Michele Albert @ inkalicious.com

Prologue

September 12, 1832, Youngstown, Ohio: Oh, how I long for Peace,for an end to this Great Unknown. Find our son, Dear Sir, wherever he may be. Ease a Mother's broken heart, and bring my Boy home again. -- Mrs. Augustina Hudson, copy of a letter to Colonel Zachary Taylor


April 13

Mr. Rurik Magnusson
Black Hollow Farm
Magnusson Road
Warfield, Wisconsin

Dear Mr. Magnusson,

You don't know me, but I fervently hope you will take a moment to read my letter and consider the request you'll find herein. As you'll see by the enclosed book, I am a photographer/ writer of documentary stories with a picture-intensive format--that is, your basic coffee-table books.

For the past ten or so years, I've been working on a story involving the 1832 confrontation in Wisconsin known as the Black Hawk War. A particular incident is of importance to me, and I have firm evidence it involved an area of your land, which is now referred to as Black Hawk's Hollow. I am writing to request your permission to research and photograph this area. My work is nondisruptive and will only require as much time as it takes me to take pictures, make notes, and follow through with research in local museums and libraries.

I feel quite strongly about bringing this story to its close. I'd like to schedule the trip for July, and therefore would appreciate a response as soon as possible. Please feel free to contact me with any questions or concerns you may have.

Sincerely,

Annora Beckett, Author & Photographer
The Romance of Route 66, Hanneman Press

***

April 24

Ms. Annora Beckett
85 W. Chesterfield Street, #3B
Columbus, Ohio

Dear Ms. Beckett,

I do own a couple acres of woods called Black Hawk's Hollow, but old Chief Black Hawk never came anywhere near it, no matter what local legends say. Coming here would be a waste of time, so save yourself the trouble. I'm sending back your book. Nice job.

Regards, R. Magnusson

***

April 30

Dear Mr. Magnusson,

My apologies for not being clearer. I'm not researching Chief Black Hawk, but the journey of a young officer who fought in the war. Since this area of your land is mentioned several times in my primary sources, I would very much like to visit the landmark. Again, I assure you the nature of my work is not invasive. I'm sending another book, this one chronicling a race- car driver's season on the circuit. I think you'll see my work is inquisitive and honest, but never exploitive.

Please reconsider my request.

Sincerely,

Annora Beckett

***

May 10

Ms. Beckett,

Thanks for asking my permission first, but the Hollow is on grazing land for my dairy herd and I don't want strangers upsetting their routine. July isn't good for me, anyway. I'm returning your book again. Looks nice, but I don't have time to read it, and I make a point to never keep gifts with strings attached.

R. Magnusson

***

May 30

Dear Mr. Magnusson,

Pardon the tardy response, but I've been on the road a lot lately. Part of the job, I'm afraid. I also wasn't sure how to respond to your last letter. In my years of freelancing, I've worked with rodeo riders, long-haul truckers, train conductors, race-car drivers, military history reenactors, and fishermen and trappers in the Louisiana bayous, to name just a few. In addition, I've written pieces for national magazines which have required me to follow historic journeys, such as the Mormons' westward trek, old cattle-drive routes, and the trail taken by the Cherokees during their relocation. As a professional, I'm more than willing to work with you until we reach terms that meet your satisfaction.

I'm sorry you feel the books I sent came with some sort of 'strings' attached. Because I cannot present my case to you in person, I had hoped examples of my work would impress upon you the sincerity of my intentions and the depth of my dedication. My only purpose is to take photographs that will complement the text of my book.

I can promise that you--and your cows--won't even know I'm around. If my books are not proof enough of my intentions, I can offer you monetary compensation, one-half payable upon my arrival at the Hollow and the remainder due upon completion of my project. I often provide cash payments to those I work with, especially if I'll require a few hours of their time. No strings attached to this offer, Mr. Magnusson. Think of me as a contractor, if it helps, and I'm hiring you to help me complete an ongoing project.

Also, if July is not good for your schedule, I can make August, but would prefer not to wait much longer. Please be assured that my intentions are sincere and legitimate. I anxiously await your response.

Sincerely,

Annora Beckett

***

June 10

Ms. Beckett,

You sure are stubborn but have convinced me that you are serious. I'm not so sure about this money thing. Sounds like a bribe to me. How long will you need to be at the Hollow? The farm keeps me busy, and I don't want a bunch of people around, getting in my way.

Rik
 
***

June 15

Rik,

This will have to be brief, as I'm leaving for a short assignment soon. Your last letter made me laugh, because I'm usually not so pushy. I'm persistent only because I feel strongly about completing this story. You could say it's been a dream of mine for many years. I also laughed at the word 'bribe,' and it seems I'm not the only one here who's rather stubborn. The money is NOT a bribe and the amount is negotiable to a certain extent. We can talk about this more later, if you wish. As for how long I'd be at the Hollow, I estimate the project will take six to eight weeks to complete. I'm a stickler for doing thorough research. I can also assure you that only I, a suitcase, and a lot of camera equipment will arrive at your place. Which reminds me, if you agree to let me come to the Hollow, I'll need a place to stay. Are there any decent hotels or bed-and-breakfasts in or near Warfield?

I trust all is well with you. I've heard on the news the Midwest hasn't been getting much rain lately. I hope that's not causing you too much worry.

Please respond as soon as you can, so I can begin making travel plans.

Warmly,

Annie Beckett

***

June 23

Ms. Beckett,

Hope your assignment went well. Rain would be great, but it doesn't look like we'll get any soon. Since you won't give up and since July isn't much worse than any other time, I grant you permission to work at the Hollow and research your book. But only if it won't cause disruptions. As for the money, I guess a little extra is always welcome. I don't know about hotels. I tore out some pages from the phone book for you. Let me know when you'll arrive. The door's always open, but I'll need to tie up the dog in the yard. He bites. I'm in the barn by six every morning and often don't get in until after dark, so if you need me, leave a note by the coffeemaker. I'll find you.

