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Authors: Nita Wick

Wagonmaster

The Wagonmaster

by

Nita Wick

Freya's Bower.com ©2008

Culver City, CA

The Wagonmaster Copyright © 2008 by Nita Wick, pseudonym

For information on the cover illustration and design, contact [email protected]

Cover art Freya's Bower © 2008

Editor: Faith Bicknell-Brown

ISBN: 978-1-935013-47-1

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form without written permission from the publisher, except by a reviewer who may quote brief passages for review purposes.

This book is a work of fiction and any resemblance to any person, living or dead, any place, events or occurrences, is purely coincidental. The characters and story lines are created from the author's imagination or are used fictitiously.

Warning:

This book may contain graphic sexual material and/or profanity and is not meant to be read by any person under the age of 18.

If you are interested in purchasing more works of this nature, please stop by www.freyasbower.com.

Freya's Bower.com
P.O. Box 4897
Culver City, CA 90231-4897

Printed in The United States of America

Dedication

This book is dedicated to my lunch buddies:
Rosie and Sarah
I love you both.

Acknowledgements

As always, I thank my husband and children for their support and understanding.
Thank you to Mary Alice Pritchard for always being there to listen.
Thanks to Seeley DeBorn, my critique partner, for being so tough.
Special thanks to my editor, Faith Bicknell-Brown. Without her direction and
encouragement, this book would not be all that it is.
And last, but not least, I thank God for all the blessings in my life. I am truly
blessed.

Chapter One

Fort Laramie Wyoming Territory

“I said no. Ain't no way I'm takin' a single woman on my train. Sell your wagon. Go back east where it's safe.”

“But—”

“Even if I wanted to, the others would raise all kinds o' Cain. They already voted, remember? The answer is the same now as it was yesterday.
No
.” Joshua narrowed his eyes, resisting his natural instinct to remove his hat in the presence of a woman. Maybe if he were unfriendly, she'd go away.

Maybe not. She planted her hands on her slender hips and raised a dark, thin brow. She was actually more attractive than he'd first thought. Today she wore an expensive looking traveling dress like the women he'd seen in Boston. The dark indigo blue matched the color of her eyes perfectly. But right now sparks of fire lit those eyes.

“Mr. Reynolds, I'd like to discuss an arrangement with you. I'd appreciate it if you could find the common courtesy to allow me to ask a question before you give an answer.” Crossing her arms beneath her bosom, she stared at him with much the same look he'd gotten from his teacher back in school when he'd put frogs in the girls' desks.

Her name was Adelaide Jennings—Doctor Jennings if she was to be believed. She stood all of five foot three; maybe an extra inch, if she was lucky. And she may as well have been the Queen of Sheba with her royal attitude. Wealth, education, and arrogance dripped from the soft-looking hands with manicured nails. The woman was as out of place in this dusty, old stable as a nun in a saloon. Clearly she was a spoiled little rich girl, and he wasn't about to let her think money was going to change his mind. She was alone, unmarried, and she obviously had no idea what she was trying to get herself into. “Miss Jennings—”


Dr.
Jennings.”

“Right.
Dr.
Jennings. I'm still not sure I believe that claim,” he said. Her nostrils flared, and her lips thinned. Josh bit back a smile. This one was easily riled. “There's no amount of money that's gonna buy your way onto my train.”

She took a deep breath and lowered her arms. “You said you couldn't allow an unmarried woman to travel with your train.”

He nodded and turned back to his horse to finish brushing him down. Josh knew it was rude to turn his back on a lady, but his stomach was rumbling. The sooner he got rid of her, the sooner he could make a quick stop at the bathhouse and get some vittles over at the hotel.

“Well, what if I travel with a husband?”

His brows rose. Had she really found a husband that fast? Any number of men would marry her. Heck, half the unmarried men west of the Rockies were so desperate for wives they had started ordering them by mail. “You got a husband?”

