Blurb: Autumn, 1784: A tragic secret from Karin McNeal’s past haunts the young Scots-Irish woman who longs to know more of her mother’s death and the mysterious father no one will name. The elusive voices she hears in the wind hint at the dramatic changes soon to unfold in her life among the Scot’s settled in the mist-shrouded Alleghenies.
Jack McCray, a wounded stranger who staggers through the door on the eve of her twentieth birthday and anniversary of her mother’s death, holds the key to unlocking the past. Will she let this handsome frontiersman lead her to the truth and into his arms, or seek the shelter of her fiercely possessive grandfather? Is it only her imagination or does something, or someone, wait beyond the brooding ridges—for her?
A change was coming as surely as the shifting seasons; Karin McNeal heard the urgent whispers in the wind. She stood on the porch oblivious to the vibrant music pouring from the room behind her and the rain-spattered bluster whipping her long skirts. Lengths of her black hair tore free from the tresses piled on her head and danced in gusts that sounded like voices, men’s voices, the first angry, growling, the second almost succulent to her ear. His low timbre beckoned to her like ripe berries in summer.
A woman’s soft lament seemed to carry through the gusts too, a plaintive entreaty calling to Karin from the distant past. Something unfathomable…lost, lonely, and longing deep within Karin cried out in return. She strained to discern the elusive secrets hidden there for her—
“Shut the door, lass!” her grandfather boomed from within the McNeal homestead. “Join in the cheer. ’Tis your night.”
“Coming.” She backed into the large room and closed the door with reluctance in spite of the damp autumn eve’s chill. Shaking off her odd mood, she returned her attention to the robust celebration.
Fiddle music soared through the stone-flanked log walls with the exuberance of a bird in flight. The lively strains chased away any thoughts of wind voices. Smiles wreathed the faces of neighbors gathered within. Merriment reigned tonight and Karin did her part. Summoning a smile to her lips, blue petticoats swirling, she stepped to the English country dance while the two fiddlers sawed at the strings. Feet stomped on every side of her and jigs struck up. Each dancer seemed determined to outdo the other hooting revelers. Karin’s low-heeled black shoes flew. Her brass buckles flashed in the light from the hearth and the glow of many candles. Her stepbrother, Joseph—at least, that’s the kinship she felt for the tall young man partnering her—spun her with gusto.
She reeled, giggling, to the side of the raucous swell. Pausing to catch her breath, she brushed back her loose spill of hair, more down than up now. “Enough—”
Joseph ran laughing to her and engulfed her hands in his grasp. “Not by half. Come back, Karin.”
“You’re tireless,” she protested between pants. His Scottish good looks weren’t flushed as her face must be. Auburn hair rode unruffled in a queue at the back of his neck and his chest didn’t rise and fall beneath his white shirt as hers did beneath the gold-striped jacket laced over her heated bodice. “Give me a bit. ’Tisn’t ladylike to be in such a lather.”
Joseph arched one roan brow. “Now, who told you that?”
Her uncle, Thomas McNeal, stopped beside them with a brimming mug in each hand. “I might have said something of the sort. Besides, she’s a frail lass. Not up to all this revelry, mind.” He grinned, offering Karin one of the stoneware cups.
Joseph crinkled greenish-brown eyes in a wry smile. “She outrode me only yesterday, as you no doubt heard.”
Uncle Thomas chuckled. “Word gets about.”
“I suppose all the folks know I was beaten by a girl.”
Karin gulped sweet mouthfuls of cold cider. “Winning that race was easy. The mare did most of the work.”
Uncle Thomas slapped Joseph on the back. “Then maybe you should dance with the mare, or partner some other young lady.”
“Yes. Do ask another,” Karin said.
The stubborn streak she knew well tightened the cleft in Joseph’s jaw. Joseph shook his head. “None here I fancy. Drink your cider, dear heart. I’ll go and get a real drink.”
