Red-bronze skin glistening in the September sun, Lonetree worked at a slender piece of cherry wood. Hunkered down on his heels, his back propped against the cabin wall, the keelboatman lifted the carved figure, admiring the feel of the wood as much as the product of his craftsmanship.
Above a nose naturally bent like a hawk’s beak, dark eyes gleamed with satisfaction. Shoulder-length black hair and a gold ring in one ear masked razor-sharp cheekbones and any of nature’s attempts at handsomeness.
The keelboatman whistled appreciatively, as if the woman appearing beneath his talented fingers were real. Gowned in long skirts lifted at the hem, the carving portrayed a regal lady, from the toes of her slipper-shod feet to the feathers of her broad-brimmed hat. The whittler chuckled at his own conceit and turned the piece in his hands, searching for flaws.
If only a real woman could be produced as easily as a wooden one, he would be a happy man. But finding a lady like this in the frontier wilderness of Ohio had as much likelihood as this piece of wood coming to life. He had deliberately left that life behind.
Lonetree set aside his toy and reached for his discarded shirt. The whores down at the tavern wouldn’t object if he arrived clad only in deerskin breeches, but he had no intention of courting whores. If he were to settle down, he wanted a lady. As the good women of Cincinnati had made clear that they held no interest in a half-breed keelboatman, he would be moving on. Tonight—well, tonight the whores offered possibilities.
At the sound of an approaching boat, he propped himself in his earlier position and awaited the new arrival with interest.
Angry voices carried over the slap-slap of current against wooden keel as the other boat maneuvered into shore. Playing his role, Lonetree remained motionless, seemingly intent on his occupation. The distinctly feminine accents of one of the disputants caused him to look up from his carving in time to catch the glimpse of a slender ankle and a long stockinged limb swinging over the boat’s keel to the shore. Heavy black skirts quickly obscured the alluring sight, but his attention was captivated.
Savoring every detail, his gaze traveled from slippered toe, past the thick skirts of a mourning gown, to the hint of slender hips and a long, elegantly curved waist. He hesitated, afraid this dream would dissipate should he look higher, but bravely, he continued his survey.
He swallowed hard as his gaze encountered the full curve of a generous bosom disguised beneath that revolting black gown. Taking in the whole—he was looking upon the carved image in his hands come to life.
True, she wore a practical bonnet instead of the feathered creation of his imagination, but long curls revealed a mass of thick hair that glowed like polished mahogany. And her features—by the grace of the Great Spirit!—were finely carved and proud as any queen’s. The desire to see her eyes had him on his feet before he realized it.
“But you said you could take me to St. Louis! What am I to do in this godforsaken spot? How am I to find another boat? Where am I to stay?” Anger fought with tears as the woman confronted the sneering boatman leaning on his long pole.
“You can go this side of Hades for all I care, Miss Uppity. The river’s too damned low to travel without promise of more reward than you’re ready to give. I’ll take my chances on the whores and a cargo of lead before I’ll take the likes of you any farther.”
“If I had been a gentleman with a purse full of gold, you would have taken me where I want, I warrant! Why must a woman who travels alone submit to this treatment? My gold is as good as any man’s!”
Lonetree smothered a grin at this taunt. Tucking the back of his shirt into his pants, he sauntered closer, eyeing the crew of the other boat. They appeared to be enjoying the argument. Did the fool woman really think she could travel alone all the way to St. Louis with a boatload of women-starved men? Especially men of this ilk, accustomed to doing as they pleased, when they pleased. He wondered how many knifings the captain had had to put down before they reached this point.
“All the gold in hell won’t pay me to risk my neck to take you to St. Louis. I don’t relish finding a knife in my back hauling this rig over the falls while you dabble your toes in the water. Go find a man to protect you so I can do my duty.”
“Protect me! I can protect myself, as you well know! Give me my bags. I’ll get to St. Louis without you.” Anger had obviously won out over tears as she stamped her elegant foot and set her hands on her hips, glaring at the boatman.
Lonetree came up behind her, eyeing the keelboatman’s reaction to this demand. Knowing the reputation of these men for mischief, he could imagine the possibilities a lady’s trunk of fripperies would provide. It seemed an appropriate time to intervene.
“Give me the trunk, boys.” He spoke with the deep, calm voice of authority learned in his youth.
The woman whirled and gasped at his physical nearness. He let his black eyes glitter beneath his faded red bandanna. His half-fastened blouse wouldn’t conceal his torso, where the scars of battle labeled him as pirate or worse. She stepped back as he rolled his fingers into fists.
The keelboat captain eyed him without trepidation, however, giving him a nod of acquaintance. “Aye, Lonetree, she’s all yours.” Turning his head to his grinning crew, he barked orders: “Haul out the lady’s trunks, boys. Be gentle about it. Lonetree’s taking up the assignment.”
Hoots and catcalls followed, but the trunks were delivered in order, stacked upon the rocky shore beneath the lady’s glare.
Silently, Lonetree heaved the heavy trunks aboard a mule-drawn wagon near the river’s edge. Without so much as a glance to the black-clad lady, he untethered the mule and hitched it to the traces. When everything was prepared, he waited beside the wagon in all his dissolute glory.
He watched her grip her reticule with gloved fingers, raise her chin, and approach the dilapidated wagon as if it were the comfortable carriage to which she was no doubt accustomed. Tear-drop blue eyes behind a thick fringe of black lashes displayed no trace of emotion as she accepted his assist into the wooden seat. A faint whiff of perfume drifted from the voluminous folds of her skirts as she settled them about the lovely ankles she kept concealed from view. He might as well not exist for all she noticed him.