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A Time Warner Company
ALMOST EDEN. Copyright © 1995 by Dorothy Garlock. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without permission in writing from the publisher, except by a reviewer who may quote brief passages in a review.
For information address Warner Books, Hachette Book Group, USA, 237 Park Avenue, New York, NY 10017.
A Time Warner Company
A mass market edition of this book was published in 1995 by Warner Books.
First eBook Edition: May 2001
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"I WANT WHAT YOU WANT,
LIGHT. I'M YORE MATE."
"It will be a long journey."
"I'm not afraid."
"We are not yet half-way to the mountains," Light said with a deep sigh.
"I don't care." Maggie fitted her small body tight to his. "I belong with you."
While his wife slept beside him, Light stared into the foggy night. The Missouri rolled on past them out of the distant land he longed to see.
He had heard the astounding stories of snow-peaked mountains, green meadows and sparkling streams from men who had returned with the Lewis and Clark expedition.
"I love you," he whispered to the woman cuddled against him. "We will go to our mountain together. If we should die on the way, it will be together."
"Her books are precious keepsakes."
"Once again Dorothy Garlock has taken pen to leather and engraved a special place for herself in 'western history.' "
ALSO BY DOROTHY GARLOCK
A GENTLE GIVING
RIVER OF TOMORROW
WILD SWEET WILDERNESS
WIND OF PROMISE
RIBBON IN THE SKY
SINS OF SUMMER
LOVE AND CHERISH
for Janet and Max Lillienstein
The legend begins—
Jason Picket was mesmerized. His mind scarcely registered what he was seeing, but he was alert enough to grasp the possibilities this chance encounter could mean to his miserable life.
He gripped the reins, staring, staring.
She stood beside the bole of a spreading elm tree, her small perfect body blending with the background of thick grapevines that clung to the massive trunk. A brown linsey skirt swirled around the calves of her bare legs. Her face, perfect as a cameo, was framed by gorgeous blue-black hair. Even from this distance he could see her clear green eyes and red mouth. A mystique that bordered on the supernatural surrounded her.
"My luck has finally turned," he murmured to himself.
If just looking at her stirred his jaded blood to the boiling point, what would she do to the bored young blades in New Orleans? Jason chuckled to think of how it would be with her on his arm. Every rich dandy within a hundred miles would be clamoring for his company. With his skill at cards he would clean their pockets.
Oh, God! Excitement made his heart knock against his ribcage and his sex swell in his tight britches until he thought he couldn't stand it. She would be worth a king's ransom in New Orleans.
After a night of tossing and turning, Jason Picket had made up his mind to leave his half-brother's homestead on the Missouri River west of St. Charles. He would leave his wife, Callie, and their two sons with Jefferson. Sucker that he was, Brother would see that they didn't starve.
Jason had felt like a fool when he had found out that Hartley Van Buren was an agent for Aaron Burr and had been using him to prevent his half-brother from taking the evidence of Burr's treachery to Thomas Jefferson. Plotting with General James Wilkinson, commander of the army and the governor of the Louisiana Territory, Burr had planned to take over the territory. But Hartley's scheme had gone awry and he was dead. Now there was nothing to keep Jason here in this godforsaken wilderness.
At first he had felt he had been dragged back into this backwoods for nothing. But he realized now that it had all been worthwhile. He had found a jewel! With a little polish this girl would make him a fortune in New Orleans. He had no intention of leaving this disgusting place without her. He'd had a glimpse of her once before and learned that her name was Maggie and that she was the daughter of a homesteader struggling to eke out a living on a patch of uncleared ground.
She was alone. His for the taking.
Jason yanked the reins so suddenly that the horse reared. Forced to gentle the animal, he had to take his eyes off the girl, and when he looked again, she was gone. He cursed under his breath and angrily jerked on the right rein to punish the animal. The horse went around and around in a circle. Maggie couldn't have gone far, he reasoned. She was probably watching him from behind a bush or tree. He smiled slyly at the thought and, deciding to try another tactic, dismounted. He walked around his frightened horse, patting him and talking softly to him, all the while scanning the edge of the woods.
