Chapter One: Brookstone’s Last Supper
The lit wood in the fireplace crackled pleasantly. Next to it, Emma Brookstone sat on a walnut chair with soft cushioning and propped her feet on a matching ottoman. She flipped through the pages of a dime novel and sipped black tea, flavored with one cream, two sugars, and a drop of honey.
The door to the sitting room sliced open, and the cheerful, flushed face of the Brookstones’ cook appeared. “Go and fetch your father, would you, dear? He’s likely forgotten the time, and supper’s just about ready.”
“Oh, good. I’m feeling peckish,” Emma replied with a smile, setting her book aside. “He’s probably still at his desk.” As she walked to her father’s study, she heard voices coming from behind the door, so she pressed her ear against the smooth mahogany and strained to listen to the conversation.
She heard her father’s voice. “We recovered twenty bricks of gold from their wagon,” Clive reported. “Twenty, can you believe it? That’s more gold that we’ve found in the last six months combined.”
A man whose voice she didn’t recognize responded. “Any violence during the confiscation?”
“Always. That’s unavoidable.” A scraping sound against the floor indicated that her father was scooting his chair away from his desk. “My men saw the smugglers hung at the Selton Pass. We don’t want them claiming the gold was theirs and causing a ruckus. The gold rightfully belongs to the Union.”
A tremor went through Emma at her father’s mention of hanging people, though she knew that sort of vigilante justice was the norm in the lawless territory of Montana. Until a marshal or sheriff moved to their place out west, that’s the way it had to be.
She lifted her ear away from the door and paused a moment, considering what to do. Not wishing to interrupt what seemed to be a serious conversation, but also not wishing to displease the cook by delaying supper, she lightly tapped her knuckles against the wood. “Papa, may I come in?” Silence answered her, and she wondered if she shouldn’t have disturbed them. Too late now, she thought. She knocked again and spoke a little louder. “Papa?”
Again she heard no response, which puzzled her. The men must have heard her knock, since they had stopped conversing, so why not answer her? When she raised her hand to knock a third time, the door swung open, and her father appeared wearing a scowl, confirming that she was right to hesitate disturbing them.
“What is it, Emma?” Clive demanded. His voice was raised and his face shadowed with annoyance. His dark eyes bored into hers wildly, but he otherwise looked civilized with a starched, clean shirt and black tie. His hair was parted and combed, and his boots shone. She and her father looked alike, both with dark eyes and hair and olive skin, but she didn’t feel any filial connection with him in that moment. She felt more like a burden to him.
She’d never felt burdensome to him as a child. Back then, he’d always treated her kindly and had taken the time to talk to her, especially when she felt distressed. She’d stumbled across a lynching once. Hiding behind a tree, she’d watched in horror as three men strung up a horse thief. The sight of the hanging man kicking his legs until finally slackening would never leave her memory, nor would the whoops of triumph from the executioners that followed when the man finally died. She’d run all the way home into her father’s arms. He’d held her close and whispered comforting words in her ear while chiding her, “You shouldn’t wander off, darlin’. Stay close to the house from now on, all right?”
“Yes, Papa,” she’d said, sniffling as he dried her tears with one of his silk handkerchiefs.
Shortly after the hanging incident, Clive Brookstone sent her to live the remainder of her growing-up years with his sister in Ohio, where she was removed from the violence. He had explained firmly over her wailing protests that Montana was not a good place for a young lady. It was far too dangerous.
Now she was back where she wanted to be, a decade older and at a loss over how to reconnect with the man she’d once considered her hero. Despite their tenuous re-acquaintance, she felt surprised when he addressed her roughly, for she hadn’t expected his anger.
She flinched. “I’m sorry, sir. Supper is ready. Marie asked me to tell you.”
Clive’s annoyance disappeared, followed by a look of apology. “Mr. Harper and I will be along shortly, darlin’. Thank you.”
Emma glanced at the man standing behind him with his arms folded in front of his chest. The shadow of his hat covered his face, but she could see that he differed sharply from her father in appearance. Blond hair skirted his worn Stetson. His only ornament was a silver ring with a head of purple stone on the middle finger of his left hand. His dirty clothes hugged his tall body in wrinkles, and his black boots were colored brown with dust. Emma stared at the gun strapped to his hip, wondering if he was planning to wear it to the supper table. She felt curious about him and about the reason for him being there. The men she’d seen at the house before were more like her father—well off, immaculately dressed, and gentlemanly. Mr. Harper couldn’t have looked more out of place among her father’s fine furniture and intricately woven rugs.
