Annabel Latham McKeige's return to Parable, Nevada, some twelve years after her scandalous departure, might have equaled the Second Coming for spectacle, if an angel or two had taken the trouble to show up.
In the misleading chill of that Independence Day morning, 1878, Annabel's sky blue surrey, with its liveried driver and dancing fringe of gold, came trundling over the rise a quarter of a mile east of town, emblazoned like a living icon in the glorious aura of dawn. In attendance was a retinue that seemed to represent fully half the United States Cavalry -- a noisy multitude of blue-coated soldiers with brass buttons gleaming and the hooves of their horses raising billows of sun-gilded dust. Two huge black hounds trotted along on either side of Miss Annabel's rig, their fancy collars catching light.
Einar Grubb, who mucked out the Samhill Saloon on a daily basis and served as night guard at the town jail, on the rare occasions when there was a prisoner, claimed ever after that he'd been the first to take note of the Approach. There were others who disputed this contention -- Miss Bethesda Deed, for one. An early riser by habit, she'd been standing at an upstairs window at the time, admiring the sunrise. She said the whole thing put her in mind of Hannibal crossing the Alps.
Marshal Jacob Swingler, returning from a tryst with a certain pretty widow, considered himself to be the first witness, but he was less vociferous in the matter, for reasons of chivalry as well as prudence.
In any event, it was Grubb who raised the alarm, sending the swinging doors of the saloon crashing inward and charging halfway up the staircase on the far side of the room before thinking better of the idea and stumbling to a halt on the first landing.
"Gabe!" he bellowed, sounding plaintive, like a cow up to its belly in a mudhole. "Gabe McKeige! Godamighty, get down here quick -- she's come back!"
A general racket erupted then, not only there in the gloom of the Sainhill but all over that small cattle town, as if the fuse on some giant firecracker had finally burned down to the powder.
Whores with tumbledown hair and fading ruffled nightdresses lined the railing overhead like tawdry flowers of unlikely hue, fussing because they'd been awakened at such an unholy hour. A few of the regular patrons hopped and hobbled along the hallway behind them, like blind rabbits spilled out of a feed bag, wrenching on boots and fastening trousers as they bolted toward the back stairway, making damn near as much racket as the throng of soldiers outside.
Then Gabe McKeige himself appeared, fully dressed and in no apparent hurry to save his skin. He was a big man, lean but powerfully built in the arms and shoulders, and he shoved both hands through his straw-colored hair as he glowered down at Grubb.
"What the hell...?"
In that moment Einar was sure glad he had just cause for rousting McKeige out of his mistress's bed, because the look in Gabe's blue eyes was fierce enough to back down the devil's gatekeeper.
"It's Miss Annabel -- Mrs. McKeige, I mean." Grubb sputtered, pointing in an easterly direction
"She's come back to Parable, and she's brought the army with her."
Gabe swore under his breath and descended the stairs, pushing past Grubb and striding across the sawdust floor. When he reached the doors, he was momentarily dazzled by a storm of brass and new minted sunshine.
He narrowed his eyes against the glare, and sure enough, right there in the center of the exhibition was Annabel, sitting primly on the cushioned-leather seat of that surrey and looking down at him with all the disdain of a queen come to conquer and redeem a backward people.
Something tucked far back in Gabe's heart tightened briefly at the sight of her, but he put that down to annoyance. The clenching sensation in the pit of his belly defied explanation.
Annabel must have ridden a long while in that rig, and left in the dark of night to do it, since the nearest settlement, Fort Duffield, was nearly eight miles away. Still, she looked as fresh as a new bride. Her abundant redbrown hair gleamed in a tidy arrangement, beneath a prim little hat, and her sherry-colored eyes were bright with intelligence and disdain as she assessed him.
"I might have known I'd find you here, Gabriel McKeige," she said, with a little sniff and an indignant motion of her chin, indicating the Samhill Saloon looming behind him.
Gabe wanted to grin, but did not indulge the urge. Dealing with Annabel required serious concentration, a difficult feat after a night spent drinking, arguing politics, and losing at cards. "Your judgment is as flawless as ever, Mrs. McKeige," he allowed.
