Holbrook Manor

Chapter 1

Hudson Valley, May 1910


Bret Carson leaned against the rod iron gate at Holbrook Manor, waiting for the watchman to return. He was a powerful-looking man, tanned and ruggedly handsome. His faded denims, leather boots and black Stetson easily set him apart from the fashion-conscious northerners and he rarely displayed such patience. He was a cattle rancher from Texas and unaccustomed to waiting for anyone's permission.

But he wasn't dealing with a band of rustlers or Mexican desperados. And the stakes were far higher than losing a few prized Herefords. One slip and he could end up losing what he cherished most in this world, the one person who gave him life and breath.

"The watchman is coming," the Marshall told him.

Bret stiffened expectantly. The guard nodded to them, removed the ring of keys from his belt and opened the gate, allowing them passage. Bret followed the Marshall across the brick driveway to the main house where a livery boy took their horses. The doorman escorted them inside and led the way through the vast marble entrance hall. As they went, Bret kept his eyes on the wide split staircase traveling to the bedrooms on the second and third floors above.

She was here...somewhere in this house or just outside. His heart raced with the thought of seeing her again. It had only been a matter of weeks since he last held her in his arms, yet it felt like an eternity.

When they entered the drawing room, Bret wandered over to the terrace doors. "What if they refuse to let me see her?" He was curious to know how far the Marshall was willing to take this.

"You hired yourself a smart lawyer, Mister Carson. The papers state we don't leave the house until you get at least a few minutes with her. The Holbrooks won't refuse. It would mean their arrest for obstructing the law."

Bret turned away to study the layout of the yard and gardens outside. He noticed the walkway disappeared down the river ravine a good distance away and he envisioned an elaborate boathouse and dock by the water’s edge.

He had no other recourse. His attorney had said there was little chance he would win this battle in court. There were formal steps he could take, Pete had explained, possibly even progressing through the legal system to the point of having a judge hear his plight. But with his criminal record and the Holbrook's powerful connections, the endeavor would most likely turn into a highly publicized and costly fight that would take years to settle.

That's when he made his decision. He paid Pete a handsome fee to hire a few associates to begin court proceedings immediately. He insisted upon a formal notice being issued to the Holbrook family as well as to the press, just to let everyone know how far he legally intended to take this and, perhaps, to embarrass the hell out of the Holbrooks. Yet, those efforts were merely a pretense. While the opposition expended all their energy preparing the strongest court defense, he was going to take the illegal route and he didn’t give a damn about the consequences. It was the only choice left that would guarantee he obtained his goals.

Within a few minutes, Thurston Holbrook entered the room with his sister clinging to his arm. The anger Bret felt earlier turned into rage as he glared at Lenore, the woman he once considered the most beautiful creature on earth. But she looked ugly to him now, like a contemptible hag. Her dark features were still just as striking with long, raven black hair wrapped into a large bun at the nape of her neck, flawless ivory skin and a curvaceous figure that could easily turn a man's head. But her cold, black eyes and superior demeanor gave every indication of the vile person underneath.

"Good afternoon, Marshall Cameron," Thurston greeted.

"Sorry for the intrusion, folks, but I've got a court order."

Lenore boldly stepped forward. "The gala is tonight, Marshall. As you can see, we're busy preparing for our guests to arrive. Don't I have the right to decide when he sees her?"

"No..." Bret stated flatly, gathering her attention.

"Mister Carson’s documents give him the right to be here," Marshall Cameron said.

Lenore sauntered over and sat on the couch. "I apologize for the inconvenience this has caused you, Marshall, but considering Mister Carson has been convicted of assault twice before, you can hardly blame me for refusing to see him without a lawman present. Bret's known for his uncontrollable..."

"Where's Vicki?" Bret shouted.

Lenore’s wicked glare turned smug. "Clark will bring her here momentarily. They've become quite good friends. Clark stays at the manor whenever he's in town and Victoria adores spending time with him.” She planted a helpless pout on the Marshall. "Is that a problem?"

"Until this matter is settled legally, the decision is between you and your husband. Or between your lawyers."

She stretched her legs out on the couch and carefully fixed the folds of her white, satin gown. "Speaking of lawyers, as long as you’re here to make sure Bret behaves himself, would you mind escorting him to my lawyer’s office after we’re finished so he can sign our divorce papers?"