She looked on as the moody young man made his way through the mass of folks to the trestle tables pushed together at one side of the large room. Smoked hams, chicken potpie, baked apples, pumpkin pies, cornbread, slow-cooked beans with molasses…more tempting fare than she could possibly sample heaped the platters, bowls, and wooden vessels spread over the groaning tables. Pitchers of cider, kegs of apple brandy, and brown whiskey bottles rose alongside the banquet. Savory scents mingled with wood smoke and the musk of crowded bodies.
Tucking a stray tendril behind her ear, she asked, “Is Joseph vexed, Uncle Thomas?”
“Frustrated. It’s you he fancies, gal.”
She tilted her head at her handsome relation, the youngest of the three uncles and her favorite. The same strength that emanated from her grandfather imbued the lines of his face. His blue eyes could be every bit as tender as Grandpa’s and equally biting when he’d been provoked.
“Joseph’s a dear,” she said, “but he feels more like my brother than my beau, if that’s what you mean.”
“Your grandpa wedding his mama doesn’t make him so.”
“Maybe not. Still, it doesn’t seem right, whatever passes between a husband and wife passing between us.”
Uncle Thomas eyed her in fond bemusement. “You’re as innocent as a babe.”
Her cheeks warmed beyond the heat in the crowded room. “Grandma Sarah says I know all I need for an unwed lass.”
“What of old Neeley?” he asked.
“She speaks mostly of herbs and doctoring.”
He grimaced. “Far be it from me to instruct you in such delicate matters, but don’t put too much weight on romantic notions, as I once did,” he added, with an edge. “Joseph’s a good man. Think on him.”
No need to think, really. Karin possessed a deep fondness for Joseph, though not the riotous passion she sometimes dreamed of and knew next to nothing about. But she admired Uncle Thomas, a hero from the recent drawn-out war. Pursing her lips, she nodded. “I will.”
“Not that there’s any hurry in choosing a husband, and believe me, you can have your pick,” he added with a nod at Kyle Brewster standing near the hearth. The curly haired young man slanted soulful eyes at Karin and she looked away.
Uncle Thomas smiled. “No hurry at all. Your grandpa’s content to keep you under his roof and dote on you.”
“Like giving me this party.” Karin shifted her focus to the animated assembly weaving in and out to the steps of the next dance. “We haven’t known such gaiety in years.”
“Couldn’t with that bloody revolution. Thank God the war’s behind us. We’ve much to rejoice. Happy birthday, Karin.”
She smiled past the ache inside her. “Oh, it is happy.”
“With your men folk guarding you like a shebear? Woe unto the suitor who pays you more than nodding attention.”
“I don’t mind. Really.”
He weighed her with a long glance. “You have such a forbearing nature for one so adored. I feared you would be spoiled beyond all endurance, but you’re not, are you?”
Unsure of his meaning, she shrugged. “Should I be?”
“Utterly. No matter. I only wish your mama could see you. Mary would be so proud,” he said, a husky note creeping into his voice. “She was just your age when—” He stopped. “Sorry. I shouldn’t bring that up today of all days.”
“Yet ’twas on this very eve she died.”
“Yes,” Uncle Thomas sighed, regret etched in every nuance of his face. “God rest her. I suppose Neeley told you?”
“Yesterday. She said Mama died birthing me.”
He looked pained. “The old lady’s been broodier lately, more preoccupied with the past. You mustn’t blame yourself for Mary’s death. She was so weak by then and the fever settled in.”
“Do you remember her well?”
“How could I forget? You are very like my dear sister.”
Karin stared up at him, her mind swelling with questions. Uncle Thomas rarely mentioned her mother. None of the family did. Only Great-Aunt Neeley, stiff with rheumatism, her swaddled figure seated by the hearth, sometimes spoke of the beautiful Mary McNeal.
Karin treasured each word and thought her mother an angel, but Neeley never spoke of her father. No one did, as if they feared the word might conjure up a demon from the shadows.
