Deborah Montague leaned forward in the sidesaddle, pressing her left knee into the bay gelding’s side as she laid her crop lightly on his neck. The huge steed gave a snort and broke stride, lowering his head as he picked up speed. The smell of the saddle’s soft leather mingled with sweaty horseflesh, filling Deborah’s nostrils with the heady, familiar scent of a good ride. Riding at breakneck speed like this, balanced precariously on the saddle, made her feel exuberant . alive. Her own heart beat wildly beneath her breast, seeming to match that of her destrier’s. “Lady Deborah!” a male voice called from behind. “Deborah! Slow down! You’ll break your sweet neck, you damnable fool!” Deborah laughed, ducking a low-hanging branch. Her feathered cocked hat flew off her head and her dark, thick hair fell from its neat chignon to whip wildly in the breeze. “Deborah! Slow down this minute!” Thomas Hogarth dodged branches wildly from astride his horse, trying to catch up. Laughing so hard that she nearly tumbled from her horse, Deborah pulled up on the reins, slowing him to a walk. She leaned forward to pat the gelding’s foamy neck. “Good boy, Joshua.
Whoa . good boy.” “Have you lost your head?” Thomas rode up behind her, swinging down onto the ground. He helped her dismount. “Are you all right? Did he get away from you?” Deborah wiped her damp brow with the sleeve of her scarlet waistcoat. “God’s teeth, Tom, you sound like my brother’s nursemaid!” She pulled off her matching dyed gloves and threw them over the saddle. Thomas caught her around the waist. “Everyone else veered to the left back near the bent oak. Didn’t you see them?” The distant sound of barking hounds and a tin horn carried on the breeze. “Of course I saw them!” She fingered the ruffles of Thomas’s stiff white stock. “But they ride so slow! My old grandmother could keep up at that pace!” She pushed out her lower lip in a seductive pout. “Oh God, Deborah,” he groaned, lowering his head to brush his lips gently against hers.
She sighed, knowing the routine well, and lifted her hands to rest them on his shoulders. Thomas’s lips were warm and wet against hers; she allowed him to linger just a moment before she pulled away. “Thomas, please!” He took a step back, extracting a lace handkerchief from inside his coat to wipe his mouth. “You can’t expect me to just stand there with you looking so pretty.” “Thomas, you took advantage of me,” she chastised, feigning injury. “What would my father say?” He returned the handkerchief to it’s place. “I suspect he’d say it was high time I asked for your hand.” Deborah’s face hardened. “I told you I wasn’t interested in marrying you.” “What, you prefer Charles MacCloud?” His blue eyes narrowed.
“Or is it John Logan? Is that why you refused to attend Roger and Mary’s betrothal supper with me last week?” She sighed, taking her horses reins. “I like you well enough, I just don’t want to marry you.” He followed in her footsteps, offering his hands to boost her into her saddle. “And what of this?” He spread his arms. “It isn’t the first time it’s happened. I’m not certain how much longer I can control myself. A man has needs, you know.” Deborah laughed, taking her reins from his hand. “Tom . I never said I didn’t like kissing you.
” She urged her bay forward in a trot. “But I’d not bed you for all the silks in China!” she shouted over her shoulder as she disappeared around a bend in the path. Still chuckling, Deborah followed the path back to the bent oak and turned to catch up with the rest of the hunt. Behind her she could hear the hoofbeats of Thomas’s horse. Heading in the direction of the sound of voices and barking hounds, Deborah entered a clearing. Just ahead she spotted the rest of the hunting party. The men had dismounted and were standing, pointing at a broken fence. The ladies, still astride, giggled among themselves as their horses trampled a small vegetable garden. “What’s happened here?” Deborah rode through the break in the fence. “Charles, what’s going on?” Charles MacCloud, a red-faced man with a mop of orange-colored hair, lifted a hand.
“We came right through the fence.” He laughed. “Nearly unseated John.” Deborah surveyed the garden and glanced over at the crude wooden cabin and barn that stood a hundred yards away. “Is anyone home? You’ve ruined the garden.” Charles shrugged, mounting his horse. “What difference? Belongs to some stinking half-breed.” Deborah watched as the other men mounted. “You’re not going to do anything? That man’s probably got a family to feed.” She lifted the reins to keep her horse from nibbling at a row of halfuprooted turnips.