Rik
 
***

June 28

Rik,

I am delighted everything worked out. My plane arrives in Madison on July 20. And, yes, do tie up your dog--I've been chased by more than my fair share of those creatures. I PROMISE there will be no trouble. Girl Scout's honor! As for the money, I'm willing to offer you a compensation of $3,000. I hope this will meet with your approval. I'm on the road again until July 19, so I won't have time to talk with you before I arrive in town. You can't change your mind now!

Oh, and thanks for the list of hotels. Not much to choose from, but I'll make do. Hope you get a little rain soon.

Annie

Chapter One

June 27, 1832, Dixon's Ferry, Illinois: We are preparing to march and so I must be brief, or I shall miss the post. I have read your last letter and beg you, Dear Mother, not to fear for my health. The weather holds warm and clear, and wild game is plentiful (Father would be keen to hunt here!) Indeed, I am in most excellent spirits! The Beauty of this land leaves me in much wonderment, and I am sending you these little sketches so you may see, through my eyes, the blue rivers and swaying grasses growing as high as my chest. Give my sisters my love and tell Emily the shirt is splendid, that I wear it with great pride and I hope to be home for Christmas to settle A Matter most dear to her sweet heart. With Affection, Your Obedient Son, Lewis. -- Lieutenant Lewis Hudson, to his mother Augustina


"Ow!"

Rik Magnusson sucked in his breath as his bare toe hit a warped porch plank. He jerked straight at the stab of pain--and sloshed hot coffee over his hand.

"Dammit!"

His curse cut across the hushed quiet of dawn and startled a pair of mourning doves coo-cooing on the porch rail into flight. If stubbing a toe wasn't enough to bring him wide-awake at five-thirty in the morning, the hot coffee made sure of it.

Wiping his hand dry on his jeans, Rik scowled at the board and reminded himself, as he had umpteen times already this summer, that he needed to fix the damn thing as soon as he could find a little extra time and money.

With a last muttered curse, he limped to the far side of the wide porch and hitched himself up to straddle the railing. Leaning back against a carved post, he sipped his coffee and watched the early rays of sun spread a soft, golden glow across his 220 acres of land.

In the low light, the bare, bone-dry patches amid his hay were less noticeable, although nothing could hide the fact the corn was at least a foot shorter than it should've been by now--or that it wouldn't take more than a single spark to start a flash fire just about anywhere.

At the click of paws on wood, Rik glanced down to see his collie, Buck, trotting toward him.

"But you gotta admit," he said, putting his cup aside to ruffle the long fur on the dog's neck, "it's still the prettiest sight in the world."

To Buck, fields were nothing more than good places to nose out mice, so his bright eyes and lolling tongue likely meant he wanted his food bowl filled. Or that Rik would play a game of fetch on the way to the barn.

"Maybe later, boy," he said. Buck replied with an excited, snuffling bark.

Sitting back again, Rik breathed in deeply, taking in the familiar scent of sweet hay on the morning breeze. The breeze also carried with it a lowing from the barn, reminding him it was nearly time to get off his butt and begin the morning's chore of milking his herd of forty cattle. Once he finished there, he'd start repairs on the garage roof, fix the radiator on the John Deere--they didn't make tractors like they used to--and after a quick lunch he'd feed the Belgian horses and give them their daily practice before he had to milk the cows again.

Just a day's work at Black Hollow Farm.

For now, though, he enjoyed the luxury of letting the minutes drift by as he nursed his coffee and ate a tart Macintosh from one of his own trees, which he sliced with a pocketknife.

Man, this was the life. No time clock to beat, no one to tell him when to work or how. Farming wasn't for guys who needed quick profits and instant results, or who didn't like ruining their designer shirts with sweat, but the job sure had its moments.

Like now. Even when he was an old, old man, he wanted to look across his land and feel the satisfaction like this, warm and deep in his belly.

As his father always used to say: You earn what's yours, and no man can ever take that away.

Not without a fight, anyway--and if he smelled trouble on this dry, hot wind, he'd just work that much harder to keep it away. He'd done it before.

Which brought to mind that pesky writer, and her carrot-on-a-stick offer of money. He never should've agreed to let her come. It didn't set right, not from the very start.

With sudden determination, Rik straightened.

"Hell, we don't need her money," he informed Buck, who cocked his ears forward. "And Magnussons never beg."

The dog swished his soft brush of a tail against the porch. Then he rolled to his back, paws curled, and whined, eyes begging.

Rik grinned, shaking his head as he rubbed the dog's belly. "Except for Magnusson mutts, that is."

Patting the dog a last time, Rik glanced again at the sky, where the gray had given way to blue. His eye tagged the time close to six. Time to get to work.

But he had a telephone call to make first, and set everything aright once more.

###


God, what a life.

Smothering a yawn at the early hour, Annie Beckett picked her way through the cases and trunks scattered across her living room floor.

She hadn't bothered to unpack after flying in from Santa Fe yesterday, since she had to head right back to Columbus International tomorrow morning. Half the cases lay open, awaiting a pretrip equipment check--a tedious chore, but no way would she ever find herself ready to snap the photograph of the century, only to discover a lens was scratched or her batteries had died.

In the small island kitchen, Annie put water on to boil, then pulled a mug from the cupboard. She tore open a Constant Comment tea packet, filling the room with the pungent scent of orange and cinnamon.

Yawning again, she quickly sorted through a mound of mail lying jumbled on the counter. The usual bills, which she'd pay in advance by several months and post before hitting the road; a few letters which she separated from the pile so she could write back while at the airport or in-flight; and the letters from her Wisconsin farmer, scrawled on notepaper from Dow's Feed and Seed.

Rurik Magnusson.

