It has been two years since I was desensitized to aspirin at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, USA. I’ve had several inquiries, both here on my blog and in emails, asking how I’m doing. The answer is I am doing good. Not great, like I-never-had-a-sinus-problem, not lousy, like why-did-I-even-bother. But good is ten times better than I was before I went to the Mayo Clinic.
That’s an honest answer, but it doesn’t really tell you very much, does it? Let me begin with some background. I have had repeated sinus infections for about 30 years. Maybe only 25. I honestly can’t remember. It seems like my whole life I’ve had sinus trouble. Infections don’t respond well to antibiotics, but I’ve had a LOT of them. Over the years, I have become a connoisseur of antibiotics. In addition to the infections, I also have sinus polyps, which doesn’t help with the infections. Since the antibiotics don’t work, I’ve had multiple sinus surgeries. I might get a few months of relief after a surgery, but the polyps came back in only a few months each time. I also developed asthma. And aspirin or ibuprofen could literally send me to the Emergency Room. I spent years sleeping with a wet pillow and a dry mouth because I couldn’t breathe through my nose. I had NO sense of smell. And somehow, the loss of being able to smell my coffee in the morning was the worst thing of all. It was a nightmare way to live. You get the picture, right? Bottom line: Maddy was miserable.
Then my new ENT told me I had Sampters Triad, also called AERD (Aspirin Exasperated Respiratory Disease) and suggested Aspirin Desensitization. You can read about my actual procedure on an earlier post here.
So, what do I feel like today, 2 years after the procedure? For one thing, my head feels light. No pressure and pain or the weight of congestion. I can always breathe through my nose. Seriously. Even during two sinus infections I’ve developed in the past two years, I could breathe through my nose. And did you catch that? Only TWO infections??!!! Right now I am suffering with allergies (it’s October, right?) and I feel a little crappy, but this is only a faint shadow of what I used to feel like EVERY SINGLE DAY. And I know it will go away in a few weeks.
I have some sense of smell. It’s not a vivid as I would like, but this morning I smelled my coffee, even with a little congestion from the allergies. This might be partly because I get a kenalog shot in the spring and in the fall. I had one in May, and it is still working well enough for me to smell my coffee. I call that a win. People who have never lost their sense of smell may not truly understand how wonderful it is to come out of the shower and smell the coffee brewing in the kitchen.
AERD is the kind of thing that can make life difficult. And since it it pretty much invisible, sufferers don’t get much sympathy. People have told me things like, “Don’t sweat the small stuff. Better to lose your sense of smell than your sight.” Which is completely true. I even joke about not having to smell the cast box. But imagine not smelling when the toaster catches fire. Or the roses your husband gave you for your anniversary. Or the scent of your baby’s hair. It IS a loss, but unless you’ve experienced that loss, it doesn’t seem like a big deal.
Are the polyps back? Possibly. My doctor said she couldn’t see any, but she was only looking with the naked eye. The linings of my nasal passages were a little thicker than is normal. That could be from repeated infections and surgeries. There may be polyps up higher in the sinuses that she cannot see, but as long as I am able to breathe she isn’t too concerned about them. I’m guessing the rhinocort I use daily is keeping them at bay.
I am still taking two aspirin a day, along with a zyrtec. Before the procedure, I used to use my albuterol inhaler every day, usually multiple times. Now it’s only when I’m going to exercise and occasionally if I start to feel out of breath. The budesonide rinses are out of my budget, so I just irrigate my nose with saline several times a week (more at the moment with the allergies) and use Rhinocort before bed.
When people ask me if I’m glad I did the aspirin desensitization, my answer is a resounding YES. My sinuses are not perfect. I still get a bit congested, and my sense of smell isn’t as strong as I’d like it to be. But just being able to breathe has made my life so much better. Breathing means better sleep, and better sleep means more energy, and more energy means I get to do more of the stuff I want. I’m not much of a drinker, but I can even enjoy a glass of red wine, which two years ago would have sent me into wheezing overdrive. So, yeah, I’m glad I did it.
Have you had the Aspirin Challenge done? How has it affected your life?
October is coming soon! It is possibly my favorite month of the year. I know, I know, I always say September is my favorite. But September still has several days in the 90s, and by this time I am sick to death of summer. The change from summer to fall has started, but we’re not there yet. And this September wasn’t a good one for me. I spent nearly all of it on Tylenol 3 due to the tooth abscess. I did very little writing. I was tired and crabby, and can you imagine how hard it is to write a sexy love scene when you have to hold an ice pack to your cheek? It does nothing for the mood, let me tell you.
A week ago, on September 21, I had a root canal. I’ve had a few root canals before, and they didn’t hurt much. I remember being a little sore from holding my mouth open so wide for a long time, and a little bruised feeling from the shot. This one was the kind that gives root canals their bad name. Holy moly, I hurt! Thursday, Friday and Saturday were terrible. Sunday was better. On Monday, I must have relapsed, because I hurt for all 10 hours I worked. Tuesday was better, and Wednesday was good. Today I chomped on carrots, so I think I have officially recovered. I go back for the second part on October 4. The dentist said it would be painless. We’ll see.
Fun fact: President Todd is loosely based on my dentist. *ahem* My dentist is actually nothing like Todd. I just used the name.
October is going to be MY MONTH. I am going to write like it’s going out of style. I will do some sewing and knitting, and I’m going to spin. You will see some teasers and excerpts. We will have fun!
That is all.
My birthday is Friday, September 22nd. Yay!! It’s my favorite day of the year, and might be even if it wasn’t my birthday. My mom says it was the hottest day of the year. I’m not sure if it was literally the hottest day (September weather is notoriously fickle. The high one day is 95, and the next day it might be 55) or if it only felt like it was the hottest day to a woman in labor. At any rate, by this time I feel like the end of hot weather is near, and that is a great thing. To celebrate, I have gathered all of my books which have been published in paperback, plus some swag, and some books from other authors that you may like. Why did I do that? So I can give it away, of course!
I will be sending out a newsletter on Wednesday or Thursday with a link for everyone to enter to win. I have a tooth abscess, so my funnest birthday present will be a root canal on Thursday the 21st. I guess I sound a little sarcastic, but honestly, part of me is looking forward to it. Anything to get rid of this pain!!! LOL
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Hello, long time no write. The summer is about over and I don’t even know how that happened. I mean, isn’t it August next month? No? Ack!!!!
I have started this blog post three different times, but I can’t seem to get the words I want out in the order I want. I give up. This is a somewhat rambling update on what I’ve been doing for the past few months.
About two years ago (maybe a little less?) Paige Tyler invited me to be a part of her Dallas Fire & Rescue Kindle World. I’ve never written a contemporary romance. I like fantasy and paranormal romance. But Paige is such a nice person, and I thought it would be fun to try something different. I wrote Brave Hearts, a story of Dusty Wolfe (an great uncle of Shadow and Taye) and Isabel Ybarra. The was a character in that story who was supposed to be hardly more than a name. But Brutus Gunnison ended up being so fun to write that I asked Paige if I could write his story too. She said sure. Strong Hearts was due to the editor on September 15. However, that is NOT happening. I have written most days this summer, but not enough words in a day to finish Brutus and Denise’s story on time. Paige has graciously agreed to allow me to be switched from October release to the January 2018 release.
DAUGHTERS OF THE WOLF CLAN:
I finished Victoria’s Cat and it was published in July. The next story in the series was supposed to be Patia and Ray. But the story I want to tell more is Colby and Gina’s story. I’m calling in Gina’s Wolf. But the series title is Daughters of the Wolf Clan. So I spent time trying to decide if I should change the series title to Children of the Wolf Clan. But two books are already published with Daughters in the description and on the covers, so that could be messy. I could have a 1 book series call the Son of the Wolf Clan… You see the conundrum. At the moment, when I try to think of a story for Ray and Patia I have a big blank. But I have a general outline for Colby and Gina. So I should write their story next. Right?
Well… a few weeks ago I was forcibly stuck by a brilliant idea for a new series.
THE GRYPHON LORDS
Over a thousand years ago, there was an ancient race of shapeshifters who wielded magic and controlled weather. The primitive humans called them a variety of names like Dragon, Gryphon, etc, and sometimes worshipped them as gods. Because there were far more males and females, the males were fighting to claim a mate. So many of them died in these battles that the elders commanded some of the young males to be sent to sleep in out of the way places on the Earth. When these males wake in a post-apocalyptic world, they find so sign of their people. The humans can’t hurt them, but they fear the gryphons. On four days a year the humans leave offerings for them on a hilltop. Sometimes it is a cow or some other valuable food. Sometimes it is a man who has been convicted of a crime. In the first book, The Storm King, it is a young woman. Naturally, since this is a romance, the gryphon lord doesn’t eat her. He shifts to a human shape to court her.
I am having a hard time trying to decide what to write after I finish Strong Hearts. Gina’s Wolf? Poor Colby. He’s currently wandering around Nebraska and Iowa in a daze of lost memory while his mate is in desperate need of rescue. Or The Storm King? The woman, a young american named Ashley Quinn, is fascinated, but she wishes he wouldn’t make it rain and thunder every time he’s pissed off.
That is what I’ve been doing this summer. Writing, day dreaming, knitting, and hoping for fall. Not winter, although that will come soon enough. I hope to begin the Tuesday Teasers (or either Gina’s Wolf or The Storm King!) by October 10.
See you then!
Victoria Wolfe, the only daughter of the Alpha of the Lakota Wolf Clan, has a mind of her own. Her father might put his foot down, but when she wants something, she gets it. And she wants Marty Madison. His calm steady nature calls to her volatile spirit. The fact that he turns into a mountain lion at will doesn’t matter to her at all.
Marty Madison has never seen a woman as beautiful as Victoria. Her lush figure and pretty face appeal to him, but what entices him most is her self-assurance. No demure young miss, she faces the world with a steely core of inner strength. Too bad her father objects to him being a mountain cat.
They thought the only obstacle to their marital happiness was her father. They were wrong. An evil empire is rising in the east, one which threatens not only them, but the homes and lives of everyone they love. Marty will need all of his steady calm to survive. Victoria will need all her steely inner strength to hold on. In a world under threat, can their love triumph over adversity?