Thomas came riding up behind her. “Have they lost the fox? I told Father the hunting would never be any good in these bloody Colonies. The forest is too dense.” He glanced at the disturbed garden with disinterest. “I can still hear the hounds. How far could the fox have gotten?” Deborah slipped her hands into her gloves. “They broke the fence.” She watched a cow wander into the garden and begin to munch a squash vine. Thomas adjusted his cocked hat as he looked up at the sun. “That they did, but no matter.
This is the land Father’s in the process of acquiring. Mr. John Wolf won’t be needing his fence much longer.” He looked at the other men. “Shall we go, gentlemen? Ladies? Tea is promptly at three.” The group started off, passing the small cabin as they reentered the woods. Deborah trailed behind. Three-quarters of a mile down the narrow wooded path, she swung around and headed back toward the cabin. In the commotion of catching up with the dogs, no one noticed her departure. When Deborah entered the clearing near the cabin, she pulled up on her horse’s reins, coming to a complete stop.
Across the yard stood a man surveying the ruined garden, a red man . Taking a deep breath, Deborah gave a toss of her head, pushing her dark hair off her shoulders. Tapping Joshua lightly with her heel, she moved her mount forward. Tshingee stood in the center of his brother’s garden, assessing the extensive damage. At the sound of an approaching rider, he looked up, then lowered his gaze. “Afternoon . ” Deborah stared at the Indian brave. She’d seen red men before, crossing the street in Annapolis, or standing back from her father’s house at Host’s Wealth, but she’d never seen one up close like this before. She was fascinated. The man turned, glancing up at her, his mouth twisted in a scowl.
He was the most glorious man she had ever laid eyes on. His skin was the color of red clay, his nearly nude body so finely sculptured that it was godlike. His nose was long and straight, his cheekbones high and slanted, his eyes as dark as the depths of hell. His sleek raven hair fell about his shoulders in a curtain of mystery. “I said, good afternoon,” Deborah repeated, her tongue darting out to moisten her dry lips. “And I said nothing,” replied the red man. Their gazes locked and for a moment Deborah felt as if the man had reached out and embraced her very soul. Her rosy lips trembled: She couldn’t take her eyes from the man, his broad, muscular chest . his long sinewy legs. Her eyes lingered on the leather breechcloth at his groin for just a instant.
She looked up to see him laughing. Laughing at her! Angrily, Deborah swung down out of the saddle. “I came back to apologize”—she opened her arms — “for this.” Tshingee dropped his hands to his narrow hips, looking away. The spark of magic that had just leaped between him and this white girl was undeniable. Tshingee ground his bare foot into the soft garden soil. “You did this?” Deborah nearly smiled. His voice was beautiful, soft and flowing yet deeply masculine. His enunciation was impeccable, his words rising rhythmically on the late summer breeze like some ancient song. “Yes, well no, not me actually, but my friends.
” She faced the man. He was exactly her height; their gazes met again. “They should have been more careful.” Tshingee shrugged his broad, sunbaked shoulders. “What is the difference? A few stalks of corn, a basket or two of squash . ” A bitterness rose in his voice. “A life or two lost to starvation in midwinter. What is a life to you if it’s not your own?” “I said I didn’t do it,” she repeated, her anger rising. She dropped the reins and lifted the heavy skirting of her petticoats to move closer. “If you didn’t feel responsible, you wouldn’t have come back.
” Tshingee studied her oval face. Her eyes were a deep golden brown. Her hair was a rich sable, falling straight over her shoulders and down her back. But it was her mouth that intrigued him. Her lips were full and rosy with a small brown mark above the left corner. It was the most sensuous mouth he had ever laid eyes on. Deborah’s eyes narrowed. What right did this man have to speak to her in this manner? What right did he have to blame her for the ills of the world? “I only came back because I was worried that you might have a family.” She fumbled with the waistband of her skirt, withdrawing a small leather pouch. Tshingee watched the white woman with interest.
She had a backbone, this girl, to speak to him like this. Most of the aristocratic English women he had encountered were too frightened of him to speak. “I don’t know what the vegetables were worth, but here . ” She offered her hand. Lying in her palm were several coins, the silver glimmering in the afternoon sun. Tshingee struck Deborah’s hand hard with his own, sending the coins flying into the dust. Deborah looked up at him, her mouth hung open in surprise. “What’s wrong with you? I want to pay for the damage caused to your garden. I don’t want you to go hungry.” “You think your silly coins can replace my brother’s toil?” Tshingee scoffed.
