Sunset Embrace

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By Sandra Brown

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In this steamy post-Civil War saga, the most stubborn woman headed for Texas meets her match in a mystery man with a dark past . . . and together, they must take down a common enemy.No woman on the wagon train trek to Texas was more alluring than Lydia Langston. No man was more rugged than Ross Coleman . . . and both were running from the past. Lydia once vowed that no man would ever take away her pride, while Ross Coleman has stayed true to his wife, who died giving birth to their son. But despite their challenges, Lydia and Ross now find themselves together, fighting the same enemy and the same dangerous emotions building inside them . . . and unable to stop the events that will eventually pit a man’s deadly vengeance against the strength of a woman’s love.

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Chapter One

Why has God made it so painful to die? the young woman wondered.

She gripped her distended abdomen as another pain tore through her lower body and shimmied down her thighs. When it was over, she panted laboriously, like a wounded animal, trying to garner strength for the next assault, which she knew would seize her within minutes. Undoubtedly it would come, because she didn't think she would be allowed to die before the baby was born.

She shivered convulsively. The rain was cold, each drop a tiny needle that pricked her skin, and it had soaked through the tattered dress and the few undergarments she had managed to hold together with clumsy knots. The rags clung to her like a damp shroud, a cloying weight that anchored her to the marshy ground as securely as did the relentless pain. She was chilled to the bone, but perspiration had clammily glazed her skin after endless hours of painful labor.

When had it begun? Last night just after sunset. Through the night, the ache in the lower part of her back had intensified until it crawled farther around her middle to twist her womb between angry fists. Cloud-obscured skies made it difficult to determine the time of day, but she guessed it to be midmorning by now.

She concentrated on the leafy pattern of the tree limbs against the gray sky overhead as the next contraction wrung her insides. The rainy clouds scuttled by, heedless of the woman barely twenty years old lying alone in the Tennessee wilderness, giving birth to a being she didn't want to think of as a baby, even as human.

She turned her cheek sideways into her bed of sodden, rotted leaves, remnants of last fall, and let her tears mingle with the rain. Her baby had been conceived out of shame and humiliation and deserved no happier occasion than this to be born.

"Sweet Jesus, let me die now," she prayed as she felt another abdominal upheaval rolling through her. Like the summer thunder, it rumbled inside her, gaining impetus before crashing against the walls of her body, just as the thunder seemed to collide with the mountainsides. The pain echoed through her as the thunderclap reverberated through the foothills.

Last evening she had tried to ignore the pains and had kept walking. When water had gushed between her thighs, she had been forced to lie down. She hadn't wanted to stop. Each day meant another few miles' distance between her and the body that surely had been discovered by now. She hoped it would decay and never be found, but really didn't expect such a piece of luck.

This merciless pain she was suffering now was no doubt God's punishment for being glad to see one of His creatures die. That, and her wanting no part of the life she had carried in her womb for nine months. Despite the sinfulness of it, she prayed that she would never see the life struggling so hard to be expelled from her body. She prayed that she would die first.

The next seizure was the most vicious of all and brought her to a half-sitting position. Last night, when her bloomers had been ruined by the pinkish flood, she had taken them off and cast them aside. Now she picked the garment up and mopped her rain- and sweat-soaked face with it. She trembled uncontrollably, as much out of fear as pain. She had felt herself tearing with that last rebellion of her body. Gathering the frayed hem of her dress and the cobwebby remains of her petticoat up over her raised knees, she tentatively lowered her hand between her legs and touched the spot.

"Ohhh…" she whimpered, and began to weep. She was open, stretched wide. Her fingertips had touched the babe's head. Her hand came away covered with blood and slime. Her mouth opened with terror, but the sound that issued out was a piercing wail of agony as her body strained and squeezed, trying to eliminate the being that had become foreign matter after being snugly harbored for nine months.

She levered herself up on her elbows, spread her thighs wide, and bore down with the pressure. Blood pounded against her eardrums and behind eyes that were squeezed shut. Her jaws ached from clenching them; her lips were peeled back into a gruesome mask. During a brief respite, she huffed precious air in and out of her lungs. Then the pain came again. And again.