Bret clenched his fists. "I told you before, unless I gain full custody of Vicki, there isn't going to be a divorce. You've sought your revenge against me. The best way to return the gesture is by preventing you from marrying Galloway or whoever else you're sleeping with this week."

Lenore glanced up at her brother, dutifully standing beside her. “I don't like the way he's talking to me, Thurston. Must I listen to his slander?"

"If you both put your hatred aside it would make this easier for all concerned," Thurston stated.

Bret turned away from them. "I have no intention of making it easier for her."

Patten Holbrook suddenly charged into the room. “Why wasn’t I informed of Bret’s arrival?” He flashed a heated glance at his daughter and went over to shake Bret’s hand. “I'm sorry to see you under these circumstances. Is someone fetching Victoria for you?"

"Daddy!" the young girl squealed from the doorway and she raced into Bret’s arms. He lifted her up in a devoted hug and she pecked his cheek with kisses. Her wispy, blonde curls bounced around and he squeezed her tighter, whispering his love in her ear. She vowed the same and laid her head on his shoulder, still gripping his neck tightly.

He glanced over at the lawman. "According to the documents, I am allowed a few minutes alone with my daughter."

Lenore stood up. "I hardly think..."

Patton scowled. “Lenore! For God's sake, give the man his due." He pointed toward the door, but she refused to budge. Finally, he took her arm and escorted her out the room with the others following behind.

As soon as they were alone, Bret carried Vicki to the couch and sat her in his lap. Tears streamed down her cheeks and he gently wiped them away. "Have you been riding your pony?"

"Thank you for sending Sunshine to me." She managed to get the words out, but her chin quivered and tears fell freely. "When can I go home with you, Daddy?" She burst out crying and he wrapped his arms around her again, swallowing hard to hold back his own emotions.

He remembered the first time he laid eyes on her five years ago. Lenore had gone into labor quickly, too rapidly to send for the doctor, so he and his sister cared for her through every painful contraction. If circumstances had been different, he would have shown more compassion. As it was, he did what he could for Lenore, but expended most of his energies worrying about the child's welfare.

Three hours later, Lenore gave birth and he remembered crying with joy even though at the time he still wasn't sure if the child was his or not. Yet, it didn't matter to him since he was the first to hold her, the first to bathe her and teach her how to walk, run and ride Sunshine. With his wife too busy traveling back and forth from Texas to New York, he was the first in all things and the only one to reap every blessed reward of being a parent.

And Vicki grew to look just like a Carson with sparkling blue eyes and blonde hair, along with their strong and determined nature. He knew that not only helped her survive these past weeks, it would also help her endure the forthcoming hardships.

He held her tightly and whispered, "I can't take you with me today, sweetheart, but we'll be together soon."

She squeezed his neck in one of her infamous bear hugs that he'd missed so much. "Please don’t make me stay here…"

Her helpless plea stabbed his heart. He closed his eyes and silently cursed this damn twist of fate. Then, he cursed Lenore again for putting his daughter through this hell. "We'll be together. I promise." He pulled Vicki away to reassure her with a smile, but when he touched her right shoulder, she cringed in pain and buried herself against his chest.

"What happened, Vicki?" He tried to sound calm, but that sickening knot grew at the pit of his stomach again. "Sweetheart, let me see your arm." She finally loosened her grip yet hung her head as she carefully pulled her sleeve up.

Her entire shoulder was discolored, bruised and swollen.

Bret's blood ran cold and his expression turned murderous. It took every ounce of willpower not to do what was foremost on his mind right now. After a few deep breaths to cool his head, he held his daughter close again and told her that everything was going to be all right.

When the Marshall led the others back into the room, he stooped down and picked up the stuffed bear that Vicki had dropped. The man grinned at the bits of stuffing protruding from it. Bret recognized the mangled beast. He had given it to Vicki on her first birthday.

He finally stood up, still holding his daughter snugly in his arms. It was time for him to go and he didn't know how he would manage it. But he silently vowed that Vicki wouldn’t spend one more night in this house and with the gala tonight, it was the perfect opportunity to put his plan into motion.

Lenore stepped forward. "Come along, Victoria." She reached for her daughter, but Vicki frantically clung to his neck.