“You think you can buy the love that went into harvesting those precious seeds, planting them, watering them, watching them grow?” “It’s your brother’s garden? With the money he could buy vegetables.” Deborah retrieved the coins. “You’re all alike, you know.” He shook a bronze finger at her accusingly. “You come to our land, you drive us from our homes, you buy and sell our mother earth. Don’t you see that this land can no more be bought than you or I can? It’s a living, breathing, thing!” At a loss as to how to remount without assistance, Deborah spotted a tree stump near the edge of the garden. Relieved, she tugged on Joshua’s reins, leading him across the grass. “What are you talking about, you lunatic? All I wanted to do was pay for the damage. It isn’t even your garden!” She lifted her red petticoats and climbed awkwardly onto the stump, trying to guide her horse close enough to mount him. Tshingee laughed aloud, mocking her as he watched her try to maneuver herself and her cumbersome white woman’s clothes.
Finally seated on the saddle, Deborah hurried out of the yard, the red man’s laughter ringing in her ears as she galloped down the path. Impatiently, Deborah yanked a silver-handled hairbrush through her tangled tresses. Dropping the brush on the bed, she went to her mirror. Taking a long scarlet ribbon from a box on the table, she tied her hair in a thick mane down her back. In the three days that had passed since she’d encountered the angry red man, she often found herself looking into her mirror. It was odd, but she kept wondering how she had appeared to him. A knock came at the door and it swung open. Deborah’s younger sister, nearly sixteen, stepped into the bedchamber. “If you don’t hurry, Deborah, you’re going to be late for supper again and you know how angry that makes the Earl.” Deborah glanced up at her sister’s reflection in the gilded oval mirror.
“More likely than not, he’ll be angry with me anyway. He always is . or at least when he has the time.” “That’s not true, it’s just that he has his mind on other things. You don’t realize how much work there is to running this place, and now that he’s been appointed a squire, his duties are tenfold.” “Excuses!” Deborah rubbed a spot on her bodice. There was an unmistakable stain of blueberry over her left breast. “You’re always making excuses for him, all of you. I don’t know why you do it. He could care less about us.
You’re lucky he knows your name, you simple goose.” Elizabeth lowered her head. “Deborah, you mustn’t speak that way of our father.” Deborah turned. Poor Elizabeth was so plain with her sullen face and nondescript hair. “I thought you were going to wear the blue brocade I gave you.” She shook her head. In that dark brown gown with beige trim her sister looked like an emaciated wren. “I . I tried it on but Lady Celia said .
” “Lady Celia! Who gives a fat rat’s ass what she thinks!” “Deborah!” Elizabeth’s hands flew up to cover her ears, her eyes round in horror. “You sound like a field hand! You know what the Earl said about your cursing. He’ll have you whipped, he will!” “No he won’t.” She shook her head. “It would take too much of his precious time. Time better spent with our little brother James.” “It’s not Christian to be so jealous of him, Deborah. He’s the Earl’s only son.” Deborah dropped onto her four-poster bed and lifted her petticoats to slip on a pair of heeled shoes. “Pity he’s so useless.
Celia’s spoiled him so badly; he’ll never be much of a man.” “He’ll be the Earl of Manchester someday.” “And what? Inherit a few acres of tobacco and a house in Essex fallen in ruin. What if he doesn’t want to plant tobacco?” “What . what else would he do?” Deborah dropped her skirts and stood up, ready to go. The blueberry stains on her bodice would have to stay; there wasn’t time to redress. “I don’t know, be a surgeon.” She made a sweeping gesture. “A barrister . an Indian .
” Elizabeth covered her mouth, giggling. “An Indian? Now who’s being simple?” She lifted her skirt gracefully. “You’d best hurry. Thomas . Thomas and the Viscount have already arrived.” Deborah couldn’t help noticing her sister’s faint blush. “Why do you give a fig about Tom?” “I . I don’t.” “Liar!” Deborah grinned, leaning until her face was only inches from her sister’s. “Think he’s handsome?” Elizabeth shook her head, intimidated, mortally embarrassed.
“Deborah, I would never. he— he’s your. ” “My what?” She knitted her eyebrows. The younger girl took a step back. “Your intended, of course.” “Says who?” “There . there’s been talk. I . saw him kiss you at the Christmas ball last winter at the Fetterman’s. I thought you were in love with him,” she finished breathlessly.
