The smile that formed on her lips was real. She could hear his answer.
None taken, Kitten.
If Clayton Hoffman wasn’t sitting right in front of her, she might have talked to Grandpa Oscar a bit. Asked him how he and Grandma were getting along up there in heaven. But since now wasn’t the time or place, she was content just to smile, glad she still had this connection with the people who had raised her and loved her with great devotion. Grandpa Oscar’s trips to Colorado had been tough on Grandma Katie. She’d always fretted something terrible the entire time he was gone, and a piece of Kit was happy they were now together for eternity.
“So, Miss Katherine Ackerman from Boston, Massachusetts, how do you know Sam?”
She bit her lips, holding in mirth at just how ridiculous the name sounded when he said it like that. Katherine Ackerman had been her birth name, but she’d never been to Boston. “I don’t know him,” she answered, pulling up her best actress voice. It had taken practice to acquire a Bostonian accent. A woman she’d met on the train from Chicago to Denver had been her inspiration, and pride welled at how she was able to sound just like the woman had. She’d mastered it as well as the rough voice she’d used for her Henry disguise. “I want to meet him.”
Clay Hoffman repositioned his hat before he asked, “Why?”
“Because I want to meet a miner.” This particular miner, to whom, for some unknown reason, Gramps willed one half of his estate. It was all so frustrating. Sam’s name had never been spoken in her presence, nor a second partner ever mentioned. Clay Hoffman was a different matter. Gramps had talked nonstop about him.
“Sam’s not a miner,” he said.
His back had stiffened, as if he was bracing himself for her argument, and though she did want to insist Sam was a miner, and she would meet him, Kit bit her tongue to keep from arguing. Once back in Black Hawk, she’d just rent another horse and search for him again. Of course, she’d have to come up with another disguise.
“I read a playbill on the train, about the opera house in Nevadaville,” she said, aloud. “Does it really seat four hundred people?” Having read the advertisements on the train could prove beneficial. Gramps had never mentioned the opera house, but they must certainly have a wardrobe full of costumes, and Nevadaville was only five miles from Black Hawk, by train.
“Yes, why?” he answered, sounding skeptical, almost angry.
“Boston has several wonderful opera houses, and I’m curious what one in the wilds of Colorado would look like.” That sounded plausible, didn’t it? Surely Boston had an opera house. Chicago did, and she truly enjoyed watching the plays. If that silly horse she’d rented hadn’t run off, she wouldn’t be worrying whether Boston had opera houses or not. She’d be finding out exactly who Sam Edwards was.
The best laid plans of mice and men, she quoted silently, pressing a hand to her temple.
It appeared no one wanted Kit to know the truth.
Interrupting Clay, not done contemplating her thoughts, she leaned forward and whispered, “You don’t think there’s a bear or mountain lion following us, do you?”
His back stiffened again and Kit swore she saw his neck quiver slightly.
“No, I don’t believe there are any bears or mountain lions following us. They are few and far between in this area.”
Gramps had never mentioned the animals, so she figured they weren’t an issue, yet he hadn’t mentioned Sam, either. “I sure do wish we’d found my amulet,” she whispered.
“I’m sure the chief will sell you another.”
She puffed out her cheeks, really wishing for a moment of quiet. “Oh, do you think so?” She’d come up with bears and mountain lions off the top of her head. A woman from Boston would be afraid of such things and believe an amulet from a chief would save her—and it had proved useful. Once in Black Hawk she’d ask the old Indian if he had another one. It had cost only a package of chewing gum. He’d been the one to tell her if she put a dead fish in it no one would come close to her, and had even told her where to find the fish.
“Yes,” Clay answered.
Thankfully, he let the conversation slip then. The scenery was quite beautiful, all lush and green, just as Gramps had explained. Her fingernails dug into the thick leather at the back of the saddle and a shiver skirted up her spine. Kit held her breath, refusing to remember how frightful the train ride into Black Hawk had been.
Clay glanced over his shoulder, and she tried, but knew the smile on her face wobbled. He stared harder and she averted her gaze, glancing at the surroundings.
“You doing all right back there?”
“Um, yes,” she mumbled.
“You sure?” Those blue eyes were frowning, and he shifted as if trying to get a better look at her. His movements had her repositioning and glancing around. The mountains weren’t as intimidating while on horseback. Zigzagging around the Rockies in that train had instilled a fear inside her like she’d never known. Grandma Katie would have been appalled to hear her talk so, but Kit had to tell the train agent how offensive the ride had been. Then again, Grandma would be upset that she’d left the house empty and embarked on this journey at all. Maybe it was a family trait—fear of train rides—for it appeared Sam didn’t like trains, either, considering he’d taken the trail to Nevadaville. That was a nice thought, knowing she and Sam already had something in common.