Bret’s temper raged again. Yet, as though sensing his thoughts, Vicki kissed him on the cheek and her sweetness eased his temper. He gazed at her for a moment and whispered in her ear. Vicki forced a smile knowing in her heart that her father would never break a promise. And she allowed her mother to take her.

He followed the Marshall out of the room, but he stopped short at the doorway seeing Clark there, smirking. He could feel himself losing control again. He knew full well it was Clark's idea to take Vicki away from him in the first place. Lenore never had any interest in her daughter and any mothering the little girl received now undoubtedly came from a slew of nannies hired on. And Clark’s only reason was revenge.

"Did you have something on your mind, Carson?" Clark asked.

Bret seized the man by his shirt. "Only that I should have killed you when I had the chance."

The Marshall charged over and pried Bret’s hand away. "That's enough, Mister Carson. If you force me to throw you in jail, you'll never be allowed to see your daughter again."

Bret continued to glare at Clark as he headed for the door. Then, he glanced back at his daughter again. Lenore had passed her off to one of the maids who was carrying her up the staircase. Vicki waved to him sadly then squeezed the stuffed animal in her arms.

* * *

At one o'clock the following morning, Marshall Cameron received an urgent message to return to the manor. The entire mansion was illuminated as he made his way up the front steps and passed by crowd gathered in the ballroom. When he entered the drawing room, Lenore was lying on the couch, crying hysterically; Thurston paced the floor behind her, and Doctor Ketchum stood in the far corner.

Lenore jumped to her feet. "It's about time you got here, Marshall! That bastard killed Father and took my baby!"

He knit his brows in puzzlement. "Calm down, Missus Carson, and tell me what happened."

She burst out crying again, so Thurston stepped forward. "I was in town for the evening. Apparently just after midnight, Lenore and the other guests heard a gun discharge. When my sister went upstairs, she found our father had been killed and her daughter was missing."

"Hold on. Are you saying Patten is dead?"

"Yes!" Lenore cried out. "He's lying on the floor outside of his bedroom. Bret killed him! That bastard came back to the house to take Victoria away from me and he shot Father when he tried to stop him. I saw them leave down the servant's staircase. You have to find him."

He glanced over at Doctor Ketchum.

"A bullet to the heart at close range, I'm afraid, Marshall," the doctor told him. "I instructed the guests to remain here until your arrival."

He dolefully pulled a small pad from his pocket. "Missus Carson, did you see your husband shoot Patten?"

"My brother just told you, we were all downstairs at the gala. I ran into the foyer and saw him escaping through the servant's staircase. I don't understand why we're all just sitting around asking questions while Bret gets away with murder and kidnapping."

"We’ll find your husband. Did anyone else see Mister Carson?"

Thurston hushed Lenore’s rantings. "Not that we know of."

He asked to be taken upstairs to the scene and followed the attendant to the second floor and down one of the corridors. Outside the last bedroom, he saw the elderly man sprawled across the floor in a gruesome puddle of blood. He approached the body, then stood there for a moment, saying a silent prayer as he and Patten had known each other for years. He took a quick look inside the room, then asked to see the child’s room which was down the opposite corridor.

He noticed the little girl's covers were thrown off the bed and the stuffed animal she'd dropped earlier was gone. He went over to the open window and peered outside. There was a sturdy flower trellis gripping the back of the house to the ground level which couldn't have been more than fourteen feet down. It was possible for a man as strong as Bret Carson to climb up the trellis, he determined. He glanced around the room again. Several of Victoria's dresser drawers were left open with articles of clothing scattered. He went over to inspect their contents.

A few garments remained in each drawer, but he would guess most had been taken. He held his chin in his hand for a few minutes, trying to re-enact the crime in his head. He walked back down the hall and noticed the servant's doorway to his right across from the main stairway. He opened the door and climbed down. At the bottom, there was a narrow hallway with two doors, one leading to the kitchen and the other leading outside. He walked to the farthest door and took a quick glance around the grounds. When he entered the kitchen, one of the maids was sitting at the table.

"Did you see any of the guests use the servants' staircase tonight?" he asked.

"No, sir. Fred took some fresh towels to the guest rooms on the third floor earlier, but he was the only one."

"Where were you when the gun went off?"

"Right here in the kitchen..."

"And you didn't hear or see anyone go out the back door after the gun went off?"

"No, sir."