She flushed slightly -- prettily -- and one of the fancy hounds came whimpering to Gabe to nudge his thigh with a long muzzle. Idly, without looking down, Gabe acknowledged the dog's greeting by wrestling its ears around a little.
"Champion!" Annabel scolded, giving her fringed parasol an irritated little spin against her shoulder. "Heel -- at once!"
With a whine, the beast skulked back to its station beside Annabel's ridiculous rig. The dust was still settling.
Gabe folded his arms and watched his wife in silence, wearing the faint smirk he knew would nettle her.
The soldiers, evidently come to town on business of their own, dismounted at the command of a cavalry captain, who, like the two dogs, kept what appeared to be an assigned place near Annabel.
"I have come to discuss a matter of grave importance," Annabel said. Though she was perfectly controlled, as she almost always was, Gabe could tell that she wanted to close that fussy little umbrella and clout him over the head with it.
He counted the fact as a minor victory.
Smiling, he spread his hands in a gesture of cordial forbearance. "I'm listening," he said.
Annabel's color heightened again, but her gaze was unflinching. "You cannot think I would speak of personal matters in front of the entire town," she replied coolly.
Gabe shifted his gaze to the army officer, a man he did not recognize, then back to Annabel. "I guess we could talk at the ranch," he reasoned. "You do remember where that is, don't you?"
Annabel glared. "Please do not speak to me as though I were stupid, Mr. McKeige. Of course I know."
Gabe made a show of dragging out his pocket watch, flipping open the case, frowning at the time. "I'll meet you there," he said, ignoring her remark entirely, or at least pretending to ignore it. In truth, every word she said lodged itself in him somewhere, there to sting like a nettle. "In, say, an hour?"
Annabel cast a telling glance toward the uppermost story of the Samhill Saloon -- where Miss Julia Sermon kept private rooms. "I would not like to inconvenience you," she replied pointedly.
Gabe grinned widely. "Oh, you won't," he answered, with exaggerated charm. Then he turned his back on her, walked back into the saloon, and climbed the stairs, humming under his breath.
Julia's girls watched open-mouthed as he passed, but the saloon was filling up with youthful soldiers bent on making good use of their free time. No one employed by the Samhill Saloon would be idle for long,
As Gabe entered Julia's sitting room, he heard the first tiny chords of a spritely tune rise through the floorboards. Someone had resurrected the piano player.
The long couch where Gabe had passed the night was still a tangle of blankets, and Julia stood in the doorway of her bedroom, clad in a floaty silk dressing gown, her dark hair brushed and hanging free to her waist.
"Annabel has come home," she said.
Gabe picked up his hat, tossed onto a chair the night before, then set it aside on a table. "No," he said gruffly, avoiding Julia's gaze while he tried in vain to work out what he felt and how he wanted it perceived. "No, she wants something, that's all. Most likely this is about Nicholas. She probably has some silly idea about making a gentleman out of him."
"Sit down," Julia said quietly. "Get your wits about you. She's got you rattled, Gabe, and if you don't take the time to think, you might do or say something you'll regret."
He sat, stretching out his long legs and crossing his feet. He was silent for a long while, staring pensively at the scuffed toes of his boots, and then he gave a great ragged sigh. "Damn," he said, without looking at Julia. "I didn't expect this. Her coming back all of the sudden, without a word of warning, I mean."
"I imagine that's why she did it, at least partly," Julia answered. She was as placid as a sheltered pond, as usual, taking a chair opposite his, all delicate and mannerly. She was probably the best friend he'd ever had, and not for the first time, he wished he could have loved her in another way. "Annabel is obviously a woman who puts great stock in the element of surprise" -- she paused, struggled with a muted smile, and gave in graciously to defeat -- "not to mention stagecraft."
"It's got to be about Nicholas," he mused aloud. Their son, his and Annabel's, was nineteen and full of the devil. Gabe wondered how the boy, off by himself in the foothills for the past ten days, would feel when he learned of his mama's return. Annabel and Nicholas weren't close, as far as Gabe knew, but they'd stayed in contact over the years, exchanging letters.