“There, now.” Uncle Thomas smiled, smoothing her cheek with fingers roughened from work and hours out hunting in the wet. “We want nothing but happiness for our wee Karin. Not so wee now, and far too bonnie for my peace of mind.”
The smile struck her as forced and she’d glimpsed the nearly fierce glint of nostalgia in his eyes. Maybe the time had come at last, as it had with old Neeley. She swallowed the rest of her cider and summoned her courage. “I’m grateful for all you’ve done. But what of my father?” she asked as softly as she could and still make herself heard above the din.
His brows arched in marked surprise. “You know your grandfather won’t allow any mention of his name.”
“But who was he? At least tell me that much.”
Down came his brows and he drew them together. “I can’t, lass.”
The mystery gnawed at Karin. “Please.”
Struggle hinted in his earnest stare, and then he cast his gaze around the room. She followed his quick study. No one in the eager gathering paid them any mind. All danced and drank as if their lives hinged on every step, each drop. Joseph knocked back a tankard of brandy with a friend and the two leaned companionably together.
Wearing a guarded look, Uncle Thomas bent nearer to Karin and spoke with such reluctance she strained to hear. “All I can say is, it’s him you got that black hair and olive skin from.”
She fingered the small strawberry-colored half moon on the side of her neck. “And my birth mark?”
“Perhaps. Your mother gave you those blue eyes, though. McNeal blood runs strong in you, gal.”
Some other strain stirred inside Karin as well, like the wild beating of a distant drum. “Did Mama care for him?”
Her uncle winced as if from a blow. “I reckon she did, though I don’t see how. Your da was a rascal.”
“Even so, he was my da. What does that make me?”
Uncle Thomas looked her sharply in the eyes. “McNeal.”
She gulped. “Papa never wed Mama, did he?”
“Not with the church’s blessing.”
“Is there some other way to wed?”
“I’ve divulged more than enough now, miss.
Your grandfather would have my hide.” Her uncle clamped his lips together.
Again, the tantalizing secret escaped Karin and hovered just out of reach. She gazed across the crowd at the burly man with gray streaking his red hair. Grandpa McNeal could quell any man with a glance and still had the strength of a rampaging bull. Karin lacked the nerve to confront him. Her step-grandmother, Sarah, the petite, middle-aged woman circling in the dance with him spotted Karin. A smile lit Sarah’s pretty face, pink under the white cap, and she beckoned to Karin. “Come on, lass.”
A grin warmed Grandpa’s weathered features. He waved her over. “Kick up your heels. Show us what you’re made of.”
Uncle Thomas set his mug on a stool and hooked his arm through hers. “You can’t let his challenge go unanswered. How about I partner the bonniest girl here?”
Setting her mug down, Karin dashed with him into the throng. ’Twas time to rejoice, not dwell on the murky past.
As if in opposition of her resolve, a hammering on the door accompanied by a hoarse cry broke into their celebration.
“Whisht!” Grandpa hushed the startled assembly. He held up a silencing hand. “Listen.”
Musicians ceased to play, their bows poised above the strings. Dancers halted in mid-step and every head turned toward the front of the house. Karin joined her eyes with dozens of others boring into the oak resounding under someone’s urgent fist.
“For God’s sake—let me in—” a man rasped out.
Grandpa strode to the door, slid the bolt, and opened it wide. Leaves swirled through the blackened doorway and a young man staggered inside, his face partly hidden under a wide-brimmed hat, chestnut hair pulled back. He wore the rugged dress of a frontiersman, a brown, green-fringed hunting shirt, leggings, and deerskin moccasins well up his calves. Wet through from the blowing rain, he fell forward. Blood streamed down his sleeve from a wound to his shoulder.
Grandpa reached out to steady him. “What on earth?”
The injured man collapsed in his arms. “I’m shot—” His musket slid from the woven strap over his other shoulder and thudded to the floor with the clank of metal.
“Who in the world?” Karin gasped, covering her mouth, her eyes riveted on the stranger.
