Montana Territory, December, 1887
Ever since Allethaire Gibson had been kidnapped and held for ransom three years ago, nothing in her life had gone right.
But this was the worst.She stared miserably out the train’s frosty window into the darkness outside and wondered how she’d fallen so low. What had she done to deserve such humiliation? And just when she’d begun to pull herself together? Hold her head high? Prove to everyone she was the same person she’d always been?
She’d tried. Oh, so hard.After her horrific ordeal as a hostage in the wilds of Montana, she’d wasted no time in returning home to blessed civility in Minnesota. She’d gone to the usual parties with her friends, young and wealthy like herself. She’d frequented her favorite shops and restaurants. Had even indulged in a lavish European vacation–all to prove she was the same honest and upright woman as before.
Allethaire Gibson, daughter of Paris Gibson, the respected and forward-thinking industrialist.
Except it wasn’t long before she discovered everything had changed.She had changed.
Minnesota didn’t feel like home anymore. At least, not like it used to. And Allethaire knew why. What everyone thought. She knew what they said when her back was turned.
That her reputation was ruined. That she’d become a fallen woman while living with a band of outlaws.It wasn’t true.
It wasn’t fair.
Allethaire thought she’d found her salvation in the Ladies Literary Aid Society. She’d worked tirelessly to promote her idea for a new library to be built in Minneapolis. The design had been breathtaking, exciting, modern. The need for such a fine exhibit of civilization and culture had been strong for the city’s growing population, and eventually, after more of her hard work raising funds, the money had, too.
She should have succeeded in restoring respectability to herself. But something had gone wrong, and she was too blind, too naïve, to see it coming.
Her fingers closed over the slender, brown bottle tucked in her handbag. Now, here she was, fleeing in the middle of the night like a common criminal–back to Montana, of all places.
Her despair begged for solace in the brandy she kept hidden, but she didn’t dare allow herself the privilege of taking a swallow. Not even a little, bracing one. No one on this crowded train could see her need to cope. Her abominable weakness.
She had to stay alert, even though she hovered on the edge of exhaustion. She had to appear strong and not the coward she really was. She couldn’t take a chance that her father would find out what a failure his only child had become.
He’d learn soon enough.Her eyes welled on a wave of renewed misery, and she leaned her head back against the worn cushion, letting her body absorb the rocking motion of the wheels hurtling along the tracks. In her haste to leave Minneapolis, she’d been forced to take one of the few remaining coach fares left on the St. Paul, Minneapolis and Manitoba Railway train headed west, a far cry from the comfort of the Pullman private car in which she was accustomed to traveling. No reclining chairs, no warm berth, no plush and pampered privacy.
But what did it matter?
As far as everyone was concerned, Allethaire was just another ordinary passenger, a woman journeying alone and packed into her seat with other wayfarers, like a sardine in a can.
For the first time in her life, she was glad no one knew who she was. Or cared. It was easier that way.
Feeling little of the heat from the stove behind the long row of seats, she crossed her arms and huddled deeper inside her wool coat. Snores from the slack-jawed travelers stretched out around her warred with her tired brain. How could anyone get comfortable under such tight quarters? How could anyone sleep?Amazingly enough, however, her lashes drifted closed, and she did.
* * *
She awoke, disoriented and cold, and flooded with a sense that something wasn’t right.
Sunlight stretched in through the dull windows. Allethaire sat bolt upright and grappled to find her purse, then discovered it was exactly where she’d kept it. Tucked against her chest. A quick check revealed nothing missing–her money, her handkerchief, her hand mirror, a few folded papers. Her brandy. They were all there, and oh, thank God, she hadn’t been robbed while she slept.
“Someone’s riding along the tracks.” Sitting next to her, a matronly woman with cheeks pinkened from the chill leaned forward and rubbed at the glass with her coat sleeve. She peered closer. “Isn’t that strange.”
Allethaire blinked in confusion. She scrambled to focus.
“See him?” The woman tapped a gloved finger against the pane. “What ever is he doing out there?”
Allethaire stared like an owl at the man indeed riding close to the train, but in the next moment, he was gone, left behind by the propelling locomotive.She swiveled her glance toward the opposite set of windows. Toward mountains and unforgiving range sprawled beneath somber gray clouds as far as she could see.
Montana Territory, as wild and desolate as ever.
She’d hated this part of the country once. Three years ago. She hated having to come back now.
“Where are we?” she asked to one in particular.
“Helena, coming up.” A scholarly-looking man in spectacles and a wrinkled tweed suit stared out the window, too.