Jason could picture her in a beautiful green gown with a voluminous skirt that emphasized her tiny waist. He would draw her hair up to the top of her head and tie it with a ribbon. With her ethereal beauty she would be worth anything he had to do to get her. His heart pounded like a hammer on an anvil. Exerting every ounce of self-control, he turned his head slowly and saw that, like a small, shy animal, she was moving toward him. Suddenly, she stopped and stood as still as a doe scenting danger. One hand rested on the rough bark of a tree.
"Hello, Maggie," he said softly. "I think you frightened my horse."
He glanced at her and then away, but the picture of her stayed in his mind.
The familiar sounds of the woods surrounded them. Wind stirred the leaves overhead. From far away a whippoorwill called, and, closer, jays scolded a blackbird who was poaching in their berry patch.
"Ya hurt yore horse. Why'd ya hurt him?"
He held his breath as she approached. Her movements were so fluid that she seemed to skim the ground. She had eyes only for the horse. She passed easily beneath the animal's head, reached up, put her hands on either side of its face, and pulled its head down so that she could whisper in its ear. The sounds she made were soft coos and low murmurs. The animal stood quietly, its ears twitching as if listening.
Close up, the girl's beauty had a more devastating effect on him than it had from a distance. He sighed, and at that instant she looked up at him, fixing her magnificent eyes on him. They held a faintly sulky expression. They were long eyes, genuinely emerald green in color, like flashing gems between her beautiful thick, dark lashes. They attracted and held his attention irresistibly, as did the pale warm glow of her skin and her soft red mouth that looked so innocent.
"Why'er ya lookin' at me that way?" she asked.
Jason had thought his scrutiny had lasted no more than a few seconds, but it must have been longer because she looked suspicious and resentful, like some tiny shy bird that would take wing and fly if he made a sudden move. He was careful not to do so.
"I like to look at you. You're very beautiful."
"I know." She shrugged.
"How old are you?" He offered his most charming smile.
"I'm not a youngun," she said quickly. The sulky expression dropped from her eyes and was replaced with one of haughtiness. "I've had my woman's time for this many years." She held up four fingers.
"Oh, I never for a moment thought you were a child," he answered gravely. "I knew you were a woman full-grown."
She moved around to the side of the horse, then behind it.
"Don't go behind the horse!" Alarm caused him to speak rather sharply.
Suddenly Jason realized that he had seen that smile before, on a painting in one of the great mansions in New Orleans. An artist had painted a portrait of a girl he said he had seen in a dream. The painting was considered a great work of art, and many people would have paid a high price for it; but the artist refused to sell. He had carried his picture all over the world searching for the girl. Many years passed; and it was said that when he failed to find her, he had killed himself.
This was the girl.
This beautiful, elusive creature of the woods was the girl in the painting. Good Lord! If he could only get her to New Orleans—
"Don't go behind the horse!" he warned again.
"He won't hurt me. See?" Maggie swung gently on the horse's tail, patted his rump and the hind legs that could lash out with such murderous force. The animal remained perfectly still.
Dear God! She was not like anything he'd ever seen before. If she beckoned, a man would cross half the world to get to her. She whirled around suddenly. The full skirt of her dress flared out to reveal perfect ankles and calves and tiny feet encased in low, beaded moccasins. Jason had never seen a woman who could compare with her, had never known anything like the tide of feeling that swept over him when she looked at him and smiled. Whatever he had to give, whatever he had to do, he had to have her.
"Do you have a horse?"
"Do you want one?"
"No. I like t' run."
"Do you dance, Maggie?" he asked casually when she whirled again.
"Will you dance for me?"
"I'll give you something pretty."
"I don't dance for pay," she answered disdainfully.
