Victoria Bylin.

Of Men And Angels






Under the blazing Colorado sun, a miracle happened. Soulless Jake Malone began to care about Alexandra Merritt, an indomitable, heaven-sent beauty, and the small, squalling life shed helped bring into this world. But could she help Jake forgive himself his past so that they could have a future?

Just what the hell do you think is going to happen between us? You think Im just going to stop with a kiss?

Yes. I know you, Jake.

He shook his head, as if shed said she could fly. His boots scraped at the ground as if he wanted to run but couldnt. Something wild rose up in Alex. Her deepest instincts told her that this man needed to be touchedgently, deeply, often.

Shed put up with too much today. Listen to me! Youre not nearly as bad

He snatched her hand and held it tight. Im warning you, Alex. Stay away from me.

Of Men and Angels

Harlequin Historical #664

Harlequin Historicals is proud to introduce

debut author VICTORIA BYLIN

#663 TEXAS GOLD

Carolyn Davidson

#665 BEAUCHAMP BESIEGED

Elaine Knighton

#666 THE BETRAYAL

Ruth Langan

Of Men and Angels
Victoria Bylin

www.millsandboon.co.uk

Available from Harlequin Historicals and

VICTORIA BYLIN

Of Men and Angels #664

Dedicated to my father,

Jack K. Bylin

This ones for you, Dad,

for the encouragement,

the coffee,

everything.

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

Id also like to thank my husband and sons for their love and support, my mother for just being herself, and my community of friends for sharing this journey with me.

Contents

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Sixteen

Chapter Seventeen

Chapter Eighteen

Chapter Nineteen

Epilogue

Chapter One

Western Colorado Plateau

June 1885

The rain hit without warning.

The mules balked as a flash of lightning cut through the sky, and the driver spurred them with a crack of his whip.

Haul your sorry butts outta here, or youre gonna be swimming in that goddamn river!

That wasnt what Alexandra Merritt wanted to hear.

After a week on a crowded train from Philadelphia and another three weeks in a dirty Leadville hotel, she was almost home. She had given up waiting for repairs to the Denver Rio Grande train tracks and booked passage to Grand Junction on the worn-out stagecoach being used to deliver the U.S. mail.

Waiting another month had been unthinkable. Like a clock that needed winding, her fathers heart could stop without warning. She couldnt stand the thought of never seeing him again. With the letters they had exchanged over the past ten years, a bridge had been built. William Merritt knew her better than she knew herself. She hadnt thought twice about leaving her post as president of the Philadelphia Childrens League, or postponing her marriage to Thomas Hunnicutt. She had to get home.

Thunder boomed across the plain, and the stagecoach lurched like a staggering beast. Sitting across from her on the lumpy seat, Charlotte Smith stirred from an exhausted sleep. Whats happening?

Alex pulled back the leather flap covering the window. Cool air and the heavy scent of mud rolled into the coach. Charlotte had been as eager as she to get to her destination, and her reason was just as urgent. Alexs fellow passenger was close to nine months pregnant and eager to reach her sister before the baby came.

Its raining, Alex answered, raising her voice over a staccato burst of hail. I think the drivers worried about the road.

The road!

Below them, a streambed writhed with the muddy runoff. Alex could see the water rising, slashing at the sides of the gorge. A shriveled juniper tore loose in the flood, and a man-size boulder tumbled after it.

Hold up, you beasts! the driver shouted. The coach skidded but didnt stop. Gravity flung Alex against the seat just as the driver pounded on the roof.

Mrs. Smith! Miss Merritt! Hang on!

The stage lurched as if it had been tipped by an unseen hand. Charlotte screamed. Alex pulled the woman into her arms, but she couldnt keep her grip. They were bouncing like stones, and the next thing she knew she was weightless, floating in the air like a bird, until the coach hit rushing water with a splash, throwing her against the door with a bone-crunching lurch.

Pain shot through her shoulder. Thunder ricocheted like a rifle shot, and the wheels spun with the rushing water. The mules screamed and kicked in a worthless effort to wrench themselves free. Water seeped through the wooden seams of the coach. It soaked her shoes and pooled at her ankles. Her white blouse was torn at the elbow, and the cool air stung the strawberry scrape on her arm.

Charlotte grabbed her stomach with both hands.

Help us! Alex screamed, pushing at the door over her head. Smitty! Hank! There was no answer, so she climbed through the opening and sat with her feet in the door well, hanging on to the frame for balance as waves of brown water pounded the brittle wood.

By a stroke of luck, the coach was wedged against a huge rock and a slab of mud. The torrent whipped through the wheels and raced down the gorge, ripping at boulders and exposing tree roots, taking what it wanted. The mud wall melted like chocolate in the sun, and the coach scraped along the bottom of the streambed, moving in inches that threatened to become feet.