What a name for some guy who probably wore dirty overalls, sported a farmer's tan and chewed tobacco; a contrary old coot who, as his blunt notes told her, lived alone and zealously guarded his solitude and comfortable routines.

While waiting for the water to boil, she took the mail with her into the living room and sat cross-legged on the floor next to her desk. She pulled a leather attaché toward her, placed the mail in the front compartment, then opened her file cabinet drawer and began packing her files on the Hudson project.

With any luck, this would be the last time she'd ever have to pack those files.

The irony of it all never failed to touch her, that while searching for her mother and her own past, she'd found Lieutenant Lewis Hudson instead.

Lewis was actually family: a tie of blood existed between them, and Annie's admiration for Gussie Hudson's tireless thirty-year search for her lost son had bound that tie into a knot.

Such a shame that her own mother hadn't inherited even a smidgen of her ancestress's maternal instincts.

Just as the teakettle whistled, the phone rang. Annie looked at her watch in disbelief. Anybody calling this early was either a wrong number or someone she didn't want to talk to.

She headed to the kitchen, letting the answering machine take the call. As she turned off the stove, a deep, unfamiliar male voice filled the small room.

"Yeah, Miz Beckett, this is Rik Magnusson at Black Hollow Farm."

Annie froze, her fingers tightening on the kettle's handle.

"I'm calling about your visit. Something's come up, and I can't have you come by. Sorry for the short notice and for any trouble this causes with your ticket. I'd, uh, be willing to pay you for it, if you can't get a refund." The man hesitated, then added with finality, "Good-bye."

The tape beeped and began rewinding as Annie swore softly and slammed the kettle back down on the stove.

The wishy-washy worm! After all her efforts to appease him, how dare he screw her over?

Well, she wouldn't let Magnusson stop her that easily.

Chapter Two

July 20, 1832, Michigan Territory: "I should fight for this land were it mine. Cyrus calls me a philosophizing Fool, but I cannot help but feel a profound sympathy for our Enemy." -- Lieutenant Lewis Hudson, from a letter to his mother Augustina


Annie lost her way twice before she found Magnusson Road and now, driving slowly behind a road-hogging tractor piloted by an overalled gnome, she read the mailboxes planted along the rough, narrow road.

"Bingo!"

She squinted against the early evening sun at a mailbox with the name MAGNUSSON painted in square, black letters. Below it, in a fancier script, were the words: BLACK HOLLOW FARM.

She turned onto the bumpy gravel drive. The house and outbuildings were about a half mile off the road, with most of the house hidden behind towering pines and oak trees that looked as if they'd been around since the Cretaceous period.

"Oh, my," she murmured as she brought her rental compact to a halt in the yard, in front of the biggest Victorian farmhouse she'd ever seen.

With its peeling white paint and spacious sprawl, resulting from a time when extended families still lived together under one roof, the house oozed atmosphere. She almost expected an ample-hipped, big-bosomed woman to walk out onto the porch, wiping flour-dusted hands clean on her apron, and invite her inside for coffee and apple pie.

Annie switched off the car engine, peering up at the two-story house--nearly three, with that tall attic. Dairy farming must pay better than she'd thought. With any luck, Farmer Magnusson would be home. She'd decided against calling ahead, since experience had taught her that people were less likely to be difficult if they had to look her in the eye.

She got out of the car and surveyed the neatly mown rolling lawn, the clothesline hung with towels flapping lazily in the breeze, and fields of sweet-smelling alfalfa.

The place was as quiet, as peaceful, as a shrine.

"Well, Lewis," she said softly. "I'm here."

Here, right where the frontier US Army had camped on a hot July night in 1832. No farmhouses or picturesque red barns existed then; only prairie valleys, bluffs, and virgin forest. Right here, Lewis had written his last letter, its tone tense and weary. Here, he'd spent the last hours of his life and here, if her hunch was correct, he'd been killed.

A shiver took her, but she dismissed it and turned back to the house. Its wide, pleasant porch even came complete with a rocking chair and swing.

"God, how Norman Rockwell can you get?" she said out loud, oddly fascinated by this Victorian monstrosity before her.

But after hours in airports and on planes, she wouldn't mind kicking off her sandals and curling up on that swing with a cold lemonade, listening to ice cubes clink against the glass as they melted. How nice it would feel to press a cool, sweating glass against her forehead.

Wisconsin in July was as hot as a Louisiana bayou. The humidity glued her ivory silk shell and navy cotton batik skirt to her skin--and the heat didn't do much to help settle the ball of worry roiling in her stomach.

But the time had long since passed for second thoughts.

Annie opened the car trunk and removed her Nikon 35mm camera--Old Faithful--and slipped the strap over her head, glad to have its familiar weight around her neck.

She walked up the porch steps and, although fairly certain no one was home, raised a hand to knock on the old-fashioned screen door. But just before she banged on the wood, a loud barking erupted behind her.

Dog!

Nasty, barking, biting, snarling creatures!

With a shriek, Annie yanked open the screen door and let it slam shut behind her. A knee-high missile of gold-and-white fur with snapping teeth skidded to a halt at the door and set up a furious barking.

This wasn't good--Magnusson was bound to be just a wee bit annoyed at finding her there to begin with, much less parked inside his house.

"Hush," she snapped, although the dog was only doing what dogs do. "Stop it! For God's sake, you'll pop out your eyeballs if you carry on like that."

She planted her fists on her hips and stared hard at the collie. He barked again, but his tail swished a little.

"Where's your rotten master, hmmm?"

The dog growled, tail gyrating like a boat rotor.

"Now there's mixed signals for you," Annie said with a sigh, turning to look around her temporary sanctuary.

From what she could see from the entry hall, the inside of the house looked a lot like the outside. Well lived in and quaintly old-fashioned, with beautiful woodwork and architectural detailing from a bygone era. A bit overdone to her taste, but still impressive.