Emma dipped her head in acknowledgment of her father’s answer and retreated from the doorway. The door closed immediately with a firm thud. Gathering the skirt of her crushed velvet dress in one hand, she glided down the corridor to the dining room, where she sat to the right of the head of the table. Marie ladled soup into her bowl.
“Mr. Brookstone is finishing up some business with someone named Mr. Harper,” Emma told her. “This soup smells delicious.” She picked up her cloth napkin from the table and unfolded it in her lap. Her mouth watered as the scent from the chicken broth wafted up to her nose, and she wished she could eat right away instead of waiting for the men.
Marie went to the kitchen to attend to the main course, and Emma felt a prickle of loneliness, brought on as a result of sitting by herself at the large table. She wondered what her life would be like if her mother were alive and sitting next to her. She imagined that they would discuss all the things mothers and daughters discussed, such as mending, courting, and cooking. Emma possessed only a single photograph of Mrs. Brookstone. In the photo, her mother looked very composed and beautiful in a severe way. Her facial features were tight, and her sharp eyes seemed like they would miss nothing.
Her aunt, while generous with her money, had been stingy with her time and affection. Emma had never felt loved while in her aunt’s care, but she hadn’t complained. She knew there were matters in the world far more important than her own need for attention. In the lawless Montana territory, outlaws killed innocent people without retribution, and there seemed to be no end in sight to the unstable living conditions. Several years after her father sent her away, a new trouble surfaced. Tensions between the northern and southern states boiled over, and soon after that a war was racking the nation, tearing husbands from their wives, fathers from their children, and sons from their parents. Throughout her childhood in Ohio, she’d comforted herself with the knowledge that, while it was sad that her father was far away, as least he wasn’t dead.
The sound of footsteps could be heard approaching the dining room. She looked up when the men entered. “Forgive my rudeness earlier, Emma,” Clive said. “Let me introduce you to Mr. Harper, a new friend of mine. Mr. Harper, this is my daughter, Miss Brookstone.”
Emma looked at the tall stranger. “Pleased to meet you, Mr. Harper.”
The man removed his hat, and his gaze raked her from head to toe. He didn’t smile. If anything, the frown on his face deepened. “The pleasure is mine, Miss Brookstone,” he said, sounding like he was anything but pleased.
The rumble of Mr. Harper’s voice made Emma’s heart flutter in her chest. It was deep with a gravelly quality. Now that she could see his face unobstructed, she also saw how handsome he was despite his unshaven and generally disheveled appearance. He had even features and a strong jaw beneath what looked like a three-day beard. He must have been at least ten years older than she, but he was definitely much younger than her father.
Clive Brookstone sat at the head of the table, and Mr. Harper sat across from Emma on her father’s left side. She stole a second glance at him and was surprised to find him studying her with an intense look in his eyes. He didn’t seem to like what he saw. His brows were furrowed in a scowl, and a tick in his jaw indicated he was gritting his teeth. He dipped his spoon into the porcelain bowl in front of him. “I didn’t know you had a daughter, Mr. Brookstone,” he said, before bringing the laden spoon to his lips.
Her father’s markedly higher-pitched voice in contrast spoke. “She’s only recently joined me from the countryside of Ohio. I sent her there when she was a child, thinking it best that she live there until it became less dangerous here, but my sister, who was in charge of her care, died unexpectedly last month.”
Mr. Harper’s scowl became impossibly more pronounced. “That’s unfortunate, especially considering the treacherous state of affairs and rampant killings taking place here in the Montana territory—most recently, the hanging of two innocent travelers that you approved.”
The guest’s statement brought sudden tension into the room. Emma knew her father would be displeased by his comment, since Clive never discussed death around her, especially after he witnessed her trauma over the lynching incident. The stranger wouldn’t have known this, but even so, her father would think it rude for him to speak of business matters in her presence.
Clive frowned. “Please have a roll, Mr. Harper.” He picked up the breadbasket and set it next to him, then bit into the roll he’d taken for himself. “Like I said before, death is unavoidable. But I prefer that we not discuss business at the supper table in front of my daughter. I will say that I’m appreciative over your decision to join us. The skills you learned in the infantry will be very valuable, and you’ll be well compensated.”
Mr. Harper stirred his soup, around and around and around, then looked up and pinned him with a fierce stare. “One thing you will soon discover, Mr. Brookstone, is that money doesn’t motivate me.”