“I want you to marry me.”

His jaw dropped, but he snapped it shut and cleared his throat before answering. Without turning around, Josh kept his voice quiet. “Look Miss—
Dr.
Jennings, I'm right flattered and all, but….”

“Flattered?” A soft chuckle sounded behind him. He spun around in time to catch the flash of amusement in her eyes. “You misunderstand, Mr. Reynolds. I will pay you to let me borrow your name for the duration of the journey. I will legally be your wife, but in name only. That should satisfy the jealous women who claim that having an unmarried woman with the train is unacceptable.”

“It's not just the women! The men know it's invitin' trouble to have a woman around who ain't spoken for. There's fightin' and arguin'….” The woman's smile ended his argument.

“Oh, but I
would
be spoken for, Mr. Reynolds. Are you saying you couldn't protect your own wife from the lecherous intent of such men?”

“I already had a wife. Taught me a lesson I won't forget.” Josh shook his head. “No. I will
not
make that mistake again.”

“Oh, for Heaven's sake!” Throwing her arms in the air, she paced in front of him, the dust from the livery floor coating her shiny black boots. “I'm not asking for a real marriage. This will be a ceremony to please the others, in name only. And as soon as we arrive in Baker City, my father's solicitor will file the necessary papers to have the marriage annulled.”

Josh pulled his hand down his face, attempting to wipe away the headache building behind his eyes. The woman was plum loco. “Why?”

“I beg your pardon?” A look of confusion replaced her impatient schoolmarm expression.

Something told him he wasn't going to like her answer, but he had to know. She'd been so adamant yesterday and here she was back again. “Why is it so important that you travel with
this
wagon train?”

“I'm sure you know that yours is the last one leaving this year. If I don't travel with your train, I'll have to travel on horseback.
Alone.
I believe it would be safer with your train, Mr. Reynolds.”

“If you just wait another year or two, there will likely be a stage running all the way to Oregon.”

Her jaw tightened, and a new emotion filled her eyes. He'd only met her twice, but he'd already discovered she would never be able to hide her feelings. Emotions played across her face and betrayed her thoughts. “My father doesn't have a year, Mr. Reynolds.”

His gut clenched, and the pounding in his temples deepened. “What do you mean?”

“Papa is ill. That's why I became a doctor—so I could help him. If I don't get to him soon, it will be too late.”

As if she'd timed her statement for the most dramatic moment, brilliant rays of the setting sun filtered in through the open doors. Her sable brown hair shone like warm honey, and wetness glistened in the corners of her midnight blue eyes. She bit her lip and stared at him, silently begging him to help her.

Josh stifled a groan. He closed his eyes and shook his head.

“Fine.” She moved passed him, calling over her shoulder, “Have you seen the livery attendant? I need to purchase a horse.”

He let his head fall back, mumbling a curse and a prayer in the same breath. “Wait.”

* * * *

Addie's stomach fluttered. The Justice of the Peace began the ceremony, and she silently assured herself she wasn't making a mistake.
I have to trust him.
She had no choice. Her father was dying, and her heart ached with the knowledge that she wouldn't be able to cure his consumption. Hermann Brehmer had written a dissertation a few years ago entitled
Tuberculosis is a Curable Disease
. His recommended therapy of fresh mountain air had helped, but it hadn't cured her father's illness. The information available on this horrible disease was still too limited. Years of study had only taught her how to keep him comfortable in his last days.

She'd suffered the hateful treatment of the other students, all young men who adamantly believed that a woman simply wasn't intelligent enough to be a doctor. The professors tolerated her presence only because her father had paid almost twice the tuition fee for her to attend. They, too, had tried to discourage her, force her to quit. But she'd proven that she couldn't be beaten. She'd graduated. She was a doctor. For all the good it did her.

