Autumn, 1784, the Allegheny Mountains of Western Virginia, the former McNeal homestead, a rustic log cabin
Jack slowly withdrew his palm from Karin’s lips. Why did his light touch feel so right, his low voice stirring to her shivery center? She was as heady as if she’d finished off that flask he’d pocketed. Maybe the fiery brew had affected her more than she realized?
No. These sensations went far beyond a few swallows of whiskey. Tumultuous cannons fired inside, tumbling her into an uncertain world of red moons and shooting stars, her universe exploding. And there was no one to hold onto, except him. She almost grabbed his hand, and thought better of it.
What, then? What should she do?
In stillness, she kept her eyes fastened on his, colored the hue of the woods in summer. She couldn’t look away. Then a quavery sigh escaped her. “Oh, Jack.”
Tenderness washed over his face. “Let me guide you.”
“I suppose I must.”
A smile lifted the corners of his masculine, deeply sensual, mouth. “Let’s begin with your mother. What else have you been told of her that might be of use? Let your mind journey back and the past flow through you.”
Rain drummed on the roof and wood sizzled in the hearth as Karin ferreted out every scrap she’d ever heard, weighing some, discarding others. Then a memory returned like the whiff of a nosegay long since forgotten. It might mean something.
“Neeley once said Mama sat curled by the fire much of the time in those last days, staring into the flames as if she saw something.”
Jack eyed the glowing hearth. “Not something. Someone.”
His insight took Karin aback. “You mean him?”
“That’s why the bed was left behind when they moved,” he said quietly.
She bit her lower lip. “I didn’t realize.”
“You were a child then. How could you?”
A red haze flashed through Karin like sparks set to dry leaves. “Someone might have told me sooner.”
He looked bemused. “What good would that have done?”
“I would know. And knowing matters.”
Jack held up his hands. “So, now you do.”
Crossing both arms over her chest, she said, “Of this I’m certain, Mama was kind and beautiful. Whatever she died of, ’twas a broken heart. Papa should have come to her, whoever he was. I would tell him so to his face if I could.”
“Whew.” Jack drew back as if at a sudden wind. “You’re not such a milksop after all.”
His exaggeration lessened Karin’s ire only slightly. “Well, it makes my blood boil. Why did he leave her to grieve herself to death?”
She blew out her breath in frustration. “Neeley says she cleaned this cabin from top to bottom and never found anything out of the ordinary.”
“Maybe she wasn’t meant to.”
Karin sat up straight. “You think maybe I am?”~
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