descended, crashing in a sea of flame that separated them. He came to a stop, then waved his arm in a wordless command to someone on the road. Jess turned her face to the glowing window of her father’s study, a sick dread engulfing her as she accepted the fact that her family was gone. The war had killed her brother, and a fire had claimed her mother, her father, and her sweet sister. From within the house sounded cracks like gunfire and a long, groaning wail as the main staircase gave way.
Suddenly, a strangely comforting sound came to Jess. It was the thrumming of horse hooves somewhere in the night. Blinding light filled her eyes, and she closed heavy eyelids. All of them gone, she thought, in rhythm with the hoofbeats. All of them gone.
She was tired, so tired. A shrill whinny came from a distance that sounded miles away. Darkness and indifference descended as something caught her around her waist and she was swept like a rag doll from her feet.
The darkness in her mind was a deep haven of peace—a haven she rose from unwillingly as she was tugged toward dreaded consciousness. Jess hovered below the surface, fighting against the need to break through, even though she couldn’t quite recall why she did not want to do so.
She felt as though she were rising and then falling over ocean waves, gliding from one crest to the next. With the swelling movement came a familiar, rhythmic beat, and she realized she was being carried on a horse.
Jess opened her eyes and fixed them on the night stars above. One ear was pressed against something firm and warm, but the rest of her face, exposed by her hood, caught the cold desert wind. She turned her eyes toward the warmth to see that she was being held by an Indian man wrapped in fur. His face was hard, and his eyes stared straight ahead.
Jess grunted, trying to move. The Indian’s dark eyes, looking concerned, connected with hers. He pulled her higher against him, and she felt the pressure of twisted crinoline and hoops. Jess passed her fingertips over the smooth silk of her ball gown. The searing pain of recent memories rushed over her, flooding her mind with terrible pictures—Ambrose lying among hundreds of dead on a battlefield. Jake releasing her father as flames curled around the doorframe. The last look her father gave her before disappearing into an inferno of smoke and flame.
The reality of these images rapidly drove her back toward the escape of unconsciousness, while, beneath her, an unfamiliar Indian man kept her safe and carried her, on horseback, to a place unknown.
A low murmur of masculine voices reached Jess’s ears. She felt hard ground beneath her and warm furs swathing her from chin to feet. With great effort, she shifted her tired legs among the layers of her petticoats. A steady hand brushed over her hair, and she was impressed again with the image of the hard-faced Indian.
Unable to resist the welcome current that dragged her under, she gave in to it and let it take her away again.
Eventually, both gliding stride and blowing cold ended. Jess became aware of the dense curves of a cotton-filled bed beneath her. Her body seemed weighted, and her heart felt heavy with a dull ache as she finally passed from hopeful dreams to grim reality. Hearing movement beside her, Jess opened her eyes.
A lovely young Indian woman in a doeskin dress turned to her in surprise, a pitcher and basin suspended in her hands. Her black hair was cut chin-length—a sign of mourning, Jess recalled—but warm, dark eyes shone from a caring, brown face.
“It is good you have awakened,” she said softly. “The burns are not bad, but we must bathe and dress your arm.”
Jess struggled to shake the cobweb of confusion from her mind. “I didn’t know I had any burns.”
“We will put a salve on them. They will heal soon.” The woman set down the basin and began to fill it with water.
From somewhere near the bed, a lantern scattered meager golden