She screamed, expending the last of her energy on one final thrust, funneling all her body's weight to that one narrow place that rent in two.

And then she was free of it.

She fell back exhausted, gulping air and grateful now for the raindrops that coolly bathed her face. There was no sound in the thick forest save for the bellowslike heaving of her lungs and the rain dripping heavily. The absence of sound was eerie, startling, strange. There had been no bursting cry of life from the baby she had just birthed, no movement.

Disregarding her earlier prayer, she struggled to sit up again and moved her long skirt aside. Animal sounds of grief and misery tripped over her bruised lips when she saw the infant, little more than a ball of bluish flesh, lying dead between her thighs without ever having known life. The cord that had nourished it had been its instrument of death. The ropy tissue was wound tightly around the baby's throat. Its face was pinched. It had taken a suicidal plunge into the world. The girl wondered if it had chosen to die, instinctively knowing that it would be despised even by its mother, preferring death to a life of degradation.

"At least, little one, you didn't have to suffer life," she whispered.

She fell back onto the spongy ground and stared sightlessly at the weeping sky, knowing that she was fevered and probably delirious, and that thoughts about babies killing themselves in the womb were crazy. But it made her feel better to think that her baby hadn't wanted to live any more than she had wanted it to, that it had wanted to die just as she did now.

She should pray for forgiveness at being glad for her own infant's death, but she was too tired. Surely God would understand. It had been He, after all, who had afflicted her with such pain. Didn't she deserve to rest now?

Her eyes closed against the rain that poured over her face like a healing balm. She couldn't remember a time when she had known this kind of peace. She welcomed it.

Now she could die.

* * *

"You reckon she's dead?" the young voice croaked hoarsely.

"I don't know," a slightly older voice whispered back. "Poke her and see."

"I ain't a'gonna poke her. You poke her."

The tall, rangy boy knelt on bony knees next to the prone, still figure. Carefully, as he had been taught by his pa, he propped his rifle, barrel up, against the tree trunk. His hands twitched nervously as he stretched them toward the girl.

"You're scared, ain'tcha?" the younger boy challenged.

"No, I ain't scared," the older hissed back. Having to prove it, he extended his index finger and placed it next to the girl's upper lip, not quite touching her. "She's breathing," he said in relief. "She ain't dead."

"What do you reckon… godamighty, Bubba, there's blood a'coming from under her dress."

Reflexively Bubba jumped back. His brother Luke was right. A trickle of blood was forming a crimson pool beneath the hem of her dress, which barely covered her knees. She wasn't wearing stockings and the leather of her shoes was cracked and peeling. The laces had been knotted together after numerous breaks.

"You figure she's been gunshot or something? Maybe we ought to look—"

"I know, I know," Bubba said impatiently. "Keep your damn trap shut."

"I'm gonna tell Ma you're cussin' if—"

"Shut up!" Bubba whirled around to stare down his younger brother. "I'll tell her you peed in old lady Watkins' wash water after she got on to you 'bout makin' too much noise around the camp." Luke was properly cowed, and Bubba turned back to the girl. Gingerly, and disbelieving he had actually wanted to go hunting that morning, he lifted the hem of her ratty brown dress. "Hellfire," he shrieked, dropping the skirt and jumping to his feet. Unfortunately, the soiled cloth didn't fall back to cover the lifeless form lying between the girl's slender thighs. Both boys stared in horror at the dead infant. Luke made a strange sound in his throat.

"You gonna puke?" Bubba asked.

"No." Luke swallowed hard. "I don't think," he said with less assurance.

"Go get Ma. Pa, too. He'll have to carry her back to the wagon. Can you find your way back?"

"'Course," Luke said scornfully.

"Then get goin'. She could still die, ya know."

Luke cocked his head to one side and studied the young woman's pale face. "She's right fetchin' to look at. You gonna touch her any more while I'm gone?"

"Get goin'!" Bubba yelled, facing his brother with a threatening stance.