"I'd like to ask Fred a few questions. Could you find him and tell him to join me in the drawing room?" The woman nodded and he made his way back to the others. When he entered the drawing room there was another gentleman standing beside Thurston.

"Marshall, this is John Truman,” Thurston told him. “He’s the head groundskeeper. Tell the Marshall what you told me, John."

"There was a small dinghy tied to the docks earlier tonight. I assumed it belonged to one of the guests, but it was only there for a short time."

"Did you see who docked it?" the Marshall asked.

"No. I was heading to my cabin to retire and didn’t pay attention."

"I see…about what time was that?"

"Close to midnight."

"Thank you, Mister Truman. I will need you to make a formal statement at my office in the morning." The man nodded and left the room.

Lenore sipped a glass of water, still sniveling. "Poor Father. He adored Victoria. He probably heard Bret and was going to check on his granddaughter."

The Marshall remained silent as he walked by her toward the terrace doors. He noticed something at his feet and picked up a small ball of cotton stuffing on the floor. After examining it, he tucked it into his pocket. Then, he opened the terrace doors. "Were these doors left open for the party?"

Thurston approached him. "They should have been locked. Father insisted the guests use the main entrance."

He nodded. "The young girl's window was open, so I'm assuming Mister Carson climbed the trellis to her bedroom. It makes sense that he escaped by way of the servant's stairway, but still, I'd like to find out why these doors weren’t locked tonight." He turned around to face the others. "Anyway, we'll do everything possible to get your daughter back, Missus Carson. Please accept my sympathies about your father. He was a unique man who will be sorely missed. I will also need a formal statement from both of you, but we can do that in the morning. I’d like to ask the guests a few questions before they leave."

Lenore shouted after him. "Don't forget Bret nearly killed Clark earlier. He's got a fierce temper, Marshall. Like I told you earlier, he's been arrested before in Texas. I'm sure the Sheriff in Austin can send you a copy of the convictions. I can only imagine what he'll put my poor, little girl through."

Rosalie met him in the hall and cleared her throat. "Excuse me, Marshall Cameron. I told Charles that you wanted to speak with Fred, but...well, it seems he's gone..."

"What do you mean he's gone?"

"His room is empty, sir. Looks like he gathered his things and left."

Chapter 2

Blue Rapids, Kansas April 1913


"Hang on, Syd! Don't take any shit from him!" Ryder shouted as he watched his older sister trying to bust the new studhorse.

Sydney suddenly lost her grip, flew into the air and plunged to the ground. Both of her brothers jumped down from the wooden fence and rushed to her rescue. Ryder helped her to her feet while Quinn chased the horse to the other side of the corral.

"He's a real bully..." Sydney said, wincing with pain. "But I did pretty good, didn't I?"

"Damn right you did! You beat Quinn's time by thirty-six seconds." He gave her braid a gentle tug, handed her the pocket watch and headed over to take his turn.

Sydney dusted off her leather chaps and climbed onto the fence. It was Ryder’s turn and she knew he would win the bet. He was by far the best broncobuster in the entire mid-west and had more determination and stamina than anyone she knew, as well as a streak of recklessness that kept him in the saddle that much longer, just to show the horse who was boss.

Her mild hazel eyes caught a glow of admiration as she watched him mount the horse. Demetrius bolted forward, kicking and bucking with a fury. She quickly checked the time while Quinn joined her on the fence. They cheered their brother on as his body whipped back and forth like a rag doll. After two minutes and twenty-one seconds, Ryder flew off the horse, but he won the bet.

Ryder snatched his hat from the ground. "I'll be damned. That stud is tougher than I thought."

"Old man Doyle was right calling him the black demon," Quinn agreed as they walked out of the corral. "We had a hell of a time just getting him here from town. Too bad Drake wasn't here to see you, Sydney. He said I was full of shit when I told him that you ride nearly as good as Ryder. He's got no idea what he's in for when you two get hitched."

"Cut it out, Quinn. I'm not marrying anyone, least of all Drake Warfield. And I don't care what he thinks about my riding skills. I wish you'd stop teasing me about him all the time."

Ryder took her hand. "Tell you what, Syd, once I break that demon horse, I'm gonna give him to you."

Her eyes burst open wide. “Oh, Ryder, honestly? That would be so wonderful.” And she hugged him, excitedly.