Now she stood next to this stranger, entering into a sham marriage so that she could reach her father in time to say goodbye. Everyone she'd questioned before the wagon train arrived had said the same thing. Josh Reynolds was a good man. Respectable. Dependable. Trustworthy. She prayed they were right. Her gaze lifted to the tall, rugged man standing next to her. He seemed solemn, resigned— nothing like yesterday at the livery. He'd tried everything to dissuade her, yelling and cursing about the hardships and dangers on a wagon train, frightening her with tales of suffering and death. In the end, he'd agreed to marry her and ‘protect a foolish woman.'

“Miss Jennings?”

Addie jerked her gaze to the Justice of the Peace and bit back her usual correction of
Dr. Jennings.
“I'm ready.” The man nodded and began reading, his words slow and monotone. She peeked at her groom again. Deep, coffee-brown eyes met her own. They held a touch of resentment, but beyond that his thoughts or emotions remained a mystery. Her gaze skimmed his features. He looked so different. Yesterday, his square jaw had been covered in several days' growth of thick, dark whiskers. Today, he arrived clean-shaven, his sun-bronzed skin smooth except for a small scar on his left cheek. His dark, wavy hair was trimmed and clean though it still brushed the top of his collar.

“So long as you both shall live?”

Mr. Reynolds responded in a low, deep rumble. “I do.”

It occurred to her that he was a handsome man, but so unlike the men she was accustomed to seeing in Boston. This man was stronger, more virile, not to mention taller. He towered over her by head and shoulders. And his demeanor was different too. Mr. Reynolds had an air of inherent confidence, not the abrasive arrogance of the men she'd endured through her years of medical school. He was direct and bold, even intimidating at times. Now and again his behavior bordered on uncivilized, and he could be rude and crass. But he was handsome, indeed, his body the perfect example of the male form at the age of about twenty-five, maybe a little older. Somehow the textbooks hadn't depicted muscles of his proportion for the biceps. Her gaze lowered to take in his broad chest and narrow waist. Thick denim material encased hips that tapered to impressive quadriceps—

“Both shall live?”

Addie's thoughts skittered to an abrupt halt. She swallowed hard. “I do.”

“By the power vested in me by the good people of Fort Laramie, I now pronounce you man and wife. You may kiss the bride.”

Panic filled her momentarily, but she chastised herself for being silly and offered her cheek. He didn't bend to kiss her. Puzzled by his hesitation, she searched his eyes. A sinful gleam replaced the irritation she'd seen before.

He lifted a callused hand, placed his index finger below her chin, and tilted her head back. Warm breath mingled with her own as he lowered his head and whispered, “He gave me permission.” His lips brushed hers tenderly. Without thought, her eyes drifted shut. His scent—leather, soap, and man—filled her nostrils. He pressed his mouth firmly over hers. Her heart skipped a beat and began racing. The world melted away, and, for a brief moment, time stopped.

He broke the kiss and left her breathless with tingling lips and foggy senses. She opened her eyes and found him staring down at her, a smug grin accompanying the wicked gleam still in his eyes. Her temper flared but quickly turned to embarrassment at finding her hands clinging to the front of his shirt.

“Well, then,” the Justice of the Peace broke in, “if you'll both sign this ledger, we'll be finished.”

Thankful for the distraction, Addie grasped the ledger and signed her name. Blast the man, anyway. Why had he kissed her? And why, for goodness sake, had her reaction been so intense? It was just a kiss, after all. He'd touched his lips to hers. It was nothing….

Nothing like anything she'd ever felt before.

Chapter Two

Addie tried not to fidget while Mr. Reynolds inspected her wagon. Traveling the Platt River over a week ago, she'd arrived at Fort Laramie on boat and learned that from here, there were only two ways to Baker City—horseback or wagon train. Horseback would have been much faster, but traveling alone or even with a paid escort was entirely too risky. The wagon train was the only sensible choice, so she had immediately set about purchasing a wagon, oxen, and everything she'd need for the long journey.