The pine plank flooring could stand some polishing, though, to make it gleam warm and golden. Too bad the window shades were drawn. She wanted to open them, to let the sunshine stream through the glass and brighten the hall, and touch the cool wooden floor with its warm fingers of light.

The dog, which had been growling nonstop, barked and dashed off so abruptly its nails skittered on the porch.

Now what?

Gravel crunched under footsteps coming fast and hard. Annie stepped back from the door in alarm.

"Buck, shut up!"

At that curt, deep voice, she took yet another step back. Some sort of tussle between man and dog ensued on the porch, a chain jangled, and then the screen door slammed open.

"Who the hell are you?"

Annie's mouth opened, but no words squeaked past her dry throat.

A tall man stood before her, framed in the open doorway and silhouetted by the strong sun, filling her entire field of vision with broad, bare shoulders and red-gold hair gleaming like fire. Then he stepped farther into the hall and she met ice-blue eyes in a sun-browned face with reddish beard stubble and a mustache that needed a trim as badly as his hair.

A barbarian god fallen from Valhalla.

Her stomach made a little flutter of dread--along with something else.

"I asked you a question, lady. You got five seconds to answer before I toss you outside."

His jeans and boots were filthy, and as he stood glaring at her he used his shirt to wipe dirt and sweat from his face and chest--a supple, lithely powerful chest.

Good God, please don't let this be her contrary old coot!

"I'm here to see Rik Magnusson," Annie said at last.

"You're looking at him." The silence lengthened until understanding flooded his remarkable eyes. He treated her to an unsubtle once-over before his gaze locked on hers again. For an instant, something hot and angry and aware shimmered between them. "You're that damned writer."

"Yes. Annie Beckett," she answered, fighting the urge to back away from his too-forward stare or pull the clinging silk away from her skin. "I wrote and told you when I'd arrive. Remember?"

"And I left a message on your answering machine that you couldn't come. You should've --"

"I wasn't home to receive it," she interrupted, the lie slipping out easily. "I've gone to considerable trouble for this trip, and we had a deal, Mr. Magnusson. I honored my end. I expect you to honor yours."

His eyes narrowed. "Sorry, but as I said on the phone, something's come up."

Sure. Like he had to braid his mustache. Or go sharpen his ax.

Annie pulled an envelope out of her purse. "And here I am, come all this way with a check for fifteen hundred dollars." He looked down briefly, then raised his gaze to hers. "It has your name on it, Mr. Magnusson, so you may as well take it."

He didn't move.

Fine. She'd been stonewalled by the very best; she'd just shift her tactics.

Annie let her hand fall to her side. "Look. We're not off to a very good start, and I'm sorry. I have a job to do here and once it's done, I'll be on my way again. I'm not sure what you expected, but as you can see, I'm just an ordinary woman with a small suitcase and a big camera."

She laughed a little at her joke. He didn't.

Wonderful. Humor-impaired; not her favorite kind of human. Gathering her courage, she stepped forward--close enough to feel the heat radiating from his bare skin and close enough to see the mingled red-and-gold hairs on his chest.

Taking a deep breath, she extended her hand. "Let's start from scratch. Hello, I'm Annie Beckett, and I'm pleased to meet you, Mr. Magnusson. I'm looking forward to taking pictures at the Hollow. Please, let's work together."

Magnusson hesitated for a long moment, but finally took her hand in a firm grip. His skin was work-roughened, and he pumped her hand once before dropping it. Brief as it was, the contact left Annie very aware that she stood before a half-naked man with hot skin and eyes like ice.

After a brief, awkward silence, punctuated by the frenzied barking outside, Annie said, "So...are you going to invite me the rest of the way in or throw me to the dog?"

Something flickered across his face--embarrassment, she hoped--before he gave a nod. "Come on in."

Annie's knees went rubbery with relief, and she started after him, only to wait while he wrestled free of his work boots. Fascinated, she watched the play of his back muscles as he yanked at the ties.

The scents of sweat and barnyard hit her. Honest smells and not exactly unpleasant, but she couldn't help taking a step back.

At her movement he turned, then stood straight and tall with a quiet, unapologetic pride. "I didn't think you'd show up or else I'd have made sure I was squeaky-clean. I'll go wash up before we talk."

"It's no problem," she said quickly. "I'm used to men who smell of hard work and hard play."

"Is that so?"

Again, Magnusson ran a slow, assessing gaze over her and Annie felt a sudden urge to tidy her frizzy braid and smooth the wrinkles from her travel-rumpled clothing.

"I'm gonna wash up anyway," he said, running a hand through his hair. "Maybe you don't care that I smell like shit, Miz Beckett, but I sure do."

He walked away without giving Annie a chance to respond, and she eyed his long legs and lean, sun-browned back. She was an artist, trained to see beauty--and, boy, did he have a beauty of a behind in those tight, dusty jeans. Firm muscles, a roundness so neatly outlined beneath worn denim that any woman would consider giving that rear a proprietal pat--if only it weren't attached to six feet and 180 pounds of testy male.

Letting out a soft sigh of appreciation, Annie followed him into a large kitchen--one of the fussiest, maiden-lady-aunt kitchens she'd ever seen. The walls were a riot of Victorian cabbage roses in muted tones of mauve, maroon, and hunter green, and an old, hand-hewn china cabinet displayed a collection of antique china in a gold-rimmed, delicate rose pattern. What had to be vintage Irish lace curtains topped a wide bay window over the sink.

She couldn't imagine any man spending time in a kitchen like this, much less cooking in it, and she badly wanted to take a picture of Rik Magnusson standing against the counter, all that lean, rapacious male beauty juxtaposed against rampant femininity.

Then she noticed Magnusson returning her stare. He stood in the bathroom doorway, just off the kitchen. "What's with the camera?"

Annie realized she held it in the ready-aim-shoot position. "It goes where I go. In fact, I always feel a little naked without it."