"I meant no offense." He cursed himself for a fool when he saw that he had offended her. "I just meant that you are so very beautiful that you should have beautiful things."
"I'm beautiful, but I don't want anythin'." She spoke completely without vanity.
"Where did you live before you came to Missouri?" Jason was desperate to keep her talking.
"Have you been to a town bigger than St. Louis?"
"I don't like towns. Folks are hateful." Her mouth turned unhappy and sullen.
Jason laughed. "Not to you. I don't see how anyone could be hateful to you."
"Womenfolk hate me. In Kaintuck they called me a witch and were goin' to burn me. Pa brought us here."
Jason laughed again. "Are you a witch?"
"I don't know." She lifted her shoulders in a shrug. Not a trace of a smile touched her mouth. "When I looked at the men, they'd leave their women and come to me." She tilted her head defiantly. "I did it sometimes 'cause they'd been mean to me and Ma and Pa."
Jason felt a tightness in his chest and a throbbing ache in the pit of his belly. He had never practiced abstinence, and it had been a while since he'd had a woman. Although he had pleasured himself with women of every color and creed, none of them had ever set his blood afire like this little backwoods nymph.
"How would you like to see New Orleans and wear fine silk dresses and have men bow at your feet and bring you jewels?"
"Why . . . because they admire your beauty." Jason showed her a ring he had taken from Hartley's pack just before he left the homestead. "This is a fine gem. Very expensive. See how it sparkles?" He held it so that shards of light gleamed from the stone. "Would you like to have it?"
"I don't like it."
"It's worth a lot of money."
"I don't need money."
"But it's beautiful. The color matches your eyes. It would make you even more beautiful if we put it on a ribbon and tied it about your neck."
"I don't want t' be more beautiful."
Jason's patience snapped. His hand lashed out and grasped her arm.
"Then what the hell do you want?" he growled angrily.
She struggled and hit at him with her free hand, but her strength was nothing compared to his. He held her easily and drew her to him.
"I didn't want to do this, but I will if it's the only way." He was breathing hard, not from the exertion of holding her, but from the lust within him that tore at his loins like cruel, sharp spurs.
Like a small spitting cat, she hissed and clawed and used every ounce of her strength to pull away from his grasp. She tried to bite him; and when she failed at that, she butted him with her head. Her struggles only made him the more determined to have her. Pursing her lips, she let out a long shrill whistle before his mouth clamped down upon hers. Holding her wrists behind her with one hand, he pried her jaws apart with the thumb and forefinger of his other hand. His tongue lapped the sweetness of her mouth. White hot flames licked at his groin.
When he paused for breath, she whistled again. Jason scarcely noticed that, nor did he observe the fact that their tussle had frightened the horse into shying away. With a grunt he threw her to the ground and fell on top of her. Her struggles were beginning to irritate him and he slapped her. Almost instantly he was sorry, but it was too late to recall the blow. She would never be his now, except by force. By God, if that was the only way he could have her, that's the way it would be!
He yanked her skirt up and saw that she wore nothing beneath it. Dark curls nestled between her thighs, and he buried his hand there while she writhed under him. She whistled again. He withdrew his hand and slapped her again, hard. It rocked her head but she didn't cry out.
"Stop that!" he snarled, and jerked at the fastenings on his britches. His fingers fumbled in their frenzied haste to release the part of him that was swollen and rigid and ached so desperately.
Small mewing and gasping sounds came from her as she fought to free herself from his pressing weight.
"God, but you're beautiful! Even fighting mad, you're beautiful. Will I be going where no other man has ever been?" His happy jubilant laugh rang out.
He shifted his body to lie full-length on hers, pressing his sex against her wriggling body. She whistled once more, but the sound was lost as he clamped his mouth to hers and ground his lips against her clenched teeth. He lifted his head just enough so that he could see her face.