Charlotte, weve got to get out of here. Weve got to hurry.

Bracing her feet against the door frame, she grabbed Charlottes arm and pulled. The coach lurched and slid a foot closer to the wall of the ravine. A juniper branch scratched her face with prickly green needles and Alex grabbed it, pulling to test it with her weight. The trunk was just a foot away. The makeshift rope would have to do.

Charlotte, grab that branch. Now!

Sheer terror yanked Charlotte out the door and into the vee of the trunk. Alex hoisted her skirts and followed. It was like climbing a tree as a child except the water had been doing its work, and the coach had slipped farther downstream.

Grabbing the branch with both hands, she clamped it between her knees and shimmied toward the relative safety of the trunk. Rough bark scraped her thighs and soft palms. The weight of her sopping skirt pulled her down, but she kept a firm grip on the bark, sliding to the trunk in inches until she reached Charlotte.

The water was ebbing, and the coach was twenty feet away. By some miracle, Charlotte was still wearing a coy red hat with a bobbing feather. From her perch Alex looked for the drivers, but she didnt see either of the gray-bearded men. Two of the mules were still screaming with pain. The other two had drowned.

Turning to see how well the tree was rooted, Alex saw what had happened. A slab of mud had wiped out the road, and the hillside had collapsed into the watery torrents. It was a stupid place for a road, she thought. A stupid place to be.

How are you doing? she said, reaching for Charlottes blue-veined hand. The pregnant woman looked like a very fat sparrow. Until a few days ago, they had been strangers, but the boredom of travel had made them acquaintances if not friends.

Charlotte moaned and clutched Alexs fingers as she doubled over, squeezing back her tears.

Alex rubbed her shoulders. Its going to be all right. Youve just had a scare.

I hurt.

Where?

My middle. The babys kicking.

Dear God, no. Not now. Not yet.

Alex knew about orphans and babies, but she had only witnessed one birth in her life. It hadnt been easy, and her cousin had nearly died.

Maybe it will stop, she said. Weve both had a shock.

The rain lessened to a drizzle, and the water ebbed as quickly as it had risen. Where had the storm come from? It had been so sudden, uncontrollable and devouring. Dampness chilled the air. The women had goose bumps, and night was coming fast.

The third mule had died, and the fourth was on its side, heaving with exhaustion. The stream had thinned to a ribbon, leaving puddles that looked like dirty mirrors.

Charlotte, Im going down to look around.

No, stay with me!

Ill only be a minute. Alex squeezed her hand and slid out of the tree. Mud oozed over her high-buttoned shoes as she sloshed to the coach. As if nothing had happened, their trunks were still lashed to the baggage rack, and she thought about the silly shoes she had packed. She needed sturdy boots and walking clothes. She needed help. Maybe even a miracle, but shed settle for what she could find.

Standing on a rock, she peered through the window and saw the ruined contents of her food basket floating in a foot of water. Holding back an ache of worry, she walked to the drivers boot and opened the small door. Water gushed down her skirt, but she found a wad of mens clothing, a knife, a pistol and a box of bullets. Could she possibly hunt for food? The thought was laughable, but she took everything, and in a second compartment she found two canteens of water and a sack of apples. They would have to last until help came.

Helpbut when would that be? Surely someone would come looking for them when the stage didnt make it to Grand Junction, yet delays were common.

Alex! I need you now. Charlottes voice cut through her thoughts, and she turned back to the tree just in time to see the womans face go white with pain.

Setting the meager supplies on a rock, Alex stretched her arms upward as if to catch the woman if she fell. Let me help you down, she said gently.

Charlottes belly was huge. Her eyes widened with fright and, choking back a sob, she said the one thing Alexandra Merritt was afraid to hear.

My water just broke.

The last thing Jackson Jacob Malone wanted to hear was singing, especially a woman singing in a high, sweet voice that reminded him of angels he didnt believe in. The words drifted to him from the bottom of a rocky gorge, and he wondered if he was still drunk. The singing was bad enough, but as the trail dipped and curled, he recognized the words. She was singing a hymn, and for a moment he thought hed died and gone to hell.

Two seconds later a scream burst out of the ravine, and Jake heard the devil himself in that cry. It tore through his head like a bullet burning flesh. A bead of sweat broke across his brow and he wiped it away.

Hang on, Charlotte! Hang on for the baby!

The angels voice reminded him of sleigh bells on a winter morning. Hopeful and bright, they defied the cold even as it settled into a mans bones, and he wondered if the angel had ever shivered in the dark. Somehow he doubted it, and he was sure when she started singing again, even louder than before.