He glanced over at his brother and smirked. "It's about time she had a good stud between her legs."

Both brothers cracked up laughing, but Sydney twirled around to gaze dreamily at the horse in the corral. "Could I really have him, Ryder? Ma's old mare barely makes it to town these days and now that I've taken over Missus Kravit’s teaching job for the remainder of the year, I don't want to be late getting to the schoolhouse. If I could ride Demetrius..." She was wringing her hands, almost afraid to get her hopes up too high. "Do you think Pa would let me have him?"

"He's yours, Sis. Just as soon as I finish training him."

Quinn smirked. "It ain't Pa you gotta worry about. Taylor’s the one with the last say and he thinks Sydney's made of glass. Remember when you brought Booker home for her? The damn dog was as gentle as a lamb, but Taylor had a fit worrying about him biting her."

Ryder frowned. "If I want to give her the steed, big brother can't do a God damn thing about it."

During supper that evening, Sydney kept silently reciting a very convincing speech listing all the reasons why she needed Demetrius. After serving Taylor and her father a good heaping of beef stew and thick slices of freshly made soda bread, she took her seat and opened her mouth to speak, but Quinn beat her to it.

"Drake was talking about the hermit who lives near Alcove Spring yesterday,” he said. “A few head of cattle wandered off last week and he caught a glimpse of that squaw hanging clothes outside. I'd like to know who the hell he is. The town folk are curious about him, too. They say he's a killer redskin."

Ryder shook his head. "Guthrie told me that he's a Mexican outlaw who gunned down six lawmen in El Paso with a Sharpe's rifle and he's been hiding out ever since."

Sydney’s eyes grew wide, but she lowered her voice as though divulging a well-kept secret. "Annie heard the man escaped from some asylum back east. He's completely deranged, she said. I'm scared to death to go into town now. The Rutger's place is only a few miles from the trail. It's so spooky the way neither of them has ever stepped foot into town, not in the three years they've lived there. And someone mentioned they have a daughter, too."

Taylor slammed his fist down on the table. "Stop it! He may not give a damn about what anyone says, but I'm sick and tired of everyone making up these rumors just because the man keeps to himself." He held a reprimanding scowl on his sister. "I'm more disappointed in you, Sydney. You're the one who's always preaching about two sides to every story and giving people the benefit of the doubt."

She hung her head in shame. "I'm sorry, Taylor."

They ate in silence for a while, but her thoughts quickly shifted to Demetrius again and her excitement got the better of her. She was dying to know if Taylor would let her have the horse and she finally gathered the nerve to ask. But like Quinn speculated, Taylor put up quite a fuss and argued that the horse was too dangerous for her. After their father agreed with Taylor, as he always did, Ryder threw his fork down into his plate.

"Why the hell is Taylor always making the decisions, Pa? For Christ's sake, Syd is twenty years old! She's old enough to be married with kids right now and experienced enough to ride any horse you put in front of her. What if she is a girl? What does that matter if she's got the guts and ability? And since she's stuck here taking care of us, I don't see why she can't have a little fun."

Quinn swiftly came to his brother's defense. "Now that Missus Kravit’s is laid up and Sydney's in charge of teaching school, she needs a good, reliable horse to get her to town every day. Her mare should have been put out to pasture years ago. It ain't fair to her."

"And if the horse throws her on the way to town, who's going be there to help her?" Taylor continued eating his meal, seemingly unaffected by their pleas. "Sure, she can ride all right, but that horse is too damn big and powerful. There's no sense in taking such a risk." He grabbed a slice of bread and slid it across his plate to soak up the rest of the gravy.

She reached over and placed her hand over her brother's. "Please, Taylor? I adore you and Pa for being so concerned about me, but Ryder agreed to break him in for me and he'll do it right. I can handle Demetrius; you know I can. And he's such a beautiful horse..."

Taylor studied his sister intently as though weighing every option and trying to come up with a good, sensible decision. Then, a smile slipped through. "Okay, you can have him if Ryder makes sure the horse is tame enough."

She threw her arms around Taylor's neck, thanked him a thousand times, kissed his cheek and with another squeal of joy, she raced out the door.

Ryder glared at Taylor. "I'd like to know what the hell just happened here. I'm the one giving her the damn horse, yet you get all the credit?"