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First of all, to my American readers, Happy Fourth of July! I hope you’ve had a terrific day full of good food and good times. Weather here is hot and humid (93 with 52% humidity is probably a beautiful day for some of you, but I’m sitting in front of the AC with a fan!) so typical 4th of July weather.
I started writing Strong Hearts, the story of how Brutus and Denise fell in love, while I’m waiting for the Victoria’s Cat edits to come back. I’m taking a break from writing today though, to sit and watch TV and knit. The perfect day off for me!
Yes, we’ve come to the end of Victoria’s Cat. This isn’t the end of the story arc, however. There are more cats and wolves to fall in love and fight for their happily ever afters. There are villains to kill and mates to be saved. Colby must be found. Will Ray recover? What will happen to Patia? I hope to start writing Colby and Gina’s story in February. Since I’m writing Strong Hearts to be part of a Kindle World, I can’t post teasers on my blog. So hopefully starting in February you’ll see the Tuesday Teasers start up again.
Meanwhile, here is the last part of Victoria’s Cat. Do you think this ties up enough loose ends to satisfy you, yet leave enough hanging to make you want to read Colby’s story? Let me know what you think!
Twenty minutes later, she was dead asleep against him. Marty breathed in the scent of her hair. All the pain and weariness and anguish were nothing compared to the feel of his mate beside him. He placed his hand gently over her thigh, rejoicing in her presence. His mate was returned to him, safe and well, and that was worth running two hundred miles with bullet holes.
A soft knock announced Mrs. McGrath with supper. He didn’t move. Victoria didn’t stir. After a few moments, he heard the clink of dishes as something settled on the floor outside the door. A tray, he guessed. Later, he told himself. You can wake Vic up later. For now, he just wanted to savor having his mate cuddled up beside him. She snorted a delicate, lady-like snore. He silently chuckled. He loved her. He must, because even her snores were precious to him. He turned his head and brushed a kiss over her hair.
“I love you,” he whispered, as sleep pulled him under.
* * * *
One week later the train, which had been retrieved from where the Kansas-Missouri troops had abandoned it, pulled into the Kearney station. Victoria stared out the window.
“I think every single person in Kearney is here. And more than half the Clan,” she added. Torn between joy at seeing her family, and terror at seeing her family, she swallowed. “Oh, no. There’s dad.”
Marty leaned over to look at the window. “Is he really angry, or does he always look like that?”
“Well, he does look like that a lot.” It wasn’t quite a lie. “Oh, look, there’s mom.”
There were twelve of her cousins on the car with them, all of them waving madly at friends and family on the platform. Victoria waited for them to disembark first. They didn’t. She waved at them. “Go ahead,” she ordered them. “Get off the train and be sure it’s safe like you always do.”
Eagle flashed her a wolfish smile, all bright teeth. “Oh, with dad and the rest of the Clan out there, it’s safe. We’ll wait until you’re done getting hugged by mom and dad. We’ll just stay here where it’s calm and watch.”
Marty stood up, favoring his hip only slightly. “Better go face the music, Vic.”
He stepped off the train first, and turned to steady her. Silence fell as a path opened between them and her parents. She saw other members of the Clan standing a short distance away, silently watching their Alpha. Her father, Wolf’s Shadow, Alpha of the Lakota Wolf Clan, jabbed a finger at Marty.
“You,” he bellowed. “You are the man who married my daughter even though I ordered you to stay away from her.”
“Yes,” Marty began, but her father cut him off with an outthrust arm.
“She was stolen from you!”
“Yes,” Marty tried again.
Her father glowered and raised his already considerable volume. “You ran for two hundred miles with four bullets in you to bring her help!”
“Actually, only two bullets were in me,” Marty said quickly, probably trying to squeeze his words out before her father cut him off again. “It was—”
“Brave!” her father boomed. “It was a brave thing to do. Worthy of a wolf warrior.” He stepped forward and enveloped Marty in a tight embrace.
“Dad.” Victoria rushed forward. “He’s still hurt.”
Her father opened his arms and turned to face his Clan. He put an arm over Marty’s shoulders with a huge grin. “This is my son,” he roared.
The Clan erupted in howls and cheers. Jaw sagging, Victoria stared at her father. “Mom?”
Her mother came and hugged her. “Your father hates to be wrong,” she remarked, “but when he is, he’s a big enough man to admit it. Oh, Vic, you’ve had a hell of a time, haven’t you?”
“It’s been pretty awful,” Victoria agreed. “And it’s not over.” She looked through the crowd to Aunt Carla, Colby’s mom, and her daughter Patia. “No sign of Cole yet?”
Her mom shook her head. “No. But his body hasn’t been found, so we know he’s alive.”
Lisa Madison, her new sister-in-law, stood by Carla and Patia. Eddie had said he and Lisa would head back to Omaha to be with their son in the hospital. Marty would be the acting mayor while they were gone. Victoria shook her head. “And Ray is still in a coma. But the doctors are hopeful. He could come out of it.”
“I hope so. Even in the Times Before, doctors couldn’t save everyone. People think that the world back then was full of miracles, but people died all the time of illness.” Her mom gave her shoulders a squeeze and let her go. “You’ve had a miracle of your own.”
“Marty,” Victoria agreed.
“Have you two had sex?”
Her mom was unruffled. After nearly three decades with a clan of wolf warriors, she was generally unruffled. “Just wondering. He was badly hurt.”
“Not that badly.” Victoria spoiled her primness by giggling. “We’ve managed to enjoy ourselves a few times in the last couple of days.”
“My hope of grandchildren is restored.” Her mom chuckled. “We better go rescue your husband before your father kills him in gratitude for saving you.”
An hour later, exhausted by the Clan’s exuberant welcome, Marty plopped down beside her in backyard of the Plane Women’s House. The couch had been carried out especially for them. The celebration had been put on hold so the leaders of Kearney and the Packs could meet. The space was smaller than where most councils took place, and there were more people present, but they made it work.
Eagle, Hawk, Victoria, Renee, and Eddie Madison took turns explaining what had happened when the President of Kansas-Missouri tried to take over Omaha. Everyone listened in polite silence. There was very little discussion. Wolf’s Shadow stood with a grim face to speak.
“The man who calls himself President Todd sent his killers to murder innocent people, including my new son and his blood kin. He is responsible for my daughter being shot. Colby of Taye’s Pack, blood of our blood and bone of our bone, was wounded to the point of death. Colby’s mate has been taken by this man.” He raised a hand, fingers spread, and slowly clenched it into a fist. “He has promised to bring war against our people.” He paused to look around the gathering. “If he wants war, we’ll give him war.”
Approving murmurs rose to a shout.
“That day will come.” The alpha turned to look down at Victoria and Marty. “But not today. Today we celebrate.”
“My,” Marty murmured into her hair a little later. “Your family likes a party. Was that the Chicken Dance?”
She swayed with him in time to a soft ballad crooned by Aunt Carla. “I think that’s what it’s called. Look. Isn’t it sweet, watching Hawk and Renee dance?”
“It’s sweeter dancing with you.” He put his mouth against her throat and touched his tongue there. “It was only a few months ago that your dad would have killed me for dancing with you like this.”
They were pressed together from breast to knee. It made her think of other activities they could be doing. “I like dancing with you like this, but it’s been a long day. Are you tired?”
“A little,” he admitted, turning them in a lazy half circle. “Not too tired, though. It’s only a fifteen minute walk to my house in the compound. I have a bed there.”
Victoria looked over his shoulder to see who was watching. “I don’t think anyone would notice if we slipped away.”
They made their way stealthily to the edge of the party and made a break for it. They came to the gate in the wall of the mayor’s compound, laughing and panting. The guard there smiled as he opened the gate for them. Marty waved as they passed through. He didn’t speak until they were several yards away. “Did anyone notice our escape?” he asked.
“Just my mom,” she said, and snorted a laugh. “And she won’t tell. She wants grandchildren.”
He hurried her down the street and behind the white mansion Eddie and Lisa Madison lived in. There was a small house there that he led her to. “This is a small house,” he said apologetically.
“It’s cute,” she said politely. “It’s big enough for the two of us.”
He opened the door. “For now, it’s just two of us. Our house will be built before any children come.”
He tugged her down a hall to a bedroom. Not that she needed any urging. She followed his tugging with enthusiasm.
“I’ve heard that the Lakota have special conditions about sons-in-law and mothers-in-law.” He kissed her, a gentle slide of lips over her jaw. “I bet one of them is that the son-in-law must obey his wife’s mother. So if my mother-in-law wants grandchildren it is my duty to make some for her, right?”
His lips hovered tauntingly right over her mouth. “Uh, right. You better get on that.”
He kissed her deeply, then paused to look down at her seriously. “I don’t know what will happen with Todd. We’ve gotten away this time, but it’s not over.”
The memory of Major Ellis’ threats tried to intrude but she pushed it away. “No, it’s not. We still need to find Colby. Gina Summer is still with Todd. And Ray is still out.”
“He’s going to be okay.” Conviction rang in his voice. “Part of me wants to go to Omaha with Lisa and Eddie, but the rest of me knows I need to stay here. Someone needs to mind the store while Eddie’s away. The most important thing is we’re together.”
“We’ll keep each other safe,” she agreed. She laced her fingers behind his neck to bring his lips closer. “Now, can we get on with the grandchildren project?”
He laughed and got on with it.
Good news! Victoria’s Cat is off to the editor!
Depending on how extensive the edits are, the book will be ready to release on July 11 as planned. I will bust my butt to make sure they are done in time for the promised release date.
Usually when I finish a book, I feel like it is a good story. Not every time. There have been a couple that I wasn’t happy with, and there have some that I was okay with, and then there are a couple that I thought were outstanding. I think Victoria and Marty’s story is outstanding. Is that wrong to say? I kind of love Marty. He’s quiet and laid back. And loud mouthed Victoria is perfect for him. They are pretty awesome together.
This isn’t quite the end of the book. I’ll have one more teaser on the 4th of July. Wait until you see what Wolf’s Shadow does to Marty! 🙂
Marty? Victoria hid her elation behind a confused expression. “Cats? You mean kitty cats?”
“I mean lions,” the general snapped. “Don’t play dumb. And don’t pretend you’re sweet and helpless either. I saw what you did to Mott. Now answer the question.”
“I don’t know anything about any cats.” She turned the tables and gestured to the bread. “What happened? Is this all the food we get?”