“You sure?” Clay Hoffman repeated.
“Yes,” she answered. “I’m fine. Just fine.”
“The mountains make you nervous?” he asked, looking straight ahead, but nonetheless drawing her full attention.
Kit squared her shoulders. “No.”
“You aren’t a very good liar, Miss Ackerman.”
She drew in a determined breath. Agreeing with Clayton Hoffman was not something she’d do, no matter how accurate he might be.
Kit let silence speak for her. It was a damnable situation, as Gramps would say—this one she found herself in. Yet she’d have to put up with Clay in order to get back to Black Hawk.
Wiggling, she repositioned her bottom on the bedroll. Her clothes were drying quickly and not overly uncomfortable, but the dampness irritated the spot on her backside that had grown tender yesterday while she’d been riding the rented horse.
The animal, white with liver-colored spots, had been gentle enough, but slipping about in the saddle while the horse picked its way over the rough trail had been quite tedious, and the thick wool of the britches Kit had bought from the Chinese washwoman at the hotel had chafed her bottom from the constant motion. There was one spot in particular where she wondered if there was any skin left.
It was a while later when Clay glanced over his shoulder again. “You sure you’re doing all right?”
“Yes, I’m fine, thank you,” she lied, flinching at another sliver of pain commencing in her bottom. Tightening her leg muscles, she held her breath, hoping that would help.
His gaze roamed over her face in such a way Kit felt as if she were a newspaper being read.
“Are you hungry?” he finally asked. “We didn’t have any breakfast. I have some jerky and bread.”
Would she be able to get back on the horse if she got down? The tenderness had grown stronger, now throbbed as painfully as it had yesterday when she’d climbed off her rented horse. That’s when the animal had run off, while she’d been nursing her injury, much too sore to chase after it. Kit eased her weight onto the opposite hip and held in a groan. “How much farther is it?”
“To Black Hawk?”
“It’s only about five miles as the crow flies, but ten or more for us.”
A heavy dread settled on her shoulders. “That far?”
“Yes. Have you forgotten how far you traveled yesterday?”
No, she almost blurted, though her backside was a constant reminder. “It didn’t seem that far,” she admitted from between clenched teeth. He might as well have said a hundred miles. The way her bottom throbbed she’d be lucky to make it one, let alone ten. The horse’s gait, though smooth and even, made riding on one hip impossible. She placed a hand on the animal’s glossy-haired rump, which rose and fell with each step, and braced herself against the movement. “Maybe we could get down and rest for a while. I’m sure Andrew would appreciate that.”
“We’ll stop at that next plateau.” Clay pointed a short distance up the hill. “There’s a set of trees that’ll give some shade. The higher the sun gets, the stronger the rays become.”
Kit nodded, knowing full well he couldn’t see her actions. But short of groaning, it was the best she could do. Setting her gaze on the terrain, she tried to focus on something besides the pain, knowing the more she thought about the stinging, the worse it became. It was like that with most things—the harder you thought or fretted, the larger they became. Gramps said that all the time. It was true about his will, too.
And Clayton Hoffman. A year ago, when she’d first learned of the terms of Grandpa Oscar’s will, she’d accepted everything readily enough, too filled with grief to really care. But now that she’d been on her own for a year, and the pain of her grandparents’ passing was easier to deal with, she’d discovered she needed to know the truth. Others didn’t understand the driving need inside her. How could they? They had families. She had no one. Not a single person on earth related to her. The gaping hole that left inside her was indescribable, and it seemed to be sucking the very life out of her. An old ticket stub to Black Hawk she’d found in one of Grandpa’s books had seemed like a sign, and no matter what she discovered, it would be better than not knowing.
Mr. Watson, Grandpa’s solicitor, certainly didn’t understand. Not only did he refuse to give her any details, he said she couldn’t go to Colorado, leastwise not without Clay Hoffman’s permission—a man she’d never met, only heard about from Gramps.
It appeared that he—Clay Hoffman—was not only her financial guardian, he was in charge of everything: her finances until she was twenty-one, and several other aspects of her life until she turned twenty-five. If she waited until then she’d die of loneliness.
Impulsive, that’s what Grandma Katie had always called her. Kit hadn’t minded then, and she didn’t mind now. If a few hastily laid plans would reveal the truth, it would be well worth it. The spontaneous trip across the country had become an adventure for her, one that instilled a sense of excitement and freedom she’d never known.