Sydney straddled the top of the wooden fence surrounding the corral. The sun had just dipped below the treetops and the orange and red hues cast a stunning glow over her horse. She pictured herself riding the great beast into town and smiled.

Taylor strolled over to her and leaned against the fence. "Are you looking forward to teaching on your own?"

"Yes, but I'm nervous, too. It's going to be different than assisting Missus Kravit. I know all the children, though, and I think they like me. It'll be challenging enough for now."

His eyes rested on her. "I saw your notice in the Kansas City paper last week."

She blushed. "You did?"

"I know you've had your heart set on leaving Blue Ridge, but I didn't think you had taken such a serious step toward that aim."

She climbed down from the fence. "Missus Kravit gave me the idea. Her niece found a governess position in the most elegant home on the ocean and she earned enough money to travel to Europe by herself." She hesitated. "I know I'm going to like being a schoolteacher, but there are so many other wonderful opportunities out there. The possibilities are endless, you know."

"Yes, I imagine they are."

She peeked up at him. "Are you angry with me?"

"I could never be angry with you. I guess I just didn't like seeing the notice in the paper without knowing beforehand. And I hate to think of what it's going to be like around here without you."

"There's a good chance no one will respond to my advertisement, but if someone does, I don't know how I'd manage leaving you. Ryder and Quinn have each other, but you and Pa need me."

"If it comes down to choosing between this life and your own happiness, I wouldn't let you stay. You deserve to be happy." He reached over and pulled her into his arms. "Just make sure the decisions you make are for the right reasons, Sydney, not from any underlying fears."

She closed her eyes tightly, trying to distance herself from her thoughts. Taylor knew so much more about her than she wished he did and she didn't want to discuss it with him now. She wasn't ready to admit her fears out loud or listen to anyone analyze the connection between her fears and her dreams.

After a few moments of silence, Taylor lifted her chin. "I have a favor to ask of you, but after our dinner conversation, I'm hesitant to do so."

"You know I'd do anything for you, Taylor."

"I convinced a friend of mine to send his daughter to school. She turned eight years old a few months ago and he's been schooling her by himself. He was reluctant at first and felt she was getting enough education. But after I spoke to him about you, I think he's changed his mind. I have a great deal of respect for you and your abilities. And it would be good for the young girl to meet other children. He agreed to send her for the remainder of the school year. If all goes well, she'll come back next year."

Sydney’s eyes widened. "You're talking about that man who lives by Alcove Spring, aren't you? I can't believe you are friends with him, Taylor. There's so much talk going around, it can't all be hearsay. It just doesn't sound right anyway you look at it."

He scowled at her. "If I remember correctly, not too long ago you were pretty upset with the whole town for believing false rumors about you and Drake." When he saw his words affected her, he eased his expression. "Listen to me, Sydney. He's just an ordinary man, no different than myself. His wife died a few years ago and he hired Nokomis to help raise his daughter. And who can blame him for living like a recluse if it means avoiding the kind of talk you and the boys were repeating?"

"I trust your judgment, Taylor, and I'll do what I can to help his daughter in school, but I’m still not comfortable with it."

"Her name is Vicki and I think you're going to find she's very sweet...just like you." He tapped her nose lightly and wrapped his arms around her in another hug.

Two days later, Sydney raced around the house, fixing breakfast, feeding her family, cleaning up the dishes and getting herself ready for her first day of teaching solo. She knotted a braid at the nape of her neck, donned her simple gray cotton dress, gathered some books in her arms and dashed out the door. She glanced over at Demetrius prancing around the corral and silently prayed that Ryder would finish training him quickly. She was running terribly late again and her mother's mare would never get her to the schoolhouse on time.

"C'mon, Syd!" Ryder called out as he steered the wagon out of the stables. "Quinn and I are working at Gunner's farm today and we'll give you a ride." She hurried over, grateful for the offer, and climbed into the seat. Quinn joined them on horseback and they headed down the dirt road.

When they reached the south end of town, Ryder slowed the wagon and yelled to his brother that he'd made the trip five minutes faster than last time. But Sydney wasn't paying attention to them. Her eyes were fixed on the schoolhouse at the far end of the main road. A few children were playing outside and she swallowed hard with apprehension. She thought she was ready for this, but to be responsible for an entire classroom suddenly frightened her beyond reason.

