Chapter OnePrimrose Creek, Nevada
She stood facing him, hands on her hips, elbows jutting, feet firmly planted, as though to sprout roots and become a part of the landscape, like the giant pine trees around them. Her brown eyes flashed beneath the limp brim of that silly leather hat of hers, and tendrils of dark hair, its considerable length clasped at her nape with a gewgaw of some sort, danced against her smooth cheeks. In that moment, for all that she stood barely taller than his collarbone, Skye McQuarry seemed every bit as intractable to Jake Vigil as the Sierras themselves.
The last time they'd met, months before at a dance in town, she'd been a mite more gracious. Now, in her unwelcoming presence, Jake, well over six feet and brawny after years of swinging axes and working one end of a cross-cut saw fourteen hours a day, felt strangely like a schoolboy, hauled up in front of the class for some misdeed. It made him furious; he, too, set his feet, and he leaned in until their noses were only inches apart. He would have backed off if he hadn't been desperate, and never gone near her again, but there it was. He was fresh out of choices, or soon would be.
"Now, you listen to me, Miss McQuarry," he rasped, putting just the slightest emphasis on McQuarry, since the name alone, to him at least, conveyed volumes about ornery females. "I made you a reasonable offer. If you're holding out for more just because of that little bit of gold you've been panning out of the creek, you're making a foolish mistake."
Skye tilted her chin upward and held her ground. She couldn't have been more than eighteen, and though she was pretty as a primrose, she showed no signs of wilting, either from the unusually hot May sunshine or from the heat of his temper. "And if you think you're going to strip my land of timber -- for any price -- you are the one who's mistaken!" Amazingly, she stopped for a breath. "These trees haven't stood here for hundreds of years, Mr. Vigil, just so you can come along and whittle them to slivers for fancy houses and railroad ties and scatter the very dust of their bones across the floors of saloons -- "
Jake was at the far reaches of his patience. He'd already explained to this hardheaded little hoyden that the land was choked with Ponderosa pine and Douglas fir, among other species, that thinning them would merely leave room for the others to thrive. He closed his eyes and searched his thoughts for an argument he hadn't already raised.
She took advantage of the brief silence and rushed on. "Furthermore, these are living things -- I won't allow you to murder them for money!"
They were standing in the middle of a small clearing -- Skye's portion of an enviable bequest -- with tender spring grass at their feet and Primrose Creek glittering in the sunlight as it tumbled past. In every direction, the timber seemed to go on and on, dense as the hairs on a horse's hide, skirting the Sierras in shades of blue and green. It was in that tenuous moment of reflective silence that Jake remembered his own lost timber and was inspired to take another tack.
"It's only May," he pointed out, "and we went all of April without rain." He jabbed a finger toward the thickest stand of timber, where the trees stood cheek-to-jowl, their roots intertwined, competing for soil and sun and water. It was a natural invitation to fire on a truly horrendous scale, and Jake had seen enough flaming mountainsides to last him until the third Sunday of Never. "What do you think is going to happen to those precious trees of yours if we get a lightning storm?"
She paled at that, and, though he supposed he should have taken some satisfaction in the response, he didn't. "I'll tell you what, Miss McQuarry," he went on furiously. "They'll pass the sparks from one to another like old maids spreading gossip over the back fence!"
Her mouth -- it was a lovely, soft mouth, he noticed, and not for the first time, either -- opened and promptly closed again. Then, in the next moment, her gaze narrowed, and her brows drew closer together. Her hands sprang back to her hips. If he hadn't known she was a McQuarry, her countenance would have given her away all on its own. "You're just trying to scare me," she accused.
"Ask Trace," Jake challenged. Trace Qualtrough, the first outsider brave enough to marry into the hornets' nest of McQuarry women, was Skye's brother-in-law, having taken her elder sister, Bridget, to wife. Damn, but that family was complicated; it gave Jake a headache just trying to sort them out. They were hellions, every one of them, that much was certain; two pairs of sisters, first cousins, and the best land in the countryside was deed to them, free and clear.
In point of fact, Bridget and Christy didn't always get along with each other, but a grievance with one was a grievance with them all, and Jake knew -- hell, everybody knew -- they would stand shoulder-to-shoulder, like their trees, against any challenge from an outsider.