“You’re lucky to get that much, after the destruction your friends and family caused.” He leaned forward and glared at her. “You’re lucky to be alive. The president wanted to execute you three. His temper sometimes gets the better of him. Fortunately for you, cooler heads prevailed.”
Victoria returned the glare. “Does he have these little tantrums often?”
“Be careful,” he warned softly. “He could still have you given to the men. Think about it before you say anything else.”
Victoria was done minding her mouth. “Today my husband and my family burned your supplies. If anything else happens to me, they will burn a lot more. Thank about that.”
He shoved his chair back. “Eat your bread and get your bags together. We’re leaving in ten minutes.”
Renee stood up too. “Leaving?”
“Back to the bridge for a prisoner exchange. Be ready.”
With that he turned sharply to the door and left. Renee let out a long, shaky breath. “Thank God.”
“We’re going home?” Anna asked in a hopeful voice.
“I think so,” said Renee. “Here, let’s divide the bread and eat quick.”
When they jumped down from the truck at the bridge, sunset was painting the clouds gold and rose. Victoria squinted to try to see the other end of the bridge, but between the distance and the glare of the sun, she could only make out some indistinct forms. On this side of the bridge were only a dozen people, among them General Atwater, President Todd, and Major Ellis. President Todd’s face was oddly tranquil as he greeted them. Perfectly groomed and smiling, he did not look like the man who had rolled around on the grass having a tantrum.
“Ladies, I’m so sorry your visit is being cut short like this,” he said warmly. “It would be lovely to see you again sometime.” His smile was polite, with no sign of mockery or hint of threat, as if he were a normal host saying goodbye to guests at the end of a fun visit.
Victoria exchanged a glance with Renee. Either he was a good actor or flat out crazy. “Thank you.”
General Atwater took over. “In a few minutes, when the signal is given, you will walk slowly across the bridge. The president’s ladies will do the same. Don’t stop. Don’t talk to the other women when you pass them. Just walk slowly. We’ll stay on our side, and your men will stay on their side. Once you are across the bridge, each group will depart immediately.”
The pretty major sidled over to them. “We’re leaving Omaha for now,” he said. The sweet smile didn’t reach his eyes, which were stormy with rage. “But you haven’t seen the last of us. We will destroy you. Those bags?” He nodded at the suitcases their escort had handed down from the truck. “When we’re done with you, everything your entire tribe has left won’t fill even one of those bags.”
Victoria eyed his smile and curled her fist, but Renee jabbed an elbow into her side. Victoria turned her back on him. It wasn’t as satisfying as punching his teeth in.
“It’s time,” Atwater said. “Start walking.”
Victoria picked up her suitcase. “Good thing we didn’t pack everything when we left Omaha.”
Renee, carrying her bag, stepped onto the bridge. “Doesn’t matter. Right now, I would gladly drag everything I own across this bridge without batting an eye. Come on, Anna.”
They walked slowly, as instructed, and with each step Victoria’s heart pounded faster. She could see the gaggle of Todd’s women coming closer. They too were walking slowly. Gina’s mom and Fourth Mrs. Todd were in front, followed by Suzanne and Gina, and Todd’s sister and her friend brought up the rear. Victoria took a breath. Gina shouldn’t be going back to Todd. Words of angry protest leaped into her throat. But she couldn’t say anything. As the two groups drew closer, Victoria saw that Gina’s eyes were bright with tears. Victoria opened her mouth. Gina gave a tiny shake of her head. They passed each other in silence. Victoria clenched the handle of her suitcase so tightly it hurt, but she kept her mouth closed and looked resolutely to the end of the bridge.
The forms there were clearer now. That tall, broad frame must be Eagle. Her brother was here. That was Mayor McGrath, and next to him was Hawk. Beside her, Renee was shaking. Anna’s breathing was almost sobs. Poor kid had cried a lot in the past two days, and Victoria didn’t blame her. Her own breath caught when she saw the setting sun gleam on golden hair. Marty? No, the hair was short, not wavy locks falling to broad shoulders. But those shoulders had a familiar set… She gasped.
“Marty,” she whispered.
It was him. As they came closer, she recognized him, but his face was distorted by horrific bruising. His hair was clipped close to his head to make way for a bandage that covered him from one side of his forehead, over his ear, to the back of his head. His jacket was open to show one arm in a sling. He was injured but alive. Victoria grabbed hold of Renee’s arm for support. The joy and relief made her head swim.
It was agonizing to keep her pace slow and steady. The end of the bridge seemed miles away. The need to touch Marty was overwhelming. Somehow, even though she was shaking, Renee kept their pace steady. She must want to throw herself into Hawk’s arms as much as Victoria wanted to do the same with Marty. But could she throw herself at him? He was hurt. His shirt didn’t fit right, as if he was wearing something thick under it, like bulky bandages. He was leaning on another blond man. Was that his brother, Eddie Madison? What was Mayor Madison doing here in Omaha? She scanned the men waiting at the end of the bridge and identified several cousins who hadn’t come to Omaha with the representatives. They were naked, so they must have come in wolf form and changed back to men. But she didn’t see Colby or Ray.
The questions swirling around her brain could wait a few minutes. Only a couple of yards to go. Anna broke away from Renee’s arm and rushed at her father. Renee’s attention was fixed firmly on Hawk, who stared back at her with a face so expressionless that Victoria knew he was hiding strong emotion. Renee ran the last few steps off the bridge to Hawk. Her mate folded her in his arms, face still blank, but Victoria saw the black of his eyes gleam with moisture.
Victoria looked away from them to Marty. His face was as white as the bandage as he straightened up from his brother’s support. He swayed and Eddie grabbed him again. Victoria took three long strides to stand inches away from him. Her hands trembled when she reached for him. Where could she touch him that wouldn’t hurt him? After a few uncertain moments, she dropped her hands. He swayed again, his swollen features twisting with a hurt that wasn’t physical.
“I’m ugly now,” he began in a hoarse voice.
“Shut up,” she snapped. She had to swallow twice to get her mouth to work. “You’re alive. I thought you were dead.” Her voice broke on a harsh sob. “I thought you were dead,” she repeated. “I want to hold you, but I don’t want to hurt you.”
He took a tottering step to her and half collapsed against her. “Then I’ll hold you. But you might have to hold me up while I do it.”
His good arm draped around her waist. He leaned his cheek against her hair. In fact, he leaned most of his weight against her. “It’s a good thing I’m tall and strong,” she said, trying to joke, but she couldn’t stop crying.
Eagle tapped her shoulder. “Sorry to butt in, but we have to go. You can talk on the bus.”
Most of her relatives let their wolves out but Hawk and Eagle stayed human. It was only twenty yards to the bus, but Marty was shaking and wheezing with exhaustion by the time they got there. Eagle and Eddie Madison helped him get into the bus. Victoria sat at the end of a seat and Marty slumped against her. Eddie sat on his other side to help steady him. Eagle, Hawk and Renee, and Mayor McGrath and his daughter climbed into the bus and found seats. The bus started up with a now familiar roar. Even the smell of the fuel wasn’t as horrible as it had once seemed. As the vehicle bumped its way over a rocky path, Marty groaned.
“He refused to stay home,” Eddie said to her with a tired smile. “He insisted on coming to be here when you were released.”
Victoria stroked one of Marty’s short blond curls with light fingers. “Idiot,” she said fondly.
“I love you too,” Marty said in a sluggish voice.
“Are you okay?” she whispered.
Even over the noise of the engine, Marty heard her. “I will be. Now that you are safe, I’ll be just fine.” He dropped his head to her shoulder. “See? This part of my head is good. I think I’ll just rest it here for a minute, okay?”
“Okay.” He could keep it there as long as he liked, even if it put her arm to sleep. “I love you, Marty.”
He snored. Beside him, Eddie gave a smothered chuckle. “He needs sleep. I don’t think he’s had any in days.”
Had it been only two days since their wedding? They had slept that night. Maybe not very much, but some. “How did you get here?” she asked.
Eddie jerked a chin at Marty. “My brother dragged himself into Kearney, bloody and limping only hours after the train was attacked. I sent word to the Plane Women’s Pack and the den, and we came here at a run. My baby brother insisted on coming back with us. I don’t know how he did it, but he kept up with us.” He smiled. “I suppose a man —whether cat, wolf, or human— can perform miracles to save the woman he loves.”
From the seat behind them, Eagle spoke. “I have to say, I didn’t like the idea of you marrying him, but I was wrong. That cat will do anything to keep you safe.”
Eddie smiled at her again, and she was struck by the warmth and sincerity of it. The contrast between his smile and the smiles she’d seen on the men from Kansas-Missouri was stark.
“Were you part of the raid on Todd’s camp?” she asked. “There were cat paw prints there.”
“Yes. I wanted to be part of the rescue. You’re my sister now,” he said. “Congratulations and welcome to the family.”
“Thank you. Ray? Is he okay?”
Ray’s dad sighed, his smile fading. “He’s pretty bad off,” he said. “He’s at the hospital in Omaha. They think he’ll live, but …” He trailed off. “He hasn’t woken up. He might not ever wake up. We’ll have to wait and see.”
Ray. Patia’s fiancé. What would her cousin do if Ray didn’t wake up? Or if he did wake up but couldn’t speak or move? It was too painful to think about now. She turned to look back at Eagle. “How about Colby? Where is he?”
Eagle looked stricken. “He’s dead. Don’t you remember? He was killed on the train. Marty told us about it.”
“No,” Victoria said at the same time that Renee did. Renee, sitting beside Eagle and still wrapped tightly in Hawk’s arms, went on. “We thought he was dead. Those assh—” She broke off with a quick glance at Anna in the seat behind her. “Er, the soldiers from Kansas-Missouri threw him in the back of a truck, but when the truck got to the camp, the two soldiers who had been in the truck were bleeding and Colby was nowhere to be seen. They said the wolf came back to life and tried to kill them before jumping out.”
Eagle’s eyes lit with hope. “Then he’s out there somewhere, probably trying to get help. We’ll find him. Aunt Carla will be crazy with joy. She thinks he’s dead.”
The bus bumped twice, and smoothed out. They were on a road now.