“Ah!” Clive waved his hand dismissively. “So you’re a believer in the ideals of the Union—to emancipate the slaves and punish secession. It doesn’t matter. We’re on the same side. I see to it that the gold in the territory gets placed in the hands of my betters in the north and live off my substantial reward for doing so. You see that the gold is delivered and feel a sense of pride in the cause.”
Mr. Harper’s jaw clenched. He took a roll from the basket and tore it apart with his teeth. After he chewed and swallowed, he spoke—levelly, but with a steely edge. “I didn’t say I was motivated by ideals either.”
Emma’s eyes widened and she looked at her father, concerned about what his reaction would be to Mr. Harper’s continued ill manners. Even though Clive’s features had grown softer with age, his strict demeanor hadn’t changed. He still carried himself like the sort of man who didn’t often get confronted or contradicted. Like before, when she’d disturbed his discussion, his face flashed with annoyance. Clearing his throat, he chuckled without humor. “I’m afraid I don’t understand what it is you’re motivated by then, Mr. Harper.”
Their supper guest didn’t crack a smile. Instead, he growled a reply, the sound of his voice now lethal. “No, I imagine you wouldn’t understand any motive that doesn’t involve money.”
Emma felt that something was terribly wrong, even more wrong than impolite business discussion in front of a lady, and her father’s reaction seemed to indicate he thought so too. He shifted in his seat and cleared his throat again. “I wasn’t aware that you disliked my way of doing business, Mr. Harper, and I’m surprised you wish to work for me, now that I know you do.”
Mr. Harper turned his hard gaze to Emma. “Miss Brookstone, I wonder if you might do me a favor and go to the kitchen. I would very much like another glass of water.”
Emma stared at the handsome stranger for a moment before she looked down at his full glass of water on the table, and then back up at him with a quizzical look. She pointed at the pitcher in the middle of the table. “You can refill using that when you finish the water in your glass, sir.”
“More soup, then, Miss Brookstone,” he said, leaning forward and raising his voice.
When she still didn’t make a move to leave, he turned to her father. “If you have a shred of honor, Brookstone, you will order your daughter out of the room this instant.”
Clive’s eyes widened and his gaze darted to the door. When he looked at Emma, she saw his eyes flash with a terror she’d never witnessed from him before. “You don’t need to do this, Mr. Harper,” he said in a tone that seemed an octave higher than previously. “We can work this out somehow.”
“Leave, Miss Brookstone,” Mr. Harper said, this time sounding urgent, but Emma felt frozen in place. The nervousness she felt before had grown into full-fledged fear that debilitated her.
Clive placed his hands at the edge of the table and pushed back his chair. He stood. “I think my daughter should stay. And I think we should continue this conversation as gentlemen.”
The men stared at each other, and time seemed to freeze even though Emma could hear the grandfather clock against the wall ticking away the seconds. She wanted to ask her father what was going on, but he seemed to have forgotten her. He remained focused on Mr. Harper, who stared back at him, his spoon suspended in the air as if time really had stopped on the spoon’s way to his mouth.
All at once, time resumed. The dining room door burst open behind her, and Clive made a run for it. In a flash, Mr. Harper stood, drew his revolver, and shot him, hitting his arm. The sound of the gun’s explosion rendered Emma temporarily deaf but for the loud ringing in her ears melding with her father’s screams. She dashed to the wooden hutch that held their fine china and crawled underneath. From her hiding place, Emma saw two sets of men’s dirty boots stomping around the shiny boots of her father.
Clive Brookstone fell. She could see his entire body on the floor from her hiding place. Blood gushed from the arm that was shot, and his limbs contorted around him in an unnatural posture. He was still alive. He blinked and stared at her, his eyes full of fear that matched her own. She let out a sob and clamped her hands over her mouth when he reached a hand out to her weakly. From her hiding place, she watched in horror as another bullet hit his chest and the look in his eyes changed from terrified to vacant. She tasted gunpowder and bile, and her body began to shake violently.
Mr. Harper walked to the next room. His voice could be heard in the kitchen, instructing Marie, who had hidden in the kitchen’s pantry, to keep herself there for two hours, and then she was permitted to leave for the town center. She agreed to the terms in hysterics before the pantry door slammed shut.
Mr. Harper returned to the dining room. Two sets of boots stepped thunderously around the table. “He has a daughter. Did you know he had a fuckin’ daughter?” Mr. Harper growled.
“How the hell should I have known?” a man responded. “He’s never mentioned her. Not once. Is she crooked too?”