“Looks sturdy enough. You got supplies?” He'd returned to his curt, businesslike manner, acting as if he'd never kissed her. That was for the best. It wouldn't do to become emotionally involved with a man who didn't want a wife.

She tried to focus on the matters at hand. “The man at the general store helped me. I think perhaps he sold me some things that I won't need at all, but he assured me that I should have enough to last three months, longer than it will take to get to Baker City. Would you like to see what I have?”

He nodded and walked briskly to the back of the wagon. After climbing inside, he turned, offering his hand to help her step up. Without hesitation, she placed her hand in his and instantly regretted it. His big hand closed over hers and spread warmth through her body. Her pulse raced. Gritting her teeth, she forced herself to ignore the unfamiliar attraction and allowed him to pull her inside, mentally reprimanding herself.
Adelaide Jennings, you are behaving like an infatuated schoolgirl!
Her heart slammed against her chest.

She refused to look at him, certain her silly thoughts would be obvious. “Over here are the dry goods—beans, flour, meal, hard tack, salt, and what little sugar the store had available. In these bins, I have apples, potatoes, carrots, and the like. I've several jars of honey and canned peaches in here.” She bent over and lifted the lid on one of the large wooden containers. “And there are eggs packed in lard. I thought that a bit odd at first, but it makes sense. It should preserve them and keep them from breaking.”

“All the comforts of home, I see,” he said, his voice low and gruff.

“What?” Confusion filled her, but she finally found the courage to look at him. He stared at the bed she'd had built over the low shelves holding her clothing. Heat scorched her cheeks, and she silently chastised herself again for her childish embarrassment. “I should think that a place to sleep would be important.”

His lips twitched as if he were trying not to smile. “Yes, but few have such comfortable quarters. Most of the families on the train have everything they own packed into this little space.”

Even in the dim lighting, he must have noticed her blush. Blast it all. There was no room for retreat in the wagon. Squaring her shoulders, she took a deep breath to steady her voice. “I'm only traveling with adequate clothing and necessary toiletries, Mr. Reynolds. I've some medical supplies, a few items for food preparation and I purchased two buckets and a small tub for laundry and such, but there's no need for all the usual household items. Papa's ranch is completely furnished.”

“I'm sure it is. You got plenty of matches?”

“Yes.” Goodness, but the man was a giant. She had to step aside and press herself against the shelf to give him room to check her supplies.

He nodded, lifted the lid to one of the bins and replaced it, apparently satisfied with what he found there. “Lamp oil? Blankets?” He stooped to look into a basket next to the bed.

Addie didn't reply immediately. The intriguing view of his backside with his denim stretched across taut buttocks distracted her.

He turned and looked at her over his shoulder. The same smug grin he'd worn after he kissed her played about his lips.

Heat infused her cheeks. Mortified that she'd been caught staring, she did the only thing she could do. She pretended it hadn't happened. “Yes, of course.”

His smile widened briefly as he stood, but it disappeared with his next question. “Where's your gun?”

She reached into the pocket of her dress and retrieved the small Remington Derringer she'd purchased before she left Boston. “Will this do?”

“That's fine for protection at close range, but useless for hunting. How do you plan to get fresh meat?”

She pointed to the corner and shrugged. “There's a rifle in that trunk over there. I've practiced with it, but I'd probably starve to death if I planned to rely on my shooting skills. I've enough food even without fresh meat, but I bought fishing equipment. Papa and I liked to fish together when I was a little girl. Hopefully I'll be able to catch a fish or two when we're near water.”

“The trail runs along the river quite a bit. You'll have plenty of opportunities to fish.” Standing so close to her in the small space, the man loomed above her, but she wasn't the least bit frightened. Captivated would more accurately describe her current state. There was no fear at all.

Addie tilted her head back to look up at him. “Do I pass inspection? Have I forgotten anything?”

“I think you've got everything. You sure you can drive this thing?”

“I've practiced for more than an hour every day for almost a week. I can do it.”