"You wild little . . . slut! I'm going to ram this up into your belly!" He flexed his hips and pushed the hard length of his arousal against her. "I can't wait to feel that inside you!" He pried her legs apart with his knees and lowered himself onto her, breathless with anticipation. He grasped his elongated sex in his hand, desperately seeking admittance into her small, writhing body.
Jason felt something hit his back.
Seconds passed before he felt pain. Then strength suddenly left his arms and he toppled over onto his side, unaware when the girl slipped out from beneath him. Something warm and wet gushed from his mouth. His fingers turned into claws, reaching out . . . seeking. A foot against his chest pushed him over. He felt an icy chill start in his legs and then cover his body. He was cold . . . cold.
"Help . . . me—" Jason looked up into a fierce, dark face; the eyes were wild, the lips drew back in a vicious snarl.
The devil! The devil had come for him!
This was Jason Picket's last thought before a knife slashed a bloody path across his throat.
Baptiste Lightbody looked down on the mutilated body of the man he had just killed. Jason Picket's trousers were open and his male parts lay exposed to the sun. Such fury consumed Light that he could hardly restrain himself from slicing them from the body. Instead, he spit on them.
"Dog!" He spat again, this time on the still, lifeless face. He wiped his knife and returned it to his belt, then rolled the body over with his foot and held it there while he pulled the thin steel from between the shoulder blades. Then he rolled Jason Picket back over and left his face and privates uncovered as if to add more insult.
Light turned from the dead man and opened his arms. Maggie flew into them. Not a whimper had escaped her lips, nor was there a tear in her eye. Her arms encircled his neck and he lifted her off her feet, burying his face in the soft curve of her neck. She could feel the trembling in his body and sensed his desperation by the way he strained her to him.
"I'm a'right," she crooned in his ear. "I knew ya'd come. I waited for ya."
"Mon Dieu, my little pet!" He set her on her feet and brushed the tangled hair back from her face. His fingers gently touched her bruised, swollen flesh. He cursed in French. "Did he violate you, my pretty one?" His dark eyes examined her anxiously. Her eyes questioned him. "Did he go inside you?" he asked gently.
Maggie shook her head vigorously, and he clasped her to him again and held her for a long, quiet moment.
"Oui, chérie. You are very much a woman, ma petite." His voice quivered with tender emotion. She stood quietly while his hands moved over her, brushing the dirt and leaves from her skirt and hair. He put his hands on her shoulders and held her away from him so he could examine her face. Anger gleamed in his dark eyes.
"I would kill him again and again."
She lifted a hand and her fingers traced the frown that drew his brows together and softly stroked the hair over his ears.
"I'm a'right now, Light." Her crooning voice had a soothing effect on his anger.
"How did you know that I was coming this way?"
She smiled, but only one side of her swollen mouth moved. She lifted her shoulders in a shrug.
"I called t' ya, Light. I knew ya'd come."
"You were waiting for me to come to you," he repeated softly and tenderly kissed the injured side of her soft, red mouth. "It is enough to know for now. Mon Dieu, my sweet pet! I must guard you well, my jewel. You have become most precious to me!" He cupped her face between his palms and kissed her again and again, finding the broken flesh and licking it with his tongue.
"Does it make ya happy t' be with me, Light?"
"Very happy, my pretty one."
She laughed a soft, trilling, happy sound that echoed like music in his ears. Her arms tightened around him, hugging him. At that moment a great swell of joy washed the torment from his soul. When he held her away from him so that he could look down into her face, it was with gentle firmness.
"Do not be so foolish again, my sprite," he scolded gently. "When you are alone, you must not get so near a man that he can pounce on you."
"He hurt the horse, Light."
Her palm was against his face. He turned his lips into it. She smiled, holding his eyes with hers until his dark features relaxed. She loved this quiet man who moved so silently through the forest, constantly vigilant. Though his copper skin and straight black hair that grew well-back from his forehead revealed his Indian heritage, his endearments were often French words, his accent ever-present.