Nicholas never said much about Annabel or what passed between them; when a vellum envelope bearing her monogram came to the ranch, the boy would tuck it unopened into his shirt pocket and go off somewhere by himself to read it. Although Nicholas, as hardheaded at seven as he was now, had hated Boston from the first and promptly demanded to be sent home to Nevada, he had surely missed his mother. Gabriel knew better than most how hard it was to grow up without one, since his own had vanished into another world before he could lace up his shoes.
"Maybe she's here about Nicholas," Julia said, more out of politeness, Gabe thought, than true agreement. "Still, it seems to me she would have gone looking for him, if that were the case. Whatever Annabel's business is, she's nervous about it. Otherwise she wouldn't have needed the U.S. Cavalry for moral support."
Gabe sighed again and shoved a hand through his hair. He hadn't thought much about Annabel's military escort, except to figure that she'd merely happened by Fort Duffield when there was a detail headed in the same direction. It wasn't uncommon for the army to offer its protection to lone travelers, especially ladies of consequence, like Annabel.
"The last I heard," Gabe said, still thinking aloud, "Annabel was in England, living high on the hog. I confess, I'm mighty curious to know what brought her all this way."
"You've got to tell her the truth, Gabe," Julia said. "About us, I mean."
He glanced at her, the woman everyone in and around Parable believed to be his mistress. Her mother had been his father's housekeeper and cook after his mother was carried away, living with her young daughter in the attic of the ranch house. Gabriel and Julia, two lonely children, misfits even in a land populated by mavericks and outcasts, had formed a bond truer and deeper than most. "Even if I thought the truth was any of her business -- which I don't -- I wouldn't waste my breath. Annabel wouldn't believe a word I said. Hell, nobody would."
Julia looked down at her elegant white hands. In its present state, the relationship served a different purpose for each of them, but she had never been comfortable with the situation, at least where Annabel was concerned.
"Mrs. McKeige is still very much your wife."
"Mrs. McKeige abandoned me and our son a long time ago."
Julia spoke firmly, though in her usual ladylike tones. In many ways she was like Annabel, though of course it would have infuriated his wife to know he held that opinion.
"I remember it somewhat differently," she said.
Gabe closed his eyes against an onslaught of recollections, which only gave them greater power, color, and impact. When their second child, a little girl named Susannah, had died suddenly of a fever, Annabel had gone into a deep and bitter melancholy. He'd been sad, too, of course -- brokenhearted, in fact. God knew, if no one else did, how many times he'd gone off to some private place and given himself up to grief.
Still, there came a time when a person had to fetch up and go on.
Annabel had not been able to do that; sorrow had swamped and saturated her. In time, things had disintegrated to such a point that one day while he was away on a cattle drive, she'd packed her trunks and left. She'd taken Nicholas, then seven years old, and gone back east by train, leaving nothing personal behind except a terse note and the harp that Gabe had given her as a wedding gift.
Even after a dozen years the recollection of coming home after weeks on the trail and finding his family gone sent the old pain echoing through his gut.
He squeezed the bridge of his nose between a thumb and forefinger.
"Gabe," Julia said. "Look at me."
He wouldn't. Or couldn't.
"You love her," she told him gently. There was compassion in her voice, in her bearing. "You always have and you always will."
"No," he said. The word scraped his throat as it passed, like some small clawed creature torn, unwilling, from its lair.
She sighed. "Go home, Gabriel McKeige," Julia ordered quietly, and this time she sounded weary. "Whatever the good people of Parable may believe, I will not entertain a married man in my private chambers if there is the least chance of a reconciliation between him and his wife."
Gabe stood, half hoisting, half thrusting himself out of the chair. It was the sturdiest one in the place and still too spindly for comfort. "Once again, Julia," he growled, "Annabel is not here to mend matrimonial fences."
"Whatever you say," Julia chimed sweetly, examining her fingernails. "Don't forget your hat, Mr. McKeige."
Directly following the interview with Gabriel, Annabel dismissed her driver, Mr. Hilditch, for the day, with strict orders that he take care not to spoil his uniform. Then, after politely refusing Captain Sommervale's offer of a further escort, she took up the reins of the surrey and set out for the ranch house. The hounds, Hercules and Champion, trotted obediently along beside the rig, pink tongues lolling.