Luke thrashed his way noisily through the trees until he could safely call back a taunt. "I'll know if you look at somethin' you ain't supposed to. And I'll tell Ma."

Bubba Langston picked up a pinecone and hurled it at his brother, younger by two years. It fell short of its mark and Luke scampered away. When he was out of sight, Bubba knelt down beside the girl. He gnawed his lower lip before looking at the dead baby once again. Then, using only the tips of his index finger and thumb, he lifted the hem of her skirt and moved it to cover up the baby.

Sweat beaded his forehead, but he felt better when he couldn't see the baby anymore. "Lady," he whispered softly. "Hey, lady, can you hear me?" Fearfully he nudged her shoulder. She moaned and tossed her head to one side, then back again.

He had never seen such a head of hair on a person before. Even littered with twigs and leaves and damp with rain it was right pretty, curly and sort of wild looking. The color wasn't like any he had ever seen before either. Not quite red and not quite brown, but somewhere in between.

He took off the canteen suspended around his neck by a leather thong and uncapped it. "Lady, you want a drink?" Bravely, he pressed the metal spout to her flaccid lips and poured a small amount over them. Her tongue came out to lick up the moisture.

Bubba watched, fascinated, as her eyes fluttered open to gaze up at him vaguely. The girl saw a wide-eyed boy of about sixteen bending anxiously over her. His shock of hair was so light it was almost white. Was he an angel? Was she in heaven? If so, it was disappointingly like earth. The same sky, the same trees, the rain-laden forest. The same pain between her thighs. She wasn't dead yet! No, no, boy, go away. I want to die. She closed her eyes again and knew no more.

Afraid for the young woman's life, and feeling helpless, Bubba sank to the damp ground under the tree. His eyes never left her face until he heard the commotion of Ma and Pa pushing through the dense undergrowth in the full, lush bloom of early summer.

"What's all this Luke was blabbing about a girl, son?" Zeke Langston asked his eldest child.

"See, I told you, Ma, Pa," Luke said excitedly, pointing a finger. "There she be."

"Get out of my way, all of you, and let me see to this poor girl." Ma impatiently shoved the men aside and squatted down heavily beside the girl. First she brushed aside the damp hair clinging to the wan cheeks. "Right comely, ain't she? Wonder what in tarnation she's doing out here all alone."

"There's a babe, Ma."

Ma Langston looked up at Bubba, then at her husband, jerking her head in a silent signal that he distract the boys. When their backs were turned, Ma raised the dress to the girl's lap. She had seen worse, but this sight was grim enough. "Lord have mercy," she muttered. "Zeke, give me a hand here. You boys run on back to the wagon and tell Anabeth to fix a pallet up proper. Get a good fire goin' and put a kettle to boilin'."

Disappointed that they were going to miss the most interesting part of the adventure, they objected in unison. "But Ma—"

"Git, I said." Rather than incur their mother's wrath, which both had felt at the other end of a strop, they shuffled off toward the wagon train that was taking Sunday off to rest.

"She's in a bad way, ain't she?" Zeke asked, crouching down beside his wife.

"Yep. First thing is to get the afterbirth out. She may die of the poison anyway."

Silently they worked over the unconscious girl. "What should I do with this, Ma?" Zeke asked. He had wrapped nature's debris along with the dead infant in a knapsack and had bundled it tightly.

"Bury it. I doubt she'll be in any condition to visit a grave for several days. Mark the spot in case she wants to come back to see it."

"I'll put a boulder over it so the animals won't get to it," Zeke said solemnly and began to scoop out a shallow grave with the small spade he had brought with him. "How's the girl?" he asked when he was done, wiping his hands on a bandanna handkerchief.

"Still bleeding, but I've got her packed tight. We've done all we can do here. Can you carry her?"

"If you can help hoist her up."

The girl came to life and protested, flailing her arms weakly when Zeke hooked her under the knees and behind her back and lifted her to his thin chest. Then the slender limbs fell away and she went lifeless again. Her throat arched as her head fell back over his arm.

"Ain't her hair funny lookin', though," Zeke commented, not unkindly.

