t in her toolbox. Of course, her grandmother would point out that wasn’t where her strengths lay. Each of them had their own special touch, though hers hadn’t shown itself quite yet. It was frustrating because she was not-so-patiently waiting to discover her place in the universe. Right now, she was the only one in the family in flux. Or maybe, more likely, she was the only flunky in the family.
“Here’s the deal,” she said, deciding she wanted to share her history with Angus. “I’m what you call a hereditary witch. Nothing unusual for my family, as it goes back in my lineage for centuries. All the women in my family have powers, hence the hereditary. We’re born with it.”
“Wicked. So you can cast spells and vanquish bad guys?”
Molly was just taking a sip of wine and almost spat it out as she began to laugh. “You make it sound so cloak-and-dagger. Nothing quite that mystical or magical. Yes, I can do healing spells. Not as good as the rest of my family, mind you, but I’ve been taught the basic skills. I can’t say I’ve ever been asked to vanquish a bad guy. Doubt I could, even if I was asked. We’re healers, not executioners.”
“Ah. I’ve heard stories from my granny about waving wands and disappearing creeps.”
“Molly is pretty awesome,” Winnie said. “She’s kept me out of the emergency room more than once.”
“Easy enough. Again, my family is all about healing and using what we’ve been gifted with to make things better. Besides, Winnie isn’t prone to major injury, thank goodness, and honestly, that’s less about magic and more about using what nature provides to heal. We’ve been utilizing our skills throughout the years to help others.”
“Ah, that she is,” Angus said, obviously referring to Winnie and her tendency to injure herself. “I’ve had occasion to dress a minor wound or two myself. For such an accomplished chef she’s a wee bit dangerous with a knife.”
Winnie’s protest was quick. “You two make it sound like I’m accident-prone.”
“Well, darlin’, if the shoe fits.” Angus turned a look on Winnie that warmed Molly’s heart. She wished someone would gaze at her that way. Her own fault really. She’d spent all her time building her business and keeping her secrets safe. The only risk she’d ever taken in her life was starting the bakery. Financial risk she was willing to go for, emotional never. Pretty much a coward in that respect.
As she watched the interaction between Angus and Winnie, the feeling of isolation grew. She didn’t want to be alone. Didn’t want to turn into a crazy cat lady, and the way things were going, that’s what might happen. As much as she liked cats, not exactly how she wanted to end up. Maybe after the fire damage was repaired and life was back to normal, she’d try to start dating. Wait, no, not try. She would start dating again. It was past time to let go of the fear.
“What’s the coolest thing you can do?” The question broke into her silent planning. Angus, sitting on the rock leaning into Winnie in that comfortable way that spoke of two people in harmony, was watching her intently. She had a funny feeling he could almost read her thoughts. What kind of family did Angus come from? Perhaps a little magic in his blood too?
She started to answer that she couldn’t really do anything cool and then stopped. For a moment, she stared up into the clear sky and gave the question serious thought. She’d learned to do some unique and wonderful things from the women in her family, yet even with all that education, she still didn’t hold the special thing that would let her stand shoulder to shoulder with the elders of her family. It was a little like being a toddler and learning to walk while navigating between surfaces—from tile, to carpet, to hardwood.
Bringing her gaze back down from the blue sky, she stared over at Angus. “I don’t know yet. My mother is a true healer. My grandmother, a precognitive. Me? Well, the universe hasn’t seen fit to show me what my bit of talent is yet.”
“Really?” Winnie asked. “You never told me that.”
Molly shrugged. “No big deal. In time, I’m sure I’ll find out. In the meantime, I’m good. Mom and Grandma were great teachers, and I’ve learned a lot throughout my life. I can do easy stuff, like the blessing I put on what’s left of my shop. That’s about it.”
“Liar, liar, pants on fire.” Winnie turned and looked at Angus. “Whenever she tells a lie she does that shrug thing. She’d totally suck at poker.”
“I do not.”
“Ah, yeah, you do. Let’s play poker sometime. I’ll wipe you out.”
Well, maybe she did have a tell. Lying wasn’t exactly her strong suit. Neither was poker. “Okay, so it is kind of a big deal. Apparently, I’m a late bloomer. Most women in my family develop their superpower, if you will, well before they’re my age. I’m beginning to wonder if I’m the family’s black sheep. Gran keeps telling me that it’ll come to me when I need it most. I guess I just haven’t needed it yet.”
Angus tilted his head and studied her intently. “No,” he said slowly. “You are no black sheep. I can feel the power in you just waiting to come out.”
“You can feel the power in me?” For the first time, she looked at him closer. Much closer than simply as Winnie’s boyfriend. “What are you?”
Winnie leaned away and stared at him too. “Yes, my handsome Irishman. What are you?”
His smile grew radiant. “A simple man from the green fields of Ireland. That’s all.”
Sure, she thought, and I’m a simple baker.
Though they’d been hiking again for at least an hour, Winnie kept mulling over their conversation as they drank the entire bottle of wine Angus had brought along. It was fun to sit in the sunshine and share the spirits, but she was a little unsettled by what they’d talked about. It wasn’t so much the turn toward Molly’s being a witch. She’d known that little secret for years.