The trip was two miles long and took a little over half an hour, to the best of Annabel's recollection. Moments before the substantial three-story house came into view, she pulled a lace-trimmed handkerchief from the sleeve of her dress and dabbed furiously at her face. No one else needed to know that Gabriel McKeige -- once again -- had made her cry.
When Annabel was quite certain that any vestiges of her weeping could easily be ascribed to a sensitivity to dust and pollens or to the violent brightness of a July morning, she raised her chin, squared her shoulders, and with a flick of her wrists, urged the horses to a more resolute pace. With luck she would have a few minutes of privacy in which to prepare, both physically and mentally, for the coming confrontation.
The sight of the rambling log house brought a great lump to her throat. She and Gabriel had been so happy there, once....
Annabel brought the surrey to a halt in the dusty driveway, secured the reins and brake lever, and climbed down with the dignity and grace she had cultivated from earliest memory.
The very private hope that Nicholas would appear in the doorway, smiling, to greet her, was quickly dashed. She had not written her son to forewarn him of her visit and her purpose. Had not had the courage.
Nicholas was nineteen; she had been a year younger than that when he was born. What a handsome, sturdy babe he'd been, substantial and stubborn from the very moment of his birth, as if he'd known his life's purpose even then, and meant to pursue it straightaway. He had never seemed to need her very much, so independent was he. Not at all like sweet, fragile Susannah, his sister.
Nicholas had been so like his father then -- and he was now, too, if his irregular letters were to be credited. Right down to his propensity for breaking her heart.
The familiar voice startled Annabel out of a reflection dangerously akin to self-pity, and she looked up to see Charlie Gray Cloud standing a few feet away, on the porch. He was exactly as Annabel remembered him -- squat and sturdy, with a cobbler's apron around his middle and a cooking pot in his hands. There was only a trace of gray in his cropped black hair, and although she could not see his eyes and seek a welcome there, she had heard kindness in the timbre of his voice.
Her smile was genuine. "Hello, Charlie," she said, approaching him. "It is so good to see you again."
Charlie was clearly delighted; he moved quickly to open the front door for her. "We -- I have missed you.
Annabel stepped over the threshold and into the cool dimness of the house with an aplomb that was assumed rather than spontaneous. "Nicholas isn't here?" she asked, holding her breath for the answer even as she scolded herself for expecting too much. They'd made headway over the years, she and Nicholas, but there was still a long way to go.
Charlie shook his head. "Dam fool boy -- prowling around in the foothills all the time. Thinks he's an Indian."
Annabel subdued a rush of disappointment and reminded herself yet again that she had not told Nicholas she was coming and thus could not expect him to be there, waiting for her. "I wonder if I might have a basin of water," she said, tugging off her kid gloves and stuffing them into her drawstring bag.
Charlie nodded toward the stairway. "I'll bring a pitcher to your room, Mrs. McKeige," he said, and was gone before Annabel could protest that she would prefer to perform her ablutions in the little washroom off the kitchen.
Out front, the hounds barked as a rider thundered into the yard.
Annabel scurried up the steps and along the wide corridor to the master bedroom. She paused at the door, assailed by memories that would have been easier to bear if they'd been bitter instead of sweet, then turned the knob and went in.
The great four-poster bed stood in the same place as before, between two windows. Her own armoire towered at one end of the room, and Gabriel's bureau was at the other, just as she recalled. Beside the fieldstone fireplace was her harp, the beautiful instrument Gabriel had given her the day they were married.
An angel, he'd said, ought to have a harp to play....
The bellow from downstairs startled Annabel so thoroughly that she cried out softly and pressed a hand to her throat.
"Charlie!" Gabriel shouted.
Annabel spun round and was startled again, for Charlie stood in the doorway, extending the promised pitcher of water, not releasing his grasp until her own hold on it was steady. The Indian's innate quietness of spirit calmed Annabel; she nodded her gratitude.
Charlie went out, closing the door behind him.