"Can't say I ever seen any that color before," Ma replied absently as she picked up the things they had brought with them. "We'd best hurry. It's startin' to rain again."

* * *

The place between her thighs burned. Her throat was scratchy and sore. She felt hot and achy all over. Yet there was a pervading sense of comfort surrounding her. She was dry and warm. Had she made it to heaven after all? Had the towheaded boy left her alone to die? Was that why she felt so safe and peaceful? But in heaven one wasn't supposed to know pain, and she was hurting.

She pried her eyes open. A white canvas ceiling curved above her. A lantern was burning low on a box near the pallet on which she was lying. She stretched her legs as much as the aching between them would allow, acquainting herself with the soft bed. Her feet and legs were naked, but she had been dressed in a white nightgown. Her hands moved restlessly over her body and she wondered why she felt so strange. Then she realized that her stomach was flat.

It all came back to her then in a wave of terrible memories. The fear, the pain, the horror of seeing the dead infant lying blue and cold between her legs. Tears pooled in her eyes.

"There, there, you ain't gonna start that cryin' again, are you? You been cryin' off and on in your sleep for hours."

The fingers that whisked the tears from her cheek were large, work-rough, and red in the soft glow of the lamp, but they felt good on her face. So did the voice that fell, full of gentle concern, on her ears. "Here, you ready for some of this broth? Made it from one of the rabbits the boys got this mornin' before they found you." The woman foisted a spoonful on the girl, who swallowed the rich liquid to keep from choking and discovered that it tasted good. She was hungry.

"Where am I?" she asked between swallows of the soup.

"In our wagon. Name's Ma Langston. Them was my boys that found you. You recollect any of that? You scared them half to death." She chuckled. "Luke's been tellin' the story all up and down the train. Did I mention we're with a wagon train of folks headin' to Texas?"

That was too much information to sort through at one time, so the girl concentrated on swallowing the broth. It was filling her stomach up warmly, enhancing the feeling of comfort and security. For weeks she had been fleeing, so fearful of pursuit that, except for a brief few days, she hadn't taken shelter, but had slept out in the open, eating what summer harvests she could gather in the woods.

The rawboned face that looked down at her was both stern and kind. Few would lose an argument to it, but few would know unkindness from it either. Sparse, mousy grayed brown hair was pulled back into a scraggly bun on the nape of her neck. She was a large woman with an enormous bosom that sagged to her thick waist. She was dressed in clean but faded calico. Her skin was etched with a tracery of fine lines, but, conversely, her cheeks were girlishly rosy. It was as though some benevolent god had viewed his handiwork, found it too harsh, and painted on those pink cheeks to soften the rough edges.

"Had enough?" The girl nodded. The woman set aside the tin bowl of broth. "I'd like to know your name," she said, her voice softening perceptibly, as though she sensed the forthcoming topic might not be welcomed.

"Lydia."

Jagged eyebrows arched in silent query. "That's right pretty all by itself, but don't it have nothin' to go with it? Who are your people?"

Lydia turned her head away. She envisioned her mother's face as she first remembered her from earliest childhood; beautiful and young, not the pale, vacuous face of a woman dying of despair. "Only Lydia," she said quietly. "I have no family."

Ma digested that. She took the girl's hand and shook it slightly. When the light brown eyes came back to her, she argued softly, "You birthed a babe, Lydia. Where's your man?"

"Dead."

"Ach! Ain't that a pity now."

"No. I'm glad he's dead."

Ma was perplexed but too polite and fearful for the girl's physical condition to pry further. "What were you doin' out there in the woods alone? Where were you headed?"

Lydia's narrow shoulders lifted in a negligent shrug. "Nowhere. Anywhere. I wanted to die."

"Hogwash! I ain't gonna let you die. You're too pretty to die." Ma roughly straightened the blanket over the frail body to cover the sudden emotion she felt for this strange girl.

She elicited Ma's pity. Tragedy was stamped all over the face that shone pale and haunted in the lantern light. "We, Pa and me, buried your baby boy in the woods." Lydia's eyes closed. A boy. She hadn't even noticed with that one glimpse of her child. "If you like, we can fall behind the train a few days and you can go see the grave when you feel up to it."