Other than the sting in her backside, which at this very moment was letting itself be known with renewed force, the trip had been painless—terrifying at times, but painless.
“Here we are.” Clay drew the horse to a stop.
A sigh of relief built in her chest, but she couldn’t let it out. Thinking of climbing off the horse instantly doubled her anxiety. The now constant ache said movement would hurt. Severely.
The way Clay swung his knee over the saddle horn and bounded to the ground as effortlessly as a cat jumped off a branch had every muscle tightening from her head to her toes. Kit chewed on a fingertip, both to redirect the pain and to contemplate how she could manage without—
Hands had wrapped around her waist, lifted her and planted her feet on the ground all in one swift movement. Regaining fortitude while clouds literally swirled before her eyes seemed impossible, and her breath caught inside her lungs at the smarting sting shooting down her legs. Eventually, she managed to squeak, “Thank you.”
“You’re welcome,” he said, already leading the horse to a patch of grass. “I noticed dismounting isn’t a strong suit for you.”
His back was to her, but the humor in his voice couldn’t be ignored. “Dismounting?” she asked, as indignation sprouted out of that fiery sting. “I’ll have you know I’m a quite accomplished rider.”
“Oh?” He was looking at her over one broad shoulder. His grin, which was way too appealing for a man of any age or rank, brightened his entire face, and those blue eyes twinkled as if someone had dropped stardust in them. “You ride around Boston, do you?”
Firelight, the little pony she’d had while growing up, came to her mind. The Shetland had been as white as snow, and the two of them had worn out the grass in the back paddock.
“I assumed you’d travel about in gold carriages, complete with velvet seats and little tassels hanging off the hood,” he continued, while digging in his saddlebags.
The fact he’d described the buggy—white, not gold—that was parked in her carriage house back in Chicago should irritate her. In reality, it made her smile. “Jealous, are you?”
His cheekbones were slightly tinged red. That, too, excited her in a unique and secretive way. “I think you are.”
“You think wrong, Miss Katherine Ackerman from Boston, Massachusetts.” He held up a canvas bag and nodded toward the grove of trees. “Hungry?”
She turned to follow, which was a mistake. The first step had her gulping. Walking was worse than riding. Picking a slow trail, pretending to scrutinize the lay of the land, she made her way after him.
“A little sore?” That irritating grin of his was back.
“No,” she lied.
“That why you offered to walk earlier?”
She cast him her best “you’re annoying me” gaze.
He grinned and sat down, digging into the bag.
By the time she arrived at his side, he’d laid out several pieces of jerky, a crusty loaf of bread, broken in half, and two apples on a blue-and-white-plaid napkin. But it was the ground, which looked as hard as the leather-covered train seats had been, that held her attention. If she sat, she might never get up, yet her stomach growled as her eyes darted toward the food.
He stood. “I have to get the canteen.”
She nodded absently, still wondering how painful sitting would prove to be. Perhaps she could stand while eating. If he’d hand her the food, she wouldn’t even need to bend over.
Still contemplating options, she glanced his way when he returned. Along with the canteen, he had the two blankets that made up his bedroll. Quite honorably, he folded one and then the other, and stacked them on the ground.
“Try that,” he said, patting the blankets.
Kit pressed her tongue against the inside of her cheek and met his gaze.
“It’s obvious, Miss Katherine Ackerman from Boston, Massachusetts, that you’re sore from being in the saddle too long.”
He was a large man, with broad shoulders and bulky arms covered in a tan flannel shirt and leather vest. But the kindness simmering in his blue eyes made him look like a proper gentleman who might come calling on a Saturday night.
That thought did something to her insides, had things stirring around in a very peculiar way.
“Happens to everyone now and again.” He held out a hand, inviting her to take the seat he’d prepared.
The stirring inside her grew warmer, something Kit thought she should question, but instead, another unusual instinct had her accepting his offer by placing her hand in his. He flinched sympathetically as she lowered herself, and his compassion somehow eased the sting as she settled onto the blanket. “Thank you, Mr. Hoffman.” Feeling a need to justify something—whether her abilities or the odd things going on inside her—she added, “I have ridden before.”
His brows arched enigmatically. “I’ve no doubt you have, Katherine.” Clay handed her a long strip of jerky and forcibly bit the end off another piece. He chewed slowly, sitting there beside her and gazing across the hillside.
She wondered why he’d emphasized her name so. The way he said it made her heart skip a beat. Kind of like when she’d thought of him calling on Saturday nights. No one had ever called upon her any night of the week, so where on earth had that thought come from? Pondering, she let her gaze wander along the same skyline as his.