Oh, come, let us worship and bow down,

Let us kneel before the Lord, our God, our maker

The noonday sun stung his skin and cast shadows through the sage. His jaw throbbed just below his ear, as if the pain in his bruised eyes had leaked down the side of his face. He clenched his teeth against the misery of it. He didnt want reminders of his brothers fist slamming into him, the mess hed left in Flat Rock, and especially not the melancholy hope of a woman singing in the desert.

Oh, no! Its starting again!

Breathe easy, Charlotte. Easy

I cant!

A moan rose from the gorge and snaked around him.

Try to pant, the angel crooned. Like thishhhhhhhhhhhhhhh

It was the sound of sex, of life being formed, of need and desperation, and he recalled the pleasured cry of the last woman hed bedded. He didnt know her name, but he remembered her breasts, the taste of her, and he felt himself going soft inside. He had to get away from Charlotte and the angel before he did something stupid. Grimacing, he nudged his horse into a faster walk.

The trail twisted around a boulder rimmed with goldenrod, then cut straight across a hard slope. A dry mud slide blocked the way, as if a huge hand had pushed the trail into the mountainside. Tugging his hat low, he nudged the bay with his knees. The horse shimmied nervously, sending ripples of apprehension through Jakes thighs and up his spine.

The heat of the day pressed against him, and the stench of bad meat was unmistakable. His stomach nearly heaved, and he squinted into the gorge where pale green sage made a fence along the streambed. His gaze followed the trickle of water down the ravine to the graceful curve of a red stagecoach. The front wheel spun as if set in motion by an invisible hand, and someone had draped womens clothing over the rocks and bushes.

The bay splayed his forelegs and balked.

Whoa, boy, Jake said softly.

Hed just won the horse in a card game, and the animals distrust was mutual. The bay was likely to buck, but Jake took a chance and nudged him forward until he had a wider view of the gorge. The women were nowhere in sight, but he saw three dead mules tangled in the harness. The fourth was lying on its side, braying like a forgotten pet. Sensing the presence of the bay, it raised its head and snorted before falling back against the sand.

For He is our God,

And we are the people of his pasture,

And the shee-eeee-eeep of his hand

The singing was closer now, as resonant as a howling wind, and his stomach clenched. He wanted a drink. He wanted to block out the rotting mules, the women, the god-awful singing. Suffocated by dust and sweet sage, he dug his heels into the bay, bracing himself as the animal coiled and lurched over the slick of dry mud.

The crust collapsed beneath its hooves, and Jake fought for balance as the horse jerked its head and pedaled backward.

Breathe, Charlotte! Dont squish up your face. Breathe like mehhhhhhhhhhhh

The voice was clearer now, and as the sagebrush thinned to a veil of green lace, Jake saw the angel. She was less than ten yards from him, on her knees in front of the other womans sprawled legs, splattered with blood and birth water. Her hair was the color of Arbuckles coffee, and it fell over her shoulders in a tangle. Her blouse was torn at the shoulder, and he could see a hot pink crescent where the sun had burned her skin.

Trails of sweat streaked her dusty face. The high collar of her blouse was loose and gaping, and he saw the curve of her breasts as she laid her hand on the birthing womans belly, leaned down and peered between her legs.

Pushing back the womans dark blue skirt, she said, Dont push, Charlotte.

Ive got to!

Its too soon. Youll tear.

Jake cringed. The woman moaned, and the mix of grunting and agony turned into a wail. Her pain was terrible to hear. The bearing down of her hips and the writhing of her belly was the most horrible thing he had ever seen.

Breathe, Charlotte!

But the birthing woman was beyond understanding. Instead of listening to the angel, she curled her spine, grabbed her knees and screamed. A bullet to the head would have been an act of kindness, and yet he couldnt look away.

There was no singing now, only the blue skirt and streaks of bright red blood on the petticoat spread beneath her hips. His gaze traveled from her thighs to her belly, and then to her ashen face. He had never seen a baby being born but hed seen a few men die, and Charlotte plainly needed more help than any man or woman could give.

Her face registered shock and stark fear. My baby! Oh God, my baby!

For a man who didnt give a damn about anyone or anything, he was dangerously close to tears. He prodded the bay with his heels, but the animal refused to budge, giving an angry chuff that carried through the gorge.

The angel raised her face toward the blistering blue sky. Her eyes locked on him, and for one painful second she stared at him with fierce brown eyes.

Go away! Go away, you son of a Her lips locked together, as if she had never spoken a curse word in her life. He nearly laughed at the stupidity of it. She needed help. If not now, then later when she had to get to a town.