Poor choice of words. As a heated embarrassment spread through her, Magnusson's gaze lowered to her breasts, where the damp silk let all the world know she wore a lacy bra embroidered with white seed pearls.

When his gaze returned to her face again, he said coolly, "I don't want you taking any pictures in my house."

"That's a shame. It's a lovely room."

He hesitated as if he meant to say more, then scowled. "You look hot. Take what you want from the fridge to drink. There's soda, iced tea, and juice."

"And milk?" she asked, making a last stab at humor.

Magnusson didn't smile back. "Always milk," he said, then shut the bathroom door with a bang.

Sagging back against the counter with both relief and resentment, Annie glared at the door. Having Thor the Thunder God crash her Rockwellian idyll was not what she'd anticipated.

The sound of the shower cut across her thoughts, and at once her mental camera provided a vivid shot of water rivulets running down the lines of Rik Magnusson's strong, tanned body.

She closed her eyes--not that it helped much. God, what was wrong with her? Even if he was gorgeous and she hadn't slept with a man since the last ice age, such thoughts were just plain unprofessional.

Maybe she should get something cold to drink, after all. Annie headed toward the refrigerator, decorated with a motley collection of advertising magnets and a few whimsical cows. These last must have been gifts, because the man of the house didn't strike her as the whimsical sort, no matter what his kitchen looked like.

Annie grabbed a diet 7UP and peeked at the other rooms. An old-fashioned parlor, situated opposite a steep, dark staircase, was all she could see clearly, but what incredible lines this old house possessed! Her fingers practically twitched to capture the geometry of tall, stately windows and pocket doors, the lushly extravagant curves of plaster cornices and scrolled woodwork. And, most interesting of all, the walls were crowded with framed antique photographs.

The water shut off and Annie tiptoed back to sit at the table. When the bathroom door open, she straightened.

Magnusson walked out, toweling his hair day--and still bare-chested, to her dismay. The scent of damp air, shampoo, and strong soap followed him.

"I'll grab a shirt, then we can talk about what to do with you."

Annie frowned at his retreating back. Just her luck he was the difficult type, and a shower hadn't improved his mood at all.

She'd finished off the soda before Magnusson returned. He wore a short-sleeved blue T-shirt shirt tucked into clean jeans, and plain white athletic socks.

No-nonsense and utilitarian, nothing flashy. But the shirt's color warmed his eyes and emphasized his red-gold hair and tanned skin. The knit, wash-worn and thin, fit him as if it were tailored to each line of muscle and sinew. His long, lean build reminded her of cats--twitchy-tailed cats with unblinking eyes. Under his regard, Annie shifted in her chair.

"Where would you like me to put your check?" she asked, before he had a chance to say anything.

"Leave it on the counter." He fetched a soda for himself, but instead of sitting at the table, he leaned back against the counter, forcing her to look up at him.

The pop of the can and a carbonated hiss sounded in the following silence.

"Too bad you didn't check your messages before coming all this way and spending all that money," he said at length.

"Maybe, but the fact is that I am here, so why not just agree to work together?" She stood and propped the white envelope against the coffeemaker. "Or do you want to see me squirm a little first because you're mad?"

Magnusson stared at her for a moment longer, then took a deep swallow of his soda. "Just letting you know where I stand on this. I don't want you here."

"And I don't like getting screwed over," she retorted.

His mustache hitched up on one said, either in a smile or a sneer. "Glad we cleared the air. Now, I'm a busy man, Miz Beckett --" he bit out her last name in two staccato syllables, like gunshots "-- and I don't want you causing me any trouble or upsetting my dog."

Outside, the collie continued his barking and growling.

"And I don't like people thinking they can just walk into my house whenever they feel like it." He paused, his mustache turning down in a frown. "But I guess you're right. Since you're here anyway, I may as well take you to the Hollow."

A little bubble of hope rose at this grudging offer. Maybe he wasn't such a bad sort, after all. "I'd like that, thank you."

"But first let's get one more thing straight. If you give me any reason to think you've not been up-front with me about what you want here, I'll boot your behind right off my property. Don't even think I won't do it."

Annie managed a smile, even though she'd upset his dog, invaded his house, and been anything but up-front with him. For now, what he didn't know wouldn't hurt him.

"Warning noted, Mr. Magnusson. Shall we go?"

Chapter Three

April 6, 1832, Jefferson Barracks, St. Louis: 'It is Politics, this War. It is about Profit, and Power. A man Wants, and thus the end shall justify the means. Old Hickory may Want all he wishes. He may Want the lead mines. He may Want the Sac subdued. But I Want a horse--chastising a mounted Enemy is difficult for even the most dedicated soldier if he shall lack a mount. Congress does not Want to pay the players, yet demands a performance. I am asked to deliver the Impossible, but I swore an Oath to serve my Country and I shall uphold that Oath.' -- Lieutenant Lewis Hudson, from a letter to his mother, Augustina


Rik stared at the bossy bit standing in his kitchen, then turned and grabbed his keys off the counter, ignoring the white envelope propped against his coffeemaker.

He stalked from the kitchen, well aware he was acting like a jerk. Miz Annie Beckett hadn't really done anything wrong, except upset his peace and quiet, leave him feeling like a beggar and springing on him an unwelcome surprise.

Dammit, she was pretty; with her dark, curling hair, exotic-looking eyes, straight eyebrows, and an unexpectedly wide smile.

Needing a moment to reorder his thoughts, Rik headed to the entryway. While he yanked on his dress boots, the thump of thick-soled footsteps sounded on the floor behind him. When the woman followed him outside to the porch, Buck started barking, and she yelped in alarm.

Rik glanced over his shoulder. She stood with her back to the railing, leaning away from the dog, a position which pulled the fabric of her blouse tight over a right nice pair of breasts. He looked away just as she turned to him, eyes wide with alarm.