Allethaire’s heart tripped. They were closer to Great Falls than she thought. One more stop, and she’d be at her destination. A wary anticipation from seeing her father again–and telling him all the things he didn’t yet know–fluttered through her, leaving her sick to her stomach.
With nothing more interesting to see outside, the woman beside her settled back into her seat.
“My name is Margaret Butterfield,” she said, her smile kind.
Allethaire hesitated and chose a careful response. “Mine is Allie.”
She hadn’t been called that since she was a child, but the less anyone knew about her, the better. Especially her name, which had always been much too distinctive.
“Are you coming to Montana to celebrate Christmas with your family?” Margaret asked.
“No.” Allethaire had given little thought to the holiday, though it was only a couple of weeks away. “I won’t be staying out here long.”
Not any longer than she had to. Besides, her father’s social calendar was likely filled with a wide array of Christmas gatherings by now. Just as hers would be had she stayed in Minneapolis. If her life hadn’t taken such a terrible turn for the worse. Father wouldn’t have time to be with her anyway. Even if he wanted to.
Which he wouldn’t, once he learned the truth.
A sudden craving for the brandy hidden in her purse gripped her.
“Oh?” The woman nodded, encouraging Allethaire to continue. “Then where will you go?” “South.” The word dropped from Allethaire’s tongue without her conscious thought. “Somewhere south.” “Where it’s warmer.”
Yes, that’s what she’d do. Go south. Texas, maybe, with its millions of acres. Or really south to South America. No one would find her there, at least not easily, and she could use the time to find the answers she needed. To figure out what she’d done wrong.
But her eyes burned from a sudden sting of tears. From the glaring truth. She didn’t want to go south at all.
“No husband, dear?” Margaret patted Allethaire’s knee in sympathy. “No children to keep you at home?”
Allethaire knew she meant well. That she likely interpreted Allethaire’s weepiness for loneliness. Or maybe she only kept up her nosy chatter to pass the time until the train reached Helena. What else could they do why they were crammed in their seats for hours on end?
Allethaire latched onto her composure. “I’m afraid I’m too busy to have need of a husband. I have greater”–she almost choked on the word–“aspirations for my life.”
“Aspirations. Hmm.” Margaret didn’t seem to know what to make of it. “But what better way to share them than with a man who loves you?”
Allethaire blinked fast and fought an overwhelming, inexplicable feeling of loss. Of frustration and the unmistakable sensation of her life spiraling out of control.
Of the certainty that happiness and contentment would never be hers.
Allethaire clutched her purse to her chest. Her fingers found the familiar shape of the slender bottle inside.
“Excuse me, Margaret,” she said, rising unsteadily to her feet. “I–I must go to the lavatory.”
But the train’s unexpected lurch threw her off balance. She yelped in surprise and fell back into her seat.
Scree-eech. Hiss, Hiss, Hiss. Scree-eech.
The bespectacled gentleman across from her jerked his glance to the window and frowned. “We’re slowing down.”
Movement in the glass startled Allethaire. Blurred shapes of men riding alongside the tracks. In a flash, they were gone.
“Why are we stopping?” Margaret asked, bewildered.
“Have we reached Helena already?” Allethaire asked.
But that didn’t seem possible. She could see nothing of the town. Not a hint of civilization. Only mountains and the endless Montana range.Muffled shouts sounded from outside. Somewhere toward the back. Male voices, their words indecipherable.
Clunk! Something–or someone–landed against the door.
Scree-eech. Hiss, Hiss, Hiss. Scree-eech.
Allethaire gripped her seat. Something was wrong, terribly wrong, for the Manitoba to stop now, in this desolate stretch of territory.Pop!
A gunshot! Another pop! confirmed it, and oh, God, oh, God, what was happening out there?
Murmurs rippled through the passengers, each of them as alarmed as Allethaire. Heads twisted toward the rear. A few men stood, their stances revealing their intention to march past the row of seats and see for themselves what was transpiring.
But before any of them could, the door burst open.
The train’s conductor stumbled forward with his arm twisted behind his back. Blood trickled down his left temple.
Collective gasps went up.
Allethaire couldn’t breathe.
“What’s the meaning of this?” someone shouted.
A bandanna covered the face of the man holding the trainman captive. He kept his revolver pressed to the conductor’s head and pushed him forward, past the stove, into the aisle.
“What do you want?” another man yelled.
“A woman,” the conductor gritted. His gaze raked over the faces of each one of his passengers.
Until he found hers.
“Her name is Allethaire Gibson.”