Magnificent Passage Online - Kat Martin

PROLOGUE

OCTOBER 2 , 1865

FORT LARAMIE, DAKOTA TERRITORIES

She wasn’t supposed to be here—in front of the parade field near the soldiers’ barracks. Truth to tell, she wasn’t even allowed this far from the cottage. But she’d wanted a little fresh air, and when the wagon rolled in, the jangle of harness, the rumble of wheels, and the tall, sandy-haired man at the reins had captured her attention.

The man halted the team of horses some distance from Commander Russel’s headquarters, set the brake, and tied the reins. He climbed from the seat, his broad shoulders squared determinedly. When the soldiers approached, he spoke to them only briefly, gesturing to the rear of the wagon, then strode purposefully into the low adobe building.

Samantha Ashton watched as the soldiers clustered around the wagon and a burly corporal lifted the tarpaulin thrown over something in the back. His face looked pale as he walked away. Two more soldiers lifted the canvas, stood momentarily transfixed, then hastily dropped the tarp. They cautioned several approaching women, who hurried away, whispering, without a backward glance.

More and more, Mandy—for that was what her friends called her—became curious about the wagon.

The day was blustery and cloudy and carried a bitter chill. Like thin knives, it sliced the air. Mandy pulled her serviceable gray wool cloak tighter about her navy blue homespun dress, but the wind continued to tug at the heavy fabric. She’d tucked her chestnut hair into the broadbilled bonnet she wore, so only a small portion of her face was exposed to the biting cold. Standing beside a post in front of Johnson’s General Mercantile, she was close enough to watch the activity but far enough away to remain unnoticed. Few people traveled the dirt street, and fewer still paid her any heed.

A second group of men neared the wagon, having been summoned by the first, and again they seemed unable to resist the urge to look. One man walked quickly around the side of the building, his face a decided shade of green. More soldiers looked in the wagon, but they all left quickly. In minutes the cluster of men had disappeared, leaving only the wagon—and its contents—to beckon her forward.

Mandy had always been curious—a trait she was certain she’d picked up from her grandmother. Grandma Ashton always said curiosity never killed the cat, it just made him smarter. Now Mandy’s curiosity was so overwhelming it felt like an itch.

She straightened her shoulders and marched to where the wagon sat forlornly near the edge of the field, nibbling her lower lip nervously. If her father found out, he’d be mad as a hornet. But, she reasoned, he was mad at her half the time anyway.

As she neared the wagon, tiny beads of perspiration dampened the hair at her temples. She caught a faint whiff of something foul, though the wind blew most of the odor away. She could see the rough-hewn sides of the wagon, the edge of the canvas hanging out the back. Just a few more steps and she’d be there.

A wide, firm hand grabbed her arm and pulled her up short, turning her at the same time.

“I wouldn’t do that if I were you, miss.” The sandy-haired man gripped her arm tightly. His jaw was set, his face grim beneath his broad-brimmed hat. He was dressed ruggedly in a fringed buckskin shirt, snug-fitting buckskin breeches, and moccasins instead of boots. His proper use of English surprised her.

“Why not?” she asked stiffly, annoyed at being caught. He continued to hold her arm, his grip unyielding. He seemed a hard sort, even though he spoke well, and a sudden tremor of apprehension snaked up her spine.

As if sensing her fear, he let go of her.

“It’s not a sight for a lady,” he said flatly, his dark eyes cold.

The words sent sparks flying in her head. Not a sight for a lady. Mandy was so sick of being “a lady” she could spit. It was all she’d heard from her father for the past three years—ever since her mother died.

She eyed the stranger curiously. “And tell me, sir, just what would you know about being a lady?”

He smiled in spite of himself, and Mandy glimpsed even, white teeth. He was a big man, muscular, with powerful arms and a thick neck. But his waist was lean and his hips were narrow. His tanned face told of hours of work in the sun.

“As you say, miss, not a whole lot. But I’m telling you for your own good, go