“We’re almost home,” McGrath remarked. In the third and last seat, he had an arm around his daughter as if he’d never let her go. “Mrs. Madison, you and your husband will be our guests while he recovers.”
Victoria opened her mouth to decline, but he stopped her with a raised hand.
“My house is closer to the hospital, and we have a large bedroom on the first floor. Mayor Madison is our guest. I would be honored to have you stay with us too. Thanks to you and your family, my daughter is alive and well. I can never repay you.”
It was hard to deny him when he sounded so sincere and grateful. Besides, how would Marty climb the stairs to the third-floor bedroom at the Limit? “Thank you,” she said.
The bus went up an incline and stopped. With great care, Marty was roused and helped off the bus and into the mayor’s house. Eagle followed with her suitcase. He murmured that he was going to talk to Rock and some of the others about finding Colby. A wave of love swept over Victoria when her brother gave her an enormous hug.
She sniffed. “I love you.”
He looked abashed, but smiled. “I love you too. See you in the morning.”
When the door closed behind him, Mrs. McGrath swooped to her daughter with tears and hugs. Her nearly incoherent exclamations of joy mixed with her daughter’s wails and sobs. They clung together for a long moment. Anna babbled about how scared she had been, and how hungry they were, and how evil Mr. Todd was. Rye McGrath put his arms around both of them, tears in his own eyes. Mrs. McGrath raised her head and looked at Marty. With obvious reluctance, she pulled away from her daughter and husband. She seemed to be torn between her daughter and her duties as hostess. Anna was still crying, but she smiled through the tears at her mother.
“Go ahead, Mom,” she said in a small, shaky voice. “I’ll stay with Dad.”
Mrs. McGrath gave her daughter one last hug before turning to Victoria and Marty. “Please follow me. There’s a bedroom right off the living room.”
They followed her, half carrying Marty. Light from the hall gave enough illumination to see the outline of the furniture. Eddie helped his brother to the bed, sat him down, and pulled off his shoes. Victoria hovered over her husband, holding his good hand and staring anxiously down at his white face.
“This was my mother-in-law’s room,” Mrs. McGrath explained, flipping on the light to show a luxuriously furnished bedroom with a sitting area and a private bath. “Anna said you hadn’t eaten hardly anything all day.”
Victoria’s stomach rumbled loudly. Mrs. McGrath laughed. “I’ll heat supper up in a minute. The dining room is…” She trailed off when she noticed how Victoria clutched Marty’s good hand. “No, I’ll bring a tray to you here.”
“Thank you,” Victoria said to her hostess. “I could definitely eat. Lie back, Marty,” she ordered.
“Yes, ma’am,” he mumbled. He seemed to try for a smile, before carefully easing himself down.
The obvious pain he tried to hide hurt her too. “Thank you so much, Mrs. McGrath.”
“Please call me Cayla,” Mrs. McGrath said thickly. “And thank you. My daughter is home. We can never thank you enough. I’ll be right back.”
Eddie stood at the door. “Do you need help getting him undressed?”
“I can do it. Thank you.”
Her brother-in-law nodded. “He’s stubborn, so you’ll need to be firm to get him to behave.”
Victoria snorted. “He’ll behave,” she declared.
“I’m not deaf, you know,” Marty muttered.
“Are you going to behave?” she demanded.
“Too hurt not to right now.” He closed his good eye in a slow wink. “But just wait a week. I’ll misbehave in a way that you’ll like a lot.”
A tide of red flowed into Eddie’s lean cheeks. He coughed. “I’ll say good night.”
Victoria held her giggle in until the door closed behind him. “Oh, Marty,” she gurgled. “You are so naughty.” The giggles morphed into sobs. Dropping to her knees on the floor, she buried her face in the blanket by Marty’s shoulder and wept like a baby.
“Oh, now,” he said, awkwardly trying to twist his arm to clumsily pat her head. “Don’t cry, Vic. Everything is alright now.”
She sniffed inelegantly. “I’ll cry if I want to.” But she wiped her eyes on the sheet and raised her head. “Let’s get you undressed.”
She moved slowly and carefully as she unbuttoned his shirt. When she saw the bruising spreading out from under three separate bandages, her lips flattened. “How many times were you shot?”
His brow, the one not covered by a bandage, pulled down as he silently counted on his fingers. “Four. My shoulder, my arm, my hip, and my head. They were lousy shots.”
She didn’t laugh. “I didn’t punch him hard enough,” she growled.
“That lieutenant, the one who was in charge on the train.”
“You punched him?” he said delightedly.
“Right in the kisser.” She swelled with remembered satisfaction. “He went down like a sack of potatoes. His lip is still swollen.”
“That’s my Vic,” he said proudly.
She eased off his shirt and moved to his pants.
“This is different from the last time you unbuttoned my pants.” He angled his head to look up at her with a leer. “Maybe if you were very careful…”
She peeled his pants down and saw a bandage on his hip. A bullet must have gone through him, right under the hipbone. “That’s not funny.” The tears started again and she wrestled them back. “You ran all the way to Kearney like this?”
The leer faded. He took her hand. “I had to. You know that. I had to get help for you. When I first came to, back there by the train tracks, I knew immediately that you were gone. I looked around, but you weren’t there. No one was there except the dead men on the grass.”
His eyes clouded. “I left him. I left him behind.”
“Where is he now?”
“Hospital. Few blocks away. He’s in a coma.”
He speech was getting short. He must be exhausted. She pulled his hand to her lips. “If he’s in the hospital, then you know he’s being taken care of by men who know what they are doing.”
A faint smile ghosted his lips. “And women. Omaha has two lady doctors.”
“Well, then you know Ray is being take good care of.” She pulled his pants off and removed his socks. “You did everything you could.” She surveyed him, naked except for the bandages. “You could have died. If it had been Ray who was able to go for help would you have begged him to take you along?”
“Of course not.” He slanted a twisted smile up at her. “I know I did the right thing. It’s just hard.”
“I know.” She moved to lift the sheet over him but paused when he raised a hand. “What?”
“When you look at me, do you see your husband, or just a wreck?”
“I see my husband,” she said instantly. “A little the worse for wear right now, but brave and strong. You’ll recover.”
“Yes. My face might be scarred.”
She made a rude sound.
“You don’t care?”
“Idiot,” she muttered.
He smiled. “I love you,” he whispered. “I don’t know how it is for wolves, but I heal fast. In a week, I’ll be able to do more in bed with you than just sleep.”
He was leering again. Victoria rolled her eyes. “Oh, good. For now, though, just sleep.”
“You, too.” His eyes were already closing. “Sleep with me.”
“I don’t want to hurt you.”
He shook his head. “If you lay on this side it will be fine. If you do accidentally hurt me I’ll let you know, okay?”
She thought about it, gauging the width of the bed. “Okay.”
Twenty minutes later, she was dead asleep against him. Marty breathed in the scent of her hair. All the pain and weariness and anguish were nothing compared to the feel of his mate beside him. He placed his hand gently over her thigh, rejoicing in her presence. His mate was returned to him, safe and well, and that was worth running two hundred miles with bullets in him.
A soft knock announced Mrs. McGrath with supper. He didn’t move. Victoria didn’t stir. After a few moments, he heard the clink of dishes as something settled on the floor outside the door. A tray, he guessed. Later, he told himself. You can wake Vic up later. For now, he just wanted to savor having his mate cuddled up beside him. She snorted a delicate, lady-like snore. He silently chuckled. He loved her. He must, because even her snores were precious to him. He turned his head and brushed a kiss over her hair.
“I love you,” he whispered, as sleep pulled him under.
* * * *
One week later the train, which had been retrieved from where the Kansas-Missouri troops had abandoned it, pulled into the Kearney station. Victoria stared out the window.
Update on Victoria’s Cat. The rough draft is Done!
I want to break out the champagne and chocolate. But actually, I have a date with my vacuum cleaner and duster. 🙁 I haven’t cleaned since before I left for Ohio, and with three cats you can only guess at what color the carpet is.
The manuscript has been rushed off to the beta readers so I have a few days to recover before diving into revisions. Here is a good sized chunk of the second to last chapter. As I was highlighting to copy it, I saw several typos and mistakes. *head desk* Be kind. I hope you can enjoy it anyway.
Marty ran. The jagged edges of his heart stabbed him with every stride, but he ran. He had left his nephew, the man who was the brother of his heart, wounded behind him. Ray couldn’t run. He hadn’t even been awake. It tortured Marty to leave his nephew, but he knew Ray would want him to go without him to fetch help. He had taken only enough time to pull Ray away from the other dead men and build him a slight shelter so scavengers wouldn’t get him. He would return for Ray as soon as he could, but right now he had a mate to save. He had to get her back. He couldn’t do it himself. He needed help, so he left Ray behind and ran.
A mountain cat could cover a lot of ground even when bullets had torn chunks out of his chest and hip, even when a bullet had cut a groove in his skull. It hurt, but he ran because he had a mission. He was going to save Victoria, and punish the men who had stolen her and murdered so many from the train. The railroad tracks would lead him to where he needed to go, so he followed them with all the speed he could force from his broken body. Through the mud created by the early spring sun, he ran. When the mud turned to ice as the sun fell, he ran. He didn’t have time to baby himself, not if he was going to find the help he needed to save Victoria. With that thought alone in his mind, he ignored the pain of his wounds and followed the tracks to the place he knew he would find help.
* * * *
“It’s cold this morning,” Gina commented. She curved her hands around a mug of coffee and shivered. “I don’t like living in tents.”
Victoria sat beside her at the table that had shrunk overnight. “I’ve spent most of my life living in a tent. I don’t mind it.”
Gina sipped coffee that steamed in the chilly air. “Last night you said something about Colby.”
Victoria looked around the main room of the harem tent, but no one was around except for she, Gina, Renee, and Anna. They were going to be paraded around in front of the men from Omaha in a few hours. It was past nine in the morning, and the other women were still in bed. Victoria couldn’t imagine sleeping that late. But any of them could come in at any time, so she lowered her voice, knowing that canvas dividers wouldn’t keep them from being overheard.
“Colby jumped out of the truck on the way here,” she whispered. “He’s alive.”
Gina’s hands fell limp to the table. “How can he be? I saw him. He was dead.”
“I thought so too.” Victoria looked at Renee for confirmation, and the older woman nodded. “I don’t know how, but he survived. He’s a wolf warrior. They heal quickly.”