She gripped Ryder’s arm. "Stop here. I want to walk the rest of the way." She needed a few minutes to relax and pull herself together. Ryder obliged her and she climbed out of the wagon.

"Are you okay, Sydney?"

Quinn rode beside them and laughed. “She’s just got stage fright.”

“Shut-up, Quinn,” Ryder snapped. “Don't worry, Syd, you'll do fine. You've been helping Missus Kravit for nearly two years now. You know everything that's expected of you. Are you sure you don't want us to take you the rest of the way?"

She shook her head. "No. I'd rather walk."

"Okay, we'll be back at three o'clock to pick you up." He called to the team and they left her there, alone.

Sydney started walking towards the schoolhouse, slowly, nervously thinking about what her new position entailed as though for the first time. But a tiny hand suddenly slipped into hers.

"Good morning, Miss Prescott," Susie greeted.

Sydney smiled at her best friend’s daughter. "Good morning, Susie."

"Ma said we're going to have a lot more fun now that you're teaching us." Susie tugged her hand, trying to quicken their pace.

Sydney laughed. "I'll try to make it fun."

Annie stood in the doorway of the general store with her hands on her hips. "You looked like you needed a little moral support getting there, Sydney! Why don't you stop by in the mornings? A good jolt of my coffee should keep you going the rest of the day."

"And night, too, I'm sure!” she told her. “Thanks, Annie. I'll see you tomorrow."

Sydney entered the building and placed her books on the desk. She had come by yesterday to prepare the room and looked around now to make sure everything was ready for a full day of school. Within a few minutes, she took a deep breath and returned outside to ring the bell. The children ran toward the school, laughing and shouting. But when they reached the steps, they slowed down and passed by her with a quiet and respectable greeting. She took one more glance around to see if anyone was straggling behind.

She noticed an Indian woman walking toward the school with a young girl by her side. Sydney waited for them, knowing this was the girl that Taylor had mentioned. Her vision lingered on the woman for a moment. She wore a beautiful dress made of buckskin and her long, black hair was tied in a loose braid down the length of her back. She was a young woman and quite beautiful with dark and almost perfect features, in complete contrast with the blonde, blue-eyed girl beside her.

Sydney climbed down the steps. "Good morning. I'm Miss Prescott, the new schoolteacher." But as soon as she spoke, the young girl wrapped her arms around the woman’s waist fearfully.

"My name is Nokomis. And this is Vicki." She leaned down to whisper something in Vicki's ear, but the girl just shook her head, refusing. "She is afraid to come to school today."

"New experiences are always frightening." Sydney watched the young girl for a moment. "I know exactly how you feel, Vicki. I've never taught an entire classroom by myself before and I'm a little scared, too. Maybe if we walk inside together it'll make it easier for both of us." She stretched her hand out and waited. Vicki peered over at her, undecided. Finally, she took her hand and Sydney cast her a warm smile. "She'll be fine now, Nokomis. As a matter of fact, I think I'll seat her right next to Susie. By the end of the day, I'm sure they'll be best of friends."

The hours passed like minutes for Sydney and she could scarcely believe the day was nearly over. They had completed their lessons by two-thirty and she asked the children to put their desks in order. At two forty-five, she dismissed them. She watched Susie and Vicki say good-bye to one another and she was glad Vicki's day had gone as smoothly as her own.

Sydney gathered her books and went over to walk Vicki out. "Did you have fun today?"

"Yes, Miss Prescott. I like Susie a lot. She's going to ask her mother if I can play at her house sometime."

Sydney took the young girl’s hand. "Is there anything else you liked about school?"

Vicki thought about it for a minute. "Playing tag at recess was fun!" When Sydney broke out laughing, the girl realized her blunder and quickly added, "I like the story you read to us, too. I love reading books."

Sydney squeezed her hand affectionately. "That's the best lesson you can learn, Vicki." But she stopped short at the doorway and her smile vanished. Drake was on horseback just outside. He was approaching Nokomis with her brothers trailing behind him on foot.

"Well, look what we have here, boys,” Drake said, moving his horse closer. “It's the squaw from Alcove Spring."

Sydney gently pushed Vicki back into the room. "Stay in your seat until I come back for you." She waited until Vicki did as she was told, then stormed outside.