Moments later she was splashing her face with blessedly cool water, silently rehearsing, for perhaps the thousandth time, the persuasive speech she would make to Gabriel.
His voice rose from belowstairs, countered by Charlie's measured, even responses.
She'd probably been flattering herself, Annabel thought, by ever believing that persuasion would be necessary. Only one thing could be worse than Gabriel's flat refusal of her request, and that was his ready acquiescence.
"Annabel Latham McKeige," she muttered before Gabriel's shaving mirror, as she dried her face, "you are indeed a fine fool."
Gabriel was standing at the foot of the stairs, one leather-gloved hand dwarfing the newel post, when she came out of the bedroom, hair smoothed, face scrubbed clean of road dust and the traces of imprudent tears.
Annabel called upon every resource she possessed simply to descend in a graceful and unhurried way; actually, her heart was pounding and she could barely breathe. Gabriel was forty, and more attractive for the passing of time, damn him. The years had lent his patrician features a rugged cast, hardened his muscles, given him the lean, stealthy prowess of a mountain cat.
"Charlie was kind enough to offer me a place to refresh myself," she said, eager to establish a mundane reason for being in the room she and Gabriel had shared so long ago.
"Charlie," Gabriel drawled, peering at her with narrowed eyes, "is the soul of kindness.."'
The barb reminded Annabel that Gabriel was an adversary, and a worthy one. Inwardly she braced herself for combat-and for devastating success.
"I see no reason to delay matters any further," Annabel announced, meeting and holding Gabriel's gaze. "Perhaps we might speak in your study?"
Gabriel executed a deep bow, meant to mock her love of all things gracious and civilized. "As you wish, my lady," he answered.
Annabel was sustained by an upswell of righteous fury; she swept past Gabriel with her head high and her shoulders back. The hem of her heavy skirt made a whispering sound against the smooth pinewood floor.
Inside the study, she stood near Gabriel's vast cluttered desk and watched as he closed the double doors and turned to look at her.
He folded his arms, "All right, Annabel. Speak your piece. I have work to do."
She battled a dizzying need to hurl something heavy at his head and commanded herself to speak calmly. A few words, nothing more rigorous than that, and it would be over, done with, the task she had rehearsed and dreaded these many months.
"As you may know, I have been living in England in recent years."
Gabriel said nothing, but only waited, revealing nothing of his feelings, if he had any in the first place.
"I should like to receive gentlemen callers," Annabel rushed on. "As a married woman, I have not thought that proper, but I am thirty-seven years old, after all, and, well, time is passing."
Gabriel arched one golden eyebrow. "And?"
Annabel's cheeks stung smartly, as if he'd slapped her. She drew herself up and held her chin high. "And I have come to ask you for a divorce."
He was silent and as still as stone, and Annabel suffered an agony of suspense, awaiting his answer. It was, for her, as though all the air had somehow been drawn from the room in one great inhalation.
"Absolutely not," he said, precisely when Annabel thought she might swoon for lack of breath.
She was stunned and, at the same time, relieved, though there would be no confessing this latter emotion, of course. Gabriel was refusing the divorce out of sheer cussedness, not some tender sentiment.
Overcome, Annabel spread a hand over her bosom and eased to one side of the desk, there to fall into a leatherupholstered chair.
"What?" she whispered. "Gabriel -- why? Why would you refuse now, after all this time?"
He crossed the room to bend over her, his hands resting on the arms of her chair, his face so near her own that she could feel his breath on her skin. "Why? Because we made a promise, you and I. We took a vow."
Annabel's heart fluttered painfully. She looked away from Gabriel's hard, unreadable face, then back again, angry and wounded. "A promise you have plainly held in high regard these many years!" she gibed, too frustrated to maintain her composure, precious though it was.
"I have indeed," Gabriel said quietly. "Have you?"
Annabel flushed. The world was different for women than for men; she could not take lovers with the same impunity as her husband, had not even wanted to do so. She had been faithful to Gabriel. "Yes," she spat, still imprisoned in her chair, between his two arms. "Yes, Gabriel, I have honored our wedding pledges, believe it or not. But I am tired of living half a life. I want a husband, babies."