"Buck, down," he ordered in a warning tone, and the dog flopped down, laid his nose on crossed paws, and heaved a gusty sigh, as if saying: You never let me have any fun!

Rik walked down the porch steps toward the detached garage, where his white dually pickup and horse trailers were parked, leaving the woman to follow.

Nope, not at all what he'd expected. Her letters said she'd been working on her project for "years," so he'd pictured her older and stern-looking. Sweet young things like her should be at home giving promising smiles to a husband and tucking little kids into bed, not roaming alone around the countryside and accepting rides from strange men.

The air inside the garage smelled musty, thick with the scents of old gasoline and oil, and as a sudden heat prickled his skin, Rik pulled at his shirt. He climbed into the truck and barely waited until she'd done the same before cranking the ignition. The pickup started with the roar of a well-maintained engine, and he backed out of the garage.

When he took off in a spin of gravel, she grabbed for the door handle. "I'm not in any hurry."

"I am. The sooner I get you to the Hollow, the sooner I can get back to work."

He sped along the narrow road and around a corner, barely touching the brakes, and her knuckles whitened. "Relax, Miz Beckett. I've been driving these roads for years, you know."

"And you can still die on these roads, you know. Slow down!"

"No point. We're here." Rik took a sharp left onto a deeply rutted dirt road, then brought the truck to a swaying halt before a locked metal gate with a NO TRESPASSING sign sporting an editorial bullet hole smack in the middle of the O.

"It's as far as I drive. We'll walk the rest of the way."

She gazed ahead at the grassy field leading to a wooded, rocky patch of land that, in Rik's opinion, wasn't much to get excited about. Then she climbed out of the truck and walked ahead. In the sunlight her hair shone like polished mahogany, and the creases of her skirt skimmed the curves of her bottom.

After a moment Rik followed her, wishing he'd brought along another soda. Man, it was hot.

"Has the land here ever been farmed or homesteaded?"

"Nope."

"So these hills, all bristling with pine, maple, and oak, are as untouched as when he was here."

She talked like a bad movie--and who the hell was "he"?

"The Hollow's still up a bit. Go on."

Inside the woods, the light faded, and the heavy heat eased. The place smelled dank and earthy, reminding him of hazy, long-ago summer days spent at the Hollow, hiding with his brothers as they ogled Playboy magazines and guzzled Grandpa Ed's homemade root beer.

Without warning, Annie Beckett stopped and bent to look at the ground and Rik almost tripped over her.

"What are these leafy plants called?" she asked.

"Trillium. Earlier in the summer they have white flowers," he answered, scowling at the shapely bottom thrust up toward him.

"Must be pretty." She looked over her shoulder, and her mouth tightened to a straight line as she realized what he'd been staring at.

Tough. The woman had a nice ass, and if she was going to point it at him like that, he was going to look.

A twig snapped behind them, and she jerked upright, unease replacing her look of annoyance. "What was that?"

"Don't worry. The only wild animals around here are the Nelson boys down the road." Rik rubbed his palm over his jaw, eyeing her. "But you can probably handle them just fine, being so used to men and all."

She looked at him as if he'd spoken in a foreign language, then made a noise of disgust. "When you're not being obnoxious on purpose, are you sort of a nice guy? Or do I just bring out all your sterling qualities at once?"

"Obnoxious? What do you expect? I said you can work here, but I'm not gonna pretend to be happy about it. And you might think about being a little nicer to the guy who owns the private property you're standing on."

"Oh, no. Don't you go there," she retorted, her cheeks bright red. "You've got a pretty nice butt yourself, but I'm not kissing it."

A reluctant smile tugged at Rik's mouth at that little zinger. She stared at him as if waiting for something, then shook her head and marched away, hips swishing from side to side with each forceful step.

He watched her and her swishes for a moment longer. "Hey, hold up--where you going? This here's Black Hawk's Hollow, Miz Beckett."

"Please." She stopped and looked back over her shoulder. "Do my ears a favor and call me Annie."

Closing a hand over the camera hanging around her neck, she slowly walked around. As far as Rik could tell, no rock or leaf bud or sapling went unexamined--or untouched.

She stopped, aimed the camera at the trillium, and clicked a shot with a satisfied smile.

Rik watched her, frowning. Even if he didn't want her around getting in his way, he had bailed out on her at the last minute. It wouldn't hurt to give her a chance.

"So it really is a hollow." Her words broke across his thoughts. "A wooded coulee nestled within the embrace of a jagged outcropping of brownish red rock and carpeted with brown leaves and green, spade-shaped trillium."

She talked like she was dictating to a tape or reading from an encyclopedia, and eyed the Hollow in the same way she'd stared at him earlier, camera in hand, as if he were a bowl of fruit to arrange and photograph.

Weird chick.

"What kind of rock formation is this?"

"Beats me. I'm a farmer, not a geologist."

She sent him a cool look, then ran her hands over the rock. Her fingers were long, with short, unpainted nails, and she traced the grooves and cracks, touching its dips and rises as if it were a lover's body.

Enough of that! He'd better get back to work, instead of standing there like a fool checking out some strange woman who was likely to be nothing but a pain in the butt for the next few weeks.

But he bet her fingers would be soft and strong, and she'd be one bossy handful in bed.

"Hard...smooth," she said, oblivious to his thoughts. "Can't be sandstone. This isn't a glacial region, is it?"

Glacial would be good, right about now. He pulled at his damp his shirt again. "Glaciers didn't get this far south."

"Any caves around here?"

"Some. Not on the Hollow, though, if that's what you mean."

"How about lead mines?"

"You know your stuff," he said, impressed. "Most of the lead mines were south of here, at places like Mineral Point and Galena. What are you getting at? You're not digging holes or anything, are you?"

"I'm just asking questions," she said quickly. "Right now, I'm doing a history of the area and gathering details. If old Chief Black Hawk was hiding behind a tree, people want to know if it was a burr oak or a red pine. When you're re-creating worlds, you need to get the details right."