"Good afternoon, Sydney, my love." Drake politely tipped his hat, but she ignored him and went over to Nokomis who stood stiff with her back pressed against the schoolhouse.

"Go inside, Nokomis,” Sydney told her. When the woman didn't budge, she gently put an arm around her. "Please, I'll take care of this." Nokomis rushed up the stairs and disappeared inside. Sydney spun around and glared at her brothers. "I'm ashamed of you, Ryder. You, too, Quinn. I expect such vulgar behavior from Drake, but not the two of you." She glanced around at the few children still playing in the yard. "This is a school, not a saloon."

"We were just joking around, Syd." Ryder cast her that boyish grin, but she continued to stare at him and he finally conceded. "Let's get out of here, Drake."

"Where's the wagon?" she asked angrily and Quinn pointed toward the feed store.  "I'll meet you over there in five minutes." Her brothers walked away and she turned to climb the stairs, but Drake quickly dismounted and caught her arm.

"There's a dance this Saturday, Sydney. What time should I bring the wagon around?"

"I’m not going to the dance,” she told him.

"It's that damn brother of yours, isn't it?” He tightened his grip around her arm. “It's not up to Taylor! You're a grown woman and I know you enjoyed being with me. Quinn even said so. We're gonna be together and there ain't a God damn thing Taylor can do about it."

She started to worry when she couldn’t pull her arm free, but luckily, she saw Ryder and Quinn running back towards them.

"Leave her alone, Drake!" Ryder shouted.

Drake released her, then he pointed his finger in her frightened face. "If you won't ride to the dance with me, then I'll meet you there. And tell Taylor to stay out of it. My cousins will be around if he starts anything." He mounted his horse and rode away.

Sydney ignored her brothers and went back inside the school. "I'm terribly sorry, Nokomis.” Vicki ran over to hug her and she feigned a smile, although her heart was still racing. “It's all right, Vicki. They won't bother Nokomis again. I promise."

"I am in your debt, Miss Prescott," Nokomis said. "I worried this might happen. It was very brave of you to come to my rescue."

"Unfortunately, I know those scoundrels and I'll make sure they keep their distance. From now on, though, it might be a good idea for you to come inside when you arrive in the afternoon for Vicki." She held onto Vicki’s hand and walked them both outside.

"Thank you, Miss Prescott," Nokomis said and she surprised Sydney with a gentle hug of gratitude.

When Taylor arrived home for supper that evening, Sydney gave him quite an earful. She explained exactly what had happened and he was just as furious as she was about the scene. Before she even had a chance to finish, he was charging outside to the barn to give Ryder and Quinn a piece of his mind. She stayed hot on his heels the entire way and stood directly behind him, arms folded, while Taylor reprimanded them.

"Maybe it wasn't the best place to have a chat with the Indian, but no harm was done," Ryder argued. "Get off our backs, Taylor."

"I'll get off your back when both of you stop causing trouble and leave the townsfolks to themselves. And I want you to keep that damn Warfield away from Sydney. He's not to come anywhere near her!”

Ryder stiffened. "I guess Drake's right when he said that you're trying to act like God and run everybody's life. Well, you're not running mine, that's for damn sure. Or Sydney's, either. If she wants Drake to court her, I'm all for it. She ain't got much else to pick from around here."

For a moment Sydney worried the two might break out into a fist fight. Taylor looked ready to throw the first punch and Ryder was obviously furious enough to retaliate. She suddenly felt a twinge of guilt for tattling on them.

"Ryder,” she said as she stepped forward. "I don't want to court Drake. I know he's your friend, but he scares me and I want him to leave me alone."

Quinn hung his head. "It's my fault for egging Drake on. I said some things that made him think..."

Taylor suddenly turned away from them, headed for the stalls and threw a saddle on his horse.

Sydney rushed over to him. "Where are you going?" When he didn't answer her, she touched his sleeve. "Taylor?"

"I'm going to warn Drake to stay as far away from you as possible. You're not going to the dance, Sydney, that's for damn sure, and if he ever comes within a mile of you or Nokomis again, I'll kill him."

Sydney couldn't believe her ears. She had never heard Taylor talk so ruthlessly.  But he ignored her pleas not to go and raced away on his horse. "Ryder! You've got to go with him, please!" she cried.

He glanced down the road then tapped Quinn on the shoulder and the two of them rode off.