As easily as that, Jake let Christy sneak into his mind. Christy, who, with her younger sister, Megan, owned the land on the other side of Primrose Creek. Beautiful, spirited Christy. A long-buried ache twisted in his heart, and, employing his considerable will, he quelled it, retreated into the familiar state of numbness he'd been cultivating ever since he lost her.
"I don't need to ask Trace," Skye said, wrenching him back from his reveries as swiftly as if she'd grabbed the back of his collar and yanked him onto the balls of his feet. "This is my land. Granddaddy left it to me, and I decide what happens here."
Jake heaved a great sigh. He'd already tried buying Bridget's timber rights, and Megan's, too, and neither of them had given him a definitive answer, one way or the other. He'd be damned if he'd approach Christy with any such request, even if it meant bankruptcy -- and it just might, if he couldn't fulfill the deal with the railroad. Besides, the finest stands of trees grew on Skye's share of the tract.
He was way behind schedule, and although he had modest holdings of his own, he'd already harvested the best stands of timber, those that hadn't burned the previous summer. To cut any more before the trees had time to come back would be plain stupid; despite appearances to the contrary, the resources of the West were not inexhaustible, and Jake knew it.
He heaved a great sigh. "I never should have wasted my breath trying to reason with a -- with a -- "
Skye raised one delicate eyebrow. "With a woman?" she asked softly. Dangerously. No doubt, she was still bristling from their conversation at the dance, when he'd suggested she leave off chasing the stallion and turn her mind to more feminine pursuits, and she'd taken offense at the remark. Neither of them had caught the bay, as it happened, but Jake figured she hadn't given up on the idea any more than he had.
"With a McQuarry!" Jake snapped. He wanted to give his temper free rein and bellow like a bull, but he knew he couldn't afford the indulgence. He had to win this argument, and soon. The fact that it seemed impossible only made him more determined.
Her very expressive mouth curved into a smile that made Jake want to kiss her and, at one and the same time, turn right around and head for his horse. Damn if she wasn't even more confusing, even more hog-headed, than her cousin Christy, and that was saying something. "If that's supposed to be an insult, you'll have to do better. I'm proud of my name."
He looked around, maybe a little wildly, at the empty clearing. He couldn't remember when he'd been more exasperated with anybody, man or woman. "What are you going to use to build with, if you refuse to cut your precious trees?" It was a gamble; she had house-room at Trace and Bridget's place, everybody knew that, and as a single woman, she might elect to live right there until she married. On the other hand, she was who she was, a McQuarry female, and her people were an independent lot, making and following rules of their own. She'd probably live in a chicken coop if she took a notion.
For all of that, he could see that her confidence had ebbed again, the way it had when he mentioned the possibility of fire. Perhaps she was envisioning vast tracts of timber reduced to charred stumps and wisps of smoke in a matter of hours, as he was.
"I've got gold," she said. "I mean to buy lumber. To build my house, I mean."
Jake grinned without humor. He set his hands on his hips again, mirroring her stance; there wasn't another lumber yard within three hundred miles, and they both knew it. "Suppose I don't want to sell?" he inquired. He was being mulish, for sure and certain, but he couldn't seem to help himself. Something about this complicated woman set his nerves to singing, and not only was the music downright unsettling, but he felt compelled to dance to it.
Color surged up Skye's neck to pulse, apricot pink, beneath her high cheekbones. Jake felt a swift, grinding ache somewhere deep inside. "That's ridiculous," she cried. "Selling lumber is your business!"
"Exactly. And I decide when and if I'm willing to sell. Just like you."
From the look in her eyes, she wanted to kick him in the shins, but she must have found it within herself to forbear, for Jake remained unbruised. At least, on the outside. "You're doing this because you have a grudge against my cousin," she said, that obstinate chin jutting way out. "Christy married someone else, and you're taking it out on me."
Her words sent such a shock jolting through him that she might as well have struck him with a closed fist. The sensation was immediately, and mercifully, followed by a sort of thrumming numbness. "I don't do business that way," he insisted, but he'd taken too long to reply. He could see that by the narrowing of those brown eyes.
"Don't you?" she countered, folding her arms, and turned her back on him, big as life. He couldn't recall the last time someone had dared to do that.
He watched her in helpless irritation for several moments...
--This text refers to the