Gina closed her eyes and let out a trembling sigh. “I’m glad, but it doesn’t make any difference. He can’t take me to his family now.”
“He’s a wolf warrior. You’re the mate his wolf chose.” Victoria drank coffee. “You haven’t seen the last of him. He’ll get you out of here.”
Gina shook her head slowly. “It’s impossible. You’ve seen what it’s like. And now you’re stuck here too.”
Renee snorted. “You don’t know the Clan.”
Voices came from outside the tent. Major Ellis entered. “Miss Gina, you look beautiful this morning.” He nodded to the rest of them. “I’m glad you’re awake. President Todd wants us to be ready to leave in ninety minutes.”
Eighty minutes later Victoria, Renee and Anna were in the back of a truck. Victoria had been reunited with her coat, which must have been picked up when the Kansas-Missouri soldiers scavenged the train. There were six soldiers in the truck with them, and an entire fleet of trucks growled around them. Victoria put her hand under her nose to try to hold off the fumes.
“Ugh,” she said to Renee. “I hope this won’t take long.”
“About half an hour,” one of the soldiers shouted cheerfully, but before he could say more the trucks roared to life, drowning out anything else.
There must have been at least forty trucks in this convoy, and the noise they made and the tracks they left would make it easy to track them. Todd must not be worried about keeping the location of his camp a secret. If each of these trucks held ten soldiers each, the President would have about four hundred troops with him at the parley, which left his camp still well protected by the rest of his soldiers. Victoria wanted to say something to Renee about it, but between the noise and the jolting she lost interest in trying to say anything. She amused herself by imagining how much fun it would be to punch Todd right in the teeth.
Her side was aching again by the time the trucks stopped. She, Renee and Anna were kept inside the truck for nearly another thirty minutes before the engine started up again and they moved over bumpy ground. The six soldiers dismounted from the truck first and then helped the women down. They were in what looked like a decaying ghost town. Victoria glanced at Renee. Her aunt would have walked through cities like this in the Times Before, when they were alive with people and technology that Victoria can only imagine.
“This way, ladies,” one of the soldiers said, and led them along an ice-rimmed path to a wide bridge.
“We must be in Iowa,” Renee murmured. “I think this is a famous bridge over the Missouri River between Council Bluffs and Omaha.”
There were soldiers stationed either side of the bridge, standing at attention with their weapons propped against their legs in a non-threatening position. Ahead Victoria could see a bunch of people standing in the middle of the bridge. They wore the Kansas-Missouri uniform. She assumed Ryan McGrath was there too, but he must be past Todd’s soldiers. She wanted to see what was going on, but the bridge must be a mile long, too far for her to see or hear anything.
The six men of their escort arranged the women single file and took up flanking positions on either side of them. It was a long walk to get to the center. They were halted twenty feet away from the men, and even with her height, Victoria couldn’t see anything except the dirty ice on the river on either side and the backs of Todd and his men in front.
A thin sound came from Anna, not quite a wail, not quite a moan. Renee stepped out of formation to put an arm around her shoulders. “Don’t worry,” she whispered. “It’s going to be okay.”
Anna put a hand over her mouth. “I want my dad. I want my mom.”
“So do I,” said Victoria. It surprised her, but she really did want her parents. Her dad would mow down the soldiers and take her home. “Let’s try to listen and hear what they are saying.”
They could hear Todd speaking, but even though his voice was raised to carry, the wind was blowing past them toward him, pushing his words away from them. Victoria tried to distinguish what he said but they were too far back. She recognized Ryan McGrath’s voice but couldn’t make out any of his words either. Tears leaked down Anna’s cheeks. “Dad,” she whispered.
There was a flurry of movement ahead of them and one of the men from Kansas-Missouri turned and waved at them. The six soldiers marched them forward. Victoria strained to see the group on the other side of the bridge. The bridge curved out into a roundish central place, probably so pedestrians could look out at the river. On the side closest to Omaha was Ryan McGrath, along with Captain Erickson and a few other men she vaguely recognized from the stage in the legislative chambers, and there were Hawk and Stone to one side. A breath seeped out of Victoria, and with it, some of her anxiety.
Hawk tended to be stoic, but when he saw Renee, his face turned to stone and his black eyes burned with icy fire. He was twenty feet away from them, but Victoria clearly saw death written in the flat line of his mouth.
President Todd gestured Victoria, Renee, and Anna forward. He draped an arm around Victoria’s waist and the other around Anna’s shoulders. Renee, mercifully, was spared being touched by the president. Good thing. Hawk might have lost his habitual cool if the slimy little turd had put hands on his mate.
“As you can see,” Todd called jovially, “your ladies are quite well in my care. I think we can reach some arrangement that will ensure they remain safe and well, can’t we?”
McGrath looked almost as stony as Hawk. “We’d like to hear from the ladies themselves. Send them over.”
Todd laughed. “I don’t think so. You can hear them just fine from here.” He nodded at Renee. “Is that your husband, my dear? Please, reassure him that you are being well treated in my care.”
Renee fixed her eyes on her mate. “He’s absolutely right,” she called earnestly. “We’ve been treated like honored guests. In fact, last night we were invited to dinner. It was the best meal I’ve ever eaten. I wish we had a cook as good as the President’s.”
Hawk blinked. “Uh. Good.”
Victoria hid a smile. That blink was the equivalent of another man gaping. “It’s true,” she agreed, loudly. “Except for me being shot, we’re fine.”
The was no hint of shock on Hawk’s face now. He was back to be stony. Stone’s usually mild expression matched Hawk’s.
She went quickly on. “I was shot on accident,” she assured them. “It’s not serious, but President Todd sent his personal physician to me. He couldn’t have treated any of his own wives any better. Cousin Anna and I are fine.”
McGrath’s gaze flicked to Anna and casually away, but his jaw was clenched. Todd was stiff beside her. He said in a low voice, “My dear, I think you’ve said enough.” His smile, directed at Anna, chilled her more than the wind. “Not another word, do you understand?”
Victoria swallowed and nodded.
“Excellent.” The president turned back to the party from Omaha. “I’m told this young lady is one of your people.” He nodded at Hawk. “But I think she bears a striking resemblance to Mayor McGrath.” He put a finger under Anna’s chin and lifted her face to examine it before looking at McGrath. “Yes, she certainly does resemble you. How curious.”
The mayor of Omaha almost managed to look bored. “Return the ladies to us now and we’ll be much more open to negotiating terms that favor you.”
The president laughed. “Oh, no, that’s not how this works.” Todd’s arm gave Victoria a squeeze that nearly forced a hiss of pain from her. “You see, because I have your women, you will agree to whatever terms I want. Then, after you have proven trustworthy, you may get your women back. It all depends on you.”
Anna tried to muffle her sobs against her shoulder. Todd patted the top of her head. “Now, you girls scurry back to your truck and let us men finish our talk.”
Girls? Us men? He’s going to die, Victoria reminded herself. Don’t get angry. It’s only a matter of time before someone kills him. She would be happy to do it herself. With great reluctance, Victoria let the soldiers form up on either side of them to begin the march back over the long bridge to the truck.
“Be patient,” Hawk shouted in Lakota. “We’ll get you back.”
Renee turned her head to search out her mate. “We know,” she shouted back.
The soldier beside Renee gave her a gentle but firm nudge. Obediently, they marched down the bridge to the trucks. Victoria kept her eyes open for any sign of the other wolf warriors skulking in the brush, but didn’t see them. They were around, she was sure. Rock, Eagle, Quill, and Sand wouldn’t be napping back at the Limit. They were probably up to something right now that would cause trouble for Todd.
They waited in the truck for another hour before the truck’s engine roared to life and the fumes of its fuel clogged their noses.
“We’ll be back to camp in less than an hour,” one of their escort remarked. “We should have brought some rations. It’s past lunch.”
“Supplies were just delivered last night,” another said. “There will be plenty of food waiting for us.”
Victoria’s shoulders slumped. It hadn’t been likely, but she’d hoped they would be returned to Omaha right away. Renee must have felt the same. Over Anna’s head she nodded grimly.
They had been travelling twenty minutes when a new stench cut through the engine fumes. Renee pinched her nose closed.
“Something’s burning,” she muttered.
The scratch at the back of Victoria’s throat turned into a cough. The light coming through the opening at the back turned dim. A haze of dirty smoke filtered in. Something was burning, but it didn’t smell like grass or wood. Victoria had seen more than one prairie fire in her life, but those occurred in hot, dry weather, not in damp springtime. She could tell by the way the soldiers readied their weapons that this wasn’t a natural disaster. They expected trouble of the man-made sort.
The truck picked up speed, jolting over the uneven ground. Victoria clenched onto the bench to keep from being bounced off the seat. After several minutes, they slowed to a crawl. Voices outside the truck were raised. Not all the words were clear, but shock and anger were. From the little she caught, the new supplies had been set on fire, and the fuel and ammunition had exploded.
She was dying to see what was going on, but the soldiers stopped her.
“No, ma’am,” one said. “You all stay put until we know if it’s safe.”
Two of the escort slipped out to find out what was happening.
“The Clan,” said Renee with satisfaction.
“Did all the food burn?” one of their escort asked another. “What about lunch?”
Victoria’s stomach growled, but she shared a smile with Renee. “The Clan,” she agreed.
The canvas at the back of the truck opened and Lieutenant Mott looked in. “Bring the ladies out,” he ordered. “Take them to the harem and make sure they stay there.”
Somehow the burning smell was even worse outside the truck. Victoria fanned her hand in front of her face to try to clear the haze. She could see the harem tent ahead and to the right, and to her left, President Todd stood with fists shaking in front of his face. That face was contorted into an ugly mask, clenched teeth exposed by curled lips, eyebrows pulled so low his eyes couldn’t be seen, and nostrils flared.
“That doesn’t look good,” Renee muttered. “Is he foaming at the mouth?”
A glistening strand of spittle rolled from the corner of his mouth. Victoria took a step back. “Eeew.”
The President slammed his fists into the truck he stood beside. “My son,” he screamed. “They took my son!”
Victoria stared, repelled, while he threw himself to the ground, screaming. “Get them back. Get them back!” he shrieked, pounding the grass with his fists and slamming his heels into the ground. “I’ll kill them! All of them. I want them dead! Dead, dead dead!”