Furiously Lydia shook her head. "No. I don't want to see it." Tears escaped from under her eyelids.

Ma patted her hand. "I know what you're sufferin', Lydia. I've got seven young'uns, but I've buried two. It's the hardest thing a woman has to do."

No, it isn't, Lydia thought to herself. There are far worse things a woman has to do.

"You sleep some more now. I 'spect you've caught a chill lyin' out there in the woods thataway. I'll stay with you."

Lydia looked up into the compassionate face. It wasn't in her yet to smile, but her eyes softened in appreciation. "Thank you."

"You'll have plenty of time to thank me once you get well."

"I can't stay with you. I have to… go."

"You ain't gonna feel like goin' nowhere for a spell yet. You can stay with us as long as you can put up with us. All the way to Texas if you like."

Lydia wanted to argue. She wasn't fit to live with decent folks like this. If they knew about her, about… Her eyes dropped closed in sleep.

* * *

His hands were on her again, all over her. She opened her mouth to scream and his palm, salty and gritty, clamped over it. His other hand clawed at the neck of her chemise until it ripped open. Her breasts were squeezed by his hateful, clammy hand that derived pleasure from inflicting pain. She sank her teeth into the meat of his palm and was punished by a slap that left her ears ringing and her jaw throbbing.

"Don't you fight me, or I'll tell your prissy mama about us. You don't want her to know what we've been doin', now do you? I think that'd prob'ly send her right over the edge. I think she'd die if she knew I was breedin' you, don't you reckon?"

No, Lydia didn't want her mama to know. But how could she bear to let him do that to her again? Already he was grinding his hips against her thighs, forcing them to open. His fingers were poking at her painfully, probing abusively, hurtfully. And that loathsome appendage was driving into her flesh again. When she raked his face with her nails, he laughed and tried to kiss her. "I can take it rough if you can," he jeered.

She fought him. "No, no," she sobbed. "Take it out. No, no, no…"

"What is it, Lydia? Wake up. It's only a bad dream."

The soothing voice reached into the pit of hell where her nightmare had flung her and lifted her out. She was returned to the soft comfort of the Langstons' wagon.

It wasn't Clancey's rape that was hurting her, but the pain that had resulted from the birth of his baby. Oh, God, how could she go on living with the memory of Clancey's sexual abuse? She had had a baby by his foul seed and wasn't fit to live in the world any longer.

Ma Langston didn't think that way. As the girl gripped the sleeves of Ma's worn dress in fear of her nightmare, the older woman cradled Lydia's head against her deep bosom, murmuring soothing words. "It was only a dream. You have a touch of fever and that's given you nightmares, but nothin's gonna hurt you as long as you're here with me."

Lydia's terror subsided. Clancey was dead. She had seen him lying dead, blood pumping from his head to cover his ugly face. He couldn't touch her anymore.

Gratefully she let her head drop heavily on Ma's breast. When she was almost asleep, Ma laid her back on the lumpy pillow that felt like featherdown to Lydia. She had made her bed out of pine needles or hay during the past couple of months. Some nights she hadn't been that lucky, but had slept as well as she could propped against a tree trunk.

A sweet, black oblivion seduced her into its depths again as Ma continued to hold her hand.

* * *

Lydia awakened the next morning to the swaying of the prairie schooner. Cooking pots rattled with each rhythmic rotation of the wheels. Leather harnesses squeaked, their metal fasteners jingling merrily. Ma was calling instructions to the team of horses. She punctuated each direction with a crack of a whip. In nearly the same tone she kept up a lively dialogue with one of her offspring. Her chatter was both advisory and admonishing.

Lydia shifted uncomfortably on her bed and turned her head slightly. A white-haired girl with wide, curious blue eyes was sitting within touching distance, staring down at her.

"Ma, she's awake," she shouted. Lydia jumped at the sudden noise.

"Do as I told you," Ma called back into the wagon. "We can't stop now."

The girl looked back at the startled Lydia. "I'm Anabeth."