Jake wasnt enough of a gentleman to feel honor-bound to stay, but he was enough of a rebel to pick a fight. He held the bay at the top of the trail. At this point he wasnt going anywhere.

Alex! Help me Charlotte grabbed her bare knees and grunted like a crazed animal.

Its coming! The babys coming! The angel touched Charlottes belly as a low cry poured from the womans throat. Weeping and laughing, she said, I see the head. Push, Charlotte! Push.

Jake held his breath.

Charlotte! You can do it! Push!

The torture went on for a small eternity, until the baby squirted out of the womb and landed in the angels hands. Covered with blood and a waxy white cream, it seemed small and gray in the vastness of the plateau, and far too quiet to be alive. The angel reached into the babys rosebud mouth and cleared away the mucus. She held it upside down and slapped its bottom, and still there was no sound.

He saw panic in her eyes, but she choked it back and blew oh-so-gently into the babys mouth. He heard a cough, then mewling, and then a healthy wail. Tears spilled down her cheeks, and he blinked away his own.

Alex The mothers voice was weak.

Its a boy, Charlotte. Hes little but hes perfect. The angel set the baby on the mothers belly. Weve got to get the afterbirth.

From his vantage point on the trail, Jake saw the angel cut the cord with a knife. The afterbirth followed the baby, and fresh blood gushed from Charlottes womb. The angels eyes burned with fear. She reached for a cloth to stanch the bleeding, and in a minute it was soaked.

A cloud shifted. A dark shadow fell over the three of them. He saw Charlottes face relax. Her fingers stilled and her chest sank emptily against the sand. The only sign of life was the baby stirring on her belly, its mouth opening and closing like a blooming flower.

The angel pressed her hands to her cheeks and wept.

There wasnt a thing Jake could have done to keep the woman alive, but he could dig her grave. Silently he climbed off the bay and led the horse into the ravine. The woman named Alex looked up at him.

If you tend to the baby, Ill see to the mother, he said.

Who are you? Her voice was hoarse, and he could see every minute of the past twenty-four hours in her face. Something stirred in his gut, and an un-characteristic urge to be kind softened his eyes.

My friends call me Jake.

I thought you were She shook her head. I thought I imagined you.

She looked as if she could still hear Charlottes moans, and he wondered if she would ever sing that hymn again. He looked at her eyes, red rimmed and inflamed with the dust and the sun, and somehow he knew she would sing it again this very day, just to make a point.

Brushing off her hands, she rose and smoothed her skirt. Jake tethered the bay to the stagecoach and inspected the mule writhing in the harness. If the animal could walk, perhaps the woman and baby could ride it.

Whoa, boy, he said, but the beast didnt want anything to do with him. A broken foreleg told Jake all he had to know. He pulled his Colt .45 from its holster, cocked the hammer and put the animal out of its misery.

The angel gasped at the sudden blast. He expected her to be hysterical or sentimental about the animal, but she didnt say a word and he had to admire her. She had been a fool to travel the Colorado Plateau alone, but she wasnt softhearted about life.

Jake holstered the Colt and opened the drivers boot. The mail was ruined, but the tools were in place and he took out the shovel. He wondered about the driver and man on shotgun, but the watermarks in the gorge made the facts plain. The two men had drowned in the flood.

Jabbing the shovel into the ground, Jake took a pair of leather gloves from his saddlebag and looked for a suitable grave site. He wasnt about to bury Charlotte where a flash flood could steal the body, so with his black duster billowing behind him, he climbed over the cascade of rocks on the far side of the gorge.

The iron-rich plains stretched for a million miles, but just a few feet away he saw a sprig of desert paintbrush. It was the best he could do, and he started to dig. When the hole was deep, he collected rocks from the streambed and piled them nearby.

Two hours had passed when he wiped his hands on his pants and looked at the sky. The sun was lower now, as bright as orange fire, and above it, flat-bottomed clouds boiled into steamy gray peaks. Another storm was coming, he could smell it in the air.

He jabbed the shovel into the earth and strode down the rocky slope. The angel was holding the baby, crooning to it in that sweet voice of hers. It was bundled in something clean and white, and she had managed to dress the mother in a fashionable traveling suit.

Without a word, he brushed by the angel and scooped Charlotte into his arms, rocked back on his heels and rose to his full height.

He felt the angels gaze as he walked past her, and rocks skittered as she followed him. As gently as he could, he laid the dead woman to rest, picked up the shovel and replaced the dirt. He half expected the woman named Alex to pray or say a few words, but she settled for a mournful humming that made him think of birds in autumn and the wail of the wind.





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