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Dutchman's Creek, Colorado,
March 2, 1899
Hannah felt the approaching train before she heard it. Her fingers groped for Quint's as the platform quivered beneath her feet. A mournful whistle pierced the rainy distance.
"It's coming!" Quint strained toward the sound like a tethered hunting dog, eager to be loosed and running. Hannah shivered beneath her shawl as the cold March wind whipped along the platform. Any second now, she would see the gray-white plume rising into mist above the bare cottonwoods. All too soon, the train would be pulling into the station. When it pulled out again, Quint would be waving goodbye from the window of the passenger car.
She gazed at his clean-chiseled profile, memorizing every feature--the chestnut curls that tumbled over his forehead, the tiny bump on the bridge of his nose, the alert hazel eyes, fixed now on the distant curve of tracks where the train would appear. A smile tugged at the corner of his mouth.
It wasn't fair, Hannah thought. Quint was happy, and her own heart was on the verge of shattering like a mason jar dropped onto a stone floor.
Hannah had loved Quint Seavers for as long as she could remember. They'd been sweethearts since their school days, and the whole town had expected them to marry. So why couldn't he have just let nature take its course? Why had he gotten this crack-brained urge to run off and seek his fortune in the Klondike gold fields?
At first she'd hoped it was just a whim. But the Klondike was all Quint had talked about for the past year. Only one thing had kept him in Dutchman's Creek. His older brother Judd had joined the Theodore Roosevelt's Rough Riders and gone off to the Spanish American War, leaving Quint behind to tend the family ranch and look after their invalid mother. But that was about to change. After four months with the Rough Riders and five months in a Virginia military hospital, Judd was coming home. He'd be arriving on the train that had just appeared around the distant bend--the train that would be taking Quint away.
"Do you think he'll be changed?" Edna Seavers' white hands gripped the woven cane arms of her wheelchair. A cheerless wisp of a woman clad in widow's black, she'd been wheeled around in that chair for as long as Hannah could remember.
"War changes everybody, Mama," Quint said. "Judd's been through a bad time with his wounds and the malaria. But he'll come around once he's been home a while. You'll see."
"I wish it was you coming home and Judd leaving." Mrs. Seavers had never hidden the fact that Quint was the favorite of her two children. "Why do you have to go anyway? You're too young to go rushing off on your own."
Quint sighed. "I'm twenty-one, Mama. You promised me that I could go when Judd came home. Well, Judd's coming. And I'm going."
Hannah glanced from Quint to his mother, feeling invisible. She'd been Quint's girl for years, but Edna Seavers barely acknowledged her existence.
The train whistled again, its shrill voice a cry in Hannah's ears. She shifted her weight, conscious of the raw ache between her thighs. Her mother had lectured her about men's appetites and made her swear, with her right hand on the Bible, that she would keep herself from sin. But last night with Quint, in the darkness of the hayloft, her good intentions had unraveled like a torn sweater. She had given herself willingly. But the act had been so awkward and painful that when Quint had moaned and rolled off her, she'd been secretly relieved. Later that night, in the room she shared with her four younger sisters, Hannah had buried her face in her pillow and wept until there were no tears left.
Pistons pumping, the engine glided into the station. Half-glimpsed faces flashed past in the windows of the passenger car. For an instant Hannah held her breath, as if she could will the train to keep moving. Then the mail sack thumped onto the platform. The brakes moaned as the line of cars shuddered to a full stop.
There was a beat of silence, then a stirring inside the passenger car. A door swung open. The lone figure of a tall man in a drooping felt hat emerged onto the step. Veiled by misting rain he moved down onto the platform.
Hannah hadn't known Judd Seavers well. Eight years Quint's senior, he'd been too old to be counted among her playmates. She remembered him as a taciturn young man with somber gray eyes and hands that were always working. In the years Hannah had been coming around the Seavers place, he'd shown no more interest in her than Edna had.
Now he walked toward them, where they waited under the shelter of the eave. He moved slowly, heedless of the rain that beaded his tan coat and trickled off the brim of his hat. A battered canvas field bag, the sort that a soldier would carry, dangled loosely from one hand. He looked old, Hannah thought. Old before his time. Maybe that was what war did to people.
But why was she thinking about Judd? Minutes from now, Quint--her Quint, the love of her life--would be gone. Certainly for months. Maybe for years.
Judd clenched his teeth against the pain that shot through him with each step. Most of the time it wasn't so bad, but the long, jarring train ride had roused every shard of metal that the doctors had left in his body. He was hurting like blazes, but he wasn't about to show it. Not with his mother and brother looking on.
The nurse had offered him laudanum to ease the trip. Judd had turned it down. He'd had enough opiates to know what they could do to a man, and he'd sworn he was finished. Still, sitting up those long nights with the rhythm of iron wheels rattling through his bones, he'd have bargained away his soul for a few hours of relief.
But never mind all that, he was home now, walking down the platform through the soft Colorado rain. Home from the war with two legs, two arms and two eyes. He could only wish to God that some of his friends had fared as well.
©2008 Elizabeth Lane. Published by arrangement with Harlequin Books S.A. For more romance information, go to E-Harlequin.