Anna was staring too. “My little brother Nick used to do that when he was two, but he doesn’t do it anymore.”
“Everyone I know outgrew it,” Victoria said. She watched the President writhe around, biting the collar of his uniform. “This is like a toddler tantrum, but worse.”
General Atwater hurried toward them. “Ladies, please go to the harem tent. It’s best that you aren’t in sight right now.”
Their escort bunched around them and herded them away to the harem tent. The soldiers looked nervous, like they wanted to be out of sight too. Renee paused when they got to the tent. Strangely, there were no men guarding the tent. “Wait a minute,” she said, when the escort turned to go. “What is going on?”
The soldiers looked at each other. “Dunno, ma’am.” The tallest one, whose name on his uniform was Smithers, shuffled his feet. “Our supplies were vandalized and the President’s harem was captured.”
“He said something about his son,” Victoria remembered. “I don’t think we met him.”
A different soldier answered. “Not born yet. Fourth Mrs. Todd is expecting. It’s the president’s first child.” He shook his head. “The president is going to flip.”
“Shut up,” muttered Smithers. “Ladies, please go into the tent and stay there until you are called for.”
Renee opened the flap. “Lunch?”
Smithers shook his head. “If there’s any food we’ll try to get you some.”
His voice said he doubted there was any food to be had. Renee led the way into the tent. The passed through the main room, down the hallway made by canvas hangings, to the room they had left only a couple of hours ago.
“Kind of creepy with no one else here,” Renee observed.
Victoria agreed. “Yeah. Let’s go sit down in the front room.”
After they were settled, Anna asked, “Do you think there really isn’t any more food? At all?”
“There might be some,” Renee said thoughtfully. “I bet the president keeps his food separate from the army’s supplies. But if he has three thousand men, his private supply won’t go far. Either they’ll have to go looking for more food nearby or wait for more to be sent to them from another place. Either way, the army will be hungry.”
“I’m already hungry,” Victoria put in.
“And hungry men aren’t as disciplined,” Renee continued. “Todd could face a mutiny. Or whatever it’s called in the army.”
“Did your husband do this?” Anna asked.
“My husband was on the bridge with your dad.” Renee jerked a thumb at Victoria. “Her husband might have. I suppose they came here looking for us to rescue us. When we weren’t here, they took the harem.”
“Yeah,” Victoria agreed. “Burning the food and the other stuff was brilliant, but I’m getting pretty hungry.”
Anna sighed. “Me too. How did your husband get the other women out of camp? There were lots of people here who would have stopped them.”
“That must be why they burned stuff. Everyone probably ran over there to save the food.” Victoria frowned a little. “Stealing women doesn’t seem like something they would do.”
Renee shrugged. “At least the harem will be completely safe with them.”
Victoria glanced at Anna. “True.”
Hours passed. Supper time came and went with no food and no news. Anna was snoring with her head on the table when a male voice announced he was entering. It was General Atwater and a younger soldier holding half a loaf of bread. The general gestured and the man set the bread on the table, gave a crisp salute and left. The general sat down. Victoria divided her attention between him and the bread.
“It’s interesting,” he remarked dispassionately, “how many big cat prints are around our camp. Wolf tracks I had expected. But big cats? No. What can you tell me about the cats?”
Marty! Victoria hid her elation behind a confused expression. “Cats? You mean kitty cats?”
“I mean lions,” the general snapped. “Don’t play dumb. And don’t pretend you’re sweet and helpless either. I saw what you did to Mott. Now answer the question.”
I leave very early tomorrow morning for RAGT in Ohio. I’ll be back in 6 days. I had HOPED to have Victoria and Marty’s story done before I left, but I still have one more chapter and maybe an epilogue to write. sigh. There will not be a Tuesday Teaser next week so you are getting a double dose now. This is the rest of Chapter 11. It is wordy and meandering and I think I will need to tighten it up quite a bit during revisions. The point of this chapter is to show the reader what life with President Todd is like, so I think I’ll need to cut out a lot and/or condense it so it reads more quickly. As it is, I think it’s too much, and readers are likely to get bogged down. What do you think?
The harem was the largest tent. Victoria ground her teeth over that designation. The man had a harem? And took them along when he was ready to conquer a new city? If he expected to make her his newest wife, he was in a for a rude surprise. She was already married. And if he tried to move on her, she would twist that little shrimp into a pretzel.
There were two guards at the door flap of the harem tent. They wore uniforms instead of lionskin loincloths like the eunuchs that guarded the sultan’s harem in a book she had read. The interior of the harem tent was just as prosaic as the guards. No silken pillows over thick carpets or embroidered hangings separating the rooms. No divans with lounging sultanas. The ground was covered by a plain khaki tarp, and the hangings dividing the tent were of that same material. And the inmates weren’t wearing sheer flowing silks.
Victoria almost bumped into Renee when she stopped. The six women gathered around a table wore jeans and blouses, and the expressions on their faces ranged from mild interest to something that looked like hate. Hate? Before Victoria could follow up on that thought, Gina Summer leaped up from her chair and hurried toward them.
“I’m so sorry about Colby,” she whispered. “I’m so sorry about all of this.” She looked past them and her eyes went cool. “Major Ellis.”
Vitoria thought it was a curse word rather than a greeting.
The major was certainly handsome. Not as handsome as Marty, but his smile lit his already handsome features and turned him into a living work of art. His voice lowered to a seductive purr. Gina’s cool expression didn’t change but she put her hand behind her back, away from his reach. The young major continued to smile. It reminded Victoria of Lieutenant Mott and his persistent, slimy smile.
“Dear Miss Todd, I’m so pleased to see you safely returned to us.”
A woman at the table rose. She was a little prettier than Gina, but there was a definite family resemblance. Her mother? Victoria thought she didn’t look old enough to be Gina’s mother.
“Major Ellis, won’t you please join us? We were just planning a dinner to celebrate my daughter’s return.”
“I would be delighted, Mrs. Second Todd, but the president requires my attendance at other meetings this afternoon.” He nodded briefly to Renee, Victoria, and Anna. “These ladies will be joining you. The president and his staff will be joining you for supper.” He sketched a salute that was almost a bow. “Until then.”
Gina shot his back one poisonous look and turned back to Victoria. “I suppose I should introduce you around.”
Victoria exchanged a glance with Renee, and they walked to the table. Anna clung to Renee like a leech.
“This is my mom, Ellen Summer Todd.” Gina pointed to the woman who had invited Major Ellis to join them. The woman gave them a friendly smile and nod. “The woman on the far end is Suzanne Smith Todd, the president’s fifth wife.”
That woman had a beautiful face surrounded by a waterfall of golden hair and a voluptuous body. Her beauty was spoiled by the scowl on her face. She didn’t nod or smile, just glared at them.
“The woman next to her is Shelley Parker Todd, the president’s fourth wife.”
That woman was just as beautiful but somehow more human. Her brown hair was a riot of curls, her smile warm.
Gina indicated a woman of petite stature, a pretty pixie face, and hair so dark a brown it was almost black. “Mrs. Tamra Todd Mayo, the president’s recently widowed sister. And her companion, Janelle Cass.”
This lovely, slender woman was the president’s sister? She looked too nice to be the president’s sister. Victoria returned her friendly smile.
Suzanne sniffed. “Companion? She’s a servant.”
Janelle, blond and middle-aged, didn’t react but the president’s sister did. “Janel is not a servant.” She spoke quietly but firmly, her voice shaded by a Southern accent. “I’ve known her since I was a baby. She’s my friend.”
Suzanne sneered. “You would think a woman in your position would choose her friends more carefully.”
Tamra laid her hands flat on the table and leaned forward to meet Suzanne’s sneer. “A woman in my position can choose the friends she wants. Be careful, Suzanne. My brother’s wives can come and go depending on his whim. You are his wife at the moment, but that can change in a second. I was born his sister. That won’t change. Think about that.”
An uncomfortable silence was broken by Gina’s mom. “Ladies, what kind of an impression are we giving our guests?”
“Guests?” Suzanne surged to her feet. She jabbed a finger in Victoria’s direction. “Look at her. You know he’ll want her to be Mrs. Sixth Todd.”
Victoria stilled. The pretty major had called Gina’s mom Mrs. Second Todd. Suzanne must be Mrs. Fifth Todd. Victoria slammed her arms crossed over her chest. “Over my dead body.”
“If she becomes his wife, he’ll never sleep with me again and then how can I have a baby?” Suzanne jumped up and ran down the narrow corridor formed by canvas dividers, ducking under one. Muffled sobs sounded. Victoria looked at Renee. Her aunt looked surprised, confused, and slightly disgusted.
Gina’s mom sighed. “Please, pay no attention to Suzanne. She’s having a difficult time right now. You know who we all are. Come sit down and introduce yourselves.”
Renee pulled Anna over to the table. Gina came with them and sat beside her mother. Tamra and Janelle carried over two more folding chairs. Renee and Victoria sat down and stared at the ladies. After a long silence, the president’s sister bounced in her chair. “Well? Who are you and where did you come from?”
Renee answered. “I am Renee Wolfe. This is my niece, Anna Wolfe, and another niece, Victoria Wolfe Madison.”
Another pause. Mrs. Mayo did not give up easily. “And where did you come from? How did you come here?”
Victoria kept her mouth shut, not sure how much to say. Renee answered for them again. “We were on a tree going home when the Presidents men stopped the train, boarded it, shot the men, and brought us here. I don’t know why we’re here. I don’t know what will happen to us. We are innocent noncombatants in this conflict and we want to go home.”
“Yeah,” agreed Victoria. “Why are we even here?”
Mrs. Mayo tapped her fingertips together. “I don’t know. My brother doesn’t discuss political things with me.”
Gina made a rude noise. “You’re here because my mother’s husband — who is not my father, by the way – is a control freak. I ran away from him. I thought I’d be safe in a place where he didn’t rule, but I was wrong. The reason he took over the train was because I was on it.” Her voice broke and she covered her face with her hands. “I’m the reason those men are dead. It’s my fault.”
A wave of anger tried to claw its way up Victoria’s throat but she pushed it back down. Renee shook her head. “It’s not your fault. It’s the fault of that lieutenant, and the men who pulled the triggers, and the president.”