"Come, my sweet pet," he said softly. "We must go from this place. I have first the painful duty of telling my friend that I have killed his half-brother. Then we must go tell your papa that I'm taking you with me to my mountain."
"Yore mountain? Where's it at, Light?"
"To the west, chérie. I've seen it in my dreams—a shining mountain where the trees grow tall, and clear rippling streams sparkle in the sunlight. At night the stars are so close you can almost reach out and touch them. It's a virgin land of peace and quiet, unsullied by man. I want to go to my mountain, build a stout cabin and live out my life there."
"Ya'll take me with ya, Light? I want t' go where I can sing an' dance and folks won't think me strange. I want t' go where no man can find me but you, Light." Maggie stood on her toes and kissed his cheek.
Light looked down at her for a long while. He had been irresistibly drawn to the fey girl since first he had seen her traveling with her family on the Missouri River. Light had grown accustomed to a solitary life. He had fought against loving another woman, but the little woods sprite had crept into his heart. When he gazed into her eyes, it seemed to him that she was looking into his soul and he into hers. It was unthinkable to him that a man, any man, should capture her and break her spirit. He must protect her forever.
"You are my woman, ma petite," he said, and the words were a pledge. "Come. We first go to Jefferson, then to your papa."
"Isn't that Light coming in on Jason's horse?" Jefferson asked and moved out away from the house.
Jefferson's friend, Will Murdock, narrowed his eyes and watched the riders approach. Light rode Jason's horse and Maggie sat astride the spotted mare that Light favored. Will observed Jefferson's set face and felt a premonition of trouble.
Light rode up within a few feet of them. He tossed the reins to Will, slid down, and reached up to lift Maggie from his mare. He turned and looked Jefferson in the eye.
"I have killed your half-brother."
Both men stared at him with astonishment. Light stood with his feet spread, his body rigid. His piercing black eyes held Jefferson's. Maggie stood close to him, both hands clasped around his upper arm, looking up into his face.
Jefferson looked steadily at the expressionless, dark face of the man who had been more like a brother to him than his own kin. It took a while for the import of the words to hit Jefferson.
Jason was dead!
Light had killed him!
"I know you, Light," Jefferson said slowly. "You wouldn't have killed him without a powerful reason."
"I killed him while he lay on top of my woman. I did not know who he was when I threw the knife. Had I known, I would still have thrown it." A rush of fury reddened Light's face. "But I knew who he was when I cut his throat," he said quietly, despite the anger that washed back over him.
"He was forcing himself on . . . Maggie?" Jefferson's gaze went to the girl. She turned her face to him. It was swollen and bruised, her lip cut and bleeding still. He knew what Light said was true without seeing any further evidence. Light did not lie!
"I was on my way here when I heard her whistle. He was forcing his way into her." Light's voice shook with rage.
Maggie took his hand and rubbed his arm soothingly. He looked down at her, his face softening. He placed his hand behind her head and drew her to him.
"I'm sorry," Jefferson said slowly. "I didn't know that side of Jason."
"He lies yonder, on the trail to St. Charles. I would not soil my hands to bring him to you."
"I understand." After a silent moment, Jefferson heaved a big sigh. "I'll go tell his wife. Then we'll go get him."
"I'll hitch up the wagon." Will walked away, leading Jason's horse.
"I will tell the madame," Light said.
"No, my friend. I'll do it. Jason has not been a good husband and father. Callie is a free woman now." Jefferson laid his hand on Light's shoulder. "Will and I feel that now that Hartley is dead the investigation of Burr is over. Tom Jefferson left a purse with me to pass on to you when we completed our mission. What are your plans, Light?"
"I'm going west and I'm taking Maggie."
"It will be a dangerous journey."
"Oui." Light sprang onto the back of his horse and pulled Maggie up behind him.
"Will we see you before you go?"
"Oui," Light said again, and rode away.
* * *
- On Sale
- Apr 12, 2001
- Page Count
- 336 pages