“I’ve no notion. Wait here,” Uncle Thomas cautioned her, and pushed through the onlookers to his father.
Grandpa upheld the sagging stranger. He greeted Thomas with a scowl. “Who fired that shot? Most everyone in the settlement’s right here.”
“Not the Tates,” Uncle Thomas pointed out. “Horace Tate will shoot any man he takes for a Tory. So will Jeb.”
“Don’t that old fool and his boy know the war’s over, blast them? Give me a hand with this poor fellow, Thomas. His arm’s a right mess. Let’s take him to the back room.”
Uncle Thomas braced the man on one side and Grandpa supported him on the other. The newcomer equaled them in height and appeared solidly built, but the McNeal men weren’t the least bit daunted. “I
have him, Papa. Come on,” Thomas said.
“My musket,” the injured man grunted.
“Got it.” Joseph propped the long firearm in the corner near the blackened stone hearth.
Neeley rose stiffly from her chair and shuffled forward, her stooped figure a head shorter than Karin’s. “You’ll want my help, John McNeal. Fetch the woundwort, Karin. Sarah, steep some comfrey in hot water and bring fresh linens. Joseph, the poor fellow could do with a spot of brandy,” the tiny woman rapped out like a hammer driving nails. Old, she might be, and as wizened as a dried apple, but Neeley took
charge in a medical emergency whether folks liked it or not.
Sarah dashed to the cupboard to take down the brown bowl. Karin flew beside her and grabbed the crock reeking of salve. Sarah snatched a towel and they spun toward the hearth as the men made their way past the gaping crowd.
The stranger lifted his head and looked dazedly at both women. Karin met vivid green eyes in a sun-bronzed face stubbled with dark whiskers. A fiery sensation shot through her—and not just because he was devastatingly handsome.
“Hello, Mama,” the newcomer said huskily.
Sarah sucked in her breath. “Dear Lord. Jack?”
“In the bleeding flesh.”
An echoing gasp traveled the room. Sarah’s rosy skin blanched white as the bowl slid from her fingers, cracking on the floor. “I can scarcely believe it’s you.”
Karin feared the overcome woman might faint, but she wasn’t feeling a great deal steadier herself. That strange awareness inside her grew, like a summons urging her to an untamed place.
The man called Jack ran fast fading eyes over Karin. “Paca tamseh,” he said, and sagged more heavily against Grandpa.
Jaws fell open on every side of them. “Indian words,” someone hissed. “I heard ’em, plain enough.”
A nearly tangible wave of fear and loathing ran through the stunned multitude. Karin shrank back from the man, but Sarah clutched her arm and pulled her forward with a steely grip. “Can you blame him for knowing their speech after all these years?” She jerked Karin down onto her knees and they knelt beside the newcomer. Loosening her grip on
Karin, she wrapped her arms around his neck. “My poor boy.”
Heart racing, Karin hugged the pungent crock to her chest. She looked from Sarah to her grandfather in confusion. “I never knew she had an older son.”
“Jack was eight when Shawnee captured him twenty years ago with nary a sign of him since. Any son of Sarah’s is welcome in my house and in this settlement,” Grandpa said with a look, daring any to object.
None did. At least, not aloud, although Karin expected there’d be plenty of muttering behind their hands.
Joseph approached his older brother like a sleep walker. “You told me Jack was dead, Mama.”
“I thought he was. God be praised he’s returned to me. Few taken as children ever come back.”
“Yes, but how did he know where to find you?” Uncle Thomas asked Sarah. “You weren’t a McNeal when he was taken.”
Neeley clucked impatiently. “Never mind that now. We’ve a wounded man here who’s been welcomed home with lead shot.”
Jack fluttered his eyes and looked beyond his weeping mother to Karin. His gaze drew her almost against her will.
She leaned toward him. “Someone seeks for you, Shequenor’sdahnaithah,” he whispered.
The message rippled through her with a prickling shiver. And she knew—his was the inviting summons in the wind.