Deborah laughed, dropping her hands on her sister’s quivering shoulders. “You’re the second person this week who’s thought I’ve got to marry over a stupid kiss!” “I would never kiss someone I wasn’t going to marry. It—it wouldn’t be . ” “I know, Christian.” Deborah opened her bedchamber door. “So, are we going down to see this paragon, or not?” Twenty minutes later, Deborah sat at one of the small square supper tables in the parlor, spreading a biscuit thick with blueberry jam. Across from her sat Elizabeth, her face nearly obscured by her linen napkin. On Deborah’s right sat Thomas, on her left, her sister Martha’s rotund husband, Lord Danforth. Lord Danforth droned on about the evils of drink as Deborah licked the blade of her knife. Under the table, she rested her right hand on Thomas’s knee.
She was quite amused to find that Thomas was having a difficult time following Danforth’s conversation. It was a game she often played to entertain herself at the supper table. “Yes, yes, I quite agree, Lord Danforth,” Thomas stumbled. He slid his hand beneath the table to rest it over Deborah’s as she moved it higher to his thigh. Elizabeth stared in confusion at her sister across the table, wondering what ailed Thomas. Accidentally dropping her napkin, she leaned to pick it up. When her head reappeared above the edge of the table, her face was crimson. Deborah winked at her sister and Elizabeth tipped her glass, taking a swallow of her table wine. It was all just a diversion! Her sister was toying with poor Thomas’s emotions! Directly behind Thomas, Deborah’s father stood up, taking his glass with him. “Ladies and gentlemen .
” He cleared his throat. “As I said before the meal, I have an announcement to make and that time has now come.” Deborah leaned across the table to whisper to her sister, but the girls’ stepmother rapped her fan sharply on the table, catching their attention. Deborah sat back. “Lord Hogarth and I have just sealed a fine arrangement.” He lifted his glass to the tall, reedthin Viscount across the table. “It gives me great pleasure to tell you, my children, my neighbors”—he looked to Thomas —”my friends, that a betrothal agreement has been signed. My fourth daughter, Lady Deborah, will marry the honorable Thomas Hogarth come Palm Sunday.” Everyone in the parlor stood in salutation toasting the happy couple. Deborah sat stunned.
She couldn’t marry Thomas! She glanced across the room at her eldest sister, Martha, struggling to get to her feet, heavy with child. If I marry Thomas, she thought in panic, I’ll end up just like Martha . miserable. Martha had given birth to seven children in the last six years and it was killing her. She worked harder than any slave or free man on her husband’s plantation by day and bore her lord’s brutality and drunkenness by night. Deborah pushed away from the table, her face ashen. He linen napkin fell to the floor. The candlelit room was stifling. “What is it, dear? Are you all right?” Thomas reached for her hand, but she pulled away, getting up from the table. If I don’t get some fresh air, she thought, I’ll be sick.
Running from the room, she raced through the hall and out onto the front step. A wall of cool night air hit her sharply in the face and she took a deep breath. “Lady Deborah? Deborah?” Thomas called, coming through the door. “Where are you going? You can’t just run out like that! Not in front of my father!” She swung around, her face red with anger. “Why didn’t you tell me the other day at the hunt?” “I didn’t know,” he replied defensively. “Hah!” she scoffed. “I detest liars!” Thomas caught her by the wrist. “How dare you! It was just as your father said. An arrangement was made between your father and mine only last night. I knew it was to be you or Anne Greenbee but the girl always smells of bad mutton.
” “Oh!” Deborah laughed, unamused. “So I won out over Anne because I smell better!” She jerked her wrist from his grasp. “I’ve always been fond of you,” he told her none-too-kindly. “I told you I wouldn’t marry you. I haven’t changed my mind.” “It looks like you haven’t been given a choice. Your father has agreed to acquire that parcel of land my father needs to build a second dock on the river. They’re going to split it in half. One half is to be your dowry.” “What parcel?” She stared at Thomas.
Moonlight filtered down from the heavens to cast shadows across his face. As always, his thinning hair was neater than her own. “You know . where we passed the other day.” “The red man’s land? He sold it to my father?” An image of her Indian brave flashed through her head. It was funny how she’d come to think of him as her Indian. “No.” Thomas gave her a lopsided grin. “But he will . ”