"I told you Black Hawk and his band didn't stop here."

"But the army did."

"According to the family stories, yeah. Fire circles from the camp were still around when old Ole built the first house."

"Ole?"

"The first Magnusson here. He bought the land in 1844, years after the war."

"Your family's lived here for over a hundred and fifty years?" When he nodded, she whistled and said, "Wow. Impressive."

The bright interest in her eyes made him uncomfortable. He took a step back. "I've got work to do."

"Then go on. I'd like to stay and take a few shots. I'll head back on my own."

Rik eyed her skirt and earth-mama sandals. "It's a long walk."

She arched a brow. "I'm used to walking, and I'm not the helpless, fragile sort."

No kidding. She'd already moved away from him, camera in hand, when he said, "You got a watch on?"

"Of course!"

"Good. I'll be back in an hour to pick you up."

"You don't --"

"Just be ready in an hour. The sun will be setting by then, and the woods get dark pretty fast. I don't like the idea of you out here alone." She'd probably fall off the bluff or something, then sue him. As Rik backed away, he called, "And you better watch out for the Wailing Woman."

She turned sharply. The tower of rock behind her blocked out the sun, wrapping her in shadows so that he couldn't clearly see her face. "Wailing Woman?"

"Our local ghost."

Her smile flashed bright and wide. "A ghost! That's exactly the sort of detail I'm looking for. Have you seen it?"

Rik stopped. Full of surprises, this Annie Beckett. "Nope. But some of my family have, and my old man saw her once."

"Can I pick your brains later about the family stories?"

"Do you believe in ghosts?"

"No, I don't, but that's not what I asked you."

Rik laughed. "You sure can try, Miz Beckett."

"Annie!"

"Okay--Annie. Now I've got a question for you. What's this about, anyway? What are you looking for?"

"As I told you in my letters, I'm following the journey of an infantry officer who disappeared in 1832."

"You didn't say anything about the disappearing part," Rik said.

She blinked. "Only because it was too complicated to go into in a few letters."

Sounded cagey to him. "So who was he? Somebody important?"

Annie hesitated, then said, "No."

Puzzled, he asked, "It's not going to change history or anything?"

"No." Her voice had gone cool again. "My angle on this project is that it's a unique human interest story."

"Sounds like a lot of trouble for nothing."

"Depends on what you call nothing. Lieutenant Lewis Hudson was an only son. His mother doted upon him, his father wanted him to go into politics, and his four younger sisters adored him. He was crazy in love with a girl named Emily, whose father didn't want her to marry a frontier army officer."

With each quiet word, she'd walked closer. The breeze fluttered her flowery skirt and ruffled strands of dark hair that had escaped her braid--but those warm, woodsy brown eyes had turned hard and sharp, startling him into silence.

"He came from an Ohio family who'd made their fortune in mining iron ore, then went to West Point and graduated in the top ten of his class. He was only twenty-two when the army claimed he deserted. I don't believe that, any more than I believe a man's life is 'nothing.'"

"No need to get mad," Rik said, turning away, suddenly impatient to get back to work. "I figure I've got a right to know what you're up to. Just go on and do your thing and leave me alone to do mine. That's all I ask."

###


Annie watched Magnusson trot down to his truck, negotiating rocks, branches, and ruts with an easy grace. Too bad. She wanted to see him fall flat on his red-necked, bad-tempered butt.

Nothing was going as she'd anticipated. And the nerve of that man, insinuating she'd better kiss up because he had something she wanted!

With a sigh of frustration, she sat on the ground, cool and giving beneath her, and leaned back against the rough rock of the Hollow.

What on earth was the key to this man's cooperation?

Only money came to mind, though he didn't appear hard up for cash. Still, he'd avoided touching the check she'd held out to him, and when she'd written to him, it had all been no, no, no--right up until she offered money.

Of course he must need money; everybody needed money at some time, for one thing or another.

The easiest, most convenient way to handle this would be to board with Magnusson--an option she'd resorted to often enough in the past--and offer him a weekly rental fee too attractive to refuse. It'd tip the scales of control back in her direction, if only a little, and give him a reason to be magnanimous.

Annie peered through the canopy of tree branches toward the sky. Okay. So her plan was a bit underhanded. But he wasn't playing nice, either, and it wasn't as if boarding with him would be a breeze. He was uncouth, and he didn't appear to like her much, even if she had caught him eyeing her bottom.

"Lewis, Lewis," she said, rubbing her brows. "You better be here. If you really did desert and run off with some Indian cutie, I'll be pretty ticked off."

As the last echo of her voice died away, smothered in the silence of the woods, a sudden chill stole over her. She glanced at the dense brush and brittle spread of brown leaves, at massive old trees and the dried, rotting hulks of dead ones...but saw nothing worrisome. No wisps of wailing specters anywhere.

The light was fading, that was all. Annie rubbed briskly at her prickly goose bumps, then stood. Time to get to work.

First she roved around to get a feel for the area: up and down the bluff, then along sloping fields and a patch of grassy prairie that lay outside the woods. She followed the progress of a shallow creek as it gurgled around rocks and through the tangled, exposed roots of trees. Lastly, she climbed the rocky incline of the Hollow again, surveying the land as far as the eye could see.

So quietly beautiful--these checkerboard fields colored in green and gold and black earth, the pockets of woods tucked into seams between fields and rolling hills, all cross-hatched by country roads and winding, nourishing veins of streams. She glimpsed other farmhouses, other barns flanked by tall silos, and tiny dots of cattle in the pastures. Cows and more cows, as if Holsteins outnumbered humans in this part of Wisconsin. America's Dairy Land was living up to its reputation.

But no traces of war remained. Whatever pain and suffering had occurred here in 1832, it had left no mark.

Almost no mark, anyway.

