Tensions are running high on the Kansas-Missouri border. Bleeding Kansas is a war within a war and Caroline Cassett and Creighton Blaylock face a parent's greatest nightmare. Their children are missing. What they don't know is their world is about to explode.
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When Blaylock returned from the barn, Caroline was waiting on the porch. Her hair was wrapped in a tight bun under her wide-brimmed hat and King was at her side.
"I wasn't sure which saddle you wanted, so I guessed," he said.
Caroline smiled. "Creighton, the varnish is still fresh on that side saddle. That should have given you some indication of my preferences."
"Well, it was an educated guess."
She brushed past him and before he could offer a hand she mounted her horse. Blaylock had a brief glimpse of snow white petticoats and trim ankles in brown ankle boots.
"Caroline, lead the way."
I wish this ride was under better circumstances, he thought.
The countryside, green and deceptively peaceful, swept past them as they trotted toward town. Blaylock couldn't help sneaking sidelong glances at Caroline as she sat relaxed and comfortable in her saddle. Once she caught him and flashed a small smile.
The town came into view too soon. As the road grew rutted from the heavier traffic and Caroline exchanged nods with other riders, her posture stiffened and her smile disappeared.
Instead of turning onto the main street, she led him to a small grove of trees and stopped. King rolled in the cool grass before seeking out the shade.
"Mr. Blaylock, we need to talk. I don't know how to say this."
The formality surprised him. It wasn't the black ice he'd seen back at the cabin, but all the warmth was gone from her tone. If her cheeks hadn't been pink, he would have been concerned.
"Mrs. Cassett," he said, matching her tone, "Please speak up. We don't need to have any more secrets at this time."
Well, maybe one.
"Mr. Blaylock, this is no surprise, but the folks here in town don't have much use for Missouri in general and Bushwhackers in particular. You've been getting some dirty looks and we don't have time for trouble."
I do believe I know what this is about, but out with it, Caroline.
"Well ma'am, I can't do anything about my blood and I'm not ashamed of my home. What do you propose?"
Her exasperated sigh told him he was likely right.
She's going to have to ask.
"Mr. Blaylock, you look every inch a soldier. You can't change the way you walk or sit a horse, but you can change some things about the way you look. People would take more kindly to you if you looked like a farmer or, better yet, a doctor or storekeeper."
Creighton smiled, but said nothing.
"It's the beard!"
And now we have it.
"Would you please consider trimming it?"
His laughter raised more pink in her cheeks and a twitch to the corners of her mouth.
"Caroline, I've known you for exactly three hours and you're already trying to change me. Hell, it took Lucinda a week."
He stopped laughing when she wrapped her hands around the pommel and dropped her head.
"Look at me," he said.
She didn't move.
He put an edge of authority in his voice. "Dammit, look at me."
The glisten in her eyes tugged at his heart. This time his voice was gentle.
"Caroline that's an excellent idea. Depending on where we are going, I can't promise we won't meet someone I've had a run in with before. So, some gussying up might keep them from recognizing me. I assume this town has a barber?"
"How about I drop you wherever you need to be and I'll go see if I can scrape some trouble off of me. Would that be alright with you?"
He caught a hint of a smile before she whistled for King and got back on the road.
She reined her horse in front of a fancy house that had seen better days. However, like Caroline's cabin, Blaylock caught hints of security among the casual disarray. Even though the paint was peeling, the shutters on the first floor looked stout and steel bars covered the side and upper floor windows.
"Creighton, this is my destination. How about I meet you at the general store in an hour or so?"
"Are you sure you don't want me to stay?"
"I'm positive. I promise that if I confirm what I suspect, I will explain everything."
He answered by swinging to the ground and holding out his hands to her. When she didn't move, he said, "Caroline, a gentleman helps a lady, even if she rides like a man, dismount. If you want folks around here to think I'm not a barbarian, you need to let me act the part. Now, get off your horse like the damn lady you are."
Despite his cavalier words, the light touch of her hand flashed warmth down to his toes.
Twisting away from him, she straightened her hat and said, "Thank you, Mr. Blaylock."
With a nod and tip of his hat, he was back in the saddle and headed down the shady street.
To be continued . . .