“Good. Because there's something you need to understand.” He leaned his imposing frame closer. “As wagonmaster, I'm busy from sunup to sunset and sometimes longer. Jimmy cooks for me and him, but you'll need to cook your own meals.”

“I understand. I told you I have plenty of food and cooking supplies.”

“I mean it, Dr. Jen—” A frown marred his handsome features. “I suppose I should get used to calling you Mrs. Reynolds for the next few months.”

She wasn't certain that would be completely desirable. “Actually, you should probably call me Addie.”

He grunted and dipped his head lower, his face only inches from hers. “I mean what I say,
Addie
. I won't have time to coddle you. You'll have to handle the wagon yourself. I can't be your babysitter.”

She couldn't stop the angry retort. “I've no need of a sitter, Mr. Reynolds. I'm twenty-three years old. A grown woman! And I'm a doctor. I'm quite certain I can take better care of myself than you could anyway!” She took a deep breath in an effort to calm herself. The action had just the opposite effect. His spicy scent overwhelmed her.

He leaned even closer. “I hope you're right. 'Cause you'll get no sympathy when you come cryin' to me.”

She wanted to scream at him, but her mouth had gone dry. Her throat tightened and choked off the anger. He stood close enough for her to feel his breath on her face. And he was staring at her lips. “I won't—” Her voice suddenly missing, she licked her lips to moisten them.

His eyes narrowed, and he leaned closer still.
Oh, God!
He was going to kiss her again. Addie's blood pounded in her ears. His lips hovered just above hers for what seemed an eternity before he spoke, his voice gruff. “Sorry, darlin'. No more kisses.” Striding to the end of the wagon, he shook his head. “That's just askin' for trouble.” He lifted the flap and stepped out. “Don't be tryin' to tempt me like that again.”

The canvas fell, leaving Addie alone.

And fuming.

* * * *

Addie gripped the reins with white knuckles. She should have put on her gloves, but it hadn't occurred to her until she'd already set the oxen in motion. She was still too angry to think clearly.
Tempt him?
How dare he claim she'd done anything of the kind?

He trotted ahead of her now as they approached the other wagons. The train would leave in the morning, and everyone was busy finishing chores and preparing the evening meal. They all paused in their activities to watch her approach.

Mr. Reynolds motioned for her to pull her wagon to the left. She followed his directions and set the brake. He drew alongside the wagon. “Let me handle this. Don't say a word. Understood?”

She nodded, perfectly happy to remain quiet. If she spoke to anyone right now she'd likely say something she'd regret.

Quickly, several of the men gathered next to her wagon. One stepped forward and spoke to their wagonmaster. “I thought we voted on this, Reynolds.”

“You voted on whether to allow Miss Jennings to join us.” He tipped his hat toward her. “This here is Mrs. Reynolds. And you don't get a vote on whether I bring my wife along.” The surprise etched on their features was almost comical. They all looked at each other before returning their cold gazes to her. Their expressions turned to anger and disgust. Mr. Reynolds nudged his horse toward them. “You'll be grateful I've brought her along when one of you needs a doctor. She's agreed to provide her services free of charge.”

Addie almost gasped at his audacity. She'd never agreed to that! But the shock passed swiftly. It didn't matter anyway. She didn't need payment for services and she would give free treatment to anyone who needed it. It just irritated her that he hadn't asked her first.

One of the men didn't care for the offer. “Ain't no woman gonna be doctorin' me or mine. Don't care if it is free.”

How many times had she heard that sentiment before?

Mr. Reynolds grimaced and shook his head. A hostile tone heated his voice. “We leave at dawn. I'm sure you all have better things to do than stand around gawking at my wife.”

The small crowd disbursed, most grumbling to each other. Clearly, they were not happy about her joining them. She wouldn't be making any friends, but that was nothing new. She hadn't really had any friends since she'd entered medical school. Addie had learned to live without them.