“She’s a child! A goddamn girl barely out of braids and ribbons.” A glass shattered against the wall. “I’ll deal with her. Get the horses ready and wait for me out front.”
‘Deal’ with her? Emma despaired as his words sank in. He’s going to kill me too. How long before he discovered where she was hiding? It wouldn’t be long. She knew that.
It took even less time than she thought it would. Apparently, he already knew where she’d taken cover. The dining room door closed, and they were alone except for her father’s body. Emma watched the dirty boots turn and face in her direction. He addressed her from across the room in a calm tone that didn’t match the tornado still raging in her mind after the horrible turn of events. “Come on out, Miss Brookstone, and keep your eyes closed when you do. Understand?”
His instruction made no sense to her. She already knew what he looked like, and if he meant to kill her, why would he insist that she not look at him? “Please don’t hurt me,” she said in a whimper. “I know where there’s gold in this house. You can take it.”
The boots strode toward the hutch, creaking the floorboards loudly, and Emma’s heart beat harder the closer they got. “Typical Brookstone,” he spat. “Everything comes down to money with you people, doesn’t it? Get out from there. I won’t hurt you as long as you do what I say.”
Fear paralyzed her. She didn’t trust that the man wouldn’t hurt her. He was a murderer who had just walked through a pool of her father’s blood.
“Get moving, Brookstone!” he said sharply, shaking her out of her frozen state.
She crawled out and was immediately met by a rough hand reaching out to cover her eyes. “What did I just say about keepin’ your eyes closed?” he snarled. He gripped her hair in his fist with his other hand and pulled her to her feet.
She yelped in pain, her head quickly following the hand that gripped her hair. Her scalp burned from the rough treatment.
He gripped her hair tighter, and she felt his hot breath in her ear. “Close your eyes and keep ‘em that way,” he growled.
She squeezed her eyes shut. His hands softened away from her. Next she felt a strip of cloth being wrapped around the front of her face and tied in the back.
“You’d do well not to forget another order I give you, Brookstone,” he stated, while knotting the blindfold with a yank that loosened strands of hair from her scalp and felt incredibly tight against the back of her head. He gripped her arm, none too gently, and pulled her stumbling along with him. She heard the whine of the front door and suddenly the cold spring air was upon her. She wasn’t wearing a coat or even a shawl, and she shivered from both fear and cold.
“What in tarnation are you going to do with her?” Mr. Harper’s partner asked. “And by the way, that ain’t no child. She’s got bigger tits than a milk cow at dawn.”
Mr. Harper continued to pull her along, closer to the voice that had just addressed him. “Shut your filthy flytrap, Ziggy. She’s not deaf.”
“No. She’s a Brookstone. Kill her and be done with it. We can’t take a woman or child along, whatever she is, and she’s seen your face.”
“Right, it’s my face she’s seen, not yours, so I reckon it’s my decision whether she lives. Along those lines, are you in the business of killing innocent women and children now?”
“Innocent people always die, even in the noblest of missions,” Ziggy said. “Ain’t no way to avoid it and you can’t go getting soft on us.”
Mr. Harper’s hand gripped her arm a little tighter. He snarled his next words. “Well, don’t that beat all? That sounds an awful lot like the reasoning Brookstone gave me for his latest killings.”
He let go of Emma for a moment. She heard his boot scrape through a stirrup and the whine of leather rubbing together as he mounted his horse. Next his hand clasped the back of her dress at the nape of her neck and her feet flew off the ground. He perched her precariously on his left thigh, while her legs sprawled haphazardly around the saddle’s pommel. An arm of steel wrapped around her middle.
“You go on ahead,” Mr. Harper said to the man called Ziggy. “I’m taking her east.”
“You’re addled!” he exclaimed. “You’ll be caught and hung.”
“Don’t see any way around it. Like you said, we can’t bring her, and she’s as good as dead if we leave her.”
“You really should kill her, or at least leave her to her own fate,” the other man grumbled.
Mr. Harper didn’t respond, but she felt his grip around her tighten, as though she were his property that he wouldn’t allow anyone else the privilege of hurting. The next sound Emma heard was that of galloping hooves retreating.
Emma let out a shriek when Mr. Harper kicked his own horse into a gallop. She would have fallen off if it weren’t for his arm hugging her to his body. His grip was tight as a vise, and the saddle’s pommel dug into her inner thigh with each stride of the gallop. She tried shifting her leg for relief, but the capture of her leg between his crotch and the pommel provided no room for movement.