It was a picturesque sight, the mountainside decorated with newly leafed trees and patches of bold green grass, along with pines and spruces, unfathomably dense, that grew in the most unexpected places. Even during the train ride, which had had her stomach flipping and her temples pounding, she’d been in awe at the beauty of the Rockies. Gramps had told her about it, but up close, the wild and raw grandeur was astounding. Romantic, even.
“So,” Clay said, interrupting her ponderings, “why the getup?”
She swallowed and licked the salt from the jerky off her lips. “The getup?”
His eyes roamed from the hole in the tip of one boot to the plaid shirt hanging loosely about her shoulders.
“I figured a boy riding in the hills wouldn’t gain much more than a second glance,” she said.
They were silent for a while, other than the crunch of teeth sinking into the apples, which were surprisingly sweet and crisp considering they must have been bouncing around in his saddlebags. When he’d pitched his apple core toward Andrew, and the horse had snatched it up quickly, Clay asked, “And the bandages?”
Kit felt the heat rise on her cheeks, but didn’t bow her head or look away. “I told you, they aren’t bandages.”
“Then what are they?”
The sting of embarrassment grew. “If you must know …”
He waited patiently as she finished her apple and tossed the leftovers to the expectant-looking Andrew. Feeling more than a touch flustered, but knowing he wouldn’t let up until she answered, she said, “I couldn’t wear my …” she lowered her voice “… normal garments beneath the disguise, so I wrapped myself.” She’d read about that in a book, and it had worked remarkably well.
If it wouldn’t be excruciating, she’d have bounded to her feet. Instead she tried to explain her reason vaguely. “The disguise would not have worked as well if I hadn’t.”
The humor glittering in his eyes made a new bout of something akin to anger sweep up her spine.
“I suspect it wouldn’t have,” he said, stopping his knowing gaze on her torso.
The way her breasts tingled had her shooting to her feet. Flinching and catching her breath at the sharp pains and dull throbs that resulted, she couldn’t stop from grasping her backside with one hand. Gritting her teeth, she prayed for the burning sensation to ease.
Not realizing she’d closed her eyes, Kit was surprised to see him standing beside her, holding out a small tin. “What’s that?”
He glanced around as if assuring their privacy, and then leaned closer to whisper, “For the saddle sore on your rump.”
“My r—” She swallowed the rest of the word, aghast.
“Yes, your rump.” Though he looked as if he was about to burst out laughing, he didn’t. “Saddle sores are a common ailment, and nothing to be embarrassed about.” His expression turned serious. “They’re also nothing to mess with. Especially once the boil forms.”
The intense heat of mortification covered her face. “I do not have a boil,” she insisted.
“Maybe not yet, but you will by the time we get to Black Hawk if you don’t take care of it.” He took her hand and laid the tin in her palm. “Go behind the trees and rub some on.”
Right now, she was willing to try most anything. The pain had become unbearable. “Will it hurt?” she asked.
She snapped her head up. The laughter was gone from his eyes. Sincerity and honesty shone there instead. A large lump formed in her throat. “Yes?”
He nodded. “At first it’s going to sting like h—really sting, but within a few minutes it’ll ease up and soon the spot will be numb. You won’t feel a thing the rest of the way to town. At which point you’ll want to have Doc look at it. He may need to lance it.”
Her insides shook. “Lance it?”
Again there was nothing but truthfulness in Clay’s gaze. That and compassion. “Go on,” he insisted, turning her about by grasping her shoulders. “Andrew and I will wait here.”
Kit wished she had an alternative. Well, she did, but the thought of a boil wasn’t much of a choice, and she honestly didn’t think she could climb back on Andrew the way her backside stung—as if she’d backed up against a cook-stove. “You won’t peek?”
Clay fought the urge to laugh. It wasn’t funny. Her backside had to be stinging as if she’d sat on a hornets’ nest. He doubted there was a person alive who hadn’t ended up with a saddle sore at one point in his or her life. Including him. But she looked so darn cute. “No,” he assured her. “Neither Andrew nor I will peek.” The flicker of annoyance dancing in her coffee-colored eyes had a grin tickling the edges of his lips. He winked. “Yell if you need help, though.”
The chuckle that her glare ensued died as Clay watched her gingerly pick a path behind the trees. She was in serious pain. He walked to Andrew, keeping his eyes focused on the scrap of snow clinging to the farthest mountain peak. “The balm will help,” he told the horse, fighting the urge to turn about and see if anything was visible between the aspens behind which Katherine Ackerman from Boston, Massachusetts, had taken refuge.