Mr. Reynolds spoke quietly. “They'll come around.”

Had he read her mind? “Not likely, Mr. Reynolds. But I don't care. I'm only here because I want to be with my father. I'll keep to myself. They'll forget I'm even with the train before long. It'll be just like medical school. I won't draw attention to myself by asking questions. I'll just stay in the back and do what must be done to make it through.”

“No. You'll be the lead wagon. You'll set the pace for the rest. That way I don't have to worry about you falling behind.”

She bit her tongue to stop the defensive reply. She'd show him. Just like she'd shown all those arrogant, narrow-minded men back in Boston.

“Best get your dinner fixed and turn in early. You're in for a rude awakening tomorrow. Life on a wagon train is a damn sight harder than you seem to believe.”

She nodded but said nothing. How could she have thought him any different from the men back east? Oh, she'd show him. Addie couldn't stop the grin that formed on her lips. “Have a pleasant evening, Mr. Reynolds.”

His brows rose in surprise. She climbed down from the wagon and stomped toward the oxen, careful not to let her trepidation show. Large animals terrified her, but she couldn't give him yet another reason to find her inadequate. He turned his horse and trotted away. Addie's smile slipped as her shaking hands reached for the yoke. “Yes, Mr. Reynolds. I'll show you. And enjoy every minute of it.”

* * * *

Good God!
What had she been thinking? She ached to her very bones. Only six days on the trail and already she wanted to quit. But she'd be hanged before she admitted Reynolds had been right. Addie had stopped using Mr. days ago. Everyone else just addressed him by Reynolds, and she'd adopted the same habit.

This evening she hadn't even bothered with a campfire. After unhooking the oxen, she'd climbed into the wagon and grabbed an apple. Now, she gathered up a washcloth, drying sheet, soap and clean clothes. She groaned as her feet hit the ground, but she ignored the protests of her aching muscles and headed toward the river.

“Where do think you're going?”

Joshua Reynolds had the most irritating tendency to turn up when she least wanted to see him. Today she was too tired to pretend indifference. “I'm going to bathe. If you'll excuse me, I'd like to do it before it's completely dark.” She started to go around him, but he stepped into her path.

“Sorry, darlin'. But you can't go alone.” He crossed his arms over his chest and stared down at her.

She shifted her load into the crook of one arm and pointed at his chest. “Look, mister, I'm tired. I'm dirty. And in case you haven't noticed, I do everything alone! Now I'm going to bathe whether
you
like it or not. So step aside before I decide to test my derringer. I haven't fired it in over a week and I've an increasing desire to shoot something!”

He chuckled and shook his head. “You've got gumption. I'll give you that, Addie.” He stepped to the side and waved her past. “I'll go with you.”

She gritted her teeth and mumbled under her breath. “I don't give a fig what you do, Reynolds. Just stay out of my way.”

She reached a likely spot next to the river, set her things down and began undressing. “Turn your back.” It occurred to her that she sounded like a shrew, but she quickly decided that she didn't care. She'd never been so exhausted in her life and she didn't have the energy required to be pleasant to the irksome man.

Addie didn't bother to see if he'd complied with her command. She undressed, grabbed the soap and washcloth, and waded into the water. The cold water elicited a gasp and sent shivers through her. As quickly as she could, she washed and ducked into the water to rinse. She took the soap to her hair, scrubbing until the dust and grime were gone. She dipped under the water several more times and left the river with her teeth chattering. Reynolds, only a few feet away, stood with his back to her.

Addie reached for the drying sheet and wrapped it around her, tucking the corner into the top to secure it. She twisted her hair and wrung out the excess water with a twinge of regret. Her decision to forego the campfire had been a mistake. The heat to help dry her hair and rid her of the chill from the cold water would have been welcomed. Although the effort sapped what little energy she had, she shook her hair out and ran her fingers through it, uncomfortably aware of the man waiting silently for her to finish.

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