"I'm Lydia," she said scratchily. The back of her throat felt like a whetstone.

"I know. Ma told us that at breakfast and said not to call you 'the girl' anymore or she'd pop our jaws. Are you hungry?"

Lydia weighed her answer. "No. Thirsty."

"Ma said you'd be thirsty on account of the fever. I got a canteen of water and one of tea."

"Water first." Lydia drank deeply. She was amazed at how much energy it cost her and lay back weakly. "Maybe some tea later."

Life and all its functions were taken for granted by the Langstons. She was embarrassed when Anabeth slid a washbasin under her hips so she could relieve herself, but the girl was kind and matter-of-fact and seemed not the least bit bothered by having to empty it out the back of the wagon.

During the noon break, when the train halted for both man and beast to rest, Ma climbed into the wagon to change the pad of cloth she had secured between Lydia's thighs.

"The bleeding's not so bad. Your woman parts look like they're healin' fine, though you'll be sore for a few more days."

There was nothing crude about Ma's frankness, but it still embarrassed Lydia to have herself peered at that way. She was glad some sensibilities had remained intact considering where she had been living for the past ten years. Her mother must have ingrained some refinement in her before they had moved to the Russell farm. She knew most folks looked upon her as white trash by association. Nasty taunts had been flung in their direction whenever they went in to town, which mercifully wasn't often. Lydia hadn't understood all the words, but she learned to recognize and dread the insulting tone.

Time and again she had been embarrassed and had wanted to scream out that she and her mama weren't like the Russells. They were different. But who would have believed a dirty, ragged, barefoot girl? She had looked just as disreputable as the Russells, so she had been ridiculed too.

But apparently some people weren't so hasty to judge. The Langstons weren't. They hadn't minded her dirty, tattered clothes. They hadn't scorned her for having a baby without a husband. They had treated her like a respectable person.

She didn't feel respectable, but more than anything in the world, that's what she wanted to be. It might take years to shed the taint the Russells had smeared on her, but if she died trying, she would get rid of it.

During the day she met the Langston clan one by one. The two boys who had found her shyly ducked their heads into the wagon at their mother's introduction. "That there's my eldest, Jacob; but everybody calls him Bubba. The other one is Luke." "Thank you for helping me," Lydia said softly. No longer did she resent them for saving her life. Things didn't seem so dismal now that she was rid of her last reminder of Clancey.

The towheaded boys blushed to the roots of their pale hair and muttered, "You're welcome."

Anabeth was a gregarious and energetic twelve-year-old. There was also Marynell, Samuel, and Atlanta, with barely a year between them. The baby, Micah, was a strapping three-year-old.

Zeke, whipping the hat off his balding head, spoke to her late that evening from the end of the wagon. "Glad to have you here, Miss… uh… Lydia." He smiled and Lydia noted that he had only two teeth in the front of his mouth.

"I'm sorry to put you to so much trouble."

"No trouble," he said dismissively.

"I'll get out of your way as soon as possible." She had no idea where she would go or what she would do, but she couldn't impose on this generous family who had so many mouths to feed already.

"Naw, now, you stop worryin' 'bout that. Git yourself fit and then we'll work somethin' out."

All the Langstons seemed to reflect that attitude. But Lydia wondered about the other members of the train. Surely there had been speculation on the girl who had been brought in after birthing a stillborn baby in the wilderness with no husband around. Ma had refused to admit even the kindest visitors who came to inquire about "the poor unfortunate girl," saying only that it looked like she was going to pull through and that they would be meeting her soon enough.

Lydia's first encounter with anyone on the wagon train other than a Langston came from a loud knocking on the slats of the wagon in the middle of the night. She sat bolt upright, clutching the sheet to her breasts, certain Clancey had risen from the dead and come after her.

Genre:

On Sale
Mar 25, 2014
Page Count
656 pages
ISBN-13
9781455581450

Sandra Brown

About the Author

Sandra Brown is the author of sixty-nine New York Times bestsellers, including the #1 Seeing Red. There are over eighty million copies of her books in print worldwide, and her work has been translated into thirty-four languages. She lives in Texas.

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