She didn’t know how long they galloped. By the time Mr. Harper slowed his horse to a walk, the pain in her leg was so intense that tears soaked the cloth covering her eyes.
He tore the blindfold from her face and studied her. She stared back at him, her gaze darting between each pool of icy blue, searching for answers. Why would he kill her father? What was he going to do with her?
His face was as hard and cold as stone, his eyes narrowed in a focused glare at her. She felt her lower lip quivering along with the trembling of her entire body.
“You’re crying,” he observed.
Emma felt her temper rise to match her terror and pain. “My leg hurts terribly and you killed my papa!” she yelled directly in his face. She then gasped and cringed at her display of emotion, worried he might hurt her more.
Instead, he looked down at her trapped leg and cursed. Shifting backward, he loosened her leg from where it dug into the pommel. “Why didn’t you say something?” He swung off his horse, bringing her to the ground with him.
She shifted her weight to rest on her uninjured leg. Why would he care that she was hurting in a small way when he’d hurt her in such a big way by killing her father? The absurdity of it made her angrier. “Forgive me,” she snarled. “Somehow I didn’t think you’d care about my well-being. Maybe I began to suspect that when you nearly pulled all the hair from my head, or when you trampled through my papa’s blood!”
Mr. Harper’s expression remained unsympathetic. “Lift your skirts and show me your leg where it’s injured.”
Her eyes widened. Was she to be humiliated on top of being orphaned and kidnapped? “No, Mr. Harper. I won’t.”
He studied her, shaking his head slightly. Then his eyes turned resolute. “You will, Brookstone.” Though his voice was calm, the expression on his face looked so cold that Emma’s initial fear came back with a vengeance.
“That’s twice now you’ve disobeyed me—three times if you count your refusal to leave at the supper table. Best get it through your head, nothing I say is negotiable and you don’t want to learn that the hard way. Lift your skirts. Argue with me again, and your ass is going to hurt as much as your leg.”
Tears streamed down her face. No one had ever spoken to her so unkindly, nor had anyone made threats against her. Her father had always been gentle, if occasionally impatient. She swallowed hard as the thought crossed her mind that she’d never hear her father’s gentle voice again.
It went against everything she’d been taught about propriety, lifting her skirts and showing her bare inner leg to a man, but she obeyed with trembling hands, biting her lip as she did. She watched his eyes travel south and rest on the smooth skin of her knee. “Lift your skirts higher and spread your legs so I can see the injury,” he said, as though what he was requesting were as casual as asking for another spoonful of sugar with his tea.
She let out a shuddering breath. She stepped one foot to the side, hiked up her skirts further, and focused on a cloud in the distance as he crouched down and slid his callused hand over the bruise. In sharp contrast to the roughness of his tone, his hand felt gentle. She gritted her teeth, feeling like her stomach was plummeting to the ground as he touched and studied a part of her anatomy no man had ever laid hands or eyes on.
He cursed again under his breath, and then the examination was over. He stood from his crouched position and towered over her as she righted her skirts quickly and looked down at the ground, her cheeks burning with shame. She would have felt ashamed that she’d revealed herself to any man, but to accept what felt like a caress from her father’s murderer felt nearly unbearable.
“It’s a nasty bruise,” he said in an angry voice, as though it were her fault. “Any way you ride, it’ll hurt.” He pivoted away from her and stared at his horse for a moment, then untied the leather straps from his saddlebag. He removed a woolen coat and twine before he reached out and yanked up her skirts.
Emma let out an involuntary shriek of protest and pressed her skirt back down before she could think better of it. His hand tightened into a fist over the velvet fabric, and he tilted his head back very slowly to look her in the eye. When she locked eyes with his cold stare, she trembled. He looked meaner than any wild animal she’d seen, and just as dangerous. She removed her trembling hand from the skirt and clasped her hands behind her back, allowing him access once again to her legs.
“Very good, Brookstone,” he said in a low rumble as he returned his attention to her injury.
His words were likely mere acknowledgement that she wasn’t totally stupid as opposed to praise, but hearing him express approval of her actions gave her a sense of relief. It made her realize that he would respond mildly if she obeyed him, and though obeying was the very last thing she wanted to do, at least it was within her control.
He pressed the coat to her thigh and bound it to her leg with the length of twine. Wordlessly, he grasped her around her waist and lifted her over the horse behind the saddle, then climbed up in front of her. “Hold on,” he said, and without further delay kicked the horse into a canter.