"Babies?" He looked surprised, as though he couldn't imagine such an ancient and dried-up creature bearing children. He straightened and retreated a step. "Babies?"
Annabel glared at him defiantly. "Yes!" she cried. "Is that so difficult to believe? I am not a crone, Gabriel. Women my age have children all the time."
He thrust himself away, moved to the liquor cabinet on the other side of the room, drew the lid from a crystal decanter, and splashed brandy into a snifter, heedless of the fact that breakfast had yet to be served.
"You have a husband, Annabel," Gabriel said,, taking a sip and then raising the glass in a toast. "And like it or not, for better or for worse, you're stuck with me."
Annabel closed her eyes in a desperate bid for self-control. "Will you force me to return to England and live in scandal?" she asked in exasperation.
Gabriel regarded her thoughtfully. "I don't see how taking lovers would be any worse than presenting yourself to society as a divorced woman -- that pretty much means ruin out here. But then, maybe that's accepted in your more sophisticated circles."
The words stung, as they were no doubt meant to do. Although divorce was common enough in certain sets, Annabel was at heart a traditional person. For her, ending the marriage before taking callers and proceeding with her life was a matter of honor.
"Damn you, Gabriel -- why must you make this difficult?"
Gabriel set the brandy aside, barely touched. "Difficult? I think I've been pretty patient with you, Annabel. You left me while I was on the trail, and you took my son with you. A lot of men would have followed you back east and dragged you home by the hair."
She looked away for a moment, backward through time, remembering how she had waited for him during those first awful months away, how she had prayed he would come back east to collect her and Nicholas. But no, he hadn't cared about anything but his damnable ranch, his cattle, his mines and timber.
And Julia Sermon, of course. Oh, yes, he'd cared about her.
"Please, Gabriel, do not play the wronged husband. You were probably glad to be rid of me."
Gabriel went to the door, laid a hand on the brass knob. "There will be no divorce," he said. And then he was gone, leaving her sitting alone in that rustic study and very much at a loss. She had simply never troubled herself to plan beyond an initial refusal, convinced as she had been that Gabriel wished to be free.
It seemed she'd been mistaken. More than freedom, he wanted revenge.
Gabriel went outside to stand on the porch with one upraised arm braced against a support beam. In the distance he heard the first Independence Day firecrackers shattering the early morning peace. Annabel's silly-looking hounds lay nearby, in the fragrant, dark purple shade of an overgrown lilac bush, curled up close together, their muzzles resting on their paws. They looked up at Gabe with baleful eyes.
The surrey was gone. He had personally ordered it moved before he entered the house to confront Annabel; the team had already been unhitched, watered, fed, and curried. At present, though, he wished he'd reserved the task for himself, for he was in profound need of distraction.
Annabel wanted a husband, a home, babies.
Their son had survived, if not their daughter. He'd given her a fine house, a bank account, all the clothes and trinkets and gewgaws a woman could ask for or expect. He'd loved her with all his being, damn it, and if she'd troubled herself to stay, there would surely have been more children after Nicholas and Susannah.
If Annabel had wanted a family, why had she left in the first place? It made no damned sense.
"I sent Ben and Jimmy to bring Nicholas back."
Gabriel stiffened at the sound of Charlie's voice, embarrassed, as if his thoughts and regrets and private injuries were outside his skin, for anybody to look at. "Damned Indian," he muttered. "When are you going to stop sneaking up on me that way?"
"No time soon," Charlie answered easily. "Got to admit, though, there's not much challenge in it anymore. You're getting old."
"Annabel wants a divorce," Gabe said, without planning to speak at all.
"So she claims," Charlie replied, showing scant interest. "You'd better wash up, boss. Breakfast's on the table, and my guess is you'll be needing your strength."
Copyright © 1998 by Linda Lael Miller
Gabe McKeige loved Annabel too fiercely to let a chance like this slip away. But the iron-willed rancher is also too proud to beg -- he didn't twelve years ago, and he won't now. So, Gabe sets out to woo Annabel the only way he knows...with passion-filled kisses and sensual touches that conjure the sweet firestorm of their marriage bed. And Annabel is finding that the man she once left is unbearably hard to resist....