She dropped her hands and her face twisted. “I hate him. He’s not my father. He’s the man who murdered my father so he could marry my mother. Now he wants me to marry one of his flunkies. That’s why I ran away. I won’t do it.” She turned to her mother. “I won’t.”
“Georgina, hush.” Her mother’s voice was stern. “You don’t know how good we have it now. I don’t have to worry about seeing you go hungry or wondering how I can protect you. Gerald takes good care of us. You have beautiful clothes, a wonderful home, and everyone knows who you are and respects you. There are a hundred girls who wish they were you. No,” she said when Gina opened her mouth with obvious protest. “He’ll see to it that you have fine a husband. Major Ellis is young and handsome, and has a position of power and wealth. You are a lucky girl.”
“I am an unlucky girl,” Gina countered. “Gerald Todd is a monster.”
The slap of her mother’s palm across Gina’s cheek was loud. Victoria was so shocked she simply stared. “That is enough,” Mrs. second Todd said coldly. “Go and make the guest room ready for our visitors. Janelle, would you please help her?”
With the murder of agreement, the blond woman got up and ushered Gina out. The second Mrs. Todd turned to Renée and Victoria. “I’m very sorry you had to hear my daughter’s hysterics. She’s at that age where everything is life-and-death. I promise you my husband is not a monster. He’s a powerful man, a decisive man, who knows what he wants and gets what he wants. He’s also generous and loving and respectful of women. I have never regretted becoming his wife.”
“Uh-huh.” Victoria folded her arms and leaned back in her chair. The movement hurt. “I’m not about to become his wife. I already have a husband.”
Gina’s mom just smiled. “I’m sure you’ll change your mind in time.”
“Don’t hold your breath.” Victoria waved at the quiet wife, Mrs. Fourth Todd. “You don’t mind sharing a husband? I’ve heard of women with more than one husband but never a man with more than one wife. It’s wrong.”
Shelley Todd shook her head. “I don’t mind at all. I have a wonderful, comfortable life and I don’t have to bear the burden of all the housework and entertaining myself. I get to share the work with other women that I like being with. I don’t see anything wrong with that.”
A voice called from outside the tent, and the door flap opened showing a dapper man of middle years carrying a medical bag. “Ladies, forgive my intrusion. The president sent me to take a look at one of his guests who was shot.”
All the women looked shocked. Victoria raised her hand. “It’s nothing, just a little scratch.”
The man moved forward. “I am Dr. Penrose. Is there a private room?”
In only a minute, Victoria, Renee, and Anna were in a part of the tent that was sectioned off by canvas hangings. Janelle and Gina plumped pillows on the three cots and left. The doctor was very deft and gentle and confirmed that the wound was clean and there was no reason that it wouldn’t heal completely. He put a fresh dressing on it and left. In a few minutes Gina’s mom poked her head and told them they should rest for a few hours. She would call them when it was time for the dinner.
Victoria didn’t think she would be able to sleep, but she must have, because when Renée jiggled her shoulder she found that three hours had passed.
“They brought our luggage,” Renee reported, pointing to two bags.
“They robbed the train,” Victoria muttered.
The clothes she had packed only this morning were wrinkled but clean. She dressed and sat on her cot, staring numbly at her hands. It was this morning that she had kissed Marty good morning. Their first morning as man and wife. Her hands clenched into fists. But not their last. She pounded her fists into her thighs. Not their last. Marty was alive. He and Colby had met up and were organizing a rescue right this minute. She refused to believe anything else.
Anna was staring at her with wide eyes. Victoria made herself relax and smile. The canvas wall twitched and Gina slipped in. She was wearing a dress. Victoria looked down at her jeans and sweater.
“I hope we’re not expected to dress for dinner.”
Gina sat on the cot and waved that off. “You can wear what you like.” She motioned Renee over and spoke in a very quiet voice. “He won’t want to marry you. You’re too old. So be sure to make him know how valuable you are. Give him a reason to keep you safe and healthy. Colby said you were a good cook. Convince Todd that you can cook the best food he’s ever tasted.”
“I can cook the best food he’s ever tasted,” said Renee flatly. “By what I can smell, his cook is terrible.”
“I heard he treats women well. Why wouldn’t he keep us safe and healthy?” Victoria asked.
“He has five thousand men here. Todd often gives women to them. They can’t slap or punch or kick a woman, and those women are given extra rations and other comforts, but is that what you want to do?”
“Hawk would kill them.” But unease glimmered on Renee’s face.
“The entire clan will go to war.” Victoria shuddered at the thought. “They will anyway, after what’s happened to us.”
“Then be sure to make that plain.” Gina’s heard lifted just as the wall twitched again.
“Georgina? It’s time for supper.”
“Coming, mom.” She lowered her voice. “Good luck.”
As she got up, Victoria reached out and snagged her sleeve. “Colby isn’t dead,” she whispered rapidly. “He escaped.”
Disbelief flared in Gina’s eyes, chased by hope.
Victoria and Renee walked out to the main room with Gina and her mom. The table there had expanded to seat twenty. President Todd was at one end, and Victoria recognized Major Ellis, the man called Bob, and Lieutenant Mott sitting at the table. When the men saw the ladies enter, they all rose to their feet. There were three stragglers who stood up a second later than the others. Victoria’s heart stopped.
Brother Saul and his two sons. She stared, wondering what were they doing there. Hadn’t they been killed with the rest of the men on the train? Her eyes narrowed as her back teeth clamped together. Why are they smirking at me?
The president gave them a warm, welcoming smile. “You lovely ladies are the only thing we lacked to make this table beautiful. Please, sit down.”
Victoria almost protested when he indicated that she should sit on his right. Renee was on the other side of the table, two seats down. Suppressing anger, Victoria allowed the president to seat her. Gina was opposite her, obviously ignoring the pretty major beside her. On Victoria’s other side was the older man called Bob. His uniform was loaded with awards and badges. Mrs. Mayo was on his other side. Gina’s mom took the chair at the foot of the table. Brother Saul sat between Suzanne and Shelley, his two sons on the other side of the table. Victoria stared down at her plate to give herself a minute to control her anger.
Good grief. There wasn’t a plate. There were three, stacked on top of each other. And three forks, three knives, multiple spoons, three stemmed glasses, a little plate off to the side. Victoria didn’t even know what to do with all those plates. Or the glasses. Who needed so many anyway? She slid a glance over at Renee. Her aunt was glaring a hole into Brother Saul’s forehead.
“Allow me to introduce General Robert Atwater,” the president said politely, indicating the man called Bob.
“Charmed,” the general said in a bored voice.
“Likewise,” Victoria said.
“Let us begin,” the president announced.
A line of young men in military uniforms entered the tent, carrying large trays with shallow bowls filled with salad. One of them held a plate of leafy greens over her stack of plates, waiting for her to remove the intricately pleated napkin sitting there. She did and he set her salad down. Victoria inwardly shook her head. The Saturday suppers at the Plane Women’s Eatery were fancy compared to the other meals they served, but nothing like this. Even if the Eatery had a zillion plates per meal, they couldn’t serve fresh greens in March because there weren’t any available at this time of the year. Unlike other vegetables, greens didn’t freeze or can well. How in the world did he get fresh greens in March?
But that wasn’t nearly as important as her other questions. She plastered a polite smile on her face and turned to the president. “Excuse me,” she began. “Why are the Allersens here?”
He cut her off with an imperiously lifted finger. “My dear, my dear,” he chided her. “Ladies do not speak unless they are first spoken to.”
The polite smile disappeared. “Seriously?”
“Absolutely. The mark of a true lady is that she speak only to praise and uplift the men in her life.”
The president’s hand closed tightly over hers where it gripped her fork. “And she never uses strong language.”
Victoria forced herself to loosen her grip on the fork. “Oh? And what do you think you can do about it? Shoot me?”
His smile was somehow chillingly sweet. “I won’t do anything to you. That is so crass, don’t you think? But consider your cousin.”
Her mind went immediately to Colby. “What about him?”
“Her,” he correctly gently. “The young innocent you left in your quarters at the back of the tent. Anna.”
Victoria’s lips felt stiff. “What?” was all she could manage.
“So young. So nubile.” He smiled as he poured wine into one of the goblets at her place setting. “The men in my army work hard for me. They deserve a reward. They won’t do her any lasting damage. She may even enjoy it.”
“Anna?” she croaked.
“But you don’t hurt women!” she burst out.
“Certainly not. I wouldn’t be causing her any harm. You would be, with your wayward and disobedient mouth.”
Horrified rage shook her hands. She clenched them into fists in her lap and said nothing.
The president laughed lightly. “Well, perhaps she really is your cousin. General Atwater is convinced she is the daughter of Ryan McGrath.”
Under the heat of her glare the greens on her plate should be wilted. They weren’t. Even though she no longer had an appetite, Victoria forced herself to eat her salad. She would need all her strength to kill this megalomaniac. She was aware of his stare resting on her, but she ignored him. He didn’t seem to like that.
“As to your original question,” he said smoothly, “Saul Allersen is an ally.”
Traitor, Victoria fumed silently.
“He has provided key intelligence to me in the past several months.”
Victoria lifted her head enough to shoot a glance at Renee. Her aunt was listening, tight lipped.
The president leaned back so the uniformed server could remove his salad plate and replace it with fish. He waited until Victoria had also been served.
“He has given me valuable information on Omaha and the goings on there. For instance, news of the train departing this morning with so many delegates on board was delivered by the younger Allersens.”
That was why Jon and Tanner were nearly too late to get on the train. Victoria cut her fish with grim control. In her mind, she was cutting into the Allersens.
“I also know that you are the daughter of the chief of the Indian werewolves.” He delicately blotted his mouth with his napkin and laid it down to put a caressing hand over hers. “As my wife, you could be instrumental in forging a powerful alliance between your tribe and Kansas-Missouri. Do you see that?”
Did he see how easy it would be for her to impale his hand with one of the many knives lined up beside her plate? Someday he would die with shock rubbing that smarmy smile off his face, because he would never see her coming. She gritted her teeth behind a smile that probably looked more like a grimace.
After a pause, he said, “You may answer. In fact, since I asked you a question, you are required to answer.”
She unclenched her teeth. “Naturally, I’m flattered, but I’m already married.”