The cost of war touched me but a little, for long ago my innocence died at that place they now call Black Hawk's Hollow.

The truth she'd come for was here: she could feel it in her bones.

Annie wondered what the Hollow had looked like when Lewis was here. Hilly, of course, with acres upon acres of trees and valleys, and seas of tall grasses and wildflowers undulating like waves in the breeze. Wild, and untouched.

In her mind, she heard words--words in faded ink on brittle paper, memorized long ago--and as always, she 'heard' these in a young man's deep, pleasant voice: I have tried to preserve a bloom. I know not what it is called, but its blue color reminds me of your eyes. When I see these flowers, I think of you and such thoughts, Dearest Emily, help me keep faith during these tedious days and nights. I am pleased your father warms to the idea of our marriage, but of course he is right to be so concerned. It is no life for a delicate soul.

The long-ago "bloom" Lewis had sent to his sweetheart, Emily Oglethorpe, had been a bright blue chicory flower.

It grew in fields or along ditches, so Annie made her way toward the road. Before long, she spotted several chicory plants growing beside a thicket of frothy Queen Anne's lace.

Camera in hand, she walked around the flowers, taking in details and angles, colors and textures. The sky, under a setting sun, had faded to a delicate pinkish purple.

Satisfied with the light, she got down on her belly in the dirt, twisting her body to the angle she needed for the perfect picture of a wild chicory's periwinkle flower, its simple little face tipped toward the fading sun.

To be safe, she snapped another six shots from several other angles, then stood and brushed dust and grass from her skirt and blouse. Almost absently, she plucked a blossom in memory of the blue-eyed sweetheart who'd never married her dashing young officer or subjected her delicate soul to a life on the frontier.

Annie tucked the flower into her hair, then glanced at her watch. Almost time to go. She turned toward the road and in the distance spotted a white truck cresting a hill.

She perched on the gate, watching as Magnusson turned off the road and drove toward her, bouncing along the uneven ground. He parked, leaving the engine idling.

"Hey," he called as he opened the door and jumped to the ground, sending up puffs of dust beneath his boots. "Let's go."

Annie slipped down from the fence. "Thanks for picking me up. You really didn't have to, but I appreciate it."

He tipped his head to one side, frowning a little, and Annie noticed his shirt was the exact same blue color of a chicory blossom. "You got a weed in your hair."

She sighed, and said, "It's a pretty flower."

Without waiting for a response, Annie climbed up into the truck. After a moment Magnusson slid into his seat, put the truck in gear, and sent them lurching slowly toward the road.

Although he didn't speak, she was still aware of his solid male presence beside her, and scooted closer to the door. Several long seconds passed before she risked a quick, discreet peek at him. Her gaze settled on his hands; on long fingers with half-moons of dirt beneath the nails and reddish hair on his forearms and hands that almost glowed in the golden light.

She eyed her dusty legs and dirt-smudged skirt, the blouse glued to her skin again by perspiration--and she wore a weed in her hair, as he'd so kindly pointed out.

Oh, well. Getting ravished by Vikings wasn't on her agenda, anyway. "Mr. Magnusson?"

"Call me Rik. It's shorter."

"You live alone, don't you?"

He hesitated, then said, "Mostly."

Not the answer she'd hoped for, but close enough. "I bet you put in some long days working your farm, which leaves that big house empty most of the time."

The tips of his mustache turned down. "Get to the point."

"I have a proposition for you."

His gaze lingered on her mouth before moving to a point below her face, then back to the road. "No offense, but I'm not interested."

The air inside the truck had grown hot and tense, and her skin flushed with anger--his intent, no doubt. Annie counted to five before saying calmly, "I'd like to pay you to rent a room at your place."

"Forget it."

"I'm offering because it'll save me a lot of travel time between my hotel and the Hollow." And the Black Hawk Inn was expensive, so moving on-site would save her money, too. When he still said nothing, she added dryly, "That means the sooner I finish my work, the sooner you can get rid of me."
Another moment's hesitation. Then, "No."

"Two hundred fifty dollars a week. That's some easy money, Mr. Magnusson...Rik. What do you say to that?"

He didn't answer and remained quiet for so long that Annie feared she'd misread him. Maybe money wasn't the key to this man's cooperation, after all.

When he halted the truck at a stop sign at the top of a hill, he turned toward her. "Do you always offer to move in with strange men, Miz Beckett?

"If it's necessary, yes. My work takes me all over the country, often where there are no hotels or bed-and-breakfasts." He continued to stare at her, and she added, "I'm used to living with strangers. And my instincts about people are quite good."

His brows shot upward. "Yeah? And what do your instincts tell you about me?"

"That you're a decent guy, and can be trusted to do the right thing." God, she hoped so, anyway.

"Anything else?"

"You don't like me very much."

"I don't like surprises," he said after a moment.

Trying not to sound desperate, she asked, "But will you at least think about it?"

He put the truck back in gear and turned the corner. Several nerve-wracking moments passed before he glanced her way, and said, "Yeah."

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All Night Long

Cover

Publisher: InkBooks
ISBN: 978-1-4524-6191-5

Buy Ebook: SmashwordsBarnes & NobleAmazonKobo • Apple: US · UK · CA · FR · AU · DE

Book Description: A forever kind of guy tangles with a rolling stone kind of woman... On a hot July night in 1832, a young infantry officer disappeared. Almost 170 years later, the search for what happened to him -- and why -- draws Annie Beckett and Rik Magnusson together in a passionate affair. She tells herself she can't stay. He decides he won't let her go. Annie and Rik are determined to overcome the painful obstacles of their pasts to find happiness, but history is about to repeat itself as timeless constants of human behavior -- love and honor, friendship and rivalry -- threaten their fragile bonds of love and trust.

This book was originally published by Avon Books in 1999, under the name Michelle Jerott.

"Fast-paced, compelling!" – Library Journal