What did surprise her was how quickly Molly had shared it with Angus. That wasn’t like her. What made it even stranger was the vibe that rolled off Angus when she did. It threw Winnie off in an unexpected way. For heaven’s sake, she’d been sleeping with the man for over a year, yet she’d never felt that wave of something she couldn’t describe come over him. It sent chills down her arms. It was exciting and scary all at the same time. It made her wonder: Did she really know him at all? Did it really matter?
“What are you thinking about so hard, love?” Angus put an arm around her shoulders. His closeness felt as wonderful as always. Some things didn’t change. “You’re frowning on this glorious day. Have I not shown you, Molly, and Loba a wonderful time?”
Her first instinct was to say yes. But she gazed at the sky and suddenly questioned exactly how glorious it really was. It had nothing to do with Angus either. He was a pretty good team leader. It was less about Angus and more about Mother Nature making her question their adventure. An hour ago, it had been clear skies and sunshine. That was pretty much gone now. Dark clouds had moved in to push out the blue, and the air, so warm earlier, was taking on a chill. It sort of matched the mood settling on her.
“A good time? Yes, you have. That’s not it.”
“What is it then?”
She looked at him. “I’m thinking that parts of you are a mystery to me.”
He leaned away with a surprised expression. “You know me better than anyone.”
How true was that? This morning she would have said that she knew him well. Not now. “Do I?”
His green eyes mirrored his surprise. It might be her imagination, but she thought she glimpsed a bit of hurt along with it. “Indeed. Better than anyone. I don’t understand, love. What’s bothering you? What’s brought on this change?”
She looked back to see Molly wandering to the water’s edge with her phone up. She was intent on taking a picture of an eagle soaring over the river, presumably in search of a tasty salmon. For the moment, the two of them were alone.
Taking his face between her hands, she stared into his eyes. “Something you said back there, it changed you. It was an Angus I’ve never seen before.”
He put his hands over hers. “Ah, the secret me,” he said in his beautifully accented voice. Regardless of anything else, she didn’t believe she’d ever get tired of listening to him.
“The secret you,” she whispered. She felt left out somehow, and it hurt.
“I owe you an explanation.”
“You think?” Please let him open his heart and his secrets to her.
He kissed her. “I do indeed think.” He looked over her shoulder and then back at her. “Later, luv. You and I will talk. My secrets will be your secrets.”
His index finger drew made a cross against his chest. “Cross my heart and hope to die.”
“Cross your heart, but please don’t hope to die.” Just the thought of it made her grow cold. Her world would never be right without him in it.
His smile returned and, with it, the twinkle in his green eyes. “Your wish is my command, my beautiful lady.”
“Hey,” Molly said as she walked up next to them. “Things aren’t looking or sounding so good.” Just as the words left her lips, thunder roared and lightning flashed. The storm was way too close. “I think we’re going to get dumped on. Anyone bring a rain jacket?”
The question was barely out of her mouth when the sky opened up and rain began to pour. Great, just great. She was trying to show her friend a relaxing, good time to take her mind off the bakery, and what happened? Everything turned to crap. Her man morphed into mysterious. The weather soured. And to top it all off, she didn’t have rain gear.
“This way,” Angus shouted over the crashing thunder. “There’s an old cabin up here where we can get inside for a few and wait out the rain.” He ran from the open fields along the river and into the trees that stretched like a barrier wall to the north.
“How do you know about a cabin?”
He flashed a smile. “Not my first time here, luv. Now, come on, before we get drenched.”
She should be surprised, but at this point, she wasn’t. Apparently they had a lot of getting to know each other left to do. As he said, though, later. She was all for running for cover right now.
It was a great idea, at least until they burst through the trees and into a small clearing. She was hoping to see some kind of sturdy lodge-type structure. What she saw didn’t come close to her expectation. The cabin wasn’t much. It was blackened from age and disuse, and twenty feet from the drooping door stood what once, long ago, must have been a magnificent tree. Now it was battered, and on one side, it looked as though it must have suffered burns. There was no odor on the air. The fire had to have been a long time ago. Why hadn’t nature repaired the damaged portion? Wasn’t that what it usually did?
She didn’t stop to give it any serious consideration because she was getting drenched. Getting under cover was a bigger priority than understanding nature’s quirks. Angus opened the door to the screams of its stiff and rusted hinges and held it open as both she and Molly raced through. Clearly, nobody had been in here for a long time, and judging by its outward appearance, she had a good idea why. Hopefully it didn’t crumble on top of their heads from the force of the storm.
Molly stopped just inside, pleading with Loba. “Come on, my good girl. Get inside. You’re getting all wet.”
Winnie turned as she shook out her hair, sending droplets of water in every direction. Angus was still holding the door open, but Loba remained outside. It was like an invisible barrier blocked her entry. “What’s up with her?”
Molly dropped to her knees at the door. “Loba, come.” The plea in her voice was tinged with concern. Winnie understood, because the two of them were always in sync. That Loba was hesitating to go inside with Molly didn’t make a whole lot of sense, and it sent an uneasy feeling racing through Winnie. She’d never seen Loba hesitate at anything Molly asked of her. While Winnie didn’t have a dog of her own right now, she’d grown up with them. One lesson she’d learned along the way: always trust your dog.
After a long pause, the beautiful dog, her head down and her eyes narrowed, gingerly stepped inside. A low growl came from deep in her throat.