From down the table, Brother Saul cackled. “He’s dead, woman. You’re free to marry again. So sad. Married only one day and already a widow.”
Victoria had to look down at her plate to hide the hate blazing in her. Brother Saul would die too. But Marty wasn’t dead. He couldn’t be.
“Mr. Allersen, can’t you see the lady is grieving? Show some respect.”
Under the president’s cutting censure, Allersen dropped his eyes.
Todd turned back to Victoria. “Of course, you will need some time to mourn. You will be my honored guest until you accept my proposal.”
Until I accept, Victoria mused, hiding her disgust. Not if. Huh. You’ll be waiting quite a while, moron. Pretending meekness, Victoria raised her gaze to him. “May I ask a question?”
“What happened when you met with Ryan McGrath this morning? You did meet with him, didn’t you?”
“Yes, we did meet with the mayor.”
Victoria put the last morsel of fish in her mouth to keep from prodding him. Her empty plate was whisked away and a plate of steak replaced it. The president poured a different wine in another of her glasses. She eyed it warily. She drank very little. Was he trying to get her drunk? She picked up the goblet of water and drank.
“You asked what happened when we met.” The president smiled at her over his wine glass. “Not very much, actually. I believe he is stalling. Trying to buy time.”
“Waiting for some of the delegates to send him reinforcements.” Brother Saul chuckled smugly. “He will be waiting a long time for help.”
Victoria noticed that no one else at the table was talking. Everyone was listening to them. “Because the delegates on the train were murdered.” She tried so hard to sound calm that her voice was flat. “Won’t it be hard to form alliances with cities whose leaders you ki— er, died?”
“That might be a problem if I wanted alliances with those cities.” The president waved that away. “But I don’t. They don’t offer anything of value in an alliance. They simply belong to me now.”
Victoria visualized punching the president in the mouth. Casting a glance down the table to Mott, whose mouth was still swollen gave her a sliver of satisfaction. “But the tribe has something valuable enough to you to make an alliance worthwhile?” She purposely used the word tribe, although they called themselves the Clan. She wouldn’t give him anything, not even their correct name.
“Certainly. They will be fierce fighters in my army.”
Victoria swallowed a bite of meat. “I wouldn’t count on it, if I were you.”
He smiled that gentle, sweet, evil smile, the one so like Lieutenant Mott’s. Does he teach it to all his men? she wondered. Is it part of their training?
“Oh, I am counting on it,” he said mildly. “If they ever want to see you or Mrs. Wolfe again, they will join me. I understand that a few of your werewolf relatives are still in Omaha.”
It was hard, but Victoria didn’t shoot a scowl down the table at the Allersens. She paid very close attention to slicing into her steak.
Todd looked at the man beside her. “General Atwater, arrange for an additional honor guard for the ladies. They’ll make an appearance at the parley tomorrow afternoon. A brief one, so the gentlemen from Omaha can see that the ladies are safe in our care. Miss Anna will be included, of course. I think seeing her will help Mayor McGrath come to the right decision.” He stroked her arm with his fingertips. “Be sure to go to bed early. You’ll want to look your best tomorrow.”
While Victoria tried to force her emotions into some kind of control, dessert was served. She took pleasure in the fact that the sponge cake was leaden and the canned strawberries were soggy. Anna’s brownies last night had been much better.
Last night? It was only last night that she had held hands with Marty under the table at the McGraths’ house and eaten a home cooked meal less fancy than this one but so much better. Just twenty-four hours ago she had repeated the words that made them legally man and wife in the world of the townspeople.
Where was he now? Was he in Omaha, organizing a rescue? Or had he returned to Kearney to bring help? Hurry, Marty, she thought. I need you.
We’re getting close to the end of the story! In this chapter we will learn more about President Todd, and next week we’ll find out more about who Georgina Summer is and what’s been going on in Omaha for the past day. Hard to believe Rye McGrath’s dinner was less than twenty-four hours ago! Lot’s has happened, and lots more will be happening.
Victoria was surprised when the soldier led the way not to the largest tent in camp, but the one beside it. When the clan set up camp, the Alpha’s lodge and those of the leading families were at the center of camp, with others laid out in concentric rings around them. Here, three larger canvas tents were at the front of dozens of rows of small A-line tents all facing one direction in a block. It looked weird to Victoria. She glanced at Renee to see what she thought of the camp, but Renee was looking down at Anna McGrath. The girl was white faced, her lips visibly trembling. Poor kid.
Two uniformed sentries with rifles held across their chests were posted on either side of the closed door flap. They stood like statues, not even looking at them. The soldier escorting them paused outside. “Mr. President,” he called. “Lady visitors to see you. Permission to enter?”
There was a moment of silence, then a voice spoke. “Permission granted.”
One of the sentries pulled the door flap open, still not even glancing at them. The escort ducked under the flap. Victoria followed, grimly eager to meet her enemy face to face.
The rectangular tent was divided into two squares, this front room with a table with a roll of paper on it surrounded by four chairs, and another room in back, probably a sleeping room. There were three people in the room, all dressed in the familiar uniform of Kansas Missouri. Two of them sat at the table and third stood beside it as if he had just stood up.
Victoria examined them, trying to decide which one was the president. The man standing was boyish and slim, with sandy brown hair cut short, bulbous blue eyes, and a weak chin. She dismissed him and looked past him to the men at the table. The one nearest to her had a stocky build with thick, broad shoulders and a face that wasn’t precisely handsome, but she could see how the craggy features would appeal to some. His hair was black with generous sprinkles of silver, with a hint of curl controlled by a close cut. He was probably her dad’s age, in his mid-fifties. The third man had a perfectly proportioned physique that made his uniform look elegant. The gray green fabric was tailored to fit his broad shoulders and narrow waist perfectly. His brown hair was thick and neatly trimmed, his face dominated by large liquid brown eyes. Victoria had to suppress a sneer. He was prettier than she was. And he was about her own age, so probably too young to be the president. It must be the rugged one across the table.
Boland, their escort, snapped a salute to the wimpy-looking guy standing by the table. “Mr. President, Lt. Mott asked me to conduct these ladies to you. They are from the train we stopped this morning.”
Victoria remembered to close her sagging jaw and examined the man again. His face might appear boyish, but a closer look revealed lines around his eyes and mouth, proving that his age was closer to fifty than twenty.
“Where is Lieutenant Mott?” the scrawny man asked. His voice was deep, full, and rich, utterly belying his appearance.
Boland maintained a rigid posture of attention. “Sir, the lieutenant has been momentarily delayed, but he will be in directly to give his report.”
“Very good, Boland, you are dismissed.”
The soldier snapped another salute, turned briskly, and left the tent. The president stepped closer to them with a friendly smile. “Ladies, allow me to introduce myself. I am Gerald Todd, President of Kansas Missouri.”
Victoria almost snickered. The all mighty president of Kansas Missouri didn’t quite come up to her chin. There was a moment that stretched a little too long before Renee replied. “I’m Mrs. Wolfe, and this is my niece, Mrs. Madison.” She pulled Anna a little closer. “And this is my niece, Miss Wolfe.”
An almost childlike delight lit Todd’s eyes. “Wolfe?” he cried. “From the Indian tribe of werewolves?”
Victoria clenched her back teeth together to keep herself from correcting him and allowed Renee to do the talking. “That’s right,” Renee said in cold voice.
The door flap opened and Lieutenant Mott came in. He stood at attention and saluted. “Sir, I am ready to make my report on the taking of the Omaha train.”
“Splendid. These ladies tell me that they are part of the werewolf tribe.”
Todd turned his attention to Victoria. She had heard people talk about undressing someone with their eyes. She was fully dressed, but she would swear his protuberant eyes were undressing her. His gaze lingered on the curve of her breasts. Where was her coat? It must have been left back on the train, dammit. She drew herself up to her full height, and had to hide a wince when pain burned her side.
The president frowned and when he saw at the bloodstains on her blouse, the frown turned into a dark scowl. “My dear lady, have you been hurt?”
“Yeah, when one of your men shot me.” Sarcasm was thick in her voice. She remembered an instant too late that she was supposed to be a weak, helpless woman. She put one hand over her heart and tried to flutter her eyelashes. “I was terrified. It was dreadful.”
Victoria didn’t know how, but that weak chinned face went cold and hard. He didn’t look boyish or secretarial now. He snapped glare at Lieutenant Mott. “What happened?”
“Mister President, one of the men overreacted and fired his weapon. His target was not the lady, but she was grazed by the bullet. Private Hastings cleaned and bandaged the wound. There’s no indication that it is serious. The man who fired has been executed.”
“Excellent.” The president stepped even closer to take Victoria’s hand. As he bowed over it she noticed there was a bald patch in his sandy colored hair. “I’m sure the private did his work well, but I’ll send my personal physician to attend you. I deeply regret that you were injured.”
He brushed his lips over her knuckles and it was all she could do to not clenched her hand into a fist and ram it into his weak chin. Instead she forced a smile. “Thank you. When will we be returned to our families?”
“Not immediately, I’m afraid.” The president stepped back and gestured to the pretty young man. “Josh, will you escort the ladies to the harem and then find Doctor Penrose? “
Victoria’s squawk was either ignored or missed when the older man stood up. He was staring intensely at Anna. “What is your name, young lady?”
The girl’s voice was a tiny thread when she said, “Anna.”
Renee cut in quickly. “This is my niece, Anna Wolfe.”
The older man’s smile was sardonic. “Really? I’m told the mayor of Omaha has a daughter named Anna, and you resemble him greatly.”
“This is my niece,” Renee insisted.
Todd waved a soothing hand. “We won’t worry about that now, Bill. The important thing right now is for Mrs. Madison to be looked over by Doctor Penrose. Ladies, if you will follow Major Ellis, you will be given quarters where you can rest. I will see you later for supper.”
Lieutenant Mott, the President, and the man he’d called Bill gathered around the table, speaking softly. Renee looked like she wanted to protest more, but closed her mouth and gave Anna an encouraging smile. Dismissed, they followed the pretty man out of the tent.
The harem was the largest tent. Victoria ground her teeth over that designation. The man had a harem? And took them along when he was ready to conquer a new city? If he expected to make her his newest wife, he was in for a rude surprise. She was already married. And if he tried to move on her, she would bend that little shrimp into a pretzel.